Tag Archives: Paul

At the scene of subsequent Pentecosts

I’m checking in from my trip in Italy. On Pentecost Sunday yesterday  I took some time to appreciate the places on my pilgrim route where the Spirit touched another person or generation with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit just like happened that first time, reported in Acts 2.

Rome

We stopped by “Paul outside the walls,” the site where Paul was allegedly crucified by Nero. This completed last year’s pilgrimage to Greece. Paul had an unlikely “pentecost” that day on the way to Damascus.  I’ve been surprised many times by how the Spirit finds me, too.

Montecassino

We made the climb to the top of the famous hill near Naples where Benedict of Nursia planted the monastery that would influence Europe for good for a thousand years and still inspires pilgrims like me. Being welcomed into these islands of faith and learning provided “pentecosts” for thousands of seekers in desperate times, beginning in the 600’s.

Padua

Up in Veneto during the 1200’s, Anthony of Padua helped Francis of Assisi train the many new community members their revival movement was attracting. At his shrine we saw his famous tongue, preserved as a memory of his remarkable speaking career and his ongoing influence.  On a Saturday, one worship time after another was packed!

Philadelphia

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Spring is glorious

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Meanwhile our instagrams told of all sorts of moving experiences on Pentecost weekend — from the splash party in the Northwest to blue skies over South Jersey, from intimate times around the piano to the Comfort Retreat. We have bits of Paul, Benedict and Anthony in us. We experience, demonstrate and teach all the “pentecosts” in our own way. It was amazing then and God with us is amazing now. I can’t help but think God will meet us and continue to use us in desperate times. I’m inspired by the past but probably more by our present together.

Wildness and worry: How Paul puts them together

The probable site of the “bema,” or the steps/platform where the magistrates sat, in Philippi.

A boring picture of rocks, then two pieces of the New Testament letters of Paul is not the most exciting way to begin this blog post. I hope it gets better for you.

I am trying to describe how wildness and worry go together in us.  And I mean both words in their best sense, since some of you may think both or either are not that attractive.

  • Wildness, when we are thinking of the Holy Spirit, is alluring — at least it is attractive in people who are free enough to experience and express God’s presence.
  • Worry, on the other hand, is usually seen as unattractive — and it should be when it is all about our fear. I am thinking of it as an inevitable feature of caring for others and for the redemption project, as you will see.

Here are the two Bible portions on my mind:

2 Corinthians 11:21-29

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Galatians 4:19-20…5:7-13

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! …The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

When I was on my pilgrimage recently, following the Apostle Paul through Greece, I had a recurring fear: “If I tell anyone how much I identify with this man, will they label me a grandiose fool?” But last week I had to admit to my spiritual director that Paul has been my spiritual guide from day one of my faith. As I have the vantage point now to look back on many years, I can see how much that is true. I think the parts in bold, above, are key elements of his teaching, and I have tried to make them key to my life.

My new Paul icon from Berea

I identify with both Paul’s wildness and worry

You can decide if the Spirit speaks through Paul, or not, as he would heartily agree you should. So I offered two little portions of his letters today that demonstrate something I recently put together for myself, as well: There is a connection between his wildness and his worry.

My director was parsing out meaning in my deluge of storytelling the other day and he noted how I spoke with delight about how I stood before the “bema” in the ruins of Philippi, undoubtedly near where Paul stood himself, and loved the wildness of the whole scene. Then I was talking about my worries about the future of Circle of Hope and he noticed such a change in my demeanor that it was striking, “What are these two things? Do they go together?” I think he wanted me to stop worrying and move with my bliss.

I eventually told him, “It is all part of the same story.” I had been talking a lot about Paul so I said, “I think I can connect these two things to Paul, want to see me try?” He did. And I remembered today’s verses.

In our dialogue, I had been alluding to our Church Planting Summits last year, when we had all sorts of scenarios for the future of our movement. My director was surprised at how wild we are, since he has been a Presbyterian for a while. For instance, when Presbyterian pastors end their service in a local congregation (like I did in 2016), they are generally sent packing and have a strict no-contact clause in the ending agreement. Circle of Hope did not do that with me. So there I was last summer leading a discussion as Development Pastor about how we should connect as congregations (association, aggregation or composition?) and helping us consider combining congregations if they would be better together than struggling as small groups apart. He marveled at the flexibility! He could see the benefit of being one church in many locations. He said, “Most churches just try to survive and most of their energy goes toward protection, not freedom.” You are rather wild.

But I am also rather worried – quite often. I sometimes think I would rather buy a beach view and practice my well-earned inner peace apart from worries. But then I realize that I hooked my wagon to Jesus and God is very concerned about the earth. It is not so much that the Lord is just worrying over us like something shameful or terrible is going to happen to his creation – he knows the end. But he is worrying like a mother hen might brood over her eggs until they are hatched; and the Lord is fussing like a human mother whose children are just getting mature enough to drive a car.

The wildness of creation is at work. Re-creation has been set loose by Jesus. The sentient, loving beings who carry the heart of it all are yet to be fully revealed. Will they all make it to the good end? I am worried with that kind of worry.

Paul demonstrated both his wildness and worry when he wrote

You can see the complementary nature of wildness and worry in the Spirit in the verses I shared. The passages are often consigned to the “worry” category: “You dear Corinthians with whom I spent so much time. Are you really going to divide up and think you are more special than your teacher?” And “You dear Galatians who responded so favorably to the gospel, are you now going to listen to people who teach you need to be Jews first so you can be Christians?”

I can relate to the worry side. I often think it is wrong to worry — and mistrust in the end is probably wrong. But I might say, “Circle of Hope are you going to squander your community and alternativity now that it is so sorely needed? Will you really think about yourselves first and not imagine a future of mutual trust in Jesus?” Maybe we all relate more to anxiety, so when we see it in Paul we remember it.

But the wildness is also in these passages. I mean that very attractive Spirit-driven wildness that makes Paul such a notable and world-changing guy. I suppose if he walked into the Sunday meeting we’d either adore him or be scared to death by him. The way he makes his point to the Corinthians is to list all the wild things that have happened to him because of his calling in Jesus. Prison, floggings, shipwrecks, bandits, hunger, it goes on. When I was following his journey, just the amount of walking he did seemed daunting to me. The prospect of entering a new town in a car provoked enough anxiety in me! — when I was in Philippi, I was complaining that it was too hot and I was glad to get back to my air-conditioned vehicle! Paul was entering a new continent with a brand new message expecting God to work a wonder – and repeatedly that is just what the Spirit did.

To the Galatians he appeals to their highest, wildest selves in contradiction to teachers who had come in and appealed to their lowest and enslaved selves. He speaks so boldly people have been criticizing him for being too aggressive ever since. But Paul feels free and he speaks freely. And he thinks the Galatians can handle their freedom in the Spirit without being reduced to the Jewish law, which was just a tutor for their adulthood in the Spirit as the children of God. When I thought of Paul being hauled up in front of the magistrates, I was reminded of how much faith he had in the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus unleashed!

Image result for Painting
A “celebration of what can be” by David M. Kessler

I can’t seem to have wildness without worry, either

I am not sure I convinced my director, but I began to convince myself that my wildness and worry went together. There is no way to take risks unless I hope they will make a difference. There is no way to exercise my freedom without hoping others experience the joy of it. There is no way to be part of a cell or team and not long for the fullness they represent or despair over the trials they face. There is no way to build the wild thing called the church and not worry over its future and brood over the fragile new birth springing up in it all the time. Paul was not just traveling around Greece for the sheer exhilaration of exercising his thrilling new freedom to do so! He was nurturing a people who would be set upon, almost immediately, by their own unprocessed sin and by people ready to redirect their movement into channels that suited themselves more than Jesus!

The movement of the good news in Jesus keeps on rolling in about the same way it did in Paul’s time. As I look back on how Jesus has led me, it makes me happy to think my mentor from the past was so influential. I wish I could be more like him, even now. But I am delighted the same Spirit who moved him made me like him at all! — intrinsically wild and often worried for good reasons.

Trump is a lot like Nero, which brings me back to Paul.

I certainly enjoyed my relatively Trumpless trip to Greece following around the Apostle Paul! It was refreshing and clarifying. The Greeks have a corrupt government, too, they say. So it is no surprise to them that a Donald Trump is taking hold of the U.S. Treasury. But the people who live in the home of democracy, whose ancestors invented all the temple architecture in which Lincoln  and Jefferson are enshrined, were kind of hoping the United States would hold out and not end up that way.

The U.S. ended up that way. I don’t say “we” ended up that way, since I am not elected by the people, or stealing from them, or planning to enslave them in new ways as I undo the fabric of their society, be it ever so  humble. I live here, but I would hardly let myself be governed by Trump in any sense that really mattered.

Like I texted my brother, I consider our branch of the Christian family to be a permanent and long-standing example of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty he was texting about (1 Cor. 7).  I admit I had to go to Google to see who they were — they were the secret society devoted to overthrowing the rule of King George III in the American colonies.  He thinks we should be ready to overthrow Trump — and knowing him, he is only half joking.  He is a rather conservative guy with a daughter in the FBI, but he hates being embarrassed. And Trump, along with his Bible-misinterpreting Attorney General are very embarrassing. I know they embarrassed me in Europe. I literally called myself Canadian a few times.

It was good timing to be following around the Apostle Paul on a long-held dream of a trip. Walter Wangerin’s fictionalized narrative of his life helped, too. Paul had the Roman emperors Claudius and Nero to deal with, we have Trump.  Wangerin’s biography reminded me that after Nero killed his mother five years into his reign to solidify his power at age 21, he was welcomed into Rome as a hero. People in the Eastern Empire thought of him as a god and longed for his return after he committed suicide. That’s the same emperor who executed Paul and Peter. We can’t really tell what people will swallow or even worship. Humankind is messed up. But isn’t it amazing how important Paul ended up being and how comical, if morbid,  Nero seems now!

I was surprised at how moved I was when i arrived in Veria (Berea) and found the small memorial park devoted to Paul’s work there. I was struck by how the simple message of the work of Jesus on our behalf is a powerful antidote to what ails the world and carries a restorative power that no strange ruler can ultimately undermine. As soon as as our wheels struck runway back in the U.S., Jeff Sessions reminded me that I live in crazy land in need of the gospel. Justifying the separation of parents and their children (in honor of Father’s Day, I guess) with Romans 13 (missing Romans 12, obviously), isn’t the craziest thing offered by the latest administration, but it is high on the list. I was happy to be carrying a revitalized antidote with me from Greece.

I had already heard a small voice in me get louder while I was away, telling me not to rest while Trump fills the earth with lies and people believe he is a god. I’m not going to react to Trump every day, that’s for sure; he does not deserve it. Jesus is Lord and Trump probably won’t even live but a few more years.  What I am going to do every day is nurture the alternative to Trump: the church — even if parts of it are walking with the liar in search of the power and safety of American wealth and whites-only power.

I was emboldened to listen to the promptings of the Spirit when I kept remembering that Paul walked into Greece with nothing but the message of Jesus and upended the Roman Empire, eventually. Of course the Romans cleverly co-opted the church, but the truth has been upending Romanizing stuff ever since. I hope our church gets better and better at upending. We don’t have a lot of power, but we certainly have Jesus.

One last picture. Archimedes (287-212 BC) was a genius inventor from the Greek colony at Syracuse. When we were in the Archimedes Museum in Olympia (another ancient extravaganza) we were so intrigued we went up to the second floor. In the farthest corner was a replica of a weapon designed by an Archimedes disciple.  It is an automatic bow and arrow machine, ancestor of the AR-15. If all of humankind’s inspiration is used for better killing, doesn’t the world need a Savior? If people think vague assurances by a couple of liars in Singapore makes us safer, don’t we need a Savior? My answer has always been, “YES!”

We have one. I am glad Paul did so well at introducing him to people. Eventually the word got to me, too. In a world where somehow we ended up with a Nero-like president, getting back to the basics of being the alternative makes an awful lot of sense again.

God causes the growth (2)

God causes the growth

I am moved to hang on to some basic teaching today.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

This morning, as I listened to God and prayed for the church, I took heart in in Paul’s teaching. He laments the deep problems in the church in Corinth, where he had spent so much time laboring and loving. His disciples shocked people with their immorality. They divided up the church in factions. They had a strong contingent who thought they were spectacular, and better than Paul, their father in the faith. Some of them re-thought the gospel to reflect themselves rather than Jesus.

Some days, I look out over our beloved community of Circle of Hope and am tempted to lament. I just see the holes in the Swiss cheese. It is not a nourishing practice. Today God saved me from that by reminding me of what he has done, which is what he is likely to do again. Circle of Hope is so astoundingly rich in faith, hope and love that I begin to get nervous when there is a little dip in our storehouse of all the good things God has given us. My standards are very high. I forget that God created it all from nothing not too long ago.

It is, again, like Paul told the Corinthians:

“Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:26-30)

I totally relied on this wisdom from Paul when I came to Philadelphia. I am convicted today to keep walking in it. God is bigger than our capabilities and our critics. God is greater than our wonderful history and our sinfulness. God is hopeful because of our good track record and in spite of our mediocritizing.

If we live or die, as the church, Jesus is Lord. But I am sure we will live and God will cause the growth.  inside and out. Here are several reasons to believe that such a life is likely which come from just the people I talked to yesterday:

  • A man walked into our door last week looking to be restored to God after medicating his mental illness with drugs and alcohol. He is finding rest.
  • A man is overcoming his sin and the wreckage it has caused in his family and circle of friends.
  • A man is experiencing the fruit of his act of courage in taking risks to follow his truest calling and it has opened up the door to welcome God into the deep parts of his being.
  • A woman is celebrating how our church came through for her when her husband was jailed and is thankful that her own new faith sustained her.

God is causing the growth. Like Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like a seed that grows day and night and one can only be in awe of it, and never presume to cause it. We plant and water, but nothing will happen without God creating the environment in which it can flourish. And that is just what God does.

BTW — Today is Brigid of Kildare Day! I’m a fan.

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Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

Last Saturday, I kept running into hope and it made me cry.

  • As I rolled in to the Good Business Oversight Team summit, Pie Jesus came on my player right when I was thinking about the epidemic of heroin-induced deaths in our city and country. My grief over the loss of hope among the victims (and now their families!) made me a dangerous, vision-impaired driver!
  • Then I went to the Love Feast and felt the worship team and the covenant-makers stoking our hope as they expressed theirs – we were, in fact, a Circle of Hope. It made me weep with joy.
  • Before we went to bed, we tuned into Netflix and watched the last episode of season six of the most Christian TV show ever: Call the Midwife. The sweetness of their hope in the middle of a changing world and troubling family situations unleashed my own hope – and the tears.
hope
Click the pic if you want to see the scene

What a wonder it is that so many of us are drawn away and turn away from the death-dealing world and find God “right under our noses” so to speak. We’re often like Dorothy waking up from her vision and realizing her heart’s desire was in her own backyard all the time and among those who love her.

As Cynthia Bourgeault ends her book Mystical Hope she tries to sum up her profound teaching about finding hope right under our noses, while rolling down Washington Ave, and especially in the moments of love we give and receive. She is teaching us to find hope in a new way, not as an object of desire, but as the subject who is as near as a turn of heart. I am going to quote quite a bit of it for you:

“I have tried to suggest a new way of picturing hope. In this new positioning, the underlying sense of corporateness is physically real, the that ‘electromagnetic field of love’ is the Mercy – and the Mercy is the body of Christ. Through this body hope circulates as a lifeblood. It warms, it fills, it connects, it directs. It is the heart of our own life and the heart of all that lives.

Hope’s home is the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth. When our innermost being is attuned to this pulse it will send us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives. Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to. And yet when we enter it, it enters us and fills us with its own life – a quiet strength beyond anything we have ever known.

And since that strength is, in fact, a piece of God’s purposiveness coursing like sap through our own being, it will lead us in the right way. It sweeps us along in the greater flow of divine life as God moves – and in the western religions, God does move – toward the fulfillment of divine purpose which is the deeper, more intense, more subtle, more intimate revelation of the heart of God.”

Long before we know Jesus, we have had experiences of being swept up in the flow of God’s good purpose. This “quality of aliveness” was called “righteousness” in the Old Testament, as in Psalm 23: “He restores my soul; he guides me in the paths of righteousness.” Unlike how many people read that couplet, the psalmist did not mean we should stay within the lines of a moral template so we will succeed at building an ideal replica of God’s kingdom and be justified by it. The poet was reminding us we live in a Spirit-charged “force field” (as we might picture it), a force field in which everything we do must move in order to come to fruit. The inner and outer need to sync up: our souls are restored and our feet are guided; as Jesus says, we become good trees that bear good fruit; as Psalm 1 says, we are good trees planted by flowing streams of righteousness.

In the New Testament, Paul calls this territory “in Christ.” In Christ we find that quality of aliveness we need.

To [his saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ….I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving…For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. – Colossians 1:27-2:10

“Christ in us” and “us in Christ” is the Mercy, that place of assured understanding, that mystery that continues to unfold as we experience it in our hearts “encouraged and united in love.” Christ in us is the “hope of glory.” In Christ we come to “fullness.”

Paul sounds a lot like Cynthia Bourgeault as she piles up metaphors and viewpoints, circling in on the mystical hope she can feel better than describe. Her everyday way to “in Christ” is meditation that turns her in toward that golden kernel of her true self, protected and saved by God. In a somewhat seamless movement, that everyday prayer then turned her out to write her book, knowing that no self-giving love is wasted in the world, not on her and not on us, either. Our prayer, especially the prayer of meditation, is not only what saves us from the world, it is also the key thing we do to save the world. It is our way to hope, our way to become a circle of hope, and our way toward encircling others with hope.

I have enjoyed sharing these five posts inspired by Bourgeault’s book. I’d love to hear how your own prayer was encouraged or developed as a result. Let me know. If you missed one, I think you can find them all by searching for “Cynthia Bourgeault” with the search bar.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it

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For the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.

Last week about thirty of us slaves of Christ were doing some theology about Paul’s teaching in the New Testament and how it could inform how we think about our “social action.” The two-tiered idea we explored has proven helpful to many people so far. See it for yourself at the Way of Jesus blog.

One of the places where we could see Paul’s two-tiered thinking was when he related to slaves. In this day, when people are into the idolatry Trump preaches, in which young people are chained to their survival jobs and debt, when white supremacists are trying to re-enslave African Americans, and in which we are all tempted to bow in fear before the Tweeter-in-chief, we may need to think about freeing the slaves more consciously than ever.

Be small

First, if we want to get anything out of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, we have to remember that when he speaks to women, Gentiles and slaves seriously as members of the church, his respect is subversive. We often forget, as we turn our “imperial gaze” on the “others” who are minorities and marginalized, that Paul is writing as one of those “others.” He and his little groups of persecuted misfits are not speaking from a position of privilege and power. His view is small; he has become small; the people in his church plants are the “others” in their towns and villages. So he writes from “under” not “over.”

One of the first tasks in understanding him is to let go of any imperial outlook, the supposed privileges of being an American citizen, the protection of the huge military apparatus, etc., and become small enough to need a Savior, to act as a slave of Christ. Translators during the Reformation undermined our understanding when they decided that translating the common Greek word for “slave” as slave was too demeaning and tidied  things up by using the word servant  instead (which is a big difference). In Philippians 2:7, for instance, Paul describes Jesus as taking on the condition of a slave. It is much more realistic, isn’t it, to see how humankind oppresses Jesus than to see Jesus as serving up salvation to us as we decide whether we want it or not. In order to hear what Paul, the slave of Jesus, is teaching, we’ll have to get into his slavish shoes.

Slaving

Once in Paul’s shoes, we can see what he is talking about. His thoughts are a lot bigger than whether a person is going to gain social or political freedom. That achievement would be frosting on his hope cake. The cake is being freed from the need to be freed from what humans do to you and being a grateful slave to the salvation that Jesus is working into us. Here’s just one example of how he thinks:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – Colossians 3:23-4. That last clause should read: “It is for the Lord (master) Christ you are slaving.”

Everyone who is thoroughly trained in democratic equality and the centrality of human choice (the general God-free zone of Western thought these days) is likely to think those lines are heresy; it might even feel icky to read them, taboo. Slaving?! Paul has none of those qualms. He finds it an honor to be a slave in Christ’s house as opposed to being a ruler in a house of lies. God is a “master” beyond anything Hobbes, Rousseau or Ayn Rand could imagine.

The world in its present form is passing away

So when he goes on to talk to slaves, locked in their situation with masters, benign or despotic, Paul has a variety of options for them. His first tier thinking makes him completely free to do the best he can with what he’s got in the day to day, passing-away, fallen world. So he says to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord…. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.” — Colossians 3:22, 25

Elsewhere, of course, he advises slaves to get free if they can. And he tells Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a brother, or to just charge him whatever it costs to set him free.

There are no slaves in Christ. A slave in the world is God’s free person. A free person in the world is God’s slave. This is hard to translate for people who believe the delusion that law makes them free and rational rules and education will prevent suffering. Paul might respond to such ideas, as he did, and say, “Though I am blameless before the law, I am God’s prisoner, a lifelong felon freed by grace.” Similarly, no one works for human masters, we do whatever we do for the Lord. Even when oppressed, we experience the hope that we will have our reward and the oppressors will get theirs.

How do we take action?

So what do we do in the face of the oppressive masters beating down on us and the world? Pray harder, safe in our salvation? Absolutely. But that is not all. We are already taking action in many more ways. I think we summarize what we do well in our statement of our mission.

Loving the thirsty people of our fractured region,
we keep generating a new expression of the church
to resist and restore with those moved by the Holy Spirit.

We resist. I am Christ’s slave. That is a defiant statement of resistance. My existence is resistance. I will never be a slave to a human, no matter what one does to me: buy me, imprison me, or take away my livelihood. I will always belong to the Lord, forever. And, as Jesus demonstrates, in a very real sense, Jesus will belong to me forever. He has made Himself our slave.

We restore. I am an obedient slave. My work is well-ordered. Jesus is the Lord of all and we are making that known and effective, day by day. We restore by reorienting people’s identities to align with their salvation. We restore by relentlessly loving in the face of hate and indifference. We restore by telling the truth in the face of lies. We restore by sharing our resources and making peace. And, I think most important, we restore by practicing the kind of mutuality that creates an alternative community that is not allied with the powers that dig up the world and destroy connections between God and people like hurricanes blasting through our village.

Our existence is the fount of our resistance. We can only hope that the country will be put to right soon. But even if it isn’t, we know who we are and we know what to do.  Being knit together in the love of Jesus is more important than ever, isn’t it!

The Whitelash and This Year’s Thoughts about the Election

Van Jones said it was a whitelashVan Jones became my favorite CNN commentator during the election. I agree with his summation of what happened yesterday: “This was a rebellion against the elites, true. It was a complete reinvention of politics and polls, it’s true. But it was also something else. This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president in part, and that’s the part where the pain comes. And Donald Trump has a responsibility tonight to come out and reassure people that he is going to be the president of all the people who he insulted and offended and brushed aside.”

It was also a whitelash against the thought of woman president. And, unfortunately for any hope I have of evangelism, it was a whitelash against the “godless people who have taken over the government and the Supreme Court that aids and abets them.”

This was my Facebook summation last night: “OK. I voted. To paraphrase Paul on both his prophetic and practical sides: In Christ there is no Republican or Democrat; Jesus is Lord. In the voting booth I voted to bring as much justice as I could with my measly vote. Now back to the everyday transformative work we do…with joy.”

Friends, let’s get back to the reality that Jesus does not need the American government to do His work.  Let’s have confidence in the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let’s remember how Jesus told us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Let’s return to the mentality Paul taught us: “The time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not;  those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;  those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

I wrote a lot about the campaign, beginning back in May when Circle of Hope did some theology together about what elections mean to God. In retrospect, some of the basic teaching might be useful today as so many of us are trying to make sense of where we are now and what Jesus calls us to do.

Here are excerpts from seven blog posts. Hit the titles to take the link to each piece.

Oct 18 — The alternative to politics: take hold of that for which Jesus took hold of me

On the other hand, I am appalled that we are paying so much attention to two bonafide members of the one percent duking it out to be king or queen of the elite. Hillary Clinton is so cozy with the world’s domination system it would be surprising if she manages to see outside the bubble. The people at the top really think they own the world and need to take care of it. At least Donald Trump is generally despised among the elite as a brash idiot who can’t help opening the curtain and exposing all the secrets. We all tune in and suck up the illusion that we are not their slaves. Many people believe that one of them is somehow going to represent their interests.

debate vs hillary donald
Still my favorite GIF of the election.

Sep 27 — If someone puts the Geiger counter on you, stand in grace

I admit that Donald Trump made me pull my hair out last night — interrupting, bullying, talking about 400 pound people and other tabloid interests. It was kind of embarrassing.

But I also learned a bit about what people like about him. Here’s what I think: Everyone is becoming a bit sick of what I call “Geiger counter” accountability. What I mean is the feeling that some kind of powerful person or entity is holding a tester over you to pick up some tiny particle of being out of line. We’re always setting off the no-go alarm. We’re always getting the red notice that we have not filled out the inexplicable form properly (like I just experienced with a City of Philadelphia form). The Donald is just so splendidly incorrect, he gives us hope that a real person might be acceptable in reality. Hillary Clinton has somehow mastered so much material that she can actually function well in political unreality.

Sep 20 — I am sick of the campaign…but still alternative.

I get discouraged. But then the Holy Spirit revives my hope again. Sin happens every day – and will keep happening inside us and out. We’re sick. But our work in the Lord is not in vain. My wounds are not permanent. Our sins could not keep Jesus in the grave. I still know we are the alternative, and we need to be: a circle of hope wherever God takes us.

Jul 29 — About Hillary — we can do better

It is tempting to spend another four years hoping things will get better – and the government can and does makes things better, as it should. But we still don’t put our hope “in chariots and horses,” that is, in the capacity to threaten ISIS, the wealth to promise free education, or the exceptionalism of our supposed democracy. So let’s not fall into temptation. Someplace, Jesus needs a platform to speak the truth. Someplace, normal people need to struggle face to face in faith and do what they can do, not dependent on their corporate overlords to allow it. Someplace, the alternative to two years of vying to be the top dog has to be available. The church is the Lord’s people and we are, like it or not, the best hope of giving people real hope in a 46%-43% society. I think our witness has been drowned out by big money, big systems and our own complicity (in general). But Jesus is still making connections and is still using us. I’m with Him.

July 22 — About Trump — we can do better

I live among people who are not happy with Trump. But sometimes I think they are posturing, since they probably have a relative from the South or Middle Pennsylvania (or keeping quiet in Philly, at least) who thinks Trump is great. So they must have some sense of affinity with the guy. Don’t worry if you do or you don’t — It is crazy politics, people, but it is still just politics. And even if the election turns out to be a life and death matter for some people, we are still Jesus followers. Every election serves to remind us why we are glad to have a savior who triumphs over death. I don’t say that in a fatalistic way, just a realistic one. I know Americans think they can control everything so nothing bad will happen or happen again, but how many times does our control system need to be proven faulty until we give up on it?

May 9 — We have no king but Bernie?

I sent in my absentee ballot, but, I have to admit, I did not even pray about it.

That’s mainly because I remember the crowd Pilate drew to his rally during the Passover feast in Jerusalem when the powers that be infiltrated an audience that would normally have gone for Jesus (and had just a week before) and got people to use the system to get Barabbas off and Jesus crucified. When Pilate asked them, “Do you want me to crucify your king?” they shouted, “We have no other king but Caesar.” Sometimes crowds get it right; but I am not trusting the vote to fulfill my hopes. They might not recognize the Son of God if he were standing right in front of them!

We are going to do some theology about elections on May 2 because even radical Christians react to U.S. elections like they are crucial to justice and world peace. Many feel, even if they don’t act, like the president (and whoever those other elected officials are) is even important to their faith. There are a lot of good historical reasons for that attitude, which has almost no relation to anything happening in the Bible, certainly not in the life of Jesus. The feeling of importance is hard to shake off when you live in the most recent preeminent empire, which loves to call itself the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth (see Bernie’s website, linked above). Living in it makes you think, that even if the 1% effectively own the government, your vote is going to start a revolution, you are just that special.

May 5 — Elections: Constantine, Trump, etc.

The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.

John Howard Yoder said: “The most pertinent fact about the new state of things after Constantine and Augustine is not that Christians were no longer persecuted and began to be privileged, nor that emperors built churches and presided over ecumenical deliberations about the Trinity; what matters is that the two visible realities, church and world, were fused.” That is one reason Americans can spend two years electing the president. People think it is VERY important.

We need evangelized: 3 things that show it

evangelized rodents

Every day, I need evangelized. Like Paul said of Abraham, the faithful friend of God:

“He did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20-21).

I am also not wavering. But I need to be strengthened. I need to be fully persuaded that God has the power to do what he promises. This strengthening and persuasion happens every day.

To be honest, we, as a church, need to keep the spark of evangelism stoked among us and through us or we might “waver through unbelief” like Paul fears the Romans might waver (or why bring up Abraham, right?). If Paul looked over our church, he might be writing a letter to our leaders and to all of us when he saw the kinds of things we do rather than persuading people that God has the power to do what he promises through Jesus Christ.

Here are three things we tend to do these days that show we need evangelized — no judgment, just things to think and talk about.

We manage lovelessness

This week, all sorts of people are going to bring out the four horsemen in their relationships at home, in your cell and with the leaders. We are going to be tempted to manage the symptoms of their lovelessness rather than teach a better way. Rather than reconcile after our teaching causes conflict, we will be tempted to keep things calm by not confronting the life-sucking lack of love and keeping our mouths shut. We try to manage the lovelessness. This managing rarely succeeds and the territory of the loveless expands rather than stays in the boundaries we set. Basically, we spawn a dysfunctional family like that from which many of us came.

Continue reading We need evangelized: 3 things that show it

Planning: Let the Lord Make your Radical Steps Solid

We are about ready to distribute a spiffy, hard-copy version of our 2013 Map this weekend. We take our planning seriously. We set goals and (to our surprise!) tend to meet them. But don’t get us wrong. We don’t have a very deep commitment to strategic planning, as it is commonly practiced (as in, I don’t really understand the following chart).strategic plan chart

Some Christians actually think that if your church is not involved in some strategic plan you are being unbiblical. One article from the venerable Christianity Today said, not long ago, there is a mandate for strategic thinking in the Bible and they quoted Proverbs 16:9 as their proof: “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” I think they were interpreting that to mean, “If we plan, the Lord will make the plans happen” (Marshall, n.d.). But I think the proverb more likely teaches: “You can plan all you want, but if the Lord does not make your steps solid, your plans will come to nothing.”

The latter interpretation is more in line with how we map out the year. I admit, some of us wish we were much more adept at working together like a well-oiled machine according to a sensible, trackable, strategic plan. But we are not that adept. For instance, the pastors, have a 3-4 hour meeting every week that’s full of strategizing. But it is so long because a good hour of it, at least, is always devoted to sharing our hearts and developing one another. There is entirely too much laughter to allow for adept project management! We just can’t stop the love to make progress. Progress ends up “happening” in spite of our plans, sometimes.

How planning really works

That kind of planning for God to show up seems to be how Paul’s missions strategy really worked. If you want to talk about biblical strategizing, check out how the premier, most successful, strategist in the Bible worked out his plan. In the view of 21st century strategic planners, who take their cues from corporations, people say Paul focused on the major cities of the Mediterranean basin as his target for world evangelization and carefully worked out a well-considered plot to infiltrate the whole area. Well, I’m not sure about that. He got to the major cities, most of them, that’s true. But it seems like his strategy amounted, mostly, to taking the next opportunity that presented itself and then sticking with it until he, most of the time, got thrown out of town.

The Gangites River. Nearby, a marker commemorates the first baptism in Europe.
The Gangites River. Nearby, a marker commemorates the first baptism in Europe.

Take Philippi, for instance, this was Paul’s first stop on his leap into Europe, a leap occasioned by a vision in the night. Philippi was an important city which Augustus had refounded as a Roman colony and where he settled Italian colonists and veterans of the Praetorian cohort. Acts 16:13 reports that there was a Jewish synagogue (proseuchë, “place of prayer,” is a designation for Jewish meeting places) by the river Gangites, about a mile west of the city center. That’s where Paul met Lydia and things got going. But up-and-coming Amphipolis, which would have been the next port of call for Paul’s ship, probably would have been a more strategic place to start. Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lord and Savior of the world in Philippi risked hostile reactions from the beginning, since its citizens were staunch worshipers of the emperor and of his deified ancestors. A series of coins minted in Philippi shows on one side the head of the emperor Augustus with the inscription “the Augustan colony of Julian Philippi on the command of Augustus”; the reverse side depicts a statue of Augustus on a pedestal being crowned by Julius Caesar, with the inscription “Augustus, son of the Divine, for the Divine Julius” (Schnabel, 2007). The Philippians were pretty hard-core.

While Luke reports in some detail the conversion of Lydia, a God-fearing woman from Thyatira in Asia Minor who lived in Philippi and attended the synagogue (Acts 16:13-15), he focuses his history of the mission in the city on the opposition instigated by locals who initiated legal proceedings against Paul and Silas before the magistrates, which landed them in prison (Acts 16:16-40). The missionaries were accused of causing disturbances in the city and of “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20-21). This is where Paul’s strategy led him to get started on Europe.

We plan like Paul

It looks like God established Paul’s steps right to Philippi, good strategic thinking notwithstanding. Paul had his general orders to take the gospel to the gentiles, but it looks like he didn’t overly care how that happened. We are doing a similar piece of strategizing this year. One of our network goals starts with the general idea of who we need to be. We know that “We are incarnations of Jesus in our neighborhoods. We want to be people who are known for bringing the hope and justice of Jesus to the streets.” That’s a given. But we don’t mind how many different ways that happens.

We have an idea for how we can carry out our vision this year. So we have charged “our Coordinating Groups to connect with people and partnerships who already bless our neighborhoods.” We don’t really know exactly how these groups of cells will meet this goal, although I hear that a couple already have some good ideas. Our Map offers an assortment of suggestions for how we might meet our need by working on the goal: We could connect and partner with people among us who work with agencies in our neighborhoods. We could partner with other churches, agencies, and allies. We could mobilize the resources of the church to bless our neighbors.

The suggestions are purposely general, because we want the Lord to establish our steps. We want people to listen to the Spirit and to one another and to risk taking the opportunities they are given. We don’t need to be slaves to the strategic plan, fitting ourselves into holes predesigned by some piece of paper. We know what God wants us to do, and we trust that the Lord will work out the specifics. We are sure that our plans and agreements can only help in the process, but we certainly make them flexible enough to take our best shot when it is provided. If we fail, or get thrown out of town, that might make things even better! Read Paul’s letter to the Philippians from prison in Rome and you’ll understand his idea of strategy even better!

This one comes with references!
Schnabel, E. E. (2007). Paul’s urban strategies : Jerusalem to Crete. Stone-Campbell Journal, 10(2), 231-260.
Marshall, M. (n.d.) Is strategic planning biblical?: Looking at leaders from scripture. Christianity Today. Retrieved from http://www.buildingchurchleaders.com/articles/2003/le-031112a.html?start=2

What to Do with All I Want to Do

I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.  I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. — Philippians 4:12-13 (KJV)

American Christians have always loved this verse. In general, it has been interpreted to mean, “I can do anything I put my mind to because God will back me up.” What’s more, “You should stop whining, trust God, and get out there and make it all better. It’s up to you and your faith.” That’s the R. Kelly version.

It is a nice one-liner and a good verse for beginning memorizers. But it is a heavy burden to place on someone if they don’t know that Paul is under house arrest when he writes it and probably never leaves Rome again. His lesson is, “Even though I can’t fly and my mission ambitions are on hold, I’m OK. Even though I am dependent on others and am suffering in many ways, I have learned to let that be and let God strengthen me.”

I have a strong streak of “can do” in me. Lately, it has been running up against “can’t.” So I have been looking at my three basic relationships, in Christ, and needing to learn Paul’s lesson again.

Let God be the center.

My relationship with God is top priority. Everything around me changes, but God and I have a place where we live that is eternal. I need to let that be. Right now, I am kind of preoccupied with

  • people moving,
  • marriages beginning and trying not to end,
  • children being born and growing,
  • the next leaders, next pastors, next congregations,
  • how our mission is to “greater Center City” that is now considered to be at Tasker,
  • drones, income disparity, identity politics.

I’ve got to do something! I can. But not unless God gives me strength. And when I can’t, my despair could be overwhelming unless God gives me strength. I need to rest in that central place where God and I live, which I carry with me as I encounter a challenging world.

Let the body of Christ work.

My second main relationship is with others in the body of Christ. I am part of it. It is good to know that all I am called to do is not dependent on my one, limited body doing them all. Jesus has a body and it is all of us.

Rachel and I were excited about doing the Midsummer Night party that happened last night and about getting our new “living room” together as part of that. We were worried that no one was coming. We had to just let it be. The body is going to do what it decides to do. People have faith; they will express what they are given. I can encourage and catalyze that expression, but I can’t make it happen. It is a miracle that faith, hope and love happen at all! I need to appreciate what is, not feel responsible for what isn’t mine to do on my own.

Let God go before us.

It seems strange that I would try to butt in front of God and lead him around in my mission to the world. But I do that. I get excited about my relationships with the faithless and needy of the world and sometimes seem to think I am the Creator. I always need to remember that God is already present wherever I think to show up.

I think about showing up every day!

  • I want to help create new businesses to create jobs.
  • I want to have a bank to free us from financial predators.
  • I want to connect with atomized people walking by in headphones.
  • I want a peacemaking community to undermine the war machine.
  • I want a thriving counseling center, new missionaries, further relief workers, school reformers, racial reconcilers.

There is a lot to do! And that is just the beginning. If I am in charge of all that, the gospel is in trouble. But God is obviously at work in so many ways! Good is done. Jesus is honored even in a society in which the elites have kicked God out of their prevailing philosophy.

In each of my three basic Christian relationships – with God, with the body of Christ and with the hungry world, I need to let God be the one who is and was and is to come. As a result, I can do all those things I am compelled to do, as who I am given to be, with the strength I have been given to act. I can do all I have been given through Christ, who strengthens me, as part of the body, as one who delights in seeing God going before me in every place I stick my toe into his ocean of grace.

Lessons in Spiritual Depth from Paul: Wait, worship, listen

I have received a lot of mentoring from the Apostle Paul — from my first real reading of the New Testament as a teenager, I felt a deep kinship with him. My thought was then, and still is, that, “If Paul can do it, so can I.” He is so obviously a real guy, with all his gifts and limitations in action. He has a personality that shows through. And God uses him.

Oldest image of Paul, 4th C., From Catacomb of St. Thekla in Rome

I look at the accounts of Paul in Acts and what he writes in his letters like a story about an action hero. He is such a persuasive teacher and a courageous missionary! He is so dramatic that it is easy to overlook the quieter, interior qualities that are basic to making him so influential.

I have learned a lot from Paul about how to deepen my relationship with God by learning to wait, listening in prayer, and moving with the promptings of the Spirit.  I felt like doing this little study to prove that he really was that kind of spiritual guy. It seems that, for most people who read his letters, Paul is all about principles, morality and preaching. He is primarily a great  example of an evangelist and church planter. But what about the quiet side? Is he ever silent? How does he get his direction? There are some hints about his personal relationship with God in the New Testament record. I want to list some main ones to encourage us all to move with the “regular guy” Paul as we attempt our own expression of our faith in this era of the world.

Waiting

Paul was cooling it in his home town after he escaped Jerusalem. It is important to learn how to wait.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. Acts 11:25-6

After his conversion Paul spent “many days” with the disciples in Damascus. The “scales” coming off his eyes also had to do with unlearning his passionate Jewish activism, and no doubt had to do with a major interior change. It took time. In Galatians he gives a more complete timeline:

But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. Galatians 1:15-18

The timelines in the Bible are hard to put in order, since that is not the interest of the writers. But this at least implies that Paul spent a significant time in the desert after his conversion. He apparently had a sojourn like Jesus, being confronted and purged by God’s Spirit in preparation for his major role in building the kingdom.

Paul had significant times of waiting throughout his ministry and he used them. Many of them were the times he was in prison. He spent two years awaiting trial, at one point.

As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison. Acts 24:25-27

Martin Luther King did well with his imprisonment, too. We may face that ourselves, one day. Until then, we wait in all sorts of other ways – imprisoned in our jobs, or on the Schuylkill. It is good preparation time, if we use it to be with God.

Worshipping

Paul got direction by receiving it from the body as they received it from the Holy Spirit during times of worship and prayer.

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3

If we have worried about our spiritual development at all, so many of us have spent our days interpreting spiritual material and applying the logic we concoct. As a result we often have little idea of what the writers of the Bible were doing to receive the material we are interpreting! They obviously spent a lot of intense time in prayer getting direction for what they were going to do. From the way Paul writes his letters, it might sound like Christians should all be articulate theorists. But he is obviously a lot more than that. His applications are resting on the foundation of his experience of Christ in his body.

Listening

Paul developed the ability, as have so many after him, to listen to the Spirit of God in any number of ways. Somehow the Spirit prevents him from doing one thing and directs him to do another.

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6-10

The boiled-down “science for the masses” we have all learned has made us very suspicious about spiritual promptings and visions. (And Paul tells us to test them well, himself). Combined with the excesses of the Pentecostal movement, so often portrayed in living color on TV, we end up tempted not to listen to the Spirit at all. So our own directability is pretty much nil. Meanwhile Paul is remembering his experiences of revelation as foundational to all he does and says:

I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 2 Corinthians 12:1-5

He had a great experience of hearing from God fourteen years before he was writing, but he was still talking about it. He had regular experiences of being directed that his companions wrote about. I think that teaches me to stop and listen.

God still needs deep people. We have a lot of reasons why we are not developing into deep people. And we really have a lot of reasons why we are not going to follow the spiritual promptings we do receive. But one excuse we should never use is that such depth is beyond us. The wild movement of God’s Spirit is for regular people, like the Apostle Paul.

God causes the growth

God causes the growth

I am moved to hang on to some basic teaching today.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

This morning, as I listened to God and prayed for the church, I took heart in in Paul’s teaching. He laments the deep problems in the church in Corinth, where he had spent so much time laboring and loving. They shocked people with their immorality. They divided up the church in factions. They had a strong contingent who thought they were spectacular, and better than Paul, their father in the faith. Some of them re-thought the gospel to reflect themselves rather than Jesus.

Some days, I look out over my beloved community of Circle of Hope and am tempted to lament. I just see the holes in the Swiss cheese. It is not a nourishing practice. Today God saved me from that by reminding me of what he has done, which is what he is likely to do again. Circle of Hope is so astoundingly rich in faith, hope and love that I begin to get nervous when there is a little dip in our storehouse of all the good things God has given us. My standards are very high. I forget that God created it all from nothing not too long ago.

It is, again, like Paul told the Corinthians:

“Think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:26-30)

I totally relied on this wisdom from Paul when I came to Philadelphia. I am convicted today to keep walking in it. God is bigger than our capabilities and our critics. God is greater than our wonderful history and our sinfulness. God is hopeful because of our good track record and in spite of our mediocritizing.

If we live or die, as the church, Jesus is Lord. But I am sure we will live and God will cause the growth. Here are several reasons to believe that such a life is likely which come from just the people I talked to yesterday:

  • A man walked into our door last week looking to be restored to God after medicating his mental illness with drugs and alcohol. He is finding rest.
  • A man is overcoming his sin and the wreckage it has caused in his family and circle of friends.
  • A man is experiencing the fruit of his act of courage in taking risks to follow his truest calling and it has opened up the door to welcome God into the deep parts of his being.
  • A woman is celebrating how our church came through for her when her husband was jailed and is thankful that her own new faith sustained her.

God is causing the growth. Like Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like a seed that grows day and night and one can only be in awe of it, not cause it. We plant and water, but nothing will happen without God creating the environment in which it can flourish. And that is just what God does.