That Time When Jesus Kicked Us Out of the House

When Jesus begins his ministry, one of the realities that he stepped into was one of “exile.”

To make a very long story very short, between 580-595 BC, the nation of Israel experiences two devastating events. First, the Temple—the very center of God’s activity in the world—is destroyed. Second, the core population is sent into exile in Babylon. It’s virtually impossible to understand how dis-concerting this was to God’s people.

They were without the sense of God’s presence in the world…

They were without a home…

Psalm 137 records just a little of what this felt like to the community:

“Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
‘Sing us a song about Zion!’ they said.
But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?”

 

Eventually, the Jews returned to the Land, but significantly the presence of the Lord never returned to the Temple. It was rebuilt, but God had not returned. In a sense, they were still in exile.

Furthermore, over time more nations and empires showed up. In particular, Rome came knocking, and easily occupied the land and subjugated God’s people. Now, they were still “in the land,” but they were no longer in control; the Romans were. 

They might as well have been still in Babylon, and again, it’s as if they were still in exile.

God hadn’t come back to the Temple, and they were not in control of the “Promised Land.”

When Jesus shows, up, much of his activity centers around demonstrating that exile is over: God has returned to the Land (through his ministry), and will now “do battle” with Israel’s enemies (who are not the Babylonians, or the Romans for that matter).

At the cross, Jesus defeats the “true enemy” of Israel (evil) by dying. Three days later he rises from the dead and ushers in a new way of living.

But he’s not done yet.

In Matthew 28, he commissions his disciples, telling them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (CEB)

In short, he sends them out, away from their homes, away from what they know and find comforting.

Kinda sounds like exile…

As one of my professors says, “Jesus announces (through is life, death and resurrection, ‘Exile is over; now go be exiles!’” 

However this time not only has God returned to the Land (in/through Jesus), but now Jesus promises to be “be with” his disciples.

So the bad news is that when we “sign on” to this Jesus movement, we don’t get to come into the house and kick our feet up. Rather, Jesus kicks us out of the house to go be exiles in our world: go out where you aren’t comfortable, where you don’t know all the rules, where things may seem strange and alien to you.

But the good news is that exile no longer has to feel empty, or pointless, or like punishment. God’s presence is with his people, even where things are strange and “different.”

We may be in exile, but we are not alone.

 

 

 

 

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HW 2014 :: Last Words :: “You Will Be Sifted”

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Just after the Last Supper, the disciples show their humanness by immediately having an argument on who is the greatest. Evidently they have utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teachings on service and humility. When he hears their debate, Jesus reminds them that the greatest among them “must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant” (Luke 22:26).

In the gospels, Peter often serves as the “representative disciple”, meaning that he symbolizes the questions, successes and (mostly) failures of the disciples—of The Twelve and of all us.

Immediately after Jesus reminds all of the Twelve about “true greatness,” he turns to Peter and says, “Simon, Simon, look! Satan has asserted the right to sift you all like wheat. However I have prayed for you that your faith won’t fail. When you have returned, strengthen your bothers and sisters” (Luke 22:31-32).

 

This is a harsh but very true statement that holds as true for us today as it did for Peter. Sifting is not easy. Sifting separates the good from the bad, but it is seldom pleasant. If for nothing else, sifting reminds us that inside us there is both wheat and chaff.

 

Most of the time we don’t want to be reminded that we are not all perfect, but Jesus here reminds the “representative disciple” that it’s sort of inevitable, that some kind of breaking or humbling is going to come Peter’s—and thus our—way.

 

Interestingly, Jesus tells Peter that he has prayed that his strength won’t fail. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “Don’t lead us into temptation” (Luke 11:4b). In Matthew’s version of the prayer, Jesus says, “Don’t lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” There is a sense in Jesus’ teachings that temptation is a given. Avoiding it is not the point, but enduring it is (otherwise, he wouldn’t have to add, “but deliver us from the evil one”).

 

So with these words, Jesus is saying that reflection, humility, and even a bit of failure is inevitable for a disciple, but Jesus will be praying that we find our way through it. 

 

Then  Jesus adds this additional challenge to Peter: “When you have returned, strengthen your brothers and sisters.”

 

The sequence seems pretty clear:

 

  1. We need to be “sifted”: to examine ourselves and see what’s good and bad in our inventory, and then be prepared to respond appropriately.
  2. We need to rely on Jesus’ strength to help us endure the humbling that sifting involves.
  3. After we get done with our inventory, and come to terms with the “chaff” in our lives, we are called to service.

 

Next up: Jesus gets out the pruning shears.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @ericcase

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Holy Week 2014: Last Words – Monday

A couple years ago, I wrote out some thoughts for Holy Week. They were centered around some of the places that Jesus encountered during his last days before his crucifixion. This year, I thought I’d offer some devotional thoughts on some of the last words he spoke. These are simply meant to give us all some things to think about as we process Jesus’ sacrifice.

“Let’s Go To Jerusalem.” 

Though Matthew doesn’t quote Jesus saying this, he does record that “Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).

Personally, I think it’s crystal clear that Jesus knew what was waiting for him in Jerusalem. The portrait that the gospels paint of Jesus is of a man who is well aware of the directions that the winds in Israel were blowing. Between Rome’s empire and Israel’s coming, religion-fueled violent revolution Jerusalem was not the place to go if you (a) wanted to stay safe while (b) preaching the arrival of God’s kingdom.

But safety isn’t part of Jesus’ agenda.

Unless he chooses to change his message (God is King) or his strategy (non-violent resistance and prophetic pronouncements), Jesus knows what waits for him in Jerusalem: the might, power, and force  of the temple and the religious establishment (backed by Rome’s interest in keeping the tax money flowing).

Jesus may not be a mathematician, but I imagine he can add, and he can see that this is going to end badly for him.

But that’s exactly why he chooses to go.

I don’t know if Jesus was “afraid” in any sense that we may understand that word, but at any rate he sees where the danger and darkness lies, and he walks straight towards it. 

For many of us, we don’t need to look very far for darkness and danger. For a lot of us, we have wilderness and black caves inside our own souls; that’s where our darkness is. There are things—brokenness, fears, unconfronted/unacknowledged sin—lurking deep inside of our hearts and lives. They may be backed by the power of years of co-dependency and escapism, and we may be well aware that to confront them may very well mean pain and even death of parts of us.

But in the same way that Jesus knows, and still goes, I think we are called to go: go to the dark places inside us, the places that are rooted in the power of this world, that will buffet and beat us as soon as we show up.

Moreover, I think that we are called to go to the dangerous places inside us with Jesus’ message and method: “God is King, and you will be defeated, not by asserting more power or more control, but by surrender of ego, of self, and by a willingness to die to myself.”

What is your “Jerusalem”? An addiction? A vision of your future that you’ve clung to? Your pride? What would it mean to walk towards it, to face it, and then to surrender so that God can begin to heal you? 

The Bible Project Pt 6: The Mission in Jeopardy

With Abram’s decision to listen and go, God’s rescue project is back underway. Everything that went “wrong” in Genesis 3 is now going to be set right. Abram indeed has a family—a couple of sons, in fact (Genesis 16-21). Then those sons have a couple sons (Esau and Jacob; Genesis 26-28), and eventually we get down to 12 brothers who form the beginnings of this nation that will “bless the whole world” (though they are still just a family, not a nation… yet). One of those brothers, Joseph, ends up in Egypt and actually rises to great status and honor in that nation, and as part of Abram’s family, it’s easy to see how this rise in status will help bless the whole world because, well, it’s easy to equate power with blessing.

But as the years pass, something goes amiss, and the “rescue project” begins to experience a major challenge. Exodus 1:8 says that, “a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph,” and with that innocuous statement, the wheels begin to come off. The Egyptians end up enslaving Abrams family—the rescue project—and forcing them to build cities for them.

How will the blessing move forward now?

In Exodus chapters 4-12, God demonstrates clearly—first to Moses and then to Pharaoh—that the blessing will not be held captive, culminating with the great release of Israel in chapters 12-14.

God’s agenda—the mission to rescue and restore—will not be denied. It will not be held captive, not even by the pre-eminent world empire of the day. The people are set free from their slavery in order to—and this is critical to understand—to get the blessing back on track.

Freedom is not the only point of Exodus; mission is.

This point is born out in the rest of the book of Exodus. In Exodus 19, God tells His people plainly what His hopes for them are:

“You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wing and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” (vv4-6a)

To break this down:

  • Identity is rooted in God’s gracious acts. God released His people merely because they needed to be released, not because they had done anything in particular to warrant his act. He moved before people were able to “deserve” it.
  • Being faithful to God means being a kingdom of priests.
  • Priests, by definition, exist to “intercede” to mediate or “come between” God and those who seek to meet Him.

As God’s mission gets back on track, He does a couple things to prepare this fledgling nation of priests. First in Exodus 20, God gives them a set of basic guidelines—we know them as the 10 Commandments—to live by. This is to be the basic code of life for God’s people so that they can be this nation of mediators, of priests, to the rest of the world. (Notice that these guidelines are not given so that Israel can earn God’s love; God has already unilaterally shown His love for His people by releasing them from slavery. The Law is given after freedom, in order to help His people live out their mission.)

Second, God establishes a “dwelling place” in the midst of His people. Much of the rest of Exodus, from chapter 25 to 40:33, is filled with the instructions of how construct “The Tabernacle” (or “dwelling place”): what materials to use, how to arrange them, what goes inside, who will maintain it, how they will dress, etc., etc. Another book of the Old Testament (Numbers 2) tells us that the Tabernacle sat at the exact center of the camp, and that all of God’s people would camp around it. Finally, everything finally culminates in Exodus 40:34-38—the last four verses of the book—when God enters the Tabernacle:

“When Moses had finished all the world, the cloud covered the meeting tent and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Moses couldn’t enter the meeting tent because the cloud had settled on it, and the LORD’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. Whenever the cloud rose from the dwelling, the Israelites would set out on their journeys. But if the cloud didn’t rise, then they didn’t set out until the day it rose. The LORD’s cloud stayed over the dwelling during the day, with lightning in it at night, clearly visible to the whole household of Israel at every stage of their journey.”

With these words, the Bibles gives us a picture of how God’s mission should work:

  • God has a people
  • He—and worship—is at their center
  • They move when He moves, and stay put when He stays put
  • The world comes to God through His people (the Church); they exist to introduce the world outside to God

Rather than being just an ancient tale of miracles, wandering and tent-making, Exodus gives us the model of mission for God in the world.

 

The Grammies and Satanic Goat Statues: Not Surprised

So I spent last week in a seminary class on Christian Ethics. The class began the morning after the grammies, and not surprisingly the class opened with some alarmed comments about the shenanigans of the night before.

(Disclosure: I declared the Grammies dead and irrelevant after the 1991 “Jethro Tull/Metallica” debacle, though I showed a brief revived interest with 2007′s “duets” idea.)

At any rate, some folks in the class were “shocked” and “appalled” at some of the performances.

Which made me think of satanic statues.

(As you do)

Lately, some pagan—and even straight up satanic—groups (I’m not using these terms pejoratively: they are self-identified pagans and satanists) have petitioned to have monuments and statues placed on courthouse and state lawns alongside “Christian” symbols (you can read the story here).

Ahem.

So I know that I’m supposed to be angry and indignant at this outrage, but I’m really not.

(Well, excepting the fact that the statue is actually quite hideous and ugly… THAT is quite disappointing.)

You see, I like it when people and institutions “show their cards.” When they take off the masks they wear and just declare, “This is who I am: deal with it.”

I like it because then I know a little more of the truth, and I can choose to accept it or walk away from it.

But at least I know.

In these two cases—the Grammies and these petitions—the music industry and our culture—are “showing their cards.”

Church (and I mean everybody): they are not our friends. We should not be surprised.

I don’t mean in a “get-scared-they’re-coming-to-take-me-away-and-oh-please-Jesus-come-back-it’s-the-Left-Behind-series-starting-where-is-Kirk-Cameron” way.

I mean a little more in the “raise-eyebrow-roll-your-eye-turn-off-the-TV-and-read-a-good-book-or-better-yet-have-a-conversation-with-your-actual-family” way.

Let me be really blunt:

  • The Grammies—and the music industry—exist for pretty much one reason: to make money. While they occasionally make a reference to “values”, and while people may occasionally thank God during an acceptance speach, if the industry has to choose between a dollar and Christian values, they will choose the dollar. They are obligated to.
  • The state exists to be a political entity. It has to perpetuate that system. If you know history—at least anything besides recent North American history—you’d discover that the “State” is no friend to faith. Because of the unique era of history that we’ve lived in, it’s easy to believe that our (awesome) political system is an ally of our faith, but that’s an illusion that most of the world does not live in (for that matter, it’s an illusion that most of the history of the Church doesn’t share, but see below).

(This is probably the time that I’d say I don’t believe in a “Christian nation.” I believe in Christians who may be part of shaping a nation, (but really, have you seen the “Jefferson Bible”?) but largely Christianity and politics have been disasters (#Calvin’sGeneva #Rwanda).

Now, in regards to the State, there is some good news:

This is not new.

Our New Testament was written in an era where the State and Roman culture dominated the landscape. But there are repeated reminders that culture, and in particular the State, do NOT have the same interests as Jesus (and His church).

Here are three of my favorites:

1.
In Matthew 2, the magi show up and tell Herod that the KING OF THE JEWS has been born. “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jeruslam was troubled with him.” (2v3) Why? Because if someone else (namely, Jesus) is King, it means Herod is not. It means that there’s a new king, and he’s coming to Jerusalem to shake things up. Things are about to change. You have to understand that the Jews (and the Christians) of the 1st century didn’t hear “King” like we do, as a private, faith-filled term. They knew their king ruled. Like really. Externally. Visibly. (It goes without saying that we should realize that Jesus is a real, ruling, living King.)

2.
Mark begins his gospel like this: The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son…” (1v1) The Greek word for “good news” is euangelion which, oddly enough, was used by the Roman state to announce a military victory. It seems that what Mark is saying is that Jesus as the Messiah means that a visible, military victory is going to be one. It means that Jesus’ “kingdom” (state) is going to be the new reality.

3.
Saint Paul probably knew this more than any of the writer of the New Testament. He was a Roman citizen, after all, and so he was quite aware of its agenda, and he knew it was not Jesus’ agenda. In 1 Thessalonians he is writing to a church about the time when all things will be resolved, a final time when Jesus will bring all things visibly together. He writes this odd phrase: “When they are saying, ‘there is peace and security,’ at that time sudden destruction will attack them, like labor pains start with a pregnant woman, and they definitely won’t escape.”

Here’s the thing: “PEACE AND SECURITY” WAS A ROMAN SLOGAN. It was meant to remind people, “Hey, your peace, security, and well-being all come from Rome. (So keep supporting us.)” Paul is saying though, “Actually the folks—the state—who are saying we will provide your peace and security are deceived, and they are not your friends.”

For Paul, Rome was no friend of Jesus Christ and His church (though Paul was not above giving sensible advice to living under authority: see Romans 13).

I think the same is true for us today. We shouldn’t be shocked when we see ridiculous behavior on the Grammies, or ugly public art (though I’m sure we Christians have created our share).

To me it’s just those institutions showing their cards.

They are not my friend, and their agenda is not the Church’s agenda.

So get over the shock, and keep on walking, folks. We still have work to do.
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The Bible Project, Pt 3: Enter Humanity (or, “I knew you were trouble when you walked in…”)

 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

God created humanity

In God’s own image,

  in the divine image

      God created them,

      male and female

        God created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

So God has this creation.

Day after day the rhythm is repeated: God creates, then sits back and enjoys it, and then evaluates it…

And it’s goooood. 

But, somehow, not good enough.

So after the world is complete, God decides to do one more masterfully creative thing…

He makes humanity.

This is no small thing.

With this moment of creation, the first glimpses of our biblical “spine” start to come into view.

Or, to put it another way, this God is up to something.

Broadly speaking, there are three things that we learn about humanity in the creation story. They’re not complicated, but these three things have profound significance for the rest of our story, so it’s important that we understand them.

One: Image

As verses say, we bear the imprint of God’s image on us. At this point in our story, what do we know about this god’s “image”?

  • He creates things
  • He enjoys His creation
  • He even creates human beings, and when He does it, He says it’s very good… 

So whatever human beings are, or whatever they become, one of the ingredients of our spine is that we are marked with the image of this creating, singing, celebrating God. We are called to measure our lives by our likeness to Him.

Two: Work 

In verse 28 of chapter one, God tells Adam (from the Hebrew ‘adam, which is not a proper noun, but rather a generic name for humanity; see Robert Alter’s book on the Pentateuch for more discussion), “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” In Genesis 2, we are told that God puts humanity in a garden (v8).

Here’s the thing about gardens: they take work. 

So God gives humanity work to do: they farm and keep the land (v8 and v15), and they name the animals (2:19-20).

So here’s another little piece of our spine that is beginning to take shape: this God invites—even expects—His creation to co-labor with Him. Whatever work there is to do, God allows humanity to be a part of it.

Work is a part of the divine plan. The garden isn’t all about sitting around, sipping lemonade and listening to lame angels’ songs.

It’s about making sure God’s creation is in balance…

… Oh, and also: don’t forget about the image thing. When we work, we have to work in God’s image. We have to do things the way He would do it (this becomes increasingly important).

Three: Freedom

“In the fertile land, the LORD God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit, and also he grew the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2v9)

“The LORD God commanded the human, ‘Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” (2v16-17)

So God creates a planet that He loves. He creates a creature to co-labor and create and steward this world. Then He tells the human to not eat of a certain tree…

… Then God retreats, and lets the human choose.

(… The outcome isn’t so good.)

This God gives us the freedom to choose, even when the results can be disastrous. 

Why?

I think it’s because of love.

After creating an entire universe and world, it would be a pretty small thing to put, say, a really tall hedge around the two trees. A fence. Anything.

But this God wants humanity to be able to choose.

Because you can’t love without a choice.

I think that if all God wanted was creatures to do His bidding, He could’ve easily eliminated choice or chance. But this God wants more. He wants community. He wants love.

Freely given.

And you can’t freely give something if you don’t have the option to not give. 

So here we stand, and in a way it’s quite simple:

  1. There’s a God.
  2. He created a something: a world.
  3. That world matters to Him. A lot. 
  4. He created someone. 
  5. That someone matters to Him an awful lot, but… 
  6. God is going to let that someone choose to be in relationship with Him.

And that’s going to cause an awful lot of trouble.

Next up: Genesis 3v1-4v16

Oh yeah… and of course I had to include this…

The Bible Project, Pt 2: Genesis A

William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

William Blake [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night. 

There was evening and there was morning: the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5)

… And so our Story begins.

And with it, the controversy: how long did it take God to form the Earth? How old is our planet? In North America, there are whole museums dedicated to proving that creation closely follows the Genesis account, and that the Earth is significantly younger than most geologists would claim (10,000 years vs roughly 4.5 billion). The debate goes on and on (if you want to read a poignant account of it, check out A.J. Jacobs’ Year of Living Biblically).

But the troubles with Genesis don’t end there.

Over the years, scholars have become aware of other ancient near eastern “creation stories” that bare troubling similarities to Genesis, and these similarities have given rise to troubling questions:

* What do these other stories do to the claim of the Bible’s uniqueness? 

* Is Genesis plagiarized?

… And so on.

Without getting into too many details, there are multiple stories that have remarkable similarities to Genesis, including the same sequence of days in creation, the same association and rhythm of light and darkness, etc; there are other stories of floods (not to mention Hammurabi’s Code, which has a lot of similarities to the 10 Commandments).

Broadly speaking there are two extreme responses to these facts: either you throw the Bible (and in particular, Genesis) as myth and irrelevant, or you try to intellectually justify and “conquer” the other myths as somehow inferior or “stolen” from Genesis.

As a person of faith, I can’t do the former; as a thinking human, I can’t do the latter. Bluntly, it’s difficult to be intellectually honest and say that those other stories ripped off Genesis (and not vice-versa).

So where does that leave me?

But what if there was another way to look at Genesis? A way that “liberates” the text from having to be utterly unique? 

What if this approach to Genesis is also intrinsically related to what Genesis may actually be trying to tell us?

Hint: It’s all about YHWH. 

The best way to understand things at this point is to understand that Genesis isn’t written in a vacuum: it’s written (and still read) in a culture where everyone has an origin story…

Who started this whole thing off? Zeus? Marduk? Geology? It’s almost like a “my dad can beat up your dad situation”, and into the mix comes this people (the Jews) with a story that says, “Well we have a God too—in fact just one—but that’s all we’re going to need.” They seem to look at the cultures around them and say, “We agree with you on the basics of the story: stuff surely got created and put here, but what we are disagreeing with is simply the who behind the what.” 

What’s more, the folks who wrote Genesis weren’t newspaper people, historians, or journalists.

They were God-people.

Priests, prophets, spiritual leaders.

They were consumed with this God—this YHWH—they’d encountered, and they wanted to explain the world in terms of who He was/is.

Some people say that in God’s eyes there’s really only ever one sin, and it’s idolatry (we’ll here more about this in Exodus), and Genesis seems to start the story off in a similar way. Genesis is saying, in a sense, you have to get this one thing right: there’s God… Just. One. God. He’s the One who did all this. 

Now this is saying plenty.

Genesis may not be so much interested in the details of creation, but it’s highly interested in the author. Indeed, a lot of the details in Genesis can be found in other origin stories of the ancient near east, except for one small detail:

God. 

Can we solve the debate of the age of the earth? Did Adam have a belly button? Was there a serpent?

Ultimately, I don’t know, but I know there was a God…

And somehow He is a creator, and He made a planet that was good, and then He made human beings… 

And they were VERY good…

(Well, mostly…)

Next up: Genesis B (or the Great Challenge of Humanity)

The Bible Project, Pt 1

So we have this Book… 

Or “books”…

Sixty-six of them.

Across centuries of authors, cultures, and geography.

Thoughts and words scribbled in the wilderness and in the sprawling metropolis of the ancient world; by educated people and by shepherds; by pastors and by business people; by free people and by people who are in captive exile. They are words of teaching, of story-telling, of prophetic anger, of poetry and prayers.

And they are our words. They belong to us.

(Or, perhaps more accurately, we belong to them.)

Either way, this epic story can be difficult to understand:

What story does it tell? 

Is there even a coherent story through it, or does the whole Bible just not really “fit”? 

What do you do with all the apparent contradictions? 

How do you understand it? 

Can we understand it? 

Being a people “of the book,” I think there’s a lot riding on these questions. The Bible can be intimidating and frustrating: what does ancient Israel have to do with 21st century Christianity? How do you square all the blood-letting in the Old Testament with the “peace and love” message of Jesus? How do you get past the occasional-yet-seemingly-endless list of names and genealogies?

It seems like there are two reactions to the challenge of the Bible: either people manipulate the Bible to do and be what they want it to be, or they just run away from it.

Both of these reactions are unacceptable.

In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp says that creative projects should have a “spine”, that central thing that holds the whole project together. “The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work. You intend to tell this story. You intend to explore this theme. You intend to employ this structure. The audience may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.”

Does the Bible have a spine?

I think it does, and I think we can find it.

In late 2013, I started to wonder if you could extract a few passages and stories from the Bible that would show the “spine” of the Bible. Then, I stumbled across Rob Bell’s Tumblr series on the Bible, and thought to myself, “Yeah, I should try this.”

So here it goes…

I think there are a handful of critical Bible passages that serve as the “spine” of the Story that God is telling through the Bible, and over the next few months we’re going to explore them together. Roughly, they can be found in or around:

  • Genesis 1-2
  • Genesis 3
  • Genesis 12:1-4 and 15
  • Exodus 20:1-21
  • Deuteronomy 28
  • Jeremiah 39
  • Amos 5
  • Isaiah 55
  • Matthew 2
  • Luke 4
  • Mark 8
  • John 4
  • Luke 22
  • Mark 15
  • Luke 24
  • Matthew 28 (+ Acts 1)
  • Ephesians 4
  • Revelation 21

Essentially, what I’m saying is that you can draw a line through these scriptures and see that God is up to something, and that you can see the “spine” of God’s story in Scripture. That’s not to say that there aren’t difficult parts to understand or process, but there is a story through it. (Oh, and by the way, it’s not simply “God loves you.” While that’s accurate and perfectly lovely statement, God’s mission is much, much larger than that.)

A Few Words About Perspective and the Bible

Perspective

Perspective

How you see something—what experiences and expectations you bring—really matters. Take a look at this image. I first saw this in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (an oldey-but-goody). What do you see?

Do you see a young woman?

How about an old woman?

Both?

This may be a high-school level example, but it still holds true: our perspective governs what we see and experience.

This is no different with the Bible.

Like it or not, we all bring “ourselves” to the Bible, in the form of expectations, baggage, hopes, and various experiences. All of these frame the questions we ask of Scripture. Sometimes these questions are obvious, and we’re aware of them, while other times we aren’t quite clued into what we are asking the Bible “to do” for us as we read it. For instance, it’s easy to approach the Scriptures with the desire to have them

+ make us feel good about ourselves…
+ justify our beliefs…
+ tell us how to get to heaven…
+ tell us about Jesus…

… and on and on. Over time these can change, but we almost always bring SOMETHING to the Scriptures as individuals, and furthermore the church collectively brings questions as well as it goes through time.

I wanted to lay out four broad perspectives that we can bring to the Bible, and make a couple comments and suggestions about them. There are certainly more perspectives (and questions) than this, but somehow I feel like these are the big ones that are shaping our faith today (and starting to shape it for tomorrow).

Reading the Bible with a Soteriological filter means that we are asking, “How can I get saved?” (soter is Greek for “save”). This paradigm maintains that the point of Scripture is to (in older parlance) “tell us how to get to heaven.” Obviously Scripture has a lot to say about the state of our souls, and about God’s desire to save us, but a lot of explicit “saving” language is actually absent from the even the Gospels, and though Paul, for instance, writes a lot about it, he seems to talk about community just as much (if not more).

When we read the Bible with a Christological filter we are reading it through a lense that asks, “What does this tell me about Jesus?” In so many ways, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s work on earth: He is Messiah, Son of God, Emmanuel. The Bible is obviously concerned with Jesus’ identity and vocation on earth. The challenge of this paradigm is that frankly it can be difficult to find Jesus in some of the pages of the Old Testament in particular, and when it’s difficult to find “answers” to the question we are asking (“Tell me about Jesus”), it can be easy to simply put down the book and decide that it’s irrelevant.

In my opinion, these two paradigms and filters have dominated the church’s approach to Scripture in our recent age. However, two other paradigms are now entering the discussion that I believe have the potential to really expand our understanding of Scripture.

Reading Scripture with an Ecclesiological filter means we are asking, “What does this tell me about the Church?” In contrast to the both the soteriological and Christological filters, this paradigm starts with community. It assumes that the Church—the People of God—is central to God’s work in the world, and that Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul (along with everyone else who wrote and assembled the canon of Scripture) want to convey that importance. In our individualistic society, coming at the book of Romans, for instance, from the perspective of learning about community can radically change our understanding of Paul’s point. (I believe we actually find that Paul is JUST as concerned with unity and helping us all to get along” as he is in telling us how to be saved, largely because he knows that the unity of the Church between Jews and Gentiles is actually one of the signs that PROVE Jesus was who he said he was. But I digress.)

Lastly, and similarly, we can read Scripture Missionally. This means we are asking the Bible to tell us about the mission and work of God in the world. This paradigm is grand and epic; it does a great job of tying everything together, and runs from Genesis 1 (well, 3 at least) to Revelation. Stated simply, this paradigm maintains that Scripture is telling us how God plans to redeem all of creation and restore it to its original status of being reflection of His character. A missional reading of Scripture unifies the story of Israel, Jesus, Paul and the church along one strong “spine”, and actually thrusts the story forward into our age.

These paradigms are not simply big words to throw around. They really do impact the way in which we read the Bible. We miss so much of the story when we engage in only one way to read it. If you’ve never thought about the Church when you read the Gospels, simply write the question, “What does this tell me about living together as the Church?” on an index card and keep it in your Bible as you read.

The point of all of this is, quite frankly, is to expand the way in which we read and interact with the Bible. It’s too grand a story to be contained by the narrow perspectives that have contained it.

Professional Faith 2: Have a Plan

I thought I might unpack what a “Professional” Faith might look like in everyday terms.

There are so many options out there, but there are some things that I’ve tried and/or heard about, so maybe they’ll help you get started if you want to get serious about doing the work of becoming a “Gospel Artist” (i.e., partnering with God to create a gospel-shaped life).

NOTE: I believe in the power of a positive secret, so I won’t share exactly what my daily practices are, but if you want to know, contact me directly and I’ll walk you through them. Otherwise, I’ll speak in general terms here and give some resources that have worked for me in the past, some of which I still engage with.

 FIRST A WORD ABOUT TIME…

Martin Luther said somewhere that he was so busy he simply HAD to devote 2-3 hours of every day to prayer.

I think it’s pretty obvious that most of us don’t think that way…

It seems to me that we allow busy-ness to take over, to give it the priority.

To put it succinctly, this puts first things second and second things first. A professional knows his priorities. I was looking through a “productivity system” that was designed by a writer, and at the bottom of every day of his calendar was a place where you write your “Life’s Theme”—the spine that your life is wrapped around. It’s so you constantly know what the most important thing in life really is. A professional faith knows owns up to the fact that the most important creative work we have is the one that produces the gospel-shaped life that God is calling us to produce.

For me that doesn’t just take time; it takes the first, significant portion of my best time.

For myself, I’ve found that I need somewhere between 30 and 70 minutes of focused spiritual time in the morning to maintain my sanity for the day.

I honestly don’t know if that sounds like a lot or a little; to me it’s just what is required.

As I got serious about being professional, I realized that I had these daily needs for the things that the spiritual life offers me—I constantly craved more peace, more humility, more sanity, more love—but that I seldom owned up to my part of the equation. I really just expected that God would swoop in like Superman and magically make my heart more peaceful. The time I offered him was in fits and starts: I’d say prayers in crisis, or a hurried line or two as I sat in traffic, or on my lunch break.

That’s like a professional writer expecting to write a brilliant novel by writing for 4 minutes every morning and then in 30 second spurts throughout the day: it may get done in 40 years, but it may have little consistency and excellence. Furthermore, when you consider how quickly the novel could have been written had the writer just sat down and done the work consistently and faithfully, it seems a bit tragic.

Poet Sylvia Plath used to wake up at 4:30 every morning to write because that’s when she could get her work done. Writer Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4am to get in five or six hours’ worth of work. When I was writing for Maida Vale, I’d wake up at 5:30 to do my songwriting exercises before the kids stirred for school.

An artist’s commitment to his or her work drives her time.

We have to really decide how important this God—and this life He offers us—really is, and then adjust our schedules accordingly. You’ll be amazed at the change you can feel when you can stretch out and REST a bit.

NOW A WORD ABOUT TOOLS…

After we manage to get our time sorted out, the bigger question remains: what do we do with it? This, in itself, is daunting because of the sheer number of options available: devotions, prayers, books, music, etc. The Bible itself is 66 books and a thousand pages of stories, prayers, instructions, letters.

Where do you start?

As I said, without necessarily telling you exactly what I do, I’ll just throw out some examples of what I’ve DONE in my journal towards becoming a professional. These are simple tools that the church has historically used. They are the “hammer and nails” of building a spiritual life—they may not be sexy, but they’ve been proven to work over time.

BIBLE

In so many ways, it all starts with scripture. Our spiritual life is one of RESPONDING to God, and in so many ways God’s first word to us comes through scripture. But where and how to begin with such an overwhelming book? In a way, the worst thing we can do is to sit down with this Book (or rather, these books) and simply start reading. There are a few options.

1. A reading plan. If you’ve never read “the whole story”, I’d say start here. Read the whole thing, preferably in chronological order so that you get a sense of storylines and history. I try to do this every 5 years or so, just to remind myself of how grand God’s work is.

2. One book at a time, one question at a time. This was one of the key pieces of advice I heard from a theologian. Anything else can lead to (a) being overwhelmed or (b) getting crazy answers from the text. So consider what questions you have of God and the Bible (“Who was Jesus?” “What does Paul have to say about living in community?” “How did the first followers of Jesus behave?”). Then pick a book and start reading with those questions in mind. Honestly, sometimes you won’t get an answer, but at least the processs is manageable.

3. Lectio Divina. This “Divine Reading” is a method of approaching scripture that the church developed over time. It’s a way of closely listening to the scriptures that can speak to your heart in a highly personal, intimate way. It involves using small chunks of scripture, reading slowly, and imagining yourself in the story. You can find additional resources on lectio here, or contact me for more info.

PRAYER

For me, prayer is the thing. It is the mechanism for communion and fellowship with the Father. There are tons of different ways to pray, but here are just two resources to get you started:

1. Common Prayer. This is the prayer that liturgical churches pray every day. You can find it online here, and there’s also an app. What I love about Common Prayer is that structures your prayer time with scripture and some prayers that have been written and tested, while leaving time for our own prayers and words during intercession. One thing that can be difficult about using this resource is that it’s meant to be done in community; when I use it I just read everything out loud. Many of us are predisposed to think that “reading prayers” is somehow less spiritual, but I actually find it very useful. I just direct my thoughts and words towards God as I read, and this has turned into a strong backbone for my morning time with God for a long time.

2. The Lord’s Prayer. I’ve mentioned this before, but one way to start structuring your prayer life is to use the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray. The trick is to savor the words and to speak them slowly with meaning, occasionally “unpacking” a word or phrase as you pray. In truth this prayer could make up the whole of your prayer time in the morning, but it’s up to you how thoroughly you use it.
The point of all this is to have some kind of plan, to shrink the change that you’re trying to undergo. You don’t have to use these tools exactly, but as we begin to embrace a professional faith the point is to help ourselves with structure and tools.

Next up: Make It Easy.