Lessons from an encounter in Italy

"I'm beyond all that now."

We spent nearly a decade as missionaries in Italy. One day while there, I sat talking with a woman from Florence. A former believer, Piera had drifted away from the community of faith. In an attempt to exude a sophisticated air, she said to me, "When I was young, I was really active in the Nazarene youth group. But I'm beyond all that now."

In Piera's mind, she was moving forward, away from what she saw as provincialism and unprogressive thinking. Of course, what Piera saw as progress in her journey was really a sliding back into the clutches of the Evil One.

Occasionally I hear an echo of Piera in what Southern Nazarene University students do and say. Some arrive on campus fresh out of active involvement in a church body, but by graduation time four years later,k they, like Piera, feel they have moved "beyond all that."

To be sure, those outside the Kingdom of God do sometimes view committed Believers as unsophisticated and backward. Unfortunately, we've sometimes encouraged that perception by talking about the dangers of "trying to keep up with the world."

The truth is, there's no way those living outside the Kingdom will ever catch up with the lifestyle described by the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. That radical passage -- which every SNU student makes an attempt at memorizing for Introduction to Biblicall Literature -- is in Matthew 5, a chapter which has been called "the Constitution of Christ's Kingdom." In the Beatitudes and other Sermon on the Mount material, Jesus sets out a value system that often goes in different directions from those being followed by unbelievers.

Though my Italian friend Piera didn't think so, very satisfying rewards do come to those whose lives display Beatitude characteristics. In ways that we still don't fully understand, Scripture talks about us not only being in Christ's Kingdom but also of reigning with Him. Tragically, humanity lost that privilege when Adam and Eve sought to rule in their own way. Thus, in the Garden of Eden, human beings fell, rather than rising as my friend Piera wants to believe.

How well do our lives display the Kingdom characteristics of meekness, humility, mercy, peacemaking and the longing to be filled with righteousness and holiness? Do we, as SNU faculty, staff, and students truly live beatitude lifestyles? The whole package -- which includes that part about holiness -- is important. Occasionally, I run into people who say they want to "do justice and love kindness" as Micah says. Unfortunately, they see that as a strictly human initiative. They forget that the next few words from Micah is the call to "walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). The path to truly doing justice and to loving kindness involves walking humbly with God.

My Florentine friend Piera thought she had moved on to better things. Instead, she really had moved backward. Don't slide back with her.

Discussion questions

  1. How does the perception of Christ-followers as unsophisticated and backward affect the way we engage with people outside the Kingdom of God?
  2. In what ways can the pursuit of progress in life end in a slide back into negative influences or the clutches of the Evil One?
  3. How do the Beatitudes and the value system outlined in the Sermon on the Mount challenge the lifestyle choices followed by unbelievers?
  4. What are the potential consequences of people feeling they has moved "beyond" their previous involvement in a faith community and/or spiritual practices?
  5. How can we ensure that our lives reflect the Kingdom characteristics of meekness, humility, mercy, peacemaking, righteousness, and holiness, and avoid sliding back from the path of spiritual growth and devotion?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Other articles I wrote for the sutdent newspaper while on the SNU faculty

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