Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Closer Than You Think

I'm in Sacramento with my parents, taking a few days of RandR with my family after the Christmas Eve marathon in Colorado Springs on Dec. 23 and 24.  As you can see, I am writing this blog post on my I pad.  I did want to take a moment and respond to the many people who have emailed me after my Christmas Eve message, with very positive responses to my message, and wanting further resources about the main focus of the sermon, that; "Christ is In Us.". The message can be found on this website under the sermon section if you didn't catch it.  The primary basis for the sermon boils down to four main Biblical ground points;

Textual Exegesis;
Matthew tells us that God did not simply enter this world through some extra-terrestrial visit to our planet through a cloud hovering above our earth.  God came into us.  God entered, through the Holy Spirit, a 14 year old girl named Mary, and conceived in her a child.  That child was and is God - Jesus, our Savior.  God then entered the dreams of Mary's betrothed, Joseph, and told him in the deepest resources of his soul (a dream) that all was well, and to not be afraid.  Finally, Matthew tells us that God was now Emaunel - God With Us.

Hebrew Translation;
It turns out that all Hebrew prepositions are fairly broad in their exact meaning.  For example, the Hebrew preposition "beit" can be translated "in, on, with, over, under, next to.". Matthew does not really have a preposition connecting the two words from Isaiah, "Emanuel.". It's just People or "us" and God.  Matthew defines Emanuel as "God with us.". It might be possible to define that withness, if you will, as a very very close with, as in, very nearly "in".

Other Biblical References;
In the book of Colossians, Paul talks about his ministry to "pagans" there.  He says that, "It was Gods
purpose to reveal it to them and to show all the rich glory of this mystery to the pagans.  The mystery is Christ In You, your hope and glory: that is the Christ we proclaim, this is the wisdom in which  
thoroughly train everyone and instruct everyone, to make them all perfect In Christ." (Col. 1:27). In this passage Paul seems to point to perfection in Christ as a goal to be attained.  And yet, at the same time there is a mystery inherent in this "In Christness," an in-dwelling, an inside presence.

Paul's reference to Christ in us, in this passage is actually somewhat unique.  Most often Paul discusses the opposite dynamic, "us in Christ.". In Rom 6:11, 23, 8:1, 39, 9:1, 12:5, etc, etc, Paul mentions "Faith in Christ."

One of the great wonderful mysteries of our faith is Jesus' invitation to all believers to participate in
the sacrament of communion.  Jesus invites the disciples and us to take this bread and this cup, to 
"drink ye all of it," (take Christ into you), as a sign and symbol of God's eminent return in the world 
and in our lives.  This startling invitation, on the face of it, is an invitation to have Christ within us.

Of course, this huge theological leap in God's inherent relationship with humanity,beginning Some 2,000 years ago raises startling implications for our faith, not to mention questions;

1.  First and foremost, is Christ in all people?  Surely not.  However, which people is Christ in and
Christ not in is not simply a question of our own choice to invite Christ into our lives, but Christ's choice to live in us.  Our job as Christ followers is to share our experience of Christ in Us with all the world.

2.  Because we have the potential of having Christ in us, does that somehow mean that we are God? Absolutely not.  That would be heresy.  However, it is God's work of perfection in us to make us as much like Christ as possible.

As I have reflected on the reality of Christ in me, I am not sure it is entirely comforting.  How is it that God loves me so much as to not simply be with me, but to be in me?  I am not worthy of it, nor do I reflect Christ

Monday, December 23, 2013

Compassion and Control

It is the morning of our big Christmas Eve two day celebration.  We began a Dec. 23 worship service last year, as an addition to the 7 other worship services here on Christmas eve (Dec. 24), and to our surprise, many people attended.  So, it will be a big day.  I have a lot on my mind, but I wanted to send out a quick blogpost to my faithful readers.

As I was listening to the Christmas Sunday messages yesterday, preached by John Stevens, my pre-predecessor, and Nate Stratman, our Director of Family Ministries, I was struck for the first time by the intertwined and convoluted messages of "Compassion and Control" found right within the Christmas story.  You see Compassion and Control throughout the scriptures, but it was surprising to me to see it at the center of the Christmas story.  Here's what caught my eye:

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child.  as soon as you find him, report to me, sot that I too may go and worship him."(Matthew 2:7-8).

Of course, Herod's form of worship would take the form of infanticide in the next chapters of the story. Herod hated the little baby.  Herod hated what change the little baby would bring.  What is fascinating to me is the way that Herod weaves language of compassion together with his deep seated hatred of the Christ child.

You see this at the end of Jesus' ministry as well.  When Pilate questions Jesus before his death, here is almost a moment of compassionate connection between Pilate and Jesus.  Pilate asks Jesus; "Where do you come from?"  Jesus gives Pilate no answer.  Then comes the language of control, "Do you refuse to speak to me?  Don't you realize I have power either to free you or crucify you?" (John 19:9-10)

What is similar in both Herod's and Pilate's interactions?  There is a veiled language of compassion wrapped in the desire for control.  But perhaps it is more complex than that.  Perhaps what is happening is that both Herod and Pilate are frustrated at not being able to bend Jesus to their own purposes.  Perhaps both Herod and Pilate are ultimately worried about losing power and authority, as one who is stronger is in their midst.

There are several examples of this double combination of compassion and control in popular cinema.  In "Lord of the Rings", Frodo has an encounter with his old mentor and friend, Bilbo Baggins.  Bilbo asks Frodo for the enchanted ring.  Frodo says, "No, I don't think I will give it to you.  I shouldn't."  Bilbo says, "Let me just look at it."  All of a sudden Bilbo turns into a monster like character, and says, "Give it to me!!!!".  What is observed here is once again, compassion laced with control.

In Hitchcock's famous movie, "Whatever happened to Baby Jane," (1962) with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, you see Bette Davis shroud the desire to control her sister Joan Crawford, in language of love and compassion.  Bette pretends to love her sister, while at the same time holding her captive.

Sometimes without meaning to, we all have a tendency to say things that sound compassionate but are really a little controlling.  Here are some quick examples that come to mind:

*  Parents to children: ("I am only doing this for your own good...") and then punishment.
*  Loved ones to one another: ("If you really loved me you would...")
*  Friends to one another:  Do something wrong then say, ("All I ever wanted to do is be your friend,")

The take away that I am learning from this human tendency is to simply make sure the words that we use really represent what we are feeling.  What if Pilate had said to Jesus what he was really feeling, "I don't know who you are Jesus, I don't want to kill you, but these people are calling for your head, please don't force me to do this."  Herod could have been more honest, "I am trying to run this city and state but nobody gives me any help or assistance, and now this child comes along, and he threatens my power, and I'm mad about it."  The more we separate what we are really feeling from what we are saying, in authentic ways, the healthier we will be, and so will the lives of those around us.

Jesus said it better.  Let's let our yes be yes and our no be no.  Let's let our compassionate statements be truly compassionate, and at least admit our controlling ones when they arise.  At least that's what I will be working on...

All For Now,

Monday, December 16, 2013

Peter O' Toole & Joan Fontaine

I hope you will allow me to stray a bit from the strict confines of religion and matters of God, to reflect for a moment on the passing of two film legends, this past week;  Peter O' Toole and Joan Fontaine.  Peter O' Toole died on Saturday night in London, England from ongoing complications with his health.  He was 81.  Joan Fontaine died at her home in Carmel, California.  She was 96.

Why write a blog post about the passing of these two acting legends?  Well, it just seems like a momentous occasion.  And it also seems sad.  It seems like the passing of an epoch in world history.  That I (as a 41 year old American male pastor), know so much about the work of both actors, tells me that their gifts and their craft suspended and transcended the generations.  Also, their style of acting, their entire persona of acting - they were truly movie stars - seems to have passed along with them.  Sometimes accused of being overly "dramatic" in their acting style (sometimes even syrupy), seen through the lens of history, they both had a style all their own, which isn't at all contrived when understood in it's proper context.  They were stage actors who became film actors.  Film was just being invented when they were born.

I have seen the movie, "Lawrence of Arabia" more times than I can count.  Literally, I have seen the movie hundreds of times.  Simply put - I LOVE it!  Last week when I was teaching my Bible study, I made a reference to the beginning scene of that movie, where Lawrence (TE Lawrence) is riding a motorcycle through the backroads of England.  And then the movie pans backwards many years to the barren sand swept oases of the Middle East.  The movie runs it's course, and the whole picture ends with Lawrence back on a motor cycle, and then he crashes.  A life lived - a life over.  That, I said in my study, is what it is like to read the story of the crucifixion, as we are doing (gospel of John), in the middle of Christmas season.  The entire study understood instantly what I was saying.  Lawrence of Arabia is truly epic!

My favorite movie of Joan Fontaine's was, "Rebecca," an Alfred Hitchcock movie set in an old house/hotel, where there is a brooding house keeper.  Fontaine plays the role of a brand new bride who marries a man that she doesn't really know, and who's wealthy lifestyle she is completely foreign to.

The two actors actually bore more in common than you would think.  Peter was born, as the papers have reminded us, to a bookmaker (bookie) from either Connemara, Ireland, or Leeds, Yorkshire.  His parents were both working class.  Joan (born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland) was born to British parents in Tokyo, Japan, where her father, Walter, was a patent lawyer.  Both had hard scrabble British roots.  Joan later moved to Saratoga, California (where my grandpa was a pastor).  Peter became a modern day real life "Austin Powers," living wherever his fancy free and carefree life would take him.

 I really am trying to glean something deeper, something theological from the living and the passing of these two actors.  But it's not easy.  Here's a try...

God is a creative God.  He loves beautiful things.  He made life to be fully enjoyed, and to be fully experienced.  These two people were deeply creative.  They were beautiful.  They both enjoyed their lives as much as any two people could.  Later in their lives, they became reflective of their younger (more gossamer like) selves.  Peter, in an interview just before his death said, "When I look back at pictures of myself as a young man, I say, 'I'm glad I knew that young man once.'  He was a little crazy, but he wasn't all bad.  And he cared deeply for acting.  He always wanted to be a serious actor.'"

Perhaps that is what the world will miss more than anything.  These two people, they were just people after all, were serious actors.  They took their God given talents, and worked as hard at them as any two people could.  Perhaps they never got to know the God who actually gave them those talents.  Perhaps they did.  Who are we to know.  But, I am glad and grateful that I got to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

All For Now,

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How Lewis Became Lewis

I just finished my paper on C.S. Lewis for my DMin class for Fuller Theological Seminary and Oxford University.  Actually, I am quite proud of the thing.  It's entitled; "Real Things: C.S. Lewis As A Paradigmatic Exemplar of A Faith Journey."  I know that sounds like a mouth full, but what the paper is about is really how Lewis came to faith.  The paper is about how God chose Lewis long before Lewis chose God.  The paper is essentially about how Lewis initially discovered God through his vocation (what he did) rather than because of some perfect intellectual argument for God (what he believed).  The paper boils down to this.

It was a Saturday night.  The claret had been flowing all night long.  Dyson and Tolkein were talking with Lewis about faith.  At one point, the conversation turned to story telling and story writing (myth).  All three men loved writing myths and stories ("The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings"... are only a few examples).  Tolkein then said to Lewis; "You know Jack, God is the great myth maker (story teller).  When we write stories, we tap into God's essential being, in some mysterious way."  Just then a breeze blew through the trees on Addison's Walk, at Magdalene College, and the rest, as they say, is history.  The wheels began turning in Lewis' heart and soul about how God had made him, C.S. Lewis, a unique and special being, to write stories about God, that were, in essence, truer than factual accounts of God.  Four days later, Lewis accepted Christ as his personal savior.  Again, the primary argument of the paper is, vocation (what we do for God) actually precedes belief (what we think of God).

Vocation was a precursor to many of the apostle's faiths as well.  When Jesus saw Peter and Andrew, James and John out fishing, the compelling factor in following Jesus was not an intellectual argument that "Jesus is God."  No, the disciples were not really ready for that.  What they most needed was something to do.  Jesus called them to "follow me, and I will make you fishers of men."

In my own faith and call journey, I did not become a pastor because of some deep theological argument.  Actually, at the time that I decided to go into the ministry, in many ways, my faith was not all that deep.  But then, I was offered a job at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah.  I taught New Testament to sophomores, Old Testament to juniors, World Religions to seniors and Ethics to freshmen (Ethics to freshmen in high school has always been a contradiction in terms for me...).  Nevertheless, I loved it.  I couldn't wait to do more teaching.  I went to seminary because I found out what God wanted me to do (vocation), more than because of any deep heart change or lofty intellectual arrival.

The concept of understanding vocation (from the Latin word Vocatio - to call) before a person makes an actual decision to follow Christ has groundbreaking implications for the way we share faith with people.  For years, the most effective way of sharing faith, and getting people to believe in Christ, has been to have huge rallies at football stadiums or public arenas.  Great evangelists like Billy Graham and Joel Ostein share the gospel to thousands, as the talk moves closer and closer to a decision for God, the tone of the evening becomes more somber.  Then, at a dramatic moment in the evening, the question is asked, "Do you accept Jesus as your savior?"  The speaker then says, "This would be a good time to do that."  Music is played.  People come forward.  Now, don't get me wrong.  There is nothing wrong with this approach.  I went to a Billy Graham Crusade in 1979 in Boise, Idaho, and I will never forget it.  The point is that this type of decision at a rally approach doesn't work for everyone.

For very many people, it is the connection between what they do (vocation) and how God uniquely made them, combined with what God wants them to do going forward (a calling), that makes the biggest difference.  As Lewis said, "God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.  But I feel my decision was not so important.  I was the object rather than the subject in this affair.  I was decided upon.  I was glad afterwards at the way it came out, but at the moment what I heard was God saying, ‘Put down your gun and we’ll talk.’”

Actually, what God might have said was, put down your gun...and let's write!

All For Now,

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


So, the word of the year, according to Oxford International Dictionary is (Can you restrain your excitement?)...."Selfie."  What is a selfie, you are asking yourself?  I didn't know either (which says more about my age, 41, and my lack of connectedness to all things hip or cool).  A selfie is, "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken on a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website."  For example, here is a selfie that I took of myself after 23 hours of flight time to India, about to land in Bagdore, India.  It's hard to know what is actually worse, the picture, or my appearance after so many hours without sleep.  According to Oxford International Dictionaries, a group who actually charts such things for a living, the use of the word selfie has increased by 17,000 percent over the past 12 months.  The word now has a permanent place in the hallowed halls of verbiage and definitionalism in the Oxford International Dictionary.  It's hard to know if Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first Oxford Dictionary in the early 1700's would have been dismayed at the new choice or simply mortified.

The reason I have chosen this new word for my blogpost this morning, however, is because the new addition to the Oxford Dictionary may, selfie, may in fact say more about modern day culture than it does about verbosity in general.  Isn't it interesting that the newest word really is focussed on "Me."  Not, me as in Graham Baird, but you, and you, and you and you.  Selfie may actually be the most selfish word ever to enter the Oxford Dictionary.  Not only is the word inclusive of the word self, but it is a word used to describe a picture of ones' self.  The word of the year is not, notice this, "youie."  Wouldn't that be wonderful?  Wouldn't it be wonderful if the word of the year was focussed on another person..."you."  But it's about - Me.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if the word of the year was chosen because so many people took pictures of other people, that they had to come up with a word for it..."youie."  But here's my main question.  Is the word selfie really a good description of what the thing is, actually?  I mean, it's just a picture of yourself, it's not really yourself.  The word of the year should perhaps be, "picie," since, as Freud would surely agree, a selfie is not really your SELF in the picture, it's just an image of you., it's not your SELF.

What would Jesus think of our word of the year?  Jesus said, "And here is my command, that you should love one another, as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," (John 15:12).  Jesus' thought for us is powerful.  What he is saying is that loving another person (you) is actually a more powerful love than we can have for ourselves.  If selfie indicates the focus of the love we have in our modern era, what Jesus may say is that, "loving yourself is actually less of a love than loving another person."  Loving ourselves is incomplete.  Loving ourselves actually leaves a hallow space in our hearts.  We must allow God to love us, and if we want complete love, we should love one another.  Loving ourselves is not as great as loving another person.  So, Jesus may say that we live in a world which is ultimately incomplete in it's expression of love.

On the other hand, perhaps the reason that the word selfie is the word of the year is not because we love ourselves so much, but perhaps it is the opposite.  Perhaps we don't love ourselves these days at all, and therefore, in our vanity, and insecurity, we send pictures of ourselves to others, hoping that they will love us, as much as we really want and need to be loved.  Maybe the word of the year is akin to the word mirror.  We see reflections of ourselves in the pictures that we take of ourselves, but we don't find love there either.

Or maybe, to quote Freud again; "sometimes a picture is just a picture.  Sometimes a selfie is just a selfie."

All For Now,