Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In need of affirmation

"So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God's Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, "Abba, Father." For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God's children."  Romans 8:15-16

So much depth in this statement. First, the spirit God has put in his is his own, as he considers us his children. This spirit can't lead us into slavery to fear, but liberates us and fills us with the courage that comes from knowing God loves us. And with this spirit inside us, we are able to cry out to the Creator of all things "Father, Dad."

But its the last verse that moves me. It promises that God's spirit comes alongside our own to convince us, assure us, and encourage us that we truly are God's children. Imagine, the Spirit of God himself at work within us just to strengthen our resolve that we truly belong to God.

This morning I was going about my morning routine. My one year old daughter was sitting on the floor, playing with toys. She looked up at me as I passed her several times. Finally I noticed her, staring up at me, her arms extended upwards in a way that screamed, "Pick me up! Hold me close! Kiss my cheeks!" I of course responded to her demands, hoisting her into my arms and cherishing the moment as she smiled and giggled.

That is when it hit me. My daughters know that I love them, and yet that doesn't remove their deep need to have that love affirmed. Not just once a year, either. Hourly. And it's not a duty for me-in fact, affirming my love for them is a big part of savoring, celebrating, and experiencing the fullness of that love.

And so I look at those verses in Romans with fresh eyes. Yes, God has called us out of darkness into light, from being strangers and enemies of God to being beloved children. And yes, he puts a spirit inside us that cries out to him, a spirit of sonship and not of fear. But still, given those truths, we need a regular experience of that love. We need to hear the Holy Spirit affirming that reality, the truth of who we are in Him, to our own spirit over and over and over again.

And that affirmation is one he is eager to give. He is a Father, after all, and his love needs be expressed. It is not any more weak or selfish for me to want my heavenly Father's affirmation than it would be for my daughter to seek mine. On the contrary, it honors him-it shows I believe he loves me and that he is kind enough to want to express it to me personally.

The life Christ has called us to live is incompatible with fear. Fear will choke it until it has no power, no impact on the world around us. If we are to follow him, we must be free. We must be trusting. We must be confident that we are his, that he is ours, and that his love for us will never end. And so we need him to pick us up and whisper to us-we need our spirits to be constantly affirmed by his. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Born Blind

The ninth chapter of John's gospel tells a story of a man born blind. When Jesus and the disciples walked past, the disciples leapt into an all too familiar (and futile) exercise of trying to answer the question of "why?" Why did this happen? If he was born blind, then was it perhaps because of his parents' sins? Or was it possible God knew in advance what type of person he would be, and therefore caused him to be born blind as a sort of preemptive judgement?

Jesus turns the question on its head. It had nothing to do with this man's sins, he claimed, nor his parents'. This blindness existed so that the power of God could conquer it.

The disciples, much like us, wanted someone to blame. They wanted to judge, as a way of making sense of the world. Jesus ignores that desire, and points to a greater reality. It is redemption, the transformative work of God in the earth, that should capture our atttention- after all, Christ came not to judge the world, but to save it.

What if we saw the world the way he did? What if we saw pain, evil, and injustice not as accusations against God and people, but as canvases upon which God was eager to paint his work of redemption? What if we are in fact the instruments of that art?

And so the story continues. Christ heals the blind man, causing a controversy among the religious elites. They step in, demanding the young man to tell them who did this miracle. "I do not know who he is," the healed man replied, "but this I know-I once was blind, but now I can see."

The response of the establishment is telling: "You were born a total sinner- and you try to teach us about God!" And they proceeded to cast him out of the religious community.

Christ returned to the now rejected young man, and as he revealed his identity the man cried out, "I believe!" And here Jesus delivers the point of the story: "I entered this world to render judgement-to give sight to the blind, and to show those who think they see how blind they truly are."

This is a story about different types of blindness. The man of course, had been physically blind his entire life. The religious leaders were blinded by an inflated sense of knowledge. Because they saw themselves as the righteous, the ones who had figured things out, they were unable to see God's power at work among them. They were unable to hear the blind man testify of God's goodness, because they refused to accept they had something to learn from a "sinner."

And the disciples were blind at well. They were blinded by their judgements, by their need to blame and have all the answers. Their blindness kept them from seeing how God wanted to reveal his glory right in front of them.

The difference between these three groups of blind people, though, was that the physically blind man knew he was blind. He would not have denied it, would not have defended himself. When Jesus told him to go wash his eyes, he did it, because he wanted to be healed.

This was the judgement that Christ came to bring: that those who know they are blind would see, and those who think they can see would discover their blindness. That the wisdom of the wise would be frustrated, and the folly of children would be exalted. That the weak and worthless things of the world would be revealed as great in the eyes of God.

The point of the story is not to figure out who to blame-in a sense we are all to blame, and in a sense none of us are. The point of the story is to open our eyes. To see the Kingdom of God breaking into our darkness, repainting the ugly places with color, raising the valleys and honoring the lowly. God's world is the opposite of ours, and we will never see it unless we are ready to admit that we were born blind. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Easter Reflections

So for months now I've been meditating (more than usual) upon the death and resurrection of Christ, as I assume this blog surely reflects. At the risk of being redundant, I will attempt to do so yet once more, and hopefully avoid merely restating what I have previously said.

The gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the early apostles is quite simple- God's Kingdom has come to earth, and God's King has been revealed. All of the sublime realities we often associate with the term "gospel" (justification by faith, forgiveness of sins, hope of eternal life, renewal by the Holy Spirit) are all streams branching from that one river.

And this gospel, this claim so utterly massive in terms of its implications for the design and destiny of humanity, is unique. There is something (probably many things, but for this entry's purpose one thing in particular) that makes it distinct from any competing existential claims: the gospel is rooted in a historical event. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is no message, no new kingdom, no new reality. If the man did not walk out of the tomb, there is no gospel. Or as Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless and you are still dead in your sins."

The event is fascinating first of all because it emerges from a rich prophetic tradition that points towards it. Isaiah 53 most pointedly depicts a suffering servant who would make many righteous, a lamb led to the slaughter who would be somehow buried both as a criminal and placed in a rich man's grave. Yet this poor martyr, who it claims God was pleased to crush, will see the light of life. He will see the results of his anguish and his soul will rejoice. His descendants will multiply and God's perfect will shall prosper in his hand. Such a cryptic, epic prophesy recorded more than half a millenium before Jesus should give us pause.

The death and resurrection of Christ did not emerge in a narrative vaccuum. It was in fact the beautiful and startling crescendo to a story several millenium in the making. The children of Abraham had been exiled, taken as slaves to live a humiliating existence at the hands of pagan overlords. Yet from the days of exile we see prophet after prophet predicting that God would vindicate his people and fulfill his covenant promises made to the great king David. A king would come, a Messiah, to vindicate the people, atone for sin, and establish a new Kingdom blessed by the ongoing favor of God.

It is into these hopes and longings that Jesus Christ emerges. A messiah preaching a new kingdom, a savior coming to atone and vindicate. Yet at the very moment where we expect Yahweh to send plagues on the Romans as he did on the Egyptians, we see Christ on the cross saying "Father, forgive them." Where many hoped for David to slay Goliath, the son of David commands "Go and disciple Goliath." This truly is a new type of kingdom, a new type of covenant, a fulfillment to the unfolding story that shocks us by telling us that this banquet God has planned is for all of us.

And so we see the Easter story as a crescendo of the great story of God and humanity, and yet the story does not end there. I call the resurrection a historical event because it had such a significant hand  in shaping the unfolding of history. The men and women who formed that first Christ-centered community in Jerusalem, many of whom went forth to proclaim the gospel around the ancient world, brought a new worldview into being. They did so for one reason only, they believed they saw Jesus Christ raised from the dead.

Sure, one might argue that because of their deep loyalty and affection for Jesus, the disciples stole his body, pretended he had raised from the dead, and carried the lie on for the rest of their lives. But it doesn't take too much imagination to come to the conclusion that people don't actually behave this way. Such a hoax lacks a clear motive, and would hardly drive one to martyrdom, the fate that awaited the vast majority of Christ's early followers.

The best explanation for early Christianity is that these ordinary men and women witnessed the thing they claimed to witness. That they, propelled by the Holy Spirit Christ promised to give them, went forth with that proclamation and transformed the Roman Empire. And that story of the gospel continues to unfold today. What might seem a far-fetched reality to the outsider, is unbelievably real and transformative for millions across the planet as we speak. From my own small vantage point I could speak of miraculous healings and deliverances from spiritual bondage, of dreams and visions of Jesus still changing lives today.

Easter morning for the disciples 2000 years ago meant a new kingdom, a new reality, a new life. It offers the same to us today. The kingdom has come, and it is here to stay.