Category Archives: Jesus

Baby Jesus with a full set of teeth

dangersignOn Sunday, Dec. 14, at Jacob’s Well I was exploring what it meant that the magi (or kings or wisemen) – a bunch of outsiders – knew that “the king of the Jews” had been born, but no one inside knew it.  [Read Matthew 2] Interesting… in fact Herod not only didn’t know, but when he caught wind of the possibility he used that information to try to stop it.

I commented that, at its worst, the church does the same thing. The institutional church is humanity’s plot to acknowledge God, because it can’t do otherwise, but to de-claw and render God harmless. It doesn’t want God upsetting what it has going.

Then I shared that it is the hope of Jacob’s Well, and the need for every person who is part of it, to make sure that God is allowed to be dangerous. To let the pregnancy of God’s advent turn our world upsidedown and never leave things the same.

The infant Jesus is a beautiful and gentle sign, but it is important to remember that he had a full set of teeth. He meant and still means business. We want to be the kind of church that lets God be dangerous.

Practice what you preach (or just practice?)

I was meeting with my GroupLife group on Sunday evening and Steve, one of our hosts, said, “You hear people say you ought to practice what you preach, but I wonder if we shouldn’t just practice.” Wow.

Of course that brought up a very good conversation about the virtue and pitfalls of preaching. Legislating faithfulness or proclaiming judgment are dangerous areas for us human beings and this ‘bad news’ method of sharing ‘good news’ seems dubious. But there is value in connecting actions to words. You can be good forever, but aren’t you – at some point or other – obligated to tell people why?

I suppose so (I am a preacher after all), but I really like Steve’s inclination to just practice. Here’s why. Preaching – especially outside the bounds of the Church – has a tendency to do more than share, it likes to hold agendas, to hustle people into its camp rather than their camp. Is it insecurity about the preachers’ camp that drives this, because your joining my camp rationalizes why I’m in this camp?

I imagine that if you are heaven-bent on practicing (excuse the pun) there will be a time when you will speak. Practicing your faith would mean not just acting from your source, but pointing to it. If I want to give people something very special, by practicing what is most valued by me, then I will want to connect them with it so they can receive it without having to go through me. It’s not about convincing anyone, it is about giving my best away. Practicing speaks when the time is right. It doesn’t strategically wait, but is just ready. That’s what’s so interesting about Jesus; he wasn’t about collecting people, he was ready to give what was needed and did it for our sake.

Was it Augustine who purportedly said, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words”?

PRACTICE!

Discovery

Another eye for beautyPreaching is always autobiographical for me. Not that I talk about myself, but what I’m talking about is something that I am struggling with. I guess that if I don’t find the content for my message personally engaging and at least somewhat troubling, I keep looking for something more worthy of all our time. Sometimes when i’m preaching I get caught off guard by how personal what I have to say is for me. It happened today.

Our service at Jacob’s Well was starting off a series preparing for Christmas called “Missing God.” I am convinced that to know the heart of God is to know poverty. Not just people in poverty, but poverty in you. Obviously not just economic poverty either, but that fundamental condition of humanity of being in want.  Poverty is good, in fact beautiful, but that’s another blog entry, or perhaps listen to the message ( 11.30.2008 ) on our site. Our neediness is our open door for God. It is acknowledgement that there is a hole inside that someone else must fill for us. At the end of the service we invited people to write what was missing in their life, what was in want, on a sticky note and then to come forward and stick them on a big box.

I had to do it too, of course. I was surprised, at first, that even though I’d talked about this so easily and thought about the concept so long, that I really didn’t know what I would write on the note. But then when I began to put the pen on paper my poverty was so clear. I really didn’t have to think. It was clearly more obvious than I wanted it to be. God showed up. For me. I wonder why I find that surprising… shouldn’t I assume God will? I do, I guess, but it still amazes me when it happens.

Was that really Communion?

communion - saltines and grape juiceOn Sunday (November 30, 2008) Jacob’s Well gathered at the Urban Hub of Urban Ventures, one of our strategic partners in serving the community. If you were there you may have been surprised by how we shared Communion. Some people were actually offended by it. That was the point…It was supposed to be! Let me explain. If you weren’t there our service was called “See hope. See hope run.” It was about putting action into our faith so that it makes a difference in the lives of others and brings hope. We focused particularly on homelessness. Communion happened with no fanfare and little explanation. It was unremarkable to say the least. Saltines were passed down the aisles and paper cups of grape juice. The body and blood of Jesus Christ, given for us.

Here is what I tried to convey at the time and I’ll try to capture again here.

Question number one: Is it still the body and blood of Christ when it is just a saltine and grape juice? When we don’t have special music and the mood isn’t set to be reflective? Is it still the presence of Jesus when all we know is that Jesus’ promise to be with us always is in the ‘bread and wine’?

My answer number one: I think so. The ritual we or any church might typically follow has purpose and meaning, but rituals don’t make Jesus “really be there.” There is no incantation, no magic, no right way to do it. Just God’s promise, “When you seek me in this simple meal… I’m there.”

Question number two: How do most of the world’s people experience the love of God? Is it in nice houses, great meals, vacations and excesses from which to choose? Or is God’s love there for people despite the apparent poverty of their experience?

My answer number two: If God is truly faithful to all people, then God is doing it in ways that those of us in our western world of material wealth would find uncomfortable, and hard to perceive. God’s love – if it comes at all – comes without bells and whistles, without excess and attention to detail, without any expectation of ‘enough.’ God’s love just is, despite the circumstances.

The point wasn’t to offend or shock, but to throw us back on two very important realizations.

That God’s love is there in real and tangible ways even when we have a hard time seeing it. We need to learn that for our own good because there will be many times when our lives are going to need to seek out hope when we’ve lost sight of it.

The other is that just as we would like communion to be more of a celebration and closer to the banquet that God has in mind, so the way God’s love is experienced in the world should be more tangibly celebratory. We shouldn’t settle for billions of our sisters and brothers knowing God loves them despite their circumstances. We should be restless for them to know God loves them because of their circumstances – justice, opportunity, health, security. And that means that we who have the means need to get off one part of our anatomy and be the active arms and legs, the vibrant hearts and mind of Christ in the world. And until that day, maybe we should always celebrate God’s holy meal with mere saltines and paper cups of grape juice so that it might provoke us to the purpose of sharing God’s love.

Hmmm… we’re coming up on Christmas… How did Jesus show up? Was it, perhaps, sort of a saltine and grape juice arrival?

UnLearn Religion… again

A few more thoughts from Sunday at Jacob’s Well:

“The greatest UnLearner of all time is God.  Face it,  God had a problem.  God created us with so much hope and promise and it wasn’t panning out.  We turned away and kept walking.  So God decided that to learn how to truly be what God wanted to be for us, God would need to unlearn what it meant to be God.  We call that unlearning event, ‘Jesus.’  And it was hard.  It is always hard when we leave the competence of what we know how to do – even if it wasn’t working – and we have to learn a new way.  It was about 30 years of the toughest unlearning and relearning that could be imagined, so that God could come out of that experience and provide 3 years of the greatest leadership that this world will ever see.  It changed the world forever.

If God had to UnLearn being God to offer the true relationship God sought to have with us, who are we to think we don’t have to UnLearn what it means for us to be followers of Jesus?”

– – – – –

“Why do we need to UnLearn?  To be ready for a world that has seen too much, gotten too big and too interconnected to swallow ‘Christianity’s’ certainties – which are really an illusion of knowledge, a disguise of ignorance, a refusal to unlearn and relearn – so that we can touch humanity as God wants us to.”

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Both of the quotes above from my message on Sunday (they are approximate, I don’t use a script) are inspired (and maybe partly created?) by Ron Heifetz of the Harvard/Kennedy School of Govt.  I heard him speak at a Leadership Network event in Dallas some years ago.  He, along with Jim Collins, Neil Cole and others really drove the unlearning concept home.  I heard him speak again at the Carlson School (part of the U of M) last week which made me pull out my old notes.  Good stuff.  Smart man.

UnLearn Religion

UnLearn

At Jacob’s Well we are focusing on UnLearning these days.  (Earlier blog on unlearning)  And since we are a church we need to start at  home,  so it was  UnLearn Religion.  God wants us to  UnLearn it so we can ReLearn Relationship.

I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices.  I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me.    Hosea 6.6 (TEV)

Something that spoke ‘convictingly’ (is that a word?) to me that I shared was this simple distinction between religion and relationship, between being a Christian and following Jesus.  It is this,

“Being a follower of Jesus means that you give up deciding where you will apply Jesus to your life, and instead discover where Jesus wants to take you.”

That is a scary concept that I hope to get good at!

The Irresistible Revolution – 1

The Irrestible Revolution

We are reading Shane Claiborne’s book, The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical at Jacob’s Well right now. I read it some time ago and have often returned to it. I picked it up again this morning as I was getting ready to speak tomorrow and nearly read the whole thing again. Sometimes I can’t believe I hadn’t read it before we started Jacob’s Well (other than the fact that it hadn’t been published yet…) because it speaks to the heart of what we seek to be about as a congregation.

Our Groups are using the books, so get in one. And no, you don’t have to be a Jacob’s Well person. It may help if you live in the Twin Cities area, however. But even if you aren’t in a Group. Pick it up (available at our services) and read it. You will want to discuss it. I’ll be at Turtle Bread (48th & Chicago) on Wed. night at 7 for anyone who wants to talk about it. Come join me. Or if you can’t make that, start commenting on this blog. I’ll make notes as we go.

So one way or another, join in.

Oh, something to start with.  In his intro (p. 20) Shane writes:

I don’t really fit into the old liberal-conservative boxes, so it’s a good thing we are moving on to something new.  My activist friends call me conservative, and my religious friends call me liberal.  What I often get branded is “radical.”

Now there’s a compliment!

Beyond the Crazy and the Anti

Scary Jesus (Picture by Ryan Kelly, printed in the City Pages.)

Boy, people who think God matters and are willing to cast aside the mindsets that are so deeply set, like the twin ruts a tractor leaves on a muddy road, sure have a big job ahead of them. But before I get into that I say welcome back to any readers… it has been a LONG time since I’ve posted here… My only excuse, and my least favorite, is being too busy. Everyday brings great stuff to me that I want to blog on… and the month passes by.

Back to the tire ruts.

The Twin Cities free distribution newspaper City Pages has a cover story in their most recent issue (March 5, 2008) called “Jesus Weekend: When teens encounter Christ, all hell breaks loose,” by Matt Snyders.  It is no surprise that an edgy, urban newspaper geared towards the young professionals would be willing to be looking for a potshot or two about religion.  What this article represents is the antagonism towards organized religion that most of the younger generations (can I say most people under 60?!?)  That is the one tire rut.

The other is what they are reacting to.  The conservative, save your soul attitude that is so prevalent in Christian circles.  The article is about a TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) weekend retreat.

As a new church that is trying to re-invent church to be authentic to what Jesus said and did, and to who people truly are today, I don’t want to fall into either of these well worn ruts.  In fact I would hope to help people out of each.  Can we represent a reason for people to climb out of their cynicism of what it means to be a community that seeks to follow Jesus?  Can we help people escape easy answers, formulaic ways of being recognizably ‘Christian’ or ‘saved’ in order to live the messy and lifelong pursuit of knowing and reflecting God?  I think so.  But the ruts are so deep, that it is hard to let people know we aren’t in one or the other, or to keep people from insisting that if we aren’t in their rut, then we are automatically in the other one.

I don’t want to just be in between the ruts, I want to leave them behind.  UnLearn them.  Rise beyond them.

Let me give credit to those I’m reacting to… Matt Snyder did a good job in his article. He was willing to experience it all and didn’t take sniper shots from the safety of his office.  He also was willing to acknowledge the good that came from the weekend.  His last paragraph, if nothing else, concedes this.  And his skepticism is well-founded.

TEC is also the means of good people intending to do good things.  They are taking time, energy and money to deal with a generation of young people who, in so many ways, have lost their rudders.  They do some good work and are not the only ones who aren’t perfect.  Until we have replaced their efforts it is hardly fair for us to say they shouldn’t be doing what they feel is right.  No one is forced to go (except perhaps someone sent by a consenting parent.)

That said, let us find ways to live out this calling where God matters with relevance and honesty.

Punishment from God – part 1

Question marks

People give me great theological questions quite regularly, I suppose because I am a pastor and they assume I have some kind of answer.  Which I do, quite often… but I’d prefer to call them responses rather than answers.  Answers put an issue to rest and finish the inquiry.  Most of the really good and deep questions don’t work that way.  And I don’t know “The Answer” in that sense.  Hopefully some of my knowledge, experience and reflection can point towards something illuminating, but as I like to say, it is probably towards ‘a better question,’ not ‘the answer.’

The question this time was ‘Who goes to hell, and what could be so horrible that God would do that to someone?’ 

First,  I’ve noticed that whenever I get into these big quandaries about God and faith that just don’t seem to be so un-understandable I usually find I’m asking the wrong question.  It’s no surprise that we get no answer or the wrong answer when we ask the wrong question.  The problem here is that we are so trained to ask this question.  “Who’s in and who’s out?”  Undoubtedly the Bible encourages this type of thinking in places.  Jesus’ story of the separation of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25.31ff) is an example of this.  But there are other messages.

One of those is the Gospel Message of unconditional love and acceptance, of a God giving his life in Jesus as a sacrifice paying for our sinfulness precisely so we wouldn’t have to.

Another is the redefinition of obedience that God points to already in the Old Testament (Hebrew scripture), Jeremiah 31.31-34 for instance, and that Jesus seals.  That is the notion that putting ourselves right (translate as ‘righteousness’) doesn’t come from following rules or doing the ritual right, but from an authentic relationship with God.  That is the theme of our worship service the week after Easter (March 30) when we kick off our UnLearn series with “UnLearn Religion.”

My studied and experienced sense of God is that while God is all about discerning what is better from what isn’t as good, it is for the purpose of calling out what if best, not to catch us at the worst.  What I mean is that God isn’t out to get us.  Find our flaws and trip us up.  It doesn’t take God to do that; we can do it for ourselves and each other easily enough.  We are imperfect, unworthy and undeserving at a pretty obvious level.  Stalin’s secret police leader is famous for saying, “Show me the man, and I will show you the crime.”  God, the creator of all things who declared them good is about finding, uncovering, redeeming and reclaiming that which is good and noble and usable within us and our world for the building of the kingdom.  God is about saving, not condemning. 

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3.17)

The real question, the better question… I think it is something like this…

What is it worth to me to seek to know and follow God and live the way I am taught?

What is the cost to live trusting things that shall pass away, allowing the separation between God’s will and my reality to grow wider and wider?

The affirmation that I would add is this…

The more I learn and experience about God the more amazed I am.  And what amazes me is how good God is; graciously, unselfishly, extravagantly loving.  And if I could add to those superlatives, it would be that God does it with mind-boggling variety.  It is not one size fits all.  It is so creative that we often miss it.

So, who goes to hell and what could be so terrible as to deserve eternal punishment?  There are those who will give you the lists.  I’d rather not argue with them, but ask, “What will God’s love accomplish next, and how can I open myself to that love and show it to others?”  The former, to me, is a human question.  The latter, a Jesus question.  Let’s surround our lives with Jesus questions!

This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.”  1 John 4.10 (The Message)

 

Which is the greater danger?

Heresy or Blind Compliance

Which way

Last Sunday, in talking about what it means to know Jesus, I talked about the ways it happens. There are a few obvious choices; like worship, the Bible, prayer, community.  But I offered a small stretch in ‘nature,’ saying that God wove patterns into creation that remind us of God’s truths for us.  Often these expressions capture God’s truth better than our words.  Then I took it a step further and offered that we get to know Jesus through ‘other writings and teachings.’  I said that something doesn’t have to be stamped ‘Christian’ to teach what God wants us to know.  Indeed, it could be far from God’s truth and still bear have the label.

I expected some phone calls and emails for that and was pleasantly surprised that all I got was a few thanks for saying it.  It is very consistent with our Jacob’s Well core values, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but it may just mean no one was listening…

God’s truth is what lies behind and in all that exists.  As such it is so big we can’t hide it forever.  It oozes out of every pore in our world, often especially where we least expect it.  That doesn’t mean that all things are good or helpful.  Much is not.  What is so important is that we don’t need to be afraid.  We can look and learn anywhere and everywhere.  Let Christ be the filter.  Trust the Spirit to guide us, and to rescue us from our errors.  Keeping ‘in the box’ of Christian teaching has certainly never prevented heresy in the past.

The point isn’t that Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, humanism, etc. is right or wrong, but rather that God is so big that God’s truth can’t be hidden forever.  Different cultures, perspectives, languages, eras will inevitably express and hide God’s truth in ways that are novel to us.  Don’t be afraid, that’s the key.  Be humble, admit mistakes, don’t try to justify what isn’t working and keep the heart of the Bible at the heart of your searching.