Archive for November, 2011

Your Christmas Metaphor for the Day

The Christmas season is upon us, and it is currently present in our household in a big way.  I have tons of thoughts about celebrating the season, which I plan to share next week.  Until then, I will share this video for inspiration.

To me, this is a great metaphor of what we get to do at Christmas:

We get to tell our culture about Jesus’ birth, and show them what it means to celebrate that.

From this video, I get three pointers that I am using this year as my family celebrate’s Christ’s birth:

Do it big.

Do it joyfully.

Do it right.

Next week, I’ll share more about what that looks like for us…and hopefully, I’ll get some ideas from you guys of how you celebrate the birth of Christ in your home!

Getting My Head in the Game

I’m one of those obnoxious people who enjoy mornings.  I think it is just the promise that each new day brings.  In the morning, my day is a tabula rasa, waiting to be filled with all sorts of adventures.  Now, don’t get me wrong–there is very little chance in a typical day that I would experience what would qualify as an actual adventure.  Lest you think that my average day might might consist of engaging in minor acts of espionage or hopping on a flight to Paris, let me assure you, they are all extremely average and comfortably routine.  In fact, as I think about it, my days each revolve to an embarrassing degree around meals:  fixing breakfasts, packing lunches for whomever is going to school, preparing lunches and dinners for those at home, coupon organizing, meal planning, grocery shopping, etc.  What can I say?  We all have to eat, and someone has to make that happen!  When I’m not working on meals, I’m usually playing with the kids, cleaning, running other errands, enjoying play dates…stuff like that.  I know, I know:  I live on the edge.  

And yet, when I think about the different paths my day might take, the differences are dizzying.  On a typical day, I might:

–experience incredible communion with my Creator

–show my family what a joyful existence looks like as I pour love into them

–be a blessing to everyone with whom I come into contact

–be a successful ambassador for Christ, showing people a path by which they can be reconciled to God

–live my little plot of life to the absolute fullest


I can:

–put my plans before people (this is a big temptation for me)

–show my family a stunning example of hypocrisy in action

–not make the slightest impression on anyone with whom I come into contact

–fail to reflect God’s glory

–waste my life by living on the surface of the day’s events

It could seriously go either way.  And sometimes, if you were to graph my behavior throughout the day based on which way I went, the graph would have the elevation consistency of a mountain range.  It’s hard to stay focused.

That’s why it is so important that I get my head in the game beforehand.  

For me, that means talking (or rather, writing, since that’s how I roll) to God and spending some time with His Word.  Some days it will be a few verses; some days, it will be a few chapters.  Sometimes my “focus time” lasts five minutes; sometimes it’s over an hour.  It really varies, depending on the day and on my needs.

Regardless, I’m not sure when prayer and Bible study went from simply the correct answer in Sunday school (“Class, how do we grow closer to God?”) to an oxygen-and-water-style necessity;  all I know is that the transformation has occurred.  Sometimes, it even seems like a weakness.  I would think that as I got older and more mature in my faith, I would have to check in with the Big Guy and refer to the manual less, not more.  That’s how learning works, right?  You get to the point where you can do it on your own.

With Christianity, though, the opposite has proven true in my life.  Instead of being more and more able to “stand on my own two feet,” I have found myself more and more spiritually helpless and in need of constant communion with God.  I know that, according to my understanding of the Bible, that is probably a good thing…but it still seems counter-intuitive.

All I know is that the days that don’t start out with focus time are much more likely to be train wrecks than the ones that do.  I know that when I don’t take that time in the locker room, so to speak, to get my head in the right place, then I am often off my game for the rest of  the day.

These days, I live in eager anticipation of what God is going to do in a given day, and I desperately want to be a part of it.  I get excited by a God who can do immeasurably more than I could ask or imagine…and my focus time helps gives me the vision to see what those things might be.

What about you?  What do you do to get your head in the game?  

Black Friday Joy

I am tired…but it is a good kind of tired.  A “day lived well” kind of tired.

My family of four enjoyed a peaceful, quiet morning while our seven house guests were out either shopping or visiting with friends.  I got some cleaning done.  Went running.  Did some laundry.  And made apple pie with my sweet daughter.

While we baked, music played in the background.  I was relaxed.  Happy.  Unconcerned with messes.  Which was good, because Anna Grace got flour everywhere.  Usually, I would have said, “Oh, Anna!  Be careful!”  Today, I just laughed, and let her play in the flour on the counter while I finished the pie.

It was a peaceful time, a peace that soon gave way to joy as our house started to fill back up with relatives.

Our quiet was replaced with laughter, with hustle and bustle, and with happy conversations.  As the afternoon passed by, someone suggested going for a walk, and soon everyone else decided to go, too.

But I had a pumpkin pie in the oven, so I stayed behind.  And the love and joy was replaced with peace again.

While I waited for my pie to finish, I sat out on our back patio, just drinking in the silence.  I quieted my soul and looked at God’s creation, at the intricacy of the bare tree branches, at the clouds spread across the blue sky, at the occasional burst of birds, darting through the air.  They seemed like they were in a hurry.  I was glad I had no place to go.  I let the solitude fill my soul, and then I went to take out the pumpkin pie.

Later, as people filtered back into the house, I thought about the dominant themes of the day:  love, joy, peace.  Such is the state of the kingdom of God.

That evening, I read my first Advent reading.  The last paragraph reminded me that, “The work of God goes on quite simply in this way; one does not always have to wait for something out of the ordinary.  The all-important thing is to keep your eyes on what comes from God and to make way for it to come into being here on the earth.  If you always try to be heavenly and spiritually minded, you won’t understand the everyday work God has for you to do.  But if you embrace what is to come from God, if you live for Christ’s coming in practical life, you will learn that divine things can be experienced  here and now…”

Today, I experienced the divine during such mundane tasks as food preparation and clean up.  I experienced it in the normal interactions of relatives, and in the typical fall weather.  I experienced God’s kingdom come in the harmony of a large family who loves each other, in the joy of making pie with my daughter, and in the peace of God’s creation.

How was your Black Friday?  Did you get out in the craziness, or relax at home?

*Quote taken from:

Blumhardt, Christopher Friedrich.  “Action in Waiting.”  Watch for the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas.  Farmington, PA:     Plough Publishing, 2001.

Thankful, but not for Turkey

Okay, so I am thankful for turkey.  And for family and friends and clothing and shelter and all the other beautiful, simple things for which I sincerely give thanks each Thanksgiving.

But this year, I am thankful for even more.

This year, I am thankful for a God who answers the prayers we have never even prayed, for a God who knows our dreams…even the ones that have never occurred to us.

I am thankful for a God who knows who we are, at our very core, because He made us.  And I am thankful that He works out our lives so that we can become more fully ourselves.

I am thankful that my life has a purpose…not just a big picture purpose, but an every day, every second purpose.  I’m thankful that meaning flows through our lives just as much as happiness, as pain, as peace, and as chaos do.

I am thankful, for probably the only time in my life, that I am not in control, and that God laughs at my plans.

I am thankful that home is not a place, but a group of people.

And most of all, I am thankful for the presence of the kingdom of God on this earth, a kingdom that transcends location and time.  I am thankful for my fellow citizens in that kingdom, who are also my family, my strength, and my comfort.  I am thankful for the depth of those bonds.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Are you thankful for anything new this year?

The Mall: A Survivor’s Tale

Sometimes I feel like those aliens from Third Rock from the Sun.  I look like a human, but often, the basic elements of human society are completely foreign to me.  I particularly felt that way on Friday morning, when I ventured into a “nice” mall for the first time in years.

I hadn’t been staying away from malls on purpose, or making some kind of ideological stand.  No, the simple truth is that the greater Charleston area, where I used to live, is woefully lacking in decent indoor malls.  Maybe it is because the ritzy, storefront shopping downtown on King Street provides too much competition.  Or perhaps everyone goes to the upscale, outdoor mall in Mount Pleasant, as outdoor malls have inexplicably become some kind of trend in the South.  And if not the outdoor mall in Mount Pleasant, maybe people are diverted, like I was, by the expansive Tanger Outlets.  Whatever the reason, the two malls in the area are run-down and struggling.  How bad are they struggling?  While I lived there, the Gap went out of business in one of them, and the other didn’t even have one to start with!  How, in the name of Pete, does a GAP go out of business in a mall??  That’s where Gaps live!  It is their natural habitat.  “Gap” is pretty much synonymous with mall, in my vocabulary.  Anyhow, since the mall in my hometown in Georgia was in similar straits and was also being effectively replaced by an outdoor mall (Seriously, people?  How are you supposed to shop when it’s raining?), I just had not been in a mall for years.  And honestly, I had not missed them.

It hadn’t always been that way.  In fact, malls used to hold a very special place in my heart.  In high school, the mall was an absolute haven for me.  My mom and I spent untold hours on shopping expeditions for clothes for school, and my friends and I whiled away Saturdays hitting up what we called “the big three”:  the Gap, Limited, and Express.  Those were the “cool stores” at that place and time.  (On a sidenote, I will never forget when my friend, Faith, came to school with a nice looking sweater emblazoned with the strange words, “Abercrombie and Fitch.”  I had never heard of such, and I asked her about it.  She rolled her eyes and explained that she had begged her dad to buy her something cool during his recent trip through Atlanta, and this was what he came home with.  She balked, and he argued that the sweater had to be cool.  He had sat in the mall and watched where all the teens were going, and every one of them was heading into this store.  Faith and I were skeptical, but never fear:  when we realized that A&F was, in fact, “cool,” we became faithful shoppers there ourselves.)  Anyway, as a teenager, the mall held two important things for me:  it held happy memories with my family and friends, and, perhaps more importantly, it held the promise of acceptance.  This is probably typical of most high schools, at least at the time, but at my high school, it was all about the clothes.  Buying the right “uniform” for school helped alleviate the Third Rock effect; I felt less like a misfit and more like a normal and acceptable person.  That was a big deal to a teenage girl.  Thus, I loved the mall.  Being in the mall was comforting to me.

Fast forward to last Friday, when I found myself in possession of a gift card to Belk and in need of a winter coat for Anna.  I also desperately needed some new running shoes and a pair of jeans.  My most recent pair of jeans, a Christmas gift from my mom in 2008, had basically bitten the dust, and I had been in denial for months.  The truth was that after nearly three years of wearing them multiple times each week, they were literally falling apart (and I say that as someone who is particular about the correct use of the word literally).  It was a blowout in the knee that sealed their doom, but even without the gaping knee hole, there were several smaller holes, as well as ink stains, that I was determined to ignore.  Sadly, I still considered them my “nice” jeans…but even I was forced to admit that they were done.  I needed a new pair.  My shoes were similarly ridiculous.  I had only had them for a couple of years, but they were riddled with holes, perhaps from running in them an average of 145 times each year for the past two and a half years.  And when I wasn’t running in them, I was just using them as my every day shoes.

On the Friday in question, I was wearing both of those attractive articles of clothing (double threat!), as well as a plain brown, V-neck shirt I had bought for $5 at Old Navy early this summer and had worn approximately every other day since.  I topped off my fashionable ensemble with my husband’s extra large Lipscomb hoodie that he had gotten free from a youth minister conference a few years ago.  I had gotten a similar one, but in the rush of the morning, I had grabbed the wrong one and so was looking even more like a bag lady than usual.

It was in that exquisite wardrobe that I ventured into the Cool Springs mall for the first time in years…and received the culture shock of my life!  For one thing, did you know that most of the shoes in Belk cost more than $100?  One hundred dollars!  And they aren’t made of gold; they just look like ordinary shoes!  Having shopped in the protective bubble of Shoe Carnival all of my married life, I was unexposed to such craziness, and about passed out when I found out how much “normal” shoes cost.  So…I wasn’t going to get shoes at Belk.  I did try on some jeans that were on sale, and though they weren’t ludicrously priced, they just didn’t fit right.  Oh, well.

The prices weren’t the real problem, though.  The problem was how visually overwhelming a “nice” mall is.  Unlike our ghetto malls in Charleston, every surface in this mall–floors, walls, counters, ads–was designed to exude opulence.  It was also really smelly.  Not in a bad way, but in a perfume-y way.  There were so many aromas coming from so many different places, it could make you a little dizzy.  After not being able to find jeans in Belk, I decided to try my old stand-by for jeans, the Gap.  Though those jeans are crazy expensive, they are also the ones that fit me best, and I figure one pair per every couple of years is worth it.  As I made my way out of Belk and into the main mall area, the visual and olfactory stimulation met with a heightened aural component.  To put it in English (I’m telling you, it’s like I really am an alien sometimes and have to translate my thoughts), all these people from the little kiosks in the center of the mall were trying to talk to me and vie for my attention, apparently in an effort to spray stuff on me or to get me to sign up for something.  Honestly, I don’t really know what they were trying to do, because my “stranger danger” instincts kicked in, and I tried to shuffle past them as quickly as possible.  (Thankfully, there was also a chance, with my jeans and shoes, that they thought I was homeless and not likely to buy anything, so they didn’t try too hard.)

For old times’ sake, I wandered into the Limited and Express, and both times, the smiling sales representative asked, “Are you looking for anything particular,” as she eyed me with a look that said, “Because you are clearly in need of a lot.”  Honestly, I felt completely out of place.  I really did feel like I had landed my spaceship in the parking lot and walked into a different world.  And even more than that, I felt distinctly like I did not belong there.  The craziest part was that it wasn’t a bad thing.  In fact, for once, it was kind of a relief not to relate to my surroundings.  The fashions all looked kind of crazy to me, the prices were ridiculous, and the ads were just…well, they were just kind of inexplicable.  They mostly consisted of women in heavy makeup and strange clothes, posing provocatively and looking…well…not happy, exactly.  I’m not sure what their expressions said or what it was they were trying to convey.  Elegance?  Class?  Wealth?  Beauty?  Whatever it was, the distance between the picture and my life was too wide for the image to be appealing to me.  Overall, I got the impression that the purpose of this mall was to sell something that I was no longer interested in buying.

Metaphorically speaking, of course.  I did get the exact pair of Gap jeans I had on, just a little shorter.  And not so ragged.  And I got two pair of shoes from Rack Room shoes, which did not cost $100 each.  But I did not buy, not even for a moment, the image of life that the mall was selling, this image of air-brushed, fashionable perfection.  And not only was I not buying it, it seemed utterly, patently ridiculous to me.

Part of that is just growing up.  At age thirty, I can recognize naked and transparent marketing attempts more readily than I could at fifteen.  But another part of it is that, thank God, my life is on a completely different path than that “mall life.”  I don’t know that I would say an “opposite” path, but maybe a perpendicular path.  Our goals are not in any way related to each other, and they will never meet.

When I walked out of that heavily perfumed, artificially lit emporium, and back into the crisp, fresh air and natural sunlight, I felt a my soul lighten a little bit.  And I thanked God that, for once, I felt like an alien and stranger in this world in the biblical sense, and not just the socially awkward sense.  Sometimes I feel so cozy and at home in this world, and being in the mall was a refreshing reminder that as a follower of Christ, I am very different from others.  So many of the worldly messages that once enthralled me now bounce right off, and serve as an amusement, if anything.  And so, even though sometimes I feel like I have so far to go to be a good citizen in God’s kingdom, I was grateful to learn that He has been working on my soul and showing me the way things really are in this world.  No, the mall is not my enemy (I got a great pair of jeans there, that will hopefully last me another three years!).  But it is also not a haven, or a draw, or a source of any kind of subconscious meaning.  It’s just a place that sells stuff, usually overpriced.

Have you ever had a moment like that, a moment that makes you realize how different you have become  from what you were?  And do you also find malls mildly terrifying, or is that just me?

A Public Apology to the book of Ephesians

I have a confession to make:  in the past, I have always thought that Ephesians was overrated.

Oh, don’t get me wrong…I knew it was good, but the way people gushed over it and went on and on?  Well, I thought that was a bit unwarranted.  I mean, sure, there are some gems in there, but those gems are usually buried in the world’s longest sentences.  Seriously, Paul’s sentence structure completely loses me half the time.  Plus, it is often so hard to quote accurately from Ephesians because each sentence flows so much into the next one, that you usually have to go, like three verses back to get to the start of the idea, and when you do that, you find that Paul was talking about something else, and so you have to explain that, and…blah.  It’s just a hassle.

Now, Philippians?  That is an amazing book.  Colossians?  Also awesome.  Ephesians?  Eh.

Well, today, I officially repent of my dismissive attitude toward Ephesians.  I was wrong.  Everyone else was right.  Ephesians is awesome and wonderful and spectacular and life-changing and all the other things people say.  My eyes were first opened this summer when I was reading through the New Testament.  I can’t remember now exactly what happened, but for the first time, Ephesians just clicked with me.  It all worked.  No longer did I just rush through until I got to chapter four…no, I saw how the first three theological chapters were the crucial (not to mention beautiful) set up for the last three “application” chapters.

And so, as an act of repentance, I am going to share the verses I read this morning that physically made my heart beat faster.  They were familiar, but even their familiarity could not hide their revolutionary awesomeness.  For an added bonus, I will “bold” the words that truly, literally made my pulse quicken as I read:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  Eph. 3:16-21

What a phenomenal prayer!  I distinctly remember writing this prayer down as a teenager, along with all of Paul’s other prayers in the epistles, on a page in my journal called, “Paul’s awesome prayers.”  And yet, fifteen years later, it still blows my mind.  I could sit and meditate on each of those bold phrases all day long, and still not quite grasp their magnitude.

So, in conclusion, I’m sorry, Ephesians, for underestimating you.  You are truly a powerful letter, and I am thankful for all the ways you have helped me get to know God.


Citizenship 101: Immigration

Whoa–calm down.  

I’m not talking about national immigration issues.  I’m talking about Kingdom immigration issues.  Nation and kingdom are completely separate entities.

I do think that the national discussion of immigration is helpful for the Kingdom discussion, though, if only to help us relate to the original anxieties the Jews must have felt over the unveiling of God’s new, “open door” immigration policy in Ephesians 2:11-22.  Like many policies, it’s a little lengthy, but worth the read:

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household,20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Okay, so this is pretty straightforward.  Before Christ, the Jewish nation was secured and well-defined.  The definition was found in the Law, whose rules formed a protective wall around the Jewish religious and social identity.  The Law provided an intricate framework of rules and regulations that effectively kept foreigners out.  In some ways, it was much better than a physical wall because, as the Jews found out via the Assyrians and Babylonians, physical walls could be destroyed.  When the Jews were dispersed and led off into exile, they found out just how helpful their intangible wall could be.  It allowed them to maintain their distinctness, even in the midst of a foreign culture.

Of course, foreigners could enter the Jewish nation; they just had to do so via the Law.

Honestly, it was a good system.

And then Christ came and tore it down.

It all sounds great to us, all this talk about peace and inclusiveness and citizenship.  But can you imagine the Jewish reaction, even among Jewish Christians?  Take a second to ponder the pitfalls of this open-door policy:  with no Law in place, how do you regulate basic morality?  The Law had a fixed set of physical punishments that were to be applied to different violations.  When Christ took those away, it opened the door to all sorts of perversions of morality, with no physical means of curbing them.  Also, the Law served as the central regulating document around which the various people in the Jewish nation could unify.  Without its cohesive presence, wouldn’t internal conflict abound?  And furthermore, if you were just to let anyone in through this new, “easy” path of Christ, then that would include a frighteningly wide array of former pagans.  What would happen to the distinctive Jewish identity?  Their distinctiveness is what carried them through years and persecution and exile.  Wouldn’t the abolition of the Law take that away?

Think about those implications for a minute.  Those are a big deal.  And as the early church found out, they were valid concerns.

Some scholars even think that the book of Ephesians itself was written to alleviate tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the church–either that, or to give the Gentiles some much-needed instruction in basic morality.  But we need not speculate about the potential issues of bringing Gentiles into the church.  To see them first hand, we have only to turn to the Corinthians.  Corinth, you may know, was a Roman colony well-known for its immorality and populated with a wide variety of people from different places in the Roman Empire.  From within this morally lax melting pot of humanity emerged a church that seemed to validate the worst fears of any traditional Jewish Christians mourning the loss of their Law-ful identity.  Indeed, it is not hard to deduce from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a host of problems that racked this new church.  I can imagine the former Pharisee (and self-described flawless legalist) cringing as he wrote to them:

“My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another,’I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ. 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”  I Cor. 1: 11-13

“Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”  I Cor. 3:1-3

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?”  1 Cor. 5:1-2

 “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?…5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?…The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?”  1 Cor. 6:1,5,7-9
 “17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good…20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!”  1 Cor. 11: 17, 20-22

 “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?”  1 Cor. 14:36

From Paul’s words, we see a church that vividly illustrates the dangers of God’s new immigration policy.  There is no internal unity; the people can not even agree on the idea that they should follow Christ before all others!  There is discord, strife, pettiness…and gross immorality.  In 1 Corinthians 5, the Christian limitations of punishing the offender are laid bare.  Can they stone him?  Beat him?  Nope…all Paul can do is threaten dissociation.  And with the early church bereft of any social and political pull, that threat surely didn’t carry a lot of weight.  (By the way, I’m not saying that it is a bad thing not to be able to stone people–quite the contrary!  But to first century traditionalists with a very different worldview, Paul certainly could seem a little impotent here.)
In short, God’s new immigration policy must have seemed a little reckless to the followers of the Law.  It made church messy.  And hard.  It surely stretched the boundaries of people’s comfort zones, both the Law followers and the pagans.  To the Law followers, the new policy stripped them of any pride they could take in their own righteousness.  It stripped them of any special standing they felt as an upright Jew.  It must have been hard for the pagans, too.  Although surely inclusion in God’s plan was an honor to them, it also demanded a complete reorientation of their lives.  I can imagine how overwhelmed the Corinthians must have felt when they got Paul’s letter.  Even post-conversion, so many of them were still on the wrong path, and the tongue-lashing they received from Paul must have stung.  As nice as God’s new policy sounds in Ephesians, it was a hard arrangement for everyone involved.
In some ways, we are still working through its implications today.  While most Christians no longer struggle over Jewish identity (since we are not Jews), we can still divide into “Law followers” and “Corinthians,” those raised in the church and the unchurched.  When you mix those two groups together, things can get messy.  If, as a “Law follower,” you have ever tried to take the Lord’s Supper with a group of rowdy, unchurched teens, for example, you know what I’m talking about.  It is a completely cringe-worthy experience, and you can’t quite shake the feeling that everyone is about to get struck by lightning.  Or, from the other perspective, if you walk into a traditional church covered in tattoos and reeking of cigarette smoke, you also know what I’m talking about.  Even though you aren’t forcibly ejected from the building, you may nevertheless feel like a complete pariah while inside.
Being in that situation, both sides have to wrestle with some important questions.  We have to try to figure out what issues matter, which are worth taking a 1 Corinthians 5 stand and which are worth taking a 1 Corinthians 8 approach.  We have to figure out how to maintain unity in Christ, despite our different backgrounds.  And most of all, we have to figure out what the example of Christ looks like in today’s world.  So many times, we are tempted to conform Christ to our comfort zones, instead of the other way around.  There are several problems with that, one being that with God’s new open door immigration policy, we have a wide variety of citizens with an equally wide variety of backgrounds.  If we all conform Christ to our comfort zones, we will end up with a bunch of different Christs!  We may even wonder sometimes if we are all serving the same God!
I throw all this out there as something to think about.  Clearly, I don’t have all–or any–of the answers.  I do, however, believe that God’s immigration policy is worth seriously pondering.  God’s policy can make church both messy and hard, but if we don’t understand and follow it in our churches today, we will be unable to grow and to further God’s kingdom.
What do you think of God’s immigration policy?  Do you relate more to the “Law follower” side, or the “Corinthian” side?  How does “your” side make it difficult to embrace God’s policy?

Kingdom Voices: C.S. Lewis??

When I first read Mere Christianity right out of college, it kind of became like a second Bible to me.  I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and it did so much to bolster my faith.  Thus, when I was paging through it looking for a specific quote for another post, I was not surprised to come across one of Lewis’ marvelous passages.  It has been years since I read Mere Christianity in its entirety, but I immediately remembered this passage in which Lewis explains, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  I thought that it would make a great addition to the “Kingdom Voices” section of my blog.  There is a great paragraph before this one, setting the whole thing up, but it gets a little long, so I’ll skip to the best part:

“…I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions, but not hate the bad man:  or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.  

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction:  how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man?  But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life–namely myself.  However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself.  There had never been the slightest difficulty about it.  In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man.  Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things” (105-106).

I just love Lewis’ point there.  It is so obvious and true, and it provides a very helpful way to understand the idea of, “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”

Lewis, however, goes on from there to discuss the idea that loving a person does not mean not punishing them.  I don’t have a problem there.  I mean, I discipline my children all the time out of genuine love for them and a concern for their soul.  He continues,

It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy…It is no good quoting ‘Thou shalt not kill.’  There are two Greek words:  the ordinary word to kill and the word to murder.  And when Christ quotes that commandment He uses the murder one in all three accounts…The idea of the knight–the Christian in arms for the defence of a good cause–is one of the great Christian ideas.  War is a dreadful thing, and I can respect an honest pacifist, though I think he is entirely mistaken.  What I cannot understand is this sort of semipacifism  you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it.  It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage–a kind of gaity and wholeheartedness” (107).

I have a couple of problems with this.  For one thing, the picture of the jolly soldier, merrily dispatching [the people his government tells him are] his enemies in emulation of the crusading knights of yore just doesn’t resonate with me.  Honestly, “gaity” in the act of killing enemies seems more sociopathic than virtuous, but maybe that’s just me.  More than that, though, I wish Lewis had not stopped with “love your enemies,” and “thou shalt not kill,” and explained some of those even more vexing red letters.  Take, for example, these words from Matthew 5:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

How do Lewis’ words jive with Jesus’ words?  Seriously, how?  I really want to know, because frankly, I don’t want to be a pacifist, and I don’t want to take the non-resistance route with my enemies.  To be honest, I think the idea of ‘”an eye for an eye” is pretty just.  But what in heaven’s name do you do with these words, out of the mouth of our Lord, that seem not to be so down with the crusading knights of yore?

Oh, and the quote I was looking for?  I found it a few pages before this whole debacle, where Lewis addresses the equally outlandish teaching of forgiving one’s enemies.  Confronted with the unreasonableness of a Jew forgiving a Nazi, Lewis refuses to back down from the teaching of Jesus, stating, “I am telling you what Christianity is.  I did not invent it.  And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us‘” (104).  See Clive, I feel the same way about Matthew 5:38-48.  I’m just telling you what Jesus said.  I did not invent it.

So here is my conundrum:  I love C.S. Lewis, and I really want to think of Him as a voice for God’s kingdom.  But I don’t know what to do with him here.

So how do YOU explain away Matthew 5:38-48?  And honestly, I’m a little annoyed with Lewis, so could you save him for me?

Quotes taken from:

Lewis, C.S.  Mere Christianity.  New York, MacMillan Publishing, 1960.

Title 1, High Priority, Part 2

We decided to send Luke to the Title 1 school.  Truly, trying it out was the most logical thing to do.

We got to meet Luke’s teacher and see his classroom the day before he started.  She was very sweet.  Luke was quite shy and wouldn’t answer her questions with anything more than, “I don’t know,” but she was very patient with him.  He was mostly interested in the names of the people in his class, so while the teacher got more papers together for us, we walked around and looked at all the name tags.  In Luke’s class in South Carolina, there was a disproportionate number of Bible names:  Matthew, John, Benjamin, Isaac, Caleb, Joshua, and so on.  The only name that stood out was Luke’s friend, Raphael, but that at least allowed us to introduce Luke to classical art the Ninja Turtles.  Here, the name that stood out was “Luke.”  In between the Suri’s and Ja’Quarious’s were names like Poue, which I didn’t even try to pronounce.  I know I sound like such a jerk highlighting all of this, but to be honest, I was just worried that Luke was going to be uncomfortable.  And maybe some discomfort would be beneficial so that he wouldn’t turn out like his ethnocentric mother, but…he’s five!  He’s been through some huge transitions lately, and I didn’t want to put him in a situation where he wasn’t going to be happy.

The teacher interrupted my reverie with, “Luke, I think we will sit you next to Pew.”  Ohhh, so that’s how you said Poue!  “Poue is a sweet little boy from Burma.”  Luke did not bat an eye to any of this, and we finished up our meeting with the exciting news that I would be able to volunteer in the classroom once a week.  Luke’s school in SC had been locked up like Fort Knox during the day (which I appreciated), but part of their security was that they did not allow parents in the classrooms, except for the room mom on special occasions.  That had been a bitter disappointment, as I had always envisioned myself being an active volunteer in Luke’s school and getting to know his classmates.

We left on that Monday with plans to start Luke in the morning.  Here’s how things went from there:

Monday afternoon:  Luke’s teacher emails me with some suggestions about making Luke’s transition easier and to schedule my volunteer time.

Tuesday morning:  Luke goes to school happily.

Tuesday mid-morning:  Luke’s teacher emails me to tell me Luke is doing fine.

Tuesday afternoon:  We pick up a beaming Luke, who announces that he loves school and that he and Poue had fun on the playground where they ran from another boy who pretended to be a dinosaur.  I check his bookbag, and there is a note from Luke’s teacher saying that he had a great day.  There is also the library book that Luke picked out, called The Big Red Lollipop, that tells a great story about learning to fit into a new culture.

After reading it, Anna spends the next three days drawing big, red lollipops.  That afternoon, Luke’s teacher emails me again to tell me that Luke had a great day and that she’s excited to have him in her class.

Wednesday morning:  Anna and I attend a Writing Workshop for parents of kindergartners in the school’s lunchroom.  There are about twenty parents there, some needing translators, and we hear tips from the directors of the public library on how to encourage our kids to read and write.  There is a lot of helpful information given (along with refreshments, which was a big draw for me:)).  At the end, we all got a bag with a slew of free stuff, including a book and a little chalkboard and chalk.  Sweet!

Your tax dollars at work, Tennesseans (and well spent, if I do say so myself)!

Wednesday afternoon:  Luke comes home all smiles again, full of tales of fun times on the playground and in the classroom.  They even got to go to the library to watch a puppet show. He tells me that since he loves his new class so much, he is going to draw two pictures for them, one for the boys and one for the girls.  Right when he gets home, he goes straight to work.  He draws a Batman scene for the boys, and a princess scene for the girls.

On the back of the boys’ picture he writes this message [edited to remove personal info]:

Dear [Name of school] kindergarten

Mrs. _________’s class.

The picture is of Batman.

If you do not like Batman, text [our street address].

Thank you.

From Luke

In his book bag is another note from the teacher saying that she assessed Luke for progress reports and was very impressed.  Later, I receive another email from her telling me that Luke reminds her of her son.  She also says that he is very bright and that she recommended him for the Encore program, which is TN’s gifted program.

Thursday:  Another great day, and another written note and email from his teacher.  That night, we went to their “Book Fair” at Barnes and Noble.  It was more like a fundraiser, where 10% of the proceeds of your purchase went to the school.  Regardless, the kids had fun, and we capped off the evening with dinner at Chickfila.

Friday:  After school, Luke walks toward me in the parking lot, trying (and failing) to suppress a smile.  When he gets up to me, he beams with pride and holds out the little plastic tooth that is on the string around his neck:  he lost his first tooth!  At school!  It happened at the end of another great day, and he got to go to the office to get his special necklace.  He had a great day, even with a substitute (which I knew about because the teacher had emailed me the night before, and put it in the newsletter).

Today, (Monday), I was supposed to go volunteer in Luke’s class, but Luke woke up sick, so we will have to postpone.  The teacher wrote me on Thursday to let me know that she’d like me to read one of our books to the class (Luke picked The Pigeon Wants a Puppy) and to help the students make turkey handprints.  It sounded super fun, but I wrote her this morning explaining that I would have to reschedule.  I wanted to save the update until after I had been in the classroom, but I’m going to go ahead and publish it.  We are all enjoying Luke’s new Title 1, High Priority school.   The teacher-parent communication has been top notch; there are tons of opportunities to get involved; and Luke is loving all of his classmates.  It remains to be seen whether the school will properly challenge him educationally, but right now, we could not be happier about his school.  We prayed so much before choosing to send him there, and I am so grateful that God seems to to have been watching over us as we made our choice!

Citizenship 101: Requirements

I have to admit that I’m a little torn as I think about the “requirements” of citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  After all, anyone who has read Romans knows that we have been saved by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not from anything we could do.  I think Ephesians 2: 8-9 sums it up best when it says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.”  I don’t want to give the impression, then, that we can ever “earn” our salvation by our own efforts.

Scripture is crystal clear that we are saved through Christ’s efforts, and not our own, which is why we tend to think of salvation as a free gift.

If it’s free, however, then why does Jesus keep warning His listeners to “count the cost” before they follow Him?

 ‘Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him,  saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

   ‘Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.  In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple‘”  (Luke 14: 28:33).

To better understand what Jesus might be talking about when he says “estimate the cost,” we have to look no further than the verses directly before that pronouncement.  Far from touting Himself as the “free gift” to the world, Jesus warns His listeners that following Him will consist of stringent demands:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:  ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27).

Elsewhere, he tells would-be followers to leave their dying (or perhaps dead and unburied) relatives, to leave their families without saying goodbye, and that anyone who looks back after following Him is not worthy of Him (Matt. 8:18-22Luke 9:57-62).

So what gives?  Isn’t Jesus contradicting Paul, who maintains that we can do nothing to save ourselves?  Not at all!  Jesus agrees very much with Paul in that regard.  He tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again,” a statement that Nicodemus rightly recognizes as physically impossible (John 3:3-5).  Elsewhere, he says that no one can come to God unless God enables that person (John 6:65), and that apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

Jesus and Paul, then, are in perfect agreement that we can not earn our salvation.  Their idea, however, that there is nothing we can do to be saved, has been twisted into the concept that we have to do nothing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls that perception, “cheap grace.”  In his famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer says that “cheap grace means grace as a principle, a system.  It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God.  An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins” (43).  He goes on to declare that “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (44-45).

Such a concept of grace finds itself severely at odds with the repeated teachings of Jesus that His followers must sacrifice all for Him, an act that He calls “dying to self,” or, more literally, just “dying.”  Here are some of the requirements that Jesus gave His would-be followers:

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:37-39).

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it'” (Matt. 16:24-25).

“Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?’” (Luke 9:23-25).

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:24-26).

Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

It seems clear from these and other verses that following Christ involves a complete renunciation of our lives, which consists not only of our will to survive, but also of all the selfishness that makes up the tableau of our daily wants and needs.  That is, at least, how Paul seemed to take Jesus’ commands.

He tells the Galatians, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24-25).

In that same letter, he declares that, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

To the Corinthians, he maintains that, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor. 4:10-11).

Truly, this is just a small sampling of verses that claim that being a follower of Christ requires personal sacrifice and that clearly indicate that a follower of Christ must live his life in active imitation of Jesus.

Bonhoeffer cites a misunderstanding of Luther as the root of the church’s conception of “cheap grace.”  Thus, he strives to correct the popular perception of Luther’s beliefs:  “When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ.  Only so could he speak of grace.  Luther had said that grace alone could save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word.  But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship” (49-50).

Even though we may not know much about Luther today, his teachings (or as Bonhoeffer would be quick to assert, the popular misconception of his teachings) have nevertheless influenced the way the church thinks about grace and salvation.  We think of salvation as almost completely disconnected from our own actions, when even an inattentive reading of the gospels reveals such a thought to be ridiculous.  Being a Christian costs something.  It most certainly cost something to Jesus, and He tells us in no uncertain terms that we must walk as He did in order to be His follower.  Being a citizen of God’s Kingdom, then, has some requirements.  It requires that we lay down our lives, take up our crosses, and follow Christ.

This blog is dedicated to learning how to do that.

What do you think?  Do you agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s assessment of “cheap grace”?  Or do you think it is wrong to view the Kingdom of God as having “requirements”?

Quotes taken from:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  The Cost of Discipleship.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1995.

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