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

 

 

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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.”

 

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?