All things work together

lightbulbI had an epiphany this week.

Oddly enough, it was while listening to a podcast recorded on Epiphany, the day on which the liturgical church celebrates the appearance (unveiling, revealing) of Christ to humankind.

My light-bulb moment, however, wasn’t in any way related to the magi visiting baby Jesus nor was it inspired by the words found in the gospel text about the precious gifts they presented to him.

But it was about a gift: life. And it’s a precious gift that we often take for granted. Or we get side-tracked from living it because we’re caught up in trying to work out all the bad things that happen.

A loved one receives a terminal diagnosis.

A marriage breaks down.

A “sure thing” bet on the stock market collapses.

A house burns down.

A business fails.

In all these circumstances, we, as Christians, have had a terrible track record of glibly offering platitudes and cliché-ridden comfort to one another.

“God has a plan.”

“God is trying to teach you something.”

“All things work together for good.”

That last one really hits me because I’ve used it and heard it used so many times, thinking it was a simple affirmation that meant all would be well, or that this too will work out for the best in my life.

Then the light switch was turned on.

All things work together.

Good things. Bad things. Health. Sickness. Happy times. Sad times. Life. Death.

All things work together.

Those life events that stress us, debilitate us, humiliate us, frustrate us, weaken us, work together with those circumstances that encourage us, heal us, empower us, bring us joy and strength.

All things work together.

And this statement that we can find in Romans 8, verse 28, does not mean that all will work out well in the end. Nor does it mean that everything we experience results in what is best for us. It simply means that all things we experience work together and, for us, this is good.

That loved one with the cancer dies.

That divorce still happens.

Our credit record may never recover.

We may find ourselves living in poverty.

This verse is not a cure-all, grief-healing, success-guaranteeing platitude. It is s statement of fact.

Life is a gift. We may choose to focus on the bad or, like Pollyanna, be happily optimistic about everything we face. This does not alter the truth that life is still a gift.

And whether it be good or bad, happy or sad, it is still a precious gift.

And like the gift of all of God’s creation, it is good.

Resurrection Happens

IMG_1444Easter is a very conflicted occasion.

  • Pagan festivals and church processions.
  • Eggs and crosses.
  • Bunnies and burials.
  • Lilies and grave clothes.
  • Chocolate and empty tombs.

Then there is the question of reality–did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is there evidence beyond the Bible for this supernatural event? Is Scriptural evidence sufficient?

Regardless of our responses to these questions, there is a broader question that we ought to be asking: Is thee a wider truth that we can draw from the Easter story that speaks to us on a more universal, meaningful level?

Listen to the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” 

It doesn’t take that much imagination to put ourselves into the story of these disciples. “We had hoped. Our dreams were in him. Our future was in his hands. Now he’s gone.”

Are you feeling hopeless today? Do you feel that you cannot go on? Is the burden you carry great, and the pain too intense? Is the healing just not happening, the sorrow too much for you?

Here is the truth of Easter: God is in the resurrection business. 

The very first words of Scripture speak of God making new life out of chaos. The creation poem tells us that God spoke there was light.  The waters separated (the ancients believed above the sky was a water-dome called in Genesis ‘the firmament’). The dry land appeared. Fish and animals, human beings, plants and trees all came into being out of the chaos of ‘the deep.’

Some of the last words in Scripture state in simple words God’s grand plan: “Behold I make all things new.” From the chaos this world has become, resurrection will happen and new life–a renewed creation–will spring forth.

Whether or not we believe in a literal resurrection should not prevent us from drawing deeper meaning from this widely-accepted Christian narrative.

Resurrection–new life–is happening around us every day. It’s never too late to begin again. God is even now, in all-embracing love and grace, making all things new.

And this can be true for you too.

There is hope. The power of Christ’s resurrection is at work. The Spirit of God is moving amongst your chaos, speaking light into darkness, strength into weakness and new life into hopelessness.

Resurrection happens! 

And resurrection can happen for you.

The Modified Christian

Vine-Branches“I am the vine; you are the branches.” – John 15:5

I’m frustrated with the many labels we attach to Christianity in order to modify its meaning. I know why we do it, of course. I do it myself. I want to explain to someone that I am “this kind” of Christian and not “that kind” of Christian.

So one might refer to “Progressive Christianity,” or “Red Letter Christians,” or “Emergent,” or “Liberal Protestant,” or “Evangelical and Liberal,” or “Generously Orthodox.”

And then there are the other terms, that sometimes get thrown like rocks.  “Bible Believing,” “Jesus Following,” “Christ Centered,” “Seeker Sensitive,” all of which seem to imply that there are other misbehaving churches that are not.

At this point, I want to throw all the modifying words out. They just don’t do our faith justice. Any of our faiths.

First, many of the terms are based in the broken vocabulary of the right and the left. Do we really want to preserve the old paradigms of “liberal” and “conservative?” They haven’t served us well in politics. Why would we think they would be anything but divisive in the church?

Next, many of the terms are about trying to be new or edgy. Every generation of the church has its reformers and they have all suffered from a certain terminal uniqueness that they are the new big and best thing to rock the church. But if they ever get a toe hold, those names will seem silly. How long can we be emerging, progressing and seeking before we just admit that we’re a church?

These days, I am increasingly frustrated with the modifying labels and the phony boxes those adjectives put Christians into. If anything is going to modify the definition “Christian,” it is not going to be that one perfect adjective. It will be the people. Weirdly diverse, unpredictable, saved and broken, how we treat each other will determine if the word Christian can have room for us all.

For all the odd wings and vocal varieties of church in the world, even the ones that drive us crazy . . . we pray for them all. And in doing so, we pray for ourselves. Amen.

– Reflection by Lillian Daniel from StillSpeaking

Culture Cultivators

Following on from my post yesterday, I think Andy Crouch hits the nail on the head with this quote:

I wonder what we Christians are known for in the world outside our churches. Are  we known as critics, consumers, copiers, condemners of culture? I’m afraid so.

Why aren’t we known as cultivators-people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren’t we known as creators–people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?

— Andy Crouch, as quoted in MINEmergent

I really take to that phrase, “people who dare to think and do . . . something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful.” Don’t we all aspire to be the kind of people who strive for this goal? And shouldn’t this also include the Church? After all, making God’s family more “welcome, thrilling and beautiful” would go miles towards actually fulfilling the commission of Jesus.

Thy Will Be Gun

I found this video on YouTube via Jonny Baker’s blog. The link was retweeted numerous times by my friends on Twitter with comments such as “This is the best sermon I ever heard and this guy isn’t even a Christian.”

Have a look: Warning: Contains some course language.

While I wouldn’t say the content is as relevant for Australian Christians as for those of the American Evangelical variety, it does reflect a sadly growing trend here.

It raises another question that needs to be asked: What ARE we known as in the broader community? Crackpots? Lunatics? Or do they see us as simply poorly-informed, ignorant people?

Or . . . are we the exception who dare to see God at work amongst every person we meet, every situation we encounter, and jump at the chance to join God in this work?

*   *   *   *   *

I downloaded a podcast this week from a nearby church. Call it curiosity. I have seen the church advertised and know a few who attend it, and I wanted to see what it was all about.

Listening, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the statements that were being made. In all, only two verses were quoted, yet numerous times the pastor declared, “God says” or “The Bible says.”

He was speaking about worldviews and how we ought to have a Christian and Biblical worldview as opposed to a worldview that didn’t acknowledge God. It seemed to me that he was, first of all, preaching to the choir based on the sometimes wild response from the congregation.

It also appeared that he was presenting a partial, incomplete (and uninformed) perspective which was black-and-white, right-and-wrong, truth-or-lie. There was not, in his opinion, any room for a worldview that acknowledged God yet also respected latest scientific advances in the areas of evolutionary theory and the makeup of the universe. After all, he assured his listeners, increasing numbers of scientists are turning to accepting a literal six-day creation and, likewise, there is a trend of growth in the numbers of atheists turning to a belief in God.

I haven’t seen this. In fact, my experience seems to be the opposite. I don’t know where he got his information, but it was certainly what the congregation wanted to hear.

And this brought to mind another verse which (surprisingly) is used by many to warn people like me against listening to supposed “heretics:”

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3 NIV)

Judging by the “Amens” and “That’s rights” I heard throughout the sermon, I’m wondering . . . Who has the itching ears? Could it be that those under the teaching of this man could simply be looking for validation for their own preconceived ideas? Is it possible that people go to a church to be affirmed in their beliefs rather than to be shown a new way to believe?

Judging by the video clip and the podcast experiences, I would say as resounding “Yes.”

How can we break down this way of thinking and replace it with a more seeking, searching, learning, and growing–and inviting–way of being what is called “Christian”?

The Greenhouse

I tuned in this morning to the Monday evening session of Bob Jones University‘s annual Bible Conference. I heard a beautiful new hymn being sung (His Robes for Mine), although, personally, I have questions about some of the phrases used. The singing of a crowd of 7,000 was awesome on And Can It Be. The brass choir was brilliant. Then there was the preacher, Dr Craig Scott from an Independent Baptist Church in Denver, Colorado, who spoke from Judges chapter 2 about the verse:  “There arose a generation who knew not God.”

While I listened at my computer and accomplished the duties of my own work on this side of the globe, my mind wandered to 25 years ago when I was sitting in those same seats. What struck me with a profound intensity was this one realisation: things haven’t changed. Yes, there was a new hymn, and that was refreshing (Some chords were even used in that hymn that were not permitted to be used in sacred music during the time when I attended BJU–Amazing!). But the overall tone, style, and substance was exactly the same as I recall.

The speaker preached about the importance of teaching  children to submit to authority–yours and God’s, and the importance of bringing them up in an environment that was sheltered and separate from the [evil] world. They needed to be brought up to know God and serve him alone. The risk of not doing so was to have children who would leave home at 16 and fall into sin, do drugs, drink and waste their life in sin.

I know in the context of what was being said, the preacher was emphasising what a great place Bob Jones was for these students to be in, where they could learn and grow untainted by the outside world, and become the next generation of God-fearing, Bible-preaching, soldiers of Christ.

I also know that, having been brought up in the Christian greenhouse ourselves, Vicki and I decided early on that we would teach our children the Bible and encourage them to follow Jesus in their own lives (and, potentially, in their own way). This was and still is important to us. We sheltered them only until we could see they could stand on their own and make good choices for themselves. We didn’t shield them from the consequences of those choices, because this is how they learned to make better choices.

I am proud of the way my kids today know right from wrong, are able to make decisions that are founded on a well-rounded understanding. I am glad that they know what the world offers and have learned to see through the glamour and glitz of its culture. I am thrilled when they personally voice their own opinions on issues, events, and what they see around them because this means they are not in a cocoon, hearing (and heeding) only our voice.  I still encourage them to follow Jesus and hope (and pray) they will do so throughout their lives.

I believe they could not be who they are today if we had kept them in a bubble, sealed in from all that has the possibility of corrupting them.

This is because I believe God is stronger.

Much as I would have many times liked to take the reigns and say an absolute, authoritarian, Bible-based “No” to my children, I have withheld my need to control. Instead, I entrust them into the care and guidance of an all-powerful, wise and loving God. My judgment is not always that great, but God’s is perfect. My motives may sometimes be for reputation or what others may think, but God’s are pure love.

I thank my alma mater for all I am today. Honestly, I couldn’t be where or who I am without the four years of input from BJU. The time in the greenhouse kept me from growing in many ways, but helped me blossom in others. I did have a time of rebellion when I finally escaped from the greenhouse, but God never left me or gave up on me.

Today, I don’t agree with their seperatist position or their fundamentalist view of Scripture and all that entails. But I do agree wholeheartedly that it is important to have a foundation for my life that is beyond myself, and for that reason my desire for myself and my family is for a life-journey with God as closest companion and knowing God the greatest goal of all.

How that happens? I’ll do my best to be there, give advice and guidance. I’ll pray for my kids. But in the end it is between them and God. I’m leaving it in God’s more-than-able hands.

As We Begin our Pilgrimage Through Lent

Today marks the start of the 40-Day period of reflection and repentance known as Lent. This morning, as part of our staff prayer, we received the mark of ashes on our foreheads as a symbol of repentance. Commenting on this, Marianne (our school’s Director of Spirituality) summed up the Lenten experience with one word: Wilderness. Whether we think of wilderness as a time of testing, a time of retreat, or a time of journey, it describes what Lent means to the millions of Christians who observe this season each year.

Lent is a time to confess our sins. It’s also a time to “go deep” into our lives as we reflect on what our sins may look like. They may not all be obvious on the surface. In fact, Brian McLaren writes that we may be blind to many ingrained (or inherited) sins:

This blindness (itself a kind of social sin) explains why in many churches in my childhood, people could passionately confess certain personal sins (within polite categories) – dishonesty, greed, jealousy, and so on – but remain absolutely oblivious to our racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, environmental irresponsibility, homophobia, nationalism and denominational pride – not to mention the sins of our ancestors that created structures of privilege that we took for granted. (from Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words. HarperOne, 2011, Chapter 9)

It may be that we haven’t even seriously considered that certain thoughts, actions, ways of speaking about others, or prejudices could be sin. Be honest: If we consider something sin, then it means this too must be acknowledged, confessed, repented of, and forsaken–and we may not wish to forsake certain sins . . . so we ignore them, or make excuses for them: “My family has always thought this way,” “I can’t help it,” “That’s just who I am.”

Lent is a time in which we invite God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to be our companion in the wilderness, journeying with us, conversing with us (are we listening?), and changing us to be more like we were created to be.

What does Lent mean for you?

Is there one word which would sum up your journey during this time?

I close with two prayers: one being the Collect for Ash Wednesday and the second being a prayer of repentance.

Almighty and everlasting God
You hate nothing that you have made
And forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
Create and make in us new hearts
That, lamenting our sins
And acknowledging our helplessness,
We may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
Perfect forgiveness and peace;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit;
One God, now and forever.

Father Eternal, giver of light and grace,
We have sinned against you and against our neighbour
In what we have thought,
In what we have said and done
Through ignorance, through weakness,
Through our own deliberate fault.
We have wounded your love
And marred your image in us.
We are sorry and ashamed
And repent of our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us,
Forgive all that is past;
And lead us from darkness to walk as children of light.