Thursday, December 25, 2014

Last Night: Orphans

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
John 14:18
In 2002, my oldest brother died, just days before his 50th birthday.

Just before Thanksgiving, 2009, my father became sick. He was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor by Christmas. He was gone by Martin Luther King Jr Day.

On Memorial Day, 2010, my other brother died.

On the night before New Year's Eve in 2011, my mother died.

The entire family in which I grew up is gone. Many times since then, I've felt like an orphan.

Oh, I'm not without family. I have a wife and several young men who call me Dad.  I have two little boys to whom I'm Grandpa, plus several more little kids who call me Papa Tim.

But still, at times, I feel like an orphan.

I cried twice while watching the movie Interstellar this past weekend, I felt empty inside without being able to talk about it with Scott, who taught me to love sci-fi. Every time I've been to the Roots 'n' Blues festival, I wanted to tell Mark about it. Every time one of my articles is published in The Lookout or Christian Standard, I want to take copies of the magazines to share with Dad and Mom.

But they're all gone.

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples felt like orphans, even though he had promised them he wouldn't leave them alone.

They were overjoyed when he rose from the grave, but then, after a few weeks, he left them again.

I have no doubt there were times in the days that followed when Peter and John and the others turned to tell Jesus something, or to ask him a question, and their shoulders drooped as they remembered he was gone.

It was hard for them to understand that he still was not leaving them alone.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:10-11

I still carry my family's hopes and dreams, their legacy, within me. I don't know how many times I've wanted to call one of them and let them know when I experience a victory. I want to let them know when I've managed to live up to the dreams they had for me. I'm carrying on the spirit of the Robertson family.

Jesus is always with me, too, only in a more real way. Like those first disciples, it's not just Jesus' spirit that lives on in me, but his actual Spirit that lives in me.

He not only knows when I'm living up to his legacy, living up to the dreams he had for me. He's actually participating with me, going along with me as I carry on the work he began.

He'll never be gone.

Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. John 14:19-20

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Last Night: Lead With Love

Christianity Today cover, December 2014
"Who am I to judge a gay person?"
“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. "
"On the contrary, the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in our heart: Do good and do not do evil. The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, what about the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us first class children of God! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, with everyone doing his own part; if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of meeting: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good! We shall meet there."
Those are the words of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, known now as Pope Francis. He has provoked a lot of talk with what Catholics and Evangelicals and atheists alike see as controversial statements.

Personally, I don't get too worked up about most of what he says. I figure even if he's saying something theologically questionable, what's shocking about yet another non-biblical or extra-biblical brick in the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church? Frankly, his comments about gays or atheists or abortion are less theologically troubling than this tweet:
The concern among many Christians is what they see as his "liberal theology." In their eyes he's going soft on sin and the need for repentance.

I'm no expert on the theology of Pope Francis. I'm not sure anyone is, other than the man himself. He does seem to speak his mind freely, without carefully massaging the message to avoid controversy.

Austin Ivereigh, a Roman Catholic journalist, has followed the new pope's statements as closely as anyone. In an NPR interview about his new biography of the pope, The Great Reformer, he had this to say:
They know he's shaking things up, which he is. But they mistake that for a kind of attempt to change doctrine. I mean, on all the core Catholic teachings, he is a absolutely straight-down-the-line orthodox Catholic. But he is also an evangelizer and a missionary. 
And his observation — the famous observation — that we shouldn't bang on too much about abortion and those other issues, his point is not that abortion isn't wrong. I can cite you many speeches in which he gives searing denunciations of abortion. It's that he says it is not enough for people to look at the Catholic and say, "Yes, that's what the church stands for." 
What's missing from the picture, he says, is the merciful face of Christ. The church that heals the wounds, that raises people up, that nurtures them, that forgives them. And so what he's trying to do is to say, "Actually, that's the face of the church that needs to be presented." 
Now, this isn't a PR exercise. What he's actually saying is people need to experience that before they are ready to accept the rest of it.
The December 2014 issue of Christianity Today has a cover story, Pope Francis: Why Everyone Loves the Pope, in which R.R. Reno has this to say:
In the case of Francis, the media does not realize that his statements are more pastoral than doctrinal in nature. He wants to reframe the classic doctrine and morals of the Catholic Church so that a secular world can be converted and adhere to them.
That sounds a lot like what I've been trying to say in my writing, including this quote from my Christian Standard article, Right and Righteous:
In Matthew 5, Jesus reaffirmed the timeless centrality of obeying the commandments of God. Then he took it a step further by putting the focus not on our actions, but on our hearts. Having barely caught his breath from hammering home the guilt in our hearts, he went on to challenge us to love our enemies. 
At the end of his ministry, Jesus repeated the importance of obedience when he told his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). In that same final conversation he also told them, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). 
My continual prayer for myself and my fellow Christians is that we will have the courage to speak where all the Scriptures speak, and to steadfastly refuse to compromise on the essentials of holiness and love.
Last night, on the season finale of the 29th season of the TV "reality show" Survivor, much was made of a pair of contestants who are a "Christian gay couple." Twitter was filled with instant reactions and opinions, both positive and negative. Regardless of whether a "gay Christian" is a biblical concept at all, my chief opinion is that every person should be approached as an individual, not as a stereotype.

Lead with love, not with opinions. I don't know the two men at the center of that controversy, so I'm not going to pretend I know enough about their relationship or their beliefs to comment on their faith. I pray there are faithful Christians in their life who are mentors.

Lead with love, something there's just too little of.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Last Night: Free Agent Faith

Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dominated the daily news cycle for better than a year during 2007 and 2008. The two produced volumes of words detailing their differing thoughts on the issues, including their approach to foreign policy.

As happens in American politics, the end result of all this disagreement was twofold: (1) Mr. Obama won the nomination, and eventually the election, and (2) the new president named his former opponent, Mrs. Clinton, to one of the most important jobs in his administration.

As the United States Secretary of State, Clinton was responsible for representing her country in its diplomatic relationships with the rest of the world's nations. In addition, as President Obama's Secretary of State, she was charged with representing her president's approach and priorities, not her own. Whenever there was a conflict between her opinions and those of her boss, she was obligated to represent him. By accepting the job, she was no longer free to pursue her personal foreign policy agenda at the expense of the president's.

She was charged with representing the name of the United States and the name of President Barack Obama in the eyes of the world.

This modern day political reality can help us understand Jesus' promise to the disciples on this last night with them:
And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:13-14)
As a child I learned to end my prayers with the words, in Jesus' name I pray, Amen. As long as I said those magic words, my prayers would be answered, or so I was convinced.

I was wrong.

Jesus' name is not a magic password. To ask in the name of Jesus is to to ask as a representative of Jesus, in pursuit of his priorities and mission.

A successful Secretary of State must be confident that any promise she or he makes in line with the priorities and purposes of the president will be backed up with the full power of the oval office, for the good of the United States. Likewise, anything she would request from the president, as long as it was within the scope of his priorities and purposes, would likely be granted.

By the same token, when I align my heart with the heart of Jesus, when I make his priorities my priorities and his mission my mission, then I can confidently expect that when I ask for something within that scope, the full power of both the Father and Son will be available to grant my request.

Prayer isn't about making me feel better. It isn't about getting what I want. It isn't about praying for my own priorities and mission and then expecting a rubber stamp approval from God.

Free agent faith, the kind that assumes Jesus is granting me a blank check for whatever I want, is a faith in myself rather than in Christ.

Prayer is primarily about growing closer to Christ. As that relationship grows, the things I pray about will increasingly be the things he cares about. As intimacy deepens, the power of my prayer life grows.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Last Night: Superheroes

Super Heroes Last Supper, by Michael Kozlov
Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:10-12
Movies based on comic book super heroes are very popular these days. Actually, they've always been popular, but starting with the Dark Knight movies, film makers have been trying to ground the comic book movies in a gritty realism, including humanizing the heroes.

For characters like Superman, humanizing is a difficult task. The Man of Steel has always been a larger than life character, almost god-like. He's always been a champion for justice and everything good and right, which doesn't always mix well with efforts to humanize him.

The trend now is toward movies that showcase groups of heroes, rather than individuals. The Avengers films are able to set up a comparison between what the god-like Thor can accomplish versus the down-to-earth Black Widow or Hawkeye. The sequel to Man of Steel puts that sort of contrast front and center, setting up Batman v. Superman.

I'm reminded of these super hero contrasts when I read Jesus' surprising statement to the disciples that "whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these." 

It's undeniable that Jesus was, and is, able to do far beyond anything we could imagine doing.

Jesus demonstrated the incredible power of God while here on earth. He's promising, though, that when he leaves, the Holy Spirit will put make power of God available within each Christian.

In Jesus, the divine character was shown in part through his perfect sinless life.  In us, though, the glory of God displays itself in spite of our weaknesses. Like Captain America, who was transformed from a weakling into a mightily strong hero, God's power is made perfect through our weakness. (II Corinthians 12:9).

Jesus was perfect.  He never sinned, he never failed in what he set out to do. We're not like Jesus in that regard. The Holy Spirit has taken up residence in thousands of flawed, sinful believers. In spite of having the Spirit of Jesus within us, we lose our temper, we get impatient, we grumble, we act rashly. And yet, God is able to use our flaws to demonstrate the magnificence of his grace. He's able to use even the most flawed among us, just like the Hulk manages to be a hero despite his failings.

Jesus spent three years traveling around Palestine on foot, teaching and helping the needy. His ministry was limited to an area less than 8,500 square miles and spanned only three short years. His people, the church, have been able to continue His ministry in every corner of the globe, for over two millenia. We're able to "go" much more rapidly than He and his disciples ever traveled, via cars, planes, and the like. We're also able to communicate instantly through the internet. Like the Flash, we're able to do Jesus-empowered ministry much more quickly than He ever was.

You may have a past as tortured as Bruce Wayne's. You may have physical limitations, like Aquaman's. You might even be a bit awkward, like Peter Parker. And yet, with the Holy Spirit inside, you can be on mission for God in ways that others can't, in places that Jesus Himself could not go.

Throw ya banner in the sky
Give it up for my superhero 
Show love for my superhero 
Gon' hold em real high 
You know that’s my superhero 
You know that’s my superhero 
Just throw ya banner in the sky 
Give it up for my superhero 
Show love for my superhero 
Gon' let his light shine 
You know that’s my superhero