Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday's Meditation: How Jesus Used Grace

If you want to know what the full potential of your life can be, look at Jesus.  All that he did during his earthly ministry was done through reliance upon the Holy Spirit. That means we can imitate his example. ~ Ray Hollenbach
Yep, I just quoted myself. There’s no better way to underscore one of the central passions of the Students of Jesus blog: if we fail to embrace the humanity of Jesus (along with his God-nature) we are sure to to fall short of our calling to become conformed to his image. For example, have you ever considered the possibility that Jesus himself depended upon the Father’s grace day-to-day?
Our modern, limited view of grace is directly attributable to the separation we see between Jesus and us. We have been schooled regarding his divinity but the lessons stop with respect to his humanity. Without putting it into so many words, we see Jesus cruising through the challenges of everyday life with the ease of walking on water.
Perhaps we are able to recognize the human side of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where he cries out in anguish because of the task ahead. We understand the fear of suffering and the desire to avoid it. We understand why Jesus would say, “Father take this cup from me . . . “ but we have no idea how the grace of God helped Jesus to develop into the kind of person who could also say, “ . . . yet not my will, but yours be done.”
If our view of God's grace is limited to receiving forgiveness, Jesus cannot be our model for how to receive grace, live in grace, and depend upon grace. Who taught Peter, John, Paul and countless other believers how to live the kind of grace-filled life we see in Acts and the history of the church? How does grace apply to everyday life in a manner that we are conscious of the supply and know how to use it?
If the grace of God is shortened to mean only forgiveness, we are forever trapped in a cycle of sin and grace and more sin again. Where do we see that cycle in the life of Jesus? We cannot see it because it is not there. What is there for us to see is grace in operation when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, even when he angrily drove the merchants from the Temple. He is our model for the operation of grace in times of testing, in sorrow, and in every human emotion we face. He said "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and lived a self-controlled, upright and godly life in this present age. He can be the author of such grace toward us, because what he has received he freely shares.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Parable of the Glum Bums

I'm thrilled to introduce week two of a new feature at Students of Jesus. Each Saturday you'll meet a guest-posting genius holding forth on one of the 46 parables found in the gospels. Despite popular opinion, parables were not simple stories told to make things easy to understand. Jesus used parables to shake our world view, and perhaps occasionally to destroy the wisdom of the wise. Come wrestle with us.

My son, Joe Hollenbach, is an immensely talented writer with a voice all his own. The wellspring of his rich imagination runs deep; you can find a store of refreshing stories at his blog, which has lain dormant for a season--but perhaps you can urge him onward in this pursuit, because the world will be poorer without hearing his stories.
I’ll admit it: I’m as self-entitled a person as the world has known. 
Only moments after speaking eternal promises to one another and to the Lord, I turned to my new bride as we walked back up the aisle and said, “Just remember, what’s yours is now mine and what’s mine is still mine.” Four years later and she knows I was only half-kidding.

When my Dad asked for a quick-hitter on the parable of my choosing, I hemmed and hawed to myself before admitting the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard was right up my alley.
The synopsis goes like this: a landowner goes out early in the morning looking for farm hands to toil in his vineyard. He grabs a group of guys, (presumably strapping dudes) establishes their pay and sets them to their task. As the day progresses, the vintner continues to hire more workers: some at noon, more in the afternoon, and even a few right before sundown, at which point he cuts all the hired hands a check of equal pay. This nettled those who toiled since sunrise and they caved to their frustration with fits of grumbles. The landlord tells them to quit griping as they’ve been rewarded with the payment they agreed upon, further explaining it’s no concern of theirs if he decides to be generous with his riches. Read it for yourself, though. Matthew 20:1-16. Don’t worry. I’ll wait for you.
All caught up? Excellent. Let’s dive in.
The obvious (and worn) interpretation of this passage is easily identifiable. It speaks of the goodness of Jesus and his unyielding pursuit to bless all of us. Regardless of when we come to the Lord, he loves us with the same tenacity as the next. It’s an awfully good thing, isn’t it?
But there are so many layers to this parable that just get white-washed. Yes, the concept that Jesus-loves-you-and-wants-you-to-have-nice-things is killer, but what lays beneath the surface level? The part of this passage that most resonates with me is the attitude of the early morning employee. The interaction of those grumblers with the landlord speaks volumes to me, personally. It serves as an admonition to those of us that might let cynicism and self-importance cloud the larger scheme.
In life, I almost always find myself mired in the morning laborer’s frame of mind: Disgruntled, envious, and consumed with concept that the world has it out for me. Like I tell everyone, “I’m an optimist, but I do wear a rain coat.”  
If you’re like me, a hopeless Eeyore, I’d like to share what speaks to me from this parable. Trust me; there are plenty of reasons for us to be glad:
  • To live in God’s economy is to operate in generosity and prosperity – and the Lord’s currency never depreciates. It’s always a good time to buy stock in His love and provision. It’s a limitless wealth. What he gives, and the amount we receive, comes from the generosity of his heart toward us. This is a concept I still cannot fully comprehend. I doubt I ever will. Whenever someone experiences a season of success or reward, I hate to admit it but I have to remind myself to be glad for them. The Kingdom of Heaven is nothing like capitalism, thankfully. The prosperity of others does not come at my expense, yours, or anyone’s.
  • The master works hard, too - In the narrative, we see the landowner is constantly in motion, morning until dusk, finding new hands – and all of his work is to our benefit! With each addition, the burden lightens and the distribution of the work becomes less daunting for those already in the fold. We are uplifted as the numbers strengthen. This is part of the abundance of Jesus.
  • Hard work delivers a satisfying harvest – In truth, I’ve not yet found anything more exhausting than being committed to a community of fellow believers. Conversely, nothing else compares to the fruits that the Church delivers. Life is meant to be spent in communion: messy, achy, back-breaking communion. The same people that offend you and wear you down will undoubtedly inspire you and lift you up. Our identity comes into a sharper focus when in healthy communion with God and his children. There’s an inexplicable, twisted symmetry to it all. Delight in it. It’s family-living and it bears a fruit sweeter than any imagining.
  • His land is beautiful – it’s a quaint observation, but have you ever spent time in a Vineyard? It’s breathtaking. If you haven’t, no worries. Rent A Walk in the Clouds and you’ll understand the beauty. It takes a spirit hell-bent on negativity and a mind eaten alive with self-absorption to not appreciate the glory of God’s creation. To be completely practical, when I feel taken advantage of it puts me off all mirth; I have trouble doing much more than pout. I live in the central Kentucky, surrounded by palatial farm manors, thoroughbreds of dappled chestnut and misty grey, and autumns so deep with reds and oranges they leave you breathless. And yet all these arresting visuals and natural wonders fall aside when I fixate on how the world is out to slight me. When we focus on self-pity, we’re robbing ourselves of the vision of His Kingdom. 
November is a great month to re-order your perspective.  Some people prefer the start of a new year for drastic endeavors, but Thanksgiving demands reflection upon the good and decent endowments in our lives. I hope you’ll all take this holiday weekend as an opportunity to commit to gratitude and gladness.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Six Dubious Evangelical Lessons of Thanksgiving

Actual Pilgrim photo from 1621
I’ve seen a few Thanksgivings in my day. In fact, Thanksgiving is my day--I was born on Thanksgiving in 1955 (please, no turkey jokes). Here are six valuable lessons from the most Christian holiday left in America, which has officially changed it’s name to Black Friday Eve. If used correctly they could set Evangelicalism back 400 years.

1). Thanksgiving is the only Christian holiday that does not require going to church. Unless you’re a pilgrim. Modern Christians are surprised to discover that Pilgrim services routinely lasted four hours or more, which made watching the Detroit Lions game extremely difficult (this is why the Cowboys are America’s Team--they always play the late game). Actually, Evangelicals used to gather at their house of worship the fourth Thursday each November but when the megachurch movement sprang up in the 1970’s, Bill Hybels, Robert Schuller and Jerry Falwell met secretly and signed the Mayflower Compact, which guaranteed that all church services should last no more than 59 minutes. Now, entire Evangelical services have been whittled down to the same length as the original Thanksgiving prayer.
2). Be careful what traditions you start, because they may stick around 390 years. Wives and Moms know what I’m talking about: in 1621 Myles Standish, William Bradford, and Abraham Lincoln told their wives they had invited a few friends over to help them invent football. Twenty minutes later Chief Massasoit and 90 of his friends showed up expecting a meal. Ever since that day, women cook for a week in advance because they are thankful it took another 299 years before the NFL was founded.
3). Pilgrim fashion was even more strict than their morality. You couldn’t wear white after Labor Day, and after Thanksgiving you had to wear black until spring. The “Black Winter-wear Rule,” as it came to be known, was dropped soon after relationships with Native Americans deteriorated, because black clothing against a snowy background made too good of a target. Also, Pilgrims had the gift of prophecy and foresaw the Goth movement. However, because white was forbidden, everyone compromised on grey. 390 years later, it turns out Native American fashion wins out: Christian hipsters sport piercings, tattoos and faux-hawks (and you thought feathers in your hair was just a fad).
4). Squanto’s biggest contribution to the Plymouth Colony was teaching the British how to carve a turkey. History books will try to tell you that Squanto educated the settlers about fishing, farming, and fashion, but the real story is too ugly for family conversation. Let’s just say it involves British gentlemen who left their butlers back in England: they mutilated the poor turkey so badly that everyone went hungry their first winter in the New World. 
5). Pilgrim spirituality is the reason we have on-line giving today. It’s no secret the Plymouth Colony was big into tithing: nine potatoes for you, and one for the Almighty. People who wanted to cheat on the tithe were easy to spot because they weighed more than everyone else. There was no hiding your prosperity--or your posterior. It took a few centuries, but we’ve finally discovered the most private way to give: on-line.
6). The debate continues over whether the Pilgrims were True Evangelicals. I’ll settle this: Pilgrims couldn’t have been Evangelicals because their sermons did not contain three points, each beginning with the same letter. Pilgrim preachers started with “A” and used the whole alphabet--for their introduction. Also, their worship sets lacked the punch we’ve come to expect--but not for lack of effort. The Pilgrims introduced theater-style lighting in their services but the 500 colored candles burned down their first three sanctuaries. Another Pilgrim came up with the idea using fog to set a worshipful mood, but they had to wait for bad weather to roll in from the bay. It resulted in no worship at all from May through September and set the Evangelical movement back 250 years until D.L. Moody adapted his method of selling shoes into what we now call “Evangelism.”
Personally, I’ll always love Thanksgiving because I’m still deeply connected to its spiritual roots. Did I mention that this year my birthday also falls on Thanksgiving? You can send your gifts FedEx Express--they deliver on Holidays. I’ll be even more thankful this year.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday's Meditation: What I Saw at Church

Yesterday at church I saw heaven breaking into earth here and now.
I saw signs and wonders: children in sparkling tennis shoes that flashed multicolored lights as they danced in worship. I saw a four year-old offensive lineman soaking in the Spirit of Christ, unaware of how strong his body will grow or how he will use it to glorify God. I saw the Woodstock generation worshipping next to generations unborn. I saw the unlovely, enraptured by the bridegroom and made beautiful by the sight of of him. They became beautiful in my sight as well. I saw a rage-oholic find peace as he stood in the back of the room. He drank it in--the only peace he knows each week--in the Father's presence. 
I heard voices normally used in the everyday business of life blended together in the unison of praise. Voices which sang without words, making new paths of melody, expressing what their hearts knew but their minds did not. I heard songs so new that no one had ever heard them but the singer herself, followed by the songs of saints dead a hundred years or more. I heard the sound of heaven surge through tongues, lungs, and throats of flesh and blood, like fountains made pure by the very water they released.
I tasted bad coffee. It was somehow made better because it was shared in common. I savored the sacred elements of donuts and fruit, muffins and juice, sanctified by people receiving the sacrament of family. I tasted and saw that the Lord is good.
I caught the fragrance of the unwashed who had been embraced by the Rose of Sharon. I discovered that his aroma overpowers theirs: the aroma of life to those who are being saved, and the stench of death nowhere in the place.
I heard the Holy Spirit whisper secrets to the pastor, who announced them to the church. I watched as the people miraculously flashed the inspired words around the world even before the sermon had ended. I saw sojourners who had no home find a place to call home, if only for an hour.
I saw in the church the fulness of him who fills every thing in every way. I discovered the pillar and support of the truth as they put the wisdom of God on display--not for themselves, but for the powers and principalities in heavenly places--unaware they were being watched.
Yesterday at church I touched all these things and more. What did you see?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Parable of Missing the Point

I'm thrilled to launch a new feature at Students of Jesus. Each Saturday you'll meet a guest-posting genius holding forth on one of the 46 parables found in the gospels. Despite popular opinion, parables were not simple stories told to make things easy to understand. Jesus used parables to shake our world view, and perhaps occasionally to destroy the wisdom of the wise. Come wrestle with us.

Sarah Cunningham is a disarming person. She describes herself as a "skinny white girl," but behind the self-deprecation are observant eyes and a sharp mind. She's the internationally-known author of two books and one child, who apparently rules the household. You can find her work at Amazon or at her website,

When Ray asked a group of us to talk about parables, my mind immediately raced to the familiar parable of the talents found in Matthew 25. 
This came to mind first for less than noble reasons. Not because I’m particularly inspired by the message, but because I’m particularly un-inspired by the way Sunday School tends to deliver the message up. 
You know the story, as it starts in verse 14.
The master has to go to a far off place, so he leaves his servants with “talents”—talents being not “skills”, as we read the word, but an ancient unit of money.
The master then returns and—good news—two of the servants have invested wisely and doubled their money. But the third guy buried his in an apparent fit of paranoia, and didn’t do squat with what he was given.
The traditional telling I’ve heard umpteen times, and maybe you’ve heard too, is don’t bury your talent. Let it shine. If it’s told in Sunday School, it wraps neatly into a segué to This Little Light of Mine.
But this telling short-changes the actual passage, in my only-sometimes-humble opinion, and is a good example of how we sometimes accidentally flatten the Scriptures by pulling verses out of context and wielding them like individual fairy tales.
Panning out to the bigger picture gives us an expanded reading that is way more compelling and impressive than the two-bit morality tale.
Consider the following clues:
  • Matthew is writing this book to a Jewish audience to try to convince them that Jesus is the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. That’s why, in Chapter 1, he starts the genealogy with Abraham and builds forward through King David to Jesus. Hint, hint, Jews. Follow the family tree.
  • Right before this parable, organized in the same chapter, is the parable of the ten virgins. Just like the servants were awaiting their master, this story too is about people awaiting a man, the Bridegroom. And just like in the talent story, some of the people are prepared for the Bridegroom to come (they have oil), but some are caught unprepared
  • Right after this parable is another story about people who were or were not prepared to recognize what was important. The king praises some for caring for the disadvantaged, saying that when they did this, it was as if they were caring for the king himself. Once again, though, there are some who looked at the disadvantaged and never took the opportunity to care for the king. 
  • The parable of the talents ends with the Master separating the servants. Two are praised and told to enter into the joy of the Lord. The other one is sent out to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. This seems like a subtle clue that something more than talent, something eternally big, is at stake in the story.
When we put all this together, I begin to doubt that the parable is about using your talent for God at all. 
I think Matthew—who wanted to convince the Jews Jesus was the long awaited Messiah—told three stories in a row about people who missed the King for an entirely different reason.
The Jews were missing Jesus right in front of them.
And that’s why in verse 29, he says that some of the people who “have” (the carriers of the faith, “chosen” Israel?) will lose.

Even though I think the “don’t bury your talent” in the ground version is cute, and metaphorically a wise principle, it frustrates me because it ends with the wrong question.

I don’t think we’re supposed to read Matthew 25 and ask ourselves if we’re using our talent for God.

Or at least I don’t think that’s the main thing.

I think we should ask ourselves if  we—the carriers of the faith, the modern day church—and our religious practices are so empty that we wouldn’t see Jesus if he was starving right in front of us. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

How to Love God

Monday’s Meditation was downright belligerent. After quoting the first and greatest commandment, to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, I had the temerity to ask, “Yes, but how exactly do you go about doing that?”
The Bible-quoters were among the first to respond. It’s a good place to start: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me . . .” (John 14: 23) I memorized this verse when I was in college. It seems to indicate that Jesus measures our love by how well perform (“Really?” says Jesus. “You love me? Then why don’t you start acting like it?”) Keeping the Law is what the Father wants, isn’t it? Don’t eat that fruit; go where I show you; sacrifice your son; here are ten big ones; here are 603 more--until finally I begin to wonder if it will ever be enough to keep him happy. That’s how you keep him happy, right? This verse is straight forward: it tells us exactly what to do, whether we feel like it or not. Still, doesn’t love involve feelings along with will-power?
The worshippers responded, too. They remind us of the woman who shed tears on His feet, and dried them with her hair. Jesus tells everyone that this woman displayed “great love.” She’s not the only one: another woman lavished expensive perfume at his feet. John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” rested his head on Jesus’ chest and heard his Lord’s secrets. Forget decorum. Forget the rules. Worshippers break through social barriers to grab him, kiss him, and generally make a scene. They don’t care. They have to be close. I respect passion; I wish I were more passionate. Yet I’ve seen many a passionate person veer wildly off course, led astray by those same passions. It’s not enough to feel things deeply if your mind and habits do not shape you into his likeness.
One final group said learning to love God is like any other relationship: we invest our time and attention. Husbands and wives grow to know each other over the years; so we learn to love God. This resonates with me as well: who could get to know God in a day? Perhaps love is more a learned behavior than anything else. I thought I loved my wife when I married her, only to discover I had a Kindergarten-version of love. In 27 years I’ve discovered just how deeply selfish I am. I’ve had to learn how to deny myself on behalf of my beloved--how much more with God? And yet (one more time) it seems that familiarity can become a way of life, apart from love, where we discover a comfortable identity that has very little to do with real love.
So how, exactly, do we love him?
I’ve discovered one passage of scripture that speaks to all three of these models. You might roll your eyes in disbelief when I tell you. You will think, “how cliché” when I point toward 1 Corinthians 13 as our model for loving God. But it has served me well: as child I received this passage as a description of God’s love for me. Later I saw it as a model for how to love others. Now it has become the Spirit’s leading on how to love God in return.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. ~ No ministry model, whether charismatic or socially aware can replace the need for me to love the Father. How many times have I replaced my love of God with my love of ministry? It would embarrass me to tell you.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. How many times have I proudly stamped my feet before God, impatient for him to act? I’ve been angry with God, because after all, isn’t he responsible for everything? I finally had to ask, do I trust him? Jonathan Martin, pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC, said, “Everything in my life changed when I finally stopped being suspicious of God.” How could we suspect the motives of the One we love?
Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. ~ Love is all that will last between the Father and me. There will be no need for ministry in heaven. My insights will mean nothing. And finally, I will know what love is.
I have faith in him. I hope in him, and greatest of all, by his grace, I am learning to love him.

Ritual Meal, Ritual Life

Happy Thursday, everyone! Today I’m guest-posting over at the site of the irrepressible Jennifer Luitwieler, who’s been running a series on Ritual
That means I‘m saving my regular Thursday post until later this evening, so why not visit her site right now, and then check back here this evening? Peace!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Greatest Meditation

You should have seen the blank faces staring back at me, nearly 30 of them. I might as well have asked the class, “Quick! what’s the cube root of 1,117?”
We had been discussing the first and greatest commandment: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” Jesus provided a bonus answer, not demanded by his questioner: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
Here's how the question came about: after an hour’s discussion of the text in Mark 12: 28-31, I wanted to end the class on a practical note, so I asked, “OK, then. We have discovered the two most important legacies of the Old Testament. So tell me: how do we demonstrate our love for God?” The room fell silent. Not even the crickets dared make a sound.
I drove home from class wondering, “could it be that difficult? Has Jesus left us no clue regarding how to show our love for God?”
Perhaps the students in my little class had never considered the question. Could that be? I teach a college religion course in a small southern town where “everyone” goes to church. Has there been no Sunday school class, no Bible study, no sermon ever addressed at the question, how do we love God? This question is more than a meditation for the coming week. It is the question of our lives. It is the question of our purpose and being. Have you ever asked yourself this question?
If the entire Old Testament narrative can be reduced to just under 50 words, what answer can we give? What answer must we give? What answers can involve our emotion, personality, intellect and physicality? What answers can include the Creator, whom we cannot see, and our neighbor, whom we can? What answers can give direction to child and grandparent alike? What answers are required of us?
I’m asking because I’ve begun to wonder if we have given ourselves to this question. Perhaps you have given it some thought. Perhaps you will now. Either way, I’ll check the comments below nearly every hour, all week long, curious to know how you express your love for God. We need each other’s answers--what are yours?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Baby Jesus Super-Power

Never mind what the website says, the worship team at my church starts up at 10:38, A.M. each Sunday morning. It’s true that we’ve always been a chronically late group of believers, but 10:38 is intentional: it comes from Acts 10:38. 
“. . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” 
Call it our secret code. We want to underscore how Jesus did ministry and try to follow his example.
It’s one of my favorite questions: “How did Jesus do the stuff he did?” If Jesus really is a worthy role model, shouldn’t we imitate him? Jesus healed the sick, multiplied food, cleansed lepers, expelled evil spirits, and raised the dead. He spoke with confidence and authority about the Father’s heart. He modeled a life of grace and peace, lived in concert with the Father’s will. But how did he do these things? Our answer sets the boundaries of our potential under the Master. Popular theologianRicky-Bobby suggests that “Baby Jesus Super-Power” was at work. Unfortunately, Ricky Bobby speaks for far too many of us.
I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking I threw in the Talladega Nights reference just to be funny. I wish that were true. Just today I read these words from a recent Bible commentary:
As a “superhero,” Jesus has a vast array of superpowers--powers to heal disease, calm storms, defeat the demonic, love the unlovable. But one stands out in this passage: his sheer brilliance.
I wish I was making this up, but no, I read these words in a book from a reputable publisher. Perhaps the chatty, conversational commentator was just trying to accessible, but he places the works, the character and the intellect of Jesus beyond our reach. If Jesus did the things he did because he was the Boss’ son, then his example is no example at all. We can stand amazed without any responsibility to imitate the Master.
The Apostle Peter provided a powerful one-sentence summary of Jesus’ ministry--including the hope that we, too, can be like him. I’d like to suggest at least four paradigm-shifting revelations from this one powerful verse.
1). God the Father anointed Jesus of Nazareth. The concept of God’s anointing is nearly lost in many quarters of the church. Yet Jesus began his ministry with the simple explanation that “the Spirit of the Lord has anointed me” for the tasks before him (Luke 4: 18). Peter simply used the same explanation his Master had used. If Jesus needed the anointing, how much more do we? We need to recover a first-century understanding of anointing. Perhaps then we will recover first-century effectiveness in ministry.
2). Even good works require the Father’s empowerment. Who could be against “doing good?” No one--and that’s the problem. Too often followers of Jesus are reduced to the role of religious social workers because we want do good, even if it’s apart from the Spirit’s guidance or assistance. It is a powerful temptation precisely because we can sally forth in our own understanding and strength, yet still do so in the name of God. Jesus modeled something else: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5: 19) Do we see the difference?
3). Jesus saw ministry in the light of spiritual conflict: Peter included the phrase, “all who were under the power of the devil.” All ministry is spiritual warfare. John, the beloved disciple said, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8). Jesus saw the world as enemy-occupied territory, and no human was ever his enemy. We need Paul’s reminder that in ministry “we do not struggle against flesh and blood.” Yet we do struggle. It pays to know where the fight is.
4). The presence of God makes all the difference. Like the anointing, the concept of doing ministry along with God’s manifest presence is nearly lost in the church today. We have settled too quickly for the omnipresence of God. We mistake orthodoxy for presence. The result is dry and lifeless ministry, yet we assert that because God is everywhere he must be in our works. We presume too much.
Peter followed Jesus day-by-day for three and a half years. He saw effective ministry modeled. He learned first-hand the possibilities of a Man yielded to the Father. He summarized his experience into a single sentence, a sentence so powerful it could transform ministry today.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday's Meditation: The Family Likeness

I don’t particularly like the name, “The Prodigal Son.” It leaves out the family dynamic, because Jesus actually told a story about a father and two sons. Families are funny. The two sons--they had so much in common. (You can find their story here).

The younger son is infamous. He wished his father dead, and said so! The fool was soon parted from his money (was it ever really his money?). Finally, with his back to the pigpen, he devised a humble return to the family farm, even if it was only as a hired hand. Of course, the father would have none of it. He was watching for his boy all along. He wouldn’t even listen to the elaborate deal the younger son proposed. The father celebrated his return and invited everyone to do the same. This much we know.

The older brother is not as famous, but he’s gotten his share of recognition over the centuries as well. He wasn’t happy about the return of his brother. He used the father’s extravagance as fuel for criticism of his Dad.

Like many families today, both boys would be surprised to hear what others saw they had in common. They provide four meditations this Monday:

Both sons failed to grasp their identity: the younger son rejected his role as a son. He tried to “hire on” when he returned, which means he still didn’t see himself as the father’s son. But neither did the older brother. He said to his father “all these years I slaved for you.” (verse 29) Apparently he saw his role as a slave, not a son. Whether this slavery resulted from the expectations of his culture or a poor relationship with the father, we can only guess. Both sons had the unspeakable privilege a blood-bond, but neither could grasp their identity.

Both sons separated themselves from the father: the younger son famously flew the coop, but the older brother was left in the outer darkness beyond the house, hearing only the faint music of celebration in the father’s house. Both did so by their own choice, and for a time both missed out on abundance, feasting, and joy.

Both sons experienced the father’s loving pursuit: while the younger brother was still a long way off the father dropped everything and ran to him. Never was a boy so willingly captured. The older brother saw the silhouette of someone coming out from the house. It was the father, looking for a missing son. He was the kind of father who never forgot either of his boys, even when the party was in full swing. The father would go to nearly any length to welcome them both.

Both sons got to hear the father’s view of their relationship: the younger son was not allowed to demote himself to hired hand. He was a son, and he would always remain so. The older brother got to hear these exquisite words, “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Apparently the father never thought in terms of “inheritance.” He had always viewed everything as belonging to his boys.

If I had the chance to change popular perception of the parable, I would rename it "The Father’s Love," because there’s is no identity apart from the Father. Separation from the Father means darkness for all who choose to distance themselves. The Father’s love breaks every barrier. Best of all, the Father’s heart determines who we are even if we don’t have it quite right.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Love Justice? Love Judgment.

There are dozens of lawyers in my house at any given moment. You can find most of them in my living room. Whenever I turn on the TV the house suddenly fills with quick-witted sharp-talkers. There’s a crusty old gal who has her legal office in a shoe store; there are earnest, slender young prosecutors who apparently have twin degrees in law and fashion. There’s some old guy named Matlock who must be a hundred years old, but I’m convinced I’ll be dead and buried before his career on cable TV comes to an end.
We don’t even have to pay actors any more. When a high-profile case like Casey Anthony’s comes along, millions of us stop what we’re doing to hear the judgment. That day, in the middle of the afternoon, more than 5 million people tuned into the HLN network to watch. Who even knew there was a HLN network? Another million computers streamed the verdict live via CNN’s website.
Face it: we love lawyers, and we love courtrooms. Important things happen. Books are opened, charges are read, juries are seated. We love the struggle, we love the lies and intrigue, and most of all we love the moment of judgment. The verdict is read, the judgment is given, the gavel comes down and bang! the bad guy is forced to wear ugly orange clothes for the rest of his life, or the good guy is set free, into the embrace of his weeping family.
Judgment Day is great entertainment. One day the sky itself will become a big-screen TV and the ultimate court will be called to session. The people of the world will stand amazed and attentive, because justice will finally be done. And everyone loves justice.
Here is a paradox--everyone is in favor of justice, but few of us are in favor of judgment.
Who could be against justice? We want to see corporate greed called into account. We want to know that evil despots will be tracked down, pulled from their bunkers and made to stand in the light. We want hungry children to be fed; we want sick people to have medicine; we want anything that can be made right to be made right if it is in anyone’s power. And then we stub our toe, because we begin to realize: there is no justice apart from judgment. Someone must bring the gavel down.
Who loves Judgment Day? Those who need a judge to set things right. The poor of the earth are powerless in the face of overwhelming strength. Or greed. Or even intellect--we instinctively know it’s not right for the smart to deceive the slow of wit.
Who cries for justice? The scripture says that the blood of the slain cries out from the ground. A hungry child may not know the right word, but it cries for justice every time it holds out an empty bowl. The Psalms tell us that creation itself will sing and dance at the sound of justice:
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
   Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes,
   He comes to judge the earth.” (Psalm 96: 12-13)
Even the one who said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone” looked forward to the justice of God. Just days before his death, Jesus told a story where wretched people came to a wretched end. He explained his parable by saying, “God’s kingdom is going to be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the goods. Anyone who falls on his stone will be smashed to pieces, and anyone it falls on will be crushed.” (Matthew 21: 43-44)
Justice and judgment provide twin challenges for the heart of every student of Jesus.
The first challenge is to connect justice to the judge. God’s friend Abraham asked, “Will not the Judge of the earth do right?” He pleaded for the lives of innocent people by bargaining with God. Along with Abraham, we are shocked to discover how few innocents there were. Although Abraham’s negotiation concluded with ten people, we see God’s heart when he rescued even fewer--the only righteous family in a city of thousands. This story gives us the courage to pray for justice, to pray often, and to trust the Judge will do right--even if we stop too soon.
The second challenge is to work for justice while leaving judgment to the Judge. We are called to share his heart--even some of his authority, but we must know the limits of our calling. Sometimes people who know what is right are the most dangerous among us. We mistake our knowledge for the will of God, and cross the line between representing him and taking action that belongs to him. We need to discover that the work of the cross was also a work of judgment, but the Judge of the earth took the judgment upon Himself. Do we have such a heart? We need to listen to an old man, known as “James the Just”, when he explained judgment will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy, but mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)
Tonight I will watch the well-tailored and confident lawyers argue the law. I’ll  marvel at their smarts and gimmicks. But I will also feel that faint shudder along my spine that reminds me we are only children, playing a game that will someday be very real, and very different.