Aberration

It is strange how much difference a few weeks can make. Not so long ago I set out to be intentional about making the Kingdom my experience and not just my theology. Yet, habits die hard, and it was exploring more theory – as if I didn’t already have enough theory to last a lifetime! It was short-lived, however, as a few days later I was hit by the norovirus bug, which in turn triggered a relapse of my glandular fever, and my world rapidly closed around me. My reality shrunk to the moment I was in and the hope that it would eventually pass. What of the Kingdom now? It certainly wasn’t the wholeness promised.

I have to confess to being confused by sickness. Jesus healed as evidence of the Kingdom, as did his disciples after him. Healing still occurs today, but less than I’m led to expect. It is all rather confusing. And I was confused by being ill. In Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians he too describes being ill. It surprised me how encouraging that felt. If even Paul, with all the healing he performed, could be ill, then maybe my experience was not so unaccountable. At least, I did not need to look for a deeper explanation, like lack of faith or some other failing on my part. We too can fall ill. Apparently, even while we remain citizens of a Kingdom that knows only wholeness. However I might see myself in relation to the Kingdom, in practice, I sit across worlds. I may be a citizen of the Kingdom, yet, I remain a part of a created order that is broken, itself sick, and still awaiting its renewal. My body will age and decay. I may get sick. Perhaps, I have no right to expect immunity.

Yet, we are still called to pray ‘your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’. While we remain both in and not of the earth, we are, in part, subject to both. The world has always had the ability to crucify us. Yet, we are not called to give in and await some future deliverance. We are called to bring the realities of heaven to earth now. I may have been sick, but it is not where I belong. I belong to a kingdom that does not know sickness, and I can look towards its realities on earth. I may not see it in all its fullness, but I look to seeing more. The early church showed us what was possible – and I don’t believe that was supposed to be the high mark. However, I’ll worry about where our limits lie when I have at least reached the foothills. Until then, I won’t read too much into my illness. It will pass. It is a momentary aberration.

Deconstructed

I have never woken up wondering if the world was still there. It is just an assumption I make every morning that does its work in the background, letting me get on with life without having to worry. Yet, not all our assumptions are benign, they can be little more than thinly veiled prejudices. It can therefore be helpful to see our world from outside, from different perspectives, perspectives with different assumptions and so highlighting our own. John D. Caputo, in one of his books, uses the illustration of Charles Sheldon’s novel, written over a hundred years ago. In the novel a tramp collapses in church. This so surprises and stirs the congregation, that they ask themselves, if they have really been followers Jesus after all. So, during their everyday lives they begin asking themselves the question: ‘What would Jesus do?’ and the town changes. Sometimes, another story has to come along to help us see things differently, to deconstruct our assumptions and enable us to be more intentional in how we are to live.

Over the last few months I have unexpectedly found that my picture of the kingdom has come into much sharper focus, a focus that has also shed an uncomfortable light onto my own life. I just don’t believe this is what life in the Kingdom is supposed to look like. Or at least, I have not yet met anyone insane enough to think Jesus life would have looked much like mine, which isn’t much of a commendation for someone who has been following Jesus for over forty years.

It is at this point that the two stories merge. Sheldon used the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ to help deconstruct assumptions. It makes a great bumper sticker, but I am less sure of that particular question. Jesus did what he saw the Father doing and, unless we do the same, the question becomes a stick to beat ourselves with when we fail to meet and impossible standard. I have to confess, that I find seeing what the Father is doing a little challenging. It is easier to model my life on those around me, only I am not called to base my life on the constructs of the twenty-first century. I am called to be a follower of Christ: to live, not just in the shadow of the Kingdom, but as its Citizen. It is a daunting challenge, and one that leaves me wondering if I can meet it. I am not even sure if I know the way.

Which brings me back to this blog. One of my experiences with blogging, especially in my initial ‘A Journey Shared’ blog, is the way that it encourages intentionality – not to mention a source of prayer, as I ponder what to say in my next post! I believe this is what I need now, and so I am relaunching ‘A Journey Shared’, even if in a new clothes. No longer seeking a view of the destination, but to keep me on track and pressing on towards it – even if, like Frodo Baggins, I do not know the way.

What is Real?

We believe we know what is real, but maybe we are wrong. The world around us seems real enough, but the Kingdom of God knows another reality: the Spirit that blows where he wills. We stand in wonder when we hear of miracles and puzzle over why we don’t see more. Yet, we are part of a culture that imbibes the myth that this world is based on just facts and reason. It is a belief that has so got under our skin that we no longer realise it is there. Is it any surprise if that is all we get?

In the nineteenth century, the writing was already on the wall. Kierkegaard shouted his warning to a church that was becoming enmeshed in rationalism – either stripping Christianity of the miraculous or converting it into a system of logical premises. The premises may have been extracted from the Bible, by they just as certainly stripped it of mystery. Needless to say, Kierkegaard was not heard. He was probably not even understood. And we live in its legacy. It is what we teach our children and embed in our culture. We base our view of reality on the tip of an iceberg, while its true substance remains hidden from us.

We may think we have a ‘Biblical Worldview’, but Bill Johnson summed up the problem when he said that God never goes against the Bible, but he can surprise us by going against our understanding of it. If we try and place God in a box, he will at some point break out. We can’t predict what he will do next. He is beyond our understanding, beyond our reason. It took Job a while to figure this out, but in the end he got it. God will be God. The Spirit blows where he wills.

God is the only reality. It is in him that all things have their being. Our God who is, who was and who will be. We cannot describe him, understand him, or fit him into our boxes. He just is. We need to get it in our heads around the fact that we will never fathom God, even though we have an eternity to do it in, God is just too big for us ever to grasp.

But I need to ground this, so, here is a fact: dead people don’t rise. If a doctor certifies someone as dead, they will not be expecting them back for a follow up appointment. Death is final. Yet, Jesus arose from the dead. The resurrection matters. It is the turning point of history, without it, Jesus death on the cross is just another execution. Paul understood. Everything hinges on the resurrection. If a man, three days dead and cold in the ground can get up, then we need to re-assess how we see the world. This is the reality of the Kingdom, it is redefined around the Spirit of God.

The Enlightenment’s view of reality has become so embedded in our culture that we no longer see the extent to which we ourselves have imbibed it. It is powerful, because it is partly true, just not the whole truth. As subjects of the Kingdom, we are called to live from another reality, one based on a God who is. The resurrection is our touchstone and we need to embed its truth in our lives. And on the journey, don’t be surprised when the unexpected and miraculous happen. We should expect it, because, after all, the Sprit has always blown where he wills.

To Diognetus

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by locality, speech or customs. They do not dwell in cities of their own, have a different language, or practise a strange kind of life. But while they dwell in cities, as the lot of each is cast, they following the local customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, the nature of their citizenship contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but as sojourners; bearing their share in all things, yet they endure hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is to them a fatherland and every fatherland foreign. They marry and have children; but do not cast them away. They share their meals, but not their wives. Finding themselves in the flesh, they do not follow its desires. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. Obeying the established laws and surpass them in their own lives. They love all men, yet persecuted by them. They are ignored and condemned. They are put to death, yet they have life. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They are in want, yet they abound. They are dishonoured, yet they are glorified in their dishonour. They are reviled, and they bless; insulted, yet show respect. Doing good they are punished; being punished they rejoice. Even thought war is waged against them, those that hate them cannot tell the reason for their hostility.

What the soul is to the body, so are Christians to the world. The soul is spread throughout the many members of the body; Christians throughout the varied cities of the world. The soul has its abode in the body, and yet it is not of the body. Likewise, Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world. The soul, though itself immortal, dwells in a mortal tabernacle; Christians sojourn amidst perishable things, while they look for the imperishability of heaven.

For this was no earthly discovery that was committed to them, nor do they preserve some human mystery entrusted to them. Truly, the all-creating invisible God planted among men him who is the Truth and the Word, which surpasses the understanding of man, fixing him firmly in their hearts – not, as one might imagine, by sending a servant, or angel, but by sending the very maker of the Universe, through whom the heavens were made – the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and the things in the earth, the sea and the things that are in the sea, the fire, air, abyss, the things in the heights, the things in the depths and all things in between. Do you think he was sent, as one might suppose, to establish a reign to inspire fear and terror? No, not at all, but in gentleness and meekness he sent him, as a king sending his son. He sent him, as a man to men; a Saviour, using persuasion, not force; summoning, not persecuting; loving, not judging. But one day he will send him in judgment, and who then shall endure his presence?

They are thrown to wild beasts so that they may deny the Lord, and yet are not overcome. The more of them that are punished, the more others abound. These do not resemble the works of a man. They are the power of God, the very proof of his presence.

[Extract from Epistle to Diognetus, circa AD 130. Based on translation by Lightfoot and Harmer, 1891, with my abbreviations and amendments for clarity.]

All of Grace

Forty odd years ago, when I first became a Christian, God did not look at me and think ‘what a great catch’, he saw a train wreck. My life has changed immeasurably since, yet, as God’s call on my life has come into sharper focus, the extent to which I fall short has become exposed. Having made so little progress after more than forty years, I wonder why he bothered with me in the first place. It has become easy for me to get depressed and want to give up.

Brennan Manning found part of the answer. He was struggling with alcoholism and was aware that he was not living up to the expectations on him as a priest. One morning, as he woke up, finding himself in a gutter, stinking of his own vomit, he had hit an all time low. It was at this point that he realised that God loved him as he was, not as he should be. It was a life changing moment. Yet, in spite of this, he confesses that to the day he died he remained a broken human being struggling with alcoholism. But he knew that God loved him anyway. Not because he was a great guy, but all because of grace. God loved him as he was, not as he should be.

Similarly, in the story of the prodigal, in spite of his son wasting what he had worked hard to create, the boy’s father still loved him. While his son was a long way off, as soon as he saw him, he ran to meet him. There was no reluctance. He ran and kissed and hugged his foul smelling son. He was thrilled to have him back. Imagine, for example, a father hearing his son had been killed in war, and then a year later the son returns home. He hadn’t been killed after all and now he is back. The son was dead, but now is alive. This is how thrilled the father was at his son’s return. God loves us, even when we get smelly. It makes no difference to him. He is always thrilled to get us back.

I may not be in a gutter, like Brennan Manning, nor just returned from wild living, like the prodigal, yet I look at my forty years of Christian life and wonder what I have made of it, what my efforts have amounted to. Perhaps I am already thinking too much of myself. It is, after all, not about me. I may have a part to play, but from God’s perspective my efforts do not amount to much – neither my best or my worst. All is as nothing before him. Yet he loves me as I am, not what I think I should be.

While it would be nice to live up to the standard to which I believe I have been called, I have to acknowledge that I remain a broken image and fall short. In spite of that, God loves me as much as he ever did. In fact, it was while I was yet a sinner that he was willing to die for me. A fact that I still find incredible. So, it is perhaps strange that I should ever wonder why he might love me less now that I am trying, however inadequately, to follow him. I have to acknowledge that I have a long way to go, but I know I am loved, just as I am. It is all of grace.