Thursday, December 06, 2012

Follow Up

After re-reading my previous post, I thought, "That sounds hoity-toity."  And, the last thing I want to do is sound like I have it all together, dispensing wisdom from on high, a "look at how great I do the Christian life" post.  (In fact, I despise those kinds of posts).

So, let me apologize and try again.

What I meant by my critique of vows is how me-centered the whole wedding affair has become in recent years.  Of course, we all see this:  the "Bridezilla" shows would have no appeal if this weren't the case.  And, my wife's observation about the content of recent "vows" made me want to ask:  what about God?

Then, I thought about how Sheri and I came to the realization that we wanted to spend our life together.  Of course, I am attracted to her beauty, inside and out.  Of course, the thought of being with her for the rest of my life was a fantasy coming true.  Of course, I thought of the benefits of our life together.  But, when we got down to the nub of things--why are we doing this?--we believe that God put us together, that He knew better than we did that we needed each other to fulfill our destiny.

I know that may sound hollywoodish, even sentimentally trite.  Regardless, we felt this gravity, this very clear sense that God was on our side.  God called Sheri to a very specific mission within His Kingdom's work.  Me too.  And, we marvelled over how we came to see that our lives would be folded  together for that singular purpose.

There are stories to tell as to how He made that evident to us--too personal for a blog post.  But, that's what I mean when I say that we knew very clearly that we were making vows to God the day we promised we'd take care of each other.  I had already thanked God a thousand times for the gift of Sheri Kaye Richardson.  I didn't need to tell everyone why.  Rather, on the day we married, I needed to promise God that I would take care of her because I knew she was His gift to me.

So, even after over thirty-three years of marriage, every time I think about our vows, I think about God.  I promised Him that I would love her.  And, I know He heard every word.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Wedding Vows to Myself

My wife noticed a trend in wedding vows that I think is incredibly insightful.  But, before I get to that, a little context . . .

Sheri and I have been talking a lot about how younger couples are approaching marriage with a different set of priorities than we did (Boy, are we starting to sound like the "old folks," or what?).  We wanted to get married for a variety of reasons:  love, companionship, destiny, etc.  But, one of the main reasons we married was this:  we believed God put us together to make a difference for His Kingdom.  Or, in less flowery terms, the ol' "two heads are better than one" approach to living.  In other words--and this sounds more foreign these days--we owed it to God to marry.  That's why, when we made our vows on our wedding day, we believed we were making them to God as much as to each other.

Today, that doesn't seem to be the case.  At least, that's what I have seen/heard a few times and Sheri has witnessed dozens of times (she enjoys attending weddings, me not so much).  Typically, the bride and groom recite their hand-written "vows" to each other.  But, honestly, they don't sound like promises to God at all.  Rather, the "vows" go something like this:

"You are the best thing that ever happened to me.  I've waited all my life for the right person to come along.  Then there was you.  You fulfill all my dreams.  You're everything I wanted.  I can't wait to spend the rest of my life with someone who makes me feel so special." Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.

It's all about me, me, me, me, me, me, and me.

In other words, as they make their "vows" to each other, both the bride and the groom are actually making vows to themselves.  But, that is a dangerous way to start married life; those who've been married for a while see the problem. 

What happens when he stops being the guy "you've always dreamed of"?  What happens when she is no longer "the woman I always wanted"?  What will they do when the married life they think they're entitled to--a "happily ever after" tailored made to their expectations--comes apart?  Who will they go to for help, especially since God was completely "cut out of the deal"?   They made no vows to God.  What could He do for them?  They only promised themselves that they will have what they wanted.  So, what happens when a bride eventually finds out she married a bum?  What does a guy do when the "trophy wife" lets herself go?  Complaining only makes it worse.  Marriage counseling usually turns into "he's not the man I thought he was" or "I never loved her."

So, they usually decide to find someone else, you know, the guy who will meet all of her dreams, the woman who will accept him as he is.  And, so it goes . . . .

All the while I imagine the One who invented marriage, witnessing the second, third, fourth, maybe even fifth try, saying to any who has ears to hear:  "What about Me?"  Since He came up with the idea, you'd think we owe Him something.

Friday, October 05, 2012

unAmerican Justice

A church I've had some contact with over the years recently fired a minister.  There were several issues at play, reasons why the leadership decided to dismiss the man.  Rumors were flying around.  Charges were levelled.  Committees investigated the accusations.  And, through it all, I kept praying (from a distance) justice would be served.  I don't believe firing the minister was just.  But, then again, I don't have the same definition of justice as others.

Here's the problem:  I think most churches operate with an American pretense of justice, not a biblical sense of justice.  The American approach is this:  investigate the matter so that you can determine exactly what happened so that retribution can be served.  Of course, the pretense shows up throughout:  who ever "gets to the bottom" of things?  Who can claim infallible judgment?  And, most important, who decides what kind of punishment fits the crime?  Ahhhhh, but that's where our American reflexes kick in.  We presume to untangle the Gordian Knot of "he said, she said."  We presume perfect vision when it comes to recognizing the truth.  We presume, whatever the crime, to already know the punishment.  We think justice is served when people get what they deserve.  And yet, we know the American justice system is incredibly flawed (innocent people are punished, the guilty get off).  What often happens in our pretentious "quest for justice" is that we don't get to the bottom of things.  We don't know for certain who did/said what.  We know we've got a mess on our hands.  But justice must be served.  Somebody has to pay.  We are impatient.  That means a scapegoat usually takes the punishment so that we can feel better about the mess we made trying to "seek justice."  But there's two things churches need to know before they act out their American ways.

1.  After what we did to His Son, God hates scapegoating.

2.  The way God does justice, criminals/sinners/lawbreakers don't get what they deserve.

The way God makes us right (justice!), is he forgives.  The way God turns enemies into friends (reconciliation!) is to sacrifice for them.  The way God does justice is He shows mercy.  That's the way of God.  That's the way of the cross.  This is what Christian justice looks like.  In other words, it is completely unAmerican.

Wouldn't it be wonderful (literally) if a church actually lived according to God's sense of justice rather than the American perversion of it?  What would that church look like?  Instead, we hold grudges.  Rush to judgment.  Punish the sinner.  And, pretend like we've done the "right thing."

So, this is what I've been praying regarding this particular church:  "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An Apology

I was asked last year to contribute to a website that would answer the questions of seekers.  I was given the topic, "God, where are you?"  I wasn't sure whether I had the chops to do it.  I told the producers that they could pitch the article if it didn't work.  They took some time evaluating, then decided not to use the article.  I think I know why they rejected it (I'm too Barthian to defend the faith for unbelievers).  Yet, I wonder what others might think.  So, what do you think?  Here it is:

Have you ever played the fantasy game, “god for a day”?  I’m not referring to a computer game; it’s a mind game that I’ve played several times in my head.  I usually play it after I’ve heard another news story about the horrendous evil in our world:  destruction caused by war, famine, earthquakes, tsunamis.  “If I were a big powerful god,” I reason to myself, “I wouldn’t let things like this happen.”  Then, as I explore my solutions to the problem of evil and suffering, it begins to dawn on me:  “God has put himself in an impossible situation.”


Take war for example.  The temptation to sweep down from on high and stop the madness of war by crushing those who make war doesn’t sound very god-like.  Such a god would only be contributing to the problem, making war against those who make war.  So, when I consider the question, “God, why don’t you do something to stop this war?”—if I were god, I would say, “I didn’t start it.  Why should I be the one to stop it?”  Or, consider the human suffering caused by earthquakes.  Certainly this is where God “messed up,” creating a world where natural disasters bring devastation.  But, then again, if I were god, I would say, “earthquakes don’t kill humans.  The houses they build are what kill them.”  What about hurricanes?  “Don’t live on the coast.”  What about famine?  “You mean the kind of famine resulting from war, when humans are manipulated like pawns and the losers employ a scorched earth policy?  Or, do you mean the problem of hunger due to the fact that the haves refuse to share with the have-nots?”  Indeed, when I play the game, I began to sound like the god who makes excuses, refusing to take responsibility for the humans I created.  In my hypothetical world, whatever this “god” does to stop the madness of human suffering, at that very point he ceases to be God.  And, that’s when I come to the undeniable conclusion, “I wouldn’t be a very good god.”


“Why doesn’t God show up and do something for a change?”  That’s the question a friend blurted out one day when we were discussing the latest catastrophe in the world.  “Maybe he already has done something,” I said, not fully realizing the implications of such a claim.  If we were to ask God, “Where are you?”, perhaps he would say “Look around.”


Life:  We live in a world of green and blue.  We may be able to explain the color scheme of all living things in biological terms, describing the processes of chlorophyll and H2O.  But, what of the sheer, irrepressible reality of life?  Yes, death shows up every day.  But, life always seems to eclipse what death tries to destroy.  The sovereign power of life makes me wonder, “Could it be that God is staring me in the face every day?”  I keep looking past the mountains and trees, animals and starry nights, trying to catch a glimpse of the divine.  Maybe the fingerprints of God are right in front of me.


Beauty:  The reliable gift of life may lead some of us to presume the absence of God.  The mechanics of creation can certainly explain the daily rising and setting of the sun.  But how do we explain the simple, pure joy of taking in the beauty of sunset?  Why is there beauty?  It isn’t functional.  It doesn’t make the sun come up or go down.  It isn’t necessary.  Most of us start and end the day without noticing the swirling of colors and light that paint the sky twice a day.  But, there it is.  Beauty shows up every day, whether we see it or not.  Why all the effort, this frivolous display of something so simple, so ordinary, yet so wonderful?  Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but why should the eye behold it?  And yet, every once in a while I stand slack-jawed, bowled over by the brilliance of light turning to darkness.


Hope:  Why do we long for a better day?  Left to ourselves—selfish creatures that we are—the ugly realities of “survival of the fittest” should lead all of us to a “doom and gloom” view of the future.  After all, don’t we all, deep down in the core of our being, look out for ourselves above everyone else?  And, if that is the case—that we all possess (as some have called it) a “selfish gene”—how do we explain our hope for a better world?  Shouldn’t we all throw our hands up in resignation and say, “things will never get better because we know ourselves too well”?  C. S. Lewis referred to this as the problem of “good.”  For theists, the problem of evil and suffering is a difficult question, “God, where are you?”  But, for those who do not believe that god exists, the problem of good is equally troubling.  Maybe there’s a reason to believe hope springs eternal because God is.


This is one of the reasons why Christians place so much stock in Jesus.  If it’s true—that Jesus is the Son of God—then God took upon himself the evil and suffering of the world.  This is how God deals with the impossible dilemma of the human condition.  Rather than destroy enemies, God loves them.  Rather than let the world go to hell, God saves it.  Hope has a face.  Beauty is a person.  Life is eternal because God has drawn near to us.  A conversation between Jesus and one of his disciples reveals why Christians believe the ultimate answer to the question, “Where is God?” is Jesus Christ.

“Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know me, Phillip? He who has seen me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8-9).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Losing Faith

I'm becoming more comfortable with the notion that I've lost faith in many ways.  It feels like a clearing out of the underbrush of my soul, a stripping away of the trivialities of my life.  We're typically told in evangelical circles to gain faith.  Oddly enough, I'm discovering how much I gain when my faith is downsized.  Here's a partial list of what I don't believe anymore--in no particular order:

I don't believe in America.
I no longer believe Christians should have all the answers.
I no longer believe that television is redeemable.
I no longer believe that most Christians are good people and that most unbelievers are bad people.
I no longer believe in effective evangelism.
I no longer believe that dramatic conversions are normal.
I no longer believe that our souls are immortal.
I no longer believe that music should be comforting.
I no longer believe that big is better.
I no longer believe that new is improved.
I no longer believe that, deep down, all of us are the same.
I no longer believe that fame is good and obscurity is bad.
I no longer believe that life must be exciting.
I no longer believe that any of us can pass down our faith.
I no longer believe freedom is inherently good.
I no longer believe that hell is bad.
I no longer believe that sin is manageable.
I no longer believe that faith is always rewarding.
I no longer believe that most Christians read the Bible.
I don't believe in heroes.

How about you?  In a desperate attempt to save our faith, how have you lost it?

Friday, September 07, 2012

What's love got to do with it?

I'm sticking my neck on on this one, but, it seems to this middle-age man that "the young folk" are putting way to much importance on the preliminaries to marriage--in particular the engagement and the wedding.

This past week, at the beginning of class, several students broke out in spontaneous applause when a young man and woman entered the room.  I was preparing for the lecture, somewhat oblivious to the commotion, when a few of the students noticed my nonchalance and decided to fill me in on the reason for the festivities, "They just got engaged."  I asked sarcastically, "why the applause?  Shouldn't there be some lamentation?"  Of course, they dismissed my silly question (who would blame them?) as the grumblings of an old man who no longer enjoys the enchantment of true love.

Last year, I overheard several guys discussing what their friend had told them about his recent engagement.  One of the young men was planning to ask his girlfriend for her hand in marriage.  So, his buddies were relating all the details of the recent extravaganza.  The elaborate production necessary these days requires much staging.  The right spot, the right circumstances, the proper lighting, friends hiding out of sight, recording the event with a video camera.  They went on and on, mulling over every detail, excitedly comparing notes with stories of other engagements.  I couldn't help it.  I walked over and asked, "Why all the fuss?  Why not just ask the girl to marry you?"  To which the young man said with a smirk, "It's not that easy anymore, Dr. Reeves."

I often notice my daugher and wife watching bridal shows on television (one I like to call, "Don't Mess with the Dress").  It seems these shows follow the same script:  young brides search for the perfect dress, the perfect wedding, the perfect reception.  Frustration leads to angry fits, family squabbles, hateful words, fights, meltdowns, tears, and finally some resolution.  It's the same thing, over and over again.  I can't watch more than a few minutes of the affair.  In fact, I always walk away muttering to myself, "Is it really that important?"

I know.  Little girls dream of the day.  They prepare notebooks with clippings from bridal magazines, anticipating every moment, planning every detail for their "princess for a day" celebration.  But, it looks like they're only setting themselves up for disappointment, i.e., if all these reality shows are real.  Besides, I can't help but wonder:  "Why?  Why all the effort?  Why all the extravagance?  Why all the money?  Why?  Why?  Why?"

I think I know (here comes the bomb):  sex. 

There's something to be said for the good old days, when women believed they were presenting themselves as precious gifts to their new husbands.  White dress.  Pristine soul.  Demure lady.  But, of course, these days we've outgrown such victorian niceties.  If the national stats are reliable, practically every bride and groom have enjoyed the intimacy of sexual fulfillment long before the wedding day.  I'm no psychologist, so I'm hazarding a guess:  I can't help but wonder if there's some emotional hype that must be created in order to make it feel like something special is happening.  So, there will be an elaborate engagement.  There will be a white dress.  There will be "oohs and ahhs" resounding innocent splendor.  There will be special celebration for an already familiar relationship.

It's a sad affair.  The thrill is gone, and the couple is already trying to get it back before they even get married.  Honestly, if I were a young man today, I'd say, "Let's elope."  In fact, isn't that interesting?  You never hear of couples eloping today.  That's because they already have.  The only thing left is "making it official."  How boring.

Then again, don't mind me.  I could be way off.  I'm just a middle-age man who believes marriage is far more romantic than any engagment or wedding, no matter how spectacular.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Absolute, Worse Thing That Ever Happened to the Bible

Chapters and verses.

Not simply because chapter divisions break up a good story--none of the gospel writers wrote their work with embedded chapters.  Each gospel was meant to be read (and heard!) as one, long story. 

Neither because chapters and verses lead to misguided interpretations of Paul's letters.  Romans is one, long argument.  You can't take a verse or two from Romans, examine it, then stick it back in.  Indeed, Paul builds argument upon argument in Romans like Jenga blocks.  Pull the middle block out and the whole thing falls down.  The only way you'll know what Romans 10:9-10 means is to read Romans 1:1-10:8 and 10:11-16:27.

Yes, context is crucial.  Yes, chapters and verses imply it's not.  But, that's not the most horrible thing about these man-made, artifical divisions.

Chapters and verses spawn "Bible References."  And, why do we have Bible References?  Well, they're often used to prove our answers to certain questions are "biblical."  Now, they can serve as literary pointers to certain parts of Paul's argument or Luke's story.  That can be helpful.  But, that's not how we use them (either as writer or reader).  Readers rarely "look up" the reference (my wife points this out all the time, either in her reading or when listening to Sunday School lessons).  Because, if we looked up the reference, we might be led to say, "Hey.  That's not what that means." Then, we'd all have to get our Bibles out, read the verse in context, which would take a lot of time that we don't have, and then we'd be left with the unsettling reality that most Bible References don't support the nice, clean, simple answers we need.  Life is more complicated than that:  relationships, work, money, jobs, help, society, culture--these things are very complex.  So, most of us want at least one thing in our life that's not complicated:  our faith.  And, here's the really dangerous part, that's what most writers/speakers know.  We don't want a faith that's hard to think about.

Enter Bible References.  Confused about your relationships?  Read this verse.  Want to have a successful job?  Read this verse.  Want to feel better about your life, your world?  Read this verse.  Want to know why these people are wrong and we're right?  Read this verse.  Want to know what to believe about the most important decisions in your life?  Read this verse.

"Who has time to read the whole thing?  We should be grateful we have experts to point us to the important parts.  Besides, who wants to read the parts that don't answer our questions?"

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Infallible Christian

I've recently stumbled upon a nearly universal presumption that lies beneath every Christian claim:  we understand Jesus.  It had never occurred to me that all of us work with an undeniable view of Jesus Christ.  I don't think I've ever heard anyone say:  "I don't understand Jesus" . . . or even "I may have misunderstood Jesus here, but I think I'm right about this . . ."  Indeed, every single one of us believe we get him.  We know perfectly well who he was, what he was trying to do, and what he would think about any given situation.  That's why, whenever we hear someone's different "opinion" about Jesus, we never question ourselves--whether we could be wrong.  Oh no.  We immediately jump to the conclusion (I mean every single one of us--the academic and the nonacademic, the religious and the irreligious, the pious and the profane) that they must be wrong.

And yet, if that is true, then most of us get Jesus wrong.  We've misunderstood him.  We don't know him as well as we thought.  We've deceived ourselves.  And, there's the rub.  None of us are willing to admit we might misunderstand him because all of us must believe we know him.  It's as if Jesus were our intimate, personal best friend.  "He knows me and I know him."  It's astonishing to me how quickly those two worlds collapse into one:  Jesus and me.  "The way I see it is the way Jesus sees it.  His thoughts are my thoughts.  My prejudices are his prejudices.  My ways are his ways."  Because, if we ever came to the place where we were willing to admit otherwise (Jesus doesn't think like me!), then we would feel as though we had lost our best friend.  But, the truth of the matter is, we'd only lose ourselves.

Albert Schweitzer was right:  we all create Jesus in our own image.  When we answer the question Jesus posed to the twelve, "Who do people say that I am?", we're quick to talk about how wrong everyone else could be.  And when we answer the other question, "But who do you say that I am?", we are really talking about ourselves.

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Sermon Podcast

A former student of mine, Danny Dyer, has put together a podcast: a collection of sermons that I have preached here and there.  The link appears on the right, "Sermon Podcast."  He/we may be adding some more material--perhaps even talks at conferences--in the future.  This is all very new to me.  When he first suggested the idea, I thought, "Who listens to preachers?"  And yet, after the first week, the down loads exceeded the bandwidth allowance and the podcast froze up.

Who would have thought?  Well, Danny did.  Thanks, friend, for all your help.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


The NT world operated with a clear sense of the sacred and the profane.  Sacred space--a domain of undeniable divine presence--was carved out of profaned space.  Temples marked out special territory.  That which was profane was common.  So, special ways of negotiating sacred space clearly sanctioned behavior for those who lived and breathed the common world of the profaned.

In one respect, Jesus tore down the binary world of sacred and profane by virtue of the Incarnation.  God moved into all space when Jesus walked among us (this was the lesson learned by the anonymous "samaritan woman").  The kingdom of God invades every corner of the earth because God's work is irrepressible.  Jesus compared it to weeds and leaven.  Once it takes root, saturates one little corner, there's no stopping it.  Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . .  This is an invasion, a reclamation project, a retroactive decree, an undoing of the undone.  When two worlds collapse into one, it is apocalyptically sacred.  God is at work everywhere.

But, when it comes to words, we seem to lose what we gained when The Word became flesh.  Indeed, we may claim the sacred renovation of all things seen.  We speak of visions and dreams.  But, what of audition?  What about the things we hear, the words we speak?  Does God's kingdom invade every corner of our conversation?  When we dare to speak for God do we speak of God?  Is there such a thing as divine grammar?  Are words the stuff of heaven or earth?  Can common words ring a celestial bell?  Or, are we just as able to drag the heavenly down to Sheol?

Recently, I heard a colleague say (self-effacingly) about his co-workers, "They give me more mercy than I deserve."  And, for the first time, it began to dawn on me that what I mean by mercy is not what other Christ-followers mean by mercy.  The difference (may I be so bold to claim) is as wide as heaven and earth, sacred and profane.

Notice the presumption.  To some (perhaps many?) there is such a thing as deserved mercy.  And what would that look like?  Well, in America, mercy is deserved when you try hard and still fall short.  Or, when you have good intentions but don't measure up.  Or, when you say you're sorry.  Or, when you promise to do better.  Or, when you make the same mistake twice.  But, what about those who don't try hard, or have evil intentions (like being selfish), or always blame others, or only make empty promises.  Three strikes and you're out.

The problem, of course, is that our American definition of mercy (which has leavenously seeped into the sacred vernaclar of the forgiven) is not biblical.  It's not Christian.  Literally, it's not of Christ.  When mercy is deserved it ceases to be mercy.  Deserved mercy is an oxymoron.  There's no such thing as giving someone "more mercy than they deserve."  What's possible on earth is impossible in heaven.

How do I know that?  Because God doesn't operate that way.  His definition of mercy (Jesus Christ!) is sacred, even for the profaned.

When will we learn to freely give what we've freely received?

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Time for Reticence

I used to have a little resentment toward the blogsphere.  It seemed too accessible to be helpful.  It invited expression without reflection.  It encouraged anonymity.  It seemed to empower lazy thinking.

Recently, my marginal resentment has turned into grave concern.

I used to say sarcastically, "Want to see the underbelly of the human condition exposed to the world?  Read the comments section of any article on the major news websites."  Now, the same applies to so-called "Christian" blogs.  The hateful poison that seems to flow so quickly from the keyboards of posters is breath-takingly grievous.  It wounds my soul.  I used to think I wanted to eavesdrop on these "conversations."  Not anymore.

So, here's my bold proposal (ironically issued on my blog).  It's time for us to stop talking--or at least take a sabbatical.  Think about what that would mean?  In the sixties we impetuously burned vinyl records.  What if Christ followers refused to enter the fray of social discourse for a while?  Would anyone notice?

Jesus didn't act like he had much to say until he turned thirty.  Thirty years is a long time to think about what you're going to say.  We might choose our words more wisely if we had to wait thirty years to speak our mind.  What if we followed his example?  What if we said, "You don't have anything to say until you're thirty"?

Of course, such an attempt would be ludicrous.  The blogsphere is equally patrolled by the plus-thirty crowd--the older folks can dish out hate speech just as effortlessly as the twenty-somethings.  Age is no guarantee of temperance.  But, I have found the mature (regardless of age) to be a little more circumspect, a little more reflective, a little more reticent to speak their mind.  I wonder why.

Honestly, the older I get the more I'm convinced I have little to say.  Perhaps it's apathy ("he's shirking his responsibility to speak out").  Maybe it's a sign of the approaching, typical curmudgeonly ways of the elderly ("I've turned into a grouch").  It could be that I'm too proud to be associated with the cacaphony of voices competing for attention ("he acts like he's above it all").  All I know is I used to think everyone was entitled to my opinion.  Now, not so much.

I'm going off the grid for a while.  I need rest for my weary soul.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sympathy for Politicians (or, unmasking the pretense of infallibility among the righteously indignant)

I was preaching last Sunday from Matthew's gospel, talking about how Jesus tried to get the Pharisees to "go and learn what this means:  'I desire mercy and not sacrifice'" because Jesus shared table with Levi and his treasonous tax-collector friends.  Then, a few stories later, after the Pharisees called Jesus on the carpet for the grain-forraging ways of the twelve, Jesus said (loosely paraphrased), "You didn't do your homework.  If you knew what it meant--'I desire mercy not sacrifice,'--you wouldn't have a problem with my disciples."  We explored a more nuanced view of the three groups--tax collectors, Pharisees, and the twelve--in order to appreciate the storied-level of the inclusio.

Toward the end of the sermon, I asked the congregants, "So, now that we know these people in more charitable terms, who would qualify today as traitors, beyond hope of God's mercy?"

Their nearly unanimous response floored me.  "Politicians!"

I'm becoming more convinced that we are completely blind to our own self-righteousness.  All of us are politicians.  It especially shows up in social discourse over political issues.  (Now, I'm not even going to jump into the quagmire of sorting out why politics/power tends to turn gray issues into black-and-white realities--"choose a side:  it's us versus them!")  Notice how often we work with the unquestionable presumption that our politics are indivisible.  Our cause is righteous.  Our argument is undeniable.  And, if you disagree, you'll discover the indignation of those who are right . . . about everything.

I marvel over this.  Take the issue of gay marriage (those who are facebook friends are expecting this).  Recently, I tried to enter the social discourse by making a comment about the politics of social discourse.  But, it took a while for most to see my point.  Of course, gay marriage is a charged issue.  Of course, everyone is convinced they're right.  But, whenever this happens, I become immediately suspicious.  Usually in conversations (I use the word very loosely) like these, there is no giving ground.  No benefit of the doubt.  No humility.  It's amazing how "absolutely" correct we can be in this post-modern world.  After all, when a righteous cause is at stake, don't we all operate with an infallible position?  Such is the nature of the politics of holiness . . . but, who will go to the sinners and eat at their table?

"You say, 'Love is the answer.  Love the highest call.  Love is the answer.  Love the highest call.'  You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl.  But, I can't keep holding on to what you've got, when all you've got is hurt" (to paraphrase Bono).

Jesus, I'm so glad to know you even came to the table of Pharisees when invited.  Please come and eat with me and my self-righteous friends.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Craving applause

I recently spoke during a retreat at the Laity Lodge near Leaky, Texas.  It's a great place that always seems to attract great people.  But, what happened this time took me by surprise.  I learned a lesson about myself (is that being reflective or merely narcissistic?) that I'm a little disappointed to admit.

We all enjoyed the beautiful music of two, well-known musicians.  A brilliant children's author shared her story through her clever stories.  Every time they finished their part, the intimate crowd of 60 participants applauded.  Whenever I stopped talking, there was always an awkward silence.  It happened over and over again.  Music, applause.  Speaker one, silence.  Speaker two, applause.

I was walking with one of the participants to the favorite spot of most retreaters, "The Blue Hole"  (a spring-fed swimming pool encased by beautiful rock formations of the Rio Frio).  She said, "Well, Rodney.  You sure have stirred up a lot of conversation--made us wrestle with many questions."  I said, "Yeah.  I get that a lot."

"It's been really good, though.  Your talk is unsettling, then Sally tells one of her stories and everyone laughs."

(Laughing) "Oh, I get it.  I'm the irritant and she's the balm.  I like that."

"Yeah.  No, wait, that's not what I meant.  It's just that we need both, don't we?"

"Yes, I think we do."

Then I shared my observation regarding the "irregular" applause and made her promise not to tell anyone.  At which point this young lady, being a kind and sensitive person, tried to cheer me up:  "Well, I've never really heard many preachers get much applause when they finish speaking.  Besides," she said perceptively, "you probably wouldn't want it."  "Yes.  You're right.  Applause would make me feel like I'm not doing my job."

But, deep down, sometimes I wish there were applause.  Then, the pretentious "prophetic voice" rises within me and says, "What are you whining about?  Just be glad these days they don't kill you."

"Yeah.  Who needs applause, anyway?"

But sometimes one gets weary of the calling.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Circus fatigue

I'm not going anymore.

The barkers may make it sound so intriguing.  The people drawn to the big tent may incite the herd instinct within me.  The sights and sounds may lead me to believe I'll miss out on something delicious if I take a pass.  But, I must say I'm done.  The thrill is gone.  The game is over.  Don't want to be the sucker to P.T. Barnum's exhibition anymore.

Our circus culture feeds on revelation--the unveiling of secrets, the sensational drama thrust upon an "unsuspecting" world, the shocking news of the latest gossip.  "Step right up, see the most amazing thing you've ever seen . . . "

The script is so old, so tired, so predictable.  The television personality announces his gay and all the world is a twitter. "Who knew?"  The famous atheist declares she's converted to Christianity and everyone's buzzing.  "Who would have thought?"

But, I don't care.  I really don't.  Is that unChristian of me?  I don't know these people.  They're "coming out" has nothing to do with my little world.  So, I have no opinion about the latest, greatest, sensational news.  It doesn't matter to me.  I have nothing to say about whatever is going on under the big top.  Rather, I have enough to talk about, think about, care about within my little tent.

The teenage son of a former student of mine was seriously injured in a car wreck.  My father-in-law has a brain tumor.  A friend's house may have burned down in Colorado.  I have enough drama in my little life.

"Step right up, see the most amazing thing you've ever seen . . . ."  No thanks.  I've got a life of my own.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Life is more than words

While driving recently, I noticed several bumper stickers that seem to follow the same pattern:  a summing up of life in three words.  "Eat. Sleep. Fish." was on the back of a pick-up truck.  Another read, "Live, Laugh, Garden."  Of course, these three-word mantras made me think of the recent best-seller:  "Eat, Pray, Love."  All of the sudden, it's become trendy to reduce life to three simple words.

Why?  Most of us wish life were that simple, tidy, clean (wink, wink).  By our word smithing, we make the complexities of every-day living sound poetic, pure, elemental (wink, wink again).  The triplet evokes a rhythm, an underlying premonition that all things must be triadic.  Indeed, the formula for the oldest jokes in the world followed a three-fold pattern:  1, 2, punchline.  By telling the story of our lives in threes, we unknowingly claim the last word(s)--a superlative description for which there is no argument.  Imagine how funny it would sound to say, "Oh yeah?  Well life is more than eat, pray, love.  There's also work and hobbies and fun and . . . ."  No one wants to be that guy.

But here's my problem:  I don't want my life to be reduced to words, especially only three.  I want a life for which there are no words.  I want mystery and wonder and confusion and hope and questions and challenge and . . . .  In fact, if life could be summed up with mere words, I don't think I would want it.  I think I would lose too much:  a sense of curiosity, an aching for more, an inclination for the divine, a restlessness that is holy.  That's why I need music.  That's why I hanker for silence.  I crave taste and touch, sight and intuition.  Sometimes I need . . .  I need . . .  I don't know what I need.  But, I do know this:  I need a life that is more than words.

But, how do I put that on a bumper-sticker?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Bad Samaritan

The scandalous quality of Jesus' parables are lost on us.  We've become too accustomed to the stories, domesticating the plot to the point where we no longer wrestle with the subversive intent.

Take, for example, the story of the "Good Samaritan."  Notice, no where in the parable does Jesus call the Samaritan "good."  But, we have labelled the hero "good" because of his compassionate behavior, showing mercy to an enemy.  We know a little about the ethnic hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.  We delight in the juxtapostioning of the religious elites (they do nothing--so typical, huh?) and the outsider (what a great guy!) as they pass by the victim on the side of the road.  We like the part where the Samaritan is so generous, he not only takes the wounded man to the inn, but pays the inn-keeper for future expenses and promises to return to settle up the bill.  We are inspired to "go and do likewise" by helping stranded motorists, giving hitch-hikers a lift, or perhaps even paying for an evening's stay in a hotel for a homeless man.  The privileged helping the under-privileged.

But, that's not the whole story.

It looks perfectly normal to us--perhaps even extraordinary--when the Samaritan pays for the wounded man to stay in the inn.  We picture a comfortable place (not the Hilton, but at least a Holiday Inn Express?) between Jerusalem and Jericho.  We envision the Samaritan taking care of the man, nursing him back to health, then leaving for a while--only to return to check on his progress and pay the hotel bill.  What a guy.

But, this is exactly where we misread the story.  First, a Samartian bringing a wounded Jewish man into a Jewish town was incredibly risky (a point made by Kenneth Bailey).  Second, there was no "inn" between Jerusalem and Jericho (modern tourist site claims notwithstanding).  The "inn" was probably located on the outskirts of Jericho.  Third, what the story assumes is what we miss.  Hospitality was never purchased; it was earned by honor.  In Jewish culture, a traveler looking for accomodations would simply go to the city gate or the city well and wait for someone to recognize him as an honorable man and take him home (the Old Testament is filled with stories like this).  If you had to pay for a place to stay, it meant you were a low life.  Indeed, "inns" also doubled as houses of "ill repute" (for example, in Jewish literature, Rahab "the harlot" is called an "inn keeper"), which is why inns were often located on the edge of town.  All kinds of riff-raff showed up there.  Roman philsophers condemned these public houses as moral degradation.  "If you don't have enough honor to stay in our fair town, move on!"  This Samartian wasn't "good" by any standard.  He was a bad man.  Fourth, why did the Samaritan leave?  More than likely he feared for his life--he was in hostile territory.  And, finally, what was a Samaritan doing on the Jericho road anyway?  He was probably a merchant, a travelling man who ignored traditions to make a buck.  You know the kind--will set aside family loyalities and religious devotion at the drop of a hat if there's money to be made.

This was no "Good Samaritan."  This was a bad man, who for some unexplained reason, took pity on a complete stranger and relied upon socially unacceptable practices to save a man's life.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Driving the Wrong Direction on a One Way Street

I keep having the same conversation with different people.  They ask, "What does the Bible say about __________?"  And, I'm reticent to answer this particular question--especially in the way it is often asked--because I come off sounding like your typical elite who seems only to make things worse, obfuscating what should be clearly understood.  (See?  Even the word "obfuscate" contributes to the problem.)  By the time I'm finished, my recent conversation partner has lost all interest.  Their boredom is obvious.  They stare at me with that "oh-you-really-don't-want-to-answer-this-question-because-you-like-to-make-simple-things-difficult" look I've come to recognize so well.  Their blank expression screams, "Just give me the answer, you moron."

Here's my problem:  the Bible doesn't say anything.  It must be read.  And, we all are readers.  Yet, some read more than others.  In fact, I've come to the recent conclusion that most Christ believers don't read the Bible.  They consult it.  They peek into it.  But, they don't read it.  Why?  Because to them it's boring.  It's verbose.  It's not handy.  It doesn't get to the heart of the matter soon enough.  It doesn't answer their question.  And therein lies the rub.

I think most Christ followers come to the Bible with their questions, expecting the Scriptures to serve them.  We are the masters of meaning.  We demand answers.  So, we go to the Bible to find them.  Then, one of two things usually happens:  we go to the small parts of the Bible familiar to us, the passages we love the most, and find our answers.  Or, when we can't find what we're looking for, we go to a so-called "expert" so we don't have to do the work ourselves--which leads to the second problem.

The Bible was never meant to be read that way--as a slave to the mastery of our demands for an answer.  If it were, it certainly would have been put together by God more accessibly.  Rather, the Scriptures were meant to inform our questions.  Better yet, the Bible was inspired to form our questions.  Rather than ask, "What does the Bible say about homosexuality?" it rather prods us to wonder, "Who is my neighbor?"  Indeed, one might be able to answer the first question if we were to ask the second.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Cursed Christians

It's a sad tendency in the Body of Christ:  Christ believers who see themselves as "cursed by God."  They feel like they have the anti-Midas touch, whatever they do turns golden opportunities into rusty results.  They've lost a sense of God's blessing (something that Paul was adament to claim--for himself as well as his converts--despite his detractors, see Gal. 4:12-15).  According to Paul, this happens when Christians fall under the spell of believing we are supposed to earn God's blessing, deserve His favor, by keeping the law.  Therefore, these law-abiders believe they're getting what they deserve when bad things happen to them.  Break God's law and you endure divine punishment.  It's as if God were playing "whack the mole" in the game of sin managment.  But, after a while, suffering the body blows of life's disappointments, many give up trying to please the impossible standard of God's reciprocal love.  "I'm cursed by God."

There's so much wrong here, I don't know where to begin.  But, let me start with this:  God's love cannot be earned.  He loves us regardless.  We call it grace (Paul's favorite way of describing the economy of God's salvation).  Since we cannot earn His blessing, neither can we incite His wrath--as if He loses patience and finally "let's us have it."  How do I know this for certain?  Because, if that's the way God works, on a quid pro quo basis, then the cross means nothing.

It's sad how many Christ believers cannot see the cross of Jesus as a blessing, the grace of God that changes everything.  In loss we find gain, in weakness we are strong, in giving power away we are empowered, in death we live.  Because of Christ, none of us are cursed by God.  Period.

What's even sadder to me is how many Christians point out the weaknesses of other believers and call it a curse, the failures of others and call it divine punishment.  "Look.  She's getting what she deserves."  To which Paul would reply:  "On the contrary, none of us deserve the cross of Jesus.  It is the sheer, blessed grace of God."

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Take a look in the mirror

It's become rather trendy for Christians to criticize the Church.  Most books, articles, blogs do well--attract a bunch of readers--if they take a pound of flesh in their biting critique of all things ecclesial.  (One opportunistic blogger feigned surprise when her blog post, which explained why she "left the Church," received so many hits.)  The so-called "emergents" got the ball rolling.  Now, it's headed downhill so fast no one dares to get in the way and stop it.  Can you imagine what it would sound like to defend the Church today?  Shrill, self-serving, obscurantist, proud, denial.

But, here's the problem:  when we criticize the Church we're criticizing ourselves.  I don't hear that sentiment in most of the self-appointed prophets who are out to bash the Church.  It sounds to me more as if they think they're pointing out the faults of others.  "Those people over there--they are the problem." But, the truth of the matter is the "other" is always "us" in the Body of Christ.  You're never going to straighten out the people who "don't get ________ right" (fill in the blank, "gospel" or "community" or "faith" or "doctrine" ad infinitum, ad nauseum).  Why?  Because our faith, our gospel, our doctrine, our community is a shared experience.

Think of it like this:  we're family in the Body of Christ.  Apply the same concept to your biological family.  Do we ever believe we're going to "straighten out" our brother?  Sister?  Parent?  Even child?  And, don't we automatically know that when we're criticizing our family we're criticizing ourselves?  Due to our shared DNA we own up to the fact: "You know, I got that from my father," or "You're just like your sister."

At the risk of sounding sentimental, our shared spiritual DNA in Christ should make us all own up to the fact that we belong to each other, whether we admit it or not.  That should inject a little humilty into the critical conversation about the failings of the Church.

After all, we are talking about ourselves.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Sermons Need More Bible

I just finished a six-month promotional tour (sounds trendy, doesn't it?) of my book on Paul's Spirituality (IVP).  I spoke in churches, during conferences, at retreats--and I'm so grateful to God for the warm reception I received.  I continue to get affirming comments, emails, and letters about the book.  But one off-handed comment nearly floored me.  Even after hundreds of conversations, this single remark continues to rumble around in my head.

A few months ago after speaking at a church, a very well-dressed, middle-aged man asked me if the sessions had been recorded.  He explained how he had missed the event due to other obligations--half apologizing, half justifying--but wanted to know what I had said because he was intrigued by the subject. 

"I don't know if they recorded the talks.  I guess you'll have to check with the pastor."  He replied, "Well, if they didn't that's too bad.  I really want to know what you said."  (Of course, at this point, you know what I'm thinking.  I'm expecting him to ask if they still have copies of the book available at their bookstore.)  So, after an awkward bit of silence, I sheepishly held up the book and said, "you could get a copy.  I think they still have a few for sale."  To which he dismissively replied (without an ounce of shame), "Oh, I don't read."

Now, you might think the man was illiterate or had poor vision.  Neither was the case.  He explained that he read sports magazines every now and then.  But, he never could get into reading a book.  I'm a little ashamed of what I did next, but I couldn't help it.  I said, "Oh.  You don't read?" then motioned to the Bible he held in his hand, with a quizzical look on my face.  He replied by offering a nervous giggle and said something like, "Yeah.  For a group of people who rely upon a book, it sure makes being a Christian hard."

It's an amazing irony.  We live during an age when written information is more accessible than any other period of human history.  Same is true for the Bible.  It's everywhere.  More people have more access to multiple copies/versions of the Bible than ever before--not to mention all of the books/literature written to help readers make sense of Scripture.  And yet, despite the literary flood, our world is becoming more biblically illiterate every day.  The reason?  "I don't read."

Two observations:  for a writer, this is depressing--especially for a guy like me.  My target readership--evangelical Christians--don't read.  The guy said so without any embarassment at all.  Said it to the author, straight faced.  I really can't get over that.  But, then again, my heart is strangely warmed when I remember Christianity got its start during a time when nearly 80% of the population was illiterate.  The first Christ followers depended upon the public reading of the Scriptures in order to hear God's Word.  Then the light came on inside my head.

If there were ever a time when preachers need to spend more time (say, 10 minutes of their sermon?) reading the Scriptures to their listeners, it is now.  Rather than focus on the memorable illustration or the clever, real-life anecdote, perhaps it's time to read the Bible to Christians.  Why?  Not only because reading Scripture should be an important part of our worship, but for the more obvious reason.  Like the man said, "I don't read."

Friday, April 13, 2012

Dress Code for Pharisees

It's happening more everyday.  I walk into class and at least one male student makes a comment--usually positive--about what I'm wearing.  They don't believe me when I say, "Thanks."  It seems a simple response isn't enough.  They want some commentary about my clothes.  So, this is what they get . . .

"In my day, a guy would never make a comment about what another guy was wearing.  Girls, however, commented on girls fashion often.  Is this another bit of evidence of the feminization of our culture?"  [Read the article that came out last year, "The End of Men," in the Atlantic Monthly.]

"I don't care what you think--whether you like what I'm wearing or not" (usually said with a smiling smirk--but they still don't believe me).

"I've been wearing stuff like this for a long time" (in this case, a student thought I was being fashionable because I was wearing a v-neck t-shirt).

"I'm sorry.  I don't understand."

I say that a lot.  I really don't understand the interest--does it border on obsession?--with fashion.

I told my son about the time I was in San Francisco last year for the SBL conference.  Twenty-somethings were lined up outside, on the sidewalk, with their tents and sleeping bags.  I thought that, perhaps, I happened to walk by the Occupy Movement in San Fran.  But, the crowd seemed too dressed up for such an anti-establishment cause.  The next morning, they were still there, but the line was much longer.  "I guess some concert is about to start soon???"  After attending several sessions that morning, I walked by the crowd again.  By this point, the line was two-blocks long.  Curiosity got the best of me.

"Why are you all here?"  A young lady dressed very fashionably said, "Versace is opening their new line today!"  "You mean all these people have been waiting all night and day for that?"  She, looking very quisically at me, said, "Of course."

My son wasn't surprised at all by the episode.  I was incredulous.

I showed up recently in church wearing a suit and a tie.  A friend asked, "What's the occasion?" I said, "Nothing."  "Are you preaching somewhere?"  I said, "No.  Just wanted to wear this today."  He quipped, "So, are you playing the role of the 'rich man' expecting to get the best seat in the house?"

All of this got me to thinking, "What would it take to dress like a Pharisee today?"  Fine clothes?  Rags?  Suit and tie?  Hoodies and torn jeans?

I don't know because I don't understand.