Costco and the Bible

Did you hear? Costco has labeled the Bible as fiction.

Now what has that got to do with anything? I would say nothing really.

However, I’m not sure any label would actually do justice to what the Bible is. Literature? Anthology? Non-Fiction? Inspiration? Religion? Self-Help? Myth? Legend? Home Decor?

All of these fit someone’s use of the Bible.

What is being missed in this concern over Costco’s (mis)labeling of the Bible as fiction is that Costco is still selling Bibles. Did you hear me? Costco is selling Bibles. If Costco has some grand scheme to discredit the Bible, would it not be just as easy not to sell Bibles?

So, now, let’s get on to something more productive, like loving our enemies, forgiving those who wrong us, helping the poor . . . you know the kind of stuff imagined in the Bible.

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Reflecting on Pentecost

Working among the Disciples of Christ now for past two years has given me a greater appreciation for the liturgical calendar. Having grown up among those who “judge all days to be alike,” it has been enlightening to work with those who “judge one day to be better than another.”

Yesterday was one of those “better days.” It was Pentecost and so I found myself thinking more about the meaning of that special day. And preaching on it only made me think even more about its meaning.

Several things “coincided” to open my ears and eyes to a deeper reading of the Pentecost story. First, on Saturday, I led our monthly Re-Reading Scripture study which “happened” to be on Joel. Second, of course, was that the following day, Pentecost. Thirdly, Pentecost as a theological reference point has always been important regardless of which side of the holy day divide you find yourself. It is the church’s birthday, so it should be important to every Christian. Finally, the egalitarian ring of Joel’s prophecy was louder for me this time than it had been before. Thus, I was drawn to Peter’s use of Joel 2.28 and following:

28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit…
32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved…

Even though “all flesh” should be clear enough that Joel intends to include all humanity, this prophecy from Joel seems intent on clarifying how inclusive it seeks to be.

All flesh includes both men and women. The notion that the Spirit of God would come to both men and women in the OT was a novel concept. I can’t think of a single time in the OT where God’s spirit is said to come to a woman, though there are clearly several notable “Spirit-led” women in the Old Testament. Moreover, it was even a rare man who had God’s Spirit come upon him and then often for a limited time to get a certain job done. Once the Spirit came upon seventy elders at one time, but generally it was on this man or that man. So what Joel is predicting is quite unprecedented in the Old Testament and remained so to the time of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts, saw this being fulfilled in the early church and will often point out to readers where women are participants, patrons, or even prophets. Unfortunately some in the church still denies the full meaning of Pentecost.

All flesh includes the young and the old. In our culture, it is a good thing to be young; in ancient culture and non-western cultures, it is a good thing to be old. However, in light of the ancient culture where age was valued, the young could be devalued. Regardless of which culture one is in, this text suggest that God has a use for both the young and the old. One of the tragedies of our time is the disintegration of generational connectedness. This brokenness is often brought into the life of the church and we find churches offering contemporary vs. traditional services. We all know what this means. Young people this way; old people that way. I find this part of Joel’s prophecy challenging to the way we sometimes go about ministry to the old and the young. The “need” for multiple services may underlie a deeper fissure: that we have missed the meaning of Pentecost. I once heard Marva Dawn say something like this: “When we can’t sing each others songs, what does it say about us?”

All flesh includes both the free and the oppressed. One might think that gender is the hot-button issue raised by Joel’s prophecy and for some it is the only Gospel. However, this one should perhaps convict us more than the others. Back in 1929 Richard Niebuhr wrote an insightful study called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” When I first read it, I was floored. Niebuhr argued successfully that denominations represented the social class system of the lively experiment called America. Could it be then that our churches today still separate those who are free (read: rich) from those who are poor (read: oppressed). It is not hard to document that this is the case and I have been in way too many if-we-could-just-get-so-and-so-as-a-member and we-need-to-get-the-right-kind-of-members conversations than I care to admit. All this talk misses the grand vision that God gave Joel and then Peter: I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh.

May we always accept those on whom God has poured out his spirit, regardless of gender, age, or social status. May we all get the Spirit of Pentecost!

Disciples are Learners

Disciples are, or should be, by definition learners. Beyond the denominational tag, Disciples should be disciples. When Jesus gave what we call the Great Commission, his marching orders to the church was to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19-20) Trying to find the right English word to translate the word mathētēs is not easy. Some attempts include student, pupil, trainee, or the like. Each of these fall short because these words tend to stress book-learning over character formation. They are good translations, but like many translations, none of them can catch the full nuance of the original word. A word I think comes closer is apprentice.

Once a common practice for a young person wanting to learn a trade or craft, an apprenticeship was very serious internship. As an apprentice, a young person would attach herself to a master artisan to become, in terms of that skill, just like the master. At one time, ministers were trained much in this way. A young person would attach himself to an accomplished minister to learn from that minister. In both of these previous examples, the young person would often live with the master and his family. In a similar way Jesus trained his first followers who lived, ate, slept and traveled with him. At the heart of being a disciple, then, is being close enough to the master teacher to become like that person.

Learning however was never limited to information. Rather learning was about transformation. The goal of being a disciples of Jesus is not just to learn what he can teach us about God and good living but to become more like him. Jesus once said to his followers, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). Loving one another goes way beyond mere information. The pivotal question for disciples of Jesus is not “What do we know?” but “What kind of people are we?

One can hear this concern in the apostle Paul as he was working Christians in Galatia: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”(Gal 4:19). Or again, in his letter to the Colossians: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ”(Col 1:28). Or perhaps, what Paul tells the Christians in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect(Romans 12:1–2).

Many other texts could be cited but these show how discipleship is about the kind of people we are becoming because of God’s work on our lives. Genuine discipleship is about spiritual formation. Robert Mulholland in Invitation to the Journey (1993) defines Christian spiritual formation this way: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s spirit, for the transformation of the world.” And Dallas Willard adds,“spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself. The human self is then fully integrated under God.

Disciples then are transforming learners, that is, attentive apprentices learning the way of Jesus. I’m grateful to be part of a church family committed to learning the way of Jesus.

Copied from my article at http://www.fcchammond.org/APROUTLOOK2013.aspx.

Re-Dis-Orientation

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann has devised a simple but deep way to categorize the Psalms that has real applicability to life. He suggests that most psalms will fall in one of the following three categories: Orientation, Disorientation, and Reorientation. While wordy, perhaps, these labels are very helpful in understanding life. In some Psalms life is good and as it should be, in others psalms life is chaotic, hard, and confusing, and in yet other psalms life is experienced as new beginning, renewal, and moving beyond. Sometimes all three of these can show up in the same psalm, as with Psa 23. The Biblical story resounds with this rhythm. Notice the following examples:

Exodus:           Egypt ➤ Wilderness ➤ Promised Land

Exile:                           In the Land ➤ Exiled in Babylon ➤ Return to the Land

Jesus:                                      Life ➤ Death and Burial ➤ Resurrection

Christians                                            Old Life ➤ Repentance ➤ New Life

What is common to all of these stories is the movement through orientation, disorientation, and into reorientation. Also common is that no one really likes being in the middle phase of disorientation.

William Bridges, in an insightful little book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes, points out that all transitions in life have three basic phrases: the “old,” the “new,” and the “in-between,” this last one Bridges himself calls the “neutral zone.” The old is when life is what life is and we are not complaining because it’s normal. Then something will happen, a death, a divorce, a new opportunity, which changes our old comfortable world. The in-between is uncomfortable because it is no longer the “old,” but neither is it quite yet the “new.” However, this neutral zone of disorientation can be just what we need to grow, to come to new understandings, to get out of old ruts, etc. For some this in-between time can be excruciatingly painful. But often disorientation, in time, gives way to reorientation: a death becomes sweet memories; a loss gives way to new gains; and that which was old is given new life.

Personally, I have found thinking of life in terms of these three categories helpful. I experience life sometimes, as it should be. Things are in place. Life is good. Psalm 23 is true and the Lord really is my shepherd. However, sometimes, and more times than I would like perhaps, life is hard, disconnected, chaotic. With Psalm 23 I walk through the deepest, darkest valley. I don’t like those times but I do usually grow closer to God through them. Then disorientation gives way to new life and I find, again with Psalm 23, a table prepared before me, my head anointed and my cup full, desiring nothing more than to live in God’s house forever.

Lent is the perfect time to reflect on this. Lent is the “neutral zone” between Advent and Resurrection Sunday. You therefore might find the language of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation useful even now.

For further reading, see Walter Brueggemann’s Psalms: A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1994) and Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002); William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.; Cambridge, Mass.: De Capo, 2004).

Copied from http://www.fcchammond.org/MAROUTLOOK2013.aspx.

What is Lent All About?

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:1–11 NRSV)

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LENT was originally not a religious word at all. A Teutonic (Germanic) word meaning “long,” it was used to refer to the lengthening days of spring. The word was passed through Anglo-Saxo into English, and finally used to translate the Latin quadragesima (“forty days”) which imitates the Greek name for the season of Lent, tessarakoste, or fortieth. So that is why we call this season Lent.

By the fifth century, church authorities assumed the practice of Lent went back to the apostles. However historians have noted that, in the first three centuries, churches were quite diverse in their practice of the fast before Easter. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius cites a letter from Irenaeus (late second century) who states that there was much confusion over the fast that came before Easter. Some thought it should be one day, others two, and yet others thought forty hours (day and night) as the correct amount. Later when Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which contains the letter from Irenaeus, was translated from Greek into Latin, the translator punctuated text so that last group fasted for forty days, not forty hours. So, interestingly, Lent became a forty-day preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

If you would like more information about the origin and development of Lent, see the Catholic Encyclopedia, available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm.

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LENT is about repenting, reorienting, recalibrating and realigning. Lent provides an opportunity as we approach Resurrection Sunday to bring our lives more in sync with Jesus. Reflecting on the temptation of Jesus (see the Scripture above) provides resources for this time of penitence and prayer.

Henri Nowen in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership made the dynamic  Jesus’ temptations real for me. Jesus responded to each temptation with Scripture;more specifically, Jesus quotes texts from Deuteronomy 6-8.

Deuteronomy 6-8 tells how the “newly minted” nation of Israel was tested in the wilderness; and how at each test the they failed to trust God.

Now comes Jesus’ turn. He too is tested but each time he successfully deflects Satan’s overtures. Where Israel, the nation, had failed, Jesus the Son will succeed. Part of Jesus success was that he knew the story. Because he knew the story of how Israel had failed the test, Jesus knew exactly what he was facing. Now that we have both stories, that of Israel and of Jesus, we know what we need to do when tempted.

Nowen reframes each temptation so we can hear them better. The temptation to turn stone into bread is the temptation to be relevant. The temptation to jump off the temple to be caught by angels is the temptation to be sensational. And the temptation to possess all the kingdoms of the world is the temptation to be powerful.

Each of these are a real temptation because we are all tempted to focus on what we want more than anything else. When we speak of being relevant (particularly in church life) we generally have in mind that notion that if we were more relevant, more people would be interested in church. So the conversation becomes what we need to do to please people and that is where this becomes a problem. Recall another story: when Aaron, the high priest, made a golden calf for the people. The golden calf was relevant but the golden calf was not God.

Each of us have felt the desire to be sensational. Drama Queen seems to be an art form for some today. How often do we walk the line between “doing our deeds before others” and “doing our deeds before othersso that they might see our Heavenly Father.” Jesus could have stepped off the pinnacle of the temple and floated down to the earth impressing all those who saw him. However, as with the stones, Jesus understood that making himself important or impressive works against the mission of God. All three of the temptations partake of the attitude that it’s-about-me.

Finally, the desire to be powerful is so “natural” that in our culture we assume that is what people should aspire to be. Jesus could have had the whole world without the cross! That is what Satan is offering. However, the way of power without the cross is not the way of God. To be powerful is to bypass the way of suffering and the gospel is clear that for Jesus suffering comes before glory. Those who would follow Jesus must learn this, too. As the apostle Paul will say later when we are weak, we are strong (see 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10:10; 12:10; 13:9).

So what is the meaning of Lent? Well, that depends on what you want to do with it. Let me encourage you to use this season as a time to repent, reorient, recalibrate, and realign your life with that of your Lord Jesus. Let’s resist the temptation to be relevantsensational, and powerful and simply moving into being who God has called us to be.

To Begin Again

Can a person really start over?

Isn’t there always baggage?

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change?

The cynic in me wants to see real change as impossible but I’m not sure I want to live in a world where this is the case. No doubt, life is tough and for some and at times really tough. Yet the Bible, which has been around a lot longer than I have, holds out a vision of humanity that has potential. New things can happen!

For example, notice this medley of verses:

[The Lord] put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God (Psalms 40:3); See, I [the Lord] am doing a new thing! (Isaiah 43:19); Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17) “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant ….” (Jeremiah 31:31); Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) … what counts is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15).

The Apostle Paul invited the church at Colossae (in modern day Turkey) to enter into God’s newness. In the third chapter of his letter to that church, Paul points to three areas in which God wants to renew us.

First, God invites us to renew our orientation, to seek what is heavenly, not earthly. Sometimes we live as if the minutia of every moment is the most important issue in our lives. We all—at times—are drama queens. We fail to see that in a few short moments most of what  upset us now will not really matter in the grand scheme of things. However, the Apostle is not just suggesting that we get a better mental attitude; this is not how to think your way into a better way of feeling.

The invitation is for complete reorientation. Because we have been baptized into Christ, we now “seek the things above” and we do this because “Christ is there!” Now, as those united with Christ, we are, in some sense, already with him. Imagine living now as if we were already living in heaven.

Next God calls us to reevaluate our identity. In a (religious) world intent on reminding us often that we are sinners (and we are), the Bible most often strikes another note. In this text, believers in Jesus are those who are hidden in Christ, those who have put on the new self that, according to the Apostle, “is being renewed by the knowledge according to the creator’s image.” Our new identity is not defined by religious or socioeconomic labels but by Christ. Therefore, believers should see themselves as God sees them: as specially chosen, holy and deeply loved.

Consequently, God invites to refresh our way of life. Continuing the language of baptism, Paul reminds us to “put to death” dispositions, habits and tendencies that simply do not belong to heaven-minded people. The laundry list is long and dirty: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, “since” as Paul adds, “you have taken off your old self with its practices.”

Continuing the baptismal image, Paul is confident that believers have “put on” the new self and the associated dispositions, habits, and tendencies. These virtues include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, telling the truth, speaking wholesome words, love, unity, peace, and thankfulness.

In summary, Paul is not inviting his readers to embrace the power of positive thinking, but rather of taking hold of a completely different paradigm for reality. The primary feature of this new paradigm is that we are now united with Christ. This union with Christ instigates certain new realities, namely, that we are now “hidden in Christ.” The changes called for grows out of a relationship with Christ. If one belongs to Jesus, then it follows that such a person would think differently about who they are. This, then, would (naturally) lead believers to put off things that work against their new identity and to put on attributes that are consistent with that new identity.

Can a person really start over? Yes, with Jesus they can.

Isn’t there always baggage? Yes, but God can handle your baggage.

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change? Only if you so choose; it is not the way of Jesus.

Also published at http://www.fcchammond.org/JANNEWSLETTER.aspx.

How Well Do You Hear? (Mark 4.21-34)

The need to listen well remains the focus of the rest of the parables in Mark 4. At the end of the interpretation of the Parable of the Soils, Jesus left us with four options: (1) we don’t get it; (2) we are not very deep; (3) we care more about other things; and finally (4) we get it and live it.

While hearing is the primary sense noted in Mark 4, other words are used to underscore what Jesus is after: Do you get it? Therefore, verbs of seeing, perceiving and understanding are also present.

For example, in Mark 4.21-23, Jesus notes that a lamp belongs in a lamp stand so that it might provide light for those in the room. In this way, what is hidden (the “secret” of the kingdom of God, that is, Jesus) is meant to be “brought out into the open.” Though a lamp helps one see, the next line is the familiar: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!”

If we missed it, the next parable begins with “Consider carefully how you hear.” The enigmatic saying that follow these words makes more sense if they refers to how well we hear. Below are the text and my paraphrase.

With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. The level at which you listen, it the measure you will get, and more than that. Whoever listens well will get even more; however, those who do not listen will lose even what they think they have.

The final two parables in Mark 4 deal with perceiving (hearing) what God is up to. In the first the kingdom of God (God’s will or reign) is compared to the process of planting grain. The farmer does his part in planting the seed but does not know the mystery of how it grows, but because it is the work of God, it does. The last parable compares the kingdom of God to the growth of a mustard seed that far beyond its size becomes large enough that birds can find shelter on its branches.

Mark closes these parables with the comment that Jesus told the crowd as much as they could understand, but that he explained everything to his disciples.

The bottom line of why Jesus used parables is so people could “hear” his mission.