Viewing Nativities

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I try to write this blog with a few simple rules.  One of them is that I try not to write what I might one day preach, or have preached before.  At the same time I try not to preach what I will one day blog or have blogged before.

With that said, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon about the little town of Bethlehem from Micah 5 I have been viewing nativity scenes all afternoon and pulling 40 of them into a Powerpoint to be the backdrop of Sunday’s sermon.

I was very moved by Micah’s statement that the savior’s influence would spread around the world.  Jesus’ influence has certainly done that.  The nativity pictures on Google are proof.  Some are made with cartoon characters and action figures.  They are from China, Russia, Native America, churches, storefronts, the middle east, Africa, South America and even the suburbs.  I tried to pick 40 of them for my Powerpoint, 40 that illustrate that Jesus’ greatness truly does extend to the ends of the earth.

 

While scrolling through pages and pages of nativity scenes with shepherds, wise men, angels and stars, I found that I was deeply moved in the Spirit.  It was hard not to shed a tear of joy and appreciation as I studied hundreds of them.  You see, for centuries now, people from all ages, all walks of life and all countries have paid homage to the baby with these incredible nativity scenes.

Micah is quite correct that Jesus’ influence has stretched around the world.

Below are some of my favorites.  I would welcome you to turn on a Christmas song and scroll through them or do a Google search of the “nativity” yourself while you consider that this baby in the manger is the one who:

Will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace.

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Feeding Toddlers, Feeding Church People

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My kids do this thing that I think all children do.

My wife and I are like most parents.  We want our children to receive good nutrition and to receive it often.  We balance out their meals with fruits, vegetables, meat and grains.  Regularly we place this well balanced smorgasbord of great proteins, carbs and sugars in front of them.

My children do a great job of picking through the options, eating their favorites of that day.  The fruit usually disappears first.  After that the cheese.  Then, if they are in a growth spurt, the meat and grain.  If not they are usually done.  Some days they don’t eat much at all because they really aren’t hungry.

But other days they look up at my wife and I, with plenty of food still on the plate, and say, “I am still hungry.”

“Well then eat your ham.”

They look at us awkwardly.

“I don’t very much like ham.  I was planning on more grapes.”  Or applesauce, or oatmeal or something else completely random.

As it turns out, in toddler terms, “I am still hungry” does not mean, “you are not feeding me.”  It means, “you are not feeding me what I want.”

Church people do this thing that all people do.

I am like most pastors.  We want our congregation to receive great spiritual nourishment.  We want their lives to be drenched in the Scriptures.  We want their love to overflow to the least and lonely.  We want their trust in Jesus to be commendable, the faith worthy of the saints!  We want their hope to be encouraging, conquering and casting out the worst of fear.

So we pastors work hard to balance out their spiritual plate with outreach events, discipleship groups, book studies, engaging worship services, and just plain fun get together’s.

They do a great job of picking through their favorites, going to what they want to go to and participating where they want.  But then they look at the rest of our ministries and tell us, “I am not being fed.”

To most church people this sounds like a brilliant critique.  After all it is biblical, stemming from John 21 where Jesus tells Peter three times, “Feed my sheep/lambs.”

They think that the pastoral job is Peter’s job, to make sure that the good church people are “fed.”  They think they can get away with insulting our work if they use the metaphor that Jesus did.  “Jesus said you should feed me and I am not being fed.”  That is code for, “You are failing Jesus.”

They are right that Jesus’ command to Peter was not just for Peter.  What they get wrong is that Jesus’ command to Peter was for everybody who calls themselves a “church person.”  After all, the church’s mission is the apostolic mission and the apostolic mission extends to the “sheep that are not of this fold.”  (see John 10:16).   When Jesus told Peter to feed the sheep, he was talking to the entire church, laity and clergy alike to feed the world and nourish them into the Spirit’s presence.

In light of that, I wonder if those who are “still hungry” are so because they have a full plate in front of them, a plate full of ministry and service opportunities that give spiritual food to both the giver and receiver.  But they don’t realize it because that food looks like green beans.  And they are not very hungry for green beans.

In their lingo, “I am not being fed” doesn’t really mean, “I am hungry.”  It means, “I don’t like the food that you are offering.”

Just a thought for a winter’s Sunday afternoon.

Blessings on the week ahead.  May God give you the food you need to feed others.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading/Watching: The Hunger Games’ Mockingjay

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When it comes to teeny-bopper novels with young female heroins I am pretty out of touch.  A couple years ago, I was completely surprised when I asked my Facebook friends what books I should read and this swarm of young women suggested I read Divergent.  I thought Divergent would be a non fiction sociology text about the need to engage culture critically so as to diverge to new paths.  Instead it was a novel about some teenage girl who gets to pick her own faction and then suddenly becomes the chosen one.  .  .because, you know, all teenage girls are the chosen one these days.

But this post isn’t about Divergent.  It is about the last teeny-bopper fad I did catch up with, “The Hunger Games.”  When Suzanne Collin’s trio of novels went big a few years ago, my wife and I somehow came in possession of them and I read all three in a week.  The first was surprisingly brilliant, a wonderful narrative critique of professional sports and their impact (or less than so) on low income neighborhoods.  Strangely, almost nobody is talking about that aspect of the novel, just how all girls get stuck in their choice between the Peeta’s and the Gail’s in their lives.  Don’t get me wrong, I can totally relate.

The other two novels were less than the first, leading me to believe Collins should have stopped after the one hit wonder.  And yet, as I have continued to think about “The Hunger Games” and now have watched all four movies, it is the last two novels that have been the object of my focus.

I should add right now that huge spoilers for the entire trilogy follow this point.

In “Catching Fire” Katniss Everdeen emerges from the hunger games with a raw power that is best described as influence.  She has a national following and is a political force to be reckoned with.  So “Catching Fire” is about President Snow’s attempts to control and co opt Katniss’ influence using his brute force.  When he is unable to do so, he resorts to sending her back to the Hunger Games with the hope that this time she will either die or emerge a victor but with severely decreased influence.

It doesn’t work.  Katniss escapes the game before all the victors are dead and, in the “Mockingjay”, awakens in a 13th district that is led by a cunning President Coin.  The third novel is about Coin’s attempts to control and co-opt Katniss’ influence, but not with brute force.  Instead she uses a very cunning manipulation, that is almost worse than Snow’ss force.  This leads to a stunning climax where Katniss has standing in front of her both Snow and Coin with the entire nation looking on.  Forget Peeta versus Gail.  This is Everdeen’s true choice and she uses it to kill Coin instead of Snow.  I must admit that during my first reading of “Mockingjay” it did not occur to me that Coin was a villain until Katniss killed her.  But then it made sense.  Cunning manipulation is just as bad as brute force.

Therefore, the reason these two novels have consumed my thoughts since I read them is because I feel like Katniss’ story is the church’s story.  Since the first Pentecost, the church has had access to a raw and supernatural power that is best described as “influence.”  We are not powerful in and of ourselves but the Holy Spirit has given us access to the Trinity’s power, which is what C.S. Lewis calls “the deep magic.”  It is a power deeper and more pure than brute force or cunning manipulation.  It is the power of love and it is that love that powers us.

Since the outpouring of that power, the lesser powers, the national and corporate interests, have desperately tried to control and co-opt it.  Some, like President Snow, have used threats and force.  Others have been more like Coin, using cunning and manipulation.  This still goes on today.  Politicians are right now fighting to co-opt our votes and use our influence to get them elected.  Corporations still use Christian symbols and imagery to get us to buy their product.  Sports’ teams still tout the religious credentials of their star players to convince Christians to root for them and in turn, buy their merchandise.  When the principalities and powers see our “deep magic” they recognize it and desperately want it for their own.

Sadly, we are not as unique or as brave as Katniss.  We sell our religion to the highest bidder and remain loyal until another bidder comes along.  There is quote that traces back to Augustine that claims, “the church is a whore!” and I agree.  We sell our bodies to anybody who offers to buy from politicians to athletes to CEO’s.

At the end of Mockingjay it becomes clear that there is no win for Katniss.  In the movie she explains to her newborn daughter that fighting nightmares is her new game.  Thus, I walked out of the theater last night feeling very somber and downcast because rejecting the principalities and powers is a tough and costly chore.  But Katniss did find a subtle win.  She notes to her daughter that fighting the nightmares is a better game than the other ones she played.  Her win was not executing Coin or even Snow.  It came when she retreated to a quiet, humble and good existence, becoming a wife and a mother.

Her choosing of Peeta in the end is indicative of that choice and the church would do well to follow her, to deny the cunning manipulators and the coercive tyrants and instead follow the commands of our one true King, who tells us through the Apostle Paul, “to make it our ambition to live a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11)  and who adds to it through Peter, “live such a good life among the pagans that they might see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” (1 Peter 2:12)

It is the quiet but good life lived among the ungodly that beats the principalities and powers.  It is the quiet but good life that refuses to be co-opted by nations and politicians and armies and businesses.  It is that life that wins the raw victory with God’s raw power.

Last Sunday we celebrated this with Christ the King Sunday where we proclaimed anew that Jesus is Lord and King of all. He stands above the athletes and corporations and politicians and nations.  He is the Ancient of Days and one day, hopefully not long from now, He will take his throne and open the scroll!  May that assurance carry you into a blessed holy-day season!

Unwritten Grace

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When I started this blog I was really new to this whole “online brand” thing.  I thought all you had to do was create a page, give it some nifty, trendy title that includes a pop Christian buzz word (like “grace”) and people I didn’t know would flock to it.

When they clicked on over from wherever in cyber space they found my link, they would read the entertaining musings of a unknown pastor.  His very intricately and detailed life experiences would strangely mirror their own but he would stay a disembodied soul without a name.  They would rush to their social media accounts to share the link, and through it, the experiences of this poor, faceless pastor stuck in a church somewhere in America whose life is full of grace.

Online brands don’t work that way.  It turns out, you have to share the link first, which means you are effectively branding yourself through your family and friends and parishioners.  This means 90% of people who click over here know who I am, where I am and, unfortunately, who to complain to if they don’t like my writing.  Strangely, the random compliments at conferences and events make me the most uncomfortable.  Seriously people, these posts are not that great!

I bring all this up to say that sometimes I experience things that are chock full of grace but still cannot be written.  After all, I am a pastor bound by confidentiality clauses and desires for privacy and good common sense.

Several times in the last months I have sat down to write about an experience I had, only to finish half the post and realize, “I can’t post this for oh so many reasons.”  The people involved know who they are.  The people not involved know who the people involved are.  Their are too many ways that the post could be misread as offensive (though I never intend it).  Mostly, my interpretation of the “grace” in their lives would be unwelcome, especially in a public forum.

I wrote such a post this morning and it hurt to delete it because God’s grace was so evident.  Instead I decided to post about that post as a reminder to myself and all of you that some things don’t need to be written, just appreciated.

Even though I can not write about these graces I can still pray about them.  I can still think over them and ponder them anew in my heart.

That last phrase reminds me of the Virgin Mary whose humility is a hallmark of the advent season.  After the wonderful birth of the savior, sung by angels and praised by shepherds, she did not join the shepherds in proclaiming the good news, “but she treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

In closing, I would welcome you to join her, in praying over the unwritten and hidden grace in your life.  Count your many blessings and ponder anew the love of our God and treasure it up in your heart.

Have a graced Sunday!

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.

Holy Saturday Reflection: Watching and Waiting

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It is partly cloudy and bit cold outside, with sporadic sunshine dancing across the street on which I live.

This morning my son woke me up around 7am.  His sister awoke about an hour later.  I made my family pancakes, fixed a flat tire, cleaned up fallen branches and pushed my children on their swings in the backyard.  My wife is currently at a book study that would have happened on any other Saturday.

This could be any other Saturday in April, and for many outside Christianity, and regrettably many Christians, this is.

Yet on this Saturday we wait and we watch.  After all, Holy Saturday is unique in the list of Holy days.  The gospel narratives barely include it.  Mark, the lectionary gospel for this year, gives us no narrative account of the Saturday between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  It simply skips over it with the words in 16:1, “When the Sabbath was over.”

We have no idea where the disciples were on Saturday or what they did.  We know that the women waited, but there is no reason to believe it was a passive waiting.  They probably went about the business of a regular Sabbath, while trying to reconcile their memories of Jesus with his bitter end.  If they were around today, they would probably be playing with my children in my backyard, or at the book study with my wife.  They might be smiling and laughing but their smiles would quickly turn to grief as the sunshine outside my window quickly turns back to clouds.

So today we are left alongside these women.  We do not fully understand the cross, even after 2,000 years and we do not fully grasp why God had to die.  We are struggling to stay happy after the terrible revelation that God lived among us and we killed God.

Yet as we wait, we hope for Sunday morning.  We may not know exactly what we are hoping for.  For many of us, it will just be the paltry end to our Lenten fast.  Others of us look forward to signing all five verses of “In Christ Alone” again.  .  .and again.  Others of us look forward to the Easter ham.

But whatever we hope for this morning, while we wait with the women, we gather our burial spices together and prepare to go honor our fallen Messiah, wondering who might pull back the stone for us.  .  .

Maundy Thursday Reflection: Fight or Flight or Follow

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Well we are nearing the end of Holy Week and that means we are getting to the good stuff.  Today we commemorate the Last Supper and the new command Jesus gave to “love one another.”  Tomorrow we end up at the cross and who knows what might happen on Sunday morning? (I know, but it isn’t as much fun if you admit it.)

But no matter what the weekend holds, today we eat of the bread and drink of the cup with Jesus.  Some of us may even wash a foot or two.

All of this is to remind ourselves that Holy Week is ultimately about love.  “Maundy” means “commandment” or “mandate” and “Mandate Thursday” is about the new commandment recorded in John 3:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

Whatever else happens this weekend, we remember that as Christ followers, we are following love wherever love may go.

Most of us know that the disciples followed Jesus out of the upper room and into the garden of Gethsemane but there the following ended.  When guards showed up to arrest Jesus, they chose not to follow but to flee.

Mark focuses on two particular disciples.  The first fights.  He draws a sword and uses it to cut off the ear of a guard.  The second flees and in so doing ends up naked.

Both the zealous swordsman and the naked runner represent ways that we betray love.  The zealous swordsman, presumably clinging to his hope of a military Messiah, refuses to see Jesus for who Jesus is.  By taking up arms and lashing out for the sake of power, he rejects love, choosing might instead.  He does not deny himself but seeks to save himself or, worse, save God with his sword.

The naked runner too betrays love, by fleeing from it.  He is also seeking to save himself but his legs are his sword, the means by which he escape the consequences of love.

As we recommit ourselves today to this new mandate to love one another, I wonder about the ways we still betray love.  I think we forget that sometimes love has negative consequences.

In today’s world “love” poorly defined has become the way we try to solve all the problems.  I hear social activists, politicians, celebrities and, yes, even pastors claiming that if we just love people enough suddenly violence will end, addicts will become sober, the attendance of all Christian churches in America will double, unicorns will sprout from the ground and the federal budget will get balanced.

I wonder what will happen to those types when instead of unicorns, guards sprout up to arrest us.  Will we then betray love by drawing a sword?  Or will we flee from the scene naked?

For this reason, I am always a little bit frustrated when people suggest the best evangelism strategy is love.  They mean well and I am all about practicing compassion, but we don’t practice compassion to double our attendance.  Love is not a means to another end.  Love is the end, the telos, the goal for which we strive.

This side of eternity true love does not reward us but instead has consequences.  When we love the world, the world will hate us back.  When we show compassion to one person, someone else is going to jeer, “What worth are they?  You are sinning by loving them!”  All of our motives will be called into question and we may even be arrested just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  When we love truly, we should not expect unicorns and swords but rejection, humiliation and crosses.

Therefore, the words of Jesus in John 15, after the “new commandment” are all the more important, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”

As we follow love out of the upper room and into the garden, may we not fight or flee but follow, not for any other goal but to be completely enraptured in the love of our God.  And may our tombs be emptied on Sunday morning as we embrace the new life of love.

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: What About Hitler?

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Reading is a difficult thing for a pastor.  First, there is too much to read and the internet age has multiplied it exponentially.  Second, to know what to read you have to rely on the suggestions of friends, co-pastors and mentors who all recommend lousy books from time to time.  Third, some books have wonderful ideas but are horribly written, making them painful.  Other books are wonderfully written but have horrible ideas (or worse, no ideas) making them equally as painful.

With all this mind, I believe there is only one type of worthless book.  It is the book that agrees with everything I all ready think.  Those books are a waste of time and money.  I would rather read a book that infuriates me by arguing that all dogs should go to hell than read a book that merely substantiates my belief that all dogs end up in heaven.

With that said, it was with no small amount of fear and trembling that I downloaded and read Robert Brimlow’s “What About Hitler: Wrestling with Jesus’ Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World.”

After all I am self described what about hitlerpacifist, though I have reservations with that exact word.  Still, I wholeheartedly believe that to follow Jesus requires opposing violence and embracing peace.  These views have been shaped over a long period of time which involved much prayer, Bible study, reading, reflection, conversations with friends and the like.  Therefore, reading yet one more book about pacifism would only harden my opinions and waste my time.

The title of the book is what trapped me.  “What about Hitler?”  Every war monger asks a pacifist that question, “Well then what about Hitler?”  Then they watch the now former pacifist hem and haw until they admit that they probably would kill Hitler if given a time machine.  That question so annoys and frustrates me that I had to read the book to see if maybe there was an answer.

So with all trepidation I downloaded the book and began reading.  And what followed was not a passionately argued philosophical treatise on pacifism that hardened my opinions.  It was a call for renewal among pacifists to embrace peacekeeping in their very lives.

This call came in many forms.  At times it certainly was passionate, philosophical argument.  At other times it was devotional as Brimlow inserted written prayers that wrestle with Scripture passages.  At other times it was honest autobiography as Brimlow struggled with his own testimony and setting.  Then, suddenly, the last chapter was fiercely spiritual as Brimlow argued for a renewal of the spiritual disciplines among Christ’s followers.  That chapter held the most wonderful paragraphs on prayer I have yet read, and I have read a lot about prayer.

With all this said, “What About Hitler” is perhaps the most self aware philosophy book out there.  Every time Brimlow begins preaching he takes several steps back and honestly confesses, “Yet I am still not quite sure.”  At one point near the end Brimlow says he hears trumpets pronouncing victory behind his argument and then tries to silence them by bringing fully into bear what he has argued.

I wish myself and other theologians and philosophers had the humility he does.

In the end he answers the question “What About Hitler” by claiming that if Christians had followed the peacekeeping commands of Jesus in the centuries leading up to World War 2 the Nazis would not have happened, or at least not been able to so easily convince the German citizenry to annihilate the Jewish people.  In such thinking Hitler was the punishment for Christianity’s disobedience, not the cause of them.

That is certainly a bold argument, but it is persuasive because right after the claim, Brimlow admits his own efforts to keep peace are often thwarted by his own anger and hatred.  This simple-spoken humility speaks volumes about peace.  It turns out, at least according to Brimlow, that peacemaking and peacekeeping are useless without humility, something many “pacifists” just do not have.

On every page Brimlow humanizes and speaks love for those who disagree because he fully believes that loving those who disagree with you is what keep wars from happening.

This ends with a lovely chapter on prayer.  Brimlow argues that every Christian from just war theorists to pacifists to taxpayers to soldiers and to those who won’t even kill spiders must renew their prayer.

He brings this to bear by saying, “Instead of trying to fit prayer into my busy schedule, I should try to fit my schedule into my busy prayer” (p. 184).  I could not agree more.

In the end, this did the opposite of what I suspected.  Instead of becoming more passionate about pacifism, I have become more loving towards those who disagree with me.  Just maybe that will prevent a war one day.  But who really knows?

What Do We Do With All These Celebrities? A Sermon on Elijah

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Last week I posted the whole manuscript of my sermon and I received some good feedback.  I am equally passionate about this week’s topic so decided to do it again.  I deleted some of the more superfluous paragraphs this time around for quicker perusing.  I hope all you perusers enjoy a good peruse.

Introduction

For some time now I have wanted to talk to all of you about a deep, long lasting and widespread Christian heresy.  Although I have addressed this in a few other sermons, it has been hard to take just one Sunday to bring it up.

The reasons for refraining were numerous.  The first is that I am really passionate about this and sometimes overrides good sense.  And, at least me, passion is most often off putting than persuasive.

The second reason is that this is currently a very popular belief in Christian culture and one that is hard to preach about without offending anybody.

This leads me to my third reason, that I was just afraid.  In Luke chapter 4 Jesus preaches a sermon very similar to what I am about to preach and the end result was his hometown citizens tried to throw him off of a cliff.

So you need to know that I unlocked this side door over here and when you bring out the pitchforks and torches, good luck catching me!

But what Jesus said in Luke 4 was that Elijah’s most significant miracles was done for a widowed single mom who lived in another country.  And they were not big fans of that observation.

Because they and we have this belief that just because we voted for someone or we bought someone’s movies or listened to their music or watched their T.V. show that means God likes them more than God likes us.  We seem to think that God can use them more than God can use normal, everyday people.

And that is wrong.

Yet I keep hearing Christians say that very thing in so many ways.  So before I move we need to talk about human celebrity and human politics as they relate to what God is doing in the world.  It seems to me that God who would rather work with nobodies who live in deserts than with football players who score touchdowns and Kings who write laws.

And I think this is good news.  This is a huge part of the gospel, that our God is so big and powerful that God does not need human power or wealth.  At times God doesn’t even appear to want it.

And I am saying this, this morning, fully aware that the Super Bowl is this afternoon and obviously God has a favorite team that God wants to win and let’s just say it is not the New England cheaters.  .  .I mean, Patriots, but really can you call them Patriots if they cheat?

I am joking but Super Bowl Sunday is as good a Sunday as any to remind ourselves that we are just as valuable to God as any football player or politician or celebrity.

I say that and I still want to be careful and not belittle or demean what some celebrities are doing for our faith right now.  I give most of them the benefit of the doubt and would argue that they are doing what we are doing, namely trying to remain faithful to God in the context that God called them too.

A God Who Loves Nobodies

Yet in Scripture, God does not seem to need them or want their celebrity and power.

Here is why I think that is:  Using nobodies reveals or even perfects God’s power.  The apostle Paul teaches us, it is actually my life verse, that power is made perfect through weakness.  So by using barren people who live in barren deserts, God’s power is perfected.

That is maybe why but here is a thought on how that works.  It goes back to the made up religions and their little “g” gods.

If I was going to invent another religion and another god, my god would first have a name that evokes power.  My God would be named “Mountain god” or “lightning bolt god” or “Sun god.”  It would not be “molehill god” or “spark god.”

Then this fictional god with the made up power name would do three things all for my benefit.  First that god would make me wealthy.  Second that god would satisfy all my appetites and hormones.  Third that god would me powerful.

And several anthropologists and sociologists and historians have noted for us that all false religions and false forms of religion go back to those three things.  Any time anybody has made up a god that god has served the purpose of making people powerful, wealthy and satisfied.

In the Old Testament you see this in all the false gods and idols.  We invent a fertility goddess to help us have more children.  Now today children are a handful but back then you put your kids to work in your farm fields and household when they were three or four.

So if you had 12 children, you had twelve slaves and twelve slaves can generate a lot of income.  And if those 12 are all boys you are really rolling in the dough but it is okay if some are girls because you can sell them for money.  But if you could not have children you went broke.  So they invented a fertility goddess that they could sacrifice and pray to and ask for children.

Then they invented a god of war and power.  This god would help you win battles and make you a king.  If you sacrificed to this god that god would help you conquer your neighbor’s land and enslave him and his sons so that now you can farm 40 times the land you could when it was just you.

Then they had gods of pleasure who rewarded you with good food from exotic lands, all the food you could eat and all the women you could want.

The funny thing is that so far this all sounds like good news, right?  Who wouldn’t want an all powerful god to multiply my dollars, land, kids and pleasures?

But they did not stop there.  They reversed the formula and if you all ready were wealthy with a lot of kids and you were famous and had access to pleasure, they assumed the gods liked you.  You did something good to get them in your favor.  However, if you were poor, had no access to pleasure and no children and no kingdom then obviously the gods hate you and you are a sinner.   Therefore, we get to either enslave you or kill you depending on how useful you are.  So the wealthy are virtuous and loved and the poor are lousy sinners.

Today we look at them 3,000 years ago and say, “oh how unenlightened and silly they were,” yet I still hear people, even Christians, arguing much the same thing.

But here is why the Christian message is good news:  Israel’s story begins when Abraham, a poor guy, living in the desert with no access to exotic food or women, married to a barren wife (so no children) finds favor with God!  The true God, the not made up God, goes out to the desert and recruits a poor, barren couple to advance God’s purposes.

This plays out all throughout Scripture.  Any time God goes to do anything it starts with the least and lonely and broken and hurting and poor.  God seems to ignore kings and celebrities in favor of working out his purposes among the nobodies.

Moses is a sheep herder out in the Canaan and is recruited to go to Egypt to free the people.  Moses is worse than those without money and power and pleasure.  He used to have those things and now has none.  That must mean the gods really hate him, to take away all that stuff.

Yet Moses is the one recruited by God to free the people.  By the way, the name Moses is given for God is not a power name but instead is, “I AM,” which means “I am present God.  I am here for you God.”  I am not the God of lightning or mountains or wildflowers or the sun (though I created those things).  Instead call me that God that is here among you.

Samuel is an altar boy, whose mother was barren before she had him.  He is recruited to be the first great prophet, not because he is special or powerful but because his mother was barren.  God loves barren women.  The false gods hate them, or else they would have children but our God blesses them!

David is a sheep herder out in the nowhere Bethlehem and is recruited by Samuel to be King and before David becomes King he is a man after God’s own heart but after he becomes King he is all about himself, adultery, murder and raising armies to go conquer nations God does not want them to conquer.

What Angry Elijah Learned

1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings this play out. Samuel and Kings are a compilation of stories about the Kings of Israel and the Kings of Judah and if you read it, it is a four volume anthology to how worthless kings are.  Even David, the one after God’s own heart, becomes King and immediately becomes worthless.  Even the good kings who followed God were powerless to keep people faithful.

So we read 1 and 2 Samuel and then the first several chapters of 1 Kings and we get disgusted at all these lousy and powerless kings who can’t do anything good for the Lord.

Then we get to Elijah’s story which starts in chapter 17.  By the time we get to Elijah, we the readers are meant to be furious with these worthless kings.  Then Elijah bursts on the scene and he is mad too.  His anger is very much written to harness our anger.

Elijah wasn’t a king.  Elijah was a prophet.  Right before he bursts on the scene we are told that King Ahab married a wicked woman named Jezebel.

You can read about that in 1 Kings 16.  Jezebel came from Sidon.  All the Sidonians worshiped the false god Baal.  Baal means “high up god” because if I am going to invent a god I would name my god something like, “my god is higher up than your god.”  It is kind of like, “My dad can beat your dad up god!”

Jezebel was sent by the prophets of Baal to convert Israel to Ball worship and where does she go, where can she go but to the throne room.  If my god is “High Up god” than I need the high up place of a throne room to advance his purposes.  Jezebel uses her feminine wiles to marry the King of Israel whose name was Ahab.  Once she married Ahab she convinced Ahab to kill the prophets of God and set up temples and worship spots to Baal.

Follow with me here, Jezebel is the prophet of Baal who is sent to Israel and she goes to the center of Israel’s power, the throne room, manages to get Ahab on her side and begins converting people to Baal.

So Elijah confronts the evil king Ahab and his worse wife Jezebel and Elijah declares a famine on the land until they get their act together.  It does not work.  Ahab doesn’t repent.  Instead he and Jezebel seem to say to each other, “Oh, we thought we killed all the prophets.  Nuts, we missed one.  Well kill him too!”

In chapter 17 verse 2 we are told, “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah”

Remember word of the Lord does not just mean God spoke.  Word means wisdom.  The wisdom of the Lord came to Elijah and what did the wisdom of God say,

“Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.”

Let me paraphrase.  The word of the Lord came to Elijah and said, “RUN YOU FOOL!  GET OUT OF TOWN!  They are trying to kill you, you moron!”

Elijah runs.  He spends a few days in the Kerith Ravine and then goes to Sidon.  Sidon is where Jezebel came from and where the false god Baal is worshipped.

Elijah doesn’t go the throne room of Sidon, though.  Instead he ends up at a poor widows house, a single mom.  Then and now single moms are the epitome of no power, no wealth and no pleasure.  That is exactly where God sends Elijah.  While Elijah is there Elijah multiplies food for her and raises her son from the dead.  No matter how powerful your king is, he can’t multiply food and raise anybody from the dead.  But Jesus can and did those things hundreds of years later.

Follow with me here, Jezebel the prophetess of Baal tries to take over Israel by going to the center of power.  Elijah, the Israelite messenger of the true God is sent to Sidon but not to any place of power but to a poor, powerless single mom in the desert.

After a time God calls Elijah back to Ahab, but not to convert Ahab but to end the drought.  Before the drought is ended there is this wonderful shoot out on a mountain where all Ahab’s prophets face down all one of Elijah and they see whose God can set the most stuff on fire.

I am not joking.  That was the competition.  Remember God had just raised someone from the dead two chapters ago.  Setting stuff on fire seems petty.  The average guy with a cigarette butt can set things on fire.  But God can set things on fire, praise God!  So Elijah wins and those who are there see the miracle of God and join Elijah’s side.  Elijah says, “Kill all the false prophets.”  So they do.

And it doesn’t work.  The next chapter, Jezebel the wicked wife is furious that her prophets are dead and she doubles her hit on Elijah.  And Elijah’s zealous followers are nowhere to be found.  Elijah runs out to another mountain and he throws a holy tantrum before God.

Elijah tells God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

I will be honest with you that when I hear Christians gripe against the world today I think they are a lot like Elijah throwing proud pity parties on mountains.

Maybe God’s words to us would be God’s words to Elijah:

15The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.”

God’s answer is I have more nobodies from more deserts.

17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.

Today if you hear me saying there won’t be justice for evil kings, read verse 17.  There will be justice.

18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”

We hear of 7,000 and think that isn’t a lot but back then it was.  It was a good sized group of people who still worshiped God.

Elijah, come home from your ego trip.  There are 7,000 just like you.  You are not special and no Ahab and no Jezebel and no false god Baal are going to beat me with silly human celebrity and silly human power.  I have 7,000 nobodies in deserts who are greater than any King or Queen or false god.

Conclusion

Just because the politicians and celebrities are not doing what I want them to do, does not mean I am losing.  Instead I have 7,000 nobodies living in deserts and that is all I need.

If Jesus were someone we made up 2,000 years ago we would need as many celebrities and politicians and football players to give him lip service on national and even worldwide television.  After all human power is the only way powerless idols stay in power.

So if we made Jesus up we would be desperate for someone popular and powerful to say his name.  Strangely, in Scripture I get the sense God doesn’t want us to say God’s name all that much but that is another sermon for another day.

Likewise if we made Jesus up we would be desperate for wealthy people to write us checks and more kings to approve our building permits so that we could build more temples on hilltops.

But if Jesus really was the son of God who became flesh and who died on the cross to free us from the powers of darkness then we don’t need them.

All we need to do is remain faithful ourselves to the God who is faithful in choosing us.

It might be cool when the celebrities decide to come along but ultimately God chooses the weak and powerless and foolish because that is just what a powerful God would do.  That is the wisdom of our faith and the wisdom of the cross.

The apostle Paul says it in 1st Corinthians.  Paul says that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

That is the wisdom of our God right there.  It is a wisdom that does not gets its underwear in a knot every time the President does something we disagree with.  It is the wisdom that says there are 7000 barren people living in barren deserts whom God loves and is working through.

It is the wisdom that says that as long as God has tiny churches in places like Elgin, Oregon who are willing to open their building for the teenagers of the community to practice archery and learn a bit about Jesus then Christianity will flourish.

As long as God has a group of people who meet regularly to pray and read Scripture and have a conversation about what faithfulness looks like in our current world, Christianity will flourish.

As long as God has families who are willing to open their homes to foster children and orphans and adopt them as children and siblings, Christianity will flourish.

As long as there are groups of people who get together to talk about what houses need painting, what elderly need their leaves raked and driveways plowed and how to accomplish that Christianity will flourish.

As long as desert widows and shepherd boys and altar kids and diseased elderly offer themselves to the Almighty God, Christianity will do just fine.

God doesn’t need or want human wealth.  God doesn’t need or want human power.  God doesn’t need or want human celebrities.  Instead our God chooses the outcast nobodies who are barren and live in deserts and that is how God wins.

As I said at the beginning, that is good news because the false gods hate nobodies but our God loves them and cherishes them.

Let’s pray.

The Stuff Jesus Never Always Did

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I read a lot of pastoral leadership resources, also known as pastor self-help books.  I fly through at least 20 a year and they cover the bases on how to be a better counselor, preacher, administrator, leader, follower, mentor, mentee, disciple maker, disciple becomer and spiritual guide.

Many of them come from the same stock.  A pastor somewhere in America discovered some principle or practice that really changed his or her church for the better.  They started sharing it with others and eventually a publisher asked them to write a book about it.  So they went to write a book and felt obligated as a preacher to make it sound like the idea came straight from Jesus.  Though, when you dig deeper than their shallow arguments, you find the idea actually came from a conversation or through a prayer meeting or from another book.  After having the idea, the pastor went to the gospels to find out if Jesus practiced this principle and found a case where Jesus may have done it.  Then they concluded, “Jesus ALWAYS Does this.”

The first chapters of these books describe these things that Jesus always did and ask the question, “Don’t you want to always be like Jesus?”

One book about pastoral counseling concluded that Jesus always asked questions.  .  .except for the fact that there are plenty of conversations recorded in the gospels when Jesus asks zero questions.

One book about “self care” said Jesus always fought off temptation by quoting Scripture.  Except we only have three examples of ways in which Jesus was tested.  That is hardly a trend.

One book about spiritual disciplines argued Jesus always made people feel warm and cozy around him and never insulted anybody.  .  .except in Luke 6:24-26 and the other passages like it.

One book about board meetings said Jesus was super patient with everybody and never lost his temper.  .  .except that one time in all 4 gospels when he beat people out of the temple with a whip.

One book about social justice concludes Jesus was always eating with poor people.  .  .except that one time he crashed Zaccheus the rich tax collector’s house.

The Children’s Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with little kids, except the “let the children come to me” incident only happened once.

The Youth Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with teenagers.  .  .except for the fact that to be a tax collector, which a few of the disciples were, you had to be a bit older than a teenager.

The anti-church growth books say Jesus always had 12 disciples so we shouldn’t have mega-churches.  Except the disciples are numbered at different times as 12, 72 and 120 and never once did Jesus command his 12 to only have 12.

And speaking about those megachurches, people were always leaving Jesus so if you preach the Jesus-truth people should always be running away from you.  .  .except for the fact large crowds were always following Jesus too.  It was kind of a wash as far as the numbers went.

They all say that Jesus always led by example.  .  .except that one time he told his disciples to bring a sword and then yelled at Peter for using said sword.

If you read all four gospels, you will find the only thing Jesus always did was breath.  .  .except there were 3 days that he wasn’t even doing that.

Instead what the gospels give us are incomplete accounts of the things Jesus sometimes did and sometimes taught.  And those things changed from context to context.

The problem seems to be that in a church still desperately struggling to rid itself of the CEO Ministry Model, we still think Jesus can be boiled down to a formula of leadership self helps for the 21st century.

But when I read the Gospels I find a Jesus who is so much greater than a formula, even if that formula “always works every time.”  When the Sadducees come at him, he answers their questions with questions but when Nicodemus the Pharisee comes at night, Jesus issues proclamations about new birth before Nicodemus even asks the question.

To some crowds, Jesus spoke in parables.  Other times he adopts the formula, “You have heard.  .  .but I say” and when it is just his 12 disciples listening in, he utters mysteries about the Spirit.

Sometimes He says, “come follow me.”  Other times He flees to the desert before anybody can, though they did try.

One time He said, “let the children come.”  Another time He waited before going to a child so that he could heal an elderly woman.

All of this would make it seem that in the full person of Jesus we do not have the confines of 21st century leadership practices.  Instead we have a full and free personality whose life and teachings could not be adequately summarized even in 4 books (see John 20:30-31).

This should give us great freedom to adapt to our changing culture without having to proof text every principle and practice through the gospels.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always asked questions,” we should note that psychiatrists conclude in our time and place successful therapists ask good questions.

Instead of saying, “Jesus only had 12” we should note that currently several pastors report that having more than 15 people make discipleship groups unmanageable.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always hung out with one age group” we should note that in the right context children and youth can provide wonderful gifts and insights.

And instead of boiling down Jesus to 21st century leadership principles and practices, we should recognize that we worship and follow an eternal Savior who invites people from all contexts and all times into a loving relationship with the Triune God.

Sometimes that means listening to children.  Sometimes it means befriending those poorer than you.  Other times it means hanging out with tax collectors.  Sometimes we tell stories and sometimes we utter mysteries and sometimes we ask questions.  But at all times we pick up our crosses and follow.