Dying to Live: Suffering for a Higher Purpose

A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.

Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.

 

Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose

All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.

But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.

First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.

I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.

Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.

In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.

The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.

Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.

As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:

  • God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
  • Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
  • God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
  • God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
  • Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.

These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.

 

The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope

All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.

It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.

True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.

 

Challenge

Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?

We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.

 

(This post is the twelfth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

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You Don’t Walk Alone: Change, Spiritual Journeys, & Resurrection  

The Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus, is quoted as saying, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Most of us know this from experience, even though we tend to resist change because it requires us to grieve losses and navigate countless unknowns.

When we decide to make a change, or one is thrust upon us, we typically do one of two things: cling to the past in fear or find the courage to move through it. While it is hard to admit, resisting change keeps us stuck in unproductive ways of living and ultimately proves to be a fruitless enterprise. Things are going to change whether we like it or not, and if we do not develop flexibility and learn to adapt it is at our own peril. In contrast, accepting change and courageously stepping into the future creates the necessary conditions for human beings to learn, grow, and experience a deeper sense of meaning.

Additionally, as Christians, we believe that God is at work in the world, giving us clear ideals and luring us into ways of being that make the realization of these ideals possible. So, when Christians face change, we not only see the potential for emotional growth, but for spiritual growth too. When God calls us in a new direction, it is an opportunity to better serve God’s mission in the world and realize God’s dream for our lives. We are given eyes to see meaning, purpose, and directionality in change as we embark on new spiritual journeys.

 

Challenges of Change

However, we also know that navigating change is no easy task, especially when considering a variety of predictable challenges. We will be tempted to disassociate from the parts of our story that evoke embarrassment or shame, cutting us off from important lessons that can be learned only by reflecting on our failures. We will experience fear of the unknown, tempting us to return to old ways of living that no longer help us become the person God is calling us to be. We will be tempted to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain and secure worldly success. The value system of the world will try to lure us off the path of discipleship, causing us to forget who we are as children of God. As we face unknowns and experience anxiety, we will be tempted to abandon personal responsibility by blindly submitting to religious authority. Instead of encouraging us to follow our hearts, people we love may betray us.

Taken together, these challenges can feel overwhelming, even for the most seasoned and mature travelers. So how do we faithfully navigate these challenges on our quest for spiritual transformation?

First, we remember that learning to deal with these trials in graceful and faithful ways takes a long time. It includes lots of trial and error, success and failure. We are going to mess-up—often—but the real question is whether we will learn from our mistakes and get a little better each time. Those who have gone before us say that we will never survive the process of maturation unless we are gentle with ourselves. Second, it always helps to have good traveling companions, which is one of the benefits of joining a healthy community of faith. Some people will feel threatened by our transformation and try to pull us backwards. Without a community of people on a similar journey to encourage and support us, it’s difficult to keep moving forward. As the Beatles knew, we get by with a little help from our friends. Third, we must stay close to Jesus.

 

Staying Close to Jesus: The Gift of Resurrection

When considering the possibility of staying close to Jesus, it helps to reflect on the story of the resurrection in the Gospel of Matthew, because it reminds us that we do not walk alone. The resurrected Jesus is always present through the power of his Spirit doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Even when we feel completely isolated it is not because God is absent but because, for whatever reason, we have been rendered blind, deaf, or numb to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, which is a life of radical transformation. He also shows us the way to be transformed by his life and teaching. But there is more to the story because this same Jesus was raised from the dead by God, is eternally present through his Spirit, and gives us the power to faithfully walk the path of transformation and experience real change. Remember his last words in the Matthew: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus does not leave us orphaned. We never walk alone.

This is certainly good news because no one can faithfully navigate change without God’s help. People who have recovered from addiction provide great testimony to this truth. While we need good friends to encourage and support us, there are things we need on our journey that only God can provide.

Indeed, as we stay close to Jesus and wrestle with change, he gives us many important gifts. As we face the pain and shame in the dark parts of our story, Jesus gives us the gift of redemption. As we face our fears of the unknown, Jesus give us courage. As we resist the temptation to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain or secure worldly success, Jesus gives us faith. As we resist the value system of the world and embrace the value system of the Kingdom of God, Jesus gives us wisdom. As we question religious authority and learn to author our own lives, Jesus gives us honesty and authenticity. As we heal from the brokenness of betrayal, Jesus gives us compassion and restoration.

Redemption, courage, faith, wisdom, honesty, compassion, and restoration, these are awesome gifts that not only help us begin our journey toward transformation but also prepare us for what lies ahead.

 

Challenge

In conclusion, there are a few things that will help us faithfully navigate change. First, and most importantly, stay close to Jesus by committing to a daily practice of reflection, meditation, and prayer. These spiritual disciplines do not save us or inoculate us from suffering, but they do create space for us to reconnect with God and become more aware of God’s perpetual presence. Second, secure a trusted spiritual director or soul friend who can serve as a good travel guide and connect with a group of friends that will support and encourage your spiritual evolution. Third, take stock of all the gifts that God has already created in you as a result of diligent struggle with trial and temptation, and allow these gifts to generate the courage, hope, and strength required for the next leg of your journey.

 

Prayer

Gracious God give me wisdom to know where you are leading and what needs to change in my life. As I do my best to stay close to Jesus and faithfully navigate the challenges of change, create in me the spiritual gifts needed to keep moving forward. Amen.

 

(This post is the eighth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Responding to Betrayal: The Ongoing Obligations of Love

An Outlaw Pastor: Rob Bell

Rob Bell was born on August 23, 1970 to a family that was deeply committed to the evangelical movement in America. His father, a U.S. District Judge appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Regan, worked with Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority, a political organization that played a key role in mobilizing conservative Christians in the 1980s.

After finishing high school, Rob went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College and, after experiencing a call to ministry, a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. As a young pastor, he was mentored by Ed Dobson at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids Michigan before going on to start Mars Hills Bible Church in 1999.

While his new church started with a few hundred people, within a few years it grew to over 10,000 in Sunday morning worship. By all metrics, Rob’s ministry was wildly successful, but at the same time he wrestled with difficult questions that emerged through deep study of the Bible and critical reflection on his own experience. Through this honest struggle, he eventually realized that he could no longer accept some of the central tenants of American evangelicalism, such as the infallibility of scripture. He also felt uneasy about the cozy relationship between evangelicals and neo-conservative politicians. As the insights kept coming they had a cumulative affect that launched him on a new spiritual journey.

Authenticity became a hallmark of Rob’s ministry which impacted his preaching and teaching. He decided to be honest with his congregation regarding his spiritual questions and to only preach about things he had experienced firsthand. While some found his transparency refreshing, others found it threatening, which led to conflicts at Mars Hill. For example, in 2003 he gave a message series on the equality of women, and some of the church leaders tried to have him fired. When he decided to empower women to serve in church leadership roles, worship attendance dropped by 2,000.

While these experiences were painful, Rob didn’t turn back, and his relationship with Mars Hills reached a turning point in 2011 after publishing Love Wins, a controversial book that questioned traditional teachings on hell. He was quickly labeled a heretic in evangelical circles and within a year decided to leave his church in Michigan to pursue other avenues of ministry in Los Angeles, California.

While many people at Rob’s church lovingly supported his spiritual transformation, others were not as encouraging. Before leaving Mars Hills, some wealthy church members tried to leverage him with money to return to the standard evangelical message, the old “we will take our money and leave if you don’t do what we want” trick. Remembering this betrayal, he said in an interview, “It broke me, but it also gave me this nuclear engine of resolve to keep going.”[i]

Rob has certainly landed on his feet, writing numerous books, preaching and teaching in sold-out auditoriums, broadcasting a popular podcast, and making the list of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. But this didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly wasn’t easy. He was treated horribly by people who once declared him their torch bearer, launching smear campaigns on television, radio, social media, and public speaking. Some of the very people that he led to Jesus called his faith into question, accused him of being a false teacher, and publicly protested his speaking engagements.

Amid all the hostility, Rob didn’t lash-out in anger or check-out in resignation. Rather, he remained true to himself, true to his relationship with God, and true to the values of the gospel as he understood them. In this way, he serves a real-life example of someone who has walked the first path of the Quadratos; someone who has accepted the call to a new spiritual journey, struggled with fears of the unknown, navigated big change, and responded to hatred with compassion and equanimity. Regardless of what you think about the specifics of his teaching, Rob is a good example of how to follow Jesus in the face of betrayal.

 

Being Betrayed: Jesus

Most people, whether they regularly attend church or not, can tell you that Jesus was betrayed by a man named Judas, but when we dive into the details of the story as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, we discover some helpful lessons for the first path of the Quadratos.

One of these lessons is not to be surprised by betrayal. In certain ways, it’s to be expected when we embark on a new spiritual journey that subverts old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.

It certainly didn’t surprise Jesus. At the Last Supper, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” Upon hearing this, the disciples became “greatly distressed” and said one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” Jesus answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me” (Matthew 26:21-23). This is clearly a foreshadowing of Judas’ betrayal (vv. 14-16, 47-50), but Jesus knew that Judas would not be the only one. In first century Palestine, meals were typically served from a common bowl. Each person around the table would tear a piece of bread, shape it into a scoop, and reach into the bowl for food. Since everyone at the Last Supper would have dipped their hand in the bowl, Jesus was not only foreshadowing Judas’ betrayal but that of all his disciples.[ii]

We see this play out in the story of Jesus’ passion. He predicted that Peter would deny him three times (Matthew 26:33-34), and he did (vv. 69-75). He predicted that all his disciples would become deserters (v. 31), and they did. According to Matthew, none of the disciples were at the foot of the cross, only the women.

Jesus expected betrayal, and this allowed him to prepare for it. Instead of being surprised and compulsively reacting to emotional triggers, he saw it coming and prepared to respond with intentional acts of love. In this way, he navigated between two common pitfalls.

First, Jesus did not retaliate with a spirit of resentment.

When Judas appeared in Gethsemane with a large crowd to apprehend Jesus and then betrayed him with a kiss, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you are here to do.”

Did you catch that? Jesus addressed Judas as friend, the man who sold him down the river for thirty pieces of silver. As Alexander John Shaia explains, “By using this address, he completely embodies the principles he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, returning nothing but the greatest love and respect even when it [was] not offered to him.”[iii] The betrayal didn’t change who he was—he remained true to himself and faithful to God. Instead of lashing out in punitive anger, Jesus responded with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

Second, when experiencing the pain of betrayal, Jesus did not disconnect from himself or those who betrayed him as a way of escaping the hard work of reconciliation. How often do we do this? Someone betrays us, and we disconnect from ourselves in mindless distractions and disconnect from them by pretending they don’t exist. If we happen to encounter them after the betrayal, it’s easy to ignore them in hopes that the conflict will simply go away. Isolation, denial, hiding, pretending, ignoring, blaming—all are attempts to escape the ongoing obligations of love.

But Jesus didn’t do this. He didn’t hide from those who betrayed him. Nor did he disconnect from himself, which can be seen when he was hanging on the cross and rejected the offer of gall (a bitter substance mixed with wine to deaden pain). He chose to remain fully awake, “to face and feel every moment with an open mind, heart, and body . . .”[iv] He stayed connected to his own experience, so he could continue to practice the gospel in the presence of those who were seeking to destroy him.

Interestingly, the two pitfalls of lashing-out and checking-out are different ways of acting-out a victim mentality. But Jesus would have none of this. Even in the depth of betrayal, humiliation, and suffering, he refused to see himself as a victim. He not only expected betrayal, he accepted it as a natural consequence of choosing the way of love in a fallen world.

In Luke 9:51 we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, Jesus made a conscious decision to walk into the holy city knowing it would be the beginning of the end. Resolute in his mission, he accepted the predictable consequences of speaking truth to power: betrayal, torture, and death. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18).

Since he refused to see himself as a victim, he had no to need to punish people with anger or disconnect in fear. By refusing victimhood, he could continue acting with intentionality according to the law of love. This is a great example to us as we too experience betrayal on the first path of the Quadratos.

Like Jesus, we should expect betrayal so that we can prepare for it. As we embark on new spiritual journeys, there will be people that will try to pull us backwards into old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.[v] This pull can be gentle or forceful, and one forceful way of pressuring someone is by betraying them or accusing them of betrayal. This is especially true of authoritarian people who are plagued by the fear of losing control. The more fearful and insecure, the more authoritarian, demanding, judgmental, and punishing. So, don’t be surprised when some people don’t celebrate your new journey and pressure you to go back to your old self. It is easier for them if you conform to the old pattern because then they don’t have to change and readjust to the new dynamic in your relationship. As you push through their resistance and continue moving forward, don’t be surprised when those same people betray you or accuse you of betraying them.

But be careful how you press forward and respond to betrayal. Remember the two pitfalls: betraying the very values of the spiritual transformation we seek by lashing out in anger and disconnecting from those who hurt us in hopes of avoiding the ongoing obligations of love. Like Christ, we are called to forsake a victim-mentality, so we can intentionally choose to act with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity. This is no small order, and we fail all the time, but we must keep pursuing the way of Jesus Christ as part of our spiritual transformation.

As a note of caution, the law of love does not require us to be a doormat for the dysfunctional or a victim of abuse. God’s love cannot be separated from God’s justice, and to love someone involves telling them the truth (Ephesians 4:15). The same principle can be found in reconciliation, which is made possible only by mutual truth telling and changed behavior. Consequently, submitting yourself to ongoing abuse is not an indication that you’re being faithful to the law of love but that you’re operating out of an unhealthy and self-destructive frame of mind. What is needed in these situations is emotional and spiritual healing, which almost always requires you to separate yourself from the abuser long enough to interrupt the dysfunctional system and gain enough health to make better choices. As many have learned the hard way, sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone hellbent on destruction and abuse is tell them goodbye.

 

Doing the Betraying: Peter and Judas

In conclusion, it’s important to offer a few words for those who have inflicted betrayal on others. Just as Jesus said of the disciples, so is true of us. At some point in life, we all betray someone (which should make us more compassionate for those who betray us). It says in Romans 3:23 that everyone falls short of what God expects, which is another way of saying that all of us succumb to the backward pull of our former life, causing us to betray Jesus, others, and ourselves. Like the disciples, we all become deserters. So how do we get back up, find our footing, and start walking the road to transformation again? Fortunately, the passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew also provides guidance for this problem, especially as we consider the examples of Peter and Judas.

As already mentioned, Peter denied Jesus three times before he was crucified. Can you imagine the pain he must have felt when the full realization of his unfaithfulness dawned on his consciousness? Can you imagine how uncomfortable Peter must have been upon seeing Jesus again after the resurrection?

Although he was deeply ashamed of himself, he was able to accept responsibility for his own failure. As he stood before the one he betrayed, he found forgiveness rather than judgement, reconciliation rather than condemnation. As with us, it was probably easier to receive forgiveness from Jesus than it was to forgive himself, but by the grace of God Peter was able to do just that—and it saved his life.

This part of the story reminds us that even in the worst kinds of betrayal there is still the possibility of forgiveness and redemption for those who stay close to God and are willing to do the difficult work of reconciliation. We see this played out not only in the life of Peter but all the disciples, except Judas. All betrayed Jesus and all were forgiven and restored.

Just as all the disciples became deserters, all of us become deserters too. It’s almost like failure is built into the first path of the Quadratos. When embarking on a new spiritual journey, we all start in weakness, confusion, and fear, and we must all learn the lessons that our unfaithfulness teaches. After all, how can we proclaim the good news of forgiveness unless we have been recipients of this gift ourselves?

It’s important to keep all these gospel truths in mind because if we don’t it can kill us.

Like Peter and the other disciples, Judas betrayed Jesus too. We sometimes think of Judas as the only one, or assume his betrayal was worse than that of the others. But I don’t think so. Betrayal is betrayal, and if Judas had come back to Jesus after the resurrection and asked for forgiveness, I think Jesus would have embraced and restored him, just as he did with the others. So why did it turn out so differently for him?

I think it has to do with self-hatred. After betraying Jesus, Judas became the victim of his own despair. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe in Jesus, and I’m not talking about the kind of believing in which you receive Jesus as your personal savior. I mean he literally didn’t believe Jesus’ message about God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s true that Judas felt horrible after coming to terms with what he had done, leading him to repent and return the blood money to the religious leaders. However, when he realized that this act of contrition could not stop the destruction he had set in motion, he descended into a dark pit of self-loathing. He could not imagine Jesus forgiving him. He could not imagine forgiving himself. So, he went into the woods and killed himself (Matthew 27:3-5).

Like Judas, we too can descend into a pit of despair after betraying someone we love. Self-hatred can blind us to the possibility of forgiveness and steal the hope of the gospel. As Dante knew, this is the definition of hell, a place devoid of hope, because once we lose hope we experience death—spiritually, emotionally, and, sometimes even physically. This is why believing in Jesus is a matter of life and death for many people.

 

Challenge

As we navigate change on the path to transformation, we experience resistance. Will we choose to keep walking even when others around us do not? Even when they pressure us to return to old ways of thinking and betray us when we do conform? Will we choose to stay awake to our own experience and remain connected to others, even as we confront our fears and the death of ego? Will we let go of resentment and choose love, acting with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity? Will we forgive others, remain open to reconciliation, and attend to the ongoing obligations of love? Will we believe the promises of Jesus, accept God’s forgiveness, and learn to forgive ourselves when we are the ones who have failed?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I experience betrayal, help me to respond in love with a wise mind, a compassionate heart, and a calm spirit. When I betray others, help me to honestly see the wrong I’ve done, repent, forgive myself, and move forward in ways that increase the possibility for reconciliation. Amen.

 

(This post is the seventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

____________________________________________________

[i] The Hell-Raiser, video uploaded on The New Yorker, “A Megachurch Pastor’s Search for a More Forgiving Faith,” December 16, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-megachurch-pastors-search-for-a-more-forgiving-faith. See also the documentary, “The Heretic.”

[ii] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, Second Edition, Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico 2017, pp. 103-104.  

[iii] Heart and Mind 107.

[iv] Heart and Mind 113. Matthew 27:34.

[v] One way of illustrating this can be found in family systems theory. In all groups, individuals assume different roles and then relate to each other in ways that aim at homeostasis, a stable equilibrium between the various roles. Since homeostasis is determined by the predictable interactions of all the various roles people play, when one person decides to change, it not only affects that individual but throws the whole system out of whack. Great pressure is exerted on the individual to go back to their previous role so that the system can be restored to balance. Whether it’s your family, church, or small group, if someone decides to deviate from their role, then people in that group will almost inevitably make efforts to pull that person backwards.

 

Remember Who You Are: The Beatitudes, Identity, and Vision

The movie, Wonder, is an inspirational story about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers with Treacher Collins syndrome. After being taught at home most of his life, he started public school for the first time upon entering fifth grade. This required him to leave behind the astronaut helmet that he wore to hide his facial deformities. Sadly, he was ostracized by nearly the entire student body, but quickly became best friends with a boy named Jack Will. On Halloween, while everyone was dressed-up at school, he overheard Jack make fun of his deformities and tell the other boys that he was only pretending to be Auggie’s friend. Feeling betrayed, Auggie had a breakdown after arriving home.

His mother, Isabel, offered comfort by saying, “You are not ugly, Auggie,” who replied, “You just have to say that because you’re my mom.” She responded, “Because I am your mom, it counts the most, because I know you the most.” Since Isabel knew her son better than anyone else, she could see the truth about Auggie, even when he couldn’t see it himself. When the other kids were cruel, it was important for her to remind him that he was a good, kind-hearted, smart boy with a great sense of humor. When Auggie felt ugly and rejected, he needed her to speak truth into his life. Despite continued bullying at school, the words of truth spoken by his mother gave Auggie the strength to be his authentic self. As a result, other kids were also enabled to see below the surface of his deformities and accept him as a friend.

The truth that Auggie’s mother spoke reminded him of his true identity and encouraged him to live into that reality. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does something similar for us in giving the beatitudes (5:1-12).

Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was truly a paradigm shift in their thinking that resulted in big changes to their religious beliefs and way of life. It launched them on a new journey that took them into the heart of an emerging reality that Jesus called the kingdom of God. The decision to live in this new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, meant to live under the reign of God in accordance with God’s values. However, these early Christians soon discovered that these values were diametrically opposed to the upside-down values of the world. In their very efforts to align their lives with God’s ways of life, they came face-to-face with fierce resistance, and instead of feeling blessed many felt cursed.

As the author of Matthew drew on the words of the historical Jesus to compose his gospel, the beatitudes became an occasion to remind these early Christians of their true identity in Christ and to encourage to them to keep the faith during times of difficulty. It’s like we can hear Jesus saying: While you might feel cursed when evaluating your circumstances according to the value system of the world, when seen according to the values of the kingdom you are truly blessed by God because you are living in the truth. Therefore, remember who you are and remain faithful. God looks upon you with favor and will vindicate and reward you in the end.

In this way, Jesus’ words gave encouragement and hope to a group of Christians who were struggling to find meaning in difficult circumstances, which were caused by their commitment to God’s way of life. In addition, the beatitudes revealed the marks of authentic discipleship, which not only confirmed that they were on the right path but also provided ongoing direction for their spiritual journey. With each pronouncement of blessing, Jesus says, “I declare by the power of my word that this is who you really are in the eyes of God, so remember who you are, be encouraged, and live into this reality.”

As we meditate on these pronouncements of blessing, Jesus can do the same for us. So, let’s turn to the beatitudes themselves to remember who we are and see more clearly who God is calling us to be.

 

The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew[1]

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The poor in spirit are those with no spiritual qualifications, charisma, or influence. No one would think to ask their opinion on religious matters or call on them to pray or teach a Bible study. According to the religious elites, these people were spiritually bankrupt and excluded from salvation without their rituals, teachings, and intercessions. Then Jesus comes along and says: God’s kingdom is open to you. Far from being excluded, God eagerly awaits your entry. While the “holier-than-thou” may look down on you, God sees your value and uses your spiritual poverty to reveal an important mark of authentic discipleship: humility. Those who are poor in spirit know that they cannot be saved by religion. Rather, they are entirely dependent upon God and find their identity, security, and hope in God’s saving action. Consequently, they are truly blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Like Jesus, the meek are “gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). The world says, “Assert your will and leverage your power to take what you want,” but the meek renounce the coercive, domineering, and violent ways of the world. In so doing, they expose the dark side of power and the damage it does to human beings. While the meek look foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, Jesus says, “these are the ones who demonstrate real strength and who are truly blessed.” When God finishes the new creation, the meek—not the domineering, forceful, manipulative, or violent—will inherit the earth. You can mock them all you want as impotent and impractical, but God will vindicate and reward them in the end.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). Like meekness, mercy is often seen as a sign of weakness. The world says, “If you are merciful, people will take advantage of you. If you don’t want to become a doormat, show strength not mercy.” But according to the value system of the kingdom, the merciful reflect the compassionate heart of God. By making the truth of God’s love and forgiveness real in this broken world, they show themselves to be true disciples. While the world may crush them for their kindness, Jesus says they are truly blessed because they reap what they sow—divine mercy.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). In this pronouncement, Jesus blesses people who sincerely pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (6:10). They long for God to right-wise this fallen world with love, justice, and peace. They ache for the time when God will vindicate His people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. Based on this hope, they actively seek to extend the reign of God’s righteousness in the world around them, even at great cost to themselves. Since God is faithful, their hope is not in vain—their hunger for justice will be satisfied when God’s redemptive work in creation is complete.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). In this pronouncement, Jesus is not saying that mourning, in and of itself, is a virtue. Rather, like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is blessing people who lament the present condition of God’s people in a world subject to sin, evil, and death. According to Jesus, the truly blessed refuse to resign themselves the present condition of the world but mourn the fact that God’s will has not yet been done “on earth as it is in heaven.” They are blessed because they will be comforted by God’s ultimate victory.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9). Note that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers,” those who fear conflict and sweep it under the rug. Nor does he endorse the kind of peacemaking done by the Romans at the tip of a sword. Rather, he pronounces blessing on those who are courageous enough to engage the incredibly difficult work of reconciliation. Peacemakers work to eliminate hostilities between enemies in hopes that they may be restored to friendship. While the bullies and conflict avoiders of the of the world try to sideline the peacemakers, Jesus says, “In the last judgement, they will be claimed as God’s children.”

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Purity of heart is not about avoiding what some consider impure thoughts, but about single-minded devotion to God. Rather than dividing ourselves among several different loyalties, which will inevitably require us to compromise our values, our ultimate loyalty to God subordinates all others. This means that when the value system of the kingdom comes into conflict with the value system of the world, the kingdom always wins. Instead of serving two masters (6:24), we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (22:37). We how to live with “undivided heart” (Ps. 86:11). While the world may see the pure in heart as naïve, Jesus says that they are blessed because they will see God in the feast of the new creation.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-12).

As we have already seen, the value system of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the value system of this present world. As disciples of Jesus try to imitate his life by being humble, meek, and merciful; as they hunger and thirst for justice and lay their lives on the line for reconciliation; as they act out of a single-minded devotion to God, they meet fierce resistance. In their imitation of Christ, their very life shines light in dark places, exposing the violence and injustice of the wicked, who, in turn, try to extinguish their light. One strategy for this is persecution: using power to silence, smear, discredit, dominate, oppress, imprison, punish, torture, and even kill. People who experience these sufferings may appear to be cursed by God when seen through the eyes of the world, but according to the values of the kingdom they are blessed because they suffer for the truth. While the powerful may make their lives a living hell on earth, Jesus says, “their reward will be great . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Summary and Challenge

These words of Jesus, reminding us of who we are and encouraging us along the way, are important as we navigate change on the journey to transformation. When all the evidence suggests that we are cursed for embracing a cruciform way of life, we need to evaluate our circumstances in light of the value system of the kingdom. This is no easy task, because challenge, discomfort, and pain cause us to lose perspective, especially since the value system of the world seems to be our native language. But if we see ourselves through its distorted lenses, we are easily discouraged and tempted to give-up and turn back.

In order to cultivate the courage, strength, and hope to keep moving forward with Jesus, we must find ways to stay focused on the value system of the kingdom. We do this by developing a daily discipline of prayer and meditation on scripture (especially the teachings of Jesus). We do this by sharing life with the friends of Jesus who are marginalized and oppressed. We do this by declaring the reign of God’s righteousness in worship and allowing every aspect of our lives to be an expression of God’s glory. We do this by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love.

Focusing on the value system of the kingdom of God sharpens our ability to see the world and ourselves as God does, which is encouraging when all hell breaks loose. By meditating on the beatitudes we are reminded who we are, given direction for our journey, and empowered by renewed vision and hope.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I’m blinded by the value system of the world and begin to think that I’m cursed, remind me of who I am in Christ and help me see the world in the light of your coming kingdom.

(This post is the fifth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

[1] My understand of the beatitudes is informed by E. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes [NIBC], 178-180.

 

 

 

 

Faith and Courage: Overcoming Fear of the New

When was the last time you experienced a big change?

For me it was a few years ago. After living alone for ten years, I was remarried in August 2015. My wife, Emma, had an estate sale, packed-up her belongings, and moved into my home with her two small children, Evie and Isaac, who I loved as my own. This was a big change for everyone involved, including my two older sons, Jobe and Jackson, who returned home for visits.

Six months later, just as we finished unpacking the last boxes, I received a call from my District Superintendent who said, “Mark, you’re moving to Cocoa Beach to become the new Pastor at First United Methodist Church.” Before we could even establish a new normal as a blended family, we had to relocate and start all over again with new jobs, new friends, and new schools for the kids.

These two major changes evoked a host of feelings, including fear.

 

The Gift of a Paradigm Shift

There are many stories in the Bible that help us deal with fear, but one of my favorites is the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2:1-23.

As a recap, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king of the Jews. When Herod got word of this, he freaked out because he was already the king of the Jews. The prospect of a new king was a direct threat to his seat of power, so he decided to eliminate the threat by killing the baby. After calling all the religious leaders together and learning that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod lied to the wise men, saying, “Go and find where he is, then come back and tell me, so I too can go and pay him homage.” The wise men found the baby Jesus and honored him by giving gifts to the family: frankincense, myrrh, and gold. These specific gifts are important to understand an important lesson in the story.

Remember that something horrible happened to the Jews in the year AD 70, their temple was destroyed. The one thing that gave meaning and value to the whole world–the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life–was demolished. This led to a massive loss of meaning as they struggled with the question, “How can we make sense of the world anymore?” Some Jews thought that the destruction of the temple signaled the end of the world. Others thought that God would rebuild the temple if the Jewish people would perfectly keep the sacred covenant made with their ancestors.

In contrast, the author of Matthew had a different view, which he symbolically communicated by his account of the gifts brought by the wise men. According to Alexander John Shaia, frankincense and myrrh were essential components in the most important temple rituals and were as costly as the gold of the Temple’s vessels (Heart and Mind 82). Myrrh was an aromatic resin added to the oil used for royal and priestly anointings, and frankincense was burn during the highest sacrificial offerings. By having the magi give these gifts to Jesus, the author of Matthew symbolically transfers the components of the old physical Temple to Jesus, the Messiah and emissary of a new inner temple. The author is essentially saying, “Don’t focus on the physical rebuilding of the Temple but on how God is building a new temple inside of you!”

This was a paradigm shift that required a new spiritual journey to make sense of it all.

 

A Call to Radical Transformation

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as calling us to new life, and a call to new life is a call to radical transformation—a paradigm shift in our thinking and believing, a spiritual revolution. The most obvious example is found in John 3 were Jesus is recorded as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). The call to new birth is a call to new life. The implication, of course, is that we must leave our old life behind. We are called out of the familiar and comfortable and invited into a space that is foreign and challenging, which typically evokes fear.

As human beings, most of us are afraid of the unknown. However, we also experience times when old ways of thinking, believing, and doing no longer work. This creates a tension between the impulse to move in a new direction and the impulse to remain in familiar territory. Eventually this tension forces a decision. We can either turn backward and to try to recover a lost past, or we can face our fears and move into a new future.

Jesus calls us to move forward by calling us to new life. He also helps us see that we can muster the faith and courage to navigate change if we understand that this is precisely how God intends to transform us, and also that God will guide and redeem every step we take, even those that lead us into dangerous territory.

 

 Abiding in Dangerous Places

If the story of Jesus’ birth is any indication of what God may expect of us, we must prepare to abide in dangerous places.

Shortly after Jesus was born, God called Joseph to take his family to Egypt, the place where his ancestors were enslaved and abused. This must have been a terrifying prospect, but it was necessary to protect the newborn King from Herrod’s murderous plot. Like the holy family, God sometimes calls us to scary places to protect the new birth happening within.

This means different things for different people.

Sometimes we are literally called to relocate to a risky place. Think, for example, of men and women who feel drawn to dangerous mission fields in places like Central America, Africa, or the Middle East. Listening to their stories, it’s clear that God radically transforms people who make personal sacrifices to help others. Sharing life with people in dangerous places can give us a radically new perspective and exponentially grow our faith.

For others, the call is more symbolic. Some people are called to scary emotional places. If we struggle with old wounds that keep us stuck in dysfunction, our transformation may require us to abide in scary emotional places to work through memories of loss, neglect, abuse, or moral failure. Some are even called to scary spiritual places, to a time of great questioning, doubt, and even loss of faith. Tradition teaches that most people experience a crisis of faith before a genuine spiritual transformation.

 

 Sometimes We Can’t Go Home

In my own experience, the journey to transformation is long and challenging. As we see the light at the end of the tunnel, our hope is often to go home, even if in a different way. This is the journey of the hero, which we see, for example, in Greek Epic Poems such as Homer’s Odyssey. However, we sometimes discover that we cannot go home because home will not nurture the new birth emerging within. Home no longer fits who we are.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph are from the region of Judea and probably lived in or around Bethlehem. This is very different from the story told in Luke where they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy because of a Roman census. However, a careful reading of Matthew suggests that the Holy family already lived in Bethlehem and experienced a home birth. This is an important detail because after living as refugees in Egypt, they were hoping to return home after the death of Herod. However, this hope would remain unrealized because Archelaus, son of Herod, assumed control of Judea and presented an ongoing threat to the baby Jesus. Thus, God warned them in a dream not to go home, but to build a new life in Nazareth, which was considered a dumpy little town in the region of Galilee.

Sometimes we too make a hard journey only to discover we cannot go home. Again, this means different things for different people. Sometimes we get the feeling that we, literally, cannot go home. Think of how many young people go off to college, experience transformation, and decide to move to a new city after graduation. As we grow and change, we sometimes need a new start in a new place, so we can build a new life that fits who we’ve become.

For others this is more symbolic. Some people cannot go home emotionally. When thinking about the true meaning of home, we usually focus on our most important relationships, and as we experience transformation we often discover that we cannot return to these old relationships in the same way. Some relationships need to end, and others need to be redefined by clear boundaries. As we renegotiate old relationships and nurture new friendships that support our new birth, it often becomes clear that we cannot go home emotionally.

Likewise, many can’t go home spiritually. Sometimes we must walk away from (or drastically reinterpret) what we were taught in the religion of our youth. The old ways of thinking, believing, and acting just don’t make sense anymore; they don’t fit who we are and what we have come to see as beautiful, valuable, and true. Sometimes these old beliefs even prove to be hurtful, exclusionary, and death-dealing, requiring us to actively resist them. This often requires us to find a new church, a new denomination, even a new religion. Sometimes we cannot return home spiritually.

 

Faith and Courage

Every aspect of this journey requires enormous faith and courage, gifts that God is ready to give to those who have open hearts and minds.

First, God gives us internal resources. In Matthew 2, we see that the magi followed a star, which is an enduring metaphor for a spirit that guides us. The English word “disaster” literally means “dis-star,” and to be separated from your star is to be separated from a deep, inner wisdom (Shaia, Heart and Mind, 82). Likewise, angels in the Bible are messengers that God uses to communicate important things to human beings. Understood symbolically, they can also represent a deep inner wisdom.

From a Christian perspective, we often speak of the Spirit of Christ living in us. Since Christ resides in the deepest part of who we are—what is often called the soul—Christians are encouraged to go deep inside themselves to meet Christ there, so that we can hear the wisdom he whispers. Most often this happens in stillness, solitude, and silence as we pray and meditate on scripture.

In addition, God sends us external resources. Just as God sent the magi to the holy family, God sends us wise people who bring good gifts to support our journey toward transformation. Often these people are the ones we least expect, people who are foreign, strange, different, weird, even disagreeable. They could even people be people of a different religion or no religion at all. (Remember, the magi were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.) The messengers God sends can come in the form of close friends or passing acquaintances, and their voices can come to us in personal conversations or through their writings, songs, art, or films. Furthermore, the gifts that God gives to us through them take different forms. Some will be small, like a piece of the past resolved, and others will large, like the call to new life.

Whether these gifts come from within or without, we can trust that they will be powerful and precious. They will give us the faith and courage we need to start the journey, to travel through dangerous places, and to build a new home to support a new life. However, to receive them we must keep expectant watch, and when divine messages come we must be attentive so that their wisdom can unfold as we travel.

 

Challenge

Have you heard the invitation to new life? Have you mustered enough faith and courage to take the first step? Have you been willing to go to those scary places that require more personal and spiritual work? Have you met the challenge of building a new home? Where are you in all of this? Have you been able to find the faith and courage you need to walk the road of transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the wisdom, faith, courage, and support I need to continuing walking the path to radical transformation.

 

(This post is the third in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

The Power in the Bad Parts of Your Story

More people purchased genetic ancestry tests last year than in the four previous years combined. To date, approximately twelve million people around the world have used this service. The jump can be partially explained by the affordability of these tests and the millions of dollars spent every year in advertising by companies like ancestry.com and 23andMe. But these sales strategies wouldn’t work if people didn’t already have an interest in learning their history. The desire to feel connected to the story of our ancestors seems like a universal phenomenon, and the Jewish people living during the time of Jesus are no exception.

 

The Loss of Meaning

It’s difficult to describe how important the Temple was for first century Palestinian Jews. The beautiful structure was located in Jerusalem high atop the pinnacle of Mount Moriah. For a 1,000 years it had been the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life. It was the one thing that gave meaning, value, and purpose to the entire universe.

During the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire ruled Israel, and while the relationship between the native people and the occupying power waxed and waned over the years, something catastrophic happen to the Jews in the year C.E. 70. In response to a revolt around Jerusalem, Emperor Vespasian destroyed the Temple. It’s high altar was shattered into tiny pieces, scrolls of the Torah were burned, holy vessels were destroyed, and the walls of the temple were dismantled and removed from the city stone by stone until nothing was left. If this weren’t bad enough, Roman soldiers executed almost all the Temple authorities, including the priests, scribes, and their families, and also killed many innocents who were on pilgrimage. In this way, the Romans annihilated the one thing that made sense of the whole world. This unimaginable loss initiated a time of massive change, requiring the rebirth of a people.

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a small group of Jews who were trying to make sense of the destruction of the Temple in the context of their belief that Jesus was the promised messiah. Given this historical background, we can understand why the author of Matthew would start his gospel with a genealogy.

 

What’s Up with All Those Names?

Many contemporary readers skip over the genealogy because most of the names are foreign to us, and long lists of unknown names seem boring and irrelevant. But for a first century Jew undergoing seismic change, this genealogy would have been a source of inspiration, encouragement, and hope.

On the surface, Matthew is clearly trying to make two important points in listing all these names. First and foremost, he was giving evidence that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the answer to Jewish prayer. Second, the author was saying, “Take heart because this is your heritage. You came from a long line of people who endured tremendous loss and prevailed. You came from heroes like Abraham and David, and like them you are strong. You are heirs of the promised messiah and are special.” This was an important message for a people who desperately needed encouragement in the face of deep loss and change.

However, a close reading of this passage discloses another important message.

 

Breaking with Tradition

It’s important to note that genealogies were not uncommon in the Ancient Near East. Sumerians, Egyptians, and other groups wrote genealogies to show how their people were exemplary by tracing their lineage through the most admirable and powerful people in their past. When doing this, they were careful to omit anyone that might evoke embarrassment.

What’s striking is that the author of Matthew doesn’t do this.

If you look at the list of people in Matthew 1:1-17, you’ll notice that the genealogy breaks with Ancient Near Eastern custom in important ways. Most notably, he included women in the genealogy. This is strange, because in the ancient world everyone traced their lineage through men. Men were thought to contain the seed of life, and women were expected to provided their bodies to simply grow the fetus until birth. Since the person growing inside the woman was thought to come entirely from the man, genealogies didn’t typically include the names of women. So the author of Matthew broke with established custom and did something that he didn’t have to do, something that nobody would have expected him to do.

What’s even more striking is that Matthew included names that evoked scandal.

Take, for example, the mention of Tamar. There was a patriarch named Judah, the son of Jacob. Judah had three sons. The oldest, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. But before Er and Tamar could have children, he was killed for being wicked in the sight of God. Since Tamar was childless at his death, she fell under the ancient custom of Levirate marriage and married Er’s brother, Onan. The expectation was for her to bear children to continue the family name. But he also did things that were wicked in the eyes of God, which resulted in his untimely death. Judah, her father-in-law, convinced her to remain unmarried until his youngest son, Shela, was old enough to become her husband. However, in the interim Judah came to see Tamar as a curse on his family and reneged on the deal. Heartbroken and desperate, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law. She became pregnant, and when Judah heard the news he sentenced her to death until she was able to prove that he was the father of her twins, Perez and Zerah. This sounds like an episode of the Maury Povich show!

What’s interesting is that Matthew could have avoided evoking all this scandal by simply saying, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah,” but he intentionally continued, “by Tamar” (1:3). It seems odd that Matthew would not only break with custom by adding a female name, but choose a name that would evoke such an embarrassing story.

The same is true of the unnecessary reference to Bathsheba. When listing the heroes of the Jewish faith, the author could have simply said, “David was the father of Solomon,” but he intentionally continued, “by the wife of Uriah” (1:6). Why reference Bathsheba, and why do it in a way that would intentionally evoke another scandalous story? It’s like Matthew was saying, “Hey remember when our most admired king was overcome with lust and selfishness, misused his power to force a married woman into having an affair with him, got her pregnant, and then had her husband murdered on the battlefield? Yeah, that guy!” King David was remembered for some pretty great achievements in the history of Israel, so why refer to Bathsheba and draw attention to his biggest moral failure?

Also, in Matthew 1:5, the author names Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who rescued Hebrew spies on a recognizance mission in Jericho prior to the conquest of the Holy Land. Again, why add a Canaanite prostitute to a Jewish genealogy?

 

The Power of the Bad Parts of Your Story

Perhaps one reason Matthew mentioned these women is to remind us of the power of the bad parts of our story. The primary purpose of Matthew’s genealogy was not to give a sanitized version of Israel’s history, so they could delude themselves with ethnic pride. Rather, its purpose was to remind the Messianic Jews of how God had remained faithful throughout the generations in both the good times and bad. Of how God worked in and through their people, not only when they were faithful covenant partners but also unfaithful covenant breakers. Of how God used the good and the bad choices of ordinary human beings to transform them, and through them the world.

The author of Matthew knew that the power of their ancestral stories was not in the moral perfection or nobility of their national heroes, but in God’s ability to work through success and failure to reveal truth, love, justice, and healing. Indeed, people like Abraham and David, Rahab and Ruth, didn’t become heroes of the faith because they always did the right thing, but because they experienced incredible suffering (which was often the result of their own bad choices) and came out on the other side stronger and wiser because they trusted God and believed in themselves.

Matthew shows us that the dark parts of our story can be the most powerful, that when understood in the context of God’s providential and redeeming love they can be great sources of courage, strength, and hope. We see that when navigating disorienting change, we needed the power of our whole story, because a story without bad parts is a story without redemption, and a story without redemption is a story that’s incapable of transforming us for the good.

 

Embracing and Sharing Your Whole Story

All of us want to see ourselves as good people, and we want others to see us as good people too. As a result, we often try to deny, minimize, or hide the bad parts, not only from others but also from ourselves. Unfortunately, this cuts us off from the most inspirational and transformative parts of our story. We need to remember the times when we were at our worst, because it is here that we see most clearly God’s love, forgiveness, and redemption manifest in our lives. Remembering the bad parts and how God used them to transform us can provide a wellspring of memories capable of renewing our courage, strength, and hope as we move through new seasons of change and loss.

And it’s not just our personal stories that can help, but also our family stories and the stories of our spiritual ancestors. Reading about our forerunners in the Bible empowers us to remember that if God helped them, then God can help us too. Reading about the saints of our own time, like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr., gives us hope that if they could faithfully navigate change, then we can too. Remembering our family stories can also provide wisdom as we make decisions and move into a new future.

 

Challenge

Take some time this week to remember the bad parts of your story. Some may have experienced real trauma and will need the help of a skilled therapist, but most of us can safely recall memories of things we would rather forget or hide. It can be healing to recall these dark spots and reflect on good questions: What happened? What was changing or shifting? Where was God? What did I learn? How did I experience redemption? How did it transform me? How can I draw from this story as a source of wisdom and strength when dealing with change and loss today? And how can I make my story available to others who also need inspiration and encouragement?

I also encourage you to surround yourself with people, poems, books, stories, music, art, and films that inspire you. Let them nurture your soul and give you strength.

 

Prayer

God, help me see my whole story in the light of your redeeming love so that I can receive the gifts of courage, strength, and hope that it has to offer.

 

(This post is the second in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

Radical Transformation: Introducing the Quadratos

I used to be significantly overweight.

There were several reasons for this, but one contributing factor was the habit of eating six fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies every night after dinner. Before I knew it, the scale was reading 226. This might not seem too bad since I’m 6’1”, but due to a small bone frame, my ideal weight is around 170.

For my body type, I was obese. This not only affected me physically but also emotionally. So one day I got fed-up and made a decision to change. I was going to lose weight and transform my health.

I started educating myself about proper nutrition and exercise, which helped me understand the specific actions I needed to take. When reading the experts, I believed what they were saying and, based on their suggestions, I created a change plan. I trusted that this plan would work if I acted on it daily. So I went to the gym almost every morning and did all the exercises the best I could, even the ones I hated like lunges (which are from the devil). I also ate healthy, properly portioned meals.

Through consistent, daily, disciplined action, I gradually transformed my body, going from 226 to as low as 156 . . . at which point my mother told me to eat a sandwich. Nevertheless, I was in the best shape of my life.

While I have never returned to 226, my weight has fluctuated over the years. The reason is simple: I stop working my plan. Sometimes I recognize that I’m gaining weight, which creates a desire to get fit. But my awareness and desire is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even make a decision to get healthy again. “On Monday, I’m going to start eating right and exercising.” But the decision by itself is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even return to the fitness and nutrition literature and create a new plan. But my knowledge and planning are not enough to transform me. I can even believe in my heart of hearts that the plan will work if I follow it. But my belief in the plan is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even take a step in the right direction by buying healthy food, rejoining the gym, and working my new plan for a couple of days or weeks. But these initial steps are not enough to transform me.

Transformation only happens when I put all these things together in a consistent way over a long period time, which is the whole point of a fitness plan.

 

Christianity and Transformation

Similarly, the whole point of Christianity is radical transformation. While Christians take comfort in knowing that we rest in the eternal care of a loving God upon death, being a Jesus follower is not primarily about dying and going to heaven. Rather, it’s about a radical transformation that happens over time as we daily follow Jesus, a transformation that makes us more loving, just, kind, compassionate, peaceful, and joyful. In this way, we enjoy life to its fullest and become a blessing to others.

Jesus says in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Likewise, in Ephesians 4 we are called to renounce our former way of life, our old self, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. This is an invitation to a new way of life, which leads to a new self.  

Being a Christian is about being a disciple; being a disciple is about being a follower; and being a follower is about learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives until we draw our last breath. This is the path to radical transformation—what the tradition calls sanctification—and there are no magic pills or shortcuts.

This means that being a Christian cannot be reduced to an awareness, for example an awareness of our need for God. It’s not simply about confessing sin in a moment of heighted guilt, or even believing that Jesus can save us. Nor it is about giving intellectual assent to a set of biblical or theological propositions, like when a church gives you a checklist of religious claims and says, “If you can tick-off all the boxes with a clear conscience then you can join our tribe.”  Christianity is not about becoming a member of a church. You can do all these things and still not be a true follower of Jesus. You can do all of this and still not experience radical transformation.

Why? Because Christianity is a way of life under the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. The earliest Christians were called “Followers of the Way,” referring to the way of life Jesus revealed in his life, death, and resurrection. Being a Christian is about deciding every day to completely surrender our will and lives over to the care and guidance of Christ. This decision is manifest in action as we learn more about Jesus through diligent study and prayer and practice these teaching in our daily interactions. This is a long, challenging, and even messy process, with many ups and downs, successes and failures. Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back. But if we dedicate our lives to learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus and keep moving forward then we are promised radical transformation. To hope for anything less is to embrace a partial or false gospel.

 

The Quadratos as a Guide to Transformation

Fortunately, we are not without guidance on this journey toward transformation. We have scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to help us. Regarding scripture, we are gifted with the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which contain the core teachings of Jesus.

While there are different ways of reading these Gospels, one that is particularly helpful is called the Quadratos (Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind, 2017). This interpretive tool helps us see the Gospels as a fourfold path to transformation, disclosing four major movements in the life of faith.

The first path begins with the Gospel of Matthew, where we are reminded that human beings desire permanence and resist change. Nevertheless, the world is in constant flux, and at various points we all experience significant change and loss, which evokes fear, betrayal, grief, and confusion. If we don’t handle these experiences wisely, they can throw us off-course on our journey. Facing life during significant change requires new spiritual resources, which the Gospel of Matthew helps us cultivate.

The Second path of the journey continues with the Gospel of Mark. In the first path, we are called to confront our fears and insecurities in the face of deep change, but as we continue to the second path these fears and insecurities fight back. The Gospel of Mark speaks to people who are undergoing intense emotional and spiritual suffering, people who are feeling isolated and abandoned. This season of life is like crossing a stormy sea or walking through an arid desert, but Christians have the Gospel of Mark to help them move through suffering on the journey to transformation. This is by far the most painful and difficult path of our journey.

As we faithfully follow Jesus, he leads us through change and suffering with the promise of great joy, which is the fruit of the third path revealed in the Gospel of John. As we remain faithful through the difficulties and missteps of the first two paths, God gives us times in which we experience the joy of intimate communion with the mystery of the world. These are sometimes described as unitive experiences, where we feel the oneness of all creation in the deep embrace of the divine. While this ecstatic experience is difficult to describe, people universally speak of a profound sense that everything—the totality of reality—is a pure gift of grace, which generates a deep sense of gratitude. This season of life is like resting in beautiful garden, and the Gospel of John helps us to recognize and receive these moments of joy in ways that are generative and productive for our journey.

But experience teaches us that we cannot stay in the garden. After receiving the joy of intimate communion with God, we are called to walk the road of loving service and to share our gifts with others. We are called to the fourth path revealed in the Gospel of Luke. Through patient trial and error, we learn to author our own life in service to others, especially those around us who are most vulnerable and needy. Filled with new energy, excitement, and perspective on the third path, we step out of the garden of John into the gifts and challenges of daily life. As we remain in the courage of our journey, we find more joy and transformation than we ever thought possible. On Luke’s fourth path, we are shown how to cultivate patience, faith, and equanimity. Our hearts and minds are reshaped by humility, compassion, and love.

It’s important to note that we do not simply walk these four paths once, but cycle through them repeatedly throughout life. This repetition is not a vicious circle but a spiral that moves us forward in productive ways. As we experience each part of the fold-fold journey, we learn important lessons, develop new spiritual and emotional resources, and acquire helpful tools, all of which, when integrated, help us mature. As a season of life returns (e.g., a time of seismic change or intense suffering) we experience it in a new way because we have seen it before and have learned important lessons. With each cycle of the four paths, we become wiser, stronger, and more courageous, all of which provides evidence for our ongoing transformation.

 

Challenge

As you pray and meditate this week, spend some time reflecting on personal experiences of significant change. What was the change? What feelings did it generate in you, both good and bad? How did you handle it? How did you get through it? What lessons did you learn? What did all of that teach you about facing change in the future?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, give us ears to hear your call to radical transformation and help us discern the first step of a new journey.

 

(This post is the first in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter three in Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)