Archive for October, 2015

Extravagance.  Without caution, the sower throws the seed wherever it may fall.  Extravagance is the only word that I can think of to describe the scene of the sower.  Slinging the seed without caution, without calculation.  There is an extravagance in that act.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is sown.  The seed doesn’t always take root.  Yet, the sower casts the seed in anticipation of the harvest.  Extravagance is a good word.

Grace is a good word as well.  Unmerited gift.  Like that sower of the seed, God’s “seed” is cast wherever it might fall, regardless of the soil it might find.  Not every soil, not every life, will allow the seed to grow.  Some will immediately close their ears to the message of God’s coming Kingdom that is even now taking root among us.  The seed is never tilled into the soil and thus never takes root.  Others will receive it with joy, yet will quickly fade away with pressure (tribulation/ trial) or “the chase” (persecution).  Like the sun withering a shallow-rooted plant, the pressure of the world conforms such people back into its mold.  Still others will begin to grow but become choked by the cares of the world, by riches and their desire for things other than the Kingdom.  Regardless of the soil, the seed is cast out as a gift.  It is a gift that can be rejected, to be sure, but a gift nonetheless.

Such extravagance, such grace, seems to fail so often to produce the harvest.  It fails to take root.  It flounders under anxiety and fear.  If only the sower had been more cautious to sow in soil more hospitable, more selective in the task of sowing good seed in good soil.  Yet, that has never been the way of the sower.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of the Gardener.  Though the seed seems to be an overwhelming failure, yet the Sower is not deterred.  Almost imperceptibly, the seed finds good soil and takes root.  It springs forth in abundance: 30, 60, even 100 times.  The extravagant nature of the sower is imaged in the extravagant nature of the harvest.  It is abundant, full, and overflowing.  The seeming failure of the seed and the sower is proved to be wisdom rather than folly, hope rather than despair.  Such is the nature of grace, such is the nature of God.

Such is the nature of Jesus – that Good Seed of the Kingdom of God.  The cross was folly, it was extravagant.  It appears to be failure of the greatest magnitude: the death of a criminal.  Yet, the Seed was thrown into the soil of Creation.  Although it appeared to be wasted extravagance, yet the resurrection unleashed the power of the abundant harvest, which has produced fruit beyond the imagination.  Jesus’ words to his disciples scatter them like seed back into the world: “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  Freely we have received, freely we must give that same grace that was lavished upon us.  Sling the seed upon whatever soil you might find and watch what God might do as the seed finds good soil.  Yet, even if our sowing seems in vain, fling God’s grace, which cannot be exhausted, as faithful sowers anticipating the harvest – even if we don’t get to see its fruit now.

KP Blog Tour

The Christian faith is weird. It’s just different. All the way down. As many times as I can say this, I continually come to realize that I don’t get it. At least, I don’t get it in a depth that really shapes me as deeply as it ought to.

These days, a large majority of my ministry involves teaching college students. I talk with them a lot about how different the Christian faith is. It’s different in the way it conceives of God because it confesses that God was revealed in flesh, and so we know God by an encounter with a person, rather than through metaphysical reasoning alone. And one of the most different things about the way know God is that the person through whom we come to know God was crucified.

The more I say things like this in my teaching, and the more I consider what that means for the way I know God as a person, the more strange it seems. We normally look for God in ideas, high and lofty metaphysical concepts of God. But God wants us to be known through becoming a human, and so we know God by encountering a person. Weird.

Belief is also strange for Christians. Normally, we consider belief to be the intellectual ascent to an idea. When we believe in something, we typically mean that we agree with an idea. When we say we believe in God, it often means that we intellectually agree that there is a God, and that this God is involved in creation in certain ways. But Christians believe in strange ways. We don’t just believe with our heads; we believe with our feet. Ours is a belief of following. Why? Because for Christians, God is not known as an idea, but as a Person.

Jesus words in John 14, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” set a strange pattern for our believing, mainly because we tend to think of truth as a set of concepts, rather than as a person. But Jesus does something fascinating here: he ties ‘way’ to ‘truth,’ and locates both of those in himself. That means that truth is not a concept for Christians – truth is a Person. To believe in truth, therefore, means that we can’t simply intellectually ascent to an idea, because truth isn’t a mere idea. Truth is a Person, and we believe in that Person by following. We believe with our feet.

Believing with our feet makes us primarily followers of the Way. To believe with our feet makes us disciples. But here is the really simple and strange thing about believing with our feet: we are following a peculiar and particular way that isn’t like all of the other ways around us. The peculiar way of Jesus had a lot to do with not simply following one of the given ‘ways’ of the day, but transcending those ways. But lest we forget the cross, ‘transcendence’ even takes on a different kind of meaning – to transcend something in the strange way of Jesus also meant to be killed by it. Why is that important? Because it demonstrates for us just how different the politics of discipleship are.

I probably don’t need to rehearse the given political ‘ways’ in detail here. There are parties and issues and candidates. But the thread running through all of them is that there is a particular way of doing politics: you win. You conquer. You vanquish. Consider the discussion surrounding political debates these days. Most of what I hear is not even about the issues so much as who won the debate. The issues become mere weapons in the hands of those who enter the debate ring as contenders. The whole point is to win.

As disciples of Jesus, though, our purpose isn’t really to win. It isn’t to climb in the ring or throw our support behind one of the contenders. It’s to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life, to hear him teach us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, and to align ourselves with that coming Kingdom, even though it is thoroughly different. To believe with our feet is to walk in the way of the Crucified, and to take seriously the strangeness of the way God has chosen to redeem the world. And that probably means that the way of our politics – the way we think about it, the way we think about what politics is, what it does and what it’s for – will be awfully different. And for that difference, I say thanks be to God.

Tim Gaines is asst. professor of religion at Trevecca Nazarene University and adjunct professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary. His latest book, written with Shawna Songer Gaines, deals with a faithful approach to politics and is called Kings and Presidents: Politics and the Kingdom of God.

TimandShawna

Tim and Shawna Gaines used their time as co-pastors of Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene to seek distinctly Christian approaches to pressing contemporary issues, and to apply those responses to faithful and creative ways in the local church setting. Tim now serves as assistant professor of religion at Trevecca Nazarene University. Shawna is a frequent speaker, author, and blogger. Her work can be accessed at shawnasongergaines.com

You can find their new book here: http://www.nph.com/nphweb/html/bhol/itempage.jsp?itemId=9780834135314&nid=srch&catalogId=NA&catSecCd=NA&subCatSecCd=NA&subSubCatSecCd=NA

I sat on the second row of the small college theater. The floor gently sloped toward the elevated platform. The lofty ceiling was held in place by solid cement walls. Long, skinny windows stretched to the rafters. A small choir gathered in the balcony behind me, singing a hymn I was not familiar with. It was a haunting tune, a prayer, reflecting on God’s goodness. The words stirred the air with the gentle reminder of God’s care for us.

The chapel was an intriguing mixture of music and liturgy. Words offered in prayer. Five flautists playing their flutes to a classical music piece. It was unlike any service I have ever attended. I didn’t mind the distinct rhythm of worship that was offered by the community. As an outside observer, I tried to listen and hear the heartbeat of this community.

But, when it came time for the sermon and the final song, something struck me as odd. The sermon did not proclaim the Gospel. Rather, it was a sermon about “doing what you want to do regardless of what others say.” Hardly the Gospel. God was never mentioned. It was an empty homily. I tried my best to shake off the disappointment.

The choir began singing a familiar tune. The musical notes were ones I had heard many times before. I knew beyond any doubt that I had heard the song before, but something was off kilter. Something wasn’t quite right. Finally, in the third or fourth verse, it struck me. The words had been significantly changed. The music was to “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Yet, the words never mentioned God nor anything remotely dealing with something that Luther would have penned. Instead, the words encouraged getting along with others – not inherently bad, but a good deal short of proclaiming the Gospel. The words felt hollow, empty. The familiar tune sounded dead without its usual theological depth.

Thinking about the Church’s liturgy (“the work of the people”), which is the practices that shape our character toward something ultimate (i.e., James K. A. Smith), it seems to me that too much of our contemporary worship has been hollowed out, like the sermon and the song from the chapel. There is a form that appears to be Christian, but we have emptied it of the Gospel and its power. There is a “form of godliness, but we [deny] its power” (2 Tim. 3:5a). When our worship, our liturgy, maintains the form but is emptied of its power, our character is pointed in a direction that doesn’t reflect God’s character and nature. It doesn’t look like Jesus.

Liturgy is important for this reason. It shapes us. The practices, rhythms, rituals, traditions, and way of life of a community shape and re-shape us toward a particular end or goal. If that purpose is not to be more like Christ, we simply reflect more of the world. Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of living men. Tradition is the living faith of dead men.” Therein lies the distinction between faithful liturgy and dead ritual. We can’t get away from having rhythms and rituals of worship. But, we can get away from their intended purpose. When our practices fail to shape us to be like Christ, we must reassess those practices. Sometimes that means that we divest older practices for new ones. Sometimes it means we must re-energize old practices through education and recovery. Regardless, we must allow our liturgy, our way of life and worship, to constantly be centered upon Christ and his cross.

The results of our liturgy say a great deal about what our liturgy is pointed toward. Faithful liturgy, by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit, form in us the fruits of the Spirit. Unfaithful liturgy will produce fruit, but it will not resemble the Spirit. Instead, it will cultivate “people [who are] lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2-5).

The question is not whether a church will have a liturgy. All churches have a liturgy. The more important question is whether the liturgy reflects Christ and is shaping us to be more Christlike in our life together and in our ministry to the world. In other words, do we increasingly reflect the holy love of God to our neighbors.