Category Archives: grace

The Long and Winding Road*

Share

With both apologies and gratitude to Sir Paul McCartney and his mates in the Beatles, the long and winding road is an apt description of the journey my family has been on for the past four years. What began as a somewhat uncertain yet anticipatory search for a Lead Pastor role melted into a desert meander through loss, death, grief, depression, questioning, doubting, and more. Yet milestone after faded milestone seemed to confirm two things: first, we were on the right path; and second, that path was leading to a pastoral role. Specifically where the path would lead was an unanswered question.

When God leads people on a journey, there’s always a purpose. Sometimes the purpose, or the path, or both, seems harsh, as with Jonah’s three days living as seafood or the ancient Israelites’ forty-year wilderness sojourn. Sometimes the purpose is simply to train, sometimes to discipline, sometimes to strengthen or transform. Sometimes God uses the journey to refresh and restore, as with Elijah after his battle-to-the-death with the prophets of Baal.

During our journey these past several years, God has been doing some hard work in my life, chiseling off rough edges, testing my commitment to his purpose, leading me from pride toward greater humility (a journey nowhere near complete). One of the most profound shifts I’ve seen in myself is a desire to love—really and simply love—whatever community he might call me to lead. That desire hasn’t always been there for me; so often, I’ve looked more at what I can change in a church than what I can love.

This weekend I stood before the congregation of a small, 150-year-old church in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. After my message (from Colossians 3:12-17), they were going to vote, as all good Baptists do, on whether it was God’s will for me to be their next pastor. With the ten new members being received that morning, the congregation stood at about 50 people – three-fourths of whom are over 65. I could count the children’s ministry on one hand…maybe with a finger to spare. The youth group was doubled in size by my daughter’s presence.

As we were getting ready for church that morning, my wife asked me what percentage I was looking for if we were to say yes to the church’s call. The number in my mind from the start had been 89%; I don’t know why, that’s just what came to my head and planted itself there. Eiley wondered if that was too high; What if it’s only 85%? Or 80?

The vote was overwhelming and humbling: unanimous! That is so unlike my past experience with churches, especially Baptist churches (my tribe). I have heard people say they always vote No just on principle! (I’m not sure what principle that is.) But this small body of hope-filled followers of Jesus is united in their desire to have me as their pastor and to lead them into the next phase of their life—of our life together.

And so, our journey takes a new turn. With a church called, ironically (and appropriately), The Journey. I wonder where this long and winding road will lead.

 

*Photo of Paul McCartney’s High Park Farm in Scotland copyright and owned by Stuart Brabbs. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Park_Farm._-_geograph.org.uk_-_434107.jpg

Christmas Gifts

Share

The house is still as the sun peeks slowly over the eastern horizon. The pungent aroma of onion cooking for quiche mixes discordantly with the sweet smell of gingerbread in the oven. Packages sit under the Christmas tree – for a few more moments, at least. And I sip coffee and read from the prophets Isaiah and Micah, and from John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as he was wont to describe himself, unnamed).

Yesterday I pondered the responses of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph to their respective visits from Gabriel, the Messenger of God. Disbelief. Bewildered trust. Obedience (though undoubtedly mixed with practical questions about honor, integrity, and righteousness).

Today’s readings are filled with prophetic hope for a derided nation, honor for a forgotten village, longing for salvation and rescue from enemies. Promises of a Savior, Rescuer, Judge; of justice and the restoration of an ancient, royal city.

The baby whose birth we celebrate today may not have been exactly what people had in mind when they read the stories in the antiquated scrolls. As he grew up, as he began his work, as the work seemed to end on a brutal Roman cross… the disappointment and disillusionment only grew.

Today—Christmas Day, 2017—the likelihood of disappointment and disillusionment is just as real. The peace we heard about in yesterday’s Christmas Eve sermon is elusive not only in the nation but even in our families. The justice promised with the coming of the Messiah seems as distant now as Micah’s writings from two-and-a-half millennia ago. No wonder the gifts that ring our trees have taken center stage: they’re here, real, tangible…even if they, too, often carry a degree of disappointment.

The work for justice, righteousness, and peace that began in a stable in Bethlehem (and long before then)…; the work that reached a climax on a cross on Calvary…; the work that a ragtag band of men and women were left to carry on…; that is our work, our task, our mission.

The wise men brought the newborn King gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s said that the gold symbolized his royal lineage, frankincense represented the worship due him, and myrrh foretold his sacrificial death. Perhaps this year, we can offer gifts to Jesus, as well. Perhaps we can offer a tireless striving for justice in our communities, nation, and world; perhaps we can live lives of righteousness – not legalism, but right living on behalf of others; perhaps we can work to bring peace into our families, workplaces, schools, communities.

What gifts will you offer this Christmas?

The Word: Written or Incarnate?

Share

Note: this post is more of a Bible study than most. If you are student of Scripture, then I would like your feedback on this. The perspective I present below is not the traditional evangelical view with which I grew up and in which I am trained, so I would like to hear from both my evangelical friends (who are likely to disagree) and with my friends from other theological backgrounds.

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:12-13, ESV)

How do these oft-memorized verses about “the word of God” fit with the themes of entering His rest, of belief and obedience? And how do these verses connect those themes to the following passage about Jesus being the great high priest?

“The word” in verse 12 here is most often understood to be God’s recorded word, the Scripture; i.e., the Bible: God’s word (and words) revealed through His prophets, His Son, and the apostles; and written down and canonized.

This seems a too-limited view, however, in light of the words used and the context following. Certainly Scripture is sharp and piercing; it reveals our thoughts and intentions, shows whether we are truly obeying or merely acting. Yet this does not satisfy the descriptive words “living and active,” or the verb “discerning.” Verse 13, further, uses personal language: “sight” (can a written word see?); “him,” not it; and a personal direct object, “to whom” our account will be given.

I think verses 12-13 are speaking of the living Word of whom John wrote in his gospel: the Word-become-flesh, Jesus Christ. Certainly the writer here is not speaking exclusively of the written revelation (of which his own words would become a part).

Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is alive and active, discerning, seeing, and waiting to receive an accounting of our belief or unbelief, our obedience or disobedience. It is Him to whom we owe our belief and obedience; Him to whom we will give account. He—not a book (even the Book of God)—is our great high priest, our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) before God, and our salvation. It is through Jesus Christ that we may receive mercy when our hearts struggle to believe and grace when we disobey.

Whatever This Is

Share
He didn’t even spare his own Son –
	He’s not going to let that sacrifice go to waste!
What accusations? The answer is already
	on the table.
What condemnation? The penalty has already
	been paid. Over and done.
And now he’s at God’s side – has God’s ear.
	[Every mistake, every failing, every sin
		filtered through the prism of
		Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.
	Over before it’s done.]

So what!
	So what? So this:
		Nothing.
			NOTHING!
				NO-THING
		can come between me-and-him!

Hard stuff – really hard stuff?
		Nope.
Tears – piteous wailing – agonizing desperation? 
		Nope.
Faith-haters – faith-hurters – stone-hurlers? 
		Nope.
Empty stomach? Empty closet?
	Not those, either.

READ THIS:
	Because of You
		Death is daily, moment-by-moment
			Slow, torturous.
		We’re in line for the slaughterhouse.

But – however – nonetheless – yet…
		WAIT! Hold presses!
	Fooled ya’!
		We win! We win! We win!
			We won! You won!
	Your love — death-to-self, us-before-you,
		climb-up-on-the-cross-and-die-for-me love…
Your love won the fight, the battle, the war
	long before I even knew there was an argument.

And so, I know this — with every ounce of knowing,
	every fiber of my being,
	beyond the doubts that hide in shadows:

	Ain’t nothin’ comin’ ‘tween me and your love!
		Death – life
		Angels – kings – congress – presidents
		Now – not yet
		Enemies of the state
		Unclimbable mountains – unfordable valleys
		Stuff that's made

Nothing at all can come between
	me-and-your-love.

[Guess I can handle this*, huh?]



			*whatever “this” is

(Based on Romans 8:31-39.)

Son or Slave?

Share

With weary steps he trudged homeward, the twin burdens of leadership and famine weighing on his shoulders. Yet another shepherd had left, weary of the near-constant attacks by wolves and lions. Their normal prey—herds of deer and wild goats—had been decimated by the drought, forcing the predators to brave the slings of the increasingly-wary shepherds. But the hyper-vigilance took its toll, too, and many of the hired hands simply walked away, seeking respite from both sun and battle.

Yet hope grew with each passing day. The rainy season so long absent was near, and reports from the west had often included signs of increasing clouds. He had even seen a few himself when gazing toward the unseen sea. Passing tradesmen, with their stories of adventure and excitement, had made him wistful for the same. But his home was here, his father was here, his responsibility was here.

The evening shepherds on their way to the fields were silhouetted by the sun as it dipped into the distant Jordan River valley. They were just slipping on their outer cloaks against the gathering dark and cold as he came upon them. Their voices were unusually animated, but in a brief space between words, a breeze from the east carried the faint music of … celebration? He asked what it was about.

“Your brother has returned!”, said one with unmasked wonder.

“They’re starting to party!”, said another. “They even butchered the fatted calf!”

Brother? Returned? He stood staring after them as the shepherds hurried on their way, then he stared down the path toward home. The old anger rose again in his heart. Venomous words gathered in his throat as he started once again, his pace quickening with every step until he was almost running. More than once he stumbled over an unnoticed stone as the blinding resentment returned.

Suddenly he was outside the house, his whole body shaking with adrenaline and the anticipated confrontation. The pungent aroma of leeks and peppers mixed with roasting beef and insulted his nostrils. Joyful sounds of lutes and lyres, cymbals and drums, struck discord in his now-raging breast. A servant passing just inside the window noticed him—noticed the reddened face—and found his master.


“My son! Come celebrate! Your brother is home!” The old man came running, as breathless in his enthusiasm as the son in his anger. His brow glistened in the lamplight, wet with the perspiration of the dance.

“Brother? I have no brother!” Spittle flew from his lips, spraying his father’s face and tunic. “That lech is dead to me – dead to you!”

“Yes, he is dead – was dead. But he has returned. He lives again!”

“Yes, he lives – lives with whores and rakes! He lived it up on your hard-earned money. What he didn’t throw away on women, he guzzled until he awoke in his own vomit. You’ve heard the stories as well as I have. He dragged your good name through the mud and dung and threw away your life’s work.”

The father looked down in shame-filled remembrance. A tear coursed down into his beard, mingling with the spit that still clung there. He knew all too well the bitter truth of his son’s words, and gathering both thoughts and feelings, he quietly acknowledged that truth. “Yes. He did.” Then, looking up again, he continued. “Yes, he shamed me, humiliated me. He buried me that day: told me I might as well be dead. But that’s not the half of it.”

“And this is how you reward him?”, the son interrupted, anger rising with his father’s admission. “You squander the fattened calf just as he squandered your estate? And here I’ve worked for you—slaved for you—all these years and you’ve done nothing for me! I’ve done everything you’ve asked, never left your side. I even did your work while you sat all day on that rock looking for him. And you never so much as offered a goat for me to enjoy with my friends.” Wrath and spit dripped from his mouth.

“Yes, you have been with me. You have been faithful and wise and industrious. You have managed the flocks far better than I could have in this drought. You have even managed to increase them; no one does that in a famine! You saved us. And I have been lost these past months – as good as dead myself. But your brother was dead, too. And his was a death worse than death itself. Like Cain of old, he killed another but was condemned to walk among the living. The stench of death clung to him, overpowering his drunkenness, his vomit … even the pig slop. The shame he brought to me hung from his shoulders everywhere he went; as he lay naked with each prostitute, the one garment he could not remove was that shame.”

“He deserves the pigs!” The son spat.

“Perhaps. You said you slaved for me these years. That is all your brother has asked now to do: to live here as a servant, to sleep in their quarters and eat their meager portions. But he is no servant, he is a son. My son. My blood flows in his veins just as it flows in yours. And today he has come home. Today he has come alive.

“If you would be a slave, then I free you from all obligation. If you, like your brother, would be free to live as you wish … all I have is yours. But you are no slave in my eyes. You are my flesh and blood, my son – my dear son – my first-born. And I love you, just as I love your brother.

“Come. Eat. Dance. Celebrate. Rejoice in resurrection.”