Friday, June 29, 2018

Luke 1:57-80

We take for granted so often these intimate scenes that are common throughout the Bible, but so very rare in the rest of ancient literature. We gain a glimpse not only into John's birth, but also into the pained conversations that must have happened between Elizabeth and Zechariah -- likely, as Z will use later, employing a writing tablet of some kind -- as well as the dynamics within the community. The circumcision of a firstborn male is a major event within the circle of friends and neighbors that surrounded this couple, and no doubt there had been many quiet conversations behind closed doors about oh, how tragic it is that Elizabeth is barren, they're such a nice couple, why would God do such a thing? And now here they are, circumcising their firstborn and the entire community comes to celebrate with them.

But even here in the midst of their joy, God's presence, God's plan strikes a sour note. "His name is John." The community expects that the naming of the boy will honor the family, will honor Zechariah's lineage -- but this is not a family name. Yet God has demanded this, and Zechariah and Elizabeth are agreed. His name is John. Like Samuel a thousand years before, this child will never really belong to his parents. Luke tells us as much when he concludes this chapter -- John was "in the wilderness." Whether this refers to the Essenes at Qumran (who are never directly mentioned in the Bible) or to some other dimension of preparing this prophet, we don't know. John's teaching and practice will have a lot in common with the Essenes, but that detail lies beyond what we know.

We do know that John is set apart for God's work. He is Elijah reborn, not in the sense of literal reincarnation but in the sense of the prophetic archetype. He will prepare the way for the Messiah. He will lead the revival among the Jewish people that turns their hearts back to the Lord in preparation for God to visit and redeem them (1:68).

Zechariah's song points out how different our understanding has become. We carefully separate church from state, religion from politics, finances from recreation, family from the wider community, and all the rest. Our lives are full of lines that keep things in their proper categories. For the first century Jews (and most of the rest of humanity through history) however, things blend together like the different elements of a stew, sharing each others' flavors and being influenced by each other. So the anticipation of the Messiah was religious and political and relational and military and devotional, without dividing one from the other. The gathering around John's circumcision is a spiritual event but it is also a party and it is also deeply traditionally religious and it is political. So Zechariah's song crosses all these boundaries and back again -- it is completely, entirely about God getting into the mess of every sphere of life, without exception. When Zechariah speaks (v. 77) about the forgiveness of sins, everyone in earshot knew that it was their sins that took them into Babylonian exile five hundred years before, and it was their sins, still standing between them and God, that allowed the Romans to dominate their land at the present time. Those sins were not merely political, however, they were deeply spiritual.

The realities of everyday life do not fall into neat categories. If our relationship with God is out of whack, everything, every dimension of our lives will be strained and skewed. Repentance, then, involves a turning back to God who stands at the center, the core, of every dimension of life, and surrendering our political views, our spiritual practices, our dietary habits, our alcohol consumption, our extended family relationships, our local community structures, our marriages, our parenting, our attitudes about other countries and other races, our beliefs about the deepest questions of life and death -- we surrender all of this to God, recognizing his kingship over us. God will not tolerate being cordoned off into one "spiritual" area of life. This is the message in Zechariah's song, and this is the message John will proclaim once he appears publicly in Israel. It is the message we need to hear two thousand years later.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Luke 1:46-56

Mary's song is traditionally called "The Magnificat" because of the first Latin word that translates, "My soul magnifies ..." It's a beautiful song, strongly parallel to Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2. In both cases, the song / prayer is a powerful statement of what it means that God "saves."

Sadly, the whole idea of saving / being saved / salvation has become overlaid with all kinds of religious baggage in our time. In most Christian circles, "being saved" has something to do with being certain you will go to heaven after you die. It is purely individualistic, purely "spiritual" in the sense that it has little or nothing to do with physical reality here and now, and this version of "being saved" has little to do with a biblical view of salvation.

The word itself comes from the same root as "salve" in our language, and in both Greek and English has to do with healing. Part of the reason this word, this concept, is so hard for us these days is we have little agreement about "sin," little agreement about what it is that we need to be saved from. People who make a big deal out of morality -- and morality is important, but Jesus is about so much more than behaving well -- seem to see salvation as being saved from moral failings so that one can become a good person. The Bible has plenty to say about morality and moral failures, but most of the Bible's content in this regard is telling embarrassing stories about how the greatest heroes have failed. If you come open-eyed to the Bible with the assumption that being saved equals becoming good, you'll get frustrated in a hurry.

Two thoughts that are perhaps helpful.

First, being saved has to do, as we just observed, with healing. Think of all the ways our lives are broken: Broken dreams, broken relationships, broken hopes, broken bodies. Brokenness is a daily reality for every one of us. To be "saved" -- that is, to be healed -- means that our brokenness is dealt with in an effective way. Wholeness is the opposite of brokenness, and wholeness is a good translation of the Hebrew word "shalom" which most often gets translated peace. Think of peace not as the absence of conflict, but the presence of wholeness, of the restoration of health in every sense, especially relationally.

That relationships are the deepest dimension of our lives is obvious to anyone who thinks for even a few minutes about it. Consider all the brokenness in our relational lives -- between bosses and employees, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between priests and parishioners, between humans and creation, between managers and the money they manage, between longings and fulfillment ... all of these pairings are relational, and all of them are broken. To be saved means to have our relationships put back on the right footing, including our relationship with God. Because of the brokenness in every other area of our lives, we are prone to project onto God all the disappointment, all the shame, all the scolding and frowning and abuse and hateful behavior we experience in every other area that leaves us so deeply broken. God becomes the abusive father, the angry lover, the disappointed mother. But these are our pictures, not reality.

The second thought that might be helpful -- and this is really key when one begins to understand the Bible's perspective -- is that God is the hero of the story. So much of our striving is built around making ourselves the hero. We strive to look good, to be well thought of, to Do Things Right, to profit, to climb, to endure -- all so that we might look like the hero in our own stories. Salvation starts with acknowledging that God is the hero of the story, and it is this more than anything that Mary gets right in the Magnificat. She understands that it is God who has acted to bring healing, that it is God who has power, that it is God who deserves credit. God is the hero. If we want to understand the significance of these gospel stories, these stories about Jesus, it starts with recognizing that God is acting for the benefit of his people, his creation, his beloved. God is bringing healing and wholeness where before there was only hopeless brokenness.

To bring this kind of healing, God acts in surprising ways. He gets into the mess, gets dirty to make things happen. Last night we had Vacation Bible School at Decision Hills. More than a hundred kids showed up and received sparkling white t-shirts and had a great time singing on the beach and playing games and learning about Jesus. Then, in a surprising incarnational move, they were given buckets of colored paint and sponges and played relay races that left those t-shirts a cacophony of color, THEN six adults -- yours truly included -- donned hooded white painting coveralls and goggles, and buckets of powder paint came out. Each child received a dixie cup, and the powder paint began to fly like a blizzard of many hues. More than anything else, these children seemed absolutely delighted that the adults were getting into the mess with them, getting into the multicolored arena and playing without saying, "Stay inside the lines" and "Make sure you don't get that in your hair" and "NOT IN YOUR MOUTH!" Rather, instead of boundaries that were used to shame, the joy of the whole experience was that it was a lot chaotic and everyone ended up multi-colored. It's a tiny parable of God getting into the mess with us, less obsessive about keeping us neat and tidy and more about loving the relationship, delighting in the crazy process, joyful to see us growing, healing, learning to fly. After all, he's the one who provided all that paint in the first place.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Luke 1:26-45

Mary's response to the angel's announcement provides a powerful contrast with Zechariah's pained cynicism. And here we first experience one of Luke's distinctive qualities among the gospels -- while the movement of Jesus was always powerful for women, opening doors of opportunity and status that had long been closed in Judaism and paganism and Greco-Roman culture, Luke especially champions woman as role models, as powerful and faithful followers of Jesus. So Mary who has very little power in Jewish circles of her day becomes an incredible model of trust for us.

Not that Mary is perfect, and the whole business of "venerating" Mary -- making her a fourth member of the Trinity, etc., that has been done through the years especially in Roman Catholic circles is wholly without biblical warrant, but Mary is powerful for us precisely because of her accessible humanity, not because of some exalted quasi-divine status as "redemptrix" or any of that. Mary is a young Jewish girl, learning and growing, full of the insecurities and limitations and hopes that are common to humans in that period between childhood and adulthood. She's probably in her mid-teens when Gabriel finds her, though we don't know for certain.

Make no mistake about this story: the announcement Gabriel brings will cause trouble and discomfort and social upheaval and relational distress to Mary. When God starts to move in our lives, these things follow, because by nature we tend to create stable systems that obey human laws and restrictions, that help us avoid shame, that keep our self-respect intact. And God tends to break those systems. For a deeper reflection on some of that breakage in Mary's life, check out this post I wrote almost a decade ago.

In some English translations Mary's question sounds a lot like Zechariah's, but the two could not be more different in Greek. In contrast to Z's "Says who?" Mary asks a question borne out of genuine desire to understand and to be obedient. There is not a hint of bitterness or rebelliousness or cynicism when she asks her question, just honest confusion that wants to trust. Her question is a good example of what Anselm centuries later would call "faith seeking understanding." Mary, betrothed to Joseph, understands where babies come from. Does this mean they should speed up the wedding? Will there be some other human agency to initiate this pregnancy? No, Gabriel says, this is going to be a unique pregnancy, a Holy Spirit initiated embryo that will grow in her. Such things were common in Greek mythology, though the squabbling, venal Greek gods themselves were a far cry from the Jews' One Holy God. The focus here is not on any kind of sexual encounter between God and Mary -- far from it -- but rather on the incarnation itself, on God becoming human. That is where the focus will remain throughout the story, and the encounter between Mary and Gabriel sets the stage.

Mary's willing, trusting obedience sets a challenge before us. What is my response when God shows up and invites me into something greater, more risky, more disruptive than I have planned? Am I willing, or horrified? Do I welcome God's plans, though they may complicate my life, or do I retreat into the comfort of my own plans? Mary doesn't know up front all that this announcement will cost her, but she is willing and ready to jump into all God has for her. And through her, God is at work for the rest of his creation, for all of us. In a lesser way, this is the invitation of God to each of us today. He comes to us with an announcement that he is ready to become enfleshed in our flesh, to take up residence in our lives, to make himself a reality to the world in and through us. How will we respond? Will we be willing, even eager, to let God's love become an incarnate reality in us, that his love might be visible to the world through us? Mary leads us here.

And yet even for Mary, prudence dictates that she makes the journey to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for a few months, that she get out of town before that baby bump shows up, before the betrothal with Joseph needs to be called off (we see that from Joseph's perspective in Matthew's gospel) -- Mary is not superhuman. She needs the encouragement of her older cousin Elizabeth, whose swelling belly becomes the tangible reminder of God's goodness and faithfulness to fulfill his abundant promises. Elizabeth in her joy and her humility becomes a witness, a mentor, an encouragement for Mary, and their babies together will shake the foundations of the Jewish nation and the world.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Luke 1:5-25

Luke does a masterful job in this story of pulling together the threads of the Jewish world and all its hopes. There are echoes of several Old Testament stories here, most notably the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2) and Elijah (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2) and the prophecy at the end of Malachi (Malachi 4). Woven in with these stories (and so much more from the Old Testament and Jewish history) is a sense of the frustrated hopes of the Jewish people, who were longing for a Messiah -- not necessarily a religious figure in our sense, but rather a warrior-prophet who would reinstate the political state of Israel, much like the Maccabees had done a century and a half before. It is hard for us even to begin to understand what it was like for the Jewish people in these days and how firmly their hopes were wrapped around the anticipation that God would act decisively in history. Rabbis had made a growth industry of interpreting the "seventy weeks" in the book of Daniel, and all interpreters agreed that the prediction of God's action was very, very near.

In that anticipation, the temple in Jerusalem was a growth industry. Estimates are that there were about nine thousand priests employed by the temple, living throughout the region and traveling into Jerusalem to serve as their divisions and their lots were chosen and scheduled. A generation ago, Herod the Great had undertaken to rebuild Ezra's rather pathetic temple, replacing it with a grand vision of massive stonework. That project was about half finished at the time of Zechariah's vision, and the people were excited -- not about Herod, who was a violent tyrant disrespected and feared by all, but about the glory of the temple and the anticipation that finally, God would return and their functional exile would end. Yes, the people had returned from Babylon five hundred years before, but God's presence had never returned to Ezra's temple, and they were waiting for God's presence, God's action, God's messenger, God's Messiah. What's more, no prophet had appeared for almost four hundred years speaking God's words with authority. Since Malachi and a few other minor prophets, the heavens had been silent.

In the midst of that context, Luke tells us an amazing amount of detail about Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are firmly established as far as the Jewish concerns about ancestry and genealogy, and their pedigrees are perfect. They are righteous, not tainted by the graft and cynicism that had grown up around the all-consuming temple industry in Jerusalem. Even as the Jews waited in hope, we gain an excruciating glimpse into the frustrated longings of Zechariah and Elizabeth and their heartbroken yearning for a child. (This story echoes that of Elkanah and Hannah and the birth of Samuel very strongly, and that theme continues through Luke 1.) Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense. He is not, as many preachers have said, going into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) -- rather he is simply going into the Holy Place, immediately outside the Holy of Holies, where the altar of incense and a few other furnishings were placed. Burning incense on the altar of incense was a daily occurrence, and it was surrounded by an important time of prayer when people would gather outside and offer their prayers while the priest fulfilled the duty of burning a handful of incense on the coals. So for a few minutes, Zechariah is all alone in the very heart of Jerusalem, in the heart of the temple, alone with his prayers, alone with his hopes, alone with his frustrated longing and a handful of smelly incense.

And God shows up. God shows up in the form of an angel. The angel speaks powerful promises that address all Zechariah's hopes and fears, that affirm and verify the longings of his people and that comfort Zechariah, this righteous man, in his own longing. Or at least they should. But Zechariah has lived so long in frustrated hope that his response to the angel is, quite literally, "Says who?" Most translations, tragically, tone down the scathing bitterness of Zechariah's response to something like the ESV's "How shall I know this?" The Greek is "kata ti" which means "according to who?"

It is hard to wait in hope. It is hard to hear God promise good things and not see tangible evidence that those promises are moving toward fruition. In the wisdom of God, human life contains so many seasons that fall between planting and reaping, between the longing and the fulfillment, between the promise and the reality. It seems God's standard operating procedure to give a vision, but then to (as Oswald Chambers says) take us from the mountaintop of vision down into the valley of drudgery where God beats us into shape to receive the vision he has given. The struggle for us is to remain open to the fulfillment, not to close our hearts either by growing cynical or by settling for the also-ran of our own paltry efforts. What are we willing to settle for? Do we dare wait fully extended in hope, and risk appearing a fool if God doesn't show up? And when opportunity arises to step toward the fulfillment of our longings, can we step toward them decisively, firmly, faithfully?

In a severe mercy, Gabriel (we gain a tantalizing glimpse into the courts of heaven through Gabriel's description of himself and his station) strikes Zechariah dumb. Gabriel's response and its tone make sense if we understand what Zechariah has asked and the disrespectful tone of his question. Gabriel stands in the presence of God, where every human falls to the ground. Gabriel comes not in his own authority, but by the direct command and plan of God. God is moving, fulfilling the word he has spoken generations before. Who are you, Zechariah, to doubt God's promises? Since you see fit to speak so disrespectfully, your mouth is closed until you see the child and act to name him in faith, in obedience to this vision.

It is comforting that Zechariah is not discarded for his cheek. God still uses him to become the father of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah. In the fulfillment of the vision, Zechariah himself gains a difficult gift. Instead of being free to tell people that now God is working to fulfill his long promises, Zechariah is silent. He receives the time of Elizabeth's pregnancy as a time of reflection, of pondering, of waiting. While he watches her belly swell and the fulfillment of the promise grow, he has time to reflect on his own attitudes and to repent, as his son will call the nation to repentance.

But before the birth of John, we get an alternative example of how to respond when God comes to announce the fulfillment of his plans. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Luke 1:1-4

Odd as it seems, this is one of my very favorite passages of scripture.

It's worth pausing at the beginning of Luke to examine what an old professor of mine used to call "the glasses through which we view the Bible." What do we mean if we use a word like "inspiration" to talk about the Bible? Does that mean it's a magic book, full of secret messages and powerful spiritual forces? Does it mean one must be careful never to put another book (let alone the TV remote) on top of the Bible? Does it mean that just opening the book and letting the pages fall at random and plucking a verse out of context is a legitimate way to hear God speak?

The Bible is without doubt a powerful book and I firmly believe God can use it in all these ways. The question we're asking right now, however, is how best to view the Bible. How can we most responsibly regard this book?

Luke gives us significant hints here. He starts out by telling us, unlike most biblical authors, about his own writing process. He says a few critically important things in these first verses:

  1. Many people in Luke's time had "undertaken to compile a narrative" about the events of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection. There were multiple people trying to get the events recorded.
  2. Luke himself, along with others who are working toward a similar task, is of the second generation of Jesus-followers -- not an eyewitness himself, he has received the narrative from those who were in fact eyewitnesses. 
  3. Luke is concerned for a third generation of Jesus-followers to be instructed accurately. In Luke's case, he is writing for Theophilus who, given the way Luke addresses him, is probably a mid-level Roman official of some kind. 
  4. Luke has been engaged in his research for some time. He describes himself as "having followed all things closely for some time past" and he is concerned to write "an orderly account." While Luke doesn't describe his research directly, we know from his second volume (Acts) that initially he was a companion of Paul on some of his journeys. From Luke's writing we can see that he apparently dug into sources other gospel writers had not tapped. Perhaps most intriguing, Luke writes a great deal that had to come from Mary herself, and he is not bashful about letting her perspective shine through his narrative.
A word about our own context as we start to read. We are, of course, victims of our own perspectives. So we have inherited a movement that became popular about 150 years ago and lasted in some ways up to the present day where scholars had to disparage the biblical accounts as legitimate historical sources. It became popular to scoff at the "historicity" of the biblical accounts, including the gospels, and to say it was impossible that they could be trustworthy narratives. Luke obviously fabricated details. That attitude is still to be found in some "scholarly" circles to this day. 

Trouble is, Luke at least has stood the test of academic scrutiny (as has the rest of the Bible if it is treated responsibly, but that's beyond the scope of this blog post). Modern archaeology has repeatedly verified Luke's veracity, from the scrupulous listing of political powers in Luke 3:1-2, to Luke's use of the Greek word "politarchs" (city rulers) in Thessalonica in Acts 17, to detailed descriptions of first century nautical practices and techniques -- all these and many more have been independently proved after having been dismissed for decades as fable. These days the cutting edge of scholarly research says that Luke is an incredibly trustworthy narrator, having carefully researched and responsibly recorded to the best of his human ability. 

And that brings us to the nature of the Bible. Looking at Luke 1:1-4, we have to say that this gospel account is a human book in the deepest, richest sense -- it is written by an individual man, a Greek, a physician, who accompanied Paul and hobnobbed with the apostles and with Jesus' own blood relatives, who used careful research techniques and wrote in his well-educated but accessible Greek vocabulary, who had an eye for detail and a concern for the underdog. What's more, Luke has an agenda, and in the face of postmodern critics who are always suspicious of authority because it comes with Agendas, Luke is clear about his. He writes to help a sympathetic Roman official understand Christianity not as a subversive cult in the normal sense, but as a legitimate movement growing out of historical events that require a response from Theophilus, and from us. 

Given all that humanity, what does it mean to say that the Gospel according to Luke is "inspired," much less "infallible" or "inerrant" (a difficult and contentious word at best)? Just as the Council of Chalcedon four hundred years later would declare theologically that we must view Jesus as 100% human and 100% divine, Luke's careful artistry compels us to say that the Bible is a human book. And yet it is also a divine book, a book that (as Luke's friend Paul wrote) is in some sense "God-breathed." That does not make it a magical book, but rather it says something about divine inspiration itself. God tends not to inspire in a magical sense (though occasionally the miraculous does indeed happen) but rather inspiration is a flowing of the Holy Spirit in and through the best efforts of fallible human beings. Luke's careful research and animated narrative bear the undeniable marks of God's fingerprints -- in, with and under Luke's own fingerprints all about the text. 

I'm going to intrude my own 2018 reality into this thought process here, because if the Bible is an inspired book -- which I firmly believe it is -- that inspiration lies not only in how Luke researched and wrote, but also in how the text has been transmitted and in how I read. (This is the problem with doctrines of "inerrancy" -- they don't acknowledge the Holy Spirit tending and interpreting the text beyond the original manuscripts, and so they give away the game before it begins.) So when you and I pick up Luke's narrative, it is entirely appropriate to pray for God to speak, to open our eyes, ears, minds, all our faculties, so that we might gain "certainty concerning the things [we] have been taught." Inspiration creates a divine connection between the reader and the writer and the subjects of the story. Thank God for a writer like Luke who not only diligently pursued his own writer's craft, but who also tells us about his agenda, priorities, and process so that we might understand what's going on for him behind the narrative. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Back to the gospels

I've managed to spread Fathers Day out over the last two weeks or better. It started with time in Seattle enjoying my younger daughter's Masters graduation. Then we had the big "Share the Dream" event here at Decision Hills, which was great fun. This weekend my older daughter and her husband came to stay over for about 24 hours and we boated around the lake, grilled brats and ham and asparagus and ate blueberries and enjoyed all kinds of great conversation. I'm spoiled, I admit it.

One of the highlights of all this for me is while I was in Seattle, I had the privilege of talking about Bibles and Bible reading with my younger daughter. She was feeling the need for a new Bible, and we compared and contrasted and strategized, and when I got home I ordered her one. The best part is that we also talked about how much better reading the Bible is when you can have a conversation about what you're reading, so we agreed to both read the gospel of Luke and in some way have an ongoing conversation about it. Not sure if that means I'll be blogging more about it, but I'm starting Luke at any rate. I'm still only halfway through the Psalms, but I've been feeling the need to get back into a gospel for a few weeks now. I'll keep reading psalms each day and take my time poring over Luke, I think. And I'm more than a little excited about the conversations that I believe will ensue.

There's so much more to say -- things I'm hoping for, what it is about Luke that I am specifically excited to reread, and so much about the nature of biblical inspiration and how it relates to Luke 1:1-4, among other things. But it's been a long weekend, and I'm having a ton of fun watching the deer (six as I was driving back into the campus after Life Group Leader Training tonight offsite) and enjoying a beautiful summer evening. And there's a rabbit hanging out in the yard right outside my office window. Life is good.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Savoring the taste of summer

If you're in Minnesota today, you already know this: It is one of those priceless, precious treasures of a day. Gorgeous, sunny, warm but not hot. So far today I've walked around with a quiet cup of really good coffee in the early morning sunshine checking on a few odds and ends, scared up a couple deer who bounded off into the brush, had a non-urgent phone call checking in with a good friend, spent time in my Bible and conversation with God, chuckled at a few online communiques, and wrote for a while on the novel I'm working on. I need to clean house for my daughter and son-in-law arriving later today and do a couple work projects, mostly involving computer stuff. Might well get the hammock out and read N.T. Wright for a bit later, throw a lure in the water and see if the bass are biting, take the 4-wheeler around the trails. It's a luscious, near-perfect day. Whatever you're doing, I hope you get to enjoy it!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

In the Wind

This song came on Pandora this morning in that hinge moment between prayerful scripture reading, lifting up those I pray for each day, and turning to think about my own schedules and agendas for the day. The lyrics are powerful, especially if you've ever experienced separation from those you love, whether due to death or distance. Most recently it reminds me of a delightful evening with my daughter seeing this band in Seattle, but it calls to mind so many other memories as well. Especially in light of last night's post about Peter and metaphors of wind and calling and storms, it's good stuff.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Jumping out of the boat

Maybe it's because I've been spending a fair amount of time in boats lately. Or maybe it's because I've been working hard to bring some of the ecclesiological insights of the last year and a half to bear on the church I'm currently working in. Or maybe it's the Holy Spirit creating that sensitivity that only he can bring.

Whatever the reason, I was so struck by Oswald Chambers' reflections this morning on the story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water from Matthew's gospel. If you're a little rusty about the story (or maybe haven't ever paid attention to it) take a minute and read it from Matthew 14:22-33.

Please understand, a lot of my percolating on this story today has been wrapped around the metaphor that was so common in the early church, that a boat or a ship was so often used as a symbol of the church. Picking one thread out of a whole day's ruminations, let's play with that symbolism for a bit. There are a few provocative points if we grant the metaphor:

  1. Jesus is outside the boat precisely because he has been seeking God. 
  2. Jesus, coming from outside the boat through the storm, declares himself to be God -- that is the implication of his words, the same words from Exodus (in the Greek version of Exodus, anyway) that God speaks to name himself when talking to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus in effect says, "Take heart -- I am. Do not be afraid." Because that sounds awkward in English, most translations make it "It is I." That's linguistically okay, but we miss the Exodus associations. 
  3. Peter takes the initiative in what comes next. This is huge. Jesus honors Peter's initiative. This is also huge. 
  4. Peter's desire is to come to Jesus. To do so, he has to leave the boat. In Jewish understanding, large bodies of water represented chaos. Think of Jonah. So Peter is in effect saying (within our metaphor), "Lord, call me out of the safety of the church and into chaos so that I might come to you."
  5. Jesus, responding to Peter's request, tells Peter to come to him, outside the boat. 
  6. Peter, contrary to all common sense (this is where Chambers was so good today) steps out of the boat in radical obedience to Jesus. 
  7. Many people have made the point that it is when Peter's attention shifts from Jesus to the waves, but in fact the text says that Peter "saw the wind" (ESV) -- an interesting statement! Wind, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, is identical to the word "breath" or "spirit." Obviously the literal sense here is that Peter observed the storm -- but play with the metaphors. What might it mean, metaphorically, that Peter sees the Spirit at work outside the church? Is it possible that churches are sometimes a refuge from the chaos of the Spirit's activity, and we get afraid and huddle together someplace where we can protect ourselves from the storm? And jumping ahead a bit, notice that when they get back into the boat the wind (spirit?) stops. What's with that? Is there more being said here than just Jesus calming a physical storm?
  8. It is the risk of being overwhelmed by the storm -- the wind and the water -- that prompts Peter to call out, "Lord, save me!" Maybe there's something about Peter being at risk out in the chaotic storm that puts him right where Jesus wants him. 
  9. Jesus never criticizes Peter for getting out of the boat, for sinking, for crying out. Rather, Jesus seems to focus on the fact that Peter's focus shifted to the storm, and his trust faltered. The Greek word for faith has gotten watered down in English to mean something like "cognitive assent" -- in Greek it has a lot more oomph, and has a lot in common with our words "trust" and "loyalty." 
  10. It is the sign that happens outside the boat -- outside the church, in our metaphor -- that causes those inside the church to worship Jesus and proclaim his identity. 

The above thoughts are especially pertinent to me these days because I've taken a lot of flak over the years -- especially in the last couple years -- for decisions I've made that have put me decidedly out of the good graces of the church, at least in some circles. (I am currently deeply involved in a church that is both biblical and gracious, focused strongly on Jesus and welcoming to broken people. So I'm not outside The Church, just certain expressions of it.) Trouble is, all along the way I was seeking God passionately, yearning to be obedient to him. Not that I followed his guidance perfectly by any means, and not that I haven't made mistakes. Huge ones.

But I believe all along the way, I heard God's Spirit speaking. I still trust God for the promises he spoke to me in those days. And some of the directions I chose to go put me in tension with those who have positioned themselves as the guardians of public church structures, or public morality. It stirred me fiercely this morning to read Chambers:
Never begin to say — “Well, I wonder if He did speak?” Be reckless immediately, fling it all out on Him. You do not know when His voice will come, but whenever the realisation of God comes in the faintest way imaginable, recklessly abandon.
The church in its public expressions will rarely if ever be comfortable with those who are "reckless immediately" in response to the call of God. Those who recklessly abandon in response to God's call make those who oversee pension plans and committee structures uncomfortable.

I believe with all my heart that God is astir in the world, that he is up to great things all around. When church structures become the "old wineskins" Jesus talked about that cannot hold the new wine he brings, he will find other ways to get his people to jump out in obedience -- even if it means (as it so often does) jumping out of the boat into a storm. Jesus is there already, and he is faithful to take your hand in the chaos. I've experienced that, too.

Post-event hangover

Yesterday was the "Share the Dream" event here at Decision Hills. It was a phenomenal day, and so much fun to put together, to see the beach crowded and scads of people getting tours of this beautiful land and to do exactly that -- share the dream of what God might be up to in this place. Today I am dealing with the aftermath -- dumpsters and leftovers and a house that hasn't been cleaned in two weeks or more and the pervasive wet-noodle exhaustion of a long day well done, now that it is indeed done.

And I am reflecting on Fathers Day, and treasuring the communications from those I love about that day, and rereading cards old and current, and being quietly grateful for my own father, thinking about how he would have experienced the tumult and delight of yesterday. I think he'd have enjoyed it -- the hayrides and the boat rides and the pulled pork sandwiches and conversations in the massive party tents and walking down into the forested RV sites at the south end of the property.

At the same time Oswald Chambers this morning was just stunning, and has me thinking at length about Peter getting out of the boat and what exactly that means, and God has been speaking some very encouraging words throughout about how he engineers our circumstances (one of my favorite phrases of Chambers) and what it has meant in different situations for me to be obedient with reckless abandon, and how he loves my obedience in those things, and how he is not focused on my failures but rather enjoys my eagerness to take on a challenge, to jump into something new. I'm hoping to take time later today to write another reflection about that, so keep your eyes open.

At the moment, however, I have to go check on a few things, run a few errands, and -- please, God -- clean up this pigsty. It's a good morning.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Psalm 67

Processing this morning after reading Psalm 67:

A few short months ago, I was ready to write off the world, to hole up in one small corner of it and build a shrine to happiness. I had overextended myself, gotten chewed up in fights spiritual, domestic, and vocational, and I was thoroughly bruised, thoroughly wounded, thoroughly disillusioned. All I wanted was a small corner of the world where I could heal up and build a life around love instead of around conflict.

Even in the middle of that retreat, however, there were voices that came like a bracing shot of reality to the face. One recurring story reminded me that I was called to the service of my King, that I had a responsibility to build for his sake, for his kingdom. I told myself that just maybe, building a tiny corner out of the way of the larger battles was better. Maybe the wars would pass me by.

It was the voice of my bruises, my fear, speaking. It was true that I needed healing, and God graciously provided it, and continues to lead me down those restorative pathways. I am coming to see that my corner of the world doesn’t belong to me, but it is a crossroads in the grander struggle. Reading Psalm 67 this morning was a sharp reminder that when God blesses us, it is not for our own sake, our own indulgence, though Israel made that mistake and the church through the ages has done so as well. God blesses us for the sake of “all the nations,” as he told Abraham and repeats throughout the scriptures. Looking at the original languages, that phrase -- “all the nations” -- is not about political borders but about groups of people, tribes and ethnicities -- so that all people may know the Lord. The trials leading up to the Exodus were as much for the Egyptians to know the Lord as they were for the Israelites to be set free. So my smaller struggles are not just for the sake of my own freedom or happiness, but they are part of the larger war God is waging against ignorance about his character and unbelief about his love.

One particular theme kept recurring in those days, in the days when I was realizing my shrine to happiness was not going to be built, at least in that moment or in the way I had envisioned. That conversation urged me to go find my voice, to take up the mantle of building things for my King. It wrenched me away from the desires of my heart and sent me into what was probably a necessary, excruciating exile, an imprisonment in a hospital room where I could begin to recuperate. Even in the middle of whisking me away to the forested hills where I live now, it’s clear God was also drawing me into a new stage, a new place where being blessed myself is for the sake of what he is up to, not just for the sake of my own healing. He is at work in a multiplicity of ways. Always.

The wisdom of God is in this, because as much as I thought I wanted to retreat from life’s battles, I’m not done yet, not done with the struggles, not done speaking, not done building. There are words to be spoken and kingdom work to be done, even while the bruising fades and healing continues. I’m not yet good at turning away from the needful battles. I’m not good at keeping silent. The words Tennyson puts in the mouth of Ulysses ring true also for me: “How dull it is to stop, make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use. As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life were all too little.” It is, I imagine, a sign of progress, of healing, to be hungry for battles and building once more, even though I still weary easily and most evenings find me staring out at the sunset on the lake dreaming of that little out of the way life built around love. These days I imagine if it ever comes it will be as part of a kingdom-building community, as an outpost of the love of God set amid the great struggle to speak a word of truth into a falsifying world, to live the delight of the love of Jesus as he lived it, amid the great currents and migrations and within all the contests of the powers vying for supremacy.

And yet I don’t think it’s wrong to long for an island of peace. Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived in Bethany, in close orbit around the hairball that was Jerusalem in those days, and their home became a sanctuary for Jesus, a place of refuge and retreat, and even in some ways a base of operations for his movement. Peace and love and joy are all marks of the authentic presence of God’s Spirit, after all, and it seems reasonable to long for those qualities to be the warp and woof of a life that is lived in obedience to his calling, as much as the more public face of such a life is still lived in the presence of the powers, in the context of grander conflict.

Life is not a fairy tale. But if you read the book, even Westley and Buttercup got to settle down and build a home and raise their daughter, though that came with its own struggles. A life built around love is still something to hope for.

Meanwhile, I need to get to work. Sunday is our big “Share the Dream” event here at Decision Hills, and while I’ve delegated as much as I can, I have plenty to do and fewer and fewer hours to do it. Watching the weather forecast, getting the repaired dock put in the lake, mowing trails and repairing concrete foundations and coordinating first aid stations. There’s a joy in the work, a joy in creating an event that will hopefully speak a strong word to the local community and beyond about what God is doing in this place.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Under construction

These days is tempting to build a house in the land of my failure. In that landscape every bird, every breeze is a reminder of how I have fallen, how broken I am, how every action of every moment is tainted with the righteous indignation of those who know my sin and my weakness. No one else is building me this house, but I carry a weight that encumbers every moment. Like Bunyan's "Pilgrim" I bear a heavy burden on my back that needs to drop from my shoulders.

This morning as the sun cleared the trees beyond my meadow, a doe came grazing up through the early morning light. She shook herself in my front yard and the droplets of water flew from her like a misty cloud. I could see her chin whiskers highlighted in the crisp sunlight as she, head-down, examined a woodchuck that scampered out of the way of her curiosity. The sleek reddish-brown of her coat stood out so I could see every hair. Beyond her, the swamp grasses stand, seeded heads waving, growing inches each day, reaching for the light. Psalm 65 continues to ring in my eyes from my morning recliner:

"You visit the earth and water it; you greatly enrich it. The river of God is full of water; you provide their grain, for so you have prepared it ... the pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy."

Like dusty spiderwebs in the corners of my consciousness, I live with my frailty. Savoring the memory of quiet exploration, of shared reflection on the word God is speaking into this day, I long for free conversations that will reinforce to me the righteousness, the benevolence, the compassion of God. Instead I turn and turn and turn on the racetrack of my own isolate thoughts. The superabundance that is so evident in all my context goes unnoticed, and I carry an anvil in my heart.

Last night we had a work crew here at Decision Hills, something I had initiated and organized. People showed up eager to sweat, to trim back the brush at our north entrance and to clear the patch of thistles where our repaired dock will go in the water this week, to give themselves with joy to the needful tasks of stewardship. We trimmed buckthorn and blew piles of last winter's moulded leaves and repaired leaky roofs. Our work was lightened and deepened by joyful acknowledgement of God's gracious goodness in this place, by beauty set in a gorgeous landscape, by loons calling from lake to lake around us, by the anticipation of God's goodness.

Since Seattle, I am fighting a cold and the weight in my lungs, the scratch in my throat, the drip in my sinuses feels deserved, like I have earned this discomfort, like why should I complain? It's karma, it's reaping what I have sowed. The virus twists me, turns me in on myself, makes it hard to get outside my own head, hard to get beyond my own infected consciousness, hard to lose myself.

In my morning reading, Oswald Chambers bears witness to the goodness of God and speaks incisively into my circumstances: "If you will give God your right to yourself, he will make a holy experiment out of you. God's experiments always succeed. The one mark of a saint is the moral originality which springs from abandonment to Jesus Christ. In the life of a saint there is this amazing wellspring of original life all the time; the Spirit of God is a well of water, springing up perennially fresh. The saint realizes that it is God Who engineers circumstances, consequently there is no whine, but a reckless abandon to Jesus. Never make a principle out of your experience."

God's experiments always succeed. We wonder why God doesn't send burning bushes anymore, but perhaps our ears have grown dull and our eyes clouded. Maybe the glory of God is abundantly burning all around us, and it is our filters -- my filters, my whine -- that keep us inebriated on the toxicity of our own perspective. Maybe the majesty of God is all around, waiting to be absorbed, experienced, enjoyed, worshiped.

There's a good chance that if I can't find joy in days like these, I would be dissatisfied if all my longings bore fruit exactly as I wish. Joy is here to be seized, to be grasped. to be danced and delighted. The question on a gorgeous June morning is whether I can abandon myself to Jesus and let him engineer my circumstances, let him be the wellspring, be the Opener of my eyes and ears.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How do you sum up faithfulness?

One of my favorite lines from "The Princess Bride" is when Westley's been mostly dead and is resuscitated by Miracle Max's magic pill, and Inigo is trying to bring him up to speed, Inigo says, "Let me explain ... No, there is too much. Let me sum up." That's a little bit what this Monday morning feels like. Yet throughout, there's a thread connecting so much of the last several days, and it all has to do with God's faithfulness and his eagerness to speak, to guide, to live in intimate, loving relationship with us, to provide guidance in our choices and to share delight in the intricate details. So let me sum up.

  • Last Wednesday I drove to the Cities and had lunch with my daughter Erica, a last minute stop at a delectable Mexican restaurant across the street from her work that could easily become the standard place where we meet. It's so good. We shared great conversation and the joy of being able to spontaneously connect in a loving way, with what Wendell Berry called (paraphrasing here, as my copy of "Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer" is, sadly, out of reach for the moment) the conversation of friends, lightened and cleared by all that can be assumed. What fun to share such conversations with one's children! And this was a huge theme of the last several days with both my daughters.
  • Thence to the airport, flying out to spend time in Seattle for the grand excuse of my daughter Mathea's master's degree graduation, though she launches immediately back into two more years of school to get her Ph.D. I have deep roots in the Seattle area, and I was able to schedule in a few key conversations with friends from back in the day. These are the hard conversations, since so much in my life has changed in the last couple years and each reconnection requires extensive redefinition, and no matter how well they go these conversations always take deep courage and significant mental and emotional preparation. I have things to apologize for, and I am also learning to be honest in new ways about the past, about my relationships, and about myself at new levels. The gift in all this was that in every case, these reconnections were deeply joyful, healthy conversations. Challenging at times but always loving. That is such a gift. 
  • Time with Mathea was priceless. I got to see the life she has built during grad school, including school and home and roommates and friends and favorite hangouts and so much more. Favorites include 
    • King's Hardware, a bar/restaurant in Ballard that, countercultural for Seattle, has mounted deer heads and coyote pelts on the walls and feels more like someplace you might find in northern Minnesota;
    • the opportunity to sample beet-and-goat-cheese ice cream, which is not as horrible as one might think, though I don't think it will ever replace butter pecan in my affections;
    • learning the near-vertical tangle of streets in Queen Anne that Mathea navigates like a boss; 
    • a plethora of bookstores and coffee shops and breakfast places that a bit urban for my tastes but fit her like a glove;
    • so much more. There is too much.
  • We went to see Lord Huron in concert at the Moore Theater, and I'm still processing the experience. I've been listening to them quite a lot the last few months. I have so many questions about this experience. Why is my daughter's demographic so overrepresented in the crowd at this concert? What is it about this band, their narrative lyrics, their fascination with death and relationships and dabbling in, but not really getting mesmerized by, the paranormal, their intense rock-n-roll presentation that makes it hard to understand anything if you don't already know the lyrics, their complete sensory overload of sound and lights and projection and all the technical excellence you could ever ask for, that draws young adult women and the boyfriends who were so obviously most of the males in the crowd, in tow behind the women who really wanted to see this band? That gender imbalance in the crowd -- not just numbers, but also in what I can only call the power imbalance in the crowd -- is one of the pieces of that experience I am still pondering. The concert was incredible, excellent, technically flawless. And I recognize that in some ways I am on the outside of the whole experience. And how does this obviously spiritual-but-not-religious experience connect to that kind of shift in our wider culture?
  • One of the most obvious examples of God speaking -- what you might call a burning bush moment -- was the Über ride to the concert. Turned out our driver, a great conversationalist who was deeply curious about the people he was transporting, was a burned out pastor who had made some significant mistakes in his career and was now driving and rebuilding his life, regaining a sense of himself and his call to ministry through this radically altered life. We had a great eight minute conversation and when we got out of the car, Mathea said, "Well THAT wasn't relevant at all." 
  • Our conversations over the four days I was there included a lot about the research Mathea is working on, the NT Wright book I'm currently reading (his recent biography of Paul, which is excellent), her interactions with each of the different faculty leading her organizational psych program, and the personal struggles, failures and victories each of us is experiencing these days. It was fabulous conversation, and as I told her Saturday, I long for three weeks of time to dig deep into each of those things. 
  • I've never been a big fan of commencement exercises, but it was a joy to see a little knot of us gathered together to celebrate and encourage and revel in this high water mark along the way. Sometimes public celebrations are a good thing. 
  • All through my time there, in Wright's book and in scripture (the psalms still, the late 50's and early 60's these last few days), in conversations planned and random, in quiet solitary moments and in large public gatherings, there has been, as I said, a thread of God subtly speaking his love and wisdom, cautions and encouragements. Out of that, a word that has kept recurring is "trust." Corollary to that is the theme of God's faithfulness, his relational, loving steadfastness. 
  • I got back to Minnesota late on Saturday, and arrived back at my cabin (had Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home" running through my head as I drove in) and saw a doe bedded down in my front yard as though she was keeping an eye on the place in my absence. A few hours' sleep and I was immediately back into the very good grind of things here at Decision Hills. 
  • Last night I got to meet with my Life Group leaders, a group of excellent people in training to implement a model of home-based communities here. It's exciting stuff, and we spent time last night in Mark 4 where Jesus stills the storm and his disciples go from being afraid of the storm to being afraid of Jesus. The whole evening was like a perfect capstone to the entire trip, a neat chance to tie up the days of hearing God deal with my storms and refocus my attention on him. It's one of my favorite stories, and it was a joy to delve with these great leaders into the questions of how God shows up in the storms, how he speaks "Peace, be still" and what that might look like ... 
It probably doesn't come through as I describe the experiences as strongly as it was in my moment-by-moment living it, but there's such a strong sense for me over the last several days of being deeply connected to people and places, of deep, life-giving relationships, of webs of love that hold us and keep us, of God's faithfulness flowing through the invisible connections that carry us through the days. It's so good, even in the middle of the storms. 

And I will admit that I'm chuckling a bit about writing that last line as a massive thunderstorm is pummeling everything in sight. God has a sense of humor. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

God has a bottle

I've been working my way through the Psalms for a couple months now. This morning I am reading and pondering Psalm 56. David wrote this one when he was in difficult circumstances, when his enemies had taken him captive and were debating how best to do away with him.

The psalm is full of David's confidence in God's love and power. It's good stuff to read. But I'm taken this morning by a line near the end of the psalm:

"You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?"

I have to admit, the past year and a half, my life has included plenty of "tossings." Restless nights staring at the ceiling, fears of the past and the future, tears of shame and repentance and regret, longing for loved ones who are beyond reach ... tossings. Without exception, every day in all that time I've been in conversation with God, asking him to reveal himself, asking for guidance. Some days he has revealed himself in some significant way. Other days the heavens seem to be plastered over, closed off, locked up. More than anything else, he has found many ways to tell me he has not abandoned me. He's good like that.

Make no mistake, the evidence of his love and care, when I look around, is overwhelming. There is so much good in my life, and I give God full credit for every bit of it. He has been so faithful, so loving, so generous. Yet my days and nights are still, so often, full of tossings.

That's why it's comforting to me that God has a bottle. (Okay, I got into a long conversation yesterday about interpreting the book of Revelation, and the person I was talking with was quite concerned with what could be taken literally and what was symbolic. So let me say, I don't think it's helpful to get hung up on the literal nature of this bottle and how God fastens the lid / cork / cap / stopper on it, and where he keeps it ... does this mean God has shelves and pockets? Let's not go there. The bottle can be symbolic for the moment. But given our nature as incarnated beings, we need physical reality and it might be helpful just to imagine God having a real, physical bottle right now for the sake of argument without getting caught up in the metaphysics of whether it's an old mason jar or a beautiful alabaster flask.) And that bottle, according to David, is where God saves your tears. They don't fall without him paying attention. They don't drop from the curve of your cheek to the dust without God's knowledge, without his intimate attention. They don't just soak into your shirt-sleeve and evaporate, leaving a tiny trace of salt in the fabric. God tenderly holds your tears.

In my symbolic / literal mind, this means that all your angst, all your frustration, all your grief, all your longing, is tended and stewarded by God. This is a deep facet of his love for you. Like an attentive lover, God is paying attention, caring for your heart, caring for your mindset and your frustration and your hopes. He holds every twist of your tossings, every track of your tears.

And he does not squander them. It's not that God is just aware in some kind of banal benevolence. He is actively working out the details of your life -- engineering them, to borrow Oswald Chambers' phrase -- including all these uncomfortable bits, for the sake of a greater good that will bless you and bless the world through you. That's what God does. While we like to read the Bible for the sake of all the good parts, by which we mean the parts that tell us what we want to hear, the evidence in scripture is overwhelming that God is in the business of taking your sufferings and making something good out of them. In fact, that might be one reason he allows them in the first place. God could have prevented David from falling into the hands of the Philistines, but he allowed it -- and then he delivered David, proving his own goodness and increasing David's trust in him and strengthening David's capability to serve as an excellent king for his people.

God is doing things in your life. Part of what he is doing is that he's saving up your current frustration, your current fear, to build greater things in your and in the world. Because that's what his love does.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Today's Playlist

Because I am certain EVERYONE wants to know this information, here's the playlist I've been listening to driving around from meeting to errand and back again on this gorgeous day:

1. New Constellation - Toad the Wet Sprocket
2. Summer in the City - Lovin' Spoonful
3. Stay with You - Goo Goo Dolls
4. In Other Words - Nat King Cole
5. Learning to Fly - Pink Floyd
6. Kashmir - Led Zeppelin
7. Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone - James Taylor
8. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
9. Rabbit Heart - Florence & The Machine
10. Graceland - Paul Simon

That is all. Thank you.