Thursday, April 28, 2005

Communal, Not Individual

This walk down the emergent road with Jesus has me seeing this thing called Christianity in a whole new way. For so much of my life, my focus has been inward. And nowhere is that more true than in my "Christian walk." I have viewed my relationship with Christ in such a one-dimensional way, looking to make myself better, or at least have the appearance of better. Does that ring true for you?

Do you see this relationship--this thing we call Christianity--as a one-dimensional, individualistic pursuit of "better?"

Good. I was beginning to think I was the only simplistic, self-centered, "get all I can get out of God before I die" kind of Christian. Such an individualistic view of salvation can be detrimental to your health. It was to mine, almost resulting in my death (more on that in a later post).

Once I started down this emergent road, I began hearing Jesus speak. His words brought new life to the Scripture. And recently he’s been speaking to me through Thomas Merton, confirming that my individualistic view was quite off-center.

In his 1963 book titled Life and Holiness, Merton says, "…we see that personal faith and fidelity to Christ are not enough to make us perfect Christians. We do not go by ourselves as isolated individuals" but as one body (p. 112).

To echo this sentiment about becoming perfect or complete Christians, I turn to the book of Hebrews. The great Old Testament saints "were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect" (Heb. 11:39-40).

Again, Christianity is not about isolation and individualism. It is not one-dimensional and vertical. Perfection comes through living together as Christ’s body and letting his life of humility, sacrifice and service flow through us to others. Merton puts it this way, "our holiness is proportioned to our capacity to serve as instruments of his love in establishing his kingdom and building up his Mystical Body" (p. 112).

Doesn’t this sound a lot like Jesus’ prayer in John 17:22-23, make them one as we are one, Father, "that they may be made perfect?"

The way I read it, perfection comes only through community. That makes Christianity more communal than individual. How does that change your perspective? What will you do to live more communally and less individually?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Is mystery back in vogue?

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
- Albert Einstein

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
- Carl Sagan

I read these quotes recently and somehow missed their profoundness at first. Is mystery truly beautiful? Can I really know an incredibly mysterious God?

The more I try to wrap my pint-sized brain around truth, the more frustrated I become. The further I stretch my mind, the less I truly know about God. It’s a very frustrating reality. Parker Palmer, author of Let Your Life Speak, advocates embracing our limits. He says, "God asks us only to honor our created nature, which means our limits as well as potentials" [1].

Understanding and even embracing my limitations has produced inexplicable freedom for me. I am finally learning to embrace my finite view of God and to see theology for what it is—a vain attempt to wrap our finite minds around an infinite God. I am actually freeing myself from some theological baggage, so I can enjoy the mystery of God.

As I delve into postmodernism, I find that there are so many on this journey who have already come to this realization. Artist David Wilcox says, "I have the ability to see life not as a problem to be solved but a mystery to be enjoyed" [2].

Ah, mystery…that postmodern buzzword that explains everything about God beyond our comprehension but defies explanation itself. Do I really think of it as beautiful? Can I truly embrace it? Do I have a choice?

I’ve seen authors like Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet elevate mystery to a position of prominence. I’ve read articles where people like Rob Marus and Marshall Allen credit "a hunger for mystery" as the catalyst for a postmodern revival of liturgy [3]. I can search postmodern Christian websites and find mystery mentioned dozens of times.

This all leads me to the question, "Is mystery back in vogue?"

While the Bible is full of mystery, it seems the church has been less than eager to embrace it. By the church, of course, I mean followers of the Way. We are so prone to investigation and deductive reasoning that we have to follow all the clues until we have an "open and shut case." At least that’s how Bible scholarship has presented itself in Western Christianity in my opinion.

Sadly, many of our denominations feel that they have the market cornered on truth. But truth is not a commodity to be bought and sold on the Christian stock market; it is a person to be known in relationship. Truth, as revealed in Scripture, is Jesus [4]. And often times He relates that truth to us in parables. Why? I think it is because stories open our minds to see more of God than do propositions. Jesus’ stories often evoke more questions than they answer. That’s the beauty of mystery. It leaves room for questions and for exploration.

That is where the modern church has shortchanged us. They seem to have left little room for mystery or further discovery. To them, the Bible is an open and shut case. They have executed the theological equivalent of a slam-dunk. That is what causes so many of us to gravitate toward postmodern Christianity. We are no longer satisfied with having all the answers and filing mystery away in neat little theological pigeonholes. We don’t see Christianity in legal terms. Slam-dunk. Case closed.

But is this postmodern revival something new? As you can probably deduce from my use of the word revival, I don’t think it is.

Let’s look at how the Bible deals with the mystery of God.

Deuteronomy 29:29 explains that God has hidden mysteries not yet revealed to us and that we must rely upon revelation, such as the law. The revelation of Jesus provides even more clues to this mystery, as Paul explains in several verses in the New Testament.

In Romans 16:25-26, Paul explains that the hidden mystery of God spoken through the prophets was revealed in Jesus. 1 Corinthians 2:7 says, "we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began." In Ephesians 3, Paul elaborates on this, explaining that "the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." Again in Colossians, he states that Christ Jesus is the mystery of God "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (2:2-3) and that it was revealed to Christ’s body, the church, for the sake of the Gentiles (1:24-27).

Clearly Paul’s mission was to the Gentiles, so for him, that was a large part of God’s mystery revealed in Christ. He viewed it as God’s plan from the beginning. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise to bless the nations through Abraham [5]. Ezekial and Micah both prophesied about this, which seems to support Paul’s claim. As Christ’s body and Abraham’s seed, Paul submits that we are now the repository of this hidden knowledge.

So does that mean we have been given the key to unlock all of God’s mystery? I don’t think it does. I refer back to Deuteronomy and the belief that some things will always be hidden from us.

I also hearken back to the words of Isaiah, who in chapter 40 says, "[God’s] understanding no one can fathom." He restates this in chapter 55, explaining that God’s thoughts and His ways are unknown to us because they exist on a higher plane. Paul quotes Isaiah on this topic several times in his writing.

That tells me that Paul never considered mystery a bad thing. As a student of the Law, he would have been intimately aware of the passage in Deuteronomy 29. It also tells me that Paul did not assume to know the mind of God.

We see, then, that the Scriptures do, in fact, embrace the mystery of God. They provide some clues--or revelations--into it, but they don’t account for the whole mystery that is God.

When in his first letter to Timothy Paul refers to "the King eternal, immortal, invisible," he is speaking of the unfathomable characteristics of God. Who can fathom eternity, immortality or things invisible even to an X-ray photoelectron emission microscope? Paul is referring to the deeply mysterious God who is all of these things. He has indeed embraced the Mystery.

For me, the Bible proves that mystery has always been in vogue. It is the fault of simple-minded humans that mystery has been relegated to such a nominal focus, especially in church.

The more I examine postmodern Christianity, the more I see mystery coming back into focus. I realize that it is not something to explain away, but rather to embrace…to treasure as something truly beautiful. Now I can honestly say that I agree with Einstein and Sagan. There is something incredible waiting to be known, but He is beautifully adorned in mystery.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
--Paul [6]

[1] Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak, Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers, c. 2000, p. 50.
[2] Wilcox, David, "Going Deeper: An interview with David Wilcox,", 2/11/01.
[3] Marus, Rob, and Allen, Marshall, "Once and Future Worship,", 10/9/02.
[4] John 14:6
[5] Genesis 17:4-5
[6] Romans 11:33-36

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Shepherd's Voice

Those who hear the Shepherd hear God [1]. But simply hearing his voice is of no use if you choose to disregard what he says [2]. I want to be a follower of the Shepherd that not only hears his voice, but also does what he says and follows in his footsteps.

All too often I’m guilty of hearing only.

Do you hear the Shepherd’s voice? What is he telling you?

The voice I hear says, "I’m over here." I look and see the dusty face of a wayward stranger near the I-10 overpass. Then I hear him again.

"Look over here." I look down and see the longing eyes of a fatherless child at my daughter’s daycare. I hear the Shepherd’s voice yet again.

"I’m right here." I look around and see letters from prisoners who’ve taken the time to write encouragement to a bunch of men on a Christian renewal retreat.

I hear the voice of the Shepherd in sacred, ancient texts, too. A Hebrew prophet named Ezekiel speaks for the Shepherd who says:

I will rescue [my sheep] from all the places where they were scattered…I will
tend them in a good pasture…There they will lie down in good grazing land, and
there they will feed…I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down…I will
search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and
strengthen the weak… [3]

Because I hear these words, I choose to follow the Shepherd and to do as he did. I look for sheep that are scattered and looking for good pasture. I seek out the strays and welcome them back to the grazing land where there is good food. I speak words of encouragement and strength to the injured and the weak. I strive to be a doer and not a hearer only.

When I hear the Shepherd’s voice in the many places I go, I try to find ways to do as he did. I stoop down to pick up the fatherless child, to give the wayward stranger some direction and to be as humble and gracious as the thoughtful letter writer in prison. Because my Shepherd was humble [4], I too must take on that attitude daily. Because he was a servant [5], I too must stoop down to serve.

Do you hear the Shepherd’s voice? What is he saying to you?

(Blogger's note: I probably should have made this my first post, but I got ahead of myself with the first one titled "Prejudice Against the 'Unsaved'." Please accept my apologies, as this would have been a much better introductory post.)

[1] John 14:24
[2] Luke 6:46-49; James 1:22-27
[3] Ezekiel 34:12-16
[4] Philippians 2:5-8
[5] Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Prejudice Against the 'Unsaved'

The implication that one has "arrived" in the church’s long-held teaching on salvation is a dangerous one, I believe. It creates the divide between the saved and the unsaved. It is the "us versus them" mentality that is so pervasive in the world. And while Jesus paints such dichotomy in some of His parables, as in the sheep and the goats, I notice that He alone is the one who will divide them.

A friend of mine likes to say, "Jesus is the measure." In other words, He’s the measuring stick or shepherd’s staff, if you will, that will separate sheep from goat. I mean, for now, we are all lost sheep trying to hear and follow the Shepherd. It is not the job of sheep to know who the real goats are. The Shepherd will do the measuring and dividing. To some in His flock, He will say, "Depart from me. I never knew you."

The church’s problem, as I see it, is that it teaches mere sheep to believe we have transformed into little shepherds. This metamorphosis they believe occurs at an altar or wherever one says "the prayer." Because the sheep have arrived, we feel it is necessary to identify all the goats of the world and to convert them.

Those goats however don’t see themselves as such. They too are wandering sheep. They just haven’t tuned into the voice of their Shepherd. Many of them don’t believe He exists, so they continue to wander aimlessly. As sheep who believe we have found our way, we tend to hold prejudice toward the wanderers, those we think are goats.

Prejudice is never a good thing. In the hands of religious zealots, prejudice has sentenced many to death. Isn’t that what we do in the church? We condemn those who are unlike us. We judge fellow sheep for their inability to hear the Shepherd’s voice or to acknowledge that He exists. We take out the measuring stick of religion and tell them, "You don’t measure up." We label them goats and tell them of their sealed fate.

I think the church is rampant with this kind of prejudice. Rooted in fear, it keeps sheep locked up in pew-shaped pens, unable to relate to those on the outside. Prejudice pits us against them—sheep versus goat—in language, in thought and in deed. It stunts our growth. It limits our understanding. It chokes out compassion. It killed our Shepherd.

The next time you feel compelled to label someone "sinner," to judge them or to cast them aside, consider your Shepherd. He calls out to all sheep, "Follow me. I am the way." Let Him worry about who the goats are and simply love.