God operates by different rules of time and space. And God's infinite greatness, which we would expect to diminish us, actually makes possible the very closeness that we desire. A God unbound by our rules of time has the ability to invest in every person on earth. God has, quite literally, all the time in the world for each one of us.
In the move The Last Emperor, the young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a magical life of luxury with a thousand eunuch servants at his command. "What happens when you do wrong?" his brother asks. "When I do wrong, someone else is punished," the boy emperor replies. To demonstrate, he breaks a jar, and one of the servants is beaten. In Christian theology, Jesus reversed that ancient pattern: when the servants erred, the King was punished. Grace is free only because the giver himself has borned the cost.
Politics draws lines between people; in contrast, Jesus' love cuts across those lines and dispenses grace. That does not mean, of course, that Christians should not involve themselves in politics. It simply means that as we do so we must not let the rules of power displace the command to love.
God reproduces and lives out His image in millions of ordinary people like us. It is a supreme mystery. We are called to bear that image as a Body because any one of us taken individually would present an incomplete image, one partly false and always distorted, like a single glass chip hacked from a mirror. But collectively, in all our diversity, we can come together as a community of believers to restore the image of God in the world.
Christians fail to communicate to others because we ignore basic principles in relationship. When we make condescending judgments or proclaim lofty words that don't translate into action, or simply speak without first listening, we fail to love - and thus deter a thirsty world from Living Water. The good news about God's grace goes unheard.
Whoever desires to remain faithful to Jesus must communicate faith as he did, not by compelling assent but by presenting it as a true answer to basic thirst. Rather than looking back nostalgically on a time when Christians wielded more power, I suggest another approach: that we regard ourselves as subversives operating within the broader culture.
Jesus is the best clue we have as to what God is like and He is consistently gracious and merciful, especially to those who are failures. He is harsh to uptight, judgmental people, but merciful and gracious to the failures. He seems to draw out the smallest kernel of faith in each person that He's with. So, I presume that that's the way God is going to judge humanity.
I once heard a theologian remark that in the Gospels people approached Jesus with a question 183 times whereas he replied with a direct answer only three times. Instead, he responded with a different question, a story, or some other indirection. Evidently Jesus wants us to work out answers on our own, using the principles that he taught and lived.
A faithful person sees life from the perspective of trust, not fear. Bedrock faith allows me to believe that, despite the chaos of the present moment, God does reign; that regardless of how worthless I may feel, I truly matter to a God of love; that no pain lasts forever and no evil triumphs in the end. Faith sees even the darkest deed of all history, the death of God's Son, as a necessary prelude to the brightest.
What would a church look like that created space for quietness, that bucked the celebrity trend and unplugged from noisy media, that actively resisted our consumer culture? What would worship look like if we directed it more toward God than toward our own amusement?
Someone asked the Swiss physician & author Paul Tournier how he helped his patients get rid of their fears. He replied, 'I don't. Everything that's worthwhile in life is scary. Choosing a school, choosing a career, getting married, having kids--all those things are scary. If it is not fearful, it is not worthwhile.'
Faith is not simply a private matter, or something we practice once a week at church. Rather, it should have a contagious effect on the broader world. Jesus used these images to illustrate His kingdom.: a sprinkle of yeast causing the whole loaf to rise, a pinch of salt preserving a slab of meat, the smallest seed in the garden growing into a great tree in which birds of the air come to nest.
I am learning that mature faith, which encompasses both simple faith and fidelity, works the opposite of paranoia. It reassembles all the events of life around trust in a loving God. When good things happen, I accept them as gifts from God, worthy of thanksgiving. When bad things happen, I do not take them as necessarily sent by God -- I see evidence in the Bible to the contrary -- and I find in them no reason to divorce God. Rather, I trust that God can use even those bad things for my benefit.
If we insist on visible proofs from God, we may well prepare the way for a permanent state of disappointment. True faith does not so much attempt to manipulate God to do our will as it does to position us to do his will. As I searched through the Bible for models of great faith, I was struck by how few saints experienced anything like Job's dramatic encounter with God. The rest responded to the hiddenness not by demanding that he show himself, but by going ahead and believing him though he stayed hidden.
We preach sermons, write books on apologetics, conduct city-wide evangelistic campaigns. For those alienated from the church, that approach no longer has the same drawing power. And for the truly needy, words alone don't satisfy; "A hungry person has no ears," as one relief worker told me. A skeptical world judges the truth of what we say by the proof of how we live.
The bible never belittles disappointment, but it does add one key word: temporary - What we feel now, we will not always feel. Our disappointment is itself a sign, and aching, a hunger for something better. And faith is, in the end, a kind of homesickness - for a home we have never visited but have never once stopped longing for.
Jesus gave us a model for the work of the church at the Last Supper. While his disciples kept proposing more organization - Hey, let's elect officers, establish hierarchy, set standards of professionalism - Jesus quietly picked up a towel and basin of water and began to wash their feet.
Charles Williams has said of the Lord's Prayer, "No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word 'as' in that clause." What makes the 'as' so terrifying? The fact that Jesus plainly links our forgiven-ness by the Father with our forgiving-ness of fellow human beings. Jesus' next remark could not be more explicit: 'If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.'
Like all good things, prayer requires some discipline. Yet I believe that life with God should seem more like friendship than duty. Prayer includes moments of ecstasy and also dullness, mindless distraction and acute concentration, flashes of joy and bouts of irritation. In other words, prayer has features in common with all relationships that matter.
It took time for the church to come to terms with the ignominy of the cross. Church fathers forbade its depiction in art until the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine.... Now, though, the symbol is everywhere: artists beat gold into the shape of the Roman execution device, baseball players cross themselves before batting, and cancy confectioners even make chocolate crosses for the faithful to eat during Holy Week. Strange as it may seem, Christianity has become a religion of the cross--the gallows, the electric chair, the gas chamber, in modern terms.
Thunderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace.
I have come to know a God who has a soft spot for rebels, who recruits people like the adulterer David, the whiner Jeremiah, the traitor Peter, and the human-rights abuser Saul of Tarsus. I have come to know a God whose Son made prodigals the heroes of his stories and the trophies of his ministry.
On a small scale, person-to-person, Jesus encountered the kinds of suffering common to all of us. And how did he respond? Avoiding philosophical theories and theological lessons, he reached out with healing and compassion. He forgave sin, healed the afflicted, cast out evil, and even overcame death.
Henri Nouwen says, "When we come to realize that ... only God saves, then we are free to serve, then we can live truly humble lives." Nouwen changed his approach from "selling pearls," or peddling the good news, to "hunting for the treasure" already present in those he was called to love - a shift from dispensing religion to dispensing grace. It makes all the difference in the world whether I view my neighbor as a potential convert or as someone whom God already loves.
If I just think of the churches in my little town here because I've been to every one of them, there are 27, there aren't that many where you walk in and say wow, people are excited about their faith. A lot of them, it's just what you do on Sunday at 10:00 or 11:00 and that's not true in other countries. In some other countries, it's still a very lively, vibrant experience.