Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Love is Never a Waste

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
-- Galatians 6:9

There was this time when Peter came up to Jesus and basically asked, “When I can I stop forgiving someone who keeps wronging me? After seven times?”
I can almost hear him saying, “Please tell me after seven times.”
But Jesus responds to him, saying “No, not seven times. Seventy times seven times.”

For those of you doing the math, that comes to 490. The bad news (or good news, depending on which side of the forgiving you’re on ☺) is that this is a symbolic number that basically means “forever.”
Jesus was saying to Peter, “No, you don’t give someone seven strikes. You just keep forgiving them . . . forever.”

Now, Jesus is a smart guy. In fact, if we believe he is who he said he was, we know he has all the omniscience of the God of the Universe. So he knows this is a tall order. He knows it doesn’t “make sense” in our world of abuse and betrayal and pettiness and vindictiveness and pride and arrogance and egotism.

So why does he do this? If he knows our capacity for love and forgiveness is finite, how can he call us to persevere in these things toward others? The short answer, I think, is because God Himself perseveres in them toward us.
Jesus goes on to tell Peter a story about a servant who was forgiven a huge debt by his master. The servant goes on then to punish a third party who owes the servant much less. When the master finds out, he has the debt-pardoned servant thrown in jail and tortured. And Jesus says – this is the scary part – that’s what will happen to us if, spurning the grace given us by God – we withhold grace from others.

Because God’s love toward us is a) despite sin worthy of eternal punishment, and b) relentlessly patient in its eternal perseverance, we have no Christian right to say to someone who has wronged us, even if they continue to wrong us, “You have reached your limit with me. My love for you stops now.” Doing so fails to truly see the depths of our sin in the light of God’s holiness. And if God, who is perfect and holy, will forgive and love we who are most certainly not, on what basis do we have to be unforgiving and unloving to others?

I am guessing most of us agree with this in theory. There’s not too many Christians who will say, despite Jesus’ instructions, that it’s okay to hate your enemies and curse those who persecute you.
I think the place where we really have trouble with this stuff is when it comes to people who are hurting us that we actually do really want to love. We really do want to keep forgiving them. But we are weary. They are wearing us out. We don’t know how much longer we can go on. We want to know if we can give up, but we’re scared what that might mean. Surely God does not want to us to keep enduring this pain. Surely he will understand if we just . . . give up. Things aren’t working. The results aren’t being seen. Efforts are not bearing fruit. I’ve changed, but he or she hasn’t.

Most of us know 1 Corinthians 13 really well, but let’s revisit a piece of it again:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres . . . Love never fails.

That’s some scary stuff right there. For we who are used to thinking of love as romance or warm-and-fuzzies or butterflies or sex, Paul has Jesus in mind as the model of love when he tells us, “Love is about sacrifice and service. And it keeps going. It never fails.”

How can this be? We think of those who have tried to love someone back from the brink only to see the person eventually go over. Certainly love fails in these circumstances, right?

I don’t think so. I think that’s true only if we are thinking of our love in terms of a results-based value. But that is not what Jesus is telling Peter. And that’s not what Paul is telling us.
Jesus does not offer Peter a loophole. There is no Forgiveness Contingency Plan. There’s no limited time warranty. Whether the person you’re loving embraces your forgiveness or not, you keep forgiving. Whether the person you love is changed by your love or not, you keep on loving.

In this sense, I don’t think “Love never fails” means “Love always gets the result the lover wants.” I think it means what it says: Love is not a failure.
Love is not a failure regardless of the results.

This is why: Because God is not a failure, and God is love. When we are loving someone with a persevering, sacrificial love, we are reflecting the eternal goodness and grace of God Himself. We are glorifying God, and there is no higher calling than that. None.
We love – not because it will “change the world” (although it may) – but because God loves us (1 John 4:19).

You would think this might incline us toward a begrudging love, then. “Oh, well, if it’s just for God, maybe I should stop hoping for change in the person I’m loving.” But Paul says love “always trusts, always hopes.”

Always trust that God is not content to honor your sacrificial love with a sympathetic pat on the head. Always hope that God is using your sacrificial love to change hearts and minds. (Maybe yours.)

Love always perseveres. Love never fails. So don’t give up.

Whoever you are, wherever you are: Don’t give up.
To the parents trying to love a wayward child back from the world, to the husband trying to love his wife back from drug addiction, to the wife trying to love her husband back from pornography or adultery, to the girl trying to love her friend back from bitterness, to the guy trying to love his friend back from despair – Don’t Give Up.
Don’t give up, don’t give up, don’t give up.

Whatever happens, whenever it happens, your love is not in vain. You are not alone, for God loves you and has approved your love through the sacrifice of his Son. Cast off despair; cast all your cares on Him.
Love never fails. Love is never a waste.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Submission and Sacrifice: Or, When Grace Gets Touchy

Last night in the Element Bible study we covered Ephesians chapter 5, which includes the (in)famous passage about wives submitting to their husbands.
What was really interesting, and impressive actually, is how a group of young, mostly single folks treated the discussion with sincerity and intelligence and, as a few began to share their hearts, surprising vulnerability.

In Jesus, grace has a face. And as BCC has learned over the last several months, the practice of being the Body of Christ, the working of grace included, can get messy. So I thought I'd bring the husbands/wives conversation to this blog, since there are likely to be more married readers here than there.

Grace sounds nice. The practice of grace in a messed-up world can frequently be less than nice, though, can't it?

An initial objection is that Paul is being a chauvinist. I think this is a reflection of a recurring idea in New Testament scholarship that Paul somehow “invented” Christianity. Some scholars allege a disconnect between Jesus’ message and Paul’s instructions. I think that’s nonsense.
The more I read Paul, the more I see practically explicit connections between Jesus’ teachings on and proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom of God and Paul’s writings. As one of my favorite scholars, N.T. Wright, suggests: It is as if Jesus gave us the sheet music for a masterwork symphony, and Paul is now teaching the Church how to play it. I love that imagery, and I think it’s true.

In Ephesians, for instance, Paul continually refers to an “inheritance,” which echoes more than a few of Jesus’ parables. And of course whenever Paul talks about the exalted Christ (king) and the kingdom, he could not make a more clear connection between his teaching and that of Jesus. In Ephesians 5, Paul also talks a bit about light and darkness, which is a recurring dichotomy in the Gospel of John. It also appears as one of the similitudes (salt of the earth, light of the world) in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

I'm about to start talking about wives submitting to husbands and husbands leading their wives, which I know is like clog dancing through a minefield, but I really think we ought to keep the Sermon on the Mount in mind here, because what Paul appears to me to be doing is taking the kingdom ethic mandated by Jesus in that sermon and saying “This is what the kingdom life looks like in real life.”
So he begins by contrasting kingdom behaviors with worldly behaviors. And he continues by, in the latter part of Ephesians 5, teaching us what the Kingdom life looks like in a typical household. And the whole submission/service dynamic is all over the Sermon on the Mount.

I won’t try to state the obvious or say all that can be said about the contrast of a wife’s obligation with a husband’s obligation, but I do want to briefly touch on something – something that is perhaps a little . . . . well, touchy.

We (rightly) say that when a husband is truly emptying himself out, cherishing his wife, sacrificing as a servant leader, and loving her as Christ loving the Church, it inclines his wife to want to and enjoy submitting to his headship. Certainly “submit” does not mean “become a doormat,” just as “love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it” doesn’t mean “treat your wife like a poorly paid maidservant.”

But notice that the text never says to either husband or wife “do this if your spouse does that.” In other words, neither wifely submission nor husbandly sacrifice comes with conditions. Please hear me out on this: I am NOT saying, just as extreme examples, a wife should submit to an abusive or adulterous husband or a husband should be obligated to continue serving an adulterous wife. What I am saying, however, is that in a “normal” household, making one’s biblical responsibility to one’s spouse contingent upon the spouse’s “worthiness” misses the point entirely. We have to, ideally, get to the point where wives submit out of reverence to God to husbands they don’t always agree with, and husbands lead through service and sacrifice despite their wives’ response to such service.
In other words, “I will submit . . . but only when he agree with me” and “I will serve sacrificially . . . but only when she starts putting out” (or whatever :-) is the exact opposite of what it means to be “in Christ,” because it is the opposite of grace. Grace is divine favor given to us even though we do not deserve it.

The irony in making our own responsibilities conditional upon someone else’s fulfillment of theirs is that we think we are insisting upon improvement or “doing our best” when really we are setting up an exchange that is actually settling for less than God’s best. When we make our efforts always about rewarding someone’s efforts toward us, we are, as C.S. Lewis says, “far too easily pleased” (but, honestly, somehow always displeased, right?).

Grace. That is what we need more of. In our workplaces, friendships, churches, homes, and lives. We need more grace.

And in our marriage relationships – as in all relationships -- God is glorified and the Kingdom life is really demonstrated as the brilliant, life-changing counterculture it truly is when we are constantly cooperating to cover each other’s sin and hurts with grace and love.

Grace and peace to you.

The "Where I Am Right Now" Post: BCC Version

Should we take our church's temperature? Should we check the spiritual barometer?
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says ministers should not be constantly measuring their church. I really don't know exactly what he meant by that (although I could guess), and while I love Bonhoeffer and I love that book, I'm going to ignore his suggestion. :-)

In the comments of the last post, Dirk asks:
Is there a way you might circle information back and apply it to the life of BCC?

I can try!

This was my response:

"The application I think BCC can (and is!) making, just like any Christian or church should make, is that spirit and truth are not an either/or proposition. They are a package deal. And what I tend to see is churches trying hard to specialize in one or the other.
So, on the one hand, you can have some fringes of the charismatic community really reveling in "spirit" but going clear off the rails doctrinally, and on the other hand churches in very heavy liturgical or traditional communities that mind all their doctrinal p's and q's but look as if they're having a root canal while they're doing it.

I think, at this time, BCC is doing a great job. There's always room for improvement, and since nobody and no church is perfect, there's always room for valid criticism, but I think we are on a great upward trend, getting closer as we grow to where Spirit and truth intersect."

Monday, January 22, 2007

"Spirituality" and Life in Christ

(Note: Background for this post may be found at two previous entries of mine: What It Means to be a Christian, which was posted here, and Spirituality with a Capital "S", which is at the Element MySpace.)

Here is a great passage from Dallas Willard's The Great Omission:
I'm sorry to say this, but too much of what we call Christian is not a manifestation of the supernatural life of God in our souls. Too much of what we call Christian is really just human. And now I'm going to say something really terrible, so brace yourselves or stop your ears. The church of Jesus Christ is not necessarily present when there is a correct administration of the sacrament and faithful preaching of the Word of God. The church of God is present where people gather together in the power of the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. It is possible to have the administration of the sacraments and the preaching of the Word of God and to have it be simply a human exercise. And the misunderstandings of the church in this respect is one of the things that create a primary problem for the integration of theology and spirituality. Because, as was emphasized yesterday, a bad theology will kill any prospects of a spirituality that comes from life in Christ.

. . . [L]ife in Christ, and therefore biblical spirituality, has to do with obedience to Christ . . . [L]ife in Christ is a matter of the "spirit" . . . [S]piritual life is a matter of living our lives from the reality of God . . . Christian spirituality is supernatural because obedience to Christ is supernatural and cannot be accomplished except in the power of a "life from above."

The will to obey is the engine that pulls the train of spirituality in Christ. But spirituality in many Christian circles has simply become another dimension of Christian consumerism. We have generated a body of people who consume Christian services and think that is Christian faith. Consumption of Christian services replaces obedience to Christ. And spirituality is one more thing to consume. I go to many, many conferences and talk about these things, and so often I see these people who are just consuming more Christian services.

Some reflections:

1. I like that Willard begins with an indictment of Spiritless religion but immediately draws in the equally errant alternative -- Spiritless "spirituality."

2. The integration of theology and spirituality! Yes. What tends to happen in evangelical communities these days is an either/or tyranny. Either a church is mired in soulless intellect, or it radiates an emotionalist spirituality. And neither option, regardless of lip service, is vitally connected to Jesus Christ.
Jesus said that true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. This is why discipleship, obedience, community worship, and true religion are necessary (that's worshiping in spirit). And this is why theology, study, reflection, preaching, and teaching are necessary (that's worshiping in truth).
After all, the Great Commandment does not give a buffet option to the choices of "heart, soul, mind, and strength."

3. Which brings me to my favorite thing about this passage, and that is the connection Willard makes between "being in Christ" and "biblical spirituality." I read reviews online for a certain book by a certain famous speaker/writer today, and while many of them championed his vision for the Kingdom of God and the implications for such a counterculture, the most obvious thing that seemed to be missing from this Kingdom description was the most important one -- namely, that the Kingdom of God thrives on Jesus Christ as King. The vision of the kingdom I read about as explored in this book was all about personal fulfillment and cultural expansion, community revolutions and political and artistic renaissance. Those are all great things, as far as they go. But none of them gets to the heart of what it means to be a Christian, what it means to really enjoy Christian Spirituality, and what it means to really live and love in the Kingdom of God now present.

So many churches today define themselves -- and advertise themselves! -- based on what they are against, or what they are not. This often works in appealing to people, especially if it reflects current fashions on what (or who) is not fashionable.
And too many times these self definitions and advertisements creep into the philosophical culture and collective identity of the community, so it becomes less about marketing and much more about message.
America has an abundance of churches that are against boredom, "religion," traditionalism, sophistication, formality, insensitivity to seekers, etc. What the world is really in need of -- and what the call of Scripture upon the biblical community mandates -- is a church that is for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that worships, lives, eats, reflects, follows, and revolves around Jesus Christ. And that isn't ashamed or afraid to say so, market research be damned.
The point of Christianity is Jesus Christ himself.

My prayer is that Bellevue Community Church continues in its great love for the Savior, which as many of us have discovered, only multiplies and magnifies its love for the lost, for the broken, for the hurting, for the impoverished, and for each other.
That is Spirituality. That is life in Christ.

My Jesus, I Love Me -- er, I Mean Thee

Over the last four or five years I've been spending time with "historical Jesus" studies. Scholars like N.T. Wright, Howard Marshall, Ben Witherington, and Scot McKight have refreshed and revolutionized the way I read the Gospels.
These studies typically involve historical reviews of previous "quests" for the historical Jesus, and the common consensus is that most quests involve a scholarly look down the deep, dark well of history and result in the looker seeing his own reflection.

But lest we think "Jesus in our own image" is a sin solely owned by so-called "liberal" academics and historians, we should at least acknowledge the Western Church of the modern world is frequently just as guilty. Just because our Jesus looks different doesn't mean He's the historical Jesus.

Justin Holcomb has a good post this week at Common Grounds Online called Jesus is For Losers:
I am currently reading Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which investigates the various constructions of Jesus in American history. He argues convincingly that what Americans have seen in Jesus has been a reflection of themselves. I haven't liked most versions of Jesus that Prothero sees in American cultural history—Enlightened Sage, Manly Redeemer, or Superstar—because they are mainly reflections of American ideals and hopes. While reading American Jesus I also read the Gospel accounts of Jesus and saw another interesting version: Jesus as Loser Lover (thanks to Steve Taylor for his brilliant song "Jesus is for Losers"). Jesus loved the spiritual losers: swindlers, whores, and drunkards. These were not people "achieving growth in noble virtues." Jesus told us what to think about his mission for losers: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

I'd suggest even more errant Jesuses propagated by American evangelicalism -- Success Guru Jesus, Mystical Experience Jesus, Politically Correct Jesus, Fundamentalist Jesus, Patriotic Jesus, Co-Pilot Buddy Jesus, Tony Robbins Jesus, Personal ATM Jesus, and last but certainly not least My Own "Personal" Jesus.

How do we sort through these myriad Jesuses, each of which has just enough truth in them (even if just a dash) to make them dangerous, to find the real Person Jesus Christ? I think we ought to start with the Gospels, which usually are the last texts consulted. We think we are quite familiar with them, but we are not. We think we know their stories and have been building on them for years, but the army of false Jesuses marching in the hearts of well-meaning Christians testifies otherwise.

And the Jesus Cottage Industry is making a killing on all the ways we have Jesus without the gravity of His real personality. We have endless books offering alternative histories and secret messages and "what he really said" and hidden gospels. When, if we cared to see it, the four Gospels we already have contain enough truth to challenge, comfort, convict, and create us for eternity.

Yes, I said "create" us. It was G.K. Chesterton who, in his defense of Christian orthodoxy, said, "I did not make it. It is making me."
Can we say that of Jesus? Can we say the Jesus we believe in, rest in, trust in is the Jesus who is making us? Or is He the one we'd prefer, the one who's most like us, who's safer and nicer, who reflects all of our personal or political values and idiosyncrasies? Is Jesus making us, or is he the Jesus of our own making?

It is quite possible to make an idol of Jesus. Which is not to say that Jesus is not to be worshiped. He is the only Man worthy of worship. What I mean is, it is possible to project a self-idolatry onto Jesus, to mistake our own satisfaction with ourselves for authentic discipleship, instead of worshiping the real, living God in the real, resurrected person of Jesus Christ.

Here's one personal test I subject my own reading of the Gospels to (which actually works quite well when reading any Scripture):
Is it freaking me out? :-)
Am I convicted, challenged, impressed, scared, or inspired? Am I moved?

The Word of God -- both the living Word and the written Word -- is transformational revelation. If we are not being transformed by Christ and Scripture, we are not reading them right.
And if we constantly find them confirming our sense of self and our prejudices, leaving us unrepentant or unmoved, we have the chief indication we are looking down the deep, dark well of our own heart and seeing our own reflection.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Making Disciples of Ourselves

I've been reading Dallas Willard's new book The Great Omission (in snippets while I wait in the car line to pick up my daughter from school in the afternoons), and it's a great indictment of the way we tend to accept Christ for the fire insurance and occasional crisis management but tend to forget the Great Commission calls us to "make disciples," not converts.

Here's a great quote from Eugene Peterson on this subject:
The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence. For the mudane trivialities, . . . we use the everyday religion of the Reader's Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Landers column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion: we know that God created the universe, . . . [b]ut we can't believe that he condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations.

I hope to start exploring more of the ways the Sunday gospel can be let loose on our Monday thru Saturday lives in the days and weeks to come.
I know I promised regular blogging this week, but life's what happens when you're making plans, eh? My wife has been home sick all week (viral infection in the throat -- weird, huh?), and I've been focusing my study and writing primarily in preparation for the launch of Element in a couple of weeks, so time's been scarce.

Regular blogging will resume . . . um, soon. (Sorry, Adam. ;-)

Grace and peace to you and yours!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Death Expectancy

When they aren't outright murdering church members, they are burning churches in India.

Buddhists are attacking Christians in Sri Lanka.

You can find hundreds more stories like these.

The Element crowd is currently going through some of Paul's prison epistles, and as we continue to look at Paul's talking about the "privilege of suffering" and considering oppression and persecution as blessings meant to conform us to the likeness of Christ, it has been important to remind those of us sitting on couches in a warm living room, un-cheap coffee in hand, gathered for a meeting that is publicly announced and advertised, that in Paul's day, becoming a Christian meant immediately and severely lowering your life expectancy.

And for most parts of the world -- the modern world -- the situation is still the same. Taking up one's cross to follow Jesus, which in Jesus' day meant embracing death, means for most Christians in the 21st century embracing death. The decision to accept Christ is the decision to lower your life expectancy considerably.
In our part of the world at this time, accepting Jesus typically means altering our lifestyle to some extent. Adding some Christianization to our routine. When it's real, there is real life change. I've seen redemption of the most powerful sort even in my short life.
But for none of us does "taking up my cross" mean following the likeness of Jesus unto death.

Now, I'm not one of those praying for a time of real persecution on the Church in the Western world. People who are practically begging God to test us with fire seem to me a little crazy.
I enjoy sitting in my Dada chair in my warm house, sipping coffee, reading a good book while my two little chickadees dance around without a care in the world. I enjoy being able to do all that without worrying about some nutjob throwing a malotov cocktail through my window. I don't worry about gunmen entering my church during worship (although that has happened in America in recent years).
I'm not saying martyrdom automatically makes one a better disciple. I'm not saying I'd like to have it hard.

But I am saying we -- and by "we," I mean the average American Christian -- ought to realize we have it easy. And we ought to, at the very least, thank God that we do. And pray for our brothers and sisters who don't.

Monday, January 15, 2007

New News is Good News

Dirk Plantinga has a reporter's tenacity and therefore has the scoop on the lead pastor search.

Conexus and FOCUS both return to the BCC schedule last week of February.

The new Element worship service starts Sunday, February 11, with a Super Bowl launch party occurring a week earlier, February 4.

More details to come on all these happenings and more. 2007 promises to be an exciting year.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dispatch from the Great Busyond

Yikes. I'm a slacker, ain't I?

Actually, I've been slacking in the blog department so that I won't slack in the Everything Else department. Thanks to all who keep returning every day (I still check my Sitemeter), I suppose in the hopes that I've touched base. I'm sorry to send you away with nuffin'.

My plan is to resume regular blogging Monday, the 15th. There are lots of exciting things coming up in the life of BCC, and I've got a kettle full of post ideas waiting to find written form. And I promise to follow up on that "homework" assignment.

Till then . . . Grace and peace!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Element Is Coming