Friday, July 20, 2018

Luke 4:42-44

"And when it was day he departed and went into a desolate place." Over and over again we see Jesus seeking desolate places. This is one of the hardest aspects of his life for us to imitate.

We do not suffer (both in the sense of "endure" and in the sense of being miserable in the enduring) desolation well. We cheat ourselves of the fullness of all God wants for us because we fill our time with entertainment and avoid desolation at all costs. And when, in the wisdom of God, we are thrust into desolation, we usually misinterpret it and we strive to end it as soon as possible.

Have you ever said, "I need a vacation to recover from my vacation"? Have you ever felt like you were trying to work to 110% of your capacity? Strange as it may seem to us, periodic desolation is an important part of the cure.

Understand, life needs many things to be what Jesus called "abundant," and he himself is at the center of such a life. Healthy community, meaningful work, loving intimacy, healing vulnerability, diverting entertainment, enlightening conversation, stretching silence -- all these things are necessary for the abundant life. As much as I don't like it, I think that the experience of periodic desolation needs to be on that list as well.

There are two categories of desolation, at least in my mind. Voluntary desolations are those we schedule for ourselves. These might look like vacations but they are not full of amusements or tourist attractions; rather they are a chance to unplug from the world and reconnect to God, often in the context of nature. There's something in us hardwired to rediscover ourselves by brushing up against the wilderness. I've done a couple solo trips to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota and these have provided voluntary desolation for me. In some ways it has been uncomfortable, without a doubt. By definition these trips have taken me off the grid, away from cell phones and emails and social media. Very often, God has spoken in significant ways in that context, whether I'm alone or with others. I've learned to structure the hard work of traveling by canoe interspersed with days in camp, quiet times to contemplate the lake and the fire and the breeze and sometimes the mosquitos and the rain. It's a voluntary desolation, and I'm always better for it.

Involuntary desolations are the ones we desperately want to avoid. These are the ones that twist our insides to the breaking point. Grief at the loss of a loved one, the brokenness of a relationship, the aftermath of a divorce, physical illness or emotional breakdowns, seasons of burnout -- all of these and more bring us to a kind of involuntary desolation. Often -- not always -- we end up in the involuntary desolations because we have refused to hear God's call into voluntary desolation. Over the last couple years I've experienced an extended season -- a perfect storm, if you will -- of involuntary desolations. Work burnout, divorce and aftermath, loss of friendships, broken relationships -- and God has been faithfully working in the midst of it all.

Terry Walling has done some excellent work on how the experience of being "stuck" is used by God to provide transitions. Some of what he describes sounds a lot like God using both voluntary and involuntary desolation to shape, form, and redirect us. You can read more about Walling's work in these areas here. One of his most significant themes is that there are transitions that nearly everyone goes through at specific stages in life -- entering young adulthood and discerning your calling, moving toward significance in adulthood as you discern your unique contribution, and entering into a kind of blessed convergence nearer the end of life. Each of these transitions presents us with a kind of crisis -- a sense of desolation, a feeling of being stuck. God is at work in huge ways in each of these major transitions, and in the lesser ones we experience.

Jesus invites us into periodic voluntary desolation. If you are in a desolate place as you read this, know that God is there with you. Swallow the lump in your throat and know that Jesus has been there before you. He will not leave you alone. He is working for your good in all this, even though it might be desperately hard. The discomfort will be worth it. In Jesus' own life in these verses, his time of suffering desolation leads to a major transition as he moves from focusing on Galilee to preaching in the villages of Judea. As you deal with the desolate hours, the lonely evenings, the two a.m. spells of staring at the ceiling, the longing for wholeness, for relationship, for restoration, know that God is doing his good work. Though it might seem right now like everything is stuck, there will come a moment -- Walling describes this in great detail -- when God moves you out of the transition and into a new stage. As Tom Petty sang, "the waiting is the hardest part." But God is faithful.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Maybe it's because I was writing about loneliness earlier today; maybe it's because the overwhelming rain today has thrown off my routines and the sky is a dingy gray. Maybe it's messages I've gotten from my daughters and others I love who are far, far away these days. There are probably lots of reasons, but I find myself in a lonely spot tonight, functioning as a sort of flannelgraph figure to illustrate my own point from earlier. It's ironic. Thankfully this is not one of those gut-wrenching evenings that were all too common last winter and occasionally still raise their draconian heads. This is more of a wistful kind of thing that is tempered a bit by the knowledge that I'm surrounded by an excellent community, I have good friends and meaningful work and lots more, including my plan very shortly to drive up to the north end of the campus and see how many deer are out in the meadow. But when this song by Lifehouse came on tonight as I was sitting in the second-floor writing studio prepping my sermon for Sunday, thinking about practice-preaching it and looking westward over the lake, it exactly captured my mood.

Luke 4:38-41

These few verses highlight one of the most consistent and important aspects of Jesus' ministry: he healed people. Even the most agnostic of historians acknowledge that Jesus must have had some kind of gifts of healing, or at least a reputation as such. Simon's mother-in-law and the multitudes who come are just the first of so many in the gospels who will experience physical, spiritual, emotional, relational restoration at Jesus' touch.

Today we have eliminated much of our need for wandering healers. We have miraculous medical technology that eliminates many diseases, heals wounds, and curbs the discomfort of conditions we cannot ultimately heal. Life expectancy has risen consistently as a result of the incredible medical discoveries that we now take for granted. Case in point, I'm a type one diabetic, diagnosed shortly before I turned eight years old. A hundred years ago I might have endured into my teens, but no more than that. I've taken insulin by injections and later by a pump for more than four decades, and today I live a remarkably normal, physically robust life. Yesterday I spent about half my day climbing on and off an extension ladder, working on rooftops and (the most glorious of jobs) cleaning gutters, carrying five gallon buckets of decaying leaves down and hauling them off to compost. In the morning, as a discipline I've been taking on, I walked a beautiful four mile loop around George Lake. Last night I participated in an amazing evening of Vacation Bible School including a giant homemade Slip-N-Slide with dozens of kids (and a few adults!) hooting and hollering in a soapy mess down the hillside. Then I grilled stuffed jalapeƱos and whipped up a broccoli parmesan quasi-stir fry to try out an amazing mushroom I discovered last week near my front door, then shared that amazing meal (including some excellent Italian beer -- who'd have thought the Italians would make good beer?) with fantastic friends. My point is, my life is good and so full and the affect of my diabetes on my daily life is minor. I thank God for my good health and all the blessings I enjoy because of it, and I recognize that part of what I have to be thankful for is the advancement of medical technology.

At the same time, I recognize that this is still, in spite of insulin pumps and all the other medical advancements, a broken world. In the first century, a sense of hopelessness and alienation was driven significantly, among other things, by the evidence of physical diseases that in that day were beyond cure. Today our evidence of brokenness looks a little different. Yes, we enjoy physical health. But we are still a broken people, and in many cases we have traded physical maladies for emotional, relational and spiritual ones.

In some cases our brokenness is a byproduct of the same technological advances that make us healthier. While CAT scans, contact lenses and cold medicines help us physically, similar technologies have made us more mobile, even transient. The technology that allows your dentist to do x-rays every two years also allows you to binge watch Netflix. One of the byproducts of technology is an increasing loneliness that afflicts us like a plague. The loneliness that in part results from our transience and our ability to self-medicate with too much screen time leads us down the road toward an epidemic of anxiety, depression, and despair.

Perhaps we need to rediscover Jesus as the healer for these ills. While our individualism and post-Enlightenment thinking predisposes us to loneliness, Jesus calls us not only into relationship with himself but into relationship with one another. Jesus' followers are designed to live in community. Every example of people coming to faith in Jesus in the New Testament also includes a nod -- and very often direct descriptions -- toward an ongoing community, a web of relationships that will become like a new family to the believer. Like any family, these relationships in the Jesus-following community will not be perfect -- but they will provide a healthy system in which life can be lived in all its God-intended abundance.

One of the visions that gives me hope for the church in a post-Christendom context is that of home-sized communities, call them house churches or what have you, that build a spiritual, emotional, relational family around each individual. When I have seen the church function like this I have also seen that every form of brokenness has opportunity to be healed in that context. Not everyone wants to be made well, of course, and not every disease is healed -- but Jesus presents himself in these relational contexts as our healer, as the restorer of wholeness and abundant life. Such health is as much a gift today as seeing a lame man rise and walk in the first century.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Luke 4:31-37

This story of Jesus restoring a demon-possessed man in the synagogue provides a good opportunity to ponder two things: First, the craftsmanship of God, and second the timing of God.

In Galatians Paul writes that "when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law ..." (Galatians 4:4). That phrase, "the fullness of time" includes so much about God's craftsmanship. Over two thousand years, God carefully created a people with strands of meaning and deep, rich traditions. The Jewish culture in the first century was rich both as a platform for Jesus' proclamation and saving work, and also as a framework to help us understand who Jesus is and what he is about more completely.

There are elements in this story that point to God's craftsmanship. A few examples: The existence of Galilee itself is a major factor. Galilee at this time was an area of dense Jewish settlement, so Jewish scriptures and culture were predominant there. But Galilee, unlike Jerusalem, also contained -- and butted up against -- many non-Jewish elements (like Sepphoris in yesterday's post). So the Jewish worldview and assumptions and culture that dominated Galilee were also informed by interaction with elements of other cultures. Judea in the south, and more so Jerusalem, were much more wholly Jewish without as much influence from non-Jewish cultures. The fact that most of Jesus' ministry happens in Galilee, and that he was raised in this crossroads of cultures, cannot be overemphasized.

The fact that this story takes place in the synagogue is another example of God's craftsmanship. Prior to the Babylonian exile in 587 BC, Israelite worship took place exclusively in the temple in Jerusalem. Other worship did occur, and usually the Old Testament refers to this as worship that happens on the "high places." Such worship tended to be a syncretistic blend of the worship of Yahweh and other gods, and in various places the Old Testament either tolerates or condemns it. But with the Babylonian exile the Israelites found themselves cut off from the temple, contemplating their generational idolatry and God's judgment, and they were desperately concerned to have an appropriate way to worship in other lands. Out of this exile over time grew several elements that, combined, came to define the word "Jewish." Those elements include written scriptures (which had existed at some level prior to the exile but played a minor role in Israelite religion), the role of rabbis (previously priests occupied the official leadership roles, and their service was tied directly to the temple), and the existence of synagogues -- dedicated centers of worship wherever at least ten Jewish men were gathered. The synagogues -- a Greek word that is roughly equivalent to the English word "congregation" -- sprouted up as Jewish people expanded throughout the Near East, and they provided the core of a system that enabled the Jews to maintain their culture while scattered in foreign lands. This scattered population became known as the Diaspora.

There is much more to say here about how God had brought elements of other cultures and religions, how the Jewish worldview at that time -- the rich cosmology of a God who is all powerful and all good but who is opposed by demonic forces, for example -- had been influenced by this careful craftsmanship that over centuries shaped a rich worldview that had come into its own about the time Jesus arrives on the scene. But to do such a topic justice would require more paragraphs than we have space or time for here.

On to the second major theme, that of timing. I have often said (sometimes by faith in the face of my own frustration) that God has perfect timing. Of course this is what Paul is getting at in Galatians 4 in saying that the "fullness of time" had come. Often the easiest way to see God's timing is to look for intersections. What are the necessary elements that suddenly come together in a window of opportunity? There are several major strands that intersect for a few decades in the first century. To grossly oversimplify:

Jewish monotheism -- as stated above, the worldview of Jewish monotheism had really come into its own at this time. So many strands of cultural influence -- Egyptian, Canaanite, Babylonian, Greek, and more -- have helped to shape the core of what started with Abraham and Moses and others, and their relationship with Yahweh has by the first century grown into this rich cultural and religious system that permeates every aspect of Jewish life.

Greek language and culture -- three and a half centuries before Jesus' ministry, Alexander the Great marched across the eastern Mediterranean (and beyond), evangelizing the world with Greek culture. He intentionally brought Greek gymnasiums, theaters, marketplaces, and above all a simplified (koine) version of the Greek language. Cultural ideas about beauty, meaning, ethics, excellence -- all were shaped by the legacy of Alexander. The New Testament emerges in the sharp intersection of this Greek culture with Jewish monotheism, and the dynamic explosion of Christianity is only possible because of the unifying factor of koine Greek. The world would not know such linguistic possibility again until the 20th century.

A third major element in this question of timing is the pax Romana, the brutally enforced peace of Rome. Rome's iron fist required the ability to transport troops rapidly across the empire, and so roads and shipping were carefully constructed and jealously protected. (Eisenhower's vision of a military transportation network in the 1950's leading to the United States Interstate Highway system is a modern parallel.) Roman roads and the suppression of piracy allowing for safe travel throughout the Mediterranean creates an opportunity for this fledgling Jesus-movement to grow and expand rapidly across the empire.

There is obviously so much more to say about these things, but it's important to note that this strange scene in a synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus restores a demon-possessed man happens in a much wider context. This context, this carefully crafted, precisely timed moment, is no accident. It is an amazing demonstration of the craftsmanship and timing of God.

Take it one step further. What are the places in your own life that God has carefully assembled factors, relationships, influences? Can you see that God has been at work, lovingly sculpting these different forces to bring you to the precise place where you find yourself today? Can you trust that God is working the timing in your own life, bringing the intersection of moments, ideas, opportunities? Until he shows all his cards, it's hard to see what God is up to. Trust him. Let faith inform your frustration and believe that he has good plans that are moving toward a fulfillment that is better than what you would plan for yourself. Like those in the first century who encountered Jesus, be ready -- when the time comes to grab hold of what God is doing, you don't want to miss the moment. In the meantime, trust him.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Luke 4:14-30

You have to feel at least a little bad for the people of Nazareth. The trouble for them, as so often for us, is that they don't really want to know Jesus accurately. Knowing Jesus for who he is requires a great deal of us, and it leads us into uncomfortable territory.

The people of Nazareth wanted a few simple things. We miss a lot of what's happening in this passage because we don't understand the plight of small-town Jews in Galilee in the first century. They were caught in tides that threatened to wash away their traditional culture, and they could feel the ebb and flow every day. Nowhere was this more true than in Nazareth. The New Testament doesn't directly mention the larger city of Sepphoris just up the road -- a culturally Greek city that had been founded by Rome and provided a major engine to drive the local economy. Everything that happens in this scene Luke is describing is overshadowed by the cultural tensions in Nazareth.

The people of Nazareth wanted to share in the glory of a hometown boy made good, first of all. Second, they wanted to keep their illusions about who God was and what he was up to. Third, they wanted to keep their fantasies and delusions about themselves and their circumstances.  Jesus' words and actions here in his hometown fly in the face of all those desires. No wonder by the end of the story they want to kill him.

They want to share in the glory of a hometown boy made good. Luke makes clear that Jesus has been preaching throughout Galilee, and we can assume that his preaching, as later, included healing people and casting out demons and all the rest. His reputation grew. So the people of Nazareth were very much like the people of a small town whose local athlete makes it big in the pros. Reporters come around looking for the "I knew him when" story. The city fathers put up a "home of ..." billboard on the highway coming into town. Sportscasters love to allude to the small town, small school, normal guy stories. In a way, all this serves to validate the small town itself, along with all its residents. See? Our town must be okay. Look at the great athlete who grew up here! Our small lives are not mean and meaningless. (No one else is saying their lives are meaningless, btw.) In similar fashion, Jesus' homecoming could have been a pep rally for the local kid. That's what's going on in verses 16-22. Jesus has already dropped the bomb (more on that in a minute) but the delighted people of Nazareth haven't even heard the sermon, they're so preoccupied with this second-degree brush with fame. Throughout his ministry, Jesus has zero patience for those who are hungry for signs, hungry to have their religious lusts titillated, hungry to see something miraculous to fuel their self-focused gossip. Nazareth is just the first of many times Jesus will refuse to participate in this agenda. It is the same refusal on Jesus' part that he has just pronounced to Satan three times over -- he will not use his connection with God to serve his own desires, he will not compromise his identity in God's sight to gain worshipers, and he will not use the spectacular to fuel his movement. Jesus makes clear: when the miraculous occurs, it serves a greater purpose than our own fascination. The people of Nazareth, quiet bedroom community of the much larger Greek-culture driven city of Sepphoris four miles away, are looking for a miracle to legitimize their pride, their counter-cultural defensive identity, their desire to remain in their isolated Jewish enclave. Jesus, the wildly successful prophet who was burning up the wires in Galilee, could validate them by coming home and saying, "I owe it all to these people and this little town," but he doesn't.

In short, they wanted to keep their illusions about who God was and what he was up to. They were certain God was Jewish and he wanted the Jews to isolate themselves in their perceived superiority. They were the faithful people, after all. They were the chosen ones, and God would vindicate their status and their isolationism. The Greek theater and gymnasium in Sepphoris might drive their local economy. It might give them good jobs (perhaps Joseph and even Jesus had served in the construction projects that were going on in this era in Sepphoris). They might have to speak Greek in the marketplaces even though they spoke Aramaic at home and read the scriptures in Hebrew at the synagogue. But in the long run, they knew God would destroy these pagans and their anti-God culture. They dearly loved the passage Jesus chose to read from the prophet Isaiah, and they knew it well. The trouble is, Jesus stops reading too soon. He quit before he got to the good part, the part they were waiting to see fulfilled. He quit reading before he got to the part about God vindicating the Jews and making the pagans come and serve them and destroying the heathen. And then he has the gall to say that this scripture, this passage that makes the Jews dream of better days to come, has already been fulfilled. What?!

They want to keep their fantasies and delusions about themselves and their calling. It is so often tempting for us to live on our fantasies and delusions. We have dreams about the future and what it might mean, and it's easy to get caught on the hamster wheel of imagination. We use fantasy about the future to escape the present. But the fact is, if God endorses that fantasy, if it is in fact a God-given vision, the present is the time to be working toward its fulfillment, or at least working to expand our ability to receive that vision. Every God-given vision about the future requires that we grow in our own capacity to receive it. Oswald Chambers says that God gives us the vision on the mountaintop, then he brings us into the valley to beat us into shape to receive it. The people of Nazareth have mistaken the vision, first of all. They believe it's a self-centered vision about themselves being exalted and (in Steinbeck's phrase) living off the fat of the land. God's intention, instead, is that his chosen people should be a kingdom of priests to call all nations into relationship with him. For a picture of what this is supposed to look like, read Psalm 96. Instead, the frustrated, oppressed people of Nazareth yearned for the day when aliens would tend their flocks and foreigners would do their field work (see Isaiah 61:5). God was on a mission to reach the world, and his missionary people had decided they'd rather have the world for household servants.

Jesus returns to his hometown and quotes a favorite scripture passage, then says that God is already doing the necessary work to bring it to fulfillment. Jesus focuses on the critical part of Isaiah 61 -- the part that defines his role. He is called to be the bearer of good news to the nations, to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to tell people God looks on them with favor. This had, in fact, been the calling of the entire Jewish nation since long before Isaiah spoke those words hundreds of years before. This calling goes all the way back to Abraham in Genesis 12. By focusing on his own role, by stepping up to fulfill God's calling to Israel, Jesus exposes the self-centered attitudes of the people of Nazareth for the delusions they are. God is not a God who wreaks vengeance on the nations, Jesus says, but rather he sends his best prophets to places like Sepphoris to reach those who don't know him. He loves the widow and the leper from other nations just like he loves the Jews. Don't you know your own history?

Rather than acknowledge God's call to them, the people of Nazareth rise up in anger to throw Jesus off the cliff. Their surge of wrath is well-known to anyone who has spoken biblical truth into a tradition-bound, insecure congregation or community. Jesus gets jostled a bit, but in the end he just walks away. Later he will tell his disciples that if the towns of Israel don't receive them and their message, they should shake the dust off their feet as they're leaving town. He is speaking out of his own painful experience. Jesus will spend his ministry calling his own people to a greater vision of their calling and identity -- and most of them will miss it, as the church down through the centuries all too often misses exactly this same call. This theme will echo through Jesus' teaching. "Those who have ears, let them hear," Jesus says.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Luke 4:1-13

Books have been written about these few verses, with good reason. I remember many years ago being part of a men's group reading Donald Kraybill's The Upside-Down Kingdom that used these temptation stories as a way to get inside how Jesus turns this world's systems and expectations on their heads.

An older man whom I deeply respect talks about how Jesus addresses the three main spheres of life -- economic (bread), political (kingdoms), and religious (temple) in refusing Satan's enticements, and how this temptation story shows Jesus' holiness and lordship over all the main realms of human life.

There's lots here to ponder.

One of the things I've wondered about in this story over the years is the timing of it, hard on the heels of Jesus' baptism and God's pronouncement that "you are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Though there's no definitive way to answer this, I've wondered many times what was going on for Jesus in this moment. Did Jesus at his baptism receive a complete sense of his own identity and his mission? I've come to believe this is true. No doubt (especially given Luke's retelling of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple) Jesus prior to his baptism had an idea of his special relationship with God the Father, and he had probably heard Mary's stories of his miraculous conception and birth. I think, though, that it is in his baptism Jesus gets the fullness of his identity and mission from the Father through the Spirit that descends on him.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of this idea is that when Satan addresses Jesus and says "If you are the Son of God ..." the Greek grammatical construction doesn't imply doubt. Rather, it's a conditional clause that assumes the truth of what's said, sort of like a Minnesotan saying, "If the Vikings choke in the playoffs this fall ..." In fact, it's not going too far to translate Satan's suggestions as "Since you are the Son of God ..." And that makes me think Jesus has just learned the fullness of his own identity, and probably the trajectory of his mission that will lead to the cross. It's a lot to take in, and it makes sense that in that moment, Satan would step up with easier, less painful alternatives. Since you are the Son of God, why not use a little of your power to feed your body? Since you are the Son of God, why not receive these kingdoms from me rather than walk this hard road to the dubious victory of the cross? Since you are the Son of God, why not wow the Jewish people with a miraculous sign that will win you a mass of followers from the outset?

Jesus has been named. He has been given the fullness of his God-given identity. He knows himself as the beloved one, the Son of God. What will he do in this new identity? Will he walk the hard road to the cross? Or is there an easier alternative? It must have been a heady temptation, given the frothing anticipation of Jesus' people for their Messiah. What they hoped for was very much in line with Satan's temptations. Jesus recognizes the dangerous, diabolical nature of the easy road Satan offers.

We are often tempted to make Jesus more divine than the biblical texts allow. The temptation story is one of the most important moments for us to recognize the full humanity of Jesus; if we don't, we will not receive the value of Jesus' example for ourselves. Jesus has, as Hebrews states, been tempted in every way like we have, but was without sin.

So what about you? Have you been named -- by God, by parents, by those who love you -- not just with a name people can call across the parking lot but with an identity, with a deep sense of who you are, with a sense of your unique giftedness, calling, mission? And if you have this deep sense of yourself that has been bestowed on you, how will you pursue that unique mission, that one-of-a-kind contribution God has designed for you to accomplish in his good creation? There will always be wide gates and broad, paved pathways that beckon. There will be ways that offer the comfort of self-indulgence, the compromise of selling your soul to gain the world, the people-pleasing choices that enhance your own status but don't really direct people to the character of God.

In the end, that's what drives Jesus' rejection of Satan's careful biblical quotations. Jesus chooses to align himself with the Father's character, even though it might cost him discomfort, personal pain, and disapproval of the masses.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Chicken of the woods

Found this today in my woods:

I thought it looked like something called "Chicken of the Woods" so I did a little research and sure enough. It's an edible mushroom that literally tastes like very flavorful chicken. I just fried up and sampled a tiny bit (advised by a site that said a small percentage of people don't tolerate these well) and it's DELICIOUS.

Thinking I'm going to harvest these and cook some up and enjoy with a great Italian beer I found at the local liquor store in Spicer that seems like it would be the perfect complement. I'll keep you posted.