Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Luke 17:1-10

The kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim is an upside-down kingdom. Power as we understand it doesn't work right here. Neither does control. It is a kingdom built on God's ways, not our ways. As Jesus has revealed his Father's heart in chapter 15 and called us to the task of stewardship -- managing our resources well in light of the Father's character -- so now he begins to apply that to our interpersonal relationships.

Don't lose the context here. Jesus is still in tremendous tension with the Jewish leaders who have just condemned him. Yet we know that some of those same Jewish leaders became his followers. John's gospel tells us specifically that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus worked their way around to becoming disciples of Jesus. Have you ever had to forgive someone who at one point stood with your enemies? Have you had to release the wrongs done to you? Jesus recognizes both the seriousness of causing someone else to stumble -- sin is no joke -- and also the absolute imperative of God's kingdom of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not a blanket statement or a universal principle. It is excruciating: literally, from the cross. Forgiveness is the painful work of releasing the one who has hurt you, the one whose sin is real, the one whose fault is so obvious to you.

In the not too distant past I've heard through the grapevine of people who have been so angry at me that they say I am beyond forgiveness. I'm not surprised. I've also had people who have said and done things that have damaged me beyond what I can even calculate. On both sides of that coin, Jesus stands in between, mediating broken relationships, calling all sides to drop the hatchet and do the hard work of forgiveness.

Understand, we are not yet talking about reconciliation. That is a further step. Sometimes it's possible and sometimes it's not. But forgiveness is not an option -- not if we want to be healthy. We will not do ourselves or anyone else any good if we say "I will hold on to this hurt, nurse this grudge, maintain this condemnation." As the wag has said, that's like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.

Reconciliation is a topic for another day. But Jesus calls us not to step into a position of authority that doesn't belong to us. We all love to be judge and jury. It's a human instinct, a reflex. It feels like justice at first, but it only leads to bitterness. When you've been hurt, the kingdom-of-God practice is to release the hurt to the Father, to let him have it rather than hanging onto it yourself. The New Testament is absolutely full of this, beginning with Jesus on the cross saying "Father, forgive them ..."

The heart of this surrender (and it is a surrender) is recognizing our role. We are servants in this kingdom, not judges. We are waiters, not executioners. Humility, in other words, is not an option in this kingdom.

How can you become humble? Only, only by getting your focus off yourself. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, as the song says. Let go of the hurts. Let go of the shame. Let go of the desire for vengeance. Let go of the will to control. Focus on his face. Focus on his words. Focus on his grace. Take up the servant's task he has set before you and do it with all your will. Lose yourself in it.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A week nobody else has

My mom used to say, "All I want is a week nobody else has." When she said that, she was usually talking about tasks and projects she wanted to complete. I think if I could schedule such a thing, I'd certainly do it this time of year, not to focus on projects but to enjoy this beautiful season. The last few days of October and the first few days of November are so full of good things, and every year I struggle to fit it all in.

Some of these things are like clockwork -- the whitetail rut kicks in about now, and big bucks get a lot less secretive and start appearing in daylight. I'm seeing pictures of big bucks taken by people I know, and I've even seen some activity around here. Pretty exciting. Still don't have any fresh venison in the freezer, but we'll get there. Bowhunting these days is a delight, especially on crisp days when the deer make a ton of noise moving through the woods, and they seem okay with that. Hunting season is usually (this year is no exception) a good excuse for a lightning trip north to the farm where I grew up, and though the last few years (this year is no exception) don't allow enough time for leisurely hunting, it's a chance to be back at the farm, drive past Faaberg Lutheran Church, maybe stop in the cemetery and say hi to Mom & Dad, walk the woods and the farm where I grew up, and hopefully fill the freezer.

In my part of the world, deer hunting is a big deal. There's an excitement to early November that wraps up as many people as football season. The young lady cashiering behind the counter at the store yesterday couldn't stop talking about how this is her first year deer hunting, and she's so excited. Kind of fun.

Speaking of football, we're in that mid-range of the season when the Vikings haven't eliminated themselves from playoff hopes yet. It's a time of optimism in Minnesota, and people aren't ashamed to yell "SKOL!" out loud. Spending Sunday afternoons wrapped up in a blanket on the couch with the remote and a bowl of popcorn watching a game while hope still thrives -- that's a delectable gift.

Another delight that's a little more variable, timing-wise, is the appearance of the first snowflakes of the year. We've had a couple snow showers already, but daytime temps are still firmly above freezing, which is good. There's time to clean up leaves, finish fall projects, etc. Satisfying stuff.

Less tangible but no less important, we are poised at what I often think of as a "hinge" of the year when we turn the corner from the activity-rich summer and early fall into the relationship-rich season of holidays, family feasts, reconnecting with loved ones. Word to the wise: be intentional. Love endures all things, Paul tells us, but it takes maintenance as well. Schedule in face-time with those you haven't seen in a while. The next few weeks are some of the best times to reforge those connections.

Similarly, the "hinge" also includes a transition toward arts and charities making a bigger splash than they do in the summer. Look around -- the world is suddenly full of plays, concerts, galas, parties and fundraisers. Seems like they pop up this time of year like crazy, and it's a wonderful time to get connected to worthwhile stories, events and causes.

Outside my window this afternoon it's raining and gray. The trees are stark and bare, the water on the lake looks like steel. I find myself a little restless in the midst of it all -- tempted to give in to unease, to feel a little frantic like I'm missing something I should be doing. Instead I'm debating which of the six immediate options I should choose, how I should spend the rest of the afternoon and evening, what needs to be done and what I choose to do because it's simply the best. Work on a story I'm writing? Go sit on my tree stand in the rain and see if that eight pointer comes by again? Put in an old favorite movie? Invite a friend over and put those jalapeƱos on the grill, stuffed with cheese? Build a fire in the woodstove in the shop and start working on that oak table that's been on my mind? Oh, the options!

I don't have a week no one else has -- but like you, I have a bunch of weeks during this pinnacle of the year. I want to spend them well.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Luke 16:19-31

Three things to say about this parable, which closes out this section (chapters 15-16) of parables we've said are focused on stewardship: First we must know the heart of the Father, then we can figure out how to appropriately manage our worldly goods in light of who God is.

1. This parable is often cited as some kind of evidence of what the afterlife is like. I've heard in-depth teachings using this parable to explain that when we die, we are taken to a sort of holding area. Those who are good / God-pleasing / righteous / saved will go to a pleasant place called "Abraham's bosom" and those who are bad / condemned / unrighteous / unsaved will go to a place of temporary torment called "Hades" or something similar. Please understand that mapping out the afterlife is NOT Jesus' point here. That would be a little like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or watching Jeremiah Johnson to figure out how to be a good trapper. Yes, that element is in the story, but it's not even close to the point. The Bible is frustratingly, intentionally fuzzy and vague about questions of exactly what happens in the afterlife. Many cultures surrounding biblical ones had extensive writings on this topic -- the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" is the best example -- so one has to think this omission is intentional. Think about it a bit, and you'll see that it must very well be so. God doesn't want you to trust some road map of where you're headed after you die. He wants you to trust him, in this life and the next. We are to be like Peggy who, a couple days before she died, told me, "I figure all I have to do is die, and Jesus will take care of the rest." Sound wisdom.

2. Having laid the foundation of revealing the Father's heart in chapter 15, Jesus is now making explicit his advice in the first part of 16: We are to use our worldly goods to please God. The rich man (interestingly unnamed, though tradition sometimes names him Dives) uses his abundant wealth to indulge himself, ignoring the beggar at his gate. The first point of the story is that this self-indulgence is clearly against God's desire, and eventually the rich man will experience the consequence of his selfishness. We are not called to be like the younger son in chapter 15, squandering our resources on our own lusts. Nor are we to be like the elder son, selfishly hoarding those resources and never allowing ourselves to live like we are heirs of the estate. Instead, we are to manage our goods as a reflection of the Father's heart, who cares for the outcasts, the sick, the marginalized, the orphan and the widow and the slave and the prisoner and the blind and the lame. The problem with the rich man is not that he is selfish, but rather that his selfishness puts him directly in opposition to the Father's heart.

3. The end of the parable is one of those intriguing statements that must have puzzled people when Jesus first uttered it but came to be extremely important in the early church. As the first Christians after Pentecost tried to tell their fellow Jews about Jesus and his resurrection, they faced tremendous frustration and disappointment and some limited success. Throughout the New Testament we hear echoes of that frustration, longing for the Jewish people to recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Here Jesus foretells that frustration, saying that even if someone rises from the dead (as he will shortly do) those who are entrenched in their own structures of religious power and certainty (the old wineskins he has talked about before) will refuse to believe him. We live with the same frustration today.

So don't let's make this a parable about the structure of the afterlife and miss Jesus' point. In regard to questions about what happens after death, maybe we are wisest to cling to Deuteronomy 29:29, where Moses tells the people that the hidden things belong to God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever. In Jesus' resurrection, the heart of the Father that will not even be stopped in the face of death is revealed and victorious. We cling to that.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Screaming into the end of October

I'm probably due to post some kind of a life-update as well. Fall is in full swing, as evidenced by the amazingly gray, rainy day outside and the torrents of leaves in my yard. This time of year is always a delicious introspective creep around in the wet woods kind of season that makes me think about life, the universe, and everything.

So here are a few random details that have spurred great amounts of thought lately:

  • I had a large hawk in my back yard yesterday, pecking around in the leaves and looking for all the world like a chicken. I experienced a fanciful moment of vertigo wondering, if I could keep this going, what it would be like to keep laying hawks and sell their eggs. In possibly related news, I got a front row seat a couple days ago watching a beautiful red fox hunting mice just below my place.
  • I caught the largest largemouth bass of my life a few days ago, on a random jaunt in my canoe. Took a poor quality picture and let him go. I'm not huge on eating bass, and catching him came as a bit of a surprise, and I'm tending more toward catch-and-release (especially with bass) lately anyway. Loved the experience, though.
  • The whitetails are starting to transition toward the rut, which won't be in full swing for a couple weeks yet. But their patterns are changing, and I'm trying to read those patterns carefully. There have been no large bucks living on my 70 acres, but I'm hoping they'll be cruising through over these next couple weeks looking for receptive does. It gets to be an exciting time in the woods. I'm bringing out the arsenal of scents and grunt calls and fake-antler-rattling-noisemakers and having a ball. 
  • I went to the dentist the other day for the first time in five years. I was deeply curious to see what my extended experiment of owning my own dental hygiene produced. They fixed a little chip in one of my incisors and said my teeth looked great except for a tiny bit of tartar on the inside of my bottom teeth, and that I should schedule all kinds of professional cleanings at great expense. I declined. 
  • This weekend is the Holy Spirit Retreat for the Alpha course I've been leading. I'm excited. I have a great leadership team and it's going very, very well. It's fun to be leading Alpha again. 
  • I've been having more and more conversations about mid-sized home-based groups. A large part of my ministry-oriented work here is building those, and that relates closely to said Alpha course. We'll likely be launching two of these mid-sized groups in January. Can't wait. I'm more convinced than ever that this model (which is really just the book of Acts translated for our time) is one place where God is moving in powerful ways throughout the world. 
  • I've been struck lately by the fact that I haven't been to the Boundary Waters this summer. Not sure if I'll get there next summer either. I'm pinning high hopes on the summer of 2020. Living on a lake is good, but I miss that wilderness and all that goes with it. 
  • Writing continues to be a passion, though I have less to show for my efforts than I would like. I continue to play with short stories, and the one novel I'm currently working on is somewhere around 40,000 words. Not surprisingly it involves the Boundary Waters. 
  • I have great anticipation for the nearly three gallons of wild grape wine fermenting on my kitchen counter. It's mostly a grown-up science experiment, I suppose, not unlike the ten gallons of chokecherry wine a couple friends and I have produced, fermented, and now bottled. 

That's probably enough for now. Today promises to be a mix of mechanical projects (need to replace a squirrel-cage fan in one of the furnaces in our Youth Building), computer work (prepping projection and talks and preparing documents for the Holy Spirit Retreat) and a little bit of walking in the rainy woods (to check my fake scrapes designed to lure in big whitetail bucks). Hope you are having an equally delightful day!

Ponder-worthy, and Action-worthy

I've had this article up on my browser for about a week now. I've read through it a few times and find new things in it each time. Today I realized I had WAY too many windows open and decided to close it down. Then I read it again and decided to keep it up there a while longer. I'll close other stuff.

Hope you enjoy it as much as I have. And that it makes you as uncomfortable as it has made me. And that it provokes as much restlessness and eagerness in you as it has me.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Luke 16:14-18

Luke tells us here how the Pharisees reacted to Jesus' teaching. He describes them as "lovers of money" which, especially if we're right about all of chapters 15 and 16 being about stewardship -- how we manage what God has entrusted to us -- means they're going to react negatively to Jesus' specific teachings here.

In point of fact, how we see the heart of God (that is Jesus' main point in chapter 15, after all) matters. If we see God as a distant sovereign with high expectations, we will react accordingly. If we see God as an indulgent guy who winks at sin, we'll live like that. What the Pharisees apparently missed -- for all that they had right, and they had a lot of things right -- was the joyful heart of God that passionately loves sinners. If that passion for broken, hurting people is at the core of who God is (and the Bible is so clear about this) then our stewardship -- our management of our wealth and resources -- has to reflect that passion.

I'm seeing in a new way these days how these verses are connected to all that has gone before. I believe Jesus is so stern with the Pharisees because by focusing on the law, by managing their own morality and the morality of others, they have missed the heart of God. Jesus says that he himself, along with his proclaiming the kingdom, supersedes the Law and the Prophets, and so it transforms how we read them. Instead of doing what the Pharisees did and reading the Law and the Prophets as a rule book, we now read them as setting the foundation for Jesus' own appearance and the proclamation of his kingdom. The Law does not go away, Jesus is very clear. There are Christians who claim that Jesus' followers should not read the Old Testament -- but they have no biblical leg to stand on. But the reading of those books is transformed, and we rightly see them now through the lens of Jesus himself. Everything in the Old Covenant is preparing the way, laying the foundation, and pointing toward Jesus and his kingdom. That's Jesus' point as he lays the hearts of the Pharisees bare.

So what to do with these few words about divorce in verse 18? This seems like such a non sequitur to us. The New Testament's teachings on divorce are nearly always taken out of context, and this verse is no exception. Why would this verse be sandwiched in between four parables about stewardship and the heart of God (15:1-16:13) and the story of the rich man and Lazarus that follows? Is this simply a pebble of Jesus' teaching that didn't fit elsewhere so Luke throws it in here?

No. We tend to import Jesus' words about divorce -- and the Bible's words about divorce in general -- into our own context with very little understanding of what they meant in biblical times and cultures. In the context to which Jesus was speaking, women had absolutely no rights. They couldn't own property, they couldn't inherit, they couldn't serve as witnesses in court. A woman whose husband divorced her had absolutely no recourse. There was, in fact, a lively debate among the Jewish teachers of Jesus' own day as to exactly how formal a divorce had to be. The school that said a man could divorce his wife "for any reason" claimed that if he was upset with her, or tired of her, or if she burned dinner some evening, all he had to do was say "I divorce you" three times, and she was out on the street. The more formal school that had a tiny little bit of sympathy for the plight of women stipulated that the man should give her a written certificate of divorce to prove that she had once been legitimately married and that there was some legitimate reason to dissolve the marriage before getting rid of her. Neither option gave the woman anything in the way of help or rights. Women were literally considered property, like cattle or land. A man could dispose of his property as he wished, as long as he observed the proprieties.

Jesus is, in fact, continuing his teaching about stewardship -- about property management. He is saying in effect that marriage (as the Bible clearly teaches) is a covenant relationship that is designed by God to reflect God's relationship with us (see for example Genesis 1:26-27 and Ephesians 5:21-33). And if that is true, the Pharisees' own attitudes about what was acceptable in the arena of divorce needed to be reexamined. "I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you" was a disgraceful way to treat a relationship designed to mirror God's love for his creation. The "letter of the law" interpretation of both schools of Jewish teachers, Jesus says, is not a legitimate way to end a marriage. Instead, it actively puts people in the position of breaking God's law.

What do we do with this? We no longer understand women as property. As the father of two brilliant,  beautiful daughters, I'm extremely thankful for this! It is important for us to understand marriage as a covenant, as a relationship designed by God to reflect his passionate love for creation. Nowhere is the brokenness of creation in light of sin more apparent than in the painful throes of a marriage relationship headed for divorce. Divorce is a painful reality, because sin is a painful reality. We should do all we can to create strong marriages and to strengthen those who are hurting without seeing divorce as an easy out. Absolutely. At times, hopefully rarely, a marriage relationship is so broken that it needs to come to an end. It has strayed so far from mirroring God's heart that continuing the broken relationship does more harm to the image of God than good, and efforts to get it back on track are unable to fix things.

And even in our day, we understand that property management is a huge issue in these situations. I've known too many couples who've moved in, bought a house together, etc. -- because they were "in love" -- without bothering to get married because it seems old fashioned or legalistic. But if that relationship goes bad, they start to see the legal issues involved in dissolving home ownership, etc., and how that painful process of dissolving a marriage is about so much more than just moving out. Breaking a marriage -- or any kind of covenant -- should be hard, and heartbreaking. The legal structure of divorce, as rough as it is, provides (or should) some measure of protection for each party.

Some of you who read this blog know that I'm a little over a year past my own separation and divorce. These issues hit close to home. I've spent a LOT of time in the past year prayerfully reading texts like this, pondering what the Bible says and why, on these issues -- not looking for loopholes, but because in all of this I want to know the heart of God, and experience both his grace and his conviction in their depth. I've also spent a ton of time looking at my own sins, and the patterns that should have been different in that marriage from the start a quarter century ago, and what I wish I'd done different over the years. It's been an uncomfortable time, especially as a Jesus-follower and as a public Christian leader. It's been devastating and humbling and eye-opening. It has also been hugely important. And I continue to process these difficult thoughts in prayer, in counseling, in conversations.

Marriage and divorce are enormous issues for today's church, as they have been throughout the centuries. I've had so many conversations with people in the past year who struggle with their own broken relationships. Some of those struggles (and I've experienced this as well) include ways the church shames people for their brokenness, wagging a moralistic finger at those who are in the middle of devastation and hurt.

But let's bring the conversation back to scripture here and see this particular verse in its context, where Jesus speaks it. Here, it's a stewardship issue. And stewardship is also a huge, huge issue for the church today. In his own context, Jesus is confronting a culture in which men experienced divorce as easy and painless, and women had no rights and lived at risk of offending their husbands. It was unjust, wrong on so many levels. Jesus rightly confronts it as part of his teaching on stewardship, of how we manage our lives and all the good gifts God has given us. He doesn't give us easy answers, but (again) he points us back to the heart of God and what it means to live in covenant with him.

That's the center of the next story he tells as well.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Luke 16:1-13

We go immediately from what is perhaps Jesus' most well known, most loved parable -- the parable of the Prodigal Son, as it's most often called -- to one of the least known, least understood, and frankly least loved parable -- that of the shrewd manager. Doesn't roll off the tongue quite the same way, does it?

There is an important continuity between these parables. Notice the audience. At the beginning of Luke 15, Luke tells us that the context for the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons is Jesus welcoming sinners and the Pharisees disapproving. At the beginning of Luke 16, Jesus turns to the disciples (though it's clear later that the Pharisees are still listening in) and begins to explain what it really means to be his follower. So we ignore this parable in chapter 16 at our peril.

In the parable of the lost sons and the parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus is dealing with questions of stewardship and our relationship to worldly wealth. The priority, laid out in the parable of the lost sons, is that we should know the Father's heart. In Luke 15, Jesus clearly told us that the Father is joyful, eager for relationship, determined to love sinners, running to the repentant. That is the Father's heart. In that context, we see a couple responses to wealth management.

The first is the younger son. He foolishly squanders his wealth for pleasure. No one would defend his spending habits in the parable. Yet how many of us, in more subtle ways, spend our resources for our own satisfaction? Whether it's buying a third home for our own enjoyment, a jet-ski because we want to play, or a Snickers bar in the grocery check out just because we feel like self-indulgence, how many of us set as our highest priority that we want to buy things to make ourselves feel good? That's the way of the younger son.

The way of the older son seems much better, at least at first glance. He has denied himself and kept his nose to the grindstone. Trouble is, his whole life is a resentful lie. He labors under the mistaken belief that he doesn't matter to the Father and he is in fact little better than a slave. His life is a grim, joyless existence and he lusts after -- and denies himself -- the wealth that to him is evidence of his Father's injustice. He has completely missed his Father's heart.

The shrewd manager in Luke 16 provides a third option that looks absolutely heinous at first glance. Jesus describes a despicable man without a shred of honesty who wheels and deals his way into self-protection. He cheats his master in order to provide for himself. And Jesus clearly says that his ways are the ways of the world, not the ways of the Father. Being a wheeler-dealer is not the solution.

But, Jesus seems to say -- and we must not miss this -- there's a subpoint under option three. What Jesus lifts up in the manager's conduct is that he used worldly wealth to make friends for himself because he knew a time was coming when he'd need protection. Jesus says, learn from the manager. A time is coming when you will need eternal protection. The things of this world will fade and die. So use the worldly wealth God provides in order to make friends who can help you out in your eternal needs. Who can help you in that way? God alone. So the moral of the story, according to Jesus, is that we should use worldly resources to make friends with God. Yes, it's a crass, self-centered way of looking at things. But we have to read this parable also in light of the heart of the Father Jesus has described so well in chapter 15. (Remember, again, that there were no chapter divisions in the first manuscripts -- so when Jesus is speaking and when Luke is writing, the story of the lost sons flows immediately into the story of the dishonest manager.)

The Father's heart makes all the difference. It is his longing to welcome us into his home, no matter how foolish we have been -- or how arrogant about our own work ethic. In either case, Jesus says, the Father's heart is to welcome you into his eternal dwelling, the party of the angels for repentant sinners. So, use your wealth -- rather than squandering it or serving it -- to serve the Father! Then at the end of the day the two of you -- along with the angels and so many other imperfect but repentant sinners -- can sit down, enjoy a glass of Cabernet, and talk about the day's projects.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Luke 15:11-32

This story -- the third in the series Jesus tells to make the same point in greater depth -- has rightfully been the subject of countless sermons, devotions, books, conversations. As just one example out of the multitude, I recommend Henri Nouwen's Return of the Prodigal as an excellent way into the story. The book is a slightly cleaned up version of a deeply difficult season in Nouwen's life when he felt himself alienated, cut off, much like the younger son in the story once the famine struck. It's a meditation on what it means to return to the Father and find yourself loved and welcomed. Nouwen later published his own more personal reflections on that season in the book The Inner Voice of Love. Both books are well worth your time, especially if you find yourself in a season of brokenness, repentance, or perhaps frustrated hope, needing to connect to the heart of a heavenly Father who seems absent but who, in reality, absolutely loves you.

That is the core of Jesus' story. As we said about the earlier stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the stories focus on the heart of the Father for those who are lost. This third story of the lost sons are told with subtlety and craft, showing Jesus at the pinnacle of his ability to communicate his Father's love in his words. Every detail of this story is worthy of reflection, and the deeper you dig the more you discover.

Evangelical Christians have traditionally focused on the younger son because he fits the theological framework of evangelicalism so well. He has strayed, his sin catches up with him, he repents and returns to the Father and is welcomed into the household. It's a great story and countless conversion testimonies over the years echo its themes. But that is only part of Jesus' teaching here, because the literary structure of the story focuses on the older brother.

If we ask what Jesus' point was in telling this story, we cannot escape the conclusion that he was focused in the telling on the question of the older brother. The story ends very specifically without resolving the question: What will the older brother choose? In context, you can see why Jesus would tell it this way. The tax collectors and sinners have already welcomed him and recognize him for who he is: The incarnation of God's love for them, the Messiah who leads them to the Father, the King of a new kingdom ruled by God himself. They get it, both in the sense of perception and in the sense of receiving the benefits of Jesus' kingship. No, the question is what the religious leaders, the captains of moralism, will do. The end of the story leaves them standing outside the party, fuming about the unfairness of God in welcoming sinners and not rewarding good people. The father's final words in the story get at the heart of God, as we saw in the first two stories in this chapter: "It is right for us to celebrate," the father says to his older son.

But why is the older son angry? If you've ever been the older son, it's not hard to see. He has done everything right, sacrificing self-indulgence and walking the narrow line of good behavior. He has turned away from his own pleasures for the greater good time and again. He has kept his nose to the grindstone, and frankly he has little patience for those who are not as dedicated and self-disciplined and focused as he is.

Thing is, he is sentencing himself to live as a servant, not as a son. Read the story carefully and you'll see that the older son had received his inheritance as well, but he has failed to take up the authority and joy of his father. The father divided his inheritance between the two sons, yet the older son accusingly says, "You never even gave me a goat so that I might celebrate with my friends." The father's response, in essence, is "Son, the goats are all yours! Throw a party and celebrate!" It might just be that the older son's problem is not with his younger brother ("this son of yours") but with parties themselves. He doesn't know joy. He can't receive celebration into his heart.

What a tragedy, and yet how many Christians live there?

Has God found a way to let his joy trespass into your life? As we grow to adulthood, there is a necessary time of learning responsibility, and this learning militates against joy in some ways. So God eventually needs to break us down in order to impart joy into our lives. Without joy, without that hearty-partying exuberance of God's celebratory love, the gospel becomes a grim game of "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not." Like the older son, sometimes we are called not to take ourselves so seriously, to drop dead to our rigid images of ourselves and to come on into the party.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Luke 15:1-10

We're splitting this chapter up unfairly, as the three stories go together as a unit. Like any good joke about a lawyer, a doctor, and a minister, the punch line always develops off the third facet of the story. Jesus makes his main point in the story of the two sons after setting things up in the first two.

So what does Jesus set up in these ten verses, in stories of a lost sheep and a lost coin? The stories focus, of course, on the searching and the searcher and especially on the heart of the searcher. We may often miss Jesus' groundwork here: The shepherd lays the sheep on his shoulders "rejoicing." He calls his friends together and enjoins them to "Rejoice with me." And Jesus emphasizes that there is "joy in heaven." Similarly, the woman who finds her coin after a diligent search calls her friends and neighbors together and says, "Rejoice with me." And Jesus repeats that there is "joy in heaven" over a sinner who repents.

Can we miss the fact that God is joyful, and that his friends rejoice with him? Remember the context. Jesus is telling these stories while he's consorting with sinners, and the religious leadership is looking down their noses at the proceedings. Even before Jesus gets to his main point in the third example, it's clear that he's saying these religious leaders are not true friends of a rejoicing God. Their condemnation of these sinners means that they have mistaken the heart of God, or that they simply don't care about it. Their own standards of piety and performance exclude these sinful people -- and that's what matters. There is no joy in their carefully structured moralism.

Do you know the joyful heart of God? We so often bring baggage of our own -- performance anxiety, perfectionism, wounds from overbearing parents, discouragement from unrealistic standards we apply to ourselves -- and we project these things on to God, so we feel unacceptable. But this is not the heart of God. God is not looking at you and wishing you'd get your act together. If you are coming to him eager for fellowship, he is joyful. He rejoices. This is a God who throws a party when you come close to him!

We have to check ourselves, especially those of us who have been following Jesus for a long time. We have to check ourselves to make sure we are not aligning ourselves with the judgmental religious leaders, looking out at the world with an evaluative, condemning eye.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Luke 14:25-35

One of the silliest and most pervasive mistakes Christians make is that we take good secondary things and make them our first priorities. In doing this, we take our platforms and priorities to the extreme and find ourselves opposing Jesus and his agenda. Nowhere is this more true than in the whole area of "family values" and all that has gone with it for the last generation or so. Truth is, because we have decided that family values is part and parcel of Christianity, we don't know how to read this passage and others like it where Jesus seems to say negative things about family relationships and other "good" things.

Family relationships are critically important, make no mistake. Marriage, parenting, honoring one's parents and grandparents in word and action -- all of this is tremendously important. But it is not the core of Jesus' message, nor is it the gospel. As with any secondary priority, when these things are placed in first place, they become destructive idols that actually draw us away from Jesus.

Jesus' uncompromising agenda is that through him, people should know God. In order for that to be true, we need to recognize his superiority, his sovereignty -- and that includes his sovereignty over parents, children, spouses, etc. If you find yourself starting to object and say "Jesus would never demand anything that would draw me away from family," be cautious. You are well on your way to idolatry.

I'm not saying you should leave your family. Not at all. But if you hesitate on reading Jesus' words in this section of Luke 14, take that to him and talk it out. Would your parents, spouse, children, coworkers, boss -- would they say Jesus is your first priority, over and above your dedication to them? Can you say unequivocally that he is Lord and they are not?

Jesus knows that following him is costly. He gives several disturbing examples near the end of this chapter to show that not all of us will choose the economics of his lordship. Count the cost, he says. If you can't make the commitment, recognize that. Own it. Be realistic about it.

When marriages or parenting relationships are fully in line with Jesus' lordship, they are a tremendous blessing. In God's plan, for example, marriages should be joy-filled partnerships that glorify him, build signposts of his kingdom, and model for the world what the love of God looks like in all its exuberant joy, tender forgiveness, and passionate partnership. Even our marital conflicts ought to point back to the love of God, in his plan. There's lots more we could say about this. But when we assume that a marriage is a Good Thing and therefore we should sacrifice everything for it, even our connection with God and our sense of his leading, we have created a golden calf for our own worship. We do the same thing (so much) with children and with parents. Read the gospels, and you'll see that Jesus confronted people about each of these relationships -- he demands to be Lord, in every way, over every relationship.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, near the beginning of his final book Ethics, said that God's intention in the Garden of Eden was that we would know only him, and receive all other things through him. The problem of sin was that we chose to know good and evil apart from knowing God. One of the implications of this idea, that we know only God and all other things and relationships through God, is that Jesus becomes the intermediary between parents and children, between husband and wife -- that we don't have immediate relationships with anyone or anything, but we receive each relationship and each experience through Jesus.

This is what the hyperbolic language of "hating" father and mother, spouse and children, means in Luke 14. Jesus is not calling us to despise those people, but he will not be compromised in his lordship.