Category Archives: Theology Thoughts

Allegiance to the King (part 1 of 3)

Every morning at 8:30 am during the school year my son lines up with his classmates to recite three pledges before starting the day. They start by reciting the Pledge to the American Flag[1] before moving on to the Pledge to the Christian Flag[2] and the Pledge to the Bible.[3] Though these young students may not realize the full impact of their words, they are declaring their loyalty to the nation they live in (i.e. United States of America), their religion (i.e. Christianity), and their holy book (i.e. the Bible). 

                I would wager a guess that there are millions of people around the world reciting similar pledges.  They may even recite these pledges in the same order – giving allegiance first to their nation (e.g. USA, India, China, Israel, Russia, Canada, etc.), then to their religion (e.g. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hindu, Wicca, Atheism, etc.), and finally to their holy writings (e.g. Bible, Koran, Tripitaka, Vedas, etc.). I would further guess that most of these people, Jesus followers include, don’t even think twice about the pledges they are reciting. After all, it is normal to love the nation you live in, the religion you follow, and the holy writings you read.

                Yet, if I may vocalize a nagging question in the back of my head, should a follower of Jesus pledge their loyalty and allegiance to a nation, religion, or holy book? And if so, should we be concerned about the order in which we pledge our allegiance? Say, instead of pledging our loyalty to our nation first, maybe we should pledge our allegiance to our religion, our holy writings, and then to our nation…. or should we just stop saying the pledges all together?

                Jesus followers throughout history have come to different conclusions concerning those questions. They are not easy questions to answer as they have wide ranging implications for how we live our lives and how we interact with the world around us. For my part, I go back and forth between saying all three pledges, saying some of them, and not saying them at all. My country, religion, and holy writings have all impacted my life to a degree that words cannot fully express. Yet despite of my love for all three, there’s a war deep inside of me for I know how my love for my nation, religion, and holy writings can, and does, compete for my love for Jesus.  And that concerns me.

Photo by Samuel Schneider via Unsplash.com
Photo by Samuel Schneider via Unsplash.com

Loving Jesus

I was first introduced to Jesus by my parents who met him from their parents who likewise met the King through the influence of their parents. I remember early morning livestock feedings on the farm with my father talking about Creator or times under the hood of a vehicle talking about doing all things unto the King. There were also times of talking with my mother about the strange and odd verses in the Scriptures that didn’t seem to make sense.  Though some might think that this genealogy would lead to a lackluster religion more concerned about keeping tradition than knowing the person of Jesus, that wasn’t the case for me. Somehow my parents had managed to escape the religiosity and skepticism of the day, even while feeling the pain and disappointment that often leaks out from the rotting corpses housed in whitewashed tombs. And in doing so they taught me to love Jesus and watch for his presence in all areas of life.

These early lessons of seeing past the trappings of life to find Jesus helped me navigate the “witch’s brew of politics, cultural conflict, moralism, and religious meanness that seems so closely connected with those who count themselves the special friends of Jesus.”[4] Sadly, throughout history there have always been people who have used Jesus to support their own political and religious agendas. This is especially true for those in power in the United States of America, to the point that to “millions of people around the world, Jesus Christ is synonymous with Western society and America.”[5] 

During the 1st century when Jesus walked the earth, there were multiple views of the kingdom of God and how that kingdom was manifested in real life.[6] Jesus could have embraced the strict religious rules of the Pharisees who sought to perfectly follow the Mosaic Law for one day as to usher in the rule and reign of the Heavenly Father. Or Jesus could have retreated into the desert to study the Scriptures and worship the Lord like the Essenes. The Sadducees also offered Jesus a way forward, a way of wealth and riches through their partnership with the Roman Empire. 

The Romans themselves would have loved it if Jesus would have endorsed their way of life. After all, they were the greatest nation in the world at the time with an empire that stretched across three continents. Or if Jesus didn’t like the pagan worshiping Romans being in the land of promise, he could have joined the Zealots and fought to take back the land for God.  There were plenty of people at the time who would have loved to make Jesus king of Israel. All he needed to do is say the word and the revolution would have begun.

Jesus, however, did not and does not “endorse any other way, any other moral code except his own. Jesus was [and is] exclusively the Way.”[7] He is “the way and the truth and the life” as the Apostle John wrote quoting our Lord (John 14:6, NIV). Knowing God is a “matter of personal contact”[8] with Jesus rather than doctrine, religious duties, money, ethics, lifestyle, or any of the other boundaries people have created over the years.


Endnotes

[1] Pledge to the American Flag – “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

[2] Pledge to the Christian Flag – “I pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe.”

[3] Pledge to the Bible – “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word, I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.”

[4] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1.

[5] Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism (Colorado Spring, Colorado: David C. Cook, 2011), 61.

[6] Additional information on the different political and religious views of the kingdom of God challenged by Jesus can be found in chapter seven and nine of my previous book, The Here and Not Yet (Vineyard International Publishing, 2017).

[7] Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus, 155.

[8] Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus, 70.

Cultural Change Agents: Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo (Part 2 of 2)

The first part of this series can be found here.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536 C.E.) is the first change agent under review. Born in the Netherlands towards the latter half of the fifteenth century, Erasmus was a Roman Catholic priest and Augustinian monk who was not content to live life inside the monastery walls.[1] Rather, his desire to ask questions and learn about the broader world pushed him to travel all over Europe, meeting new people and encountering new ideas. Early on in his career Erasmus collected and subsequently published a book of sayings and phrases “culled from antiquity”[2] which not only broadened his perspective of life but helped broaden the perspective of those around him.

As he processed the information and knowledge gained through his questions and travels, Erasmus began to challenge the status quo of his time. His personal moral character did not allow him to sit idly by while narrow-minded, though intelligent, people took advantage of the average person through a devotion to prescribed answers. Writing with humor and tact Erasmus tackled the abuses of the Roman Church while insisting “that righteousness was more important than orthodoxy.”[3] The wisdom of using humor and satire rather than straightforward logical arguments can be seen in that fact that it “enabled Erasmus to satirize everything and everyone in the world of his time while escaping the condemnation that would have been hurled at him had he tackled his subjects straight on.”[4]

In summary, Erasmus was a change agent who placed a high value on asking questions rather than being content with prescribed answers. In helping others navigate the changing cultural landscape, he acted with wisdom, humility, and humor, rather than seeking rather than seeking to build himself up with pride and knowledge. Throughout his life, Erasmus refused to rely solely on his intelligence; rather he constantly sought to develop his personal character by placing “ethics and spirituality at the center of [his] theology and philosophy with Christ’s teaching as the model for fruitful Christian reflection.”[5] All of this led to a broad perspective of life with friends and admirers on both sides of the primary cultural and religious divide of his time, that of the Protestant Reformation.[6]

The second change agent under review is Martin Luther (1483-1546 C.E.), the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Like Erasmus, Luther was an Augustinian monk and priest within the Roman Catholic Church. He also placed a high regard on questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life, though his personal journey with these values took him in a different direction than Erasmus. For Luther, his desire to better understand the Way of Christ led him to reject the answers traditionally given by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.[7] The end result of Luther’s questions was the posting of the famous Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 which led to the Protestant Reformation.[8]

Throughout his life, Martin Luther engaged in an introspective journey to know and understand himself. Despite his fame as an international religious leader, Luther “never gave off the aura of a medieval saint”; rather, he would “realistically evaluate his strengths and weaknesses”[9] while publicly confessing his personal flaws. Luther’s focus on truly knowing himself led to his theological masterpiece, mainly that salvation is a “free gift of divine mercy for which the human person can do nothing.”[10] This conclusion was in direct opposition to the predominant view that salvation could be bought and sold by the Roman Catholic Church by drawing on the “merits of Christ – and of his saints.”[11] In challenging this perspective of salvation, Luther became a major change agent who helped bring correction to the wider church of his day.

As a change agent, Martin Luther was one who was not afraid to pursue questions despite the uncertainty of where they might lead. He also demonstrated wisdom in knowing how to navigate the politically charged landscape of his day. Luther’s deep moral conviction was, as previously mentioned, a major bulwark against the pressures of fame, prescribed answers, and the narrow-mindedness of those in leadership roles above and around him. All in all, Luther was able not only to broaden his own perspectives of life, but those of others across Europe and, eventually, the world.

Around the same time that Erasmus and Luther were changing the religious landscape of Europe, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564 C.E.) was changing the art world to the point that “no artistic education could be complete without a thorough knowledge of his work.”[12] Born in the Republic of Florence, Michelangelo loved to question the world around him in a desire to broaden his perspective of life. This desire to learn earned Michelangelo the label as the “greatest artist who had ever lived, supreme above all rivals in the fields of sculpture, painting, and architecture.”[13]

Even though he was famous during his lifetime, Michelangelo “cared not a whit for riches, nor even for food or clothing.”[14] Rather, he maintained a humble lifestyle, seeking to devote all his energy and focus to crafting works of art. Michelangelo’s desire to create items of beauty was constantly challenged by the political upheaval within the courts of Pope Julius II, his primary benefactor. The wisdom he showed in navigating the treacherous waters of artistic rivalry, political backstabbing, and full-out national war is commendable.

In summary, Michelangelo was a change agent who managed to capture the “expressive possibilities of the human form” [15] in a way that no one else had ever done before while maintaining his personal character in the midst of a city full of political upheaval. He also challenged the status quo of the art world in an effort to broaden the perspective of those who gazed upon his work. Writer and Episcopal priest Ian Cron once stated that “artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal.”[16] Perhaps this is why Sir Joshua Reynolds described Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel as “the language of the Gods.”[17]

Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all possessed the rare ability to tap into the emotions of their time and help people navigate the changing cultural landscape. Though their personalities and beliefs differed, they all valued the act of asking questions, seeking wisdom, being true to one’s personal character, and having a broad perspective of life over and above preset answers, factual knowledge, personal intelligence, and narrow-mindedness. In doing so, they changed the course of their culture and, ultimately, the world.

 

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (New York City: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2013), 135.

[2] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 132-133.

[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 11.

[4] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 136.

[5] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 315.

[6] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 13.

[7] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 155-157.

[8] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 22.

[9] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 164.

[10] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 380.

[11] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 151.

[12] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Walker & Company, 2003), 313.

[13] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 312.

[14] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 109.

[15] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 299.

[16] Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 110.

[17] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 313.

Cultural Change Agents: Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo (Part 1 of 2)

The world is changing. Or, at least, more people are noticing the change as the world has always been changing. Humanity, in general, prefers to experience change in small doses with time enough to process the ramifications before the next wave of change sweeps over them. Although much of human history has progressed in small steady steps, the global events of the last few decades have rendered this luxury elusive. The rapid pace of change has escalated uncertainty with people “crying for justice, honesty, and solutions” [1] while being scared and angry.

This response is not new as people throughout history tend to respond to rapid change with fear and anger. Standing strong against this tidal wave are leaders who embrace the change and help lead others through the darkness of the unknown. These leaders, or change agents, are people who are able to maintain a broad perspective on life while valuing questions, wisdom, and personal character over intelligence, knowledge, and presumed answers.

While history is brimming with amazing examples of such leaders, this paper will focus on three change agents within the pandemonium of sixteenth-century Europe who embraced the values previously mentioned. This time frame was chosen due to the parallel between it and the furor of modern culture within the United States. Both periods experienced change at a rapid pace as new concepts and ideas poured into their culture through globalization  (i.e. European colonies in the Americas and Asia vs. airplanes, global tourism, and mass immigration), increased knowledge (i.e. Gutenberg’s printing press vs. the internet), religious discord (i.e. the Protestant Reformation vs. religious pluralism), and political mayhem (i.e. the end of the feudal system vs. the rebirth of nationalism).[2] The agents themselves, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo, were chosen due to their ability to give a voice to the emotions of their time while personally reflecting the values of questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life.

However, before looking at the lives of these change agents, it is worth pausing a moment to better understand the four values in question and how they interact with each other. The first value is that of asking questions. Though this may sound like an odd value, it is actually the protovalue from which the other three flow. The prerequisite of asking a question is the humble acknowledgment that the answer is unknown to the one asking the question. Hence to value questions is to recognizes one’s own limitations while seeking to move beyond those limitations. It a multi-layered value that carries within it humility and curiosity coupled with a boldness to receive answers that one may not like.

Wisdom, the second value, flows from the first in that one must understand the world around oneself before being able to wisely choose a course of action. The New Bible Dictionary defines wisdom as “the art of being successful, of forming the correct plan to gain the desired results”[3] whereas Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines it as the “power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action.”[4] Both definitions carry a sense of practicality where information and knowledge is transferred from the theoretical into the best course of action for that time and place.

The third value is that of personal character development. This value can be defined as having moral strength and fortitude to embrace the uncertainty of questions while seeking the path of wisdom. Change agents who embrace this value are ones who seek to truly know themselves and learn their “strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview”[5] rather than being content to rely on their inherent intelligence and talent. Having embraced such a journey, the change agent is then able to move forward into the unknown, forearmed with the wisdom that comes with personal reflection and a deep moral conviction.

Having a broad perspective of life is the last value under consideration. This value means having the “ability to see things in a true relationship”[6] across the broad spectrum of life. It is a value that embraces the vastness of humanity as reflected in the plethora of human culture, personalities, and behavior. One cannot, however, embrace the broadness of humanity or begin to see the interconnectivity of things if one does not ask questions or have the personal character to move beyond past assumptions and narrow-minded views of life. Hence, to value a broad perspective of life means opening oneself up to new ideas and concepts that may or may not challenge previously held ideologies.

Those who embrace the values of questions, wisdom, personal character development, and a broad perspective of life may find themselves living on the edge of the unknown. While this may sound frightening to some, it is the best place to be as it means having to trust God as one enters into the uncertainty of life. This is why these four values can be seen so clearly in the lives of change agents both in the modern era as well as in sixteenth-century Europe. A word of warning though, not everyone who embraces these values end up in the same place. As this paper will soon demonstrate, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all espoused similar values even though they ended up in different ideological and theological places. It is as Justo Gonzalez once commented, “in such an age of turmoil, many sincere Christians went through profound soul searching that eventually led them to conclusions and positions they themselves could not have predicted. Others, equally sincere and devout, came to opposite conclusions.”[7]

 

Endnotes

[1]  Tri Robinson, Re:Form: The Decline of American Evangelicalism and a Path for the New Generation to Re:Form Their Faith (Sweet, Idaho: Timber Butte Publishing, 2017), 92.

[2] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005), 4.

[3] The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[4] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[5] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership, 95-96.

[6] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “perspective.”

[7] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 10.

Being Missional

Elder Paisios the Athonite once said, “The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read.” No truer words can be spoken about Kingdom Theology and the three themes intertwined within that worldview. Our theology is to be lived out clearly for the world to see. Otherwise we fool ourselves into thinking that we are something we are not. James put it this way in his letter:

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22-25)

If we claim to be servants of the King, then we must focus on our lives and set our hearts on the King’s business. Everything we do must be centered around and lead to the promotion of the King’s mission. We are to be intentional and deliberate in declaring that the rule and reign of the Creator King has broken into human history and has provided humanity with a new way to live life. It is this deliberateness that causes one to become missional in everything. Our life no longer belongs to ourselves, but has become pledged to the King of Kings.

I cannot overstate the power of living on mission. All too often we think that following Jesus means praying a short prayer of salvation one day then spending the remaining decades sitting on a church pew each Sunday. During the week, we are free to pursue whatever dreams or desires we want as long as we read our Bible, pray occasionally, pay our tithes and don’t do this or that like all good little Christians. This view of the Christian life does not reflect the reality of what it means to follow Jesus and join with him on his mission. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up for a country club; I signed up to change the world with Jesus and to defeat the forces of evil that destroy and enslave billions of people worldwide!

We, the people of God, need to change the stories that we are telling each other. We need to get rid of the “American Dream”, where we pursue the nice little house with the white picket fence, two cars, a boat, some kids and a steady job. Life is not about shopping, hunting, sports, parties, how many activities you do or how much stuff you own. Life isn’t even about how often you show up at church or what religious activities you perform. Jesus said life was about following him.

In the first century, disciples of a Jewish rabbi would leave their families, homes and communities with the single-minded focus of learning to live life like their rabbi. They didn’t just want to know what information their rabbi knew; they wanted to think, act and be like them. There are even stories of disciples following their rabbi into the bathroom in an effort to know everything about them, so that they could replicate it in their own lives. While slightly humorous, those stories tell us a lot about those disciples. They weren’t fooling around, adding on religious activities or mindless prayers to their daily schedules. They were serious about living life. They had a mission and nothing, not even a bathroom door, was going to stop them from their goal of being like their rabbi.

Shouldn’t we be that way towards our rabbi, the King of Kings? Perhaps, instead of simply going to church and doing all the “right” things, we should be intentional and deliberate in being like him. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that if they loved him, they would keep his commands (John 14:15–21). And what were his commands? To proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, heal the sick, cast out demons, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, love God the Father with their whole heart, body, mind and soul and love their neighbors as themselves. Seven things. That’s it. If we have bowed our knees to King Jesus, we are to daily crucify our own desires and pick up the cross of Jesus, committing to walk out these seven commandments of the King. And though we may fail – or rather, even though we will fail – we are to get back up and try again and again and again and again.

Paul told the church in Corinth that they were to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). How awesome would it be if the churches around the world were filled with people so dedicated to the King of Kings that they told their neighbors, co-workers, family members and strangers to follow their example as they followed the example of Jesus? If this happened, it would radically change the world in which we live. Religiosity would stop, people would be quick to ask for, and give, forgiveness, the hungry would be fed and people would know there was another way to live life. Sin, evil and death would lose their power as people embrace the rule and reign of the Creator King.

 

Excerpt from my book The Here and Not Yet (pages 219-221) published by Vineyard International Publishing. Available in paperback and ebook versions – click here to find out more.

“The Orthodox Way” by Bishop Kallistos Ware

I was first introduced to Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way on September 2, 2006 when it was given to me after a chance meeting with an Eastern Orthodox priest. This priest, whose name I do not know, gave me five books about the Eastern Orthodox Church after briefly taking to me in a hotel restaurant in Los Angeles. Of the five books the priest gave me, Ware’s The Orthodox Way stood out because of its spiritual depth and simple prose. Twelve years later I can honestly say that this book changed the course of my life by introducing me to the path of the mystic.

The book itself isn’t that long, just six short chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue. The purpose of the book is to introduce the reader to the “fundamental teachings of the Orthodox Church”[1] without being exhaustive or too technical. Rather, Ware lays out “some of the decisive signposts and milestones upon the spiritual Way.”[2] He does this by addressing six different facets of God as noted by the chapter titles: “God as Mystery,” “God as Trinity,” “God as Creator,” “God as Man,” “God as Spirit,” and “God as Prayer.”[3]

Though each of these chapters are packed with amazing gems, the first chapter, “God as Mystery,” was the one that had the most lasting impact on my life. The overall gist of this chapter is that God cannot be known strictly by intellectual reason or as the “conclusion to a process of reasoning.”[4] Rather, knowing God means knowing him as a person who loves and cares for us. Faith in God is, after all, “not logical certainty but a personal relationship”[5] that embraces the presence of doubt while still embarking on the journey.

At the time of my first reading of The Orthodox Way, I was an associate pastor of a small church and a graduate of Vineyard Leadership Institute (a two-year Bible and leadership training program). The temptation to logically figure out God was strong both because of my previous studies and the demands of the church. Through this book I was able to “embrace the mystery of God without having to understand everything.”[6] It gave me the freedom to embrace the unknown while still using my mind and intellect for the glory of God. As St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the great intellectual Church Fathers) said, “God’s name is not known; it is wondered at.”[7]

Another gem within Ware’s book is his liberal use of quotes from the Church Fathers and Orthodox service books.[8] Most of these quotes were placed before and after each chapter, though he does sprinkle them throughout the body of the chapters. It was through reading these quotes that I was introduced to the Desert Fathers, although it would be years later before I fully realized the spiritual wisdom of these passionate followers of Jesus.[9]

Time does not permit me to expound on the other gems lying within the pages of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way. For far too long the Protestant church in the United States of America has ignored our sisters and brothers in the East. The time has come for us to learn from the Eastern Orthodox Church for “they have a rich heritage of following God and seeing things that we have never seen.”[10]

 

Endnotes

[1] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 9.

[2] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 9.

[3] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 5.

[4] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 16.

[5] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 16.

[6] Joshua S. Hopping, “Embracing The Mystery Of God”, Wild Goose Chase (blog), September 24, 2010, accessed February 19, 2018.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 14.

[8] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 10.

[9] Joshua S. Hopping, “Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers” (final paper, St. Stephen’s University, 2016), Wild Goose Chase (blog), released in three parts on November 9th, 11th, & 13th, 2016, accessed February 19, 2018.

[10] Joshua S. Hopping, “Embracing The Mystery Of God”, Wild Goose Chase (blog).

Embracing the Victory

A look through the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, reveals a lot of passages about the victory that comes through the new life in the kingdom. We become new people with a new family built upon love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. No matter what pain or sorrow we have experienced before, we now have a chance at a new life. The old is gone; behold the new.

Sadly, a lot of people fail to embrace fully the victory of Jesus in their lives. The scars of the past are so deep and numerous that it is hard to trust again. What happens if I open up my heart and Jesus fails me? What if I try to fight the chemical, emotional or spiritual addictions in my life and I fail? Perhaps it is just safer not to dream of victory; instead I will just push on through this life, hanging onto the promise of healing in the next life at the resurrection of the dead. As it has been said, the pain that I know is better than the pain that I don’t know.

Not wanting victory may sound crazy to some people, but there are a lot more of us out there who are afraid of change than those who embrace the change of life that comes with Jesus. I’m reminded of the time when Jesus went to the pool of Bethesda, which was a sort of hospital and healing spa (John 5:1-15). Walking among the sick and hurting, Jesus stopped next to a gentleman who had been sick for 38 years and asked him the most important question of all: “Do you want to get well?” One would think that the gentleman would emphatically say “Yes!” as he was talking to a known miracle worker. Yet, instead of answering in the positive, the man launches into a sad tale of how it was impossible for him to get healed because of this or that problem. The 38-years of pain had sucked his hope, faith and vision of the future to the point that he failed to see the victory right in front of him.

A lot of Jesus followers have been conditioned by our culture, world, church, family, friends, or even ourselves, to accept our addictions, pain and defeat. Perhaps there was a time when we cried out for victory, but, when it didn’t come, we gave up hope. We became like the gentleman sitting next to a pool of healing with no hope of victory. Instead of embracing the new life in Jesus and the destruction of sin that comes with following him, we become content with simply managing our sin. Sin management is where we become comfortable with certain sins, habits and/or addictions. We all excuse certain things in our lives that we know are not healthy and do not glorify God. Instead of trying to fight these actions or thoughts, we just manage them. We keep them under lock and key, perhaps indulge them a bit here and there, not enough to cause any problems, but just enough to take the edge off things.

As a pastor there were times when people would inform me that they were an alcoholic, twenty years dry. While I applaud the fact that they have acknowledged their addiction, I would get concerned about their sense of identity. It was almost as if their past addiction had defined them forever. It didn’t matter that they had not taken a drink of alcohol or gotten drunk in over a decade, they were still an alcoholic. Followers of Jesus fall into this same trap when they constantly define themselves as a sinner. Yes, I know we all sin, but the moment we bow our knees to Jesus and confess him as our Lord and King, we become a new creation. We are no longer sinners but saints! Our old identity has been removed and we are now part of a new family. To stop short of fully embracing the victory of the King is to slap him in the face. It is a huge dishonor to turn down the gift of the King and Creator of the universe.

Does this mean that we will be free from every bad thought, addictions or habit? Perhaps, perhaps not. It is not up to me to know the mind of God. What I do know is that Paul lived with a thorn in his side that was not taken away. Perhaps some of you reading this will have things in your lives that won’t go away. To you I say, fight and fight and never stop fighting! We live deep within enemy territory and have been called to advance the rule and reign of God into every area of this planet. To stop fighting is to give up on God and his mission. He is a trustworthy General who is leading an army in the invasion of this present evil age. We, his daughters and sons, have been trusted with the mission of fighting on the front lines. Let us never forget this: let us always continue to fight for the victory we know we have as daughters and sons of the Creator King.

Remember our gentleman at the pool of Bethesda? Jesus didn’t let him get away with all the excuses as to why he couldn’t get healed. Instead of turning around and walking away to someone else, perhaps someone with a bit more faith, Jesus simply says, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” He knew that God wanted to bring victory in the midst of the pain and he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Isn’t it wonderful that God doesn’t always listen to our excuses? Jesus wants us embrace the victory that come into the world through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Embracing the victory of God is to declare him the King over our circumstances. It is a war cry to the world around us that we will not settle for less than complete restoration of creation itself. We are the people of God who know without a doubt that our King will win, no matter what circumstances we may be in,. It was this mindset that caused the early believers to stand strong in the face of death itself, refusing to deny Jesus despite pain of torture or death by wild animals. And when the plagues came, the followers of Jesus refused to run away, choosing instead to care for the sick and the dying while knowing that staying most likely meant death. These believers understood that the victory belonged to King Jesus and no matter what the circumstances were, he was still the King of Kings.

It is now our turn to walk boldly in the victory of Jesus. We get the privilege of telling people that there is a new way to live and that there is victory from the pain of life. True, some people may push us away as they like living in their pain and darkness. That is okay, as they did that same thing to Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to draw them to Jesus, not yours! Our job is to proclaim that the kingdom of God is here! Go back and look at the command of Jesus: it was to proclaim that the day of the Lord, the new age of life had broken into human history. That is our message. We are saints who live in the tension of the here and not yet of the kingdom, embracing both the suffering and the victory that comes with pledging our lives to the Creator King.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, The Here and Not Yet (pages 92-94)

Embracing the suffering

It may sound crazy to say that we have to embrace the suffering this life throws at us. The thing is that if we ignore the pain or claim that we have victory over every pain, sorrow, or fiery dart from hell, then we have set ourselves up for even more pain. The reality is that there is a lot of pain and sorrow in the world today – rape, sickness, heartache, poverty, death, betrayal, bullying, addictions, and more. If we are going to live in this world, as we do, then we must know how to process the suffering and how to help others walk through it.

When I was in college someone told me that the reason that people got sick was because they had sinned against God. If they fully obeyed God, then they would never get sick. This person then backed up this claim by declaring that their good health was due to their standing before the Lord. As I stood there listening to this bold claim, I couldn’t help but think of Job.

The book of Job is perhaps the oldest book in the Bible and tells the story of Job who lived around the same time as Abraham. The story itself is a bit depressing as it details how Job, a follower of the Creator King, is attacked by the evil one and in a very short amount of time loses his children, wife, house, land, wealth and health. His friends show up and tell Job that all his problems are due to his sinful actions against God. Job refuses to accept this logic and cries out to God in an effort to find out what is happening. At the end of the book, God shows up and destroys the argument of Job’s friends. Then he turns to Job and instead of explaining everything, he asks Job where he was when the earth was formed and the seas were created. In other words, God is telling Job to stop trying to figure out the cause and effects of everything and start trusting Him.

This may sound like a cop-out to us in the modern age. We want everything to be logical and have a reason. We don’t like unsolved mysteries or cryptic statements of trust. Yet, if we think back to the very beginning, the Scriptures are clear that we are to trust the Creator King. This doesn’t mean – and please hear me loud and clear here – that God causes pain and suffering in our lives. Far from it! God is not the author of evil, suffering, pain or heartache. Everything negative and painful in our lives comes from three places: from our own poor decisions, attacks from the evil one or from effects of living in the present evil age. What the Creator King does, is to take all the pain and suffering we experience and transform it through the cross into something else. Something, dare I say, restorative and beautiful albeit scarred and wounded, like the nail scarred hands of Jesus.

Remember how I mentioned that my wife and I had experienced two miscarriages? Those miscarriages caused us considerable pain and heartache. We even started to doubt God and began to lose trust in him. Yet, through all the pain he taught us that people, even unborn babies, are worth loving even if the ending is full of pain. The lessons that my wife and I learned through the pain of the miscarriages helped us open up our hearts to our adopted son and to the child whom we had for only eleven days. Was the miscarriages part of God’s plan? I don’t think so! I think they were the results of frail bodies and fiery darts from the evil one. However, God took the pain of our lives and transformed it into something wholesome.

When I talk about embracing the suffering of living in the tension, this is what I mean: we have to let God take the sorrow of our lives and transform it into good. If we always focus on the victory passages of the Scriptures then we would never know how to live through the tough times. Similarly, if we only focused on the suffering portions, we would become depressed and miss seeing his mighty hand at work. We have to learn to live in the tension between both aspects of the Scriptures, trusting the Creator King who loves us more than we can ever know.

Another aspect of embracing suffering can be found in the life of Jesus. Philippians 2 talks about how Jesus freely emptied himself to become like us in every way. As such, he experienced a lot of pain and suffering that he did not have to. I’m not just talking about the cross and the physical pain that it bought. I’m talking about his stepdad dying, working long hard days to support his mother and young siblings, sweating under the hot sun, walking for miles upon miles across the desert, and sleeping on the ground. His brothers and sisters thought he was crazy, his friend betrayed him unto death and all his other friends abandoned him in his hour of need. On top of all this, Jesus had hundreds, if not thousands, of people trying to get his attention all the time, leaving him with very little time for himself. As a pastor, I can vouch for the emotional, spiritual and physical drain that comes with having people constantly coming up and looking for something from you! Yet Jesus embraced all this suffering as he knew that it was through the suffering that the reign and rule of God would break into human history.

When my wife and I were in our mid-twenties, we were invited to join a team of folks who were planning to start a new church in Sweet, Idaho, an hour’s drive north of Boise. At first we were just going to help out on Sunday evenings for about six months while the church got up and running. God, however, had different plans. One thing led to another and soon we were selling our house and moving to Sweet, to work with the church and love the community. The next nine years were full of joy, happiness, sorrow and heartache. It was hard giving up one lifestyle to embrace another. To go from riding a bicycle to work, to driving an hour each way; to go from a vibrant social life in the big city to embracing a slower pace of life among a predominantly retired community. Then there were the hours of volunteer work with the church, setting things up for the service, tearing it down, week in and week out, planning different events, etc.

I lost count of the times my wife and I sat in our living room, crying. The toil of starting a new church took its toll on us, stretching us to our limits and beyond. We were very low at the time and even discussed looking for pipes online so that we would be able to utilise the mood enhancing properties of cannabis. More than once we wanted to quit and run away. The only reason why we didn’t was because we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God had asked us to go to Sweet. And, since he was our King, we had to obey him until he released us from our job. This is suffering. This is the pain of the here and not yet of the kingdom of God. The pain that comes with obeying the Creator King and proclaiming his word to a world that does not want to listen.

Matthew 11:12 is a cryptic verse in which Jesus says, “From the time of John to Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been forcing its way in – and the men of force are trying to grab it!” (TKNT) We are in a battle between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. The moment you start proclaiming Jesus to the world, you had better watch out as you have just painted a target on your back. All hell is going to try to stop you from obeying the Creator King because the evil one does not want to let go of his territory. Yet, we have been called to fight the fight, to proclaim the kingdom of God into every nook and cranny of this world, regardless of the cost!

To embrace the suffering of the kingdom is to know that starting a church, loving the unlovable, working with the poor, helping those with addictions, or simply telling your neighbor about Jesus, all come with pain. There will be push back and, at times, negative consequences that come from obeying Jesus. You might experience sleepless nights, long days, emotionally-draining meetings, spiritual attacks, strained relationships, emotional and/or physical isolation, loss of income, and, perhaps even death. I am reminded of the calling of the prophet Jeremiah, who was told by God that the people of Israel would “fight against” him should he obey what God was telling him to do (Jeremiah 1:19). And the apostle Paul, who was shown by God “how many things he is going to have to suffer for the sake of [his] name” at the time he bowed his knees to the King (Acts 9:16).

We have to be willing to embrace the pain that comes with joining God on his mission. We have to be willing to step out and take a risk, to choose to love even though we know that we may be hurt. Too many followers of Jesus have hardened their hearts toward people because they have been hurt too much. They still serve but it is out of duty rather than love. We must keep a soft heart and remember that the pain is worth it. And in order to do that we must embrace the suffering of Jesus as our own.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, The Here and Not Yet (pages 90-92)

A “Perfect” God or a “Good” God?

The concept that “God is perfect” was borrowed by the church from Greek philosophy in the 2nd and 3rd centuries as the number of non-Jewish background believers increased. During this time the followers of the Jesus were subject to various persecutions by the officials of the Roman Empire. Church leaders sought to defend the Christian faith from those who persecuted them by using the same philosophical tools their enemies were using. Hence these church leaders adopted and built upon some of concept first promoted by Plato, Aristotle and others.

The idea that the divine has to be perfect comes from Plato who argued since the gods were the best in virtue and beauty, they could not change as changing would mean that they were not the best or perfect. A few church leaders picked upon Plato’s concepts of divine perfection and connected it to the God of the Scriptures. (As a side note, it is worth noting that Plato was responding to Heraclitus who thought that everything was in a constant state of change.)

The crazy thing is that the Hebrew Old Testament does not present the Creator as being perfect and unchanging, but rather good. God is good and it is his goodness that shines through in his interactions with humanity. The Psalms are full of statements along these lines (e.g. Psalm 100:5, Psalm 86:5). 1 Chronicles 16:34 is a famous example of the goodness of God: “O give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.”

The only verse that states that God is perfect is Matthew 5:48 where Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The context of this verse and the root meaning of the Greek word (τέλειος) translated as “perfect” allows for one to read this verse as, “You therefore must be mature, complete in moral character, as your heavenly Father is mature.”

If anything is perfect it is the ways of God (e.g. 2 Samuel 22:31, Psalm 18:30, Deuteronomy 32:4). It must be pointed out at this point that the Hebrew (תָּמִים) word translated as “perfect” in English can also mean “complete” or “whole.” Hence one could say that God’s ways are “whole, complete, blameless, without blemish.”

The focus on God’s goodness allowed the Old Testament writers to talk about the times when God changed his mind (e.g. Jeremiah 26:3, Exodus 32:14). Accordingly, under this mindset we see a good God who is willing to work with humanity in fulfilling his mission to redeem all of creation.

In saying that God changes his mind, folks will normally point to Malachi 3:6 (“I am Jehovah; I do not change”) and James 1:17 (“[God] does not vary or change like the shifting shadows.” My response would be to say that the nature of who God is does not change. He is good, he is loving, he is kind, he is merciful, and he will fulfill his promises. We do not need to worry about him giving up on us or throwing us to the side as a piece of trash as so many humans do to others.

Within Christianity there are streams of theology that are built upon the philosophical concept that God is “perfect” and “unchanging.” These traditions tend to focus on the holiness of God and how he has to keep his distance from the sinful and less-than perfect humans. To have or to be near a blemish is to have one’s perfectionism questioned, which cannot be allowed to happen because God is unchanging, holy, perfect, etc.

Other traditions use the goodness of God as their foundation. These traditions tend to see a Creator God who passionately pursues humanity even into the depths of sin so that he might redeem them. Though God is holy and blameless, he is not afraid of walking into the valley of death as he knows that sin and evil must flee from his presence.

Both groups, by the way, agree that the only way humanity is to be restored in relationship with God is through Jesus the Messiah. This is an open-handed issue that does not affect one’s position before God. Rather this is philosophical question about how we see and understand God. There have been great thinkers and awesome Jesus followers on both sides of the question of God being perfect or good.

Personally I fall on the side of focusing on the goodness of God as that is the God that I most readily see revealed in the person of Jesus. It also seems to be overwhelming view of God at display in the Old Testament. But there are those who disagree with me on this focus, and that is okay. 🙂

“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.” (Psalms 34:8, NIV)

Normal Christian Living

Growing up on a farm with cows, dogs, chickens and goats, my brother and I were hard on our shoes, forcing my father to take us shoe shopping every few months. And every time he always reminded us of his one rule: no white shoes as they would be quickly destroyed. One day, though, I was able to talk him into allowing me to buy a pair of white tennis shoes. I promised him that I would take good care of them and make sure they stayed white. This was a lofty promise as keeping a pair of white shoes white was like keeping the sun from rising! Yet my dad, most surely out of love as he knew that I would never be able to keep my promise, bought them for me.

Sure enough, it didn’t take very long before the shoes were covered with a layer of manure and mud. Going over to the water hose, I proceeded to spray the shoes down trying to find a patch of white in the midst of the brown dirt. After what seemed like hours, I finally had a pair of white tennis shoes! Rejoicing, I went into the house where in the bright lights I realized that the shoes were still more brown than white. Sighing deeply, I went into the bathroom and grabbed an old toothbrush. Sitting down beside the bathtub, I begin to scrub each of the seams with the toothbrush, trying to recover that original whiteness. There would be times when I thought I was through only to turn the shoe over and see a piece of mud stuck in a seam or a smear of brown gunk. It took forever – or at least it seemed like forever – to clean those shoes!

The Christian walk is like that.

The Creator God made us in his image as living declarations of his rule and reign. Living in the fallen world of evil, we quickly get covered in the mud and manure of life through our own actions, the actions of others or just because we happened to be there. No matter why, Jesus climbs down into the mud with us and picks us up, washing off the mud and restoring our relationship with him. At that point we are no longer the same people we once were.

After a while, we think that we are doing pretty well – I mean, we are no longer covered in mud. Then Jesus takes us inside the house and shows us all the mud and manure stuck to the seams of our lives. These are the heart issues, the things that no one else can see. Yet, the Creator King isn’t content with only cleaning the outside, he wants to clean every area of our lives so that we can truly live. As we allow him to do this, things start getting better. No more big pieces of mud; no more lying, stealing and drunkenness. At the same time, things are also getting harder. The cleaner we get, the more we realize how far we are from perfection. Our hearts break at things that we used to ignore. In the past, it was normal to bark out a harsh comment from time to time, or allow our minds to dwell on the physical appearance of someone of the opposite sex. Now our hearts break when we so much as think about such things.

To be faithful to our King and the Scriptures, we must fully embrace both the suffering and the victory of this life. We must not break this tension no matter how hard one side or the other will pull us. On the days that we are depressed and nothing is going right, we must remind ourselves that we are new joint heirs with Jesus and new creations under the new age of life. On the days when we are tempted to think that we have conquered all of our sins and addictions, let us remind ourselves that we are in process, that the light of Jesus can, and will, reveal to us the hidden faults tucked away in our inner hearts.

When we embrace both the here and the not yet of the kingdom of God, we enter a new place of life. We gain the freedom to confess our current sins and struggles to those around us, instead of hiding behind a façade of victory passages and promises. Neither do we have to wallow in the muck of depression trying to endure the pain of this world. We have the freedom to be real. If we mess up, then we admit it and move on. As a people living between the ages, we must learn to embrace the tension of the victory and suffering, the here and not yet. In doing so, we gain the freedom to be the people of God.

An excerpt from my book, The Here and Not YetPhysical book and e-book versions available at Amazon, iTunes, and other online bookstores.

What if Jesus had implemented a system of financial accountability?

Judas Iscariot

I was reading through the Gospel According to John when the following verse jumped out at me. (sadly this is a common event for books in the Unseen University library; hence the need for quick reflexes and a sharp knife – some of the books have claws after all!)

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:4-6, NIV)

Perhaps it was because of an earlier conversation with a new church planter about the need for financial accountability or just because of the way the clouds aligned that day, but I couldn’t stop a nagging thought from moving to the forefront of my mind:

What would happened if Jesus, the Man himself, had implemented a system of financial accountability within his traveling preaching group? Why, for example, didn’t he have Matthew, a former tax collector, double check the income and expense books? Why did he full financial authority to just one man?

Close behind these questions came another group of forbidden questions:

If Jesus had set up a system of financial checks and balances, would Judas have betrayed him? As in, did Judas – whom Jesus obviously trusted – start walking towards the dark side after he found himself in a position to skim a little money without anyone knowing? Or did his conversation to the dark side happen beforehand?

If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that even the most trustworthy person can be tempted by the dark side when put into a compromising position…. Hence my thought that Judas’ journey toward betrayal started with the simple act of taking a bit of coin on the side. 😕

Though we will never know the answer to these questions, we can learn from Jesus’ mistake and create a system of financial accountability. No matter how trustworthy a person is, it is never good to have one person in total control over the groups money. Let us, therefore, use some wisdom and make sure we keep the books clean and balanced (after all The Librarian likes his books well cared for – well that and bananas).

 

Update: Sigh… it seems that the internet doesn’t like my comment that we can “learn from Jesus’ mistake.” This post isn’t an attack on Jesus’ divinity or anything like that. Making a “mistake” doesn’t mean Jesus sinned; it just means that Jesus was like us – as the author of Hebrew says – and lived through all the things that we did. I’m sure Jesus as a child make some mistakes while working in the shop with Joseph or helping his mother. Making a mistake does not mean he is any less of who he is just like me making a mistake doesn’t change who I am.

I’m sure Jesus had a reason for giving Judas full control of the money; it may have even been something that was culturally appropriate at the time. I don’t know. All I know is that in reading the text, it seems that Jesus placed his trust in the wrong person and got betrayed for that choice. God turned a bad situation into something good – as he has a tendency to do. Jesus would have been betrayed by someone at some point as John 17:12 tells us that someone was “doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.”

Regardless of all this, I do believe that we can learn from what happened – hence this post. So please do not to turn this into something it is not. Thanks.