Advent.

Advent, an event meaning “arrival”, no rival strong enough to keep this weakness out
Setting down clout and power, vulnerable as a flower
In a field, a creation to be healed, as his life peeled back the skin of what appeared,
It’s what the powers had feared, as his birth cleared paths for what could be.
Just when we thought we were knowing
Words became full and overflowing
Showing just what God meant when he spoke His love
What it looks like when down below is interrupted by up above
As the dove delivered hope to the ark, so this child embarked with hope
to stark lands flooded with sin
Revealed dry grounds of New Creation, where new life could begin
Where women and men, enemies and friends, poor and oppressed,
and those not well dressed
Where meek and overlooked, and those shook by the quakes of those in power –
would know now is the hour, now is the time of their release.
When strivings can cease, and peace arrives in moments mild,
a child too wild to explain, would be given the name Jesus.
Because he would save his people from their sins.

And so begins the story that breaks all mold, as it was told to shepherds and kings
And the truth still rings loudly in ways that offend the ear, God coming near,
Don’t Fear! Cried the angels, scaring those who gathered, as light shattered the darkness in ways unexplainable, the unattainable submitting to be contained,
as creation strained to hold in the divine

Lives like yours and mine still shutter at the mere uttering of
something so offensive
Apprehensive to understand where this could all be heading,
palms sweating as we know this child Mary is begetting is the one who calls
“Follow Me” to we who were once a stranger,
From the manger the call of the Son has begun, not waiting for us to understand,
but launching fully His Fathers’ plan. Not filled with demand,
but filled with invitation. Not mapping out implementation, but offering a heartbeat to echo, as we let go of our own rhythms, and discover the tune of New Creation.
A clear signal station broadcast in full surround,
seeds sown in the fertile ground of His Spirit.
We press into the crèche and begin to hear it.
Calling us to examine privilege and power,
the towers we’ve built remove us from those he loves
As we shove for views, or find more comfortable pews, we’re cruising right past
the injured brother, the least of these, the “other”, and as baby cries to mother
we realize this swaddled child inside has flung wide the gates,
we don’t wait long to deduce, that all Heaven has broken loose with what could be – the same word that spoke all things into being, now being held in the arms
of his creation. As this season offers to be more than vacation, and becomes a pause for all creation to remember: the day God became weak. Earth inherited by the meek, and the Word enfleshed can speak into our lives still this season.

What is the reason for His arrival this year?

Not that we fear falling short, for all have sinned and there’s no way we could ever begin to earn what was given by free grace, but place your arguments on hold, and let go of the bold claims you may have on what will be….to ask yourself with Mary – why me?

Why might God be keen to break from routine, and make a scene in the midst of your plans? To what lands might he call, and would you stall or fall in step behind, as he reminds you of the love with which he leads, the ways he intercedes on your behalf, the laugh of tiny baby – engulfed in manger, open to danger, knowing exactly how you feel. The connection is real. And so is his call – follow me.
Step out of comfort and power, step into the hour of shalom –
for the sake of your home becoming,
As drummer boys drumming remind you of the heartbeat of this season,
remember the reason.
May advent be more than just a word, but an absurd time of divine climbing into creation through the womb of your heart, and may it be the start of something New, as the Kingdom is proclaimed through you.

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Kingdom Trajectory of the Distanced

PSA: This is an oddly “nerdy” post. A paper I’ve recently written for class. Reading back over it, I thought “wow, I like that.” So I decided to share it with you.   This does not endeavor to explore all theological issues, or explain/cover all the breadth of topics involved in God’s activity.  It’s just another blip of a pixel on the moving picture of a church talking about God together. 🙂

INTRODUCTION

Dr. Ken Schenck has said that, within the Bible, you can find a kind of trajectory, a “flow of revelation.” There is throughout scripture a common direction, and unified revelation of the heart and mission of God’s loving activity. Because of this, it can be beneficial to examine a given specific pastoral issue not only in the light of a certain scripture; but illumined by the whole of scripture. By doing this, we can observe the connections between scriptures. We may also come to a fuller and enriched approach to our topic, given the broad scope of the library within the Bible.

The pastoral issue being examined here is: “What does effective Christian leadership from a distance entail?” Obviously the term “Christian” would not have existed in a pre-Jesus world, but we can apply the term broadly to describe the approach to leadership taken by God’s people. In modern contexts, we may have anything from local representation by video preaching, to a desired “virtual presence” by pastors on social media. Before we set expectations of ourselves, or those leading God’s people, it is important to examine how God’s people have led from a distance in scripture.

In this paper, we will examine briefly both Old and New Testament contributions to our understanding, as well as what both offer us moving forward. The history, present, and future of a God who personally embodies leadership both “among” and yet “from a distance” offers us both a hope and a shape for our lives as we join His redemptive activity for Kingdom coming.

OLD TESTAMENT

Shaped by Law

After the fall in Genesis, Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23). This creates a problem of “distanced” relationships that must for the first time be overcome. Relationships with each other, creation itself, and most importantly God, experienced a distancing caused by sin. Because of this, sacrificial systems are put into place, humanity must work the ground, and relationships are obviously strained and require more purposeful work than before.

This pattern continues with Abram, where within the span of just a few verses God calls Abram away from the land of his father and family (Genesis 12:1), and later promises that through Abram all the families of earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3) We can assume that “all” here encompasses his own family, and so we have a story of God’s people being drawn away for the purposes of being used to reach those they’re distanced from.

As the story of God’s people continued, distance continues to be a problematic result of a broken world. As a result, God’s people are enslaved by fellow humanity, but finally “set free” as God moves on their behalf, and begins to reveal himself as wanting to “re-place” the people closer to Him as he tabernacles among them. (Exodus 25:8) Doing so, God also offers words that are to shape His people as unique among all people. He gives His people the Law, by which they will be shaped uniquely as His chosen. Christian leadership from a distance begins here to take a unique shape of passing on, or declaring uniquely, the words given by a God who shapes His people by the Law. The same power found in God declaring “Let there be Light” (Genesis 1:3) is now seen in commands such as “Honor your Father and Mother”. (Exodus 20:12) God is conquering distance by shining uniquely through the light of His people into the darkness of a broken humanity.

The power of “word”, then, continues through the story of God’s people. When they listen and allow themselves to be shaped by His Words, they experience the blessings of a distance rendered powerless. When they forget or neglect these words, they find themselves struggling. Into such moments, God often sends someone to speak on His behalf. We see this happening in Jeremiah, as God speaks to His people living in exile. Even though they’re distanced once more from the “promised land”, God reminds them they needn’t be distanced from the careful ways He has shaped them as His own. Through the prophet Jeremiah, they are reminded of their identity and told that through the ways they honor God, the physical distance is rendered powerless. Even the distance of time itself is robbed of it’s power, as God promises that in 70 years He will restore His people.

Revelation of God

It’s important for us to remember in all of this, that even as God works to reconcile great distances, it is not only for those He is communicating with in that moment. As we saw in His words to Abram, through God’s people ALL families of the earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3) Throughout the Old Testament we see God revealing Himself in unique ways through things like dreams (Numbers 12:6), visions (Isaiah 1:1), and the words of the prophets (2 Samuel 23:2). God wasn’t attempting to remain a mystery only to be unlocked by those who could decipher His ways. Gods’ desire was to be known, His Love experienced, and His people to join with Him, even and especially to those who still seemed most “distanced”. (Isaiah 58:6-8)

In practical terms, often physical distances were handled with words as well, in the forms of written word. In 2 Chronicles 30:1 we read, “Hezekiah sent word to all Israel and Judah and also wrote letters to Ephraim and Manasseh, inviting them to come to the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem and celebrate the Passover to the LORD, the God of Israel.” (NIV) This is a great example and reminder that most often when someone is offering Christian Leadership from a distance, it comes in a form of invitation to counter that distance either by actual travel, or symbolically by responding to a specific call to respond toward God’s desire – as in Esther 9:30-31, “And Mordecai sent letters to all the Jews in the 127 provinces of Xerxes’ kingdom—words of goodwill and assurance— to establish these days of Purim at their designated times, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther had decreed for them, and as they had established for themselves and their descendants in regard to their times of fasting and lamentation.” As the festivals of God’s people were celebrated, His people were united across physical location and generations, thwarting any power of time and space to distance God’s people from each other, relating well to creation, or the joy of His loving desire for their lives.

NEW TESTAMENT DEVELOPMENTS

Shaped by the Law Fulfilled

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17, NIV) Jesus helps open the New Testament by providing continuity to a God who offered the law as a response to the brokenness of humanity and a people being called out for the sake of all others. Now these people would have a “living word” (John 1:14, NIV) through whom God was communicating a living version of that which the law, comparatively, had only begun to reveal.

The power and presence of the word continued to grow at this point, as Jesus invited humanity to “Follow me”, and transformed this group of people by removing the power of distance – both physical/literal, and figurative/spiritual. This continues even after his death and resurrection, as the Holy Spirit empowers and continues through all people what had begun in Christ. As Paul writes a letter to the early church in Ephesus, he shares a prayer that they would receive a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” (Ephesians 1:17) for the purposes of knowing God better. Such knowing is in direction of defeating any power of distance, and bringing invitation to receive the hope of that which Paul saw as the direction of God’s activities found earlier in that same chapter. “when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:10, NIV)

With this new understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law, the growing collection of writings seem to shift. Now centered on Jesus, the focus moves beyond understanding how to follow commands and measure requirements for cleanliness, toward communicating and proclaiming the Lordship, Love and New Creation Life found in this community shaped by following Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit. As the temple curtain is torn, we understand the distance between humanity and God has been transformed forever in important ways. No longer exiles, all were now invited and given place at the banqueting table of the Kingdom of Jesus (Matthew 22).

Revelation of God in Jesus

As the Kingdom trajectory of those formed by the living Word of God continued, it grew increasingly important for the word to be shared exponentially throughout a humanity that was now completely engulfed in invitation to New Creation. Especially in the beginning, the number of people who had heard or experienced Jesus first-hand was incredibly small. Still, the desire for God to be known and revealed is powerful, with all the resources of humanity and creation at God’s whim. Transforming lives such as Saul/Paul, God discovered and created unique ways to spread the knowledge and faith of Jesus Christ throughout the ancient world. This happened both through letter writing, experiences of lives transformed/made new, and simply population growth in areas where humanity flourished.

The letters of Paul make up about ¼ of the New Testament itself, and in them we have revelations of God and his heart for a creation made new. His focus on the good news of Jesus Christ was central to the development of the early church. As John MacArthur writes, “Virtually every one of Paul’s New Testament epistles defends and clarifies some crucial point of doctrine germane to the gospel message.” (MacArthur, 2017)

This pattern of Christian leadership from a distance continues throughout the New Testament, even through to the final book “Revelation” written by John from the island of Patmos. In a series of letters meant to traverse great distances of time/space/brokenness, he is instructed to write letters to seven churches. Each of those letters communicate important truths to the global church today, seeking to faithfully follow, proclaim, and embody the Love of a God who is omnipresent. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are connected and able to connect others to this New Creation. As scripture reminds us, “If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) This “life of the age to come” is something mysteriously connected to and transforming the words we speak and write, in many of the same ways as those original words “Let there be light.” (Genesis 1:3)

CONCLUSION

“According to the book of Revelation, Jesus died in order to make us not rescued nonentities, but restored human beings with a vocation to play a vital part in God’s purposes for the world.” (Wright, 2017) This is not a “new idea”, but rather something God has been actively pursuing and bringing about for thousands of years already (Ephesians 1:5). Even from the beginnings of distance caused by sin, God was working to bring redemption and healing to the brokenness.

Of all the debatable elements found in specific types, styles, and methods of Christian leadership from a distance then, we have discovered at least this one thing: Christian leadership from a distance always seeks to bridge distance and separation, uniting that which has been impacted by sin, and bringing all things to respond to His invitation and declaration that Jesus is now Lord of all. By our words and actions we declare that distance retains no power in the realities defined by Jesus.

“Christian leaders guide from a distance by reminding recipients in letters that God overcomes distance by being near to us no matter where we are, and by uniting believers who are distant with the same hope, same word, same Holy Spirit, same stories of deliverance, and same celebrations of festivals.” (D. Freemyer, personal communication, December 3, 2017) We are drawn together, united across time and space, and beyond any power of sin to hold us back. By the Holy Spirit of Jesus we have access to the throne of God, the Life of the Age to come, and are set free from the constraints and futures determined by the brokenness of sin. In Jesus, we are invited and empowered to exist and communicate as living declarations of a fully revealed future – “undistanced” from each other, from New Creation, and from God.

RESOURCES:

MacArthur, John. (2017). The Gospel According to Paul. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Press, A. (2003). New Interpreter’s Study Bible-NRSV. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Wright, N.T. (2017). The Day the Revolution Began. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne.

the end of not knowing you.

We’ve hit an important mark in the long road of our journey together.

It was Thanksgiving break, 1999, somewhere in Holt, Michigan.  I was using the internet in the closet-turned-office of my friend Marcus.  A few of us who were close in high school were trying to hang out and pretend we were all still just as cool as a year ago.  Well, they were still cool at least.  I had become unmoored, and was splashing in the ocean of college life.   We’d returned from a White Castle and Meijer adventure together, and were just chillin’ quietly upstairs.

But in that closet, “chaddlz” was talking to “SNicol99” on AOL Instant Messenger.  I remember shushing the guys when I realized she was “online”, so I could focus.  Here was my moment.  I was going to ask this ridiculously pretty girl who was passionate for Jesus if she’d want to do something together.  ONU had a “Christmas Banquet” each year, where we’d get all fancified to eat and pretend we weren’t bummed we couldn’t dance together.

Of course, I didn’t want to come on too strong.  “I think it’d be fun to go to the Christmas banquet together.” (I should have left it there….but I was freaking out.  My pulse was pounding, my hands were sweaty, and I was praying “the guys” wouldn’t come wonder what I was doing…so I kept typing.)  “..You know, just as friends?”

Regretting those last 5 words, I’d spend the next several days searching for opportunity to talk about “us” in some way or another.  Like a desperate gold miner, searching for any sign that he was close to a fortune, I sifted through conversation.  Finally it happened. On December 6th, 1999, we talked about “what we were looking for” in someone, someday….as if neither of us were considering the person we were talking to.  She practically dropped it in my lap…”..you know, the kind of person I can grow closer to God with.  The kind of person I could do devotions with.”

The best/worst pick-up line ever used in 90’s teenage Christian culture was obviously my best and most genuine option:  “So…would you want to start doing devotions together?”

“I would like that very much.”

I’m pretty sure the smile of my heart would’ve made Mickey Mouse seem depressed.  We attended a Christmas jazz concert that weekend, where the song of my heart’s joy was too loud to hear any instruments.  So here we are, over 18 years later.  We have finally known each other longer than we’ve not known each other.  Not sure if that’s a “thing” people have a word for, but I’m celebrating it.  This woman has helped me learn more about the love of God, and challenged me to continue in pursuing Him together.   I’m incredibly blessed, and thankful.

Why Does God…

In class this month, we’re studying theories of the atonement. It’s really big worded stuff (actually a great book) about why smart people think Jesus did what he did the way he did. It’s easy to shrug it off as unimportant, but as I spend time reading the words about theories like “Christus Victor”, “Penal Substitution”, “Healing View”, and “Kaleidoscopic View” – I’m struck by just how huge a thing God has accomplished, and continues to accomplish through Jesus. Sin has actually been defeated. Death has no victory. Jesus has suffered, and we no longer need to. We have been reconciled with each other, creation, and most importantly – God. There are great reminders from each of these theories – each of which is humanity wanting to know God more fully.

It can be done wrong, when it’s a quest to assert our position as “The One” that’s right. When we’re trying to formulate an argument or assemble evidence toward our opinion of the divine. It can be akin to Adam and Eve wanting to assert their own knowledge in the garden as superior to Gods’.

But it can be done well, also. I love my wife. I want to know everything about her, and the motivations of her heart. I want to know why she chooses certain things and certain ways. I want to know – not because I want to possess knowledge or control, but because I love.

I think this is why the new song by Waterdeep connected with me as I listened this morning. The words of Mary in response to what God is doing through Jesus and through her. It’s vulnerable. She seeks to understand, even as she’s honest about her vantage point.

In the midst of writing academic papers, and using limited words to discuss the divine – I want to shove it all aside and sing. To hear song. To recognize for a moment that this right here is a vital part of “doing theology faithfully”. I doubt I’d get an “A” if I submitted an mp3 instead of my next paper, but I can certainly hum this as I click “submit”. 🙂

I hope it finds your heart and life this week, as we begin the Advent season preparing our lives & homes to receive Christ anew…

leading from behind…

We carried them.

Then they began to wobble forward.

Next, they grabbed our hands as we ran together.fallersons

Now – they run ahead.

It can be easy to feel like my job is done, but any parent will be quick to remind – we’ve still only just begun.  Walking is not the goal…just another part of the journey.  I love to watch them wander through the woods.  To watch them play, and see the sparks of wonder inspire flames of imagination.  It’s fulfilling, to offer them the ability to lead as we take to the forest, and see them choose paths both winding and well-defined.

There are so many pressures today to grow the next generation of world-changers.  To mold them into products that are marketable on the future economies of skill and value competitions.  To form them into athletic renaissance machines that can out-perform the others and shine in ways that obviously deserve scholarship money.

I’ll confess – I’m not immune to this.  Even in realms of spiritual maturity, there are major parts of me that want my kids to shine with the love of Jesus.  Not for healthy reasons, but to show the world – here, is a product I’ve helped create and offer my fellow humanity as proof of my/our worth.

So every once in a while, on purpose, I slow down.  I watch.  I absorb their wonder.  I stop measuring things and start inefficiently using time with them.  Another confession – I don’t do this enough.  I’m busy.  I’m a student.  I’m a pastor.  I’m a husband.  I’m a ________.

All of that to say – I hadn’t said anything much about parenting in a while, and this was originally a parenting blog. 🙂  So I figured I would remind the reader – I’m still a parent.   I’m not winning any awards, but my kids seem to be increasing in love.  My wife and better half probably deserves a TON of that credit, as she gets the most time at home with them.  But I’ll take a little.  And I’ll watch them run ahead with her, and pause to be thankful for it all..

Reformation

In the past, I’d probably not paid enough attention in Church history. I’d imagined the moment of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses (click here to read them!) to the Wittenburg door in Germany to be a moment of defiance. After all, who would drive a nail through a giant wooden door of a holy place?
GMA_9785-SAs it turns out, it was the proper way to go about doing what he was aiming to do. The door in question was used as a giant “Bulletin Board” of sorts, for the academic world to post inquiries, and where professors would post their intended curriculum.

As “History.com” writes...”Luther more likely hung the document on the door of the church matter-of-factly to announce the ensuing academic discussion around it that he was organizing.

The 95 Theses, which would later become the foundation of the Protestant Reformation, were written in a remarkably humble and academic tone, questioning rather than accusing. The overall thrust of the document was nonetheless quite provocative. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith alone, and not deeds, would lead to salvation. The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two.

In addition to his criticisms of indulgences, Luther also reflected popular sentiment about the “St. Peter’s scandal” in the 95 Theses:

Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?

The 95 Theses were quickly distributed throughout Germany and then made their way to Rome. In 1518, Luther was summoned to Augsburg, a city in southern Germany, to defend his opinions before an imperial diet (assembly). A debate lasting three days between Luther and Cardinal Thomas Cajetan produced no agreement. Cajetan defended the church’s use of indulgences, but Luther refused to recant and returned to Wittenberg.”

Here we find an important question for our churches today: Are we places where the “Luthers” of our day find a welcome environment for questioning the status quo? What are our “sacred areas” that we feel we must protect to keep our integrity intact, and what are we willing to open for well-intentioned debate/change? I hope and pray we continue to be a place where conversations can question why we do what we do, with the resources we’ve been given. A place where we can search the scriptures together to see how we might more faithfully respond to the loving invitation of Jesus to both further and announce New Creation.

Love & Belonging

I know most of us these days enjoy captivating, attractive speakers who entertain and inspire. Or perhaps we enjoy well-proven theologians/scholars with shelves of published achievements, or a blog with millions of followers. But there is a growing necessity for us to listen to those who quietly serve with the heart of Jesus, without seeking fame or notoriety. Here are some phrases I pulled out to whet your appetite – but I encourage you to watch…there’s much more within…

“Each person is precious. We’re in a world filled with communication, but frightened of presence. People don’t get lost, if there are enough people to hold their hands. Young people become lost in a world where the only objective is “normality”, success, economy, power, & control.

Community is not the place of security, community is necessarily the place where there can be divisiveness; cause community is about welcoming difference…Unity comes as we learn to live difference.”

For anyone who loves Jesus…church…community…Henri Nouwen…etc.

Or for anyone who really despises church or religion or even what they’ve heard of Jesus…

This is incredibly good to watch:

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