Sunday, September 18, 2011

Newness of Life in the Good News of the Kingdom

I recently heard a sermon on the text in John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus, and what angle the preacher took with the story has sat in my mind for some time now. I cannot shake the truth of it and feel a need to gnaw awhile on it in hopes to have it become a part of me, to shape me and transform me into a more godly man. The preacher taught on the attentiveness of Jesus in the story as a key aspect of his ministry. Let's explore here together the importance of being present in the moments and events we find ourselves.

Why would Jesus weep over Lazarus' death when He knew the end of the story, that Lazarus would live? We know from earlier in the story (11, 14-15) that Jesus deliberately postponed going to Bethany where Lazarus was ill, in order to allow Lazarus to die, so that He could revive him four days after passing (truly a miraculous display of Jesus' power and glory). If Jesus knew the end game, should he have shed tears for such a loss that ultimately would be reversed? Imagine you had the supernatural ability to foresee when a loved one would die, and this person got in a horrible car accident. Would you doubt whether they would survive this trauma if your vision of their real death was still far off? No. It is not their time to die, so you would trust they'll pull through. The emotional charge of that moment, due to the uncertainty of what's to come, becomes neutralized by the foreknowledge. You know, now that I think about it, it is quite wonderful that we cannot know the fate of our lives, for I think we would be tempted to further disengage in our lives, being distracted by what is to come and preoccupied so heavily with the future that we miss the present. But I digress.

Why was Jesus "deeply moved and greatly troubled"? This gospel account reports that Jesus was violently agitated on two different occasions within this scene, first upon Mary's lament and weeping at their meeting, then upon going to and seeing the tomb. This word in the Greek has connotations of the act of a wild beast snarling and growling in anger. I can think of only three options to explain it: the author could be wildly dramatizing Jesus reaction, Jesus could be a fantastic actor and puts on a show (because let's be honest, if He knew what was to come, this behavior seems a little bit over the top), or Jesus was having an authentic response to the death and emotion of the event and what impact it was having on the community. Of course, the first two options are false in that it's completely out of character for both the author and Jesus to compromise the accuracy and authenticity of their account and character (respectively).

But why was Jesus so upset? It's simple yet profound. He fully entered the moment and allowed Himself to experience and feel the present. In seeing the grief and sorrow of Lazarus' sister Mary, Jesus wept with those who wept. He had and expressed empathy. In seeing the grave - the tomb - Jesus angrily groaned over the reality of death. I am reminded of the Genesis account where God created life, and breathed life into humanity. The fact that death exists, that sin entered the equation and mettles with His good plan for life and flourishing, greatly angered Jesus. Death and decay is not good. In God's plan in creating immortal beings, death is abnormal and contrary to His intentions for us.

I cannot help but think about my Grandpa, who after recently falling and cracking his top vertebra, has had complications and returns to the hospital. His recovery is very slow; it is uncertain whether he will recover, if he has the strength to pull through. He is, after all, ninety one years old; he has had a fantastic run, living an honorable life, full of sacrificial service to country and family, a model of steadfast devotion and loyalty. I admire Grandpa George immensely.

I also cannot help but think Grandpa George despises death too. I have picked up over the years how frustrating the aging process has been for him, needed new knees, keeping up with dozens of daily medications, worrying about whether his wife will fall again and do more damage than before. I don't blame him. I think this account of Jesus here in John 11 gives us permission to loathe death. It is, in a weird, paradoxical way, unnatural.

What should we learn from this story? For sure, physical death is not the end. Martha was right that there is a resurrection on the last day, when all will rise again (11:24). Whether you arise an "immortal horror or an eternal splendor" (C. S. Lewis), depends on whether or not you know and are known by the Almighty.

But there is more: I think Jesus shows us by example how we are to engage the trials of this world. He is not absent in thought and emotion, constantly preoccupied with shame of the past or anxiety for the future; nor does He flee all consciousness with distraction, intoxication or escapism. No. He fully engages every moment and experiences it all. He is present with people and prepared to offer Himself fully to all present. His relationships are rich. His interactions have significant and transformative impact on others.

What would it look like to embrace the present as the people of God, a Holy Nation? What if our attentiveness to the present was a key aspect to functionally becoming set us aside to be different and significant for God's purposes - His purposes of ushering in a new order to this existence? I pray this for my Grandpa, that in the midst of his pain, frustration and fear, he may press into the rawness of his experience and find there the Gracious God who knows the pain of death because He walked through it Himself and came out the other side, and in finding Him there, find the gift of His comfort and peace through the Holy Spirit to eventually enter this temporary death boldly and joyfully. I pray he knows God to be that loving and caring and gracious, that he can trust God to be enough for all that temporarily ails him. I pray it for my dad and my uncle, who face losing their dad, and in the meantime, need to figure out what to do for their mom so she receives the support she needs and will need. I pray it for my Grandma Janice, that she can boldly face the severity of their state - how awful it is - and that she can lean on the promises of the newness of life in Christ that's available even now in part (and fully after death) and be comforted, knowing a peace that surpasses all understanding.

And I pray it for you and me, that in all of our lives' circumstances, we courageously embrace the moments we've been given and cease to cheat those in our lives of the gift of our whole beings. It takes a radical reliance on the presence of God and His power in us to operate this way... that was God's intent all along. I look forward to the day when the people of God learn to walk in this holy way, more fully trusting God and themselves with what power we've been bestowed as bearers of His Spirit to share ourselves with the world and recreate new life in the broken and dying world. This is the Kingdom of God that is advancing. This is the Good News which is changing the world.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Grace Amidst Desolation

I have had one of the most unsettling, unproductive seasons of my life these last several months. It has been marked by discouragement, frustration, distraction, unrest, confusion, and occasionally despair.

Essentially, I have needed to be progressing with the writing of my thesis in order to finish and complete my graduation requirements for my Master's come October. At first, I attempted to plug away and get things done, but there came a point where I was so discouraged, so unfocused, that I stopped trying, and walked away from the whole process for over a month. Part of it was writer's block, part was that life just got incredibly messy, and I needed to move (and of course, looking for a new place, not finding one until two weeks after losing your current place, having everything in storage, needing to move in two stages, etc. does not at all lower the stress any). Yesterday, I was processing with my girlfriend Cary, and realized that a good portion of my disengagement in my academics was due to the fact that I am petrified of what is next. To finish is to be forced to move forward with life. I have no idea what that entails; the sin in me, my flesh, wants to have control of this when there is none to be had. It is God's territory, the future, and my disengagement was my fearful attempt to control the situation, even if it meant pain and costly misfortune financially... Funny how immature and selfish we can be.

As I resolved to break from academics, to rest in failing, I asked God to be with me in the process. He has been very faithful. I have not experienced the level of perceived condemnation that I would normally have taken upon myself in such failure. I almost feel as if God gave me permission to disengage from being responsible, from performing as one ought. This time has been an exercise in receiving grace, and His pardon has been full and sufficient. I have known it especially well through the love and support of those around me, those in my church and Cary.

I think there is a precedent of God working in this way, found in the story of Israel. Jewish history is riddled with occasion after occasion of them missing the mark, yet God remains faithful to them as a people and ultimately He "will banish ungodliness from Jacob" and "take away their sins" through the Deliverer (Romans 11:26-27). I have entered a season of completely missing the mark and have been met with acceptance and grace. I have not yet known such love as I am experiencing through this time. God truly has been using this season of my life, this wandering in the desert, to show me how enduring is His love, that He would send me manna from above, provide water from a rock, protection from poisonous snakes as I gaze upon the one lifted up.

I think my heart is nearly ready for the promised land, that next chapter of life marked by blessing and abundance, homecoming and joy and victory. I needed to fail, wander, and ponder my own ineffectiveness that I may press more into the provision of God. I'm not out of it yet, but I faintly see the dawn breaking.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

What's that smell ?!

"When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered · the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls · bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory" -Marcel Proust "The Remembrance of Things Past"

As I was running yesterday, listening to worship music and often singing along through panting breaths, lifting my hands in praise, I was occasionally bombarded by the wafts of lilacs in bloom. It was intoxicating. I instantly wanted to dance, to hug a stranger, to kiss away tears; life was just too grand in that moment - the Spirit too whelming - to be burdened with the worries and fears of this world. It smelled like Heaven on earth. It smelled like the Kingdom of God had fully broken forth into our world and abundant, eternal life was realized.

The apostle Paul illustrates the phenomenon of Christians living out their identity in generous love, describing it as the aroma of Christ (2 Cor. 2:14-16; Eph. 5:1-2; Phil. 4:18). He most likely associated this aroma with the animal sacrifices made at the Temple, i.e. barbeque. While I love the scent of meat roasting on a fire, this sacrifice of self-denying love toward others seems better suited to be associated with Spring flowers. There is something about the unique sweetness of flowers, paired with the vibrant colors of Spring to usher in the declaration of new life. With God's Kingdom coming, marked by New Life in Christ, I trust the aroma of Christ from His Bride will overpower the stench of death that emits from this evil world.

This is the picture the Spirit gave me as I ran in Christ. As we live out our identity as Christ's spotless Bride, our aroma will captivate those being saved. I pray as we Christians walk in freedom, we will smell the aroma of Christ, and remember the long legacy of the Saints, joining them throughout history in praise to our God, the Redeeming One. Bride, remember His promise to quickly bring justice to His chosen ones. Be diligent in prayer for His Kingdom to reign over the earth. Like a familiar smell can bring back to mind the most ancient of memories, allow your sacrifice to God to be the aroma of Christ, calling to mind the faithfulness and steadfast love of our God, the reason for our devotion, the source of our holiness.

M. Robertson

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kingdom Came!

When I left my house to go to the coffee house to read and see my girlfriend, I had not expected to be kissed by a 57 year-old Vietnam Vet, homeless and carrying a tall can of beer under his clothes. Twice.

It all started when "Laughlin" (like the city) asked me in passing for just a dollar, to buy a blanket, and I gave him five (had no change). Leaving, he said, "God bless you." I seriously doubt he knew that God would, that very moment, do just that. I said the same, but added, "Can I pray for you?" Laughlin either did not hear me or didn't understand, because I had to repeat myself twice. Once he understood my offer, he gratefully came to sit down beside me, and in a fervor, grasped my hands and began to pray, caressing my hands with his crackled ones. He started by declaring a most profound truth, that when two or more are gathered, there the Church is. He said it over and over as if to convince himself that indeed the Church had the answers to his problems. He continued to pray for forgiveness. He even professed faith in Jesus as the source of redemption. I sensed it was quite heart-felt, and I knew then there was more to do with him that night.

When he was done, I prayed over him, and declared forgiveness over him. He heaved emotionally, as if the words struck him tangibly. For so long, he longed to hear such good news.

When we were done praying, there was still great distress on his face. I asked him what was going on inside him, and he just began sharing his life. At that moment, he really missed a good friend, Martin. He had died. He told me that he was his closest friend and partner, as Laughlin is a bisexual. This did not deter me from staring straight into his eyes to show my acceptance of him. I felt like God wanted me to be Christ for him, and I know these are the ones Jesus flocked to. He also told me how he was dishonorably discharged from the Vietnam War for refusing to fight. He went into the war, having to serve two years, because of a drug charge; it was either jail or war, and he chose war for fear of being raped. Wouldn't you know, he ended up in jail anyways, and the pattern of serving time, being released, and falling back into trouble continued. His largest stint of some 18 years occurred when he did an errand for his drug dealer, by holding a gun to another users head as the dealer searched the apartment to collect on a debt. Well, the guy tried to grab the gun from Laughlin and it went off, killing him.

You can expect that Laughlin was not in a place to have much hope for his eternal security, let alone hope for this life. He prayed for the bare minimum, enough to just get by. I questioned that idea, asking whether he thought God wanted to give him more. I began to share the gospel of God's Kingdom, how Jesus desired release for the captives, and that His people walk in freedom now.

I think it was around then that another joined us. "Amal" was another guy living on the streets that broke into our conversation by asking me what Church I went to. He had not heard of it, and was roaming more of the downtown area, farther north from where I attend. He joined us and conversation bounced back and forth between how hard it is to be on the streets (and some good resources they knew of on how to get by) and the gospel of the Kingdom. I shared with them both from Mark 1:15: "The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" I described that God's will was that now, with the coming of His Son to earth, Heaven would crash down into this world, and His ways would be known and lived out, bringing peace and justice.

Amal slipped away to grab his coffee. He eventually left after using my phone to call another Christian guy who was going to put him up for the night. It was in those times that I was able to share more of the Father's heart for the poor in spirit. I gave Laughlin my Bible and told him to read Luke, but with eyes looking to who Jesus sought after. He knew the answer already; he said the lowest of the low. I hope and pray he meditates on that truth, as he still doubts his chances of being redeemed from the pit. I shared Psalm 103 with him too. Right before we parted, we exchanged email addresses. He made me promise that I stay in touch and "continue to water the seed that I planted tonight." I assured him that I will, but encouraged him with one last scripture: “Sing about a fruitful vineyard: I, the LORD, watch over it; I water it continually. I guard it day and night so that no one may harm it. I am not angry." The Father is the vinedresser; He watches over and tends to the health of the vine's growth.

After that first prayer of absolving sin, Laughlin embraced my head and kissed my temple. When we at last parted, he embraced and kissed me again. He said I was one of the most beautiful souls he had ever seen.

I don't know if I'll see Laughlin again in this life. I'd like to think I will sit by him at the wedding banquet on that glorious day when Christ returns for His Bride. I tried emailing him at both addresses he gave me, but they didn't go through. I wanted to share with him from 1 John, how God is perfecting us in His love, that I saw God's hand on his life and that he should be encouraged and hopeful of the favor God has on him as a beloved son. It is a truth I am coming to know greatly. It is a truth that gave me the confidence to offer to pray for him as he was walking away, probably to go buy beer. Instead we spent a few hours in Church fellowship.

My friends, I experienced the Kingdom of God crash down into this world, where brokenness began to mend. His Kingdom came! And it is humbling to acknowledge it was me God chose to use. Bride of Christ, do you know who you are? Do you walk in your identity? Gaze into the eyes of your Lover to see how beautifully you are received. Walk in the freedom into which that love releases you. Give feet to the good news of our redemption and restoration, and captivate our discontent and jaded audience with your dance to our Father. It's time to shine.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Is greater effectiveness in attaining the abundant life possible?

There are several biblical principles that are quite familiar to any practicing Christian but I believe are seldom understood to a substantially beneficial degree. I have read hundreds of times Jesus' metaphor of the Vine and branches, illustrating the principle of Abiding in Christ; I can tell you much about it, but I'm afraid I do not do it well at all. This same familiarity applies to the concept of the Kingdom of God. Around 50 percent of the parables of Jesus describe in some sense this reality. Do I operate throughout life with any semblance of concern for such a reality, however? To name one example of thousands, do I get in my car and commute to work/school in such a way where I intentionally promote/advance the Kingdom of God, or is this concept (like Abiding) so ethereal - so intangible - that I simply understand on an elementary level, not at all living it out proactively?

This leads to the issue of self-evaluation. I trust the occasional examination of one's spiritual health is necessary, and albeit I am my own worst critic, I hunger for more growth, more godliness more often than not. All said and done, I look upon my life and fear what little progress I see toward maturity and obedience will be my condemnation.

Trust that even as I wrote this confession, I recall the mercy and faithfulness of God, and feel my words are more weighty than are accurate. Grace is radical acceptance, for which I am humbly grateful. I trust positionally, I am holy and blameless, in God's favor and secure. Practically, as I display holiness and godliness as an ambassador to Christ, I desire to do more. As a member of God's family, I desire more intimacy; I desire that that truth resonate and shape my life more than it does.

Now I have arrived at my proposition. It is not my own, but one I adopt as it aligns with Scripture.

What if the abundant life (marked by intimacy with God), is attainable if only we understood the principle of Abiding more clearly? What if Abiding was the key to our greatest concerns as Christians: to love God and others (Great Commandment), and to make disciples (Great Commission)? What if the Kingdom of God was here now - not just something to look forward to when Christ returns - but able to participate in now, as we grow in Christ-likeness? Could our bondage to the patterns of this world (Satan's reigning Kingdom marked by sin and death) truly be abolished in Christ, as He claimed He did? Could we experience significant freedom from sinful ways? Could living this freedom out in the world be what Jesus meant by us being salt and light to the world? Could we see a dramatic shift (and, in fact, participate in the cause) so that the world is controlled not by evil, but is submissive to God's righteous standard (cf. Ephesians 3:10)?

I want to explore these ideas. I want to test whether this is a forecast for how God intends to usher in the New Age, or if significant bondage and mediocrity are what we have to look forward to in this life. But mainly, I want (nay I need) help in learning how to abide in Christ. I need the Body of Christ (you fellow believers) in order to do this. Is this not just describing discipleship, an element to our faith so often left ambiguous on how to do it well?

If you are curious, passionate, confused, knowledgeable, etc. of such things as these, will you consider joining me to study and grow? I want to facilitate a Bible Study where your processing and interaction is just as important as any content I may compile and present.