Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A belief that matters

If you believe the search for God, or an ongoing life of faith walking with him, is easy, then you probably aren't really trying to do it. Certainly there are moments of exultation- truly divine moments of experiencing friendship and unity with the maker of heaven and earth. But there are also times of great uncertainty and confusion, difficult questions that are often painful to even begin to wrestle with.

The hiddenness of God's kingdom can open the door to all types of doubts. It can become tempting to take on a soft, warm, general sense of faith without the sharp conviction of believing that God is a certain way, that there is a certain way to please him, and it actually matters what you believe and how you live. Most of our world, religious and non-religious, is sliding into this fuzzy gray cloud of toothless spirituality. In essense, this spirituality would say "What I or anyone else believes does not matter. All that matters is sincerity and finding what works for you." It is essentially post-modern spiritual relativism.

I sympathize with this world-view, and I fully understand why it is popular. However, it is a world-view that is imcompatible with being a follower of Jesus.

I can sum up why in one word: resurrection.

The message of Christ and his Kingdom is unique in this sense among others- it draws its meaning and authority from a historical event. All our New Testament writings, the very early history of the church, is rooted in a strong, odd conviction that a carpenter from Galilee walked out of his grave.

Now, one might easily say, "That does sound a bit preposterous, doesn't it? I have never held a belief that people can walk out of their graves, and I don't know why I would start now. Jesus might have been an astounding teacher, maybe even a miracle worker of sorts, but I don't believe he rose from the dead." If you take this stance, and I understand why one might, then you can throw the rest of Christ's message away with it. Put him in the category of Socrates-great teacher, shame the old guard ganged up on him-and learn what you might from him, but he has no more spiritual authority to guide your life than your pyschologist does.

But we should pause before we toss the resurrection, and with it the Kingdom of God, in the dumpster. We should consider that history gives us no other coherent, compelling explanation for the rise of early Christianity than the resurrection. Many so called witnesses of the event gave their lives for it. The testimony was powerful enough to convince many a wealthy Roman pagan to accept a Jewish teacher as their true Caeser. The historical record doesn't make sense if we are talking about some sort of bizarre hoax (what would motivate such a hoax anyway?). These early disciples preached and sacrificed and in most cases died based on a testimony: "He has risen from the dead, and we have seen him."

Has any such claim been made before with such intense passion and vigor, and by so many? Not to mention the fact that this resurrection fulfilled (in many surprising ways) the cryptic promises of thousands of years of Old Testament scripture. There is something strange happening here, if we will let ourselves admit it. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, as miraculous and shocking as it may be, is the best answer we have to explain all that happened immediately after it.

And if it really happened, if Jesus of Nazareth really walked out of his grave, then it is spiritual relativism that we must toss in the garbage. How might we believe that our beliefs and actions don't really matter, if the man who conquered death claims that they most certainly do? How can we pretend that God is a vague, abstract idea, if the Risen Christ has been revealed? No, the resurrection is a iron nail holding the spiritual world and our own tightly together. We now have a frame of reference for where truth begins and lies end, a light to guide us out of the haze.

The resurrection of Jesus either happened or it didn't. Our ancient accounts report that many claimed they saw him, even when such a claim cost them their life. Lean into that reality for a moment. Imagine you are one of those disciples. Imagine you are crushed with disappointment when your beloved leader is nailed to a cross. Then imagine the flood of unimaginable, even frightening, joy you feel when you sit with him, very much alive. Suddenly God might truly be as magnificent and amazing as you have always tried to believe he is. Suddenly you realize with deep conviction that all things are possible, and that your great never-ending adventure with God is only beginning.

As you can see, such a belief matters. Such a belief changes you.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

God on the inside

Hundreds of years before Jesus, the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision. He saw God's temple, which at the time was destroyed, rebuilt. Water flowed through it, from underneath the altar where sacrifices were made, out the door and into the world. At first it was a small stream flowing forth, only up to the prophet's ankles. Soon it was at his knees. Then his waist. Then he was swimming to keep his head above water.

And this river erupting forth from the place of God's presence was no ordinary river! It was a river of transformation and life. It literally began reshaping the geography of the region around it. The Dead Sea suddenly teemed with fish. Trees began to spring forth on the river's banks- trees whose leaves could heal and whose fruit could nurture.

It was a stirring, inspiring vision, but like most visions it was unclear what it meant. Was it literal? Would God birth a new physical river that would reshape the Middle East? Perhaps, but if we know the Lord of parables and mysteries, we should expect something else is happening here.

Fast forward half a millenium. Jesus, the Messianic figure who somehow fulfilled and hinted to so many of these ancient prophetic signposts, is at a festival. He stands up on a table and shouts to the crowd: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! He who believes in me, as the scriptures have promised, will have a river of living water flowing from his inner-most being!"

Ah ha. Now the picture gets clearer.

The passage goes on to tell us that this river is, as we most likely assumed, not literal. It is the Holy Spirit- the companion and advocate Jesus promises to give his disciples later in John. In Luke it is the "promised gift of the Father" that serves to "clothe with power from on high." In Acts it is the miracle of Pentecost, when a wind and fire descend on the praying disciples, when deep boldness is stirred within their hearts, when they began speaking in languages they do not know, and the church is strangley thrust into existence.

And in John 7, the Spirit is Ezekiel's river. It is a fountain that has the power to change our environment. The power to bring healing and nurturing in places of barreness. The power to create life where only death reigned. And the place these miraculous waters spring forth from is within us- within the inner-most part of our very beings.

I want you to imagine for a moment the magnitude of this proposition. The clear message of scripture (whose groundwork was clearly laid in the Old Testament but that comes into striking clarity in the new) is that human beings are capable of two types of living: we can live with God's river inside of us, or we can live without it.

We are then like appliances who are fully capable of existing with or without the animating force of electricity. Like cars that may contain fuel (better yet, an engine) or not. And like the appliance and automobile, though we might exist without the river of life within us, we will exist on a plane far below our purpose. Like an unplugged blow-dryer whose buttons do nothing but click meaninglessly, we will alway wonder if there weren't something more to this whole mystery called existence.

And it is in that place, that place of dissatisfaction with ordinary life that Jesus might call 'thirst', that John 7, Ezekiel 47, and the Day of Pentecost all cry out to us with a resounding "Yes! There is more! There is joy and power and hope to be had on the inside! There is a filling of God's Spirit that brings to life every gift you possess, every wholesome desire that beckons you, every sincere love that defines you!" It whispers to us like Gandalf whispered to the reluctant Mr. Baggins: "There is more to you than you think." 

This Spirit is more than positive self-talk. It is more than good energies and vibes. This is a person- he is the Spirit of God himself. We cannot will him into us, or create him on our own terms. We must come to him, surrender, and allow him to consume us. We must drink, and be filled. And Christ has made it clear where this Spirit can be found.

And so I leave you with this final astounding proclamation from the Book of John.

"For [Christ] utters the words of God, and he gives the Holy Spirit without limit." (‭John‬ ‭3‬:‭34‬)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

When Thinking Fails Us

In that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do. (‭Luke‬ ‭10‬:‭21‬)

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through human reasoning, it pleased God through the apparent foolishness of what we preach to save those who believe. (‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1‬:‭20-21‬)

Jesus and Paul both make this abundantly clear- our ability to reason, to think it all through logically and figure everything out, is overrated. In fact, the above verses seem to indicate God makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to come to know him through analytical thinking. We can't come to God the way we might decide where to study or which hotel to stay at on vacation. We can't line up the facts and sift through the data and then simply go with the best bet. Both passages actually claim  that  God is pleased to thwart our purely mental efforts to figure him out!

Our nature is generally tempted to try to be smarter than God. To think we are wiser, or more conscientious, or more progressive, than God. To think that our own minds are trustworthy enough to land us in the right place.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. With all humanity's philosophy and brilliance, no one in the ancient world was able to correctly discover what God was like. Plato and Socrates, Bhudda and Confucius, with all their instructive discoveries and realizations, were not able to reason themselves into the knowledge of the covenant keeping creator, the redeemer who loves us with unfailing love. No, it took something that challenged everything our human reasoning thought it understood. It took a miracle working carpenter walking out of his grave three days after his execution and saying, "Now you know what God is like. He is better than you thought. He is forgiving and extravagant, sacrificial and empowering. He is love."

It's not highly developed thinking that leads us to God, and be thankful for it! That would be a God for only the intelligent and the privileged, not a God for all of us. But God the father of Jesus is a God we come to know only when we humble ourselves, admit we don't know it all and can't figure it out, and then meet with the risen Jesus. We are no different than the disciples- we need an encounter with the resurrected King if we are ever to see clearly.

And such an encounter is exactly what Jesus invites us to come, as children, and receive.