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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Real Meaning of Easter

Most of us are concerned about endings.  We talk often about the importance of closure, trying to make sense of our lives in the mean time.  It's no wonder, then, that eschatology plays such a crucial role in understanding the story of humanity--not only for all people, but especially for each one of us.  I may think about the destiny of humans, where it will end for all of us, but the question becomes more important as I think about my ending.  How much more time do I have left?  When will it end for me?  How will I die?  And, most importantly, what happens after I die?  That's the question that hangs over all of our heads, our clear sense of mortality.  One day it will be all over, then what?  Which is why our notions about life after death sometimes rise to the surface (even though we often try to suppress them), especially after we bury someone we love.  Where are they now?  Is this all there is?  Even for those of us who belong to Christ, sometimes the idea that we will live forever with him in a spiritual place called heaven isn't enough to shout down the pain of sickness and death.

And, it was never supposed to.

For our hope isn't that one day we will "shed our mortal coil"--this earthly prison--and live in heaven with those we love forever.  Rather, the entire NT is witness to this hope:  one day, for those of us who die in Christ, our bodies (as well as all creation) will be raised from the dead.  Sin and death cannot destroy what God has made in his image.  If it did, sin would win.  But God won't let that happen.  The resurrection of Christ (then, now, and in the end) proves it.

But, not all Christians celebrate Easter with that in mind.  Rather, for them, Easter is about celebrating Christ's victory over his death and the threat of hell against us.  Sin and death lost the battle because God raised Christ from the grave, proving that the penalty of sin has been paid for us, which means we get to go to heaven when we die.  That's what Christ did for us.  That's what Easter means to them.  It's not about our hope that one day we too will be raised from the dead.  Rather, for many Christians, Easter is a celebration of our victory in Christ over sin and eternal death (hell)--but not our grave.

To be sure, sin is a horrible enemy--one that we have welcomed into our lives, our world.  Genesis 3 tells the story of when it all began:  how Adam and Eve sinned against God and brought about the curse of death to all creation.  We inherited this mess.  And, even though we "didn't start the fire," we've certainly added gas to the flames.  Therefore, for those who see Easter as our "get out of hell" card, the defeat of sin through the death and resurrection of Christ is truly worth celebrating.  But, to me, that kind of Easter celebration doesn't go back far enough (nor far ahead enough).  Instead, the significance of the Resurrection of Christ goes all the way back to Genesis 1 and all the way ahead to Revelation 21-22.

Christ not only conquered sin and death, he restored us to be what God intended from the beginning:  to bear the very image of God, who is Christ, in life, in death, and--this is crucial--in resurrection.  One day, on the last day, we will reign with Christ over sin, death, and our graves on this resurrected earth.  That's when we truly celebrate Easter, from the first chapter of the Bible all the way to the last.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Prodigal Son: the next day

I've often wondered what some of Jesus' "unfinished parables" would look like if we took them to their "logical" extreme.  Here's my "extended" version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (you'll notice my add-on appears in brackets):

Prodigal Son Revisited

A man had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.” So he divided his wealth between them.

And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.  Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.

But when he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’”

So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and  put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”  And they began to celebrate.

Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be.  And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.”  But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him.  But he answered and said to his father, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”  And he said to him, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”  [But he refused to join the celebration.

Early the next morning, the older son went to work in the field, waiting for his brother to join him.  But, he never came.  The longer he worked, the angrier he got.  That evening, once again he heard music and dancing coming from his father’s house.  Inside he found his father and brother still feasting and celebrating.  Enraged he cried out, “Why do you spend what is not yours?  You are drinking my wine, eating my food.  Am I your slave?”  But the father replied, “Since we are eating your food and drinking your wine, come, dine with us!”  But he refused to join the celebration.

The next morning, while working in the field, the older son thought to himself, “I’m tired of doing all the work.  If the fattened calf shall be slain, I shall eat it with my friends.”  So that night he had a party, feasting and drinking with all of his friends until the sun came up, then he slept the day away.  This happened for several nights until one day the younger son confronted his brother, “Wake up!  How long will you lie around in your drunkenness?  Are you not wasting your inheritance?”

Then the brother replied, “All that I have is yours.  Why should you worry about my inheritance?”]