Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

Shakespeare, Scripture And Blankets In The Park

Two weeks ago Julie and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by attending a performance of As You Like It in Piedmont Park. The experience reminded me of a few things that might be applied to the church. Here are three.

1. When insight into human nature is combined with humor, the impact can be profound. Some say Shakespeare is inaccessible because the language is unfamiliar to modern ears. They complain that it’s hard to understand and boring. I”ll be the first to admit that until we get familiar with Shakespeare’s vocabulary and rhythms of language, it can be difficult to read the words on the page. But when those words are skillfully acted out on stage, it’s a completely different story. Even then, the unfamiliar language could leave the stories inaccessible if the stories and characters didn’t connect with us on a fundamental level; but they do!

Shakespeare In The Park

Shakespeare had a genius gift for portraying characters with depth and true to life emotions, fears, temptations, jealousies, and hopes.  While watching As You Like It, I was struck by how closely the humanity of the characters on the stage resembled my own. Equally intriguing was the sharp wit of the characters. Humor and a keen insight into what makes us tick can make a lasting impression on an audience.

At church we tell stories that many people argue are inaccessible. People say they don’t read the Bible because it’s hard to understand or boring. And that might be true if the stories and characters didn’t connect with us on a fundamental level: but they do!

The good thing about the Bible is we have characters with depth and true to life emotions to work with.  And we have the chance every Sunday, through skillful storytelling, humor and insight to connect the humanity of Holy Scripture with our own humanity–the chance to leave a lasting impression for Christ.  As Christians that is both our obligation and our privilege.

2. The more things change, the more they stay the same. A lot has changed in the last 400 years. But what was funny in 1600 is funny now. What was true then is true now. What was beautiful and gallant and charming then is beautiful and gallant and charming now. What was evil and duplicitous and wrong then is still wrong now.

Technology changes. Language changes. Customs change. Clothing changes. Professions change. Economies change. Governments change. Family systems change. But Shakespeare’s stories remind us that right and wrong don’t change. Love and lust; pride and greed; valor and selfishness; sin,forgiveness and redemption all continue to rule our affairs in more or less consistent measures.

The outer identifiers of life change all the time. But the human heart remains the same. Jesus’ words continue to be as relevant and challenging today as they were when he first spoke them because we continue to be as torn between selfishness and selflessness, justice and grace, as we’ve always been.

3.  Excellence and artistry need not be inaccessible to the masses. In fact, when creative work can’t be widely understood and isn’t widely appreciated it usually signals a shortcoming in excellence, artistry, or both. What does it take to connect with the wider world? Shakespeare reminds us that we don’t need to dumb down our message or appeal to the lowest common denominator to reach the masses.

Shakespeare wrote for princes and paupers, for servants and kings.  One way to find broad appeal is to aim for popularity. That can work. But there’s another way–aiming for excellence. Excellence is a language common to us all, universally recognized and appreciated. Excellence has a lasting appeal that the purely popular does not.

At church we have the most excellent message to share. In Christ we are given the key to a most excellent adventure.  That message–and our Savior–deserve excellence in worship and Bible study and fellowship and community and preparation and prayer. God is excellent, so when we are excellent, people will see God in us.  And, I promise you, God in us has broad appeal. Excellence will always be popular.

So that’s what I was thinking about while reclining on a blanket on a perfect Friday night in Piedmont Park.  Great thoughts for an anniversary celebration–I’m a hopeless romantic, I know. But that’s not all I was thinking.

I was also thinking how lucky I am to be married to the most wonderful girl in the world. God is good. Very good. Excellent, even. Happy anniversary, Julie!

 

Heaven In The Modern World

Heaven has been a popular topic of conversation lately. Books and movies have addressed the subject, and we’ve been spending both Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights at Wieuca talking about what a Biblical understanding of what heaven looks like. Are there pearly gates and streets of gold? Clouds and white robes and halos? Will we be able to look down on the events of earth? Where is heaven? Could we spot it through a telescope?

Just last week I wrote about the conflict between faith and science; or as I see it, the conflict between biblicism and scientism.  I happen to be one who believes that modern science and faithful adherence to holy scripture need not be in conflict.  Belief in heaven, however, is one of the places where the compatibility between a traditional interpretation of scripture and fidelity to scientific principles seems to be most strained.

Suffice it to say, when I think about heaven I come up with more questions than answers. And the more I think about heaven, the more questions I have.  I don’t have any problem with that. I don’t need all the answers.  I don’t need to know the physics of how heaven works any more than I need to understand the particulars of gravitational pull.  All I know is that both keep me grounded.

Like gravity quite literally keeps our feet on the ground, an understanding of what the next world represents provides the foundation on which to stand as we build our lives in this world. The Christian acknowledgement of heaven recognizes at least three basic truths.

1. This world is not as it should be. 
2. God loves us and calls us to himself.
3. There’s more to life than physical existence. 

From these three, we can find purpose, direction, and meaning for today.  Our purpose is to partner with God and fellow Christians to make this world more like heaven. We acknowledge this every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer…”thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

A home with God in heaven gives our lives clear trajectory and direction. We are moving from a temporary existence in a world that is not as it should be toward an eternal existence in a perfect world with a matchless God. In Christ, God calls us home and reserves us for himself. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Last Battle, heaven is a call to move farther up and further into the perfect goodness and love of God’s creation.

Understanding that we are more than physical beings gives our lives ultimate meaning. We are spiritual, metaphysical beings that house the indwelling spirit of our creator, allowing us to experience the very real–if often fleeting–presence of God in this world; a spiritual presence that goes beyond what our physical senses can measure and record.  What better sense of meaning can we experience than the knowledge that we are conduits through which the creator of the universe continues to be creative and revealed?

A lot of people find strong biblical evidence to pull together detailed pictures of what the next life will be like, and I applaud their efforts. But I think the more important question is not what heaven will be like, but what the reality of heaven means for life right now.

So, I don’t know exactly what heaven will look like. I don’t know how to balance its physical and metaphysical and mystical realities in a way that will satisfy both the biblicist and the scientific skeptic. But I do know this. What we do know of heaven gives deeper meaning to our lives today.

Heaven is an acknowledgment that we were intended for more and better than this fallen world can offer. For now I don’t have to have all the answers, and neither do you as long as together we keep honestly seeking after the one who does.

Cosmos and Christianity

I’ve been watching Cosmos on FOX on Sunday nights. I love the host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. His passion for making science–physics and chemistry and biology and geology–accessible to the masses is infectious. And the discoveries of science–what we know and are continuing to  learn about God’s creation–are fascinating.

As much as I like him, he’s voiced some pointed critiques aimed squarely at Christianity during the series. That’s not a reason not to like him; we could use some critiquing now and then. But some Christians feel he’s been TOO antagonistic toward our faith during the Cosmos series.

Those most likely to take offense at Tyson’s editorializing are those who take a low view of the scientific method. Some Christians question the validity of many scientific truths. I’m not one of them. We can’t rely on the science that keeps our airplanes aloft, cures our diseases, and forecasts the weather at the lake this weekend and reject the science that intrudes into our preferred worldview or that would at first glance appear to challenge our faith.

"But what is man that thou art mindful of him?" Psalm 8:4

“But what is man that thou art mindful of him?”     -Psalm 8:4

Scientific understanding ought to be held up to the same level of critical scrutiny as any other truth claim. But once a scientific claim has been reviewed and validated, we ought to accept it. God is revealed–not challenged–as we understand more and more about the universe.

When Tyson appears too antagonistic to the faith or Christians turn blind eyes to scientific truth, we’re not seeing a conflict between Christianity and science; we’re seeing a conflict between scientism and biblicism.  We’re seeing an ideological conflict that has very little to do with either being a follower of Christ or seeking rational truth about the observable world.  In effect, what we see and hear are arguments between those who would put the Bible ahead of Christ and those who would put faith in  the abilities of science ahead of verifiable, scientific truth.

I have a tendency to chuckle when I watch the most esteemed scientists in the world bend over backwards to try to explain where matter come from prior to the Big Bang or make wildly speculative claims about how life first came to our planet. Science may one day shed some light on those questions. But for now, a simple “Science can’t answer those questions” would suffice.

While watching scientists struggle to answer tough questions can tickle my funny bone, I’m tempted to cry when I watch otherwise intelligent theologians and evangelical leaders dismiss universally accepted scientific truths because they don’t fit neatly into a literal understanding of Biblical storytelling. On the other hand, we don’t need to be bending over backwards to make our biblical interpretation fit neatly into scientific truth either.

When God’s inspired word and scientific truth don’t match exactly, it’s okay to say I’m not sure. We would all do well to be more willing to say “I don’t know” a little more often.

The belief that science can reveal all truth (scientism) or that the Bible is the only source of truth (Biblicism) or that we are capable of complete understanding of truth (humanism) all fly in the face of another truth claim, one we ought to be more mindful of.  Jesus said, “I am…the truth.”

We’re talking about heaven in worship right now. We’re having to ask questions about the nature of heaven, it’s place in creation,  and how we understand a spiritual and even physical life after death.  The idea of heaven, of life after death, is a direct affront to scientism and the idea that there could be more to life with God than scripture reveals is an affront to biblicism. Both biblicism and scientism crave certainty. Neither are very comfortable with doubt or the mystery the unknown.

But the truth is, this side of heaven, we’re gonna have to learn to be comfortable with some uncertainty. Even the Bible tells us there’s much we have yet to learn. And the breathtaking advances of science invite as many questions as they reveal answers.

God is bigger than the scientific method. There’s more to life than the senses can verify. Even rational inquiry has it’s limits. Scientism is a form of idolatry. But it’s not the only form. God is bigger even than our sacred scriptures.  Bible worship is itself just another form of idolatry.  We do not worship at the altar of scripture or the altar of the textbook. We worship at the altar of the Lord.

So on Sunday nights, when I sit down on the couch to watch Cosmos, I trust Christ to guide me. And as I hold scripture in one hand and my science textbook in the other, I wish that God (or natural selection) had given me a third hand to hold the popcorn!

Thinking Of You

No other time of year brings the same spectrum of emotions to the faithful Christian as does Holy Week. During Holy Week we celebrate at the gates of Jerusalem  we gather pensively in the Upper Room, we mourn at the foot of the cross , and we are awe-struck as we peer into the empty tomb. But one overriding question holds the varying emotions of the week together in tension: “Who is Jesus, really?”  Every Holy Week, if we think seriously about Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, we are forced to wrestle repeatedly with just exactly who Jesus is.

In John’s gospel, we are presented with what scholars call a “high Christology.” In the Johannine tradition, Jesus is described as co-eternal with the Father, the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, light, truth and life. More than any other gospel tradition, the Johannine tradition emphasizes the divinity of Jesus and his identity as Christ, the Son of God and savior of the world.

But in the middle of all that high, conceptual talk about light and truth and life, we also get a remarkably human portrait of Christ. In John’s gospel, as Jesus prepares for his death, he has an intimate, extended conversation with his disciples—person to person, friend to friend.

This conversation, set right in the middle of Holy Week,  is commonly referred to as the farewell discourses because Jesus uses it to prepare his disciples for his departure.  The conversation begins in John 13 with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and continues through John 17. If you want to know who Jesus is, there’s no better place to start.

So who is Jesus really?  Cosmic redeemer? Very God of very God? Co-eternal with the Father? Light and truth? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Easter is an especially appropriate time to understand Jesus that way.

But John also makes it clear that Jesus’ desire is to be a friend and confidant to you and to me. Even more, in the farewell discourses, Jesus demonstrates his human need–and understands our human need–for personal relationship and reassurance even as he prepares to take on the sins of the world.

Imagine Jesus wanting to share Holy Week with you.  Imagine Jesus taking the last of his free moments on earth to explain himself to you, to confide in you, to call you friend. In the gospel of John that’s exactly what Jesus does. The miracle of Holy Week is that the cosmic redeemer calls us his friends (John 15:12-17).

But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus concludes the conversation by praying specifically for the first disciples and then praying specifically for you. The last words Jesus speaks in John’s gospel before he is arrested are words of prayer for you. I  don’t know about you, but to me that’s pretty awesome.

You were the last thing on Jesus’ mind before he was arrested. Jesus prepared for the cross by praying for you. His prayer is printed below.  How will you prepare for the weekend?

“My prayer is not for them (the first disciples) alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those who you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”  -John 17:20-26

May it be so. Happy Easter.

Three Things We Forget About Faith

On this day in 1945, after spending two years in a concentration camp, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for being involved in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler and couched his resistance to the Nazis as an act of faith, refusing several times to leave Germany to preserve his safety.

Bonhoeffer is among ten 20th century martyrs whose statues stand above the remodeled west entrance to Westminster Abbey in London. Incidentally, he’s joined in that place of honor by a Baptist pastor from Atlanta named Martin Luther King, Jr.

bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer is not just remembered for his principled stand against the Nazis. His books continue to be widely read, and he continues to influence new generations of theologians. In The Cost of Discipleship, he talks about the relationship between belief and obedience using the calling of the disciples and the parable of the rich young ruler as examples. He argues that belief and obedience are inextricably bound as two sides of the same coin of faith. In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–and in preparation for Easter–let me suggest three things we usually get wrong about faith.

Three Things We Forget About Faith

Many of us live as if faith were only an intellectual exercise.  Faith is more than intellectual assent to a set of propositions. Faith is behavioral.  Faith is emotional.  And faith is experiential.

Faith Is Behavioral

Faith is at least as much about what we do as it is about what we believe. Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship that “faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” At Easter we are reminded that it is through Christ’s faithfulness, even to death, that we find our salvation. Christ’s faithfulness was not merely intellectual. Christ’s faithfulness led him one step at a time toward Jerusalem. Christ’s faithfulness led him to endure trial, scorn, mockery and death. He calls us to be faithful by taking up our own crosses. Faithfulness is lived out in grand gestures and simple actions every day.

Faith Is Emotional

Faith–if it is faith–encompasses our whole being. Faith changes our hearts. Hard-heartedness is incompatible with Christian faith. Hardened hearts are turned toward selfless generosity. Our bias toward legalistic judgmentalism gives way to compassion.  Our tribal tendency to mistrust those who are different from us is transformed into open acceptance of all of God’s children. Those who follow Jesus will discover in Christ a love that trumps self-preservation.  For Bonhoeffer, that meant execution in a concentration camp. You may be called to that kind of sacrifice,too. But for most of us it might just mean a steady shift away from indifference toward those who are suffering.

Faith Is Experiential

Faith is not faith as long as it is based on someone else’s experience. You can’t get faith from a book or lecture. You don’t inherit faith from your parents. It doesn’t rub off on you if you hang out with the right people. Faith is the result of a personal experience with Jesus Christ. Some people think that the mystical experience of faith is nothing more than overly emotional sentimentality. I disagree. This Easter, read the first part of Luke 24. It is the remembered experience of Christ that brings faith in the resurrection…a remembrance encouraged by the mystical presence of angels.

This Easter remember those who have been willing to make great sacrifices to stand up to injustice and advance the cause of Christ. And remember that faith is more than an intellectual exercise.  God wants every part of us, not just our heads.

See you Sunday.

Further Up and Further In

cs-lewis-02

C.S. Lewis died the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Now, fifty years after his death, Lewis is as popular as ever. His Chronicles of Narnia series has been made into major motion pictures and books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Abolition of Man continue to be widely read across the globe.

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of his passing, Westminster Abbey in London added a memorial stone in his honor to Poet’s Corner, placing him among the likes of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and Chaucer. I’ve read and been influenced by much of what C.S. Lewis wrote.  But I can only quote one phrase of Lewis’s from memory: “Further up and further in!”

In The Last Battle, the final book of the Narnia series, Lewis draws his readers and his characters into his vision of what the fulfilled Kingdom of God might look like. Aslan, the lion and God-figure in the series, races through the open fields of a transformed Narnia encouraging everyone to explore this new world more fully by shouting, “Further up and further in!” As the characters venture further into the new world, they discover that everything they see is continually being transformed and renewed into a markedly better version of itself. And the farther they’re willing to go, the better it gets.

It takes courage to be a Christian. We like to tell people that following Christ is easy.  It’s not. Surrendering your will to someone else is never easy.

Accepting God’s forgiveness and grace might be easy for some. Responding to an initial experience of the living God is natural. But becoming a disciple, a real follower, is neither natural nor easy. Becoming a Christian is easy; being a Christian is hard.

Anyone can give their life to Jesus. All of us need salvation. Salvation is for those who understand their faults and embrace the mystery of God’s grace. I’m saved. I get it. But following Christ is a different story.

Further up and further in. 

We are changed forever by the experience of salvation. But changed for what? How do we use our experience of God’s grace? These are questions of discipleship. Salvation is the courage to say you’re not good enough; discipleship is the courage to discover that you are.

Further up and further in.

Discipleship requires the courage to say I am good enough. I have a message worth sharing. I know a better way. I have found in Christ a different way to live, an alternative way to see the world.

Further up and further in.

It’s the courage to say to an unbelieving world, I know something you don’t. In Christ I have new vision for my life. What the world says is important is not important. Conventional wisdom is wrong. What everyone accepts as true is not true.  What everyone thinks is past it’s prime hasn’t even begun to flourish yet.

Further up and further in.

Discipleship requires the courage to say I am powerful. I have tapped into the source of energy and wisdom and knowledge and creativity and hope that powers the universe. I know and am known by the One who was before the foundations of the universe and who will endure beyond the end of time. The God who created me knows me personally and loves me. He counts the grains of sand on the beaches and knows the number of hairs on my head.

Further up and further in.

I know what the future looks like. I know that no one is good enough to be worthy of God’s honor and praise. But he loves us anyway. And I know that no one is so bad or lost or broken or dirty or sinful or hateful to be beyond God’s ability to save. No one.

Further up and further in.

Discipleship is the courage to say I am, I have, I do, I know, I’ve found. It’s the courage to claim knowledge and power and truth and strength and energy and wisdom and victory. It’s the courage to say I have all of those things, but it’s no longer me; it’s Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).

Further up and further in.

Discipleship is ultimately about letting God live more fully in you. And the further you’re willing to go the better it gets. Discipleship is the courage to give thanks to God in every thought and action, in every word and deed. This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for C.S. Lewis. I’m thankful for life restored and hope renewed. I’m thankful for the call to follow further up and further into the mystery and miracle of God’s kingdom.

Hidden Greatness

When Jesus went to the wedding at Cana (John 2), he was not the Messiah. He was not a miracle worker or healer. He was not a teacher. He was not a spiritual leader. He was not the Son of God. No one had ever called him King of Kings or Lord of Lords. He was just an anonymous guest at a wedding whose invitation had more to do with his identity as the son of Mary than his identity as the Son of God.

Except when Jesus went to the wedding at Cana, he was the Messiah, a miracle worker and healer, a teacher and spiritual leader, the Son of God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Only nobody knew it yet.

When the wine was running out at the wedding, Mary asked Jesus to do something about it. But Jesus hesitated. There were things inside him, God-given qualities that made him unique, that he had yet to share with anyone. And he knew that once he showed his other side, people would never see him the same way again.

He would never again be just Jesus. He would never again be just Mary’s son. People would see him differently and treat him differently and his life would be transformed forever. He knew that if he turned the water into wine he would take on a new identity. So he hesitated.

This weekend, Wieuca’s students will travel to Temple, GA for RE-CHARGE, a fall retreat whose theme this year is “Identity.” We’ll explore what it means to be children of God, people with God-given qualities that make us unique.

We forget sometimes that Jesus was a person, fully human just as we are human. Jesus’ hesitation to reveal his divine identity provides a clear reminder of just how human he was. Revealing our true identities can be scary. It makes us vulnerable to criticism, accusation, insult and hurt. For Jesus it was downright dangerous. And Jesus teaches that it can be dangerous for us, too. So we hesitate.

Identity is, of course, a great theme for a student retreat as teenagers are discovering who they are and wrestling with questions about where they fit into God’s plan. As they begin to take ownership of their own identities, we want to encourage them to share the God inside them before the adult inclination to hide God from the world takes over.

In Christian circles, when we talk about what people are hiding, we’re almost always talking about sin. Secret addictions, past mistakes, harbored grudges, jealousy, envy, greed, pride, hard-heartedness, brokenness. We almost never talk about the good that’s hiding inside.

We ought to assume that everyone we meet is hiding something GREAT from the world; that they’re harboring a special ability or protecting a fragile gift from those who would tear them down. We ought to assume that God is inside them just waiting for the right moment to be revealed.

So what good are you hiding from the world? What is it that people don’t know about you yet? What God-given greatness do you hesitate to share?  And how do people identify you?

Inevitably, we identify people by their pasts. It’s the only way we have to know them. We know people by where they’ve been, because we can’t see where they’re going. That’s why Jesus was Mary’s son when he went to the wedding.

But when we share the God inside us, we invite people to know us for our future. We let them know where we’re headed. We dare people to see us for who we’re becoming. That’s why Jesus was God’s son when he left the wedding.

What would it take for people to identify you as a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ? Probably less than you think. You won’t have to turn water into wine or bring the dead back to life. But you will need to be more open about your faith. It will involve risk and vulnerability. People may never see you in quite the same way again.

And we know that. So we hesitate.

When Jesus hesitated, Mary ignored his protests and gently prodded him forward. Consider this a gentle nudge. Take that other side of you, the one you’ve carefully guarded and God has patiently cultivated, and share it with the world. People will see you differently. They’ll treat you differently. And your life will be transformed forever.