Christmas – Following a Risky God

James Bryan Smith introduced us to the idea of False Narratives as part of our study of his book “The Good and Beautiful God”. As we begin our look at Christmas this year, I think about one false narrative I’ve heard, and how the story of Jesus’ birth contradicts the false narrative. The narrative I’m referring to is the one that says “Following God is easy.” I’ve heard it said many times in my life that things just get better in life when you start to follow Jesus. People say or imply that if you just give your life to Jesus, everything will go well for you. You will have all the money you need, you will always be happy and healthy, people will love you, and everything will be just fine.

As I read the story of Jesus’ birth, it seems to me that following God is quite risky! Mary was a young woman, engaged to be married. When it comes out that she will be pregnant with the Messiah, it puts her in an immediate risky situation. If Joseph decided to divorce her, or if he decided to turn her in to the Jewish leaders, her life would be in jeopardy. It’s risky for Joseph to believe Mary and to trust that what she was saying was true. Not long after Jesus was born, they were told that the baby’s life was in danger and they need to get out of town quickly! Their whole lives had been turned upside down, they were now in a foreign land with no family and no support system at all.

In my own life, there was a time when following God was quite risky to me. I was recently and unexpectedly unemployed. I had started looking for jobs when I got a call from someone offering me a position managing volunteers. It was great for me and it seemed like a good fit. The problem was that as soon as I started to pray about it, God very clearly seemed to communicate to me that I definitely should not take the job. Not only that – there would be two other jobs in the near future that would come my way, and I was not to take either one of those jobs either. I had some very difficult conversations with God at that time, but eventually I decided to obey and follow him. I didn’t take the volunteer management job, and sure enough, there were two other jobs within a month that came my way. I was a finalist for both positions, but I did not take either one of them. I remained unemployed for the next three years while God spent time training me in how to pastor a small group of people and to pray with people. It was a risky, difficult situation for me, but God was faithful in it all.

Following God can be very risky and it takes faith. The founder of the Vineyard, John Wimber, was often quoted saying “Faith is spelled R-I-S-K!” I’m reminded this Christmas, thinking of the story of Mary, that the risk involved in following God is real, but so is God’s presence with us. The name that the angel gave to Joseph for the son was Jesus, or also “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us.” Jesus came to show us that God is with us and as we take the risk to follow him, he promises he will continue to be with us.

As we continue soul-training activities, I have two for us this week:

First, take a little risk yourself and tell somebody about our conversation tonight. Share this post with them. Just talk about what we talked about.

The second soul-training exercise has to do with building community. Call someone from the group this week and check in with them. Pray together on the phone. Meet for coffee or a bagel and spend some time developing a friendship.

The Good and Beautiful God, Chapter 7 – God is Self-Sacrificing

False narrative:  We work our way to God.

Jesus’ narrative: God works his way to us.

Because of the Fall, human beings live in spiritual and physical corruption (disease leading to death).  Jesus died for us, in a human body, in order to reverse this corruption.  He publicly defeated death for all time.  He did not have to die; he chose to die for our good.  Self-sacrifice is the highest, strongest act that exists.

Soul Training: Read the entire Gospel of John.  Read it like you are reading a story, instead of making it a Bible study.

For Reflection: How did the exercise go?  How did you feel about it? What did you learn about God or yourself?  What is your favorite part (verse, passage, story) from the Gospel of John?

The Good and Beautiful God, Chapter 6 – God is Holy

False narrative 1:  Being angry is somehow part of God’s essential nature.  God is basically mad at us all the time, and is just waiting to really let us have it.

False narrative 2:  God never gets angry because he doesn’t really care about our sin.  He is just a big teddy bear.

Jesus’ narrative:  We need to think of God’s love and wrath together, because the Bible talks about both.  We can’t have one without the other.

God is perfectly holy.  His wrath is not a human emotion, like a person getting irrationally or recklessly angry.  It is a rational, objective response to sin.  God does care about our sin; he hates how it destroys our lives, and so he will do whatever he can to take it out of our lives.  He is against sin because he is for me.  It’s because he loves us that he responds with wrath when we reject him (which is the essence of sin).  He wants us to be holy like he is holy.

Sometimes we think grace means that God overlooks our sins.  Grace actually means that God always loves and forgives us, and he doesn’t want sin to destroy our lives.  He sees us as special and sacred and he wants better things for us.

The Good and Beautiful God, Chapter 5 – God is Love

False Narrative: God’s love is conditional. When we are good and pure, God loves us. The moment we sin, God turns his back on us.

This is a performance-based narrative.  It begins with our family, as our parents teach us right from wrong.  It continues in the rest of the world – if we do well or are good looking we are praised and admired.  If we do poorly are are not beautiful or rich, we are rejected and criticized.  We believe that God is also judging us on our religious performance.  This is known as legalism. 

True Narrative: We can find this in Matthew, when Jesus welcomes Matthew, a tax-collector, as his follower, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  God welcomes and loves sinners.  Jesus welcomes and loves us unconditionally.

Both stories (Matthew and the Prodigal son) can make us uncomfortable, just like it did the Pharisees and the older brother, because it is hard for us to accept unconditional love.  It seems unfair, but it is actually perfectly fair; God shows mercy and love to all of us, equally.

The poem by George Herbert shows us that what God wants most from us is to accept his love and to rejoice in his goodness.  His love is like a feast that he serves us – all we have to do is sit, eat, and enjoy.

Soul Training: Lectio Divina

1) Select a passage of Scripture.  (In this case, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

2) Relax and breathe deeply.

3) Read slowly, then be silent for a minute.

4) Read again, slowly and with pauses.  Notice any words or phrases that stand out, and write them down.

5) Read again, up to the words or phrases that you wrote down.  Repeat those words / phrases.

6) Reflect – what does God want to say to you through those words / phrases?

7) Pray based on what God is saying to you.  Listen for anything else he says.

8) Be still and silent.

9) Respond.  Write down what God wants you to do in response to your prayer.  Thank him for speaking to you.

For Reflection:

1) How did the lectio divina exercise go, and how did you feel about it?

2) What, if anything, did you learn about God and yourself through the exercise?

3) What was your favorite line in the George Herbert poem, and why?

The Good and Beautiful God, Chapter 4 – God is Generous

God is Generous
False narrative – many people think that we have to earn everything we get from God. Our culture gives us the message that you get what you deserve. Even some parts of the bible will tell you that you get what you deserve, but that is not the main point of the bible. For some people, God is an angry God who wants to give us the punishment that our sin deserves. While it is true that God hates sin, we must also remember that we can never earn God’s favor.
True narrative – The story that Jesus tells us about the generous boss tells us more about God’s true character. In the story, God is like the boss who hires men and different times of the day and at the end of the day he pays them all the same wage. It’s not because he is unfair, but because he is generous! God is different from our culture because He gives us more than what we deserve.
God wants to give us so much love, acceptance, forgiveness and kindness. We sometimes fear that we will not get enough love from God, or that we will have to earn his love, or that if we sin God will take his love away from us. That is not true. More than anything else, God wants us to know his love, to love him, and to love others.
The soul-training exercise this week is to take the time to read and pray through Psalm 23 at least once a day. As you pray through it, let the words of the psalm become your own prayer to God.

The Good and Beautiful God, Chapter 3 – God is Trustworthy

Summary:

The False Narrative

Many of us have beliefs / stories about God that are not true.  We believe we can’t trust God.  For example, it is not true that God will send you to hell for a single sin, even if you are a baptized believer.  It is not true that you have to be afraid of God.

Jesus’ Core Narratives 

Jesus’ beliefs / stories about God tell us who God really is.

God as Abba (“Dear Father”): Jesus calls God “Abba” when he is facing terrible suffering and death in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This tells us that God is someone close to us who greatly loves us, someone so good that we can trust and “obey him no matter what.”

God as Father: Jesus is telling us what fatherhood means.  Some people have trouble thinking of God as a father because of bad experiences with their fathers.  Instead of letting our ideas about our fathers determine what we think of God, we can let Jesus’ ideas about his Father (God) tell us what true, good fathers should be like.

Our Father: This prayer tells us everything we need to know about what kind of Father God is.  We learn these things:

1) God (“Our Father in heaven”) is near and present.  Jewish people believed that heaven was very close to us, as close as the air we breathe

2) God is “hallowed,” meaning holy / pure

3) God (“Your Kingdom come”) is the powerful King who rules heaven

4) God cares for and provides for us (gives us daily bread)

5) God forgives our trespasses – he loves to forgive even more than we love to be forgiven

6) God rescues us from trials and evil; he protects us.  Even when bad things happen, there is nothing that God  cannot redeem (make right) in the end.

In summary, Jesus’ Father is “nearby, holy, powerful, caring, giving, and our protector.”  And a good parent, whether father OR mother, should have these six characteristics – all perfectly in balance (God / Jesus, or a good parent is gentle, but can also be strong).   God as Father teaches us how to be good parents to our children.  And when we see Jesus, we also see God.

Finding our True Father

If we know the God that Jesus knows, we can come to him with anything, no matter what.  We can trust him to be with us in our struggles, even our doubts about God and whether he is good.

What Is Your Cup?

Jesus asked God to remove his “cup” from him.  A cup is something that makes it difficult for you to trust God.  It could be a divorce, a loss, being single, losing a job – anything that is hard for you to accept and makes it hard for you to believe God is good.  What is your cup?  Or cups?

The reason we can trust God with our cups, just like Jesus trusted God in the Garden of Gethsemane, is that we can trust in His love for us.  We don’t have to say that everything is okay when it’s not; but we can say, “Jesus trusted is Abba, and I can, too.”  I can know that God is good, and trust him.

The author gives the example of his daughter dying and trusting that God was still in control, and still in charge of his Kingdom.  In time, his pain became bearable, and he was able to see God’s mercy everywhere.

Focusing on Blessings, Not only on Cups

We can keep our minds on the positive, not the negative.  We can be like the little girl who only wanted the one present she didn’t get, and was ungrateful for the rest.  Our troubles are small compared to God’s great mercy.  The more we pay attention to how many blessings we have been given, the more we will see that God wants good things for us, and the more we will be able to trust him.  Our life is like a roller coaster – we can enjoy even the scary parts because we know that God is riding with us, and He will make it all work out in the end.

Soul Training: Counting Your Blessings

Make a list of ten things God has blessed you with.  Look for things that aren’t obvious or you might overlook.  Add to your list every day!  See if you can come up with 100 things by the week’s end!  This is a way to make praise a habit – something we do all the time, without even thinking.

Reflection Questions

1) Were you able to make a list of your blessings?  Did you find it difficult?  Why?

2) Did you learn anything about God or yourself?  What did you learn?

3) What were some things you listed that surprised you?  Why were you surprised?

The Good and Beautiful God, Chapter 2 – God is Good

God is Good

False narrative: God is an angry God waiting to punish people for their sins. When something bad happens to you, it is because God is punishing you for your sin.

True narrative: Good things happen to both bad and good people.  It is not true that only sinners are punished and only good people are blessed.  Jesus never said this, and we can see from the lives around us that it is false.

However, God is just and fair.  There are some blessings that are only given to people who try to do good (they are honest and faithful; they love and serve).  (The book calls these “the good things peculiar to the good.”)  For example, on pg 47, the two pastors who are loved by the people that they serve.

God says people who do good will experience joy and peace.  Selfish, mean people may not be punished for their actions, but they will experience deep guilt, loneliness, regret and self-hatred.

We may not see God’s justice in this life, but someday we will understand.

Jesus has experienced suffering, and can understand what we are going through.  When we can’t believe in God because we are suffering so much, Jesus believes for us, and prays for us.  Because we have the promise of heaven, we can have hope.

We should expect to go through suffering and pain and loss, just because we are human.  Also, we grow through suffering.  (James 1:2-4)  Even if we can’t feel joy in our suffering, we can trust God in the midst.

Questions in the chapter:

1) Have you ever been through something that made you doubt God’s goodness?  If you have, describe what happened and how you felt.

2) It is important for us to believe what Jesus believed about God.  Do you think this is true?

3)  “God is an angry judge.  If you do well, you will be blessed.  If you sin, you will be punished.”  Do you agree with this?  Why or why not?

4)  Have you ever wondered when and why God would punish you for a particular sin?  Or have you ever had something bad happen to you and wondered what you did to deserve it?  Explain.

5) When you see someone else suffering, have you ever wondered what they did to deserve it?  Why do you think this is a common response?

6)  Name some of the good consequences (character, feelings, reputation) that are part of the lives of people who do good things.

Soul Training: Silence and Awareness of Creation

1) Find five minutes a day to sit and be quiet.

2) Take a walk outside, hopefully somewhere beautiful and filled with nature .  Think of God as an artist and yourself as an art student, pay attention to everything, and write down what you see and experience.

The Good and Beautiful God, Chapter 1 Summary

Many people have tried to change things about their lives. Changing negative behaviors is very difficult. It takes more than willpower. If we want to change the negative parts of our lives, it takes 4 things:

  1. Changing the narratives (stories) that we live our lives by
  2. Training our souls through exercises
  3. Participating in community
  4. Letting the Holy Spirit guide everything

We live our lives by stories. It’s not just ideas and principles that guide us, but the stories that we tell. Many people have stories about God that are not accurate. We need to learn new stories that tell the truth about God.

There are certain activities that can help our souls become stronger and more powerful. These exercises are like the exercises that an athlete will do to make their body stronger and more powerful. They help prepare us for whatever we will experience.

We grow when people are around us. We need the input of other people and we get the opportunity to give input to others. Actively participating in a community helps a whole community grow.

The Holy Spirit provides growth through all of these other means. He helps us learn true stories about God; He encourages and strengthens us as we exercise our souls; He brings a whole community together and uses their gifts and strengths together for each other.

One example he gives is of a man in an airport whose flight was cancelled. In the past, he would have been angry and impatient. Because of his new stories, his spiritual exercise, his community, and the activity of the Holy Spirit in his life, he was able to be peaceful and kind to others.

Questions to journal this week:

  • What areas of your life have you tried to change? What did you do to change? Can you give examples when you have successfully changed something in your life? Can you give examples of something you have tried to change but you have not been successful?
  • What would you like to change about your own life right now? (Probably think of something that you have control over. Your own behaviors and actions, not things that you have no control over.)
  • The book says that trying to change yourself doesn’t work.  Let God change you.   What is one way you can let God change you?

Centers of the Universe

Grand Central

The city orbits around eight million

centers of the universe

and turns around the golden clock

at the still point of this place.

Lift up your eyes from the moving hive

and you will see time circling

under a vault of stars and know

just when and where you are.

-Billy Collins, 1941

I found this poem on the subway today on my way in to work. The opening line caught my attention. It seems to sum up the predicament we find ourselves in here on earth. Eight million centers of the universe here in NY. Eight billion centers of the universe on the planet.

It’s this mindset, the one where each one of the eight billion of us acts as though we are the center of the universe, that creates the chaos and disharmony we see in the world. We are all trying to pull others to our center, to get the rest of creation into our orbit, to align the universe around us to meet our image of how things ought to be. The pulling and tugging to align others, each of us with a different vision of how it ought to be, creates the tension we experience. It’s an absurd picture – eight billion centers – when simple logic tells us there can only be one center around which all else orbits.

The picture functions much better when there is only one center. To me this is one of the main goals of the life of a Christian, to live as though God were truly the center of the universe. Too often, I admit, I find myself functioning as one of eight billion centers trying to get others and God to align according to my plan. If you are reading this, then chances are good that I’ve tried to align you to my plan. But before you get too upset at me, chances are also good that you’ve tried to get me to align to your plan. Hence our struggle.

The goal of Jesus, from what I can understand, is to recenter the universe. He came to reveal to us that he is truly the center of all things. Our lives are designed to orbit around him, not the other way around. You and I are in greater harmony when we are centered on Jesus and he aligns us according to his plan. Our world operates more like the way it should when there is only one center, not eight billion of them.