Archives For Good News

For a long time I’ve been struck by the parallels between a whole grain of wheat and a whole Christian faith-life. Rather than wait until I had perfectly worked out the parallels (which might not ever happen), I’ve decided to share my imperfect thinking at this point.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health – Harvard University

Consider these three features of a whole grain:

A whole grain of wheat is a complex, multifaceted thing with three different and indispensable elements – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

The Christian faith-life is also complex, multifaceted, and made up of different elements.

It is about a fervent trust in Jesus that opens us to the Holy Spirit and a relationship with God as we live out our lives. It is about loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind. It is about gathering together with others to be part of the Church. It is built in large part on 66 books of the Bible and the diverse wisdom and insights they contain. It is a way of thinking and perceiving the world that is somehow consistent with books as diverse as Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, John, Romans, and Revelation. It is submitting ourselves to God and living lives of creative action.

It is about God, people, and the rest of Creation.

The total package of a whole grain of wheat is incredibly good for us.

There are over 100 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well as fiber in a whole grain of wheat. And this total package is quite good for us. Phytonutrients, which include antioxidants, are particularly unsung heroes. They are the suite of natural chemicals that plants make as a flexible defense system to fend off germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. They help the human body as well, providing protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes. Interestingly, bran and germ typically represent only 15-17% of a grain’s total weight but hold 75% of all of a grain’s total phytonutrients. Bran and germ also hold 100% of a grain’s fiber, which is essential for good health.

The total package of the whole Christian faith-life is also incredibly life transforming and enriching: I hope you’ve had contact with Christians, in person or through books and movies, who were different people because of their faith that expressed itself naturally in the lives they led. William Wilberforce is a great example. As are Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Brand, George Washington Carver, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others.

The challenges involved in using the whole grain at a large scale and the sweetness of the endosperm have long tempted people to engineer simpler and more selective ways of using elements of the whole grain. 

The complexity of whole grain wheat make it hard to use in an automated, simplified way. As soon as the bran is broken, it releases fat which causes spoilage to happen quickly. It also takes considerable art to make a tasty bread out of whole wheat. What’s more, human cultures have tended to desire the pure whiteness of refined grains as well for aesthetic reasons.

So humanity has long tried to simplify the use of whole grains by using only one part – the endosperm. With the advent of the rolling mill, we had a way to do this more perfectly then ever before. The pinnacle of this development was white bread. It didn’t spoil and tasted light and sweet.

But the simplifcation deprived bread of the most important nutritional benefits (check out this useful graphic that shows what is lost). What’s more, foods using refined grains (with the bran and germ removed) tend to raise blood sugar levels far more quickly and at higher levels than whole grains. All kinds of health problems emerged as a result. Ironically, we now add nutrition back into bread that was lost in the milling process, but the net result is still not the same.

Too often we’ve reshaped the Christian faith into the religious equivalent of white bread.

We’ve refined out the complexity and mystery and life-changing purpose to which God calls us. The sweet kernel we’ve tended to hold onto is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which promises us access to life after death. Salvation, when simplified, becomes the stamping of our after-life passport for guaranteed entry into the good country of heaven rather than the bad country of hell.

We remove mystery. Nor do we expect to have our lives nor the lives of our fellow believers to be transformed over time in this life. We don’t dive deep into the Bible and its wisdom and its challenges. We ignore God’s earth and make the faith just about people and God.

In the end, I wonder if a white bread faith may be what we think we want. Maybe we don’t want our lives transformed by being a disciple of Jesus if that will cause us discomfort or awaken us to how broken the world really is and the mending we are called to engage in. Maybe we don’t want to question the assumptions of the culture and economy around us.

And maybe this lack of wholeness, mystery, and challenge is what makes efforts to share God with others unsuccessful.

I started out writing this blog with a focus on how Christian faith and life has largely ignored Creation in its theology, church culture, and ethics. I believe this has dishonored God and harmed our neighbors.

I now see things even more more broadly.

The lack of attention to how we treat God’s earth is not a single thing that Christians  have somehow generally forgot about over the centuries. It is a symptom of a larger tendency to artifically simplify, sweeten, and hollow out what the Christian faith is all about.

God offers us a whole grain faith-life. Will we seek it out and live it?

 

Note: This Scientific American article about the problems with food labeled as containing whole wheat is a good read that will make you think about what exactly “whole wheat” claims mean in processed foods.

 

 

 

 

In a previous post, I began to look more closely at John 3:16 as a way to wrestle with this question: how are you and I to think about how the Gospel in the New Testament relates to how we relate to God’s earth? This iconic verse that is everywhere is, I’ve found, rarely understood in its full meaning. In this post, we continue to look closely at John 3:16.

We’re so quick to jump to conclusions, aren’t we?

When we come to John 3:16, we rush through its rhythm and ideas, knowing that it ends happily with eternal life. And we rush, too, to the automatic assumption that “eternal life” is talking about life after death.

The grammar of the verse tells us otherwise. And I’ve never appreciated grammar more than when I first understood from David Pawson’s uneven book Is John 3:16 the Gospel? (and confirmed by other sources) that traditional translations of the verse typically get the verse subtly wrong because they don’t convey the subtleties of the grammar.

Pawson explains that the Greek language has more nuance in its tenses than in English. A crucial distinction is whether a verb indicates continuous action or action that occurs and is then over at a single point in time.

The “believe” in “everyone who believes in him” is actually in the present continuous tense. So that portion of the verse literally means “everyone who goes on believing in him.”

The “have” in “have eternal life” is also in the present continuous tense.

So the real translation of this portion of the verse would be… “everyone who goes on believing in him will go on having eternal life.”

Later in John 10:10 we come again to this idea of eternal, abundant life which we will go on having.  Of the many ways there are to translate it, I like the New Century Version best. It reads: “A thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but I came to give life — life in all its fullness.”

This idea of God offering a full and good life also hearkens back to Psalm 16:11: “You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

Things get even more interesting when you look at “eternal.” Pawson notes that scholars are debating exactly what “eternal” means in this context. Some believe it relates to quantity – in other words something infinite without end. But others believe it relates to quality – “..life of a quality that makes every moment worthwhile.” Pawson writes, “I think the answer is both quantity and quality of life.”

The implications from understanding these elements of the verse more fully are profound:

First, we need to go on believing in Jesus and through Jesus in the God who Jesus reveals and the framework for what Jesus is all about from the Bible. As we highlighted in the last blog on this topic, this believing in is not about an intellectual assent to an idea but it’s putting the full weight of how we live our lives and what commit our heart to. It’s not a once-and-done situation. It’s entirely possible for us to stop believing.

Second, when we go on believing, we will go on having eternal life. Eternal life does not begin when we die. It begins now and continues through and past our death.

Third, eternal life is not an escape from this world but a radical engagement with it and a radical enlivening of ourselves that begins to give us the true life we were meant to have.

What does that eternal life, the eternal that we can go on having now and forever by continuing to believe in Jesus, look like? Here is my take on that from what I’ve read, seen, and experienced:

Beginning to know the majesty and mystery of God.

Knowing each of us matter and that we are loved by God.

Knowing how much God hates evil in all its forms.

Knowing that our past sins are forgiven, that death and evil are not to be feared, and that God can give us the power to overcome our ongoing habits of sin.

Seeing the God-given value of people and all of Creation.

Finding purpose in using our unique talents and creativity to share God, mend the woundedness of people and Creation, fight evil, and create joy.

Sharing and giving.

Finding peace and strength.

Being filled with the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Becoming part of a larger whole – God’s kingdom and the Church – and knowing that the good we do is part of a large movement.

Being called to forgive and being able to do so.

Knowing what matters and what doesn’t.

Jesus came not just to avoid sinning and be the perfect sacrifice for our sin but to also model for us what this eternal life in God looks like and is to be lived. This is why we are called to make disciples of all people.

I can’t help but mention, and this may reveal my Norwegian-American Lutheran background, that there is little sense in the Bible that following God’s ways will automatically translate into perpetual happiness, at least not in the light and fluffy sense of the word. There will be suffering. We will be called to do hard things. Rosa Parks and Willliam Wilberforce are just two examples of people whose Christian faiths called them to difficult paths that did not translate into casual happiness.

In fact, if our lives are easy and comfortable all the time and we fit in perfectly with the general culture around us, then we’re probably not living a complete Christian life. We’re probably following a Gospel that doesn’t reflect the present continuous tense.

We see the whole context of what experiencing true and ongoing eternal life is all about at the beginning of Genesis and at the end of Revelation – God, people, and Creation together in the relationship they were meant to have.

In this sense, life in all its fullness that we begin to grow into through ongoing faith in Jesus cannot help but lead to a different relationship with God, people, and God’s earth.

You’ll find that Christians who make the case that being committed stewards of God’s earth is part and parcel of what it means to being a Christ follower rarely use verses from the Gospels for support of their conviction.

This is primarily because the Gospels have little directly to say about our responsibilities to and our relationship with God’s earth.

I won’t deny that at times that can feel like a problem.

Neverthless, if you read the Gospels with a wider and more whole vision of what is being communicated and if you seek to understand the Christian faith within the context of the whole Bible and the threads and frameworks you find in it, then I believe there is solid enough ground for our convictions.

Interestingly, the lack of explicit statements on almost any social issues by Jesus can be frustrating for anyone looking for clear guidance on those issues. For centuries, Chrisitan thinkers have had to extrapolate and conjecture, often with great creativity, about war, economic systems, slavery, democracy, abortion, and the other hot-button topics of any particular time.

So how are you and I to think about how the Good News and Jesus relate to how we relate to God’s earth?

In this and future posts to come, I’m going to tackle that question by diving into John 3:16. In the course of those posts I will tease out some threads that do relate to what a whole Christian faith is and do relate, at least indirectly, to what the Christian faith means for our relationship with God’s earth.

It’s an iconic verse that people know by heart and which appears at sporting events and many other venues, even under Tim Tebow’s eyes. There’s the assumption, in fact, that this single verse captures the very essence of the Gospel.

Max Lucado’s book of this title affirms the idea that John 3:16 presents the heart of the gospel.

When I actually began studying it a few weeks ago, however, things became more complicated. There is much more depth and nuance to the verse than is usually assumed. In fact, there’s a fair amount of disagreement about the meaning of the verse within some Christian circles. This all makes thinking about how the verse relates to our relationship with the rest of Creation challenging and intriguing.

I will begin the John 3:16 odyssey by calling your attention to the imperative at the center of the verse – “believe in.”

David Pawson has a different take than Lucado on what John 3:16 actually communicates.

David Pawson’s book, Is John 3:16 the Gospel?, has some insights that are very useful and other assertions which I would heartily disagree with. One of his useful insights is about these two critical words.

Too often the Christian faith is assumed to be about assenting to certain creeds and dctrines in an intellectual way. Pawson asserts this would be the right thing to think if we were called to “believe that.” “Believe that” conveys the acceptance of some sort of fact in an abstract, analytical way.

But what the verse asserts makes the difference between perishing and having life is whether you believe in Jesus. Here’s what Pawson says what that really entails:

“And believing in someone means two things: that you trust them and that you are willing to obey them.”

So I would assert that the essential calling of the Christian faith is to trust in the Jesus we find in the Gospels – his words, his actions, his death, his resurrection, and how that all fits within the context of the rest of the Bible – and to obey Jesus in how we live.

That means putting the whole weight of our convictions and the decisions we make and what we value on the God we experience and understand through Jesus with the guidance of what Christians call the Holy Spirit.

I don’t hear faith explained this way very often.

Nor do I hear enough churches helping their members in very tangible ways to translate trust in Jesus into obedience in the daily habits of their lives.

In The Divine Conspirancy, Dallas Willard articulates the state of affairs like this:

“Whatever the ultimate explanation of it, the most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she simply has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life, and certainly not that it is in any way essential.”

When the Christian faith is reduced to a static, dogmatic, theological affirmation that is seen primarily as the price of admission to the life we will enjoy AFTER our deaths, then it is easy to understand why Christians have been able to do crazy, cruel, violent things to people and to God’s earth throughout history.

When the Christian faith is understood as the dynamic foundation for the lives we live every moment beginning here and now on this earth, then the way Christians will relate with people and other living things around them can’t help but be very different.

John 3:16, I believe, is calling us to this second understanding.

I’ve noticed that several people I know who are all about making an impact in the world with their work have been thinking ahead to 2017 for some time. They’re meditating on what ways they want to do what they do better. They’re also thinking of how they can grow in their skills and knowledge.

Are you thinking that way?

Here’s a question I’m posing to myself: when I come to December 31, 2017, what would make me feel like I made the most of the year?

How would you answer that question? Can you create a top five or top ten list of those things? It would be well worth the effort.

When a year comes to an end as it is about to do in a few hours, it’s sad to see how the flow of daily and weekly chores and tasks and obligations have so consumed our attention that the change we wanted to make happen has not happened.

So what will you do for your family, at work, in your community, or just for yourself?

I urge you to write it down. Then, and this is the most important part, figure out how to make the steps necessary to make that change habits of your everyday life. Habits do indeed shape who you really are.

Along those lines, I wanted to share some rough ideas about what I would like to move forward in 2017 with my whole faith pursuit.

First, I want to continue to create two blog posts a month at minimum as a way to continue to explore my thinking about what a whole faith church  would look like with particular focus on the natural imperative to be as good as possible to God’s creation. I have a request for you in this regard. If there’s a related topic you’d like me to cover or address I would love to hear it.

Second, I plan to work on a simple, allegorical novel to explore those same things in a way that is integrated into art and life. This will necessitate simpler and more concise blog posts. I can hear the applause now. 🙂

Third, I have a plan to start a simple campaign with a very simple focus for Christians to begin applying their faith in their life in a way that will benefit people and God’s creation. Look for that in early 2017. I hope you’ll join me.

Fourth, I want to hold a gathering of Christians like yourself to worship, share, and commit to living out a whole Christian faith in how we treat God’s earth.  I don’t know exactly what this will look like nor what exactly I hope to see come out of it.  But I believe it’s something vital to make happen.

Finally, as the  year comes to a close I want to share a bit of good news regarding this earth we are called upon to keep and care for.

The latest issue of The Nature Conservancy’s magazine had an inspiring story (Unleashing Rivers) about the ongoing removal of dams in the Northeast. The Connecticut River, which runs through four states, is just an example of the challenge. It has more than 2,700 documented dams which translates into a dam every 10 miles. These dams prevent fish and other species of life from moving about. They are the ecological equivalent of putting multiple tourniquets on each of your arms and legs.

Non-profits, public agencies, and private landowners are working together to begin removing dams so that the Connecticut River and other waterways in New England can begin flowing freely again. Coordinated efforts to remove dams on the Penobscot River have already dramatically changed that river. Before the strategically focused dam removals began, fish migrating from the ocean to the river system to spawn could only go upstream about 30 miles before being blocked. Thanks to the removal of dams, fish can now access almost 2,000 miles of continuous waterways, including tributaries.

Ironically, the best video on dam removal I could find was not from New England but from Washington where National Geographic did this nice, brief story on the dismantling a huge dam on the Elwha River, the largest project of this type in the U.S.

This, I believe, is a metaphor for what humanity is called to do – to not only repent of the damage we’ve done to God’s earth, but to use all of our creativity and ingenuity to restore the earth’s vitality and beauty.

What rivers will you unleash in 2017? What impact will you make?

Ephesians 2:10 has a something urgent for us to think about: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

What are the good works waiting for you?

How will God fill your heart with a love so deep and pure that you will find yourself hungry to take imaginative steps, whether nearby or on a big scale, to help people and God’s earth?

May 2017 be a year of many blessings and rewarding work for you.

It’s a simple but counterintuitive finding.

As Cal Newport tells it in Deep Work, when University of Chicago colleagues Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson invented a psychological testing technique called the experience sampling method, they were eager to find out what kinds of activities truly gave people joy and fulfillment.

The experience sampling method involved giving test subjects a pager and then randomly paging the subjects during a day. When they were paged, the subjects were to immediately record what they were doing and what their feelings were. This method, as opposed to relying on test subjects to keep a diary on their own throughout a day, was found to be far more effective in prompting people to accurately document the connection between different kinds of activities and their state of mind.

Here is what Csikzentmihalyi wrote of their fundamental finding:

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s mind or body is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

This prompted him to write the book Flow about that particular state of being. Flow I

Our instincts, of course, are to seek happiness and contentment in relaxation, fun, and doing as little as possible. There is, of course, nothing wrong with relaxing. We need downtime. Even the occasional binge watching of a TV series. Yet, being fully engaged in something – physical training, carrying out a challenging work project, figuring out a complex jigsaw puzzle – that pushes us and stretches us is actually an essential ingredient of a full life.

This, interestingly enough, is what the whole Christian life offers.

When, with God’s help, we commit ourselves to living out God’s love and purposes in all phases of our lives and the life of the world, we are immersed in something both challenging and worthwhile. This will translate into new consciousness of our choices and our habits every day of our life. It may mean taking on projects and challenges at a larger scale. These projects or challenges may well be way beyond what we believe we can handle with the skills and experience we’ve developed on our own.

This is what I believe the Jesus was talking about when he talked about the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. He modeled it for us. Committing ourselves to it, paradoxically, can give us our best moments in life. Not necessarily easy. Or relaxing. But it can make us fully alive to who we should be.

This is what I would call the “kingdom flow.”

A great example is Bob Muzikowski. As he describes it, he was saved and made sober on the same day. When he subsequently moved to Chicago from New York to get away from reminders of his former drinking life, he started a little league on the city’s troubled Near West Side that attracted, to his amazement, 300 youth the very first time he put out notices about it.

His dive into a larger purpose did not end there. His professional life continued in the financial world until he began to talk deeply with Bob Buford and then joined the Halftime Institute when Buford launched it. In this process, Muzikowski found that he continued to be drawn to the needs of the communities he had experienced through the Near West Little League he had helped establish. So he gave up his comfortable financial career to convert an abandoned Catholic elementary school on the Near West side into the Chicago Hope Academy, a college and life preparatory high school with a strong Christian faith element. Muzikowski purposefully developed it to be more affordable for poor and minority youth than typical private high schools. He also recruits the best teachers he can find from around the country.

This has not been easy work.

“If I hadn’t had a Halftime journey, my life would have been easier and less stressful today,” Muzikowski says, “but it would definitely be a lot more shallow.”

Not everyone may feel the calling to do something that meaningful on that scale. But in every life I am convinced there are needs and purposes that God is offering us to be engaged with and choices to make every day. Responding will move us beyond our own interests and needs while tapping the talents and skills we have and even those we don’t know we have.

When we move from faith in God and what God offers to us through Jesus to a deep commitment to living with God’s purposes firmly in mind every moment, we go from getting to the starting line to actually running the race of which the Apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 9:23-25.

This is an essential point of what I mean by the phrase “whole faith.” When Jesus said he was the way, the truth, and the life, he was not pointing only to life after death. He was, as I understand it, pointing to a true life that begins when we synch our lives with God’s purposes. That true life begins in the here and now, and that God-filled life will never end. After death, it will be even more glorious and complete. This is the new and abundant life that Jesus promised. Being in this kingdom flow give us the sense of flow and challenging, immersive purpose that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described.

Our churches should help us understand this and develp the kingdom flow in our lives.

I know I need that help at times. The brokeness of the world, incuding the dysfunction of how we treat God’s earth, is at times overwhelming. When I don’t hear churches calling us to bring God’s kingdom into this world to the best degree possible, I am dismayed. I even find myself questioning my faith.

But when I come across Christians like Bob Muzikowski, my spirits rebounds, and my faith grows. I am encouraged, too, that there are growing numbers of Christians in the kingdom flow who are working in their own ways to change how we treat God’s earth in the process of growing food from it. Like Bob Muzikowski, they have taken on missions that are challenging and require of them tremendous sacrifice. Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin, and Ray Archuleta are just some of them.

The testimonies of their lives and the impacts of their lives say a great deal about what the whole Gospel offers to you and the world and about its truth beyond its words.