As we at the church are ramping up towards Stewardship Sunday (and what I affectionately call Stewardship Season…it’s not just one Sunday!), I’m working on a series of sermons called “Revolutionizing Church.” This particular Sunday I’m preaching from Deuteronomy 6, and I’m calling the sermon “Giving.” Yup. I’m gonna talk about money. I’m also gonna talk about lots of other things. a

You see, Deuteronomy 6 is about serving God and teaching His commandments. It’s about following God’s rules and teaching them to our children and our children’s children. In the church as a family, we are called to do this for each other and each other’s children as well. It’s about keeping His commands always before us (“wearing them as a frontlet” and “writing them on our doorposts”) and thinking about them so that they aren’t thought any more – they’ve become a habit.

And in the cultivation of that habit, worn like a familiar sweater, you give. You give away your money, your time, your talent, your thoughts and your joys and fears – you share.   The Shema – which begins “Hear O Israel…” in verse four is something that Orthodox Jews did and still recite three times a day, to remind them that living for God is the most important thing in life. “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and all of your might.”

“Love” is the difficult word, if you will. Love, to us, mostly means a short term hormonal or other imbalance that messes with what you think. We use the same word to describe how we “love” our spouse as how we “love” cheeseburgers. Love is a useless term in today’s America. It doesn’t really mean anything. If anything, the way most people use it today it means leaving people alone – if you love people then you’ll let them live the way they want no matter what. It doesn’t mean anything.

But for God, it means obedience and heartfelt following. It means doing your best no matter what. It means reading and thinking and talking and perhaps most of all – doing. It means actually DOING what He says. It means thinking and praying about what HE says and how it applies to you today. The rules haven’t changed. The world hasn’t really changed all that much – if there’s anything I’ve learned by studying the Bible and ancient societies as well as trying to pay attention to the society around me – it’s that we as humans haven’t changed that much. We’re still selfish and misguided and prone to taking things too far or not far enough. We’re still thinking about ourselves before we think about anyone else. But that’s not what God wants for us. God wants us to be our best and to be our real selves – which are better than who we normally think we are!

Giving – our money, our time, our talent – it is what we were made for. It is what we do when we are at our best. Remember who God made us to be. Remember who we are supposed to be. And then…give yourself away.

Alone in Prayer

Alone with none but You, my God,

I journey on my way.

What need I fear, when You are near,

O King of night and day?

More safe am I within Your hand

Than if a host did round me stand.

My life I yield to your command,

And bow to Your control;

In peaceful calm, for from Your arm

No power can snatch my soul.

Could earthly foes ever appall

A soul that heeds the heavenly call!

  • Attributed to St. Columba (Ireland, Scotland, Iona)


On Thursdays I’d like to spend some time with you about general Biblical and theological points. Doctrines and ways of thinking about our lives from a sort of “big picture” view. Some, if not all, of these will probably reflect some of my frustrations as a conservative living within a much more liberal denomination.

Most people who would self-refer as Christians would agree with the statement “the Bible is authoritative.” However, the way we view that word and the way we live out our belief that the Bible is inspired by God (not to mention the WAY it is inspired by God!) vary tremendously. There are some who view the Bible – all sixty six books of it (as a Protestant) – as being “inerrant” or “infallible”, and there are some who view the Bible as co-authored or mis-translated. From the extremely conservative (inerrant) to the much more liberal views on the Bible we vary greatly.

As soon as we start using terms like inerrant or infallible, we need to realize that people often use words without specificity or definition – we just use them the way we have heard someone else use it and are not exactly sure what we mean. I think we Christians are especially guilty of this – we talk about salvation and righteousness at the drop of a hat and most of us don’t really know what we mean, let alone what the words would mean in the culture of the Bible. “Inerrancy” and “infallibility” both are used the same way. Some people mean that God sort of held the author’s hands and wrote for Himself EXACTLY what He wanted to say. Some people mean that if we had the original documents (the actual pieces of paper that Paul wrote on himself…) then we would see what God really wanted to say. Some people mean that throughout history in all the copying and all the translating we STILL have exactly what God wanted to say and the words in the Bible (usually the King James but not exclusively so) are not only exactly what God wanted to say but exactly what we think God wanted to say.

From what is called textual criticism – the science of looking at all of the different copies of different books of the Bible and comparing them so we have a way of telling what was changed over the centuries of copying – we can see that there has been very little change to the Biblical text. Occasionally we find that there was a section missing or different words that mainly don’t change the meaning….but largely the scribes and copyists over the last 3000 years or so have been remarkably consistent. [Try to copy by hand something that someone else copied by hand sometime – it’s harder than it sounds!]

We also need to understand what we mean by “inspiration.” Did God Himself write these books, or did He speak through people who have incomplete understanding and then they wrote it down, or how exactly did that work? Not that I’m suggesting that we even have to understand that perfectly – I certainly don’t! – but we have to think about it. Are there ever portions of the Bible where, for example, Luke is saying what he thinks, not what God said? People need to think about that.

It seems that the more “conservative” people are, the more they lean towards the “inerrant” stance. The more “liberal” people are, the more they lean towards the messed up copying and the possibility that human beings copied down stuff that they heard (or mis-heard) from God. [Again, lots of words that many people use differently!]

I, personally, am more conservative than liberal. With that being said, I also understand that the Bible was written through the inspiration of the Triune God over many centuries and in many different times and places by many people. All of it – ALL of it – was and is inspired by God (the word we translate “inspired” in Greek means “God breathed”) but it was written by pre-modern people to other pre-modern people. The Bible is not a historical textbook, nor is it a scientific textbook. It is, first of all, a STORY of God’s love and His call to salvation and His plan for humanity and everything He created. It was written for everyone, but it was written to a particular group of people in a particular time and in a particular language. In a sort of humorous (and perhaps slightly blasphemous) image, I have thoughts of God in the deserts of the Ancient Near East explaining how He created the universe and people’s head exploding because they could not possibly understand. Finally, God condescends to humanity’s limitations and says “in the beginning, God created…” Not that things aren’t TRUE, but the Bible was never meant to be SCIENTIFIC the way we understand that word. [for more reading on this topic especially, see The Lost World of Genesis One – fabulous book!]

God’s Word – the Bible – is TRUE. It contains what we need to understand what we need to understand about what God wants us to understand. It contains what we are supposed to believe. It is authoritative about how we are to live and what we are to believe and understand about the Triune God. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born and died upon a cross in order to save us from our sin and conquer evil and death for all eternity. Etc.

Now, the important thing about authority is that we may not always like it – but authority is authority. If the Bible is God’s Word and tells us what to believe about Him and how to live, we need to bow to its authority. Even if we may not like it. If the Bible says that we are love our enemy (which it does!), we may not like it, but we are supposed to do it! We are under the Bible’s authority – not the other way around. In matters that the Bible is authoritative – we are to approach what it says the way we follow our boss….or even more so!

He’s Got Your Back

Jeremiah's Lament from WikiCommons

Jeremiah’s Lament from WikiCommons

I’m starting a new blog post push. Not to push anyone else, but to just get into a rhythm of posting here at my church blog. I haven’t done it for a long time. So today – and every Tuesday – I’m posting a bit about what I’m learning as I work on my sermon for this coming Sunday.

This Sunday’s passage is from Jeremiah 29. It’s verses 1 through 14, and it includes probably my favorite passage in all of Scripture – 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for welfare and not calamity to give you a future and hope.” It’s the verse I have prayed over every single one of my five children on the day they were born. I picked them up in my arms, I touched their head and through tears (one and all) I have whispered that verse. [I tried once to memorize it in Hebrew….didn’t go so well, so I ended up saying it in English. It’s all good.]

But the background to this single verse is huge: it’s part of a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the exiles (including the king) in Babylon. Basically after the sack of Jerusalem by the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC, some ten thousand of the nation’s most important citizens were taken into exile and placed in Babylon. There were some priests and self-proclaimed prophets who were encouraging the Hebrews to revolt because “the Lord was with them and their captivity would be short.” Jeremiah told them that was not in fact the case. In fact, God Himself claimed responsibility for their exile, and they would be there for a long time; seventy years in fact. So while they were there, they should settle down and raise families. They should build houses and gardens, and most of all they should pray for the prosperity of the city that they hated. The city that in other places in Scripture, the psalmist says “happy are those who bash their children’s heads against the rocks.” (that’s a loose paraphrase of Psalm 137)

Pray for the city in which you find yourselves. Seek its prosperity, build houses and raise families. Because I have plans for you. That’s God’s message to a people who were hurt and dejected – who had faced evil and hatred and pain and suffering. And isn’t it His message to us all?

No matter what sort of things that are going on in your life – no matter how painful it might be or how terrible you might think it is, the probability is that it’s better than what the Hebrews went through when Jerusalem was sacked. When they were carried away against their wishes into a foreign land through fire and the sword. And God still told them to carry on. To keep going, because He had a plan.

We may not know the plan, and we may not even like the plan. What matters is that it belongs to God – to the One that made you and knew you before you were formed in the womb. Who watches over you and cares for you. Who loves you too much to just let you go and abandon you. It may be hard; it may be horribly difficult! But in the end, it will be for your prosperity. Maybe not financially. Maybe not physically, but in some way you will grow stronger and better for the experience. That is, if you participate in it.

Only a few verses later, the letter of Jeremiah continues, saying that “if you seek me, you will find me, says the Lord…” It’s not just that He wants you to let go. It’s that you need to find Him. He’s waiting for you, and He’s got the plan. But you still need to participate in what he’s doing. Whatever it is – you still need to show up and do your part.   Christian life and discipleship is not a passive affair – He may be doing the hard work, but you still need to show up and do your bit, no matter how small it may seem or, conversely, how big it might be.

God has plans for you. And He’s got your back.

Living the life as a disciple

This week’s scripture is Mark 8:31-38.  It’s the first of three passion predictions given by Christ before He actually is crucified.  He tells His disciples that the Messiah “must” suffer and die, and after three days He will be raised.  Peter, the sort of “representative disciple” in Mark, takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him – and is rebuked in turn.  Then Jesus turns and calls the crowds as well as the disciples and talks about losing one’s life for Him – and they will keep it.

This part of the Story happens right after Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, in Caesarea Philippi, a well known and beautiful city that contained the grotto of Pan – sometimes called the Gates of Hades.  And right after Peter gets it right, as it were – he messes it up again.  He is told to get behind Jesus and is addressed as “Satan.”  Peter and the rest of the disciples were not willing to hear what kind of a Messiah Jesus was – the suffering servant of Isaiah who would one day return as the glorious Christ-King.

Are we any different?  Does following Jesus mean getting what we want all the time?  Is the life of a disciple of Jesus, in an “adulterous and sinful generation” consist of getting rich and famous?  Or is it giving up our life – our psyche?  Is it following in the steps of Jesus even when it consists of denying the things that our wordly selves desire – whether it’s a Cadillac Escapade or a Jaguar X type or a villa in Tuscany?  Does living life as a disciple mean giving up our very selves and our identification with our culture and country and exchanging it for a life lived for and with and through Jesus the Christ?

In some ancient manuscripts – not the Bible, but other ancient Jewish texts – the idea of giving up your life has to do with “living as a foreigner” among your people-group.  While I don’t deny that the phrase also has to do with being willing to be persecuted and die before denying  or being ashamed of Christ, I also think it has to do with completely identifying with Him and His people rather than our own culture.  That is, being a Christian first and an American second – if at all….

But the main point of living the life of a disciple is really living as Christ has called us. It needs to be more than an intellectual assertion that Jesus died for us – but rather a complete change of heart and mind identifying with Jesus.  Nothing else can be as important to us – giving up our very “selves” for His “self.”

Frederick Buechner once said that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness learning what it meant to be Jesus the Christ; we Christians need 40 days every year to learn (and re-learn!) what it means to follow Him.  Part of it is to trust Him with our lives, our very sense of self – our souls…everything.  And that is a difficult thing…

Sin and Grace

I have no illusions about those two words – I am not even going to scratch the surface of talking about SIN and GRACE as complete subjects.  But I was thinking about the sermon I gave the other day – I kept talking about sin and comparing it to eating bacon double cheeseburgers.  I do that because it is one of the ways that I understand sin – doing something that you know God doesn’t want you to do, but not really being able to control the desire for the thing or action.  I think we can all relate to wanting something that’s not good for us – like bacon double cheeseburgers.

I do not mean to imply that overeating or eating things that are bad for me is the extent of my sin.  Not at all.  I am as sinful and broken as anyone, and probably more so than many!  I do not want to hold my sin up as an example, and I know that the things that I do may not be accessible to others.  A person hearing me may not be able to relate to my habit of thinking only about myself – at least not the way that I might talk about it.  A person may hear that and think that having any sort of desire for self improvement or time alone is sinful – and that’s simply not true.  Or perhaps a person’s idea of getting angry is very different than mine, and they might think that raising their voice a little bit is going to send them straight to hell.  What I am trying to say is that overeating – and even eating certain things – is not sin in and of itself….and it certainly isn’t the only thing that I do.

Sin is a real problem that we all face – we all have.  We are fundamentally unable to stop being selfish – which is what I believe is the basic underlying sin – original sin if you will; it’s wanting to be gods.  We as human beings want to be able to do whatever we want – when we want it and how we want it.  And we want everyone and everything else to bow down to us and give us exactly what we want.  That’s our original sin – the sin of the fruit of Adam and Eve, and the underlying condition that we all find ourselves in.  We are selfishly impatient for our own desires and wants.  Greed, sloth, lust, all the sort of “standard” sins that we all fall into in one way or another are derived from our own selfish desires.  During Lent we are called to remember that we are that way – we are sinful.  We are broken.  There is something wrong with us, and we (most of the time) embrace our infirmity with abandon. We don’t want to get well!

But that is where Christ and Grace come in.  Even when we don’t want to get better – He is willing to heal us.  He was – and is – willing to extend the gift of His presence and love to us, before we deserve or want it.  Just like a gift that you didn’t know you wanted before you got it, Jesus gives of Himself.  We didn’t know – we didn’t seek Him out – but He came looking for us.  And when  He found us, He gives of His very self in order that we might see; even in broken glimpses, what our life could be.  We can start to see what and who He made us to be…and in little flashes we can see the wonder and love and power of a life lived for and with Christ and the Triune God.  We can’t see it completely, and we certainly can’t live that life alone…but that’s Grace.  We can live with God.

He demands obedience.  He demands perfection and maturity.  We don’t have it.  We continually turn away from who we are supposed to be.  But He helps us.  We take a step, and fall – and He lifts us up and brushes us off and helps us take the next step.  That’s Grace.

What we need to do is accept the gift.  Lent, and the rest of the of Christian year, allows us to once again accept the gift and take our first steps at following Him.  No matter how many times we might fall, how many times we might turn away from the gift…He is there.  Holding on to us and cheering us on.  Giving us grace.


ashesLast night, I “imposed” ashes on people ranging from their 70s to a baby born just a few months ago.  It was Ash Wednesday, a holy day most often associated with the Roman Catholic church, although a great many of us protestants have re-claimed it, as well as a celebration of the Liturgical year and the seasons of the Christian life.  So Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season – the 40 days leading up the Easter.

Last night we read Psalm 51 together.  We called out and asked for the Lord to forgive us, because we are broken and sinful human creatures.  We called out and asked for grace – the free gift of relationship with God – and we acknowledged how much we have forgotten how He made us.  We called out and asked for His yoke – to be the People of God, and to enter into the hope of the Covenant, knowing that there are people who are still Christian who might disagree with us and with whom we probably disagree.

I talked, during the sermon, about threats made to a man who referred to Copts who were killed as Christians.  I talked about the thousands of different ways that we Christians read and interpret Scripture.  I talked about how much I might disagree with many of my colleagues in our own denomination, but I still think that they are Christian.  They may be misinformed and delusional regarding some points of doctrine.  Roman Catholics, for all that I have a great deal of respect for their tradition and a great deal of Rome’s teaching – I still disagree with about some pretty major things.  But they are Christian.

For 1300 years, give or take, the Christian Church has made this journey starting with something akin to Ash Wednesday.  It is a great tradition – and whether or not you came down to receive the ashes – we begin our Lenten journey towards the Cross and the Resurrection in dust and ashes.  We repent of who we have made ourselves to be, and we ask for His forgiveness and strength as we go through the time leading towards Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – looking in to find out who we have turned ourselves into, and reading and hearing who God made us to be as we get closer and closer.  Ash Wednesday, with so many of the great feasts of the Church – the holy catholic and apostolic Church – looks both forward and back, both in and without.

The ashes remind us that we are human – we are broken and sinful and we can nothing, NOTHING to get back to God through our own power.  But they also remind us that God can make something good – great – out of even something as dark and horrible as death.  For He has defeated Death, and Life has come.

Let’s get started.