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A Strange Way to Save the World – Day 20 of Lent

Reading: Acts 2:1-21

Eugene Peterson's Practicing Resurrection continues to be a wonderful Lenten book for me, thus I share another quote: 

"How did God bring our Savior into the world, into our history? We have the story of what he could have done but didn't. God could have sent his Son into the world to turn all the stones to bread and solve the hunger problem worldwide. He didn't do it. He could have sent Jesus on a tour through Palestine, filling in turn the seven grand amphitheaters and hippodromes build by Herod and amazing everyone with supernatural circus performances, impressing the crowds with miracles of God's reality and presence among them. But he didn't do it. He could have set up Jesus to take over the work of governing the world–no more war, no more injustice, no more crime. He didn't do that, either." 

"We also have the story of what God in fact did do. He gave us the miracle of Jesus, but a miracle in the form of a helpless infant born in poverty in a dangerous place with neither understanding nor support from the political, religious, or cultural surroundings. Jesus never left the world he had been born into, that world of vulnerability, marginality, and poverty."

"How did God bring our salvation community into the world, into our history? Pretty much the same way he brought our Savior into the world. By a miracle, every bit as miraculous as the birth of Jesus, but also under the same conditions as the birth of Jesus. Celebrity was conspicuously absent. Governments seemed oblivious to what was going on."

"God gave us the miracle of congregation the same way he gave us the miracle of Jesus, by the Descent of the Dove. The Holy Spirit descended in the womb of Mary in the Galilean village of Nazareth. Thirty or so years later the same Holy Spirit descended into the collective spiritual womb of men and women…The first conception gave us Jesus; the second conception gave us church." 

I love how Peterson puts this, and he leaves me with a thought for today. Have you ever thought of your church as a miracle–a Holy Spirit, divinely crafted and empowered, counter-cultural miracle? What would it be like if we came together this Sunday with the Spirit on our hearts and the miracle in our imagination?

PRAYER: Lord, give me an imagination to see your church as a miraculous expression of your mission in the world. Amen. 

Census Consensus – Day 19 of Lent

2010Census  Reading: 1 Chronicles 21

Got a letter in the mail today from Utah Governor Gary Herbert urging me and other faith community leaders to promote the 2010 census with our congregations. Says the letter, "The 2010 census is extremely important to Utah's future. A complete count of all Utahns impacts so many things, from our representation in Congress to the allocation of federal dollars for programs that benefit us in so many ways. The responsibility of ensuring the most complete and accurate count in the 2010 census lies with every Utahn." 

Now, I'm fully aware that as soon as I post this there will be some who will start foaming at the mouth about government interference, "Big Brother" and the like. Some will even start quoting the fact that every time a census is mentioned in the Bible it's usually a bad thing. 

Take today's text, for example. "Satan" incites David to take a census of the nation of Israel and God punishes him and the whole nation for it. Here's where we need a lesson in biblical hermeneutics before we go all Glen Beck on the 2010 census. In this text, David orders the census essentially to pad his own reputation and compare himself to the other kings around him. It's kind of a macro version of what happens at clergy gatherings when pastors compare their numbers–no good can come of this. When we view people simply as numbers that support our own ego, we get in trouble. 

Then, of course, there's the Christmas text in Luke 2 where Caesar Augustus orders a census for tax purposes. This was fairly standard practice in the Roman empire, though the idea that the people had to return to their ancestral homes is really more of a Jewish idea than a Roman one (Rome tended to tax people where they actually lived and worked). Luke doesn't place any moral judgment on the Roman census–it was just a fact of life in the empire, where military conscription was also part of the census package. 

Comparing the modern census to the biblical census is thus an apples to oranges comparison. The modern U.S. census not only provides data for distribution of resources and representation, but it also provides communities with useful data about its citizens, trends, and problem areas. As a pastor, I value the information the census provides as it gives me a firmer idea of who we are called to serve. 

As American people, steeped in the ideas of liberty and independence, the idea of allowing the government to know even a little bit more about our private lives is often a tough sell. What we have to realize, however, is that we all live in community and knowing more about the community in which we live isn't a bad thing. We have to be careful that we don't become so concerned about our own privacy that we forget that we're also part of the public, with the rights and responsibilities thereof. 

I'll be filling out my census forms when they come and will do so believing that it's part of being a good citizen as well as a member of the community. I also look forward to learning from the data how we as a church can best serve our community, not so we can simply add more numbers to our own church census, a la David, but so that we can reach out to meet the needs of our neighbors.

PRAYER: Lord, help us to remember always that we are part of a community. Amen. 

Notes on the Church – Day 18 of Lent

Reading: Ephesians 1

I just picked up a copy of Eugene Peterson's new book Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. I have always found Peterson's writing to be very thought-provoking (The Contemplative Pastor was a book that reframed my own mindset for ministry). The first couple of paragraphs of this new book are equally as provocative, particularly in his description of the realities of the church. Since Peterson says it better than I can, here's how he begins: 

"Church is the textured context in which we grow up in Christ to maturity. But church is difficult. Sooner or later, though, if we are serious about growing up in Christ, we have to deal with church…Many Christians find church to be the most difficult aspect of being a Christian. And many drop out–there may be more Christians who don't go to church or go only occasionally than who embrace it, warts and all. And there are certainly plenty of warts…

So, why church? The short answer is because the Holy Spirit formed it to be a colony of heaven in the country of death…Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit  for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that the kingdom is complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom." 

How is your church a witness to the kingdom of God? That's a question that has been driving me as a pastor. There are plenty of distracting temptations to be something else as a church–successful, powerful, large, well-known, hip to cultural trends–as well as many similar temptations for the pastors who lead churches. The popularity of the charismatic celebrity pastor and the megachurch mogul model can cause many clergy to believe that if they're not getting featured in Christianity Today they're simply not making it. Pastors leave the ministry at an alarming rate because a false sense of self and a false sense of what the church is really about can lead to burnout and discouragement. 

If, however, we focus on being a witness to the kingdom of God, we know from Jesus' own teaching that such a focus is inherently subversive. It's more mustard see than mega, more yeast than YouTube. The key question any church must deal with is this–are we transforming lives and transforming our communities, or are we merely building our own kingdoms? It doesn't matter if you're part of a megachurch or a small rural chapel–we're all called to the same mission. Time for us to recapture the idea that it's all about the kingdom. 

PRAYER: Lord God, help us to see our churches as outposts for the kingdom on earth. Forgive us for making the church into a model of consumer culture and teach us to be a transforming community. Amen. 

Wrestling Jesus – Day 17 of Lent

Reading: Luke 9:51-55

Deacon  I got a call this morning from my friend Brian Diggs, who is the Director of the UMCOR West Depot in Salt Lake City, an ordained United Methodist pastor and…The Deacon of Doom. See, Brian's hobby is working out his altar ego (pun intended) in the professional wrestling ring, portraying a preacher-gone-bad and bringing the hurt of judgment on his opponents (although, as a designated bad guy, he usually loses in the end). 

Salt Lake's public radio station KUER did a profile on Brian this morning. You can find the audio here as well as some pictures of The Deacon serving communion and preaching at PCCC. The interview is interesting, particularly as it pertains to how Brian combines a deep pacifism in his personal life with the cartoonish violence of the wrestling ring. Give it a listen.

What connected for me as I listened to the interview, though, was the idea that Brian's character, the Deacon, represents a lot of religious people who would use verbal (and sometimes physical) violence to shut up their opponents or take them out altogether. While most preachers aren't wrestlers, if you put some in trunks and stuck them in the ring you'd hardly know the difference based on their rhetoric. Brian acts out The Deacon as a parody of these crackpot crusaders.

Interestingly, many people in Jesus' day were looking for a Messiah that fit more the profile of the deacon than the mild-mannered, pacifist preacher. Todays text reveals that even the disciples were hoping for a royal rumble or a sanctified smackdown of their opponents. 

Jesus will have none of it, however. He rebukes their reliance on violence, but don't think that means that Jesus wasn't as tough as they come. He would do battle with the religiously self-righteous, but would do it by allowing himself to be defeated on the cross–only then to make the greatest comeback in history. It's the Jesus way we are to follow, rather than the way of the pretentious Deacons of the world. 

Prayer: Lord Jesus, teach us the way of humility and peace in the midst of a world of violence. Amen. 

“Better is One Day (or 30 years) in Your Courts..” – Day 16 of Lent

Temple1  Reading: Psalm 84

Every time I take a group on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land I always insist that the guide take us to the Israel Museum where we can view a scale model of Jerusalem and Herod's Temple as it appeared around the time of Jesus. It's an impressive model that I wish I'd been able to see when I started seminary as it would have helped with visualizing the places referenced in the Gospels (actually, I think it would behoove every seminary student to actually GO to the Holy Land during their first semester. Now that would be a scholarship program to endow!). 

It turns out, though, that this "official" model actually pales somewhat in comparison to one that retired farmer Alec Garrard has been building in a separate building in his garden for the last 30 years…and Garrard says he won't finish it in his lifetime. The impressive model of Herod's Temple is so authentically detailed that to archaeologists and experts from the British Museum have come to see it. Mr. Garrard has spent some 33,000 hours working on the model, hand-baking and painting every single clay brick and sculpting some 4,000 tiny human figures to populate the courtyards.

Garrard, 78, says he does it for relaxation (though his wife thinks he's nuts). 

I find Garrard's dedication fascinating and certainly indicative of the kind of wonder, joy, and dedication we see in the psalmist's ode to the Temple in Psalm 84. To invest one's life in connection to a holy place may seem a little strange to our more "spiritualized" and Western-ized Platonist sensibilities, but the Bible makes it clear that God has a sense of place, as do God's people. If the Temple represented God's dwelling place to the people of Israel, how much more should we be aware that God's dwelling is with all of us in time and place–not in Temples, but in our hearts.

We know that the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70AD, but the destruction of that grand edifice didn't change the fact that God continues to want to dwell with us. Just a thought, but what would happen if we dedicated 33,000 hours to celebrating that fact? 

"How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!"

PRAYER: Lord God, let me celebrate the fact that you seek to dwell within me and work through me to bring your love and grace to the world. Amen.