I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.
First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.
Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.
Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.
This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.
As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.
And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human. The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.
Mystics are not popular people. Mystics get arrested, shot, hanged, burned at the stake, crucified. Oh, there are mystics who say popular things from time to time, and occasionally you will find a group of people who popularize the teachings of a mystic, but with very few exceptions mystics are just not very popular. Mystics see things that the overwhelming majority of people cannot see, and for that reason they are considered dangerous. Dangerous people must be removed, so that the rest of us can be comfortable.
Jesus was a mystic. The apostles Paul and John were mystics. Peter was a clumsy mystic, but he was a mystic. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Ezekiel preceded them in a long line of Divinely appointed mysticism. These were not mystics because they retreated to the desert and slept in caves and ate exotic bugs. No, Jesus and Paul and Isaiah were mystics because they were able to see with the eyes of God.
Mystics do not see what is not there. Mystics do not call people to a life that cannot be lived. Jesus was a mystic not because he was obscure and bizarre and said incomprehensible things. Paul was not a mystic because he was blind for three days and then went into the Arabian desert. Isaiah and Jesus and Peter and Paul all saw the kingdom of God with a clarity that eludes those who think that mystics are weird people that sane people should stay away from.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted” and “The last shall be first” and “The kingdom of God is among you.” Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” and “When I am weak, then I am strong.” John saw the heavens open and the new city of God descend upon the new earth. These are mystical sayings and events, but they are not delusional. Mystics say that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the child shall play over the den of the viper not because these things are false, but because they are of a truth that only mystics can see. True reality is much more real that what most humans accept for reality. That which confronts us daily is not reality, it is a mirage of the devil’s making. We surrendered reality in the garden. The mystics see reality. Realists see only a distant shadow of that reality.
Mystics call for mankind to lay down the weapons of war. Realists say that is impossible, because realists cannot see peace, nor do they really want to see peace. They want to see war, because war is raw and passionate and “real.” Mystics do not see any division between races and nations. Realists want to keep nations and the human races separate, because separating the races creates animosity, and animosity will ultimately create war. Mystics call for equality, and that is something that realists simply cannot accept. Equality would lead to peace, and that is simply too high a price for realists to pay.
Mystics are some of my favorite people. Even when people cannot be fully described as mystic, there are times when the heavens open for them and they catch a glimpse of the real, and for that crystalline moment they are transformed into mystics. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a mystic, although as with most mystics, I think he has been greatly misunderstood. I think Barton W. Stone had moments that bordered on mystical. I think David Lipscomb was the same way. They looked beyond the concrete and they saw the real – the kingdom as it will be, not what mankind has turned it into.
Fact is, I would rather be called a mystic than a realist. I don’t want to see the world the way it is. I want to see the world become what it should be. I want the Kingdom be among us. I want to see the lion and lamb gambol together. I want to swim with Great White sharks and not fear the teeth.
“The greatest insanity of all is to see the world as it is, and not as it should be.” – from Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I’ll give you two quotes, you decide which one is acceptable and which one is unacceptable.
“Infidels in the region have three choices: convert to Muhammed, pay a tax, or die.” – The Islamic State to non-Muslims in their territory.
“The time has come that we need to either convert them, which I think is next to impossible, or kill them.” Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” family and elder in the Church of Christ, speaking about the Muslim extremists on the Sean Hannity radio show.
Okay, have you figured out which one is wrong? I’ll give you all the time you need……
Here is a hint. Both statements are reprehensible, and for the same reason. Both are born of a far right-wing ideology that replaces faith with fanaticism. “If you do not agree with me, you deserve to die, no questions asked, no quarter given.”
The first statement is reprehensible enough coming from practitioners of the “Religion of Peace.” The second is even far more reprehensible, coming from a follower of the Prince of Peace, who sacrificed his own life so that all men could have the hope of a reconciliation with a Holy God.
How is it that men can replace religion with such hatred? Especially coming from one who claims to follow the Christ who said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Somehow I do not see how, “Convert or we will bomb you into eternity” is much of a loving or prayerful statement.
Tonight in our college Bible study we read and discussed the book of Jonah. The college kids got it. God loves all people. Even the people of Nineveh, the capital of the nation of Assyria.
As in, the capital of the proto-nation of Iraq, the modern day nation of all the Muslims Phil Robertson wants to convert or kill.
God actually loved the Assyrians enough to send a prophet to them to warn them of their sinful ways. Yes, the message was, “repent or perish,” but that message came from a God that is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
I think Phil Robertson needs to read his Bible a little more carefully. I think he needs to read the Sermon on the Mount, and I think he needs to read the book of Jonah.
And I think that anyone who agrees with the kind of faith that would rather bomb someone into damnation rather than pray for them a path into glory should really, really re-examine whether they are following the Prince of Peace or a hate-filled creed that is as damnable as the ideology they seek to destroy.
Taking a break from writing to do a little writing...and it's been a long summer of writing!
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Another example of the inability of America to move beyond its racist past has embroiled the country in a racial stare down. The major media outlets are full of articles and stories and editorials about how we can fix this problem or that problem. The biggest problem is, the solutions offered will only serve to make the problem (racism) worse. Every solution involves the distinction of races, making racism the measuring tool for the elimination of racism. It just won’t work.
For example, the overwhelming majority of articles, and editorials I have read over the past several weeks pontificate that “white people are going to have to…” or “white Christians are going to have to…” or more generically, “the white Church is going to have to…” When you identify a group of people by their skin color or some other ethnic identification you have become part of the problem. You are a racist.
I have noticed a glaring absence in all of these articles and editorials and blogs. Nowhere have I read, “the problem with black America is…” or “black Christians must…” or “the black Church must…” According to the overwhelming majority of mainstream media, “Christian” bloggers and preachers, the only people who have a race problem are white people.
That is simply racist, and you probably think I am racist for thinking so.
In this latest example of racial unrest, a young man was killed by a police officer. Oops, I forgot to mention those two adjectives: a young black man was killed by a white police officer. What would have happened if the officer was. . .black, or Latino? What if the officer was female instead of male? Would there have been riots? Where would Al Sharpton be?
You see, there is a huge racial problem in America. There can be no denying that fact. Deniers in this case are not only ignorant, they are stupid.
There may have been a racial component in the shooting of the young man in Missouri. Only an unbiased search for truth will bring that out. If the officer is guilty of a racial bias he needs to be punished appropriately. If there was no racial bias, and if, as has been suggested, the officer was fighting to save his life, then he needs to be exonerated.
But, this also needs to be said… Every day dozens of young black men are killed as the result of gangs, drugs, and other criminal acts. There are no riots, there are no marches, no caravan of satellite TV trucks show up, there is a glaring absence of the politicians crying out for justice and equality. The difference is that in Missouri the black man was killed by a white police officer, and in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and Atlanta and in virtually every other major metropolitan city, when a black man dies at the hands of another black man no one seems to notice or care.
In God’s kingdom there is no such thing as race. Every human is equal. Every death matters – God does not wish that any should die (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). God certainly did not desire the death of the young man in Missouri. And God does not wish the death of any police officer who is killed in the line of his or her duty to protect the lives and property of the citizens he or she is sworn to protect.
The reality is, until we can learn to see past race and view each death as the death of a human being, without any attachments, we will never move beyond the issue of racism. As long as we use race as the measuring stick, we are doomed to be a nation of racists.
As Martin Luther King Jr. once so famously and correctly said, let us move toward the day when all young men and young women will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
I apologize to my out-of-the-U.S. readers, but this is where I live, and if you do not have this problem consider yourself extremely blessed.
Yesterday I wrote what probably has been my most angry post. I am still fuming – and believe me, what I posted was nowhere near as vitriolic as what I deleted. Quite simply I cannot fathom why anyone would consider a personal “right” (whether it truly is or not is debatable) over the life of another human being, but especially the child of grieving parent. Enough of that.
The question I want to pose today is why do American “Christians” have such a morbid attachment to the U.S. Constitution? Why are American Christians so emotionally attached to that piece of paper? Can anyone explain that?
Really, people – its just a piece of paper. A bunch of human beings got together, wrote it down and then voted on what they wrote. It is as simple as that. There was no divine intervention, no words from Mt. Sinai, and there were clearly no words from Golgotha. It was a significant human achievement, I will grant you. But Americans, and Christians in America especially, act as if Moses carried down the mountain before the 10 Commandments. I mean, wasn’t Moses elected president of the NRA? That’s good enough for most Duck Dynasty fans, anyway.
Here is a little exercise for you – think of the most horrific thing that can happen to the U.S. Constitution. Was it destroyed? Did a foreign country overwhelm the U.S. and burn it to ashes? Did the President get it annulled? (Our current one is working on it, by the way). Got it? Now, what would change about your life?
Really, seriously – what would change if the Constitution was to be destroyed? Would you maybe lose your job? Would you become a slave? Would you have to go to an interment camp? Maybe your family would be killed? Maybe you would be killed?
Well, guess what, good Christian American – each and every one of those things has occurred to people as a direct result of the U.S. Constitution! If you doubt be ask the descendent of a slave. Ask a Native American Indian whose ancestors were beaten, raped, forced to live in “Reservations” (which is a really polite word for “Concentration Camp”) and, if they resisted, were murdered by the thousands. Ask the Chinese who were forced to work as virtual slaves as the country moved west. Ask the Japanese and German immigrants who were forced to live in interment camps during WWII simply because of their last names. Yeah, boy, we have a long list of Christian accomplishments – all at the power of the U.S. Constitution.
If the U.S. Constitution were destroyed tomorrow I will tell you what would still be true – God would still be God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would still be effective for all who believe in him, disciples of Christ would still be able to live in the greatest free country in the world – the country of the Kingdom of God.
No human can ever be really free just because of the accident of his or her birth. No human can ever be a slave to anyone if that person has been set free by the blood of Christ. We are all, each and every human who has ever lived, ultimately the slave of whichever god we choose to be the ruler of our life. And that subjection is proclaimed most clearly by the things we protect the most fiercely and those things we absolutely refuse to give up.
So, I ask again, why are American Christians so devoted to the Constitution? Oh, I think I just answered my own question.
Another gem from my daily Bible reading today – Leviticus 18:1-5 (Yes, it is okay for Christians to read Genesis-Malachi):
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD. (NRSV)
This passage, of course, precedes the great holiness chapter in Leviticus 19 where the phrase, “I am the LORD” falls like a drumbeat on the ear. But maybe more on that another time.
I was struck this morning with the profound counter-cultural message of Leviticus 18:1-5. God cannot make it any more clear – do not be like the people that I am delivering you from, and do not be like the people that I am going to drive from you. You are my people, therefore you will follow my statutes and my commands and my ordinances.
I wish more religious/spiritual/Christian leaders would read the Old Testament. Especially the holiness passages.
Today what we hear from far too many spiritual gurus is that the Lord’s church has become too exclusive, too secluded, too provincial. What the church needs to do is get with the culture – become more affirming, more inclusive, more accessible.
To be specific, if the dominant culture dictates that there are no differences between the genders then the church must become gender neutral. If the culture dictates that marriage is simply a matter of “love” and physical attraction then the church must not only accept same-sex marriages, it must bless them. If the culture dictates that nationalism is synonymous with spirituality then the church must preach subservience to one’s country, and perhaps even one political party within that national structure. If the culture dictates what is acceptable in dress, in language, in entertainment then the church must alter its message to accept that clothing, that language, and that entertainment. If the culture dictates how a person is to spend his or her time, then the church must alter its schedule to find a time in which a person who is “busy” with soccer or softball or football or gymnastics or dance or whatever else may conflict with previously scheduled times of worship may attend without missing out on the “important” aspects of life.
To be perfectly blunt – the 21st century church has forgotten from whence we have been called and whither we are being called. We have forgotten that Egypt was our place of slavery and that Canaan is nothing but a spiritual cesspool.
Okay – we have never been slaves in Egypt and Canaan is all the way around the world, and several centuries removed from our experience. But the message of Leviticus is clear: our God is a Holy God and he expects us to disregard the culture in which we find ourselves and to follow only His commands, His statutes.
That means we have God’s commands as a priority when we find ourselves in an unfriendly culture and when we find ourselves in a friendly culture. Maybe especially when we find ourselves in a friendly culture.
For far too long Christians in America have soothed our consciences by repeating the mantra: “America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation.” Well, whether that has been true in the past is a matter for debate (I, for one, do not think so). But it clearly is no longer true. We may not have moved to Canaan, but we certainly have allowed Canaan to move into the U.S.
Let us be done with cultural accomodation. Let us stand and be recognized for what we claim to be – God’s holy and chosen people. If that earns us scorn and ridicule and censure then so be it. Those are the promises given us by none other than our Savior, Jesus (Matthew 5:10-11; John 15:18-16:4). If the shoe is supposed to fit, maybe it is time we tied it on and started walking in it.
It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.
And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)
It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.
There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?
The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.
I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??
Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)
See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.
What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.
So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.
And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.
Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.
One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:
So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.
Meant to tackle this topic last week, and the wheels came off of my planning cart.
A few months ago I wrote a response to the New Mexico Supreme Court ruling that a photographer could not legally refuse to participate in a homosexual wedding regardless of that photographer’s religious belief. In the weeks/months that have passed since that ruling the accounts of courts and judges forcing people to accept and even participate in what they view as aberrant behavior have just mushroomed. In my last post I mentioned I would suggest a way forward for the church, but in reality what I have to say is not new – either to me or to others. So, I am not claiming originality here, but I would like to share once again what I believe the church must do, or must continue to do if it is already doing so.
By way of reminder, I do not see the United States as a Christian nation. Perhaps we once were: that point can be debated. But we should no longer use the phrase if we are to have any respectability. At one time those who lived in the United States but were not Christians managed to smile when Christians invoked the phrase. Now, the American world is no longer smiling. The quaint little expression “Freedom of Religion” now is interpreted to mean, “Freedom to keep your religion to yourself.” When Americans no longer have the right to LIVE their religious beliefs, we in effect no longer have that freedom.
We must accept this fact or nothing else we do will ever matter.
So, how is the church to move forward in a post-Christian world? Once again – I make no claim to originality, but here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. We are going to have to get over the fact that people will hate us. For too long we have been thinking and acting as if we can change people’s hearts by changing our beliefs and practices. If I have heard once I have heard a thousand times, “if we do not change [x] (where “x” can be just about anything) then our young people will leave us and no one in the community will want to join us.” So, churches change names, worship styles, language styles and incorporate the newest, flashiest equipment on the market. And what happens? Their young people leave for an even edgier church and the people in the community do not want to join them because they are simply the latest in a long line of churches who have changed names and core values.
Is my Bible the only one that has John 15:18-25 in it? Or is this the first generation in which speaking up for one’s beliefs has caused a negative reaction? Why do we believe that changing OUR beliefs will cause others to change THEIR hearts? I am not suggesting that we should be hateful, or that we should never ask questions about what we believe. But legitimate self-examination is a far cry from running in absolute panic away from any criticism or unwarranted attack.
No – we are going to have to overcome this irrational fear of being disliked and we are going to have to realize that the new “normal” is for God’s people to stand out in stark contrast to a bent and broken world.
2. We are going to have to ACT like we believe what we say we believe. We say we believe in a lifetime of marriage between one man and one woman, but we practice the acceptance serial marriages like we owned a wedding chapel and our livelihood depended upon as many “re-marriages” as we can possibly create. We say we do not believe in pre-marital co-habitation, yet we allow our children and grandchildren to “try out” marriage partners as if they were test-driving a new vehicle. We say we oppose graphic violence, sexuality and adult themes, and we buy millions of dollars of movie tickets every month, and allow our teens and pre-teens to do likewise. We fill our minds with the same base lyrics that non-Christians fill their minds with, and salve our consciences by attending a worship hour a week and re-proclaiming how much we hate words and actions that blaspheme our God.
But, if we ditch the cable and turn off the satellite, our neighbors might think we are weird or un-American or something. See point #1.
3. We are going to have to re-evaluate this entire “The Constitution as the 67th Book of the Bible” mantra that “conservatives” have been repeating for so long. Oh, no – no one actually ever says that, but that is exactly what is meant in many of our good conservative (read “Tea Party”) speeches.
Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, the Constitution is a wonderful document. Maybe the best human government document that has ever been written. But, strictly speaking, following the Constitution is exactly what has brought us to this point in history. The words “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Bible,” or “Christian” simply do not appear in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. The framers of the Constitution did not want a theocracy, and certainly not a Christocracy, and they made sure we did not get one. But human seeds grow up into human trees, and the fruit of a Christ-neutral document is now becoming ripe. Yell and kick and scream all you want to, but how else are you going to interpret the protections ingrained in the Constitution that prevent one religion from becoming physically forced upon all citizens? If we have the freedom to exercise religion, we also have the freedom not to exercise religion, and when you allow (or actually mandate) broken, sinful, human judges to decide what is or is not constitutional, then bingo – welcome to the U. S. of A. in the year 2014. So, what was brilliant in terms of human government has proven to be utterly disastrous in terms of discipleship to Christ.
But, to quote that out-dated and horribly non-American apostle Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
4. The church is going to have to start practicing some old-fashioned discipline. The church has boundaries. We are not everyone and everything. Not everything is holy. Not everything is “set apart.” There is clean and un-clean, holy and un-holy, Christian and un-christian, saved and lost. It is ridiculous to suggest that a congregational leadership cannot exercise any kind of discipline because “if they do then people will get their feelings hurt and they will leave.” This is not to suggest that the eldership “withdraws fellowship” from someone just to rattle their swords. I have witnessed that and it was a stain against some good men and a good congregation. But for a biblical leadership to allow, or to even sanction, blatant immorality within the congregation is just unconscionable. The same is true of doctrinal beliefs. A congregation cannot condone or sanction contradictory beliefs. You cannot have a separate worship service for every competing feeling or doctrine. If everything is acceptable then nothing is sinful. And we wonder why people look at us with our three different services with three different worship formats and laugh? We are not demanding discipleship – we are offering a circus.
Sorry for the wordiness today – I guess I got a little carried away. But the world is not smiling at us anymore – if it ever did. And we, as God’s people, are going to have to learn a new way to act. Or, conversely, we are going to have to start acting like we’ve known how to act all along.