"For now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Reverent Intelligence


The first major issue to face Christianity was, “What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts?” Jesus’ teaching was seen as a reform movement within Judaism; but, when the fledgling church began spreading its witness, many Jews—especially within leadership—were hostile. But Gentiles accepted the gospel and came by droves!
“What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts?” There were no creeds for them to memorize—no New Testament for them to read. The Gospels and Epistles wouldn’t appear for another thirty years; and by that time, churches had been established.
Under Peter’s leadership, the initial response was simple: make them become Jews first: submit to the law, keep the kosher dietary rules, offer the proper sacrifices… Make the men be circumcised (that’ll weed out the riff-raff!). A whole Christian sect—mostly converted Jews—grew out of that teaching. They were called “Judaizers.”
Communities of believers emerged in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Some disciples moved north, into Syria. and were teaching and gathering believers in Antioch. Paul took the Gospel into what we know today as Turkey. All this happened, without a written doctrine or manual of policies and procedures.
By the time Paul reached Corinth in his second missionary journey, there already was a church there, and at least two preachers had preceded him. There we see a chaotic mess resulting from the debate over which preacher got it right: “I follow Peter/I support Apollos/I agree with Paul…”
They were confusing ends and means. The Gospel was about Jesus. They were arguing over preachers and baptism and the role of women and whether to eat meat…
And to add to the challenge, the new converts were coming out of pagan religions, and wanted simply to add Jesus as one more God in their pantheon. They wanted to continue to worship in the Temple of Diana, the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle at Delphi...
What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts? Paul returned to Jerusalem and challenged Peter and those who said Gentiles must become Jews before they could become Christians. Paul prevailed, and Gentiles could enter the church simply by a confession of faith and submission to baptism.
But the challenges continued; with a surplus of Christian preachers, many of them recent converts, there were heresies: Gnosticism (the Gospel of John appears to have been written, at least in part, as a counter-testimony to Gnosticism), Docetism, Arianism… Paul’s letters were the first attempts to bring together a message that was consistent and faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus.
But we humans are insecure when it comes to spiritual matters. “What if we get it wrong?” We want things nailed down, carved in stone. We’re uncomfortable with faith. We prefer certainty. We tend to fall for slick-talking carnival barkers and sideshows offering “Five Easy Steps to Heaven” or “Fire Insurance Doctrines” or a “Prosperity Gospel.”
Paul refused to compromise. Over and over he said, “The rituals we perform, the liturgies we recite, and the ethical standards we put into practice are expressions of the faith we hold; they are not the means by which we attain heaven and avoid hell.”
In Paul’s second missionary journey—in Lystra—he developed a strong mentoring relationship with a young Christian named Timothy. Timothy accompanied Paul on some of his later journeys, and eventually Paul left him in charge of the church in Ephesus.
But the mentoring continued with this young Bishop of Ephesus, and we have two of Paul’s letters to him. Our text today comes from the second letter. Timothy was confronted with heresies:
  • religion without power;
  • trusting in the right form, the right ritual, instead of trusting in the grace of God;
  • fads and fancies… you know them: “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere; after all, we’re all trying to get to the same place…”
  • religion that focuses almost exclusively on the destination, and neglects the journey…
  • superficial faith that clings to the ancient wisdom that “The good are rewarded and the evil are punished.” And if we don’t see that happening in our world, we rationalize: “Well, ‘When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be’…”
  • simplistic faith that trivializes the Gospel’s promise of heaven, assigning it exclusively to another time and another place totally separated from life here and now.
Those kinds of heresies. And Paul writes:


2 Timothy 3:13-17 (NRSV) But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.


From the beginnings of Christianity—I suppose throughout the history of religions in general—voices have called for believers to check their brains at the door when engaging in matters of faith. Just wrap your mind in memorized creeds and doctrines and carefully selected verses of Scripture. And don’t ask questions. Just accept what we tell you.

Those voices had become the official voice of the church by the Middle Ages, as creeds and catechisms replaced rational thinking. And then, Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

The Reformation had limited effectiveness. It released the minds of some brilliant thinkers—both sacred and secular. Indirectly it led to the Enlightenment, which produced the writings of John Locke, whose ideas heavily influenced the thinking of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, founders of our denomination.

The Campbells separated themselves from their church heritage, primarily in opposition to the use of creeds as tests of faith and tests of fellowship. Alexander Campbell said, “Faith is personal; not doctrinal;” and he and his father offered a faith that was reasonable, based upon Scripture.

Hopefully, you can see how those principles line up so well with our text today, when Paul encourages Timothy to continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings…”

My friend, Rodney Allen Reeves, a cradle Disciple and serious student of Christianity, calls it a “Reverent Intelligence.” Our reason, he says, “needs to be tempered especially with ‘reverent intelligence’, grounded not only in sacred writings and faith, but as Alexander Campbell stressed, grounded also in our rational human experience, and in the humility of our human condition that recognizes that we are not ‘omniscient’ beings. Rather, we ‘live and move and have our very being’ in a creative cosmos filled with Mystery.” And our faith brings us to the awareness of a divine persona that, in William James’ term, is "a more"—more than we can know; more even than we can ever imagine!”

In such a state of awareness, we can only stand before that divine persona in awe and reverence.

But in our own time, those voices are being raised again. The result has been damaging: a “spiritually hungry, institutionally disillusioned public”[1] increasingly perceives the church as mindlessly locked into irrelevant, irrational doctrines, judgmental, homophobic and committed only to its own well-being.

That same disillusioned public wants to know, simply, “What does it mean to follow Jesus and to become more like him?” For several weeks now, we’ve been looking at that same question> It involves infinitely more than mental affirmations and verbal recitations. The founders of the Christian Church, from the beginning, called on Disciples to bring “a reverent intelligence” to our faith journey.

The integration of faith and intellect—the integration of our whole being—is imbedded in the DNA of our church history; and is indispensable to the health and vitality of our witness. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:1:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your whole being as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.



[1] Thomas G. Bandy identifies this public as the largest and fastest-growing spiritual population in North America.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jesus Blesses the Children


Matthew 19:13-15 ~  “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them…”

Isn’t it strange how sometimes those who are closest to Jesus are the ones who keep others away? Jesus’ exhortation about causing “one of these little ones to stumble”[1] is still ringing in their ears; but the disciples want to keep the children away.

Around the world for the last century, non-Christians and wannabe Christians have been saying they are influenced negatively, not about Jesus, but about Christians. Even Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said to Methodist Missionary, E. Stanley Jones, “I like your Christ; but your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I don’t know what it will take for the humility of Jesus to displace the arrogance that is projected, unintentional and unconscious as it may be, by so many, many Christians. The attitude that we have all the answers and everybody needs to think and speak and act the way we say, is one of the greatest barriers to the health of Christianity.

Jesus promised, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all (people) to myself” (John 12:32). But, like the ancient Pharisees of Jesus’ time, so many rigid, legalistic expressions of Christianity are literally driving more and more people away.

There is a world of difference between saying, “Jesus is the only way,”[2] and saying “Our path is the only path to Jesus.”

Hopefully those being driven away from organized, institutional religious expressions are being drawn, by whatever means, to Jesus, who I think also would reject much of what operates under his name. And I think the primary factor that is driving people away is the perceptions, not that Jesus is being lifted up, but that people are being put down for not conforming to the doctrinal hoops through which so many churches insist they must jump.

Am I standing in the way—preventing someone from coming to Jesus?



[1] Matthew 8:6-16, see April 8 above.
[2] An affirmation I do not espouse. Jesus is the only way I have experienced God; therefore, I cannot bear witness to any other path. However, Jesus, himself said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold,” which can be inferred to mean that there are alternative paths to him. Besides, I would not be arrogant enough to limit the ways God can draw people to God’s self, and I especially would not be arrogant enough to say that my understanding of Jesus is the only pathway to him. What I say is not an infallible pronouncement; it is but a witness, and I can bear witness only to that which I have seen and heard and experienced.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Teachings About Divorce


Matthew 18:23-35 ~ Teachings about divorce

Once again the Pharisees ask Jesus a “how-much-can-we-get-away-with” kind of question—“What’s the least we have to do to comply with the law?” Such is the nature of legalism. The law becomes an end in itself, rather than a means toward a specific end, namely a Godly life.

Jesus’ teachings in particular, and the Jewish law in general are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Jesus’ kingdom parables always begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” The Pharisees’ most frequent approach is, “What must we do to get it?” Jesus has said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” The Pharisees ask, “Is it legal to divorce?” Jesus has said, “If you want to gain your life you must lose it.” The Pharisees ask, “What if… ?”

In this instance, the attitude is this: “I’m going to divorce my wife. How can I do that without going to hell?” [That’s really not a fair paraphrase of what those 1st century Pharisees asked. “Heaven” and “hell” didn’t mean the same thing to them that it means to most post-reformation Christians today; so I’ve updated the question to reflect what today’s Pharisees are asking.]

What we’re dealing with is the old universal wisdom that always has said goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. The Job narrative (perhaps the oldest portion of Judeo/Christian Scripture) is a rebuttal of that ancient wisdom, and Jesus’ own words negate the reward/punishment model when he says “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

Jesus says (Robinson paraphrase) that marriage is a reflection of God’s created order. It is a matter of the nature of humanity, not an invention of human laws and rules. By extension, since humans are created in the image of God, who is eternally faithful, it is natural that humans also be faithful in their relationships.

Bottom line: marriage is a natural reflection of creation because it is a reflection of the unity that holds all of creation together. Divorce, then, is unnatural, because it goes against God’s will and intention that all created things participate in the harmony of God’s creation.[1]

The Pharisees preferred the law of Moses, which allowed them to do what they already had decided to do. Go ahead and do it. We can always find a loophole later.

It’s really not about divorce. It’s about integrity. Relationships die, just as individuals die. No righteous God would desire or demand that a person remain in a totally abusive relationship.

The status of women in that culture was a gross violation of God’s intention for the unity of all things. Women were chattel, with no rights. A single woman was viewed as flawed, and a divorced woman was even worse. Single, divorced and even widowed women were vulnerable and virtually without protection.

So, for Jesus, it’s really not about divorce. It’s a much broader concern. It’s about how we humans relate in a created universe in which unity and harmony is the will of our creator.

If I am to follow Jesus, my concern will be about mending and healing broken relationships, rather than dismissing them because they’ve become inconvenient. [And, again, there’s a world of difference between inconvenient in intolerable.]

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] The clearest statement of this Divine intention may be Ephesians 1:8b-10, “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Forgiven-but-Unforgiving


Matthew 18:23-35 ~ The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is another of many troubling passage in the Gospels. A “servant” owes money to his master, and when the master demands payment, the servant begs for more time. In compassion, the master agrees.

Then, the forgiven servant goes to a fellow servant who owes him money and demands payment. The borrower begs for more time, but the lender servant has him thrown into prison “until he would pay the debt.” There’s my first problem. How can he pay if he’s in prison? Is it assumed by either lender that the debtor has the money to repay the loan, and is simply refusing to pay?

As the narrative continues, the other servants report the forgiven-but-unforgiving servant to the master, who in turn orders the unforgiving servant to be tortured (NRSV) “until he would pay the debt.” That’s my second problem, which is essentially the same as the first.

But my third problem with this parable is devastating. Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Until that closing statement, the application of the parable has been crystal clear: indeed, I wonder whether the “unpardonable sin”[1] is to refuse to forgive when we have been forgiven.

This statement, on the lips of Jesus, lends support to my conservative Christian brothers and sisters who continue to hold on to an understanding of God as wrathful and vengeful. But if taken literally at face value, Jesus’ comment participates in a description of a schizophrenic God who punishes and/or forgives unpredictably. Even the legalism of the Pharisees is to be preferred! It at least is consistent.

Nor do I find comfort in the “God-is-God-and-can-do-whatever-he-pleases” platitude.

I would have no difficulty seeing this statement as a part of the ongoing testimony/counter testimony approach of Jewish Scriptures[2]—except that the statement is on the lips of Jesus, who already has taken a specific side in the debate by presenting God as capricious in forgiveness as the “other side” presents God as capriciously vengeful.

Jesus seems to be contradicting his own teachings![3]

Jesus was a rabbi, and the rabbis saw no incongruity in stretching or bending reality in order to make a point. The point is the point, and the hyperbole is the method. Humans in general always have had difficulty keeping means and ends in proper relationship.

At the infamous bottom line, if we can see through the smoke, Jesus is again[4] lobbying for forgiveness on the part of his followers. To be forgiven and then to refuse to forgive others is something God takes very seriously. When in doubt, forgive. Such is the way for a follower of Jesus.

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] Matthew 12:18, see comments in devotional for Day 39 of Lent, page 24 above.
[2] See devotional for Day 13 of Lent, page 9 above.
[3] In all fairness, this is not the only time in Matthew that Jesus presents God as condemning and even wrathful. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 comes to mind. But on the whole, those statements represent a tiny minority of Jesus’ total teachings, and present us with a serious conundrum: Jesus seemingly as inconsistent and self-contradictory.
[4] See discussion in yesterday’s devotional, page 40 above.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing


I’m going “off track” today; although, I believe my thoughts written here represent a faithful effort to follow Jesus.

First of all, a few disclaimers; in fact, the disclaimers will make up the majority of my blog today, because (1) the general response to a controversial comment seems to be to find ways to discredit it by making it say something other than what it really says, and I want to do everything in my power to ensure that my statement cannot be twisted and misrepresented. And, (2) my actual statement is relatively short.

The issue is the fiasco surrounding San Francisco Quarterback’s chosen way to protest police brutality against people of color. At the very least, he raises an important issue that needs to be discussed. Unfortunately, his chosen way of expressing his protest has proven counterproductive because virtually 100% of the attention has focused on his method, rather than the content of his concern. The tail is wagging the dog.

So, on to my disclaimers:

·         I sincerely believe that the vast majority of police officers in America are good, well-meaning public servants. The issue being protested relates to a tiny minority within the constabulary. Still, one incident is too many.

·         I do believe racism remains a major concern for the American culture; but, I don’t believe everyone in America is a racist. Most racism is sub-conscious, because virtually everyone agrees that it is evil. So, most racism is suppressed and denied, but is a subtle shaper of interracial interaction.

·         And, yes, I believe that racism is not exclusive; that is, there are racists in every ethnic population.

·         I affirm the statement by D. A. Krôlak, posted in his blog August 25, 2015:

ü  If I say, “Black lives matter,” and you think I mean, “Black lives matter more than others,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

ü  If I say, “White privilege is real and it means White people have some unearned social advantages just because they’re white,” and you think I mean, “White privilege is real and it means White people should be ashamed of themselves just because they’re white,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

ü  If I say, “We have a problem with institutionalized racism in our legal system,” and you think I mean, “We have a problem with everyone being racist in our legal system,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

ü  If we’re having these misunderstandings, where are they coming from, and what can we do about them?

·         The misunderstandings to which Krôlak refers originate in the defensive, self-justifying rationalizations I mention above, viz., the effort to discredit a statement by twisting and misrepresenting it to make it say something other than what it really says.

While that last bullet point represents exactly what I hope to avoid with all my disclaimers, the effort, I suspect, will be futile in many cases. So, I’ll just move on to what I have to say:

Colin Kaepernick’s “peaceful protest” is valid, and he is within his constitutional rights to do it exactly as he did. That being said, aside from raising awareness of his concern, his protest does not seem to have advanced his cause in the least; in fact, his method has become a major distraction from his intention. As for awareness, that’s been done. What we need is not more awareness, but a shift in our mutual understanding of that concern. Too many Americans don’t want to be a united culture. They want to be a uniform culture, with their own perspective being the standard for that uniformity.

Until we come to terms with that need to be the standard for everyone else, it matters not what method we use to protest—or affirm—anything. And even if, for argument’s sake, we affirm the validity of a uniform culture, before we can agree on anything, we must understand each other’s perspective.

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Stumbling



September 1, 2016
My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.
Matthew 8:6-15 ~ The disciples expect Jesus to lead a military coup to overthrow the Romans and establish a new political kingdom of Israel. They have just asked Jesus about their positions of political power in that kingdom, and Jesus has replied by calling a child and saying, “Unless you become as this child you will not see the kingdom.” So much for political ambition.
Jesus continues now, speaking of influencing “these little ones” and causing them to stumble. As I was reading it this time, I wondered what Jesus meant by stumbling. The fact is, I’ve stumbled along, writing and re-writing this blog for more than a week, now.
The obvious—at least to those who think like Pharisees—is that stumbling means violating some moral absolute. But, I don’t recall Jesus championing moral absolutes. He was much more likely to forgive those who had violated absolute standards.
And I guess I’ve always “assumed” (you know what that means) that “little ones” meant the children. After all, in the narrative immediately prior to this discourse, he had referred to a child as the standard for kingdom citizenship.
But Jesus frequently used the term, “little ones” or “children” to refer to his disciples; and that’s a reasonable conclusion here.
If, then, “little ones” refers to Jesus’ followers, “stumbling” likely means interfering with their walk with him—a walk that clearly went in a direction far different from the moral absolutism of the Pharisees.
So, was Jesus anomic? Hardly! Indeed, Jesus raised the bar compared to the values and norms of the religious establishment of his day. Jesus moved the bar from the pharisaic dictum, “obey the letter of the law and don’t hurt anybody.”
In previous blogs I've made reference to the ancient Egyptian "Book of the Dead," with its three ethical stances: I have harmed the widow; I have not harmed the widow; I have helped the widow. Virtually every religion in human history has had a golden rule. All of them, including Pharisaic Judaism, adopted the middle ethical stance: I have not harmed the widow.
In his inauguration speech (what we call the “Sermon on the Mount”), and throughout his ministry, , Jesus raised the bar and asked, "But have you helped the widow?" Only Jesus’ “golden rule" is proactive; and is augmented with his continual call to love.
Is it a stretch to apply that perspective here?
I wear the label, “Christian,” and thus claim to be a follower of Jesus. Do I relate to others on the basis of the high bar of Jesus’ way, or the more comfortable, self-justifying way of the Pharisees?
That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Politics of Jesus


August 11, 2016

My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.

Matthew 17:24-18:5 ~ This is a strange text: it’s got corrupt religious officials, religious taxes, a rabbinic riddle, a Hans Christian Anderson-like fairy tale solution; then it ends with a discussion about politics.

At some point the the tithe had become a legally binding “Temple Tax.” That’s just one of the ways religion is corrupted when it attains political power. Jesus compares the temple tax with tribute exacted by a conquering king.

The clear implication is that the temple tax is illegitimate and thus not binding. But, in order to avoid any occasion for valid criticism of his movement, Jesus performs the old “coin-in-the-fish’s-mouth” trick and sends Peter off to pay the tax.

In context, this event immediately follows the transfiguration, the disciples' failed healing, and the second prediction of the passion. It then leads to the disciples’ question about who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Do you grasp the irony? They’ve just encountered the corrupting results of political power, and their next response is to ask, essentially, “What positions of political power will we have in the kingdom?” It wouldn’t be the last time they made such an inquiry.

I sincerely believe the greatest human problems—individually, relationally, politically and globally—emerge out of issues of power and control. The relationship between government and any other social manifestation always has been (and, apparently, always will be) a bone of contention among people.

The question of centralized government (The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, George Washington, James Madison, et. al.) versus states’ rights (The Anti-Federalists, led by Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, James Monroe, et. al.) almost derailed the ratification of the US Constitution. Indeed, it was essentially that same debate that precipitated the secession of the Confederacy scarcely ¾ of a century later. It’s at the root of today’s political belligerence.

Political debate always has been about who will control who. At the infamous bottom line, while it may seem a simple lust for power, its root is fear and an absence of trust. (Whether the fear and absence of trust is justified is a valid issue for another discussion.)

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ lust for power? “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:3-4). How’s that for a political platform?

If I am to follow Jesus, what does that say about my political stance? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"Jesus, how could you say that?"


July 28, 2016

My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.

Matthew 17:22-23 ~ (My apologies for the errant textual reference in my previous blog. It should have been verses 14-21, rather than 1-13 of Matthew 17. Hopefully, you found the right passage in spite of my error.)

These two short verses report the second of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. In the first (Matthew 16:21, see my blog from May 20), Peter took him aside and scolded him: “Messiahs don’t talk like that, Jesus! Messiahs don’t die!”

Sometimes following Jesus can become very inconvenient. He challenges our most cherished beliefs (e.g., “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not in the Bible, which is inconvenient if you’re trying to use your faith as the basis of withholding aid from the poor.)

There was no more strongly held and cherished idea in Israel than the expectations regarding Messiah. He would be “Son of David:” heroic warrior, conquering all Israel’s enemies; majestic king, ruling with power and international esteem. Every nation tipped its hat to Israel when David was king.

Jesus never called himself “Son of David.” “Son of Man” was his chosen self-reference. 81 times in the Gospels he uses the epithet to refer to himself. The distinction, “Son of David/Son of Man”, is a valid and interesting topic for study in a venue more comprehensive than this blog. I point it out simply to identify one of the many ways Jesus challenges our most cherished and strongly held convictions.

No humanly held ideology or tenet of faith can be considered infallible or absolute. Israel anticipated one kind of Messiah; Jesus fulfilled an antithetical reality.

We Christians anticipate a “second coming” that matches the Jewish expectation almost point-for-point. I fully expect that, in whatever way God chooses to fulfill the biblical bases of our anticipation, we will be caught by surprise. Many will be disappointed, and many more will not see it at all; rather, they will continue to watch and wait. Who knows? It may already have happened. It may be a recurring reality.

Meanwhile, what we have is faith. Faith is the decision to act on the basis of what we say we believe. In that faith, my anticipation of what God will do in the future becomes secondary to the concrete pattern of behavior Jesus calls me to follow here and now.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

After the Mountaintop


July 20, 2016

My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.

Matthew 17:1-13 ~ A month and three days ago I promised a follow-up to the story of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-13. Well, like I tell my wife, when I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. You don’t have to remind me every few weeks!

The disciples who accompanied Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration wanted to stay there. It was like an old-fashioned revival meeting: God’s presence was tangible and their spirits were moved to ecstatic emotionalism! “Let’s build three shelters, one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for you. And let’s just stay here.”

But mountaintop experiences are, by nature, short-lived. Unless you have a delivery service that comes up the mountain to you, sooner or later the necessities of life make it necessary to come down.

Maybe it’s not so much that we want to preserve and relish the mountaintop experience as that we don’t want to go back down the mountain and face what we know is there.

When Jesus and the three disciples returned from the mountaintop, there was confusion and frustration (the other disciples had proven ineffectual), and there was human need. Jesus took care of the need; but the disciples were distracted by their own ineptitude. “Why couldn’t we heal him?”

Jesus response to the whole incident seems harsh: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?” And then, in response to the disciples’ incompetence, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a[c] mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

He might as well have said, “You have no faith at all!” I wonder if he was saying that their faith was misdirected—that their faith was in their own abilities. I can relate to that.

We humans are an amazing creation. Our accomplishments to this point in history are too many to count or assess. But maybe your experience is similar to mine: the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. The more I accomplish, the more I realize remains undone.

At the risk of espousing a “God-of-the-gaps” theology, there comes a time in human experience—both individual and corporate—when we must reach beyond our human limitations to enter into partnership with the divine. I’ll not argue whether such a partnership puts us in touch with a source outside ourselves or releases what already is in us (although I lean in the latter direction).

Faith is the decision to act on the basis of what we say we believe. If I truly am to follow Jesus, I will do just that.

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim

Friday, June 17, 2016

Removing All Doubt


June 17, 2016

My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.

Matthew 17:1-13 ~ The story of the Transfiguration is a story and a follow-up. Today I’ll look at the story (verses 1-13), and will deal with the follow-up in my next blog.

This is another of those biblical stories that challenges postmodern and post-scientific thinking. It describes an event that’s “outside the box”—unless one looks at it as metaphor.

One must take care lest metaphor become a crutch to explain everything one can’t put in a test tube, quantify and verify. On the other hand, metaphor and provable, observable fact are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

One can find deeper meaning sometimes by attaching metaphoric understanding even to something that’s tangible and concrete; therefore, metaphor offers a good meeting place for both those who insist that everything in the Bible is literal fact, and those who don’t. And if you believe everything in the Bible is literal fact and don’t want to allow anyone else any other understanding, you probably won’t be reading my blogs, anyway; and, I can honor that choice.

I’m just not going to deal with whether this story “actually happened” exactly and literally the way it is described. I accept it as part of divinely inspired Scripture, and my only concern is how it helps me “to see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly, day by day”.[1]

Jesus’ transfiguration relates him to Moses, whose face also radiated God’s glory when he came down from the mountain after receiving what is now known as the “Ten Commandments”. Moses: the law-giver. Matthew wants that connection to be clear.

And there’s Elijah, the one the prophets said would announce the coming of Messiah. Well, here it is!

All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) include this story. It must have been important to those first century Christians! Jesus is the one!

When we back away and get the broader view, we see that all the prophecies and promises, beginning with the original covenant between God and Abram, are fulfilled and completed in Jesus—past, present and future. Nothing remains to be done. As Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.”

So, I need no further rationale or justification to follow Jesus. He is the one. But, making that profession of faith is not all there is to it. There is a follow-up! Watch for it in verses 14-21!

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

Jim



[1] From “Godspell,” a musical by Stephen Schwartz, 1971.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Seeing the Kingdom


June 15, 2016

My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.

Matthew 16:24-28  ~ Like real estate’s value standard, “Location, location, location,” the key to understanding many texts of Scripture is “context, context, context.” Three weeks ago, when I wrote my last blog, the context was established for this text.
Peter had made his “good confession,” but almost immediately then scolded Jesus for not being “the Christ” in the same way Peter expected. Jesus response was a stinging rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Ouch!

Here was my response: “I have acknowledged Jesus as my Savior; but, am I a stumbling block to him? Am I trying to force Jesus into my mold—to direct where he leads me; confirm the ‘spiritual’ choices I’ve already made and to which I’m already committed?”

Without that context the text today loses some of its power. Denial of self in order to follow Jesus includes letting go, if necessary, even our most cherished beliefs and understandings. The prevailing mindset must be, “It’s not about me nor about my beliefs; it’s about Jesus.”

Jesus concludes the passage, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” How many of them missed it because they could not let go of their already held expectations? Will I miss it for the same reason? Have I missed it already?

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Disciple Who Was a Stumbling Block


May 20, 2016

My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.

Matthew 16:13-23  ~ Peter’s “Good Confession. “In most Christian traditions it is incorporated in some way into the experience through which individuals affiliate with the church by acknowledging faith in Jesus and being baptized (or having their baptism confirmed).

Peter announces Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus confirms his declaration as divinely inspired. [Paul would later declare, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3).] But then Jesus utters that mysterious instruction that is repeated several times through the Gospels: “Shhhhh! Don’t tell anybody!” It’s called the “Messianic Secret,” and many books and treatises have been written about it. I’m going to acknowledge it and leave it for now.

Perhaps because of its importance to the whole Christian experience, the “Good Confession” passage may overshadow the passage immediately following. Jesus begins to explain what it means for him to be “Messiah”—here he utters the first of three predictions of his Passion. But Peter, the one who has just declared him Messiah, takes him aside and scolds him: “Jesus! Don’t talk like that! Messiah doesn’t talk like that!”

Jesus’ response is the same as his response to the tempter in the wilderness: “Get behind me, Satan!” And then come the words that must have stung Peter severely: You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Ouch!

I have acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God and my Savior; but, am I a stumbling block to him? Am I trying to force Jesus into my mold—to direct where he leads me; confirm the “spiritual” choices I’ve already made and to which I’m already committed?

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Of Yeast and Signs


May 18, 2016



My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.



Matthew 16:1-12 ~ Some people never get it. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, there was one miraculous sign after another: the parting of the Red Sea, water from the rock, manna from heaven, and on and on. But at every turn, when there was trouble, the people turned on Moses and questioned God: “Were there not enough graves in Egypt? Did you have to bring us out into this wilderness to die?”

At Mount Sinai the people experienced the thundering, explosive presence of God; but when Moses lingered on the mountain the people grew restless and impatient and persuaded Aaron to manufacture a God that would be more convenient and more easily domesticated.

Jesus had feed five thousand with five loaves, had fed four thousand with seven loaves, had healed the sick, and the Pharisees and Sadducees asked, “Show us a sign!” They had a different agenda.

Good grief, Charlie Brown!

Even the disciples have to have everything explained in great detail. They have their own agenda, too: an Israel restored to the glory it enjoyed under David and Solomon, and places of honor and authority for themselves in that restored Israel.

I guess we all have our own agendas that skew our expectations when it comes to faith. Those agendas usually are about accruing benefit for ourselves.  

I wonder whether I’ve sufficiently surrendered my own agenda in order to align my will with God’s will. I think that’s a big part of what it means to follow Jesus: surrendering my own agenda and trusting that God’s agenda is the superior way.

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

On Eating Crumbs That Fall From the Table


May 17, 2016



My 2016 Ongoing Journey: Exploring Matthew to discover what following Jesus and becoming more like him would look like.



Matthew 15:21-39 ~ This passage is among only a few passages in which Jesus simply moves among the people, teaching and healing. There are no controversies, no Pharisees or Scribes. Every pastor envisions that kind of ministry.

Ministry changed during the twentieth century. Early on, basically prior to WWII, local church pastors did pastoral work: teaching, preaching, counseling, guiding and tending the spiritual health of the faithful, and calling sinners to repentance. And they lead the church in outreach ministries of evangelism and compassion.

As the century wore on, ministry morphed. It became more “professional” and a ton more administrative as the church adopted corporate structures of organization. The problem was that as the churches became “more like a business,” the ministers work grew to become “more like a CEO”.

As Baby Boomers took their turn at leadership, the church floundered—a fish out of water, gasping for oxygen as it tried to meet business-like standards and adjust to an increasingly consumer-oriented culture whose mantra was, “the customer is always right.” Boomers told pastors, “We’re the customers, and you’d better please us or we’ll take our business to the Mega-Church down the street.”

In such a consumer culture, everybody wanted to “have” a church; but very few were willing to “be” the church. “Isn’t that what we pay the preacher for?”

I am encouraged by the spirituality of the millennial generations who are less obsessed with “success” and materialism. They’re more family oriented and much, much more spiritually oriented. They’re spirituality is not necessarily exclusively Christian—at least not American Southern Evangelical Christianity. Their spirituality is more of a hunger for connection with God. And they’re not finding that connection in the corporate model of church or in the “Prosperity Gospel” or in the judgmental rantings of the recently emerging confluence of the religious and political right (a marriage that historically has always—ALWAYS—been destructive).

They simply want to know how to follow Jesus.

You remember Jesus. He’s the one in this text who has just come from serious encounters with the right-wingers of his day who had heaped up a ton of religious rules and regulations designed to justify their own harsh understanding of God and to exclude anyone who wouldn’t jump through their hoops. He’s the one who then went to the coastal area northwest of his home, where he found receptive hearts and hungering spirits—even among those the religious right referred to as “dogs.”

And he fed them. All of them. And he has called me to follow him.

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,
Jim