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.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Luke 14:1-24

These verses seem to be three distinct units -- Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, he tells a parable in response to those who seat themselves in honor at a feast, and he goes on to tell another parable about a banquet. All three of these, however, are united by one basic idea -- there is a stark contrast between living under God's rule and recognizing him as sovereign, on the one hand, and living according to our own power games and desires for advancement on the other. Jesus calls out the authorities who justify preserving their own property on the Sabbath but say it's wrong to heal a man afflicted with dropsy, an abnormal buildup of fluids in the body, what more commonly today would be called "edema." Jesus graciously heals the man and ironically confronts his critics with the idea that this man is at least as valuable as an ox. Point for Jesus.

Then he calls out the social grasping of his audience, those who (like we have all done at one time or another) seek to advance themselves in social situations -- wanting to be that special friend, guest, etc., and positioning ourselves to be "honored" in this way. It really comes back to measuring ourselves according to what others think of us. Jesus says in effect (as he will demonstrate vividly to his disciples in a few short days, see the beginning of John 13) that if you know who you are in God's love, you don't have to worry about your social standing. If you are the beloved son or daughter of God, what does it matter whether you sit at the head table or back in the kitchen? It doesn't. Yet so often we posture and worry about where we stand with people, buying into the shame-based systems that kept the dropsy-afflicted man from being healed on the Sabbath.

What Jesus is doing here is redefining the power and application of God's love, and he goes on to state this theme even more radically in the third part of this section. His host has gained some basic idea of Jesus' "kingdom of God" and remarks how glorious it will be. Jesus contradicts him, saying instead: The kingdom of God is already in evidence around you -- here I am, the promised king -- and yet time after time people are rejecting me, rejecting my rule. Time after time people choose to live according to the systems and values of their shame-based human rules rather than knowing who they are as beloved sons and daughters of God. Like the seeds choked out in the soil that was crowded with thorns, they fill their lives with priorities, relationships, and concerns that are all about them and their own advancement rather than about Jesus' authority and kingship. So, Jesus says, the king -- in this case himself -- will turn away from those who reject him and pour out his favor, his love, his grace, his welcome on those who seem completely undeserving. In effect, Jesus is looking ahead to the scandalous invitation into God's love that will be expressed through the lives of his followers from his resurrection until the present.

And yet so often, those who should know Jesus' love and authority best create systems and hierarchies that protect ourselves and build walls to keep out those we don't like. Over and over again we see Jesus turning away from those who build their own kingdoms and turning to those who are pleased to know themselves as beloved sons and daughters of a gracious God -- not because they've met some standard, but because of who God is.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Update

When I started this Luke project, I had all kinds of good intentions of blogging through Luke's gospel, one post a day, one chapter a week. And lately I have proved that the best laid plans of mice and men are usually equal. Fall has overtaken me in a big way:

  • I'm spearheading a new Alpha course that meets in New London each Sunday evening, and that's great fun. There's nothing like forming a leadership team and building relationships that then drive the mission of helping people know Jesus. I just love it. 
  • Caretaker work at Decision Hills continues to occupy a lot of my time -- fixing broken doors and trying to get all the fall projects done before the snow flies, and getting furnaces up and running, chainsaw maintenance and all that. 
  • Back in August I made a quick run up to northern Minnesota (the shack, for regular readers) and picked 33 pounds of chokecherries. Along with a couple friends, we're turning it into ten gallons of chokecherry wine that seems to be coming along famously. Bottled it the other night, and now just have to be patient until it gets a little more mature. If that's not a metaphor for life I don't know what is. 
  • I've been playing similar games with some of the wild grapes here at DH. Yield was not as high, but I managed to pick and squeeze a couple gallons of wild grape juice -- amazing stuff -- and am fermenting it on my counter, letting the wild yeast have its way and just treating it like a big science experiment that keeps me from washing dishes efficiently. (The drying rack has to go in the sink now instead of on the counter, so rinsing gets to be a gymnastic exercise. But it's fun. And yes, I am still washing dishes, not just letting them pile up for a month.) 
  • It's bowhunting season in Minnesota, and I've been out a few times. So far I've had shooting opportunities involving Buttercup, the doe who likes to graze in my yard while I'm working on the barbecue grill. She looked up at me all terrified (who says deer never look up?) but then -- I swear -- there was an expression on her face like "Oh, it's you!" And she calmly went about browsing for twenty minutes in my shooting lane, glancing up occasionally to make sure I was still there. Ten yards away. The other shooting opportunity I've had is when Momma and this year's twins -- again, one bold little buck with antler nubs already, and his much more deliberate sister -- came past me in another stand the other night. So the two adult deer I've decided are off limits are the ones that are coming past me. My daughter pointed out that compassion in these situations is directly proportional to the fullness of the freezer. 
  • I'm not preaching as much this fall, with Alpha starting and such, but I am on the docket for this coming Sunday. Preaching on Matthew 6:19-34, which has always been a favorite passage of mine. Probably focus on verse 33, mostly. Looking forward to that. 
  • I'm continuing to write other projects just for fun. Plugging away at a novel that started out as a handwritten short story and has just kept growing. It's pushing 40K words now and the story just keeps developing. Great fun. 
And of course there's lots of other stuff going on. Good conversations and growing friendships and times of sitting with God on the dock looking out at George Lake and cutting firewood and building fires and wondering why I didn't get more home improvement projects finished this summer. Lots to do, and being busy isn't a bad thing. Fall in Minnesota is a fantastic time.

For what it's worth, I am planning to keep working through Luke. I'm fairly confident you who read this blog are a patient bunch. Thank you for that. 

Luke 13:21-35

Human beings are by nature deeply self-centered. I think this is very close to what the Bible means by saying we are born sinful -- not that we are born as axe murderers, but that we are born selfish. People say, "How can you look at a beautiful, innocent baby and say we're born sinful?" But a baby is the most selfish creature in the world -- it has no sense of where it stops and others start, and everyone and everything exists simply to meet the baby's wants and needs. That's selfish.

We read the Bible selfishly. We read a passage and the first question we usually ask -- even responsible, Christ centered followers of Jesus -- is, "How does this apply to me?" That's a self-focused way of reading the Bible, and it gets us into trouble.

So in this particular passage, we more often than not read these verses and we think Jesus is talking about the end of the world, or at the very least about how I can get to heaven. "What does it mean for me to enter through the narrow door?" Well, that means that I have to be a genuine follower of Jesus to get to heaven, and not just go along with the world's wide ways. Right?

Why don't we read instead with the goal of understanding what Jesus originally meant? What situations was he speaking to, and who heard him? How did his disciples originally understand his words, and why did Luke, in this case, choose to record them? Why were these words important to Luke? This kind of reading is harder, because we have to get outside our own point of view and become students of the history and context of the Bible.

How does this contextual study help us understand a passage like this one? To start with, it's no accident that verses 31-35 are included on the heels of verses 21-30, though we usually separate them. Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, and he has a deep sense of the impending danger facing this beloved city. Jesus ascribes this danger to the Jews' rejection of God's prophets throughout history, and now specifically to their rejection of him as Messiah. So many of Jesus' parables and teachings focus on exactly this topic. (See for one example Matthew 21:33-41.) Jesus sees the overwhelming tide in his own culture, a kind of Jewish nationalism that idealized the Maccabean revolt a century and a half before, reread the prophet Daniel breathlessly because they believed it foretold a Messiah arriving any day (just a little irony there) and hated the Romans and Herod and the Jewish high priests who collaborated with these powers. In context, Jesus seems to be saying, If you allow yourself to continue thinking like this, you will be destroyed. That spirit of rebellious nationalism is the wide road that everyone around you assumes is correct. I have come to show you a different way.

In fact, that tide of nationalism did erupt in a rebellion against Rome in 66 AD, and Rome responded with an iron fist. After a siege lasting years, Jerusalem was destroyed. Jesus' followers, however, saw what was coming and withdrew to the town of Pella in Syria, largely because they remembered Jesus' teachings calling them away from that kind of nationalistic fervor and armed conflict.

So is it possible that Jesus' immediate context in speaking these words, and Luke's in recording them, is looking ahead a couple decades to the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple? Scholars debate at length whether Luke's gospel was written before or after 70 AD when the temple was destroyed, and that really doesn't matter a lot. Anyone with eyes to see in the decades leading up to the Jewish War of 66-70 AD could tell what was going to happen. And is Jesus also, in this context, warning the Jews that the movement he starts will move beyond a strictly Jewish one and become open to people of all different tribes and nations? That seems to be the thrust of verses 28-30. This idea -- that the Jews would be disgraced (as they had been in 586 BC when Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem) and that other nations would be welcomed into the kingdom of God in their place -- would have been horrifying to the Jews of Jesus' day, and would indeed have been grounds for weeping and gnashing of teeth. We don't need to leap to medieval visions of Dante's Inferno to interpret Jesus' words.

What then, to do with the secondary question of how to apply these words to ourselves? If you can't see that an unbridled nationalism is dangerous, you haven't been paying attention to the news. And if you don't realize that Jesus offers a different, narrower door than the triumphalism of "we're claiming this nation back for God" that so much Christianity trumpets, you need to reread the Bible, starting with the gospels.

It is hard work to read the Bible this way, but it is a more honest way of coming at the text. All it really is, is good listening: Understand the speaker and what they mean, get the message clear in that context, and only then interpret it for your own situation. Good communicators do this every day. We need to learn to do this as we read Jesus' words as well.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Timely

This blog post from Scott Sauls is well-written and perfectly timed for today's internet and political culture. Pay special attention to the caveat at the beginning.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Luke 13:10-20

Again in this text we see Jesus reaching out in his authority to demonstrate God's love to a surprising person -- a person who would have been considered a throwaway by her society. This woman has been bound for eighteen years, and no doubt her disability had reduced her tangible value to the people around her. Oh, her? She can't do much. She's so bent over and crippled up. Poor woman. Their pity masks the fact that they have thoroughly devalued her. Jesus sees her not as a poor crippled woman deserving of pity, but as a daughter of Abraham afflicted unjustly by Satan these past eighteen years. Because it seems so far outside their abilities to heal her, they have written her off. Jesus, on the other hand, frees her and restores her place and her dignity.

I preached once on this text in a tiny Presbyterian church in Jordan, Montana, among people who knew horses. I borrowed an old set of hobbles from a rancher and used them to illustrate what Jesus is talking about in this text. What do hobbles do? They bind a horse, limit its movement, impede its freedom. God created horses for speed and grace and strength, and hobbles limit all of that.

What are your hobbles? What are the factors that keep you from being all God created you to be? This is a hard question, and often uncomfortable to explore. Maybe they are obvious, like this woman's physical disability. Maybe they are more subtle, more hidden like a secret addiction or a struggle with depression. Maybe your hobbles masquerade as a good thing -- a servant heart, an overabundance of empathy or kindness.

I've been wrestling lately with something a counselor told me a year and a half ago. He said, "You're so focused on being nice. You get a lot of your identity from being a nice person. Don't get me wrong, kindness to others and compassion for others' failings are good qualities. But you're so nice that you're not really nice. You don't set up any boundaries and people just run right over you." Au contraire, I thought, you should see the boundaries I have set up ... and quickly I ran through a bunch of examples in my head. But as we talked further, I realized there were a couple relationships close to my heart where I had allowed others to set my agenda, my limits. Jeff, you can never shut down a conversation. You can never hang up the phone no matter how angry I'm making you. You can never refuse to talk about hard things, or even postpone those conversations. You can never point out my faults.

I was hobbled. Because I was raised to be a nice Minnesota boy who was kind and caring and avoided conflict, I allowed my boundaries to be stolen. I had promised myself that I would never walk away from hard things, and somehow that got twisted in my heart to mean I could never say, "Enough," no matter how badly I wanted to, no matter how right it would have been to do so.

I've been processing those hobbles lately. I have a lot of time to ponder relationships and boundaries and what kindness actually looks like in practice. I'm letting Jesus bring those things to light. It's a subtle, time-consuming process. Jesus says that God's rule in our lives is like that sometimes -- like a tiny mustard seed that seems like nothing. Like a throwaway, until it sprouts and grows. Like yeast, that seems like useless powder until you see what it does to a lump of bread dough. The subtle, seemingly negligible rule of God sets all other powers on their heels. It destroys the hobbles that bind us -- not always in a flash of freedom, but often in a long, challenging season of reflection, growth and change.  It allows us, like a running horse, to bring our strength and grace into God's service.

What are your hobbles?

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A worthwhile read

"Love must be a Person before it can be a verb." I've been appreciating Scott Sauls' reflections for quite some time now. This one is well worth your time to read.

BTW, apologies to those of you who wait with bated (not baited -- ew) breath for my next blog post. Between Alpha launching, bowhunting starting up, a myriad of fall projects that need to be done before the snow flies, and such, I'm not getting much writing time in these days! It's a temporary situation, I assure you. Meanwhile, I encourage you to make do with Scott Sauls.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Luke 13:1-9

Luke 13 is an uncomfortable chapter. Jesus starts out addressing one of the perennial questions posed to religion: Why do bad things happen? The Roman governor, Pilate, had killed some Jews while they were worshiping in the Temple and their blood got mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. To an observant Jew in that day, this was an in-your-face indictment of God not watching out for his faithful people. How could this happen? Jesus' response goes far beyond the specific example. "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." This is not the answer his questioners are looking for! Instead of giving them a theological concept, Jesus gives them a warning. Then he adds another example -- this time, instead of the issue of the abuse of power, Jesus throws in random tragedy. How could a good God allow a tower to collapse on eighteen innocent people? Like Thornton Wilder in his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey we go looking for meaning in tragedy, hoping to find an orderly universe in which the good prosper and the wicked suffer. But that is not what we find. We find a world in which bridges collapse, towers fall, tsunamis devastate seaside villages, seemingly strong marriages collapse, churches decline and die. Life is precarious, and there are no guarantees of safety.

Jesus is not just speaking of the random danger of life, however. He is also directly confronting a nationalistic attitude in his own people, in his own context, and warning that if his Jewish people continue on their course and miss what God is doing, they will be destroyed as surely as those on whom the tower fell. What is God doing? Look at me, Jesus says over and over. Here I am. God has sent me. Repent and recognize that I am bringing you good news of who God really is, who you really are, and what the truth is about the world around you. Instead of bowing to his authority, the authorities in Jesus' world choose to continue living with their assumptions, their moralistic structures, their systems of shame and control, intact.

Jesus goes on to tell a simple parable: an unfruitful fig tree (a standard Old Testament metaphor for the nation of Israel) is not bearing fruit, so the landowner demands that it be cut down. The gardener asks for a temporary stay -- one more year of digging around it and applying manure to see if it will become fruitful.

I have been pondering this parable for many months. It has helped me make sense of the cataclysmic changes that have happened in my own life, some that happened to me and others that I chose. Though this last year has been a time of healing and restoration and relative peace, the years previous swept my life away like an avalanche. I see now that drastic changes were needed long before that time -- changes in me, changes in the people closest to me, changes in the church I served at the time -- and none of us were able to make the changes that could allow God to pour his abundant life into us. We held onto our structures, our systems of fear and shame and control. In his love and mercy, God created an avalanche that swept the tree away.

In my current work at Decision Hills, I've had the opportunity to take down many, many trees. A chainsaw has become one of my regularly used tools. I know firsthand that removing a tree is a messy process. It seems so terribly destructive. Similarly, the avalanche I've experienced over the last couple years has been a very messy process. But I see good reason for hope as the dust clears and the underbrush gets hauled, little by little, away. God is faithful, and he is working for his glory and our good. We all want to be perfect, fruitful trees; these are the dreams we imagine for ourselves. That vision takes time -- and a lot of manure -- to be accomplished. A tree takes time to bear fruit. A bird takes time to learn to fly. The fawns in my yard are just beginning to lose their spots these days. Life is poured into us ever so slowly.

When rapid changes happen, they may seem like an avalanche. They may feel painfully destructive. At times we can choose change; other times we get caught up in difficult shifts that terrify us. But God is at work. The key, Jesus seems to be saying, is to know God for who he truly is, to know his character accurately, not just to allow ourselves to maintain our structures of fear and shame and control in order to avoid risk. We need to recognize both who God is and what he is up to, and be willing to make the hard changes that make abundant life possible. It's a humbling thing, and may require us to face our fears and our weaknesses in ways we never wanted to. The only reason to choose such risk is if we believe that God is, as Jesus says, love, and that God's love is the ultimate reality, and that he will sweep away structures and churches and relationships that don't reflect his love into the world. Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Luke 12:25-59

It's raining here in the early morning hours as I write this. I can hear the showers come through, drumming on my cabin roof and dripping from the oak leaves outside my windows. The odd thing, though, is that when I pulled up the weather app on my phone to see how long these showers were going to last, the radar says my weather is clear and dry until later today. It's not that the radar system is down, as when I zoom out there's a large mass of showers out in South Dakota headed my way for later today when it is actually, according to the weather forecast, supposed to rain. The other odd thing is that I couldn't believe the evidence of my ears but checked the radar two more times, using two completely different sources. Apparently it wasn't enough for me that I could hear -- see -- feel -- it raining.

Jesus builds on the theme we left off with, the same theme he has been stating and restating throughout Luke's gospel. Most recently he states it in verse 24: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." The clear idea is that he is to be our treasure, the focus of our affections. He generously gives us all kinds of other gifts, as we enumerated yesterday, including work for his kingdom and partnerships toward that work and the gifts of human relationships, loving bonds that are a joy in themselves and point us toward him. But Jesus is and remains the supreme goal and focus of our faith. That's the launching point for what we often take to be a dire prediction of the future.

But Jesus is not speaking of the future in these verses -- he is speaking to the present reality of his situation, and that of his hearers. Apply Jesus' words first and foremost to his original context, and imagine how his listeners would have heard them. (We are so quick to make ourselves the immediate focus of scripture!) Jesus is the master coming home. He will very shortly dress himself for service and wash his disciples' feet. He will be poured out, his body and blood given for them on the cross. When he says "The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect," he is in effect asking if they recognize him, standing before them. "Here I am!" The verses that follow are an indictment of the current leadership of the Jews: Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas -- all these are included in the description in verses 45-46. His words are reminiscent of the prophets, notably Ezekiel 34 where God speaks to indict the shepherds of his people. Jesus speaks in a kind of code, which is always the function of apocalyptic speech and writing in the Bible. What sounds to outsiders like dire predictions of a science-fiction-style future are actually clear messages about current realities to the insider.

Jesus' message as he goes on bears this out. His followers are walking immediately into a situation in which their people will be divided over Jesus and his message. His followers will become estranged within a generation or two from their Jewish families. The war that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD drove the final nails in the coffin that divided Christian from Jew.

Verses 54-56 tell us clearly that Jesus is speaking not of some distant apocalyptic future, but to his present moment. He says so in so many words. The key message is that his hearers fail to recognize Jesus for who he really is.

So what are we, two thousand years later, to do with this passage? As we'll see in chapter 13, the message for us is fairly simple: What do we do with Jesus? How do we react to him? In essence we are not so different from Peter and John, or Herod and Caiaphas for that matter. We may be indifferent to Jesus, or admirers who want to use him for our own ends -- or we may consider him our supreme treasure and lose all else to find him.

In his devotional for this morning, Oswald Chambers says, "Watch when God shifts your circumstances, and see whether you are going with Jesus or siding with the world, the flesh and the devil." Following Jesus often looks very different than we think it does. He may call us to follow into difficulty, into alienation, into loneliness. These things are not the goal, but they are sometimes the temporary consequences of following him faithfully. The only way this makes sense is if we are keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, trusting that he will lead us into good pastures (Psalm 37) and that when he engineers our circumstances, he is working not just for his kingdom and his glory but also for our good within it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Luke 12:13-34

It is significant that Jesus clearly commands us regarding anxiety. While I am not by nature an anxious person, I've dipped my toe into those frantic waters a time or two and have tasted just how precarious an anxious life can be. My own temperament is not to be actively fearful about what might happen or what is happening, but instead I tend toward an Eeyore depressive streak. I look at the great things I long for or the massive tragedies I fear and get morose about a future that is less joyful or more painful than I desire. I know many people who live in a heightened state of anxiety, however, and I feel for that fearful state of existence. It's rough to see someone you love in that edge-of-panic place.

I don't know the statistics, but I have heard that our society has become more and more anxious over the past few decades. I wonder about that. I wonder about our expectations, both our desires and our fears. How much anxiety is rooted in knowing too much about tragedies and traumas all over the globe, instantaneously, and having our view of our own circumstances colored by that fearful knowledge? How much anxiety is rooted in the fact that we are constantly bombarded with messages about what we could have, how good our lives could be, and these messages are by definition an illusion based on someone else's agenda to influence our spending, voting, participating?

Whether it is my depressive tendencies or the anxious churning of someone I love, I believe so much of this comes down to the internal voices in our own souls that point toward fear, toward disappointment, toward lack, toward loss. Perhaps this gets near the core of the problem. Maybe we are apt to listen to the wrong voices, and maybe this is where Jesus can speak in the imperative, "Do not be anxious." He is directing us to be careful about which voices we heed.

This section starts with a story of a man who is too obviously listening to the voices of his own arrogance, his own selfishness, his own baseless confidence. His treasure is focused on himself and his own accomplishments, his own wealth that provides some insulation against difficult tomorrows. He desires treasure for his own sake, not as an expression or an outgrowth of God's rule in his life. The difference is monumental. It is the difference between worship and idolatry.

After this caricature, Jesus gets to the meat of the necessary attitude change: Don't be anxious, don't listen to the voices of scarcity or deprivation or tragedy. (He will deal more explicitly with tragedy in the next chapter.) This is where Jesus begins to turn our focus, after a few examples of trust and dependence on God. He says first of all that your heavenly Father knows what you need. Food, clothing, and by extension the higher levels of old Maslow's hierarchy, love, meaningful work, a sense of agency, partnership in that work, the ability to shape the world around you -- your Father knows you need these things.

Martin Luther did a nice job of summarizing God's provision in his explanation to the first article of the Apostles Creed:

"I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock and all property -- along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true."  
Neither Luther nor scripture claims that the believer's life will be pain-free. Far from it. (Hebrews 12 is a good example of a healthy attitude toward the sometimes painful challenges of life -- God allows these factors in our lives that discipline us toward strength. If you've ever dealt with a spoiled child, you know firsthand why this is so important to God!) But Luther -- and more important, scripture -- point to a good God, a loving God who provides good gifts to his children.

Second, Jesus adjures us to seek God's kingdom. The trouble with the wealthy man in Jesus' parable at the beginning of this section is that he was seeking his own kingdom. Seek God's rule and God's glorification over this good creation, Jesus says, and let God take care of the details.

Jesus ends this section with the ultimate response to our seeking the kingship of God: He says, casting the imperative slightly differently, don't be afraid: It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. In other words, set out to seek the kingdom of God in your relationships, in your work, in your management of resources, in the clothes you wear and the food you eat. It may well be that as you seek these things, God will break down some of the systems in your life. Your diet may need to change if God is king over it. You may start shopping at different stores, or shopping considerably less, if your focus is on the kingdom. There may be relationships in your life that are so far from what God intends that they will need to be broken for the sake of his kingship. Treasure this sovereignty of a loving God who desires for you to live in this kind of trust, submit your longings to him, and he will supply the treasures you long for in his good timing.

Such a view of life is far, far from what the newscasts or the advertisers would have you living. Perhaps a life lived seeking God's kingship will mean decreasing your exposure to both advertising and news broadcasts.

The whole time I've been writing this post, a young woodchuck has been grazing in my front yard. I've seen him frequently these last couple weeks. In my mind I've always called him Fritz Junior because I believe he's the progeny of the older woodchuck I've seen here over the last year. This morning as I watched him at some length, I believe his name might be Wilbur. He's a good example to me of exactly what Jesus describes in this passage. God has richly provided for his needs here in my yard -- few predators, ample food, a secure hole not far back in the woods to the south. It's not a perfect life, but it's a very good one, and God deserves the credit for all of that. Therefore I will try to focus my day around thanking, praising, serving and obeying God. It might be a good step away from both anxiety and depression.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Luke 12:1-12

Once again, like it was a theme, Jesus confronts those who would create their own religion on the basis of outward behavior, on the basis of sin management, and he rejects their focus out of hand.

Notice that this conversation happens in the context of Jesus' amazing success. People are coming by the thousands, even trampling each other, to see Jesus. He has attained rock star status. Whenever spiritual leaders of any stripe become successful, there is a tremendous pressure -- internal and external -- to measure up, to cut corners, to (in the words of Jonas Nightingale in the excellent movie "Leap of Faith") "always look better than they do." As soon as we focus on appearances, we begin to hide the less-than-comfortable details from ourselves and from others. We lie to ourselves and others in a thousand little ways. This is a tragically common story in the world of religious leadership -- not only for high profile leaders, but for everyone who participates in the oxymoron of organized religion.

This is why shame is such a powerful tool. Nearly everyone is hiding something. The story is told of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, sending an anonymous telegram to ten top-level officials in the British government. The telegram simply read, "All is discovered. Flee at once." Within twenty-four hours, every one of the officials had left the country. Doyle didn't know any damning details about these officials, but he understood human nature. We live in fear that the abysmal truth about us will be discovered, that people will see us naked and ashamed.

This fear gives religion its power. Shame is a powerful motivational tool, but deep down we recognize that it is wrong and unhealthy to be motivated in this way.

Jesus speaks to our fear, and verses 4-7 deserve a much closer reading than they usually receive. Jesus says multiple times that we should fear God rather than humans. He says this so explicitly (verse 5) that it seems obvious. But then (verse 6) Jesus says a couple of really odd things: sparrows are cheap. The hairs on your head are numbered. In other words, the God whom you fear (implied, because you are still buying into a system of shame by which God is going to Get You for Being Bad) doesn't want to Get You at all. God cares for the throwaway birds. God is attentive to each hair that washes down the drain of your shower. So what?

So don't be afraid.

Wait a minute! Jesus just said we should fear God. Now he says don't be afraid. What? That's exactly the point. All our shame-based systems assume that God -- or some other larger morality -- is judging us and finding us lacking. We assume that people are watching us, evaluating us, judging us. And perhaps they are, but their opinions, believe it or not, don't matter. God is both attentive and loving, though we find it hard to believe. Fear not.

Jesus moves on to his trump card, consistent with what he has been preaching all along: He is the authorized representative of God, the agent of God's grand design, the anointed Messiah, the one and only Son of God with authority over all creation. He is the one who has been eating with tax collectors, drinking with sinners, anointed by a prostitute. He has come not to condemn but to love. He has come to break down the hypocritical systems of shame. And even if we mistake him, if we badmouth him, he forgives, just as he will do from the cross. But the Spirit of God that helps us to know God as loving, the movement of God away from moralistic judge toward loving Father -- that Spirit-driven reality of God, God help us if we close ourselves off to this revelation.

Lots to ponder.

So take a break from the ponderous and chuckle with me for a moment at a memory: Bible college, a million years ago, and a big exam in one of our classes. I asked a friend how much he had studied, and he said, "Not a bit. I'm going to Luke 12:12 this one."

Not sure that is what Jesus was talking about -- my friend failed the exam -- but it still makes me laugh.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Decisions, decisions

I'm finishing up my latest journey through Psalms. I've noticed this last time through that I'm much more prone to write specific notes about daily circumstances or reflections that apply to each psalm I read, so the margins of my Bible are becoming a commentary on God's faithfulness and my own prayerful perspectives on my history and current circumstances. I suppose that's the natural product of a life lived with less judgment and more privacy than in the past? I don't know.

While it's tempting just to launch into the Psalms again -- Bonhoeffer might advocate such a choice -- I'm debating these days where to go next. I've been feeling a tug for some months now to go back through the books of Samuel and Kings. Someone made a comment to me a while back how impactful it was to read absolutely all of Genesis, to see the less-than-stellar conduct and character of each of the individual people involved and all their bad behavior, lack of faith, etc. It points out how much hope there is for all of us in spite of our imperfections. That at least in part is what draws me to those particular books -- the stories of Eli and Samuel, Saul and David, Michal and Bathsheba, Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah and Elisha. None of them comes out looking like the hero -- because God is the hero.

I know I need to stay rooted in Jesus, and I'll continue to slowly (ever so slowly) write my way through Luke. That's been a good writing discipline, and (sadly) one of the few places I'm consistently writing these days. But those Old Testament stories provide context and counterpoint for the gospels.

What scripture are you reading these days? It is so good to be part of a community that is reading the Bible and talking about it. Do you have that? That, I suppose, is part of why I have continued to comment my way through Luke -- those who take the time to read this blog have at least this sliver of scripture-based conversation. And as always, you're more than welcome to comment, email, etc!

Luke 11:27-54

This whole section, in a variety of ways, develops and explicates Jesus' words to the woman: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" Like every other generation, ours is tempted to make Christianity a matter of external obedience -- behavior modification, if you will. We strive to keep issues like repentance and law and righteousness outside our cores. As long as I can keep these things away from the deepest part of me, I can feel good about myself, to put it crassly. So we strive to be good, and we judge those who fall short in our eyes of what we think being good looks like. Please understand that this is not Christianity. It is what a friend of mine calls "the gospel of sin management." Every religion in the world practices some sort of sin management, and one of the first victims of Jesus' judgment is that he judges religion.

This is why so many supposedly Christian congregations are little more than feel-good institutions built on tribalism and shame. Tribalism because if we can make sure everyone who comes in is like us and behaves like us, we feel good. Shame because when someone breaks our boundaries, we first judge them, then gossip about them, then shun them, and finally exclude them. We are no better than the generation to which Jesus spoke, saying that the blood of all the prophets from Abel to Zechariah would fall on them. The prophets brought a message of heart transformation that impacted external actions. In other words, get right with God at your core and let him straighten out your works. But that message is too threatening to us because it demands that we stop seeing ourselves as already justified, we stop seeing ourselves as already "in."

Jesus makes a big deal of the example of Jonah. Consider that story for a moment. These days most of what's written about Jonah deals with its historicity. Could a large fish in fact swallow a man, and could a man live for three days inside a fish? That's the question that occupies us. So you can read about large groupers that have been found in the Mediterranean and apocryphal stories of sailors who were swallowed by this or that fish and later found alive. Our Enlightenment-bloated minds totally miss the point, just as Jesus' own generation did. If you read the story of Jonah carefully, it has little to do with the fish. The story is an indictment of the Israelites' own selfish attitudes toward other people, especially toward their enemies. Commanded by God to be a light to the people of Nineveh, Jonah flees the opposite direction. Corrected by God through storm and fish (and incidentally being a powerful witness to the sailors along the way) Jonah finally, reluctantly goes to Nineveh, preaches the worst sermon in history, and witnesses an amazing revival as the Assyrians turn en masse toward God. And Jonah is furious, because he knew this would happen. He knew God would find a reason to be merciful to these people Jonah hates so much.

The end of Jonah's story is rarely talked about, but it encapsulates the whole point. Jonah sits outside the city of Nineveh, hoping to watch the fire-and-brimstone show, but instead seeing God act in mercy. He's hot out there on the hillside in the sun, so he's deeply thankful when a vine grows up that provides shade for him. But then a cutworm comes along and kills the vine and it withers, taking away Jonah's shade, and he begins to curse because the vine is dead. God speaks to him and asks, are you angry for the vine? Yes, Jonah says, you bet I am, angry enough to die. God uses Jonah's (admittedly selfish) concern for the vine as a way to hopefully help Jonah understand that God is concerned for the people of Nineveh, and even for its cattle. You get the impression that the little mini-sermon God preaches at the end of the book probably flew right over Jonah's head. Jonah is stuck in his selfishness and tribalism. As long as he can keep viewing the Ninevites as the enemy, as bad, as shameful and deserving of punishment, he can feel good about himself. He's in, and the Assyrians are out.

Jesus confronts the people around him with this same kind of word. The Pharisees and lawyers (meaning, teachers of the law) were very skilled at evaluating their own conduct and the conduct of the people around them. They were the guardians of public morality. Jesus says, it's more than that. It's about the attitude of your heart. This at its core is what it means to "hear the word of God and keep it." The word of God calls us to see God alone as righteous, and us as sinful, broken people who need mercy. Those who know God and his loving character are not those who have somehow arrived so they can sit in judgment over others; rather, those who know God and his loving character become, in Martin Luther's words, like one beggar telling another where to find bread.

We always want to become the hero of the story. We want to be the Good Guy. But the gospel is that we are so far from that status, and Jesus alone is the Good Guy -- and his character is love. His character is mercy. That which reflects his character -- love, wholeness, self-sacrifice, inspiration, beauty -- is affirmed by his gospel. That which reinforces the brokenness, shame, and fear that opposes Jesus' love and mercy is condemned. All of this starts -- starts -- in the heart. Christianity is never a fake-it-till-you-make-it religion; it is a broken-hearted relationship with a loving Jesus in which he brings us to a healing and wholeness that is dependent not on our own behavior modification, but on his goodness and love.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Luke 11:14-26

It sometimes seems quaint and medieval to believe that there is a spiritual world around us peopled with personalities and powers. More likely that comic book characters come to life or that horror movies have infected our thinking. Jesus, however, took very seriously the idea of a spiritual world and the powers that inhabit it.

The Romantic poets (Blake et al) believed that we start out with Innocence and then we descend into Experience and are tarnished by it; some believed that we then can ascend into a sort of secondary innocence. Many of us come at these biblical stories of the demonic with a similarly simplistic view. We start out believing that there is a Real, physical world, but that there's a heaven "up there" and a hell "down there." When we grow to adulthood these spatial imaginings start to seem unreasonable, like the first Russian cosmonauts who triumphantly proclaimed when they were in orbit that there was no heaven and no God, thus defeating the entire worldview of Christianity.

As one grows deeper into a biblical worldview, we start to understand that "heaven" in scripture refers not to a place we go when we die, but to that unseen spiritual realm where God's power reigns supreme. It is parallel to and accessible from this reality. The final book of the Bible is a "revelation" because it pulls aside the curtain so we might catch a glimpse into reality seen from God's point of view.

It is interesting to talk with those from any part of the world who practice primal religions -- shamanism and various forms of animism and the like. There is a surprising unity to their systems of belief that is, in fact, hard to explain without some basis in reality. Almost without exception, shamans will tell you that the physical and the spiritual realities are interwoven -- so there are spiritual realities to the trees, and the swamps, and the hills. There are "thin places" in this world where the spiritual world is more accessible. And, important, not all -- not many, and sometimes not any -- of the spiritual powers are out there for our good. They can be bribed, cajoled, manipulated, paid off. But they are malicious and dangerous. These spiritual realities can harm and inhabit and oppress human beings. In fact, we live in the midst of a tangled mess of spiritual realities and in many ways we are at their mercy, if in fact they had any. They are not all-powerful, not at all. They live in fear of other powers, snarling and snapping at one another. We are like foxes living in a forest -- we have some powers of our own, but we are vulnerable to the larger predators. This is the world that undergirds every one of the major religions. Each of these major religions develops systems and views to deal with these underlying realities -- these experienced, intuited cosmologies. Buddhism says it's all an illusion; Hinduism says that all those spiritual powers are in fact gods, millions of them, and one needs to learn to live in harmony with them. Shintoism says that one needs allies in the spiritual world, and in fact one's own ancestors are the best allies. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim the revelation of a supreme God who is supreme over all the spiritual powers, but this does not negate their reality.

Jesus himself functioned as though this shamanic worldview was quite real and present. This is why over and over again, the marvel is not his power to heal, but his authority over the spiritual world. To this day in well over half the world, Jesus' demonstrated power over the spiritual world is a compelling reason for people to surrender to him as Lord, in part at least for their own protection.

If we do not have at least some kind of sense of the spiritual world as real and accessible, much of the gospels will seem pointless. But the powers are in fact there, as Jesus repeatedly demonstrates.

How do we then live with this view? The key, of course, is to know Jesus and remain close to him, to take the New Testament seriously when it says that Jesus has authority over these other powers. It is not enough to know about Jesus, as the exorcists in Acts 19 discovered. His name is not a magic formula. His authority is relational. He himself is the stronger man who beats and robs Satan, even when Satan has bolted his doors and trusts in the strength of his rebellion.

The spiritual works itself out into the mundane details of our lives in the least surprising ways. The ongoing argument between husband and wife that simply can't move forward for some reason; the way we surround ourselves with cloaks of invulnerability, protecting our hearts and refusing to truly love; the snide spread of gossip and slander and malice that alienates people and propagates prejudice -- all of these are the outworkings of the spiritual world. When we refuse the God-given gifts of love and joy and peace because of our own fears, our own concern for our status or reputation, we are making tacit agreements with the powers that oppose the life God alone can give. These agreements begin to work together into systems of injustice that routinely destroy lives and prevent abundance. And this is why all our political railing and our human protests, however justified, are powerless to make changes. We lack the authority to command the spiritual world, unless we are acting in and explicitly by the name of Jesus. It's relational.

Jesus is not telling cute stories here. He is describing an unseen but very real aspect of our own condition. In this as in every dimension of life, he is our only hope.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Luke 10:38-11:13

So often we read scripture by chapter and verse divisions, never considering that those structures were not part of the original writings. Chapters were added much later, and verses later yet, as a way to organize the text. They're very helpful, but they limit our thinking too often.

In this text, imagine if the enormous "11" didn't exist on the page. We'd likely read as if the episode with Mary and Martha (which is almost always read as its own distinct unit, and is almost always read as a condemnation of Martha and an endorsement of Mary's devotion, satisfying to those who land on the "NF" spectrum of the Meyers-Briggs assessment) differently. We would assume that it's connected to the first dozen or so verses of chapter 11.

Consider the connection points: Martha is concerned with welcoming Jesus into her home as a guest. She is focused on serving, which might mean household details but likely centers on preparing and serving food. In the following verses, Jesus uses the example of a person going to a friend's house to borrow food because a guest has arrived from a journey. Clear connection! Later, near the end of this section, Jesus cites the example of a parent giving their child fish or an egg. Again, concerns about food and serving appropriate food.

Another connection point: After seeing Jesus' interactions with the household, and then observing Jesus' own prayer life, the disciples ask specifically for teaching about prayer. (By the way, it's intriguing that Mary and Martha's home is just a short distance from the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem, and it's very possible that the "certain place" of 11:1 is in fact that garden, where we're told elsewhere that Jesus liked to spend time.) It's quite possible that Mary's devotion is part of what spurred the Twelve on to ask Jesus about prayer. The prayer that Jesus teaches here is the supreme example of a disciple's prayer that exemplifies Mary's attitude of single-minded submission to the Father through Jesus.

And finally, do not miss the point, well worth digging into, that Jesus sums up all his teaching in this section by saying that the gift the Father is so eager to give is not just a sop to the disciple's desires, but in fact is the Holy Spirit (11:13). Jesus is not simply telling the disciples how to communicate with God -- instead, he is encouraging them to seek the one best gift that God has to give: Himself, in the form of his Spirit, residing in the life of the believer. As we begin to know God better and better, we desire him more and more, and the answer to this desire is that God gives us his Spirit. This is our truest longing, going back to the Garden of Eden where God breathes into us his Spirit, the wind / breath of his own life. It is what we are created for -- the indwelling of God's vitality in us, in our relationships, in our loves, in our passions, in our creativity, in our community, in our devotion, in our solitude and in our partnership, in our work and in our play.

A couple other things worth noting. N.T. Wright points out that culturally speaking, Mary sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to his teachings was scandalous partly at least because it meant that she was in the men's part of the house, breaking the gender divisions that said women couldn't learn, couldn't be disciples, couldn't take part in meaningful discussions and debates. (If you've ever seen the old Barbra Streisand movie "Yentl" you have a sense of this in the Jewish community. It's worth watching.) Over and over again an honest, contextually informed reading of the New Testament -- and the Old Testament, for that matter -- shatters the cultural limitations that kept women in servitude in those times. We take our self-centered, post-Enlightenment assumptions and read these words as though they were written for our culture where women have achieved major strides forward in equality and respect, and we do violence to scripture. So we read Paul's words that a woman should learn at home in full submission to her husband as placing a limit on women, but Paul's original hearers would likely have been shocked by the idea that a woman could learn at all, and Paul gives her full access to the intellectual, spiritual, and devotional discussions around the faith, just in a culturally appropriate context.

Jesus is doing a similarly radical thing here. Allowing Mary into the conversation, affirming her as an example of appropriate devotion, calling Martha to recognize the unhealth of her own attitude toward the details, hospitality, and her sister -- Jesus radically reinterprets the cultural expectations leveled at the women in his context. It is possible and legitimate to see in Jesus' rhetorical question in 11:13 to be in part a linguistic way to say "those who ask him" implicitly includes the women who were culturally swept aside.

So what does one do, personally with this story? I've been parked on this section of Luke for many days now. The last few days especially I have been in a "Martha" phase of life, managing details and trying to stay on top of too many spinning plates. (How's that for a vivid visual?) Yesterday was our Fall Kickoff here at The Open Door, and this campus was full of kayakers and kids with treasure maps and a bounce house and pulled pork sandwiches and newly installed outdoor speakers playing background music and excellent all-beef hotdogs over the bonfire. Lots of moving parts, lots of preparation, lots of "serving" in a multiplicity of ways. Then yesterday evening I had the final training session with my Alpha leadership team before we launch next Sunday. This group of a couple dozen leaders are dear partners in an adventure, launching into something that feels bigger than what we can manage, repurposing our old building in New London, dealing with facilities issues and all the rest. At least three times during last night's training, I said, "Don't worry about the horses, just load the wagon." So often if we are living by God's Spirit, in that pneumanaut sailing that he calls us to do, we have to plan in such a way that if God doesn't show up we will look utterly foolish. So it is here -- we are extending as fully as we can, yearning for God to do the work that only he can do, and knowing that if he doesn't show up, we will look foolish and be bitterly disappointed.

That's why Jesus' words toward the end of this section are so critically important. We're not asking for a scorpion or a snake. We are asking for good gifts. God loves to show up and do what only he can do. He has promised that if we lift him up, he will use us to draw people to himself. In the process, even our potentially disappointing trust becomes a witness to the goodness of God himself. How much more will he pour out his Spirit, giving the good gift of himself to his children?

Even in the midst of a life consumed by details, there are potent reminders of the provision, power, and love of God. As I was about to dive out the door and scream off to our old North 40 campus yesterday afternoon, No Tail and her twin fawns were grazing acorns in my front yard and I stopped to watch, to grin, to breathe, to pray. Yesterday morning in the midst of scrambling around to find this and install that and prepare the other thing, in the middle of one of our gravel roads I found a snapping turtle, no larger than a half dollar, and picked him up en route to relocate him to the beach where he's less likely to get driven over. Along the way I introduced him to a couple people, one of whom dubbed him Clarence, and eventually we got him to his new home. As I drove home last night after Alpha training, just before I turned into Decision Hills, off to the left in one of the neighbor's yards I saw the little buck who last winter fogged my living room window with his breath. He's growing in a respectable six-point rack for a yearling, and I see him around frequently. I'm off to the Cities briefly today to pick up my younger daughter who's in town for a few days, and she'll come out to DH for a Mary-like time of peace and quiet. I'm so excited to have time with her! Next Saturday my little brother's stepson is getting married down in Red Wing, so we'll have the family together for a while.

Life is full, and good, and intense, and I need to remember to stop, to breathe, to sit at Jesus' feet. To ask him for his Spirit, over and over, more and more. He loves to give that best of gifts, and so many other good gifts that go with a life lived in love and submission to him.


Thursday, September 6, 2018

Badlands meandering

I just returned from a lightning fast trip to the North Dakota badlands with two of my brothers. Lots of hours on the road, lots of hours sitting on a hilltop with binoculars glassing for deer. Lots of time to ponder. Absolutely gorgeous country. Beauty looks a little different in the badlands. There are the crazy hills and hillsides, of course, and the overwhelming array of flowers if you know where to look. But so much beauty in that dry country is about water -- full waterholes in the coulee bottoms, yes, of course. That's an obvious one. Standing pools in the channel that runs along the bottom of the canyon is another. Grass that grows faster than the free range cattle can eat it down, so the pastures look lush. They're not lush by Minnesota standards. It's a brownish vibrance that you feel more than see. Grass stems have just a hair of flex to them. And the red grass is long and dense where it grows on the hillsides. The Dakota used to call September the moon of the red grass, and out there you can see why. Beauty is subtle in dry country. The chokecherries full and juicy in clusters on the branch, or wild plums growing (right in the little hollow we camped!) full and fat and red, sweet and delicious. Beauty is subtle here.

Except when it's not. Except when it's awesome and overwhelming, when it threatens to destabilize you if it doesn't kill you first. We had a major thunderstorm graze us to the southeast -- we caught less than a quarter inch of rain, along with a smattering of hailstones, but the roiling purple-and-dazzling-white clouds filled more than half the sky and set off the colors in the hills like some modern artist's tortured palette. The wild rose hips and the berries on what I'd always thought was some kind of Russian olive vied to be the brightest red.

We ended up tracking a buck Monday night, and out there on the buttes as the clock edges toward midnight it is a world without a roof. Draco writhes between the Dippers, and Cygnus soars overhead while Cassiopeia gazes on from her chair. James Taylor kept running through my head: "At night the stars, they put on a show for free ..." I'll admit I was distracted by the impulse to keep running my dimming flashlight along the hilltops and the creek bottom looking for eyes, after the adventure we had a year ago getting trailed by two mountain lions in a similar situation. But the cats stayed away this year, or at least we didn't see them. I'm okay with that.

Some of the quiet times on the hills I pondered a line from Oswald Chambers. He distinguishes between waiting for Jesus and waiting with Jesus. Basically it made me think that I have spent a lot of my time waiting for Jesus to show up, to do something, to change things. I have too often slipped into the arrogance of believing that he is in some sense holding out on me, contrary to all Jesus himself teaches about the character of God throughout the gospels (see Luke 11, for example). Chambers pushes me to consider that maybe Jesus is waiting for the same things I am, if my desires are indeed shaped by his character and his Word. So maybe if I get this right I'm not frustrated, agonizing for him to act, but he is patiently waiting with me, eager as I am for the visions he's given me to be revealed. Maybe he limits himself to wait in submission to the natural processes of his own good creation -- for relationships to be healed and restored, for skills to develop, for me to grow toward maturity and strength, for sinful behaviors to have their devastating consequence so that brokenness can take its course and change can occur.

It was a shift for me, this idea of waiting with Jesus, of him waiting with me. It turned me away from my all-too-common impatience to consider that perhaps, if I have let myself be shaped by his Spirit, he is longing for the same things I am, and we are in this thing together. It's not that he doesn't have power to make things happen, but the triumphalism we so often employ to make Jesus a mighty conqueror instead of a patient craftsman is part of the problem, I think. His craftsmanship is so incredibly apparent in the badlands, in those long hours of contemplating the landscape through 10X binoculars. And moment by moment, in the depths of my heart a part of me turned to prayer, praying for his craftsmanship in my own life, in the people I love, in the church that frustrates and inspires me. Can he carve my heart, or theirs, with the same geologic patience he uses to shape that intricate, confusing landscape? I believe so. And if I let him do that painstaking work, the vistas along the way are, yes, gorgeous, lovely in a hard-edged but tender way that nourishes and reflects my own soul.

Luke 10:25-37

Probably no other parable has been more effectively turned into a morality tale than this one. We assume Jesus is saying, "You should be nice to people, especially hurting people, and especially those who are different from you." While this is not a bad lesson, and I have preached this basic message out of this parable, I think Jesus is up to something much deeper and more important here than just a cautionary tale of "be nice." Remember that from its outset, Jesus' conversation with the lawyer is about the law. Jesus helps the lawyer articulate the basic message of the law -- love God and love your neighbor. So far so good.

The rub comes in that the lawyer, Luke makes very clear, wants to "justify himself." The word in Greek here is another form of the same word Paul uses so often, for example in Romans 3:20 -- stating unequivocally that no one will be justified through works of the law. It would be dangerous to assume Jesus is preaching a message of "be nice and you shall be justified" and then to say the rest of the New Testament preaches against that very understanding. What to do?

Luther's distinction (though it really goes back to the New Testament, especially Paul, but Luther framed it for use in the post-medieval world) between Law and Gospel is helpful here. Jesus takes us on a surprising journey to get the lawyer's eyes off the Law and turn him to the Gospel. (Note: I'm not assuming that Luther had this distinction completely accurate, and not at all assuming that the thin soup of "works versus grace" that so often gets preached in Luther's name is adequate. His basic distinction, however, is a helpful place to start.)

So what does Jesus do with the lawyer's question?

The most surprising move Jesus makes is one that was pointed out to me in the summer of 2016 by a teacher at Mt. Carmel Bible Camp near Alexandria, MN. He asked the question, who is the Christ figure in the parable? As we discussed the question, we realized that most often we assume that the Samaritan is the Christ figure. He's obviously the hero, after all. However, there's no real justification for this assumption in the parable. By contrast, there are several reasons to say that Jesus draws a clear parallel between himself and the wounded man. The language he uses to describe the man's experience, for one -- he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed -- is very much what will happen to Jesus in the coming days. He will be arrested by those who come at night like robbers, convicted by an illegal court, beaten by his own people and then by the Romans, and crucified between two robbers. He will be rejected by the priests and Levites, the religious authorities of his people. And he will be left for dead.

If the wounded man is the Christ figure in the story, suddenly a few things pop. Notably, the priest and the Levite both judge themselves by their reaction to Jesus, and the Samaritan judges himself as well by his sympathy and his care. It's interesting to view this parable in light of Jesus' teachings in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats, about those who have recognized him in the needy among them -- "I was hungry and you fed me," etc. Jesus, the Crucified One, is the judge of the world. He exercises this judgment in the surprising way of being wounded, beaten, killed, and raised. He is a scandalous Savior, an offensive Messiah, and only those who have been outcast themselves -- like the Samaritan -- are likely to respond favorably to him.

While it's tempting to draw a parallel between the "inn" and the "innkeeper" here and in the birth story of Jesus in Luke 2, linguistically they are unrelated. The inn here is exactly that -- what we would think of as an establishment that provides housing for travelers. In Luke 2, however, there was no room for Mary and Joseph and the newborn Jesus in the "guest room" which messes with our Sunday School Christmas programs. The relationship in both cases, of course, is that Jesus (as John writes) came into his own -- his own creation, his own people, his own homeland -- and his own "received him not." The Samaritan, by contrast, is one who receives Jesus, builds his life and his actions around Jesus, and expends his resources for Jesus' sake. Those who are currently in power are less likely to expend themselves in such a way. The outcasts, the lowly, the broken, the wounded are more likely to live out Jesus' own compassion and mercy for others. Jesus is, in this parable and in every way, the Wounded Savior, the Crucified Messiah.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Self-expenditure

Powerful words this morning from Oswald Chambers:

[Jesus'] purpose is not the development of a man; His purpose is to make a man exactly like Himself, and the characteristic of the Son of God is self-expenditure. If we believe in Jesus, it is not what we gain, but what He pours through us that counts. It is not that God makes us beautifully rounded grapes, but that He squeezes the sweetness out of us. Spiritually, we cannot measure our life by success, but only by what God pours through us, and we cannot measure that at all.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Luke 10:1-24

I have been running up against the difference lately between authority and power.

Satan undeniably has power. He has power to destroy in so many devastating ways. He has power to prevent growth. Picture the most devastating kinds of relational damage -- the heroin addict that compromises and betrays every love, every relationship, for the sake of an addiction; the marriage that can never quite get past defensiveness and self pity and fear, and prevents so much joy and fruitfulness because of those self-protective patterns; the parent who over-indulges their child and prevents them from growing strong and vibrant and blessed; the fearful lover (or parent or boss or teacher or ...) whose insecurity demands rigid control of the one who should be loved and set free.

All of these examples -- and of course there are thousands more -- demonstrate power exercised without, or in contravention of, legitimate authority. (FWIW, control is always at odds with love.) And whether demonic forces are directly involved or not, each of these thousands of examples are exactly what Jesus described in John 10 -- that the thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy the abundant life God longs to give his creation.

I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon cutting buckthorn. There's a beautiful trail back in the woods east of my place that has been choked by the invasive, tangly stuff. At one time it was a wild, remote  haven for people to pull in their RVs and camp in the isolation of a beautiful woods. Buckthorn has closed off the trails, cramped the campsites, and choked out native species. So I got my pole trimmer out and spent a couple hours clearing one specific trail. It felt a little like spitting in the wind, but it's probably better than just letting the awful stuff grow without protest. Buckthorn has no authority to be here. It's an invasive species and everybody agrees it's bad, but it has tremendous power. Left unchecked it will dominate a plot of land and completely take over.

Jesus doesn't give his followers a lot of power. But he does give them authority. And when, after exercising that authority (v. 17) the disciples are pumped up on what they perceive as their power, Jesus reminds them that it is authority he has given.

Satan has no authority unless we invite him in. Unless we agree with his lies, he has no right to exercise his power over us. He will certainly try, but we can stand in our rightful identity as children of God, bought by the blood of Jesus, and in spite of our weakness, claim the authority of Jesus himself. It's an important distinction. We most often measure ourselves based on our perception of power, but God's word makes clear that he values our weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12). In some way, Jesus delights to exercise his power as we stand, utterly defenseless, in his authority that he has given us.

One of the most vivid examples of this is the apocalyptic battle in Revelation 19, sometimes described as the "battle of Armageddon" -- really just a name of a plain in the north of Israel that was a famous battleground in ancient times. (Note, at the risk of derailing this whole train of thought, I don't believe this is about a future prediction, so please don't get caught up in ideas about Russian tanks rolling into the north of Israel and all that. If you want to talk about how I interpret Revelation, I'm happy to do that. Just let me know.) In the account in Revelation 19, all the armies of light and darkness line up, prepared to do battle, clashing swords against shields, shouting battle cries, scavenger birds circling overhead ... and the battle is decided when Jesus rides out on his horse and speaks a word (that's the sword that comes out of his mouth, in Revelation's obscure imagery) and defeats all the battalions of hell. In other words, we're there, we're at the battle site, but we're just spectators. Cheerleaders. We don't exercise power, Jesus does.

This is a game changer. What does it mean to stand in your identity and authority as a child of God today? What does it mean to really believe a) that God calls you his beloved son or daughter in whom he is well pleased, and b) that he gives you authority to stand against all the forces of hell, implicit and explicit? This is worth pondering. This gets right to the heart of what it means for us to proclaim what Jesus called "the kingdom of God."


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Lord Huron again

Pandora seems to be playing a lot of Lord Huron this morning while I'm in my office gearing up for our upcoming Alpha course, redoing our Highway 40 campus, and other details. I listen to these lyrics and chord progressions and I'm immediately back in Seattle in June, going to their concert with my daughter. It was a fabulous night but left me pondering ... what's the appeal for the 20-something women who dominated the crowd? (Having a couple daughters in this demographic gives me a vested interest in figuring this out, at least somewhat.) Why the themes of fringe spirituality combined with relationships beautiful and broken? What's the appeal to that particular demographic?

Of course, so many of Lord Huron's songs revolve around natural settings that parallel the amazing place I get to live -- the lake, the woods, the nights, and more. So that's a draw for me, and maybe that's part of the primal language that appeals more widely as well.

My other daughter (who has also seen them in concert) described them as musically monochromatic but technically excellent, and I resonate with both of those evaluations. And they're far, far stylistically and lyrically from the traditional boy-band that seems to appeal to young women en masse.

So for example, when this song came on this morning I was reflecting on the mix of spiritual hunger, despair, longing, and tangible human relationships that is so typical of Lord Huron's repertoire. I think more than anything, these themes are what appeals to a population that is plagued by loneliness, deep spiritual questions, and an instinctive, experiential sense that incarnational relationships in all their delight and difficulty are where we're supposed to be investing. And listening to it a couple times intentionally, I see that there's a sense of agency, of empowerment, that probably appeals for young women who are a little insecure about their place and their power in the world to begin with. And more, there's a promise of partnership, of relational mission reminiscent of the last verses of Genesis 2 as well. I can begin to see the appeal for that particular demographic.

And of course now I have that song playing over and over in my head. Not a bad thing.