A Way of Love, Joy, and Peace

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There is an emotional and even spiritual weight to life; we all feel it, especially as we age. An easy life is a myth, if not a red herring–the by-product of an advertising-drenched and social media-duped culture. Life is hard. Full stop. No comma, no but, no endnote. All the wise men and women of history have said as much; no new technology of substance or pill will ever erase humanity’s fall. Best-case scenario, we mitigate its effects as we advance Jesus’ return. But there’s no escaping the pain.

Why do you think there’s so much addiction in our world? No just substance abuse but more run-of-the-mill addictions to porn or sex or eating or dieting or exercise or work or travel or shopping or social media or even church?

And yet, even church can be an addiction, a dopamine hit you run toward to escape a father wound or emotional pain or an unhappy marriage…but that’s another book.

People all over the world–outside the church and in–are looking for an escape, a way out from under the crushing weight to life this side of Eden. But there is no escaping it. The best the world can offer is a temporary distraction to delay the inevitable or deny the inescapable.

That’s why Jesus doesn’t offer us an escape. He offers us something far better: “equipment.” He offers his apprentices a whole new way to bear the weight of our humanity: with ease. At this side. Like two oxen in a field, tied should to should. With Jesus doing all the heavy lifting. At this pace. Slow, unhurried, present to the moment, full of love and joy and peace.

An easy life isn’t an option; an easy yoke it.

John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry [affiliate link], p. 87-88

Jesus not only offers us “equipment.” He offers us himself. And he not only offers us himself in his incarnation and on the cross, or from his place at the right hand of the Father, or from heaven. He lives “in” his disciples. Our life is hidden with Christ in God, even as we are called to “put on” or “clothe” ourselves in Christ.

Comer is playing here with Matthew 11:29-30, driving home the notion that we must join our life to Jesus’ life, we must walk in step with him as his students, apprentices, and disciples, and learn his way. I’m leading a retreat this weekend, and this book will serve as grounds for discussion. We will explore the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence, Sabbath, simplicity, and slowing. Notice, in all of these disciplines, all of life must be ordered in such a way that creates space for their keeping and observance. They require ordering and differentiation. They necessitate clear choices and make more plain the pace, narratives, and commitments of the everyday culture and habits of life that subvert, compete with, and challenge the pace, story, and way of life in the kingdom of God.

In Disciples Indeed, Oswald Chambers wrote, “I have no right to say I believe in God unless I order my life as under His all-seeing Eye.” The gospel we often preach focuses on life in the world to come. But the good news of Christ is not only concerned with what’s next. It has implications for life as it is lived today. Following Jesus will not make life easier in the immediate. In some ways, it may make it harder, at least in the short term. But in the long run, faith in Jesus is wisdom, not only for the resources that will be near at hand for this life as a citizen in his kingdom, but for the ways in which it will prepare us to serve in God’s great universe in the coming world without end. Our souls are made for eternity. Apprenticeship to Jesus prepares us for all that eternity will hold, not only for lasting fellowship with God, but for service.

My Chief Care

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My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom–still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, and death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: “Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this His love is found, and in accepting this I can give back His love to Him and give myself with it to Him. For in giving myself I shall find Him and He is life everlasting.”

By consenting to His will with joy and doing it with gladness I have His love in my heart, because my will is now the same as His love and I am on the way to becoming what He is, Who is Love. And by accepting all things from Him I receive His joy into my soul, not because things are what they are but because God is Who He is, and His love has willed my joy in them all.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 17-18

Yes. But it can be hard to do.

It becomes easier when one obtains a clear, compelling, truthful, robust, rich, more-fully-comprehensive, sought-after, earnest, biblically-shaped, experientially-informed vision of God. Merton writes the above because he possessed such a vision, a vision of the God “Who is Love,” revealed as Trinity, one God, three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yielding to God and actualizing the divine will becomes an “easy yoke,” to use imagery from Jesus, when one knows intellectually and existentially that God is out for our ultimate good in any and every circumstance in which we find ourselves.

How do we get there? How does it become easier to make my chief care “the thing God has willed for me?” Thinking on God is a beginning. Having thought, and entering a place of worship, not only points us toward our destination. It is itself the path. We do not only make this or that decision as a sacrifice or offering to God. We ourselves become the living sacrifices who are by grace transformed into the image and likeness of the Christ, who leads us in the doing of God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.

It is one thing to know the good. It is quite another to become the kind of person who is able to do the thing God has willed. In Christ, becoming the latter is our invitation and opportunity, opened to us by virtue of the resources made available to us by Jesus, presented to us in his kingdom.

The Cross: The Center of the Story

The cross itself, in short, stands at the center of the Christian message, the Christian story, and the Christian life and mission. It has lost none of its revolutionary and transformative power down through the centuries. The cross is where the great story of God and creation, focused on the strange story of God and Israel and then focused still more sharply on the personal story of God and Jesus, came into terrible but life-giving clarity. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-off event, the one on behalf of the many, the one moment in history on behalf of all others through which sins are forgiven, the powers robbed of their power, and humans redeemed to take their place as worshippers and stewards, celebrating the powerful victory of God in his Messiah and so gaining the Spirit’s power to make his kingdom effective in the world.

N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, p. 416

The Heart and Purposes of God

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The individual disciples must have indelibly imprinted upon their souls the reality of this wonderful person who walked among us and suffered a cruel death to enable each of us to have life in God. It should become something that is never beyond the margins of their consciousness. . . . No one can have an adequate view of the heart and purposes of the God of the universe who does not understand that he permitted his son to die on the cross to reach out to all people, even people who hated him. That is who God is. . . . It is God looking at me from the cross with compassion and providing for me, with never-failing readiness to take my hand and walk on through life from wherever I may find myself at the time.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p.335

“Learn to do well.”

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This is how we are to learn to live. We are to have the right pattern. That pattern is Jesus. We are to have power, and that power comes from Jesus. And then we are to take the light and leading that Jesus gives, and we are to act up to the last limit of it, we are to practice it to the last chapter, and then we will learn to do well, and we will be doing well.

George W. Truett, “An Essential of Victory,” from On Eagle Wings: Fourteen Messages on Old Testament Themes

Truett’s text for this sermon was a select portion of Isaiah 1:17, which in the King James Version is rendered, “Learn to do well.” Other translations say learn to do good, or right.

Truett observes that we must not only learn to avoid evil, but to enact the good. He says, “There are two great aspects to the religious life. The one is negative and the other is positive.” We can mistakenly emphasize one over the other, obsessing over the avoidance of evil and refraining from actively doing good, or zealously seek to do what is right, while neglecting the renunciation of actions that run contrary to God’s will. In choosing the way of Jesus, we remain on his path. Other avenues are forsaken. Learning to do well involves gaining wisdom to distinguish good from evil, and to consistently desire and choose that which is of God, rather that that which is not.

Like many good preachers, Truett helps us remember how we are to learn to do well by using alliteration. Learning to do well involves a pattern, power, and practice. We look to Jesus as our model, but he is also our teacher and our helper, and we, being his students, are given opportunities to put what we learn into action under his loving and watchful eye.

Jesus made a claim in the gospels, spoken in various ways, that after he died and was raised from the dead, he would remain present with his followers. He will be with us always. When he departs, the Spirit would come. Jesus is the pattern. He supplies the power. We take up the practice. Let’s add one more word that starts with “p.” In learning to do well, his presence remains with us. For that, we can be thankful.

“People Don’t Know How to Share Their Faith”

Molly and I were on a walk one evening, and we talked about the notion or idea, commonly spoken among pastoral leaders, that people don’t know how to share their faith.

One thought: “People share their faith all the time.”

The question becomes, then, the substance of that faith. Is it faith in the God of Christianity, the God who is Trinity? Or some other deity, or some other center of authority? Is it a faith that is classically orthodox, or heterodox? Trust in the sacred, or the secular? Strong faith, or weak faith? Immature faith, or mature faith? Which faith? In whom, or what?

Faith sharing and evangelism are two distinct practices. Evangelism is the sharing of the gospel, which has both content and implications. You can be living in line with the good news, and thereby share your faith. When your actions (word, or deed) are then illumined by the core of your convictions, another layer is added. Proclamation is paired with demonstration. Witness is bolstered by evidence, the testimony of a way of life.

Ministers equip their people when they help them see and understand the various ways they share their faith, every day. And they go one step forward when they help their people understand the truths and doctrines of the Christian faith with clarity, and invite them to discover the ways convictions work themselves out in the world. Compassionate action is faith sharing. Listening is faith sharing. Offering wise counsel and advice, if offered as a Christian, is faith sharing. Practicing hospitality and visiting the sick is faith sharing. Having integrity in the workplace is faith sharing. Remaining faithful to your spouse and raising your children is faith sharing. If you are working out core convictions as a Christian in speech and action, you are sharing your faith.

When your actions are then narrated and named as being the outworking of these core convictions, witness is deepened, and furthered. After all, part of the Christian calling is to preach the gospel and to make disciples of all people. This work consists of no less than making an announcement that forgiveness of sins has been made possible and is on offer, that Jesus has been raised and now reigns. But winsomeness in witness involves much more, an invitation to a shared way of life in Christ, who now lives in those who believe.

May Christ Illuminate Your Night

Sometimes I wonder why this trust in Christ who comes to illuminate our night is so essential for me. And I realize this comes from a childhood experience.

During the weeks before Christmas, I used to spend lots of time in front of a manger scene looking at the Virgin Mary and the newborn infant at her feet. Such a simple image marks one for life. It enables us to realize one day that, through Christ, God himself came to be with us.

On Christmas Eve, we would go to church. When I was five or six years old, we lived in a mountain village, and the ground was covered with snow. Since I was the youngest, my father took me by the hand. My mother, my elder brother, and my seven sisters followed behind. My father showed me, in the clear sky, the shepherds’ star that the wise men had seen.

Those moments come to my mind when I hear the reading from the apostle Peter, “Fix your eyes on Christ as on a star shining in the night, until the day dawns and the morning rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

Brother Roger, Brother Roger of Taize: Essential Writings

On this Christmas Eve, contemplate the birth of Jesus.

Gather with other Christians to remember, once again, the miracle of the incarnation. This evening, join a church to celebrate. Lift your voice in song. Bow your heart in prayer. Consider afresh the story. Behold the child, his mother, those first visitors, in the mind’s eye. Remember these beginnings to the Christ story, why this story is told, how it ends, and what it means. Allow yourself to wonder. Give pause, and worship.

If you find yourself in darkness, remember that Christ has come to us as the light of the world. Fix your eyes upon him, wait upon the Lord. A new day has come, and is coming. Christ is born.

Share the Christmas Story with Confidence

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The Baptist Standard reports few Americans have the Christmas story down cold.

The Lifeway Research study sourced in the article found:

Slightly more than 1 in 5 Americans (22 percent) say they accurately could tell the Christmas story found in the Bible from memory. A plurality of U.S. adults (31 percent) say they could tell the story but may miss some details or get others wrong. Another quarter (25 percent) could only give a quick overview and 17 percent say they couldn’t tell any of it.

I guess this is news, insofar as the Christian community should know we have a story to tell that others are unfamiliar with. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how the gospel writers recorded this event. And, within the Christian community, we don’t know it as well as we ought, and that’s a reality that needs to be faced. Therefore, we need to tell this story first to ourselves, so that when we tell it to those outside the community of the faith, we tell it right.

You may already know the Christmas story. The details are recorded in two of the four gospels: Matthew and Luke. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us the story of Jesus’ life. Only two of these writers focus explicitly on the events of Jesus’ birth.

These accounts are not identical. That’s important to note.

Rather than harmonizing the two and telling the story as a seamless whole, I think it is more faithful to the story to be clear concerning which details come from which account, and to understand why the authors present the story of Jesus’ birth as they do.

Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience living in the Gentile world, and includes details in his gospel to show how Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s hope for a Messiah.

Luke wrote for a Gentile audience who would have been familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, but had different concerns, such as how Israel’s Messiah could also be the Lord of all the world.

Matthew’s account tells us of Joseph’s inner conflict following the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, the appearing of a star, and the journey of wise men who came to visit Jesus from the East, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Luke’s account includes the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, Caesar’s census, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, an inn with no vacancy, shepherds, the angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds tending their flocks in the fields, and the first visitors to see Jesus in the manger.

The Christmas story, for Christian people, is one of those stories that is important enough for us to learn and to be able to tell it with ease. If you have a Bible on your shelf, however, you can pull it down, crack it open, and read an account. Many people can search on their phone or use an app even if there isn’t a Bible handy. Then, you can talk about what it means.

Christians believe that on the very first Christmas God entered history in Jesus of Nazareth. This event was a continuation of God’s involvement in history and the marking of a significant new chapter.

God appeared to us as a human being.

Tiny. Vulnerable. A gift.

This is the miracle of the incarnation. God brought to fulfillment the promises regarding the Messiah, a Savior, a King who would redeem humankind from sin.

The world has never been the same.

The wise men came in reverence and the shepherds came with wonderment and awe.

Mary treasured these things in her heart.

We ponder them still.

We tell of them.

We should tell them well, and with confidence.