Subscribe for email updates on new releases and current projects:


* indicates required

Intuit Mailchimp

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


I am sitting and drinking coffee and pondering this morning. So much to be thankful for this Christmas: beautiful relationships with family and friends, meaningful work, the opportunity to live in the presence of amazing beauty, and so much more. Writing these days is taking up a ton of my time, and I'm excited about that. 

Even so, I find myself stirred at Christmas (and so often), longing to reach out beyond my limits and say things that cannot be said. Some of this stirring borders on grief and loss, both that which is current and that going back many years. Some of it grows out of things I wish were different, in spite of the blessing of my circumstances. The book of Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in the human heart. I suppose that's part of it as well. Admiring starlight from a distance seems so inadequate when the heart is yearning for the stars themselves. 

That's the miracle of Christmas in a nutshell, I suppose: In our incompleteness, brokenness, we long to reach out and touch the face of God. Some of that is hubris, but some is set in the human heart by God. Per aspera ad astra. That yearning is given by God himself. In his mercy, he came to us rather than us reaching him. He finds us in our incompleteness and longing. 

This is a little-known poem by J.R.R. Tolkien, written in 1936:


Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind,
the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.

Friday, December 20, 2019

It's about time!

First off, thank you to so many of you who have encouraged me with this new book coming out! You're the best.

It's been a busy week. The first case of New Wineskins arrived on Monday. I hadn't seen a hardcopy of the book, so I was nervous. But it turned out great. I am so pleased with the cover my daughter designed, and several of you have commented on it as well. It's crisp and clean and appealing, and far better than what I had in mind! There are a few minor tweaks to the inside of the book that I wish now I'd done differently, but overall I'm very, very happy with it.

When I wrote my book on the Exodus story a decade ago, the world of publishing was very different. At that time I wouldn't even consider paying to have my book published. I thought self-publishing was for people who couldn't write well enough to sell their book to a traditional publisher. Since that time, self-publishing has changed in major ways. So has the entire book publishing industry, for that matter. As I researched how best to put New Wineskins out there, it became clear very quickly that self-publishing was my best option.

A major part of this experience has been learning how to self-publish a book. It's been an education! While (as I said above) there are things I will do differently next time, the real encouragement is that I really want there to be a next time. I'm already working on an updated, expanded version of From Slavery to Freedom, my book about the Exodus. When I first wrote that book, I completed the manuscript in mid-2007. Going through a traditional publisher, it came out in print almost exactly two years later. One of the miracles of self-publishing is that I'll probably have the second edition in print by mid-January. Amazing!

I've realized that this season of my life is about finishing projects I've started. I've got so many rough drafts and book outlines stored away here and there. I'm eager to pull out those manuscripts and outlines and get some books available. There's always a little fear in that process; it's like an author I know said: Putting a book out is like walking on stage, taking off all your clothes, and saying, "What do you think?" But I've also realized that I'm eager for the conversations that come with writing a book. Sometimes those conversations are joyful and affirming. Other times people want to argue and critique. Both are absolutely important and necessary.

So... and I'm hesitant to say this out loud because then I'm accountable, right? My goal for 2020 is that by the end of the calendar year, I'll have half a dozen books in print. Deep inside, part of me is shivering at that. But the stronger part says, "It's about time!"

One of the joys of this season of life for me is finding the tools to let me pursue that goal. It's exciting!

Friday, December 13, 2019

New Wineskins book announcement!

About a year and a half ago, my daughter Mathea and I took a walk through the Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle. While we walked, we talked (among other things) about the Bible. Out of that conversation, I made a decision to blog my way through the gospel of Luke. My hope was to make a sort of dialogue out of the project. Some of you have probably read those blog posts.

This summer I collected all those writings and put them together in a collection. Then I reread that manuscript and decided it needed a LOT of work. (ouch!) I spent several months doing a ton of conversation, revision, study, and editing. (Anyone who says writing isn't work has not tried it.)

One of my weaknesses over the years has been that I love to start projects, but the detail work of creating a finished product puts me off. I promised myself this Luke project was not going to end up just one more manuscript figuratively collecting dust on my laptop. So I ground it out, did the work, and did all the work again. Then I asked for help and did some more work.

Along the way, I had the chance to ponder Jesus on a whole new level. I thought and prayed about him and his agenda–what he called his "kingdom." I thought and prayed about what God is up to in our own time. There seems to be a mass extinction going on in churches these days, not to put too fine a point on it. The mainstream press loves to talk about the rise of the "nones," those who claim no religious affiliation. Churches like the one I grew up in seem to be going the way of the passenger pigeon.

At the same time, there's a breath of new life in certain circles and certain places. Here and there, people are discovering Jesus in new ways and getting really excited about him. Those abundant, growing places almost always have a few things in common. They're rooted in taking the Bible very seriously, but in a joyful way. They're focused on Jesus and his Spirit. They're living the biblical word out in a community that meets in home-sized groups, not just in giant celebrations. Finally, they recognize that knowing and following Jesus requires them to care for this world in really tangible ways.

Jesus spoke frequently about these kinds of changes. One of the most intriguing ways he talked about this kind of thing is when he said you can't put new wine in old wineskins. When you've got a powerful, fermenting wine, you need fresh wineskins that have the elasticity to hold it without breaking. And he said that people who are tied to older, tradition-bound ways of life will reject this new wine, claiming that their version is better.

Realizing what a theme this is for Jesus, especially in Luke's gospel, I called the book New Wineskins. It's designed to lead the reader through a reading of Luke and hopefully into conversations about Jesus and his way of life. Even though I write about Greek words and first century cultural and historical context, it's not a book for scholars. It's for everyday people who want to know Jesus better. It's for those who want to have a conversation in their own community about who he is and what he's up to. It's for those who are open to his new wine, looking for flexible wineskins that can hold his Spirit's dynamic life.

I'd love to have you read it and let me know what you think. Your feedback is so important! I've realized in a new way through this process that writing needs to be a conversation. As I'm working on more projects (and promising myself I will finish those in the near future as well) your input becomes a key way for me to improve my writing. Thanks in advance. You can click on the picture to the right or here to order a copy from Amazon.

If you want a signed copy, send me $12 and your address and I'll mail one to you! My mailing address is:

Jeff Krogstad
12720 51st St. NE
Spicer MN 56288

Friday, December 6, 2019

Home again, home again

Life has been kind of crazy good and busy lately.
  • I had the joy of spending Thanksgiving morning with one daughter and son-in-law, then they drove me to the airport and I got to be with my other daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law out in Seattle. That was so very much fun. We got to share some fantastic meals, get their Christmas tree, see her office, and just enjoy each other. What a privilege.
  • I flew from sunny (not even kidding) Seattle to (rainy) Orange County CA for a "Finishing the Task" conference. This gathering focuses on efforts to reach previously unreached people groups with Bible translation, the message of Jesus, and church planting. Our church is specifically invested in the unreached people groups of Colombia. It was a joy to hear mission leaders from all over the world along with host pastor Rick Warren casting a vision of greater inter-agency cooperation and to hear stories of amazing things that are happening all across the globe. 
  • At the conference, we had the opportunity to network with missionaries and mission agencies, as well as connecting with some old friends. Saddleback did a fantastic job of hosting the event.
  • In California, my lead pastor and I were able to take advantage of the time and meet with some great leaders who are eager to help our church grow. So we got to share in tons of strategic conversation about The Open Door Christian Church and what God is doing here. So good. 
  • While I was on this crazy trip, I finished the publication work on a new book called New Wineskins: A commentary on Luke's gospel. My daughters helped tremendously with this project, one with the editing and the other with cover design. Pretty amazing talented women.  At the moment it's listed on Amazon but there's no image for the cover, so it looks like you can order it. I'm excited about this book and will write more about this project soon!
It was an odd experience to be away from home for nine days, to see bits and pieces of what's going on in the rest of my world through social media. It's an odd sensation, and more than a little disturbing, to have your heart pulled in so many directions. In that sense, it's fantastic to be home. We rolled in about 3 am last night, so today I am still a little foggy and off-balance. But the sun is shining and there's a beautiful tracking snow on the ground. Lots to be thankful for!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Let it snow...

Got a dusting of the white stuff that actually stuck this morning for a few hours. It looked like the real thing, and my understanding is that south and east of here (including the Cities) is supposed to get more than that. Appears we are well on our way to winter. I remember a year ago we got a nasty, sloppy wet mess of delightful winter preview about this time in November. So we'll see.

The deer have decided it's fall. They're changing their patterns to adjust to the weather. I'm getting out to sit on stand occasionally, loving the quiet and hoping for venison.

I'm writing. Lately I've been working on a commentary on Luke based on the entries shared on this blog. My plan is to self-publish that and have it available for some of our Life Groups that are approaching the one-year mark and will complete their study of Mark. So that's exciting. Once it's up for order, I'll post that info here as well. If all works as planned, it will be available both as an e-book and in print. Choices, choices.

Seems like early November is always a time of restlessness and questions in my mind. That, along with deep, deep joy. I'm a paradox.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

What a view!

Just a pic to highlight how amazing fall can be here at Decision Hills. This is last Friday night, enjoying that westward view across the lake. We've been doing Friday Night Fires here and have had a pretty loyal group showing up. For whatever reason, nobody else showed last Friday. It was a gorgeous evening, and I got to sit by the fire for most of the evening soaking in spectacular views like this.

Two in a row

This post from Scott Sauls is very nearly something I could have written. Like Scott, I have two daughters and like him, I would like to give God some pointed advice on how to write their stories. And yet, being a few years ahead of him (at least as far as the age of my daughters) I begin to see the benefits of some of the more challenging turns their stories have taken.

And of course, like Scott, I'm bursting-at-the-seams proud of my daughters.

If you're a parent, this is just such a good reminder of the long-term goodness and wisdom of God. Trust him.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Scott Sauls does it again

Scott Sauls frequently hits it out of the park with his blog. This blog post is so incredibly true, and hits very, very close to home for me. And, thank God, I have frequently been confronted by those who love me enough to help me see myself more clearly. As humbling as it is, life without those insights would be... well, hell. In a very precise and theological sense.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Going with the flow

It's a very blustery day outside.

(Here is a bit from one of my favorite Winnie the Pooh moments on days like this.)

The waves on the lake are positively boisterous. I'm fighting a little bit of a cold, so I'm debating about bundling up and taking a walk around Decision Hills to check on things. The deer have stayed deep back in the brush during these windy days.

It's been a comfortable morning to work on manuscripts, to plan tomorrow's Bible Overview teaching, to dig deep into scripture and drink yet another cup of coffee (Caribou Mahogany, as always) while watching the leaves fall, fondly remembering e.e. cummings' briefest of poems on that topic. The soundtrack in the background is a rich variety of Melody Gardot, Sarah Groves, John Mayer, and B.B. King. Good stuff.

Snowflakes have been in the air yesterday and last night. There's a white rime on a few of the trees that is melting now. Seems early, but October is a month when you just have to roll with things a bit.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Luke 24:36-53

Jesus has the last word. He appears to his disciples yet again, and his word is "Peace." It is worth pondering that the most common words God speaks in scripture are "don't be afraid" and "peace." The presence of God is a rock, an anchor, in the face of our daily anxieties. He is solid truth over against our vacillations. The resurrected Jesus, victorious over the grave and every other fear we face, speaks peace.

Imagine them in that room, groping with a new, expanded reality. Jesus continues to speak, reassuring them in the face of what they thought was true. In among his words are some absolute treasures. "Why are you troubled? Why do you doubt?" Well, Jesus, you were dead just a bit ago. We're having trouble catching up. Just to make things clearer–and harder to grasp–Jesus adds, "touch me and see my hands and feet, that it is I myself." At one level Jesus is dealing with their doubts. Yes, it's really me. You can believe your eyes. This is not wishful thinking. The love you've known, the grander vision you've experienced, is real.

At another level Jesus is speaking theologically, speaking about the truth of God. He says, "it is I myself" and in the Greek it is ego eimi which just happens to be (as we have noted before) the exact words God uses to name himself to Moses. Jesus says "See my hands and feet, that I AM." The resurrected Jesus names himself as God, just in case we were starting to get our heads (and hearts) around the fact that he's alive in the first place.

I AM, who met Moses at the burning bush, who rescued the Israelites from Egypt, who placed David on the throne, who dropped fire on Mount Carmel at Elijah's word, who rescued the Jews from death through Esther's beautiful courage, I AM is risen from the grave, and death is no longer a period at the end of the sentence. At most it's a semi-colon. The story goes on for eternity.

Now, Jesus says, get to work. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed to all nations. What God promised when he called Abraham, that from this one new nation he would bring blessing to all the nations, is going to be fulfilled. Everyone is welcome. You've seen it; you've experienced it. Your testimony is important. As Jesus has welcomed you and spoken his love into your heart, go welcome and love the least, lost, broken ones. Live the joy and gratitude that comes from being caught up in Jesus' resurrection. This is not the end of the story, not at all. It is only the beginning.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

A few sabbath hours

How hard it is to take sabbath!

I've been reading lately in both Exodus and Deuteronomy about God's concern for his people to take time for rest. I'm confronted again and again by my warped perception that I am lazy, that I don't work enough or hard enough. I track my hours and make sure, week by week, that I am dedicating full-time work and more than full-time work to my day job, and yet...

And yet, perhaps because growing up on the farm the work was never, never done, I always feel like I have quit before the job is finished. It's a rare day when I lay my head down at night feeling like I have done enough.

Not to give the impression that I am some type-A driven juggernaut. Not at all. But I have a sense that the days are precious, and most of them include some opportunity to make hay while the sun shines, and most evenings I have a picture in my mind of swaths of mown alfalfa lying in the field waiting to be baled.

Today I have a few work duties to attend, but they are important, not urgent. I need to start looking ahead to a course I'll teach this fall. I need to begin thinking in specific depth about a sermon I'll preach in two weeks. These things are immeasurably important, but they are not so urgent that I watch the minutes tick away with a deepening sense of panic.

What to do with the sabbath hours? I am listening to a couple podcasts. I am experimenting with a new recipe. I have been out just a bit soaking up morning sunshine. I have been deep in scripture and musing over the turnings of my life and my heart, lazily contemplating the future. I am in conversation with a friend on the other side of the world about a shared adventure this winter. The day is not empty. Rather it is full in the most peaceful, restful sense.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Luke 24:12-35

This narrative has got to be one of the greatest stories in scripture. It overflows with heartbreak, humor, suspense, depth of character, and surprise. This brief anecdote is a masterful piece of flash non-fiction. Just a few examples of the amazing turns of phrase and poignant moments in this tiny episode:

"While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him." These two disciples (Clopas and another unnamed disciple, quite possibly his wife) are talking things through. Processing their grief. Scrambling for purchase in the destabilizing events that surround them. Jesus comes near in their processing and walks with them, unrecognized. Have you experienced this? I daresay.

"What things?" This is perhaps the funniest moment in the whole story. In Greek it's even more brief, just a single word: "Poia?" What things? They carry in their hearts the things that have happened in Jerusalem in these days concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Think of all that is summed up in that phrase for them, going back to Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and being honored with a banquet in his home; Jesus' triumphal entry on Palm Sunday; his teaching in the temple, his overthrowing of the money changers' tables; his furtive movements in and out of the city outwitting the Jewish authorities; the last supper in the upper room; the treason of Judas and Jesus' betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane; a sham of a trial, shuffling back and forth from Annas to Caiaphas to Pilate to Herod and again to Pilate; the unthinkable flogging of the Son of God, the crown of thorns, the Via Dolorosa, the cross; Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea and others taking Jesus' lifeless body down and depositing it hastily in a new stone tomb; the disciples' huddling behind locked doors for fear. All this is summed up in their conversation. It is much to process, overwhelmingly so, but Jesus (who has been the heart of every event, every twist) asks, "What things?" as though he was a rube newly arrived from some backwater corner of the countryside. We need to see the humor that is an essential part of the joy that bubbles over here.

"O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" Jesus chastises these two for their unbelief, but then he goes on to instruct them. If there was ever a Bible study I wish I could be a part of, this is it. Jesus walks them through the Old Testament and shows how all that has happened is not a discontinuation, not a disappointment, but is in fact the fulfillment of God's plan. How often I am slow of heart to believe all that God has promised! I get too comfortable living in disappointment, too willing to be Eeyore in my thinking: This is all I can expect. Oh, well, I guess it will have to do. Instead, Jesus reminds them that God has a greater future planned, and the trauma they've endured is part of the outworking of God's plan.

"And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him." There comes a moment when we see God's work for what it is. This is by grace, and nearly always surprises us. This moment, this new perspective, redefines the past and we see our own history clearly for the first time, reinterpreting the events of our past. This moment reshapes the future in a flash, transforming it from more of the eternal same into a bright pathway of possibility. It is the splash of cold water on the face that wakes the sleeper. If we are too bound to our present perceptions, this will be an uncomfortable realization. If, however, we have learned to live with a God who is willing and eager to surprise his people with hope, we can ride this roller coaster with joy. Are you willing to let God surprise you?

"The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!" Apparently Jesus, after disappearing from the table at Emmaus, flashes to Jerusalem and has a conversation with Simon, who then has time to inform the eleven and the others while Cleopas and his compatriot run the seven miles back to Jerusalem. This is news, not just information, and Jesus spreads the fact of his resurrection around to various voices that then reinforce each other. Who is in your life with whom you can share resurrection stories? Who shares your hope? Who walks deeper into God's word, into possibility, into hope, with you?

Monday, July 8, 2019

Boundary Waters

Just to whet your appetite, here are a few of the best shots from my recent Boundary Waters trip.

This was my early morning devotions spot on Hanson Lake, just south of the Canadian border. Pretty much all our days looked like this: calm water, beautiful blue skies. Gorgeous weather.

This waterfall is just off the South Arm of Knife Lake, along the portage up to Eddy Lake. That's me out in the midst of it all.

My good friend Nate who coordinated our whole trip likes to get up at sunrise and get out solo for a bit. I caught him on his way out to catch an impressive stringer of smallmouth bass this particular morning.

Luke 24:1-11

The resurrection narrative starts with this glorious word, "But." In Greek it's a tiny, indeterminate connecting word, not the conjunction that implies a clear contrast. That's correct, of course; the crucifixion and resurrection (as well as Jesus' entire ministry) is a continuous outworking of God's necessity and plan. It's not like Satan won the crucifixion, but now Jesus is going to win the resurrection, even though it sometimes gets preached like that.

And yet, in the experience of the disciples, and probably in our experience as well, there is a marked contrast. "But" is not too strong a way to transition into this resurrection story. J.R.R. Tolkien in his remarkable essay "On Fairy Stories" says that every good fantasy story (in the broadest sense of fantasy, of which the gospel story is the most supreme and most true example) includes the "dyscatastrophe" of tragedy but then also includes a turn, a "eucatastrophe" of joy. I want to quote Tolkien here at some length:
The consolation of fairy-stories, of the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous 'turn' (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially 'escapist' nor 'fugitive.' In its fairy-tale–or other-world–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the idea of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
If we do not enter into the gospel story enough to experience the depth of grief, of "dyscatastrophe" that the disciples, huddled in fear in an upper room, are experiencing, then we will never receive the fullness of the resurrection. If we cannot bring our own grief and tragedy into the story, the resurrection will remain outside of us. This small conjunction, "But," holds for us the turning of the story. The women come to the tomb and experience something quite different than they had expected. The angels announce to them, just as they announced to the shepherds at Jesus' birth, an amazing truth beyond the expected continuation of tragedy, oppression, and fear.

Our grief seems so permanent to us. Our fears and our frustrations dominate our days. If you have walked through grief, loss, separation, longing, you can feel the weight like gravestones on the hearts of the women as they walk to the tomb. Jesus is dead, and with him their hope has died. The announcement of the angels rings like breaking chains.

A word here about endurance. The greater the surprise in God's word to us, the clearer he will communicate. If God is asking you to do something truly surprising, he will make that direction clear. And like with Moses' objections or Gideon's fleece, he will be patient with your questions and discernment. Jesus is so tenderly patient with those who need a moment to adjust to his resurrection. But once he has made that new direction clear, once he has revealed a new path, his voice will fade. He is still patient, but he will not continue to provide signs and speak in the silence of your heart to confront each doubt. Having revealed himself, he will ask you to wait with him. This is why the remainder of the New Testament speaks so much and so eloquently about endurance. Now that we know the risen Christ, we endure the waiting for the fulfillment of his Kingdom. In the same way, if God has spoken a surprising word to you, once it is clear you may need to endure for a long while before you see movement toward its fulfillment.

Like the women at the tomb, the meantime is often fraught with confusion. Though they go and announce their disorienting experience, the rest of the disciples can't receive it, and in fact reject the idea as an idle tale. Don't let the confusion of others dissuade you from all Jesus has spoken to you. In his own good time, Jesus will reveal himself to the others.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The need for conversation

I realized this morning that it's been more than a month since I blogged anything. I have lots of reasons for that, of course: day job, a Boundary Waters trip, other writing projects, the delights of a beautiful Minnesota summer, lots more. But overall I've just had kind of a malaise about writing anything.

Been thinking about that malaise the last few days. I realize that throughout my life, writing has been an uphill battle not because it's work (it definitely is, and it should be) and not because I'm a perfectionist (that's complicated but not the reason I get funky about writing). No, the reason I back away from writing is the lack of dialogue. I realize I have always wanted writing to be a conversation. Maybe it's part of my impatience. I want the conversation NOW. I want immediate feedback. Currently I'm slogging through the process of writing a novel as an exercise in self-discipline, knowing that I won't get much feedback until I've finished the first draft and then completed a significant revision of that. At that point I'll allow myself to put it out there where a few people can read and offer insights. Until then it continues to whirl in my head until I put it away in frustration, then force myself back to the slow-growing manuscript. When there's no conversation around the project, I retreat to parts of my life where there are conversations to be had.

When the conversation isn't there, the writing spirals inside my head as the echoes fade away.

Part of the struggle is needing the right conversation partner. Just to test my own perceptions, I posted a chapter of this work-in-progress onto a writers' site for feedback. Three immediate critiques said it's boring, it's hard to understand, it doesn't work. Good for me to hear, and sent me back to seriously revise some things. But at my core, I began to doubt the overall value of the project. Then yesterday I got a note, not even a critique, from an individual who ran across that chapter. Totally different demographic from the first three people to critique, and this individual was eating it up. Looking for more. Intrigued by the story and the characters. Resonating with theme and style and all of it.

For me, at least, conversation is a huge source of hope and encouragement. Lacking it, I end up inside my own head like a whirligig beetle (check it out) on the surface of those Boundary Waters lakes. Spin and spin and spin.

Self-discipline is a good thing, and the lack of feedback forces me to rest back on my own volition as a writer. Maybe it's good for developing character, or maturity. We are, after all, inherently relational beings, but we also need a little suffering in this life to develop strength. Guess I'm still a work in progress.

That said, I frequently think about this "commentary on Luke" project I've been blogging through here. I'm up against the final chapter. Just a couple more sections to write, and they're the fun ones, focusing on Jesus' resurrection. So for all you starved blog readers, know that I'm working on it. Pondering it. Reading it. Living it. And soon I will be writing about it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Luke 23:18-56

Looking at the crucifixion of Jesus is always overwhelming. It's a little like trying to see North America from downtown Kansas City. No matter where you look there's something significant, something that is a part of the greater whole, but it's nearly impossible to see the whole thing all at once. And like trying to see all of North America, trying to see all of the crucifixion and its implications requires getting such a distance that you really can't pick out very many details.

This moment, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate in about 29 or 30AD, becomes a fulcrum for the rest of human history. Massive changes rooted in this moment will ripple out and transform Jewish identity and significance, the Roman Empire, and all of human history.

Why does the death of one Galilean man, sentenced to torture and death for pretensions of being a Jewish king, have such impact?

If the crucifixion was the end of Jesus' story, we would know nothing about him, as we know next to nothing about so many other prophets and revolutionaries from his time period. It is the resurrection that fuels the fires and makes Jesus' impact unimaginably significant. But given that we know what comes next, we examine the details of Jesus' death and find immeasurable wealth here.

Take one tiny moment out of the narrative as an example. The story of the dialogue between Jesus and one of the two criminals crucified next to him is unique to Luke. We don't know the names of these criminals, and scholars debate if they were thieves, rebels, or what. Luke reports that one of the two recognized their sentences were just, however, and that Jesus' was not. He appeals to Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom." It is an odd statement to say the least. Jesus is hours away from death, just as he himself is. Neither will be coming down from their crosses alive, and the coming hours will include unimaginable pain.

The gospels stop just short of stating the fact that the cross is, in fact, Jesus' throne, but the implication is clear. He is crowned with thorns, and the sign above his head (a Roman custom so that passersby could see the sentence for which each criminal had received this terrible punishment) proclaims him "king of the Jews." He has just completed a procession into Jerusalem in which he received accolades as "son of David." He has debated the meaning of that title with Jewish authorities. A few days earlier, when two of his closest followers asked to sit at his right and left when he was enthroned, he deflected their question, stating that those positions were not his to grant, but that they belonged to those for whom they had been prepared. And here are the two thieves, one on Jesus' right and one on his left, as he hangs in agony and glory.

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Perhaps this is the plea of a dying man, looking for a way off the cross, hoping to see the miracle worker do one last amazing thing. Or maybe it's the recognition by a criminal that his sentence is just, but the universe is ruled over by a merciful God -- and he is bold to ask for pardon.

Jesus' response shows that either he is privy to information unavailable to the soldiers and mockers watching him die a slow death, or else he is completely deluded: "Today you will be with me in paradise." Theologians and cosmologists have debated ad nauseam what these words mean. At the very least, they seem to provide hope for a dying criminal. Down through the ages, countless numbers of Jesus' followers have seen themselves in this thief's place, asking for mercy from Jesus in their desperate hour. Note that the request doesn't say, "Help me avoid the consequences of my actions," nor does it say "Make it as if I'd never done anything wrong." The request is simply, "Remember me." What that looks like, the petitioner leaves up to Jesus.

At the very least, such a request requires trust, and trust is perhaps the oddest of commodities coming from a man being executed on a cross. There's a lot here to learn about the nature of faith: It comes when all other options are gone, when hope itself looks like a delusion. And in this utter helplessness, we see anew the depth and power of the incarnation of Jesus: Being in the form of God, he didn't count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, and took the form of a criminal on a Roman cross so that he could reach this criminal who has thrown self-justification to the wind and has simply reached out for mercy.

In a few hours, Jesus' lifeless body will be pierced with a spear even as the thieves' legs are broken to hasten their deaths. Jesus will be buried in a borrowed tomb and his followers will quietly reassemble in an upper room in Jerusalem, convinced they need to figure out how to go back to life as it was before Jesus called them to follow.

It looks a lot like the end of a tragic story. Appearances can be deceiving.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Joy in the moment

Every morning, almost without exception, I start my day reading Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest along with a few other readings. I was telling a friend the other day that for me, reading Chambers isn't like reading the Bible; rather, Chambers becomes a good sparring partner, a fellow saint who often sees things differently than I do and we have interesting and challenging conversations about what it means to follow Jesus.

Today, Chambers was on about God's provision, and how we need to recognize (among other things) what it is God has given us. We are (I am) too prone to self pity, and that attitude leads inevitably to a cesspit of ... well, here's how he says it:

If we give way to self-pity and indulge in the luxury of misery, we banish God’s riches from our own lives and hinder others from entering into His provision.

He goes on to say that no sin is worse than self pity, because it "obliterates God and puts self interest on the throne." I started thinking about this and realized yet again how richly blessed I am:

  • Just in the last few days I've had multiple conversations with good friends about important topics -- conversations laced with humor and grace and joy. I've had the privilege of hosting some of these treasured friends in my home, cooking and eating and relaxing together in this very peaceful place, and I anticipate more of that tonight. Among the most important of those excellent encounters are regular in-depth conversations with each of my daughters and my son-in-law. Those relationships are incredibly rich these days.

  • I get to work both my mind and my body in the most amazing combination of physical, mental, and spiritual exercise that enriches me and blesses others and feels like a tangible way to do what God commanded Adam -- to steward the earth and tend it well. It doesn't hurt that for me, that work has lately included putting in a couple of docks here on "my" lake, driving all over my almost 70 acres of Eden in a beat up old pickup (not to mention getting farther back into the woods on a 4-wheeler) to do acts of service to make others' ministry possible, and watching deer, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, bass, a surprising catfish and innumerable birds. The fruit trees are blooming these days and flowers are poking up through the detritus of winter all around. 

  • Since early April when the church I serve re-ordained me into official pastoral roles, ministry has been a growing thing. So I balance the more physical groundskeeping parts of my life and living onsite at Decision Hills with building communities that meet in homes and pursuing that passion, working like a sheepdog for the health and beauty of this particular congregation, and -- this is one I really love lately -- developing a new format for our Wednesday night worship called "Growing Deeper" that gives me a chance to teach at a deeper level each week around topics that are, biblically speaking, really important, and designed for people who want to grapple with intellectually challenging facets of Christianity. (BTW if you're interested in listening to those teachings, we're posting the audio as podcasts on iTunes -- just search for The Open Door Christian Church and you can find us.) 

  • New opportunities to have a "voice" in this world abound. Yesterday I had a conversation about maybe going to Colombia in August to explore mission opportunities, so I need to resurrect my rusty Spanish. I'm in conversation about bopping off to the Philippines next winter to explore new relationships and renew old ones. I'm working on my writing at a new level these days, getting over some of my inherent sloth and disengagement in intentional ways. I'm learning and growing in multiple ways that are deeply satisfying to me and that have the potential to increase that ability to speak into the world.

There are more examples of God's abundant provision in my life, and I could go on. Does this mean everything in life is delightful and I'm content? Not hardly. I could easily make a list of challenging things, unpleasant things. I could enumerate all the ways life is less than satisfying. That's the point of writing out this list, at least in part. There are times when I get down in the weeds of things I wish were different. Sometimes my longing, my sense of brokenness and alienation and loneliness and deprivation and dissatisfaction makes me want to tear my teeth out. If I allow my focus to become myopic on those parts of my life, I can swirl down into the cesspit pretty quickly. It's important to recount for myself the incredible ways God has provided for me. As Chambers says this morning, "What does it matter if external circumstances are hard? Why should they not be!" It's a good reminder that just because God invites us into "good pastures" (Psalm 37) doesn't mean we have everything we desire and it certainly doesn't mean that we will be content.

Recounting the good God has done is an important spiritual discipline. Recognizing provision in the moment -- even if there are elements of God's provision we still long for, completely unsatisfied -- provides perspective and opens the possibility of joy in the moment, trusting God for joy in the future.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Luke 22:63-23:16

In his excellent book, The Day the Revolution Began, N.T. Wright asserts that the crucifixion of Jesus initiates a revolution. The revolution, he says, is that self-sacrificing love is taking over. In fact, he makes a powerful argument that self-sacrificing love is the most powerful force in the universe, and that Jesus' life, death and resurrection start setting the broken, sin-sick universe back in line with the character of God whose nature is self-sacrificing love.

Most of us have a soft spot, however deeply hidden, for stories of "true love." While we may trivialize this term with tales of overblown heroes and heroines, there's something in us that loves a love story.

This section of Luke's gospel brings us into such a story, the most true love story of all time, and we may be surprised what love looks like. Jesus stands, in turn, before the temple guard, before the Sanhedrin, before Pilate (and Caesar, whose power is the foundation of all Pilate does), before Herod, and before Pilate again. In short, Jesus stands in apparent weakness before the greatest powers ruling over that part of the world. What power does he bring to bear in this contest?

Weakness. Jesus brings the willingness to sacrifice himself. Why? Out of love. "Greater love has no one than this," Jesus said, "that he lay down his life for his friends" (see John 15). Jesus stands without making a defense in the presence of those who have made themselves his enemies, and he goes to the cross for their sake and for the sake of the world. The New Living Translation of Romans 5:10 says that "our friendship with God was restored while we were still his enemies." Jesus sacrifices himself in love for Pilate, Herod, the Jewish authorities, the temple guard with their whips and their crown of thorns, the Roman soldiers tasked with flogging him within an inch of his life, and us.

But is it reasonable to say that Jesus' self-sacrificing love is a greater power than all these worldly authorities? Isn't that just insipid idealism?

Look at the results. The temple guard and the Roman soldiers are nameless to us. Herod is remembered by history as an egotistical tyrant in a long line of egotistical tyrants who bore that name. Pilate washed his hands to avoid guilt and is remembered for little else today but this one action. Tiberius Caesar's empire endured the ravages of history for another four hundred years before the Visigoths sacked Rome and brought the empire to a whimpering end.

In comparison, the impact and influence of Jesus has just continued to grow. This bleeding man, sacrificing himself before the authorities and powers of his day, sparked a revolution that has expanded from that day to this. The irreconcilable divide between Jews and Gentiles was bridged within a generation and continues to pull together what the world keeps trying to split apart. Jesus' followers stood loving in the face of a Greek and Roman culture that discarded the handicapped, aborted and exposed unwanted infants, and abandoned the sick. Christ-followers willingly gave up their lives to protest the grisly spectacle of gladiatorial games and needless violence simply for the sake of entertainment. When Europe descended into darkness and ignorance after the fall of Rome, tight-knit communities of Jesus' followers preserved learning and invented western science. Similar communities created large-scale health care and hospitals. This movement that Jesus started became a refuge for women who were normally viewed as property.

The record of Christianity has been far from perfect. Far too often those who claim the name of Jesus act more like Herod or Pilate. But compared to what the world was without Jesus' self-sacrificing love, the changes wrought by this Galilean and his followers are staggering. Looking at the broad sweep of history, Jesus' movement has indeed been a revolution.

It is a sinking feeling to stand in the face of power, willing to be brutalized for the sake of love. But I am convinced Wright has expressed this accurately: In the long run, there is no power in the universe capable of greater things than self-sacrificing love.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Seagull Lake

Pines at my back stand tower straight, their
shadows like arrows drag sharp blades across the
early morning misty lake in front of me,
slow-slicing through minnows and whirligigs,
climbing sun behind, drawing their
shafts ever shorter and northward but
then the loon calls clear soprano across the
water the ripples stop mid-rip and for just
that moment I see clearly the pine-shadow arrowheads
point me westward like a summons, like yearning
like an invitation to adventurous joy

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Christ loves the church

The idea of marriage as a metaphor for Christ's relationship with the church is a difficult one and is rarely dealt with graciously and biblically. Biola University has been producing a series of Lenten devotions I've been following, and in their post-Easter days I found this reflection very profound. Each devotion includes artwork, music, scripture, poetry, meditation, and prayer. Profound, solid biblical stuff.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Luke 22:39-62

There is a powerful song -- probably one of the earliest Christian worship songs -- recorded in Philippians 2. It talks about how the eternal Son of God did not count his status as God something to be grasped but emptied himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Theologians talk about this as Jesus' kenosis, from the Greek word used here to describe this "emptying." What we see in this passage of Luke is still more of Jesus emptying himself. At the beginning of this passage you could make the argument that Jesus is still a powerful figure. He is an influential teacher, the leader of a committed group of disciples. He has widespread appeal to masses of people and some influential friends. His miracles and his movement have drawn the attention of both the crowds of common people and of the ruling elite. Little by little, everything is stripped from Jesus.

Jesus goes in darkness to the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, to pray. This was near the home of his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but Jesus stays in the garden that night, in a grove of ancient olive trees. He is in agony, knowing what is to come and yearning for another way forward. His committed disciples are a short distance away, but they're sleeping. Of course they still believe themselves loyal, even to death, but they just can't stay awake.

Except Judas. Judas is wide awake, and he leads a band of thugs to this spot precisely for the purpose of betraying Jesus. The disciples try to fight and Jesus prevents the conflict from escalating. Cut off from their "fight" reflex, the disciples resort to "flight" and run off into the darkness. Jesus is left alone with his betrayer and with those who will take him to an illegal trial under cover of darkness.

Peter trails along at a distance in the dark. He longs to stand up for Jesus, but after being rebuked by Jesus for striking out with his sword (not to mention proving himself a less-than-adequate swordsman by merely cutting off a man's ear) he is uncertain. Like so many of us Peter is drawn to Jesus but afraid to take a stand.

Peter's presence provides the next step in Jesus' emptying. As long as Peter kept his mouth shut, we might believe that at the very least, scattered though they are, Jesus' followers remain loyal. We might say that Jesus still has some stalwarts hidden here and there. But Peter betrays this fantasy for what it is. Peter speaks three times, each time denying that he even knows Jesus -- and this (in all likelihood) happens in Jesus' hearing.

The eternal Son of God gave up the glory of heaven -- the incessant worship of angels who  sang his praises and proclaimed his power, the acknowledgement that it is him, the Son, who holds all the universe together -- he gave all that up to become human. In the measureless wisdom of God, he was born as a tiny baby in an out-of-the-way corner of Judea. We celebrate that at Christmas every year. But here the incarnation becomes complete in its unfathomable existential measure: Jesus is cut off from his community, his influence, his reputation. He is no longer the one who gave sight to the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, he is a shameful criminal, deserted by his band of rabble and pressed into an inquisition under cover of darkness.

He is truly what Isaiah described -- despised and rejected, a man from whom we hide our faces. Smitten and rejected, utterly alone, without appeal and without beauty.

Strangely, the Bible insists that Jesus did this for us. There are depths to plumb here, but for the moment let it be enough to say this: No matter what rejection you have suffered, what betrayals you have endured; no matter what loneliness haunts you, what isolation cuts you off from love and from community; no matter how your reputation has been smeared, no matter how your actions and words have been twisted, Jesus has been there before you, and he has fallen deeper into the abyss than you have gone. You are not alone in the pit. The Son of God loved you and gave his life -- not just his ability to breathe, not just his heartbeat, but his relationships, his reputation, his status -- for you. He died the death you fear, so that you are never, can never be alone. Even if your narrative gets worse -- and it might -- so will Jesus' story. He has the trials, the flogging, the cross yet to endure. But in the end, he died your death so that you need not endure without hope, and he rose from death so that you know you, too, will rise -- not just from death but from meaninglessness, from hopelessness, from alienation and isolation. The Garden of Gethsemane is for you. The cross is for you. The resurrection is for you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Luke 22:24-38

It is the night of Jesus' betrayal and arrest. He has shared in his last meal with the disciples, and now he has a few key things to teach them before he is taken from them. What will he focus on?

Jesus' initial teaching goes to the heart of his message, but it doesn't arise from a carefully prepared lesson plan. Instead, Jesus responds to his disciples' bickering -- whether playful or serious, we can't know -- about who would have the highest station in his coming kingdom. There is so much a person could say about this: the height of the disciples' rudeness, how completely they have missed his point over the past three years, the radical shift in understanding that is to come in the next few days, and more. Let's focus for just a moment on what seems to be Jesus' key point. He contrasts the world's understanding of authority and power and greatness over against his own kingdom and a kingdom-based understanding of power. Jesus says "I am among you as one who serves."

Then Jesus says something that, if we're not careful, sounds like underneath it all he truly does buy into this world's views on power. He affirms that the disciples have stayed with him in his trials (v. 28) and he goes on to say that he is giving them his kingdom, just as his Father gave it to him, that they may eat and drink and serve as judges in that kingdom. Our initial assumption about Jesus' meaning might be that finally they will be rewarded for their faithfulness -- that Jesus will give them some indulgence, some reward. Be careful here: Our views on what constitutes power have been so twisted by this world's assumptions that we are in great danger of completely missing Jesus here.

When Jesus assigns a kingdom to his disciples, when he affirms them for standing with him over time and trial, when he tells them they will eat and drink and judge the twelve tribes of Israel, he is not conferring titles and uniforms and power structures on them. Rather, he is telling them that as he has invited them to follow him and they have obeyed, they will step into his character and his role. He is the one who rules over the kingdom as the suffering king. He is the one who eats (by being obedient to his Father's will, cf. John 4) and drinks the cup he is about to suffer (cf. v. 42). He is the judge who, by his very presence and by people's reactions to him, judges the nation. So the disciples will "rule" by embodying Jesus' nature as the suffering king. They will be figures of immense spiritual authority as they go out into the world to proclaim Jesus' resurrection, and they will suffer terribly. They will recognize God's will to save the nations through Jesus' death and resurrection and through their proclamation, and they will strive to be obedient to that will. They will take up the cup of martyrdom. They will indeed inherit Jesus' kingdom. They will proclaim freedom for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed in the name of the risen King Jesus.

None of this confers on them the authority to raise an army, levy taxes, build a property base, or line their own pockets. When Jesus' followers have stepped into these kinds of worldly activities, we are a far cry from his kingship and his kingdom. As if to make this comically clear, Jesus advises the disciples to arm themselves (this is a tough passage for those who say Jesus is a pure pacifist). In response to Jesus' words about making sure they have swords, the disciples say they have two. Hardly an army, not enough even to be an armed gang -- but Jesus says it is enough.

Working through the gospel of Luke these past months, I have been struck over and over again how completely Jesus turns the values of our world upside-down, and how hard it is for us to read his words without simply importing them into our own understandings. We must learn to know Jesus' character and read his heart. As we do, we will find ourselves bit by bit transformed until we look like him in some ways ... and we will begin to take up the kingdom of servant-love he has assigned to us.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Luke 22:1-23

The threads of the story draw together now. The authorities have taken their stand against Jesus, and have moved from being disgruntled and upset about him to actively plotting to kill him. Jesus' disciples are nervous, even terrified, but even more they are clueless and simply trying to follow faithfully. Judas steps up to be the tool of Jesus' betrayal, willingly putting himself in the breach between the Jewish authorities and their plots and Jesus' last few days of human freedom before his death.

What of Jesus? Do we see Jesus as a victim or victor here? In the way of biblical truth, Jesus is both. Biblical truth is usually paradoxical; we must not choose a middle ground that reconciles the extremes, but rather live in both ends of the extremes at once. Most of the classic arguments of Christian theology find their best solutions in this methodology. Take, for example, the ongoing debate in our day between those who say God is absolutely sovereign and all is predetermined, on one hand, and those who say we are free to choose salvation on the other. Sometimes these positions are labeled Calvinism and Arminianism, though I'm of course caricaturing both without doing justice to either. But I know several prominent Christian schools that expect their students to choose, and thereby to align themselves with one or the other. How can we do this? The only way to do Christian theology in a biblical way is to live at both extremes. Of course God's sovereignty extends to the movement of every atom in the universe. Of course God has given us mind-boggling freedom to choose. If we let go of either extreme, our theology quickly becomes twisted and unbiblical.

Jesus here is absolutely a victim. He is the innocent lamb, about to be taken by the powers, run through an illegal sham of a trial, and sacrificed through the machinations of the Roman overseers. Satan will have a field day manipulating the temple authorities, the Roman governor, the disciples, Judas, and all the rest. How can you read this story and not have a terrible, pit-of-the-stomach sense of revulsion and hopelessness in the face of such injustice, such brutality, such horror?

But Jesus is the victor. Like Aslan knowing the deeper magic of the Stone Table, Jesus deftly navigates the machinations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. He has carefully arranged allies in key positions that will allow him to fulfill the scriptures, to tie together the threads of the Passover into a simple meal of bread and wine that he will bequeath to his followers in the night in which he is betrayed. He directs Peter and John to the upper room like a spymaster, knowing the hours are counting down and he will soon give himself to those who will beat and crucify him. He is absolutely powerless and absolutely in control.

There is hope for us in seeing Jesus in this biblical way. We have freedom to create webs of sin and error, intrigue and entropy, and we deal with the consequences of our own actions. We bear our sin and its fathomless stupidity. At the same time, Jesus, the Crucified One, lives to pardon us, to wipe our slates clean, to speak a new identity into our poisonous webs: There is therefore now no condemnation. Find yourself in me. Know yourself through my Father's words. You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

Both are true. You are a sinner, deserving of complete condemnation. You are completely free, exalted in Christ to complete innocence before your heavenly Father.

You say you can't reconcile these extremes? Don't try. Hold them in tension, rather, and use each to respond to the other. When you wake up and see only ugliness in the mirror, hear the words of Jesus calling you his beloved. When you exult in your achievements and your holiness, be reminded that you are completely undeserving, saved only by the goodness of God's grace.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Biblical faithfulness?

It's interesting to consider what faithfulness to God's calling really looks like. Biblically speaking, so often it looks foolish to the people around us, and the Bible is clear about that.

I really appreciated Carey Nieuwhof's thoughts on the topic here. Hope you take time to read it and pore / pray over both past and future decisions!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Luke 21:5-38

We need to take seriously that all of Christianity is based historically, and the basis of Christianity is not our period in history, but that of Jesus.

This is so obviously important when it comes to a passage like this in Luke 21. Too often, modern readers read a passage like this purely in reference to themselves and an anticipated "second coming of Jesus." Now, the New Testament does talk about Jesus coming again, very clearly. But we so often become self-centered and read this chapter purely in reference to our own time, to our own expectations, to our own anticipation of how soon Jesus might come back for us. We completely miss the point, and it has hurt our churches. So much.

While deeply committed Christians may read the Bible, even they rarely get to know the history of the first century. Some will know a little bit about the fact that the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, but even that tidbit doesn't help them read their Bibles better. Instead, they go on reading as though every word was written for their self-focus.

Fact is, it is of tremendous value to read the Bible, and I believe with all my heart that God speaks through its words. But we have to add a step. Like Linus in the Peanuts comic strip when he was telling Charlie Brown how he felt guilty going to Vacation Bible School where they were studying the letters of Paul, we are "reading other people's mail." That's exactly what we are doing, and we need to take that seriously.

The original audience for Luke's gospel was a man named Theophilus, most likely a Roman official who had become a Christian. Beyond that, Luke rapidly came to circulate within the Christian communities of the first century. They at least could read it with some sense of its proper context.

We, however, take a chapter like this one and we read it from our own perspective, never thinking about the fact that Jesus' original hearers lived in a completely different frame of reference than we do. So we misunderstand a lot of what Jesus said because we read in this irresponsible way.

When we start to dig into the first century historical events Jesus was talking about -- and if you doubt that was Jesus' intent, you are ignoring verses 6-7 and verse 32 -- there is a lot to learn. Where can a person start? Here are a few recommendations:

  1. Get a good academic study Bible. Life Application Bibles and such are great, but if you want to dig deeper into what the Bible is really saying and learn a bit of the history, find a Bible that includes diagrams of Jerusalem, timelines of the period between the Testaments, and talks about which Roman emperors were in power when the New Testament was being written.
  2. Read a few articles on an easy to understand source, even one like Wikipedia. Here are some ideas what might be most helpful to read about: 
    1. The Jewish War of 66-70
    2. Several Roman emperors including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and Domitian. 
    3. Study up on "apocalyptic literature" and realize what exactly it is, and what it is trying to accomplish.
  3. A good historical atlas of the Bible is very helpful, whether online or in print. Often church libraries have one of these stuck back in a dusty corner somewhere. 
  4. Read up on Josephus, and then dabble in his histories a bit. Josephus was roughly contemporary of the Apostle Paul and wrote extensive histories of the Jewish people and a fascinating autobiography that gives us tremendous insights into the world of the New Testament. 
How will this kind of study change your reading of the Bible? Let's start with Luke 21. What will we learn about this chapter?
  • Realize the context. Jesus and his disciples are speaking as they look at the temple, still under construction, being built out of massive limestone blocks. It was a huge project undertaken by Herod the Great who died in 4 BC, but the project continued on and was finished a few years after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The project was designed to intimidate and inspire. The giant white blocks (a few from the platform are still visible at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but as Jesus predicted the temple itself was knocked down completely) gleamed and gave the Jewish people of Jesus' day a deep sense of national pride -- a national pride that eventually led to the revolts that precipitated the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. 
  • Everything Jesus described in this chapter happened in the generation after his crucifixion and resurrection. But what about verses 25-33?? Surely here Jesus is talking about his own second coming? Not so fast. Don't skip over verse 32! Jesus says he is talking about the generation of his hearers. What then, to do with the words about "the Son of Man coming on the clouds"? Here is where studying apocalyptic literature becomes helpful. While in our day we are tempted to read for some literal meaning, Jesus' contemporaries out of necessity became experts at shrouding their meanings in figurative religious language. So the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation in our Bible, along with other passages here and there, are full of apocalyptic imagery that is designed to hide its meaning from the enemies of God's people but to reveal basic truths and encourage God's faithful people. Jesus' words here are an apocalyptic way of speaking of the rise of Jesus' own followers and the spread of his message throughout the Roman world, not of some cosmic second coming. (Though, as stated earlier, the New Testament does in fact teach about Jesus' second coming -- just not right here.) 
  • Always, always in the New Testament when we read about these "end times" kinds of teachings, scripture points us clearly -- usually in the very next breath -- to pay attention to our own conduct. This passage is no exception, as Jesus brings his teaching home in verse 34-36. Watch yourselves. Stay awake. Pay attention. This is where Jesus calls us to focus. Don't get fascinated by end times speculation. Instead, do what Jesus clearly calls you to do. Meet together for worship. Pray. Steep yourself in scripture. Be kind to your neighbors. Bear witness to all God has done for you. Don't grow weary. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Luke 20:41-21:4

Jesus turns the tables on his detractors. He asks them a thorny scriptural question that contradicts their common wisdom and opens the door for them to recognize his authority if they're willing. But sadly, they are not. So Jesus speaks an open warning that his disciples, the crowds, and even the Jewish leaders can hear: Beware of them, beware of their love of appearances, of their longing for human recognition. They love status. They serve themselves rather than living in submission and dependence on God. Jesus says they "devour widows' houses" -- a ringing condemnation that echoes many of the prophets. (I'm currently reading Amos, and his condemnation of the Israelites' social injustice and their religious hypocrisy and showmanship are lockstep with Jesus at this point.)

Then Jesus moves on to contrast an actual widow with these leaders. Remember that the chapter divisions were added later. If you were just reading through this text as a narrative, it would be hard to miss the obvious connection between "widows' houses" and the widow who, out of her poverty and out of her faith offers her pittance to God. She becomes the poster child for trust and submission, in contrast to the scribes' scheming and self-focus. She is living out Jesus' command in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to "seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness" and to lay up treasures in heaven. Jesus makes this connection explicit when he comments on her giving by saying "this poor widow has put in more than all of them."

As we'll see next time, the self-seeking power games of the scribes and authorities bring down not only condemnation on themselves, but on the whole temple institution and the future of Israel as a political entity. Again, Jesus echoes the prophets when he says that their agendas and refusal to recognize what God is doing will not stand.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Luke 20:27-40

Writing and pondering this story in the run-up to Valentines Day, I suppose it's not surprising that the biggest contrast I see between Jesus and his detractors (in this case, the Sadducees) is love.

Ironic, isn't it, that the Sadducees' question is built around marriage. But their approach (besides the fact that they are simply using this hypothetical situation to entrap Jesus, and so love is out the window from the get-go) is legalistic, rule-bound, wooden. There's no pathos in their storytelling. There's no concern for the specific people in the situation. There's no compassion. It's exactly like the "lifeboat" ethics problems that were popular a generation ago -- there are five people on a lifeboat, but the lifeboat can only hold two. Who will you throw overboard?

I've been reading Bob Goff's book, Everybody Always lately. Goff does a great job of pointing in his homespun way back to Jesus' command that we should love one another. Always. Almost without exception, our rules and principles get in the way of love rather than empowering it. Beyond the basic expectations of human decency that are reflected in the most elementary structures of justice, we fine-tune our systems to decide who is in and who is out, who measures up and who doesn't, who is worthy and who is to be discarded. There's also a serious irony here. Perhaps more than anything else, we focus these systems on ourselves and not surprisingly, find ourselves wanting. We fall short. We are broken. We have sinned and continue to sin. We don't look like the airbrushed models in the ads. We've gained a few pounds. We binge-watch Netflix. We find the most creative ways to shame ourselves, to draw circles that exclude us from being accepted, from being loved.

Without doubt, the most systematic of the New Testament writers is the Apostle Paul. He carefully reasons out the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Jesus' death and resurrection, and if anyone is willing to draw hard lines, it's Paul. Yet, when he's summing up the implications of what Jesus did, Paul over and over again says it comes down to drawing bigger circles that include us all. My favorite summary of this position comes at the beginning of one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, Romans 8. Paul writes, "There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus" (emphasis added, though it's fair to say that the entire New Testament was written in ALL CAPS in the original Greek, which is kind of funny when you think of it through the filter of today's social media conventions). No condemnation is another way of saying there's no shame. There's no possibility of being excluded. As Paul says at the end of that same wonderful chapter, there's nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. Nothing.

We can certainly turn away, rebel, exclude ourselves, and most of us do. But the upshot of this brilliant message is that when we allow God to turn us back to himself, we find open doors and open arms. The tragedy (as C.S. Lewis so strikingly portrays in his excellent book The Great Divorce) is that so many of us choose separation from God and condemn ourselves, in spite of God's superabundant love.

So the Sadducees lay a trap for Jesus, and Jesus responds with something like, "Don't you get it? It's about love, and you've completely missed the point." Human love -- even the greatest human love like that in an excellent marriage -- is an arrow pointing toward the real source of love, God himself and his love for us. Why would you keep the treasure map when you find the treasure? Though I suppose you might tack the treasure map up on the wall as a nostalgic reminder of the journey and what an adventure it was. In a similar way, maybe our imperfect human loves will be nostalgic reminders in heaven of God's love and how we began in imperfect, partial ways to know him and his measureless love for us.

The last point to make is this: Jesus' response to the Sadducees, though it seems harsh, was exactly what love looked like in that situation. He was confronting not their surface question, but the assumptions that kept them from knowing the living God in his fullness. The last line of the story -- that from that point on they no longer dared to ask him any question -- is hopeful not because questioning God is wrong, but because questioning God from a position of arrogant superiority is foolhardy. One can hope that their silence came from humility and a sense of having their eyes opened to the love standing in front of them.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Luke 20:19-26

This brief story points out exactly how the world treats Jesus, and exactly how Jesus treats the world.

Note, to start with, that the religious leaders understand (v. 18) that Jesus has publicly called them out by telling the previous parable. He has named them as unfaithful tenants in God's vineyard. Their response? They could have repented, but instead they sent spies hoping to catch Jesus in words they could later use to convict him. Note also that they have increased the stakes in the game: They're no longer just trying to smear Jesus in the court of public opinion, but their question is specifically about how to deal with the Romans. They want to get Jesus not just disgraced, but executed.

The heart of their question: Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? The people hated their Roman overlords, and popular sentiment would immediately answer, who cares if it's lawful -- we need to rebel! The Jewish leaders who sent these spies, however, were colluding with the Romans to maintain a relatively stable political climate so they could maintain their power base.

Jesus takes his answer, again, to a new level. It's not just a question of taxation, he says, but of identity. Show me the coin. Whose image is on the coin? (Jewish coinage, by the way, never included a human form like Roman coins did, because of the Old Testament prohibition against graven images.) Caesar's image is on the coin, they said. So Jesus, knowing that these spies as well as everyone else in earshot will get the allusion, says they should give to Caesar the things that bear his image (i.e., the coins -- pay your taxes) and to God the things that bear his image.

No listener would have missed this: In Genesis 1, God said he was going to make human beings in his own image and according to his likeness. So even in the face of this seemingly niggling question about taxation, Jesus points to the ultimate authority of God and challenges his hearers toward repentance: You are made in the image of God. Therefore, pay your coins to Caesar but give yourself to God. Stop worrying about self-preservation and render your heart to God, then see where he leads you.

It is not very hard to transpose Jesus' comments into our own era. We who tend to be so consumed with the matters of costs and benefits, of ownership and acquisition: Whose image do we bear? And are we giving ourselves, heart and soul, to God, living as his reflections, his image, in this world?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Luke 20:1-18

The two related pieces of this text force us to examine a Jesus with sharp edges. The New Testament is clear that Jesus comes as judge -- but our normal picture of what this means, of Jesus sitting on a throne saying "This one's a sheep ... this one's a goat ... sheep ... goat ... goat ... sheep" is incomplete at best, and probably messes us up in some significant ways. In these eighteen verses we see a clear example of how Jesus judges people and what that looks like. If we're paying attention, we might find out something about our own call to "judge" and what it looks like for Jesus-followers to act as judges over the world.

First section: Verses 1-8:
The Jewish leaders (who are nervous about protecting their own authority) come to Jesus to challenge him. They want to know how come he sees his own teachings and actions, which are often critical of the current leadership, as legitimate. Where does his authority come from? Jesus recognizes that it's not an honest question, so he poses a question in return, asking about the legitimacy of John's prophetic movement and his practice of baptizing people who came to repent and align themselves with what God was doing. The leaders had stood at a safe distance evaluating John's movement, of course, so they couldn't answer either way, and they realize it. Recognizing their unwillingness to be judged, Jesus refuses to answer their question. And in their actions, in their unwillingness to side with Jesus even if he is legitimate, they judge themselves. (For a longer, but extremely provocative take on this, read C.S. Lewis' excellent book The Great Divorce and get multiple examples of what it looks like when people judge themselves.) They reveal the state of their unrepentant hearts. Jesus doesn't need to say, "See? You're a bunch of unholy jerks." Their self-protection, their motives, their unwillingness to interact honestly with the truth, are all visible for anyone with eyes to see.

Second section: Verses 9-18:
So Jesus tells a story not to scold them, but to put their actions in context. He chooses the familiar imagery of a vineyard (see Isaiah 5, for example), a common way of speaking figuratively about God's chosen people. The question is, have you who are in authority been faithful tenants? Have you recognized the rights and supremacy of the owner rather than just serving yourselves? Through Jesus' story, the lesson finally starts to sink in. When Jesus tells what will happen to the tenants of the vineyard, the leaders hear him speaking their future, and they respond "Surely not!" If all Jesus is doing is telling a story, why does it matter? But Jesus is telling their story, making their actions clear for all to understand.

The question we have to ask, then, is this: What authority has God given you? What is the vineyard God has entrusted to you, and are you honoring him in the way you manage it?

Lest we read this selfishly and make it all about ourselves -- "Someday Jesus will come back ... maybe any day now ... and then this will be fulfilled!" -- know that Jesus' words very literally came true about forty years later. The vineyard that was Israel was gutted and the current systems of leadership were completely destroyed. What wasn't completed in the Jewish War of 66-70 AD was mopped up in the Bar Kochba revolt another sixty-five years later. From that day on, Jewish leadership in the world was radically changed. It is also arguable that the primary vehicle God uses to communicate his presence and character to the world shifted from Second Temple Judaism to the fledgling Jesus movement that spread like wildfire through the Roman Empire and beyond.

History is important, because we might be able to see in these events some indicators of our own situation. We live in one of the great shifts of the Christian movement, what some have described as a shift past the "Christendom" where Christianity enjoyed status and privilege and power, into something we don't know how to define yet but for the moment we're just calling "post-Christendom." Is it possible that for decades and even centuries Christian churches got complacent serving themselves rather than recognizing and participating in the mission God had for them? And is it possible that in our day, God is giving that "vineyard" to Jesus-focused movements that are more true to his mission?

It's worth pondering.

In the next few verses we'll be seeing Jesus' own perspective on living in tension with culture -- especially religious culture -- and how to interact with a wider society that is opposed to God's rule. Hang on for the ride!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Watching the snow fall

My attention lately has been focused elsewhere, and I've been delinquent about updating this blog. I've been focusing on the launch of some mid-sized groups -- "pastorates" in the language I've used in the past, and "Life Groups" according to what we're currently calling them. They're mid-sized groups (25-50 people) that meet in homes (yes, it's wonderfully crowded, and yes, your home is big enough) and are led by a team of people who cover the various roles of teaching, administration, mission, hospitality, etc. This has been exciting for me. It's really fun to see these home-based groups launching in a way that brings so much of what the New Testament describes as "church" to life in the 21st century! We've got three Life Groups up and running now, and anticipate launching at least a couple more later this spring.

I've also been launching another Alpha course, and that will take up the lion's share of my day today. Alpha complements Life Groups so well, and provides such a great way for people to build community, explore life's deeper questions, and come to know Jesus in a more personal way.

At the moment I'm watching the snow falling outside my window. This isn't supposed to amount to much, but it's coming down pretty enthusiastically at the moment. And tomorrow (first real Alpha session so the timing isn't great) we're supposed to get 5-8 inches of snow. I always get my hopes up for these storms and then too often they fizzle. However, once again I'm an optimist. I invested in a pair of aluminum snowshoes and trekking poles yesterday -- something I've been debating for at least a decade. I've got a traditional pair of snowshoes, and they're great, but for more serious winter activity the modern ones work a little more efficiently. I'm excited to get out on them later today, hopefully, if I can get my Alpha preparations done. We've had about four inches of a good base of snow here, and if we get another half a foot or more it will be about ideal for snowshoeing. I'll keep you posted.

That's my intention now -- to mix up posts that complete the task of working through Luke (I haven't forgotten) mixed with more personal updates about life on the lake here at Decision Hills. I've been embroiled in vehicle maintenance, furnace repair, and other joys of winter in Minnesota these last few weeks. But my intention, as I said, is to reengage in the discipline of writing here a bit. Apologies to those of you who might be checking this blog from time to time! Don't give up on me just yet.

In the meantime, since I'm continuing to pursue the discipline (ever so slowly) of learning Spanish, I'll say:

Qué día tan bonita! La nieve es muy hermosa!