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Dumb Questions – Day 22 of Lent

Reading: Luke 18:18-25

When I was in college I majored in history and spent two
summers guiding at Gettysburg National Military Park, site of the famous Civil
War battle. During those two summers I heard some very interesting questions
coming from tourists who clearly hadn’t studied up on their history.

 Usually these questions were asked by men in straw hats
(always look out for them) and there were a couple of standard ones that came
up every year. Every so often someone would ask me stuff like, “Did they just leave
all the cannons here after the battle?” Since all the cannons were lined up
around the park you could see how they might think that. But then there was
this one: “Did they hide behind the monuments when they fought?” Um, no…though
it would have been easier for them to know where to stand!

 But my all-time favorite was this actual question asked by
an actual American: “Why were so many of these battles fought on National Park
Service land?”

 And some people say there's no such thing as a dumb question…

 When I read through the Bible I see that people have asked
interesting questions throughout human history—questions with even bigger
implications than what unit stood where in a particular battle long ago. And
one of the biggest questions has to do with where life is headed—what do we
have to do to experience eternal life?

 A man comes to Jesus with this question—we often call him
the “rich young ruler” but there’s no designation like that in Matthew. It
could be anyone. It could be one of us. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to
inherit eternal life?” We learn a bit later that he’s a wealthy man who seems
to have it all. Now he wants some eternal assurance as well—covering all his

 Jesus responds by telling him that keeping the commandments
will help him to “enter life.” No problem, thinks the man, I’ve been a good boy
my whole life—I’ve not killed anyone or slept around or stolen anything from
anyone. I’ve never lied (well, not much anyway). I’ve respected my parents and
I’ve done my best to love my neighbor as myself. Yes sir, I’m a pretty good
guy. I probably deserve a shot at some eternal bliss.

 You know, one of the things I learned when I was guiding was
that people often ask questions that are really statements. They want to show
how much they know. In nearly every tour for two summers there was always
someone who wanted to play “stump the guide”—some Civil War buff who read a
book once and now wants to prove how much he knows to the rest of the crowd.
Their questions usually began with something like, “Isn’t it true that…” or
“Well, in my research…” I had to learn to listen patiently and then tactfully
offer the correct response.

 You see Jesus doing that here with this man. He desperately
wants to justify himself—to prove that he is deserving of a place in God’s
Kingdom. Jesus’ correction, however, is anything but subtle or even tactful.

 “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and
give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come and
follow me.”

 This wasn’t the answer he was looking for. The man was
expecting Jesus to bless his life and lifestyle without any changes. He wanted
his story, his worldview, his question to be validated. But what Jesus tells
him is that if he wants to truly experience eternal life, if he truly wants to
engage the kind of life that Jesus is offering, it will require him to
change—to give up those things that are a barrier between him and God, to be
validated not by what he has gained but by what he has given away. It’s ok to be
good, Jesus seems to be saying, but you need something greater—you need a
transforming experience of grace.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, often talked about the concept of
prevenient grace—that God is seeking us out, wanting a relationship with us.
But while prevenient grace may bring us closer to God, may make us more
predisposed to want to obey God, it’s not enough to make us into disciples. In
prevenient grace we might see ourselves like the man in this story does—as
basically good people who are not as bad as everyone else out there.

 Scripture clearly tells us, however, that there aren’t degrees of
good or bad out there. The bottom line is that no matter how good we think we
might be, we’re never as good as God. Even Jesus tells the young man that only
God is ultimately good, righteous, holy. By contrast, we are sinners. The word
for sin in the Greek is hamartia—a word borrowed from archery that literally
means “to miss the mark.” No matter how well we think we’ve lived, we are still
off the target of the image of God we were created to be from the beginning. As
Paul would write to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory
of God” (3:23).

 The rich man doesn’t recognize his spiritual poverty and
that’s the problem with his question. He thinks he’s coming before Jesus with a
solid resume—but Jesus isn’t interested in his resume—only in his faith: a
faith lived out in a transformed life.

 Justifying grace is the term we use to describe what we need
in order to enter into a transforming relationship with God. In justifying
grace, we accept the offer of grace that God has been extending all along. We
recognize that we are sinners, that our spiritual resumes are not that
impressive, that we cannot save ourselves from the cycle of sin and
self-interest that constantly swirls around us. We come to a point when we
realize that we are in need of a Savior because we need saving.

 Some would characterize this as saying, “Yes” to God’s offer
of grace. I would borrow a term from the battlefield and say that it’s more
about surrender—we come to a point when we can no longer fight against our
sinful nature and we decide to finally give up and put ourselves in God’s
hands. One of the most ancient prayers in Christian faith—called The Jesus
Prayer (taken from Luke 18:35-43)—“Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,
a sinner!” These are the words shouted by a blind beggar—interesting that Luke
puts this story right after the story of the rich young man. The blind man
ironically sees his spiritual poverty and cries out in need while the rich man
is blind to his own situation. There’s a reason Luke put these two stories so
close together!

 Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. That’s a prayer of
surrender. But surrender here doesn’t have a negative connotation like it does
on the battlefield. When it comes to God, surrender leads to victory!

 God responds to our surrender with justifying grace—the
grace that transforms us. In justification, we experience the forgiveness of
our sins—a second chance, a new life, a rebooting of our crashed spiritual hard
drives, if you will.

Eternal life isn't simply something we look forward to in the future, but it is rather a present reality–abundant, fruitful, resurrection life. We experience God's dream for our future in the present when we surrender our lives to him.

What does your spiritual resume say about you? Have you asked God to forgive you, make you whole, give you new life? 

Those are smart questions, important questions, for Lent and for life.

PRAYER: Lord God, I surrender myself to you today. May I see a vision of your future and my place in it, and may your forgiving, justifying grace give me a new start on the journey. Amen.

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.