Saturday, June 2, 2012

Where Does This Come From?

Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3.7-8)

An Eternal, God-Like Life

Indulge me as I delight in a bit of pride. The older of my two nephews, Zach, graduated high school this weekend—in typical Zach style, I might add, not making a big deal of his achievements (which are many), but with eyes focused straight ahead. Next autumn Zach will enter college to prepare for a life of ministry. This will be the fourth generation of Wolfes who, in some shape or form, have dedicated their lives to the Gospel. Our family’s joy knows no bounds.

My sister-in-law, Renée (herself a minister’s daughter), and I were talking about Zach and she told me, “When he announced he felt called to ministry, of course we were pleased. But we were also surprised. We’ve never pushed our boys in that direction. They’ve always been free to find their own way. And so, when Zach told us how he was being led, we knew it was real.” (Alex, my younger nephew, will graduate middle school later this month and has already expressed a desire to enter medicine—another ministry, to be sure, and the continuance of another family tradition.) As we discussed the boys’ aspirations, Renée and I wondered where does this compulsion to serve God and others come from. “I honestly don’t know,” she said. Neither do I.

By no means is the question unique to our family. Indeed, each of us witnesses the same desire to honor God’s purpose in ways that benefit those around us. Something inside you and me compels us to follow Jesus—to study His teachings, to emulate His example, to live in ways that fulfill His promises. It’s an inchoate longing whose origins run deeper than upbringing or need for a governing set of life principles. It is something altogether amazing that God imbeds our beings long before they take shape. It springs from precognitive awareness of a new life—a transcendent life—that Christ makes possible in each of us, a seeking life, a richer life, a better life beyond mundane existence. It’s an eternal, God-like life that, as Jesus explains in Sunday’s Gospel (John 3.1-17), is born of God’s Spirit.

A Bold, Completely New Idea

Nicodemus—whose nighttime visit occasions Jesus’s comments—is a seeker. And John wants us to know that he comes to Jesus from a rare place. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, “a leader of the Jews” (v1), meaning that he’s mastered a theological construct that prides itself on having figured everything out. Yet the Pharisaical tradition also puts great value in asking questions, and something down deep in Nicodemus alerts him that he hasn’t found all the answers. Everything he’s seen and heard from Jesus tells him there’s more to know. So Nicodemus calls on this Rabbi Whose preaching radically diverges from the Pharisee tradition in hopes of launching a new period of discovery in his life. At great personal risk (which explains his decision to meet Jesus under cover of night), Nicodemus is compelled to find out where Jesus is coming from. If he can pin Jesus down, perhaps he can identify the origins of his own hunger for something greater than a religiously and morally doctrinaire life.

From the first, Jesus’s message has been this: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1.15) How near? In Luke 17.20-21, Jesus explains: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among [or within] you.” Jesus senses the stirrings of God’s kingdom within Nicodemus and wastes no time telling the Pharisee what he needs to know. In John 3.3, He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This revelation throws Nicodemus. First, it tells him that their conversation is not going to go per expectation. Jesus isn’t going to parse Old Testament texts in the grand rabbinical tradition. Here is a bold, completely new idea—something Nicodemus has never encountered before—and the adept theologian can’t quite wrap his head around it. Born from above (or “anew,” or “again”)? What does that mean?

The Very Breath of God

Jesus enlightens Nicodemus. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit,” He says. (v6) Mortal birth brings us into the world. But there’s more, much more, to life than biological existence. The Spirit of God gives birth to our spirits—the very breath of God that inspires our beings—and that new life comes out of us, enabling us to gain entrance to God’s kingdom. Jesus tells Nicodemus it’s entirely possible to live in a world that transcends the physical; once we acknowledge the Spirit’s presence within us, we’re transformed. We obtain eternal life—life as lived by God, as God desires, life devoted to building God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of love, peace, justice, and harmony. 

Thus, this spiritual birth brings with it a compulsion to live in ways that supersede natural living. Indeed, it’s a peculiarly unnatural way of life that places love for God above all else and love for others on par with love of self. So, while we recognize the deeper, richer, and truer life that results from this compulsion, its beginnings will always remain a mystery. And Jesus appears perfectly comfortable with that. “Don’t be astonished that I said, ‘You must be born from above,’” he stresses to Nicodemus. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (v7-8)

Something Within

We don’t need to fully understand where this comes from. We will never be able to identify what compels us to love God and others, what drives us to seek justice and peace not only for ourselves, but also for anyone who’s denied them. The passage ends with Nicodemus not really getting the answers he came looking for. Instead, Jesus gives him something far more glorious and essential. He assures the Pharisee that what drives his desire for more than mundane existence is a godly gift. His search brings him to the door of God’s kingdom and belief in a Spirit-born life is all that’s required to enter. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him,” Jesus says. (v16-17) This mysterious compulsion that inspires young people to pursue lives of faithful ministry and all believers to live out Christ’s teachings and example does not—and cannot—end in condemnation. It leads to eternal life.

Understanding new life in Christ has no bearing on our ability to experience it. In fact, we should celebrate the mystery of our faith-ignited compulsion as the first sign of life it creates—a life that defies logical explanation and makes real God’s kingdom in us. And as I ponder the singular beauty of this irrevocably transformed, unnatural lifestyle, I’m reminded of a hymn that Zach’s great-grandfather often sang to his father and me. With my brother, Steve, perched on one side and me on the other, Papa Wolfe would rock us gently in the backyard swing as he sang:

Something within me that holdeth the rein
Something within me that banishes pain
Something within me I cannot explain
All that I know, there is something within

Have you that something, that burning desire?
Have you that something that never doth tire?
If you have it, that heavenly fire
Let the world know there is something within

There is something within. That’s all that we know. And just knowing that is enough.

Something within us—something we can’t fully understand or source—compels us to lead Spirit-born lives.

Postscript: "Something Within Me"

Here’s Take 6’s jubilant rendition of Papa Wolfe’s hymn, “Something Within Me,” admittedly performed with a bit more (though not much) doo-wop swagger than what my brother and I heard as kids.

Note: S-F will return to its “Sitting with Scripture” series on Monday, and continue on weekdays throughout the month of June.

The Wellspring of Our Words

Today we sit with Psalm 139.4:

Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, You know it completely.

Our words matter, as everything we say reveals who we are, our feelings, and our beliefs. Our Creator—Who breathed into us the gifts of life, speech, emotion, and thought—meets us at the wellspring of our words. God hears what we say and fully understands what we mean. God responds to the source of our words, knowing our hearts.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Finding Our Way

Psalm 139.3 beckons our attention today:

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

Finding our way through life is never simple. We bank many curves and meet many crossroads, as we navigate the nuances of relationships and aspirations, trying to remain true to God and ourselves without impinging on the truth of others. God sets before each of us a specific path that only we can walk. Thus, no one can be expected to appreciate its demands and rewards. We alone know how far we've traveled and how far we've yet to go. Throughout our journey, God stays with us, whether we’re moving ahead or awaiting guidance.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ever Mindful

Today we’re invited to sit with Psalm 139.2:

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from far away.

God is ever mindful of us. Wherever we are, whatever the time, and however far away from God we stray, God has us in mind. God is not a divine puppet master pulling strings. At rest or on the rise, close or at a great distance, God’s boundless love shelters us in constant attention. Our Maker delights in being our Keeper.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Not as Strangers

O LORD, you have searched me and known me. (Psalm 139.1)

We come to God, not as strangers, but as intimate friends. We have nothing to hide, as nothing can be hidden from our Creator, Who has searched us and known us from the very beginning. God not only knows us at our very best and our very worst. God knows where, how, and why we conceal pieces of ourselves from others. Only with God can we fully bare our souls and sort through our secrets without fear of ridicule or shame. We meet God in blunt candor and that is the truth that sets us free.

This is the first in a month-long series of posts, "Sitting with Scripture," in which we'll look at Psalm 139 verse-by-verse, taking time to sit with each scripture and contemplate what it means to us personally. If meditating on this verse inspires thoughts you'd like to share, please comment. Each of us is filled with undiscovered treasure that we find when we pause for a moment to listen to God's Word.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sitting with Scripture

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. (Psalm 1.2)

O LORD, You have searched me and known me. (Psalm 139.1)

A Monster Whose Rampage Could Not Be Stopped

In the mid-1930s a group of dissenting pastors broke with Germany’s national church to form the Confessing Church—which, in name and credo, proclaimed their intention to uphold confessions of faith in keeping with New Testament teachings. Under Nazi pressure, the state-sanctioned German Evangelical Church had morphed into something radically opposed to biblical Christianity. The Reichskirche (“Reich’s church”) embraced anti-Semitism at its extremes, banning anyone of Hebrew lineage from the faith community and disregarding most of Scripture as “Jewish superstition.” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was no more, replaced by a pagan entity that reflected the Nazis’ Teutonic ideal. It stuns us that millions of Christians could be seduced by such heresy, especially one that encouraged shameless persecution of innocent people, many of them major contributors to Germany’s cultural and economic life. But the Nazis knew the force of fear. They crafted a very convincing myth that only purebred Germans could be trusted. They fabricated elaborate conspiracy theories in every arena of life, suggesting non-Aryan contributors to society were laying in wait to destroy the German people. The nation, struggling beneath the weight of economic hardship and uncertainty, bought it hook, line, and sinker. In short order, big-city cathedrals and village parishes rang with newly minted hymns and preaching that more closely resembled a berserk Wagner opera than anything found in the “polluted” Hebrew Bible or its successor, the New Testament.

Confessing Church leaders reached out to the European ecumenical movement, pleading with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians to rise up in protest against the Nazi perversion of faith. Support for their mission was strong at first—until Hitler became a political threat to Europe’s stability. Then, as always, the Church took a back seat to seemingly more expedient matters that overlooked Nazism’s most potent weapon: Hitler’s hand-picked clerics were extolling racism and violence as acts of faith. Arresting and murdering Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christians who didn’t toe the party line were presented as the right thing to do. The confabulation of church and state spawned a monster whose rampage could not be stopped by purely political means. The Confessing Church realized this. The rest of the world did not.

Faith Discipline

At first, Confessing Church dissenters felt confident the Reichskirche madness could not last. Germany’s cherished Christian tradition would quickly reassert itself and expose the Nazis as impostors. But the people—broken, living under economic duress, and still nursing the Great War’s wounds and bruises—evidenced no will to oppose Hitler. The battle to restore Christianity's integrity would take longer than expected, possibly continuing for decades if the Nazis weren’t defeated. In addition to its immediate protests and extramural efforts to free the German church from heretical bondage, the Confessing Church also turned its attention to training young ministers to carry on the fight. For this task, its leaders chose a brash theological prodigy named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1935, the Confessing Church opened its first seminary and entrusted a handful of eager pastoral candidates to his care.

Bonhoeffer’s techniques were nothing if not unorthodox. Rather than found his seminary on the longstanding academy model, he substituted a community framework that emphasized a faith discipline over academic rigor. He challenged seminarians to nurture their belief in Christ and God’s Word, from which would spring their intellectual mastery of Christian doctrines and practices. With prophetic vision, Bonhoeffer saw that his students’ faithfulness would be tested in ferocious ways—that they might very well pay for it with their lives. (And many, including him, did.)

One of the core disciplines Bonhoeffer instilled in his pupils was something he called “sitting with Scripture”. Each week, he gave them a single verse and carved out 30 minutes in the middle of every day for them to meditate on it. A few of the seminarians balked. How could they gain anything by spending more than three hours on a sentence or two? But Bonhoeffer didn’t want them to settle for reading the text. He urged them to listen to it, to open their minds so it could speak to them. Bonhoeffer insisted that God’s Spirit breathed life into Scripture—life that could only be discovered by sitting patiently with the text, allowing it to hang in the silence, and most of all, permitting the silence to soften one's heart to accept what God would say through God’s Word. In light of their troubled times, Bonhoeffer knew his students would need deep roots to withstand the Nazi antichrist’s pressures. He drew his novel technique directly from Scripture, Psalm 1.2-3: “Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on [God’s] law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.” To a one, seminarians who survived Hitler’s atrocities credit this discipline with securing their faith.

Perilous Times of Indecision

While one resists any suggestion that our times could give rise to the kind of horrors perpetrated by Hitler and his followers, we must nonetheless be alert to signs that the same spirit of antichrist is at work in our world. We live in perilous times of indecision. Economic security remains just beyond reach. Wars drag on mercilessly until the loss of life becomes so unbearable that we retreat, leaving nothing but scorched earth and moral fatigue in our wake. Politics has eroded into merchandising fear and wild-eyed conspiracy theories. Our religious leaders have bedded down with unhinged candidates and special interests, giving birth to bastardized preaching and worship that declares “war” on Christ’s doctrines of love and inclusion.

Hatred, prejudice, and flagrant disregard for the least among us are fast becoming institutionalized as acts of faith. And an alarming majority of Christians are swallowing this swill because they’ve been seduced by false logic. The irony is nauseating. They’ve been told they're “protecting” their faith, when in fact they’re destroying its very foundations. Why are so many listening to idolatrous voices that extol the virtues of wealth, conformity, and self-service? Bonhoeffer’s instincts would call us to a sobering realization that we’re reaping the woes of a lack of faith discipline. God’s Word no longer speaks to most Christians, in large part because most Christians no longer take time to sit with Scripture. The Church is drying up at the roots because its people have got so preoccupied with worldly things they’ve forsaken meditating on God’s law “day and night.”

If ever a time called us to sit with Scripture, it’s now. We must tear ourselves away from the constant churning of news cycles and rants and fear-inducing hype to permit God’s Spirit to speak to us. We must carve out daily periods for silent contemplation of God’s Word, allowing the quiet to soften our hearts and clear our minds so we can accept what God would say to us. We must deepen our roots in God’s righteousness, so that we can bear nourishing fruit in a world given over to fruitless pursuits, so that our faith will not wither, so that we will prosper spiritually in an era when the lunge for material prosperity yields nothing but poverty and pain.

We Must Be Rooted and Grounded

We who know the truth of Christ’s Gospel must live it out in a very particular way that transforms confession of faith into disciplined lives of faith. This is especially true for LGBT and other alienated Christians, along with those who support them. While we thank God for the move of the Spirit that is calling the Church to reject false doctrines of exclusion, we are also aware that, like the Confessing Church, we have enjoined a battle that won’t be easily, or quickly, won. For this reason, we must be rooted and grounded in Christ’s love and certainty of God’s presence and purpose in our lives.

Partly in honor of June’s designation as LGBT Pride month, but mostly out spiritual urgency, Straight-Friendly will spend the next four weeks sitting with Scripture. Day by day, we’ll consider a single verse—in some cases, a portion of one verse—from Psalm 139, a powerful text that I believe every inclusive Christian should embrace as his/her faith manifesto. The daily posts will be brief—a few sentences at most to provoke thought and reinvigorate our fellowship with God through God’s Word. In the best of all worlds, the texts would arouse dialogue here, at the podcast, and on the blog’s Facebook page, as we share what we’ve “heard” with one another. But that’s not necessary to claim success as we journey through this amazing passage together. The prayer here is that we use this time to deepen our roots in faith and find our place in God as we confront the faithlessness seeking to overtake our world.

Psalm 139

Before we set out on this verse-by-verse, phrase-by-phrase journey, suppose we end this introductory post by reading the psalm—and praying it—together.

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You.

For it was You Who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from You, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are Your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with You.

O that You would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak of You maliciously, and lift themselves up against You for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Sitting with Scripture—meditating on it, allowing God’s Spirit to speak through it—is how we become rooted and grounded in our faith.