Acquainting Grace

Jacob 3 weeks

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I know my sheep, and my sheep know me. –John 14:10

At the  humble, nativity setting, under the stars that first Christmas night, the poor shepherds became acquainted with the God the Father’s remarkable gift of his son, the baby Jesus.  From the spectacular, heralding host of angels to the cooing baby in the manger, they were the first to receive God’s acquainting grace. One can imagine the shepherds returning from their fields as often possible and getting to know the baby Jesus in his first two years in Bethlehem.

If you are over 40, you may remember the old song sung by Julie Andrews. The lyrics were “Getting to know you, getting to know more about you . . .”  The idea of “getting to know you” in social psychology is called the acquaintance process. The core idea is that complete strangers, when remaining in close proximity and frequent contact with one another, have ample opportunity to become well acquainted. Initially strangers, under conditions of opportunity and motivation various relationships among persons emerge. This is exactly true of how I met may wife, Irene, as college students at Asbury College (now Asbury University). I worked at creating multiple opportunities throughout each day to be with her (proximity and contact). Meeting her after class, walking he to her next class, eating together in the college dining hall, going to church together, and so on.

The key concepts in the acquaintance process are opportunity and motivation for proximity and frequency of contact based on attraction. So I was attracted and hoped it was reciprocal.  We were in the personal zone of each other day by day as our acquaintance deepened from friends in to marriage. Now the journey continues into a celebration in a few weeks of forty-eight years of mutual love and admiration with two beautiful children  and grandchildren. Thanks be to God!

Here’s the simple beauty of the acquaintance process.  It can be filled with God’s grace.  When applied to the social/spiritual zones of our lives, it’s about a growing intimacy with God and his “acquainting grace.” Such grace is given and received. Our social soul grows in Christ nourished by the company of others. Others become God’s means of pouring grace into our lives. In marriage and the company of close friends, the love of others may bring us into the presence of God in whom we grow in acquaintance and intimacy (holiness) with him. However, that increasing intimacy is not guaranteed, but contingent on his constant acquainting grace and our continuous response of obedient faith.

In The Company of God

“For as a belt is bound around a man’s waist, so I bound the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah to me,” declares the Lord, “to be my people for my renown, and praise, and honor.”   –Jeremiah 13:11

Question: What happens when a people overtime spiritually drift away from the presence of God and find themselves as a people in a  zone of unfaithfulness?

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We were made by God in his image.  In Genesis 1:26 we read that God said “Let us make human beings in our image.” God’s image as the Trinity is both social and holy in perfect harmony, unity, and purity.  Social holiness is all about being “in the zone,” in close proximity to and in frequent, sustained, interpersonal contact with God.  In the Book of Jeremiah (13:1-22) we read a story about the importance of remaining in the zone, in the sphere of influence. It reminds us of something Jesus said to his disciples when he shared with them the Last Supper. He directed them to remain in him if they were to bear fruit (Jn. 15:5).

In Jeremiah’s story God likens the people of Israel and Judah to the linen belt that God directed Jeremiah to wear around his waist. The belt was not to touch water. Jeremiah obeyed, put it around his waist, and wore it. Then God told him to take off the belt and put it down in the crevice of a rock, submerging it in the damp bank of the river. Though that may have seemed strange, Jeremiah obeyed. Later God told him to retrieve the belt and he did. When Jeremiah found the belt, it was “ruined and completely useless.” Over time, in the wrong place, under the wrong conditions, it had rotted.

Like Jeremiah’s belt, God’s people put themselves in the wrong place for a long time. They turned away, distanced themselves from God, and fell into idolatry. Like the belt, they were ruined. God had bound them to himself. They were to cling to him. Intimacy as a people with God was to be their first priority. The core principle was to keep their hearts in proximity to God’s heart, but they distanced themselves from God and pursued other gods. By their disobedience, they failed to stay in the most important zone, the company of God. Instead, as a people they chose the toxic company of pseudo-gods and over time drifted from obedient faith and faithfulness into another zone of disobedience and and unfaithfulness.  Sad but true.

Jesus made it clear.  Remaining in the company of God, brings out the very best in us. “If you remain in me and I remain in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5).

Questions:  Is that where you find yourself, members of your family, or friends?  If not, then what’s to be done to get back in the zone of God’s presence?

IN THE COMPANY OF GOD

 

It’s clear to me that the very essence of holiness is found in the social and moral nature of God as Trinity. The essence of God is holy love shared between and among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By divine revelation, we know the persons of the Trinitarian God to be co-equal in power and glory, and mutual in unity and love. Together, the three persons of the Trinity are a perfect circle of fellowship open to all humanity as we remain open to intimacy with God in unity and love.

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In the fifteenth century (1425), a Russian monk by the name of Andrei Rublev created the Icon of the Holy Trinity.[i] Some refer to it as the icon of icons. Inspired by the Genesis 18 passage, this icon depicts the visit of three angelic persons eating the meal provided by Abram and Sarah. At the time, one visitor announced to them the future birth of their son, Isaac. The three visitors around the table may be understood to be God in three persons, the holy Trinity.

In Rublev’s work there are three primary colors. They illustrate the essence of the one God in three persons. The garb of the Father is in gold signifying perfection, fullness, and the source of life. The God in Christ, the human, is portrayed in the color blue signifying sea and sky. Christ is taking on the world and in particular humanity. His hand is holding out two fingers, together representing within both spirit and matter. Finally, Rublev uses the color green in the apparel of the Spirit to convey fertility, fecundity, blossom and bloom, divine and eternal life. The three persons are gazing at each other in intimate expressions of love, and each one’s hand is pointing at the others. It is a picture of perfect, holy love, unity, and divine fellowship.

While the symbolism of color is inspiring, what is most significant is how they are portrayed together in their positioning and fellowship. They encircle a shared space around a small table. On the front of the table is a small, empty rectangle. Art historians mention the finding of glue residue on the original icon suggesting that at one time there may have been a mirror glued to the front of the table.

A mirror in an icon is quite unusual. Catholic Franciscan mystic, Father Richard Rohr, interprets the icon as suggesting that God is not a distant, static monarch. Instead, the three persons in divine fellowship are in what early Fathers of the church called perichoresis (the root word in Greek for choreography). In other words, the persons of the divine Trinity are in a divine dance. The mirror represents our seeing ourselves in the dance with God at the table of fellowship.

The icon is an invitation to enter socially and spiritually into the divine, intimate ecology of holiness. The mirror represents seeing ourselves restored to the image of God, present at the banquet table, and participants in the divine nature. The table is not reserved for the Three, nor is the circle closed, but open to all. Rublev’s icon occasions reflection on the divine, inclusive, perfect love of God expressed in the intimate, social nature of the Trinity, opened in all its fullness as a dance, a banquet table, a social ecology of holiness, and the eternal company we may keep.

For implications for clergy and lay ministry, see Seamands, Stephen. Ministry in the Image of God: The trinitarian shape of christian service. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

THE PRIESTHOOD OF THE LAITY

You are a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession. This is so                    you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you                                                                        out of darkness into his wonderful light.                                     1 Peter 2:9

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It is shortsighted to assume that some form of ordained ministry and authority is the be-all and end-all of what the church is all about.  While this misunderstanding may be found among many clergy (priest and pastor alike), this great bogus assumption exists more so among the laity as an excuse to dodge their critical role and responsibility in the missionary endeavor of the church. What is needed is a theology of the laity, a call and legitimization in the minds of all followers of Jesus that breaks the chains of this false assumption and a commitment by laity to participate along side clergy in the heavy lifting of mission and ministry.

This idea is not new. It’s been around for at least five hundred years and leads us back to the Apostle Peter. It is what Martin Luther called for when he wrote The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained. He wrote on the idea of “the priesthood of all believers” and said, “that the word priest should become as common a word as Christian.” He held the conviction that both the plowboy and the milkmaid fit the role of priest. Both may embrace a vocation of mission and ministry in faithfulness to love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and strength, and love one’s neighbor all without the assumed authority of and deference to hierarchy. This has enormous implications for us today. It is a called to all laity to move out of a passive posture into to an active one alongside the clergy with an obligation and privilege to help carry the load of mission and ministry.

Much of the laity today are nominal Christians, consumers of the Word preached on Sunday, partakers of the entertainment of worship, and otherwise unengaged in the missional calling to make disciples. In short, most laity leave the heavy lifting, or all the lifting, to the pastor and priest. What is needed is an awakening and alertness to the Holy Spirit, spokesperson of the Father and Son. In the context of God’s abundant grace each day, God is calling for our response. For laity to be responsive and faithful to such divine calling it is necessary to be up to the task. All believers are called to press on to Spiritual maturity (formation) submission to the work (infilling) of the Holy Spirit. To do so is to be equipped to contribute to the mobilization of a Great Awakening that God has in mind for all the world.

The clergy cannot do it by themselves we need a theology of the laity that is not an intellectual accent to some articulated proposition. Rather it is a true partnership in practice with brothers and sisters in Christ who are ordained and in covenant with God, faithfully maintained at whatever cost and whatever sacrifice.

                    “And now God is building you, as living stones, into his spiritual temple.                                What is more, you are God’s holy priests, who offer the spiritual sacrifices                                                       that please him because of Jesus Christ.”                                                  1 Peter 2:5

HEAR THE PRONOUNS CHANGE

                                    We give our alleluias to the church’s common chord:                                       Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise, O Praise, O Praise the Lord!

Shifting the pronouns in a conversation, message, or song from single to plural can make the world of difference in how it is received. Making the simple change from I to we in a sentence or from me to us and mine to our makes conversation communal and inclusive rather than solitary or seemingly narcissistic.

Have you ever listened to the comments of a friend in which all the personal pronouns were I, me, and mine, especially when the subject of the conversation was not about him? When a young teen, there was a fellow in our church who made an impression on me. Each Sunday he would give his testimony about his life. The problem was that it was always about his life and not a word spoken about Jesus. It sounded something like this “I did this and I thought that; this was God blessing me; it was my experience that . . .” One Sunday when the opportunity for people in the congregation to give a testimony of thanks and praise for God’s grace in their lives, this fellow once again started in with “I did this” and “I did that; I, I, I.” All of a sudden a quiet old soul in the congregation stood-up and said loudly in a Scottish brogue, “ LORRD KNOCK HIS EYE OUT!” The response of all those present was an uproar of laughter by everyone, and the collective wish that someone had said something like that earlier.

A problem in our worship today is that it is too much an individual exercise. It’s all about “me, about the music and preaching I like, and about what the worship, sermon, and experience does for me. We are the victims of our preoccupation with our selves. We’ve been socialized by a Western culture of individualism. Worship as a self-serving experience is captured in so many of the songs we sing and the prayers we raise in the act of worship. Even the experience of holiness is personal and often private pursuit for self-fulfillment. It is so often built around I rather than we, and me and mine rather than us and ours. Instead of the focus on me, myself, and I, true worship focuses on the Trinity, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in thanks and praise. Do we not too easily forget that when Jesus was asked how we might pray, he demonstrated by saying, “Our Father . . . Hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done, forgive us, lead us, deliver us, for yours is the Kingdom, the power and the glory?”

Worship is not merely an individual sport nor for one’s personal glory! It’s about the Other, all to glory to God the Other; not to the glory of the worship band, nor the lights and staging, nor the worship leader or preacher, nor about the great coffee in the foyer. Along the way, when worship is deeper and hearts are transformed by the Holy Spirit in likeness to God’s own heart, we will hear the pronouns change.

We need each other’s voice to sing    The song our hearts would raise          To set the whole world echoing   With one great hymn of praise.                  We blend our voices to complete   The melody that starts                                With God, who sets and keeps the beat,    That stirs our loving hearts

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SETTLING FOR THE FIRST HALF

                                       

 Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.                                 Hebrews 12:1

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called meheavenward in Christ. Philippians 3:14

Who suits up for an NCAA ball game only to quit at half time? Millions of Americans are anticipating the annual ritual of collegiate basketball’s March Madness march to crown men and women’s national champion teams. Like this piece of writing, we can expect an escalation in basketball metaphors from the pulpit, in the media, and common conversations over coffee. Facebook posts will reflect increasing passions for alma maters and bets on potential winners. In the end the odds-makers in Las Vegas will likely do very well.

Last night I went with my brother-in-law, Chuck, to the Kentucky vs Florida basketball game. All the sports prognosticators predicted a Florida victory. Almost immediately Kentucky fell behind as Florida go off to a strong start. UK fought hard and a climbed back to tie the score at halftime. Personally, for a Kentucky alumnus, the story ended well with a win for Kentucky (70-66), but what if the UK Wildcats believed the predictions that they would loose the game and so decided to stay in the locker room at half-time rather than go back out for the second half. No way! Crazy! Absurd! Real March madness in February!

Imagine the same scenario at the next national championship game a team tied at half time the coach deciding that there was no real need to continue. Their sacrifice of time, effort, and selfless play in the first half was enough believing the second half would just be more of the same. The national recognition of having a great season would have to suffice. I apologize for the sports metaphor, but that’s what happens to millions of Christians at halftime when they don’t pursue the second half of the gospel?

Second half? There’s a spiritual second half? Right! That shouldn’t be news to you. But many may be duped by Hollywood buying into “only the first half version” of the Gospel. The first half version is Gospel presented in film after film as follows: The birth of baby Jesus, then Jesus baptized by his cousin John, his three years of doing good, the cross, and empty tomb and dawn of a new day. Done! The church picks up from there and says “Believe the story, pray this prayer and you’re good to go. You’re saved and can wait for the glory bus to take you to heaven. Now get busy in the church. That’s all there is to it! Just get saved and go to heaven, or have a little regret about sin and buy the fire insurance. Don’t worry. You’re fine. This is the sad portrayal of a half salvation, a salvation from sin. The truth is its only the first half and many who do come to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior do so without encountering conviction of sin, repentance, and asking for God’s forgiveness. For too many people being “saved” is a cognitive exercise of belief, a response to a proposition without much more than regret for past sin. Regret is not the same as repentance. It is not surprising that people fall back into and/or continue to live lives of sinfulness.

What then is the alternative? What does a second half look like? The answer is found in scripture: “Let us run with perseverance . . .” (Hebrews 12:1); “I press on toward the goal . . .”(Philippians 3:14); “Continue to workout you’re your own salvation . . .” (Philippians 2:12b); “Continue to live in him . . .” (Colossians 2”6); “Remain in me . . .” (John 15:4). One way to look at the second half of salvation is captured by paraphrasing J.R.R. Stott, Anglican pastor and author, who said that the Acts of the Apostles is not actually the acts of the Apostle’s, but rather the continuing work of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in and through the church to the world. The second half is all about Christ’s “continuing work. . .in and through” us. The good news of the Gospel is that here is salvation from sin, the first half, and then salvation to even more good news in the second half.

This will take some additional writing yet to unpack what this means for us.  A more robust answer to the question is coming in the next post. Look for it!

Questions

  1. Are you stuck in the locker room celebrating the first half unaware there’s a second?
  2. If not in the locker room, are you merely a spectator in the stands?
  3. Are you even at the right game or outside the stadium wandering around?

Beyond Spiritual Formation . . .

Have you noticed that spiritual formation is the latest idea to  hit the church.   We hear it in from the pulpits.  It is the focus of small fellowship groups.  The shelves of Christian books stores are increasingly filled  with new authors on the topic.  Christian colleges and universities are offering courses, majors, and degrees on it up to the level of the PhD.  This is all to the  good.

We read in Jeremiah 18:5&6, “ Can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord.  Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” Also in Isaiah 64:8, the people respond to God saying, “We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Like the potter, God takes the clay of our lives into his hands, if we let him, and shapes us into something beautiful and functional, beautiful in his likeness and functional in serving him in ways that go beyond our imagination.  Such formation is not his ultimate purpose however.

There is always more. By God’s grace our formation is to be followed by the Spirit of God that fills us. This is to say that there is more to the Good News of the Gospel than spiritual formation. Beyond spiritual formation there is God’s infilling to the brim, and then to spilling over in profound love for others. When God does a work of filling, he does a work of cleansing, purifying our hearts after the likeness of his heart,  sanctifying entirely. Thanks be to God for he does immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine for us, then in purity of heart through us for others. Glory to God!

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Psalm 51:10

Leading With Character

 

In the weeks following the recent US presidential election, I’ve been thinking a great deal about leadership and character.  The concern in a great many hearts  was the apparent lack of character in both candidates vying for the most powerful position in the world.  My reflections are occasioned by preparation to speak for a day (four sessions) to a group of fifty special graduate students on the topic of Leading With Character.  They are special in that they are all ordained Salvation Army clergy whose pastoral covenant includes a commitment to personal holiness, sanctification, and purity of heart and life.

Just this morning I discovered a note-to-self that I jotted down at the beginning of several days of preparation.  It was a simple listing of ways to think about the nature of character.  Here’s verbatim the nine thoughts that came to mind about character:

(1)  It derives from our highest priority: life in Christ (no God but God). (2)  By character we mean living in the likeness of Christ. (3) It reflects a profound love of God and of people.(4) It is seen in dispositions (tempers) based on the “fruit of the Spirit”and purity of heart. (5)  It is guided by mind of Christ including a knowledge that surpasses knowledge (knowledge of the heart). (6) It is refined through continual responses to convictions that lead to repentance (a change in the right direction) through submission, surrender, and obedience to the word and will of God. (7) It is seen and judged (inferred by others) more by observation of true humility, compassion, and self-denial for others than acts of piety. (8) Character is formed by the company we keep. (9) Its outer expression in righteousness is inner holiness!

 

 

 

 

 

Social Holiness & Trinitarian Love

Rublev’s Trinity Icon

As a people called to covenant with God and to exercise general and specific gifts, we are blessed by the God’s gift of his very self.  Our greatest distinctive is our gift of Emanuel, God with us and God in us together.  This makes us different. This is our particularity as followers.  Holiness is the very character of God in us as we live relationally in the fellowship of the Trinity. The mystery of the privilege is ours as we embrace the invitation to participate together in the life and mutual love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The possibility of life together with God always and forever is Good News!  As it comes to us we pass it on to others (Matthew 28:19).

As GoodNews, God calls us to himself.  He draws us into intimacy so that we may know God in his fullness and make him known.  He call us to a life of holiness within his Trinitarian love where we may abide, rest, and remain (John 15:5) in the deep, intimate fellowship and unity (John 17:20-23) of the Trinity.  Thanks and praise be to God!  Glory to his name!