Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Unlikely Family

A good friend of mine, Lee Adams, just published her third book and second novel, Unlikely Family, available in paperback and on KindleCan’t wait to start reading it! 

If it’s as good as her first novel, Strawberry Wine, you’ll be in for a treat.  Check them both out!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Family Food

Did anyone eat anything new at Christmas dinner? Maybe a new side dish or dessert, perhaps, but in the main, probably not.

There are certain foods I want to have on Christmas Day. Pam’s mother (Mema) makes a carrot cake that has no equal, and she makes it every December for Christmas. When we are there on Christmas, I have to have a piece, probably two. It can be 9 a.m., and I'm eating carrot cake.

That’s what my Christmas breakfast generally consists of: Mema’s carrot cake.

Hey, it’s one day out of the year. I can eat eggs or yogurt for breakfast the other 364 days.
My mom can serve whatever she wants for Christmas dinner—ham, turkey, kielbasa, I don’t care—but her potato salad better be there. Nobody’s potato salad is like Mom’s. She doesn’t think it’s anything special, but my kids and I disagree. It has its own distinctive flavor and appearance, and she always serves it in the same Tupperware bowl that she’s been using since I was a kid. It has to be there.

You may not think it’s anything special, but she’s been serving it for years, and it better be there. And it will. We don’t have to tell her, “It better be there.” It just always is.

Can’t have Christmas without Mom’s potato salad. If, like this year, we’re having Christmas dinner with Pam’s family, I'll still eat some of Mom’s potato salad when I go back over there later in the day.

The other day Pam and Angela got together to make Mema’s carrot cake. I did a taste test, and, yes, the tradition will be carried on for many, many years. They nailed it.

I’ve also given Angela strict instructions to learn how to make Mom’s potato salad. When I am an old man I want to still be eating Mema’s carrot cake and Mom’s potato salad on Christmas Day.

I'm not against trying new foods, nor am I opposed to improving old dishes. But sometimes old is better. Sometimes things don’t need improving. Sometimes you want to eat something that you’ve eaten all your life because it reminds you of every other Christmas you’ve ever had. All the joy. All the laughter. All the comfort. All the family.

And at some point, when the people who made it for you all your life are no longer there, seeing it there in the same bowl, tasting just like it always did, somehow brings them into the celebration.

Nobody could make chicken and dumplings like my Grandmother Eubanks. Nobody. I only got to have them once a year at the annual Eubanks reunion in Lucedale, Mississippi at Easter, but, man, were they good. And we’d eat them all day long.

Of course, Grandmother Eubanks didn’t use a recipe. She’d been making chicken and dumplings all her life and just knew how to do it. So her dumplings were not reproducible.

As a consequence I haven’t tasted really, really good chicken and dumplings since it became too much for her to cook for all of us, sometime when I was in high school.

When I pastored in Georgia there were a couple of women in my church who came pretty close, and I would get excited whenever they invited me over for chicken and dumplings. They were good. But they weren’t my Grandmother Eubanks’ chicken and dumplings.

I don’t know if, in the age to come, we are still cooking and eating and doing a lot of the things we are doing now; I rather think so. And if that is the case, Grandmother Eubanks may be a little surprised if one of the first things I say to her after our reunion is, “Can you make some chicken and dumplings?”

Or maybe she won’t be surprised at all.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Truly Wise King

Photo by Carolyn Burnam
The birth narrative of Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses coming out of Egypt to deliver his people. But have we missed another connection that Matthew is making between Jesus and another famous Old Testament figure?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote how the mention of swaddling cloths in Matthew's nativity scene connected the birth of Jesus with that of Solomon found in the intertestamental book, The Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-6. It’s possible that there is an even stronger connection between Jesus and Solomon.

On her wonderful blog, Our Rabbi Jesus: His Jewish Life and Teaching, Lois Tverberg wrote an article about the Magi in which she references 1 Kings 10:1-2; 10—
When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon (fame due to the name of the LORD), she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon…Then she gave the king one hundred twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
Gold and spices like frankincense and myrrh were brought to the king. It’s not a far stretch to see the visit of the Magi as a re-enactment of the queen’s visit to Solomon.

As a child I remember being taught about the wonderful scene in which God promises to give Solomon anything he wants, and all he asks for is wisdom in ruling the people of Israel. And there is that wonderful story of the two women who both claimed to be the mother of a baby, when Solomon used his wisdom to expose the imposter.

Solomon is extolled to this day as the wisest of the Israelite kings, but few seem to notice that he does some very unwise things.
  • His alliances with foreign kings were sealed with marriages to their daughters, who brought their gods and idols with them.
  • Solomon’s building programs were accomplished through a labor tax: each Israelite male was required to work for the king for an entire month each year. The Israelites likened this to their slavery in Egypt.
  • There was one exception to this forced-labor tax: the men of Solomon’s tribe, Judah, were exempt. Only the northern tribes had to contribute their labor, and they resented it.
  • Solomon thus built up great wealth, but did so at the expense of the common Israelite who had to work twelve months just to survive. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, all because of Solomon.
As a direct result of his actions, the nation fractured after Solomon’s death, dividing into the nations of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Idolatry and neglect of the poor flourished in both lands, leading to their eventual destruction. A reign that began with promise ended in idolatry, injustice, rebellion, and exile.

With these allusions to the birth and reign of Solomon, Jesus is presented as a “New Solomon,” one who will truly reign with justice for the poor, will deliver the people from slavery, and who will finally end Israel’s exile and bring them back together as one nation.

“People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.” (1 Kings 4:34) Solomon blew it, unfortunately, so God sent a new king from the line of David, one “who became for us the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:30)

In Jesus a truly wise king has been born, and the promise of his kingdom will be fulfilled.

A new Moses, a new Solomon.

What child is this, indeed?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Those Troublesome Magi

They’ve been called kings, wise men, and astrologers, sorcerers, and magicians, but we ought to call them what they are: Magi.  I know, that doesn’t tell you anything, but that’s just the point; we know what all those other things are, so we think we understand, at least a little, who these guys were.  At least when we call them Magi, we know we don’t know, and maybe we’ll do a little investigation.

Matthew doesn’t just call them Magi, however; he tells us they are from the East.  Of the four great empires mentioned in the Old Testament, only the Egyptian Empire is not from the east.  The Assyrian, Babylonian, and the Medo-Persian Empires are from the east; in fact, these empires covered much of the same territory.  The Babylonians wrested it from the Assyrians, and Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians (and also the kingdoms of Lydia and Media, thus forming the Medo-Persian Empire.)

Magi were priests of Zoroastrianism, and were originally from Media, where they were actually a priestly tribe not unlike the tribe of Levi in Israel.  They were very powerful in the courts of the Babylonians and the Medo-Persians, so much so that Cyrus sought to put them down.  They survived enough to revolt against his son Cambyses and install their own king, though he was murdered shortly thereafter when Darius became king. Still, their influence in the east continued even into the Greek and Roman empires.

They were politically powerful, rumored to be able to practice magic and sorcery, interpret dreams, and divine the stars.  They influenced empires, overthrew empires, outlasted empires.

So Herod wasn’t just upset that some guys showed up asking about a newborn king of the Jews.   If some guys just walked in off the street talking about a baby king he might have been curious, but he might not have taken it seriously.

But not Magi.  Not from the East.  Magi from the East asking about a new king and talking about a magical star; this was not to be ignored.

Herod knew to take this seriously, because this couldn’t be good. Especially when they said they came to give homage to this king.

Nothing mentioned about these Magi paying homage to Herod.

They apparently didn’t give him any gifts either.

Uh oh.

When guys with a history of deposing and installing kings show up and don’t leave any gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there’s trouble afoot.  And when they blew Herod off and skirted Jerusalem on their way back home, Herod understood what was going on:



Coup d'├ętat.

It was brewing.  A new king.  A new kingdom.

If was just, as we often think of it, a spiritual kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, then Herod didn’t have anything to worry about.  But Herod knew.

He knew that spiritual matters have earthly consequences, just as earthly matters have spiritual consequences.  He knew that a king in heaven was king on earth, that in fact a heavenly king was king of the entire earth.

King not just of Jerusalem, but of Rome, Herod’s protector.

Magi don’t concern themselves with mere kingdoms—Magi deal with whole empires.

Matthew is telling us that Jesus didn’t come just to increase the population of heaven, he came to change the world.

And he did.  And does.  And will.

Will you join him?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A King for the Poor

When reading the Bible, it’s good to observe the details.  Since not every detail in a story can be included, it’s useful to ask, “Why this one?”  Some details are just descriptive, but some point to something significant.

Take, for instance, Luke’s statement that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth, or swaddling cloths.  He could have easily just written that Mary laid Jesus in the manger; we would have assumed she wrapped him in something.

But he specifically mentions the swaddling cloths.  So what’s up?  To find out, let’s back up and do a little background work.

If Caesar Augustus is lurking in the background of Matthew’s birth narrative, obscured behind his puppet king Herod, he takes center stage in Luke’s birth narrative. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

The purpose of this registration was taxation, and here are a couple of important points that need to be made about taxation in 1st century Israel.

First, taxation imposed on the common person was a terrible burden. Israel was a conquered people, and Rome exacted punitive tribute from its conquered territories.

In addition, the Jews were still obligated to give their tithes to their own country. Tithes in biblical days weren’t simply to provide funds for their religious institutions; they were in fact the Israelite taxes. 
Two tithes, or 20%, were required each year, and every third year an additional tithe was required to provide for the poor. (This is the “full tithe” referred to in Malachi 3:10.)

That’s a lot of money being paid out by the average person, but that’s not all. Herod needed to stay in good graces with Rome, so he named cities after Caesar and built imperial temples and fortresses in each of them. He also expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, using features of Greco-Roman architecture. These building programs required funds, which Herod acquired through additional taxes on the people of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.

As a result of all of this taxation, poverty was widespread. Families went into debt in order to pay all the taxes and feed themselves. The interest rates charged would make loan shark blush, and many people literally lost the farm. They lost the land that was part of the original apportionment when the Israelites settled the Promised Land.

This brings up the second aspect of 1st century taxation: the poor—which increasingly was just about everybody—received little or no benefit from the taxes. Caesar used the money to enrich himself and the elite class of Romans. The average Roman citizen didn’t even benefit beyond receiving some free grain each month.

Likewise, tithes were used to support the Temple cult, which had become very powerful in Judea; and, as I’ve mentioned, Herod used the extra taxes he collected to ingratiate himself to Rome.

Herod was king, but he was king for the rich and elite; Caesar was emperor, but he was emperor for the rich and elite.

What was needed was someone who would be king for the poor.

And that is what Luke’s birth narrative proclaims Jesus to be.  He is born in the city of King David.  And he is wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as is claimed for King David’s firstborn son, King Solomon, in The Wisdom of Solomon, which was written just a few decades before Jesus’s birth.

In 7:1-6, in which Solomon is emphasizing his humble roots, he says, “I also am mortal, like everyone else….And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; my first sound was a cry, as is true of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out.”

Luke uses this as a slap in the face of Augustus, who had declared that Julius was divine, allowing him to claim to be “the son of God.” Further, it was claimed that his birth was the beginning of “good news,” that a savior had been born who would bring “peace” to the world.

So when the angel says to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger," this is a direct challenge to Augustus.

A new king has been born, Luke proclaims.

Most significant is that the angel announces the birth of this king to shepherds, common peasants barely surviving under Augustus and Herod.  And he proclaims that this birth is the real good news.
Well, maybe not good news to the rich, the powerful, the elite, the puppet rulers and emperors claiming to be divine.

But good news to the poor, the widows, the orphans.

So at last a king has come, Luke proclaims, born to common peasants, in lowly circumstances; a king who is a friend, not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor and lowly.

And the government that is upon his shoulders will be full of justice and peace (Isa. 9:6-7).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Dangerous Baby

We don’t normally think of babies as dangerous, and certainly not the baby Jesus, but that’s exactly how Matthew portrays him. He’s a dangerous baby, a threat to the most powerful man on earth at the time, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.

True, Augustus is never mentioned in Matthew’s version of the birth narrative, but if you know what to look for, you can see that baby Jesus is challenging the legitimacy of Augustus’ kingship in Israel.

To begin with, Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, the father of Israel. The most significant aspect of this genealogy, however, is that it is a royal lineage. Beginning with King David, every king of Judah is named, all the way to the Babylonian Exile and the end of the monarchy, which ended with the deportation and death in Babylon of King Jeconiah.

Thus Matthew is asserting that Jesus, not Augustus, comes from the long line of kings of Judah, and he does so by birth. This is not insignificant because Augustus, the royal name of the man born Octavian, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Could it be that, among the Jews, where the first-born son was always seen as the legitimate heir, Matthew was calling into question Augustus’ right to be king?

After the genealogy, Matthew simply reports that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and quickly moves ahead almost two years to the arrival of star-diviners from the East, inquiring of King Herod where “the king of the Jews” could be found. This sets Herod off on a paranoid search for the baby, and when the Easterners slip off without reporting where they found the baby king, Herod goes on a murderous rampage of the young boys around Bethlehem.

Herod sat uneasy on his throne because most of the Jews did not view him as a legitimate king. His family was from Idumea, the Roman province that included ancient Edom, and though he had converted to Judaism, he, like most Edomites, weren’t considered authentic Jews by the Pharisees of the day.

The overriding issue, however, is that he was a puppet king in the service of Augustus. He was a collaborator with the very regime that had conquered, occupied, and brutalized the Jewish people. To challenge his legitimacy as king was to challenge the legitimacy of the emperor who placed him on his “throne.”

Matthew’s birth narrative, therefore, is subversive literature, challenging the legitimacy of the Roman emperor and his turncoat “Jewish” king. There is a new king in the land, Matthew declares, and even as a baby he is a threat that needs to be dealt with. He is a very dangerous baby.

And he grew to be a very dangerous man. Walking around proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand was a direct challenge to Caesar.

In many ways, Christians are called to be subversives in our culture. As much as many decry secular culture “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” perhaps the far greater harm is done by Christians themselves when they ignore—either by ignorance or by choice—the subversive nature of the Nativity, domesticating it into a sweet, heartwarming story of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds, donkeys and sheep.

This frees us from having to be subversive ourselves. We can enjoy a nice Christmas, thankful that our personal sins have been taken care of without concerning ourselves with the societal sins that continue to burden the “least of these” in our own culture.

We need to remember that Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word messiah, and for the Jews messiah meant “king.” Anyone claiming to be a king anywhere in the Roman Empire was challenging Caesar’s claim to the throne.

But by domesticating the baby Jesus, we have removed this threat. Christ is no longer a word for the one challenging the guy on the throne; it’s simply a word for someone who takes away our personal sin.

And when we do that, we are the ones taking the Christ out of Christmas.

Check out a related Bible limerick from Bible Bus Limericks

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Understanding the Dark Stories of the Bible

Rachel Held Evans posted an excerpt from her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which is beautiful, poignant, and haunting.  It also raises the question that I often get as a pastor, especially once someone finds out that I have a Ph.D. in Old Testament literature.

I hope that you will stop reading this now and go read her piece before continuing here, but for those of you who can’t or won’t, in one part Evans recalls the story of Jephthah in Judges 11, who promised the Lord that, if granted victory in battle against the Ammonites he would sacrifice to the Lord the first thing that came out of his house upon his return.

The Lord granted the victory, but, alas, it was Jephthah’s daughter who came running out first to greet him.  And with much sadness and regret, Jephthah fulfilled his vow.

We don’t understand how God would require that Jephthah keep his vow.  We can’t reconcile that picture of God with the one found in Jesus nailed to the cross for our sins.  The math just doesn’t work for us.

Nor does it work when God orders the Israelites to slaughter the entire city of Ai, combatants and non-combatants both (Joshua 8).

And numerous other times in the Old Testament.  God is much too violent for our tastes.  We prefer the portrait of God found in the New Testament, with the exception of a few incidents i.e. the execution of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.

Some of Evans’ readers commented on this, one asking plaintively if anyone could explain if this incident and others like it were actually sanctioned by God.

My approach to the Bible is that it is more than a collection of books and more than a collection of stories; it is actually telling a story, and, no, it’s not merely the story of how God used Jesus to forgive us of our individual, personal sins so that we could go to heaven when we die.

It is the story of the insidious effects of violence on God’s creation, and how God acted to put an end to all violence, envisioning a day when wolves and lambs would feed together, swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would learn war no more.

But here is the key: God himself is a character in the story, and in really good stories, the major characters grow, develop, and change.

I’m not saying that God really changes, grows, and develops.  This is not process theology being imposed on the text.  It is a literary way of looking at the text and understanding what is happening.

In the Big Story that the Bible is telling, the character named “God” learns that violence doesn’t work, that it doesn’t really solve anything, that it doesn’t lead to peace but instead leads to even more violence.

A couple of years ago I did a series of posts on my blog about this.  One dealt specifically with God learning about the ineffectiveness of violence in the Flood Narrative.

Once again, I’m not saying that God actually learns, I’m saying that in the narrative the character named God learns.  Of course God didn’t need to learn that violence  only begets violence—but we do.  After all these years, we still need to learn the lesson that the Bible, summed up in the cross, is trying to teach us.

When people ask me about the violence in the Old Testament, especially that which is sanctioned by God, I tell them that this event occurs in an early section of The Story, and one shouldn’t judge a character in a story by their actions in the early chapters.  Wait instead until the story is finished and see where the character ends up.

And in the Bible, God ends up on a cross, having refused to brandish a sword or raise an army.  Rather than being a perpetrator of violence, God is a willing victim of it.

But his victimization is an illusion; he used violence against itself, both by exposing the perpetrators for the evil that they have become and by absorbing their fiercest blows.

And rising three days later victorious.

There is obviously more than can and should be said about this, but perhaps this is enough to get you to begin thinking through the implications of this.

So the story of Jephthah and his daughter teaches us that there is a cost to war, even in victory, and that cost is terrible, painful, unbearable, and unjust.  There has to be a better way.

And that better way is found in the cross.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

How Do You Live with People Who Offend You?

What do you do when you have to be around someone you really don’t like.  I mean, really don’t like?

It’s natural to want to hang around with people we like, and few of us would choose hang around with someone we didn’t like, much less groups of people we don’t like.  Sometimes, however, it’s unavoidable.

Sometimes they are family.  Sometimes they are co-workers.  Sometimes they are your boss.  Sometimes they are classmates or teammates.

And sometimes they go to your church.  It would be nice if we liked everyone that we worshiped with, served with, and went to Bible study with, but that doesn’t happen very often.  In a large church you can avoid people you don’t like, but really only if you just attend worship.  If you go to a Bible study, serve in a ministry, become a part of leadership—anything that involves interacting with a smaller group of people—you are likely to encounter someone with whom you don’t jibe.

So what do you do?  If it gets bad enough, you can stop attending family functions, transfer to another department, get a new job, change teams, move to another Bible study or even change churches.  In the latter case, people do it all the time, because, unlike families, jobs, and schools, you really do get to choose your church, and more and more people are taking advantage of that.

But is that good?  Is that actually harmful to a person’s spiritual development to only hang around with people they like and who like them?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because in the last few weeks circumstances have forced me to be with and work with people who, to be quite frank, hold views that I find offensive.  So it’s not even a matter of liking them.  On an interpersonal level I actually do like some of them, but I know that they hold views that I consider to be racist, in effect if not in intent.  Their views on women border on misogynistic, they are callous toward the poor, and they use Scripture in a way that supports all of these things, and that offends me even more.  It’s not that they are bad, evil people.  Not a one of them is.  But, still, while I'm a very tolerant person, I do have limits.

And there is a part of me that wants to break relationship with them as a matter of principle.  But I don’t, and the reason is that Jesus called both Matthew and Simon to be his disciples.

See, Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3), and Simon was a Zealot (Luke 6:15).  Matthew was a collaborator with Rome who profited from the exploitation of his fellow Jews by the Romans; Simon was part of a violent revolutionary group who sometimes engaged in acts of terrorism against Romans soldiers occupying Israel.  Matthew would have viewed Simon and the rest of the Zealots as extremists who would one day lead to the destruction of Israel by the Romans—and events would prove that he would be right.  And Simon would have viewed Matthew as a traitor to God and country who in many ways was worse than the Roman occupiers—and he would have been right.

Yet Jesus called them both to be part of his inner circle of disciples.  They ate, slept, worshiped and traveled together and somehow managed not to kill each other.  In fact, they were still together at Pentecost,  praying with one another in the upper room (Acts 1:13).

Jesus knew what he was doing when he called those two and forced them to live together.  He knew that it would be all right as long as he remained the center of the group.  He knew that the way we learn to be loving, grace-giving, forgiving, patient people is not by avoiding people we don’t like or who offend us at even the deepest level but by being together.  And he wanted the 12 to model what life in the Kingdom looks like, when the dividing walls of hostility are torn down and the differences between us don’t matter as much as having Christ among us.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Common Calling

In the Beginning, we all had the same calling.  It’s commonplace now to talk about God’s unique calling on our individual lives, and that my calling may be different from your calling and that’s all right.  But in the Beginning, we all had the same calling. 

By all I don’t just mean all humans, I mean every living creature God created.  Birds, snakes, lions, platypuses (platypii?), even bugs shared the same calling from God as the humans.  

This universal calling is found in Genesis 1.  “Be fruitful and multiply.”  That’s what he told them.  It’s explicit when he makes the fish and sea creatures (verses 20-23), implied when he makes the land creatures (verses 9-11, 24-25), and explicit again when he makes the humans (verses 26-38).  The two statements in Genesis 1:22 and 1:28 can be seen as bookends or brackets that are inclusive of everything in between.

So, does that mean our calling is to have lots of babies? It’s easy to see “be fruitful and multiply” on the most literal level, but at the core is the calling to bring forth life.  That is the calling that God has given to every living creature, to be about the process of bringing life to creation.  Life, not death.  This is heightened in verses 29-30, in which God says that he has given every plant and fruit tree to every animal, both human and beast, for food.

No animals are given for food, just fruits and vegetables.  This isn’t a statement on human or animal nutrition, it is a theological statement.  In other words, nothing has to die in order for something else to live.  From the beginning our calling is to bring forth life, not to bring forth death. 

“But didn’t the calling given to the humans differ from that of the animals?” you might be wondering. “Didn’t God also call them, not only to be fruitful and multiply, but to have dominion over all the other living things?”

Yes, that is true, but it is a different kind of dominion than what we are used to with kings and rulers.  Ask any farmer, any shepherd or rancher—it’s a different kind of dominion.  

The farmer doesn’t stick a seed in the ground and then give it a command: “Grow!”  No, the farmer fosters the conditions in which the seed does what seeds do—sprout, grow, and become plants. 

The shepherd doesn’t sit on a throne and issue commands: “You sheep there!  Move over into that other pasture!”  No, the shepherd goes out and leads the sheep into the pasture, or to the water, or into the pen.  Like the farmer, the shepherd fosters the conditions in which the sheep can do what sheep do: eat, grow wool, and have lambs.  

Our calling is to bring forth life. Unfortunately, soon enough humans learn to bring forth death. Cain kills Abel (Gen. 4:1-16), Lamech avenges himself 77 fold (Gen. 4:19-24), and by Genesis 6 the earth is filled with violence (see verse 11).

God’s question to Cain after killing his brother—”Am I my brother’s keeper?”—is a question we ought to be asking ourselves. 

The kind of people who flourish in the kingdom of God are those who return to their first calling to bring forth life and foster all the conditions that allow life to flourish. They are the kind of people who answer, “Yes, I am responsible for making sure my brothers and sisters are cared for.”

Many are about this already.  Will the rest of us hear the call of Jesus and join them?

Friday, November 1, 2013


Why is sanctification—the process of transforming a person into the image of Christ; of making us holy, set apart for service—why is it a process at all?  If it is the work of the Holy Spirit, why is it taking so long to—at least in my life, I'll let you judge your own—produce so little holiness?  Why is it so—dare I say it—ineffective?

Please tell me I am not the only one who feels this way.  It’s tough enough to realize that, after all these years of being a Christian, that I may know more stuff, be able to parse the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew, discuss in detail various  schools of theology, and lay out in bullet points numerous techniques for prayer and meditation, and yet feel like I am still basically the same person I was 25 years ago, better in all too few areas, the same in way too many other areas, and, yes, worse in others.  Am I alone in this?

Anyone familiar with the church knows that there is far too much sin in its ranks and far too little holiness.  And I read the prophets’ frustration with Israel, that after hundreds of years of being God’s Chosen Ones, given the advantages of God’s presence, protection, and written instructions from Sinai, they are still no different than the nations in their devotion to God and their treatment of the weakest.  And I read Paul’s letters to the churches and the immorality that apparently was rampant in them, and it’s clear that this is not a new problem.  So much time, so little to show for it.

“It’s a process,” we’re told.  “It takes time.”  Why?  Why does it take time?  God spoke, and light appeared.  Light is both wave and particle, and nothing is faster than light, and God created it in an instant.  But making me holy takes time?  That’s harder than creating light?  Really?

In 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, Paul is dealing with the Corinthians about immorality in their church—and he emphasizes that he’s talking about immorality among Christians in the church, not the pagans outside the church.  He’s talking about some bad stuff, too: fornication, adultery, idolatry, slander, theft.  And he says, “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Note the passive voice: you were washed, were sanctified, were justified.  See?  It’s the Spirit’s work in us.  Yet it’s clear both in the context of chapters 5-6 and in the entire letter that Paul holds the Corinthians accountable for their immorality and holiness and for tolerating it among themselves.  How can you hold someone accountable for something that they are not responsible for?

Unless they are.  Responsible.  For their sin.  For their unholiness.  And if you are responsible for your unholiness, that means you are responsible for your holiness.  Your sanctification.
Oh.  No wonder it takes so long.  No wonder I’ve so little to show for it.

So sanctification isn’t the work of the Holy Spirit?  Of course it is.  But love isn’t coercive, it’s persuasive.  God doesn’t force things on us without our consent and our cooperation, even good things.  He just won’t.  Sanctification is something we can’t do without the Holy Spirit, but he won’t do it without us.

And you know what?  It’s hard.  I mean, it’s really hard.  Sometimes I think it really would be easier to create light.  Old habits die hard, new habits come harder.  Old ways of thinking die hard, and new ways of thinking don’t come without pain, even trauma.  But it should be hard.  The best things usually involve hard work.  Marriage is hard, parenting is hard, being church is hard, being a Christian is hard.  But they are all worth it.  

And you know what else?  God ultimately gets what he wants, and he wants our holiness, so he’s going to see this through to the end.  As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

Monday, October 28, 2013

Four Books That Have Shaped My Thinking

Here are four books that I’ve read in the last year that have proven to be both informative and influential in my thinking.  Two are “Christian” books and two are “secular”—two terms I really don’t like using to describe books, but that’s another discussion—but all of them have helped me to understand Christianity, and Evangelicalism in particular, in its American context.  I'll take them in the order in which I read them.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman.  This was originally published in 1985, and has proven to be amazingly (and disturbingly) prophetic.  Postman, noting that every method of communication shapes the message communicated, asserted that television not only shapes the message but actually distorts it.  Television, especially when compared to the written word, cannot foster deep, rational thought in its viewers, because it requires absolute passivity from them. Television can only be about entertainment, and its cultural dominance, Postman argues, has had negative effects on education, politics, journalism and religion.  We demand to be entertained, and in fact can no longer tell the difference between information and entertainment.  What passes as information is actually entertainment, feeding us what we want to hear rather than what really is.  While Postman focused on television, 25 years later we find that screens dominate our lives more than ever, with TV being joined by other sophisticated electronic media like the Internet, smartphones and DVD/Blue Ray.  It’s interesting to me that this book was published a year later than the setting of George Orwell’s famous book, 1984, almost as if Postman was validating Orwell’s vision of modern life.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard.  According to award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard, North America is made up of eleven distinct nations or cultures, each with its own unique historical roots.  American history tends to be taught, at least when I was in school, from an perspective that privileges American roots in England, as well as the struggle between North and South that culminates in the Civil War, to the exclusion of the other cultures that have existed almost from the beginning of the European conquest of North America.  In fact, Spanish settlements in the Southeast predate English settlements, though that tends to be overshadowed in our Anglo-centric histories.  From the Deep South to the Far West, to Yankeedom to El Norte, Woodard reveals how each regional culture continues to uphold its distinguishing ideals and identities today, with results that can be seen in the composition of the U.S. Congress or on the county-by-county election maps of presidential elections. 

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Lesslie Newbigin.  Newbigin was an English missionary to India for nearly forty years, which allowed him to view both Western culture and Western Christianity from a non-Western perspective.  The argument Newbigin make is that when we encounter a culture not our own, we tend to impose on that culture the values and understanding of the gospel we bring to them; a gospel shaped by our own culture.  He helped reshape Christian missions to non-Western cultures, and that alone was good, but the real value of the book to me is that it helps Western Christianity distinguish what is Western in our Christianity, and what is truly the Gospel.  And he argues that Western Christianity needs to be converted to the Gospel as much as the rest of the world.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.  Continuing the theme of culture’s influence on American Christianity, this is another book written by missionaries who have seen the way that culture shapes our understanding of Christianity.  While Newbigin focused on missiology and theology, Richards and O’Brien focus on how our Western culture influences our understanding of Scripture and leads us down interpretive paths never envisioned by the biblical writers.  If you can get past the sometimes clunky writing style, this book will help you to read the Bible with fresh eyes and deeper understanding.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Millenials and the Church

I’ve been  giving a lot of thought lately to what we as a church need to do to reach the next group of young people who are in their twenties up through early thirties.  I don’t want to make the same mistake that was made by my parent’s and grandparent’s generations of thinking that what generated loyalty to Christ and his church for them necessarily generated loyalty among young people.  Perhaps “mistake” is too harsh a word, for that assumption actually worked for hundreds of years, because the world changed much more slowly than it has since the beginning of the last century.  I think they recognized that the world was changing, but it took a while to realize that those changes resulted in generations of people who looked at and experienced the world in fundamentally different ways, and that would necessitate a change in what was needed to reach those generations.  All too often, as parents watched their adult children drop out of church and, often, out of faith in God, they wondered what was wrong with their children and wondering how they failed as Christian parents, not realizing that nothing was necessarily wrong with their adult children, they were just different in a way not seen before, and the church needed to adapt.  Misdiagnosing the problem usually led to their resistance and sometimes hostility toward the very adaptations the church needed to make to reach their children.  Having been on the receiving end of that resistance and, yes, hostility, I don’t want to do the same thing to my own children and grandchildren (no, that’s not an announcement of any kind; I'm just sayin’) and their peers.
So it was with great interest that I read an article posted on CNN’s Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans, a 32-yr.-old evangelical writer, blogger and speaker.  If what she says is true of many of her generation—and it is in keeping with what I have been hearing and reading—then I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with today’s crop of young adults.  The entire article is worth reading but the following gets to the heart of it:

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.
We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

They are tired of religion creating barriers between people and people groups, with the stereotyping and demagoguery that often follows.  They believe that we have much to learn from each other, and whether we share the same faith beliefs or not, it is better to at least listen and try to understand each other than to constantly be fighting one another.  They want to be allowed to explore their faith and ask the questions that bother them without having their allegiance to Jesus questioned.  They reject the kind of judgmentalism that allows some to condemn homosexuals while eating mouthfuls of shrimp or crab, ignorant of or intentionally neglecting that Leviticus calls both equally an abomination.  They recognize that the Kingdom of God cannot be limited to one nation or group of nations, and that morality is at least as much about taking care of one another, especially those who have been pushed into an “out” group, as it is about sexual ethics.
If people like this can’t find a place in church, then maybe problem isn’t with them.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Time

Time passes.  That much is taken for granted, but few realize how we picture the passage of time and how culturally conditioned that picture is.
We see time as a straight line, and we are on that line moving from left to right the way we read a sentence.   The future is in front of us, because where we are headed—where we are going to be in just a bit—is in front of us.  The past is behind us, because all the stuff we passed by along the way is behind us.  This imagery is reflected in our language: we go “back” in time and we look “forward” to some anticipated future event.  Paul even uses this imagery: “...forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 12-13)
Other cultures view time differently.  In some, we stand still while time passes by us, as if time was a river that we are standing in facing downstream.  In this image, the future isn’t in front, but behind, and we can’t see what is coming.  We can see the past because it has already passed by and we can see it receding in front of us.
There are no real implications in the differences in these two views of the passage of time other than to highlight that our view of time is culturally conditioned.   There are, however, some ramifications in the way our culture treats time and the way other cultures do.  For instance, we schedule our worship services to begin and end at certain times.  We almost never begin a service early, but every once in a while we will start late, and we try to plan them so that they end right on time—usually an hour after beginning.  It’s acceptable to end a service a little early—there’s no such thing as a bad short sermon—but if services habitually end late, someone is going to get in trouble!  But in their book, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Read the Bible, E. Randolf Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien  note that in some cultures worship services always  start and end at the right time—although we wouldn’t think so.
In Indonesia, for instance, a service will be held at midday.  That’s not very precise; we’d like to know something more specific.  Is midday 11:00 a.m.?  Noon?  1 p.m.?  No, midday isn’t tied to a time, it’s tied to temperature: midday is when it gets hot.  When the day gets hot, people begin to arrive at the church for worship, and it may take an hour or more for everyone to get there.  Once everyone is there, the service starts, and in this way a service never starts late.  Richards writes, “So while in the United States church begins at 11:15 a.m., whether or not people are in the building, in Indonesia church begins when people get there. I always thought, Wow, some people get here early and some late. They didn't think that way. Arriving just took time.”
An Indonesian service might last two or three hours, but it never ends late.  It ends when everything that needs to happen happens.
In our culture, schedules reign supreme.  One of the reasons church leaders are so sensitive to ending a service on time is because if we don’t, we mess up people’s schedules, and that is rude and inconsiderate.  Sunday School classes have to begin, or we have to get home so we don’t miss the opening kickoff.
In Indonesia, the quality of an event matters more than fitting it into a set time period.  Even more significantly, they value people more than they value time.  “Relationships trump schedules,” Richards and O’Brien write, “so things begin when everyone who needs to be there has arrived.”
In our culture, time is money and we don’t like to squander either, yet we take little issue with squandering relationships.  When we come to the end of our lives, perhaps we will  find that we are rich in things but poor in friends.  
      Also, churches like to claim to be about relationships--with God and with others--but perhaps our cultural addiction to setting and keeping schedules actually undermines that claim.  What if the true worship of God can't be confined to a set ending time but needs to allow for the Spirit to have more freedom?  What would happen if we relaxed a bit and refused to start until "everyone" has arrived?  Maybe that's too radical an idea for our culture, but on the other hand, maybe it’s time for churches to reassess whether the church schedule is really more important than relationships with God and others.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ancient History Repeating Itself

“He [God] expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!  Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!  The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.”
Isaiah 5:1-9

It’s too easy when reading about ancient history from the Bible to allow our eyes to roll back in our head out of boredom.  Most of that boredom is because we think that it just isn’t relevant to our lives today.  So I promise to get to the relevance at the end if you promise to labor through the history.  No fair skipping to the end.
God called Israel out from among the nations to use them as a shining example of how a nation founded on justice, righteousness and seeking the common good for all could prosper and enjoy both the Lord’s blessing and the Lord’s protection.  Instead, Israel used their “calling out” as a sign of a status over against the nations.    They took for granted their blessing and protection by God, not understanding that  it was conditional—inasmuch as they upheld justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good, they would enjoy God’s blessing and protection.  If they didn’t, then they were no different than any other nation and therefore useless as a shining light to the nations.  God would not give them special blessing and special protection because they were not in fact special at all.  On the other hand, God would grant to any nation that upheld justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good special blessing and special protection because that was his intention from the start.  Israel would show the nations the special benefits that accrue to those who uphold justice, righteousness, and seeking the common good, and all that followed suit would also enjoy those special benefits. 
A quick word about definitions: in the Bible, “justice” and “righteousness”  were virtually synonymous.  Righteousness wasn’t a status given to those whose sins were forgiven, it was the act of doing the right thing.  Justice wasn’t about punishing offenders and rewarding law-abiders, it was about taking care of each other, particularly the weakest and the poorest.  The phrase I’ve used, seeking the common good, captures the essence of both words.  The earth belonged to the Lord, and the fullness therein was to be shared with all so that everyone had enough.
Israel didn’t do this.  Those who had a lot took from those who had little, until those who had little lost what they had to those who already had too much, and even became debtor slaves to them.  The uber-rich added house to house and field to field—the house and field of their neighbor, until they had more house than they needed and more field than they needed to feed themselves.  And their fellow Israelites didn’t have field enough to feed themselves.
So God withheld his protection, and soon Assyria descended upon the northern kingdom and destroyed it; the tribes were dispersed, never to be seen again.  You would think that the southern kingdom of Judah would learn a lesson, but in some ways they became even worse, and in 586 B.C. they suffered the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians.  When people are in need, God hates hoarding.  When a nation allows a few to have way too much while many have insufficient resources and many more have barely enough, God’s blessing and protection goes away, and his judgment follows.  It’s the biblical pattern.
Relevance: the top 1% own 39% of the world’s wealth.  In the U.S., 95% of the wealth created in the 3-year recovery from the recession went to the wealthiest 1% of Americans.  Now go back and read Isaiah again and see if the history of ancient Israel has anything relevant to say to us today.