“We must go through many hardships…” Really?

Acts 14: 22 Paul and Barnabas encouraged the believers to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.

I have often heard this verse discussed as if Paul meant that in order to get to heaven, we would have to endure hard many difficulties and trials in life, as if what Jesus did on the cross isn’t enough to provide the way for us to enter heaven when we die. (By the way, that’s outrageous heresy – as far back as the Apostles’ Creed Christians would decry that kind of thought, not to mention Paul’s epistles themselves). Some translations make it out explicitly like that: “We must suffer a lot to enter the kingdom of God” (Names of God translation,) or “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom” (Contemporary English Version).

There’s an unspoken (but sometimes spoken) theology-of-the-masses in contemporary Christianity that it will be hard to be a Christian and it is set up that way to see if we are worthy, blah blah blah.

I think there’s some very bad, unhealthy theology in there. “We MUST go through MANY hardships” to simply come home to where we were made for? What kind of Father would that make God? Certainly not the one in the story of the Prodigal Son! That Father (whom Jesus clearly means to be seen as a metaphor for God Himself)  is much more loving than that – he doesn’t require the Son to go through all kinds of stuff once he has been accepted and forgiven! When people experience hardship, they may comfort themselves with this verse, but I think that creates a warped view of what kind of god God is. I think there is a much better way to understand this verse.

Take it like this:  to cause God’s kingdom to happen on earth (something Jesus talked continually about), it will take effort and difficulty to push through and cause change. It’s long, slow, sometimes difficult work – just like gardening or farming, both images Jesus used for the Kingdom often. Gardening is sometimes easy and natural processes are rolling; other times, if you are going to succeed, you need to put some real effort into it… not give up if it gets strenuous. Like giving birth, – some of it happens once things get going, and other parts require hard pushing through. To work for the flowering of the Kingdom on earth, the leaven working its way through the whole batch of dough, we will sometimes face resistance and even counter-attack by systems and unjust social constructs, not to mention the people and philosophies entrenched in them, reflective even of the real presence of evil. But the quintessential Christian methods of love, mercy, forgiveness, and prayer (to mention some of the biggies) are the tools we reach for in the patient, sometimes difficult, working for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we know that God works through these methods to bring about change and new life. (And, thank God, sometimes it isn’t terribly hard, and people embrace the Kingdom with joy).

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Slow Ways and Means

If you are a practicing Christian investing your energy in the Kingdom of God, or a person working for the betterment of the world, maybe you should realize this will not be quick.  Almost every image Scripture (and Jesus!) used – seeds, trees, vineyards –  are images of slow.

I am pastoring again. I thought that phase of my life was over, but it is not. I am on the shores of Lake Erie with wonderful folk in an exciting church. And lots of snow.

Pastoring is slow business. Church growth sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t – it depends on lots of factors – and I’ve known it both ways. But pastoring is slow. It requires patience, to do it well. It involves a long obedience in the same direction, and you walk slowly through the years with people in their lives. As I said, it requires patience, because most of its best outcomes require time to germinate and come to fruition. It’s probably good I’m a gardener and tree-planter, fisherman and hunter too, as these things propagate patience in the soul. Having pastored some 22 years, I’ve become much more patient about these things than I used to be. And patience is a cousin to wisdom. Hard-charging isn’t the answer to every problem, though our culture certainly likes it, and it can cause outcomes you didn’t foresee, because you are rushing in – something Solomon said about fools.

So the ways and means of pastoring – and Christian spirituality for that matter – are slow. God is inefficient, one person quipped, just look at the Old and New Testament story – long and winding. I am thinking about this because I am reading Northern Farm by the great American naturalist Henry Beston. Whether you are working in International Development or something else, these words probably apply. At one spot, Beston says this:

“There is one principle which our world would do well to remember, for it is of first importance whether one sharpens a pencil, builds a house, bakes bread, or lays the intended foundations for Utopia. It is this – that what we make is conditioned by the means we use making it. We may have the best intentions in the world, but if we sharpen our pencils with a dull knife or build a house with a faulty rule, the pencil will be badly sharpened and the house will have an odd little way of opening doors by itself and leaning to one side.

 In our barn the larger beams were worked over and squared by someone using what was probably an old-fashioned ship builder’s axe. They are honestly and carefully made, and something of the humanity of the past is in them to this day. Certain other beams have been sawed out, and they are good beams, too, though quite different in look and feeling. The means used in making have marked each kind of beam for all time.

 But I do not wish to labor the point. It is enough to say that prophets of expediency who are careless of the means they use and who work outside the human and moral values, have never been able to build anything humanly worth while.” (Henry Beston, Northern Farm; 1948. Pgs 70-71).

N.T. Wright on Mark 4:26-34

World renowned New Testament theologian N.T. Wright makes the following comments on Jesus’ seed parables in Mark 4.

“When you audition for a choir, often the conductor will ask you to pick notes out of a chord. Here is a chord of three, four or five notes; you can hear it all together, but can you hear the notes individually, and sing each in turn? It’s often quite a test.

We can all see the surface meaning of the story: in this case, the secret growth of a seed, or the small seed that produces a big bush. But can you see the individual notes that go to make up these chords?

Answer: the seed is laid in the earth and then arises. The word for ‘get up’ is one of the regular words for the resurrection. And the resurrection, by this stage in Jewish thinking, wasn’t about how individuals would find ‘life after death’. It was about how God would dramatically restore Israel’s fortunes, even raising the saints of old to share in the new blessing.

Jesus asks: What shall we say God’s kingdom is like? What picture shall we give of it? In one of the best-known passages in the Jewish Bible, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet asks a very similar question about God himself: To what will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him (Isaiah 40.18)? It’s not just an accidental echo. The passage is all about a fresh vision of God, the creator, coming to rescue his people, coming to restore Israel after her time of devastation.

…the other note in the chord, comes at the end of the story: the birds of the air make their nests in its shade. Ezekiel and Daniel both use this as an image of a great kingdom, growing like a tree until those around can shelter under it (Ezekiel 17.23; 31.6; Daniel 4.12, 21). Don’t worry, Jesus is saying. Remember who your God is and what he’s promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom – the kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world. Jesus’ hearers, of course, probably knew their scriptures better than most of us do. They might be able to pick out the notes in the chord and at least begin to make some sense of it all. The challenge for us, as readers of Jesus’ parables in a very different world, is to think out what we have to do to be kingdom-workers, kingdom-explainers, in our own day. How can we strike fresh chords so that people will be teased into picking out the notes, and perhaps even into joining in the song?”

Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (pgs. 47- 50). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Sources of Christian Pessimism and How Wesley Saw It

In the last post I wrote about the optimism the Gospel brings to my life.  In fact, as I read back some of these blogs, I don’t like that my sense of irony, playful sarcasm and critique sound pessimistic. I think people who follow Jesus and work for His Kingdom have every reason to be the most upbeat, optimistic, hope-filled people on the planet. I want to caveat about contexts where great persecution or starvation persist, although, incredibly, folks there seem to have a much better handle on joy than we in the comfortable West do!

I do, however, run in many western Christians who are very gloom and doom, even in their theology! For sure, childhood experiences, temperament, or wounds in life cause pessimism. However, I suspect there are also a couple of theology reasons: first, some versions of Reformed theology have a pretty gloomy view of this life on earth, and we just need to hold on until we get to heaven. For the record, I’m not laying that at Calvin’s door.

Secondly, the predominant American view of St. John’s Apocalypse/ the Book of Revelation is so awful, nearsightedly tied to newspaper headlines (even though that approach has utterly failed for twenty centuries!), and pessimistic, that it’s no surprise people assume things will get worse and worse and then the end ( a comment Jesus makes about Jerusalem and the Jewish-Roman War, but taken by Americans and those they influence to mean something at the end of time, which of course must be our time, since it’s all about us!).

Fortunately, a look at history refreshingly shows that the world is not getting worse and worse. The leaven of the Kingdom of God has indeed been working its way through the batch of dough. The influence of the Way of Jesus has had marvelous results in the last 2,000 years.  Our mis-use of the Apocalypse brings pessimistic, and often very fear-driven, worldviews that shadow peoples’ lives and folks miss out on a lot of joy. The Gospel gives us every reason to be optimistic, upbeat, and hope-filled.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists understood this. In his sermon The General Spread of the Gospel, after leaving no stone unturned describing the ills of the world and fallen-short Christianity, Wesley then goes on to argue, using profuse Scripture, that God is wonderfully at work in the world and that surely the power of the Gospel is such that we can have great hope that the whole world will come to faith in Christ:

in general, it seems, the kingdom of God will not “come with observation;” but will silently increase, wherever it is set up, and spread from heart to heart, from house to house, from town to town, from one kingdom to another. 

…. And in every nation under heaven, we may reasonably believe, God will observe the same order which he hath done from the beginning of Christianity. “They shall all know me, saith the Lord;” not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God;) but “from the least to the greatest;” that the praise may not be of men, but of God. Before the end, even the rich shall enter into the kingdom of God. Together with them will enter in the great, the noble, the honourable; yea, the rulers, the princes, the kings of the earth. Last of all, the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children,” and “enter into the kingdom of God.

…. All unprejudiced persons may see with their eyes, that He is already renewing the face of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises, until he hath put a period to sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and re-established universal holiness and happiness, and caused all the inhabitants of the earth to sing together, “Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” “Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever!”

In this sermon, he even goes as far as to attempt to predict the order, the geographical sequence of nations in which the Gospel would succeed, first to last! Humorous as that seems, one thing for sure, the power and grace of the Gospel made Wesley an optimist.

The Optimism of The Kingdom

The Strengthfinders assessment lists “positivity” as one of the top 5 ways that I’m hardwired. When I read their detailed description, it did sound like me, and most everyone who knows me remarks about being upbeat and optimistic; however, I don’t think I’m an optimist by nature. In fact, as I think about my childhood, I think I was born tempermentally pessimistic.

It’s the Gospel of Jesus that makes me an optimist.

When I became serious about being a Christian at age 14, my outlook drastically changed. A couple decades ago I became aware that folks in my tribe (Nazarene) were using a phrase “the optimism of grace.”  I think this is a good phrase.

Here are some things that make me optimistic:

Nothing we do for the Lord is in vain.

The Spirit of Jesus is loose in the world, and you can’t stop Him.

The Creator God is about restoration, redemption, healing what is broken.

God is present, right here with me.

The Creator of the world believes mercy triumphs over judgment.

Jesus came to set the captives free.

God’s Spirit develops in us love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness and self-control.

The Gospel brings us hope, joy, laughter, deep heart contentment, and a meaningful purpose in life.

God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

God isn’t willing that any should perish but that all might come to repentance and new life.

The earth is full of Yahweh’s glory, He is everywhere, and nothing is more powerful than Him.

So I don’t believe in handwringing, woe-is-me religion. Rather than seeing every day as “a losing battle against sin” (an awful phrase I read somewhere recently), I see it as another day the mustard-seed Kingdom has grown yet larger. And that makes me an optimist.

A Now-Oriented Salvation, Part Two

I’ve noticed among emergent/postmodern Christian authors a consensus for a now-oriented salvation. Part One of this subject is here:  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/06/a-now-oriented-salvation-part-one/

Last time I ended with these two questions that Nazarene pastor Dana Hicks finds more useful today than asking if someone died tonight would they go to heaven?

1”If you knew you were going to live another forty years, what kind of person would you want to become?”

2. “If you could know what God is doing in the world, would you want to be part of it?”

Regarding this second question, Dana says “I like this question, because it focuses evangelism on God’s agenda instead of our tendency to get God to focus on our agenda. I also like this question because it opens the door to talk about what Jesus talked about the most –the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world right now” (Dana Hicks, Postmodern and Wesleyan, 77).  Rob Bell’s ‘Nooma’ video called Trees highlights this postmodern search for a faith for today, not just my eventual salvation after death. My perception is that it would be accurate to say that, theologically, most emerging/Emergent/postmodern pastors have bought into the idea that the Kingdom of God was the thrust of Jesus’ message… rather than a judicial, legal approach to forgiveness.

When the 2004 Tsunami hit, I heard a Christian speaker on national television say “It doesn’t matter that they died, what matters is: did they know Christ?” The sheer lack of human compassion it portrayed, (ignoring, among other things, the thousands of children left utterly orphaned), the hyper-focus -as if the entire message of the Christian faith was just get to heaven when you die- horrified me, and most postmodern Christians share that sentiment.

I think this turn in the orientation of salvation to the here and now is a good thing.  It’s high time we made sure we aren’t making Christianity out to be just another gnosticism designed to help us escape the physical world of woe. Seeing salvation as akin to God’s shalom restoration is a return to biblical orthodoxy. While the emerging church needs to make sure they don’t under-emphasize what the Scriptures say about salvation after this life, they are, I believe, reacting to what they’ve experienced in many modern churches as an under-emphasis on salvation in this life. While you may feel that your particular church has achieved a good, solid, biblical balance of this dynamic, it is the obvious impression of the postmoderns that there’s been (in far too many churches) an overemphasis on heaven and a neglect of the call of Jesus to work for Kingdom realities here and now, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats.