Beauty gone missing

Theologians and philosophers in the West have hosted a thousand-year discussion on the absolutes of Goodness, Truth and Beauty. This Trinity of virtues has suffered a severe blow in today’s postmodern world, but Beauty – I believe – has suffered most.

In my lifetime the church has sponsored well-known crusades to champion absolute Goodness to our neighbors. We have mobalized over morals, vocalized over vices, and sermonized over sin. And while there’s no question absolute goodness demands warning our neighbors about transgressions, that in itself isn’t enough.

More recently we’ve begun to re-embrace absolute Truth. Thousands of websites now defend the Truth of the Faith, the Truth of our condition, and the Truth of Scriptures.  Ever since Josh McDowell published his 1972 bestseller Evidence that Demands a Verdict, the church has made a slow comeback in offering solid defenses for the One who is the Foundation of all Truth.

But our greatest failure, I believe, is in our neglect of absolute Beauty. To present a God who stoops, who humbly enters our darkness and takes our sins and sorrows upon himself, who suffers, dies and forgives … this is where we fail. Because beauty doesn’t lend itself well to words; it must become flesh and modeled among us. The tragic truth is that picketing, judging, debating, and boycotting are often more at home in today’s church than love, service, forgiveness, and humility. When a Mother Theresa occasionally enters the world of dying lepers or when a black congregation in Charleston forgives the white man who turned their Bible study into a massacre, the world sits up and catches it’s breath. But sadly these scenes are mostly rare, exceptional glimpses of Christian beauty.

The Gospel of the Kingdom is not only Good and True, but it is also Beautiful. Yet any Gospel presented apart from the beauty of a humble, dying God is incomplete and stunted.  In a world of offense, judgment, and fragmentation perhaps it’s time we began asking, “Are my Facebook posts beautiful?” “Are my protests and boycots beautiful?” “Are my political opinions beautiful?” If they are not, then maybe it’s time we backed away and examined our hearts, because our first and most powerful mission to the world is to reflect the beauty of our King.

“You will… be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”
Isaiah 62:3

Jesus, politics, and hope

Whenever God’s people resisted Him in Bible-times He would often “turn them over” to their enemies, their idols, or their own obstinate ideas.  And then He would wait until reality sufficiently chastised them and sent them running back to Him. It’s a pattern we see throughout scripture from Israel’s wandering in the wilderness to Jesus’ story of the prodigal.  Reality has a way of turning us towards home

I believe we’re seeing this pattern at work today as God “turns us over” to the false god of power-politics.  If you’re anything like me, you may be wondering if we have any truly good and beautiful choices in the upcoming elections.

The Christian church, (myself included), has had an long unnatural infatuation with politics. We have placed our hopes in elections and trusted men to turn the world rightside-up again. But hope rooted in the political process is misplaced, empty, and idolatrous. And now that we’ve reached the endgame our idol is failing us because politicsthe exercise of power – has no place in the Kingdom of the crucified One.

Jesus went to great trouble to show us a kingdom that would operate on a radically different axis than the kingdom of Caesar.  His Kingdom would be:

  • A place where the poor would be blessed.
  • Mourners would find comfort.
  • The meek would be rewarded.
  • Those who yearn for the world to be made right would not be disappointed.
  • Mercy would rule the day.
  • The pure-hearted would see God.
  • And peacemakers would be known as God’s children.

Not exactly a description of our political conventions!  But the encouraging thing is that we have – hopefully – hit the wall.  Many are awakening to the fact that this political circus feels much like “feeding pigs in a distant land.”  And maybe, just maybe the stench is becoming noxious enough to turn our faces back to the Servant-King who is already seated on the Throne.


PS: Please don’t think I’m encouraging you to refrain from casting an informed vote in November.  We need to exercise every influence we have.  But we must not put our trust in politics.  It is a fading, fallen system that will soon be obsolete. 

Orlando, religion and the Kingdom

Awakening to the news of last Sunday’s terrorist attack in Orlando, I felt awash with grief, alarm, and dread: Grief for the lives that were cut short, alarm that ISIS had struck again within our borders, and dread for the divisiveness that religious-political narratives would almost certainly generate on social media and the airwaves.  But I determined to withhold my thoughts until my head was clear enough to hear from God’s broken heart.

There were two very different responses from the so-called evangelical community. (I say “so-called” because the word “evangelical” connotes one with a message of “good news”, and not all evangelicals actually proclaim good news).  One small minority jumped into poisonous judgments towards those who have lost their way in darkness.  They impugned the name of Jesus by the hateful and callous statements they made in his name.

But a totally opposite response came from the Orlando Chik fil-A restaurants who fired up their kitchens on Sunday afternoon to feed the lines of people waiting to give blood for the victims.

Religion and the Kingdom almost always end up in conflict.   You can see this in full display in the gospel of Luke, when a group of Samaritans, (a people already condemned for their pagan beliefs and practices), reject Jesus himself as he entered their village.  The (religious) disciples were indignant: “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them”, they asked?  But their very question almost seems to have confused Jesus.  “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”  (Luke 9:55-56).

Did you catch that?  The Son of God himself resisted the way of judgment.  And so should we.

The distinguishing mark of a true disciple is not the purity of his doctrine, nor the passion of his judgments, but the fullness of his love.  “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.” 1 John 4:16-17

Trying vs. training

My older brother, Terry, inspires me.  At sixty-five he’s still competing in marathons and triathlons. This weekend he cycled 116 miles up to Pittsburgh so he could run a race on Saturday.  I putzed around the house reading, playing music, and chatting with friends.  Could I have cycled alongside my brother?   Not in a million years, even if I tried really hard. “Trying” couldn’t carry my flabby frame more than a few miles before I’d collapse in defeat. But would I be capable of it if I trained and prepared?  Of course! If I paid the price my brother has paid, then I could probably do the same sorts of things he does.

When it comes to living a life of discipleship, trying just doesn’t feed the bulldogs. Regardless of how hard I try to be like Jesus, I inevitably find myself sidelined on the trail, panting for breath and begging for mercy.

No, discipleship is more than trying.  It is a life of strict training towards the goal of becoming like Jesus.  For years I thought of spiritual disciplines as exercises in gaining God’s approval, like the little gold stars I used to earn from my teachers.   But grace taught me there’s no point in trying to earn points with a God who isn’t keeping score. Since we’re unconditionally loved and saved by grace, our days of trying to impress God are firmly behind us.  But spiritual disciplines do have a place in the life of a disciple: They train me to connect more deeply with grace, and they help me to grow into the loving, selfless, and spiritually attentive person Jesus wants me to become.

Just as there are hundreds of ways to train for a marathon, there are unlimited disciplines to help us towards spiritual maturity: Intentionally looking for Jesus in the face of strangers, actively listening to others, or to God, regularly devoting my driving time to prayer, or setting aside time every day to thank God for His blessings.  In fact, whatever our weaknesses, God can show us disciplines to help along the way.

As disciples we must ask ourselves, “Am I training, or merely trying to become like Jesus?”

Three stages of discipleship

Becoming a disciple of Jesus is not rocket science. At it’s core there are just three basic stages for the serious follower to experience: Believe, love, and serve.  stepping-stones-2

We enter into the Kingdom, and the life with Jesus by making a decision to believe He is who he says he is. “…That whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” What is it, you might wonder, that we are called to believe about Jesus? That He is the Christ: God living in human flesh to redeem the world from darkness, sin, and death. He is the Way out of our fallenness, and the Life that manifests itself in a fullness of being that remains inconceivable to the mere biological man.

The next stage of discipleship is to become the sort of person God had in mind from the beginning: a person who loves from the heart.  It was said of the early church, “Behold how they love one another!” “My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us – perfect love!” (1 John 4:11-12) A true Disciple is identified by his love.  Unfortunately, today’s church is often known more for our judgments and divisions.  Thus our witness has been shipwrecked before a watching world.

But if we progress this far we have but one more stage in the journey: we must embrace servanthood. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.” (John 13:13). The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of servants, each of whom reflects the humility of their servant-King.

The world awaits our discipleship. Only when the followers of Jesus begin to fully mirror him in faith, love, and serving will this broken planet truly behold the beauty of the gospel.

The forgotten call

Barnes and Nobel has a way of firing me up.  I just finished searching the Christian life section of one store here in Charlotte looking for a book, any book about the Kingdom of God. There were exactly zero.  I checked with the clerk to be sure I wasn’t overlooking something. “I’m sorry, we don’t seem to have anything like that”, she replied.   “And how many books do you have about ‘Heaven’?”  I asked.  “It looks like we have about one hundred twenty different titles in stock.” Those of you who know me realize that this is one of my hot buttons. Why the big deal, you might ask?  Because the Kingdom is THE message of Jesus, and because this unhealthy fixation on heaven guts the power of his message. Take discipleship, for example:

In the late eighteenth century when the gospel of the Kingdom was replaced by the “good news” of the “minimum requirements for heaven”, spiritual transformation was relegated to the optional, a laborious pursuit meant only for the serious-minded. Well-intentioned believers could rest in the assurance that, “I’m saved by grace. I know where I’m going when I die.” Well… if that’s the point of the gospel, then there is absolutely no need for the troublesome work of discipleship!

Heaven-oriented Christianity has little in common with the rugged call of Jesus to follow in his steps as disciples. Having bought the ticket, it only remains to hold on to our faith until the hour of death. On the contrary, Kingdom-centered faith recognizes the task before us: to become more and more like Jesus, and to bring His influence to bear on everything around us.

“Conversion is the miracle of a moment;
Discipleship is the labor of a lifetime.”
– E. Stanley Jones

Discipleship belongs to the Kingdom like food belongs to the living. Jesus’ gospel begins at the ground-zero of each converted heart and spreads into everything we touch until the world shines with His glory. It’s not enough to be saved – we must be changed! Conversion is no longer seen as the end-point of the message, but the doorway into a life of grace that moves every follower into a lifelong process of spiritual transformation. In a world torn apart, the only hope for the nations will be seen when believers become disciples and begin to walk as Jesus walked. (1 John 2:6).

Defining the kingdom

Just the other day a dear friend asked, “So… how do you explain the Kingdom to someone who doesn’t understand?”  It’s an legitimate question that deserves an honest answer, since Jesus himself suggested that the “treasure in the field” would be incomprehensible to the unconverted, and missed by the masses. *

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In the aftermath of the American Civil War,  the government of the United States poured vast resources into the reconstruction of our southern cities, factories and communities, so that the devastated nation could rise from the ashes and begin again with fresh hope.  This is a picture of the Kingdom: a world restored to it’s original design.  It is the promised undoing of sin with all it’s catastrophic consequences.

In contrast to this vision of a restored world, today’s gospel often focuses simply on securing heaven in the life to come.  It posits that if I assent to a minimum set of beliefs about Jesus, and pray a sincere prayer, God will forgive me and welcome me into heaven when I die.  On a warm summer evening nearly forty-five years ago I prayed that prayer, and true to the promise I experienced an unearthly peace in knowing my soul was secure in Jesus.

But conversion is only the entrance. The Kingdom is much deeper and far-reaching than the assurance of heaven when I die; it is the promise of a God-filled life here-and-now in a world that is being restored to its intended glory. The Kingdom is that universal dream of a perfect world that flickers in each human heart: a world of peace, security, blessing, and order.

We who are yet alive have been invited into God’s genius plan of reconstruction; we have been called to love, serve, rebuild, and partner with our Father to see his world filled again with the glory of its original design.  For those who throw their lives into such a cause, eternity will follow as naturally as day follows night.

* John 3:3; Matthew 13:44

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