Archives For Scripture

On December 15, 2015

Cave God: Christmas Crusades

“God’s 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

Cave GodSo I’m guessing that bringing up the word Crusades is probably not the best image for most Western people when we think of Christmas. After all, the Crusades were part of a pretty dark time in Christian history, heck, it was a dark time in history.

The Crusades were a time when Christians went to a physical war with Muslim soldiers to take back the Holy Lands. It was a war fought presumably for the honor of God, in the name of God. But it certainly wasn’t fought with the spirit of God.

Last week, I wrote about how Christmas really is God’s way of waging war on the principalities and powers of the world.

And this is where you probably expect me to start talking about how the Christmas story really was something more like a metaphor for war. But it’s really not just a metaphor, after all Herod wasn’t metaphorically killing babies.

Worked into the very story we are celebrating in this season is a subversive element of how the Kingdom of God is breaking into the Kingdoms all over earth, Kingdoms that are very investing in keeping the status quo and protecting their own power and interests.

This isn’t just an isolated side note of the Christmas story. Both Matthew and Luke, (the only two Gospels that tell the Christmas story) tell the story of Jesus’ birth in terms of a war.

But since we’re not looking for it, we just read right past it.

King Baby Jesus

In the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story starts off with Caesar Augustus taking a census. To most of us, that just sounds like the beginning of every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen. But in reality, it means Caesar is flexing his power. To take a census means that you can tax your people and draft soldiers more efficiently. So far, this story begins like every other kind of ancient epic. The strong ruler is being strong and decisive and getting stronger.

But then the Gospel of Luke does something odd, Luke leaves his focus on Caesar and instead begins to tell us about this young unmarried, pregnant couple who have been forced to comply with Caesar’s edict. Even though she’s very pregnant, they’ve got to obey, because Caesar’s got the biggest army. Right?

Angels announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds by Govert Flinck in 1639

Angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds by Govert Flinck in 1639

Except, the way Luke tells the story is interesting. Because after Jesus is born in a cave in some nothing of a town named Bethlehem, this little family is visited not by royalty but by shepherds. Shepherds in the ancient world had the reputation something like homeless people have in today’s world. They have very little status. This is a detail that you should leave out if you are trying to convince people of a new world movement.

Unless, their presence in the story is a fundamental part of the new world movement.

And apparently God thought it was, because it was to these shepherds that the Angels appeared! Here’s the scene:

 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Now when you picture this scene, don’t get sentimental and imagine some scene from Charlie Brown. The Catholic priest Robert Barron points out that in the Bible when Angels appear to people, those people are always terrified.

Angels in the Scripture are warriors. And the word Luke uses to describe the Angels is Straitia, which means “multitude” or more literally it is a word that means an Army!

The reason Caesar is able to rule the world is because he’s got the biggest army, but the Gospel of Luke opens up by saying that this tiny baby King has a bigger army, and it is one that fights, not like the world fights, but with the power of Heaven, and this army fights for all those that the other Kingdoms have written off.

That’s the point of this war, it’s why God comes to the shepherds first. God is fighting for the people who don’t have anyone fighting for them. Jesus was born in a cave, on the margins of society.

But that was not a setback for God, it was the strategy of God.

God coming through the oppressed and poor isn’t just part of the story, it many ways, it is the point of the story.

A Way In A Manger

John Ortberg says that you might say there was an idea lying there in the cave along with this Baby. An idea that had mostly been confined to a little country called Israel, but was waiting for the right time to crawl out into the wider world—an idea which that wider world would be unable to wholly resist.

finger_of_godSee, in the ancient world people had hierarchal gods. At the top of creation was the gods, then the king. Under the king were members of the court, priests, then artisans, merchants, craftspeople, and then peasants and slaves. The king was seen as divine (or semi-divine) and everyone knew that he was made in the image of the god, but that was something reserved only for the king.

Everyone knew that peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the god. They were created by inferior gods. But all this was challenged by that idea that lay there in the manger,  an idea that had been guarded by Israel for centuries: There is only one God and He is good.

And every human being has been made in his image.

We have no idea how revolutionary this idea was…and is.

Here’s how G.K. Chesterton says this:

There is in that idea alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.

The War of Christmas is a real thing. It’s a war on any idea that would reduce any living person to anything less than someone made in the image of God. It’s a war that was waged by a God who would be born with the outcasts in a cave

The problem with the Crusades, is the same problem with our culture wars today. We love the story of God, but not the strategy of God.

God wages war against war, by laying down his life, making himself vulnerable. He is the Lion who fights like a lamb…and wins.

That’s a Christian Crusade.

We call it Christmas.

On December 8, 2015

Cave God: The War of Christmas

Cave God

I think it’s interesting that every year we talk about a war on Christmas, Every year, there’s some story that makes the 24 hour news cycle, and we start hearing the pundits on television talking about the war on Christmas. It’s normally about how some nativity scene in some city was forced to move away from a public park next door to some land owned by a church.

And we call that war.

If we think that moving our nativity scenes is the equivalent of war, then we should go back and read the Christmas story. Do you remember why Mary has the child in a cave? Remember why God has to send some coded message to some wise men with stars? Remember why Mary and Joseph went back to Bethlehem in the first place? Or why they had to flee as refugees to Egypt?

It’s because the Christmas story starts off with a first century Hitler on the throne. Herod is so afraid of losing his power the he’s willing to wipe out an entire generation of Jewish boys just to make sure he’s killed one of them. Joseph and Mary have to leave their home and become refugees overnight.

Herod commits infanticide on hundreds or thousands of baby boys.

This is what a war on Christmas looks like.

And what’s important to remember here, is that Herod does all of this, not because he doesn’t understand what’s going on, he does it, because he does understand Christmas.

Did you know that right now, all over the world there are people who gather together in secret to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Just by gathering together they are breaking the law, and it’s not because the national governments of the places they live in don’t understand Christmas, it’s because they do!

Because the truth is that there isn’t so much a war on Christmas as there is the War of Christmas. 

Jesus didn’t come with the title of religous figurehead. He came with the title of King. In a day and culture where that meant something. He’s the president, the Prime Minister the Supreme Leader of the World. That’s what Christmas means, and wherever a group of people gather together and celebrate that, expect for there to be people who are against it.

Christmas in the Margins

It’s ironic to me that we fight about Starbucks or Wal-Mart not saying Merry Christmas, or we argue about nativity scenes getting pushed to the margins of society. It’s ironic because that’s exactly where the first nativity scene occurred. Christmas happened in a cave, in a no-name kind of town with two parents who were peasants and moral outcasts. Christmas happened in the margins!

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Next week, I have a blog about why this matters so much, but you need to know if Christmas was true, than this was not an accident. Jesus being born in the margins of society was not a setback for God, it was the strategy of God.

God coming through the oppressed and poor isn’t just part of the story, it many ways, it is the point of the story.

Now I understand why Christians sometimes get upset up about this, Symbols matter, and when we see culture replacing language of Christmas with Happy Holidays it reminds us of the larger decline of Judeo-Christian values in society.  I really do understand that, and know that it matters.

But a lot of the rhetoric I hear about this seems based in fear. And that’s why it’s important to actually remember what the real Christmas story is about.

Did you know that the prologue for every Christmas passage in the Bible is “Do Not Be Afraid.”

Every time an angel shows up to tell anyone about Jesus they always start off with “Do Not Be Afraid.” And if you think about it that’s really the dumbest thing they could say. “Don’t be afraid Mary?” Really? She’s about to go head to head with Rome, the largest political power the world had ever seen. From her Jewish peers, she is going to be gossiped about and shamed. Her firstborn is going to be killed, and her family is going to be in danger every day from that day forward.

And the Angel has the moxie to tell her not to be afraid?

But this Angel knows exactly what he’s doing. Because, at least historically speaking, the Angel was right.

Christmas History

In the fourth century, there was a monk named Dionysus the Insignificant (who was a bit bummed about his last name) but this monk is the one who gave us the Calendar we still use today. And Dionysus didn’t put at the center of his calendar the story about the founding of Rome. Unlike every other calendar of his day, this monk divided up time Before Christ and After Christ. His calendar was centered around the Christmas story.

Dionysus the Insignificant as depicted by Mother Grimm

Dionysus the Insignificant as depicted by Mother Grimm

And it stuck.

Jesus lived and died and Caesar never even knew about him.

John Ortberg points out that one of the earliest titles of Jesus was the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings. They called him that  in a time when Jesus had only a handful of followers. In the day the first Christians started calling him that, it would have been unbelievable to the outside world. But the fact remains that 2000 years after his birth, when anybody, anywhere in the world opens a calendar, unfolds a newspaper, looks at a tombstone or writes a check, they are reminded that Jesus Christ has become the hinge of history.

Because Nero died in the Year of our Lord 68;  Napoleon died in the Year of our Lord 1821;   Hitler died in the Year of our Lord 1945.

They are all dated by the King of Kings.

I love the way G.K. Chesterton says this:

Philosophy still sat in the high places and even on the thrones of the kings, when Christ was born in the cave and Christianity in the catacombs…The cave in one aspect is only a hole or corner into which the outcasts are swept like rubbish; yet in the other aspect it is a hiding-place of something valuable which the tyrants are seeking like treasure. In one sense they are there because the innkeeper would not even remember them, and in another because the king can never forget them… [Christmas] was resented, because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war... Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrands were slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity than those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical society, being martyred in a languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild.

Did you catch that? Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome were lying, but at least they were closer to the true nature of Christianity than people today. Christianity is not just some domesticated religion for suburban people to feel better about themselves, and Christmas isn’t just lights and presents. In it’s own still and secret way, it is declaring war.

So maybe you don’t believe that Jesus was the Lord of lords and the King of kings–but no matter what you believe, or where that nativity scene winds up moving to this year. The undeniable fact is that every ruler who has ever reigned, every nation that will ever rise and fall, now must be dated in reference to the life of Jesus.

After all, today we name our daughters Mary, and our dogs Caesar.

That’s what Christmas means.

God is waging a war on all wars, and God wins.

Do not Be Afraid.

Why is it; that when we speak to God we are said to be praying but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” – comedian Lily Tomlin

Unknown

This is a true story.

At 22 years old, Barry Keenan was the youngest Los Angeles stock exchange investor making tens of thousands of dollars a month back in the 60’s, but he got hooked on pain killers and alcohol and lost everything. His world was unraveling quickly and he knew that he had to do something drastic. He drew up a business plan, choosing the best stocks for investment, but he needed to raise some capital.

So he decided to kidnap Frank Sinatra Jr.

As a dedicated Christian, Keenan never really thought of it as kidnapping, he thought of it as more of a “borrowing” He was only wanting to get ransom money, and because he was a devout but admittedly unorthodox Catholic, he was planning on paying all the money back within 5 years.

He had a detailed 3-ring binder describing how his plan was going to improve both his life and the Sinatra’s. It would bring the father and his estranged son closer together, It would help Sinatra’s PR problems (everyone saw the famous singer as being closely associated with the Mafia), and it would get Keenan the money he needed.

You know, your classic win-win scenario.

Comedy of Errors

Unfortunately, the kidnapping worked, but their exit strategy didn’t. They forgot their gun, Keenan’s partner accidentally knocked himself out during the kidnapping by running into a tree branch, when they reached Frank Sinatra Sr. and told him they had his son, Sinatra offered them a million dollar ransom, and Barry Keenan tried talking him down to $240,000 because that was all he needed for his business plan to work.

When he called Frank Sinatra Sr., Keenan told him that if he wanted his son back he needed to go to a gas station in Carson City (30 min away) to get further instructions. Unfortunately it took Sinatra and the FBI longer to get there than 30 minutes. Keenan called the gas stations at the agreed time, and asked the mechanic if Frank Sinatra was there. The mechanic was sure that this was a joke, and so he hung up.

A few minutes later, Keenan called again, same response. Then he called again, and finally the bartender yelled, “It’s 3 in the afternoon, why in the world would the most famous entertainer in the world be at the Texaco station?!! Now stop calling!”

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

Photo of the Texaco Ransom site from FBI.gov

A few minutes later, Frank Sinatra and a swarm of federal agents bust into the bar saying to the mechanic, “I’m Frank Sinatra, has anyone called for me?!!”

After receiving the ransom, the FBI captured Keenan and his partner, he was sentenced to life in prison, and a few years later was declared legally insane at the time. And then forty years later he told the story on This American Glass with Ira Glass. Here’s why he said he did it:

Keenan: I had God’s approval, this thing was being divinely blessed. God talked to me, particularly when I would go to Church, and light a candle, and be silent. God would talk to me, and He was very definite on that nobody could be hurt, and that I had to pay the money back”

Ira Glass: As you’ve gotten older and wiser, and sobered up, does God still talk to you?

Keenan: Oh no, that went away when I got sober, and also when I got psychiatric help.

This is a Test

I’d like to start a blog series for the next few weeks on Hearing God. As a minister, this is a question I get more than almost any other, in a variety of ways. Most often it comes out like, “What is God’s Will for my life?”

I wanted to tell that Sinatra story up front to maybe to pump the brakes on those of us who don’t have a lot of discernment in our lives helping to pick out which voices in our head are coming from God.

Because God never, ever, wants you to kidnap Frank Sinatra’s son, but don’t think that means God is silent.

It’s worth noting that up until recently, one of the litmus test for whether someone was to be considered sane or not was the question, “Do you hear from God?” This was a standardized test, that medical psychiatric professionals used right alongside, “Do you enjoy setting things on fire?” and “Are you cohabiting your own body?”

I’m and aware of the legitimate challenges for people who are mentally handicapped and all for modern psychological help, but this is a test that some of history’s greatest people would’ve failed. From Mother Theresa to Moses to Augustine including the much more average examples like the Christians I grew up with, the God of the Bible is a God who promised to keep talking to us.

On the night before he was crucified, Jesus promised his small band of followers that, while He was going away, He would still, in some mysterious way be present to them.

One of the twelve disciples, was a guy named “Judas who was also known as Thaddeus” (I think for the rest of his life he introduced himself with “just call me Thad”) asked Jesus how he was going to be both gone and present with them. And Jesus told them “The Father and I will come to you and make our home with you.”

Jesus goes on to say that not only will He be present, but that through his mysterious presence He will teach us and give us peace in proportion to our ability to bear and obey it.

If you’re reading this and part of you is cringing, trust me, I get it. I’ve seen the abuses, I know the dangers, I read the newspapers and watch the same documentaries we all do, but I still believe God still speaks, and I even believe that, despite all the risks, it’s good for us to be aware of Him speaking.

In the Beginning, God speaks into the original chaos and His word creates good things, it brings order, and life and beauty to the void.

I believe it still does.

gospel-of-mark-slider

So this past June I had the privilege of going to Israel and Jordan for a couple of weeks to see where Jesus lived and walked on this earth. In Israel, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Bible story, (actually you shouldn’t throw rocks because they could also be a Bible story).

For two weeks I got to travel around and see Israel, from Dan to Beersheba. I went to the places that Jesus would’ve seen and talked about, and got to see the landscape and visuals Jesus pulled from to teach about the Kingdom of God.

And since I couldn’t take everyone along with me, I took along some Google Glasses (a device that records everything a person is looking at).

Gospel of Mark Introduction from Highland Church on Vimeo.

Let me tell you, this was a labor of love, because wearing Google Glasses is like the 21st century version of traveling with a fanny pack. Every picture I have of me over there looks like I’m trying to be an honorary member of the Borg (see below picture), but looking over these videos I’m excited that I’m going to get to share with you some of the things that I saw, and in some sense take you along.

Looking like a nerd wearing Google Glasses on a camel in Jordan

Looking like a nerd wearing Google Glasses on a camel in Jordan

I can’t wait to show you the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, or the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus was said to have walked on his way to the Cross. I want you to see the mountains that really do surround Jerusalem, and let you experience what it’s like take a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.

There’s something powerful about realizing that these places really do exist, and that these are more than just “Bible stories.”

Because unlike other world religions of it’s day, the Jewish/Christian faith is actually something grounded in history, it’s the history of a people who believe God has acted in the world, and is acting in this world.

Mark was the first to write down the story of the loved, hated, revered, despised and often misunderstood first century rabbi: Jesus of Nazareth. Mark wrote his Gospel in an attempt to answer the one question that Jesus himself asks throughout the book, “Who do you think I am?”

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.

In a world where everyone seems to be a Christians the Gospel of Mark calls us to more than a polite religion. The Gospel of Mark calls us to re-imagine what being a follower of Jesus means, to re-look at the story of Jesus.

Because In the words of another Mark (Twain)  “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

Join us this Fall at Highland as we look at the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark…on location.

Our service times for assembly are:

8:30 A.M. A Capella Worship

11:00 A.M. Instrumental Worship

If you’d like directions, or more information about getting involved at Highland, or are planning on coming as a first time guest, click here, or email us at emailus@highlandchurch.org

On April 21, 2014

Seeing Noah

Russell Crowe in Noah

Last week, the Abilene Reporter News asked me and another area pastor (and one of my good friends) Cliff Stewart to review the movie Noah. But since I wrote this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve had quite a few conversations and several emails asking what I thought about it.

And since I’ve written publicly about why I think Christians should give the movie Noah a fair shake, I thought it would be appropriate to share just what I thought about it now that I’ve seen it. Here’s an expanded version of what I wrote for the ARN:

When they asked Cliff and I to tell us what we thought about the movie Noah we figured that meant we had better go see it first. I’m in the season of life with 3 young kids where the DVD release is when the movie comes out for my wife and me.

But we made a date. We saw the movie. We liked it.

So we’re no Siskel and Ebert, but here’s our best shot at telling what we liked about it and why…

It’s tough being a Bible character.

Sometimes I think we forget that. We romanticize people in the lion den’s or rainbow colored coats and lose the ability to hear the story the way it was first heard by the people who were originally telling it.

I’ll never forget watching Noah in this movie sit in the Ark hearing the people outside. When we read that story in a coffee shop during our quiet time, or in a sermon safely in some church building we forget just how disturbing some of the Bible stories really are.

Turns out the story of Noah is darker than most of us who grew up in religious settings remember. It’s a story of a God who takes evil very seriously. In a time when we replace words like “sin” with softer words like “mistakes” it’s important to remember that God thinks what we do in His good world has consequences.

I didn’t expect to like Noah as much as I did. I thought it was visually stunning and it did the one thing that I needed. It made the familiar story strange to me again. I’ve grown up hearing this story, I’ve read/preached/and heard this story a thousand times, and last night I felt like I was hearing it for the first time again.

I didn’t expect I would find the movie Noah as wonderful as I did.. I use that word intentionally. This movie was full of something that our world seems to be sorely lacking…Wonder. There were several scenes that were just breathtaking. Like the way Creation was pictured or how the animals seemed to be almost magically drawn to the Ark.

What I loved about this movie was that it portrayed the world as enchanted…and anything seemed possible.

It would be easy to argue about the interpretation that the director took, and I could find plenty to critique, but It’s an imaginative retelling of the story of Noah, sure a lot of it very imaginative, but the story of Noah is definitely in there.

The Failure of the Flood

But…God feels distant in Noah, He comes in dreams and not very often. It would be easy to walk out of this movie and complain that God doesn’t have a starring role, but that misses the point of the original story of Noah.

The point of the flood in Noah is that it doesn’t work. God purges the world of evil…only to find Noah a few days later drunk, naked and passed out. As if the ark washed up on the Jersey Shore.

The point of the Noah story in Genesis is that this kind of force doesn’t work. That’s why a few chapters later God calls Abraham, creates a people and tells them He wants them to be a blessing to the world.

That’s how God is going to deal with evil now.

If you’ve ever watched the news, and wondered where God is, why he doesn’t act. If you’ve ever wondered where God was in the Holocaust or when tragedies happen like the school stabbing last week, or the systemic poverty you see around you. Noah is a movie for you.

If you’ve ever wished we could just vote the right legislation in to force everyone to act right, if you’ve ever wished we could get rid of the bad people and purge the world of evil…Noah’s story is a story for you. Because ultimately God’s way of dealing with evil here doesn’t work.

Turns out evil is even in the people on the boat, and they bring it into the new world with them.

So God’s not going to flood the world again. But he’s still just as concerned about evil, and still wanting to do something about it. Turns out God is very present these days. He just might be wearing your shoes and trying to bless people through you.Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic

I’m glad I went to see Noah, it reminded me of how seriously God takes His creation and just how God plans to deal with evil these days. Through His people.

Stained Glass Theaters

It’s important to remember that historically the Church around the world has embraced this kind of cultural translation. Stained Glass windows were the original movies, and throughout Christian history, Noah has always been a story that our artists have been drawn to. Whether it’s Noah being portrayed as a Cucumber in Veggietales, or Eugene Peterson translation of the story into the Message, when we translate a story into a different format there is something that happens. You don’t have to agree with it, but if you are a Christian I think you’d be well served to see the movie.

I think that the first people who heard this story would have had more questions than answers. I think this movie does that well. If you’d like to talk to someone drop by a church somewhere, or meet up with a friend, and start a conversation.

You may not think the movie was as Biblical as it should have been, or you may not even care, but we hope you appreciate that we, at least went to see it a Biblical way…two by two.

I just wish Brother Cliff wouldn’t have hogged all the popcorn.

*The section Failure of the Flood did not appear in the newspaper for brevity’s sake

Screen-shot-2011-01-25-at-7.52.40-AM

One of the more interesting things about the Bible is what happens when God reveals Himself to people. They are always terrified, they say things like “Go away…or I will die.” And then they say something  peculiar like”Who am I?” When God reveals Himself to people, the people always become acutely aware of how broken they are.

They become in a word…modest.

When we talk about modesty, immediately what probably comes to our minds is cleavage or short skirts…I notice we rarely apply it to shirtless, or provocatively dressed men. As a person who struggles with self-delusion, I’ve made the personal commitment to never wear tight clothes or short shorts, you know, just to keep others from stumbling.

But when the Bible talks about modesty, much of the time it’s not talking about the same things we talk about. For example, go back and read Paul’s letter to Timothy, or Peter’s letter to the church of his day.

Most of the time, when they are talking about modesty (in a world very much like ours) they are talking about economic modesty. The word they have for the women of their day is not to feel the need to showcase how much you have…in other words, because of God, you shouldn’t dress to show how well off you are.

But modesty also has another meaning in Bible, and by this meaning, Christians today are rarely modest.

Which is not a new thing.

I Know You Are, But What Am I

In the 17th century, the Quakers and the Puritans were locked in a pretty intense debate. One of the most famous Puritan preachers, a guy named Richard Baxter, wrote a pamphlet where he called those Quakers “ drunkards, swearers, whore mongers, and sensual wretches…miserable creatures .” And then, just in case they didn’t get how serious their theological error was, he said they were no better than “Papists.”

Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter aka “Child of the Devil”

So a Quaker preacher, James Naylor, responded to these harsh accusations and names…with more accusations and names. Naylor called Baxter “a Serpent,” a “Liar,” a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog .”

Naylor actually said he was responding because he had been compelled by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which may be true. But he most certainly wasn’t responding with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 

The problem with these arguments is that they do the opposite of what they are hoping to accomplish. When we demonize the other, we rarely have healthy conversations about the issue of disagreement. We divide up the world into right and wrong, and lose the ability to learn and grow from each other.

Last year, on NPR, I heard about a city where the Pro-Life leaders and the Pro-Choice leaders had started secretly meeting for lunch once a week. They had to keep it a secret because the war had already been clearly defined by talking points and hostile speech, but these women still wanted to learn where the other was coming from.

Have you ever noticed how we talk about war? Pascifists argue against all war, Just war people argue that there are some wars that are justifiable. But both sides are starting with the assumption that violence has to be held in check by some moral-limits. They don’t believe most wars are justified. 

But they rarely talk about what those limits are, because they can’t talk about much past what defines them in their opposition.

It seems like every day there is another conflict that has broken out between another faction of people. Politics, Corporations, Churches, Atheist Groups.

Language as Dress

Growing up, modesty was something that the Christians around me talked about a lot. It was always assumed that even though it wasn’t in the ten commandments that girls should dress modestly, it was at least a footnote.

We understood that it was important to not dress in a way that dehumanized yourself.

I think it’s time we learned to speak that way too.

Think about the way the Bible refers to dress, it often isn’t talking about specific clothing instructions, it’s speaking more with a putting on of a certain kind of character.

Like in 1st Peter:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self,the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

The early Christians cared a lot living a quiet, gentle lives, even while having passionate convictions.

I wish we talked about that when we talk about modesty.

Modesty basically means to not over-estimate ourselves, it is the virtue of knowing and embracing our limitations. We don’t know everything, we don’t know for certain what’s best for the world, and no human should find themselves so certain that they can dehumanize another because they disagree with them.

I like the way Richard Mouw talks about this:

Our efforts at public righteousness must be modest ones. Now this is a dangerous point to emphasize . The call to modesty can easily be interpreted as giving Christians permission to be unconcerned about the issues of public life . “Poverty is always with us, so why worry about injustices?” “You’re never really going to do away with prejudice and conflict—at least not until Jesus returns! No compromise is acceptable. Those who adopt our variety of Christianity are possessors of the truth, and everyone else is caught up in error!” We may hear statements like these when we start encouraging modesty . But the risk is necessary, especially in the light of the immodesty that has often characterized Christian forays into the public arena.

I know that modesty can sound quaint and the ways that we’ve talked about it have been sexist. Still, as  parents of three children, Leslie and I are going to talk about modesty with them….and it is going to involve more than clothes.

Underneath modesty is the virtue of humility. You don’t have to prove yourself or justify your existence with your looks, or your clothes or your ideas or your words. God has justified you.

So let’s talk like it.

On January 23, 2014

Translation: Holier Than Thou

Leadership with education

One of the more interesting bits about Church history is how many people are killed by the Church and later made into saints. There are lots of people who the church made martyrs one day and heroes the next. But the really fascinating part is why they were killed by the Church. 

The Patron Saint of Translation

When Wiliam Tyndale was 34 years old, he was working on translating the first English translation of the Bible. He was a British preacher, and this probably sounds like exactly the kind of work you’d expect a British preacher to do. But it made him an outlaw.

Up until this time in history, the only Scripture were copies that were made in the original languages, or from St. Jerome’s Latin translation. But now William was working to make the Bible accessible to every man, woman and child, in the language that they spoke.

This sounds like a reasonable life’s goal, but it was going to be the death of him. Because we should never underestimate how revolutionary the idea of translating the Bible, really translating into the common language of the day, actually is.

When the Catholic Church found out about what Tyndale was trying to do, they immediately made him a wanted man. One of his Catholic friends tried to warn him off this foolish mission, and Tyndale said:

“If God will spare for many more years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to  know more of the Scripture than you do.”

Not a good way to keep you head attached to you body.

Eventually the Church began hunting William vigorously, If the FBI had been around, William Tyndale would have been at the top of the Most Wanted List, If there had been Post Offices back in his day, his picture would have been in every one. When William finally finished his translation, he couldn’t find a printer in all of Britian who would publish it. So eventually he had to take a ship to cross the Chanel, where he found someone to print it…almost.

When the printer found out the implications about what he was about to do, he turned William in, and Tyndale barely got out with his manuscript.  The Church was furious. They posted officers at every port, and police were searching from town to town. If William had cared about staying alive, this should have been the time he took a lesson out of Osama Bin Laden’s playbook.

But he cared more about printing this story than he did for his own life.

And ultimately it got him killed.

After only a few thousand copies were made, William Tyndale was arrested, and publicly beheaded, then his body was set on fire, just to show the world what happens to people who try to make God too accessible.

But…

william tyndale

William Tyndale

Today, William Tyndale is hailed as a saint. Dozens of schools and societies have risen up that bear his name. In the words of William Manchester, “You can’t kill a book, and that includes the Good Book.”

All Too Common

But why would people kill someone for this? Did you know that the very translation that Tyndale made, later was the basis for the King James Version? And in it’s day, the King James Version was just what the world needed. It was the story of God in the language of the people.

Before that, the translation that most people knew was Jerome’s Vulgate. But it was criticized in it’s day for being too common. That’s what Vulgar means, the language of the common folk.

Now here’s where things start getting relevant to our lives.  How many people do you know who insist that the King James Version is the “authorized and true” word of God, who won’t have anything to do with any version that was translated after people stopped being beheaded for not paying their taxes?

Now I respect the impulses here.

There is a certain reverence that we should try to approach God with, and the poetry of a more archaic language can sometimes help that. But tread carefully with this line of thinking, because Christianity is not a static faith.  This is one of the primary gifts the Protestants gave to the Church universal, one the Catholic Church began to catch up with in Vatican II.

In the Jesus story, there is an awareness that God is not too Holy to be involved in the everyday, commonness of human existence. In fact, that’s exactly what God enters into. This is why, over and against, other ways of relating to God, Christianity really is different.

It insists that the Jesus story must be translated into the common human experience.

This is why translations matter so much. Because the Gospel insists that we carry it deeper into the world. Holiness doesn’t dissipate when the story of God touches the vulgar, instead the vulgar is sanctified.

And if this sounds strange, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound a bit like the life of Jesus?

The Son of God was always hanging out with the wrong people, saying the wrong kinds of things in ways that everyone could understand. When God came in the flesh, he told stories about the everyday, because everyday matters.

There will always be religious people who grew up in a time and language that they are most adept at connecting to God through, and if we are not careful we can try to baptize how we say something, not just what we say. But the Jesus story invites us to take this message into every part of our mundane world and find words for it there.

There will always be people who push back on this. But beware of anyone who tries to make you holier than Jesus.

The Jesus story translates well, because it is a story of a God who translates.

In this story, Holiness isn’t just clean and stagnant.

In other words…Christianity is Holier than Thou.

On December 10, 2013

ChristmasTime: Christmas Past

 “If a lion roars, who will not be frightened? And if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?” -Amos 3:8

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. -Luke 1:29

Christmas Time PictureA few years ago I was having a conversation with my friend Randy Harris about how someone had wronged me. I was waxing eloquent about how righteous I had been, and how villainous I thought this other person was acting.

Then Randy told me something that has stayed with me ever since.

He said, “Have you ever noticed that it’s really not the thing that happened that bothers you? It’s the story you lay on top of it?”

Immediately something in my heart started to soften. I began to realize that for several weeks I had been re-interpreting the recent past with a story that helped me to nurse a wound and keep me the righteous victim.

The way I thought of the past was infecting my present.

Last week I mentioned how right Charles Dickens was. There is a sense that Christmas is about the past, present and future. Christmas time feels magical because time is different here.

This may sounds strange, but I’ll be it’s something most of us have intuitively experienced.

Have you noticed that at Christmas time your sense of nostalgia stands out? Have you noticed how much more profoundly the ache is for deceased loved ones this time of year?

It’s that empty chair or that present you didn’t give…it’s the longing for what used to be.

It’s a longing for Christmas Past’s.

ReVisioning The Past

Last week, I read a book by James Kugel called The God of Old. Kugel is a Harvard professor of Ancient Judaism, and one of the things that he stresses is that this need to lay a story on top of things is something that religious people have always been tempted to do. And it’s not always a good thing.

For example, there is a Jewish document that dates back to a little before the time of Jesus called “The Book of Jubliees.” It’s basically a retelling of the entire book of Genesis, with some running commentary added. (This was a common way for Rabbi’s to teach back in the day called Midrash). What the Book of Jubilee’s did was tell the old stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, by trying to fill in some of the plot gaps for questions that people had.

And it gets really interesting when they talk about Abraham.

In the original story of Abraham in Genesis, Abraham is given no special introduction. In fact, it’s kind of non-sequitar. Genesis goes almost directly from the Tower of Babel story to “And God called Abram to leave his home and be a blessing to the world.”

But apparently, Jewish people started asking the question “Why Abraham?”

So the Book of Jubliee’s gave them a story to put on top of the story.

In the book of Jubilee’s, Abraham is no longer just a regular guy. He’s now a pillar of righteousness, he’s bothered by all the idol worship that is going on around him. In this story, the people’s pagan worship disturbs Abraham so much that he starts praying to God for Him to please do something  This new Super-Abraham prays and fasts and then God acts.

In other words, in this story, Abraham initiates.

God doesn’t take the first step, Abraham does.

Here’s how James Kugel says it:

What’s interesting about Genesis account of Abraham is what Abraham does to bring about this encounter with God: absolutely nothing. He does not pray. He does not fast, he indulges in no acts of self-mortification such as those practiced by mystics and seekers in later times…What Abraham was doing or had done was just not important from [Genesis] standpoint. God spoke to Abraham and that was all that mattered.

Now this re-writing of story wasn’t just specific to Abraham. Over time, Moses and other heroes were also given more pious backstories. Because, Kugel says, “It just didn’t seem right to the religious people that God could just choose anyone, anytime and anywhere.”

Christmas Grace

This matters more than you probably think. Because what you think about the past will shape your present, and how you think God is working in it.

Which brings us to the Christmas story.Christmas scene

One of the most overlooked details about Christmas is the passive nature of everyone involved. Zechariah and Elizabeth aren’t actively trying to get pregnant, Mary certainly isn’t…and Joseph has to be talked into the whole thing!

The first Christmas wasn’t filled with pious people praying fervently for God to act, as much as it was filled with people who were absolutely shocked that He was acting. Christmas is a divine initiative…

Christmas was a surprise to everyone.

In my experience with religious people, we tend to think so much like those ancient Jews, re-reading those ancient stories. We like to take the mess out of the “heroes of Christmas.” We make Mary so heroic and Joseph full of virtue….and rightfully so. But we must never forget those parts of their story, like Abraham, only begin to come out….after God has acted in surprising ways through surprising people.

In the Bible, no prophet ever seeks God out first, God always initiates. In the words of the prophet Amos: “If a lion roars, who will not be frightened, and if the LORD God has spoken, who will not be a prophet?”

The Christmas story, is one of many stories, that make us reconsider how strange and good God is. He just starts talking to people who are not considered sane by the right authorities. He initiates this whole thing.

And if he did that then, maybe He will do it now.

We never know how or when, but anything is possible and it could just be around the corner.

And whatever it is, and whoever it’s through,,,it’s always grace.

On October 22, 2013

Ephesians: A Gospel Mystery

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. –Ephesians 3:6

ephesians

I was reading this morning in the book of Ephesians, and something stood out to me that I’ve never noticed before.

Paul was a single man, and Paul really, really appreciates marriage. And our churches need to notice constantly both of these things.

For the longest time we’ve mis-read Paul. We’ve thought that Paul was trying to get all the churches that he planted to think that the Jewish law was a bad thing. We got this idea from Martin Luther, that the Law was a burden that was given to break the Israelites into realizing that they can’t keep all of those rules.

But that’s not true at all.

Remember that God gave the Israelites the Torah after He gave them Himself. They had just come out of centuries of slavery in Egypt, and they don’t know how to live. You don’t want to just drop off a bunch of slaves into a foreign country and let them figure out how to live on their own. That’s how we got Australia.

See Paul is a good Jewish Rabbi who knows that the law was a gift from God, so why does Paul talk so much about Jewish regulations in his letters? Because Paul is trying to create communities that transcend Jewish and Gentile labels.

He’s trying to create church.

See back in the day, one of the main indicators of a ruler’s power was His ability to create unity in diverse places. This was one of the ways that Caesar “proved” he was Lord. By being able to bring peace, or the Pax Ramona (Peace of Rome) to the world. But the way Rome brought peace was not by forcing unity at the end of a sword.

And Paul is trying to create unity at the foot of the cross.

A Unity Movement

This is what Paul’s ultimate ministry is about. Creating communities of people who have different backgrounds, genders, races, and perspectives but who all can come together to worship the God of Jesus.

And it’s interesting that Paul uses the word “Mystery” to describe this.

Go back and look at Ephesians 1:9, and then go read Paul unpack this idea in Ephesians 2:11-17. The whole goal is to reconcile very different people groups in the name of Jesus for the glory of God. And the way Paul has to do this, is by stripping these different clichés of their ways they used to separate and justify themselves.

See back in that day, people used to try to one-up each other. So people would come to church thinking that there was the “enlightened” and the “primitive-minded” or the “rich” and the “lazy” or the “poor” and the “greedy” or the “religious” and the “Spirit-Filled” or the “intelligent, thoughtful person” and the “charismatic” The single, the single again, and the married…the Jew and the Gentile.

I know it’s hard to imagine, but that was the kind of church Paul was addressing.

That’s the mystery. That somehow people could get over defining themselves over and against another group, and how they were better than someone else, and just define themselves as people who were united and loved by God.

So over and over again in Ephesians, Paul refers to this as a Mystery.

And then He gets to marriage.

And we love to focus on the part of Ephesians 5 that talks about power and submission. We’ve even created camps about who takes what position and how wrong “they” are and how right “we” are.

But that goes against the very spirit of the marriages that Paul is talking about, because it goes against the mystery of the Gospel.

Mega-Mysterion

In Ephesians 5, Paul actually calls marriage a profound mystery. In the Greek, he says this is a Mega-Mysterion. It’s something that is hard to explain, even harder to live, but easy to understand when you see it. the-sacrament-of-marriage

Because when a Christian marriage is on, when he’s giving himself fully to her, and she’s giving herself fully to him…they aren’t trying to define themselves as better than the other, or justify their own behavior, they are trying to, in spite all of their differences, reconcile together for the sake of the Gospel.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this time and time again. I’ve preached so many funerals where the husband or wife was saying goodbye to their spouse, and the whole church was moved. I’ve seen what can only be described as a tangible change in the atmosphere when the church gathers to mourn a spouse losing another spouse, and celebrate their faithfulness to one another. There is a holiness that is hard to put into words. It’s is a mystery.

Because there is something so powerful about a marriage that has gone the distance. But it’s more than some kind of Nicolas Sparks romance, according to Paul it is a glimpse of the Gospel.

In a marriage, we are forced to reconcile what previously had been separated.

And this is why I believe marriages in the American church matter for the single person, and the divorced person. Because marriages are a way God reminds his people of the kind of community He is creating. And in this community, you aren’t better than someone else because you aren’t divorced, and you aren’t better than someone else because you happened to get married. You are all being reconciled to the same God, and so we each have to make room for one another.

This is why Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians by saying this:

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.

What Paul is doing in his chains, he thinks Christian couples are doing in their marriages.

Paul, a single man, appreciates marriage as a symbol of the way to unify everyone. 

Divorced people, single people, married people, rich people, poor people, tall people and smart people. Now all people can come together because of the Gospel.

That’s the mystery

On December 18, 2012

Names #6: Changing Names

CT PreachingThis is the last post in this short series about names in the book of Genesis. I know that whole idea might sound strange, but it’s something I’ve been rolling around in my mind for a while, because I’m convinced that our names matter more than we think they do. I think our language to describe the world and ourselves matter a lot to God.

That why Genesis talks a lot about names. Because a name is a story, and if we don’t name well, we might not tell the story we are wanting to tell.

For example…

Did you ever wonder why God changes people’s names? Does this strike anybody else as bizarre? And it happens all the time in the Bible, especially in Genesis. Like when God comes to Abram and Sarai, these people who’ve had their names for 70 years, and he’s like “Let’s add an H” in there.

Or what about Jacob? God comes to this guy who is one of the worst heroes in ancient literature (He’s kind of a jerk, he’s selfish and he’s always trying to get ahead) and God tells him that he’s going to change his name to Israel.

To which I would say, can’t we go with something that sounds more normal like…Gary or Robert?

But I’ll come back to this.

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