Throughout the night, the rain soaked us here on the Peninsula in Washington. My second grader Peter and I shot out to the bus stop this morning equipped with our big umbrella and hunkered down. Usually Peter is a bit reluctant to stand near me. He's already getting tool 'cool' for his dad, but today he stood close as the rain pattered overhead. Sometimes other kids try to squish under our umbrella to keep dry as we wait for the yellow school bus with the flying wipers. Sometimes, I forget the umbrella on rainy days. On those days, it doesn't do me, Peter or anyone else any good. With what kind of umbrella has God equipped you to deal the difficulties the day?
In my search for the meaning of holiness, I find the Apostle Peter's words in his first letter encouraging. He speaks of our Christian existence as a "living hope." These words remind me of a time when I was a youth just out of college starting off on a mountain expedition. My carefree confidence in my body's strength and endurance seemed to have no limit and could take me anywhere. Setting off alone to climb Mount Rainier with no mountain experience, I started down the trail bursting with excitement to climb my first glacial peak. I carried my sleeping bag and gear in a jury-rigged backpack. I had a couple of days worth of food, an ice axe and clunky old crampons. I was blind to failure. As a dreamy youth all I could see was ice, snow, rocks, sky, sun and freedom at the top of the mountain.
Autism is such a strange disease. In the work I do I have the great fortune and joy to work with a number of autistic children a few times a month. In the severely autistic children I meet, there's a clear inward thrust to their personalities. Because of that, I call it the Turtle Disease. Part of me wonders if autism has become more prevalent because our society has become so inward focused. We have become the Me Generation. I just wonder if autism is a societal response to the inward-focused, self-oriented effects of our highly industrialized society. Do our technologies, media and consumer-based society make children with a particular type of mind draw inward rather than outward. Are they all just trying to hide as they peer out into our hyper-stimulated landscape?
Have you ever been in a deep, prolonged sadness? How did you feel when someone said, "Don't worry, you'll feel better soon"? Were those words comforting or did they feel callous and insensitive? Though we know in our mind there probably will be a light at the end of the tunnel, recognizing the distant light in the middle of a crisis can take every ounce of mental strength—and may not even be possible. It's easy for Paul to say to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" But how can we be joyful in the midst of despair?
Tonight we were reading the daily scripture together from Matthew 5 and my seven-year-old son commented, "But, Dad, we can't be perfect. That doesn't make any sense." In the passage from Matthew, Jesus tells us, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Can we really be perfect? This is one of the great mysteries of Christianity. How can we be perfect, yet still be a sinner?
How did you become a passionate disciple of Jesus? Was it the family you were born into? Did God reveal himself to you in "signs and wonders" that transformed your life? Did God circumcise your stoney heart and reveal that soft flesh that allows Jesus in? What turns a halfhearted Christian into a person driven for God? Initially, the apostle Peter was one such lukewarm disciple. It wasn't until he looked deep inside that he caved into to himself and opened up to the light of Christ.
The miracle of the man born blind is a deep mystery to me. Why did Jesus use a mud poultice formed by his saliva to heal the man born blind? Secondly, there seems to be an implication that the man was made blind from birth by God in order display the glory of God. Did God really blind the man from birth in order for Jesus to show his glory? Let's first look to see if this man's blindness was a 'set-up' by God. This issue has by far the most profound theological implications. The answer to this question will change what we know about the character of God.
In the miracle of the Feeding of 5,000 we briefly touched on how being truly compassionate with others is a suffering enterprise. When we help others, we are inevitably drained. If we are not suffering ourselves, we probably aren't doing much good for the other person. In this scripture we find the one recorded account when Jesus actually relays to us what it felt like for him to heal someone.
In childhood we learn about our mortality through the death of a loved one or even a pet. If we live on a farm or in a war zone, we discover death much sooner than others. Death is a reality that has shaped philosophies and religions since the beginning of humanity. Even our theories in science are driven by the observations of death. In our sciences, death and decay have lead to theories of about entropy and chaos that we have applied to the universe itself. As a result, some profess that all the universe's systems will one day halt or at least slow down to a grind of minimal energy. But what if it won't? What if death is only what we 'think' is beyond the horizon because our scope is so limited?
The men and women who approached Jesus for healing met the living manifestation of their hope. He fulfilled their most deepest desire, whether it be for their own health or for the life of a friend or a family member. They knew Jesus was their last and only hope. We need the same hope in Christ today as much as they needed him back then. Hope is the vision that the Almighty Father has prepared for us. When Jesus said that "he can do only what he sees his Father doing," he was seeing hope through a crystal-clear lens. Jesus saw hope in its final, true form. We must rely on Christ's perfect eye, for our sin-blinded eyes sees the Father and his kingdom only through the opaque lens of Christian hope.
The miracle of the temple tax in the fish's mouth competes for the oddest miracle award in the New Testament. Understandably, Jesus, our savior, would miraculously feed the hungry, heal the sick, cast out demons, and calm the storms. But paying our taxes or church tithes? Now, that's a savior many of us would actually want to meet. But don't get too excited, this miracle has very little to do with taxes and has everything to do with sacrifice.
The Feeding of the 5,000 was the only miracle recorded by all of four gospel writers. Of any of the Bible stories, it ranks alongside Noah and Jonah as one of the top 'signs and wonders' that most non-Christians know about from the Bible. The story is rich with meaning and truth. Page after page can be gleaned and written from this one story. But the story is really less about the miraculous multiplication of food and more about the breakingof bread. It's really all about the breaking of Jesus.
Of Aristotle's four causes, I give the formal cause my closest attention, because I think it is most overlooked and most fascinating. For me, the best way to think about this cause is to think of what the artist does when he begins to work. He first thinks of something to create. He studies the picture in his head and then he begins to draw, hammer out, paint or mold his creation. He may have to study and sketch, but eventually, his dream becomes reality. The formal cause is the dream.
Now, be honest, how often do you feel like you're talking to a blank wall when you pray? One reason we feel that way is because we aren't listening. We're just babbling. Another reason is because of our lack of faith. Jesus becomes exasperated with his disciples for their lack of faith. He sighs, "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?" Why did he utter these words before healing a demon-possessed boy? Did he not have compassion for crazy situation?
Most of our minds are password-unprotected. The content that we allow ourselves to dwell on is staggering: the articles and books we read, the music we listen to, the images we look at, the ideas we are convinced by, and even the people with whom we identify. Our hearts are much like a home. Charlatans come knocking at the door. If we succumb, they take what they want and sometimes leave behind a secret entryway into our heart. Then they can come and go at their pleasure. And amazingly, much of the time, we just sit back and let it happen.
How often do you mumble angry thoughts, toss a verbal jab at friends, or even explode at family members? Ironically, it's most often the family member who gets the heat. But what we don't realize is what we say can and will be used against us. Jesus explains in Mark 7 (and Matthew 15) that we are defiled by what comes out of our mouth. We open up pathways to our hearts. Those roads are then exploited more and more by the seedy travelers, whether they be anger, lust or something else worse. As we burn in those paths, they may become well-traveled super highways.
How many of us spend our days trying to live up to another person's expectation for us? We act like all kinds of other people rather than ourselves. We argue, "But I was taught by my Dad to make sure people respect me or I'll be trampled on. And my mom taught me that I must present myself like this. You know I won't be accepted in the workplace if I don't..." The fact is that as Christians we will never be accepted by the world if we follow Christ. We will always be rejected just like he was. The only expectation we need to live up to is Jesus' and he already knows who we are. He knows we are sinners.
Of all the miracles, for me, the miracle of Jesus walking on water is probably the most unbelievable. How is it if I can believe Jesus multiplied bread and healed sicknesses, why can't I believe that Jesus can interrupt the law of gravity?
To begin our journey into the miracles of Jesus, let's look at the difference (if there is one) between a miracle and general natural phenomena. Ever since our species has been able to wonder and ponder the cosmos, we have asked a number of important questions about the nature of things, mostly based on what, how and why. Aristotle had exactly four questions he asked when pondering the phenomena of nature. They have been called Aristotle's Four Causes.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan might be the most well known of Jesus' parables, partly because it is so simple to understand and also because churchgoers learn it in Sunday School at an early age. But how well do we really know it? In order to really understand it we must put on our sinner's ears and our repentant heart and look deeply inside.
How much time do you spend primping your life so you'll fit in with the crowd? We all spend time trying to fit in with our social groups. It's natural for the human species. Nevertheless, Jesus explains when we do this we live in very dangerous territory. We focus on belonging rather than being loved by Christ. Being loved by God should be our highest aspiration. But how can we make ourselves good enough to be loved by God? We can't.
Who do you think Jesus loves most? You may be surprised at the answer.
How often have you prayed and prayed about something and God did not respond with what you considered a just and right response? This is a common experience in the life of all Christians. Why? Doesn't Jesus tell us, "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" How do we reconcile our prayer life with God's words? Does he really give us what we ask for?
Do you isolate yourself from sinners or dive headlong into the dirty and broken world and love the people you encounter? The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and the surrounding context helps us to understand who God befriends and who will stand justified before God.
This Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent, named Gaudete Sunday in the Catholic church, referring to Philippians 4 when Paul tells us to "Rejoice in the Lord Always." Today is the Sunday of Joy. The Parable of the Lost Son, like the Parable of the Lost Sheep, is a parable that should strike joy in the hearts of sinners like us. Does it for you? Or do we react like the older brother who is jealous? We can become cold and bitter as we await our beloved Jesus. Be careful not to, because it is then that our faith begins to die and if our church starts feeling that way, it starts to die as well.
Autumn has settled in and slowed us down here on the Olympic Peninsula. The big-leaf maples are turning yellow. The rains have begun. It's the time of year that we gather our winter supplies and we cozy up together. We glean apples with friends from the unused orchards for cider pressing. We spend a good deal of time canning fruits and storing up the other beautiful vegetables from our garden. I enjoy taking the kids out to the state lands to cut wood for our firewood stack for the following winter. Both my wife and I just love this time of year. We drink a lot of tea and spend the darkening evenings warming up next to our wood stove. What a life, right? But doesn't Jesus call that sort of activity folly in the Parable of the Rich Fool?
It never ceases to amaze me how parables are twisted to fit our desires. The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is at the top of the most-twisted list. What do we expect, it's about the love of money. How often is it preached that we should be shrewd like the shrewd manager because the master commended him? But does Jesus want us to be shrewd? Shrewdness implies a level of trickery. And who is the manager's master anyway?
The Parable of the Sower may be the most important parable, not only because it is here that Jesus teaches us how interpret all the parables, but more so because Jesus lays out a map for building a good and noble heart. Even though Jesus explains this parable literally, we still cannot understand it without the encryption key. And even with the key, which he does clearly give us in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, you still may not understand, because it is the shape of the hole in your heart that is needed for the key to fit.
Once again, with the Parable of the Ten Minas (or the Parable of the Talents from Matthew), we find a parable that has deep layers of ambiguity where sinners will hear one thing and the false-righteous will hear another. This parable has been cited to support usurious lifestyles and to justify the rich's oppression of the poor. It has also been used to explain how some in heaven will shine brighter than others. But what did Jesus really mean by it?
"Keep watch," Jesus says. But keep watch for what? When we are vigilant for Christ should we be watching for just the right guy to rise to power? I doubt it. Just the other day, I was driving down the highway by myself and missed a chance to pick up a hitchhiker. I chose not to stop for him because I was in a school district vehicle. But was Jesus in that man? Could my relationship with Christ have grown deeper by helping him down the road? I was off in my own head, rather than being ready to help someone out in the name of Christ. Vigilance was key, but I missed the opportunity.
During my travels to Latin America when I was in my twenties, I visited many cathedral ruins in parts of Mexico and Guatemala. Living in the United States, we just can't comprehend the profound legacy that the church has brought to the cities south of our borders. Hundreds of cathedrals are found there, many of which are in now ruins, not because of warfare, but because our neighbors live in a highly active seismic region. I enjoyed walking among the walls of stones and living gardens even before I became a true disciple of Christ. A quiet peace fills those spaces like the calm after a storm. They remind me of when Jesus' disciples looked upon the grandeur of the newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. Jesus said to them as the stood in awe, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13)
Who or what occupies your inner most self? Most of us are periodically plagued by terrible thoughts. Where do they come from and what are we to do about them? The Parable of the Unclean Spirit teaches that even if we take extraordinary measures to clean up our heart, our soul, and our life in general, it will do no good if we haven't filled our heart with Jesus. Our cleansed and empty heart will just be taken over by things more terrible than before.
Like all of Jesus' parables, it's tempting to interpret the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree in a way that makes us feel good and points to the other guy. It's easy to see that Jesus was talking about the Jewish establishment of the time. The fig tree long represented the people of God and Jesus was nearing the end of his three year public ministry. However, that wouldn't do the parable justice. We must look at the parable with sinner's ears and a repentant heart.
How often are you tempted to forgive someone only when they ask for forgiveness? In Matthew 18, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven.” Note that the question is not posed like this: “If my brother comes and asks for forgiveness, how many times should I forgive him?” We are called to forgive others even before the person asks. Forgiveness is a continuous process that happens throughout our lives.
The more we learn about Jesus the more we realize how unworthy we really are. We hear about how "faith" saved and healed the people who flocked to Jesus. Our response can be like that of the disciples, "Why don't I have that level of faith." In the Parable of the Unworthy Servant, Jesus explains to his disciples exactly how to increase their faith.
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is the last in a series of parables which indict the chief priests and elders in their efforts of keeping the kingdom of heaven from the people. In Matthew 23 Jesus exclaims, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." This series of parables directly accuses the leaders of spiritual fraud.
Most of us at one time or another have asked, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" But I'm not so sure that's a valid question. It's like asking, "What's nine divided by zero?" Rather, I feel we should be asking, "Why do bad things happen in God's good world?"
When people gathered around Jesus what did his listeners expect to hear? Just his presence must have been an extraordinary event to witness, yet fully ordinary at the same time. Who did the people expect to see? A prophet? God himself? For me, when I heard Jesus speak the Sermon on the Mount in my heart, it changed my life. It put the nail in my coffin. The old me died. I realized that God himself was speaking to me. I now realize that God was speaking to all of humanity.
What reward will you receive in the Kingdom of heaven? I've been present at various Bible studies (Protestant and Catholic) where people have discussed the merits that we receive when we get to heaven. The opposite has been also true, people have discussed the demerits—the low rungs of the heavenly ladder. I'm always floored by the conversations. Each time I'm stricken by the arrogance. I always feel like waving my hand, so I can say, "Is this about your crown or about Jesus?"
The gospel of John contains very few of the well-known parables of Jesus. But John did record a number of brief parable-like allegories. What could be called the Parable of Walking in Daylight is an extension of a repeated theme from John's gospel which beckons us to the "light" of Christ.
Each autumn we usually make a bucket of sauerkraut for the winter. To prepare it, my wife buys an enormous cabbage from our local market. I shred the cabbage, put it in a sterilized bucket with salt and spices, and beat it with a 2x4. After I put a weight on top, I seal it up with a one-way air valve, so oxygen can't spoil the lactose fermentation process.
Salt-curing was the main way of food preservation for ages. When Jesus talked about salt to his listeners. They knew it was all about preservation. They knew they were learning how to be preserved and preserve others for the kingdom of heaven.
We sinners must drink deeply of the new wine that Jesus offers us. But you'll find the Pharisees of today still trying to keep the new wine from the lips of Jesus' disciples. In the Gospel of Luke, the Pharisees once again try to trap him when they ask why his disciples drink and eat with Jesus rather than fasting like John's disciples. Jesus responds to the Pharisees saying, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." The Pharisees are implying that association with sinners is desecrating. But the opposite is true. When Jesus associates himself with sinners he consecrates them.
Jesus has always and will always make a ruckus in the world. While many misunderstand him and many people gawk at him, there will always be those who truly love him and that brings him great joy. In the series of parables from Matthew 13, there were all sorts of people were gathering in great numbers to listen to him, so many that he had to get into a boat and teach just offshore. I imagine it as a calm day with glassy seas, with his devoted disciples straining their ears, while rubberneckers, religious leaders and the bored churned up ill sentiment about him.
Before Jesus went to the cross, his disciples rarely understood who he really was or what he was doing. "Do you still not understand?" Jesus would ask them. We are really no different today than we were then. We go about living in the world like we're waiting for something to happen to us. Rather than engaging in the kingdom of heaven now.
How much does it cost to be a disciple of Christ? We learn the answer in the mini-parables of the Tower Builder and the King's War Plan: Entering the kingdom of heaven is free, yet it requires everything of us. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the price for all of our sins. Yes, this is Christianity 101. Christ's work on the cross was not something we could ever do. He and only he could redeem us. However, we learn from these parables, as elsewhere, that we must also actively participate in the healing of the world. In fact, our relationship with Jesus enables us to directly assist in the consecration (making sacred) of the world.
For various reasons I am being increasingly convinced that really and truly the only real direction for the Church to take is to become poor. When I say poor, I don't mean only poor in spirit, I also mean poor financially and poor materially. In doing so, a number of interesting things will happen to us and to our churches.
In a recent discussion with some fellow Christians the question came up, “What do the writers of the books of the Bible mean when they refer to the flesh?” Usually we think of the flesh to mean our sensual nature, our fleshy desires. However, there was some agreement among us that the flesh is at times intended to describe our covering like a cloak. In this definition, the flesh could refer who we think we are outwardly or the face we intentionally project to others. One person went as far as to conjecture that the Mosaic Law itself is a form of the flesh, because the Law covers over our sin.