The Risk of Following Jesus into the World: Mission and Marginality

As we’ve stepped into our calling, following Jesus into the world, we have, on occasion, found ourselves in close relationship with people who are not “nice,” “proper,” or “easy.” The sorts of people that certain other sorts of people see as problematical and would just as soon not deal with.crystal-ball-ss-1920

This is actually just another way of describing marginalization… If I am the “sort” of person who can actually succeed in “doing without” certain other forms of people, then the ability to make that choice indicates that I obviously have a certain degree of power. And the place where I “locate” the persons that I would rather not encounter would, rightly, be called the margins. Something is “marginal” precisely when its presence or absence makes no significant different to the “bottom line.”

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Refugee children, Damascus, Syria. Photo by James Gordon, Los Angeles, CA

The thing about being in relationship, even community, with marginal people is that they are seen as risky. We’ve received “words of caution” on numerous occasions to be “careful,” because opening up to “certain persons” could be “dangerous.” In some cases, it’s a risk to reputation, in others, the fear that a person might bring in pernicious spiritual influences, powers, or presences.

Luke 7:39 “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”

I don’t doubt the sincerity and heart of those who share such expressions of concern… but that doesn’t mean they’re right. The Pharisee in the above reference is almost certainly sincere, but wrong, and his misapprehension leads him to marginalize Jesus himself, to conclude he is not, in fact who he says he is. The reality is that expressions of caution that someone’s presence in your fellowship could be “bringing in evil” or about the “risk” that a person poses, typically come from a “centralizing” perspective. But, if Jesus is present at the margins, what then?

Are we not willing to be the Body of Christ, the one who touches lepers who should contaminate him, who allows prostituted women to touch him, knowing how scandalized people are? That’s why, no matter the source, when I get advice about prioritizing such “risk assessments,” I listen, but seldom take them to heart.

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Roma caravan. October 2014. Romania

Here’s why… here’s my “concern.” If we pull back every time a marginal person’s presence might cause a “risk” to a person or group “at the center,” we get drawn in one of two directions. Either we are pulled away from the confidence we have in God’s calling to service (“Was it really God” who called you to this? Which does sound eerily similar to a different expression: “Did God really say…?” [Gen. 3:1]). Or it pulls us away from trust in God’s equipping us to handle our calling (“How could he have called you to this and not equipped you to handle it?”). This seems to impugn either God’s wisdom, or trustworthiness, or both.

My observation is that communities that value safety over risk (language about “transformation” notwithstanding) often place their focus on “making decent people better.” The thing is, the “world” can do that just fine. The Gospel demands more. The bringing of the Gospel is more than condescendingly allowing a few scraps to fall from our table onto poor unfortunate souls in the shadows underneath. We need more than short-term forays into danger zones (or icky places with sketchy people), while we ourselves remain ourselves well-resourced and well-protected.

Addams-Family-Tv-Show-Opening-CreditsIt’s even more than inviting those at the margins to leave their marginal status (do we want them to repent of sin, as God sees it, or their marginality?) and come to us. Or come toward us…, we probably wouldn’t want them to get all the way to us without their having made some significant behavioral adaptations.

I hear a lot about how important it is for the church to be a “like-minded community” of faith. But I’m concerned that something is missing. Think of the story of Nabal and Abigail. Nabal is evidence that a foolish man finding tough words to justify folly is nothing new. David’s men ask him for assistance in their mission. His response? “Who is this fellow David?” Nabal sneered. “Who does this son of Jesse think he is? There are lots of servants these days who run away from their masters. Should I take my bread and water and the meat I’ve slaughtered for my shearers and give it to a band of outlaws who come from who knows where?”

Roma stealing electricity

Roma man stealing electricity.

David hears this and pretty much goes ballistic. And almost does a very bad thing. The issue wasn’t that David “needed people to speak into his life,” needed “community.” What almost did him in was the lack of a diversity of opinion. For heaven’s sake, he had 400 “like-minded people in community”… who were ready to a man to slaughter everyone… which David later acknowledged would have been a horrible crime leading to horrible results.

A group of like-minded people in community, in some cases, could be words used to describe a mob.

Once again, we see that – whoever “they” are – “we” need THEM, possibly more than they “need” us.

Our adversary has a plan to lie, steal, and destroy. Not in the abstract sense – he lies to people, steals from people, and destroys real people. When he is succeeding at this with a person or a group of people, we are called to bring a message of salvation precisely to and for them.

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Roma man in church, meeting in a shipping container. Dicanesti, Romania. October 2014

There are times when such “risks” are taken, and these “plans for evil” are disrupted. That’s called salvation. That must cause a degree of aggravation at whatever planning meetings these spiritual entities conduct. That is the actual source of “risk,” not the people to whom we are called to reach out. And that (turning Satan’s “successes” into failures), freeing bunnies from his sack, is precisely what we in mission are called to pursue. Boldly and with confidence.

Posted in Bible, church, Jesus, Marginality, Mission | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From the Dnepr’s Banks, to Wreck Island Creek. Dreams for the land live on.

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Our little “khata,” Grigorivka, Ukraine. July 2009

While living in Ukraine, we were entrusted with a couple acres and a “khata,” a humble peasant-style dwelling, heated by an adobe wood-stove, not all that different from one in which people would have lived a century ago. We frequently used it not only for personal “time away,” but pastors’ retreats, women’s retreats, prayer weekends, and the like. We had a vision to developing it to house folks coming out of prison or drug rehab… but a sudden, unplanned departure in 2009 changed all of that.

We grieved almost as much about what seemed to be the death of the dreams we had for that place as we did for having to leave our beloved Ukraine. But Ukraine remains close to our heart (and frequently in our itinerary) to this day. And we pray always for the land and people.

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The banks of the Dnipro River. Grigorivka, Ukraine. September 2007

As we walked up the hill from the little village of Grigorivka, we wept. We didn’t know when, if ever, we would return, and the hopes we had for this place to be a haven of blessing and redemption and peace seemed to disappear like a puff of smoke. But, in our sorrow, I felt God speaking directly into my heart, not audibly, but in words, real words in real time. Here is what I “heard”: “This land belongs to the Lord. Are you afraid that your leaving means that worship will cease? My name will be glorified in this place and my name will resound through these hills.

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Igor (center) and Jim and other pastors at “the khata” on a retreat. Grigorivka, Ukraine. May 2007

One of the pastors who frequented our khata was our great friend Igor Stakhovskiy, who served as the pastor of the little flock at an early church plant. (Here’s an article from Christianity Today about this from “back in the day.”) He was one of the few people we knew who had a relatively dependable car, and he often drove the two hours from Kyiv, sometimes to drop us off, other times bringing his entire family.

While friendships and burdens remain, dreams do sometimes die. Yet they’re sometimes reborn. Entire chapters of life seem to end in a sudden aposiopesis… only to be reconfigured in a new place with new characters.

When we come through Kyiv, we always seek out Igor, his wife Raia and as many of their kids as can be summoned. We talk about faith, the country, Scripture, prayer… and the village of Grigorivka.

It turns out they go down there fairly regularly. Sometimes Igor just goes to fast and pray. Other times they go as a family to enjoy “village life.” Or they’ll bring a whole crew down for prayer retreats, to seek vision from the Lord.

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Raia (right) at Women’s Retreat inside “the Khata.” October 2007

They’ve connected with another couple, who moved down from Kyiv about 10 or 11 years ago… in other words, pretty much exactly the same time that we started going down there… “You really would like them. The wife so reminds me of Liz.”

Igor and Raia have started a ministry of prayer with this couple. Central Ukraine, and this region in particular, has a long, pre-Christian pagan heritage. So the four of them head out walking the land, walking to and around old pagan sites to pray against any spiritual bondage or pollution. Because some pollution and poison dissipate over time. And maybe some hangs on. They do this “because it’s God’s land. All of it.”

Igor always thanks us for introducing him to this place, this spot on the map onto which we stumbled as strangers and aliens over a decade ago and fell in love with. “We have come to appreciate,” he says, “that this place truly lies at the heart of the nation of Ukraine.” It’s near where their national hero, Taras Shevchenko, chose to be buried. “Even he understood the spiritual importance” of these hills along the Dnepr. “And Satan cannot have this land… it belongs to God.”

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The “khata” and flower bed. July 2007, Grigorivka, Ukraine

In recent years, Igor says, Ukraine has endured harsh insults for being “at the margins” (as in of Great Russia). “Instead of being offended by that, we can embrace it… we ARE on the edge… the edge of the new Jerusalem. Just like St. Andrew said!” (It’s said that he traveled up the Dnepr in the days after the bible’s narrative closed, waking one morning on the riverbank near the spot where Kyiv now sits – not far from our apartment. He told his companions, “Do you see these hills? Look at them; for upon them will shine the rays of God’s grace. Here will be built a great city in which God will place many churches.

What about Ukraine nowadays, particularly in spiritual terms? Igor hails from the southern town of Mariupol. “Let me tell you about my town. They had a Lenin statue made out of the same special “semi-religious” red marble as the one in Kyiv that was destroyed during the Maidan demonstrations.” (I’ve also seen the same material liberally used in Lenin’s tomb in Moscow). “It really made it more of an idol than a statue. One day I was worshipping with a Roman Catholic priest. We agreed that we were feeling the power of the Spirit. The next day the Lenin statue was pulled down. There were three others Lenin statues in town, but the crowds couldn’t get to them, or when they could, they couldn’t physically succeed in pulling them down. However, in the course of the next few days, the city got spooked and took them down themselves.”

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Igor and Raia Stakhovskiy and family. Kyiv, Ukraine, July 2015.

A group of believers decided it would be a good idea for all of the religious confessions in the city to come together for a “procession of the cross.” Nothing like this had been done before, no one was sure if, strictly speaking, it was legal. The city government certainly was opposed to it at first, fearing that the mix could become volatile, though they eventually relented. So Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Pentecostals, all held a 24-hour prayer service and then marched through town. (Here’s a news report of it.) They even all took communion together.

One elderly woman, basically speaking for all who had taken part, approached the local government and asked whether they couldn’t set up a prayer tent on the spot in the central square where, until recently, the Lenin monument had stood. The response (either authentic or intended to stall) was that they would need to “ask Kyiv.” So the request went up the line. The response came back: OK, fine. But would you like us to provide a tent? Do you need to have power hooked up? So everything was set up with the help of the militia.

The tent opened on Easter… directly on the spot where Lenin had stood for generations. They fed and shared the Word with soldiers, protesters, everyone… All the clergy and ministers, across the board, participated, led services, led prayers, served in unity. They didn’t really have any concrete “plans.” “They just prayed and expected God to work… and He did. God opened the door and led his people through it.”

In Mariupol everyone united to pray for protection of the town. There have been attempts to overtake it, but it has never fallen to the Russians. “The place they met to pray for protection is now a security check point. They are using the Apostle’s Creed as their common prayer. In one meeting, a sailor guy got healed through the power of the Holy Spirit… he didn’t know anything about being or talking “religious,” ience before, he did what he knew: he began jumping up and down, praising God for his awesome f*king mercy!

I asked Igor what gave them inspiration to pull this off. “Simply put, it was this: Jesus is Lord. And this land belongs to the LORD.”

Funny how that’s the same word that the Lord gave us when we felt we were being torn away from Grigorivka.

And it’s funny how a lot of the rustic beauty, the gritty relationality, the feeling of simultaneously being isolated and connected, the hard work to cooperate (not master) the land in order to see God glorified that characterized our presence at “the khata” seems to have been transmogrified into our lives, dreams and burdens here at this old Mill Pond.

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Do these clothes make my soul look nasty? – Questions Jesus Asked 16

Why are you anxious about clothing? Matt 6:28  

So, why do you worry about clothing? Certainly a big part of this question’s impact should be taken as being rhetorical in nature: Jesus wants to bring out the point that worrying about clothing (and, by implication, any other “concern”) is both unnecessary and unproductive. So we typically “summarize” this “passage” by categorizing it in a mental box labelled “About Worry.” And the tag we place upon it, in my experience, reads, “Don’t Do It.”

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Appalachian Trail, Blue Ridge Mountains, May, 2015

One thing to remember is that these “Gospel accounts” are not “transcripts.” Even if you believe (as I do) that everything in them is true, that doesn’t mean that everything that’s true is in them. John, in summarizing his account of the life of Jesus said so – he admitted that he cherry-picked from the volumes of things he could have written to choose elements that suited his clearly-stated purpose: to move people toward faith so that they might experience life.

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Pergamum (Bergama), Turkey, March 2016

So just because we don’t read about Jesus indulging a conversation on the questions he’s raising doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. So despite our thumbnail summary, Jesus really is extending us an opportunity to consider why, indeed, it is that we get worried about what to wear.

It could be that some of us worry about clothes because we really don’t have stuff to wear – we are poor, we have suffered loss, and we are thinking we may be forced to expose ourselves should we (have to) go out in public.

However, for many of us, what we are really worried about is our appearance, the picture of ourselves that we are able to present to the world. Think of the stereotypical teenager, looking into a ransacked closet full of clothes crying plaintively, “I don’t have a THING to wear!

It’s easy for us to chuckle at that as something of a cartoon… but when we think about how often we adults obsess about how we come off to our colleagues, competitors, customers, or clients… or just the “general public,” we’re really not all that different.

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Hierapolis, Turkey. March 2016

The first mention of clothing in the Bible comes fairly early on. We have a good creation from a good Creator… which is then distorted by sin. The immediate result of that sin is panic, finger-pointing… and covering up. We really haven’t progressed all that far.

Might it be that we worry about clothes because we simply are anxious that someone might see us for what we truly are?

Why does Jesus point to the field flowers? Because they are “beautifully adorned” – whether they are “perfect specimens,” blooms damaged by blight or excessive sun or just scrawny because they’re not in their ideal environment, they are beautiful just as they are. They don’t need to “worry” about how they present themselves. They are gorgeous, just as God made them.

Are we able to see ourselves as being so beautiful? Can we see the beauty in one another – right now, today, just as we are in our brokenness and scrawniness and bug-bitten, windblown disarray? Or do I need to cover myself up… do I need to “clothe” myself in garments of defensiveness and blame, so that you don’t see me as I am, but, instead, get your attention deflected to an image I convey about myself? I dress myself up so that you don’t see me, but what I am not.

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Mill Pond, April 2016

I’m not one of these whackos who are messing up our culture. I don’t indulge in the things that are really bad, destructive, or disgusting… not like those other people. I’m basically decent. I’m on the right side of the fence, the tracks, the wall.

This sort of socio-spiritual posturing is as common as denim in these parts. But it’s basically not any different from Adam’s fig leaf speedo. I worry about how to present myself when I “go out in public” so that people don’t see me as I really am, but instead get a nice impression of how together I am, and how beautiful it is to be me.

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Lotus in the Frog Pond. May 2016

Jesus is asking us about why we worry, certainly. But listen closer; he is also asking us, point blank, about why we are so concerned by the image we display to others. We can be beautiful in him… or we can keep scrambling to cover up.

Jesus is well-known as a “great teacher.” But here, by merely asking a question, he touching on an issue – in the context of God’s sovereignty – that we truly need to wrestle with. We can have a similar influence when we let go of the need that we often feel that we have to tell others the right answers and ask questions that can open up reflection that leads to self discovery.

What are you worried that people might see if you don’t cover up well? And why?

As I chose pictures of flowers (to illustrate Jesus’ “lilies of the field” line), I could not resist sharing these pictures of one of the most beautiful flowers with whose beauty God has graced my life in recent times. Last month, I was privileged to volunteer with Joni and Friends at a camp in Ukraine. I was struck by the beauty of a sweet gal named Sophia. Not in spite of her “disability,” nor because of it. But because, as she shared her gift of encouragement and joy with all, caregivers and fellow-campers, she was, in no meaningful sense of the term, “disabled” at all. Just beautiful. 2016-07 IMG_5122Den’ 2_002 ifr sophia outside (Large)2016-07 IMG_5177 ifr sophia encourager stroller (Large)This post is one of a series, which begins here.

Posted in Bible, disability, Jesus, Nature | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Becoming a Friend of Time – Part 3

I know many people who think they don’t have enough stuff. We all feel that way at times. But people of faith, like myself, have learned to trust God, have learned over time that God is faithful and will provide all the resources, all the “stuff” we need. Not everything we want or crave. Not even everything that we “think” we “need”… But we share the conviction of Hudson Taylor who famously said that “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” God sees to it that we have all that we need to be able to do all that we need to do.

business turning back time

But how often do we forget that same faith principle when it comes to time? Time, like the rest of the created universe, is a gift – we are stewards of it, it is good, it is all we need. Yet how often we catch ourselves saying, “If I only had more time!”

But listen: God gives us time – every moment of it – as a gift… and as we learn to become “friends of time,” we realize that “we have all the time in the world we need to do that we need to do in the world.”


quote-the-friend-of-time-doesn-t-spend-all-day-saying-i-haven-t-got-time-he-doesn-t-fight-jean-vanier-79-17-01As counterintuitive as that seems – (“What? There is no WAY I have all the time I need!”) – when we stop viewing time as a
commodity (of which there is never enough) and start seeing it for the gift it is, we learn this truth.

1989-12 belmar kitchen - Addie and Sib with Zeke (Large)The process of becoming a friend of time is pretty much a lot like just becoming a friend. You have to want to… and you have to take the time to. We miss this connection between time and friendship because our lack of friendship with time deeply inhibits our ability to form friendships with people.

Presence, actually BEING with people, not just doing things, is important to ministry… essential actually. Presence means taking time seriously. Truly loving one another, requires us to be present to and for one another.

A lesson learned from disability ministry: To be with a person with a disability requires one to slow down and take time to notice small things that the world sees as unimportant, but which, when you take time, are revealed to be profound.

John Swinton describes a seminary professor taking his class to visit his wife, who had a disease which severely affected her memory. Thanking his students in advance, he said, “She probably won’t remember you afterwards…, but in that moment she will appreciate you.”2016-05 IMG_4429 mill yard angel (Large)

It might be only a moment. But that moment matters.

Every moment matters.

Time is not an empty block waiting for us to fill it. Each moment, when seen as God sees it, is filled with meaning, new possibilities, hope for the future. That means that taking time with each other is meaningful, purposeful… even though it doesn’t always feel that way. We need to learn the value of presence in the moment, particularly when we spend time with those who cannot provide anything of value to us.

We spend a lot of time “in time” – moving backward and forward in it – honest-to-goodness “time travelers.” Through memory, we are always moving backward and forward in time, reflecting on, even reliving, the past, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with regret. And we plan for, dream about, worry over, the near- and far-term future. But all to rarely do we pause to take time to consider the meaning and significance of the present moment.

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Frank and Martha Huston, recent visitors at The Mill and newly inducted members of the Porch Sitters Union.

I’ve decided to slow down and reclaim time for the purposes for which it was given to us. I need to learn what it means to be in the moment, to notice that small things that the world rejects or explains away.

I’m learning to live differently with time. I start by reminding myself “where I’m at.” As I look out from the porch over the creek, watching the heron take flight, I am reminded by, and give thanks for, God’s creation, for “all creatures great and small.” “My world” is actually situated within God’s creation; so I also inhabit God’s created time, and God created time for a purpose. Time doesn’t just happen (any more than the world does); it’s created by God, sustained by God, and directed by God.

Time matters. Living in God’s created time means, if nothing else, that time is intentional, meaningful and purposeful.beautiful in its time

The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:… God has made everything beautiful in its time.”

2016-07 IMG_4933 hustons hold hands (Large)I can’t see the beauty, or the promise, or the true value in a person, in a moment, in an idea, unless I apprehend what time it truly is. And that time is not displayed on the face of a clock, but in the face of a friend; it’s not measured by hands moving across a dial, but hands reaching out in love, welcome and acceptance to another.

Embrace them both.

This post is the last in a series that begins here.

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Redeeming the Time – Gentleness, relationship, and time | Becoming a Friend of Time 2

hi_so_busyDo you know any “important” people? How do they respond when ask them how things are going? I’ll be willing to bet that one of the first five words they utter will be “busy!” If you thought for a minute that I’m not busy right now, you could be pretty sure that I’m not important. It’s not enough just to be working (even working “productively”) – we need to be busy, and to be seen as being busy.

BusyAnd that affects how we relate to our time. It practically forces us to treat time as a “commodity.” This is not controversial in the least… Do a quick internet search on “time as a commodity” and you’ll see no end of variations on the theme that time IS a commodity and it is, in fact, the most valuable commodity.Time as a commodity

But that’s looking at it as a resource for our own enrichment. We’ve seen how unbridled commodification of our physical earth leads to the degradation of and alienation from something that was created good, that was and is a gift, a token of grace, that we’ve been commissioned by the Creator to steward and nurture, not exploit. And the same goes for time.

What is “redeeming” creation if not “taking it off the market” and relocating it within God’s purposes? And what is “redeeming the time” if not “buying it back” from the ways we’ve abused it (and allowed it to abuse us) and accept it anew as the good gift it actually is?

One thing I’ve observed happens all too easily… When we feel we don’t have enough time – when time seems to be getting away from us – when we are “important” and, therefore, extremely busy – we don’t make a priority of finding time to simply be with one another.

As believers, that’s not good. Because our calling as the church (the sum total of all who follow Jesus) is “to show that Christianity is true by demonstrating what community would look like if the gospel were true.” For example, what would community look like if there really was a Holy Spirit that brought certain fruit forth in our life. Like “gentleness”…

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Atop Mt. Ventoux, France, August 2007

What does “gentleness” mean, particularly as Paul envisioned it as part of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:23)? Jesus walked it out… Listen: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest… Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:28-30, NLT).

Like it or not, gentleness is a vital dimension of the kingdom of God. It’s also something we learn to do. It takes work, and patience, the willingness and ability to slow down. And for that we need to renegotiate our battle with time.

I am learning to develop the patience to slow down, to recognize that my life is not my own creation. As I do, I draw closer to the Eternal, whose image and likeness I reflect, who has filled the universe with beauty and who created every one of us. Because He always finds time to be with us, to sit with us, and to move us to a place in time that we can truly call our own.

When I approach time as a “commodity,” I become so caught up with doing things FOR people (maybe caring for them, maybe preaching to them) that I cease to BE WITH them in any significant way.too busy.jpg

I’ve been in cross-cultural ministry for a couple decades now. If I’ve learned one thing of worth, it’s this: ministry, particularly if it’s to be transformational, always comes down to relationships. The fabric of transformation is woven from threads of human relationships… particularly friendships. So much comes down to belonging – finding where we belong and offering a place of welcome and friendship to those outside of Christ, where they can experience the reality that they really DO belong. That’s what “evangelism” really is.

Such relationships require time… time to listen, to understand, to overcome distance. Time to eat together, to pray together, to celebrate life together.

We seem to think that time has meaning only when it’s part of our plans and purposes, that unplanned time is empty time, like a wasteland.

Our view of the world changes radically when we realize that God is in the process of redeeming it. How might our view of time change when we consider that it, too, is something that God is actively redeeming? Might that help us become “friends of time”?

This post is the second in a series that begins here and continues here.

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What have we done to time? | Becoming a Friend of Time – 1

Time… we think about it, worry about it, sing about it… Here are two of my favorites:

I grew up watching TV shows about time…

Sometimes, particularly when the demands placed upon us are high, we practically obsess over it – particularly about how we don’t “have enough of” it.

In the next few posts, I’d like to share something I’ve gleaned from (among others) Jean Vanier, that has made a huge practical and spiritual difference in my life: Becoming a “friend of time.”

We entertain a lot of thoughts regarding time, but not usually about making friends with it.

Isaac Newton thought that time was an eternal entity unto itself, which “of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external.” However, the more we explore the intricacies of our universe, particularly at the levels of the very small or the very large (or the very fast), we realize that time isn’t in itself transcendent and unchangeable. How could it be? Such a description only could apply to the Eternal God.

Actually, as theologians have reasoned for centuries, time itself is a part of the created universe. It didn’t exist before God spoke the world into being. Matter and time alike were created (we believe ex nihilo, from nothing) through the word of the Eternal.

clock face timeOK, so God made time. Huh? That’s difficult to understand or picture… but most believers don’t struggle with the idea that “God made” all the “stuff” of the universe out of nothing… even though we can’t picture that any better. We’re just more used to hearing about it. Unlike us God is not contained within time, just as God is not contained within the physical universe.

So time, however we see it, is a part of creation. And what do we, as believers, know about creation? Two things spring to mind: First, God created it “good.” And, second, it has been distorted by the corruption of sin. Paul in his letter to the Church at Rome says that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom. 8:22, RSV) awaiting its full redemption.” Part of the way sin has affected creation (which was made to be good, a blessing, a daily, constant gift from the Eternal, with which we were intended to have a mutually beneficial relationship) is that creation has been turned into a commodity, something to be collected, carved up, saved, bought, sold.


The Persistence of Memory. Salvador Dali, 1931

It’s easy to see how we have made a mess of our environment turning “creation” into a commodity. But have you ever considered how TIME has been affected by that same process?

What do we do with time? Consider our language: We spend time, save time, lose time, mark time, waste time, keep time, kill time, divide time, keep track of time, take our time, make time for or devote time to things. We play for time, fight for time, measure time, shave time (off our commute). We try to beat the clock (because, after all, “time is money”), etc. (We spend an awful lot of time doing things relating to time… but very little actively “redeeming the time” (Eph. 5:16, KJV). But more about that later.

It’s easy to treat time as just another commodity… we’re well trained to do it. In all the above instances, it seems that we are fighting for it and with it. Time rules us and dictates the nature and shape of our lives and our relationships.

In a social and economic context that looks at pretty much everything in terms of its market value (“everything has its price”), we privilege productivity: output per unit time (“widgets per hour,” output per unit time). Thus, it becomes something we can buy, sell and swap out. Like other commodities, it’s governed by supply and demand. And like all valuable commodities, the supply always seems to be lacking… it always seems about to run out. It’s valuable, a treasure – and we can never seem to get enough of it.time spiral

So time is not our friend, it’s our adversary – if not our enemy.

As an aspect of creation, time is inevitably corrupted and in need of redemption. So it’s not really surprising that we have turned it into a commodity designed to enhance human wealth and productivity rather than taking time to bring glory to God the Creator or be with God’s creatures.

Time is an organic part of creation. But we’ve made a mechanism out of it. Time is no longer seen as a good gift of a great God; it’s something governed by a machine we call a clock. Our world has taken that which was made to be something in which we can experience God and reduced it to something mechanical.

And the world tries to do that with us – reduce us to passive machines.

So, given how we’ve so misused and mistreated time, how can we make peace with it before it destroys us?

This post is the first in a series, which continues here.

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Looking for Loopholes | Thinking About Justice 5

Though many people see love and justice as being at odds, we reflected last time on the deep connection between the two. The Bible’s command to “Love your neighbor” is, in its context, a summary statement about a series of commands about “doing the right thing,” particularly for those in need, affected by disability, or vulnerable.

Jesus was asked to unpack this command to love one’s neighbor. He responds with a famous parable – at the conclusion of which he poses (you guessed it) a question: Which of these three do you think was neighbor to the robber’s victim?

Good SamaritanOf course…, the “Good Samaritan” was the “neighbor.” Few of us have sufficient dealings with actual Samaritans to feel the punch the story packed when Jesus told it. Without going into detail, let’s just say that, today, it might better be told (depending on what “orthodoxy” the hearer adheres to) as the “story of the Good ISIS member” or “the Good KKK dude” or the “Good LGBT activist.”

Setting that aside, though, Jesus’ illustration of what it means to love our neighbor leaves us with a somewhat messy theology of justice. This respectable, religiously pious lawyer clearly feels  the inescapable reality of his obligation to his neighbor. Being smart, he knows the first thing to do is find some loopholes.
But Jesus doesn’t bite. His rejoinder, basically, is: OK, you know it. So what? Live it!

It’s interesting that Jesus opens his response with the story of a messed-up situation: a guy beaten, robbed, disabled and left for dead, … but no explanation of how the situation got that way.

WC FieldsWhy not? How it got messed up doesn’t matter. Since that backstory could provide the loopholes that the lawyer (to whom the story is being told) is seeking, this is more than an accidental omission… By the time we show up, history isn’t an issue.

What is the issue is how we deal with the mess in which we find people. How many times regarding AIDS, homelessness, immigration, poverty, addiction – even disability – have I heard questions being asked about “how” or “why…” as if to somehow… implicate them, help me divide the guilty from the innocent? (How did you get infected? What were you wearing to the party? What bad decisions did you make?)

What do we think when we encounter a messy or messed-up situation? What goes on in the mind of a priest or a Levite or an evangelical preacher or a ReachGlobal missionary, who sees the mess and says, “I’m not gonna touch this”?

  • You must’ve sinned. You somehow deserve this. You brought it on yourself… (The basic message of Job’s “friends”)
  • Well, God moves in mysterious ways… (Speak a platitude and move along. To which St. James says, “Get a clue…”)
  • We’re living in the Last Days, what do you expect? (This somehow gives us a pass?)
  • I’m afraid I don’t know enough, I don’t have what it takes to fix it. What can I do? Maybe I’ll make things worse… (Excuses, excuses.)

Jesus’ bottom line: NONE of these are loving our neighbor. None of these reflect a heart of justice.

St GeorgeFrankly, I wonder whether issues of God’s justice aren’t calling us into a new battle against theological liberalism. This is ironic, since there is a certain skepticism about some formulations of “justice,” because they are seen as being “liberal” and, thus, problematical.

A century ago “theological liberalism” jettisoned solid, biblical views of the person of Christ and  the truth and nature of Scripture in order to accommodate a “modern” culture that privileged Reason over “superstition” and Freedom over “authority.”

We see today new forms of accommodation to culture that have, in my lifetime, enshrined as “evangelical” aspects of a culture of unbridled personal choice, rampant individualism, materialism and consumerism. Regardless of the merits or lack thereof of such a culture, it is neither reflective of Scripture, nor even of the cultural values of many in the world (including, nowadays, the majority of evangelical believers in the world, who are not “westerners”).

corruptionThis theological neo-liberalism masks itself as conservative, but seeks to relativize what Scripture says about the mandate to do justice, to honor God by properly valuing the objects of his love, the bearers of His image. It does so by taking aspects of the “spirit of our age” as basic and non-negotiable. Not by refusing to believe the “supernatural” or hew to a (or any) tradition. But by refusing to allow our commitment to things like comfort, upward mobility, market share, life-style, material acquisition, consumerism, constant economic expansion, national security, faith in the ultimate wisdom of “the markets” and personal “actualization” to be challenged by God’s demands clearly revealed in Scripture.

We love justice because we love God. Our walk with God informs our pursuit of justice, not the other way around. Our desire to see the Bride of Christ made strong and beautiful is the heartbeat that drives our engagement with the world, not the other way around.

This is the fifth and final post in a series that begins here.

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