What is the Gospel?

At the end of the book of Mark we hear the words of Christ to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15 ESV). Before we can go and do, we need to stop and ask - what did Jesus have in mind when he gave this commission?

We have all heard the word “gospel” and we might even think we know what it means. It simply means “good news”. What is the good news? It depends on the story you have been told and conditioned by.

For most people the Gospel is synonymous with going to heaven after you die. It is dependent on the finished work of Christ on the cross. While this is certainly true, it is not the whole concept. It became the dominant way to think about the gospel since the days of Augustine who drew on his personal conversion story as the legal pronouncement made by God toward those who place their faith and trust in Jesus.

Let’s back up a moment. There is more to it. From the Gospel of Mark alone we can expand our understanding.

First, the Gospel is a proclamation of the story of Christ. In the very first verse of Mark we read “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”. Long before anything is said about the death of Christ, Mark concentrates on the life of Christ. The gospel is the entire story of Jesus that Mark narrates throughout his Gospel. More specifically, the “gospel” according to Mark is “primarily a narrative of the dawning of God’s kingdom in and through Jesus Christ.” It is a proclamation . We know Mark has this in mind because he quotes Isaiah 40:3 in verse 2 “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way a voice calling in the desert”.

Second, the Gospel is a perspective of God’s work in the world. The gospel is not just an afterlife issue. In verse 14 of chapter 1 of Mark the author quotes Jesus when he says “the time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom is God’s alternate arrangement of ordering the world. There is a better way to live long before we die.

Third, the Gospel is a parable. It is the mysterious way God works in the world. In Mark 4:26-34 we see the kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field. It is like a mustard seed. It is here but it is hidden, immanent yet transcendent. It is at hand but not yet.

Finally, we come to the close of the book of Mark and we see that the Gospel is participatory. The Gospel is a story that is unleashed through people. You are are part of the gospel story and so am I. We are invited into the gospel project even as was the initial disciples (Mark 16:19-20). God is busy making all things new. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus has opened that work to everyone who wants in on it.

So what is the Gospel?

I like the way Brian McLaren summarizes it:

“ The kingdom of God – God’s reconciling community, God’s new way of living, God’s dream for creation, God’s mission in this world, God’s healing of all creation, God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, Creation 2.0 At hand – within reach, available to everyone, truly here and at work, present, inviting our participation, calling us to rethink everything and reorient our lives
This is the good news Jesus proclaimed both before (Mark 1:14) and after (Acts 1:3) the resurrection. It’s also the good news Paul proclaimed (Acts 28:23, 31). It’s the one I hope more and more of us rediscover, embody, celebrate, and proclaim as well.”

https://brianmclaren.net/q-r-what-is-the-gospel/

Larry A. Pozza

What is Your Nest?

The other day as I was mowing the lawn I noticed a birds nest fallen out of the tree. Obviously the nest was empty but at one time it housed some adult birds and possibly some eggs as well. Then something happened. The nest was knocked out of the tree and came crashing to the ground. I noticed there was a hole on the underside of the nest. I'm not sure what caused it but I know it is not the way the nest was designed. Something happened.

This nest is a great analogy of our shared life experience. We were created to enjoy the human nest of a loving community. It is modeled on the eternal nest of the eternal community, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Something happened in the human experience that caused the nest to fall leaving holes in our souls.

We are now on the hunt for our nest. Many people try to find that resting place in religion thinking that a church is the most logical place to find the best nest. At first we do the hard work of settling into the branches. It does not take long before we feel we don't belong. Something happens and we find ourselves on the ground vulnerable and full of holes. 

If this has been your experience, I want to apologize for way the church of Jesus has acted so often throughout her history. It is not the way it should be. Here at ShadeTree Community Church we want you to find a place to nest. All are welcome here. It does not matter if you are a seeker, sinner or saint. This is a place of safety for you to explore your faith and share your journey. One thing you will notice when you visit is that we all have holes. We have all been kicked out at one time or another. Our nests have been battered about in the storms. 

Yet what serves as a better nest? Is it a car, house or clothing? Is it the next vacation? Is it aligning yourself with a political party? Is it climbing the corporate ladder? All of these nests have holes too.

The best nest is a place of rest for the soul. Ezekiel mentions this tree of rest in 17:22-24.

Thus says the Lord God, I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of tender twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches it will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lords. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I will dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.

God promises through Ezekiel that one day soon God would plant a tree that would grow into a strong and large shade tree capable of providing rest to all the birds that desperately need a tree to nest in.

Jesus called this tree the Kingdom of God. It is our shade tree. 

Ezekiel's promise of a tree to rest in is an opportunity found in following Jesus, who loves us so deeply that he calls us to come and find rest for our souls. 

 

Larry A. Pozza

What is a Pilgrimage?

Lent is the beginning of a journey. In a sense it is a spiritual pilgrimage.

When God became a man he was a wandering soul. Jesus walked through Galilee and Judea proclaiming that a mysterious kingdom arrived. He called people to follow Him. It began with one step and then another. 

A pilgrimage is a journey. It is wandering toward something we all long for in our souls. Charles Foster in his book The Sacred Journey: the Ancient Practices says the pilgrim road is a physical peninsula of the Kingdom of God. "As the Kingdom sprang up around the sandals of Jesus, so Kingdom flowers can spring up around pilgrim boots" (p. xv).

It takes us to the edges. It involves blisters, hunger and exhaustion. But it is a journey back to God. It gives us new eyes. Arrival is not the point. It is the journey. 

"To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world's sake - even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death - that little by little, we start to come alive" (The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days by Frederick Buechner).

Keep on walking pilgrim. The journey is leading home. 

Larry Pozza

What is Lent?

Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. One of his famous quotes: "The meaning life is that it stops."  That phrase caught me by surprise. Especially since I heard it on the latest episode of the The Amazing Race. It made me think how life is so finite and holds only so many moments so I need to make the most of them. 

Or as Steve Miller sang, "time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the future". 

We are on the verge of a new season. Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of the Lenten season. Lent (an Old English word for spring) is the forty days (excluding Sundays) before Easter.

Lent is the season where we retrace the steps of Jesus as he journeyed under the shadow of the cross toward the climatic events of death, burial and resurrection. Lent is a time to meditate on Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Why does it begin with Ash Wednesday? It is to remind us that like Jesus, we only have so many moments. We are made of dust and ashes. It is a day to consider our own mortality. It begins a journey of discovery. It is something we learn about ourselves. We are fragile. We are frustrated. We are fearful. 

We are also faithful. In the somber light of our own mortality, how shall we live?

Lent is more than a religious ritual. It is a time of reflection. It is a journey of renewal into the heart of what Brian McLaren calls a quest for spiritual formation, reorientation and activation (We Make the Road by Walking). 

What does the eternal One require of me who is destined to die?  Lent calls me to linger there a while.

"Time is the medium in which we live, the thing that separates each heartbeat from the last, the axis against which the distance between birth and death is measured". (Time Passes by Maggie Shipstead). 

Larry Pozza

What is Advent?

Advent is a season of waiting, expecting and hoping. Beginning four Sundays prior to Christmas and ending on Christmas Eve, Advent helps prepare for the coming, or “advent” of the Christ child at Christmas. (The word “advent” comes from a Latin word that means “coming.”)

It is also the start of the church calendar year that helps us to re-tell, re-live and re-enter the Jesus story - from the crowded stable to the empty tomb. 

For hundreds of years, Christians have used an Advent wreath to inspire their hopes for the coming of Christ. By lighting candles and reading Bible verses, we are reminded about the meaning of Christ’s birth and become more excited about his coming in the past, in the future, and in our own lives.

There is no set meaning for the candles of the Advent wreath (except for the middle candle, which always signifies the birth of Jesus the Christ and is often called the Christ Candle). I have seen in churches where the candles point to peace, hope, joy, and love. In other settings they are identified with key figures in the stories of the birth of Jesus, such as the shepherds, the angels, Joseph, and Mary. In another tradition the candles represent prophecy, Bethlehem, angels and shepherds. 

Advent wreaths employ candles with a variety of colors. Some wreaths use all white candles; others use three purple or blue candles, one pink candle, and one white candle in the middle. I share an understanding of the Advent wreath with many Christians for whom the purple candles remind us of how serious and solemn God’s people have been in waiting for the Messiah. The pink signifies the joy of our waiting. 

The joy of waiting? Most of us are not very good at it. It feels too much like doing nothing, and we are the driven ones who take pride in being busy. And yet the waiting is essential. For it’s in the waiting that our soul grows quiet and contemplative and cultivates a capacity for awareness by which we can discern what God is doing when he does act.

"When God broke into history decisively through the Incarnation, who discerned it? Not the Pharisees whose religious movement was loudly predicting that God was about to act. Not the scribes and priests who were the professional experts in prophetic scripture. Instead it was pagan stargazers and peasant shepherds who discerned what God was doing. They were not the experts and they were not the reactionaries at the loud center of religious noise; they were quiet people on the silent edges of contemplative thought." Brian Zahnd blog 11/25/2016

To help you observe Advent in a richer, more meaningful way, below is a selection of Scriptures to help you re-enter and re-enter the beauty of the Gospel story. 

November
27      Isaiah 40 & Matthew 1-2
28      Isaiah 41 & Matthew 3
29      Isaiah 42 & Matthew 4
30      Isaiah 43 & Matthew 5

December
1        Isaiah 44 & Matthew 6
2        Isaiah 45 & Matthew 7
3        Isaiah 46 & Matthew 8
4        Isaiah 47 & Matthew 9-10
5        Isaiah 48 & Matthew 11
6        Isaiah 49 & Matthew 12
7        Isaiah 50 & Matthew 13
8        Isaiah 51 &  Matthew 14
9        Isaiah 52 & Matthew 15
10      Isaiah 53 & Matthew 16
11      Isaiah 54 & Mark 1-2
12      Isaiah 55 & Mark 3
13      Isaiah 56 & Mark 4
14      Isaiah 57 & Mark 5
15      Isaiah 58 & Mark 6
16      Isaiah 59 & Mark 7
17      Isaiah 60 & Mark 8
18      Isaiah 61 & Luke 1-2
19      Isaiah 62 & Luke 3-4
20      Isaiah 63 & Luke 5
21      Isaiah 64 & Luke 6
22      Isaiah 65 & Luke 7
23      Isaiah 66 & Luke 8

Christmas Eve      Isaiah 9:1-7 & Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Day     Isaiah 11:1-9 & Matthew 2:1-12

May this Advent help prepare you to discern what God is about to do in your life and in our world.

What is Racism?

The events in Charlottesville this past weekend brought to mind the late 60's and early 70's while growing up in North Akron. It was a turbulent time of tension and transition. The Civil Rights movement gained a lot of traction and changed the structure of America toward justice, respect and dignity for the minorities in our country. Or so I thought. 

The changes accomplished came at a great cost. There were riots across the country, curfews on the streets of the cities and the loss of the prophetic voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Growing up in Akron gave me the opportunity to know some of the black youth in school and in the neighborhood. Not seriously thinking much of it as a teenager I still noticed the anger of the black youth. I did not fully understand why. They went to the same school I did, wore the same Chuck Taylor white or black high tops (Air Jordans were not on the radar).I played some b-ball with some at Patterson Park. Yet I never entered their homes nor did they mine. 

Now these many years later I see that much of what I thought was accomplished during the Civil Rights movement was somewhat a masquerade. Racism is still deeply seated in the soul of our nation. Charlottesville shines a light on the deep seeded hatred of diversity. The white supremacist movement is still alive and hell bent on protecting white privilege.  Now they are more heavily armed with the right to carry.

My soul empathizes with the plight of minorities trying to find the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It takes personal growth and understanding to realize that not everyone has the equal chance of experiencing justice in the economic, social and political arenas. 

How did I come to a better understanding of racism? The answer is simple ... friendship. 

A number of years ago the Lord brought a man by the name of Reggie Bailey into my life. 

Pastor Reggie was a dear friend and colleague. I was supposedly his pastor and mentor. In many ways, he was mine. He opened a whole new world to me.

It started in a class his dear wife Renee took that I was teaching. In September 1998 there began a friendship that merged within my spirit with the Baileys. It developed into the souls of two congregations co-ministering in the work of Christ. I had the privilege of working along side of him in outreach to primarily the black community near downtown Cleveland. 

Reginald D. Bailey, pastor of Anointed Gates Church in Cleveland passed away on Saturday May 12, 2007 after a lengthy battle with cancer. Part of his legacy is the mark he placed on my soul. He helped me become color blind. I still have a ways to go for I know that subconsciously I still have the subtle influence of white privilege. 

President Obama tweeted after the deadly violence in Charlottesville: "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion … People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love … For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite." He was quoting South African President Nelson Mandela. 

So we need to keep learning, growing and changing. So what is racism? Here is my best definition at this point in my journey.

Racism is a demonically driven obsession for power coupled with the fear of the loss of privilege in an endless quest for ethnic superiority. 

When racism becomes a religion then hate becomes her liturgy and violence her sacrament. 

God save us from the racist religion. 

Larry Pozza

What is Baptism? (part 2)

On this stormy Friday morning it is only appropriate that I say a few more words about baptism. Many times when people are baptized as infants (and there is nothing wrong with that) they miss the importance and impact of baptism. 

Following Jesus is full of mystery and meaning. This includes the ordinance of baptism.  Most of the time we simply see it as a religious ritual. 

Baptism (when done as an adult) is more a formal entry point into the mystery and meaning of becoming a part of the Body of Christ. 

To enter the fullness of being a participating member of Christ's body, there is a milestone that changes the direction of life. By faith there is an action of allegiance.

When we are baptized we identify with Jesus in his death, burial, resurrection and ongoing work of the Kingdom of God. 

At His baptism the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in the form of a dove ... not an eagle (a symbol of Roman power and might). That Jesus was identified as God's beloved Son by a dove and not an eagle is very instructive, deeply subversive and absolutely beautiful. 

Baptism becomes a portal out of this old broken world and into God's new creation, an escape from the kingdoms of empire, power, idolatry and injustice into the Kingdom of love. 

All who follow Jesus through the waters of baptism pledge allegiance to his revolutionary Kingdom.  

Selah.

Larry Pozza 

What is Baptism?

It's Deja Vu all over again. A number of years ago I wrote an article on the Basics of Baptism. Since I wrote on the subject of communion in my last blog I thought this would be a good time to resurrect the article on another ordinance of the local church. 

Baptism and the Lord's Supper are referred to as the ordinances of the local church. Both are simple expressions of profound truths: The Lord's Supper says "Jesus died for me". Baptism expresses "Jesus lives in me". The importance of baptism in the life of the believer is underscored by the last command of our Lord. In Matthew 28:19 we read "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit". 

Baptism, generally speaking may be defined as an act of association or identification with someone, some group, some message or some event. Christian baptism means identification with the message of the Gospel, the person of the Savior and the group of believers. Christian baptism might formally be defined as follows: "Christian baptism is the act of being immersed in water, whereby the believer makes a public profession of his faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and whereby he identifies himself with the visible body of Christ - the church". · 

The word "baptize" comes from the Greek word "baptidzo" which means "to dip, to plunge under, to submerge". Water baptism by immersion serves as a public pantomime of an inward reality. Paul says in Romans 6:4 "we were buried with Christ by baptism into death in order that we might rise to walk in the newness of life". Paul speaks here of the Spirit's baptism at the moment of salvation.

Water baptism tells of the spiritual change that has taken place in the life of the one who has believed. That spiritual change is two-fold: 1. Death to the old life in Adam (as illustrated by the burial in the water). 2. Resurrection to new life in Christ (as illustrated by the rising out of the water). It is an acted out statement of spiritual and positional realities. Baptism by immersion pictures the spiritual death, burial and resurrection with Jesus Christ of those who have trusted Him as their personal Savior. Special care should be taken to note the contrast between two types of baptism in Matthew 2:11-12; the distinction between Spirit baptism and water baptism. Water baptism is but a symbol of something else. It is a sign of the spiritual baptism of the Holy Spirit that makes a believing sinner a new creature. 

What, precisely, does this ceremony mean? The link with circumcision in the New Testament (see Colossians 2:10 ff.) gives us a clue. Baptism is a sign. As the Lord’s Supper has replaced Passover, so baptism has replaced circumcision. Now that Christ has fulfilled the covenant of grace by the once-for-all shedding of his blood (Mark 14:24; 1 Corinthians 11:25), two signs without blood (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) look back to this fulfillment, as two signs with blood (circumcision and Passover)  formerly pointed to it.  

As a covenant sign, then, baptism symbolizes at least: 

  • The washing away of sin
  • The death of the old life
  • A rising to new life
  • The ministry of the Holy Spirit
  • The believer’s assurance

Baptism is not necessary for salvation. In Luke 20:42-43 the believing thief who was crucified with Jesus was assured a place in paradise on the basis of his faith. Likewise, the same holds true for every "believing thief” since. Water can never wash away sin. Hebrews 9:12 and 10:4 teach plainly that nothing saves but the blood of Christ. 

Baptism reminds the world of God's great love. God the Father promised to make "the believing thieves" of this world His children. Jesus gave His blood to make it possible. The testimony of baptism rings out for the world to hear: "I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Gal. 2:20).

Larry Pozza

What is Communion?

Have you ever wondered why Christians eat a small piece of bread and and drink a sip of wine (or grape juice) in some church services?

You’re not alone.

For thousands of years, the Church has continued a practice called communion, or depending on different church traditions, the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is a part of the liturgy of the Ancient Church designed to take us on a journey from this world into a brief encounter with the Kingdom of God and then back out again to bear witness to it. 

In the ancient liturgy every act is a metaphor or symbol. The word liturgy means "the work of the people." The bread and the wine are symbols designed to reenact the redemption story. The bread is Christ's body and the wine is His blood. It is part of the work of the people to encounter God. 

The word "Eucharist" means "thanksgiving". It is the act of being thankful for the divine encounter we have in Christ. God draws near in the symbolic elements of the grain and the grape. 

We need more than information to nourish us. We are built for first hand experiences with the living God. The grain and the grape makes the encounter available for everyone.

“It’s like what Gandhi said: “The world is so hungry for God that God could only come as a piece of bread. We so long for joy that God even risked coming into the world in the form of intoxication, that risky thing called wine.” 
― Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale

Jesus started the tradition of communion. He instructed His followers to use bread and wine to remember the sacrifice He was going to make when He died for our sins on the cross (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

Jesus called Himself “the bread of life,” which means that we’re nourished by Him, we survive because of Him, and He satisfies us when everything else leaves us empty (John 6:48-51). There’s a connection between our nearness to Jesus, believing in Him, and being fulfilled by Him (John 6:35).

The early Church celebrated Jesus by taking communion, sometimes every day (Acts 2:42-46). They saw that every time they gathered around a table to eat and drink, it was a chance to recognize Jesus and thank God for all He’s done.

“The Eucharist becomes the meal of unity binding Christians through time and space to be one body, one Christ, for the world." 
—Stanley Hauerwas, Commentary on Matthew, pg. 219

Larry Pozza

What is Forgiveness? (part 4)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

-Colossians 3:13

Part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is the effort to forgive others. 

In a tit for tat world, where you hit me and I hit you back harder begins a vicious cycle of making life a living hell. This vicious boxing match is far from the heart of God. 

Certainly we will be hurt by others. Certainly there will be many times we will hurt others by our words, deeds and attitudes. But to keep the hurt escalating, certainly not. Our example is Jesus. 

Jesus chose to absorb the blows and offer forgiveness. By his actions he communicated clearly that the wounds stop now. They stop here. 

Now it is our turn. Forgiveness means letting go of the desire to get even. 

Don Henley knew it to be true. In his song "The Heart of the Matter" he makes the point that forgiveness is a matter of the heart

"I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand,
All the things I thought I knew, I'm learning again
I've been tryin' to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness
Forgiveness
Even if, even if you don't love me anymore"

He goes on. 

"There are people in your life
Who've come and gone
They let you down
You know they hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you baby
'Cause life goes on
You keep carryin' that anger
It'll eat you up inside baby"

We are all people in process. For those of us who know Christ, it is a part of the salvation we receive by grace. We are all evolving. We are all learning. 

Michael Dowd in his book Thank God for Evolution makes the point poignantly. 

"What we call salvation like 'sin' is an undeniable part of the human experience. To know the joy of reconciling when I've been estranged, to experience the relief of confession when I've been burdened by guilt, to taste the freedom of forgiveness when I've been enslaved by my resentment; to feel passion and energy when I've been forlorn, to once again see clearly when I've been self-deceived, to find comfort when I've been grieving, to dance again when I've been paralyzed by fear; to sing when I've been short on hope; to let go when I have been attacked, to embrace truth when I've been in denial; to find guidance when I've been floundering - each of these is the precious face of salvation."

As Desmond Tutu reminds us "there is no future without forgiveness". 

Larry Pozza

What is Forgiveness? (part 3)

“How I wish that you of all people would understand the things that make for peace.”
—Jesus (Luke 19:42)

“In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” -Matthew 7:12–14

Forgiveness is a tricky topic. We like to offer forgiveness generically ... "I'm sorry" ... will suffice. We want to receive the offer of forgiveness specifically with some groveling as a sign of true sorrow. 

What we need to understand about the nature of an offense and the offer of forgiveness is the humanity behind it. There really is no such thing as a generic sin. When we sin it is not an offense against an inanimate object. Every prohibition in the Scripture has a person or persons behind it. 

Violating God's commands hurts others and ourselves. When we say we have sinned we must recognize that the nature of the offense is not against the commandment itself but the person(s) hurt by it. 

Commandments are not generic prohibitions because God likes to give rules. Most commandments are a marker of how we mistreat other people including God Himself. 

Therefore forgiveness is not to be generic but personal with the goal of reconciliation. 

In a world of paybacks, retaliations and getting even we see that the world can only be put to rights through real forgiveness of real hurts. 

Brian Zahnd reminds us "The things that make for peace are the two great commandments: Love of God and love of neighbor…but especially the second command. (Love of God is only validated by a co-suffering love of neighbor.) The “golden rule” of evaluating our actions through the eyes of our neighbor is the narrow and difficult road that leads to life and peace. The golden rule is the narrow gate. The narrow gate is not a sinner’s prayer, the narrow gate is the practice of the Jesus way. The narrow gate is fulfilling the law and the prophets by empathetic love of neighbor in imitation of Jesus. When we hate and vilify others for ideological reasons, when we demonize and dehumanize others for nationalistic reasons, when we use and exploit others for economic reasons, we are on the highway to hell — we have chosen the well-worn road that leads to war and destruction. The deeply disconcerting thing is that it is entirely possible to cruise down the broad road of impending doom while singing songs of praise to Jesus. "  

A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd

Larry Pozza

What is Forgiveness? (part 2)

My life is sort of like the crawl space in my home. It is in the dark netherworld corner of the basement where things I do not want to let go of gets stuffed. I choose to hold on to it because I think that at some point I will use it again. It might be nostalgic. At one time I cherished the pictures that I proudly displayed on the walls of my home. At one time it was decorating the space of my living room. Things change, times change, my tastes change. It is time to take down the decor and to get rid of it. But I can't. 

So I hold on to it. It continues to take up space in my life. Sure I try to organize it and label it but sits in a crawl space. A place I go only occasionally or seasonally.  It is time to pull out Christmas ornaments. It is time to put up the spring wreath on the front door. It is time to find the harvest time decorations. I use it and then I move it back again into the dark corner. I will bring back out again at the appropriate time.

The problem is it gets overwhelming. Sometimes, I don't even know what I have. I end up buying more of the same stuff. It is a waste of space and money. It leaves no room for the future. It is chained to the past.

It is sort of like overstuffed luggage. I pack so much that it leaves no space for the return trip. I over pack because of fear. I might be too cold or hot or wet if I don't carry this along. It gets heavy. I pay more at the airport because I am overweight. 

I need to declutter. I need to lighten up. I need to start over. I need a clean start.

Forgiveness is the spiritual discipline of decluttering the past to leave room for the future. 

It is emptying the crawl space of all I don't need, it is lightening the suitcase. It is a clean start.

“The evidence of “forgiveness of sin” is not found in a profession of belief, but in a life freed from self-destructive pursuits, scapegoating, and violence.”   Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith

Larry Pozza

 

What is Forgiveness?

Luke 23:34: Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Could anything be more shocking and yet more beautiful than this prayer? This is the single most shocking and single most beautiful sentence ever spoken in all of history. And it reveals the single most beautiful character and image of God in all of history.

God wants to relieve us of the burden that comes from falling short of what we were created to be.  The Bible calls our short comings "sin". Jesus wants to set our feet back on the right track by removing the guilt we carry from being sinners. 

If we let it, the beauty of this prayer, directed toward us (for our sin put Christ on the cross) has the power to heal and transform us completely. 

The great twentieth century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, the Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.” 

The cross is the full and final revelation of God. God’s nature of forgiving love is supremely demonstrated at the cross. When Jesus could have summoned twelve legions of angels to exact vengeance, he instead prayed for his enemies to be forgiven. Vengeance had been canceled in favor of love. Retaliation was overruled in favor of reconciliation. Protest had been abandoned in favor of forgiveness.

The good news is that, no matter how serious the sin, God is always seeking us out and is willing to forgive and forget our sins and give us a fresh start. Forgiveness is fresh start.  Amen.

Larry Pozza

What is Grace?

We have all heard the word "grace" thousands of times. The difficulty is an adequate definition. We know the promise of Ephesians 2:8 "for by grace you have been saved". We know the potential of our standing in grace (Romans 5:2). We know the acrostic often used for grace - God's Riches at Christ's Expense. But do we really know grace?  Just maybe we know it when we see it rather than defining it. 

G.K. Chesterton suggested that Saint Francis of Assisi “walked the world like the pardon of God.” The ultimate imitation of Christ is to patiently absorb sin and offer pardon in the name of love. This is grace.

Pastor Brian Zahnd says,  "If I were to pick a single moment that most clearly demonstrates who Jesus is and how he reveals the nature of God to us, it would be the moment of crucifixion when Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) This is grace demonstrated as a love supreme. It’s an unprecedented act — a plea for the pardon of his murderers. But, perhaps even more significantly, pardon is offered with a contemplative recognition that his persecutors are themselves enslaved in systems of sin that prevent them from having any real understanding of their crime or how to find their way out of it. This is the amazing grace of God that came to full expression in the life of Jesus."

When grace is pierced, it bleeds pardon. Grace at the root is closely associated with forgiveness, both giving it and receiving it. 

It is far more than that too. Listen to the words of Frederick Buechner.

After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody's much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.

Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do.

The grace of God means something like: "Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you."

There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

We do not understand the mystery of grace. All we can know is it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it finds us. 

Father Richard Rohr says, "Grace is the divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired".

Opening up to grace and living grace with others is a lifelong journey. Become an explorer. 

Larry Pozza

What is the Kingdom of God?

On this fourth of July 2017 I feel compelled to ask the question "what is the Kingdom of God?". When Jesus began his public ministry he had one central mantra, "The time has come, the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). 

What Jesus talked most about in his public ministry was the Kingdom of God. He would describe it by parables (Matthew 13) and through a constitutional vision (Matthew 5-7, also called the Sermon on the Mount). 

When we hear the word "kingdom" we thinks of Medieval knights or the Game of Thrones. It is an archaic word that can mislead us. Think of the Kingdom of God as the government of the empire of God. It is God's politics of grace, love and compassion. It is God's alternative to anti-human empires of power.

Through Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension, He sits in the oval office of the universe and possesses all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18). 

There is a new empire that governs a world being renewed in Christ if we want to be a citizen of it. 

The Kingdom of God is that which brings about human flourishing. It provides healing, hope and radical hospitality. It is separate from the kingdoms (empires) of the earth. 

Dr. Gregg Boyd in his book The Myth of a Christian Religion gives a powerful contrast. 

The difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is measured by the kind of power they trust. The kingdoms of this world place their trust in whatever coercive power they can exercise to make things happen. We can think of this kind of power as the power of the sword.

In contrast, the kingdom of God refused to use coercive power over people, choosing instead to rely exclusively on whatever power it can exercise to serve others. I have often referred to this as the difference between power-over versus power-under. This is the transforming power of humble, self-sacrificial, Christlike love. Exercising power under others is about impacting people’s lives by serving them, sacrificing for them, and even being sacrificed by them while refusing to retaliate, as Jesus did.

We can think of this kind of power as the power of the cross, as the cross is the ultimate manifestation of the character and power of God.

In a violent world filled with people vying for power over others—sometimes even in the name of the church and in the name of Jesus—the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated offers people the peacemaking beauty of Christ.

The power of this distinctive, self-sacrificial beauty is lost, however, whenever the kingdom of God gets blended with power-over attitudes and practices that are of the kingdom of the world. The kingdom of God stops looking like Jesus when it starts trying to control, coerce, and manipulate through the power that looks like Caesar. This means that the kingdom for all practical purposes simply ceases to exist.

We are called out of this world to be a holy, separate people. We’re called to be nonconformists, resisting the “pattern of the world” as we’re transformed into the image of Christ. This holy nonconformity isn’t just one aspect of who we are—it actually defines us. It’s how we manifest the beauty of God’s character and his kingdom.

Out from the wellspring of abundant life that we receive from Christ, we live in revolt against everything in our own lives, in society, and in the spirit-realm that is inconsistent with the cruciform revelation of God.

—Adapted from The Myth of a Christian Religion, pages 21-24

Ultimate freedom is when we can love as Jesus loves. If the Son will make you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:36).

Larry Pozza

What is Salvation?

My relationship with Christ began in the summer of 1975 after being introduced to the good news of the Gospel in a little church in Akron, Ohio. I came from an unchurched home and did not know the lingo but soon began to learn over the course of two years of growth. 

One of the terms thrown around frequently was the term salvation. I initially learned that salvation is being forgiven for my sins and as a result I was given the assurance that after I die I would go to heaven rather than hell. 

In this blog I want to ask again - what is salvation? This time I want to answer the questions after 30 years of bible exposition and ministry experience. I now think most attempts to answer the question shrinks the concept of salvation to something I possess. It is something I put in my wallet like a credit card. If salvation is reduced to going to heaven after I die then it is easy to think of it as a ticket or backstage pass to see the Grand Poobah. 

Like Pastor Brian Zahnd says in his blog that’s like confusing an American passport with America. I can put a passport in my pocket, but I can’t put America in my pocket (https://brianzahnd.com/2007/05/what-is-salvation). 

"Well, if I may be so bold, I am now ready to answer the question.

Q. What is salvation?
A. It is the kingdom of God.

I’m convinced this is the answer. Not only is it intensely biblical, it is the message of the Bible. The Bible is the story of a world gone wrong and God’s strategy, or as Dallas Willard calls it, the divine conspiracy, to make it right again. God’s strategy or divine conspiracy is the kingdom of heaven. This is salvation.

To use my former analogy: Salvation is not the passport of heaven, salvation is the kingdom of heaven.

And what is the kingdom of God? It’s God’s government by which He will make right a world gone wrong."

Salvation is about God's plan for the renewal of everything. It includes heaven. It includes forgiveness. It includes assurance. But that is not the totality of it. 

Dr. N.T. Wright says in his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church that salvation is about the entire person and the entire cosmos. Because we believe in the resurrection of the body and not just a disembodied soul, salvation must be for the whole person.

Equally as important to Wright’s view of salvation is what we are eventually saved to: “God’s promised new heavens and new earth and our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality.” A major theme in this book is the final destination for the Christian. Wright sees the testimony of the Scriptures and church tradition to be clear: we are with Christ when we die (call it Heaven, or paradise) but ultimately we experience the resurrection of the body when Christ returns to establish his eternal Kingdom in the new heavens and new earth.

In this view salvation “can’t be confined to human beings.”Why? Because we are “given the mandate to look after creation, of bringing order to God’s world, of establishing and maintaining communities.” It’s the mandate given to humanity in Genesis 1.

 To be saved is not simply to receive a ticket to go somewhere else. It is rather a guarantee of our participation with God’s beautiful redeeming work now, and fully participating with God in the new earth to come.

We begin with the prayer Jesus taught us to pray "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". After we say Amen we get off our knees and get to work bringing God's kingdom to earth to the best of our abilities. 

Larry Pozza

What is Faith?

We know the Scripture tells us "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God ..." (Ephesians 2:8).

Seems to me there is a lot riding on this thing called faith so we need to ask the question - "what is it?" Most  people, mainly Christians, think faith has to do with certainty. As such faith then is the opposite of doubt. In this perspective, faith is thought to be strong if there is no doubt. Invariably then people try to avoid doubt at all costs. 

In his book Benefit of the Doubt Greg Boyd shows this approach to faith will cause a cognitive dissonance. 

"My experience as a pastor and professor has taught me that when people assume faith and doubt are incompatible, they invariably try to avoid the latter. Indeed, when faith is equated with psychological certainty, the experience of cognitive dissonance—an experience that is the precondition for almost all learning—easily gets interpreted as something that is evil and therefore is to be avoided at all costs. For obvious reasons, those who are afflicted with this unfortunate model of faith understandably find it hard, if not impossible, to honestly acknowledge, let alone feel the full force of, the merits of perspectives that challenge their belief system. They rather quickly embrace whatever “solutions” that are available to them, not because these perspectives adequately address the challenges, but simply because they are then enabled to enjoy the certainty that their views are correct."

Certainty is a poor substitute for authentic faith. But it’s popular because it’s easy. No wrestling with doubt. Just find a system you like and settle into certainty. Certitude is easy…until it’s impossible. 

In another book I highly recommend, The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns he states the following consequences.

"Certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs. … It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others. … A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain. Moving toward different ways of thinking, even just trying it on for a while to see how it fits, is perceived as a compromise to faith, or as giving up on faith altogether. But nothing could be further from the truth. Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith — these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, this is the problem. And that is what I mean by the ‘sin of certainty.’ … When we grab hold of ‘correct’ thinking for dear life, when we refuse to let go because we think that doing so means letting go of God, when we dig in our heels and stay firmly planted even when we sense that we need to let go and move on, at that point we are trusting our thoughts rather than God. We have turned away from God’s invitation to trust in order to cling to an idol.” The Sin of Certainty, pp. 18, 19

So what is faith? It is not about striving for certainty. Hebrews 11:1 literally reads "it is the substantiating of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen". Faith is not so much about what we believe but about whom we trust. That we true of every person listed in Hebrews 11.

Once again Greg Boyd hits the nail on the head. 

"Faith is not about striving for certainty. It’s about striving to remain faithful in the midst of uncertainty. We exercise this faith by imaginatively embracing God’s promises as a substantial reality (hypostasis) that in turn creates a conviction (elegchos) that it will be so, which motivates us to act in ways that we hope will bring what we imaginatively envision into reality."

Faith is about the trust needed to keep striving. It is a journey of trust over and over again. 

Rabbi David Wolpe says in his book Why Faith Matters:

"I was a new rabbinical student and in my reading, had come across the phrase 'noch einmal.' I approached Dr. Slomovic, knowing he spoke several languages, and introducing myself, asked him what 'noch einmal' meant. 'Once again,' he answered. 

Well, he was old, and probably hard of hearing. So I repeated, a little louder, 'what does noch einmal mean?' 'Once again'. 

Poor man, I thought, must be difficult on him to make people repeat themselves all the time. 'WHAT DOES NOCH EINMAL MEAN?' I screamed. He looked at me with compassion, and placing his hand on my cheek, said, 'Noch einmal' means 'once again'. p. 19.

Faith is feeling the hand of God touch our cheek and gently say "once again".

NOCH EINMAL.

Larry Pozza

What is Church?

I just finished reading Mike McHargue's book Finding God in the Waves. In the book he tells his story of how he lost his faith and found it again. In his chapter Take Me to Church he says, 

"If you want to know God, it turns out some advice my grandmother gave me mirrors what science has to say: pray, read the Bible, and go to church!

The capacity of the group to help people form and maintain a belief in God and to experience the positive health and emotional effects thereof forms the basis of my claim about what a church can be and do and why that is good for the world:

The Church is at least a global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Even if this is all the Church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community and faith practice in the world - and this practice can improve people's lives in real, measurable ways." p. 219-220.

It is at least a community trying to improve people's lives in real, measurable ways. So many times church is the direct opposite. At ShadeTree we want our ministry to be good news for all people. Are we perfect? No. Are we spiritual? Sometimes. Are we mature? Not always. Are we loving? I hope so. Are we fun? We are trying. Are we caring? We are getting better.

At ShadeTree Community Church we are on a journey following Jesus. 

This is who we are. 
This is what we do.

As we respond to God’s love, our journey is done with others as a lifelong pursuit of Jesus.

We love having you as our travelling companions. 

Larry Pozza