Monday, April 21, 2014

Post Easter

It's Easter Monday.  Traditionally this is a day where pastors wander around in a bit of a post-traumatic haze, trying to remember how to tie their shoes and handle other such details that they haven't thought about for at least a week and maybe longer.

For me, this has been a crazy month.  I started working at Calvary March 16th, so it's been just over a month since I began.  I've had more fun, and been challenged more, in the last month than I ever dreamed possible.  I'm tremendously excited about Calvary's mission and potential.

That said, I am trying for all I'm worth to remember how to tie my shoes.  For the moment I'm wearing the tennis shoes I can just slip in and out of without retying them.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Peripheral benefits

I have taught the book of Revelation roughly a dozen times over the years, from a group of high school students sitting on my living room floor in 1990 on to a classroom of adults in about 2011.  I've read the book itself and studied the historical and cultural and political context of the New Testament period as deeply as I know how over the years in order to better understand not only the book of Revelation, but the entire New Testament.

This kind of in-depth study carries huge benefits. I feel like I understand far more today than I did a couple decades ago about the most important documents in my world and what they really mean (and don't mean).  Devotionally speaking, I know Jesus better for having studied his words in depth and in context.  I know the church better having dissected the words of the earliest church leaders.  I can discern better today what is biblical and what is not.

This is not to say that I have arrived or that I know all that I want.  Far from it.  In fact, probably farther today than it ever has been, as I can see much more of what I don't know today than I could years ago.

This kind of study carries peripheral benefits, too -- like when I was trying last Saturday to memorize my script for tonight's Maundy Thursday portrayal of the Apostle John reflecting on the book of Revelation.  My brain is getting older, and crystallizing a bit, I'm afraid.  I could not for the life of me get that script in my head, not even after eighteen dramatic readings of it.

So starting Saturday, with the gracious permission of my director, I rewrote the script.  Finished it Wednesday morning.  Wrote it from the perspective of John in his original context talking about the situation in which he received the vision that became the book of Revelation.

Tonight I delivered that monologue (a little over twenty minutes) without notes.  Twice.  To packed houses.

I firmly believe that is a testimony, first and foremost, to the graciousness of the Holy Spirit.  But secondly it speaks of one peripheral value of investing deeply, over time, in studying the Bible.  It pays off in ways you might not expect.

If you want to see the portrayal, you can watch it here.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Speaking about the cost of following him, Jesus said:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10)

I was remembering these words the other day when a coworker asked about a picture I had in my office.  It was a group of guys, looking pretty rough, who had all gone to Montana together.  I told some of the stories from that trip, and one thing led to another, and I was telling all kinds of stories about some of the friendships that have meant -- and continue to mean -- so much over the last decade or so.

"How did you ever leave?" my coworker asked.

Good question.  There is such security, such comfort, such community, invested in those relationships.  Where we have lived is such a good place.  When the thought of leaving first came up, I would literally get short of breath whenever I thought about it too long, simply because those friendships are so, so precious.

Jesus didn't say, "These things won't be hard -- see, you'll get more in return."  He didn't say, "Just do it anyway and stop whining."  No, Jesus said that following him will cost you everything -- and that he recognizes and honors the cost that his followers pay.  He doesn't deny the pain, but he rewards the sacrifice.

I've always been struck by the word "lands" in these verses.  Deep down it is a great comfort to me that Jesus recognizes how I can get attached to land.  Back in my college years, it nearly killed me to leave the farm where I grew up.  It's still one of the most precious places to me on this earth.  These days I am watching the 2.57 acres just west of Zimmerman where we've lived for eleven years emerging from under deep snow, and I am thinking how precious this patch of land has become.  I look at the trees I've planted and the garden we've tilled.  I see the patches of black dirt marking the places my daughters used to dig holes, or the site (now only in our memories) where the swing set dominated the backyard.  I think of hours spent mowing lawn or trapping gophers.  I look at the duck shed / playhouse Teya and I built.  It's been a good place, and it will sting to leave it.

Leaving the past behind is always hard.  That's why people -- and churches -- love to get stuck in ruts.  We do it over and over again.  Change is hard, but Jesus calls us to follow.  Jesus calls us into change.  Jesus calls us to transformation.  We don't become what he wants us to be without going through painful, fearful change.

But he rewards the sacrifice.

So how could I leave?  Maybe a better question is, how could I not?  To stay in spite of God's call would have meant disobedience.  To remain here when the door opened to leave, once I was convinced Jesus was leading me, would have meant condemning myself and those around me (including the congregation at Central) to settle for second best.  (NOTE: For many people, most of the time, the call to remain is the call of Jesus and requires greater courage than flitting off to find a new context.  I totally affirm those who remain faithfully in positions for years or even decades, if that is where Jesus is calling them.)  For a decade and more I have stood before the congregation at Central and preached to them that following Jesus is worth the cost, that the sacrifice is a joy even when it hurts, that there's nothing better in this world than following him no matter where he leads.

I am discovering these truths anew at Calvary.  I am being stretched and tried in that new context.  (Full disclosure:  Mostly I am being stretched and tried by my own expectations of myself, rather than by any trials that come from Calvary.  They are doing an amazing job of loving me and my family into this new context.  They are so welcoming and so affirming that I could easily get spoiled. The challenge comes from inside me, where I recognize the weight of this position and strive to do this job justice.  That is enough to stretch me significantly for right now!)

I am also discovering anew that Jesus fulfills this promise -- that leaving one place, one context, one family, one land, for another brings multiple rewards.  His word is trustworthy.  He is faithful.

Monday, April 7, 2014


Perspective matters.

A few years ago I was hunting in the badlands of North Dakota.  Early in the morning I left our camp and started walking out in the dark toward a canyon I planned to hunt that morning.  The headlamp I wore gave a strong beam of light to guide my footsteps.  Unfortunately, the lamp was very close to my eyes, so as it shone I saw everything as if the light was coming from me.  Because of that, I had no perspective on the ground in front of me, no sense of depth perception.  I stepped into a deep hole up to my knee and ended up sprawled face first on the grass.  If things had gone just a little differently I would have broken my leg.

I reflected later that if I had been carrying a flashlight in my hand, I would not have fallen.  The perspective provided by the separation between the light and my eyes would have helped me see more accurately.

So often we read the Bible as though it was written to us personally.  There's a lot of good in that, and I believe the Spirit of God speaks through the Bible to us in powerful ways.   But if we don't understand the culture and the context in which the Bible was originally written, we will find ourselves making all kinds of incorrect assumptions about what it means.

One of the privileges of living in 2014 is that we have been given a better understanding of the Bible's original context than at any time since the first century in which it was written.  Because of discoveries in the late 19th and 20th centuries and the scholarship that has investigated those discoveries -- I'm thinking of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Library, the archaeological discoveries that have been made in the Mediterranean basin and so much more -- we have a far better window into the original writers of the Bible (in human terms) and the world in which they lived.

As we learn about their world, we begin to gain a different perspective on our own.  We start to realize that we come to the quest for truth with a different set of assumptions.  Our thinking is deeply shaped by our own context.  We are the grandchildren of the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution.  We mostly believe according to the assumptions of rationalism.  We are deeply shaped by humanist philosophies.  These are not necessarily bad things -- we've gained a lot of benefits from these ideas -- but if we don't begin to understand that our thinking is colored by our own context, we are foolish.

By digging into the biblical world and trying to understand it on its own terms, we gain perspective on our own world.  How did people in Jesus' day think about language?  About time?  About poetry? About science?  About death?  All these are expressions of our deepest assumptions about reality.  If we understood how people then thought, two things will happen.

First, we'll understand Jesus and his followers better, because they were speaking, acting and writing to communicate with people who held a particular worldview.  Second, we'll come to understand ourselves and the assumptions we hold better, and we may even begin to have a sense of perspective about our own culture and context.

A large part of what it means for the church to be salt and light in our world is that as we delve into Jesus and the world of the Bible, we gain perspective and our lives change.  We are then able to provide an alternative approach to reality, a different set of assumptions about life and meaning.