He Who Not Against Us

It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and the reason is what it always is: I’ve been busy. But this time it’s not been the usual, normal busy. It’s been mind-numbingly busy. And in the midst of that, I’ve had help come from the most unlikely of sources. Which got me to thinking about the words in the title of this blog post:

“He who is not against us is for us.”

You might be saying, “Wait, is that right? Isn’t the correct quote ‘He who is not for us is against us.’?” Well, in fact Jesus said both. But to look at Christian culture lately you might think He only said the later quote. I often feel like Christianity becomes more about what (and who) we are against, rather than what (and who) we are for. We define ourselves by what group we perceive as our enemies, and then further define ourselves by the things we oppose in that group. But if we are, in fact, supposed to be following the revolutionary statement “Love your enemies,” then who can we really consider our enemies? We can become so bent on showing ourselves right, that we make enemies where there need not be any.

Another quote came to me this morning, and woke me up to write (it’s 5:30 am as I write). I was thinking about help coming from unlikely sources, and I thought of this other thing Jesus said:

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

When I lived in China doing nonprofit work there was a lot of suspicion of the motives of foreign nonprofits by the government, but amazing help sometimes came from the most “unlikely” sources. Sometimes it was the most hard-drinking, cynical, communist party cadres that would open doors for us. Sometimes people who we most assumed would be “against us” were in fact “for us.”

Here’s another thought to build on the last, when Jesus was questioned about when the kingdom of God was coming (at some time in the future), He answered another revolutionary statement:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

So this kingdom of God that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering wasn’t some far off pie-in-the-sky place, it was a current reality. And actually (to be a language geek for a minute) the verb tense used in the passage in the original language was present tense as is correctly indicated by the translation “are entering.” So what I believe Jesus was saying was not “the prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom, and you will not.” But rather He was saying, “As we are sitting here, and you are criticizing these prostitutes and tax gatherers, they are acting in ways that allow them to enter the present reality of the kingdom of God now. They are experiencing it, while you are not.” In other words, in the act of experiencing Jesus and in experiencing the love and truth of God through the person of Jesus, these outcasts were “entering the kingdom.” Thus the outcasts were proceeding the criticizers into the kingdom of God.

So, as I meditate early this morning on the kindness and compassion I see expressed in most unexpected quarters, I want to say:

Truly I tell you, the cross-dressers, unemployed, homeless, gays, liberals and yes even the atheists are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.

I’m seeing some of them in the present moment experience and respond to the love of God (maybe either realizing or not realizing that it is the love of God), while some of those who profess to know God are full of vengeance, bitterness and anger. Everything has become about what is hated, and we’ve forgotten to love.

Let us return. Let us return to patience and kindness. Let us forsake jealousy, bragging and arrogance. Let us stop seeking our own – our own lives, our own perspectives, our own views. Let us return to forgiveness. Let us hate injustice, while we embrace truth. Let us return to faith and hope for our fellow man, and enduring patience when considering their many flaws (knowing our flaws too are many). In short, let us return to Love.

Botany

the flowers of the field

the Flowers of the Field (c) 2007 muddart

“And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!” – Matthew 6:28-30

In my last post I wrote about the “birds of the air” and how in the original language, the passage has the idea  of fixedly observing the birds, as contrasted with casual observation.  I then considered whether Jesus might have been  speaking more than rhetorically, and actually suggesting that his hearers go out and intently observe the birds.

But he did not stop there.  In the passage above, the word translated as “observe” likewise is not a casual observation, but has a fuller definition of “to learn thoroughly.”  From a literary perspective, such compelling language, used in a parallel structure, strongly suggests that Jesus was indeed urging his hearers to go and personally take time to meditate upon the birds and how they live and eat, and upon the flowers and how they grow and flourish.  How do they accomplish what they do?  How do they do their amazing feats?

In the observation of these things the answer is hidden on how to not be worried or anxious or stressed about this life and all its most important concerns.

Have you ever taken some time to carefully study the birds and flowers in light of these questions?  What did you learn?  If you never have, why not try it?  Let me know what you find out.

Bird Watching

birds of the air

The Birds of the Air – (c) 1999 Muddart

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? – Matthew 6:25-27

Recently, I came to the conclusion that this passage and its context could easily be studied for a lifetime.  I myself have been  meditating rather intently on it for a number of years now, and I continue to find greater depths to its underlying meaning.

It began some years ago when I was going through a long period of very tight cash flow.   Every payday, when I had to figure out how I was going to make a little money go a long way, I would sit down with this passage to try to quiet my soul and get peace in the midst of uncertainty about the future.  I learned a lot of things both from these verses and the ones that follow them.

Did you know, for instance, the Greek word that is translated as “look” in this passage actually means to “observe fixedly?”   Or that there are other Greek words used elsewhere to denote more casual observation? When I discovered that this was the literal meaning, it got me thinking: maybe Jesus wasn’t speaking rhetorically, maybe he was actually suggesting to his disciples to go and intently observe the birds.  Maybe he was telling them, and me as well, that if we went and carefully observed the birds we would learn something about how not to worry, and how instead to trust God to supply our needs.  Have you ever meditated on the birds of the air?  What did you learn?  If you never have, it’s worth the try.

Love vs. Ideology: What Motivates Us To Gather?

“If I… can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, … but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)

Recently, my husband and I set out to do something very simple: open our home to friends and family weekly for a meal. The meals would be simple ones that we could make a lot of and keep warm, which in turn would allow people to come when they could and would accommodate whoever happened to show up. While we have kept our hearts open to where this may lead, our idea was not to have some sort of “church meeting” but rather to create a place of community, hospitality and love where all were welcome.

This gathering is really a very small beginning, and we are learning about how to create a place of community, and have much to learn, but very quickly it went from simple to complex. I don’t wish to go into details, but much of the complexity came from the thought that we should do certain things, otherwise our gathering was invalid. Without sharing any details, I wrote to some friends that I felt as if “a whole pile of religious obligation was being laid on my doorstep.” And may I say, lest any jump to quick conclusions, that the religious obligation was not “institutional” in nature, that is not related to the “institutionalization” of church life, but part of common teachings about how house churches should function. And the ideas themselves were not bad ones, but several questions arise in my heart from them, such as: What motivates us to gather? What informs the form that our gatherings take? How do we know when we really get it right?

What strikes me is that much of the rhetoric around so-called “organic” or “New Testament house church” meetings becomes about doing it “right,” “according to the Biblical pattern,” etc. I think this is laudable to desire something that mirrors the 1st century church, and is biblical. But a focus on the “the right way” becomes an ideology, and even if our form is precisely what the 1st century believers did, if that’s as far as it goes, it will be all wrong. These men and women were remarkable. They “turned the world upside down,” and indeed changed history. But I fear sometimes in our zeal to have what is “biblical” we put the cart before the horse.  For instance, we can be so bent on having a meeting where “everyone has a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation…” etc. (1 Cor 14:26), that we miss the point of why Paul was writing about these things, which is found in 1 Corinthians 13. Over and over again, in scriptures it is emphasized that the aim is love. Love for God, love for one another, and love for the people of the earth. I have deep and high regard for the Bible, but our understanding of its teachings will only be complete when our starting place and our goal is our desire to love as Jesus loved.

The thing is we tend to speak of love as a kind of an add-on. We emphasize many other things, and then as an afterthought we say, “and yes, love is important too.” In the body of Christ when we try to emulate the 1st century church, we focus on form, structure, church government, modern day apostles, discipleship, groups of 12 (G12), cell groups, house churches, the gifts of the Spirit, church planting strategy, etc, and then because we know we should, we say, “and of course we need to love too…” And if anyone brings up the importance of love, there will be all kinds of ways to get off that subject, and back onto the important subjects like “What was the structure of the biblical new testament church?” or “What is the biblical strategy for planting churches?” or “What does a New Testament gathering look like?” All these are indeed important, but if we have not love…

When I wrote these things to some co-workers, one of them, wrote back the following:

“…the simple things are most often neglected while often being the most significant and profound. No planning, special gifts or strategy is needed, it’s something that every person can do, no matter their physical or mental condition.”

He then wrote about his sister Joy, who was severely handicapped from birth and was not able to walk, speak much, or to be easily understood when she did speak, and yet Joy had an amazing and deep ability to love everyone.

And this may be precisely why we prefer to focus on something else.  Simplicity does not appeal to our spiritual pride. We want to feel we have something that no one else can do, that we have fathomed some deep mystery which others have yet to see, but to have God tell us to do something that a child can do, or a mentally handicapped person… Well, that just isn’t good enough. We will do all the extremely dramatic things such as “surrendering our body to the flames” or “giving all our possessions to the poor” or “moving mountains” with our faith rather than do that simple thing of loving our neighbor. This we brush aside. All the while not really appreciating that truly loving as God loves is more difficult and more powerful than even the most awe-inspiring miracle. When Jesus said “as I have loved you, so you too ought to love one another” He was asking us to do the impossible. The impossible. We need this to sink deep down into our spirits.  I believe sometimes the weak are better at this precisely because they know they are weak — they are used to depending on God, and so His love flows more freely. He wants to bring us to the same point of realization of our weakness as He brought the disciples to in the days after His death. When we realize we are completely incapable of what He is asking of us, we will cry out to Him, and in that day, He will answer.

I wrote another essay titled “Only Love Can See.” I believe this is a key principle in understanding New Testament church life. The band of misfits who birthed the first church didn’t know how the church would be administered; they didn’t know they would meet in houses; they didn’t know even what it meant to be an apostle (except that it meant ‘to be sent”); they only knew Jesus, and His love, and that He had asked them to do the impossible: to love Him and one another with the same kind of love that He had loved them (alarming!). This is why I believe they waited for the Holy Spirit, and when they received Him, they were empowered to love. All strategy, all form, all structure, all administration, and all miracles — all flowed out of this love. Yet, we still think we can emulate the 1st century church form and what we see of their strategy and we will experience first century church life. We cannot. It is only love that gives us eyes to see the intent behind these things. We must start with love, and love must also be our aim. Anything short of that is nothing.

Let’s Start a Grassroots Revolution of Love!

Beautiful does not always mean the big and the “spectacular.” Beauty is also found in the small and “insignificant” places that others might walk by and never notice.

Recently I was reading this blog post entitled “a letter from an exhausted/exasperated young person who has a complicated love/hate relationship with the church” by a blogger named Ron.  As I was reading, I started thinking about the many people I’ve talked to and  blogged with who have experienced similar frustrations to Ron.  What hit me as I was reading is the the theme I hear again and again, which is people looking for authentic, genuine community.  Ron speaking of his own generation put it this way:

 ..there are a couple things young people simply won’t tolerate. They will not put up with what they deem to be a lack of community and/or authenticity, and they will not abide anything that appears to simply be going through the motions or the semblance of just being part of some spiritual/religious club. They aren’t interested in towing the party line that has no bearing on their social and cultural experiences.  And–most terrifying to previous generations–they aren’t threatened by threats of “It has to be this way or nothing at all.”

Why?

Because this is a generation of self-starters and micro-entrepreneurship. They have no problem whatsoever starting up their own things. And they have been. And they are. And they will continue to do so.

[Note: I encourage reading the entire blog here.]
 This particular passage got me to thinking about a theme I’ve been ruminating on  for some years, the whole idea of grassroots movements.  The term grassroots is a fascinating metaphor if one thinks about it.  It is a picture of something working and spreading beneath the surface and below notice.  We don’t need anyone’s permission to love one another, and we don’t have to have an established “institution” to create a place of community.  Actually to be the Church, it appears we only need two or three to gather in His name, so there is no reason not to start a counter culture movement of love and community.  In fact, it seems to me that a grassroots movement is already underway of people who have gotten worn out by dead religion, and want to really experience the kind of life that Jesus, Paul, James, Peter and others talked about.
So, let’s just do it!  Let’s just decide that we are going to live this way even if we can only find one or two other people who want to live in authentic community with us (“two or three… in My name”).  Not saying it will be easy, because learning to love isn’t as easy as we like to think (even our closest friends and loved ones do stupid things that make them hard to love at times, and, dare I say it… so do we).  But that being said, and drawing on the same illustration as Ron did in his blog, we can decide to be Joshuas and Calebs, who saw the same giants that the other 10 spies saw, and yet were able to believe that they could enter the Promised Land.  We too have a Promised Land: a land described in John 15, 1 Cor 13, 1 John 2, Hebrews 10:22-25, John 17, and many other places.


“We are surely able to take possession of it!”

“Only Love Can See”

People say love is blind, and there is an element of truth to that.  I think of the verse that says “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  But so often when the expression “love is blind” is used I think we are talking about infatuation.  Infatuation is blind.  But Love?  Love is not blind.  It is, in fact, the only force in the universe that enables us to see.

For the past couple years, I’ve been part of a small fellowship.  We’re kind of an oddity.  We’re small, and we meet like a home fellowship, but we ended up in possession (though no effort of our own) of this 182 year old church meeting house, built in 1829.  We were all somewhat puzzled.  We knew we didn’t need it, but the circumstances that brought it into our possession made us feel we had it for a purpose.  So, we met there, and kept asking the Lord “why do we have this?”  Some “meet-in-houses-only” Christians at times explored meeting with us, but the fact that we were meeting in a “church building” really was this huge stumbling stone, and so our meeting together with them never materialized.

I myself, before joining this little fellowship, found myself increasingly of that camp.  I felt so much of “building campaigns” and the like were a waste of time and money and were focused on things rather than relationships. I was increasingly of the mindset that homes were the the only model of church life that really would produce the kind of vibrant community of love that one sees at the end of the second chapter of Acts, one where people were loving each other so much that they were selling their possessions to help those among them who were in need.

But this little fellowship messed with my ideas.  I started going there because I had some old friends who were there, including the leader of the group, Craig.  I really wasn’t planning on being a part of them, but the first day I came, I remember feeling so at home just to worship with them, and I found myself being continually drawn back.  The group was in transition at that time, which meant a number of people left, but the smaller we got the more real we got with one another, and we transitioned from Craig sitting on a stool up front, to turning around the pews in a circle, to finally all sitting in a circle in the back of the room.  That was when we got puzzled.  Five or six people sitting in a circle in a vacant building.  Why not meet in a home?  Some of you reading this, maybe have the same question.  But, I now believe God allowed it to intentionally challenge my ideas.  I was so sure I knew what the “right” model was, and it was as if he was saying to me: “You’re missing the point.”

When I first arrived at this little fellowship, Craig was leading a discussion weekly on John 15, and though we have certainly had many discussions on many other books, chapters and verses since then, there is a sense that we haven’t left that chapter.  It’s helpful to understand this chapter by viewing it from the point of view of Jesus’ humanity.  He knew he was preparing to face an excruciatingly painful death.  When people are facing death, they tend to focus on the most key, most important things.  So what was on Jesus’ mind as he faced his imminent demise? In a word, Love.  If he had one parting word, one parting thought, it was that they love one another.  Yes, he said “keep my commands”, but then if there was any doubt as to what he meant, he said “This is my command: love one another.”

I wrote about this in an earlier essay on this blog.  There, I spoke of my reflections on Judas, and how heart-breaking it must have been to the other disciples to realize they were unaware of what was going on inside of him.  Only Jesus had known.  Why had he known?  Because he loved even Judas.  The disciples, by contrast, in those last moments when Jesus was pouring out his heart, still had not really learned to love one another.  They were still vying over who was better than the other, and because of all their jockeying for position, they were blind to what was happening right in front of their eyes.  Only love can see.

And how did Jesus know that the Pharisees were plotting to kill him?  Was it because he was just so wise in the wisdom of this world?  So often we read his words to them – the “eight woes” they are often called – and we hear the way we might say those words.  For years, I sort of heard Jesus saying “You guys are real jerks.  I really don’t care for you very much.”  But slowly as the Lord loved me in my own moments of hypocrisy (play-acting, pretending), I realized his tone of voice, even then, even in those eight woes, was far different than I had ever imagined.  Now when I read those eight woes, I hear a gentle, loving, chiding voice, pleading with everything in His power for them to see themselves, and cease from their destructive murderous behavior.  Was he serious?  Dead serious.  He knew how terribly harmful their behavior was, but his viewpoint was absolute and complete love.  It was for this reason that Paul the apostle, who was a self-proclaimed “pharisee of pharisees” could write “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

“You’re missing the point.”  Yes, I had been missing the point.  Where I met with other believers was not the point.  No more than the many things the pharisees brought up were the point – whether or not you wash your hands before eating, whether or not you fast, whether or not you consider picking stalks of grain to be “breaking the sabbath.” All these things missed the point.  The point, the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was Love.  Love God.  Love one another.  Love your enemies.  Far from making us blind, Love, true agape love, gives us eyes to see.

Love Practically: the Dynamics of Heart Opening

Authors note: another unpublished post from the past.  This one was drafted November 24, 2009, but never published.  As I read it over, I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t published it.  Only made minor modifications.

About a week ago, I had this experience.  I was having an interaction with someone, and in the middle of the interaction I heard the Spirit of God speaking quietly into my own spirit “Will you open your heart to this person?”  The interesting thing was I wasn’t aware of my heart being closed.  The person was someone I liked, enjoyed spending time with and considered a dear friend.  I would have expected such a question if faced with someone whose need overwhelmed me, but though like all of humankind this person had needs,  I didn’t feel overwhelmed by their need or like they were asking something of me that I wasn’t willing to give.  So, the case was not one that I would have expected a challenge to open my heart.

Yet as I heard this question whispering gently in my heart, I knew my heart was not fully open.  So, I made a conscious effort to open my heart.  Two amazing things ensued.  Not immediately, but sometime later, the person opened their heart more fully to me.  No “deep dark secrets”, but sharing important stuff — questions, thoughts, hopes, longings.  And the second thing was later that evening at home alone, I found myself drawn into the presence of God, and experienced His heart opening up and pouring out to me, and I was suddenly amazed to realize my heart was more open to God.

The experience gave me a deeper revelation of what I already knew, which is if I open my heart to my brother and my sister, I open my heart to the Lord.  An open heart is an open heart and a closed heart is a closed heart.  I can’t decide to open my heart to God, and not open it to my fellow man, and I can’t decide to close my heart to one without closing my heart to the other either (1 John 4:7-8, 1 John 3:17).

But the experience held another lesson as well.  I’ve thought about it and prayed about it in the days that have passed since.  God was asking me to open my heart to much much more than simply human need.  I think before now I’ve always linked opening my heart to other people to opening my heart to their need, and yes, that is a part, but if I only open my heart to the need of the person in front of me I have still not opened my heart to the person themselves.  The Lord is asking of me so much more: to open my heart to the fullness of the mystery of that person.  It is written that we are created in the image of God.  This God is an infinite, eternal God.  In the image of this God we are created! Wow, what an amazing thought!  Each person is intricately and amazingly made, and yet so often when we open our hearts only to our own image of that person, only to our expectations of them, only to our thoughts of what they can do for us, even if it’s only making us feel better about ourselves for helping them.  But what would it mean to open our hearts fully to the person themselves, to the things that make them fully human — for instance their creativity, their free will.  To open my heart to someone with a free will, either God or man, means to open my heart to a mystery.