Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided that life would be better away from the family, so he asked for his half of the inheritance early. He didn't want to wait until his father died. In a brilliant show of either grace or naivete, the father sold half of the property and gave the money to his younger son.
That young man took the money, traveled to a foreign land, and squandered his wealth on wild living.
That life was short-lived. Soon the money was gone. Then the friends were gone.
He hired himself out for work, but with no friends or family, and since there he was a foreigner, there were very few job opportunities. The only job left for him was working with the pigs. He discovered that he was paid so little that the pigs were eating better than he was.
It was at that moment that he had a self-revelation. He remembered that his father treated the servants back home far better than he was being treated in that pig lot. He decided he would go home. While he knew he was unworthy of being a son, he might be able to stay there as a servant.
So he went home.
In yet another move of extreme grace, the father forgives the errant son and welcomes him back home. There is a celebration and the whole household is there rejoicing with the father that the lost has been found.
Everyone that is except the elder son.
The elder son pulls the father aside and rebukes him for this celebration, complaining that it is not fair that such expenses should be given, yet son, to celebrate his little brother.
The father responds, "Everything I have is yours and you had only to ask. Nevertheless your brother has returned and it is right for us to celebrate."
You may be familiar with this story from Luke 15. What if this was not the end if the story though. There is another story from scripture that takes place between two brothers trying to justify themselves in the presence of a father figure.
Genesis 4 recounts that Cain and his younger brother Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God showed his favor took Abel more than Cain. When Cain complained to God, he too was taken aside and reminded that he could obtain favor if he simply did what was right. His jealousy was unwarranted because God did not have a limited amount of favor to split between the two brothers. Furthermore, God told him to be careful because sin was crouching at his door, ready to overtake him if he did not gain control of it himself first.
The elder brother, in a spirit of jealousy, called the younger brother out into a field and murdered him. This first murder started with the same seed of jealousy that Jesus left us with at the end of the parable of the lost son.
So let's take a moment to trace this back,
Murder came from jealousy left unchecked.
Jealousy came from a feeling of unfairness.
The feeling of unfairness, particularly in the parable of the lost son came from placing greater value on possessions and experiences rather than relationships.
Both God in Genesis 4 and especially the father in Luke 15 demonstrate a consistent value of relationships. God comes across harsher perhaps in Genesis 4, but the emphasis is not on performing a specific ritual, which was Cain's focus, but rather on staying in relationship. Cain wanted the blessing his brother had, he didn't want God, the giver of that blessing.
I believe there is a clue in here to how we can end the power of violence in our lives. It is not about eliminating weapons, be they sticks and stones or words of hurt. It is not in pushing for complacency, thinking that if we hide our struggles away we can all just get along. I think the key to violence is to find new ways of dealing with jealousy and to promote the value of relationships over and above experiences and possessions. When I recognize the value, perhaps even my need, for those richer or poorer than I, it will be me, standing in the way of their own threats of violence. When we truly become brothers and sisters, we will keep one another and keep one another from harm instead of being the source of that harm ourselves.
So what would it take to bring us all together as brothers and sisters?
An act of God.
I have wondered over the years why the gospel writers were so critical of the Pharisees compared to the other groups of Jewish people that lived in Israel, let alone the Gentiles. There are some moments when Jesus seems to stop his lessons about God and God’s Kingdom start picking on the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23) Why would the early Christians have been so critical of this particular group of Jewish teachers.
One thought is that it was because they were so wrong. I think there is some merit to this, particularly to the Early Church as they grew in Gentile territories. Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome demonstrated a close evaluation of the purpose of the Law of Moses in the life of the Christian. Both in that letter, as well as in Philippians, where he specifically identifies himself as a former Pharisee, as well as in Galatians, he concludes that both Jews and Gentiles find equality through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3; Philippians 3:1-11; Galatians 3, 5:1-6). The Pharisees were a big deal to Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. Yet it is not Paul calling these Pharisees out by name in Asia Minor and Rome. It is Jesus calling them out in Jerusalem.
It is possible that the Gospel writers, Luke in particular whom we know traveled with Paul, may have been influenced by him in writing that gospel account. I think that may have defeated some of his attempt to write an orderly and accurate account if he was intentionally adding in some verbal jabs Jesus gave to the Pharisees on behalf of Paul and his frustrations that occurred years after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
That brings me to a third alternative. It is possible that Jesus did indeed make those verbal jabs not because the Pharisees were so wrong but because, out of all the groups of Jews out there, they were so close to getting it right. If you read the comments Jesus makes about the Pharisees closely, you will discover that much of his criticism of them is not about their beliefs or their verbal teaching - it is about their practice. In fact, he explicitly tells His disciples to do as they say, but not as they do. (Matthew 23:2-3).
We know that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees that followed Jesus - so it was possible to be both, it just presented its own challenges. In fact, given that the Pharisees eventually conspired to end the life of Jesus, I think the Pharisees had much more problems with Jesus than He had with them. Joseph and Nicodemus had to be careful, not of Jesus or His disciples, but of their fellow Jewish community leaders. For them, it was not just a matter of religious differences, it was an issue of political alliances.
There is also one final reason for the abundant presence of Pharisees in the gospels. They were simply more prevalent in the region of Galilee than the Sadducees were. Although Jesus spent a significant amount of time in Judea, he grew up and spent the majority of his three years in ministry in Galilee. Whether they came out from the towns and villages he visited, or actually followed him on the road, it was simply more convenient for the Pharisees to have access to Jesus, so it makes sense that, of all the Jewish groups near him, the Pharisees would have been better represented.
I think, in light of these reasons, that the Pharisees may well have deserved their part in those woes Jesus pronounced upon them. However I think they also in part were representative of all the groups in Israel at that time. They represented those who know what is right, but do not do it. At the end of the day though, as critical as Jesus was about the Pharisees, He let them follow Him… and He made disciples out of some of them.
Following up on Friday night’s blog about 2x2 ministry, here are 2 questions that we need to ask if we are going to move into the next generation.
1. What values do we have that we know they will need when we are gone?
2. As we envision the future generation, where do we draw blanks and need to seek outside counsel in order to create new values to fill out that vision?
The fact is, my values that I have are personal and many of them are not just taught, they are learned through experience. Some of us can learn not to touch fire by watching others get burnt, while others of us have to experience the pain ourselves before we will truly value and respect fire. I cannot expect others to take our word at face value when I often have not taken things at face value.
Some of my values are important and need to be passed on. Others however, are more contextual and will matter less over time. I saw a statistic today that said 60% of people get there television programming through Internet resources rather than live TV programming. I imagine that the way people keep up with the news is a greater percent social media. In years past, it was important not to schedule events at 6pm or in the early mornings when people would watch the news on TV or listen to it on the radio. There was a very specific time-frame they could receive that in. Nowadays though, anyone can get the latest breaking news simply by clicking on their phone, so the value of those times has changed already. The value of keeping up with the news though has probably grown. So I need to keep a value for current events, but leave the values surrounding whatever method I myself rely on, as it may change again in the next 10-20 years.
The second question regards those blind spots I have… how things may change. Much of it will be speculation and probably should remain flexible, but those are areas I need to seek outside perspective, and in many situations, a specifically younger perspective. Those who are shaping the future are the ones who will be closest to understanding what will be of value down the road. No perspective is perfect, but it’s best to make the best attempt I can.
Those two questions may help us all weather the storm of time and the inevitable change it brings, helping us to reshape and discern which values are timeless and which are timely.
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Two by two. It’s how the animals went into the ark in Genesis and it is how Jesus sent his disciples out in the Gospels. God’s plan of salvation spreading across the earth has never been one person at a time, it’s always involved us working together.
Now, obviously there are biological reasons for two of each animal on the ark. That is not the purpose of this writing. Nor is it the immediate practical purposes of survival outlined here in Ecclesiastes. No, there is a third and equally important purpose in the 2x2 rule, specifically related to ministry. Making disciples who make disciples.
That is some of the new terminology being used to describe the task given to us by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). It is a catchy, shorthand way of describing the transition of that mission between generations of Christian leaders. Passing the torch of leadership, you say? That is a part of this, but it involves more than the perpetuity of an institution or organization. I’m thinking in much broader strokes. I’m thinking about the way that the number of Christians across denominations seems to be cut in half with each generation.
Some chalk this up to evidence of the approaching End Times, but most who do so do not acknowledge their own responsibility in bringing this result about. There is little point in laying blame. The damage is done and there is no punishment or payment that can be made to take back anything that brought us to where we are today. We react to the situations around us instead of being proactive, and the result is that we end up losing our values in the process.
There are many shocking similarities between our politics today and those around 1860 - just before the Civil War. Without getting into any of the specific candidates for election, let me focus instead on party platforms. In 1860, the Republicans in the north were pushing to end slavery in the U.S. They met at their convention in Chicago and Abraham Lincoln was their nominee for the presidency. The Democrats in the South were incredibly divided between North and South. The North wanted to let states decide for themselves about slavery, while the southern Democrats wanted to keep slavery as it was. There was also an Independant party of primarily older citizens who nominated a slaveholder from Tennessee for president. Their platform was to ignore the slavery issue altogether and keep our nation from tearing itself apart.
What strikes me as odd (and I’m no US history expert by any means) is that we had the Republicans pushing for stronger federal laws, while the Democrats were fighting for State sovereignty. This tells me that one of two things happened. Either both parties got really confused over the slavery issues and abandoned their foundational platforms of federal sovereignty vs state sovereignty, or the experience of the Civil War transformed the parties into switching roles in the twentieth century. Today, we have two divided parties and it is getting harder to tell how they differentiate in their political values. They spend a lot of time trash talking the other party and the competitors within their own party as well.
Have we gotten this way in our church as well? There used to be much clearer distinctions between different denominations. On the positive side, I think we have all mellowed out a little from senseless competition and learned to work together. In some circumstances the trash-talking about other pastors or congregations still happens I’m sure, but in the light of our common struggles, it has been downplayed as of late. I think the real problem has been the values of our churches that have been lost in translation between the generations, and part of that can be seen in the lack of participation in younger people.
For instance, 100 years ago, you were expected to be in church every Sunday, somewhere, if at all possible, if you were going to call yourself a Christian. There was something about church attendance that was tied to salvation. Then, someone came along and told people that it wasn’t true, that attending church did not mean you were saved - which is true. But what some people heard from that criticism of the church attendance practice was that attending church was not valuable - so they stopped attending church and decided to worship God on their own, in their own way. That may well have been the start of the modern agnostic movement, though I doubt it was intended to be such.
Over the years, fewer and fewer of those values were passed down and new values were brought in by younger people who either inherited leadership without any real training or who left churches to start their own. Today there are very vocal acknowledgements made to being rooted in scripture, although that is often not articulated well, and the importance of our more recent church history is downplayed to a place of sentimentality about how parents and grandparents raised us, or the glory days of our time in church youth group. Either way, we can name the things we think we should do in church, but we cannot say why. We do not really understand, and thereby don’t truly value these aspects of church, so we are unable to pass them on… and the process continues.
The other concept that feeds this problem is our understanding of spiritual gifts. In our hyper-individualistic society it is now considered normal to believe that God created us all entirely unique and our spiritual gifts by which we serve God are different for every person. Again, there is some truth in this. We are unique people, uniquely gifted in many ways… yet the Apostle Paul felt compelled enough to write several lists of gifts that we have in his letters. These are not exhaustive lists, but they are fairly inclusive lists - in the sense that they represent broader categories that all of our uniqueness can find homes in. Or, in other words, they represent values in ministry. Teaching, preaching, administration, healing, encouragement, etc… these are all values that the early church had and that Paul sought to pass on to the next generation of Christians in all these churches he helped start.
So how does doing ministry 2 by 2 help with this concept of values? It ensures that the gifts I am using to carry out any given ministry are not limited to my own values, because there are two persons involved. The values are shared and the people being ministered to receive a double dose of those values to mix with their own. Perhaps most importantly is that the act of disciple-making goes on between the ministry partners as well as those with whom they are serving.
There is also a more practical reason to do ministry in partnership with others. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, and unexpected things happen everyday that mess up our well-intended ministry plans. If one person is removed from a ministry, there will always be the partner who can carry on the work, with the same consistent values in mind. If not, the transition is far rougher and often those important values are lost in these transitions.
If partnerships in ministry help ensure more consistent transitions of values in and through leadership, just imagine what ministry in the context of an entire team could bring!
I've been doing some reading up on Frederick Douglas this week. He has been a breath of fresh air in the midst of the tragic violence our nation has faced and the turmoil occurring in our political parties. President Obama continues to call for unity, but our nation, our culture, our lives are incredibly divided. Read these words, delivered to Congress in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
"It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic."
Truth does not prevail in violence. Emotion does. Personal agendas and ambitions do. Certainly sin and evil do as well. But Truth does not prevail in that. Instead, it prevails in reason.
Take a step back and ask, why now? Why do these attacks happen in the heat of summer and in times and places where the economy struggles? Why do we hear about these attacks in places with greater population density and not in the rural villages that predominate our country? We get hot and stressed... and our frustration overides our reason, so we find someone to take it out on. That someone is almost always the wrong person, not the person with whom we are truly frustrated.
I don't know about Frederick Douglass's faith, so I cannot comment on that, but I noticed he applied some of the spiritual warfare principles of Jesus to politics in the 1800's. He taught us to name the root cause, the evil spirit tormenting us, and to have the courage to cast it out instead of just dealing with the symptoms. It reminds me of the demoniac of Gerasene that was chained outside the town, near the tombs because he was so enraged that he would wound himself and anyone around him. Jesus, was not afraid of him, but asked the demons their name. They replied "Legion, for we are many". Jesus then cast them into a herd of pigs when they begged him not to send them away and the man was restored to sanity. (Mark 5:1-20)
We need to name those root causes, those spiritual evils that are tormenting us and have the courage to cast them out. I don't mean the evils our neighbors have, I mean the ones that we have in our own lives, in our own houses, in our own hearts. I'm sure the devil loves nothing more than a bunch of tormented fools taking out their distress on one another, all the while being blind to the root of our strife.
I've not seen any quotes of Frederick Douglas posted but I encourage you to check him out as he spoke from a place of peace, grace, strength, and unity, in a time when those qualities were most lacking in our nation. We may be in times like those again.
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 5:13–16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
I am helping out with Vacation Bible School this week, using the Cave Quest curriculum from Group. During our lesson tonight on a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount, our lesson teacher passed out popcorn to demonstrate the value of salt. All but one of the children (and there is always one) said they liked the salted popcorn better than the unsalted. Salt, among its many values, makes thing taste better and so we are to share our faith in a way that makes life better around us. (And preserve life, etc. for the bible scholars out there...)
Jesus goes on to talk about light though, which was the next example our teacher tried to explain. She asked the children, "Jesus wants us to be salt and ______?" and in one big voice they all said, "Butter!". So much for a smooth transition. I wonder if Jesus had as much trouble the first few times He preached the Sermon on the Mount.
There may be a lesson in here. Salt and butter have a way of making things easier to swallow. Butter is very different from the concept of light, which is not about making things easier to take, but about revealing truth to us. Contrary to our own desires, sometimes the truth is painful.
We have a duty to be salt and light, and to do so in love. This applies to our relationships at home, at work, among friends, among neighbors, and also with our leaders. We struggle with that in all areas of our life, but today, we especially struggle with that in regard to those who lead us. I have read and heard many criticisms of leaders, often made disrespectfully. I have also witnessed others refuse to stand up and speak truth when something was wrong for fear of being disrespectful. It is not easy to be salt and light to those authority figures in our lives. There is an excellent example of this in the Acts of the Apostles.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ac 18:24–28). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Priscilla and Aquila discovered a problem with the leadership of Apollos and they chose to be salt and light to him. They pulled him aside and explained what he was still lacking. It was not a scolding or shaming, nor were they hesitant in reaching to them. It was not done for the sake of saving the congregation, it was done out of love for the Truth and love for Apollos. They did not turn the light on him, they turned the light on the blind spot in his vision, and everyone was blessed by their efforts. They chose to be light rather than butter.
It must have worked well because the church there wrote him a letter of recommendation when he was ready to move on to his next church and Luke records that his amazing ministry continued there as well. That would not have been possible if Priscilla and Aquila had kept quiet and refused to be light. Our words to one another should be salt and light - love and truth, not just one or the other.
Disclaimer: I am personally a terrible example about the following subject.
I'm coming close to 20 years of experience serving in churches. One of the common stories I have heard told or seen demonstrated in almost every congregation I have been a part of is the growth toward becoming Pharisees. Depending on how my day is going it strikes me as either funny or sad the way it seems everyone, and I mean everyone tells this story on someone else. It goes something like this...
Once upon a time, I was a young Christian who had just discovered the love of Jesus for the first time and was reveling and excited about the freedom and forgiveness I found in His grace. I couldn't understand all these "older" Christians who were always reading from the Old Testament and talking about the Law. Come on people! Jesus died so that we could get away from all the Law stuff that only holds us back from God. It was offensive to me how complicated they were making the simple love and grace of God out to be. They were just like the Pharisees in the Gospels.
To make matters even worse, I found out that they were still sinners. Not only were they keeping people out who were the ones who really needed God, they weren't even following all the rules they were so insistent on others keeping.
This story often ends with a call to ministry, perhaps a church split, or some other form of starting ministry from a fresh new perspective. The world turns, and another generation arises. Those who were once adamant that grace theologically outranks works every time have grown a few years older, and perhaps more importantly taken up the mantle of leadership and their perspective changes.
Suddenly, they are not sure that everyone deserves grace all the time. Now, they should only receive that forgiveness and acceptance if they apologize... and not just a half-hearted apology. They need to really mean it. It needs to be actual repentance, so everyone knows they will never do it again. They should also pay for whatever pain or damage they caused if at all possible. The list goes on...
The funny thing is that so much of this depends on context. It is not age that makes people Pharisees, it is responsibility. I have seen young adults in college ministry be so pro-grace/anti-law in their college ministry groups on campus who, when put in charge of a cabin of middle school students at camp, suddenly transform into the master of parliamentary procedure for the Sanhedrin Council of the Pharisee sect.
Why is this? Simply put, we would rather receive grace than give it. Even those of us who struggle with our own pride and desire to earn our keep... we certainly don't want to give out more grace than we have access to ourselves. That cuts us to the core. Yet what did Jesus say about giving and receiving? Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8) or more pointedly in Luke 6:30 - Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Jesus didn't deal with what was fair. He dealt with what was right. Those are not always the same thing. It is those moments when it is not fair but it is right that we probably cringe the most. Especially when it is unfair to us.
The question today is not, where do you stand? Where we stand depends on the day and how much responsibility we have. The question is: how are we giving out grace?
"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"
- Matthew 7:3 KJV
Tonight I'm finishing up the chapter on the gospel of John. It is just the first draft and I imagine there will be plenty of revisions. If there is one thing I have learned combing through the politics in the gospels is that we all have room to grow. I do not just mean that nobody knows it all like Jesus does... that much is a bit too obvious. I mean that we all - right, left, middle, other, and abstaining, are unified by the effects of fear in our political lives.
Every day it is something else. I used to hear about the negativity in the media and how some people wished the stories were more uplifting. Today though, it is not just negativity, it is anxiety. It is fear. I do not know if we have grown up into a fear-consuming nation or if there are external pressures that intend on keeping us that way. All I know is that fear is prevalent.
That is except when we cover it up with our anger. The political anger today matches the fear and meets it head on in a violent chemical reaction that is imploding communities and exploding across the nation. We react. All of us. Anger and fear, two sides of the same coin that herd us around in circles.
So tonight I'm wondering, if we strip away the fear and anger as motivations for our politics... what is left? Is there any motivation? When we strip away the manipulators is there anything left that honors God?
It's time to quit reacting to the motes in our own eyes. They lead us into jousting matches with windmills like Don Quixote that make us feel important because we cannot see what we are doing... just being foolish. We need to see clearly what is going on in us, so that we can see clearly what is going on around us, and where God is at work.
Sometimes we just need to try something different.
One of the difficulties I face in church politics is trying to find the "right" answer to a problem. There are many methods to figuring out solutions. Most of them involve searching the Bible at some point or another. If the Bible does not specificy an answer, we often turn to bible teachers and interpreters for insight. If we still cannot find answers we usually try to figure it out based on our own logic and experience. That has more or less, been the traditional model of making decisions in the church.
Things are different today though. Today we have Google. Today we have Siri. Today we have so much information at our fingertips that we can get an answer to complicated questions within seconds while it may have taken years to find them just a decade ago. The game has changed, and so have some of the rules.
Twenty years ago there was greater trust in what was published. Today, anyone can publish anything and expertise is marked by sales and reviews rather than a long list of educational accomplishments. I don't think that is entirely bad either... There have been far too many years where those who went to the right schools and knew the right people made all the rules. The world has changed, and now everyone is grasping for a piece of it.
The church is not immune from that change either. Many churches, coming from a place of desperation are willing to try anything, especially if they have seen it work somewhere else. We find ourselves in the precarious position of recognizing we cannot go back to 1950, but we don't like what the future seems to hold either. It can make us harder to get along with and less trusting of others. It pushes us into fight or flight modes.
You cannot really experience freedom when you are in fight or flight mode. Freedom and fear don't mix. When everything is up for the taking, it may be advertised as freedom, but what it truly becomes is might makes right. There is actually a political precedent for this that I will post tomorrow... But the main point is that, in a dog-eat-dog world, only the dead are free.
Our founding fathers really were some educated people - some through classical training, and others through hard living. All of them were willing to die for freedom. They understood that freedom is not about just getting what you want. It involves checks and balances, and they understood that even when the government does not have checks and balances, the people can become them... perhaps should become them for that government. But here's the catch. The story we are living continues to be filled with more and more violence and less actual innovation and creativity. We get pushed to act like animals and then justify oppressors who claim we act like them. We lean on our leaders to fix everything and miss out on the role we all have in teaching our leaders how to lead again. Anyone can boss and bully others around. Anyone can spin lies and charm others out of their worth. Anyone can use people. That's not what we need in politics.
It's time for something different. It's time for leaders who can live as examples that point to something greater than ourselves, call us to be greater than we are. It's time for politicians who bury 1000 years of what it meant to be a politician and make Saturday Night Live and all our late night talk show hosts find themselves without words. I think an experience of that could make us all experience a whole new kind of freedom, a freedom for which we all might be willing to give our lives.
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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