Friday, October 5, 2018

The Elusiveness of Joy

Joy: is there a more beautiful word in the English language? Is there a more allusive quality in human experience?

Joy is rooted or related, in some degree, to contentment. And, for most of us, contentment is difficult. 
We want. We desire. We feel empty, incomplete, and unsatisfied. And, so, we find discontentment rather easily, while joyful contentment remains elusive.

For much of the past six months, I have had a project. I wanted to complete a collection that I have been working to amass over the past 25 years. I wanted the complete recordings of The Beatles on compact disc. Not a noble pursuit, to be certain, but a desire that has been with me for a long, long time. And in my wanting, I flew caution to the wind and went on a buying spree.

Now, fortunately the costs of compact discs these days have greatly depreciated in the midst of the cloud-based digital media craze, so my buying spree didn’t break the my bank. But, in my haste (rather, discontent with what I already had) to complete my collection, I got reckless and purchased the same CD three times. Yes, I now possess three copies of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album. My craven, ill-contented mind became forgetful. I was buying what I already had.

Obviously, this situation is not earth-shattering or life-crippling, but I am afraid it shows something of my character. I struggle with the joy that is contentment, and it is a struggle that has significantly affected me. I am impulsive about many things, and I am convinced that dissatisfaction is the culprit.

I’m ever looking for the greener grass. I’ve done so with things: desiring to acquire more and more stuff because of the perception that these things would add some fullness to my life. I’ve done so professionally: growing dissatisfied with what I am currently doing and desiring new works. But, now that I’m on the cusp of having lived fifty years, I think I’m beginning to see the folly of looking for the greener grass. In reality, that search is the pursuit of what I already have.

Contentment is recognition. Contentment is gratitude. Contentment is perception and perspective. Contentment is the refusal to buy the lie that has been told since Eden. That lie? It is simply: more is better.

Adam and Eve lived in a place of abundance. They had all they needed. Yet, the tempter sold them the lie, more is better. And like the couple of Aesop’s fable who killed the golden goose, they lost all in their pursuit of more.

The elusiveness of joy comes from greed . . . and a large dose of forgetfulness. We forget what we already have. We forget that green grass is growing at our feet. We forget the graces that we have already be shown.

Interestingly, the word “joy” in Scripture comes from the Greek “chara,” which is related to “charis,” or “grace.” Thus, joy is a gift. Or, perhaps better stated, joy is the realization that we have been shown grace. In other words, we are blessed. Our joy is not the product of more. It is not the product of new. It is not the product of better. No, our joy is rooted in grace . . . God’s grace.

Take a look around you. Don’t inventory what you don’t have. Take stock of what you do have. Be grateful. Be joyful. Be contented. Don’t seek to buy what you already have. The grass is rarely greener.

When the third Magical Mystery Tour CD came to me in the mail, my first thought was to return it to Amazon, but then I decided to keep it as a reminder of my folly. I need these reminders.

Joy is a work in progress. It is never a constant state. Fortunately, I think that Jesus offered us a tip for keeping joy alive when he prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Monday, October 1, 2018

A Matter of Convenience?

Would I have followed? Would I have allowed my day to be interrupted in such a life-altering way? Would I have given even an hour of my time?

The setting was the shore of Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee), and it was the morning following an evening of intense but fruitless labor. Simon and his partners were wrapping up their disappointing night of work to head home,  empty . . . without the catch that fed their families.

You would have to think that they were tired, frustrated, and perhaps worried about the welfare of their families in the face of a night of failure. You would have to think that these men longed to leave the shore far behind and return to the comforts and security of their homes. You’d have to think that Simon and his friends were now ready to do what most do at the end of long and frustrating days. Was the local “Cheers” to be their next stop? Did the barcalounger beckon? Was there a tee time to meet? Was the Harley ready to be fired up?

But then he came. Jesus came. And scores of people were in his wake. And he needed a platform . . . a boat, to be used as a speaker’s dais, from which he could be removed from the crowd, but heard and seen by all.

We don’t know the thoughts of Simon, at this point. Perhaps he was glad for the diversion from the failure of his night’s work. Perhaps he was eager to put the nets down and hear from the man who had recently healed his mother-in-law. Perhaps, though, his thoughts were a lot like our own when our time is co-opted by something that takes us off task, or away from the rest we desperately crave.

Would I have opted to sit through a sermon after enduring a long and disappointing night of labor? I wonder. And what of you?

The attendance in our Sunday church services might give us a clue about our behavior in that moment. Perhaps we’re talking apples and oranges, but I see to many people who are quick to spurn a gathering of the church for may other things. And those absences are with a good night’s rest enjoyed beforehand. Simon and his partners opted to hear Jesus after their long night of labor. His words became their priority and not their plans for rest. The schedule for their day became quickly altered when Jesus showed up.

Am I overly cynical to say that we have made our faith too often a matter of convenience? Am I too judging to say that we have relegated meeting with our church family to the bottom of our list of priorities? As long as it doesn’t interfere with our work, our fun, and our rest, we will be there. Is this how we do things?

Simon dropped his nets three times in Luke 5.1-11. Once, when Jesus began to speak, he dropped the nets he was mending and listened to the word of God. Then, he dropped his nets again, at the insistence of Jesus; and, following a fruitless night of labor, he brought in a great catch. And third, he dropped his nets to follow Jesus, to give his all, to follow without reservation . . . to give his life to the One who would give His life for all.

Would I have done the same? Have I done the same? Am I partner of Simon in the faith and devotion he showed to Jesus?

It is a question of priorities. What is most important to me? What is most important to you? What you give your time to is an indication. What you give your resources to is an indication. What you prioritize clearly shows who you are and whose you are.

Would you have stayed to listen to Jesus after a long and fruitless night of labor?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

McDonald's, Dairy Queen or Bob's Burgers?

What was the evangelistic mission of the church as it had its beginning in Jerusalem? What was the intent for its growth?

The charter, of course, for the church is the commission of Jesus to the eleven apostles who gathered with Jesus in Galilee following His resurrection. He charged them, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28.19-20). And, so, those men and others began to preach, and converts were won, and local gatherings of believers came into being. And before long, the church wasn’t located only in Jerusalem and Judea, but had spread to Galilee and Samaria, and soon to Syria, Asia, Africa, Greece, Italy, and beyond.

What was the intent as these churches came to be? Were these churches to be exact replications of the original church that met at Jerusalem? Were they to be clones of the mother church, keeping all forms and methods in place? Or, was it expected that as the church came to new towns and countries and cultures that forms and methods would be adapted to these new places and peoples?

I find it helpful as I ruminate on these questions to consider the business models adapted by three American food establishments: McDonald's, Dairy Queen, and Bob's Burgers.

First, the business model employed by McDonald’s is one of replication. The history of the creation of McDonald’s is fascinating and much more detailed than this short article can retell, but it involves brothers Richard McDonald and Maurice McDonald, who over a period of 15 years customized and streamlined the business of selling hamburgers into an operation that was the height of efficiency and profitability. Their success caught the attention of Ray Kroc, an Illinois-based salesman of restaurant equipment. Kroc eventually convinced the McDonald brothers to aggressively franchise their operation nationally. Kroc led this effort (eventually ending up with control and ownership of the company).

McDonald’s franchisees were bound to strict policies which governed everything from the architecture and d├ęcor of each restaurant, menus, staffing, and service. The governing concept was that every McDonald’s restaurant was a mirror of the original. Variance was not permitted. That was the business model, and it helped build McDonald’s into the largest restaurant chain in the world. (Although, today, the McDonald’s business philosophy has changed somewhat, and franchisees are given some leeway on matters that used to be non-negotiable.)

Dairy Queen had a different beginning and history than McDonald’s. The first Dairy Queen was opened in Joliet, Illinois by Sherb Noble in 1940. Its core business was soft serve ice cream, which had been developed in 1938, by business partners of Noble. The DQ concept was soon franchised, but franchisees were given a lot of leeway in the establishment and operation of their restaurants. The core business of soft-serve ice cream connected the franchises, but everything else was left to the customization of the franchisees. Frequent a DQ located in Texas, and your menu options will be somewhat different than a visit to a DQ in Minnesota, and the look of the place will be different, and methods of service will be different, but the soft-serve ice cream will be the same.

Bob’s Burgers is not a national entity. There are many restaurant establishments that are named Bob’s Burgers, and at least two regional chains bear the moniker (and, by the way, Bob’s Burgers is the title of a Fox TV animated series). The name Bob’s Burgers suggests the common business of selling hamburgers, but a Bob’s Burgers chain based in Louisville, Kentucky boasts tacos and burritos as its core business. Bob's Burgers are varied. There is no governing concept directing the business of local and regional owners.

So, is the church to be more like McDonald's, Dairy Queen, or Bob's Burgers? What was the original intent or evangelistic mission of the church? Was the intention replication? Were Christian missionaries to go out and win converts and plant churches, replicating the forms and methods of the Jerusalem church in every detail? Or, was the plan to win converts and plant churches who shared a common faith, but were given some freedoms to express and live that faith in community? Or, was there no plan or central concept? In other words, did the expansion of the church just happen, sporadically, organically, and without direction or intent?

Perhaps the very nature of the New Testament can lead us to an answer. Is there a manual for how to do church in the New Testament? In other words, is there a "How To Guide" for the structure and operation of the church in the New Testament?

You may quickly answer, "The New Testament itself is the guide." And, yes, in a sense, it is, but it is not a guide that provides much in the way of direct details. We have the Gospels, which offer narratives of Jesus' life on earth and his teachings, which concern themselves primarily with the subject of discipleship. The church, as an entity, is rarely mentioned by Jesus, and he certainly does not give details about what is to be the institutional structure of the church or of its routine methodology. The Book of Acts is helpful as a partial historical record of the early church, but its pages are much more concerned with the personalities of Peter, Paul, and others and with the core gospel itself than they are with providing a detailed look at the organization and operation of the church. The letters of Paul and other evangelists are largely reactionary in nature. They are written responses to issues of the day. And, certainly, from these responses we are able to see something of the nature and practice of the church, but the letters are not exhaustive in this regard--there are many holes (matters left to our discerning imagination?).

It seems to me that if replication were the original goal for the church that there would be a rather detailed manual for how to do church in the New Testament. In the context of the church assembling, Paul says that "God is not a God of disorder but of peace" (1 Corinthians 14.33 NIV), Would the God of peace (or order) leave it to his people to seek out and find details about the church in a process similar to finding needles in a haystack and in a process often subjugated to the educational and cultural biases of those who seek? In other words, wouldn't an objective standard for the church be clearly communicated by the God of order if the replication of that standard were the goal?

It seems to me that the intent of the New Testament is to articulate the identity and work of Jesus and the need for salvation on the part of humanity. The New Testament clearly shows how a person is delivered from condemnation of sin by the sacrifice of Jesus and clearly shows how the saved are brought together by God into community. But that community is not a static institution with a rigid set of policies and rules governing its operation. The church is an organism, not an institution. It is a community, a people, a family, and like any living thing it is conditioned by its environment. I'm not saying that it is subjugated to the whims of people, but the church adapts to its surroundings of time and place. Like Dairy Queen, the core business is static--the Gospel of Jesus Christ is formative and operative, but the forms and methods are fluid.

Before you protest my point, ask yourself, is the congregation of which you are a part a replication of the church at Jerusalem in circa A.D. 33? I don't think that I have ever encountered a congregation that mirrors Acts 2.42-47. In spirit, I've found many that do, but in practice I have found none. If replication is the goal, we have failed, right down to the name we pridefully post on our buildings.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Jesus, the Son of Joba?

Two distinct genealogies of Jesus are given in the Gospels. Matthew 1.1-17 provides a family tree of Jesus that shows his human heritage from Abraham to Joseph over 42 generations (counting Jesus, himself). Luke 3.23-38 provides another genealogy tracing the heritage of Jesus back through the ages, from Joseph to Adam, and ultimately to God. What are the purposes of these ancestral listings (in Hebrew, toledot)? And how can the differences between the lists of Matthew and Luke be explained and reconciled?
A satisfactory answer to the second question is allusive. The differences between the lists is profound. Most obviously, the orientation of the lists is different, as described in my opening paragraph. As glaring as the difference in orientation are the names of the ancestors themselves. Matthew provides the names of 26 ancestors of Jesus from David to Joseph, whereas Luke lists 42 names in the same time frame, and only four names from this time period appear on both Matthew’s and Luke’s lists (David, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel or Salathiel, and Joseph).
How can these significant variances be explained? A common explanation, argued since at least the time of Ambrose in the 4th Century, is that Matthew provides us with the lineage of Jesus through Joseph, whereas Luke provides the heritage of Mary. Three objections counter this argument: Luke does not name Mary in the family tree that he provides, only Joseph; of the time period of Luke’s writing it would go against every known convention to delineate a heritage through one’s mother (although, it is recognized that Mary is no ordinary mother); and, perhaps most convincing to me, is that Luke seems to emphasize that Mary is of the tribe of Levi and not of Judah. The reference to Elizabeth being a Levite of the house of Aaron is not a passing comment (Luke 1.5; cf. 1.36).
Another explanation for the differences between Matthew and Luke is intriguing and would fit with the larger theme found in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus being a champion for the disenfranchised of society. This explanation theorizes that Matthew lists the royal lineage of David, using kingly names, whereas Luke either gives the familial names of these ancestors, or traces a lineage of Jesus through ordinary men (and not kings) while making the vital connection that Jesus was a descendant of David and Zerubbabel (in whom the kingly line of David was preserved following the Babylonian exile). Thus, in this thinking, the differences in names are not discrepancies but representations of the different purposes held by Matthew and Luke as they outline the heritage of Jesus. (To add detail to this argument: Luke preserves the true heritage of Jesus, mostly through ordinary men who were descendants of David but not necessarily kings in their own right, while Matthew is merely providing the line of Davidic kings and chief heirs down to Joseph, and then Jesus, while in actuality the ancestry of Jesus may have bypassed many of the men listed by Matthew.)
As I said before, a satisfactory way to reconcile the divergent lists of Matthew and Luke is allusive to us, but I think the purposes for the lists are clear.
One, Matthew presents his list with an intriguing symmetry of three divisions of 14 generations, giving 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. In Jewish thinking, numbers were often meaningful. Three fourteens (or six sevens) “bring” Jesus to the head of a seventh seven, which can be understood as the church.
Two, Matthew includes five women in his ancestry of Jesus, including Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary. Each woman presents a certain amount of scandal and intrigue to the heritage of Jesus and highlights the providential nature of the coming of Jesus into the world and serves to connect Jesus’ awkward heritage with our own strange family histories (and even stranger relatives!).
Three, as I stated before, Luke is emphasizing the commonness of Jesus’ heritage, while maintaining his royal (Davidic) bloodline. There are a lot of “no names” in Luke’s listing of Jesus’ ancestors.
Four, both Luke and Matthew name Joseph as being the father of Jesus. And as the reader of the Gospel accounts, we also know that Jesus was born of Mary through a conception that was of God. Joseph was not involved in the conception of Jesus, but Matthew and Luke both name him as the human father. Perhaps I overstep by saying this: if we were able to do genetic testing on Jesus, I believe that he would have the DNA of Mary and Joseph. I think that Luke and Matthew clearly assert this in their ancestries of Jesus. And that is one of the wonders of Incarnation: by the power of God, Jesus was the son of Joseph, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam . . . (and, yes, the son of Joda, and of many other forgotten men) . . . And, yes, especially, he was the Son of God!
Do you see other purposes in the ancestral lists of Matthew and Luke? Share them with me.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Raising the Son of God?

What were they thinking?

I’m referring to Joseph and Mary as they watched over the baby Jesus in those first hours after the birth of the child that was now theirs, but so much more. What were they thinking about their child? What did they expect would happen next? Did the thought of raising the Son of God intimidate them?

Think about it: How do you go about raising the child that is the Son of God? How do you nurture God in the flesh? How do you teach him? How do you discipline him? How do you parent the Son of God? Would there be house rules? Would there be chores? Would there be a curfew?

As you know, the Gospel accounts tell us very little about the emotional makeup of Joseph and Mary in those hours and days and years following the birth of Jesus. The birth, itself, is stated rather matter-of-factly by Matthew and Luke, with the latter elaborating a bit by saying that Mary took the child and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. Luke also says something about Mary “treasuring up these things” (Luke 2.19), referring to her observation of the shepherds coming to see the baby Jesus. She has the same mentality a while later when she observes Jesus in the temple at the age of twelve and marvels at what she has seen. Beyond this limited insight, the Gospels leave the feelings (and intimate and internal questioning) of Joseph and Mary to our imaginations.

And that analysis speaks to the beauty of Biblical narrative. The Bible is predominantly narrative. As much as 65% of the Biblical text is in the form of narrative . . . story. God has spoken to us in story.

Why? Is that the most efficient means of transferring information? Is it the best way of instructing and commanding? Wouldn’t a bulleted-listing of what’s expected been much easier to communicate and for us to digest?

Perhaps so, if the existence of humanity were merely about obeying the Creator. But our life is about so much more. It is about relationship. And relationships are built on much more than rules and procedures. They are founded and nurtured on emotions, experiences, longings, and needs that go far deeper than words on a page.

Narrative speaks to the heart of a person with much deeper resonance than a bulleted list. Stories capture moments of life and invite participation. As we read of Joseph and Mary welcoming the baby Jesus into their lives and into our world, we naturally know something of the feelings they must have had and thoughts and questions come to our minds that surely were apart of their thinking because they have been true of the human experience since Adam and Eve started us off so many millennia ago.

But Bible stories do so much more than tug at our emotions and spark our imaginations, they teach us. They show us in vivid colors the wisdom and folly of human experiences as people succeeded or failed in their actions. The narratives of the Bible demonstrate living to us in both the fortunate and unfortunate. The stories of Scripture give the black-and-white commands of God the vibrancy of color that resonates with meaning and understanding in our minds. Stories help us see with deepened clarity what it is to seek God in our lives.

Let us always cherish the stories of the Bible.

Simply Jesus

Simply Jesus.

The Gospel of John tells us, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made Him known” (John 1.18 NIV).

To many, having a right relationship with God means observing all the rules of religion—worshiping right, speaking right, and living right. And yes, obedience to God is vitally important for us, but haven’t we missed the point when we reduce religion to what we do?

Very simply, it is Jesus who should be the focus of our attention.

Jesus came to earth to show us God . . . and to show us what it means to please God. This truth was loudly proclaimed on the mountain of transfiguration, where Jesus stood before the inner circle of His disciples, Peter, James, and John, and had the vestiges of His humanity pulled aside so that those men (and, though centuries removed, ourselves) could see His divinity. As they beheld His glorious form, a voice, the voice of the Father above, declared, “This is My Son, whom I have chosen; listen to Him” (Luke 9.35 NIV).

The Father’s words are instructive and they are commissioning. Jesus didn’t come to earth simply to die and be raised . . . He came to LIVE. And He left so much for us to observe and model in His living. His words of grace, His actions of love, His faith to the Father are all shown to us not as an ideal impossible to attain, but as a pattern to honor and desire.

Simply Jesus. We can’t go wrong with this intent. We can’t err with this method of seeking God’s favor. Very simply, let us do as Mary once did and sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to His words of grace, watching His actions of love, and being inspired by His faith to the Father. And let us not merely sit, but let us do. Simply Jesus: a motto for life.

In the Dark Night of the Soul

It is said that in terms of its economic impact, depression, in its many forms, is the second most debilitating health condition in America today.  Its societal impact may be even greater considering the great stress it can put on families.  However, depression is not an illness that cannot be treated or overcome.  Medicines, counseling, dietary concerns, and other measures are all helpful tools when combating depression.  Yet, is there an aspect of depression that is a blessing?

Consider the observation of H. Mark Abbott, who speaks about depression in a sermon entitled, “Surviving Depression.”  he says, much of America “is preoccupied with therapy, with offering cures for whatever ails, including depression.  But could it be that, instead of searching for cures for everything that ails us we ought to be listening for God’s voice in all the experiences of life, even in depression?  Maybe there are some things we learn, some growth possible only through those low, dark times.”

He continues, ‘A sixteenth century monk we know as John of the Cross originated the phrase ‘the dark night of the soul.’  he described God’s work in us not through joy and light, but through sorrow and darkness.  John of the Cross taught that night and darkness may be the friends, not the enemies of faith.  He taught that God may lead us into a night in which our senses, that is, our usual ways of feeling and experiencing life, are emptied.  Thus, we have no feeling of God’s presence.

“John of the Cross described this ‘dark night’ as a time when those persons lose all the pleasure that they once experienced in their devotional life.  And there may follow a deep darkness of purifying and waiting.  But that darkness ultimately leads to a dawn in which the vision of God is deepened and enriched.”

In his sermon, Abbott argues that depression may actually be “a signal of something in our lives to which we need to pay attention.”  Perhaps an issue related to our health needs our attention: our eating and sleeping habits, our hormones, or other physical concerns.  Perhaps some deep-seeded feeling or grief or guilt or inadequacy needs to be addressed.  Perhaps it is a serious spiritual concern: a drifting away from God, or God using the time of dryness to re-orientate our lives or to give us a new commission and calling in life.

Abbott includes a quote from Elizabeth Sherrill, a woman who has struggled with depression intermittently in her life.  She says, “A crisis, when it shows us our need for help, can be good news.”