It really wasn't so difficult for the disciples to fall asleep in the garden; they were doing the same thing that Jesus had done in the boat. It was late. They were tired. They'd had a long stretch of ministry, and this seemed as good a time as any to catch up on a little sleep. The "expert" - the one Guy among them most qualified to pray - was praying.
And yet, three times, we see Jesus return to His sleeping disciples disappointed. Wake up! Wake up! The question here is...why?
In the boat, the disciples (at least, the four fishermen among them) were highly qualified to handle the waves. Although they were not successful at convincing the white-collar guys among them, Jesus trusted them wholeheartedly to secure the boat, even in the storm. Does that mean that they were capable of doing everything Jesus could do if He were awake?
Of course not. The disciples could steady the ship, but they could never calm the waves. They can sail through the storm, but they can't stop it. Only Jesus can speak to the wind.
In the garden, Jesus was highly qualified to handle His heart. He was the only one who could truly cry out to God; He was the only one who knew what was going on. The disciples trusted Jesus to manage events and anxieties. Does that mean Jesus was capable of doing everything the disciples could do?
Before you get all upset with me, thinking that I am claiming there is something the omnipotent, omnipresent Son of God cannot do, let me make clear that this is no failure on His part; it's not that He can't do it. It's that we won't let Him do it.
Not all the world is convinced by the Son of God. That's why He needs disciples.
There are persons in this world who need a little flesh every now and then. They need a living, breathing human being to come alongside them and "keep watch." Jesus, of course, is wholly capable of keeping watch, but an unbelieving world is not convinced. They need you and me to keep watch with them. Which is why Jesus says, Wake up!
There are persons in this world who will never hear the whispers of the Spirit because their ears just don't work that way. They can't hear Jesus praying in the Garden. And maybe you think that only God needs to hear such a prayer, but that's not true; we need it, too. Just imagine, for a moment, what is missing from the story of Jesus if we don't have that prayer, if we don't have that garden. It's essential. And yet, many among us will never hear it. That's why we must be awake. So that we can tell the story to those who can't hear the whisper. Persons can often hear our voice even when they can't hear God's. So Wake up!
There are persons in this world who are coming after Jesus. With a vengeance. They've got it out for Him. He can hear the mob forming, even while sleep invades our eyes. The torches are being lit; the swords are being drawn. If we, His disciples, cannot keep watch with Him, who can? If we will not, who will? Wake up!
And there are persons in this world who will sail in our boat and trust us wholeheartedly in the storm, even as they roll their eyes at the sleeping Jesus. This is just what they'd expect of Him in their unbelieving hearts. This is exactly the God they just can't buy into - this God who sleeps through the storm. And these very same persons will also come to us in the garden. And maybe in the garden, they find us sleeping and decide there's nothing else going on here, nothing happening deeper into the grove. Maybe they turn away, just a few short steps from discovering the true heart of God being poured out. Just a little ways away from the real Jesus.
Because we were sleeping. Because we weren't awake to tell them to take those next few steps. Because we didn't call them deeper into the garden. Because we didn't point them toward Jesus.
It's so easy for us to say that Jesus can handle it. That He, out of all others, is uniquely qualified to take care of things. And that is both true...and not true. There's work for us to do. There's work that only we can do (empowered, of course, by the Holy Spirit). There are persons all around us who will never hear the whisper if we are not awake to shout it for them. If we are not alert to tell them that just around the next corner, just a few more faithful steps away, God Himself is pouring out His heart for them. Beads of His sweat are hitting the ground as His broken heart bleeds through His very pores. Two, three, four more steps into the depths of the garden is the heart of God.
Friday, April 29, 2016
Thursday, April 28, 2016
There's a very good reason why we can't just jump from Jesus sleeping on the boat to calming the waves, as if that were the entire point of the whole story. (It is but one of many rich threads woven into this particular narrative.) That very good reason is this:
Because the tables were about to be turned.
It's not long after Jesus is found sleeping when the disciples seem to need Him most that it will be the disciples' turn to sleep, at a moment when Jesus confesses that He needs them. Just a few turns of the page and we find ourselves in the garden of Gethsemane, moments before Jesus is betrayed into the hands of those who have spent His entire ministry chasing Him.
He goes to this garden, one of His go-to spots, to pray. It may be, He knows, one of His last chances to get away into a quiet place before the noise will be nearly unbearable. Before He will hear the taunting crowds. Before He will hear His disciples' denial. Before the sound of the hammer striking the nails pierces more than His hands. This is it. He needs this prayer.
The disciples, as they are accustomed to by now, go with Him. Several stay near the edge of the garden; a few go deeper with Him. He turns to the few and says, "Stay awake and keep watch (pray) with me." In other words, I really need you guys right now. Please, please be my guys right now.
Okay, Jesus. No problem. We got this.
Then He steps deeper still into the garden and begins to pray. After a short time, He comes back to the few and finds them...sleeping. Wake up, guys! I need you! Can you not just stay awake and pray with me? Keep watch. I need you.
Okay, Jesus. Sorry. No problem. Here we are. We got this. Keeping watch. Right-o.
Then He steps again into the depths of the garden and begins again to pray. After another short time, He comes back to the few and finds them...sleeping. Again. Wake up, guys! I need you! Why is this so difficult?
Right. Sorry. You're right, Jesus. It's not so hard. Okay. We're awake. We got this. Go pray.
Right. Sorry. You're right, Jesus. It's not so hard. Okay. We're awake. We got this. Go pray.
So Jesus steps away again to pray. And a few minutes later, He comes back one more time and discovers, you guessed it, sleeping disciples. But this time, it's too late. Wake up, guys. It's time. The betrayer is coming with the mob; this is my moment.
Good thing Jesus thought to come back when He did or the disciples might have slept through the whole thing. After all, if you can sleep through your Teacher crying out in such agony that He drips beads of blood from His brow, you can probably sleep through the moment when He makes no noise at all, when He quietly goes with those who have come to capture Him.
And that's why we have to let the question of the boat linger a little bit. Because it's not just about some sleeping God that we wake up when we need Him to calm the waves; it's about our falling asleep on Him, too. It's about this time that's coming when God will have to wake us up.
Because we're sleeping.
And He needs us.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
As we talk about Jesus sleeping in the boat in the midst of a terrible storm, of course we cannot ignore what this must have looked like to the non-fishermen on board, who naturally turned toward the present, but passed-out, Lord for help.
Jesus isn't worried. If there's anybody who knows how to handle a little storm, it's the four fishermen He's got in the boat with Him. And on the off-chance that they all get in over their heads, Jesus knows there's nothing on this earth that is not under His control, if it should need to be. So He's dozing.
The other eight guys are not so sure.
They can't believe, with everything that's going on around them, that Jesus would still be sleeping. They can't believe that He's not waking up and taking care of this yet. Maybe they are wondering how they are supposed to save Jesus if this whole boat capsizes, or what they are going to tell the crowds if the Lord is lost at sea. Maybe...maybe they can't swim. Maybe, like us, they just think that if they're going to be in the presence of Jesus, nothing bad should happen to them.
There shouldn't be storms at all if Jesus is in your boat.
But He's sleeping.
What a jerk.
How often do we find ourselves thinking this same thing? How often do we find ourselves in boats that are being rocked by waves, thinking we ought not to have to deal with the waves if Jesus is in the boat with us? How often does it seem that our lives are just a few short minutes, one good gust of wind, away from sinking, and Jesus...this precious Jesus...this Guy to whom we have given our very lives is sleeping?
This is, it is interesting to note, one of the accusations that the prophet Elijah makes about Baal in 1 Kings 18. He is the only prophet of the Lord left in all the land, and the prophets of Baal are making some bold claims about this so-called god of theirs. So Elijah meets them on the mountain and challenges them to a battle of the prophets. If their god is any god at all, he will show up and defend himself. He will answer his prophets and do amazing things. But, of course, Baal is no god at all; he's MIA. And Elijah, in all his prophetic surety, says, "Well, maybe he's sleeping. Maybe you have to wake him up. Shout loudly! Shout, now! Wake up your sleeping god!"
And now, here we find ourselves in a boat where the Lord really is sleeping. Where the real God really is in la-la land at just the very moment when we need Him to prove Himself, to come and calm the waves, to steady our sinking ship. (It might not actually be sinking, but it's rocking pretty hard.)
It is tempting at this point to want to wrap up the story, to want to skip to the part where Jesus wakes up, yawns, assesses the situation, and says, simply, It's fine. And the waves calm down and the storm stops and the boat rights and all 13 men make it safely to the other shore. All is well in the world again. That's where we want to go with this story, right? We want that reassurance that all things work out?
But that's an injustice to the developing narrative here. Because what it teaches us, erroneously, is that things are well when Jesus is awake. When Jesus is asleep, things are...less well. It teaches us that we need to wake our God up every now and then, that sometimes, when we need Him most, He is, indeed, sleeping in the stern. That it's up to us to make our God respond to our needs. That part of our role as believers is to sound the alarm clock and refuse to be snoozed. This is not what God intends for us to learn from this story. This isn't the right conclusion to draw.
More than even this, though, the very idea of Jesus sleeping in the boat sets us up to understand another story in the Gospels, one that's going to take place a bit later in the whole Jesus narrative. And if we determine that the whole point of the boat narrative is to wake Jesus up, then we're going to have a bit of difficulty if the other story doesn't turn out quite the same way....
Stay tuned for this one.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
In the Boat
Today's story is not going to be a new one for very many; it is one of the most-told stories in the Gospels. But it is necessary to look at today's story as a set-up for another one.
The Gospels record for us a story of Jesus and His disciples in a boat, crossing the lake once again. It seems boats were a favorite place for Jesus, as it was often the only place He could truly go to get away from the crowds. (The Gospels say as much, although they also say that sometimes, others got in boats to follow Him and sometimes, they ran around the shorelines to meet Him on the other side.) While He was with the fishermen, and this was work for them, it was rest for Him.
They steered the boats; He slept in the stern.
It's an interesting scenario. Of all the things we see Jesus trusting the disciples with throughout His journey - His secrets, His teachings, His authority to cast out demons, etc. - we don't often think of Him trusting them with His life. But He does. He trusts them with His life in the boat because these are the experts; these men are the best in their field. Simon and Andrew, James and John (at least) were professional fishermen. If there is ever a place on the earth where Jesus feels safe in the hands of His disciples, it is here, in their boat.
Which is all well and good except...there's a storm brewing.
Jesus trusts the disciples to handle the storm; it doesn't even wake Him up. We often think that has something to do with the relationship between Jesus and storms, in general, but I don't think we have to make that assumption. Jesus was with at least four guys who spent their lives on the water. They've handled storms. They can handle this one.
In fact, I think that in a few verses, when we see the disciples start to panic, it wasn't the fishermen who were panicking. It was the other guys. Matthew was a white-collar guy, a tax collector. Judas was an actuary, perhaps. These white-collar guys were the ones who were a little green around the gills. I'm pretty sure the fishermen were doing their best to run the show, "Guys, calm down. We got this. Let the Man sleep!" Meanwhile, the guys less familiar with the waters were less calm about the whole thing.
We're going to die! We're all going to die! Jesus, WAKE UP!
There are a few reasons I'll risk saying something like this (besides it making complete logical sense). First, the Gospels record fairly routinely for us the dumb stuff that James and John and especially Peter say; there's none of that here. Neither of these three seems to be the one speaking. If it were, I think we would be told as much. Second, Peter says and does nothing in this scene, which means for once, he might actually be busy doing something meaningful in all this. Like steering the boat. And making sure they don't all die.
So it's an interesting scene that is setting up in this little boat here in these choppy waters. For once, the men are just doing what they do - either managing the boat or attempting to manage their anxieties - and it is Jesus who is not doing a thing. It is Jesus who is resting comfortably, trusting that things are in good hands. Yes, He probably knows that there's a storm. Yes, He's aware that at any moment, He could wake up and speak the storm away. But He doesn't always have to work miracles, you know. He doesn't always have to be God.
Men are capable beings, too. And especially these men.
They can handle a little storm.
Well, some of them can.
But there's more to this story. Much more, actually. Stay tuned.
Monday, April 25, 2016
For the Pickin'
Let me ask you something: when was the last time you grew your own fruit?
It's a fair question, particularly in the day of mega-chain supermarkets and small-town farmers' markets. But that's not the kind of fruit I'm talking about.
I'm talking about the fruit of the Spirit.
It's one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, this little snippet from Galatians. Paul says plainly what kind of fruit the Spirit ought to be producing in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. All good things, yes? All things we desire to have, right? All things we try to pick off the Spirit's tree.
And therein lies the problem.
Most of us think about these fruit of the Spirit like the Holy Spirit is just growing these things in an orchard somewhere. Like all we have to do is walk through and pick a piece of patience when we need it. All we have to do is wander around until we find a ripe, juicy, glorious piece of love. In a pinch, perhaps we pray for God to grow quickly a bit of self-control, for we need it right now, and it's nowhere to be found in this orchard of the Spirit. The self-control trees never seem to be in bloom.
Or quite to our taste.
I think this is how many of us have come to view these fruits of the Spirit, as though the Holy Spirit is just producing all of these things for us to take hold of when we need them in our lives. When we're hungry for them. When they would be just the right piece of fruit to offer our guests (or, occasionally, ourselves). In times of famine, or even hunger, we go off searching for the Spirit's orchard, looking for this so-called fruit we've heard so much about.
If you find it in short supply at your moment of greatest need, here's the hard truth: it's because you're not growing it.
When Paul says that these are the fruit of the Spirit, he says equally clearly that these are the fruit that the Spirit produces in you. He's not growing these things randomly in some super-secret sacred orchard somewhere, hoping that you'll wander in when you are in need and find just what you're looking for. He's not stocking up on a harvest of all these good and wonderful things, ready to offer them for you and your local farmers' market because that's the best place to find you on a Saturday morning. No, He's producing these things right within you. In the very heart of you.
The Spirit is either growing this fruit in you or He's not growing it at all. Period. You will not find your love, your joy, your peace, your patience, your kindness, your goodness, your faithfulness, your gentleness, or your self-control in any other orchard. It's in yours or it doesn't exist.
Jesus says, "I am the vine and you are the branch." You've got the whole root system you need to start growing stuff. You've got a supply line to the streams of living water that nourish your tree. You've got a steady trunk from which to grow. You've got the DNA of the fruit of the Spirit coursing through your veins. All you have to do make sure all that stuff flows freely through you so that it gets to the places it needs to get to to grow the fruit that God has promised to grow in you.
It's a tough concept. It is. It's far more tempting to go out in search of patience than to wait for patience to just develop out of your own meager spirit (even your own Spirit, the presence of the very Spirit of God within you). It takes forever it seems, precisely at a moment when you don't feel like you have forever. But no fruit tastes as sweet as the fruit you grow yourself, and there is no substitute for the goods that come from your own garden.
Even if you could bum some off a neighbor, even if you could buy some at the market, even if you could wander through some generic, public orchard of the Holy Spirit, there would always be something unsatisfying about the harvest. There would always be something about it that just doesn't work for you. The patience you find there doesn't have your DNA in it; it's not your patience. The love you find there may be love, but it's not your love. It's not your joy. It's not your peace. It's the easy way out, and you feel it.
So stop browsing in another orchard, even if you think it's the orchard of the Holy Spirit Himself. Because that's just not where the fruit is found.
The fruit is found in you or it's nowhere at all.
Stop browsing; start growing. For you have need of the harvest at the strangest of all times; make sure there's plenty for pickin' when the time comes.
Friday, April 22, 2016
Not So Great Commission
One of the ways in which we best honor Jesus in our churches is by following His words. And no, I'm not talking about what we call the "Great Commission," for we, in all our sinful glory, have turned even that into something that Jesus would never condone.
I'm not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way, we decided that these closing words of Matthew were the only ones Jesus wanted us to remember, the only thing He had for us to do. Go. Make disciples. Baptize. Like spiritual zombies, we set out in our world to do just this. Go. Make disciples. Baptize.
It's this very mentality that has led us to hit people over the head with the Bible, to burden them with the story of God, to make them our projects rather than our neighbors, and to condemn all those who will not just drop their nets and come, follow us. That's right. I said it. We set out to make disciples of...ourselves. Who will follow us as we pretend to follow Jesus. Who will come to our churches. Who will tithe in our plates. Who will carry our doctrine and dogma.
Because that's what we decided, above all other things, that Jesus wanted us to do.
But, uh, what about all that other stuff He said?
Matthew 28 is not the only time Jesus sent His disciples into the world; He'd done it before. It is recorded for us in the Gospels. He told them to go out, preach the Good News that Jesus has come, heal the sick, cast out demons, and take nothing with them. Go out into the world and meet people, carrying with you only My heart, He said. And if this world doesn't accept you, shake the dust off your feet and move on.
We have incorporated none of this in our so-called following of Matthew 28. We go out into the world and strong-arm people into listening to what we have to say about Jesus, without taking His heart with us. We do not heal the sick; we tell them that if they are faithful, or more faithful, God will heal them. We do not cast out demons; we condemn the demon-possessed. We do not go with empty hands, ready to receive others' hearts or ready to put our hands to work; we take massive weaponry with us. Not shields, but swords. And when this world rejects us, we do not shake the dust off our feet and move on; we dig in until this world relents.
Just like Jesus imagined, right? Just like He told us to do? Go out and make disciples.
Or what about all the stuff Jesus told His followers to do, and not just His disciples? What about things like love your enemy? Do good to those who hate you? Give your cloak, your time, your energy to persons? Love your neighbor as yourself? How much of the time that we spend trying to make disciples do we also spend loving people? I mean, really loving them. I mean, giving them our most precious resources - our time and our hearts - and not just our message?
Sometimes, I think we try to get the world into our churches so that we can love them. We might go out and meet sinners, but we tell them clear and plain - come to my church. We love people there. Even people like...you. And I think sometimes, the world looks right back at us in disbelief. Why would you love me in your church when you won't love me on my doorstep? Why would you love me in your church when you won't love me on my street?
It's the smallest, most subtle thing. We don't even realize we're doing it. But we hold out love like a promise rather than giving it away like a gift. We ought to stop telling people how to find love and start throwing it out of our lives like candy at a parade. We ought to be such amazing lovers of our world that people whisper about us. Hey, that guy in the Jesus float has the best candy.
What about...what about what Jesus says about Himself, or about His Father? I think this is one of our greatest detriments when we carry out the so-called Great Commission. We go out into this world like we're working for Jesus, not like we love Him. And we invite others to come work for Him, too. Come, follow us, and you, too, can beat people over the head with the Bible and strong-arm them into doing stuff. Come on, it's great. And if you do a good job, you can go to Heaven.
See, we're so business-minded in our modern society that God is our commodity, not our Father. He's our manager, not our Maker. He's our boss, not our Lover. And that's heart-breaking.
I'm not saying the Great Commission is bad; Jesus does, indeed, say Go. But He says a lot of other stuff, too, and here's what's most important, maybe about that: all the other stuff He says? He says it before there's even grace. He says it before there's mercy. He says it before there's a Cross and a burial and resurrection. He says it before there's hope, when there's only a whisper of a promise.
Why does that matter?
Because when we go out into this world and talk to persons who do not know our God, that's where we meet them. We meet them in a place before grace. Before mercy. Where they are beating themselves up and weighing themselves down. They are living in a place before there's a Cross, before there's a burial, before there's a resurrection. They're living before hope, when there's only a whisper of a promise.
We are that whisper.
So we ought to stop shouting.
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Dirty, Disgusting Churches
If we want to honor Jesus in our churches, and not merely exalt Him, it's going to require that we get a little dirty. After all, anything that has ever been holy to God has been a little gross.
And ceremonially clean.
Take, for example, the Old Testament tabernacle, and then the Temple. God described the sacrifices going up from these places as "pleasing." He described the act of sacrifice as "pleasing." It was a sign of cleanliness, bringing your offering to the priest and giving it wholly to God.
But what did this sacrifice involve? It involved slaughter. It involved blood and guts and gore. It involved the smell of a pile of entrails and burning hair. And this was pleasing?
The ceremonially clean came to the Lord with this offering. By the time it was done, they were covered in blood. The priest was covered in blood. The altar was covered in blood. There was blood poured out over here, blood poured out over there, piles of remnants left on the floor, to be collected into buckets and toted to some unclean place outside the camp. In rituals of anointing and purification, some of the blood was intentionally smeared on the human being. In the case of the priests, it was on his right thumb, right toe, and right earlobe. After the slaughter, some of the meat was ceremonially lifted high into the air before being burned up; the blood dripped from this sacrifice as the priest waved it around before the presence of the Lord.
Being clean and presenting a holy sacrifice to God was dirty work.
In the New Testament, the same is true of the story of Jesus. We see Him reference His dirty feet a time or two, and the dirt on other people's feet. He was surrounded by ceremonial uncleanness. The Pharisees chided Him and His disciples for failing to wash properly, which means not only His feet, but also His hands were dirty. The inside and outside of His cups were dirty. He spent some of His time fishing and preparing fish.
Let's face it - Jesus stunk.
And then there's the Cross. That's no pretty picture, either. There's nothing clean about Calvary. Yet all of this was required for God to be glorified. All of this disgusting stuff was somehow...holy.
So it is today.
Our churches ought to be some of the dirtiest places in all the world, while also being the most ceremonially clean. We ought to welcome sinners with open arms, walk the world so much that our feet get permanently dirty. We ought to have dirty hands and dirty cups and dirty dishes, all for the sake of inviting those into our presence that Jesus would have in His. We ought to tie towels around our waists and knell down into the muck to help someone else be a little cleaner. We ought to put our hands in the dirt and start doodling - not drawing lines, but dusting grace.
We ought to live the way that Jesus lived, love the way that Jesus loved, and be an aroma and a sacrifice pleasing to the Lord.
And that requires that we get a little dirty.
But that's what makes us clean.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Maybe you don't like what I seem to be implying - that our churches can do better when it comes to having Jesus among us. Maybe by now, you're saying, Hey. Jesus is just fine in my church. We exalt Him. For realz.
Fair enough. You exalt the Son of God.
But do you honor Him?
There's quite a difference between these two ideas. When you exalt Jesus, you put Him on a pedestal. He's already there when you come into your building, exalted. Raised high. Lifted up. See? There He is. Right there on the pedestal where we put Him. And it becomes far too easy, through the course of our worship, to concentrate on keeping Him there.
Anytime this Jesus might want to come down and walk among us, we stop. No. No, this won't do. You stay up there on Your pedestal, Jesus. In this church, You are exalted. Anytime we pray in His name and He's ready to move, to respond to our prayer, we stop again. No. No, You just stay up there! See? We have prepared this special, amazing, exalted place for You. Now, be a good Jesus and stay there. Anytime this Jesus might want to break bread with us during communion, if He might actually desire to join us around His own table, we simply can't have it. Not in this church. In this church, Jesus is exalted! He must be sitting in the highest of high places at all times so that we can always see how much higher and bigger and better than us He truly is.
Might as well just nail His butt to the seat.
Exaltation is great; the Lord is clearly to be praised. But He is also to be honored, and that means recognizing Jesus for all He is, not for only what we make Him. It means recognizing that He was created in flesh to walk among flesh. It means realizing that all His best stories take place on the ground, right in the same dirt that we walk around in. It means understanding that Jesus did not come only to be a Savior but also to be a friend. And when we don't let Him be a friend, we fail to honor Him.
When we don't let Him come down from His throne and walk among us, we fail to honor Him. It's like we want a God who saves us, but not one who loves us. It's like we love the idea that we can crucify our God, but not so much the idea that we can eat with Him. It's like we love having a God that we can cry out to, as long as there is no risk whatsoever that He will actually stop and speak to us.
It sounds so silly to say it like that, but that's where we are when we exalt, but do not honor, Jesus. We take His story, strip away almost all of the human element from it, and relegate Him to the Cross and the throne. It's not that the Cross and the throne are not important or beautiful or amazing; they are. It's just...
Can you imagine what Jesus would do in our churches if we'd let Him down from that high place? Can you imagine what would happen if Jesus truly walked among us the way He always wanted to? Can you imagine what would happen if we recognized the true nature of Jesus and not only exalted Him, but honored Him, as well?
We'd be blind men calling out from the side of the road. We'd be bleeding women pushing through the crowds. We'd be hungry masses crowding onto the hillsides. We'd be sinners breaking bread in our homes. We'd be disciples dropping everything for a chance to be a part of this amazing thing that God is doing right here among us. We'd be...a real people of a Real Person. We'd be a real people of God.
And isn't that what we want to be? Isn't that the best possible thing we could ever be?
So I'll ask again: is Jesus truly honored in your church? Or is He merely exalted?
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Jesus Comes to Church
As I wonder whether we might have become too comfortable with Jesus in our churches, I can't help but also wonder if Jesus would be comfortable in our churches Himself.
Well, that's a silly question. Jesus is comfortable everywhere He goes. He just...is.
...Not really. It's true that we often see Jesus in places that would make us highly uncomfortable, places like the houses of sinners, like tables with tax collectors, like the Upper Room with a betrayer, like Golgotha. We see His confidence here, His absolute trust in the One who sent Him, but was He comfortable? Was He okay with these places?
What about in the presence of the Pharisees?
There are many times in the Scriptures that we see Jesus expressing His discomfort with one thing or another, with one group of people or another, with one place or another. And these are the places our churches are most likely to mirror.
Take, for example, the home of Simon the sinner. Jesus enters to eat yet another meal with the outcasts, and a woman breaks in and pours oil all over His feet. Everyone else is astonished that the woman would do such a thing, but Jesus simply turns to Simon and says, "But you did not even offer me oil for my head," which was a custom of a good host in those days. Simon, you see, was more interested in what it meant to have Jesus in his house than what it might mean to honor Him while He was there.
Is that our church? Are we more interested in the status symbol it is to be a church at all, to claim to have Jesus in our midst, that we don't do even the most basic things to honor Him while He is with us? Well? Is Jesus honored in your church or is He just in attendance?
Or take, for example, any one of the numerous encounters that Jesus had with the Pharisees. These men, these so-called holy men, who claimed to have such an incredible knowledge of the Scriptures, who claimed to be keepers of the stories of Israel, were always out to trap Jesus, to catch Him in His fallen shorts, to snare Him in their own web of understanding. And Jesus, in turn, rebukes them. A lot. He calls them broods of vipers. He issues warnings about their yeast. He tears them up at every turn and turns the people against them.
Is that our church? Are we just trying to set Jesus up? To prove that He is one thing or another? To prove that we are the ones who have the real understanding about all these things, including about who Jesus Himself truly is? Are you preaching Jesus in your church or are you trapping Him there?
How about when Jesus was on trial in front of the Sanhedrin, or in front of the Roman authorities? Repeatedly, He is asked to declare Himself. Is He the Son of God? Is that who He is? Who gave Him such authority? Repeatedly, He is asked the questions. And He stands silent; the world condemns Him.
Is that our church? Is Jesus on trial in our sanctuaries? Are we always challenging Him, always asking Him to prove Himself? Asking Him to declare, every week, who He is? As though the rumors of miracles and the testimonies of grace are not enough; we demand that He come out and say it again. And again. And again. Is Jesus welcome in your church or is He on trial there? If He is on trial, how little does it take to condemn Him?
Or how about when Jesus actually enters into one of the temples, when He actually visits one of the religious places. He doesn't do this very often in Scripture, but He does it a few times. Most notably, He does it when He comes to Jerusalem, and He finds it nothing more than "a den of thieves." He's angry, and righteously so, and storms through the temple clearing tables, driving out schemers, casting out scammers, and you can almost feel the angry tears welling up in His eyes at how twisted this temple has become.
Is that our church? Are we place where Jesus is a commodity, where religion is being sold? Have we turned our sanctuaries into dens of thieves, charging people for the grace that God so freely gives? Demanding the highest prices for the privilege of worshiping in our space? Is Jesus the saving grace in your church or is He simply for sale?
So I'll ask again - do you think Jesus is comfortable in your church? Is He?
If Jesus were to walk into our churches today, what would He find? What would He think? If it's far too easy for you to see yourself, to see your church, in some of the above stories, you're doing it wrong. Plain and simple. You're doing it wrong.
Monday, April 18, 2016
A Prophet's Hometown
So what has God done for you lately? What has He been doing in your church?
Well, uh....uh....hmmm. He is, uh, amazing and, uh, He does stuff all the time. At least, that's the answer that most of us are likely to give. Maybe we have an example or two of something truly amazing that God has done - someone who beat cancer, maybe. Or someone who got a new job. Or something like that. But for most of us, the answer to the question of what Jesus is doing is, well, generic.
He's doing good things, let me tell you. Amazing things. Incredible things.
Oh really? Like what?
For all the stories the Gospels tell about the good, amazing, and incredible things that Jesus did while He walked this earth with His disciples, these stories are anything but generic. He fed thousands - with a specific number of loaves of bread, a specific number of fish. A specific number of baskets of leftovers in each case. He healed many - gave sight to blind men, opened the ears of the deaf, loosened the lips of the mute, reformed the disfigurements of the crippled, gave life to the dead. He preached words of truth, of hope, and of mystery - and we are given His teachings, His parables, to hear for ourselves. He died on the Cross - standing trial before the leading authorities of the day, stumbling on the road to Calvary, speaking with thieves on either side of Him, crying out to His Father from the Cross.
Tell me again about your generic Jesus.
There is one example, one good example of a generic Christ in our Gospels, and that is in this tiny little section that tells us what happened when Jesus went back to Nazareth in the course of His ministry. The people there, it turns out, knew Him a little too well. They were far too comfortable with Him and His story. "So He could only do a few things among them." That's it. "A few things." The only few things we are not told in specifics in all the Bible come in the place where the people were most sure they knew who He was.
So maybe the problem we're facing in our own faith, in our own churches, is that we think we know Jesus a little too well. Maybe the reason we're not seeing the amazing, specific testimony of the living Christ is because we are far too comfortable with the very idea of Him.
When Jesus comes to our churches, where are we? Are we lining the roads, crying out to Him, calling out to the Son of David who is passing us by, as our only hope for healing? Are gathered on the hillsides, longing to hear Him speak? Are we gathered by groups, waiting on His holy bread to be passed around, waiting on Him to somehow satisfy our appetites before the long journeys ahead of us?
Or are we in Nazareth, where we boldly proclaim that we know everything there is to know about this Jesus - He's the son of the carpenter, isn't He? Mary's son. Yeah, that's the boy. He's the brother of James. Yeah, yeah. That's Him. This is the kid that was busy making birds out of mud and helping in His father's shop when He was little. He always hung around the synagogue, pretending to be one of the big boys. Always spoke when it wasn't His turn to speak. Always said things that made people either scratch or shake their heads. Yeah, we know everything about this Jesus. He grew up around here. He's one of us.
And He does "just a few things" in this place.
It's heart-breaking to consider, but I think this is true about where many of us are at. We've become so comfortable with the idea of Jesus. We think we know so much about who this Son of God is. Son of God...son of the carpenter. His stories are told, but they almost feel like rumors. It's hard for us to buy into them. He did what? He couldn't have. We know all about Him. We know who He is. These are just whispers, just rumors, just stories the world is telling about Him.
We're almost arrogant in all that we claim to know about Him. And yet, in most of our churches, we've nothing more than a generic Jesus. He could be any boy. He could be any man. He could be any son of God. He does good, amazing, incredible things, but we can't put our finger on any of them.
It's sad, really. Because the more we think we know about Him, the more generic He becomes, and the more generic He is, the more we realize that this is not the Jesus we want. This Jesus, this generic Jesus, is not worth believing in.
And you know what? We're right. He's not. And that's when we walk away.
Because any good man can do amazing things sometimes. Any good man can be incredible here and there. We might hear rumors about any good man. But the Son of God demands details. And when we lose the details of who God is, even when we lose them to the specifics of who He is, we lose Him entirely. Gone. Just like that.
Our God is no generic God. He does not just do amazing things. He does specific amazing things - He gives sight to the blind, opens the ears of the deaf, loosens the tongue of the mute, stands the lame on their own two feet, casts out demons, gives life to the dead, reforms the disfigured. He carries His own Cross up a lonely hill, stumbles, falls, cries out, and dies. He speaks words of truth and grace, but specific words of truth and grace - in parables, in teachings, on real hillsides where He breaks real bread and divides real fish and collects real baskets of leftovers.
And the only place we don't truly know any of this is Nazareth. Is His hometown. Is the place where we are so sure we know so much about Him that we no longer listen to the testimony of who this Jesus truly is.
Don't be so comfortable with Jesus that you can't hear His stories. Don't know so much about Him that you've closed His book. Don't think you are so certain of who He is that you can't hear the people crying out to Him. Don't be Nazirites.
Be beggars. Be sinners. Be blind men crying out for mercy. It is only these who have ever known the truth of the living God, the testimony of Jesus of Nazareth, who did so many good, amazing, beautiful, and very specific things everywhere but in His hometown.
Friday, April 15, 2016
The real problem we have with sin, and why it's so easy for us to create this hierarchy of more sinful and less sinful sin, is that we have come to embrace the idea that sin is an integral part of who we are. Specifically, our sin is part of what makes us...us. My sin is part of what makes me beautiful.
It's part of what makes me perfect.
It sounds silly when we say it that way, doesn't it? "My imperfection is part of what makes me perfect." But this is one of the dominant affirmations of our society. Sometimes, we dismiss sin and consider ourselves perfect - "Oh, you messed up, but that's okay. You're perfect just the way you are." Sometimes, we embrace sin and consider ourselves perfect - "God gave you that kind of spirit that leads you into that kind of trouble, and for you, that's perfect. It is just who God made you to be."
We are far too comfortable with the idea that somehow, God made us to be sinners. It's inane.
Is this really what we think? Are we really making the argument that we're perfect because God formed us in our imperfectness? Does God make broken things and then call them beautiful? Was there any imperfection in the original creation, before sin, that God was somehow able to call "good"? That's what we're saying. Are we really saying that?
Yes, we are really saying that.
And that is what enables us to look in the mirror every morning. It's what keeps us from condemning ourselves all day long. See, if we believe that our imperfections are part of what makes us perfect, we do not have to carry around the heavy burden of grace. We don't. We can just be whoever we are, do whatever we want, and determine that this is probably okay. It might even be more than okay; it might even be good. After all, God's creation is good, and we are God's creation.
But this is also what makes us look at someone else and determine they are not so good. They might not even be okay. They might be...broken. Imperfect. Bad. Condemned. Because our sin makes us perfect, but their sin is not our sin; it's something different. We don't struggle with the same things they struggle with. We don't fail in the same ways they do. What they struggle with, the places where they fail...those are weird struggles, bad places. They don't make any sense to us. So we see the broken places in ourselves, and these are okay, but we see the rotten places in them, and they aren't just broken; they are decaying. Sinners!
And this, too, is all so that we do not have to carry around the heavy burden of grace.
See, grace is hard. It tries to make sense of the insensible. It tries to put some order into chaos. It takes work. It's hard to figure out. It's tougher still to live.
But if I'm perfect, even with all my flaws, and you're not, because of yours, then this whole grace thing is easy - I don't need it and you don't deserve it. Done. Make no room for it.
If I start to try to extend the categories, though - in either direction - that's when grace starts to get hard. I could say that since I am perfect with my flaws, you must be perfect with yours. But that would require me to have some grace for you. It would require me to make some sense out of your mess, to put some understanding in your chaos. I would have to invest the time and energy to discover who you are and why what you're doing works for you, how it is a part of the fabric of your being (assuming, of course, that I continue to buy the lie that God weaves these ugly threads of sin into our very beings, which He doesn't). But if I extend to you the same understanding I have for myself, well, that reveals grace. Does it not? It requires it.
And I discover, in having grace for you, that I also have grace for myself. Here's that heavy burden again.
But maybe I go the other direction. Maybe I say that if you are not perfect because of your flaws, then I cannot be perfect with mine. Here, too, I am faced with grace, for I cannot live a life that I condemn. I can't. I can't get up every morning and look in the mirror and handle myself if I'm not perfect. At least, if I'm not perfect and I don't have grace. So if I am unwilling to extend grace to you, I must be unwilling to extend it to myself, and here, I discover my desperate need for it. And yours, as well.
So no matter which way I turn, whether I turn toward me or toward you, whether I start with perfection or something less, I am faced with grace, and it is a burden I simply cannot carry. A burden I don't want to carry. So I content myself with the logically inconsistent position that I'm perfect, just the way I am. Warts and all. Sin and all. It's just who I am. And you're not because you're an ugly, stupid sinner that I just can't understand and shouldn't have to.
I'm a fruit tree; you're a thornbush. I grow fruit; you grow poison berries.
I don't need grace, and you don't deserve it.
Easy, peasy. Right? And all because I am willing to accept a measure of imperfection in my perfectness. All because I can convince myself that broken is the way I was made, that God intended me to be this way. And, ironically, that He intended so much more for you.
It's messy, this. It's so messy. Why can we not just embrace grace? For ourselves, for each other, for our fallen world? We all need it. None of us deserves it, but we all need it. And it's right there. Right there for our taking. God gives it freely, so we don't have to get lost in all these mental gymnastics of self-justification. It's a burden, yes, this grace is. It's hard. It requires something form us. It takes work.
But it's amazing. So amazing....
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Real Drunken Whores
At this point, you might be saying, "Okay, wait a minute. That's not quite a good comparison that you've drawn. Hannah wasn't really a drunk, and Mary wasn't really a whore, but the people who are invading my community with poison berries really are drunks, whores, liars, cheaters, adulterers, homosexuals, and more."
Fair enough. You're right. You're probably surrounded, right at this very moment, by real, honest-to-God sinners. (Or as you might be tempted to say, "less-than-honest-to-God sinners," since you're probably thinking about all the poison berries these unclean individuals are dropping in your beautiful garden.)
But let me ask you this: what if Mary was a whore? Would you be willing to throw out the beautiful songs that she sings to the Lord? Would you be willing to turn away from the heart that she puts on prominent display? Would you say that Mary has no testimony at all, if her testimony is not the mother of Jesus? (Since, of course, if Mary was a whore, then the child within her would not be the one conceived by the Holy Spirit. This child would not be Jesus, and Mary would not be His mother.) If Mary is not the mother of Jesus, is she then nobody? She is still a faithful Jew. She still knows the worship of the temple. She still attends all the festival days, offers the proper sacrifices, sings out from her heart. She may even still believe, and live like she believes, every promise of God. Are you really willing to call her a thornbush?
I can't help but think about all the beautiful gifts that sinners have given me in my walk with God, all the amazing things they have taught me. All the good fruit that I've picked from their trees. And I think about how quickly others in the Christian community are to write these sinners off because these Christians care more about rotten apples than they do good fruit. And that's sad.
And I can't help but think about my own rotten fruit. I'm a sinner, too. Did you know that? I am selfish sometimes, self-centered at other times. Some days, I struggle to love people well; some days, I struggle to love them at all. Sometimes, my pride gets the best of me. Sometimes, I wish I had more in my life. Some days, I look at you with jealous eyes, wishing I had some of the same things that you have. Some days, I wrestle with my own purity. Sometimes, I wish I was either a little more broken or a little more clean, but the only one of those I can truly offer myself is more brokenness; I cannot make myself clean. So sometimes, I choose brokenness. Sometimes, I intentionally choose brokenness.
Am I a thornbush? Is everything I offer out of my life nothing more than poison berries?
I hope not. I honestly hope not. I honestly hope that I have something more to offer, that others look at me and see a tree that is firmly rooted in good soil, a branch that is firmly grafted onto the vine. I hope they are drawn by the bright colors of good fruit to come a little closer. And maybe, maybe a little closer, they see all the little bugs. Maybe they see some of the dying leaves. Maybe they see some of the buds that never quite opened. Maybe they see every single flaw that there is with this tree. But at least...at least they know there's fruit here. Real fruit.
And I pray that we could do this with each other, with every single one among us. I'm not saying there are not real thornbushes out there; there are. But they're not mere sinners. Thornbushes are deceivers, not strugglers. They profess a God they don't believe in, or they twist the real God into their brambles so He comes out contorted. That's not what sinners are doing. Sinners are believing in a God they don't profess, longing for a God they don't proclaim. That's the difference. The people you have to be aware of are the people whose God does not line up with their lives, not those whose lives do not line up with their God.
Maybe they are really drunks. Or whores. Or liars. Or cheaters. Or adulterers. Or homosexuals. Or whatever. But they might just also be God's drunks, whores, liars, homosexuals.... They might just also be trees, not thornbushes. And they might have real fruit to offer.
It's okay. Pick that fruit. It's not poison.
Just steer clear of rotten apples.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
There are some very good stories in the Bible that clearly demonstrate what happens when we are too quick to judge the fruit that someone else is producing in their life, when we are too quick to write off good trees as thornbushes.
One of those stories is Hannah. Another one is Mary.
Hannah is the heartbroken, barren wife of Elkanah who visits the temple in 1 Samuel 1. Although her husband loves her dearly and gives her a special portion of the sacrifice, she is terribly distressed over her inability to provide for him a child. So this particular year, during the festival, she goes into the Temple (it wasn't really the Temple at this point, but a makeshift one) to pray. She allows her heart to lead her, and she prays what we can imagine is one of the most heartfelt, most authentic prayers of all the Bible.
And the priest, Eli, is watching her.
He's watching her as she pours her heart out before God, as her body sort of moves around a little bit with all the emotion that's pent up inside of her. He watches quiet tears stream down her face. He watches, and the account tells us this, her lips move, but no sound comes out. And he draws the only conclusion that he can: she must be drunk. And he calls her on it.
"Get out of here! You're drunk!" In other words, "Hey thornbush! Get you and your poison berries out of this Temple. Don't you know that this is the house of the living God? You are an embarrassment."
Except she wasn't. She wasn't drunk; she was perfectly sober. She was no thornbush, and these were no poison berries that she brought before God. She was no embarrassment; she's an amazing example.
Thankfully, Hannah had it within her to stand up and declare herself. "Sir, I am not drunk, and I am no embarrassment. I am a heartbroken woman, crying out to my God. I have just prayed the most amazing prayer, and if God would only hear me...." Not everyone has the strength to do this. Not one time, not for the twentieth time. We have persons among us who, at some point, will just stop standing up and saying they are anything more. We will tell them they are a thornbush, and they will believe us, even if they just grew the most amazing fruit we've ever seen.
Imagine the Bible without the testimony of this so-called "drunk." Imagine the stories of the judges without this "thornbush." Imagine if we wrote Hannah off as poison berries and ignored her son, Samuel.
And then there's Mary, or even Rahab, if we want to go back further. Both were women with reputations for sexual impurity - Mary's undeserved; Rahab's very much deserved. It's more difficult to talk about Rahab in this context because we don't really have any testimony in the Bible of anyone wanting to write her off for her acts; she is always treated favorably in the Scriptures, even though she is freely called a whore. Mary, on the other hand....
Mary becomes pregnant young and out of wedlock. Even her husband, Joseph, initially thinks he's going to have to burn this bush down. There are no berries more poison in all the world than the berries of infidelity, and they aren't even married yet! No cows have been exchanged, and his future wife is already cheating on him. He makes plans to divorce her quietly, as the whole town begins to whisper about this uncouth young lady. Devout Jew or not, Mary's history cannot save her from her present. She's a whore, plain and simple, and nothing good can come from a whore.
But the angel of the Lord intervened and came to her husband-to-be in her defense. The angel of the Lord revealed what was up, what was going on within the womb of this young woman. God Himself changed Joseph's heart, and even though it didn't stop the whispers, it stopped him. Even though it didn't change everyone's mind, it changed his. He probably still thought these might be poison berries, but he was willing to hedge his bets that it might also be good fruit.
Not everyone would be even this generous, even with the reassurance of God Himself.
Can you imagine, though, the Bible without its whores? Without, specifically, this whore? Where does the story of God go if we just write Mary off, if we determine that nothing good, nothing godly, can come from her? She's a whore! She has nothing to say to us about our holy God.
Except she does.
But this is the very real danger we face when we try to figure out what kind of fruit someone else is producing. It's far too easy for us to look at the surface, to draw out the one thing that might make this not such good fruit, and ignore the testimony not only of the lives of these individuals, but of the God who speaks about them. Hannah was the faithful, beloved wife. She came to the Temple/festival every year with her husband, her husband's other wife, and her husband's other wife's kids. If ever there was a woman who was steadfast in her duty, it was Hannah. And yet, she prays without making a noise (prays, mind you. There was never any question as to whether or not she was actually praying here), and the priest calls her a drunk a tries to throw her out. He totally writes her off, forgetting and forsaking the overall testimony of who she is, and the steady example of her heart toward God.
Mary was "highly favored" by the Lord - the angel says that much. She also happens to be pregnant with a story that nobody can believe. But she knows the Scriptures, knows them well. She sings beautiful praises to God. She offers appropriate sacrifices at appropriate occasions. She is faithful, beautiful, and marvelous in every other aspect of her worship. But if all we ever think of Mary is that she is "that whore," that unwed mother, that teen pregnant out of wedlock...those poison berries, then we miss the very good fruit that she produces. We end up giving up everything, even Christ Himself, because we cannot get past the way this one thing looks.
What a tragedy.
And yet, we are doing this everyday. It's a little different, or so it seems, because Hannah was not really a drunk and Mary was not really a whore, but those we spend our time judging really are liars and cheaters and adulterers and murderers and fakes and phonies and homosexuals and.... So it's a little different.
Or is it?
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
There's quite a difference between an apple that isn't edible and the poison berries of a thornbush - one is still fruit, the product of a heart pursuing after God, albeit in a fallen world. The other is a deception.
To some degree, we know this. We are willing to look past a few bad apples on a godly tree, so long as we can clearly see the godliness in that tree. For example, we may have a man in our church who looks at pornography, but he may also be a man who worships with all his heart, who leads prayer, who serves faithfully the church, who is involved in his family's life. And we might say that there is much we can learn from this man, so long as we pick only the good fruit. Or maybe we have a woman who is a gossip. But she is also what we might call a "Proverbs 31" woman, at least by the majority of her testimony. We may be willing to say that there is much we can learn from this woman, much that her spirit has to say to us. As long, of course, as we pick only the good fruit from her life and do not pick up on her gossip.
But at other times, we are not so gracious. Take this man or this woman, the same man and the same woman, the same largely godly example in their lives, but replace their sin with one that is more detestable to us, for whatever reason. Say that the man is a pedophile, and the woman is a lesbian. All of a sudden, we are no longer thinking about a few rotten apples.
These are thornbushes.
Why? Has the orientation of their hearts toward God changed? It has not. They still seek God with all that they are. The man still worships with all his heart, leads prayer, serves faithfully, is involved in his family's life. He just has a different vice of sin, one we find harder to love. How could anyone be a pedophile and a Christian? It just doesn't make sense to us. No, this is no longer a tree; it's a thornbush.
The woman is still a Proverbs 31 woman by so many accounts of the text. Her spirit declares exactly the same testimony as before. But now, she is a lesbian and not a gossip. How could anyone be a lesbian and a Christian? It just doesn't make sense to us. Now, she is a thornbush, and not a tree.
Has something about the nature of sin truly fundamentally changed the hearts of these persons among us? No. Not at all. What's happened is this:
We've decided we no longer care for the taste of apples.
That's all it is. It's not that all of a sudden, the apples are poison berries because the nature of sin is different. No, it's that all of a sudden, we look again at the tree and determine...we just don't like apples. But that doesn't make sense, does it? Of course we like apples! We just can't say that there is anything from this particular tree that we care for, but since this is an apple tree, we must either admit our prejudice against this one tree...or we must decide that we do not like apples.
We can do neither, so we call it a thornbush.
We're not really judging the tree by its fruit any more; we're judging its fruit according to our own taste. And we are wrong to do so.
Just because you cannot condone whatever sin someone is engaged in, just because you cannot understand or do not want to associate yourself with their lifestyle, you cannot write them off. You cannot burn down the orchard because you decide you don't like apples. For God, the message of fruit has always been about the fundamental nature of the heart, not the fruit. It's about the root system and how deep into the heart of creation the tree plants itself.
It's about whether this tree has been planted near streams of living water, is drawing from the life of God for its very breath, and is producing fruit at all - even if not every one is edible.
It's about the fundamental difference between a fruit tree and a thornbush. One is never capable of producing anything good; the other produces good in abundance, but still has a few bad ones thrown in.
It's fallen human nature. It's who we are.
And if all these rotten apples were really poison berries, we'd all be dead by now. But we're not. Because they're not. And as long as we keep pretending that they are, we are going to keep missing out on some amazing fruit that godly sinners have to offer us. Amazing, amazing fruit.
Even if you don't like apples.
Monday, April 11, 2016
Perhaps the passage of Scripture which we most twist and contort is Jesus' teaching on good fruit. He says something like this: You will know them by their fruit.
When Jesus says this, He is speaking of two different categories of persons - those whose fundamental orientation of the heart is toward God and those whose fundamental orientation of the heart is not. Can good fruit come from a thornbush? Of course not.
We, however, have appropriated this teaching to mean much, much less. For us, when we talk about fruit, we are talking about something much more vague - "right" and "wrong." Those who produce good fruit are those who are doing "right;" those who produce bad fruit are those who are doing "wrong."
And we shall know them by their fruit.
Here is the problem with that: not every apple on the tree is edible. But that doesn't make it a thornbush.
See, we are tempted to look at sinners and shake our heads. He's just not producing good fruit, we say. He's just not what he appears to be, we conclude. He's not really a "Christian." Just look at all those rotten apples.
We do this more with certain sins than with others. For example, we might be willing to look at a woman who has told a lie and determine that she might still be a good woman; she just has one rotten apple on her tree. Or we might look at a man who views pornography or cheats on his wife and say this, too, might just be one rotten apple. We are able to say this because we look at the overall testimony of these persons' lives, and we see all of the good, godly things they are doing. Maybe we see them honestly wrestling with their sin, trying to find the way out of the darkness and back into the light. And we are not ready to condemn them based on one apple that grew in their life that just isn't edible.
But we are less willing to reach the same conclusion with, say, someone engaged in homosexual activity or who lives with a same-sex attraction. Someone told me last week that he doesn't know any godly homosexuals. "How could I?" he asked, and quoted the above teaching of Jesus. You will know them by their fruit.
And I said to him what I said here: not every apple on the tree is edible. But that doesn't make it a thornbush.
The truth is that if you judge a tree by its worst fruit, they're all worthless. Burn 'em down. There is nothing worth saving in the whole orchard. Nothing. But if you look beyond that one apple you can't eat, if you're willing to keep searching the tree for fruit, you'll find it, if it's there.
You'll find so-called sinners who still have the life of Jesus flowing through them. You'll find liars proclaiming God's truth. You'll find adulterers being faithful to their churches. You'll find murderers seeking after eternal life. You'll find scammers holding out one real deal. You'll find homosexuals as the bride of Christ. You'll find them, if you can pull your eyes away from a few rotten apples and consider what you've got here.
It's still a good tree.
See, when Jesus talks about this concept, He talks about trees that produce fruit and trees that don't: thornbushes and real trees. He doesn't talk about "good" fruit and "bad" fruit in the same way that we do - thornbushes don't even produce bad apples. Only good trees can do that. Only a tree that's got the right root system, the right life flowing through it can produce fruit at all; it just so happens that not all that fruit is edible.
"Bad" fruit isn't fruit from the good tree that rots before it is picked or that never matures fully or that, for whatever reason, cannot be eaten. "Bad" fruit is no fruit at all. Or in some cases, it's mock fruit - poison berries on a thornbush. (But this gets a little more complicated, so I will deal with this a bit tomorrow.)
Today, the question is this: are you judging a tree by its fruit, or by its worst fruit? Are you willing to burn down the orchard because not every fruit is edible? Is it possible that a good tree, a really good tree, make a bad apple every now and then?
Is it possible even if you don't necessarily like apples?
Friday, April 8, 2016
All week, we've been looking at some of the ideas surrounding God's institution of Sabbath, from my personal practice to the interpretation of the Pharisees to the good work of Jesus to the Levitical decree concerning the land. At this point, you may be thinking about what Sabbath might look like in your life, but you still might be wondering just how to make it possible.
Don't we all?
Is Sabbath realistic in our modern world?
It absolutely is. So I want to offer some guidelines for creating your own Sabbath practice. These are not hard and fast rules, but they are lessons learned along the way that I hope will help you to form this practice for yourself.
1. Start small.
You don't have to do a full-blown Sabbath right away. Pick one thing that probably gets too much of your attention, runs too much of your life, demands too much of you, and rest from that for a set period of time. For me, it was the Internet/computer. Several years ago when I started this practice, that was all I did - for one day a week, I did not use the Internet/computer. As I began to understand all that this simple act of rest contributed to my life, it became easier to add other things.
2. Pick a day/time that works for you.
The Sabbath doesn't have to be Sunday. (And actually, Sunday is the first day of the week; Saturday is the seventh.) It doesn't have to be Saturday, either, though. Your schedule may require you to make a Sabbath Tuesday or a Sabbath Friday. You may even have some type of rotating schedule that requires you to Sabbath on a different day each week. That's fine. The goal here is not to schedule your week, but to set aside time for your rest. I chose Sunday because Sunday works for me.
3. Sabbath is not a secret.
Don't by shy about telling others that this is your Sabbath. Don't be shy about asking them to respect the practice of rest that you have instituted in your life. If you don't share this with them, two things happen: they think you're rude or don't like them or whatever when you turn down their requests, and they never stop making requests of you because they don't know any better. This includes, by the way, your boss. I currently working as a teaching assistant in my seminary. At the beginning of the semester, I connect with whatever professor I am working for and plainly state my Sabbath practice, adding, "If my being unavailable on Sundays is a major problem, please let me know. I am willing to change my Sabbath practice, if necessary, but I am not willing to surrender it." Meaning, if a professor truly needed me to be present on a Sunday, he or she could request it of me, as long as they provide either enough notice for me to change my Sabbath practice and incorporate my rest or they offer an opportunity afterward for me to do the same. I also tell the students in whatever classes I am working in the same thing - I am unavailable on Sundays. But I am up by 5 on Monday and will get back with you as soon as I can. So far, both faculty and students have had the utmost respect for my Sabbath practice. (The same is not always true in the secular world, where I have been refused work for my Sabbath practice. But the truth is that I do not want to work for anyone who believes they have the right to work me seven days a week at their own discretion. See yesterday's post for more on that.)
4. Permit your Sabbath space to grow.
Life changes; so should your Sabbath. What works for you in one season may not work for you in another. What you desperately seek rest from today may not be the same thing that you need to rest from five years from now. Maybe you expand your Sabbath practice; maybe you shrink it. Let your life speak into your Sabbath so that your Sabbath remains meaningful for your life.
5. Remember that Sabbath is about more than activity.
This is probably the easiest one to let slip away. We can get so attached to the idea that our Sabbath is about work - about what we do or don't do. But the Sabbath is so much more than that. When I Sabbath, I let everything within me come to a place of rest. I let my spirit settle, let my heart rest. This means that on the Sabbath, my attitude is different. I use this day to intentionally work on my spirit. To speak more softly. To be more deliberate with my words. To calm my spirit. To ground myself in the Lord. If Sabbath is only about the things we do or don't do, it's little more than a checklist. "Today, I did..... and I did not...." but it does not fundamentally challenge or change us. In order to change us, Sabbath must permeate our entire being. It must be something we do with the whole of ourselves, not just with the volitional part of us. And you know what? When you spend one day a week working on your spirit, you discover just how much your spirit, God's Spirit, is working in you the other six days. You create this kind of dialogue that doesn't just come one day a week; it invades your whole life. And you discover more of who God created you to be. All because for one day, you are only that.
So there you have it. Those are, I think, the top five tips I have for creating Sabbath in your life. I encourage you to try it. It's hard at first; I won't lie. It's very difficult to get into the rhythm of rest. But once you do, it adds this tremendous new dimension of depth to your life. It is one of the most incredible things you can do for yourself. Because you do need to rest, don't you?
Don't we all?
Thursday, April 7, 2016
Working the Land
Most of us approach the Sabbath, initially, like Pharisees, creating an amazing burden of rest that sits heavily not just on our shoulders, but on everyone else's. Eventually, most of us try to be more like Jesus, taking the burden of the Sabbath on ourselves and allowing the needs that arise around us to modify our practice of rest. But is there a happy medium?
There is. And it's buried way back in the Old Testament, in Leviticus 25.
It is easy to miss this little bit of wisdom because it refers not to the human practice of a seventh-day Sabbath, but to the communal practice of a seventh-year Sabbath. But as we have seen this week, even our best Sabbath is, to some degree, communal; it affects everyone around us. And everyone around us affects our Sabbath.
So here's the rule, straight from Leviticus: "For six years, you will work the land, but in the seventh year, the land will lie fallow. For six years, you will eat what you produce, but in the seventh year, you will eat only what the land produces."
Boiled down to its core message, the wisdom of this verse is this: "Even on the Sabbath, the land is working, but no one is working the land."
That, I think, is the key to a successful Sabbath practice. And it runs two ways.
First, consider yourself the land. You may produce amazing things on the Sabbath, things that flow naturally out of you. The land cannot help but grow what has come to rest in its fertile soil, even during the years that no one is tilling the land. All the little seeds that fell off of last year's harvest are buried in there, and they take root anyway. All the good things that God has put in you are buried in there, and Sabbath or not, they take root. So do what you do on the Sabbath. Do what comes naturally. Let things grow out of you. Love. Serve. Worship. Cook. Sew. Read. Whatever it is that you do, do it on the Sabbath.
But don't let anyone, even yourself, force you to do these things. Don't let anyone work you. Sometimes, someone just needs something on the Sabbath, on my Sabbath. The question I ask myself is: "Am I doing this because they make me feel obligated to do this? Or am I doing this because this is the kind of thing that grows naturally in me?" Sometimes, I say yes because I give freely, because the opportunity is one that I naturally grow into. Sometimes, I say no because it feels like someone else has placed the demand of work on me. Sometimes, it can be the exact same request, the exact same thing, even the exact same person needing the exact same thing, and I might say yes on one Sabbath and no on another, depending on the context of how it's all playing out. If it's something that comes naturally from me, I'm in. If I feel like I'm being worked, I'm out.
Because the land produces even on the Sabbath, but no one makes it produce. The land works, but no one works it.
On the other side of this, and the second direction in which this understanding of the Sabbath runs, neither will I work anyone on the Sabbath. We live in a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week society. There are persons whose employers force them to work on Sunday so that you have the convenience of doing whatever you want to do when you want to do it. There are persons running cash registers who would rather be at church. There are persons waiting tables who would rather be around their own tables. There are persons who do not get a choice about where they get to be on my Sabbath, but I will not be a part of that decision. I will not be one of the reasons that they do not get a choice.
Which means, in essence, just as I will not be worked on my Sabbath, I will not work anyone else. I will not go out to lunch or to dinner on my Sabbath because that requires that someone be there to cook, to work a cash register, to wait a table. I will not go shopping on my Sabbath because that requires that persons be there to operate the store and to serve me. If I do this, or any other number of things, I am guilty of breaking even my own Sabbath. I'm working the land in the seventh year. I'm forcing it to do what I want it to do, rather than trusting it to do whatever it does naturally.
For one day a week, the same day that I live out of what is natural in me, I let the world do the same. I let it be whatever it will be.
And I think we see this in Jesus' practice, as well. I think the key to figuring out what Jesus was doing on the Sabbath is not focusing on the very real needs that He was meeting, but to consider what it means to "work" and to "be worked." Nobody ever worked Jesus on the Sabbath. For all the stories we have of men and women lining the streets, calling out to Him, begging Him for mercy, these aren't happening on the Sabbath. All the men and women He heals on the Sabbath are men and women He just kind of ran into in the course of His normal day. They didn't ask for healing, but He saw their need. He did what flowed out of Him naturally. He worked, but no one worked Him.
This is the key, for me, to a healthy Sabbath practice. Work. Be fruitful. Produce. Grow. But don't be worked. And don't work others. For one day, let things be. Breathe.
You may just discover, as did God on the seventh day, that this is very good.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
Perhaps the showdown that occurs most often in the Gospels is the one between Jesus and the Pharisees over what is lawful on the Sabbath. Jesus, always the rabblerouser, spends His Sabbaths healing, teaching, eating, and generally being a pain to the ritual law.
It is because He realizes what we looked at yesterday - any legalistic keeping of the Sabbath becomes a burden not just on the Sabbath-keeper, but on everyone around him, as well.
Take the crippled man, for example. His arm is shriveled; he is in need of healing. Jesus, they both know, has the ability to provide him with the healing that he so desperately needs. But it happens to be the Sabbath. A legalistic keeping of the Sabbath requires Jesus to turn away from this man, introducing a new burden into Jesus' heart. He could help, but He was required not to. This is terrible. It also puts a burden in the heart of the crippled man. He could have been healed, had it been any other day of the week. But it happened to be the Sabbath, and so he would be forced to carry his cripple one more day.
This is what Jesus was talking about when He kept asking the Pharisees, "Does this seem right to you? Is this Sabbath thing really the right thing to do? This Sabbath could burden two men."
Or take another example, the one of Jesus and His disciples breaking the heads off the wheat in a field on the Sabbath to satisfy their own hunger. There are several considerations here. First, the men are already walking through the field; they are likely already stepping on some of the life that is developing in this ground. If they do not make purposeful use of the produce of the field, they are simply assaulting the ground by walking through it, rather than making it meaningful.
They are hungry; they will have to satisfy their hunger somewhere. If they do not pluck the heads from this grain, then they will have to work to prepare a meal later in some other place. And this would be even more work than plucking the grain is. Or if they do not prepare their own meal, they will have to trouble someone else to prepare a meal for them. Think about the hospitality custom of the day. Whenever the disciples arrived wherever they were going, their host would naturally wonder if they were hungry. If they showed up hungry, they have now required something of their host on the Sabbath, thus breaking his Sabbath for him because of the nature of hospitality. If he does not break Sabbath for them, he is a bad host. Which is worse?
And there is something else going on here, too. Plucking the heads off the grain is something most of us would probably do mindlessly. It is natural for us to pick at the plants as we walk through a field, at least, for many of us, it is natural. Jesus says that's not what's happening here. It's not mindless what the disciples are doing; it is very mindful. It is for a purpose, to fulfill a need. To fulfill several needs - to make the land meaningful, to honor the Sabbath of others, and to satisfy the hunger of the disciples. There's nothing about this that is mindless.
And shouldn't the Sabbath be mindful? Isn't that part of keeping the Sabbath?
When Jesus gets into it with the Pharisees over the Sabbath, it's always about these kinds of ideas - needs, mindfulness, meaningfulness, burdens. Jesus is very aware of all the dynamics that go into keeping the Sabbath, and those that are at play in breaking it. Tops on His list are the needs of others and avoiding the creation of an additional burden by His Sabbath practice. (Although it ruffles the feathers of the Pharisees, it creates no burden on them for Him to break Sabbath. It does, however, draw them to argument, which they do like it's their job, so aren't the Pharisees also working on the Sabbath?)
I think this is apt for those of us who attempt to embrace Sabbath practice in our modern world. We must be mindful of needs and burdens. We must be aware of what's going on and how our practice of Sabbath either contributes to or detracts from all that is happening in the world around us.
There is a danger in this, of course, and that is that we can become so attuned to "needs" on the Sabbath that our Sabbath can become all about serving rather than resting. We can emerge from our Sabbath more weary than when we began. We can give over our entire set-aside time for the sake of others and not have any of it left either for God or for ourselves. And this is no good, either. It is burden in the other direction. There is a very real threat that the needs, demands, and expectations of others will make our Sabbath a burden on us, if we read Jesus in such a limited way as to say that we must do good works on the Sabbath.
And so, we can approach the Sabbath neither purely like a Pharisee, creating an undue burden on everyone, but nor we can approach it purely as the surface reading of Jesus would suggest, creating a burden on ourselves. There is one more lesson here that I think really brings Sabbath practice into focus, and I will share more on that tomorrow.
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