Thoughts & Prayers

Another tragedy in America. A mass shooting after three devastating hurricanes and acres of fires, after a car attack after a shooting on a baseball field after a shooting in a nightclub after…

Each time we offer our thoughts and prayers to the victim’s families.  We post “Praying for _________” on our Facebook page or Twitter feed.  Again and again.

IT’S NOT ENOUGH!

Sure, we say this initially because we don’t know what else to do.  We say it because we want victim’s families or towns or islands that have been devastated to know we care.  Thinking with sympathy or empathy for those who are hurting is good.  And some of us do actually pray. Prayer is important after a tragedy. It is.

BUT, IT’S NOT ENOUGH!

Especially in the last couple months things have come at us so fast that even if we haven’t been directly affected, we feel the tension.  Tension is a sign that something needs to give.  We need to start DOING something more and doing some things differently. And, what I need to do and what you need to do may be different things. Maybe we need to be donating to organizations that provide services. Maybe we need to donate blood. Maybe we need to volunteer to cook, to clean, to sit with victims. Maybe we need to write to our representatives in Congress to plead for more gun restrictions. (Why does anyone not actively employed by the government need an assault style rifle or a silencer?) Maybe we need to be creating organizations with less overhead to respond to the natural disasters that seem to be coming more frequently and more forcefully. We each need to use our own time and talents and resources and lean into these situations.  Mr. Rogers famously said to tell children “look for the helpers”.  As adults, we, too, need to look for the helpers and then help the helpers or just plain BE the helpers.

BUT, IT’S NOT ENOUGH!

As Christians, we have a further responsibility. We come back to prayer.  We need to be praying and lamenting the tragedies, absolutely.  Further we need to be intervening ahead of the tragedy. We need to at least have the “faith of a mustard seed” and be praying against the storm and praying ahead of time for those being evacuated to have a safe place to go.  We need to be praying against the “roaring lion looking to devour” that he will not find a willing accomplice among us to carry out violence and evil. We need to keep praying and keep helping and keep loving…

UNTIL IT IS ENOUGH.

 

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It’s All in the Translation

Amidst the books I’m reading, the Bible studies I’m participating in, and the research I’ve been doing for a future blog post, I have run across things in the Bible that make me stop and say, “Hmmm, I need to think about that.”

I’m discovering that some of the assumptions and conclusions I have from growing up in church are more of a cultural or translational understanding than a purely biblical one. I’m not offering resolutions here, just my thought processes.

Below are one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament in case you want to ponder them too.

In Genesis 9:15 God makes a covenant with Noah and _________ to never destroy all flesh, or all life, again with a flood.  Whether it is all flesh or all life depends on the translation but those are, technically, two different things.  Further, translations on who else the covenant is made with vary even more.

Many translations say “every living creature of all flesh” (KJV, etc.).

Others are “each soul living that nourisheth flesh” (WYC), “every living soul that beareth flesh” (DRA), “all living creatures” (HCSB & NLT), “all living creatures of every kind” (NIV), “every living thing” (NCV).

Obviously I’m focusing on semantics but I am fascinated by the nuance.  There is a difference between flesh bearing souls and every living thing.

It would seem that since God declared that each part of creation was “good”, it is all important to Him.  His intention seems to be to redeem everything. Think about the overly familiar John 3:16 –“For God so loved the world…”  Doesn’t the world include everything?  Otherwise, wouldn’t it say, for God so loved the people He created?  I understand that “whosoever believeth in Him” comes next strengthening the idea that it refers only to people. However, in Luke 19:40 Jesus himself says “the stones will cry out”. So there’s that.

 

Did you know that the last verses in the Gospel of Mark are most likely not even written by him?  While most translations make some notation about this, I hadn’t really thought much about it before.  Two alternative endings have been found, neither of which is included in the oldest manuscripts.  Mark’s actual writing seems to end with verse eight.  From a literary perspective, it is fairly obvious that the last 12 verses of chapter 16 have a different “voice” that the rest of the book.

Within those verses, translational variations of Mark 16:15 can also mean significantly different things. The meaning of the beginning of the verse is virtually the same although different words are used. It is a directive to go to the whole world and tell, preach, announce, proclaim the Good News (Gospel).  Who, exactly, to tell it to is a little less clear. Is it “everyone” (ISV, TLB, etc.), “every creature” (KJV, TLV, etc.), “all creation” (CSB, CJB, NASB, NIV, etc.) or “the whole creation” (ASV, ESV, NRSV, WEB, etc.)?

St. Francis of Assisi took this quite literally and preached to the animals. Maybe he was right in doing so.

For me choosing between these differences start with thinking through what the Good News really means.  The Good News is not just the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. It is about the purpose of his life, of his sacrifice, so that we and the whole creation can be redeemed and restored to relationship with God.

It is another reminder that God’s intention is not an evacuation plan but one of restoring His creation, all of it, right here.  That, however, is a whole other blog post…

The Need for Certitude

I’ve been learning recently a little about how Jewish people interact with the Bible. Since much of the Bible is their history and speaks specifically of them, maybe we could learn something from how they seek to understand scripture.

As Christians, especially American Christians, we tend to use the Bible just like we use other things. Culturally, we are geared to consume and/or to be entertained. On some level this filters how we read and understand the Bible.

We consume. We were taught from an early age to memorize the books of the Bible in order and various one line scriptures.  Enticements were offered – stars, prizes, Bible bucks. We grow up with heavy emphasis on reading the Bible in a year, or first thing in the morning, or for an hour a day.  There is an overabundance of reading plans to choose from so we don’t get bored or bogged down in the Old Testament. Now, none of these are bad things. It is good to read the Bible. It is good to commit scripture to memory. I suppose memorizing the books in order is, at least, helpful when someone says to turn to the book of Amos.

The problem is when we don’t go much deeper than that. We read our plan’s prescribed passages and then move on to the rest of our day.

We’re entertained. If we’re honest, we want our sermons to be short – preferably delivered with humor and pictures. We rely on the pastor to expeditiously explain scriptures and stories to us, often nodding in agreement with whatever they say. If we are fortunate enough to have a particularly good pastor, we may learn context and ancient language details that make confusing passages a little clearer or even allow us to see the story from a new perspective. Depending on the sermon topic, it may elicit some emotion from us. We may feel like we’ve learned something that applies to us and feel either convicted or prideful. We may even, often temporarily, feel inspired.

However, even the best pastors can become mere religious entertainers if after Sunday morning we simply say, “That was a good sermon” and carry on without absorbing and applying the ideas that drew our appreciation in the first place. This is how our cultural lens allows us to consume the Bible and be entertained by God’s Word without ever actually being truly impacted by it.

Too often we take interesting Bible stories and twist them into something that has some personal relevance that, conveniently, lines up with our pre-established belief system. Further, if the story doesn’t align with these beliefs, or with what we’ve always been taught, or worse, if the Bible seems to contradict itself, we tend to gloss over it or ignore it completely.

Here’s the thing. We say we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, the Living Word. We then read it as little more than a history book and a rule book. For the Word to be living it must not be stagnate in us. It cannot be read just like any other book.  We do this because it is easier than allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed and confused by scripture. We do this because we’ve been taught that questioning the Bible, or a leader’s interpretation of it, is a lack of faith.

This is where we have much to learn from faith-filled Jewish brothers and sisters.

Many Jewish people and Jewish religious leaders regularly discuss and debate scripture and enjoy it!  They do not tend to believe there is only one “right” way to interpret what they read.  While we get all bent out of shape over differing opinions or schools of thought and demand a determination of what is “right”, they embrace the debate.  They are comfortable with learning other perspectives, possibilities, and thoughts. They are fine with either remaining in disagreement or accepting that a passage could mean more than one thing. Unlike us, this isn’t seen as threatening to them or to their religion.

A good example of this would be a (true) story I heard recently about a group of Jewish rabbis and scholars meeting at one of the men’s house. They sat and debated the text from the Torah late into the night to where the man’s wife nearly ran out of food for them. She was thrilled they had stayed so long because this was part of what made scripture beautiful.  The text had invited them into community and conversation. They left arm in arm.

They were fine with disagreeing. They were fine with not having a definitive determination on how things should be interpreted. They seem comfortable with the idea that they could all be wrong, or even all be right. They weren’t afraid of the uncertainty.

So, when was the last time your Bible study looked like that?

Why are we so threatened by having our personal or denominational interpretations challenged?

What if the need for certitude is more indicative of a weaker faith?

What if we had honest conversations about the things that are contradictory, or confusing, or just seem wrong?

What if instead of getting into the Bible so we can check it off our list, we actually allowed the messages of the Bible to get in us?

People wrestling with and questioning God are seen throughout the Old and New Testament. Even Jesus had a couple of questions.

However, questioning and wrestling and debating require much more of us. We have to swallow our pride and admit our uncertainty. We have to quit consuming and start contributing. We have to quit just being told a story and start becoming part of living out the Story. Questioning, wrestling, and debating require relationship.

Maybe developing those kinds of relationships would allow our lives to look like we really believe what we say we believe – that God is sovereign and Jesus ushered in a Kingdom of love and forgiveness. Maybe it would give us the courage to live out, with actions and not just words, the things Jesus clearly told us to do.

Love God.

Love your neighbors.

Love your enemies.

Care for the widow.

Care for the orphan.

Care for the refugee (immigrant).

Care for the poor.

What if a little less need to be certain allowed us to offer more grace, more mercy, and more love?

 

Brief Observations – Birds

I just watched a flock of small birds fly overhead in the evening sky all headed to the same unseen destination. They appeared to be attempting to fly in a “V” formation like geese. However, they couldn’t seem to figure out who should be in the lead or where they belonged in the formation. They darted in and out, back and forth, and their forward momentum was sometimes disrupted by unseen winds. Their journey looked anything but smooth and graceful.

It reminded me of following Jesus – trying to be like Him. We know where we want to go – to grow more and more like Him.  Along the way though, our growth comes in fits and spurts, often looking as disjointed as the flight of the birds. We get confused about whom to listen to when our teachers seem to have changed their theology or their messages don’t ring true. Like bird in the wind, we are sometimes pushed about and back by the unseen enemy of our soul.

Despite their erratic path, the birds have now flown out of sight, undoubtedly closer to their destination. We too, with the same persistence should keep moving forward in whatever way we can. Despite the confusion or obstacles, we should continue trying to grow, accepting that though the journey may not be smooth and graceful, it will result in us become more like who we want to be.

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Jesus Follower or Jesus Consumer

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We live in a consumer driven world. We are rarely satisfied with what we have, what we get to do, or even who we are.  The solution to this dissatisfaction seems easy. It’s what the advertisers, the companies we work for, and even our friends and family tell us: buy more, seek more and different entertainment or experiences, achieve more, be more.

So we consume. We consume goods, services, activities, and even people. We have pride in what we own or do. We share all our experiences on social media. We may even associate with those who can benefit us by helping us gain stuff or status or those who make us feel better about ourselves. We may spend time with those who think and act like us so we feel validated or so our thoughts, decisions, and behavior are justified. Additionally, we may spend time with those we feel slightly better than or who we can count on to make us look good in comparison. Much of our way of life is based on some type of consuming.

All too often, even our faith becomes consumer based.

Consumer theology says it’s all about my personal relationship with God. The focus can quickly become more about us and less about Him.

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Sadly, this theology is being bought and taught in too many churches.

Behind the clichés and platitudes, it’s about what I get out of it. That can be anything from a sense of security and control to enjoying the benefits or being labeled a “Christian” making us a part of a group or community.  It can manifest into us focusing on rules to follow and, therefore, who is included and who is excluded from our “club”.

We change churches when we “aren’t getting anything out of” the sermon, or the worship, or the programs, or the… In other words, when it isn’t making us feel good or like we’re important or the preacher says something that convicts us.

We use our Christianity to feel safe. We use it to guarantee our “ticket” to
Heaven. We use a prosperity gospel to justify our consumption and then brag about our blessings.

Consumer theology allows us to comfortably nod along with the things Jesus said without ever actually doing them. We’d rather focus on the rules and what not to do so we can check off our compliance and call ourselves good while, at the same time, creating loopholes, convenient translations, or cultural exceptions to what Jesus said to do.

This is a flawed and perilous theology when held up to the teachings of Jesus.

 

Love your neighbor. (Matthew 5:43-Matthew 19:19-Matthew 22:39-Mark 12:31-Mark 12:33-Luke 10:27)

Love your enemies. (Matthew 5:44-Luke 6:27-Luke 6:35)

Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Matthew 7:12-Luke 6:31)

Give to the poor. (Matthew 19:21-Mark 10:21-Luke 12:33-Luke 18:22)

 

These directives are clear yet we do not to do them.

How, then, do we actually follow Jesus?

In Biblical times followers (disciples) desired to follow their teacher (rabbi) so closely that the dust from his feet would be on their robes. They listened and watched, they questioned and discussed, so they learn as much as possible in order to become like the teacher.

To follow Jesus that closely we must focus in on what He said and what He did.  We need to study the four gospel accounts of His life. A good place to start would be with the Sermon on the Mount. Read it in more than one translation. Study it and pray for insight. Listen to sermons or podcasts about it. Then start doing it.

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Take a deep breath and be brutally honest about where you fall on the line between Jesus follower and Jesus consumer.

For myself, I think I fall a little left of center.  While my intent is to always be a follower, sometimes that is difficult. It is almost always counter-cultural. It is often uncomfortable. It is sometimes even dangerous.

 

It won’t come naturally.

 

If there is no tension involved in your theology, if there is no challenge in living out your faith, then consider that you may be more near to God in your head than in you are in your heart.

Lean in to the tension and follow Him. It is the only thing that will truly satisfy.

 

My Mom

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The importance, impact and influence of mothers cannot be overstated.  They matter immensely in the lives of their children.

The older I get, the more I realize how very fortunate I was to have a mother who loved me unconditionally and prayed for me continually. Through my good times and my bad, through my highly rebellious teenage years, my years raising my own children and my post-divorce years of questioning and reevaluating the rules, she was always there for me.

I think she understood, despite the grief and frustration I know I caused, that I was hardwired to question and to not accept much of anything just because someone said so. I think she also understood that this nature would benefit me as I discovered, doubted and rediscovered my own faith.

The process, while not easy for either of us, grew and stretched us both in our faith and our understanding of each other.  Her steadfast faith in Jesus was an anchor for me no matter how often or how far I drifted. Even when I kicked the motor to high speed in an exhilarating attempt to feel unbound I knew, deep down, that her anchor would hold us both.

She likely knew that at some point I would start questioning what it actually was that I was running from, what I was rebelling against. She realized that processing through those questions would grow me in ways that no rules or words of wisdom ever would.

I am a hands-on learner. I learn things best and retain them the longest by doing, seeing or hearing for myself.  This means, of course, I’ve learned many things the hard way.

I am equally thankful that while I always knew I had a safety net in her and in my family, that it wasn’t her nature to rescue me from the consequences of my own decisions even when she could. That is a strong kind of love. That is Jesus-like love – allowing us to choose, forgiving us when we make poor choices, allowing us the consequences of those choices and, yet, redeeming even the bad things for our own good and the good of others.

 “And we know that all that happens to us is working for our good if we love God and are fitting into his plans.” Romans 8:28 TLB

 

The trajectory of my life has changed – which is the definition of repentance – but my personality has not. I have long since found my way solidly back to Jesus but it hasn’t tamed my questioning heart and mind. My learning style remains the same. This means my desire to learn and grow in my relationship with Him often pushes me into uncomfortable places to gain an active understanding of His will and His ways.

As a mom myself, I can imagine both the joy and the concern Mom must have felt as I left on a mission trip to a third world country or when I joined a ministry that goes into strip clubs to just show love and friendship to women who most need to know their true value to God. However, she knew my nature and my heart almost as well as God does. She knew that while these were not places I would have planned to serve, they were where God was clearly sending me and she was always supportive and had the faith to trust me in His hands.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV

 

While I do learn things actively, I do not, by nature, have a brave or adventurous spirit.  I have learned to follow God’s leading into the uncomfortable and even scary places. Each time my faith is reaffirmed and stretched. I grow exponentially each time I say yes to Him even when it would be easier not to.  Every “yes” teaches me things I could never learn or understand by staying safely on the shore.

So thanks, Mom, for getting it and for getting me.  I love you and I miss you more than words can express. I hope I am at least half the mom you were and know that I will always “just keep moving forward” until I see you again someday.

Living the Story

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It’s easy to think that if we had been alive when Jesus walked the earth that we would have followed Him. After all, we would have been amazed by His miracles. We would have understood His teachings. We certainly wouldn’t have been among the chief priests who conspired to use the Roman government to have Him crucified! Right?

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It’s hard to let go of knowing how the story evolves, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor to examine the story again from other angles in order to appreciate it anew and learn more about ourselves, we followers of Christ, who are always pursuing deep growth.

So how do we enter again the drama and grow in self-awareness and faith?

There is much to consider as we try to put ourselves in the events as they unfold, but one major question to reflect on is: “Within the story, whom do I most resemble in my words and my actions?”  

Perhaps the most usual comparison to come to mind may be aligning ourselves as Jesus’ disciples.  They heard His stories and witnessed His miracles.  They believed He was the Messiah. Peter, James and John even experienced the transfiguration and heard God say, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him.” (Mark 9:7)  Like them, we have chosen to follow Him. It seems a logical and even noble choice to think of ourselves as one of the disciples. We resemble them in many ways, and we too have heard the stories and believe He is the Savior.  However, it’s important to consider that like the disciples, even in our knowing, we lack understanding.

On the way to Jerusalem, James and John made known their desire to sit at the right and left of Jesus when He came into His glory. (Mark 10:37) They’d spent years under His instruction and still misunderstood the upside down kingdom He came to bring; that is, they were still concerned with their position in the hierarchy, claiming their own place of honor.  

Am I like these two? Am I believing, following, learning and yet, on some level, still seeking my own glory?

Most of us definitely would not see ourselves as Judas.  However, am I following with my words and actions while still holding a portion back for myself? Do I judge how others worship or how leadership manages?  Do I question how mission funds are used? Can I get so frustrated when money is seemingly wasted on people I deem unworthy or things I think unimportant that I choose self-reliance at any cost? (John 12:4-5)

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Maybe I’m impulsive like Peter–am I so eager to learn that I sometimes ask awkward questions? Am I reactionary? Am I quick to draw the sword to defend what I believe? (John 18:10-11) Do I try to defend my ideas even when they don’t require defending? Do I hold so tightly to how I think things should be that I am, in fact, aiding the enemy? (Matthew 16:21-23)  Finally, when I can’t see Jesus clearly in my life, when my faith is questioned by others or if I feel some threat because of my beliefs, am I tempted to deny Him? (Luke 22:54-62)

What if I move past the easy connections to the disciples to less familiar comparisons?

For instance, am I Pilate, bound by the law of the land and my position? Do I try to let Jesus, and myself, off the hook? In other words, I know He’s done nothing illegal, yet I find myself caving in to the pressure of others.  Am I more concerned with satisfying the crowd, with letting them push their agenda, than I am with doing what I know is right even if it’s unpopular? ( Mark 15:14-15)

How about this juxtaposition: Am I one of the rebels hanging next to Jesus? Have I chosen to live my life my own way and by my own rules until the last moment? Will I cling to my stubborn hard-heartedness, or in that moment, will I realize I am connected, somehow, to this One who can save me?

Truthfully, there is a good chance I possess a little of the good and the bad in each of them.

This Easter weekend my prayer for me, and for you,

is to lean hard into the Story.

 

On Friday, may we acknowledge our complicity in crucifying the real Jesus. May we recognize our own efforts to make Jesus into who we want or expect Him to be.  May God show us where we try to adjust His teachings to fit our own structures, government and culture.

On Saturday, may we sit in the waiting silence and grieve the ways we have missed who He really is and may we repent of the times we have done damage in His name.  

On Sunday, may we rejoice that despite our misunderstandings and our failings, He willingly sacrificed all His humanity and all His divinity for our sake.  May our grateful response be to live out to our every ability His kingdom “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.  (Matt 6:10)