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 cnn.com or christianitytoday.com.  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.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Eating at the Wrong Time with the Wrong People

(Here's a little excerpt from my forthcoming commentary on Matthew for the Story of God Bible Commentary--to be published soon).

It’s easy to see a correlation between the healing of the paralytic and the calling of Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13).  Neither man asked for Jesus to do what he did.  The paralytic had his sins forgiven and the tax collector became a disciple of Jesus.  Furthermore, both men apparently popped up quickly in response to Jesus’ word:  the paralytic “got up and went home” and the tax collector “got up and followed him” (v. 9).  We might even be tempted to merge their stories together, seeing Matthew just as paralyzed by corruption as the paralytic was paralyzed by disease.  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus would say about Matthew and his friends (v. 12), almost leading the reader to hear echoes between these two stories.  And, in both cases, the Pharisees and scribes objected to Jesus’ behavior regarding sin and sinners.  Is that why Matthew put his story here, so that we would see him and the paralytic as “fraternal twins” of God’s mercy?  That’s certainly the lesson the scribes and Pharisees were supposed to learn.  Having just seen Jesus forgive the paralytic’s sins by healing him, they were forced to stand and watch Jesus dine with a bunch of tax collectors and sinners (vv. 10-11).  It was too much to take in for one day, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked the disciples.  The answer should have been apparent—at least that’s what Jesus thought.  Sick people need a doctor, right (v. 12)?  That seems obvious.  Sinners need God, right?  Still don’t understand, huh?  Time for a little homework, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (v. 13).  Boy, are they going to learn a lesson they’ll never forget.

The issue between Jesus, the Pharisees and even John’s disciples had to do with the question:  How can we restore sinners to God?  Of course, the question rests on two presumptions:  those doing the restoring are righteous and those who need restoration are the sinners.  Everyone should know the difference between the two groups.  And just in case anyone was fuzzy-headed about the distinction, the righteous people were the first to point out who was righteous and who wasn’t:  the righteous are the ones who are serious about sin.  Even though the Pharisees and the Baptizer had very different ideas about how to deal with the problem of Israel’s sin, they agreed on one thing:  fasting was necessary for repentance.  And, it’s easy to see why.  Of the six festivals Israel observed to commemorate God’s salvation, there was only one that required fasting.  Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.”  Forgiveness and fasting went together like feasting and Passover.  Evidently, both the Pharisees and the Baptizer (11:18) extended the practice of fasting beyond the once-a-year ritual.  In fact, the Pharisees were known to fast twice per week, Mondays and Thursdays.  But Jesus defied the tradition, choosing to eat with sinners rather than join the righteous in fasting.  This was the way he would restore sinners to God (v. 13).  That’s a completely different approach, feasting when you should be fasting.  And yet, it wasn’t the Pharisees who raised the objection this time.  Instead, John’s disciples were the ones who wanted to know, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (9:14).  In their minds, the man who preached repentance (4:17) should lead sinners to perform the proper acts of repentance.

Jesus knew his methods were unconventional.  He had already decided it was time for something new, something radical—an approach to sin that would change everything.  It was time for the mercy of God.  But, his approach wasn’t completely brand new.  Hosea had already predicted long ago that God would prefer mercy over sacrifice once he had disciplined Israel for their sin (Hos. 6:1-6).  So, as far as Jesus was concerned, it was time to show sinners the mercy of God; it was the only way to recover them, to lead them to the kingdom.  And yet, eating with sinners to deal with Israel’s sin problem seemed completely backwards, out of place, upside down to the righteous.  Feasting was the last thing sinners needed to do to get serious about their sin.  But Jesus acted like times had changed.  The bridegroom is here!  Mourning at a time like this would be completely out of place (v. 15).  Besides, to go back to the old ways of repentance would be like sowing a new patch on an old piece of clothing, or trying to put new wine in an old container (9:16-17).  It would just make things worse.  That’s what mercy does; it destroys the old ways of dealing with sin.  You can’t pour mercy into the wineskin of judgment.  You can’t cover the hole in your worn-out-jeans of sin management with the fresh patch of God’s forgiveness.  It was time for new wineskins to hold God’s mercy, a new way to get serious about sin:  eat with sinners.  And, of course, those of us who gather around the Lord’s Table know exactly why that is true, as we eat and drink our way into the kingdom of God.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Profanities

I've always been intrigued by the idea of "profane" speech.  Perhaps it has something to do with my childhood.  Whenever I think of a "naughty" word, I get this bitter taste in my mouth--the distinct flavor of Ivory Soap.  I'll never forget the first time I repeated a "dirty" word (I must have been around 7 or 8 years old).  My mom was horrified.  "Where did you hear that?"  Of course, I didn't know.  A little boy can't remember what he heard an hour ago much less who? said what? when?  Anyway, I do remember what happened next.  With a stern look of disapproval, she marched me into the bathroom, lathered up a wash rag with Ivory Soap, and proceeded to "wash my mouth out" since it was "so dirty."  One never forgets the taste of Ivory Soap.

I only made that mistake once more.  My brother Denny, however, didn't.  He cursed like sailor around mom (he had a particular affinity for the f-bomb).  Sometimes, after letting one fly, Denny would head for the bathroom unfazed by the routine (I had begun to wonder if my brother had developed a taste for soap).  After the umteenth time of hearing Denny let one fly, mom changed her tactic.  She grabbed Denny by the arm, escorted him to the bathroom, grabbed a new bar of soap, shoved it in his face, and said, "Take a bite."  I watched from the hallway, wondering what he would do.  After some hesitation (and mom's insistence), Denny finally nibbled a little corner off the edge.  "That won't do," at which point mom shoved the bar into his mouth and made him chomp off a tobacco-sized plug.  Denny winced as he chewed on the white bite, foam pouring from his six-year-old "dirty" mouth..  "Keep chewing till I say so.  Don't swallow it.  Keep chewing."  Denny never spoke profanities in mom's presence again.

Profaned speech is culturally conditioned.  We decide what is vulgar and what isn't (and the list changes across time, across cultures).  In fact, the word "vulgar" comes from the Latin, "vulgarus" which means "common."  The term was used by the educated class to describe the low-brow language of commoners.  To speak in vulgarities, to use "profane" (common) speech, was a sign that you were not only uneducated but also inarticulate--unable to use the proper word at the proper time due to your limited vocabulary.  The same thing happens today.  Notice how some people use the f-bomb like a gap-filler when they can't think of anything else to say.  "That f***in' lawnmower won't f***in' work because the f***in' mechanic didn't fix the f***in' engine."  I usually don't walk away from that guy and think, "Wow.  He's brilliant."

And, why do we call it an "f-bomb"?  Obviously, some profanities are more explosive than others, which brings me to the point of this post.

A well-known, often crass, comic used a profane word the other day and it created quite a stir.  Now, that sentence alone should raise an eyebrow because comics are notorious for their profanities.  But, this was no ordinary vulgarity.  In fact, I would say the word he used has risen to an even higher level than the "f-bomb."  He used the n-word.  And, as a result, even this brash, arrogant, take-no-prisoners, abrasive, foul-mouthed personality was brought to the point of contrition (I must say I took a little pleasure in his mea culpa--something I never thought I 'd hear him say).

So, lest you think that profanities are old fashioned, a relic of the old days--that we've become more sophisticated due to our ability to accept vulgarities--know that even a guy like Bill Maher has to watch his potty mouth.