Poetry of Love (Part 3)

12 11 2010

“The Church: God’s Collection of Poems”

One of my favorite poets is Gerard Manley Hopkins.  And in this poem he captures the heart of God for imageodei, people created within His image, a lonely people looking for light, like a man carrying a lantern through the night.  He writes,

The Lantern Out of Doors
Sometimes a lantern moves along the night
That interests our eyes And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
there, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

All people matter to God.  All of us at times are the person walking through a lonely night of the soul, looking for something.  We are all walking through the wind and fog.  And we are noticed by Jesus.  Christ minds: Christ’s interest.  His eyes, His heart, His care is upon each man and woman.  He is there for our ransom, our rescue.  He longs to be our friend for we are the apple of His eye.

He is, after all, the master poet, always writing, always meditating upon His work.  He is brooding over each of us for greater healing.  He is longing to complete His work in our lives.  His work is plural: works.  He is working, always working to give us more freedom, to heal the deeper wound.  To avow or amend what He began.  Not done.

The church is His “collection of poems.”  The church—His grand idea.  As disappointing as the church might be at times, she is still his collection of poems, a poetic statement within each soul of a master poet that is masterfully at works. Works, not of our making, but His.  A set of sad works, joyful works…but all thoughtful.

The big poetic idea of Jesus is the church.  A communal idea that was first birthed in and through the nation of Israel but has come to fruition through the church.  Not consummation but fruition.  The works of Jesus are manifested through the little poems that walk, talk, share, cry, give, love.  Little poems.  Undone poems.  Incomplete.

Creation Continues

God’s collection of poems—the church is still being created.  The creation continues.  An incomplete collection; a dirty collection; an untidy collection.  But His creative collection nonetheless.

God’s collection of poems—unfinished.  We are all still so broken, fractured, torn, and tired.  But, the final line has yet to be penned.  There’s still time.  A work in progress some have said. But, it’s true.  A work.  Not a project or “resource.”  We are not projects of this world.  We are not resources for some seemingly greater work.  We are already the greater works of God!

We are original works of grace being created by Heavenly Father for the works of His doings in our life.  Eugene Peterson captures this thought,

Original works of grace are possible in the everyday work of forgiving the sinner, in helping the hurt, and in taking up personal responsibilities…creation continues.  The streets and fields, the homes and markets of the world are an art gallery displaying not culture, but new creations in Christ (Traveling Light)

Creation continues when we cooperate.  When we allow the paraclete to have access into our life—the walking, the conversation, the relationships, the job, the boring hours, the shopping.  He’s never done; never a complete poem.

And so grace continues, grace is not conspicuous.  All grace is a writing of the hand of God upon our lives.  Nobody’s life is without grace.  More about this next time…

Dunkin’ Donuts and Planting Pastors

26 04 2010

I have come to Okinawa every year now for over ten years, and I think I know almost every pastor on the island.

Right now, I’m eating sushi, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, and pondering the challenge of developing future spiritual leadership on this island.  I’ve spoken every night and several times a day for a week, spending almost every waking hour with these gracious, caring, pastors—eating, sipping tea, laughing and sharing our hearts and lives.

Last night I spoke at one of our network churches.  Liz and I stayed up until midnight with the pastor and his wife, sharing pictures, and talking about old times.  Together with my friend and fellow pastor, we reminisced of the days of trouble.  You see, he and I got into trouble together – big trouble in 1989—in ways that would change the direction of our lives as pastors.

It all began with a conversation at Dunkin’ Donuts when I was a missionary in Okinawa.  Yes, Okinawa has Dunkin’ Donuts. And the Japanese like donuts almost as much as sushi.  If you tasted their version of Dunkin’ Donuts, you would understand why.  Anyway, one morning we were sitting around drinking coffee and stuffing our faces with cream-filled when he asked me, “Steve, what do you think my church needs?”  After thinking for about three minutes (which is deep meditation for me), I said, “Your church needs to learn how to worship Jesus.”

Thus began a journey that got both of us in a heap of trouble! 

He asked me to teach his church how to worship, so that is what I did every Wednesday night. But more than just a sermon, back then my style was to teach for a little while and then to demonstrate how to worship.  The demonstration time involved closing our eyes and worshipping to music playing over my stereo.  On one fateful night, the Holy Spirit showed up in a dramatic way, and my pastor friend experienced a baptism of the Spirit that quite literally rocked his world.

The Holy Spirit came that night during worship as the power of God hit my friend with such peace and joy that he didn’t sleep for the next 48 hours!  In fact, on this one evening his baptism into the Spirit would initiate his journey on  a road that would change the direction of his life forever.

In the days and weeks to follow, he shared excitedly about the new things God was doing in his life.  To say his Southern Baptist church was not quite as pumped up about his new-found intimacy with God is an under-the-sea, really-deep-under-the-sea-level statement.  In a short time, he was kicked out of his fellowship, and found himself on the streets wondering what had happened.

At about the same time, I was teaching my staff about more expressive worship like raising our hands, about casting out demons, and in general, getting myself into some deep theological doodoo of my own.   I could see the wagons circling, and I knew that my days were numbered.  And like my pastor friend’s experience, it wasn’t long after our Dunkin’ Donuts meeting that my life was profoundly changed – I resigned from my position with a para-church organization and joined my friend as we freshly sought God about our futures.

What an exciting time it was!  Both of us out of a job, but loving Jesus!  Both of us unsure of the direction of our future, but confident in the Director of our future.

And so last night, after all of these years, we were reunited.  We shared of our journey and the adventure.  For my Okinawan friend, God had planted him back on the island to found and pastor Agape Community Church where he continues to minister today.  God led me to Colorado Springs to plant Mountain Springs Church. 

Once again, just like we had done 21 years ago, we worshipped together on a Wednesday night.  However, on this night we were joined by a group of men and women, many of whom hadn’t even been born or saved in 1989.  Together, we were again worshipping the same Jesus that had rocked our world—the same Savior and Lord who continues to rock our world today.  Only now, there’s a church that didn’t exist back then.  All because God powerfully visited a pastor one night during worship, then planted him to shepherd His people.

I have learned that God plants pastors.  He doesn’t plant churches; He plants pastors.  Pastors are God’s methodology, His missiology. Jesus planted pastors.  Jesus is still planting pastors. I think pastors were what Jesus had in mind with His twelve men.  And it’s what He had in mind for these two pastors, one Okinawan, one American. 

Tonight, I count it an honor to be one of His pastors, grateful to be helping to plant more pastors on the tiny island of Okinawa.

Revolutionary Love

13 02 2009

I’m sitting in the R&R coffee shop in Black Forest thinking about the message of the apostle of love.  If you’ve been listening to my messages the past three months at MSC, you know that I’m caught up with this apostle of love and his epistle of love.  I call it a “revolutionary love” because it is, well, just so revolutionary.   It is so foreign to our thinking.  It is so foreign in most of our churches.  It is so foreign in most of our relationships. 

It is the passion of one of the twelve, a man who called himself, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  The apostle John was enraptured and overtaken with the love of Jesus.  He just can’t contain himself as he scribes his letter to the church.  Fifty six times John speaks of love in this small letter!  No other book of the Bible so speaks as often and so repeatedly on the theme of love. 

John wrote his first letter for two reasons.  First, he was aghast at the success of the Gnostic teachers in pulling the believers in Ephesus away from their new found faith.  John is writing his letter to refute the false theology and practice of these first century cultists.  But, secondly, John is emphasizing that real belief in the real God is best expressed and proven, not by persuasive arguments but through a lifestyle of love.  John wants us to understand with our heart that “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him.” (1 John 4:16b)

From a “Son of Thunder” to an “Apostle of Love”

John didn’t start out as the apostle of love. Just like Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter, the Rock, Jesus saw the raw unsanctified man John, a rugged fisherman who had a plan for his own life.  Jesus could see the raw ambition and lust for power. Jesus recognized the outspoken, brash, and intense personality of John.  So, looking at John one day, Jesus renamed him “Boanerges” the Aramaic name for a “Son of Thunder.”

John and his brother James were probably the most ambitious of all the disciples.  It was John who led the discussion about who is the greatest among the disciples. It was John who forbade a man from casting out demons because they were not in the inner circle of the disciples.  They certainly had no scruples about making their intentions and ambitions known:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37 They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Can you drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They said to Him, “We are able.” So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; 40 but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.” 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. (Mark 10:35-41)

Just do “whatever we ask”? Is this not the picture of arrogance and presumption? Then when Jesus challenged them if they understood what they were asking, they didn’t back down one bit.  They said “we are able”! This is most definitely a son of thunder.

But here’s what I find amazing.  Jesus never lost faith in John.  In spite of such arrogance and pride, Jesus loved John.  Jesus saw something in John that even John didn’t see in himself.  Can you imagine the incredible love Jesus had for John that he would take this ambitious, even foolish man into His inner circle and so deeply love him?

Jesus had a vision for John.  Jesus could see that love for God and the kingdom would replace lust for power and position.  John never lost his personality as a Son of Thunder, but instead of a passion for position, John was transformed into a Son of Thunder for God’s love. John would be changed from being full of himself to being full of God’s love.

Somewhere in his journey, John was changed from being a “Son of Thunder” to becoming “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  I believe John experienced the love of Jesus day after day and this love of the Spirit chipped away at his ambition and lust.  This constant exposure to the light of the agape love of Jesus gradually drove back the darkness in John’s life.

John was so transformed by the love of Jesus that he even forgets who he once was.  In all of his writings, John never identifies himself as a Son of Thunder. But five times in his gospel he self identifies as “the one whom Jesus loved.”  John mentions God’s love twenty six times in his gospel, almost more than all the other three gospels combined.  If we combine John’s mentioning of agape love in all his letters, it is over seventy five times! John is overwhelmed with the revolutionary love of His Savior, Friend , and Lord.

As an old man, at 90 years old, John wrote his signature of how he wanted to be remembered, “Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper. “ (John 21:20)  John wanted to be remembered, not for what he had done for Jesus, but rather how he related to Jesus. John’s identity was based in his relationship with Jesus not his ministry for Jesus. 

The Thunder of God’s Heart

John had discovered that the thunder of God’s heart is love.  Jesus didn’t die of asphyxiation while on the cross, Jesus didn’t die from shock on the cross, Jesus died of a broken heart.  Jesus died because of His great love for you and me.  And the greatest act and symbol of the love of Christ is the cross.  Mother Teresa once wrote,

Our vocation is the conviction that “I belong to Him.” Because I belong to Him, He must be free to use me.  I must surrender completely.  When we look at his cross, we understand his love.  His head is bent down to kiss us.  His hands are extended to embrace us.  His heart is wide open to receive us.  This is what we have to be in the world today.  We too must have our head bent down to our people—they are Jesus in disguise…He said, “You did it to Me.  I was hungry…I was naked…I was homeless.” Let us not make the mistake of thinking that the hunger is only for a piece of bread.  The hunger today is much greater; it is a hunger for love, to be wanted, to be cared for, to be somebody.  (Mother Teresa: Contemplative at the Heart of the World by Angelo Devananda)

All of us are hungry for this love—it is the true longing, the true desire of our lives.  We all need a revolution of love.  John knew this love and he wrote 1 John that we would understand with our heart that each of us can be renamed, “the disciple whom Jesus loves,” present tense.

Jesus’ arms are open wide to embrace you!  Jesus’ heart is wide open to bless you!  Jesus wants your heart.  John Eldredge writes,

What [God] is after is us—our laughter, our tears, our dreams, our fears, our heart of hearts.  Remember his lament in Isaiah, that though his people were performing all their duties, “their hearts were far from Me” (29:13)  How few of us really believe this.  We’ve never been wanted for our heart, our truest self, not really, not for long.  The thought that God wants our heart seems too good to be true.  (The Sacred Romance)

God wants your heart!  He wants to know you deeply just for the fact that He created you for fellowship, and really loves you.  This is the revolution:  discovering the thunder of God’s heart for you.  Have you discovered this love?

Transformational Knowing: Reflections on 2008

29 12 2008

The end of a year is a time of reflection for me.  Yesterday, I went out to my fire pit, my “fellowship of the ring” in the woods behind my house. I sat out by a blazing fire for a few hours just to pray, meditate, and read.  It was a good time.  I so enjoyed feeling the warm sun and the crackling fire against the cold westerly breezes.

I was quiet.  I thought about this past year and all of the losses and the victories I have experienced.  I have been in full-time ministry for over 28 years, and this year was the most difficult in memory.  It’s amazing what we remember about life when we really reflect.  For me at least, it’s not the programs, accomplishments, or “things” completed that are memorable.  No, it’s people, it’s relationships, it’s love that matters.  The losses this year in relationships have been hard to take. 

All relationships that end, whether positively or negatively, still feel exactly the same for me.  I feel loss.  I feel the distance.  I feel the pain of no longer having that particular person in my life.  One would think that the time spent in relationship would suffice the parting, but it never does.  The parting always leaves a hole—a gap, a missing character in the puzzle of our heart.  A friendship is a person that fills this place in our heart that no one else can fill.  It is uniquely their place and their contribution that makes them a friend.  When they are gone, they take with them a part of our heart.  They are irreplaceable.  Irreplaceable means that they had a place, a spot, a post in our hearts.  It is really hard to let them go.

And yet the new year presents new challenges and most importantly, new relationships.  The puzzles of our heart long for new friendships that will make our lives richer.  These relationships will not replace the old ones, nor do we expect them to, but they will bring a new vibrancy and love that is unique to their shared lives.  As they share their lives with us, we will share our lives with them.  For we must share, we must always give.

I think our lives are most vibrant and most healthy when we give our life away to God and His most valued creation—people.  God is love.  And because God is love, we can’t know God without knowing and loving people.  Friendships drive us to God and God drives us to people.  You can’t love, really love, without God.

Friendship transforms us.  You can’t be transformed without love and love is friendship.  This is why real change, real transformation at the heart level, can only happen in relationship.  Our nature cannot be transformed without friendship. 

We only really know God by love.  Love transforms us.  This is a “transformational knowing,” a knowing of God’s love through loving others.  God’s love changes us.  God’s love transforms our heart and mind.  David G. Brenner writes, “Transformational knowing of God comes from the intimate, personal knowing of Divine love.  Because God is love, God can only be known through love.  To know God is to love God, and to love God is to know God.” (The Gift of Being Yourself, IVP, p. 35)  We can’t know God without loving God and others.

Love is the message of 1 John.  This is what I’m calling a “revolutionary love.”  A revolution, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, means “a sudden, radical, or complete change…a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something.”  John, the apostle of radical love is giving us an epistle of revolutionary love.  This is not a love that the world can understand.  No, this is a love that goes completely against, a 180, from the manner and ways of this world’s values.

John, in explaining this love to the saints, says it clearly, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8, NKJV)  In other words, our testimony of love for God is a love for one another.  Our testimony of knowing God is this crazy love.  This is our supreme witness to the world.  The world is watching for and longing to experience genuine love.  Only we who know the God who is love, can show the world this kind of love.  If we love, they see God.  If we don’t love, they don’t see God.

So loving God is our basis for friendships and friendships are our basis for loving God.  It is as we forge and commit ourselves to friendships of love that God transforms us.  This is hard.  This is not easy.  It is easier to be a loner.  We will be disappointed and hurt by people.  People, by their very nature of being living things, change.  Sometimes those changes mean distance, separation, and even betrayal.  We all wish that the close moments and intimate times could just be paused on our relational remote and held onto forever.  And they can—in the memories of our heart.  But they can’t in the reality of our busy lives.  Life moves on, and so must we.

So I want to cherish my friendship with God by cherishing my relationships with my friends.  Those relationships will change over time.  I will move on and so will many of my friends, but we do have One who is closer than a brother.  His love is constant.  His love is abiding.  His love will never leave or forsake us.  And that brings a sense of security and depth.

As we enter a new year, may the revolutionary love of Jesus transform your heart into loving your fellow man with a deeper love than you have known in the past.  Though we risk pain and even betrayal in friendships, don’t quit giving your heart to others.  For this is the transformational knowing, the knowing of people, that changes our hearts into knowing God’s heart.