Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sometimes love ...

It's been a while since I posted here. Lots of reasons for that -- busy-ness of new job and new home is by far the biggest one.

That said, I have certainly not stopped pondering. One of the recurring thoughts for me lately is the nature of love. I resurrected a song from many years ago by Chris Rice that includes the line, "Sometimes love has to drive a nail into its own hand" -- which is provocative on a number of levels. Along with that particular ponder, I've been continuing to chew on a read from last spring, N.T. Wright's excellent book, The Day The Revolution Began in which this amazing theologian tries to get a grip on what actually happened when Jesus died. Wright's conclusion (you should really read the book if you haven't) is that self-giving love is really about the only thing that has the power to change the world, and that's why Jesus' death does effect such a change.

So then I started thinking, why does he have to say "self-giving love"? Isn't love by its very nature self-giving?

Of course, we use the word love quite liberally and loosely, so it's hard to say that everyone would agree love is by nature "self-giving." If you say "I love blueberries," for example, you're hardly saying you will give yourself to blueberries, except by the most stretched definition. If you say, "I love the farm where I grew up," you might be making more of a commitment to give yourself, but it's not required by the statement of your love. You might just be saying you really enjoy the place.

If, however, you say, "I love you," all bets are off. Because in our cultural usages of the word "love," you might be saying, "I really enjoy you and feel a great sense of pleasure being in your company." That's a kind of self-indulgent, self-centered love. But very often what starts out like that, in pleasure, grows in depth and quality until you are really, actually willing to sacrifice -- to give up an amazing amount of time, money, energy, choice, and more, for the sake of your beloved. In its height and depth, this kind of love is a powerful engine for transformation, both in you and in the one you love. Because love changes things.

So what is the relationship between pleasurable desire and self-giving love? Many Christian traditions, teachers, and theologies would say these are completely different and separate. I'm not so sure, though. As I read the Bible, I think God's intention is that a pleasurable, desirous love should be at the heart of a staunch, committed love.

Is it too much to think that God is not only committed to acting for your best good -- a definition of love I used for many years -- but also that he has a real, pleasurable delight in you, a desire for you, a longing for more connection, more unity with you? We don't often picture God having that kind of desirous love. But it's biblical. Love throughout the Bible is one of those things that continually blurs lines. We think we have it all figured out, then we stumble on Song of Solomon. Then, when we integrate that lusty passion into our love-definition, we read Hosea. And now we're back to stalwart, staunch commitment again.

Yet the Bible unapologetically names "love" as the quality that most closely defines God. The closer we get to God's love, the more we are caught up in his passionate desire for us, his unyielding commitment to our good, the more we realize that all of our loves -- our love for peach ice cream to our love for our children -- is a broken, halfhearted, imitative kind of love that falls so far short of what it's modeled after.

And that's not something to beat ourselves up about, or to shame ourselves. Because we are broken people, and our love -- all our loves -- come out broken and partial, yet they still reflect the image of God like shards of a shattered mirror reflect the world.

Circling back a bit, is it possible for love not to be self-giving? How about this. Try an experiment, and maybe you've lived this experiment before. Give your heart completely to someone or something. Invest yourself. Then put yourself in circumstances where you are unable -- by distance or lack of contact or some other circumstance -- to give yourself to your beloved. I guarantee you this love, this "unrequited" love will become one of the most frustrating things you can imagine. If you have truly given your heart to the other, and you are suddenly unable to follow up your love with your self-sacrifice, you will find yourself frustrated and longing and heartsick at every turn. Guaranteed.

Because love by nature is self-giving. It reaches out to cross every boundary, to bridge every gulf. If he taught us nothing else, Jesus taught us that.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pondering the possible

Twice in the last decade I have been moved to tears because someone compared me to a literary character.

The first was an occasion I've written about previously in this blog, when my daughter Erica and I were talking about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and she wondered who I resembled in those great stories. We debated this character and that, until finally she settled on Gandalf. Now, if you know LOTR, Gandalf is perhaps the greatest, most noble character in the whole story. He is one who influences without power, who wields great power without demanding control, who carries immense wisdom but speaks with humility. I was moved to tears that my daughter, of all people, would make such a comparison.

The second time was more recent, when a friend with whom I'd been talking recently about Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books casually commented that I was like Ged, one of the main characters, and then said, "Thanks for holding off the earthquake." It's a reference to a key moment in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, when Ged does indeed (temporarily) hold off an earthquake to allow himself and Tenar, a young woman, to escape from an underground labyrinth. Again, I was moved to tears by my friend's obvious respect in saying something like that.

Comparisons are powerful things. What literary character is most like you? It's a challenging question, and the way people around you see you might be a surprise, like it was for me.

You can do the same thing with biblical characters, and I've been worrying that question like a sore tooth for the last several months. What biblical character describes me in this season of my life? The two most likely options I've settled on are either Job or David. I have a friend who would opt for David -- he called me a few months ago saying he was going to be Nathan to my David, alluding to a scene in 2 Samuel in the Bible where the prophet Nathan confronts David with his egregious sin and moves David to abject repentance.

So David's an option.

The more intriguing possibility is Job, who lives a life of obedience to God, and precisely because of that, ends up being targeted by Satan for special suffering. First he just loses his material possessions, but then he loses his physical health and the esteem of his wife and others around him.

Now, I'm not claiming to be righteous. In this season more than most, I am keenly aware of my sin. Thing is, I've been living largely "on my face" before God for months, returning again and again to repent for the sins of which I'm aware, asking God to correct me and teach me, asking God to use my sins and my repentance to do his good work. So I don't think there's unresolved pride or unconfessed sin going on in my life, at least not that I can see, and I've begged God to reveal it if it's there.

I'm struck today, however, by an excellent sermon written by Eugene Peterson, well known for his translation of the Bible entitled The Message. If you're not familiar with it, get a copy. I was recently given a copy of a collection of Peterson's sermons. Normally I think reading other people's sermons is like watching cheap paint dry, but these are something else again. The book is entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire which is an allusion to a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and it's absolutely exquisite. Excellent. I highly recommend it.

In the sermon I've read today, Peterson retells the story of Job, and he points out that Job's three friends -- Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz -- are all mistaken about God and the nature of Job's problem. (God himself verifies this at the end of the book of Job.) Eliphaz, Peterson points out, is like a fundamentalist preacher who insists that if Job will just repent, things will get better. Zophar is like a housewife who has a picture in mind of how clean the house should be, and Job is a dirty spot that refuses to come clean. Bildad is that moralist who insists that Job just needs to get back in line with Bildad's carefully constructed moral system, and all will be right with the world.

And in my travels these last few months, I've met all three. I've been asked if I'm repentant. I've been told that my actions are "deeply disappointing." And I've been offered the services of those who would like to rehabilitate me, to reintroduce me to moralistic integrity.

What intrigues me about these three friends of Job is that they are utterly convinced that they have God figured out. Throughout, Job insists that he has not been punished for some sin, but that he is innocent of anything that might merit this kind of misfortune. God is acting unfairly toward him. (Note: That is not what I'm claiming about myself!) And at the end of the book of Job, God scolds Job's friends saying, "You have not spoken accurately of me, as my servant Job has." Wow!

So maybe I'm David these days. Maybe the major upheavals in my life are pretty simple, like David's were, and I should just call Nathan and ask him to walk me through a simple Romans Road of repentance. Problem solved, thank goodness.

Or maybe it's more complicated. Maybe, as Oswald Chambers wrote in his meditation for yesterday, "God called Jesus Christ to what seemed absolute disaster. And Jesus Christ called his disciples to see him put to death, leading every one of them to the place where their hearts were broken. His life was an absolute failure from every standpoint except God's. But what seemed to be a failure from man's standpoint was a triumph from God's standpoint, because God's purpose is never the same as man's purpose. This bewildering call of God comes into our lives as well. The call of God can never be understood absolutely or explained externally; it is a call that can only be perceived and understood internally by our true inner nature" (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest). One of the things that makes us dumbfounded about the story of Jesus is that if you asked any observer of his ministry, his trial, and his crucifixion whether Jesus was guilty of deep and grievous sins, they would have said, "Of course." Jesus was guilty of violating the sabbath. He was guilty of rudeness and disrespect to the religious leaders. He was guilty of blasphemy. He was guilty of pretensions to kingship. And much, much more. Jesus was the chief of sinners.

Until God vindicated him on Sunday morning when he rose from the dead.

It's a cautionary tale, to be sure, especially to those of us who are pretty sure we know what God is up to. Every time I think I have God figured out, he does something to blow my mind in a new way. And so, maybe he's working in my current challenging circumstances, or in yours, to blow our minds. To teach us that he won't be shackled and chained by our expectations. That he has greater plans than we do, and he will stop at nothing to get his purposes accomplished. And oh, by the way, he's not telling up front what those purposes are. At least not in detail.

So do the comparisons. Pull out your favorite literary or biblical character, and imagine whether you fit the comparison. But don't write your story down in permanent ink -- leave room for God to surprise you. Let him have the final word about what he says is true about you and how he might use you to accomplish his purposes, in spite of what you thought was possible.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mythologizing life?

I was optimistic when I arrived at worship this morning. A quick look at the scripture texts for the day revealed that the epistle text was from Romans 8, starting with the passage about how the Spirit prays for us in our weakness and how God works for good in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. The gospel text was a series of parables from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like yeast in dough, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a costly pearl. These parables have become especially meaningful to me lately, and the Romans text likewise carries a lot of weight the last few months in my life. So I was eager to hear the pastor expound God's word this morning.

In the meantime, the hymns and liturgy are a sort of safety net -- carrying the theological weight of the gospel, providing a basic framework that gives the worshipper a sense of what life is all about -- entering in a spirit of praise, confessing our sins and hearing God's gracious word of forgiveness, crying out "Lord, have mercy," hearing the word of God read publicly as it has been for centuries upon centuries, confessing the content of faith through a historic creed and praying together collectively. All of these things provide structure and meaning and take some of the ponderous weight of preaching off the pastor.

But I was still looking forward to the sermon, given those scripture texts.

Unfortunately, the sermon this morning didn't connect for me in any way. For me, at least. We heard about the dining habits of horseflies, how Kierkegaard was the founder of Christian existentialism, and how Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were good examples of pre-Christian moralists. I was disappointed.

Bonhoeffer made a brief appearance, as he frequently does with this preacher, and so I got to thinking about some of Bonhoeffer's advice about the worshipping community. Interestingly enough, he was a staunch advocate for being a staunch advocate of the community you're involved in -- in other words, don't nitpick your church, but be thankful for it. Good, solid advice. Yet Bonhoeffer was also an outspoken critic of the German church in his own time, and a staunch advocate for change and internal criticism. And I wondered how he would have experienced this worship service. No doubt, he would have pointed out all that was good -- as noted above, solid hymnody, solid liturgy, excellent scripture readings. And he might have shaken his head in a good-natured way about the sermon. He preached enough to understand the ups and downs of that daunting task, and the need for both grace and high standards as the worshippers within the congregation listen to their preacher.

Then I got to thinking about something Joseph Campbell said many years ago that rolls around in my head whenever I think about the task of preaching. He was talking about artists, but I think there are huge parallels: Campbell said that the artist's task is to "mythologize life." In other words, to show what the meaning is behind life. I think preaching does much the same thing.

I was asked not too long ago what I get out of going to church. I read scripture and devotional writings every day. I have Christ-centered fellowship with other believers here and there throughout the week. I praise and pray, confess and read God's word on a daily basis. Why go to church?

This morning, sitting near the end of the worship service I thought of Campbell's words. Mythologizing life. Is that why we go to a corporate worship service that may be great or maybe not, but always connects us to a larger story? In hymns, scriptures, liturgy, and yes, maybe sermon, I am connected to the old, old story of Jesus and his love, connected to the story that God is continuing to write in my life and in the lives of all his people throughout this world. I get a sense of the "mythos" -- the meaning -- behind my life.

Or maybe it's like the wag who said, "You know why mountain climbers rope themselves together? It's to keep the sane ones from going home."

There's a tremendous temptation these days to get "sane" -- to buy into the agnostic secularism that says, this is all there is. Make the best of it and get ahead while you can. It doesn't mean anything anyway, so why worry about it? That temptation toward sanity gnaws at the underside of my life these days, and I consciously reject it every day. I know that my life is not my own, I have been bought with a price. I read the meaning of my life every day in scripture. But every once in a while it's good to gather with others and realize that there is meaning that we share. The story of Jesus and his love binds us and unites us and commissions us. We are about the work of building signposts in this life that point toward the kingdom of God.

I'm glad I went to church this morning.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Keeping the garden

I've been thinking a lot this spring and summer, being back among fields and farmers, about the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2. There are some important words there about what God wants his people to do and to be in this world.

In the first section of the creation story, God creates human beings and says to them that they are to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Then he goes on and says that he has given seed-bearing plants for food, not just to people but to the rest of the animals as well.

A bit later in the second part of the story, God creates the man and places him (and later, with him, the woman) in a garden "to work it and keep it." This business of being stewards of the earth, of managing its yield, is right at the core of our calling as human beings.

So it's been amazing these past few months to be a part of delivering seed, hauling fertilizer, replenishing sprayers that are working against the "thorns and thistles" that enter the story a little later as a result of sin. In a year like this, when there is abundant rain and warm weather, the hills and prairies where I've been working do look a little like a Garden of Eden. Crops and pastures are green and full.

Still, there are many questions of stewardship. Most of the crops I see growing around me, most of the seeds I delivered early in the spring, are GMO -- genetically modified organisms. I know there are serious questions about stewardship in the face of this technology, both questions about the propriety of GMO technology and also questions about how, without some of these technological advances, we'd be able to feed the world's burgeoning population. I don't have the answers, but I've pondered the questions at some length this summer.

I have written here about my brother and sister-in-law and their cattle and the way they care so well for their herd. I'm continually impressed by the careful, labor-intensive way they provide for these animals, and the way the animals respond. Then I drive around the county and see neglected feedlots, calves kept in little isolation chambers as they're raised, turkey barns or hog barns clogged beyond breathing with too many animals, and I wonder about stewardship.

Some of the same ethical questions follow me in these reflections. How would we feed our population if the herds were spread out like my brother's animals? How could we meet demand if our land was so gently used? Important questions that don't lend themselves to easy answers.

I think part of what the story of the Garden of Eden does is it pushes us back not just on our vocational calling -- our calling to be stewards of this beautiful earth -- but also it pushes us back on our identity. We are not our own, we belong to God. It is in him that we live and move and have our being. In our work, in our stewardship, we are driven back to him because we don't have all the answers. We don't quite know how best to meet every challenge.

Whether you're a farmer or a physicist or a phy-ed teacher, your work will sooner or later drive you up against questions you can't answer. It's part of the plague of human life. I believe those unanswerable questions are designed by God to drive us back to him, back into his care and protection, to find our identity -- and eventually, to find some kind of partial answers that allow us to move forward -- in him. At the end of his life, one of the wisest people ever to live, Moses, said these words: "The hidden things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever." When you are up against hidden things, questions that defy answers, let them drive you back to God. Seek to know him, not just to know the answers to your difficult questions.

Monday, July 10, 2017


It was Sunday, and I was thinking about the verse in Hebrews that says "Don't stop getting together." That's a loose translation, but gets at the idea of the verse that says basically, "Don't go it alone. Keep gathering with other Jesus-followers." It's important.

During this season of my life, loneliness has been one of my worst enemies. Recognizing that, I try to be intentional about scheduling time with others. Human beings are designed to need community, and I'm certainly no exception.

So I started the day in community with God. Read my devotions, from a couple good sources I tap into each day. Then a little time in Ephesians, which is my current biblical book of choice. In chapter 3 right now. Eventually I toddled off to worship at the little Lutheran church on top of the hill.

Going to formal worship services is difficult for me these days.  I'm not part of the community yet and that's painful and I recognize that it takes time and intentionality to become so. I sympathize with people who've told me over the years how hard it is to attend worship alone. So I come in two minutes late, during the opening hymn, and leave during the second verse of the last hymn, just before the pastor reaches the back of the sanctuary to shake hands. That's about as much as I can handle. And it's good to be there. Yesterday was a communion service, and it was good to kneel at the rail with strangers in Christ and receive a sliver of bread and a thimble full of Chardonnay (really??) and swallow the lump in my throat and take a deep breath to clear the tears from my eyes on the way back to my seat, still chewing on the words -- "The body of Christ, given for you" -- "The blood of Christ, shed for you."

After worship I drove about 90 minutes to see a good friend. We had things to talk about, and I knew I needed to unburden about a few things, so I took some time after connecting with the family to allow this good friend to hear me out and care for my still-broken heart. He did a masterful job of listening to my thoughts without passing judgment. What a gift, to be able to lay out all of one's paragraphs and see the words sifted generously! He knew better than to offer answers, but he did share some perspective that was most helpful. Then it was time for me to get on the road again.

Two hours' drive this time, to another friend who is checking in at the Mayo clinic to get some insights into his cancer treatment. I met him and his wife at a restaurant and we chatted, then attended evening devotions at the Mennonite guest house where they're staying. A young women's ensemble sang beautiful four part harmonies of traditional hymns, starting with "God Will Take Care of You" and a half dozen others. One of the leaders shared thoughts about Elijah and God's care for him after his duel with the prophets of Baal. Then we went out to Perkins for pie and good conversation, and talked (among other things) how we are daily reminded to pray for each other -- him in his brokenness, me in mine.

And I drove home northward, and the entire drive the north and west skies were full of lightning and thunderheads -- one of the most spectacular displays of God's power I've seen in many years. It was as if God showed up to say, "Is anything too difficult for me?" So the drive became a counterpoint to the beginning of my day, a time of prayer and worship and lament and holiness and grief.

What a day, right? What an incredible day of Jesus-focused fellowship! What a fantastic day of connection to other believers, to a loving community, to the great and powerful promises of God.

And yet ...

The entire philosophical system of existentialism is built around the idea that at our core, we are basically alienated. Alienated from God, nature, other humans, ourselves. And last night I felt it. After that incredible day I felt the weight of isolation.

Yet I see the wisdom in the book of Hebrews. Don't forsake the practice of gathering together. This life is hard enough to bear without cutting yourself off from love, from community. Don't do it. Keep the connections, because when life is really hard, you will need them more than ever. When you're most tempted to curl up in a ball all alone, reach out. Schedule a conversation, or walk into a worship service, or phone a friend. Talk to God. Do the community things that remind you you're not really alone, even if it feels like you are.

It's important.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


I didn't hit the doe. But I was there at her death, and complicit in it. 

I have hit deer many times before. Too many: a half dozen that I can specifically remember, brakes and adrenaline and dread and sickening thud and danger and blood and death and lasting damage. It is a sad fact of life that deer and vehicles do not coexist well. 

But I didn't hit this doe. That happened earlier, and I got drawn in to the ending of her trauma. 

It was a lovely spring day and I had parked my truck along a paved two-lane road in southeastern Minnesota, waiting to refill the spraying rig my partner operates. He called and said, "There's a doe over west on the property line -- I called the sheriff's deputy and he will be here soon." I walked up the road to wait, to give directions, to be complicit in her death, and to assess. Was this really necessary?

In emergency rooms it's called triage, the idea that you have to evaluate the damage in order to give appropriate aid. Often there is a sign on the wall to remind those of us with minor ailments that "the worst go first." 

When I first saw her, she was standing fifty yards from the roadway, head down in the young corn, looking for all the world like she was grazing. Maybe it's not so bad, I thought. I've known deer to be hit and bounce back relatively quickly. One December night my daughter and I collided with a nice buck whose skull and antlers shattered my windshield, leaving a silhouette of his profile right in front of the steering wheel in the spiderwebbed glass, inches from my wide eyes. I was doing over fifty miles per hour when we collided, and he took the whole impact to his head. There's no way he could survive, we thought. So after getting safely off to the side of the road and taking a look at the spectacular damage, we went tracking. We expected to find him dead within a few yards of the road. We saw where he had spun around, fallen, crawled, and fallen again. His tracks described a crazy weave in the clean snow. Then slowly, the weave became a stagger, and the stagger became a walk, and after a quarter mile his tracks merged with a trail. We gave up, shaking our heads at the resilience of this buck. 

So I wondered about this doe. Maybe she was just recovering. I worked my way around and noticed, first, that her head never came up. She never looked around, though I was less than fifty yards away in plain sight. She was not alert -- a sure sign of trouble for a whitetail. I could see one of her back legs was obviously broken, but that doesn't define things for a deer. There was more wrong. The flies were plaguing her, but her tail never flicked to chase them away. She stood hunched over, head down, staring at but not seeing a spot five feet in front of her. She had bedded down several places here and there, and my eyes teared to think of her agony in lying down and getting up again. 

The deputy arrived and we talked briefly about the doe. I hate this part of the job, he said. He took a rifle from his truck, loaded it, and walked to within twenty yards of her agony. Her head came up then, slowly, making eye contact with the officer. One quick, precise shot to the head and she fell, twitched twice and was still. 


"Thanks for all you do," I said, and he just shook his head. I walked back to my truck. 

Ending things can be a hard decision. Ecclesiastes says that "there is a time to die." How to decide when it's time for the death of a deer, a pet, a person, an idea, a relationship, a church? How to do the triage, to weigh treatment options, to opt for compassionate care or a merciful death? Ask any doctor and they will tell you that though there are important guidelines and principles, it's not an easy science. 

And beyond the science, emotion rises up and threatens to break the levees of our lives, swamping us with fears of guilt and shame. If they unplug life support, does that mean they don't love him any more? If I file for divorce, does that mean I am a failure? If we vote to close the church, are we dishonoring the generations that built it?

Endings are hard, and discerning how to handle them is harder. Triage is necessary. Discernment is crucial. And we don't always get it right. We don't have the luxury of flying into the future and looking back with 20/20 hindsight that allows us to say, "That was exactly the right decision! Why did I put it off so long?!" No, we live and love and die and grieve in the present, and -- this is important -- God knows this. 

While the people around you may well second-guess your decisions, God never does. He wraps your imperfect discernment, your fears and your hopes -- even your failures and mistakes -- into his glorious future. He takes the toughest of our endings and brings about the most beautiful resurrections. 

In a biblical view, after all, there is no hope without death. Be comforted. Grieve. Pray, and make the hard decisions. 


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The messiest life

I often wonder why we like Jesus so much.

Most people in Jesus' own day didn't like him. At least the people that mattered didn't like him. He was trouble. They said he drank too much and ate too much and did both with the wrong people. He came from the wrong side of the kingdom, from Galilee, where young men had a reputation for being trouble. Spend any time at all with Jesus, and you could tell he was going to come to a bad end.

Yet when we tell our flannelgraph stories about him ... I suppose it's a sign of the times that spell-check doesn't recognize the word "flannelgraph" ... we make him out to be "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" and if there was ever a boy you wanted your children to hang out with, it's this blue-eyed blonde guy from Nazareth.

Not a biblical picture, however much we like it.

Jesus' life was messy. MESSY. I mean, think about it. Imagine this is the guy who is hanging out with your thirteen year old son, or worse yet your thirteen year old daughter.

He goes to a party and somehow manufactures 150 GALLONS of wine. The good stuff.

Okay, that might just be fun. And if we keep him away from the minors, he's a great guy to have around, right?

Not so much. Don't take him to church. He'll throw the furniture around and offend people.

He breaks the law. That's so much of what this comes down to -- we have people in positions of power to tell us what is RIGHT and what is WRONG and somehow Jesus always gets on the wrong side of things.

If you know anything at all about the world in which Jesus lived, or even if you just read the stories and pay attention to who is getting offended by Jesus at any given moment (usually the Really Good People) you realize that this Jesus is not necessarily going to get voted Most Likely To Succeed.

Instead, Jesus is a rabble rouser. He offends EVERYBODY. He offends the militants who want to kill Romans. He offends the Sadducees who want to placate the Romans. He offends those like the Essenes who want to withdraw into the wilderness and ignore the Romans. He offends the Pharisees who think the reason we have issues with the Romans is because we need to obey the law better. He offends Herod, whose kingly position was granted him by the Romans. He seems to offend everyone except the crowds, who love him until after Palm Sunday when somehow in a few short days they're crying for him to be crucified.

He offends his brothers and his mother, for crying out loud. So much for blood being thicker than water.

In the end, Jesus even offends his own disciples, who run away into the dark trying to save their own skins because Jesus won't take care of them or himself properly.

Jesus' only defender in the end is Pontius Pilate who declares him innocent. But rather than thanking Pilate, Jesus offends him, too, and gets himself crucified as a pretender to the kingship of Israel. "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" the sentence over his head reads for all to see. His strange kingship offends everyone from the patriots to the collaborators, the peasants to the wealthy.

A generation later, writers and followers were still trying to figure him out. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews, right near the end of the letter written to a group of Jews who were being excluded from their religious communities, pondering the Old Testament sacrifices that had to be disposed of outside the Israelites' camp, wrote, "Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured." Despised and rejected, said the prophet Isaiah six hundred years before Jesus fulfilled the words.

So why is Christianity today such an insider religion?

Why is it that we try hard to figure out how to get more people to belong to our clubhouse churches, because if we have more people, we're more successful, we're more "In"? If you get really good at drawing people In you can write a book, host a seminar, develop a podcast. And people will flock to be In like you are.

But where is Jesus in all this?

He is still despised and rejected more often than not. He is still outside the camp. He is still doing ministry among, as a dear friend told me not long ago, the tax collectors and sinners. The holy people, the good people, the moral ones and the righteous ones are generally still offended when Jesus shows up and invites all the wrong people to the party.

For messed-up people, Jesus is nothing but mercy and hope. For the moral, the upstanding, the righteous, the in-crowd, however, his is still an abhorrently messy life.