Christmas PictureA few weeks ago, on Black Friday, I joined the crowds getting on Amazon to see what their Christmas deals were. And I was fascinated by one thing in particular. In the Lightening Deals Amazon has three categories 1) All Available 2) Upcoming 3) Missed Deals

We have a section for missed deals!. Does it strike anyone else as particularly disturbing that we have a section of a website set aside just to shop for regret? Amazon gets to show us how great of deals they’ve had, and we get to mope about the things that we missed.

Joy Beyond The Walls of the World

A few years ago, I read Mark Sayers terrific little book The Trouble With Paris, where he observed the disconnect between our materialism and our the way we use things to try and medicate our pain:

“I recently watched a reality makeover show. The woman who had been selected for a makeover had being trying to have a baby for several years, only to suffer a number of miscarriages. The woman had finally successfully given birth to a healthy child, only for that child to tragically die in its first year of life. The show lavished the woman with various makeovers. They remodeled her house and her garden, taught her how to cook gourmet dishes, helped her lose weight, and gave her a new wardrobe of the latest fashions, along with a European vacation. The show ended in an almost awkward fashion as it become apparent that the world of makeovers could never heal this woman’s grief. He problems were internal, not external, and our culture had no solution for her pain.”

There’s not enough makeovers that can heal the ache.

In his great memoir, Surprised by Joy, writes about his conversion from Atheism to Theism and then to Christianity, and what ultimately convinced him that Jesus was the Son of God.

One of the most surprising things about C.S. Lewis life was what he meant when he said Joy.

Joy, for Lewis, isn’t extreme happiness or even a very positive emotion. Joy for Lewis, is The Longing.

It was what haunted him as a child when he read the folk stories and myths of the Celtic and Greeks, it was what he felt when he looked out over the England countryside and imagined Kingdoms and Castles and Kings and Queens.

Joy for Lewis was the stabbing pain of desire, it was a wish for things that were not attainable.

This would lead Lewis to say things like

“[Humans] remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread. But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. So too the craving for myths (hearing them, reading them, making them) suggests the presence of a need that they satisfy–or, more accurately, try to satisfy. Because they reach something deep within us, we return to them repeatedly, but because they do not and cannot meet the need they invoke, our experience with them is characterized by longing.”

Joy is Waiting

So it’s Christmas, and by now most of the people reading this have already done quite a bit of shopping. The Tree is up, the lights are on, and the Visa bill is growing. And, on Christmas morning, if you’re lucky for a few brief moments the ache in your soul will be covered over with laughter and smiles as you watch the people you love tear through wrapping paper and try out or try on their shiny new things.Time Hourglass

All of this is fine, and I don’t mean to diminish it.

But that ache comes back.

And that is a very good thing.

It is what C.S. Lewis called Joy, and it’s what the Christian Calendar calls Advent

Advent is just the Latin word for longing, or waiting, and it actually the way Christians for well over a thousand years have prepared for Christmas, and one that I think we need today more than ever.

Ancient Christian wisdom demands that we remember that there is a desire that we have that points us North. It’s a desire that can only be experienced, and never fully satisfied on this side of Eternity.

And if you aren’t aware of this reality, no matter if you are religious or spiritual or not, it will be used by advertisers and marketing firms to make subtle, yet over-reaching promises that will only break your heart.

Because no doorbuster or gadget or Lexus can give you joy. Indulge yourself enough and you can even find a way to lower the signal on the true joy that is offered.

The only Joy that is really offered is the joy of waiting.

Which I think makes this whole season make more sense, but not the way we are celebrating it.

That emptiness that comes after the wrapping paper settles on Christmas morning. The dull ache that comes back after all the gifts have been opened, is a gift.

It’s a gift that reminds us the best is still to come.

The empty chair on Christmas Eve, the stocking you haven’t been able to hang up for years since the accident took him away, those are ways that…if we let it, can actually increase our joy.

All the longing that is welling up inside of us actually has a end desire, and Christian hope says that it’s not only true, it’s exactly what this time of year was made for.

Advent means Longing, Christmas Advent means longing for the Joy that once did enter the world, and one day will come again.

So we wait.

And this is joy.

So What are you waiting for?

He who is the issue of an illicit union [ממזרmamzerwill not enter the assembly of the Lord, even his tenth generation will in no way enter the assembly of the Lord” -Deuteronomy 23:2

His glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respactablilty and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.” -Charles Spurgeon

Christmas PictureLast year the Huffington Post ran one of my new favorite Christmas montages. It was a collection of short Nativity Pageants that had started off with such high hopes, but had crashed spectacularly. My favorite is the camel falling into the audience. I’ve worked with animals in front of a live audience before. I know it can go bad in a hurry, but this is way worse than anything I’ve ever worried about.

I imagine the people involved trying to shake that off. Maybe they’re at a nice restaurant after church trying to explain to their friends why they have camel hair all over them and smell like Egypt.

But what I loved the most about these compilation of videos is that reality comes shining through despite our best efforts at glossing over it. The world, for most of the people in it, isn’t primary shiny and sparkly and clean and happy. Maybe if you are young and fit and have enough money you can avoid this fact for a while, but eventually each of us have to face the messy bits of reality.

Sometimes Mary falls off her donkey and no matter how hard they practice, 8 year old kids discover that the 12 days of Christmas are really, really hard to memorize.

Christmas is Messy, and it has been from the beginning.

Jesus The Mamzer

In the Hebrew language, the word Mamzer is the word for a child that comes out of a forbidden relationship. The word is flexible, it can mean anything from a child born from incest to a child who was born from a Mamzer. But almost every single time the word is used it refers to a child born from parents who weren’t married.

John Ortberg points out that every culture has a word for their mamzers, and none of them are nice.

If Joseph has been Roman, Jesus would probably not have even survived. In the Roman culture, children like that were usually abandoned in a dump, or on a hill made of dung. To this day, in many places, they still are.

This is not just an incidental detail of Jesus’ life, it is something that comes up often in the Gospels.

One time in the Gospel of John, the religious leaders of the day are arguing with Jesus and apparently they aren’t doing so well so they bring it up:

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

John writes in Greek, so the word he uses isn’t Mamzer, it’s Porneia…as in the word we get pornography from. When push comes to shove, they bring up that Jesus entered the world with disgrace.

The New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight says it this way:

“Jesus was labeled by his contemporaries as a mamzer. And such a label would have carried with it socio-religious implications with a powerful significance for Jesus.”

It was a label that would have, from the very beginning made Jesus more than just a peasant carpenter, it would have made him an outcast, excluded from social circles, religious assemblies and any opportunity to marry into a “good family.”

That’s the world Jesus was born into, and the way he was born into it.

The Gospel According to Jesus

Now revisit the Gospel. Think about all those times that Jesus interacts with labeled condemned people, and the way He does it. If you’re paying attention you begin to realize that this is the trajectory of Christmas.

Jesus seems rather indifferent to grading the kind of sin that people are dealing with, only with getting them to admit it, bring it out in the open to be dealt with.

The inner rings of the elite, seem to hold no appeal for Jesus. In fact, he seems to think that with his life and ministry he maybe able to redraw the lines of who’s considered in and who is out.

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Jesus healing the bleeding woman, as depicted in Roman Catacombs

Take for example, the story of Mark 5. Jesus is approached by Jarius, the Synagogue Ruler who has a dying daughter. The Synagogue ruler is a prestigious role in 1st century Judaism, and to be able to put “friends with Jarius” on a resume is good for any Rabbi. A dying daughter might be the only reason that Jarius would approach a Mamzer, Jesus ministry hasn’t really taken off yet, and this is a risky move by a prominent community leader.

But along the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman with a bleeding disease. As far as the social scale, Jarius and this woman couldn’t be further apart. They actually had created rules and commandments to keep the apart. She couldn’t go to synagogue, she could legally even be in public. But here she was, throwing a Hail Mary, asking Jesus if He would do for her what he was planning to do for the prestigious man’s daughter…give her back a life.

And here’s the most breathtaking, yet subtle thing in the whole story. It’s a glimpse of Christmas and the messy glory of it all.

Jesus heals the bleeding woman publicly, and he heals the prestigious young daughter in secret.

And publicly, in front of the whole community, Jesus calls this woman the only word that could heal her heart, “Daughter.”

Jesus knows a mamzer when he sees one, and takes care to let everyone know that she belongs in God’s good world too.

She’s belongs, because God didn’t just become a baby, He became a Mamzer. So that the world would finally know a community of God’s people where everyone has a place, just as God intended.

Christmas Picture

I had a dream.

Seriously, that’s the only way I would’ve considered writing this post about Ferguson.

I read this story in the NY Times and then I had a dream. I went to bed on Monday not planning on writing anything about Ferguson, but I woke up Tuesday morning with this haunting me.

It’s a blog about Ferguson and Christmas and a story of how a good police officer in Ferguson is embodying the Christmas story whether he means to or not.

But first.

The Polite Policeman

Officer Jerry Lohr, wasn’t setting out to be the most popular policeman in a city where policeman are anything but. He wasn’t trying to make the New York Times, he’s got a reputation for getting easily annoyed with the media and the circus they’ve turned his hometown into, but despite his best efforts Lt. Lohr is becoming famous in the country the way he has been in his city.

Black residents, despite the fact that Lt. Lohr is a white man, regularly ask for him by name when they have a grievance to file. They trust him, and seem to have no problem obeying even the orders he gives. One black teenager, Joshua Williams said, “He’s the only one I feel comfortable being around “

This past week when one of the protestors was leading a group of people in the street to block traffic, Lt. Lohr walked up to her. She looked at her watch and asked him to “Give me three more minutes.” And he did.

He’s got this hunch that by actually listening to people’s complaints, even when they disagree with one another, he can help the community he serves come together. So he listens to each person…like they are a person, and he helps them if he can, but he always tries to let them see that he is human too.

I read that article in the Times, and found myself thinking, I know lots of police officers who do that too, why is this working so well for him?

Why in the world has Lt. Lohr garnered the respect of the “other side” in what is quickly becoming a racial war that could break out in any city of these United State? And what does this have to do with the Christmas story?

Great question, glad I asked it.

When I was in college, one of my professors, a guy named Monte Cox, told me a story about a friend of his who was a father of a brand new baby. They also were registered with the state of Illinois as foster parents, which meant that a child in need of some temporary parents could show up at their doorstep anytime.

And one did. A little girl came to their house who had been traumatized by events in her recent past. I don’t know the details but I know that she was almost catatonic from fear of adults and what they had done to her in the past. So coming to a new strangers house and being told to trust them was not something that was on her agenda.

And so immediately this girl began to freak out. She was terrified of the new hell she had just been introduced to, so she began to run through the house trying to find a place to hide. And she ultimately hid under the bed…for hours.

Monte’s friend tried everything to get her to come out, they talked in soft voices to her, trying to reassure her that everything was going to be fine, that they weren’t going to treat her like the adults who had gone before them. They tried just sitting patiently by the bed, but nothing was working.

Until one of them had an idea.

They took their newborn baby and gently slid him under the bed toward the frightened girl, and moments later she came out holding him.

I have a six week old baby at home right now, and I can’t imagine the courage it took to take such a risk, but it was the risk that opened this girl up to the possibility that maybe these adults aren’t like the ones I’ve met before.

It was the vulnerability of the baby that made the girl realize that she was around people who weren’t just looking to protect themselves but who were willing to open themselves up to being hurt, which is really the only true first step in love.

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

Photo of Lt. Lohr by NY Times

The Power of Vulnerability

So back to Ferguson…a few months ago I was talking with my African American brother Jerry Taylor. Bro. Jerry preaches all over the country and helps churches work toward racial reconciliation. He’s someone who loves God and loves His Church enough to help us have the hard conversations we need to have so that we can be a community of reconciliation, the very kind that Jesus’ birth initiated.

A few months ago, Jerry told me that the greatest challenge facing racial reconciliation among churches right now is black anger and white fear.

And immediately I knew he was right. We live in a world of great fear and great anger, two ingredients for a vicious cycle that has no end.

Unless Jesus story is true, and Christians decide to follow him into it.

I think this time of year has a lot to say about the events in Ferguson because the Christmas story is about a God who lays down his priviledge and makes himself vulnerable. I love the way Frederick Buechner says this:

For those who believe in God  this birth means that God is never safe from us. Maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we could turn him down, as we could crack a baby’s skull like an eggshell, or nail him up when he gets too big for that.

This is not just theological abstract ideas, the Gospel actually is good news and a good strategy. It’s at the heart of what has made Lt. Lohr so trusted and respected.

The secret that Lt. Lohr has is that he actually goes into the riots, he’s the only police officer to wade through the protestors, and he never wears riot gear.

His secret is the power of vulnerability, what Jesus would call “Laying down one’s life.”

This is what started at Bethlehem. It’s a God who became a baby, who showed us the power of vulnerability, which is of course the power of love.

On November 20, 2014

The Cult of Contentment

But godliness with contentment is great gain. –St. Paul

Contentment makes poor men rich, but discontentment makes rich men poor. – Ben Franklin

Ecards

I’m tired of the “War on Christmas” It’s my least favorite holiday tradition, and frankly I think it has become one of the more polarizing parts of our culture.

So I have a modest proposal, instead of fighting to “keep Christ in Christmas” what if we fought to keep the Friday in Black Friday?

I remember when the day before Black Friday was the only day that our culture had set aside to actually be aware of what we already have instead of focusing what we don’t. I remember when they used to call the day before Black Friday, “Thanksgiving.” But each year it seems like the monster of materialism is inching closer and closer, enveloping our gratitude by increasing our greed.

But there is another way.

A Better Way to Live

A few months ago, I heard a preacher talking about the life of the apostle Paul. Specifically his sermon was on all the jail time Paul served…and what he did with his jail time. During his prison time, Paul wrote letters to the churches that he started. Now Paul had no idea that these letters would be the defining moment of his life. He had no idea that by doing this he would shape Western civilization more than anything else until the printing press. He had no idea that the words he was writing would shape what we think of about marriage, about human rights and equality, and about the need for self-less self-sacrifice. He was just in prison and so he did the only thing he could do, he wrote some letters.

In one of the letters Paul writes to a church he planted in Philippi, he writes thanking him for a care package that they sent him, and he lets them know how much they encouraged him, but he doesn’t passively-aggressively guilt them into sending him more stuff. It will take hundreds of years before preachers learned that trick. Instead, Paul does the opposite. He actually tells them, I’m thanking you not because I was in need, I’m thanking you because it did my heart good to know you were thinking about me.

And then Paul tells them words that would shape Christian Theology for thousands of years:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want

Paul’s talking to them about how he learned contentment.

There is actually a kind of life that allows us internal peace no matter what is happening around you. There is a way to live life that isn’t frantic and envious and filled with fear and anxiety.

And the word for secret here is actually a word that doesn’t come from Christian Theology, it’s nowhere else in the New Testament, it’s actually a word that Paul grabbed from the culture, specifically from the cults.

It’s a word that was only used for people who were being initiated into one of the many secret mystery cults.

Back in the day that Paul lived, there were all kinds of mystery cults that existed. They basically thrived on being elite and exclusive, they each had some mysterious secret that separated them from the insiders/outsiders. Each cult promoted that they knew the secret to the afterlife or the good life or how to become like the gods. For some it was a secret word, or story, or handshake (ok, I’m not sure if that one’s true), but the thing that all the cults had in common was that it was secret.

And that’s the word Paul reaches for.

The Mega Mystery

There is a secret that can allow us to be content no matter what is going on outside of us. No matter what our circumstances or lot in life. We can be content.

He knows the secret, and then he shares it:

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

I grew up with this verse on my wall, with a picture of a High School football player scoring a touchdown, but before this was was reduced to being a cliché on a teenage boy posters it was a secret to a better way of life.

The secret of Paul, the Mega Mystery is that the Spirit of God can actually be enough for you.

Remember this isn’t written from some academic desk, or a couch in luxury. It was written in a jail cell to real live people. And Paul says to them, the secret is to know that the One who lives inside of you can give you strength to be content.

Black Friday

Maybe the reason we rush to Best Buy on Thursday is because we don’t ask God for this one thing on Sunday. and there’s nothing we buy can wash away the dull ache in our soul for it, But it’s possible…I’ve seen it time and time again in surprising ways and surprising people.

Last week, I was spending time with a young woman at our church named Nichole. Nichole is 28 years old, and has spent her entire life in a wheelchair, unable to move much of her body. She has Cerebral Palsy, and basic things like getting out of the house require a team of people to help, but every Wednesday night Nichole is at church, and in fact serves on a team of people who pray for Highland and me.

And at one point I was asking Nichole about her life, and she was describing the difficulty she has in being so dependent on others, and not being understood, she often asks questions like, “Why?” and “How long?”

But then she started pointing out that she was aware that her very life was in many ways a gift to people around her. She had a different relationship to time, she wasn’t constantly stressed, she wasn’t able to hide her need for community the way most Americans have learned to, she hears from the LORD often, and He tells her that she was made and loved by God.

I asked her what her favorite Bible story was, and she said it wasn’t a story it was a verse. One that Paul had written thousands of years ago in a prison cell, that had changed the way that Nichole experience life today.

“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”

I started crying and knew that she knew the secret. She had been initiated in a way that I hope to be one day.

She is in the cult of contentment.

May we all be.

On November 13, 2014

In the Flesh: Wish I Was Here

In the Flesh Blog

I recently heard about a survey done by the Yellow Pages that asked a large sample of people when they use their cell-phones. They discovered that, for most people surveyed, the first thing that they do in the morning is check their phone, and it is also the thing we do last before we go to bed. In a twist, only 3% of people said they used their phone in the restroom…because we are all liars.

The Yellow Pages surveys also found out that the average person spends 8.5 hours on Facebook. Think about that stat for a second, that’s over a day a week that we are working for Mark Zuckerberg.

When I heard about that survey I had one overwhelming thought:

I’m tired of not being where I am.

Sometime in the mid 90’s I signed on to the internet and I’m not sure I ever really logged off. I spend much of my day typing symbols of letters that are digitally translated on to a screen that I’m staring at. I read many of my books on a Kindle, today I will Skype into a conference where it will appear that I’m there while actually being hundreds of miles away.

I spend way too much of my life going from one screen to another, looking at projections of reality, mistaking the shadow for the substance. And irony of ironies, most of the time I’m talking/writing/reading about a God who became flesh.

YOLO

One of  the stranger things about the way Westerners view time is that we are all think of ourselves as “Time Poor”. Which is probably not a phrase you use often. You probably think in terms of being stressed or exhausted, but underneath this way of life is the idea that there isn’t enough time in the world.

Driving our assumptions about how we spend our life isa  view of time that goes absolutely against the Christian faith, mainly the idea that you only live once. So prove yourself, exhaust the moment, squeeze all the life that you can out of the moment, because it’s not going to come again.

Ironically the idea that You Only Live Once has lead to not really being able to live well.

The preacher John Ortberg once asked the great theologian Dallas Willard what one word was that he would use to describe Jesus, and he gave a word that I thought was surprising.

Willard said “relaxed”

What an interesting way to think about Jesus.

Most of the people reading this probably wish they had more time, but Jesus’ relationship with time was one of the greatest gifts He gave his disciples, one that I think He still wants to give.

Chances are you have a clock on your wrist or wall, you have a calendar close by and a way to organize your life. But birds are never late, the animals of the field don’t keep time, they aren’t worried about growing old, and Jesus repeatedly refers to them as if he wishes his followers could be more like that.

I like the way the graffiti artist Banksy recently said:

Man alone measures time. Man alone chimes the hour. And because of this, man alone suffers a paralyzing fear no other creature endures. A fear of time running out.

Life of Panic

In the day Jesus was born, there was a Roman god named Pan, who was worshipped in certain places even in Israel. Just a few days walk away from where Jesus did most of his ministry, and one day Jesus took his disciples down to the very area where people worshipped Pan to teach them about the Kingdom of God.

He told them that the kind of movement that He was starting was going not going to withdraw from these types of places but invade them. Pan was a half-goat/half-man god, and the place where he was worshipped (Caesarea Philippi) was cave that they thought was bottomless, they considered it a Gate to the underworld.

And the reason people worshipped Pan was because they were terrified of him, they were always worried that Pan might come out and get you at any time, which is where we get the word panic from.

The site of Pan worship at Caesarea Philippi

The site of Pan worship at Caesarea Philippi

 

And Jesus marches to this place and says, I’m going to start a movement of people that are different than this, but they are going to be among places like this.

Jesus says things like “don’t worry about tomorrow” and calls our attention to the way God cares for the flowers. Jesus repeatedly tells us in a variety of ways that to follow him is a light burden.

Which raises the question, who am I becoming more like Jesus…or Pan.

In my life I have seen the Sistine Chapel, I know what Michaengelo’s painted room smells like, I’ve seen the Gas Chambers of Auscwitz and the Catacombs of Rome, I’ve walked Mars Hill and seen the Parthenon and the Pyramids, I’ve felt the wind on my face from Pike Peak and I’ve felt the tears running down my cheeks in room full of girls rescued from sexual slavery, I’ve ridden an elephant in Thailand, a camel in Egypt and a horse in Jordan.

I’ve had more opportunities than I ever thought possible, and I look back on these memories with great gratitude and not a small amount of student loans, but I’m starting to hit a point in my life where I no longer wish I was there. I’m realizing that what I really want is to be present here, in the same way I was there.

I’m tired of my children reflexively repeating themselves 3-4 times because they know that their daddy isn’t really listening. I’m tired of catching my mind wondering from the person who is right in front of me to wondering about what interesting news might be scrolling through my Twitter feed.

So as a kind of Public Service Announcement, Leslie and I are attempting to simplify our life. I realize that as a preacher I can’t invite people into a good life that I don’t have myself.

Over the past month, I’ve made some adjustments to my life. My iPhone is now really a glorified flip phone, I have no way of doing much beside calling and texting, and contrary to the advertisement I always hear, I feel like now I’m more connected.

This may seem too much for some people, but I’d love to invite you to try it. Because I’m tired of wishing I could be somewhere else with someone else.

I wish I was here.

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity either in locality or in speech or in customs. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians…the constitution of their citizenship is nevertheless quite amazing and admittedly paradoxical. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners…Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign country. -Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus from the 2nd century

gospel-of-mark-slider

At the Highland Church, we are coming to the close of our series of the Gospel of Mark. For the final three weeks of this series, we’re releasing several different videos we made earlier this year created from different locations in Jerusalem, in the places where Jesus spent His final hours.  Each week’s video will be a supplemental resource for that week’s upcoming sermon, and If you’re interested in watching the rest of these videos they’ll be posted weekly to the Highland Facebook page.

Antonia Fortress – Am I Leading a Rebellion? from Highland Church on Vimeo.

I like showing these kinds of videos because it’s important for Jesus followers to remember, this really happened, and it happened in a world much like ours.

Jesus didn’t just leave home and travel to a far county, he was born under Ceasar Augustus, and sentenced to die by Pontius Pilate. His life is the myth become fact, the God become man, the King who become a carpenter, and who steps into the calendar around 4 A.D.

This particular video is filmed in the Antonio Fortress, the place where the Praetorium Guard was assembled and where Jesus would have met Pilate. I think this video is an appropriate reminder on this election week for Christians to be reminded of this scene.

In a world where everyone seems to think they know who Jesus was and what His movement is about, but strangely seem to have lives similar to people who have no intention of following him, maybe it’s time to look again at the man who turned the world upside down.

Shooting this video here was a good reminder of how Jesus chose to serve and change the world. In his three years of ministry Jesus wasn’t very interested in politics, but after his three years of ministry the politicians sure were interested in Him.

Just a little historical background for those interested, The Antonia was a tower built by Herod for his soldiers to watch over the Jews during their festivals…especially Passover. During the entire time that Rome ruled over Israel there were six different revolts. And five of them happened during the Jewish festival of Passover.

This is why Jesus’ actions during his final week were so dangerous. When Jesus rides into town like a King, and start throwing tables around in the Temple courts, the rulers know that they have to stop this as soon as possible.

But they don’t know how.

Here’s Your King

I’ve heard people say before that the Jewish people didn’t have the authority to enforce capital punishment and kill Jesus, historically speaking that’s not true. The Jewish people were given authority by Rome to enforce justice and keep the peace (see Acts 8 where the first Christian martyr Stephen is stoned) The only hard and fast rule that Rome had given both Herod and Pilate is “no revolts”

As long as everyone just smiles and politely goes about their religion business than Rome is content to look the other way as you talk all you want about “freedom” and a “God who delivers”

But Jesus intends on being more than polite.

And so on the final day of Jesus’ life the Roman and Jewish authorities have to find a way not just to execute Jesus but to turn the people against Him. To this end, Jesus was taken to the Jewish courts and convicted of blasphemy, a charge  they didn’t kill him, instead they send Him to Pilate. But Pilate knows when someone is passing the buck, after all the business of the Jewish religion had nothing to do with him, so Pilate passes him off to Herod Agrippa, only to get him back from Agrippa a few hours later…without any sentence.

In a scene that is eerily familiar to modern day politics, nobody wanted to make themselves vulnerable by taking the blame…but Mark is writing in a way to tell us that’s exactly what Jesus was doing.

In a season of political unrest and power-grabs, Jesus is largely silent, quietly laying down his life. When He’s beaten and accused, He responds with grace and forgiveness and blood.

He may be like a King, but Kings are not like Him.

He’s leading a rebellion, it’s called the Kingdom of God and you can’t vote that in, but everyone can be a part of it.

On October 30, 2014

Hallow-Tide: A Haunted World

Nightmares Fear Factory

Nightmares Fear Factory

Maybe you saw this article last year, it was a series of pictures taken at the scariest moment in a Haunted House, and they are hilarious. It’s always fun watching grown men make faces like this.

I don’t get our fascination with horror and fake fear, but I’m starting to believe the reason we pay to see these haunted attractions is not just because we want to be scared but maybe because we want it to be true.

Haunt-ology

I go to church with a great teacher and thinker named Richard Beck. A few years ago he wrote a blog about how Scooby Doo is a great parable for our modern world. In every episode, the dog and his deceptive friends start off terrified of some supernatural demon that is out to get them and destroy the world, but by the end of the episode the demon is always some grumpy old man who is unmasked and upset, because “he would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.”

Here’s how Beck talks about it:

it struck me how Scooby-Doo is a perfect parable of disenchantment…over the last 500 years, the world moved from enchantment to disenchantment. Five hundred years ago the world was full of supernatural forces, witchcraft, and ghosts. A world full of thin places, where the border between this world and the Other world was porous and leaky. Five hundred years ago people could be demon possessed or afflicted by witches. The night was full of occult menace and magic. Black cats were bad luck. Things are much different today…There’s no room for monsters. Medicine and psychiatry have pushed witchcraft and demon possession offstage. Worrying about black cats is just superstitious and irrational. And ghost stories are just that–fictional tales to scare the kids around the campfire.

This past month, a few preacher friends and I spent the day with the author and church(ish) planter Peter Rollins. You may have heard of Rollins work before, he’s written books like How (not) to Speak of God, and Insurrection, and he’s writing one now that has something to do with haunted houses.

About an hour into talking to us, Rollins brought up something that I had never heard of. Apparently there is a real scientific field of study called “Hauntology”

Immediately I started thinking about Ghostbuster’s, and Peter Vankman, but it’s nothing like that. Hauntology is the very real study of the way we are all affected by the lingering presence of what or who is not there.

The example Rollins gave was that for every person there is someone (living or dead) who could walk into a room and their mere presence would immediately make us angry or anxious. These people, Rollins say, haunt us. Their absence is profound but in our modern, dis-enchanted world, we don’t have a way to talk about ghosts so we just pretend that we aren’t haunted.

All Saints Day

And that brings us, obviously to Halloween.

Growing up, Halloween was something that my family had a awkward relationship with. My first 10 years, my parents allowed me to go Trick or Treating, sometimes we’d even get to dress up as we went to church events. After all Scooby Doo had unmasked the ghost’s and the demons were just something Christians dealt with in the book of Acts.

This part of my life ended when my Mom read the book, “Devil in the Toy Box” I’m not sure what was in that book, but it was the sole reason I stopped getting candy on October 31st (and why for some reason I could never watch the Smurfs again)

For years I hated that book. But today I’m somewhat grateful for it. Because suddenly, for my family the world was enchanted again. It was haunted.

The last year I was allowed to go Trick or Treating, my friends and I walked a solid mile, hitting every house on River Ridge Rd, most of them gave us O-Henry’s and Tootsie Rolls, but there was one house that didn’t give us any candy, and I’ll never forget it.

The man answered the doors with bags under his eyes and a sad look in his gaze. He looked through us as he talked to the 3 little boys dressed like Superheroes and I had the distinct impression he didn’t know what time of day it was. He certainly didn’t know what day it was.

“Trick or Treat!” we yelled.

“Huh? Oh, is that today.” he mumbled groggily,”Wait one second” and then he closed the door and came back a few seconds later with some pocket change to put in our little plastic orange Jack-o-latern buckets.

Later we found out that he had lost his young son that month in an automobile accident.

I had knocked on the door of a truly haunted house.

This was one of the most disturbing memories of childhood, but looking back on it it’s also one of my most profound moments for understanding Halloween.

I have lived a charmed life, but I’ve also had to deal with more death than most of my peers. I did my first funeral when I was 14, and several of my best childhood friends died before I finished college. I don’t know how I would have been able to deal with it if I hadn’t believed the world was still haunted.All-Saints Painting

The Church calendar has for over a thousand years insisted that we don’t forget the people who have died, the saints who have gone before us. It has insisted that we don’t gloss over death, or give death more power than it is due. It calls us to remember the lives of those who have died, and acknowledge that in some mysterious way they are with God, and we will be with them again.

So during this season, all over the world, Christians take flowers to tombs, clean graves, tell stories about their departed family and friends, and for a short season they allow the absences that haunt them to come into focus.

The Church calls this season “Hallow Tide” as if the material world is being washed in the hallowed, unknown mystery of the age to come.

This may sound creepy, but I believe our modern world need’s to embrace this tradition, because I’ve done enough funerals to know that it’s only when we think about death that we honestly answer the question, “What is a good life?” Nobody talks about what great hair they had at a funeral, or what a nice car they drove, it’s here that we remember how we want to be remembered.

Halloween and All Saints Day are more than just remembering death. It’s a way of remembering the Christian Hope, that God has not abandoned us or the ones we love. The saints departed are with God, and in some strange way still with us. It’s a way we remember that the world is haunted with the saints of God.

So this week, I will spend some time thinking about Foy and Ruby and Richard and Shirley and Hayes and Frank and Jeramie and all the cloud of witnesses that are still cheering me on.

May their souls rest in peace, may their bodies rise in glory.

On October 21, 2014

In the Flesh: Body Matters

Jesus is the Word made flesh, the truth narrated in bone and bowel, space and time. That is the story He is.” Frederick Buechner

In the Flesh Blog

 

It’s hard to have a newborn baby and a subscription to the New York Times…but sometimes it helps.

Over the past few weeks, it’s begun to seem like a pretty bad timing to bring a baby into the world, I don’t know what you’re take is on the news but I’m overwhelmed by the onslaught of wars and rumors of wars, plagues and politics and riots and racism.

It seems like my newsfeed varies between tragic and hysteria.

I’m also struck by the great irony of the way we live in the world compared to the way we talk about it.

We talk about the color of someone’s skin as if it is irrelevant to their experience in the world, and we talk about Ebola and Isis as if they were the plot points in a chapter of a Tim LaHaye novel.

Body Language

We’re rightfully outraged at ISIS beheading people but have a hard time finding the words to describe why we we find it so disturbing. Christians are rightfully concerned about stopping Ebola (after all there is a reason that so many hospitals were started by or named after Christian Saints)..but why?

Christians today, often come across as quaint and antique, a throwback to another era. In the public spheres we often get hemmed into talking about the Christian view of sexuality as if that was all (or even the main part) of following Jesus. But the only way to understand a Christian view of sexuality is to understand the deeper logic of Christian theology toward the world and our bodies.

Christians have believed for thousands of years that this world matters, which means matter matters. God created the world and thinks it is good, including our bodies. Christian theology believes that our bodies are gifts from a good God. We didn’t make them, we don’t sustain them and ultimately we won’t raise them.

The past few days, I’ve been struck by the beauty of holding a new baby, a tiny little body, complete with all the necessary equipment of fingers, toes and lungs. I’m struck by the realization that in the maternity ward we are aware of something that we pretend isn’t true in the funeral home.

Often at funerals, we hear language about people leaving the “shell” that is their body. That language is fine for someone who is just trying to make sense of death and give people some kind of hope for an afterlife, but it is not Christian language.

Because our bodies matter, and that is a very ancient idea.

Flesh and Faith

A few weeks ago, in the Times. Op-ed pundit David Brooks points out that when secular society talks about life and the physical body, we are forced to reach for words like “sacred” to talk about it:

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

David Brooks is talking about the recent beheadings of American journalists by ISIS, and the moral outrage that follows. His point is that the outrage is disproportionate to the American narrative. If we are all just ‘spirits’ longing to be freed from our bodies that are prisons (what the first Christians called ‘heresy’) than why does this strike such a deep minor chord in us?

Brooks goes on to say, because this isn’t any form of the Biblical vision of the world or the God who Created it:

Ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam. The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

In other words, Isis is the Muslim flavor of the gnostic Christian “this-world-is-bad” that has been floating around for the past couple of hundred years. They are willing to kill a body, but only because they don’t know it’s worth.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

One of the biggest reasons that the early Christians were persecuted was that they insisted on this strange idea that the their physical bodies would be resurrected.

A little over a decade ago, I got to go explore the catacombs in Rome. It was miles and miles of underground caves dug by Christians because they believed in caring for the bodies of the dead.

Whether you are a Christian or not, you have to admit that this is pretty impressive, and some of the best evidence of an actual resurrection. They risked their lives digging these catacombs because they believed that God had started something in Jesus body that had something to do with their own.

They believed that what God had done for Jesus, would someday happen to them.

Bodies matter, and the body that you have been given is a gift, no matter how you have been taught to feel about it. It’s not a prison (though for some it may feel that way) it’s not a commodity (though others may try to use it as such), it’s a gift from God, in fact, it is even a window into the image of God.

I like the way Jonathan Martin says it:

 Spirituality is not a bad word for [Christianity], but the danger is always that we make it “something more” than the taste of brittle bread and sweet wine, the feel of wet flesh and calloused feet…This way of being human is not for people who don’t like to dance or make love”

Your body is a gift from God and He’s not done with it.

 “All babies are glorious before God.” – The Shepherd of Hermas

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Storment’s Party of Six

G.K. Chesterton once said that he learned more about God from watching children than from all the books in his library. And I’m starting to understand what he means by that.

That quote at the beginning is from an ancient Christian document from around 150 A.D. We hear it today and it sounds like the kind of common sense you’d read on a fortune cookie or on a Taco Bell hot sauce packet…but in it’s day it was absolutely revolutionary. In the world that it was written in people didn’t think that babies were glorious before God. Babies were a risk and if you were lucky a retirement, and while parents loved their kids back then too, nobody would have thought to make such a sweeping statement like “All babies show us something about God.”

Yesterday as I was sitting in the Hendrick Hospital room in Abilene, I kept noticing their signs saying stating their mission was to be an institution that embodies the healing ministry of Jesus, and it dawned on me once again that we’re having a baby in an environment that values children largely because of a Jewish Carpenter who never had kids of his own, but said that we should not just welcome them…but become like them.

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Hannah holding Joel for the first time

Yesterday morning, Leslie and I showed up at the hospital around 3:30 A.M. and after about 14 hours of labor she gave birth to a healthy 7 lb 10 oz baby boy we named “Joel Jefferson Storment” Actually, at the time he wasn’t named “Joel Jefferson” he didn’t have a name until late last night. We had decided to wait until we actually met the new little guy before naming him. We wanted to spend a little time with him before we named him, you know, just in case we named him Malachi and he came out looking like a Gus.

We now know that is a mistake because no one should be able to name a child after 20 hours awake and an empty stomach.

Leslie once again had a natural childbirth, each time we go through this I’m reminded how incredibly tough she is. I get lightheaded when I watch House, but when it comes to delivering kids she’s like General Patton.

Last night, after Joel was born, it kept washing over me that I’ve got a better life than I deserve, and if I killed over tomorrow I’ve already gone over the amount of joy anyone should have in a lifetime.

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Eden and Samuel with Joel

Eden, Samuel and Hannah are so great with their new brother. A camera can’t capture the wonder in their eyes as they look at him. Samuel immediately started trying to teach him about Star Wars and Legos and Eden started singing him the Razorback Fight song (a big parenting win!) Hannah just wanted to hold him and give him all those hugs and kisses that she’s been saving up for months (while practicing on her doll) .

And since one day this little guy is going to look back and wonder where he got his name, and so this is what we want to tell him:

I want to tell you about why we named you Joel. Your name means “The LORD IS God” and In the Old Testament there’s actually an entire book called Joel (you could’ve been named Obadiah) it’s from a really bad time in Israel’s history when the Israelites are losing everything from a bizarre natural disaster. The locusts are eating their crops and destroying their livelihood and God tells Joel to remind Israel that even though things are bad now, God hasn’t given up on them. Even though they didn’t plan out their future this way, God has Joel tell them not to lose heart because God plans to give back what has been taken away.

Actually here’s how God says it: “I will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.”

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Samuel pausing from telling Joel about Legos to take a picture

I love that idea. That somehow all the years that didn’t turn out exactly the way you’d hoped…God was going to restore. I don’t know how God runs the universe. I know that there is a lot of heartbreak out there that we all contribute to, and these days it feels overwhelming. You are being born into a world that is terrified and divided. Today’s newspaper was covered with news of the Ebola virus and another flare-up of violence between races…somedays it feels like the locusts are winning. But we still believe God plans to heal all harms and that the word He started and said was good he has never let go of.

So we named you Joel, he was a prophet of Restoration…because we believe that’s who God is and we believe that’s a good thing to give your life for.

I want to tell you about your second name. That’s important too: Jefferson. I know it sounds quite presidential, but that’s one of your grandad’s name (technically Cletis Jefferson is my dad’s full name but…) We gave you this name because we think that names matter, at their best they give you a kind of trajectory for what a good life might look like, and we know that there are a lot of temptations to think a good life is something shiny and expensive. But on the day you were born we wanted you to know what a very good life looks like.

As you get older, you’re going to hear and see a lot about men pursuing women as objects, as if they were something to be collected, and the person with as many as possible has the best life. We don’t believe that’s true. So we named you after a guy who has loved only one woman and loved her well, and will die 10,000 times happier than Hugh Heffner (I’ll explain who that is when you’re older) could ever dream of.

As you get older, you’re going to hear a lot from a lot of people who assume that the best life involves lots of money and prestige, but we named you after a guy who’s highest paying job was an assistant manager at Wendy’s, who’s T.V. repair business quit because he didn’t have the heart to charge the people who he served, but who laughs easier than anyone I know and sleeps well at night. We named you after a guy who’s rich where it counts.

As you get older, you’re going to see lots of people trying to position themselves for status in the world, and some of them will be good at it. We named you after an un-assuming guy who’s quietly served others with a disarming humility for 70+ years. We named you after someone who never won an award, but did win a lot of people’s hearts with the ability to make fun of himself in a way that brings joy into whatever room he’s in.

We want you to know that’s what a good life looks like.

And we want you to know how much your family already loves you. You’ve got grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins that can’t wait to meet you.

You are very loved little buddy.

Welcome to the world and welcome to the family.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I had also tried really hard to let Leslie name him “Joel Danger Storment” but apparently Leslie thinks that might make it hard for him to ever book a flight..

P.P.S.  It still might be a nickname.

photo-1So this past week, I did another podcast with my good friend Luke Norsworthy (I’m a glutton for punishment) Luke’s podcast has recently cracked the top 100 in religion podcasts on ITunes, so he’s obviously doing something right.

During this podcast, Luke shares his love for Mariah Carey, and how he lacks the ability to encourage, but loves to receive encouragement.

We talk about the great lineup of interviews he had on the show in the month of September, and how it applies to our lives of ministry, and our lives as Jesus followers. This interview spans everything from the way we’ve carved up the world into conservative/liberal to the challenges being parents has brought to our theology.

We talked about Dr. Amy Levine new book on the parables and how her interpretations are difficult to preach, but important for Christians to listen to. In the words of one of my preacher friends, Levine serves as a good speed bump for anyone who is tempted to say, “In the first century this is what Jewish people believed” as if anyone could summarize what all Christians believed 2000 years from now.

We talked about Peter Enns new, and somewhat controversial book about the Bible, and I try to hold Luke’s evasive little feet to the fire for a change.

One of the reasons that I appreciate this particular interview, was because I ask myself the question all the time, “Who gets to be conservative?” I believe that in many ways the people who consider themselves the most conservative are the ones who have added the most recent things to the Christian tradition. But to understand that more, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

We talked about Richard Rohr, and his ability to encourage the least of these, and his challenge to Christians who grew up in more rigid Christian homes to not become cynical about their background but learn to appreciate the way you were raised.

And then finally we talked about Scot McKnight’s wonderful new book “Kingdom Conspiracy” (a book I highly recommend) and why the way we talk about the Kingdom of God matters, and how it might not be what we thought it was.

Anyway, Luke’s podcast is one of the best ones out there right now, and one I listen to every week. It’s challenging and funny and one of the best ways to get to know some of our best Christian leaders and thinkers out in the broader Christian world, and if you’d like to subscribe to it, you can find his podcast here.