Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Imperfect Past

It's been a heck of a few weeks. We just moved into a new townhouse, which, while only a mile or so from our old apartment and very nice, still requires going through the whole moving "thing". Boxes like Tribbles take over your dwelling and you experience a radical sense of disconnect and disquiet in your life. The move went well and we were getting back to a semblance of routine and Memorial weekend hit. Not only was there a funeral of a dearly loved member of church (who had died suddenly), but an election for a new bishop, as well as the requisite BBQ on Monday. Just a crazy handful of days.

All this is to point me to the fact that we are creatures who are forced to remember. We are rooted in the past. Who we are today - with all our "issues", fears, shortcomings, and even joys - are almost entirely the product of our past. It is the unavoidable reality of life that the present is always flying past us into the past (the present is always becoming the past), and we are irrevocably people of the past. Never mind what Garth says ("live in the now!" - Wayne's World), everything we deal with, or rather, how we deal with everything, is phenomenally dependent on what happened in our past.

Furthermore, very few people that I meet who are "dealing" with stuff in the present, have difficulties and challenges in dealing because they had such a wonderful high school graduation. Or really enjoyed their cotton candy at a beautiful day at the zoo in fourth grade. Just about everyone I know (including myself) who is struggling to deal with something in the now is struggling not because of a positive thing from their past but a negative.

We are creatures formed and sculpted by the past. But we are creatures who are undeniably formed particularly by the negative things in our past. Not 100% shaped by the negative, but without a doubt upper 90s%. Why do some women fear and even hate men? Not because of a positive thing from their past, but a negative. Why do some people have a really hard time opening up in a relationship? Not because of positive things in their past but negative - a bad breakup/rejection in high school, or perhaps experiencing a divorce in the family.

For God to be Gospel he has to be able to impact us not just today but also yesterday (and tomorrow too for that matter, but for now I'm not going to focus on the future aspects of the Gospel, but the past). Jesus said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). If I was meeting with someone who was struggling with something and they were bearing their soul and I were to respond, "I hear what your saying, that's really heavy. Let me ask you this: have you tried being perfect? Why don't you go home today and try being perfect for the next few days and see what that does for your situation." If you were that person you'd want to slap me, wouldn't you?!

The reason being is that the demand to be perfect, whether from counselors, friends, or even God, does not do anything to help you in a season of distress. If anything, all it does is crush your soul. And we all know this because our pasts are littered with the strewn carcasses of our failure to be perfect. Our pasts are searing indications of our imperfection. When Jesus says, "Be perfect," it is not a suggestion, nor hyperbole for literary effect or shock value, but the simple truth. The righteous demands of God in our lives are simply summed up in the demand: Be Perfect. In the end, however, this demand only crushes us, it does not inspire. We can fake ourselves into being inspired, but that only prolongs the inevitable.

What the crushing weight of "Be Perfect" does to us is forces us to cry for a savior. In the face of my history of imperfection I am forced to cry out "Save me!" Save me from my past, from my failures, from myself. Your past, when truly remembered, experienced, and exposed, will force you to either lie (to yourself and others) or to cry "Mercy!"

Incidentally, the only person who could take that demand and say, "yes" is the one who said it: Jesus. And it is Jesus, the Perfect one, who ends up loving the imperfect and also dying for their imperfections. And what happens when you trust this radical truth? When you remember your failures, you will not only see them for what they are, but you will also see him. The pain and frustration don't necessarily go away, but under the cool shadow of the cross, something else becomes present in our past - peace, and love. The sense of fear or loss or sorrow doesn't evaporate, but rather something covers it over like a balm, so that when you revisit those emotions and memories, the sting is not as sharp.

This is a taste of the peace which passes all understanding. When an utter Failure finds they are loved by the complete Success, that is called grace, and grace heals. Grace soothes, and by the power of Jesus' own Spirit, grace changes. That is why when Christians remember, they don't just remember their failures (like in a worship service during the confession), but they go way back to remember the Cross where the righteous died for the unrighteous, so that the negative, formative failures of the past might be mended by undaunted love..."love to the loveless shown that they might lovelier be".

Mike, we love you and we miss you but you are with Christ, which is better by far.

Monday, May 5, 2008


When did you last take a survey or a test or questionnaire where you had to fill out the personal identity section? You know the ones where you have to check the box on your gender, ethnicity, economic range, etc. Did you know that a few years ago in England the census had a write-in space for the category of religion, and enough people put "Jedi Knight" that the government legally had to recognize it as a religion! Interesting tales in the world of identity...

If you are a Christian, how often, if ever, do you think of your primary identity as "disciple". One of the last things Jesus ever said to his followers before he left the earth and ascended into heaven was, "make disciples of all nations". He wanted his disciples to make more disciples. The intentional life lived as a follower of Jesus, i.e. a disciple, i.e. a Christian, is aften called discipleship. When most Christians hear about "discipleship" there is typically one of two reactions: The Monty Python Reaction, or The Pat Benatar Reaction. The first reaction is embodied by Graham Chapman's King Arthur in , "Run awwwaaayyyy!". The second reaction is embodied by the hit 80s song, "Hit me with your best shot."

The first reaction is often the most common because most people, at the end of a long day don't want another list of "do's" they have to be subjected to. So when the crazy demon bunny jumps at their neck with a laundry list for being a good Christian, they 'Run Away."

Then there's the second reaction. It springs from the person who views discipleship as a list of accomplishments, so "hit me with your best shot," as in, I can take it. Like Happy Gilmore in the batting cage getting ready for next year's hockey season their Christian faith is lived out with rigorous devotions or even spiritual disciplines with the understanding that the more you do the better you become.

Both reactions derive from viewing discipleship through the Law. Discipleship is about doing a list of things (that list changes depending on who you talk to, BTW). Not that any of these things, like prayer, studying Scripture, meditation, or fasting are bad, but discipleship does not begin nor end with them.

Most answers to the question "What is a disciple of Jesus" focus on what to do. That is to say, the task of making disciples involves tips on better Bible study and prayer and ideas for outreach or worship. If you do these things then you are a disciple, if you get better at them that is called discipleship.

There is certainly plenty for disciples of Jesus to do, and really ought to do - this is what I call "doing disciples". But there is another, more important dimension called "being disciples." In the Christian life all doing, if it is to be good 'doing', must flow from a right being. A disciple of Jesus is first and foremost a receptacle of the Gospel of Jesus, that is, being justified (set right) by God's grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). All disciple 'doing' must come from this.

In Philippians 3:3-6 the Apostle Paul is describing his life under the Law. Granted, he is referring to his status and behavior as a devout Jew before his conversion on the Damascus road, but he is not lifting that life up as the way to be a better Christian. Quite the opposite, in fact. He notes his (former) confidence in his lineage of the right people and right tribe and his zeal for what mattered most: keeping the mandates of God (i.e. keeping the Law)

But then he discovers, or rather it was revealed to him, that what he thought mattered the most in fact mattered the least. His status, standing, and pursuit of the law, he realized, did not matter. Why? If you give me a list of things to do and I am able to do them, what happens in my mind is that the list becomes the source of my goodness. You gave me all these things to do, I have done them (or at least think I have done them), and on the basis of that list do I begin to think of myself as good and righteous.

But for Paul this was the worst place to be in, because in the end, when someone relies on the Law for righteousness, they will eventually see themselves as the source of their own righteousness. Furthermore, life continually presents you with failures not success. To think that one can consistently keep God's Law and be righteous in His sight according to the Law is a serious case of denial. What Paul realizes is his need for a new source of righteousness.

In Philippians 3:7-15 Paul talks of discipleship under grace. He counts everything as a loss compared to knowing Christ. That is to say, he rejects all other sources of righteousness apart from faith in Christ. He considers all other sources as dung (the original Greek is actually more explicit, but you get the picture). He wants to know the power of Jesus' resurrection and to share in Jesus' sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, not in His success. This new way of looking at his life blew all of Paul's old performances out of the water. And what did that produce in him? Joy!

In the end, then, all discipleship "doing" must be things which redirect you to the things in the preceding paragraph, and must flow from them. Worshipping, serving, studying the Bible, and inviting others with this Gospel message are the "do's" of discipleship, and they are good. But unless you understand and are redirected, daily, to God's grace in Jesus Christ you will implode.

Let me close with this one last thought. When a crisis hits, what you and I need to know is that we are loved, not evaluated. I recently watched a movie called "Relative Strangers" with Kathy Bates, Danny DeVito, and Neve Campbell. Great cast, absolutely awful movie. I actually couldn't finish it because the acting and the story were soooooo bad. Not profane or gross, but just really bad (see trailer). The main character plays a self-help psychologist who's message (and recently published book) is "Ready, Set, Let Go!". While on a radio broadcast he leads his listener audience through this simple mental exercise to "let go" and the scenes cut to people screaming in traffic and family members fighting. They are listening to the broadcast, go through his steps, and find calm. And then two seconds later get cut off by another car and start screaming all over again. It actually makes you laugh, but only because we all know how true it is and have been there ourselves. The point is this, that peace does not come from within, by following steps, but from without - from Christ. Thus discipleship is first and foremost no what you can do (with five easy steps!), but what Christ has done and being connected and reconnected with Him.

[In the next part of our discussion on discipleship, "Disciples of Grace", we'll take a look at this dynamic between the madness within and the remedy without, and just how radical grace really is]

Crazy Bible Verses

A friend of mine sent me a link to this page on Cracked magazine's website. These are the Bible verses that would never be read in Church, even bible-based evangelical churches. My only regret about this article, which i belive is written by a non-Christian, is that i didn't write it!