Archive for the 'Christian Living' Category

Let me start by saying that this is going to be about the Andy Stanley kerfuffle. If you’ve missed out on what I’m talking about, hit your knees and thank God — even if you’re an atheist.  Also, if you fall in that category (blissfully ignorant) — and here I’ll commit a major sin of authorship — I suggest that you read no further, as your curiosity may be piqued. Then you’ll go and hit Google and start reading up on what this is all about. And then I’ll be partially responsible for you being exposed to articles and comments that have all the civility of Johnny Knoxville burping the alphabet during the prayer at a royal wedding.

In the sermon that everyone’s carping about, one of the other things that Andy said was:

“… people may misunderstand your grace towards sinners as somehow condoning their sin, but that is not the case.”

The story of the woman caught in adultery is a prime example of this. A cursory reading of the passage makes it look like Jesus totally let her off the hook. Actually, forget “cursory” — there’s a level at which I still don’t get it. And it’s probably a safe bet that you’re in the same boat.

Yes, He said “go and sin no more”, but He didn’t even specifically state that the act in which she was caught was sin. Based on nothing more than that single isolated instance (notice a pattern here?), we could just as easily conclude that He was telling her to stop smoking those funny cigarettes.

When Jesus told parables, people misunderstood all the time. And it wasn’t simply an issue of Him knowing in advance that this would be the case and thinking “c’est la vie“. Part of the reason that He used parables was specifically because people wouldn’t understand.

By sheer definition, not everyone can be the sharpest knife in the drawer. When we show grace, some people are going to misunderstand. The only way to avoid misunderstanding is to stop showing grace altogether.

Is clarity of your beliefs that important to you?

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Shawn & BrendtMeet Shawn. Shawn was my best friend in high school.  (That’s him on the left at his graduation, and me still looking 12 after my first year of college.) When we were in our fundy Christian high school together, Shawn was planning on being a pastor. He even preached a few times in our weekly chapel service. We lost touch a couple years after this picture, but I caught up with him on the phone about 5 years after college. When I asked what he was doing (work-wise), he hemmed and hawed a bit before finally “admitting” that he was a social worker in the county where he lived. He was happily surprised that I wasn’t disappointed (in him) that he wasn’t a pastor.

I asked if he was doing what he believed God wanted him to do and he affirmed excitedly that he was and gave me a couple of recent examples in which he had seen God working through him at his job. Then I noted to him that being a pastor was a logical choice back when we were kids, given the environment that we were in. Back then, it was made clear to us (caught, if not necessarily taught) that a man who wished to truly follow God’s will for his life — and Shawn did want that — would be in “full-time Christian service”. This pretty much limited the options to (1) preacher, (2) missionary, or (3) Christian school teacher. A woman had the options of #2 or #3 or (better yet) the spouse of any of those options. There was lip-service paid to the legitimacy of the “Christian businessman”, but the overall influence showed that it was merely lip-service to the guy who actually paid the bills, er um, tithes.

In short, if you weren’t one of the big three, you were a second-class Christian.

Fast-forward to today. I saw a video whose overall theme still has me a bit puzzled, but it had a particular thought in it that conjured up the same tired old images of second-class Christianity. In addressing the Christian viewer about having heard and believed the gospel, the speaker threw a frickin’ bone to those who may have heard it differently than he did:

even if it’s a gospel that a guy like Barnabas would preach, as opposed to an apostle like Paul

Say what? When did Barnabas get ranked below Paul in anything?

If anything, in those days, Barnabas had a better grasp on grace than Paul did (Acts 15:36-39), something of which Paul apparently later repented (2 Timothy 4:11). But I digress.

I was so confused that I felt like I had to keep listening, in the desperate hope that he’d explain that gem.

The speaker’s text was Acts 11:19-26. I’m going to divide the passage into a few pieces so as to comment on the story as it progresses.

Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.

OK, so we’ve got unnamed guys (”from Cyprus and Cyrene”) who were preaching Jesus and leading people to the Lord.

Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch.

Hey, this sounds pretty cool. Go check it out, Barney.

When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.

Barney confirms that it is way cool. And he encourages them in their faith.  A few good things are recorded about him, and apparently his influence led to others finding Jesus, too.

Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

Hey, Paul, you gotta see this! And so Paul comes and the two of them stay there for a whole year, teaching.

So, we’ve got a movement of the Spirit that starts with guys that the Bible doesn’t even bother to name, then Barnabas gets to throw in, and then Paul does too. It definitely seems that this whole thing is all about God, both from just the general gist of the story and that whole “the hand of the Lord was with them” thing in verse 21.

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ !!!! Wrong !!! Thanks for playing.

This isn’t about God. This is about Paul. You see, according to the speaker, the reason that Barnabas went for Paul was because the people at Antioch wanted to know more than Barnabas could teach them. And Paul knew the Scripture better than Barnabas and had actually had a (brief) physical encounter with Jesus.

Yeah, I’m not sure what bodily orifice the speaker got that one out of, either. Is it possible that there was such a need/desire and that Paul could better fulfill it? Sure. But nowhere near with the factual certainty that the speaker classified it.

Oh, and the disciples in Antioch being called “Christians” — that was a direct result of Paul teaching them.  (See previous bodily orifice reference.)

When it comes to doctrine, Paul could kick anyone’s asterisk-dollarsign-dollarsign. So it’s really a toss-up as to whether this junk is Paul-olatry or doctrine-olatry. Either way, though, it ain’t good.

In short, Barnabas was (in the speaker’s mind) a second-class Christian. I guess the unnamed guys were third-class. So brush up on your doctrine, boys and girls. Otherwise, you’re disappointing God.

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“Having recently completed six years of research on the question of how God transforms us, I can tell you that genuine transformation is about love God and people with everything you have. To reach that state, you must be permanently changed. First, you have to be broken by God–broken over your sins against Him, over your focus on self, and over your reliance on society for your cues and marching orders. And it gets tougher once you are shattered by what you’ve done and who you’ve become. At that point, you have to surrender the fullness of your life to God and submit yourself to His will. That’s a searing process: being humbled by your bad choices, getting over yourself, recognizing the holiness of your creator Father, accepting His forgiveness and love, and returning that love by throwing out your own plans and expectations and completely adopting His. Only then can you truly love God and others. Without this kind of inner transformation, you’ll choose to love yourself more than Him. When push comes to shove and difficult choices have to be made, you’ll opt for those things that advance you rather than God. Brokenness, surrender, submission, and deep love–those are the ‘big four’ that most of us ignore in our lives to our own detriment and that of the people we’ve been placed on earth to love and serve”–George Barna, Futurecast, 222-223

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There is an interesting phenomenon that takes place in the world of the church (blogdom serves as a microcosm of this phenomenon). It is marked by a careless attention to detail when it comes to Scripture which thus results in a profound misreading of Scripture to suit one’s own ends, to justify one’s own position, and to hammer to death those with whom we disagree. This phenomenon is, of course, proof-texting.

I heard a professor say it like this once: A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof-text. Or, something similar to that. As I reflect on the way I was trained to read Scripture and exegete it, I see what the professor was getting at: the authors of the Bible did not write verses. Instead, they wrote books comprised of stories, poems, laws, Gospel and more. Paul did not sit down and write Romans 3:21. Paul sat down and wrote an entire letter to a church (or churches) in the city of Rome (1:7). In other words, what we call Romans 3:21 is merely (not minimally) part of a carefully crafted argument concerning God, the Scripture, and humanity contained within a much larger context. He wrote it to a specific people, at a specific time, and in specific circumstances.

Still, he did not write a single verse of Scripture. He wrote entire letters, the contents of which have been, through the years, utterly mangled in people’s attempt to justify their own belief systems in a sort of a priori kind of way: I have an idea, let’s see if I kind find a verse of Scripture to back it up! And, as it turns out, just about any idea we want to find in the Bible can be found in the Bible. And wow! The ideas are limitless. I never cease to marvel at the religions that have been constructed upon the foundation of one jot or one iota of one word of one verse and then given the name ‘Christianity.’

I have an idea about the Bible that is fairly simple and greatly eases the project of exegesis. Commenting on the nature of the hermeneutic used by Luther, Berkhof writes, “He defended the right of private judgment; emphasized the necessity of taking the context and historical circumstances into account; demanded faith and spiritual insight in the interpreter; and desired to find Christ everywhere in Scripture” (Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Louis Berkhof, 26-27). It’s in that last phrase that I find the most hope and, I think, that through the years it has been that piece that has stuck in my mind and heart more than any other piece of hermeneutics: Jesus is there in Scripture, and all I have to do is open my eyes, listen to the Holy Spirit, an adjust my priorities (so that I am looking for Jesus and nothing else).

So, we look carefully at Scripture and we see Jesus all over the pages, and in every story, without allegorizing or even putting too much effort into it. Paul did write, “But apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” Jesus made similar statements in Luke’s Gospel: “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms” (Luke 24:44, cf. Luke 24:25-27). There are other instances too, for example John 5:36-47 and Acts 8:26-35—especially verse 34-35. That sounds too easy, doesn’t it? Even the book of Revelation, so often abused and misused and misunderstood is perfectly understood if we begin with the idea that it is (as it is in the Greek) ‘the Revelation of Jesus Christ’ (I take it as both an objective and subjective genitive) instead of as ‘the Revelation of John’ (as it is in English) or the ‘Revelation of how the end times will come about’ (as it is in so much popular fiction based on the book.

A wonderful example of what I am talking about is the letter we call ‘Hebrews.’ This short letter, surely one of the most beautifully written books in our Bible, is about Jesus—first to last. It is difficult to read Hebrews and come away with anything but a stunning picture of Jesus who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. I could go on and on and on.  All this is to say that I believe we spend far too much time looking for things in Scripture that are simply not there—and we are not meant to find them. When we read the Bible, we are meant to find Jesus.

Jesus is the point of Scripture. I heard it also this way: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is Old Testament revealed. Cliché? Yes. True? Yes. “Jesus our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7; it’s kind of difficult to escape the sort of Jesus hermeneutic that Paul is using.)

But there is ‘tragedy’ in the church. Mafred Brauch writes of this tragedy, “…many who most passionately and stridently proclaim allegiance to the Bible and love for the inspired, authoritative Word of God often interpret and apply Scripture in ways that are abusive, thus distorting its mean and message…[C]onsequently, instead of releasing the transforming power from God and the treasures of God’s Word into the world in and through broken vessels of our presence and witness (2 Cor 4:7), we contribute to brokenness and abusiveness in our world” (Abusing Scripture, 18). Brauch goes forward with five specific ways we manage to accomplish this (the following paragraphs are direct quotes from Brauch):

A. We use [the Bible] as an instrument of bitter warfare, both within our own circles and against outsiders: we condemn, judge, malign, demean and reject. What does this say about the validity of the central message of Jesus—loving not only brothers and sisters but also neighbors and adversaries?

B. We announce that the Bible speaks the truth from God about human life and relationships, but then we undermine our commitment to that truth by using all kinds of biblical proof texts—often out of context and not in keeping with their original meaning or intent—in an effort to ‘prove’ to those with whom we disagree that we are ‘on the Lord’s side’ and they are of the devil (or at least very wrong!) Is this attitude and practice compatible with the spirit and teaching of the Jesus of the Gospels?

C. We use biblical texts selectively to build arguments for particular theological doctrines or biblical teachings, while conveniently ignoring biblical texts that stand in tension with our views.  Or we employ sophisticated (and often deceptive!) ‘exegetical gymnastics’ to eliminate tensions between and among diverse texts, or we reinterpret texts that are inconvenient and do not support our dearly held convictions or doctrines. What does this say about integrity in the work of interpretation?

D. We invest tremendous energy and time on matters that our Lord told us were not to be our primary concern (such as timetables of the end times) and spend too little time and energy on matters that both God’s prophets and our Lord, as well as his earliest followers, placed very high on their agendas—such as a passion for justice, peacemaking, concern for the poor and righteousness in human affairs. Does this not undermine our claim that the whole Bible is our authority?

E. In the midst of the confusing and distorting voices about human sexuality in our time, we champion Scripture’s call to holy living and morality, grounded in creational intention and covenant commitment. And so we must. But at the same time we often blithely set aside or ignore the cancers eating away at the communal life and witness of our churches—such as strife, bitterness, gossip, backbiting, greed, divisiveness—all named in the New Testament as incompatible with kingdom values (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 4:25-32; 5:3-5). Are we then not guilty of distorting the Bible’s claim on all areas of human life and community?  (All quotes are from Manfred Brauch, Abusing Scripture, 18-19.)

I don’t think Brauch is suggesting anything radical or out of the ordinary or, for that matter, new. What I do think he is suggesting is that we carefully examine ourselves and how we use Scripture, what we expect of Scripture, and what we are showing the world when we talk about Scripture. Let’s find a way to listen to Scripture, to seek Jesus who, from first to last, is the Mystery of Scripture.

Think about it: what would happen if we, the Body of Christ, consistently pointed to Jesus instead of our pet projects and pet theologies when we talk about Scripture? I wonder how much strife could be done away with in the church if we ‘used’ the Bible to talk about Jesus—which is what God used it for. Doesn’t it lay to rest a lot of controversy when we point to Jesus instead of ourselves? Seriously, isn’t the end of all hermeneutical adventures to find Jesus? I wonder how many churches could be planted if we preached Christ and him Crucified instead of something else? How many churches would not split if we were all on board that Jesus matters only? How many preachers would not lose their jobs if they consistently, weekly, perpetually preached about Jesus? Conversely, how many preachers would lose their jobs if that were all they talked about?

Sometimes I think that we talk about all the extra stuff because we are not brilliant enough to talk about Jesus without end. Or we get bored talking about Jesus so we have to talk about all that other stuff that is so beside the point. I’d challenge any preacher to put aside his plans for sermons about life, family, finances, heaven and hell and talk for a whole entire year about nothing and no one but Jesus. I contend that if we talked more about Jesus we could talk about the rest of it much, much less. Can we ever exhaust our conversation about Jesus? But we are not predestined to become like a theological system or an idea about life. We are, Paul wrote, predestined to become like Jesus (see Ephesians 1)—and God is, in fact, renewing and restoring in us the image of Jesus (wow, see Colossians; what else could this mean, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ, in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will also appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4); see also Hebrews 12:1-3 among others).

“The story of Jesus is full of darkness as well as of light. It is a story that hides more than it reveals. It is the story of a mystery we must never assume we understand and that comes to us breathless and broken with unspeakable beauty at the heart of it, yet it is by no means a pretty story, though that is the way we’re apt to peddle it much of the time. We sand down the rough edges. We play down the obscurities and contradictions. What we can’t explain, we explain away. We set Jesus forth as clear-eyed and noble-browed, whereas the chances are he can’t have been anything but old before this time once the world started working him over, and once the world was through, his clear eyes swollen shut and his noble brow as much of a shambles as the rest of him. We’re apt to tell his story when we tell it at all, to sell his story, for the poetry and panacea of it. ‘But we are the aroma of Christ,’ Paul says, and the story we are given to tell is a story that smells of his life in all its aliveness, and our commission is to tell it in a way that makes it come alive as a story in all its aliveness and to make those who hear it come alive and God knows to make ourselves come alive too.” (Frederick Buechner, “The Two Stories” in Secrets in the Dark, 85-86),

May we find Jesus in the Scripture, that the world may find Jesus in us.

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From here.

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Over the last week, I’ve read a lot about Rob Bell’s new book. This post isn’t about that. This post, ultimately, isn’t about people’s responses to what they’ve read or seen about about the book, or even about my response to them. Reading comments on an article about the book, however, is the thing that got me thinking. One of the comments I read said the following:

With all due respect, what is the most loving thing one can do for another? The most loving thing we can do is tell another about the most loving thing anyone has ever done… Christ’s death on our behalf (plethora of Scriptural references follow.)

Now as I read that, I wasn’t really surprised. It’s something I’ve basically heard my entire life. I’ve probably said something very similar at different points in my life. But as I read it in that context, it made me stop dead in my tracks. Perhaps it was the writer’s use of the descriptor “most”. Is the act of telling another person the story of Jesus the most loving thing we can do. That is, is the act of sharing certain information with other people actually what constitutes love?

I’ve been wrestling with this idea the last few days. I genuinely do think that the act of telling, sharing is implicit in how the Gospel spreads. Humans are verbal creatures, and every human culture has storytellers. It’s in our DNA to share stories with each other. My question is, though, does the Gospel go beyond the act of simply transmitting information?

The conclusion I’ve come to is that, yes, it must. If we are simply telling people they are sinners in need of a savior, but refuse to engage in actual, tangible things that demonstrate love to people, do we love them? A number of years ago, the book The Five Love Languages was all the rage (I believe it still sells quite well). In the book, Gary Chapman lays out the simple proposition that there are five ways in which people give and receive love – words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Now the book itself is geared more towards marriage relationships, but as I think of the relationships I have with friends in my life, and I realize that the same principles can apply in just about any relationship.

The thing that I notice about all of them is that they truly cost something for the one attempting to show love to the other person. It takes effort to encourage someone. It is difficult to spend quality time with someone when I have a busy schedule to worry about. The list goes on. Love isn’t the easy thing. A lot of the time it’s the thing I’d rather not do. I would rather stay at home and watch the game on Saturday rather than help a single mom move into a new apartment. I’d rather go to the pub with my friends rather than volunteer to tutor the kids for the single father.

So as far as what is the “most loving” thing to do, I guess I come down to the answer that there simply isn’t a simply answer. What is most loving to my neighbor depends on my neighbor’s needs, and it depends on me being open to pour myself out. I tend to think that simply sharing information about Jesus, as important as that is, is often seen by those we are trying to share with as the easy way out – drive-by evangelism in a drive-thru world. The Gospel becomes simply another sales pitch, and we become little more than the salesman at Best Buy trying to sell an extended warranty.

This, of course, isn’t a new problem. Saying one thing and doing another is part of the human condition. The truth that Christ brought when He came is that He didn’t simply say He loved humanity. He demonstrated through His miraculous works, His tender compassion, and ultimately through His death on the cross. The question is will we truly follow Christ. Are we willing to take up our crosses for the sake of those who need to be loved? Or will we be content to simply think that sharing information with people is enough.

My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.

1 John 3:18-20

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Matthew 25: 31-46

Many a modernist evangelical, still caught in the culture wars and small-god systematics, loves to pull out the sheep and the goats metaphor when judging others. They do so, most often, when they are discerning who among the visible flock are true believers (sheep) and who are the pretenders, the modern-day heretics, the goats of the church. There are, of course, appropriate times to judge. Jesus was, after all, concerned about right belief… – but this post is not about those times.

Some judge while others mock those they believe are too concerned for things we call “social issues.” When it comes right down to it, they say, it’s all about getting people saved… not about drilling wells, educating heathens, or fair wages. And to some degree they are right…

…yet it is interesting.

When Jesus spoke of the final judgment and upon what it would be based – he did not speak of right beliefs, of right morality, or the right kind of music… he spoke of giving drink to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked. In the context of sheep and goat differentiation; having a heart for the poor, the oppressed, the least of these – is what allows us to discern the sheep. It is not about winning a culture war. It is not about fighting socialism. It is not about convincing homosexuals not to homo-sex. It’s not about ranting against liberalism. It’s not even about getting as many people as possible to repeat a sinners prayer.

As Tim Keller put it: “Jesus did not say that all this done for the poor was a means of getting salvation, but rather it was a sign that you already had salvation, that true saving faith was already present” (Generous Justice, pg. 53 [emphasis his]). The “test” for saving faith (in this case) was not a check-list of acceptable beliefs, or witnessing, or service within the church, or even the fruit of the Spirit… (all of which a vitally important). Instead he chose our attitudes toward and actions on behalf of the poor.

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“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).

“Jacques Ellul insists that this resurrection life must be lived in this world, but at the same time he insists that the Christian ‘must not act in exactly the same way as everyone else. He has a part to play in this world which no one else can possibly fulfill.’” (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 261)

Graduate school is a lot of fun. I am learning so much about achievement gaps, high-stakes testing, functional behavior assessments, response to intervention, No Child Left Behind, and more. I am learning about Bloom’s Taxonomy, KWL, Evidence Based Practice, content standards, teacher accountability, labor unions, graphic organizers, charter schools, magnet schools, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and…well, there are more ways for a human to be ‘broken’ than I could have ever imagined…and I could go on and on for a while. I have learned more than I thought I needed to know, and less than I probably need to know. Who would have thought that teaching children to read would be such a complicated ordeal?

Education is a serious enterprise in the United States. I am getting my money’s worth out of this experience and I am glad for it because I am spending a lot of money getting this education.

About 9 months ago or so, I began to realize something strange. It goes something like this. I am in school to learn about more than the multitude of variations of ASD that a child might have. I am learning about more than the thousands of children’s books published every year in the United States. I am learning about more than what is required to be a certified teacher in the state of Ohio (3 different praxis exams including HQT requirements for NCLB, comprehensive exams, 52 hours of graduate school, a semester of student teaching, a portfolio, and more).

You know what is scary? I have been learning about myself. You know what I realize? I’m ugly. I realize that I am pretty much un-fun. You know I have had to learn how to laugh and be the class clown again? I’m boring. I’m sensitive to rebuke. I Hate failure (I recently lost three points on an assignment; not happy). I’m jealous of the success of others. I’m impatient (the trip to Cleveland about kills me). I’m arrogant. There are a few people who are smarter than I am (I didn’t get the highest grade on a recent mid-term). I’m comfortable. I like leading, and not so much following. I like talking, and not so much listening. I like being in charge, and not so much taking orders. And, trust me, there’s more.

I am learning not just what is required of a teacher, but I am also learning the sort of teacher I do not want to be. This has been the most important lesson I have learned and not just from going to class at CSU, but also from working a part time job at a local school. And I realize, most importantly, that the teacher I do not want to be is a teacher who is not the things I just listed, above, that I am. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I’ll say it this way then: not having my own pulpit any longer is the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It is harder to lose a pulpit than it is to gain one.

What I have learned, though, is that those things I described above are the very things that I had become. I hate mirrors. I keep asking God, ‘Is it safe to land?’ He keeps saying, ‘Wait’ (which I suspect is God’s way of saying, ‘Oh, I have a few more revelations for you.”) As I look back on nearly fifteen years in the pulpit I realize that I had quite forgotten what it was to be a terrified 25 year old fresh out of Bible School and stepping into a pulpit for the first time. I had grown quite comfortable with my skills. Frankly, I had become impatient, arrogant, condescending, comfortable, boring, sensitive, jealous, boring, and un-fun. And more. You know what I forgot most? People. I did a lot of serving, but I think sometimes I did it so I could be up front, in charge, and not (always) because I loved people.

I forgot what it was like to work 60 hours a week and have to get up on Sundays to worship. I forgot what it was like to have visitors in town and want to stay up late Saturday thus necessitating an absence on Sunday. I had quite forgotten that most people do not have Bible College educations and even less have seminary educations. I forgot to be with people and their hurt. I forgot what it was like to serve because I was called to and not because I was paid to. I used to complain that the money I was paid tied me down, bound my hands and prevented service, real service. As I look back I realize it did so, but not in a way I expected: that is, I stopped serving because I could and wanted to and started doing so because I had to.  I forgot what it was like to drown in sin, to struggle with addiction, and to feel hopelessness. I forgot what it was like to think God had moved a million miles in the opposite direction.

I forgot how to suffer. I forgot how to hurt. I forgot how to feel. There is a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from a sermon well-written and better-delivered. And don’t get me wrong: a great sermon goes a long way on paper. But for all that I suffered, I forgot to suffer. I forgot to weep with my people. I forgot to hold them. So protective of myself was I, so angry at not having leadership, so frustrated by the lack of growth, so bitter at betrayal, so jealous of fellas half my age preaching in churches a hundred times the size of mine…I was becoming more and more the person I was warning the congregation not to become. I gave up the safety of insecurity and vulnerability and weakness for the caves of strength and clarity and well-spokenness. I traded. In the end, the only way for Jesus to awaken me was to destroy me.

Now, here I am, alone with the self I hate, the one I created in the image of the world. Here I am, now, alone with my introspection. I am the Bob Eucker of preaching: thought I belonged in the front row only to find out…not so much. Here I am, now, saved by grace only much more aware of it than ever before in my life. I am learning what I had forgotten: how to love and be loved, how to be known by Jesus, how to walk by faith. I am learning to let Jesus be in charge. I am learning to follow and listen. Learning that temptations are all around and there are people who will spoon feed them to you if you ask.

I’m in no way undermining the consequences or the failure or the sin of those who hurt my family. But, and this is a huge but, but, neither I am clinging to them for dear life and breath any longer. Holding on was probably worse than experiencing them to begin with. Genuine love, true joy, is possible when the person counts on Christ for his love and joy and not on the perfection of circumstances or identity. I spent almost ten years forging an identity in this community where I live only to have it taken away in a matter of hours and days. I spent the better part of 20 years becoming a preacher, but along the way I forgot how to be a disciple.

Sad. But true.

I should wrap this up for now. In learning what sort of teacher I do not want to be, I have inadvertently, or not, learned the sort of preacher that I had become. I also have learned why I became not so useful in the church. You see, I let My Ministry become that which defined me and my life and my existence. I learned from Tim Keller that this is a bad thing to do. My identity, Paul wrote, is not wrapped up in who I am or what I do. That is why he writes that we are to imitate Christ. Our identity is wrapped up in who He is which is, precisely, why Paul writes that we are to become like Christ.

I do not know yet what part I am to play in this world, but I am learning that if I must continue that I must find myself in Jesus first. So all I’m really trying to say is this: be careful. Maybe you are a young preacher, setting out on your way and looking to forge an identity or be the next big thing on youtube or the next big itunes podcaster. Don’t give in. You were meant for less.

Maybe you are a long time faithful person in Jesus. Don’t despise the wilderness.

I am meant for less. Thankfully. Because where there is less, there I will find Jesus, the one who has been looking for me all along. And now that I am exposed, undone, out in the open…now, I suspect, he can finally see me, and I can finally see Him.

And He is a sight to behold!

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Daily Office

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’“ “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I know, before I make a single stroke on my laptop keyboard that this post will not be well received. I apologize in advance to those of you who will find my struggle with this passage offensive and immature. I do not intend to offend, but I think I will.

Fact is, and I don’t think anyone will disagree with this: the lawyer asks Jesus a theological question with eschatological implications. He asks Jesus this question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus does not tell the man this is the wrong question to ask. No. In fact, the very fact that Jesus answers this question is enough demonstration that this is a valid question to ask and, to be sure, that Jesus is the right person to ask it of. Ultimately, the answers that Jesus gives all work their way back to the man’s original question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

The theological, eschatological and practical answer that Jesus gives is simple: Love God, love people. Easy, breezy. This is something Jesus had said another time (Matthew 7:11-12). Even later on in the letters, Paul will say that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:9-11). I think, at this juncture, we are probably all in agreement. Love is the fulfillment of the law; love sums up the Law and Prophets; love is what we must do to inherit eternal life. Love God; love our neighbors. Love. Seems a simple task, and easy requirement.

My problem is that this parable is often taught as simply a matter of defining who is a neighbor and that the Samaritan is the neighbor we must strive to be: loving those who hate us, tending those who despise us, helping those who hurt us. But this parable is not primarily about who is and is not a neighbor. This parable is spoken in the context of a theological, eschatological, question of salvation: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

When the conversation and the parable are done, Jesus simply says: Go and do likewise.

The problem I have is that Matthew or whoever wrote this Gospel, this book, wrote this story, this encounter, and this parable down after the cross even though the story happened, the conversation took place, and the parable was spoken before the cross.

Go and do likewise. To my knowledge Jesus never rescinded this command: neither to the lawyer in the story nor, since it was written down after the cross, to us.

All the commentaries I read, and have ever read, narrow this story down to this basest point: who is my neighbor? But none seem to wrestle with the real question that this particular passage of Scripture is itself wrestling with: what must I do to inherit eternal life? When Jesus said “go and do likewise” he was “this is what you must do to inherit eternal life: love God, and love like your Samaritan neighbor.” (William Willimon interprets this from the point of view of the man in the ditch, but I’m still not sure that is correct either. It doesn’t wrestle enough with how this parable answers the man’s original and secondary question.)

Please don’t be angry because I want to understand this passage of Scripture, why Jesus said it, and why Matthew preserved it. I want to understand how to better interpret this story and how to better teach it. There doesn’t seem to be, despite the exegetical gymnastics that the commentators engage in, an emphasis so much on being neighborly as much as there is an emphasis on what someone must do in order to inherit eternal life.

It’s tricky. I wrestle and struggle here greatly. I’m not trying to be contrary or difficult, but with all the emphasis we put on issues of grace and mercy and forgiveness and the cross and the resurrection, nothing seemed to change after the cross: Paul said love your neighbor; Matthew records Jesus telling us to do the same thing. Whatever else I might say, or confound, or struggle with here, one thing is certainly true. You can love your neighbor quite apart from loving God, but you cannot love God without loving your neighbor. Jesus does not define how to love God, but spends a lot of time defining how to love your neighbor. Hmm…

I don’t think we, as Christians, have struggled enough with this passage of Scripture and how it relates to the inheritance of eternal life—regardless of who are neighbor is or is not. The so-called Good Samaritan is not just someone who happens to do good deeds while he or she is on the way to McDonald’s to get a burger—as if the fact that he was a Samaritan is the main point of emphasis here. The Good Samaritan is, in some mysterious way, an example of what we must do if we want to inherit eternal life—since the emphasis in this passage is on what the Samaritan did.

Jesus didn’t say: Go and be (a Samaritan) likewise. Jesus said: Go and do likewise. Too many people are content to be mere Samaritans without any regard for how what the Samaritan did relates to his/her eternal inheritance. We should talk about what it means to do what the Samaritan did more.

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I’d like to go ‘old-school’ for a moment or two as this day of mine comes to a close. Think back to a time not long ago when U2 released the CD they titled, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It wasn’t that long ago, and yet it seems forever and a day. One of the (in my opinion) better tracks on the CD is a song simply called YHWH. The lyrics are such:

Take these shoes
Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes
And make them fit
Take this shirt
Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt
And make it clean, clean
Take this soul
Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul
And make it sing

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don’t make a fist no
Take this mouth
So quick to criticize
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Still waiting for the dawn, the sun is coming up
The sun is coming up on the ocean
His love is like a drop in the ocean
His love is like a drop in the ocean

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, tell me now
Why the dark before the dawn?

Take this city
A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city
If it be your will
What no man can own, no man can take
Take this heart
Take this heart
Take this heart
And make it break

We were driving home from worship—the culmination of a nice Sabbath I treated myself to. Worship, by the way, was amazing today. I feared for the preacher who had the nerve to say to his congregation, “Don’t be a tumor on the body of Christ,” and, best, “Dead churches do not ask you take responsibility; living churches do.” I nearly fell out the soft padded pew. Next week I am not sitting in the balcony, that’s for sure.

We were driving home after hearing the preacher say such things and we were listening to Yahweh.  My children were horsing around in the backseat and my wife and I were engaged in conversation. I heard the lyric, “His love is like a drop in the ocean” and I paused…I thought about it…it didn’t make sense to me for some reason, but I couldn’t figure out why. I said to the lovely and gracious Bumblebee, “that lyric seems out of place, it doesn’t make sense.”

She nodded as she does when she is trying to indicate that I am over-thinking something. I persisted.

“Seriously. What is he saying there? A drop in the ocean is small compared to the ocean. Is Bono saying that God’s love is really small? Is he saying that God’s love is condescending, that it becomes small to accommodate our inability to comprehend it’s vastness? Or is he saying it is indistinguishable from everything else around it? It’s only one small part of what God in his grace gives us?” She agreed, which I think was her way of saying she wasn’t really interested in ruining a nice song with analysis.

Then it happened. I confess that right now, twelve and a half hours later, I am still in a bit of shock. It happens that my youngest son, Doodle-boy, Pookie, was listening to our conversation and, evidently, the song. He piped up, “it means it’s hard to find.”  Huh? This from my son who is about as interested in school as a chicken is in Tyson. I hadn’t thought of it that way, and I’m still having trouble understanding why my 12 year old did, but I think he might be right.

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

So my thought is this: If God’s love is so vast, so great, so big, so deep, then why is it so hard to find? Is it really so indistinguishable from everything around it? Do we really have to search and search and search for God’s love?

I know that my 12 year old is not the only one asking such questions. Bono is no neophyte in matters of the mystery of God and God’s love. And we, with outstretched hands and longing hearts, too want to know this love of God that others seem to find so easily and readily. Maybe what Bono is saying is that God’s love is hard to find because it is only found in one place and we have to go through a lot of, uh, crap, to find it: it is one treasure hidden in a field, one pearl in a market place, it is one Man among millions, it is one drop in an ocean. It is hidden in plain sight, yet for all we see it is indistinguishable from its surroundings.

I do not know what was going through the mind of my Pookster, but I know what is going on inside my own heart and mind. And the truth is that sometimes God’s love is difficult to find, feel, or see. The preacher this morning said that true church membership is a loving relationship between the members. But maybe it is also the place where God’s love is felt most acutely while we are having our shoes, feet, shirts, cities, hands, and mouths changed, that is, while new children are being born. And in the meantime there is pain.

Or maybe humanity is the ocean, and Jesus is the one drop of God’s love?

Who knows? All I can really say is this: If God’s love is a drop in the ocean, I’d rather know that one drop than all the rest of the waters of earth. For it seems to me that no matter how difficult it may be to find, there, in that one drop, is all the sustenance I will need for a thousand-million years. And it would be worth searching a million years or more to find that one drop.

I’m glad Snakers spoke up this morning. He reminded me to keep on looking, to keep on searching, to keep pursuing the God who relentlessly pursues me.

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