Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A worthwhile read

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

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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Luke 13:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Luke 12:35-59

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Luke 12:13-34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 14, 2018

Luke 12:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

So don't be afraid.

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

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

Lots to ponder.

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

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Decisions, decisions

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

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

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

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

Luke 11:27-54

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Luke 11:14-26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 10, 2018

Luke 10:38-11:13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Badlands meandering

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 10:25-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 2, 2018


Powerful words this morning from Oswald Chambers:

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