The Signature of Jesus

 

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In November, 1999 a colleague gave me a copy of a book called The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning.

I really didn’t like it.

Maybe it was because I was consumed with a rebellious intellectual quest to remake the North American church.

Maybe it was because I just wasn’t spiritually mature or ready to receive it.

At any rate, I read it, and underlined a few different things, and then set it aside: it really hadn’t “taught” me anything.

Then, sometime later, I decided to pick the book up again and read through it. For some reason—who knows why—this time I was ready.

And it rocked my world like nothing I’d ever read.

Manning wasn’t “cute” or overly-intellectual by any measuring stick: he was poetic, but in a forceful and time-tested way. He was obviously brilliant, but his theology found its way out through references to plays and poems and ancient monks and hermits that I had never heard of before.

The man could write, and God was speaking (very loudly and clearly) to me write through his words.

He wrote things like this, “Viewed as a theological relic, the cross does not disturb our comfortable religiosity. But when the crucified risen Christ, instead of remaining an icon, comes to life and delivers us over to the fire he came to light, he creates more havoc than all the heretics, secular humanists, and self-serving preachers put together.”

I needed to hear that. Brennan challenged me (over and over again; he wrote multiple books, and all of them contained similar marks of style and hard-hitting but poetic, “practical” theology) to not keep my spirituality abstractly in my head but to bring it out where my mouth, hands, and feet made use of it.

It was what I needed, and I’ve read the book now probably a dozen times. It contains the reminders I need to live out my faith.

In 2008, I was playing guitar at a conference that Manning was to speak at. Now, I’ve shared the stage with dozens of superstar speakers: Bill Hybels, Beth Moore, John Ortberg, Rob Bell and Louie Giglio, to mention a few. Most of them have been pleasant men and women, but none of them have ever captivated me or put me in any sort of nervous awe.

But this was Brennan.

This was the man who formed me in a way that few—if any—author or speaker ever had.

I was giddy.

We were rehearsing the music for the session when an elderly man in jeans that were patched with 30 different colors and textures of cloths walked up on the stage to test his microphone. I stopped in my tracks, and knew instantly who it was. I had a job to do, so I couldn’t talk to him then but my heart lept when I saw this man who had mentored me—maybe even fathered me in a way—for so many years.

I had brought my copy of the book that had shaped me for so many years, and as he spoke (plainly and profoundly) I jotted just a couple notes inside the front cover: “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” (from Paul Tillich)

After the session, he was doing a book signing, and I stood in line with my bent copy. When I approached him, I stammered out that his writing had changed my life and in a way even saved it. He glanced at me, and said, “Great.”

Then he signed it with a shaky autograph, and I was on my way.

It was one of the most gloriously anticlimactic moments of my life.

It’s actually difficult to communicate why this was so perfect.photo 2

He was slightly (and perfectly) grumpy, and not slick in any sense of the imagination. There were no false smiles, no fake sense that I mattered to him. He didn’t write the books or speak or do book signings because somehow his ego needed to be stroked. He did what had to be done, and he delivered the books, the message, the signing with an understated and subtle presence that refused to bow to a false self, to the idol of fame.

It would have been so easy for him to be false, to give me a slick smile and handshake.

But instead he just said, “That’s great,” and signed his name.

It’s one of my most prized possessions.

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I Remember…

I remember when I first realized that living in my “faith tribe” might not always be easy.

Though I grew up in the church (good old Methodists! Everyone loves the Methodists!), my faith didn’t really take root until I was in my late 20s, when I was working at Willow Creek Community Church. Because of that church’s resources (and theology), I got to hear (or hear about) some amazing teaching from people like Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, and Brennan Manning (who eventually became a sort-of guiding light for me).

I thought talk about the spiritual disciplines and hearing about the scandalous love of God was sort of part for the course for my evangelical, non-denominational tribe.

Then I moved south.

I’ve been in north Florida (or southern Georgia,  whichever the case may be) for 8 years now, and though there are plenty of fine folks here (that’s the way we/they say it), I was shocked to find that when my family arrived here to start working at yet another non-denominational, evangelical church, there was practically no awareness of Mr. Manning, or Mr. Willard.

Even more alarming, I was told about how certain people had left our church (before I arrived) because of they were “uncomfortable” with, of all people Philip Yancey. This prompted an internet search, and my naiveté collapsed around me as I read scathing comments about Philip. What’s more, I searched again, and discovered that Dallas Willard was considered practically evil, and associated with something like “typical Fuller seminary theology”. (Um, this was not a compliment.)

This was challenging, to say the least. I thought my “tribe” was full of open-minded tolerant people who sought to know this God of love and grace and mystery and transformation.

What I found instead were people who were interested in dogma and rigidity, close-mindedness and exclusivity.

I found fundamentalism.

I hope it’s clear when I say this is not about the south: this is about just me discovering the reality of the tension that still exists under this umbrella that I share.

(Some of my best friends of fundamentalists.)

Some days I don’t think I live under this umbrella anymore. Some days I no longer recognize my “tribe.” Some days I’m not sure I want to recognize them anymore.

But I keep on seeking. Because my tribe ≠ my God.

He’s bigger, and more loving, and more mysterious, and open-minded than any of us will ever be.

That’s why I follow him.

Why I Don’t Give Up

Let’s be honest: there are a lot of reasons to throw in the towel on faith.

  • a book that is thousands of years old that is difficult to penetrate and understand
  • a God that claims to be good in the midst of a world that is torn apart with suffering and hatred
  • my own repeated personal failures (too numerous to mention)

(As Marvin said, “it makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.”)

For a lot of people, that’s just a trifecta of negatives, and I’ve seen them check out of this “faith thing.”

If I’m honest, sometimes I’m tempted too.

So far, I’ve been able to hold on, and though I’m no great apologist, here are a few reasons why:

  • Though I can’t explain why, I know that we are more than “just” flesh and bones. I believe I have some unseen soul, and so I tend to it.
  • Though I have, in fact, failed countless times, I’ve come to the conclusion that only something supernatural can heal the sickness I have: only “letting the light” in (through those pesky cracks) will allow me to be a little less jealous, a little less self-centered, a little more patient, a little more peaceful today than I was yesterday (and we’ll let tomorrow worry about itself).
  • The Bible is, in fact, difficult in places to wrap my head around. That being said, there are some ways to “keep it simple,” starting with this guy named Jesus: he helps me make sense of the Bible.

All in all, I haven’t given up because I have this desperate faith and sense that it is possible to be a better human being, and I think one of the greatest gifts we can give the world is a person that has become as full and complete of a human being as possible.

And only faith gets that job done.

 

Just because #PeterGabriel

 

 

That Time When Jesus Kicked Us Out of the House

When Jesus begins his ministry, one of the realities that he stepped into was one of “exile.”

To make a very long story very short, between 580-595 BC, the nation of Israel experiences two devastating events. First, the Temple—the very center of God’s activity in the world—is destroyed. Second, the core population is sent into exile in Babylon. It’s virtually impossible to understand how dis-concerting this was to God’s people.

They were without the sense of God’s presence in the world…

They were without a home…

Psalm 137 records just a little of what this felt like to the community:

“Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said.
But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?”

 

Eventually, the Jews returned to the Land, but significantly the presence of the Lord never returned to the Temple. It was rebuilt, but God had not returned. In a sense, they were still in exile.

Furthermore, over time more nations and empires showed up. In particular, Rome came knocking, and easily occupied the land and subjugated God’s people. Now, they were still “in the land,” but they were no longer in control; the Romans were. 

They might as well have been still in Babylon, and again, it’s as if they were still in exile.

God hadn’t come back to the Temple, and they were not in control of the “Promised Land.”

When Jesus shows, up, much of his activity centers around demonstrating that exile is over: God has returned to the Land (through his ministry), and will now “do battle” with Israel’s enemies (who are not the Babylonians, or the Romans for that matter).

At the cross, Jesus defeats the “true enemy” of Israel (evil) by dying. Three days later he rises from the dead and ushers in a new way of living.

But he’s not done yet.

In Matthew 28, he commissions his disciples, telling them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB)

In short, he sends them out, away from their homes, away from what they know and find comforting.

Kinda sounds like exile…

As one of my professors says, “Jesus announces (through is life, death and resurrection, ‘Exile is over; now go be exiles!’” 

However this time not only has God returned to the Land (in/through Jesus), but now Jesus promises to be “be with” his disciples.

So the bad news is that when we “sign on” to this Jesus movement, we don’t get to come into the house and kick our feet up. Rather, Jesus kicks us out of the house to go be exiles in our world: go out where you aren’t comfortable, where you don’t know all the rules, where things may seem strange and alien to you.

But the good news is that exile no longer has to feel empty, or pointless, or like punishment. God’s presence is with his people, even where things are strange and “different.”

We may be in exile, but we are not alone.

 

 

 

 

Is “Religion” REALLY Opposed to “Relationship”

I’m tired of playing off “religion” against “relationship.”

The notion (as defined by my tribe) is that Jesus came to save us from “religion” and invite us into a “relationship” with God.

This is a false dichotomy for a few different reasons.

First of all, it’s generally understood by Biblical scholars that the Jewish faith of Jesus’ era was immersed in “relationship”. The Jews (probably even moreso than most modern, western Christians) were intensely aware of the all-encompassing nature of God. They lived in a God-soaked, God-bathed world. God pervaded their politics, their art, their social structure.

They did not compartmentalize.

This God that was everywhere lived in a vital and dynamic relationship with them through a Covenant relationship that looked something like this: God committed Himself to Israel in a binding relationship; Israel would wander away, and God would pursue, invite and even “woo” Israel back like a lover who had betrayed her true love and left.

This God—YHWH, or even “The Name”—acted time and again to bring back and restore Israel, not because they kept the Law or were perfect, but simply because He loves them. (Read the Exodus: when does God rescue? before Israel has a chance to even hear the Law, much less obey it. God acts while His people are helpless and enslaved. For those of you keeping score at home, this is what grace looks like.)

Now, had some people in Jesus’ time forgot about this? Had some of them turned the vital faith of Abraham and Isaac into rote performance and rule keeping?

Sure. But look around us: we are just as adept at doing that in the 21st century as they were in the 1st.

What Jesus was up to was (among other things):

… showing what an “eternal life now” could look like
… welcoming in the outsiders to the Kingdom
… conquering evil through suffering love
… providing a ransom for our sin

It’s simply too narrow of a statement to say that Jesus saved us from religion.

Furthermore, by playing this “binary” game (black and white, on or off, etc), we are missing a vital part of what “religion” actually means.

Though the etymology is slightly unclear, the root of religion could be understood as a coming out of the Latin root legare, which means to “connect or bind” (it’s where our word for “ligament” comes from as well). In other words, “religion” at its best re-connects us. It should literally “knit us together”; it should connect us with ourselves, the world around us, and with God.

It should not fragment us, or make us small-minded.

With these thoughts in mind, what I’d actually say that Jesus (and the Prophets, and Paul, and the church fathers and mothers, and the great saints as well) was not trying to save us from religion as much as he was trying (still is trying, actually) to save us from bad religion, that fragments, fractures, and reduces our world.

So I’ll take both. I like my relationship (with the Triune God, with the world), but I can only have that relationship through my religion (my efforts to re-connect with God through His Holy Spirit).

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 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.”