A Funeral Sermon

In chapter fifteen, the Apostle Paul is wrapping up his first letter to the Corinthian church by answering a few practical questions. The Corinthian church had been confused about many things, not the least of which is Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. For starters, there were some in the church there who didn’t believe there would be a resurrection at all. If you asked them, they would say that the Christian life is a better life than you would live otherwise, but once it was done, so were you. “One and done, that’s it, you’re good, you’re gone.” Others still believed in an afterlife, but you had to stay alive until Jesus’ return. Jesus was coming back to take you to a place where you would live forever but you had to hang in there until he returned. It was a limited time offer. If you didn’t live long enough to see Jesus you wouldn’t see mansions of glory. Maybe Jesus’ heavenly home was just not big enough for all of us.

Paul kindly, diplomatically, pulls back the curtain in chapter fifteen and expands our understanding of what is to come, and like C.S. Lewis was fond of saying, “it’s a lot bigger on the inside.” Paul says that resurrection isn’t just an important part of the gospel, it’s the whole point. With a memorable phrase he writes,

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised … our preaching is useless and so is your faith … If Christ only provides hope for this world then we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:14, 19)

Paul then moves on to explain how the dead are raised (in v. 35) and he compares it to a seed. A seed must die and be put in the ground for the tree to grow. A tree doesn’t look anything like a seed, but that’s where trees come from. A flower grows from a bulb in the ground but a bulb doesn’t look anything like a flower.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:42-44)

There is perishable life and imperishable life. Our ancestor Adam was born, and through sin he exchanged imperishable for perishable, and we have been born in his likeness ever since: temporary, corruptible, and mortal. Jesus himself has come in a corruptible form to give us a glimpse of the incorruptible. Paul continues,

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery:We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15: 50-55)

Now wait a minute Paul. “Where is your sting?” “Where is your victory?” How can you say that? Has Paul never been to a funeral? Where is the sting? It’s right here! Tears from loved ones, the sorrow of saying good bye. We’re all feeling the sting aren’t we?

I was standing next to the casket at the visiting yesterday and I found it interesting how people would say goodbye. There are some who come right up to the casket (most of them were about 4 years old). But most keep an awkward distance. Some quickly moved to the other room. There are, of course, many who won’t come to a visiting at all. The sight of a loved one in a casket is too frightening. I suppose that a minister probably shouldn’t even speak of such things.

If we’re not careful, the victory of death can seem absolute, permanent, and final. Even to us who know better, the loss is profound, the sting is everywhere. Is Paul a fool? Why would he say such a thing?

In 2001 we invited Grandma to join us on a trip to Prince Edward Island for the first week in September. I was on a break from teaching at Great Lakes Christian High School and I needed to be somewhere other than home for the first week of school. Grandma paid her own way, but that holiday was the best money I ever spent. We had such a great time, we drove the country rounds across the island, we did a tour of Confederation Hall, saw the beach (though it’s not exactly beach weather in PEI in September.)

GGrandma2001d cropOne of my favourite memories was visiting Green Gables. It’s a property that was once visited by L.M. Montgomery. She based her “Anne of Green Gables” stories on her experiences there. The property is nearly considered sacred ground for anyone from PEI, and people from all over the world come to tour the farm. Now I’m sure all of you know that Anne is not real right? The farm is just a place where Lucy Maud Montgomery based the books. She actually lived in Ontario when she wrote the most of the books. I imagine that the farm is full of Canadians during the summer, but in September the tours are full of Japanese tourists and old people (Grandma’s words, not mine.)

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We got so many good stories that day. Grandma showed Devin how to milk a cow, we walked the property, toured the house, and in the lawn outside the house there were beautiful gardens full of cosmos, gladiolas, sunflowers and zinnias – all past their prime and heading into fall. Now Grandma is a practical woman, and we were all looking for souvenirs for our visit. What would be cooler than seeds from the garden that good old Anne might have planted her very self, right? And they’re free! Unlike the $15 letter opener and $12 tea cosy for sale in the gift shop. I gave her the nod and Grandma casually reached out to dead head one of the zinnias growing along the fence while we waited in line. A zinnia head, that’s dried up, is full of seeds and looks like you could easily break it off, but the stem is a fibrous thing. Those zinnias are a sturdy lot. But Grandma was fully committed now. She had reached out to get this head and it wouldn’t quite break off. She kept turning and turning it – the line had moved up now – and it wouldn’t break. The sight of Grandma, on the sly, trying to break this head off was funny, but the look of abject horror on the faces of the tourists behind her was priceless. The stories these Japanese seniors must have told back in Tokyo of the white haired Canadian infidel that desecrated the sacred gardens of Anne…

It’s a good thing they weren’t checking purses on the way out. When we got back to the cottage that night, Grandma dumped her purse on the table, full of seeds.

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Every night after Devin and Jacob were in bed, we would watch the sunset over Northumberland Strait and talk about our day and hear some great stories. Grandma said she missed Grandpa, but these past eight years had been great and if she had to die tomorrow, that would be OK too. “It’s been a heck of a ride!”

That was September 10th, 2001, which I have heard some anthropologists call, despite what a calendar might say, the last day of the 20th Century. The next day everything changed.

“The sting of death is sin.”

The next day everything changed, didn’t it. Our flight back home was steered out of American airspace, and nearly diverted to Pearson airport, before we were sent back across Lake Ontario to Mount Hope Airport in Hamilton. We climbed down a set of stairs that were wheeled up to the exit door and left our plane right on the tarmac, next to a gigantic Air France wide-body 747. (I didn’t know Air France flew out of Mount Hope?) We had no idea what was happening until we got back to the car and listened to the radio on the way home. Grandma’s first thoughts were about Mike and Roger, two grandsons who were connected with the American military. She was worried about them. Who knows, with the stress of that day, or maybe it was going to happen anyway, she had her first heart attack the next day.

Grandma has struggled in these last few years. The burden of blindness has rested heavily on her and she has compared her oxygen hose to a leash more than once, at least to me. It is said that youth is wasted on the young, but I don’t think the young could handle being old. She handled the struggle of growing old with dignity and grace, but those of you that have known her these last few years have seen it – she has been restless, unable to settle.

She has struggled to find a place to settle. Five different homes over these last few years. It’s as if she remembers, unconsciously, deep in her bones, that she wasn’t made for this. In the days after September 11th people called this “the new normal,” and for Grandma, at least these last couple of years, it didn’t fit. These feet were made for walkin’ and these eye’s for reading, and she just didn’t feel right. If death could finally take these things from us forever, then maybe resurrection was important after all.

So where were we Paul? You were saying that death has lost? The fallacy of death’s victory is finally exposed in the cross. Those who live without a hope of resurrection live in fear, and those who live without faith in Christ’s return are overcome with despair. But Paul says the perishable are clothed imperishable. The mortal have cast off corruption and put on immortality. Death is undone by the cross.

Paul says that at a funeral, what we are observing here is not just something tragic that has ended but something beautiful that is just about to begin!

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor 15: 55-58)

Two Kinds of Racism

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What does a Canadian white male do with what is happening in Ferguson, MO? The violence and the bitter distrust is heart breaking and I don’t know what I can do about it. I would like to think that I could hold this at arms length and shake my head condescendingly since this kind of thing is impossible in Canada. But it’s not that simple.

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While we don’t arm the highway patrol in Canada like a SWAT team, racism is a complex thing and it exists here in Canada like it does everywhere else. Racism is more pervasive than it initially appears and it is more than unfairness, or injustice toward one particular racial group. For example, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, a social advocacy group in Toronto, developed the Police Literacy Initiative. They produced a thirty minute documentary about racial profiling, that is eye-opening in this regard. I highly recommend you watch it. The documentary helps illustrate that it’s not just people that are racist, sometimes systems are racist too. Things in Canada might be different than in the United States, but it is a “same kind of different.”

I will beg forgiveness for the weakness of this over-simplification, but I believe there are two kinds of racism and both of them need to be addressed for there to be any justice and healing. First, there still exists a straight up, prejudicial, dehumanizing, all-I-see-is-your-skin-colour racism at work in our world. Call this “the objective pole” of racism. This was the first shoe to fall fifty years ago when schools were desegregated and racist laws and policies were challenged and overturned. North American Western culture finally decided fifty years ago that drinking fountains for whites only was morally wrong. This is the objective kind of racism that I can’t believe still exists in some parts today. Objective racism exists in people and in systems. You might have a neighbour who talks about other races in a dehumanizing way, by using ethnic slurs or offensive words. That’s racist. But you might also have a police force in your community filled with good, upstanding men and women who wouldn’t tolerate racial slurs or racist behaviour that never-the-less use a network of operating procedures that, when used together, are unfair and unjust.

There is something systemically wrong when, black males aged 15-24 are stopped by police and documented 2.5 times more often than white males the same age – and that’s not a statistic from Ferguson MO, USA, that’s in Toronto Ontario, Canada.   In Toronto, blacks make up 8.4 per cent of the population, but in 2010 they were involved in more than 25% of the documented interactions with the Toronto Police Force. Whether it is racist people or racist policies, this has got to stop.

The second kind of racism that is at work is much harder to detect and is rarely discussed, but if there is going to be any chance of working toward justice and reconciliation we need to talk about it. I need to know what I am going to do with racial prejudice, but I also need to know what I am going to do with White Privilege.

Pastor Matt Chandler at the Village Church in Dallas TX  touched a raw nerve on Monday when he tweeted,

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The responses were mixed. Later, he told an online news service that “it has been my experience that there are few things that enrage a large portion of white people like addressing racism and privilege.”  ”We want to move past it, but we are not past it. Clearly, we are not past it. So, let’s press into it.” This is “the subjective pole” of racism: the lack of awareness of, or the unwillingness to address, the inequity of power in our society. Chandler writes,

What is so deceptive about white privilege is that it is different from blatant racism or bias. A privileged person’s heart may be free from racist thoughts or biased attitudes, but may still fail to see how the very privilege afforded to him or her shapes how he or she interprets and understands the situations and circumstances of people without privilege.

I may not have a racist bone in my body. I’m not the guy that crosses the street to avoid a person of colour. I’ve never told anybody to “get to the back of the bus.” But if I am unaware, or unwilling to consider how my race and gender have unfairly benefited me, I might not be a direct part of the problem, but I will never be part of the solution.

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If all that we are addressing is the objective pole of racism, the outward, obvious, visible wickedness in our society, while we ignore the unfair privilege that some people have at the expense of others, is it any wonder there is a boiling rage just beneath the surface of western culture? What could be more insulting than a group of white teens marching in opposition to racism if they and their parents have refused to explore how their race has unfairly benefited them.

In the 8th century BC, God spoke through an unlikely prophet named Amos. God rebuked Israel not just for what they did – idol worship, and various forms of immorality – but also for what they failed to do. They failed to pay fair wages. They failed to provide for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner. While it’s true that these sins aren’t all racially motivated, some are, and the point still stands: if you are going to address a systemic sin like racism, you need to look at both sides: the objective pole and the subjective pole – what I do and what I allow to happen.

So how can you and I address unfair privilege? First, it takes humility to accept that there might be inequity that you benefit from and this humility doesn’t come easily for most of us.  You need to prayerfully tend your heart and ask God to reveal to ways you unfairly benefit at another’s expense.

If you want to explore inequity in your context look at the margins. We live in a fallen world so you likely won’t have to look far to find it. Where are people being excluded in your own context?

Are there refugee claimants in your neighbourhood that are unable to get access to health care ? Maybe you can support Doctors for Refugee Care or ask your doctor if he or she can help?

Are there kids in your neighbourhood with ESL needs who need help being successful in school? Ask your local principal if you can help kids who struggle.

One issue that is a burden on my heart is plight of First Nations youth in Ontario. Statistics Canada reports that in 2011 the suicide rate for males ages 15-24 is more than 5 times the national average. For females ages 15-24 it is 7 times the national average! Why is that?  What can we do to address that?

You may very well have nothing to do with race relations in Ferguson Missouri, but if you prayerfully look to the margins in the community where you live, you will likely find opportunities to address those who are marginalized. Until there is an acknowledgement of privilege and repentance for discrimination, the gospel is not going to be displayed and lives are going to continue to be destroyed.

NCW

Time Travel and the Kingdom of God

Nerd Alert! Nerd Alert! If you’re not into temporal mechanics or Eschatology you will likely find this boring but I just had to get this off my chest. Some of these blog posts I do just for me and, judging by the page counts, you already seem to know that.
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We usually think of time (if we think of it at all) as a dimension of reality. You can stand still but time keeps moving in one direction (forward) without evidence of being there at all. There are a few problems with this concept of time (e.g. General Relativity for starters) but one problem in particular has more of an impact on you than you realize. Picturing time like a scale that we are sliding along limits your conception of God.
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It’s important to note that the notion of linear time is not, in fact, biblical. It is a modern scientific concept that can be traced to Aristotles’s Physics. It quantifies time, where past and future are merely segments on a line. They are equal in quality. You add a pointer forward to account for the fact that the future becomes the past but never the other way around. Time appears to “flow” out of the future into the past.

A problem with this view is that it creates a “Watchmaker God” who draws up the blue prints and stands back with all foreknowledge and just lets it go down. Lots of people struggle with this idea on two fronts. First, it leaves God sitting back, passively watching the world go by like a twisted and sick movie. “Why doesn’t God intervene!?” The second problem is the classic chicken and the egg question, “is God unable to change the future?” If God makes a plan, is he then bound by that plan?

In Revelation 1:4 John describes Jesus as the one who is, who was and who is to come. The wording here is a bit odd. We would have expected it to be “was, is and will be.” That is the way Zeus is described in ancient Greek literature. He is described as eternal, always existing in the present tense. There is a subtle difference here in what John is saying about Jesus. He uses the future form of the verb “to come” rather than the verb “to be.” Jesus “was, is, and is to come.” The linear concept of time is broken in this third term. The way John describes it, God is not stationary, awaiting our arrival at some future point in linear time. It is God who is on the move. He is coming toward the present. God’s being is in his coming, not in his becoming. This is a subtle but significant difference.

God is not the Future King, he is the King right now… and he is coming. God’s promises and God’s Spirit precede his coming and announce it. God now already sets the present and the past in light of his final arrival, an arrival that will mean the establishment of a new kingdom. Jurgen Moltman once said that “the coming of God means the coming of a being that no longer dies and a time that no longer passes away. What comes is eternal life and eternal time.” The Kingdom of God comes from eternity into time, not out of the future into the present.

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Chuck Klosterman, in his book Eating the Dinosaur has a great analogy that you can read about here. In short, he says that time is best thought of as a train riding along a track with one significant difference from your typical train. There are little people on the back of the train that pick up the tracks as soon as the train is finished travelling on them and these little people pass the track back up through the train and some other little people put these tracks back down in front of the train as it travels. The analogy is this: the past doesn’t exist, from our present point of view. Like our weird little train, you can’t go back into the past. It doesn’t exist! We remember it, we might try to construct a narrative description of it, but it doesn’t exist any longer. Once a moment is over, you can never go back.

Likewise, the future doesn’t exist from our present point of view. You can’t somehow skip ahead and find out what is going to happen. It doesn’t exist. All that exists, in our temporal created world, is the present. We remember the past, but can’t go back there. We are present in the moment, but the future is not out there waiting for us to arrive.

This is why Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as “near.” When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom was going to come, Jesus said “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). It’s on it’s way. “When” is the wrong question to be asking. Likewise, Mark’s summary of the Gospel is that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).

I think this way of seeing God’s engagement with the world is helpful. If God’s preferred future is out there somewhere and we are the ones that are moving toward it, why did God put it so darn far up the track? Why is he waiting so long?

But if God’s future rule and reign is already breaking into the world I can be on the lookout for where I see it happening. I can be part of it! In this way a church, any group of believers, can be an advance taste of the Kingdom. A place and a people where God rules and reigns.

X-Men and Eschatology

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(By the way, Eschatology is the study of the last days.)

Spoiler Alert! Read no further if you were planning to watch Days of Future Past and haven’t gotten around to it yet!

In the most recent X-men movie, Days of Future Past, things are not going well for our mutant heroes.  The movie begins some 15 years in the future where the X-men are being hunted down and eliminated by mutant killing robots.  In order to survive, and save the rest of humanity from the unintended consequences of a campaign to control the mutant population,  they hatch a plan to send the consciousness of Logan, AKA Wolverine (pictured above), back in time to warn his friends of the hopeless future that awaits them and give them a way of preventing this future from ever happening.  So, in short, Logan is incarnated in a 1970s body to bring the bad news of the fate that awaits his friends, and then gives them advice in how they might prevent it from happening.  Hmmm, that got me to thinking

Metaphors are always limited – if you push them too far in any direction they will eventually break down.  Never-the-less, this story, through contrast, may shed some light on a healthy way to see the resurrection of Jesus.

Just like Wolverine comes from the future to occupy a body here in our present, Jesus comes out of the grave as the firstborn from the dead.  He is the first one from God’s future to arrive in the present; He is the first fruit of the resurrection (Col 1:18) but it is a mistake to think of Jesus’ resurrection as an interruption in progression of history. This isn’t just Jesus returning to life after a two day power nap. Jesus isn’t just an exception to the rule: “You die, you get buried, you disappear.”

In the resurrection of Jesus, God is “doing a whole new thing!” (Is 43:19).  Paul says the same thing in 2 Cor 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Your baptism is a preview of an arrival that will occur in the future.  Just like your body comes out of the water, your new resurrection body will come out of the grave (For more on this idea see Rom 6: 3-5).  The Apostle John closes the book of Revelation with a quote from Jesus, “Look, I am making all things new!” (Rev 21:5). That is what is happening in the resurrection.  It is the first part of God’s new creation showing up in the present.

The death of Jesus is not just a transaction to appease an angry God.  God is doing some new creating here! First Jesus, and then the rest of us.  If you read about the resurrection appearances of Jesus in Matt 28, Luke 24,and John 21,  something curious is going on: they don’t seem to recognize Jesus, at least not at first.  Jesus’ body is somehow both the same (holes in Jesus hands and his side), but it is also different at the same time.

In some ways, however, what is happening in Days of Future Past is the opposite of what is happening when Jesus rises from dead.  Logan comes to the present with bad news about a hopeless future.  Jesus comes to the present with good news (Gospel) of a hopeful future!  Logan arrives with advice on what needs to be done in order to secure victory over their enemies. Jesus arrives with news of what has already been done!  The victory has already been won.

The only enemy left to be defeated is death (1 Cor 15:26), and paradoxically, it is finally defeated when you die.  When you pass from this life into the next, death’s hold on you is finally lost.  That is what Paul is talking about in 2 Cor 15:55-57 when he says.

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a lot more I would like to say about God and time travel but that is probably a blog entry for another day. :)

ncw

Attending a Church With 50 Members is Good For You (You Just Don’t Realize It)

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If you talk to church leaders – it won’t matter what tribe you ask – they will likely tell you that attendance is down in their local congregation. Very few churches these days report numerical growth and many are in steady decline. That’s bad news right? The problem with this issue is that there is an untested assumption that comes in through the back door uninvited, and if you’re not careful you won’t think about it at all.

Is your church better off with more Sunday morning attenders?

Of course it is right? That’s the point isn’t it? The point of doing church is to get more people to come to church? Isn’t it?

Now before I get too far I need to qualify my “click-bait” title. I am not saying that attending a big church is bad for you.  There are lots of blessings there.  If that is what God is doing in your immediate context, great!  I am also not saying you should make your church smaller.  I’m just saying that there are unexpected blessings in smallness and in order to think about this issue more clearly you probably need to reflect on what the purpose is for gathering together in the first place: Does the church exists to satisfy its own needs or does it exist to give its life for the world?

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Your church may be misled into thinking that it exists for the benefit of its members. There is no doubt that more people attending on Sunday means more donations (more cash) and more volunteers (more slave labour). It’s fun to sing with a big group, and the extroverts in the crowd get a charge with a larger gathering of people. So if your church exists to serve its own members then yes, more Sunday morning attenders is better. But I would like to suggest that this comes from an impoverished imagination. The church doesn’t just exist to serve the needs of its members. That is a lie that distracts us from what our purpose really is. If you want to know the purpose for gathering together then we need to think about the nature of the God we worship.

God is love (1 John 4:8), a self-giving love that lives for the benefit of the other. God came in human form and spent his life serving (Mark 10:45). God not only served humanity but also poured his life out in complete submission. God was buried and has now risen from the dead. He lives today, and serves the world today, embodied by those who call him Master.

So when groups of followers of Jesus gather together today, they find new ways to give their lives to each other and to the community, just like Jesus did; Serving without an agenda or without concern about whether people deserve it or not. We serve because God served. We love because God loves and a gathering of followers of Jesus, big or small, is an opportunity for us to share a witness of what God is doing in our midst. God has forgiven sin and restored the capacity for us to have a relationship with God. If you are a follower of Jesus then you are called to be a witness, someone who has observed first hand what Jesus has done and what Jesus is capable of doing.

Whether the community is gathered or scattered, the mandate to be Christ’s witnesses defines every dimension of our life together. No matter how many attend the gathering, we demonstrate the reality of God’s love in the ways that the community functions. When we gather together we practice “saying our faith” – with and without words – so that we will be able say it when we aren’t together. We gather in order to practice speaking of God’s mercy in our lives and practice listening to what God is doing in other people’s lives. We gather together to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11-12). That is why we gather together and it doesn’t matter how many people there are.

As a result, ministry in the missional age (the time which we find ourselves in now) is not about attracting a crowd, but instead it is all about cultivating a holding space in the midst of the community where we can watch for evidence of God’s work in our midst. The question the 21st century church leader needs to be asking in the midst of his or her community is, “What is God up to in our midst? Where have you seen evidence of God seeking, of God saving, or God restoring? Is there some way that we can participate with God in this new act of redemption?” Through sermons, songs, readings, adult classes, coffee time conversations, we need to be asking these questions and encouraging the people in our midst to get better and better at answering these questions.

I appreciate that you could read this and say to me, “easy for you to say. You work for a church with 180 people attending on Sunday morning.” I would respond that while that is true, a church of 100, 200, or 1 000 has some very difficult challenges that small churches do not have to worry about in the same way. Larger churches are increasingly tempted toward self-sufficiency. When you have 200 people you can be tempted to rely on your own collective strength, which is a sin. You will be sorely tempted to trust your ample donation revenue, your ample supply of volunteers rather than relying on the risen Christ. If you had more people attending your church you could be increasingly tempted by the draw of performance excellence rather than the excellence of our Saviour. If you had more people attending your church you might be tempted to chase the illusion of empire: beautiful buildings, multiple staff, exciting programs. Jesus was never impressed with programs, you shouldn’t be either (Matt 24:1-2).

If Christ is risen, he is in the midst of your group, whatever size it is. Christ is also in the midst of your community. I would encourage you to witness to the greatness of God when your group gathers. Practice trusting him for everything, and then cultivate an attitude of expectant watching. Where is God showing up in your midst these days?

You Don’t Actually Learn From Experience

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Lots of people say that the best way to learn is from experience but the truth is, strictly speaking, nobody actually learns from experience.  If you want proof of that, consider what a group like Alcoholics Anonymous would say about real learning.  Learning is observed through a change in behaviour. A person dealing with alcoholism, or any destructive pattern, has likely been through a number of destructive cycles – lots of experience – without “learning” anything.  Most alcoholics will tell you that there are powerful forms of adaptive denial at work that keep people from getting the help they need.  They will often coach themselves saying, “I can get on top of this,” or “It’s not that bad,” “I can stop any time.” In the face of a destructive behaviour, new information doesn’t change anything; people just take this new information and absorb it within their existing structures.

New information, by itself, will only very rarely change someone’s long term behaviour.  If you actually want to help someone learn something you need to do more than just provide them with new information.

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Real learning comes from experience (information) that you then have an opportunity to reflect on, and then a chance to talk about with a group of people, and churches don’t typically do this very well.  Usually it happens by accident, if it happens at all. In a church context, what this means is that the sermon is actually not a very effective tool for changing behaviour. I’m not saying sermons aren’t useful, they just aren’t very effective by themselves.  You are “learning” more when you talk about a sermon than when you are listening to one.  That’s why it is so important for your church to have an opportunity to discuss the sermon.  It gives people a chance to learn!

You are not learning much through the absorption of information, no matter how well it is presented. But when you have a chance to reflect on it and then talk about what you’ve learned, well now we’re getting somewhere! You can add this cycle of reflection in all kinds of contexts in your life: at the end of the day ask your kids, “What happened today?”  When they answer they are not just informing you of what they did, they are learning about it along with you. If you are taking a class, or reading a book, take some time to summarize what you are learning and share it with somebody.  Not only do they have a chance to learn, you will understand it better too.

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A Distracted Mind

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This week I’ve been learning about Spiritual Reflection at a one week intensive course at Lipscomb University. We talked about a study done by two Harvard researchers who wanted to track the connection between where your attention was focused, and how happy you were. So they developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals during a day to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.
Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television.

On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 47 percent of the time. Even when actively engaged in a task their minds were on other things no less than 30 percent of the time. We are a very distracted people, that’s not a surprise, but what I find interesting is that the researchers report that people are happiest when they are fully present in what they are doing, regardless of what that happens to be. The researchers found that when people are making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation they were most happy, and also, most mentally present. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

Most of us wouldn’t expect resting or using a computer to be an unhappy experience, but that’s what the researchers found.  One wrote, “mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness, in fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

People who are well practiced in Christian contemplation have been telling us this for years (hundreds of years actually), that one of the best things you can do to improve your mental state is to be fully present in what you are currently doing. In Luke 6 and 7 and 8 Jesus left the crowds in order to spend some time in reflection and prayer.  Maybe there is something to this quiet reflection stuff.

I am by no means an expert in this practice but out of this week I would share two pieces of free advice:

  1. Being present takes practice. People are not naturally good at remaining present.  It takes intentional effort and years of practice to get good at it.  I would suggest that you start with the practice of centering prayer: Find a relatively quiet place and spend some time centered on a short phrase or even a word that can ground you in your present reality.  When you first start there will be lots of thoughts bouncing around in your head – my professor calls them “the monkeys in your head.” The key response is not to address them with your mind.  You are centered on your prayer phrase or word.  The monkeys will come – let them go.  Addressing them will only continue the distraction. Spend a little time every day “ignoring the monkeys” in your head and focusing on a word or phrase and you will find yourself a little bit more present.
  2. Actively resist distraction. Ironically you are likely reading this from a “distraction device” like a cell phone or IPad.  These devices are a great blessing to us at time but they can also be a tyrant for our attention.  Being present means ignoring or resisting the distractions in your life. It could be you need boundaries in your life to make being mindful more likely.  Maybe you need to put your phone in a drawer when you get home and not even look at it for the rest of the day.  Maybe you need to schedule some “screen free” time in your life.  If this research is to be believed, if you are feeling down or frazzled log out of facebook and take a walk.  You might even need to take a break from facebook.  If the last five facebook posts have been about how overwhelmed you are, you need a fresh perspective. Mindfulness will make your experiences better, good or bad.  Take some time to meet God in the quiet.  God is waiting to bless you through the silence you can find in your life.

ncw

Beyond Betrayal

hoseagomer
“Hosea and Gomer” by Cody Miller.

Hosea 3:1-5

1 The Lord said to me, “Go, love your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”

2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a half of barley. 3 Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”

4 For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or household gods. 5 Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.

In the book of Hosea we see a heartbreaking story: the prophet Hosea is invited –instructed no less – to love a woman who would break his heart.  “Go marry a promiscuous woman,” (Hos 1:2) God says. If the phrase is proleptic, it implies that Gomer became a prostitute after they were married.  Perhaps she began in faithful union, but later wandered.  If not, she was already involved with other men, loved by others, and now Hosea too.  Either way, this heartbreaking story is told in parallel with another love story between God and his people Israel.  God’s love, and Israel’s response is described in various places in the Scriptures, and each with different effect.

Jeremiah laments that Israel has been like an unfaithful spouse. (Jer 3) Despite being loved by a faithful love, a perfect love, Israel has descended to unimaginable depths.  Worse than being paid for sex, Israel has sought its own lovers, and paid them for their time. Ezekiel describes Israel as an abandoned infant who is adopted, embraced, loved, and nurtured back to health, only to betray and reject her loving parent. (Ez 16) Isaiah says that Israel is like a flock of sheep who have gone astray. (Is 53:6)  Impossibly, despite being the object of an eternal love, a perfect love, with a deviant will and with malice of forethought, we have been loved with a perfect love and yet we’ve walked away.

God grieves for his beloved, but is received, not with hostile rejection, or contempt, but with apathetic indifference. In Malachi God says, “I have loved you, but you say, ‘How have you loved me?’ ” (Mal 1:2)

After repeated betrayals Hosea’s marriage is ruined.  In chapter two we read the formulaic charge of a rabbinical divorce ceremony, “She is not my wife.  I am not her husband.” (Hos 2:2)  Human relationships are fragile and delicate.  Easily broken, and not easily repaired.  There is only so far a man can forgive a woman.  There is only so much that a woman can forgive a man.  Hosea’s marriage is ruined, his home is shattered.  Perhaps it was he who raised their three prophetically named children.  God-Sows, Unloved, and Not-Mine, raised in a single parent home.

But God surprises us –shocks us– in chapter 3.  It’s over and done–too far gone– but God says “Hosea, go love your wife, though she is loved by another… Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites.” (Hos 3:1) It doesn’t seem possible!  How could God do that?!  After the embarrassing betrayal, being openly rejected in favour of another lover, How could God ask this?

The situation may be even worse than we realize.

Hosea writes that he took her back, he bought her back!  15 shekels and a homer and an half of barley, the going rate of a slave. In the ancient world buying your own wife is a purchase that is as absurd as you can imagine.  To 21st century sensibilities it is offensive to talk like this but in their culture, a wife was thought of as a husband’s property anyway.  To reconcile with an unfaithful wife was foolhardy, but to redeem your wife was absurd!

The shock and gruesome spectacle of this story might distract us from one fact that might otherwise escape our notice.  What God is commanding here is illegal!  Deut 24:1-4 commands that a man cannot remarry his wife, once he has divorced her.  How can God ask Hosea to do something that is prohibited in the law?  Once he has divorced his wife, he cannot go back and remarry her.

But if we’re not careful we might be guilty of asking the wrong question here, for although law shapes and forms love, love precedes law.  God loved Israel before he gave her the law.  “While we were powerless,–God loved–Christ died for the unlovable.”

Love comes before the law. If the law took pre-eminence – if the law came first – there would be no gospel in the Old or the New Testament. It’s important to understand that Hosea is not being asked to break the law here. He is being asked to go beyond the law in the pursuit of love, rather than uphold the law. Hosea demonstrates God’s purpose in love which transcends (rather than violates) the law.

If the law were the only criterion, God could not have sent his Son to redeem the world, any more than Hosea could have gone out to remarry Gomer.  But divine love is a force that knows no bounds.  Law may follow love to give it shape and direction, but it can never have pre-eminence.

A Messiah dying on a cross was impossible to imagine. It was even more absurd than a man buying his own wife, but it testifies to the depth of God’s love for his people.  “I am not just your King, I am not just a shepherd, I am more than a Father, I am your husband.  I love you.”

Here in Hosea 3 we see a love recovered but we also see a love discovered.  God says “I love you; I have always loved you. Not because you are more beautiful than the others, not because of what you can do for me, not because of what you bring to the relationship.  I love you, just because I love you.”

God’s love is illogical.  It isn’t logical for a man to buy his own wife.  God’s love is not just illogical, it’s extra-logical; it is hyper-logical.  It doesn’t contradict human logic, God’s love transcends human logic, it precedes logic.

In human figuring, betrayal marks the boundaries of love.  I love you “if.”  I love you “when.”  I love you “until.”  For human love, there are boundaries to what we are able to put up with.  There are limits to what we are willing to endure.  But God loves with a love that goes beyond betrayal.  God’s love doesn’t not stand limited by the beloved’s compliance, or faithfulness.  God’s love transcends the limitation of human categories.  God loves not because we are lovable, or faithful, or compliant or true.

“I love you because I love you.”  God loves with a perfect love, an eternal love.  And God calls us to love each other the same way.  How could God do that?  How can God ask this of us?  God asks us to love the way that he loves Israel.

God asks us to love the churches that don’t appreciate our talents or gifts.  God asks us to love the people who don’t trust us.  God calls us to love beyond rejection.

God calls us to love churches that are apathetic toward our leadership, and unmoved by our preaching.  God calls us to love beyond the lack of a reciprocal response.

God calls us to love the person who has been receiving support from the benevolence committee for two years running and just sold the grocery store gift cards you gave them last week so they could buy smokes.  God calls us to love past being taken advantage of.

God calls us to love churches who have hurt us, and wounded us and our families.   God calls us to love stingy people, bitter brothers, and unrepentant sisters.  God calls us to love beyond betrayal.

So love is not the boundary condition for discipleship: “Love like I do or else.”  Love is not the minimum standard for continued blessing.  God invites us to love like he does because his love is like a broad place, an open space. There is freedom when we love like God does. We are freed from calculated proportional responses: loving others in the manner we have been loved.

We are freed from an endless attempt to secure a reciprocal response.  We are delivered from bitterness and strife when we love like he loves. He invites us to exceed a bondage to balanced equations: tit for tat, and wrong for wrong. Now, in these “last days” we love because we are loved by the one who is love.

NCW

A New Year’s Resolution for Social Media

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If you are considering a New Year’s resolution, might I suggest that you resolve to improve the way you participate in social media. With every new communication technology there is a period of time between its arrival and when our culture catches up with appropriate social boundaries for its use and we are right smack in the middle of that gap with social media. Over 800 million people check Facebook every day but I think that, even despite all the practice we’re getting, people still haven’t figured out how to use social media well.

For example, I think that a day will come when we will look back on the cell phone etiquette of the early twenty-first century and cringe. Our grandchildren are probably going to think that using a cell phone in the bathroom as a bad thing. Even today, we know we shouldn’t interrupt a face-to-face conversation to read and respond to a text but we still do it. Social media has only been around for ten years and it is becoming clear that not all of it is bad but not all of it is good either. I believe it is important to understand there are Four Levels of Social Media Communication .  It’s not that one is better than another, it’s just that we need to guard against getting stuck in one mode of communication.  We need a variety of communication levels.   If you look at your twitter feed or your Facebook news feed you will find almost every post will fit into one of these categories.

Level 1: Sharing Other People’s Moral Outrage
level 1This is where someone shares a link to some website or commentary where someone else shares what they’re against. These are outrageous, offensive, sometimes hilarious posts that usually feature a “click-bait” titles like: “You won’t believe what this girl did!” “The government doesn’t want you to see this.” It is the cheapest form of social media use because it doesn’t provide any insight into how you, the media user thinks. You are sharing a provocative comment or story without sharing what you think about it. It is easy to be outraged – and sometimes we need to be outraged – but it doesn’t give your readers/friends any insight into how you think. The problem is that if you’re not careful, you get stuck at level one and never move on to level two.

Level 2: Sharing What I Am Against
level 2Like level one, this is a post or blog entry where I share what I am personally opposed to or upset about. “When are they going to fire that coach?” “Of course my car won’t start on the day I have a job interview!” Grouch, simmer, complain. Now don’t get me wrong! There is nothing wrong with sharing something that has your knickers in a knot. This post you’re reading is at least partly operating at level two. Again, the problem comes when you get stuck here. Too many social media users live in level one and two and never get past it. They are always posting what ticks them off, or what makes them mad, or the latest junk media source of outrage. You know you’re stuck when you can’t find anything to write otherwise. You point out problems and can’t give any suggested solutions. You can’t find anything to be positive about. Eventually two things happen. Your friends quit reading your stuff (ain’t nobody got time for that!) and it starts to change the way you see the world. When all that lights you up is what is wrong then guess what you are going to start to notice? We all need to get past this level and move to richer, more meaningful communication. Don’t just tell me what you’re against. Tell me what you’re for. What do you agree with? You’ve told me about the problem, what do you suggest we do for a solution?

Level 3 is Sharing What Other People Are For.

level 3bIt differs from level one because it engages not just the problem, but also a possible solution. Level three social media communication involves sharing things that other people support. It might be a blog article that someone writes that captures what you affirm about a particular issue. Maybe it’s a video with some inspirational thought, or video of people helping complete strangers. It’s a richer than level one because it doesn’t just troll the depths of what is wrong with the world. It starts to look at what is right. Sometimes level three posts suggest a brave new step forward for you. You might gain a new perspective on poverty, or marriage, or God by reading what someone else affirms. The only thing that is missing in level three discourse is that it still doesn’t share what you are all about. The personal response is what’s missing and that is what level four is all about.

Level 4: Sharing What You Affirm.

level 4Level four is the richest kind of social media communication. It is where you share not just what you have heard other people support (Level 3), not just what you are outraged about (Level 2), not just what others have complained about (Level 1). Level four is where you share what you personally appreciate or support. Last month a bunch of my American friends shared something they were thankful for every day of November leading up to Thanksgiving day. I say, “keep it going!” I loved hearing my friends from down south share how they are thankful for their spouses, their kids, their jobs or just everyday little stuff. Now, it did start to get a bit shallow, but it was a welcome diversion from griping about Obama, bringing guns into Starbucks, Gay marriage, etc. One of my favourites is a woman who shares, not every day, but once or twice a week something about her husband that she appreciates. It is encouraging, sometimes funny, and I get to know my friend a little better by reading it, and that is what Level four is all about.

Level four is special because it is a genuine sharing of yourself. It is something that you believe or love or appreciate and as a result it reflects a little bit about what you are all about. This is where social media has real value. Before Facebook and the Internet, this is the kind of insight I would never have into the lives of my friends who live at a distance. I wouldn’t get to read about them and their lives. I would miss all the moments, good (Level 4), and bad (Level 2).

So what I am suggesting is this: take a look at your use of social media and aim for a balance of positive (Level 4) and negative (Level 2). You don’t have to live in denial and pretend that everything is perfect. But mix it up a little bit would ya? I think we all get stuck in a rut from time to time and need to be reminded that it’s not all good and it’s not all bad either.

Posting stuff other people have written both negative (Level 1) and positive (Level 3) is fine but it would really help if you included what you think. If you are going to post someone’s outrage about Duck Dynasty, include a suggestion about what you think A&E should do. Tell me, your reader, how you would have responded to the GQ interview question. That way we don’t all get stuck throwing other people’s words at each other.

As one of my professor’s is fond of saying, “let’s raise the level of discourse.” In 2014, let’s resolve to be a little more vulnerable in what you share online and tell others what you think, and in response, let’s be kinder and more gracious to each other.

NCW

Why Christmas is a Good Time to Grieve

charlie-brown-christmas

I won’t be trite or fancy with this topic because there are many people I know and love that have a tough road to walk at Christmas time. What I mean by the title is this: the Christmas story, properly understood, is a great comfort to those who are grieving.

Blogger Jon Bloom puts it wonderfully last year when he writes, “Christmas is actually a very good time for grief. Because sorrow has a way of disbursing fantasy nonsense and pointing us to what the birth of Jesus was all about: death’s destruction”

That’s why Jesus was born. Jesus was not born to give us a good example of how to live. Jesus entered the human experience so that he could die and ultimately be raised from the dead in triumph over death. In Heb 2:14-15 it says that Jesus was born…

so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

If we can assume there is a God, then at Christmas time (actually all the time) there are two ways of viewing life. One is that God sent his son Jesus as an ambassador to show you how to live; You live a good life and when you die God takes you to heaven.

The other way of looking at life is that sin has entered the world and things are not the way they should be. Jesus enters the world in weakness and experiences life in all its weakness so that through death and resurrection he can set us free from sin and death. You are saved not by what you do but by what God has done through Jesus.

Notice that in the first way God stays strong. He’s up in heaven. He told you what to do: Live right, say your prayers, go to church, do good, obey the law and you get to go to heaven. A strong God calling strong people to be strong and join him.

In the gospel however God becomes weak. He comes in the form of a baby, the best example of vulnerable there is. He empties himself and creates a way to live that gives life and freedom from slavery. It is not a way of life that is taken or earned; it is a way of life that is received. The only way to receive this new life is to accept it in weakness: “I am a sinner, I am not able to do this on my own, I receive this life from you Jesus.” You allow yourself to be baptized (you can’t even do that part by yourself) and are born again!

“Born to raise the sons of earth.
Born to give them second birth…”

The Christmas story reminds us that God comes in weakness to destroy death. He knows what loss is like and in the same way that there is hope at dawn – the sun is rising – there is comfort for those who grieve at Christmas time.

NCW

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