When God Dwells in our Midst

Zechariah 8

There’s a biblical prophecy I’ve freshly discovered. I eagerly await its fulfillment and am doing whatever I can, whatever I must, to hasten it.  The prophecy is in Zechariah 8. It begins with a vision of what a community looks like when God reigns within it.  But here’s how the chapter ends; here is the vision’s crescendo: “This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: In those days ten men from different nations and languages of the world will clutch at the sleeve of one Jew. And they will say, ‘Please let us walk with you, for we have heard that God is with you’”(8:23).

 

That’s evangelism. Good news is embodied. It is a way of life, a thing plain for all to see.  The evangelized, not the envangelists, do all the talking: let us go with you! The lost take the initiative. And the lost come from every tribe and tongue and nation. 

 

This is the dream of every church – for God’s life among us to be so obvious, so fragrant, so magnetic, so contagious, that all peoples clamor for the privilege of joining. Rather than us grabbing hold of people, people grab hold of us. Rather than us telling anyone, “God is with us,” they tell one another that.

 

All these things happen “in those days,” which refers to a promise God makes at the beginning of Zechariah 8: “I a returning to Mount Zion, and I will live in Jerusalem” (8:3). The vision is a description of what happens in, to, and through God’s people when God dwells in their midst.

 

Several things happen in this vision but let me draw out one: there is a breaking of ethnic, cultural, and political divides through an in-breaking of the gospel. “People from nations and cities around the world will travel to Jerusalem…[saying], ‘Come with us to Jerusalem to ask the Lord to bless us.  Let’s worship the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. I’m determined to go.’ Many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord” (8:20-22).

 

Good News, the gospel is for all nations. It embraces and welcomes all languages – Urdu speakers and Inuit and Norwegians and remote tribes tucked in the folds of Burmese mountain jungles. It’s for the homeless under the bridges of Los Angeles, the untouchables in the streets of Calcutta, the drug addicted in sweaty apartments not far from where you live. It’s for rich people who live atop hills and poor people who live in ditches. It’s for the old man in his lonely room, and the teenage girl struggling to find her identity, the single mom wondering where the next meal’s coming from. It’s for the discouraged dentist, the confused mill-worker, the weary postman. It’s for everyone, everywhere.

 

This is evangelism Bible-style. This is evangelism that is cross-cultural, transpolitical, multiethnic, intergenerational, class defying, and wildly bountiful.

 

And natural. No one strategizes. No one takes classes for this. It’s just that a people who live with God in their midst evoke, simply and powerfully, far and wide, curiosity about God. A community like that makes others envious in the best sense: we become attractive and compelling to the world.

 

But stop.

 

God asks us to do something before he releases any of this: he asks us to do justly.

 

“But this is what you must do: Tell the truth to each other. Render verdicts in your courts that are just and that lead to peace. Don’t scheme against each other. Stop your love of telling lies that you swear are the truth. I hate all these things, says the Lord” (8:16-17).

 

A crucial shift in Zechariah 8 happens midway through. It’s announced by the phrase, “But this is what you must do.” Up until this moment, Zechariah 8 has been a litany of things God promises to do. Right after this moment, it continues with things God promises to do. But inserted in the middle of the prophecy is something God requires us to do.

 

Act justly.

 

God hates injustice. He hates deceit. Unless we deal fairly and honestly with one another, unless we have a bone-deep commitment to justice and truth, all the good God intends to do for us and through us gets undone by us. 

 

We have a passion for sharing God’s truth with the lost – for helping friends, neighbors, loved ones, our communities to come to see know, and love God. But as we hold on to this hope, we must also understand that God requires us to do justly. For if we are not living out the redemptive, just, and whole Christian life, it can be hard to recommend it to other folk.

Let It Snow

Let it snow

 

 

It’s snowing in Alberta today, and minus 10. It’s snowed all week. Actually, it’s snowed here since October 6, non-stop, except for a few times it stopped.

 

It’s almost April. And minus 10. And snowing.

 

Someone didn’t get the memo. This is no longer fun, funny, or charming. It ‘s no longer tolerable. I am close to organizing a petition to have south-western Alberta removed to BC, with full benefits.

 

In the book of Job, when God finally shows up to pepper the poor sufferer with a barrage of questions, he asks,

 

“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
    or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
    for days of war and battle?”

                        (Job 38:22-23).

 

The question is rhetorical. The answer is supposed to be, “Of course not. How could I?” But that was only because Job had never been to Alberta. If Premier Alison Redford hadn’t already been deposed over spending tax-payers’ money for her First-Class flights to exotic locals (a crime of passion for which I have deep sympathy), I’d write and ask her to consider changing the provincial motto. It’s currently “Wild Rose Country.” I think “Storehouse for Times of Trouble” is more befitting.

 

I’m especially distraught because this was the weekend I intended to finally bring my motorcycle out of cold storage. I had it all planned: the insurance kicked in yesterday, the bike was to go in the shop this morning, I was to be terrorizing the locals by mid-day.

 

But it’s snowing, and minus 10.

 

So I sit writing this, nursing a grudge, cursing the weather.

 

And then I catch myself. This is a hardship? This is a grievance? Why am I so soft, so pampered, so entitled?

 

My whole life I’ve had to push against the massiveness of my own littleness. “Nothing is as hard to suppress,” the great Jewish Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “as the will to be a slave to one's own pettiness.” How I know it. The plight of those who genuinely suffer is often lost to me in my grousing about minor inconveniences: a delay, a detour, a disruption. Ice on the walkway.

 

So I teach myself, daily, to give thanks in the face of my overwhelming temptation to complain. It changes nothing. And it yet it changes everything.

 

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Join the Song

 

 

Godspell

 

A friend posted on facebook this week a video of a young man singing his heart out on an Interstate in southern California. His windows and sun roof or wide open, and he chimes happily along with a song spilling loud from his car. “Fill me up, Buttercup,” he shouts for all to hear, bobbing and weaving to the beat. Traffic is thick, so drivers and passengers to the right and left take notice. He invites them to sing with him. Many do.

 

It’s brilliant. It’s a little outbreak of the kingdom of God: infectious joy invading a world of grinding routine, gruelling tedium. One man singing subverts a thousand stone-faced commuters, and calls them back to wonder and thankfulness.

 

I always loved the 60s musical GodSpell, despite its theological shortcomings. Jesus shows up in San Francisco during the height of the Flower Power era. He is the proto-hippy, a bell-bottomed, peace-sign wielding, afro-sporting vagabond grooving to the scene. All that is hokey and oddball. The movie’s genius, though, is this: Jesus comes singing, and keeps singing. And those who follow him hear the song – in the midst of dance recitals, board meetings, traffic jams, domestic arguments – and drop everything to join him in it.

 

Three biblical texts converge around this theme – well, more than three, but these three I find especially compelling. The first is a question God asks woebegone, sore-afflicted Job:

 

Were you there… when the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:7).

 

The second is the picture of God that the Prophet Zephaniah gives to frightened, disheartened people:

 

Do not fear, Zion;
    do not let your hands hang limp.

The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing (Zeph. 3:16-17).

 

And the third is the story of Paul and Silas in the book Acts, two men bleeding from a scourging, locked and manacled in the inner cell of a dank prison because of an act of compassion they committed in the city of Philippi:

 

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).

 

I bet they were, those other prisoners. Who does this? Songs in the night. Songs in the face of brutal suffering. Songs breaking out in the midst of conditions that invite anything but singing – sores from head to foot, threats from powerful enemies, violence from an oppressive system. Traffic on a grid-locked highway. They don’t complain. They don’t curse. They don’t rail against the system.

 

They sing.

 

GodSpell, for all it got wrong, got this right: into this mess and pain, the great Troubadour comes singing, singing, singing, and the kingdom opens to all who hear and join him.

Difficult People

bunckmates

Bunk Mates in Heaven

A pastor friend of mine quipped the other day: “There are some people I couldn’t warm up to even if I was cremated with them.”

I laughed, and then didn’t.

I know exactly what he means. There are people who, no matter how hard I try, I just don’t like. They grate on me. They get under my skin. Their laugh, their voice, their manner, their habits, their prevailing attitude or tone or bent – something about them irks or irritates me, and just their showing up forces me to practice Lamaze breathing.

I know this confession outs me for the spiritual pygmy I am. But there it is.

Jesus commanded us, in no uncertain terms, to love each other. But then gets meddlesome, and goes on to define the scope of “each other”: friends, enemies, the least of these, the worst of these, the brother who sins against us again and again and again. It’s a big list. He virtually leaves no one out.

Fine and well. Alright, I’ll do it. I love them. There. You happy?

But you never said I had to like ‘em, right?

Ah, but I’m a pastor. I have, on top of the general command to obey everything Jesus says, one large extra burden: I will be judged more severely if I get it wrong. I cannot become an accuser of the brethren. I cannot choose which sheep I feed or protect, and which I leave in the gulch or to the wolves. I don’t have the luxury of contempt or neglect.

So over the nearly quarter century I’ve been a pastor, I’ve learned and practiced, failed at and started over with, several disciplines that help me love – and even like – those I’d rather avoid. Here are four (of many):

  • Remember the state I was in before Christ found me. Jesus wasn’t drawn to me because of my winsome ways or attractive personality. I was a wretch. I was a starving ragged stinking prodigal, still dripping with piggish muck, when he ran to kiss me. It was my desperate condition that awakened his compassion. He welcomed me and rescued me, not because of who I am, but because of who he is. He calls us to love like that.
  • Tap the power that is in me through the risen Christ. Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 5) that Christ’s loves compels us, because we are convinced his death and resurrection are for everyone. And so, he says, we no longer look at anyone from a worldly point of view. Christ not only gives us a heart transplant: he gives us an eye transplant. The more we steep in his love and grace, the more we see people – everyone – from a “heavenly point of view.” Christ gives us his very own eyes to see people with. Use them.
  • Value others above myself. Paul commands this in Philippians 2. It’s one of the most convicting verses in Scripture, because it’s not limited only to people we like. Paul is talking, for instance, to Euodia and Syntyche, two women who want to rip each other’s faces off (see Phil. 4). It is a sobering and humbling exercise to actually, tangibly do this for someone you don’t like – to value them above yourself, and then act on that value. Try it.
  • Remember where this all ends. I have a theory: the person we least like on earth will be assigned our bunk mate in heaven. I don’t think God will do this as a prank, though. I think he’ll do it so we can laugh with that person for a few thousand years about how petty and small-minded and self-centered we were, and rejoice with them for all eternity at how great is the love of God that he lavishes on us, that we should be called his children, and made one another’s brothers and sisters.

There may be people you couldn’t warm up to if you were cremated with them. But could you if you knew you were to spend eternity with them?

 

When I practice these things, and more besides, God changes me, slow but sure. My LQ – Love Quotient, Like Quotient – goes up.

How’s that going for you?

 

 

Sacred Memory, Holy Amnesia

 

 
Joshua Foer’s brilliant quirky book Moonwalking with Einstein documents his year of becoming a prodigy of memory. It was a pursuit he stumbled into. As a journalist researching a piece for Slate magazine on the USA Memory Championship, he decided to take a shot at it himself. On the way, he met some of the world’s greatest (and geekiest) memorizers – Ben Pridmore, for instance, who can recall fifty thousand digits of pi, and recite the precise order of any deck of playing cards after flipping through them for 32 seconds. And he met “the most forgetful man in the world” – simply identified as EP , whose frontal brains lobes were cored like an apple by a virus, and who now forgets everything 10 seconds after it’s happened, though all his other faculties remain sharp.
 
It all makes for, well, memorable reading. Two overall impressions emerged for me: that too much remembering is a bad thing, and too much forgetting is as well. 
 
One of Foer’s discoveries is that people who train their memories to accomplish prodigious feats (and it is training, not innate capacity, that does it) are no smarter than the rest of us, and in some striking instances less so. These people are mnemonic superheroes – they can memorize entire phone books, recall the exact sequence of 5 decks of randomly shuffled cards, identify the precise location of any given word in a 300 page book, and so on. But none of them navigates life more wisely or deftly than rest of us. In some cases, glaringly worse. 
Brilliance is not wisdom. Mastering long random strings of numbers provides no aid to mastering life. An enlarged cranium does not make for a bigger heart. A vast memory is not the same thing as a deep soul.
 
But forgetting is no better. EP – the amnesiac – greets his wife each day as though he’s meeting her for the first time. “A meaningful relationship between two people,” Foer observes, “cannot sustain itself only in the present tense.” But EP is stuck there, “trapped in this limbo of an eternal present, between a past he can’t remember and a future he can’t contemplate.”  
 
In some ways, the Christian faith is built on a resolve to both remember and forget. We remember all God has done. We learn to recall and recite his deeds, his words, his character. The central acts of our life together – word, worship, communion – are acts of remembering. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.”
 
But just as critically, we learn to forget. “Forget the former things.” Isaiah commands. “Do not dwell on the past.” The Apostle Paul describes discipleship as “forgetting what is behind” and pressing on toward what is ahead. God himself forgives our sins, and “remembers them no more.” 
Remembering and forgetting is so central to the Christian faith that most of what stalls our growth is getting it backwards: remembering what we should forget, and forgetting what we must remember. 
 
Foer has inspired me, but not to become a prodigy of memory. He’s inspired me to practice both sacred memory and holy amnesia, to remember well and forget well.
 

Seeking the Truth On My Knees

 

 
I've been hunkered down two weeks now in my hidey-hole in Wales, this replica of Narnia. Have I changed? My breathing, I think, has slowed to match the easy rhythms of the land around me, and maybe I've lost a few pounds. But I've not improved my Yahtzee skills at all, though I play it most nights. And I almost lapsed into paganism: I had a moment of Wall-Street hubris, of all-consuming corporate greed, when I fought back from near bankruptcy to entirely crush my rivals – Cheryl and Nicola – in a sprawling take-no-prisoners game of Monopoly that spanned three nights. But I recovered from that, and once again am humbly content with the simple life. I do not need a hotel on Park Lane to be happy.
 
Honest.
 
I am, all told, deeply content but otherwise ordinary. I am recognizably myself: a tad impatient, a little fretful, easily distracted, given to spells of brooding. I keep waiting for some epiphany, some startling dazzling insight, to break in on this magnificent solitude, and change me in a twinkling. And then I remind myself that such things are rare, and come mostly unbidden, unexpected, undeserved. You bend one day to fetch a stick of wood, or step out of the shower and reach for a towel, or spy the shape of a face in the clouds, and then suddenly it's on you, flooding in from nowhere and everywhere, turning you inside out. 
 
I haven't had that yet.
 
And most change takes work.
 
A line from a book I've been reading has been working me over hard. The book is called A Diary of Revival, documenting, mostly from the personal correspondences and diary entries of eyewitnesses and key figures, the events and personalities that marked the 1904 Welsh Revival. One of the most prominent figures of that revival, the one whose name is most associated with it, is Evan Roberts. Roberts was a coal miner before he was a preacher (indeed, he fulfilled a prophecy that God was going to raise up a man from the mine or the farm, not the seminary, to bring revival). 
 
As a teenager, Roberts  was marked by a hunger for God's word, and he read and pondered the Scriptures at every opportunity. He kept a Bible in the mine shafts, to read on his breaks, and one day, when he was absent, an explosion in the mine burnt his Bible and strewed its pages every which way. Roberts went searching for its remnants, crawling through the rubble, digging for the torn and scattered pages. He described it this way: "I had to go out and seek the truth on my knees."
 
That's the line that's working me over: I had to go out and seek the truth on my knees.
 
The story that is most often told about the anointing for revival that God placed on Roberts happened on September 29, 1904, at a church gathering in Blaenannerch (not far from where I'm staying). Roberts, in a sudden fit of zeal that stunned those who witnessed it, prayed for God to "bend" him. It was an act of surrender. It was throwing himself utterly on the mercy of God and giving himself wholly to the purposes of God. He was asking to be bent to the divine will, conformed to Christ. It was like Isaiah saying "Here I am, send me." It was like Christ saying, "Not my will, but yours be done."
 
It's was an amazing moment – an epiphany. I don't doubt, as historians claim, it was the turning point, the spark that lit Revival in Wales and then sent it around the world. 
 
But I think this other moment – a young man, prepared to serve the rest of his days in manual labor if that was God's bidding, stooped and clambering in the dark and mess of a collapsed mine to find one more page, and another, and another, of the book he loved – I think this is significant, too. This is the precursor to being bent, to being sent.
 
I have been praying two things here: "Lord, bend me." And, "Lord, may I go out to seek the truth on my knees."
 
I commend these prayers to everyone. But particularly, I believe at least one young man or woman will read this and hear these prayers as God's personal assignment. God's intimate call.
 
All God needs to start the fire is someone hungry enough, desperate enough, broken enough, available enough, to seek the truth on their knees, and to let God bend them.
 
Is it you?