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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On the Strength of Fellowship

I am sitting in a room with about 70 or so youth ministers from all over the state of Mississippi.  I am struck by the "safeness" of this place.  The Old Testament describes "cities of refuge" where a criminal could be protected against vengeance. While I hope that most of these guys do not need a city of refuge in the OT sense, it still seems like a place where persons can vent, weep, pray, eat and fellowship.

I won't go into the illustrations about the roots of redwood trees or that a "cord of three is not easily broken" but the results of true community across youth ministry and youth ministers is evident. We gather for Bible study, worship, a little teaching--and then the real fellowship begins.

I am struck by the tyranny of "the next thing."  I don't want to be in a conversation with a youth minister and be looking over his shoulder for the next conversation. I repent from being in a dialog with youth ministers face to face and thinking about lunch plans or golf plans or other plans. 

God, help us all to be in the moment when we have the treasure of face to face conversation. Help me to trust that You will take care of the "next thing" so that I can give and receive the blessing of fellowship in the now.

Friday, September 6, 2013

On Cape Fear and Comparison

I was at home grabbing a peanut butter sandwich today and I got caught up in a culture moment. On one channel was the movie Cape Fear from 1962 starring Gregory Peck as Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady.  Cady is an ex-convict who is seeking revenge on the lawyer who sent him to jail.  Cady is psychotic–illiterate when he goes to prison but learns to read and becomes familiar with the law.  The 1991 version, was directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis. Ironically, it also features cameos from Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum (Peck is a policeman and Mitchum is Cady’s lawyer).

I found a blog by Juan Ramos at http://amateurfilmstudies.blogspot.com/2010/09/cape-fear-1962-1991.html that talks about both films. His thoughts on the original were astute (emphasis mine):

There are almost thirty years between the release of the original Cape Fear and its remake: the first film was released in 1962 and the second in 1991. Although, some details are different, the plot is essentially the same: an ex-convict seeks revenge from the man who sent him to jail. In the original Gregory Peck plays lawyer Sam Bowden, a man who would go to almost any length to defend his family. I say ‘almost’ because, in the end, he does not kill the man who has been harassing him and his family, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), but, instead, sends him back to jail. Cady’s veiled threats to rape Bowden’s teenage daughter Nancy (Lori Martin) make the film at times, and even today, very uncomfortable to watch.

Though I had seen both of the versions before, I had never had the ability to switch back and forth.  It was a bit like a time warp.  The older film was shot in black and white to make it feel like an Alfred Hitchcock production. The newer film was shot in color and was much more violent.  In the 1962 version, the word ‘rape’ was removed from the script but the film was still rated as suitable only for adults.

Ramos commented on the remake:

In the remake, the members of the Bowden family are more coloured. Sam is played by Nick Nolte as rather edgy, and his chain-smoking wife, Leigh, is played by Jessica Lange. The couple are shown arguing and Sam, over all, comes across as temperamental, if not violent, a far cry from Peck’s portrayal. Their daughter, who is called Danielle in this version, and played by Juliette Lewis, is also very different from the Nancy of the original film. In the 1991 version, she actually meets Cady (Robert De Niro) and shares with him an overlong and ambiguous seduction scene at her high school, culminating in a kiss. While that scene is very uncomfortable to watch, I find its counterpart in the original far scarier: when Nancy sees Cady outside her school, as she is waiting for her mother, she panics and, after trying to hide in the school, gets startled by a janitor and runs back outside and is hit by a car.

I am intrigued by the repositioning of the moral compass.  An article entitled, "Cape Fear: Two Versions and Two Visions Separated by Thirty Years,” was written Gerald J.Thain and published in the Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 28, No. 1, Law and Film (Mar., 2001), pp. 40-4. His chief observation was the decreased perception of virtue of attorneys.  Ramos commented on the “progress” of the plot from a clear contrast between good and evil to a less definitive separation.

In the remake, apart from the gratuitous violence, the postmodern conflict set up by the plot twist makes the viewer choose between bad and baddest. The members of the remade Bowden family are all sketchy enough to summon some sympathy for Cady. The suggestion that evidence was withheld makes the viewer “understand” the motives behind his rage but his over-the-top anger issues prevent complete emotional bonding (hopefully at least with most folks).

We are all tempted to judge the rightness or wrongness of our thoughts, attitudes or actions on the basis of comparison to another human.  Paul made sure that we compared ourselves not to each other but to the standard of holiness described in Scripture:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, "there is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God;… (Romans 3:9-11).

In the most famous of all self-examination, Paul goes on to say in Romans 7 that:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (v.14-15).

Thankfully, Paul concludes this section by reminding me that though the standard of holiness and purity is unwavering–sin results in spiritual death–the death of Jesus on the cross made a way for me to be declared righteous even though I have been judged as sinful:

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (v.21-25)

Our culture, and perhaps especially the media wants us to believe that everyone has evil in them (Paul would agree) and that the way to sleep at night is to see yourself as less evil than someone else (Paul would not agree).  I find the greatest comfort in a passage sandwiched between the two chapters mentioned previously. In Romans 5, Paul gives the declaration that allows me to sleep at night:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (v.6-8).

While I was a sinner. Not a sinner compared to someone else, but a sinner compared to God’s standard of holiness, yet a loving, merciful God loved me enough to come to earth as a man and die for the sins of humanity. I needed to stop for just a moment and marvel at the very thought of grace.

Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Even Cape Fear.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Jesus, Justice, and the Garden of Gethsemane

I have studied the Gospel of John for most of the summer. For the most part, my summer preaching came from one or more passages. I am winding the study down and one of the books I have enjoyed is Earl Palmer's "The Intimate Gospel." I read today of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas betrayed, Peter had anger issues, Mark left naked and pretty much everything else was chaos--except for Jesus.

Ironically, as I write today, I have jury duty in Orleans Parish Criminal Court. Today, I will see persons who have been arrested and who will hear their future from a jury, perhaps one of which I am a member. Palmer describes the scene better than I ever could:

The temple guards have come to arrest Jesus with the approval of the Pharisees. Jesus accepts the arrest. Each Gospel makes that fact clear, and John adds the comment concerning Jesus' inner feelings. Jesus rejects the sword of Peter as a defense of his honor. He will take care of his own honor.

Peter's act is an act of panic--a sudden flash of impulsive desperation. Throughout the history of Christendom, when Christians have reached for the sword to defend the honor of Christ, the result has dishonored the gospel.

But there is a deeper theological reality present here. Jesus and he alone is to be the world's Savior. The disciples are not able nor are they permitted by Jesus to intervene. . . Jesus has shown to history a new authority and power. He neither evades his captors nor destroys their meager authority of swords and lanterns and accusers. Jesus Christ will prove his kinship in the very midst of the Thursday-Friday intriques that have snared him.

I am a bit wired for justice. I think things should be fair with equal opportunity for everyone who is willing to work. I struggle greatly when powerful people abuse that power whether in government, academia, church or even circles of teenaged friendships.

When I wrap my mind around the identity of Jesus the Justice Giver, I get as excited as the first-century Jews who were sure that Jesus would eradicate Roman control and return the power to them. I want Jesus to make things fair, right, just and equal. But as he demonstrated in the garden, justice will come in his time, his way, and with his finality.

Lord, grant me Your perspective on justice. Let me see the bigger picture of Your Lordship. Let me see the pecking order through Your eyes.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

On Flight and Fight

This morning in the Spurgeon Daily Devotional, the idea of flight is explored.

"He left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out." (Gen 39:12)

Spurgeon writes,

In contending with certain sins there remains no mode of victory but by flight. The ancient naturalists wrote much of basilisks, whose eyes fascinated their victims and rendered them easy victims; so the mere gaze of wickedness puts us in solemn danger. He who would be safe from acts of evil must haste away from occasions of it. A covenant must be made with our eyes not even to look upon the cause of temptation, for such sins only need a spark to begin with and a blaze follows in an instant. Who would wantonly enter the leper's prison and sleep amid its horrible corruption? He only who desires to be leprous himself would thus court contagion. If the mariner knew how to avoid a storm, he would do anything rather than run the risk of weathering it. Cautious pilots have no desire to try how near the quicksand they can sail, or how often they may touch a rock without springing a leak; their aim is to keep as nearly as possible in the midst of a safe channel.

This day I may be exposed to great peril, let me have the serpent's wisdom to keep out of it and avoid it. The wings of a dove may be of more use to me to-day than the jaws of a lion. It is true I may be an apparent loser by declining evil company, but I had better leave my cloak than lose my character; it is not needful that I should be rich, but it is imperative upon me to be pure. No ties of friendship, no chains of beauty, no flashings of talent, no shafts of ridicule must turn me from the wise resolve to flee from sin. The devil I am to resist and he will flee from me, but the lusts of the flesh, I must flee, or they will surely overcome me. O God of holiness preserve thy Josephs, that Madam Bubble bewitch them not with her vile suggestions. May the horrible trinity of the world, the flesh, and the devil, never overcome us!

I am also studying my way through the Gospel of John this summer.  In John 12, the season of miracles and signs in Jesus' earthly ministry comes to a close as He enters Jerusalem.  Jesus models what it is to face the world with the extravagant grace of sacrifice.  He speaks clearly about the hour that has come. In this chapter, it is "decision time" for followers, pretenders, foreigners, and haters.  Mary declares her devotion as she anoints Him, the Greeks "wish to see Him" and the Pharisees want to kill Him.

As I reconcile two ideas in tension: that we are to flee from sin with abandon while confronting our culture with the Gospel, I think I see the very heart of discipleship--God leaves us here to make a difference in our world, not to have a difference made on us by the world.  

Father, help me to discern when it is time to flee and when it is time to face.

Friday, May 10, 2013

On Cultural Faith Shifts

The excerpt below is from a thoughtful blog by an Episcopal priest regarding the mindset behind the trend of youth leaving the church. Rev. Haverkamp writes that our youth find meaning in participating in worship with their families and communities of faith even if they do not plan on being "religious" when they are adults.  Comments on the blog included a thought that if we "train up a child in they way they should go, when they are old they will not depart from it" which we now translate to "they will come back to it when they have children of their own." Her insight into one of the cultural factors behind students choosing to "leave church" is valuable since it has nothing to do with efforts by church or youth ministry to "keep them in church."

"I think our culture is what’s changing. Institutions—whether churches, schools, municipalities, or nations—locate authority and knowledge in very specific places: a book, a leader, a set of bylaws, a governing structure. But our world is becoming a place where sources of authority and knowledge are disparate and diverse: internet searches, social media, self-produced and self-promoted novels, music, and films. We are becoming a Me and My Smart Phone World. Many of us navigate the world through a narrow portal held in our hands or laps, a portal for personal experience, perspective, and tastes. Self-reflection and expression, at least in the culturally dominant White middle and upper class, are valued more highly than ethnic identity, group membership, or institutional participation. More and more, technology is encouraging us to explore meaning, knowledge, and transcendence as individuals rather than as members of communities or groups.

Full article found at

If she is right and I believe she is to a point, then allow me to make several observations concerning youth ministry practices:
  1. We should double down on creating meaningful interactions and significant responsibility in family and faith community.  I am excited about stories of family mission trips and projects, of parents teaching the Bible in small groups, of students participating in adult choirs and of work and worship that is intergenerational.
  2. We should also help students and families see how they can continue to have meaningful conversations and experiences about their faith.  I like a big deal made of Christmas Eve services and Mother's Day services and Easter services when young adults are likely to be home. We can craft ways during these times where families are brought together around Word and Worship without beating young adults up about their church attendance when they are away.
  3. We should keep the Scripture central and relevant.  If students are taught to memorize, comprehend, and embrace the Bible--and to how to study it on their own--they will at least have tools in the toolbox when they do not live with us anymore. The Gideons have helped us to see that the presence of the Scripture in a hotel room is enough to help people come to faith in Christ. Think about a young adult who is emotionally beat up or facing a huge decision and yet remembers where in the Scripture to look for counsel!
  4. We should help parents see how important their continued faith journey is for their adult children.  When the "home base" of parents and church continues to be real. There is a big difference in "now that my kids are grown I can sleep in on Sundays" and "God I celebrate another season of my journey with You" as these young adults search for solid ground in their fast moving techno-centric world.  They want us to be the dependable model of faith and substance.  It gives them a picture of what it is to grow old in the faith instead of outgrowing the faith.
I am thankful for youth ministers who continue to invest in lives.  Don't grow weary of doing good!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Youth Ministry and Influence

I am attending an annual conference of youth ministers called METRO youth ministers, pretty much guys from the largest churches in our world. I was humbled and honored to be asked to address them in a devotional.  Each of the ministries that they shepherd has a minimum of five hundred students involved and some have thousands.  The theme of the meeting is "Influence" and to look around the room at these people--my friends--I am blown away in terms of the impact that these men and women are having on lives of students across the country and in a couple of cases around the world.

I often think of influence in terms of legacy, replication, generational discipleship and so forth.  It seems intuitive that we should leave a mark of influence.  But should influence be the primary goal of our relationships with students?  Not according to a relatively recent book by Andrew Root.  He challenged the notion of relational ministry as we have practiced it in our culture.  The book is entitled, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation.

Root recasts relational ministry as an opportunity not to influence the influence-rs but to stand with and for those in need. He implies that a motivation by a youth minister to influence a student through relationship is a faulty one.  True relational youth ministry shaped by the incarnation is a commitment to enter into the life and maybe suffering of students with no other agenda.

In Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, Root explores the prevailing youth ministry model for evangelicals, showing how American culture has influenced our understanding of the incarnation. He draws from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose work with German youth in troubled times shaped his own understanding of how Jesus intersects our relationships.

His point is well taken, but I believe he is off base on at least a couple of things.  I look around this room and see very busy people.  It is a worthy admonition to "live in the moment" and not see students as numbers or pieces to move around the game board. Each student has a story and a soul and a future.  Relationally speaking, some of the stories are messy and require careful attention.  I admit that as we get busier in ministry on such a large scale that it is easy to hear someone without really listening because the mind has moved on to the next task.

But to say that relational ministry that desires to have influence is invalid or somehow less than a "relationship that connotes presence devoid of agenda or further goal" is going too far.  Students should be challenged, exhorted, encouraged, to be more like leaders, more like missionaries, more like critical thinkers--more like Jesus and that sounds like influence to me.  I often say in class that "your influence always trumps your liberty" as Jesus had harsh words for anyone who would cause a little one to stumble. As a teacher, parent or youth minister, we relate to students in a way that helps them move towards spiritual maturity.  

I am fine with the idea that we celebrate the influence of youth ministers as they help students become.  I agree that we should not base our "like" or "don't like" on whether a student is progressing towards goals, but Jesus seemed very intentional in His conversations with disciples.  He seemed to have an agenda that they become more kingdom minded and less earthly minded. He seemed to be urging first and twenty-first century disciples to live lives counter to the culture in which they lived or live.

I'm okay with influence as a goal. Dr. Root gives an important takeaway that we shouldn't barter our affection in relationship.  However, I think I will examine my motives and try to influence as many as I can to think, act and be like Jesus.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On Less is More

I was asked to publish the devotions that I led in faculty prayer meeting last week. We gather each Tuesday-Friday morning at 7:45am in order to start the day with reflection and prayer. We take turns leading the 15 minute devotion and it was my turn. 

Faculty Devotions
March 5-8, 2013

Theme for the week:  Less Can be More
Series Theme:  Each day, we will look at a “cannot make this stuff up” story (which I call NOTW) in light of lessons that can be learned from the connection between the story and a Scripture passage.

Tuesday:          Careless Association
Wednesday:     Groundless Anxiety
Thursday:         Mindless Presumption
Friday:             Needless Narcissism

I am a bit of a collector of things bizarre.  I love stories that come from real life but that are so surreal, so unbelievable, so funny that the usual reaction is “you just can’t make this stuff up.”  I call my collection of stories NOTW (Not Of This World).  Each devotion will be introduced by a NOTW story and hopefully make an association with a truth from Scripture. Be sure to follow the link to get the story!

Tuesday:    Careless Association
NOTW:     Pharmaceutical Fish
Text:          Psalm 1
Main Idea: Are we influencers or are we influenced?

    According to a story in the New York Times, fish behavior is altered when humans take anti-anxiety drugs and when nature takes its course, these drugs end up in the ecosystem via wastewater and ultimately into the habitat of fish.  The residual of those drugs causes an environment that makes the fish. . .well relaxed.  This makes their natural instincts dull and more susceptible to predators  (“look perch dude–it’s a shark”). Read about the study here:


The Psalmist speaks of the impact of environmental influence. 

       1 How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
    2 But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night.
    3 And he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season, And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.
    4 The wicked are not so, But they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
    5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
    6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the wicked will perish.

    I sometimes get careless with my environment, my association. I don’t change the channel even when I know that what I am watching is not helpful or edifying, even if it is not vile or vulgar. I don’t always walk out of movies that just aren’t good, walk away when someone starts in on a joke that I know will not end well.  I don’t always associate with pure people.  Sometimes that gets me in trouble (volunteer at fraternity at Tulane and there was a drub bust there this past week.  Even though only one of the guys was truly doing and dealing, the DEA arrested 8 young men just because they were in the frat house. 
    Unlike the pharmaceutical fish, I have a choice and a will and a calling.  I may choose to associate with some folks and not with others, invest time in some things and not others and I feel like part of our calling is to take some risks in relationships.  We cannot be careless in our associations, but we cannot refuse to go where Jesus might go.
    Are we influencers or are we influenced?”

Wednesday: Groundless Anxiety
NOTW:       Felix Baumgartner (ultimate skydiver)
Text:            Matthew 6:25-34
Main Idea:   Will we miss out on a God thing because I insist on the safe thing?

    I was coming back from the Youth Specialties National Youthworker Conference in San Diego back on October when the pilot of the plane told us to look out the window if we were on the left side of the plane. I was and I did and I saw a silver speck that was high above us.  It was the balloon that Felix Baumgartner would jump out of to become the record holder for the highest parachute jump (128,000 feet) and the only human to break the sound barrier without the aid of machinery.  We could see the balloon even though it was far, far away because it was really big. Once the daredevil jumped from his capsule (which weighed as much as a VW), the balloon automatically deflated and drifted to earth, landing 50 miles from where he did. It took crew members 45 minutes to gather the 40 acres of material weighing 3,708lbs and load it into a large open truck.
    The jump, however, almost didn’t happen.  The pressurized suit that Baumgartner had to wear in order to survive at altitude caused him to become claustrophobic.  Now I am not saying that a fear is invalid just because I don’t have.  I am saying that it is strange that a guy who wasn’t afraid to jump from a balloon was afraid to be in the suit.  Read about it here:


    25 "For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? 26 "Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 "And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life's span? 28 "And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. 30 "But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? 31 "Do not be anxious then, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'With what shall we clothe ourselves?' 32 "For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. 34 "Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

    Sometimes I worry groundlessly. I have no legitimate reason for my anxiety, but I worry about traffic or bills or imaginary opponents.  My wise wife says I “borrow trouble.”  I wonder if my anxiety keeps me from taking appropriate risks.  Do I hesitate when I should act? Do I stand pat when I should take another card (hypothetically speaking of course). Is there some thing I need to try that I HAVE to see God at work or do I go through ministry doing things that I admit (if I am really honest) that I can do on my own strength?
    Will I miss out on a God thing because I insist on the safe thing?

Thursday:    Mindless Presumption
NOTW:      Penelope Soto (flipped off a judge)
Text:           Luke 12:13-21
Main Idea:  Will we learn to be more respectful for those who lead us, and for God as our ultimate authority?

    Penelope Soto was a young lady who forgot her boundaries. When brought before a judge in Florida on drug charges Ms. Soto (maybe still a little stoned) was too flippant (pun intended) when she appeared for a bail hearing.  The video of her giggling, playing with her hair and ultimately dropping a profanity bomb and giving the judge the universal hand signal of disrespect went viral on the internet. The judge responded by calling her back and giving her a much stiffer sentence. Read her story here:


    13 And someone in the crowd said to Him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." 14 But He said to him, "Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbiter over you?"  15 And He said to them, "Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions."  16 And He told them a parable, saying, "The land of a certain rich man was very productive. 17 "And he began reasoning to himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?' 18 "And he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 'And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."' 20 "But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?' 21 "So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."

    I need to apologize occasionally for offending people because I have ignored boundaries of respect, courtesy or decorum.  Sometimes I forget that I am not the center of the universe (though I touched it in Jerusalem).  I am probably not alone and if you are a pastor, you have a church full of people who are pretty sure they can do your job better than you.  Any leader of any organization must live with the knowledge that many of the people in the food chain, and especially the really little fish, believe that if they were in charge, things would be different around here. I repent.  I deserve to get called back to the judge and be given a stiffer sentence.  I blur boundaries and occasionally have to be reminded that I am not in charge. I need to admit that God is God and I am not. I need to learn better how to “lead from the second chair.”  Fortunately the story of Penelope Soto ended with grace when she sobered up and had dialog with the judge. 
    Will we learn to be more respectful for those who lead us, and ultimately to honor God as our ultimate authority?

Friday:     Needless Narcissism
NOTW:   Professor Emlyn Hughes (stripped to his underwear)
Text:        Matthew 12: 35-37
Main Idea: Will we carefully weigh whether the words we speak are the right words for the moment?

    How far will we go to make a point?  How much will we subject our words–especially our illustrations–to the lens of discipleship? A professor at Columbia University went a little far in his attempt to try to say that we had to get rid of our old preconceptions in order to learn new things. In his words, we have to strip away our prior thoughts to make room for new ones. And strip he did.  In front of his quantum mechanics class, he stripped to his underwear to prove his point.  I am not making this up. Read his story here:


    35 "The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil. 36 "And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. 37 "For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned."

    I may need some latitude with the NT scholars, but v.36 has always haunted me. These verses are found only in Matthew. Jesus just talked about “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit”  which I am pretty sure I will never understand. Now He talks about our words.  We know we are not saved by our words, but because of what our words represent (Rm 10:9, “if we confess with our mouth...). “Careless" refers to words that we might think insignificant--idle or worthless words. I believe the teaching is that we should self-examine our words spoken, promises made, vows exchanged, and commitments verbalized.
    But I don’t think it is a stretch to ask a room full of wordsmith preachers to think about the impact of our words as much as the words themselves. Are our words necessary, appropriate or edifying?  Do our words represent Applied to our preaching and teaching, I used to regularly have a conversation with a friend and accountability partner. When I ran an illustration idea by him, he asked, “Is that the best way to communicate what you are trying to communicate? Is the meaning lost in the story? Will they remember the biblical truth or the edgy illustration?”
    I am a lifetime youth minister who knows that nothing gets a middle schooler’s attention like setting something on fire or showing a video clip of which their parents wouldn’t approve. Yet, when I have said something in the interest of being “hip” it rarely turns out well. It might not cause damage to a teenager (or it might) and I might not lose my job (or I might), but I am usually left feeling like I chose a path of mediocrity rather than a road of excellence.
    Will we carefully weigh whether the words we speak are the right words for the moment?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Limping and the Contradiction of Grace

I am reading through Genesis right now. I would like to say that it is the beginning of my "read the Bible through again" in 2013, but for now it is just Genesis.  I am newly impressed at how unimpressive the people in Genesis are presented.  These people are deceptive, selfish, and mean. Most of them lie to each other and attempt to lie to God.  Adam and Eve blame each other as well as the snake. Noah gets drunk and then blames his son for seeing him naked.  Abraham passes his wife off as his sister to protect his own skin, Sarah laughs at God, Rebekah conspires against her husband, Jacob deceives his brother, his brother promises to kill him, Laban deceives pretty much everybody, Rachel lies to her dad after she steals his stuff.  And so it goes.

I don't believe it is an accident that the very first part of the Bible that most people read features enough intrigue for a mini-series and if a true-to-life movie was made out of Genesis, we couldn't let our children see it.  I am reading of violence, sexuality, treachery, and broken promises. Except that God keeps His promises. Every time God pronounces a covenant, it comes to pass.

I believe that a person who reads Genesis without much background as to the rest of the Bible--particularly the New Testament--is being prepared for the reality of grace.  One cannot read of the adventures, exploits, and not-niceness of the "people of God" without wondering why God doesn't just drown them all and start over. Oh wait, He did that.  Once. Then He promised never to do it again.

And after the flood--or for us whatever challenging or tragic event causes us to understand that God is Who He says He is--people returned to being mean, deceitful, promiscuous, and downright sinful.  But instead of wiping clean the dry-erase board called Earth, He continues in relationship with them.  He acknowledges their contentious spirits, but continues to be their (and our) God.

For me, an incident from Genesis and a verse from Romans  helps me to get some perspective. Jacob is one of Isaac's sons (and the one who stole both birthright and blessing from his brother Esau).  In Genesis 32, Jacob is getting ready to confront his brother (whom he assumes is pretty ticked off) with a goal to reconcile. He sends some herdsmen ahead to grovel a bit, then moves away from his family in case it goes badly.

Now, in his prayer time, he wrestles with God. Jacob has spent most of his life scheming, and I suppose he intends to bargain with God. Wiersbe suggests that "before we criticize Jacob, we need to examine our own hearts to see if we've ever been guilty of praying piously and then depending on our own schemes and resources." Instead, in what I believe to be an element of grace, God comes as a wrestler to help Jacob see that his pride and self-reliance are the stumbling block, not his relationship with his brother.

Jacob leaves the encounter with a limp.  I don't know how long he limped. Maybe he limped for the rest of his life, a "thorn in the flesh" to remind him of his dependence.  In Genesis 32:30-32, the scripture says,

So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved." 31 Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh.

Isn't that how God is gracious to us? We make our plans and ask Him to bless us, then we cry out to Him when our plans go awry.  I promised you a verse in Romans. But God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  (Romans 5:8). While we insist on our way, God knew from the opening words of Genesis that He would have to wrestle us down with His love and mercy because we are too mean, deceitful, promiscuous, and downright sinful to realize that we cannot fix our lives apart from His mercy and grace.

A limp is not an entirely bad thing if it is a reminder of God's power and grace.  A limp is okay if it helps us see that we are pretty messed up. A limp is okay if it makes us aware of God's presence.