Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Good and Beautiful Life: Chapter 2

If someone asked you, "What is the gospel of Jesus?" how would you answer?  Would your answer be similar to James Bryan Smith's when he was coming out of seminary?

"Jesus died for our sins so that we can go to heaven when we die" (page 35).

This is, after all, the good news of life in Jesus Christ: we are loved, we are forgiven, and we will be raised to new life.

But in The Good and Beautiful Life, our author Jim includes something more in the "good news" of the gospel, something he calls in his chapter title, "The Gospel Many People Have Never Heard."  It was only later that he realized that we are invited to live in the kingdom of God now, not just after we die.

The kingdom of God--a place where God's authority reigns in our lives--is available to us now, in this life.

He goes so far as to say that the kingdom was the primary topic of Jesus' preaching!

Nearly all of Jesus' parables were about the kingdom.  Remember how he compared it to good seed, to a mustard seed, and to yeast, just to name a few?
In fact, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God more than 100 times!

He instructed his disciples to preach about the kingdom when they went out from him (see Matthew 10:5-8).

And in Acts 1:3, Jesus is still teaching about the kingdom after his resurrection.

The apostle Paul then carried on the teaching, and his messages were also often about the kingdom of God.
How often have you heard teaching about the kingdom of God? How aware have you been of the kingdom as Jesus' central message?
Jim suggests that a powerful false narrative, that the kingdom of God is a period of time that has not yet come, has led us to neglect the kingdom.  Since we are obviously NOT living in a world running under the authority of God, it must be something coming that hasn't happened yet, something that will happen with Christ's Second Coming.

Jim's argument, instead, is this: The kingdom of God is a present reality that will be fully consummated in the future.  For now, it is intended to be the governing power over you and me (page 42).
In other words, we engage in kingdom living whether our neighborhoods or governments do or not.  We allow God to reign in our hearts and lives no matter who else does or doesn't.  When we pray, "They kingdom come..." in the Lord's prayer, we are essentially inviting his reign to spread even further.
What are your thoughts when you hear this? Could you articulate this to someone else? How could you make someone else understand that the kingdom of God is both a future promise and a present reality?
Even Jesus' miracles and healings proclaimed the good news of the kingdom: He did these things with kingdom power! The miracles were a demonstration or manifestation of its power.  His disciples used its power in their own ministry (page 43). We have access to that same authority and power when we allow God's reign in our hearts and lives.
When have you experienced a connection with that power...power coming from somewhere outside your own resources?
So how do we do it? How do we enter the kingdom of God?

Jim says that we need three things:

  1. We need humility (page 44).  Instead of believing that we're already perfect, something like the Pharisees, we recognize in our hearts that we have a lot to work on--integrity, gentleness, respect, mercy, etc. We are willing to let God work on our inner lives.
  2. We need to become child-like (page 44), living in trust and dependence on God, rather than asserting our power and control.
  3. We need to be born of water and spirit (page 45). Being born of water refers to the physical birth (because babies live in the water of their mothers' wombs before they are born). And then when we give control of our lives over to Jesus, we are born again, and are led by the Holy Spirit.

In summary, Jesus' primary message is the availability, presence, and power of the kingdom of God.
How do you feel about this view of the gospel message, and this view of the kingdom of God? 
The kingdom of God is among us here right now!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dear God,

At the end of each chapter of The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith includes a Soul Training exercise.  The idea is to engage in spiritual practices that relate in some way to the content of the chapter.  Some of these spiritual practices are familiar ideas related to prayer, offering service, and keeping the Sabbath.  But others are a bit  more unconventional, such as play and de-accumulation as a spiritual practice.

In his first chapter, Smith invites us to write a letter to God.  He encourages us to begin with the words, "Dear God, the life I want most for myself is..."  In the letter, we are sharing with God our ideas about what a "good and beautiful life" would look like for us.  "Feel free to dream big," Smith writes. "Let God in on your greatest hopes."
In our Living Stones meeting, some of us shared our letters aloud, and we all discussed our feelings about the process.  For some, it came naturally to express prayer in writing; for others, it was a difficult task to commit thoughts and feelings to the page.

There is no right or wrong way to write a letter to God.  It is essentially a written prayer, and will reflect your thoughts, needs, and concerns.  I invite you to try this Soul Training exercise.  Some people write a letter to God every day as an approach to a daily journaling practice.  For others, it might be an isolated exercise that can still give us guidance and inspiration about our lives and our relationship with God.

Here are two letters written to God by members of our Living Stones group, shown here to give you two examples of the innumerable ways we can address ourselves to our Creator:

Letter #1

Dear God,
The life I want most for myself is the life You have created for me. I want to be the person You created me to be. I want to be a woman of integrity--a woman whose insides match her outside--whole, honest, and authentic.

I would love to stop caring so much about what other people think of me, but until I manage that, I want to be seen as strong, faithful, honest, kind, compassionate, and creative. I want to be valued by my family for who I am and for what I do.

I want to raise daughters whose lives reflect the values I try to teach them--as well as the values present in Jesus' teaching that I fail to teach them.

I want a life filled with friendship, humor, joy, memory-making, and optimism. I want to live my life with a daily awareness that I am Your beloved child, and that I am surrounded by all Your other beloved children.  I want to treat others gently, and I want to be treated gently.

I want a life where the work I do, the service I provide, makes a positive difference for my family, my friends, and my community. I want to inspire creativity, and lead people to understand the beauty of a life lived in communion with You. I want to take care of all the blessings You have provided me, to be a good steward of my resources: my home, my body, my children, my husband, my friends, my church community, and my world.

I'll say again at the end what I said at the beginning: I want to be the person You created me to be. I want to live in the light and joy of Your love, and feel Your presence, protection and guidance.

Letter #2

Dear God,
The life I want most for myself is a life full of peace and joy. This life would be free from worry and anxiety.

In order to have the good and beautiful life, I need to learn and grow from my mistakes in the past such as: trying to control the situation, trusting myself more than You, and succumbing to the gentle whispers of negative thoughts and temptations from the devil.

In order to achieve this I will need to call on the power of the Holy Spirit and turn to prayer or scripture in moments of doubt or temptation. I can only do this with your help.

Thank you for always loving me. All glory, praise, and honor are yours.

In my next post, I will share with you our Living Stones discussion points for chapter 2 of Smith's book, "The Gospel Many People Have Never Heard."
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