Archive for the 'Devotional' Category

Daily Office

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)

If you look at the words and events surrounding these two short paragraphs you will notice that these words may seem rather out of place. Jesus has talked about sheep among wolves, the betrayal among family members, the sword that he brought, delight in a cup of cold water, and judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah and worse. We learn that John the Reformed Charismatic Presbyterian had serious doubts about Jesus and Jesus’ high praise of John. And we learn of the wit and wisdom of children. We learn of judgment on towns who had rejected Jesus. All of this is on one side.

On the other side we learn about Jesus who is accused of being a Sabbath scoundrel, in league with Beelzebul, more judgment, a ‘small’ miracle and the plot to destroy Jesus that followed, demon possession, the rejection of his family, and the simple nature of those who cannot even understand parables (!). Then John loses his head. It all makes for a great story—contains all the stuff we like: action, horror, drama, comedy, suspense. All this stuff we like, but there’s that point in the middle where Jesus inexplicably prays and talks about finding rest for the soul.

There’s a lot of sermon fodder in chapters 10-13, but this prayer in the middle bugs me. So does, for that matter, this business of Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden. You and I know how hard that yoke is and how heavy that burden is: could it be worse on the other side? And his intense statement about knowing the Father bugs me—it’s far too exclusive a club. And his thoughts about little children in the prayer bug me too—what do kids know? Jesus is saying something like, “What don’t kids know?”

Ultimately, however, I think that is the point: he is talking about recognizing something, someone in our midst, isn’t he? John may have been confused, but he was on the right track. Jesus says to him, “John, look what’s going on! The blind can see. The lame can walk. The unclean are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are alive. The good news is everywhere.” Then he says even children can figure this bit of nonsense out for themselves, “We play a flute, but you sit still. We sing a song, but you do not weep.” Jesus is shouting out: “Here I am! The One you have been waiting for and you are all missing it! You are so caught up in your own world that you cannot sing or dance or laugh or mourn. What sad people you are indeed.”

He says: “I did miracles in your cities and you missed it. Twice in these verses he gives props to Sodom and Gomorrah (10:15, 11:24)—ironically, the two places most Christians nowadays point to in order to prove God’s hatred of all things gay. Yet Jesus says those who lived in those places will get along better than most others. Strange. Strange that Jesus believed those who were most worthy of judgment and condemnation would most readily grasp what those who are right and good miss.

Then Jesus breaks out in praise and prayer: “Father I am glad for children. I am glad they have open eyes and see what adults do not. I am glad, happy, thrilled that you have revealed these things to those who can grasp them.” This stuff is so simple that even children can get it. Or, in the childlike heart and mind—the not too uppity—God reveals his good will and good pleasure. And the wise and learned ignore it.

I sense in these verses a joy that cannot be contained and yet is only marginally loosed. You sense it in Jesus: Go back and tell! Go back and dance! Go back and Praise and Pray! And when you get done reading about all the sickness and judgment in the world, come to me for rest. When you get sick and tired of trying to figure things out using all your wisdom, all your smarts, all your disbelief in the outrageous, come to me and I’ll help you figure it out; I’ll show you want you are looking for but will never find. I love Jesus’ short prayer here because it confirms what many of us know and believe but refuse to accept: wisdom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“In some objectifiably verifiable and convincing way, we want God to demonstrate his own existence. Deep in our hearts, I suspect that this is what all of us want, unbelievers no less than believers. And I have wondered sometimes what would happen if God were to do just that. What would happen if God did set about demonstrating his existence in some dramatic and irrefutable way?” (Frederick Buechner, “Message in the Stars”, in Secrets in the Dark, 16-17

Life, or whatever Jesus is talking about here, cannot be figured out by ignoring miracles or pretending they do not happen. It cannot be figured out by not dancing or not singing. It cannot be figured out by not eating or by not drinking. It, that is, ‘these things’, cannot be figured out by an appropriate ABAB single subject reversal study model. It cannot be figured out by hard work or by carrying around burdens we are not meant to carry. Jesus is saying here something to the effect of: If you want to figure out ‘these things’ they will only be made known as the Father reveals them in foolishness, and even then, to be sure, through me. Jesus says: I am revelation.

Something in here says to me: you cannot think your way to God. In a way, you have to embrace foolishness, wrap yourself in absurdity, traipse along with incredulity at this God who takes delight in revealing himself not to the wise and learned, but to the most foolish of the foolish: children (Gk. naypios; infants). This is God’s ‘good pleasure.’ This is the God who does things all backward like. God reveals himself to infants; God reveals himself in Jesus; God reveals himself through things we cannot believe or understand.

Thus Jesus concludes: God reveals himself in mercy, gentleness, humbleness. Can God do that? Why does God reveal himself to us in ways the world does not understand, in ways that we can scarcely appreciate, in ways we hardly approve?

If we can reach
Beyond the wisdom of this age
Into the foolishness of God
That foolishness will save
Those who believe

–Rich Mullins, Let Mercy Lead

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St. Steven's GreenFor the past couple of years, my wife and I (and by extension, our family) have engaged in a small “project” we tend to refer to as “good stories”.  Basically, it is this:  When we see someone out in public who does something really stupid/infuriating/bone-headed/embarrassing/etc., rather than view the situation with the obvious (and most likely) context, we try to come up with a “good story” to cover for them.

Example: My wife and I were taking an early Sunday morning walk by St. Steven’s Green in Dublin last year, when a redhead in a slightly-disheveled party dress and high-heels walked out onto the sidewalk in front of us.  She didn’t seem too steady on her feet when she made it to the end of the block and turned onto Grafton Street.  Zan made a comment to me about “the walk of shame”, but I said we needed to tell a “good story” about her, so we decided that she must have forgotten to set her alarm clock and woke up late, and was hurrying on her way to church.  Not only did this make us laugh, but it reminded us that it was possible that not everything might be as it appeared.

[This was actually one of the first official "good stories" we sold, though the root of the idea came from my late grandmother, who always looked for the most charitable explanation for other peoples' (or even animals') behavior.  It was a quality that struck me most about her, as I never heard her say a negative word about anything.]

For me, the best times I come up with “good stories” are when I’m driving and the guy in front of me (or beside me) does something dangerous/rude/boneheaded.  Now, almost reflexively (even if I’m the only one in the car), I find myself coming up with a “good story” (Oh, his coffee must have spilled on his leg, and he’s doing everything he can to maneuver with a scalded thigh!).  It’s certainly a lot better than the alternative of getting mad at the driver – and sometimes (if there are two or more of us in the car) it becomes quite funny as we try to embellish the story to make the guy into some sort of hero, rather than the cad he’s most likely being…

The one problem I have, though, with “good stories” is that I’m far better at making them, and letting them be, when I don’t know the lead character in the ’story”.  In engineer/scientist speak, the likelihood and overall quality of a “good story” is inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the subject of the story.

And this is sad.

Why?  Because it means that I’m far more willing to give the benefit of the doubt and to be charitable toward a complete stranger than I am to a friend or family member.   So my challenge, for myself, is to find a way to tell “good stories” about the people I know, rather than let them frustrate me…

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NOT Castle AnthraxMy style of humor tends to be a bit on the dark & dry side (in addition to my love of puns), much to the chagrin of my family. And so it is, from time to time, that when I’m doing something serious (working, reading the Bible, playing piano, etc.), something strikes me funny from a completely different (possibly twisted) angle, and that’s the end of seriousness…

And so it was a few weeks back when I heard a preacher quoting The Lord’s Prayer.

Everything was OK until he got to “and lead us not into temptation…

At first it was a little giggle, followed by stifled laughter (which earned me a quizzical skunk-eye from the other person sitting nearby). You see, in my head, this phrase, lead us not into temptation, triggered two different thoughts/pictures:

First, I don’t know about you, but I can’t say that God has ever led me into temptation, because I have been quite good at running right into it myself without His help. Sometimes with disastrous results, and other times escaping by a hair’s breadth.

Secondly, I could not help but instantly reliving the end of the Castle Anthrax scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’d link it here, but this is a family-friendly blog (most of the time, anyway), so the basic setup is this:

Sir Galahad, who is in search of the fabled Holy Grail, finds himself led on his quest for this artifact to Castle Anthrax, which is populated by “eight score young blondes and brunettes, all between sixteen and nineteen and a half” with nobody to protect them. When he realizes he has been tricked, his first instinct is to leave and find the Grail, but the girls begin to close in on him and just as his will begins to falter, Sir Launcelot arrives and pulls him out of the castle:

LAUNCELOT: We were in the nick of time, you were in great peril.
GALAHAD: I don’t think I was.
LAUNCELOT: Yes you were, you were in terrible peril.
GALAHAD: Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.
LAUNCELOT: No, it’s too perilous.
GALAHAD: Look, I’m a knight, I’m supposed to get as much peril as I can.
LAUNCELOT: No, we’ve got to find the Holy Grail. Come on!
GALAHAD: Well, let me have just a little bit of peril?

Followed by the Narrator’s voice-over:

Sir Launcelot had saved Sir Galahad from almost certain temptation, but they were still no nearer the Grail.

Thus, when my ears heard the preacher say “lead us not into temptation“, my mind interposed “save us from almost certain temptation“…

And I don’t remember another word he said for the next several minutes.

But it did get me thinking – there are many times that I model my prayers after The Lord’s Prayer, and when I ask God to “lead me not into temptation”, sometimes what I’m really doing is asking Him to play the part of Launcelot to my Galahad, and to pull me out of almost certain temptation, no matter how much I tell him I ought to have “a little bit of peril”.

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Daily Office

“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  ”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.  They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)

I don’t want to be accused of taking this out of context and making it mean something it does not. So, in order to dispel that myth ahead of time, I add this disclaimer that I have in fact and indeed read the entire chapter of Jeremiah 29 and, at one time in the past, read the entire book. There. Now, on to other things…

As I read this early today before worship I wrote in my Moleskine something to the effect of, “Yes, but what does this mean for us, the church, disciples of Jesus?” I kept on thinking about it until we arrived a little late for bible school. We arrived late enough to interrupt and but early enough to hear a few remaining prayer requests from the young folks in the class.

One woman asked for prayer for herself and her husband. They want a child and, evidently, are having trouble conceiving. Another asked for prayer as they are trying to buy a house. Another asked for prayer concerning financing of a house already being purchased. I used to find this strange—all these prayers for simply mundane things that have nothing to do with the Jesus who told us to ‘take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow [him].’ What sort of self-centered people are we to pray that God provide us houses, children, money, crops or worse? Does God care about these things? “Dear God, please help my marriage,” is a lot different from, “Lord, your kingdom come.” But maybe it is not so much different after all.

I volunteered to pray for the class and as I did these words of the Lord written down by Jeremiah came flooding into my mind. I prayed for the people in bible school and reminded them of what the Lord said to the people through Jeremiah.

The importance of Jeremiah’s letter, his ‘word of the Lord’, is found in what the Lord told his people to do while they lived in exile among strange people: seek the well-being of the community in which you live, prosper, set-up shop, plant crops, have children, get married, do business and seek peace. This reminded me of what I read in Hosea chapter four last week, “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying, and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away” (Hosea 4:1-3).

So we walk a fine line. God tells us in nearly the same breath: seek the prosperity of the place you live and deny yourself. Hosea spoke to those who, because of one sin or another, allowed the place where they were to become a wasteland, uninhabitable by anyone or anything. Jeremiah spoke to another group of Hebrews and said: Don’t allow disaster to happen to the land of your exile as your fathers allowed disaster to happen to the Promise Land. Seek their prosperity. Pray for them; seek the Lord.

I find it strange that God commanded them to seek prosperity and yet I don’t. It’s like Jesus on the water in Mark four who calms a furious storm not just saving his disciples but also the ‘other boats with him’ (Mark 4:36). We live and move and have our being in the land of exile and while we do, we do not cease being people who curiously belong to God and who belong to a curious God—a god who cared not only about Ninevah but the ‘many cattle as well’, this strange God who ‘sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.’

I fail to see the connection between prayers such as, “God help me be a rich person so I can bless those around me” and “God help the city where I live to be prosperous and productive so that you will bless me through them.” How does this strange God bless his people through the prosperity of a pagan city where we are being held captive? Strange are the vessels God uses to bless his people and make himself known. Strange that I should want Blockbuster video to do well.

God’s grace in our lives is a light in the darkness. WE, I say that with no quiver in my voice, WE are called to be God’s means of dispensing grace in the world. We are not to decrease, but to increase. We too, like Israel, live in exile. Peter calls us strangers, aliens, foreigners. This place is no more our home than our possessions are our own. We live in this place for a little while, but our home is someplace else—we ‘long for a better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). While we are here we are to make the best of it, to seek the Lord for the city, to help it prosper. We are not only to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but also for the peace of Madison, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids; Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, and California; the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Africa; the World.

Our prayers, and certainly God’s grace, extend far beyond the walls of the places we call sacred. We pray for the world that God might be known. We pray to God that the world might prosper in crops, people, and commerce. As such we should disregard the lying tongues of those who tell us otherwise. God seems to think such prayers are necessary, matter, and are vital to our own existence. Nor will I pray for the destruction of those who are opposed this godly message because that is not what God said to do. He said to pray for them and seek prosperity for their sake—for when they prosper, so also will I. So I’m not only going to pray for a young couple to have a child, for another couple to have a house, and for another’s crops to grow. I’m also going to pray that they will prosper wherever the Lord plants them—wherever their exile is manifest. And I will pray for the city where they are planted that it, too, will prosper.

Why? “For God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only Son.” For God so loved the world…for God so loved the world…

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Chimney Tops TrailJust a quick thought for today (and some apologies for slacking on my writing lately).

Recently, I went on a trip down to God’s Country (aka “Tennessee”) with my older daughter, where we had a grand time. When I got back, we were going through all of the photos we took, and I was not in any of them.

I was there the whole time – everywhere that the camera took pictures – but I just wasn’t visible in the pictures.

One morning, I was thinking about this on my drive to work and it struck me how God is always with me, but I don’t necessarily see Him – because He’s the one behind the camera. He’s so close and all-encompassing that I cannot escape.

And, when I’m lonely, it’s only that I don’t realize I am not alone…

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.


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Daily Office

After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. After saying good-by to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for a day. Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” After this, we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.

My journey with Jesus began when I was very young. It was in a small whitewashed Methodist church where I wore a white cape and lit the candles on the altar. I still remember the Pastor’s name, Chester Harrison, and I could even tell you about singing songs like ‘Fisher’s of Men,’ and also about putting coins in the plastic birthday cake on birthdays and junior worship. I remember my bible school class met in a small kitchen.

I can tell you about going to Vacation Bible School at the Lakemount Church of Christ where a young Chuck Doughty was the preacher. (Those in the COC tradition probably recognize the name.) I went during the week of my birthday and remember the cake I shared with another boy who shared my birthday. It was a great week.

I can tell you about different deans and teachers I met at the Elkhorn Valley Christian Service Camp. Garth wasn’t so nice because I wasn’t so quiet. Allan was OK but I remember distinctly the time he embarrassed another boy who was sitting cross-legged (as women normally sit) by saying, “Don’t sit with your legs crossed, it makes you look like a fag.” Bob Mack was camp manager at the time, he was a bit intimidating. Later he forgave me for committing a terrible sin at camp. There were others, but those days at camp were special. I first met Jack Cottrell at EVCSC at a mens retreat.

I also met Christian people at the Ohio Teens for Christ. I’ll never forget hearing Mylon Lefevre sing Crank it Up and Whiteheart tell us to Read the Book, Don’t Wait for the Movie, and David Meece sing about Grandma and Beethoven and Piano Lessons or something silly like that. I remember my friend Glenn, a really cool adult with a killer sound system in his truck, who took me to my first concert, Petra, and then later to Stryper at the Syria Mosque ballroom in Pittsburgh. We also water skied at his house. I never did actually stand up on the skis. He had a hot motor boat.

Then there was my home church and the elders there, the men who signed my ordination certificate, three of whom are now with the Lord, who are on my short list of heroes. The preacher at my home church who has managed to last a lot longer at the same church than I lasted in my entire ministerial career. Bible school teachers and youth group leaders are also fond memories for me.

What can I say about those people, those Christians, I met while at Bible College? Paul Kissling, who taught me to value others’ opinions, makes my short list of heroes as does Ron Fisher who loves God’s Word and Terry Ferguson (RIP) whose preaching style greatly influenced my own style and George Brown who taught me that I can still love books that are not ‘christian’. Then at Cincinnati Christian Seminary I met up close and personally Jack Cottrell whose Doctrine of Grace class totally undid me—the effects of that class still resound within me five years later. I met Fred Thompson in a theology class at Emmanuel School of Religion. To this day I have no idea what we talked about in that class.

And elders, deacons, preachers, and everyday joes at churches in Traverse City, St Louis, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Alma and half a dozen other communities in Michigan. Churches in North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania where I have preached. People like Chris Lyons and Joe Martino and Brendt Waters and the rest of the gang here who have been so patient and loving with me—allowing me writing privileges when it was clear that I had no business talking about Jesus or his Gospel, let alone writing about it in public. I wish I had time to tell you about my love for Reed Duncan an elder at my home church whose kindness to my family extends more than I could ever fathom. I only briefly met Larry and Carol Necessary at a Church in Indiana, but they are two very special people. There was also the Catholic priest who conducted the wedding of my sister in law who was about as kind as could be when he allowed me to share his pulpit during the wedding and deliver a homily for my in laws. And another Catholic priest who shared his pulpit so I could preach the sermon at the funeral of one my young Cub Scouts who was tragically killed in a car accident.

There was this fella, at the church in Chester, West Virginia, where I served as preacher for a couple of years or so. His name was Earl and his wife’s name was Birdie. They died while I was in Chester. I preached both funerals. I love them and miss them—but not for what you might think. I remember when my Jacob was born, we had no insurance. The day of Jacob’s birth Earl came walking up the sidewalk as I was running out the door to go to the hospital. Earl said he had been walking around the property and had found an envelope. He also said that there was a rule that anything found on the church property automatically belonged to the preacher. I was all of 28 or so and thought he was serious. I didn’t realize how serious until later when I opened the envelope and found $2500 inside. But I miss them not because of that, but because of the way they died. I have never seen a couple, a husband and wife, love each other so much, and die so beautifully. They fought not, but gently went with Jesus.

There was Joe for whom I drove cab for a while and his wife Carolyn whom I loved dearly. I buried them both. Joe was a business man who was always trying something new. I think the church I served while driving cab for Joe drew the line when Joe had me delivering beer to people’s houses and picking up dancers at the local strip club and picking people up at bars or dropping them off at the local race track. Man do I miss Joe! There was Audrey Kilian and her son Scott, both of whom are now with the Lord. God how I miss Audrey and Scott. And there’s my friend David Rawls who has been my constant friend since we first met in 1991 at Great Lakes Christian College. Dave and his wife Gina taught us how to play cards and Dave has taught me how to love. And Kelly Irish, my best Anglican friend in the world who has taught me not to be afraid of the Holy Spirit of God.

There was a couple whose name escapes me that we met in North Carolina in 1994. We were on the highway at high noon when the timing gear on the car, well, broke. The car stopped. We were stuck. I remember an unnamed African-American girl who saw us stranded at a phone booth and took us in her car, three out of place white folks, to a hotel. I have no doubt she was an angel of God. No doubts at all. The next day some folks from a church there in Winston-Salem, he was an airline pilot, took us in for several hours while our car was being repaired. They fed us and gave us some space to rest with our one year old son who had spent the previous 5 days learning to walk at my brother’s house. We were to start an internship later that week so I cannot even describe for you how blessed we were.

I think about all the disciples I have known in the last 30 some years and I am overwhelmed. Everywhere Paul and his friends went they marked the place by the people, the disciples, they knew there. Mnason. Philip. Agabus. Disciples. Some named, some unnamed. I recall how each step of their journey was marked by some relationship or other. Maybe it was weeping. Maybe it was prophecy. Maybe it was prayer. Maybe it was hospitality. Maybe it was a dry bed. Maybe it was just a simple greeting of love and affection. I know why Luke thought it necessary to tell us Paul went to Kos and Patara and Ptolemais and Rhodes and Tyre—places no one in today’s world really cares about—it was because in these places there were disciples who loved and were loved. There were disciples there who remembered Paul and his companions. It was in those places that Paul his friends had people with whom they shared something in common: Jesus.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. I could tell you about the people I have ‘met’ through their books—Christians along for the journey. I think about all the Christians I have met, in all the places I have met them, and how in one way or another they ministered to me or my family and I think to myself: My God I am surrounded on all sides by the people of God. How many people I have met throughout my journey who belonged to Christ and have loved us and cared for us I cannot truly count. This is why, I believe, chapter 21 exists, and why Romans 16 exists, and Matthew 1: look at all the people who have this Jesus in common and who minister to strangers and friends alike. Look how big is the body of Christ! Look how grand is this thing that God has made that I can travel from the UP in Michigan to Galveston Bay in Texas to Winston-Salem, North Carolina and find the people of God. For that, I give thanks to God.

I grew up impressed by the people I knew
in the buckle of the bible belt
hopped in the van with the band
now I’ve been just about everywhere else
Met a soldier from Seattle and a lawyer from the East
a Texas oil baron and a Roman Catholic priest
Every day I choose
to walk in their shoes
’cause pretty are the feet of those
who bring the good news
Good people
good, good people
everywhere, everywhere it’s God’s people
Been on the road been far from home
but I found me a friend or two
time has taught me well and I can tell you
the good things people do
they really care and I’ve been there
seen it with my eyes
you can tell that they’re God’s people
by the goodness in their lives. (Good People, Audio Adrenaline)

Yeah, that’s how I feel. It is easy to get frustrated with God’s people and to imagine they are the worst folks on earth. Lord knows I have shared my share of anger and vented my share of bile at the way some church folks behave. I haven’t even scratched the surface of how good God’s people are, and this is only how they have blessed me. I do think it is important to remember those who have blessed us. I think that’s what Luke was doing: remembering the good people who, because of God’s grace, shared a day or two or three with others who were taking a journey. I don’t think it matters if we are on our way to Jerusalem or Borneo or Grand Rapids or Houston. What is important is to remember the people who have blessed you along your way.

I believe Luke’s point was this: these were disciples of Jesus, see how they blessed other disciples of Jesus. I wonder who might journey through my neighborhood tomorrow? I wonder how the Lord will ask me to bless them and help them on their journey—wherever that journey may be taking them? I wonder if I’ll spend a day or two or three with them? I only pray that when the Lord does, I am ready. There are good people in the church.

I want to be like them.

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Daily Office

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
“Yes,” they replied.

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

So have you thought lately about what the kingdom is like? I haven’t. Honestly. I have put no thought into it at all. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes—these times of thinking and not thinking about the kingdom. Maybe part of being a part of the kingdom is learning to think about the kingdom without be cognizant that we actually are thinking about the kingdom. I don’t know if that even makes sense.

For some reason, I honestly have no idea why, I have been receiving episodes (I like that much better than the word ‘issues’) of the magazine Charisma. It is strange that I am no longer professional clergy, and I’m not really even close to Pentecostal, and yet I am receiving this, maybe there is more to it than I thought. Maybe God is sending me a message. Who can figure these things out with any certainty? I read some of the articles in the magazine, but what intrigues me more are the advertisements—mostly for books or conferences—because I’ll tell you what: Pentecostals have the kingdom down to a science, or at least they have thinking about the kingdom down to a science. The advertisements may as well read like this:

The kingdom of heaven is like defeating demonic strongholds.

The kingdom of heaven is like maximized manhood.

The kingdom of heaven is like a body of politics.

The kingdom of heaven is like understanding what happens after we die (and Perry Stone will lead us.)

The kingdom of heaven is like a good insurance company.

The kingdom of heaven is like a convenient and healthy step forward in the celebration of communion.

The kingdom of heaven is like the faith and values of Sarah Palin (because what she believes really does matter for America!).

And that’s only the first 26 pages or so. Look, I have nothing against Charisma magazine. I’m sure it inspires and helps and encourages a lot of people–even me at times. This isn’t a question of salvation or anything of that sort. I just happen to think it is rather funny that some people in the church have this kingdom of heaven thing all worked out into a neat tidy package. That’s exactly what makes me think that maybe they are on to something. For them, the kingdom isn’t just one thing; they see God in everything, doing something in all the minutia of every day existence whether painting a building, rescuing immigrants, or worshiping with Jews for Jesus.

These are people who are thinking about God, thinking about the kingdom. They are more than I am. They are necessary to counter the ignorance of people like me who think that the kingdom is like a nice brick building on main street where the old people gather to sing songs from the 1700’s.

It appears to me that even Jesus wasn’t really sure what the kingdom of heaven was like—even if he did happen to have some particularly wonderful ideas. What I mean is that Jesus was looking for the kingdom everywhere. He was not so confined his thoughts. For Jesus, anything and everything had potential kingdom value. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good see in his field. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like leaven. The kingdom of heaven is a treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant….a net…seriously? The kingdom of heaven is like a lot of things according to Jesus. Makes me wonder what Jesus would say if he were speaking to us in our culture. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like the faith and values of Sarah Palin (although something tells me if a certain divinity student from Duke still visited us he would laugh loudly, disagree, and point out the necessarily satanic value of such a statement).

Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a mini-van which, when properly functioning, carries a load of people from one destination to another. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like a baseball game (!).

Or some such thing.

Whatever jesting I might make about Charisma one thing is certain: the authors, advertisers, and editors are at least thinking about what the kingdom of heaven is like in our context. Maybe nets and mustard seeds and merchants do not meant all that much to us, but I’ll bet they meant a lot of things to Jesus and his followers then. Thus, back to my point, maybe I simply do not spend enough time each day thinking about what the kingdom of heaven is like in my context. Maybe that is exactly my problem: maybe I’m just not creative enough to think about the ways that the kingdom manifests itself in this world every day. Maybe I’m simply not spending enough time thinking about the kingdom or looking for the kingdom or thinking like Jesus thinking about the kingdom.

Maybe if I would pay a little more attention, think a little more creatively, then perhaps I might start seeing the kingdom in more places, and in more ways, then I had previously imagined possible. Maybe nets and merchants and mustard seeds are only the beginning. Maybe there are a million ways more that the kingdom exists and manifests itself each day in the US of A and around the world. Perhaps I’m just too narrow-minded and myopic to see it. Perhaps more kingdom thinking is necessary.

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I’ve been accused of living in a bubble before.  Numerous times, actually.  This accusation has come from others inside the same bubble, looking out, wanting to connect with those outside of the bubble.  It has also come from those outside the bubble, some wishing they could of had my bubble experience.  ”Bubble” conversations usually include the phrase “the real world.”  Of course, what people usually mean by that phrase is harsh life experiences.  Somehow we have this idea that if you haven’t been through some kind of hardship, then you haven’t really lived, or that you are living in some kind of manufactured, protected fantasy.  The problem with this is that it tries to define others by the life situation into which they were born.   Or by their life experience.  It’s a caste system of a different kind.

The bad news is that there is a bubble.  But everybody is in a bubble.  It is the sphere in which we live.  Where we work, eat, sleep; who our family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers are; what we know and have experienced, etc.  Everybody lives in a bubble.  A bubble that may never be pierced by certain experiences, knowledge, choices, or people.  A bubble that my never brush up against the bubbles of others, making them aware of their existence.  Bubbles that might collide and bounce away from each other.  The small farmer struggling to keep his farm going may never come into contact with the war torn existence of an Ethiopian orphan.  His only interaction with latino migrant workers may be a fearful cry to deport illegal immigrants regardless of the legal status of that migrant worker and in contrast to the rather large shared experience of struggling through farming to provide.

The good news is that the bubble is clear, movable, and expandable… if we want it to be.  We are not bound by the bubble, just by our choices.  Despite finding ourselves in a bubble, we can help shape the character of the bubble by our choices.  My bubble has been changing.  I recently came across the Not For Sale Campaign and the Global Forum on Human Trafficking.  James 1:27 has taken on new meaning to me, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” If we turn away from the suffering and hardship others, our bubble can become opaque and hard.  If we are persistent in doing good instead of self-seeking (Romans 2:7), our bubbles will no longer be the limits of what affects us, but they will become the areas in which we are effective.

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Daily Office

“Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.”– Matthew 9:1-8

Let me ask you a question: Do you think this man’s paralysis had something to do with the sin that Jesus forgave?

Whatever else we might say about this passage of Scripture, this much is true: the man who was brought to Jesus on a stretcher got more that day than he bargained for. I don’t think Jesus forgave this man’s sins simply to irritate the scribes who happened to be hanging around that day. Nevertheless, they accuse him of blasphemy and Jesus rejects that charge out of hand: No! This is not blasphemy at all and I will prove it so.

And he does. Then he sends the man home, and there, in that simple phrase is what blows my mind about this story. It’s good that Jesus healed the man. It’s good that Jesus forgave his sins. It’s good that Jesus disproved the charge of blasphemy. The whole story is good, but that part where Jesus sends him ‘home’ is great. It is fantastic.

I am aware there is a lot going on in this ‘panel’ of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is healing. He is demonstrating his power. He is demonstrating his divinity (whatever that might entail). All of this, coming after the Sermon on the Mount—actions empowering his words—is a mighty testimony to the faithfulness of Jesus to his calling as the Son of God. As you may have guessed, however, something troubles me about the way preachers typically (and, not incidentally, traditionally) have preached this passage—as if it were disconnected from the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) and the great teaching that follows (10-13).

Typically this is a passage preached simply to demonstrate that Jesus was divine, God, that he was able and empowered and authorized to forgive sins. Yes. Yes. Yes. All of this is true, but that’s not the complete picture. Let’s not forget that something else happened that day too: “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” “Go home!” he says. “Go home.” It could be that he was like that fellow who laid by the pool all day (John 5) or that lame fellow in Acts 3 whom Peter healed and hardly ever went home or perhaps he had been rejected by his family. My point is: maybe he hadn’t been home for a while. As a paralyzed man, a sinner obviously cursed because of his sin, maybe he was unwelcome at home. I cannot think of a more liberating thing to happen to that man than for Jesus to look at him and say, “Go home!”

Thus the crowds respond the way they did, in a way, I might add, quite unlike the response of those who lived near the tombs in the region of the Gadarenes. It’s one thing to command the demon-possessed and quite another to heal a man from paralysis, right? But put yourself in the man’s place and hear Jesus say: “Your sins are forgiven; rise up; go home!” I suppose he could have said a lot of things; he chose to tell him to go home. Maybe that was Jesus’ way of saying that he was completely healed: he gave him back his home, his family, his dignity. Carried in on a mat, by ‘men’; carried out by the grace of God, on his own two feet.

In the April 2000 issue of Interpretation, L Gregory Jones, then dean of Duke University Divinity School (he may still be, I have no idea), captures well what I am getting at in his essay Crafting Communities of Forgiveness:

“At heart, Christian forgiveness is the means by which God’s love moves toward reconciliation in the wake of the sin and evil that mar God’s creation. Forgiveness aims to restore us to communion with God, with one another, and with the whole creation. We are not created to be isolated or self-enclosed individuals, and God’s forgiveness aims at reshaping us for faithful fellowship” (123).

So Jesus sends him home. He reconciles him to God (“Your sins are forgiven”) and he reconciles him to humanity (“Take your bed, go home”) and to the whole creation since the man is now whole, he can take his rightful place among the living and contribute to the everyday comings and goings of humanity. Jesus is about making us whole, perfect, complete and we are not entirely complete until we are reconciled to God and man. His forgiveness of the man not only restored his hope with God, but also enabled the man to do something, I suspect, he hadn’t been able to do for a while: go home.

Like the men in the Gadarenes, Jesus brought this man back to life. He raised him up, brought him back to life. Now he lives to God, to his family, and to the community. The reconciliation, healing and resurrection that Jesus gives to us is about so much more than our mere selves. The healing and resurrection of one person changes everything and everyone.

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Daily Office

“When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.”—Matthew 8:28-24

Isn’t it amazing that all Jesus says in these verses is ‘Go!’?

Demons talk.

The whole town talked.

Those tending the pigs talked.

But Jesus was quiet, except for the, ‘Go!’

Then the town folk told Jesus the same.

Strange, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only thing that stands out in this story. I noticed that these two demon-possessed men were on ‘the other side’ (of the lake), in the ‘region’ of the Gadarenes, and they were among the ‘tombs.’ I get the impression that these people were tucked away as far as possible from humanity. There were some pigs nearby, and maybe a few folks, but there wasn’t much. These men, living among the tombs, were as good as dead. That’s why they were living in the tombs—among the dead. No one considered these two living men alive.

No one could see these men as men any longer. They were dead, some sort of zombies right out of Resident Evil. And that is what we do with dead people: we banish them to the place of the dead. A place suitable only for the dead and pigs.

I suspect we do so because we do not want to look at them, or have to deal with them, or participate in their lives. They are dead and Lord knows that we mere humans, mere Christians, have no power to raise the dead. At least that’s what proper theology teaches us, right? That’s why when people die, we quit praying: there’s nothing else we can do.

Jesus was desperate to get to these men and the devil was desperate to prevent him doing so. The storm on the sea was a measure of prevention by the enemy: Jesus must not get to those men, he must not because he will see them as they are, as men. He will see them as men who have a spark of humanity in them still, men who can be saved, men who can be resurrected and brought back to life. “No one could pass that way.” But no one was trying to either.

Stanley Hauerwas’ latest book is called Hannah’s Child. It is a compelling read even if some of the stories he tells make the reader a bit uneasy. I was surprised to learn that Prof. Hauerwas spent twenty years of his life married to and living with a woman who had a mental illness. It is a remarkable story for this simple reason: Hauerwas never put his wife away. He stayed with her until she left him. He did not banish her to the tombs even though it was quite clear that Anne had serious issues that could have caused harm to Hauerwas or their son. This story, told in Hauerwas’ pitch perfect tone, makes this statement he utters near the end all the more remarkable: “In other words, to privilege Jesus’ cross and resurrection is to make a claim about reality that invites and requires Christians to see the world differently than others” (263).

A lot of Hauerwas’ theological conclusions frighten me and in no way persuade me, but I’ll say this for him: the cross and resurrection did cause him to see things differently. He saw his wife as one he loved because of Jesus. He saw his Anne as one whom he could in no way abandon or banish to the tombs. That aspect of his story alone is reason enough for me to spend time with his books.

I wonder if the two men in the ‘region’ of the Gadarenes ever got lonely? I wonder if their own company ever bored them and caused them anxiety? What does it mean to be ‘possessed by a devil’ anyhow to such an extent that people fear you and banish you to the place of the dead? I wonder why people were so afraid? Do you think it is easier to put away such people and pretend the world is not inhabited by such people? Do you think we are safer when they are put away?

The world sickens me most of the time. I was at the Emergency Room tonight with my son and wife. We were waiting on the Dr’s to set Samuel’s broken arm when I noticed an old lady laying on a bed in a different room. She was all alone. No family. No brother. No mother. No husband. No children. No pastor. No preacher. No friends. No sisters. No nothing. I forgot myself for a moment, old pastor habits are hard to break, and went into her room and spoke with her for a couple of minutes. She had a speech impediment, was very old, and I suspect she had some, at least, mild mental retardation. I left her room when I heard my son’s agony as they set the bones.

A little later, I peeked out of my son’s room to see if she was still there. I was on my way towards her when a nurse headed me off and gently told me that the law prohibited me from going into her room and speaking with her if I was not family. Seriously. The law prohibited me from speaking to a 90 year old woman who had no one else to speak with, no one else to comfort her. The law finds it better for her to be utterly alone than it does for someone to love her.

I sort of felt like Jesus for a moment when the people pleaded with him to leave, and if that is too self-serving, then let’s just say I understood in a very limited way how the two demon-possessed men must have felt when the town folk pleaded with Jesus to leave—Jesus, the only one who had looked at these two men and saw men, the only one who had dared to go where no one else would go. This Jesus was pleaded with: “Go!” “Leave!”

As disciples of Jesus we see the world differently than others. Maybe not better, maybe not perfectly, but differently. We see people differently. We are not ones who banish the living to tombs and regions. Instead, we are the ones who go to the tombs, or hospital emergency room rooms, or home, and we love the ones that the rest of the world has banished. We refuse to put these people away because they, too, are sons and daughters of the Father. We go to the places Jesus went. We love the people Jesus loved. We take the power of life with us into the tombs and invade the territory of the enemy. We bring light to dark places.

And so, I suppose if we are followers of Jesus, we will make the trip across demon enraged seas, we will pass the place no one can pass, we will find a way to get to the people who are held in bondage by the power of the enemy, and we will resurrect them and bring them back to life. Why? Because I suspect that the thing dead people want the most is life, a human touch, a spark of their humanity. I believe that Jesus holds this power and is waiting to unleash it through his disciples. He is already going into those places, blazing a trail ahead of us. All that remains is whether or not we will go with him.

He challenges us to see the world differently.

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