Category: Rooted

Another prayer

I’ve been reflecting a lot on Paul’s prayers to fuel my own attempts at ‘extraordinary prayer’. As I do, it’s remarkable the resonance I find with our 4Priorities, and especially with ReCentering Jesus and Equipping for Unity. I jotted some thoughts on Ephesians 3:14-19 down in my journal to help shape my praying imagination as I intercede for us and for our local brothers and sisters. I thought I might share them with you to help fuel your extraordinary prayer, as well. If you’d like the extra fuel, read on. If not, no harm done, and have a great day!

Here’s the text:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Paul’s endgame is “that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God”. Imagine that for a moment, and imagine the effect – both direct and indirect – that a people filled with God would have on a city, on a culture. No goodness that God wants to give thwarted, no corner of our personalities untouched. All that God is totally permeating all that we are. Infinity quietly (and sometimes not quietly) suffusing the mundane. A people utterly Godsoaked.

To get there, Paul thinks we need defining, transformative experiences of the love of Christ – experiential knowledge of a vastness that defies category and definition. We need experience that outstrips explanation, when often what we have is just the opposite.

There is something here that’s easy to miss but absolutely crucial: this love can only be fully known “with all the saints”. This is a group exploration, and the group required to pursue it is “all the saints.” Division aborts sanctification and blessing and fullness, and sometimes I fear we have gotten used to a normal that isn’t normal at all.

The same kind of “unity required for further growth” idea is present in Ephesians 4, and in Colossians 2, wherein our “hearts knit together in love” provides the matrix necessary for us to receive and comprehend the mystery of Christ. To offer a weak metaphor: no one, no matter how skilled or brilliant, can lasso a butterfly with a single strand, but even a child can catch one in a net. A net knit together in love.

A fractured pitcher holds no Water, and does a thirsty world (and thirsty saints) no good. Ok. Enough metaphors 😉

There is a wideness and a depth to what we’ve inherited, and as long as the church lives divided, she’ll only know one dimension of what’s hers. And she can only show what she knows.

Toward all this, Paul’s desire is that “Christ may dwell in [our] hearts (our cores) through faith”. A condition must be nurtured in each believer – a way of life Dallas Willard has called “vivid companionship with Jesus”. Saints betting on his presence down in our cores, and that very expectation opening the doors to all the rooms within us, giving him opportunity to set up shop in all our corners, and in all the layers of our lives. His real, current presence not mainly a theological fact, but the dominant experience of our lives.

I don’t live here often or steadily enough. What’s more, there seems to be little I can do to wrestle myself into the “mood” to feel him in my heart, or little I can remember or believe to “truth” myself into a steady state of vivid companionship with Jesus.

That’s why the very first part of this prayer is so encouraging to me. The first domino in this beautiful cascade of goodness is an action that God takes, and he takes it with all his might. With a force equal to the fullness of his glory, he reaches into us and acts on that part of us that is always ready for him – beneath our good and bad theology, beneath our emotional and social disturbances, beneath our wounds and attachments and ambitions, and beneath the distractions that fill us with noise – God himself, with a strength commensurate with his own, strengthens us in our inner man, and aims that power at the endgame…a people filled with God. In response to a prayer, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Paul knows that this generous action on God’s part is absolutely necessary. He also knows that it’s not always sufficient, because of the way God has made us, and because of the way he has conspired to save us. So Paul employs his Pray-and-Say strategy.

He prays because it’s first and always God’s work in us, and without that the engine doesn’t turn. But he also says what he’s prayed, I’m convinced, because he knows that the process usually requires the saints’ intelligent participation. So he tells us what he’s asking God for, essentially activating the cooperation of the willing in a transformation that begins and ends with God.

So, this week, I’m letting this prayer from a master apostle inform my praying AND my saying. I’m praying it for us, and I’m saying it to us right now. I’m also praying it for our local Family, and I’m saying what I can when I can as I encounter the brethren along the way.

If you think it might be helpful, you could do the same. Pray and say.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Rooted: Christ the Mystery – Catching the Mystery

It has again been a good while since my last post in this series, so let’s recall where we’re at in our discussion. In Colossians 1:24-2:5, Paul introduces his readers to the mystery of Christ. He also further introduces himself as someone very concerned with stewarding that mystery, that revelation.

Stewarding that mystery is an ambidextrous undertaking. On the one hand, we saw Paul’s concern for individuals – warning everyONE and teaching everyONE, so he could present everyONE complete in Christ. And the vehicle for that was the message. When Paul messages the mystery, he proclaims Christ – a person, not a proposition.

That brings us to the other hand, on which rests Paul’s deep concern for the churches, for whom he suffers. And in this passage, it’s specifically the city-churches in the cities where he has never been that he is most concerned for. That deserves some unpacking.

First, it’s the churches at Colossae, at Laodicea, and all who have not seen him face to face. These are city churches – churches subdivided from the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church on the basis of geography. Some might say that they were city churches then only because cities were more important than they are now, and because the groups were so small that there was only one in each city. The former is hard to speak to, since how do you compare cities then with cities now? But the latter is just patently not true. Every city church we know of was comprised of household churches that orbited central believing families. Culturally and socioeconomically heterogenous city churches were comprised of more homogeneous household churches – poor groups, rich groups, Jewish groups, Greek groups, Roman groups. Think of the church at Philippi, which was founded in Lydia’s house, and in the house of a Roman jailor. Two ethnically and socioeconomically different groups – one church. The idea of a homogenous, idyllic primitive church is a myth. And so is the idea of several churches in a city. Very different groups were expected to get along as one big family. Subgroups were, of course, natural. But if identification with a subgroup trumped your identification with the whole, it was never considered normal. There will be more on this in later posts.

The second remarkable thing is how concerned Paul is with churches he did not plant. One could say he planted them by extension, through people he trained in Ephesus. That would be true. But he shows a similar concern for the church at Rome, which he had no hand in planting. Part of Paul’s apostolic DNA is a concern for the church – the whole church everywhere.

Now, what exactly is he concerned about? What is it that he says he wants for the church at Colossae, and the church at Laodicea, and the church in your city? He is deeply concerned “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance and understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Let’s unpack this, too.

He wants their hearts to be knit together in love. Not an intellectual nod toward unity. And not unity with those you agree with, worship like, look like, earn like, farm like, school like, or just like. All the saints in your city. Hearts, not just Habitat for Humanity projects or coin drives, but hearts knit together in love. In love. Real love. Knit together so that the saints come to totally identify with one another, JUST BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL SAINTS.

This knitting together in love makes something possible. This practiced, heart-level unity makes it possible “to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

It’s unity that makes understanding possible. In the West, we think it goes: 1) Know stuff about Jesus, 2) Leverage that to get to know Jesus (maybe), and 3) Assume that will lead to some kind of practiced unity with those who are also getting more and more accurate in their knowing-about Jesus. But that’s not what we see here. Here, the saints’ hearts are knit together in love, creating a net that can catch the mystery. We together can know Christ in ways no one of us can alone, and in ways no preferential subgroup will ever be able to pry out of him. And reflection on how he reveals himself to us together leads to a knowing that is both knowing and knowledge.

We see the same order in Paul’s insistence to Timothy that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. It’s not that the truth is the pillar and ground of the church. The church is what makes the truth knowable, it’s what the truth stands on.

An even clearer rendering is found in Ephesians 4. In verse 13 we attain to a unity that makes possible a deep communal knowing of the Son of God, which is what protects us in verse 14 from false teaching and false teachers. It’s not doctrinal accuracy that paves the way for unity. It’s unity that makes a robust, Christ-present-in-real-time-and-not-just-postulated-about kind of doctrinal accuracy possible. I know some of you want the text to say accuracy and fearful guarding of truths trumps unity, but that’s not what the Bible actually says. It says that unity leads to robust knowing of Christ, and robust rightness about him.

To put it another way, the knowledge that is from God is found in a living Person, and that Person is uniquely experienced when the saints live lovingly as one. When the saints live and love together as one, we catch the Mystery, and He is beautiful in our midst, and not just in our memories. He is present to be experienced, not just explained. He is there personally, not just propositionally. And we can know him there, and the world can see him once again.

Tactically, this makes endeavors toward unity really, really important. I will talk lots about this later, but for now, let me say a few things.

If you want to experience more of Christ, get into deep relationship with some people who want to chase him. Try to ensure the group is comprised of people who are not all alike.

If you are a spiritual leader in a city, I entreat you to look beyond the walls of your congregation. If you want the people you serve to experience more of Christ, move toward spiritual leaders of different stripes and ethnicities in your city. And work to move your people toward their people. Let the awkwardness disciple you, and let the apparent waste of time humble you. And let the demons see and fear, because the one holy catholic church is getting her feet again. And let the public see, and let them believe the gospel is actually the answer for a fractured and fracturing world.

Keep teaching, but know that more cognition won’t move the people you serve toward deeper experience of Christ. Some cognition is needed, but they’ve likely had plenty. Move them toward practicing unity with all the saints, and see where that gets you.

Until next time, may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our paths together when possible, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as I do for you, so that he may establish our hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Amen.

Rooted: Christ the Mystery – Messaging the Mystery

I’ve been stalling on writing this post for some time. In the period since the last post, we’ve packed up a house, traveled on three continents, moved back into our home in Narnya, and fought off a few illnesses. But, in reality, I’ve just had trouble getting started on this one.

The reason is that there is a lot – a LOT – I’d love to say about the gospel. I’d love to unpack the whole Pauline corpus and demonstrate how the gospel isn’t primarily about us or our sins, or our destiny, or about God’s wonderful plan for our lives. Rather, it’s about Jesus, and more specifically, it’s an announcement that Jesus is King of Everything. This is good news, because finally, in Jesus, God has become our King, and now the world has a King that is good AND strong AND wise enough to lead us all to freedom. Let evil beware, there is a King in Zion, and he loves us enough to die for us.

Maybe sometime I’ll do that here. Others have done a good job with the concept, though, so for today I’m going to limit myself to helping you talk about Jesus, because that’s what I’m really after, anyway.

In Colossians 1:28 Paul lets the Colossian saints know how he Messages the Mystery – that is, how he proclaims the gospel.

“HIM we proclaim.”

Paul and his friends announce HIM. The structure of the phrase lets us know that Paul is emphasizing HIM. They talk – a lot – about Jesus.

Let’s take a moment and contrast that again with some other good things he could talk about:

  • Where one goes when one dies.
  • A wonderful plan God might have for someone’s life.
  • The mechanics of how one comes to be saved.
  • The need for social justice.
  • What can be done about our sins.

Each of these is an excellent thing to talk about, and any of them could make appearances in Paul’s proclamations. But the Message he stewarded – our Message – isn’t about heaven or hell, us or our sins, individuals or society. It affects all of those. But our Message, our gospel, is about Christ.

“But,” you might respond, “doesn’t Paul give lots of time to discussing sin and our hope and the mechanics of how we are saved?”

Yes.

Absolutely.

When he’s talking to believers. Paul’s developments of sin, soteriology, eschatology, all the -ologies – these are all things he’s teaching people who have already heard and believed the gospel of Jesus. In those cases, Paul is explaining what they have already and are continually experiencing. But understanding all that is not necessary for entering the experience.

When Paul is talking to unbelievers, he’s talking about Jesus. The Person. Of course he gets to death and resurrection, often quickly. But his announcement is less about the people, and more about Jesus. And what he has to say about Jesus is good news for the people.

Take a moment and read the following passages, and notice what (or whom) Paul consistently says the gospel is about:

Romans 1:1-5

Romans 16:25-27

1Corinthians 2:2

1Corinthians 15:1-5

2Corinthians 4:5

2Timothy 2:8

In every instance, the gospel is about Jesus.

Here’s what this means for you. If you’re like me, you’re not a great evangelist. Some of you are. But I’m not, and I need some clarity as to what I’m supposed to be talking about with unbelievers. Some of you are more comfortable with pagans than with saints, and that’s great. You probably don’t need this help. But for the rest of you, here’s why this blog post matters to you. Ready?

To Message the Mystery well, just talk about Jesus.

That’s it.

You’ll have to talk about him like he’s real and presently active, of course, so you’ll need to be regularly experiencing him in real life and real time. And your face and body language shouldn’t belie the things you’re saying about him, so you’ll want to be really enjoying and celebrating him deeply.

But given you’re regularly adoring and receiving from Jesus, all you need to do then is talk about him.

That, actually, has become our team’s central practice. We have a mission statement, a carefully maintained team culture, some guiding principles, and some bang-up strategy. But who can hold all that in their head all the time? Not us, so we also have a central practice – something we do every day that, if we do it, should reasonably lead to a win here. Every day we:

  • Connect meaningfully with Jesus The Person (not just memories of him, but him now).
  • We obey what he has said. And …
  • We discuss him with someone.

This is our central practice. Not peripheral practice, when it fits in our lives. And not central idea. It’s a practice, a thing we actually do routinely.

I’d like to invite you to consider joining us in that practice. Encounter Jesus, obey him, and talk about him with others every day. Make certain that at least once a week that discussion happens with someone who does not know him yet.

In future posts I’ll try to offer more help on this point. The story of the Samaritan woman in John’s gospel is a great place to get some coaching. But for now, I dare you to try building your days around those three things (encounter, obey, discuss), and see what happens. At the least, you’ll be appropriately Messaging the Mystery.

Rooted: Christ the Mystery – Stewarding the Mystery

In our last post in the ROOTED series we saw how Paul opens with a huge vision of Jesus, set in a colossal cosmic drama – a magnificent Story in which we play a part. We saw how Paul presented Jesus, we considered what he was up to, and we thought about the implications for us.

The next idea we’re going to encounter is Christ the Mystery (Colossians 1:24-2:5). This is a dense topic, and honestly I can feel a little paralyzed as I think about trying to unpack it. It’s possible to start developing the ideas here and find that when you’ve finished you’ve just restated the New Testament. The mystery of Christ, and what it means to steward, declare and receive it, are the hub of New Testament theology. So, to give it barely adequate (but not exhaustive) treatment, we’ll break it up into three sections, giving a post to each:

Stewarding the Mystery

Messaging the Mystery

and

Catching the Mystery.

As we explore this, it will be useful to change the order of our questions, beginning this time by considering what Paul is doing, and then considering Christ and our practice in each of those three streams.

Ready? Here we go

What is Paul doing?

It looks to me like Paul is making some introductions. Having introduced Jesus, he’s moving on now to introducing himself, the gospel and the church. And he’s doing it all relative to “the mystery of Christ”. Let’s start with how Paul presents himself to these saints who have never met him.

Paul is an apostle. One of the things apostles do is they steward the mystery. To get a handle on that let’s examine the word “mystery”. In the New Testament, this word refers to something that was always true before, but totally unknown. We can even say that it was unknowable, but for revelation. And that’s what makes it a mystery – it has been revealed. Mysteries (in the New Testament use of the word) are very true things (not new things) that we could not have known, but God has revealed them and now they are known, and as knowable as they can be by us human folk.

Ok. So, that’s what a mystery is. What does it mean that apostles steward the mystery? Stewards ran houses, businesses, shipping agencies, estates. Someone else’s houses, businesses, shipping agencies, estates. And they ran them for the well being of that owner’s beneficiaries. Stewards made what masters wanted to happen, happen. Think slave-with-authority, and slave-with-responsibility.

Now, when we say “steward the mystery”, it’s easy to begin to envision something mysterious, mystical, magical. “You know, I steward the mystery. I’m kind of a big deal in mysterious circles.” But that kind of image is misleading. Think less illuminati-magician, and more delivery boy. If an employee of Papa’s Pizza makes a pizza for Papa’s daughter, delivers it, and of course refuses payment because it’s for his boss’s family, that would be stewarding the pizza.

To use another image, if we were to think of each of the Ephesians 4 persons (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) in light of the mystery of Christ, we might think about it this way:

Evangelists want it announced.

Prophets want it seen and heard.

Teachers want it understood.

Shepherds want it experienced communally.

And apostles want all this to happen (perhaps with less concern over any one of the parts of the process than each of the others might feel), with the mystery remaining whole and in one piece; and they want it to happen in ways that make it likely to happen again, and again, and again.

Paul is introducing himself this way because he is very serious about these Colossian saints coming into the full experience and expression of Christ. He wants them to know what he’s doing – namely, unpacking Christ and all the many ways to engage Him, to be engaged by Him, and to reveal him (to perpetuate the mystery) to the world. Paul is letting them know who he is and what he is, Whom he works for and what his aim is, so they know how to dance with him. It’s an act of love. Answering, “Who is this guy and why did he write us?” before he gets to the nuts and bolts that he doesn’t want them missing while they’re wondering about him.

You can hear his concern for the recipients (inhabitants, participants, hosts) of this mystery all over the passage.

I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.

In my flesh I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church.

The stewardship FROM God given TO me FOR you.

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face.

Paul understands himself as a steward of the mystery, entrusted with the message of the mystery and tasked with helping the recipients of the mystery catch it well.

So what?

Mission agencies, ministries, churches, parachurch organizations, etc., can be classified in one of two ways: those who focus on making individual disciples, and those who focus on the church. And they tend to argue that one must come before the other, or to insist that one of these is our job and the other is God’s.

“We make disciples.”

“Well, we plant churches.”

“We make disciples that spontaneously become churches.”

“We develop faith communities where disciples can grow organically.”

In reality, most seem to oscillate every 5-20 years or so, swinging back and forth between these two positions, or positions very near these. The literature certainly does.

In the New Testament, while different workers at different times might have different endeavors they were focusing on, apostles seemed to be somewhat ambidextrous. You see it here in this passage. Throughout the passage Paul presents himself as a steward, tasked by God for them. But his burden or sense of responsibility is two-fisted. In one hand (1:28-29), he and his team warn and teach everyONE, that they might present everyONE complete in Christ. Proclamation, warning, teaching and formation executed with individuals in mind. This sounds like the “make disciples” camp.

But in the other fist, gripped just as tightly, is the communal reality (2:1-5). He wants their hearts knit together in love so they can catch the mystery he’s proclaiming, the continual revealing of the self-giving God in Christ. This sounds like the church/community planting camp.

In reality, I’m thinking it’s both. Americans like things to go in straight lines. We joke about what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Most of the rest of the world couldn’t care less what came first. They just want breakfast. We think the universe is a machine, and if we could just find the one key, everything else would rumble to life. The cause/effect dichotomy that we’re so fond of – most of the world is less fascinated with that. Do disciples become churches or do churches nurture disciples?

Yes. In a non-linear way, yes.

And apostles steward the mystery so both can happen. Getting clarity on that might be useful right now. Paul thinks it’s important that they know what kind of person he is, and what he’s after with them. How he intends to help them, based on how God has made him and what God has called him to do.

He has to know who he is. And they have to know who he is, so they can take his help. His ability to help them is dependent on that clarity on both sides.

I propose that one essential piece of our generation’s task in the cosmic drama of healing the world is recovering clarity on these Ephesians 4 personalities. God has never stopped calling and tasking these folks. He didn’t turn off those parts of the Body for 1,700 years. They’ve always been doing what they do. Or they’ve been shut down for doing what they do.

But getting clear on who these folks are, helping them discover what they are supposed to bring the rest of us, helping them learn to die for the church (and not helping them leverage the church as a self-actualization ramp), and helping them learn how to come at the church so she can accept their help (like Paul does so masterfully in this passage) seems to me like a strategy that could change the game.

For further exploration

Posts on this blog in The Katartic Fist category will be directed at this conversation.

Alan Hirsch has done some illuminating work on this question. Especially “The Perpetual Revolution”. He has a very google-able internet presence. His work seems to rely on sociological metaphor. But it’s clear. And it’s useful in tandem with…

Watchman Nee’s “The Normal Christian Church Life” (not to be confused with “The Normal Christian Life”). The time and attention given to the Scriptures in this work are laudable. In my opinion, still the best book on the topic.

Wolfgang Simpson’s “Houses That Change The World” is also good.

 

Rooted: Christ and the Story

Plot is everything. And characters. Knowing the story – the story of an argument, a relationship, a business, a movement – orients you. Knowing what story you find yourself in allows you to know the characters as they are, and to find the plot.

In my last post I introduced a series of blog posts I’m calling “Rooted”. Through these posts I’m hoping to shed some light on what it means that the church’s foundation is the person Jesus Christ. And I’m hoping to help us all get a better grip on how to start communities that truly are founded on Jesus, how to get our own roots deep into Jesus, and how to help disciples and churches realign themselves with the one foundation.

Paul is also very interested in setting (and re-setting) Christ as the singular foundation. In his letter to the saints at Colossae, he does just that. Last time I asked you to read Colossians through, and to give special attention to Colossians 1:1-23. And I asked you to ask 3 questions: 1) What do we see about Jesus here?, 2) What is Paul doing in saying what he says?, and 3) So what? Assuming you’ve done that (and assuming you’ve read the post before this one), let’s get down to exploring those questions.

What do we see about Jesus?

Paul lets it fly here. Christ is the beloved Son of God. He’s King of, well, everything. He is the singular Agent of God’s creative action, and he’s the Agent of God’s redemptive action. And he has secured for himself the unique position of preeminence over and in all things.

First.

Best.

Highest.

GodKing.

In short, this Christ is cosmic. And he’s fascinating.

What is Paul doing?

He’s fascinating because he is. But Paul is presenting him in all his fascinating glory because one thing he’s up to here, I think, is he’s trying to cultivate in his audience a fascination with the person of Jesus. Christ is fascinating, enthralling, captivating, beautiful, amazing, worthy of total obsession, good, strong and heroic. But he’s also, by some strange alchemy, easy to miss. It’s easy to base our practice of the Jesus Way on something other and less that the magnificent Christ.

Right out of the gates Paul blasts us with lots of awesome stuff about Jesus, because he’s attempting to capture our imagination with our hero. As we’ll learn later, everything that happens in our transformation is a function of us paying attention to Jesus – literally, looking at him. Paul knows that, so he leads by painting our imagination in bold colors with the beautiful and cosmic Jesus.

Another thing Paul’s doing is establishing the Story. There is one story. God creates, and God redeems what he created. In this Story we find Christ as the prime mover in both movements. But what I want to draw your attention to right now is the depth of this story. The story Paul is telling started a long time ago (creation), and it arcs through its most important moment in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it will make its way toward a sure and certain future in which Christ has reconciled literally every last tangible and intangible thing to himself. This is a cosmic meta-drama. It’s THE story of everything. It started long before you were born, long before you believed, and it will continue long after your cameo is over.

What’s more, you’ve been caught up into the story of Christ’s thrilling heroics. You’ve been forgiven, redeemed, and translated into the Kingdom of the Son of God’s love. What’s more, God has been active in you since then. Paul makes sure to tell the Colossians that he’s heard about what Jesus has been doing in them – in particular how he has been teaching them how to love. And they’ve been catching on, from the looks of things.

But the story isn’t just deep, and it doesn’t just include them. It’s not narrow. It’s wide. The story’s breadth is as important as its depth. Paul lets the Colossians know, twice (v. 6, 23) that the gospel that has come to them is also spreading across the whole world, and the God at work in them is also simultaneously working everywhere. They are not alone, and they are not the center. The story is deeper and wider than they know, and knowing that is important.

So what?

Let’s refocus.

We’ve seen that Paul presents Christ big, and he does that first.

Paul tells us that the story we’re in is long and deep, and Christ has brought us into a story that, while it includes us, is not about us. Our salvation is part of the two part drama that defines the whole of everything – God makes, and God rescues.

And Paul tells us that the story we’re in is wide and vast. God is not just at work in us. He’s at work all over the world.

Let’s think about why these things matter, and how to respond to them in ways that root us and ground us in Jesus.

What might happen if we intentionally cultivate an obsession with Jesus that PRECEDES ethic or dogma. What if, before telling people what they should believe or how they should behave, we helped them understand Whom they should trust, and how he behaves? What if we gave more time to talking about Jesus, and less time to talking about ourselves (how we are good OR how we are bad)? And what if we gave more time to thinking about Jesus? What might happen, do you think? Knowing that new competencies and new character are primarily acquired through imitation and not so much through explanation, what effect do you think consistently setting Jesus before our minds (and others’ minds) might have on our development as people?

Letting us know that there is something much larger going on than just what God is up to in us can be curative for two ailments I’ve personally witnessed in my assignments in the East and in the West: despair and parochialism.

Despair happens when things slow down. You stop seeing evident signs of new life or of God’s dynamic saving action in your immediate vicinity. And slowly, you start to buy the lie that if you’re not seeing it, it’s not happening. Or the other lie, that since you’re not seeing it here, it’s not happening period. You start to fear that nothing you do really matters and that nothing is going to change. I have seen this some in the Workers in Narnyy, and in the Narnyan spiritual leaders and saints. Knowing that God is active elsewhere can give you hope, and set you looking under the surface of things where God has never stopped working right where you are. God doesn’t seem to push on all fronts at once. Sometimes it is ours to hold the ground and wait expectantly for deliverance. Knowing that the Lord of Hosts afoot elsewhere can help us endure with patience and joy.

Parochialism is a big word for the kind of small-mindedness that leads us to believe that we are the center of God’s cosmic plans. His “next big move” will start in our city, and will ripple out across our country, and even “over there” (wherever over there is). The United States is just as much “over there” to God as Iran is, in case you hadn’t noticed. People seem to have this need to be in the center, on the ground floor, at the beginning. But that’s just silly. We can miss what God is doing right now because we’re constantly trying to be the next big thing. This leads to horrible sins like competition, territorialism, and that irritating need to mention the most recent book or the most recent strategy or model or whatever. God is active everywhere. If he includes your city in some major renovation, praise God! If he is speaking to your fellowship or house church or family, praise God! And don’t be surprised that you’re not the first person he’s spoken to about that. He’s talking everywhere.

He’s saving the world, you know. And you’re part of that now. Not the center, but undeniably part. You’re now an active citizen of the Kingdom of the Cosmic Christ, and he’s all kinds of good.

Some practical tips to help us root and ground in Christ:

  • Develop a preference for the gospels in your reading and teaching. I’m not saying only read or only teach the gospels, but consider alternating. Matthew, a letter. Mark, Proverbs. You get it. Make the bread and butter of your Scripture exploration explicitly about Jesus.
  • Get your hands on The Jesus Storybook Bible and read it to your kids. Or your friends’ kids. Or yourself. Seriously, I love hearing how God’ Never-ending Never-giving-up Always and Forever Love compels him to stick to his Secret Rescue plan, where by Jesus makes all the sad things come untrue. Best kids Bible / adult devotional I’ve laid hands on in a while.
  • If you’re a reader, try Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes and N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus and How God Became King.
  • Consider enrolling in a Story Formed Life seminar somewhere. At least google it and use the materials to guide your group study or your own devotional plan for a bit sometime. I’s worth the time to learn the Story, your place in the Story, how to Story, and how to be formed by that Story (instead of some other lame one).

Next time we’ll explore Christ the Mystery. Take some time and sit in Colossians 1:24-2:3, asking those 3 questions – What do we see about Christ, What is Paul doing, and So what?

 

Rooted – Introduction and Invitation

Do you ever feel like this whole Jesus thing should be working better?

We have all these tools, all these books. In the West we have seminaries and church campuses and cool programs, or if we’re not into that we have house churches and intentional communities and urban renewal. In Central Asia we have a collectivist culture that is inherently supposed to make everyone better at spiritual community (right?), cultural norms closer to those of the Bible so we can “get it easier”, and persecution, which just magically makes the church grow (right?). All over the place we have really great people trying really hard over long periods of time. So, why is it not happening, on the whole?

It’s happening in pockets, I know, and in some beautiful ways. And some good things are happening everywhere. But on the whole, we aren’t seeing what we’d expect to see if the gospel really is like a mustard seed that, though small, grows into a mighty tree that blesses the nations. Some people who follow Jesus are becoming like their master, and are becoming fishers of men. But most, if we are honest, really aren’t. At least, not in the ways or to the degrees the Scriptures would lead us to expect. We are not actually discipling the nations we live in.

I’m not being critical, here. I’m being reflective. If anything, I’m trying to give voice to something that’s been nagging at you – and that should be nagging at you. You’re right. Spiritual leaders, pastors, shepherds, church planters – you love the people you care for and you really want this to work. You want fruit. You want transformed people, and transformed communities. And you want to see those communities heal the world. And you’re putting a lot of effort into it, and wha’s coming out often doesn’t make sense to you. You’re right – something is off.

Disciples, parents, students, folks – you’re following Jesus and you’re not seeing the transformation in you that you know is yours in Jesus. You are sometimes, and in some ways. But you can sense that something, somewhere is off. Good news! You’re right! There is more than this.

Across the next few posts I want to share with you some thoughts from Colossians (and some other supporting passages) that might help here. To do that, I want to start with a statement Paul makes 1Corinthians 3:10-11. Paul is talking about his work in Corinth, starting a church there, saying, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Fo no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

The foundation of the church at Corinth (and of every city church) is a person, not a dogma or confession, not a plan or a program, not a philosophy of ministry or a rule of life. The foundation is Jesus Christ. And Paul says he laid Jesus Christ as the foundation of the church at Corinth.

Huh. So, how do you do that? How do you lay a person as a foundation? Seriously, what does it mean that Jesus is the foundation of the spiritual-social-kingdom unit called “the church”, and how does that play out practically? Can you explain what, exactly, that means? Have you experienced what that means, and can you lead another into it?

And, perhaps more apparently, what happens when Jesus isn’t the foundation? Or, when we’re not rooted in Jesus, what happens? And how do we re-direct our roots into Him?

Because here’s the thing. A building’s foundation sets the limits for that building, and it determines the shape the building can take. And system errors in the building – places where things look like they should be working, but aren’t – are often faults in the foundation. A tree’s roots determine the limits of that tree’s growth and fruitfulness.

To borrow another metaphor, a body’s health, function and ability to affect the world around it is limited by how efficiently it’s connected to the brain. Brain-body connection. What we’re after is a healthy, robust, agile, athletic connection between the Head (Jesus) and the Body (the church), including all its members (you and me).

So where can we turn for some coaching on how to lay Christ as foundation for new churches, how to reinforce that foundation or reset the structure onto that foundation? Is there Scripture that lays out for us what it means to be rooted and grounded in Jesus, and how to see that play out in transformed lives, transformed spiritual communities, and transformed geographic communities?

I’m glad you asked.

Paul’s letter to Colossae is exactly that. From the city of Ephesus Paul had trained other workers, who had spread all over Asia Minor, preaching Jesus and growing churches. One such church was at Colossae. In this letter Paul does a little bit of corrective work, but (unlike many of his other letters) on the whole this letter represents what an apostle concerned with foundations would write to saints he cared about, but whom he did not know personally. In other words, when given an opportunity to say whatever he wants to people he does not know, Paul says the letter to Colossae.

This letter is intensely Christological – it talks A LOT about Jesus. But it’s less a letter about orthodoxy (right belief), and more a letter about orthopraxy (right practice). It’s a letter about how to live into Christ, and how to live Him out, individually and together. It’s a letter in which a master architect reinforces this church’s Christ-foundation, which his a friend of his had laid. It’s a letter in which a master gardener helps the saints sink their roots deep into Jesus, and not some other good thing.

In the next couple of months I hope to unpack this letter, specifically as it reveals to us what it means – in real life – that Jesus is the foundation of the church. Along the way, we’ll be giving some thought to how this speaks to some of the most frequently asked questions I have faced as an elder and shepherd in the United States, as an apostolic worker in Central Asia, and as an apostolic worker seeking to train new workers and to architect ways and means that will help all of us everywhere live from our hearts and heal the world. Questions like:

  • What is the gospel? What kind of communication is it? What are the non-negotiable content pieces, and how does it change across cultures?
  • Why do so many believers’ discipleship crash or go way off course? Or, more commonly, just sputter out?
  • What is the Christian walk really all about? What defines a Jesus-follower’s life? Under all the noise, the rules, the programs, what is discipleship really all about?
  • How does transformation really happen? What is the mechanism of change?
  • Why does the practice of spiritual disciplines sometimes seem to make us better, and sometimes worse?
  • Why is the church so fractured? Is there a way to see oneness again?
  • Who should I gather with?
  • How should we gather as believers?
  • What are we after when we gather as believers? What’s the goal, here?
  • Why is it that sometimes we get together and we’re better for it, sometimes worse for it, and most often largely unchanged for it?
  • What is the role of family in all of this?
  • What are the structures of church life that we want to work with? Or, what is the goal for folks looking to build carefully on the foundation, which is Christ? What do we build with?

You may have asked some of these questions before. You might be wrestling with one of them now. You might not. But for all of us, it is critical to know how to practice Christ.

For those of you whom God has called to lead the church structurally (elders and deacons) or catalytically (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers), I’ll be giving some attention to how to root people and groups into Jesus, and I’ll be trying to raise some questions about how to do that so we can all help each other get better at this. For those of you whom God has called to practice Christ in other ways (the other 90% of Body of Christ), I’ll try to give practical, concrete ways to live into Christ and to live him out. For all of you, dialogue (posting comments) will only help the process. None of us have this down perfectly, and we are smarter together than any one us is alone.

In this, you’ll have a job to do, too. To prevent this from becoming another exercise in consumer-Christianity, where I produce something for you that you “buy” by reading it, I’m going to ask you to do something simple. Before each post, I’ll ask you to read a bit of Colossians and to think about 3 questions:

  1. Where do you see Christ in this passage?
  2. What is Paul doing (what is he trying to accomplish by writing this particular stretch of text)?
  3. So what? (How might this affect our practice of life, or of ministry?)

Do we have a deal?

If so, before you read my next post in this series (the “Rooted” series), please read the whole letter to the Colossians once quickly, and then read Colossians 1:1-23 slowly, asking the 3 questions above.

In my next post, we’ll explore Christ and the Story, and we’ll see how Paul orients us in this journey-into-Jesus.

Finding Jesus on Sunday

A question a reader recently offered went something like this: How, practically, do we go about encountering the living Lord Jesus on a Sunday morning? This is a great question, and I’d like to approach it from three angles: memory/imagination, intention, and means.

Jesus told us that when we gather as his people and for his ends (i.e. in his name), he’s there in the midst of us. It’s significant that he doesn’t qualify this with the presence of any special persons (preachers, pastors, leaders, etc.), participation in any special activities (sacraments, “worship” music, Bible study, etc.), or any special state of being on our parts (holy enough, happy enough, sad enough, contrite enough, excited enough, etc.). In the middle of the way we are, he comes to be who he is. And that’s the fact we must remember. He’s here with us, so our task is to find him and be with him here.

That brings us to intention. The one question Jesus asked more than any other, possibly more than all others combined, is What do you want? When you get to whatever meeting it is you’re going to on a Sunday, what do you want? What are you after? Let me give you two ways to think about this.

The first is a responsive prayer from the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer. It’s part of the morning office that I pray each day:

Call: Who is it that you seek?
Response: We seek the Lord our God.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your heart?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your soul?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your mind?
Response: Amen. Lord, have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your strength?
Response: Amen. Christ, have mercy.

The beauty of this prayer is that we are asked if we are orienting each aspect of our personality toward seeking the Lord our God. And in each case, the asking itself allows us the opportunity to do so. And, in each case, we are likely oriented toward something else, and there is mercy for that.

The second is this. We’re staying with a friend in Niles, MI at the moment. She has a big house, and it’s a big house that sort of has 3 distinct areas and a central sort of hub. It’s very possible for someone to be home, and for someone else to walk in the door, go about life in the central hub, and eventually make his way into one of those distinct little areas without ever meeting the lady of the house. If you want to run into her, you have to come in the door looking for her. If you walk in preoccupied, she could be sitting on the couch waiting for you and you could miss her. If you walk in and think that what you’re doing there is getting dinner on for the kids, or getting the kids to bed, or getting a few things done while you have a moment, you’ll miss her. You might even run her over on your way to what you think you’re doing. That’s especially true for us, as we’re staying there sort of long term. Familiarity with the space down-regulates your awareness of who is in the space with you.

That’s how it is on a Sunday morning for many of us. We walk in the door and do lots of stuff, but forget to go looking for Jesus. It’s important, once we have remembered that Jesus has come to be with us exactly as we are at that moment, to take each movement and orient it toward finding and encountering him dwelling in our midst. Why are you singing that song? When the talker/preacher/teacher is talking, are you listening to see if you agree (hubris), are you trying to learn something new, or are you expectantly listening for the Lover’s Voice? We live by the words that come from God’s mouth – in the present tense. We need to walk into the meeting expecting a Meeting, and participating in all ways like people walking through the house either looking for the Host or in happy dialogue with him.

So, we have memory/imagination and intention. That leaves us with means. Sadly, most of the means most of us employ on a typical Sunday morning are an odd combination of Old Testament Temple cultus and Constantinian Roman Catholic sacerdotalism, shot through with solid post-Reformation theology. In English, we don’t meet like Jesus’s first students, but rather like the church met after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Empire and power structures and rituals were locked into place to control the means of grace.

There is good news, though. However we meet, even we are making use of means that really give the Lord very little room to be Lord among us, he still stands at the door and knocks, and whoever can hear that knocking and lets him in – he will sit down with you, and you will sit down with him. That is ever and always within each of our reach.

There is more good news. Paul prescribes for us means for meeting. The longer discussion of this is found in his first letter to Corinth. But a very useful short form is found in Colossians 3:15-17. In these few verses, Paul tells us that our gathering should be characterized by the peace of Christ, the word of Christ, and the name of Christ.

One means our team has found for maintaining the peace of Christ is taking the Lord’s Table weekly. We take it each week, we do not allow anyone to hold any grudges or unforgiveness when they take it, we strongly discourage opting out of it (rather, we expect each person to go make peace then if they have not already), and we do it as part of a large family meal (like the earliest believers did). It is difficult for a wound to fester into true, rooted bitterness in seven days or less. And every seven days we know that the Table is coming, so we come ready.

Paul tells us that the word of Christ can dwell richly in our midst as we teach and admonish each other in all wisdom. We teach and admonish each other. Not one guy talking to us for 40 minutes. Each other. There is a place for extended teaching by one person, but weekly and at the expense of the one-another is probably not it. And we don’t just teach each other; we admonish each other. We warn each other off foolish paths and onto wise ones. We get in each other’s business. And we do it with all wisdom. We don’t shoot from the hip, we don’t make stuff up, we don’t almost quote something we think Jesus might have said, and we don’t hang our opinions on someone else’s neck. We study the Bible when we’re not together, and we offer the tribe the fruit of our hunt each week. In all wisdom.

A community that meets in the name of the King is a community meeting for his purposes, to secure his ends, to actuate his agenda. It is a missional community. It is a community whose momentum is go-momentum. Not come-momentum. The community is moving toward the world, not asking the world to come to the community. It is staying in neighborhoods and pushing into new ones, not pulling families out of neighborhoods to all hole up safe and sound from the world. Jesus meets with us when we come to get what he is coming to get, and to give.

Luke describes what Paul prescribes. At the end of his gospel he records an encounter between two disheartened disciples and the risen Lord. Their hearts burn within them as he shows them Jesus-in-the-Book, and he is revealed to them “in the breaking of the bread”. He’s revealed at the kitchen table. As a man who has ridden a chair at the table, and as a man who has ridden a pulpit – I’ll take the kitchen table every time. Later, in Luke’s account in Acts, we find the disciples eating together, taking the Table, praying and continuing in the apostles’ teaching. We find them doing this without the apostles. Luke is describing what Paul is prescribing.

Now, when I return to the States, or even when I go to the international church gathering in Narnya, I am often disoriented and confused. What are we doing here? Where are all the other saints in this city right now? Why is that guy still talking? Does anyone else have a song they want to sing? How about a word from the Lord that they heard this week? Why are we de-activating all these men and women by asking them to sit quietly while one man talks? I know we’re doing this this way because we don’t remember when we didn’t. And I know that the guys and girls leading this show are trying to help as best as they know how, and that the Lord has given them something to give, too. And I remember that Jesus is not totally limited by the means we give him. He chooses to allow himself to be limited, but he’s not totally limited. I can still find him. I can still strain my ears for the Voice. I can still open my heart to him in the singing and fill the house with my voice so he can know I’ve stopped by to see him. I can join my heart and my voice with the others who pray. I can open the door.

And I can always get together with a few people for lunch or dinner afterward to have church 😉

Grounding

We’re on vacation, so I’m not working. It’s great. As we slowly uncoil, I’m finding my energy returning. I’m starting to dream bigger again, starting to plot and scheme diabolically again [cue evil laughter], and I’m starting to want to create again. It’s good.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is Colossians. I know I’m supposed to be studying Ephesians right now. Well, maybe not “supposed to be”, but I told you that I am. But we’re on a break 😉 I’m actually reading Joshua, intermittently skimming Ephesians for breadth and to get a feel of the warp and woof of it, and I’m letting something else – related closely to Ephesians, but not tied to it – take shape in my mind. It’s looking something like this.

A friend recently indirectly asked me, “What’s your teaching? What’s the thing that when you teach it, it seems really fruitful.” This is a question he asks people with some frequency, looking to activate them further and to help them aim their efforts at reproducing exponentially what Jesus has put into them. I, as is my custom, hijacked the question and began to ask myself, “When people give me room to speak in their fellowship or house group or mission agency or whatever, and when they tell me to talk about whatever I want, what do I most often go to? What is it that my instincts tell me is super-important?” Invariably, it’s Christ. I know that sounds very trite and cliche, but I mean it in a particular way, and I mean it in the way I think Paul meant it.

Paul told the Corinthian believers that foundation of the Church (which is itself the pillar and ground for the truth) is Christ. He, as a person, is the foundation of the Church, and no other foundation can be laid but him. And on that foundation, we are told to be very, very careful how we build. I am increasingly convinced that, in a handful of strategically and tactically critical ways, Western Christianity (and Christianity in lots of places, it turns out) wanders from that one foundation. This is what I’m most often drawn to speak to. Not the problem, so much, as ways to find our feet planted and rooted in Jesus again. I find myself always wanting to provide clarity and motivation to return to “the simplicity that is in Christ”.

Toward that end I’ve been working on a series of trainings, all focused on clarifying and correcting rootedness. So far, they look like this:

> The gospel is about Jesus. Not about you or me or sin, but about Jesus. You and I and sin make appearances, but it’s about him, and this is really important because only a gospel about Jesus can produce disciples that are about Jesus, and churches that are about Jesus.

> The mechanism of human transformation is direct experience of Jesus. We don’t change by trying to change, or by passively sitting by. We change by “beholding Him”. There are ways to do this and ways to miss this.

> Christ is the ground of our gathered life. Not theological affinity, not race, not political similarity, not denomination. Just Jesus.

> When we gather, the goal isn’t to sing songs (though we might), and it’s not to learn something new (though we could). We gather to encounter Christ. There are ways to gather Christocentrically, and there are lots of ways not to. Gathering without encountering the living Lord Jesus in our midst is, at best, a waste of time. At worst, and more commonly, it leaves us worse for having gathered.

> Discipleship, and disciple making, are about nurturing a present-tense relationship between the disciple and Jesus in which the disciple is learning and changing by experiencing Jesus directly in the context of obedience events. This is what it means, as Paul says in Ephesians, to “learn Christ”.

There’s more going on in my head about this, but my sense is that we can feel that we, as God’s family, are out of alignment. We can feel how it rarely “clicks”, and how often our best laid plans and most diligent efforts don’t amount to much. It seems to me that being off-center about things like the gospel, the Church, transformation, and disciple making can really screw us up. And have really screwed us up. Not for lack of trying, but simply for lack of clarity. I find myself burdened to engender clarity on those issues whenever I can. I want to lay the right foundation, and I want to reinforce and straighten foundations when needed and as I can.

That reinforcing of foundation is what Paul’s doing, I think, in his letter to Colossae. Here’s a fellowship he didn’t plant, and that he’s never visited, and has no plans to visit. What does an apostle who is pretty fixated on this foundations stuff do when he has the chance to say whatever he wants to a cluster of believers that he’s never met? In reading Colossians, we see he spends two chapters demonstrating how Christ is everything, how he’s the focus of the cosmos, and how he’s the source of everything they need. He transitions to practical ethics by drawing out a competing view of how transformation happens, and then he shoots it down and says, “Transformation doesn’t happen that way; it happens by sustained, affectionate attention to Christ, who is your whole life.” And the rest of his discussion of praxis is soaked with the word “Christ”. Check it out sometime. Colossians is our example of how an apostle reinforces a churches rootedness in Christ. Delightful, and brilliant.

Something you could do that would help me as I develop this further is this. If you have a question or a thought about how Jesus is the ground, the foundation of our practical Christianity, or if you are curious about one of the bullet points I offered above, please post to it here. A little dialogue here will help me a lot as I seek to be as useful in this way as I possibly can. I have lots I’d like to learn from you all, and especially with you all, and I’d love to hear from you on this. If there are lots of questions in one direction, I’ll write a separate post to it.

Peace to you each!

Some twisty questions

The other day a friend wrote me with a potent and difficult question. Actually, it was a lot of questions, glued together with a little bit of honest doubt. Honest doubt I can respect, and honest doubt I can work with.

The questions essentially took these shapes:

It seems like in the Old Testament, often, God just kills people, or groups of people, including kids. And it seems almost arbitrary. Is God like that?

Is God primarily a God of love and grace, or justice? It seems like you have to lean one way or the other. And even then, killing all those kids…was that justice, or something less noble?

What do we do with people who do good things, groups who gather to do justice and to promote peace and connectedness – but who do so with no referent to God whatsoever? And what does God do with them?

I have been in the Jesus Way for a while now – long enough to have grown dissatisfied with pat answers to questions like these. I have found that what I need is a focal point – a single thing that can provide the interpretive lens for everything else – and the good news is that we have one.

I had an apologetics professor who was able to demonstrate the relative historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. This is significant and deserves some explanation. His name was Gary Habermas, and if you were willing to admit that the New Testament was ancient literature (and really, who can contest that a very old book is ancient literature) he could show you that it is totally reasonable to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead. I won’t take the time here to do it, but google him sometime and I’m sure you’ll find something like the demonstration I’m referring to.

But for us and for now, I’m comfortable starting with this claim: it is reasonable to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, and it is unreasonable (in light of best historical praxis) to believe he did not. This is really good news for us, because this gives us our focal point.

Well, really, Jesus himself gives us his resurrection as our focal point. One day, religious leaders asked him about his authorization. Where did he get the authority to say what he said, to do what he did, and to claim what he claimed? And his answer was to reference Jonah – he said that just like Jonah was in the fish 3 days, he would be killed and placed in the belly of the earth for three days, and then he would get up again. Essentially, he said, “Kill me, and in 3 days God will raise me up as evidence that he is with me and I am with him.”

If he hadn’t said that, and had risen, that would have been supernatural and weird. But not evidence that he’s right. If he had said that, but had not risen, then he’d just be another starry-eyed kook. But he said it AND he did it, or rather, God did it. And that says it all.

In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is God proving that God thinks Jesus is uniquely right about God.

This means everything. This fact allows us, with all the intellectual honesty in the world, to believe Jesus is right about God. Practically, we can permit ourselves to believe what he says, even when that contradicts what we think about God. We can trust him as our teacher in all-things-God.

So, for my friend’s questions – we have an excellent starting place.

What is God really like? Well, Jesus said that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen God; and God thinks Jesus is right. So, we can look at Jesus and see everything we need to know about God. And then, with that image fully entrenched in our imaginations (and divested of much of the emotional confusion we had before we latched on to Jesus-as-divine-image) we can look back into the Old Testament and try to make sense of things.

What of people who do good things, make peace, build community – all without God? And what does God think of that? Well, whatever Jesus says is what God thinks. And Jesus says, “If they’re not against us, they’re for us.” And he also says, “Without me you can do nothing.” So, it sort of seems like he appreciates their effort, but without the Source it will amount to nothing. And they shouldn’t be surprised by that, because a) he said it, and b) he sent His Spirit to fill the witnessing church and to inspire the Scriptures.

Both questions are a little twistier than that (though not much), and all good questions usually are. My goal in this post is not to answer the questions. I don’t do that often. My goal is to give us some good news – we have a Jesus-Way of asking these kinds of questions, and we have a Way to get at the answers, if there are answers to be had. The life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide the focal point through which the whole of the Scriptures and the whole of human experience should be interpreted. And we know that’s the case because when Jesus dared God to prove him right by raising him from the dead, God took him up on it.

God thinks Jesus is – among other things – right.

Jonesing for Jesus: Milk and Christomania

Scholars and commentators disagree as to how to translate – much less how to interpret – 1Peter2:2. The ESV has it “pure spiritual milk,” while the KJV renders it “sincere milk of the word.” The “of the word” is added by the KJV translators because the Greek here is difficult and they appear to be making a connection to 1:23 in order to make sense of it. It could be spiritual-not-physical milk, metaphorical-not-literal milk. It’s hard to say. Practically, this is an important question because we’re told to long for this milk, whatever it is, and we’re told that by it we grow up into salvation. So, a command and an indication that this is our part in the dynamism of being progressively saved. This is no small matter.

Thankfully, the meaning can be made clear by the context. As the phrase “of the word” isn’t actually there, and as in 2:4 there is reference made to tasting that the Lord Jesus is good, it seems clear that the milk we are to long for is Jesus himself. This is strongly reinforced by the last mention of our salvation in 1:8-9. There we’re told that our part in the dynamism of our present obtaining of our coming salvation is this: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, [thereby] obtaining the salvation of your souls.”

The parallels between these two passages are striking. In both the outcome is progressive, experienced salvation. And in each, there is reference to experiential (dare I say “emotional” or even “visceral”) engagement, specifically with the person of Jesus Christ (not just with “God” in some vague sense). In 1:8-9, we love him, we trust-and-give-loyalty-to him, and we celebrate with joy that defies cognitive articulation. In 2:1-3 we have tasted that the Lord (clearly, from the pronoun in v.4, the Lord here is Jesus Christ) is good, and we long for him. We jones. We cry, like infants, insatiably until we get him.

This is extremely significant. But before I explain why, I want to take a brief aside into my own experience in order to illuminate why precision here is important. I pastored for 9 years. I found that nothing helped my enjoyment – visceral, emotional enjoyment – of Jesus like studying the Scriptures. And nothing was a greater threat and damage to my enjoyment of Jesus like studying the Scriptures. It’s possible – sometimes even likely – to engage the Bible and miss the King. Don’t get me wrong here … I love the Bible. I know few people who love it more than I do. But the Scriptures aren’t the 4th member of the Trinity. The Scriptures are given to us to bring us – always, ever, only – to Jesus the Messiah. It’s in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden, and it’s in him that the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in bodily form. And it’s him we’re called to adore, trust, hold faith with and celebrate. The Scriptures, according to Jesus, are given to us to help us do that.

This is great news. It totally uncomplicates what it means to be one of God’s people, and to be part of God’s People. We are the people who addict ourselves – at every level of our personal and gathered personalities – to the living and present Christ. Our task is to discern and engage Jesus totally.

This is the case that Paul is constantly making. He preaches Christ. He tells the Corinthians to discern Christ. He tells the Colossians that Christ is EVERYTHING, and that nothing else counts. He further tells them to direct their attention and affections to Jesus Christ. And he tells the Philippians to celebrate the King always, and then he repeats himself. Christomania is both the experience and prescription of Paul.

That we find the same emphasis in Peter is significant. It’s not just Paul’s pet language. Two very different Early Church leaders are making the same case, suggesting that early leadership shared an understanding of the Jesus Way a) that centralized personal and corporate engagement with Jesus; b) that this engagement was to be cognitive, emotional and visceral; c) and that the practice of Christianity should be defined in terms of this engagement. We, at every level and in every way, are the Jesus People.

So, how do I, tired and a little depressed, cultivate this kind of whole-person engagement with Christ? I don’t know. But here’s what I’m doing and I think it’s working.

1. I’m asking him for help.

2. I’m using the Scriptures copiously. I’m using them with focus (study) and with volume (sustained attention through frequent reading). And I’m using them like Jesus said to, “Search the Scriptures, for they tell of me”

3. I’m consistently trying to help the spiritual communities I’m part of to focus on Jesus, and then I’m riding their energy in (they are not all tired and depressed).

4. I’m being ruthless with myself, while being at the same time patient with my expectations of emotional energy and careful to attend to Jesus, not to my feelings about him.

5. I’m using music, specifically Rich Mullins’ Jesus Record and the Waymarks album from the Northumbria Community.

6. I’m remembering that I can’t make myself feel anything, but I can direct my attention to the object of my affection, and that is what kindles the flame.

7. I’m trusting my Teacher and Friend to meet me in this endeavor and to make up the difference.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve said here, and to hear how you bring all of you to bear on connecting with all of him. Email me.

1Peter 1:1-12

I’ve been studying 1Peter with some expat friends. As I do, I’ve been finding it helpful keep in mind what Tom Wright has said about first century Hebrew theology: monotheism, election and eschatology. Or, to put it another way: one God, one People of God, and one Hope for the People of God. So, here are some things I’m noticing in 1Peter1 –

v.1-2: Election (the Jewish version) is redefined in trinitarian terms. Check it out…it’s cool.

v.3-9: Our salvation hasn’t happened yet. Not really. To borrow Paul’s term, we have the earnest money. When I think of what I was saved from, what I enjoy now, all that I have experienced – I am so grateful. But to think that this is just the earnest money – just the beginning and just a tiny portion of what “being saved” will eventually mean for me, that begins to really warm my tired heart, and it begins to broaden my view and to set my imagination on the deep future.

And that Future – our sure and certain Hope – appears here (the third element of Jewish theology). We, though we are presently tried, hold up and even rejoice, because of our sure and certain hope. We KNOW something very good is coming. What to do with that hope appears in the second half of the chapter.

There is another nifty Hebrew thing going on here. The language in v.8-9 is Abrahamic faith-talk. The language of the Hebrew imagination of God’s Promise. God has Promised, and though you don’t see it you believe; though you wait for it you remain loyal. But here, this immensely Godward and identifyingly Jewish language is used concerning our attachment to the person of Jesus. This reshapes what it means to be a Jew, and indeed what it means to be a person in God’s covenant community. The “People of God” are those who trust Jesus, and who love him, though we have never seen him.

And somehow, by deeply celebrating King Jesus, we presently obtain something of our future salvation. ‘Mechanism’ is a terrible word for this, but I lack a better one at the moment: the ‘mechanism’ of our present obtaining of our salvation – the way we download our future life into our present reality – is by celebrating Jesus in ways that are ‘inexpressible and saturated with glory’. There’s more there in verse 9 than meets the eye, I think.