HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Pruned”

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In John’s gospel, Jesus talks to the disciples a lot. He spends a lot of time in chapters 13-17 giving advice and challenging them to live a radically loving and service-oriented life. As in the rest of the gospel, Jesus makes good use of metaphor, in particular in chapter 15:1-8, which is worth quoting at length:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you on’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you. Ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

There are two things that stand out in this passage: First, as with “sifting”, pruning is not usually meant to be pleasant. Most of us think that we increase our effectiveness by adding things to our lives:

  • gadgets,
  • activities,
  • Titles
  • Commitments
  • Awards

However, Jesus’ words here push back—quite forcefully—against this. Pruning is not grafting: it’s not adding things onto a plant or a grapevine. It is removing things… quite abruptly.

By cutting them off.

God wants us to be effective—to produce fruit—and most of us would eagerly agree to the idea of being effective “for God.” What most of us don’t want to think about is cutting things out of our lives—being pruned—in order to be effective. Removing, for instance…

Gadgets…

Activities…

Commitments…

Awards…

Titles…

It doesn’t seem so pleasant, and yet “addition by subtraction” really does seem to be what Jesus is aiming for.

The second aspect of this passage emerged when I was studying the Lord’s Prayer. A theologian pointed out that a common practice for growing grape vines was that a particular plant would be pruned for three years before it was allowed to produce fruit. Rather than rushing to produce, the vine was cut back so that its root system could grow deeper. 

I was struck by my attitude towards serving: my rush to “do something” for the church, and my impatience to make an impact.

In contrast, Jesus says that before you do something, you need to be something: namely deep and rooted. 

Obviously, there are pretty profound implications for the way we lead people as well, specifically in how deeply we challenge people to grow, and how much to we emphasize who people are becoming as opposed to the things kinds of things they are doing.

As we reach the halfway point in this Holy Week, the two questions that Jesus asks today are:

  1. What are you prepared to cut away in order to produce?
  2. Have your roots grown deep enough to balance out the ministry you are involved with? Does your character match your call?

Feel free to share, and also feel free to follow me on Twitter.

 

Next up: Jesus says, “Please.”

 

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HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Sifted”

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Just after the Last Supper, the disciples show their humanness by immediately having an argument on who is the greatest. Evidently they have utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teachings on service and humility. When he hears their debate, Jesus reminds them that the greatest among them “must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant” (Luke 22:26).

In the gospels, Peter often serves as the “representative disciple”, meaning that he symbolizes the questions, successes and (mostly) failures of the disciples—of The Twelve and of all us.

Immediately after Jesus reminds all of the Twelve about “true greatness,” he turns to Peter and says, “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. However I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your bothers and sisters” (Luke 22:31-32).

 

This is a harsh but very true statement that holds as true for us today as it did for Peter. Sifting is not easy. Sifting separates the good from the bad, but it is seldom pleasant. If for nothing else, sifting reminds us that inside us there is both wheat and chaff.

 

Most of the time we don’t want to be reminded that we are not all perfect, but Jesus here reminds the “representative disciple” that it’s sort of inevitable, that some kind of breaking or humbling is going to come Peter’s—and thus our—way.

 

Interestingly, Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed that his strength won’t fail. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Don’t lead us into temptation” (Luke 11:4b). In Matthew’s version of the prayer, Jesus says, “Don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” There is a sense in Jesus’ teachings that temptation is a given. Avoiding it is not the point, but enduring it is (otherwise, he wouldn’t have to add, “but deliver us from the evil one”).

 

So with these words, Jesus is saying that reflection, humility, and even a bit of failure is inevitable for a disciple, but Jesus will be praying that we find our way through it. 

 

Then  Jesus adds this additional challenge to Peter: “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.”

 

The sequence seems pretty clear:

 

  1. We need to be “sifted”: to examine ourselves and see what’s good and bad in our inventory, and then be prepared to respond appropriately.
  2. We need to rely on Jesus’ strength to help us endure the humbling that sifting involves.
  3. After we get done with our inventory, and come to terms with the “chaff” in our lives, we are called to service.

 

Next up: Jesus gets out the pruning shears.

 

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Holy Week 2014: Last Words – Monday

A couple years ago, I wrote out some thoughts for Holy Week. They were centered around some of the places that Jesus encountered during his last days before his crucifixion. This year, I thought I’d offer some devotional thoughts on some of the last words he spoke. These are simply meant to give us all some things to think about as we process Jesus’ sacrifice.

“Let’s Go To Jerusalem.” 

Though Matthew doesn’t quote Jesus saying this, he does record that “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).

Personally, I think it’s crystal clear that Jesus knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. The portrait that the gospels paint of Jesus is of a man who is well aware of the directions that the winds in Israel were blowing. Between Rome’s empire and Israel’s coming, religion-fueled violent revolution Jerusalem was not the place to go if you (a) wanted to stay safe while (b) preaching the arrival of God’s kingdom.

But safety isn’t part of Jesus’ agenda.

Unless he chooses to change his message (God is King) or his strategy (non-violent resistance and prophetic pronouncements), Jesus knows what waits for him in Jerusalem: the might, power, and force  of the temple and the religious establishment (backed by Rome’s interest in keeping the tax money flowing).

Jesus may not be a mathematician, but I imagine he can add, and he can see that this is going to end badly for him.

But that’s exactly why he chooses to go.

I don’t know if Jesus was “afraid” in any sense that we may understand that word, but at any rate he sees where the danger and darkness lies, and he walks straight towards it. 

For many of us, we don’t need to look very far for darkness and danger. For a lot of us, we have wilderness and black caves inside our own souls; that’s where our darkness is. There are things—brokenness, fears, unconfronted/unacknowledged sin—lurking deep inside of our hearts and lives. They may be backed by the power of years of co-dependency and escapism, and we may be well aware that to confront them may very well mean pain and even death of parts of us.

But in the same way that Jesus knows, and still goes, I think we are called to go: go to the dark places inside us, the places that are rooted in the power of this world, that will buffet and beat us as soon as we show up.

Moreover, I think that we are called to go to the dangerous places inside us with Jesus’ message and method: “God is King, and you will be defeated, not by asserting more power or more control, but by surrender of ego, of self, and by a willingness to die to myself.”

What is your “Jerusalem”? An addiction? A vision of your future that you’ve clung to? Your pride? What would it mean to walk towards it, to face it, and then to surrender so that God can begin to heal you? 

The Bible Project Pt 6: The Mission in Jeopardy

With Abram’s decision to listen and go, God’s rescue project is back underway. Everything that went “wrong” in Genesis 3 is now going to be set right. Abram indeed has a family—a couple of sons, in fact (Genesis 16-21). Then those sons have a couple sons (Esau and Jacob; Genesis 26-28), and eventually we get down to 12 brothers who form the beginnings of this nation that will “bless the whole world” (though they are still just a family, not a nation… yet). One of those brothers, Joseph, ends up in Egypt and actually rises to great status and honor in that nation, and as part of Abram’s family, it’s easy to see how this rise in status will help bless the whole world because, well, it’s easy to equate power with blessing.

But as the years pass, something goes amiss, and the “rescue project” begins to experience a major challenge. Exodus 1:8 says that, “a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph,” and with that innocuous statement, the wheels begin to come off. The Egyptians end up enslaving Abrams family—the rescue project—and forcing them to build cities for them.

How will the blessing move forward now?

In Exodus chapters 4-12, God demonstrates clearly—first to Moses and then to Pharaoh—that the blessing will not be held captive, culminating with the great release of Israel in chapters 12-14.

God’s agenda—the mission to rescue and restore—will not be denied. It will not be held captive, not even by the pre-eminent world empire of the day. The people are set free from their slavery in order to—and this is critical to understand—to get the blessing back on track.

Freedom is not the only point of Exodus; mission is.

This point is born out in the rest of the book of Exodus. In Exodus 19, God tells His people plainly what His hopes for them are:

“You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wing and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” (vv4-6a)

To break this down:

  • Identity is rooted in God’s gracious acts. God released His people merely because they needed to be released, not because they had done anything in particular to warrant his act. He moved before people were able to “deserve” it.
  • Being faithful to God means being a kingdom of priests.
  • Priests, by definition, exist to “intercede” to mediate or “come between” God and those who seek to meet Him.

As God’s mission gets back on track, He does a couple things to prepare this fledgling nation of priests. First in Exodus 20, God gives them a set of basic guidelines—we know them as the 10 Commandments—to live by. This is to be the basic code of life for God’s people so that they can be this nation of mediators, of priests, to the rest of the world. (Notice that these guidelines are not given so that Israel can earn God’s love; God has already unilaterally shown His love for His people by releasing them from slavery. The Law is given after freedom, in order to help His people live out their mission.)

Second, God establishes a “dwelling place” in the midst of His people. Much of the rest of Exodus, from chapter 25 to 40:33, is filled with the instructions of how construct “The Tabernacle” (or “dwelling place”): what materials to use, how to arrange them, what goes inside, who will maintain it, how they will dress, etc., etc. Another book of the Old Testament (Numbers 2) tells us that the Tabernacle sat at the exact center of the camp, and that all of God’s people would camp around it. Finally, everything finally culminates in Exodus 40:34-38—the last four verses of the book—when God enters the Tabernacle:

“When Moses had finished all the world, the cloud covered the meeting tent and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Moses couldn’t enter the meeting tent because the cloud had settled on it, and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Whenever the cloud rose from the dwelling, the Israelites would set out on their journeys. But if the cloud didn’t rise, then they didn’t set out until the day it rose. The LORD’s cloud stayed over the dwelling during the day, with lightning in it at night, clearly visible to the whole household of Israel at every stage of their journey.”

With these words, the Bibles gives us a picture of how God’s mission should work:

  • God has a people
  • He—and worship—is at their center
  • They move when He moves, and stay put when He stays put
  • The world comes to God through His people (the Church); they exist to introduce the world outside to God

Rather than being just an ancient tale of miracles, wandering and tent-making, Exodus gives us the model of mission for God in the world.

 

The Bible Project, Pt 5: Rescue Begins

To read The Bible Project, Pt 4 click here

To review:

• God created.
• God created humanity in His image, with freedom and authority
• That creation got fractured in a big way, but God responds with mercy and grace

But there’s still a long road ahead, and the central problem is this:

Creation is broken; what is God going to do about it?

From Genesis 3 to Genesis 11, evil and chaos spread over the earth, but then when we get to Genesis 12 something interesting happens:

A man named Abram hears something.

“The LORD said to Abram, ‘Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you.’

Abram left just as the LORD told him, and Lot went with him.

With those few lines, everything changes, and God reveals His plan:

• Abram is going to have a family/nation
• God is going to “bless” (fix) the earth
• This blessing is going to come through Abram and his family

With that, God’s “rescue project” is underway. His plan is to deal with the fracture of Genesis 3 through a people.

This passage also says two additional things about God and His story:

First, this God calls. The Bible doesn’t tell us how many people God actually spoke to, only that Abram listened. Regardless, God is a god of invitation, of extension, of welcome. We just have to learn to open our ears (or eyes) to hear Him.

Secondly, in the same way that God gave humanity “work” to do in the garden, God gives humanity work to do to help in the rescue of His creation.

(He obviously thinks a lot of us).

Put another way, God seems to be saying, “You were part of this problem (the brokenness); now you’re going to get to be part of the solution.”

Hidden inside this pronouncement is something else that will have a profound impact on the story. As the rescue project moves forward, it will be marked by three characteristics:

  1. It will be a community (“a nation” in v2). The rescue mission involves an invitation to be a part of a people. It is an invitation to connectedness.
  2. It will be marked by purpose (“an agent…”). It exists to be a blessing to the world, to be a part of the rescue project. To that end, to join the family of God is to receive purpose.
  3. It will be marked by holiness (“blessing”). “Holiness” can be a scary word, but in words of Dr. Brian Russell (who pointed out this three-fold framework), “Holiness is just a desire for people to be a little bit better than they are right now.” To join the rescue project is to desire to be a blessing, not a curse, and therefore involves growth in “blessing” things: love, gratitude, joy, generosity, and so on.

Next up: The Mission in Jeopardy

 

God’s Architectural Sensibility

My family and I just got back from a vacation in London and Paris. My wife and I just celebrated 20 years of marriage, and we decided that rather than get each other gifts, we would instead do something that would involve our kids as well, and so we decided to experience these two great cities for roughly four days each.

We took in museums (The British Museum, Tate Modern, Louvre, Orsay) and historical sites (The Tower of London, Versailles), and in general just soaked up the vibe of both places by walking (a LOT) and eating as much like “the natives” as possible.

Though London and Paris are in ways utterly unique (London has much more modern architecture, to my eye), both cities also feel remarkably similar in a way.

There is a phenomenon in architecture called “Human Scale”, which says essentially that human beings have a natural sense of appropriate building and street size in relation to ourselves. If buildings are too tall and streets are too close or narrow, most of us feel hemmed in and claustrophobic. If they are too low and too far away from the sidewalk (hello, suburban America), we experience a sense of disconnectedness from our immediate environment.

When there is appropriate relationship between humans and their built environment, we feel encouraged to look in windows, to slow down, to interact with each other and the stores, businesses and restaurants around us.

Things feel right.

I think it’s that way with God.

In a couple places in the Bible, we are told that God is a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4 and Hegrews 12), and it’s easy to understand that God is transcendant and big, and our “human scale” to Him is way out of wack.

Luckily, God understands architecture.

I think God gives us a spiritual “human scale” in two very profound ways.

First, He provided His people with things like the Ten Commandments. (By the way, the Ten Commandments make up what some of us know as “The Law”, but a better way of understanding the Commandments is to think of them as “The Instruction”; it’s actually a better translation.) Saint Paul says in Galatians that the Law was “our custodian” (3v24).

In other words, the Law—the Ten Commandments and other specific instructions from God—help us “scale down” God’s character to something that we can more easily relate to.

But God goes further.

Paul also writes in Colossians, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation” (1v15).

The most “human scale” element of God’s doing is, in fact, Jesus.

In a way, the glory and power of God is simply too much for us to bear; our humanity has no basis for understanding or coping with it.

It is way beyond human scale.

But God—in His great grace and mercy—remakes the spiritual architecture of the universe so that we can better relate to Him.

The temptations are still there: open up the spaces too wide (with no appropriate “confinement”) and we become disconnected to our environment, to the world in which we live and move. Our spirituality becomes abstract and centered around “getting to Heaven” when we die. Shrink the spaces too much and we become focused on “following the rules” and performing for God while ignoring the heart transformation that He offers us.

But when you get it right—when the Human Scale is appropriate—it feels great. You are connected to the environment, and your spiritual life is vitally connected to the world around you. You are in community, relating to the world around you as God works in you and shapes your heart.

Like walking down the Champs Elysses or The Strand.

Moses and Me.

What does God owe us?

Do you ever think about the way Moses’ story ends? There’s something about it that connects with me on an almost unconscious level, probably due to my attraction to bittersweet, melancholy stories…

Moses took the staff from the LORD’s presence, as the LORD had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. He said to them, “Listen you rebels! Should we produce water from the rock for you?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice. Out flooded water so that the community and their animals could drink.

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you didn’t trust me to show my holiness before the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land that I am giving them.” (Numbers 20:9-12 CEB)

“The LORD was angry with me because of your deeds and swore that I couldn’t cross the Jordan River or enter the wonderful land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. I will die here in this land. I won’t cross the Jordan River. But you will, and you will take possession of that wonderful land.” (Deuteronomy 4:21-22)

To summarize:

  • God appears to man (Moses) in a burning bush and says, “I want to release my people from slavery, you go do it.
  • Man resists.
  • God insists.
  • Man resists, but hesitantly begins, and courageously speaks “truth to power”.
  • God acts.
  • Man watches miracles happen, culminating with the freeing of Israel.
  • Man faithfully leads nation through the wilderness, interceding for them, judging their disputes, and keeping their complaining in line.
  • Man makes mistake, and God tells him he will not enter the promise land.

For me, I don’t focus on the mistake/punishment part of it; that just doesn’t seem to be part of the equation. What does fascinate me is Moses’ faithfulness to the vision, and then the (apparent) acceptance of the fact that he will not be a part of its completion.

I wonder how easy it was for Moses to release that dream. 

I think a lot of us confuse what God has promised to us with what God has promised.

We like to add pronouns—“I”, “me”, “mine”—then we get very attached to them.

We build whole theologies that say, “God will promise me amazing things.

But even at the beginning of the whole operation, God doesn’t specifically promise that He will do great things for Moses:

“Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:9-10)

He does promise to do things through Moses.

God does want freedom for His people, but some of us will be called to be Moses: we may start the journey, and lead people through the wilderness, but our part will be done before the journey is complete.

Of course that doesn’t mean we won’t get to see amazing things: manna, instruction, guidance, flames, and clouds. 

But it does mean we have to get used to surrendering our pronouns.

We are so used to fighting for our dreams and for spiritual “visions”, but that’s not always the point. God may want to indeed do something amazing, but the role we play may not be the one we think.

“Then the LORD said to Moses: “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I promised: ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however you will not cross over into it.”

Then Moses, the LORD’s servant, died—right there in the land of Moab, according to the LORD’s command. The LORD buried him in a valley in Moabite country across from Beth-peor. Even now, no one knows where Moses’ grave is. (Deuteronomy 34:4-6)

One of the great acts of art in a life is to be able to release our dreams, and be able to throw ourselves into God with no preconceived notions of “crossing into the promise land.” To be able to say, “God there is a great unknown out there, but I will choose life with you—even without any promises of success or “good things”—over anything else. It’s the mark of greatness, of a very high level of surrender and spirituality…

 

 

Science Mike, The Liturgists, and the Silence that is Saving My Life

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A good friend of mine sent me a link to something he’s been working on with the folks from the band Gungor. There’s a spoken word piece on the power of prayer, and in particular a practice called “Centering Prayer”. This is an ancient form of prayer practiced by many of the church fathers and desert monks. The spoken word piece talks about prayer from the point-of-view of science, and discusses some of the proven benefits of silence and meditation on our health.

This was so encouraging to encounter, because I had discovered centering prayer about a year ago, and it is a discipline that has taken root in a deep and powerful way in my life, and while I’m not a scientist, this approach to prayer has had profound and significant effects for me.

Mike can explain all of the silence behind praying; for me it has been all about me learning to recognize and quiet the pathology that is inside me. The prayer has helped me begin to recognize the lies that I so easily believe:

+ That I am the center of my world.
+ That I have more to say to God than He could ever possibly say to me.
+ That my words can somehow control or manipulate God.
+ That God—and grace—can be understood and controlled.

All of these ideas—in some circles they are known as “the false self”—and more start to crack and crumble in the face of 20 minutes of absolute silence and a quiet mind and heart. They evaporate in the presence of a God who dwell in “deep darkness” (1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:2; Psalm 97:2, ).

After a while, you can even begin to see that God is working in you to heal you, to grow and transform you in something resembling Jesus Christ.

(This is a good thing.)

If you wanted to get started with the practice of centering prayer, I’d suggest a few things:

  1. Check out The Liturgists: either live or recorded and rest in the peace of what they are doing.
  2. Read Richard Foster’s book Prayer, which has chapters on The Prayer of the Heart, Meditative Prayer, and Contemplative Prayer, which are somewhat related.
  3. Read Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
  4. Have a conversation with someone who has experience with it. You can sometimes find these folks in monasteries, or in certain local faith communities (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).

Two brief words in closing:

  1. Gungor/The Liturgists have taken this meditative approach to worship and prayer on the road, and I’ve seen some great responses to it. If they come someplace near you, you should definitely go, but at the same time, keep in mind that experiencing mystery, silence, and contemplation one time in a theatre or arena is not the same as incorporating it into your daily life. If you had to choose between a daily encounter and a one-time tour stop, choose the daily encounter.
  2. There is a certain nervousness in the west (North America) about disciplines like centering prayer and contemplation, and I suppose I can understand this. My response is first, this is not a new (nor a “new age”) practice, but one that has long standing connections to our faith tradition. Just because it is alien to us in our North American mindset does not mean that it is wrong, or something to be feared. Second, this is merely a way for us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Jesus’ work on the cross was complete and takes care of the brokenness that is inside me. That being said, Jesus (and Paul as well) was also passionate about change and growth and maturity. Prayer is probably the key mechanism for that growth and maturity.

I’ll stay silent, and wait on God.

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Wonder (again)

Without mentioning any names, I have an acquaintance who plays drums in a pretty well-known and successful rock band. Around 2003/2004, as they were ascending the charts and their popularity was really taking off, they played a concert at the Hard Rock in Chicago, and he gave me a couple passes to the show, which was pretty much sold out. Afterwards, he met me and a buddy down in the lobby to just say, “Hi” and touch base (I hadn’t seen him in a couple years).

As I walked up to him, he just gushed with gratitude and thanks that I’d come, “Wow, it’s so awesome that you came out!”

As I congratulated him on the band’s success he continued to seem almost overwhelmed by everything that was going on, and continued to thank me for coming out to see the show.

Meanwhile, I kept thinking, “This guy is totally ‘living it,’ and just played a sold out show and he is grateful that I came… for free?!??!”

His wonder and gratitude of what was going on in his life was so childlike and innocent. It blew me away, and it continues to haunt me to today. When I think about how ungrateful I am for my “normal” life, I am convicted. When I refuse to see the wonder and beauty of my life… the moments in lifetimes—weddings, funerals, baptisms—I get to share, when I get to see people grow and become more like Christ, when I get to see people find their vocation and then embrace it… all of these things are miracles in and of themselves, yet I choose to overlook them for something else “out there”. 

It’s a rejection of grace, in a way.

One of my favorite—and most convicting—quotes about wonder is from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”

Which comes first? The success or the wonder? I’m beginning to think that success follows wonder, rather than the other way around.

Is Jesus Cruel?

“We were always taught that Jesus said these things to remind us of how utterly depraved we are.”

I am journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with some friends of mine, and we spend last Wednesday going through Jesus’ “re-interpretation” of the Torah in Matthew chapter 5. If you haven’t read it, you can see it here, but essentially Jesus selects a few of the Ten Commandments, and takes them to incredibly high levels:

  • He says it’s not enough to “not kill”, but if you’re even angry with someone you’ve broken a commandment.
  • It’s not enough to refrain from committing adultery; if you look at a woman (or a man, for that matter) lustfully you have broken the commandment.
  • Divorce is prohibited except for pretty extreme circumstances (either sexual unfaithfulness or incest, depending on your interpretation of porneia in 5:32).
  • Revenge is ruled out as well, as is swearing allegiance or taking oaths, and an overall rejection of human ideas of honor and humiliation.

It is an incredibly high standard of living; something that seems virtually unattainable.

So the question is, “Did he mean it?”

One school of thought—reflected by my friend’s comment above—is that Jesus never intended for us to be able to live that way. In fact only he could actually do it, and the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is therefore to remind us how awful we are; that we can never live up to this standard, and therefore we just grateful that Jesus would die for us wretched people.

Frankly, I find this image of Jesus cruel, and I just dont’ think that Jesus is in the “cruel” business.

Succinctly, I think:

1. He totally meant it, and furthermore,
2. He thinks we can do it.

Now in no way is it easy; in fact, it IS impossible, but only if we refuse to do the things that he did in order to live the life he lived. 

One way that you can interpret Jesus’ kingdom pronouncement—”The Kingdom of God is here/near/among/within you”—is to hear or read it as, “The eternal life that you will live forever, in God’s presence, is available now.”

Ultimately, what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5 is what the “eternal life”, the kingdom looks like. Obviously Jesus lived this life perfectly, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to experience it for ourselves now as well.

I think this is the point he’s trying to get across.

What’s more, I think that he hints at how to start experiencing this kingdom life in the very structure of the Sermon.

Briefly, he begins the sermon with the Beatitudes. It’s easy to see that these are simply a way to say, “Before anything you are blessed. You don’t have to work for your blessing. You are blessed because of God’s love for the outcast, the outsider, the spiritual losers.” (And by the way, aren’t we all these things?)

After the Torah reinterpretation of Matthew 5, he spends over a chapter talking about working out your spiritual life in humility: away from the expectations (and praises) of others.

+ Praying in private
+ Giving in secret

These things, and others, are simply ways to humbly separate ourselves from the reward systems that our culture so readily gives us, but that ALSO go to reinforce the pathological parts of our existence, the parts that make us demand, and strive…

and fight…

and objectify…

and crave revenge…

(In other words all the things he says we can’t do.)

Ultimately I think the Sermon is a call to live the Kingdom life, and to start doing it now. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that Jesus releases us from it, and ultimately it’s not working to be a person who isn’t angry, or lustful, or vengeful, or who swears allegiance to anything or anybody over God.

It’s about wanting to be that kind of person, and then living our lives as radically blessed as God while we intentionally cultivate humility.

That’s not easy, but I think Jesus believes in us.