Tuesday, August 14, 2018

In the Moments

I live among the satisfactions of the mad farmer
in homage to Berry’s archetypal crazy
-- the plenitude and pulchritude of all the heat
and height of summer: fawns and berries,
waves and friends laughing on the lakeshore.

How then these always moments, me restless
and pining, looking to the horizon discontent?
Dog days among the thriving plenty but me
longing -- for what? November, the setting moon
over new snow, howl in the firelit dark evening?

Not just that. More. Always more.
I worry I, hungry hearted, thumb my nose
at the generosity of God, though I see
and thank him for the weight of voice,
harmony, harvest, hope. How am I unsatisfied?

Evenings, mornings I read the paragraphs that
run in my mind. I am a wanted man, desperate,
one text away: the books flung upon my shelves
judge and jury over my silence? Or nodding
at my patience? Which one? Is it each one?

Half smile, stare at the sun on restless water.
Focus on the moment. Wrestle eyes inward,
swallow desire for the starlight that still seems
light years away. Stand. Still on the shore.
Wade, neck deep. Hold your breath. Soak.

Luke 8:22-39

These two stories are usually handled separately but they are a unit, both with the same theme. The key verses are 25 ("Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?") and 39, where Luke draws an explicit verbal conclusion that Jesus is God, or at least that is the witness of the man who has been delivered from a legion of demons. The focus of both stories is on Jesus.

In both stories, Jesus upsets the established order. He is, in Jackson Browne's memorable words, "the rebel Jesus" in that his authority overturns what we have come to expect as normal. We know that the weather is beyond our control, but Jesus stills the storm. Who is he? We know that demon possession is beyond our control, but Jesus deals with a legion of demons out of hand. Who is he? The stories return again and again to this question, implicitly and explicitly.

People today tend to evaluate Christianity based on the behavior of the church. While the church needs to regulate and monitor itself, and there is an enormous responsibility for the church to reflect Jesus' character -- not letting anyone off the hook here -- judging Christianity based on the church is a little like judging a restaurant based on its website. (And yes, people do that often.) The real test is Jesus himself, and he alone lies at the heart of the movement he began. Churches, structures, hypocrisy, liturgies, factions, boredom -- none of this sticks to Jesus.

Notice that Jesus inspires fear in both segments of this story. We get entrenched in our own assumptions. As a teacher of mine once said, we like comfortable problems better than uncomfortable solutions. The disciples go from terror over the storm to being afraid about Jesus and his identity. The people of Gerasa are consumed by terror and ask Jesus to leave their area. Even though he has just set free a man they had tried and failed to liberate, they cannot get excited about Jesus remaining among them. They are in every kind of terror -- economic, spiritual, social -- and it prevents them from welcoming the healing Jesus brings.

Perhaps the most chilling thing in the whole story is one word in verse 37: "So". Because of their fear and their rejection of Jesus, he leaves their area. The uncomfortable biblical truth is that Jesus will honor our rejection of him. They have seen his power in undeniable fashion and rather than embrace his authority and the kingdom he announces, they send him home to his own side of the lake.

When Jesus comes to us he will not leave things the same. Jesus will not leave our established idolatries unchallenged. When we settle for "good enough," Jesus challenges us to live for him and for his kingdom. When we give in to the idolatry of our own comfort, Jesus invites us into adventure. But he will not force us to come along.

The good news is that being close to Jesus, while it may be destabilizing to our established orders and our settled expectations, is both the safest and most exciting place to be. It may not feel safe -- Jesus is surrounded by disruption of relationships and hierarchies -- but the abundant life of following Jesus is far better than our good-enough wineskins.

As I ponder this story, that is where my mind so often comes to rest. I think about the death-filled existence of the townspeople, the swineherds, and especially the pre-Jesus demoniac. Mark's description of his life is especially vivid. Maybe the demon-possessed man thought it was good enough to live among the tombs, to gash himself with stones, to occasionally venture into town bound with chains until the powers overcame him and he broke loose to terrorize the neighbors. It was certainly all he could expect, given his spiritual condition. But Jesus wanted so much more for him. At the end of the story, this man is miraculously free precisely because he recognizes that Jesus is the one who has freed him. The townspeople who reject Jesus are the ones left in chains.

So if you are feeling bound today, maybe by social convention or established orders or death-filled existence that doesn't seem to include hope or by economic structures that keep you in chains, imagine yourself a demon possessed man sitting among the gravestones on the hilltop above the lakeshore, watching a boat arrive on the beach below. You watch a dozen or so men get out of the boat and come up the hillside toward you. There is something about the figure leading the procession. Inside your chest where there has only been torment and death and hopelessness for so long, something stirs like a baby kicking in the womb: Hope.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Luke 8:1-21

So often we take Jesus' parables, his miracles, the other narratives like distinct little nuggets, each to be consumed in isolation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Luke (and the other New Testament writers) are carefully crafting their work to a) be faithful witnesses to the actual events of Jesus' ministry, his death and resurrection, but they also b) use their artistic abilities as writers to make the narrative into more than a collection of stories on a string. So it is in this chapter: The handful of verses that open chapter eight highlight some women who are incredibly important to the story. Each deserves to be researched in her own right, but together they stand with the lepers being healed, the demoniacs being delivered, the blind receiving their sight. In a society where women had roughly the same rights as cattle, Jesus makes them a key part of his entourage. They are individuals, people, precious children of God. This is part of the new wineskin into which Jesus pours the wine of his message about the kingdom of God. What's more, these women by their following faithfully demonstrate that they are good soil -- and what's more, they will join the men in becoming faithful sowers of the gospel seed.

That's really the point of the story Jesus tells next. Most sermons on this text delve into the question, "What kind of soil am I?" But Jesus is telling this story from a very different perspective. He's positing the disciples as seed-sowers, and the parable functions as a cautionary tale: Most of the seeds you plant won't bear fruit.

Notice that this -- bearing fruit -- and not "going to heaven" or "getting saved" is Jesus' concern. Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples that the goal of their discipleship is bearing fruit (see John 15, for example). Sowing the seed into good soil should produce fruit. That's the entire point of this parable and so many others Jesus tells. We make "the gospel" a narrative about how we can get to heaven only by doing terrible violence to Jesus' own teaching. By the New Testament's logic, a believer who is unfruitful might in fact enter heaven, but they would do so only in some kind of disgrace. This seems to be exactly Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 3, for example, when he talks about building on a foundation with various materials -- and how poorer materials (wood, hay, straw) one might use would be burned up in a judgment. The builder might be saved, he says, but only through fire. Their unfruitful work is consumed in the judgment.

Jesus is not saving souls for a distant heaven. He is gathering followers to tell the world that God is king, and his kingdom is being enacted, built, inaugurated, at last. This is the startling good news. This is the message the disciples are sent to scatter on all kinds of soil. This is the message that shines like a lamp on a stand, that redefines family such that Jesus says even his own mother and brothers are redefined by the king and his kingdom. God's rule changes everything.

So Jesus seems to say to us, be careful how you hear. Don't listen within the stale categories of that old time religion you've always found boring. Recognize that I am doing something new, and I'm calling you to be a part of it. Let that seed sprout and put down deep roots into your soul, into your heart. Come, follow me.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Luke 7:36-50

Certain factions of Christians have made a cornerstone of their faith that the holiness of God cannot tolerate sin. This "principle" then drives the need for the cross and Jesus' vicarious atonement for us. Unfortunately for them, the Bible doesn't seem to share their view of how God's holiness functions. This story of Jesus welcoming the sinful woman in the home of Simon the Pharisee is Exhibit A.

Simon seems to have this same understanding of the holiness of God. If Jesus was a prophet, in other words if Jesus had access to the perspective of God's holiness, he would never tolerate this woman's presence, let alone touch. She's a sinner. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to delight in keeping company with sinful humans. This mystifies us. How could this be? His parable provides a beginning. It is forgiveness, not sinlessness, that opens the door to fellowship with Jesus. The woman's desire to be with Jesus is driven by the sense she has that she is acceptable to Jesus. As far as we read, she pays zero attention to Simon the Pharisee, though he is a powerful, upstanding member of the community. She is not currying favor or looking to advance her own cause. She is a grateful heart desiring the fellowship into which being forgiven has ushered her.

We must constantly be on guard against making Jesus and his message about sin management. Simon seems to be operating from the assumption that the less sin you commit the better. Most of us would agree with that, but Jesus seems to contradict it. If loving much is the goal, then being forgiven much seems to be the pathway toward that goal.

Be careful here. This hairline we are trying to walk is precisely why Paul, at the beginning of Romans 6, has to put out a disclaimer: "Shall we continue in sin so that God's grace may abound? By no means!" The issue is not that we should make sure we are sinful enough. Rather, the issue is that we should make sure we recognize the depth of our own depravity. The trouble with Simon is that he doesn't know his own sinfulness, and so he doesn't recognize the magnitude of his own forgiveness, so he doesn't throw himself at Jesus' feet. Our churches are full of Simons who engage in tepid, self-righteous worship because they don't really believe they need much forgiveness and they look down their noses at those who do.

There's another interesting facet to this story. Given Luke's penchant for detail and accuracy, well attested by everyone who has ever studied Luke & Acts in depth, it's hard to reconcile this version of the story with those in Matthew, Mark, & John. In those three gospels, the woman is Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus out of gratitude for his raising her brother Lazarus and who does so immediately before Jesus' betrayal and arrest. Luke places the story much earlier in Jesus' ministry, and the woman is a prostitute. The entire incident functions differently in Luke's gospel. While it's not necessary or helpful to try to reconcile the gospels at every turn -- different witnesses to the same events often tell slightly different versions -- this story has stuck in my craw over the years. I've come to the belief that a few interesting possibilities are in fact likely:

  • I believe Simon the Pharisee, referred to elsewhere as Simon the Leper, was the father of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and they all lived in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem.
  • I believe that Simon came to be a follower of Jesus and opened his home to Jesus. Lazarus and his sisters seem to have continued this practice. 
  • I believe that Simon died sometime during the course of Jesus' ministry, leaving Lazarus in charge of his household. 
  • Luke's version of this story of the sinful woman takes place early in Jesus' ministry when Simon and Jesus are first getting acquainted. 
  • Matthew, Mark, and John tell about another incident entirely. When Mary, overcome with gratitude, is looking for a way to express her devotion to Jesus, she intentionally imitates what she saw this woman do.
Other explanations are possible, but there are numerous elements in the biblical story that make sense this way. Just for fun a few years ago I wrote a version of what the event might have looked like from Mary's perspective that you can read here

Friday, August 10, 2018

Luke 7:24-35

John the Baptist created a massive quake in Jewish circles in the first century. Today we'd describe his movement as something between a Billy Graham revival and a Lady Gaga concert. He had both the fascination of a strangely dressed rock star and the awe of a judgmental preacher. Biblical and secular historians are consistent in describing massive crowds headed out of the cities into the desert when John started preaching and baptizing. Jesus echoes these descriptions by asking three times, "What did you go out in the desert to see?" The assumption is all the people listening, or at least the vast majority, had actually gone to see John and to be baptized by him. No one in those days would have denied that there was something big happening in John's ministry. The question was, what authority was behind John the Baptist, and was his movement legitimate?

Jesus goes on at length here to challenge people's thinking about John, and to lay out how he himself sees John's ministry. Luke tells us that there is a significant divide between the common people who had been baptized by John and those (religious authorities) who refused his baptism and thus "rejected the purpose of God for themselves." Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus turned this question succinctly on his detractors: The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from man? (See Luke 20:4 and parallels in Matthew and Mark.) The rulers at that time answer Jesus, "We don't know" because they recognize their culpability in rejecting John's baptism, but they also fear the people. In their defensive pride, they dodge the question poorly.

Jesus makes clear that God was behind John's revival, and not only that, but John was the specific individual sent to prepare the way for Jesus, to stir up people's spiritual sensitivities so they were ready for the Messiah. The confusing phraseology of verse 28 is designed to point out that as a divinely chosen agent, John wields great power in purely human terms -- but anyone who submits to God's rule and serves at the pleasure of the King of Kings is far more powerful.

This passage is a great example of the Bible's view of "judgment." We sometimes see Jesus portrayed as a judge, sitting on a throne and passing sentence, with the good people who receive his favor going to one side and the evil people who receive his condemnation going to the other. In fact, judgment -- and Jesus' role as judge -- are much simpler and less dramatic, but equally powerful. The Jewish religious leaders condemned themselves because when God showed up, in their arrogance they sat back in judgment over John and refused his baptism. That's the judgment. They already chose sides. We see people judging themselves throughout Jesus' ministry by their response to him. He is the "judge" in the sense that by representing God and his kingdom, by standing for God and not for any human faction, he provides people an opportunity to choose.

This pattern repeats itself over and over even today. Whenever God shows up, we are judged based on a) whether we have eyes to see him and his activity, and b) how we respond. So in the 1970's and 80's, a massive Christian charismatic renewal swept the world. Churches all over the world responded very differently to this renewal. In East Africa, the Tanzanian Lutheran Church embraced this charismatic dimension while still trying to be theologically responsible about it. Across the border, the Kenyan Lutherans rejected it, claiming that any kind of charismatic activity was inappropriate for Lutheran Christians. The Tanzanian Lutheran churches grew and flourished, multiplying hundreds of times over. The Kenyan Lutheran church to this day is a very small, very rigid affair. Kenya has experienced massive religious revivals, but the Lutheran church there has remained outside this God-given growth.

Whenever God shows up -- in a strong preacher, in a pastor and group of church leaders trying to lead into mission, in a church leader striving to create a strong staff / leadership team, for example -- people have the opportunity to respond. Some will get on board and say, "I see God doing a great thing here." No surprise, others will reject change and along with it, reject these leadership moves. At an extreme, they will rise up to reject these leaders. Accusations fly. Leaders are broken and lambasted. In many cases, people's rejection of a particular leadership agenda for positive change means they are rejecting a God-given opportunity for growth and renewal. The public conversation becomes about personalities and reputations.

We should not be surprised by these sad situations. Jesus himself went to the cross in a very similar chain of events. Given that, how should sinful, imperfect human leaders expect anything less? The miracle in all this is that God gets his own way, no matter how hard he has to work to make it happen. So John ends up imprisoned and executed by Herod, but the revival he initiates paves the way for Jesus' ministry. Jesus goes to the cross, and his crucifixion becomes the ultimate opportunity for us to judge ourselves -- to submit to him and receive the embrace of his nail-scarred hands, or to stand aside and do things our own way, rejecting God's purpose for us. Jesus' resurrection becomes the ultimate example of God enacting his kingdom in spite of our rejection. Our judging God -- and that is really what it comes down to -- cannot prevent him from being king.

In the end, John is an amazing example of what it means to surrender our own human power and authority. In John's gospel, John the Baptist says of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John, the ultimate revival preacher, submits his agenda and his authority to Jesus. That is not a bad way to start each day -- to simply say, "Jesus, I want your way today. More of you, and less of me in my life."

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Luke 7:18-23

Have you ever been embroiled in a scandal? Scandals have little to do with fact; usually they erupt because people's expectations don't match with actual events OR with the inflated report of events. In our day of fake news, scandals have become commonplace. Much of what passes for news is in fact just the latest scandal, the manufactured outrage of expectation and disappointment.

Jesus sends the messengers who come from John back to him to report what they have seen and heard. People are being healed. That widow in Nain received her dead son back alive. Demons are being overthrown. Good news of God's kingly rule is being preached to the disenfranchised. Jesus ends the message with a curious statement: "Blessed is the one who is not offended by me." The Greek word for offended here is the word from which we get our English word "scandalized." Jesus realizes that he doesn't match people's expectations. The wine of his identity and ministry doesn't match the wineskins of people's expectations for a Messiah, and many people -- especially the keepers of the old wineskins -- will be scandalized, offended by him.

Even John the Baptist who announced Jesus to the people in the beginning is struggling. It is significant that the same question is repeated verbatim at the beginning of this section: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" The people had been waiting a long time, and anticipation ran high. John had been convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. God himself had spoken to John and revealed this. But while Jesus was obviously a prophet and a healer with a potent message of God's kingship, he wasn't doing all those expected Messiah things -- restoring the glory of the nation, throwing off the Roman oppressors, purifying the temple.

It's easy to sympathize with John. He might well be in Herod's prison already at this time. At any rate he is seeing the movement he began shift its momentum from his prophetic baptism over to the wandering healer, Jesus. Has John run his race in vain? Did he in fact hear God incorrectly? Was the vision just his own imagining? If you have ever been in this position, believing that God has revealed himself to you in some specific way and then waiting, waiting, waiting for the vision to be accomplished, you may have felt that same pit-of-the-stomach fear John's question betrays. Come on, Jesus, get on about the business of being Messiah! Make it happen! Do it now!

Jesus' answer to John is instructive. Basically Jesus challenges John in return: Do you have eyes to see? Do you have ears to hear? Look what's going on around you. The movement is far greater than a warrior at the head of an army or a zealot demanding ethical conduct of the priesthood. In effect Jesus says, "I may not be good news for the leaders of political movements who are concerned about their own legacy -- but I am good news for the blind, the lame, the poor, the lepers. Are you willing to see your own need?" Next to Jesus' list in the margin of my Bible I've written "Spring 2017" and the brief note, "A season of being all these needy things." It is hard to live in that desperately needy place. It's hard to wait in pain. But for those who know their need, Jesus is good news. He fulfills the passage from Isaiah 61 he quoted at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4) -- but like the people of Nazareth, John the Baptist has a different set of expectations.

The critical point for us is to see our own expectations clearly and bring them into line with Jesus. Yes, there is a chance we have mistaken the initial vision God gave, and so we are disappointed when Jesus doesn't fulfill it the way we would like. It is far more likely, however, if we have done our homework and prayerfully tested what we thought God was up to, that the vision God has given simply requires more time than we realized. What seems simple to us may be only one facet of a greater adventure into which God is leading us, and it may take more time to coordinate all those facets, to reveal all the different dimensions of wonder God is preparing for us. At the same time we ourselves are growing into the vision. When it first appeared, no matter what we thought at the time, we were probably not ready to receive it.

It's worth noting, too, that Jesus doesn't condemn John for his question. He will go on at some length to defend John in the coming verses.

Monday, August 6, 2018

God's generosity, continued:

My trip to the shack last week was a great reminder of God's generosity, as I wrote. Seeing such abundance in one place tends to help me see his generosity in other areas as well, and I've been reveling more than a little in that sense since getting home to Spicer. So here are a few tidbits of the abundant life God gives these days:

  • I got to watch Stella, my friends' black lab, over the weekend. Good friends, and Stella is a great dog. We had fun napping and wandering the wet woods and eating popcorn and rewatching The Office. 
  • Saturday evening there was a gathering here at Decision Hills of a dozen or so people who have camped on the grounds for many years, some going back as far as 1986! Stella and I got to share in the potluck and the stories. How fun!
  • Sundays have become such a reminder of the richness of living in community, and this was no exception. I had the opportunity to preach again, a bit of a different sermon (sermon starts about 32 minutes in) than I normally give, and I thought many times over the morning what a joy it is to have built friendships and ministry partnerships and so much more in this place. 
  • It was a rainy Friday / Saturday, so Stella brought more than a little mud (not to mention some dog hair) to augment my living quarters. I have to smile about that, though, and reflect on what a privilege it is to have a floor, a secure place to sleep (Stella's secure spot was RIGHT NEXT to my side of the bed. She was a little nervous to start with) and furniture to collect the dog hair. Abundance. 
  • Tonight our church leadership has the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful evening together on a boat cruise around Green Lake in Spicer. Should be a fantastic time with a great group of people who are united in a vision of what God is trying to build in this Jesus-focused community. 
  • I got my three quarts of blueberry harvest cleaned and frozen for later enjoyment. I dearly love a good blueberry pie, but being diabetic I might just settle for blueberries and cream. What a sacrifice. I'm toying with the idea of a lightning-fast run back to the shack to harvest a few gallons of chokecherries. Not for sure, but there are a few people here who have some interesting ideas of what to do with them, and I'm intrigued ... 
  • Wednesday morning I am running to the Cities for a doctor's appointment. What a privilege it is to have excellent medical care! This also gives me a great excuse to meet my daughter for lunch. Double win. 
  • My brother is hosting a 3D archery shoot in my hometown this weekend, and I'm hoping to drive north for that. He puts a ton of work into these shoots twice a year, and it's a joy to go take part, even if my scores are less than championship quality. 
  • In and around all the fun things and the running, there is joyful work -- planning for Alpha training for Sunday evening, a dinner Friday with a guy from Wycliffe Bible Translators to hear what they're doing all over the world, planning meetings to assemble details of fall ministries, and the ongoing tasks of grounds management, lawn mowing, cutting up trees, locking and unlocking buildings and more. Meaningful work is the dominant feature of my life these days, and it is truly a blessing. In this current phase of life, the everyday expression of love looks like the work I get to do and the community I get to be a part of and the land I get to live on, and God's abundant blessing comes through all of it. 
The cherry on top of all this is an encounter I had Sunday morning as the sun was coming up over the fog-filled world. The heavy rains Friday night left a huge puddle along the road below my place, and as I prepared to go out to unlock the sanctuary for worship, I saw two fawns grazing in my yard who then minced down into the water. Their mother came wandering up, and all three of them stood, stately in the fog, drinking from the puddle. Suddenly one of the fawns jumped and bucked and sent a torrent of water over his mother, and the other fawn joined in, circling and splashing. They danced and dove and chased around in that puddle until finally the doe got into the action, bucking and splashing them as well. I don't know if they were intentionally getting each other wet, but it certainly looked like it. This was play -- unfettered, joyful exuberance. Dance like nobody's watching. I was awestruck, and completely forgot to get my phone for the first ten minutes I got to observe them. Eventually I did record them, but they glimpsed me moving through the window and suddenly got very, very dignified. Here are a few stills from the videos including their stately departure, all serious, flags waving and marching in formation, from the scene of their delightful play: 

It is good to be reminded that God is generous not just when I can get away from home, but amid the everyday and routine. What a gift!