Friday, December 19, 2014

From the Promised Land

The crisis facing the modern American church is that we think we are living in the Promised Land when we are really living in Exile.  That's the assertion of Mark Labberton in a new and important book entitled, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. The Promised Land is one of the great themes of the Bible.  God's People, Israel, was delivered from bondage in Egypt and given a new homeland of milk and honey. It was a gift. One that was misused by the Israelites and so instead of living there happily ever after they found themselves defeated and carted off to exile in Babylon. There, they were strangers in a strange land. Yet, their prophets like Jeremiah called them to seek the welfare of their land of exile. Their call to live as God's People had not changed but almost everything else had.

Labberton says our context is key to how we understand our call to be God's People. If we are living in the Promised Land where we expect an abundance of milk and honey then our story lines are   mostly about promise and fulfillment. God has blessed us with all kinds of good things and the sky is the limit. Our faith is easily co-opted by the expectations of our consumerist culture and our faith becomes a means to realize our own slice of the American Dream. Church shopping is much more than a metaphor but defines our sense of entitlement to life, liberty and happiness. The fruit of the Spirit become comestibles, Labberton says. When the Promised Land becomes the Plundered Land, when God's blessings become an end in themselves and their purpose is forgotten, all we have left is a shell unable to sustain the life it was meant to foster, he writes.

I drive by scores of large and impressive church buildings on my way to our small rented church space in the city. The parking lots are usually full on Sunday mornings and evenings. Their enormous signs remind me of the new jumbotrons at EverBank field, home of the Jaguars. They beckon passersby to come in and experience state of the art technology as worship. Their facilities and staff await to fulfill any and all of our needs. Just come, sit, watch, give and enjoy. But, where are the people. They are invisible outside the church setting fitting in comfortably with their secular, or other church going neighbors. Where is the impact. Or are we merely enjoying the advantages of being a Christian in America and shaking our heads in judgment at those who don't follow our way.

The crisis we face, Labberton says, is that we are slow to realize  we are a church in exile and that the Promised Land church (there is even a children's program called The Promised Land) is a mirage. Living as a church in exile means having different expectations. We don't whine about the world being the world. We love it, serve it and pray for it's welfare. We don't live in a hothouse of protected faith, he says, but in a place of winds, rain and floods (Matt 7:27).  That image Jesus used reminds us that a church in exile is no stranger to suffering. God loved and entered a world full of suffering and he suffered for it. How can we live in this world God loves and act like God has given a pass to us in the western church. American Christians can easily forget we are such a small percentage of the world. The norm for most people in our world is a daily struggle for the basics of life. There are few of the freedoms we take for granted. Labberton bluntly puts it this way: "seeking a call that evades suffering is a decision neither to follow Jesus nor to live in the real world."

Our lives can seem so far from the suffering images on the nightly news: Ebola orphans, racial protests, child trafficking, refugees fleeing violence and instability. Our prayers can seem so inconsequential and even lame, what words do we have. We have been too long in the church of the Promised Land. As a church in exile we will be taught a language of lament by the Psalms and the Prophets. We will build bridges to those who suffer, move closer to sharing their lives, giving and receiving. We will choose to include the suffering of others in our lives. To live out our calling of loving like Jesus.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Follow me

I'm preaching on January 11, 2015. Our pastor is off on an educational trip to the Holy Land. She will be gone for 15 days. The lectionary gospel texts for the new year are in Mark. I am preaching on Mark 1:12-20. Mark's gospel is for today - it goes so blazing fast. It was written for time challenged multitaskers. Mark may have had ADD.  He covers the temptation of Jesus in a couple sentences and then summarizes Jesus ministry message in a couple more. The calling of his first disciples, four verses. I feel like shouting, Whoa, Slow Down! What Mark is telling us surely did not happen so fast, did it? His story is compressed time. It is given to us in chunks to meditate on (a challenge for us today!).

Jesus, just passing by the fishermen working from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, says two words, Follow Me, and they drop everything and do it! Whoa! Mark! What does that mean? Are we to think that they just up and left their jobs and bills, and their kids birthday celebrations, and wedding anniversaries and the unfinished home remodeling projects. How did it happen? Mark is not very helpful or is he? Perhaps, he wants us to ponder a bit.

Now it could have happened that way. Commentators on Mark suggest ways: maybe they were already familiar with Jesus and had time to consider his call; perhaps the force of Jesus personality was such they could not help but drop everything and follow him; maybe they were ready for a big change in their lives. But, it could be both a picture of the way it happens to us that we can meditate on and a compressed process that unfolded over time. Given Mark's gospel writing purposes I think Mark speeds up what was a longer process. That longer process seems to be the way it happens to us.

 We want to know how the call of Jesus to his first disciples makes sense in our lives. We have jobs and families and car payments and can't just walk away from all of that to Follow Jesus and if we did what would that even look like. Yet, we want to Follow Jesus.

We don't know a lot about Jesus and his disciples. We know they spent a lot of time with him for a three year period. They shared their lives with him and each other and he shared his life with them. It was the start of something big although it looked like a failed cause before things got better, the crucifixion and then the resurrection.  Then, things got worse again when the church was persecuted. But, the resurrection had happened and that was the Big Deal which changed everything. So, I'm guessing the disciples could get home to celebrate a kid's birthday and remember their wedding anniversaries and repair the leaky roof. Following Jesus does not mean leaving real life and living some kind of spiritual, other worldly, life. There is Life and we follow Jesus living it.

Jesus came to the fishermen where they lived. He comes to us where we are at. He calls us in the midst of the stuff of our lives. You don't have to go to a church to find Jesus. He finds us. In the midst of. We have a funny idea about "Calling" that it is a change from what we were doing to a Churchy kind of job. Pastors are called. Missionaries are called. Youth ministers are called. But what about janitors and bus drivers, and child care workers and nurses aides. How do you follow Jesus in life as you know it. That's what we want to know. It doesn't help us to be told we need a career change to follow Jesus.

Following Jesus may mean a career change as it did for some of those first followers of Jesus, but it may not. What did Thaddeus do or James son of Alphaeus, or Simon known as the Caneanean after they were called? We are not told. Matthew may have quit his tax collecting job and most of the fishermen probably still wet a line but not for a living.

Before I became a pastor I had to answer the question, What was your call? How did you hear it? How did it happen for you. I had to write a paper on it. I had to read it. I had to answer questions from my peers. I had to persuade them I had a call to ministry. Not a bad thing to do. All of us might benefit from doing the same thing. How did you end up doing what you are doing? How did  your call happen? How did you discern God's leading in the process?

But I had a first call. We all do. The first call before it was to become a pastor was to Christ. Our first call is to hear the voice of Gods love in Christ. You are loved. Its the prodigal son story. You are cherished. You are treasured. As you are. No matter what else we do, that is always our first call.

Then we are called together. Christ calls us to Those Others Who He Has Called. We flesh out our calling here in the body of Christ.  Jesus called a first 12. You (PL), come Follow me. We don't follow Christ alone. We learn what Christ calls us to here. We practice living out our calling, and we need the practice, don't we? We are reminded of our calling to him first at the Lord's Table. Then to each other and together to the world around us as we get up to serve.

Those are the primary calls to every Follower of Christ. Then, there are other calls, to serve the body of Christ and the larger world. Follow me are words we hear often.

The gospels are all about how we follow Christ. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, teaches us how we follow Christ in all kinds of life situations: serving, forgiving,practicing hospitality, sowing peace, and so on.

We don't have to join a convent to follow Christ or hide inside a church. We are called to follow Christ. Here, where we live. With who we live life with.  In our jobs, our families, our churches. This is our 12. Jesus says, Love.... Serve, Wash each other's feet. We don't have to go anywhere else to live out our sense of call.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Keep Christ in Christmas

God made history with salvation, He showed the world what He could do. (Psalm 98, The Message)

I can't breathe
Rikers Island
CIA report on torture
government gridlock
steady drone of negative news on nbc, fox, your local news at 10
domestic violence
sexual assault
anti-semitism, anti-gay, anti -immigrant, anti - fill in the blank

Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt - seasoning that brings out the God - flavors of this earth. (Matthew 5, The Message)

The simple moral fact is that words kill. If you enter your place of worship and suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. (Matthew 5, The Message)

Food banks, homeless shelters, churches where everyone is welcome, amani sasa (a ministry to abused women in Uganda), churches without walls, and so on and on...

You're here to be light, bringing out the God - colors in the world. Keep open house; be generous with your lives. (Matthew 5, The Message)

Bread for the World, Compassion, International Justice Mission, Center for Christian - Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, City rescue missions, Salvation Army and so on and on...

A green shoot will sprout from Jesse's stump, from his roots a budding Branch. He won't judge by appearances, won't decide on the basis of hearsay. He'll judge the needy by what is right, render decisions on earth's poor with justice. Each morning He will put on sturdy work clothes and boots, and build righteousness and faithfulness in the land. (Isaiah 11, The Message)

Keep Christ in Christmas

Monday, December 8, 2014

Let it be

Last night at church we read the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The pastor talked about the courage Mary had to put her life and the expectations for her life (she was going to be married!) on hold as she submitted to God's plan for her life. It was a hard thing to do. We discussed stories of courage that have inspired us and those times when we wish we had had more courage. I thought of people who have faced long illnesses and others who were navigating the unique limitations of older age, and pastors who were confronting resistance to their ministry, and people living on the streets because of unforeseen crises in their lives, and refugees in tent camps with no promise of ever returning to their homes. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to get through the day.

During the service we watched a music video of Alison Crowe singing the Beatles' song Let It Be. I had never thought of the Beatles writing a Christmas Carol and I don't know if they intended it to be or not (my wife said she heard Mother Mary was code for marijuana).  No matter what was intended Alison Crowe interpreted it as a song of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Let it be with me, she told the angel Gabriel according to God's will. Mary surrendered her plans for her life and waited to see what God had for her even though it must have seemed almost impossible to believe.

We find ourselves at times in places of waiting and praying not knowing how our lives will work out. Perhaps our plans failed, or we never saw "that" coming, or we feel let down and defeated. It might be a good thing. God may be ready to do something and when we let go of our plans we may be open to hearing about his.

Mary's response to Gabriel was an instance of giving herself to God. We talk about that a lot but it often takes a crisis, a fork in the road, a moment of "I did not see that coming", for us to come to that place of surrender and waiting on a word from the LORD.  Brian McLaren, in an advent meditation, suggests starting our days during Advent with Mary's words, "Let it be to me according to your will." Meditate on those words in the context of your life right now and pray them in your own words. Let this be a season of presenting your life to God, McLaren says. (His book is We Make The Road By Walking)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Top ten (or so) books of 2014

Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell - The Good Samaritan story retold in the context of modern warfare.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel Brown - There is no "I" in team.

Wars of Reconstruction: the Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era by Douglas Egerton - "Shall our children see a negro in the President's chair?" opined an editor of a Macon, Georgia paper after President Johnson vetoed a first attempt at Civil Rights legislation after the Civil War.

The Wind is Not the River by Brian Payton - novel of the "forgotten war": World War Two in the Aleutian Islands

Love Does by Bob Goff - good Lenten reading

Revolutionary Summer and American Creation by Joseph Ellis - birth of America

Lila by Marilynne Robinson - the pastors's wife (from Gilead)

The Making of an Ordinary Saint by Nathan Foster - Celebration of Discipline for a new generation

Boy on Ice by John Branch - violence in professional sports through the lens of this tragic story

Abundant Simplicity by Jan Johnson - Simply, the Christian Life Explained

Deep Dark Down by Hector Tobar  - the most interesting part of this rescue story is what happened after the rescue

Congo: the Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck - First came the slave traders, then came the Belgians who set the people free, then came the rubber traders, then came the medical experts, then came the missionaries, then came the ethnographers, then came the capitalists and what became of the People?

Living in God's reality

I've read the Sermon on the Mount dozens of times. I've taught from it and preached from it. I still don't know if I get it right and I know how hard it is to do it right! The SOM has a long history of interpretation. In my own life I have been told Jesus did not intend his words to be taken seriously for  today. They are for later, in heaven. While that takes the pressure off, it never made much sense. Will we be persecuted in heaven or will there be mourning there? Will we have to take the shirt off our backs and give it to someone with no shirt?

Similarly, when Jesus talks about getting rewards in heaven, he means the promises he makes here come true in heaven. But, the rewards Jesus mentions sound pretty earth bound to me, i.e, the meek will inherit the earth.

Then, I was told Jesus meant to show us how he intended us to live knowing we could never live up to it. It was kind of like this is the law and it should drive us to repent and to God's grace. But this didn't make sense either, if we cannot ever hope to attain it, why try?

Then, I was told it was like the way Jesus wanted us to live - the way he lived - an ideal Christian life we ought to aim for but we can't expect to hit it. Well, that seemed like Jesus just meant to frustrate his followers. Kind of like holding out a gorgeous apple before us but never letting us take a bite of it. Pretty soon, you'd probably get tired of trying.

This morning while reading the SOM yet again, I came across something N.T. Wright said that did make sense. When Jesus talks about heaven in the SOM...."heaven is God's space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (earthly) reality and interlocking with it." Jesus taught his followers to pray, that God's kingdom will come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Wright says, the life of heaven - where God is King- is to become the life of the world, transforming the earth into a place of beauty and delight that God always intended. AND THOSE WHO FOLLOW JESUS ARE TO BEGIN TO LIVE BY THAT RULE HERE AND NOW!

We can live now in the way it will make sense to live then. It's a choice to live according to God's kingdom instead of living according to the values of the kingdoms we see all around us.

It's giving instead of grasping, sharing instead of hoarding, forgiving instead of resenting, blessing instead of cursing, loving instead of hating, affirming instead of condemning, accepting instead of judging and going the extra mile when you are too tired to go any further.

 It's like seeing two big circles drawn on a piece of paper which overlap each other in the middle. The SOM is about that overlap - Living out God's Kingdom reality in the messy mix of the kingdoms of this world.

Friday, December 5, 2014

On the reading of commentaries

I like to read commentaries. Commentaries are books written to explain books of the Bible. There is a whole world of commentaries that most of the world does not know about. They are a particular and peculiar genre of writing. Few people read them for pleasure. I can't imagine the authors get very rich writing them. Writing them is a a lot of work. Say, you are writing a commentary on the book of Luke, one of the gospels. As a writer who wants to be thorough, he or she would have to read dozens of other commentaries written over the years (since Bible times!) and a whole slew of learned articles in obtuse magazines that only other scholars read. This takes effort both to read your way through them and then to add something new to them. It has to be a work of love because, as I said, a writer of commentaries is not going to get rich by writing. Most of the human race will never know what he or she does for a living.

There are all kinds of commentaries and many of them are boring even if like me you like to read them. Some are useful if you want some explanation of some Greek or Hebrew word that is in the text you are studying. These scholarly tomes will break down the original languages and maybe provide some historical, cultural and linguistic context but nothing more. I think they are written for other scholars. Preachers and teachers are not going to slog through them or if they do - find scant pleasure in the task. Most people preachers preach to are not interested in the parsing of a certain Greek verb or knowing how many times it is used in the New Testament. As someone who has preached for many years I have done a fair bit of slogging and boring listeners with my second hand knowledge of Greek words. No one ever said to me, Pastor, I am sure glad you enlightened me to the meaning of that Greek participle.

In seminary we were taught that these commentaries that unearthed the bare essentials of the text were the best for preaching. They held the ore to be mined by the preacher and then he took what he excavated and made something of it. Trouble was even though the ore was valuable what was made of it could be mishandled and the final product misshapen. These commentaries looked good on the shelves but gathered more and more dust.

The commentaries I liked to read and still do are the ones with more life in them. The author takes the risk of interacting with his or her sources and applying what is in the text to real life. I know this is the task of the preacher but she learns how to do this by reading how others have done it. There are some great teachers who write commentaries. They tell stories, and reveal how the text makes a difference to them. They give insight into how the ore is meant to be used.

These are the commentaries that anyone in the church can read for learning and for pleasure! Yes, I meant to say that because they are enjoyable. Why should the word of God not be enjoyed? So, if you want to get started or restarted on this project of enjoying God's word here are a few tips.

Take some time when there are likely to be few distractions. Figure out what book of the Bible you would like to read with someone who has read all the stuff there is (or a good chunk of it) on that book and then read a short passage in the Bible. Take the commentary and read the section pertaining to what you read. Make a note about what you read and how it spoke to you.

There are several commentary series that cover the whole Bible. If you enjoy one book in the series you may enjoy more of them. One series I like is the "For Everyone" series. John Goldingay does the Old Testament books and N.T. Wright does the New. They are short and easily accessible "for everyone".

Other authors who I enjoy reading are F.D. Bruner on Matthew and John, Kenneth Bailey on parts of the Gospels and Paul, Fred Craddock on various New Testament books, and Eugene Peterson who has written on a number of Old and New Testament books.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Advent: making hope real

This past Sunday at church we lit the advent candle of Hope. We read Isaiah 40 and the pastor talked about what hope is. Then we talked together around our tables about hope. One of our members who is a hospital chaplain brought several quotes about hope. The one we read was anonymous and sparked discussion. It said that "hope is a work of faith, while doubt is an easy way out." Hope is a work of faith. Hope is like a muscle strand of faith. It must be exercised, used, active to be realized.

I just finished reading Hector Tobar's gripping story of the Chilean mining disaster in 2010 where 33 miners spent 69 days underground. In the first weeks there was only a tenuous strand of hope but it was used, the men organized, prayed, shared food and water. A few doubted in their rescue and gave up, doing little.

In the days after Ferguson, there were protests and displays of doubt that things would ever get better. The Ferguson community burned and smoldered. But, some hoped: they prayed for peace and justice,  and one young man held up a sign that said, Free Hugs. A heavily armed police officer took him at his word and a picture of their hug was seen across the country. A sign of hope.

Isaiah 40 is a sign of hope, too. After a long barren time that felt like judgment, God was on his way bringing comfort. It would take work to get there; the people are told to get out and prepare the way: excavate the land, put up "fill needed" signs, build roads, believe God is coming and get ready.

Hope is a work of faith. Hope is rooted in our faith in the Gospel. It takes work to realize it. Prayer is work. Going to church in a part of the city with boarded up homes and burned out businesses and the homeless hanging out on the street corners, is work. Working on a habitat for humanity home in the neighborhood is work. Tutoring reading after school is work. Visiting the sick, holding the hands of the dying, advocating for the voiceless, doing the right things is work. Preaching the gospel sometimes with and sometimes without words is work. What work can we do today to exercise our faith and make hope real?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Advent 2014: Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph had a notion to put Mary aside
delicately, for her trouble.
 Trouble for her family and him.
But, he was a good man and wanted to keep things quiet ( as much as you can in a small town).
So quiet, he heard God speak and tell him to set aside his fears about Mary's trouble.
What seemed like trouble was really the son of God: Jesus,
 conceived by the Holy Spirit,
which is inconceivable to some who can see trouble only.
Such things cannot happen, you see, inconceivable.
Joseph believed in a virgin birth and called his son, Jesus.
 God is with us.
Some wonder how God did it, or if he did, and what does it matter, anyway.
Nothing new is conceived.
Others wonder and believe - like Joseph and Mary - and all manner of things inconceivable are conceived.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gleanings from Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

Kathleen Norris writes about a "cocaine whore" who would sleep with anyone who could provide her with booze or cocaine, or just show her the slightest bit of attention. She found AA, then God, then church. Soon she was signing up for everything and volunteering for every church related ministry as well as signing up for committees that others had to be begged to join. Her pastor wondered if Christians don't underrate promiscuity. Because she was still a promiscuous person, still loving without much discrimination.

An alcoholic said that when he arrives late to church people turn around and scowl or give him smug looks as if righteousness was associated with being on time to church. At AA, if he is late, people jump up to greet me, he said. They know my desperate need for them was greater than my desperate need for alcohol.

In the bulletin of an urban church in Denver:

Married, divorced, single here, it's one family that mingles here.
conservative or liberal here, we all gotta give a little here.
doubt or believe here, we all can receive here.
gay or straight here, there's no hate here.
women or men here, everyone can serve here.
whatever your race here, for all of us grace here.
In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and for all of us,
let us live and love without labels.

Ignatius of Loyola defined sin as refusing to believe that God wants my happiness and fulfillment.

Eugene Peterson: In Hebrew the root word for salvation means deliverance from an existence that has become cramped, compressed, and confined.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

God of happy endings

I watched The Lunchbox recently on dvd. It's a foreign film set in India with English subtitles. The title reflects a traditional practice where workers contract with a food vendor to have their lunch delivered to their workplace. The lunch box is a container with several sections which serve to keep the various foods separate. The sections can be taken apart and set on a table. It reminded me of some cookware we had to take camping that could collapse into an easy to carry pouch.

Of course, some men would have their wives prepare their lunchbox and arrange to have it delivered to their workplace. The film centers on one man who is a widower and weeks from retiring from a large accounting firm. He is one of many men who spend their days working side by side with other men working with figures. He lives alone and often spends his evenings watching a family in the apartment next door eating together. He is adrift in a life that is almost over for him and he has little to look forward to as he faces the end of his working days.

The other main character is a young woman with an elementary age daughter whose husband gets dressed and goes off to work every day. There is little affection between them. When he comes home he spends his time looking at his phone. She packs his lunch box every day and a delivery service picks it up. Her auntie lives up stairs and gives her advice how she could jump start her marriage. Auntie suggests some new menus to attract his attention.

The delivery service mixes up the lunch boxes and the retiring accountant gets the spicy box prepared by the young woman and her husband the boring one prepared by the catering firm. Immediately, the accountant takes notice. Something new and exciting is happening. He stops by the catering business to express his thanks and tells them to keep up their new standard. The husband hardly notices the change but asks his wife to stop sending him so much cauliflower. She realizes something is up but the lunch box mix up is exciting for her too. She has discovered her husband is cheating on her. So she begins sending notes in her lunchbox to learn more about who is eating her lunches. The accountant responds with praise for her cooking and they begin a lunch time correspondence which reveals more and more about their lives. Finally, the time comes when they decide to meet for a face to face lunch.

The movie's ending disappointed me; it was not a happy ending (that's all I'll say because it is worth seeing for yourself). I know happy endings are criticized for not being realistic. Soon after watching this film, I read the end of Job in the Bible. It's a happy ending. Some people are skeptical of the ending for that reason. John Goldingay writes that just because so many people do not have happy endings to their stories in real life is one very important reason why Job does. God is the one who brings stories to a happy ending. God is a God of happy endings.

Taking Goldingay's insight into the Job story, I revisited my first impression of The Lunchbox. No, it had not ended in the simple happy way I suspected it might. That would have been too unrealistic. But, the connection the two people made over the lunch box mix up did lead to more hopeful outcomes for them. The spicy food led to the spice of life.

It is hard to find hopeful outcomes and happy endings in life sometimes - especially when we are trying to write the script. We are afraid that some hoped for happy endings are too good to be true. But the Gospel is true and good and has the happiest ending for any one's story.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Camping trip, interrupted

This past weekend we went on a camping trip with some people from our church. We had not been tent camping in a long time. Even though it was November this was Florida (actually the camping site was just over the Georgia - Florida border), so how bad could it be? We packed our tent, and some warmer clothes, and headed to St. Mary's Georgia. It was sunny and a bit chilly - temps around 60 - as we unpacked and set up our tent. We went into St. Mary's for dinner and then met up with our fellow campers in the evening. It was starting to get cold (not Alaskan cold where we lived for the past 14 years but Florida cold!), temps falling to the low 40s. We were not prepared for this; one of our sleeping bags was designed for indoor camping, and we had no heat source and our air mattress leaked. We were not happy campers after a sleepless night. Worse, it did not warm up during the day and a chilly wind made 50 some degrees seem much colder. We made the best of it but when my wife said she might want to pack up and go home a day early, I was all ears. Usually she is the trooper and I am the wimp ready to pack it in. So that's what we did. We felt bad but mostly because the others were sticking it out and we were bailing and had earned their jokes (Look, the hardy Alaskans can't take the cold!).  We took the ding to our reputations like the mature adults we are. We enjoyed the warmth and comfort of own bed, too. We had learned our lessons: be more prepared next time (get warmer sleeping bags!), and we had some insight into the plight of the homeless who deal with our short term discomforts all the time.

Today, I was reading Mark 13 in the Message Bible. It is called the "apocalyptic chapter" in which Jesus talks about some of the signs of the End Times. A few of his disciples catch him by himself and ask him when all this End Time stuff is going to happen. He told them it was coming and times would be tough before the End but he did not give them an exact date or The Sign that would signal the End.  What he said was, "Stay with it - that's what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won't be sorry; you'll be saved."

Reading that in light of our recent camping experience, I sensed that God had another lesson in mind for me.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On the preaching of sermons

I've preached a bunch of sermons although not many lately. Lately, I've done more reflecting on preaching than actual preaching. I've listened to a fair number of preachers in the past year and a half of my preaching sabbatical, as well. While the preachers have had as many different styles as personalities, they all preached in a similar environment. That was a traditional church setting with a 25 to 35 minute sermon in the middle of a typical Protestant service. There was no interaction with the listeners. Some times there were listening helps in a power point format projected on a big screen. There was no feedback other than the conversations my wife and I had on the way home. Soon after the sermon was forgotten.

There is one exception. This church setting is non-traditional. It meets in a small sanctuary with the chairs pulled back and tables arranged in the center. People bring food and eat a supper meal together before the church service. "Church" is around the tables with the pastor in the midst of us seated on a wooden stool. She reads the scripture which is available on hard copies as well as on a screen accompanied by images illuminating the passage. She gives a paraphrase/overview of the scripture and then relates it to the life of the congregation and our individual lives. She asks questions which are discussed around the tables. She concludes with some summary remarks, and then invites prayer and participation in communion. The sermon/discussion takes about 30 minutes. People hang around to talk with each other, and pick up a half piece of paper with the scripture on one side and a couple of thoughts or questions to take home.

I was not sure how I would like this non-traditional service but I have discovered it works quite well. It helps to be able to interact with the scripture and sermon immediately. It helps to carry home some notes on the scripture and her remarks to look at during the week. Since she mainly teaches a series on a scripture theme, such as the journey of the People of Israel in Exodus and relates it to our faith journeys as individuals and as a church, I feel more connected to the scripture. It stays with me.

Jan Johnson writes that communication is difficult because people only hear about ten percent of what we say. So, I have to face the fact that for all my diligence in sermon crafting and speaking, most of what I said was not heard. Johnson's counsel: say it short! Whether talking to your teen age son or to a congregation of hundreds, less is more.

Our goal as communicators, she says, is not to express ourselves but to create space for God's grace to flow. Wow, that's good but it is also hard to hear for some of us preachers who love to hear ourselves talk and like to get positive feedback (oh that sermon was soooo helpful, pastor).

In a world that communicates in bold print and emoticons, Johnson reminds us, Jesus said let your yes be yes and your no be no. In a new effort to avoid wordiness, I close by referring to a quote from Richard Rohr: "faith does not need to push the river because it is able to trust there is a river. It is flowing and we are in it."

Jan Johnson's book is Abundant Simplicity.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Happy Reformation Day

Last night we waited in our driveway as crowds of kids jumped out of utility trailers made up to look like hay wagons and ran screaming and laughing through the yard to get one more piece of candy. Just one, we said. Only one, some people are giving out two apiece. Ok, thank you, happy Halloween. We must of heard it over a hundred times last night, happy Halloween. We were happy and the kids were happy to dress up and get some treats. Apparently lost on this day was the fact that it was a day to remember Reformation Day, too. Most of the churches in this Southern Baptist churched (with a smattering of independents, charismatics and Catholics) town held their own "trunk or treat" celebrations where people decorate their car trunks and trucks for Halloween and fill them with candy.  Kids went from trunk to trunk gathering the candy while listening to Christian music or a Halloween themed devotion, perhaps. It's a big night down here in our little town in Florida. Nearly every church has to have their own harvest party in the weeks leading up to Halloween. There is food, and of course  fellowship and a short sermon (shorter than Sunday's anyway).

No where did I pick up a hint of the Reformation. It could be because Baptists are not big on the Reformation and proudly are a non - creedal people. So, what Martin Luther nailed to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany on that October 31 in 1517 is forgotten much as Luther himself except, of course, among Lutherans. Sadly, the current state of Christianity in our culture is seen in the way Halloween is celebrated in the churches and the Reformation is forgotten.

Luther was born in 1483 ten years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He took early training to be a lawyer and then stunned his parents with his decision to join the Black Friars, an austere Augustinian order of monks. The monks stressed confession of sins, Scripture reading, the desert fathers and the rigorous practice of the spiritual disciplines. Luther was deeply impressed and troubled by the picture of God as Divine Judge for he was ever mindful of how far he fell short of God's demand for righteous living. The great discovery of his life - and ours by the way - was justification by grace. Luther never got over God's Grace and he taught we never should either. For many Christians who were raised in mostly graceless church settings the discovery of Luther's discovery is transformational.

Luther's other big contribution to Christian faith was the distinction he made between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. It basically comes down to who are we trusting for our salvation. While we might say, God, it often, in practice, looks more like our good deeds, i.e., going to church, tithing, regular prayers, etc. What we do for God takes priority over what God has done and is doing for us. We stand before God based on what Christ has done for us, not what we have done or not done was Luther's message.

Luther taught we find Christ through the cross. That is where God is most fully known. There we die to ourselves, our wisdom, pride, and accomplishments, and are made right with God. The cross is a scandal, it is God's judgment against every effort of our own to build a successful life.

Luther was far from perfect - which he would easily admit - and he did not tell us all we need to know about the Gospel but there is no better place to learn of Grace than Luther and the teachers who have followed in his tradition.

In honor of Reformation Day think on God's gifts of grace and offer grateful prayers. Make a practice of humility which was a big deal to the Reformers, Luther and John Calvin. Seek in your daily life to put others before you - in the lines you are in during the week, driving, eating, etc. Take a look at some of Luther's hymns which are not sung much any more, i.e., A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Luther's last recorded words: We are beggars that is the truth but I do not despair for I have seen that because of the cross God hears the beggars cry.

Happy Reformation Day!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Theaters of service

Our church is sharing sanctuary space with another local church. For our evening dinner church service we move the chairs out of the way and set up tables. Food is set up at our potluck table and drinks are on another table. We have been encouraging everyone to go green and bring in their own plates and silverware. After we eat people push back and our pastor brings out a wooden stool which she sits on to read Scripture and speak. Dressed casually in a white cotton top and black capris she brings us the message interspersed with questions to which we respond. One night recently she ran into some trouble opening a bottle of Cherry Sprite which exploded all over her when she took the cap off. So now she sat before us with a pink stained white cotton top. She took it in stride. After all it was just another night at church.

There are usually 20 to 25 of us congregating. Some times more and some times as few as a dozen -a number with good Biblical precedent. Often small children play off to the side and the older ones go to another room in the church for youth group. People come and go, get up to refill their drink glasses, or help with the children. Our pastor is not easily distracted although she might pause before finishing her point. We conclude with communion and prayer. We do some singing led by a person who plays the guitar. The words show up on a screen and people do sing unlike some churches we have visited which seem to have outsourced singing to a worship band.

It is not much of a worship performance with everything carefully scripted and looking very professional. Like you were in a theater watching a concert or a play. This has not been rehearsed. Anything is likely to happen. And does regularly. But, people are engaged. They are a part of the service, actually serving. I like that.

This week I was reading some harsh words of Jesus to the Pharisees recorded in Matthew 23. Scott Hoezee on the Calvin Seminary preaching website says it seems like Jesus was finally fed up with the Pharisees trying to lure him into a verbal trap. So, he lets them have it. In verse 5 he says the Pharisees live their lives in order to be noticed by others. It was not that they lived spiritually undisciplined lives. They were very pious and religiously devout. Nearly perfect. The problem was their motive. They were doing it to be seen, to make theater, literally (F.D. Bruner's commentary on Matthew).

Many churches resemble state of the art theaters from the seating to the audio/visual technology to the well crafted preaching, and delivery by the entertaining speaker (you should come to our church some one told me recently, oh really, I said, why. Our pastor is funny, i.e. entertaining). A case can be made for proclaiming the gospel in the best way possible. But, we have to be careful that the performance of proclaiming the gospel does not crowd out the gospel. In fact, can a nearly flawless performance do justice to the gospel which is for flawed people. Some times in a beautiful sanctuary filled with beautiful people listening to a concert quality worship band, don't you wonder who is this gospel for? Or, is this what the gospel does for you? Or what is the gospel, anyway?

Church may not be much different from the entertainment venue we were at the night before. Church is a highly scripted performance and we leave feeling good if our needs were met.

What is the Church? One answer is it is the people. The community of people following Jesus in a particular place. There is no need to perform. We want people to notice Jesus and follow him, not us.

At a recent church meeting a person challenged us to take Jesus out to the streets. We could be doing Vacation Bible School for kids on city street corners. We have had church at a local park where we included kids who were there in games and fed them hot dogs. We have had church at the local laundromat where we served people with food, money for doing laundry and conversation. Why not out on the street?

Do Jesus and his kingdom values get lost in the performances at some of our theaters? How can our "theaters" of service better reflect Jesus, who he is, and his kingdom values?

Saturday, October 25, 2014


I believe:
in GOD the Creator. life is a gift. every day is a gift. every thing. every one in my life.
in GRACE. God loves us and that includes me and it means He likes me (Brennan Manning).
in GIVING. God gave, God gives, God always will give. He is GIVER.  and so we give.
in JESUS, God's gift to us. He is our Role Model. and teacher and friend/brother.
in the HOLY SPIRIT who makes Jesus real to us and through whom we can say, Abba Father.
in the Church which is the community of the Spirit, an imperfect group of fellow followers of Jesus.
in Stewardship of all God has given which he owns and loans to us. and so we use it in His service.
in Giving in which we are most like God.
in taking care of the environment around me which includes picking up, recycling and the care of animals.
in caring for people/my neighbors in ways I can be a neighbor to them.
in learning of ways I can engage with God's mission in the wider world and engaging.
in Praying. for all of the above and more.
in the Kingdom of God which is here and coming and is not hard to find if we are looking because it is so different from what is normal.
in second chances, not judging, accepting folks as they are, love and kindness, frozen yogurt, chocolate chip cookies, apples, bananas, oatmeal, baseball, biking, books and beer (not in that order and not all at the same time).

Monday, October 13, 2014

A true Sabbath

Up before sunrise for coffee and a walk in the quiet interrupted by birdsong and our whispering;
home and a bowl of oatmeal along with the Sunday newspaper spread out on the table.

Some time not watching the time reading Scripture and a new book on spiritual disciplines;
time to watch the clock and get the Black Hog sausage and buttermilk pancakes ready for the family brunch.

A nap, some reading of Marilynne Robinson's, Lila, just delivered the day before.

Watched the Jags try to play football until it was time to load the car with our dinner contribution to dinner church at The Well, and communion bread.

Down I-10 to Jacksonville -a quick 40 minute drive- pulled up to St John's where we rent space in the evening, tables are being put up and covered, food is arranged potluck style. We pray, we eat, the pastor leads us in prayer, and Scripture. It's a series on Exodus. Tonight, Moses is away with God on a mountain and the people are restless. Aaron collects their gold earrings (men and women!) and has a calf shaped altar built, I guess to represent God in the style of the surrounding culture. What was Aaron to do, the pastor asks? Where was Moses, and God? This would have to do for now. The pastor tells us the word "revel" carries an undertone of mocking. Things have gone south. This is not the Sabbath God intended. What was Aaron thinking? You can please the people and wind up not pleasing God. (it is clear He is not pleased as you read on).

We watch a segment of the Shane Claiborne series, Economy of Love, and talk about it. We pray and a couple lead us in communion. We gather up the leftovers while some take down the tables and put away the chairs, say good-bye, and head west on I-10 to our home. I watch the first few innings of the Giants-Cardinals baseball game and go to bed.

Monday, September 29, 2014

God at the laundromat

Sunday morning at 10 am God showed up at Ninth and Main in Jacksonville, Fl. Ninth and Main is the location of a laundromat and several members of a neighborhood church planned to have their church service there that day. There was prayer as those who came to do their laundry and those who came to help joined hands outside and praised God. Communion was shared over muffins and coffee. Singing was heard over the hum of washers and dryers. New friends were seen conversing and praying together. Quarters were dispensed from the church's budget to do the wash. Mounds of clothes were piled next to jugs of detergent. Children were quietly coloring or playing games at a table outside. One or two boys were throwing a football with one of the adults from the church. It was an uncommon way to do church. The people who had come to do their wash were familiar with church rhythms from their past but this kind of church was new to them. They seemed to like it. Several asked questions, shouted thank you's and blessed those who had come to share their Sunday morning drudgery, and, is it possible, to embrace it with joy. It was not a new experience for some from the church, they had done it before. Others, who were uncomfortable at first, soon relaxed in this new routine of worship. If they knew God's presence with them in their church buildings, now they knew He frequents laundromats on Sunday mornings, too.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Finally got around to watching the film, Noah. I don't look to Hollywood for Biblical interpretation but this was a creative midrash on the text. We all use our imaginations when we read the Bible. I was wowed by the size of the ark, and the multitude of animals on board. The landscape was as bleak as the human race had become. There was a powerful scene when Noah goes down to see what the sons of men had become and we are seeing through his eyes what God sees and maybe have a little more understanding why God grieved that he had made humankind. Tubal-Cain is the leader of the rebellious humans and we are reminded of his serpent - like intentions visually and metaphorically as he asserts his will to get what he wants. The scenes at the end, post flood, are moving as these saved humans begin to get what God has done. Noah did not know why God had done it, he figured they would be the last humans to die. He does not believe he is a righteous man only that God has chosen him to get the task done. This doesn't make a lot of sense because why would God go to all the trouble of building an ark to save some from the flood if he did not have a plan to continue the survival of the human race. But, we miss the point, too, when God has made his will clear. Noah got so caught up in his interpretation of what God was doing he was not open to what the others saw.

 Until his turning point when he feels like he has failed God and himself and goes off on a drunk. As the film ends on a note of grace, the family of Noah (minus one and the addition of three) worship at an altar of God's second chances and the renewal of the earth.

The film answered several questions I had about the Noah story, like where did the wood come from to build the ark, and how were the animals managed during their long trip, and how did Noah with only his small family to help get the job done, and where did the wives come from for Noah's sons, etc, and most were creative answers that were also plausible. There were other issues I had never connected with Noah before, i.e., was he a vegan, environmentalist, and a respecter of the rights of animals as we would say today. Again, I don't think the director was trying to score political points as much as creating a plausible way of looking at life then.

We might not expect the film to follow the Biblical text as closely as it does and to handle that which the text does not speak of directly sensitively but I thought it did both. Noah played by Russel Crowe is a rough bear of a man who doesn't talk much but carries a big stick and can use it. He seems confused by God's choice of him since he seems not to see himself or his family as any better than anyone else (his wife rightly disagrees).  At first he has a clue about God's plan and then he seems to lose that clue only to find it again at the end. There is not much about Noah's self understanding in the Bible so we can only speculate. This is a very human Noah which of course he was. He does get it right when he says he was chosen because God chose him for God's own reasons. The Bible says Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. Indeed, he did.

This Hollywood film about Noah directed by a man of Jewish faith is full of God. Most often he is referred to as the Creator but everyone is reacting to him either for or against. The Creator's purpose and plan is the story line and the characters live their lives with that in mind. The script has not changed.

Derek Jeter's legacy

I had a text message from our son when I woke today. He had watched the end of Derek Jeter's final home game at Yankee Stadium. "Classy and clutch", he said. We have been without TV  because we are moving into a new house. I had been trying to watch as many of Jeter's last games this year as I could. I went to and watched the video of Jeter's game winning single and his emotional and graceful exit from Yankee Stadium and into Yankee lore. My son and I share a love of baseball and a love for the Yankees and their captain, Derek Jeter. He arrived with Yankees about the same time my son was starting to play baseball. Jeter became his guy. He played shortstop as Jeter did. He played the game like Jeter, too, with love and passion and respect for the game and his opponents. I remembered one Little League game - it was a regional all-star playoff game - and he was pitching against the ace of the other region. They were both on their game that day and no runs had been scored by either team. It was the bottom of the last inning and the other pitcher, who was their team's best hitter, hit one over the fence. As the batter rounded third for home my son walked off the mound and met him half way down the baseline extending his hand to congratulate him. Classy move. Respect for a game well played. It was Jeter - like. He has been a great role model teaching by example a love for a great game played the right way. There is no greater legacy than kids playing ball in future years, Jeter -like.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Two credos

Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality.

Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they are happy; shed tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody.

Don't hit back; discover the beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it." (From Romans 12, The Message)

I believe in Free Enterprise, Pride of Place
Fiscal Responsibility, The Middle Ages,
Seasonal Allergies, Queen Anne's Lace,
Undying Love, The Communion of Saints,
The Golden Ratio, Due Process, Outer Space,
The Diet of Worms, The Bay of Fundy,
The Statue of Liberty, The Human Race,
The Freedom of the Press, The Milky Way,
The Four Seasons, The Commonplace,
Pinot Grigio, The Bermuda Triangle,
The Golden Ages, Prevenient Grace.
(From Adventure of Ascent, by Luci Shaw)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The President's prayers

To some people the words President Obama and Christian would never appear in the same sentence unless it was to state that he was not. I have encountered people who believe he might be a Muslim. Some believe he is non-religious or even anti -religious. When I had a meeting a while ago with a professional person about a totally unrelated subject, the President's faith or lack of was suddenly on the table, and before I knew where the conversation was headed, I was in uncharted territory. This person, who was a successful business person and normal in every way, wanted to know if I thought the President was out to destroy America and Christianity -sort of an anti-American, anti-Christ. No, I said, I thought he was a Christian. It was an awkward moment.

Joshua DuBois was a pastor before he began working on President's Obama's election campaign and then worked in the White House as Obama's "pastor in chief". The President wanted him to email him a devotional thought based on a Scripture reading every morning. Some of these readings are compiled in a new book entitled, The President's Devotional. I looked it up on Amazon and sampled some of the entries. It was pretty good and very evangelical. Shouldn't be surprising since the President has spoken at prayer breakfasts and has said that he is a Christian. Some may not agree with  his politics or his priorities for the country but why question his faith? We are supposed to pray for our leaders, especially a brother in Christ who is leading us at a time when we face crises on many fronts. It doesn't matter if we agree or not with his approach to these crises because we are not called to agree but to pray. That is what we can do as we are jarred nearly every day by the latest news. (The reference to Josh DuBois can be followed up in the September issue of Christianity Today.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Bible belt

We live in the Bible Belt after 14 years in the relatively unchurched Northwest and Alaska.  Here in Florida there are Bibles on the counters of many businesses, car dashboards, and in homes. Church signs quote the Bible and many houses have the Ten Commandments prominently displayed on their front laws (businesses often have them displayed on a wall, as well). Public teachers were given Bible verses on Kickoff Sunday before the new school year. Some churches  proudly announce which Bible they teach from, i.e., KJV, alone! I wonder if all this focus on the Bible is a good thing. The people in Jesus day who were his most vocal opponents were the ones who were most focused on the Bible (look at John 5: 39-40). F. Bruner reminds us that "there is Bible study and then there is Bible study. The Bible is not about the Bible... and it is not meant to be a religious encyclopedia of facts... it is meant to be the book that points to Christ... let us watch like hawks that our own poring over the Bible has no other goal than to know Christ." Well put.

When the Ten Commandments are taken out of context, it can easily lead to moralism or legalism. The verse that precedes the Ten Commandment in Deuteronomy, verse 6, is a word of grace and salvation. The Ten Commandments are a way of life in which we respond to the God of grace who has saved us. In the same way, the Old Testament prepares us to find Jesus as our Savior and Lord in the New Testament. Bible study on it's own can totally miss the point which is to lead us to Christ. See John 5:39-40, again. Jesus want us to believe in Him and to follow Him and, Bruner states, when we do, Jesus says,  "You are the Light of the world, You are the salt of the earth."

The key to life is Jesus Christ. In the words of the Spiritual, Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart. (thanks again to Bruner for this reference.

There are a lot of Bibles here in the Bible Belt. I know that can be a good thing. When it gets from the belt to the heart.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Church service

Our small church in the city meets on the fourth Sunday of the month for service. Not a service but service. There is no worship service but we are given service projects in the community. Last night after dinner together, we split up to clean a seven block stretch of Main Street, both sides and the median. Our group of six or seven filled up three large garbage bags in an hour. Other people stayed in the church building and wrote letters of encouragement and support. A third group helped organize the room where the children meet on Sundays. Since we are sharing space with another church this project helped them out, too. Pastor Susan took the children to the local firehouse and distributed bags of cookies and the kids got to meet the firefighters and get on a fire truck.

I was out on garbage patrol while my wife stayed in and wrote out cards. It had been hot during the day but by 6 pm it was only muggy due to a passing thunderstorm. No matter we worked up a good sweat. The street was busy with cars and people stopping at several fast food businesses. I noted that a good share of the trash we were picking up was packaging from those same restaurants. There were several tattered Charlie Crist for Governor signs from a recent political rally, or Scott supporters were messing with Crist's signs. In this part of the city where many signs read, African-Americans for Crist, I figured it was the former.

One local catering business owner was on his way out to his van and turned to thank us for what we were doing. Mostly though the persons on the street went about their own business without giving us a second look. Next week, someone commented, the street would look much the same as it had before we started. That might be true but for right now the street looked good and we had had a good church service.

Little League World Series

I enjoyed watching some of the Little League World Series games. I was cheering for Mo'ne and was energized by the comebacks of the team from Chicago. I hoped they could pull off another one against South Korea. Then I sat back and reflected on what I had watched - 11-13 year old boys and two girls - who were being covered by ESPN as if they were adults. There were the entertaining side stories and interviews with families of those kids who were playing. There were inspiring moments when "miked" coaches rallied their teams on to greater efforts. There were the moments when the "boys of summer" looked like boys and girls: tears after an error or pitching wildness and broad smiles after a home run or game winning hit.

That's what bothered me, I guess. Those moments, the close ups which seemed to be an invasion of childhood privacy and exploitation of a child's game for adult viewers. Mo'ne who became an overnight sensation said it kinda creeped her out when adults approached her for her autograph. The kids in her school would never do that because they already knew her, she said.  At least, she is home now and her life can return to normal. Unless she decides to so some endorsement deals. Those who know say she could make a quick one to five hundred grand if she doesn't think about it too long. Soon, she will be forgotten and the sporting public will be following football.

There were up to 30,000 spectators at some of the games. The umps were volunteers as were the coaches. Of course, the kids were not payed either. Yet, the cameras, more every year, were on their every move in HD. We saw the sportsmanship, we heard coaches encouraging the kids and groaned at some of the calls as ESPN showed in replays how the umps blew the calls. We were mesmerized at the comparisons with the big leagues, how a 70 mile an hour pitch at Little League dimensions was the same as a 90 plus mile an hour pitch in the bigs, although some experts debated an exact comparison. Anyway, we marveled at how these kids could catch up to a 90 mph heater.

Some of the comparisons went the other way, too. The former big league stars on the ESPN broadcasting team pointed out how a pitcher who had just plunked a hitter on the other team walked off the mound and shook his hand and told him he was sorry. In the big leagues the pitcher has a look of indifference when there is not a shouting match between players or an on field brawl. I love it when the teams line up and shake hands after the game. Why don't they do that in the bigs? Would anyone dare mike up the coaches? The LL coaches never failed to inspire but would big league coaches?

The LL World Series is about the last place you can watch baseball on tv as it was meant to be played.  Of course, most of us can go down to the local LL ballpark and watch a game when the boys and girls of summer play. Some of us can coach, ump, or serve up hot dogs to the fans. It is baseball at it's finest. Without ESPN.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Morning devotions

John 3:16 has to be the most often quoted and memorized Bible verse. Tim Tebow wore it on his eye black. That guy used to hold up a sign that just said, John 3:16, in the football stands under the goal posts. You just know what John 3:16 says even if you haven't spent a lot of time in church.

But what does it mean? That's another question altogether. Does God love the whole world, like everybody? How did He give us His Son and how does that work anyway? What is His great purpose for all of us? Long chapters of theology have been written on each of those questions. A very popular series of books by a very popular West Coast pastor mined the riches of that last question (The Purpose Driven Life).

Perhaps we have made it more complicated than it is. Eugene Peterson says that verse contains everything we need to know about God, and all of it is good. Frederick Dale Bruner in his commentary on John calls this verse the heart of the gospel and the international treasure.

I have preached on this verse many times but I think, not enough, and were I to do it over, I would preach on it and it's themes more.

Here they are: First, is the world-wideness of God's love (Bruner's term). God so loved the whole, entire ball of wax (the cosmos), all of us, each one of us. His love should not exclude any group or any one.

Second, God loved the whole world, as is. With all it's waywardness, failures, flaws and fallenness (sin) and He gave for, one and all, His only Son, Jesus Christ. We celebrate his death and resurrection for us at Easter, and every Sunday and every day when we arise. There are many theories of how this works, of how Jesus's death saves us from our sins, and you can study them for a long time but, essentially, they all say what John says here. That is, that God's giving was historical and local and personal - in Jesus Christ. And that God gave personally (his own self), and that his love is not just a feeling but an action that cost God and benefited us. (Bruner says, consider that event and bow your head in wonder!)

Third, ..."so that every one, every single person, who is believing, entrusting him or her self to God... We have a hard time with the simpleness of this statement. We would clarify it with adverbs like totally, or wholly, or sincerely where the gospel has no qualifiers at all. It says it simply, simple trust is all that is needed. Our salvation depends on God our Savior not on us. Bruner again, we do nothing but trust Another who has done everything. Trusting is like breathing - it is ongoing, continually resting in the divine love (Bruner).

Fourth, the direction of our trust is "into Him".  John's teaching on belief is not just "belief that"; it is that AND a personal commitment to.

Fifth, such simple trust brings Life not merely life. (John's gospel fleshes out all of these themes).

We (my wife and I) sang Love Divine, All Loves Excelling from the hymnbook and it's a good thing our only audience was God!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Who gets the crumbs?

I was talking to a businesswoman this week who was helping us get a loan for our new home. I had never met her face to face. I knew her husband and that he had surgery recently. I inquired how he was doing. He's in a lot of pain, she said. But, I know he is going to be healed. I am claiming that! That's the South. Few people are reluctant to share their faith even in a professional context and with someone they had never met. I am getting used to it and I don't mind it. It's easier in the South to know where someone is coming from than in the North. Then, she asked me a couple questions and realized I had been a pastor. She wondered if I had a church now. No, not in the sense of pastoring one but we attend one in the city. Our pastor, she... Whoa, wait a minute, she interrupted, you mean you have a woman pastor...I thought the Bible said women can only teach other women and children. Well, I said, I don't think the Bible says it quite like that. In fact, God uses women in leadership positions in the Bible, and women in ministry are viewed in a positive way. Which is remarkable given the patriarchal culture of Bible times, I was about to say but we were on to another question.

I've heard Christians affirm that the Bible teaches women cannot be leaders over men often over the years.  Looking at who leads churches in the part of the South where I live it sure seems like Christians are practicing what they teach.

So, I like to notice when the Bible shows women operating outside the cultural expectations but, apparently not outside God's. This morning I was reading the story about the Syro-Phoenecian woman who "came out the hills", is the way Matthew puts it (the Message), as if to remind us that she was not on any one's radar at the time she encountered Jesus. Jesus had been in mostly Jewish territory teaching. This woman was not only a non - Jew, a Canaanite, in fact, but she was a woman who was the mother of a daughter who had an  unclean spirit according to Jewish tradition.  It was impossible for her to approach a Jewish Rabbi. Jesus tries to ignore her and his followers urge him to send her away because she is such a beggar. Cultural and religious expectations are in full view.

The woman will not be shrugged off that easily. She persists so that Jesus finally talks directly to her. I have been sent to the lost sheep of Israel is what he says. Then, he tells her a parable about dogs and crumbs from the table. It's one of those so called hard sayings of Jesus that is hard to get. She got it though, right away, as her immediate response shows.  To call someone a dog was an insult and Jews regularly used that term for Gentiles. Dogs were not pampered in the culture of Jesus' day. Jesus chose a word for dog that meant a small dog or puppy. Tim Keller writes, "the woman is a mother, and Jesus is saying to her, You know how families eat: First the children eat at the table, and afterward their pets eat, too. It is not right to violate that order. The puppies must not eat food from the table before children do."  Keller explains further that Jesus concentrated his ministry on Israel to show them he was the Messiah they were expecting. But, after he was resurrected he told his followers to go out to all the nations and spread the gospel. What he was saying to the woman was not an insult but a parable which meant "Please, understand, there's an order here. I'm going to Israel first, then to the other nations (Gentiles) later." This Gentile woman comes back with "Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." "In other words, Keller writes, Lord, the puppies eat from the table, too, and I am here for mine."

Commenting on this passage in his study of the gospel of Mark, James Edwards, writes, "She appears to understand the purpose of Israel's Messiah better than Israel does.... the woman is the first person in Mark to hear and understand a parable of Jesus...she is the first person to hear the word of Jesus to her.

That it was a Gentile woman whose spiritual sensitivity and insight was so unexpected in the culture of her time makes what Jesus was saying harder to understand What sounds offensive to us was really Jesus turning the racial prejudice of his followers upside down.

 Keep your eyes and ears open as you read the Bible. This is not the only time in the gospels when a woman gets it and the men do not. It is still so unexpected in parts of the cultural terrain of our time that the children and the women are eating some of the choicest meals at the table while the men are content with the crumbs.

(btw, Keller's book is Jesus the King and well worth a read.)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Meals on wheels

My wife and I went out on our first meals on wheels delivery this week. We were a team - she was the navigator and runner (took meals to the door) and I was the driver ( I ran, too, as some of the places had no numbers to identify them and looked a little questionable to us). I felt brave as I checked out some of the homes expecting a pit bull to come tearing around the corner of the house. My wife is pretty good at talking down angry dogs, better than I am, but how could I let her fend off a pit bull while I sat in the car ( admittedly, I did think about it for a second). We have lived in this mostly rural county 35 miles from Jacksonville, Florida for over a year now and we discovered we didn't know much about it. We drove on country roads we had never seen before, some sand and barely passable after recent rains. I was glad we still had our 4 wheel drive SUV. We were given a list by the Office of Aging with no directions other than, just go. So, with my wife on her iPhone GPS system we crisscrossed our corner of the county. Our route took us so far down some sandy roads we  had to drive on the grass to the next home. At one such home the sand road bore the same name that welcomed us on the home at the very end. We felt like we were in a scene from a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel. Most of the people we were delivering to looked at us cautiously since we were new. When we identified our selves as the new delivery team with their hot lunch and cold milk their faces brightened and they told us how thankful they were for bringing the meal all the way out to them. Some of the people had no visible means of transportation and were unable to get to the door. "Just come in the back and leave it on the table, sweetie!"  Often there was a ramp leading to that door and a wheelchair inside. The remarkable, and yet, unremarkable, thought that came to us was that in each of these homes down those long country roads there was a person living. Now, that sounds like a simple statement of fact but this delivery of food may be the only human contact they have all day. When you looked into their faces you saw that fact may be as important as the food we delivered.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Prayer meeting

The church is big on meetings. Looking at some church calendars there are meetings scheduled every day of the week. Meetings to plan, to problem solve, meetings to fulfill a scheduled meeting. Meetings to plan another meeting. I am not saying meetings are unimportant. But, I do think some are unnecessary. We might need a meeting sometimes but we don't need to meet just to have a meeting. I don't recall Jesus scheduling a meeting. He met people over dinner and he met people who were traveling to the same place he was. He met people at worship. Other than that he didn't need a lot of meetings. He had times and places of prayer where he met people, too. This is what I want to focus on. Churches have a long history of prayer meetings although most have fallen off the church schedule due to a lack of attendance. "Prayer Meeting" unfortunately has a negative ring to it due to too many, long prayer meetings where a few people pray long, rambling prayers. Prayer meetings don't have to be this way. Prayer meetings should be exciting, perhaps a little noisy, and include everyone. I attended some prayer meetings in another country where concerns were lifted up and then people turned around, knelt at their seats and commenced to pray out loud, every one, all at the same time. Prayer is a community activity, of great significance.

Jesus shows us that as he regularly withdrew to pray and, especially at the main turning points of his life, we are told he took time to pray. He taught on prayer so we have a richly, nuanced prayer that teaches us how to pray all our lives.  In Luke 22 we have a detailed account of the last meal, Passover, Jesus had with his disciples. In painting the picture, Luke shows us a dysfunctional group of disciples sharing this meal with Jesus.  Jesus is getting ready for his walk to his cross and his faithful followers don't have their legs under them. They are comparing themselves to each other vying for the best positions in his kingdom. Jesus warns them of the tests to come even as he faces his biggest one. The devil had done all he could to throw Jesus off stride and he wasn't done yet. Peter, the captain of the group of disciples, comes in for a very specific alert. "Simon, stay on your toes! Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me like chaff from wheat. Simon, I've prayed for you in particular not to give in or give out. When you come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start." (The Message) When you read on you see that Peter had not assessed his situation the same way.  Jesus knew what was coming so he bracketed the time of testing with a meal of forgiveness before and after (see John 21).

Fred Craddock observes in his commentary on this text."Christian leaders are not those exempt from fear, doubt, discouragement, and repeated testing but those who are supported by prayer and who, through repentance and forgiveness, find grace and strength to continue."

There are a number of cliches associated with prayer but prayer is not a cliche. It is what we do in the church. It is not a meeting, or a formula although prayer happens at meetings and we can use written prayers to guide us, especially the one Jesus taught us. We need to daily uphold our spiritual leaders in prayer for every one will go through times of testing. Each one of us needs to be alert, as well. I am reading a new book by J.R. Briggs entitled, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the midst of midst of ministry failure. Sensing a crisis among his brothers and sisters in ministry, he began a conference which was called, Epic Fail Pastors Conference: Where Pastors Put Their Worst Foot Forward. His first conference on failure was so successful he has put them on all over the country. His research and personal experience showed that 1500 pastors leave their pastoral vocation each month because of burnout or contention in their congregations.

If I were advising a young pastor today, I would tell him or her to pray. Make prayer the center of church life. Meet people to pray. Have prayer groups. Teach the Lord's Prayer to everyone. Make sure you pray it yourself. Use books like Eugene Peterson's Praying with Jesus in which I found this prayer today. "Dear Jesus, I see what you want me to become but I have no power in myself to produce it. I depend wholly on you to bring about the consecration you desire. Continue your prayers for me, O Christ."

Monday, August 4, 2014


Last night at our church we read the Scripture in Genesis 32 which tells the story of Jacob's wrestling match with God. Jacob is changed by the all night struggle and is given a new name to mark that change. It was a well chosen story to reflect upon on this first "dinner church" meeting of our church. We lost our rented space to another tenant who would use it more and pay more for that use so we have been looking for another vacated storefront in the community but were unsuccessful. Another church in the area offered us some space in their church but since the building is small it worked out that we would meet at night. So, we met for dinner and then a worship service around the tables. We were able to have time for reflection on the passage from Scripture and celebrate Communion together.

It has been a struggle for the church to sense what God is calling us to be in that community. Thanks to another expression of the Body of Christ we have a place for this month. But, we are not done looking for a more "permanent home". We were reminded that the church really is the people as we gathered in a new place and at a new time but were still the church.

I struggled with the change, too. I have always gone to church in the morning. I pastored churches which had morning services for almost 40 years. It was like it said somewhere in God's Word that His people would gather at 10 am or 11 am with Sunday School before or after but He preferred before. I have been to evening services or special events at night but that was always Extra! So, when we left church last Sunday after our last morning service for awhile, I said to my wife, I don't think I can do this. We will have to go somewhere else next Sunday morning. I don't know if I can change. You know, something about old dogs and new tricks. My wife was silent. She knew. Saturday night she asked what we were going to do for church on Sunday. I said, let's see in the morning. She knew. When we got up we knew we did not want to go to church somewhere else. Our church was meeting at 5 pm. I knew.

We walked, read, prayed, visited our son's family who were camping nearby, took the dog and one grandson on a long walk and then sat at the playground by a beautiful lake. It was peaceful. We came home and made pancakes and then read some more. Then it was time to go to church. Traffic was light and our church meeting place was simply yet tastefully decorated for dinner. Many potlucks filled a table. We sat at tables of six to eight. We got caught up on the stuff of our lives and we laughed with each other. I was able to find out why a man who had not been to church for several weeks had not been coming. I could tell him I missed him and had been praying for him.

Then, we sang, studied the Scripture passage, prayed and celebrated communion. We prayed for a blessing on a young family who had decided it was time for them to leave our church community to seek a new place to worship. We cleaned up and it was time to go home. It had been a good day all around. God knew.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Matthew chapter 14 is one of the texts in the gospels that tell how Jesus fed a lot of people. After a day of healing and teaching, Jesus' disciples advised him to check the time and see that it was getting late and they were in the desert a long way from home - so he might want to think about calling it a day and send the folks home. Disregarding their advice, Jesus told them to go ahead and feed the people. Thinking it must be a joke the disciples quickly added up their resources and reported they barely had enough for their own picnic supper. Jesus took their resources and after blessing and breaking the loaves he began to feed the large crowd. Five loaves and two fishes for over 5,000 people.

There were probably a few people eating Jesus' fast food who saw the benefits of hanging around Jesus: food, health care and good Bible teaching. And, I imagine there were some others who were calculating the risks involved. Who is this guy and what does he want from us. There is no free lunch they were thinking. We are even more leery in this modern age. Every day the media recounts stories of scams, frauds and Madoff like promises that what we know is too good to be true. Still, we sign on. It's like spending $100 of our hard earned money on lottery tickets because today our luck may have changed.

While the appeal of Jesus may have generated both of these responses, neither one comes close to what he was doing. He was living the life he came to live and to give. John, in his gospel, called it "abundant life". Which is another way of talking about the Jesus life. It is a full and fulfilling way of life. But, it not just for those who choose to follow the Jesus Way.  It is meant to be shared. That's why there were leftovers. Pick them up and give it away to others. That's the way the Jesus Life is lived.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Look of love

Like many people I don't think of myself as rich. I'm almost glad I'm not rich, thankful even. There are many warnings in the Bible to the rich. They may have it now but they may be in trouble later. There are cautions in the Psalms against imitating the rich and then there is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in the gospels. So, when I turn to read the story Jesus told about the rich, young man, I am pretty sure who he was talking about and it was not me. I guess I see the young rich guy as a Wall Street investment banker making tons of money for himself and not caring about anyone else. He pulls up to Jesus in a Lexus SUV and turns down the thump thump of his bass just long enough to get his question answered. How do I score the investment you are talking about, Jesus, he asks. Jesus tells him to give away what he owns to the poor and you will have invested for eternity. The man wasn't expecting that so he got back in his car, turned up the stereo and went back to making money.

Today, Marilyn McEntyre in her book, What's in a Phrase, helped me see this story a little more clearly. She focuses on v. 21 in Mark 10, "and Jesus, looking at him, loved him."  Even before answering his question he takes a second, longer look at this young man, she writes. He takes the young man and his question seriously because he sees both his immaturity and his spiritual hunger, she says. Then she writes,"since I haven't given up my possessions, and know few who have, I realize most of us don't have any stones to throw at this rich young man when he went away sorrowing because he could not give up his wealth." She claims she tithes to her church and gives her canned goods to the food bank, but states she will probably carry her laptop to the grave.

The point of the story, she points out, is not judgment but love. Jesus loves even those who are not yet wholehearted, pure and generous. He turns toward us with a compassionate gaze, listening to our imperfect prayers, to petitions that smack of self-righteousness, and self-interest, seeing us through our learning moments, our resistances, and our spiritual failures - is how she puts it.

Some people left everything to follow him immediately. Others went home to fields in need of  plowing, and children in need of raising and families needing to be fed. They go home to ponder what Jesus said, what it means to live by grace and how righteousness is reckoned. McEntyre helps me see the rich man in a different light. Some probably did go home sorrowing or at least feeling like they wished they could be more like the disciples who could follow Jesus and not look back on what they were leaving behind. Like we might look at those who move into a house church situated in the midst of the city or among the poor of the third world. We wish we had that commitment or sense of purpose.

But McEntyre is a good and true guide, I think. She sees this story as a complement to the stories of the calling of the 12 disciples. It is more ordinary. Perhaps, she suggests, the rich young man did not leave without hope; perhaps Jesus look of love stayed with him a long while; perhaps he did not conclude right away that Jesus' way was not for him. "I imagine, McEntyre writes, he went home to restless nights, and days of wrestling with what the Lord requires of him." He had a lot to sort out, she says, and I imagine Jesus' love stayed with him and encouraged his growth process. Jesus look of love was what sustained him as he groped his way toward a new relationship with God. As it sustains us in our following Jesus.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I was reading in Matthew 14 today. Jesus walks on water is the title of this section. It's a favorite. I have always thought it cool that Peter actually was able to take a few steps on the water. Just like Jesus. He didn't make it far but he tried. I realized that Matthew probably took this story from Mark's gospel. Mark's main source was Peter himself many scholars believe. So if Peter was telling the story why did he leave himself out? Some scholars think that Peter's pride got in the way. But Mark includes other Peter stories that do not show him in a good light, for instance, his denial of being one of Jesus's followers before the crucifixion. Michael Card in his book, Mark: the Gospel of Passion, writes he used to think that, as well. But after spending more time with Peter in the book of Acts and his two letters he changed his mind. Now, he thinks Peter told Mark to leave him out of this story because he walked on water. Humility, Card says, was the reason for Peter's absence from the story, not pride.

Peter did walk on water which is  something not too many people can claim. His walking on water could have been a distraction from what Peter/Mark were teaching. When Matthew tells the story with Peter in it, the focus is more on Peter's failure than his brief success. He is going down when he sticks out his hand and yells for Jesus to save him.

It was Peter's failure more than his success that taught him humility. He took a few steps on water but he was a goner if Jesus did not reach out to him. Littlefaiths is what Jesus calls him and the rest of the disciples. Peter never forgot. Humble yourselves under God's mighty hand and he will lift you up is what Peter wrote in his first letter. He had experienced that.

We are more success oriented that failure oriented. We try to hide our failures and play up our successes. Our resumes do not usually contain a bullet list of our failures. Yet we know we often learn more from failure than success. In this case, Peter made the most of a life long lesson he learned the day he was sinking in the deep. Cast your cares on him because he cares for you.

I'm glad Peter held his water walking out of Mark's gospel story. But, I am glad Matthew included it in his. Mark shows us a lesson in humility and Matthew shows us how Peter learned it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Church in the city

We are attending a small church in the city. It is in the historic (= old and rundown) section of the city that is undergoing revitalization (= people who have lived there a long have to move out as it becomes popular to move in there). The church meets in a storefront on Main St. On August 1 the lease will expire and so the church has been looking for a new (= old) storefront to move into. The church only has use of the present space on Sundays so people have to set up and take down every week and meetings are held in people's homes. Hopefully, the new space comes with more permanency.

Yesterday there were about 27 of us, including children, there. The pastor just returned from a week of vacation with her family on the Gulf Coast but she was able to preach a thoughtful sermon on hospitality. Another person on the mission committee presented a summary of their work on a non profit agency in the community which the church could support by volunteering. Each week for three weeks an agency will be previewed and then the church will decide on one of them. This week we heard about an agency that works on revitalizing people, especially, children and families where one of the parents is in jail. There is tutoring for the children and mentoring for the offenders who are released. There are family reunion parties to encourage positive relationships with the offender and his/her family and others. Then, in our service, another person read scripture, and another led our prayer time which we all closed by praying the Lord's Prayer and another introduced communion and the children led it.

Another person led the singing. The last song was written by Michael Hansen. I had trouble finding the words and music. So here are the words to A Generous Man:

He comes upon a place of famine
With food in his hands.
And people come from miles around.
They have heard,
They went to meet this Generous Man.
They were not worthy, they could not pay.
But still he opens his hands.

He comes upon a place of sickness
with healing in his hands.
And people come from miles around.
They have heard,
they want to meet this Generous Man.
And they are not worthy, and they cannot pay.
But still he opens his hands.

You give it away.
You give it away.
LORD, come give it away.
Come, give it away.

Then we formed a circle, held hands, and some of the children led us in a closing prayer.

Monday, June 9, 2014

yellow fly

Yellow Fly, so quick and quiet, it is on you before you know it,
It may be hours before you realize what bit you.
Then there is pain and itching and swelling.
It got you.
You recognize it now that you have been bitten.
You know what to expect.
If you are watchful you can flick it away before it bites
but most of the time it is on you before you know it, stealth like.
There is nothing to do but deal with the pain, heal up, you will.
When the pain is gone, and the yellow fly season is over
don't be surprised, be ready, next year.

Almost summer

It's summertime, almost, but don't tell anyone down here in the NE corner of Florida where it has been summertime for some time now. It is so hot and humid it is out of the question to try to do anything outside after sunrise at 6:30 am. So, if it is walking or bike riding or hiking, a headlamp is the most important gear you need for outdoor activities. It is so hot and humid that if you have to do yard work, you slather on the sunscreen and get it done as fast as you can. You may sweat the rest of the day inside with the a/c on. It is so hot and humid that you wake up and step outside and think you are in a steam room. It seems like a half hour before the car a/c can cool the car down. And then there are the bugs. My wife has a sensitivity to many of them. This is yellow fly season, there is always a season for something. If she gets a yellow fly bite she swells up like she has a small melon under her skin. She itches, and feels miserable for days. Benadryl is her best friend. So she has another reason to spend these pre-summertime days inside.

Then there is the sunscreen which I have already mentioned. We have become sunscreen addicts. We shout to each other, did you remember to put on sunscreen? Florida is the sunscreen state. At least, there is no shortage of dermatologists here. We have had spots burned, biopsied and surgeried off. But, we can't blame Florida for that! That was from pre-Florida sun abuse. It's ironic that now that we are here we are told by our doctor to make sure we avoid the sun!

And then there are the summer storms which arrive nearly daily. Thunderous thunder, dazzling flashes of lightening, and plenty of rain, as our neighbor says, "it flat laid down a bunch of rain." To put it mildly. The yards flood, roads are under water and some of the older septic tanks fill up with water and you can't flush the toilets for days. The rain brings out the frogs which bark joyfully all night long after a storm. They crawl up the windows so you can see their little feet when you look outside. They are on your car when you go out in the morning. Sometimes they jump in when you open the door and they are so quick they hide themselves before you can show them the way out. You know something they don't: the daytime temperature inside a parked car is not hospitable to frogs or humans.

Florida is not a deep state. The whole state could have a sign out at the border that says: Clean Fill Wanted. There is not enough ground to dig a basement if you wanted one.  The other day a man stopped at the house and said he noticed we did not have gutters on our house. True, most Floridians don't. You know, he said, houses here are built on sandstone. When you get uncontrolled water runoff from the roof, that's how sinkholes happen. Not trying to scare you, just saying, as he leaned up against his truck that prominently displayed his company logo: Roofing and Gutters.

It's almost summer and the livin', as they say, is interesting.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Violence and the Bible

What are Christians to do with all the violent passages in the Bible? Most of the time we avoid them, or forget them, or spiritualize them. Like the Sunday School lessons from the Old Testament for children, we sanitize these violent stories in order to draw out some spiritual lesson. Lately, though both Christian and non-Christian authors have been drawing our attention back to the violent parts of the Bible and asking uncomfortable questions. Philip Jenkins, a historian at Baylor, in a 2011 book entitled Laying Down the Sword wants Christians to play by the same rules they want Islam to play by. It's not fair to judge Islam by certain violent words in the Koran when we make exceptions for the violent parts of the Bible. There is no doubt the Bible has some ugly, nasty stuff in it, a whole lot of blood is shed. What has God got to do with it? Mark Buchanan in a recent issue of Christianity Today referred to passages in Scripture that make God look like a cosmic bully throwing a colossal tantrum. Non - Christian authors want to know how Christians can relate to a God who would order the destruction of an entire people, the Cannanites.

Many years ago there was a Christian bishop, Marcion, who decided the only way to deal with the wrathful God depicted in the Old Testament was to get rid of the Old Testament. The God of the OT was not the same God of the NT. Other Christian leaders wisely saw the error of Marcion's way and strongly asserted that the Old Testament does not show us a different God from the New Testament or one whose purposes or character are fundamentally distorted from what we find in the New Testament. As Buchanan says, the God of Moses is the God of Paul.

Even so it is important for Christians to "own" the story and stories in the Bible and not explain them away or simply take a spiritual message from them. What spiritual lesson can we draw from Jael putting a tent peg through Sisera's skull (Judges 5) or the graphically told account of the disemboweling of Eglon (Judges 3)? Judges is full of such violent stories, some told with coarse humor. What's the point? Barry Webb, an OT scholar and author of a commentary on Judges, points out that Judges is interpreted history. Judges gives us a theological interpretation of the history of some of Israel's heroes (the Judges). They were men and women who were defined by their violence. Judges gives us that violence but it is reworked theologically. So, Webb says, "the challenge for those of us who read it as Scripture is not whether we can identify with the violence but whether we can identify with the theology that frames and interprets it."

That is not saying, oh well, if it can be explained theologically then it's not so bad really, is it? Webb says, there may never be a way to dispel the  unease we feel over some of the violent passages in the Bible. The point of theology is not to give us a tidy way to deal with human suffering so we can feel better about it. But, he cautions, a response based totally on our feelings is also inadequate. Part of the challenge of being a Christian, he says, is to bring our thoughts and feelings under the discipline of scriptural teaching. A thing is not necessarily wrong because it is presented in an insensitive way or because we experience a strong negative reaction to it.

Webb gives us a few guidelines which may help when dealing with some of the violent passages in Judges and other places in the Bible. First, culture is not morally neutral, it is the manifestation of what humans are. Second, the nature of evil is far too deep and  complex to be dealt with by the punishment of this person or that act. There have been times and there are times when things are so bad that "root and branch" judgment is justified, i.e., Noah's day, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Canannites. Third, not all religion is good and it is not a guarantee of protection from divine judgement. Both Canaan and Israel are judged in Judges.

The cross was a tool of violence, too. On the other side of the Cross followers of Jesus find themselves in a totally different environment. "God has taken the sword of his wrath and plunged it into his own heart." (Webb) Christians share in the victory of Christ by embracing suffering. Our weapons of warfare are God's Word and prayer. Evil is overcome, as Jesus did, not by preserving our life but by laying it down. Wrath remains only for those who refuse to do this and it is God's place to judge them, not ours. (Webb)

Judges is no model for Christian living. But, it and other troubling passages in the Old Testament canon contribute to our understanding of faith, the character of God, the human condition, and divine judgment. If we find Judges shocking, that may be a good thing. (Webb).