Tag Archives: time

Spiritual Life? : How does anyone have time for one?  

In 2006, life in our church was rich. I started collecting questions that became the launchpads for messages. 

The “frequently asked question” for the evening is: How does anyone have time for a spiritual life? You know these questions come in as a result of what various cells have been exploring over the year. This is a very practical question, so I am glad to take a stab at it. I hope you’ll be thinking along with me as I speak. The fact is, you are having time for a spiritual life right now. Make the most of it. Have your spiritual life.

Normal vs. spiritual life?

70% from Rotten Tomatoes, from 1996.
  1. Before I try to get practical, I want to bring up one of the main problems with having time for a spiritual life. It is the notion that there is a “normal” life and then there is a “spiritual” life. The way most of us think, there is a split between real or normal life and spiritual life.

For the most part, this might be just a figure of speech – we talk about the sporting life. We ask “How’s your love life?” and “How is family life?” – and all we mean is how is the part of our lives under discussion. But it can go further with our faith. Somehow faith got pushed into our private lives and out of our everyday lives. Jesus became a part of our leisure time and not a part of our work life or civic life.

So, for instance, when President Bush was asked how faith might shape policy in the presidential debates in October of 2004. He answered from the classic evangelical viewpoint, I think. He said:

My faith plays a big part in my life. I pray a lot. I do. My faith is very personal. …I’ve received calmness in the storms of the presidency. I love the fact that people pray for me and my family all around the country. Somebody asked me one time, well, how do you know? I said, I just feel it.

My faith is a big part of my life. It is very personal. Prayer delivers things to my life. I don’t know what the president thinks, really. But a lot of people have a personal faith, a “spiritual life” that never coincides with their regular life.

So when someone asks, “How do I find time for a spiritual life?” It must mean two things, at least.

  • “Normal” life is taking you over and you have no time for other things, like whatever is in my personal life.
  • You think you have a life that is not “spiritual” and you want to develop the one that is.

I have to question the question. I’m not sure it is helpful to talk about our “spiritual lives” too much. As far as the people in the Bible go, there is only one life. There is a spiritual life in relation to God or there is existence plummeting toward no life. You’re alive or as good as dead.

  • John 6:63 — The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life.
  • Romans 8:11 — And if the  Spirit  of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his  Spirit , who lives in you.
  • Galatians 2:20 — The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me

If you follow Jesus — if you serve/belong to/believe in Jesus — you have a renewed spiritual life. You have been given life. The capacity you had for spirituality in you has been activated and is developing. You are filling up with life. It is not like you are the owner of your life and you are managing sectors of it trying to keep everything in balance or keeping the plates spinning. The life you have, you received from God through the work of Jesus. You were dead, but back in relation to God, you are alive.

in 2006 Branson pledged $3B to develop alternative fuel sources.

I don’t have time?

  1. The second big problem with finding time to actually be consciously related to God and exercising our new life, putting on this new self, living in our eternity is how we have come to view time.

If all you have is this life then every second counts. (“I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” the gospel of Clairol taught us). We are generally painfully aware that we cannot get back the seconds that have passed (“Nothing is further away than a minute ago”). Since we have most of our physical needs met these days, and many of us no longer fret about how much money we don’t have, now it is all about time. We weigh it out all day; we consider what our time is worth and whether we are spending it wisely.

  • Spending it wisely could mean we spend it all frantically making the most of it to get what we want – so we will have more experiences or will earn more leisure time or afford more retirement time.
  • Or it could mean we avoid spending any of it on work so we can be free from time constraints and get all our time up front before I have spent it all on loveless toil.

We are always making a time deal.

So Joshua and I know that between May 15 and October 15 or so, every weekend is going to feel precious to most of us, because we only get so many sunshiney Saturdays a year. People are weighing out what is more worth it, time spent on the spiritual life or time spent on vacation.

So when someone asks, “How do I find time for a spiritual life?” I think they might also be asking, “Is this going to be worth it?”

For the people in the Bible, they are not so conscious of the value of all their moments, because they actually think they are eternal and they know any moment has value because they, themselves, are valued. They still want to make the most of their days on earth, but they don’t have such a sense of hoarding a scarce resource.

  • John 6:27 — Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you
  • Colossians 3:1-3 — Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

The idea is that we need to learn a new way to invest our time, not in the fear of scarcity, but generously, joyfully, freely being eternal. Depending on our personality styles, we can make the most of the moment and make the most of a decade — whatever we are given — because we are living in an eternal now.

We can help ourselves with the process of being a growing, spiritual person who is alive to God and comfortable in their own reality with him by doing very practical things. It is not just about knowing right things and changing your mind, although I don’t see how any transformation happens without that; it is also about considering how you feel, how you are built psychologically and mostly, doing something with your body.

Let me answer this question.

How can I learn to use my time well as a person who lives in the Spirit?

I want to give you some verses from Psalm 119, since we are letting the Psalms guide us in different ways this summer. Psalm 119 is all about feeling the challenges of seeking God and living a life in relation to God in a difficult world.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Use the time you have.

Don’t be outside the time you are experiencing. A lot of us wait for something to happen sometime, instead of happening in the time we are in. I am sure that just last week some people missed a great time to learn and praise: they were angry, were on drugs, were analyzing, were daydreaming. Then they wonder why they don’t have time for their “spiritual pursuits.” Be as present to God as you can right now.

Psalm 119:59-60
I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes.
I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands.

There is no replacement for honoring the importance of every minute, the meaning inherent in it. Jesus calls us to live. The Psalmist is having the same conviction. “I’m considering. I’m turning. I hasten to obey, to participate in my God-given time.”

  • Listen for God in your cell.
  • Prepare for worship
  • Give yourself a reminder phrase before you enter into a distracting situation – “Why am I here? I am here to worship. I am here to hear you. I am here to rest. I am here to love.” Keep centering on it, so you don’t get your time stolen. Hold on to your time like it was your purse in a threatening situation.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Discipline your time

Time is like a river – build dams and levees that slow it down. Time is like a child, it needs to be trained. Time is like a bronco, you either tame it, it stomps you, or it jumps the fence and runs away. A schedule can get flabby and need to go to the gym.

Psalm 119:147,164
I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.
Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.

The people who get to know God are not all smarter. They do things. Scott Peck said the original sin was probably laziness. Just doing whatever, just going with what is going, not bothering to consider, to imagine, to step out of the regular rut leaves us out of touch with God. The psalmist is making the effort. He gets up before dawn to pray. He’s got a seven times a day discipline he is using.

You might like to start big with the schedule form on your seat. It could help discipline all the time in the week.

  • Make a copy and write down what you do in a week. That way you can see what you really do. As you do this you’ll notice that you will already be freeing yourself to makes changes and decisions. “Do I REALLY want to watch 3 hours of HBO a day? Did I really play Halo that long? Can I afford that commute – am I using the time on the train?” Etc.
  • Make a list of things you want in your week. “If I want to be a person who is living in the Spirit, what do I need to do?”
  • Put them on the sheet and try to meet your goals.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Be incremental. Accrue

I think no time spent pursuing God is wasted. The actions build up. They accrue and begin compounding interest — so do something. Something is better than nothing. Do some little thing so you can get to a bigger thing. It is all too easy to let the day be so troubled that we never get to resting with God or praying, or caring for our inner journey – or even travel on it! It is also easy to see where we ought to be on the journey and be so ashamed or so overwhelmed that we don’t even take a step. Do something. Like the kid who gave his bread and fish, Jesus can multiply what he is given, and in the giving we are grown, too.

Psalm 119:143
Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands are my delight.

The psalmist has problems, too. But he’s delighting in what Good has given him.

  • When you are listening to me, be determined to get one thing from all this time that is for you. Then make a goal to act on it in some way, “I am going to complete that schedule thingy this Thursday night when I normally would watch America’s Got Talent.” Something like that.
  • Whenever you read the news, a book, or the Bible, write down a little goal for the day that will be a little step you can take to apply what you receive. When you are with your mentor, do whatever you felt moved to do as quickly as possible. When you are alone with God take your gut reactions seriously, unless that usually messes you up, and do what you are moved to do. You usually don’t have to spend a lot of time planning. You usually are given what you are already able to do. Do what you can. Don’t wait.
  • If you have a big goal that feels too big to start, like 20 minutes of contemplative prayer twice a day, maybe you need to be incremental. Do five minutes a day for a week.
  • Maybe you can manage to kick start some new direction by doing something dramatic – take a day retreat by yourself with God (I have loads of places you can go; some are very cheap). Take a pilgrimage to someplace instead of your usual weekender. If you are going to NY, say you are going to see St. John Divine and spend two hours there – then do whatever else you wanted to do. Get your mate or your friend to help, if you work well that way – say “We will begin the day with prayer each Wednesday from now until October.”

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Read meditatively.

Reading gives time. If you can’t read, learn to read. If you have ADD, struggle through the reading process once in a while. Don’t avoid reading very slow and listening between the lines. It is not an accident that the word of God is in a book, too. It helps us to meditate.

Psalm 119:130
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple.

The process of meditation is about something unfolding, like the petals of a flower grows and blooms. It takes time. The process of understanding words and relating to the people who wrote them and relating God who is always thinking along with us is a basic way to use time well for spiritual development. Better than TV, tapes, iPods, whatever.

  • Carry a book with you. We get a lot of demands on our time so we need to be ready when we get a moment: on the bus, in line, on hold, at the café before the friend comes. It might be a good thing for you to do at this stage of your life. You might also need to stop reading and listen to what you’ve already heard.
  • For a lot of us, meditatively reading — reading to listen to God and not just get information, is something of a lost art. Plan an hour for it that you normally give to media. Try a goal of ten pages a day. I have all sorts of suggestions in your program.

How can I learn to use my time as a person who lives in the Spirit?

Get direction

It is a great, helpful luxury to sit down with a caring someone and listen for God as they listen for God in you. That is time well spent. In some sense I think of it as expanded time, a lot of goodness poured into a small space of time.

Psalm 119:63
I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts.

The psalmist feels a spiritual camaraderie with everyone who reveres God. Those kind of friends are cultivated by anyone who wants to have a life in the Spirit. There is probably nothing more dangerous than finding yourself in love with people who fritter your time.

  • Visit your therapist – most are worth the money.
  • Take a class – even one at Temple or Penn could be a time to get a break to listen to the depths of your mind and heart.
  • Find a spiritual director – these are not easy to get. You friend or your cell leader may be a good person for now.
  • It would be nice if we took each other seriously to receive the great gifts that are all around us, rather than holding out for some saint someday.

I think my favorite verse from the very long Psalm 119, must be this one:

I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.

The many people who asked, “How can I find time for a spiritual life?” were probably tired and frustrated. They are running in the path of the world’s commands and time is running out! They are yearning and trying, but it isn’t happening as well or as fast as they want. I hope I have stirred up some new possibilities or at least got what you already had installed activated. One of my main points though was that you don’t need to tack on a demanding spiritual life to your already full normal life. You have one life and it is eternal. God has laid out a lot of ways to run free in it. Don’t be afraid to try them. Your are important and your time makes a difference.

What do you want to add? Some of you may have a lot of good answers to this question too. Let’s here answers or questions and talk back.

How much time is there?: Does that question make a difference?


Lagertha and Heahmund run out of time

The Vikings series is one of the most Christian shows on television. The whole thing is about Norse religion/culture bumping up against the  Christian church/state in Wessex, among other territories, and vice versa.

As a result, in Vikings this season, Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha have a religious problem. Lagetha is not interested in deserting her gods, but the supposedly-celibate priest, Heahmund, falls in love with her when he is taken captive to Kattegat (actually filmed in Ireland on a lake owned by the Guiness family).  The deposed queen falls in love back.  Before a crucial battle, Heahmund has a vision of hell and renounces his illicit connection to his pagan queen. Spoiler alert, he is killed (above).  But his last words are “Lagetha.”

Good TV, right?

Religion tackles questions about time

Obviously lust, greed, war, etc. etc, are also big, religious problems everyone ought to be having in Vikings, and they do. But I want to talk about time.

Lagetha and Heahmund are both getting up there in years (especially for the 9th century!). Heahmund has a young new king with ideas that will be new for a generation, as it turns out. Lagetha has step-children who have become Christians and farmers, while her oldest son is ready to leave for mayhem-yet-to-be-determined. Times are changing and time is short. So what do we do with our time? Should Heahmund hang on to this surprising love he relishes and forsake eternity? Should Lagetha try to regain her youth and take back Kattegat? Is Valhalla a good enough reason to risk death today? Is Jesus really on our side forever and is that promise enough to die preserving a place where he is Lord? I love this show.

I wish we would ask questions with similar passion and not merely watch others ask them. And we often do ask them. Actually, it is hard not to ask, since time is running out and we are not getting any younger (well, especially not me).

I had a question about time early on in my faith when I ran into a job description in the annual report of the Baptist church: Flower Arranger. A woman’s whole job was to make sure there were flowers on the communion table under the pulpit each week. Her job made me indignant! I thought it was a waste of money and time to be concerned about furniture and aesthetics when people were dying of hunger! (I still pretty much feel that way). But I am a little softer now, realizing that some people are suited for arranging flowers; plus, gratuitous beauty looks more like God than most things; and the simplicity of wasting time on something one can do with a pure heart of grace is sweet.

She must have asked, when she heard I was asking questions, “Is what I do with my time of any value? Do I have time for this? Am I wasting my time?”

We are all asking that, along with Bishop Heahmund and Queen Lagetha. It is a strange place we find ourselves, as time-bound creatures. We have been made for the age to come, as well as this one. We have a taste for eternity, no matter how much science tries to convince us we are just material.  Our day to day life, and its brevity, leads us to think about our own time contracting and stretching simultaneously. And so many things in our experience seem to have leaked over from eternity, it is hard not to believe there is another dimension we only see as though looking through frosted glass. Is time short or long?

So busy, ambitious people, in particular, have trouble on both sides of the question.  Do I have enough time to give the church a lot of time? If I am responsible for my time, that is a tough question. If I have all the time in eternity, isn’t that a great gift that I dare not waste?


I am going more for questions than answers today. But here are two Bible verses on both sides of the main question that help us figure things out.

Make the most of your time

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. — Ephesians 5:15-16

This is Paul with his second-tier thinking. He’s very practical about what people taking first steps to follow Jesus should know. He says, “You can easily see people wasting their days as if their hours did not mean anything. As long as the sun shines, there is a chance for transformation. Time is about changing the world, not spending it on whatever makes you feel something in the moment.”

I have taken his words very seriously since I first memorized them way back when. Sometimes I think I was TOO serious about them and missed some flower arranging.

The time you have is a gift.

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God — 1 Cor 3:21-23…. What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!  — 1 Corinthians 4:7-8.

I learned this section later in life, when Paul’s first-tier, deeper thinking starts seeming reasonable.  He’s saying, “Surely you do not believe what you know or have achieved as of today is the raw material of meaning? It is all a gift! You already have all the time in the world and in eternity. There is no scarcity, as if time were something you could hoard away and should protect with all the power you could acquire.

The other day I took a day off and ended up watching an episode of Vikings in my robe about 10 am. At times I felt like the second hand might be watching me! But I let myself waste the time it took for my imagination to wander. Come to think of it, the ministry of the Baptists grew and the flowers were also arranged!

Unwise people in this evil day want to steal our time. At best, they commodify it and buy it from us for work as if that makes any eternal sense. We need to fight them and make the most of our time, carefully living as the body of Christ — with all the hard work that requires in a hostile era.

But we probably won’t make the most of our time unless unless we have a deep sense that the beginning and end of our time is the gift of God — and every act we do, whether we judge it large or small, is made good by the touch of the Spirit, reaching into our time with love and truth. If we are open to receiving everything from the hand of God in Jesus Christ, we receive eternal life. That’s the place we start to answer all our other questions about how to use, or spend, or waste our time. Having a receptive heart is a crucial place to start when planting the church, or the process just seems like it demands a lot of time, as if it were a scarce commodity.

Poor Bishop Heahmund! He was right in the throes of deciding how he would spend his time when a Viking put a sword through his back. The show leaves me wondering if he ran out of time or just went to prepare for the age to come. Good question, History Channel!

The A is for Available in F-A-T

A couple of my friends talk about their “bandwidth” whenever the screen of our relationship tells me it is “loading” rather than playing. That means I thought we were going to connect, but my friend was not available.

I haven’t really explored this, but I think people with a “bandwidth” metaphor might think they work like a TV: the stream coming in is only so much and the draws on the stream are many. So they run out; they dry up. There is a reason to pay attention to that reality, of course — we could thoughtlessly “burn out!” On the other hand Jesus followers know that the strength to love is pretty much unlimited; it is not really time or media-player bound. So we should not monitor or excuse our choices as a matter of limited natural resources.

That’s not to say that anyone who wants to love big better consider what’s coming in and what’s going out. God may not have limitations, but we humans do. We need to know what we are given to give, not just imagine fulfilling every need we hear about. I actually have to tell people: “No one told you you needed to come to every meeting!”

I think, over time with Jesus, our spiritual, intellectual and emotional “bandwidth” actually increases, so the amount of faithfulness, attention and teaching that can flow through us in a given amount of time increases too. It is like plumbing, the greater the diameter of the intake pipe to your house, the more water pressure can get to the shower, washing machine and lawn sprinkler, all running at the same time.

We use the old idea that leaders, especially, need to be FAT: faithful, available and teachable. One of the big problems these days is finding someone to lead who is “available.” That is, they have, or will free up, enough “bandwidth” to be available. The problem with being available has two main parts I want to point out: one part is feeling busy, the other part is being inattentive.

Feeling busy

The Economist  notes that busyness is less about how much time one has than how you perceive the time you have. Ever since a clock was first used to synchronize labor in the 1700s, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours were financially quantified, people worried more about wasting time, saving time or using “their” time profitably.

Individualistic societies, which emphasize achievement over affiliation (like the U.S.), help cultivate this time-is-money mindset. We constantly hear an urgent demand to make every moment count. When people see their time in terms of money (counting or getting), they often grow stingy with time to maximize profit. Workers who are paid by the hour volunteer less of their time and tend to feel more antsy when they are not working. When people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time.

The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all. Big increases in productivity on the job compel people to maximize the utility of their leisure time. The most direct way to do this is to consume more goods within a given unit of time. The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the “opportunity cost” of leisure (i.e., choosing one thing comes at the expense of choosing another) and contributes to feeling stressed or “burned out.”

The endless opportunities made possible by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it. Since the pleasures are all delivered to us in restricted measures, we need to come back for more.  The ability to satisfy desires instantly but fleetingly breeds impatience, fueled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much more. For instance, people visit websites less often if they are more than 250 milliseconds slower than a close competitor, according to research from Google.

Being inattentive

Mentioning Google brings me to the second problem with being available. People are unavailable because they are inattentive. In The Guardian, last month, an article noted that ” technology is contributing toward so-called ‘continuous partial attention,’ severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.  ‘Everyone is distracted,’ Rosenstein (inventor of the “like” button) says. ‘All of the time.'”

It is revealing that many younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: “never get high on your own supply.” The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later. None of this is an accident. It is all just as their designers intended. We are not available because we are already occupied, the thing is vibrating in our pockets, calling us to attend to it, and we do.

So is anyone available?

People who lead the church, then, or who just want to follow Jesus, have a somewhat daunting assignment. The church seems to expect an inordinate amount of time and a lot of attention, and we don’t feel like we have a lot of either. We feel pressed when we “must attend meetings” since they cost time. Somehow we miss that we are meeting with people we love or who need to be loved. We can’t attend to God because we take our phones to the prayer room and they lead us astray. Our bandwidth for time and attention is sucked dry by the demands of the endless outlets that wring whatever profit they can derive from us along our brief journey through life.

Is there any hope? Of course there is. I am going to offer just one of many solutions for each of the problems that steal our availability to do something transformative with Jesus.

Decide for yourself what your time is for and how it will be used. Take all the waking hours you expect to have in a week and allot them for the vision you are given, the needs you have, and the goals you want to meet. This will probably take a chart (I recommend one on paper, not on a screen). Use the chart to pray, not just plot. Let God lead you through time. Ask, “Who am I in Jesus and how do I make my time available to be my true self?”

Put limits on the technology, like the techies are doing for their children. Start with tracking how much screen time (with screens of every size) you are spending in a day. Decide how much you should spend and limit the time to that. If your job is in front of a computer, get up every half hour and walk away (pray as you are walking). Don’t put your phone by your bed (even for an alarm) or read a screen in bed. Don’t delude yourself into thinking watching TV together is the best way to relate. Get your cell (group, not phone) to talk about these things.

If we don’t do things that hold back the flood of attention-grabbing by the technologies of late capitalism we will never be available to God, to one another or to the mission of Jesus. Jesus will actually end up vying for our attention!  The people we love will need  to wait until our screens load and are finished with us. The mission might become too costly because there is just not enough time. We will not be FAT enough to do it.

For myself, when I run up against a loved one or leader with little bandwidth, I get discouraged. It is tempting to give up and join the stampede toward our individual tents where we fruitlessly try to commune with the ever-available internet, pretend face-time is a face, “likes” are love, and addiction is not what is happening. I need to turn back to hope and meditate on the quality of aliveness, right under my nose. Jesus changes wrongs into rights.

Subscribe to Development! Hit the “follow” button after you type in your email. Thanks for reading!

It is Ascension Day

N.T. Wright thinks Ascension Day is important and he suspects you don’t. I think His theology is so seldom-considered that I decided to write out a section of his book Surprised by Hope and let you consider what Luke says happens to Jesus after he rises from the dead.

Jesus ascending into heaven“Many people insist — and I dare say that this is the theology many of my readers have been taught — that the language of Jesus’ “disappearance” is just a way of saying that after his death he became, as it were, spiritually present everywhere, especially with his own followers. This is then often correlated with a nonliteral reading of the resurrection, that is, a denial of its bodily nature: Jesus simply “went to heaven when he died” in a rather special sense that makes him now close to each of us wherever we are. According to this view, Jesus has, as it were, disappeared without remainder. His “spiritual presence” with us is his only identity. In that case, of course, to speak of his second coming is then only a metaphor for his presence, in the same sense, eventually permeating all things.

What happens when people think like this? To answer this, we might ask a further question: why has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular  doctrine in the modern Western church? The answer is not just that rationalist skepticism mocks it (a possibility that the church has sometimes invited with those glass windows that show Jesus’s feet sticking downward out of a cloud). It is  that the ascension demands that we think  differently  about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literalism and skepticism operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view. Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different  dimensions  of God’s good creation. And  the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially  so that the one who is in heaven can be simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth; the ascension therefor means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thor­oughly embodied, risen state, comes as a shock to many people,  including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many  people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while,  stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least,  that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe).  More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial  reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but  also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has  suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messen­gers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge. They discovered through their own various callings how his new way of running things was to be worked out. It wasn’t a matter (as some people anxiously suppose to this day) of Christians simply taking over and giving orders in a kind of theocracy where the church could simply tell everyone what to do. That has some­ times been tried, of course, and it’s always led to disaster. But nei­ther is it a matter of the church backing off, letting the world go on its sweet way, and worshipping Jesus in a kind of private sphere.

Somehow there is a third option. …We can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom.  The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating:  always–as  Paul puts it in one of his letters–bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church–if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than  his standing  over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism. This indeed is what twentieth-century English  liber­alism always tended toward: by compromising with rationalism and trying to maintain that talk of the ascension is really talk about Je­sus being with us everywhere, the church  effectively presented itself (with its structures and hierarchy, its customs and quirks) instead of presenting Jesus as its Lord and itself as the world’s servant, as Paul puts it. And the other side of triumphalism is of course despair. If you put all your eggs into the church-equals-Jesus basket, what are you left with when, as Paul  says in the same passage, we ourselves are found to be cracked earthenware vessels?

If the church identifies its structures, its leadership, its liturgy, its buildings, or anything else with its Lord–and that’s what happens if you ignore the ascension or turn it into another way of talking about the Spirit–what do you get? You get, on the one hand, what Shakespeare called “the insolence of office” and, on the other hand, the despair of late middle age, as people realize it doesn’t work. (I see this all too frequently among those who bought heavily into the soggy rationalism of the 1950s and 1960s.) Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church­ when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him — only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Je­sus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand–when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present–are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…. We are also, significantly, rescued from the attempts that have been made to create alternative mediators, and in particular an alternative mediatrix, in his place. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

You could sum all this up by saying that the doctrine of the trinity, which is making quite a come back in current theology, is essential if we are to tell the truth not only about God, and more particularly about Jesus, but also about ourselves. The Trinity is precisely a way of recognizing and celebrating the fact of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as distinct from while still identified with God the Father, on the one hand (he didn’t just “go back to being God again” after his earthy life), and the Spirit, on the other hand (the Jesus who is near us and with us by the Spirit remains the Jesus who is other than us). This places a full stop on all human arrogance, including Christian arrogance. And now we see at last why the Enlightenment world was determined to make the ascension appear ridiculous, using the weapons of rationalism and skepticism to do so: if the ascension is true, then the whole project of human self-aggrandizement represented by eighteenth century European and American  thought  is rebuked  and  brought to heel. To embrace  the ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.

The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human and hence in an important sense absent from us while in another equally important sense present to us in a new way. At this point the Holy Spirit and the sacraments become enormously important since they are precisely the means by which Jesus is present. Often in the church we have been so keen to stress the presence of Jesus by these means that we have failed to indicate his simultaneous absence and have left people wondering whether this is, so to speak, “all there is to it.” The answer is: no, it isn’t. The lordship of Jesus; the fact that there is already a human at the helm of the world; his present intercession for us — all  this is over and above his presence with us. It is even over and above our sense of that presence, which of course comes and goes with our own moods and circumstances.

Now it is of course one thing to say all this, to show how it fits together and sets us free from some of the nonsenses we would oth­erwise get into. It’s quite another to be able to envisage or imag­ine it, to know what it is we’re really talking about when we speak of Jesus being still human, still in fact an embodied human — actually, a more solidly embodied human than we are–but absent from this present world. We need, in fact, a new and better cosmology, a new and better way of thinking about the world than the one our culture, not least post-Enlightenment culture, has bequeathed us. The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hell down beneath their feet. When they spoke of up and down like that they, like the Greeks in their different ways, were using metaphors that were so obvious they didn’t need spelling out. As some recent writers have pointed out, when a pupil at school moves “up” a grade, from (say) the tenth grade to the eleventh, it is unlikely that this means relocating to a classroom on the floor above. And though the move “up” from vice chairman of the board to chairman of the board may indeed mean that at last you get an office in the penthouse suite, it would be quite wrong to think that “moving up” in this context meant merely being a few feet farther away from terra firma.

The mystery of the ascension is of course just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment West­erners are such wretched flatlanders. Although New Age thinkers, and indeed quite a lot of contemporary novelists, are quite capable of taking us into other parallel worlds, spaces, and times, we retreat into our rationalistic closed-system universe as soon as we think about Jesus. C. S. Lewis of course did a great job in the Narnia sto­ries and elsewhere of imagining how two worlds could relate and interlock. But the generation that grew up knowing its way around Narnia does not usually know how to make the transition from a children’s  story to  the real world  of grown-up  Christian  devotion and theology.”

What do you think? Can you do some theology with N.T. Wright? Happy Ascension Day!

Four reasons people might not care to be radical Christians – Part 1

Who are radical Christians? They may not look as wild as you might expect, or be famous for being “out there.” But they will have some basic characteristics. For instance:

  • They are devoted to being at the heart of the kingdom and to having the kingdom at the heart of them.
  • God is not trying to get them to do things with moderate success; they are trying to get God to do things.
  • Following Jesus is not a side job, it is their vocation.
  • The church is not one of many options; it is their tribal identity.
  • Mission is not a leisure time activity; they will use their money-making work to make it happen.
  • Believing is not exhausting for them; it is exhilarating.

That sounds great. So why wouldn’t everyone want to be radical Christian? Thank God, many people do! But let’s be honest, Christians are feeling on the defensive. They’ve lost their home field advantage in the society. The “cultural” Christians who used to give a high five to Jesus are changing to the “nones” the Pew survey is tracking. Christianity is no longer first choice among many seeking spiritual meaning. You don’t have to identify as a Christian to be accepted in society like you used to. If your faith is squishy, it is better to identify as “spiritual” — Ed Stetzer is an optimistic church expert guy, but even he admits that.

Do I look like a radical?
James 1:22-25

Circle of Hope was founded on the premise that we could find a group of radicals in the Philly metro who would form the next church as the old one died around them. It is totally amazing that we’ve managed to get together nearly 700 of them and have touched the lives of 1000s of others who have received compassion or just passed through and taken away something good. But being a radical is tough, over the long haul. And these days, it seems like finding more radicals is even harder than it was to begin with.

I think there are eight big reasons people don’t want to be radicals. I don’t enumerate them to be critical, just honest. And, I admit it, I am trying to get God to do something – I want him to draw together the next 700 people God is calling to reveal the kingdom in the Philly metro as they band together as the next church.

What is in the way of that? Here are the first four reasons. The other four will show up next time.

1) People worship at the altar of scientism these days

Ronald Miller says: “We have scientific (psychological) experts giving us moral guidance not because their science allows them to know what we should be doing with our lives but because they cause so much less harm than their religious and political predecessors. Of course, for this moral disarmament to work effectively the scientific experts must be convinced of the truth of their message and the consumer assured that no better advice is available. These are two conditions that are rather easily met. In the presence of oppressive forces stifling individual freedom, self-exploration, and self expression, scienticism as a moral system had a balancing effect within Western society” (in Facing Human Suffering, p. 101-2).

After 100 years of this, the new “priests” of science are firmly in place and have new laws to back them up. But the religion of science has de-moralized the populace and become a spiritual problem, itself. Nevertheless, most 19-year-olds are committed to it and it is hard to convince them to change their no-religion religion.

2) People believe the narrative of human rights

The Jesus story is the ultimate story of human freedom. But the church allied itself with all sorts of colonial enterprises, endorsed slavery, oppressed minorities and women and started wars. The Vatican is a kingdom, for pity’s sake! Much of the church sold its birthright for a mess of pottage. People noticed.

The United States’ narrative is about how political rights bring salvation; it is the gospel of democracy. This philosophy supposedly guarantees freedom to succeed and freedom from oppression. People believe it, even when they don’t succeed and are enslaved! When the church comes through with another narrative based on God, not human freedom, following a suffering servant, not one’s desires, there is an argument.

3) Sex is unleashed from the sacred and from community

For many people, these are the unspoken truths they live by: “If someone will love me, I will trade Jesus for them. If something threatens my orgasm, I will sacrifice that something.”

Too bad the image of sex in Christianity is celibate priests who aren’t celibate and dour Puritans telling everyone to “just say no!”  Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of his time, which especially exploited slaves and women, who men valued mainly for their ability to produce children and provide pleasure. Faith in Jesus worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male drives, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage, and sex, with love. Christian marriage was as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.

“Christendom” did not bring in a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. But Jesus reformed sexual instinct, embedded it within a community, and directed it in positive ways. The younger one is, the more likely they are to view any restraint or direction as oppression, especially in regards to sex. Even talking about sex probably violates the right to privacy they invented last century. People are done with Christian meddling. The main thing they are getting rid of is Christian nonsense, but they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

4) Radicality takes a time commitment

I’m drifting into the more personal and less philosophical area that I will explore next time, but not completely. Questions of time are economic questions, and the people of the world have been forced into “economies” for some time now by the powers that be. We are expected to find our meaning in what we do: what we produce and what we consume. We sell our time for money. Time is money.

Not conforming, Christians do what they do for God’s glory as carriers of that glory. The abiding metaphor is that we were ransomed from sin and death and set free in a safe place under a loving regime. This reality puts Jesus followers in direct opposition to the powers that demand all our time — now machines can contact us and track us 24/7!  Being and building the alternative to that life-sucking regime takes time. Compassion is demanding. Relationships take effort. Mission is preoccupying. Commitment means we do not save our lives in the present system at the cost of our true selves. It is harder than that last sentence might make it seem.

So there are four big reasons why people might be daunted when it comes to being a true Christian. The Bible writers are always quite frank about the problem of being at odds with the powers that be: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6). We’re honest about that, too.

Read on for some more personal reasons in Part 2.