Friday, September 30, 2011

Life by Default

I'm a window-starer-outer. Sometimes my mind is whirling through all kinds of problems, ideas, narratives. I find myself drawn to the window in order to think, not paying attention to what I'm seeing. Then it hits me; it's like my eyes finally force my mind to take in what I'm staring at. "What a beautiful day." Whether it's raining or sunshine, trees in full leaf or hugged by snow blankets, I can't help but say to myself, "Look at what you're missing!"

This kind of suspended animation also happens when I'm driving great distances. One minute I'm leaving Springfield headed east to see my daughter in Tennessee. The next minute I'm two hours down the road. "How did I get here?"

Sleep walking through life, making our way through daily routines without noticing the sensational (and I mean that literally, sensations like goose bumps or shiny reflections or rustling leaves), we leave behind the full opportunities to take in all that there is out there. My default mode--carrying on like nothing is happening--is stealing moments of pure joy. Instead, we're made to relish every divine gift.

When I "come to my senses," it's almost as if God Himself were saying to me, "Wake Up! Wake Up! Don't you see the glory?"

"Yes, Lord. I will for a while. But then I'll return to default mode."

Now, what was I thinking about?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Common Art

I was reminded yesterday of Jeremiah's unusual approach to discovering what God had to say. Most of the time, God simply spoke to the prophet, "Go say this . . ." But one day, God said, "Go watch a potter to hear my word." That's an amazing approach to divination that is rarely appreciated by today's prophets.

Need a word from God? Want to know what God thinks? Go watch someone make something useful, something beautiful, then you'll see what's on the very heart of God.

I love that idea. We tend to separate art as an aesthetic opportunity, something we simply stare at and take in (of course, it can be that. Don't we all love to take in the beauty of what others see?). And, to be sure, watching the artistry of throwing pots must have inspired Jeremiah. But, this potter was not making "art" for "art's" sake. Indeed, the potter's artistry was necessary for life. God's word is embedded in the every-day art of living.

So, even though God speaks reliably through "conventional methods" (thus saith the Lord), every now and then He surprises us with beautiful, practical truth.

Want to hear God's voice? Go find a potter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paul's Offense

Every time we work through Galatians, I marvel over my students' response to Paul's idea that the law is not an ethical standard for his gentile converts. The harder Paul pushes for a law-free gospel, the more my students push back (well, they really don't push back too hard--honestly, they're in shock). It just doesn't seem right to their ears. I think their resistance is attributable to two sources: their religious upbringing and American culture (which of course are intrinsically linked).

They've been taught their whole lives that law is the benchmark for right behavior, whether at home or in church. Sin, therefore, is defined as breaking the law. Now, that makes sense for unbelievers; but for those of us who have been set free from the law of sin and death, it should be quite apparent what (or more accurately who) sets the standard for righteousness: Jesus Christ. To obey him is right, to disobey him is sin. It's as simple as that, which is why Paul believed the only way to live righteously is to "walk" in the power of Christ's Spirit, the Holy Spirit. What the law could not do--effect righteousness--God did through Christ. Our obedience has nothing to do with law (Paul insists our obedience is based on faith).

The other mental block to Paul's law-free gospel comes from growing up in America, where righteousness/justice is defined by law. Indeed, to the ears of American Christians, law-free sounds like an invitation to anarchy. Besides, to the American way of thinking, our justice is supposed to be a God-given gift (not only to us but to the whole world). Imagine how difficult Paul's new standard of righteousness sounded to his Jewish kinsmen, who rightfully believed their law came from God.

No wonder Paul got in trouble, then and now.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Wearing out Hospitality

When it comes to Christ believers, we should never be concerned that we would ever "wear out our welcome" with one another. If Christ defines hospitality, and he always welcomes sinners and enemies, then the Body of Christ should do the same.

One of the clearest places where we should find eternal hospitality is at the Lord's table, a banquet memorial where we proclaim the Lord's death till he comes. The reason we come is that we are hungry--hungry for mercy, hungry for friendship, hungry for help, hungry for hope. There is no place for the self-righteous, the insiders who think they belong there. Jesus came to help those who are sick, and as in the days of old, there's a bunch of sick people in the world.

What is sad to me is how we've turned the table of our Lord into a exclusive club, where only certain people have the right to participate. How did this happen? It's completely backwards to what Jesus tried to do, what he intended. He was famous (or notorious) for eating with sinners. Therefore, if there were ever a time when sinners (regardless of who we are) should be welcome, it's at communion--where God dines with humanity, the ultimate act of hospitality.

When I come to his table, I imagine Christ saying to me, a sinner who holds his broken body in my hands, "Here again?" And I say, "Yes Lord. I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm wearing out my welcome." To which he fictitiously replies, "On the contrary, I've been expecting you--and so have they."

"Oh, every who's thirsty. Come to the waters. He who has no money, come, buy and eat."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Killer Death

As summer gives way to autumn around here, I can't help but think about death. As the earth in all its glory dies, green will turn to brown, blue will turn gray, and light will no longer rule the heavens--even the sun dies a little every day. One might get the impression (as in the days of old) that death reigns from the autumnal to the vernal equinox. Not so.

If Jesus' cross changed everything (turning shame into honor, injustice to justification, evil into good, death to life), then the "new creation" reign of God's kingdom shows up even now. It's easy to see the kingdom of God when all is life, green and blue, and the sun never seems to set. But, we believe Christ rules death, that the kingdom shows up just as well in brown and gray, and that dark skies are a sign of divine favor.

So, let the trees lose their leaves. Let the frost kill the grass. Let the night rule the day. And, we will declare the glory of Christ.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Power of Impious Prayers

I was painting the dining room in our house over the weekend when my "trusty right hand" let me down. I was cutting in the wall and I accidentally slathered paint on the ceiling, at which point I used the Christian curse, "Dad gummit." That got me to thinking, "Does God grant our requests, even those masked in piety or delivered in outright anger? When some of us pray, 'Dad gummit' or 'God damn it,' does He answer our request and deliver a divine curse?"

If He were a fertility god, a power that was easily manipulated for our purposes, then the God of Israel would have to do what we say, bringing curses down upon a variety of persons, objects, and circumstances. Imagine how many times the God of heaven hears the prayer coming from Americans? One wonders (a la "Bruce Almighty") if the simple request, "God damn it," is the most common prayer He hears, more than "Grant us peace" or "Forgive us" or even "Help me." Indeed, if we were to believe that God is our personal Lord who answers our every prayer according to our expectations, then we might be led to infer that the damned world is a result of our impious prayers.

Then again, I'm grateful the God of Israel is not a fertility god, that He ignores our impetuous requests, and that He would rather hear the heartfelt cry of an abandoned soul who screams impiously, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?"

Friday, September 16, 2011

Where is the Kingdom of God?

The old arguments--is the kingdom a realm or reign?--place the issue of God's kingdom within a false dichotomy, as if we have to decide whether we are the means or the ends of the kingdom work. Those who emphasize that Jesus came to reign tend to place the locus of that reign within Christians, spiritualizing the kingdom. Those who say that Jesus was talking about the kingdom as a certain place (realm) often reduce the kingdom to societal/political efforts--as if we must establish structures (or counter-measures) to build the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, we want to know "how" to effect the kingdom, and the methods seem to depend upon whether we argue for reign or realm.

But, I'm beginning to wonder if we're missing the reality of the kingdom because it is indivisible. That is to say, the kingdom cannot be a reign without a realm, or a realm without a reign. Or, to put it another way, the kingdom of God is relational (much like the Trinity). That 's what I see when I try to have ears to hear Jesus' parables. He was doing more than "explaining" the kingdom, he was inaugurating the kingdom (through word and deed)--through words by creating worlds of meaning, through deeds by giving meaning to the world.

So, how do we become/do the kingdom? Here are a few ideas.

1. Give power away
2. Forgive debts (yes, even economic ones)
3. Eat with sinners
4. Believe in Jesus Christ
5. Worship the God of Israel
6. Heal the sick
7. Raise the dead
8. Serve the marginalized
9. Bless the cursed
10. Listen to the Spirit

What would you add?

Whenever we do/become these things, we see the kingdom come.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Benefit of Doubt

If there were ever a group of people who should second guess their impulsive judgments about others it should be Christ followers. We know what forgiveness is. We know we are not enemies. We know all of us have something to learn. We know all of us are flawed. We know the "ideal self" is myth. We know none of us sees things clearly. We know everyone is a critic and everyone has a critic. We know people love to talk about everyone's failures but their own. We know pride is nothing more than an elaborate cover-up for our insecurities. We know evil runs through every single one of us. We know God will finish what He started. And, most of all, we know Christ.

Of course, it's hard to extend the benefit of the doubt when you're licking your wounds. I'd rather operate with the assurance that I know what I saw, I know what I heard, I know what I felt. It's hard to argue with me when I'm talking about myself. But, then, I think of him. And, how he said, "father forgive them, they don't know what they're doing." The ultimate benefit of the doubt.

Maybe next time I'll say to myself, "he didn't mean it, and, even if he did, I don't know." Sure will save me a lot of grief. Rummaging through past hurts and sorting out possible motives only contributes to my delusion of certainty. Instead, I should live with the benefit of doubt.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


There's a song on Radiohead's "In Rainbows" that explores the naked vulnerability between a man and a woman--a theme as old as Adam and Eve. And, it got me to thinking: in the resurrection, we won't be wearing any clothes. Think about it: if sin and death brought shame and suffering to humanity (and clothes are desperate attempts to hide our shame), then when we share in the complete honor of Christ, all shame is erased. We'll have nothing to hide. No more pretentious fashion statements to hide our insecurities. No more beauty contests (we are lovely in Him). No more impoverished rags. No more "look at me." No more "us versus them." We will be dressed in his glory and that will be enough for eternity. We will be naked and not ashamed. In fact, after having "put on" Christ's resurrection body, we will look back at this time and consider it odd that we would have considered nakedness shameful. Heaven come to earth will be one, big nudist colony.

This thought had never occurred to me until I heard Radiohead. Who would have thought their music would be such an inspiring source of theological contemplation? I do have big ideas; they are going to happen.

Can't wait to be nude on the last day, naked before the One who clothed me in his brilliance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sneaky peeky

Here's a little preview (on Google) of my book on Paul's Spirituality that's coming out soon (beginning of November). Thanks for spreading the word.

Let me know what you think.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A Sermon for Grace (circa January 1997)

This evening I have a rare opportunity to speak as a pastor and a father during the dedication of our daughter to the Lord. I know that my comments tonight are no more unusual than those that would be offered by any father who could speak his thoughts before this congregation. Yet, I am compelled to speak not simply because I am your pastor, but more importantly to me, because I am Grace’s father. And, if there were ever a time that I would want to offer a sermon just for her, it would be now, before she hears too much. For the world is filled with opinions, competing voices that masquerade as friends with good advice. Since Grace is only two months old, the only voices that seem to matter to her now are her mother’s, brother’s, sister’s, and father’s. When I enter her room, she turns her head to look for me, as if I’m the only one she hears. I like it when she looks at me. But recently, the joy of her steady gaze has brought to my mind the weighty responsibility that I will be a voice that she will count on when she makes her way into the noisy world. As she grows up, I don’t expect to drown out the sound of other’s with my opinion—even when I shout in a heated argument over a boy friend, or school work, or career choices, or life decisions. But I don’t want to be ignored, either. It’s too much to expect that she will always hear the voice of God in my words; she will not always heed my advice and I will not always speak the words of God. Nevertheless, I’m hoping and praying that, tonight, as we entrust the care of our children to Our Heavenly Father, my daughter will stand one day before a congregation of believers, dedicating her daughter to the Lord with the same anxious desires, trusting that God will do for her child what He has done for my child. This sermon is for Grace.

I’ve been spending some time recently in the book of Job. Grace, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. The timing of your arrival, the third child in our family, has nothing to do with my interest in Job’s story. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how vulnerable we are as humans—how risky life is. Many of us would like to think that life comes with a promise of satisfaction guaranteed. But that is not the case. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow. Uncertainty leads to anxiety because every day we read in the papers, hear in news reports, that someone else has fallen—knocked down by the unsuspecting blows of evil and suffering. We wonder if it will ever happen to us, if the difficulties of life will fall upon our family, robbing us of the joy of living. That’s why we are all drawn to the story of Job. As a book of Wisdom, I’ve been searching its pages looking for clues, knowing that his story could be my story, your story, our story.

Job is every man. His desire to protect his children from the result of their sin illustrates very well the paternal impulse of every father. From the moment that your mother and I were told that you would be born, I’ve had this powerful urge to do everything I can to protect you. Sometimes, I feel like its my responsibility to keep you from harm, to ward off any possibility that you could be hurt, to protect your welfare. As parents, we all fall into the trap of thinking that we can create a utopia for our children, a garden of Eden, where life will always be as pleasant as taking a walk in the coolness of a summer night, and where the effort of your hands will always produce crops without weeds. But then we remember that we don’t live in Eden, that we have welcomed you into a world filled with thorns and thistles, and (the most sobering thought of all) that we are not creators—we are creatures of God’s hand just like you, just like Job. That’s the lesson, ultimately, that Job learned: that he is not God. It sounds too simple to be profound. You would think that, as human beings, we would never get our roles mixed up with God’s. But we do. Made in His Image, we are able to protect sometimes, create sometimes, rule sometimes, will our will sometimes. We have just enough success to foster this grand idea that we can control our destinies, that we have the power to create the future, that we can protect, defend, insure our own welfare as well as the welfare of our children. But then life reminds us, just as He reminded Job, that the world is fragile, time is uncertain, and that we are not our own.
Grace, I can be your father; I cannot be your God. Many things are out of my hands, beyond my control. I have to trust God that He cares for you more than your mother and I do. That He has your best interests at heart, that He will watch over you when I cannot, that He will guide you when I am gone, that He will be your God.

To be sure, I’ve made the mistake (perhaps like Job) of trying to be all things for my family. Although God has given me the privilege of experiencing the joy of fathering children, He will not share the exclusive right of being The Provider for all children. He reminds me of that often. When we brought your brother home from the hospital, like most first-time parents, neither your mother nor I could sleep that first night. Both of us kept waking up, putting our hands on his little body to make sure that he was still breathing. After surviving a few nights at home, we began to gain the confidence that we could do this—that we could watch over our child and protect him from harm. But things got progressively worse. As Andrew grew, life got riskier. At first, he was a one-dimensional creature. We put him on the blanket, he stayed on the blanket. We could even leave the room, return, and still find him where we left him. But then, he developed into a two-dimensional creature. He starting crawling around, moving to and fro. We found that we could no longer leave him in a room for any length of time. Evidently, all those times he looked liked he was innocently entertaining himself, looking around the room unable to go anywhere, he was secretly planning his strategy, taking inventory of everything he wanted to get his hands on when he could crawl. Not to be outdone by a six-month old, your mother and I secured the premises, trying to make our home child-proof. Just when we thought we had everything under control, Andrew graduated to three-dimensional status. He joined the world of the vertical. He learned to walk. At first, I tried to go everywhere he went, anticipating every fall, removing every obstacle. But that didn’t last long. Bumps and bruises are the prices paid for experimenting with the laws of gravity. I found that I was better at damage control than creating the optimum environment where a baby could learn to walk without the risk of falling. To pick him up when he fell, to doctor a scrape on his knee, to assure him that everything would be all right, this seemed to be my predestined role as father.

It’s hard breaking the news to your child that the world can be a harsh place. That bad things happen to good people, that good people can be cruel sometimes, that we all sin and fall short of what God hopes for us. That we all die. We want to keep that part a secret as long as we can. Adults don’t like talking about death; who looks forward to telling their children the truth? Last week your sister asked your mother about death. We were all in the car, driving past a cemetery, when Emma said, “Mom, is that the place where ghosts live?” Your mother delicately tried to tell her that cemeteries are for people. She couldn’t conceive of such a thing. As your mother tried to explain to a five-year-old girl about the reality of life and death, my heart died inside. I remember the first time it happened, when Andrew asked me a question about death and dying as we were driving down the road. I didn’t want to tell him the truth. I wanted to make something up, or assure him that he didn’t need to think about such things. But I told him the truth, for his own good.

Why does birth make us think of death? Why do those at the end of their lives seem to delight more than the rest of us at the sight of a baby? Why do we recall with vivid detail the birthday of our children and the death day of our parents, and much of life in between is a vague memory? Why do flowers greet the arrival and mark the departure of human life? Why did we cry tears of joy and sorrow? Because life is unpredictably desirable. Despite the risk, the disappointments, the sadness, we dare to hope that life is good because God is. Which brings me to the verse, Grace, that I want to share with you tonight. It is an incredibly honest verse. In the middle of his search for wisdom, Job exclaims, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless, I will argue my ways before Him” (Job. 13:15). I’m sure that you will find many passages in God’s Word that will help you find your way. I offer this one to you knowing that, to many, Job 13:15 may not sound like a very appropriate verse for the dedication of a two-month old baby girl. Nevertheless, I hope that you will add it to your list of favorite verses of the Bible, because I think the entire story of Job (and our story, too) is boiled down to this one truth: when it is all said and done, from the beginning to the end, God is our hope.

It means something to me that a man like Job would say something like this. He had come to the point where he knew hope would die if he could not believe. Even though he says God had been cruel to him (30:21), Job would rather hope in a God who does not explain himself than give up hope altogether. What I like about Job’s conclusion to life’s dilemma is not just that he is unwilling to stop believing, but that he refuses to stop talking. The fact that he is willing to take his case to God, “arguing his ways before Him,” tells me more about God than it does about Job. Although Job reminds me of Jacob, who refuses to let go of God until he is blessed (and has a life of pain to show for it), the one I admire most in the story is God. God lets Job talk. He lets him work it out, to talk it out, to take his case to God. Job questions the justice of God and heaven is silent. Job claims that there is no benefit to living a pious life, and no judgment comes. Job dares God to kill him with the truth, and no fire falls from the sky. Why is God so patient, so tolerant, so merciful? Because He knows that Job doesn’t know the whole story. We know the whole story, we’ve read chapters 1 and 2. We know why Job suffers, although Job doesn’t understand. We know why God doesn’t answer, although Job can’t hear. We know why God is merciful, although Job can’t see it. We know because we’ve read the Bible.

Do you see, little one? This is good news. God will be merciful to us, too, because Job’s story is our story. There will come a time in your life when you find yourself questioning the purposes of God. You will experience heartaches that will leave you disappointed with God. You will tell Him what you really think, how you are really upset, how you are so confused, and He will listen. He will listen to every word because He loves you more than any of us do, because He knows the whole story, because He knows that He is our only hope.

Which is why we are here tonight. He is the reason your mother brought you before this congregation of believers. He is the reason your brother and sister listened patiently as they watched you being dedicated to God. He is the reason your father speaks to you now. We hope in a God who gives Grace.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The trivial world of superlatives

Perhaps it's stating the obvious, but in a world where those who scream the loudest, behave the most bizarre, claim the most ridiculous get noticed, superlatives have lost their purpose. Take any adjective that ends in -est and you'll typically find in the midst of social discourse the most banal, irrelevant, trivial claim. It especially shows up in sports, during a game, or when two "experts" square off in a debate.

Is it possible for a sports announcer to talk about a game (A GAME!) without using expressions like, "absolutely," or "without a doubt," or "no doubt about it" after his/her partner has made some trivial point about the world of sports? Why would we talk about such subjective things--gray areas to be sure--in such absolute terms? It used to be that absolutes were rare, reserved for the sublime, life-and-death issues that pertain to everyone. Absolutes were supposed to be universal.

But, today, they're ubiquitous--everyone uses them for everything (absolutely!). As a result, superlatives have the opposite effect on me. When I hear them, I think to myself, "They're talking about nothing."

Perhaps that should give Christians a new strategy for sharing our faith. Understatement may be the most substantive way to put the things that matter most.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Dialectic of Being a Disciple

Part of my frustration (expressed in yesterday's post) derives from a troubling trend. There seems to be an inverse proportion of theological education and anti-intellectualism in Baptist life. In other words, the more educated some of us become the less interested many of us are in the intellectual pursuit of our faith. The gap between clergy and laity widens despite our current age of "global information." Or, to put it bluntly, lay people seem satisfied with stupid answers (I realize such a statement is crass, elitist, arrogant, and perhaps downright unChristian).

Then I read today on Scot McKnight's blog a similar sentiment, as he reviews a new book by Mark Noll:

The premise? A free church tradition that celebrates "the bible is our creed" invites (even celebrates?) anti-intellectualism.

Then, I sift through these sentiments as I think about how Jesus thanked God that eggheads in his day didn't get what he was trying to do. Rather, he celebrated the fact that the simple, the "babes", the commoners were drawn to him and his kingdom work.

But, they still had to "learn" (the root idea in the word "disciple"). So, I guess I'm wondering: are these ideas mutually exclusive, learning and simplicity?

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Great Divorce

I just breezed through a recent academic catalog by one of the major publishers. Within its pages, there are descriptions of several soon-to-be-released books written by brilliant Christian men and women. As I read through the titles and the blurbs, I couldn't help but wonder, "Why so many?" Of course, new books are the result of new research, and scholars are doing more than their fair share of advancing their disciplines for the cause of Christ. Some skeptics might accuse the academy of self-promotion: the guild needs to write, publishers need to print. And, every time I work through these catalogs, my book budget grows beyond my resources. I think, "I must read this. I must have this. I must know this."

But then I think of the Church and how many Christians will never read any of these rich resources, these gold mines of knowledge, these warehouses of spiritual help. In truth, I don't meet very many non-specialists (read, "average Christians") who read much of any of this stuff that helps me so much. Oh, they'll listen to preachers. They'll watch t.v. They'll listen to radio and music. But, to read serious, deep, theological reflections on the essence of our faith? Not many takers.

But, that doesn't stop scholars from writing. Thus, the ever-widening gap between scholarship and every-day Christianity makes me wonder whether scholars are making a difference in the Church at all.

Friday, September 02, 2011

St. Paul's Cathedral?

Given what we know from Paul's letters (and even Acts--thanks for the reminder, JR!), I think the apostle would have a hard time planting a church in America. Some of you might say, "He wouldn't even try" and you would be right. Paul was a pioneer; he didn't like "building on another man's foundation," i.e., he preferred to work new territory. But even if he broke his own rule and came to America, I think Paul would be repelled by the notion of starting a church here for several reasons:

1. Paul thought weakness was a good thing.
2. Paul thought divisions were a bad thing (denominations?).
3. Paul thought the rights of individuals should be sacrificed for the church.
4. Paul didn't believe in free speech.
5. Paul thought singles were more devoted to Christ than married couples.
6. Paul thought the poor should give money to help others.
7. Paul preferred for preachers to have blue-collar jobs.

Some of these ideas probably wouldn't land him in prison (like they did in his day). Rather, I think he would be dismissed as a nut job, ignored by the masses. He wouldn't be able to start a church here; therefore there would be no churches named "St. Paul's Methodist" or "St. Paul's Episcopal." And, I think he would prefer it that way.