Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Love is Patient

"Love is patient" (I Corinthians 13:4)

This week we talked about the relationship between God's patience and his love. God is patient with us because he loves us. One of our advent readings this week is from2 Peter:"The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance". God's patience towards us is something that I confess I have not thought enough about over the years. It also occurs to me that I don't hear others thinking or talking about God's patience very much either. We talk a lot about God's love, forgiveness, holiness, justice, etc. but not as much about patience. Perhaps one reason we don't talk much about God's patience is that we don't understand what patience really is. God's patience is not passive neglect or apathy towards our broken condition. Quite the opposite is really the case. God's patience is always joined by his tireless pursuit of deeper relationship with us. In his pursuit, though, he is patient. This means that he does not write us off when we fail to respond to him. He keeps pursuing.

I would suggest another reason why we don't think as much as we ought about God's patience is that we don't like thinking about what it means to be patient with others. Being patient with others means that we need to regard them as works in progress which, in turn, means that we are called to love them when they are not being very lovable. Before we have thought too long though about what it means to be patient with others we meet an obstacle which takes many of us off guard: a lack of patience with ourselves! My friend, Chuck DeGroat, from City Church, San Francisco recently offered this insight on his blog - the first quote is Chuck quoting an Episcopal Priest called Martin Smith:

“What chance is there of loving and respecting others if I refuse to meet and listen to the many sides of myself? How can I be a reconciler if I shut my ears to the unreconciled conflicts within myself… Now I begin to see that the spiritual life is based on a basic honesty which enables me to recognize that everything I find difficult to accept, bless, forgive, and appreciate in others is actually present within myself (Smith)".

"I’ve seen healing and transformation when men and women begin to love their enemies, even their inner enemies. These unreconciled parts of ourselves which live in extreme conflict cannot thrive.... And like the Prodigal Son and his Elder Brother, they need to be invited to a feast of reconciliation and redemption. You can only thrive as you become the Father in the great story, as the new and redeemed self led by Christ races out to both the Prodigal and the Elder Sons with an embrace of love and compassion. Transformation begins when you kiss the demon on the lips. Martin Smith suggests that the spiritual life is built and grown on a basic honesty which admits the truth about ourselves. When this happens, not only are we transformed, but the communities in which we live and love become places of transformation. And like yeast in bread, the Kingdom of God becomes an ever-expanding reality. However, where honesty is lacking, we not only create walls within our hearts and between ourselves, but we create a great divide between ourselves and God. This is why the Christian Gospel takes as it premise that men and women are basically sinful, in need of a reconciling love that cannot be manufactured and managed, that cannot be won by wall-building self-righteousness. Sadly, many of us who claim the name of Christ live unreconciled in so many ways. Put me at the top of that list (De Groat)."

What I would add to the terrific insights from the quotes above is that patience is required for this journey. The unreconciled parts of ourselves do not become unified under God's rule of love immediately and our struggle to be reconciled within ourselves is a life-long journey towards the wholeness God offers. Along the way, we must learn to be patient - not passive or apathetic - but patient with ourselves and others. Thankfully, God is patient with us.

Questions for discussion:

1. Have you noticed a connection between a refusal to be patient with others and a refusal to be patient with yourself?

2. What does it look like to be patient with yourself and/or others? Give an example of the difference between patience and apathy or passivity, and give and example of the difference between patience and impatience, particularly in relationship with others.

3. Naturally, there are all sorts of qualifiers to what it means to love someone through thick and thin. For example, some relationships must be for all intents and purposes terminated or radically redefined in order to act consistently with the deepest understanding of what it means to give and receive love from others and God. Above, we were reflecting on how patience helps us understand love so I did not want to spend a lot of words on the caveats. However, because it is on our minds, let's talk about what sorts of circumstances require the radical redefinition of a relationship. What are some examples?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent 1

Isaiah 64:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.

6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. 8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

Advent Season is the time of the year that we join millions of Christians all over the world in a time of waiting and watching. During this time we ask God to sanctify and stimulate our imagination so that we may join our hearts and minds to the hearts and minds of God's people who were awaiting the first advent of Jesus. In so doing, we are reminded of many important truths. Let's consider one of them here. The darkness of the world requires God's redemption, God's work, God's solution - not a solution of human making. We pick up this thought from the reading of Isaiah this Sunday. The prophet cries out for God to keep his promise to bring redemption to the world, confessing that only the God of Israel can do such a thing ("No ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait on him"). This language is picked up by Saint Paul and built upon when he talks to the Corinthians about the uniqueness of the gospel of the cross of Christ in 1 Corinthians 2:9 (No eye has seen or ear heard what God has prepared for those who love him), the point in Corinthians being that the cross of Christ is unique and basic to the heart of what God is doing to bring salvation to his people. This truth is foundational to our spiritual formation as Christians but we easily forget its importance. All too often we settle for a diminished experience of God's love because we have failed to ask him to open our hearts more fully to what he and he alone can do - transform us so that we are more fully capable of receiving his love, returning it to him, and more fully giving and receiving love in our relationships with others. The time of advent invites us to confess to God that we are not yet who we should be and that we will not flourish as well as we are intended to without the deep work of his spirit in us. So, we are to cry out with the prophet for God to tear open the heavens, come down to us, and do what only he can do in our hearts.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you take opportunities during Advent Season or other times to ask God to work more deeply in your heart to put more of his love in you? Can you think of patterns of thinking and living of which you need to repent because they stand in your way of participating more fully in God's love and God's life?

2. Advent season reminds us pointedly that God's light and God's light alone is what is required to dispel the darkness in this world. How do you and I apply this imaginatively to the darkness that still lurks in our hearts? Here is one possible answer: there are many times in our lives when we struggle silently with what we know deep down are thoughts and inclinations that draw us away from the love of God. In some instances, these thoughts and inclinations have been lurking so long that they have taken up squatter's rights and we barely notice them. Asking God to shine his light on these intruders and move us away from them and towards a deeper experience of his love is one way to think imaginatively about applying what we confess to be true: that God's light and God's light alone is what is required...... can you think of other applications?

Monday, November 16, 2009

the church and culture/the church and mission

As Paul wrote to the Philippians, the relationship between the church and its social/cultural setting was never far from his mind, as he thought about what this young church needed to hear. Being fairly confident that this community of faith would likely come under the same persecution from Rome that he was experiencing personally (you recall that he wrote this letter from prison where he was jailed because of his faith) he is at great pains to remind the Philippians of their place as God's people in God's world. They are not to retreat into a cocoon. Instead they are to think carefully and discerningly about their relationship and interactions with the culture and society into which they were born and in which they are now born anew. Let's review a few of these instances:

1. Earlier, in 2:15, Paul characterized the mission of the Philippian church as those who shine like bright lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. The calling of God's people to reflect his gospel in word and deed is often characterized as being a light to the world (e.g. Matthew 5:14) and in Philippians Paul's intent in invoking this metaphor seems to be one of positive challenge. Suffering and persecution will come but he is hopeful that the Christians at Philippi will not yield to the temptation to succumb to despair and cynicism, but instead will continue to shine forth as bright lights to those who have not yet come to know God's love through faith in Christ. (For a more detailed discussion of this see the Homily Recap from (Tuesday, September 8, 2009)

2. In 1:27-29 we have another example of Paul encouraging the Philippians to stay on mission in the face of suffering. 1:27 could be translated this way: “Let your civic conduct (politeuesthe) be marked by your commitment to the gospel of Christ” (translation from Jeph Holloway, Cross and Community: Philippians as Pauline Political Discourse, Christian Ethics Today, Issue 42). Moreover, the Philippians, in the face of suffering, are to in no way "be intimidated" or diverted from their mission, as they are encouraged (v29) to view the story of their lives as belonging to the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Jesus lived to bring the love of God to others and did not allow suffering to divert him from the mission of God; the Philippians Christians belong to that story, hence they are not only those who believe in Jesus but suffer with him. Fred Craddock's words are helpful: "They cannot assume that outside opposition in and of itself will create internal unity. Even if it did it would be a unity defined by the opposition. Therefore the church must struggle together for the 'faith of the gospel'. If they cease to act and simply react, then it is no longer the gospel but the culture that gives the church its identity (From Philippians Commentary, Interpretation Series)". (For a more detailed discussion see the Homily Recap from Monday, July 6, 2009.)

Finally, in the remarks before us this week (4:8-9) we have yet another example of Paul's concern that God's people not imagine that their loyalty to Jesus should be construed as a call to escape from a dynamic involvement in their social/cultural setting. Our first clue that Paul has this in mind comes from the list of virtues he mentions. The list, what it covers, the way it is written, its grammar and its formatting all point to the fact that he is borrowing his language and categories from the Graeco-Roman world of ethical discourse, teachings on the good life. It was common in the great philosophers of Greek and Rome to talk about what is honorable, just, pure, etc. So, Paul is saying, understand your identity as a Christian not as a call to escape from the world but as a way to engage constructively the honorable, the just, the commendable wherever one finds it. As Christians, we should be eager to partner with those outside of the church to make contributions to the common good in the arenas of social justice, works of mercy, the arts, etc. It is unattractive when Christians make it seem that they believe that only the Christians are making important contributions to the world.

With regard to the relationship between church and culture, I have found N.T. Wright's remarks to be helpful:
'From the beginning no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my culture, so I must adapt the gospel to fit within it’, just as no serious Christian has been able to say ‘this is my surrounding culture, so I must oppose it tooth and nail’. Christians are neither chameleons, changing colour to suit their surroundings, nor rhinoceroses, ready to charge at anything in sight. There is no straightforward transference between any item of ordinary culture and the gospel, since all has been distorted by evil; but likewise there is nothing so twisted that it cannot be redeemed, and nothing evil in itself. The Christian is thus committed, precisely as a careful reader of scripture, to a nuanced reading of culture and a nuanced understanding of the response of the gospel to different elements of culture. You can see this in Philippians, where Paul is clear that as a Christian you must live your public life in a manner worthy of the gospel, and that whatever is pure, lovely and of good report must be celebrated – but also that Jesus is Lord while Caesar isn’t, and that we are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. There are no short cuts here, no easy answers. Prayer, scripture and complex negotiation are the order of the day."N.T. Wright

Questions for discussion:

1. When are you tempted to be a chameleon (see above)? What makes you susceptible to this temptation? How can you guard against it?

2. When are you tempted to be a rhinoceros (see above)? What make sou susceptible to this temptation? How can you guard against this?

3. Can you give a good example of what it looks like to constructively engage the culture as a Christian or as the church?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

when Peace=Security and Security becomes an Idol

I recently heard Tim Keller, the Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, speak about his new book, Counterfeit Gods. In the book he helps his readers understand that at the heart of the human condition is a sinful tendency to make idols out of just about anything. In his book he taps a rich vein of contemplative theologians within our Christian tradition as he explores our susceptibility to place the weight of the affections of our heart on everything from sexual gratification to the addiction of pleasing people. As I heard him talk and reflected on the passage we are looking at Philippians right now I thought about how many of us are tempted to make security and safety into an idol. In Philippians 4, Paul promises that the Christian who relies upon the Lord in prayer will be guarded by the peace of God. The word which is often translated, "guard", is a Greek word commonly used in military contexts, invoking an image that God's peace would be, for the Philippians Christians, a garrison around them. But he is telling them this as he is in prison and even as he is warning them that the same persecution will come to them. So, the question arises naturally, what is the peace of God that is promised? We talked about this some last week (for that discussion please consult the previous homily recap) but for the sake of continuity I include here the last paragraph from that recap:

"Jesus mourns well and Jesus hopes well; and, he does so with us, in us, and through us. This is at the heart of what it means to be guarded by God's peace in Christ Jesus. Guarded in a peace that passes understanding is not about being comforted by an idea or an abstract truth; it is about being comforted by Jesus himself as we are drawn more and more into his life. Rather than attempting to escape pain and suffering as we so often do through all manner of sinful and destructive behavior, Jesus weeps with us and for us, inviting us to do the same. Rather than shying away from the pain of others or simply trying to make them feel like everything will be OK, Jesus shares in their suffering and beckons us to do likewise. Instead of offering intellectual answers to the problem of pain, Jesus embraces us in his love and brings us to the hope of the resurrection. Instead of taking on the identity of a victim, Jesus unites us to him as one to whom the future is open to redemption."

So, the peace of God that affects us is not the absence of pain, fear, suffering, and even persecution. Neither is the experience of God's peace a stoic face-down of pain. Rather, the peace of God is the presence of Jesus in the midst of fear, suffering, and adversity. But it is not a static experience of Jesus' presence that Paul has in mind, for the actions and movements of the Philippian Christians are in view: "let your gentleness be evident to all". It is fair to say that Paul is concerned that the Philippian church not let their fear and anxiety eclipse their mission to give and receive Christ's love to one another and to those outside of their Christian community. So, the garrison of Christ's peace which will guard them does not guard them so that they may be safe from harm and danger, but their confidence in their ultimate destiny in Christ frees them to continue to give an receive love even in terrible times.

As Christian people in Chicago today our fears and anxieties are different in many ways from the church to which Paul wrote this letter. Each of us is responsible to hear those edifying words and think imaginatively and prayerfully about how they apply to our own circumstances.

In instances of anxiety and fear over loss of jobs and financial security, health, relationship struggles, etc. we must be careful to be honest about our fears and sadness and not pretend that the peace of God and the hope of the resurrection keep us from sadness. Moreover, as a Christian community we must be the sort of community which encourages honesty over fears and struggles and offers sympathy and empathy to those who struggle. Not allowing these fears to eclipse our mission to love and be loved as Christ has loved us does not come at the price of denying our frailty and confusion. I think what is to be prayed for and striven towards is a dynamic equilibrium (dynamic equilibrium, I think comes from C.F.D. Moule and is not original with me) wherein we grieve "but not as those who grieve without hope"; we grieve but we also have joy in the midst of the grief. We grieve but we still love and receive love.

In instances where we think of God's rule protecting us from harm we need to remember that we can turn security into an idol. Recently Miroslav Volf said the following at a lecture series at Yale's Center for Faith and Culture - the title of the series was "Are we Safe Yet?". One purpose of the series was to help Christians in the post 9/11 world think about how to tell when an obsession with security violates a gospel motivated affirmation of regarding a certain degree of vulnerability as quintessential to what it means to be human. Here is Volf: "vulnerability is obviously the reason why we pursue security. If we were not vulnerable, the question of security would never arise. I’m a theologian, and presumably I can say with some degree of confidence that God needs no security force to protect God’s throne. God is by definition inviolable. Human beings are not by definition inviolable. We need to have our existence and our well being secured. That is why those lights flash on the buses when kids get on and off of them; that’s why we lock our homes at night and sometimes also during the day; that’s why we have a police force, and so on. But vulnerability also touches on security in another way: human vulnerability places a limit on the pursuit of security. It determines in part, or at least shapes in part, the nature of what it means to be secure. For vulnerability is fundamental to who we are as human beings. To be inviolable is to be divine; to be human is to be, and I think is always to remain, vulnerable. You can almost put it this way, that vulnerability is the essential condition of human life. No vulnerability, no human life."

Now, many of you reading this will immediately evaluate some or all of what Volf says here in light of your political theory. Some of you will think he is right on, others will think he is not being pacifistic enough, while others of you will find the direction he is taking to be naive (it would be hard, though, to call him naive since he has served in the military in the former Yugoslavia, was persecuted for his faith under the communist regime, and witnessed the ethnic cleansing undertaken in the war Serbian/Croatian war). At any rate, I think that all of us, regardless of our view of America's place in the world around these issues of "security", need to be careful to remember that, as Christians, we confess that the mission of the church cannot be ultimately defined by a quest to be secure. It is rather the case that to follow Jesus is to embrace always a certain degree of vulnerability.

Finally, we talked on Sunday about how many of us can make being safe and secure against potential hurt into an idol. C.S. Lewis speaks chillingly about this in the Four Loves:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” - C.S. Lewis

Questions for discussion:

1. What does it look like to have joy in the midst of suffering? Can one be sad and joyful at the same time?

2. A friend comes to you and says: "I want to move out of the city because I don't feel safe here anymore. Can you help me think through whether this is consistent with the gospel?"
How would you help your friend? What questions would you ask? What principles could you offer?

3. Another friend comes to you and says: "I am not going to open myself up to anyone again after my last relationship ended the way it did. Am I justified in doing this?" How would you help this friend? What questions would you ask? What principles could you offer?

4. Another friend comes up to you and says: "I just spoke with Jezebel and she told me that I should get over being sad and walk in the peace of Christ. She said my faith was weak, but I am still sad in the wake of my family's recent tragedy. I want to have joy, what does that look like?" What would you say to this friend?

5. How can you tell if you have made security into an idol?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

the Peace of God will guard your hearts in Christ Jesus

This week we came to a passage in Philippians which is very familiar to many of us who grew up with a knowledge of the Bible. Philippians 4:6......"Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." I fear, though, that in some instances, we have become so familiar with this passage that we do not stop to think about what is really meant by these encouraging words. For instance, does Paul mean that if we pray in the way he exhorts us to that we will never or rarely worry, be sad, or doubt God's goodness in the midst of adverse circumstances? Does the peace that surpasses all understanding speak mainly to our interior emotional state or does it have as much if not more to do with the way we relate to suffering in our lives and the lives of others.

In order to get at what Paul means and doesn't mean in this passage we need to think about the peace of which is he is speaking as the peace of Jesus' kingdom, recalling that the Roman Empire celebrated the peace of the empire in quasi-religious language even as it celebrated Caesar as savior and lord. Just as Paul crafts his language in chapter 2 of this letter to remind the Philippians that Jesus is Savior, Lord, and King over against Caesar, here he proclaims Jesus' peace as the true peace of which Rome's peace is an absurd distortion, a parody. So, as we approach Paul's remarks about the peace of Jesus' kingdom let's begin by thinking together about what clues Jesus offers us in these words to his disciples in John 14: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives."

The world's offers of peace come in all shapes and sizes. Many of Jesus' contemporaries wanted him to draw on the resources of this world's ideas of how to achieve peace by taking up the vocation of a violent Messiah who would rule according to political power and military might. This approach was in the same family of peace ideas that Rome offered its subjects - to those loyal to the Caesar there would be peace. But this peace was propped up by the violence of a tyrant and did not extend to anyone who dissented. But Jesus, it seems, also has in mind how the disciples will perceive and be blessed by the peace he will give - not like the world gives.

Jesus' disciples and the Philippian Christians would undergo fear, confusion, anxiety, and discouragement as they had to wrestle with persecution and threats of persecution. Moreover, they were, in general, regarded with disdain by many, as they were perceived to be threats to the public life of the rest of the world. In the face of this trouble they are to "not let their hearts be troubled" and to trust in Jesus' peace which surpasses all understanding. As we unpack how Jesus' peace affects them (and us) I suggest that it is Jesus' compassionate presence with his people, through the Holy Spirit, that is the "peace of God which surpasses all understanding". This is suggested by the overall context of Jesus' remarks in John's gospel about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the risen Lord Jesus, and by Paul's remarks that God's peace will guard us "in Christ Jesus" (see Philippians 4). "In Christ Jesus" is one of Paul's favorite shorthand phrases which expresses the deep theological truth that we are united to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, as he is present to us through the same Spirit.

So, how is Jesus' presence with us a comfort? Here, I find Rowan Williams (from his book, the Truce of God) to be of help as he writes: "Christ's peace, then is given us as we are drawn into his world, as we enter his space. When we hear the good news of peace we do not comfortably relax in the confidence that a particularly tricky problem has been solved. On the contrary, we are invited to live in the world of Jesus - which means bearing as he did the tensions of knowing the full force both of hope and of grief.... we are aware of ourselves and the whole world as objects of an infinite compassion which calls us to the same compassion and sustains us as we try to embody it..... having seen how decisively in Jesus this faith can reconstruct the patterns of human relations and the forms of corporate life, we enter on the project of compassion, trusting in its re-creative power."

Jesus mourns well and Jesus hopes well; and, he does so with us, in us, and through us. This is at the heart of what it means to be guarded by God's peace in Christ Jesus. Guarded in a peace that passes understanding is not about being comforted by an idea or an abstract truth; it is about being comforted by Jesus himself as we are drawn more and more into his life. Rather than attempting to escape pain and suffering as we so often do through all manner of sinful and destructive behavior, Jesus weeps with us and for us, inviting us to do the same. Rather than shying away from the pain of others or simply trying to make them feel like everything will be OK, Jesus shares in their suffering and beckons us to do likewise. Instead of offering intellectual answers to the problem of pain, Jesus embraces us in his love and brings us to the hope of the resurrection. Instead of taking on the identity of a victim, Jesus unites us to him as one to whom the future is open to redemption.

1. Can you offer some examples from our cultural setting of bogus offers of peace which tempt you to turn away from the peace of Christ?

2. What role does prayer play in our participation in Jesus' peace? Read Philippians 4:4-7 before you answer this question.

3. What role do you think being vibrantly involved in the community of the local church plays in being affected rightly by Jesus' peace?

4. In the last sentence we refer to the future being open to redemption? How does this keep us from identifying ourselves as victims when we suffer?

Monday, October 19, 2009

the big story

We have been studying Paul's letter to the Philippians together for quite a while now. We are taking our time with it, looking at it verse by verse. While this approach is a great way to study God's word there are some drawbacks that need addressing. For example, looking at Scripture in bits and pieces like this can result in a scenario where one can't see the forest for the trees. The forest, in this case, is the great story of what God is doing in the world through the gospel. In Jesus' life, death and resurrection, God has revealed his love to all; and, through the church's embrace of the gospel, God is bringing redemption into this world through the transformation of individual lives. Though Paul tells it in many ways, the story, that God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, is the big story in which all of the bits and pieces have their meaning. Let's look at some examples of what we are talking about.

When we come upon an exhortation by Paul to imitate him (3:17vv.) we ask ourselves, "how does the bigger story help me understand this somewhat cryptic challenge?" The answer, of course, is that the only sort of imitating of Paul that would make sense within the bigger story would have to be an imitation of Paul's love for God's forgiveness and mercy which is found in the cross of Christ. Rather, than fumbling around for ideas of what a wooden imitation of Paul would like (e.g. Paul was a preacher, we should take stock and ask how we can imitate this in our lives; or, Paul made lots of sacrifices and so should we), we are invited to imitate Paul in his neediness and vulnerability. The one who counted everything for loss that he would have - at one point - counted for gain, lives very near the foot of the cross. When we imitate his proximity to the cross of Christ we are brought to the place where we may receive the same grace and power Paul did so that God's love might come to animate us in our unique skin and in our particular life-circumstances.

Take another example: Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to be unified (4:2). With this verse we ought to ask, "why and how?". Here, Paul's version of the "big story" peculiar to his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:1-11) is immensely helpful; for, when he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind, he is echoing the big story. In 2:2&5 we are to have the same mind as Christ Jesus by participating in his self-giving love, regarding others as better than ourselves. Hence, Euodia and Syntyche are given a rationale and means for reconciliation: they are to show the gospel to be at work in their community by participating in the gospel as it relates to their disagreement. There is no room for private agendas in the work of the kingdom because Jesus's self-giving love is pulling us to work together, setting aside our private agendas for the common good. Euodia and Syntyche are to love one another as Jesus has loved each of them.

For Paul, the truest and most fulfilling life consists in living in joyful response to God's redeeming work in the world.

Suffering is to be endured because our suffering does not mean that God's love for us or others will be thwarted. Rather than becoming crippled by suffering and turning inward, God's work in us through the gospel gives us the joyful strength to love and be loved in the midst of extreme adversity. (Philippians 1:12-30)

Rather than limiting our growth and development by what we can imagine we are capable of given our intellectual, religious, emotional, and moral resources,the gospel invites us to ask God to give us newness of life. Amazingly, when we quit managing our sin according to our calculus of self-justification and self-loathing, love and creativity take over where they never lived before. (3:7-14)

Finally, we are to live the whole of of our lives not in fear of failure or in absurd self-reliance but in humble joy; our future belongs to the Lord. This is what Paul means when he says that we are working out our own salvation (2:12-14). In sobering awe (my paraphrase of fear and trembling), we respond joyfully to what God is doing in the world because he is in the one at work in our midst. We are those who know where we are going because the one who has gone before us is the one who also meets us along our way (3:20-21) this is the big story.

Questions for discussion

1. How can the idea of the big story discussed above help you think about your life's circumstances when you get bogged down in the miry clay of sin, disappointment or failure?

2. What are some ways we devise to keep ourselves from living in joyful response to the big story? What are some lies that we tell ourselves that keep us away from a joyful response to God's work in the world? Your answer will vary according to individual circumstances, of course, and if you are doing this in a group discussion think about what is appropriate to share for the whole group.

3. When suffering and adversity come upon you how do you respond? Sometimes, suffering and adversity call into question in our hearts and minds whether there is a big story at all. What do you do when you feel yourself questioning at that level?

Monday, October 12, 2009

unity in the church: Jesus cares about our relationships

We came this past Sunday to the passage in Philippians where we meet two leaders in the church who are apparently in need of reconciling to one another. Their names are Euodia and Syntyche. Here are the passages I read prior to the homily:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. I hope therefore to send him as soon as I see how things go with me; and I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.(2:19-24)

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.(4:2-5)

Most New Testament teachers agree that the conflict between these two sisters in Christ is a conflict related to the working out of the mission of the church in Philippi (in other words, it is most likely not foremost a personal conflict with two people over something personal in nature). It is certainly helpful for us to consider what we might learn from how Paul addresses this sort of conflict since, as a young church, we are bound to wrestle with these interpersonal issues in the life of our church. However, there are things that we can learn from how Paul addresses that particular issue that are generally applicable to situations where we are in conflict with others or are witnesses to those who are in conflict. So, now let's take a look at how Paul approaches the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche.

Were Euodia and Syntyche reconciled? We don't know. But what we have here is a treasure of an example of how to approach a difficult circumstance that so often occurs in the church - when people get sideways with each other. Note, Paul does not presume to adjudicate the situation and declare one person right and one person wrong. This is not to say that there are not times to offer clear judgment for the protection of the peace of the church and the well being of the people. But this example reminds us that there are a great many instances when strained relationships have arisen from mistakes made on both sides; to bring the weight of judgment on the front-end of the process of reconciliation would actually be harmful because it would short-circuit the process of God's work in the hearts of those who have become estranged. Instead, Paul leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work. For example, through participation in Jesus' self-giving love in the power of the Spirit (see discussion below) each or both of the estranged parties might come to see her own mistakes more clearly while simultaneously acknowledging a mis-perception of the motives of the other. Or, through God's work of mercy and grace one might come to desire so powerfully to forgive the other that the need for judgment of right or wrong simply disappears in the renewed relationship, love covering a multitude of sins. In any event, Paul knew that true reconciliation can only come through participation in Jesus' self-giving love, through the Spirit's empowering presence. So, how does he encourage reconciliation based on this?

First, by appealing to both of them based on his love and respect for each of them. He showed respect by not rushing to judgment or taking sides (see above), and his love for them is implicit in Paul's naming their names. Far from shaming them (which is how naming their names might appear to us because of our cultural distance), friends were named in this way in ancient letter writing because of mutual affection and concern for the well being of the relationship. What we can learn from this is that many times a person will come to his senses when he is reminded that he is loved. Also, an aspect of showing his love and respect is manifested not just in his refusal to judge but in his refusal even to take sides or suggest that his "loyal companion" should take sides. He dignifies Euodia and Syntyche by asking them to work things out rather than telling them what they should do in a hand-holding or patronizing way. Secondly, he encourages reconciliation by appealing to another friend, the loyal companion, to help. In appealing to his "loyal companion", Paul is signaling to Euodia and Syntyche that their disagreement is not a private matter but is taking its toll on the peace of the community. Sometimes it takes a realization that our sins of omission or commission are hurting others in order for us to come to our senses. Now, let's look at Paul's specific exhortation to the two women.

He urges the two of them to be of the "same mind in the Lord". This language about being of the "same mind in the Lord" may seem too flowery, sentimental and ethereal to offer any substantive application. However, we realize this is far from the case when we note that Paul is deliberately echoing his exhortation from chapter 2 when he says, "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus". The appeal, then, to Euodia and Syntyche is in substance to look to Christ's self-giving love as the pattern and means by which they should re-approach each other. Without knowing specifics I could imagine an approach where pattern and means are thought about in this way: pattern - that each of them should follow in Jesus' cruciform pattern of setting aside his own interests for the interests of others. In this spirit each of them should be willing to humble herself so that she might find out how much pride and selfishness have contributed to the rift. By means, I mean that each of them should seek, in diligent prayer, God's superabundant gift of Jesus' self-giving love so that each of them would be empowered to express to the other a desire to be reconciled and then begin the hard work for reconciliation in that same power.

As we said earlier, we do not know if Euodia or Syntyche were reconciled. But what we do have here is an example of how to honestly work for reconciliation. Sometimes, we work for and desire reconciliation for our entire lives without seeing it come in some situations. While not giving up in our hearts, we may reach a point where we realize actual reconciliation is likely not going to happen in this life. But even in those instances, Paul's example offers guidelines that enable us to live in managed hope, reminding us that (a) we are to treat those with whom we disagree with respect, refusing to demonize them, and (b) to ask the Lord to be at work to bring his grace and mercy to bear on the relationship, trusting the future to him.

Finally, behind all of Paul's concerns above are some assumptions about community that we need to make sure we share as a church.
the common good is more important than the desires of any one individual (for example, if I can take a moment of personal privilege to illustrate this point, as the founding minister of the church I can say with confidence that if it were up to me I would give way to my individual desires for Grace Chicago Church but instead I deliberately set those aside for the common good, and work with a plurality of opinions and advice to help give shape to the culture and programs of the church)
the self becomes who he or she is supposed to become through the process of being in a church community where a strong value is placed on regarding the others' needs as more important than one's own
authority in the church is manifested in the spirit of self-giving love and in the patient bearing witness to the gospel

Questions for discussion:

1. What might we learn from Paul's refusal to take sides in this matter between Euodia and Syntyche?

2. Drawing from some of the ideas mentioned above, please explain why it is important to be patient when involved in helping two people be reconciled. Also, if you are trying to be reconciled to someone, could you explain why it is important that you be patient in that process?

3. Would you say that you have a healthy concern for being reconciled to people when their is a fissure in your relationship with them? If so, what has taught you to pay attention to this area in your life? If not, how can you work on this aspect of your life?

4. How can you know when it is appropriate to stop actively seeking reconciliation if the other party is unwilling? How can you stop actively seeking reconciliation and guard against bitterness and other sins?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

friends of the cross/enemies of the cross

This past Sunday we came to this passage in our series on Philippians:

Philippians 3:17~21
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you
have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I
tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame;
their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we
are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that
it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things
subject to himself.

In this passage we meet Paul with a broken heart. Why is his heart broken? Because many have chosen a life of stubbornly resisting God's love found in the cross of Christ. For Paul, there are two ways to live: to glory in oneself or in the cross of Christ (or, as Bob Dylan put it, "you got to serve somebody; it may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you got to serve somebody".) To glory in the the cross is to acknowledge regularly our need for forgiveness and love; and to confess that our reason and desires left to our own understanding will lead us to self-destruction. To glory in the cross is to offer our desire to love and be loved to the one who can love us the best. To glory in the cross is to desire Jesus' self-giving love to come to control our choices and attitudes more and more, having the same mind as Christ Jesus => that he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but gave himself away even to death on the cross. And, to glory in the cross is to repent of the occasions when we attempt to find in cheap substitutes the life and love that only God can give.

My colleague, Chuck DeGroat of City Church San Francisco, through a discussion of the fruits of the spirit has offered a helpful way of understanding the difference between the true life Christ offers and the life where we attempt to create our own glory and satisfaction to our shame:

Chuck: "I’ve found that my prayer in recent years has become a simple one: Hide my life in yours, Jesus. It comes from St. Paul: For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. This is vintage ‘New Exodus’ Paul. It’s the death-to-life pattern of Jesus, living out the Exodus pattern of Israel. We were lost in the wilderness, but now we’re found – found to God, found to others, found to ourselves.

I hide in a thousand other things. I avoid God, and in doing so avoid myself in the many false selves and false identities I live out of. After a while, I’ve forgotten myself, and feel lost to God. Descending into the wilderness, I am stripped of these counter-identities, and reminded of my Eden-born identity as God’s image, never completely lost but hidden as a treasure in God’s heart. The lessons of the wilderness are hard. I find that I’m stripped of reputation, identity-through-achievement, love when I want it, progress on my terms, and more. But as we’ve said before, it is a stripping down which actually reveals our hidden life in God, our real selves, our deepest identity.

The journey up and out of the wilderness leads to the freedom of life as it was meant to be lived. And St. Paul gives definition to that, as well. He calls it “fruit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Love, once mis-directed to a thousand false loves, is now re-directed and renewed in its First Love. Joy, once found in a temporary pleasure that could be bought or controlled at will, is now found in longing, sometimes without immediate gratification, for the greater Joy. Peace, defined as conflict avoidance and repressed desire, now becomes a verb – the renewal of shalom, the re-ordering of relationships and the reconciliation of those at war with one another. Patience, replaced by remote-controls that falsely convince us that we can control pleasure and quick spiritual fixes which sell us on 3 steps to our best life, now finds renewal in a heart that waits longingly for a deeper satisfaction. Kindness, domesticated in fixed smiles on Christian faces, now becomes a risky compassion (suffering with another) that deepens relationship and bestows dignity on another. Faithfulness, crushed into definitions mandating dogmatic certainty at the expense of relationship, now flourishes in commitment to living out (delightfully) the command to love our neighbors and relentlessly pursue (rather than demonize) those we differ with. Gentleness, exposing our need to power over and control, invites a vulnerability which may in fact expose our weakness but show Christ’s strength. Self-control, rather than a behavioral call to pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps, actually manifests in surrender to God, which can feel like being out-of-control to control freaks like me.

These are the fruits of the New Exodus journey." - From drchuckdegroat.wordpress.com

Questions for discussion:

1. Paul urges and imitation of him as a way of not being an enemy of the cross. But what does the one who said that he regards everything as loss have to imitate? Use this passage as a way of thinking about what imitating Paul would like:

"Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith." Philippians 3:7-9

2. Pick one of the fruits of the spirit that Chuck talks about above and use it as a framework for talking about why it is difficult to embrace life according to God's gracious rule and provision. In other words, why do we prefer our own fruit to God's?

3. Paul says that he is weeping over those who are enemies of the cross. How does his emotional response help you think about your own emotional responses to your sin and the sins of others?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God's Promises vs. Empty Promises

When we meet Paul's language about circumcision in his other letters and in chapter 3 of Philippians we know that we are encountering an issue that was very hot for Paul. In his letter to the church at Galatia it was almost the only thing he talked about. This is because in the teaching of those who tried to persuade the church that Gentile Christians must convert to the Mosaic law in order to be true believers Paul saw a great danger to the gospel. In Paul's world, circumcision and the keeping of Torah were not symbolic of a humble people following Yahweh in faith and repentance, awaiting an opportunity to share God's love with the Gentiles and the whole world. Instead, circumcision and Torah-keeping were outward signs which symbolized (1) the point of view that God was more interested in rule keeping and ritual than he was the condition of one's heart and (2) an attitude of spiritual pride based on ethnic superiority. This had been Paul's life until he had come to understand that Christ's revelation of God on the cross was the true circumcision of the heart that the old fleshly symbol of circumcision had only pointed to. This is why Paul can refer to himself and the Philippian Christians as "the circumcision" (3:3) and the false teachers as "dogs" (3:2). Those who belong to Christ in faith and repentance are those who have the circumcision of the heart. Those who would argue for the circumcision of Gentile Christians are referred to not as those who want to circumcise but as those who want to mutilate (3:2); and he drills home the seriousness of his position with another bit of word play, accusing these mutilators of being "dogs" (ironically, the term many of the Jews of Paul's day used disparagingly of Gentiles).

Does Paul's rhetoric here suggest that he who often admonished to love one's enemies is guilty of not practicing what he preached? I would suggest the answer to this is mainly no. First of all, we can't tell from what he says in this letter all of what he was wrestling with in his heart. If he is like most of us, and there is no reason to think that he wasn't, he probably had flashes of rage at his enemies which he then had to deal with before the Lord of grace and mercy. But we must remember that Paul had been dogged by these "Judaizing" teachers since he began his work of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. If his words sound confrontational and angry it is because they are. But his stern frustration is directed primarily towards the position of the teachers which he sees as a contradiction to the truth about what God has done in the death of Jesus on the cross. A concern that the gospel be rightly taught and rightly believed should register deep emotional responses from all of us.

Now, let's turn to some application. It is helpful for us to remember that Paul's rationale for evaluating what opposed the gospel is as important as the conclusions he drew from it. In short, Paul understood that Jesus' death on the cross meant that to look for God other than on the cross is futile. In the Christ poem of Philippians 2, the pagan approach is shown to be futile and the exact opposite of Christ's self-giving love. The quasi-divine Caeasar was given the most honor in the Roman scheme, while slaves and those crucified on the cross were at the bottom of the heap. Similarly, to look for God in Torah-keeping was futile because that rules-based scheme did not look for God's love and acceptance at the cross. Ultimately, to deceive oneself into thinking that one has found God anywhere other than in the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross is a sure-fire way to believe in empty promises which separate one from the love of Jesus.

On the other hand, the power of the gospel enables us to see the world more and more as God sees the world. When we see the world through the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross we are given the wisdom and power to break with the empty promises made to us by self-absorbed love. Since none of us have been asked to keep Torah lately or worship the emperor, let's think of some examples more common to us of the empty promises of self-absorbed love.

1. The empty promise that I will be better off by regarding myself as better than others in order to justify my lack of love for them.
2. The empty promise that it is better to control my inner life by my habits of self-loathing even when it means that to do so is to shut myself off from God's love and the mutual love of others.
3. The empty promise of measuring your own worth and the worth of others by their material success instead of seeing each person as uniquely valuable to God.
4. The empty promise of worshiping sex rather than seeing as it as a gift to be adorned with and nurtured by mutual promises of fidelity and a love that surrounds and protects.

Each of the above examples require a lot of self-deception on our part: a great deal of confusion about where to find God and his love. But this is what life is like when we look for God's love apart from the cross of Christ - we meet ourselves as a twisted caricature, turned inward and mangled like narcissistic origami, crying from a lack of true love. The magnificent beauty of the cross of Christ is that at the cross the exploitative power that comes from self-absorbed love is defeated by the power of Christ's self-giving love. So, through the cross of Christ we are helped to see our self-deception for what it is and, in repentance, find our self-absorption, over time, transformed into Jesus' love. It is not for spiritual pride that Christ died on the cross; it is not for the exclusion of those we regard as our enemies that he died on the cross; it is not so that we may remain locked in our self-absorbed prisons that he died on the cross. He died on the cross to create a new community, a new humanity where human beings flourish based upon the consistent manifestation of self-giving love, given, received, given again, received again..... repeat.

Questions for discussion:

1. Do you resort to rule-keeping to measure how well you experience and understand God's love for you? Give an example that is suitable for the group. Why is it so tempting to reduce our relationship to God to rules. Does your rule keeping extend to your evaluation of others? If so, how so?

2. If self-deception is easier to come by than we would care to admit, how can we get free of it? What helps us focus on the gospel and take us away from self-deception? Does community play a role in this? If so, how?

3. It is through his self-giving love that God accomplishes the atonement of our sins and the redemption of this fallen world and there is a strong suggestion in the Christ-poem of chapter two in Philippians that Christ's self-giving love at work in us is the means to our transformation. If participation in Christ's self-giving is foundational to our relationship with ourselves, God, and others, how does it help us when we are in the throes of temptation to sin?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Circumcision? Come on, what's the big deal?

What's the big deal about circumcision? Well, here is some context that we will need to have in the back of our minds as we consider the overall thrust of Paul's discussion which we will take up below. From the beginning of Paul's ministry of church planting he was followed by a faction of Jewish "Christians" who insisted that Gentile converts be circumcised in order to be true followers of God; we also think they required adherence to the Old Testament ceremonial law in other ways. Paul regarded such teaching as poisonous because it took the focus off of Christ and Christ crucified. Circumcision was regarded by pre-Christian Paul as an ethnic and religious boundary marker, separating the pure lineage of Israel from the dirty Gentiles. This boundary marker is removed by the gospel and so it has no place in the Christian church. Now, on to the rest of the recap.

We have been working our way through Philippians and finding it relatively easy to get into Paul's thought world about the concerns he has for the flock in Philippi. He is in prison, likely in Rome, and wants to encourage this young church he planted not to lose heart on account of his suffering. In talking about his own suffering he sets the stage for the remarks he makes about what he anticipates to be their imminent suffering under Roman persecution. They are to take heart for the same reason he does. The gospel will not fail because it is God's work; the resurrection vindicated Christ's suffering and the suffering of Christians will be vindicated in the end because suffering in this fallen world never has the last word. The resurrection has the last word. This theme leads us straight into the poem about Jesus in chapter two and the revelation of the character of God in him. Rather than regarding equality with God as something to be exploited he humbled himself and gave himself away to the point of death. Here we meet suffering again. It is not that Jesus is willing to suffer for a while to be exalted - the way this passage is so often interpreted; it is rather the case that Jesus reveals true exaltation as consisting in giving rather than taking, even when it means death on a Roman cross. As someone has said, God is not the God of power and weakness, God is the God who reveals his power in weakness. This poem is also a direct confrontation to Rome and the way Rome looked at power. At the top of the heap in the Roman world was the Emperor, who presented himself as quasi-divine. At the bottom of the heap was anyone who dies on a Roman cross. The Caesar cult in Philippi would have celebrated this view of power by inscribing the words, "Caesar: savior and lord", on public facades and shouting them in the mantra of cultic worship. This rich poem about Christ and what he reveals about God serves as a reminder to the Philippians to seek their identity not in the power of the world but in the power of the crucified Christ who is the true savior and lord. It is this theme of power found in humility that carries over into the discussion about circumcision and gives us the context for for those remarks. There are several clues that point to this:

Paul traces the pattern of Jesus' refusal to exploit his power when he recounts his setting aside of his proud ethnic heritage ("whatever gains I have I count as loss") in order to become a Christian. Also, he echos the great theme of the Christ poem from chapter two when he says that knowing Jesus is to know him through cruciformity. (For our purposes let's define cruciformity this way: to have one's life shaped by the cross of Christ; finding one's identity and one's hope in the resurrection only through participation in Christ's suffering.)

The pattern of setting aside that which might be exploited and finding power in the crucified Lord is the pattern that is traced in the whole discussion about circumcision if we understand what circumcision really stood for in this context. Circumcision was the badge of honor that stood for favor with God. It had become in Jesus' time - and even before - an emblem of ethnic pride. Rather than a cruciform messiah who preached love of enemies, did love his enemies, and spoke the good news to Gentiles, many of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries wanted an ass-kicking Jesus to vanquish Rome in a bloody revolution. This is what being God's people meant to many of God's people and because Jesus subverted this approach he was seen as an enemy of God. It was this kind of Judaism that pre-Christian Paul had practiced and that led him to persecute the church murderously. This approach to knowing God he came to see as something to be set aside: Philippians 3:7 - "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8,More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ". Paul set aside that which he used to think of as true and Godly power, his proud ethnic heritage with circumcision as its emblem, and declared that what he really wants is to know Christ by sharing in his cruciform life: 3:10, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death".

Paul knew that the world's version of power that is always the enemy of the gospel could come to the church in a Roman version or through those who taught circumcision as necessary for true knowledge of God: either is dangerous and both he opposes.

Questions for discussion:

1. Though we are not being asked to be circumcised or to follow the Jewish ceremonial law in order to truly know God, what sorts of approaches to God might tempt us to turn from the cruciform Messiah and trust in human wisdom rather than in the wisdom of the cross?

2. Read this question (2) in total before you reflect on it.
Circumcision in the context in which we have been discussing it equaled ethnic and cultural pride. Do you think that we purposely or unwittingly claim Jesus in our own cultural and/or ethnic image? It is easy to see this sin in others (e.g. Serbian Christians who are wiling to kill Croatians in the name of ethnic pride) but when does it happen with people like you and me?

3. What sort of danger signs do you recognize in yourself that signal to you that you are about to pivot towards the world's vision of power and away from Christ crucified. How can you bring these demons to the surface and deal with them?

4. Is a desire to forgive one's enemies a measure of how much you take your identity from your participation in Christ's cruciform life? Why or why not?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

praying to become those who genuinely care for the welfare of others

Here is this recap for this week. Excuse the typos... I don't carefully edit this. Feel free to point out typos in your comments though (smile).

If you have been following these recaps you will know that we are lumbering through Paul's letter to the church in Philippi . As we move through the second chapter we have been noting that much of what Paul says by way of encouragement and challenge does not make sense unless it is heard, absorbed and applied within the context of Christian community. We noted last week that human relationships forged in Christian community are key to our individual growth in our experience of God's transforming love and grace. Paul brings this understanding of community to life quite vividly and tangibly by offering Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of two people who live their lives into the lives of others for the sake of the gospel. (Here it would be best to just read the whole of chapter 2 of Philippians).

Earlier in chapter two Paul had challenged the church to have as its mind the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. What would this look like in the church community? What do a group of people look like who are slowly but surely, imperfectly but steadily, becoming more and more controlled by Jesus self-giving love. One descriptor he uses as he introduces the poem of Jesus' self-giving love is that we ought not look to our own interests but to the interests of others since we are, in humility, to regard others as better than ourselves. Certainly what Paul does not mean in this is that we are never to look after our own affairs or well being - if we were to live that way we would have no self to give and nothing to share. No, and at the risk of redundancy, what Paul has in mind is that our whole beings would be taken over by Christ's self-giving love as the Holy Spirit grows his love in us. As this happens, we will naturally reflect Jesus' concern for others in our thoughts and actions.

Now, let's come back to Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul devotes a great many words to these two who are already known to the church and he crafts his language carefully in order to echo what has already come before. Note well: Timothy is coming to them precisely because he has looked to the interests of Jesus and not to his own (hear the echo from earlier in the chapter?) and Epaphroditus is obviously included in this category of person because of the way Paul talks of his great sacrifices for the gospel. Paul wants the Philippians and us to see in Epaphroditus and Timothy as walking, talking, flesh and blood examples of the sort of people we are to become. We should pray that God makes us into people who can be commended to others as those who will be "genuinely concerned for welfare (2:20)".

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in his popular commentary, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Epistles, points out that we often have a long list of things we are looking for in a minister that come before the simple description of Timothy offered here, as one who will genuinely care for the welfare of the Philippians. Surely we must want our pastors to be those who handle scripture responsibly, lead worship sincerely, safe-guard the orthodoxy passed on to us, etc. and we see much of this discussed in Paul's' Pastoral Epistles. But if he or she does not genuinely care for the welfare of the God's people the rest does not much matter. Now, let's turn to the question of what it looks like to genuinely care for the welfare of others (this is a trait all Christians should want to be characteristic of them).

I mentioned in the homily that I used to run screaming whenever anyone in the church declared themselves to genuinely care for my welfare - all I could imagine is the busy-body approach to discipleship that is built on a model of Christians who regard themselves as better than other Christians helping the Christians who are not their equal to become better. Yuk. Thankfully, Paul paints a different picture of what genuinely caring for the welfare of others may be like. Our first clue is in the first part of chapter two where we are encouraged to not think of ourselves as better than others but in fact to think of others as better than us. This sort of humility is muted, absent or converts to spiritual pride when Christians set out to pull others "up to their level". To genuinely care for the welfare of others begins with a sincere concern to connect others to the redeeming and renewing love of God found in the gospel by revealing our weakness to them (of course within appropriate and respectful boundaries). Our connection point with others is on the ground we share in our mutual brokenness acknowledged as such. Spiritual maturity that leads, so to speak, is a vulnerable leading that points first and last to the solidarity we share as people who sin and are all-together in need of God's forgiveness. The atonement, of course, is the perfect model for this - God makes solidarity with us before he does anything else: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Questions for discussion:

1. Give an example of how you can bring the gospel to someone else in a way that genuinely cares for them and their welfare in a way that makes them feel your solidarity with them. Give an example of how you can bring the gospel to someone in a way that makes them feel inferior to you or someone else in the church.

2. Why are boundaries important when you are being vulnerable?

3. What happens to us when we think of ourselves as better than others?

4. Is it possible to confront someone while maintaining an attitude of not thinking of yourself as better than them? Is it possible to confront someone and do so in self-giving, self-sacrificial love? What does this look? What does it not look like?

Bonus Question: What Greek god or goddess is Epaphroditus named for?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

bright lights shining

Philippians 2:14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 16It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. 17But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— 18and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Given the overall pastoral concerns that Paul has for this young church, especially his desire that they be unified and reconciled to one another, it is not surprising that we would encounter the exhortation "to do all things without murmuring and arguing". The phrase uses a word that echos Old Testament language, referring to the period of Israel's life when they grumbled and murmured in in the desert (Paul also uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 10:10, invoking the same period of Israel's life, as a sober warning to the Corinthians to take stock of their need for renewed faith and repentance).

Paul often, in shorthand fashion, retells Israel's story in order to help the church understand her mission as a continuation of Israel's vocational calling, to be a light to the world. However, each time he does so he retells the story so as to make a particular point within a specific context. In the context of his overall concerns in his letter to the Philippians it is likely that Paul was concerned about what impact persecution and suffering would have on the community with regard to their relationships with each other. The pressures that come with suffering in general, and persecution in particular, often tempt those who are in pain to be suspicious towards everyone - even their friends, to allow cynicism to replace faith, and to doubt God's promises and goodness. Israel, even right on the heals of the Exodus, doubted God's gracious promises and wished to return to slavery in Egypt because at least in Egypt they knew what they would eat and where they would live. Paul anticipates this temptation to come upon this community and wishes to head it off by reminding the Philippians of the great promises of God in the gospel, promises for now and the world to come that have been ratified in this broken world through Jesus' resurrection from the dead. To drill this point home he evokes the Israel story again when he calls the Philippians bright lights shining in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.

Interestingly, "the crooked and perverse generation" language was originally applied to Israel in Deuteronomy 32 but the Philippians are referred to instead as bright lights and not a crooked and perverse generation. This kind of retelling of Israel's story prompted the theologian Karl Barth to refer to it as something like a triumphant parody of the Deuteronomy narrative. New Testament scholar Frank Thielman puts it this way: "Pauls' language seems to be formulated to signal the Philippians' status as the newly constituted people of God, who unlike Israel of old unblemished and who rather than constituting a crooked and perverse generation, stand in contrast to it (From Story of Israel, ed. Marvin Pate)." In the gospel God has brought his promises of redemption to a climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who has succeeded where Israel (and you and I) have failed; any crookedness and perversity that remains in the world remains because it has not yet been conquered by the gospel. So, in the end Paul's pastoral concerns for the interior life of the Philippian church community prompt him to remind them of their mission to demonstrate the gospel in word and deed even to those who may become their persecutors, for in so doing they will, in turn, experience God's grace and love themselves.
Questions for discussion:

1. Why is it so tempting to run from the freedom of the gospel back into slavery?

2. What, in Paul's retelling of Israel's story, is particular encouraging to you?

3. If the gospel is always triumphant why do we need to be encouraged to keep on track? Does the passage about "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling knowing that it is God at work in you" help you answer this question?

4. How does being reminded of our mission to be bright lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation help us keep focused on the gospel? Do you think Paul calls those outside of the Christian community a crooked and perverse generation in order to make the Philippian Christians feel superior to those outside of the church? Why does their attitude to outsiders matter - what difference does this make?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

God is at work in our midst

We meet in this passage from Philippians an awesome truth: God is at work in the midst of Christ's church. "... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." We sometimes miss the significance of the "God is at work in you" part of this verse because we get caught up in trying to figure out what Paul means by "work out your salvation". When we finally get around to thinking about what he means by "God is at work in you" we consider its meaning in a limited way, regarding it as Paul's way of clarifying his remarks about our need to work out our salvation. We imagine Paul turning the phrase, "work out your own salvation" and immediately thinking to himself, "I need to make sure that they don't think I am saying that their "working out of their salvation" contributes to their salvation so I need to remind them that it is God who is really the one who is at work. Thinking about these verses in this hyper-individualistic framework tells us more about our concerns than it does about Paul's. Paul is not here concerned about the doctrine of salvation by grace alone and through faith alone (though, we think he teaches this in the whole of his theology). Here he is concerned with the Christian community in the form of the local church (the pronouns are plural and the overall context of this passage suggests his remarks are about the life of the community). Specifically, he is concerned that the Philippian Christians grow in their knowledge that God's work in their midst calls forth from them a certain kind of life, a life of working out their salvation, together, in community. Before we think about what shape this working out of salvation is to take we do well to pause and consider the importance of Paul's modifying phrase, "with fear and trembling".

The words, fear and trembling, are deliberately evocative of the Old Testament language used to describe the response of God's people when he revealed himself to them in his glory and majesty. These self-revelations were always awe inspiring, and often marked by the language of fear and trembling. In Philippians Paul wants these young Christians to be similarly moved, awe-struck, and humbled by God's work in their midst. This posture of fear and trembling which we are to adopt is foundational, giving shape to the working out of our salvation. So, it is well worth asking the question, "do we have a proper understanding of what it means to respond to God in fear and trembling?". Annie Dillard, a wonderful contemporary author, thinks that too often we do not. She writes: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.” -Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk

I suspect that Annie Dillard may have had in mind a certain kind of church, staid and self-satisfied with their rote liturgy. I doubt that is our problem in the Grace Chicago community. But, I imagine we have our own issues which make us not "sensible to conditions". I wonder, for instance, if many of us have become so accustomed to wearing the fashionable clothes of self-congratulatory cynicism that we have lost the ability to be awe-struck by the promises of the almighty God to be at work in our midst. Perhaps this, in turn, has led many of us to have a narcissistic desire that demands for our God to be as cool, fashionable and accepting as we are before we could ever conceive of being awe-struck by his work in our midst. On the other hand, many of us (including me), at one time or another, have developed self-protective callouses that refuse to meet God because we have permanently registered ourselves in the victims hall of fame; we will allow for God to be awesomely at work in our midst when he does a penance to us for the bad things that have happened to us on his watch. Regardless of what circumstances keep us from having the appropriate response to God's work in our midst we need to sort them out and ask God to create in us a proper response to his holiness in our midst. What would a proper response look like?

Too often Christians imagine the appropriate mode of fear and trembling before God to be cowering in the corner, wallowing in shame, guilt and inadequacy, hoping against hope that one day we might measure up to God's holiness. This condition is just as bad as those of either the cool cynic or proud victim mentioned above because it does not take into account God's all enveloping love of his children. The Christian who thinks fear and trembling means being terrified of God's wrath has not come to understand the gospel as fully as she should.

C.S. Lewis in his Narnia series gives us great images (perhaps the best ones we have in contemporary literature) of what it looks like to be in "fear and trembling" before God. More than once Aslan is presented to the children as being wild, absolutely good but not safe. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver's conversation with Susan and Lucy is a great example:

"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, deary, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly."

"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

And later in the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe we hear Mr. Beaver remark: "He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion."

In another place in Lewis' Narnia series we meet the little girl, Jill, who meets Aslan on her way to get a drink of water from a gurgling stream. Here is that exchange:

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I'm dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I - could I - would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to - do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.

An appropriate response to God at work in our midst begins with a sobering realization that we must come to ourselves through God; there is no other way than to be naked before him. This means, among other things, that we must learn to do things God's way - to come to take ourselves and our place in Christian community more seriously than we are apt to without this realization. Community is the context in which God works on us. So, we are to take ourselves seriously not because we as individuals are so very important; it is quite the opposite. We are to take ourselves seriously because God's work in the world is so very awesome and important and he concentrates this work intensely in the midst of Christian community. There we are reminded that a proper realization of God's work in our midst should make us realize that what God intends to do in us and through us is more important than what any single one of us could ever want for ourselves, our families or the world. Taking God's work seriously in the context of Christian community teaches us that we do not come to ourselves by asserting our own plans and agendas, even if those plans are to do great things for God. Many a person has undertaken to do great things for God at the expense of the gospel, humility, loving one's neighbor, working for the common good, and at the expense of desiring to love and forgive one's enemies. Positively, taking God's work seriously in the context of Christian community teaches us that the way to growth for us is to live in and through the self-giving love of Christ which Paul calls us to in the poem immediately preceding the two verses we are looking at here. In Christian community God works in us as we come to ourselves through each others' witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the way to ourselves, our fears, our sins, our deceit, and our pride we meet our sister or brother struggling in the same way but in the struggle bearing witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus through faith and repentance. This is what we owe each other in Christian community. To work out our own salvation in fear and trembling is a serious response to God's work in our midst which may very well "draw us out to where we can never return". But to work out our salvation is to do so in the context of unfathomable love, grace and patience before the one who is not safe but who is goodness itself.

Questions for discussion:

1. What does being before God in fear and trembling look like for you? Would you have answered this question differently at another time in your life?

2. Can you think of an occasion when you thought you would do great work for God but violated the gospel in the process? OK maybe that is too personal of a question to hope for an answer in community group so can you think of some examples of what that might look like hypothetically?

3. When you think of your responsibility to live faithfully (not perfectly but faithfully) within Christian community is it a responsibility that you think you regard with appropriate seriousness?

4. Have you ever thought that simply by grounding yourself more deeply in a healthy Christian community that you might be helped more individually in your relationship with God than you could have ever experienced by remaining at the margins? Would you have answered this question differently at another time in your life?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

when obedience is an expression of God's love

This week we returned to our study of Philippians. We began what will be at least a two part meditation on verses 12 and 13 of chapter 2. This little portion begins with Paul's call to the Philippians to continue in their obedience whether he is present or absent. Many of us have negative feelings that immediately boil up when we hear the word, "obey" - especially when someone is telling us to do obey. Many have good reasons for these negative feelings. Many have suffered from the abuse of authoritarian figures who demanded, in God's name, our obedience to their demands - in many cases this sort of abuse was perpetrated by a family member. Perhaps less harmful, but disturbing and destructive nonetheless, are the cases where leaders in the church castigate those in their charge, debasing the person in the process. However, Jesus does call us to certain sort of obedience so we need to come to terms with what this obedience looks like.

New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, comments that in his appeal for continued obedience that Paul is echoing his words from earlier in the letter (1:27 vv.), where he urges the Philippians to live their life in a manner worth of the gospel: "But that automatically means obedience to Christ, the only kind of obedience to his own words that Paul could care anything about. In his view faith in Christ is ultimately expressed as obedience to Christ, not in the sense of following the rules but of being devoted completely to him. This appeal, after all, closely follows the twofold reminder of Christ's own obedience (2:1-11) that led to the cross and of his present status as Lord of all (Fee)."

Let's now unpack what Fee is saying and implying as we ponder what obedience to Christ is about and how it should feel to us. Here we get some help from Jesus' words to his disciples in John 15:9-11:

"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."

In this passage we have a theological backdrop for Paul's line of thinking about obedience in Philippians 2, and, in both passages (John and Philippians) we are invited to contemplate our obedience in light of Jesus' obedience.

We usually think of obedience as a conforming of our will to what is morally right. This way of thinking is not without merit but it proves ultimately to be an inadequate and incomplete conceptual framework in which to think about Christian obedience to God through the gospel. A more helpful framework is suggested by our passages at hand. In these passages we see Jesus, the God-man, our new humanity, keeping a command because of love, but even more importantly we meet a commandment that is unlike the commandments with which we are familiar. The commandment Jesus keeps (John 15) by not regarding equality with God as something to be exploited (Philippians 2) is a commandment which is formed from divine love, shaped by divine love, and an expression of divine love. This is the love into which we are invited to abide.

So, when Paul calls the Philippians (and us) to obedience he is calling us to obey the gospel - to confess to God through Christ that our lives and wills are broken and that in order for us to love him, neighbor, and ourselves we must be transformed from within by and through his loving and empowering presence. In thinking of obedience in this framework we are invited to understand our brokenness and sin as symptomatic of a lack of God's love. As people of the new covenant, eternally forgiven, we come to understand that at the center of our spiritual formation must be a tenacious and courageous repentance of our lack of love, coupled with a daily asking for more of God's love. Rather than conceiving of our problems within the framework of a need to conform our will to what is morally right - we are challenged to think of our lives as incomplete until we find fullness in Christ by being saturated in the self-giving love shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Christians we are called to see our lives as moving more and more towards the day when our obedience, like that of Jesus, will be itself an expression of divine love.

Case Studies for Discussion Questions:

1. Someone finds their job a great place to escape from their family. Round this character out in your head and imagine some areas in which this person has not experienced God's love as she needs to. Offer examples. How should this "character" you have imagined repent and for what should she repent?

2. Someone is a poor steward of the gifts God has given him. He is sometimes thought of as lazy but really he is just addicted to self-sabotage. Imagine this character in your head and think of some ways he needs to experience God's love. What should he repent of?

3. Imagine someone who is either addicted to sex or to the approval of others. How does God's love need to be experienced by this person? What does he or she need to repent of and what sort of prayer should they pray when they ask for God's love to be poured out on them?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

downward mobility again - repenting of abuses of power

This week we looked again at Philippians 2:1-11. We considered specifically how the passage speaks to us about our relationship to power. The challenge Paul puts to us is that we are to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus: namely, that he did not regard equality with God as a matter of getting, taking, exploiting but of giving and serving. There is much to be gleaned and many applications to be made from this passage but this week we looked specifically at what it tells us about the danger of misusing power. Right out of the gate we have a problem applying this to our lives because many of us really don't think we have any power to abuse. If we think this, we have not thought enough. Certainly, Paul's poem of Christ's "downward mobility" is a direct confrontation to Caesar and his abuse of power (remember that the Caesar cult of worship was strong in Philippi and that Caesar called himself "savior" and "lord". But in order for us to understand the gospel more fully we must be willing to look at our own misuses of power. These misuses become more clear to us when we consider how far short we fall from having the same mind in us as was in Christ Jesus. What follows are examples of misuses of power that will make most of squirm a bit (it had that effect on me as I searched my heart when I wrote them). But we want to explore these dark places in our hearts for a positive reason; because we are convinced that the road to human flourishing takes a cruciform shape, requiring us to repent of our abuse and manipulation of others and ourselves. The renewal that comes through this process is worth the discomfort.

In order to think this through I will propose a working definition for abuse of power: it is whenever we use our power (wealth, influence, position, etc.) to take advantage of, hurt, or demean another person.

Here are some examples of the misuse of power that we often fall prey to.

Two from the work place -

Managers and bosses:
Use of one's position as a manager or boss to treat one's employees in a way that does not honor their dignity. It is easy to bark orders instead of speaking in a way that we would wish to be spoken to. Another example of misuses of power: deliberately making employees feel uneasy about the security of their jobs as a manipulative power play. Other instances: refusing to find opportunities to step outside of the hierarchical order of things in order to engage one's employees in the fullness of their humanity, refusing to mentor and develop people, not acknowledging good ideas or stealing good ideas from people who report to you, engaging in verbal abuse abuse, etc. - we can all find something to repent of if we have responsibility over others.

Those low on the totem poll:
You may say to yourself, "I have no power to abuse. I have no office, no name on the door and you should see my bank account!". Well, here again, we have not though carefully enough. Examples of the misuse of power by those who are in positions of weakness and vulnerability in the workplace include creating and fostering a culture of disrespect for "the Man". This is so common in situations with which I have familiarity that I would consider it an epidemic. Through gossip, cynicism, and self-righteousness those who are in one sense weaker than those who have power over them can create a subversive structure of power that demeans those in authority simply because they are in authority, prejudging and condemning their "victims" without a trial. Now, of course, there are the very real situations where the weak in the workplace are being exploited but the challenge to the weak at this point is to find a way to work towards justice without engaging in self-righteousness or destructive gorilla warfare in the workplace.

Family dynamics -

a. Parents, do not exasperate your children. While exercising discipline over our children we can too easily resort to abusive words, or simply through a lack of patience we can misuse our authority over them. We must ask God for patience and wisdom and love to inform each of our interactions and for specific help to organize the whole of our lives in a way that helps us succeed in loving our children as we discipline them.
b. The deliberate withholding of forgiveness in order to hold someone emotionally hostage and/or perhaps destroy their reputation. This is an example of when a victim can retaliate by refusing to forgive.
c. Pathological raging. Many learn to manipulate their entire family with their moods. Everyone walks on egg shells to keep from setting off the volcano of one's rage.

Sex as power -

In our culture many become sexualized prematurely with one of the results being that sex operates on its own power, separated from mature emotional love. In turn, one of the results of this is that we have a whole bunch of people who are on one end or the other of a relationship where sex becomes power and is used manipulatively. One thinks of the person who has learned to get his or her way by manipulating others with his or her sex appeal. One thinks of those who are pathologically prone to be manipulated by sex as power, or of the one trapped in sexual addiction. The church has often been little help here because of our focus on rules rather than the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that human beings are made to love and be loved unconditionally and when sex is used manipulatively love is damaged big time. This is why God has prescribed the covenant of marriage - to among other things protect us from sex as manipulation: nestled in the promised and hoped for future signified by vows of fidelity (forsaking all others) a husband and wife learn to give themselves to each other as gifts and help each other develop fully as individuals. (Of course, sadly, many marriages are not places where this happens and in many cases can be death-traps of sexual and emotional manipulation. This reminds us of the depth of our brokenness and how much we need God's grace to be at work in each part of our life. It should also remind church leaders of the necessity of helping people get out of these kind of toxic relationships.)

Victims as perpetrators -

The writing of Miroslav Volf has been an invaluable help here (3 books in particular: Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, Exclusion and Embrace.) There is perhaps no group of people more prone to underestimate their ability to misuse power than those who have been profoundly abused in any variety of ways. Volf has considered this at depth from one particular angle. Volf, a Croatian, has meditated upon the violence done by Serbians to Croatians in recent conflicts. Here is an excerpt from an interview on this topic in which he talks about how the gospel speaks to the victims.

This is from an online journal from Calvin College and Seminary:

GARRISON: "Can one forgive those who have perpetrated particularly heinous crimes?"

VOLF: The answer is simple, "I must forgive." And if I cannot, I must be liberated from my inability-both from my inability to want to forgive and from my inability to actually do the forgiving that I may want to do. Forgiveness can be learned.


VOLF: As my former teacher and friend, Lew Smedes -- Mr. Forgiveness, you can almost call him -- has argued in many of his books, forgiveness is an art. It will help us master the art if we keep in mind that we all are sinners, not all equal sinners but all equally sinners. The world cannot be neatly divided into innocent victims and guilty perpetrators. There were periods in history when Croats were on the whole not victims in relation to the Serbs, but perpetrators; and during the most recent war not a few Croats acted as victim-turned-into-perpetrator in search for revenge. So we Croats will find it easier to forgive if we realize that we ourselves desperately need forgiveness.

Volf's point is crucial to our discussion of the misuse of power. The reason we misuse power and the reason each of us must ask God to give us the "same mind that was in Christ Jesus" is because only the gospel that is forgiveness can shape us into a people who do not regard power as a thing to be used to exploit and hurt others but instead see ourselves as those inhabiting and being inhabited by the one who did not regard equality with God as a thing to be exploited but rather a position from which to serve and to love.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does a "rule based" approach to life cloud our ability to see abuses of power for what they are? If so, offer an example or two?

2. Can you think of a mundane occurrence when you have hurt someone with your power or position? What could have helped you act differently?

3. When Smedes via Volf (see above) talks about forgiveness being an art what does this suggest to you about the way you approach growing in the gospel? Does looking at it as an art to be learned give you a different category for thinking about how you approach the struggle you have with forgiving others - does it offer you a new strategy and new tactics?