by doing good
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…
…whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
For this is the will of God
…that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
Honor everyone…Fear God. Honor the emperor.
1 Peter 2:13-17
Embracing Exile

This article was originally written in June 2019.

Unfairness–real or perceived–gives us no platform to respond in with unfairness, unkindness, and untruthfulness.  

It has been both fascinating and frustrating over the past 12 years or so, watching presidential elections and the commentary surrounding two Obama presidencies and this most recent Trump presidency.  During Obama’s first campaign I was surprised and discouraged by much of the commentary I heard coming from Christian circles—there was clearly fear and uncertainty at work, among other things.  What I have seen and heard since Trump became President, though, has gone completely off the rails. So much of this boils down a question of the connection between state (or empire) and the Christian community.  I shake my head and, at times, feeling great remorse at the way those who carry the name of Christ speak of, and act toward, those who do not share their priorities, worldview, and faith.

Just prior to writing this I was listening to an NBA podcast and the topic of Muslim players fasting during the NBA playoffs came up.  The guest spoke for more than 20 minutes about the intricate details of Muslim faith and the decision whether or not to fast during the basketball season.  While I found it interesting, I also thought to myself, “It would have been deemed inappropriate, at best, to have had a discussion about whether NBA players ought to play basketball on Sunday, or some other discussion that would have been labeled as “Christian.”  Is it fair?  No, it’s not.  But perceived unfairness gives us no platform to respond in with unfairness, unkindness, and untruthfulness.

I am growing more and more convinced that Christianity doesn’t work well—or at least as it should—when tied with the yellow-brick-road of power.  It’s like biscuits and gravy flavored ice cream; two things that should be put together.  Could it be in America that the church has no idea how to live and work and function apart from the power, favorable legislation, and wealth that it has enjoyed for so long?  It seems to me this may be the case

“Embracing exile is not a pause in the missional purpose of God’s people. Embracing exile may, in fact, be setting God’s people free to rediscover their true mission and the powerful reasons for their divine creation in the first place.”   

Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 1218

My biggest concern and question for the church in America today goes something like this—if our attempts to maintain some semblance of Christendom in our national power and legislative structures become our mission and purpose, do we only end up looking like the bullhorn brigade outside the Rose Bowl? 

Do these efforts please God, or do we do more damage than good to our witness?

Are we losing our saltiness and snuffing our these little lights of ours?

Is our primary purpose to uphold and defend the Kingdom of American and its perceived Christian roots and ideals, or is our mission to live out the “alternative way ” of the Kingdom of God in our world no matter what the political, social, and economic climate? 

No doubt, some have trouble distinguishing between the two Kingdoms, but Jesus was clear, “No one can serve two masters”  (Mat 6:24).

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This article was originally presented in a class and was responded to by other students.  I have reproduced a few of those responses below:

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Response from K:  “I’m just trying to sin as little as possible before I can go to heaven.” This disposition, while on the surface could be seen as righteous, has damaging consequences on mission and witness when people begin to think, for example that there is no point in working if this will only get worse until it all burns.

You pointed out clearly how this affects eschatology, ecclesiology, and soteriology.  Each of these have a clear connection to the way we live in this world and the way the church carries out its mission.  Thank you for the clear reminder.

          My response to K:  Thank you, K, for this great response.  Like you, I appreciate the message of hope conveyed by Daniels that is appropriate for all believers in every place at all times, regardless of how we interpret the metaphor of “exile” used in this book. In Genesis we also see the reality of the human dilemma and, by extension, the reality of the church; that is, all the good that God created was changed drastically by this thing we call sin.  The perfect paradise of Eden was no longer.  The perfect Shalom between God and humanity, and between Adam and Eve (and by extension all humanity) was broken.  The world is not as it should be…and this is the world where we live and breath…this is the context of our lives. 

It’s not perfect.  It’s not right.  It’s not fair.  We are in exile from Eden, so to speak, and always have been.  But there is hope; a hope that cannot and will not be quenched.

          Follow-up reply from K :  I am amazed at how often in the last 10 months the story of Genesis has come to meet me in the study of his word.  As I have the opportunity to lead women’s ministries the word “believe” has been the pinnacle in planning and preparations.  It started with studying Genesis 3, Eve was presented the first question in scripture: “Did God really say?”  I believe that is the question the enemy used first and it has been his gaming question since. 

In this book, Embracing Exile, Daniels mentions the importance of imagination .  It can be used for our good or our harm.  When the enemy gets us to imagine that what God says isn’t really true then we are in trouble. Eve doubted and sin entered the world and every time we doubt what God really says we open up the opportunity for the gap (separation) of the broken humanity to pull us away from the path to which we are called.   

Women are so good about forgetting, or just not believing, what God really does say about them. Of course, it’s not just women who have this problem!  The enemy was able to get Eve’s imagination off track even in the “perfect paradise of Eden” that you mention.  Adam proved himself to be no better.  How much more is the struggle to not truly believe what God has said in our broken world that is not at all what it was designed to be.

Scripture

As the church, we ought to so immerse ourselves into God’s saving story in Acts 1-4 that we know “how to live authentically in ways that carry the great story forward.

The tradition folklore of the Asian country where I live is full of crazy, fantastic stories about gods and spirits and wars that somehow resulted in the thousands of islands that make up this nation.  If you ask people if these stories are historical realities—did they really happen?–they will answer clearly, “Of course not, they are legends.”  But if you ask them if the stories are true, they will answer, “Yes, of course,” and then explain clearly the deep foundational truths that are contained in the stories.  They are “untrue” stories that are chock full of truth that have been passed down generation after generation.

I once told a group of students that “God teaches people using ‘untrue’ stories,” and then paused, taking the opportunity to watch their faces.  “Are you saying the Bible isn’t true?” a student finally asked.  “Not at all,” I replied, “I believe the Bible to be both true and trustworthy, but we can also see clearly that Jesus taught deep and difficult truths by telling parables, stories that have no historical basis.  They aren’t true in the way that most people use that word today.”

I am convinced that the opening chapter of Genesis comes to the people of God in this pattern because they wanted their children to interpret the world God created through the three words of separation, filling, and blessing.

Daniels, Exile, Kindle Locations 398-399

I love it when Scripture comes alive and the truth behind the words is seen in a new and deeply meaningful way, far more meaningful than simply the face-value of words on paper.  My faith has been strengthened and deepened in recent years through a desire to find the truth of Scripture through the story being told.  I really appreciate how Daniels points out the metanarrative of separation, filling, and blessing that is found below the surface of the creation story in Genesis 1. The more I read Scripture, understand its context, and begin to better understand how ancient writers wrote and the tools they used to convey meaning, the more the Bible comes alive and the story of God, the story of Israel, the story of Christ, the story of the church, and our story that we are living out in the here and now take on new significance and weight. 

In cross-cultural ministry I am working with a young man who is trying to build relationships with non-Christian-background people.  Early on I told him to start by telling the Old Testament story of creation, but don’t go immediately to sin.  “Spend a little time in the goodness of creation,” I told him.  Having grown up in a typical evangelical church where “sharing the gospel” meant “talking about Jesus,” he wasn’t too sure why we would waste time in Genesis.  After meeting with one particular man with whom he had been sharing regularly, this young man came and shared with me how excited that man has been to read the first two chapters of Genesis.  I wanted Jonah to begin in Genesis 1 to give him an opportunity to talk about a personal, creative, loving God that created this world for a good purpose and plan.  What I hadn’t thought about it explicitly, before reading these chapters from Exile, was that this young friend of mine was also introducing a new story to his friend—new foundational understandings of God and our existence in this world.  And this happens whether or not we view Genesis as literal, historical reality.  It’s full of truth, regardless.

I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

Alasdair MacIntyre

Of which story am I a part?  Daniels explains briefly some of the stories prevalent in the West—success, nation, humanist, to name three. Part of the transformative power of exile is that it forces us to re-center our story.  When the path to easy success is littered with obstacles, then what?  When nation is finally seen to not be the mirror image of the Kingdom that we wanted it to be, where do we turn? 

As the church, we ought to so immerse ourselves into God’s saving story in Acts 1-4 that we know “how to live authentically in ways that carry the great story forward.” What story am I telling with my life? What story is our church telling through it interactions with each other and the world? Where is balance between “becoming all things” (1 Cor 9:19-23) and remaining distinctively different?

 

For further reflection, please see:

Daniels, T. Scott  (2017-02-26). Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World (Nazarene Publishing House. Kindle Edition).

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This article was originally presented in a class and was responded to by other students.  I have reproduced a few of those responses below:

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Response from R:  ” I am nervous that although we can articulate who we are suppose to be in the world, we really have a hard time living into it. I believe we struggle with this because we miss empire. We miss the power. And the truth is we cannot chase after God and empire too.”

My response to R:  You nailed the crux of our human weakness on the head. We know intellectually what we should be doing; it’s fairly easy to put it into words and not all that hard to explain.  But actually doing it?  That’s the hard part.  Being part of the empire is rather easy…but easy makes lazy.  Life in the kingdom brings with it power and authority…but Jesus, himself, told us to go lower and empty ourselves.  Life in the kingdom comes with safety and security…but life in the kingdom is reflected in the question Susan posed to Mr Beaver–

Is Aslan quite safe?  I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

”Safe?”  said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe?  ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

How is the church to live, move, and breath as as a church in exile?

The Church in Exile

Although exile is a prominent theme throughout the Old Testament, it has not generally been a lens through which the history of the church has been interpreted.  In his book Embracing Exile; Living Faithfully as God’s  Unique People in this World, T. Scott Daniels presents a thesis centered around the idea that the church, particularly the American, church, is in the process of being exiled.  Indeed, he argues, it has been for quite some time.  In this brief reflection I will argue that Daniels is correct—

the church is in a state of exile

—but not in exactly the same way as he envisions in his book. In recognizing the state of exile in which the church exists, there are both dangers and opportunities that must be recognized.

What is Exile?

Daniels explains from the beginning some of the ways in which the metaphor falls apart. These are important to recognize, but there is one additional aspect of this important metaphor that needs to be addressed.  Mainly, exile means that we have left one place—either by force or by choice—and now exist in another. 

The underlying implication is that the place left behind represents what should be, the place where all is right, and that the place of exile is less-than-ideal, the place where what should be is not.

In the same way, to understand that the the church in America is entering a period of exile has two basic implications.  First, that the cultural, political, and religious context of the past, and the way in which the church functioned in this context, was the ideal, the way things ought to be.  Second, the cultural, political, and religious context in which the church is feeling exiled is not ideal, not the way things ought to be.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote, in The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth, that

…we are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.

The faithful people of God are in exile and always has been.  In Genesis, after God separates, fills, and blesses as described by Daniels in chapter two of Exile, sin enters through the disobedience of humanity.  The perfect paradise of Eden was no longer available. The perfect Shalom between God and humanity, and between Adam and Eve, was broken.  The world was no longer as it should have been, as it was created to be. This is the world in which we live.

Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and into the less-than-ideal world where sin works to break all that was good.

Their exile is our exile. This is the world in which church exists today, as it always has—as a people of God in exile.

As Peter reminds us,

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession”

1 Peter 2:9

Therefore, he continues,

I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desire, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:10

Past generations were not more perfect or less broken by sin.  The exiled reality of the church was a truth then as it is now.  The difference now is that in the past the prominent and respected place of the church within the cultural, economic, and religious context of America made the reality of exile difficult to see. Comfortable people have a hard time seeing what it really happening all around them. Today, the clouds are clearing, the support systems are crumbling, and the plot of America’s cultural narrative is shifting. 

A new reality is dawning for the church and it feels uncomfortable and frightening…

…but it’s not the reality of exile that is new; rather, the reality of a Christian-friendly cultural milieu is rapidly fading into the past.

The dangers of exile

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Matthew 16:26

The first danger of exile is seen in the church that forfeits itself to the world in which it exists. I have raised my children outside of the American context, so Daniels words regarding the loss of identity make sense–

The book of Daniel recognizes that if the Judeans weren’t careful, at some point their children would cease to be Judeans living in exile in Babylon and would instead become Babylonians who attended the synagogue on occasion

Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 1078

In raising my children, I don’t want them to cease to have any sense of their American identity or their connection to their passport country–that cultural and national identity of their parents, grandparents, and home church.  In the same way,

…the church in exile must not lose sight of its home country—the kingdom of light of which God’s people are citizens. 

The cultural values of this kingdom define who we are, form the foundation of our faith, and inform our practices. We may not see it clearly yet, but the process of discipleship brings us to a deeper understanding of the values and ideals of our “home country” (the heavenly household of God). Yet, our day-to-day existence is lived out in a foreign kingdom of exile. 

For me, that foreign kingdom is my passport country of the United States. Your foreign kingdom might also be your passport country or some other earthly national identity that is most comfortable for you–your “home.” The closer we come to Christ, however, the greater our awareness of the foreignness of our earthly home, our “comfort place,” our God-given national identity.

Just as Jesus was a man very much shaped by his earthly geographic, cultural, economic, and religious context, so we are a product of the context of our particular corner of the globe.  To keep our home country (the new heaven and new earth promised in Scripture) always in sight takes no small amount of effort. As such,

…the first great danger of exile is that we begin to look more and more like the place of exile and less and less like Christ. 

In doing so the church is no longer separate from the world.  As a result, the church then loses its opportunity to fill and be filled by the Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations. In the world of missions this is known as syncretism, a melding together of spiritual truth with cultural and philosophical values to the point where they can no longer be distinguished one from the other.  As an American I was taught to carefully avoid syncretism in overseas ministry, but no one ever mentioned that my passport country, itself, may be one of the best of examples of near perfect syncretism in the world today!

A second danger lies on the opposite end of the spectrum; that is,

…while living in exile, the people of God fail to fill the earth with God’s glory while also failing to be a blessing to the nations,

…not because they identified too closely with world, but rather because they have separated themselves to the point of losing all meaningful impact and influence. N.T. Wright comments about the sort of “fortress mentality” in Surprised by Hope:

First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?  As long as we see Christian hope in terms of “going to heaven,” of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear as unrelated.  If the Christian hope is for God’s new creation, for “new heavens and new earth,” and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together.  Christian hope is surprisingly different from what they had assumed and that this same hope offers a coherent and energizing basis for work in today’s world.  

In other words, the second danger of exile is that life in this world becomes meaningless; nothing more than separation and withdrawal from the world, in such a way that the life of the church has no meaningful impact or influence in the community. As a result the church loses its ability to be filled with Spirit and to be a blessing to the nations. 

Opportunities in Exile

The great opportunity in exile, from the perspective of Missio Dei (God’s mission and purpose for God’s people) can be seen clearly in the words of Jesus,

Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”

Matthew 15:16

While the church waits for its return to the home country, there is ample opportunity to bless the world in which we currently live.

In 1 Peter 2:11-12, Peter writes,

Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.  

Not only is the church expected to “live properly” among the not-yet-believing community in which it exists, but to do so in a way that bring glory to God from the lips of unbelievers. 

The lives of those who are called the church bring glory to God while being appropriately different than the surrounding culture but yet actively and meaningfully engaged at the same time.

Paul, writing to the Colossians, states,

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; making the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Colossians 2:5-6

Clearly, for Paul, the life of the church in the greater community was of great importance; particularly the way they communicated with outsiders.  The assumption for Paul is that the church will be engaged with the culture and community in which they exist, and in doing so have the opportunity to do good, speak grace, and be, as Jesus taught, the salt of the earth—

…a valuable, meaningful, preserving influence in the world.

Finally, in the fifth chapter of his letter to church in Colossae, Paul adds,

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”

Colossians 5:9-11 (italics mine)

For Paul, it is not the place of the church to build walls and isolate themselves from the surrounding culture and influence; rather, while living in the world the church must insure that its story remains clear, relevant, unwaveringly full of grace…and filled with love. 

Conclusion

The church has always been in exile—all is not as it should be, hope for return to the home country remains yet unfulfilled, and even in the best of cultural, economic, social, and religious contexts, the church has, is, and will continue to face dangers and uncertainties at every corner.  While the particular state of exile may differ from one village to the next, one nation to the next, or even one continent to the next, all face the same basic dangers–syncretism on one extreme and absolute irrelevance on the other. Each, as well, has within reach the same foundational opportunities–to be the wellspring of grace, hope, and life as they walk the way of Christ while inviting others on the journey.

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Bibiography

Daniels, T. Scott. Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2017.

L’Engle, Madeleine.  The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth.  Chicago: Shaw Books, 2002.

The Holy Bible, New International Version.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.

Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

 

“It would seem as though God’s people have almost always had to narrate their life through the lens of exile”

(T. Scott Daniels, Exile, Kindle location 180) 

Having lived for nearly 15 years in an Asian country where the Christian community is a significant minority, the idea of exile is a familiar one, though prior to reading T. Scott Daniel’s Exile I’m not sure I ever thought of it through the lens of exile.  In the context of the minority Christian community where I live, the reality of exile is the way things have always been and probably will be generations to come.  Modest increases in the demographic percentages of Christians nationwide, along with a general cultural religious tolerance, have made Christian communities fairly optimistic.  Even so, an underlying nervousness underlies the delicate political foundations of this nation as radical, hard-line non-Christian political leaders often receive strong support from somewhat small, but very loud, radical factions of the nation.

In the U.S., I see a very different form of exile, if it is appropriate to refer to this truly as exile.  Daniels writes that “many Christians are waking up to the reality that they are suddenly strangers in a strange time” (Exile, Kindle location 141).  The sense of exile I increasingly see and hear from my American friends has a very different feel than that of their Asian counterparts.  Here in U.S., the Christian community seems to be feeling the loss of something and so the reaction often takes the form of an aggressive “let’s get back what we had” mentality, especially as it relates to politics and changes in the American cultural landscape; perhaps even a “defeat the enemy invading our territory” kind of impulse. This has been demonstrated with great clarity over recent weeks of political debate and discourse leading up to a highly divisive presidential election.

Here in U.S., the Christian community seems to be feeling the loss of something and so the reaction often takes the form of a sometimes aggressive “let’s get back what we had” mentality…

The Asian world in which I live and work is a world to which I have grown accustomed and the world in which my children have been raised.  The American world is one in which many loved ones live, to which my children will return (much sooner than I’m prepared for), and to which I will certainly sometime return.  What sort of world will that be?  Will the American church continue to struggle against its cultural exile?  Or will exile be embraced and become a catalyst for unity in mission?

For my Asian friends what I fear most is that their view of God’s Kingdom and reign will remain small, characterized by a “waiting for the future eternal kingdom” that is disconnected from the here-and-now and easily manifested as a fortress mentality that builds walls between “us” and “them.” For my American friends and family, what I fear most is that the view of God’s Kingdom and reign remains tied political victories and maintenance of a cultural Christianity that replaces, for many, a more authentic expression of the church, and that when these things slowly begin slipping away—as seems to be happening—harsh words and actions said and done in the name of Christ will only serve to increase the distance between “us” and “them.”

For my American friends and family, what I fear most is that the view of God’s Kingdom and reign remains tied political victories and maintenance of a cultural Christianity that replaces, for many, a more authentic expression of the church…

Those are my fears.  My prayer and hope, however, is much the same as that expressed by Daniels, that “…when the people of God are in places of marginalization and need, they seem to allow the Spirit of God to dwell in them an empower them to live faithfully despite the challenges.”  If Daniels is right, then exile may well lead to transformation.  If that is the case there is reason to be hopeful, regardless of the results of any political battle, presidential election, or sense of cultural loss.

Our hope, ultimately, is not found in political system, leader, or legislation.

Our hope is in Christ…

Majority of minority.  Wealth or poverty.  Power or weakness.  Health of sickness.

Our hope is in Christ alone.

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This article was originally presented in a class and was responded to by other students.  I have reproduced a few of those responses below:

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Response from G:  Change in and of itself is hard and can bring about uneasiness and fear.  When that change comes creeping into something we hold sacred…then the fear is intensified and can take any number of forms.  

My reply to G:  I am not a pastor or a local church, but I see this fear constantly in the eyes of young people who sense that the church could and should be so much more than what they experience it to be, yet an older generation of leadership resists change and even sometimes seems to actively suppresses it.  

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Response from T:  I briefly touched on this above, but one thing that makes me nervous is seeing the church identify as an exile without giving allowance to hope or the restorative power that God has for His people. “

My reply to T:  This is an important observation, T, because it touches on what I see as a key difference between those who have lived as exiles (or as significant faith minorities) and those who have a sense that they are in the process of being exiled; that is, a realization or sense that they are in the process of losing something.  A significant difference is that of hope.  Those who have long been exiled look forward with hope, while those being exiled lament what they perceive is being lost.  My other thought, though not yet fully formed, is that perhaps exile is (at least part of) the way that restoration will come—not the restoration of a church buoyed by cultural norms and a basic Christian literacy; rather a restoration of what the church really is and it’s role in the world.

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Response from J:  God does his most transformative work when his people are in exile. God’s power and grace are manifested in times of exile not when his people are not in power.

My reply to J:  Similar to you, J, on a theoretical level (logically speaking) I can see what Daniel’s is saying here.  On the practical level, however, it’s not something most of us are ready to enthusiastically embrace.  I guess it is comforting to know that Israel also did not ask for exile or seek it out or embrace it when it came.  Yet, it was beneficial, albeit painfully at times.

Implicit in the quote above is an idea that when everything is easy and a general cultural worldview holds sway, God’s full power and grace cannot be manifested in the same way as when the people of God are powerless, marginalized, and defeated.  I think we can all give examples of times when “Christianity in power” had resulted in a less-than-Christlike witness, testimony, existence in the world; whereas the early church, for example, was virtually bankrupt of power yet became well-known for it’s love for each other.

These are challenging ideas, to be sure. 

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Response from R:  When I read your sentence about “true citizenship status” a brief though crossed my mind, something like this–what if tomorrow morning all of those who called themselves Christian were taken out of their context and then randomly reassigned to a Chrisitan life somewhere in the world.  For example, what if tomorrow I woke up as a Christian in a small village in Siberia while another Chrisitan from Africa suddenly woke up in my place.

What would each of us think?  Would the poor Asian Christian mother be happy in an affluent suburban church setting?  Would the successful pastor of a large church make it in a small South American village church?   What I mean is, how much of our experience is tied to our social, political, and economic realities.  And, if those were suddenly shuffled, how would it change our perspectives on the Kingdom of God and the church.  I have a “creeping sense” that the exile we dread may well be seen as a significant improvement if we were to trade places.

Response from R: Thanks for sharing, R.  Excellent thought!  I think your are right that in some ways our American “doomsday” fear may well be considered an improvement of circumstances for many of our global brothers and sisters.

  Just as you shared about  being an African American living in Idaho (culture shock!), far away from the familiar, I have also been through similar form of exile being among the few caucasian Christians in a region of the world dominated by darker skinned people (of various people groups) who claim a variety of religious backgrounds.  At first I definitely felt like I did not belong and longed to go home….now, I more and more feel like I belong here and less and less feel like I belong at home.  What I have realized, though, is that I really don’t fully belong anywhere.  

Children from one cultural background that grow up in a different cultural background are often called “Third-Culture Kids”– that describes my own children, but it also describes me.  Perhaps this is one way to look at exile, too.  We are somewhere in the middle.  Yet, if you ask me, I’ll tell you that the person I am today and whatever growth I have experienced over the several years are precisely due to the fact that I have been living in this “in-between” place, and I don’t think I would trade it for anything.

“God’s will is wider than we imagine…and even though we may fall short God’s call on our life, in God’s infinite knowledge of all that can be known God is able to weave a tapestry of God’s will around the decisions that we, as humans, freely make. Any person earnestly seeking to live for God cannot leave the will of God without a conscious rejection of God. Instead, in and through the interweaving of God’s sovereignty and human free-will, the choices we make—influenced as they are by the wooing work of the Holy Spirit—become the visible squares of a quilt sewn together by the nearly invisible threads of God.”

[I found this note in the margins of notes I took sixteen years ago in a seminary course on the history of Christian thought and practice. Don’t ask me why I was reading seminary notes from sixteen years ago!]

You are perfect in love and in all your plans and purposes”

Post 7 of 28

[Originally posted September 28, 2020]

Yesterday I woke up to the news that someone I knew—a loving and dedicated wife, mother, friend, and disciple of Christ—died very tragically and unexpectedly while on a mission trip in Africa. I thought about this all day long, pondering the reality that none of us is guaranteed a minimum number of days. My heart broke for her husband, her two sons, and the many, many whose lives were touched by her life of love.

This morning I woke early, preparing for a trip later today, and decided to spend a few moments on this blog entry — You are perfect in love and in all your plans and purposes. Hmmmm….

Many people, in responding to our friend’s unexpected death made comments such as:

  • “I don’t understand God’s plan…”
  • “There doesn’t seem to be any purpose in this…”
  • “God needed her in heaven…”

These are the kinds of things people say, particularly when life ends unexpectedly or when tragedy comes without warning. Did God plan this car accident in Malawi? Was it by God’s purpose that this loving wife and mother was in the car? Or is God weeping alongside her husband and sons at the loss of such a meaningful soul who was touching the lives of so many? Did God not hear the prayers of many for safety and traveling mercies of this ministry team? Or did God ignore the prayers? Does God really need her in heaven more than she was being used in Malawi…and Oregon…and in her home?

These are the kinds of questions we ask at times like this.

These are the kinds of questions that we have so much difficulty trying to answer.

In the context of the Old Testament and its surrounding Ancient Near East culture, everything that happened on earth was attributed to the hand of God—God (or gods) planned it, God (or gods) purposed it, and God (or gods) carried it out. Today, we tend to look to other sources for much of what happens in our world —

  • weather patterns and cycles
  • natural laws of physics
  • cultural assumptions and expectations
  • human sin and disobedience

On a day-to-day level, at least, most of us do not probably attribute every moment as being planned, purposed, and carried out specifically by the hands of God. But when big things happen—those things that have significant and far-reaching consequences, either positive or negative—we still have a tendency to look to the heavens for answers. In such times there are a few common reactionss that tend to emerge. Each has some Biblical and theological foundation; none represent the one and only view expressed in Scripture or throughout Church History.

God caused this to happen —

  • God causes all things from the beginning until now.
  • Everything that has, is, and will happen in human history is by God plan, purpose, and power — this would include human actions, natural events, etc.
  • The “Problem of Evil” — how can we reconcile a God whose name is “Love” with the unspeakable evil, unfairness, and injustice that has been, is being, and will be perpetuated by human beings?
  • There may be comfort in knowing that God is in complete control — “God’s got this” — even when we cannot understand.

God allowed this to happen —

  • God knows everything that will happen throughout the course of human history, but knowing what will happen is not the same as causing them to happen.
  • God does not actively cause things to happen, but God does allow them to happen. This means what happens is still by God plan, purpose, and power because even though God could intervene, God does not.
  • God does sometimes intervene and change circumstances so that certain events do not occur. At other times, though, God seems to do nothing.
  • The “Problem of Evil” is muted, perhaps, but still not eliminated as a God who allows evil to occur is not much different than a God who causes evil to occur.
  • We cannot fully understand why God allows certain things to happen, so we must find peace knowing that we cannot understand.

God knew this could happen —

  • God lives in time with humanity which means, while God knows everything that could possibly happen, God neither causes nor knows the actions human beings, living in time, will make before they make them.
  • God’s nature is love. As such, God always works for the good of those who love God, though that “good” may come about in many forms, including unexpected loss and events that we might not immediately see as “good.”
  • God always works for what is good and best, but God cannot force human beings to do anything; God cannot override their free-will because that is not love. God can, and does, woo, encourage, and lead people to do things that will lead to good and loving results, cannot for such actions.
  • Some reject any concept of a God that is not absolutely and overwhelmingly Sovereign (in control and powerful to do anything). Others find comfort in the this view of God as absolutely and overwhelming Loving, working for good in all things.

Whichever view you lean on, one thing is certain:

“Perfect love casts out fear. It is risky, reckless, selfless, hard, deep, abiding.”

Catherine L. Morgan

The perfect love of God — the same kind of love that God pours into our hearts by the Holy Spirit—is not a safe, soft, temporary, or tame kind of love. It does not call us into safe places away from messiness and mud of this world in which we live. It does not call us to a manicured life of comfort and ease, free of hangnails and callouses. No, the perfect love of God—the same kind of love that Christ poured out during his time on earth—calls us to be uncomfortable and muddy, to get blisters on our feet and scrapes on our knees, to go where others dare not tread, to see what others will not see, hear what others refuse to hear, and touch the lives of those that other dare not touch.

That kind of life is risky and reckless…and sometimes “time and chance” (Ecc 9:11) catch up to those who live that way. And when it does we weep…we mourn…and I believe God weeps and mourns with us.

That kind of life is selfless and hard. In a world that clamors for heroes, worships celebrities, and is fixated on big & shiny personalities…the anonymous life of a servant is an intentional choice…a hard choice. But it’s a choice that brings us close enough to look into the eyes, hold the hands, and wash the feet of those that no one else sees.

That kind of life is deep and abiding. In a world where the grass withers and the flowers quickly fall (1 Pet 1:24), where nothing is permanent and nothing we gain can be taken with us…the slow, personal, meaningful connections between one human being and another become the tools of transformation that last beyond ourselves, beyond our time, and beyond our small corner of the world.

This is God’s perfect plan and purpose—that we would live our lives being perfected in love and reflecting to the world around us the perfect love of Christ that is within us.

My friend who ended her time on this earth in a place far away from her home on the Oregon Coast, lived a life of this kind of love. But this love was not limited only to Africa. Reading through the posts of those who have felt the pain of her loss I saw the pain of…

  • a husband losing a wife,
  • children losing a mother,
  • a church family loving a valued and loved sister,
  • colleagues and friends recalling her dedication as a teacher,
  • former students remembering how, as a teacher, she had made them feel,
  • an atheist who called her “my dearest friend”,
  • African brothers and sisters in Christ,
  • many, many more…

Each of them, in their own way, expressed what C.S. Lewis wrote about the death of his wife in A Grief Observed:

“The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.”

 

“Your name is holy and worthy to be praised above all others.”

Post 6 of 28

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

—Leviticus 19:1-2

Old Testament “holy” — קָדוֹשׂ (qādôš) — sacred, divine, separate

But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

—1 Peter 1:13-22

Coffee and hello
Hello, my name is holy.

New Testament “holy” — ἅγιος (hagios) — sacred, belonging to God

“Your name is holy” points us back to who God is—God is sacred, divine, and separate from everything else. The very word itself—holy—finds its meaning in God. That which is holy is that which is sacred and divine, like God. In the Old Testament, with its laws and emphasis on sacrifices and offerings, the emphasis of holiness leans heavily on separation, purification, and clearly outlining the difference between the secular and the sacred.

In the New Testament, the sacrificial system as it had been long practiced begins to fade. Holiness becomes more about the Church—the body of Christ in this world—becoming holy. Apparently, our name is also to be holy, too. No longer is holiness defined by specific times and places; rather, “holy” is determined by what we (the Church, these words were not written primarily for individuals) in the places where we exist and with the time that we are given.

In other words, the way we “live” (our words, actions, attitudes, etc) are not determined by the place where we stand (i.e. holy ground or sacred ground), but rather the holiness of the place where we stand is largely determined by the way in which we live as the body of Christ wherever we may be. The same goes for time—a particular time is not “holy” simply because it falls between 12 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. in any given time zone on a day labeled as “Sunday” on the calendar.

I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies…

—Psalms 18:3

Old Testament “worthy” — הָלַל hâlal — Psalm 18:3 could more literally be translated “I call on Jehovah, who is halal. Most of us have at least heard the world halal in connection with Muslim eating habits. Halal food is food with is worthy, appropriate, or not forbidden to be eaten. Just as my Muslim friends are forbidden to eat non-halal food, so we ought not to praise any one any thing above the LORD, who is halal — most worthy, most appropriate, and in no circumstance is ever forbidden to be praised.

Why?

Because God is holy.

———————–

See the prayer from which this post was taken here.

 

God in three persons

“Almighty, Triune God”

Post 5 of 28

United Methodist Church “Articles of Religion

And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Church of the Nazarene “Articles of Faith”

The God who is holy love and light is Triune in essential being, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Southern Baptist Convention “Basic Beliefs”

The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.   

Fellowship of Evangelical Churches Articles of Faith

The one triune God exists and reveals himself as three persons, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

My Muslim friends are okay with the Old Testament. To them the stories and names are familiar—Adam, Abraham, Jonah, David—and clearly tells of the One, true God opposing the polytheists and those who dare have any other god but the Almighty Creator. To the casual reader there is no hint of Trinitarian thought that my faithful Muslim friends readily equate with polytheism.

It is the New Testament that offends. The Almighty Creator is God. Jesus Christ is God. This nebulous thing called the Holy Spirit is also God. They are, in Christian thought, wholly God…all the time…in all places…in all ways. “You worship three gods!” they tell me.

“No we don’t”, I quickly reply.

“Of course you do,” they continue, “your belief doesn’t even agree with your own Old Testament where is clearly states that ‘the LORD, your God is one’!”

“Yeah…but….” I don’t know what else to say. Neither do most Christians at this point. Some try out a hopelessly limited analogy of:

  • an egg (one egg made up of three parts—shell, white and yolk)
  • or a woman (one person with three roles—a daughter, a wife, and a mother)
  • or water (one substance with three states—solid, liquid, and gas)
  • or, my personal favorite, a “Three in One” coffee sachet! Surely the 3-in-1 coffee packet is a God-ordained gift to the church, right? The Newsboys even sing about it—”Our God is Three in One!”).

Unfortunately, each of these falls short. None of these things exist as all three parts at all times and in all ways.

“But what?” my friend pushes.

“It’s hard to explain,” are the only words I can convince to pass my lips.

“Yeah, sure is.”

Nabeel Qureshi, in his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus tells of his journey to Christ and the nearly insurmountable mountain questions such as these became for him. It was impossible for a man to be God, yet that is exactly what Christians taught… and with great enthusiasm! The idea of the separate entities all existing as one person was simply impossible—it was a “ridiculous doctrine that merited divine retribution,” Qureshi told himself.

Then, one day while sitting while sitting in a undergraduate chemistry class staring at a diagram of a nitrate, the professor ended her lesson by saying:

These drawings are just the best way to represent resonance structures on paper, but it’s actually much more complicated. Technically, a molecule with resonance is every one of its structures at every point in time, yet no single one of its structures at any point in time…it’s all the structures all the time, never just one of them.

—Nabeel Qureshi, “Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus”

Before that moment the very idea of a Trinitarian God—three persons simultaneously existing as one God—was ridiculous. But now, having realized that such a things exists in nature—in the very building blocks of creation—suddenly made the whole notion of a simultaneous 3-in-1 a possibility. It would take a long time for Qureshi to move from “possible” to “probable” to “I believe it to be true.”

The key was in understanding the difference between a BEING and a PERSON. God is ONE being with THREE persons—just as one molecule exists in all of its resonance structures simultaneously. WHAT is God? God is One (and only one). Who is God? God is Father. God is Son. God is Holy Spirit. Each person exists simultaneously along with each of the others as one holy, eternal, almighty, loving Being.

The picture of an atom in my daughter’s chemistry textbook are simple representations of something much more complex, but they are the best we can do. I mean, who can really comprehend the fact that the chair I’m sitting in as I write this is mostly empty space? In the same way, the triune designations of Father, Son, and Spirit represent a reality far more complex than we can really fully comprehend or explain.

It’s good to have people like Qureshi to think about such things as this. In the end, however, I’m not sure how much our One God expects or demands that we fully comprehend. If a cognitive, intellectual understanding of the Triune teaching of the church–that God is Triune in essential being–is necessary for salvation, Church membership, or a seat at the table of Jesus, we all might be in jeopardy.

It’s no wonder so many people only see God as being One. When God sits far away on the heavenly throne so far from the messiness of our human lives, all that can be seen from such a distance is a vague silhouette of oneness. But when God is Emmanuel—with us, connected, personal, unafraid to get his hands a feet dirty by walking with us in the scruffiness of our lives—we can begin to see more of God’s true identity as:

  • not only Father, but Shepherd (Psalm 23:1) and Daddy (Mark 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6);
  • not only as Son, but Brother (Mat 12:48-50; Rom 8:29) and Friend (John 15:15; Mat26:17-30);
  • not only Holy Spirit, but Bringer of New Life (John 3:8, Ez 37:1-14), Companion and Guide (John 16:13), Power-giver (Acts 1:4), and Fruit-bearer (Gal 5:16-26)

If you liked reading about how God is triune in essential being, please see the prayer from which this post was taken here.

 

The Fruit of the Spirit

Post 4 of 28

“And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” — Romans 5:5

Paul in his letter to the Romans points to a key identity and role of the Holy Spirit in our lives; and it’s not merely the emotional “good vibrations” that come during times of public worship. Although people will often say things like “the Spirit was present” during such times, it is also relatively easy to elicit similar emotional reactions through a variety of carefully orchestrated “emotive buttons.” When we base the work and presence of the Holy Spirit on an emotional reaction or some other pre-determined set of actions and reactions, we can be can probably assume that what is being observed in not the Spirit at work.

The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is something very different. We should not deny that the Spirit can and does work in the midst of energetic, emotionally charged, and so-called “spirit-filled” times of worship…but we also cannot deny that it is just as likely that ordinary, seemingly mundane, moments are also regularly filled with the Spirit’s presence and work.

The work of the Spirt in the life of the believer is to encourage, strengthen, and empower one to carry out the purpose and mission for which one has been called, both collectively (as part of the Church) and individually (the specific plan that God has for individuals). For Paul, the key to that purpose began with God love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit works in our lives as a conduit of God’s love to us as well as being the One who emboldens, empowers, and encourages us to shower the world around us cooling mist of Christlike love.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

—Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV)

Love-Joy-Peace-the Fruit of the Spirit

The Spirit is living and active in the life of the Church as Comforter, Helper, and Guide as well as the One who convicts and converts. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture in ages past, inspired its compilation, editing, and canonization, and inspires all who read and meditate on it through all time andin all places. But it is love—the same love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit—that is the natural, spontaneous, uncontrived, not-manipulated, holy fruit of the Spirit that flows naturally from the authentic follower of Jesus Christ. The same love is the beginning of point of every other fruit that Paul gives—joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Where is the Holy Spirit living and active? Follow the trail of fruit.  The fruit of the Spirit.

———————–

See the prayer from which this post was taken here.