Dot-to-Dot

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed the coloring books with “dot-to-dots.”  It might have been the first indicator that engineering would be in my future.  When first learning to connect the dots, I paid close attention to the numbers, ensuring the figure that was developing was correct.  In short order, I discovered that if I “stepped back” and observed the arrangement of the dots, I was able to envision the figure that was about to emerge.  Since I knew what the ultimate figure was likely to look like, I could stray from using just straight lines, ending up with a more artistic version of the picture.

One of my top five CliftonStrengths is Connectedness.  When I am able to connect dots in life, things make a lot more sense to me (I’m guessing I’m not alone in this).  This is especially true when connections lead to a better understanding of Context (another of my top five Strengths).  I’m guessing I’m not alone in this, either.  I think it’s an important consideration when it comes to practical theology, to our understanding of who God is and what he is up to.

Dot-to-Dot

As previously discussed, theological understanding comes through the reading and interpretation of scripture in context.  The greatest context, of course, is all of scripture.  As we continuously spend time in scripture in its full context, dots get connected and themes begin to emerge – themes that allow us to “step back,” giving us a better understanding of who God is and what he’s doing in his creation.  One example is the theme of Justice that threads throughout scripture (see What is Justice?).

About 35 years ago, through an Old Testament seminary course, I was introduced to a theme that has helped me connect biblical dots, giving me a context that has informed my reading of scripture ever since.  It’s a theme woven throughout scripture.  That theme?  “I will be your God and you will be my people” in some manner, shape, or form. 

The theme first appeared in the book of Genesis when God called Abram (Abraham) and his descendants to be a blessing to the world, to participate in His project of “putting creation back to rights,” as N.T. Wright would say.  After changing Abram’s name to Abraham (meaning father of a multitude), God told him of a covenant that he was about to establish with His people (Abraham and his descendants).  The covenant was to include land and the inclusion that “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:1-8).  For the restoration project to succeed the people needed to follow God’s lead, letting him be God.

The people seemed to like the idea of being God’s chosen, but not so much the idea of following his lead.  Hundreds of years later, we find his people in captivity as slaves in Egypt.  As God was about to rescue them from captivity, he said through Moses, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:6-7).  At this pivotal point in human history, God reminded the Israelites that he was God (and presumably, they were not), promising that he would lead and care for them.  As the people followed his lead, God provided for them and reminded them of their covenant relationship to him – e.g., “I will put my dwelling place among you…I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12).

As we watch the story unfold, we see a recurring pattern. The people strayed from letting God be God, got themselves in trouble, requiring God to repeatedly rescue them. As we watch the story continue to unfold, God repeatedly reminded his people of this covenant relationship to him. We find the theme in both the Old and New Testaments:

  • I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. (Jeremiah 24:7, NIV)
  • And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord God.  And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 34:30-31, ESV)
  • The Apostle Paul, drawing from Leviticus 26 and Ezekiel 37 – For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6:16, NLT)
  • The author of Hebrews, drawing from Jeremiah 31 – This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Hebrews 8:10, NIV)
  • And from the book of Revelation – I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3, NIV)

Since this theme threads its way throughout the entire Biblical narrative, it translates to us as Christ-followers today.  God wants to be God (which he is very good at, by the way) and has invited us to be his people.  If we live in that relational understanding, “all will be well” (Jeremiah 7:23, NLT).  I’m not intimating that following Jesus is easy or simplistic.  But I do know this: God wants to be our God and he wants us to be his people. This is bottom-line stuff. It’s the stuff that helps us connect dots.

What ELSE Can I Do?

My dad used to say that I was a charter member of the “Do Daddy” club. Always a curious person, I bombarded him with questions about what he was doing or going to do and why – “Whachya gonna do, Daddy?” He would then let me watch and listen as he explained what he was doing and, equally important, why he was doing it. Of course, that only led to more “do Daddy” questions. As I got older, I was able to participate, joining him with the never-ending farm work. I loved doing stuff on the farm and often looked for more things I could do – “What ELSE can I do, Daddy?”

A couple weeks ago in the posting, What Can I Do?, I addressed the question that many woke white Americans are now are asking. Beginning to realize that there are such things as unjust racial policies and white privilege, we all want to know what we can possibly do to make a difference. I directed us to Jesus as a start point, reiterating that “I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change.” So we correctly ask, “What ELSE can we do?”

I have been privileged to spend some time the past ten years with Dr. David Livermore, a social science researcher who has devoted his career to helping people develop their cultural intelligence. He helps clients objectively discover their cultural intelligence, describing it as one’s Cultural Quotient (CQ). As a Christ-follower, Dave has the privilege of helping people all over the world develop their CQ.

According to Livermore, the development of one’s cultural intelligence starts with their CQ Drive (see graphic). CQ Drive is asking me how much I really care about developing my cultural intelligence. Am I willing to put in the work necessary to let God create in me a heart for those who are racially or culturally different than me? Am I willing to spend time with Jesus to let his heart for the other permeate my own heart? Am I willing to listen, learn, and understand?

As God draws our heart into alignment with his, the next thing we can do is learn and gain an understanding of the culture and the world of another. This requires me to listen and learn from those who live in that culture. This cannot happen without intentionality, effort, and humility. It’s the next step in answering the question, “What ELSE can we do?”

How do we do this? The best way, of course, is to learn directly from someone from the culture that we want to understand. We also need to know the story behind the story – the history. Right now, many of us want to better understand the world of our fellow Black Americans and fellow Black Christ-followers. We want to understand, Why are people angry? Why so upset? Didn’t we elect a black president? Pass civil rights laws? Isn’t racism illegal now? These are the tough questions we ask and were posed by Phil Vischer (creator of Veggie Tales) in his podcast Holy Post.

So what ELSE can we do? Certainly we can watch Vischer’s video! And if your CQ Drive pushes you to know and understand better, let me suggests some resources worthy of your time and persistence:

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody
  • Cultural Intelligence (Youth, Family, and Culture): Improving Your CQ to Engage in a Multicultural World, David Livermore
  • Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland
  • Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith
  • Do All Lives Matter? The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For, Wayne Gordon and John Perkins
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World of Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson (the movie as well)
  • Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (also a movie)
  • The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities, Adrian Pei
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (Vischer’s video addresses some of her content)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (an old classic)
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum  (This is the only book from this list I can’t vouch for personally.  It’s next on my reading list.)

We start by allowing God, through Jesus and reading books like the ones above, to develop in us a CQ Drive, followed by CQ Knowledge. Then we can begin to move toward action that can make a difference within our spheres of influence. And we all want to make a difference, don’t we?

Meet My Friend Pete Paulson

I want you to meet Pete Paulson, Associate Regional Director for Young Life in the North Star Region (MN, ND, SD). He provided this word of encouragement to Young Life staff of the region last week. With his permission, I want to share it with you. It is an excellent, thought-provoking treatment of the abundant life Jesus promised us all…

Peter Paulson
A word of encouragement from Peter Paulson

John 10:10
How do I live “Life to the full”?  I want it.  I want it so badly.  When my time comes to go home to Jesus, I want to know that I experienced everything that this world has to offer.  We talk about this abundant life a lot in Young Life.  We even promise this to kids.  Life with Christ is life to the full.  However, I’m starting to realize that what I thought “abundant life” is, might in fact, be found in a different way.

Mark 10:17-31
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asked.  It’s the same question I asked, just framed in a different way.  “You know what the Bible says” says Jesus.  “I do, and I follow what it says” the rich young man replies.  “There’s a deeper way than the rules…let go of what you have, give it away to those who need it, and come spend time with me” Jesus offered.  He offered him life to the full, but the man’s eyes looked down, and he slowly walked away not willing to give up his previous dreams. 

Jesus looked at those with him and said basically, “see how hard it is to live a different way?  See how hard it is to go against the status quo and look at a new way?”  Peter said, “ but we’ve followed you!”  Jesus looked at him with compassion and concern and encouraged him, “Yes, Peter, you are right, and the things you left at the fishing boat pale in comparison to what you have!  Life with me, and life in true community!  Hundreds of times better than what you left, but don’t forget, with it comes persecution and pain. You can’t have one without the other because my way isn’t just about you, its about life for everyone”.  

Life to the full only matters for any of us if it is possible for all of us.  God has rigged it to be just so.  Our lives are linked together and also linked with Him.  Those who are rich and privileged, though, can be owned by their possessions; physical possessions as well as their self-ambition and dreams can get in the way.  So those with much must let go, and give to others, so everyone can have abundant life together.  They must see that the old way only worked for the few, because it took advantage of the many.  

Jesus offers us an opportunity to change and do life differently, by letting go of what we cling to, and instead cling to one another and to Him.  This is what eternity looks like, and we can live it now.

I pray we do not walk away.

What is Justice?

This is a continuation of conversations started a couple weeks ago in the postings My Journey Into Racism and What Can I Do? As we continue this conversation, let me be clear as to the reasons why I decided to address racism in a blog-site focused on practical theology. My reasons are (1) to not remain complicit through silence, (2) to work through my own understanding of systemic racism and the role I play, and (3) to invite fellow Christ-followers to do the same.

The term Practical Theology implies an understanding of God, his worldview, and how that informs the way we live our lives – the way we relate to others.

What could be more practical than gaining an understanding of God’s heart for all people, not just the predominant group? We do not need to spend much time in scripture to become aware of God’s desire for justice and mercy is for all his people, not just the predominant group (thus Micah 6:8 – And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God). We do not need to spend much time with Jesus to see that he walked away from the predominant group in order to seek the outsider (see Jesus’ Mission Statement).

We cannot act justly, let alone love mercy, if we do not have a clear biblical understanding of justice. But what is the biblical/theological understanding of justice? Fortunately, the BibleProject has created a six minute video that paints a very clear picture of the biblical understanding of justice. Enjoy – it’s captivating. Then be watching for my next post, What ELSE Can I Do?

 

What Can I Do?

“What can I do?” is the question that I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations since May 25, the date of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former police officer, Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death has launched world-wide protests and conversations related to systemic racism. While a segment of our society refuses to believe that systemic racism exists, an even larger segment has come face-to-face with its reality and ugliness. And its left us stunned, numbed, and in a quandary about what we can do to thwart such rampant oppression. It’s a natural response to injustice. We are passionate about a need for change and want to do something.

My confrontation with the ugliness of racism came to a head twenty-five years ago (see My Journey Into Racism). I was outraged and immediately wondered what I could do? What could one outraged and frustrated Jesus-following engineer do to have any impact on systemic racism? It’s a natural question. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “What can I do?” maybe we should be asking, “Who can I be?” When confronted with issues like systemic racism, the first response of Westerners, and certainly Americans, is to jump right to doing. And there certainly is a place for that. However, as I read scripture, it is increasingly evident that God is primarily interested in actions that are natural extensions of who we be.

All during his ministry, Jesus was confronted with groups that focused primarily on outward actions, disregarding the inward being and its attitudes. This was especially true of the group known as the Pharisees. We tend to imagine them as an evil group of oppressors, kind of like those racists, of which we assume/hope are not. In truth, the Pharisees were a grassroots group that wanted to address the issues of a nation gone awry, that had moved away from God’s vocation as a called people. So they banded together and asked, “What can we do?” For a century or so prior to Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Pharisees worked hard to get the Israelites back on track. In doing so, they focused on actions (doing) and missed the opportunity for God to address and transform their hearts.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, they had lost sight of their original intent of systemic change, actually becoming a systemic problem in and of themselves. Today we might refer to this as Mission Drift, which occurs when one’s passion for a cause outruns their passion for Christ. The Pharisees were passionate about the re-institution of the Mosaic Law into Israel’s life and practice. Over time, the Law became more important to the Pharisees than God himself, which is idolatry in it’s truest form.

As a result, they did not know God’s heart for the “other” which led them to become an oppressive separatist group, focused on their tribal rights and neglecting the needs of others. They missed God’s heart to such a point that they could not recognize Him when he stood right in front of them (Jesus). Jesus called them out on their miss of God’s heart – Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders (Matthew 9:13, Jesus quoting from Hosea 6).

What can we do? We can find ways to let God’s heart for the outsider permeate our heart. Right now, many of us are incensed with the injustice we’ve recently witnessed, and rightly so. We are passionate about being participants of change, and rightly so. We cannot, however, let our passion for justice outrun our passion for Christ or we might someday also hear Jesus say, “Go figure out what this Scripture means…”

Actually, that’s exactly what we can do right now – go bathe in scripture and figure out God’s heart. The best way to do that? We can never go wrong by focusing our attention on Jesus. As the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), he can give us a clear understanding of God’s heart.

I’m going to be frank here: I am continually amazed at how few of us who call ourselves Christ-followers have ever completely read through the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). We settle for bits and pieces here and there, learning about him without really knowing him. Continuing the frankness: if we aren’t willing to do this, then how serious are we really about affecting systemic change?

As we get a clear understanding of God’s heart, we are better equipped to speak into the lives of people in our circles of influence. It gives us credibility (who is more credible than Jesus?) when in conversations with Christian friends that display racist tendencies (unfortunately, many exist). We can point them to Jesus – who he is, what he did and said. They can argue with us, but they can’t argue with him (though they might try). Our job is not to change minds. Our job is to point people to Jesus and let him do the heavy lifting. If people have ears to hear, they will.

Note: I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change. Stay tuned for more thoughts on this worthy topic.

My Journey Into Racism

I want to (need to?) write about my journey toward an understanding of racism. The events of the past few months – the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – have caused me to reminisce about my journey with God in trying to understand racial injustice, especially as a white man of privilege.

My journey began in the mid-60s. As a high school student I struggled to understand the Civil Rights movement and its off-shoot events. I was enamored with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work as he attempted to bring the country’s attention to the plight of the Negro population. I don’t remember hearing the term “racism.” What I do remember was this: There is something radically wrong, though I couldn’t name or articulate it. I wanted to understand, but did not have anyone to process with me. Most of the people in my life wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. off as a trouble-maker. I could not. His assassination in Memphis had a profound impact on me, a farm boy in rural Minnesota.

1968 – My freshman year of college at NDSU. I lived in a dorm made up of 2-room suites. One of my “suite mates” was Leon Carroll, a sophomore from the South side of Chicago. I’m sure I “whelmed” him with questions and wonderments about life on the south side of Chicago. He helped me understand the life of a young black man in America. Though I didn’t know the term, I began to understand systemic racism. Kids of means could go to college and avoid the military draft and thus the Vietnam war. Most of Leon’s high school friends were drafted and already serving in Vietnam. Leon helped move my understanding forward.

Late 70s – As a volunteer Young Life leader, I was privileged to attend a national conference where Young Life staff wrestled with the makings of a of a new Mission Statement. The final Statement included an incarnational commitment: To seek out and welcome all those whom God directs to our ministry, male and female of all races, salaried and volunteer, with a diversity of Christian traditions linked in our common purpose, and to honor their calling and encourage the fullest expression of their gifts. Young Life was making an unprovoked statement about women and minorities in ministry. No other evangelical organization dared touch such topics. I was proud of Young Life, though I could not articulate why. I was still trying to understand.

1980s – We moved to Muskogee, OK, for an engineering job. It was my first time experiencing economic disparity. And the disparity ran along color lines. Whites were privileged to live in the newer parts of town. Our realtor – a white, “upstanding, Christian man” – steered us away from older housing developments that were being “invaded by the Blacks,” jeopardizing future home values. The factory where I worked was on the “wrong side of the tracks.” I saw serious poverty for the first time in my life. I began to understand that something was amiss, something greater than simply personal prejudice.

1994 – We found ourselves in the heart of the South (Memphis, TN) when my position was relocated to the company’s corporate headquarters. What we experienced in Oklahoma was mild compared to Memphis, located at the head of the Mississippi delta where manual cotton-picking reigned supreme through the 19th century and into the mid-20th century. I watched my kids wrestle with extreme prejudice and racism at school and among their Christian friends. It was confusing for them. It was confusing for me!

We attended a church in a white suburb, started by a couple former Young Life staff. Though both white and leading a predominantly white congregation, they determined not to be a typical southern church, encamped in the the suburbs, distanced from the plight of the city. They were intentional about educating people with an understanding of God’s heart* and how such an understanding might affect the way we lived. A few times a year, they hosted an Urban Plunge, where participants spent several days in the heart of Memphis, living at the downtown YMCA. The intent of a Plunge was to prick consciences and educate the participants. Plunges always began by spending several hours at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (which most white Memphis native had never visited), generating robust and emotional discussions.

To this point in my life, I, like most white Americans, viewed racism as simply prejudice fueled by hatred. I think many still do today. What I didn’t understand, but learned during my Urban Plunge experience, was that racism isn’t just a derivative of personal prejudices. I learned the sociological description of racism – the ability and wherewithal of a dominant social group to suppress and keep subservient another sector of society. I began to understand. Racism, by its very nature and definition, is systemic. As we continued to live in the Memphis area, the systemicness of racism became clearly evident everywhere I went. Black people had to prepay at the gas station. I never did. Black people did not get to sit in the prime seats at high school sporting events. We didn’t have to bag our groceries. Black people did. I was told, “We have to provide jobs for the those people.”

I will continue to describe my journey in subsequent posts. For now, this is what I would like us to consider: We cannot treat racism as simply a personal ideology with the assumption that we can’t possibly be racist, referencing the adage, “I don’t hate anyone.” As part of the privileged and dominant group, I, as a white male, am part of a system that suppresses and keeps another people subservient whether I like it or not. Once we begin to understand and accept this, we can begin to make a difference.

Here’s the rub for us: The problem is so massive and pervasive that we feel there isn’t anything we can do or say to make much difference. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. So we retreat into doing and saying nothing. However, silence is complicity. Silence can speak volumes.

* And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Gratitude

The core of the Young Life ministry, of which I have been a part going on 47 years, is the volunteer leaders that invest in the lives of teenagers. I am privileged to help train younger staff that lead the volunteer troops. Several years ago, while in a discussion during a training time, we deliberated the make-up of the best leaders. We decided that what separated best leaders from average leaders was this: they get “it.” As the discussion progressed, we attempted to quantify and define “it.” This is where we landed:

“If someone gets “it,” no definition is necessary; for those who don’t, no definition will suffice.”

In the context of practical theology, I suspect this is a truism that crosses all aspects of faith understanding. I suspect it was central to Jesus’ repetitive quote from Isaiah 6 addressing the Israelites – people that kept on listening, without perceiving; that keep on looking, without understanding. I think this describes our journeys of faith as we try to figure out this phenomenon of following Jesus. We wrestle with an aspect of faith for a time – reading, researching, discussing – seemingly to no avail. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and it makes sense. We get it. We cannot explain it yet – we just know we get it now and we see everything through a new lens…

We hear two distinctly different responses during this pandemic – gratitude or censure/blame. Gratitude* is a core virtue of the Christian life. It’s one of those things I didn’t get for years, but became clear in the middle of a personal crisis. I finally got it, though I couldn’t have explained it to anyone for a time. But I knew it was a life-changer.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, gratitude describes the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. During these days, grateful people are coming out of the woodwork to serve others, even the ungrateful. Grateful people get it. They don’t need to work at showing gratitude, its second nature.

One of the best books I’ve ever read was Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust (a book I HIGHLY recommend). In Ruthless Trust, Manning described how he might determine if someone truly trusts God:

“Let’s say I interviewed ten people and asked them each the same question – “Do you trust God?” – and each answered “Yes, I trust God,” but nine out of ten actually did not trust him. How would I find out which was telling the truth? I would videotape each of the ten lives for a month and then, after watching the videos, pass judgment using this criterion: The person with an abiding spirit of gratitude is the one who trusts God.” my emphasis)

During his message on Sunday, April 26, Bjorn Dixon of the WHY Church (Elk River, MN) made an interesting and telling statement: “What you thought about God before the pandemic is how you will relate to God in a pandemic.” If gratitude was core to my trust in God before the pandemic, then gratitude is the natural response during the pandemic. For those of us struggling to be grateful right now, here’s the very good news: God uses interruptions and crises to transform us, to help us get “it” (whatever “it” we might be in need of “getting”). I have observed people “get” the virtue of gratitude these last few weeks. Others will get it before this is over. If you aren’t there yet, there’s hope.

“God is the creator, redeemer, and consummator of all that is. Human beings live in a relation of inescapable dependence on God to which gratitude is the appropriate response.” (Miroslav Volf, “Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in the Christian Life”, my emphasis).

* Interestingly, the Greek word used in the New Testament and translated as gratitude is eucharistía, the same word from which Eucharist is derived. (See Colossians 2:6-7, 1 Timothy 4:4-5, Hebrews 12:28 as examples of gratitude used in the New Testament.)

Zoe

Let’s talk about Zoe. Not Zoe from Sesame Street, not Zoey of Pokémon fame, not Zooey Deschanel (New Girl), and not Zoe, Rudolph’s love interest in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie. Let’s discuss the Greek word zoe that the writer of the Gospel of John deemed important enough to use over 30 times. It’s fair to conclude that, to him, zoe had deep theological significance in describing Jesus and his vocation.

Ask a number of people Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth and we will get a number of different responses. However most will intimate something about clearing the path so we can go to heaven when we die. Though that is certainly an outcome, Jesus offered far more than simply going to heaven, which John captured well, with zoe at the core. Along with ushering in God’s kingdom, Jesus purposed to offer people zoe…

Many of us are familiar with the passage in which Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, ESV) or, as stated in the New Living Translation, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” There it is. Jesus’ purpose for coming was to provide an abundant, rich and satisfying life. The Greek word translated as “life” is zoe.

Zoe is rich with meaning: absolute fullness of life that belongs to (and comes from) God, life that is real and genuine, life that is active and vigorous. Here are a few examples of the 30 some cases where John used zoe to describe what Jesus was offering…

  • John 1:4 – In him was life (zoe), and that life (zoe) was the light of all mankind.
  • John 3:16 – Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life (zoe)
  • John 5:24 – Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life (zoe) and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life (zoe).
  • John 5:39-40 – You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life (zoe). These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (zoe).
  • John 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life (zoe), and have it to the full (or abundantly).
  • John 17:3 – Now this is eternal life (zoe): that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

I think it’s fairly clear Jesus purposed that we might have life now, not far into the future when we die and go to heaven. Zoe describes a blessed life that is portioned even in this world to those who put their trust in Jesus and then is consummated after death. Noticed that Jesus did not say “I have come that you will have life someday in the future” (i.e, in heaven). How unappealing if he enticed us with something we can’t possess until after death.

Jesus purposed that we would experience life (zoe) now, on earth as in heaven. Revisiting John 5:24, above: Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life (zoe). Quite often Jesus used the term Very truly, (in some translations, verily, verily). In each case he was effectively saying to his listeners to lean in, you don’t want to miss this! Notice he said has eternal zoe. Has. Present tense. Jesus made it very clear that the full and rich life is available now, today, in the midst of normal, everyday life (and pandemics, by the way).

How do we access this zoe? Jesus was quite clear – by believing in the one true God who sent him. Believe. The Greek word for believe is pisteuō. The best way to describe pisteuō is “rely on, trust in, and adhere to,” words that imply following. When we chose to follow Jesus, we have zoe. It’s not something we strive to obtain. Someone once emailed me the story of a friend that had searched for years looking for this ‘abundant life’ only to discover she already possessed it – in Jesus!  In Jesus we already have life (zoe) – complete, full, abundant, real, genuine, active, and purposeful life NOW – which is what we all want isn’t it?

Let me briefly tell you about another Zoë. Several of us have been working on a web-based app to help our young people better prepare for a life of meaning, of purpose. We call the tool Zoë. Though not faith-based, Zoë was designed with the care and concern for young people we feel Jesus would demonstrate. Zoë GOES LIVE TODAY, April 22. Launching in the middle of a pandemic? Yes! Especially important during the uncertainty in our world right now, we want to help teens and students to find their purpose in life! Check it out. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Hope

Hope is a word we use all the time, yet its meaning is a bit elusive as is hope itself. I was recently thinking back of things I have hoped for over the years. There were the simple hopes, like Christmas coming sooner. The first Christmas hope I remember that came to fruition was a Tonka Firetruck (which I still have). As I reached adolescence, my hopes moved beyond firetrucks. I had hoped to be nominated to the Air Force Academy (which did happen) and to be selected (which didn’t happen).

Moving into my 20s, I hoped (beyond hopes) that I might be privileged with a beautiful wife (which certainly happened). As we raised a family, my hopes turned more external, more God-influenced. I hoped that our kids would grow into adulthood as Christ-followers (which has happened). With prayer at the center, that hope was accompanied by doing the hard work necessary to not screw it up. The wishful thinking of our younger years doesn’t serve us well in adulthood nor as Christ-followers, leaving us to wonder, “What is hope, anyway?”

The dictionary definition of hope suggests wishful thinking, a desire for something good to happen. While Biblical hope certainly includes a desire for something good to happen, it is much more than that. We discover that a variety of Hebrew words are often translated into the single English word “hope.” An aggregation of the various Hebrew words provides us with a description of hope that includes, “to trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone; or to expect something beneficial in the future.”

Notice that Biblical hope implies trust. And the focus of that trust is Yahweh, the Lord God – on who his is and what he has done. We western Christians struggle to trust and hope in God simply for who he is. We tend to focus of our hope and trust on what he can do for us (here we think of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). In Scripture, on the other hand, we see hope and trust focused on God himself…

  • Psalm 25:2-3 (NIV) – I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.  No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame… The Hebrew word here implies not only hope and trust but also security.
  • Psalm 33:22 (a mix of ESV & AMP) – Let your steadfast love [hesed], O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope [placed our confidence] in you. Notice that trust (confidence) is placed on God and his character, his covenant love for his people.
  • Jeremiah 14:22 (AMP) – Are there any among the idols of the nations who can send rain?  Or can the heavens [of their own will] give showers?  Is it not You, O Lord our God?  Therefore we will wait and hope [confidently] in You, for You are the one who has made all these things [the heavens and the rain]. Again, the bracketed confidence implies trust.

Biblical hope also holds an element of waiting, which we see in the Amplified translation of Jeremiah 14:22, above. One of our go-to passages that speaks of waiting is Isaiah 40:31they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. The word ‘wait’ could easily be translated as hope. Read the passage with hope inserted: they who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. It comes to life!

The origin of the Hebrew term in the Isaiah passage suggests a twisting, stretching, and tension during the time of waiting and hoping. Ah, we do not want to hear that! We want hope to be positive, not twisting, stretching, or causing tension. We want a quick sprint that leads to soaring like eagles. We aren’t interested in a marathon. It doesn’t fit our western Christian thinking or culture.

But life has changed, hasn’t it? We are actually living out Isaiah 40:31. We may be in a marathon without an established finish line. We are experiencing twisting, stretching, and tension from all sides. And we wait in hope. Our ability to navigate these days is fully dependent on that which we place our hope as we wait. Are we hoping and waiting for this to get over, for improved circumstances? Or do we settle in for a marathon, placing our hope, trust, and confidence in the one true God as we wait?

Likely we waffle between the two and thus a cause of much tension. God is well aware of our waffling and wants to hold us, not scold us! I recall Jesus not scolding the father of a son desperately in need of healing: “The father of the boy cried out [with a desperate, piercing cry], saying, ‘I do believe [trust]; help [me overcome] my unbelief [lack of trust].'” (Mark 9:24) God, we believe! Help us in our unbelief!

We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit! (Romans 5:3-5, The Message)