Friday, December 09, 2005

Christmas Rush: An Advent Meditation on Luke 2:16

“So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (Luke 2:16 NIV)

I want you to take just a few seconds right now and think through your schedule for the next couple of weeks. What do you have planned? Where will you go or who will be coming to you? ‘Tis the season. Everyone seems to be on the move and in a hurry. It seems especially true at this time of year, but if you do any driving around Atlanta you know it’s true all the time. We are a people in perpetual motion. We never stop. And strangely, the hours of the day around this city that we designate “rush hours” are the hours when we can barely move at all.

I don’t have any illusion that someday this will all change, that we’ll suddenly decide to quit living this way. Living at full capacity is simply a reality, and honestly it isn’t always a bad thing. There’s energy, a “buzz” about it that can be exciting. Living with intensity and urgency isn’t the problem. My concern is that our urgencies are misplaced. Our hurry isn’t making us better people; it doesn’t seem to bring a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose to our lives. Far too often our hurry leaves us depleted, irritable and exhausted.

About a year ago I had taken my children to school and found myself sitting in a long line of traffic at a very short light. The light stayed green long enough to let three or four cars slip through and then went back to red. Every time that light went to red, so did I. I don’t know why. I was not late for an appointment. I wasn’t being expected anywhere. I just hated being at that light. I hated missing the green and having to wait. Eventually my car crept close enough to the “zone.” Only one car separated me from the light. When the light turned green, the person in front of me didn’t move. I looked and noticed that her head was lowered and she wasn’t even looking at the light. She appeared to be digging around in her purse. Meanwhile the clock was ticking. There was no way I was going to miss that light. I leaned on my horn (but I did that in a very Christ-like way). My hurry made me impatient and irritable- for no good reason.

Charles Hummell says that most of us live under the “tyranny of the urgent.” We are driven by things that seem urgent and demanding, but aren’t really important. We are driven by time, driven by the clock, driven by others’ expectations. Other cultures have some proverbs about how we live in the West. A Filipino proverb says that people in the west live with little gods on their wrists. An African proverb says that Americans have watches but no time; Africans have time but no watches.[1]

The answer to this dynamic is not to be languid and listless in the way we conduct our lives, but to harness that intensity in a worthy direction. If we are going to live with intensity and urgency, I simply want to be intent and urgent about the things that matter. We get a picture of this in Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, and particularly in the announcement to the shepherds.

When Jesus was born, there were some shepherds working the night shift. I’ve worked the night shift, and everything seems to slow way down at night. You can’t sleep, but there is a stillness that settles in with the deep darkness. Suddenly, the stillness and darkness is shattered by the shining glory of God and the voice of an angel. The voice tells them good news: unto you is born a savior.

After this brief sermon and a rousing anthem from the heavenly host, the shepherds say to one another “Let’s go and see it.” And then in Luke 2:16 we get an interesting detail. “They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph.”

The word that gets my attention is the word “hurry.” The KJV says “they made haste.” I don’t picture night-shift shepherds as men who frequently hurry in their work. Following livestock in the deep of night is not a career for ambitious type-A people. But at this announcement – unto you is born a savior – they make haste. They rush off. They hurry to Bethlehem.

It seems that there are two ways to live with urgency and hurry in our lives:

One way is an urgency and hurry that comes because we feel pushed and driven. This is a hurry born of fear and arrogance. We’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t meet someone’s expectations, perhaps our own silent expectations that no one else knows about. In addition, there is beneath all of this a kind of arrogance that behaves as if everything depends on me.

The other urgency is where something we desire, something we yearn for, draws us to it. It is an urgency that comes from being pulled toward, not pushed. Mark Buchanan calls this kind of urgency a “Holy Must.” Jesus lived this way. His life was all about doing the will and work of the Father. A Holy Must produces a kind of intensity in our living that isn’t fear driven.

That’s what we see in those shepherds. The announcement of the savior’s birth gave rise to hurry, urgency, intensity. They made haste. They went to seek it out and to see it – and then they went to tell about it.

Knowing the savior, sharing the savior. What could be more urgent?

[1] These proverbs are quoted in Os Guinness, Prophetic Untimeliness, 28.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

Some time ago, over a long holiday weekend, I attempted to make a bank deposit at an ATM. It was one of those Monday holidays on which banks are closed. As I recall, we really needed this deposit to be there when business resumed on Tuesday. Apparently we were in good company. Over the weekend many people had made deposits at this particular ATM. The deposit slot on the machine was so full of deposit envelopes that the little intake door didn’t close completely – a fact I didn’t notice until I had already started my transaction.

When it came time for me to actually insert my deposit envelope I realized that the deposit slot was absolutely crammed full. At this point I had some options. ATM machines aren’t too hard to find in Atlanta. This would have been a good time to stop the transaction and go to another machine. But no – I was in a hurry. I was going to make my deposit. I pushed the envelope in, carefully sliding it in between other envelopes. When the careful sliding didn’t work, I resorted to some slight shoving. There was still resistance, but I was going to gain victory over this ATM. I pushed the envelope into the deposit slot, pushed it in good. It was far enough in that it couldn’t be retrieved or stolen. But just as I won the shoving contest, the machine beeped and flashed a message on the screen: “transaction canceled.” This was not good. The envelope was irretrievable. Further, I had no credit for a deposit. The bank had no record that I had actually given them my money.

This experience gave new meaning to the phrase “pushing the envelope.” Many of us push the envelope all the time. It’s a way of life. We stretch ourselves to the limits, leaving only the narrowest margins around our lives for the things we say are important: family, relationships, reflection. We seem particularly intent on pushing the envelope during the Christmas season. Church programs, Christmas parties, shopping, visiting family, receiving family – all of these things are good. Still, the sense of the season as hectic and busy is universal. The manger lullaby sounds nice, but silence and calm rarely characterize our December nights.

I learned a lesson at the ATM machine. When something is crammed full, frenetically working in one more thing, just one more little thing, is not a good idea. What is true of an ATM machine is true of us. If we insist on “pushing the envelope” we’ll eventually find our resources depleted with no credit or reward for our exhaustion.

I can’t help but hear the familiar opening line of “Joy to the World.” After announcing that “the Lord is come,” the song gives this exhortation: “Let every heart prepare him room.” Make space, clear the clutter, create a welcoming place. This line carries some powerful implications that may be lost beneath the familiar tune and oft repeated singing.

First, it suggests that right now there is no room in the heart. The space needs to be readied and created. The song seems to know that our hearts are full; filled with our own hopes and dreams and aspirations, and also filled with regrets, resentments, hurts, disappointments.

Second, the song suggests that room must be prepared and that will require us to do something, put forth some effort to get our hearts ready for the God who comes to us. When someone comes to our home, we usually have to do something to get he place ready. The God who comes to us is not passively received. But what does this preparation look like? What does it involve?

We get some help in answering this from the gospel according to Mark. Mark is abrupt in his telling of the Jesus story. He begins by quoting two prophets, and both quotations make use of the word “prepare.” I will send my messenger in front of you who will prepare your way (Malachi 3:1). Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight path for him (Isaiah 40:3). From these two prophets Mark leaps to John the baptizer, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance. Both his message and his activity are anticipating one who will come and do more than baptize with water. One is coming who will baptize with the Spirit. Repentance is the way to get ready. Repentance is the work of preparing room. It is the soul work that looks at what’s within us and gets rid of what needs to go.

Preparing room (repenting) in the heart isn’t easy to do. It is far easier to convince ourselves that we’ve got room, that our heats are ready just as they are to receive the coming Lord. But the truth of the matter is that our hearts are full. And rather than preparing room and clearing the clutter and debris, it’s easier to push the envelope and convince ourselves that our crowded hearts and lives will be able to take just a little more.

And then – as ridiculous as this may sound – in the middle of the holiest of seasons we wonder why God seems so distant and why we feel so tired. The reason may be simple. When our hearts are crowded we miss the very gift John was trying to prepare us for, and called us to get prepared for. We miss the Spirit. Transaction canceled.

There are alternatives to pushing the envelope. What would it mean for you to “prepare him room?”

Thursday, November 24, 2005

On Raking Leaves and Giving Thanks

"Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

I raked leaves yesterday. Raked and raked and raked. They’ve been falling since sometime in September, recent weeks seeing the heaviest deposits on my lawn and driveway. Yesterday was my first effort to bring order to Mother Nature’s random acts of unkindness. I was severely outnumbered. The piles into which I gathered the leaves seemed mountainous. I stayed at it from noon until 5 pm and all I did was clear the deck behind my house, the driveway, and the walk leading to the front door. There’s still more to do, plenty more.

This morning as I went downstairs to make coffee, and then climbed those stairs again to come to this room, I could feel in my back and legs every stroke of the rake, every leaning over to pick up leaves. I will admit feeling some gratification at laboring for hours and then seeing my cleared driveway. When you rake leaves there is a tight connection between effort and result. Every handful of leaves bagged is making a difference, even if that difference isn’t immediately seen. That’s not always true of my “regular” work as a pastor. Still, even with obvious results after more than four hours of work, I didn’t enjoy raking the leaves. This shouldn’t be hard for most people to understand. There’s nothing enjoyable about raking. It’s tedious repetitive work.

And yet, the leaves that so inconveniently cover my yard and driveway and deck are themselves laden with grace and majesty. This is too easily missed. The very nature of raking leaves requires staying focused on the ground, on the dead foliage that has become nothing but litter to be removed. I cannot say that there was a moment yesterday when I stopped and looked up. The leaves at my feet had come from majestic tall trees that stand in my yard. Trees that were there long before there were streets nearby or houses; trees that predate my birth and the birth of my parents. Months ago those very leaves had emerged with the warmth of spring and the approach of summer. They emerged quietly and without being noticed.

I think of the opening lines of one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems:

I go among trees and sit still.
All of my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.

I didn’t do that yesterday. I went among trees and complained silently within myself and endured the moments and cursed the breezes that blew my neighbor's leaves into my yard and disturbed my neatly formed leaf-piles and made it harder for me to get the job done quickly. I missed the grace of creation and the wonder changing seasons, how they move in line, each taking their turn up front.

The leaves at my feet were like manna. Not edible of course, but there on the ground every year, every fall morning as a gift – the gift of time. Like the Hebrews who eventually grew tired of the gift of manna, I too saw only inconvenience. I did not give thanks. The movement of time is too gradual and quiet to notice and the massive towering trees were above me where I never bothered to look.

I am more like Jonah. As Jonah waited for God to destroy Nineveh God provided a tree for shade, a comfortable place from which the prophet could see God do exactly what he wanted God to do. After a while God sent a worm that withered the tree and killed it, and the sun baked Jonah’s exposed head and made him miserable. Jonah became angry because he understood the tree solely in terms of his own comfort and convenience. God was trying to teach Jonah about mercy, but the little book of Jonah ends and we never see the prophet celebrate or give thanks for God’s grace in sparing Nineveh. We leave Jonah sulking, inconvenienced and disappointed because things were not working out as he had hoped.

Raking leaves yesterday reminded me that genuine gratitude will never come from a heart that measures everything in terms of convenience or some direct benefit to the self. One who cannot go among trees and sit still, or who never bothers to look up and gaze at what towers above or who fails to realize the simple gift of every day – such a person won’t truly give thanks.

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians there are at least three times where he mentions being thankful or giving thanks. None of them have anything to do directly with Paul. He gives thanks for their steadfast faith and for the way they responded to the message of good news concerning Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of the letter his counsel to them is simple and straightforward. “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18). The truth is, not all circumstances are convenient or pleasant or desirable. Yet God wills that we be thankful in all of them. This will require seeing something above us and beyond us.

For that reason, giving thanks isn’t an occasion as much as it is a discipline. We’re not always good at it. We need practice. Tomorrow I’m planning to rake more leaves in preparation for visiting family. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go among trees and in the midst of the labor look up and give thanks.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Reflections on a Long Life that Only Lasted 54 Years.

Jonathan Edwards only lived to be 54 years old. At the age of 42 I began reading George Marsden’s masterful biography of Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life. At the rate I’m going I’ll be 54 before I finish this hefty volume.

It’s not that the book isn’t “good” or interesting. It is in fact a wonderfully engaging telling of Edwards’ life and the era in which he lived. But it’s not a book that can be read quickly. What’s more, Marsden is excruciatingly thorough. There’s so much in every chapter to take in and sort through and keep up with. Arnold B. Cheyney, in his little book Writing: A Way to Pray, recalls his surprise as a student when one of his professors encouraged students to feel free to “check out” in the middle of a lecture. The professor wanted his students to have the liberty to actually stop and think about something they had just heard.[1]

Marsden’s biography requires that kind of reading. It invites reflection – even requires it. I can’t truthfully say that my slow progress through the 505 pages of text can be attributed to my deep thinking about what I’m reading. Frankly, I’m easily distracted. I don’t do a good job of reading through one book before starting another one. Edwards keeps losing out to other things. But that’s what makes the biography interesting. I’ll read something from a contemporary author, and then discover that the spiritually engaging questions of today are nothing new. What captures us now captured a New England pastor in the 1740s. Some of the ways I’m seeing this in the life of Jonathan Edwards would include:

Upheaval and change in the culture: There’s no shortage of material being published today about doing church in the “postmodern” age. Old assumptions no longer hold. Established practices no longer work. Of particular interest today is a shift in the locus of authority. Authority no longer resides in the sacred text or the ordained pastor. While post-moderns may retain respect and regarded for the Bible and the pastor, something more is required. Truth is authenticated by the community, or in some cases by the experience of the individual. While the particulars are different, Edwards lived through similar upheaval. Edwards was an aristocrat and his worldview assumed a hierarchical structure to “the way things are.” This applied to pastoral ministry and the authority of the pastor in the church and community (which by the way were barely distinguishable). Edwards lived at a time when “grassroots” movements were gaining strength. The familiar hierarchies were being challenged. To some degree this factored into his eventual dismissal from his pastorate in Northampton. The world was changing, then and now.

Order and ardor (enthusiasm) in worship: what constitutes the right worship of God? In recent years the term “worship wars” has been coined and no small amount of carnage has resulted as congregations slug it out over what is and isn’t “fitting” for worship. These days music and musical styles seem to be at the center of the turmoil, but just beneath the surface are questions about what worshipers are expressing and how they are expressing it. At a superficial level, the issue is about emotion or emotionalism in worship. Some want worship that is “free” and “heart felt.” Others want worship grounded in the Church’s long established liturgies and thus well ordered. Again, there’s nothing new here. During the awakenings and revivals that were spreading throughout New England in the 1740s there were various expressions associated with the work of the Holy Spirit. A work of God in worship might lead to shouting or fainting or crying.

This kind of thing was known as “enthusiasm” in the 18th century and not all clergy welcomed such manifestations of the Spirit. Edwards’ chief nemesis in these debates was a Boston pastor, Charles Chauncy. Chauncy believed in seeking the Spirit’s outpouring on the church, but he also felt that much of what was being seen in the awakening was a “dishonour to God.”[2] Two camps emerged: the “Old lights” and the “New lights.” The old lights valued intellect. The new lights – Edwards among them – wanted both intellect and passion, what Edwards called the “religious affections.” Edwards and Chauncy traded carefully crafted blows in print and from their pulpits – and it seems that the issue has never gone away.

My slow trudge through Marsden’s biography of Edwards has been humbling, and not simply because of the daunting challenge it presents to my capacity for reading and comprehension. It’s humbling because it puts my era and my ministry in perspective. Where I walk now, others have already walked. The survival of the church really doesn’t depend on me getting it right on post-modernity or the emergent church. Reading about a pastor from almost 300 years ago reminds me that Jesus is the foundation of the church. From age to age, century to century, Christ builds the church just as he promised he would.

Making my way through the 505 pages on Edwards' life is like watching God’s deliberate and faithful work in history. And then I ponder that fact that the God who worked then is working even now. Suddenly, I don’t feel so pressed to finish the book just to say “I read it.” Edwards’ life was short. Marden’s Life is long – and so is the Kingdom. I’ll take my time.

Now for page 320.

[1] Arnold B. Cheyney, Writing: A Way to Pray (Loyola University Press, 1995), 1-2.
[2] Marsden, 271.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

In On The Action

. . . and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew (John 2:9).

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him (John 2:11).

The aim is flawless perfection.

I don’t know of many endeavors in life where that is the expectation. In sports the aim is to win, and errors are recognized as part of the game. People who love their jobs will tell you they have to do things they’d rather not do, that no job is perfect. The best of relationships have some rough edges, always requiring work. There are no perfect relationships.

But the bar gets raised considerably when it comes to weddings. The aim, the dream, is flawless perfection, not a glitch. And even if something does go wrong such as a late father of the bride, candles that don’t fit the candelabra, an elderly relative being rushed to the hospital after falling while walking into the sanctuary (I’ve seen all of this in recent months) – all of these are to be quietly concealed from the bride. If the day can’t actually be perfect, we can all conspire to make sure the bride thinks it is.

And what’s true today might have been true in the first century. At least something like that seems to be true given the concern over the lack of wine at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Mary presents the problem to Jesus (whether as observation or request is a matter of scholarly debate). Jesus remedies the problem by turning water into wine, and very good wine at that (2:10).

The narrative in John 2:1-11 is familiar to me, but it isn’t necessarily clear. I find the meaning of the event elusive. In the hands of commentators the story seems to get lost in interpretations that make frequent use of the word “eschatological.” At that point the episode just becomes boring. Probably not something a seminary educated person ought to admit, but that’s what too much scholarship does to a good story in my opinion.

However, a few days ago I read the story again and saw something new - at least it was new to me . (Can that be said of any other book?) My discovery was the role and activity of the servants in the story. They are silent characters in the drama. They never speak and they never initiate anything. But towards the end of the story, when they take the water-now-become-wine to the master of the banquet, John slips in a short comment. The master of the banquet did not know where the wine had come from, but “the servants who had drawn the water knew.”

The servants, quiet and unnoticed, faithful and obedient – they are in on the action. They know what has happened. They know where the new wine has come from, and from whom it has come. No one else seems to know. The host of the feast does not know – he’s clearly surprised and delighted, but he isn’t truly aware. We don’t hear anything about Mary after 2:5 – so we’re not really sure what she knows or when she learns of what has taken place. The crowd is clearly oblivious, some of them having had too much wine by this point in the celebration (2:10). The disciples know something since this event or “sign” leads to their putting their faith in Jesus (2:11). But they seem to be observers, or they learn of the event second-hand.

But the servants are in on the action, participants in what Jesus is doing.

Wherever Jesus is being glorified and people are coming to faith in him, there will always be found those quietly obedient people who draw water from the jars and carry that water to others.

Being a servant is hard. It’s hard because it’s easily unnoticed and overlooked. That may be why this latest reading of the story seemed “new.” The servants have always been there, but they are so easily ignored. Other roles are far more appealing. Mary brings the problem to Jesus, even seems to delegate to him. She gives orders to the servants. “Do whatever he tells you.”

Of course the role of Jesus looks very appealing. We never say this out loud – but ever since the Garden of Eden we’ve had a hankering for the star role. We’d love to be able to fix the problem and turn water to wine.

Even the host has an enviable place in the story. He gets the benefit of an abundance of fine beverage for his guests – all of whom will go home raving about the wonderful party he threw and how he really “went all out” for the event. Jesus does the miracle, but the host will certainly get some credit. We like getting credit.

But the role of the servant does little to evoke excitement. It isn’t attractive. Servants receive instruction (“do whatever he tells you”) and carry out tasks (“draw some out and take it”). Yet, it is the servants who are in on the action. They participate directly in what Jesus doing. And that is very exciting.

When it comes to servanthood, my talk exceeds what my heart feels and what my life does. I’m not good at saying “I want to be a servant” and really meaning it deep down. But I do want to be in on what God is doing. I want to see Jesus doing a new thing that transforms people and homes and communities and churches. I want to participate in Jesus’ work.

Wherever Jesus is being glorified and people are coming to faith in him, you’ll find servants who draw out the new wine and carry it to someone else. I want to be in on that action.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Meditation on a Coffee Spill

5:40 a.m. No lights on upstairs. Cup of coffee in one hand, computer tucked under my other arm. Conditions ripe for some kind of disaster.

I should have never tried to walk back to my study without a free hand to grope for the wall and a light switch. I make this walk every morning at roughly the same time. The cup of coffee is a constant too, but not the computer. The trek to the study leads through the guest bedroom, the very room my wife had diligently prepared for friends who would soon arrive for a weekend visit. Everything in the room was ready, including the white bed cover, now freed of the laundry stack that typically concealed (and protected) it.

The darkness was too black to navigate without some help, whether from light or from the slight sweeping motion of my outstretched arm. My plan was simple. I would place my computer on the bed and turn on a light. I moved over toward the bed to put my computer down. At this point I’m not sure where the plan went wrong, simple as it was. As I placed my computer on the bed I heard in the darkness the sound of coffee dribbling on the laundry free white bed cover.

Any early sluggishness of the blood flow in my veins disappeared with the help of a sudden adrenaline surge. The fact that my wife would not be up for nearly an hour gave me plenty of time to do some crisis management. I really have no idea what to do to a coffee stain on a white bedspread. I got a wet towel and did the best I could – which actually turned out to be a decent dissipation, if not removal, of the stain.

In fact, our guests might have never noticed the stain on the bedspread. My efforts at getting rid of it had not been entirely successful, but you wouldn’t see it unless you knew where to look.

But I can see it. I know where to look.

The word “stain” has longed served as a metaphor for sin. This goes as far back as the prophet Isaiah. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). I grew up singing gospel hymns that pictured sin as a stain and the blood of Jesus as the cleansing agent. Several weeks ago I gave my Bible study class a short quiz on these "blood hymns." I asked who could state the entire verse or sentence that went with the following hymn lines.

“There is a fountain filled with blood . . . “[1]
“Would you be free from your burden of sin . . . “[2]
“What can wash away my sin . . . . “[3]

It may seem silly or even banal, my early morning coffee-spill crisis. But I came away from that with a fresh sense of what those hymn writers were talking about and what preachers of a bygone era so eloquently and passionately conveyed from their pulpits.

I recognized that the real stain of sin isn’t visible. The real ugliness of what sin leaves behind is something inward. My spill brought with it feelings of anger and self recrimination (that was such a stupid thing to do). I felt the shame that comes from others knowing what happened (will our guests see this?). I felt the regret of messing up what my wife had worked hard to make nice and presentable. All that stuff was churning around inside of me.

I further recognized that the physical stain can be disguised and hidden – and so can the internal turmoil. By my own efforts at sin management I can remove the stain well enough so that those who look at my life will never really notice the stains. The visible mess is nicely doctored up, and the internal is simply out of view. No one would know anything about it unless they knew exactly where to look.

But I know exactly where to look, and that’s the problem.

Here’s where the good news comes. This is what made hymn writers sing and caused preachers to raise their voices.

The blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

These are they that have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).

I still make the early walk upstairs every morning, making my way through the guest room back to the study. I keep one hand free and I turn on a light to show the way. And occasionally I notice the stain (when I look very closely). It’s a reminder. There will be other spills, missteps, faulty moves, careless acts. But a spill can always be trumped by a flood. As the hymn says, sinners plunged beneath that flood loose all their guilty stains.

[1] . . . drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood loose all their guilty stains.
[2] . . . there’s power in the blood, power in the blood.
[3] . . . nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Old Man in the Gold Coat

Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:6).

When I started seminary in 1985 I would occasionally notice an elderly man walking into the seminary library. He always looked the same to me. He wore a hat on his head, the kind that might have been worn by men in the 40s and 50s – but by 1985 looked right only on a person of age. He always had on a goldish colored wind-breaker. It looked large on him, draped down nearly to his knees. He was slightly stooped but his step was sure.

I remember wondering why this man kept coming to the library. That a person of his age would still be active in the pursuit of knowledge and learning struck me as admirable. I feel somewhat embarrassed writing that statement (as if older people don't use their minds), but that’s what I would think when I saw the old man in the gold coat walking into the library.

After being at the seminary for a while, I learned that the old man in the gold coat was T. B. Maston (1897-1988). Maston taught Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 41 years. I’ve been thinking about him lately. A few weeks ago I started teaching through the book of 1 John on Sunday mornings. Every week a group of folks gather and we work our way through the text, a little exegesis, a lot of application. About a week ago we came to 1 John 2:6. “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”

T.B. Maston wrote roughly 30 books in addition to numerous articles. The book that made the deepest impression on me takes its title from 1 John 2:6. “To Walk as Jesus Walked.” I recently read that Maston regarded 1 John 2:6 as a defining theme for life. That doesn’t surprise me. Maston walked that way. As I learned more about the old man in the gold coat, my respect deepened. I never actually got to know him, but when he died in 1988 it was a loss for the entire seminary community. I attended his funeral.

One of Maston’s former pastors recently recalled visiting Maston in the hospital at a time when he was hovering between life and death. Beside Maston’s bed was a pad of paper with dense notes in tight small script. When asked about this, Maston explained that he had been re-reading the gospels and making notes on new things he was learning about Jesus from the scriptures.

Maston and his wife had a son afflicted with cerebral palsy. They cared for Tom Mac every day of his 60 year life. Within months of his son’s death, Maston himself died.

Maston’s life reminds me of a book by Phyllis McGinley called Saint Watching. McGinley is basically showing that in the history of the church people have learned holiness by watching holy people. As she puts it, "if I cannot learn to fly like them or sing like them, I can learn a little of their ways (p. 12)." Her premise has biblical support. Paul told the Corinthians, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Maston stands out to me as a man worthy if imitation. To learn even a little of his ways would be to make progress in walking as Jesus walked. Maston's walk embodied a lifelong love of learning, of devotion to Christ and faithful love for his family.

And all of it hidden beneath a gentle demeanor and a gold coat.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fooling Ourselves

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8).

I’m weighing in late on the whole Katrina mess. Plenty has been said and written in an effort to capture the enormity of the loss and the depth of the pain visited upon the gulf region and New Orleans in particular. The words are sometimes helpful, but not always. Sometimes too many words have a way of diminishing that of which they speak. When Job suffered the loss of his children and property and health he had three friends who came to be with him and comfort him. At first they did quite well. They wept with Job. They sat with him in silence, no one saying a word, for seven days and seven nights. And then . . . they started talking. Things went south from there.

Ignoring the negative example of Job’s friends, I’m throwing my own words into the mix. But the words that come to me now aren’t really about pain and loss. I don’t have much to say about who should have done what and when they should have done it. What I find worthy of discussion, weeks after the storm, is simply us. People. People everywhere, not just along the gulf or in New Orleans.

Katrina raises significant questions for people of faith, especially those of us who treasure ideas like the sovereignty and providence of God. What did God have to do with this? Does God get directly and actively involved in nature? If not, what kinds of things does God actually do? If yes, why would God allow this kind of devastation? These aren’t new questions. I was asking them back in December when the Tsunami struck Southeast Asia. I didn’t arrive at a good answer then. I don’t have good answers now.

But here’s something of which I am absolutely certain. The Bible is right about us. It describes our condition perfectly. It does so with stories. It does so with logical argumentation. Over and over in scripture our condition is named. We are sinners. There’s something fundamentally wrong within us.

That’s what Katrina has shown me. There’s the obvious evidence that came out of the flooded and incapacitated city of New Orleans. It’s as if something wicked was unleashed in the city, something different than what was already there. But theft and rape and lawlessness don’t get to the depth of what sin is. Katrina has forced us to look at the social and racial issues surrounding poverty. Attitudes have been revealed; attitudes of indifference, attitudes of blame, as well as attitudes of entitlement. They are born from a common source – the bent condition of the human soul. We are sinners.

I want to be quick to add that much that is good and noble has been called forth by the tragedy of Katrina. A spirit of benevolence, a willingness to sacrifice, courage and strength and love – these have been present in good supply from all over the nation. But to say we’re sinners doesn’t mean we’re totally void of anything good and worthy. It simply means that what is good and worthy is damaged.

Eugene Peterson, in his recently released Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, makes reference to a 1910 book by G.K. Chesterton title What’s Wrong with the World? Peterson says that our standard answers to that question have to do with knowledge, power and money.[1]

If the world’s real problem is ignorance, then the answer is more and better education. If the world’s real problem is weakness, then the answer is political reform that gives power to the marginal and neglected. If the world’s real problem is poverty, then the answer is providing resources and putting more of the world’s people to work so they can sustain meaningful life.

But none of these get to our real problem. As good and important as education, government and business is to our well being, “at the core of who we are there is something wrong.”[2] Our scriptures name the real problem: sin.

It’s gotten rather hard to say that these days. Not many are buying it – and that includes the many who occupy church pews every week. There are plenty of decent well behaved people who understand sin solely in terms of immoral and criminal activity. But sin, biblically understood, isn’t an act as much as it is a condition. “It is a diagnosis.”[3]

That’s why John says so bluntly, “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves.” To think that we’ll be made right by education, government or commerce is wishful thinking. If we think that way we’re simply fooling ourselves. The only real answer to what ails us is forgiveness. When we tell the truth about ourselves and own what’s truly gone wrong, God is faithful and will do the work of making things right.

In the aftermath of Katrina we’ve been made aware of great need. There is need for shelter, clothes, jobs, medical care. And among all of this there is a need for good news. This kind of good news will not likely be announced by the President, but is weekly announced by God’s people, the church. What is wrong can be made right. As John reminded his people, “the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.” This is the gospel, and if we think the world will be changed for the better without it, we are truly fooling ourselves.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 317-19.
[2] Ibid., 319.
[3] Ibid.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Prayer After Sitting in the Car Pool Line

A week ago my children went back to school. There’s much lamentation these days about the way schools seem to be starting earlier and earlier. In the minds of most students, August is barely a part of what they regard as “summer.”

Well, this summer the Crumplers got a taste of the way it used to be. (I hear it used to be this way – I really don’t know). We didn’t start school until the day after Labor Day. My kids have been back at it now for a full week. This means that we had the entire months of June, July, and August for summer break. It was a great summer, and while it does seem that most schools systems are robbing their students and families of perfectly decent, hot summer days, I have a confession to make. We were ready for the day after Labor Day. I mean . . . really ready. Ready for some routine. All this talk about requiring schools to begin the school year after Labor Day sounds great until it gets to be August 15th or 20th and your children are still roughly a decade away from driving a car.

But we made it. And now we’re a week into the school year and starting to feel the weekly rhythms.

Since my kids are at a new school this year, Marnie and I have had plenty to be prayerful about. We’ve prayed for a smooth transition, for new friends, for teachers who will connect well with them and thus teach them well, for their sense of competence in the work required of them. But sitting here on a Tuesday morning, having just dropped them off at car pool about an hour ago, I’m thinking about wisdom. For me, and perhaps for most parents, this is the prayer above all prayers. I want my kids to gain wisdom. In his introduction to the book of Proverbs in The Message, Eugene Peterson offers this definition of wisdom:

Wisdom has to do with becoming skillful in honoring our parents and raising our children, handling our money and conducting our sexual lives, going to work and exercising leadership, using words well and treating friends kindly, eating and drinking healthily, cultivating emotions within ourselves and attitudes toward others that make for peace. Threaded through all these items is the insistence that the way we think of and respond to God is the most practical thing we do.

Accordingly, Peterson renders Proverbs 1:7 as follows:

Start with God – the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning.

I want my children to make good grades, but more than that I want them to make good decisions. That may not seem like such an urgent matter when you’re talking about a first grader and a second grader. The weight of decision making sits light upon them these days. But their capacity to bear the weight later, when the stakes are higher, is being formed right now.

And here’s what’s truly unsettling about all of this. There’s nothing in the book of Proverbs (as far as I can tell) to suggest that wisdom will come from some kind of educational institution. Schools have role in cultivating and teaching wisdom, but they can’t be looked to as the source of wisdom. Scripture seems to assume that wisdom is gained and passed on in the context of relationship. Wisdom’s natural habitat is personal, not institutional. Throughout Proverbs there is the sound of teaching that takes place from parent to child, one on one. Wisdom isn’t gained by reading as often as it is by conversation. “Pay close attention friend to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned on your mother’s knee” (Prov. 1:8, The Message). If my kids are to gain wisdom, it’s up to Marnie and me.

That’s an amazing thing to ponder. As I do, it becomes clear to me that as this school year begins I need to do more than pray for my children. I need to pray for myself. I need to pray for something to pass on to them. I need to pray for wisdom.

If any of you lacks wisdom he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him (James 1:5 NIV).

I’m counting on that.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

For Marnie on Our 9th Wedding Anniversary


The house is quiet and you are sleeping – you and two others who were only a hope to us on this day nine years ago.

I just went downstairs to find a little volume of poems by Wendell Berry. The book bears the title The Country of Marriage and I thought I might find something to quote: something more beautiful than what I’m able to write on my own, something that spoke with eloquence of the love I feel for you and the life we’ve shared for these nine years.

I found the book – but not a poem. Berry doesn’t sound like me. Better said, I don’t sound like him (unfortunately. I’d love to write like that).

This is a little book you gave to me, but I had forgotten when. As I thumbed through the pages, finding nothing for you in the poetry, I found something from you. A brief sentence you had written on the title page. You always like for something to be written inside a book when you give it (and receive it). Even now I think of the first book I gave to you early in our dating days. I was so formal and careful. You were under-whelmed with what I wrote as I recall, and it was indeed under-whelming.

But there on the page bearing the words The Country of Marriage, you added a few handwritten words of your own. “We’ve entered this wonderful world and country.” And then the date – September 1, 1996. You gave this to me the day after our wedding. I had not remembered that. I can only guess that you had bought the book before our wedding and you gave it to me that day. As I remember September 1, 1996 we didn’t go in any bookstores. We’re both geeky sometimes, but not that geeky.

Here’s something that strikes me as fitting. As I searched in the basement office for The Country of Marriage I came across another book entitled Blink (by Malcolm Gladwell - not about marriage). The title of one book speaks to the title of the other. Our nine years in the country of marriage seem to me like a blink. Our seniors may smile at that because they’ve got 20 or 30 or maybe even 50 years to reflect upon – but what is true of decades is no less true of a decade minus one.

The other day you told me you had found some important video tapes – our wedding, your ordination, my ordination. I think about nine years and it occurs to me that in the same sanctuary where we were married nine years ago, I was ordained nine years prior to our wedding. And on that warm Sunday evening in May of ’87 you were seated in the choir loft singing with the choir. It causes me to marvel at what I would have never dreamed on that night. There we both were, in the same sanctuary, seated on the platform behind the pulpit (as we so often are now) but without the slightest idea of what would take place in that same room nine years later. Did we even speak to each other that night in 1987? Your father placed his hands on me and prayed or said something. He knew no more than we did. I would not even know he had participated in my ordination were it not for the video record of it.

(Those two who were only “hopes” to us nine years ago have come into the study. They are very real and wanting some attention. I’ll finish later).

In May of 1987, kneeling in the sanctuary, I could not imagine what God was doing or was going to do over the next nine years. On August 31, 1996, standing with you in almost the exact same spot, the same was true. I was certain and remain certain of our vows, but we had no idea where the next nine years would take us – to our little house on Jane Street, to our semi-rural home in North Carolina, to the stomping grounds of our youth in Atlanta; growing from 2 to 3 in Houston, and then becoming a foursome in Raleigh. God has been so good to us.

This day of our anniversary is marred by the images and news of destruction and loss on the gulf coast after hurricane Katrina. There’s a slight sense of dissonance in sitting comfortably in front of this computer, now with sunlight streaming through the windows, meditating on the string of blessings that runs through our years of marriage. There is and always will be much in the world that is broken. Today these words from Calvin Miller resonate with me as words that are right and honest.

And though the floods of life may come and the waters of life threaten us, (this) scripture still stands: “Many waters cannot quench love, rivers cannot wash it away” (Song of Sol. 8:7).

So these nine years, as I think of them this morning, speak so clearly to me of grace. The gift of grace that you are to me; the ways you bring life to me and our home; the laughter and determination and restless zeal; the ways you parent our children; the grace of seeing you use the gifts God has poured into your own life. These nine years speak of the grace that is hidden in the mystery of time; grace that does what we never dreamed of.

I’m writing this to let anyone who reads it know that I am a blessed man, that God has been kind to me far beyond my deserving.

I’m writing this to let you know that I love you and I love the nine years we’ve shared. What will the next nine, or next one, hold? We will live by grace and continue to make our way through the country of marriage.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Finding Your Way Home (wrap up)

Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell

Two sons, both far from home.

The younger removed by miles, impatient in his youth, having no regard for his father’s honor or the family’s reputation. The elder son stays close to home, but the joy of being in the family has been replaced by duty. When it’s time to celebrate, he can’t come in.

As Jesus tells this story, we never see what the elder son decides to do. But in the story of the younger son we see that there are a couple of different ways to find your way home.

Some time after leaving home, the younger son ran out of money. At the very same time the economy took a terrible turn because of a famine, and he began to be in need. He took a job feeding pigs, but the job didn’t pay. He was hungry and he envied the pods that were given to the pigs.

In this state of need and hunger, the younger son comes up with a plan. He devises a speech that he will present to his father. Kenneth Bailey summarizes as follows: “having failed to find a paying job in the far country, he will try to obtain his father’s backing by becoming gainfully employed in his home community. He will yet save himself by keeping the law. Grace is unnecessary. He can manage himself – or so he thinks.”

The younger son does not return home out of remorse. He is driven by hunger, and he has a plan whereby he can make things right.

In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott recounts a time in her life where she was falling apart. Her life was an absolute mess – a relationship with a married man, too much alcohol, too much drugs, the wheels were coming off. In desperation she called a priest. Gradually, and with the help of this priest she made it through this dark time, and years later she asked her friend the priest to tell her what that first meeting was like when she had called him in her desperation. He told her
Here you were in a rather desperate situation, suicidal, clearly alcoholic, going down the tubes. I thought the trick was to help you extricate yourself enough so you could breathe again. You said your prayers weren’t working anymore and I could see that in your desperation you were trying to save yourself.

“In your desperation you were trying to save yourself.” When the younger son is hungry and in need and no one will give him anything, that’s what he does.

But there is another way to come home. While the younger son was running through his money, and then feeding pigs, his father seemed to know that someday he would return. His father also knew that if his son did return, there would be great shame and rejection from the village. The only way to avoid this was to get to his son before the neighbors did. So he waited and watched, waited and watched, until the day came. While his son was still at a distance, he did something unheard of. He ran to him. By getting to him first, by embracing him, he demonstrated publicly that there was reconciliation. The rejection of the neighbors was no longer fitting because the father had received his son and brought him home.

The son had a plan to become a wage earner; to work hard; to make things up. But there is a better way to come home, and that way is to simply allow the father to bring you home. This is grace. You don’t come home with your plan for making things right. The father comes to you, and he brings you home. He comes to you and he removes your shame.

This is how we are saved. Jesus comes to us. As Paul wrote it, though he (Jesus) was equal with God he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but he humbled himself and took the form of a servant. He came to us and submitted to death, even death on a cross.

There’s a scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which family, friends and people from NASA have gathered at the home of commander Jim Lovell as they anxiously wait for the astronauts to return home. They are all gathered around the TV and the newscast is showing a piece of an interview with the astronaut in which he is telling about his experience as a naval aviator, trying to land on an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Japan.

Because of combat conditions the carrier was blacked out – no lights. Lovell had no radar and no homing signal. When he turned on his map light the entire cockpit shorted out. He was surrounded by pitch blackness, he had no idea how he would find the carrier. Then down below in the ocean, he saw a trail of green. The carrier was churning up algae in the ocean, a phosphorescent green algae trailing behind the ship like a carpet. If Lovell’s cockpit instruments had been on, he would have never seen it. Lovell concluded the story by saying, “you never know what events might transpire to take you home.”

Our standard navigational instruments are the things we rely to make our own way home; those things that we look to or depend upon to tell us we’re o.k. That might be our money, our connections, our smarts – whatever. And sometimes those navigational instruments simply aren’t working. It’s then that God goes to work down in the deep places. This is the work of the Spirit leading us home.

The God we come home to knows us even at a great distance; he runs to us and meets us where we are. He takes our shame and brings us home. And there’s no better way to get there.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Finding Your Way Home: A Meditation on Luke 15:11-32

Like all children, my children love stories – and like all parents I often find myself the story teller. Sometimes the stories come from books: Dr. Seuss, Frog and Toad, Magic School Bus, Curious George. But sometimes the stories are stories I make up. These are never very good stories as far as stories go, but my children love these because there is always a little boy or a little girl in the story. They love these stories because they know they’re in it. They see themselves in the story.

The same is true for us and the parables of Jesus. Truth be told, we like stories too. And when we hear parables we see ourselves in the story. This may be why Jesus’ teaching ministry was so powerful. The gospels tell us that he never taught them without a story. And the gospels also tell us that people were amazed at his teaching. When Jesus taught, the crowds gathered around him, on one occasion pressing him so badly that he taught from a boat pushed out into the water. In his teaching people found themselves. They heard God’s voice and saw their lives.

Of all the stories Jesus told there are none that show us our lives and God’s nature like the story of the prodigal son. There are so many dimensions and levels to this story, and we can easily find ourselves connecting with it in a number of ways.

Many of you resonate with the waiting Father. In the three stories that Luke 15 clusters together, there is a person who loses something: A shepherd searching for a sheep, a woman searching for a son, a Father waiting and looking every day for his son.

To lose something is painful. Earlier this summer I lost a marriage license. As the wedding ended I reminded the couple that I needed the license. They reminded me that they had given it to me at our last meeting. I pretended to remember this and then went straight to my office and looked in my files. I had the envelope to mail the license but no license. I searched everywhere. (Let me add at this point that if you’re reading this and I did your wedding earlier this summer – I’m talking about someone else). The county office involved helped us correct the situation, but about two weeks ago I was moving my office and guess what I found? I felt great rejoicing just like the stories describe.

But your pain may be far more serious than the irritation of losing car keys or a marriag license, especially if (like the younger son) someone you love has gone off. It may be your child. You thought you had raised them to value certain things or to be a certain kind of person, and then one day they made it perfectly clear to you that they weren’t who you thought they were and they had no intention of being who you wanted them to be. They might not have left, they may still be under your roof this very day – but you feel like you’ve lost them.

Some of you have lost a spouse. The person you love has re-directed their affections. They may be in love with their work. They may be in love with someone else. Whatever it is, they’ve gone to a far country, and even when they’re at home they are distant.

There are children here today who have lost their parents; children who perhaps hold on to a hope that Dad or Mom will come home. They may be waiting for mom or dad to get home from the office; they may be hoping they’ll come home again to live.

Our experiences of loss help us connect with the waiting father. But as Jesus told these stories it was clear that we are not the shepherd or the woman or the Father. In this story we are to see ourselves in the sons. We are the ones who need to find our way home. The parable we commonly refer to as the prodigal son is actually a parable about two sons. The story Jesus tells falls into two scenes or acts that focus on each son – both of whom need to come home.

This is obvious when it comes to the younger son. He disgraced his father and his family by asking for his inheritance before his father was dead. His request in effect said “I can’t wait for you to die.” This was far more than a personal insult to the father. The entire community would have known this. He disgraced his family and alienated himself from the community. After this request he had to go to a far country. He couldn’t stay there.

But the older son is also in need of finding his way home. At the end of the story, when the father throws a party for the younger brother, the older son cannot come in. He stands off at a distance – angry, resentful.

This is where we find ourselves. Some of you are far from God because at some point in your life you became convinced that God and faith and religion were the major barrier to having a good time and enjoying the good life. You decided you’d had enough. You walked out on it.

Some of you are a long way from God and you’ve been in church all your life. But though you’ve never walked out you’ve lost the capacity to enter into the joy, the celebration of being a child of the father. You’ve become dutiful.

Your distance from God today may be the distance of youthful rejection; it may be the distance of duty without joy – but whatever it is, the parable calls you to find your way home. That can happen in two ways and we’ll take a look at those in the next post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Smart Fish

Fishing with John at Watercolor

"Come, follow me, Jesus said, and I will make you fishers of men" (Mark 1:17).

"But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32).

Last week on vacation we were either in the water or on the water. Most of the time we were in it – swimming in the ocean or (most often) in the pool near the house where we were staying. On two mornings we were on the water. We spent some time Kayaking on a 200+ acre lake, and when we’d had enough of that we spent a little time fishing from the dock.

I was impressed with whatever kind of fish might have been in that lake. These were smart fish. The fishing poles provided to my kids were simple cane poles with a line and a hook. Nothing fancy. The boat-house also provided a small plastic container of bait – small shrimp and shrimpy-like parts. I would place a shrimp on the hook and John would lower the bait into the lake. The red and white floater attached to the line rocked gently in the water, and then it bobbed, tugged from beneath. John jerked up on the line – but no fish. What was noticeable was the diminished form of the shrimp. The fish was eating without taking the hook.

John lowered the bait back into the water. Again the floater disappeared for a quick moment, and we attempted to set the hook only to pull the shrimp from the lake nearly gone. Something was getting a meal. We repeated the steps outlined above and this time drew a bare hook from the water. Can fish laugh? I imagined this fish (these fishes?) snickering, calling their fiends over to the feast.

Indeed they had a feast. We kept feeding them shrimp, they kept eating, and nothing was caught.

Jesus told his first followers that he would give them a new reason to wake up every day. Instead of pulling fish out of the Sea of Galilee, they would bring men and women into the Kingdom of God. I’ve wondered about how that works these days. How do the marginally churched, the cultural Christians, or outright pagans come to be followers of Jesus Christ?

The Church seems alternately anxious and oblivious to the question. The oblivious are losing members. The anxious are packing the house – but is it possible they’re dropping a hook, providing attractive bait, but not really catching disciples? Generalizations won’t work and don’t help – but our culture is not too different from the lake at Watercolor. There are plenty of smart fish out there. They know how to sample our programs, they like the ramped up sounds of our praise and worship, they’ll listen to a speaker who knows how to lift their spirits without burdening or taxing the mind. How much of what we’re doing is shrimp on a hook, there for the tasting and taking with out much risk for the fish?

It may be that less is more. On the day John actually caught a fish someone said to us, “you need a smaller hook.” They gave us their pole, a pole with a small hook, and we baited the hook with a smaller piece of shrimp. Did it really make a difference? I don’t know, but my son pulled a fish out of the water.

Jesus said, “if I be lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” Ultimately, Jesus brings people to himself when he’s lifted up. Programs won’t do it, worship that rocks won’t do it – though both have a place in the life of the church. What we have to help us fish for people and bring them into the kingdom is Jesus. Telling his story, living his life.

We’re surrounded by smart fish, but the call Jesus gave to Peter and Andrew hasn’t changed. And just maybe there’s something to be said for smaller hooks.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

No (or few) Explanations Needed?

They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage (Nehemiah 8:8 NLT).

As we were getting ready to leave for the beach this past weekend I grabbed a copy of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow and threw it in my bag. As it turns out, I’ve been enjoying Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies this week. Still, while taking a quick look at Berry’s novel, deciding whether I really wanted to pack it, I noticed a page placed just before the table of contents. It read:

Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company of other explainers.

Those words got my attention in as much as I’ve been preparing to preach on the story of the prodigal son. This is an intimidating parable. Richard Allen Farmer, with well over 20 years of regular preaching under his belt, said it took him that long to feel ready to preach on the prodigal son. I can understand why.

I’m not exactly sure what Berry meant about “attempting to find a text” or “subtext” but I understand his aversion to explainers. I say this as one with a proclivity for explaining. For me there is a close connection between teaching and explaining. I guess Wendell Berry would number me among the “explainers.” I’m not apologizing for this. In fact, I have allies in the work of explaining, Ezra the priest being one of them.

After the exiled Hebrews had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt its walls, they took a break to listen to Ezra read from the Word of God, the books of Moses. This was no perfunctory snippet as prelude to Ezra’s lengthy exposition. Ezra read from the Law from early morning until midday, “and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:3). Ezra was aided by a small army of priests who helped the people understand what the Law meant. They would read from the Law clearly and explain it. Some translations say they “gave the sense” of the reading. Here is one of the earliest examples of expository teaching.

But back to Wendell Berry’s grousing and the story of the prodigal son. As helpful (and necessary) as good expository teaching is, the last thing I want to do is “explain” the parable of the prodigal son. As a novelist and poet, Berry knows that efforts to explain and dissect a story or poem often do violence to the story or poem. Something is lost, namely the power of the story or verse. Stories and poems do their own kind of work in the mind and heart. They don’t sit there motioning for help like people on a rooftop during a flood, hoping a good explainer will find them and lower the rope of analysis to rescue them. They are quite capable of taking care of themselves, thank you.

I admire Ezra, but I admire Jesus more. And Jesus did very little explaining. He did a great deal of story telling. And those who first followed Jesus and heard him tell those stories chose to tell us about Jesus by telling more stories. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t explain much, even when some explanation would be helpful. For example, our questions about the “meaning” of the crucifixion and resurrection would be less perplexing if the gospel writers had done a little more explaining. Thankfully, there’s always Paul, who excelled in explaining and exhorting.

At the beginning of part three of Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, she quotes a line from Martin Buber. “All actual life is encounter.”

That’s what teachers are really after – an encounter. Specifically, an encounter between the listeners/ congregation and God. Even as Ezra read from the Law, the people responded with worship. They bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Something was happening that didn’t allow people to simply sit and think about what they had heard. There was encounter, worship.

Inevitably, I’ll end up explaining some aspects of the prodigal son story. Frankly, parts of it need explaining to 21st century listeners. Hopefully, the explanation won’t bleach the life out of the story. Hopefully, by the Spirit, there will be an encounter with God. And hopefully, whatever happens, folks will have a little more patience and grace than Wendell Berry.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Solitude, Community, and "March of the Penguins"

“He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22:41).

Last night Marnie and I took the kids to see March of the Penguins. The movie is a documentary about the long trek made by Emperor Penguins when it is time to mate and bring new little penguin chicks into the world. This isn’t something that they’ll do just anywhere. There is a nesting ground, a particular place that they instinctively know how to find – but getting there requires a very long walk, nearly 100 miles. This is amazing for an animal that, for all practical purposes, has no legs and takes steps by tottering back and forth from foot to foot.

To make the journey they join together, forming a massive community of black and white as they trudge toward their destination. At one point the little pilgrims formed an extended line that seemed to stretch out endlessly. As they moved across the barren and brutal terrain of ice and snow I wondered about Moses and the exodus out of Egypt. What did that look like?

Of the many beautiful and powerful scenes captured by the film makers, the parts that remain firmly lodged in my mind are the images that captured the critical role of the collective gathering while telling the story with pictures of a single penguin or one particular couple.

The journey that forms the plot of the film is one that cannot be made by a solitary penguin. One image showed an Emperor penguin, who through circumstance or weakness or old age had not managed to keep pace with the group. The solitary black figure continued to trudge across the expansive frozen wilderness. The vast emptiness of the scenery served to punctuate the loneliness of the image. The narrator, Morgan Freeman, explained that the fate of such a solitary traveler was to simply disappear into the whiteness surrounding it. Being separated from the community was a death sentence.

Once the eggs have been laid they must be carefully guarded from the cold by remaining hidden under a flap of skin between the father’s feet – a kind of fleshy pouch that envelops the egg until it hatches. Yes, the Fathers do this. Once the mother lays the egg, she transfers the egg to the male. The male guards and holds the egg for about eight weeks while the females make the 100 mile walk back to where they came from. There the females will feed, and return, making the walk yet again, to feed their chicks.

As the males wait, the days shorten, daylight all but disappears, and winter unleashes its nastiness. The only hope of survival is in the group itself. The males huddle, turning their backs to the harsh elements, taking turns at being in the warm center of the community. The film described this gathering as a new organism – hundreds of penguins forming a singular living entity for the purposes of survival.

My wife likes to jokingly remind me that in marrying me she saved me from the life of a monk. I won’t acknowledge it to her – but she’s right. She’s not very accurate because even monks live in community. In fact, community is at the heart of monasticism. But I know what she’s saying. She keeps my inclination to solitude in check. She loves a party, lots of people. She helps me by prodding me to at least go the parties. But more than that, together she and I have been blessed with a little community of our own. I can’t imagine my life without her and John and Anna. Not all people find community in marriage and family, but they’ve got to find it somewhere. What marriage and family save me from is myself. They puncture the lie that “life is a story about me.”[1]

March of the Penguins not only said something to me about my family, but it had powerful implications for the church and what the church ought to be. Life is not a journey that we can make in isolation from others. Moreover, the life of faith is not something we can do well on our own. The image of the isolated penguin and the picture of the huddled fathers both conveyed one message. To be alone is to die.

The spiritual life is peculiar in this way. It grows in solitude, but it shrivels up in isolation. Dallas Willard observes that solitude holds a place of primacy among the spiritual disciplines. Solitude gives us distance and perspective. In solitude we find freedom from “ingrained behaviors” that are set against God and life in his kingdom.[2]

But isolation has a way of eroding the life of the Spirit by turning the self in on itself. Isolation is nothing but self in which God shrinks and moves to the background while the self and all its quirks and fantasies and fears grow large.

On the night of his arrest Jesus did something that we would do well to imitate. Of course, we do well to imitate everything that Jesus did, but this is especially interesting. As he sought out solitude, he took three friends with him. The gospels tell us he was in anguish, and when you’re in anguish you need people around. And yet, you need the space of solitude. Jesus went out with the twelve. As Matthew tells it, he left them but took Peter, James and John. He asked them to “keep watch with me” and then he went a little further. Luke omits the presence of Peter, James and John, but he uses the vivid phrase “a stone’s throw.” In this scene in Gethsemane, solitude and community mingle. Both are necessary.

Emperor Penguins and Christian disciples; neither do well alone. We need others around us, even if “a stone’s throw” away. We need the rhythm of solitude and community – always careful that solitude not become isolation.

Marnie, John and Anna – along with my parents and my in-laws, brother and sister, and others whom God has given to me. And the Peachtree Presbyterian Church. After last night I see myself waddling and tottering like a penguin and I can’t imagine the journey without them.

[1] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 182.
[2] Dallas Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 160-61.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"Don't Move Until You See It"

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him (Psalm 37:7).

You don’t have to be an athlete to have a favorite sports movie. I’ve never placed a foot in a boxing ring, never been in the same room with one as far as I know, but I love Rocky (the sequels get increasingly predictable). I never played football, but I love Rudy and Remember the Titans. And what about The Rookie and Hoosiers and Seabiscuit? I even felt a surge of adrenaline at the sappy Disney film Racing Stripes. There’s just something powerful about contests of skill and strength and endurance. They are inherently dramatic.

This past weekend I re-discovered one of my favorite sports movies. The sport is chess. The movie is Searching For Bobby Fisher. I don’t play chess, and I’m not going to argue whether chess is actually a sport. Seems to me it has as much right to be called a sport as golf or bowling. Definitions aside, the movie evoked in me some of the same responses as those other films. Strange as it may be, there’s some high drama in this movie.

Searching For Bobby Fisher is about a seven year old kid, Josh Waitzkin. I guess he’s what we would call a prodigy. After observing some men playing a rapid game of chess in a park, he gets it. He grasps the game, understands it. He’s gifted. Among other story lines, the movie tells of his rise in the national rankings.

As with almost every sports movie, the drama reaches its height in a contest that takes place at the end of the film. Josh has encountered a player whom he fears. Another incredibly gifted kid – but different than Josh. This kid is like a cold predator at the chess board. He has quiet ways of taunting. He isn’t playing a game, he’s hunting. His face is expressionless, like some kind of shark staring at you from the other side of the board. After battling his fears (and they are multi-layered) Josh ends up facing this player for the national title.

They play each other countering move with move until Josh looses a key piece, the queen, to his opponent. He’s appears to be stuck, slightly shaken. As he eyes the board his teacher is in another room (with all the hyper-competitive parents) watching the match by video feed. At this very moment his teacher sees the way to victory. He speaks softly as if coaching Josh.

“You’ve got him Josh . . . it’s only twelve moves away . . . don’t move until you see it.”

Oddly, the drama of the game is unfolding as two people sit quietly across from each other. The action is captured only by movements of the eyes, movements that reflect the workings of the mind. As Josh gazes at the board he remembers a time when his teacher abruptly swept the board clean, knocking every piece across the hardwood floor, forcing Josh to visualize the moves in his mind. Now with a national title at stake, Josh creates a vacant board in his mind and sees the moves unfolding.

All the while, his teacher coaches with a whisper “don’t move until you see it.”

It takes strength to wait. At some level we all know this. Many of us confess to not being patient people, not being able to get still and wait. It’s torture. Thus, actually waiting demands a certain kind of strength. We know this, and yet our culture has given us a de facto definition of waiting as weakness and passivity, a form of laziness. But you can’t see deeply into things, into life, when you’re hurried. A frenetic life doesn’t allow a person to visualize twelve moves ahead. Eugene Peterson observes that “patience is a difficult condition to come to terms with in a technology-saturated culture that is impatient – worse, contemptuous – of slowness.”[1]

When we’re stuck, not sure what’s next, shaken by a direct hit life has dealt to us, patient waiting is excruciating. But our biblical ancestors understood that waiting patiently before the Lord is required of those who desire to live whole and well. Isaiah reminds us that those who wait on the Lord will be renewed in strength, mounting up with wings, walking, running without growing weary. How often does the Psalmist resolve to wait patiently before the Lord? Granted, this waiting isn’t always something the Psalmist delights in. Sometimes the question is posed, “how long must I wait?” (Ps. 119:84). Still, waiting is the fundamental posture of a prayerful life. We bring our requests, our needs, our lives before God, offering them as a sacrifice, waiting in expectation (Ps. 5:3).

And yet, the life of faith cannot be all about waiting. The counsel of Josh Waitzkin’s teacher doesn’t always work for those who seek to life a life of faith, following Jesus. If we resolve to not “move until we see it,” we’ll likely never move. In our waiting before the Lord we rarely get full disclosure, all twelve moves, the winning resolution. Sometimes we simply have to make a move. Moves 2-12 remain a mystery, but we can take step one. That God asks this of us is seen in his call to Abraham. “Go to a land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) The movements of the Spirit cannot be discerned like the movements of a chess game. It’s far more mysterious, like wind, moving where it will.

The Christian life is lived in this tension. We wait patiently, not driven by the demands around us or the anxieties within us. And yet we are not content simply to wait, and waiting until all the moves are clear is often a failure to trust. Living in this tension constitutes the drama of our lives, real life drama.

And in these ordinary, daily dramas, far more than a national title is at stake.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 337.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A Lesson from Lance

If we claim we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth – we’re not living what we claim. (1 John 1:6, The Message).

I have never felt like I have much of a “testimony” to share. That’s not to say I don’t believe God has done anything in my life. It’s just that what God has done isn’t very exciting or dramatic. I have a story, a faith story, to be sure – but it isn’t very interesting.

The truly compelling stories, the kind of stories that show God intervening in a life and turning that life around – those are stories that have punch. They make people take notice. Among those stories is that of Chuck Colson. This guy was at the top of the Washington power structure, a key player in the Nixon administration, implicated in the Watergate mess, convicted and sentenced . . . and then converted. Now that’s a story.

I find myself wanting to add another name to that list, another story that forces the unbelieving world to deal with the reality and power of Jesus. The name is Lance Armstrong. Sadly, however, there’s no story.

Of course, there’s an incredible story of an athlete. An incredible story of overcoming a pervasive aggressive cancer. An incredible story of six Tour de France victories. As of this writing it appears that Lance is less than a week from making it a perfect seven. Unheard of. Unbelievable. An amazing story.

But Jesus isn’t in it.

My interest in this isn’t entirely pure. I guess there’s a little “wouldn’t it be great to have Lance on our side” kind of thinking. That’s not a concern for evangelism, seeing a person come to faith in Christ. That’s marketing. I guess I want to use Lance the same way Nike or Trek does. Thus ends my confession.

Mixed motives aside, it is truly amazing to me that God doesn’t figure more prominently into the Lance Armstrong story. Few lives have been as marked by the grace of God as this man’s life. It seems to me that every inch of his existence is smudged with God’s fingerprints; everything from his natural athletic ability, to the fact that he’s still alive, much less riding a bike – riding and winning. How does a story like that manage to omit God? It baffles me.

But Armstrong manages to do just that in his book, "It’s Not About the Bike." For example:

“I don’t know why I’m still alive. I can only guess. I have a tough constitution . . . I can’t help feeling that my survival was more a matter of blind luck” (p. 3).

At one point Armstrong sounds unnervingly defiant when he says

Quite simply I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person . . . if I did that . . . then I believed that should be enough. If there was indeed a God at the end of my days, I hoped he didn’t say, “but you were never a Christian, so you’re going the other way from heaven.” If so, I was going to reply, “You know what? You’re right. Fine.” (p. 117)

Lance is trusting in himself, trusting in his own best attempt to “live a true life” – whatever that means. The more I think about that, I don’t think I’m guilty of only envying Lance as a poster boy for the Christian faith. I feel a sense of sadness when I read his words. But sadder than Armstrong’s misplaced trust in his “true life” is the reason he seems to feel that way about faith and about Christianity in particular.

Early in the book Lance explains that he basically grew up without a father. Lance’s mother was 17 when Lance was born, and he never knew his birth father. At a young age, his mother married a man who adopted him and gave him the name Armstrong. Lance has little good to say about this man. Among the memories that left an enduring mark on Armstrong is this:

Terry Armstrong was a Christian . . . but for all of his proselytizing, Terry had a bad temper, and he used to whip me, for silly things. Kid things, like being messy. . . as a result my early impressions of organized religion was that it was for hypocrites” (p. 21).

The extent to which Armstrong’s lack of faith in God can be attributed to this one person isn’t clear. What is clear is that as a child Armstrong knew a Christian who seemed to live out of his anger, not love. In Armstrong’s mind and memory this connection was never made: he was a Christian and he loved me. Terry Armstrong's life and faith didn't connect. As a Christian, he didn’t exhibit anything compelling or attractive to Lance.

There's really nothing new here. This is what pastor John seems to be writing about to his congregation, a congregation fractured by some who claim to know Christ, to be in the light – but live life stumbling around in the darkness. Their lives negate their claim. To be in the light means to live a certain kind of life. Faith is lived. Doctrine isn’t a head thing, it’s a life thing. John is succinct in making his point. “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from Lance: lessons about hope and determination, self-discipline and self confidence – and yes, lessons about grace. But hidden behind these prominent lessons is a quiet lesson about the power of lived faith and the impact it can have on another person. One person’s refusal to acknowledge God can’t be blamed entirely (or mostly?) on another person's failure to walk with God. Still, I can’t help but wonder. What if a very young Lance Armstrong had known a Christian whose love for Jesus translated clearly into love for him? What a story we might be telling right now.

And maybe even today the narrative is open-ended. The story has yet to be concluded.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

These Are Serious Times

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56 ESV)

Here in Atlanta we’re dealing with the after-effects of Hurricane Dennis. In Georgia that means plenty of rain, some flooding and loss of power in some areas. It also means we’re relatively fortunate given what some areas along the gulf coast are left to deal with.

Relatively fortunate . . . most of us.

There’s been a news story in Atlanta that I can’t make sense of, can’t get my mind around. Part of my brain wants to wrestle with it to see if I can arrive at some suitable way to think about it. Another part of my brain wants to forget about it and pretend it didn’t really happen.

On Sunday night a 35 year old man in the Decatur area went to bed, probably with the sound of rain peppering his roof. Sometime early Monday morning a massive tree fell on his house, ripping into his bedroom and killing him. He has a wife and small children. They managed to escape. The newscasts keep saying that this man died instantly. I keep wondering how they know that and I keep praying it’s true. Perhaps we’re not supposed to ever get comfortable with stories like that. TV tries to help us. We get about 60 seconds of the tragedy and then we break to something else, often some clever and funny commercial that makes us smile again. It’s the randomness of it all that bothers me. The randomness means that no one has immunity.

So if that’s the case, what are we to do with that? How do we live and what does it mean to live well. These are the questions that have been stirred up this morning as I read through the text of Luke 12. The scripture hasn’t offered an explanation. It rarely does. But to listen to Jesus is to hear some things that need to be heard as we watch the movements of a hurricane and hear about a family robbed of a father and husband and see a mangled and charred bus on the streets of London.

It seems like the people among whom Jesus lived were very much like us. Over the past weekend I was constantly turning on the weather channel. The frequency of special weather bulletins on our local TV channels signaled the level of threat and fed our voracious appetite for radar images and information about trajectory and wind speed. This is the kind of thing Jesus confronts in Luke 12:54-56. Jesus observes that his audience is very perceptive and interested in weather patterns. They know that cloud from the west, coming from over the Mediterranean Sea, will be full of moisture. “There’ll be rain,” they say. Likewise, these folks know that a south wind, coming from the arid desert places, will be like an oven blast. “It’s gonna be a hot one,” they say.

Jesus makes his point with a question. “You know how to read the weather, but why can’t you interpret this present time?”

It’s “this present time” that deserves our attention, our efforts to discern accurately and respond wisely. The pressing question of Jesus’ day, and ours, is “what is God doing?” The people to whom Jesus spoke were good at reading the almanac, interpreting earth and sky, but they were missing the work of God present among them in Jesus.

In his book Serious Times, James Emery White shares this quote from Paul Helms:
“The whole of a person’s life is fundamentally serious, something for which he is responsible before God, and for which he will have to give an account . . . He is individually responsible to God for what he ‘makes’ of it.”[1]

White recounts a line from a letter written by John Adams to his friend Thomas Jefferson toward the end of their lives. “You and I have lived in serious times.”

This is what Jesus knew. This is what he wanted others to understand. This is what we need to understand as well. These are serious times. This theme is woven throughout Luke 12 – in a sense, through the whole of scripture. In the voices of prophets, Jesus, and the apostles, the call is consistent. Don’t miss what matters most. Don’t be distracted by the dramatic and thus miss the truly urgent.

We respond to the randomness of a fallen tree not by trying to avoid trees or by sitting up all night during storms. I heard a radio interview on Saturday with an American woman who lives in London. The interviewer asked, “will this terrorist attack cause you to come home?” The answer was no. It made me think, “why would coming back to the USA be a good response? What would that solve?”

Jesus said, “don’t fear those who can only kill your body and then do nothing else. Fear the one who holds your eternal destiny, who can throw you into hell” (Luke 12:4-5).

We don’t answer the urgency of these serious times by simply protecting ourselves against terrorists or hurricanes. We answer the urgency of these days with readiness. Jesus uses the image of a boss returning from a business trip to find workers productively engaged. Be ready, watchful, alert. “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night” (Luke 12:38).

These are serious times.

And serious times call for serious lives. This doesn’t mean sour and sober, guarded and tentative. It does mean looking deeper than wind and clouds, getting beneath the surface, interpreting the days in which we live, ready to be a part of what God is doing. This is what Jesus calls us to. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).

[1] Quoted in James Emery White, Serious Times, p. 10.