Archive for March, 2015

On C. S. Lewis and the Triumphal Entry

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on March 31, 2015 by timtrue

Palm Sunday: Meditations on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and the Triumphal Entry

Matthew 21:1-11

God works in very different ways than we might expect.

  • C. S. Lewis tells a great allegory of Christ—his ministry, trial, death, and resurrection—in a story called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
  • Four children, siblings, the Pevensies, find their way into a land called Narnia, magically, through a wardrobe.
  • In that land there are talking beasts and mythological creatures come to life.
  • It is apparently ruled by a very stern witch, who has made it always winter but never Christmas.  Whenever anyone crosses her, she turns them to stone.
  • The children soon learn, however, that there is a greater ruler, a king, who is magnificent and benevolent.  He has been away but will soon return; and when he does the witch better watch out!
  • This king, they learn, and not without a little fear, is a lion named Aslan.
  • Well, if you’ve heard the story then you know that Aslan is a picture of Jesus Christ; and the witch is a picture of Satan.
  • In this story—as in our own—betrayal takes place, seen especially in one of the humans, Edmund.
  • This betrayal is worthy of death; and the witch will not take no for an answer.
  • But Aslan willingly offers to die in Edmund’s place.
  • The witch is almost overjoyed at this offer.  But just to be sure she reminds Aslan that once this covenant is agreed upon, it cannot be changed according to the laws of deep, ancient magic.
  • Nevertheless, Aslan’s offer stands.  He is sacrificed on a Stone Table in Edmund’s place.  It seems like the witch has won.
  • The girls, Susan and Lucy, weep and attend to their dead Lord.  When their grief is spent, they turn to leave.
  • Then, with their backs to the Stone Table, the sun rises and the girls hear a tremendous crashing sound.
  • They turn around and see that the Table is cracked and broken; and that their Lord, Aslan, is nowhere to be seen.
  • Thinking the worst—“Oh, haven’t they humiliated him enough already!”—Aslan appears suddenly, more radiant than ever, with drops of golden sunlight seeming to fly from his mane.
  • And he roars!
  • And the witch and all her cronies, far away now, tremble!
  • “But the deep and ancient magic, Aslan,” the girls ask; “how did you break it?”
  • “I cannot break God’s decrees,” he explains; “but there is an even deeper and more ancient magic the witch has forgotten about.  And according to that deeper and more ancient magic I stand before you now.  Let’s go settle this thing once and for all!”
  • And they do.

God works in very different ways than we might expect.

  • Now let’s look at the triumphal entry.
  • People spread their cloaks across the road so that Jesus can ride a donkey across them.
  • A donkey, the symbol of a king!
  • And they wave palms.
  • To this crowd, here is their savior, come to set all things right; come to deliver the chosen people of God from their human oppressors.
  • But after just a few short days, this new savior comes up short in their eyes.
  • He was noticed by the authorities at the Passover Feast.
  • But instead of fighting he retreated into a garden, where he was found hiding from his pursuers.
  • Now, during his trial, he’s just standing there, silent.
  • Why doesn’t he do anything about it?  Some messiah he turned out to be!
  • And so this same crowd that so recently laid their cloaks across the road; who so recently waved palm branches and shouted, “Hosanna in the highest!”—
  • This same crowd now shouts, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”

God works in very different ways than we might expect.

  • Jesus didn’t satisfy the crowd’s understanding of deep, ancient magic—something called, theologically, the Abrahamic Covenant.
  • Jesus did not in any way they could see help them to take back the land that was rightfully theirs, according to what God once told Abraham.
  • And so Jesus, according to the crowd, was not their messiah.
  • But there was a deeper, more ancient magic at work—a magic that is far older than Abraham, even far older than Adam and Eve.
  • Perhaps if the crowd had paused and reflected, they might have seen this deeper magic at work in Jesus’s arrest and trial.
  • Perhaps if the crowd had paused and reflected, things would have turned out differently.
  • Perhaps if the crowd had paused and reflected, they would have seen that Jesus was indeed their Messiah in much more profound ways than they’d ever expected.
  • This is something we do as a church every year during Lent: pause and reflect.
  • Why?  Precisely this: to consider the deepest and most ancient magic of God; that Jesus is our Messiah in much more profound ways than we could ever know.
  • It all comes together this week: Holy Week.
  • Come and see!

God works in very different ways than we might expect.

2015 Lent 30

Posted in Lent 2015, Motorcycle with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2015 by timtrue

srambler_V7special_destro_2C3B4953

Jeremiah 25:8-17

Okay, I’m out.  I’m packing my motorcycle and heading to the mountains of Mexico for a camping trip of indefinite length.

That’s what I’d do if I were in Jeremiah’s shoes anyway.  Enough already!  He’s been proclaiming judgment, judgment, judgment for so long it hardly seems true anymore, or at least ineffective.  The people hate him.  They’ve conspired to kill him.  And still God presses him on.

Me?  I’d be whining to God from 9 to 5; and in the evenings I’d be outfitting my Moto Guzzi.

Yeah, my Moto Guzzi v7 Special, a simple, lightweight, bullet-proof machine with Italian sexiness.  I found a deal on it recently, like $2000 off for a new one, only it’s a 2013 model and thus the discount.  It’s a fairly common bike, so aftermarket parts are readily available.  The real clincher for me was the ease of outfitting this bike into a scrambler, you know, a bike that can handle rough fire roads–post-apocalyptic roads–as easily as it can handle the interstate.  The 5.8 gallon gas tank helps too: who knows how easy it is to find gas stations in the Sierra Madre–or how readily gas will be available after the apocalypse?

So, in my evenings, after another day of wearying and unproductive work, I’d eat a quick dinner usually involving a fried egg, over easy, and some vegetables–meat too whenever one of my roosters would get too feisty–and head out into my garage to tinker.  My excuse at first was creativity.  “I just need a creative outlet, honey,” I’d tell my wife.  And I’d tell myself that too.  But I think it really was always a plan to escape south of the border into early retirement, albeit a tacit one–plan, that is, not retirement (although, come to think of it, a tacit retirement does sound nice).

Anyway, now it’s fully outfitted for the wilderness.  And–Lord help me!–if I have to spend one more day proclaiming judgment to these stiff-necked people; if I have to tell them one more time that God’s dark servant Nebuchadnezzar will soon bring an army and wreak havoc and desolation; and–unlucky for Babylon!–that God nevertheless still loves his stiff-necked people and therefore Babylon, his dark servants, will in fact become a barren land not even fit for jackals–so help me I will just ride off to the south!

The Guzzi’s ready after all, loaded up in the garage with a full tank of gas.

But it’s late.  So I’ll just sleep on it.  Just one last time.

2015 Lent 29

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2015 by timtrue

bad dates

Jeremiah 24:1-10

“Bad dates!”

Do you remember this line from Raiders of the Lost Ark?  Indiana Jones was visiting his friend Sallah in Cairo, Egypt—if I recall correctly.  He tosses a date into the air, intending to catch it in his mouth.  (Dr. Jones is talented like that.)  The camera slows.  We watchers know what he doesn’t: that this date has been poisoned by a would-be assassin.

End over end the date spins.  It reaches the top of its arc.  And it begins to descend.  We watchers fear that our beloved hero will die (he’s too talented to miss, after all!).

But then, just before the date enters the gaping, anticipating, watering maw that is Dr. Jones’s mouth—ah, yes, kind providence!—Sallah snatches the fruit out of its trajectory.  And the assassin’s plot is foiled.

A befuddled Indie turns to look at Sallah, in real-motion time now, who points to a dead pet monkey on the floor—a monkey who had just recently eaten a date from the same stock—and says, “Bad dates!”

According to today’s passage, God views corrupt political systems and the people who run them like bad dates; like dates so bad they’ll kill you if you’re not watchful.  Except with Jeremiah it’s figs.

The common people are good figs, every one.  But the leaders—those priests and prophets Jeremiah’s been mentioning—are bad figs, every one, not fit for consumption.  They’re toxic.  And their toxicity will spread to the good figs.

This metaphor seems to apply to any organized structure, not just national leadership; not just politicians and pundits.  Authority is necessary in our world.  An orchestra needs a conductor.  But when the one in charge is corrupt, that person’s like a bad fig or date, good for nothing except the compost pile.

So, if you’re a person of authority, don’t be corrupt, greedy, or self-absorbed.  And if you work for such a bad date, remember Indie and Sallah.  Touch the toxic fruit if you must, but don’t ingest the poison.

On Attracting Seekers

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by timtrue

John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34

The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church. “There are cultural trends that people naturally gravitate towards,” they reason; “so we ought to offer the products and ideologies that people want.  People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels.  That ought to bring ’em to church!”

Out of this movement arose the so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]

So, arguably, the church growth movement has done great work.  Just look at these results!

But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches?

20-somethings are a very me-oriented group.  We are probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they are not talking, joking, or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in his or her own world, a world in the shape of some gadget.

According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology.  Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract these young people?  How can we go viral?  To tweet or not to tweet?  (That is the question!)

Mega-churches are asking these questions, don’t misunderstand me; and they are trying to reach this subculture.  But their efforts just don’t seem to be working: this segment of society is noticeably missing from the pews.

In fact, according to recent Barna Group statistics I read recently in Christianity Today, more than 8 million 20-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.

So, where are they going?  And why?

The answers may surprise you.  By and large, 20-somethings are turning from Christianity to Atheism.[ii]  Why?  Authenticity, they say.

Churches are trying to imitate popular culture, the argument goes; and this imitation strikes 20-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely as hypocritical.  Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.

Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic is also genuine.  Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-somethings seem to crave.  Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies, including today’s version of Christianity, want to touch.

Critics of the church growth movement conclude, therefore, that the church ought to be counter-cultural, not pandering.

And so goes the church growth debate.

But what does Jesus have to say about it?

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”

Greeks, the Bible says.  Non-Jews!  Who went up to worship at the Passover—a distinctively Jewish—festival!

What were these Greeks but seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?

Here is a tremendous opportunity for church growth.  Both Philip and Andrew recognize it.  Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus.  Some seekers have come to church!  What an awesome opportunity!

So what does Jesus do?  He summarizes the entire Gospel, the good news about himself, in a short parable about agriculture:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Or, to summarize, Jesus proclaims that his disciples must:

  1. Embrace death;
  2. Hate life;
  3. And follow him through death to life.

Well, that’s an attractive message for seekers!

But that’s exactly what’s going on here!  These are Greeks he’s talking to.  They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—the pop culture of their day!  And yet, Jesus does not try to meet them where they are.  Jesus does not try to attract them to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object.

In fact, his message is death and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution!  His message to seekers—to those wanting to become his disciples—is crucifixion!  Granted, it’s also resurrection.

Here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life. This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels!  This is the message the world needs to hear.

So, how do we do this?  As individual disciples and as a church body, how do we take Christ’s message of crucifixion and resurrection seriously?

The text gives us three suggestions:

First, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Disciples of Jesus must embrace death.  And the kind of death we’re talking about here is death to self.  Discipleship leaves no room for narcissism, or self-absorption.

Many of the 20-somethings in the article I mentioned above readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed.  They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them.  Their generation both breeds and nurtures narcissism.

It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when a church that fosters narcissism is seen by them as second-rate or hypocritical.  But in interviews, the 20-somethings said things like:

  • The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
  • We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center.  We don’t need the church to echo the world.
  • We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches.   So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]

Narcissism is a retreat from the world.  When church leaders appeal to it by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires.  It negates the message of Jesus Christ.  And perceptive 20-somethings see right through it.  They would rather learn how to die to oneself.

A second suggestion; Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Disciples of Jesus must hate life.

But what does hating life mean?  I remember using this as a catch phrase when I was a kid.  It usually involved some kind of physical activity—surfing or motorcycling or playing football.  Someone would wipe out or high-side or get tackled by the entire opposing defensive line, and I’d say, “Oh, he’s hating life right now.”  Ever hear that?

Well, that’s not what Jesus means here.  Instead, it’s about hating the things in our culture that can entangle and ensnare us.

Things like money; things like ideologies, like narcissism; even things like unhealthy relationships.  These entangling things are here, all around us, confronting us every day.  We can’t ignore them.  We have to live with them; face them; deal with them.

Authentic Christianity is not afraid to do this—to wrestle through such things.  If there are people you know struggling with Atheism, narcissism, paying their bills, or even with each other, don’t be afraid to talk about it.  And—this is important!—don’t feel like you have to come up with a solution to the problem right now: it’s okay to live with tension for a while.

So: embrace death, hate life, and, thirdly, follow Jesus through death into life.

Jesus says it this way: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

But we also heard it said another way this morning, from the Prophet Jeremiah.  There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on his or her heart.

And what is the law of God?  Love!  Love the Lord your God with all your being!  And love your neighbor as yourself!

We think long and hard about this law of God in this church.  So I’m not going to tell you anything new about it.  Instead, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment what it should look like.  What would it look like—close your eyes if it helps—if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?

Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, or terrorism?  Would we turn on the local news and be sickened by all the criminal behavior going on right around the corner from our homes?  Would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?

Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love?  Sounds like heaven!

Well, it is.

It’s also new life, a life gotten to only after passing through death to self.  This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live now, here, in this culture, in this world.  This is authentic Christianity.

And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-somethings, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.

There really is no recipe for successful church growth other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.

[i]               Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.

[ii]               Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.

[iii]              Ibid.

2015 Lent 28

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by timtrue

williams

Jeremiah 23:9-15

With today’s passage, let’s return to the question of redaction: was the book of Jeremiah edited years or even generations later in order to convey an agenda?

After all, we have witnessed individual politicians and pundits in our own day crash and burn morally.  Brian Williams comes to mind, poor guy.  And Monica Lewinsky is in the news again these days.  Need I say more?

Yet, arguably, we are not being judged as a nation.  America is not falling into the hands of enemies.  We seem (fingers crossed) to be pulling out of a lengthy recession.  Life continues much as it has for more than two centuries in our democratic, materialistic, science-smitten country.

In fact, looking at our history, there have been times—like during the so-called Civil War; like that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968; and like 9/11—when several cries of divine judgment were heard across the land.  Yet American life continues today much as it always has.  Today, as I cup my hand to my ear and listen, the judgment cries have largely fallen silent.

This idea—that there is not a cause-and-effect relationship between immorality and divine judgment—is captured in a scene from a dark movie starring Jason Bateman called, appropriately enough, Bad Words.  The story is of an angry but highly intelligent middle school dropout now grown up (Bateman).  To prove a point, he cleverly navigates his way into the national spelling bee: the bee policy states, “Contestants must not have graduated the eighth grade,” without listing an age limit.  Anyway, Bateman befriends a twelve year-old fellow contestant and persuades him, successfully, to shout out the f-word to express his anger.  After he does so Bateman says, “Well, see there?  You haven’t been struck by lightning.”

Moral failures happen all around us.  But judgment doesn’t.  God is merciful.  And mercy triumphs over judgment.

This doesn’t mean we should live by any less integrity, as if we are able to live as recklessly as we like because mercy rocks.  God is about love.  And real love puts others first.  The greater good, summum bonum, demands integrity of us!

But to rewrite history in order to scare people into walking with integrity doesn’t sit well with us either.  Fear sucks.  And to manipulate others through fear sucks worse.  Yet this just might be happening with Jeremiah.

The enemies of Israel had conquered them.  They had dispersed Israel and Judah into exile.  It would have been really easy in this context for a judgment-minded remnant to reflect:

In the good old days we had it so good—don’t you remember?  The people obeyed God and he blessed us.  Even the Queen of Sheba travelled from afar to see Solomon’s palace and temple and to learn at his feet.  Yeah, those were the good old days!  But then the people disobeyed and God judged.  How can we communicate this cause-and-effect relationship to our people?

And so books of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah (and arguably Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.) were revised and added to in order to convey the importance of living lives of integrity, by giving the prophets powers to look into the future; and then by saying things like, “Repent now from your disintegrating ways, or God will bring enemies into our land and judge us!” because those rewriting them already knew the details, that the people had not in fact lived lives of integrity; and that the surrounding nations had already in fact conquered them.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

The future, however, is more like 1/20.

So this question of redaction is sensible.

But, of course, it poses a serious challenge to those of us who call the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments authoritative.  For even by granting the idea of redaction admittance, we’ve brought a stranger into our party.  And strangers change the mood.  And party-goers don’t want the mood to change.

Nevertheless, that someone probably redacted the prophets makes sense.  None of our politicians and pundits today—America’s priests and prophets—sees into the future.  They can speculate about the future—they should speculate about the future—and make present plans accordingly.  (See yesterday’s post for more about that.)  But as to specific details, no one can say how, when, or where America will come to an end.

Yet that’s just the credit many of the American Christian party-goers want to give to the pundits of old.

Well, what makes more sense to you?

2015 Lent 27

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2015 by timtrue

Depiction_of_a_futuristic_city

Jeremiah 23:1-8

In seminary I was required to do a lot of self-assessment.

For the record, self-assessment is not to be confused with self-absorption.  Both self-absorption and self-assessment are focused inwardly, on oneself.  But self-absorption focuses on self to the exclusion of all others.  A self-absorbed person is unaware of much of the surrounding world.  One focuses on oneself without regard to others.  The goal of self-assessment, on the other hand, is to broaden one’s understanding of the world starting with the person one knows best: oneself.

Maybe a simpler way to state it is: a self-absorbed person focuses only on his or her strengths; whereas a self-assessing person deeply understands his or her own weaknesses as well as strengths, and thereby increasingly understands the surrounding world.

Anyway, one of the batteries my classmates and I took to assess ourselves is called StrengthsFinder.  I’m sure you can look it up on Google if you’re interested.

The idea with StrengthsFinder is to find one’s top five strengths from a list of something like thirty-five.  Some of the words on this list are Achiever, Ideation, Thinker, and Woo.  They’re more or less self-explanatory.

With the top five strengths of each person listed, with only thirty-five to choose from, and with a class size of twenty-five students, you would be right if you guessed there was considerable overlap.  One of my top five was Thinker, for instance; which also showed up in several others’ top five.

All this is to point out how unusual I thought it, then, when Futuristic made my top five but no one else’s.  I thought it unusual because thinking into the future and making plans thereby is a part of my natural make-up, a part of who I am, something that comes second-nature to me, something I don’t have to think about because it just happens.  But it also struck me as unusual because this thinking that comes so naturally to me was apparently not something so natural for other people.

Of course, there’s a flipside to being naturally futuristic: I can escape–or plan my next escape at least, and then derive a good deal of joy from my future plan while enduring present trials.  In other words, there is potentially a great weakness in this strength too.

So–confession here–learning this about myself has led me to question whether some of my past moves have been related to this potential weakness.  Did I ever leave one teaching job for another, for instance, because I was experiencing interpersonal struggles with a principal and hoping to find a better boss-employee relationship?  But this is real self-assessment; knowing this about myself will help me guard from making such a mistake down the road, in the future.

Enough about me.  Now onto Jeremiah.

Today he turns his attention to the future.  Israel’s present situation is bad.  He’s been telling us this for twenty-two chapters while also telling us, now and again, here and there, that Israel’s situation had been better at one time or another in the past.  Still, the present seems pretty hopeless.

The one way out of this hopelessness is to repent, he’s been saying.

But, really, I’m sympathetic to Israel’s plight.  How easy is it to change tack when you’re browbeaten day after day?

If you’re at all like me (dang!  I’ve slipped back into self-assessment again!), in a situation like this I start planning my escape.  I’m not going to change my personality because someone’s browbeating me.  I’m not going to change my habits very easily either–especially the older I get!  But I can change the situation, get out from under the browbeater’s stick!  And the more seemingly hopeless the situation the more I plan my escape until it becomes my new reality.  Making future plans gives me hope.

Well, that’s where Jeremiah turns today–finally! now, at last, I can take a deep breath!–to hope in the future.

“The days are coming,” Jeremiah tells his people, “when . . . Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”

God will do a bunch of great things for Israel, the Prophet says.  God will bring people back into community and give them wise, competent, just and righteous leaders to shepherd them.

That’s enough to give me hope.

But I realize I’m not like everyone else.  I was the only person to see Futuristic in my top five.  Which leads me to wonder, is it enough to give Israel hope?  Is it enough to give you hope?

If you’re not futuristic, I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.

2015 Lent 26

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , on March 19, 2015 by timtrue

Jeremiah 22:13-23

A Letter from the Adolescent Jeremiah

Narcissism, self-absorption, deception, greed;

Another Aston-Martin, another steed.

“I must acquire more,” you say to yourself;

“Another margarita!  Make it top shelf.”

You’ve earned it all, you know, your disciplined ethic.

Or is it too much?  Are you a workaholic?

“Well, you enjoy this life, don’t you, my son?”

My only response is to shrug, then run

When you turn your back, so that you won’t see

The tears rolling down, first one then three.

I’m too timid to tell you what I feel, what you do;

How you won’t spend more than a minute or two

With me each day.  You’re consumed.  You don’t care.

It’s back to your work, to your selfish world where

You shut everyone out, including me,

Your only family now since Mom let you be.

You’ve climbed a ladder of your own making,

Lying, deceiving, earning, cheating,

Thinking only of yourself all the way to the top.

Your life is so ugly.  Guess there’s always Photoshop.

You’re so unlike Grandpa.  He served others.

Never had much, but those were his druthers.

If you ask me, I prefer his way.

Please, Dad, can’t you look away

From your own avarice, just for a day?

2015 Lent 25

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2015 by timtrue

potter

Jeremiah 18:1-11

I can understand why people might have a philosophical problem with today’s passage.

Have you ever had a person in your life who made seemingly everything difficult for you?  Maybe it was only your imagination, you tell yourself.  But no matter how great an effort you put forth, it never seemed enough.

Maybe you had a teacher who always seemed to give you an 85 on tests, no matter how much or how little you studied.

Schools are like that: they grade (i. e., judge) you by what you do wrong, not by what you get right.

You know how it is.  You pour yourself into research and study—you’re actually really interested in this topic— for once!—only to receive an 88 on your graded essay.  So you ask your teacher why; and the response is something like, “Well, you don’t deserve an A because you didn’t expand this idea enough”; or “your thesis wasn’t clearly stated in your opening paragraph”; or some such similar, pessimistic reason.

This attitude snowballs, of course: you soon find yourself critiquing the stuffing out of your trained-to-be-critical teacher.  “She splits infinitives all the time!” you complain to a likeminded grammar geek, for instance; “and she walks like a hippo!”

But I’ve digressed.  Point is, it’s all negative.  Your grade is based on what you didn’t do, not on what you did do.  And who needs that?

Or maybe it was a coach.  Ever have a coach stand there on the sidelines shouting at you only and always what you’re doing wrong?  It’s “choke the bat,” “keep your eye on the ball,” and “you’re not standing at the ready”; and never “good hit!” “great base running!” or “wicked throw!  What’s your mom feeding you for breakfast anyway?”  Always blah and never bling.

Or how about a boss?  Have you ever felt like you’re under the omnipresent eye of a controlling supervisor?  Have you ever been in a work situation that feels oppressive, like you’re trapped?  It might be just your imagination, granted, but seemingly every word, gesture, and other form of communication feels negative, designed to tear you down rather than build you up.

That trapped feeling, by the way, comes from a feeling of complete powerlessness to change your situation.  And what is utter powerlessness but a form of slavery?

I imagine Jeremiah felt this way: trapped; always criticized; never built up; perhaps even enslaved by the ideologies captivating his culture.

But I imagine, too, (with the exception—maybe the sole exception—of Jeremiah) the people of Israel felt this way toward God.

As I read today’s passage, I can imagine the Israelites’ response so vividly I can almost hear it:

“What?  We’re supposed to view God as a potter and ourselves as the clay?  But that means God can do anything he wants to with us.  That means God can beat us down so continuously that we end up not knowing which way is up.  That means that God will only and always ever criticize and judge us.  That means God will be watching over my every move, at the ready to say harsh words against me or, worse, to swat me down like a fly any and every time I step out of line.  That means God is like a calloused, crusty old teacher; or a coach with a vendetta carried over from his own abused childhood; or a horrible boss, pathetic because he is not sympathetic to those beneath his social status.”

Let me tell you, such a god is no god I’d want to worship either!

But that’s just it, isn’t it?  The people of Israel had been looking around at the gods of all the other nations for so long that they now saw God, their God, more as a dysfunctional human than as good, benevolent, sovereign, and perfect.

It’s one thing to be a lump of clay in the hands of a perfect potter, who wants to mold, form, and shape the best work possible out of that lump: it’s one thing to trust that God wants the best for you.

But it’s quite another thing to view the potter as imperfect, as we humans are: prone to become frustrated at the physical limitations of our human bodies; prone to turn to mind-numbing substances in order to escape, even if for but a moment, from life’s stressors; prone to temper tantrums and other losses of self-control, often at the slightest provocation.  In other words, it’s another thing to make God in our image.

No wonder the Israelites didn’t want to listen to Jeremiah!  They’d fashioned their god to be just like them—just as judgmental, critical, harsh, duplicitous, adulterous, and blind to the truly needy—only more!

And who’d want to trust a god like that?

Nevertheless, God molds, forms, and shapes.

2015 Lent 24

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , on March 17, 2015 by timtrue

vw

Jeremiah 16:10-21; Jeremiah 17:19-27

I’ve never been brand-loyal.

I suppose the closest thing I’ve come to brand loyalty is owning three Volkswagens in my life.

Twenty years ago I purchased a used Golf.  It was good enough in its own way.

Some years later, the price was right and the timing was better so I leased a new Jetta.  This car was smart.  It drove like a top, was occasionally mistaken for a Mercedes, and suited my growing family.

And I guess my present car, a minivan, a Routan, came to me similarly: the timing and the deal were right.  0% interest over six years and I’ll own it outright.  (And that six years is nearly up.)  Better than cash!

But I’ve also owned others cars.  Quite a few too!

Let’s see, a 1968 Dodge Sportsman van was in there, as well as a 1972 Ford Pinto.  But, technically, my dad owned these so I’m not sure they count.

Then there were mine: starting with a 1973 Datsun 510; then a 1970 Triumph TR6; followed by my first real dependable beast, a 1980 Mazda 626; and a very un-dependable monster, a 1968 GMC 1500 pick-up.  Next came the Golf and the Jetta.  Then, with four kids (and the help of my father in-law), I landed an eight-passenger 2000 GMC Safari; followed by a 2006 Mini Cooper S, after selling the Jetta.

I loved that Cooper!  But the GMC Safari gave up the ghost and two car payments were not in the seminary family’s budget and it was too small for seven (we now had five kids) and so, alas, goodbye Cooper and hello Routan, our only vehicle for the time being.  Since then I have acquired a cheap and dependable, albeit occasionally smoking, 2006 Nissan Sentra S.

Oh, and I can’t forget the two basket cases I owned long enough to fix and then sell: a 1980 BMW 320i and a 1998 Volvo V90 wagon.  A few motorcycles have insinuated themselves in the mix too.

But my point is, as I hope you can see, I’m not really that brand-loyal.

It’s the same with sports.

I’m a huge fan of the game of baseball.  It’s a game of strategy and subtlety, complex enough to keep me interested and entertained for a lifetime.

And all my life I’ve had people try to convince me why one major league team is better than another; why that team deserves my loyalty; why all other teams are second-rate in comparison (at best!), and so on.

But I just can’t do it.  I can’t bring myself to the point where I am a die-hard fan of the Giants, Padres, Dodgers, Astros, Rangers, Braves, Yankees, or any other team which “deserves” my fanhood.

And my tempters say, “Why not?”

And I say, “Can’t I just enjoy the game for what it is?”

Anyway, no brand loyalty here.  It goes against some sort of innate grain.

Now, looking at these passages (I mistakenly commented on Sunday’s passage yesterday; so today we have two–yesterday’s and today’s), on the surface it looks like brand loyalty is exactly what God wants us to have.  You are not to worship any other gods but me, God says.  No Astros, no Dodgers, no Rangers, and no other team except mine!  The Angels!

But below the surface is that what’s really going on?

The ancient people of Israel were confronted daily by the gods of other nations.  Idols is a word we hear often.  But these gods, or idols, merely represented the systems and philosophical ideals in place within daily culture.  The people of Israel couldn’t avoid the hierarchies, sacrificial foods, currencies, and ideologies–the gods–of Egypt, for instance; but they could navigate their way through them.  They had to!

In the same way we have our own idols today, all around us, confronting us seemingly everywhere in our culture–whether ideologies, like “might makes right”; or realities, like an economy dependent on credit.  We can’t avoid these; so we should navigate through them the best we can, with integrity, not allowing ourselves to succumb to the shallow allure by which we end up hurting ourselves worst in the long run.

So, it’s really not about brand loyalty at all.  God is not telling the people of Israel to be fans of his team and his only.  God is telling them–and us–not to be fans of any team.

Enjoy the game for what it is but don’t become so infatuated with any one team that it consumes your being–don’t let how you feel on any given day during baseball season depend on whether your team wins or loses.  Or, to bring it full circle, use your car because you must; but don’t sacrifice your family to it.

Brand loyalty has its limits.

2015 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by timtrue

drought

Jeremiah 14:1-9, 17-22

Well, I don’t know if it was calling them tighty-whities or what, but today, finally, the people of Israel begin to turn back to God.

Actually, according to this chapter, it was a drought; parched, dry, cracked land was the catalyst.  And this wasn’t just any drought.  This one was so severe that does (a deer, a female deer) were abandoning their own fawns; donkeys were sniffing the wind in an effort to draw some kind of moisture from the air, like jackals do, it says.

(And I think, do jackals do this?)

Point is, disaster came on the people of Israel and they turned to God in prayer.

That was Jeremiah’s point anyway.  But it brings up other questions.

Like: when bad things happen to us–things beyond our control–does this mean that God is judging us for our immorality?

Job maintained an upright heart throughout his time of trial, even when his wife told him, “Curse God and die!”  Bad things happened to Job.  He lost his property–including his home and numerous animals–to bandits; and all his children to some kind of natural disaster–they all died–every one of them!–all in the same day.

So he wept, fasted, and prayed.  Then his wife said what she did.  And some of his best friends came for a visit, assessed, and judged him.  And they said, “You, Job, obviously, have done some great wrong.  This is why you’re suffering, of course!  Just repent already and God will lighten up.”

But he hadn’t done anything wrong.  We readers learn this at the end of the book–like some macabre punch line.  Forces beyond human vision and understanding had been at work.  Evil was present in the world.  And there was nothing Job could do to prevent it.

So, no, bad things happening to us does not mean God is judging us.

And questions like: so why is there evil in the world at all?  If God created the world–which we Christians believe–and if God is good–which we also believe–and if God is sovereign over all–which some Christians believe (including this author)–then why isn’t the world entirely good?

Theologians call this conundrum theodicy.  I like to call it dicey theology.

But there are answers to this question.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, offers one answer.

The world was created upright, including Adam and Eve who were created in God’s own image, perfect and upright.  But evil entered the world.  Adam and Eve ate this evil, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, that forbidden fruit, about which they were told not to.  And then Adam and Eve, who had been created in God’s own image but were now marred, had a son named Seth.  Curiously, the writer of Genesis addresses this: Seth is said to be born in Adam’s image, not God’s (cf. Genesis 5:3); Seth, and all humanity after him (without going into Cain’s line), no longer bears God’s perfect image but Adam’s imperfect one.

To carry this string of logic a little farther, Christ is called the perfect image of God in the New Testament.  We Christians are said to be becoming more and more like Christ throughout our lives.  With this understanding of creation and fall, we could say that we are becoming less like Adam’s imperfect image and more like Christ’s perfect one.  Neat picture, eh?  (Although I must admit I know many people, including many Christians, who fall a lot closer to the imperfect side of the spectrum than to the perfect–or even than to the middle!)

But it still doesn’t answer all the questions.  Why did a perfect God allow evil into the good world in the first place?  Adam and Eve sinned.  But where did the conniving serpent come in?  And why would God have placed a tree with a forbidden fruit in the world in the first place?  Was God just trying to tantalize and tempt his creation to fall?  Was evil inevitable?  And, if so, is this something a truly good God would do?  And, if God is indeed sovereign, did Adam and Eve really have a choice at all?  (The same question has been asked about Judas Iscariot too, by the way: did Judas even have a choice, in the big, cosmic scheme of things, when he betrayed Jesus?)

There are answers to these questions too, if you’re interested.  But, predictably, these answers lead to yet more questions.  A whole lot more!

But enough already!  Now we’re confused, anxious, and maybe even a little stressed over our faith.  Now there’s tension.  (And, like Runt from Chicken Little, tension makes me bloat!)

And we’ve strayed from the point.

The book of Jeremiah is simply pointing out that the people turn to God in prayer during times of hardship.

Isn’t this a natural response?  Perhaps even an innate response, something we’re all born with?

We face challenges beyond our comfort zone.  We need to focus, to face these challenges courageously.  So what do we do?

We pray.  Oh, some may call it focusing, centering, meditating, whatever.  But it’s all just different forms of prayer.  It might not be addressed to the God of the Christians.  And it’s certainly not concerned–in the heat of the moment–with questions about why evil exists, is God sovereign, is God even real, or some other challenge to the Christian faith.  But it’s prayer nonetheless.

And for me it’s a compelling proof of divinity.