Life as Extraordinary

A little catch-up:

It has been a while since I have sat down and written here at HM. Some have asked me when I would start again. All I can say to that effect is that I have eagerly desired each and every day to write something I’ve newly discovered in this glorious gospel to share with you. However, over the last couple of years, ministry life and responsibilities have dramatically increased for me which has netted the result of a high desire to share and a low output rate. I hope to match the two a bit more this coming year and that all of it will be a blessing and encouragement to you.

Now for some cibo (food) in the gospel and community

There is a line of thought which is often expressed in our churches from well-intentioned Christians (at least in Europe) that goes something like this:

I can’t do very much for God, and I don’t have much to offer God:

  • I’m not wealthy.
  • I’m not a leader.
  • I’m not talented.
  • I am timid.
  • I don’t have time like others do.
  • I’m not as smart as others.
  • I’m more of a private person.
  • My career prohibits me.
  • Nobody listens to me.

What our friends are expressing is an exaggeration of the ordinary; living with the gospel at an unreachable distance. The main problem with allowing our inner voice to talk like this is twofold.

First, it is poor theology which puts pressure on the mind and heart to try to generate something useful for God. Grace does not work that way. We do not generate-up good works in the hope that they will be something profitable that will satisfy God. In fact, this kind of thinking causes us to feel like we are never doing enough. God is rarely, if ever, happy with me. Instead, a true Christian is provided every day with the fountain of grace and providential goodness to live in the glory of Christ who gives his child good works to walk in (Eph. 2:10). For example, yes, it may be that God opens the door for you to visit with a neighbor about Jesus and grace, but it is also a God-glorifying work to respond with patience when your children won’t get ready for school in time during a hurried morning. Both situations require the Gospel and both are an opportunity — not to generate-up something useful — but to give-up something glorious back to the Lord who guided you into that very situation.

Second, this negative response creates a sense of desperation or fatalism because it is a response based too much on the circumstance of today and not governed by the reality of Jesus over us now and for eternity. Simply, this kind of thinking is poor theology because it denies who we are in Christ Jesus now, and who we are becoming in Christ Jesus tomorrow.

Applying the extra to the ordinary

holy_spirit1Here is how we need to help each other “get back to” the gospel and live it. In Acts 2, we see the marriage ceremony of Jesus to his bride. He brings his church into himself and collocates her to himself in Heaven before the Father. This is the privileged position of being united together in Christ.  The temple veil was torn and God the Holy Spirit is rushing out to indwell his people from all over the world! The physical sign of this was the beautiful manifestation of the flaming tongues of fire and the good news invitation of Jesus shared across the languages. These fire-tongues were both sign and signal that his people were now in him, and if Jesus is the new temple then they are also representative temples with the specific presence of God in them.

The follow-on results in Acts 2:42-47 do not strike us as spectacularly as the first wonders do in the early verses with the rushing winds and hovering flames of fire. No, on the contrary, we see people are doing quite ordinary things but with a completely new position and perspective. Yes, there are signs and wonders, but Luke does not elaborate on those and seems to emphasize the Christians’ desire to know more about Jesus, to praise Jesus both publicly and privately, to share food by eating together in Jesus’ name, to sell their possessions for those in need, and to invest in caring gestures toward each other. It is still Jesus directing his church, but he is not doing it through human greatness or achievement. Rather, he is guiding his church through service and care.
And here is the delightful response of Jesus to his bride as they live this ordinary-extraordinary life of the gospel:

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:47

So, the point for true Christians (I’m not speaking about cultural Christians) is that the reality of being married to Christ is the same for us today as it was for the early church. We are directly under and in the temple-reign of the Lord Jesus — right now.

Therefore, when we hear each other say that we can’t do much for God, we must be active to remind and challenge each other that — you say you cannot do much for God, but what you must see is that if you are in Christ, every thing you do is already done for God! Yes, each ordinary thing is given to you by Jesus. You think you have a powerless, ordinary life because of what you feel you can or cannot achieve. However, you have an extraordinary life not based on what you do, but based on who you are — on who Jesus has made you to be.

You simply have a choice to make in every action and circumstance. You will have to decide whether you will acknowledge that, “…this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” and give it back to the Lord Jesus in honor for his glory or whether you will claim it for yourself. But if we can see that God’s mission is not simply “out there“, but rather, being providentially directed from “in Him in here“, it is truly extraordinary to think of what Jesus will do with our ordinary-extraordinary lives when we care for him and for each other in this gospel-centered way. The challenge is to realize and appropriate who you are in him — right here & right now.

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Planting Ecclesiology as a way of life

Immediately apparent when commencing to plant ministries in Italy is that all people use the word church, but rarely anyone uses it biblically. The very idea of church here is something ‘private, cold, judgmental, obligatory, an event, passive, traditional, cultural, heavy, & Roman’. Therefore, we have a great crisis when it comes to the understanding of what actually constitutes a church.

Embedding Believersplanting ecclesiology

This is one of our major concerns, in that, if we enter a city and open a traditional church structure, it will be viewed through the cultural lens and automatically disregarded. Similar to the seasonal circus that comes to town, people in the general culture will ask, “What’s that?” And others will naturally respond, “Oh, I think that’s one of those foreign churches, evangelista or something…” Instantly, a perceived level of distance and safety is established.

However, if there are people who they know and have had experience with, the conversation might go a bit differently,

“Who are those people?” they might ask.
“Oh, that is the group that Daniele is a part of… you know Daniele, the mechanic that helps a lot of people with their cars over on Viale Venezia… His wife teaches some language classes and they run activities in the park with the kids.”
“Ya, that’s right — a classmate I went to school with works for him. It’s a bit surprising they opened a business in this crisis!”

We are not seeking to plant more institutions in post-catholic Europe, but rather, we emphasize planting people who are energized, holy, and evidentially part of the New City and the Christ culture. If the people of our Italian cities will find a refuge in Jesus, then, it will most likely come from people who have lived in their city with them through all of its positives, negatives, ups, and downs. These embedded believers do familiar-looking things, but they do them with an entirely different set of motives and attitudes.

“Church Work”

Embedded believers approach their lives and cities in an integral and theological way. Like an under-current that courses through their actions, they show gracious respect to local authorities but they reject that their sustenance comes from the state as their sovereign provider. Embedded believers are not getting all they can but giving all they can. In a suffocating economic market, demonstrating that you are not “on the take” but “living to serve” speaks loudly into people’s lives.

Furthermore, embedded believers are not demanding jobs, instead, they are developing them in the full realization that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all of its fullness.” With health, creativity, holy determination, persevering faith, and youth (life is said to begin at 40 in Italia) – their mission is pan-vocational because their theology is integral to all of life; impacting every aspect.

The Reformers of the 1500’s (especially Luther & Calvin) rediscovered this in their theology of work. One of their main emphasis was on the subject of consecration. They moved the emphasis off of the job or the talent and rested it upon the worker’s devotion to God. You could be a joyful, contented farmer or a deceptive, adulterous religious leader. The issue was not whether one was called as a religious leader versus called to farm. Rather, it was what kind of farmer or religious leader you actually were that made all the difference. To this day in Italia, the mindset lingers that work is unholyIt is a necessary evil and not a gift from God. Work should be avoided or oppressive and therefore, cheating others is rampant. Yet on the other hand, a person is more holy or powerful by the garments he wears or the buildings he enters. Life is divided into two categories: what to show (pride) and what to hide (pleasure).

“Home Work”

It is at this point where a marginalized, periphery church begins to touch the fabric of the city when she helps holy farmers, devoted teachers, and Christocentric entrepreneurs. Not only does the church assist these believers to establish their livelihoods, but she is also training them to grow up into the city through opening their homes for ministry as a regular rhythm of life. It is their gospel character on display throughout the city that makes them a community of light.

Embedded believers are not hidden behind their jobs where people cannot determine if they are truly kind or just trying to earn money through quality customer service. Their home is a refuge for seekers to come and find peace, and in turn, embedded believers are seekers who reach out to their cities in peace. I believe this balance of a ministering home coupled with a ministering business is critical to planting churches. It is a salty model because it does not stay confined to four walls of a comfortable structure. Integral home-life and work-life stimulate missional-life.

If you have read this far in the article, I am voicing some of our developing ministry philosophy as we face a church and market crisis here in southern Europe. I am not saying that this is a formula, but rather, an approach to life and work as missional theologians.

  • Have you experienced Life-work in this way? 
  • As you read this, would you have any helpful suggestions or comments?
  • How do you think an approach like this would impact where you live?

The Thanksgiving Conundrum

I’ve been thinking today about how “Thanksgiving” has been made a holiday instead of it simply just being a way of life. We all know that Thanksgiving was a British marketing endeavor to exploit the new world and make an international holiday of tasty food since their cuisine is was so bad. It just took a little longer to catch-on than the marketing groups thought because their trans-Atlantic internet speeds were so slow.  😉

Actually, one of the common sentiments that I’ve heard in these last years (mostly from my American friends and family) is that Thanksgiving has lost its meaning and significance. Sadly to many, Black Friday has become black everything. Stores now stay open incessantly. Families don’t eat together. Restaurant dining instead of family gathering is the new thing. Meals are inhaled because football (versione Americana) is starting. And worst of all, many people find it difficult to list more than one thing for which they are thankful. The culture has shifted, and for many, that’s difficult turkey to swallow.

The Conundrum

The conundrum is if we are a self-absorbed culture, we can only be thankful for what we achieve and what we take. Also, the only person we really desire to give thanks to is ourself, but we’re not satisfied with that person, ever. Yet, the reality of gratitude is that giving thanks demands acknowledgment of another, greater person who has acted favorably on your behalfSaid differently, if we struggle to give thanks, it’s simply because we’ve adopted our culture over the Christ story and we’re too auto-centric.

Christocentric people are Thanksgiving people.

The affectionately called Pilgrim Fathers were repeatedly ridiculed and threatened by their ship’s crew for their thankful worship. As an insult, they were called Psalm-singers because of their gratitude toward God while they sang with the waves both smooth and rough on their passage. What was so “awful” to the mariners was the Pilgrims’ pursuit of Christ together which manifested in a communal gracious spirit over difficult waters and sicknesses. How could they have been so thankful when we have abundance and complain so much about it?

Thanksgiving for a Christian is not just something we say, it’s a mark of who we are. It is a vocal realization of favor, toward us, from the Father. Favor comes in pleasurable forms like blessing and not-so-pleasurable forms like discipline. But it’s all from God, and it’s all good. So, now you have a huge list for which to be thankful.

But here’s the underlying motive:

Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Three times in verses 15-17, thankfulness is mentioned and connected to Jesus. In verse 16, a fair understanding would be that when the message of Christ (the Scriptures) is given a royal priority and permeates God’s children then wise teaching, correction, all kinds of Spirit-borne songs, and thanksgiving is going to result. In fact, seeing that Jesus is enough and filling up with him will literally draw gratitude out of you toward God. Gordon Fee wrote it well, “The focus is not so much on our attitude toward God as we sing, but on our awareness of his toward us that prompts such singing in the first place.” [God’s Empowering Presence, p. 655]

The best way to be un-thankful is to get so distracted (turkey, football, 75% off sales, whatever…), and turn inward so that we have no fresh vision of the anointed Christ. We will be isolated, materially contented, spiritually lazy, wayward, song-less, and simply ungrateful toward God and others. I once had a self-assured guy come to my church for a while and one of his complaints was, “I don’t know why we have to sing songs anyway.” Sadly, he would skip our music times. Also, sadly, I think he only had a notion of what it meant to know the real Christ Jesus.

If you know Christ, then enjoy filling the air with thanksgiving today (and perpetually) as the Father draws it out of you. In Christ, it is who we are.

Communities of the unburning bush

The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

Immanuel: the-with-you-God

 

That key phrase caught my attention in a smaller but similar way to Moses noticing an unburning bush. I’m currently enjoying a read through the newly released work, Covenantal Apologetics by Scott Oliphint. In chapter 2 (Set Christ Apart as Lord), the author draws special attention to the essence of who Jesus Christ is and claimed to be. Jesus is the embodiment of the I AM that spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert. Rejecting Jesus is rejecting the I AM (Yahweh). Here is the quote in context and then a brief application.

Covenantal Apologetics by Scott OliphintThe revelation that Moses has of what is really the unburning bush is, in part, designed to reveal to Moses both of these truths [wholly satisfied God alone is who he is and also commits himself to his covenants]. The fire, which represents The Lord himself, is in no way dependent on the bush in order to burn. The fire is, in that sense, a se. It does not need the bush for fuel; it is able to burn in and of itself. But it is also with the bush. It could easily appear on its own, because it is in need of nothing to burn. Or it could appear beside the bush. Instead, it is linked inextricably with the bush, even as The Lord himself – who is who he is – has bound himself inextricably to his people.

One of the unique and glorious truths of being knit together by the Gospel in community is the presence of the wholly satisfied God. That presence is what sets redeemed friends apart from any other form of community in this world. Moses must have seen a billion bushes but only one like the I AM’s. Similarly, the people of our cities will see tens of thousands of friends, families, and homes but what makes all the difference is the connected lives of unburning believers. I desire my home to stand out like that, and the fire has already united with me because he loved me first.

We might ask, “Where’s the sign? You know, the unburning house or unburning church so people will be shocked out of their shoes?” The answer is to look into the ordinary and the mundane which contains the extraordinary (like the ordinary manger holding the Creator and Redeemer of the universe). This is using the eyes of faith to see the hidden, blazing reality.

One day, the I AM himself took off the sandals of his desert pastors and washed their feet (Jn 13). There, he showed us how to be an ordinary bush but ablaze with transformed hearts. After all, he is seeking people who worship him in spirit and in truth. Are we not a people bearing and reflecting the image of the sovra-natural God who in no single way needs us but loves and binds himself to us? Instead of consuming us for what we rightly deserve, he is now revealed through us; converting the ordinary into the remarkable.

God parla “Son”

Check out this glorious gospel insight from Hebrews 1:1-2

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,

2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

parlo Son

Verse 1 says long ago, God used many times, ways, and voices to get his message across to humanity.
Verse 2 says that now God speaks Son. Literally, the construct in the Greek says, “God spoke once for all – to us – in Son.” (for readers who have fun with Greek — the verb is aorist, the preposition is “en”, and there is no definite article before huios speaking to the nature or kind of speech)

A Taste of Hebrews

The book of Hebrews teaches about the Messiah-community here on Earth and how God is speaking the Son language to them and through them. Hebrews unpacks the language of Jesus that the Father speaks through Jewish references, stories, and metaphors. One of the main Hebraic themes of the book is about the new Messiah-community in a glorious “wilderness wandering” similar to the one of the Israelites. The first wandering was a foreshadow and a time when God would woo his bride, Israel, to himself and away from the lovers of Egypt.
Today, however, the difference lies in the fact that Christians are led by the ultimate Moses and ministered to by the superior Aaron from the true Tabernacle. Jesus has emerged from the shadows and become the reality (the “heir” of all things; the ultimate truth the whole world is searching for). The new covenant and new identity binds Christians to Jesus and indelibly writes the Son language all over our lives. This new relational identity in Jesus works through God’s people like never before as Christians walk with one foot in this world and the other in the heavenly sphere because of their union with Son.

What Do You Speak?

As mentioned, God now speaks Son through his new covenant to his covenant people. The new covenant is the last one God will ever make. It is also a new kind of relationship, in that, it is a liberating covenant which permits us to please God a thousand different ways instead of offending him repeatedly. This new covenantalism brings his people (the covenant community) into the law of love to serve God and one another thus demonstrating that God’s presence is with his people. And that is why the Hebrews preacher can declare so confidently that God has fulfilled his promise by saying, “I AM their God, they are my people…” Hebrews 8:10
So, God spoke Son to you, and if you have received his new relationship, he now speaks Son through you. In fact, everyone in the new covenant will speak this new language as they are being conformed to the image of his Son. This is not a theory to try, but rather, a way of life. The Father is expressing Son through us. God is invading this world with Grace. This is wonderful news because it also means we don’t have to make up our own language to try to make sense of this world and life.
Therefore, permit me to spice things up and provoke you with a few questions:
  • When you gather together in Christian community or when you do any activity with your friends, what language do you speak?
  • Is it cruciform and does it resemble “Son”?
  • Does Son language go away when you are with certain groups of people at various times?
    • some friends were recently sharing with us that years ago they felt it was an obligation (“un dovere” in Italian) to speak Son to others around them. However, now the life of Son has so filled them that curious friends and acquaintances frequently want them to talk about Jesus and spiritual things. In other words, those who don’t yet know the Father are asking for our friends to speak more Son!
  • Do you hear the Son language calling out from the communion table, “Justice is done. Come and receive mercy again and again!”? Does that excite you and invite you, humble you and enthrall you all at the same time?
  • How has the Father been teaching you Son lately?

Shalom! and as we say in Italia at this time of year, “Buone Vacanze!”

What Makes Your Church Attractive? Part 2

Continuing from part 1, we shared that entertainment or recreational-propelled worship is the wrong kind of attraction to the church community than what the Scriptures call for. It’s not a missional-oriented approach because it is man-centric. While deliciously tempting to fall into, an attitude of let’s change this to attract more people can actually become an affront to God, all while using his name. So, how do we maintain our missional edge and a holy attractiveness at the same time?

"Coming Attractions"Are You Serious?

It’s radical devotion to the rules of the gospel and living our new identity in Christ that makes us so beautiful. We need to be serious about our active piety. It is our devotion which points to the real, radical center of Jesus. How can you tell when a church is flowing in this attractive sense of devotion? Tim Keller recently shared that one sign occurs when new guests come to your church gatherings. They will notice a number of familiar forms about church (things they expect to see) but they will also see a people (young and old) who practice them with a serious, new life. Prayer has power and passion, forgiveness works, and the community is filled with hope of the kind that welcomes the good reign of God and its final coming.

The Attractive City of Love

Jonathan Edwards called the church, The Glorious Society of God. Edwards’ emphasis was that God wills himself (his perfections and wonders) to be known through the power of a redeemed people on display. The church, therefore, becomes a reflection of Heaven; what Edwards also called The City of Love.

Therefore, we can’t “make our church attractive” or the story and glory would be all about us. Attractiveness, therefore, is a by-product of the shared, communal pursuit of Jesus and the practice of active love. We could describe it as a people who are actively falling in love with Jesus, but that phrase is so vague and dried-out by modern meanings. Instead, our concentration is serving the Lord by serving others and attractiveness will happen often without us even recognizing it — and definitely not by forcing or generating it.

Because the church is the alternative city, it should and it will portray the image of the City of Love. In Heaven, you never have to try to fit-in. A person will never experience the want of being accepted. In Heaven, right now and forever, love emanates outward. Waves of love greet the child coming Home. From the enthroned epicenter, through the Apostles, outward from the great saints, coursing over the multitude of the elect, raced along by praising angels, cascading down into the thousands on Earth gathered in God’s family, received by us in the church, and spread around the world to the last, the least, and the lost, this is how we experience the path and power of God’s love.

We as God’s children are surrounded by a great cloud of saints, all compelling the farthest to come into the banquet, and never to be separated from the love of God by anything. Holy Minestrone! Now that’s attractive!

So, I would say that we shouldn’t throw out the word ‘attractional‘ but we should be careful what we apply it to.

The Immanuel Principle

Immanuel: the-with-you-God

God: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people out of Egypt”
Moses: “But, who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
God: “But, I will be with you…”

Moses asks God, “Who am I?” And Yahweh responds by speaking about himself, “I, the Great I AM, will be with you.”¹ What a strange response that more than answers Moses’ question.

Don’t miss the beauty here. Moses doesn’t have to be somebody great; Yahweh already is. Moses groans with deep inadequacy and nobody-ness. BUT, the saving, personal God of Israel is there with him, so it doesn’t matter. Who Am I?  Moses, you’re the man with whom God is. He doesn’t need to force Pharoah’s hand because Pharoah will be challenging the I-AM-with-Moses God. It was his total identity.

Why? God had committed himself to a covenant to eternally dwell with Moses and his people.² Repeatedly, the Lord declares, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” So, when Jesus (the greater Moses) comes and is given the name Immanuel  it means that Yahweh has kept his promise and can be found living with his people — forever. Who Are We?  Church, we are his people, and he is our God because he committed himself to be there, with us. It IS who we are; our new and complete identity.

In the eyes of this world, most of us are not elite, enabled, dripping-with-talent, accomplished, well-off, employees-of-the-month, or even parents-of-the-year. But, in Jesus, we don’t have to be known as any of those things because we already are known by the one who himself becomes our identity. Immanuel is the-with-us-God. That’s how I want to be known, don’t you?

In closing, the pen of Paul blazes like a new burning bush for the church. Notice the Immanuel Principle through the words “chosen by God” and “in the presence of God…in Christ Jesus” :

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus…”  1 Corinthians 1:26-30a

¹ ‘ehyeh ‘immak — “I AM, with you” — you can see the “imma” that forms the name Immanuel.
² I am indebted to John Frame in his work The Doctrine of God for pointing to the covenant presence of God (ch. 6). Some of my thoughts in this article were “ignited” and adapted from him.

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