God’s Good News

There’s a lot of bad news in our world. Poverty, disease, violence, injustice, cruelty, war, famine, fire, flood—each day the news seems to be filled with these things. It’s easy to be discouraged by all this, even to despair for our future. It can also be easy to blame God for it all—after all, God’s in charge, right?

But this is not who God is, and this is not what God wants for the world. In fact, God has some very good news for us.


God loves the whole world and has a beautiful vision for our future.

God our Creator loves all creation—you, me, every person, all living things. Because of this, God wants true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all people together, where every person has their deepest needs met, no exceptions. God wants the earth and the water and the sky to be healthy and whole, so that all living things can thrive. This vision for the world is what Jesus called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven” come down to earth. It’s what the Bible also calls “salvation” and “eternal life.”

“God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

“I praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8, 16)

“The kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy.” (Romans 14:17)


We are under the sway of powerful forces that keep us from fully realizing God’s vision for the world.

The Bible talks about “sin”—it’s what we need “salvation” from. Sin is the harmful  things  we think  and say and do, but it is also harmful patterns of thought or behaviour, deep ruts of dysfunction we fall into and can’t seem to escape from.

These harmful patterns of thought or behaviour also show up in groups of people, even whole societies. A group can do terrible things that none of those people would do individually. Sometimes these harmful patterns become a part of the very structures and systems of a society—in unjust laws, for example.

The result of all this is what the Bible often calls “death”: not just physically dying, but also living in guilt, shame, fear, hostility, violence, oppression, and more. The Bible talks about all these manifestations of “sin” and “death” as “powers” that control us, that we seem to have no control over. They keep us from experiencing the life God wants for us.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

“All people are under the power of sin.” (Romans 3:9)

“Sin pays us death as wages, but God gives us eternal life through Jesus.” (Romans 6:23)


Jesus came to liberate us from these powerful forces and to bring about God’s vision for the world.

Jesus of Nazareth showed us God’s vision for the world. He taught God’s way of love for all and of peace through nonviolence. He freely healed and forgave people. He shared meals with those considered “sinners” and denounced those who oppressed the vulnerable. He was killed by the powers-that-be for living out God’s vision, but God raised him from the dead to a new life untouched by sin and death. In doing so God declared Jesus to be “Lord” over all powerful forces.

“Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Messiah Jesus—he is Lord of all…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day…” (Acts 10:34-43)


If we resist these forces at work in us and in our world, and we commit ourselves to Jesus’ way of love, God’s vision for the world will become a reality.

Jesus calls us to “repent”: to resist our own sin, all those ways we harm others, and to resist the evil we see in the world through love, without violence. Jesus calls us to “believe in God’s good news”: to trust in God’s love for us and to commit to Jesus’ way of love in solidarity with others. When we do this, God’s presence is with us to make real God’s vision for the world: true justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life for all. We will share in Jesus’ new life—even his life beyond death.

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-34)

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27-36)

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

“We know that we have passed from death to life when we love one another.” (1 John 3:14)


“The kingdom of God is like the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)

Will you allow God’s vision for the world to be planted in your own life, in your own small corner of the world? Will you trust in the God who loves you far beyond what you can even imagine? Will you commit to living out Jesus’ way of love?

If you want to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him in his way of love, here are some suggested first steps in the journey:

  • Join a faith community that is committed to following Jesus. In North America check out home.mennonitechurch.ca/churches or mennoniteusa.org/find-a-church.
  • Read the Bible to learn more about Jesus, his teaching, and his way of life. Try starting with the Gospel of Mark, and then read the other Gospels. Read online at biblegateway.com.
  • Pray regularly—being aware of God’s presence, communicating with God—in a way that works for you. Check out the “Take Our Moments and Our Days” (Android, Apple) and “Common Prayer” (Android, Apple) apps for your smart phone.

Here is this tract as a PDF. Here are instructions for printing and assembling it. Feel free to use, just use responsibly! For some background on how this tract came to be developed please see here.

The Difference between Gods and God

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 17, 2017, based on Acts 14.

The Bible has a complicated relationship with the “gods” of this world. Some biblical texts suggest that there are in fact other deities beyond the God of Israel. Other texts suggest these other “gods” aren’t true deity at all—there is only one true and living God. Some biblical passages describe other gods as “demons” and call on God’s people to avoid these demonic beings at all costs. Other biblical passages seem to view at least some other gods as reflections, albeit imperfect or incomplete reflections, of the one true and living God.

Ancient peoples tended to name as “gods” those realities which they believed had power over them and so required their passive submission, their pious veneration, or even their total allegiance. We in the modern west might not use the language of “gods” to describe these powerful realities, but they are still with us. Political ideologies, economic systems, nationalism and materialism and racism and more—all with their founding mythologies and sacred rituals and mediating priesthoods—hold sway over us in various ways, calling for our submission, our veneration, and even our allegiance.

Within this matrix of many “gods” and “lords,” whether ancient or modern, stands this word from the Apostle Paul, perhaps reflecting a common early Christian confession: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

What might it mean for us today to turn from the “gods” of our day to the one true God, to live as if God alone really is the one “from whom are all things and for whom we exist”? What might it mean for us today to confess that “Jesus is Lord” and no one or nothing else is “lord,” to live as if Jesus alone truly is the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist”?

And are we willing, like Paul in Lystra, to call the world to allegiance to the one true God and Lord even if it means suffering in the way of Jesus?

My Confession of Faith

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

In Jesus I see God embodied, a God who is a friend of sinners, who finds the lost and feasts the least and firsts the last. In Jesus I see a God who runs to wayward children, welcoming them in lavish banquets of love.

In Jesus I see a God who stands in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the stranger. In Jesus I see a God who stands firm against oppression and exclusion by the powerful and privileged.

In Jesus I see a God who loves stories and riddles, flowers and children, and eating good food with good friends and the very best of wine.

In Jesus I see a God who dreams of a better world, a kingdom of justice and peace and flourishing life, and who dares to plant that dream in the world with such a small and insignificant seed: love.

In Jesus I see a God who is willing to die rather than kill, following his own words of nonviolence on his own way of the cross.

In Jesus I see a God who turns death into new life, shame into honour, guilt into forgiveness, futility into purpose, brokenness into wholeness, suffering into joy, despair into hope—and this gives me hope.

In Jesus I also see, then, humanity as we are meant to be: walking in all these ways of Jesus, centered on devotion to our Creator expressed through compassion and care for other humans and all creation, paying special attention to the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.

I am not a Christian because of other Christians, though I know many good Christians. I am not a Christian because of the Bible, though the Bible points me to Jesus and tells me his story.

There is only one reason why I am, and remain, a Christian: Jesus.

God is Not a Woman—but Neither is She a Man

Just to clarify:
God is not a woman.
But neither is she a man.

I’ve used this statement (or one like it) in my teaching over the years. It manages to be thoroughly orthodox yet still provocative, which makes it a great discussion starter. It forces us to examine what we believe about God, and why we believe it. It forces us to examine our underlying biases about God and assumptions about the Bible.

The problem for some Christians is not the basic idea the statement is conveying. It’s hard to dispute that God is genderless, or that God encompasses all genders, or some other way of describing this. Rather, what makes some Christians uneasy is the form in which the statement is made, the grammar of it: the pronoun “she.” And the only real reason one can give for this is “because the Bible.”

Here’s the thing: from cover to cover the Bible was written within patriarchal cultures. This means the fact that the biblical writings predominantly use masculine images for God, and thus masculine pronouns, is rather unremarkable. “King,” “Father,” et cetera, and thus “he,” is what we would expect. What is remarkable is all the times where the Bible does not use masculine images for God, and thus not even always masculine pronouns.

Jaison Cianelli, Warm Embrace

God is a “mother” who gives birth to “her” people and nurtures them (Deut 32:18; Isa 66:13; Hos 11:3-4; etc.). God is a “woman” who searches for “her” lost coin (Luke 15:8-10; and yes, that’s Jesus). God is a “spirit/wind/breath” which moves and blows and breathes where “she” (Hebrew ruach) or “it” (Greek pneuma) pleases.

What’s interesting about that last example is that “spirit” in English is referred to with a neuter pronoun (“it”) when used generically, and only masculine (“he”) or feminine (“she”) pronouns when referring to the spirit of a male or female person. Yet I’ve been chastised for saying “it” when referring to God’s “Spirit”—which kind of highlights the whole point of this exercise! When we say that God is genderless because “God is spirit,” but then we insist on using “he” when referring to God’s “Spirit,” perhaps it’s because our underlying biases are showing…

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases

Have you ever had two people understand something you’ve said in two very different ways? It happens to all of us sometime. I’ve had it happen to me when I preach, more than once. This happens even when I use common Christian words or phrases derived from the Bible—maybe especially when I do so. It can be a little disconcerting, to say the least.

Part of this is just me needing to look for ways to communicate more clearly. Part of it, however, is our natural tendency to hear what we expect to hear. When we’re in a church and someone speaks about “faith” or “heaven,” for example, or they say “Jesus saves us from our sins,” we are inclined to hear those things in a particular “churchy” or “Christianese” kind of way.

But many of these words or phrases don’t mean for me what they often mean in popular Christianity. The reason? I don’t think the popular understandings actually reflect the biblical ideas behind these words or phrases, at least not completely.

Well, if you’re ever in doubt about what I might mean when I talk about “salvation,” or when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” I’ve created this nifty little guide: Michael Pahl’s Handy-Dandy Handbook of Christian Words and Phrases. Who knows? Maybe I’ll start handing this out before I preach every Sunday.

God. God is depicted in a myriad of different ways in Scripture. These are all metaphors: God is in some sense comparable to a “Father,” for instance, or a “Mother,” or a “Lord,” or a “Rock,” just to name a few. Even “God” is a metaphor: God is analogous to the “gods” of other nations and religions, comparable to what we typically think of when we think of a “deity.” Some biblical descriptions, however, take a different tack: God is YHWH, “I Am Who I Am,” for instance, or God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being,” or “God is love.” When I speak of “God,” I’m thinking more along those lines: God is “the ground and source of all being, personhood, and love.” I don’t imagine that God is merely “a being,” a distinct being within the universe, like us only bigger and stronger and immortal and invisible.

heaven. The Bible doesn’t speak of “heaven” as “our eternal home.” The New Testament understanding of life after death is simply being “with the Lord” or “with Christ.” In the end this includes living in transformed bodies in a renewed earthly creation (“resurrection” to a “new heavens and new earth”). In the Bible “heaven” means either 1) “the skies,” 2) “God’s dwelling,” or 3) a roundabout way of saying “God” (e.g. “kingdom of heaven” = “kingdom of God”). I don’t use the word “heaven” very often myself because of how it is misunderstood, but when I do it’s along the lines of 2) above: “the ‘place’ where God is most ‘fully present.’” Usually I use the word to speak of the biblical hope of “heaven” come down to earth, God’s presence being fully realized among us within a renewed creation.

sin. We tend to think of “sin” as “personal moral failure”: we’ve crossed a boundary established by God, and these boundaries are mostly related to our private lives or individual relationships. This way of thinking about sin isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete, and if this is the only way we think about sin then it can be unhelpful and unhealthy. I think a better (and more holistically biblical) way of thinking about sin is as “all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world through our settled thoughts, our words, our actions, and our inaction.” This “harm” can be thought of as “preventing or hindering flourishing life.” With regard to people this can most practically be understood as keeping them from having their most basic needs met: needs for clean air and water, nutritious food, basic health, security and freedom, meaningful relationships, love and respect. This sin is more than just “personal moral failure,” then—it also includes collective sins such as systemic injustice, as well as actions that harm the natural world.

salvation. In Scripture the language of “salvation” is most often about “rescue” or “deliverance” from some real-life peril, but it also can include ideas of “healing” and “restoration,” whether physically or relationally, individually or collectively. Then there’s all the related biblical words like “redemption,” “reconciliation,” and so on, which are really variations on the “restoration” idea. When I speak of “salvation” or being “saved” or God as “Saviour,” I mean something along the lines of “God delivering us from all the ways we harm others, ourselves, and the natural world, and bringing about a full and flourishing life for all creation.” I don’t mean “God rescuing us from future eternal torture so that we can live a disembodied existence somewhere else forever with God.”

kingdom of God. In much popular thinking the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is equivalent to “heaven,” which is thought of as “our eternal home” (see “heaven” above). But for early Jews, including Jesus and the authors of the New Testament, “kingdom of God” was a way of referring to “God ruling over God’s people and all the peoples of the earth.” When I use the phrase “kingdom of God,” I’m trying to capture Jesus’ particular understanding of this earthly rule of God, something along the lines of “God’s vision of a world of justice, peace, and flourishing life, which becomes a reality when people live according to God’s way of love.”

Jesus Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name; “Christ” is a title. And it’s not a title of divinity; it’s a human title. “Christ,” or “Messiah,” was most commonly a way of referring to the human kings in the line of ancient Israel’s King David. Eventually it came to refer to the ultimate Messiah, “the king from David’s dynasty who brings about God’s kingdom on earth.” The phrase “Jesus Christ,” then is a mini-creed: “Jesus is the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth.”

Son of God. This phrase has a dual meaning in the New Testament. Some writings, Mark’s Gospel, for example, use “Son of God” in one of its Old Testament senses, as a way of referring to the kings in the line of David. In this sense the phrase is equivalent to “Christ” or “Messiah,” and has no overtones of divinity. Other writings, most notably John’s Gospel, use “Son of God” with a clear implication of divinity. I believe both to be true of Jesus, and how I use this phrase tends to depend on which New Testament books I’m talking about: Jesus is “the one who makes real God’s vision of justice, peace, and life on earth,” and Jesus is “the one who uniquely embodies God, showing us most clearly and completely who God is and how God works in the world.”

Jesus is Lord. This doesn’t mean “Jesus controls everything that happens.” Nor does it merely mean “Jesus is the boss of me.” “Lord” in the ancient world had connotations of “master,” yes, but it was also a common way of speaking of human rulers—kings, emperors, and the like. With none of these was the idea that they controlled a person’s life circumstances; it was that they commanded their obedience or allegiance. To say that “Jesus is Lord,” then, means that “Jesus is greater than all human rulers and any powers-that-be in this world, and so he holds our ultimate allegiance in all things.”

gospel. The New Testament word “gospel” means “good news.” The “gospel” is not merely that “God sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die.” It’s the “good news that God has acted in Jesus—through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection—to make right everything that has gone wrong in the world.” In other words, it’s a way of summing up pretty much everything I’ve described above.

faith. We tend to think of “faith” either as “believing certain things to be true,” or “trusting in someone to do something.” The New Testament language of “faith” includes those ideas, but also others: “faith” (pistis) can mean everything from “belief” to “trust” to “faithfulness” to “fidelity” to “allegiance.” When I use the word “faith” I can mean any or all of those, following the New Testament usage. All of those are the response God desires from us: “believing what God says to be true, trusting in God through all things, being faithful to God and following God’s way of love.”

love. Some people hear “love” and think “affection,” a surge of warmth and fondness toward others. Others hear “love” and think “tolerance,” acknowledging and accepting others and their actions with a kind of benign smilingness. Some, perhaps conditioned by Christianity, hear “love” and think “self-sacrifice.” Others, of course, hear “love” and think “romance” or even “sex”: physical, emotional, even erotic intimacy. None of these are bad, but on their own they are incomplete. In the New Testament, love is consistently portrayed as loving the way Jesus loved. It is more along the lines, then, of “freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.” This love, I’m convinced, is at the heart of who God is, what Jesus taught and lived out unto death, and how God’s “salvation,” the “kingdom of God,” comes about.

How do you understand these words? What often-misunderstood “Christian words” would you add?

I’m an Atheist

Okay, it’s confession time: I’m an atheist.

It’s true. But probably not in the way you’re thinking.

atheistEarly Christians were sometimes called “atheists,” did you know that? Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods. In a world in which there were many “gods” and “lords,” for Christians there was only the one true God, the Creator, and one true Lord, Jesus.

So this is what I mean when I say I’m an atheist. I’m using the word in its ancient sense. I mean there are plenty of “gods” that I don’t believe in—even some that are popular among Christians. Some of these are “gods” that I simply do not believe exist. Others are “gods” that, even if they do exist, do not hold my allegiance.

Here are a few of these gods I don’t believe in:

I don’t believe in a god who is a “supernatural being.” That is, I do not believe God is a bigger, stronger, and smarter version of ourselves—who also happens to be immortal and invisible. In fact, I do not believe God is “a being” at all, as if God is merely one being among many in the universe, albeit the most powerful one. Instead, I believe God is being itself, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One “from whom and through whom and for whom are all things.” God is that without which nothing would exist. God is being, not merely a being.

I gave up looking for “evidence” of God a long time ago, or denying God’s existence for lack of such evidence: “a being” might leave traces of its existence, but “being” just is. I also no longer look to God as an all-controlling chess master, or a benevolent grandparent, or a strict police officer. Some of these sorts of projections of ourselves are helpful metaphors, useful analogies for God (like God as “father” or “mother”). Others, I’m convinced, are distortions of the true and living God (like God as all-controlling chess master).

I don’t believe in a god who is simply a force, some kind of energy field or “higher power.” (Great, I just ticked off two groups I like: Star Wars fans and Alcoholics Anonymous.) Rather, I believe God is person—not only “personal” but personhood itself, consciousness itself, awareness of self in distinction from other and in relation to other. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, so also there is consciousness in the universe because God is.

I don’t believe in a god who commits violence, or commands it, or even endorses it. I believe “God is love”—not only “loving” but love itself, the giving of self for other, for the good of the other. God cannot be other than love; God cannot not love. God always and only works for the good of the other. That which brings flourishing life and well-being: this is God. That which damages or degrades or destroys: this is not-God. Just as there is something rather than nothing because God is, and there is consciousness in the universe because God is, so also there is good in the world because God is.

This is a hard thing for most Christians to accept, partly because many passages in the Bible don’t reflect this view of God, and partly, I think if we’re honest, because we like having a way to justify our own violence. Not outlandish, over-the-top violence, of course. Just our civilized violence, our sanitized violence: the death of vicious enemies over there, or of condemned criminals among us here, demons all. Yet because of Jesus I am convinced that God is love, not harm, and that God brings life, not death—even for enemies and criminals. Isn’t that the gospel?

I don’t believe in the gods “Prosperity” and “Security.” “Prosperity” goes by other names: “Wealth,” “Profit,” or simply “Success.” Jesus called it “Mammon,” and he said one cannot serve both this god and the one true God. Then there’s “Security,” also known as “Comfort” or “Safety.” Prosperity and Security are the twin gods of the modern nation-state. Listen to any political campaign, and these gods are sure to be invoked: “The Economy” and “National Security,” they’re often called. These twins are sacrosanct: they are so obviously good things, who would dare to question them? Who doesn’t want prosperity and security for themselves and those they love?

Yet Jesus never promised prosperity and security to his followers, and he so dramatically gave these up himself. The problem with them? When prosperity and security hold our highest allegiance, whether as individuals or as a society or as a nation during an election year, then we pursue them at the expense of others—including the ailing earth, the needy neighbour, the suffering stranger, and the enemy “other.” The end result is only loss for us all.

There’s a whole pantheon of gods I don’t believe in: the powers-that-be, or the “powers of this age.” These are all our social and political and economic structures and systems, along with the human leaders that support them and the internal “spirit” or ethos that drives them. Presidents and prime ministers, governments and administrations, nations and nationalism, kingdoms and empire, colonialism and racism, theocracy and democracy, capitalism and socialism and so many more.

These, too, are not all inherently bad. Some can bring social order out of chaos, after all. Many even originate out of a desire for the common good. But when we put all our hope in these people and processes, when we give our total allegiance to a nation or an ideology, we’re giving them a power that only belongs to God. Then we’re sure to be disappointed and that power will probably be abused. And when these powers-that-be perpetuate structural evil or systemic injustice, they become “evil powers.” And then they must be resisted, not followed; they must be defied, not deified. Some can be redeemed, but only through deep, collective repentance.

I admit it, I’m an atheist. But by that I simply mean I’m with the Apostle Paul: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

Related to modern atheism is another term: humanism. Check out Humanist Canada’s website to learn more. Many Christians have been “humanists” since humanist ideals were first formulated in the late Renaissance. I consider myself to be in the tradition of “Christian humanism.”

The Perfect Portrait of God

I’m not a visual artist. I cannot draw, I cannot paint. My stick figures don’t even look like stick figures.

But over the last ten or fifteen years I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for the visual arts. I think it really started when we lived in England and we took advantage of all the free museums and art galleries. And so I’ve been working out what kind of art I like: John Constable’s English Romantic landscapes, Claude Monet’s French Impressionism, among others.

de-grebber-god-inviting-christ-to-right-handI also have an interest in religious art, Christian religious art in particular. Ancient Eastern icons. Rembrandt’s portrayals of the life of Christ. Depictions of God—like the famous one in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, or this one by Pieter de Grebber.

It seems that when we attempt to portray God visually, this is where we often end up: God is an old man with a white beard. He might be a kindly grandfather figure, benevolent and benign. Or he might be an untouchable monarch in all his pomp and state. Or he might be a judge, robes swirling, scowling with the full force of the law. But he’s an old man with a white beard, regardless.

And, in our portaits of God, we imagine God as up there, out there, somewhere other. God is heavenly holy, unreachable, untouchable. God is immensity. God is eternity. God is omni-potency.

But did you know that God has actually given us a self-portrait? This portrait of God is an “exact representation of God’s being,” as Hebrews 1 puts it. It is the “very image of God,” as Colossians 1 says. And—although God has nothing against old men with white beards—God’s self-portrait is nothing like our typical picture of God.

This perfect portrait of God is Jesus.

This means that the perfect portrait of God is a baby, born of water. Umbilical cord twisting toward his mother. Amniotic fluid matting his dark hair against his olive skin. Eyes tight shut, mouth open, wailing his newborn cry.

The perfect portrait of God is a child. Toddling, falling, and getting back up. Forming first words—“Abba,” perhaps. Laughing at silly games, scraping knees in play, being comforted in a young mother’s warm embrace. God’s kingdom belongs to such as these.

The perfect portrait of God is a teenager. Learning, questioning, questioning again—even the chief rabbis in Jerusalem. Taking on responsibility, taking on independence, taking on hopes and fears to guide his years ahead. God’s kingdom belongs to these as well.

The perfect portrait of God is a young adult, born of spirit. Living and loving, laughing and lamenting among kith and kin in a small village in Galilee. Acquiring his father’s craft, creating something out of nothing but a bit of formless wood or stone.

The perfect portrait of God is a grown human, fully alive. Devoted to God in faith, committed to others in love, tenacious in hope for good things to come. Doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God. The whole Law is summed up in these things.

weistling-kissing-the-face-of-godThe perfect portrait of God is Jesus. And this changes everything.

God is not in the earthquake, not in the storm, not in the fire—but in the still silence of a sleeping baby, a mother’s gentle whisper.

God is not in our chariots and horses, our instruments of power and death—but in our acts of tender love and humble compassion.

God is not in our strength, nor in our riches, nor in our wisdom—God is in the poor in spirit, the humble in heart, in those who must rely on God even for their daily bread.

God is not in our might and power—but in the Spirit, God’s persistent yet gentle wind of peace.

God is not in our impressive words written or spoken—but in the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

God is in a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Our Lord, Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

A meditation given at Morden Mennonite Church on December 25, 2016. Click on images for sources. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Trust in God, Love One Another

One of my parishioners in a former church used to say that preachers really only have two or maybe three different sermons. “Every sermon they preach—doesn’t matter the text or the title—is really just a variation of one of those two or three sermons,” he’d say.

I’m not quite that cynical about the average pastor’s ability to navigate through a wide terrain of topics and Biblical texts. But I do think my friend was on to something. In fact, as I’ve been reflecting back on three years of preaching here at Morden Mennonite, I think pretty much all of my sermons—along with my pastoral counsel—can be boiled down to one of these two basic exhortations:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Exploring the mystery of the divine? Trust in God.

Dealing with the latest hot issue? Love one another.

Facing a financial crunch? Trust in God.

Wondering how to strengthen your marriage? Love one another.

Grieving the loss of a loved one? Trust in God.

Got a difficult situation with a co-worker? Love one another.

Needing to make a major decision? Trust in God.

Your son has just come out as gay? Love one another.

The Return of the Prodigal SonOf course, by themselves these refrains—“Trust in God” and “Love one another”—can sound trite. They can be trite: overly simplistic, pat answers, bumper sticker slogans empty of any real meaning or usefulness. Life is complicated, and these statements need to be nuanced and explained, their significance teased out in practical ways.

And in my preaching and teaching and pastoral guidance I certainly say a whole lot more than just “Trust in God” and “Love one another.” I attempt to set biblical texts within their ancient context, and then try to let them speak to us in our current context. I invite us to enter into the theological and moral imagination of Jesus and his first followers. I talk about what this “faith” and “love” looked like when Jesus did them, and what they might look like for us today, in our particular circumstances.

And yet, distilled to their most concentrated form, my sermons and conversations always seem to be some version of these two simple appeals:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

I’ve been reflecting again on the Gospel of John lately. It’s curious how I keep coming back to that Gospel, or maybe more that John’s Gospel keeps coming back to me. I gravitate toward the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—and the letters that bear Paul’s name. And yet every time I attempt to articulate the core message of these other writings, or the heart of my Christian faith, I seem to end up using John’s language to do so. So it is once again.

Because in the living waters of John’s Gospel two verbs keep rising to the surface, over and over again: “believe” and “love.”

The first one, “believe,” is pisteuō in Greek. This word is not as narrow as the English word “believe.” We tend to use “believe” as “I believe x to be true,” where x is some statement or claim. Or we simply say “Just believe!” or (same thing) “Believe in yourself!”—be authentic to who you are, trust your instincts, your own inner resources. In John’s Gospel, though, as throughout the New Testament, “believe” is more the idea of “I trust in, I rely upon, I am committed to God/Jesus.” It’s a personal thing, an interpersonal thing, our dependence upon and fidelity to the God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Good SamaritanThe second verb, “love,” is John’s comprehensive ethic: it’s every good thing that anyone does for anyone else. God loves Jesus. God loves the world. Jesus loves his disciples. Jesus’ disciples love Jesus, and love God, and love each other. This love is not about natural attraction or permissive tolerance, but rather selfless giving: a Father giving his beloved Son for the world, a Son giving his life for his disciples, his disciples giving themselves for one another and the world.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Simple, isn’t it? Maybe. But it’s certainly not easy. In fact, these are the most difficult things we can do.

Trust in God—even when the whole world seems paralyzed by fear of the unknown other, the unknown future.

Love one another—even when the whole world seems caught up in a self-righteous cycle of harm and offense, hostility and retaliation.

Trust in God—right at that moment when your resources are low and your worry is high and you can’t see a way out of this mess.

Love one another—yes, even that person, the most unlovable, annoying, strange, disturbing, [insert negative adjective here] person you know.

Trust in God—cry out to God with your anger, your fear, your unbearable sadness, your overwhelming loneliness, and then look for God’s presence right where you least expect it, right where you most need it.

Love one another—hold that hand in awkward silence, listen to that wounded heart, speak up for that voiceless person, give that fifty bucks, change that flat tire, celebrate that achievement, learn about that culture, learn that child’s name.

Trust in God—pray and worship, weep and lament, sing and rejoice, question and complain, contemplate and meditate, explore with raw wonder the transcendent mystery and immanent presence that is God.

Love one another—be kind, be generous, show compassion, show respect, speak truth, seek justice, be patient, be gentle, be humble, be delighted, be encouraging, forgive, forgive, and forgive again.

Simple, but not easy.

Hard, but necessary.

The essence of Christianity, the essence of human life—and, apparently, the only two sermons I ever preach. No coincidence there—they’re also the two things I most need to be reminded of myself.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son; Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl

Why Worship? Why Worship Together?

It’s Sunday morning, and we gather together as Christians to worship God.

The specific experiences are as varied as the number of churches, but most worship services have a few things in common.

We sing together—sometimes off-key, sometimes hymns too slowly, sometimes choruses too repetitively, too repetitively, too repetitively.

We pray together—sometimes faltering, sometimes mumbling, sometimes with too little genuine feeling, sometimes with too much “Lord, we just, Lord, want to just ask, Lord…”

We break bread together—not all of us every Sunday, not always in a ritual, sometimes with too little ritual.

We read Scripture and reflect on it together—sometimes with poor exegesis, sometimes with too little Jesus, sometimes going past noon with dinner waiting in the crockpot.

Why exactly do we do all these things, worshiping in these and other ways Sunday morning after Sunday morning? And is this “worship” really all that important?

Revelation 4-5 speaks directly to these kinds of questions—and gives us some surprising and challenging answers.

Let’s start with the big picture, stating the obvious: Revelation 4-5 is all about worship. (That much at least everyone can agree on.)

But notice where this vision is in the book of Revelation. Revelation 1 is introduction, setting up the rest of the book. Revelation 2-3 are specific letters to the seven specific churches Revelation is written to—in a sense still introduction, setting the stage for the main act. And then we hit Revelation 4-5—the first major vision John sees, determining the course of everything else that follows.

The first major vision at the heart of the book—and it’s all about worship.

This tells us that worshiping God is an essential activity. And not just worshiping God individually—worshiping God collectively, gathering together with others in worship, is essential. It grounds our way of life. It sets the tone for everything else.

But why is this? And how exactly does this work?

Let’s focus in on some of the details of this vision.

At the centre of it all, the object of all this worship, is God, seated on his heavenly throne, ruler over all creation. God, the Indescribable One, only imagined in colours and light.

Elder 2Four “living creatures” are immediately around the throne, one on each side: a lion, an ox, a human being, and a flying eagle. These represent all living things—later they are heard saying “Amen” to the declaration of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” (that’s pretty comprehensive). All creatures of our God and king, giving honour and praise to God.

Twenty-four “elders” surround them, seated on thrones, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their head. These represent all God’s people, the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of Christ—as we hear later when the twelve tribes and twelve apostles are brought together in the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem. All God’s people, bowing in reverence to God, singing God’s praises.

All creation, all God’s people, from the beginning of the world until its end, worshiping God.

So here’s one answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is a participation in something fundamental to all creation, something that all creation is intrinsically engaged in.

The birds of the air, the flowers of the field—they honour their Creator simply by being what God created them to be, doing what God created them to do. Simply by being as God made them to be, existing as God made them to exist, all living things worship God.

Likewise, humans honour our Creator simply by being the way God made us to be, living the way God made us to live. We glorify God in our humanness, by being fully human. Simply by being as God made us to be, existing as God made us to exist, we worship God.

This ceaseless praise of God is intrinsic to creation; it is the very grain of the universe.

And so we are encouraged to see our worship together as a participation in this eternal, ceaseless worship of God by all creation and all God’s people. We are encouraged to see our worship together as giving voice to this never-ending, underlying rhythm of worship that is happening all around us.

But there’s more.

As we keep moving through this vision in Revelation 4-5, we hear some very specific declarations of praise. As the elders and living creatures give voice to the worship of all creation, their voice says some specific things.

God is holy. God is other. God is unlike any other. God is unique.

God is almighty. God is the source of all true power, power that creates and gives life.

God is eternal. God was. God is. God will be.

God is Creator. All that is, is because God is.

God is Redeemer. All that is good, is good because God loves.

Elder 1Here, then, is a second answer to our question of “why worship God”: Our collective worship is worldview-shaping, crafting the lenses through which we see our world and understand our place in it.

Good worship—worship in both spirit and in truth—is instructive. It teaches us; we learn from it.

Through our worship together we understand God’s role in the world as Creator and Redeemer. All things exist because God is. And although there is hurt and brokenness in our world, and in ourselves, all things can be redeemed because God loves. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Through our worship together we understand the world as God’s beloved creation. God does not hate us. God does not despise the work of his hands. God loves all creation, and imbues it with his grace and glory. We learn this in part through our worship together.

And through our worship together we understand our role as redeemed priest-kings and priestess-queens extending God’s reign throughout the earth. God calls us as God’s people to a particular task, a particular way of being in the world. God calls us to faith, to hope, to love. We learn this in part through our worship together.

Revelation 4-5 gives us a third answer to the question of “why worship God,” and it’s the most surprising one of all: Our collective worship is a profoundly political act; it is a powerful statement about how we should order our lives as human societies.

It’s all too easy for us to pass over the significance of the “throne.” For us, thrones are something from ancient times or fairy tales, or from the Bible. Of course God sits on a throne! God is king, after all!

But when was the last time you saw a king or a queen or an emperor or empress actually sitting on a throne, wielding some real power?

The “throne” doesn’t really mean much to us. But no one in the time of Revelation would miss the significance: the throne was a thoroughly political symbol, even the most potent political symbol one could use. And, in a world filled with absolute claims to absolute power, it was also about as subversive as you could get.

“Worship” is about “ascribing worth”; it is about declaring value. Worship is an expression of devotion and commitment, an expression of allegiance. When we come together and “worship God,” then, we are declaring our allegiance to God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

But this vision is even more politically subversive than that.

Lion-Lamb 2In Revelation 5 we see a scroll, and we’re told that “no one can open the scroll”—no one in heaven or on earth or even under the earth, no creature, no human being, no human ruler, no angelic being. It’s not clear what the scroll represents—the title deed to the universe, perhaps, or the unfolding of human history. Either way, it’s the kind of thing that any good Roman would expect the emperor to rightfully possess and be able to open at will.

Yet it is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” who alone can open it—Israel’s Messiah, Israel’s promised king from the tribe of Judah, descendent of king David. This is as any Jew in Revelation’s day would expect—but there’s another twist.

The “lion” is in fact a “lamb,” a “lamb who has been slaughtered.” The Messiah, Israel’s king, has not gained the right to rule by crucifying his enemies, but by being crucified. The true Lord and Ruler of the cosmos has not changed the tides of human history by killing his enemies, but by being willing to die for them.

God reigns not as a tyrant, not as a bully, not through coercion or violence or any other form of raw power. God reigns through the humble, self-giving, suffering servant, who gives himself for the world. God reigns through forgiveness and compassion. God reigns in love.

When we come together and worship God, then, we are saying “no” to any other way of being in the world, any other way of ordering our lives as human societies. We are saying that no human society that will stand the test of time, no civilization that will last, can be built on deceit or corruption or coercion or violence or injustice of any kind.

When we come together and “worship God” we are worshiping the God who exercises power and authority through self-giving love. We are declaring our allegiance to this God above all other claims to power and authority in the world.

So the next Sunday you’re in church and the person next to you is singing that hymn a little off-key, or the organist is dragging a little, or you’re on your twenty-fourth time through the chorus of “Oceans,” or the Scripture reader stumbles over “Melchizedek,” or the preacher is droning on while the roast is drying out, remember this: there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

You are participating in the worship of all creation. You are giving voice to the wordless praise of all living things.

Your mind and heart, your very soul, is being shaped by God. God is training you to see the world differently, preparing you to step out and find your God-ordained role in this world.

You are making a declaration of allegiance. You are standing unequivocally with the God who loves, the God who brings life, the God who gives his life in love.

Come, let us sing to the Lord. Come, let us worship and bow down.

Together.

Here’s the next post in this series on Revelation: “The Horrors of the Apocalypse”

This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on April 10, 2016. All images are from a mandala of Revelation 4-5 created by Margie Hildebrand. Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.