November 2023

Good Grief - with Hope

Recent events, globally and among my friends, have reminded me of the importance of good grieving. There is a grief that is real and deep, but that is not without hope. (1Thessalonians 4:13). Good grief requires dual perspectives: a clear, compassionate eye on present struggles, pains, and losses. But — simultaneously — hearing and listening to the joyful sounds of sure, promised hope.

Viewed from a distance, immense suffering weighs down and overwhelms our spirits. We may avert our eyes or turn off the news. But, when nearby friends or family are engaged in battles with disease, pain, and suffering, there is no escaping hard reality. This week I was a witness of two funerals.

But I recall Jesus’ clear-sighted compassion. He stayed personally present with pain and suffering. Jesus wept at his friend’s tomb. He was realistic, but without despair. As a good sister said this week: Jesus validates all that is hard, but offers the hope of a better world. And Jesus does this without any naiveté, or callously averting his eyes. He enters this present world’s pain and suffering. “The whole creation has been groaning together." (Romans 8:22)

Seeking to enter good grief, while groaning for the glory of a new creation, I am drawn to two Hebrew prophets who envision God’s future City. They paint a vivid contrast to the streets of Gaza and Ukraine, and to the fragile mortality of our all-too-human lives.

“No more babies dying in the cradle, or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime; one-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal — anything less will seem like a cheat.” (Isaiah 65:20, The Message)

Zech 8 (1)

“Old men and old women will come back to Jerusalem, sit on benches on the streets and spin tales, move around safely with their canes — a good city to grow old in. And boys and girls will fill the public parks, laughing and playing — a good city to grow up in.” (Zechariah 8:4-5, The Message)

These dual perspectives: seeing the hard and present sufferings, while hearing the overtures of hope, are expressed in the American folk hymn How Can I Keep from Singing? We groan — for glory.

A Cruciform Mind to Reflect Christ

Last month, I was invited to bring messages to our local church from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Both are available here — the 2-message series on “Reflecting Jesus.” As I prayed over the texts, in their original cultural-historical contexts, I became convinced of their relevance today. What can we learn from 1st century disciples who lived in a culture confused or hostile about Christianity?

It is now cost-prohibitive to build cross-shaped (cruciform) buildings. But, counting the cost, we must form cruciform disciples and churches to reflect Jesus among our post-Christian friends. Our only alternatives are fight (political culture wars), flight (disengage), or accommodate (try to attract or entertain skeptics).

What made Philippi unique? In Rome’s Civil War, to avenge Julius Caesar’s assassination, the decisive victory was at Philippi in 42 BC. In 27 BC, one victor, Octavian, was given divine status (“illustrious one”). To honor Augustus’ victory, the city became a Colony of Rome (Acts 16:12). Up to 25% of residents were veterans offered land grants. Augustus was a mortal, promoted to divine status, Rome’s first Emperor, the benefactor of Philippians, enforcer of the Pax Romana, and revered as “savior of the world.” Augustus could decree a census (Luke 2:1) across the Empire that displaced many ordinary provincial people, like Joseph and Mary.

Around AD 50, the Apostle Paul came to Philippi to preach the Gospel. Less than 20 years after Jesus’ ministry, 75 years after Philippi was made a Roman Colony, Paul’s missions team planted a Colony of God’s Kingdom. Philippians were citizens of Rome. But disciples at Philippi were also citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). How did they identify? How should they live? Would they lose Roman legal and social status? Disciples worship God, who came down as a man, a slave, crucified by Rome. This was blasphemous and upside-down to the Augustus cult. As historian Tom Holland notes, before Constantine in the 4th century AD, the Romans thought Christianity a “blasphemous parody of the Caesar cult.”

Cicero, Roman statesman and scholar, wrote, “Let the very word ‘cross,’ be far removed, not only from the bodies of Roman citizens, but even from their thoughts, eyes, and ears.” Like the Philippians, Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25ff), exempt from crucifixion (he was beheaded). Yet, writing this church, he urged the disciples to focus on the cross and to have the “mind of Christ.” (Philippians 2:1-11). Paul quotes words that may have been a hymn praising Jesus. The Gospel they sang should form their minds, shape their worldview, and motivate them to cruciform living.

What mindset reflects Jesus? Disciples must remember we are redeemed and adopted as God’s children. Like God’s Son, we do not forfeit our identity, but should not grab for power or status. Following Jesus, we “empty ourselves” of status to take the form of servants. We are not exempt from personal sacrifices or public dishonor. The Gospel shapes our minds to be cruciform: we serve God, each other, and outsiders. What is our highest honor? Not that we are Romans (or Americans), but we are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). We follow someone Rome tried to cancel as a nameless nobody, but who received God’s magna cum laude, Jesus, whose Name is above all names.

The Apostle wept (Philippians 3:18) — many who professed faith lived as self-indulgent "enemies of the cross." To tell God’s Story, to reflect Jesus in our world, we must distinguish ourselves by selfless service. That is the crux, our daily crucible. Do I live “the good life,” a consumer of our culture's perks and privileges? Or do I live a Christlike, cross-formed life, that our society may despise? Am I a consumer of culture, or a cruciform disciple of Jesus?

Our identity must not be formed by our partisan affiliation. We “render to Caesar” (pay taxes) and exercise our freedom to vote. But our Capital is the City of our nail-scarred Servant-King, Jesus. Christians are a "polis" of heaven. May the Holy Spirit transform us into cruciform disciples and churches!

From @IntlBuzz