Easter 2014

Hey all… I thought I’d … um… resurrect a 2013 post about the significance of the resurrection.  The original post was here, but enjoy…

What the resurrection means (at the very least)…

  1. That Jesus was/is the Christ, the Messiah
  2. That love really does win
  3. (Relatedly) That evil, death, and violence do not have the last word
  4. That doubt on Saturday is a part of life, but can give way to faith on Sunday
  5. That God is almost always unexpected
  6. That life with God is not just a resuscitated life, but a resurrected life—simultaneously a part of our current existence but radically reordered
  7. That wide-eyed wonder—and even a mild freak out—is a perfectly acceptable reaction to God’s work
  8. That I’m not “stuck” where I’m at; I can grow and change
  9. That God hasn’t abandoned humanity or this world
  10. Consequently, there is work to be done. Redemptive, resurrection work.
  11. That whenever I—or you—think “this is really all there is”, I’m wrong; that life and possibility can spring up in the deepest darkness

He’s alive, folks. Let’s dig in, drink up, and roll up our sleeves.

*e

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HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “Please”

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In Luke 22, night is beginning to descend: one of Jesus’ closest friends has deserted him, and the authorities are coming to arrest him. As I wrote before, in a way this is no surprise to Jesus. I believe he’s been able to see this coming for a while.

But in another way, I believe this is a terrifying moment for Jesus.

And so he prays.

“‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However not my will but your will be done.” Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (22:42-44).

Jesus says, Please. 

It’s easy—even tempting—to think of Jesus as this stoic, forgiveness-dispensing robot who has no fear or hesitation about what he has to do. But if Jesus was as fully man as he was fully God (which orthodox belief would say), then being fully man would mean that he would encounter fear and need, because we do. 

Jesus has to say, “Please take this from me.”

Would he have actually turned away from his arrest if he would’ve had the chance? I don’t know. I doubt it. I think he would have pushed the issue like a true prophet of Israel, until he had made enough people angry.

But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t without emotion.

That doesn’t mean that on that evening in the Garden he didn’t ask. 

And when he asked, God said, “No.” 

I suppose it’s often the same way with us…

… We ask.

… We say please.

… Sometimes we even beg.

But sometimes God says, “No.”

But just like with Jesus, it’s not so much God’s answer that is telling, but it’s our response to the answer that is critical.

What do you do when God says, “No”? Particularly when we are facing challenges or hard times? Do you rationalize? Well, I know it seemed like that was a clear “No”, but I’m sure that God wouldn’t want me to suffer, so maybe I’ll just act on this anyway. 

Do you rebel? I’ll show God; if I don’t get my way I’ll just take my toys (ministry, gifts, tithes, support, etc.) and go home. 

Any number of responses are possible.

But Jesus doesn’t do any of these, because he knows a secret. In fact, it’s the same secret he’s been talking about for a long time:

The point of life is not to avoid pain; the point is to ask, “How can I grow through this?” 

After all, Jesus has been telling his disciples for a long time: you may not be able to “avoid temptation”, but you can stand through it.

But standing through pain and heartache and hurt and fear takes the one thing that we all need as humans: faith. 

If Jesus was only God, only divine, he wouldn’t need faith. He would be able to make reality simply conform to his wishes, and then there would be no doubt, no fear.

No please. 

But significantly, he says Take this away. 

Which means he can understand us when we have fears, doubts, anxiety; when we face the unknown.

So when Jesus says, “Please,”

… And God says, “No,”

… Jesus says, “Not Your will, but mine.”

And Jesus carries on in faith, that the One who calls his name will stand with him and not desert him, even as he walks, quite literally, through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Next Up: Forsaken and Defiant.

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.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @ericcase

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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? 

It’s Not About Religion … It’s About (a really crappy) Relationship

Hope that’s not too crass.

For the past 15-20 years, there’s been a very popular catch phrase amidst my faith tribe:

“It’s’ not about religion; it’s all about relationship.”

(Meaning relationship with Jesus.)

So people say things like, “Well I used to go to a church but it was all about religion and not about relationship, so I left it and now I go someplace else.”

We create sermon/teaching series called, “The End of Religion.”

Mostly, that’s great: we want people to know this Jesus, and to be “in relationship” with him.

But I think there’s another dynamic at work.

At some point, I think what people mean by “all about religion” is that a church is demanding behavior from people. Externalities.

And yes: this is not a great thing.

But what troubles me is how people then try to define “relationship.”

Occasionally, I ask people who are “all about the relationship” how they work on their spiritual lives. What I hear is…

  • “Well, my spiritual life isn’t so great…”
  • “I really don’t have time to pray/read my Bible/meditate…”
  • “I pray when I think about it… (which isn’t often)”

In the end, I’m left wondering if people left churches that were “just about religion” just because they didn’t like being told what to do.

To put it another way, religion is not—in and of itself—a bad thing.

In fact, what if we actually need “religion” of some sort to lead us to “the relationship”?

I need the “religion” of communication to maintain the relationship with my wife. I need the “religion” of coffee with friends to cement and deepen connections with them. I need the “religion” of hearing stories about my childhood from my parents to remind me of who I am at my best and most innocent.

What if it’s not so much a matter of “religion v relationship” as it is “good religion that leads to relationship v bad religion that leads nowhere”?

What religion does at its best is to help lead us to the relationship, and then frame that relationship in the most fully-formed beautiful way. It’s easy to just throw the frame away, but it does no good to substitute a “relationship” that you think makes no demands on your time, your self, your thoughts, your attitudes.

That’s not love.

Stop Worrying…

Atheist Bus Campaign , via Dan Etherington from London, UK

Atheist Bus Campaign , via Dan Etherington from London, UK

An atheist organization started this bus campaign in England.

Frankly, I’m not too hung up on arguing or “evangelizing” them (how can you make “good news” good to those who don’t want to hear it?!?)

For those of us who’d claim some faith, however, I’d recast their slogan this way:

There is a God, now stop worrying and get on with your life.

Though God’s ways are sometimes strange and difficult to understand, I am coming to believe that God’s love somehow overflows to us, for us.

Consider Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 30:

Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the LORD your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.

But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and if you are drawn away to serve and worship other gods, then I warn you now that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live a long, good life in the land you are crossing the Jordan to occupy.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. And if you love and obey the LORD, you will long in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

All Wham! references aside, Moses seems to practically beg Israel to “get it right”… The tone in this passage is such that you get the feeling that God (through Moses) is just cheering on his people to make the right decisions so that they can have a life of fullness and peace. Even when Moses cautions the people, he doesnt’ say, “God will destroy you; he says you will be destroyed.

What does it mean that God is inclined towards us, cheering us on to obedience and life?

Tools for the New Year: Rails

The concept of a train is simple: wheels on rails. The rails constrain the wheels and prevent them from wandering, but they also give the wheels a smooth the path to travel. Unlike a car, a train can’t go

wherever it wants—it has to travel the path that the rails follow—but a train can trust the rails, and as long as they haven’t been destroyed or damaged, the rails will take the train where it needs to go.

A few days ago I wrote about how humility is the key to growth, and one further aspect of humility is admitting our need for “rails” in our lives.

If you’re anything like me, I’d prefer to think of myself as a free-ranging vehicle (a Jeep 4×4, especially): I can go anywhere and do anything I’d like, and I will continue to grow into the person that I need to be and that God wants me to be.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

After 40-something years on this earth, I am able to say with a fair amount of certainty that left to my own devices I will wander to and fro, and “growth” will remain far from the top of my “to do” list.

I don’t make such a good Jeep.

I need rails, things that keep me on track.

Maybe I make a better train.

Now, rails have other words too:

  • systems
  • routines
  • habits
  • disciplines
  • rules

These “rails”, as long as I follow them and choose to stay on them, tend to take me to the places I want to go spiritually. (To extend the metaphor just a bit, it’s important to remember that the point of a train is not to just “ride the rails”; trains go places; the destination is what’s important. When the rails become the point of everything, we’ve lost the point.) At first, they feel odd: constrain you; they cramp your “style”; they stretch you, and may challenge you to do things that aren’t in your “nature” (“Well, I’m not really a Bible reading person, ya know?!?!”). But, after a while, they don’t feel as odd or forced. You find yourself moving with them, anticipating their turns. You’re working with the rails now.

Specifically, here are some of the rails and “constraints” that I use:

  • a regular habit of focused prayer and mediation each morning
  • a discipline of regular Scripture reading and studying
  • a commitment to regularly (1-2 times a month) sit down with 1-2 older spiritual mentors and humbly submit to their leadership and suggestions (again with the humility)
  • a system of managing my time, projects and energy (I use both electronic and paper calendars, and a combination of OmniFocus and Apple’s Reminders)
  • a method of examining the overall direction and theme of my life

As some of these rails have become cemented into my character, I have had to rely on the externals a bit less, but the principles remain the same: I submit to the rails.

Because I have somewhere to go; a person to be; a redemptive movement to play a part in.

And I trust the rails to take me there.

Do you have any rails? What are they? Do you need to reevaluate any of them?

+e

The Key to Everything: Humility

journalsYesterday, I took part in a panel discussion at church about “resetting” for the New Year. We talked about some of the rituals and systems we use to try and get ourselves for the New Year.

It was fun to talk about my journals and such, and some of my approach to this season of the year, but I was left wondering if anyone “got it”.

At one point I said from the stage, “If you don’t expect anything more out of 2014 than what you did in 2014, I’d challenge you to examine what you expect out of your faith.” 

Do people really believe in transformation?

Do you?

Do you believe you can change?

Do you believe you’re called to?

I think it actually boils down to some very basic beliefs, so let me ask you:

  • In John 4, Jesus says that he offers water that will become a spring of water that bubbles up (inside us) into eternal life…
  • In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul says that we have the mind of Christ…

Were they liars? 

Were they only talking to “super-Christians”? 

As one of my spiritual mentors says, “Either it is, or it isn’t.” 

So, if Jesus and Paul knew something about life; if they really meant what they said, then we are left to wrestle with their statements.

The burden is on us.

Question 1: Do you want to have the mind of Christ? to have a constant stream of living water inside you? 

Question 2: What are you prepared to surrender in order to gain it? 

This is the point where many of us get snagged, if for no reason than this: we have our lives, our systems of existence, and we don’t like to think that they maybe aren’t working. 

So where do we start?

We start with humility. We start with the admission that we actually don’t know what’s best for us. We declare as best we can, “I believe that there’s something more for me, but my life isn’t set up to obtain it. God help me.”

He wants to.

Someone asked a desert hermit once, “What is the way to make progress?” The hermit answered, “Humility. The more we bend ourselves to humility, the more we are lifted up to make progress.”

Humility declares, “I don’t know the way.”

Humility opens the door to learning. To growth. 

Humility says, “There must be more, and I am open to it.”

Humility says, “I cannot save myself.”

(By the way, humility is not merely self-deprecating or a way for us to belittle ourselves; it is a way to open ourselves up to growth and change. Feeling sorry for ourselves can actually merely be another way to be arrogant and self-centered. True humility is accompanied by a desire and willingness to change, to move, to reconsider.)

So, as 2013 begins, where are you with humility? Have you figured it all out, or are you still willing to acknowledge that you need to make more “progress”?

If you’re still learning, still growing, still changing, what are you doing to continue to learn and grow this year?

Grab Bag: Do Evangelicals Really Understand Judaism? Do Evangelicals Really Understand Jesus?

Recently I’ve gone back to reading a lot of Abraham Joshua Heschel. He’s written a few books that have had a fairly profound impact on me (and quite a few others, I’m sure), including The Sabbath, The Prophets, and God in Search of Man : A Philosophy of Judaism (which I’m reading now).

One of the things that I’m continuously struck with when I actually take the time to study Judaism (and not just what I’m told about Judaism) is how much more faith-oriented and devotional it actually is.

I grew up Methodist, but I started getting involved in more “evangelical” expressions of Christianity in my 20s, and that’s when I began to regularly hear about how Jesus came to rescue us all from captivity to the “Law,” and how Judaism (usually represented by the poor pharisees; taking the brunt of our jabs for centuries) was a religion of “works” that failed to understand what God REALLY wanted Somehow they’d missed all the writings in the prophets where, um, JEWS had reminded each other of what God really wanted, like in Isaiah 1:

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
16     Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil;
17     learn to do good.
Seek justice:
help the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this,
says the Lord.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they will be white as snow.
If they are red as crimson,
they will become like wool.

But somehow we made it all work out; Jesus came to set us free from “dead religion.”

But it’s funny, when you actually read what a lot of Jews say about their faith (that’s right, I used that word), the math begins to break down. (Even Paul’s view on the Law is not quite so monochromatic as what we might think, but that is perhaps for another post.)

For instance, read this from Heschel:

The world needs more than the secret holiness of individual inwardness. It needs more than sacred sentiments and good intentions. God asks for the heart because He needs the lives. It is by lives that the world will be redeemed, by lives that beat in concordance with God, by deeds that outbeat the finite charity of the human heart.

Does that sound like a “dead, works-based religion”?

Trust me: there’s lots more where that came from.

If I had to boil it down, I’d start perhaps with these statements:

  1. Judaism has many different strands to it; some are more focused on the Law than others.
  2. On the whole, Judaism is as Spirit-focused as Christianity; conversely, it’s possible to find some strands of Christianity that are as works/law-focused as our (incorrect) vision of Judaism.
  3. In essence, this is what Paul is condemning: He doesn’t condemn the Law, per se, he condemns trusting the Law for salvation.
  4. Jesus still came, lived, died and was raised to set us free from sin.
  5. A huge (and still woefully overlooked) implication of this is that the Gentiles (that’s me) could be included in the people of God.
  6. Which is the Church.

Should this shape the way we live? Absolutely. We should take the Law (which we really should understand as, “The Instruction“) seriously, not just as the prequel to Jesus.

Should this shape the way we understand Judaism? Yes. Though we still disagree in regards to who Jesus was/is (and this is no small thing), we are closer in our faith (there’s that word again) than perhaps we’d like to believe.

Should this shape the way we preach? Yes, yes, and yes. In my opinion, Christians—and Evangelicals in particular—are constantly inventing “enemies” to preach against. Whether it’s the law, the liberals, the conservatives, or the fundamentals, we seem to thrive on false enemies. We need to release the Law from our expectations, and try to understand it more from a wider perspective. Though we’d lose this “enemy” we may actually find ourselves free to pursue a more constructive agenda in the world (though one that requires much more work and creativity).

Spiritual Growth Isn’t Sexy

I like new things. Curiosity is pretty hard-wired into my being, and I like it; it drives me to new subjects, to new perspectives, to a broader understanding of God’s world.

But there’s a point at which “new” starts working against you, particularly in regards to growing.

Over my years of following God, I have dabbled in charismatic faith, liturgical faith, post-modern worship, and more recently centering prayer and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Some of these movements—the more ancient ones in particular—are particularly attractive to me because they seem so alien. They use a language that I’m unused to, and that wakes me up and draws me in. The way monks and Orthodox folks refer to the spiritual world is compelling to me, and I respond by buying books and beginning to experiment.

Historically, however, I get bored; after a time the newness wears off. The words don’t seem as fresh anymore.

This is when curiosity becomes a problem.

I’m learning lately to work through the “boredom”, to stop looking for new words and language and concepts, and to merely accept the forms that God has given me (and millions of others) to find Him.

It’s really not that exciting, in the end. Words can’t stay new forever. Eventually you have to get to the thing-behind-the-words. That’s the thing that really matters.

Don’t get me wrong: Manning, Merton, Keating, John of the Cross can certainly turn a phrase. I will always appreciate that part of their gifting.

But the hard lesson I’m learning is that even when the phrases have been emptied of their “magic”, even when they are less poetic and more pragmatic, I still have to grow.

Ultimately, it’s not the poetry that makes me grow. It’s the Spirit behind the poetry that is the real thing.

What about you? Anyone else out there struggle with always pursuing the new? What have you sought out?