Friday, November 02, 2018

Blessed are the peacemakers--in politics too?

"I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war" (Ps. 120:7)

It's easy to be misunderstood these days, what with all of the rancor in political and social discourse.  We've become so ensconced in our right to be right, we make assumptions about each other long before they open their mouths (or write their posts on social media).  There is no benefit of the doubt.  No room for nuance.  No consideration of the other.  Our sense of infallibility has kicked it hard as we retreat to our fortresses and aim to shoot down the American enemy.  And, the closer we get to November 6th, the worse it gets.  The political calendar has ordered our days. Almost like the holidays, I'll be so relieved when it's over.  Indeed, it seems that all other calendars--cultural and religious--have been eclipsed by politics. That's true even for Christians, who are supposed to operate according to a sacred rhythm of life:  Sabbaths and holy days.

We've not only lost a sense of sacred time, but sacred words.  Every time I hear a Christian bash another Christian over politics, I think about the evil one--how much he must be pleased.  Paul warned us about this:  our fight isn't with one another, it's with unseen forces of darkness, malevolent powers that are out to destroy us.  In fact, every time the devil shows up in Paul's writings, it's when he's warning us about his schemes:  to destroy the church by getting us to war with each other.  Paul never blames the devil for sin (he blames the flesh, the law, and Sin is a malevolent power).  But the apostle was convinced that when he saw Christians fighting each other, the devil was in the middle of it:  the chief instigator of strife and factions.

The devil is winning.  He's dividing families, workplaces, even churches over politics.  And I thought nothing could separate us from the love of Christ.  But that doesn't seem to be the case these days.

There is an evil spirit in the air that I haven't seen in a long time.  Hatred.  Pure hatred for our American enemy.  And I thought Christians were supposed to love our enemies.  But that doesn't seem to be the case these days.

There is a war that is raging.  Christians wounding Christians with vile words.  And I thought peacemakers we're supposed to be blessed.  But that doesn't seem to be the case these days.

American politics reigns over everything.  And I thought we're supposed to seek first the kingdom of God.  But that doesn't seem to the case these days.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Problem with idols

(An excerpt from my book on John's Spirituality)

When John ended his letter with the admonition, “Little children, protect yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21), it seems to come out of nowhere.  Up to this point, John hasn’t mentioned the threat of idolatry at all.  Other enemies have been named:  the devil/the evil one, the world, false prophets, antichrists, liars, and haters.  But in all of John’s warnings about needing to “overcome” their enemies, the problem of idolatry was never mentioned—until the end.  Why?  Was it an after thought?  “Oh, yes.  One more thing. I’d better warn them about idols before I sign off.  After all, that’s the lesson we Jews finally learned after hundreds of years of worshipping false gods.  Don’t mess with idols.  Idolatry only leads to immorality.”[1]  And yet, John doesn’t warn them about the perils of idolatry (eidololatria).  It’s the idol itself that poses a threat to his community.[2]  So, what does John mean by the term eidolon? 

Eidolon derives from the root eido, meaning “what is seen.”[3]  Since Jesus Christ is the true God—the “what-can-be-seen” of the invisible God—then all idols stand in opposition to the claims of that one-of-a-kind divine revelation.  That’s why John pits the Icon of the invisible God against all other pretenders, eidolon that pose as icons of invisible deity.  John sees things from a very Jewish perspective, a binary world of worshippers of the one true God and the idolaters.  Similarly, Wisdom of Solomon 14:13 comes in the midst of several warnings the sage has been giving to his people about the folly of idols (13:1-14:31).  After citing the Jewish claim that idols lead to immorality (13:12), he says an idol “neither was from the beginning nor shall it be to the age.  For through human vainglory it came into the world” (vv. 13-14).  Since subjects in distant lands couldn’t honor their king, they made a “visible image [eikon]” of the one who was “absent though present” (v. 17).  The same was true in John’s day; busts of Caesar were set up all over the Roman Empire to remind citizens to celebrate and subjects to fear his imperial rule—what the sage considered a precursor to making idols of “the unmentionable name” (God).  Idols, therefore, became “a trap in life” (v. 21), leading devotees to false worship.  And so, according to the sage, idols were man’s feeble attempt to make present the invisible God.[4]

But John had been making the case throughout his writings that when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, it was the only revelation of God that we would ever need.  Furthermore, when the Church obeys the commandment of Christ to love one another as he has loved us, then the visible presence of the invisible God—his love—“abides” among us (1 John 4:16).  But what happens when we don’t love one another, when the love of Christ isn’t present, when the absence of God is evident?  Then lonely men and women will go “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  In the vacuum of the absence of God’s love, John knew we would turn to idols—vacuous promises of divine presence.  That’s why, I think, John kept reminding his community about the love of God, the command to love one another like Christ, the danger of claiming to love God but hating our brother, and the importance of abiding in the word they heard from John’s Gospel.  “This vision of place, friendship, mutuality, and service that is embodied in residential communities all over the world is rooted in the belief that Jesus’s gift of friendship and love creates new and surprising forms of friendship between those who would otherwise be alienated from one another.”[5]  Indeed, if people don’t find the love of Christ in the Church (incarnation!), they’ll look to idols—any visible hope of deity—that alienate them from God and from us.

If John were to write his letter to the Church today, one wonders what the last line would be:  “Little children, protect yourselves from ______________.”  Since idols that were once ubiquitous in his world no longer populate our world, I wonder what John would see as the major threat to Christ-believers today.  Just like idols of his day, everywhere we look we would see them—a visible display of an invisible power.  These “idols” would stand in opposition to our claim that Jesus is one-of-a-kind.  Christians might be susceptible to them, needing the warning to “protect yourselves.”  People disillusioned with the Church would turn to them when they didn’t see the love of Christ in us.  Promoters would hold them up as paragons of divine favor.  The masses would worship them.  Christians would be attracted to them.  And the ways of the world would be empowered by them.  So, what are the present-day “American idols” that John would be compelled to warn us about?  I think he would write, “Little children protect yourselves from heroes.”  Our culture is obsessed with heroes:  courageous men and women who risk their lives to save us from peril, mighty soldiers who protect us from hostility, brilliant geniuses who create a better world for us, and gifted artists who entertain us.  We cry out for heroes.  We hope for heroes.  We venerate heroes.  These larger than life super heroes are our gods.  Lovers desire them.  Fans adore them.  Our children want to be them.  Mythologies promote them—in politics, in sports, in music, and in film.  The images of our heroes are everywhere, demanding our attention.  We spend a lot of time and money in our devotion to them.  We build shrines to their popularity.  We offer praise to their superiority.  Is it any wonder, then, that hero worship is our new religion?  Just listen to the masses praise them.

[1]A common theme in Jewish polemics against idolatry:  “For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life” (Wis. Sol. 14:12, NRSV); see also Rom. 1:21-25.
[2]“The choice of the term eidolon, rather than the conceptual term eidololatr(e)ia, is significant.  The rejection of idols, according to John, is the obverse of knowing the true God,” Terry Griffith, Keep Yourselves from Idols:  A New Look at 1 John, JSNT Supp 233 (Sheffield:  Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), p. 57.
[3]For an excellent survey of the meaning and background of eidolon, see Griffith, Keep Yourselves from Idols, pp. 28-57.
[4]“We may conclude that the image functioned in the cult as a mediator of the divine presence.  It was the means by which humans gained access to the presence of the deity.  As such it represented the mystical unity of transcendence and immanence, at theophany transubstantiated,” John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament:  Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2006), pp. 117-18.
[5]Jipp, Hospitality, p. 94 (emphasis mine).  Here Jipp is referring to residential communities like L’Arche.  But, I wonder whether his description of their ministry shouldn’t also be the reality of the Church.  In other words, perhaps “residential communities” have something to teach us about what it means to be the “embodied” love of Christ.

Monday, August 20, 2018

I Get It Now

Grace is leaving for her senior year at college today and there's a sadness that has settled over me again.

It's not that I don't want her to return to her life at school.  Her university experience has been so fulfilling for her.  We've seen her grow in her craft, thrive in the environment where noble ideas and deep friendships abide well, and mature as a young woman, growing more confident every day.  We wanted this for her.  And we are so grateful to God.

The same thing happened to me when Emma came and went during college.  Seeing her for brief moments felt like archiving snapshots of her transition from youth to adulthood.  Now thriving in her profession in Chicago, we see more clearly how the trajectory of her life taking shape in college continues to direct her path.  When we get the chance to see her, watching her perform makes us marvel over whence and whither.

You'd think Andrew being closer in Kansas City would work like a balm for our hearts.  When we see him in his element, hearing reports of his literary life, the community he's found that nurture the arts--well, we can't help but celebrate the grace of God.  Whenever we spend the day with him and Sabra, it feels like we're trying to squeeze in months of longing into brief moments of splendor.

Time keeps moving and we keep trying to soak it all up.

Now I recognize what I saw in my mother's eyes every time we packed up for home after a brief visit.  It always took a while to gather up our stuff, corral the kids, quickly say our "goodbyes" before hitting the road.  After the ritual of "letting your mom kiss you on the cheek," I'd briefly look at her, turning my eyes quickly away knowing what I'd see every time:  the look of disappointment.  I resented it a little at the time.  It seemed to me she was trying to hold on to what was already gone--a denial of sorts that life moves on.

Now I get it.  For all the joy of seeing your adult children find their place in the world, there's still a twinge of heart ache knowing things will never be the same.  And that's the way it's supposed to be because that's the way it's always been.

Which is why I wish I could tell my mom, "I get it now."

Monday, March 12, 2018

Trumpians and Herodians

I'm one of those "evangelical" Christians who have been surprised by the number of my "tribe" who enthusiastically support our President, even though (it could be said) that he is the most immoral (even corrupt?) man who's ever held the office.  Then again, as the old saying goes, politics make strange bed fellows.  And, political expedience has attracted many "evangelicals" who are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage to support such a sinful man.

The same thing happened in Jesus' day.  There were Jews who supported the Herodian government, convinced Antipas was their only chance to establish God's will on earth.  Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea as a "client kingdom" of Rome.  And, since Judea was under direct Roman rule as an imperial province--run by Roman procurators--then it is plausible that the Herodians believed that supporting Antipas could lead to Israel re-establishing control over Jerusalem.  Of course, the Herods were notorious sinners, known for their extravagant lifestyle and sexual immortality.  But, the Herodians must have thought that having a Jewish King (with all of his sinful ways) eventually ruling Jerusalem would be better than having a pagan governor running the city of David.

What I find fascinating is that Jesus didn't lend his voice to such an important political issue--neither openly criticizing the Romans nor directly attacking the Herodians for supporting such a corrupt politician.  To be sure, Jesus didn't have a "favorable opinion" of Herod. When someone brought up the fact that Herod was after him, Jesus said, "Go tell that fox . . . I'm going to Jerusalem" (Lu. 13:32-33).  Then, when Jesus had a chance to blast Herod to his face, he simply ignored the man (23:8-12). 

Of course, there are many lessons to learn.  But, the one that strikes me is how Jesus was so focused on the politics of the kingdom of heaven coming to earth, he refused to be sidetracked by other political approaches--not only the Herodians, but also the politics of the Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Zealots.  Jesus defied politics as usual.  His approach to the kingdom of God--how God's will is accomplished on earth--didn't conform to the either/or politics of the Herodians or the Zealots or any other Jewish sect.  In fact, Jesus was so narrow-minded he believed that his way is the only way.  The politics of Jesus eclipsed all others.  You cannot serve two masters.

And that's still true today--something I wish "American" Herodians would remember as well.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Low Profile, High Reward

My wife is an exemplary woman of beauty, grace, mercy, and love.

I realize, of course, that I'm biased.  But my bias is based on good reasons, keen observations, and a over forty years of watching a woman give herself completely to others.  She's the kind of person that never seeks attention for her work.  In fact, the success of her work (she's a Speech and Language Pathologist) can only be seen in others.  When her patients do well, she shines.  But no one would know it.  It's because, by definition, Speech Pathologists pour themselves into the people they're trying to help.  And, when those people succeed (and it takes hard work for someone to overcome speech and language disabilities--not only of the one receiving therapy but their entire family of support), everyone celebrates the one who's overcoming their challenges.  And while everyone applauds the woman who can swallow again after a catastrophic stroke, or the child who can put a sentence together that everyone can understand, or the adolescent with Asperger's who hugs their mother and says, "I love you" for the first time (while she weeps with joy), their therapist joins the celebration from the sidelines, watching another miracle come true.

I remember her when she was just a teenager, we were falling in love, and it had become quite apparent to both of us that the Lord put us together for a lifetime.  Back then, Sheri was a wall flower, always looking upon the world with joy and happiness, eager to help behind the scenes, shying away from any recognition.  I had never met a woman of substance--so quiet, so confident--who didn't seek the approval of others but found contentment in her relationship with the Lord.  Besides her beautiful appearance, that more than anything drew me to her in ways that are spiritually magnetic.  Time after time, place after place, in all of our journey together, no matter where we've lived, whatever "ministry" we were doing at the time, Sheri has always sought out her place of service in the purest sense of the word--in her profession and with me in my work.  That kind of support, that kind of heart-felt desire to help others, has taught me more about what it means to follow Christ than anything or anyone.

Last weekend, she hosted a lovely evening where friends and family celebrated with me the release of my latest book, a commentary on Matthew's Gospel.  Throughout the night, I kept thinking about how important it is to have people around us who encourage us to do what God has for us to do.  And, as we all enjoyed the good food, the hot drinks, and the warm surroundings of a home beautified by Sheri's graceful hospitality, I kept whispering a prayer of thanksgiving to God for my wife.

According to Matthew, Jesus warned us that if we seek the approval of others, we've lost our heavenly reward.  Those who have high profile positions are in constant danger of finding our reward in social approval.  But, those who work behind the scenes, low profile kind of people, will be rewarded by God.  I have no doubts, on the last day, when the Lord calls those from the sidelines who did the work He desired, when the true servants among us are recognized by the One whose approval we all crave--well, on that day, he will call the name, "Sheri," and I will celebrate with great joy the woman I love and admire.  In that day of great reversal, you'll find me (along with other "high profile" people) in the back of the room, thanking God for people like my wife.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Judging Judgmental People

(Here's another excerpt from my forthcoming commentary on Matthew's Gospel in the SGBC)

The imagery of homes devastated by flood waters is familiar to all people through the ages.  As long as people persist in building homes by rivers there will be repeated scenes of floods destroying property.  Those of us who live in the safety of the hill country (who needs flood insurance?) can’t help but wonder, “Why do the river people keep inviting such misery?  Come join us on the mountain and you’ll never have to fear the floods again.”  But the river people say, “What’s a little clean up every now and then?  Our house is still standing.  The concrete foundation didn’t crack.  Besides, it was about time to renovate the old homestead anyway.”  And therein lies the difference between Jesus’ day and ours:  we can put houses just about anywhere we want because of the way foundations are laid.  Footings are dug and concrete is poured to create the necessary foundation for homes built on the mountain or by the river.  Dig deep enough and massive condos can be built right on the sandy beach, as close to the water as you want.  But in Jesus’ day, you couldn’t put your house anywhere you wanted.  Rather, one had to look for a rock upon which to build the house.  And, in lower Galilee basaltic formations of large boulders—the hazard of farmers (Matt. 13:5)—could be found hiding under the shallow ground, especially up the mountain.  But to build a house on sand near a wadi (dry-bed creeks that would swell with water during the rainy season) was shortsighted foolishness.  To ignore the years of wisdom of your neighbors who built their houses on rock foundations was the height of arrogance.  It was only a matter of time until everyone would see the house on beachfront property come crashing down (Matt. 7:27).

Situated on a mountain, Jesus encouraged the crowds to build their lives on his rock-solid words.  No need to look anywhere else for a foundation.  If they did what he said, choosing to live in the shelter of his words, then no persecution, no flood, no affliction, no trouble would overwhelm them.  Even during the last days, when the earth groans under the weight of messianic woes unleashed on a troubled world, Jesus predicted his disciples would weather the storm because they chose to follow him to the end.  It’s no wonder, then, that the crowds marveled at his teaching and followed him down the mountain (7:28; 8:1).  No one spoke like this.  Even their experts—the scribes—didn’t speak with such confidence (7:29).  Jesus knew what he was talking about:  to have a righteousness that exceeds scribes and Pharisees, to live with the confidence that you are blessed by God because you follow Jesus, to enter the kingdom of heaven now, to pray for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, to look upon all creation with kingdom eyes, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love even your enemies.  This is the only way to live—to enter the narrow gate leading down a difficult path that ends with great rewards for the wise.  Only a fool would think otherwise.  And, it will take the rest of the story to see the difference.

The way of mercy is difficult; it requires humility, forgiveness, and sacrifice.  The way of judgment is easy; only words are required to condemn others.  And it’s quite apparent that words are not difficult to come by when we judge others.  All you need to do is read the comment section of any online news story or blog to see the vitriolic spew of arrogant judges.  When we speak our minds the underbelly of humanity is easily exposed.  Snap judgments and knee-jerk reactions to what others say and do are almost always hateful and abusive.  What bothers me is that I see the same tendency on so-called “Christian” blogs and e-magazines.  One should expect kind-hearted, gentle, and yet pointed dialogue among those of differing opinions in the Christian Blogosphere.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  At times I can’t tell the difference between the comment section on a story at or  Only those who “scream” the loudest, using unmercifully cruel “zingers,” get noticed.  Ad hominem attacks and arrogant non sequitur abound in the Christian world of crusaders defending the faith.  The way of judgment is broad and many people find it.  It’s enough to make the pure in heart wonder how anyone could see God on this path of destruction.  Indeed, the comment section is no place for the meek; the humble are wise not to build their house there.  Come to think of it, I’ve never read a single comment beginning with the line, “I could be wrong but . . . .”  Judges don’t talk like that.

And yet, to judge judges for their judgmental words is easy to do.  Everyone recognizes the bad fruit, the destructive words of hypocrites who can’t see the plank in their eye.  We who love words and reverence their power—especially those of us who make a living by using words—should be the first to recognize the dangerous satisfaction that comes with condemning the hypocrisy of judges.  (The irony is hard to miss, like when I preach a sermon about how faith that relies upon words is useless according to James.  Shouldn’t it be the shortest sermon I ever preach, knowing that we’d all rather see a sermon than hear one?)  Jesus knew that too, which is why he made it clear that offering a sermon on a mountain or merely hearing a sermon wouldn’t be enough.  He had to come down from the mountain and show us all what mercy looks like, and he expected his disciples—true prophets—to follow him all the way to the end.  Merely repeating what Jesus said is never enough.  To see the red letters animated in living color (incarnation!), in ourselves and in others, this is the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Requited Anger

It's the latest storm in the culture war and I'm not alarmed.  Again.  And, I'm beginning to wonder, "Why?"  Why don't I join the chorus and lob my verbal bombs on social media like most everyone else?  Why don't I lock arms with my Christian brothers and sisters in righteous indignation and march against the foes of decency?  Why am I not seething with unrequited anger over football players kneeling during the national anthem, or statues of confederate soldiers removed from public view, or ten commandments defaced in front of the courthouse, or ad infinitum ad nauseum.

Is there something wrong with me?  Why don't these things bother me?  I can't say my heart has grown cold because these tussles have never warmed my heart.  Back in the day, when the flag was sown into clothing, or when Olympic athletes raised their fist during the national anthem, or when Christians campaigned for dry counties or blue laws--these things never incited my sense of divine wrath.  Honestly--I'm not trying to be dense--I never understood why Christians got so upset over these issues.

Of course, I'm more inclined to think about the kingdom of God and how American nationalism has little effect on it (for if it did, then all the other nations would be in trouble until we got our act together).  And, since I've been called by God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, then that surely is enough to keep me busy--perhaps even entitling me to look down my nose on all of these "misguided" Christians who seem completely obsessed with temporal (even trivial?) things.  And yet, to strike such a pious pose seems just as dangerous to me as the righteous indignation of the culture warriors.

But still, I wonder why I don't get angry about these things.  Is it because my aim is true and theirs isn't?  Is it because I have my priorities straight and they don't?  Or, is it because, deep down, I'm really not grateful for the sacrifices others have made for our country?  I want to be thankful.  I want to appreciate those who make sacrifices to serve our communities, our nation, our people.

But, then again, these people chose to work in these "service professions."  In fact, they get paid to do it.  Plus, if you recognize them with accolades (especially those who have had to commit atrocities during war), they deflect the praise.  Of course, if we had a selection service that was compulsory, where we forced certain people to serve in the armed forces (at home and abroad), that would be a different story.  Then, I think, I might get angry over displays of disrespect.  But, that's not the case here.  I'll say it again:  these people chose their professions and they get paid to do it.  In fact, they're not unlike ministers, or teachers, or linemen (who risk their lives making sure we have power), or garbage collectors--people who get paid to serve our community.  And yet, we don't have rituals to make sure they know how much we appreciate them.  Why not?  What makes some people worthy of respect and others not?

 Maybe that's why I don't get angry over the sight of privileged athletes choosing to kneel during the National Anthem.  No one says, "How dare they disrespect public school teachers like that"--which says more about us (and our highly selective requited anger) than it does about them.