20170918

Best Seat In The House

So, any time we go to a concert, a play, a sporting event, or even to church, it always is a good feeling to be in ‘the best seat in the house.’ My son and I recently paid for the privilege at a baseball game in Detroit to see the Tigers get beat by the L.A. Dodgers. Not to worry, the Tigers beat them two nights later. Still, when we got to the game we were pleased by the seats that we’d gotten. But then we looked around and noticed that there were even better seats that could’ve been purchased. This was an academic exercise as those seats cost a LOT more than I paid, or would want to. I’m not sure where it is, but there is probably some theoretically “best” seat in Comerica Park in Detroit. The exercise strikes us as very silly because – come on! – we were able to watch baseball that night: ANY seat in the park was a good seat to be in.
I’m not sure if there is a Best Seat in all of creation, but there is a place where – seems to me – we want to be and it is God who can put us there.
In Ephesians, I read that God saved us …
and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:6-7 ESV)
So, if you’ve been following along with my scripture meditation exercise, in this text there certainly is an easy opportunity to sense God’s presence: That God has seated me in Christ in the heavenlies.

But the significant moment in the text came for me with the notion that God is ‘showing us off’ as markers of his grace and work. God, in the future, will be using us as evidence of his richness, grace, and kindness. In that, and other senses, God is ‘proud’ of us; he will be pointing to us showing us as kinds of trophies. Even more as we enter into our eternal state doing the work that he will have for us during that age. In this text, seems to me that God is wishing to encourage us as we walk the purposes he has for us, guided by the Spirit.

20170914

What Good Is It?

Suffering is bad.
Everyone knows this. Pretty non-controversial statement; right?
...
Or is it?
American Evangelicals of the early 21st century seem to me to be completely clueless when it comes to a Theology of Suffering. "Suffer" or "suffering" is used in 114 verses in the Bible (ESV), including the scandalous statement: "... we rejoice in our sufferings, ..." (Romans 5:3) Something the early Christians did was throw a party when things got painful. Well, that's different.
The word, "affliction" occurs 74 times; "distress" shows up in 92 verses. Those don't sound like fun, either.
What Christians have known for 2,000 years - but modern believers have forgotten - is that suffering as a Jesus Follower was normal, expected, and predictable phenomena. Jesus was pretty clear on this: "And whoever does not take up his cross [instrument of torturous execution] and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).
One of Jesus' Main Guys told a group of other Christians, "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you." (1Pet 4:12). Peter chided his friends for thinking that these trials were aberrations of their life in Christ.
I've written about Christian suffering before here and here; as well as preaching where I was a pastor.
The point is that suffering for being a Jesus Follower is, Biblically, expected, unsurprising, and part of the package.
And there are a LOT of reasons why we experience suffering as God people. I ran into one just today.  I poked at that technically and found something interesting. And this is one of the rare times when I will do this: the translation may be misleading.

  • Psalm 4:1, a modern translation says this: "You have given me relief when I was in distress." 
  • A literal translation goes something like "in-the-adversity you-enlarged-me." 

OK, what's the difference? In the first translation, it feels like the Psalmist (King David, BTW) is reflecting on how God engineered things so that David wouldn't have to feel the full effects of some trouble he was experiencing; that God had given him "relief." But in the second translation, a more literal one, David seems to be saying something like: 'in all that trouble, you made me a bigger man.' In the first, God removes some of the sufferings; in the second, God redeems the suffering for a greater good.
Now - do not get me wrong - both ideas are supported by scripture. God clearly delivers people from evil - and Jesus encouraged us to pray along those lines (Matt. 6:13)!
But God also creatively allows suffering to accomplish a greater good - the producing of "character." Here's the full bit of scripture that I quoted a part of, above. "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings," - here's the rest: "... knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, ..." (Rom 5:3-4).
Suffering, as an apparent evil, is used by God to create a virtue that otherwise might not exist. Seems to me this is rather creative of God - a kind of Karma Jiu-Jitsu where the intent of The Evil One is turned and a blessing is created, instead.
In my adversities, if I'm paying attention, God is "enlarging" me. God is creating endurance, character, and hope.
OK, it seems we should change that first comment. Suffering is unpleasant, but it doesn't have to be bad.

20170912

But...

Well, the last text emphasized God’s absence. BUT we return to God’s nature and work in this next bit:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved (Eph. 2:4-5 ESV)
So, this relates to what I’d talked about before regarding “trespass” and death (see previous blogpost). Even though we’ve messed things up, very badly, still God is rich in mercy.
That phrase, “God is rich in mercy,” stood out to me. It brought to me a feeling God’s presence in the mercy he has granted me.

That the text also ends on the theme of grace punctuates the completeness of God’s mercy. Subjectively, this was like his hand on my shoulder at the thought of his copious mercy to me – and to realize that he has extended his mercy to many, many others!

20170909

Absence

In recent months, I took a more focused approach to my scriptural input. Here’s my process:
·      Choose the text
·      Read the text, slowly
·      Stop reading when you subjectively experience God’s presence
·      Pause and appreciate God’s presence
·      Reflect (journal?) on the moment
You may recognize this technique for engaging in Bible meditation. What I have found is this is helpful to impose a discipline of slowly considering a text, rather than rushing through it with the notion, “Eh … I know this stuff already.” What I have realized by slowing down is that, nope, I’ve been missing some things.
The other part is in sharpening my spiritual discernment: looking for and recognizing God’s presence both with me and in me. I recognize something about myself: I’m very good at theology and doctrine – the information and knowledge part of Christianity come easier for me than others. But the subjective, the contemplative, the relationship has taken many decades and significant effort to engage. This process helps me in that pursuit – the pursuit of a real relationship with God.

So, all that to say, my devotional Bible time has been focused on discerning God’s presence in the text. But this particular section was not one where I experienced God’s nearness! Here is the text:

“in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:2-3 ESV)


This was a challenge because it violated the ‘rule:’ where is God’s presence? The answer is: not here! The section is profoundly anti-God. In the contemplative exercise, I became aware of God’s presence because it was absent in this text!