The Signature of Jesus

 

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In November, 1999 a colleague gave me a copy of a book called The Signature of Jesus by Brennan Manning.

I really didn’t like it.

Maybe it was because I was consumed with a rebellious intellectual quest to remake the North American church.

Maybe it was because I just wasn’t spiritually mature or ready to receive it.

At any rate, I read it, and underlined a few different things, and then set it aside: it really hadn’t “taught” me anything.

Then, sometime later, I decided to pick the book up again and read through it. For some reason—who knows why—this time I was ready.

And it rocked my world like nothing I’d ever read.

Manning wasn’t “cute” or overly-intellectual by any measuring stick: he was poetic, but in a forceful and time-tested way. He was obviously brilliant, but his theology found its way out through references to plays and poems and ancient monks and hermits that I had never heard of before.

The man could write, and God was speaking (very loudly and clearly) to me write through his words.

He wrote things like this, “Viewed as a theological relic, the cross does not disturb our comfortable religiosity. But when the crucified risen Christ, instead of remaining an icon, comes to life and delivers us over to the fire he came to light, he creates more havoc than all the heretics, secular humanists, and self-serving preachers put together.”

I needed to hear that. Brennan challenged me (over and over again; he wrote multiple books, and all of them contained similar marks of style and hard-hitting but poetic, “practical” theology) to not keep my spirituality abstractly in my head but to bring it out where my mouth, hands, and feet made use of it.

It was what I needed, and I’ve read the book now probably a dozen times. It contains the reminders I need to live out my faith.

In 2008, I was playing guitar at a conference that Manning was to speak at. Now, I’ve shared the stage with dozens of superstar speakers: Bill Hybels, Beth Moore, John Ortberg, Rob Bell and Louie Giglio, to mention a few. Most of them have been pleasant men and women, but none of them have ever captivated me or put me in any sort of nervous awe.

But this was Brennan.

This was the man who formed me in a way that few—if any—author or speaker ever had.

I was giddy.

We were rehearsing the music for the session when an elderly man in jeans that were patched with 30 different colors and textures of cloths walked up on the stage to test his microphone. I stopped in my tracks, and knew instantly who it was. I had a job to do, so I couldn’t talk to him then but my heart lept when I saw this man who had mentored me—maybe even fathered me in a way—for so many years.

I had brought my copy of the book that had shaped me for so many years, and as he spoke (plainly and profoundly) I jotted just a couple notes inside the front cover: “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” (from Paul Tillich)

After the session, he was doing a book signing, and I stood in line with my bent copy. When I approached him, I stammered out that his writing had changed my life and in a way even saved it. He glanced at me, and said, “Great.”

Then he signed it with a shaky autograph, and I was on my way.

It was one of the most gloriously anticlimactic moments of my life.

It’s actually difficult to communicate why this was so perfect.photo 2

He was slightly (and perfectly) grumpy, and not slick in any sense of the imagination. There were no false smiles, no fake sense that I mattered to him. He didn’t write the books or speak or do book signings because somehow his ego needed to be stroked. He did what had to be done, and he delivered the books, the message, the signing with an understated and subtle presence that refused to bow to a false self, to the idol of fame.

It would have been so easy for him to be false, to give me a slick smile and handshake.

But instead he just said, “That’s great,” and signed his name.

It’s one of my most prized possessions.

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My Thoughts About IS and the Crisis in the Middle East

I thought I’d offer some ideas and thoughts regarding the unfolding human rights catastrophe in the Middle East. They are offered humbly: I am no expert on either the region or on Islam. I have, however, done a fair bit of reading over the years, and I have been “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” for even longer. So I’m writing as a pastor, as a history buff, as an American, and as a follower of Jesus Christ (though not necessarily in that order).

Let’s begin with the end:

  1. We are one body; when one part of the body suffers we are called to join with them in suffering and prayer.
  2. I believe that God is opposed to innocent suffering in any form. Violence done in the name of the religion is the worst form of injustice, whether it’s done in Germany in the 30s and 40s, Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, Belfast in the 70s and 80s, the former Yugoslavia in the 80s and 90s, or Syria and Iraq in the 2013-14. Crying out to God for an end to the violence and for justice to be done is appropriate and necessary for human beings.

Now for the messy part.

 Caution 1: Be Careful of Using the “Militant” Psalms as Examples of Prayer

The psalms are the model of prayer for God’s people. They run the full gamut of human emotion: from joy to despair from thanksgiving to lament. Surprisingly there are more than a few very militant, angry psalms that cry out for God’s vengeance, and for revenge. Psalm 10, for instance, asks God to “break the arms of those who are wicked and evil (v15 CEB); Psalm 54 asks, “Let death devastate my enemies; let them go the grave alive because evil lives with them—even inside them!”

There are other examples; you get the point.

The tension, however, is removing prayers like this from their context, namely that of a relatively small nation (Israel) which is often praying these prayers amidst defeat, oppression, and eventual exile at the hands of larger empires like Babylon and Assyria (later to be Rome). On the other hand, prayers for vengeance take on a markedly different tone when they are uttered from the lips of people of a superpower (In fact, it can be argued that the stronger Israel became, politically and militarily in the Old Testament, the more their troubles multiplied, culminating in exile). The question that has been going through my head lately is Where do predator drones come into these prayers?

I’m not saying we cannot pray them (well, I almost am), I’m simply saying that you cannot transfer the words of Psalm 137 (“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks…”; btw, where does this fit into the idea that the Bible is “God’s love letter to you?”) into 21st century United States of America.

 

 Caution 2: Be Careful of Making This an Issue of “Christianity versus Islam”

Again, I’m no expert here, but I’ve read enough lately to understand that many (most?) mainstream Muslim clerics are condemning IS as heretical and “not Muslim.” Furthermore, at least a few clerics have outright condemned the “caliphate” that IS wants to establish similarly as heretical (in fact, the whole idea of a Muslim “caliphate” is more complicated than it might seem; it’s not a given that all Muslims want a physical caliphate, at least as its been portrayed by IS and in the press). In my opinion, groups like IS (or the Nazis, or the Taliban, or the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda) are really more about politics, and have just constructed a religious extremist view to cloak very worldly (even evil?) goals. If leading Muslim clerics can condemn them as heretics, I’m willing to follow their lead.

So How Do We Pray?

  1. Start with repentance. Calling out to God should begin with an examination of our own heart, and, like it or not, the West (USA included) has a troubled track record in the Middle East of supporting religious extremists in order to bring out a desired political end. We did it with the Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s, and we see where that led us. As this article points out, Great Britain was (directly or indirectly) responsible for the formation of Saudi Arabia, which was in turn established on the same brand of Islam that gave rise to IS. In fact, IS is merely an effort to return the Middle East to the “pure” form of Wahhabi Islam that the the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded on. So it’s not inappropriate for us to acknowledge that we have had a had in seeking short term political and gain financial (hello oil!) for the sake of long-term perspective on religious extremism.
  2. Pray for Muslim spiritual leadership to unite people against the violence and heresy of groups like IS or the Taliban. Repression, violence, torture and murder are no more part of Islam than they are of Christianity (there are some nasty parts of the Bible that could be used in some crazy ways if someone wanted; trust me).
  3. Pray for the long-term development and sustenance of the region. The Middle East has a recent history of turmoil and upheaval. Before that (again, hello oil!) however, the region was a leader in tolerance, scientific and literary development. To put it bluntly, young men with no future except poverty and political disenfranchisement can be motivated to do any manner of things. A CNN report recently said that ISIS recruitment relies on “cars, guns, cell phones, and cash money.”
  4. Pray for justice. Now, in this case praying for justice is going to necessarily involve physical, violent confrontation. In all honesty pray for this, for God’s Kingdom to come, for His will to be done, and for those who are killing and torturing to be brought to justice. However, again, I must acknowledge the fact that I pray as a member of a super-power, a nation who can pilot an unmanned drone into a building from 7,000 miles away. We are not Israel. We are not an oppressed minority.
  5. Pray with an eye towards the cross. This throws a wrench into everything. We profess to follow a man who—as he was dying on the cross in the face of his torturers and murderers—said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” In their own minds, the Romans—just like ISIS and any number of people perpetrate violence and murder in the name of religion (Islam or Christianity)—knew exactly what they are doing, but Jesus knows better. As we pray, we need to pray, somehow and some way, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” 
  6. Know that it’s not about praying “correctly”, it’s about praying. The Spirit, in fact, does intercede for us when we don’t know what to pray. There are just a few thoughts to get us started, and to maybe free us from some of the spiritual paralysis that is easy to fall into in situations like this.

This is simply not easy. We recoil at the images and the stories, but we also have to look inside our own hearts and consider the Story we live in: a world that is moving towards redemption at the hands of a King who suffered and died and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

I’ll close with a prayer from theologian Walter Brueggemann; maybe his words can be yours (and mine) today:

The Threat upon Us

Summertime…when the living is easy.

You give us summer and winter,
cold and heat,
seedtime and harvest,
but summer is special—
grills and patios and pool
and baseball.

We take our ease,
even amid terrorism.
The threat is mostly remote,
and the war in Iraq (or Afghanistan or Sudan or . . . )
scarcely calls us in our privilege to attention.

And then, right in the middle of our easy living,
the bombs burst on the street corner,
on the bus,
on the train.
the smoke, the fire, the shrieking,
the dash of emergency vehicles,
all brought very near, all brought right up
against our easy summer living.

We experience a sinking sense
that the world is not safe,
that our life is not free of threat,
and we wonder where and when next
will come assault on our well-arranged lives.

We turn to you, partly out of need,
partly out of habit, partly out of trust.
We know you to be Creator, who maintains order,
Redeemer, who loves us more than we love ourselves.

But we are so self-sufficient,
we do not easily turn from our ways to yours
And so amid our trust in you
comes our fated self-confidence,
our urge to manage,
our wish for self-sufficiency.

So we, unsettled in deep ways,
want to believe more than we do.
But even now we believe enough to know that your
good way does not depend on our trust.
So be our God—yet again—
this time, and
we will be honest in our double-mindedness
as we turn to you in our fear.

 

peace

+e

 

 

 

Know Your Core

At Willow Creek’s 2011 Global Leadership Summit (hollah), Bill Hybel’s challenged us to be aware of how we would summarize the central message of Christianity:

“What five words would you use to describe the gospel?”

He had everyone draw a circle, and then write the five central messages inside the circle. Everything inside that circle should be driving your mission; those words should be connected vitally with your mission, either as an organization or an individual. 

My core

Question 1: What are your five words?

Question 2: Are you living them out?

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Thoughts on THE Prayer Pt 2 :: “In the heavens…”

Our Father, who lives in the heavens,
May Your name be kept holy.
May Your Kingdom come,
May Your will be done,
On earth just like it’s done in Your presence.

Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Don’t bring us to the times of trial,
But deliver us from the evil one.
Amen.

Where does God live, and why does it matter?

This phrase introduces two ideas about God that exist in constant tension: God’s transcendence and God’s immanence. 

God’s transcendence is the “clouds-in-the-sky” part of God: the I-created-the-whole-world aspect of God’s character. This incredible power was important to God’s people; it established YHWH’s credentials as the ultimate power in the world. This is the power that is present at, over, and above creation; in fact, you could say that the point of Genesis 1 and 2 is not to show that God can count to seven or invent the platypus. It’s to show that God is separate from and has power over the creation.

Jesus is not using this phrase so that his prayers have the correct “address” to get to God. He uses the phrase as a form of worship, as a way of reminding himself of God’s infinite power. No matter what life on earth looks like, Jesus prays to the God who created the whole operation, and is more than capable of intervening at any point.

Simultaneously, the phrase “in the heavens” indicates another—and almost more profound—mode of God’s existence. Simply put, “the heavens” doesn’t just indicate a specific address beyond the clouds where God lives (with an awesome beard).

The heavens can mean anywhere.

Even right next to you…

even inside you.

To pray to “our Father in the heavens” is not merely to call on God’s infinite creative power, it’s to call on his intimate presence. 

It means that He is not standing (sitting?) far off watching us succeed or fail, watching us walk or stumble or crawl or fall. He is capable of being everywhere: in our vehicles, in our classrooms, in our dining room, in our cube farm.

Because of His infinite (transcendent) power, He has can be absolutely (immanently) anywhere.

A couple of questions:

  • Does your prayer life involve worship? What would it mean to turn your thoughts to God’s infinite power during prayer, to dwell on the fact that He is in control of everything? How powerful (or weak) is the God of your prayers?
  • Does your prayer life address the fact that God is very, very near? That He has not left us to languish, but is dynamically and constantly present with us? What would it mean to understand the infinite as intimately present with you? How close is the God of your prayers?

Father God you are infinitely present in the heavens; in control of all. You were present before creation, and at creation, and will exist forever. You are all powerful, and nothing is beyond your doing. I thank You that You in control of all the situations that stress me out, or that cause me distress, and I ask You to sustain me through them. At the same time, Lord, I know that You are very gently present with me, even as I sit in this kitchen typing. Not only are You ‘Lord Most High,’ You are also ‘God With Us.’ You are here as I walk through my day, and are always inviting me into a deeper, fuller life of submission and obedience. I pray that I might exist more completely in Your presence, in order to see Your creative power at work in my life. Amen.

“Movement of Jah People” … Exodus Week 1

So my bible study/growth group is going through the book of Exodus for the next… who knows? As long as it takes, I guess. It occurred to me that maybe I could post some thoughts here that I/we pull out of the text for any who miss the group meetings or for any who might be interested in what we’re learning…

General Thoughts

“Exodus” isn’t really “Exodus”, first of all. We derived that name from the Septuagint, the Greek version of Hebrew Scriptures. In Hebrew the book is called “Names”, from the first line of the book (roughly, “… and these are the names.”). It’s the second book of the Pentateuch, the books of Moses, and is central to Israel’s (and, I argue our) understanding of itself and YHWH. I once heard a scholar argue that you can understand the first five books of the bible as God’s People’s Birth, Childhood, Adolescence, and eventual Maturity. If that’s the case, then Exodus is the definite childhood, where their identity and God’s identity is cemented forever, in the same way that our own childhood can cement our self-perception as well as the understanding of who our parents are.

Chapter 1

The book opens up with Israel in Egypt, where Joseph (one of the Twelve sons of Jacob) had brought them to escape famine. In Genesis, God’s people is a family of creative and interesting characters: Abraham, the sly deal-maker; Jacob/Israel, who steals his brother’s birthright and “wears the stretchy pants” with God; Joseph, the upstanding (but sometimes arrogant with his brothers) dream-interpreter.

Before we go seven verses into Exodus, however, we enter a new territory. We are told that Jacob’s family has now “had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land.” Gone are the individual names of cousins, aunts and uncles. Now they have “multiplied” and “filled the land.” In a few short verses we learn that God has plans to turn this family from Genesis into something much more: a people. God is never after “just” individuals; He is always seeking a people (though still a family) to carry out His mission in the world. Eventually these seeds will bloom into the church that Paul talks so beautifully about in Ephesians 1 and 2. But Exodus is the birth—the sowing—of this seed.

Unfortunately, the population explosion of God’s people bring them into conflict with the political and military power of Egypt. In the face of this life bursting forth, Egypt becomes almost irrationally fearful and threatened. “Look,” Pharaoh says, “the people of Israel (see they’re now a people, ed) now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

It’s important to understand who Egypt is. Egypt is an empire. They are the big dogs. They rule with sociopolitical and military might. They have the power to sustain life, or to crush it.

Or so they think.

As they begin to feel threatened (which brings up a whole other host of questions, primarily, “Why does this empire feel threatened by a group of powerless slaves?“), Pharaoh (and thus Egypt) begin to take steps to crush Israel. But they can’t. The coming confrontation between YHWH and Egypt—between God’s people and empire—is the story of God’s undeniable, life-affirming, liberating “gospel” (yes, “good news” existed even back then!) opposing the earthly, worldly-but-life-negating empire of the Egyptians.

What we will see in Exodus is the character of God established, and it will remain consistent from Exodus to Isaiah, to Mark’s gospel story, to Paul’s re-imagining of Israel’s story in Romans, to Revelation.

  • With God, life cannot be denied. It bursts forth despite repeated attempts to crush it.
  • God is inclined to the powerless. Israel has no power compared to Egypt; yet God favors the broken and crushed.
  • Passing through the water—even when it symbolizes death—signifies salvation.
  • Good things can happen in the desert.
Get ready. This is going to be epic (even without Charlton Heston).

Checking in at the Wall, Pt 1

My church is in the middle of a series on the book of Nehemiah. Throughout the series, we are asking folks, “What happens when God grabs hold of a man or woman, and they choose to respond in obedience?” Nehemiah’s story is a great portrait of how someone responds and navigates life when their heart is broken for something that is breaking God’s heart.

To be blunt, I am so excited to see what God will do during this preaching series. I think whenever God’s children open themselves open to what God might want to do through them and in them in the world, amazing things can happen; entire worlds can change; history can get made. It’s my prayer that someone may open the door of their heart just a crack to see a new reality: that God wants them to be a part of changing their world in some way, big or small.

In other words, I pray that God might guide someone to their own wall. 

When someone finds “their wall”, things change in their life. As we’ll see in the book of Nehemiah, struggles and challenges are put into perspective when we have chosen to let God guide our steps. We attack life with a new energy, with new focus and purpose.

In short, we know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

I interact with so many amazing people, week-to-week, who are hungry to find “their wall.” Some of us wait years (or longer) to find it; some of us find it when we are quite young. Some of us know intuitively what the wall in our life will look like; others of us have to go through a longer period of discernment and/or questioning.

A helpful process to go through when searching for that “thing” in your life is the search for “vocation.” “Vocation”, or calling, can lead us clearly to the walls in our life, to the thing that will motivate, guide, and put our time and resources into proper alignment.

Parker Palmer writes extensively about vocation; in Letting Your Life Speak, he says that vocation—your “wall”—occurs at the place where your deepest joy meets the world’s great need. This is a clue for the place where you can find your wall.

So what about you? Can you take 30 minutes this week and journal through those two questions?

  • What is my deepest joy? What are those things in my life that I would do, regardless of a paycheck?
  • What is a great need of the world? What are broken things that I see that just seem so glaringly obvious?
  • What does the intersection of those two things look like? Does it look like a new work of art? An entrepreneurial venture? A relocation? Getting involved in a new ministry? Changing jobs?

Journal through those questions (it may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to get clarity on, but the journey is nevertheless helpful). As you find clarity, share with friends and ask their perspective on your findings.

Peace.

Wrong Question

Clarity.

I’ve been seeking it, praying for it, for months now. Years.

What’s next? Where should I be pouring my heart, my soul?

What am I waiting for? 

Sometimes “clarity” comes in hints, like the first hints of springtime warmth through March clouds, but oftentimes it evaporates just as quickly (if you live in Chicago in particular, you know how fast “springtime warmth” disappears in March). At any rate, I’ve hungered for it so much. I want my next steps to be clear, to be paving-stone solid in front of me.

All of that disappeared in the rumpled-up paper of a Brennan Manning book (water-logged by a friend, but it was a sacrifice that was well worth it)…

“Craving clarity,” he writes, “we attempt to eliminate the risk of trusting God.”

Ouch.

At what point does “clarity” begin to war against “faith”? At what point does our desire for certainty undermine our need for trust and obedience?

I think I need to revise my prayers…