Posted in reflections

A tale of two scientists

September, 1981: Prof. Keyes

Fresh off a gap year of honest but repetitive work in the produce department of a Rochester area supermarket, I drove 8 hours to Quincy, Massachusetts and waited in the freshman registration line at Eastern Nazarene College. “Principles of Biology” was the default choice for non-science majors. Chomping at the bit for an intellectual challenge, and even though I’d already declared my major as religion, I jauntily checked “Introduction to Zoology” instead, the entry course for biology and pre-med majors,

Little did I know what I’d let myself in for! Over the next semester, I painstakingly mastered the details of the Krebs cycle, encountered the Latin names of genera and species, and studied Prof. Glen Keyes’ carefully etched chalkboard drawings of cellular components and reproductive systems. Prof. came to class sporting a white lab coat, answering students’ questions, encouraging them as they diagrammed formulas or microscopic organisms in their lab books. Chapter 1 of the course textbook matter-of-factly presented Darwinian principles like natural selection and how life on earth had evolved and continued to do so. That chapter made me wonder about whether my Christian faith and evolution could be squared. I’ll always be thankful for a conversation with Dr. Alex Varughese in the religion department, an Old Testament specialist with an M.A. in Marine Biology. He sagely replied when I brought my quandary to him:

“Genesis 1-2 is not so much about how as it is about who.”

God is creator, and evolution is the mechanism God used and continues to use to create. The elegant solution of theistic evolution came clearly into view that day and has helpfully guided my thinking ever since.

After Christmas break, I registered for the new semester and headed to the bookstore to buy textbooks. Prof. Keyes walked in and spotted me, a look of concern on his face. “Greg, I just received the print-out for ‘Botany’ and your name was missing. That’s the next course for pre-med majors.” He looked surprised by my reply: “But Prof., I’m not a pre-med major. My major is religion.” He could have tried to convince me to drop religion and pursue pre-med, but he understood the value of both. His last words that day have lingered with me:

“I’m glad to know we’ll have another pastor behind the pulpit who understands that you can believe in both God and evolution.”

But back to 1981. Hard work in Zoology paid off. Going into the final exam, I stood near the top of the class of thirty plus students, down by around ten students who’d dropped the course along the way. When final grades were released, on my report card appeared a much-coveted “A.”

March 2022: Prof. Periodic Table

I drove to the memory care unit west of town. Things were going well with hospice Chaplaincy. Especially rewarding were patients’ stories, often told by their loved ones. Today would bring another story, by turns fascinating, frustrating, and tragic. This day, I would meet Prof. Periodic Table, or PT for short, a nickname the reader will soon understand.

PT was pushing a century old, but despite a faltering short-term memory, he recalled things that happened long ago. He could still recite many details related to science, especially biochemistry. On his wall he proudly displayed the Periodic Table of the Elements, a shout-out to his having taught biochemistry for nearly 4 decades at the collegiate level. At the end of each hospice visit, our tradition was for me to randomly choose one element on the chart. PT would take joy in telling me all about the chosen element and its uses in industry or space. One day, when I pointed on the chart to helium, he lamented that it’s now in short supply, and wondered how chemists would be able to do their work since it’s an element often used in the laboratory. Talking about the Periodic Table was a way to celebrate the hundreds of young scientific minds he had shaped through his expertise and fatherly guidance.

From the start, he was respectful to me, as he was to religion in general. Through his late wife, he maintained a nominal connection to a mainline Christian denomination, and sometimes donated to support their charitable causes. However, underneath the respect was a painful memory nearly 80 years old yet still fresh with emotion. PT grew up in a fundamentalist church, but he also loved chemistry. As a highschooler, his chemistry teacher let him stay after school and work in the laboratory, knowing he could trust the budding chemist not to blow it up with some ill-advised experiment. Soon, PT realized that science would be his life work. Unfortunately, his pastor took PT aside one Sunday at church and warned:

“You have to decide what it’s going to be, PT. You have to choose either science or God. You can’t believe in both.”

PT paused as he delivered the verdict: “I chose science.”

The next visit when PT told the story again, I found the right moment to tell my own story of Zoology, and the wise words of Prof. Keyes and Dr. Varughese to a young, eager college freshman. He listened carefully, and when I was done, he tearfully remarked: “You don’t know how much I wish I could have heard that many years ago.” That science and religion could be simultaneously affirmed was something that PT appears to have never heard clearly articulated. Instead, at a crucial moment, his pastor had tragically given him a false choice.

Later, taking an out-of-state job, I said goodbyes to PT and other hospice patients. Not long after moving, one day my phone pinged with a text message from a former coworker: “Mr. Periodic Table passed away today.” I grieved my friend’s passing and thanked the Lord that our paths had crossed. Whether PT adopted theistic evolution or rediscovered Christian faith, I’ll never know, but his openness to my prayers gives me hope that his earthly journey ended in a peaceful acceptance of God’s reality and gentle embrace.

False dilemmas

To the question, “Is it science or faith?” many answer YES. BioLogos.org exists to explore the nexus between scientific inquiry and faith, creating a space for scholars who understand that being forced to choose between the two is a false dilemma. From Gregor Mendel, the Catholic monk who bred peas and became the father of modern genetics, to John Polkinghorne, the British theoretical physicist turned theologian and Anglican minister, to Francis Collins, an American physician and geneticist who spear-headed the Human Genome Project and directed the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the history of science includes persons of faith who saw no conflict between science and religion.

When your Christian teenager comes to you and expresses their intent to pursue a career in ministry, I hope that you’ll find wise words like my Zoology professor did for me that day in the bookstore, words that encourage. Likewise, when your daughter or son excitedly tells you they want to pursue the sciences, I hope you’ll affirm them and not discourage them. Both are paths to God’s truth, and neither profession is an easy path. They’ll need all the support that they can get.

___________________

Image credits

test tubes and periodic table — Via Wikimedia, and the Creative Commons Licence, accessible here.

Posted in sermons & addresses

Gospel glaucoma: Luke 4:16-30

This sermon was preached at the Norwin Church of the Nazarene in Irwin, PA, on Sunday, 9/25/22. All Scripture references are from the New International Version, as accessed at BibleGateway.com.

INTRODUCTION

Yesterday, I had an eye exam. All the tests that the optometrist put me through to check my vision were high tech and impressive. I’m glad that my eyes are still strong and have no ailments that she could detect, other than my ongoing farsightedness, which requires me to wear glasses to read. The experience got me thinking about what ailments can affect our sight. One condition is glaucoma. According to my optometrist, glaucoma is tunnel vision. Little by little, and usually with a person not even noticing, peripheral vision – everything off to the left and right – begins to disappear. Soon, vision deteriorates until all a person can see is limited to a narrow band in front of them.

GOSPEL GLAUCOMA

In Luke 4, Jesus met a group of people who suffered from gospel glaucoma. They lived in the very town where Jesus grew up, the town of Nazareth. This was a tiny farming village, perched high on a hill, with probably only 200-400 people living there. It’s little wonder that when Philip told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael replied: “Can any good thing come of out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). As descendants of Abraham, they were confident that God’s blessings were for them, but didn’t seem to realize that their spiritual outlook had become too narrow. Jesus was determined to help them understand that they were suffering from tunnel vision. To help focus our thoughts, let’s answer three questions raised by the story of our Lord’s rejection at Nazareth:

  1. What is the gospel?
  2. Who is the gospel for?
  3. How can we broaden our spiritual vision?
Continue reading “Gospel glaucoma: Luke 4:16-30”
Posted in reflections

Struggling with Lent

“You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

My pastor intoned these solemn words, inscribing the sign of the cross on my forehead. Rising from the kneeling bench, a shift in the bank drive-thru awaited me. “What’s that dark spot on your forehead?” Chris asked. I explained to my co-worker how Ash Wednesday inaugurates a 40 day period of reflection on the sufferings of Christ, an opportunity for believers to identify with what Jesus did for us. From a low-church tradition, Chris was unconvinced, but I didn’t let his skepticism get me down. The imposition of the ashes, when coupled with what I’d “given up for Lent,” drew me closer to the Lord. It fostered a sense of solidarity with other disciples who were also walking the Lenten journey.

That was fourteen years ago. Life has moved on, the bank a distant memory. After a second decade of missionary service in Africa, God sent me to Central Texas. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and 1,000 clinical hours as a hospital Chaplain Resident honed listening and empathy skills, the ability to bring calm into crisis situations. Now 18 months into hospice chaplaincy, I’m coming to understand that service to the terminally ill and their caregivers is a calling with deep rewards but also significant challenges. One of those challenges is managing loss.

Chaplain Tommy, my first mentor, once said: “Every chaplain has a cemetery in their mind where they bury the dead.” He also encouraged me to ask hospital patients the question, “What’s been lost in all of this?” It gave permission for people to grieve what their disease had stolen.

In hospice, loss has a cumulative effect. While some patients only come on service for a few days before they die, others can linger for months as they slowly decline. Somewhere in the middle of regular visits, of singing hymns to people who deeply miss church, of praying together and – above all, regardless of their deep faith or no faith – of listening to their heart or sitting together in the silence, it happens. There’s a bond that forms as I grow fond of these people in the twilight of their lives. It’s Joe, and Janet, and Bill, and Sherry, and Scott, and dozens of others who open their heart to me, who smile when I walk in the door and invite me to pull up a chair for a visit. It’s the Alzheimer’s patients who lure me into their time machine, living some comforting memory from a time gone by, me improvising the conversation, going with the flow. It’s bearing witness to the exhausted tears of a husband, wife, daughter or son who never thought they could care for a loved one at home as they watch them slowly slip away, yet here they are, caregiver heroes. The fellowship of tears is strong; my hospice family grows a little bigger.

It always ends the same way, a call, an RN’s stethoscope searching in vain for a heartbeat, a note entered on the patient’s electronic chart: “Patient found with no cardiac activity at 1:17 a.m.” Often I join the grieving family at bedside, their lifeless loved finally at rest. The words of my pastor come back to me:

“You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Walking with a widow beside the flag-draped gurney of her military veteran husband, the emotion of the moment takes over. Tommy’s words about the chaplain’s mental cemetery come back again. Loss, great loss washes over me.

The staff of then Vice-President George H.W. Bush accompanied their boss to the funerals of foreign dignitaries. It became so frequent that they coined a slogan: “You die, we fly.” I’ve shamelessly adapted their humorous slogan to hospice chaplaincy: “You die, we cry.”

This is why I struggle with Lent. I drink the bitter gall of grief and loss on a regular basis. I bear witness to pain and suffering routinely. To lay on top of that grief another solemn layer of reflecting on the sufferings and death of Christ might be what the French call “the drop that makes the cup overflow.” It’s too much. I’ll take a hard pass.

Please don’t too quickly wash off that black cross from your forehead. I’m glad Ash Wednesday and Lent are meaningful to you. They were for me, too, at a different season of life. I’m giving nothing up for Lent, and I hope you won’t judge me. Maybe next year, I’ll feel differently, but at least for this year, I’ll content myself with the more joyous periods of the Christian Calendar.

____________________

Image credit

RootOfAllLight, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in reflections

Lavish mercy: Luke 6:38

Jim Bedient, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus had a lot to say about mercy. Luke 6:38 is one of the best known passages:

Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure – pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.

Now wait just a minute! I thought this verse had to do with giving our resources. Give a little, and you’ll get a lot. (How many times have we heard this referenced in relation to tithes and offerings?) But when you read the verse in its context, Jesus isn’t talking about money; he’s talking about mercy. Just two verses earlier, Jesus says: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Rather than judging or condemning (v. 37), “give” (extend) mercy. I can do this when I realize that the speck in my brother’s eye is nothing compared to the log in my own (v. 42).

Sometimes we consider “mercy” to be synonymous with “grace,” and indeed they are in the same word family. When seen from God’s perspective, grace is God giving us something we do not deserve, but mercy is God not giving us something we deserve.

Mercy can be unsettling. How often when something bad happens to a nasty person do we think: “They got what they had coming to ’em.” Sometimes we’ll boil it down to one word and simply say: “karma.” Reaping what you sow was the theology underlying the responses of Job’s friends when his world fell apart. In so many words, they said: “These hard times look a lot to us like chickens coming home to roost, Job. Fess up – what sin have you committed that would have earned you this comeuppance?”

But Jesus wasn’t content to keep the discussion on the vertical plane, i.e. between God and the individual. Instead, his teaching moves to the horizontal plane, looking how we as human beings treat each other. “Be merciful,” he says, “just as your Father is merciful” (v. 36). When Jesus says in v. 38 that the “standard of measure” used will “be measured to you in return,” this has nothing to do with give $ 1,000.00 and you’ll get that and more back. Rather, he is saying if we want to receive mercy, we first must give it.

For Steven McDonald, a Christian, that path to mercy ran through forgiveness. McDonald was a New York City police officer. On patrol in 1986, he was shot by a 15-year-old boy, Shavod Jones. Though McDonald lived, he was paralyzed from the neck down. All of his daily needs had to be cared for by others. He could no longer hug his wife or his young son. Over time, he learned to forgive they boy who had shot him, and wrote to him in prison to tell him so. McDonald spent the final years of his life traveling and speaking about forgiveness. How could he forgive? It took years, but eventually McDonald concluded: “I forgave Shavod because the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart.” (Read the whole story here).

The forgiveness that McDonald showed toward Jones was lavish. Though he could have wished for Jones to suffer in the same way he had inflicted suffering, McDonald chose the much harder way of mercy and forgiveness. I’d like to think that we – in a similar situation – could do as much.

There’s so much we have done that merits heaven’s punishment, yet God in Christ has been merciful to us. Paul says: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). What mercy! May the Lord help us show the same attitude toward those who have wronged us, hoping and praying that they, too, might come to know the only One who could possible enable us to react that way.

_____________

All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (2020, Lockman).

Posted in reflections

Go deep: Luke 5:4

Jacopo Bassano, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes”(1545), National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

When your tooth aches, do you call a plumber?

As much as we respect plumbers for their ability to unstop sinks or fix leaky toilets, they won’t be much help with a cavity that flares up. Everyone understands that for a dental emergency, you need a dentist.

Luke 5 is one of those scenarios. Swap out “teacher and fisherman” for “plumber and dentist” and the picture comes into focus. Peter, James, and John – fishermen by trade – know their stuff. They’ve fished on lake Gennesarat for years. On this day, to better project his voice to the crowds, Jesus climbs into Peter’s boat and puts out a ways from the shore. Now the teaching is done, and the story takes a twist. Jesus the teacher turns to Simon the fisherman: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).

The teacher is giving orders to the fisherman? That’s odd. Like a plumber doing dental work, is Jesus working outside of his expertise? It seems so on the surface. You can hear the exasperation in Simon’s voice when he replies: “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets” (v.5).

Though at first hesitant, Peter complies. When they cast their nets, they are instantly so laden with fish that they nearly submerge the boat! James and John come to the rescue, filling both of the boats with fish.

Peter is overcome with fear and amazement; he falls at Jesus’s knees, and exclaims: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (v.8). The Lord replies: “Do not fear; from now on you will be catching people” (v.10) Peter, James, and John leave everything, and follow Jesus.

Lessons for us

We can see ourselves reflected in Simon Peter, a down-to-earth and likable character. If he’d insisted, “Jesus, I’m the expert here” or “Been there, done that,” he would have missed out on a life-changing experience. He had to humble himself and obey. How difficult this can be for us, too. “Lord, I’ve got this” we’re likely to say. What adventures have we missed because we insisted on calling the shots instead of letting God?

Further, it’s no accident that Jesus directs Peter to put out into deeper waters. That’s where the fish were. Spiritually, how many of us trawl only the shallows? Jesus commands us: “Go deep!” The hymn by Oswald J. Smith captures the idea:

Into the love of Jesus, deeper and deeper I go.

Praising the One who brought me out of my sin and woe.

The blessings of God await those who spiritually go deep. This is the takeaway from the big catch in Luke 5. In humility and obedience, are we willing to trust the Lord and launch into deeper waters?

________________________________

All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

Posted in reflections

Who’s the good news for? (Luke 4:18-19)

The “Gospels” are narratives of the life of Jesus Christ, but the “gospel” refers to the “good news” as proclaimed and modeled by Christ. Following Jesus’s temptation by the devil in the wilderness, forty days and forty nights during which the Lord “ate nothing (Luke 4:2), Jesus “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (4:14).

Jesus heals a man born blind.

Of all the places Jesus could have begun his ministry, he chose to return to those who knew him best, the people of Nazareth, his home town. The spiritual rhythms of village life are on display. It’s the Sabbath (Saturday), so where else would people be but at the synagogue?

“And as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read” (4:16).

When Jesus unrolled the scroll, he read Isaiah 61:1-2a. Luke 4:18-19 provides the quotation:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

David Neale notes that “compassion for the disadvantaged is placed at the center of this Gospel” [See Luke 1-9, in The New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill, 2011), 120]. Who is the good news for? It’s for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. Each of these groups receive the compassionate, life-changing ministry of Jesus, some of them already by the end of Luke 4 but all of them before Luke’s Gospel comes to a close.

  1. poor people – Jesus had received the anointing of the “Spirit of the Lord” so that he could “bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Jesus never recommended riches as the solution for poverty, since riches are often a spiritual snare (Matthew 19:24). Instead, he underlined our duty to feed the hungry (Matthew 25:35a). Further, he taught the importance of having enough and the dignity it affords. This is the meaning of his prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), which echoes the “neither poverty nor riches” teaching of Proverbs 30:7-9.
  2. imprisoned people – At the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announced that the LORD has sent him “to proclaim release to captives” (4:18). Chains may represent destructive habits or attitudes, deep ruts that sinful practices have carved out in our lives. Jesus can break those chains and give us a fresh start. Yet there is a more literal understanding of Jesus’s words in Luke 4. In 2020, there were 1.8 million people incarcerated in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. What alternatives to prison exist that can help those convicted of serious crimes pay their debt to those they’ve wronged but also eventually find a fresh start?
  3. blind people – In Luke 4:18, Jesus promised “recovery of sight to the blind.” The story of blind Bartemaeus (Luke 18:35-43) is one example of Jesus restoring vision. In our time, Christian Blind Mission (CBM) helps not only the blind but those with other disabilities in the developing world, a continuation of the ministry of Christ while on earth. Spiritually, “blindness” symbolizes our insensitivity to the things of God prior to our conversion. Only God can restore our spiritual sight. The late songwriter Keith Green (1953-1982) captured it perfectly in his song, “Your Love Broke Through”:

Like a foolish dreamer trying to build a highway to the sky
All my hopes would come tumbling down
And I never knew just why
Until today, when you pulled away the clouds

That hung like curtains on my eyes
Well I’ve been blind all these wasted years
And I thought I was so wise
But then you took me by surprise

Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed
Until your love broke through
I’ve been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me
Until your love broke through

4. oppressed people – Luke 4:18 records Jesus’s promise to “set free those who are oppressed.” Chapter 4 begins with Christ’s victory over the devil in the wilderness, and this victory over the powers of darkness picks up steam as the chapter progresses. In 4:33, Jesus encounters “a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon” and Jesus casts the demon out of him, with no lasting harm to the man. This was no anomaly, but happens again in 4:41, this time with demons “coming out of many.” In all cases, demons recognize his authority as the “Holy One of God” (v.34) or the “Son of God” (v. 41). Does our gospel today make a place for delivering those who are oppressed by Satan? This is not a call to see a proverbial “demon under every rock.” However, every Jesus follower must be aware of our authority in Christ to overcome evil forces when they stand in the way of God’s work.

Who is the good news for? Whether poor, imprisoned, blind, or oppressed, Jesus reaches out in love to people! The most important thing about us is not our socio-economic standing, our chains, our inability to see, or our oppression. Rather, the most important thing about us is our humanity. We are people, made in the image of God and for whom Jesus died and rose again. The anointing of the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, and was confirmed by his wilderness temptations, but the proof of the anointing was his compassion. May you and I – overflowing with love and compassion – share that same gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.

_______________

All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (Holman, 2020).

Image Credit: “Healing of the Man Born Blind”

Orazio de Ferrari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in reflections

Luke 3:7-20 – The flip side of the gospel

Every coin has two sides. Properly preached, the gospel is no different. If one side of the good news coin is blessings, the flip side is reformation.

Luke 1-2 is the shiny blessings side of the coin. There, we learn of God’s promises to the people, of angels singing glad tidings and babies born to unlikely mothers. The tone is hopeful, like Isaiah 40:1, where God speaks comfort to the people.

Luke 3 turns the coin over. Blessings recede from view as the tone darkens. The voice of a rugged prophet echoes in the wilderness. Matthew portrays John the Baptist as a character more like Esau than Jacob. This is not a tent-dweller but an outdoorsman “clothed with camel’s hair around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 1:6). Some Jews of John’s day wondered if he was the reincarnation of a desert-dwelling Old Testament prophet like Elijah (Matthew 16:14).

Luke 3:18 sums up John’s preaching: “So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.”

What is this “good news” for John? It is a message of reform, both social and personal. It is repentance that produces the evidence of good fruit (3:8), a turning away from what is wrong and a firm commitment to do what is right.

Social reform

John’s preaching begins with a broad focus. The “salvation of God” (v. 6) shows up in dramatic ways. The “mountains” and “hills” being “lowered” (v. 5) echoes Mary’s song in Luke 1:52, where God “has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.” God’s paths are straight paths (3:4). What is “crooked” must be made “straight.” (3:5). The LORD swings an axe that cuts down trees and throws them into the fire (3:9). Something is wrong on a broad scale, John insists, and social reform is overdue. Despite the apocalyptic images, David Neale cautions that this “reform” does not include rebelling against “the Empire” or “the corrupt Jerusalem temple aristocracy” (see Luke 1-9, in The New Beacon Bible Commentary, p. 96). Nonetheless, the image is of a message so powerful that nothing stands unchanged in its wake.

Personal reform

Reform on the societal level is accompanied by reform on the individual level. Cut to the heart by fiery preaching, the crowds anxiously respond to John: “Then what are we to do?” (3:10). To different groups in the crowd, John tailors a response:

To everyone: generosity — Do you own two shirts? Then give one to someone who has none. Likewise, food is for sharing, not discarding (3:13). The late Nazarene pastor Earl Lee spoke recommended “giving living.” Open hands make for open hearts, while hoarding betrays our lack of trust in God’s daily provision.

To tax collectors: integrity — Surprisingly, tax collectors were among those coming to be baptized. They asked the prophet: “Teacher, what are we to do?” John replied: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (3:13). He did not tell them to quit working for the government as if government employ in itself was wrong. John was not against the payment of taxes, nor was Jesus (Matthew 22:21). However, tax collectors were only to require what Rome demanded and not line their own pockets.

To soldiers: upright conduct and contentment — Soldiers kept order, but this legitimate authority carried the illegitimate temptation to extort money (3:14). Policing powers are not given in order to enrich oneself. Abusiveness and repentance are antithetical. John the Baptist encouraged soldiers to be content with their pay.

Applications

The gospel is good news, yet the preaching of John the Baptist reminds us that there are two sides to the gospel coin. Besides the blessings of the Lord, there is also God’s requirement for social and personal reform. Repentance means forsaking sin, wherever it lurks, and cultivating practices demonstrating that where God reigns, darkness flees. Here are some things to consider as we relate John’s preaching to our own time.

  1. Christ transforms culture – In his 1951 Christ & Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr laid out ways that Christianity has traditionally related to society at large. One of the options is that Christ transforms culture. How well does the preaching of John the Baptist fit into that paradigm?
  2. Social and personal reform – While not advocating violent overthrow of Roman rule, there are unmistakable echoes of Old Testament prophecy in John’s preaching, an approach that underscored God’s concern for justice and the social reforms necessary for justice to be realized. Yet John’s message also called for personal reform as the evidence of individual repentance. Has the Church of the 21st century held these dual emphases together? What larger current justice movements have drawn participation from some churchgoers? How do you feel when you see churches asking for participation from its members to combat social wrongs?
  3. What are we to do? This is the question each group coming to John the Baptist to be baptized asked the prophet. As you’ve read Luke 3:7-20, what has the Holy Spirit been saying to you? What areas of your life and conduct is God asking your permission to reform?

_________

All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

Posted in reflections

Jesus, boy wonder (Luke 2:41-52)

The familiar stories of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:1-20) and his presentation at the Temple (2:21-38) lead into the only account that we have from his boyhood. [David Neale, in The New Beacon Bible Commentary (Luke 1-9, p. 84), alludes to a pair of apocryphal stories, including palm trees that bow to Mary on her way to Bethlehem, or a young Jesus making clay pigeons with his friends, and bringing them to life.] This Temple episode of the boy Jesus sitting and holding his own with the teachers of the Jewish Law foreshadows his later ministry as a teacher of the Law unlike any other.

A family story

The 1976 Nazarene General Assembly in Dallas, Texas, will always live in my memory as the time I nearly lost two brothers. In a crowd of thousands, Jay (6) and Chad (5) wandered away from us. The details remain sketchy, but in this pre-cell phone era, it had something to do with two carefree little boys wanting ice cream. When Mom and Dad realized they were missing, word went out to everyone we saw: Jay and Chad are missing! A family friend hours later corralled them riding up-and-down the elevators in the now defunct Baker Hotel. Reunited, our parents had some choice words for them: “We’ve been so worried about you! Where have you been? Why did you wander away?”

Reflection

I think of the justified anxiety etched on Mom’s and Dad’s face every time I read Luke 2:48, the story of a lost boy at a different religious gathering, the annual Jewish Passover. Unlike our family drama in Dallas, Jesus was not just missing for a few hours, but for three days (v. 46). Finally, someone must have said: “I saw Jesus in the Temple talking with the teachers.” Luke picks up the story:

“When Mary and Joseph saw Him, they were bewildered; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have your treated us this way? Behold, Your Father and I have been anxiously looking for You!’ ”

Jesus replied (v. 49): “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”

There’s the hint of annoyance in the boy’s response, and Luke later takes pains to note that the youthful Jesus “continued to be subject to them” (2:51). Yet his future adult mission would take him far away from family, a mission that caused family strains. (See, for example, Luke 8:19-21). Jesus’s statement – “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49) – confounded them. This was not just any Jewish boy. This was a boy wonder, and they didn’t understand (v. 50).

Application

The Japanese proverb warns: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” Like Jesus received the “hammer” from Mary and Joseph when they found him in the Temple, I wonder what children today “stick out” and risk getting our collective hammer?

  • Respect intellectually gifted children. There’s pressure in the classroom from peers to “throttle back,” to not “make others look bad.” As the Church, do we encourage the “young Sheldons” among us, or do we squelch them? What will it mean for our brightest children to love God with all their minds? (Luke 10:27)
  • Help youth discover their gifts. Jesus may have been a decent carpenter, but he became an extraordinary Rabbi. For our children to discover their God-given purpose free of inherited family expectations, we must provide the latitude for them to explore widely, to try (and fail) at numerous things until they succeed and shine at one or two. Is it kind or cruel in the long run to pretend a child is gifted as a singer or athlete when truth-be-told they’re mediocre at best? We can gently redirect them to other areas, helping them explore where they do have genuine ability that they can joyfully develop to a high level. After all, talent comes in many shapes and sizes.

What other applications do you see from the story of Jesus, boy wonder?

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Note: All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

Image credit

Frabel, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in reflections

The Sunrise from on high (Luke 1:78-79)

Note to the reader

From now until Pentecost Sunday (June 5), we’ll be journeying together through the Gospel of Luke. This Gospel is notable for the attention it pays to the powerless and marginalized of the first century, whether widows, women more generally, the sick and the outcast, or poor people. Likewise, the commentary will allot a large place to God’s care for the “last, the lost, and the least.” How we interact with people who have little to give us in return is a hallmark of the person who bears the title “Christian.”

NOTE: All Scripture is from the New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

A new commentary will appear each Monday morning, as a point of reflection and action throughout the week.

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“The Sunrise from on high” (Luke 1:78-79)

Background: Luke 1

Luke 1 sets the stage for the remainder of the Gospel. Verse 3 notes: “it seemed fitting to me…” Traditionally, this “me” has been understood to be Luke the physician, a traveling companion of Paul who compiled both a Gospel (i.e. “good news” account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth) and the second volume in the series, the “Acts of the Apostles.”

The hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people are summarized in two prophetic words, one from Mary (1:46-56) and the other from Zechariah (1:67-79). These discourses appear in relation to babies. Elizabeth, the infertile and aged wife of Zechariah (1:7) will give birth to John, a “forerunner” who will “make ready a people prepared for the LORD” (1:17). Her younger cousin, Mary, is to receive the highest honor of all, to become the mother of the “Son of the Most High” (1:32).

Scripture focus: 1:78-79

Zechariah’s discourse begins with a short description of the task of his son, John. He would “go on before the Lord to prepare His ways” (1:76). Importantly, Zechariah doesn’t stop there. He quickly turns his attention to the “Sunrise from on high” (1:78), a poetic description of the Messiah. According to 1:79, this One anointed by God will:

  1. “Shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” and
  2. “Guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Reflection

The Holy Spirit who lives inside of us propels us to engage our world, not to sequester ourselves from it. Our mission as disciples of Christ takes us into every nook and cranny of our world and culture. This is symbolized by the imagery from 1:78. Christ is a “sunrise.” At dawn, the rising sun gradually illuminates the sky more and more, incrementally dispersing the darkness of night. This is a positive vision, one filled with anticipation of the change that is possible. The beneficiaries of our light – lives lived in the integrity and hopefulness of Christ himself – are those who “sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” Look around you. Who are the people sitting in darkness? Who is living in the shadow of death? We as light-bearers go to them where they are.

Secondly, Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” The image is of a journey. Our feet are moving along a path, toward a destination. As disciples of Christ, we must pause and ask ourselves:

Will this path, if we follow it, foster greater animosity and destruction in our world, or will it lead to greater tranquility and flourishing for all?

If a decision results in greater misery, then how can Christ be in it?

Action

These applications are suggestive, not exhaustive. You may have other ideas. Use those below either individually or in groups as ways to spark your creativity.

  1. Wrongful convictions — Estimates vary, but a minimum of 1% of those currently in prison have been wrongfully convicted. (See innocenceproject.org). Contact the innocence project in your state to find out ways you can help.
  2. Assistance for those with unwanted pregnancies – Many communities operate a crisis pregnancy center, offering compassionate alternatives to abortion. Contact a center near you to discover ways that you can assist, whether through a donation or just a listening ear for someone who needs it.
  3. Food bank — Many churches operate food banks to provide healthy nourishment to hungry people. Find out which church in your community could use a volunteer of time or groceries.

Posted in discipleship, reflections

Radical love and the church

Note: This post from September 2021 seems still very relevant as the United States reels this week from multiple mass-shooting events. I’ve republished it below.

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We holiness folks sometimes have looked askance at love. It seems too simple. There must be more to it; it has to be more complex than that.

One of my seminary professors in the 1980s derided love as “too soft.” Notably, his book on entire sanctification hardly contained the word.

But what Mildred Wynkoop in her A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Beacon Hill Press, 1972) did was make it safe for holiness preachers to talk about love again. For too long, the emphasis had been on the negative side of the equation, of how sin is cleansed away and how a holy person should behave. Legalism was always lurking at the door. But Wynkoop portrayed a positive holiness, a holiness that cannot be understood apart from love.

What would happen if love became the lens through which we saw everything?

The epistle of 1 John does exactly that. Again and again, John returns to love as the glue that holds it all together. For all the verses that touch on love, 1 John 4:7 (NRSV) is the most striking:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

In junior high, when we played basketball or soccer, Mr. Davis would break out his box of red and blue jerseys. It was the easiest way to know who was on your team. If you were on the blue team, you’d look for players wearing a blue jersey before you pass them the ball.

John is saying: Do you want to know who’s on your team? Look for the “jersey” of love. If they’re clothed in love, you’re playing on the same side.

So what does love look like?

First, love places the interests of others above our own. Jesus modeled this when he went to the cross, putting our well-being above his own. The same self-sacrificial nature of love showed up on August 3, 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Jordan Anchondo covered her baby boy with her body, cradling him protectively while a gunman’s bullets rained down on her. She died, but her boy lived, escaping with only broken bones.

Besides placing the interest of others above our own, secondly, love includes. Jesus spoke of this in his Parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14:15-24). When those whom the master had invited to the feast started making flimsy excuses for not coming, the master said to his servants:

“Go out at once into the streets and the lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (v. 21).

These were the supposed “undesirables,” those who were not included in the original invitation, yet here they are, invited and offered a place at the table. In the Kingdom of God, the norm is radical inclusion.

Edwin Markham (1852-1940) captured the sentiment brilliantly in a few lines:

He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

I drew a circle and took him in!

The first time I heard that poem, it was read by one of my lecturers at college. He criticized it roundly. But my fifty-something ears hear the poem differently than the ears of an 18-year-old.

I’ve heard many criticisms of others:

“He is so selfish.”

“She just doesn’t care.”

“I can’t believe how hateful he is towards everyone.”

One critique I’ve never heard is this: “She is just too loving toward others.”

Let’s face it: Love is radical. Love, when practiced the Jesus way, puts the interest of others first. Love, the kind that looks like Jesus, includes the so-called “undesirables,” inviting them to the party.

What would churches look like if we practiced this kind of love? What about our polity would need to change? Watch out! Love – the radical, Jesus kind of love – may just lead to revival.


Image credits

Woman and baby: Beardobot, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Circle of friends: Isabel.Yate, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons