Reformation Day


Tomorrow is Reformation Day. It is not the most popular Protestant holiday, but it has held the most important influence in history as a beacon towards progress and change.

The history of the Reformation’s effects reverberated throughout the western world when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the doors of All Saint’s Church in Germany. It not only created the Protestant tradition, but eventually led to changes in the Roman Catholic Church, who were the object of the protests. It is debatable as to why exactly Luther posted the list, but the common assumption is that Luther was not producing a doctrine, but wanting an honest intellectual conversation on the merits of the Church’s practices at that time, more specifically the practices related to the selling of indulgences by Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel, who wittily coined the phrase “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as 'into heaven'] springs.”

Most Church folk know how this story played out. Luther gets into much trouble with the Catholic Church and eventually is kicked out. What started as a conversation starter turned into a battle of wills and led to a separation.

One may ask, what is the point of all the history lesson here. The point is that our more recent history is in some ways not so different from the one just described. How many times do we get into conversations with a person who has too many questions and then get frustrated with them? Have we not at times been guilty, even in the Protestant Church, of making the mistake of condemning and practically excommunicating them?

There have been those on the other side who have been exiled for merely observing things in Scripture that raise questions on theology and have been given hell for it. It is not that they were trying to sabotage the tradition, but they had questions, did not understand how the tradition matched with the Bible, or just wanted to see if the tradition could be made better by a little Q&A. Instead of being given grace and a safe place for questions, they were put on an emotional roller coaster that eventually pushed them away from church.

It makes one think of the command to not return evil with evil, but to do good only (Romans 12:17).

Although Reformation Day is a time to remember this great contribution that began with Luther and continues today, it is also a solemn time of remembrance. It is a time where we look at past mistakes and look inward to see if our mistakes are the same. Take some time today. It might be 5 minutes or 5 hours. Quietly reflect and seek God’s still small voice. In this time, you may find correction for your faults and comfort for your pain.

Challenge by fires of purification and healing by balms of soothing effects.

What are you celebrating today? Is it a time to appreciate the good? Or is it your time to do the same bad that was done to you? Do you want change and healing? Or do you want to feel safe and proud?

Symbols: Anchor and Cross


anchor-cross

We are in a series about the symbols of the early church and what those symbols show us about how people of faith should live today. Today we are looking at the symbol of an anchor that also resembles a cross. The reason for picking this symbol of an anchor was probably an obvious one. It had the shape of the cross which was a very integral to the story of Christianity. Having this symbol reminded them of everything that the cross meant and showed them the path that they were meant to follow.

The verse the could be the basis for this symbol is Hebrews 6:19. The context for the verse has to do with covenant God has made with humanity. This chapter talks about through Jesus acts of the cross and the resurrection. It talks about God making a covenant with us. It describes it like an anchor which holds us steady and as a reality which brings us into the presence of God. This early group of believers needed an anchor to hold them steady. The Church was early, growing, and there was some fear that they were on very shaky ground in the world. When we read the book of Acts, we see that the church needed something firm and even supernatural to keep them going. They needed something bigger than big and that they could dive deeply into.

One of the most important things to people of the Early Church was the Presence of God. To them that was everything. It meant peace, hope, and purpose. It was part of what they were trying to bring to the world. What they also saw was that to bring the presence of God, you to always seek to be in the presence of God. The orientation towards God was the only to ensure that the infiltration of God’s Kingdom was possible. That is why they met together as much as possible. They saw that in community, they could see a bit of what God had planned for them. They never gave up seeking God’s presence in community at all times.

The question this raises is what are we doing to dwell in God’s presence? Also, what are we doing to bring that grounded presence to other people? Are we seeking peace, love and faith? Are we leaving this presence with everyone we come in contact with? The presence is crucial to our existence and knowing what we need to do. At the risk of angering some believers, I would say this presence with God is more crucial than even reading a Bible. In the end, The presence of God found in Jesus and brought to us through the Holy Spirit is what sustains us. Even though we can read our Bibles, go to worship, or read devotionals, we cannot be grounded without seeking God’s presence. We cannot survive without His presence. Whatever you do to grow spiritually, always create a space where you are aware of God’s presence with you. It can be in your individual times of growth or in a community of worship.

Symbols: The Branch


palm-sunday-global

We are currently in a series about the symbols of the Early Church and what it mean for people of faith today. We have already seen two symbols that have so much to say to us. Today we look at a very simple symbol. The symbol is a palm branch. This symbol is simple, yet it invokes many thoughts from the early believers in Jesus. These thoughts are important for our future because their direction and purpose are part of what it means to take on the path of Jesus.

The first and most obvious connection we can make is the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem and the people waved palm branches for Jesus and layer them down for his donkey to walk on. To most this entry into Jerusalem seemed random and one might assume that it is a pointless story, but it is packed with meaning.

One event that every person in Jerusalem would have remembered was the entry of the emperor of Rome riding in on his horse after taking over and being instructed to wave palm branches for him. The Palm branch would have been the symbol that Rome used to say that they had achieved peace through conquering land and bringing their law to it. Jesus, however, challenged that entire notion of peace through forceful means. By Jesus entering this way, he was saying that he was bringing real peace and the crowd was declaring it. The thing that seemed counterintuitive was that he was crucified. How was he achieving this if he was letting people putting him to death? Most people would have been thrown off by the idea of a crucified savior. For them, that was an oxymoron, and if you think about it, it would be considered lunacy if someone did it today.

Jump forward two thousand years. We can ask the question of who has had the most profound effect on history. The Emperors of Rome have come and gone. They have no religion of anyone following. Their concept of achieving peace was not game changing. Jesus, however, has a religion which around 30% of the world claims to be a part of. Even people do not believe he is a savior tend to admit that he is one of the most polarizing, game changing figures of history. We would not be where we are today, if he had not come down to us in the way he had.

For a Christian, this central person of our faith has made a declaration as to how we should live life. Our way of life is not supposed to be defined by using force or violence to achieve what we want. The world ever since our fall has tried to define history by utilizing the eye for an eye philosophy or a worse philosophy of take what you want by any means necessary. If you read the New Testament, you see a Jesus that does not want to take his power and force people to follow his way, but someone who wants to offer life and give us the keys to heaven. He wants to give purpose to people and guide them into changing the world in the same way he did. The emperors were like blips on a radar. Jesus was the earthquake that shifted everything.

In the end, there will be victory. This palm branch included an element of victory or success. When claim this symbol, we claim victory in a way that is very different than anything else. It’s a victory over death. We get to share in the resurrection of Jesus. This means that when people threaten us and say they will go to the point of putting us to death, we can be unfazed because our death is not final. We will see life again. We can live the life of Jesus without fear. We can show a love that brings life in Jesus. We can dramatically shift the direction of the world every day. The question is will we?

Symbols: Cup and Bird


 We are in a conversation about the early church symbols and what they teach us about Jesus plan for humanity. When we join in a community of faith, one thing that we should remember is that this is a community not just of identity, but of  participation. This image of a bird drinking from a cup was one image that the early church used to indicate their presence. There are a few particulars about this image that can teach us about the direction of the early believers and the direction God wants for us. This direction will be important, since we are in need of this direction to change our world today.

The bird drinking from cup stands for believers taking part in Christ’s covenant with humanity. Community was one of the most important things in the early church. Without it, one could say that they probably would not have lasted. The community, however, was not just about hanging out together. The community was centered around Jesus. The people, in essence were drinking from a cup that was crucial to their survival. Th cup also represents Christ being the water of life. This community that Jesus had formed was part of the package that He gave to us. Seeing community like this makes it not optional, but crucial to a healthy Christian lifestyle.

Some images had the bird sitting on a palm branch. Palm branches usually stood for the peace throughout the Roman Empire. Obviously, for Christians, it stood for the peace of Christ. It’s interesting that this would be included in this image. The community of Jesus was to be defined by peace. This community was given the responsibility of bringing peace and well being to each other. For today, we can ask ourselves if we live by this model. A quick look at the New Testament description shows us an early church that would do whatever they could to take care of everyone and bring on the peace of Christ. Do we do the same? How many people are in need in our very own communities that we reach out to? Or is our community judging and with-holding true help for these people? The early church understood that we should care for those in our communities. That calling has never changed.

Symbols: The Boats


ship-catacomb

One symbol from the early church that we will start with is the boat. It’s not much to look at. As a matter of fact, the drawing was very rudimentary with no special images. We would not look at it twice except to think a preschooler drew it for a parent’s refrigerator. However, the image carried a heavy missional meaning for the Early Church. The entire image along with certain particular images that would accompany the boat picture was not only an indicator of the presence of the Christian community, but also reminded all the disciples of what their purpose was.

The first and most obvious element is the boat itself. The boat recalls the story of Noah and how God used Noah and his family to save the world from destruction. The Early Church found this story to be a prime example of what their mission was. If we are to be reflections of Christ, we have to take on the mission of Christ, which was to save humanity and all of creation. This was a pretty stout message in this image, since they were a minority group. But this small group was called to save and change the world. By painting this image, they made a declaration that they would stay on track with God’s mission.

Another part of this image, the cross in the mast, was crucial, although the image does not make it easy to see. This was not just a standard image required of this small group, but an indicator of who defined this group. The boat was the church, but the mast, a necessary piece of any sailing vessel, was defined by Jesus. Note that it was not the Bible or some ritual. It was the person of Jesus who defined the Church. The early church believed that in order to interact with the Church, you had to interact with Jesus. This is a very stark contrast with the modern church which seems to indicate that if do a ritual (baptism, sinner’s prayer, etc.) you are in. The early church had at least two of the rituals common in church today, but they could not work around Jesus. This image let them know that Jesus is the image we advertise. Nothing else and no one else took His place.

Two other images would also be found. One was the Chrismon image. You may have seen this image and it looks like an X written over a P. It’s actually the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ and it reinforced the point found in the cross as the mast of the ship. The other image was the bird or dove. Why a bird? It goes back to the baptism of Jesus where the Holy Spirit came down in the form of a dove. The Spirit carried with it connotations of wind from the old testament, which make sense when you think of sails in a boat needing wind to move. Also, in the first creation story (Genesis 1) the Spirit is described as hovering over the earth’s waters. The Spirit is a very creative force and helps people understand where they need to go. These people understood that they need direction and, at times, a very creative force if they were going to survive. They were always on the edge of experiencing persecution. God’s Spirit was the force and it was and still is the most creative force in the universe. In the end, it was up to God to drive the boat forward, humans just had to decide whether to fight it, which never ends well, or join its path, which always ends well. This brings up a very serious question for us today. Do we intentionally follow the Spirit regardless of the destination?

This image turns out to be very complex and involved, but the power inside the image is what is tells us today. How do we define ourselves? Who are we following? Do we really understand our mission? So many times, our churches begin to look more like a ship junkyard than a sea worthy vessel ready to take on the challenges God will take us toward. It all seems to center around that mast. If we have Christ as our core definition, then we will begin down a path defined by God’s intent. We will begin to live on a mission. We will be driven by God’s spirit. Instead of just looking at our calendars for Sundays and potluck dinners, maybe we should ask how it looks to sail with Christ every day of the week. Maybe we should be asking God where He wants to take us instead of asking where we want to take ourselves. We have the opportunity to sail on the greatest mission the world has ever experienced. We just have let Christ through the Spirit direct our every move.

 

Symbol Series: Beginnings


We follow a very old faith. For over two thousand years we have seen many eras of meaning, symbol, and significance. These eras have paved the way for later movements. Despite the desire to completely abandon the old ways and pursue a completely new way of Christian, what remains a reality is that we have to learn from what has become the past in order to wisely approach the future. In the Christian faith, we have two millenniums to work with. We can learn from our predecessors what the ethos of our faith is and the direction our faith should go.

The focus for this series is certain symbols of the early church, within the first two hundred years. Christians began as a minority religion that was shunned by the majority in society. They were not liked and sometimes had lies spread about them by Jews and Gentiles alike. That led to much of their communication outside of gathering times to drawn symbols. These symbols indicated the presence of a Christian community that would meet in that location as well as communicated a core of what a disciple of Jesus was. They would draw their identities which would include themes such as community, evangelism, hope, resurrection, and the person of Jesus Christ, the son of God.

The value of these symbols for us is the reminder that we have had a mission for the last two thousand years. The Spirit of God has been informing us of our narrative. We are part of this same story and are part of this community that finds its identity in Christ. So everything that Jesus did or commanded us to do was put into a picture that everyone could understand. That is something we still are supposed to do today. Our presence needs to be communicated. We can use symbol to describe our purpose and to remind each other that we are part of a movement to change the world. We are the spearhead movement of the kingdom that will break down the walls that have been built by the world.

As we move from message to message, we will explore some symbols and the unique messages they communicated with the believers. We will also dive into their message for us today. Are we following Jesus like the early church was trying to do? Are we try to at least head in His direction.

(Series inspired by and some content taken from Early Christianity: In Their Own Words, by Eberhard Arnold.)

Out of Reach


Have you had a dream where you were trying to reach something but you could never reach it. It would always be just at your fingertips and out of reach. That feeling is very frustrating and is tiring. It leaves you tired in the morning and cranky until you get your first cup of coffee down. That feeling, if you recall the dream, sticks with you. That thing you can never reach. It can even hit you in the most spiritual contexts. Most of religion has a way trying to reach something and attain something. But what humanity has not been able to see is quite impossible to reach. How do you connect with a great reality that you cannot see and cannot explain fully?

People always try to reach God, or something out there that is real that would explain life and give meaning. That is why all throughout history we have seen religions try their hardest to reach out to the unknown and benefit from. If you look at the Old Testament, every other religion seems to be reaching out to with all the rules rituals and rules to get to God and be blessed by His presence. The only problem is that it has been just out of our reach. The moment we feel as if we are being blessed, moments turn for the worst. If we follow these efforts, we find ourselves in those nightmares where we cannot seem reach what we want to reach.

Ever since the fall, we have been stuck in a sick cycle of reaching out to God, but not being able to fully reach Him. But the great thing about God has always been reaching out to us. Even right after the fall, He was calling humanity to let Him change their lives for the better. One story that shows us the difference between being religious and letting God chase us. The story is of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on top of the mountain facing off. They were there to see who could summon their God to answer. The prophets of Baal commit to rituals of yelling louder and louder and then end up cutting themselves in order to get their god to answer them and give them what they need. They are never successful. Elijah, however, knows that God is present enough to just hear him as he prays for an answer. He gets a very powerful answer.

The great thing about the God who answered is that he was reaching out. He always reaches out. If He was not reaching out to us, we would have to yell and come up ways to grab His attention and hopefully getting Him to do things for us. But our God has come to us and can here us. He wants to be close to us in our history. And we don’t have to reach far. We do not even have to reach. He has already put His hand into our lives and is constantly calling us to a better purpose. That is what should amaze us, that a God that humanity rebelled against has decided to chase us and change our lives for good.

People trying to reach God creates two things, people frustrated at not feeling the spirit or people confident that they have completely experienced God with no need for more. Those are things God is out to stop. He wants us to be confident that His Spirit is here with us and that He is taking us on a journey. This is not an arbitrary journey that He is making us travel for His own amusement or to make us jump through the hoops to please Him. He really wants us to have a purpose towards greatness to create faith, hope, and love. He wants us to be the people He created us to be. What will we be? Are we going to keep reaching out to the things we will never reach? Or will we let God reach out to us and transform us and the world around us to be beautiful?

Heroic: 2 Kings 24-25


There are times when our communities can forget what we stand for and fall into something that we cannot get ourselves out of. The thing we fall into is that we try to become our own rulers instead following God’s will, something that we have been attempting for thousands upon thousands of years. That story always turns out with someone getting hurt or oppressed throughout Scripture. We have this tendency for trying to take over what God has given us. All through our history, we have been trying to take over God’s throne. This story repeats itself in over and over again and shows up in these two passages for today. The kings of Israel wanted to take control over the world and make it what they wanted to be. They wanted to fit in with the rest of the world. The only problem was that this was a world of of violence, oppression, and greed, much like todays world.

It is in this world that trouble is born. If we participate a world that is dog eat dog, we will try to be the top dog. We always tend to forget that at some point there will be a bigger dog ready to eat us. It’s a known fact that if we are alive long enough in the world, there will be someone else bigger and better than us. That reality makes this world end up in a cycle of having its own system turn on itself. The kings who did the oppressing in this story were attacked and oppressed by a bigger power called Babylon. The story ends up being a tug of war for power until Babylon finally places its own people in power and says we are not going to let a small country threaten our thirst for power again. Israel ends up having its land stolen from under her, just like she took it from the weak in her own community. It’s the ultimate ironic twist. People so good at taking from other end up having things taken away in the same way.

Does this not make us raise questions? If this system is going to continue to cannabalize itself, then why keep it? Is there a better system out there that would promote life for everyone instead of taking life from people? By the end of these two chapters, we see God begin to intervene for the people of Israel. As the last king of Israel is imprisoned by Babylon, one of the rulers sees him positively and begins to give him bigger and better things. This intervention stands in stark contrast of what Israel’s king did. The king, who came out of a reality of taking, is being subjected to reality of generosity and peace. God is trying to grab his attention and say that peace and love is supposed to overtake destruction and greed. The story ends with this. It’s the rhetorical ending asking if God’s people will take back what they were meant to be, a light for the nations.

What in our communities of faith is stopping us from being heroes of faith? Are we taking life from people? Do we offer peace, hope, and love? Not just spiritual talk, but real and tangible items of hope. Do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the orphans? Do we seek the betterment of the weak people in our society? To make it more applicable, do we try to take away what could be given to those in need? Some people would rather fight others with no second thought that those people could be ministered to. They look at taking care of those who have little as a sign of weakness. Even some Christians will say this. When you look back to the first century Christians, we see that we come from a people who would originally care selflessly for people and be a voice against violence. Today there are many believers who are standing between God and the world and are turning their back on what God has for them and the world. How long until some of the same things are done to us? Are we safe from being on the other end? There is no guarantee that we would not be the person in need. In the moment of need we become acutely aware of how being deprived of the necessities of life makes life hard and miserable. If we could only know what it means to need Jesus and need some hope, we could understand the command from Jesus to do for others what we would want done for us.

This is a call to thought. What does it mean to follow a Prince of Peace and to take seriously that he has come to bring life to the fullest? God is calling us towards a new reality. We have too long been chasing a reality of greed. We have for too long chased a reality that is not based on faith in Jesus, but is faith in our own ability to get what we need. We should put away those efforts and pursue the reality of heaven, where there will be no one dying, no lack of what we need, and no reason to mourn our present state. If the Church took up this reality, people would begin to wonder at us. People drop the world and come to Jesus, but we have to follow that calling. God has invited, but will we respond. That is where this story ended, but the question has hung in the air ever since the Fall.

Heroic: 2 Kings 23:1-37


Being a facilitator of change usually takes epically heroic nerves. Changing things that are ingrained into the culture of a people is near impossible.  Josiah, after hearing God’s will for the community, decided to change everything around him. Everyone was comfortable with the status quo of their religious tendencies were not even thinking change was a necessity. But God revealed to Josiah that the way things were were not the way they should have been. So he called him towards the tough road of change.

Josiah’s change starts with the symbols. When you try to enact something that brings people closer to God, you are always bound to face resistance at some point. So many things in church communities are symbolic, from what they sing to what they do. Even how things are done have symbolic value. When these values start to hurt the mission of God to humanity, most communities are severely invested in the value. Whether written or unwritten, the expectation towards the practice is assumed and when people do not move in that direction, they are labeled as enemies either of the leaders of the community or worse enemies of God. The passage does not say this, but there probably was someone saying that Josiah was destroying their traditional values. Josiah, knowing God revealed this mission to Him, was undeterred. The change had to happen. The good of the world depended on it.

Josiah’s change never included disrespect of those who came before Him that were chasing what God had for them. One of the easiest things to do when changing things is to disregard other Godly people or not learn from those who came before you. We have so many people we can learn from who were game changers of faith. Without those people, the movement of Christianity would not be here. It would just be a dying mass of people who were not experiencing anything important from God. It is these people who made faith what it is today and we owe it to them to keep looking for the things that need to change. We should always remember those people and remind others of them. It is with gratitude that we look back to these people.

Another aspect of Josiah’s change was that it did not guarantee success. Josiah never saw an Israel of economic success or in a time of peace. One of the things we have to accept as heroes is that tragedy is possible. By tragedy, I mean that we might never see the fruits of our work. What makes Israel’s situation more dire is that the next king brought back the bad things that existed before. Have you ever seen a community like that? These are people led by this desire to keep certain trends, rules, or traditions with no regard to how they affect people. Even in getting the traditions back, they will burn anyone who stands in their way. It’s amazing what we will do when we allow religion to over turn our God given mandate to love others. We will raise a banner with holy written on it while trampling over others. This is the reality we live in, a world battling back and forth between God’s will and human demise.

The reality raises the question is changing the world worth it? It’s a good, pragmatic question. If we are practical about this, there is not a guarantee that we will see our return on investment here. We might have to let posterity experience that. But the answer is still yes, it is worth it. You can’t see that by asking the practical questions. You have to ask the experiential questions. The only way to do that is to be the change for good in others. Have you ever given money to poor or been there for someone in need? In the end, those experiences might be unforgettable for some. We have the potential to change a life for good. We can’t do that if we are focused on tradition and ritual. We can only do that when we are focused on people. Traditions and rituals have to at least be peripheral matters. People seeing Jesus and experiencing blessing must always be our main mission.

One last thing, change needs to be about people seeing and experiencing Jesus. Change for change’s sake is just as bad as resisting change no matter how necessary it is. God changes the world for the benefit of the world. It’s time we begun the changes we need and did them for the right reasons. If we keep people in mind and follow God into this, we can trust that this is worth the work and disappointment, because in the end, lives are changed in an unforgettable way for the better.

 

Heroic: 2 Kings 22:1-18


Ever discovered a little peace of God’s heart and been so surprised at it’s direction? Every time I sense a new thing revealed by God, I am always surprised at where He is going or what I have been missing this whole time. God is always and has always had a plan and a path that He is carving. He also is continually inviting people to carve that path and help other people find this path.

King Josiah had one of these moments. Josiah understood that he was supposed to honor God and did everything he could to do just that. He even went as far as to remodel the temple. During the renovation, someone discovered that there was an old scroll that had not been read in ages. This ended up being the scroll of the covenant between God and Israel. After Josiah heard what was written in the scroll, he went into panic thinking that God could destroy them at any moment. He orders the leaders of the temple to speak to God for Israel.

This is the moment the story accelerates quickly. The leaders, since they just discovered the scroll, went to a prophet. This woman gave instructions from God to all the men concerning God’s mercy. What makes the story interesting is that it was not the finding of the scroll or following some ritual that made God show mercy. What God responded to was the humility and repentance of Josiaj. Josiah knew that God was over Him. Any indication that he was rebelling against God devastated him. The direction that Israel was going and the direction they were supposed to be going was not in sync.

Many churches end up at these crossroads and are faced with a decision. Will they keep the status quo rituals, even if God is heading in a direction that will call them to abandon those things? Or will they be so in tune with God’s direction that they will embrace the surprise of God’s plans with humility, patience, and perseverance? It’s a question that even the Israelites struggle with. They loved the way they did things. It made them feel safe and in control.

But God never asked what was safe for us. He actually asks for us to risk everything for Him.

He never asked for us to control everything. He asks us to follow him into the way of the suffering servant.

God’s plan always involves reaching out to rescue and serve, even to those who do not get Him. He wants us to carve that path and remind each other that servanthood defines the Kingdom. God is adamant through Jesus that all believers serve and love. That is a core if the DNA of faith. Jesus in Philippians showed us that servanthood and submission is what leads us towards true victory. The cross with the servant hanging on is mysterious because that ends up with the empty tomb.

God’s plans may surprise, but they will win. Not by force or by oppression, but through serving God and serving others. That is a plan worth following and worth seeing win.