Friday, August 17, 2018

Luke 9:1-17

Luke 9 is a watershed chapter. We'll see in the next verses the climax of Jesus' ministry followed by a decisive turn toward the cross. It's important to realize that like a good play, the action here is rising and the conflict (which has been present all along) is intensifying.

Jesus sends the twelve out to do what he himself has been doing. This is classic discipleship -- you watch me do it, then you do it with me, then I send you out on your own to do it. By the way, churches could learn a lot from this simple model about equipping leaders for ministry.

I want to riff for a moment on one way the evangelical movement of Christianity has abused language to its detriment. Notice that Jesus sends the twelve out specifically to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (verse 2). That content is very specific. And in verse 6, Luke says that they went out "preaching the gospel" and healing. It is not a stretch to say that Luke equates "the gospel" with "the kingdom of God." Study this throughout the gospels and you will find the same equivalence. But evangelical Christianity has a different definition for "the gospel." We make the gospel = turn your heart over to Jesus so he can forgive your sins so you will go to heaven when you die. I am convinced that much of the weakness and malaise of today's church, especially in the United States and other consumeristic western democracies, is due to this misunderstanding of the gospel. What Jesus proclaimed about the authority and kingship of God -- and his own authority and kingship as God's chosen agent, the "Son of Man" -- and the dynamics of the kingdom he came to inaugurate, including healing for the lepers, recovery of sight for the blind, release for the prisoners, hope for the despairing, life for the dead, has been reduced down to "say a prayer so you don't spend eternity in hell." Instead of being a God-centered kingdom, we've made a self-centered insurance policy. Instead of being a set of values and lifestyles that turns this world upside down (see Acts 17) we have made it about us being eternally safe.

Thus endeth the riff. If you want to dig further into this topic, I strongly recommend N.T. Wright's excellent book, Simply Good News.

Notice the first ripple that happens because of the mission of the twelve: Herod is rocked by the impact of their message. Herod, the king. Herod, who has made his bed with the Romans and has a stranglehold on the Jews and their nation. The kingdom of God shakes the rulers of this world and all their power. It turns their systems and values on their heads.

The next section -- the feeding of the five thousand -- echoes two major themes that would have been obvious to Jesus' original audience. First, it is a major reprise of the Exodus story and the manna God provided the Israelites in the wilderness. In that "desolate place" (verse 12) Jesus provides bread for everyone to eat, and there is more than enough. As God set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt, Jesus' movement leads people not to freedom from physical hunger (though that is one element of it) but spiritual hunger and thirst. These themes come back again and again in the gospels. This echo of the Exodus story rings throughout this chapter and will find its climax in the Transfiguration later in the chapter.

The second theme that would have been so obvious to anyone in Jesus' original audience is that of Caesar's claim to godlike kingship. The Caesars won the people of Rome (and the empire) by providing "bread and circuses," though that is a later term. Still, Caesar's claim to be the provider of stability, including trustworthy food supplies (largely due to Rome's domination of the Nile delta and its rich, dependable grain producing fields, along with dependable networks of transportation to get food to various parts of the empire), won the support of famine-fearing people. Jesus' kingship flies in the face of Caesar's claims.

We tend to be amazed by the actual demonstration of divine power in multiplying food, and this story becomes a punch line at church suppers when attendance is greater than expected. But there is so much more going on in this narrative -- Jesus is proclaiming himself the Messiah, the representative of the God of the Exodus, as well as the rightful king in the face of both Herod and Caesar.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Luke 8:40-56

These two stories -- Jesus raising Jairus' daughter and the healing of the woman who seeks to touch Jesus in the crowd -- are woven together in a single unit, in Matthew 9 and Mark 5 and here. They seem like odd stories to weave together, and there may be several reasons for the juxtaposition.

First, both stories confront things that are just beyond human ability to change. The woman has experienced a flow of blood for twelve years and Luke (the physician) makes clear that no human doctor was able to heal her, though she had exhausted all her resources on physicians, no one could help her. Her condition apparently caused her some distress physically, as she could tell immediately that she was healed. What's more, such a flow of blood would have made her perpetually ritually unclean according to the Jewish laws, so this is not only a medical but also a religious / spiritual / social problem for her.

The twelve year old girl's problem is more straightforward: she is dying. Her father, a man of standing among his neighbors, a leader within the Jewish faith, humbles himself because he has no power over his daughter's sickness. He is hopeless without Jesus. Anyone with any sense of empathy can imagine Jairus' impatience as Jesus pauses to deal with this woman whose condition is sad, tragic, but not immediately life-threatening. Then the dreaded messengers come: "Do not trouble the teacher any more." His daughter is dead. Hope is gone. There is no way back to joy.

Second, this entire narrative points to the authority of Jesus over situations that are beyond human control. Merely touching the fringe on Jesus' garment, even without his intention, brings healing to the woman. And death itself is redefined in his presence. (I love the certainty of the mourners -- probably a mixture of extended family and professionals hired for the purpose, all more than familiar with death -- in verse 53: "they laughed at [Jesus], knowing that she was dead.") Under Jesus' authority, death itself is redefined as a temporary thing. Jesus stands over even the most ironclad of institutions, things that we cannot imagine being altered or changed, and he does it not by supreme effort but simply by his presence.

This is why it is so critically important for Jesus' followers -- in that day and in this -- to remain close to him. Where our human understanding runs down to despair, Jesus brings life and hope. Where we are imprisoned, whether by human institutions or physical constraints or death itself, in the presence of Jesus there is freedom.

Joy is not an illusion. Jairus must have thought that all the brightness had just gone out of his world. One can imagine all the "if-only's" running through his mind: If only I had gone to Jesus earlier. If only I had carried my daughter with me so he could have touched her. If only she hadn't gotten sick. If only. But Jesus says, "Do not fear; only believe." Can we trust in the face of our own hopelessness? Jesus leads Jairus and his wife past the mourners, past the mockers, past those living in their certainty about the permanence of death, and into the house where this girl has woken up each day for twelve years. Jesus takes her lifeless hand, as one can imagine Jairus doing each morning. Jesus speaks the words Jairus has probably spoken each day to wake her up to new life and possibility: "Child, arise." In Jesus' presence, death itself has no sway, no permanence. She opens her eyes and gets out of bed. She is free from her deadly bondage to death, restored to life and relationship and joy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

In the Moments

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 8:22-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

Luke 8:1-21

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Luke 7:36-50

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 10, 2018

Luke 7:24-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Luke 7:18-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 6, 2018

God's generosity, continued:

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

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

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

Luke 7:1-17

Remember that Jesus is living out the new wine in new wineskins throughout these chapters. His kingdom and his way and his kingship stands in stark contrast to the ironclad rules of human existence as they have been known in the past.

There are a couple absolutes of this world that Jesus contradicts in these verses. The first rule is, "Our tribe above all others." The second is, "Death has the final say."

The Roman centurion is a perfect example of one who not only calls Jesus "Lord" (see the last verses of chapter 6) but also puts a life-changing trust in him. Through the rigid structures and requisite obedience of the Roman army, God has given himself a witness in this man's life. The centurion uses his military experience and authority to put himself under Jesus' authority, and it is a remarkable testimony both to Jesus and the Jews. Interestingly, the Jews surrounding Jesus make a claim that the centurion deserves Jesus' attention because of his good works, but the centurion himself makes no such claim. Instead he defers to Jesus' power and mercy, never trying to argue for his own way.

The dead man, of course, is beyond any appeal at all. Death is just the final, despairing end of all things. Except that Jesus turns even this (sorry, Ben Franklin) on its head. Instead of the hopelessness of a mother stumbling along in her son's funeral procession, Jesus creates wonder, awe, and new life.

Both of these incidents point to the supreme kingly authority of Jesus himself. These actions are parables-in-action. In the first, the hated outsider, the Roman oppressor, submits to God's grace. He is a representative of "all the nations" who will be blessed through Abraham's descendants (see Genesis 12). The raising of the widow's son at Nain (a minor village in southeastern Galilee, about five miles from Nazareth) flies in the face of the grief and hopelessness death always brings. The Old Testament is full of many statements about the finality of death, and there are just a few remarkable spots where it hints that there might be hope that God will someday defeat even death.

We often miss an element in this story -- the mother herself. Luke is careful to tell us that the man is the only son of his mother, and that she is a widow. Luke also says specifically that Jesus had compassion on her. It is hard for us to understand the economic terror that faced this woman. As a widow deprived of her only son, she now had no means of support, no rights, no status. She would be consigned to begging at best. When Jesus raises the young man, we are told Jesus gives him specifically to his mother. Jesus not only resuscitates the young man's dead body, but he gives the woman back her life as well. If we pay attention, Luke is very good at showing us how Jesus pays attention to women, treating them as fully human, bearers of the image of God, partners in his ministry and more. Again, it is difficult for us to envision how far outside the norms this was in Jesus' day and his culture. He stands as king in a kingdom that contradicts the ironclad rules of our existence.

The people of his own day had trouble understanding who Jesus was and what he had come to accomplish. That's what we'll see next time as even John the Baptist starts to question Jesus' work.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The gift of God's generosity

I had a chance the last couple days to make a quick run to the shack, one of my favorite places in the world. It's funny because to the untrained eye it's a miserable place -- it's an old hunting cabin from the 1950's, square in the middle of a few hundred square miles (literally) of tamarack bog. In the sandy fifteen mile drive from the pavement to the shack, you pass exactly three buildings -- one year round home and two hunting cabins. There are exactly three roads that turn off from the Lost River Road, none of which leads to civilization. There are a couple dozen 4-wheeler trails, You cross two rivers -- the Little Tamarack and the Lost River. Less than a mile beyond the shack, the Lost River Road dead ends. Here's a picture of the Little Tamarack looking south from the road:

Five miles farther east, you cross the Lost River, so named because for a few miles it disappears as a river and just seeps through the bog. Another half mile east you come to the shack:

I met my brother Les and his dog Jack (both in the picture) up there. Les had already mowed the lawn / driveway and cooled off by taking a dip in the river by the time I got there. We try to get there once in the summer for this kind of a trip, and this year we were able to coordinate with the peak of the berry crops. Blueberries, raspberries, and chokecherries were all at their height. Highbush cranberries are plentiful this year as well, though they're not nearly ripe yet. The bears had been in the blueberries a little bit (as in the picture below) but it's a good crop this year and we picked a lot:

I've never seen chokecherries like the crop this year. Every hundred yards or so along the road you'd see a cluster of the little trees, branches weighed down with fruit. I'm toying with another quick trip north just to pick them -- we were 3-4 days ahead of the peak, so most of the berries were deep red instead of the almost-black when they're fully ripe.

I didn't get any pictures but Les has gotten really good at identifying mushrooms, and we had a picnic table scattered with different species he brought back. A few were questionable, but we had a few birch boletes to sauté and add to one of our meals. Delicious. Plus we found quite a bit of chaga and set the teapot to simmer for a few hours Thursday evening brewing that excellent tea:

Les had taken the propane stove home to clean some fittings and it wasn't ready to bring back, so all our cooking happened on this fire and this grate. It's a fun challenge to cook well over an open fire -- one not many people remember how to do these days. We ate well -- ribeye steaks, venison brats, bacon and eggs and biscuits, and of course the boletes and chaga. And as many berries as you could eat in good conscience.

We were not alone in the woods. There were bear droppings on the road right in front of the shack. A rare occurrence, we drove around a corner and spotted a young (probably two years old) timber wolf. He didn't seem disturbed to see us; he just sauntered off the road into the woods after sizing us up for a moment. We see their sign all the time but don't often see the wolves themselves. After sleeping in the shack overnight, I went for an early morning walk and found fresh moose tracks from the night before where the road crosses the Lost River. There was an impressive (though a few weeks old) set of wolf prints in the road as I walked west toward the river:

One of the gratifying developments is seeing the trees growing up around the shack. It used to sit deep in the dark timber, and it always felt ten degrees cooler inside the shack than out on the road because of the deep shade. Then about a decade ago the DNR logged the lot we lease (very upsetting) and for a few years it was Little House on the Prairie, baking in the open sun and exposed to the eyes of everyone who drove by -- granted, not a large number, but still. The poplars have grown up nicely, and now it's starting to have a little more shade again. What's more, the chokecherries, cranberries, and raspberries are thick in our front yard. I took a couple pictures from the roof of the shack to gauge how tall the trees have gotten, looking out toward the road and just to the right of that, toward our little firepit:

Friday morning after breakfast we picked berries and hunted chaga, both with some success. We talked about minor repair and maintenance projects we need to keep in mind, and equipment that we need to pick up to keep on hand at the shack (like maybe a backup propane stove). My job in the coming weeks is to find new leathers for our faithful old pump:

Then it was time to load up and go. I was struck throughout this trip by the prodigal nature of God -- the richness he gives, if we have eyes to see. In this bog that is considered throwaway land by most people, we found the richest abundance. It was a delightful 24 hours not just in berries and mushrooms but in experiences, in broad, deep conversations, in reconnecting to the past and dreaming of the future. I spent a good part of the drive back pondering what love looks like. Without a doubt, I love this place, and I've at times had to defend that love to others who don't see the value in an old shack in the middle of a bog. It has been a rare pleasure in my life to bring people to the shack who get it -- who see the value in it and come to delight in it as I do. In this world of disinfectant hand sanitizers and cloud-based computing, it can be hard to see the value in crouching closer to the earth, stooping to blow on the embers to reawaken a fire, wading through the brush in search of mushrooms, wearying the muscles in your back to harvest the overwhelming abundance of low-growing blueberries, or stooping to ponder the puzzle of the interaction where a wolf paused on encountering a deer's track, then turned to follow it. There's a richness in going away to a place where the nearest yard light is fifteen miles away, and when you step outside at 3 am Cygnus soars overhead as the Milky Way stretches broad and bright across the sky and Draco writhes between the Dippers. It's worth fighting the deer flies and mosquitos for such an experience. In the bog there is a deep, compelling sense of interconnectedness. I am a part of the bog, and the berries, and the wolf, and that stand of hardwoods on the north side of the pond off the Buck Island Trail. In that desolate place if we have eyes to see, we receive the generosity of God.

Luke 6:43-49

Here Jesus makes explicit the new wine and the new wineskin of his kingdom: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" This kingdom revolves around its king and his loving rule. The power of this kingdom lies not in a set of principles but in a relationship with the king, Jesus, and through him with the Father, the God he reveals to us. This is the heart of Christianity; this is the heart of the abundant life Jesus comes to give.

This is the key to Jesus' word that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." He wants to be the treasure at the heart of our lives, and we will never experience the abundance of life unless he rules supreme, valued above all else. We may love to quote the psalm about God giving us the desires of our hearts, but we need to remember the previous line -- "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desire of your heart."

We have other treasures, of course -- activities, possessions, relationships that are tremendously valuable to us. But these treasures must be subordinate in our affections. Jesus demands the freedom to marshal and order these other treasures, bringing them to the fore and driving them out of the limelight in his own timing. In his wisdom, there are seasons for these other treasures. Both our debilitating anxieties and our driving to grasp for control reveal that we don't trust Jesus fully with the ordering of our treasures.

Part of learning kingdom wisdom is learning that timing is critical for these other treasures to be life-giving rather than life-taking. This is one dimension of Jesus' words about fig trees and thornbushes. A good gift grasped in the wrong timing can become a curse. Left in the hands of Jesus, it becomes a blessing. In the moment when he directs, when he opens doors and gives gracious freedom, we take hold with humility, trust, and thanksgiving, and then this powerful gift serves the abundance for which Jesus created it. Timing is important, and only by keeping our gaze fixed on Jesus, by keeping him our supreme treasure, can we receive all things else for our good.

This is a hard discipline to learn. The New Testament is full of this kind of hard wisdom -- from Paul's words in Romans 5 about suffering producing endurance producing character producing hope, to the hard words in Hebrews 12 about enduring discipline as beloved children, though it doesn't seem pleasant at the time. We may well pine for a longed-for gift -- a career opening, a healing, a relationship, an experience -- and the desire may drive us a long way down the road toward despair. It is in this painful longing that Jesus does much of his best work to shape and form us. The waiting tempers us, preparing a strong foundation of faith for the day when the floods come.

Along the way, there will be smaller tempests. We will experience tremendous trials and it will feel like the foundations of our lives are crumbling. Jesus is using these trials. He is preparing us, not punishing us. He uses them at times to drive us to our knees so that we come to a place of trusting him at a deeper level. Other times he is pointing out elements of our lives that need to be cut off, given up, rejected because they have become deadly. There is a time to endure, and a time to set a firm boundary and say "Enough!" Discerning the difference is only possible if Jesus is our ultimate treasure, the one we not only call "Lord" but also obey.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Luke 6:37-42

In no way are we more mistaken about God than in our attitudes toward sin. We assume that God shares our concerns about perfectionism and moral rectitude. In our pride we think that our ethical standards, whether we apply them mercilessly to ourselves or to others, reflect God's own heart. In nothing are we farther from the example of Jesus.

I had a conversation a few months ago with a man who told me that Jesus' words about the log in your own eye and the speck in your brother's eye meant that first, yes, we should deal with our own sin -- but then we are expected, even commanded, to judge our brother and point out his sin. I was flabbergasted. How could a reasonable person read these verses and come to the conclusion that we are commanded to judge others? The answer, of course, is that we are not -- none of us -- reasonable people. We come with our own preconceptions and assumptions shaping our reading of the text. How can we get through all that to hear Jesus for what he is really saying? This requires the careful work of God's Spirit over time, to expose and strip away the colored glasses that so tint our perceptions. Our bedrock assumptions are hardest of all to see, and so often our bedrock assumption is that we do bad things and that God is angry because we do bad things. This childish understanding of morality has never been exposed to the light, and so we never come to realize the good news of Jesus. The good news is that we have been completely mistaken about God's attitude toward us. Jesus repeatedly speaks and models that God is mercy and kindness and love. The people whose sin Jesus railed against -- and he did -- were those who a) claimed to speak for God, and b) ruthlessly condemned those who did not meet their standard of moral behavior.

The problem with sinful behavior is that it puts up a barrier to a loving relationship with God. The problem with an ungodly focus on sin is that it puts up a barrier to a loving relationship with God.

I'm always amazed when Christians read texts like this what we hear Jesus saying. When Jesus says, "A disciple is not above his teacher but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher," what picture comes to your mind? More often than not we will immediately focus on Jesus' moral perfection, on his sinlessness, on his absolutely seamless relationship with his Father, etc. But if God has given you the gift of brokenness, it is possible to hear these words in a completely different way, here and throughout the gospels. In the margin of my Bible next to this verse is a note I wrote in one of the lowest periods of my life: "4/3/17 -- despised, rejected, acquainted w/ grief, one from whom men hide their faces, numbered with sinners, friend of tax collectors and prostitutes." This was Jesus' earthly reputation. What does it mean to be fully trained to be like this teacher?

Perhaps Jesus' words about the log and the speck are designed to teach us humility. Instead of striving for sinlessness in terms of ethical perfection, perhaps we need to learn to come to God fully aware of our own wretchedness but also fully aware of his open-armed love and mercy. Maybe we need to learn to extend that same open-armed love and mercy to those around us without first speaking condemnation over their sin. That's the way Jesus modeled the character of God. That's the measure (v. 38) he calls us to use.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Luke 6:20-36

Luke tells a slightly different story of the Sermon on the Mount than Matthew's better-known version. This should not surprise or disturb us. Christians and skeptics are sometimes put off balance by discrepancies between the different gospel accounts. An Enlightenment based standard of exactitude combined with a defensiveness or skepticism that is constantly on the lookout for reasons not to believe creates this kind of problem for us.

In reality, there are good reasons why these accounts might differ. For one, Luke tells us that he used other source material, and he was no doubt familiar with Matthew's construction of the "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7). But Matthew was writing for a largely Jewish audience, and Luke is writing as a Gentile for a Gentile audience, specifically a Roman official. That will shape the narrative. Another factor that is usually overlooked is that Jesus would likely have told the same stories and preached the same messages over and over again -- and it's entirely possible that Matthew's narrative reflects one of these occasions when Jesus was preaching on a hillside, and Luke has interviewed other sources who remember a time when Jesus preached a very similar message but on a "level place" (Luke 6:17). There is no necessary discrepancy. A third factor, of course, has to do with the nature of human memory and how different people experiencing a momentous event (a car accident, for example) will vary significantly in their recounting of the details, even though the main facts are the same. (This is why the varying accounts of the resurrection in the four gospels, for example, reinforce rather than contradict one another.) In short, we should not be disturbed by the variance between Matthew's and Luke's accounts of Jesus' teaching.

It is the content of the teaching that is truly remarkable. Here again, we see Jesus providing new wine that must be packaged in new wineskins. Jesus takes our preconceived notions of God and turns them on their heads. Where we imagine God as a righteous, perhaps vindictive, judge, Jesus says his Father is in fact merciful, pouring out blessing on the ungrateful and the evil. (BTW this is the same message, by implication, that alienated his townsfolk in Nazareth in Luke 4.)

Jesus lifts up -- declares "blessed" -- those the world is ready to discard, and castigates those the world envies. He expands the target of love immeasurably, insisting that love should include enemies, those who curse and abuse us. Reflect the nature of God, Jesus says, and stop creating God in your own image.

How are we to know such a God? How can we have an accurate picture of who this enemy-loving God is? This points us to the greatest mistake that is made with Jesus' teaching. You can't have Jesus' teaching without him being at the center of it. Jesus is the king of the kingdom he is proclaiming, and you can't have just comforting platitudes based on Jesus' message. Instead, this is a radical recasting of human existence under the uncompromising lordship of Jesus himself. In essence, Jesus says: I am coming as king. Here is what my kingdom is like.

At that point, as C.S. Lewis and others have pointed out, it is not workable to say Jesus is simply a great teacher. He is Lord, and these are the principles by which one lives in his kingdom -- or he is a self-absorbed lunatic who was rightly killed as a public menace. If he is a great teacher, the heart of his teaching is his own identity.

Christians have struggled mightily with these teachings over the centuries. Some have said this is an idealized system that is not attainable by human effort. Others have said that only a few elite Christians -- martyrs, or monks, or saints -- will be able to reach these lofty goals. Perhaps the reason these statements -- "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" -- seem so far beyond us is because they reflect the values of God himself. The best explication of these teachings that I know is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's careful analysis in The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer lays out how these kingdom principles are serious guidelines that set a standard not only for the individual believer, but also for the Jesus-focused community. They are kingdom principles, and our churches will reflect them to the extent that we are kingdom communities.