Living in Exodus

by Alexei Laushkin

The Exodus is a pivotal moment for the people of God. They are rescued from Egypt, where their lives were filled with slavery, toil, and oppression and they make it to the desert on the way to the promised land.

And what do they encounter? They encounter their hearts which are filled with self-slavery, self-toil, and self-oppression. They exchange the hardship of Egypt for the hardship of their own inner life.

And this inner life provokes them against God even in the midst of great blessing, and God having known and foreseen His people’s sin waits and tests and sees if they will repent and turn.

For that is open to all of us who know the mercy of God, to turn towards him during the times of trial and great difficulty, especially as we are often deeply caught up in our own sin. We turn, he responds.

Yet instead of turning and even while being daily provided for and being rescued from enemies far stronger than them, they wrestle with God.

The God who single handedly freed them from Egypt now keeps them in the desert for 40 years.  You can almost hear echoes of the famous hymn lines:

Born to wander Lord I feel it, born to leave the God I love

Every since Genesis God has been in the process of reconciling with his people. First we have Noah, where God provides a rescue plan, an ark, and a covenant.

Than we have Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Jacob is one of the more interesting of the old Patriarchs, for he steals his brother’s birthright and is hounded by his conscience. Jacob is the father of Israel, and he wrestles with God, wrestling with his identity and God’s promises, wrestling with how he has made and what he wants and what God wants of him.

Jacob is  a man like us, unsure and wrestling with the sin within.

You see, since Genesis we are waiting for restoration, we are waiting for Jesus.

Jesus enables a restoration from our fallen nature of sin into the glorious freedom of the children of God. He is our justification from living like Jacob at his worst, or David at his worst or ourselves at our worst, to where Adam was before the fall. He restores and heals our fallen nature. Not all at once (though justification is all at once) but through a process.

Through a journey, into the wilderness. 

The wilderness was a time of testing for the people of God. Would they wait, would they stay focused even while everything was provided for, would they be content with trusting God’s goodness.

The desert tested God’s people, remove the comfort from a man and he’s lifted with a heart that is miserly, desires that are unmet, and a total lack of contentment.

Perhaps you yourself have felt these desert moments. These times when God seems absent, though he may be providing your every need, where your heart seems to wander and get lost in its own discontent.

God’s people having been rescued from Egypt, are in the desert. Their memories quickly fade, they begin to question Moses, they know God is with them, but what sort of God lets us wander aimlessly, when do we get to become like the Egyptians great and strong, instead of weak and dependent, a wandering nation.

Can you hear some of the dialogue of what might have been desired and yet what was experienced.

Yet God’s rescue plan for humanity is playing out in this same desert. His trying of character, as in the days of Abraham, so in the days of Noah, so in the days of Moses, is there no one who will follow me? Is there no one righteous to be found?

Why is God asking these sorts of questions of humanity? Like waters in a desert stream is the man who can trust in God despite his circumstances. You see our ultimate rebellion was to trust in ourselves, and so we reap what we sow. But when we trust in God even if nothing good occurs we reap a rich inner harvest for this life and the life to come.

Consider the very lives of Abraham, Noah, Jacob, Moses, and David. Where any of their lives simple? Where they not harassed, constantly facing danger and toil, and yet the Lord God delivered them from all these challenges, temptations, and tribulations.

Blessed is the heart of a man who is stayed on God and knows Christ as his true dependence, whatever he may face in outer oppression (matters of Justice) or inner oppression (matters of the heart). For both can derail a man from trusting God in his wilderness, and yet dependence, and yet blessed is the main whose heart remains focused and steadfast whether he sees oppression from without and from within.

Alexei Laushkin is Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network,  a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society,  and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own. 

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Relational Commitment

We live in an age that does not have a very good concept or grasp of Christian commitment when it comes to loving our neighbor as our self. We interpret these words to mean that we should treat each other well not that we should commit to each other whether the relationship is going well or not. We tolerate each other, we seldom repeatedly seek each others good or take the time to heal misunderstandings or divisions. Ours is a polite culture that values not inconveniencing others unnecessarily.

Jesus says that those that follow his teachings are his sister, brother, and mother. Those who are deeply committed to Christian life are family. The new testament writers often use language reserved for family to describe their heartache, prayers, and hopes for the communities the Lord has focused them on.

Even the word family can be problematic to describe commitment in our present cultural moment. Many people come from families where love and warmth were not readily or consistently available. When as people we are robbed of the experience of joy, love, and commitment we are left with ourselves. Thereby we let our own wants and interests rule why we stay in certain friendships or get to know certain people but not others. We are robbed of the understanding of Christian love and commitment without being left with any way to navigate or feel comfortable with those types of relationships.

In this way the sins of the parents or grandparents can easily be passed down for multiple generations. Cruelty and unkindness can disproportionately alter our understandings of the sort of life Jesus prays for us to have.

In the Gospel of John we hear the words that Jesus prays that we would be one as He and the Father are one. That same level of unity and commitment. It is a powerful prayer that ought to have some earthly connotations, especially when we think of loving specific neighbors and friends.

Obviously this type of commitment has to be mutual. While one person may consistently love and care for another and while Christians are called to be extraordinarily patient and persistent, in some ways without reciprocity a stable relationship cannot be built. There has to be a level of discretion when you are encouraging loving kindness and commitment while knowing that many may have very little interest on what you are saying or doing. Above all forgiveness and care has to be consistently practiced if any sense of Christian depth of community is to be realized.

Transformation has to occur persistently in oneself to more fully live into the command ‘to love your neighbor as yourself.’

Is such a thing even possible in the present time? Yes, but it is rare. Trans-formative but rare. In an age where the bonds of fidelity, trust, and care are so easily broken and transgressed it is deeply counter-cultural and difficult to push things in a reverse direction. But with God, all things are possible, and it does not take huge numbers for God’s people to triumph and transform the moment at hand.

 

Grounded Faith Formation

Christian spiritual formation can take on an other-worldly emphasis from time to time. The evangelical American subculture (true for Catholics as well) is filled with retreat centers and other places where participants are invited to come away from their day to day life and spend time with God. In and of itself these centers of rest and respite are really important aspects to a life of faith, unless they become the only way we can envision drawing closer to God.

The Christian life is filled with subtle but deadly if onlys. I would be generous if only I made more. I would be prayerful if only I had the time. I would be kinder if I wasn’t so frazzled.

We have stopped looking at what has become of us as more a revelation of our true nature. When we are busy, when we are moody, when we are hungry, when we are impatient. That’s a truer image of our life without God. That’s a better reflection of our sinful nature. That’s us. It’s not the exception, it’s what we are when the comforts of life are pealed back.

The good news, is that how we actually are is a great starting point for spiritual transformation for those of us who persevere. A vibrant life of faith can and should be built in to life as it is for us. Whether it’s subtle practices of prayer, or giving out of our substance instead of our abundance, faith gets cultivated in our day to day lives.

Are you in a season that is especially busy? Are you in midst of trials and temptations, than if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed, God will use it to build in a full, vibrant, living faith, as you integrate your life as it is with the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Retreats and respites are important, but a faith that is built in around the hectic patterns and trials of life is more central. In other words what you do today in regards to faith is of more value than what you do when you are moved from your life as it is.

On Loving My Neighbor Well

One of the persistent themes for millennials tends to be relational isolation or lack of relational connection. Yes we have Facebook, twitter, and countless youtubes, instagram, skype, texting, and more, yet the basic problem remains. Are we known and do we know others really?

When you look at depression rates, a bad economy (high unemployment for millennials), gaming addiction, and more you realize that at our core our generation is a bit relationally isolated. Obviously this is not true for everyone, but I find very few millennials even the ones with old friendships are relationally satisfied.

In any case if you are still reading, I assume you can identify with at least some of these dynamics. To be loved and to know you are loved are one of the most basic human desires.

So if this is true, why don’t we find a lot of this sort of thing within the church? It is there, but it is not a universal experience.

I want to give you at least one way to look at, and that’s around the language of family and its disuse within the church. Consider the words of Jesus:

 “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:15-17)

We know we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, where we have trouble is the application. Too often we love are neighbors in the abstract instead of loving our neighbors actually. Also we are not very intentional about the loving our neighbor aspect of faith. Loving God we think about a bit more fully (read the bible more, pray more, etc.), but loving our neighbor (umm…). Too often, we functionally love our neighbor by not confronting them with things that bug us about them.

So to open us up a bit more, let’s consider the language of family. Brothers, sisters, parents, and children. That’s the language the New Testament most often uses in relation to the church. Think about it this way, if you want to love your neighbor more fully think about loving them as a close relational brother or a close relational sister.

Something about the word family reorients our focus towards the family of God. Especially when we think of specific Christians not just an abstract concept. What would it mean to build the sorts of ties that put you in a more familial posture?

Obviously this is a bit of an imperfect analogy, but not by much or at least not as much as we might think. Our tendency when confronted with more concrete ideas is to explain them away. Instead of trying to wrestle with them on the terms presented.

So, here’s an exercise. Think about one or two people that you might want to build a more brotherly or sisterly relationship with. What might it look like to love them well?

This is not an easy process, it actually takes a long time and there is a fair amount of trial and error on how to do this, but unless there is some explicit intentionality it may very well not happen at all. You say but my neighbor is hard to love? They are too different?

Well put it this way. We don’t choose our biological family. We don’t choose our local community as much as we might think either. So try and work on your own heart first and trust God to make up the difference when it comes to trying to really love our neighbor well.

We are no longer simply friends or acquaintances but we are part of a family and a kingdom. It’s time we took that element of our life of faith a bit more seriously than we do.

And The Second is Like It

 And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:39, NIV)

If you’re like me, you likely read past this part of scripture. Love, the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. You read the Lord part and skip or at least abbreviate the neighbor part.

Photo by Lauren Manning used through flickr creative commons

Photo by Lauren Manning used through flickr creative commons

The truth is our Christian culture is geared towards ME+GOD not as much geared towards ME+OTHERS. Don’t get me wrong. We want community, we want connection, but we often don’t find it. Why is that?

If we really believe that the second is like it, we have to work through loving others in a bit more of a complex way then I just want to be loved and known.

If prayer is to be transmuted into action, then this Trinitarian faith which informs all our praying must also be manifest in our daily life. Immediately before reciting the Creed in the Eucharistic Liturgy, we say these words: ‘Let us love one another, so that we may with one mind confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.’ Note the words ‘so that’. A genuine confession of faith in the Triune God can only be made only by those who, after the  likeness of the Trinity, show love mutually towards each other. There is an integral connection between our love for one another and our faith in the Trinity: the first is a precondition for the second, and in its turn the second gives full strength and meaning to the first. (The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware)

If one commandment is like the other, it would only make sense that the two are connected. If our relationship with God seems stilted or not as robust as we would hope, maybe a good place to start is our relationships with our neighbors.

Integral to faith is repentance, communion, and fellowship. Repentance is tied to communion and fellowship. A lack of repentance and reconciliation in relationship is wicked.

Have you ever had the friend you had no desire to be around? You know the one who bugs the heck out of you? Maybe instead of excusing our feelings of contempt it would be better to confess them. Better to confess contempt then to begin to mistreat our fellow neighbor.

So much of scripture and the kingdom is opened up when we focus on the neighborly command. Love does no harm to a neighbor. The forgiveness of the servant to those who owe us less than we owe God.

Perhaps it is our relationships with family and friends that tells us more about our faith than our private devotions to the Lord. A public show of faith, even if it is done in private for an audience of one (yourself), does not make one righteous before God.

Self-love is the negation of love. From Descent into Hell by Charles William:

self-love is hell; for, carried to its ultimate conclusion, self-love signifies the end of all joy and meaning. Hell is not other people; hell is myself, cut off from others in self-centeredness.

We are called to reflect the love of the Trinity in our relationships. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, Jesus prayed that we would share in the love and fullness of Life.

If we believe that we are to love God with our heart, mind, strength, and soul then let us also believe that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves.

May the Lord convict and free us to love, repent, forgive, and be in fellowship as much as it is in our power to do so.

Blessings,

Alexei

Saints in the Marketplace

“So we are to be engaged in the public square, the local and global marketplace. But we are to do so as saints in the marketplace” (The Mission of God’s People by Christopher J.H. Wright)

How should I be a Christian in my professional life seems to be one of those common Christian questions. We know that it means more than evangelizing our co-workers, but if so, what exactly does it mean?

Photo by Lawrence OP used used through flickr creative commons

Photo by Lawrence OP used used through flickr creative commons

I choose the title saints on purpose, though I realize the connotation is fraught with unhelpful meaning for too many . In the west, we idolize our heroes of the faith. We have a notion that a saint is someone who does extraordinary things for God.  They had a big moment with God and afterwards their lives were just one giant and wonderful act of obedience. While many saints are extraordinary our view of them is rather unhelpful. In Eastern Orthodoxy saints are common, saints are even everyday. They are flawed, they have various vocations, and their personalities are as varied as they come. Saints can be ordinary, they can be everyday, because God calls all of us to take up our cross daily to  seek him and to seek the fruits of the kingdom. In other words the eastern view is that we can all be saints.

As evangelicals become less a moral majority in the culture it may be easier and easier to see how we can be distinctive in the marketplace. There are at least some simple guidelines for Christians. For instance we ought not to participate in work that is willfully dishonest, or if we do we must repent much like the tax collector in the temple.

One thing has to be said before I write too much more. As usual I’ll let N.T. Wright do the talking:

“Jesus is the Lord, but it’s the crucified Jesus who is Lord– precisely because it’s his crucifixion that has won the victory over all the other powers that think of themselves as in charge of the world. But that means that his followers, charged with implementing his victory in the world, will themselves have to do so by the same method. One of the most striking things about some of (what we normally see as) the later material in the New Testament is the constant theme of suffering, suffering not as something merely to be bravely borne for Jesus’s sake, but as something that is mysteriously taken up into the redemptive suffering of Jesus himself. He won his victory through suffering; his followers win theirs through sharing in his. The Spirit and suffering. Great joy and great cost. Those who follow Jesus and claim him (and proclaim him) as Lord learn both of  them. It’s as simple as that” (Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright ).

You hear too often the notion that one after all has to provide for himself and his family. How many sins have been committed under the pretense of that saying. While it’s true scripture commends provision for family, even calling someone who is unable to provide faithless, it is not true that God is unaware of our needs. We too easily excuse ourselves from moral dilemmas in the workplace.

I know suffering is not a fun topic for American Christians, but it is a theme we should neither glorify nor ignore. They are a part of the Christian walk much like joy and provision, birth and baptism, even marriage.  They are not necessarily a sign of failure or disobedience, they can often be a mark of the faithful Christian walk.

So back to to the topic at hand. How exactly should we be everyday saints in the marketplace? It’s hard to be overly specific, because circumstance, vocation, and vocational expertise can often help determine what this looks like in context. Here are some questions to ask yourself though. Do I view my work as having any specific Christian meaning? Am I any different at work then at home? Would my pastor be comfortable with how I act at work? Do I have compassion towards my co-workers? Do I use every opportunity to glorify God in my day to day work? Am I willing to speak up when I see signs of dishonesty, wickedness, and exploitation?

May  the Lord bless you as you start your work week,

Alexei

Does Faith Stagnate?

It’s a hard question. If you’re like me you may have been exposed to the idea that our relationship with God comes in cycles. Sometimes we feel closer to him and sometimes we feel further from him. The idea being that a life of faith is filled with peaks and valleys.

I suspect a lot of Christians raised in the church, may view their walk in this way. When our faith isn’t as vibrant, we think to ourselves ‘I’m just in a valley right now. Sure I love God and one day I plan to be more serious about it, but for now I’m fine and I know God understands.’

God may understand but I submit it’s not what he intends for me or you.

I think a lot of people have a whole host of experiences when it comes to God and specifically faith in Jesus Christ. But is our faith intended to be marked by hills and valleys? I submit that the intention is that the overall direction is growth. We will indeed experience hardships and difficulties but a living faith is borne out of those experiences.

It’s a topic worth exploring. Mainly when we enter into an active relationship with God does he promise us that our walk in faith will be one cycle after another?

Consider Jesus on this point:

“For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 ESV).

and also in John 6:15 NIV: “In this world you will have trouble.”

You can’t look at the lives of Job or Moses or King David or the history of Israel or even the history of the Church without a sense that difficulties arise from sin, human nature, and evil (mainly the devil, the founder of lies). These are the things which give us hardship and cause us to step back from living out a vibrant active faith.

This idea of cycles in our walk with God is not really borne out in the scriptures. Ecclesiastes is focused on the different types of things God allows and permits through the seasons, it’s not a promise that we are in similar seasons at all times or that there is a perfect season to be attained, instead it shows us variety and depth in all human experience.

With the New Testament you get the ideas of fruit, abundance, seasons of fruitfulness, growth, and maturity. These are the ideas that are found in the parables of the faithful servants, and the writings of the New Testament. The ideas of agriculture are more appropriate with its focus on seasons of planting and rest, of production and sabbath rather than the ideas of balance with its focus on tinkering and adjusting until you reach a place where passion and fulfillment meet.

The Christian idea has more to do with understanding how we work and live as part of an active body. We grow and are equipped for seasons and circumstances. God provides comfort and understanding and expression in all the rich variety of our lives but calls us into transformation into a new way of being, where the old self with its lies, insecurities, and deceptions is put to death in favor of the new self with its fruitfulness, loving kindness, and purposefulness.

Faith is a deeply human condition. We are all aware that things are not how they are supposed to be. Walking with Christ is more than just help for the difficulties of this life, it is to be equipped for actual hope that Christ has overcome the difficulties, sin, and evil in the world, in your world. He has judged those things and to borrow a phrase from N.T. Wright will be working to brings things to rights. Meaning to make things right, in the ultimate sense of the word.

We may experience seasons of pain, frustration, and doubt, but the intention of our experiences is not to produce a cyclical stagnate faith. There is still yet hope for a vibrant growth lead by the Spirit, showing us the way of the Son, who Himself perfectly reflects The Father.