Thursday, February 26, 2009

a good reminder

An excerpt from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God's spiritual-physical creatures. The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other's benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God's will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

At the Road Show

Earlier this summer I attended the Church Basement Road Show, a book promo tour put on by some guys from Emergent Village. The show was creative and engaging, and I embraced many of the general concepts—looking for God in unfamiliar places, creating an environment where Christians feel safe asking tough questions, recognizing that ministering the gospel involves more than reciting four spiritual laws, and emphasizing God’s presence and involvement in the world’s affairs. Overall, however, the supreme emphasis on Christ-like conduct in the here and now overshadowed sacred and central truths of the Christian faith. The following paragraphs explain why this made me uneasy.

Sharing an excerpt from his book Soul Graffiti, Mark Scandrette posed this question: Is loving someone only a means to an end, or is the meaning found in the act itself?

He proceeded to tell of his friendship with The Emperor, a crazy, old transvestite guy who lived in a bus on a hill in San Francisco. Mark and a friend met The Emperor, and at first he hated them. Yet they decided to continue being his friend. Over the course of several months, they would visit his bus frequently, eat food with him, and talk to him. They put up with his goofy antics and nasty habits, such as concocting healing potions from his own bodily fluids. They were careful not to preach to The Emperor or even mention the name of Jesus, because they knew he would immediately have a tantrum and banish them from his domain.

At the end of the story, The Emperor attempts suicide but fails. Mark and his friend show up and take him to the ER. When he wakes up, he is furious. He yells at them, demanding to know why they didn’t let him die. This is the point in the story where you would expect to hear that Mark shares the gospel message with him, The Emperor embraces the truth of Jesus, and all their work in loving him finally pays off. Instead, at the end of the story, Mark and his friend buy The Emperor his favorite food and enjoy it with him while he lies in his hospital bed. In my understanding, Mark intentionally left out any kind of conversion experience, crafting the story to emphasize that loving people indeed is not a means to an end. We don’t do it so that people will convert.

I agree.

However, as I reflected, I felt this tale was quietly communicating something else. With or without the author’s intention, it seems to say that if you do verbally present the gospel message (I Cor. 15:1-8) to a person, that automatically means your relationship was only a tool all along. So I asked myself, if I urge my friend to believe in the risen Jesus, does that rule out the possibility that I actually care about him and will love him even if he doesn’t ever believe? Mark’s story (combined with some of the other material presented at the road show) answers this question with an indirect “yes.”

Again, I agree that the gospel is more than a simple formula. It needs to be lived and communicated daily through our actions. But it is words too; it is a message! As God’s people, our actions should be a testimony to his redeeming work. But that work, the climax of which is Jesus’ death and resurrection, needs to be explained. Christ had a lot to say about how his followers should live, but he also had a lot to say about who he is! (The gospel of John, for example).

It’s cool that people are recognizing how we’ve cheapened salvation with the jargon we use to present gospel truth. Yes, sharing God’s truth with people involves more than reading four laws from a pamphlet. It must be displayed in our conduct. But in rediscovering how to communicate the gospel in word and deed, some people, in practice, erase the message. I agree wholeheartedly with Mark: to overlook people’s physical needs and take interest in them only as a means to an evangelistic end is offensive to the nature of Christianity. However, if we overcorrect and love people without telling them of the saving work of Jesus, then we are nothing but a bunch of people being really nice. We are dissolving into our pluralistic culture.

In the opening pages of Soul Graffiti, Mark writes, "It takes courage and work to investigate the message of Jesus beyond the hype of an overly religious culture…We search for what it means to be human and how to connect with our Creator in the context of our relationships with one another.” I left the road show hoping that Christians across the spectrum will listen to each other and search broadly for God’s truth, giving our humble loyalty always to Christ himself.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Many parts of scripture tell us not to fear, but recently I asked myself why. Why should we not fear? I can quote a verse when I’m feeling worried or nervous about something and try to will myself away from fear, but there must be something deeper for such a command to rest upon. The following paragraphs show from scripture that Yahweh himself is the basis of the comfort he gives. God does not offer ungrounded consolation to his people.

In Zechariah eight, the Lord reassures the Israelites three times (vs 9,13,15). He speaks through the prophet to those who have returned from seventy years of exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (also called Zion). Chapter eight begins in the middle of God’s long answer to a simple question asked by the elders of the people in 7:3. They ask, “Should we keep fasting and mourning every fifth month, like we have the whole time we were exiled?” Eventually God tells them that what matters most is for them to obey and be formed by the Law (8: 16-17); however, before that he makes a bunch of lofty promises to the small group of disgruntled Jews.

In fact, it seems almost cruel that God would make these kinds of promises to these struggling people. Here they are, barely able to rebuild the temple's foundation (4:1-10), and God speaks to them of a day when Jews ripe with age will rest in Zion comfortably and the region’s produce will be rich. Furthermore, he promises that someday a king will reign from Jerusalem in peace over the whole world (9:10) and all Israel's present enemies will be silenced, or even brought into the covenant (9:2-8)! God tells them of a day when living water will flow from the renewed Jerusalem, which will then be free from its curse (14:8-10). Mixed in with such promises also come Yahweh’s words of comfort, “Do not fear.”

The same phrase appears again in the pages of Luke’s gospel. With a visit from the angel Gabriel, God promises another stage in his redemptive plan—a promise that again seems impossible. Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to a baby king from the house of David whose kingdom will not end. Later a whole host of angels delivers the same message to some Judean shepherds. “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (2:12 NIV). In both cases, the news of God’s new saving movement is coupled again with divine consolation; “Do not fear.”

In summary, God gives comfort based on his covenant with man, which is manifested differently in different ages. For the returned exiles, it was the repopulation of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. For the Jews under Roman rule four centuries later, it was the coming of the long awaited Messiah. For the redeemed community today, it is righteous standing with God through Jesus’ work on the cross and the hope of wholeness through the resurrection of the dead. Lord, make our fears small in the light of your truth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Two lights
One hangs somber in the northwest
Biding farewell and reminding us
that the dark has not yet given way
Its shimmer has grown pale
As it fades into the waking sky behind
Where it will wait again for familiar night

So long it says
I will see you again when the day
The mysterious day
has passed

We roll southward across the plains
As the stronger light reacquaints itself
With a land nearing the harvest
Through foggy glass I look upon
Divine provision's open palms
Now overlaid with highway
Now covered with a quilt of ornamental landscape
Sidewalks replace the Indian’s trail
Chemical sod covers an old frontier
And we drive

Yet at this hour something sings
And even a city dweller hears it
Clear and soft
The sacred earth-song rises still
Giving the urbanite a new ear
He hears now the prayers of his ancestors
Who rose and labored with the sun
Who lowered their dead into the soil
Who gave their sweat to the fields
In exchange for a living
In exchange for him

Away from the metropolis
Trapped inside a speeding bus
Crossing the land of two lights
I sing back in a sleepy whisper
I am your separated seed
And I will see you again
When the day
The mysterious day
Has passed

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Sunday Visit

As soon as the knock on the door came, I knew who it was. Jack and I were sitting in the kitchen. I was chopping up an onion. I knew our homeless friend, Eddie had come to visit. He had a habit of coming by on Sunday afternoons, because his usual roost, the library, was closed. We had not seen him for over a month and were hoping had entered a 3-month residential rehab program for drug and alcohol addiction. Apparently he had not since he was at our door.

As usual, Eddie looked disgruntled and tired. His eyes said, “I hate that I have to show up on your door like this, but here I am.” We welcomed him with gladness, and the next minute he was sitting at our kitchen table. As I continued chopping onions and peppers, Eddie spoke a tragic and tender monologue to which Jack and I listened with heavy hearts. I’ve paraphrased part of his story. Be warned! There are a lot of cuss words coming up! The streets have their own language, which I’ve tried to leave intact. Why? Because when we befriend sinners, as Jesus did, sin comes close to us. It repulses us, makes us uncomfortable, and tempts us to try “cleaning people up” by ourselves. Instead we must introduce them to the risen Jesus so that he can do the job the right way. Here is what Eddie told us:

”Three years ago I lost everything. Man, if you could’ve seen me. I had a job working for the post office. I was making 50,000 dollars a year. I had a life. I’d been with my girl 18 years. Then she let me go. In court I cussed out the judge; I said I was gonna kill him. So they charged me with contempt in court and I was in jail for a month. When I got out I couldn’t go home cause she’d filed a restraining order. So what did I do? I just started drink’n all the time and doing drugs and fuck’n hoes. Man, she was my lady. I was with her 18 years. I miss her so goddamn much…You see, it’s like, I do things backward. I must be give’n God such a headache. I know the right thing to do, but I can’t do it. I fuck up over and over again. He must say, Eddie, why do you keep fuck’n up? Why would you get some money and walk right past McDonald's to buy booze, even though you know you’re hungry? Why would you do that? But I do that shit all the time. I get so drunk I black out just so I can sleep on the train at night. Man, who wants to live like this? Sorry, now I’m crying. See that’s what happens when I get sober…You know, I got six babies by six different women, but none of them wanna see me. They come around my momma’s place, but I don’t see them. They hate me. I’m almost fifty years old, but I ain’t even got my own crib. I smell like shit. I haven’t showered in two weeks. You know my sister, she’s the one who drove me to rehab. I’m gonna call her. But if I tell her how they put me out cause I don’t have insurance, she’ll just say I’m lying. She’ll say I just left cause I wanted to. How is that? I’m finally trying to get my shit together. I go to rehab and after two weeks they say, ‘You’re okay. You got to go back out on the street cause you ain’t got no insurance.’ Why? Why would God let that happen? How could they expect a man 30 years drunk to be sober after 14 days?”

Eddie passed the afternoon watching Jurassic Park II in our living room while Jack and I did homework and some other things around the house. That evening we did a lot more listening to him; when our other roommates and friends arrived we all ate pizza together. We cried with Eddie and prayed for him. Lord, reveal the truth of your forgiveness to a man unable to forgive his own self. His sin is etched deep into his core; now show him the hope of the new covenant. Jesus, whisper the secrets of your kingdom into his ear and heal him.

In the morning Jack took Eddie to a mission where he’ll have to check himself in clean every night for a month. If he makes it, he’ll enter their rehab program. Pray with us that God will guard our friend from evil and give him strength over the next month. We are grateful for Eddie, because through him the Lord has deepened our spiritual hunger. I hope the story blesses you in the same way and makes you consider who you welcome through your doors.