Running full speed

This article was originally written in June 2019.

These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be…and we must also move beyond the boundaries of our own comfort to be who we are called to be.

Diane LeClerc, in her book Discovering Christian Holiness, points out that as long Christianity was under the umbrella of Judaism rather than a radically new, un-Jewish form of religious faith, it enjoyed “a type of immunity and toleration” (78) with regard to the way it was seen and responded to by the Roman Empire.  The relationship between the Roman Empire and Judaism had a history with established boundaries, regulations, and expectations.  As long this new movement–The Way–kept to itself, didn’t make waves, and stayed within the already established boundaries delineated by the already existing understanding between Rome and Judaism, The Way would have remained relatively safe and unbothered.

People often say that Jesus did not come to earth to start a new religion. Whatever our opinion of that statement, one thing is clear—

Jesus presented such compelling example and demonstration of God’s power, plan, and purpose that those who took it seriously simply could not responsibly stay within the boundaries of Judaism as a religion, nor move forward while staying in the narrow lane of Roman expectations for them as nothing more than a Jewish sect. 

These follower of The Way had to move beyond the borders of Judaism to be who they were called to be.  The result brought about an era of church history in which martyrdom was viewed, according to LeClerc, the highest sign of holiness. That is, the willingness to die for ones faith in Jesus Christ was seen to be highest form of devotion, commitment, and outward evidence of a transformed heart and life.

For much of the history of the church in America, perhaps, it might be said that we have been like The Way, staying within the boundaries established by Rome. That is, perhaps the church has enjoyed the protection, safety, and comfort protection by favorable government regulations (freedom to gather, freedom to worship openly, and tax-deductions) , the safety of a general cultural favorability to basic Christian thought and life (there was a time when parents who didn’t attend church sent their children to Sunday school because it was “good for them”), and the comfort of economic and social well-being and success (large buildings, extensive facilities, land ownership, and large congregations).

At a glance it might seem that the church in America has enjoyed one of the best and most fruitful periods of church history. But it hasn’t come without a price. We’ve been able to enjoy these things as long as we stayed within our own lane.  One example–churches enjoy tax-exempt status and privileges, so long as they abide by certain state-established laws and regulations. The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether this lane–wide and comfortable as it is–has helped or hurt its ability to live out the compelling example of Jesus of God’s power, plan, and purpose.

The followers of The Way they may well-have enjoyed similar protection, safety, and comfort under Rome, if not for an undeniable conviction that their movement called them to so much more. 

In other words, their understanding of their foundational and ultimate purpose would not allow them to remain trapped inside a box—they had to break free, live out their purpose, and follow the example and teachings of Christ regardless of the consequences.  This was the way they must go.

The contemporary situation in America is somewhat different has it has been in the not-so-distant past. The church is being moved out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society. This is not a missional choice by the church, it’s not motivated by a conviction that to live responsible Christian lives the church must renounce the protections it once enjoyed. Instead, these changes are coming by way of a rapidly shifting cultural, economic, social, and religious landscape that is pushing the church out from its once well-respected position in society. As a result, there is this foreboding sense of mourning over what is being lost, anger because it is being lost, and and “all-American” desire to fight back and take back what we believe is rightfully ours, all the while only giving lip service to the overriding theme of holiness that is the ultimate purpose of God the church—full and complete love for God and Christlike love for neighbor.

            

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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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My Response to K:  You wrote, K — “What if we took our church calendars and examined the events and activities of the church each month or year in light of this statement?  We could do the same with our budgets and our curriculum.  Families and individuals can do the same with their calendars and budgets.” 

This is something I’ve often thought about–how do budgets reflect who we are?  How do we allow budgets to determine the things we do and don’t do?  In my particular ministry, I talk a lot about house churches or “no-designated-church-building” churches.  It’s not an idea that is easy to accept for most of our churches leaders who were taught (to put it very simply) that churches must have buildings.  But there are two great advantages–(1) churches can be planted with virtually no financial investment required, and (2) monies that are given/collected can more easily be used in ways that directly reflect the mission and priorities of the church. May we all score well on the rubric of love!  🙂

Response from G:   I really appreciate the perspective you lend when you write, “We can see the church moving out from under the long-established protection, safety, and comfort that came with the cultural, social, economic, and religious favor of popular society.” As a young up-and-coming Latina American,  I hadn’t really thought of the church as holding a respected position in society until recently. I was kind of rushed into learning about politics in 2016 because it felt like my life depended on it. The divisiveness of that time that continues to protrude into our rhetoric, has proved that half of the population in North America is unhappy with those in power, the church being one of those. I am not sure if this is because of who makes up our churches or because Christianity is what the ideals of the founding father of this nation were but now, the church is definitely facing a loss of its seat in power. People are angry at that. Truly, the “’all-American’ desire to fight back” is real as you said. But at what cost? I guess I am just echoing your thoughts and really appreciate the narrative your perspective shares. It makes sense to me! I think this may be an opportunity for our churches to gracefully respond to the challenges that face it. I hope we respond in love and haven’t lost our footing in the way of holiness

Response from M:   Thanks for your addition to this class! I appreciate what you have to offer to us by way of your perspective living outside the USA. You have the unique opportunity to look at questions of culture and exile and empire through a different lens. It is pretty obvious that the church and Christianity in general are losing their position of spiritual authority and respect amidst a culture that is changing at a rate we cannot keep up with.

I really was struck by what you pulled from our reading about The Way and how they had a certain amount of protection from Rome so long as they did not make waves or push the boundaries. I rather agree that same thing applies to present day Christianity in that we are tolerated so long as we do not make too many waves. We have not been in this place before.  We are coming to a place where we may at some point be called on to step up or step away from the protections we once enjoyed to order to live by our convictions. I was also thinking about another angle on this….I think it comes from “The Screwtape Letters,” where it is suggested that Satan will leave us be so long as we are complacent. Satan has no need to waste his energy on stopping our efforts because we are not accomplishing anything for the Kingdom. 

 

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.

 

Where does my help come from?

Most High, Most Holy, and Most Loving

Post 2 of 28

Jesus modeled to his disciples a prayer that began with “Our Father in heaven” which, at the time, was likely considered a near-blasphemous statement, if not outright heresy. God was flesh and blood human and to associate God in anyway with a human identity was not appropriate. Interestingly, our Muslim friends today hold similar ideas about God — the greatest of sins is to lift up any human being to God-status or to lower God down to the human level. This is a great obstacle in thinking about the identity of Jesus, the Messiah, for Christian faith does both of these things.

Love is the very nature of God

Nonetheless, I think that in calling God “Father,” Jesus is attempting to teach us something about God. Rather than being an impersonal, capricious, disinterested Deity, God is personal, loving, and involved in the daily affairs of God’s creation. God is a Father, not in the biological sense but rather in God’s authority, responsibility, and loving care of all that God has created. We can address God as Father, knowing that God is paying attention, has our best interests in mind, and is always working for the good of those who love God.

Even so, we cannot lose sight of the fact that God is the Most High — the greatest, most-powerful, highest authority, the One that stand above all. Even the greatest of humans barely registers on the height chart of God’s heavenly door frame. He is the Most High, worthy of all worship, adoration, and praise.

The child asks of the Father whom he knows. Thus, the essence of Christian prayer is not general adoration, but definite, concrete petition. The right way to approach God is to stretch out our hands and ask of One who we know has the heart of a Father.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

God is Most Holy — completely “other” from humanity and all that has been created, yet unafraid to mingle with humanity, calling us and raising us out of the mess of our messed-up lives. God is perfect in God’s plans and purposes — in God’s holiness, God is perfectly just, perfectly compassionate, and perfectly loving.

Finally, God is the Most Loving — the perfect model of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. There is no greater love than the love of God, and in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that love (grace, mercy, and forgiveness) is on full display in all of its perfection.

We praise you, Lord, because you are most high, most holy, and most loving.

 See the prayer from which this post was taken here.