Laying it on

christmas loveIt’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

As we approach this holiday, preparations are being made for huge family get-togethers, massive roast turkeys, bottomless bowls of salad, and copious amounts of drink (alcoholic or otherwise).

With this celebrations, the pressure is on to do what we colloquially term ‘laying it on’–putting on your best face, wearing your trendiest clothes, saying things that could pass as highly intelligent or bring the family to tears of laughter.

Sometimes we simply lose sight of what it is all about, as we are reminded in this fourth week of Advent, love.

Love doesn’t require airs, shows, obligatory pleasantries, or even artfully-painted faces. Love is.

With love–and I am speaking here of both being loving and accepting love from others and from God–there is freedom to be who we are. Richard Rohr uses the example of his favourite saint, Francis of Assisi, to illustrate that my true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me. When I know that I am loved unconditionally (without obligations or requirements on my part) I have a certain kind of freedom where not only do I not care what others think of me, but I, occasionally, intentionally play the fool in order that they don’t get too high a view of my self.

St. Francis illustrates this stage in many memorable ways. When he hears one day that the people of Assisi are calling him a saint, he invites Brother Juniper to join him in a walk through his old home town. Brother Juniper was the first simpleton (that is a compliment!), the holy fool of the original friars. Francis knew he could always trust him to understand what he was saying. Francis once said, “I wish I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”

Francis told Brother Juniper, “Let’s take off these robes, get down to our underwear, and just walk back and forth through Assisi. Then all these people who are thinking we are saints will know who we really are!” Now that’s a saint: someone who doesn’t need to be considered a saint, who can walk foolishly in his underwear the full length of Assisi.

A few years later, when people were again calling Francis a saint, he said, “Juniper, we’ve got to do it again.” This time they carried a plank into the piazza. They put it over some kind of a stone or maybe the fountain, and there they seesawed all day. They had no need to promote or protect any reputation or pious self-image.

That’s a rather constant spiritual tradition in the Eastern Church and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it pretty much got lost after the 13th century Franciscans. We became more and more serious about this intense salvation thing, or you might say we took ourselves far too seriously. Moralism replaced mysticism. And this only increased after the in-house fighting of the 16th century reformations. We all needed to prove we were right. Have you noticed that people who need to prove they are right cannot laugh or smile?

When you are a “holy fool” you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am, who I am, who I am; and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons. – Richard Rohr, adapted from Franciscan Mysticism (an unpublished talk)

May you know this kind of love this Christmas, a love that frees, a love that releases from expectations, a love that doesn’t need to ‘lay it on’ for others to see, and a love that values others simply because they are loved by God rather than because of what they can bring to the table.

Freedom is Where We Start

I have been following The Hidalgo Grain Company‘s blog for a while now and, while I’m not sure of its current operation, it has long been an outspoken critic of the extreme Christian fundamentalist movement.

In a recent post entitled “Radical Truth,” the topic of Obedience is discussed and the setting is the centres of Independent Baptist fundamentalism which have this philosophy:

In order to be holy, a good witness and a “show window” for God, emphasis is placed on behavior. This highlighting of the behavioral aspects of conservative Christianity is reinforced in private Christian schools, home schooling literature and in institutions of higher learning. To many children and young adults, Christianity becomes a way to behave, a way to live, a lifestyle – clean, healthy, controlled, ordered, traditional – and we are all told that all things being equal, a Christian should excel above all others.. . .

. . . The truth is more radical. Happiness is not found “on the road to duty” or modifying our behavior or the behavior of others. Freedom is not found through obedience or happily keeping the rules. Freedom isn’t “found” at all – it is given.

Freedom is where we start.

It is The Love that gives you freedom, freedom leads to conviction, conviction to confession, confession to total forgiveness and total forgiveness to worship. When Christ said “my burden is light”, He meant it. We aren’t trading one set of shackles for another. When He said “you are free”, there was no legal disclaimer in small type stating that “free” doesn’t really mean “free”, and that there are a number of ifs, ands or buts.

Will embracing the gift of freedom make your life perfect? No. In spite of what you read on your friend’s Facebook page, there is no “perfect life.” Freedom entails risk. Risk of offense. Risk of failure. The difference is that we allow ourselves to fail. Failure is built-into the freedom we embrace. Fortunately, the forgiveness is total. (Read the full p0st here. The comments are worth a look too.)

Ordinariness

A thought from Richard Rohr:

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect. Such freedom is my best description of Christian maturity, because once you know that your ‘I’ is great and one with God, you can ironically be quite content with a small and ordinary ‘I.’ No grandstanding is necessary. Any question of your own importance or dignity has already been resolved once and for all and forever.”

Nothingness

We fear nothingness. That’s why we fear death, of course, which feels like nothingness. Death is the shocking realization that everything I thought was me, everything I held onto so desperately, was finally nothing (read Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Dying).

The nothingness we fear so much is, in fact, the treasure and freedom that we long for, which is revealed in the joy and glory of the Risen Christ. We long for the space where there is nothing to prove and nothing to protect; where I am who I am, in the mind and heart of God, and that is more than enough.

Spirituality teaches us how to get naked ahead of time, so God can make love to us as we really are. (Richard Rohr in Radical Grace: Daily Meditations , p. 333)

A Story about Creativity

I received this in an email the other day (Thanks, Clare). It’s actually written in a circular to teachers, but it applies so well to families, churches and other organisations just as much as to schools. The lesson, I believe, is obvious: Unless we allow people the freedom to think, act and create outside of the box (whatever that ‘box’ may be), we will not only impair their own development, but we will do a great disservice to our community and our world.

Red flower

Once upon a time there was a little boy who studied at a big school.

One morning the teacher said “Today we’re going to draw.”

“Good” thought the little boy. He liked to draw lions, tigers, chickens, trains and boats.

He got his coloured pencils and started drawing.

“Wait!! Don’t start yet.” said the teacher.

She waited until all the students were ready and then said, “We’re going to draw flowers.”

The little boy started drawing beautiful flowers with his pink, orange and blue pencils.

“Wait” said the teacher. “I’ll show you how to do it.”

And the flower she drew was red with a green stem.

“OK” said the teacher, “Now you can do it.”

The little boy looked at the flower the teacher had drawn , looked at his own flowers and liked his best. He couldn’t say that so he turned the sheet of paper over and drew a flower just like the one the teacher had drawn–red with a green stem.

Another day the students were having class outside and the teacher said, “Today we are going to play with clay.”

“Great” the boy thought. He liked to play with clay.

He could make things like elephants, mice, cars and trucks.

He started to take some clay in his hands and make a big ball.

Then the teacher said, “Wait ! Don’t start yet.”

She waited until all the students were ready.

“Now” she said “we’re going to make a plate.”

“Good” thought the little boy.

He liked to make plates of different sizes and shapes.

The teacher said, “Wait !! I’ll show you how to do it.”

It was a soup plate.

“OK” she said, “Now you can start.”

The little boy looked at the plate the teacher had made, looked at his own plate and liked his best. He couldn’t say it so he got his plate, made it into a big ball and started it again.

He made a soup-plate just like the one the teacher had made.

And since early in his life he learned not to do things by himself but to wait for a model.

And then the little boy went to another school.

This one was even bigger than the other one.

One day the new teacher said, “Today we’re going to draw.”

“Good” thought the little boy.

He waited to see what the teacher would draw.

The teacher didn’t draw anything.

She only walked around the room.

Then the teacher approached the little boy and asked, “Don’t you like to draw?”

“Yes” he said “but what are we going to draw?”

“I don’t know” said the teacher.  “Draw whatever you want.”

“How can I do it?” he asked.

“Any way you want.” said the teacher.

“But what colours should I use?” he asked.

“You choose. If everybody makes the same drawing with the same colours how can I know which drawing is yours?” she said.

“I don’t know” answered the boy.

And he draw a red flower with a green stem.

Many times we want our children, friends, relatives, people we love, to do things the way we believe is the correct one.

Are we right?

Other times we sit and wait until someone tells us what to do.

Is that right?

(Copied from Leadiong and Learning, http://leading-learning.blogspot.com/)

Freed and United

On Sunday I had the joy of preaching at Salisbury Baptist Church. What a blessing it was to visit with these friends and see how God is working in their community.

Instead of choosing a topic and then finding verses to use in presenting it, I decided to incorporate the four lectionary readings for the day which were:

  • First reading – Acts 16:16-34
  • Psalm – Psalm 97
  • Second reading – Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
  • Gospel – John 17:20-26

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

In Acts 16 we read about the good news being taken by Paul and Silas into the city of Philippi in the Roman province of Macedonia. In the early part of the chapter we witness their encounter with Lydia, her subsequent baptism and the start of a gathering of Christ-followers in her home. She was a businesswoman, a ‘seller of purple,’ and probably quite wealthy.

Next we meet a slave girl, a ‘Diviner’ or fortune-teller, who made a living for her owners by telling the future. In that day, this role was an important one and these people were thought to speak by the power of Apollo, the god whose symbol was a snake and who not only would speak the future to them, but would give insights into the deeper things in the lives of her customers.

This slave followed Paul and Silas far many days, calling out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ Just the fact that she understood who they were and that their God was ‘Most High’ is astounding. But after a few days of this, I can understand Paul’s annoyance with her. He turned and cast out the spirit that was controlling her.

In her right mind, she was of no use to her owners. In their anger at losing a great source of profit, they hauled Paul and Silas to the marketplace where they laid charges against them: charges having to do with a disruption of Roman culture and custom. This brought Paul and Silas a sound flogging with rods and a night in gaol.

Prisons being as they were in that day, this was no Sunday picnic. It was ultimate humiliation and punishment to be thrown in chains into the pit that was the dungeon where, along with a variety of criminals, one would wallow in the filth and stench while being deprived of the necessities of life. Yet, in this dungeon, in the darkest part of the night, Paul and Silas were praying and singing.

Psalms—the Hebrew hymnal—has been a source of comfort and encouragement for millions since this book was first compiled. In its pages we read stories of God’s deliverance, prayers of contrition, promises of blessing, and proclamations of joy, peace, and the sovereignty and goodness of God. Our psalm for today (Psalm 97 ‘The Lord reigns! Let the earth rejoice . . .’) may have been one of those songs being sung this night. The psalmist speaks of God’s greatness, reigning over the earth and its people. He vindicates the righteous and gives them cause to rejoice and hope in their God.

Prayer has been for many years the object of many scientific studies. One such study I read about recently monitored priests and nuns through several days and took note of their prayer life and the brain’s responses. Those times when these men and women were quietly praying showed a pattern of unusual brain activity and stimulation of areas in their brain known to produce calmness and focus. (Dr. Larry Dossey has also done many studies on prayer and its effects on people. Some of them of pure excitement. He has written many books on this subject and you can check them out at Amazon or your local bookstore.)

Likewise, singing and music over the years has been forged on the anvil of suffering and pain. In the days of the slave trade, displaced Africans used music to encourage one another and give themselves strength and courage in their work. This developed into the gospel and jazz music genres of today. Likewise, both the civil rights and peace movements of the 60’s in the U.S. used music to not only state their message, but to inspire others in the struggle. Singing together, Rob Bell says creates a ‘communal rhythm’ that unites people together like nothing else (‘Why Sing?’ Mars Hill Bible Church podcast).

Perhaps you can recall a time when you were going through a very difficult time and it seemed like everything seemed dark and dismal. Did you find prayer to be a source of comfort and strength? Were you encouraged by music? Maybe you find yourself singing in these times. Often while we are in prayer or singing songs of praise, God steps in.

And God stepped in for Paul and Silas. As they were singing, the text tells us that there was a great earthquake, so great that the foundations of the prison were shaken and all chains fell off. Paul and Silas (and all prisoners) were set free.

The gaoler, fearing they had all escaped, took his sword to kill himself (Better to take his own life than to be executed by his superiors for such a loss.) Paul called out an assured him that all were still present. This makes me wonder how it was that not one of the prisoners escaped. Under normal circumstances, this would be the expectation, but perhaps it was something about the night spent with these two apostles that kept the prisoners inside. We can only imagine since the text is silent about this.

The gaoler then falls down before Paul and Silas and asks, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ I have heard some speak of this as if it was a desperate cry in light of the fact that he may face the executioner’s sword. However, seeing the context and how the slave girl widely proclaimed Paul and Silas as possessing a way to be saved, this most likely was a call for help: ‘Show me this way of salvation you have brought to my city.’

The next verse (v 31) is possibly the most-quoted verse in Evangelical circles: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.’

Believe—trust, put your hope in—the Lord Jesus. Simple faith. No formulas. No ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ or ‘Romans Road.’ No mention of the theology of atonement or even the cross. Simply ‘Believe in Jesus.’

And that is the simplicity of the good news, the same good news that was preached on the Galilean hillsides and in the streets of Jerusalem by Jesus himself—‘Repent and believe the good news.’ The good news was that the reign of God is near and all who wished to enter it could do so. That’s what John preached across the Jordan, and on their repentance, people were baptised in the river.

So it was in the city of Philippi, the gaoler and his whole household (including his family, slaves and servants, and possibly extended family) believed and were baptised. And this story concludes with the same elements that are present today when followers of Jesus gather: the washing of wounds, baptism, and a shared meal.

I like to think that Paul had this in mind when he wrote his letter to the Christ-followers in Galatia:

There is neither Jew [Paul and Silas] nor Gentile [Lydia, the slave girl, the gaoler], neither slave [the slave girl] nor free [Paul, Lydia, the gaoler], neither male [Paul, the gaoler] nor female [Lydia, the slave girl], for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28, TNIV)

Because in this chapter we not only have a theme of freedom from chains (one being spiritual bondage and the other physical shackles), but also of unity as a diverse group of people are brought together to be the gathering of Jesus-followers in Philippi.

This is one of the joys found in following Jesus. From diverse peoples God calls us to join him in his mission. It’s not always easy dealing with diversity. Our cultures, our opinions, our traditions seem to cause division rather than unite. But it was Jesus’ prayer that we be one:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23, TNIV)

Paul writes many years later to this same group of people:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:3-6, TNIV)

God began a work in Philippi as described in our text today, and Paul was confident that it would continue, empowered by God himself until the day when Jesus Christ returns. And this is the prayer of our final lectionary reading:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let those who hear say, Come!” Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life.

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (Revelation 22:17, 20-21, TNIV)

Guilt vs Freedom

This weekend is the time of year when we reflect on what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection. Traditionally it is on Good Friday we remember his crucifixion and then celebrate his victory over death on Easter Sunday morning.

I was having a conversation with Vicki (my beautiful and intelligent wife, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of an introduction) about the usual Easter sermons that appear on the church’s ‘menu,’ and she made a really good point: the punishment Jesus received was not unusual or even extraordinarily harsh for the empire in which he lived. Many, many people before him suffered the same fate. The court system was as corrupt and unjust for countless others before him. The flogging, the mocking, carrying his cross, dying this cruel death was common. And the people who witnessed it, those who called out for Barabas, those who watched his last procession down the Via Dolorosa, those who stood around the Roman execution stake on which he hung, were possibly no more moved than we might be watching the latest action flick or monster truck rally. So ‘normal’ was this scene in first-century Jerusalem.

But preachers, it seems, are after some type of emotional commitment and, for many, their message goes something like this: ‘Jesus died a cruel and horrifying death [insert gory details here] inflicted by such despicable men [insert character references here] and suffered such torture on on the way to his death [insert horrific acts of cruelty and barbarism here], all because of an unjust and corrupt Roman judicial system [insert examples here].’ By this time, the congregation is feeling so horrible, tears are starting to well up, hearts are starting to beat faster, and the preacher goes for the clincher: ‘And it wasn’t the Jews or the Romans who killed Jesus. It was you and I that drove those nails into his hands and his feet and lifted him up on that cruel cross to die a slow and painful death.’

Talk about a major case of guilt! I murdered my Lord! It was my hands that killed the Messiah! How could God ever love me? I am so unworthy. . . .

In my opinion, this borders on spiritual–and, potentially, emotional–abuse of God’s people.

Jesus didn’t die so that on Good Friday and Easter Sunday churchgoers everywhere could partake in a ceremony of guilt and fear. God, contrary to increasingly less-popular belief (Hallelujah), does not think I killed his only son. In fact it wasn’t even my sin that nailed him to the cross (that spoils a few good hymns, doesn’t it?). Technically, it was the Romans at the insistence of the Jewish religious leaders who did the terrible deed. Biblically, Jesus laid down his life willingly to show his kingdom was about a new way of seeing, a new way of relating, a new way of being. In giving up his life (by his own authority, Scripture says), Jesus embodied in reality what he taught in theory: how love truly is a better way.

Jesus would not have wanted us, 2,000 years down the track, to feel responsible–or guilty–for his death. He did not come into the world to condemn, but to deliver us from condemnation. He didn’t go to the cross with the idea that millions of people will feel oppressed by fear of God’s wrath in millennia to come, but that they, instead would experience the freedom of God’s forgiveness and grace.

If grace is true–and I believe it is! Praise God!–then Jesus died to show us God’s love and the freedom that comes from experiencing his unconditional love.

So, thank you, Jesus, for willingly submitting to the death of the cross to demonstrate that your reign indeed is not of this present world system, but is able, through love, to redeem it eternally for God’s glory.

And praise to you God, holy Three-in-one, Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, for the freedom we enjoy because of Jesus.

* * * * *

This morning I arose early and went to Holy Cross Church to celebrate Easter with my Anglican brothers and sisters. At 6.00 a.m. they held an Easter Vigil where we lit our candles and processed into a darkened church to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ as the Passover Lamb, and then to declare his resurrection in exulting and light-filled celebration. In doing so, baptismal vows were renewed and the Eucharist was celebrated. It was a beautiful and moving service, full of Scripture, prayer, and simple faith–not a hint of guilt or anxiety in sight. Thank you Fr Neil for such a blessed reminder of the joy and freedom that is ours because of Jesus. He is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Alleluia!