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Displaying all posts tagged "Prayer Letter".
Jesus Invites Us into “the Politics of the Trinity”
March 14, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Jesus Invites Us into “the Politics of the Trinity”
As we reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, my thoughts go to his disciples and their wild hopes to reign with the Messiah—hopes grievously dashed on Good Friday. The disciples were as ideologically diverse and divided as we are today, and they wanted power and victory to support their own priorities and agendas. Jesus, in obedience to God and through the power of the Holy Spirit, does something utterly new. He pours out his life for love. Forty days later, those same disciples gather together—hiding, afraid, and probably still divided—and something new happens to them, too. The Holy Spirit comes upon them and empowers them to proclaim and embody the good news. They become united to the cause of Christ. Today, at this particular cultural moment, so many of us are afraid that everything is coming apart. So many of us are arguing to protect what we have, what we believe, and what we love. We all believe, and argue, that ours is the right way and that Jesus is on our side. But Scripture shows us that the life that Jesus offers us is deeper than that. He doesn’t argue ideology or promote one political platform over another. He presents his own politics, and it’s the politics of the Trinity. Rather than power against power, this “politics” is characterized by an eternal and delightful self-giving love. Jesus does not just tell the truth about God’s love—he embodies it. His goal is not to win arguments protecting the truth—rather, he lays down his life so that the world might know and love God. Through self-giving love he demonstrates that he is from God and that he and God are one. He invites us into the eternal and delightful love of the Trinity. The love of the Trinity cannot be stopped by hateful division, fearful darkness—not even death. What if we were to live together that way? What if we were to love each other—love those who disagree with us—that way? What might happen? What new thing might break forth? What good news could we share? I can think of a thousand rebuttals to every one of these questions. Over the past seven years at The Colossian Forum, I’ve heard them all. I’ve thought them all myself. Like Peter, I follow Jesus to the courtyard, but then I turn away. I don’t want to follow where he is going. It seems insane. What good can it do? And I deny. But Jesus doesn’t give up on me. He lets my denial crucify him once again. But my betrayal doesn’t stop the love between Father, Son, and Spirit. I am still invited into the life of the Trinity. Jesus reflects “the politics of the Trinity” when he turns to me and asks, do you love me? Feed my sheep. Do you love your neighbor? Feed my sheep. There are so many lost, fearful sheep right now! So many people are afraid that everything is coming apart. So many of us are fighting to protect what we have, what we believe, and what we love. On Good Friday Jesus demonstrates that he doesn’t need to be defended. The church doesn’t need to be defended. Church doctrine doesn’t need to be defended. We don’t have to be afraid that the truth of the gospel will be lost by those who get it wrong. Rather, we are called to obey, follow Jesus, and lay down our lives and love both our friends and enemies. It’s a hard message—one that’s easy to walk away from through denial or distraction. Ultimately, it’s a message of the self-giving, delightful love of the Trinity—the politics of a new kingdom. My prayer is that together we will begin to embrace and embody this hard but joyful and life-giving message.
When is the Gospel "Fake News"?
February 15, 2018 | Michael Gulker
When is the Gospel "Fake News"?
We’re constantly bombarded by divisiveness within our daily news—the right calling the left “fake news,” the left dismissing the “news” of the right through quiet (or not so quiet) condescension. Whatever the case, neither hardly qualifies as news. It’s stale and unimaginative culture war posturing where everyone seems perennially angry. Yet underneath all the anger lays deep fear—fear that our world, our culture, our church, our family—everything—is tearing apart. But God calls his people to bring “Good News” of great joy. We are the euangélion of Jesus Christ—eu means “good” and ángelos means “messenger.” Believers are meant to be like angels bringing good news of what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do in the world. We should be the least fearful of all people because we believe in Jesus, who was born to fulfill “the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” (Luke 1:73-75) So, we must ask, “Is the story of our life in Christ good news or fake news?” Well, a couple of questions. First, are we doing and saying anything new? Second, does it embody the good? A quick glance at the way churches are mimicking the surrounding culture through bickering and partisanship, belies the notion that their posture in the world is either new or good. The church seems more a cliché of culture than a contrast to it. What makes this even more problematic is our claim to follow the Prince of Peace. If we are divisive and fearful then we’re not only cliché but hypocritically cliché. Doubly boring. Doubly bad. This sort of “gospel” is fake news, hardly worth the bits and bytes it’s communicated over. So, where’s the good news we long for and why are we having such a hard time embodying it in ways that are either new or good? Where is our confidence in our Risen Lord who has conquered division and death? What would it mean for you and I to have a renewed vision of the gospel as truly good news and to become confident messengers of its transforming power? So much of our imagination is now captured by the right or the left that it’s hard to think outside of these culturally prescribed categories. Perhaps that’s why it took a 500-year-old painting to jolt my imagination. I don’t remember where I ran across it, but there I was, confronted with DaVinci’s famous painting of The Last Supper. His masterpiece depicts a microcosm of God’s people past and present. And it struck me that all of the radical political and ideological differences (and inherent conflicts) of our own culture are represented by those gathered around that table. The disciples seated to the right and left of Jesus were as ideologically diverse and divided as we are today. A fractious bunch of infighters all vying for a slice of the new kingdom, whatever it might look like. Were the zealots arguing for insurrection against the damnable religious mainstream in cahoots with the deep state? Were the tax collectors and moderates more confident in the goods of compromise and stability in the market? Who knows? But it’s not hard to imagine them all claiming that God was on their side. Hardly news. It’s an old, stale story. So, who did Jesus side with? Right or left? Conservative or Liberal? Moderate or Revolutionary? Or did he opt for something more inclusive like a lowest-common-denominator faith where everyone should just get along? None of these options seem to fit. But when the pressure mounted, Christ died for each disciple while they were fleeing, cowering, or denying him—while they were “yet sinners.” I wonder how long they continued arguing with and blaming each other for the way things went wrong? Jesus doesn’t argue ideology with them. He doesn’t take up one political platform over against another. He interjects his own politics, the politics of the Trinity—a politics characterized by an eternal delightful self-giving love. This love can’t be stopped by any division, fearful darkness, or death. Jesus goes forward, not just telling the truth about God’s love, but embodying it. He does not win arguments. Rather, he lays down his life so the world will know the love of God. He displays the life he has with the Father and invites us into that life. I wonder, might Lent be the place for us to give up our well-reasoned and tightly-held ideologies for the sacrificial love of the other we so disdain? Wouldn’t that be good news?
Sharing the Light of Christ in the Darkness
January 11, 2018 | Michael Gulker
Sharing the Light of Christ in the Darkness
As I write this, the brilliant white Michigan snow reflects some rather unusual winter sunshine. It seems an appropriate reflection of Epiphany, the celebration of the "manifesting" of Christ's light to all the world. This light “shines forth” so that all the world can join us in singing, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her praise." The epiphany of God with us is always cause for praise and thanksgiving. Some days it seems easy to celebrate the light of Christ. But others, not so much. It seems that despite the brightness of winter, our world darkens. Wars and rumors of wars make the headlines every day. Wars between nations, political parties, news corporations, the sexes—to name a few. It seems a long way from the pastoral scene in Luke’s gospel of the Magi bringing their gifts from afar to bow at the feet of our infant Savior. The real-life context of this beautiful passage is filled with the political intrigue and brutal machinations that led to the slaughter of the innocents. The authors of the gospels were likely far less naïve than we are about the harsh realities of the world. That's a helpful reminder when my cynicism darkens my light. The disciples prayed the psalms, reminding us that while the nations rage, the Lord is King. But where is that kingdom made manifest? Where is praise breaking out? If the church is the body of Christ, then surely it ought to be the place where the light of Christ shines brightly in this dark age, right? But what if the church is as divided as the country and the world? What then? Is darkness overshadowing the light? A people walking in darkness have seen a great light. A light has dawned on those living in the shadow of death and has overcome the darkness. It's an odd thing, to be both the reflection of Christ's light AND an utter failure. Why doesn’t the light flicker? Why doesn’t our sin, the sin of God's chosen people, overwhelm the light? Perhaps it's because the light of Christ's victory shines brightest in his refusal to abandon us even when we refuse to receive him. In fact, it's through the utter rejection of Christ by the world and his people that God reveals the complete inability of anything in creation to alter his love for us. No authority, no power, no nuclear arsenal or conventional army will turn aside God's love for us. The light of Christ's love shines in our darkest places, our most profound divisions, and invites us to follow him in manifesting the love of God for the world in ways that lead the world to break out in praise. But what could this possibly mean today? Well, here's an idea. What if, as the body of Christ, we lived together across the differences and divides that the world can't seem to bridge? What if, in our shared life together, we could "manifest" the reconciliation of heaven and earth toward those opposite us on the left/right continuum? Right here, right now. What if all the strife and division and darkness were backdrops for the light of the gospel to shine brightly today? Ironically, most of us are already bridging divides. But we hardly acknowledge it, let alone, proclaim it. Just this Sunday, I received communion with folks well to the left and right of me; folks living in communion with each other in the name of Jesus. It was even on a day when the sermon was the first of four on immigration! Where else does that happen? We've lost our theological imagination, and we're missing the miracles right in front of our noses. While we're busy getting it wrong, God is in our midst getting it right. He is continually forgiving us and saving us, for which we can give thanks! One of the most delightful things that happens to us at TCF is that folks tell us that our mere existence is an encouragement. The simple reminder that "All things hold together in Christ" is enough to manifest just a little bit of epiphany light to the world. That's not a testament to us, but rather to the hope within believers—a hope that is often forgotten. So, this Epiphany, I want to thank you for making TCF a little reminder of hope in our world. Every prayer, every encouraging email, and every donation makes possible the manifestation of the hope and light of Christ in this dark, divided world. Thank you.
“Why is everyone struggling so much?” An Advent reflection
December 6, 2017 | Michael Gulker
“Why is everyone struggling so much?” An Advent reflection
Not long ago, my 13-year-old son Sam and I were attending our little Mennonite house church that we love so dearly. It wasn’t an easy Sunday. Nearly all of us, for a variety of reasons, were hurting pretty deeply—family struggles, concern for the gravely ill, loved ones who, for one reason or another, are no longer a part of us. People shared their pain so openly that Sam wondered aloud to me about it. He identified both with the struggles of others and his struggling teenage self, saying, “Why is everyone struggling so much? Why do we all go to church if it just means suffering?” While that is not the line of logic my years of theological conditioning provide me, on the surface it’s a pretty valid conclusion. Why do we bind ourselves to broken and suffering people? On our drive home, we were surrounded by billboards depicting happy, healthy, sexy people. Why not identify with them—the winners? Their super white smiles sure seem more convincing than our tears. Why can’t the faith be more obviously right? More visibly true? Why doesn’t God prove his Godhood to the world? I don’t have adequate answers to satisfy a teenage boy who is suffering from the terrors of adolescence. All I’ve got is Advent, and a God who didn’t come down in an undeniable blaze of glory but as a baby born amid scandal, political intrigue, suffering, and the slaughter of the innocents. The eternal Word of God, Logos of Creation, Wisdom of the Ages came enfleshed as an infant Jew, freely identifying himself with a broken, corrupt, suffering people. As with any word, this Word incarnate is eminently deniable, vulnerably open to multiple interpretations—not to mention murder. What are we to make of this? In his brilliant work on Dostoyevsky, Rowan Williams reflects on the theological nature of language and how Dostoyevsky “sees language itself as the indisputable marker of freedom: confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover we can always say more.” Part of the freedom of being able to “say more” when we are confronted with Jesus—the Word of God—is that we can say more and deny its validity. Christ comes to us vulnerable, “unable to compel [us] since compulsion would make it impossible for the creator to appear as the creator of freedom.” This means that the “credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow. In the nature of the case, there will be no unanswerable demonstrations … apart from Christ.” Are there no unanswerable demonstrations apart from Christ? Because that’s exactly what I want most! I long for something provable, repeatable, tangible, undeniable. I want to be able to point to “something” and compel others to accept without having to embody it myself. I want to indisputably possess “something” without having to become like Jesus. But what we get is Christ’s hard-to-believe faith in the goodness of the Father. All done in the face of his betrayal and death—in the goodness and freedom of creation, just as that same freedom would be used to crush the one through whom it was made (John 1:3). Of course, living on the other side of Easter, we see that Jesus’ faith is vindicated in his resurrection and the lifting up of his name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9). Sam’s very correct intuition reveals this: our death is still before us, even if our resurrection is assured. I desperately want God to speak a word that would spare me from the vulnerability of death and the nearly unbearable freedom to live life in light of our certain death. Sam’s desire is my own—to avoid the suffering that comes to us because of the freedom we’ve been given and often misused. We’d rather buy into another false promise of billboard happiness with shiny, white-toothed smiles. We believe these false words—the false certainties that cause us to forfeit our birthright as children and heirs of the King and the freedom that comes with it—all for a cup of soup. It’s the cause of our suffering in the first place. It seems that only a few saints have not sold their birthright (said an isolated and depressed Elijah before God revealed that there were 7,000 such saints). But in our little house church, as in so many small and humble Christian fellowships across the ages, the birthright of the Kingdom has not been sold. Believers join their Savior in suffering the hurts of the world, in ways small and large. They do not shy away. They suffer the uncertainty of freedom. They participate in the passion of Christ, holding on to a sure knowledge of God’s goodness while uncertain about almost everything else. They aren’t sexy. They aren’t likely to be on billboards. When the Lamb who opens the scroll reveals what has mattered in the history of humanity, their names will be called out. And as John Howard Yoder, another incredibly broken believer, once said, history isn’t moved forward by cause and effect, manipulated by the powerful, but by the cross and resurrection of Christ and those who bear it. A deniable thesis to be sure, uttered by an eminently deniable human being. Quite frankly, there’s no place I’d rather be. No other people I’d rather be with, than with Christ and his broken, struggling body.
Consumption and Conflict Avoidance
November 8, 2017 | Michael Gulker
Consumption and Conflict Avoidance
Well, friends, it’s November. Fall colors. Crisp, cool air. Football. Family. Thanksgiving. And yes, Black Friday. The shopping season is upon us once again, calling us all to order our time and schedules to the rhythms of super sales and dynamite deals, hurtling us toward Christmas at breakneck speed. How is it that Thanksgiving—memorializing a surprising friendship that significantly aided the tenuous survival of the Plymouth Plantation—is now seen as the launch of the shopping season? Perhaps shopping provides a welcome distraction from all the underlying family tensions that the Thanksgiving season inevitably raises. It’s now common when discussing holiday plans to hear friends worry about how they will get through those pressures unscathed. SNL hilariously memorialized these tensions when a family, hopelessly mired in ideological warfare, is rescued by their common love for Adele’s hit song “Hello.” I think there’s a significant link here between conflict and consumption – be it of gluttonous quantities of food, Black Friday specials, or Adele’s trendy tunes. On the surface, these distractions save us from dealing with the deep divides we most fear. While we are filling our stomachs, schedules, and credit cards, our lives are marked with a scarcity of love and life-giving relationships. We live fearful and shallow lives, unable to discuss the things we care about most. Beneath this lies the Nietzschean presumption that the core of the world is conflict, not communion. As original a thinker as Nietzsche was, his perspective was hardly new. Augustine engages the problem in relation to the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana (peace of Rome) mercilessly suppressed dissent through fear and violence. Rome determined the shape of life for Augustine’s known world, structuring time (July for Julius, August for Augustus), family (the gods’ love patronage), and forms of fellowship (Colosseum for blood sport anyone?). In his work, The City of God, Augustine describes the world not as determined by the coercive power of Rome but as two cities, or two stories played out simultaneously. The old story of fear, conflict, and death, was the City of Man controlled by the narrative of sin and human fallibility (fallen-ness?). But Augustine saw a hope-filled tale; the City of God upstaging the Roman City of Man. Two cities. Two cultures. Two understandings of one world. These cities overlapped and competed against each other. But the fate of each city was already sealed hundreds of years earlier, by a backwater prophet from a backwater province, supposedly crushed under the Pax Romana. Problem was, he didn’t stay dead. And in his resurrection, we see the City of Man’s principalities and powers destroyed; death dethroned; fear and conflict defeated. They no longer have the last word. In the resurrected Christ, we see a foretaste of what’s to come – the reason for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). Yet, there are still two storylines playing out and we live with a foot in both worlds. Jesus shows us the trajectory of the new narrative from within the old. He’s grafted us into his people. He’s made Israel’s story our story. In fact, he’s grafted us into himself, as part of his very own body. And as his body, our lives are ordered by new time toward a future full of hope. We’ve also been given a new calendar (the liturgical calendar) by which to order our lives around his birth, life, death, resurrection, and gift of his Spirit. We’ve been adopted into a new family (the church) and offered new forms of fellowship through worship, the sacraments, sacred celebrations. Our new family calendar culminates not in Thanksgiving and the shopping season but in a celebration of Christ the King Sunday (Google it), a celebration of Christ’s Kingship over all creation. As God’s people, we celebrate the victorious City of God right in the middle of the City of Man. Together, as his body, we celebrate Christ’s ultimate victory over fear, conflict, sin, and death, and the vindication of hope, communion, life, and love. And we get to be a part of it! But we don’t do alone. We can only live in liturgical time, Christ’s time, as we order our lives to Christ’s life together. As one, we celebrate by confessing and believing that Jesus Christ is Lord and our conflicts are overcome. Although, we still live with a foot in both worlds. I invite you to live primarily as citizens of the City of God—citizens who have been reconciled to God and one another through Christ’s victory. And as you celebrate the rituals of Thanksgiving Thursday, remember that first there was Christ the King Sunday. Worship and reconciliation replace consumption and conflict avoidance.
Being Faithful, Hopeful, Loving People
October 11, 2017 | Michael Gulker
Being Faithful, Hopeful, Loving People
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a study a few weeks ago on the shifting landscape of religious realities in the United States. What it found isn’t especially surprising: the majority of people in this country are religiously unaffiliated. A few additional highlights: White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public. White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Christian circles are filled with many hand-wringing articles, studies, and sermons about how to make your community more accessible and welcoming. Despite the attraction and truth of the gospel, people keep leaving the church. The implications for our culture and society can appear bleak: how can we expect to uphold moral and ethical standards when most people in the U.S. don’t even believe in Jesus? We cry out for solutions. We bemoan and fixate on the challenges facing the church in our society. But the prophet Ezekiel reminds us that we, as the body of Christ, are God’s people and God promises rescue, return, and life from ruin. “I will give them a single heart and I will put a new spirit in them…. Then they shall be my people and I shall be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20). Despite what we see in our culture—people leaving the faith, conflict, pride, dissension, protests—there remain faithful shepherds tending to God’s flock. And I’ve had the privilege of walking alongside many of them as they’ve graced us with their involvement in The Colossian Way. In these Colossian Way partners, leaders, coaches, and participants, I see that the faithfulness of shepherds continues to breed life and hope in our world. Certainly, like lost sheep, people still walk away. But God calls back the lost sheep and celebrates their return with a party—a beloved child has come home! Our job is to be faithful, hopeful, loving people along the way—shepherding is a life-long call. We count it sheer joy to play a small role in supporting these faithful shepherds. I pray this gives you hope and reassurance today.