Saturday, December 29, 2018

On the fifth day of Christmas ...

Merry Christmas! Hope you are still enjoying the season and letting the joy and peace of it linger in your life a bit these days. I've been occupied with a few other things and abysmal about writing regular posts these days, but I've been listening to a delightful mix of Christmas tunes including the one referenced in this post from 2012. Thought I'd repost it here for your fifth-day-of-Christmas reading pleasure.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas Eve

I'm so often struck by the tension between the powers of this world and the way Jesus arrives. I was watching a movie the other night -- no, I won't recommend it -- that included a criminal who was studying economics reflecting that since retailers make about 50% of their profits in December, you'd think the government would institute another giving-based holiday around May or June. Christmas 2. Just for the profit. Incisive, and pushing the point that Jesus doesn't come to endorse the Way Things Are.

Each year I take a few minutes to appreciate a voice as unlikely as Jackson Browne's making exactly that point. Enjoy.

And Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A love-shaped life

I have written before in these pages about longing to have a life built around love. Scott Sauls does a powerful job of describing this life (what he calls here a "love-shaped life") and why it is so important for those who know Jesus. I'm intrigued by the distinction he makes between "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." This blog post is less about politics (though the title may make you think it is) and more about authentic discipleship. It's an excellent read.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Plenitude and pulchritude

Life has been full these last few days. My daughter from Seattle was here for a few days, and that time was delightfully packed with in-depth conversations, cutting and decorating a Christmas tree (she convinced me to actually have it inside the cabin this year, which turned out to be a good decision though I was dubious), and helping her get a resume and cover letter set up for a possible job ... then, wonderfully, having a positive response so that she actually had a phone interview while she was here, sitting up in my writing studio and jumping through hoops. It's such a joy to see the young woman she has become and watch her navigating her way in the world.

I also had my brother's dog here for a few days, and that was great fun as well. Callie is a laid back golden lab who loves to chase squirrels and has a lot of patience for being left at home for a few hours. (She's learned, even more than me, to value naps.) So having a dog becomes a good excuse for lots of long walks, for playing / wrestling on the carpet, for building fires and relaxing, for the delight of all these long trails through the snow. It's good.

Christmas activities abound around Decision Hills these days, of course. The children's Christmas program happened yesterday afternoon, so while the sun was setting I was out directing traffic and parking cars. Part of my not-so-secret delight in this event was sitting in the back of the packed sanctuary listening to some of the traditional carols and seeing children retelling the old, old story of Jesus' birth. Even as Herod, after the sack of Bethlehem and the slaughter of its infants, is in his spectacular death throes on the platform (something you rarely see in nativity stories these days, especially with the dramatic flair of this particular young Herod, while his gold-armored soldiers stood around looking helpless and he contorted and finally breathed his last on the steps of the platform) part of my mind was back at Faaberg in the days of my childhood, being a child and having this or that role in the Christmas program while proud parents in parkas looked on, while frost rimed the inside of the windows on especially cold years, while the Sunday School teachers stood in the back with an apple or a small bag of hard candy and caramel corn for each child after the program. Good memories, set to the strains of "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" on the playlist in my mind. I love the traditional carols and the simple retelling of the biblical stories. There is a delightful incarnate beauty and a deep sense of community in those events as well -- the good will of humanity expressed in a tangible hug or gift or card, gratitude for the privilege of sharing life and ministry with people who have become so immeasurably dear. Community, partnership in ministry, the shared sense of both the gravitas and the hilaritas of this Jesus-following life -- these all come to the surface during these dark days of December, the temporal "thin place" of the downhill slope of Advent. 

My brother and sister-in-law came last night to retrieve their dog. We chiseled holes in the ice and he fished for a bit, but we are convinced that unlike the sweeping V's of northbound geese that swept over our heads, the fish have all flown south for the winter. Or in the words of the old Ole and Sven joke, "There are no fish under the ice." I left for the Christmas program while they continued their vain piscine pursuit, and then we sat long into the dark, lit by the Christmas tree lights, curled up on our various pieces of furniture watching football, eating venison and pork and cheese and chocolate and talking about all kinds of great topics. What a gift. This morning we filled up on biscuits and duck eggs and walked the property, through the various buildings and up past the crosses, around the north end where my grapes grew this summer and down through the RV sites and back up to my cabin. It's a light, sunny morning full of the crispness of a mid-December day in Minnesota.

It's just funny, I guess, how roller-coastery my life gets sometimes. On the solid, good foundation of living where I live and an outstanding collection of people who love me so well, I am prone to the all-too-Scandinavian downsides of the December dark. But when I look back objectively at the last few weeks I have to shake my head in an amazed appreciation of all that is so good. It's a great reminder during the long evenings, something to ponder with joy while I walk out to listen to the ice groan and crack as it swells and shrinks in the cold. The night skies are brilliant in this darkest season of the year -- good reminder of the lovely points of burning starlight God has placed in my life, and how grateful I am for every bit of it.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Luke 19:28-48

What seems at first glance like three distinct episodes -- Jesus' triumphal entry, his weeping over Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the temple -- are in fact closely related and provide key insights into Jesus' identity and mission.

Palm Sunday sermons frequently point out the kingly symbolism in Jesus' triumphal entry, and rightly so. Rarely, however, do we take note of what Luke is at pains to point out: Jesus is returning just like the ruler in the story Jesus just told. Luke tells us that the triumphal entry happens "when he had said these things" -- a clear arrow pointing back to that story. So Jesus is entering Jerusalem to take up his kingship, and he will be no more welcome than the ruler in the story. His followers recognize what Jesus is doing, at least in part, and they hail him as king.

As Jesus comes down the hill -- the same hillside where he will be arrested in a few days -- he looks across the Kidron Valley to the city of Jerusalem, and he weeps for this city that he loves. He looks ahead to the day forty years in the future when the Roman legions will tear Jerusalem's walls to the ground and burn its temple. He states clearly that the things that could make for peace are hidden from the eyes of his people. Thematically, it's not hard to summarize what Jesus is talking about here: repentance (see Luke 13) and recognizing him as God's chosen king are the main things required for Jesus' people to know peace. What will occur in the next few days -- Jesus' rejection, betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion -- fly in the face of Jesus' prescription.

Perhaps it's Jesus' rejection is understandable, given what he does next in his presumptive authority as king: He enters the temple and cleanses it, driving out those who own the temple franchise, who change money for temple coinage and sell authorized sacrifices to worshipers. In spite of this in-your-face action, Jesus continues to teach in the temple daily, almost daring the authorities to silence him. They take their plotting underground, and the stage is set for Jesus to be betrayed and arrested. However, first we get to hear some of the exchanges that happen between him and the temple authorities during this tumultuous week.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Like a voice longs ...

Full weekend. Officiated at a funeral yesterday with all that involves; preached at the morning services this morning (and will preach again Wednesday evening); had our final Alpha session, a "celebration" complete with open mic and people sharing what God has been doing in their lives on this last Alpha. All most excellent, the kind of good stuff that is exhausting but so very, very fulfilling. Lots to be thankful for tonight, including the fact that by the grace of God this cold has retreated to the extent that only occasionally do I descend into fits of coughing, and almost all the rest of the time I'm just fine. I'm even tempted to get out on stand for the next couple days and see if I can take a deer with my recurve. Had four does and fawns in my yard this afternoon, so I know they're still around.

Here's the sermon from this morning, talking about our identity in Christ based on Hebrews 12:1-2, if you're interested.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A world that speaks

I walked out on the lake ice last night in the darkness. I'd been too long laid back in my recliner, hiding under a blanket full of snowy prints of deer and elk, drinking copious amounts of water and chaga and trying to kick the last shards of this cold. Even over Netflix, even over Pandora I could hear the lake speaking. It's amazing when the temperature starts to drop and the ice begins to crack; the sound reverberates across the landscape impossibly basso profundo, or cracks like a whip across the withers of a watery horse. It distracts like an intruder, demands to be heard. So I bundled up and walked out on the ice.

Cresting the ridge of sand down by the boathouse, walking by feel as my toes through pac boots found the waterline, then the flat ice that I could not see, I thought of Wendell Berry's poem:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and learn that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Yard lights and headlights and Christmas lights across the far side of the ice didn't illuminate the snow in front of my feet, so I was walking by faith -- faith that it's been cold enough for all those open spots to freeze over, faith that the seven or eight feet of frigid water below me would stay below me and I would be allowed to walk on the water, faith that I would in fact return to my recliner this evening. There are no guarantees in this life.

I stood out there for twenty minutes, I suppose, and the ice went silent for a long while. Then a crack started far on the south end of the lake and I heard it travel, heard it work its way north, then east, until it came right across the entrance to my bay. A couple times the cracks came like rifle shots immediately under my feet, which made my heart leap and the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight out.

At one point I looked upward and there, working its way west, was Cygnus, the Northern Cross. That constellation and I have a long history, and it makes me smile to see it hanging above the earth, to see the change of seasons evident in where that swan is flying this month. It's an odd perspective to stand like that, to see my life in proportion to the endurance of that massive cross, the shape that hung in the evenings over Homer when he was writing the Iliad, over Abraham when he was first seeing Canaan. I'm a spark flying up from the fire, glowing for a few seconds. Cygnus hangs like eternity overhead.

I'd been restless all day, restless with unfulfilled longings and unrequited dreams and old wounds, restless with the shards of this slowly retreating cold hanging like lead weights in my chest, restless with questions about futures and possibilities. I'd been wishing for phone calls and emails and text messages, for unexpected visitors showing up at the door, but my day had been silent and solitary in a necessary but uncomfortable way. I turned back to the shore and through the oaks I could see the lamp, my reading lamp next to the recliner, like a beacon through the picture window, summoning me to warmth and life. By starlight I walked back along my tracks, stumbling up the shore, unused to uneven ground, climbed the hill through the trees by feel of the rising ground, the dry leaves and roots under my feet. In the yellow glare of my porch light I saw pressed down on top of the impermanent snow a fresh set of prints, a coyote that had walked alongside my cabin, hunting alone in the snow. Stared a moment toward the forest, pondering his trail.

The front door opened into a rush of warmth and welcome, the smells of a cabin in winter. Unbundle the necessaries -- overcoat, hat, gloves, boots. I stood at the sink, surveyed my kitchen, washed the day's dishes, stood peering out the glass into the cold, looking over that coyote's tracks, stood perched between temperate summer indoors and the December cold on the other side of my windowpane. Turned off the light of my reading lamp. Turned toward the lake again, looking out my living room window. Stood for just a moment feeling the ice through the darkness, hearing again its boom and crack, and went content to bed.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Luke 19:11-27

This parable sometimes suffers from familiarity. We think we understand it: God gives us gifts, and we are to use them well. Good enough, so far as it goes; but there is a lot of depth and backstory we miss if we make Jesus' complex story here into a simple fable with a moral.

In Jesus' world and time, the idea of a nobleman going to a far country to receive kingship was all too familiar. The various Herods for a couple generations had been seeking the favor of their Roman overlords to receive kingship, governorship, tetrarchy, or whatever other scraps Rome was willing to dispense. They had survived civil war, palace revolutions, and changes in the political winds by currying Roman favor. And they were summarily resented and even hated by their Judean subjects. Josephus tells us that when Herod the Great was dying, about the time the child Jesus was learning to walk, he imprisoned dozens of the most valuable and beloved men in Israel in a stadium with orders that at the moment of his death they should be executed -- for the simple reason that he wanted people to grieve when he died. Fortunately the order was never carried out, but it gives insight into the relationship between Jesus' people and their government. The idea of a hated king who went to a far country to negotiate the terms of his rule would have been all too familiar to Jesus' hearers.

Luke tells us that Jesus tells this story precisely to counter the assumption that the kingdom is coming immediately. It's tempting to make the parable into an allegory, and to a certain extent this is helpful. But more often than not, we imagine Jesus returning in our time to hold us accountable for our work or lack thereof. Helpful from a motivational point of view, perhaps; but Jesus is speaking about his own "crowning," his own taking up authority that is about to happen at Jerusalem. Luke also tells us this when he mentions that they are "near Jerusalem." Jesus' hearers are assuming, still, a political victory, a coming coronation that will in some form exalt them all. In spite of Jesus' previous statements, they are not anticipating the cross, though Jesus is.

An intriguing aspect to the parable is that the citizens send a delegation after the nobleman to protest his rule. Is Jesus saying that we do this to God? We don't want Jesus to rule over us, so we protest to God about the way he's running his empire. We don't want to follow a crucified, shamed Messiah. We don't want to take up our crosses and follow. "God, I just want to be victorious!" Like the third servant with his handkerchief-wrapped coin, we want to avoid risk and simply reap rewards.

Possibly the most important part of this parable is that Jesus gives us insight into how we view God, and how God honors our perceptions. The third servant launches into a detailed description of his master: "You are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and you reap what you did not sow." Surprisingly the master just rolls with it. "You knew, did you, that I am like that? Well, I will judge you by your own words." What is your perception of God? What do you assume about God's character, and how accurate are your assumptions? Do you assume God is disappointed in you? Waiting for you to shape up? Angry because you've failed? You will receive the judgment of these inaccurate assumptions. Our failure is not usually in doing something wrong, but in failing to know the heart of God accurately. Verse 26 gets at the heart of this. Have you noticed how some people seem to enjoy the "green pastures" of the psalm no matter what is happening in their lives? They navigate challenges and difficulties with a deep sense of being blessed and favored by God, even in the midst of hardship. This is because they have come to know God's character -- his measureless love and tenderness for them, the fact that he is in fact for them, that they are beloved by him.

The next few chapters of Luke's gospel will set the stage for us to know God in this way -- to know his loving, self-giving heart in its fullness.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Luke 19:1-10

Frogs are low and slow, awkward and cold and clammy. Once upon a time there was a frog, the froggiest of them all, and he lived unpleasantly in his frogginess. Until, that is, the day when a beautiful princess picked him up, kissed him full on his froggy lips and ZAP! Suddenly he was a handsome prince. Not perfect, of course, and struggling to work out the details of princely existence, but transformed nonetheless.

What is the task of the church? To kiss frogs, of course.

Trouble is, most churches are built to keep frogs out. If you've ever been a frog, you know how hard it is to gain entrance to churches with their perfect-seeming people, plush carpets, careful moral codes, and general intolerance for the eating of insects. Stop being a frog, they seem to say, and we might let you come inside.

But Jesus. Jesus stops the parade through Jericho and turns to the froggiest of them all, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and says "I'm staying at your house today." At the end of the story, Jesus sums up his mission perhaps as succinctly as he ever does: The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.

To kiss frogs.

If we doubt this mission has been handed on to us, look at the end of John's gospel. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." It's actually fairly simple. As Jesus was to Zacchaeus' world, so the church is to be to this world in which we exist, putting into practice what Jesus achieved. Or, to mix in a wholly different metaphor, to play the music that Jesus wrote. 

If you're still a frog, there's hope. And if in some measure you've been kissed, transformed by the caress of love into a prince or princess yourself (though I daresay you still crave the occasional housefly) your task is to love Jesus who is transforming you, and to watch with compassion for frogs who need kissing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Luke 18:31-43

It might seem odd to put these two sections of Luke 18 together, but this is important.

In verses 31-34, Jesus lays out a graphic description of what is about to happen to him: betrayal, arrest, torture, death, resurrection. We, like the disciples, are not inclined toward the redemption of suffering. We would rather avoid suffering and experience victory without loss or pain. In essence, this is what it means that the disciples "did not grasp what was said." They had come to know Jesus as king, as Messiah, and they assumed that his dogged progress toward Jerusalem was a procession toward enthronement. Sure, there might be battles, but Jesus would be victorious. There might be resistance, but they were confident in Jesus' ability to sweep away every power. Hadn't they seen him heal the blind, cast out demons, feed the multitude? Jesus could do anything!

Our natural human inclination is to put our heroes up on pedestals. We want Mighty Mouse crying out, "Here I come to save the day!" We prefer Superman, faster than a speeding bullet, rather than a crucified Messiah. The strongest evidence of our fallen, broken human condition is that we so completely mistake the nature of love for ourselves, for others, and for God. The nature of God is to love, and love by its very nature takes the pain of the beloved into itself. This is not a codependent syndrome, but a redemptive suffering. Isaiah nailed this when he said six hundred years before, "By his stripes we are healed." Love does not march into battle victorious, but it enters into pain and brings healing. Love by nature requires vulnerability, and vulnerability by definition includes the possibility of being wounded ourselves. To love is to be vulnerable, and without that vulnerability there is no possibility of intimacy and little possibility of relationship. We underestimate the brokenness of creation -- including ourselves -- and therefore mistake the nature of God's victorious love. The cross is not an exception in the life of God; it is the nature of redemptive love, always and forever. Love as the chief character quality of God is written into the fabric of the universe, deeper than the laws of thermodynamics or gravity or 'an eye for an eye.' Sin turns us away from this truth, turns us toward cheap victories that don't cost our suffering, turn us away from the necessity of sitting patient with pain while it does its work. Like Inigo Montoya at the top of the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride, we hate waiting.  So we mistakenly see suffering as the opposite of God's love, while more often than not suffering becomes the necessary groundwork for God's love to become known in a greater, deeper way.

On the heels of Jesus' words about his impending torture and death, he encounters a blind beggar. Here is the victorious healing, the supernatural sign. But see how the beggar cries out in his desperate condition, in spite of opposition from the crowd. The people see themselves as part of a victory procession, a royal parade toward coronation -- little do they know what Jesus' throne will actually be and what crown he will actually wear -- and the last thing they want to be bothered with is the spectacle of a blind man who wants attention. In subtle and obvious ways, we put our suffering out of sight so we don't have to deal with it. The aging go to nursing homes; the dead go to funeral homes; the sick stay home from work; we don't talk about depression in polite company; we all pop pills to take the edge off our pain, and when we get addicted to our painkillers we hide away in rehab centers. But Jesus stops the parade and summons the blind man, in fact commands the people to deal with his blindness directly by guiding him to Jesus.

What to do with these verses? The place to start is sitting by the road, watching what looks to us like a victorious parade passing by. Have you experienced life this way? Everyone else seems to have their act together. They are successfully following a victorious Messiah en route to his coronation, and there you sit in your blindness, in your suffering, in your incapacity. Don't accept the illusion that this is a victory parade, from glory into glory. Realize the nature of the Love that is passing by -- that Jesus goes to the cross for this deluded multitude, and for the sake of the city that will approve of his crucifixion, as well as for you. Cry out to Jesus in the place of your suffering, and don't let the crowd's misconceptions silence you. "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" He will not fail to hear your cries. He may use your suffering to confront those who simply want to march up to Jerusalem for a party. He will enter into your suffering and stand with you in compassion. And he will bring healing, because he loves you. In that, in the healing, he will invite you to enter into suffering -- not just your own, but others' -- and stand with a broken world in love.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Luke 18:18-30

This incident as recorded by Luke is so full of richness and subtlety that we often miss. There are layers upon layers of meaning and allusion here to be unpacked, and we won't get to all of them by any means. But let's take a stab.

Luke simply identifies the questioner as a "ruler." The Greek is "archon" -- a generic term for anyone in power, not specifying office or authority. It's the same word Paul uses a few places where he might be referring to Roman authorities (up to and including Caesar) or spiritual powers (angels, demons and the like, especially those given authority over specific geographic regions) or several other possibilities of "powers." Combined with the Greek word "polis," or 'city,' Luke uses this word to refer to the bureaucratic officials of Thessalonica in Acts 17 -- the "politarchs." So we don't know much about the man who questions Jesus except that he has authority, power of some kind. Through the story we will learn more, but this is enough to start with.

Having power changes people. If you have been in a situation where you have power, you know that you have a sense of agency, of capability, of the ability to make decisive changes. If you have been in a place where you have no power, on the other hand, you feel like a victim, like there's literally nothing you can do to influence your situation. The contrast couldn't be more stark. The fact that this man is a ruler, that he has authority and power in some measure, shapes everything that happens between him and Jesus.

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" He doesn't ask "Who should I beg for eternal life?" or "How is eternal life given?" The question implies that he can make things happen, which is interesting -- because even he frames the issue as an issue of inheritance. By definition inheriting something is at least partially beyond one's control. There is a deep and rich theology in the New Testament of our inheriting eternal life through the death of Jesus. Paul is especially good at this in Romans, but here the ruler seems to think he can influence the execution of Jesus' will (puns intended).

Jesus plays along, eventually, but first he needs to call out the man's assumption: Why has the man addressed him as "Good Teacher"? The ruler uses the word "agathe" which means ethically, morally, or spiritually good. It's not just good as in "I'm having a good day" or "that was a good meal" but rather the deeper sense of "You are a good person" or "That was a good thing to do." It carries some weight. It's right up against the word "holy," and Jesus focuses on it for just a moment. Why, he asks the ruler, did you use that term to describe me? "No one is good but God alone." To the ruler this must have seemed like a rebuke in the moment. However to the disciples standing nearby (who had for some time been growing into this understanding) and to us reading later, it is obvious that the ruler has glimpsed something of Jesus' true nature. Jesus is, in fact, the God who is good. Goodness, uprightness, righteousness are his essence.

Before we can spiral down the rabbit hole into that topic, however, Jesus moves right along. He says, in effect, you already know the answer. Here is a basic recitation of the Law. What Jesus does not say here is critically important. He cites five of the Ten Commandments, and every one he cites comes from the later part of that list -- the commandments that apply to relationships between humans. He doesn't cite the first few that have to do with loving God above all others. And note that Jesus doesn't say that keeping the commandments will give the man eternal life. (It is extremely interesting to contrast Mark and Luke's versions of this story with Matthew's -- Matthew being written to a primarily Jewish audience who understood the Law as Torah, as a covenant like a marriage covenant, as a relational guideline to living in love with God, rather than a rigid set of ethical expectations as the gentiles and much later the Reformers would have it. As post-Reformation gentile Christians in the 21st century, we usually read these words through those filters and have a hard time getting back to the subtleties of a Jewish understanding of the Law per Matthew's version. Luke is often a better version for us to understand because, written to a gentile audience, it removes the need for at least one layer of required trans-cultural translation.) Jesus here is indeed a Good Teacher, and in this case he is -- at least partially -- setting up his student by revealing what the student has already understood: Though he has lived according to the rules all his adult life, he still lacks something.

Sell all that you have. Jesus speaks incisively into the man's soul, diagnosing his particular idolatry. This is not an eternal principle to be rigidly applied across the board, though so many of us are in bondage to our worldly wealth that it often seems like it. To generalize Jesus' directive here might require us to ask something like, "What owns you?" What most possesses you? What is too dear to give up? What is that treasure that pins the location of your heart? We all have idolatries that keep us from leaping to follow Jesus. Do you know yours?

To put a different twist on things here, we might say the ruler is teetering on the verge of falling in love with Jesus. He is captivated by the beauty and goodness he sees in this Messiah, and he longs to have what Jesus seems to possess -- eternal life. But like the young Ebenezer Scrooge confronted with the possibility of life-changing love, the ruler cannot escape the clutches of his hunger for wealth. Jesus stands before the ruler and implicitly says, "I have what you lack. Let go of what holds you back and come with me." A generation later the author of Hebrews will lay this before us explicitly (Hebrews 12:1-2). "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which clings so close and look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" -- this is the choice that confronts the ruler. And sorrowing, he chooses his idolatry.

Jesus sees his sorrow and recognizes it for what it is. We sometimes speak as if freedom -- political or spiritual -- is simply a beautiful gift that is obviously better than any kind of bondage. However, as Ursula K. LeGuin has written:
"Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it." 
In Jesus' day as in ours, people saw wealth as a mark of God's favor. Who hasn't envied a Bill Gates? Who hasn't wished at some point to win the lottery? Jesus explicitly states what the wealthy learn by hard experience: Having too much is no gift. The strings of wealth and possessions and properties and even human relationships can tie us too much to this world and its ways. Peter (v. 28) seems to be looking to Jesus for reassurance -- we've left our homes. Have we done better than this ruler? Jesus affirms the choice Peter and the other disciples have made. Jesus himself is the treasure worth selling all else; he is the one relationship worth having. And having him, casting all aside to have him, we receive back again riches beyond measure, relationships of depth and quality that heal and enrich our hearts, family and community and love and so much more.

Trouble is, the losses look so fearful from the ruler's side. Death looks like a terrible ending from our perspective. Resurrection and all that goes with it seems like a myth, a dream. Love seems like an impossibility. But the risen Jesus stands as witness to the reality of abundant life -- not just for some distant eternity in a far-off heaven, but starting here and now, sucking the marrow out of the bones of this existence as we live into the reality of following him.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Luke 18:9-17

I've become convinced that having the right answers is one of the biggest obstacles to a relationship with God. Don't get me wrong, I desperately want to have the right answers, just like you do. Unresolved questions are restless things, stirring us in uncomfortable ways that don't feel pleasant or peaceful. Answers are solid, certain, complete, safe.

The Pharisee in Jesus' story has the answers. He knows what's right, and he lives by those solid rules. He's grateful to have the answers, and to have the capability of living by them. He's doing things right, and he knows it, and it's comforting.

The tax collector in the story, on the other hand, has no such certainty. He is inadequate and needs mercy. Have you ever been in that place of needing mercy? It's a powerless, fearful, vulnerable place. Jesus affirms this man's vulnerability and inadequacy and powerlessness.

Similarly, the children in Jesus' example -- and not just children, Luke tells us, but even infants -- are also powerless and vulnerable. There's nothing more tragic in our minds than a child, all innocence and delight and openness and joy, that is victimized and hurt. We are rightly indignant when such horrific things happen. But Jesus says it's their very vulnerability and powerlessness that makes them an example of how we come into the kingdom of God. If we think for just a moment, we will see that this is not just sentiment, but it is absolute truth. This is the ironclad principle of the universe: If you come to God in your own power, in your own capacity and capability, you cannot come under God's rule. The kingdom of God is about God's sovereignty and control, not yours. It is about your trust in a good, good Father.

Often God brings us into that place of trust and vulnerability by asking us questions. I've been reading through 1 Kings in the mornings, and this morning I read the story of Elijah after his showdown with the priests of Baal, running for his life into the wilderness trying to avoid Jezebel's murderous intentions. He came to the mountain of God and hid himself in a cave, and God asked him a question: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah gives an answer full of his own identity and certainty about his condition. Then God does an interesting thing: He reveals his power. Wind, earthquake, fire pass before the mouth of the cave, and Elijah does not engage. But when the sound of a "crushing silence" as one of my seminary professors read it, or a "low whisper" as the ESV translates it, shows up, Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Yet God's low whisper asks Elijah the same exact question a second time, and Elijah recites the same self-pitying answer a second time. Elijah, in his burned out state, can't see the possibility of change. In mercy, God decommissions Elijah and transitions his ministry to Elisha. "What are you doing here?" might seem like a simple question, but it reveals Elijah's heart. What questions is God asking? Seemingly simple questions can be the root of powerful opportunities. What do you really want? What's most important to you? What are the hurts you bear? What brings you joy? God love to ask us questions that push us back just a bit into that off-balance place where we can be a little vulnerable before him, where the possibility of change becomes real.

If you want another example, look at the last few chapters of the book of Job, when after dozens of chapters of eloquent speculation, God finally shows up before Job and -- you guessed it -- asks him questions. "Stand before me like a man," God demands, "and I will question you."

Recognizing that we have more questions than answers might be one good way to do what Jesus recommends here -- to "humble ourselves." Humanly speaking, this is not our first inclination. But it is a sure entry point into the kingdom where God (not us) reigns supreme.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Luke 18:1-8

Though we often tend to be idealists when it comes to the Christian life, Jesus is not. We want to say, "God will take care of you" or "It will all come out right in the end" or "Everything happens for a reason." While those statements may be theologically correct, the life of faith doesn't always feel like the Right Answers.

Jesus is a realist. He understands what life is really like for those who live in a sin-broken world and need to trust daily that God is good and that he is in control of our challenging circumstances, our disappointments, and our unfulfilled longings. That's what this parable is about.

Jesus is not, note, saying that God is actually like this unjust judge. Rather, Jesus is saying that sometimes our experience feels like God is behaving this way. We may feel like we have been storming the gates of heaven in prayer and still we are stuck, frustrated, disappointed, longing. Jesus' answer? Don't quit. Don't give up. Continue to lay your needs before God. Continue to pester God with your needs. Continue to pray, partly at least because the act of praying is an implicit acknowledgement that God is in fact sovereign.

The Bible is full of examples of those who trusted God, often for unbearably long periods of time, to fulfill his promises. How long did Abraham wait for a legitimate heir? How long did David hide in caves? How long did Moses herd sheep in the wilderness?

There are so many great examples of believers who have endured challenging circumstances that tested their faith, but one of the most potent for me is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's collection, Letters and Papers from Prison. As Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Gestapo during World War Two, he waited for positive word about the plots he'd helped foment against Hitler. He waited for news about his parents and the rest of his family. He waited to have any contact with his beloved, to whom he had very recently become engaged. Reading his reflections is an amazing pendulum swing between hope and despair, faith and frustration.

If you are in a place of waiting, a place of frustration, a place of longing, ponder Jesus' words here. He's saying even if you are suffering, don't give up. Trusting in God can take the shape of persistent prayer. Allow yourself to believe in the face of the immediate evidence that God is good, that he is bringing his promises to fruition for your good and his glory.