Saturday, December 29, 2018

On the fifth day of Christmas ...

Merry Christmas! Hope you are still enjoying the season and letting the joy and peace of it linger in your life a bit these days. I've been occupied with a few other things and abysmal about writing regular posts these days, but I've been listening to a delightful mix of Christmas tunes including the one referenced in this post from 2012. Thought I'd repost it here for your fifth-day-of-Christmas reading pleasure.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas Eve

I'm so often struck by the tension between the powers of this world and the way Jesus arrives. I was watching a movie the other night -- no, I won't recommend it -- that included a criminal who was studying economics reflecting that since retailers make about 50% of their profits in December, you'd think the government would institute another giving-based holiday around May or June. Christmas 2. Just for the profit. Incisive, and pushing the point that Jesus doesn't come to endorse the Way Things Are.

Each year I take a few minutes to appreciate a voice as unlikely as Jackson Browne's making exactly that point. Enjoy.

And Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A love-shaped life

I have written before in these pages about longing to have a life built around love. Scott Sauls does a powerful job of describing this life (what he calls here a "love-shaped life") and why it is so important for those who know Jesus. I'm intrigued by the distinction he makes between "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." This blog post is less about politics (though the title may make you think it is) and more about authentic discipleship. It's an excellent read.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Plenitude and pulchritude

Life has been full these last few days. My daughter from Seattle was here for a few days, and that time was delightfully packed with in-depth conversations, cutting and decorating a Christmas tree (she convinced me to actually have it inside the cabin this year, which turned out to be a good decision though I was dubious), and helping her get a resume and cover letter set up for a possible job ... then, wonderfully, having a positive response so that she actually had a phone interview while she was here, sitting up in my writing studio and jumping through hoops. It's such a joy to see the young woman she has become and watch her navigating her way in the world.

I also had my brother's dog here for a few days, and that was great fun as well. Callie is a laid back golden lab who loves to chase squirrels and has a lot of patience for being left at home for a few hours. (She's learned, even more than me, to value naps.) So having a dog becomes a good excuse for lots of long walks, for playing / wrestling on the carpet, for building fires and relaxing, for the delight of all these long trails through the snow. It's good.

Christmas activities abound around Decision Hills these days, of course. The children's Christmas program happened yesterday afternoon, so while the sun was setting I was out directing traffic and parking cars. Part of my not-so-secret delight in this event was sitting in the back of the packed sanctuary listening to some of the traditional carols and seeing children retelling the old, old story of Jesus' birth. Even as Herod, after the sack of Bethlehem and the slaughter of its infants, is in his spectacular death throes on the platform (something you rarely see in nativity stories these days, especially with the dramatic flair of this particular young Herod, while his gold-armored soldiers stood around looking helpless and he contorted and finally breathed his last on the steps of the platform) part of my mind was back at Faaberg in the days of my childhood, being a child and having this or that role in the Christmas program while proud parents in parkas looked on, while frost rimed the inside of the windows on especially cold years, while the Sunday School teachers stood in the back with an apple or a small bag of hard candy and caramel corn for each child after the program. Good memories, set to the strains of "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" on the playlist in my mind. I love the traditional carols and the simple retelling of the biblical stories. There is a delightful incarnate beauty and a deep sense of community in those events as well -- the good will of humanity expressed in a tangible hug or gift or card, gratitude for the privilege of sharing life and ministry with people who have become so immeasurably dear. Community, partnership in ministry, the shared sense of both the gravitas and the hilaritas of this Jesus-following life -- these all come to the surface during these dark days of December, the temporal "thin place" of the downhill slope of Advent. 

My brother and sister-in-law came last night to retrieve their dog. We chiseled holes in the ice and he fished for a bit, but we are convinced that unlike the sweeping V's of northbound geese that swept over our heads, the fish have all flown south for the winter. Or in the words of the old Ole and Sven joke, "There are no fish under the ice." I left for the Christmas program while they continued their vain piscine pursuit, and then we sat long into the dark, lit by the Christmas tree lights, curled up on our various pieces of furniture watching football, eating venison and pork and cheese and chocolate and talking about all kinds of great topics. What a gift. This morning we filled up on biscuits and duck eggs and walked the property, through the various buildings and up past the crosses, around the north end where my grapes grew this summer and down through the RV sites and back up to my cabin. It's a light, sunny morning full of the crispness of a mid-December day in Minnesota.

It's just funny, I guess, how roller-coastery my life gets sometimes. On the solid, good foundation of living where I live and an outstanding collection of people who love me so well, I am prone to the all-too-Scandinavian downsides of the December dark. But when I look back objectively at the last few weeks I have to shake my head in an amazed appreciation of all that is so good. It's a great reminder during the long evenings, something to ponder with joy while I walk out to listen to the ice groan and crack as it swells and shrinks in the cold. The night skies are brilliant in this darkest season of the year -- good reminder of the lovely points of burning starlight God has placed in my life, and how grateful I am for every bit of it.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Luke 19:28-48

What seems at first glance like three distinct episodes -- Jesus' triumphal entry, his weeping over Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the temple -- are in fact closely related and provide key insights into Jesus' identity and mission.

Palm Sunday sermons frequently point out the kingly symbolism in Jesus' triumphal entry, and rightly so. Rarely, however, do we take note of what Luke is at pains to point out: Jesus is returning just like the ruler in the story Jesus just told. Luke tells us that the triumphal entry happens "when he had said these things" -- a clear arrow pointing back to that story. So Jesus is entering Jerusalem to take up his kingship, and he will be no more welcome than the ruler in the story. His followers recognize what Jesus is doing, at least in part, and they hail him as king.

As Jesus comes down the hill -- the same hillside where he will be arrested in a few days -- he looks across the Kidron Valley to the city of Jerusalem, and he weeps for this city that he loves. He looks ahead to the day forty years in the future when the Roman legions will tear Jerusalem's walls to the ground and burn its temple. He states clearly that the things that could make for peace are hidden from the eyes of his people. Thematically, it's not hard to summarize what Jesus is talking about here: repentance (see Luke 13) and recognizing him as God's chosen king are the main things required for Jesus' people to know peace. What will occur in the next few days -- Jesus' rejection, betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion -- fly in the face of Jesus' prescription.

Perhaps it's Jesus' rejection is understandable, given what he does next in his presumptive authority as king: He enters the temple and cleanses it, driving out those who own the temple franchise, who change money for temple coinage and sell authorized sacrifices to worshipers. In spite of this in-your-face action, Jesus continues to teach in the temple daily, almost daring the authorities to silence him. They take their plotting underground, and the stage is set for Jesus to be betrayed and arrested. However, first we get to hear some of the exchanges that happen between him and the temple authorities during this tumultuous week.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Like a voice longs ...

Full weekend. Officiated at a funeral yesterday with all that involves; preached at the morning services this morning (and will preach again Wednesday evening); had our final Alpha session, a "celebration" complete with open mic and people sharing what God has been doing in their lives on this last Alpha. All most excellent, the kind of good stuff that is exhausting but so very, very fulfilling. Lots to be thankful for tonight, including the fact that by the grace of God this cold has retreated to the extent that only occasionally do I descend into fits of coughing, and almost all the rest of the time I'm just fine. I'm even tempted to get out on stand for the next couple days and see if I can take a deer with my recurve. Had four does and fawns in my yard this afternoon, so I know they're still around.

Here's the sermon from this morning, talking about our identity in Christ based on Hebrews 12:1-2, if you're interested.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A world that speaks

I walked out on the lake ice last night in the darkness. I'd been too long laid back in my recliner, hiding under a blanket full of snowy prints of deer and elk, drinking copious amounts of water and chaga and trying to kick the last shards of this cold. Even over Netflix, even over Pandora I could hear the lake speaking. It's amazing when the temperature starts to drop and the ice begins to crack; the sound reverberates across the landscape impossibly basso profundo, or cracks like a whip across the withers of a watery horse. It distracts like an intruder, demands to be heard. So I bundled up and walked out on the ice.

Cresting the ridge of sand down by the boathouse, walking by feel as my toes through pac boots found the waterline, then the flat ice that I could not see, I thought of Wendell Berry's poem:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and learn that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Yard lights and headlights and Christmas lights across the far side of the ice didn't illuminate the snow in front of my feet, so I was walking by faith -- faith that it's been cold enough for all those open spots to freeze over, faith that the seven or eight feet of frigid water below me would stay below me and I would be allowed to walk on the water, faith that I would in fact return to my recliner this evening. There are no guarantees in this life.

I stood out there for twenty minutes, I suppose, and the ice went silent for a long while. Then a crack started far on the south end of the lake and I heard it travel, heard it work its way north, then east, until it came right across the entrance to my bay. A couple times the cracks came like rifle shots immediately under my feet, which made my heart leap and the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight out.

At one point I looked upward and there, working its way west, was Cygnus, the Northern Cross. That constellation and I have a long history, and it makes me smile to see it hanging above the earth, to see the change of seasons evident in where that swan is flying this month. It's an odd perspective to stand like that, to see my life in proportion to the endurance of that massive cross, the shape that hung in the evenings over Homer when he was writing the Iliad, over Abraham when he was first seeing Canaan. I'm a spark flying up from the fire, glowing for a few seconds. Cygnus hangs like eternity overhead.

I'd been restless all day, restless with unfulfilled longings and unrequited dreams and old wounds, restless with the shards of this slowly retreating cold hanging like lead weights in my chest, restless with questions about futures and possibilities. I'd been wishing for phone calls and emails and text messages, for unexpected visitors showing up at the door, but my day had been silent and solitary in a necessary but uncomfortable way. I turned back to the shore and through the oaks I could see the lamp, my reading lamp next to the recliner, like a beacon through the picture window, summoning me to warmth and life. By starlight I walked back along my tracks, stumbling up the shore, unused to uneven ground, climbed the hill through the trees by feel of the rising ground, the dry leaves and roots under my feet. In the yellow glare of my porch light I saw pressed down on top of the impermanent snow a fresh set of prints, a coyote that had walked alongside my cabin, hunting alone in the snow. Stared a moment toward the forest, pondering his trail.

The front door opened into a rush of warmth and welcome, the smells of a cabin in winter. Unbundle the necessaries -- overcoat, hat, gloves, boots. I stood at the sink, surveyed my kitchen, washed the day's dishes, stood peering out the glass into the cold, looking over that coyote's tracks, stood perched between temperate summer indoors and the December cold on the other side of my windowpane. Turned off the light of my reading lamp. Turned toward the lake again, looking out my living room window. Stood for just a moment feeling the ice through the darkness, hearing again its boom and crack, and went content to bed.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Luke 19:11-27

This parable sometimes suffers from familiarity. We think we understand it: God gives us gifts, and we are to use them well. Good enough, so far as it goes; but there is a lot of depth and backstory we miss if we make Jesus' complex story here into a simple fable with a moral.

In Jesus' world and time, the idea of a nobleman going to a far country to receive kingship was all too familiar. The various Herods for a couple generations had been seeking the favor of their Roman overlords to receive kingship, governorship, tetrarchy, or whatever other scraps Rome was willing to dispense. They had survived civil war, palace revolutions, and changes in the political winds by currying Roman favor. And they were summarily resented and even hated by their Judean subjects. Josephus tells us that when Herod the Great was dying, about the time the child Jesus was learning to walk, he imprisoned dozens of the most valuable and beloved men in Israel in a stadium with orders that at the moment of his death they should be executed -- for the simple reason that he wanted people to grieve when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but it gives insight into the relationship between Jesus' people and their government. The idea of a hated king who went to a far country to negotiate the terms of his rule would have been all too familiar to Jesus' hearers.

Luke tells us that Jesus tells this story precisely to counter the assumption that the kingdom is coming immediately. It's tempting to make the parable into an allegory, and to a certain extent this is helpful. But more often than not, we imagine Jesus returning in our time to hold us accountable for our work or lack thereof. Helpful from a motivational point of view, perhaps; but Jesus is speaking about his own "crowning," his own taking up authority that is about to happen at Jerusalem. Luke also tells us this when he mentions that they are "near Jerusalem." Jesus' hearers are assuming, still, a political victory, a coming coronation that will in some form exalt them all. In spite of Jesus' previous statements, they are not anticipating the cross, though Jesus is.

An intriguing aspect to the parable is that the citizens send a delegation after the nobleman to protest his rule. Is Jesus saying that we do this to God? We don't want Jesus to rule over us, so we protest to God about the way he's running his empire. We don't want to follow a crucified, shamed Messiah. We don't want to take up our crosses and follow. "God, I just want to be victorious!" Like the third servant with his handkerchief-wrapped coin, we want to avoid risk and simply reap rewards.

Possibly the most important part of this parable is that Jesus gives us insight into how we view God, and how God honors our perceptions. The third servant launches into a detailed description of his master: "You are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and you reap what you did not sow." Surprisingly the master just rolls with it. "You knew, did you, that I am like that? Well, I will judge you by your own words." What is your perception of God? What do you assume about God's character, and how accurate are your assumptions? Do you assume God is disappointed in you? Waiting for you to shape up? Angry because you've failed? You will receive the judgment of these inaccurate assumptions. Our failure is not usually in doing something wrong, but in failing to know the heart of God accurately. Verse 26 gets at the heart of this. Have you noticed how some people seem to enjoy the "green pastures" of the psalm no matter what is happening in their lives? They navigate challenges and difficulties with a deep sense of being blessed and favored by God, even in the midst of hardship. This is because they have come to know God's character -- his measureless love and tenderness for them, the fact that he is in fact for them, that they are beloved by him.

The next few chapters of Luke's gospel will set the stage for us to know God in this way -- to know his loving, self-giving heart in its fullness.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Luke 19:1-10

Frogs are low and slow, awkward and cold and clammy. Once upon a time there was a frog, the froggiest of them all, and he lived unpleasantly in his frogginess. Until, that is, the day when a beautiful princess picked him up, kissed him full on his froggy lips and ZAP! Suddenly he was a handsome prince. Not perfect, of course, and struggling to work out the details of princely existence, but transformed nonetheless.

What is the task of the church? To kiss frogs, of course.

Trouble is, most churches are built to keep frogs out. If you've ever been a frog, you know how hard it is to gain entrance to churches with their perfect-seeming people, plush carpets, careful moral codes, and general intolerance for the eating of insects. Stop being a frog, they seem to say, and we might let you come inside.

But Jesus. Jesus stops the parade through Jericho and turns to the froggiest of them all, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and says "I'm staying at your house today." At the end of the story, Jesus sums up his mission perhaps as succinctly as he ever does: The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.

To kiss frogs.

If we doubt this mission has been handed on to us, look at the end of John's gospel. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." It's actually fairly simple. As Jesus was to Zacchaeus' world, so the church is to be to this world in which we exist, putting into practice what Jesus achieved. Or, to mix in a wholly different metaphor, to play the music that Jesus wrote. 

If you're still a frog, there's hope. And if in some measure you've been kissed, transformed by the caress of love into a prince or princess yourself (though I daresay you still crave the occasional housefly) your task is to love Jesus who is transforming you, and to watch with compassion for frogs who need kissing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Luke 18:31-43

It might seem odd to put these two sections of Luke 18 together, but this is important.

In verses 31-34, Jesus lays out a graphic description of what is about to happen to him: betrayal, arrest, torture, death, resurrection. We, like the disciples, are not inclined toward the redemption of suffering. We would rather avoid suffering and experience victory without loss or pain. In essence, this is what it means that the disciples "did not grasp what was said." They had come to know Jesus as king, as Messiah, and they assumed that his dogged progress toward Jerusalem was a procession toward enthronement. Sure, there might be battles, but Jesus would be victorious. There might be resistance, but they were confident in Jesus' ability to sweep away every power. Hadn't they seen him heal the blind, cast out demons, feed the multitude? Jesus could do anything!

Our natural human inclination is to put our heroes up on pedestals. We want Mighty Mouse crying out, "Here I come to save the day!" We prefer Superman, faster than a speeding bullet, rather than a crucified Messiah. The strongest evidence of our fallen, broken human condition is that we so completely mistake the nature of love for ourselves, for others, and for God. The nature of God is to love, and love by its very nature takes the pain of the beloved into itself. This is not a codependent syndrome, but a redemptive suffering. Isaiah nailed this when he said six hundred years before, "By his stripes we are healed." Love does not march into battle victorious, but it enters into pain and brings healing. Love by nature requires vulnerability, and vulnerability by definition includes the possibility of being wounded ourselves. To love is to be vulnerable, and without that vulnerability there is no possibility of intimacy and little possibility of relationship. We underestimate the brokenness of creation -- including ourselves -- and therefore mistake the nature of God's victorious love. The cross is not an exception in the life of God; it is the nature of redemptive love, always and forever. Love as the chief character quality of God is written into the fabric of the universe, deeper than the laws of thermodynamics or gravity or 'an eye for an eye.' Sin turns us away from this truth, turns us toward cheap victories that don't cost our suffering, turn us away from the necessity of sitting patient with pain while it does its work. Like Inigo Montoya at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride, we hate waiting.  So we mistakenly see suffering as the opposite of God's love, while more often than not suffering becomes the necessary groundwork for God's love to become known in a greater, deeper way.

On the heels of Jesus' words about his impending torture and death, he encounters a blind beggar. Here is the victorious healing, the supernatural sign. But see how the beggar cries out in his desperate condition, in spite of opposition from the crowd. The people see themselves as part of a victory procession, a royal parade toward coronation -- little do they know what Jesus' throne will actually be and what crown he will actually wear -- and the last thing they want to be bothered with is the spectacle of a blind man who wants attention. In subtle and obvious ways, we put our suffering out of sight so we don't have to deal with it. The aging go to nursing homes; the dead go to funeral homes; the sick stay home from work; we don't talk about depression in polite company; we all pop pills to take the edge off our pain, and when we get addicted to our painkillers we hide away in rehab centers. But Jesus stops the parade and summons the blind man, in fact commands the people to deal with his blindness directly by guiding him to Jesus.

What to do with these verses? The place to start is sitting by the road, watching what looks to us like a victorious parade passing by. Have you experienced life this way? Everyone else seems to have their act together. They are successfully following a victorious Messiah en route to his coronation, and there you sit in your blindness, in your suffering, in your incapacity. Don't accept the illusion that this is a victory parade, from glory into glory. Realize the nature of the Love that is passing by -- that Jesus goes to the cross for this deluded multitude, and for the sake of the city that will approve of his crucifixion, as well as for you. Cry out to Jesus in the place of your suffering, and don't let the crowd's misconceptions silence you. "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" He will not fail to hear your cries. He may use your suffering to confront those who simply want to march up to Jerusalem for a party. He will enter into your suffering and stand with you in compassion. And he will bring healing, because he loves you. In that, in the healing, he will invite you to enter into suffering -- not just your own, but others' -- and stand with a broken world in love.