Let’s just be perfect

Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11)

To be perfect, a fellowship should be of exactly one mind, and live in complete peace. Right? At least, this is what Paul suggests.

We, of course, do not live in this world; we live in a world in which we can only aim for perfection. If we are imperfect, and most people would agree that we can never “in this life” be anything but imperfect, it means that we will live in fellowships that are not of exactly one mind, and not living in peace. So, how do we live in this imperfect world, and aim for perfection?

For Paul, in this case, it meant listening to his appeal, and to us, it might mean listening to the whole counsel of Scripture, and attempting to conform our lives to it. Of course, this only backs the problem up one step, for even if we agree to listen to the whole counsel of Scripture together, we will (in our imperfection) not be of one mind or at complete peace about its meanings and applications.

It is unfortunate that, on occasion, one or another person will attempt to take up the mantle of Paul and claim that his (or, in some few cases, her) way is the perfect way of understanding, and we should be of his or her mind, and live in his or her peace. I imagine that most readers (you bold, brave few) of a simple desire know enough to say “posh” to such.

On the one hand, we must gain as much insight by people prayerfully and honestly talking to one another about issues and values. On the other hand, we must remember that any outcomes we reach will themselves be imperfect, and so conversations must eventually end or be put into abeyance. Although there is positive good in the very act of listening and talking to one another, we must remember that there are other things we might ought to be doing instead of talking, and doing those things instead.

I want to take “And the God of love and peace will be with you” as decidedly not a result of reaching the perfect state of unity (for that is impossible), but as a universal truth that remains even as we imperfectly love and live in peace. As Julian put it, all manner of things will be well, despite our own imperfections; and all manner of things will be well as we are being perfected.

Spiritual Kansas

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain. (Isaiah 40:4)

I have a friend I met in Chicago, although I am from Michigan and she is from Kansas. Michigan is a state where most of the landscape consists of rolling hills: it’s rare to find an especially flat area or where there are steep changes in elevation. A lot of glacial till. But Bev’s area of Kansas was very flat.

What I missed about Michigan in Chicago was the trees (and the sun setting, rather than rising, over Lake Michigan). Our trees give me a sheltering, comforted feeling when they are in full leaf, and I look forward to the new green every year.

What Bev missed was the wind, the particular kind of wind that blows unimpeded by buildings or hills or trees. Chicago is the Windy City, but its wind flows around sharp edges. And Michigan’s breezes rustle the trees, and that has its quiet delight. But Kansas’s wind, I take it, is another thing altogether. I can only think of Dorothy and the tornado, but Bev delighted in the steady, constant wind.

Isaiah wrote that the rough places would become a plain, and John the Baptist picked up that theme: the way would be easy to build a highway to God and from God. And nothing would impede our view: everyone who cares to look would the glory of God revealed; there would be no barriers. (The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.)

And the Spirit’s wind, too, is not hindered. We can stand and be surrounded, and perhaps even (like Dorothy) be swept up in its power and taken to places we did not expect.

May you stand in the Spirit’s steady, constant wind as we commemorate the imprisonment, torture and death of our Lord, and more importantly, his coming back from the dead in power over those forces which tried to keep him dead. May you behold his glory, full of grace and truth.

Pagan Christianity

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor 12:4-6)

I have been reading the book Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna, which, controversially, argues that most of the activities and structures we associate with “church” really have their origins in worldly and pagan ideas. To many of us, this is probably neither surprising nor particularly upsetting: something’s origins don’t necessarily determine the goodness or badness or something, and everything has to come from somewhere, and why would we believe that people outside the church would be completely bereft of good? This would be a very strong view of total depravity indeed. Even the Calvinists, who have thought long and hard on this problem, understand that God gives common grace to all, and that the completeness of our fall refers to its reach (no part of us is good enough) not to its absolute extent (every part of us is completely bad).

Still, there are good things to read here, and I look forward to reading to reading the positive side of Viola’s Reimagining Church and his vision of an “organic church.” (I find the use of “organic,” dripping with connotations of California hippidippiness, amusing, but I digress).

In particular, the idea of a professional clergy and music ministry, which strongly separates the professional Christians from the non-professional ones, particularly worth investigating. The ideal is to free up people with talent to give them the time and resources to help the church love God and others. And so it often happens. But the reality, too, is that this opens up an all-too-common divide between us and them, where the clergy and the musicians are expected to do the work of God instead of us; just as we hire people to clean our drains and pave our streets, we hire people to love God and others for us.

Paul’s vision is of everyone being gifted to do God’s work–both empowered and expected to do God’s work, like a well-functioning human body (and this, of course, is where Viola’s use of organic comes from). It is not enough to pay someone to feed us and to entertain us with music; we must exercise the gifts, services and activities God has given us, each one, to do the work God has for us to do, and enjoy the kingdom God is calling us into.

Flesh→Death; Spirit→Life

The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.  (Romans 8:6)

Well, that’s a bit old-fashioned in language! The Greek is more literally like this:

A MIND OF FLESH IS DEATH, BUT A MIND OF SPIRIT IS LIFE AND PEACE.

I put it in all capitals, because, you know, you can’t tell if Paul is saying “a spiritual mind” or “a mind of the Spirit’s,” nor can you tell if he means “a fleshly mind” or “a mind of the flesh’s”, and the capitalized version keeps it all together. You can decide.

Because of course the point is that thinking about fleshly things–those things which are temporary or of evil inclination–will only eventually lead to what happens to all flesh: death. But the spiritual is not temporary, Paul says, and thinking about things that are spiritual, or being controlled by the Spirit, leads us into those eternal things, such as love and peace. Love engenders love; peace begets peace.

I am reminded that Jesus said that the seed of his flesh had to die and be buried so that eternal life could be enjoyed by us. In this passion week, think on, and be grateful for, the gift of Jesus’s flesh, which gives us life.

The sword of Jesus

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  (Matthew 10:34)

Sigh.

What could Jesus, who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” mean by this?

Just maybe Jesus doesn’t come as a peacemaker for “the world,” for the world’s system, but to set up a kingdom (a peaceable kingdom) opposed to the world’s system. His attempt to set up such a kingdom got him killed, of course, as he accepted a death on the cross so that we might have peace with God and peace with one another within that kingdom. The world split off, divided from God; the world chose violence, and Jesus chose the death of a sacrifice.

Just maybe this means we need to spread this gospel of peace as an invitation to join in a community a peace. We arrive not as negotiators, but as welcomers; as land agents for the land of peace. At times, we will fail (miserably) to keep Jesus’s peace within our communities. At times, the world systems will hate us, and bring a sword; which, in some sense, is Jesus’s sword, “for it has been granted to [us] on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him  (Philippians 1:29),” as our passage from yesterday said.

So perhaps it is a good thing (like a good painting, or a well-written computer program, or a good diagnosis, or a well-tilled field) to be peacemakers in the world; perhaps our peaceful practices (when done well) can give us the training and experience we need. But if it is this (and this is truly a good thing), perhaps it is no more than this. And these efforts, as temporary as a painting or computer program or health or a season’s crops, will, at the end, fail–although peace is itself a good thing.

But I am unwise, and desire to understand better. Dear wiser Anabaptist brothers and sisters: What do you know? If Jesus didn’t come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword, what does that look like? How do we experience it? How do we understand it?

Catching up with Julian

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.  (Philippians 1:29)

I think we should check in on dear Julian of Norwich, who knew, better than most, how to share in the sufferings of Jesus.

The Lord she loved showed her:

With a glad cheer our Lord looked unto His Side and beheld, rejoicing. With His sweet looking He led forth the understanding of His creature by the same wound into His Side within. And then he shewed a fair, delectable place, and large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest in peace and in love.

How sweet to think that the wound in Jesus’s side is a “fair, delectable place” which is “large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest in peace and love!”

And Jesus showed her:

Our good Lord Jesus Christ: Art thou well pleased that I suffered for thee? I said: Yea, good Lord, I thank Thee; Yea, good Lord, blessed mayst Thou be. Then said Jesus, our kind Lord: If thou art pleased, I am pleased: it is a joy, a bliss, an endless satisfying to me that ever suffered I Passion for thee; and if I might suffer more, I would suffer more.

How sweet to think that Jesus loves us so much that he would be willing to suffer even more greatly if he could; His joy and bliss was to serve us in his sufferings.

And Jesus showed her:

And here saw I verily that if He shewed now [to] us His Blissful Cheer, there is no pain in earth or in other place that should aggrieve us; but all things should be to us joy and bliss. But because He sheweth to us time of His Passion, as He bare it in this life, and His Cross, therefore we are in distress and travail, with Him, as our frailty asketh. And the cause why He suffereth [it to be so,] is for [that] He will of His goodness make us the higher with Him in His bliss; and for this little pain that we suffer here, we shall have an high endless knowing in God which we could never have without that. And the harder our pains have been with Him in His Cross, the more shall our worship be with Him in His Kingdom.

How sweet to think that each of our sufferings here on earth will allow us to worship Jesus even more fully in the fullness of his kingdom!

Really, I commend to you Julian’s Shewings, which are available in weblog format at shewings.wordpress.com.

Peace through strength

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. (Psalm 29:11)

Taken all by itself, this verse sounds like one of those lovely verses one reads on a bumper sticker or (ahem) a verse-a-day website. God gives me strength; God gives me peace.

But taken as the climax of this psalm, what does it mean?

1Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.

3The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
4The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

9The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

10The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
11May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

This Lord is a loud god with a powerful and majestic voice; this Lord speaks, and you see lightning and hear thunder. This Lord speaks, and everything quakes. This Lord is a terrible thunderstorm, a hurricane, a gale-force wind, an avalanche, a flood. This Lord is a god of power and might, and this mighty power must be recognized.

So, when the Lord brings this mighty strength to bear on behalf of his people, what kind of strength will that be? A kinetic, energetic strength: the kind that can uproot trees, not just the kind of strength to get us through the minor ups and downs of the small storms of our lives.

So, when the Lord brings peace to his people, what kind of peace will it be? Not the kind of peace that means stillness and calm, but the peace of knowing that we are ready for anything, because God is stronger still. Does the wilderness of our sin and dis-ease threaten us? Do mighty oaks of danger overshadow us? God strips the forest, shakes the wilderness. We can face a host of enemies, knowing that the Lord, “in holy spendour,” is greater than our sins, diseases, and danger.

Walk today in peace, knowing that no matter what thing assails you today, God is greater still (and God looks on you, yes you, with favor). Take God’s gift to you.

The Reason for God

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Reference: Romans 8:28

I have been reading Tim Keller’s book, The Reason for God, over the past few days, and finding it a useful and insightful book. One of the questions Keller addresses is this: Why does God allow suffering and evil in the world? Among other things, Keller reminds us that many of us have seen much of our own personal growth happen as a result of bad things happening to us. Although we would never seek to go through these bad experiences, we can acknowledge that they have shaped us, often in good ways. He suggests, then, that if we can see in small ways how good things can happen from bad things, it is not unreasonable to believe that the infinite God can “in all things…work for the good of those who love” God, as Paul writes.

I think this is a helpful perspective, and I’d like to suggest that a kind of “virtuous circle” happens when we acknowledge God is trustworthy in small things: we learn to trust God in bigger and bigger things, through bigger and bigger trials. Unfortunately, sometimes this means that God even sends bigger things our way in order to increase our trust in him and our faithfulness to him. I say, “unfortunately,” because it is not easy. Sometimes, it feels too much to bear. When I’m in my right mind, I remember what Paul says soon after this:

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’d like to commend Keller’s book to you; it is structured around typical doubts that people (both Christians and non-Christians) have about God. Keller is respectful, modest and usually persuasive, and it may be that it will provide good hope to you or someone you know.

Patrick of Ireland

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them- the LORD, who remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free.  Reference: Psalm 146:5-7

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’d like to reprise some words I wrote about Patrick, whom God upheld, and whom God used to uphold the cause of the oppressed and hungry.

Patrick of Ireland
Will Fitzgerald
March 22, 2009

Once upon a time — and listen, for although this sounds like a fable, I will try to make every word true — once upon a time there was a young boy named Patrick, a young Christian boy whose father was a deacon, and whose grandfather was a priest. This happened a long, long time ago — you can tell because he has a Latin name, and it was son long ago that priests could marry — but people haven’t really changed that much. Patrick, though he was raised in a Christian household did not himself know God. I imagine he was like most people, just living his life out without much concern for spiritual things. Perhaps this was because he had a relatively comfortable life in a small villa with a father who made a good living. They didn’t really have a “middle class” back then, but he was something like a typical middle-class teenager.

But then something really terrible happened. Raiders attacked his parents’ villa, and Patrick was taken off to be a slave in Ireland. I suspect that his parents had plans for him to go off to the city to become an educated gentleman. Instead, he was taken off at age sixteen to become a slave. Instead of going to school, he was forced to become a shepherd. Day in and day out, night after night, during snowstorms and rain, he had to watch another man’s sheep. What a terrible and boring fate this was for him! His family gone, his friends gone, the knowledge that perhaps everyone he know had been taken for slaves, living a life of great isolation and physical hardship.

In that loneliness and emptiness, he began to remember what he knew about God. And he started to pray the prayers he had been taught; I don’t know what prayers, but I imagine he prayed the “Our Father.” He started praying more and more — in the fields at night and during the day, even waking up before daylight to pray, praying up to, he says, 100 prayers in a day. God started to burn in him, he says.

He was a slave until he was about twenty, and then something very spooky but real happened. He was sleeping, but he heard a voice saying he was going home soon. Soon after he heard the voice again saying that his boat was ready. He immediately fled from his slave-owner, for he recognized that this was a message directly from God. He had to travel two hundred miles to get to the harbor where the ship was, in a land he did not know, among people whom he did not know. But “by the power of God,” he says, he was directed to the ship.

Of course, he went to the ship the day he arrived at the harbor. He asked for a place on the ship — he apparently had some money because he said he could pay for a place — but for some reason the steersman got angry and told him to to away. After the visions and after walking 200 miles, I imagine he was disappointed. He headed back to the hut where he was staying praying along the way. As he was walking and praying, one of the men shouted at him to come back; he could get a ride with them.

They traveled for three days before they landed, and then the whole group started walking — after twenty-eight days, their food ran out, and it was uninhabited. His companions were kind to have taken him in, but now they were hungry and cranky, and began to taunt him about God, asking that perennial question: If God is so great and powerful, why isn’t God helping us?

Patrick had good reason to trust that God had something other than starving in mind for them, though, and he told them boldly that they should become Christians. He also said that God was going to provide so much food that very day that they couldn’t eat any more. And so it happened: a herd of pigs came by, and I imagine they had a pretty good pork barbecue. Their attitude towards God and Patrick changed that day; in fact, they had fire and food enough for the rest of their journey.

Patrick eventually was able to return to his kinsfolk, and he was glad to return, and they were glad to have him. But Patrick had another dream: a man named Victorius bringing letters from Ireland, and in his dream he read one of the letters. The letter said it was “The Voice of the Irish,” and he could hear the voices of people he knew in Ireland begging him to return to return to the land of his slavery. He started, and work up, “stinging intensely” from the call. He had another dream of God saying that it really was God speaking to him. And a third vision: the Holy Spirit praying over Patrick with the loud sighs “too deep for utterance.”

So he started to make plans to return to Ireland. Unfortunately, he return to Ireland was blocked by some of his elders who remembered a bad thing Patrick had done before he went into slavery, we don’t know what that bad thing was, but it was bad enough that the elders thought it should disqualify Patrick from going to Ireland as an evangelist. Patrick was really angry about this — so angry that he almost lost his faith. But God sent Patrick another vision, in which God reminded Patrick that Jesus himself had faced dishonor and that God would protect Patrick. And so God did.

And Patrick returned to Ireland to preach. He didn’t cast out the snakes; we don’t know if he used a shamrock to teach the Trinity; the hymns attributed to him are not likely to be by him. But we know he continued to face hardship. In fact, he was kidnapped at least one more time for two months. In all these trials, it seems as if God was good to continually remind him of God’s care for Patrick; even telling Patrick that he would be a captive for two months.

And God granted Patrick success. He baptized thousands of people. He wrote:

So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things,they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ.

Patrick’s life was full of ups and downs, He was ashamed of his poor education (poor man, he only knew three or so languages and wrote his confession in Latin that was perhaps not up to par). He called himself a stutterer, though he preached to thousands. He felt that “poverty and failure suit[ed him] better than wealth and delight.” He certainly never got wealthy ministering to the Irish. He remained homesick, I think, to the end of his days—it certainly would have been an easier life if he hadn’t followed God’s call to Ireland. But he recognized the work of God through him, but he felt bound by the Spirit to remain in Ireland.

What lessons should we learn from Patrick and his life?

I pray that, like Patrick, we would see the signs of God’s work in the world, and follow those signs and do God’s work. I don’t think God always speaks in miraculous signs as God did with Patrick, but I believe God does, sometimes. In any case, our Bibles are full of messages from God about hwo we should go about doing the work God has for us.

I pray too, that we would see the trials and tribulations of this life as opportunities for God’s grace in our lives, as Patrick did. Patrick turned a life of exile and loneliness into a life of prayer and attention and learning obedience.

I pray that we learn, as Patrick seemed to know, when to throw our reliance on God in such specific ways as he did when he was confident God would provide food.

Finally, I want to quote Patrick, who saw his life as partially fulling the promise of God to bring “many from east and west” to sit together at God’s table.

So for that reason one should, in fact, fish well and diligently,just as the Lord foretells and teaches, saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,’ and again through the prophets: ‘Behold, I am sending forth many fishers and hunters, says the Lord,’ et cetera. So it behooves us to spread our nets, that a vast multitude and throng might be caught for God, and so there might be clergy everywhere who baptized and exhorted a needy and desirous people.

Out of God’s glorious riches

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being. Reference: Ephesians 3:16

Now, we can’t just leave that verse stand alone, can we? We need the whole paragraph:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Paul prays for the Ephesians that they be strengthened in their inner beings (their “inner man,” says King James, which always gets me picturing a tiny homunculus walking around my innards). But that strength and power has a goal in mind: to completely comprehend how wonderful Christ’s love for us is. And, as we know (and are known, says Paul elsewhere), we are completely filled with God. If we are to have God poured into us, we will need strength: this new wine in old bottles will burst if he doesn’t prepare us properly.

Here is one of those rare places in which the evangelical expression about “having Christ in our hearts” is actually expressed in the New Testament. Paul is mixing his metaphors all other the place here in his excitement and ecstasy as he meditates on the vastness of Christ’s love for us, so we don’t want to take him very literally. But it is interesting that having Christ in our (individual) hearts for an understanding of Christ’s love for us must happen “together with all the saints,” as if we just might need others, too, to comprehend this love. Or better, our joint understanding fills us up (as a body, not as individual bodies) with “the measure of all the fullness of God.” God is at work in us, one by one, and God is at work in all the church; now and in former times, and into the future. His power is expressed through love in us. And so we raise Paul’s doxology:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.