Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The True Vine

I was in a seminary class today that has sent me reeling...in a very good way.
Since, I've been mulling over some things.

I am wondering how 'popular' or often-quoted interpretations of familiar Biblical passages can actually keep us blissfully distant from the true meaning of the text? Take John 15 for example. This familiar passage about the vine and the branches boils down to a simple point for most of us: abide in the vine. One could say that it is about an 'essential union' with Christ. And the punch them comes in verse 6 - if you don't abide, then it's cast out, flames, and ashes for you. As true as SOME of this sentiment is, biblically...is it really the point of Jesus' message in John 15?

A good interpreter will first step back and ask several important, nay essential, questions about any text he is reading. Who is speaking? Who is spoken to? What is the setting? Mood? What is the larger context? Are there any important terms or previous understanding that bear on the text? Etc.

Some of these are rather obvious. Jesus is speaking to the disciples.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Scatter-brained...I guess

Do you ever feel... well,... ,...like that?
I guess 'scatter-brained' is as good an expression as any. I just began a deeply fascinating and wonderfully rich new post at my church. I am a new teaching pastor, a service for which I have an overwhelming degree of passion. I seems that everything I learn, and relearn, and learn again, gets sifted through a mechanism in my spirit and mind that translates into transmitted teaching. I am constantly asking myself "How can I communicate that?" It seems a dreadfully lovely sickness that I don't want to get rid of.

Since I officially began this new position in early August I have been feverishly reading, studying, translating, and writing in preparation for my first series of sermons that are arranged around a topic that I think is extremely important: how does Jesus want us to interact with and operate in our culture? With this question in mind I began my efforts of study. I amassed pages and pages of notes and thoughts and brainstorms over the weeks. I organized in different ways, I listened to other pastors and teachers talk on the subject. I did all that I could in the time allotted me. That may have been my problem.

It's now a little over 24 hours since I delivered my first sermon and all I have been thinking about is the things I didn't say. Without doubt, the thing that excites me most is the fact that I get to do it all over again in just a couple days, and then a week after that, etc. But I had such passionate and important points to make last Sunday, I fear I didn't make the case as precisely as I had hoped.

Since I aim to get my message FROM the scripture and not take a pre-conceived message TO the Scripture, I spent most of my time studying the main text for the day - 2 Timothy 4:1-5, a section of a letter that is perhaps one of the latest writings of the New Testament. It is a great text written by the great apostle Paul to his dear friend Timothy. My conclusion or thesis from the text: The ultimate need of our broken culture is a church that humbly proclaims and passionately lives out the whole story of Jesus. The series itself is called 'Savvy,' and my first and central point is that we need 'Gospel-savvy' first and foremost to make a difference in our culture.

My central illustrations and images were from John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress and a historical image from the Leyte Gulf naval battle of World War II, the second of which I didn't conclude. It seems I had too much to say...I ran out of time. I also did not explain the 'humbly' part of my conclusion. That may be the most beautiful of what I had planned to say. Of course, it was just the first installment in a series of four weeks, so I will have more time to flesh out, fill in, and find my way through all of the incredibly relevant things I want to say. And I'm hoping that in the time remaining, God would teach me much more and help me in my efforts of communication. I can't wait for next Sunday.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An Oldie Resurrected

(I found this old post of mine and thought I would add it here in the hopes that it might encourage someone.)

May 2008
I am just finishing a job (my second go-round) as a server at a restaurant. Although, I think a well-trained monkey could do what I do most of the time, I have come to be extremely thankful and appreciative of my time as a server. Let's just say, my eyes have been opened in many respects and I've had a deep breath of what the world is like. Not a few times, because I've been treated like a monkey. I've often wanted to ask a guest (that's what we call customers in a restaurant), "What about this apron makes you think you can speak to me in such a way?" - usually like a well-trained monkey that has temporarily abandoned his training.

My first go-round at a restaurant was when I first started seminary, the impetus for the sojourn as a server. At that particular restaurant I was struggling to find any semblance of meaning in my work other than to please the average hungry/thirsty patron. I didn't cook the food or grow the coffee beans, I just took it from one place to another. Yes, I was building good relationships with my co-workers and bosses, but it still didn't seem all that important. I was just treading water, paying the bills, while I did the "more important" work of Biblical and spiritual training. That was when I discovered it. I was reading my Bible, not really studying it, but just reading it to find some hope. I really needed to hear from God and sense that what I was doing was not a total waste of everybody's time. I was reading through the gospel according to Matthew and came across a conversation between Jesus and the nosey mother of two of his followers. She had asked for preferential treatment and honor for her sons, not an uncommon request and gesture in the culture of those days - but still out of line and backwards. Jesus' response was to turn the request on its head.

His response: "You know that the rulers of the pagans lord it over them, and great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way with you. Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your SERVANT, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your SLAVE." It hit me like a ton of forks. Making a parallel statement with two words that are meant to shine light on each other, Jesus said that the true goal of following Him was to become a servant and a slave, or better yet a WAITER. That's actually what the word most often refers to - giving service to another, waiting on someone, or helping someone in some respect. The most revolutionary aspect of this simple statement for me was two overlapping realities: I was currently a waiter at a restaurant, and this word is repeatedly applied and used of Jesus himself.

Now, I am not on a mission to be FIRST or GREATEST. Neither do I think Jesus was advocating some sort of competition of service for a gold medal of discipleship. But I did and do desire to follow Jesus and learn the mysteries and beauties of discipleship. I have come to see my two short stints as a waiter as supreme training in that regard. Yes, I refill glasses of nectarine iced-tea. I serve gourmet mash potatoes. I clean up afterwards. But, every once in a while, when I remember this discovery, a gentle smile creeps onto my lips as I think about the wonderful likeness to Jesus my menial secular job offers. And now as I move on to a different job, one that I have dreamt about for years, I pray that I remember these precious days and labor long over the lessons they have taught. For I always want to be a server first. It's been a school classroom I didn't expect.

2 Timothy 2:24

I was doing some translation from Greek the other day in 2 Timothy and I cannot get this verse out of my mind.

A slave of the Lord must not fight, but be gentle to all, teaching well, handling evil well, and in humility teaching those who oppose him. (interpretive translation)

The New American Standard Bible puts it this way: The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition.

Either way you put it, it is difficult to acquiesce to, especially in light of all of the times we are hurt by people. The wounds we've experienced in the past have a way of heavily informing our interactions with potential wounds in the present. They seem to tell us from the past "Be careful...you remember this feeling...it's not good...don't get hurt again."

With some of my friends, we've been studying our typical responses to hurt. One can be called apathy or isolation/insulation. I'm pretty good at this one - drawing back, pouting, isolating yourself. This is a defense mechanism that helps us not get hurt again.

The other most common response is anger. Some of us tend to say, "You put out my eye, I'll now put out both of yours." We don't get overly upset...we just get even. This involves all kinds of manifestations of anger. This too is a way of handling hurt and making sure we don't suffer alone.

But in our study, discussion, and time in the Scriptures, we've discovered there is another way out. A third way. It involves taking the hurt, whatever it is, to God and having Him deal with it. That may sound trite, and it can be, but it is the Biblical approach to hurt. Cutting the connection between the hurt and our IDENTITY is important as we take it to God and have Him heal and interpret it for us, to us, in us. This allows us to see the wound more clearly, respond (which we inevitably must do) with compassion and sincerity instead of anger or isolation. Then resolution comes, restoration comes, and wounds can actually be a means of fostering deeper relationships. Only God can do that. Only he can turn a funeral into a party.

An Important Decision

As someone who is currently studying a modern/postmodern approach to culture by the Christian church, I'm becoming inundated with approaches and ideas (many of them terribly flawed and dangerous). But in the end, there are aspects of culture that we cannot escape and therefore must respond to. The writer of the band Modest Mouse (whom I don't know much about) once quipped "Language is the liquid we're all dissolved in." He's right. And that's part of our culture.

Most writers on culture, especially the classic Christ and Culture by Neihbur, have defined several options or decisions that most people make regarding their response to and interaction with culture. Although Neihbur has five options, one of which is not at all a Christian option (more on this later), it is probably easier to boil it down to three plus one.

Assimilation or Conforming. This response is simple: the culture envelopes me into it and I become indistinguishable from the culture. We are co-opted. We become, without too much of a fight, everything that the culture is wanting us to be. In America that would be a narcissistic, greedy, digitized celebrity that thinks or cares little about others. Of course, this is a simple caricature of a complex social milieu, but probably accurate.

Withdrawal or Cocooning. This response is also simple: I run far away from all "negative" cultural influences by building barriers and walls between it and me. I create another "culture" that is more "positive" or conducive to the ideals I think are right. Unfortunately, this has been the option for much of recent church history, beginning with the impetus for the colonizing of America by the Puritans. It's really not a bad idea, but its consequences are wrought with difficulty.

Combating. This is the choice that most "outsiders" see the fundamentalists taking toward culture. They just get mad, throw things (sometimes Bibles), and yell and people with picket signs donning nasty slogans. This is the argumentative and "in your face" approach to all aspects of culture that are infringing upon the ideals this group thinks are important for sustaining their idea of Utopian life. The culture then becomes an enemy that must be stopped.

Plus one...? But is there another response? I hope there is. What do you think? More soon.


I was reading the other day, which is now a major part of my vocation, and I was trying to synthesize some of the things I was ingesting. I was perusing ideas and comments of folks that were disturbed, confused and antagonistic towards Jesus and especially an evangelical take on Jesus. They seemed to understand that story, what we call the gospel - in the fullest sense of the term, as only relevant to a small group of people, or if to a larger group, then relevant only to certain sectors or slices of their lives. I began to disagree and reason with myself why I did so, and as I engaged in this silent conversation I actually coined a new term - at least I think I did. OMNIrelevant. It was my stuppering exclamation to the effect of the gospel. No, I said. It is...always relevant...it is...OMNI relevant. Of course, omni is a Latin expression meaning "universal" or "thoroughgoing in a superlative sense." Theologians often use it to describe aspects of God like his knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), or presence (omnipresence). I thought it perfectly applicable to ascribe the same universality to the relevance and impact of the story of Jesus - again, in the fullest sense. Although the name "Jesus" doesn't appear until almost the end of the Bible, in my study of it I have come to understand the entire thing to be about Him, the search for Him, the celebration of Him, the worship of Him. Therefore, my worldview says that the entire Bible is about Jesus, and informs me that the Bible, which is God's specific revelation, is the ONLY means anyone has for making sense out of life. Where else can we go to answer the deepest questions that humans have been asking for millenia? Why are we here? What is my purpose? Why is there suffering? What happens after death? How do I relate to God? How do I relate to others?

These are the questions that life is built on. The manner in which we answer these questions will determine the trajectory of our life. Unfortunately, we have many things working against receiving the proper answers to those questions. Our familial inheritance, our culture, our predisposition towards human reason and philosophy that is rampant in our era. So, this meager little site - far from being a "ministry" or something like that - is simply intended to be a forum to address some of these topics in a devotional manner. Here I will post some of my Biblical questions and answers as I spend the long hours each week studying, reading, writing and preparing for teaching the Bible. One could consider these words to be some of the "spill over" or "over flow" of that work. I hope that they foster some genuine interaction and are encouraging, meaningful, and a provocation to more study, reflection, and a missional approach to life. May you be blessed.