God first: The best excuse since ‘The woman you gave me made me do it’

J-O-Y, J-O-Y this shall surely be:
Jesus first
Yourself last
And Others in between.

I remember singing this song in Sunday School at a very young age and thinking that it was only natural for me to put Jesus first since he had given everything for me. Remember, this was all done from within the context of belief that my life was worthless and in me was no good to be found. Even with the redeeming power of Jesus, a human being was still said to be a worthless wretch, a ‘worm,’ nothing.

So this was the path to Joy: learn your priorities.

*  *  *  *  *

I recall when one of my College mates got married, he had the intention (and believed he had a calling from God) to be a pastor and thought he had found the ideal pastor’s wife. On his wedding day he told his bride that God was first in his life and that meant she would always take second place to his ministry.

That marriage lasted less than a year.

*  *  *  *  *

A few months ago I had a short chat with the head of a global missionary organisation. I appreciated his commitment to the work and what he and his mission had done through planting self-perpetuating and self-funding local churches around the world.

But when he spoke of the cost of mission work, it seemed the family made little difference. If a child died overseas because of lack of proper medical care while the parents were doing ‘God’s work,’ that was something to be proud of–a badge of honour to prove how God was first in everything. It was an example for the local ministers and congregations to follow.

*  *  *  *  *

Another story caught my attention the other day of a young man, the son of a prominent Evangelist, who was now writing a book about his journey into atheism. One major theme encompasses his story: in his family, God was always first (‘God’ being his father’s evangelistic ministry). Dad was never home. Dad spent more time ‘winning souls’ than nurturing those in his own house.

*  *  *  *  *

Isn’t it interesting to hear pastors, evangelists, Christian writers, leaders speak about putting God first and then equating this to giving to their particular ministry, mission or cause. In a local church this takes the form of showing up for every church activity 3 or 4 nights a week plus Sunday morning. To a televangelist, this could mean sacrificing that holiday, present or bill money to further their ‘outreach.’

My aunt was a dedicated follower of Jerry Falwell. As I recall, Falwell had a fundraising campaign sometime around 1980 in which he would send everyone who made a donation to his ministry a ‘Jesus First’ pin. My aunt sent in a donation for each of us so we would all have a ‘Jerry Jesus First’ pin to wear with pride.

*  *  *  *  *

‘Put God first and your family will never suffer need.’

I familyam believing with more and more conviction every day that when you put your family first, you are putting God first. Your family has been entrusted to you by God. God does not desire to be worshiped or served at their expense.

Your family is your first ministry.

St Paul writes about this when he calls those who do not provide for their own family ‘worse than an unbeliever’ and says of these, ‘They have denied the faith.’

I believe this is more than simply a roof over their heads, food on the table, and clothes on their backs.

If you neglect your family, you are neglecting God.

I would go so far as to say that if you do not consider your own family as your first and foremost service to God, you are simply making excuses for your choice to be an absent father or mother.

I would be even bolder to declare that many in Christian ministry truly believe that, if they were not to ‘forsake all and follow Christ,’ they would find themselves in great judgement. Because of fear, they serve God to the detriment of their own household, believing the end justifies–requires–this. After all, saving someone’s soul for eternity is far more important than playing basketball with my son.

Perhaps, they have the mistaken notion that God will one day demand of them: ‘What have you done for me?’

And they, like Adam, hanging their head in shame, will reply, ‘The family you gave me, Lord–they kept me from pursuing whole-hearted service for you.’

And God will say to them: ‘The family I gave you–service to them was serving me.’

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.‘ (Matthew 25:40, NRSV)

Embracing Imperfection

One of the often-sung hymns in my early life was one entitled, ‘Yield Not to Temptation.’ The driven-in thought pattern which accompanied such singing went something like this:

‘You cannot be a good Christian if you sin.’

You cannot expect other people to want to become Christians if you don’t show you have victory over the world, the flesh and the devil.’ (or, ‘You can sin as much as you want, but don’t you dare let it be known.’)

‘Your number one aim in life is to avoid doing whatever may even appear to be evil so you can maintain a good testimony in the world.’

The words of the song provided the perfect backdrop for such a lifelong drama:

Yield not to temptation
For yielding is sin
Each victory will help you
Some other to win

Sin avoidance was the key to a successful and ‘victorious’ life, and, through this seemingly-successful life, others would be drawn to Christ.Sometimes God chooses to shine forgiveness and love through the broknness and imperfections in our life.*

Yet, the more I understand Jesus, and the more I am exposed to people who are sincere followers of his way, the more I see imperfection as being the cracks through which the love of God can shine–windows through which God’s forgiveness can be seen.

Richard Rohr writes of this ‘losing’ lifestyle thus:

One reason why I am so attracted to Jesus and then to Francis is that they found God in disorder, in imperfection, in the ordinary, and in the real world—not in any idealized concepts. They were more into losing than winning. But the ego does not like that, so we rearranged much of Christianity to fit our egoic pattern of achievement and climbing.

Isn’t it strange that Christians worship a God figure, Jesus, who appears to be clearly losing by every criterion imaginable? And then we spend so much time trying to “win,” succeed, and perform. We even call Jesus’ “losing” the very redemption of the world—yet we run from it. I think Christians have yet to learn the pattern of redemption. It is evil undone much more than evil ever perfectly avoided. It is disorder reconfigured in our hearts and minds—much more than demanding any perfect order to our universe.

St Paul well said, ‘[God’s] strength is made perfect in weakness.’ In our imperfection, in our humanity, in our losing, God’s grace–the one perfect constant in our life–is seen for what it truly is: fully unconditional, all-encompassing and imperfection-embracing love.

So I embrace my imperfection. It’s part of who I am as a human being. I will not and cannot be perfect. I cannot keep up a ‘victory’ front, appear to be squeaky-clean, look like Jesus. But I can trust, humbly live my life in my humanness, and believe that, through the imperfections, God’s glory will shine.

____________________

* The irony of this scenario seemed to me to be that one would put on a facade so they would attract others to Jesus. The new convert then would be taight that they too must put on a similar appearance to draw in others into this vicious cycle of hypocrisy and deception. In hindsight, I should have seen how unlike Jesus this really was.

The Cost of New Life

wheat“Creativity and newness of life have a cost, and the cost is what appears to look like death. But really it is not. It is just letting go of one thing to make room for another thing. Loss is always perceived as an enemy or affliction, and looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve something more and something bigger. Some form of positive dying invariably allows us to be united with what is Larger Reality, but of course we never know that ahead of time.

“So if you spend your whole life avoiding dying, the spiritual teachers would say you will never get there. Meditate on the phrase Jesus gave us, ‘Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). That quotation is about as counterintuitive as you can get. Rationally I cannot prove that to you. You have to walk through it. You have to experience it to know that it is in fact true and true for you. Frankly, none of us go there until we are shoved.”

Richard Rohr

What is that to You?

I spent the weekend reading a very well-written and thoroughly-researched book about a high profile international Christian ministry. This book revealed a host of secrets and hidden shortcomings of this ministry and its staff as well as questions about its abuse of power and laws.

I was incensed.

How could I stand by and let others keep that ministry in high regard? How could I let others get sucked into the manipulative dealings that allegedly were part of this organisations day-to-day operations? How could I listen to their music and read their books and say anything positive about what I had digested?

Naturally, I wanted to take my new-found knowledge and  “shout it from the rooftops.”

But

then

I

stopped.

In the middle of all my condemning thoughts and righteous anger, I stopped.

In my mind appeared the words of Jesus to a disciple who, like me, cared more about what another disciple would do in his life of following Jesus. Jesus said: ““. . . What is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22)

Light bulb moment: I am not responsible for what others do or don’t do. I am only responsible to make sure I am following Jesus faithfully, keeping my own life in order. What is it to me if they are reported to have said or done certain things? They are accountable to God for these things and  his purifying fire will one day burn off all that is not fit to enter the kingdom.

This knocked my “righteous indignation” down a notch or two. I am still sad about the way it seems others are choosing to live their lives. Unrighteous actions done in the name of God still sicken and anger me. But there are enough self-proclaimed prophets whose role seems to be to call down fire on anyone who strays from their definition of the straight and narrow way. I don’t need to add one more angry and bitter voice to the milieu.

Rather, I am called to keep my own house in order and my own conscience clear before God, to be an instrument of God’s peace and love. The words the Master spoke are ringing in my ears: “What is that to you? You follow me.”

Dropping Out of the Usual Game

Today is St Patrick‘s Day. This day is celebrated in many ways–some religious, most not. For many, the only thing worth remembering about St Patrick was that he is the reason, according to legend, there are no snakes in Ireland. For others, he is the cornerstone of what we know now as Celtic Christianity, and the predecessor of many notable saints of that tradition.

This ties in loosely with Richard Rohr‘s reflection for today because saints and holy people of any era demonstrate for us a manner of life that it would do well for us to follow.

I am convinced that most of the saints were religious dropouts from societies and even religious groups that were going nowhere.  Faith called them to drop out and drop in to Something Else.

Jesus’ announcement of the reign of God was telling us that human culture as we’ve created it is on a track toward self-destruction and emptiness.  The Biblical word for that was “the world,” but since people think we are rejecting the planet, the earth, the creation—which is NOT what Jesus meant—I just speak of “the system.”  This is the egocentric and self-serving way that all groups seem to organize themselves without radical God-centeredness (sometimes even the churches).

All we have to give up is the utterly false understanding of human nature that we get from most groups and even most families.  For some reason this foundational liberation seems to be the most difficult thing in the world!  I am sure this is what Jesus is referring to when he made his utterly shocking statement, “Anyone who comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brother, sisters. . .cannot be my disciple.”  (Luke 14:25-26).  Wow!  If that is not asking us to drop out of the usual game, I cannot imagine any stronger way to say it.

Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 57, day 60

Unity

I’ve got a lot of things running through my head this week. After finishing the book Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer I have been reflecting on my own journey, my wonderful partner-in-life Vicki and her family, and the circles of friendships and relationships that have in the past and present been part of our ‘world.’

Many times this week the idea of ‘unity’ has come to mind. Richard Rohr (one of my current favourite authors) says this in Great Themes of Paul:

True union does not absorb distinctions but actually intensifies them.  The more one gives oneself in creative union to another, the more one becomes oneself.  What a paradox!  All integrated people have had a lot of intimate and integrated relationships.

That’s already mirrored in the template of the Trinity itself, the pattern of all reality.  There we have perfect giving and perfect receiving among three and they are all utterly and totally themselves, too.

Humility

Unity is not achieved by everyone thinking alike, believing the same thing, holding to the same political agenda, or acting in the same way. Unity is a choice that is made to join together for a common purpose or vision and has as its foundation the humble, servant attitude of Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil 2:6-8 TNIV)

Duality

In his book, Schaeffer writes about his journey as the son of prominent Evangelical thinkers, authors and speakers, Francis and Edith Schaeffer (of L’Abri Fellowship). His behind-the-scenes perspective displays the duality of many well-known Christian leaders of the 70s and 80s who, for the sake of unity within the Evangelical movement, showed one side to the world while thinking and living the opposite.

While this shows a unified front to the outside world, it eats like a cancer whoever lives in this way (ironically, Francis Scaheffer’s Magnum Opus was his film series and book How Should We Then Live .) Francis’ son Frank shares his struggles with his family’s way of life and how they, while showing themselves as important Evangelical icons, never fully ‘bought into’ the mainstream Evangelical ideology.

I’ll attempt to write more about the Scaheffers in a future post. The point I need to take away from all of this in my own life is that being who I am is essential to living life fully in the reign of a God who himself is Unconditional Love, Truth and Life. Unity demands honesty both with ourselves and others. And since true unity does not hinge on being or thinking the same as another, then the revelation of our true self (ideally) should not bring condemnation from our brothers and sisters, but a humble grace of acceptance.

Fixing People

Our problem is we like to ‘fix’ things, and that often overflows into a desire to ‘fix’ people. If people are not thinking the same way we are, we believe it’s our duty to get them on the right track. William C. Green writes:

There’s a fix-it activism that undoes caring by overreaching.  Others may not want to be “reached,” at least by us, at least right now.  Some hard conditions are not meant to be addressed, at least by us, at least right now.  Sometimes we are meant to pass on by. This can be a cop-out.  It can also be a neglected part of wisdom that accepts our limitations and doesn’t confuse humility with not caring, or mistake our judgment for God’s. (from StillSpeaking, 14 October, 2010)

Or, in the words of The Beatles’ song, ‘Let it be.’ Unity doesn’t demand that I get you to be like me, nor indeed that all people in one community or congregation believe the same things.  I wrestle with this a lot and I know it has been an issue in many groups with whom I have been or am presently involved.

Yet, if we are eager to join in the amazing work of the kingdom of God here on earth–if it is our honest desire that God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven–then this will demand of us a unity never-before seen in our world. It will require a setting aside of prideful distinctions of class, status, or theological labels as well as abandoning the urge to ‘fix’ things. It will necessitate that sometimes–often–we ‘let it be’ so that we aren’t distracted from the likeness we share.

This is my desire.

Let it be so.

Gentleness

“Compassion is expressed in gentleness. When I think of the persons I know who model for me the depths of the spiritual life, I am struck by their gentleness … They are gentle because they have honestly faced the struggles given to them and have learned the hard way that personal survival is not the point. Their caring is gentle because their self-aggrandizement is no longer at stake. There is nothing in it for them. Their vulnerability has been stretched to clear-eyed sensitivity to others and truly selfless love.” — John E. Biersdorf (from Healing of Purpose: God’s Call to Discipleship)

I found this quote in Sojourners Verse & Voice email today. It spoke to me, probably because I know someone like this–one who is gentle, kind, is exuberant as he shows God’s love in everything and to all, is encouraging and uplifting, and truly is an example of what it means to live like Jesus.

I want to be like that. I’ve got a long way to go, but that’s the kind of person I want to become. God help me.