Monthly Archives: February 2016

My peace I give you

Once “rich with friends,”
Newly bankrupt.
Traffic lonely,
A phone call is a cold
Drink in a dry place.

Guessing at silence in
Invisibility.
Was it the truth or the anger?
Tired of hearing the problems?
Or…maybe just not politic?

Jeremiah said, after the stocks,
“Terror on each side.”
John, “She’s your brother’s
Wife!” But the Lord
Found a place to be alone.

Why can’t we shut up? Just
Let it go? Hold it in?
Wait for Justice?
And, awaiting apocalypse,
Just move on?

Once friendly faces avert their gaze.
“Too late for you, but not for me.”
“I’ve got family to care for.”
If anyone does not hate family,
They are not worthy of me.

Don’t think I came to bring
Peace. It’s really more of
a sword. One that splits
Families; one that divides.
Only room for one on your cross.

Excrusis.
Crossbearing is a lonely business.

But the road is well-worn.
Packed hard and
Trampled. Mud made of
Sweat and blood,
Dried hard by the sun.

And, though the world is
Controlled by despots and bullies,
Rulers and cowards,
Shouting and hatred,
Swords and posturing,

There are others here, too.
Gasping, strained to follow.
And bearing with, up under,
The Paraclete within
Whispers, “My peace I give you.”

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Who are the “least of these?”

Disheveled mother of an autistic boy,
Alone in the world as he in his thoughts,
She is ever protective, ever watchful.

Single mother of severely handicapped child,
Told by another minister her beloved is too much,
Violently ends their broken dream.

Gently smiling down syndrome girl,
Her pig tails framing soft round cheeks,
She has nothing to offer but friendship.

Soldier returned from war,
His body mangled and torn as his mind,
He rests fitfully at night through dark dreams.

Calloused handed man on the median,
Cardboard sign in hand he pleads
Patiently for a few dollars from weary drivers.

Fearful young pregnant girl,
Knowing her predicament
Ponders the unthinkable choice.

Parents of the addicted child,
His life cut short. Self-poisoned.
Racing minds ask, “What could we have done?”

Homeless and poor, addicted and broken.
Unemployed. Uninsured. Mentally ill. Lonely.
Undocumented. Illegal. On the lam. On the run.
Indebted. Indentured. House poor.
Black. White. Hispanic. Asian.
Powerless. Downtrodden. Tired.
Straight. LGBTQ. Virgin and prostitute.
Slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile.
Muslim. Baptist. Hindu.
Sick, aged, hopeless, desperate, and weary.
Nothing in their appearance that we should desire them.

Hurting people on a broken planet.
We thought “stricken by God.”
The prisoner…the naked…the thirsty….

“Whatever you have not done for the least of these…” he said.
Immune to compassion without his help,
Just like the expert in the law asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
We who think ourselves sheep but whose thoughts betray us
Bleat our goaty question “But who are the ‘least of these,’ really?”

Each of you should have the same attitude as Jesus
Who, though he was God,
Did not consider being god so important,
But made himself nothing.
He took the nature of a servant and,
Being a human, became obedient to death. Death on a cross.

“Who are the least of these?” he responds. “I am.”
“Because I became one of you.”
Which means:
“To love the least of these is to love me. To love them is to love your neighbor
As you love yourself.”

To love the least of these one must recognize
We are all the least of these.

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A poem about knocking over idols

I’ve heard it said, “Trust in governments.”
Because power doesn’t corrupt?
I’ve heard it said, “Trust in the free market.”
It seems reasonable that corporate greed will improve the world?
I’ve heard it said, “They’ll keep you safe.”
By killing another?
I’ve heard it said, “We don’t owe the poor a thing. The unemployed should get a job.”
Because don’t we know that the unemployed are always so because they choose to be?
I’ve heard it said, “We’ll educate you if you fight.”
Why does no one say, “You’ll need therapy after you do?”
I’ve heard it said in churches, “Get bigger or die.”
But I tried to tell you to become smaller, like children and servants.

Yes, you’ve heard it said. But I tell you….

…it’s all idols. It’s all a lie.

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
Lead us not into temptation
Deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.

Amen.

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Guantanamo Bay

Listening to the radio today I heard an interviewer asking the former head of the CIA why he told the next CIA director to please “not use the word ‘waterboarding’ and ‘torture’ together” when talking about the controversy at Guantanamo Bay.

His response?

Here I am certainly paraphrasing because I was driving when I was listening:  “Because the people who were engaging in the action were simply following orders.  The activity was deemed by the authorities to be legal (and, apparently, therefore morally neutral).  To call it ‘torture’ calls into question the moral fortitude of those who were following orders.”

The question: “If you believe that ‘following orders from an authority who deemed a questionable activity to be ‘legal [and therefore morally neutral]’ suspends participants from moral responsibility, how does one justify trying Nazis (who participated in the holocaust and whose defense was ‘we were following orders which were deemed by our authorities to be legal’) for war crimes?”

Seems like a contradiction to me.   Then again, so does stopping the holocaust while nuking the Japanese.

Any proposed answer either needs to admit moral relativism as a core principle or abandon any attempt to appeal to scripture.

BTW, I have the same question about people who stab one another in the back at work under the guise of “following orders.”

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Discovering Lent in Philippians 3 (OR Being nothingman, Pt. 2)

I recently had the honor of sharing the sermon at Berea Mennonite Church.  This is basically a transcript of that sermon.  

When I started driving, I had a brown Pontiac T1000.  As exciting as that name may sound on the surface, the T1000 was Pontiac’s name for what was called the “Chevette” by Chevrolet.  Ours was brown, rusty, and went from 0 to 60 in something like six months.  In fact, getting it to 60 was fairly rare.  That said, it was my first ride, and I was glad to have it.

Until, that is, my little brother and his friend one day decided they wanted to play basketball in the driveway and my T1000 was in the way.  To make room, they attempted to push it back down the driveway, one person at the wheel with the driver door open, the other pushing from the hood, until the door contacted the tree they must have forgotten was there and bent backwards.  The door was totaled and I replaced it with the only junkyard replacement we could find, a red Chevette door from the same model year.  That’s right, I had a brown T1000 with a red door.  Let’s just say I was not the envy of all of my friends.

When I finally was ready to buy my first car, it was a black 1983 Mercury Cougar.  Smooth profile.  Red pinstripe.  Chrome lines and hubcaps.  Charcoal interior.  Stand-up hood ornament.  To me, it was Kit and I was Knight Rider.  As an 18 year old recent high school graduate with no immediate plans for making a future for myself, it was my salvation.  I instantly became a guy with a cool car.  I had “made something of myself,” as it were.  I loved that car.  Until it began repeatedly breaking down.  By the time it was time to get rid of it, I was happy to see it go.  I had wanted to get bigger and better, but it brought destruction.  In the end, I was happy to get smaller again.

Oftentimes we find that the things we think are worth resting our identity in, those things which will bring us prestige, honor, status, wealth, success, power, etc.; the things the world finds its value in are really…well…crap.  In fact, I think the apostle Paul argued that point exactly in Philippians 3.

Early in the chapter, Paul responds to those who came to tell the Philippian Christians that they had not done everything necessary to raise their value as believers in the new religion—that since they had joined a movement sprung from Judaism, they needed to mutilate their bodies in order to attain the next level of “righteousness.”  Paul was always vehemently opposed to those who would preach such a message.  That said, in Paul’s world, doing religious things, displaying religious success, raised a person’s status.

In our religious world (here I refer to American Christianity, specifically evangelicalism), religious success is having a large physical plant (preferably more than one “campus”), a preacher with a title and winning smile, and a dynamic entertaining service that evokes certain emotional responses your key demographic is anxious to have.  It’s having a minister whose popularity has won him political clout, someone published (regardless of the depth of the writing), using your building as an extension campus for a Christian college, and being well-respected by your denomination.  It’s hosting church growth conferences where you convince other ministers that their church needs to be more like yours. At the heart of all of this is, of course, money.   Having lots of money flowing in and the flashy contemporary buildings and signs demonstrates that yours is a successful ministry.   It’s about getting bigger, more powerful, and more impressive.  It’s about proving that your church has “made something of itself.”  It’s a baptism of the trappings of worldly success and consumerism.

Paul, however, calls that out for what it is.  A lie.  In vs. 3 of our current chapter, he begins,

 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. [1]

Paul makes the point, eloquently as always, that he, if he chose, could outdo everyone when it came to the trappings of religious status.  He had attained all of that.  Yet, he will go on in vs. 7ff to basically state that he’s given all of that up.  In fact, compared to actually following Jesus, all of that status and show is “garbage.”  You should read, here, literally “excrement.”[2]  For Paul, as he states in vs. 10, sharing in the suffering of Christ so as to attain Christ’s resurrection makes all of that other stuff look like something that ought to be flushed down the toilet.  Though Paul realizes in the following verses that he has not yet attained that kind of faith himself he is pressing on to become someone who follows Jesus directly to his cross.

These themes (serving God [vs. 3], Christ is our boast [3], no confidence in self [3], things of the world are worthless compared to following Christ [7-8], righteousness through faith[fullness] [9] and, especially, participation in Christ’s suffering with a view to the resurrection [10-11]) are common in Paul’s writings.  Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians are all rife with the sense that Christianity is not about what Christ did for us so that we could be freed from punishment with little to no cost to ourselves but, instead, that Christianity is a call to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.   As Romans 8 insists, we will be raised with him if indeed we share in his suffering so that we may also share in his resurrection.  For Paul, Christianity means following Jesus on the way of the cross.

Which is why this is, I think, a proper paraphrase of 3:15-4:1:

15 Everyone who’s grown in Christ should think this way and if you don’t get it, eventually God will help you understand it.  16 Only, let’s live up to what we know now and not slip further into misunderstanding.  17 Follow me as I follow Christ—watch those whose lives are like Christ’s.  18 It breaks my heart that many (who claim Christ) live as enemies of the cross of Jesus (an enemy is one who denies Jesus’ cross for himself).  19 Their product (telos)[3] is destruction, they worship consumption, and they are proud of things they ought to be ashamed of.  They value worldly things (buildings, numbers, power, performance), things they can see.  20 But our citizenship is in heaven (though we are earthly people) and we eagerly await for our Savior Jesus to come back from there and, restore everything, and finish transforming our bodies to be like his.  1 Therefore, stand firm in the Lord and in the way of the cross, friends.

Recently in a conversation with a friend I love and respect profoundly, I heard a comment which I’ve heard many different people say about Paul.  We were talking about Paul’s writing about slavery (which I contended and do contend is radically misunderstood by people who claim Paul was endorsing slavery).  Also implied in our conversation was Paul’s writing about women and homosexuality (all important and “hot” issues in our time and all misunderstood by most readers of Paul).  His comment intimated that Paul represents a departure from Jesus’ teaching on such things and that we must disregard much of what Paul says because it is in too great of tension with Jesus.

N.T. Wright has often quoted Dominic Crossan to resolve this supposed tension when he says, “If you read Paul first, you’ll get Jesus wrong.  If you read Jesus first, you’ll read Paul differently.”  It is often easy to think Paul departs from Jesus.  Evangelicals, who frequently underemphasize the gospels and focus on Paul, tend to read a Paul who is very different from the Jesus of the gospels (forcing Jesus to “fit” with this reading).  Other traditions make a habit of dismissing Paul because of the discomfort of his approach to these uncomfortable issues.

These are both fantastic mistakes.  Paul, contrary to the evangelical reading, is not simply giving us the “steps of salvation,” a formula for how to get your sins erased, a handbook for church polity, or a lens to read Jesus through.  He is not limiting women, defending oppressive governments, or justifying participation in war.  Nor is he taking the radically liberating message of Jesus and creating an ugly religious and oppressive system of it, as many assume.  Instead, what Paul was always doing was teaching his intended readers what following Jesus on the way of the cross was going to look like in their context.

Michael Gorman’s book Cruciformity is an excellent resource for understanding the “cruciform” theme of Pauline writing.  In it, Gorman demonstrates that Paul’s understanding of salvation was not about getting sins erased in order to enter heaven, but that it was about how to share Jesus’ cross.  For Paul, being a Christian (being saved) is about being shaped by the cross of Christ (cruciform).  It assumes that Christ’s death is not mutually exclusive from his life and teaching but, instead, is the climax of his life and teaching.  That all of Jesus’ life was shaped by the cross, by suffering.  Therefore, salvation itself is not about escaping some punishment for some affront.  It is, instead, being an active part of the Kingdom of God which Jesus lived and preached, being very different from the world in a way that the world itself will hardly understand and will think is foolish (1 Cor 1).

I think that the ministers of many churches…many…have bought into exactly the opposite of what Paul taught about following Jesus.  My wife worked with one such set of ministers at a church for about 8 months.  Their preacher loved to talk about going to heaven (in fact he seemed unable to articulate anything about salvation with more nuance than that), but their ministry team was obsessed with growth and success, finding ways to increase attendance, paying for their building, and producing a shinier product.  Like most big churches, they saw their ministry as a service-product they were trying to market to consumers (the church-growth movement thinks of Christians as consumers buying a product rather than disciples).  Their product required hundreds of people to volunteer, people whom they frequently treated with disdain.  Their staff was as dysfunctional as it could be.  Motivated by power and money, they manipulated and lied.  They were always hiding things and putting spin on things, saying, “We’ll say it this way.”  There was always a sense of suspicion and jealousy and a constant battle for “control.”  It was about power.  It was about maintaining a successful and shiny image, no matter who it hurt.  It was about getting bigger and more successful.  It was a baptism of worldly values.  Its product may look, on the surface, to be good.  But ultimately it leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.

This election cycle has been more discouraging than most for me, because I see so many “Christians” behaving politically, the same way through the kind of people they are supporting and the way they talk in public.  They seem to have no sense of tension about war and their faith.  They have no sense of tension about inhospitality and sacrificing self for their neighbor, giving of themselves.  They’re ruthlessly anxious and afraid that the things they worship (wealth, security, and safety) will be taken from them and they show disdain for those who suffer unjustly in our world.  They seem to me, readily willing to crucify another to save themselves.

Paul says Christianity is different from these examples.  Where the world worships consumption, takes pride in things it ought to be ashamed of, and produces destruction (being impressed with getting bigger, more successful: making something of itself), the Christian is impressed with a God who, as Paul will describe in Philippians 2 “emptied himself.”  In chapter 2, Paul teaches the Philippian Christians that if they really want to make him happy, they will try to be more like Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! [4]

Paul understood that Jesus shows us a God who, rather than getting bigger and more impressive, is actually willing to get smaller.  Rather than make “something” of himself he made “nothing” of himself.   Jesus is a God who, rather than sacrifice the other, would sacrifice himself out of love for the other.  Paul understood that if we claim to follow this God, we must be a people who do this for one another.  Because, if Jesus (who was God) could empty himself for you, then you (who are not God) can surely do it for one another (vs. 1-5).

Because of this, I’m convinced that there are many, many Christians (especially ministers) who believe that when they die they will hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but who will, instead hear, “Where is your cross?”  I believe this because I see a religion that has tricked itself into thinking that this Christianity stuff is about Jesus suffering the cross so that we don’t have to.  And because of that, most have a Christianity that is always about trying to escape suffering, rather than endure it.  But, as Brita Miko says in her essay “Die With Me” from the wonderful book Stricken by God?, Jesus did not say “I die so that you don’t have to.”  He said, “Come die with me.”  Which means that the question we must ask ourselves is always, “Do I look more like the person on the cross, or do I look more like the people with the hammers and nails?”  Because Christianity is about being a crucified people, a cruciform people.  This means that if you’re interested in sacrificing another to save yourself…if you are interested in security and comfort more than your neighbor or even your enemy…if you are obsessed with getting bigger and more successful…you fundamentally don’t understand this faith.

This is what I perceive the Lenten season to be all about.  Lent is a reminder that our lives as Christians are supposed to be emptier, not fuller.  It is a reminder that we are, after all, just little people (in Tolkein’s language, we are Hobbits, not wizards).  Notice in the gospels how often Jesus points to the least members of society (children and slaves) as exemplars of his Kingdom.  Lent reminds us that we are supposed to be cross-carriers and, though we may struggle sometimes to understand it, we must be constantly making ourselves smaller, not bigger.

I never understood the Lenten practice of denying something to oneself for a certain period of time.  Now I see it as a wonderfully intentional symbol for how we followers of Jesus empty ourselves, sharing in Jesus’ suffering and making ourselves smaller in our lives because we are looking forward to being raised with him in the end of all things.   And, so, we spend lent trying to find a way to suffer until we celebrate the resurrection.

Because what we look forward to is the resurrection of all things after the end of all things.  And the suffering we endure now is not worthy of being compared to that resurrection.

 

[1] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Php 3:3–6.

[2] The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes that the word used here was used in Greek literature this way ” Lit. σκύβαλον means 1. “dung,” “muck” both as “excrement” cf. Etym. M.: τὸ διʼ ἐντέρων ἐκδιδόμενον, cf. περίσσωμα τροφῆς καὶ σκύβαλον but that it also was used, at times, to refer to such disgusting realities as half-rotten corpses found in the water.  In the New Testament, it seems to indicate the word “excrement” makes more sense in this passage.  Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 445.

[3] It is important to understand that the word translated in the NIV here, “destiny,” which implies the fate of the person who is an enemy of the cross is the Greek word telos.  This, I claim, is better understood as the “end result” of the person who rejects Christ, not destiny.  It is a reference to what that person actually produces, his or her “product.”  So, I have paraphrased it that way here.

[4] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Php 2:6–8.

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Being nothingman, Pt. 1

once divided…nothing left to subtract
some words when spoken…can’t be taken back
walks on his own…with thoughts he can’t help thinking
future’s above…but in the past he’s slow and sinking
caught a bolt ‘a lightnin’…cursed the day he let it go

nothingman
nothingman
isn’t it something?
nothingman

she once believed…in every story he had to tell
one day she stiffened…took the other side
empty stares…from each corner of a shared prison cell
one just escapes…one’s left inside the well
and he who forgets…will be destined to remember

nothingman
nothingman
isn’t it something?
nothingman

oh, she don’t want him
oh, she won’t feed him…after he’s flown away
oh, into the sun…ah, into the sun
burn…burn

nothingman
nothingman
isn’t it something?
nothingman

nothingman
coulda’ been something[i]

It’s practically a cliché, but I remember listening to Vitalogy with the lights dimmed, drawing in my journal, while Eddie Vedder’s voice filled the room of my 23 year old mind.   I was floating through life at the time.   Dabbled in some art.  Dated a little bit.  A few dead-end jobs…nothing you could call a career.  I was all pipe dreams and ideology, but no real direction.  Nothing to feel passionate about.  Growing up in a troubled home with an abusive father had given me a story about myself that presented no idea of what I could possibly have to look forward to in my life.  Just a lot of painful memories and a sense that there wasn’t much I had to offer the world.

I felt like nothing at all.  I thought Vedder was singing my life.

Undoubtedly it’s why I jumped into a very unhealthy relationship as soon as I got the chance.  We got married and had two children (whose lives were affected by the pain of both of our pasts and the brokenness of our marriage).   It, inevitably, ended rather painfully and ignominiously.

Somewhere in between nothingman and divorce, though, I found direction.  I went to Bible College.  Then on to seminary.  At 35, I secured a ministry position.  I had two degrees, was preaching every week, speaking to people, sharing my mind, and doing ministry.  I was writing and had published a few articles.  A year later, I was teaching college classes and soon after working as an academic director.  In seven years I had gone from a guy with no direction to one with two jobs doing something important.

The divorce took its toll, but it didn’t kill me.  And when I’d recovered, believe it or not, things got even better for me.  I remember my new place.  I remember the smell it had when I first moved in.  It felt awkward and lonely and, because I had been married for fourteen years, a little wrong…it was strange to be alone.  But it was free.  I began to feel like I was finally becoming someone.  I was working.  I was important.  I was on my own.  I had friends.

Oh…and I started dating the love of my life.  Beautiful.  Smart.  Sexy.  Funny.  Real.  And she loved me, too.  We’d both been hurt, but we knew who we were and we felt we could be something together.  So…we threw in, together.  I married her.  I’d marry her every day if I could.

I had gone from nothingman to somethingman.

But, as they often do, things in one of my jobs took a turn for the worse.  They got tense.  They got sideways.  For some reason, when things get that way, I can’t ever seem to be the guy to sacrifice principle to get them right-side-up.  Whether my principles are right or wrong…I suppose that’s a topic for another conversation.  But I knew the college work was just work and when it got awful, I knew I had to go.  I had done it.  I could do it again.  When a ministry opportunity came up for my new wife that required a move, I could give it all up.  I insisted she take it.  I pushed and pushed.  I thought, “It will work for her, and I’ll find a new start.  The church I’m ministering to will survive without me.  Let’s go.”

I was still somethingman.  And it seemed like the perfect opportunity for her.

Less than a year later, that opportunity had fizzled.  Some truly awful people behaved truly awfully and they basically crucified her.  She was crushed.  I was crushed.  Nothing worked out.

Even though I was able to get a good job working at a secular college and I am doing something now, it’s not what I first set out to do.  In a way, it’s like I’m floating again.  Many of our friends vanished.  Our work, our direction, our purpose seems so distant.

It’s hard not to feel like I’m back to being the nothingman.  I had a chance to be somethingman and I didn’t have whatever thing it is that everyone’s got who stays “something.”  Apparently I just couldn’t be somethingman for long.

The other night I couldn’t sleep and a show I was watching played the song again.  I started thinking and remembering being a hopeless kid and realized that I had come full circle.  I turned and put my hand on my wife’s side and felt her breathing gently.  I wanted so badly to put my arms around her, but I didn’t feel like I had a right to.  I felt insignificant and nothing.  I was afraid that soon she would want to escape from the prison of my nothingness.

she once believed…in every story he had to tell
one day she stiffened…took the other side
empty stares…from each corner of a shared prison cell
one just escapes…one’s left inside the well
and he who forgets…will be destined to remember…

 

nothingman
nothingman
isn’t it something?
nothingman

nothingman
coulda’ been something

So, what do you do when you once were nothingman, you became a somethingman, and you find yourself back to being nothingman?  When you “coulda’ been something?”

I suppose, perhaps, you rethink the dream of being “something.”

We had risked everything to be something.  And now I think that the something we wanted to be, perhaps, wasn’t attainable in the way we thought.  The something we gave up, we gave up because we felt a great conflict between the way we understood the gospel and what it was going to cost to keep being “something.”  Why did things get sideways in my job?  I simply couldn’t do some of the things I was asked to do and keep the integrity of my faith.  When I spoke my concerns, I was shown the door.  Why did my wife’s ministry not work out?  Because she led her ministry through serving the people she ministered to and the people with the power there were threatened by it.  Like me, she was pushed out.

The truth is, the gospel itself is not the story of how people who are nothing might become something, but of how a God who is himself the one and only true something became nothing so that he might teach us how to do the same.  The apostle Paul says it in his letter to the Philippians this way:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
       by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!  (Php 2:5-8 NIV, 2011)

I like the NIV here because, rather than say “emptied himself” it says “made himself nothing.”  The former may be the more literal translation.   But the latter, I think, gets to the heart of the passage.  What Paul is trying to teach is that the purpose of Christianity is not that we might “become something.”  It is not that we might, each of us individually, “make something of ourselves.”  Christianity is not about achieving greatness or accomplishing our dreams and ambitions.  Those things are about trying to become God.

Rather, it is about becoming nothing.   And God himself showed us how by becoming nothing himself.  By becoming obedient to a cross.

As my wife says, “So, if you think you’re going to get through this Christianity thing without nail and scourge scars…I suppose you don’t know anything about Christianity.”  Because those scars are what doing the Gospel is all about.  Paul’s teaching to the Philippians in chapter 2 begins with,

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Php 2:1–4 NIV, 2011)

By this he is saying, “Look, if you want to make me happy, then be like Jesus.  Don’t look to your own interests, but to those of your brothers and sisters.  Think like Jesus.”  And then, starting in vs 5, “He was God, but he made himself nothing.  And it killed him.”  Of course this means, “If he who really was God could make himself nothing for you, then you (who really aren’t God) can do it for one another.”

What, then, to look forward to?  For Paul,

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.  (Php 2:9-11 NIV, 2011)

This Jesus who made himself nothing was “exalted to the highest place.”  And I hope you don’t mind me mixing my Pauline passages, but Paul also says in Romans 8, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.  (Ro 8:17 NIV, 2011)

What am I getting at?  Mainly that carrying a cross will often feel very much like being the nothingman.  And the world (as Paul also teaches in 1 Co 1) will look at that and think it’s ridiculous and stupid.  Hell, most people in the church will do the same.  Becoming nothing doesn’t make sense.  Becoming something makes sense.  But, for Paul, it seems that unless you share in Jesus’ nothingness you will not share in his real, true glory.

So…I guess I’ll take being the nothingman.  Because, as the man said,

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.  (Ro 8:18-25 NIV, 2011)

[i] pearl jam, “nothingman,” Vitalogy Pearl Jam (sony, 1994), music CD.

 

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