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There is a recurring pattern in the Biblical story of Samson:  the human characters “didn’t realize” what God was doing.  Whether this is an indictment or a truth about us, probably both, it reminds us implicitly that there is ” an infinite qualitative difference between God and us.” Wow, that last sentence might have been to much!  Anyways, here are a few thoughts:

  • The text(Judges 13-16) is intentionally ambiguous about the encounter between Samson’s parents and God.  They “didn’t realize” that it was God that they were having a conversation with.  Huhhh??  What was really going on in this brief story?   Why is there so much ambiguity?  Well, I think that’s the point.  Our encounters with God are similar; they are sometimes difficult to explain.  I think we all can relate to the the reality, the conundrums and the ambiguities that are packaged in our encounters with God. It’s confusing!  At least, in trying to communicate this to someone. But it’s also so real and clear, thus the paradox.  Words never seem to be adequate or descriptive enough in speaking about our experience(s) with Him.  But they are necessary…
  • The tension within the story is unmitigated.  The narrative continues to point to this motif of mental clumsiness.  Samson marries a Philistine women, his parents object, they “didn’t realize” that God was using this.
  • for Samson’s parents this must have come across as bona fide crazy.  God’s purpose lies outside our purview.  He even works through our indiscretions to move His purpose forward in human history.
  • Samson among other things is a tease.  But this gets him into trouble… In an ominous twist, Samson wakes up after his head had been shaved and “didn’t realize” that the Lord had left him…
  • The narrative crystallizes within it’s storyline a human tendency:  we can be very slow to grasp God’s purpose.  Or for that matter just slow. That’s why trusting God is essential!  What God does is astronomic, gigantic, befuddling, crazy, and perplexing but His purpose is always extraordinary and surprising and breathtaking.  Isaiah’s words are an indictment or maybe just a fact that forces us to acknowledge that “His thoughts are not are thoughts, His ways are not are ways.”   This is a tough pill to swallow for most of us.  Our opinion, our wisdom, our education, our knowledge is inferior not superior within God’s world.  I’m not saying were all mentally challenged.  Well, maybe just a little bit ?!  It’s just difficult to square our logic with the what we see in the Biblical story!  God seems to work in human history in some very strange ways,  which is comforting for us who are experiencing some strange things that do not line up with our logic.. Or maybe we just need some Nyquil…
  • Finally,  Samson’s life builds up this theme –  circumstances can be very strange but they always point to one humbling reality: we are not in charge; God is…
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Themes

C.S.Lewis said, ” A life is comprised of a few themes.”  I have been wondering… Have we been juggling more stuff than we should as Jesus followers? Is the one life we have, comprised of a few themes? Or to many themes? There is a subtle cultural temptation out there to spend more, purchase more, and buy more then we should. This has obviously been muted by the economic circumstances we face. But I have to ask this silly philosophical question: Has our moral essence as followers of Jesus been impaired by the commercialization of these invisible cultural forces. Probably! And days like these force us to evaluate and reflect on how we have been living our lives. As Jesus followers our focus should be on Jesus! Right! But I think we have done the unthinkable? We Jesus followers have lost the art of focusing on Jesus. We have been focused, just on the wrong things.  My guess is that we have been exploited by our own inability to acknowledge that we cant say no.  No to distractions.  No to commercialization.  No to some very good things.  Why? I think its really simple:  we just lost our passion.  Focusing on to many things can do that to a person. An oxymoron?  Absolutely!  But the secret of focus is the ability to remove threatening distractions that smothers passion.  While Jesus’ wisdom is simple: our summons to follow him demands absolute focus.  It is also not easy!  And in a world teeming with so many options, much like a buffet, this invitation is radically subversive.  What this means for us is also very simple.  We must consciously walk through our lives, take inventory, and remove any clutter that has been getting in the way of a dynamic and authentic devotion with Jesus and our world.  This means prioritizing a few practices in our life: reading the Biblical text in chunks, intentionally focusing on our “cause” our “mission” through prayer, and serving our world in evocative ways .  If we could just weave these simple practices not only into the fabric of something as practical as our schedule, because what one does with their life is what they do every day, but also ensure that these practices become absolutes that we will never negotiate, then I think we are getting back on the right track…

Compassion?

I’m rethinking what the word compassion actually means.  Ive always thought that compassion was something that we do around the holidays for people that are “disadvantaged”.  However, I’ve changed my mind.  Now, if you feel tempted to throw a stone or a rock at me, please continue to read before you do.  I promise to be nice!  I still believe in being compassionate around the holidays but I think it means something more…

The word compassion is quite idiosyncratic.  In Hebrew, this word is usually associated with  a singular noun form which means the “womb”.  The etymology and word picture carries this sense that compassion is similar to what a mother feels for her children.  It is deep, visceral, and instinctive. This rather bizarre association between compassion and the womb insinuates, I think, a deeper meaning:  compassion is more than an act; it is an event that happens deep inside of us.

This compassion was also an essential characteristic that fueled the eschatological, messianic, religious, social, and political vision of Jesus. Compassion wasn’t something that Jesus did around the Jewish calendar; it was a dominant motif that shaped His ministry. In other words, compassion was the heart, the essence of His movement.  It was compassion, ironically, that got Him into trouble with the religious elites.  The scandal that erupted during the brief ministry of Jesus was over how to interpret the Torah.  It was, among other things, a  hermeneutical battle that got nasty really quick.  This battle, which was apart of a deeper theological quarrel, was extremely nuanced and came down to this:  Jesus was moved by compassion;  the Pharisees and the Essenes, two Jewish renewal groups in first century Palestine, were moved by ritualistic purity.  And as we read the Gospel story it doesn’t take long to see that Jesus was subverting the dominant kingdom, social, and political vision of these groups.  Jesus welcomed, invited, and healed those who were categorized as impure; those who were excluded from the religious community because of defect(s). The Pharisees and the Essenes rejected and ostracized…

The storyline of the Gospels captures this “religious” war and hints why some of the religious leaders were so upset.  Mark 5 records three healing scenarios that are connected to the “impure”:  A Greek demonized man living in a cemetery, a women that was hemorrhaging, and a little girl’s funeral.  While, Jesus healed all three( you also have to wonder if the fearful response of the hemorrhaging women was somehow tied to her guilt and awareness of being “impure”) something else was going on.  Jesus was attacking the religious system that had bought into a misguided view of purity and was also critiquing the excessive demands that were dominant during this time.  For example, the Essenes had a very demanding “purity” exam.  They would not “allow the blind, or the lame, or the deaf, or the mute, or anyone with a blemish into their community”.  There were many reasons for this but the point was clear:  according to them, only the strong were called of God.  But Jesus subverted the whole purity system of the Pharisees and the Essenes and turned it upside down through His intentional welcoming of all those who were systematically ostracized.  In short, Jesus was clearly redefining the theological rasion d’etre of the Kingdom.  More importantly, the popular kingdom theology of that day, which was leading Israel in the wrong direction, was being exposed as a sham.  I want to add that I do believe that Jesus was more than a moral reformer, he was not like a social prophet pointing out the problems within Judaism.  This  movement was  messianic and eschatological. However,  compassion was also a fundamental expression within the paradigm of Jesus that it became a dominant characteristic of the Gospels.  The point is that compassion is what clearly drove Jesus to heal the leper, send out the disciples to the surrounding villages, and I would argue what fueled His Passion.  I just don’t think compassion was meant to be a virtue that we just happen to do around the holidays.  The womb metaphor implies and I think evokes a sense that compassion was/is more than doing something very nice for people.  Rather, it was/is a feeling that lies beneath the surface, deep within the interiority of the heart.  It is intrinsically connected to everything that we are and do. Just like a mother who loves her children from her womb, so God loves His world. This is what Jesus embodied in His life and ministry.  One scholar noted that compassion means “to feel with”; that compassion is “associated with feeling the suffering of somebody else and being moved by that suffering to do something.  I have many theological disagreements with this scholar but I agree emphatically with this point.  Compassion is one of those few characteristics that  is foundational to this first century movement, not just a nice little trimming on the side .  This was unquestionably the focus of  Jesus.  It was the sine qua non of His mission. It is also ours. I believe the task that is in front of us today is to somehow embody this kind of compassion to our world!!!  Not a compassion that happens once a year at a soup kitchen or at a turkey drive.  All of these are wonderful and essential but they do not fully express the powerful semantic character of the word compassion.  What we need is a compassion that becomes the dominant trait of our religious paradigm.  What do you think?

Lambs

In my message for this weekend I’ve decided to start with a question:  Are you lamb?  I’ve been puzzling over Luke 10 and Jesus’ brief and cryptic message:  Be lambs in a wolves world.  He obviously did not say be a wolf in a wolves world.  Nor did Jesus use, which is even more puzzling, standard Jewish symbols that evoked power or strength.  For example, he could have used a lion, or a bull, even a goat to symbolize how the disciples were to interact with the wolves. But he didn’t!  Instead, Jesus deliberately chose the lamb as a symbol that would characterize discipleship. What is even more provocative about this statement is that in the Jewish world lambs were used for sacrifice.  Theologically, they were to take the place and fate of Israel.  I find it remarkable that Jesus would choose a symbol that had no conspicuous qualities.  No superpowers!!! Lambs were the ultimate antihero in the Biblical world who had no extraordinary ability.  So, why then would Jesus intentionally use the lamb as a metaphor and symbol for discipleship?  Well, what seems to be going on is that Jesus was connecting the fate and destiny of the disciples to his own fate and destiny, albeit in a cryptic fashion. This was the path that disciples were to walk on if they intended to follow Jesus.  “Lambs among wolves” also makes a whole lot more sense when we become familiar with the storyline and the series of events that led up to this point in Luke 10.  Jesus knew he didn’t have a lot of time.  Herod was out to get him, religious leaders were plotting to arrest him, his hometown rejected him as a prophet and attempted to throw him off a cliff, and even his own family thought that he was out of his mind.  In other words, wolves were on the prowl and they were diametrically opposed to the agenda of Jesus.  They would do and they did what was in their power to remove this young prophet from the religious scene.  All of this has to make you think!  Has the world and western civilization become more tolerant of alternative points of view or has the church somehow compromised the revolutionary character of the Kingdom of God.  When was the last time that we got beat up or thrown into jail for Jesus?  For me, never!  Unless, of course, you count the time when I got beat up when I was seven but that is a completely different story.  I’m realizing that picking up ones cross wasn’t just a timeless ethical imperative passed down by Jesus.  But somehow it has been reduced to an ascetic discipline that if we get really good at we can become better Christians.  But that isn’t the point of the cross! The point, I think, is deeper:  If we follow the message of the Kingdom to it’s revolutionary end we will encounter forces that are antithetical to it’s agenda.  Thus, we must be willing to give up everything.

Why then did Jesus choose to use the lamb as a controlling symbol for the disciples?  Remember, lambs are weak not strong. And I think that’s the point!  We want to be strong but God wants us to be weak. We want to deal with the wolves in our life in our own way, on our own terms.  We like to play tit for tat and address evil by returning evil.  God simply doesn’t play that game and He certainly doesn’t address evil in the way that we would. It would never work!  The only way to overcome the wolves is by laying ones life down like the lamb.  This is what Jesus did!  This is what we are to do!

I was just thinking…

I was just thinking what it would be like to have a counseling session with Jesus today?!  Would he have a swanky sofa for His clients to lay on as they shared their deepest thoughts?  Would Jesus analyze the unconscious id and draw from the latest psychoanalytic theories to diagnose the existential plight of His client(s).  Probably not!  I do think He might say something rude, offensive, humorous, deep, subversive, repulsive, profound, crazy, bewildering, facile, cryptic, and life changing.  If I was in a session with Jesus, I would whip out my favorite sharpie fine point pen, take some notes, and let Him do the talking.  (that’s my attempt at humor). Fortunately, the Gospel story does chronicle for us the nuanced personality of Jesus in a startling fashion.  I’m always perplexed and captivated whenever I read the baffling ways Jesus deals with evil, hurt, pain, sickness, despair, and fear.  Jesus is so downright unconventional and scandalous; not like the modern vision of Jesus who is more like a wandering zen rabbi who meticulously straight irons his hair, has a breathtaking faux tan, and throws out timeless aphorisms to a spellbound and eccentric group of followers.  Remember Peter, poor little guy, Jesus called him “the Satan”.  What if Peter was just having a bad day?  Perhaps, the ministry was the reason for his psychological breakdown?  Think about the stress of trying to figure out a messiah who intends to die on a Roman cross, on purpose!?  Huhhhh?  The messiah, according to Jewish prophetic writings, would not only usher in a new creation but would vanquish the pagan enemies of Israel.  How is Jesus, the most brilliant rabbi and prophet in Israel’s history, going to do all that the prophets foretold by dying on a cross!?  I can only imagine the intense headache that Peter was suffering.  Aspirin anyone? ( another lame joke, I know)  Jesus is so unlike what we would expect.  This is the tragic reason of his rejection and suffering.  The religious leaders couldn’t fit Him into their nice theological categories and so they refused to follow the fresh and prophetic vision that this young prophet from Nazareth announced.  So, what would Jesus be like today?  First, I think we need to beware of finding a Jesus that is entirely congenial to us, a Jesus that somehow fits into our limited theological presuppositions.  If Jesus is not a threat to your safety or comfort, if your convenience is never disturbed by him, I’m afraid you have a distorted and wrong picture of Jesus. So, to answer the question from the top: What would Jesus be like as a counselor?  Well, I can say for sure He wouldn’t have a swanky couch for you to lay on! Why would you want one anyways?!  Couches are for therapy, for talking about ourselves and, well, it’s Jesus. Anyways, I think Jesus would be far too interesting of a diversion.  Sitting on a lazy-boy rehashing my unconscious self doesn’t sound like a compelling alternative.  Don’t you think?

“Do”

We have been going through a series on our weekend’s called “Do” and have been using the book of Acts. The series implicitly draws from Mother Teresa’s philosophy: Think less; love more.  Our a challenge which evolves out of Acts has been to focus more on mission and less on knowledge!  It’s a rather provocative statement and challenge for all of the “interlectuals” in the church. I am not saying that thinking less and doing more is a summons to give up on thinking.  I think I would fall into depression! However, it is a warning against a detached and abstract theological orientation that leaves no room for obedient action.    I want to briefly add that Luke’s literary emphasis in Acts is striking: the results of the events chronicled are as equally important then the events themselves.  In other words, only three verses focus on the ascension in the first chapter, while four verses are devoted to the upper room on the day of Pentecost in the second. The rest of the second chapter; in fact, the rest of Acts, is a narrative that describes the profound transformation that took place in this small Jewish movement. But for me, and finally back to the point, the question that shouts from this story is: How did this young Jesus movement get so far?  How did these early disciples ignite a religious and social revolution in 1st century urban centers?  Why were they such a threat to the Roman empire?  How did they influence so many demographic groups and spread so quickly throughout so many geographical regions?  Well, it’s clear that it wasn’t just knowledge that won people over to this Jesus revolution.  Nor was it exegetical brilliance that transformed the world as we know it.  It was simply the result of being empowered by the Holy Spirit.  This movement was birthed in an upper room where Jewish disciples were praying, not just thinking; Waiting, not just strategizing… That’s a hard pill to swallow for some of us…

Luke, also implicitly weaves a pattern throughout his prologue(1:1-11) that yields insight into the secret of this movement.  Jesus was having a fascinating conversation about the Kingdom with his disciples, until the disciples asked the wrong question.  What Jesus does is give shape to a paradigm that is essential for our churches today. He shifted the conversation from knowledge to mission and then to empowerment.  The disciples were clearly focused on knowledge; Jesus was focused on mission. They wanted to talk about eschatology; Jesus wanted to talk about empowerment (He commanded them to go to Jerusalem to receive power from the Holy Spirit). I think Luke is hinting at a pattern/model for ministry.  It is a model that dynamically upsets the socially and religiously entrenched ideas that are threatened by the Gospel.  It is powerfully missional. It is not sedentary. The focus is more on praying, waiting, obeying, and doing then just thinking, believing, managing, and commercializing.  The result is a model that is remarkably supernatural.

This narrative is subversively “apropos” for today’s church.  What would happen if we could reconnect ourselves to this pattern?  What if discipleship was transformed into a waiting and praying model; instead of, a knowledge based and overly gimmick commercial model?  I believe that considerable changes would occur in our lives.  In fact, I believe we would be better thinkers, doers, scholars, pastors, teachers, poets, and writers, if we were more faithful to this pattern.  And musicians, I forgot to add that one…

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