Conversion

Have you ever seen a conversion happen? I don’t just mean the blessed moment when somebody makes a public announcement of their desire to “be a Christian” or to “follow Jesus.” That’s a moment that we might call the beginning of conversion, but to slap the label of “conversion” on such an instantaneous moment is akin to calling the first celery stick weight loss.

No, my question is: have you ever seen somebody gripped by the Spirit and remade over days, weeks, months, and years into the being that God has called them to be? Any conversion is a process that begins perhaps in a moment, but does not relent until that person is transformed. But, conversion is not a word that applies only to altar-walking and blood-soaked hymns in some humid sanctuary. People can be converted into just about anything. Ultimately, it’s a process of transformation, but even though the Christian God is a God of change and transformation, change and transformation are not themselves holy or dominated by the Spirit.

Here’s the truth: we are always and forever being converted—what matters is what we’re being converted to.

Take the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32). Often, we rip right through the passage to get to that moment among the pigs where our protagonist, who has first demanded and then squandered his inheritance from his still-living father on “dissolute living” (read: all those things that good boys and girls don’t do. You know, drink, or smoke, or chew, or go with boys/girls who do) comes to a shocking realization. He exclaims to himself, “My father’s servants have food to spare, but my father’s son is dying of hunger! I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll go home and beg dad to forgive my sins against him and God. I’ll beg for mercy and to become his servant so that I might be saved.”

We rush to this muddy and noisy place in the story because we’ve been trained to see this as the moment of conversion. Don’t get me wrong, it is! The wayward son has seen the effects of his choices on his life and how his pursuit of the world was a pursuit of death; so, he repents and confesses and seeks forgiveness. He sees what he is and starts down a path toward becoming something else. This is, most definitely, a beautiful picture of God’s converting love.

But in our haste to get there, we miss the conversion that happens all around it. Is it not just as clear that the son who repents and confesses was first converted to a love of, and devotion to, something else? In those first few verses, we see a story of conversion from loyal son to prodigal son—from child who loves his father to child who loves his father’s money. We don’t get all the details and we don’t get a speech or exclamation, but we most certainly see a process where he is converted to love of himself and the pursuit of pleasure as his greatest good. He is seduced by the gospel of living for yourself and transformed into something altogether pitiable.

Or how about the conversion of his brother who remains home with his their father. At the end of the passage, the older brother is irate that his father has lavished mercy and reward upon the wayward son come home. The older brother cannot bite back his disgust that his loyalty has remained unrewarded while his younger brother’s sins have been forgiven and overlooked. It seems that while younger brother was away being converted to the gospel of this world, older brother was being converted to a gospel of works and pride. His confidence in his own inherent goodness and effort have made him a hard man who cannot celebrate life restored to the undeserving—indeed, he can no longer see that he is truly among the undeserving himself.

Conversion is happening every day to everybody. Right now, you are being converted from something and into something. God has graced us with some small decisions to make about who and what we are becoming, but make no mistake: you are changing—you are being converted. The primary question is: to what are you being converted? There are a whole host of kingdoms and gospels to which we can be converted, but if we are being converted to any kingdom except the Kingdom of God, or to any gospel but Christ crucified, then we are being converted to death no matter how defensible or reasonable the cause.

So, just who are you becoming?

 This inspirational word was brought to you by Josh Hearne of Grace & Main Fellowship.

 

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How Many Kingdoms?

“God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly.”  Martin Luther, 1523.

Consider this photograph, taken at the launching of a German warship in 1936.

There are many such photographs from the Nazi era in Germany, and they are chilling.

In the first half of the 20th century Germany was the intellectual center of Western civilization. Germany was also the birthplace of Martin Luther, and therefore of Protestant Christianity.  The world’s leading theologians were German and many of those who weren’t German by birth were educated in German universities.

Yet the German people embraced fascism, a political philosophy rooted in racism and militarism. Millions of good, honest German people would dutifully go to church on Sunday, and then become cogs in an evil machine on Monday.  Their state manufactured machines of war and violence, and the people responded with cheers and salutes.  Their state planned for war and oppression, and the people responded with patriotism and national pride.

We owe a great debt to Martin Luther for exposing the corruption of the church of his day, but his notion that we live in “two kingdoms”—one being God’s kingdom and the other being the secular state (or one “visible” and the other “invisible”)—was ultimately to be a source of great evil in the world.  The notion that the state exists to keep order and that it is fundamentally distinct from the Kingdom of God led to the so-called “good German” syndrome, characterized by loyal, patriotic German Christians, like those in the photo above, cheering and saluting the launching of a Nazi warship.

But should we divide our loyalties this way?  How many kings should we serve?

It is easy to be critical of the Germans of that day, but what if we took a hard look at our own culture?   What do we cheer and applaud?  What do we salute?  How different are we from those German citizens cheering their warship?

Every Thursday evening at Grace and Main we come together for a community meal, following which many of us participate in a Bible or book study.  Lately we’ve been reading and discussing Brian McLaren’s wonderful book The Secret Message of Jesus.  In the book McLaren explores Jesus’ radical proclamation that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1: 15)  McLaren challenges the idea that we can separate parts of our lives and existences from the kingdom of God, convincingly showing that Jesus calls us to “see, seek, receive, and enter a new political and social and spiritual reality he calls the kingdom of God.” (emphasis mine) In other words, we should not live in a “spiritual” kingdom that is distinct and inconsistent with our “political” or “social” kingdoms.

We’ve had some great discussions as we work through the book and consider what living out the kingdom of God should look like in our world.  It is clear, to me at least, that God has ordained only one kingdom, not two.  And as citizens of that kingdom, the kingdom of God, we should give our loyalty and support only to things that further that kingdom, and not to things, such as the launching of warships, that do not.

Now take a closer look at the photograph.

The man with his arms crossed, refusing to salute the ship, is August Landmesser, a shipyard worker who had been persecuted for having a relationship with a Jewish woman.  Amid all those cheering and saluting the warship, August Landmesser courageously refused.

When I look at that photograph I see in that box a little piece of the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know what August Landmesser was thinking as he stood there that morning, but I’d like to think he had these words in mind: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by a renewing of your mind.”  (Romans 12: 2)

This inspirational word was brought to you by Bill Guerrant of Grace & Main Fellowship.

The Furious Love of God

Stories are very powerful. They can motivate us, challenge us. Stories can break our hearts and heal our hearts at the same time. So, here is a story of God’s unrelenting love:

On a beautiful, summer day in 1981, a boy named Paul was born, and Abba smiled down on His new creation. Also present—as with all births— were Jesus, who was praising the Father for His creation, and the Spirit, who lit on the child and filled him with life-giving breath. A humbling scene for sure: the Sacred Three at the birth of a mere human! And so began God’s unrelenting pursuit of this child.

The boy grew in size and in mischief. And he wasn’t alone in his mischief. He was fortunate enough to be in a family of two brothers and two sisters—each equipped with his/her own special form of naughtiness. But Paul was different. He was a typical boy in some ways: wrecking his bike on purpose, showing off for girls, etc. But he was unique in that he seemed to have spiritual maturity that went beyond his 16 years—a fact that his siblings couldn’t deny.

As the boys lay awake at night, they would make up stories—sometimes ridiculous, funny stories; at other times, deep, meaningful musings on life and death, God and humans. Paul almost always led the conversation to more spiritual discussion. Paul knew the grace and the unrelenting love of God; he knew what was important to his Abba.

He had a passion for God that was confusing to his brothers and sisters. Paul seemed to get in trouble all the time for all sorts of things, things that “good boys” shouldn’t do: smoking at school, getting bad grades, driving when he wasn’t supposed to. But when it came to God, Paul was bold and faithful, committed and unashamed. Paul looked out for the underdog—he loved the outcasts and his enemies alike. Much to the frustration of his brothers, Paul would compliment and joke with the kids that ridiculed and hurt him. At his young age, Paul was putting to practice the words of the enemy-loving Jesus.

On one particularly memorable night, Paul and his youngest brother were talking about life and death. Paul, filled with the deep love of his Abba, humbly stated, “I would give my life if one person would come to know the love of God.” His words were powerful but painful to his youngest brother. The conversation quickly ended, but those words remained deep in the hearts of both boys.

About one month later, on a Wednesday night, Paul and his sister, Mary, and youngest brother were heading to church. Earlier in the day, Paul pretended to be sick so he could get out of a test at school, but he was adamant about not missing church that night. The evening sun was nearing its final descent beneath the horizon, and its rays were blindingly bright. So bright, that as their car crossed over the highway into on-coming traffic, none of the children saw the car barreling towards them. And as the car plowed into them, his life ebbing away, Paul heard the soft, tender words of his Abba: “Come now, my love; my lovely one, come. For you, the winter has passed; the snows are over and gone; the flowers appear in the land; the season of joyful songs has come. The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. Come now, my love; my lovely one, come. Let Me see your face. And let Me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful. Come now, my love, my lovely one, come” (Song of Songs 2:10-14). And Paul’s broken, wounded body was, in the words of Brennan Manning, “swept up into the reckless, raging fury that they call the love of God.”

As I stated before, stories are powerful. They have the potential to change lives. And this story has changed my life. It’s the story of Abba’s furious love for my brother Paul. And for me… Because of my brother and his desire for others to know the unrelenting love of God, I now know the love he was talking about. Because of my brother’s willingness to give his life, I can experience the furious love of my Abba for me, an unworthy, broken, ragamuffin.

This inspirational word was brought to you by Matt Bailey of Grace & Main Fellowship.

How About This Weather?

A common icebreaker, during my walks downtown, is to talk about the weather. “Sure is hot today.” “Looks like rain.” “What a beautiful day.” The weather is something that people tend not to have passionate opinions about and is also something that is easily observable. Someone can talk with me about the weather and I can easily understand the point they are trying to get across.

At the same time, there is something mysterious about the weather. In spite of our often failed attempts at predicting it, we cannot control the weather. It is something beyond the human sphere that, nevertheless, we find ourselves in. The weather is part of nature; part of God’s creation.

Various individuals have argued that glimpses of God can be gained through meteorological observation. An even wider collection of contributors has contended that awareness of God comes through careful analysis of God’s creation

In his book on systematic theology entitled, Christian Doctrine, Shirley C. Guthrie Jr. defines general revelation as “the self-disclosure of God that all people can perceive by contemplating evidence of God’s presence in the world of nature, history, and human life in general.” That is to say, general revelation is the way in which we find God through examination of the world around us.

Popular evidence for such a claim centers on the idea that the universe appears to operate with purpose. The body is an extremely complex system of networks that operate in intricate harmony with one another. We breathe in what trees breathe out and trees breathe in what we breathe out. The acorn that the squirrel drops sprouts roots fed by decomposing leaves as it grows into a replica of its mother. The natural world appears to have order; purpose.

Many a heated debate has revolved around the how of the Genesis 1 story of creation. For the sake of this discussion, we are not concerned with the how, but the why. According to Genesis 1 God creates the heavens and the earth; all of existence; the cosmos. However, God does not just say a couple of words and the world poofs into existence. Rather, there is a method utilized by the Divine Creator.

On the first day God creates light, dark, and time (via the distinction of day and night). On day two God creates the waters below and above, the oceans and the sky, locations recognizable only in the presence of light and dark. On the third day dry ground appears. Dry land only exists in contrast to the seas. Its existence is dependent upon its relationship to that which has come before it. Further still God goes on to create plant life, animals of the land, air, and sea, and finally humans. Each creation made only after that which sustains it has been created. Plants are not created until after there is dry land for them to dwell, water for them to drink, and sunlight for them to “eat.” God’s creation is codependent. As the last part of the process, the pinnacle of creation, humans are dependent upon all that has come before them; all of Creation. Human beings gain purpose through relationships with the world around them. This relationship driven purpose is not isolated to ecology, but dwells within our own intra-species interactions.

Perhaps a more easily observable conclusion can be drawn from another famous founder. Perhaps my favorite mortal creator, the late Jim Henson has utilized intricate relationships is his creation of the worlds of The Muppets, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock. It takes a powerful creator to turn several yards of felt into a banjo playing theatre manager who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Miss Piggy. However, Kermit is just a puppet if not for his best friend Fozzie, temper with Gonzo, and patience with Animal. Kermit is Kermit because of the relationships he has with the world around him.

Like Kermit, we too are defined by our relationships. I know myself, my environment, and God through my relationship with you. The Kingdom of God is not to be studied, but observed. Sometimes, the most devout questions are not answered by theologians, but by the stranger. Sometimes glimpses of Heaven can be gained by asking, “How about this weather?”

This inspirational word was brought to you by Ben Wright of Grace & Main Fellowship.

Laminar Lives

I tend to think in extremes; first and last, highest and lowest, longest and shortest, all or none. I believe most people do this to some extent. For example, when I’m at work and working on a task, I am asked how long it will take. I always say something like, “that should only take an hour” which is the absolute minimum amount of time I would need to finish it, when it actually ends up taking four hours. Or when given a big problem to solve, for example, social poverty; what might be our first solution? Let’s go and spend every chance we can with people who have been socially neglected. Sounds good, right? Sure, except when we see there are so many people in need that we become overwhelmed. Generally, we think, if we can’t fully devote time, effort, strength into it, it’s not worth doing or it’s not going to be enough to solve the problem. Then, nothing gets done. So, we want to do something, but if we try to solve it thinking in extremes, we will eventually burn out.

I went to school to learn engineering. While there, I learned about how fluids flow. In my Fluid Dynamics class, I was taught that fluids flow in two categories: laminar and turbulent. Laminar fluids flow smoothly, uniformly, in one direction with very little friction. Because of this parallel flow with all particles moving in the same direction and small amount of friction, the sum of the energy output is very close to the sum of the energy input. This results in a very powerful and efficient flow. In contrast, turbulent fluids flow irregularly, chaotically, and unparallel to the overall direction of the flow. At any one point in the fluid, the speed is constantly changing in magnitude and direction. Turbulent flow is characterized by a large loss in energy due to friction. The sum of the energy output is much less than the sum of the energy input.

I tell you about fluid dynamics because I believe we can apply those fluid flow principles to our lives. We have a finite amount of energy we put into everything we do. Sometimes we will try to “do” too much to bring the kingdom of God here on Earth; other times, not enough. I believe there is a balance between the two where we are most effective at being disciples of Christ. There is a difference between trying to do so many good things and being very effective at what we do. Sometimes we are blinded by a need so big that we think we have to do everything we can to help solve it. Instead of spreading our efforts on something like this, which ends up being solely charity, what does it look like to focus our energy and try to provide some real justice? We must evaluate how we use our energy such that it shows we love God with our entire lives and we love our neighbor as ourselves.

If there are things that cause friction, slow us down, and make our lives turbulent, maybe we need to consider removing them from our flow path. These things that slow us down may be good, but they’re causing turbulence. What aspects of our lives are causing turbulence? I’m not saying that we should throw out everything that doesn’t seem effective at Kingdom work. I truly believe that having fun, not being productive and resting is part of living a balanced, laminar life. I’m saying, let’s take a look at our lives and find ways we can show the world how powerful God is; that He has a plan to heal this broken world with love.

This inspirational word was brought to you by Mike Huggins of Grace & Main Fellowship.

The Church Defined

You don’t have to read too far into the book of Ephesians to surmise that Paul is addressing the Church in Ephesus with this letter. But, almost 2,000 years later we can sometimes miss the particular audience of Paul’s letter by applying our own understanding of “Church” to Paul’s writing. In the first two verses of the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul is addressing his audience and, in doing so, he identifies them. It reads, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is striking that Paul explicitly identifies his audience—the Church—as those who are “faithful in Christ Jesus,” and not as those who are present or connected to this local body of believers.

This isn’t to say that Paul wants to exclude these others who may be attending but who are not “faithful in Christ Jesus,” but rather that Paul understands that the letter that will follow this greeting will only be understood by those who are fully invested in the work of Jesus Christ and have demonstrated this by their deeds and confessions. As we look back, nearly 2,000 years after the fact, we should not simply pass over this greeting as we often pass over the introductions of books. Instead, we should take a moment to thoughtfully consider whether or not we can be counted as “faithful in Christ Jesus,” that is to say as people of the Kingdom of God who are busy doing the work of the Kingdom.

This inspirational word was brought to you by Joshua Hearne of Grace & Main Fellowship. www.thirdchanceministries.wordpress.com

Midday Prayers

A few of us gather several times during the week and go into some of the roughest, most neglected parts of downtown Danville, bringing lunches and friendship to the folks who live there.  We call it our “roving feast.”

The roving feast brings us into the lives of people who must deal daily with violence, poverty, addiction, abuse, homelessness, injustice, loneliness and despair.  We don’t just give them something to eat.  We listen to their stories.  We look for ways to help them.  We try to affirm their worth.  We just try to show genuine love, without judgment.

Lately, we have begun a practice of joining together for Midday Prayers before heading out on the roving feast.  Many of us at Grace and Main have adopted the discipline of praying the daily offices from Common Prayer—A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  We like knowing that as we pray we are being joined by thousands of our brothers and sisters around the world who, like us, are seeking God’s face daily.

Our Midday Prayers bring together the Prayer of St. Francis, the Lord’s Prayer, the beatitudes, a prayer for the fruit of the Spirit and the ancient Anima Christi.  These prayers seem fitting as we prepare to begin our roving feasts.   They encourage and bless us.  They remind us of the reason we rove.  They center us on God as we ask for his blessings.

God is at work in downtown Danville, in beautiful redemptive ways.   We hope you will consider joining us for dinner on Thursday evenings and for worship on Sunday evenings.  All are welcome.

We also hope you will consider joining us in prayer.  The daily prayers are online at commonprayer.net and can be prayed alone or in a group.

The following are the Midday Prayers.  We encourage you to consider making these prayers a regular practice.

Draw us into your love, Christ Jesus: and deliver us from fear.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Silence for meditation

Our Father…

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our brothers and sisters throughout the world, who live and die in poverty and pain. Give them today, through our hands, their daily bread and through our understanding love, give peace and joy. Amen

Blessed are the poor,
for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are the hungry,
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they are the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness and justice,
for great is their reward.

Come, Holy Spirit. We pray that your fruit would be in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go.

Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
body of Christ, save me;
blood of Christ, inebriate me;
water from the side of Christ, wash me;
passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me;
within your wounds hide me;
suffer me not to be separated from you;
from the malicious enemy, defend me;
in the hour of my death, call me,
and bid me come to you
that with your saints I may praise you
forever and ever. Amen.

Through our lives and by our prayers: may your kingdom come!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This inspirational word was brought to you by Bill Guerrant of Grace & Main Fellowship. www.practicingresurrection.wordpress.com