Tag Archives: Jesus

The Gifts of Christmas #5 – Shepherd, Provider, Gift Giver

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Over 37 years, two stockings have become ten. JOY!

It was in the late summer of 1976 when I first made my way north to Seattle, Washington.  I was headed to a new college, having changed my major from architecture to music.  I drove up from California and every mile north of Sacramento was new territory for me.  I’ll never forget seeing downtown for the first time and being overwhelmed by it’s beauty.  It’s proximity to the the water, it’s view of the mountains, the relatively new Kingdom (and the new Seahawks who’d soon be playing there) bound my heart to the city immediately.  Over the next three years I’d grow to love both the city and the rest of state, as I tromped through the forest with my fiancé, the evangelist of the outdoors, attended Sonics games, and ran 10k races downtown and Bloomsday in Spokane.  By that last year in Seattle, in 1979, my fiance and I had been together on snowshoes, in sailboats, in running shoes, and in hiking boots.  We married and moved, reluctantly, to California, where I eventually went to seminary.

I was offered a full time position at a church in Los Angeles, but declined.  I sat over supper with my favorite professor and he chided me for rejecting the offer.  “I feel called to the Northwest” I said, and he laughed.  “Doesn’t everyone?”, to which I replied, “No. Everyone doesn’t feel called to place – not the the way my wife and I do. It’s the rain, the green, the teams, the culture – everything.  We belong there.”  I was sincere, and it was a few months later, while working as a carpet cleaner, that a church in Friday Harbor called me in search of an interim pastor.  Donna was eight and a half months pregnant then, with our first child.  It was the late summer of 1984 that we returned to Washington state.  The Huskies were playing UCLA on the hospital TV when Kristi was born that October Saturday.  When we moved back in 1984, our hearts landed here.  Home.

Tonight, after leading the services at the church I serve, I’ll drive home to the mountains in the very center of this state we love, and there will be 10 stockings hung, appropriately with climbing gear, on the bookshelves.  My wife and I will, at some point, look at each other and say, “look what God has done!”, as we ponder the reality that we each arrived here solo, 32 years ago, and now enjoy the greatest gift of all, as we see our three children, their spouses, our grand-daughter, and my mother in law, all convened from distant parts of the world to celebrate the gifts we’ve so mercifully received from our God – these children and their families, of course, being the greatest gifts of all – and the privilege of investing in a place,  a region we love, with all the new friends that blossom in such a context, coming in a close second!

The thing is, I’ve never felt worthy of such blessings.  But I know, too, that “there is a time for everything” and that when the time is a time of blessing, the best possible response is gratitude to God for all that he’s given.  Knowing we don’t deserve the many gifts we enjoy, makes us both more grateful, and more generous to share them freely with others.  It also helps us seize today and rejoice with all the strength that is in us, knowing that there will be other days that are valleys of loss, confusion, and loneliness.  “In the days of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity, consider that God has made the one as well as the other.” (Ecclesiastes 7:13).  Yes, there will be other lesser days, for everyone – and when they come, the hope is that the same God who faithfully rejoiced with us as we received gifts, will walk with us, weep with us, comfort us, when we face loss.  I’ve known it to be true, so believe it to be true still.

When I received a phone call from my wife, during seminary days, that “we’re pregnant”, my response was equal parts joy and fear.  The fear came from this sense of inadequacy I’d always carried with me, for lots of different reasons.  I’d never consider myself a “self- made man”, because as I look back at my own story I see the hands of so many loving me, encouraging me, affirming me, helping me.  Wow!  And behind them all, of course, I see a good God whose gifts of kindness are intended to remind us that we can relax a bit, because companionship with Christ is the bottom line of what makes life worth living anyway, and that’s available 24/7.  Everything else is a gift – and if Bonhoeffer could see the gifts in prison, and MLK could see the gifts in a Birmingham jail, and my friend could see the gifts as he lay dying of cancer, I think I can say with confidence:  the gifts will come, are likely here already.   Ours is to simply see, and receive with gratitude.  They don’t solve every problem, these gifts – but they’re still gifts.

Yes it’s a broken world.  Yes there are clouds on the horizon.  Yes, we must roll up our sleeves and work for justice, and give to those needing help and empowerment. Yes we will walk with courage, wherever we need to go in 2017 – and yes – God is still good.  Christ is still here.  And in the midst of all the brokenness, the world is still beautiful.

The Gifts of Christmas #3: His humble circumstances free us

I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership.  The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected.  He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world.  “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.

It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself.  I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”.  I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world.  Well connected?  I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures.  I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.

I left class that day wanting to quit.  I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job.  When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:

Well connected?  He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.

Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.”  Isaiah 53:2

Agressive and ambitious?  There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on.  In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life:  “What is the will of the Father?”  When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds.  When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone.  When it led to the cross, he went there.

Wealthy?  “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.

There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected.  It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.

This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.

The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters.  I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on.  My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).

Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle.  Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t.  Some could be models, they’re so striking.  Then there are the rest of us.  Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.

Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26

For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.

 

The Gifts of Christmas: #2 – Free! Can’t be bought, only received!

There’s a fun little mystery in the Bible.  Way back in Genesis, ten brothers are starving and decide to travel down to Egypt because there’s grain for sale there.  Little do they know that the man from whom they’ll be buying grain is their little brother, hated as the favored one and sold by them into slavery, over two decades earlier.  They show up and he’s changed of course, and speaks a different language now, so they don’t recognize him.  They buy grain, but before heading home, the little brother sneaks all the money back into their sacks so that on the way home they discover that they had the grain, but didn’t pay for it.  To say there were dismayed would be an understatement, because from the very beginning of time, we’ve all known that “you get what you pay for” and that “there’s no free lunch”.  There are a million other ways we get the message too: from demanding parents who shame us when we fail, to performance reviews that populate our employment files with warnings.  The best things in life are earned.

This little story of free bread, though, tells us that there’s a different set of rules in God’s economy.  God is showing us that the things we need most fundamentally in our lives are not bought, ever.  They can only be received as gifts.  That’s why later a form of bread will show up on the desert floor when a nation is wandering through it on their way to their new home.  Centuries after that, Isaiah will speak of bread that is only available “without cost”, and then Jesus will declare that he is giving us his flesh as “the bread, for the life of the world”.

Give, give, give, means that there can be only one response.  Receive, receive, receive.  We can’t earn the gift that is Christ.  We’ll never be able to repay or reciprocate.  We can only receive, like little children.  My granddaughter, who just turned one, will be with us this Christmas and I promise you that she’ll have no problem receiving gifts without any guilt.  There’ll be no, “Rats!  Grandpa gave me some overalls and I’ve nothing for him.”  There’ll be a pattern to her Christmas day:  receive, enjoy, repeat.

For God’s sake, all of us could stand to become children again vis a vis our relationship with God and Christ:  receive; enjoy; repeat.

That requires a radical reorientation from the performance world that is often the rest of our lives, and the way to get there is to recognize that, though we’ve likely earned a bit in our lives through the sweat of our brow, the best gifts that we’ve received are the free ones.  We’ve been forgiven, I hope, by a parent, spouse, or friend.  We had a flat tire, and someone stopped to help.  We were lonely, and a friend dropped by, unannounced.  These little reminders put me in the frame of mind to see that the things I need most – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, hope, the capacity to forgive and serve… all these things can’t be bought, can’t even be created through some sort of psychological ‘cross fit’ self improvement program.  These things stem from eating the bread of life, and can only be received freely, as the gift it is.

 

 

The Gifts of Christmas: #1 – We are seen and heard

Greetings…

During the days between now and Christmas, I want to share some reflections with you about the many gifts that are part of the One Gift that is Christ.  I’m reflecting on these gifts because, more than ever, I see the deep divisions and violence in our world.  We who claim to follow Christ are at grave risk of becoming part of the problem rather than part of the solution if we aren’t careful to maintain what Paul calls the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ”.  When he writes about maintaining that, he articulates that it’s eminently easy to be “led astray”.  It’s passive language because the reality is that there are strong currents that will simply carry us along unless we’re diligent to recognize the danger of the direction and swim against it.  

I’m increasingly convinced that the recognition of dangerous cultural rip-tides isn’t achieved by being a cultural expert.  Rather, what’s needed at a foundational level is a commitment to intimacy with Christ, for he alone is the fullness of wisdom.  So what better way to prepare for the discernment that all of us will need in the coming year than by considering together the riches of the gift that is Christ.  Unwrapping the glories of Christ is a bit like unwrapping a present that has another present inside, and then yet another, on and on, as we discover different facets of the gift that is Christ.  Each day I’ll hope to offer a short post about a facet of the gift that is Christ and why each gift matters in 2016.  I hope you’ll join me, and find encouragement in the practical value of Christ, today more than ever!  

Gift #1 – Christmas means God sees and hears us.  

There’s a marvelous little passage in Exodus 3:7 which declares that God heard the cry of the sons of Israel and saw that they were being oppressed, so he “has come down to deliver them”.  This was neither the first nor last time God “came down” in response to the suffering of this fallen world because it’s in God’s character to “see and hear” the suffering of humanity.

We may wonder if God is listening these days.  When I see the tragedies in Aleppo, the suffering of immigrants around the world, and the rise in fascist and racist ideologies, we wonder if God’s listening at all.  We wonder too, in the children’s oncology ward.  Who is this God who sees and hears, and why is God not intervening, God’s so good and so powerful?

It’s a fair question, and the answer is found in the name Immanuel, which means “God with Us”.  What makes the “good news” good isn’t that we’re offered escapist immunity from the affects of living in a fallen world.  Rather, it’s that God has promised to walk with us in the midst of everything – the suffering and the joys, and the sickness and the healing, the living and the dying.  We’ve been told that life will run the gamut of experiences, that there’s “a time for everything”.

That God has been “with me” is one of the greatest gifts I’ve enjoyed in my life.  It’s meant that when I lost my dad, I’d eventually come to discover that I wasn’t as alone as I thought.  It meant that when I changed majors and loaded my 68 Ford Mustang to drive north to Seattle, though I’d never been north of Sacramento in my life, and knew not a single person in my new city, God was with me.  It meant that while riding a midnight train from Northern India to New Delhi, a train on which I found myself because of a riot in the city where I was teaching, I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t alone in my berth when I was alone, and I wasn’t alone when I woke in the middle of the night to see six Indian faces staring at me.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not faced the depths of living in this fallen world in anywhere near the same degree as many others.  I’ve tasted enough of it, though, to know that the companionship of Christ is, at one level, all I need in this life.  And I’ve known those who’ve walked much deeper, darker valleys than mine.  They too, have shared with me that this companionship has been a source of healing, sustenance, peace, and eventually for most, joy.

“God with us” begins with God seeing our suffering and hearing our cry.  This is the first gift.  God knows.  God cares.  Rejoice.  Immanuel.  God IS with us.

“Adventures in Saying Yes” was the best read of the summer because…

It was just a casual breakfast encounter at a conference where I was speaking last week.   He told me about his time in Indonesia.  I asked him if he’d read “Speaking of Jesus”, which is one of my favorite books, precisely because the author has a knack for telling people about Jesus as if it’s actually good news, rather than the distorted version of the gospel that implies God’s mad at the whole world.  God’s angry at sin and death, friends, and we’re trapped in a matrix of these very elements… but I digress.

The guy from Indonesia then says, “Have you read his newest book?” and when I told him I hadn’t he began to tell me about it.  “Something about fear… I can’t quite remember the title.  O wait!  ‘Adventures in Saying Yes- A Journey from Fear to Fatih’  That’s the title.”

Because I loved the other book I’d read by this author I bought it immediately.  I bought it for a second reason too: Almost everyone I know is afraid these days.  We’re afraid of the economy imploding if we elect someone untrustworthy for president.  There are unemployment fears, terror fears, fears for our children, fears of aging, fears of rejection, fears of dying, fear of conflict, and o so many more fears.  Many members of the prayer team at the church I lead tell me that fear and anxiety are the number one issues about which people are asking for prayer.  Not shame.  Not anger.  Not prayers for the health and well being of others.  Fear!

I’ll let you know that both books of Carl’s are easy reads; funny at times; brutally honest, and very practical – they will help you express the reality of your faith in Christ (if you have one) in a more natural and honest way.  Rather than saying more: here are a few quotes from his “Saying Yes” book:

Stop for a moment and think of all the things that your need for security might actually stop you from doing… 

Here’s my definition of fear: Fear is anything that potentially threatens your sense of safety and security.  

Most of our fears are ‘potential fears’.  What ifs.  Yeah buts.  Maybes.  Then whats.  They’re not real.  They could be real.  But they’re not.  Those sorts of fears are dream squashers.  They’re not fun.  They rob your joy.  

Carl decides to basically spend a year saying yes to everything, and as a result, finds himself in some amazing circumstances in the middle east, where he’s a missionary living among and loving Muslims.  As a result, the fears that he needs to overcome include things like death threats, encounters with angry Imams, and opportunities to speak hope to groups of Jews and Muslims who hate each other.  We’re afraid of losing our high paying jobs.  He’s facing the threat of death of he follows through and speaks in this one certain place.  Different fears – same principles!

That’s all that I’ll say, but I’ll share one more thing Carl says:

…fear keeps you from selling everything and moving to Lebanon with your young family.  It keeps you firmly in the grip of words like ‘responsible’ and the often-used ‘wise’.  But Mr. Wisely Responsible never had much fun.  he doesn’t go on Hobbit like adventures.  He might save money.  And he might raise three very responsible and wise children who are very well behaved.  But he doesn’t dream, never lives outside the box.  To him, life appears quite normal.  

But I say, Leap!  Dream.  Say yes!  Set out on an adventure – a risky journey with an uncertain outcome. ...

All this is terribly appropriate as I’m planning on speaking this coming Sunday about the three kinds of people in the Moses story of leading God’s people through the wilderness.  The three kinds are born from three different attitudes towards risk.

Looking back people live with a fear of the future that creates in them a bitterness about where they are and a longing for the good old days.

Looking around people decide that they’ve had enough adventures, and that they’ll spend the rest of their days staying safe.

And then there are looking ahead people.  They’re…

WAIT!  You need to hear the sermon.  And you’ll be able to hear it here – on Sunday.  But whether you listen or not – read “Saying Yes” – because saying Yes to this read might just change your life and lead to adventures!

Lightening Our Loads: Musings on Genocide in Holy Week

(This will take a few minutes to read, and maybe create more questions than answers.  So at the outset, please know:  I believe in just war – I believe in the right of governments to carry the sword in order curb evil as seen in Romans 13.  And, I believe in that the path of the cross is our calling as Christ followers.  May God give us wisdom)

Of course it happened again. We all knew it was just a matter of time before another bomb went off, this time in Belgium. The explosion and shrapnel, though, is never, never the end of the story. Rather it’s a beginning. It sets off another round of fear, profiling, stereotyping, and hatred. It becomes the soil in which the human heart is tempted or incited to match violence with violence. It mobilizes armies, entrenches already held ideologies, and loads lives down with anxiety over the future. Fear of neighbors. Fear of burkas. Fear of travel. And worse than fear; hate. And worse than hate; the threat of violence in retaliation. And worse than the threat of violence; actual violence.

It’s nothing new. And further, it’s nothing new to note that it’s all being done in God’s name by both sides. Giving a soldier a Bible though, or a suicide bomber the Koran doesn’t sanctify the cause, and there’s no better time to be reminded of this than Holy Week because while wounded people are treated in hospitals, while victim’s families mourn, millions will spend time this week pondering the path of Jesus walking to the cross. That cross, and then one who went there, still speaks and lives today, imploring us to follow him on a different path than the one that matches violence for violence, fear for fear, hate for hate.

As Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem on the last week of his life, his poignant cry is telling. We read that “…he saw the city and wept over it saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!…” And then he entered the city, spoke truth to power, was arrested, unjustly tried, forgave his accusers, and died.

Why did he say that? Evangelicals might have been happier if he’d said, “If you had known the prayer to pray so that you can get to heaven when you die…” Or, “If you had known the right sexual ethic or aligned with the right (or further right) political party.” Or, “If only you had armed yourselves and exercised your 2nd amendment rights.” Don’t misunderstand, please. Prayer, sexual ethics, and one’s views on gun control matter. But Jesus wept because the people who studied, defended, and sought to protect the ancient texts, never knew the things which make for peace:

They never understood, not really, that monotheism is, at the core, about peace. The God of the Bible was distressed in the early parts of Genesis because of the violence which had filled the earth, and monotheism began in the midst of polytheistic world views characterized by violence, tribalism, and slavery. In such cultures, religion was the mask used to cover the pursuit of power for the few at the cost of oppression for the many. So it has always been. So it is to this day.

But the God of Abraham, who by the way, is the God at the headwaters of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, posits an entirely different path. Jonathan Sacks, in his marvelous and timely book, “Not in God’s Name” writes:

Not all at once but ultimately it made extraordinary claims. It said that every human being, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God. The supreme power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. (According to this God)….A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin. Between people there should be a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbours, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God –‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.

Things turned out differently of course. Judaism became marked by a terrible superiority complex of self righteousness. Christianity quickly became wedded with state power, and we’re still bearing the ugly fruits of violent colonialism, crusades, and violence carried out in Jesus’ name. And Islam mutated too, presenting itself as overflowing with hate and a lust to destroy, as seen yet again in Belgium this week. Boom!

Jesus words are haunting. “if you’d known the things which make for peace…” Though we hate what happened this week, and in Paris, and in Istanbul, and in Egypt, and in Syria, I wonder: Do I know the things which make for peace? Or have I baptized my lust for comfort and control in Bible words, and continued to wander in the deep ditch that is violence done in God’s name, matching hate for hate, threat for threat, bomb for bomb?

The answer comes as I walk with Jesus to the cross this Holy Week, and perhaps in light of all that’s happening, this Holy Week is the most important week of our lives.   When I walk with Jesus with a goal, not just of feeling bad about how much he suffered FOR me, but rather, through the lens of seeing him as the prototype of what it means to be a person of peace, I’m struck with some profound and radical realities:

I learn that retaliation isn’t God’s way. Peter pulls out a sword and is ready to take on the army, but after cutting off a guy’s ear, Jesus heals him (the very soldier who’s come to arrest him) and tells Peter to put away the sword, reminding him that the one “who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Sure, if you want to get all pragmatic about it, the fact is that if someone’s dead, they’re no longer a threat to you.  But their family?  Their tribe?  Their government?  All of them will make sure that, by god, “you will pay.”  All the way back in Genesis 4, a man named Lamech boasts, “I have killed a man for wounding me…and a boy for striking me” and goes on to say that if anyone tries to extract retaliation he’ll pay them back 77x greater!  Yes.  This is our world.

No.  This is never.  Ever.  The way of the cross.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.

I learn that forgiveness IS God’s way. Later, after Jesus has been beaten, spit on, humiliated, and nailed to a cross, a crowd is mocking him. Jesus’ response is to pray, asking God to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Wow. If I’m going to walk with Jesus, rather than just appropriating him for my own political ends, I’m going to need to lay down my weapons, lay down my life, and pray for my enemies.  I’m going to need to learn how to forgive the very people who aren’t even aware they’re wrong.  As Jesus warned the disciples, “an hour is coming when people will think they are doing God’s will by killing you.”  That hour is here.

Those who did that to Christ were forgiven.  Without confession.  Without acknowledgement of guilt.  Read it here.  Forgiven.  In a world where bitterness is the norm, and prevailing ‘wisdom’ teaches us that a scorched earth policy will eventually solve the problem, this notion of forgiving is hard to swallow, and surely leads to more questions than answers.  I know because I have the questions too.  It seems nonsensical and too idealistic.

But the one answer it does lead to is this:  those who have the courage to forgive will break the cycle of retaliation and hatred.  They’ll break it rather than escalate it, and those are the only options, friend.  Either the cycle of retaliation is  broken, or it’s escalated.  Will I be part of the problem or part of the solution?

I learn that fear must be overcome. The way of the cross is exactly the opposite of the way of upward mobility, or comfort, or expansion, or matching violence for violence. It’s the way of fidelity to God’s vision for peace, by being peace in the midst of a violent world.

If you think that path was easy for Jesus, consider his sweating drops of blood in the garden on the last night before crucifixion and his prayer that if there were any other way to bring peace, would God please offer a way out, because this way resides far from our instincts for self-preservation! In the end though, those instincts went to the cross too, because the way of peace is the way of losing one’s life to find it, the way of turning the other cheek, the way of letting God make things right through God’s means and timetable rather than taking things into our own hands.

Bombs go off and we’re afraid, especially in proportion to their proximity. But in this global village, every bomb is a cause for fear, a cause for retreating into our cocoon of tribalism or racism or religious retaliation.

It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said “It is better to be feared than to be loved”: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. (Jonathan Sacks)

Yes, and it was Jesus who said, “he who seeks to save his life will lose it.  But he who loses his life for my sake, will keep it.”  If you think that doesn’t require courage, just ask:

Martin Luther King

Sophie Scholl

Dietrcih Bonhoeffer.

Or Jesus.

Now it’s our turn, and in the midst of all the political rhetoric inciting violence and hate, my prayer is that you and I will have the courage to walk the way of the cross.  That’s what makes this week so special this year.  It’s not just for me.  It’s my path too. To make it on this path, though, I’ll need to take both fear and retaliation out of my pack, and exchange them for an eagerness to forgive and love.  It’s the way of Jesus, and his load is the right one.

I pray I’ll have the courage to go there.

Bible Reading’s Boring or Difficult? Try this at any age!

“No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.”  

 

From “The Jesus Storybook Bible” by Sally Lloyd-Jones.

Yesterday, in the church I lead, I spoke on the importance of reading the Bible on a regular basis, fully realizing that this kind of exhortation is sometimes received as well as telling a vegetarian they need to have a steak for supper. For many people the Bible is fraught with difficulties, including:

1. Failed attempts at reading it consistently in the past, due to lack of understanding, which leads to a sense of frustration, which makes the discipline extraordinarily easy to jettison as other priorities crowd it out.

2.  A sense that the Bible creates more questions than answers. “Why did God sanction violence and genocide?” “Why the polygamy?” “Why the crazy rules about underwear?”

3.  Meeting people who know the Bible well but whose actual lives aren’t very pleasant. The Bible, misused, can make you judgmental, arrogant, and less charitable. I know someone with a closet full of notebooks from sermons and knew her Bible backward and forward, but who treated her own daughter with contempt and manipulation.

4.  We don’t know where to start; so we never really start at all.

Can I suggest that all of these understandable reasons for avoiding personal Bible reading are rooted in a misunderstanding of why it’s important to read the Bible?   The Bible has one single purpose, which is to reveal God’s infinitely loving plan for humanity, a plan that ultimately presents Jesus Christ as the star, the key source of hope for each of us personally, for the future of humanity, and for the entire universe!

The fun thing I’ve discovered over the years is that when the Bible’s read through the lens of looking for Jesus, it becomes not just more enjoyable reading, but a means of building an actual relationship of intimacy with Jesus. We begin to see this standard-bearer’s heart for embodying love, servanthood, and generosity throughout the whole Bible. This is no accident, as we discover that in the end, Jesus is in every story in some way. Jesus knew this, as we read here.

We lose sight of this, though, often. We can’t see the forest for the trees, as we get tripped up on questions that we can’t answer, allow ourselves to get led down a side trail of arguments about ethics (whether about divorce, homosexuality, or the place of guns in our world), and soon we’ve lost the big picture and the main point. Questions and ethics matter, but they’re best discovered in the context of the big story.

This is where “The Jesus Storybook Bible” comes in.

It’s the only children’s book I’ve recommended for our teaching team at church, and now, if you’re looking to reinvigorate your devotional life or understand the Bible better, I’m happy to commend it to you too. I have a friend  (we’ll call her Donna)  who struggles with regular Bible reading.   However, reading the “The Jesus Storybook Bible” through the lens of a child has once again renewed her joy of discovery as it’s helped recapture the main story.

She says, “The author has a lovely way of wrapping up each story or event by pointing to Jesus. Rather than being distracted by my questions, I’m simply reminded that it’s not just a book about how God wants me to live my life but, rather, how God loves me enough to orchestrate my rescue. This is pretty exciting (& liberating)!”

Of course, if you have children, the book is a must. But if you’re 20, or 35, or 58, or 78, the book is just as valuable. I can’t think of a person who wouldn’t benefit from reading it.

Lent is coming up very quickly, and a great way to fall in love with Jesus all over again might be by reading through this grand book in preparation for Easter. You’ll be glad you did.

Immigration and the Better Shelter

“when the raft in the ocean is safer than our home, we’ll go”

With the train station closed in Budapest, over 70 dead in a truck on the side of the road in Austria, millions in refugee camps, and talk of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, perhaps one thing the entire world can agree on is that we have an immigration problem.

Consensus ends there, however, as robust debates unfold in both the EU and USA regarding what should be done with the ocean of suffering that seems to be pouring into these two geographies.  These are important conversations, and difficult.  Solutions are costly, no matter your stance, and divisive.
Christ followers are called, of course, to represent the heart of Christ in the matter, and this demands that our response be driven by a fundamental belief that every person in this sea of suffering is made in the image of God.  Some of God’s image-bearers are angry, militant.  Many, most even, are children and mothers.  All are made in God’s image and people of faith are invited to not only view “the problem” in its philosophical/political consideration through this lens, but to see people, individuals who are hungry and frightened.  Immigration resettlement ministries, such as this one, go a long way toward opening our eyes, at the least, to the humanity of the problem, and until we see this as a human problem rather than a political one, any solution will fall short.
On the other hand, it’s equally important as Christ followers to see the folly of believing that there’s a policy solution out there that’s the magic pill.  There isn’t.  A little historical perspective might help here.
1.  People have always fled towards sanity and safety.   In the 30’s in Germany, it was Jews getting out, in search of safety.  In the 19th century it was the Underground Railroad, with slaves seeking free states.  It was the flight of Tutsis to the Congo during the genocide, and Cambodians to refugee camps in Thailand during the reign of Pol Pot.
The darkness of principalities and powers is real, and this means that no government or kingdom has ever been wholly just.  But just as important, it means that in a world where nothing is perfect, there are kingdoms and reigns which are exceptionally evil and violent, places where safety utterly evaporates because not just one or two citizens, but whole cities and people groups are targeted for overt, intentional, oppression and destruction.  When that happens, as one refugee poet writes (my paraphrase), “we’ll risk fleeing, because the risk of drowning at sea is safer than the risk of staying home.”
Overnight, architects, medical professionals, artists, teachers, willingly displace themselves when insanity reigns.  And then what?  They don’t know what’s next; only that the present is too unbearable to continue.  This is the way of it, and bastions of sanity, precisely because they have a good measure of justice and compassion, are where people will go.  We know for certain that becoming uncompassionate isn’t the solution.  We know too, that there are physical limits to any nation’s capacity to absorb, and when insanity reigns more and more, the crisis we presently see will become bigger and bigger.
2.  Sanity and Safety are never absolute.    Read about the suburbs of Paris, and various places in England, and you come to see that relocation and receiving social services is no magic bullet.  Seething racism and xenophobia can often incite a downward spiral of mistrust and anger that erupts in deep cultural fissures as the new normal in the very place which was supposed to offer hope.  Whether its Chinese laborers in San Francisco in the 19th century, migrant farm workers today, or refugees unable to find any employment at all, it turns out that simply opening the doors at a political level is never enough.
Let’s remember, too, that bastions of sanity don’t stay sane forever.  The Republic of Congo that offered shelter during the Rwandan genocide is now a place of violence and uncertainty.  Even in more seemingly stable situations, predators, racism, and the commensurate angry and often violent response, evaporate any notion that simply a change of geography will be the answer.
While some will accuse me at this point of spiritualizing, I’ll be quick to add that this isn’t solely a physical/economic issue.  People move to the San Juan Islands, or Shoreline, from Seattle, in search of “something better” whether its free parking, less crime, a slower pace, whatever.  It’s always “out there” somewhere, this promise of more and better.
As a person who’s been privileged to be a pastor in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Pacific Northwest, I’ll let you know that infidelity, domestic violence, addiction, loneliness, and all the other marks of emptiness, are fully present in the midst of dripping fir trees, stunning green, coastal views, and stunning sunsets.  As one friend said to me once, “I didn’t realize when I moved to Friday Harbor, that all my (emotional/spiritual) baggage would walk on the ferry with me”  That’s a good way of saying it.
This, I believe, is one of the reasons Jesus said “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”.  While it may have been true at a physical level, as Jesus wasn’t a homeowner, it was true at a different level as well.  Jesus knew that his kingdom was “not of this world”, that neither Rome, nor the EU, nor the USA would ever get it fully right.  That’s not an excuse for pietist disengagement.  It’s just a reality.  Oppression, Katrina, fires, laws, and our own failures conspire to make nirvana unreachable.
There is a shelter however.  His name is Jesus.  
In my years of blogging and writing, I’ve noticed that when I approach controversial political topics like gun control and homosexuality, thousands are interested in reading and many respond, often with ugly rhetoric.  We really seem to care about these hot cultural topics.
Companionship with Christ though?  Statistics tell me people don’t care, though they may.  But as I grow older I’m starting to see that I’ve been wrong in dividing issues and putting them in bins of politics and/or spirituality.  Christ is inviting us to know him as the foundational shelter, the first shelter, the shelter in whom we can have confidence so that when the floods come, we won’t be shaken.  We’re afraid to say it, because it makes us sound as if we don’t care about Syria.  Rubbish!  Our Syrian friends need water, food, safety, and the assurance that there’s a better foundation for the future than France, England, or the USA – there’s one sure foundation, one lasting companion.  It’s high time we started believing it, preaching it, and living it.  

“Godspell” – Musings on the power of Art in God’s World

Godspell_Ext_emailbannerI saw Taproot Theatre’s spectacular version of Godspell last night and wept through a couple of the songs because they took me back to the two  darkest years of my life, and remembrances of my first encounter with Stephen Schwartz’ inspired musical.  Back then, lonely, unhealthy, uncertain of the future, one song in particular stood out, and when I heard it last night I closed my eyes and was transported back in time…
I’m 19 and a good friend had landed the part of Jesus in Godspell, so he invites me to see him on opening night.  It’s been two years since my dad has died, and this winter of my 19th year is the winter of my discontent.  I’m lonely, because high school’s over and my cadre of friends have scattered.  My future’s radically uncertain as I’ve applied for admittance to architecture school, but only one in six students will get in.  Since my self confidence is in the toilet, I’m certain I won’t be accepted and there’s no plan B.  The stress of living at home, a choice a made to help walk through my mom’s grief with her, is taking it’s toll.  All of these elements together have conspired to make my unhappy, unhealthy, and uncertain about this God I grew up learning I was supposed to love and obey.  “For what reason?” was the question I’d asked countless times in that dark era… “so that God can kill my dad?”  I’d heard sermons about rejoicing and giving thanks, but lately they’d pretty much bounced off of me as pious nonsense – good for little kids maybe, but not for the real world.
And then the music of Godspell begins.  There’s something about the masterful interplay of text and music that draws me in, so that by the time she sings the “Day by Day” prayer, I’m not only humming along, I’m wishing I had the courage to pray that very prayer.  “What would it be like” I remember thinking, “to love God in a real way?”  When the song ended, I began to see the possibility of loving God because the Jesus on the stage was lovable, mostly because he loves.  The text between the songs was almost wholly drawn from the words of Jesus himself in the gospels, and yet the words took on new life, became almost believable, in spite of my doubts, fears, unhappiness.
Then it happened.  With a guitar and a recorder, as setup, a man sings a thanksgiving song called All Good Gifts.
We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
He sends us snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above.
So thank the Lord, O, thank the Lord for all his love.
[CHORUS]
We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seedtime and the harvest, our life our health our food,
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts,
But that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts.
[ALL]
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love..
I really wanna thank you Lord!
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love..
Oh thank the Lord…….
By the end of the song, back in 1975, I’m in tears, struck as no sermon had ever struck me, nor Bible study, nor Young Life talk, nor words at any funeral, party, or dinner conversation, that God is good because God is the source of all that IS good.  With eyes closed, I’d see the snows of my nearby Yosemite, the ripe fruits of my central California Valley, the rich bounty of harvests in my little corner of the world.  And more.  I recalled the bounty of friendships.  The joy of the family into which I’d been adopted.  The reality that God had, in spite of my dad’s death, taken a rather inauspicious beginning and, like a grain of wheat, turned it into something good.  “Yes it’s winter.  Yes there are things I don’t understand.  Yes, when this musical ends, there’s still no plan B”  But in spite of it all, I found myself recalling previous blessings and singing along, “I really wanna thank you Lord”  because I really did want to back then in Fresno, 1975, in my emptiness and frustration.
The song ended.  I dried my tears, which flowed again with the lyrics of Psalm 137 about weeping by the rivers of Babylon.  I knew my Bible well enough to understand that this song was a reminder:  There are lots of things in life that you don’t really love and appreciate until they’re gone.  And of course, in that moment, that was my dad, who was there for me in sport, in challenging me to rise to my best effort in study, in exemplifying teaching and gentle leadership, and in exemplary suffering.  I don’t think I valued any of it deeply until he was gone, and by then it was too late.  During the song, Jesus is saying good bye, knowing what’s coming.  His disciples?  Clueless like the rest of us, until darkness covers the earth.
IMG_9132And then hope.  “Long Live God!”  Only last night, August 20, 2015, did I realize that I left the theater a changed young man in the winter of 1975.  I’m reminded of Jacob in Genesis 28, on the run from his brother; alone; afraid; sleeping in the desert.  It’s there that God meets him and gives him a boatload of promises, causing Jacob to say, “Surely the Lord was in the place and I didn’t even know it.”
Surely indeed.  The Lord was in a tiny theater in Fresno in 1975, and seeds were planted then that would germinate a year later while studying architecture.  By the fall of ’76 I’d change majors, change schools, and change states.  Little did I know that as a music major back then, I’d be playing percussion for a Seattle Pacific University musical about John Wesley called “Ride Ride” starring none other than Scott Nolte, who founded  Taproot Theatre Company with his wife Pam, both of whom are now some of my closest friends.
That’s why I wrote, during intermission last night, that Taproot had become a worship service for me, as I celebrated God’s relentless faithfulness in my life.  Seeds were no doubt planted last night that will sprout in a new generation.
And yes, “I really wanna thank the Lord”
 (tickets are still available for Saturday’s 2PM showing.  Worth.  Every.  Minute.)

Identity Theft – It’s not what you think. It’s worse.

Have you ever had this experience?   You look back at yourself after some moments on the far side of an argument, or the far side of dipping your toe into the waters of an addiction from which you thought you were free.  Not only do you not like what you see, but you think to yourself, “I don’t know who that person is, but it’s not me.  I don’t throw things at my spouse, or swear and hit the wall, or gaze at porn, or get drink just because I’m sad…” or whatever it is that you did just 24 hours earlier.

But now here you are, seated and in your right mind,  wondering how it happened that you were a different person yesterday.

The answer’s simple:  identity theft.   You became, for a period, someone other than who you are, or at the very least, who you’re meant to be.  When we do this (and all of us do it from time to time, though our failures vary in degrees of both privacy and social acceptability), we step right into Romans 7 in the Bible.   Paul the Apostle shares this struggle when he writes, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  He articulates the universal struggle that there’s a gap between our actions and our ideals.  We want purity, but struggle with lust; want humility, but are prone to arrogance; want contentment, and yet are driven by insatiable appetites.  Paul ends his diatribe about this struggle with the timeless question:  “who will deliver me from this body of death?”  It’s a great question, and unless there’s an answer, we’ll continue to feel ourselves hijacked by ourselves the rest of our lives.

But there is, thank God, an answer.  “The Victory” Paul says, “comes through Christ.”  Yes friends, life in Christ is that practical.  It’s God’s intention that each of us move inexorably toward the life for which we were created, which is a life of joy, peace, wisdom, hope, generosity, justice, and strength.   Here’s why identity theft is so damning and thus why identity in Christ is so important.

I.  In Christ, you’ve become a new person.  – This is what we’re told, and what it means is that Jesus, mysteriously but nonetheless actually, is joined with our human spirits to give us a new essence, a new identity.  This changes everything, because it means that Christ now resides in me, so that all of his joy, hope, and power, are available to find expression through me in unique ways.  But more than just available – the reality is that I’m called to be the presence of Christ in my daily living.  This is my identity:  a light bearer, bringing hope, healing, and joy to the world.

II.  Though new, the “old files”  are still embedded.  I still hear ghosts, sitting in the shadows, telling me, not that I’m a light bearer, but a loser  – telling me I’m unloved because my parents abused me, or that I’m unworthy, because a past failure caused a life implosion, or that life’s unbearable without a hit from sex, or drugs, or alcohol.  All of this is what Paul calls, “the old man” which is a euphemism meaning “this is who you once were”  – Once you self comforted via compulsive drinking, or one night stands.  Once you dealt with conflict through rage, or seething bitterness.  Those “old files” are still there on the computer that is your soul, just waiting to be opened.

III. The Liar’s Specialty – Diverting You from Your Identity.   Satan delights in opening the old files.  You take a look at them, and if you believe them, you’re stuffed.  That’s because your belief empowers them and they rise up and change your behavior.  “I’m unloved, or unlovable, or unappreciated” becomes, “so life’s not worth living”, or “so I’ll prove I’m worthy” or “so why not have another drink?”  Soon you’re living in ways that contradict your own identity, if only temporarily.  Then you wake up and say, “what happened?” and you realize that your identity has been hijacked.

IV. The Way Forward – Looking at Jesus’ temptations at the hands of “the liar” in the wilderness, we can see that Satan’s key strategy has always been to divert us from our truest identity.  He says to “the Son of God”….  “IF you are the son of God, make these stones become bread” as a means of getting Jesus to move into a distorted identity.  Jesus’ answer?  “I’m more than just a material person, so though I’m hungry just now, I’ll not let my life be defined by the pursuit of bread.  That’s not my identity.”

Wow!  When I’m hungry, it’s overwhelmingly easy to think that my life is about getting bread.  When I’m lonely, it’s about companionship.  When I’m feeling neglected or overlooked, it’s often about proving myself.  When I’m in pain, it’s about self comforting.

It’s easy, in other words, to allow our identity to be hijacked by the whims of various trials that are blowing through.  Allow ourselves to be hijacked though, and we’ll “act out”, only to look back, on the far side of our failure, and ask, “Who was that?”

The answer:  That was in imposter.  Send him/her back to the tombs because though the files are still on the hard drive of your emotions, they’re corrupt, and corrupting.  You have a new identity:  in Christ.  And that changes everything.

Here’s a helpful list of verses about your identity in Christ.  When you read something here and it doesn’t seem true, or feel true, you’ve met your battleground.

I’ll be speaking on the Temptation of Christ at Bethany Community Church on Sunday, August 2nd.  Tune in for a live stream of our worship here.