Friday, November 30, 2012

Jesus and Grandma

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and are you coming to me?" But Jesus answered and said to him, "Permit it to be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he allowed Him.  Matthew 3:13-15

In the wilderness of Judea comes a prophet. In the tradition of the prophets he preaches repentance, fire, judgment, the presence of God and the coming of the Lord. While John the Baptist is baptizing repentant souls, Jesus gets in the baptismal line. Understandably, John objects, but relents at the very first words of Jesus rehearsed in the Gospel of Matthew. "Permit it to be so now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."

Righteousness… For some, words like righteousness, holiness, repentance, etc. come with lots of baggage. Some are inclined to “prevent” these words, but we ought to “permit” and “allow” their usage. Though these words may allow for momentary heaviness, ultimately they permit life. Consider the illustration that follows:

My great-grandmother was yet surviving when I was a very young child, but she was in poor health. She had lost ability to communicate well and was not herself. I never knew her and she never knew me. Her personality had slipped through the closing door of her life leaving little more than a shell to linger. It remained only for surviving family members to honor the dignity of human life and her life by loving and caring for her until she was completely passed on.

I remember being in the dim room where she was sitting silent and motionless in her chair. It seemed all black and white, no color. She had no kind words for me. Perhaps she had no words for me. I don’t remember. She did not try to woo me or get me for a hug and kiss. Did she know I was in the room, that I was full of life and curiosity? - That I was special? Did she notice my new cowboy boots? Did she like my recent crew cut? Did she think I was getting bigger, that I had muscles, that I was strong and brave? But there were no words, no response, only her heavy presence, blank, hollow and draining.

I was afraid of her. Instinctively I knew this was someone I must reverence. She was ancient, gray and petrified. Her rocking chair seemed like a throne and she a haunting queen who could at any bitter moment render condemnation on me for…for being there. I did reverence her, kept quiet in her presence and could sense the adults were not themselves while in the room with her and talked in different tones. It seemed her lack of personality was a vacuum, absorbing the personality all who came into the room. I noticed this creepy power she possessed and I feared her.

Too often, this experience is similar to our concept of righteousness, holiness, etc. Religion has made it a creepy thing – a seemingly yet-living-but-approaching-death kind of thing. It is a thing we cannot help but reverence, yet dread to embrace. It steals our words, gives us no words, robs us of personality and offers nothing in return but obligatory gloom. We know there is something once living in all this, yet now a void and vacuum to incarcerate the living.

Now I contrast this memory of my great-grandmother with that of her daughter, my grandmother. She was not confined to a throne, but walked about freely doing this and that, all the while laughing and talking with a generous supply of smiles.

She, also, appeared old to me and this again drew from my young soul an instinctive sense of reverence for her, yet a reverence un-shrouded in gray, distressing shadows. My reverence for her was filled with light. She seemed to sparkle in my young eyes and was as irresistible to me as she was ancient.

It seemed to me I was as special in her eyes as she was in mine. She spoke frequently to me and till this day no one says my name the way she did. Usually, when others spoke my name, it meant I was in trouble and had some explaining to do. But when grandmother spoke my name it sounded no different than “I love you”. How did she do that? She had power too.

Decades later, the day came when it was obvious my grandmother was not long for the earth. I feared I would be asked to speak at her funeral. It would be a great honor, but the burden still... I was, in fact, asked and was relieved another was not officiating, for I supposed they might get it wrong. I knew others may portray her as a saint, that is to say, an untouchable, otherworldly saint the rest of humanity could not manage to immolate, somehow separate from the real life others live. It was my honor to both praise a life well-lived and to commend a way of life any could follow. I confessed in that service, it was because of her life I live for Jesus Christ.

Her spell over me was not fixed in glum despair, but in love, freedom and reverential delight. She made holiness for me not to be like the sad and down days of an impending funeral, but more like the anticipation of festive holidays or family reunions where there would be wonderful food, joy, love and laughter.

Biblical holiness does not fail to recognize and acknowledge your personality and God-given uniqueness, but rather, it facilitates these. Biblical holiness knows your name – speaks your name – and speaks your name with a sweetness that could only come from one who loves you dearly – could only be spoken by the Darling of your soul. 

The Gospel of Matthew leaves no room for antinomianism, condemns lawlessness and emphasizes righteousness. But the law is interpreted through love. There is law in Grandma’s house… No big – it’s Grandma’s house.   

Saturday, November 17, 2012

For Joy

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Matt 13:44

I teach a Sunday School class at my church. A few months ago we began a study of the Gospel of Matthew. I titled the series, Hearing Matthew. It is our desire to hear Matthew, that is, to hear as if hearing for the very first time. We confess that we do not come to the text as innocent hearers, but we are making a conscious effort to limit our control over what the text can and cannot say.

Several weeks into the series I confessed to the class I felt the need to relearn what being Christian means. As I attempt to hear Matthew I am confronted with several questions. Here are just a few examples:
Have I taken the edge off the hard sayings and demands of Jesus?
> Am I comfortable speaking of final judgment as Jesus did?
> Have I simply reduced following Jesus to status and a “better life”?
> Have I made it merely about being forgiven (i.e., forensic imputation)?

Being forgiven is only a byproduct of following Jesus. It is more than having your ticket to heaven and your Get out of jail free card. Like the Pharisees in Matthew, we have made it about our status as children of God, but Jesus is not checking your card; he is watching your life.

Be honest. Have you ever been bored with this version of Christianity? Have you ever thought to yourself, “There has to be more - Is this it?”  And if this is it, why bother going to church on Sunday night, or Wednesday, or revival service, or why bother going at all?

 Rather than promoting a perceived status, Jesus asks us to follow. He asks us to leave off our old life, even if that life was not marked by great sin. He asks us to live differently even if we had been living a “good” life. He asks us to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow (Mt. 16:24).

At this point in Matthew’s story, if we are listening, it starts to dawn on us that
Jesus is not promoting decisions for Christ so much as a Kingdom. He is preaching the Kingdom, not just repentance, not just conversion, not just having sins forgiven, not just tickets to heaven and free stuff.

This Kingdom is its own culture, with its own values. It is a new family. It is the rule and reign of God on earth. It should have been obvious all along, but we just now start to get it. We heard his invitation, but did we? He is asking us to be part of that Kingdom.

This Kingdom foreign to us. It is like world travel and never leaving town. What does it mean? What does it look like? Jesus described what people of the Kingdom look like in the Sermon of the Mount (Mt chapters 5-7), and since then he models the Kingdom for us. Jesus models the message he brings and his message is the Kingdom. He describes the Kingdom with the parables and he himself is heavens parable for us to see.

Here is a question: Do we have the courage to see again? - The courage to review (i.e., re-view) what it means to be a disciple? I would say review what it means to be “Christian”, but I am afraid the term “Christian” has become for us what “Jew” came to be to the Pharisees in Matthew’s text – mere status. To be Christian, for most, means to be nice, to not do bad stuff, to believe the right things. To be a disciple is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus.

But before you think I am only speaking of a glum and masochistic devotion to martyrdom, consider the attitude of the man in Matt 13:44 who “found treasure hidden in a field… and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field”. “For joy over it” the text says…makes me wonder if he had an “aha” moment. That is to say, he has a fresh view of what the Kingdom of God is. It is perhaps a vision in answer to the question, “There must be more…is this all there is?”

Perhaps this is an answer to similar questions today, e.g., “Is there more than just being a Christian with an American dream, more than just being a good conservative Republican, more than being a faithful Democrat, more than voting the way those voter guides tell us to, more than being a Christian who builds bigger barns, who keeps the rules, gets to work on time, goes to church…does not rock the boat?”

Tired of the same ole sermons that keep people middle of the road, sanitized and safe  - Tired of a pseudo-Christianity to control the masses and keep people from asking hard questions, embarrassing questions, and funnels them into manageable, cooperative, homogenize groups - Tired of pretending the emperor is wearing clothes, he desperately breaks out of line, goes for a much needed walk, breaths fresh air, looks down and there it is…there is that thing everyone pretended did not exist - A Christianity worth living for, worth dying for, worth selling all for.

However, there was a problem. Someone else owned the field. And the problem is, you don’t own discipleship, it owns you. You don’t own it, but you can buy it. For everything you can buy it. “For joy over it” the text says, because he sees it for what it is…“treasure”. Why hasn’t everyone found it? – It is hidden. Jesus will not cast pearls before swine and will not give what is holy to the dogs. That is to say, you have to want it. You must recognize its value. “For joy” the text!

Finally, something worth living for, more than career, houses, money, 401k, retirement, etc., something more than just coloring within the lines, minding your manners and repeating old mantras. Finally a life that has not been robbed of mystery and beauty, a life un-gelded and much bigger than we and what we can comprehend. This is more than saying “the prayer” and being forgiven. This is a mission, a new way of life, a new family, new citizenship, and a new Kingdom transcendent of the ordinary.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Way is a Person

Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me".   John 14:5,6

Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Notice he doesn’t hold up a book and say “Behold the way…” This is interesting. He might have gotten an “Amen” had he declared dogma and doctrine or canon and creed to be the way. Instead his words, “I am the way…” get akward stares, misunderstanding and questions.

The way is a person. If the way is a book or static words on paper, it puts us in control. That is to say, access to the way could be manipulated by how we choose to interpret words on paper. The way would degenerate from those words to our interpretation of those words, and quickly our interpretation would become the way, the truth and the life. Finally, we would begin to say who was in or out by way of our opinion. If not careful, we might begin to divide along lines of different interpretation. Try real hard and you can imagine we might even form separate groups or denominations for the sake of preserving our interpretations and opinions. Perhaps we would make accepting our interpretation prerequisite for membership into our divided churches. So it is a good thing Jesus didn’t say a book is the way or doctrine and dogma are the way or that creeds are the way, so that doesn’t have to happen…Right?

The way is a person, and to commend the way, the truth and the life to others we must do more than hand them a book. The Word is a “lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps. 119:105) – it is light for the way. The book facilitates, the book is a given necessity, the book is authoritative, but the book has an author and the author is a person. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” ( John 1:14)

The truth is commended by virtue of a way and a life lived. Not a theoretical life, it is an authentically lived life. People don’t follow because you read Scripture so much as that you live Scripture. We cannot save a generation by giving them information. They need transformation. Transformation requires trans-personal transaction. “They shall know the truth and the truth shall make them free” and the truth is a person.

The saying is, “Some things are caught more than taught”. How do we pass down the truth? The Apostle Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ”.  Are you a lover of the Word? - Be a liver of the Word. The old adage, “Seeing is believing” applies. The best apologetic is a living example. Our lives become the word of the Lord to others. “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3)

Some in the church have a misguided sense of obligation to provide a scientifically verifiable case for the factuality of the Scriptures, but in this they may be attempting to answer questions no one is asking. What authenticates for this generation is not facts, but authenticity - lived faith, authentic living. Previous generations wanted to see a list – this one requires a life. Whereas past generations would have asked, “What do you believe?” this one watches for what you live…who you are.

The way is a person. The way is preserved by persons. The way is commended and passed down by way of persons. Books, books, books…there is no end to the writing. We have more books than we can burn. What we need now is a person.

“For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” ( John 1:17)