Archive for the ‘Kingdom Voices’ Category

Things that Happen in Russian Prisons and Minnesota Malls

When you are gone, what do you want to leave behind?

What impact do you want to have made?

russian prison cellI ask, because I just finished a book called The Insanity of God, in which a man writes about his many interviews with Christians who have faced intense persecution.  Reading it, I was amazed at the impact that such simple things could have on others.  One story that stuck with me was from a man who had spent fifteen years in a prison in the USSR.  He was imprisoned for his faith, tortured, and starved for so long.  The only things that kept him faithful were two practices he had.  One was to get up first thing every morning, stand at attention, and loudly sing a worship song.  It was always the same worship song.  The book called it a HeartSong, but I don’t really know what that means.  Anyway, he sang it every morning.  The other thing he did was whenever he found a scrap of paper and something to write with, he would fill the paper with all the Scripture he could fit on it and then stick it to a freezing pole in his room.  He met great opposition with these two practices.  When he sang his HeartSong, for instance, all the other prisoners would jeer and mock him and even throw their own excrement into his cell to stop him.  And when he put up scripture, it was inevitably discovered, which led to more torture and mistreatment.

After years of maintaining these two practices, the authorities decided that he was to be executed.  They came to his cell and started to lead him away.  It was then that an amazing thing happened:

 The prison held 1,500 prisoners, and all of them got up, stood at attention, and started singing this man’s HeartSong.

Can you picture that?  Can you picture one man’s faithful behavior day after day, one simple act repeated, that inspired a whole prison around him?  What an amazing image.

And happily, the guards were so astonished and terrified that they thought the man had special powers and they let him live, which is how we know the story today.

Thinking about the impact of that single prisoner makes me think of my own impact in life, even in circumstances very different from his.  I think we have no idea the effect we can have on others through the witness of our actions.  I’m still not sure what a HeartSong is, but I do think every life has a central message that it shares with others, whether we mean for it to or not.  And the challenge for Christians is for that message, that song that we sing, to point to Jesus, in hopes that even when we are gone, our “song” will continue.

I saw a great illustration of this idea yesterday.  You may have heard the story of Zach Sobiech, a teenager who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and decided to make the most of the time he had left.  One of the things he did that made the biggest impact was write songs as a way to process what was happening to him.  His song, “Clouds,” was extremely popular on youtube.  The link above goes to a short documentary on his life, but this three-minute video also gives a good recap.

I had heard of Zach before he died, and now he has passed away.  What I didn’t know until yesterday, was that a year after his death, a huge group of 5,000  people who had heard of him and loved him gathered together to sing his song in the Mall of America.  The video is amazing:

When I saw that video, tears came to my eyes.  It just provided such a beautiful image of the impact we can have on others through the way we live our lives.

And when I think about that Russian prisoner and American teenager, I can’t help but think of others, like Greg’s Granddaddy Kirby, whose “song” of faithfulness to God and family is still being sung by every one of his descendants.

I think of Uncle Rob, whose song of joy in adversity impacted everyone who met him.

And I think of my brother, who left behind so many literal songs, some of which I still sing to my children–and to myself, when I need them.

And I also think of my own life.

How will my life impact others?

What song is my life singing?

And will others sing it after I’m gone?

Kingdom Voices: Christopher Friedrich Blumhardt

My wonderful Advent devotional begins each year on November 24.  This is my third year reading through it, and it’s funny to see how the ideas from the devotions have seeped into my brain.  I guess that’s why these words from Blumhardt resonated with me so deeply this year.  Part of it is that I am neck deep in reading about the phenomenon of global slavery today.  Reading so much about the darkness of the world and desiring to do something to change it adds weight to the following words.  I highlighted my favorite parts:

“As long as God’s kingdom has to be fought for, it is more important to be dressed for work–ready for action--to make an effort to do something in keeping with God’s plan, often against the whole weight of the world.    A practical way exists, and we must be ready for this with our whole being.

‘But,’ someone may ask, ‘What sort of thing, exactly, are we to do?  What will truly serve God and his coming reign?‘  This is a serious question; no human being can answer it.  We have to learn to live in what is coming from God every day and to carry a light from this awareness into the darkness

Anyone whose attention is fixed on the coming reign of God and who wants to see a change brought about in God’s house will become more and more aware that there exists a universal wrongness that is pulled over us like a choking, suffocating blanket.He will know that the thing to do is to take hold of God’s hand so that there is some effect on this night, so that at least a few areas are made receptive to God’s truth and justice and are made ready to receive God himself.  But to do this work we have to have a light.  With this light we can then illuminate every corner where we have some work to do…

Let us keep staunch our eagerness to do whatever comes to us of the truth.  Then there will be knocks on our door, over and over, and God’s coming will not be hidden.  For devoted hearts the light will keep dawning from him who is merciful and compassionate.

The work for 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…”*

I don’t think I could read about the darkness in the world if I didn’t have hope in God.  Because of my faith in Him, I have hope that there is something for me to do on this earth, something that can bring light and make a difference to others.  And I know that to do that, I have to always look to Him and follow His guidance.  The problems are too big for me to solve, so clearly, solving them is not my job.  My job is to obey the nudges of the Holy Spirit and to spread love and light to the places the Spirit shows me.   I think I can manage that.

*quote taken from:

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

Kingdom Voices: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I agree with about 90% of this excerpt, taken from The Cost of Discipleship, but 100% of it makes me think:

What is undivided love?  Love which shows no special favour to those who love us in return.  When we love those who love us, our brethren, our nation, our friends, yes, and even our own congregation, we are no better than the heathen and publicans.  Such love is ordinary and natural, and not distinctively Christian.  We can love our kith and kin, our fellow-countrymen and our friends, whether we are Christians or not, and there is no need for Jesus to teach us that.  But he takes that kind of love for granted, and in contrast asserts that we must love our enemies.  Thus he shows us what he means by love, and the attitude we must display towards it.

How then do the disciples differ from the heathen?  What does it really mean to be Christian?  Here we meet the word that controls the whole chapter [Matthew 5], and sums up all we have heard so far.  What makes the Christian different from other men is the “peculiar,” the Πξρισσον, the “extraordinary”…

The Πξρισσον never merges into the το αυτο.  That was the fatal mistake of the false Protestant ethic which diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness, which in short, perverted the better righteousness into justitia civilis.  Not in such terms as these does Jesus speak.  For him, the hall-mark of the Christian is the “extraordinary.”  The Christian cannot live at the world’s level, because he must always remember the Πξρισσον.

What is the precise nature of the Πξρισσον?  It is the life described int the beatitudes, the life of the followers of Jesus, the light which lights the world, the city set on the hill, the way of self-renunciation, of utter love, of absolute purity, truthfulness and meekness.  It is unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries.  In every case it is the love which was fulfilled in the cross of Jesus Christ himself, who went patiently and obediently to the cross–it is in fact the cross itself.

Kingdom Voices: Luke Timothy Johnson on the Sermon on the Mount

Last night was my first week “teaching” our women’s class at church.  We are currently inching our way through the Sermon on the Mount (coincidentally, we are doing the same thing in our Sunday morning class, which means this is my kind of church!).  Last night, we looked at the section on oaths.  It is kind of a strange section, so I came to class armed with Bonhoeffer and Willardwho both had some thought-provoking ideas about the passage.  I also looked up what Luke Timothy Johnson had to say about it in his book, The Writings of the New Testament.  While doing so, I found some cool thoughts on the “sermon” as a whole (he says that the term, “sermon,” is misleading).

Johnson views this collection of thoughts to be Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the Torah.  He makes some really great points about the divine standard that is promoted in these chapters.  I encourage you to read these words and really ponder their depths:

The phrase ‘father in heaven’ runs throughout the sermon as the constant point of reference (5:16, 45, 48; 6: 1, 4, 6, 14-15, 18, 26, 32; 7:11, 21).  And if it is God’s effective rule that Jesus announces, then God is the only adequate measure of it:  ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (5:48).  The words of Jesus, therefore, do not present a program capable of human fulfillment, but a measure for all Christian existence.  A measure less ultimate than God would mean a kingdom less ultimate than God’s.  This is the essential framework for understanding the Messianic interpretation of Torah by Jesus” (201).

I love this idea of God’s holiness being the standard for the Sermon on the Mount.  Despite my best efforts, I tend to read the sermon as a list of rules, a “raising of the bar” on the Torah.  I read it and think, “Wow, that is a lot I have to do.  The Sermon on the Mount, however, is so much more profound than a list of rules.  It is a glimpse into what it means to be holy–what it means to be like God, quite frankly.  Johnson’s words here put me in awe of my calling as a member of God’s kingdom.

A few paragraphs later, he goes on to discuss Matthew 5:20, where Jesus says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Regarding Jesus’ words here, Johnson asks:

But how do Jesus’ teachings exceed those of the Pharisees?  Certainly not in the multiplication of commands, for we are here presented with only a suggestive sample.  The exceeding is to be found in the radical nature of Jesus’ interpreation:  radical in the sense of getting to the root.  Jesus’ interpretations assert God himself as the only adequate and ultimate norm of the kingdom” (201).

That idea of the Sermon on the Mount simply being a “suggestive sample” is intriguing to me.  Even though I’ve always known that Jesus does not address the entirety of the Torah in this sermon, I have always tended to view it as a complete code of ethics.  I am intrigued by the idea that Jesus is just giving us a little sampling of how to interpret  what God really wants from us.  And again, I like how Johnson reasserts that God is “the only adequate and ultimate norm of the kingdom.”  I have grappled with the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount before, and Johnson’s interpretation helps confirm my suspicions that it is so much more than an updated version of “the rules.”

Finally, Johnson gives a helpful breakdown of the alterations Jesus makes to the traditional understanding of Torah:

How does the Messiah interpret Torah?  He radicalizes it in three ways.  In the case of murder and adultery (5:21-30), he demands an interior disposition corresponding to outer action.  For the prohibitions of swearing and divorce (5:31-37), he demands an absolute adherence rather than a mitigating casuistry (though cf. 19:9).  In matters of human relationships (5:38-47), he demands a response that goes beyond the letter of the commandment.  These antitheses serve to assert Jesus’ authority to interpret for the kingdom (201).

It might be my love for classification that makes me enjoy this last passage so much, but I appreciate how Johnson analyzes Jesus’ interaction with Torah here.  His analysis helped spur on my own thinking about the way that Jesus reinterprets the Law.

All in all, I really enjoyed these thoughts.  Part of why I’m putting them on the blog is that when I found them, they were highlighted and starred from when I read them years ago.  Needless to say, I had totally forgotten them.  I don’t want to let them get away again!

What do you think about Johnson’s analysis?  Do you have any “push back” to his thoughts?

Kingdom Voices: Thomas Merton

Knowing my interest in Thomas Merton, my dear friend, Molly, sent me this book of Lenten reflections, and I have enjoyed reading it each day.  I read these thoughts last week, and I loved how Merton’s ideas corresponded to my own current line of thinking regarding my one job:

“True sanctity does not mean living without creatures.  It consists in using the goods of life in order to do the will of God.  It consists of using God’s creation in such a way that everything we touch and see and use and love gives new glory to God.  To be a saint means to pass through the world gathering fruits for heaven from every tree and reaping God’s glory from every field.  The saint is one who is in contact with God in every possible way, in every possible direction.  He is united to God by the depths of his own being.  He sees and touches God in everything and everyone around him.  Everywhere he goes, the world rings and resounds (though silently) with the deep harmonies of God’s glory.”

–Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration, 137.

I assume that, as a Catholic, Merton is speaking of saints in a different way than I think of them.  When I think of saints, I don’t think of a special class of Christians whose virtue elevates them above the rest; instead, I just think of…well, Christians.  All of us.  At least, that is how Paul refers to us in so many of his letters.  And as a Christian, I do long to be “in contact with God in every possible way, in every possible direction.”  That is one of the reasons why I try to view all my tasks as ultimately accomplishing one purpose:  the glorification of God.  Because of this, Merton’s words resonate deeply with me.  He reminds me that, in all that I say and do, I should seek to live as God’s saint, a citizen in His kingdom.

Kingdom Voices: Video Edition

On January 10, a spoken word poet named Jefferson Bethke uploaded to Youtube a poem about why he hated religion but loved Jesus.  Sixteen million views later, I think we can safely say that it struck a nerve, particularly with younger Christians.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check it out here:

The poem has a lot of good things to say about the nature of Christianity.  It points out that Christianity is more than just a bunch of rules; it highlights the dangers of hypocrisy; and it reminds us that we do not earn our salvation.  All of those points are very true and helpful, and they clearly resound in the hearts of people who have been disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the church.

What is unfortunate to me is that the poem talks about “false religion,” but calls it “religion.”  Now, it’s a poem, and I know that there is such a thing as artistic license and whatnot…but there’s a world of difference between those two terms.  Jesus did not come to abolish religion.  His little brother, in fact, had some powerful stuff to say about religion, as a pillar of the early church.

That’s why I’m so glad that this guy (below) clarified the biblical nature of religion in his own video.  (I tried valiantly to find his name, but had no luck.  We’ll call him, “the priest.”)  Even without his name, I loved what he said so much that I thought I’d put it under the “Kingdom Voices” section of my blog.  Here is his response:

I posted both these videos on my Facebook page, but I decided to post them on my blog, as well, because there is so much to love about this interchange.  This, this right here, is what the generations in the church need to be doing.  We need to be talking to each other.  Each generation has their own strengths to bring to the table.  The burden of the younger generation is to remember to listen to and respect the older generation for their contributions.  The burden of the older generation is to guide the younger without alienating them.  This necessarily includes keeping an open mind when it comes to some issues of theology and ideas about the church.  Also, it means that the older generation needs to be able to speak in a way that the younger generation can hear.  I love the respect that is inherent in the priest’s response.  For one thing, he responds in kind.  I have read several good essays responding to the video, but this man went one step further and responded in the same language as Bethke.  Also, you can tell that he listened very carefully to the poem because their are several call backs.  Both poems, for example, use the imagery of an ocean to describe the church’s work; both use death as a metaphor; both use similar examples involving professional basketball.  There are many more parallels, both subtle and obvious, and what they demonstrate is that the priest took the time to really hear the younger man and to mull over his argument.  Also, while the priest is clear about his beliefs, his presentation is calm and compassionate.  The even-handed tone softens the nature of the interchange; it doesn’t seem like a debate, but like a loving conversation between brothers.  That’s how it should be.

Even more than the presentation of the material, I loved the second poem for its content.  His biblical examples are right on, I think (even though the Judas one is a tad harsh).  And on a practical level, I think that of course, Christianity is a religion.   In terms of denotative, dictionary definitions, that is simply undeniable.  The heart of Bethke’s attack, however, wasn’t on the dictionary, but on the church–particularly, on the flawed, often hypocritical people who make up the church.  And I happen to be madly in love with the church.  It is, after all, Christ’s body.  It is the means through which He chose to bring His kingdom to this earth.  Yes, it is also full–absolutely loaded–with hypocrites and sinners.  I am one of them, for sure.  And sometimes I even question the strategy of using a bunch of selfish, imperfect humans to spread the divine love of God…but then again, how can I question what is clearly God’s will?  Yes, I have been hurt by the church.  I’m sure everyone in the church has been hurt by the church, has been disappointed and disillusioned, probably many times.  That’s what happens among groups of humans.  But the church has also truly been the embodiment of Christ to me, time and time again.  They have loved me, carried me, taught me, fed me, and soothed my hurting soul.  I could never imagine walking away from it.  Frankly, I owe it too much at this point.  I owe it to both the church and to its Head to be the body part I was designed to be, so that I can love, carry, teach, feed, and soothe others.  I could go on about it, but I think I will stop and simply share the lyrics from one of my favorite Derek Webb songs, “The Church.”  You can listen to it here on Youtube.  It’s a beautiful song, and even though some of the images on the video are a little strange, I would recommend hearing it with the music.  Here is the first verse and chorus:

I have come with one purpose 
to capture for myself a bride 
by my life she is lovely 
by my death she’s justified 

I have always been her husband 
though many lovers she has known 
so with water i will wash her 
and by my word alone 

So when you hear the sound of the water 
you will know you’re not alone 

Chorus:
‘Cause i haven’t come for only you
but for my people to pursue
you cannot care for me with no regard for her
if you love me you will love the church

I especially agree with the chorus.  And I know that Bethke ultimately says that he loves the church, and I believe him.  But the responses I have seen on Facebook are very different.  So many people have said that this video explains why they turned their backs on the church.  I cannot tell you how sad that makes me.  I don’t deny the hurt that these people have experienced, and I hate that they had bad experiences.  My prayer, though, is that God brings them back into His body.  After all, we need them!  We need their hearts, their passions, their talents and skills and gifts to help us share God’s kingdom with the world.

That’s why I rank the words of this priest as a “kingdom voice,” even though he and I likely disagree on a host of other theological matters.  I have found that I disagree with just about everyone on a “host of other theological matters,” and yet many of those same people speak truth to me about God’s kingdom.  So I see the “kingdom voices” section as a highlight not of specific people, but of specific words those people have spoken.  And the words of this priest remind us of the obvious fact that you can’t have a king without a kingdom, and that it is not finished here on earth.  We Christians have a mission to live.

What did you think of the videos?  And what is your view of the church?

Kingdom Voices: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Happy Christmas eve, everyone!  My family has a busy day planned that I hope glorifies God and shares His love for others.  But first, in honor of the day, I thought I’d share another excerpt from my Advent devotional.

Of all of the words of the Bible, perhaps none captivate me more than Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  That parable ignites a wide range of emotions in me, from fear to wonder to excitement to passion to desire to meet God in the people around me.  There is something utterly profound in Christ’s statement that, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (25:40).  Truly, it is hard to plumb the depths of those words, and to fully understand their implications.  I think, however, that Bonhoeffer does a pretty good job here of briefly exploring the import of the amazing picture that Jesus paints in that parable:

“One day at the last judgment, he will separate the sheep and the goats and will say to those on his right:  ‘Come, you blessed…I was hungry and you fed me…’ (Matt. 25:34).  To the astonished question of when and where, he answered:  ‘What you did to the least of these, you have done to me…’ (Matt. 25:40).  With that we are faced with the shocking reality:  Jesus stands at the door and knocks in complete reality.  He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing.  He confronts you in every person that you meet.  Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people.  He walks on earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, and makes his demands.  That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message.  Christ stands at the door.  He lives in the form of the person in our midst.  Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?”

The idea of being able to meet Christ in each person among the masses of humanity around us, and to serve Him directly through loving our neighbor never ceases to enthrall me.

What passage of Scripture most excites and motivates you?

*Quote taken from:  Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst.”  Watch for the Light:  Readings for Advent and Christmas.  Farmington, PA:  Plough Publishing House, 2001.

%d bloggers like this: