Thursday, December 20, 2012

Baby Strength

      Here’s a truth you’ve probably never thought of: You can’t win an argument with a baby.  Ever notice that?  Think about it.  Babies don't try to compete, don't stand up to you, don't try to best you in an argument, and don't try to impress you with their answers. Indeed, they can't speak at all. You have to coax everything out of them, and that effort demands great patience.  Push at a baby too hard and it will begin to cry and the session is over.
And that is the Savior who was born in Bethlehem, and that is too how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby, God does not outgun anyone, out-muscle anyone, threaten anyone, or overpower anyone. The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less:  innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite in, have us hush our voices, teach us patience, and call forth what's best in us.
The power of Christmas is like the power of a baby; it underwhelms in such a way so as to eventually overwhelm. There is a greater power than muscle, speed, charisma, and any unstoppable force: If you were to put a baby into a room with the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world,  the baby would win every time.  Something about the baby's powerlessness would overwhelm the boxer. Such is the way of God, and that is the message of Christmas to those who have ears to hear.
But we have always been slow to understand this; we want our messiahs to possess more immediate power.   And we are in good company here, because for centuries the Jews longed for a messiah who would be kind of a human superhero, someone with the earthly muscle to bang heads together and rid the world of evil by might as well as right. 
Even John the Baptist expected the messiah to come with that kind of power. He was concerned with justice and repentance, but with a sackcloth and ashes—or, rather, camel hair and leather—kind of attitude.   He warned people of an approaching time of reckoning and expected the longed-for messiah to come precisely as a violent fire, a winnowing fan that would separate the bad from the good and burn up the former with a righteousness that came straight from God.  When he heard reports of Jesus gently inviting sinners in rather than casting them off, John was scandalized.  That wasn’t the kind of a messiah he expected.  Why, that wasn’t any kind of messiah at all.  Jesus didn't fit his expectations or his preaching. That's why Jesus, in sending a response to him, invites John not to be scandalized in him.  John hadn't wanted a gentle, vulnerable, peace-preaching messiah.  He wanted bad people punished, not converted.  But, to his credit, once he saw how Jesus' power worked, he got it.  He accepted a deeper truth, stepped back, and pointed people in Jesus' direction.   “He must increase and I must decrease. I'm not even worthy to untie his scandal strap!”
We too are slow to understand. Like John the Baptist, our impatience for truth and justice makes us want and expect a messiah who comes in earthly terms, all talent and muscle, banging heads together so as to rid the planet of falsehood and evil. We want the kind of messiah we see at the end of every Hollywood thriller, Mother Theresa turned into Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis, beating up the bad guys with a violence they can only envy.
But that's not the Christmas story.  That’s not the kind of power that God wields.  An infant lying in the straw in Bethlehem didn't outgun anyone. He just lay there, waiting for anyone, good or bad, to come to him, to see his helplessness, to feel a tug at his or her heart strings, and then gently try to coax a smile or a word out of him.
That's still how God meets us.
You can try to argue with that, but you won’t win.  Like John the Baptist, our ways must decrease, and his way—that of a baby—must increase.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


This time of year there is a lot of talk about virgins.  Well, one in particular.  Actually, when a lot of evangelicals talk about the virgin birth, they stay away from Mary.  Talking about the Virgin Mary is too Catholic and might lead to excessive Mary-veneration, and down the slippery slope of papacy we go!   No, evangelicals prefer to talk about the virgin birth of Jesus, as if he was the only important one involved.  The virgin birth is important because it demonstrates that Jesus did not descend from an earthly father.  He is God’s Son, and if a virgin birth doesn’t prove it, what does?  So the virgin birth tells us something important about Jesus, but nothing, really, about Mary.  Or you and me.
In other words, if all the virgin birth does  is point to Jesus’ divine nature, then it is one of those things about him that we can admire but not imitate.  Like the feeding of the 5,000, which is one of those really cool things that Jesus did but none of us should ever try, so also with the virgin birth.  It’s pretty cool, but none of us can do it ourselves.
But there is a moral challenge within the virgin birth which we shouldn’t ignore, something which invites imitation rather than just admiration.  To help us see this we need to briefly skip from Jesus’ birth to his death.  In those days tombs—usually caves—would contain the bones of numerous family members, but the gospel writers note that Jesus’ body was laid in a new, unused tomb.
Connection 1: Virgin womb, virgin tomb.
Luke adds that Joseph of Arimathea, who gave the tomb for Jesus burial, was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”  And after he was laid in the tomb the women had to wait until the Sabbath was over before they could anoint Jesus’ body.  That’s a lot of waiting going on.
Connection 2: A virgin is a young woman who waits.
Oh, it would be easy to make this about sex, but the virgin birth isn’t primarily about sex before, within, or outside of marriage; it’s primarily about waiting.  The virgin birth is about waiting  rather than acting, patience rather than impatience, reverence rather than irreverence, respect rather than disrespect, and accepting to live in tension and even frustration rather than giving up and giving in to desire.   A virgin's heart accepts the pain of inconsummation rather than sleeping with the bride before the wedding.
It is from the virgin womb  that Jesus was born, and it is from the virgin tomb that Jesus also was “born” again.  Both emphasize what kind of heart and soul is needed to create the space wherein something divine can be born.
We all know only too well that our lives are full of most everything that is not virginal or pure: impatience, disrespect, irreverence, manipulation, cynicism, egotism, pride, etc.; and, as we also all know, within this matrix no messiah can be conceived and nurtured.
Only virgins' wombs bring forth messiahs because they alone live in Advent, waiting for a bridegroom who is late, who is hopelessly late, beyond the eleventh hour.  And still the virgin waits, trusting that the bridegroom has not forgotten nor forsaken her.
Still ,the virgin waits, refusing all other suitors who tell her that waiting is for fools, that her bridegroom is never coming, that waiting is unnatural.
Still, the  virgin waits, refusing impatience, delaying passion, ignoring the urge of flesh on flesh and a divine Kingdom on human terms.
Messiahs are only born in virginity's space, within virginity's patience.
Letting love be gift.
And God be God.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Nobody likes to hear those words.  As children we were told that all the time, and we never liked it.  As adults we’ve all had to say it to a child or two.  Children don’t like to be told to wait.  If there is something good that they want, they want it now and can’t understand why they can’t have it now.  It’s part of the maturing process to learn how to wait.
Still, even as adults, nobody likes to be told to wait.  We’ve perhaps grown used to it, maybe come to accept it, but, still, nobody likes to hear it.  “Wait” means there is something you want, and you want it now, but you aren’t going to get it now.  You never have to be told to wait for something you don’t want or need.  “I'm going to question your integrity and impugn your character, but not right now; you are just going to have to wait.”  No, there is usually an element of anticipation in the notion of waiting.  You want something, you want it now, but you can’t have it now.  You have to wait.
It’s common now to say that we are not as good at waiting now as we used to be, that in this age of instant gratification, of microwave dinners and faster and faster computers that our waiting muscles aren’t as developed as they used to be.  There may be some truth to that.  Two-hundred years ago it could take a letter weeks or even months to get from one person to another, depending on the distance it had to travel.  Then came the locomotive cutting that time down, then the truck, then the airplane.  I remember when airmail was something special that you paid extra for that could cut delivery down to a couple of days; FedEx made it that normal.  When email came along messages could be delivered around the world instantly.  If I was away from my computer they would all be waiting for me when I got back.  Now I don't even have to wait for that—I have two devices, my tablet and my phone, from which I can get email, and since I'm rarely without my phone, I literally get mail almost as soon as it is sent.  So, yeah, we don’t have to wait for a lot of things the way we used to, and maybe that has impaired the waitability of this age over previous generations.
But I'm not so sure.  I'm not sure that waiting has ever been something we’ve been that good at.  Impatience isn’t a new condition; after all, Paul wouldn’t have listed patience among the fruit of the Spirit if impatience wasn’t naturally a fruit of the Flesh.
For kids, the Christmas season is a time of waiting and anticipation, and what makes it hard for children is that they have little concept of time—telling them to wait a week is like telling them to wait a month, they have no concept of how long that really is.  And, my goodness, tell them to wait a month and you might as well tell them to wait a lifetime.  That’s how it feels, anyway.  Do you remember that?  And that’s because, perhaps paradoxically, time moves slowly for a child.  For an adult months blow by like pieces of paper in a tornado, but for a child a month lasts forever.  Waiting is excruciating when time moves slowly.
But it’s one thing to wait for something you want; it’s another thing to have to wait for something you need.  That’s when time really does seem to move slowly.
This is the season of Advent.  It’s a season of waiting.  Advent lasts for roughly a month, but it commemorates a wait that lasted for over four hundred years.  After the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroying the temple and the city wall and carrying off the son of David who was the king, the people had to wait.  They had to wait for God to return to Zion and for another son of David to become king.    Understandably, after a couple of hundred years a lot of people gave up waiting.  They either gave up on the dream, or they gave up waiting and tried to force the action with a sword.  Either way, when God did return and the king did arrive—and in the same person, which no one anticipated—they couldn’t see it.   
The only ones who saw it were the ones who, with great faith and undying hope, still waited.

I'm Back

For those of you who look forward to reading my stuff...sorry, I've been neglectful the last few weeks.  I'll try to catch up in the next few days and try not to let it happen again.

Thanks for hanging with me.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Energy and Order

      In Genesis 1 God creates order out of chaos.  The original conditions were inhospitable to life—there was complete darkness, utter emptiness, no land, nothing but a raging wind over a restless sea.  Then God proceeds to bring order to the chaos—he creates light, he pushes  the sea back to allow the land to show, and he fills the emptiness with trees, fish, beasts and humans.  Order out of chaos.
But he doesn’t rid the earth of chaos, he simply restrains it.  But it is still there.  At any given time half the earth is in darkness.  Hurricanes form and the wind and sea rages, imposing itself over the dry land.  Tornadoes drop out of the sky, tear a path through the land, and recede back into the sky.  Rain falls for days, sending rivers over their banks; or it doesn’t fall at all, turning the landscape from lush green to dry brown.
But these are normal events.  Though they seem random and episodic, they are all quite common—and necessary.  Hurricanes and tornados regulate the earth’s surface temperatures, dissipating excess heat into the atmosphere.  Floods enrich the soil in the floodplains, bringing life everything living nearby.   In fact, engineering to contain flooding on the Mississippi  has had the unintended effect of creating more damage when there are floods, due to higher water levels and faster flows.  They also  are reducing the wetlands at the mouth of the river, leading to encroachment by the Gulf of Mexico northward. 
In other words, chaos is as necessary to life as order.  It helps to understand that what we call chaos is simply uncontrolled energy, and that’s not always such a bad thing.  Energy is a good thing.  Life is energy.   The soul is about energy.  There is only one body that does not have energy, and that is a dead one, and a dead body has no soul.  It has no energy.  Think about music.  Music that has no soul lacks energy, lacks the ability to move us.  The music that is so often heard in airports, supermarkets, and elevators is soulless.  It does nothing to you.  It doesn’t stir you.  It is just filler.  But certain music does stir you.  It is full of energy—what the Greeks called eros. 
The soul gives energy, but it also holds us together.  It makes us alive, but it also makes us one.  Once again, look at a dead body.  At the moment of death, all the chemicals that work together to form a single organism begin to go their own way.  As they fall away from each other, the body starts to fall apart.  This is the essence of decomposition.  The chemicals aren’t destroyed, they just don’t hold together anymore.
A healthy soul does two things for us.  First, it puts fire in our veins.  It keeps us energized, vibrant, zestful, and full of hope that life is worth living.  When this breaks down, something is wrong with our souls.  Cynicism, despair, bitterness and depression paralyze our energy.  Second, a healthy soul keeps us fixed together.  It gives us a sense of who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and what sense there is in all of this.  It holds us together as one.  So a healthy soul is a combination of energy and order, and each must be given its due.  Too much order and you die of suffocation; too much energy and you die of dissipation. 
That raging wind that blew over the restless sea in Genesis 1?  In Hebrew that word is ruach, and that same word is used for the Holy Spirit.  In fact many translations say that the Spirit of God was upon the face of the deep.  Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  You cannot control the Spirit, or a person infused with the Spirit.  And that same Spirit makes us one.   “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  (Eph. 4:4-6)
The Holy Spirit is both Energy and Order.  Our souls need both.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Love and Fear

“Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God.”                                                            —Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus

Fear is a good motivator.  It can keep you from doing things you shouldn’t, as when your mother warned you as a small child not to touch the hot stove, and it can spur you to do the things you should, as when I studied hard for a test because I didn’t want to face my parents and explain to them why I received a bad grade.  I am not sure that it isn’t the first and most basic human motivator; I’ve not studied these things, but my guess is that when the first humans were struggling to survive in a hostile environment that fear kept the species going.  Fear of starvation, fear of wild animals, fear of heights, fear of the cold, fear of being abandoned by the tribe or clan and left to fend for yourself—these all seem pretty basic fears.  The fight or flight instinct are both spurred by fright.  I imagine you fight with more desperation when afraid, even more so than when angry, and I'm pretty sure you run faster when afraid of whatever is chasing you.  Fear is the first and most basic motivator.
That’s why political campaigns always seem to go negative.  You can motivate people to vote for you by promising them the world, but when you really need to motivate them, you have to scare them.  Tell them the other guy will take away your freedom, your money, your rights, your dignity.  Tell them the other guy can’t be trusted, tell them he’s dishonest, tell them he crooked, tell them he’s a cheat.  Scare them enough, and they will vote for you—or at least not vote for the other guy, which is the same thing.
Unfortunately, religion uses fear as well.  What’s even more unfortunate is that it’s hard to tell if the politicians learned it from the religious or if the religious learned it from politics.  I'm not even sure which would be worse, but it doesn’t really matter.  While politicians have been trying to, metaphorically speaking, scare the hell out of people for millennia, religion has been doing the same thing for at least as long, not metaphorically but literally.  If you don’t believe the right things and say the right words you will burn in hell for the rest of eternity.  If you don’t  do this for God he will withhold his blessing on your life.   You will lose your health, your kids will rebel, you won’t be happy, etc.
And it works.  People walk down the aisle, pray the prayer, get baptized all to make sure they don’t get sent to hell.  People tithe, attend worship, read the Bible, teach Sunday School so they can, if not stay healthy, at least avoid the bad diseases and accidents, and have a relatively tragedy-free life.
And some do but even those who do live a relatively joyless life.  The absence of tragedy, and even the freedom from hell, doesn’t mean the presence of joy.
Fear does work in motivating people to do good things for God.  The problem is that however good it is in getting proper behavior, it isn’t from God.  Nouwen is exactly right:  every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God.  Beware of those who claim to speak for God and for what is right for God, the church, your family, the country, etc. but whose primary aim is to provoke fear and despair in your soul.  They are not from God, neither do they speak for God.
The evangelist John said that we should love others “because God loved us first” (1 John 4:19).  God is love, and God is only love.  His love is perfect because it is pure and complete, and because it is pure and complete it is fearless.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
The voices of fear are not from God; listen only to the Voice of Love, for it is God’s own Voice.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Bigness of Smallness

We tend to be impressed with Big.  Not so much with Small or Little.  We like Big ideas, are challenged to have Big dreams,  are impressed with the Big Man.  At a fast food joint we’re asked if we want to Super Size our meal; no one has ever asked if we wanted to “Go Small.”  In my world, there are plenty of books, seminars, and conferences on how to grow a church larger.  I’ve never seen one on how to make your church smaller.  (I think we can all figure that one out.)  And we want a Big God, right?  Who wants a Small God?  No, all the problems in the world are Big problems, so we need a Big God.  I don’t think I could pray to a Small God. 
     But we know that our God must be a Big God, because the universe he created is a Big universe.  We all know that, but just to wrap our minds around it—or to blow our minds, whichever comes first—here’s an example.  Science writer David Blatner, in a new book, Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe from Infinitesimal to Infinity, says that there are approximately—because who has the time to actually count?—70 thousand million, million, million stars in the universe.   I have no idea how big that is.  It’s like a seventy-thousand million trillions.  70,000 quintillion.  7 x 1016.  So, about the size of our national debt, and we know how Big that is!
That’s a lot of stars.  That’s Big.  Big.  Impressive.
And yet….Blatner says that there are that many molecules in just ten drops of water.  Ten.  Drops of water.  Normal, regular-sized drops of water.  Ten drops of water doesn’t even constitute a spill.  If there’s ten drops of water on the floor, you have to debate whether it’s worth the cost of a paper towel to wipe them up.  They’ll evaporate in a few minutes anyway, so…
(For the record, in case my wife reads this—which is highly unlikely, unless someone rats me out, which is highly likely—I wipe up every spill, even if it’s only ten drops of water.  I never walk away to let them evaporate or have the beagle lick them up.  Because that would be wrong.  Someone could slip and put their eye out.)
Ten drops of water have 70,000 million, million, million molecules.  And every molecule is made up of smaller stuff like atoms, protons, and neutrons, which adds a few zeroes to the Bigness of the Smallness.  And protons are made up of quarks, which besides just being a fun word to say, adds even more Bigness to the Smallness.  And don’t even  get me started with the leptons and bosons.  Seriously, don’t get me started because I have no idea what I'm talking about.  I just know they are seriously Small.
And if you think about it, every one of those stars is composed of molecules, atoms, quarks and other really Small things.  Everything Big is really just a whole lotta Small all bunched together.
So as impressive as Big can be, Small is actually more impressive.  You can have Small without the Big, but you can’t have the Big without the Small.  There’s more Small than there is Big. 
Small is Bigger than Big.
Which makes the universe even more impressive, and God even more awesome.
From the beginning humans have looked up at the vastness of the sky and concluded that something this Big had to be created by something even Bigger.
And now we can look in a microscope (or in the mirror) and realize that God can be found, perhaps even more impressively, in Small things.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


If you go to buy an acoustic guitar these days you can spend anywhere from $100 to $10,000.  Anything much below $100 is more toy than instrument, and anything more than $10,000 is a collectible, a piece of artwork that is hung on the wall or in a display case and rarely played—certainly never taken anywhere to be played.  With a guitar costing more than $3,000 you aren’t really paying for better sound or playability; you’re are paying for bling—pearl inlays, abalone trim, or even the name of a well-known custom builder.  There are some great sounding guitars out there that cost $1,000—and some really good sounding guitars that can be had for $500 or so.  The other night I actually had the opportunity to play with some professional musicians—the lead guitar players for Nashville recording artists James Wesley and Dustin Lynch—and neither one of them had a guitar that cost more than $600-700.
So what’s the difference between a  $200 guitar and a $500 guitar?  For the most part, they are going to look the same and maybe even play the same, but in order to keep a the price down manufacturers are going to use cheaper woods—plywood, mainly.  The back and sides and maybe even the soundboard are going to be laminated.  Thin pieces of a cheap, readily accessible wood like pine will be glued together to the proper thickness, and then on top of it all a thin veneer of a traditional guitar wood like rosewood will be glued on.  So to the naked eye it looks like the guitar is made of rosewood, but that is just an illusion.  The rosewood is just a veneer; the substance of the back and sides is cheap wood.  There is a sacrifice in tone, however.  Wood is resonate, glue isn’t.  Wood is musical, glue isn’t.  For every layer of wood there is a layer of glue, and while each layer of glue is very, very thin, it makes a difference in the sound.
Laminate guitars are not bad.  I have played one for over thirty years and it sounds really, really good.  It’s the first guitar I ever bought, back when I was in college, and it was all I could afford, but I play it almost every day.  But here’s the thing: it pretty much sounds the same as it did back in 1979.  The sound of a guitar made of all solid wood, however, will improve over time.  When I deliver a guitar that I’ve just made to a customer, I tell them to play the living daylights out of it.  The wood has to learn that it is no longer a tree, it is a musical instrument.  The more the guitar is played, the more the wood vibrates, and as it shakes, the wood fibers and natural resins that act as glue loosen up.  It takes a couple of years for the wood to approach its natural settling point, and it never really gets there.  Even decades later the wood is still settling, though subtly, into its role as a musical instrument.  And as it does so the guitar becomes more resonate, the sound becomes more complex and interesting, and its voice gets bigger.
It’s easy to communicate with lots of people today, more so than ever.  It’s easy to allow texts, emails, and blogs make up our communication with each other.  With a click you can “friend” someone, and with another you can “unfriend” them.   
Click.  Done.  
I guess there is some good in that, but there is also the temptation to give people a curated and manufactured Facebook profile of yourself.
In other words, a veneer.  Rich-looking rosewood on the outside, cheap pine plywood underneath.  We can do that with God as well.  And that’s OK when your just beginning a relationship, but if you stick with the veneer, you’ll never grow.  You’ll sound the same in 30 years as you do today.
The solid wood of relationships, including your relationship with God, is intimacy, face-to-face connection, honesty even when it’s ugly.  Such a relationship does more than just exist, it grows, and as it grows it resonates more and more.
A veneer is OK when you are just learning, but eventually you’ll want the depth of solid wood.
I mean, who wants to sound the same after all these years?

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Glorious Ruining

Of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the one most tell me the struggle with it patience.  I can’t recall that I’ve ever had someone come up to me and say, “I really had a hard time being kind” or “I need to work on gentleness.”  No, it’s pretty much always “I keep asking the Lord to help me be more patient.”  (Sometimes it’s “I need to stop asking the Lord to help me be more patient, because he keeps sending me situations that really test my patience!”  But same thing.)  Maybe it’s because impatience is a universal problem that everyone struggles with.  Or maybe because it’s easier to admit to being impatient than it is to not being good, faithful or even gentle.  But maybe there is something else going on.
We live in a drive-thru, instant, smartphone culture of fast  everything.  When we went from dial-up to high-speed DSL Internet access at my house, we all reveled in how much faster web surfing had become.  Now I have to endure the endless assaults from my adult children whenever they are home because our Internet is so slow, and I have to contemplate the increased cost of cable Internet.  Smartphones and tablets provide amusements anytime and any place, so no time is dead time.  When any news from anywhere can be known right now via real-time Twitter stream, when any question can be answered with a quick Google search on a mobile device, when any song or book can be purchased in an instant without going to a record store (a what?) or a bookstore, and when there seems to be an app for everything, waiting for anything that takes more than an instant seems prehistoric.
If the Middle Ages gave us The Seven Deadly Sins, the 21st Century has bequeathed The Two Must-Avoid Sins: slowness and boredom.  Kids often call things “boring” or “slow” that they either don’t understand or which would take too much time and energy to make even an attempt at understanding, and I fear that adults are falling into that adolescent trap as well.  When I was a kid I used to think that watching baseball on T.V. was the most boring thing in the world.  The game just moved so slow, and there was hardly any action.  But the more I played the game and watched the game—in other words, the more I understood the game—the more intriguing it became.  Every pitch was a game within the game, and depending on whether that pitch was called a ball or a strike changed everything.  It changed the pitcher’s approach, the hitter’s approach, whether a runner would attempt a steal or the manager would call for a hit and run.
When I was a child, I thought that worship was like baseball, slow and boring.  But now I know different.  Nonetheless, more and more people are demanding that worship services be fast-paced, entertaining, and immediately applicable to their lives.  I get that, and I do think it’s important to eliminate dead time between elements, to keep worshipers engaged, and for sermons to be helpful on Monday morning.
But I'm also reminded that some things take time—that, indeed, the most important things in life take time and cannot be rushed.  Developing the spiritual life is a slow process.  The soul is fed more from a crock pot than from a microwave.  That is because what seems on the surface—and is often presented as such by Christian marketers hacking their wares—as something simple: “Read the Bible and pray for a few minutes every day!” is really quite complicated, but in a glorious way.  Rushing through it, trying to over-simplify it, trying to reduce it to something that can be contained in an app on a mobile device not only cheapens it, but also guarantees that what results will be some lesser version of the real thing.
And maybe that is all right.  If all you’ve ever eaten is microwave lasagna, then you’ll be satisfied with it.  But once you’ve taken the time to bake real  lasagna, you’re ruined for the fast and cheap stuff.
And in the spiritual life, it’s a glorious ruining.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

He's Always Working

In William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macduff says, "Every morn, new widows howl, new orphans cry and new sorrows strike heaven on the face." Can you feel the impact of that?
      One of the beautiful things about poetry is that it is compressed language, a verbal time bomb. With only a few words, with a few strokes of the pen, Shakespeare unleashes volumes of raw sentiment, emotion and philosophy. He's saying that with every loss, with every tear, with every illness, and with every injustice there is an assault on the face of God, on the character of God. Every evil, every heartache strikes heaven on the face and says with clenched fists, "God does not exist. God does not care. God is not good."
     This is probably the most pervasive perspective on evil and suffering and the existence of God today. This is what our culture believes.  The logic can be framed like this: If evil and suffering exist but God does not stop it, he may be all powerful but he is not good. If evil and suffering exist but God cannot stop it, he may be good but he's not all powerful. Either way, the good and all powerful God of the Bible cannot be. It's a powerful argument. What do we say?
       Here's the second perspective on questions of God's presence in the dark times of life. In C.S Lewis' The Great Divorce a character named George MacDonald says, "Ah, the Saved … what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water."
     Lewis is saying is that God has a funny way of working through suffering to bring about incredible blessing.
      One of the really great things about the story of Ruth is the absence of any miracles.  There are no big fish or burning bushes. There are no dreams, no voices, and no revelations. There are no explicit, overt interventions from God. There are no dramatic answers to prayer. There's just a group of people trying to live and survive. They see nothing but mundane times and hard times. They make decisions about where to live and what to eat—just like us. But when you read it, you see that God is still powerfully at work, under the surface and behind the scenes, maybe, but he is still at work.  It was God who broke the famine and opened the way home.  It was God who preserved a kinsman redeemer to continue Naomi's line.  It was God who convicts Ruth to stay with Naomi.  And it was God who led Ruth to Boaz. God was constantly at work. That's the irony of the text. Naomi doesn't see it. Ruth doesn't see it. Boaz doesn't see it. But we, the reader, from our outside perspective—we see it. God is in every scene, every act, and every movement of this play. He is right there in their sorrows and in their joys. There are invisible fingerprints and footsteps in the sand all over the story.
     We must learn to see the signs of hope that he's constantly working even when it seems like he's silent. One scholar put it like this: God is most powerfully present even when he seems most conspicuously absent. He's always working.   You must never lose hope no matter what's going on in your life because God is doing 10,000 things for his glory and your good even when he appears to be absent and not listening.
     It would be nice to have a miracle, but if you need a miracle in order to believe that God is real and is involved in our world, what kind of faith do you really have?  I mean, we know God is real, we believe God is involved, but a miracle—well, that would remove all doubt, now wouldn’t it?  Perhaps.  But it would also remove the need for faith.  Certainty is the opposite of faith, which means that uncertainty is essential for faith.  And the righteous live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4), and without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
     What we need is not more miracles, just more faith.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Suffering Servant

There is a tendency among us moderns to regard ancient peoples as somewhat unsophisticated, living in a preliterate world and without our understanding of the world and how it works, their lives riddled by superstition and folk legend.  Primitive is a word often used of these people.
Then we are reminded that some of the greatest works of literature were written at the same time as many of the books of the Bible, some even earlier.  Homer, the great Greek writer of the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, lived in the 7th or 8th century B.C., about the time that the prophet Isaiah lived.  Isaiah 40–66 is one of the greatest pieces of poetic writing in all history. A message of comfort and hope for God’s people in the hopelessness of exile, it constantly stresses the greatness and sovereignty of the one true God over against the idols of Babylon and those who follow them, including those who seem to be great kings and tyrants on the earth. But it also repeatedly plays off the power and faithfulness of YHWH against the folly and failings of Israel itself; Israel has not only given up hope, but seems to have abandoned faith as well. 
So God is there in the middle, flanked on the one side by the cruelty and wickedness of Babylon and the failure and faithlessness of Israel on the other.  In this juxtaposition Israel more like the Babylonians than the God they claim claims them.  Their rejection of Yahweh is every bit as wicked as the Babylonians ignorance of Him and their arrogance toward Israel.
Into this tension emerges a third figure, bearing the divine purposes into the heart of the storm. The “servant of Yahweh” is introduced in 42:1–9, and his work is to bring to fulfillment the rescue operation God has in mind.  But this rescue operation is different than the kind Israel was accustomed to—and different than the kind that is heralded in Western culture.  This is no Clint Eastwood riding in pistols drawn, gunning down all the bad guys.  No, this rescue operation is accomplished through suffering and, ultimately, death.  It is through his suffering and death, described here in terms of sacrifice (53:10), that the sins of the people find atonement and forgiveness. Throughout Isaiah 40–55, this “forgiveness” means, quite explicitly, return from exile; exile had been the punishment for the people’s sins, and their return is the embodiment of their forgiveness.  But it is not just forgiveness that his suffering and death accomplishes, but the ultimate defeat of those powers like Babylon that depend on violence, force, and oppression.  We are not talking about sin and death here as abstractions, but as those tools which the powerful use to terrorize, conquer, subjugate and exploit people.  The ability to kill, to bring death to whole villages—even the mere threat of it—forces people to bow to the powers that be. 
The way that these powers are defeated, however, cannot be by playing their game, only bigger and better; that just perpetuates the problem.  It is by serving, suffering, and dying that these powers are defeated.  It’s not for nothing that this character is called, “The Suffering Servant.”  These are the means of rescuing the oppressed and bringing in the Kingdom of God.  The result, in the great prophetic poem, is a new covenant and a new creation.   “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant.”  (Isaiah 55:3)  Eventually it becomes clear that this Servant is no mere man, though man indeed he is; somehow, in his work and his death, he is doing what Yahweh himself had promised to do—rescue, redeem, and restore Yahweh’s kingdom.  The return of Yahweh to Zion, on the one hand, and the suffering of the servant, on the other, turn out to be two ways of saying the same thing. And the overall point is that this is where the power of pagan Babylon and the failure of God’s people Israel are met with the sovereign, saving, kingdom-establishing rule of God himself.
Jesus died not just to forgive sins, but to establish God’s Kingdom.  We tend to emphasize the former and neglect the latter, but we can’t ever separate the two. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A New Center

That religions are no longer confined to geographical regions but are now all around us is a major shift that Christians in America will have to adjust to.  I wrote about this last week, and undoubtedly it had already come to your attention before I talked about it.  But there is another giant shift, perhaps even larger, that is occurring within Christianity that undoubtedly has gone largely unnoticed by the average Christian in America.  They wouldn’t have reason to notice it, for it isn’t occurring in their backyard—or front yard, for that matter.  But it has huge implications.
Christianity began in the Mediterranean basin and remained there for the first few centuries.  Paul’s letters reflect this, as they are written to churches in Asia Minor or Italy, and refer to churches in Jerusalem, Macedonia, and Spain.  Though unmentioned by Paul, we also know that there were strong Christian communities in Egypt and Ethiopia.  Over the centuries it spread into Russia and Europe, but not without problems.  A schism in the 5th centuries led to the Egyptian church—called Coptic Christianity—to go its separate ways, and in the 11th century the church suffered another great schism, this between the western churches centered in Rome—what became the Roman Catholic Church—and the eastern churches centered in Constantinople—what became the Orthodox Churches.  The Protestant Reformation was a fight within the western church.  Thus even Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians etc. are part of Western Christianity, and this is the perspective that many of us take.
But Christianity is no longer centered in the West.  This is not just because Christianity is declining in Europe and stagnant in N. America, but because it is growing in the global South—S. America and Africa—and East—in S. Korea and China in particular.  And even if its spread there is the result of missionaries from the West, these cultures are giving Christianity their own unique flavor.  Beyond the cultural differences between western Christianity and that in the global South or East, there are two other major differences.
First, the churches in these areas are in the religious minority.  Christianity is expanding most rapidly among millions of people whose cultures are steeped in millennia of Buddhist and Hindu motifs, Confucian values, and indigenous African and shamanic rituals.  For many of them, it is dangerous to be a Christian, and many have faced family rejection as a result of their faith in Jesus.
Second, in stark contrast to the relative wealth of western Christians and the churches they attend—or belong to but no longer bother to attend—these Christians live in poverty, real poverty.  As a result of these two things, there is a real vitality to their faith.  They have neither the time nor the inclination to debate each other on points of doctrine like predestination, the exact nature of the Trinity, and proper modes of baptism.  Instead, they read Scripture and energetically discussed the problems their communities were facing in light of the passage they had read.    Jesus is less a “personal” savior whose mission was to rescue individuals from a sinful world, but the one who announced and demonstrated the nearness of the Kingdom of God that is to come to their world.
In these two areas—their minority status and their poverty—the new center of Christianity reflects the time of the early Christians much more than the western church ever has since the time of Constantine.  Unsullied by wealth and power, unencumbered by endless—and pointless—theological debates, unfettered by the insistence that a particular form of church governance is the only right way, these churches and these Christians are vibrant in their community life and their witness.  It’s as if, because it’s hard to be a Christian in these areas, Christianity is flourishing.  Christians do best under pressure, when “taking up the cross” is more literal than metaphorical.  We should be watching and learning from these Christians.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Close Proximity

Our world is more religiously pluralistic than ever before, which is not to say that it is more religiously diverse than before.  It’s always been diverse.  All the major faiths have been around for centuries if not millennia.  Islam is the youngster at “only” 1600 years, followed by Christianity (2000), Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism (2500), Hinduism (3000), and Judaism at 3800 years. old.  (All ages approximates.)  That’s just the major religions, the ones with the most adherents.  There are lots of religions with smaller numbers.  So the world has always been religiously diverse.
But each of these religions tended to be geographically and culturally separated from each other.  You used to be able to look at a map of the world and locate the major religions by looking at certain continents: Hinduism occupying the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism spread across Southeast Asia from Thailand and Cambodia up to Japan, Confucianism and Taoism in China, Islam spread across north Africa, through the Middle East, and into Indonesia, and Christianity sprawled comfortably across both Americas and Europe.  Today all these religions are everywhere. The other religions are here, not just there. Immigration patterns have transported large Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim populations to Europe and America. Pagodas and mosques nestle among churches and synagogues. You don’t see it as much in Frederick County, but go down to Montgomery County or over to Baltimore County.  And religious pluralism is coming to Frederick County.  It’s already started.
Unfortunately, proximity has not typically engendered respect.  More often it has bred suspicion, fear, and even outright hostility.  Hindus and Muslims slaughter each other on the Indian subcontinent. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and radical Muslims aggravate rivalries in Israel and Palestine with claims that Yahweh or Allah has given them the land. The recent killing of Sikhs by a neo-Nazi—which, unfortunately, in America claim to be Christians—mistakenly thinking that they were Muslims is indicative of the problem.  If we can’t avoid one another (as if that should have ever been our goal) then we must avoid fear and hostility.  We must understand one another.  We must educate ourselves.  We must talk.
It’s interesting: even though Jesus never met a Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu, they have met him.  While none accept that he is the Son of God, these religions, if not their followers, do hold him in high regard.  Jews and Muslims regard him as a prophet; in Buddhism he is a bodhisattva, a person who is able to attain nirvana but out of compassion delays doing so in order to save suffering humans.  To Hindus he is an avatar, an incarnated god and divine teacher.  They are not attracted to Christianity, nor necessarily to Christians, but they are attracted to Jesus.  But their attraction has less to do with who he was than what he did and taught.  They are drawn to this Jesus for his exemplary courage, his compassion for the disinherited, and his willingness to stand up to corrupt political and religious authorities.  And they are especially drawn to his emphasis on the possibility of another kind of world where gentleness and equality prevail.  This world, of course, Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
It’s interesting, though, that many Christians are drawn to Jesus for who he is and what he can do for them, and have little interest in what he really had to say about the Kingdom of God.  Most hardly notice that he talked about it at all, or think that was just his way of talking about heaven.  Maybe it’s time for Christians to be as enamored with Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God as the other religions are.
Then maybe we’ll have the basis of something to talk about.  Because if we are going to live with these people, we better start talking to them.  Then maybe we won't disrespect them, fear them, discriminate against them, and kill them.
And it seems to me that’s a big step towards the Kingdom of God that Jesus oriented his whole life around.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Maybe, just maybe...

The O’s are 8 games above .500.  And it’s the second week in August.  If the playoffs were to begin today, they’d be in.  Playoffs?

Maybe this year they won't falter down the stretch.  

Maybe this year they won’t rip our hearts out.  

Maybe it’s time to nominate Buck for beatification.  (He’s already got the miracle thing down, which always seemed to me to be the hardest obstacle to sainthood for anyone.  That and you gotta be dead.  But we are all going to die, so I'm sticking with the performing miracles thing.)

Maybe it’s time to start believing.


Thursday, August 2, 2012


When you read the Bible in its full sweep—not just bits and pieces here and there, a verse-of-the-day or even a chapter a day, but as one interconnected whole—you get the feeling that the universe is going somewhere.  There is a story that is being played out, even if its plot line is sometimes hard to discern.  This may seem obvious,  because in our worldview history is viewed as something moving along a line.  (It’s not for nothing that embedded in the word “history” is that word “story”, which implies a beginning, middle, and end, or at the very least a first chapter and then second, third, fourth and on in subsequent order.)  But that is because our Western culture has its roots in a church culture (even if that church culture was at times not a Christian culture) that shaped it.  Not all cultures and the religions that shape them look at history in the same way.  Buddhism, for example, has no account of creation and denies any beginning or end of space or time: what is now always has been and always will be. The Hindu saga consists of endless cycles of time and innumerable universes.  History is not a line but a circle or perhaps more accurately a spiral.  But the biblical story is neither static nor cyclical. It depicts a reality that is moving in a certain direction. The Bible opens poetically with a world rising out of chaos (“the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” Gen. 1:2) and ends, also poetically, with a world in which “there are no more tears” (Rev. 21:4).  The Bible portrays the world as a creative process, not the changeless substance the ancient Greeks favored.  And even science agrees.
It’s not popular in some Christian circles to embrace current scientific theories concerning the origins of the universe, but if we would stop and listen, we might hear some pretty profound things.  Starting with the fact that our universe is expanding and working backward, scientists postulate a time, called a singularity, when the entire universe was densely compacted into a space just a few millimeters in diameter.  It then exploded and has been cooling and expanding ever since. 
What was the universe like before the singularity?  No one knows, and there is nothing out there that gives any clue.  There is just the singularity, and nothing before.  In other words, there is a beginning, and there is everything after that.  And to say that there is a beginning is to say that there is an end, but not in the sense that all movement will come to a screeching halt.  To say there is an end is to say that the universe is going somewhere—that there is a destination.  It isn’t static. There is a past, and there is a future, and while the two are linked, they are different.  The future is not the same old thing as in the past—a static view—nor is it a repeat of the past—the cyclical view, but it is a whole new thing that is in keeping with what came before. This is very biblical.  The Bible portrays our world as having a beginning and an end i.e. a goal, a time of fulfillment.  Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.
There is a clear link between past and future, beginning and end.  But it does not consist of trying to return to a lost golden age.  All churches face the struggle with those who want the church to be the way it always was and those who want to move it forward, but this is natural.  Indeed, just about every denomination and every recent new movement in Christianity claims to be trying to return the church to some ideal past, whether it be Pentecostals reviving the church depicted in Acts, or Catholics claiming a straight-line progression from Jesus through the apostles down to the present pope, or the Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists each claiming that their form of governance is that of the New Testament church.  But there is no road back to the primitive church or to the “old-time religion” American revivalists sing about.
Nonetheless, the impulse to look back is good.  The future is not forged by forgetting the past but by learning from it, both from its mistakes and from its successes.  What we should be doing today and tomorrow is to continue what Jesus and those who immediately followed him were doing; otherwise we’ll find ourselves doing something very different and calling it Christianity.  Looking backward in order to move forward is not easy, but it is not frivolous. Unlike Hinduism, whose beginnings merge into the mists of primeval legend, there was a real historical time when there was no Christianity; then suddenly there it was. It is understandable, therefore, that Christians periodically revisit Jesus and the first few Christian generations to remind themselves what the original movement was about at its onset. Understanding our past can reopen roads that might have been taken, but were not.
Our pasts can shackle us, but if we follow Jesus as he moves toward the promised Kingdom, our pasts can also root us into the full sweep of an ever expanding faith.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fear and Wonder

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  After an introduction, this is how the writer of Proverbs begins.  With fear.  Of God.  What a place to begin.  We like to think of God as a kindly father, a dear friend, a benevolent giver of gifts.  We’ve pretty much moved past the old images of a long-bearded, thunderbolt-throwing dude with a serious anger issue.  And then the writer of Proverbs comes along and tells us that the smartest thing to do is to fear God.
I’ve never been convinced by those who argue that “fear God” doesn’t mean that we should be afraid of God.  That when the Bible says “fear God” it means that we should revere him, respect him, and recognize his transcendence.  When the Bible wants to say that we should revere God, it pretty much says it like that.  And when it wants to say that we should respect him, it makes it clear that’s what it’s saying.  It doesn’t use codes words that mean, in normal usage, one thing but in actuality really mean something different.  So I’m pretty sure that when the Bible says, “Fear God,” it means, “Fear God.”  Be afraid.  Quake in your boots, hide behind a tree, and cover your face.
You know those times in the Bible when people are told, “Fear not”?  Like when the angel appears to the shepherds outside Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth?  I’m pretty sure that if the shepherds had not actually been afraid, if they had said, “Hey, wow, check it out!  Bright lights and a guy floating in the air!  What’s up, Floating Dude in a Robe?”, Gabriel’s response would have been different.  I think Gabriel would have given them something to be afraid of.  You don’t speak casually to an angel of the Lord, like he’s one of your bro’s showing up at a barbeque.
But there is the kind of fear that sets you running for your life, and there’s the kind of fear that draws you in, that incites the need to come closer and find out what in the world is going on in spite of your mother’s screams to “get away from that thing!”  It’s the kind of fear that causes people to stand and watch as a tornado bears down on them when they should be running for cover.  In spite of their fear, maybe even because of it, they have to watch.  They are drawn to the sheer enormity of the twister, the pure and utter destructive power, the beauty of its relentless and indomitable journey.
We call that “awe,” and awe is a basic and nearly universal human emotion.  And awe, says James Cox in The Future of Faith, is the beginning of faith.  Faith begins with that mixture of wonder and fear all human beings feel toward the mystery that envelops us.
Only fools think that we have figured everything out, or someday will figure everything out.  Only fools, says the writer of Proverbs, go through this world without awe, thinking they can walk up and exchange high fives with a Whirlwind.
It’s foolish not to be afraid when there is danger about.  It’s foolish to think you can become friends with a grizzly bear.  Even if the grizzly is friendly, you should always be afraid.
Fear the Lord.  Be in awe.  Draw close to him.  And when he says, “Fear not,” well, then you can relax.  A little.  But never so much that you lose your awe.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Punishing Innocent People?

I've not said anything here--or anywhere for that matter--about the Penn State situation, but I'm kinda ticked off.  Yesterday the NCAA handed down its sanctions on Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky situation.  $60 million fine, loss of scholarships, no bowl games for four years, and share in the conference's bowl games revenues, and wiping from the record all football results from 1998--when officials first learned of Sandusky's serial raping of children--to 2011, when the s*** hit the fan.  The football program is crippled; it will probably take ten years to return to being a competitive program.

And now there are not a few people out there saying the NCAA went too far, that the punishments hurt players, students, and alumni who had nothing to with Sandusky.  That the NCAA is punishing innocent people.

Let's get something straight: we are talking about child rape, and football.  The only victims are the children who were raped and their families.  In the face of what happened to them, it's ridiculous to talk about losing football stats, scholarships, and games as a punishment to anyone.  I don't care how big football is, it's a game.  A child can perhaps be punished by making them miss playing a game, but no adult should consider that a punishment.  It's a disappointment, it's an inconvenience, but it's not a punishment.

We're talking about football. We are talking about a game. So what if current players won't get to play for a national championship? That makes them no different than a player at a non-BCS conference like Boise State. Deal with it. Children were raped. Shut up about how unfair it is that for current players and students. Either stay and get a degree from what is still an academically great university, or transfer somewhere else. 
Some people are cheering the NCAA for their toughness, but I think Mike Wise in an excellent article in today's Washington Post got it right--the NCAA is actually sending the wrong message. SMU gets their football program suspended for two years for grade-fixing and payments to players, and Penn State doesn't for turning it's back on children and then covering up child rape? What message does that send? That trying to gain a recruiting edge in football is more heinous than raping a child and covering up the crime? That's exactly the message, as well as that you will be treated differently if you are a major university with a long history of football greatness and multiple championships than if you are an upstart like SMU--or Boise St., or TCU or anyone else without such a pedigree. 
We are talking about the rape of children. That's all we should be talking about. Football is nothing compared to that, and if we've lost that perspective, then perhaps we all need to take a break from following college and professional sports.

And unless anyone is inclined to say that I would feel any different if it were my school, let me make this clear: I have enjoyed the unprecedented (for them) success that Baylor has had in NCAA basketball (both men's and women's) and football the last couple of years, and I am excited that Baylor's RG3 is a Redskin.  Last week I received the Baylor alumni magazine that touted Baylor's athletic success, and was disturbed to read that Baylor just received a gift from an alumnus that would be the largest the university has ever received, and two others that would place in the top five ever received--all to build a new football stadium on campus.  Really?  Baylor has a top law school, a top medical school, a top seminary, and many other academic programs that could probably use more money to educate students who will make a real impact on the world, and the top gifts ever received were given for a football stadium?

I hope Baylor's athletic success doesn't create the type of culture that led to the monstrous situation at Penn State.  But once you start feeding the monster...