Upstairs / Downstairs

One of the church’s most deadly distractions from the Kingdom is our silly “upstairs / downstairs” idea. From the early centuries of the church, Gnosticism and Greek philosophies began to seep into our thinking which separated God’s world into two levels of reality: the upstairs “spiritual” level, where God lives, and the downstairs “natural” level, where mortals live, work, and watch America’s Got Talent in the evening.

We live downstairs in the “natural” world while God lives upstairs
in the “heavenly” world.

This messed-up worldview has kept our lives as divided as whites and colors on laundry day. We imagine God almost like a reclusive old grandfather living on the second floor, while the rest of us are grinding away at life down below. Of course God loves it when we go upstairs to visit Him on Sundays, or when we need His advice. But he never, ever comes downstairs to get involved in our messy existence on the ground floor. He’s just not interested in our music, work, TV shows, or the sports car in the garage. (He’s way too religious for those sorts of “natural” things). So we mostly leave him alone in His upstairs apartment where he can watch TBN, The Gaithers, or his favorite series, The Chosen, in peace and quiet.

The Kingdom, of course, is exactly the opposite: God has moved right down into the midst of our stuff on the ground floor, and He moves throughout the house tinkering, laughing, helping out with our messes, or rolling up His sleeves to lend a hand with the science project. He also loves America’s Got Talent, and I think I even caught Him tapping his foot to one of my ragtime tunes on the piano.

There is NO Upstairs-Downstairs, but only one world where God and people live together!

This upstairs-downstairs idea has done immense damage to both the church and the world. At times it has kept me from reading good “non-religious” books, from expressing political opinions, and occasionally it even keeps me from enjoying too much laughter and good times with friends. But the saddest and most dangerous thing of all is in “partitioning” God off from the rest of life. The Kingdom means God has invaded all things with his presence. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” There is no division; neither upstairs nor downstairs. He inhabits it all.

Conspiracy, or not?

Because it is the nature of darkness to hide, there are indeed
conspiracies afoot.

C.S. Lewis famously observed, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”  I think the same can be said of conspiracy theories. 

I see on one side those who mock reasonable questions about the origins of the Covid virus, the integrity of our elections, or the agenda of the World Economic Forum with, “Oh… that’s just a conspiracy.”  But equally disturbing are the ones on the other extreme who think EVERYTHING is a conspiracy.  They wear me out with their alarmism and suspicion. 

The reality is certainly somewhere in the middle, where the sound sensibility of the scriptures exhort us, “Do not believe every spirit…”  “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.”  “… Evil people and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”  “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” 

Lewis wisely points out a foolish and deadly denialism on one side, and an unhealthy fixation with darkness on the other.  Instead, let us walk in the sanctified center of wisdom: If the origins of the virus, or the outcome of the election seem suspicious, then by all means ask your questions, pray, and do your research.  Or if you can’t be bothered, then at least affirm your brother and the questions he may be asking.  Engage in reasonable conversations, and arrive at your own considered conclusions.  But don’t try to drag me into a rabbit hole that will divert the whole river away from the shores of truth and reason.  We are called to declare the good news of the Kingdom, while taking only a passing interest in the deeds of darkness.  (Indeed, enough interest so that we can pray intelligently). 

“If you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding… then you will discern the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God.”  May we live curious, questioning lives of healthy examination, while we keep our hope and our focus on the One who is the truth.   

Why I Am A Christian (Rewrite)

In 2001 I was living in postwar Sarajevo, Bosnia. The World Trade Center had just been attacked, and people were asking existential questions. I wrote a piece entitled “Why I Am a Christian” which received an unusual amount of traction at the time. I recently went back and updated it. It’s a little longer than my other blog entries, but if you take the time to read it, you’ll see why.

When I was a new believer, if a person were to ask me why I’m a follower of Jesus, I would have drawn from the beautiful, subjective experiences of my new found relationship with Him. I would have spoken about “peace”, “forgiveness” and “life” with deep sense of wonder and gratefulness. But if you were to ask me that question now, so many decades later, my response would go so much deeper, beyond the subjective into the depths of reality itself:

Today I follow Jesus not only because of the beautiful inner work He did in me during those early days, but also because the Biblical story offers the only complete and viable answers to life’s most universal questions

  • Who and what is man?
  • Is there meaning to life?
  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How can the world be fixed?
  • Why is my heart so deeply moved by beauty, compassion, and stories?
  • Why do I dream of a different, more perfect world?

Jesus answers all the questions:
While the Materialists, Marxists, and Postmodern intellectuals wrestle in vain to make sense of these questions, Jesus gathers them all up and assembles them into a story that gives a complete accounting of all nature, life and human longings. No other worldview even comes close to that. Search for yourself the philosophies of Materialism, Marxism, Postmodernism, Islam, Buddhism, and New Age Spiritualism. They fail spectacularly in answering even the most basic questions of life.

The Way to Beauty, and Life:
I’m a follower of Jesus because wherever it grows, Biblical Christianity produces consistently beautiful and enduring fruit. No other “way” has built so many hospitals, orphanages, rescue missions, has fed so many hungry people, lifted so many out of poverty, emancipated so many slaves, or established so many organizations to serve, educate, heal, and bless the human family as the simple followers of Jesus, who believe that “inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, my brothers, you did it unto me.”

The Foundation of Science and Creation:
I’m a Christian because creation itself testifies of a wondrous order that can only point to a loving, genius Creator. The world’s greatest scientists from Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, to Carl Linnaeus and Max Plank have believed that only an infinite, personal God can account for the intricacies of fireflies, animal instincts, eyesight and hearing, the Fibonacci and the water cycle, the rotational clockwork of the planets, and the natural laws of nature. Man and animals alike exhibit a capacity for love and relationship that could never have arisen out of a cold, impersonal time-chance universe. Follow the science, and you will come to an infinite, personal God who designed us with mind-boggling DNA, self-consciousness, and emotions that cause us to tear-up in the presence of profound beauty.

The Basis of Civilized Society, Order and Blessing:
I am a follower of Jesus because the Biblical story offers the best and only viable foundation for a civilized society. Look at the nations of the world. Where there is freedom, purpose, prosperity, justice and compassion you will find Jesus at the foundation.

The Satisfier of Personal Need:
And finally I am a follower of Christ because of the deeply personal way He meets me in everyday life; because he steps into my human brokenness, darkness and despair and meets me with a love and quiet presence that stills my soul with assurance and peace. I follow Jesus because he is the true source of life, purpose, truth, wisdom, understanding, and reality itself.

Experiencing Life

It’s an unchanging key to the Kingdom: life expands and contracts according to our preoccupation with self.  “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”  (Matthew 10:39)

We get stuck in our own needs and wonder why life isn’t “better” for us.  The solution is simple: Raise your sights and your concern to those around you, forget about yourself and ask what you can do for the person standing in front of you.  That is Christian maturity: the bearing of fruit.  Life is too short to be self-conscious, timid, and retiring.  A mature disciple of Jesus is one who has become outgoing, servant-minded, and others-focused. The question to ask is, “What can I do to help that man bear his load?”

Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, noted that the great problem in his psychiatric hospital was how to get the patients to do anything for others, “for they are not interested in others; they are interested solely in themselves – that’s why they are here!”

May God deliver us from the shallowness of soul-sucking selfishness!    

True Education

John Wesley used to exhort the early Methodist circuit riders to “Read, or get out of the ministry.”  Severe?  Perhaps, but I’m convinced that reading is an absolute essential to discipleship.  We are called, after all, to be lifelong learners; disciples of the Kingdom never master the curriculum.  There will always be more. 

Francis Schaeffer says “True education requires thinking across the various disciplines, and not just being qualified in one particular field”. Evangelicals are the worst at this.  We are often “experts” in evangelicalism and ignorant of history, philosophy, art, culture and government. Thus, one of the greatest failures of today’s church is our abandonment of the Christian mind.  “My people are destroyed through lack of knowledge.”  (Hosea 4:6). Because we have abandoned the call to love God with our minds, we have stalled the advance of the Kingdom, and fallen into cultural damage-control.  We’ve become mental midgets facing the end of the world as we know it. 

The apostle Paul, with his sterling credentials asked Timothy to “bring the books” when he came.  (2 Timothy 4:13).  What books?  We don’t know, but we do know from reading his epistles that the apostle had a thorough grasp of history, law, culture, philosophy, and poetry.  “All things are Thy servants”, David wrote in Psalm 119.  “All things”.  If we have discerning hearts, we will see God’s truth embedded everywhere, from nature, mathematics, and beauty, to stories, literature, and poetry.

Saint Athanasius reminded the fourth century believers, “You will not see anyone who is truly striving after spiritual advancement who is not given to spiritual reading.”  If I could encourage young disciples of Jesus with one discipline, it would be to read! (Well… to read, and to PRAY!!)  We ought to read broadly, read critically, read with discernment, and read with humility. 

Here’s a link to a cross-section of books which have shaped my worldview and my walk with Jesus.    Perhaps you have your own favorites you could share in the comments section.  A good book recommendation can change a life and open a whole new world! 

Never in trouble

I just noticed an uptick in views here at Dispatches, and I’m wondering if perhaps people are looking for some perspective on the simultaneous crises happening around us. Certainly the world is looking more dangerous and chaotic than at any time in the immediate past.

Dallas Willard reminds us, “The Kingdom is never in trouble. And you are a part of the Kingdom. So you are not in trouble.” My YWAM friends in Kiev, (where I was scheduled to speak in five weeks time), surely feel like they’re in trouble. They’re sheltering in the basement and praying, while missiles fly overhead, and explosions rock the city. This is reality: life is a battlefield, but Jesus is at our side.

In every great, triumphant story there are battles. Without great battles there can be no great victories. Jesus promised us several things in life: peace, power, and trouble in this world, “but take courage… I have overcome the world.” His Kingdom is secure. It is not in trouble. And besides, He reminds us that “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”

If I were a prognosticator I would say that for those of us who live in the West, things will likely get worse before they get better. We will need to learn that we cannot trust in the idols of people and politics. Many of us have become complacent and hopeful that the next election might save the day. We will need to repent from those idols and return to the King and the Kingdom as our only hope.

In the meantime, we must learn to pray and intercede, not casual prayers, nor prayers “on the run”, but focused prayers in agreement with others around us. We must gather for prayer. These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary, life-interrupting action.

Then I believe we will begin to see great changes and great victories around us.

DO YOU SEE?

Several years back I went into a local restaurant with an old and dear friend in Hawaii. Taking our seats, I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and placed it, screen-down, on the table in front of me. Within moments the waiter appeared, looked me in the eye, and informed me, “I’m sorry, sir, but in this restaurant, we don’t allow cell phones to be seen. You’ll have to put that away.” Ha! Busted! It was a momentary embarrassment, but a beautiful policy and lesson!

Two nights ago, in another restaurant I walked past a table of eight diners. Six of them were staring at cell phones. How sad and demeaning to think that the image-bearers of God can sit face to face with each other and find more interest in screens and pixels.

We disciples of Jesus must do better; we must establish a higher, more beautiful culture. One of the very first names given to God in the Old Testament is El Roi, “The God who sees.” (Genesis 16:13). Certainly He sees all things, but he is clearly captivated by the sight of His own image in the face of his sons and daughters. “Turning toward the woman, Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do you SEE this woman?’” (Luke 7:44). I like that. Fussy, distracted Simon saw only an embarrassment at his dinner party, but Jesus was utterly enchanted by the street woman in front of him.

Often it’s the small things that set the disciples of Jesus apart as a “city on a hill”: our priorities, our focus, and the things that take our attention. At this moment, and the next, the most important thing in the world is that person standing right in front of me. Jesus sees her. Do I? Do you?

Shock Therapy

Are we getting it yet?  Because if we don’t, this nightmare can get exponentially worse.  Two possibilities compete for the future of the human race: godless totalitarianism, or the Kingdom of God.  We cannot return to where we were.  We cannot go back to our failed nationalisms and idolatries.  We are experiencing shock therapy, and with very good reason.   Even our churches have missed it by miles, and that is a huge part of this crisis.

Everything around us is being shaken “so that those things which cannot be shaken will remain.”  (Hebrews 12:27).  God’s purpose on planet earth is not to install a livable “global order”, or to “build back better”.  And it certainly isn’t to establish world peace through godless human effort and mutually assured destruction.  Globalism is doomed before it leaves the gate because it is but one more futile brainchild of fallen humanity.  Neither Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, Anthony Fauci nor Davos can save us.   

WELCOME TO SHOCK THERAPY  

  • “Politics will save us”  NO!  ZAP!!  A thousand times no! 
  • “Clever science will save us!”  WRONG again!  Zzzzt! 
  • “Religion will save us and take us to heaven”.  BOOM!  Zzzt!  Jesus is not a lifeboat for a doomed planet, He is the Redeemer of all things!
  • Globalism will save us!”  Zzzt!  Zzzzzt!  Not a chance!
  • “Vaccines will save us!”  BOOM!  ZAP!  No! NO!  
  • “Critical theory, gender studies, ANTIFA, BLM and elections will save us!”   BAM!  Zzzt!  BOOM!  These shocks will stop the moment you forsake your delusion!          

There is ONE man and ONE plan that will save us!   The man, Jesus, and the only thing he ever called the “Good News”!  The Kingdom of God; the untested promise of the ages!    

We must turn to the Lord, and to the reality HE has spoken into existence, to HIS ways, HIS grace,  and HIS plan!  Let us choose HIS plan and see what glory will descend upon us; what beauty, abundance, order, compassion, and justice!  To continue on our present road will only invite more shock to our fragile lives.  “Here is the most radical idea ever presented to the mind of man. It means nothing less than replacing man’s order with God’s order.”   – H.G. Wells

Woke-ness

While we were busy poking fun at the silliness of political correctness, it quietly grew into a Marxist monster called the “Woke” movement. We flirted with it for decades, rightfully eager to become more sensitive to people, movements, and minorities. But the more we fed it, the bigger it grew until it gathered a gang of political-corporate thugs and began terrorizing the playground. And even worse, the teachers and school principle have sided against the skinny kids.

“Woke-ness” divides. It’s a form of Marxism that focuses on race, gender, language and power. Energized by outrage, it separates neighbor from neighbor, blacks from whites, men from women, gays from straights, and natives from immigrants. It rewrites history, topples statues, bans books, cancels dissidence, redefines words, and crushes freedom. And it has been creeping into our churches for decades.

On Easter Sunday I rode past a church in East Texas which proudly declared “We are a Social Justice – Black Lives Matter Church”. It felt both ominous and odd. While most were celebrating the resurrection, our misguided brethren were declaring a political gospel and standing boldly against whiteness. To our well-intentioned friends, activism has replaced evangelism, conversion has given way to “woke-ness”, and the “Enemy” has become the person next door who refuses to play along with the game.

I’ve already experienced the rage of the mob, unfriended for my lack of outrage, condemned for my want of “nuance”, and shunned for refusing to denounce people based on their skin color, or the uniform they wear. Make no mistake, the woke movement is as far from the heart of Jesus as the Pharisees of old.

Please, my friends, hold fast to the beauty of the Gospel: Sin infects us all, the cure is in Christ, true power is expressed in humility, and hope is found in God’s Kingdom. “There is a way which seems right to a man, But it’s end is the way of death.” Proverbs 16:25

Live not by lies

We are living in times of dangerous upheaval; times which demand more from us than we have been used to giving. These are days for standing boldly for truth, and not giving in to intimidation, cultural pressure, and the ubiquitous deceit thrown at us by politicians and news anchors.

I’ve recently been reading some of the works of the Soviet Dissident, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years imprisoned in the Russian Gulags for criticizing Josef Stalin in a private letter. The day he was arrested in 1974 he released “Live Not by Lies” to the Soviet people. The short essay seems especially appropriate for Christians in the 21st century. Below are a few teaser quotes from the piece, with a link to the entire article for further reading.

“Violence has nothing to cover itself with but lies, and lies can only persist through violence… And therein we find… the simplest and most accessible key to our liberation: a personal non-participation in lies. Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule… let their rule hold not through me… For when people renounce lies, lies simply cease to exist. Like parasites, they can only exist when attached to a person.”

“We are not called to step out into the square and shout out our truth; to say out loud what we think – this is scary, and we are not ready. But let us at least say what we do not think… Our way must be: Never support lies.”

“The more of us set out together, the thicker our ranks, the easier and shorter this path will be for all. If we become thousands, they will not cope, they will be unable to touch us. If we grow to tens of thousands – we will not recognize our country.”

Read more at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03064220408537357

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