Thursday, December 30, 2004

Putting Herod back into Christmas

I realize that Christmas is over. Lights are being removed from yards. Discarded trees litter the streets. People are getting back to "normal." Yet, Christmas isn't merely a day; it's a new reality. Jesus has come...and remains.

The following article, written by Joy Carrol Wallis, an Anglican Priest, was sent to me by Jan King, a good friend and reflective thinker. It's a reminder of what our culture has done to Christmas, and why Christians need to think more seriously about the gospel story. I hope it will give you pause to think about the redemptive work of Christ as we begin a new year.

How people love Christmas carols! When I was a priest back in London, carol singing around the parish really seemed to get everyone in the mood for Christmas. We always had a real accordion and an old-fashioned lantern on a pole; we were always wrapped up warmly, and we would stop and sing carols under selected streetlights. It was a scene fit for a Christmas card.... People came out in droves, mostly non-churchgoers, to listen and put money in our collecting box for the homeless. When we were finally all sung out, we would trudge back to someone's house for mulled wine and minced pies...all very English! Great memories.

But we need to beware! Our culture loves a sentimental Christmas, and the Christmas carols that we sing are a big part of that. The words often paint an idyllic picture of sanitary bliss that has very little to do with the reality of what Jesus came into this world to do. This week Jim was reading the Christmas story to our son Luke. He read of how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem on the donkey, that there was no room in the inn. But there was a stable, and, as Jim read, "the stable was warm and clean!"

But this sanitization of the Christmas story is a relatively recent development. It's interesting that before the Victorian era, Christmas songs were much more likely to reflect the reality of Jesus' entry into our world. Carols would not hesitate to refer to the blood and sacrifice of Jesus or the story about Herod slaughtering the innocent children. As an example of the contrast, read through the words of "Away in a Manger." Jesus is the perfect baby, and "No crying he makes...." My guess is that Jesus cried a lot. We know from the gospels that the more Jesus saw of the world in which he lived, the more he mourned and wept regularly. A Jesus who doesn't weep with those who weep, a Jesus who's just a sentimental myth, may be the one that our culture prefers, but that Jesus can do nothing for us.

In Britain there's a very popular musician called Cliff Richard. About 10 years ago he released a Christmas song that reached the top 10 in the charts. The lyrics of "Saviour's Day" reflected his Christian faith and included lines such as, "Life can be yours on Saviour's Day, don't look back or turn away...." I picked up a teenage pop magazine where there was an article reviewing the season's Christmas songs. When it came to "Saviour's Day," the writer said, "This song is OK, but there's no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn't got anything to do with Christmas at all!" A radio DJ in this country once said, "What Christmas is all about is the celebration of living in a great nation like this." It's not a celebration of this "great" nation; it's about Jesus Christ. It's so easy to let the world reduce our spirituality to nostalgia and sentiment. As Evangelical Covenant Reverend Dr. Michael Van Horn said, "We must be careful not to lose the connection to the truth of the story because it is that story that shapes our identity as the people of God."

Another danger of sentimentality is that we tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable. We smile at the warm cozy nativity scene, but have you ever spent a night in a barn? Or given birth in a barn? The reality is very different. Most scholars suggest that in Luke's account it's not just that the inns were full but that Mary and Joseph were forced to take the barn because their family had rejected them. Joseph has relatives or friends of relatives in Bethlehem. So rather than being received hospitably by family or friends, Joseph and Mary have been shunned. Family and neighbors are declaring their moral outrage at the fact that Joseph would show up on their doorsteps with his pregnant girlfriend.

No sooner have the wise men left the stable then King Herod plots to kill Jesus. He is so determined that he is willing to sacrifice many innocent lives in order to get to this one baby. Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race.

But we don't want to think about Herod. Van Horn calls him the "Ebenezer Scrooge without the conversion, the Grinch without a change of heart." We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let's not forget to put Herod back into Christmas.
Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That's how the church is described in scripture time and time again - not as the best and the brightest - but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

It's Been A While

I haven't posted a blog in a month. This is due in part to the busyness associated with the Christmas season, but primarily because I simply didn't have much to say. "Blogger's Block," I suppose. Before Christmas, however, I wanted to share some things about the implications of the incarnation.

Last evening, we held our annual candlelight service, which is always moving for me. There's something about a darkened room being illuminated by small flickers of light that fittingly represents the coming of the Light of the World. As usual, and under Greg Miles' exceptional leadership, LifeSong did a superb job in capturing the essence of what this means. I don't say it enough, but LifeSong is such a blessing to CrossBridge. And, Greg Miles is the force behind it.

At our candleight service, I shared the following:

In his introduction to The Message, a popular translation of the New Testament, Eugene Peterson made the following observation.

The arrival of Jesus signaled the beginning of a new era. God entered history in a personal way, and made it unmistakably clear that he is on our side, doing everything possible to save us. It was all presented and worked out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It was, and is, hard to believe—seemingly too good to be true.

But one by one, men and women did believe it, believed Jesus was God alive among them and for them. Soon they would realize that he also lived in them. To their great surprise they found themselves living in a world where God called all the shots—had the first word on everything; had the last word on everything. That meant that everything, quite literally every thing, had to be re-centered, re-imagined, and re-thought.

As we enter into the Christmas season, these words by Peterson are extremely relevant and worthy of sustained reflection. We must resist allowing the consumerist frenzy associated with this season to eclipse the astonishing events that Christmas represents for the Christian. It signals that God did “enter history in a personal way,” demonstrating that God truly is “on our side.” Yet is also reminds us that God’s continued presence means things have changed and that everything must be “re-centered, re-imagined and re-thought.”

As we enter the holiday season let’s take some time to intentionally reflect on what it means personally to us that God has entered, not only history, but our hearts. What needs to be re-centered or re-thought in our lives? Anything need to be re-imagined? God came to rule in the hearts of women and men—the very domain of His kingdom. May Christmas be a time when we acknowledge His lordship and re-centered our lives around Him. In so doing, we embrace the true gift of Christmas, and re-enter the beginning of a new era for our lives.

My prayer is that all will come to know the One Who knows us intimately and is forever for us. May Christmas signal the beginning of a new era for you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Coming Together

This past Sunday (November 21), CrossBridge participated in a community-wide Thanksgiving Service. Several different churches came together to express our thanksgiving to God for His unspeakable gift.

The New Hope Church (A Cumberland Presbyterian fellowship), under the leadership of Donny Acton, hosted the event. Along with the praise band at New Hope, Donny and his wife led us in some powerful praise and worship, centering on the grace that is ours in Christ Jesus. Clark Skelton, pastor of Indian Springs Baptist Church, guided the assembly in a period of testimonials. Church leaders from other churches read scripture, led in prayer, and spoke words of blessing. I was given the honor, and responsibility, of speaking on this occasion. Whether the message was any good, other, more objective folks will need to judge, but I sensed a sweet, accepting atmosphere in that place.

After the service, the New Hope church provided refreshments. I talked to so many people from different Christian churches that I've forgotten all the "flavors" I was able to sample. One thing, however, stood out. There was a sincere love for God and one another in that room. For the first time, I really sensed what God is doing throughout His kingdom. Barriers are being broken down. Jesus is being exalted. And, God's people are coming together.

"I pray that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me." May we all work to answer this prayer of God!

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Love: Beyond Language

As I wrote in an earlier blog, my son, Zach, and I hiked from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back in one day. We did this along with my sister, brother-in-law, and my dad. There were so many memorable sights, experiences, and conversations that I'm still processing them all. As I was meditating this morning, while looking at a picture of Zach against the stunning backdrop of the Grand Canyon, I was reminded of one story that came from our trip together.

We started our descent into the Canyon just before 6:00 a.m. Since one of our group was having a pretty difficult time (I won't give my brother-in-law's name), we dragged ourselves out of the Canyon at 7:30 that evening. Zach and I were the first to emerge from the Bright Angel trail. As we came out, there was a very concerned-looking, older lady standing at the trail head. When I passed, she asked, in broken English with a very thick German accent, if I had seen her husband. Once again in broken English, she described him as a tall gentlemen with gray hair (at least, that's what I interpreted her words to mean). I told her that I thought I saw someone of that description farther down the trail, but couldn't be positive.

After this brief exchange, I walked over to a bench, dropped my backpacks (I had to carry not only mine but two others of our group as well), and headed for the portable toilets. As I was making my way back to the bench, I saw this tall, older gentlemen who obviously was looking for someone. "Could this be the woman's husband?" I thought to myself.

I must confess that, at first, I just started walking back to the bench. I was entirely too tired to get involved, thinking that they'd eventually discover each other anyway. I even walked passed him several steps then, as if an invisible hand stopped me, I turned back. "Sir, Sir. Are you looking for your wife?" I said. "No sprechen sie Englisch," he said (or something like that). Since I took only two semisters of Theological German for reading purposes, needless to say my conversational German was woefully deficient for such a conversation. So, whether I've written correctly what the gentelman said or not, I knew what he was saying--he did not speak English. I responded, "No sprechen sie Deutsche," trying to let him know that I didn't speak his language either.

I tried to communicate anyway. "Are you looking for your wife?" I said slowly and loudly. (Isn't it strange how we think speaking slowly and loudly miraculously transcends language barriers?) He looked confused. I showed him my wedding ring and made a gesture with my hands in the shape of an hour glass, thinking that was the universal symbol for woman. (I know it was kind of sexist on my part, but I was desperate!). Strangley, he even looked more confused. I pointed to his ring and said "Wife, Wife" and made my (sexist) gesture again. Something clicked. "Fief, Fief?" Not sure of the exact German dialect, that sounded close enough to wife for me. Forgetting what language we were speaking, I said "Ci, Ci," then laughed. "I mean, Ja, Ja."

Now I was in a quandry. What if the woman I saw wasn't even his wife? I might be starting something that God would hold against me in the judgment! I just had a hunch, though, that these two belonged together. I tried to tell him to stay where he was and I would go get the woman I thought was is "fief" (sp?). I went to where I initially saw the woman and she was gone. Zach said she'd walked down the path to the road, so off I went to find her. Since it was now pitch dark, I was looking for her with a flashlight. Nowhere to be found. There was a row of parallel-parked cars near the walkway, so I began shining my light into the windows. I knew this really looked suspicious, but I kept shining anyway.

Eventually I spotted a woman sitting in her car. I shined the light on her and tapped on her window. I don't know what she thought. Here she was in a foreign country, her husband is lost, and now she's about to be abducted. As I shined the light on her, I sensed the confused fear in her eyes. Hoping to calm her, I shined the light on my own face and said "husband, husband." In retrospect, I wondered what I was actually conveying to her...and I really don't want to know.

Luckily, she recognized me, got out of her car and walked with me. I kept thinking, what if these two don't even belong together? Despite my doubts, we trudged ahead. When we got to the place where I told the German guy to remain, he was gone. I asked Zach if he saw where he went. "He walked down that way," Zach said, pointing down a paved walkway. I told the woman, whose English was slightly better than her alleged husband's to stay put. I took off down the trail and found the guy searching for someone. I don't know why, except that it was apparently the only word we seemed to understand between us, but I called out "Hey, fief, fief." He looked in my direction and I motioned for him to follow me, which he did.

The woman was walking down the path toward us (German folk just don't stay put when you asked them to, or is it worried folk don't stay put?). I was praying, O, Lord, please let these two belong to one another. Before I said amen to this very brief, but eanest prayer, they spotted each other. Immediately, by the German "hoops and hollers" I knew they belonged together.

They embraced. They kissed. They spoked in relieved and joyful tones to one another. They both looked at me and said repeatedly "Danke, Danke, O, Danke." The man gave me a knowing look with a smile on his face and said "fief," and made a gesture of an hour glass with his hands. We nearly fell out laughing. We couldn't communicate by words, but the hugs, the laughter, and the eyes spoke clearly enough. It felt as if we knew each other, as if something spiritual had taken place between us all. As they walked away arm in arm, I said, remembering a smattering of German, "Gute Nacht, und Gesundheit," Good night, and health.

In that moment, I realized that love transcends language. There is a human longing for connection at an intimate level, something God has placed within us all. Despite our differences, despite our inabilities to articulate our positions, despite barriers that exist between us, love transcends them all, binding human hearts together. Perhaps that's why Paul would say, "And over all these virtures put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity" (Col. 3:14). In the emerging culture, we have trouble speaking each other's language. Love, however, can do what even the best-crafted, most articulate sentence never can accomplish--communicate to our hearts, bridge the cultural divide, and forge lasting relationships.

Monday, November 08, 2004

"I Owe You An Apology"

At some level, and in some fashion, all of us have felt the sting of negativity. It might be a "teeth bared" diatribe or the more insidious compliment followed by a "but..." Regardless of its expression, negativity takes its toll on our spirits.

Last Sunday, I approached a sweet lady who I knew used our building for a birthday party the day before. After our usual embrace and greetings, I asked about the party. "It was absolutely wonderful, except for the building." "What do you mean?" I asked. "When we got there," she continued, "the building was a mess. We had to take several loads of trash out to the dumpster. The stench was horrible." "I am so sorry," I responded with sincere regret. "Our cleaning crew comes in on Saturday evenings due to the high level of activities we have in our facilities. I do hope, however, that the party went well." She assured me that, not only did the party go well, but she and her family were so grateful for the use of our facilities.

Admittedly, I was a little down, but shook it off pretty quickly. You learn to do that when you're a minister. After all, I had a sermon to preach and many other people to greet. By the end of service, I had completely forgotten about the conversation. Afterward, this dear sister came up to me and, with tears in her eyes, said she needed to talk with me. Not really sure what was wrong, I gave her my attention. She began; "I owe you an apology, brother." "For what," I replied. "When you asked me about the birthday party, it was sinful of me to be negative. Jesus taught us about careless words and that's exactly what they were. I'm so sorry. I should be building you up, rather than tearing you down. Please forgive me."

I told her that she had done nothing to forgive. With stern, but caring eyes, she said, "No, brother, I need your forgiveness. Would you please forgive me?" Tears now welled up in my eyes. "Yes, dear sister, I forgive you." "And," I added, "thanks for demonstrating to me what a real godly heart is like."

I wonder what our world--no our churches--would look like if we adopted this attitude? We just might start resembling the "body of Christ."

Monday, October 25, 2004

Back from the Pit

No, this isn't a blog about a recent spiritual struggle from which God rescued me in psalmist fashion. Last weekend Zach, my 13 year old son, and I traveled to the Grand Canyon for what appears to be becoming an annual pilgrimage for the Brantleys. We met up with my mom and dad, and sister and brother-in-law at this historic site. Everyone but my mom (she has the brains in the family) set out to hike down the South Kaibab trail to the river and out via the Bright Angel trail in, once again, one day (yes, there are reasons why signs warn folks from attempting this).

We started down the South Kaibab trail at 5:55 a.m. and dragged ourselves out of the canyon at 7:30 p.m.--it was a pretty long day, but well worth it.

Last year, we went down to the Colorado river and back via exclusively the Bright Angel trail. While it provides some great views of the Canyon, it doesn't compare to the South Kaibab trail in this regard. Unlike the Bright Angel trail which follows a fault line down into the canyon, the South Kaibab follows a ridge line, offering spectacular views.

Zach and I had a great time together. Standing on a precipice with him, looking into this magnificent wonder of nature, you sense a bond of mutual experience that is inexplicable. You know that you are in the presence of something large, mysterious, powerful. I'm glad that my son and I could share this experience together. We have stories that we forever will tell.

I'm attempting to upload some pictures taken of our trip. I hope I'm successful. If not, it's great to be back from the pit...though priorities become much clearer when your at the bottom with those whom you love. I think I'll blog about that in the future.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Blue Like Jazz

Last weekend, I had the privilege to experience once again the ZOE worship conference. Greg Miles wrote his typically articulate thoughts about this great event. The theme Desperate captured in many ways the status of our postmodern culture. It appears that many worship leaders, as evinced by the Worship Leaders' track, are acknowledging this desperation, not only in our culture but in churches as well. This is good. Too often we've attempted to press hurting hearts into a thanksgiving worship mold.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes, just as the psalmists, the turn toward thanksgiving in the midst of alientation, hurt, and suffering, is a necessary step toward healing. At the same time, the hurt must first fully be embraced, and expressed to our God. Hence, the imprecatory psalms (those that actually pray for the defeat or death of the psalmist's enemies, e.g. 109), throb with human emotions of vengeance. Only until these adequately are expressed, is there a move toward trust in the God who holds sole governance over the province of vengeance. So, language of lament, brokenness, alienation is legitimate in our worship.

Since I wrote a doctoral dissertation largely dealing with postmodernity's impact on the modern foundations of evangelical Christianity in general and Churches of Christ in particular, Brian McLaren's thoughts were especially of interest to me. I applaud the ZOE group and Woodmont Hills for including in these events those who emerge from divergent Christian tribes. As Brian said on several occasions, each denomination holds certain treasures that need to be shared with the larger body. Amen. Unfortunately, church history has not been one of sharing our portion of heavenly treasures, but of arrogantly assuming no other treasures exist beyond our own denominational troves. Thanks to Brian for sharing his treasures with us.

Typically, when I leave the ZOE conference, I'm on a "high" from the weekend. Not this time. I really couldn't put my finger on it either. (By the way, I've grown beyond thinking if I didn't get this nebulous "high" feeling after a worship event that, somehow, the event was deficient. The Church has entirely too much of this self-absorption, and I still struggle with it, though.) No, God worked mightily on me during this event, and still is.

I began identifying what I was feeling (or thinking or experiencing) when, after the conference, I read through Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. This is a book on Christian Spirituality, very much postmodern in approach. It's not a "how to" or "self help" book so typical of many Christian books (many of which are excellent). The feel of this book is messy, authentic, raw. Real struggles with real people attempting to come to grips with Jesus. I highly recommend this book--it gives a depiction of the culture to which we have been called to minister.

Miller states his dislike of institutions, but also admits his personal benefit from their existence (like a Starbucks on nearly every corner). Miller struggles with how one lives consistently in a messy world. Answer? Despite one's best efforts complete consistency is an elusive goal.

In our weekly staff meeting (more like conversations), I referred to this aspect of Miller's book. It seems that we're always (and legitimately) struggling with how to reach each emerging generation. It appears to me that, among other things, the emerging culture is much like Donald Miller's description in Blue Like Jazz. They're not easily impressed. Can spot a fake a mile away. Neither do they care much for institutions. They're not so much interested in being entertained, as they are participating in something larger than themselves. Yet, this generation suffers from the same infection of self-absorption as those before it.

So, how do we respond? CrossBridge, and other emerging churches, have taken a more "contemporary" (what does that really mean?) direction. For this, I'm personally thankful. It's so refreshing as a minister to be able to share God's word without forever having to parse words to keep them within the prescribed parameters of "orthodoxy." Further, worship, under the capable direction of Greg Miles, is a meaningful experience in which God truly is encountered.

At the same time, we must be careful that we're not just exchanging one form for another. I think this was where I've been struggling. It kind of reminds me of the current Hardy's commercials (that's a fast-food chain in this part of the country). Understanding the suspicious nature of the emerging generation, their current marketing strategy is self-deprecating. They admit that Hardy's is not the place most people think of when they want a great burger--and they're right. Seems pretty authentic. And, there's the rub. Authenticity is now a great marketing strategy. When will one's (or a church's) authenticity become just another empty strategy to hook folk?

A paragraph in Don Miller's book nudged me down this path, and helped clarify my recent struggle:

A friend of mine, a young pastor who recently started a church, talks to me from time to time about the new face of church in America--about the postmodern church. He says the new church will be different from the old one, that we will be relevant to culture and the human struggle. I don't think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing (p. 111).

Believe me, neither Miller nor I am suggesting the removal of cool Web pages or trendy music. They have their place. If, however, the church once again supplants the power of God's gospel for another human strategy, what real good have we done? And, unless we fully embody this good news, few folks will take notice. Perhaps the first place to start, before we break out the latest music, and create the coolest Web site, is for all Christians to repent of our self-absorption and fully enthrone Jesus in our hearts as Lord. I suspect that this action would put the church in a the best position to love our world, even as God does. When this happens, the world will know we are Jesus' disciples. And, then, we actually can be relevant to our culture and real human struggles.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Tenacity of Faith

Someone has described a pessimist as “a person who’s seasick for the whole voyage of life.” With such an attitudinal posture, mole hills become mountains and every obstacle is insurmountable. I must admit, walking by faith, not by sight, is extremely difficult to do. I feel much more confident in God when I can see the apparent victorious end in sight. The difficulty for me is to continue to walk in confidence when, not only is there no end in sight, but when we see apparent defeat looming in the distance. Contrary to this timid spirit, the pages of sacred history are dotted with divinely-empowered optimists.

Take Caleb, for example. You might recall that he was one of the 12 spies sent to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). Upon their return, 10 of the spies saw no possible way for their unskilled army to conquer the “walled cities” inhabited by “giants” (13:28,33). Quite frankly, they had good a good point. Israel was not equipped militarily to accomplish this feat. After all, their immediate history was one of forced servitude, not military exploits. By contrast, the minority report of Caleb (and Joshua) throbbed with faith, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (13:30). Don't you just hate those idealistic believers? They just don't get it...or do they?

What made the difference? All spies described the same land, and recognized the obstacles. The 10 were consumed by their own inadequacies while Caleb and Joshua concentrated on God’s ability. In short, the real difference was their relationship to God (14:8-9).

The “grasshopper mentality” of the 10 resulted from looking at the opposition rather than the Lord. That’s always how its it when we diminish the power of God. The obstacles loom beyond reason. By contrast, Caleb viewed the difficulties as opportunities to display the awesome power of the Lord.

The optimism of Caleb was not rooted in the insufficient power of a “positive mental attitude“, or in the inadequacies of “believing in himself.” Rather, in humility, Caleb saw himself linked to God in sacred partnership. “If the Lord delights in us,” he reasoned, “we’ll succeed” (cf. 14:8). The “if” in this phrase did not suggest a gnawing doubt in Caleb of God’s presence. On the contrary, it was Caleb’s way of saying, “because God has told us to take the land, we will succeed!”

How is it with you? Are you facing a Kadesh-Barnea that could change the course of your life? It may be a circumstance to accept, a work to be undertaken, or a burden to be borne. Make no mistake, we do face real obstacles that are not to be denied. On the other hand, there is a real God Whose power and grace equally should not be denied! The spirit of Caleb looks beyond the insurmountable walls to the unparalleled God. Caleb won the battles of life because he first won the battle of faith, obedience, and full commitment.

Scripture does not paint a rose-colored picture even for those who walk in faith. Peter's first book describes a circumstance in which believers would face fiery trials...because of their faith! Yet, there is a tenacity associated with Jesus' followers. Let’s not be overwhelmed by circumstances or awed by difficulties. They don’t really matter. It’s our attitude toward the Lord—His glory and His will—that really counts, and often goes unaddressed.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The Fluffy Bunny

This past weekend I had the distinct privilege of going with our youth group on a rafting trip down the Ocoee, a beautiful river in East Tennesse known for its rapids. The first time (of only two times in my life) I rafted down this river was pretty uneventful. No one in my raft fell out, and we navigated all the rapids with relative ease.

Remembering that first experience, I was pretty confident going into this thing. I even volunteered to sit in the front of the raft with my 13 year old son, Zach. According to our guide, we were responsible for setting the pace for our boat. We both were up to the challenge.

Before we set "sail for our three hour tour" (yes, I watched too many episodes of Gilligan's Island growing up), our guide asked us to decide if we wanted a relatively smooth ride or, in his words, and "pretty gnarly" one. I immediately spoke for our whole boat (without their input); "We want a gnarly one!" Famous last words of a fool.

Gnarly indeed. I met my Waterlou (pun intended) on the first rapid, a class five. Giving us exactly what I unilaterally asked for, we hit the rapid sideways and with such force that your's truly was tossed out. My first experience in white water without a raft made me rethink this gnarly ride I requested. Except for a few gallons of water in the old lungs and a small cut on the knee, I wasn't any worse for the wear. So, I figured the worst had to be over.

All things went pretty well after that until our guide told us of one final maneuver we needed to perform after the last rapid. He called it the "fluffly bunny maneuver." Since all these rapids had strange names, I didn't think much of it. In retrospect, however, I should have known something was up.

In a serious tone, he explained what we needed to do. After we hit this last rapid, I'll need for you to give me two hard, forward strokes with your paddles, then those on the right side of the raft need to jump in unison onto the left side. Thinking that we were going to provide a counterbalance to something (who knew what), we dutifully prepared for the fluffy bunny move.

We hit the rapid. Our guide barked out the command to paddle. He then yelled, "jump now." In perfect unison, those of us on the right side of the rafted plunged onto the left side. In an instant, everyone of us were in the water with our raft upside down on top of us.

Thinking we failed in the fluffy bunny maneuver (surely that wasn't supposed to happen), our guide was elated. "That's the first time I've ever been able to get the raft to flip like that. Great job guys!" We all looked at each other in stunned silence, wondering why this guy was so happy--and I'm still not quite sure! Further, I still don't have a clue why that maneuver is called the "fluffy bunny." Maybe some of you veteran rafters can help me out.

I had a great time with my youngest son Zach. What a great son! God is good.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Extreme Makeovers

You’ve probably seen some of those “before” and “after” pictures of people who, through the magic of modern cosmetology, are transformed from antiquated “plain Joe’s” to GQ potential. To boost self-esteem or to create a new persona for themselves, literally millions are spent on makeovers annually. While some attempt a physical renovation through the latest cosmetological techniques, others attempt a more profound—though equally self-induced—reconstruction.

In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey confesses his own self-deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction whose outcome was ultimately unsatisfying. Embarrassed by TV programs like the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “HeeHaw,” Yancey attempted to disassociate himself from his Southern heritage. Vowel by vowel he worked to change his accent, succeeding so well that people react with surprise when they learn of his Deep South roots. Having read great books to remove all provincial blinders, Yancey felt that he had finally addressed—and conquered—his previous self, creating a “new man.”

Through more spiritually mature lenses, Yancey began to realize the limits to a self-constructed personality. Yancey writes: “In most ways important to God, I had failed miserably. I was selfish, joyless, and lacked compassion. With the notable exception of self-control, I lacked all nine of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.”

Yancey not only recognized the limits to a self-directed makeover, he ultimately came to understand that his entire project of reconstructing his personality had been misguided. “God did not want to work with a wholly different personality. God chose me.”

The strong urge to be someone other than who we are actually opposes God’s purposes for our lives. Often these feelings arise from a legitimate dislike of our sinful natures. It is precisely here, however, that the gospel offers good news. God, through the working of His Spirit, is not turning us into a wholly different person. On the contrary, through the redemptive work of Christ within us, God liberates—not destroys—our true selves! In this regard, Yancey concludes; “The Holy Sprit coaxes each of us to be ourselves, flawed personalities in whom God himself has chosen to dwell. With infinite resources, God can assist every willing person on earth in that custom process. It begins with trust in God’s best for me, a confidence that God will liberate my true self, not bind it.” Create room in your heart for God, and let God show you who you truly are!

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Handing Over the Reins

With his keen ability to find humor in the most unexpected things, Gary Larson made us laugh, caused us to blush and, perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, left us puzzled over the esoteric meaning of his satirical Far Side cartoons. Whether or not Larson intended them, I have on occasions found profound spiritual meaning from the Far Side. Consider this one, for example.

The picture is of the western “badlands.” The sun is high in a cloudless sky. The scorched landscape consists of bare, rugged cliffs and barren, sandy hills. The only plant life in the picture is a lone Sequoia cactus standing tall in the foreground. Somehow avoiding the immense open space, a bumbling cowboy has managed to guide his horse head first into the cactus. Expressing the thoughts of the irritated horse, the caption reads, “That does it...I’m gonna steer.”

Have you ever felt like this horse when it comes to your spiritual journey? Have you ever wondered where God is taking you? Have you ever thought that perhaps you could do a better job of directing your own steps rather than giving the reins of your life to God? I certainly have.

In our limited thinking, it seems that God occasionally runs us smack into painful cactuses, tempting us to snatch the reins from His omniscient hands. Job changes. Financial loss. Sickness. Death. During such trying times, it’s human nature to think, “Surely God could have guided us around these painful obstacles.” If you are facing such difficulties hear God’s Word before you attempt to retake control of your life, “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2-4; The Message).

Have you run into any cactuses of life lately? Before you direct yourself into the obviously-open countryside, maybe you should think seriously before you act. It just might be that God actually has brought you to the only source of available water to moisten your parched faith. Be still...and let God do His marvelous, faith-building work.

Monday, September 06, 2004

"Shut Up And Hit Somebody"

Depending on one's perspective, this past Saturday was either one of the best or worst days of the year. The college football season kicked off (pun intended). Brian and Jessica Balentine, a wonderful couple at CrossBridge, invited us over to watch the Alabama vs. Utah State game on pay per view. Since we've resisted even having cable all these years (did I hear a collective moan), I was in hog heaven. They even had one of those "tevo" deals where you can rewind the action...unbelievable. We had a great time.

One thing that caught my eye on Saturday was in a different game, however. The University of South Carolina took on Vanderbilt. While I was able only to catch a glimpse here or there of this game, I happened to be in the room when a reporter was talking about Lou Holts' (head coach for South Carolina) latest motivational stragedy. Each player wore a t-shirt underneath his uniform emblazened with these words: "Shut Up And Hit Somebody." I chuckled when I heard that. It made such an impression on me, I just had to mention it in my sermon on Sunday.

The point is obvious: stop talking about what you're gonna do, and just do it. Football is know for its trash talk, what one player boasts that he will do to another. Enough. Holts called his team simply to aggressively accomplish what they were taught to do.

Perhaps we ought to distribute similar t-shirts to church folk, one that everyone can wear under his or her Sunday outfits (though for CrossBridge, t-shirts often are the clothes of choice). The Bible has similar statements. "Love not in word, but in deed and in truth." "Faith without works is dead" (too bad legalsim has abused this truth). "If you say you love God and hate your brother, you are a liar." To these can be added a plethora of similar biblical passages that call to action, not merely talk.

South Carolina apparently took Holts' challenge to heart. I think they won pretty handily over Vanderbilt. Perhaps it's time for the church to take to heart the biblical call to action, not to legalistic justification, but to actively expressing to our broken world the love of Jesus. Perhaps its time to just "shut up and love somebody." Maybe we'll start seeing a change...most likely in us.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Inadequate for the Task

Most of us--if not all--have at times felt completely inadequate for the tasks we are called to accomplish. It matters not what our profession, or vocation, might be. There are occasions when we simply are not up to the challenge of life's demands. Deadlines. Bills. Teenagers. Sickness. Relational tensions. Monotony of life. Whatever the demand, our human resources fall woefully short to meet it.

This week has been one of those uncertain ones for me. Partly because I've been struggling with a nasty cold, and partly because this week brought several extremely difficult ministerial situations, I feel completely empty, struggling for words to speak on Sunday. And, it's already Friday.

During these times, I remind myself of the feeding miracle in Mark. Confronted with 10,000 hungry eyes, the disciples simply did not have the resources to feed them. They suggested that Jesus send them away so they can buy bread. Amazingly, Jesus said: "You give them something to eat." They were astonished. How could this small band of brothers meet this demand. In frustration, they basically said: "There's no way! We don't have enough." Undaunted, Jesus looked at them and said: "What do you have? Go and see."

Ah. Jesus won't let us off the hook so easily, will He? He's not interested in what we don't have; He's interested in what we have. Often I find myself thinking of the abilities I don't have, comparing myself with others. If I only had....then I would..... Far too often that is the mantra by which humanity tends to live. So, we simply don't try.

Against this human tendency, Jesus says, "What do you have? Go and see." The disciples found a smattering of food, five loaves and two fish. Bringing this obviously-inadequate provision to Jesus, they seemed to say: "See. This is all we have. It's not enough, now send them to get something to eat." Jesus would have none of this. He took the bread, blessed it, gave it to the disciples to distribute to the people. Mark concludes: "They all ate and were satisfied." Beyond that, 12 basketfuls of fragements were collected.

I have always wondered just how this happened. Modernistic theologians who attempted in Bultmannian fashion to "demystify" such texts have provided naturalistic explanations. They have suggested that, once the disciples starting sharing this food, others were prompted to share what little they had as well. Once everyone shared the little they had, everyone eventually was fed. Needless to say, this theory does not explain the abundance of leftovers.

Mark isn't concerned about how this miracle happened anyway. He focuses on the divinely produced results: "They all ate and were satisfied." And, in God's economy, there is more than enough!

Such miracles remind me, not of how powerful Jesus was, but how powerful Jesus is. It also reminds me that true ministry is humanly impossible. As humans, we simply do not have what it takes to accomplish the divinely-described tasks before us. God does not leave us powerless, however. He asks us simply to allow Him to touch our feeble efforts. Then, and only then, can miraculous results occur.

I'm thinking right now: "Lord, I don't have what it takes for the task before me." "What do you have," He replies. "All I can find are some saltine crackers and sardines in my pantry of ideas, talents, and abilities. Maybe you should send the people away to be fed elsewhere." His reply remains the same, however. "Give it to me...they all will eat and be satisfied." Only by His power.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Casting Our Crowns

The Olympics gave us plenty of drama. Close races, scoring controversies, doping scandals. For the most part, however, the Olympics went off without a hitch. Praise God that no act of terror disrupted this international display of peaceful atheletic competition.

One story that continues to unfold surrounds Paul Hamm, an American gymnist who won the gold medal in the all around men's gymnastic least he thought he did. I watched when he faltered and fell on his vault attempt, plumetting him from one of the leaders into 12th place. It appeared that any possiblity of his winning any medal was completely lost. Then, the drama of atheletic competition kicked in.

Hamm's parallel bar exercise was a near flawless display of grace and strength. Strangely, the leaders had several glaring mistakes, dropping their scores considerably. It appeared that Hamm had a remote chance of scraping out a bronze medal at best, but he'd need help from his competitors. And, help they gave him.

The leading guys continued uncharacteristically to falter. Hamm had a remote chance of actually winning the gold medal, if he performed brilliantly during his final exercise. He "stuck" a perfect landing, placing an emphatic exclamation mark at the end of a superior performance. His score catapulted him onto the gold medal stand with only a mere .012 points (I think) separating him from the silver medalists. What a competition!

Then the controversy began. Apparently, the judges made a calculation error on the South Korean gymnast's parallel bar routine. All said and done, without this error, the South Korean, not Hamm, would have won the gold. Appeals were made. Meetings were held. The IOC ruled that it would not reverse the decision, but finally made an appeal to Hamm to give back his medal.

All of this is sad. What should have been a time of living a dream for Hamm, has become a nightmare. I'll be interested on how all of this eventually will turn out.

This controversy, however, reminded me of a scene in the book of Revelation chapter 4. John was ushered into the throne room of God. Twenty-four other thones, surrounded God's throne. On these thrones sat twenty-four elders, dressed in white and were wearing crowns of gold. Immediately around God's throne were four living creatures, covered with eyes in front and in back. In appearance as a lion, ox, man, and eagle, these creatures continually cried: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come." As these creatures incessantly gave glory, honor and thanks to God, the twenty-four elders would fall down before him and worship the one who lives forever. At this point, the Apocalypse provides an interesting element to this scene, one which, I think, is fraught with meaning. "Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne...[the twenty-four elders] lay their crowns before the throne ... (4:10).

Several questions emerge from this description. Why did these elders have crowns? From whom did they receive them? What did they signify? What's the import of their casting them before the throne?

Commentators will give a variety of possible answers to these--and other--questions. Whatever the specific meaning attached to these crowns, one thing is clear: these elders relinquish all their honors in recognition of the One to Whom all honor is due. Before Him, we have no room to boast for a couple of reasons. First, every good thing we have, or accomplish, ultimately proceeds from Him. Second, the very best we have to offer is nothing compared to His glory.

I don't know what Paul Hamm should do with his gold medal in the context of this fallen world. I would say, however, not only to him but to all of us who sport "medals" of achievement of any kind that, before God, we cast them at His feet. Only there do they have any significance anyway. And, isn't this what it means to worship God "in spirit and in truth?"

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

A Good Read

Much has been said about our postmodern, pluralistic, relativistic society. We definitely are living in the midst of a seismic paradigm shift without any clear idea where our culture ultimately is heading. Deconstructionists loathe even the slightest idea of metanarratives, or some overarching story by which reality is interpreted. The deconstructionists' programme is to expose the hidden power structures within texts, demonstrating the writer's bias toward self-preservation and advancement. Since Christianity provides a metanarrative from creation to the fall to the consummation of the ages, it, especially, is subjected to rigorous desconstructionist investigation.

Christians must not retreat from our culture. We have been called to minister at this particular time in history for such a time as this. While we should not retreat, neither should we attempt to buttress an old modern epistemological paradigm that was in need of major renovation. The postmodernists, then, have made some legitiate points. At the same time, we should not buy wholesale into the emerging paradigm for it, too, must be critiqued.

Scripture does speak of universal, absolute truth. Strangley, the modernist considered the truth claims of Christianity simply to be innacurate while postmodernists tend to judge Christianity as false because it makes exclusive truth claims. In a world increasingly gripped by relativism, how are we to respond?

Art Lindsley has written a very good, balanced book addressing this very question. In True Truth: Defending Absolute Truth in a Relativistic World, Lindsley argues that we can hold to absolutes without being absolutists. While this might appear to be a Clintonian spin, it actually is a very important distinction. I like the way that Lindsley talks about this subject, admitting that Christians have been hypocritical in our dealings with others. At the same time, he gives good reasons, both intellectual and practical, for moral absolutes. For anyone looking for a good primer on this subject, you'll want to add this book to your reading list.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Great to be Home

This past Wednesday evening, I had the distinct privilege of speaking at the Campus Church in Atlanta, Georgia, where Matt Elliot is the worship leader. I was so blessed to be among this community. I really enjoyed sitting down with Matt over a latte at a nearby Starbucks to reminisce about mutual friends and experiences. At one time, I served as the associate minister for the Prattville Church where Matt's dad preached for many years. While there, I became more acquainted with Matt as he'd periodically visit. You can see in Matt a passion for God, which is evident in his worship ministry.

I sure was glad to be back at CrossBridge yesterday. As Greg Miles already has mentioned in his blog, yesterday was a special day at CrossBridge. We hosted a variety of ministries from a variety of churches as we celebrated God's work in our world. It really is amazing to see first hand the number, quality, and scope of ministries taking place. Too many times we attempt to reinvent the wheel when God already has in place ministries with we we can partner.

Being back at CrossBridge yesterday helped take the sting out of leaving Allen, my son, in Oklahoma last week. Many people embraced me with the love of Jesus. Community is so important, not only to celebrate individual accomplishments, but to bear burdens as well. I'm glad to be at a place where even the preacher can be real.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Oklahoma, More Than A Musical

As I begin this blog, I'm sitting at gate C-7 in the Will Rogers International Airport near Oklahoma City, OK. Carol and I have just successfully navigated through the varioius layers of airport security--security for which I'm very appreciative. Carol has just stepped away, and I'm here in my seat, surrounded by our baggage, overlooking the tarmac. Actually, I'm straining to see the outline of Oklahoma City one last time before our flight leaves.

Before now, Oklahoma was just another state in the heartland of America. I'd spent a week in Sayer, Oklahoma several years ago delivering a series of lectures on Apologetics. Also, I, like every other American grieved in shock over the destruction of the Murrah building in 1994, snuffing out innocent human lives in the process. Other than that, Oklahoma was just one of my favorite musicals. It's much more than that now.

Yesterday, I left a piece of my heart there. And, I'm not sure that description is accurate. I have four children and each of them has my entire heart in their own unique way. However it should be said, I left my oldest son, Allen, in Edmond Oklahoma where he will begin school at Oklahoma Christian. And my heart hurts...and rejoices simultaneously. Don't ask me how, it just does.

I miss my boy desperately. For, Allen wasn't just my son; he was my buddy. He's turned into a fine, godly young man and I've enjoyed our lives together. That has forever changed. Watching him walk away from our car before Carol and I left for the airport was the hardest thing I've ever done. Carol's sobs filled the small confines of our rental car as the tall figure of our son faded into the distance. I just wanted to run after him and give him one more hug, look him in the eyes again, and tell him of my love.

The Heartland of America now has new meaning for me. I'll watch much closer at news from this midsection of our country. I'll be more interested in Oklahoma's weather, as notorious for its tornados as is our portion of Alabama. As the western sun dips beneath the horizon, I'll know its rays are touching Allen as well.

This kind of love hurts...and I wouldn't want it any other way.

Thanks so much to CrossBridge for loving my family and me. In Alabama awaits my three other children, and a wonderful church home. My heart is also there. And, CrossBridge will allow me to grieve, and rejoice, during this stage of our lives.

Thanks to Wes McCannell for preaching in my absence. Thanks also to Johnny and Jinny for staying with Zach and Miranda while we took Allen to OC. Thank you, God, for loving me with a Father's heart. There's no greater love.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

I Hope He Loses His Grip

As far back as I can remember, the summer Olympics have always captivated me. I thoroughly enjoy watching these world class atheletes go head to head. Monday evening was no different.

I was really into the men's team gymnastics finals Monday night, especially when only .128 points separated third place from first place going into the final rotation. That the United States team was in the running for the gold raised the excitement level even higher for me.

The last rotation was the high bar. The Romanian team, which had just performed brilliantly on the vault, was the first team on this apparatus. One of their members lost his grip during one of those whirling release moves and hit the mat. I must admit, while I outwardly winced, I inwardly rejoiced (this is confessional). Our team did well. No one lost his grip, and all turned in a respectable score.

The Japanese were the only ones that could take the gold medal, leaving us the silver. My wife, Carol, was watching the competition with me. What I said before the first Japanese gymnast grabbed onto the bar was something like: "I don't want him to get hurt, but I hope he loses his grip." In typical motherly (and biblically-loving) fashion, Carol said: "Now that's somebody's little boy, and they feel the same about him as we would one of our own sons." Undeterred, I responded: "I realize that...that's why I don't want him to hurt himself when he falls!"

The Japanese gymnasts performed with such power and grace that I eventually clapped at their skill. They really did deserve the gold medal.

Back to my confession, however. I didn't want others to lose so much as I wanted the U.S. to win. I found myself, then, disappointed when "others" did well and equally disappointed when "we" goofed. Now, I don't want to make too much of this. I think it's perfectly fine for us in such situations to cheer for our particular teams. On the other hand, there is an important lesson here.

As C.S. Lewis states in his compelling "Screwtape Letters," God wants to destroy the fleshly self-love that traps humans' minds into an endless "revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible." In this fleshly frame of mind, we are so biased in our own favor that we simply cannot rejoice in the successes of others without some sting of envy. C.S. Lewis correctly goes on to point out that God (the "Enemy" in the Screwtape Letters) "wants each [person], in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even oneself) as glorious and excellent things." God desires for all of us to be "so free from any bias in [our] own favor that [we] can rejoice in [our] own talents as frankly and gratefully as in [our] neighbor's talents." While He "wants to kill [our] animal self-love as soon as possible, God ultimately wants to "restore to to [us] a new kind of self-love--a charity and gratitude for all selves, including [our] own. For "when [we] have really learned to love [our] neighbors as [ourselves], [we] will be allowed to love [ourselves] as [our] neighbors."

I wonder what would happen in our world if we actually viewed everyone, regardless of their situation, as "glorious and excellent?" How would we respond if we saw all people in our world through the eyes of Jesus? For, through His eyes, everyone is His little child for whom He chose to suffer and die. I really wonder if the church, particulary in the U.S., has become so self-absorbed that we've forgotten this primal truth.

Oh well, enough theological reflection. The Romanian women's team just won the gold (it's Tuesday now), leaving our women's team with the silver. Those Romanian women just had to be so irritatingly good :-). At least our men's swim team finally beat the Austrialians in the free style, 400 meter relay. YES! It's about time we put those Australians in their place! Oops, there I go again. This love of neighbor as self is really tough.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Blogged Down...I Thought

Yesterday (Sunday, August 15) was one of those days that I will never forget. As usual, LifeSong, led by Greg Miles, ushered me into the transforming presence of God. Lynn Gurganus, Dustin Marchan, and Clark Ogle contributed to this holy experience by their words.

Several folks asked prayers from their brothers and sisters, and Victoria Gargiulo was baptized by her dad, Richard. My heart was full...and God wasn't finished.

My oldest son, Allen, walked down front and threw his arms around me. Intuitively, I knew why he came. Yesterday was his last Sunday at CrossBridge before we take him to Oklahoma Christian University to begin his studies there this fall. It's as if we couldn't let go of one another. In his ear, I asked if he wanted to say something to the church. "If it's o.k.," he replied. "Of course, it is," I said with a broken voice.

He walked to the podium with me, motioned to Carol and his brothers and sisters to join him, and he began to speak. He thanked this community for loving him through the years. He thanked Carol and me for our love. That's about all I heard. It's as if my ears filled with the tears streaming down my cheeks.

These tears were not of disappointment, but of tremendous love for a young man whom I have had the privilege of watching grow in the Lord these past 18 years. I will miss him, therefore, I cried. At the same time, however, I am so very proud of this young man and anticipate seeing what God will do through him. So, yesterday was indeed a holy moment in the Lord.

After yesterday, I just didn't think I had anything to say. I seemed all dried out. I felt "blogged down," and didn't expect to write anything today. I thought wrong.

I love you, Allen, and pray for God's blessings on you as you begin this wonderful time of your life. Your dad is proud of you.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Theodicy and Saving Private Ryan

Believers have struggled with the centuries-long problem of theodicy--the question of how to harmonize the simulaneous existence of a benevolent, sovereign God and gratuitious evil, pain and suffering. Since 9/11, this question has tragically forced its way to the forefront of conversations once again. And, in typical fashion, a variety of competing responses have emerged.

I just read Gordon Dalbey's newsletter that takes a refreshing look at this question. He begins by appropriately challenging the assumption behind this question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" The following are a few excerpts from Gordon's thoughtful analysis.

Some years ago, a best-selling book titled Why Bad Things Happen to Good People attempted lamely to explain why a good, all-powerful God allows suffering. Its popularity was based on a cherished but false assumption about human nature--one that in fact underlies the political debate over the upcoming election. The book’s title begs the old joke in which a city slicker gets lost on his way to town and asks a farmer for directions. “You can’t get there from here,” the farmer shrugs.
From a Christian perspective, that is, there simply are no good people.
“Good teacher,” a rich man asked Jesus, “what must I do to receive eternal life?” (Mark 10:18ff)
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus replied. “No one is good except God alone.”
Jesus’ self-deprecation here is startling, but we soon see why He’s quick to make such a radical distinction. When He instructs the man to keep the basic biblical Law, the man declares, “Ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments.”
Jesus knows that someone so convinced that he’s good needs to be jarred into humility before he can be saved. Otherwise, he thinks he doesn’t need God. And so Jesus instructs the rich man to give away his riches to the poor. Here, at last, is a commandment he cannot obey, and he’s broken. “At this, the man’s face fell, and he went away sad.”
“There is no difference at all,” the Apostle Paul echoes; “everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence” (Rom. 3:22-23).

Why do bad things happen to good people (like me)? is therefore a self-satisfied civilian question. Only those who fancy themselves to be good would bother to ask it. It’s the narcissistic pouting of pampered flesh not yet surrendered to be crucified with the King of Kings (Rom. 12:1-2). Worse, it’s a cover-up for the powers of evil that war against God’s purposes—not just “out there” in others, but in our own hearts.
The warrior, on the other hand, sees life differently, because he experiences it within the larger reality of evil and death.
The wrenching WWII film Saving Private Ryan portrays this contrast graphically. Amid indiscriminate bloodshed and carnage, Private Ryan is indeed rescued by a platoon, most of whom die in the effort. Fifty years later we see him pudgy and gray, kneeling in a military cemetery as thousands of white crosses surround him in severe witness. No hero here, just a tormented survivor--humbled, but not humiliated; lost in the mystery, but found at last by its Author. One who has faced the awful reality of evil and death not only on the world’s battlefield, but also in his own unworthy heart.
“Why me?” he whimpers.
Here, at last, are the makings of a Kingdom warrior. One who’s been saved not by any virtue of his own, but by the sacrificial grace of another. He’s not demanding to know, Why did I suffer? He’s begging to know, Why was I spared? He seeks mercy, not vindication. He’s overwhelmed—and properly so--by the mystery of grace: Why do I still live, and even prosper, when so many braver men more worthy than me lie dead, even for saving me?”

The truth is, that from our genesis, we were indeed created good. But through the draw of evil we lost our innocence, and sin entered and infected our human nature unto death.
The grace is, that Jesus has come to bear the shame of our otherwise unbearable not-good-ness, and thereby restore our innocence. You can fall on your knees, cry out your unworthiness to Jesus, let His Spirit restore you daily to your created good-ness as God’s child—and thereby, become free at last to get on with your destiny, both now and forever
That’s why good things happen to bad people (like us): Because the Father whose love endures forever (Ps. 118:2) has a plan for our lives and the power to accomplish it (Ephes. 2:8-10). He wants us to come to Him so He can do that. As a Father, He won’t abide our being seduced away from His truth by universalistic tolerance, or blinded to His grace by religious judgment.
In this season, let’s not surrender to the world’s charade of “judgment vs. tolerance,” where truth and grace are portrayed as enemies. Instead, let’s get real and surrender to Jesus.
Let’s go to the Father. You can get there from here.

Yes. Before the blood-caked cross of Jesus, we are moved to ask "Why me?" This question has nothing to do with our suffering, but His. Why did you do that for one as unworthy as I? The answer? "My inexpressible love for you compelled me--for you are my child." Somehow, Calvary mysteriously answers the question of theodicy. While we may never be able to satisfactorally articulate the cross's nuanced response to theodicy, the shouts of unfairness, when brought into the shadow of the cross, morphs into a stunned whisper of gratitude for grace.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Things I Learned at the Beach

Carol, all four kids, and I enjoyed an unprecedented 7 nights stay in Seagrove Beach the last week of July. For some reason, I kept telling folks that we were going to stay at Seaside. Well it was Seagrove. Seaside was a whopping 5 miles away! Anyway, the trip really was relaxing. Sitting on the beach one evening around sunset made me miss my growing up days in Pensacola. I saw the sun plunge beneath the sea many a day. But I digress.

I just wanted to share with you some things I learned while on the beach.

(1) I hate sunscreen, but it's a necessary evil.
(2) Floats never remain completely inflated and it's terribly difficult to re-inflate them while fighting waves.
(3) A 43 year old man has no business skim boarding--my foot still hurts.
(4) A 43 year old man simply can't outrun an 18 year old--Allen beat me (just barely) in our annual, 50 yrd sprint on the beach.
(4) There's nothing like a shower after experiencing the beach.
(5) I have a beautiful wife and gorgeous kids...and I love them dearly.
(6) I'm deeply in love with Carol, my wife of nearly 22 years.
(7) God really is an awesome God.
(8) There really is no place like home.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Will You Jump?

I ran across an article while surfing various news-oriented websites. One title that caught my eye irresistibly tempted me to read its contents: "Skydiving: Question to Ask Before You Jump."

Rather than a singular interrogative, the article actually listed several questions to ponder before taking the plunge. I realize that the first president Bush celebrated his 80th birthday by barrelling out of a plane. It is pretty impressive that an octagenarian, and one of such importance, apparently answered all inward questions in the affirmative, and hurled himself to the ground. My hat's off to him. Don't know if I'd jump, though.

The final point of the article was, once you've decided to jump, you're at the point of no return. After reading this article, I wondered what our lives would look like if we actually contemplated our actions. Then, once we've made the decision, we proceeded with the mentality of "no return?" From one perspective, this goes against the gospel call to turn from our self-directed paths, and return to Jesus. So, that's really not what I'm talking about.

I'm considering this "point of no return" from the post-repentance perspective. Assuming a turning to God, what would church look like if we adopted a "no return" posture? The consumerism of our culture has produced a "fickelness," it seems to me. Though rarely overtly articulated, commitments tend to be tempered by the "as long as I like it" philosophy. We wonder why marriages crumble, churches struggle, relationships are strained. Honestly, I become irritated by folk whose commitments are as long and deep as their fleeting feelings. But, enough of that. The content of this blog is beginning to bother me!

A refreshing wind seems to be blowing, however. Increasingly, the new generation is becoming disastisfied with a self-oriented gospel (isn't that an oxymoron?). The language of the "Emerging Church" philosophy speaks of kingdom, service, freedom from self. It critiques the "I want my needs met" attitude that has strangled the church for so long. It seems to strike a more kingdom-oriented posture, one that seeks God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This new breed of Christians dares to challenge the "mega- and consumer-church" mentality that might make many in our churches uncomfortable. Personally, I welome it.

With the current struggles of our world, we need to engage in the kind of self-examination Jesus asked of all. "If any one will come after me, let him [or her] deny himself [or herself] and take up one's cross and follow me." Now that's a plunge! Will you jump? I'm thinking about it myself.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Seeking His Face

Over the past several years, I’ve appreciated the change in nomenclature among folks in my Christian tribe. As a child, I don’t recall hearing phrases like, “Holy Spirit Reign” or “Praise Jesus,” or “We want to know You,” or “Guide us with Your Spirit.” Perhaps these were basic thoughts among the community, and I simply failed to grasp them. What I do recall is much talk about “Scriptural” things.

Whenever a question about methodology or a hypothetical situation was considered, the primary expressed concern was “Is it scriptural?” This concern actually exhibited a healthy appreciation for God’s written word, which I equally share. I’ve learned through experience and continued formal study, however, that “scriptural” can be an elastic term, having a diversity of meanings. One’s hermeneutical orientation typically determines its basic meaning. So, I’ve learned that we humans tend to navigate toward a “hermeneutic of hubris,” one that actually supports our understandings, rather than challenging them. As Richard Hughes,, cogently wrote in The Worldy Church, the real challenge is not to stand “on the word,” but “under the word.” Sacred hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation, then, is not so much about interpreting scripture as it is allowing scripture to interpret us. For me, this is more than a neat twist in phraseology; it is the real task of every reader of scripture.

What prompted me to take the preceding brief glance down a long, twisting path that literally spans centuries is the change in nomenclature that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. While formerly I would hear people wondering about the “Scripturality” of something, I now hear folk wondering if someone has been “guided by the Spirit” into a particular ministry, task, or move. I must say, that the latter moves closer to the real essence of Christianity, at least as far as language goes. But, I must wonder if the only real change has been linguistic, rather than attitudinal?

While some of us now understand that being “Scriptural” can be nothing more than one’s selfish (dare I say, Pharisaical) positions buttressed by a litany of passages that gives the appearance of biblical guidance, must we not bring our new lingo under equal scrutiny? Is it possible that “being guided by the Spirit” can shroud the same selfish (dare I say, Pharisaical) posture with a new linguistic cloak?

I’ve wondered lately about my own sense of “seeking God’s face.” Several years ago, Miranda, our youngest daughter (now 9 yrs. old) highlighted an often-overlooked dimension to this essential concept. She was still young enough to be in a car seat. While driving in our minivan with Carol, my wife, Miranda was talking to her mother. Being the conscientious mother—and driver—that she is, Carol kept her eyes straight on the road, occasionally glancing at Miranda in the rear view mirror. This simply did not satisfy our daughter. Miranda’s tone built into a near scream. “Mom! Mom!” Miranda yelled with frustration in her voice. “What sweetie?” Carol replied with equal frustration. “I’m listening!” Unsatisfied, Miranda responded, “But you’re not listening with your face!”

Hmmm. Not listening with your face. Does God feel that way about those of us who now speak of “being guided by Him?” How often have I laid out strategic plans for my life, or ministry, and only paid lip service to “seeking his face?” Has God only seen my eyes in a rear view mirror as I drive my life’s minivan along a self-chosen highway? I wonder if God ever feels like we aren’t listening to Him with our faces. You see if we truly are seeking God’s face, He should see more than the backs of our heads as we go about our activities all the while pleading his blessings on them.

Oh Lord, give us the grace to come squarely face to face with you…and listen. Guide us, O God with your Spirit into realms yet unknown. And start with me!

Thursday, August 05, 2004

A Unique Guy

I missed two successive Sundays at CrossBridge, and I mean I really missed them. I know there are wonderful communities of faith all over the globe, both in and out of my particular tradition. For me, at least, there's no place like [my] home [church]. I haven't always been able to say that, eventhough I've been the preacher at "my home church" since 1985.

There are many reasons why I feel this way--and why others feel this way about their special community. One of the primary reasons is my good friend and ministerial colleague, Greg Miles. I've got to brag about my brother just a little.

Greg holds down a very responsible position at AmSouth bank. Most folk are amazed that Greg is not a paid staff member at CrossBridge, especially in light of all that he's involved in with LifeSong, the music ministry here. It was his leadership, inspired by the Zoe worship conference several years ago, that brought into existence LifeSong. Since LifeSong's debut in January 2000, CrossBridge has morphed into a community of sincere seekers of God. All glory is God's for this, of course. But, Greg has allowed God to use him.

Since the inception of LifeSong, Greg has led worship here on a weekly basis. He puts together astonishing ppt presentations for each weeks worship, keeps LifeSong's repertoire continually growing, insures that LifeSong is ready each week via a midweek practice and Sunday morning sound check (he usually beats me to the building each Sunday). On top of these--and other--weekly ministry responsibilities, LifeSong, under his capable leadership, has produced three CDs. Each of these has a professional quality to them that expresses Greg's commitment to excellence.

And, did I mention that LifeSong is "an aside" for Greg? Amazing!

Let me tell you a little about his heart. If there is a song that captures the essence of Greg's desire, it would be "The Heart of Worship" (I hope that's the actual title to this song.) For Greg, his ministry is "not about him," it's "all about God." In fact, he's probably going to be really embarassed by this blog. Sorry Greg.

Over the years he's been a great support to me. I really want him to know how much I love and appreciate him. I also hope that others in the kingdom will have the opportunity to be blessed by Greg and LifeSong.

BTW, this blog was inspired by my having a great lunch with Greg today. It's always an encouragement to eat a burger or some hot wings and fries with such a great friend.
In Need of Eyes to See

Political pundits these days are ubiquitous. It's a presidential election year and the rhetoric is heating up, not only from the particular candidates, but from the analysts as well. I've heard several talking heads make the apparently correct observation that partisan politics is at an all time high. That might be an overstatement. I'm sure there have been occasions in our country where passions surrounding an election ran at an equally--if not higher--emotional pitch.

It does appear, however, that lines are being sharply drawn. So much so that if someone from the opposing party speaks truth, somehow, due to its origin, it must be false. Not only is this true of the political world, it's historically been sadly true of religious folk. And, I'm not talking here of different religions primarily, but of the diversity within our own Christian fraternity. As our world become increasingly cynical, confused, and searching for some substance, the body of Christ needs to figure out how to appropriately respond. With questions of abortion, homosexuality, and many other social difficulties, the church must offer an alternative to the rancorous rhetoric. It must, it seems to me, express radical, redemptive love just as Jesus did to the broken of his culture. For this to occur, we need to see folks through the eyes of God. An old Hassidic tale summarizes much of what our churches need so desperately today.

The Rabbi asks his students, “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?”

One student suggests, “When, from a distance, you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?”
“No,” the Rabbi answers.

“Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” asks a second student.
“No,” the Rabbi says.

“Please tell us the answer, then,” say the perplexed students.

“It is,” says the wise teacher, ”when you have enough light to look human beings in the face and recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Until then the darkness is still with us.”

If you think about it, this rabbinical saying is packed with insight into the human condition. Typically, how we see or perceive a situation or individual determines how we feel. Our feelings in turn heavily influence how we respond. In the end, if our vision is blurred by prejudices or self interests, our reaction to others will be influenced accordingly.

Jesus had eyes focused by divine lenses. This resulted, not in a pious attempt to insulate his holiness from sin, but a tender compassion to counter their sin with his holiness. Where some saw sinners to be avoided, Jesus saw potential children of God. Where some saw the need to shun disease, Jesus saw the opportunity to show deliverance. Where some saw trouble, Jesus saw triumph. Where most saw death, Jesus gave life. Where some saw unworthy lives, Jesus saw people worthy of His own death.

As Jesus engaged his broken world so we are to engage ours. Faces and times have changed, but the need remains the same. May God remove the darkness and grant us eyes to recognize all humans beings as his special creation in desperate need of God’s love. Again, O, Lord, begin with me!

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Community of the Cross

This morning, I enjoyed an early breakfast with Wes McCannell, a relatively new member at CrossBridge. Over the past few months, my appreciation for Wes has grown in direct proportion to my increased knowledge of him. He's a reflective type who enjoys good conversation about theology and culture as much as I do.

After my conversation with Wes over grits, eggs, sausage and coffee, I was in a particularly contemplative mood. What does it mean to be the body of Christ in our current culture? Where is that frayed line between where it's appropriate to accomodate culture and where Christians must confront it? What does it mean to be worldly or to "live godly in the present age?" These are at least some of the questions with which Christians must struggle.

As I walked into my book-strewn office, I noticed a particular volume that I've read through on several occasions. It's one of those books that I periodically thumb through, and read particular sections. Written by Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, The Body: Being Light in Darkness, was an award-wining, national bestseller in 1993. Although written over a decade ago, Colson's words ring with relevance.

In this book, Colson tells a story of the town of Nowa Huta, Poland, soon after World War II. "Constructed in the 1950s as a living monument to Communist utopianism, Nowa Huta, or 'New Town,' was originally designed as a center for the workers who would make up the backbone of the New Poland" (p. 195). The epitomy of modern design, Nowa Huta was an industrial center whose skyline consisted of "mammoth steel works" and "ugly chimneys" that belched out their sulfuric fumes into the skies of Southern Poland (p. 195).

Early in the town's construction, a vacant square caught the attention of all the workers. According to Colson, this empty space represented the vacuum left by the frenzied urban planning of the Communists--there was no church; no place for worship.

The workers aked for a church. The Communist authorities were irritated by this request. Their design provided everything a human possibly could need--hot and cold water, a place to sleep and eat. The Communists bought time by nodding in agreement; "Fine," they said, "No problem."

While awaiting the construction of a place of worship, several young Christians and a Polish priest erected a rough-hewn cross on the vacant sight, to mark the place where the chapel eventually would sit. Soon, however, the authorities refused to build the chapel, and finally attempted to thwart the people from gathering at the place by removing the cross.

Determined, the citizens restored the cross and assembled there to sing, receive communion and fellowship with fellow Christians. Despite the Communists' attempts to quash these assemblies (tearing down the cross repeatedly, dispersing the people with water canons), the unflenching Christians returned to the site for worship.

In conclusion to this historical event, Colson writes: "This went on for years--the authorities tearing down the cross and the people restoring it. And in the midst of the struggle the people came to a realization that would steel their faith in a way that Communism could never steal their souls. 'The church is not a building,' they said to one another. 'The church is us, celebrating the presence of our Lord among us! Praise be to God!'"

In our current cultural climate, I think we need to listen to these words of our Polish Christian brothers and sisters. As long as we are a community of the cross, celebrating the presence of our Lord among us, the church exists. No law, or the lack thereof, no constitutional ammendment or the lack thereof can steal this ultimate reality from us. And, only embracing that ultimate reality are we truly being light in the darkness, and inserting leven into the cultural lump. Start with me, O, Lord!

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

All Linked Up

It probably matters very little to you veteren bloggers who have mastered html, but I figured out how to recreate my links! I'm pretty pumped about this. Also, if you've posted a comment and received an undeliverable email message, I've fixed that too...I hope. I can now rest a little easier knowing that I'm all linked up!
HTML and Christian Linguistics

I've been blogging for several months now, and have enjoyed this casual format for posting--and reading--rambling thoughts. Having become more relaxed with posting blogs, I ventured into the untested waters of html (which, I think, stands for hyper text markup language--or something like that). I set sail into this linguistic deep because I wanted to add additional links to my blogsite, and to post links to other blogsites on my sidebar menu. After several frustrating attempts, I finally was able to create a new heading for other blogs and provide a link to those sites.

Feeling pretty confident of my ability to manipulate templates, I succumbed to the temptation to change templates. After all, in our postmodern age, change is the name of the game. I just didn't feel like my previous template was striking enough. So, I chose this current template, republished the blog, and viola, I've got a new look.

I ignored the warning that changing blogs would remove all personalized items from my page. With my new understanding of html, I certainly would be able to recreate all of my links. That was Sunday. It's now Tuesday...and I don't have a clue how to recreate them. The html of the new template, while similar, has some peculiarities. The commands within the little <> and " or /= are slightly different. And, I'm frustrated. I want to go back to my old template where I was more comfortable in manipulating the html!

Change. I understand why we resist it. Like many folk, I like to be in familiar territory--it makes me feel a little more in charge. I don't have to consider new methods. I don't have to burn brain cells contemplating the implications of new insights. After all, I've already devoted much time and energy to learning the "old ways!"

In this frustration, however, I'm learning something about the call of the church to our current culture. I wonder to what extent our accepted Christian jargon seems like "Greek" or worse still "html" to our culture? We speak of grace, love, redemption, atonement, communion, baptism, etc., all of which means at least something to us. I wonder what these concepts communicate to our world? Without doubt, people--even Christian folk--need to be moved into this important language, Christian html, if you will. For, until we get there, our Christian walk will be superficial indeed. In our current cultural situation, however, the church needs to be the living interpretation of these underlying concepts. We need not first speak of grace, and redemptive love, but demonstrate them. When this happens, perhaps more folk will want to venture into the deeper waters of our language.

We'll, I've just talked myself into giving this new template another try. If it looks funny for a few days, just know this novice is tinkering with the template.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

I'm Back

My family and I just returned from a wonderful week at Seaside beach, an idyllic setting near Destin, Florida. Thanks to everyone at CrossBridge who made this trip a possibility. To Zane Tarence and Adam Ellis, who preached on July 25 and Aug. 1 respectively, I am eternally grateful. Thanks to H.C. Johnson, Jim Lovell, and Lynn Gurganus who covered my teaching responsibilities at CrossBridge while I was "soaking up the sun." Thanks also to Jamie Waugh, who served as a proctor for my sociology class at Faulkner University. Words cannot express my heartfelt appreciation to the CrossBridge staff (Johnny Brown, Richard Garguilo, Phyllis Jamison, Greg Miles, and Chris Smith) for "holding down the fort" while I was away. I am additionally grateful to the CrossBridge shepherds and their wives (Bruce and Susan Akin, H.C. and Bonnie Johnson, Gregg and Diana Waycaster, Ken and Chris Smith) for watching over the flock to faithfully--this gave me a tremendous peace of mind. Most of all, I'm gratefully to God for the beauty of His creation, and the special way a sunset over the Gulf of Mexico proclaims His enduring glory.

I am so glad to be back home with my family at CrossBridge. This is the first time in my preaching ministry that I've every been away from my church home for two consecutive Sundays. I simply cannot wait for Wednesday, and Sunday to see my brothers and sisters here. This church is truly a taste of heaven here on earth. I am so grateful that this church let's me minister among it! Be looking for blogs inspired by a week on the Florida coast.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Longing for There...Fully Present Here

The past two weeks have been especially difficult for me. The difficulty arises, not from the stresses of ministry, but from an increasing longing to depart. Over a month ago, Carol, my wife, and I made reservations for a 7 nights stay on Florida's emerald coast. We've never been away for such an extended period strictly for recreational purposes, and in such a beautiful area. As the time for the trip has neared, I've struggled to remain "engaged" in my work.

When we first made these reservations, I created a calendar, complete with pictures of our destination, so we could "mark off the days" as our trip neared. As the large "x's" through each day increased on this homemade calander, our whole family's excitement increased proportionately. Food for the trip covers our dining room table. Floats, beach chairs, and a variety of swimming accoutrements are neatly placed in our garage, just waiting to be loaded in our van. With all of this stuff "sanctified" for a particular purpose in our home, I found myself "already there" while I have "not yet" fully experienced the beach. I've even picked up some of this stuff, pretending to be relaxing on the sugar white sands of my home state--sounds weird, I know, but I just couldn't help myself.

This tension of living between the times, however, speaks to our Christian reality--at least I think it should. New Testament writers spoke of the eschaton, the consumation of the ages, in expectant terms (cf. Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; 1Peter1:3-9). For them, they were "already there" but had "not yet" fully experienced this ultimate reality. They were "marking the days" when they could be fully present with the Lord.

Two particular points come to mind as I'm reflecting on such eschatological concerns. First, Christians need to recapture a sense of "longing to be there." I wonder to what extent I've become too attached to this fallen world--the world that is in the process of "passing away." I admit, my microcosm is not that bad of a place to live. Nice family. Nice house. Really nice Church. Perhaps this might be one reason why Christians in the United States in particular have become so complacent over the years--why I've become so complacent. Do I, like the early Christians, begin my day with the sincere desire: "Maranatha," (O Lord, Come)?

Second, the longing for the consumation of the ages does not mean that we disengage from our current world--at least it shouldn't mean that. In some way, it--the entire physical creation--is the object of God's redemptive work (Romans 8:18-25). While we might debate the specific details of this eschatological dimension, God is working to reverse the curse from every aspect of His creation. And, His people are to join him in that struggle. "Maranatha" on our lips, then, is not so much a wistful longing to leave this world, but a battle cry for God's kingdom to fully dawn. Didn't Jesus teach us to pray, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?"

Well, that's enough reflection for today. After all, I'm leaving for the beach tomorrow!

Monday, July 19, 2004

Honduras Bound
This evening, 16 of our folks from CrossBridge will begin the trek to Tegucagalpa, Honduras for a week-long mission effort. Though I won't be making the trip to Central America, I am driving a portion of the group to Nashville. There, they will join another church group and fly to Tegucagalpa via Miami.
My heart will be in Honduras with them. The people in this region are desperately in need of the basics. This group, as many others do throughout the summer months, will build houses (really basic, one room structures), treat the sick (a number are medical personnel), work among the orphans (taking them clothes, shoes and toys), and basically love the children in that region.
This trip, and the images that remain forever etched in my heart, remind me of Jesus' statement: "inasmuch as you've done it unto one of the least of these, my brothers, you have done it unto me." Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian, has written prolifically in the area of ecclesiology. In one of his monumental books, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Moltmann elaborates on the concept he calls ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia. The basic meaning of this phrase is "Where Christ is, there is the church." Reflecting on the Matthew 25 text, Moltmann highlights the fact that Jesus uses familial language regarding the "least of these" when speaking to those who ministered to the disenfranchised. He called them "brothers." Contrarily, Jesus does not again use the familial modifier when speaking to those who refused help.
From this omission, Moltmann argues that Jesus was reminding the Matthean community--and all subsequent Christian communities--that in embracing the "least of these" they were unwittingly embracing Him. And, where he is, there is the church--the people of God. Moltmann, in the liberationist theological tradition, seems to be arguing that the real church, then, is found among the disenfranchised, not among good religious folk.
While Moltmann likely pushes the point too far, he does make an important statement. While we talk about "bringing Christ" to the poor in our mission efforts, this text reminds us that, in so doing, we paradoxically find him there. May we see in the aching eyes of everyone in need a reflection of Jesus...and may we embrace Him there.
Pray for all Christians everywhere who take mission trips this summer that they might experience Christ among the "least of these."

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Figs and Faith
Today I attempted to preach on Mark's account of Jesus' cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25). I'm not sure where I heard or read the phrase "Optic Parable," but Mark appears to use them generously. An "optic parable" as I use it, is where Mark presents a historical miracle, which utlimately refers to some spiritual reality. The blind man, for instance, who was incrementally healed by Jesus, stood as a fitting representative of the disciples' distorted vision regarding Jesus' Messiahship (Mark 8:22-26). Like the blind man, they needed a "second touch" to see clearly who Jesus was. Until they understood the true nature of Jesus' Messiahship, they simply could not understand--or see--clearly what discipleship was all about. Between chapters 8 and 10, Jesus juxtaposes teaching about his messiahship, which involved a cross, and discipleship, which equally involved a cross (cf. Mark 8:31-38; 9:39-37; 10:32-45). Until they understood the basic self-sacrificial orientation of Jesus' Messiahship, they would alway struggled with a power-oriented discipleship that would forever have them lusting for positions of privilege in the kingdom.
Another literary technique judiciously used by Mark is the "chiasmus" structure. Deriving its name from the Greek letter "chi" (which looks somewhat like the English letter x), this literary device occurs when a particular story is interrupted by another event, after which the initial story is completed. Rather than indicating the Gospel writer's "scattered mind" in telling stories, this technique appears to be an intentional design to bring emphasis to the overall point. In the case of Jesus' cursing the fig tree, for example, Mark tells the initial portion of Jesus' cursing the fig tree for its lack of fruit (11:12-14). The narrative then moves to Jesus' reaction to the moneychangers in the temple complex, prophetically indicting them of transforming God's house of prayer into a den of robbers (11:13-19). After this story, Mark provides the conclusion to the fig tree episode (11:20-21). According to the chiasmus literary structure, the story within the story, rather than a wreckless interruption becomes the focus of the writer's point. If the chiasmus structure obtains in the case regarding the cursing of the fig tree (and I think it does), the barren fig tree and God's people in the time of Jesus had something in common. Just as the fig tree boasted of figs (its foliage implied fruit) but had none, so the religious leaders of Jesus' day presented a display of righteousness, but in actuality, their faith was vacuous. The very people that God intended to "bless the nations," had become a sad display of consumerism, becoming an obstacle to those who sought to draw near to God. Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree, which subsequently withered, so the Jewish nation, due to its "barrenness of faith," similarly would meet its demise.
In my sermon today, I wondered about the state of God's people. We have been called to be the body of Christ, salt and light in our broken world. Have we lost our "saltiness?" Have our lamps grown dim? In a postmodern world that is confused, do we boldly point to Jesus Christ, the only one who can save, or do we insist on fiddling with externals? Because we spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about how to correctly "do church," our world does not receive the blessing of Christ's body. I'm afraid that too often hungry people eventually stumble into our presence, but find nothing but leaves.
This is true regardless of one's worship style. It can be true of traditional churches as well as more contemporary churches. If we remain focused on such externals, our tree might look inviting, but there is no substance there.
The church is to offer the redemptive love of Christ to our world. A love that says "Neither do I condemn you...leave your life of sin." When church becomes a place for sinners authentically to experience such love, then, and only then, are we a fruitful tree. God grant your people the grace to be your body...and start with me!