Tuesday, July 31, 2018

In the image

I've written using this image before - it's the Rembrandt painting that inspired Henri Nouwen to write the book of the same name, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Take a look at the father and the elder son (the character to the far right). Don't you see their similarity? The red cloaks, the beards, the light on their faces. There is no doubt that they are father and son.

And yet, there are differences, too.  Nouwen points out the open nature of the father's cloak compared the to closed nature of the son. The body language of each - the father reaching toward the younger son; the elder son standing apart.  

If we think of the father as representative of God, and the elder son as any of us, then what does this say about us? We are sons (and daughters) of the father, so much so that we are made in God's image. We have been equipped to answer God's call in the world, and to be Christ to those who see us.  And yet we stand apart. We stand closed off in resentment.

What does this say about us? What does this speak to us about what changes we need to make in ourselves? What does this say to us about the changes grace needs to work in our lives?

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Getting There

Sitting in a movie theater the other day, I saw an interview with Pooh Bear, from the movie Christopher Robin.  Yes, an interview with Pooh Bear.  He said, "I always get to where I’m going by walking away from where I’ve been."  It reminded me of a Bear Bryant quote - those phrases that are so obvious that they are of course true, and seem silly to say?  Know what I mean? 

As I thought about it more, I thought the idea that in order to get where we are going, we have to walk away from where we have been is profound wisdom that we often forget.  Especially in the Church.  Where do we want to go? We want to reach more and new people.  We want to be relevant. We want to do the will of God.  

Are we doing that now? Maybe some, but not enough.

How do we get to where we are called to go? Walk away from where we are.


We don't want to do that. We don't want to let go of what we have been doing. We don't want to walk away from where we are.  And sometimes we just won't.  So we don't get anywhere.

And for believers in a God who is a God of change, a God of transformation, we are incredibly stuck where we are, afraid of change.  

So we don't get where we are going.


Thursday, July 26, 2018

Matthew 13: Conclusions

This is the fourth in a series of posts to examine three parables from Matthew 13. Much of the material in these posts is based on the International Bible Series lesson I used to teach Sunday school at Annual Conference.

So, if we take these three parables together as glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like, we might get a better picture:
  •  God’s kingdom is now and in the future. In the now, there are challenges, but we can trust it all to work out in God’s time.
  •  We don’t always know how God works, but we don’t have to understand it in order to believe it – to expect miracles – to point them out to others, and to have enough faith to have and bring hope.
  •  We can be the yeast that changes the world

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Matthew 13: Parable of the Yeast

This is the third in a series of posts to examine three parables from Matthew 13. Much of the material in these posts is based on the International Bible Series lesson I used to teach Sunday school at Annual Conference.

Matthew 13:33
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

What does this parable say to you?

Have you ever baked bread? A few years ago, I taught myself how to bake bread with yeast. If you’ve never done that, it’s kind of an amazing process. You start out with lots of flour – and lots of other ingredients – and this little packet of grainy powder. Powder that looks like it would do nothing for the recipe. And yet, it’s the power behind the whole bread baking process. Without it, I would have an ugly pita. With it – beautiful, gorgeous bread.

It’s then smallest ingredient in the recipe. But it’s life. Alive. And it brings life.

I remember a song we sang when I was in youth group – It only takes a spark to get a fire going – that’s how it is with God’s love.

I teach stewardship classes sometimes. One of the curriculum I use talks about how a movement can start. One person, alone, might not be able to do it. But if he can attract one other, then together – just the two of them – can start something new. It’s like that in church, isn’t it. It doesn’t take a whole lot of people to make a change – With God and with a faithful few, we can change the world.

How can you be the yeast? What friend can you recruit to help you start a movement of hope?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Matthew 13: Parable of the Mustard Seed

This is the second in a series of posts to examine three parables from Matthew 13. Much of the material in these posts is based on the International Bible Series lesson I used to teach Sunday school at Annual Conference.

Matthew 13: 31-32
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Question: What does this parable say to you?

Think about a tiny tiny seed that grows into a 20 foot plant. It is a parable about dynamic growth. Do we understand how that happens? Could this be a call to us to recognize that God is at work in ways we cannot understand? Does it speak to us about letting go of control in God’s kingdom?

God begins the kingdom of heaven in what seems like a tiny manner, but it ends with something extraordinary.

Question: Have you seen something in your life or in the life of your church that began with something small and grew into something unexpected, extraordinary, God-at-work?

Another way to look at this parable is stated in the student book:
...it may appear that the presence of God's kingdom is almost microscopic, and the world's injustice and cruelty may appear to overwhelm, it only takes a small start for God's kingdom to begin to grow and to produce wildly more than expected. It's not the size, it is the creation and the will of God that brings such things into being....Do we ...look carefully at what is before us that is of God? 

How will you bring hope to your congregations. Sometimes this is difficult, but in the light of this parable, how do you encourage hope and faith in a world where it is hard to do that?

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Matthew 13: Wheat and Weeds

This is the first in a series of posts to examine three parables from Matthews 13. Much of the material in these posts is based on the International Bible Series lesson I used to teach Sunday school at Annual Conference.

Matthew 13: 24-30
24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Wheat and Weeds – This is sometimes referred to as the parable of the wheat and tares. A tare is a destructive weed that looks similar to wheat in its early development. Those listening at the time would have understood that they would had trouble discerning the weeds from the wheat because of that.

What are your thoughts about this parable?

It is often preached or taught in a way that leads to three conclusions:
  • The preacher and hearer self-identify with the wheat.
  • It provides the faithful with permission to judge not only the identity and source of the weeds, but also their ultimate and certain doom.
  • It provides counsel to be patient with the self-satisfied certainty that we will be saved and THEY will be burned.
What are your thoughts about that interpretation?

The author of the teacher’s book suggests that we might use the parable as a comparison to church (not as it was originally written, but in a way that we might apply it today). There are those in the church who follow Micah’s instructions – to justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. And there are those who deliberately harm others – gossip, backbiting, competition, anger or selfish and hurtful behavior. And there are those who are apathetic, and do nothing. And yet we live together.

  • Are we always the wheat or always the weed? If this is seen as an illustration of a church, then can people change?
  • Can we always tell the difference? Are we ever wrong?
  • God’s time is the best time – God will sort it out in the end. We believe this to be the case, then what might that mean? Is there an opportunity for God to make changes among us? How does that happen? What is our role?
  • If this is calling for patient endurance, then how do we believers wait with patient endurance? What does that look like? What are some examples of endurance and tolerance in the church and in the wider world? (calls for patience with God’s people – how hard is that?)
One of the commentaries I read said this is not a parable about the origin of evil, but is instead one of ethics. We can look at this parable as a reflection of the world as it is. There is good and there is that which seeks to stop what is good. In other words, pure intentions always have to contend with unpure. So the ethical question is what do we do in the face of evil?

Questions: Do we do nothing?  If doing nothing is not the answer, then:
  • How do we discern what to do? How can we take action – be the light of Christ in the world – while mercifully withholding judgment?
  • Since we cannot always predict the consequences of our actions, how do we avoid unintended consequences?
For example, when the flooding happened in 2016, there were people who wanted to send clothes to the relief effort. These people had lost everything, and surely they needed my extra clothes. But when you spoke to relief workers, clothes were the last things that were needed. They were a burden - and that was certainly an unintended consequence of good work.

One of the ways we can demonstrate the love of Christ is by listening. Listen to those who are in mission work, and then supply what they ask for. Listen to those we are serving, and then serve in the way they need.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Perspectives: Flower and Wall

Walking into a church the other day, I was struck by this flower, growing over the wall.  The wall is there to hold back the dirt so that the ramp can make its gentle rise to the door, but the flower ignores the wall. 

We talk alot in our society lately about walls. What do we, as Christians, think about walls?

I don't think Christ came to build them.  He came to tear them down, and we should be grateful for that. And we should do the same, don't you think?


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Finding Life

In Sunday school last week, we talked about the parable of Lazarus - not the story of the brother who Jesus brought back to life, but the other Lazarus story.  This is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.

Have you ever noticed that when the rich man has died, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him to bring him water, or to return and warn his brothers, that he still sees Lazarus as a servant - he's still asking Lazarus to serve him.  Nothing has really changed in the rich man's attitude, even after death.

The rich man lived his life in a way that didn't lead to life - it didn't lead to life, even when he was alive.  

How do we learn from that? How do we live a life that is alive, and not dead? How do we open ourselves up to eternal life NOW - if the kingdom is here and now, then so is life.  

Perhaps it begins by seeing the mistake that the rich man made.  He did see - in life or in death - Lazarus as a person.  Perhaps it begins by seeing the person in front of us as a person - not as a non-person.  And then bringing life to that person in front of us through service.  Life to that person, and life to ourselves.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Grace Greater

Think about the prodigal son.  Think about his conversation with himself as he contemplates returning home.  This is from Matthew 15, verses 17-19:

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and  to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him,  “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son;  treat me like one of your hired hands.”

Nouwen, in his book, writes that the son comes back, not claiming the dignity of the son, but hoping to be accepted as a servant.  As we look at the story, knowing how the son left, then we might say that he doesn't even deserve that much consideration. And yet the son dares to hope that he might receive at least the role of a servant in his father's home.

The son plans his return by practicing his speech. He has no expectation of grace. And we do that.  Nouwen writes:

"...I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think about his love as conditional and about home as a place I am not yet fully sure of.  While walking home, I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly welcome when I get there.  

We never (or rarely) accept that grace is always -- always -- greater.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

That Remains

I'm reading The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen was very influenced by Rembrandt's painting of the same name.

If you look closely at the painting, you will see that the son, while in rags and broken shoes, is still wearing a short sword.  Nouwen wrote that this is "... the badge of his nobility. Even in the midst of his debasement, he had clung to the truth that he still was the son of his father....It was this remembered and valued son-ship that finally persuaded him to turn back."

When I think of his return, I remember the son's thoughts of the father's hired hands, and how if he returned, he would at least have food to eat as they do. I never considered that the son returned because he remembered being his father's son.  In fact, I would have thought he would find that hard to claim because of the way he had left - his actions proclaiming that to him, his father was dead.

Isn't it reassuring to us that grace means that even when we are lost, we are still claimed by God, and we can rely on that to bring us home again.  Even when all else is gone, that remains.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sanctifying Grace: Suspend Belief

This is the fourth post in a series about finding sanctifying grace in the Bible instead of using it for our own purposes.  Some of the content of these posts is from the International Bible Series based on a lesson I taught at our Annual Conference this year.

This is a quote from Thomas Steagald:

Reading scripture, especially familiar scripture, calls us to “suspend belief,” set aside presumed clear and simple meaning, at least until the text should if it does, teach us that particular meaning again. Of course, it may not.”

We are so familiar with the passages of scripture that before we even start studying, we think we know what the passage is about. This quote calls us to suspend that belief – to open our hearts and minds to hear the scripture anew, and to allow God to lead us to whatever understanding we are called to hear.

We talked about parables in yesterday's post; they were told by Jesus in order to move the hearer into active thought – to question what they thought they knew. Parables can do the same for us if we allow them to, and can help us in the never ending job of discernment. Going back to William Barclay – he says that parables can reveal truth to those who want to see it, and it conceals truth from those who do not wish to see it.

I think that sometimes we are so entrenched in what we have been taught, in what we already think, that we are afraid to listen to God through the passage anew, because, heaven forbid, God might be saying something to us to challenge what we know, or to move us to a new, better, deeper understanding. But do we want that? If we don't, then I think we will never hear God in scripture - we will only hear ourselves.

In other words, a parable, or Bible study, can be means of grace – sanctifying grace – a way for God to transform us, and help us to grow – if we allow them to be.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sanctifying Grace: Form

This is the third post in a series about finding sanctifying grace in the Bible instead of using it for our own purposes.  Some of the content of these posts is from the International Bible Series based on a lesson I taught at our Annual Conference this year.
Literary form is important. For example, if I read to you the poem by Maya Angelo called “I know why the caged bird sings” then, knowing it is poem, and that a poem has meaning beyond the words themselves, you would know its not really about the bird – it’s about the truth that the poem tells us. Bible study is the same. Bible text come to us in a literary form. There are lots of forms – sermon, genealogy, proverb, allegory, prayer, song. Knowing the literary form, we know know more about what the author was telling us.

If you were in English class, and the teacher asked you to write a paper based on an assigned reading, wouldn't knowing the literary form be important to your examination of the assignment? Would you write the same paper on Angelo's poem if you thought it was a historical document? We need to give the Bible the same respect we would provide to an English assignment.

To dig that concept down deeper, I'm going to focus on the literary form known as a parable. Parable literally means to “throw beside” or “to compare.” Jesus wasn’t the only person in the bible who told parables. Think back to Nathan, the prophet, who went to David and told him the story of a lamb – favorite pet of a farmer. The lamb grew up with the family – it was like another family member. A rich man comes and seizes the precious lamb. David is outraged until Nathan explains that he (David) is that rich man in his dealing with Bathsheba and her husband. A parable – a story that in and of itself may be not true – but it leads to truth. There is truth in it, and that is what is important.

CH Dodd, a new testament scholar, said this about parables: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” I love that – “to tease our minds into active thought.”

William Barclay says that a parable begins with the everyday – with what people understand, and leads them to things they do not understand and to open their eyes to that which they did not see before.

Extrapolating from that example, we don't read a parable to learn what the farmer did. We read the parable to learn the message Jesus was telling those who were listening - the Truth. And then we ask God how that Truth can be applied in our own context and our own world.  

Now I'm going to walk on shakier ground, but if you've come this far, maybe you'll come a little farther with me. Think about the first chapters of Genesis. What is this literary form? Is it history? Or is it something else? If it is history, then the seven days are seven days, and there is no evolution, and the world is less that 5000 years old. But if these chapters are something other than history - perhaps origin stories - then what we can hear from them is that God was the God at the beginning, and that God created and loved all. We learn that we belong to God, and that we have been given dominion over the world, to care for it. The number of days isn't important. The Creator is. The Truth we read can be applied to the world we see around us, without us ignoring or rationalizing away the facts in front of us.

Literary form is important, and it can lead us to Truth.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Sanctifying Grace: Context

This is the second post in a series about finding sanctifying grace in the Bible instead of using it for our own purposes.  Some of the content of these posts is from the International Bible Series based on a lesson I taught at our Annual Conference this year.

  1. I firmly believe that context is important.  If I said to you that the Cardinals battled the Pirates to the bitter end, you might make a guess as to what I was talking about. The truth is, I could be telling you a story about Roman priests fighting with actual pirates, or I could be relating the results of a baseball game to you. You don’t know if you don’t know the context. The same is true of Bible Study.

As you are reading a passage, ask yourself, or find out:
  • To whom was the passage written? Was the author of the passage speaking to a particular issue in that culture?
  • How does that setting "color" what has been written? For example, when reading about the food laws in the Old Testament, is it important to know about the people and their circumstances? I think it might be.
  • What issues were being addressed in that audience? When Paul says that women shouldn't speak in worship and should go home and ask their husbands, what role does context play? Is he writing a law? Or is he speaking in a particular city to a particular group of people dealing with a particular issue?
In addition to the external context, think about where the scripture itself sits in The Bible.  So often we do not do this. We lift passages out of context and look at them as if nothing came before and nothing comes after.  If you read a parable, look at the chapter it is in. What was happening at the time? What other parables are near the one you are reading? How do those parables round out the message of your particular passage? Looking back at our previous list, knowing where the passage is placed in the Bible can help you understand who Jesus is speaking to, what issue he is addressing, and what else he has to say on the same topic.

Without context, we can really misinterpret scripture, and lifting a passage out of context is a dangerous thing to do.

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Monday, July 09, 2018

Why be Careful with Scripture?

If you are reading this Blog, I imagine, although I do not know for certain, that you spend some time reading the Bible. Or that you are in church, and you hear sermons preached, based on scripture. I hope that you will agree with me that it is important to do either of those tasks carefully. I taught Sunday school at Annual Conference this year. As part of the lesson, I talked about this subject.  Since I so much believe that this is an important topic for all of us to consider, I'm going to use this week on the blog to expand on that part of the lesson. 

Why do we need to be careful with how we interpret scripture and apply it to our lives? We are not here to use the Bible to support what we believe, but instead to hear the living word of God as spoken to us through scirpture, and to allow that grace of us God to shape the way we believe. So many people in history have used the Bible to support un-God-like and unholy beliefs and have used the Bible to hurt people, to bring harm, and un-gracefilled judgment. Think of slave-holders who used the Bible to oppress the people they believed they owned. Think of those who used the Bible to prevent women from reaching their God-given potential or who used the Bible to force women to stay in physically or mentally harmful homes (and who still do). Think of those who use the Bible to say that those among us who are hungry or homeless deserve what they get and who should not be helped. 

How do we NOT do that? How do we read the gift that has been given to us as a way for God to speak to us? We'll explore that as we go.
Feel free to share you thoughts in the comments.

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