Monday, 2 November 2015

Goose Theology and the Sermon on the Mount

One thing that never ceases to amaze me, and that I’ve pondered on many an occasion, is this rat race that we call life. Why is it that, of all God’s creation, that those who were created in His image, seem to wrestle with trusting Him with their daily provision and sustenance more than any other creature? Those of us, to whom God has promised to never leave nor forsake, to whom God loved so much that He gave His only begotten Son, to whom all the promises of the Scriptures were made, fret and worry about tomorrow like no other creature in all of creation. Does that not seem strange to you?

Maybe the animal kingdom does worry too in some way and in accordance with their mental abilities to comprehend; I don’t know. I recently read a book by Cesar Millan (from TV’s ‘The Dog Whisperer’) in which he said that dogs live for the “now.” They may have some negative memory of past events, such as an encounter with a bicyclist, but there is no concern with what may or may not happen tomorrow; their lives center on the “now.” However, if some animals do stress out and worry in some way or another, they still seem more relaxed than we humans typically do. Have you ever noticed that?

Lately I’ve been meditating again upon something Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. Unless you’re new to Christianity, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. He said,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. 
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6: 24-34; NIV)

As I reflected on that, I also found myself thinking of all the rat-race stress that so many of us find ourselves in, and wondered why we even tolerate it. Oh, I know why we do it: there’s lifestyle choices, there’s providing for families, sometimes it’s a case of keeping up with the proverbial Jones’, and the realization that sooner or later we had better be building our retirement nest eggs, etc., etc., etc. Basically our societal mores and values dictate that this is the way we do life in the western world. But is that where our primary focus should be? Jesus said, “the pagans run after these things” and those who worry about them He called people of “little faith.” Does that mean that I’m being “pagan,” or “pagan-like,” when I do likewise? Do I only have a “little faith,” as opposed to one a little bigger? Am I serving money? Perhaps so, and especially if doing so trumps first seeking his kingdom and his righteousness. But then again, if I’m serving money, then Jesus says that I cannot at the same time be serving God. Or am I missing something here?

I was chatting with a friend of mine who many years ago used to be a Roman Catholic priest. As it turned out he had wrestled with similar questions in the past and came to the conclusion that, no matter how society prioritized what they deemed as important, he would stick to his own priority list. He had five groupings in which he put his life’s activities and values. Rated from most important to least important, they are: (1) God, (2) Spouse, (3) Personal Health, (4) Rest of Family, (5) Job/Career. Some might argue that priority order, but the more I think about it, the more I think that he hit it right on the mark.

He argued that where we often find ourselves getting into trouble is when we mix up that priority. What many of us often tend to do, and it seems like many employers expect that we do, is to place the Job/Career grouping into the number (1) category (God’s category). Sure, the employer’s catch phrase is often “Life-Job Balance,” but whose standard are they measuring that balance by? No doubt it’s by their standard. And it is there that we often tend to worry; if I insist on my priority list over my employers, I could soon find myself looking for a new job. But even there, I believe that Jesus would say to us, “Why do you worry?

In the same way, if my relationship with my wife is in it’s wrong priority slot, my marriage will suffer for it. If I do not place her higher than even my own physical and/or mental health, I’ve probably violated my marriage vows to her. My friend confessed that until he rectified that in his own life, he too struggled with that section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we looked at above. Perhaps I too have allowed my priorities to get a little screwed up and need to revisit my own priority list. Perhaps we all do.

I thought about all these things as I walked my dog around a neighborhood lake, and then paused to look at the geese just taking it easy there in the water. Did they know something that apparently many of us have forgotten (assuming that we ever really knew it in the first place)? Unlike many of us, they certainly didn’t seem stressed or burned out. Perhaps, not having to deal with serving money, serving and trusting God comes more natural to them. Dinner would present itself at just the right time, and in just the right place. Likewise, a place to nest and bed down for the night will be found when it’s needed. God would see to it. Perhaps the lesson of the geese is that they really know that it is our heavenly Father who feeds and cares for them, and they instinctively know how to rest in that. Is there a lesson in that for us too? Hmm, I wonder.

For further reflection:

  • Despite often giving lip service to the contrary, and if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, do Christians still tend to “serve two masters?”
  • How much do we really worry about tomorrow? Is that reflected in where we’ve placed our jobs/careers on our priority lists?
  • What do you make of Jesus’ reference that it is “pagans” who worry about these things, and when Christians do so, it is a sign that theirs is only a “little faith?”
  • Though the animal kingdom still has to “work” for its food too (hunting, foraging etc.), do you think that they somehow trust God in it better than most humans do? If so, why do you think that is?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Chasing Francis: A Book Review

Of all the books I’ve read over the past couple years, the one that has had the most profound effect on me is this one: Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale by Ian Morgan Cron. It is a historical/fiction that tells the tale of Chase Falson, a New England mega-church pastor who suddenly finds himself in the position of questioning his faith; his faith in God, his evangelicalism, and even the Bible itself. When his world and the church he was the founding pastor of began to unravel, the elders told him to take some time off and go away for a while. After calling his uncle Kenny, a former conservative Baptist who converted to Catholicism and then went on to become a Franciscan priest (an interesting journey to say the least), Chase takes him up on his invitation to go visit him in Italy for a while.

While in Italy, Kenny some other Franciscan Friars take Chase on a spiritual pilgrimage in which they retrace the steps of Saint Francis of Assisi. Though dead for over 800 years, Chase soon learns that the Middle Ages of Saint Francis was not that dissimilar to his own in that both were an age of transition and people were fed up with the old way of following Jesus. Francis lived in the gap between the Middle Ages and the pre-Renaissance, which was the early days of modernity; Chase lived in the gap between modernity and post-modernity. People from both eras felt anxiety from living in a rapidly changing society in which the church was progressively seen as having become irrelevant. Both were looking for fresh new and relevant ways to follow Jesus.

When I received this book as a Christmas present in 2013, I couldn’t put it down. Before I knew it, I had read it through twice; the second time with pen in hand, as I so often do, underlining and jotting notes in the margin. The book circulated to a few others to read and then found its way back to me for a recent third reading.

Why such an interest? I’m not Roman Catholic; while I once did, I no longer even call myself Evangelical; nor am I liberal in my theology. What spoke to me the loudest was that in many ways, the story of Chase Falson is also my story. No, I didn’t go on a spiritual pilgrimage to Italy, although as a youngster travelling with my family, I have been to that fascinating country. What spoke to me was that I too was once a senior pastor, albeit of a smaller church, who became disillusioned with the church and asked many similar questions. I too wondered if this was all there is, as evidenced by such early blog posts as If the Horse Dies, Has Hollywood Invaded the Church Service?, and Tithing: Is It Christian?. I think that what makes this book so important is that in today’s world, many are asking the same questions and leaving the church. The irony, though, is that in leaving the church most are not leaving Jesus. I remember reading of one person who suggested that people were “leaving to preserve their faith,” and in the process rediscovered it in a fresh and new way. That’s the story of Chase Falson, and that’s my story. Perhaps it’s yours too.

Regardless what church tradition we come from, there’s a part of Francis that we probably all can relate to. The author says, “Francis was a Catholic, an evangelical street preacher, a radical social activist, a contemplative who devoted hours to prayer, a mystic who had direct encounters with God, and someone who worshiped with all the enthusiasm and spontaneity of a Pentecostal.” In another place the author says, “In fact, Francis has been called the ‘first Protestant’ because of his reform from within the body of the church.

Another wonderful aspect of this book is the church history lessons woven between pilgrimage wanderings of Chase, Kenny, and the others. In some ways, parts of the book could be used as a tourist travel guide of the Italian countryside that once was home to Saint Francis. We read of chapels and famous churches, of picturesque landscapes and narrow cobblestone streets that haven’t changed much since Francis’ day. We read of gourmet foods, and that wonderful Italian coffee by which all others pale in comparison: espresso; but also of compassionate people feeding the poor in soup kitchens and delivering food into the back dirty alleys to those barely alive.

However, the one part of the story that probably had the greatest impact on me, and actually brought tears to my eyes, was a scene in a hospice for men dying of AIDS. Chase and Maggie (another character in the book) were being given a tour of the facility on what turned out to be “bath day.” While Maggie was visiting others, one of the volunteers enlisted Chase’s help with bathing what was left of a man by the name of Amadeo. After they lowered the skeletal Amadeo into the tub, and much to Chase’s shock, the volunteer handed Chase a rag and said, “Would you mind washing his genitals.” Recounting the event afterwards, Chase said to Maggie, “I think I became a Christian.” In the margin of my book, all I could write was, “WOW!” The concern for the dignity of the less fortunate and the sick and dying is a theme that runs throughout the book. It was the concern of Saint Francis of Assisi, and it remains the concern of the Franciscans who follow his ways today.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Whatever other baggage we attach to our particular slant of Christianity, is not being a Christian first and foremost caring for others with the love and compassion of Jesus? How often don’t the Gospels record Jesus as saying, “I have compassion for these people” (for example: Matthew 15:32)? Jesus also said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. … Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 40,45; NIV). Has the modern church downplayed that part of Jesus’ message? I wonder sometimes. What does it mean to be a Christian? By the time Chase Falson returned home from his Italian pilgrimage to face the church he founded, he had a different answer to that question than he did before his crisis began.

Thomas Merton once said, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.” I’ve seen that in my own life already; the “Me” of today I would definitely have called a heretic back in my seminary days. Having said that, I cannot help but think that God is once again preparing to move me in yet another direction in my own spiritual pilgrimage. What will that look like? I haven’t a clue, but I do believe that God’s word will always accomplish that for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11). Who knows, maybe I too will adopt a few more Franciscan ways. As for Chase Falson, in the end, things didn’t turn out at the church as he hoped it would, but we’re left feeling that Chase had peace as he ventured out on the next chapter of his spiritual journey.

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale” by Ian Morgan Cron. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it. Peace and Blessings. “Grazie, Signore.”

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Rethinking the Fruit of the Spirit

I like this. It reminds me of what I've sometimes mused about, and that is, Why is it that some Christians seem to always have such a look on their faces that one wonders if perhaps they were baptized in lemon juice or vinegar? Likewise, and contrary to the way some of us seem to present ourselves, "Sour Grapes in not a fruit of the Spirit!"

Granted, we can all have bad days in which some (or even all) of the fruits may seem to be strangely absent in our lives, but obviously that does not then mean that we are no longer Christians; it just means that we're having a bad day.

Galatians 5: 22-23 gives us a list by which we can measure the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives, and I would argue, discern it in the lives of others. These characteristics are:

    • love
    • joy
    • peace
    • patience
    • kindness
    • goodness
    • faithfulness
    • gentleness
    • self control

As I look at that list, and as I look back at my past few days, it's obvious to me (and probably a few others too) that I have some work to do in order to get back on track to where I would like to see myself. I don't want to project that look of sour grapes. There's no blessing for others in that.

How about you? Does the list accurately describe you? If so, praise God! If not, know that He doesn't think less of you for missing some of them; it just means that God isn't finished with you yet, and like me, you're still a work in progress. For that too, we can praise Him. Peace.

Photo Source: Unknown

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Perfect Peace: Sometimes, Scripture Says It All

Sometimes there's nothing profound or enlightening that can be said. Sometimes it's best to let Scripture say it all without thinking that we have something more to add, for to do otherwise, may be misconstrued as simply another pat answer. Sometimes meditating on the Bible is really enough. As I wrestle with some of the struggles in my life this week, and as I read of the pain of other friends on social media and promise to pray for them (for what more can I do?), I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul said to the Philippians. Maybe that really does say it all. Maybe there really is nothing more to be said. Maybe this really is enough. Oh God, have mercy!

"Be rejoicing in the Lord always. Again I say, Be rejoicing. Let your sweet reasonableness, your forbearance, your being satisfied with less than your due, become known to all men. The Lord is near [in that His coming may occur at any moment]. Stop worrying about even one thing, but in everything by prayer whose essence is that of worship and devotion and by supplication which is a cry for your personal needs, with thanksgiving let your requests for the things asked for be made known in the presence of God, and the peace of God which surpasses all power of comprehension shall mount guard over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."

Maybe the preceding comes across as a "pat answer" too; I hope not. But I believe that, when there are no words, there is God's Word. Meditate on it. No matter whatever else the world throws my way, no matter whatever else the world throws your way, God is not oblivious to our pain. May we find the necessary strength and desire to pause and to look to Him, rejoicing somehow despite the circumstances, and despite the pain, and may He grant each of us the miracle of His perfect peace.

Perhaps we too can still find a way to "rejoice" in the pain of our circumstance. God bless.

Italic Text: Philippians 4: 4-7; Kenneth Wuest, The New Testament, An Expanded Translation
Photo Credit: Fatima, Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Internal Peace: It Can Be Learned

I was sitting in my hotel room on yet another business trip, and was feeling a little unsettled. My wife and I had been texting back and forth on a host of subjects, including the importance of making the seeking of personal peace a priority in our lives, something which that day, was clearly lacking in me. Perhaps you can relate.

But how does one find personal peace? What does personal peace look like? In this stress-filled hustle and bustle world that we’ve created for ourselves, can personal peace even be found? Isn’t the very concept of personal peace somewhat of an anomaly, and perhaps even, utopian?  What would bring us personal peace?

Just before his arrest, Jesus spent some of his last hours sharing with his disciples some of the things that would soon be happening. He predicted His betrayal by Judas, His denial by Peter, and His own death. I can only try to imagine what the disciples must have been feeling upon hearing these things. Do you think they might have been feeling a little unsettled too? I think they were, and Jesus knew it, for He then began to try and comfort His disciples. He told them,
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14: 1-4; NIV).
Poor Thomas still didn’t get it, and he questioned Jesus on it further. Sometimes I’ve done that too. Despite being a Christian for many years, I too can still get stressed out and overwhelmed with it all; I too need to hear again Jesus’ gentle words to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The Inheritance

I think we need to hear that, to really hear it, before we can move on. If we don’t hear and accept that, what Jesus would soon say to His disciples about personal peace probably will lose some of its impact. At the very least, we may find ourselves relegating some of it to the proverbial “pat answer” status that no one really feels comforted by. So let’s look at it again: Jesus said that He is “the way and the truth and the life.” Once we see that, it becomes easier to see that the solution to all my unsettledness, valleys, and inner anxiousness – is Jesus. The answer to my soul’s restlessness, to my lack of personal peace, is found in Jesus; He is “the way and the truth and the life.” He has the answers to all our unsettled peacelessness, and He alone is the answer. Listen to what Jesus then told His disciples in their dark hour. He said,
"Peace I leave with you; My [own] peace I now give and bequeath to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. [Stop allowing yourselves to be agitated and disturbed; and do not permit yourselves to be fearful and intimidated and cowardly and unsettled]. ... I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have [perfect] peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world. [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you] (John 14:27; 16:33; Amplified).
I’ve read that a hundred times before, if not more. Yet this time it all translated a little differently as I slowed down and really chewed on the words for a while. The peace of Jesus is not just given, but it has actually been bequeathed to me, just as someone bequeaths their property to another through a legal will after they die. The personal peace of Jesus is mine! Likewise, if you are a true Christian, then it is as if you and I have inherited this divine peace together, as joint siblings in Christ. It’s ours for the taking.

It’s important to note that Jesus’ peace is not as the secular world sees and gives peace. What does the world’s version of peace look like? Perhaps it is best summed up in that anonymous mantra, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Whenever I’ve heard that, I’ve often wondered, “Wins what?” The fact is, all the toys in the world, and the money with which to buy those toys, though often high on the list of the world’s idea of personal peace, is a vain hope. Can any of that really give us peace? No. If the thieves don’t break in and get your treasured pseudo-peacemaking possessions, the moths and the rust will be sure to destroy it (Matthew 6: 19-24). 

Why was I feeling unsettled that evening in my hotel room? It’s a long story and one whose details are probably best not shared here. Yet Jesus seemed to be saying don’t allow yourself to go there; don’t permit it! Part of me wanted to say “That’s easier said than done,” yet at the same time, I doubt Jesus would have said such a thing to His disciples (and to me) that if it were not possible. Sure the world is full of stressors and trials and distresses and frustrations, yet Jesus says that, perfect peace is not only possible, but He has actually bequeathed exactly that to you and me. The only question is, do we believe it? And if so, what are we going to do about it?

Learning the Lesson

Building upon what Jesus said above, I think that the Apostle Paul gives us a hint as to how we might achieve that elusive personal peace. He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). Let’s meditate upon that a bit.

Paul says that contentment, or personal peace, is a “learned” thing. Even Paul didn’t come by it naturally; he had to learn it, and as with all learning, I’m sure he didn’t graduate from this learning overnight. Life wasn’t easy for him either; he had plenty of hardships along the way that I’m sure left him unsettled a time or two as well. Paul was frequently locked up in prison, he was severely flogged, and exposed to death. Let’s listen as he tells the story:
I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten with Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather. And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11: 23-28; The Message).
Not to belittle any of our struggles and difficulties, for they are all significant and real in their own right, but my woes seem pale in comparison to what Paul endured. More amazingly, though, is that through it all he “learned” to be content and at peace. No doubt there were probably times when he thought he had arrived, only to break down at yet another calamity. But at the end of his life, as an old gray-haired man in Nero’s prison, he had somehow found perfect peace that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

Pressing Onward

So where do we go from here? Do we really need to “learn” to be content when Jesus said that we’ve already inherited His peace? I think we do, because we do not come by perfect peace naturally. We can practice all sorts of immorality naturally enough; we don’t need to “learn” how to sin, but we do need to “learn” to be content in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in. The devil doesn’t want us to have perfect peace, and he will oppose us in the quest to obtain it, just as he opposed Paul. But like Paul, I believe that you and I can defeat the devil’s schemes as we “learn” to “put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11). Only then will we also find perfect peace.

Am I there yet? Have I already achieved this perfect peace? No, but I’m learning. And one thing that I found in this quest is that, the more I am concerned with the welfare of my fellow man (regardless of their faith or lack there of), the more peace God blesses me with. Conversely, the times in my life that I seem less concerned with my fellow man’s welfare, the less peace I have in my own spirit. Maybe that’s not so surprising after all, especially when I think of how much God loves our fellow man (John 3:16).

Finally, in the words of that great Aaronic priestly blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6: 24-26). Amen.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Reconciliation: Mending Nets When We Catch Nothing

In the January 17, 2015 issue of The EconomistKAL's cartoon (page 7) depicted the aftermath of what was obviously a bloody battle with dead soldiers strewn around the rubble of the city in which the battle took place. The cartoon depicted three dogs walking through all this destruction, and the one dog says to another: “It all started with an argument over whose God was more peace-loving, kind and forgiving.” The reality is that our newspapers are filled with the consequences of “broken nets.”  How can these nets be mended?

The New Testament reports how one broken net was mended. Peter, whom Jesus had called the Rock upon which he would build his church, had denied and betrayed him. In shame and distress Peter returned to his old trade of fishing, but that night he caught nothing (John 21:3). One wonders how Peter, the Rock, must have felt thinking how he had abandoned his best and most trusted friend, and now he could not even catch a single fish. His life lay in ruins.

The touching story about the resurrected Jesus meeting Peter spells out what to do and not to do when nets have to be mended. Following the unsuccessful fishing expedition, Jesus blessed him with an abundance of fish so that the nets could not hold them; but he did not confront Peter in so many words about his failure; he did not lecture him about how to do better next time; but he asked some fundamental questions that for both were at the root of their relationship. The question was: “Do you love me?” English readers often think that Jesus hammered Peter with the same question three times. It was not the same question three times over. The difference lies in the fact that two different words for love were used: “Agape” and “phile.” Agape connotes a giving or sacrificing of self for the other, while phileexpresses a sense of less demanding friendship, which in modern Greek means “a kiss.” So, what then are the three questions? In the first and second question, Jesus asked Peter whether he loved him to the point of sacrificing himself for Jesus. In both cases, Peter responded that his past was evidence that he was not capable to such total giving of himself to Jesus that might involve giving up his own life for Jesus, but in his responses he affirmed the bond of “phile” love, in effect saying “you are my friend.” In his third question, Jesus picked up the difference and said, OK, Peter, I recognize your point, and, using the word “phile” which Peter had used, he asked in his last question, “do you love me as a friend?” When Peter affirmed that, saying “Lord you know everything (including my denial and betrayal), Jesus said to him: “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked were you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God). And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (See John 21: 1-19). With these last words Jesus reassured Peter that there is nothing wrong with professing phile love at this stage, but that over time this will blossom into agape love.

Does this story tell us something how broken nets might be mended?

So, what then is the approach that can help net menders in our broken world? In the first place, finger pointing and argumentation by would-be net menders achieves nothing. What matters is starting sympathetically where people are, not where they ought to be and not to give up on people after a first failure. That is the “pastoral approach” reaching out to the distressed.

The effect described in the story of Jesus meeting Peter, even without finger pointing and argumentation, is that the beneficiary of Jesus’ care, Peter, was brutally honest with himself, recognizing his failures and limitations. No one had to tell him that in so many words. Jesus' forgiveness and understanding and Peter’s understanding of his situation and his honesty with himself restored a broken relationship.

Would such an approach work in individual Christian congregations when broken nets are in evidence? Would it work among different Christian denominations? Would it work among Christians and non-Christians? Would it work in purely secular settings? Would it work in strained relations among countries?

If so, what is stopping us from pursuing such an approach?

Guest Blogger: Thank you to my father, Gunter Rochow, for sharing as my guest blogger. I really appreciate your insight on this important reconciliation topic. I think it's something that we all need to hear and meditate upon.

Photo Credit: Bob Garlick (Flickr Creative Commons). The photographer says that the picture was taken in the Granville area of Vancouver, BC, Canada. What drew me to the picture was the pain in that little girl's face; it gripped my heart and brought tears to my face. It made me wonder about modern "runaways," who like Peter in the post above, also are often "catching nothing," other than a few miserable coins in their beggar's cap.

Perhaps in some ways, I'm a "runaway" too. Perhaps in some ways, I too have missed catching all that God has for me. Again, as suggested in the post, it's not about pointing fingers as to the "why" they're there or what we may perceive that they did wrong. Rather it's about sharing the unconditional "agape" love of Jesus, because their nets need mending too, just like yours and mine often need mending. Maybe, just maybe, that little girl will one day also meet the resurrected Jesus ... and she'll meet Him in you or me. Do we care? If so, what is stopping us from actually doing something about it? I wonder.

Something to think about. Peace and blessings.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

What If There Really Is A Simple Cure for Disunity?

I remember leafing through an old issue of National Geographic that included a feature on the artic wolf. It told of how a pack of wolves targeted several musk oxen calves who were being guarded by a number of adults. As the wolves approached, the musk oxen bunched together in a semi-circle with their deadly rear hoofs facing out. The calves were safe during a long standoff with the enemy. But suddenly trouble happened. A skirmish developed among the adult musk oxen and a single ox broke ranks, which caused the rest of the adults to scatter into nervous little groups. Suddenly the calves were left alone to the mercy of the predators. Not a single calf survived.

The story reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders that after his departure wolves would come and not spare the flock (Acts 20:29). As with all generations since then, today wolves continue to attack the church. However, I cannot help but wonder, just as in the story of the wolves, if their potential damage is greatly reduced, if not outright eliminated, when unity in the church is maintained. All it takes, though, is for one member to break ranks, for one brother or sister to not stand united, and suddenly the rest of us become easy prey.

If that is true, and I think it is, I cannot help but wonder sometimes why we don't spend greater effort to guard against disunity in the body of Christ. Have you ever wondered about that? Now I don't pretend to have all the answers on this plague in the church, and I recognize that in many ways the problem can be quite complex with many variables, still I cannot help but think that there may be a much less complex answer to some of these issues than we make it out to be. Here's a few of my thoughts as I was musing over some of the things that divide us.

Unfortunately Disunity Often Happens

Disunity can be traced all the way back to Cain and Abel. In Genesis 4:5 we read that Cain was very angry. Why? He was angry because his brother Abel’s offering was accepted by God, and his offering was not. As far back as the second generation of mankind, there has already been disunity. Isn’t it amazing how fast sin grows? We all know the rest of the story, how Cain’s angry spirit got the best of him, and he ended up murdering his brother. Obviously that’s not the best way to deal with disunity!

Jesus prayed, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23; NIV)

Disunity has reared its ugly head throughout church history. It’s obvious that Jesus recognized this, for why else would he have prayed for unity in the church? The point is, why would Jesus pray for unity if disunity were not a real issue? Even the disciples often exhibited a spirit of selfishness, competition, and disunity. Through denominationalism and other anti-Christ "dissensions and factions" (acts of the sinful nature, Paul says in Galatians 5:20), we too are capable of the same things. Ever stop to wonder what Jesus thinks when he sees his divided church today? Stop and think about that for a minute. Forget all our excuses by which we typically justify our disunity; what do you suppose Jesus thinks about it? It must break his heart! It was the Puritan preacher Thomas Brooks who commented, “Discord and division become no Christian. For wolves to worry the lambs is no wonder, but for one lamb to worry another, this is unnatural and monstrous.

When Disunity Happens, Then What?

When disunity happens it’s easy to get mad or retaliate, or even get even. I suppose one option would be to be like Cain and attack our brother, but what would that solve? It’s interesting that, while most of us would never condone such actions as Cain’s, we too still often are known for attacking our brothers with words which are just as vicious, and maybe even more so. It is interesting that Jesus seems to place anger in the same category as murder (Matthew 5: 21-22). In that case, maybe we all are already murderers like Cain. Hmm, now there’s a sobering thought!

And then there are those who choose to leave a certain fellowship because they feel they’ve been attacked and treated unfairly. I know I’ve done that; maybe you have too. Yet the one thing that we could (and should) be doing about those we don’t see eye to eye with, we usually don’t do. What is that? It’s praying for (if not with) those we don’t agree with. Stop and think about that. It’s a tough thing to do, isn’t it?

It’s easier to pray only for those closest to us. None of us would find it to be a chore to pray for our immediate family members and closest friends. We can do that without even blinking an eye, it’s that natural. I’m reminded of something else Jesus once said to his Pharisee host. He said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite to poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 12-14; NIV). In the same way, it’s easier to pray for only those closest to us, because after all, there's a good chance they're praying for us in return.

Jesus’ example is that he didn’t pray for the disciples alone. Those closest to him were the disciples, and he did pray for them too, but hid didn’t pray only for them. He prayed, “My prayer is not for them alone” (John 17:20). Who else was he then praying for? It was for those who would yet believe through their message. In other words, he was praying for you and me. Ever wonder what the church might look like if we began in earnest praying for those who are not (yet) in our inner circle of close friends? Imagine getting into the habit of deliberately praying for those who we don’t necessarily see eye to eye with. I’m convinced it would transform the church. But there’s more.

I’ve discovered that it’s almost impossible to stay angry towards those that we pray for. It’s natural for us not to see eye to eye on everything, but try asking God’s blessing on that person that we disagree with, and something almost miraculous begins to happen. By praying for that person, we soon begin to see the things that divided us become less and less, and perhaps actually disappear altogether. I wonder if that is why Jesus said to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Imagine what would happen to our little corners of this rock called Earth if we each began to do that? Hmm.

Rediscovered Unity Leads to Growth

Rediscovered unity leads first of all to individual Christian maturity. How so? I can’t help but thinking that it takes a person mature in their Christian walk to really live out Matthew 5:44. It takes a committed Christian to love their enemies and actually pray for their persecutors. Bottom line is, we each would do well to concern ourselves with our own spiritual walk before we worry too much about the spirituality (or lack thereof) of others.

Rediscovered unity also leads to growth in an evangelistic sense. In Jesus’ prayer he said, “So that the world may believe” (John 17:21). What happens if the world begins to believe the Gospel message? That’s easy; the universal church grows, and by default, our family grows. Most people aren’t stupid. Unfortunately many a non-Christian has (rightly) called Christians hypocrites. Why? Because we speak of God being love and of loving our neighbours, and then we turn around and even fight amongst ourselves, often over even petty theological issues. What does that communicate to the world? It communicates hypocrisy! Jesus said, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know” (John 17:23).

We Won’t All Think Exactly Alike, but That’s Not the Point

We will never all worship the same way, we will never all believe precisely the same things, we will never all organize our local churches the same way. But that’s also not the point of Jesus’ unity prayer. Christian unity must transcend differences and be joined in genuine and unpretentious love for one another, as opposed to simply a love for our own traditions, rituals and creeds. The point is, especially when there is disagreement, there is reason for prayer. Prayer is important at the best of times. Perhaps it’s even more important at the worst of times, however; the times when we’re confronted with our differences, and not seeing eye to eye.

Maybe I'm being utopian, but what if there really is a simple cure for disunity? Would we even want it? Maybe, as with all calls for change, it starts with you and me. May our prayers become: "Lord, give each of us a heart to pray for those that we have a hard time appreciating and that we don't see eye to eye with. Amen."

Something to think about. Peace.


Other related posts that may be of interest to you:

The Piggy in the Middle

of Live and Let Live

Heresy Helper