Mar 03

Heavenly Reverie – Cultivating the Mind of Christ Jesus

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Part Two – Sacred Worth  (Read Jim’s first “Heavenly Reverie” blog here) Heavenly Reverie A State of Being Pleasantly Lost in the Noetic Environment of Jesus “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). I want to see reality the way Jesus

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Part Two – Sacred Worth  (Read Jim’s first “Heavenly Reverie” blog here)

Heavenly Reverie

A State of Being Pleasantly Lost in

the Noetic Environment of Jesus

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).

I want to see reality the way Jesus did.  I want to have the mind of Christ, as Paul urges us in the verse above. These blogs are my reflections on what I am coming to understand about the noetic environment of Jesus.  Noetic environment means reality as Jesus understood it, or, what was going on in his mind. In this installment I want to talk about how Jesus understood the human person and their sacred worth.

We live in a world where people are identified and labeled by externals.  We lump people into ethnic, religious and national groups.  Or we see people as a part of a consumer group, and we label people by economic status.  Finally, we are trained to see people as either good or bad, holy or sinful, based on their behavior:  “Stay away from her, she is a bad person.” In doing so we reduce people to commodities and consumers.  As a result, it becomes difficult to see people as persons of sacred worth.

However, Jesus refused to treat people as their external labels, box them in, and treat them according to their ethnic or religious group, social status or class, or their piety or sinfulness.  One provocative moment in the life of Jesus concerns his interaction with a woman in Matthew 15:21-28.  It is a passage that troubled me for years, but now brings me joy.[i]

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”  But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Without knowing the background—and the foreground—to this story, it appears that Jesus is not only unkind, he is an elitist, perhaps even a racist.  We are going to have to take a closer look to understand this odd story.

Matthew describes the woman as a “Canaanite.”  This was a word that no one in Jesus’ day used to describe the Gentiles.  It was the name used in the Old Testament to describe the people who occupied the promised land of Canaan, the people that Joshua was charged with totally annihilating.  Calling someone a Canaanite in Jesus’ day would be like calling a British person a Saxon, or a Swedish person a Viking.  So we know something is up when Matthew uses this name (the one and only time it occurs in the New Testament).

The woman is following Jesus and his disciples, shouting at him to heal her daughter.  His disciples tell Jesus to tell the woman to bug off.  Jesus instead says to the woman, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  This may sound rude, but in fact, in light of the recent events this was more of a sigh of despair.  John the Baptist has recently been murdered, Jesus’ ministry is failing, and the Pharisees are plotting his murder at that very moment.  Jesus’ reply was essentially, “I am on a difficult mission.  My own people are lost, and I must attend to them.”

The mother then kneels before Jesus, an act of complete submission, and says, “Lord, help me.”  One would expect a little compassion, but his next line sounds worse than the first:  “It is not fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs.”  Ouch.  She persists with a clever reply: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus seems delighted in this response, praises her faith, and tells her that her request has been granted, and her daughter is healed.  What just happened?

Perhaps she awakened Jesus’ memory of the original call of Abraham that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Gen. 18:18), because in essence she is saying, “I know your mission is to save your people first, but your ultimate mission is also for the rest of us.  Go ahead and feed your kids, but could you let my daughter have a scrap?”  Jesus says. “Great is your faith.” I believe he intentionally went into this region (Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory) to have this kind of interaction, so that he could proclaim that his mission now included the Gentiles.  Her persistent pleading demonstrated her faith that Jesus could, in fact, heal her daughter—even though she had no rights to it—gave Jesus the chance to show how he is making all things new.  By granting her request, Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles has now begun.  He had healed Gentiles before, but never in Gentile territory.  Something radical has just happened.  But it gets even better.

As I mentioned, what happens immediately after this story is also important in understanding what Jesus is ultimately doing.  The next thing Jesus does is heal hundreds of people—all Gentiles (nee Canaanites).  We can infer they are Gentiles because it says they all “praised the God of Israel” (code for:  “they were Gentiles”).  Then something even more profound follows.  The crowd of Gentiles grows to 4,000 (second only to the 5,000 he fed with the loaves and fishes, in the previous chapter).  As in that story, Jesus has compassion on this crowd, and performs the same miracle of feeding this huge crowd with only a small amount of food (the abundance narrative I wrote about in the previous blog).  But the end of the story is where it gets good.

In the feeding of the 5,000 (Jews) there were twelve baskets of leftovers.  This signified the twelve tribes of Israel.  When he feeds the 4,000 (Gentiles) there are seven baskets left over.   As I always tell my students, pay attention to the details in the Bible because there are no wasted words.  Seven signifies the seven tribes of the Canaanites, the very ones that Moses told Joshua to destroy totally (Deut. 7:1-5), ordering them to show no mercy, because any mingling with these godless people might lead the Israelites astray.

Let me re-cap what has happened.  Jesus has shown mercy and compassion on the very people that Moses said were godless.  Brian McLaren writes, “Jesus seizes the old narrative, shakes it, turns it inside out, and offers a new story that reframes a future radically different from the past.”[ii]

At the Apprentice Institute we talk, and speak, and write a lot about narratives.  Our narratives shape who we are and inform what we do.  Our narratives are crucial.  If they are false, limited, or toxic, they can damage our souls, and lead to apathy and even violence.  Jesus is, in this story, isolating an ancient narrative, showing that it is false, and offering us a new one, one that is true, namely, all people are of sacred worth.  He demonstrated this constantly in his actions, speaking to and blessing an adulterous Samaritan woman, dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, healing the loved ones of the hated Roman soldiers.

Some may react to this story by saying, “Jesus is fickle.  He didn’t want to help the Gentile lady, then he caved, then he went crazy and started healing—and feeding—a ton of Gentiles.  He seems unstable.”  I do not read the story this way.  I believe that Jesus knew what he was doing all along.  He knew how deeply entrenched the narrative was in Israel—and among the Romans who occupied Israel.  It goes like this:  “Destroy your enemies, for blessed are the violent victors.”  That is what the Israelites lived with every day under Roman occupation.  Each day they saw their own people pinned up like bugs to die on crosses, a sign of Roman domination.  Jesus reverses the violence narrative, a narrative held by his own people.  It was in the air they breathed.  Jesus was calling it out.

In Jesus’ noetic environment, all people are sacred.  Therefore, we do not kill our enemies, we love them.  We do not curse our enemies, we pray for and bless them.  The violence narrative—one that is upheld only when we see people as things—is alive and well today.  It is in the newspapers every morning.  But I am called by Jesus not to judge others.  However, I see the narrative in my own heart when I judge the person who smokes, or is obese.  I see it in my own heart when I feel greater sadness for the American soldiers who die than the Iraqi soldiers who share the same fate.  I see it in my own heart when I see a homeless person holding a sign at the stoplight and my first response is to wonder if his plight is legitimate.  I am longing for the day when my first thought is, “How sacred that person is . . . wow.”

Transformation into Christlikeness is not easy.  But it is freeing.  I find my own false narratives—while comfortable and safe—are not conducive to joy.  I want to continue to get lost in the reverie of Jesus’ noetic environment.  It hurts at first, but abiding in his mind is healing to my soul.  I love the line from the Christmas hymn, O Holy Night:  “and He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”  Wouldn’t it be great if that was said of each of us:  “Wherever we go, people feel their sacred worth.”  For that to happen, we are going to have to see them as Jesus did.

 

 

[i]   This understanding of the passage comes from Grant LeMarquand, and stated in Brian McLaren’s book, Everything Must Change, pp. 154 ff.

[ii]  Ibid., p. 158


 

Dr. JaView More: http://jillnicole.pass.us/apprentice-teammes Bryan Smith (M.Div., Yale University Divinity School; DMin Fuller Seminary) is the Executive Director of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith is currently a theology professor at Friends University, in Wichita, Kansas, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of eight books, most notably The Apprentice Series (InterVarsity Press), which continue to shape the work of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith’s other titles include Devotional Classics (with Richard J. Foster), Embracing the Love of God, Room of Marvels, and Hidden in Christ.

Posted in A Good and Beautiful Life, Apprenticeship, Blog, Heavenly Reverie, Love, Love, Narrative | Tags: / / / / / / / /

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Sep 15

Why You Shouldn’t Get Hung Up On the Details (Hint: The Devil Hangs out there)

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Have you ever undertaken a home/apartment improvement project? Over the summer, my wife and I began readying the nursery for the bundle of joy who will be gracing us with her/his presence in the next month. We decided not to paint. Instead, we opted for wall

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Have you ever undertaken a home/apartment improvement project?

Over the summer, my wife and I began readying the nursery for the bundle of joy who will be gracing us with her/his presence in the next month.

We decided not to paint. Instead, we opted for wall decals.

They’re like stickers for adults, and no one yells at you for putting them on the walls.

Anyway, they’re triangles. And they have to be individually applied. I’m not cut out for this sort of detail work. My lovely wife, is.

So, I took the stickers off and she went through the (more difficult) work of applying them in straight lines across the wall.

She did an incredible job. But there are a couple minor places where we had to shift the spacing to compensate for the design. So, each and every space isn’t exactly the same.

I know where those spots are because I spent an entire afternoon staring at that wall.nursery

I also changed out the light fixture. The new fixture’s ceiling plate didn’t fit the outlet, so I bought the only one I could find that would.

It’s plastic, not the highest quality material, but it’s small and looks good. But, I know it’s plastic because I spent more than an afternoon (and some help from my father-in-law) hanging it.

The funny thing? No one else who’s seen the nursery has said a word about the triangle spacing or the ceiling plate.

They think it looks great, and are nothing but complimentary.

Which my co-worker (John) brought up would be a great topic for a blog.

Because we apprentices of Jesus do this a lot.

You see a minor mistake here or a blunder there (recent or distant) and when you look at the project that is your life, you can’t not see the whole because of that little imperfection. A constant reminder that you are as bad as we thought you were.

But the folks around you don’t get hung up on those chinks you can’t look past. They’ve got more than enough grace for you.

They look at your life and see a beautiful part of the body of Christ, a beloved ember of their community. Someone who isn’t perfect, but whose life is defined by more than that minor thing you keep turning into a major hurdle in your mind.

Because they have the ability to see the whole picture (your “glaring glitch” included).

Some people love to talk about grace and some think we talk about it too much.

But I don’t think you can grow into the fullness God calls you to, until you accept that grace. Until you let God’s word on your life (I am one in whom Christ dwells and delights) define your life, instead of always seeing the chink in the armor. Until you can look at your life as the beautiful room or home improvement project that it is.

It’s not that the chinks aren’t there (you’re not Jesus), but you can begin to listen to those around you and God, and let them show you the beauty of the whole, and just how beautiful transformation (this whole “in Christ” thing) can be.

Quit wallowing in the minor details, they say the devil hangs out there anyway.

 

**Featured Image Photo Credit: el diablo is in the details–torbakhopper / CC 2.0

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Jun 23

Living by the Grace of Others

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paris cafe

We sat down in the cafe, unable to read a word on the wall. It looked like a nice enough spot and the staff seemed friendly, but the barrier remained. “Excusez moi,” I muttered…and it was off to the language barrier races. He was incredibly

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paris cafe
We sat down in the cafe, unable to read a word on the wall. It looked like a nice enough spot and the staff seemed friendly, but the barrier remained.

“Excusez moi,” I muttered…and it was off to the language barrier races. He was incredibly gracious, laughing through my attempt at French,

Parlais vous Francais?
“Un petit.”

Not real French, my Americanized version, something more akin to Frenglish. But he helped nonetheless and I was grateful, because without him I would have been left with no coffee or tapas that afternoon.

Sure there was a certain amount of risk on my part. I could have been laughed out of the cafe for butchering my new companion’s language. But I wasn’t, and it wasn’t the result of anything I did.

The whole week in Paris, I noticed again and again how the French upended every negative stereotype I’d heard about them. Every person I spoke with was incredibly gracious to this dumb Americain, and I did nothing to deserve it.

But it did take the willingness to risk, to ask, to realize I couldn’t do it on my own.

We’re quick to admit and proclaim the grace of God, but what about the grace of others?

Living by the grace of others meant swallowing my own pride, but it also meant a wonderful week and experience in the City of Light.

arc de triomphe

Cultivating a theological vision (training our eyes to see God in the world) is one of the most important things we can do as Christians.

And the grace of others is really just an extension of the grace we receive from God each moment, each beat of the heart and breath in the lungs, each opened door and kind gesture (however large or small).

Learning to see God will transform the way you go through life, and as you notice the grace of others, you might realize God is (and has been) more present in your life than you could have imagined before.

**All Photo Credits: Jill Nicole Photography

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Mar 31

Defining Spiritual Formation: The How (Part 3 of 7)

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What is spiritual formation, anyway? What does spiritual formation mean and why is it important? This is the third post in a series (Part 1: The Need; Part 2: The Reality) from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance of knowing what we mean when

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What is spiritual formation, anyway? What does spiritual formation mean and why is it important? This is the third post in a series (Part 1: The Need; Part 2: The Reality) from James Bryan Smith–“Defining Spiritual Formation”–on the importance of knowing what we mean when we say “spiritual formation.”

So far we have a working definition of Christian spiritual formation, coming from the wise writing of Robert Mulholland.  He defines it as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”  I find it accurate, clear, and brief.

It is complete in terms of a definition, but I find it to be missing a few elements, namely, the how dimension of the definition.

So, a few years ago I began working on my own definition:

“Christian spiritual formation is the process of being conformed into the image of Christ, through a relationship of intimacy with God, by the power of the Spirit, in order to live a good and beautiful life of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace—a life that will be a blessing to oneself and to others and will glorify God now and for all eternity.”

My definition is simply an expansion of Dr. Mulholland’s definition.  It explains how formation happens—through a relationship of intimacy with God, by the power of the Spirit.  This is important because it emphasizes two key elements of formation:  relationship, and grace. We are transformed by having relationship with God.  This implies knowing and being known.

Paul asks the Galatians this question:

“Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (Gal. 4:9)

Relationships require knowledge.  As we come to know God, and God comes to know us, we are changed. 

I was changed through my relationship with Dallas Willard.  I came to know Dallas, and Dallas came to know me.  In that interaction there was an exchange of ideas and emotions, of laughter and tears.  Though Dallas has gone on to glory, he is still alive in me.

The same is true in my relationship with God.  I come to know God—God’s thoughts, feelings, ideas, narratives, character, etc.  These things live on in me.

This relationship is one of intimacy.  Intimacy requires self-disclosure.  God is not interested in making a bunch of pious robots; God longs for a relationship of intimacy.  I find that the more I nurture that relationship, the more I am transformed.

That relationship is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit invites each of us into this intimate relationship with God.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3)

When I first came to the realization that Jesus was, indeed, Lord, I did so by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Flesh and blood did not reveal this to me (Matt. 16:17).  The Holy Spirit revealed the nature of the love between the Father and the Son.  The beauty of the Christ-form jumps off the pages of the gospels, but can only be seen when the Spirit is at work.

Holy Trinity

**Holy Trinity Icon, Andrei Rublev

The Holy Spirit reveals the Father and Son to us, and invites us into a relationship of intimacy.  That relationship is based on grace, but nurturing that relationship also requires effort on our part, as any relationship does.

Formation happens when we create space for God, classically known as spiritual disciplines or spiritual exercises.  I cannot have an intimate relationship with God if I do not create space for it.  So through slowing down and creating margin in my life, I can have times of solitude in which I pray, read, contemplate, and listen to God.

So far in this series, we have seen the great need for a working definition of Christian spiritual formation.  Also, we are all being formed all of the time, but the question is, formed into what kind of person?  That kind of person is one who reflects the image of Jesus.  Here,I have expanded the definition to include the relationship and grace dimensions of formation.  My definition also expands upon Mulholland’s definition in regards to what “for the sake of others” looks like.  We’ll explore that later in the series. Next up in the series, the process of spiritual formation.

**Featured Image Photo Credit: Negative Space by Paul McCoubrie / CC ND 2.0

Posted in Blog, Defining Spiritual Formation | Tags: / / / / / / / / /

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Mar 03

Give Up the Lenten Rat Race–Try Surrender

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Desert sands

This year, for Lent, I’m giving up one of my most destructive habits.  I imagine you are eager to know what it is.  It’s actually not very exciting or interesting.  But it is the something that harms my soul.  It is my tendency toward Pelagianism. 

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Desert sands

This year, for Lent, I’m giving up one of my most destructive habits.  I imagine you are eager to know what it is.  It’s actually not very exciting or interesting.  But it is the something that harms my soul.  It is my tendency toward Pelagianism.  Pelagianism refers to the teachings of Pelagius, the 4th century opponent of St. Augustine who taught that we become righteous through the exercise of our free wills, a popular teaching condemned by the Church, though it never quite left.

My Pelagianism is a more subtle version than Pelagius’ teaching.  It is a narrative that goes something like this:  “Yes, God-in-Christ has done the work of salvation, and you Pelagiusare saved by grace alone, however, in order to access this gracious work of salvation you must ______________.”  The blank can be filled in, in my case, by countless things:  read the Bible, pray, go to church, and most important of all—not sin.

I know in my head that this narrative is false.  I can cite verses in the Bible to refute it, and quote theologians who speak eloquently against it.  The problem for me is that in a deep place in my elusive mind I actually believe that narrative.  It makes sense in the world I live in, where everything is earned.  I hear restrained versions of it in preaching and teaching I hear, so I know I am not alone.  The effect of this Pelagian narrative is that I am left with the distinct feeing that in the last analysis I am responsible for my own salvation, not Jesus.

I find it appealing because it allows me a measure of control.  I, not God, am the one who determines forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  I suspect that is why I secretly cherish this habit.  Life affords little control, and this gives me the feeling—albeit uneasy—that I am actually in command of something.  But there are problems with this habit.

Two Problems

First of all, it is built on an un-reality.  And as Dallas Willard always said, “Reality is what you bump into when you are wrong.”  My little habit keeps me bumping into reality a lot, and it hurts.

There are secondary problems as well.  It keeps me from loving God through surrender, which is the primary way we love God.  So I want to give this up.  For me, that will mean unlearning this narrativeIt will mean spending Lent thinking differently.  Here are the kinds of things I am planning to set my mind on:

  • I bring absolutely nothing to the equation of salvation—even my repentance needs repentance
  • My sin—instead of separating me from God—actually binds me to Christ.  As Thomas Torrance wrote of the disciples who abandoned Jesus in the end, “It was their very sin . . . which became in the inexplicable love of God the very material he laid hold of . . . making the shameful things that divide us from into the very things that bind us to him.”
  • Our faith, as Calvin said, is an empty vessel.  I cannot rely on my faith, only on the vicarious faith of Jesus.  He believes for me.  Even my faith needs faith.
  • My best religious efforts have not only merited nothing, they too often stood in the way of real surrender.  My most sincere moments in prayer or worship were tainted with self-interest, and need the cleansing power of God.
  • My entire self—the good and the bad—fall under the judgment of the Cross, and that is why my entire self must surrender.
  • Prayer is not a duty, but a joyful response of love to my Abba, Father.
  • My relationship with God is not an “if-then” contract of fear, but a “because-therefore” covenant of love
  • I did nothing to earn God’s forgiveness and love; I can do nothing to lose it.

Do you find some of these thoughts a bit radical?  Uncomfortable?  Harsh?  I know I do.  I have come to believe they are uncomfortable to me because they destroy my Pelagianism, like water upon the Wicked Witch of the West.

Moved to Surrender

Lent is a perfect time for me to do this, because Lent, for me and I suspect others, is a time my Pelagianism takes over.  I tend to choose to give up something I am sure God will be pleased about, and grit my teeth and try impress the Almighty with my efforts.  That is precisely why this is a perfect Lenten practice for me.

surrender

**People in the distance–zbigphotography–CC 2.0

During Lent this year I am going to keep thinking on those bullet points because I believe they are pure, excellent, good, beautiful and true.  I know they are true and good because when I think on these things I am moved to doxology, and ultimately, to surrender, which, as I wrote above, is the truest expression of love.  So each morning I am going to muse on these thoughts, and others like them, and I will do so until I overflow with thanksgiving, and a natural desire to abandon myself to God.

When I reach that point, I will pray the prayer of Charles de Foucald:

Father, I abandon myself into your hands:
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you will do, I will thank you.
Let only your will be done in me,
As in all your creatures.
And I’ll ask nothing else, my Lord.
Into your hands I commend my spirit:
I give it to you with all the love of my heart
For I love you Lord, and so need to give myself,
To surrender myself into your hands
With a trust beyond all measure,
Because you are my Father.

I invite any recovering pelagians to join me.

Blessings,

James Bryan Smith

**Featured Image Photo Credit: Desert sands by zbigphotography / CC 2.0

Posted in Blog, Narrative | Tags: / / / /

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