Posts Tagged 'Jesus'

[Note: I originally published this at my personal blog. I'm reposting here because I'm vain like that.]

I can still remember the day, back in 1988, when I was encouraged–along with my entire Senior government class–to register for the vote. There was an election that year. It was George H. W. Bush (R) versus Michael Dukakis (D). Our government teacher, Miss Lynch (and I have great respect for her, so this is not to disparage her in any way), helped us to get registered so we could vote in the primary. I was certain I would be voting Democrat. If I recall correctly, Jesse Jackson was also a Democrat primary candidate. I was loud enough in class to assure our teacher that I would vote for Jackson in the primary. I don’t remember if I voted in that primary or not (I graduated when I was 17 and I just do not remember.)

Several months later, there would be a presidential election. I was at Parris Island South Carolina, completing my training as a recruit in the USMC. I was one of two recruits during basic training who received absentee ballots. I recall very the very distinct and piercing voice of SSgt Aronhalt telling us, “If you still want to be allowed to carry a gun, you better vote for Bush.” I voted for Dukakis. Probably just to spite SSgt.

Here I am now, twenty some years later, and it is time for another presidential election. This past Sunday I was at worship. We were invited, as we are every Sunday, and as we are commanded in Scripture, to pray for our nation’s leaders. Someone prayed something to the effect of, “Lord, please send us the right candidates.” It struck a raw nerve with me. It’s one thing to pray for leaders, generically; it is quite something else to pray for the ‘right candidates.’ I gnashed my teeth. I have no right to feel that way about someone else’s prayer to God. But I did, and I do. Four days later, that prayer is still bothering me.

I grew up idolizing my grandfather. He had strong political ideas that mostly revolved around Democrat politics. He was a politician and perhaps could have done more with his political ambitions had he not also had ideas that mostly revolved around Miller beer. I knew, from a very early age, that Democrat was the only way that I would ever vote. Die-Hard Democrat: “Democrats stand for the working people; Republicans for the Rich” was the story he told me. With wide, saucer-like eyes, I listened in awe. Of course I voted for Dukakis–as much out of respect for my grandfather as to spite Ssgt Senior Drill Instructor Aronhalt.

I never missed an election cycle–local, state, federal for twenty years. Ever since Miss Lynch encouraged us to register. Voting was my right, responsibility, and privilege. People had ‘died so that I could vote’ or ‘voting freely is what makes America great and unique’ are the mantras I grew up listening to in classrooms and around cans of beer.

Here I am twenty years later and I just do not care any more. My conviction is born out of a heart that has come to the conclusion that it simply does not matter what I do inside that small curtained room. It’s like there’s a giant floating head hovering above us, clothed with smoke and fire, shouting to the candidates, “Don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain.” Word. That’s how I feel every time I go to the church building where the polling stations are set up. Ironic, I know, but true nonetheless.

Frankly, I think my conviction is born mostly out of my faith. On the one hand, I have no faith in the ’system’ (I wish I never had any to begin with, but that’s another story) any longer–I’m not so young and naive any longer; my grandfather is dead; I haven’t seen SSgt Aronhalt since November 9, 1988; and Miss Lynch can no longer issue me a detention slip. On the other hand, my faith compels me to neglect the handing of power to the power brokers, power mongers, power feeders, power graspers, power (insert favorite verb)  of this world. Since voting no longer matters, and since I no longer care, I’m not doing it again this year. Not one of those people running for office speaks for me, represents my view, or hopes to accomplish things in the way they should be accomplished. All they can do is throw more money at problems. They do not have in mind the Kingdom of God; they have in mind power: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over their subjects.” Indeed.

In every way imaginable, in every conceivable way, government is the antithesis of the Kingdom of God whose King Jesus is.

My conviction is that I will live with those who are chosen to lead, but I will have no part whatsoever in pushing them into power. I will not live in fear of those whose political opinions are diametrically opposed to mine and I will not worship at the throne of those who happen to share similar views. This is faith: that politics carries as much weight as we give them and I refuse to give politics any credibility at all. I refuse to invest my time in their power–it’s bad enough they get my money. I will endeavor to do my best to ignore them, their promises, their threats, their speeches about hope and unity and a ‘better America,’ or, worse, ‘a better tomorrow.’ Frankly, I do not want the sort of hope that is provided by politicians and government. Their hope is no hope at all. They can keep it, and I’ll keep my vote, my money, and myself.

But the worst part of all this? I know when I go to worship on Sunday I will hear something about this insipid political game we play every couple of years–does anyone ever even consider how much damage politics have done, how it destroys the unity of the body of Christ–and precisely because we are invited to pray for our leaders? (Prayers are never so unbiased as to avoid a short sermon or two in between thanking God for our daily bread and delivering us from evil.) I’m waiting for that one sermon that reminds me of what politicians are really like, what they are really about, and what they really hope to accomplish with their power: “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:19-20).

Politicians do not have the best interests of anyone in mind but themselves. Their life and their work is to preserve the continuity of power in the hands of a few. I will no longer play a nice part in the perpetuation and consolidation of power. The Scripture says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). So if Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, what on earth could compel me to pick up those arms and willingly hand them back to the power-hungry leaders of this world?

I think the most Christian thing I can do in America right now is NOT vote in the upcoming presidential election.

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[Note: I am slowly working my way back into the blog world and this post marks the first in a series of posts I will be doing called "Curiosity". All I hope to accomplish is to provoke conversation about Jesus and the Scripture and discipleship.--jerry]

I am curious about a great many things that are found in the Bible. I find myself more and more curious about them the older and older I get. And the more and more I become detached from American Churchianity and become more and more attached to the Jesus of the Bible, the more I find myself curious about this Jesus I read of in the Bible. He was strange and did things that were very un-Christian-like—well, at least if American Christianity is any sort of guide as to what it means to be Jesus.

It’s an old cliché, but I’m sure if Jesus applied to be the pastor of a local church he wouldn’t even get the courtesy of a rejection letter. The good church folk would take one look at his cover letter, read something like, “Oh, and I think it is the essence of Christianity that the people of God take part in the practice of holiness…and participate in bringing healing to the sick and afflicted.” Or, “Someday you will reign with me and partake of the tree of life—whose leaves are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2, 5). Oh, the wise old elders would have a field day with that—and once the old ladies got a hold of it, well….I choose not to think of Jesus’ resume in the hands of old ladies considering that I know what some of them have done to Jesus himself.

So this is my curiosity for today: Revelation 22 clearly pictures a time when things are not the same as they are now—at least not entirely. It clearly pictures a time when we—or someone—has re-entered the garden of Eden and are living in the presence of God. But something is strange about what is going on in that land of bliss: “And the leaves are for the healing of the nations.” Well, I don’t understand. If Revelation 21 says there is a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem, no more death, no more mourning, no more crying or pain for the old order has passed away (21:1-4), and Revelation 22 says there is no more night, no more curse and that someone (we?) is living in the presence of God (22:1-5), then what does this sentence mean, “And the leaves are for the healing of the nations.”

What nations? What needs healed? I mean, if God is ‘making everything new’ (21:5), then what healing remains that can be, should be, will be cured by the leaves on the tree of life?  I am curious as to what this might mean—and please spare me the ready-made, wrapped with a bow, answers from commentaries or the Left Behind books. I’m serious. After God makes all things new are we to expect that there might still be work to do in this new heavens and new earth? What do you think? Who exactly are these nations that need healing in this place God has created where ‘there is no more death’? And what role will we play?

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So much conversation in today’s marketplace of ideas. There’s more drama in the church nowadays than there is in the L-B-C. I wrote yesterday that, frankly, I’m bored with the entire conversation. This is mostly because it doesn’t really seem to be making any progress or leading any place in particular. Given some of the conversations that exist in the Church today, I am cautiously skeptical that we are making progress; I am recklessly hopeful that in some way Jesus will redeem them.

Seriously, what progress are we making in world missions with all of the conversation about heaven and hell and who is and who is not saved? Do I really need Seven Reasons not to believe in Hell in order to be a good decent Christian? And if not, do I need to know another person’s reasons? What progress are we making for the Kingdom of God by continually engaging in conversations seemingly only meant to prove one side is right or that the other side is wrong? Are most of the conversations even necessary? Would these conversations even be happening if the blogosphere didn’t exist? For example, does contending for a ‘biblical’ view of gender (a term traditionally applied to nouns) have much to do with contending for the faith? Do conversations about whether or not we (as Christians) should or should not watch Harry Potter films or read the books help feed a starving child in our neighborhood? (I know, it’s an illogical, false comparison.)

How are we supposed to have any idea what we are to believe? How are we supposed to have any idea what to say to others who ask us about our faith (1 Peter)? How are we to contend for the faith that has been delivered (Jude 3) when there are so many ideas floating around? It is some sort of Cornucopia Christianity and everything must change. How can there be one body, one faith, when there are so many clinging tenaciously to things other than Jesus (Ephesians 4:3-6)–like opinions, ideas, politics, and so on and so forth.

(I’m guilty too since I cling tenaciously to the idea that Scripture is not as vague as some think it is. But I do wonder, seriously, about the effects these conversations have on people who are not part of our tribe. That is, many of these internal conversations that end up external seem to me to raise more doubts than they do faith. They do this among the church too. Frankly, there are days when I simply have no idea who is telling the truth, who to believe, or who is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing.)

Maybe when I go out I can tell people about God’s love. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I can mention hell, maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should speak of a creation made by God in six days–as a foundational element of Gospel proclamation, maybe if I do I will be laughed at or ridiculed by other Christians. Maybe I can make my arguments from Scripture, maybe I should not (see in particular comments 14-17 in the comment thread). Maybe I should talk about Jesus, maybe I should talk about other Christians who talk about Jesus. Maybe holiness matters, maybe the journey does, maybe both.

Maybe the problem is that we have set up too many dichotomies in our conversations.

I’m not saying any of these conversations are necessarily wrong. What I am doing is asking a question: Are they helpful? Are they vital to the cause of Christ or are they culturally mandated and distracting and beside the point? Are they producing fruit in keeping with repentance or are they educated (or uneducated, as the case may be), lengthy ways of asking ‘Did God Really Say?’ Are they keeping our eyes off of the greater purpose for our existence which is, it seems to me, to know God and love him? Or are they helping us forward as we slouch closer and closer to Gomorrah?

I fully realize that what I am writing here will not be enjoyed by all because it will seem I am missing the point of the conversations, stereotyping others, that I am hopelessly naive, or that I am playing a significant role in helping perpetuate the very dichotomies I am so opposed to. I’m OK with that as long as someone in the world helps me get to the bottom of this problem. Accuse away! But please, help me understand what point we are trying to make and if we are saying things that, in whatever ‘end’ we may conceive, God will say, “Well said good and faithful blogger. Enter into the joy of Technorati Authority ratings.”

Maybe it is seriously time for Christians to stop fruitless conversation (1 Timothy 1:5-6) an ask the following questions: Is this conversation helpful? Am I helping the cause of Christ? Is my work advancing the Kingdom of God in a thoughtful, forward direction?

Or am I just trying to be right and out-shout the other person for whom Jesus died?

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Introduction

Contemporary Christians often feel Hebrews to be a strange and difficult book. There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, it seems to ramble about and discuss a lot of themes which have never made it into the ‘top ten’ of Christians discussion tops. It begins with a complex discussion of angels; continues with a treatment of what Psalm 95 really meant in talking about ‘entering God’s rest’; moves on to Melchizedek; lists the furniture in the Tabernacle; and ends with an exhortation to ‘go outside the camp’. Well, you see what I mean; were I a betting man, I would lay good odds that none of my readers have found themselves discussing these things over the breakfast table within the last month or two. Small wonder that most people don’t get very far with Hebrews, or let it get very far with them.—NT Wright, Following Jesus, 4

I think he’s probably correct in his assessment. There is a lot going on in the book of Hebrews—and most of the stuff going on is terribly complicated to understand. The arguments are complicated, the exegesis is tricky, and the logic is sometimes a maze of confusion. I’m not suggesting for a minute that I have it figured out entirely. Not at all. That is not to say, on the other hand, that I am completely wordless or thoughtless about this magnificent book.

Exegesis, Patterns, and the Big Idea

What I like to look for when I am reading is patterns: patterns of thought, recurring phrases, foreshadows, double-backs—you know, all those things we were taught to pay attention to when we were learning to interpret writing back in junior high. Reading through the book of Hebrews has given me an opportunity to notice a pattern repeated without fail over and over again in the book at least 14 times in the book. It’s a simple pattern and really helps us understand what the book is about or, at minimum, what small sections of the book are covering.

I add one small caveat: the book does, I believe, have an overarching point. I again agree with Wright who is very careful to write that

The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us. (Following Jesus, 10)

Jesus is the Big Idea in Hebrews, without doubt. What I would like to demonstrate is a pattern for how we understand what the smaller arguments in the book of Hebrews and thus how they all tie together to help us understand the bigger argument of Hebrews, viz., that Jesus is enough.

I think if we break up Hebrews into small chunks and see how the author ends each argument then we will begin to understand the greater point he is making within each argument. That is, each argument he makes leads naturally to breaks and conclusions which are set off by key words or phrases. Then all of these smaller arguments, when clumped together, give us a grand picture of Jesus. Throughout the book, leading up to this grand climax, the author has taught us how to live—not leaving theology without a point because all good theology has, ultimately, the point of teaching us how to live because of Jesus. So we learn how to live because of Jesus or what Jesus has said or what Jesus has done and when the book is done, we can say, “Yes, I will join him outside the camp.”

Conformity to Jesus

Barth noted that “Christian speech must be tested by its conformity to Christ.” Unless ‘speech’ is a metaphor for an entire life, then I would expand upon his thought and say that Christian life must also be tested by its conformity to Christ. We have concocted all sorts of ways to judge one another (how often do we go to church, how much money do we give, how much do we serve, etc.), none of them without some merit and some with more demerit, but it seems to me that the best way to examine ourselves, the Bible way, is to judge ourselves and see if we, I, in fact conform to Christ. I’m fairly certain the apostle Paul wrote something to this effect at some point in Romans or Ephesians or both. And this only makes sense given that Paul did definitely write that we are being transformed into the image of Jesus, renewed in the image of our Creator who is Christ Jesus.

So all throughout Hebrews, the author will give frequent pauses, after short or lengthy expositions of Old Testament Scripture, and say something like, “OK, here’s a conclusion. I just said this and that, therefore, here’s how to check yourselves against what I just wrote.” Or, “OK, I just said this and this about Jesus, now, therefore, here’s the way you ought to be conducting yourselves.” He does this over and over again; I count at least 14 times where this pattern is used. The key, if you are reading in English, is to find the word ‘therefore’. In our English translations, this word will signify the need for the reader to pause and consider what has just been read. It’s a good exercise in exegesis that when you see the word ‘therefore’ to ask what it is there for.

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[Here I offer some rather preliminary notes and observations on the book of Hebrews. I hope I can writes some more, but I don't want to make promises. This is part of a project I am working on to get myself back into preaching shape. I also offer it as part of the prophet part of prophets, priests and poets. --jlh]

“The story of Easter is thus a prophetic story of the way in which this God will not keep silent (Luke 24; John 20), will not let the conversation (the argument?) between God and humanity be ended simply because of the sin of humanity, will not be defeated by human intransigence. The Risen Christ comes back to the very ones who betrayed the Crucified Jesus, came back to them and resumed the conversation. This is the hope upon which every church is built, the hope upon which every sermon is preached: Christ comes back to his betrayers and talks to them.”(—William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 145)

I have been stuck in the book of Hebrews. I suppose calling it a book is a bit of a stretch since it’s really a letter. It’s a brilliant letter and every time I open its pages I come across something more that I hadn’t noticed on the previous visit. Every time I read this letter, I fall more in love with it. It is so deep, so massive, and so theologically profound that even a surface reading leaves one overwhelmed and in awe. I wish I had discovered this letter sooner in life, but I confess that its depth was enough to persuade me, when I was younger, to avoid it.

At first glance, yes, Hebrews is complicated stuff. In fact, if you have not spent significant time reading through the Old Testament—especially the books of Leviticus and Exodus—you might as well avoid reading Hebrews for a while. Yet I discovered a long time ago that there’s a simpler way to understand the various books of the Bible. Usually, not always, but usually, the author gives us a hint at his purpose in the opening of the book or letter. I think Hebrews is very much like that. So: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors [in] the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” When reading the book of Hebrews, it is imperative we listen to what God is saying to us. It seems to me that the author could have started anywhere, but he begins by exhorting us to hear the voice of God which spoke first in the prophets and lastly in Jesus.

It almost seems too simple to say that the book of Hebrews is about this God who speaks to us, but I think that is a pretty good place to start. And it goes a little further, too, when we see that the author has attached his own prophetic voice as the natural successor of Jesus—not that he adds to anything Jesus said, but that he continues proclaiming the message of Jesus. I note that four times (at least) we are told to pay attention to our leaders, to those who speak to us the Word of God. In fact, this idea forms an inclusion for the entire book: “We must pay careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1) and “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven” (12:25; cf. 13:7). I suspect, however, that in many cases this idea has been quite lost on us rebels. Many think we don’t need to listen to leaders who expound the Scripture—as if their job is something else. And, to be sure, many leaders take this as a carte-blanche excuse to wield all sorts of ungodly power over the church. We need not look far for examples.

We have to pay attention. But it’s terribly important for us to note who we listen to first. Hebrews is very careful to note that we first listen to God who spoke in Jesus. God spoke in the past in the prophets, in the last days he spoke in Jesus—but regardless of whether it was the first days or the last days, it was God speaking in them and the message was consistent. The continuity between then and now is that it was God speaking. His message was consistent too (see Hebrews 3:5). We have to listen to him who spoke—which is, I think, easy enough to discern: He who spoke is God in Jesus (1:2-3). We are not to refuse Jesus who speaks to us. Why? Because he has spoken to us by Jesus ‘in these last days.’ There is an eschatological element to our listening and to his speaking. We ignore his voice at our own peril: we will drift away, we will not escape, there is no voice left for us if we ignore his voice. God has nothing else to say save for Jesus; that is, Jesus is the last word from God on matters of salvation. Consider the further words of chapter 2:

“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Hebrews 2:2-4).

What was announced by Jesus was God’s salvation. If we ignore the message proclaimed by Jesus, confirmed by those who heard, and testified to by God through signs and wonders, what other hope do we have? In the context of the letter to the Hebrews what we find is that this final message of Jesus in these last days concerning salvation is far superior to anything it is compared to. It is superior to the message spoken by the prophets (1:1), superior to the message spoken by angels (2:2), superior to the message spoken by Moses (3:5), superior to the message spoken by Joshua (4:8), superior to the message spoken by the sacrifices (10:5), and superior to the message of Abel’s blood (11:4; 12:24). There is nothing that compares with the voice of Jesus: he has spoken, we must listen; we ignore him to our own peril and disaster. (In fact, the word ‘better’ (Gk. kreitton) is a significant word in Hebrews, 1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). Everything about Jesus and his last word is, finally, better than anything that preceded it or anything that might follow it.

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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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I’ve been finding my way back recently. It’s not been an easy journey. I have chronicled my journey here and elsewhere. The road has been crooked and confusing. The journey has been filled with missteps and sidesteps. My feet have been tangled in weeds and soaked from stepping in potholes deep enough to hold melted winter water.

Sometimes we grope in the darkness and hope for a helping hand. Sometimes the hand is clenched, fist-like, and lands squarely on our jaw.

Therefore, when I approach Scripture these days it is not without trepidation and fear and trembling. I used to be a ‘pro,’ but the Lord was convinced that I need to be demoted to the minor leagues. He demoted me in dramatic and startling fashion. I have had to find a way to know God when I don’t have to know God. It’s hard to know that water quenches thirst when it’s on tap, much easier to know it does when you are in a desert. Still, as I walk back to the life I was ushered from, I begin to find my way back to the pulpit. That is, I find myself able and wanting to talk about Scripture from a particular point of view: the pulpit.

The view from the pulpit will never be the same for me again in this life. And that is probably a good thing.

____________________________

The short letter to the church at Ephesus has, for reasons not entirely unknown to my heart, captured my attention anew in recent days. Last year, it was from reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection. It was also due to a sermon series I heard at one of the two churches my family attends—the preacher did a masterful work exegeting Paul’s thoughtful, pastoral and prophetic words, bringing them to life inside the congregation.

I have realized much, lately, that I am hungry again. The letter to the church at Ephesus has startled my taste-buds like a fragrant and aromatic wine. It’s like tasting a sweet cake all over again for the first time. It’s like having an ice cold beer after cutting grass in the hot August sun. It’s like seeing my wife, gorgeous and majestic as she was, on our wedding day. It’s like waking up from a long illness and craving a tasty, sumptuous, and rich dinner. It’s like walking down the Emmaus Road hungry and finding oneself strangely satisfied, without ever having taken a bite, because Jesus was in our midst all along.

Do I have words to describe what water tastes like after walking thirsty across a desert for many, many days? What is a sound night’s sleep like after being awake for many days? What is a dreamless night after a year of nightmares? What is it like to finally beat up a bully who has been humiliating you day after day after day? What is it like to put on fresh socks after walking for miles barefoot on the jagged rocks? It’s like realizing again that our hunger is satisfied only by things we cannot feed ourselves. Taste and see, the Lord said. It’s no wonder he told us to taste and see. I gave up pop for Lent; water is delicious.

Yeah. That’s what Ephesians has been to me as I have awakened from my slumber and realized that Jesus has not been nearly as silent as I had previously thought.  I am hungry. I am thirsty. Ephesians has been good food, good drink, for me.

The other day, I was reading through chapter 1 again and I realized some important things about it. So I offer some tentative thoughts from chapter 1.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians, like pretty much all of the Bible, is about Jesus. It is really, truly difficult to avoid that idea. What I noticed is that God is working out a plan in Jesus. Read through these verses slowly and notice how many times he uses simple pronouns: he, him, his. Notice how often he talks of Jesus, writes his name, sings his praise. God has a lot to do through Jesus and he is doing it, has done it. God means to accomplish three main tasks as I see them here in chapter 1.

First, he means to bring us all together into complete unity (v 10). All things in heaven and earth under Christ. All of this is accomplished through the work of Jesus—this is his purpose in Jesus. Complete oneness of all God’s people, and all God’s places, in Jesus.

Second, he means to bring about our final redemption (v 14). And in the meantime, he has given us a promise, a seal, in the form of his Holy Spirit. Our redemption is through his blood (v 7).

Third, he means to once and for all, finally, to place all things under the feet of Jesus (v 21-22). This dominion begins with the church. We are the firstfruits of his rule and authority even though clearly all things are under his authority (Matthew 28)

That is brief and unfinished to be sure, and they should probably be expanded and finished. What is amazing is this: look how much the church is included in this work of God! Look at what he has done for us, how much he has included us in the mystery, how much he has invested in the church, how much authority he has given us already, how much he has promised us, and how he gone out of his way to make sure we are not entirely in the dark. We know what to expect of God, we know what his ambition and goal is: unity, redemption, dominion—all resulting and exalting God’s glory (‘to the praise of his glory’, 3, 6, 12, & 14).

I just finished reading David Platt’s as yet unpublished book Radical Together. He writes of what I believe is of utmost importance that many of our churches have yet to figure out here in this world (that’s not a blanket criticism, just a general observation based upon my own personal experiences in the church–and I’m probably limiting it to the Church of Christ/Christian Church). You see, the letter to Ephesus asks the church to be involved in some rather important and heady stuff—stuff we couldn’t plan, cannot finish, and cannot control. The letter also informs us that we have not been left helpless or powerless. Platt captures exactly my point:

As long as church consists of normal routines, and Christianity consists of nominal devotion with little risk, little sacrifice, and little abandonment, then we can do this on our own. But what happens when we give ourselves to something that is far greater than we can accomplish on our own? What happens when we dare to believe that God desires to use every one of our lives and every one of our churches to bring about kingdom advancement to the ends of the earth? We will find ourselves around every corner and at every moment dependent on his power and desperate for his grace as devote ourselves to his purpose. (129)

This is the God who calls us to abandonment and the freakishly terrifying idea of taking his Gospel to the masses of lost and hopeless people in this world. This is the God who gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that we ‘might know him better.’ And when we know him better, we clearly communicate Him to others. He has given us resurrection power to accomplish that very purpose that all things may one day be brought to complete unity, that one day he might finally redeem us, that one day all things might truly be brought under the power and rule and authority of Jesus—to the praise of his glory!

What’s so amazing is that God has included us in that plan. Amazing.

God does not involve us in his grand, global purpose because he needs us. He involves us in his grand, global purpose because he loves us…Let’s rise up together as selfless followers of a self-centered God, and let’s live—and die—like we believe our highest prize is his global praise. (Platt, 135)

To the praise of his glory.

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In his book Practice Resurrection Eugene Peterson quotes a fellow named Herbert Butterfield who wrote a book called International Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Mr Butterfield wrote the following in that book:

“Let us take the devil by the rear, and surprise him with a dose of those gentler virtues that will be poison to him. At least when the world is in extremities, the doctrine of love becomes the ultimate measure of our conduct” (as quoted by Peterson, p 265).

This afternoon, I read through the short letter Peter wrote to those who were ‘scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bythinia.’ I have read through Peter’s letter several times, and I have preached through it more than once. I saw something this morning which made me do a double-take–maybe something I hadn’t seen before or had and wasn’t all that interested in. Either way, I saw it; I was caught.

Peter’s letter is normally exegeted in such a way that the exegete will be able to expound dutifully on the virtue of suffering as Christ suffered. That is to say, Peter wrote about how to suffer as a Christian. To be sure, Peter does write quite a bit about suffering—suffering in a variety of contexts and at the hands of a variety of people. If there is someone who can cause suffering for the believer, they have caught Peter’s eye and he has written of how the Christian can and should respond. All of this suffering we do is blended, in Peter’s letter, with both lengthy and pithy explanations and expositions of Jesus’ suffering. Somewhere in all five chapters Peter talks about Jesus’ suffering.

That is good.

But there is an undercurrent also in Peter’s letter that might be easily enough overlooked if we do not pay attention (as evidently I have done). It’s one of those ‘forest and trees’ things. Easily enough are we caught up in conversations about suffering and how we suffer and why we suffer and where we suffer and who is suffering and so on and so forth—and, we should not dismiss the suffering of Jesus which is the context in which all of it makes sense. The undercurrent in Peter’s letter is what we do for one another when we suffer. He begins in chapter 1, verse 8, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Peter’s optimism shines out: Though you have not seen him, you love him. In light of Jesus’ suffering, we suffer and while we do we hold fast to our love of him. Jesus suffered. We suffer. We love Jesus whom we have not seen. It all makes good sense. We love Jesus. Yet Peter spends significantly small amount of time expanding on this love we have for Jesus and instead turns his attention back to people we do see, those people on earth who dress funny, who stink, who irritate us, who gossip about us, who live side by side with us in the congregation called the body of Christ—that is, those we suffer with every day. And his word for us is difficult.

I don’t think loving Jesus, whom we have not seen, is all that difficult. Peter must not think so or he would have expanded on it a bit more. It is loving those we live with that is difficult. It is the loving of those we have seen that is so confounding. Love one another, he writes, not just once, but nearly as often as he writes of the death and suffering of Jesus. And he starts right in, badgering us for our lack of love and compassion for one another: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22) In other words, “You are really good at doing things like staying pure in a funky, armpit kind of world. And you say you have sincere love for each other. Now do it! Get on with the business of loving each other, deeply, from a place inside of yourselves.” Most of us can keep rules all day long. Most of us can stay pure all day. But can we love each other? Will we?

Holiness is easy. Love is difficult. Yet Peter seems to believe the two are somehow intertwined, bound up together like Gollum and the Ring. Loving Jesus whom we cannot, have not, seen is a piece of cake. Loving one another whom we see every day—that’s another story. Holiness is important, no doubt. But what is holiness if we do not love one another deeply, from the heart? “This is the word that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). “This” includes the admonition to ‘love one another.’ Loving one another is just as important as our born-againness, as the death of Jesus, as the resurrection of Jesus, as preaching, as prophecy—it’s a cardinal doctrine. Love one another.

He doesn’t let up either. “I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Great! Another passage about living pure and holy lives in the bowels of existence. No sweat! But he doesn’t stop: “Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). Well, what does fearing God and honoring the emperor have to do with the way I treat those who are my brethren in Christ? Seemingly nothing, except that it’s easy to fear God, it’s easy to respect the emperor, and it’s easy to show respect to ‘everyone.’ What is difficult is the loving of my brother and sister in Christ when the only motivation for doing so is because Jesus expects me to whether they love me back or not. Sometimes I wonder if we are not more threatened by those in the body than we are by those who are not.

I like how Peter sort of throws that in there. “Hmm…let’s see…respect EVERYONE, fear God, the emperor, laugh at Muppets, dance with clowns….oh, yeah, LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” It’s like he’s going to throw that in every chance he gets in order to remind us of what really matters. Holiness matters. Human authority matters. But you must not forget to love one another. If you succeed at loving God and honoring the emperor but fail at loving one another–well, you have not succeeded at all.

He doesn’t stop. In chapter 3 we learn that we will most certainly suffer in this world: “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed” (1 Peter 3:13-14). But before all this, before he warns us of insults, evil, suffering, threats of violence, and all this he has the nerve to say: “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8). The last thing he says is: Love one another. You are going to suffer. You are going to have bad days. You are going to be thrown under the bus by anyone and everyone in this world: Love one another.

The world is going to spit upon you every chance it gets; love one another. Treat each other right. You are going to have enough trouble in this world without going to all the effort to create it amongst yourselves. And this is the problem I have seen in every single church I have preached among. Churches do not really know how to love each other, and, frankly, no amount of exhortation from the pulpit or reading from the Scripture or praying in the closet seems to alter the simple fact that we, the body of Christ, do not know how to love each other.

Don’t think I’m preaching this from the loft, wearing a halo, and fluttering about with wings. I’m am chief among sinners here. Maybe we do not know how to love each other because we do not know how to suffer together, as a body? Maybe when one part suffers we are far too content to allow that one part to suffer alone or with the pastor or with their family. Maybe suffering needs to be more of a communal thing in the church—but we are too quick to abandon those who suffer, thus love is never truly cultivated and never truly matures among us. Maybe this is an American church phenomenon. Maybe churches in, say, Africa, where suffering takes place daily, do know how to love each other precisely because they have suffered together.

And still Peter doesn’t stop: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

“The point is that in the situation of persecution the one thing that matters above all else is love toward one another. It has to be a ‘deep’ love, but the English word doesn’t adequately convey the sense of the Greek ‘at full stretch.’ Why at full stretch? Because this love will be stretched to the limit by the demands made on it. Let us remind ourselves that Christian love means caring for other people in their needs and that such care will be accompanied by a growing affection for them. Many people are prepared to care for others; they are less ready to have affection for them and to demonstrate it. It requires love at full stretch to do this” (I Howard Marshall, 1 Peter, 143).

It is inevitable that we will sin. It is probably even more inevitable that we will sin against one another. These sins, grievous and heinous as they are, can be forgiven. I don’t think this means that the person sinned against simply overlooks the offense. That doesn’t seem to square with other thoughts in the New Testament that we have a right, perhaps an obligation, to confront those who sin against us in order to either offer or obtain forgiveness. Rather, I think Peter is drawing on the imagery of the work of God:  God’s love covers a multitude of sins. The cross has been in every thought he has uttered in this letter, surely he is thinking of God’s great love. In other words, God forgives, we should too. And as God does not continue holding on to our sin once he has forgiven us, so too should we let go when we have forgiven or been forgiven by others. Whatever else ‘covers’ might mean, it surely means that the sins are no longer visible in some sense. They are forgotten, hidden, no longer a part of the memory or function of the relationship. Love conquers all. Love wins.

Love does this. Only love does this. Only because we love Jesus whom we haven’t seen are we able to love those whom we have seen. So as Peter wraps it up, he has one last charge for us: “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14). In other words: demonstrate your deep, from the heart, sincere, compassionate, sin-covering love for one another by laying a big, wet sloppy one on each other. I suspect James would tell us not only to kiss the lovely and good smelling folks among us, but also the broken and smelly ones too.

We are not so cultured in our world where a kiss of affection and love is often shared among brethren. It’s not the way we roll. But I wonder if a handshake sort of misses the point? We shake the right hand of fellowship and carry a dagger in the left. I wonder if a hug is too phony. I wonder if a kiss gets at the root and heart of the matter. In a kiss we expose ourselves to all sorts of trouble—not least of which is sickness. A kiss, however, is intimate. It is necessarily sexual. A kiss necessarily exposes us to the one we share the kiss with. Just ask Judas or Caesar. Maybe Peter had in mind Judas who betrayed Jesus with such a kiss: “Don’t be like Judas and betray with a kiss. Let your kiss be one of love.”

Whatever the case may be, and it is possible that I am overstating the case, Peter’s charge here is definitely that our love be demonstrated. I don’t know how this gets accomplished in various cultures. I don’t know if a kiss is like foot-washing and merely a cultural thing we must adapt in some way. But I am fairly certain we must find a way to demonstrate, without hypocrisy, our love for one another.

Peter has covered a lot of ground here, right?

You are in the process of becoming holy, don’t forget to love each other while doing so or else your holiness will amount to nothing. (1 Peter 1:22).

You are living under strange conditions as foreigners and exiles, facing all sorts of strange masters and rulers, don’t forget to love one another which is just as important as living at peace with everyone else (1 Peter 2:17).

You are going to suffer in this life, here on this earth. You will have enough trouble on this earth without inviting it into your fellowship, so love one another; you need each other’s love when the world is destroying and hating you. (1 Peter 3:8).

You are anxiously awaiting the day to be revealed, to see how all of this will turn out in the end, but while you wait, there will be times when we sin against one another. In light of what we await, love one another and forgive. Deeply. (1 Peter 4:8).

And don’t forget to make certain that your love for one another is not merely in words or in thoughts. Demonstrate it, intimately, with a kiss of love. (1 Peter 5:14)

Jesus created the church to be a place, a people, who will support, strengthen, comfort, forgive and love one another while we are doing life together. As always the question remains: How am I perpetuating love and contributing to an atmosphere of love? Am I a  balm of healing or picking at scabs?

Peter’s letter amply describes and portrays the difficult world we live in, a world where we will have much trouble, but it is also the world where some have been marked by the cross of Jesus. We will have enough trouble in this world without being trouble for one another. And how else will we take the devil by the rear if we do not love one another?

Soli Deo Gloria!

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“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a  radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27).

I think it is fair to say that I have had my issues with the church. Maybe my issues are a wee bit different given that I have been on both sides of the proverbial aisle—as a lay person and a professional person. Maybe those are the wrong categories too.

It was not just professional failure that caused a lot of my criticism. I had some especially irritating youth leaders when I was a younger man. They thought they knew so much with all their ‘you shouldn’t do this’s’ and ‘you shouldn’t do that’s’. Ugh. Being a teenager was such a drag with all those hypocritical youth leaders whose own children grew up worse and who, inevitably, ended up divorced or worse. Sheesh.*

But hypocrisy is something I am well acquainted with now that I am adult. You’ve heard the old saying that there was a certain fourteen year old couldn’t believe how dumb his father was and who later, when he became a twenty-one year old, couldn’t believe how much his father had learned in a mere seven years? I now believe in the utter genius of all those terrifically, wonderfully, hypocritical youth leaders who loved me so ceaselessly when I was a teenager. Now that I am older man with children of my own who have never experienced that for a minute in their lives, I realize just how blessed I was. How I wish my own sons had some hypocritical, problem-laden adult youth leaders cramming all that morality and Jesus talk down their throats.

Who knows the depths of self-destruction that might have plagued me had they not been there, hounding me, loving me, restraining me. As I look back, I think I was actually compelled by their sometimes confrontational nature. I enjoyed arguing; they were more than happy to give me reasons to argue. I wanted to be loved; they did so generously, carelessly, and devotedly.

I have read a couple of articles in the past week that I believe were placed in my path by one of those old youth leaders or perhaps the Holy Spirit had something to do with it. Either way, they were special articles that I thought I’d share with you.

The first is from Books & Culture and was written by Philip Yancey. It’s from a couple of months old issue of the journal, but I’m a bit behind my journal reading. In the essay, Yancey is recapping an aspect of his writing career that has dealt, primarily, with his criticism of a certain Bible College he attended as a young man. Near the end of the essay Life in a Bubble he writes:

Through the grace of God, and also the grace of the college administration, I managed to survive through graduation. I now reflect on my time at Bible college with some shame but much gratitude: for the biblical knowledge I acquired there, for the personal disciplines that I resented at the time but learned to appreciate, and for the essential part that school played in grounding my faith. Ever since, we have had an ambivalent relationship, the school and I. They gave me a Distinguished Alumnus award—and nearly asked for it back after I wrote about the school in What’s So Amazing About Grace?

This is an especially good article Yancey wrote. He took some flak for it in a later edition of Books & Culture in the Letters to the Editor section, but I appreciate his honesty.

A second article I read is from the November 14, 2010 issue of Christian Standard. In the article Stop Bashing the Bride, Mike Baker wrote, rather beautifully I might add, the following:

Here’s something else to consider: God knew the church would be imperfect! I’ve always been amazed that God established two crucial institutions in the world—the family and the church, and he put weak-willed, imperfect, prone-to-sin, messed-up people in charge of both. Did it ever occur to anyone that this is a part of God’s great design to show his strength in our weakness?

I’m not saying we should go on being imperfect losers so that God’s strength may abound. But I am saying God knew the people of his church would be imperfect; in fact, imperfection is one thing that has been universally consistent about the people who make up the church from the first century to the 21st century!

But the church is humanly imperfect. Spiritually speaking, she is beautiful and without flaw. God made her that way through his extreme love in dying for her. I believe it’s time for leaders in the church to stop pointing out her spots, wrinkles, and blemishes because Christ has made her radiant. Have you noticed her beauty lately? God has.

I encourage you to read both essays in their entirety.

Since venturing into this world, the world of blogging, I have met some of the most wonderful people on the face of Darwin’s earth. I realize that even though I am not currently supported by the church, any church, it was the church that supported me and my wife through many toils, trials and snares. Cancer. Hemolytic anemia. Three children. Bible College. Through all this and more it was the church—‘imperfectly perfect’ as Mike Baker calls her—that has loved me, loved Renee, loved my sons. There is, to be sure, a lot of ugliness in the church. No one denies that. But there is, more so, a boundless and unmitigated beauty in her too.

And I, for one, have, in my gross exaggerations of suffering at her hands, missed this beauty. Sometimes so eager to justify my own points of view or sin, I have been a downright arrogant prig when it comes to the church. My demands have been, at times, more than the Lord Jesus has asked of her. Unfortunate as that is, it is the truth.

Now I find myself in a strange way missing the church that has loved me so relentlessly.

I need a new trajectory for dealing with the church and her imperfections. It is only my awareness of my own conceit that keeps me from seeing the church as Christ sees her—His bride, His Love, the One He died for. He died for the church—the very church that I, and others, have taken such a delight in bashing and criticizing. Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips and I blog among a people with unclean keyboards.

Eugene Peterson wrote in his book Practice Resurrection that the church is somehow different, somehow beautiful, and that in the church we learn something we cannot learn anywhere else on earth: we learn how to love.

The church is the primary place we have for learning this language of love. The conditions here in the church, unlike the conditions in the world, are propitious—not the endless variations on eroticized fornication and adultery posing as love in the world, nor, to take a de-eroticized alternative, a classroom with a distinguished professor giving lectures on love, assigning papers, our desks strewn with grammars and concordances and dictionaries. Rather, in church we find a gathering of people who are committed to learning the language in the company of the Trinity and in company with one another. We don’t learn it out of a book. (216)

This is a long way to saying something along these lines: I love the church because she first loved me. I have been far more accepted in the church than I have been rejected. After all, I cannot let a few professional terminations along the way determine how I feel about those who have done nothing but open their arms and welcome me back anytime I happen to decide I’m sick of the pig-pen.

Maybe if we saw the church in terms of the Bride that Christ Jesus loves, instead of the place where we have been run over, then we will not be so anxious to hurl our criticisms at her. Perhaps if we are quicker to see the church as the Bride Jesus has healed with his own blood then we will not be so quick to point out that there may be places where she is not entirely healed just yet. Perhaps if we are wise enough to see how patient Jesus has been with the church then we will be a little slower to become angry with her ourselves.

Perhaps if we took a minute to see how much Jesus loves His Bride then…then…we will speak more tenderly to her, of her, about her, and around her. After all, if someone speaks ill of my bride, I’m going to take offense and deal with those words accordingly.

Perhaps we need to all take a minute and consider how Jesus feels when we talk about his Bride.

We are talking about Christ’s bride here. Shouldn’t we be a little more careful about how we flippantly describe Jesus’ wife as irrelevant, corrupt, hypocritical, and ineffective? Indulge me just a little as I defend the church I have come to love and am falling in love with more and more every day. (Mike Baker)

*I’m being a little sarcastic here.

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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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