Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“Bringing Jesus”

The other day I heard something that I often hear in various Christian circles.

“My husband and I have a heart for bringing Jesus to people,” someone said.

And, I can appreciate the sentiment behind the remark.

But, bringing Jesus to people?

Whenever I hear that line, I tend to shudder just a bit.  Kind of like when someone says, “I have a word from the Lord for you.”  Usually my instinct is to duck.

I understand that certain expressions are just this- expressions.  Euphemisms.  Aphorisms.

Still, since when did anyone ever actually “bring” Jesus to people?

I love how Rob Bell muses in Velvet Elvis that Jesus would be awfully “heavy” to carry. Sure, Jesus tells us, “take my yoke upon you;” but I’m pretty sure Jesus is not talking about evangelism or discipleship here; I think he’s talking more about finding rest for our own weary souls.

Actually, I’m at a loss to think of another place in Scripture where one of the disciples “brings” Jesus to people, by way of an introduction.  Worried parents summon Jesus to heal their sick children.  The disciples consult Jesus when they’re stressing out about what to feed the crowds.

But in most cases Jesus is already there.  In the midst of things.  The disciples don’t need to go find Jesus and bring Jesus to the scene of need.

I’m struck in fact by how rarely it is the disciples who do the summoning of Jesus.  Often the folks who summon Jesus are just ordinary people outside Jesus’ inner circle of followers who have needs.  Their son is demon-possessed.  Or, their daughter has died.  Or, their friend is paralyzed.

And this sort of thing happens often with Jesus.  People get in some sort of trouble and discover that Jesus has been there all along or just shows up when they call, right when they most need Him.

This has been true in my own life, too.

The only time I can think of in Scripture that a disciple actually brings Jesus anywhere- feel free to correct me!- is when Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus, hands Jesus over to the chief priests.

Most of us know what happens next.

No mass conversions or crowds lining up to be baptized in the Jordan River.  No dazzling testimonies about how Jesus transformed Jane’s life or put Bob’s marriage back together, so that Bob and wife lived “happily ever after.”  What happens next is just a nasty crucifixion next to a couple of common criminals.

When resurrection does happen, the news of its happening is more of a trickle than some dramatic, over-night transformation of the world.

That’s when Jesus tells his followers to go share the good news.

And notice that Jesus Himself never says “go bring me to others.”  I suppose that’s either because he’d be asking us to do the impossible, or he’d be telling us to hand Him over to be crucified all over again.

The alternative, thankfully, is a whole lot less grave.  We can simply talk about how Jesus has shown up in our own lives when we most needed Him, or in the everyday messiness of living.  We can bear witness to the God who is always on the move and always one step ahead, even as this God is also with us.

Christ above me.  Christ below me.  Christ before me.

Yes.

But if Christ is under my arm and I’m carrying Him like I would a Bible or a bag of groceries, I may want to ask myself if He really is Christ or just another idol that I’ve let hang around.

Stay tuned later this week for an interview with guest Lance Ford.  Ford, who is an organizer of the upcoming Sentralized gathering in *Kansas City, Missouri (September 27-29), recently authored the book, UnLeader: Reimagining Leadership…And Why We Must.  You’ll also get to read my review of Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood for the ecumenical publication Sermons That Work.

[*Correction: An earlier version of this post had the location for the gathering wrong.  Sentralized will be in Kansas City, Missouri, not St. Louis!  Please do not make reservations for St. Louis, because Kansas City is the place to be.  And forgive my blonde moment.]

The Venezuelan Poodle Moth

This “Venezuelan poodle moth” was the “face of the day” several days ago on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Dish.  Apparently the image had been buzzing around the Internet for a while, its authenticity confirmed by zoologist Dr. Karl Shuker, according to Sullivan.

Today I was reading from Ephesians 6:18 where the apostle Paul instructs the church in Ephesus to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”

Every so often I’ll meet a Christian who does just this sort of thing, but the encounter is a bit like stumbling upon a Venezuelan poodle moth.  It’s a novelty and an oddity, kind of strange and maybe even distasteful- those of us accustomed to viewing life only in earthly terms may find a life also lived in the Spirit too much of a mutation for our tastes.

Yet it’s also strangely beautiful in a one-of-a-kind way.

Maybe more of us need to become like Venezuelan poodle moths.

Sleepless in Atlanta

“Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness,” by James Tissot

Every so often my demons- they know me well- stop by.

Early this morning, not wanting to wake my husband who lay snoring next to me, I found myself crouched in silent tears next to the kitchen door, seeking some sort of empathy from our puppy, Roosevelt, (our latest addition to the family) as he downed his morning breakfast.  Pedigree’s puppy chow was his happy, youthful oblivion to my pain.

It was so early that as I write this it is still dark.

When my demons come, usually they have this to say: “You’re a mess-up.”  Or, “you’ve not amounted to anything.” Or, “look at how disappointing your life has turned out.”  Or, “you deserve better than this.”  Or, “things will never be different.”  Or, simply, “you’re stuck.”

The accusations can be enough to send me into a silent crying fit at 3:30am on the back porch.

Funny thing is that my demons come and go, often very unexpectedly.

Life can be going along pretty uneventfully, often with much to be thankful for, when suddenly, with the click of some seemingly random trigger, my sleeping demons are off again in a high speed chase.

I have often wondered why this is the case.  Don’t we reach some sort of spiritual acme even in this life where we don’t have to confront our demons anymore, where the demons have all been put to rest, where we can say with satisfaction that we have overcome?  Don’t we reach a turning point at which, after enough psychoanalysis on a couch or pastoral counseling or sheer prayer, our demons just leave once and for all?  Isn’t there a time when, after we’ve learned to talk to our demons (see “Playing Host To Our Demons“), they become bored of trying to spook us and just move on to torment the next person?

I’d like to believe this.  Indeed, the apostle Paul, at least when it comes to trials such as hardship, famine, persecution or danger, describes us as “in all these things…more than conquerors through [Christ] who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

But what about the demons that don’t appear on Paul’s long list of trials?

Jesus Himself, notably “full of the Holy Spirit,” was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, the gospel of Luke says (as I was reminded in church yesterday); and, if it is true that Jesus, who was human in every way but without sin, successfully resisted the devil, it is also true that Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness were not some final duel at the end of which the devil would depart forever.  No, “when the devil had finished all this tempting, he left [Jesus] until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).

In “opportune times” like these, all I’m left to do is cling a bit harder to Jesus, hold on for dear life, and be content not to have the answers.

 

 

 

Underwear God: The Scandal of The Incarnation

Until she met Jesus, doing the laundry was never this exciting.

It is frankly absurd to believe that God came into this world as, of all things, a human being.  Fully divine, yes, but fully human, too.

Yet the whole crux of Christianity, I believe, hangs on this one great, scandalous mystery called “the Incarnation.”

Here are missional church thinkers Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost in their groundbreaking work, The Shaping of Things to Come:  “For us the Incarnation is an absolutely fundamental doctrine, not just as an irreducible part of the Christian confession, but also as a theological prism through which we view our entire missional task in the world.”

In my work as an itinerant pastor of sorts traveling from trucking companies to real estate firms and assisted living centers, it is not uncommon for people to ask if I really believe that Christianity is unique.  Is Christianity really any different from all the other religions out there?  

I respond that what makes Christianity so distinctive (at least for me) is the crazy idea that God really walked in our shoes.

It’s absurd- but then so is life itself.

And if we human beings are incurable believers, if we have to believe in something, then I’ll hang my coat on this peg over all the others.

Because if God really did what we Christians affirm- if God in Jesus inhabited the same human stuff I’m made of- then God really does believe that my frail, finite, limited flesh is worth redeeming.

So much so that God will stake God’s life on the fact that I’m worth being made whole.

These days I often wonder if much of the church has simply forgotten the centrality of the Incarnation.  A God who meets us where we are as real people with real questions is not a God who waits for us to show up in church each Sunday, or simply hangs out there, maybe in the stained glass windows, waiting for us to come back in order to admire the pretty colors and architecture.

The God I read about in Scripture is a God on the move and very much in the world, engaging real people with real questions and inviting them into relationship.

I like to say that God shows up in church sometimes.

Which is one of the reasons I do what I do as an itinerant pastor.

The other day at one of the assisted living homes I serve, I was asked to visit one particular elderly woman known for her orneriness. When I knocked on her door, she bid me come in.  I found her sitting in her undies in a wheelchair doing her bills.

“You’re doing bills, eh?,” I asked.  “That doesn’t look very fun.”

Recognizing me as the chaplain who had visited the week before, she said, politely but cooly, “I think bills are good company actually.”

I had gotten the hint.  When you’re sitting in your underwear and your bills are better company, this chaplain will not overstay her welcome.  You have my solemn promise.

But there is something reassuring in knowing that God doesn’t wait for us to put on our best attire and holiest demeanor to meet us where we are.

God in Jesus comes to us when we’re still sinners.

When we’re least likely to put up pretenses.

Or buy cheap, self-help trinkets from the pulpit.

Or even set foot in church.

That’s often when God comes to us.

In our gritty, messy humanity, God comes and says “I’m in your court.”

And we?  We get to witness how God shows up.  Or follow God there.

So while the Incarnation may be absurd, as absurd and miraculous as the fact that you and I are here at this intersection between life and God alive and breathing, the Incarnation is also a great, big adventure.

It’s an adventure I’ll take over stained glass windows any day.

If you, like me, are an adventurer, and are curious about how to help the church rediscover the centrality of a God who meets us in our underwear, Hirsch and Frost will be speaking at this year’s Sentralized gathering (September 27-29).  I hope you’ll consider joining me there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Change”

Fellow saint and sinner Tammy Perlmutter knows about change.

In the last several years, fellow saint and sinner Tammy Perlmutter has, like many of us, witnessed a whole lot of change, much of it just downright sad, hard and disenchanting.  Tammy posted this wonderful little entry on change in yesterday’s “five minute Friday” challenge.  (Fellow blogger Lisa-Jo Baker began “Five Minute Friday” as a way to encourage aspiring writers and tired moms to put their thoughts down.  If you’ve ever wanted to write but have been too shy or suffer from writer’s block, this is a great way to try your hand at the craft.)  Here is Tammy on change, and you can find more of Tammy’s reflections at her blog, Raggle Taggle:

The iPod cable in my car is broken, so I’m resorting to CDs. They’re round and flat and shiny and have a hole in the middle. Sometimes there’s a pretty picture on the side that’s not shiny. That’s for you millennials out there.

I am usually in danger of wrecking the car when I switch music and since I don’t have that many in my car I’ve just kept one CD in the player for months. Yes, months. Ohio by *Over the Rhine.

There’s one song that has been sitting me with me for so long. It plays in my head as I fall asleep at night. It’s there again, waiting for me, when I wake up. And when I’m riding the elevator. It’s always there lately.

The title? “Changes Come.”

It’s a melancholy little number, with a swear in it, which feels good when I listen to it. I’m right there with Karin when she’s singing it.

The line about the firstborn son, it’s my favorite one. The fact that it is also the one with the swear in it is neither here nor there.

She sings about the world being too messed up for any firstborn son.

She’s referring to having  a baby, of course, but it got me thinking. Jesus was a firstborn son. As Christians we all have the rights and privileges of firstborn sons.

Yet changes come. Hardship comes. Circumstances that feel like death come.We’re not exempt, as firstborn as all of us are.

And the changes I’ve seen in the last two years make me want to use that swear in the song. (As if I really haven’t.)

A friend told me once that all change is first perceived as loss. It’s played out so true in my own life. My world isn’t the same as it was a year ago. My heartisn’t the same. It’s a little sadder, a bit darker, somewhat softer, slightly stronger.

But Sunday’s coming.

These same changes that brought down calamity on our heads also brought some blessing our way. So would I trade in the changes? I’d be tempted. I love shortcuts. Escape routes. Secret tunnels. Trap doors that get you out of something quick but into something else just as fast.

But I hope to change all that.

I’m going to stick around and see what changes come.

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Somedays I think that maybe
This ol’ world’s too *mess*ed up
For any firstborn son

There is all this untouched beauty
The light, the dark both running through me
Is there still redemption for anyone?

Jesus come
Turn the world around
Lay my burden down
Turn this world around
Bring the whole thing down

*Fun fact: The tagline of my blog, Invest in the Mess, is a line from Over the Rhine’s song “Long Lost Brother.”

So tell me your troubles
Let your pain rain down
I know my job, I’ve been around
I invest in the mess
I’m a low cost dumping ground

“Confessio”

Confessio #999- This picture was the best I could do this early in the morning in the way of a pictorial representation of “confession,” and I’m sorry, Lord Christ, that You’re again having to wear that eery halo of light, thanks to the limited imagination of some Hallmark card artist. “Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.”

It’s amazing how throwing Latin at a subject can imbue it with more solemnity.  

That’s what Brian Doyle did in laying out his life’s confession in the August 22 issue of The Christian Century.  “I, Brian, a sinner,” began Doyle’s page-long catalog of all of the ways he has fallen short across a lifetime, interspersed with “Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas” (“I beg to be forgiven.”)  

In this case, the sound of “I beg to be forgiven” in Latin makes me think of a snot-nosed kid with a huge, green booger hanging from her nose asking for a Kleenex while wondering if anyone will notice if she uses her sleeve.  (“Ignoscas” has that ring, does it not?) Okay, so maybe not so “solemn” after all, but fitting for this morning’s liturgy of repentance…Because this morning I’m not sure whether Doyle’s “confessio” or my own sinner’s remorse are the biggest source of inspiration- and where Doyle took only a page to describe a whole life, I am taking a whole page to repent of only yesterday’s blunders:

I, Kristina, a sinner known to have occasional, short-lived moments of saintliness, do here confess that yesterday was largely a wash.

I wrote a smug post about a Christian leader who manages to embarrass himself repeatedly in public, and derived far too much satisfaction in pointing out his stupidity and only adding to the man’s humiliation.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas, I beg to be forgiven.

I spent more time in the mirror staring at the two red zits on my left cheek than grieving the worst violence yet in Syria or meditating that You are my Bread of Life.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

During our chaplains’ monthly conference call, when someone was sharing a serious pastoral issue and the rest of us were praying, I took the opportunity of a bad connection that sounded like nails on a chalkboard to surf the Internet and read the latest headlines.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

I lost my temper with the incompetent customer service representative from the mortgage company who was threatening to report me to the credit bureau for a missing payment that the mortgage company (not me) had in fact lost and that I was only hearing about for the first time yesterday.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

When I spoke unkindly to Violet, the sweet-sounding manager of the incompetent customer service representative who was just trying to rectify the damage done and seeking to be helpful despite an insurmountable amount of bureaucratic red tape, I probably succeeded in making Violet feel very small.  (The expression, “shrinking Violet,” may alas apply.)

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

I then snapped at three consecutive customer service representatives from Wells Fargo who, in a three-way conversation with Violet and me did not know what they were doing by introducing themselves, offering the latest line of new products and insisting on my answering the same security questions.  Alas, they still do not know what they do (which is to help customers rather than drive them into fits of angry exasperation).

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

During and shortly after two hours on the phone troubleshooting a problem I did not cause- namely, explaining how it was that a payment I made on time through my bank’s automatic bill pay service was withdrawn from my account but never reached its destination- I was in a foul mood, snapped at my kids, unloaded on my husband and felt genuinely sorry for myself and my first world problems- all this when at least I have a house and can pay my bills and live in a country where some small recourse is given to customers whose mortgage payments have gone missing.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

During Cam’s kindergarten open house, when we parents were sitting in a circle learning about the most important things in life which they teach you in kindergarten, things like being kind and considerate to other people and learning one’s A, B, C’s, I was secretly gloating about my son’s intellectual and athletic prowess.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

When in response to yesterday’s smug post on the latest gaffe by a certain embarrassing Christian leader, fellow saint and sinner Marco Naguib shared a crass, foul-mouthed news clip by The Onion (“Tampa Bay Gay Prostitutes Gear Up For The Republican National Convention“), I laughed heartily and only momentarily grieved that I was laughing at people not with them.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

There are many more things under heaven that I could here confess, only some of them truly printable here, but for those I wronged yesterday, and for whom I embodied not grace but only judgment and condemnation, I ask that Your mercy be as real for them today as it is for me- new every morning, for great is Your faithfulness.

Obsecro ut mihi ignoscas.

And, thank you, Father, for the Kleenex: I needed it.

Amen.

Hurricane Isaac Spares God’s “Chosen People”

“With friends like Pat Robertson, who needs enemies?” – God

Yesterday morning, when tropical storm Isaac was gathering speed and looked ready to hit this year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, conservative Christian talk show host Pat Robertson was, oddly, silent.  The coincidence of a second hurricane in four years to wreak havoc with a Republican convention- in 2008, Hurricane Gustav delayed the opening of the convention in St. Paul, Minnesota- at first elicited no new words of wisdom from the host of the Virginia-based television show, “The 700 Club.”

Today I learn that this was because Robertson and other concerned Christians were busy praying to avert the disaster.

When it had become clear that the full wrath of Isaac would spare Tampa for New Orleans, almost exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina, Rev. Jesten Peters appeared on Robertson’s show to say this: “We have had lots and lots of people praying around the clock that [Isaac] would move,” Rev. Jesten Peters explained. “And if you watch from the very beginning where they were saying it was coming up and now where they’re saying it’s going, then it’s really moved a lot for us, and we appreciate God doing that and moving it for us.”

By this rationale, Hurricane Katrina was merely the consequence of too few Christians directing the path of the storm with their prayers.  By this rationale, any time a hurricane blows through we should be mobilizing churches- ideally only the “pro-life” ones, by Robertson’s standards- to pray away the hurricane, or at least to ask God to redirect the storm to the places that “deserve” God’s wrath.  By this rationale, we believers have an insiders’ line not only to God’s ear but to God’s will- never mind that whole line in Scripture about “how anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13).

Dubious?  I think so.  But more disturbing is the fact that “The 700 Club,” as one of the longest-running television shows in broadcast history, enjoys an average daily attendance of nearly 1 million viewers.

Apparently, there are a whole lot of people who subscribe to this rationale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Dating, Backgammon and Patience: A Sermon

Life is like a backgammon game…or is it?

Fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell preached this sermon yesterday, and has agreed to share it with us.  (Thank you, Jake!)  You can find more of Jake’s reflections at his blog:

How many times have you left someone or something in your life?

I have left many places and many people.

Sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for not so good reasons.

I’ve left jobs, family, friends and places that I’d come to love.

Sometimes I’ve left in a fit of pique.

Sometimes I found a thing to be “too hard” and so I said, “I cannot accept this.”

And I left.

In the intervening years, I’ve had time to reflect on my comings and goings.

I’ve had time to examine my motives.

I’ve come to recognize the patterns in my life.

And, with a bit of effort, I’ve tried to to change the patterns that I didn’t like, and more importantly, that I didn’t want to see repeated over and over again in my life.

But then I hear these plaintive words of Jesus, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

And immediately I think of all those whom I’ve left, those to whom I didn’t give a second chance, those moments in life that maybe I abandoned too soon, without letting things play out all the way.

***

I’ve learned a thing or two about games recently.

This summer I signed up for a backgammon tournament.

Now if you know the game, you’ll follow me right away. If you don’t, I promise to make this plain and simple.

In backgammon, a situation can develop where your own checkers are trapped behind a wall of your opponent’s checkers.

It’s called a prime.

When this happens, you’re stuck — and no matter how lucky you roll your dice — you’ll never get out of the trap you’re in.

What’s worse is when one of your checkers is stuck on the bar — in other words, it’s out of the game — and as long as your opponent has the board locked up, you can’t even think about getting back in the
game.

So you’re sidelined and stuck. And it’s moments like these when you think of quitting. When you think of leaving the game.

But an interesting thing happens if you don’t give up.

Eventually, your opponent’s board starts to break up.

Cracks in his wall start to appear.

And those cracks in your opponent can turn into opportunities for you.

If you’re lucky, you might find yourself back in the game.

If you’re lucky and have a bit of skill, you might even win!

When that happens you look back and think, “I’m glad I didn’t cut and run. I’m glad I didn’t leave. I’m glad I stayed in the game.”

***

Games are a metaphor for life and many things that you can learn from playing a game like backgammon or football also apply to real life.

Some say dating is a game. Others say relationships in general are a game.

So, for instance, in the game of dating, if you find that your checkers are stuck behind your opponent’s prime, then you should absolutely — for the sake of your self-respect — resign the game.

And here’s something else I’ve been told: if your opponent — be it your spouse, your lover, your business partner or your colleague — takes power from you, then you better darn well take it back.

Finally, if you see that you can’t win, then walk away. No one particular relationship or person is worth it — and you should never, ever sacrifice your pride or position.

***

In addition to playing backgammon, I’ve spent some time recently discovering the rules of the game of the world — at least as far as that game gets played here in the city, day in and day out.

And, mind you, I really don’t think New York is all that different from anywhere else.

People are people.

It’s just that I’ve noticed that things cycle faster here. More matches are played in the course of a day or week here than anywhere else that I’ve lived.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about how the game of the world is played:

First, the world is always ready to close a deal. If something — or someone — doesn’t provide immediate or discernible value, then you should walk away.

Second, the world is always ready to turn something good — something of true value — into a commodity.

You, as specific person, matter little to me.

Why?

Because by reducing you to your component parts: by reducing you to your beauty, to your talent, to your intelligence, your skill set, your experience, your social standing, etc., I can find someone else
just like you — though I may entirely neglect to see you as you truly are.

Third, the world is always ready to establish power and dominion, and to take it back when that power is lost.

Relationships — even the most intimate — are often evaluated by who holds the upper hand. Entire strategies are devised for keeping the other party in check or for winning back lost ground.

Finally, the world is always ready to move in for the kill.

Only things of immediate use are deemed of value.

The world is always ready to move on to something bigger and better, faster and brighter, or to someone younger and sexier.

By contrast, how does the Christian fare in this arena?

How does he or she play? And by what rules?

Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter 6, verse 15 that our feet are to be “fitted with the readiness that comes with the gospel of peace.”

So, in direct contrast — even in direct contradiction — with the world’s gospel of power is the Christian’s gospel of peace.

From this place of peace, the Christian is not obligated to evaluate someone or something based on immediate gain.

In other words, for the Christian, it is not a question of “What can you do for me?” or even of “What have you done for me lately?”

Instead, the Christian is ready for good things to be given in their due season.

Ps. 104:27 says that every living creature looks to God and that he gives them “their food in due season.”

The Christian does not parcel and sell a person based on her component parts, her looks, her intelligence or her experience.

The Christian does not walk away from a person or a situation because it has yet to pay a dividend, but instead he waits expectantly for the fullness of time to arrive — for that person to grow into the full
image of God that she already bears.

The Christian does not try to hurry things up or to slow things down.

He does not try to get in the way of a thing as it unfolds.

Rather, he waits eagerly for the bud to blossom and for its God-given
potential to be revealed.

***

The Christian takes care to understand the signs of the times.

She understands that there is a time for everything under heaven (Ecc. 3:1-8).

She understands that a person, a relationship or a situation may need gentle and sustained nurturing, and that the time for reaping cannot happen before she has invested fully in the time for sowing.

Finally, the Christian practices patience. This is what Saint Paul means when he writes that we must be “fitted with the readiness that comes with the gospel of peace.”

Implied in that readiness is the ability to be patient.

Patient enough to be discerning.

Patient enough to allow God time to act.

Patient enough to let the beloved fall in love with the lover.

Patient enough to allow enough time to pass so that even the hardest of teachings can be understood.

***

“‘You do not want to leave me too, do you?’ Jesus asked the twelve.

“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.'”

Peter does four things in his answer to Jesus.

In doing so, Peter models four ways that the Christian should play in the world’s game.

These are: understanding, discernment, faith and perseverance.

First, understanding.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

Here Peter has understood.

Jesus has the words of eternal life.

In other words, Peter rejects the quick close and the immediate gain, and opts instead for a long-term strategy of eternal importance.

***

Second, discernment.

Again, “You have the words of eternal life.”

Here Peter chooses.

Christ cannot be made into a commodity.

We cannot parcel out his teachings or his miracles;

We cannot place his humanity or his divinity on a warehouse pallet;

We cannot reject his crucifixion while rejoicing in his resurrection.

We cannot replace him with someone else — a newer, younger, sexier, less offensive Jesus.

***

Third, faith.

“We have come to believe ….”

Here Peter surrenders his power.

Here Peter has made his fatal mistake.

He has fallen in love. He has cared too much for a single man. Jesus matters a great deal to Peter — so much so that he can withstand the grumbling of the other disciples without being tempted to walk away.

But at the same time, Peter adopts a position of weakness before the one he has come to believe in.

Peter cannot play power games with the Holy One of God.

***

Fourth, perseverance.

Peter decides to stay.

He does not close in for the kill — as we can assume some of those disgruntled disciples immediately left to go and do and conspire against Jesus.

Instead Peter rejects the idea of any immediate gain.

Instead he chooses to stick it out.

Jesus has not made it easy for Peter. Jesus has made it hard for them both. Jesus has entirely confused the situation and alienated many of those who cared about him and undoubtedly who cared about Peter too.

And yet there is the question again, “Will you leave me too?”

“No, I will not, Lord,” Peter replies.

Here we come to face to face with what Saint Paul calls our “readiness in the gospel of peace.”

Or, more simply, our readiness in Christ.

Peter is ready to understand the hard teachings of Jesus.

Peter is ready to choose a unique relationship with someone special rather than to add another entry to his little black book.

Peter is ready to surrender his power, though this makes no earthly sense.

And Peter is ready to stay.

He is ready to stay and wait patiently for the good season.

He is ready to stay and wait patiently for the fullness of time.

He is ready to sow with the hope that he will reap.

And finally, he is ready to believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

Thus, with his feet firmly fitted with the gospel of peace, he is ready to feed on the bread that comes down from heaven.

Peter is ready for eternity.

May we also be ready.

A Year of Kingdom-of-God Living

Photo credit: “Moms Against Hunger”

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” - Matthew 6:33

It’s rare that I remember my dreams, but the other night I did.  In the dream, my parents  had decided to buy a small trailer home in Boston.  The trailer was going to cost them $1,000, and after they had given me a tour of their new digs, they asked if my husband and I could contribute.  I had said we might donate $200, but apologized because I had grown up thinking that making a lot of money wasn’t really that important.  And now, in the dream, as I was apologizing that we couldn’t afford to contribute more to my parents’ new trailer-park digs, my dad burst into tears, apologizing for never telling us kids that money really is what makes the world go around after all.

Then I woke up.

The dream was “other-worldly” in a number of ways.  First, when all I ever hear about, whenever the subject of a far-off retirement comes up, is how my parents want to move back to Malaysia, where they once served as missionaries, the notion that my parents would buy a trailer home in Boston to whittle away their golden years is a bit, well, suspect.  (For that matter, do they even have trailer homes in Boston?) Then, that the trailer home would cost $1,000 and my parents would be asking for my help to buy it is also a bit fishy.  (Isn’t $1,000 cheap by trailer home standards?  And why would my parents be asking for financial help, when they’ve never asked for help from us kids before?)  And then the whole notion that my dad, upon hearing my regrets that I’ve not made enough money in my life, breaks down and cries, is pretty much another big aberration from reality.

That’s because Matthew 6:33 has been one of my dad’s favorite verses.  Considering that he and my mom have pretty much lived their lives by it, it would not be inaccurate to describe Matthew 6:33 as his life’s signature verse.  “Kris,” he said to me several weeks ago, “I’ve never not known that verse to be true.  God has always taken care of us when we put God’s kingdom first.”

Then Dad went on to tell me the story he has told a hundred times before- about how one day when tuition at the international school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was due, and my parents had no money to pay the $2,000 bill, a businessman they had never met rang their doorbell, handed them an envelope, and said, “God wants me to give this to you.”  Inside the envelope was a check for $2,000.  When the same man showed up later that year, again with the exact amount needed to pay for our tuition, my parents knew that this exchange was more than a serendipitous coincidence.  God was indeed providing for a missionary family who had determined they would never actually “solicit” funds from anyone but God.

The story, no matter how often it gets told, gives me goosebumps; but it doesn’t change the reality that when it comes to finances, I’m programmed to distrust God’s provision for me.  I’m programmed to worry that there won’t be enough.  And, if my dream had a message to send, it was that my anxieties about being able to provide for my loved ones and my worries about “measuring up” by this world’s standards are writ large across my subconscious.  At the subliminal level, I am a creature who desires her security.  In a world that places a premium on our monetary value to society, I want to be “valuable.”  I want to matter at the most basically quantifiable level.  In this sense, it is against my whole nature to live by Jesus’ words here- that “what to wear” or “eat” or “drink” need not preoccupy us, because when we put God’s kingdom first, “all of these things” will fall into place.

I know I’m not alone.  In our society it seems easier and more socially acceptable to talk publicly and openly about our life in the bedroom than about our finances.  We guard our personal spending habits as if they’re on the same list as the rest of the “inalienable” rights we claim as Americans (free speech, free religious practice, etc…).  The latest bruehaha over presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s refusal to produce recent tax returns, in addition to being justified- (as far as I see it, anyone running for the highest public office in this country must be willing to surrender their privacy around certain things)- is a testimony to the way many of us think about how we earn and spend our money.  Letting others see our bank account is like letting them look into our souls: it’s like letting them see our deepest fears and our biggest priorities.  If we are what we eat, we are also what we spend- and many of us are scared, worried, insecure children.

But, if Jesus’ kingdom is one in which the last shall be first and the “least of these” shall be greatest, where “family” has been redefined to mean “anyone who does the will of God” and our “neighbor” broadened to include anyone who has a need, then this kingdom is a place where God takes care of everyone.  Where everyone has more than enough to be happy and complete.  Where love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness and kindness reign, and where human beings have been restored in right relationship with their Maker and with their world.  Where both hungry tummies and ravenous souls are filled to full measure.  Where even the smallest of gifts, like a child’s lunchbox meal, can feed thousands of people.

It doesn’t take much looking around to discover that this “kingdom of God” is not of this world even as it is precisely for this world.  The World Health Organization estimates that if one-third of the world is well-fed, two-thirds of the world are either under-fed or starving.  Half of the children who die in the world, die because of malnutrition.  Every day almost 16 thousand children die of hunger.

I wonder what would happen if, in the spirit of others who have experimented with following various commands in the Bible (most recently, Rachel Held-Evans and her year of “biblical womanhood,” and before her, A.J. Jacobs’ “year of living biblically”) we as individuals and as the church resolved to follow just this one charge from Jesus here.  What if, instead of just mouthing the words to the Lord’s Prayer in our often namby pamby way, we really prayed “thy kingdom come” and then sought that kingdom each and every day for one whole year?  What if we, both as individuals and small groups and churches, vowed to put God’s kingdom first in our lives, in our families, in our workplaces and communities?

Maybe we would change; maybe our world would change- from statistics on hunger to even our dreams, and in the place of trailer-park hovels there’d be spacious mansions with many rooms and plenty for everyone.

 

“Reading the Bible For All It’s Worth”

In addition to being another saint and sinner like the rest of us, Steve Hayner is currently the president of Columbia Theological Seminary.

Some people really know their Bibles.  One of them is Steve Hayner.  Steve is the president of Columbia Theological Seminary, in Atlanta, Georgia, and has taught missiology, pastored churches, and worked at the helm of the student ministries organization, InterVarsity.  He also has gotten three degrees in biblical studies, and has written a book on the Bible.

The other day Steve preached a sermon for Kairos Church that, I believe, has much to offer to our recent exploration of “biblical authority” and what it means to read the Bible well.  (If you didn’t catch Monday’s post, “Is Rick Warren’s Daniel Plan An Exercise in ‘Selfish’ Bible Reading?,” you can here.)  Steve has kindly agreed to share his manuscript with us, and I hope his insights will be as useful for you as they were for me:

Psalm 119:105 – Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Romans 15:4  – For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

2 Timothy 3:14-17  – But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

I love the Bible.

  • after I began to follow Jesus I got more hungry to learn
  • earned three grad degrees to learn to study Bible better
  • wrote book introducing whole Bible

The Qur’an calls Christians and Jews “The People of the Book” because we share with Islam a strong view of God’s word as found in the Scriptures.  We look to Scripture for firm foundation and truth to live in chaotic/confusing world.

But I’ve got to confess, that while I have always loved the Bible and considered the Bible as a key authority in my life—I have not always had a very biblical view of how the Bible should be used.

Most serious followers of Jesus would say that the Bible is their authority for faith and how they live life.

The most common ways people study the Bible:

  1. They mine for devotional nuggets to give hope, encouragement, peace, guidance. [verse pluckers]
  2. They search for specific answers to questions or issues
  3. They select passages to support what they believe

None of these are bad. But they are inadequate ways of studying the Bible.  Here’s why:

  1. There are plenty of devotional, encouraging nuggets in Scripture.  But if this was God’s intent, why is there so much other extra stuff?  E.g. Thomas Jefferson had a personal Bible where he cut or tore out everything that he thought was superfluous.

Lots of books written around the devotional highpoints. BUT, this is actually a demeaning view of the Bible, because it suggests that God made a mistake by “inspiring” all the parts that aren’t uplifting or immediately applicable.  The Bible says that “ALL Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” – and that we are to pay attention to the “whole counsel of God.”

  1. If the Bible is intended to be our final source for questions about what to believe and how to behave, why doesn’t the Bible answer clearly and completely the very questions we were asking?

Many people assume that the Bible should and does! But the Bible can’t possibly be as clear and complete about what we think we need to know, because there are so many Christians who disagree about what it says.  Churches are hopelessly split about all sorts of details that seem to the church to be important about our beliefs and behaviors. Thousands and thousands of groups are separated from one another by their distinctive beliefs or behaviors—all of which they claim are “biblical.”

  • E.g. Baptism
  • Style of worship
  • How we view war
  • How we define marriage
  • What we think about capital punishment or abortion

Whole denominations have split over these—and thousands of other issues, and most claim that they know what Bible says.

E.g. I was discussing an issue with a pastor who said, “Well, either the Bible is true or it isn’t.”  His assumption was that this settled the issue.  If I believed that the Bible was true, I would obviously agree with him.  If I didn’t agree with him, it meant either that my view of Scripture was faulty, or that I wasn’t reading my Bible enough.

To compensate, most traditions have come up with a whole series of creedal statements and governing rules and policy guidelines on various issues, precisely because the Bible doesn’t seem to speak adequately enough on these things. Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals—all make pronouncements—write papers—and argue among themselves and with each other.

We often end up with culturally informed viewsthinking they are biblical. And people end up making up stuff to fill in the places where Scripture is silent.  This is true for social and doctrinal issues.

E.g. Satan as fallen angel.  A story which most Christians assume is from Bible, but actually comes from 2 Enoch, some Jewish commentators—and made popular by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

  1. What we often think that what we need (and what the Bible is) is a book of timeless truth that ought to be simple to understand and simply obeyed.

E.g. A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible:

“The Year of Living Biblically is about my quest to live the ultimate biblical life. To follow every single rule in the Bible – as literally as possible. I obey the famous ones:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • Love thy neighbor
  • Be fruitful and multiply

But also, the hundreds of oft-ignored ones.

  • Do not wear clothes of mixed fibers.
  • Do not shave your beard
  • Stone adulterers

Why? Well, I grew up in a very secular home (I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant). I’d always assumed religion would just wither away and we’d live in a neo-Enlightenment world. I was, of course, spectacularly wrong. So was I missing something essential to being a human? Or was half the world deluded?

I decided to dive in headfirst. To try to experience the Bible myself and find out what’s good in it, and what’s maybe not so relevant to the 21st century.”

But is this how God intended for the Bible to be used? After all, the whole Bible is culturally conditioned.  It is written in languages of another time, about people and cultures which are quite foreign to us.  We believe that God is speaking in the Scriptures, but sometimes what God is saying is not very clear, especially when it comes to narrative or poetic material where the “simple meaning of the text” just doesn’t seem very simple.  There are many voices in the Scripture, and at times those voices disagree with one another.  E.g. Theology of Deuteronomy: If you obey you will be blessed; if you disobey, bad things will happen.  Many books of OT were written to illustrate that point (Joshua, Judges, !&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings). But that’s not how life often seems to work, so Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and others were written with a very different perspective.

So how do we learn to study the Bible better—and let it shape our lives?

1. Adjust our view of what we mean by biblical authority.

When we look at what the Bible says about its own authority, what we discover first is that the focus is always on the authority of God.

God has authority in Creation.  God has authority as God calls, loves, pursues, frees, speaks, judges, redeems, heals, and in every way works with people in the world.  At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus boldly declares that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  And, then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus gives authority to the Apostles, by the Holy Spirit.  And the church is given authority to work within the world as God’s ambassadors.

The Bible witnesses to God’s work, and attests to how complex and messy this work sometimes is.  But the Bible is not some sort of celestial information service or even sure test of doctrinal purity.  The Bible always points to God.

And all through the biblical story God exercises God’s authority through human agents who are anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit.  From the very beginning, God brought God’s authority to bear on Israel, not by revealing to them simply a set of timeless truths, but by delegating authority to obedient women and men through whose words God brought judgment and salvation to both Israel and the world.  We call that inspiration.

And this is amplified in the person of Jesus, who lived authority, who claimed authority, and then who gave authority to his followers.  Jesus told his followers that they would receive power and wisdom when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  Jesus’ people are anointed and gifted to continue God’s work authoritatively.

Many of the Reformers in the 16th century talked about the principle of “sola scriptura” or “Scripture alone” as our final source of authority.  But others looked around and said, “No, that is not the whole picture.”  We also need to understand the roles of the Holy Spirit, of human reason and of tradition in matters of faith and practice. And the closer that the Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit, human reason and tradition line up, the more confident that we can be. 

E.g. John 5:39f: part of a story of religious leaders complaining that Jesus wasn’t being “biblical” and following the rules.  Jesus said: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

You can study the Bible until you are blue in the face, but you can still miss Jesus, and you may miss what God is trying to do in your life.

When we recognize that ultimately it is God who is authority—and not our understanding of the truth—then it produces a wonderful sense of humility.  We recognize that God is God, and we are not! We don’t have all the answers. And so God calls us to look to Jesus, to walk in light of what we know, to thank God every day for the God’s love which we have in Jesus Christ, and to rejoice that because of Christ, it’s OK to not have everything figured out—or to change our minds—or to be just plain wrong—as long as we keep submitting our lives to Christ and to his word.

Adjust our view of authority…and

2. Adjust our view of what the Bible is

The Bible is NOT primarily:

  • A rule book
  • A textbook
  • An answer book
  • A systematic theology book

What we see in the Bible is largely a narrative of God’s people who are trying to figure out their lives in relation to God—just like we are.  In the process they exercise and also frequently fail to exercise the authority which God has given them.  We watch as the Holy Spirit gives them songs to sing, wisdom for their daily lives, ways to approach the problems they face, and messages to proclaim.  Sometimes the stories are told so that we can imitate them.  Sometimes the songs are given so that we can sing them. Sometimes the teaching is given so that we can be corrected by it. Sometimes what is there serves as a warning that we shouldn’t try that again.

But the point I am trying to make is that what the sovereign God is doing is what God has always been doing—namely to make and remake people and the world through God’s love.  God uses the Bible as a Spirit-inspired book to mold our lives—not merely to give us a few answers to difficult questions.

N.T. Wright, a NT scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, invites us to think about God’s work in the world as an unfinished drama.  The Bible, he says, is like the first four acts of a great play: 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) God’s work with Israel, and 4) then God became flesh in Jesus—are all included.  What is provided is a wealth of background, characterization, and an exciting drama. The assumption is that more will follow from these first acts.  The first acts will establish the framework of where the plot will go.  The characters in the next acts of this great story of God’s work—that’s us—will  pour over the first acts—we will enter into the whole story, work through the twists and turns in the plot, and learn that the parts that we now play in God’s drama must flow from what has gone before.

We are God’s people—being shaped by God’s living and written Word. The Bible is inspired by God to shape the Church and help us to live out Spirit-guided lives for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

We don’t consult the Bible merely to ask, “Are we allowed to do this or that?” or “What must we believe to be sound in our doctrine?”  Rather God wants the church to lift up our eyes to see what God has called us to be and to do as we follow Jesus into God’s great work in the world.  God uses the Bible as a primary means of calling and equipping the church for God’s work of love, reconciliation, compassion and justice.

N.T. Wright says:  “All of this is designed as a plea to the church to let the Bible be the Bible, and so to let God be God—and so to enable the people of God to be the people of God, his special people, living under his authority, bringing God’s light to God’s world.  The Bible is not an end in itself.  It is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed.” [N.T.Wright, “The Laing Lecture,” 1989.]

The God of the Bible is calling us all to be transformed and shaped by the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures, and then to carry on God’s work into the world.  So we study the Scriptures.

  • We study ALL the Scriptures.
  • We acknowledge that some of it doesn’t make sense yet, and that we don’t have it all figured out right away.
  • We pray and meditate on the Scriptures.
  • We preach and teach the Scriptures. 
  • Over time, our lives are shaped and reshaped by God’s Spirit through the Scriptures.
  • AND we become more like Jesus.

The Bible “is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed.”

Helpful books:

  • Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How you Read the Bible. Zondervan, 2008.
  • Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Brazos Press, 2011.

 

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