The Jesus who speaks through miracles (and the universe)

Dura-europos-paralyticReading the story of Jesus healing the paralytic man this morning, I’m struck by something Jesus said. After he forgave the lame man’s sins, and the religious leaders questioned his authority to do so, Jesus said, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier; to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority to on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you get up, take your mat and go home.” (Mark 2:8-11).

Then the man got up and walked home!

What struck me was the connection between the Jesus who performs miracles and the Jesus who speaks through creation texts today. The same Jesus who has authority to override physical reality when it’s broken (i.e. heal lame limbs) is the Jesus through whom all physical reality came to be (everything made through him – John 1:3, the whole universe – Hebrews 1:2), and the one in whom all physical reality now holds together (Colossians 1:17). It takes a lot of faith, and a very expansive view of Jesus’ authority over physical reality to believe in miracles; about as much as it takes to believe that Jesus can speak through the universe he made (and everything that fills it)!

Which, to me, is illumining. Because whenever I discern his voice through a supernova, song or a biological truth, it feels pretty miraculous. Every time it happens I’m reminded of Christ’s authority over all things! That Jesus really does have the authority to speak through whatever he wants to! Every miracle is a testament to this fact.

(image – The Healing of the Paralytic – the oldest known image of Jesus,[8] from the Syrian city of Dura Europos, dating from about 235, Wikipedia)

 

How did Jesus come up with the Beatitudes?

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After reading the Beatitudes this morning I got to thinking about how Jesus came up with them, and how his process might point to another whole other set of blessings!

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:4-12, NIV

So, I’m thinking that, maybe, for a few days (or weeks) Jesus thought about the most important things that he wanted to teach. In so doing he blessed our human capacities to remember, ponder, and consider. Then he must have spent some time working out a top eight (or nine) list of ‘places in life’ that are very close to God – being poor in spirit, mourning, being meek, etc…  In doing this he blessed our ability to order, weigh and prioritize our thoughts. Then, like a poet, or a gifted speaker, he must have imagined the best way to communicate these truths; “Maybe a series of concise sayings…  each starting with the word ‘Blessed’… creating a kind of meter or cadence… and ending with the most mysterious and upending blessing”. In doing this he honored and blessed our abilities to imagine, create, form and shape. Plus he affirmed the blessings of eloquence and beauty. And then, for all we know, he may have gone back to his first draft and edited it, cutting out that blessing that didn’t quite fit, and re-crafting some of the language; “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will know God… no… for they will hear God…  nope…. for they will see God…that’s it!” And if he did self-edit, could he have been blessing the gifts of process, self-analysis and reconsideration?

As I think about each of these things they all seem so human. And I wonder if every time I engage these processes I’m utilizing creation-gifts that have been blessed by Jesus (in his using).

(image – Portrait by Gustave Courbet, 1848, Wikipedia)

Excellence vs. Community?

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How good is good enough when it comes to doing what we do in church on Sundays?

It’s a tough question to answer. I’m sure it’s one that churches everywhere struggle with. We all want things done well but well is a relative term. Well depends on the people who make up your community (their gifts, their numbers, their availability). Well is measured by whatever metric matters most (inclusion, excellence, grace, beauty?). Well varies from Sunday to Sunday even for the ‘most gifted’ preachers, musicians, and tech operators (everyone has good weeks and bad).

And is ‘doing well’ what we’re going for in church? If our faith is about grace (and not works), shouldn’t doing well be based on God’s take on us – a perfect Heavenly Father who chooses to love the heart of every completely out of tune 4 year old singing in the children’s choir? Let’s face it, compared to God’s perfection we’re all just yelping.

But in the bible, excellence and beauty seem to matter a lot to God. He made a perfect creation. He gave amazing (and often celebrated) artistic, musical and leadership gifts to people. But on the other hand God also used stutterers, runts and self-righteous prigs. His power is made perfect in weakness right?

So, again, its all so confusing to me. Do you just do the best you can with the people you have, trusting that God is good with that? Let the best speakers speak and strongest singers sing and wisest leaders lead and find a way to speak the truth in love when it comes to discerning which is which?

Do you try to improve going forward as a faith community; knowing that you’re made in the image of a God who does all things well?  I think you do. But the moment that that thought translates into action, and I have to tell someone that their voice isn’t good enough, or that they don’t have the technical aptitude, or that they’re not called to preach or teach children, my confidence ebbs. Who am I to make those kinds of calls?

I suppose it’s not up to me to make those choices. Decisions that strike the right balance between excellence and grace need to be communally made. But I’m not sure how that happens. Do musicians make music decisions or does the rest of the singing community? Or should church leaders make those calls? I suppose it needs to be a mix of all of the above. Which only adds to the complexity.

Maybe the answer is less about where you draw the line and more about when you do.

Jesus called a motley crew of untrained fishers to be the foundation of his church. He started with very average people and transformed them into very powerful leaders. This took years. I suppose taking the time is the most gracious (and costly in terms of energy expended) way of having the conversation. Give people every chance to succeed and find their way. Do this in love and with compassion for both the person and the congregation. Don’t be too quick to judge. Have faith that God can create a kind of community where excellence and inclusion aren’t seen as mutually exclusive. Imagine a community so defined by love, so marked by humility, that everyone is able to come to the same conclusion about ‘who’s called to do what’ all at the same time.

The Problem of Pain, Providence, and a God who speaks everywhere

resolve_urn_BYVANCKB_mimi_78d38_dl1_003r_min_b_0 I have a friend who often pushes back on my worldview/preaching/highly sovereign view of God with the question, “But what about all of the suffering and pain and brokenness in the world? How can you talk so much about God’s presence with all of that there?”

He has a point. The more sovereign, provident, and moving-in-behind-and-through-all-things your God is, the more pointed the concern with what theologians call the ‘problem of pain’ (why  would a good God who is all powerful allow evil to exist?). The more I talk about God’s everywhere presence, voice, and activity, the more reminders we have of this problem. It’s as though by naming God’s presence in more and more places, the problem of pain gets worse.

My first response to my friend is that this same problem exists if you have a ‘bible-as-sole-source-of-revelation’ world view. In the scriptures God is very sovereign and the world very broken. Providence and pain.

But that never felt like enough of an answer. Yet still I really don’t worry about the problem of pain that much. Why is that?

As I thought about this last night an answer came to me.

My experience of knowing and experiencing God everywhere is so beautiful and full – so filled with touches and whispers and a sure knowledge of his mysterious love – that the question doesn’t come up. He’s so close that I trust him. The more I know him everywhere, the more the mysteries don’t matter. They do, but they’re not the first thing I need to bring up when we’re together.

The closer I get to God the more questions about the problem of pain don’t matter.

His presence is enough of an answer.

(image from the website of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek)

A most beautiful sermon (from a young disabled man)

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A couple of weeks ago I attended one of Edward’s recreational programs called Friendship. It’s hosted at a local church and staffed by a group of humble, loving, and deeply commited folks who know the meaning of life. My hope was to drop Edward off and head out to a coffee shop for some reading, but I ended up having to stay, which ended up more than okay.

After the opening welcome and some robust group singing we headed off for our small group bible study. Whenever Edward comes home from Friendship he always has an animated bible story coloring page in hand. So I knew what to expect from this next part of the program.

Only what played out was so much more.

I heard from the teacher afterward that when she was practicing her dramatized bible story earlier that evening (with a big hand puppet playing one part of the narrative) a young disabled man walked into the room and immediately took up the ‘Jesus’ role in the narrative. He knew the story well and was clearly a bit of actor. And so, without hesitation, the teacher invited the young man to play the Jesus part when she would later tell the story (without a rehearsal!).

So there we sat, about to hear the story of Zacchaeus first meeting Jesus. By this point the young actor had found a suitable Jesus-robe to wear and the teacher had hoisted the Zacchaeus puppet up into a fake tree. And then she started into the story, “Zacchaeus was a very rich tax collector who stole money from a lot of people…  he desperately wanted to see Jesus, but because he was so short he had to climb a tree to get a glance… when Jesus came to the tree he looked up and said…”  Then the young jumped in, right on cue, and shouted, “Zacchaeus come down!”.

Now according to the gospel account, Jesus then invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, where Zacchaeus then confesses to all of his treachery and offers to make things right causing  Jesus to say, “Today salvation has come to this home…” (Luke 19;9, NIV).  But in the FDV (Friendship Dramatized Version) the story moved more quickly. No sooner had the puppet Zacchaeus come down out of that fake tree, then Jesus walked right up to him, looked him full in the face, and said, “I forgive you Zacchaeus… (PAUSE FOR DRAMATIC EFFECT)…  I love you!”

It was the added ‘I love you’ that undid me. So genuine, spontaneous and second nature. So heart felt and beautiful. It made me think about how natural it must have been for Jesus to love others and forgive them. And how his love freed people to be their true selves – an ancient Palestinian tax collector, a disabled young man with no inhibitions, a Christ-imaging teacher who’ll invite anyone to play a part (even the unpracticed), and 53 year old preacher with so much yet to learn.

And I think that that retelling of the Zacchaeus story was the most beautiful sermon I’ve ever heard or seen.

 

 

Why does this make me cry?

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Again I find myself bawling at the epiphany, at the sacred God-with-me place, the moment of co-illumination where God’s truth in a film meets God’s truth in the bible meets God’s truth in me. This time it happened at the end of the film Inside Out. As I was wrapping up my message – about how real life is found as we image a God who mysteriously carries both joy and sadness – and watching the closing scene of the film – that part where a runaway girl repents and comes home to her parents – the words from Revelation 21:4 came to mind.

And then, from somewhere deep inside, out pour the tears.

And I find it so beautiful how the words of Revelation come alive – ‘they’re his people, he’s their God’ – when put beside the home-coming feeling as its so sensitively portrayed in the film. And when those two words touch my soul, one that longs for that kind of embrace, to arrive safely home, to experience those joyful tears, I am undone.

Again it all seems so perfect. God speaking everywhere so that everyone can find their way.

A course on how to preach two-book sermons

two books   Yesterday I had a great meeting with Ambrose Seminary and they are interested in the possibility of me teaching a two-book preaching course (full semester) for their new preaching certificate program (some day perhaps ‘preaching institute’).

They’ve asked me submit a proposal outlining the nature/content of the course. And this is where I need some help. Many of my preaching, theologian, teacher friends have worked through/engaged/attempted/participated-in-researching/done two book preaching in the past…  and so my questions are these:

1. What have you learned about two-book preaching that others would need to know?

2. What have been your biggest challenges in engaging this homiletic approach?

3. What do you wish you knew more about this preaching method?

Your answers to the above may range from worldview challenges to the smallest pragmatic details. I’d love to hear it all. So if you have any thoughts, please comment.

Thankful for how it all fits

Picture1As I watch Edward head out to his cab en route to his day program this morning I am struck by how perfectly everything fits. This only works if Fran and I have jobs that are as flexible as they are – me working from home, her working five minutes down the road. There is no way we could care for a disabled adult unless this were the case. At times the turns are tight. Twice a week I make sure I’m home at 3:00 for Eddy’s 3:15 drop off so that when Fran gets home at 3:20 I can run off to teach my class. And it always seems to work.

I’ve noticed the ‘fit’ in other parts of my life as well. I would not be able to write were it not for the fact that I preach. Everything I’ve ever written into books was birthed in a sermon. Sunday, after church, someone noted that I seemed to leave a lot of sermon research unused. “You just can’t fit it all into a 22 minute message,” he said.  I told him that I just saved that material for the next chapter of the next book. “You could actually write a whole book on that topic,” I said.

Many times this fall I’ve experienced a triune kind of synergy, with preaching, writing and school work all coming together. Earlier this semester I assigned the watching of an old Supertramp sermon to my class (to teach them about how God can speak through music and to introduce them to a part of my life story). Then the whole Roger Hodgson thing plays out two weeks ago, leading me to write a blog post that gets shared over 1400 times, which I then get to share with my students as an example of how engaging God’s revelation in the world can be an effective way of church witness. The fit felt perfect!

It happened a few months ago as well, when I preached on the Toronto Blue Jays. We were in the middle of seven week merger/discernment process with Hillside Church, doing Sunday services together, and then this big media response to the sermon hits. An article in newspapers/websites ran across the country and all three major networks did news stories (that’s never happened before!). One of the interviews had to be squeezed in just before a Tuesday afternoon class. So I did it in the lobby of the university and then we talked about it in class. A week earlier I’d written a piece on the theology of playoff baseball for @ThinkChristian which greatly shaped the research process. And it all fit together perfectly. What a great way to introduce Hillside to what we’re all about and to teach a timely lesson to my class (and get to watch baseball for weeks under the guise of sermon research)!

I’ve been noticing how things have fit a lot this fall. I suppose it’s a foretaste of a one day life where all things will fit together perfectly all the time, all imaging a God who – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – fits together perfectly.

Sometimes I wonder if life is fitting together way more than I ever notice.