The Harmonious Melody of the Good News

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The following is a reflection on N.T. Wrights article, “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?” practically applied to the parable found in Luke 15:11-32. The article can be found online here and is worth reading through at least once. It is a challenge for Kingdom people to re-think the ‘how to’ when it comes to interpreting and sharing the gospel message. 

The message of grace and forgiveness found in the story of the prodigal son is fundamental. I doubt many people would argue that point. The problem is that the fundamental note—often the only note—our current culture is hearing lacks almost all reverberating overtones. It’s a sure thing for a preacher to deliver the good news that even the worst of sinner only need turn around and can expect to be met with their heavenly Father’s arms wide open, just waiting to lavish forgiveness upon them. The problem is that when we preach only this fundamental note, even if it is because that is what we believe resonates best with the listener or most accepted in our tradition, we are undermining the very teachings of Jesus.

I use the word undermine, because the fundamental note isn’t equal to a false gospel, but it will become eroded without being further built up. There is depth to the story found in Luke 15:11-32.  It is profound and multi-layered. Each layer has a message and Jesus intended that the whole of the story would be heard. There is a power in teaching and interpreting the Bible. There is a power that can be used to elevate certain aspects and pass others depending on a multitude of reasons. This is not the kind of power Jesus came to give us though.

The way the Bible is interpreted and taught is what will eventually become the dominant worldview for a tradition or even larger portions of the corporate church. In our country it is easy to own a Bible and, for many, it is easy to read it as well. The message, fundamental and overtones alike, are right there for all to read and interpret for themselves. The problem is that everyone comes to their Bible with the fundamental notes already sounding …. The parable of the prodigal son is about a broken sinner who turns back to the Father and finds unending grace, love, and forgiveness.

There is a harmonious tale being told by Christ in this story. A story that challenges our ideas about family, motivates us to rethink our ideas about the father, and re-examine our interactions with him. There are cultural overtones worth discussing and knowing; like what it meant to be a Jewish family living in 1st century Palestine. There can be dis-harmonies if the hearer doesn’t understand honor and shame in the same context as Jesus. Jesus was preaching grace and forgiveness, and He was preaching so much more.

The church has been given authority to teach and preach the gospel—fundamental tones, overtones, and harmonies alike. There are sinners who desire to hear the good news that God will be waiting to forgive them on their return. There are others in need of good news as well. There are people looking for the good news of a God who invites everyone to the party. There are people seeking good news about a father who is willing to relinquish his honor, in order to bear our shame. There are people desiring to hear good news about a family that places restoration above reputation and reconciliation above righteousness.

The church can begin by telling the story in a new way, in a way that includes all the harmonies without forgetting the fundamental notes. And then the church can begin living the story until the whole of the message resounds to the world around them. The message that sinners are always welcome is a fairly unchallenged notion of the Christian church, but there are others that aren’t quite as obvious. This message challenges the church to be more—to be a place where you find a relationship with the Father (not just forgiveness), a place where the hope is complete restoration (not defining ‘right’ or ‘wrong’), and a place where the fatherless find their family that is bigger than God the Father alone but the whole church body. It is time for the church to challenge the world’s worldview and become immersed in the melody of the gospel.

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An Easy Answer

I want to share this (rather long) reflection from one of my recent seminary seminars. We had the privilege of listening to Dr. Leonard Sweet for two days. His message, and mind, are gifts from God and if you haven’t yet read this book, “I Am a Follower” I would strongly recommend it.  This reflection is personal and I pray that all of those who have lived life with me will  take heart that I speak to the corporate church as a whole, but still let the Spirit challenge when needed. Grace and Peace

There are three times in my life Jesus showed up in a very physical way and said, “Follow me.” Remembering these times isn’t out of the ordinary for me. I think about these moments anytime I question why God has chosen me to love. What I realized this time; however, was just how easy it had been to say yes to Him. The first request to follow was when I accepted Christ. The last request was my call into ministry. The second time? It came at the end of the ugliest day of my life.

Of course, Jesus is asking me to follow Him every day. What is unique about these times is the added glory of a more physical presence to abide in. Since reading “I Am a Follower” by Dr. Leonard Sweet over a month ago, I have been struggling with my reaction to the book. I have read it a few times since, in hopes of changing my initial review. What was causing me to struggle was the fact that this topic seemed too common sense for me. The issue of leadership within the church is a deadly one, no doubt. The focus on attendance, number of salvation prayers repeated, and the resulting pastoral pride should be a place of shame for the church today. The fact that the average Christian looks nothing like the “Big J”, let alone a “Little J” is disheartening. And then something occurred to me, I was being naive.

As we sat around in our Spiritual Formation group and everyone was talking about how moved they were by Dr. Sweet’s message, I felt almost embarrassed in not sharing in their same sense of excitement. Graeme Seller (our previous instructor) had left me in a state of shock and awe, but Dr. Leonard Sweet speaks and I come away almost shrugging? So I reflected more, re-read parts of the book, looked at the seminar notes, and it finally started to make sense.

Being a Christ-follower first, faithfully, and fervently has been completely missing from my church experience. I identified this issue of lack of “follower”ship a few years ago and studied it in depth. The notion of being a “Christ-follower first” shaped and moved me deeply during that time. This seminar hadn’t challenged me the way it had others, because the story was already deep seeded within my heart. The seminar, and reflection on it, did wake me up to something very important. I can’t let the extraordinary in my life become ordinary. If a fellow Christian’s passionate work changes me to my core, I owe it to the Spirit to continue to fan the flames on my own heart so others might catch on fire too.

The church continuously drove me away during my life due to the issues addressed in Dr. Sweet’s book. I wanted to conform to Christ, and found myself instead conforming to the leaders in the church (who looked little like Jesus from where I was sitting). I wanted to do the things Jesus had created me to do, but I ended up just doing what the rest of the body was doing (which was often what the rest of the culture was doing). I wanted refinement, but was given no safe place to share my confessions. I wanted healthy community, and I was given social cliques. How can I expect to help make the changes I believe God desires to see in the church if I have already chalked these failures up to common knowledge?

It is an honored blessing that we serve a God who shows up in our lives and says, “Follow me.” My calling and salvation prayer are two of those times that embodied His beautiful presence. But as a church, are we allowing Christ to step in at times when it could be us? The ugliest day of my life, as I described it, came during a great time of depression. I was around the age of 23. I was just recently out of rehab for drugs, and I was using again. I had moved three states away from my family, despite their desperate pleas for me to stay. And that’s just the surface of the darkness.

On this day, I was crouched in the fetal position on the floor of my empty apartment. I was begging for an answer from God. I was begging for help. I had no one, and I knew I couldn’t go on. And right then, I heard Him. “Get up. We’re leaving.” I looked up to see Jesus Christ standing there beside me. His hand was reaching out to mine. He was inviting me to follow Him. I said yes to his request that morning without hesitation. I said yes as if I didn’t know that following Him meant doing the most difficult thing I’d ever done before. It was 4 a.m. and by 11 a.m. we—Jesus and me—had packed as many of my belongings into my car that would fit, called my mother to tell her I had relapsed, and drove back home to Minnesota. I experienced, for the first time in my life, complete surrender. I left behind, what I believed, was everything true in my life without as much as a goodbye. I even remember the moment that the palpable presence of Jesus left my car. It was as we crossed that last state line; as if He knew that was my point of no turning back.

Although in some ways I cherish that morning, I have always thought Jesus would have rather shown up as an embodied Christ follower. The Christian should be the place to break strongholds—pride, greed, consumerism, judgment, shame, lust—but too often it is what contributes to them. I want to be a Christ follower first. People say this, and when they do I become to think believers are aware of the problems we’re facing, even when that isn’t the truth. When saying yes to the church’s request to “Follow us as we are following Christ” becomes the easiest yes a person will ever utter is the moment at which we’ll know we’ve finally figured it out. And until then it is up to me [us] to remain actively passionate about the Spirit’s desires before allowing anything so extraordinary to become ordinary ever again.

The Great Divorce … of the church?

I just finished The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.  I highly recommend reading the book if you never have.  It’s clever and filled with an interesting view of things that won’t be allowed to enter the Kingdom.

It also has a vision of Hell that I can jump on board with, lol.  It is this deary little town, which has been awaiting the coming night for an long, undetermined amount of time.  I interpreted the people as not fully understanding their surroundings. Here was what captured my thoughts though … this place extended infinitely in all directions, for the most part, with people going about their next life alone.  Often these people were obsessed about an earthly sin, personal shortcoming, place of self shame, or failure.  And this is why each was alone here … Every time a person would disagree with another, they would move further out, build a new house, and wait for the next person to come along that they disagreed with.

And I hear a voice say …. Two are better than one.

What would it be like to live in a place where love was not the center? Or in a place, the apostle John might say, that God is not the center?  Where the primary goal was to surround ourselves with people who are perfectly aligned with our own vision of how things “should” be?  A place where every time there is a disagreement people see it best to go their own way. A place where people choose to separate in order to attain an unreachable perfection … they move down the street, build a new building, and start over.

An echo rings in my heart … A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

We are a broken, perhaps a disturbingly divorced, church body.  Up until this time in history, when a church body is brought to a place of disagreement we have decided the best option is to split.  We separate from our own brothers and sisters, take it upon ourselves to judge where they are wrong, and relocate with the next looming split inevitably around the corner.

How sad this must be for Christ.  Denominational divides are causing His own body to be mutilated and tortured once more.  We are ripping His bride limb from limb.  As His body, we are so disgustedly self centered on our ideas of what the church should be, we have completely abandoned what Christ told us to do – spread the gospel.  We have carelessly abandoned that which He said were the only two laws that mattered … love up and love out.

Another whisper in my ear … Pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

I do not want to split anymore.  I want to unite.  I want to love God, love others, and allow the Spirit to do His refining work in each of us, as only He can do!  Even if that means serving alongside someone who I disagree with. I am the bride of Christ, and I have a place in the body.  I will not stand by and see that body be torn further apart by ideals that we can not reach here.  When you disagree with your Christian brother or sister, do not allow Satan to cause further separation.  I would rather disagree and be strong together, then split and hurt Christ (hurt others) one second longer.

There was a man all alone;

    he had neither son nor brother.

There was no end to his toil,

    yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.

“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,

    “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”

Insurrection Reflection (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3 is titled, “I’m Not Religious” and Other Religious Sayings. I have some issues with the theological line of thinking in this chapter, and so I can imagine that feeling might be tenfold for other, more conservative, Christians. I tread lightly over the words, reading the chapter a few times before making any final reflections, and then I apply it to how it pragmatically looks in my own life.

Here are my thoughts on the first half of the chapter. One of Pete’s major challenges within the church structure is how we do worship. How, as he puts it in the book, “The worship songs affirm certainty so we are free to celebrate uncertainty.” (pg. 48). I believe deeply that worship can be anything that is done to the glory of God, up to and including doubt. A person needs go no further than the book of Lamentations to find a dark night of the soul. We can not forget, though, why it is we worship. We worship to a God who longs to be worshiped by his creation.

I do, however, affirm Pete on many thoughts in regards to worship, such as; where do we find the ‘leader’ in ‘worship-leader’ if the only songs we are ever led to sing are about knowing, peace, and love. As a creation of God there are times I do not know, I do not feel peace, and love is not the first thing on my heart. It is in those moments of unknowing that I cry out to God, and I can see how this crying out in community could be a healing movement. I also believe, however, that God needs to see our faithfulness. I do not worship for my sake, I worship for His sake.

I need to worship my Creator. I will doubt my Creator. I need to do both of these things.

The second half of the chapter involves the differences between the recognition of levels of non/belief in today’s society, and the psychologically seeded security within each of those differences. The idea being that within our culture, even those who consider themselves atheists, still rely on God ultimately as a means to bring them comfort. In most cases, people would deny this idea. People desire to believe they serve a God for the purpose of glorifying Him, but the only true way to unpack our reasoning behind our beliefs is to look towards how we practically live our day to day life … which is where this Insurrection is going.