Saturday, December 09, 2006

We Three Kings...

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." ” Matthew 2:1-2 NASB

Of all the characters involved in The Kingdom Gospel, and especially the nativity story, the magi are the most mysterious. For two thousand years scholars have speculated on the number, origin and nature of this group trying to fully explain their significance. For the storyteller, what matters most is not who they were and where they came from, but that they came at all, and how the locals responded to their presence.

Matthew does not specify a number, but generally we have come to accept the idea of there being three, one for each of the gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We have also named them; Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, names representing three different races. They are described variably as wise men, astrologers, kings and magicians, all of which in varying degrees can be associated with Matthew’s word ‘magi.’

For the Biblical storyteller however, as much as their possible background is of interest, what remains of greatest importance is what the gospel does tell us. And that is this: the magi had come to worship the promised King of the Jews and not only thatthey were Gentiles. In this proclamation of their purpose the magi reinforce the purpose of the Kingdom Gospel, to help Matthew’s church understand that the barriers to God were coming down. No longer would the promise of the Messiah be for the Jews only, as foretold by the prophets, all nations will come to worship at his feet.

Of interest too, is the reaction of Herod and “all of Jerusalem.” We know from other historical accounts that during this time there had been a number of people claiming to be the Messiah. Most of them were ignored or quickly proven to be false, so one would expect that Herod would regard this as just one more false alarm and shrug it off. And yet, he doesn’t. In fact, he takes it very seriously and begins plotting to take the life of the child. Why? Why does he react the way he does? And why is all of Jerusalem afraid of the magi’s message as well?

Let’s go back to the story. What sets this announcement apart from all the others who claimed to be Messiah? The answer is the presence of the magi.

Imagine for a moment you are King Herod. A number of astrologers from Persia or beyond arrive and tell you that they have looked at the stars and have determined that the time has come for the fulfilment of the prophecy of the coming Messiah. And unlike others with such claims, they come to Herod freely admitting they don’t know who it is. They only know that now is the time for the King of the Jews to be born and would Herod please be so kind as to point him out.

For Herod, and all his cronies throughout Jerusalem looking to hold onto their power, the surest sign that this is the real deal is not great orations by a would be prophet, not the performance of miracles, not even the raising of an army to drive out the Romans. Since Jesus is just a child none of these things have happened yet. No! – for them the proof that this is a threat that must be taken seriously is Gentiles are coming forth to worship Him. In a world where Jews are despised and looked down upon by most of the nations around them, the only reason magi from any nation would come to worship the King of the Jews would be because He truly is the Son of the Most High. In Herod’s mind, only the birth of the true Messiah would bring Gentiles into their midst.

And so he agrees to help the magi, for his own reasons of course. He doesn’t know who the child is any better than the magi; so, after consulting the scriptures, he sends them to Bethlehem. His hope is that when they find him so will he. But God, as always, is one step ahead of those who would thwart his plans for mankind. He sends the magi home by another route.

If there is anything we can learn from the magi, it is the need for us to keep the stories of God close to our hearts. The magi, by their own devices, were able to determine at least part of the truth. They were able to look at the stars and know that the time had come for the Messiah to be born. They knew that the Jewish messiah was a true object of worship, worthy of their reverence even though they were not of the Jewish faith. But they didn’t know all they needed to know. Had they been able to consult the writings of the prophets for themselves they would have known where to look for the Promised One.

Many of us today, even among Christians, have it in our heads that we can figure it out all by ourselves. We are looking for a custom religion that we cobble together from insights that we pick up from a variety of sources along the way. But the fact remains that without the written Word we have only a portion of the information we need. Without the truths to be found in the Bible, we do not know where or who to worship.

And knowing the Bible is no guarantee either. The chief priests and the scribes had the text before them but failed to see the deeper truth of the words because their focus was not on God’s plan but on their own interests. They were not so interested in keeping the faith as they were in keeping control. The spirit of their worship was distorted by their own self interests.

By placing the story of God in our hearts rather than just keeping the facts about God in our heads, we ensure that both the desire and the details work together. In this way we will know where and who to worship and be better equipped to do so in spirit and in truth.


(Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 4)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Birth of a King (Matt. 1:18-25)

1And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.” Matthew 1:19 NASB

Try to imagine for a moment what it was like to be Joseph. Here you are, a respected man in the community, a tradesman, and one day you discover your fiancĂ© is pregnant, and you know full well it wasn’t you. What would go through your mind?

The newspapers and other media carry stories everyday of men who discover they’ve been betrayed by their girlfriends and go off the deep end and kill both the woman and her lover. And truth be told, in first century Palestine, nobody would have blamed Joseph if he had done the same. In fact, if he had brought her before the council, the whole village of Nazareth would have picked up a stone and helped him.

But not Joseph, son of Jacob. He is a righteous and compassionate man who, despite the betrayal, seeks to minimize the negative effects of the situation for all concerned. This tells me a very important thing. God was not only careful about choosing a mother for Jesus, but He was very careful to choose a good man as the foster-father as well. In Joseph God found not only someone who would provide a line to the Throne of David, but a man who could be trusted to look out for the young Jesus and raise Him well in the traditions of his people.

In this act also, we see a singularly remarkable man. After having made up his mind what to do about Mary – he has a dream. In this dream he is told the child is in fact the progeny of the Holy Spirit; that Mary carries in her womb the Son of God Himself; the fulfilment of all that Israel has hoped for. A lesser man would have shrugged it off as a crazy dream, but Joseph steps out in faith and does what the angel in the dream has told him to do. He adopts the Son of the Most High as his own and gives Him his name - Yeshua, in Greek - Jesus.

And in so doing, Joseph solves the dilemma we mentioned near the end of our last episode. The link in the chain is mended. In Joseph’s world an adopted son had all the same rights and privileges as one born of a man’s own seed. By naming Jesus on the day of his birth, and formally when they present him at the temple, Joseph declares to the world, “This is my son, the heir to all that is mine.” In that moment Jesus becomes a rightful heir to the throne of David. A human being adopts the son of God as heir to the throne of David so that one day God might adopt all of humanity as heirs to the throne of righteousness.

But another thing happened in that moment as well. While it is true that Joseph’s act of adoption guarantees his place in history, at the same time it ensures that place is only as a footnote. Like many men married to famous women, Joseph becomes “Mr. Mary.” And like John the Baptist, it seems that he must decrease so that Jesus and the Father may increase.

In Joseph we find ourselves a hero in a person who, in any other story, would be a minor character. His righteousness and compassion, his willingness to step out in faith (we’ll see more of this later) and his unwavering obedience make him a role model for any husband or father living today. Indeed, he is a shining example for anyone concerned about their place in life. Joseph demonstrates better than any other in scripture that it must never be about us, about who we are or what we do. The focus must always be on God the Father. He alone is what matters; even Jesus said this was the case.

Jesus knew that his entire ministry was about pointing people to the Father in heaven. In this he had the best role model possible in one simple tradesman - his earthly father - Joseph.


(Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 3)

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Lineage of a King

"The record of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham." Matthew 1:1

Most of us are accustomed to stories that begin with "Once upon a time...", or "It was a dark and stormy night...", or even "Space, the final frontier." Yet here, Matthew begins his Kingdom Gospel with a lesson in genealogy. Why does the story of Jesus begin with such an academic preface?

Because Matthew wants to be very clear right from the start that this Jesus is not just any man. He is the Messiah — the promised Anointed One. He is King of Israel — rightful heir to the throne of King David. He is History Fulfilled — what God started with Abraham he brings into fulfilment with Jesus of Nazareth.

Before the real story begins Matthew lays out for his listener the path through Israel's history that led to the man Jesus. You'll notice I use the word listener instead of reader. I have long been convinced that the scriptures were designed to be heard. It is why I am a Biblical storyteller. As the gospels were circulated in the early church you can be certain they were read aloud in the congregation. I believe that this was kept in mind when the gospel writers penned their words.

Imagine with me for a moment the response in the minds of the Jewish believers in Matthew's congregation as they heard this litany of names they had lived with all their lives.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the three great patriarchs of Israel. Boaz – the protector and husband of the faithful Ruth. Jesse – the father of the great king David from who's branch it was foretold the Messiah would come. Jehoshaphat – the king who led Israel back to faith in the God who would deliver them from their enemies. Zerubbabel – one of the leaders in the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem after the exile to Babylon. Each of these names and others in the list would have stirred memories in the hearts of the Jewish listeners.

But there are other names there as well; names not to be expected. Tamar - who held Judah accountable for his actions. Rahab - protector of the Israelite spies as they scouted out the Promised Land. Ruth – faithful Moabite who refused to abandon her Hebrew mother-in-law. And Bathsheba – wife of the Hittite who would one day give birth to the great King Solomon. They were women, and for a woman to be mentioned in a lineage would have been unusual all by itself. And yet there is more, for these women were also Gentiles.

Imagine again the response when the listeners heard the names of these Gentiles held as examples of great faith in the Hebrew scriptures. Imagine them then looking at the Gentiles among them who had come to follow Jesus, the Christ, and wondering that they had never seen the obvious before. That the God of Israel was indeed the God of all nations.

This then is the carrot that Matthew dangles before his listeners. This is the story he is about to tell. The culmination of the history of Israel, the coming of the promised Messiah, and the restoration of the rightful heir to the throne of David, all brought together in the life of one man – Jesus of Nazareth.

And yet, to the attentive listener there is a flaw. The chain is broken in the final link. The man Joseph is indeed a true son of David, but he is listed only as the husband of the virgin named Mary, mother of the Nazarene, not as the father of Jesus. As well no explanation is given for the inclusion of yet one more woman in the lineage of this would be king.

Matthew knows the break is there, and he knows they have discovered it. His explanation is forthcoming in the next episode – "The Birth of a King."


(Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 2)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel

As part of my preparation of the Gospel of Matthew as story, I've decided to review the gospel focusing specifically on the Kingdom of God dynamic. When preparing a story for telling it is a necessary part of the process to examine the story from different angles so as to understand the perspective of all involved. To help me in this process I've decided to share my observations in this forum. (I’ll be publishing more often than I have been, but I can’t promise more than that.) However, I do invite you to participate in the process. Whatever input you feel led to provide will be welcome. You could question my observations, offer up alternatives, or just let me know if what I have come up with makes sense to you. Whatever the feedback, it will be most helpful and greatly appreciated.

To Begin...

One of the first things that needs to be considered when preparing a story is – who was the story originally intended for? Many scholars are of the opinion that the gospel was written by a Jew for Jews because of the numerous references to information that would have been of great interest to the Jewish community. While this certainly seems to be the case, many commentaries point out the number of times Matthew writes as if he is outside of the Jewish community. For example, he refers to the Jewish houses of prayer as "their synagogues." In fact such is the rhetoric against the Jewish leaders that in the past many Christian preachers have used Matthew's gospel as justification for their anti-Semitic views. How do we explain this?

After researching a number of sources, I find myself wondering if Matthew's church (he's the only gospel writer to use the term) was in fact a group of Jews who, having come to belief in Jesus as Messiah, had been forced to leave their synagogue; thrown out of the community for their blasphemy. They were struggling, faced with the question of how do they maintain their heritage as the people of God and Abraham while at the same time embracing this new spiritual reality. To help them answer this question Matthew writes his gospel. He clearly sets out to prove that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah of the Jewish people.

And yet, he just as ardently presents salvation through Jesus Christ as being for all the nations. Cast out from the synagogue these Jewish Christians now find themselves worshipping the Messiah in the company of Gentiles! For this reason it is important for Matthew to include examples of the faith found by Jesus among the Gentiles he encounters. He wants them to see a larger kingdom that encompasses not just the twelve tribes of Israel, but the world as a whole. He knows that if they are all to be productive citizens of the same kingdom they will have to overcome their differences. (A lesson some modern nations have yet to learn.)

Having established our 'audience' we now need to examine the other aspects of the gospel story, namely, characters, setting and plot. We will examine plot as we work our way through the gospel in the coming weeks. However, because plot most often involves the interactions of the characters with each other and their settings, lets take a quick look at these elements in Matthew's story.

As I just said plot involves the interactions of the characters in the story. Some of these interactions will involve conflict while others will bring characters together in a variety of ways. The scope of this interaction is determined by what type of character they are. There are, for the most part, three kinds of characters in a story.

Round characters are those with sufficient character and personality traits displayed that we are able to create in our minds a near complete picture of just who they are. They are the characters who seem most real to us and with whom we tend to develop the most empathy. Jesus, of course, is the most round of all the characters. As the hero of the Kingdom Gospel he is the one Matthew most desires that we come to understand and relate to, both as King and Messiah.

The Disciples are also, to varying degrees, a round character. I say "a character" because, like most groups in a story, the disciples function as a single character. They are in a very real sense an 'everyman', a character that all of us can relate to in some way. The occasional glimpses we get of the individuals within the group highlight specific character traits that can be found in all of us. While most of the disciples are individually flat (definition in a moment) it is as a group that they develop into a fully-rounded character with all of the strengths and weaknesses that go with being truly human.

Flat characters are those who display very few traits. Unlike round characters they are very predictable in their behaviours. They tend to operate from one or two root traits that determine, in large part, their course of action. The Religious Leaders (scribes, pharisees and priests) are the greatest example of a flat character in this story. Like the disciples, the group as a whole is regarded as a single character and they all follow the same path. In the case of the religious leaders their root trait would seem to be hypocritical, to the point of being 'evil.' Their sole motivation seems to be self-preservation in order to retain power.

The Crowds are also an important flat character. Their traits are few and uncomplicated. They either support Jesus or they oppose him depending on the occasion. They represent the wave of public opinion and raise for us the important questions: Is this man really the Messiah? How can he do such things if he is not from God? Who is our king? The crowds are there, in part, to ensure that these questions are raised and debated in the mind of the reader/listener.

Stock characters are those that exhibit either only one trait or no traits at all. In the kingdom gospel the minor characters are in fact all stock characters. The lepers, the blind, the cripples, the relatives of the disciples, the Roman and temple guards, and the myriad of other individuals that come into the narrative, perform their function and leave it just as quickly. That is not to say they do not have an important role in the story of the Kingdom. In God’s kingdom all have their purpose; however, in general they must be regarded as minor characters.

Now I realize this seems like a cruel way to dismiss these people; after all, they were real people that met and were affected by the person that is Jesus Christ. But I ask you to understand that this kind of categorizing helps the storyteller to make decisions about how a story is told. It is not a reflection of the validity of anyone as an individual. That happens at a whole other level.

The settings used in the Kingdom Gospel are also of great importance and will be discussed in detail as we go along. But here it should be noted that Jesus’ arrival, death and ressurection take place at both a geographical and temporal crossroads. Jerusalem and its environs were located at the centre of all the major trading routes. Peoples from every nation in the Roman Empire and beyond were present and had varying degrees of influence on the culture of the day.

And while the time period has become of crucial significance to us, creating a fulcrum across which even our calendar rotates, it was also a crucial time for those who had no idea regarding the significance of the events about to unfold. Rome's power was at its height and the beginnings of revolution were in the air. While not the only point of conflict in the empire, Israel was about to take a crucial turn in its relationship with the emperor. Long protected from many of the requirements of being in the empire, many in Rome were starting to tire of the constant complaints from the Religious Leaders, and the eyes of many other occupied regions were waiting to see what Rome would do about Israel.

Well that’s it for now. I apologize for the great length of this discourse, and the absense of any real point to take away with you. But I felt it was necessary to establish this as the perspective from which I would be exploring the Kingdom Gospel. Next time (hopefully later this week) we'll get started into the meat of the story itself with the first episode – "The Lineage of a King."


(Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 1)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Lest We Forget

Each November we see a wide variety of things come to light that are intended to help us remember the men and women who have given their lives in the service of their country. Some of these are good and honourable ideas, others are just attempts to cash in on the emotions that run high at this time of year. Every once in a while however an idea surfaces that is an unqualified ' one of ' that makes you sit up and take notice. Today, I came across such an idea.

There are three Canadians left alive who served during the First World War. They are: 105-year-old Dwight (Percy) Wilson (shown in photo getting a kiss from his grand-daughter on his 105th birthday) and Lloyd Clemett and John Babcock, both 106. They are the last remaining links to the 619,636 Canadians who served between 1914 and 1918. Soon, when they too have passed on, there will be no one left to say, "Thank You" to from that terrible time in our history.

The Dominion Institute has suggested that when the inevitable day comes that the last of Canada's WWI veterans passes, they should, on behalf of all the 66, 655 Canadians who died in service to their country during that war, be given a formal state funeral. I fully agree.

The passing of the last WWI veteran will, in fact, mark the passing of a generation, even an era. We should do all we can to make sure that their sacrifice does not fade from memory. To give the last veteran a state funeral as a significant tribute to every soldier who died in WWI is by all means a very fitting act. I hope you agree as well.

I am therefore asking you to join with me in asking our federal government to do just that. There is an online petition available to be signed at . You may well have heard about this on the news by now, so what I have written here is not news. Some of you have already signed and for that I thank you. If you hadn't please take a moment to click on the link above and do so. You will receive a verification email that requires you click another link to verify your email address is a valid one. The whole process takes only a few minutes.

The passing of the last Canadian WWI veteran will only happen once in our entire history. Let's make sure it is an event that is well remembered.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Blessed are the meek...

Like many of you I have spent this week watching the events unfold around a small Amish community in Pennsylvania. There is a part of us that can rationalize the idea of shootings in crowded inner-city communities where our children walk to school through all the horrors that modern urban life has to offer, but who among us ever thought that Amish country was also a breeding ground for this kind of behaviour?

Even more remarkable than the fact that such an event would take place in this small rural community lost in time, is the response of that same community. It is a response that in many ways is also lost in time. It is a response that has caught the attention of many people in North America and has them wondering about their own responses. And I would like to suggest that the people who should be paying the most attention to the gentle ways of these gentle people are the Christians of Canada and the United States.

It has been somewhat disheartening for me to watch the behaviour of my fellow Christians in the press of late. It seems that the default reaction by many believers to people who disagree with them is to unload all of the bile and hate they've been storing up. Condemning people to any or all of Dante's 9 levels of hell, wishing disease and calamity upon them, questioning their humanity, comparing them to various tyrannical dictators (Hitler remains the favorite), even death threats are among the list of responses the practitioners of "Christian Love" levy at those who would dare to oppose them. It all calls to mind the lyrics of an old song by the Christian rock-band Petra...

"Seen and not heard, seen and not heard
Sometimes God's children should be seen and not heard.
Too much talk and not enough walk
Sometimes God's children should be seen and not heard."

Not so the people of faith in this Amish community that has suffered so devastating a blow. The people of Lancaster County took a very different view.

"The grandfather was there and he made a point. They are instructing their kids not to think evil of the man who did this. I think that was the most moving of all,” Rev. Rob Schenck of the National Clergy Council told CBS.

"I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts," Jack Meyer told CNN.

"The hurt is very great," she said, "but they don't balance hurt with hate."

Today's pastors and Christian writers have a great deal to say about how to live the Christian life in the modern world. They spend a lot of pulpit time and ink on paper trying to re-create the Gospel in a flavour that the 'post-moderns' can find easier to swallow. But in a small community that for the most part is still in the 18th century, the teachings of Jesus are being lived out for all the world to see, and the world is listening.

This small community that has rejected cell-phones and computers, even gas engines and the automobile has refused to reject the man who committed this terrible act (Charles Roberts). They get 'closure' on the matter not by seeing that the shooter is vilified and the world never forgets how evil he was; but rather by forgiving what many consider unforgivable. They reach out not to obtain revenge, but to extend compassion and comfort to the Robert's family in the understanding that they too have suffered loss - a husband and father. They do not alter their view of the Gospel to address a circumstance they never imagined facing, instead they cling to centuries old teachings from the scriptures to get them through whatever happens no matter how unfamiliar.

It truly speaks to the power of the Gospel itself to make a louder statement than any preacher or evangelist ever could. We don't need special effects or a New Testament re-written in text-message style wording. We don't even really need to trip over ourselves trying to be seeker-friendly. What we really need to do is live the life we have been called to live -- honestly, every day. We need to remember that the timeless message we have been called to share with the world is just that -- timeless.

That doesn't mean we need to get rid of the tools of the electronics age, but we do need to remember the message we are called to deliver. Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message," and nowhere is that more true than in the case of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is because we are the medium by which the message is transmitted. It is not the computers, the Internet, the new translations, the church programs and activities that communicate the gospel -- It is us! And as we've learned this week, a gentle word, a firm resolve, and a forgiving embrace speak louder than anything sermon we might preach.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

You can't say it any better than that.


Monday, August 28, 2006

Not My Best Day

This is not usually the kind of blog where I write about the stuff I did today so that you can live vicariously through me or at the very least feel better about yourself because your life doesn't suck as much as mine does. However, today you're going to get a small dose of Dennis' life because, well, to put it bluntly, I screwed up today -- big time!

One of the hardest things about being out there in front of everyone is that you really have to stay on your toes. When you do something that people feel is not right for a Christian to do, they will waste no time in telling you so. Some even take a certain pleasure in it. The natural instinct is to make excuses or try to justify it because of circumstances and the like. But the simple fact is that as Christians we have the responsibility to make sure that we own up to our mistakes. So here goes...

I broke a promise I made to my nephew Jacob today. Actually, the promise was made to his parents my brother Alex and his wife Joan. I told them on Saturday that Roberta and I would be over to visit tonight. But we didn't go. Why is totally beside the point. I could explain it all but it would make no difference. The fact remains that Robert and I got home about 8pm. We had a bite to eat and watched a little TV and then at 9 o'clock I went downstairs to my den in the basement and turned on the computer. And there was the reminder staring at me from the computer screen. Today was Jacob's birthday!

Both Roberta and I had completely forgotten about it!! There is no excuse, no explanation that can make restitution for this. I blew it. I made a promise and I failed to keep it. The ironic thing about it is I am currently preparing a piece of scripture for storytelling in church this Sunday. Here's part of the passage...

"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord. But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God'’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your 'Yes'’ be 'Yes', and your 'No',’ 'No.'’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." Matthew 5:33-37 New King James Version

In case you missed it, we need to keep our oaths to family and friends as well; and especially, I think, to children. We can make all the excuses we like about how busy we are and how much the world in closing in on us, but that is really all just excuses. What matters most in life is that we can be trusted; that we are the people that God expects us to be. Because if we are not it reflects badly not just on us, but on every person who calls themselves a Christian, and ultimately on God as well.

It bothers me deeply that I let my family down tonight. I love my brother and his wife and my nephew Jacob. They are very important to me even though we travel in different circles and don't socialize very much. Which is why it is even more important that I keep my word to them and am there for them when I say I will be. Tonight I wasn't there when I should have been and it's going to take me a long time to repair that damage.

That's why I'm writing this tonight. The first step in repairing the damage is to admit the mistake. Especially for those of us who claim to represent the Kingdom of God. If we cannot be counted on to keep our word; if our 'yes' doesn't always mean 'yes', then the world is justified to call into question the message we present to them in Jesus' name. And that is something we must not allow to happen.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Pilgrim's Progress

I just finished reading an article in Newsweek about the man known as "America's Pastor" - Billy Graham. (The article can be found here.) I think most people know who Billy Graham is. Next to the Pope and the Dali Lama he's a likely pick for the third most well known religious figure in the world. I don't usually buy Newsweek, but I was eager to find out what the secular media had to say about this icon of evangelical Christianity.

The article focuses on the struggle many preachers face between absolutism and moderation, and on how as Christians grow older we tend towards moderation, looking for a middle ground in the great debates without compromising on the fundamentals of faith. At one point Graham makes a statement that many might find a little surprising, "I am not a literalist [about the Bible] in that every jot and tittle is from the Lord. This is a little difference in my thinking through the years."

Many Christians believe that if even one word of the Bible cannot be taken literally then everything else the Bible has to say must be cast into doubt. For them Graham's change in attitude is a sign he has compromised his faith. The article however, contends that he has simply moved from seeing every line of scripture as literally accurate to believing that parts of the Bible are figurative and may never fully be understood. To quote the article...

Like Saint Paul, he believes human beings on this side of paradise can only grasp so much. "Now we see but a poor reflection in a mirror," Paul wrote,"then we shall see face to face." Then believers shall see; not now, but then."

The article also makes mention of the fact that Billy Graham is no longer the political person he once was, even going so far as to say he regrets being as involved with politics and politicians as he was. He cites his involvement with Richard Nixon as one example he deeply regrets. He also wishes he'd spent more time committing the Bible to memory and studying theology.

So why am I sharing all this with you? Well, it's because as I read the article it felt to some degree like I was reading about myself. No, I'm not a great evangelist who has led an estimated 30 million people to the Lord, but I do find that as I grow older I am reconsidering some of the ideas I once defended with great fervor.

I too was once a literalist and challenged the faithfulness of anyone who suggested otherwise. Today however, the idea that portions of the Bible may in fact be figurative is not the threat to my faith it once was. I also find myself wondering if this isn't the way it's supposed to be. Consider these words from Isaiah ...

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary. Isaiah 40:28-31 NASB

For me, the last phrase is a progression. I can see it in the lives of myself and others. When I first became a Christian I was an eagle. The excitement of the truth I had discovered was more than I could contain. I got involved in every ministry I could, stretching myself to the limits and beyond. Sometimes my enthusiasm took me places I probably would have been better off not going to; but hey, we live and learn right?

As I grew in the faith I slowed down a little. I was still active and zealous for my God but I wasn't flying around quite so much, but I was running hard. I got to take in a bit more of the scenery around me and people didn't look so much like ants. But I kept running.

Today I'm still running a fair bit, but I can see myself starting to slow down to a walk. I'm not so much concerned with getting there as I am with making sure I don't miss anything along the way. I find myself looking for the steady, maintainable pace that will make sure I get all the way to my destination instead of trying to get there as quickly as possible.

We fly, we run, we walk. In the exuberance of youth we soar over the land looking for the goal that has captured our hearts, flying from one place to another until we find the spot where God would have us set down.

Once we land we run - hard; certain that the goal we seek is just over the next hill. We take in some of the scenery along the way and might even slow down from time to time for something that particularly catches our eye, but is not long before once again we are running hard. The pace is gruelling, but the destination consumes us and we know that in the end it will be worth it.

Eventually however, we do start to pace ourselves. The journey takes on a life of its own and there are people and places we encounter along the way that are so worthwhile. It's not that we have abandoned the goal; that we will never do. But now we are confident that the destination will be reached no matter how long it takes. We are so certain that the destination is assured that we have the time to enjoy every moment of the walk along the way.

We also take a bit more time to read the map. We may notice that there are straighter paths to our destination than the ones we have been taking. We find out there are rest stops and way-stations along the way, put there specifically to make our journey easier. They were there all along, but they were lost in the blur of the landscape as it raced by. Or rather as we raced by, so now we take care to look for them as the journey continues.

I think this is the way it's supposed to be. The exuberant flight of youth, the hard running of middle age, the reflective walking of our later years; all these contribute to our changing perspective on the journey. We learn, we change, we grow, we learn some more. Our faith is not compromised because we see things differently that we once did, we've just moved a little further down the path, and having moved a little closer to our final destination, maybe now we can see it a little more clearly.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Heroine for the Kingdom

I am currently working on preparing the gospel of Matthew as an epic storytelling. The final product will take between four and five hours to tell in it's entirety. A daunting task I must admit, but one I've been contemplating for some time.

I've chosen the gospel of Matthew because it has always been my favorite gospel. It is often referred to as The Kingdom Gospel because of the number of times the phrase "kin
gdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven" appears. The story of the Gospel Kingdom reads as well as any other lengendary tale. The Herald roams the country declaring the return of the Heir to the Kingdom. The Heir indeed appears and gathers about him a band of loyal followers. Together they wander from place to place openly proclaiming His imminent return to the throne, calling out the corrupt usurpers who lead his people down a misguided path.

Throughout his campaign he demonstrates to the people that He is indeed the rightful Heir, rallying them to His cause. He confronts the corrupt officials who have usurped His Father's house and challenges their right to lead the people. The story's climax comes
with a final confrontation between the Heir and the true force behind those who would usurp His Father's authority.

It has everything a legendary story needs... except a heroine.

Every hero needs a heroine: Aragorn needs his Arwen, Arthur needs his Guinevere, Paul Atreides needs his Chani. In his book Wild at Heart, John Eldredge says that to be complete a man needs "a beauty to rescue" and popular culture would certainly seem to bear this out. Nearly every hero rescues his heroine and they live happily ever after.

In days gone by the heroine was often a wisp of a girl who faints at the sight of blood, screams incessantly when the monster appears, then trips and sprains her ankle during the escape. Not my idea of a heroine. Personally I lean more toward the pioneer type, bravely loading her hero's guns for him while they fight off the rustlers who would steal their ranch.

One of my favorite heroines is Evelyn Carnahan (played by Rachel Weisz) in "The Mummy", and "The Mummy Returns". Though suitably terrified of the mummy she doesn't back down. Instead she stands side by side with her hero, guns blazing. In fact when her hero faces certain doom it is Evelyn that comes to the rescue.

But Jesus does not have a heroine in the gospels. There is no lover standing by his side to fend off the bad guys. Which is likely why people like Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code keep trying to give him one. It seems wrong in human eyes for the greatest figure of all time to die a martyr's death without ever having tasted the fruits of true love. A match between Jesus and Mary Magdalene appears to solve the problem and tries, at least in part, to give the story a "happily ever after" quality. There's only one problem - Jesus already has a heroine.

The reason so many people don't recognize this fact is you won't exactly find her in the gospel of Matthew or in any of the others. Her part shows up a little later in the story.

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." Ephesians 5:25-27

"Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying, "Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal. .... And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it. But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb's Book of Life." Revelation 21:9-11, 25-27

You see, the heroine in the story of the Gospels is the church herself. And since the church is made up of those who call upon his name then we, my dear reader, are the heroine in The Kingdom Gospel. We are the heroine He risked it all for. It was for the love of you and me that He gave everything he had to reclaim the throne that was His.

The question left for us to answer is, "What kind of heroine are we?" Are we the wisp of a girl who faints at the sight of the enemy and sprains her ankle during the escape? Or the steadfast partner, sword in hand, ready to face whatever comes as long as we are at His side? Or some other kind of heroine entirely?

I suppose that is a question each of us has to answer for ourselves, but regardless of what kind of heroine we are, Jesus remains the hero of the story. He is the rightful Heir to the Father's throne. He has faced and defeated the enemy leaving only a few minions running around for us to deal with. And one day He will retrn to claim His heroine and take her back to be with Him.

And if you check out the end of the book you will discover that we do indeed live "happily ever after."


Covering My Legal Derriere Dept.
First picture: Liv Tyler as Arwen. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Copyright New Line Cinema
Second Picture: Rachel Weisz as Evelyn Carnahan. The Mummy Copyright Universal Pictures

Saturday, June 10, 2006

It's Not Fair

It's been two months since I last wrote anything here. I know it's an over-used excuse to say that I have been busy, but the fact is -- I have. What I've been busy with I may talk about some other time but for now I just need to write something. Let me explain.

In my 50 years I have had the privilege of knowing many of the souls that populate this world; some great, some not so great, some good, some bad. This week one of the gentlest souls I have ever known was taken to be with the God he loved so much. I have often heard the Lord described as "gentle Jesus meek and mild", but I never had a clear picture in my mind of what that phrase meant until I met James. My first reaction to the news of his death was simply, "IT'S NOT FAIR!"

I know, I'm a Christian. I'm supposed to believe that God has a plan and since so many have been praying for James for so long and this is the result then this must be part of that plan. And let me say that I do believe that - truly, I do; but I still find I want to stand in the night, facing into the wind, and scream at the sky, "God, your plan is not fair!!"

It's not fair because it doesn't include James healed of his cancer and out of his wheelchair walking with the people he loves.
It's not fair because it doesn't include James and his wife Loo Sar holding each other and looking towards the future. It's not fair because it doesn't include James watching his little girl Angie grow up and graduate and get married and make him a grandfather. And God forgive my selfishness, but the biggest reason it's not fair is it doesn't include my spending more time with him, getting to know him better than I do, and continuing to learn the art of gentleness from a man who had mastered it so well.

How do I justify such a childish attitude when I'm supposed to be a man of faith?

Simple. I may be a man of faith, but I am also still a child - a child of God. And like a child sometimes I just don't understand why life has to be so unfair. When I was physically a child my father must have heard me whine, "It's not fair!" a thousand times or more. Sometimes he would tell me that life wasn't supposed to be fair. Sometimes he'd tell me I would understand when I was older. But the time that stands out most in my mind was when my dog 'King' died.

King was a white Siberian Husky and I loved him a lot. One day he got out of the yard and was run over by a truck. I remember crying for what seemed like hours and looking into my father's eyes and saying, "It's just not fair!" He looked back at me and said, "You're right, it isn't fair, but there's nothing I can do. For whatever reason, this is the way things are and I can't change it. I'm sorry!"

These days, whenever someone whom I've been praying for dies, I remember my Dad saying those words to me. I also remember how helpless he looked that day. It was then I realized that there were some things my Father couldn't fix.

Now I can imagine what some of you are thinking. "Dennis, this isn't much of a comfort. There's nothing God can't fix, after all - He's God! He's not limited like your Father was."

You're right of course, God is all powerful. But this isn't about God, it's not even really about James and unanswered prayer. It's about me.

It's about me learning to live with the fact that just like my Father there are some things that I just can't fix. There are things in life that even with the power of prayer I cannot control. That, for whatever reason, this is the way things are and I can't change it!
It's about me and every other Christian coming to grips with the fact that we don't know everything. I don't know why James wasn't healed. I don't know why James had to die. The only thing I do know is there has to be a reason. And since it is God's reason it's probably a good one, though I can't for the life of me imagine what it might be.

So, there is nothing for me do but cry for my loss, reach out as best as I can to others who will miss James, and take comfort in the fact that his suffering is now over. He is, I believe, pain free, out of his wheelchair walking with Jesus in the garden, learning even more about being gentle from the gentlest man who ever lived.

Goodbye James.
Catch up with you later.
Say hello to Ignatius for me.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Struggling to Enter My Second Childhood

I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to the Toronto ‘Sick Kids’ Hospital radio telethon on CFRB. I listened to story after story of kids facing seemingly impossible medical challenges and the courage they display. Children in wheelchairs and sick beds, hooked up to miles of tubing and a plethora of equipment, still manage not only to smile, but find reason and strength to laugh and bring a little fun into their lives.

I’m reminded of other examples from other fund-raising efforts. The children in AIDS-riddled Africa still manage to laugh and play in the midst of their despair, taking immense joy from something as simple as a ball made from rags bound with tape and string. Children who spend their days scrounging through garbage dumps in South America to earn a small income for their families, draw comfort and love from each other in the meager hovel they call home. A small boy in Uganda smiles enthusiastically for the camera as he carries a 20-litre can of water almost as big as himself two kilometers from the well to his hut – twice – everyday!

Closer to home, and not nearly facing such misfortune, I marvel at my own nephew. I remember when, the night his grandmother died, the four-year-old's primary concern was to say to his mother, “It’s okay Mommy, don’t be sad!”

As I listen, and watch, and remember, one word comes to mind over and over again – resiliency.

Children are, at one and the same time, the most fragile and the most resilient of all human beings. They will, given the chance, find reason to smile and laugh, and opportunities for play in even the most devastating of circumstances. In many ways, I envy them.

I’ve often wondered where they get this remarkable ability and I have come to the following conclusion – it’s faith. Children quickly realize, if only on a subconcious level, that they have no control over their situation. As a result they must rely on the adults in their lives to put things right. They put all of their faith in their parents, grandparents, older siblings, whoever it is that takes care of them. This level of complete dependency frees them to do one thing – enjoy life the best they can. They are free to play, and laugh, and sing in the midst of all they must endure because they have handed the whole thing over to people who are able to deal with it much better than they are.

Unfortunately not all children exhibit this inate ability. My heart goes out most to the ones who have lost the capacity to play. They are most often orphans, huddled in rooms filled with dozens of others like themselves, with no one to hold them, no one to assure them that everything will work out some how. They have fallen so far into their despair they have lost the very sense of what they are - children.

Having said all that, I'd like you to consider the words of Jesus from Matthew 18:3-4...

And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

For me the reason Jesus suggested we become like children lies in this simple matter of faith. As adults we constantly feel the need to worry over what will happen next and how we can control it. Hardest of all for us to accept is that there are things in this world that are simply beyond our control; there are things we cannot do anything about no matter how hard we try. Even after we have prayed and "surrendered" everything to God we still ask the same question once we get up off our knees; "Okay, now what do I do?", as if it is still up to us to solve the problem.

But to fit into the kingdom of God requires 'complete' dependency on Him. That's why we have to become like little children. As children we understood what it meant to 'trust the Father' because it was instinctive to us. We need to go back there once more. We need to regain the ability to not worry over what we can't control. And when we do we will enjoy once again that same freedom we knew as children.

Because we are not spiritual orphans, because we have a Father who cares for us and answers our needs we can devote ourselves to the one thing that matters most - to enjoy life as best we can. We can be free to smile, to laugh and even to play in the midst of our desperation because we know that even if we don't understand what is going on we have a Father in heaven who will take care of it for us. Even if we seem to be going hungry right now we can enjoy the simple pleasure of a ball made of rags because our older brother Jesus will take care of things somehow.

Too many of us are living like orphans. Too many of us are so lost in worry and despair we have lost the very sense of who we are - children of God. We huddle in the churches with others like ourselves wondering who will take care of us, who will feed us when all the time God is reaching out to us in love.

So I challenge you, dear Reader. Like me, try to enter a second childhood. Become a child again and enter into the kingdom. Smile, laugh, play a while. God will take care of things if we will only let go of them.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Permission to Do Nothing - Granted!

It's been a long month --- storyteller's workshop, worship conference, video testimonies, worship projects, barbershop concerts, drama rehersals. Not a lot of free time for writing as I would like. Finally got a free night this past Sunday. Resolved to spend the evening doing as little as possible. Roberta planned on reading a book, I was going to relax with some great jazz music. Then it hit --- guilt!

Even as we settled down for the evening we hadn't gone very far when both my wife and I felt it. We were actually planning to do nothing! We were about to commit the sin of being unproductive. How could we think of such a thing? More than once Roberta looked up from her book and said, "There are things I should be doing. I shouldn't be just sitting here. (long pause) But it's all I want to do!"

I knew how she felt. I had to remind both myself and her that that not only is doing nothing NOT a sin, it is a command of God! It would seem that God knew his creation would fall prey to the insatiable drive to 'do something', and so he commanded one day's rest in seven to address the need for rest. For the record, even two thousand years ago, in the time of Jesus, this was considered a little strange. Many people regarded the Jews as lazy and irresponsible because they took a whole day off every week.

What I have always wondered however, is why we have this overwhelming drive to be busy in the first place? Why do we get so fidgety and restless when we do nothing? Why is the same level of inactivity that is acceptable lying on the beach, so unacceptable in our own living rooms?

I have a theory.

I think we all suffer, to one degree or another, from the tryanny of our own attention span.

That's right - the tyranny of our own attention span. The same hightened sense of boredom that has us flipping channels, also keeps us from slowing down and just enjoying the moment. And in a world dominated by the 10-second sound byte, the video montage, and the one-minute news update, the situation has become even worse. There are many people today that are simply incapable of paying attention to anything for any length of time.

The result is we have trouble simply enjoying the moment. When we do spend a few moments resting, doing nothing, before long a little voice in our head says, "Okay, been here, done this. What's next? Come on people - I've seen this movie before. Show me something new."

Of course on the spiritual level there's another aspect to it as well -- fear.

I have come to the realization that some of us are reluctant to stop "doing" because when our minds are not filled with these activities then we might be tempted to "think". And this is bad because thinking can lead to contemplation. And contemplation can lead to introspection. And introspection can lead to having to face some hard realities about ourselves, and nobody wants to do that. And so because of our fear of facing who we really are, we occupy our time with as many activities as possible so that we don't have time to think about how good or bad a person we might be.

Of course, on the spiritual level, this is all very good for the enemy. Satan of course has no desire to see God's people spending a lot of time in quiet contemplation because they just might be quiet long enough to hear the still small voice of God. They might, even without intending or planning to, take head of the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit; and we all know what that could lead to.

So here's my challenge to you. Take a few minutes, or dare I say it, one day a week, and strive to do nothing. You just might find it's the most productive thing you've ever done.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

Worship and Remembrance

This past week I was reading at a freind's blog about the connection between worship and remembrance. At one point Phil makes the following statement.

I’m amazed at how we so quickly forget things. Throughout the Bible are numerous occasions where people were to remember what God had done and who he is. Take for example Nehemiah’s prayer 1:8 and again in 4:14. I keep coming back to these statements to remember for they are essential to our faith. How important it is for us to remember – remembering is part of our worship and important to our spiritual growth.

I'm pleased that Phil has made the connection because for me remembrance is a very large part about what worship is all about.

Communion, or The Lord's Supper, is the central point of worship for those of us who follow Christ. More so, I think, than Christmas or even Easter, because the Eucharest, as some call it, is what Jesus Himself ordained that we should do in remembrance of Him. He asked that when we remember Him we do so by partaking of the bread and the wine. He gave them to us as a mnemonic, as an aid to help us remember who Jesus was and is, the Christ, and what he did when he sacrificed Himself to free us from our sins.

I find myself wondering however, what was it the disciples remembered when they celebrated the Lord's Supper for the first time after Jesus' ascension into heaven. I wonder who among them was the first to break the bread as Jesus did; an act they so identified with Him it was how the disciples on the road to Emmaus recognized the ressurrected Lord. I can picture each of them in turn, pausing for a moment, with a lump in their throats and tears in their eyes, staring off into the past as they put the bread in their mouths and touched the cup to their lips.

Did they think about His death and resurrection? Yes, I'm sure they did, but I imagine they also remembered a great many things not recorded in the gospels. They remembered the one-to-one conversations they had with Him as they walked along the road and when they withdrew to the quiet places. They remembered the laughs they shared as they told each other stories from their childhood. And they remembered meals of bread and wine shared in happier times when all seemed right with the world.

As they continued to celebrate the Lord's Supper with the early church I'm sure they recalled in detail the day they first met the master. They remembered the time He comforted them during a personal battle, embracing them as a brother, praying with and for them as they battled with their own doubts. Most of all I am sure they remembered a smile. A particular look He would give them that said, "Do not be afraid! I love you brother, and out of all Israel I have chosen you to be my disciple."

It is seldom the big and grandious things I remember during Communion. I think of the glory of heaven and the price that was paid for my sins, it is true. I would be remiss if I never thought of them. But more often than not, I find it is the personal events that I remember the most. I remember the way He helped me deal with the death of my father even when most of my Christian friends seemed to ignore me. I remember the Workman's Compensation check that showed up two weeks ahead of schedule on the very day my rent needed to be paid. I remember the joy and gratitude I felt for the gift He gave me - the day I watched Roberta walk down the aisle to become my wife. I remember a small child, not quite sure what to make of me on my first day helping out at Vacation Bible school, who could only think of one thing to say - "Jesus Loves You."

Worship is about remembering all the reasons we choose and continue to believe, because while the stories in the Bible are indeed the most important stories ever written, they do not end with the Book of Revelation. The 'Good News' is still being written today in the hearts and lives of every man, woman, and child who calls upon the name of Jesus. These stories too must be told. These stories too must be remembered.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

What I Do, and Why ...

My friend Phil asked me to respond to a few questions about the storytelling preparation process. I was going to just send him an email personally, but since it’s been so long since I posted anything, I decided to respond here. Here then, are Phil’s questions:

- What things do you think about in contemplating the material?
- What kind of questions do you ask yourself - particularly in this passage? (John 4:1-42)
- Do you ever notice that sometimes certain truths just pop out at you as you are going along that affect your Christian walk and you're not sure if you agree with it or not? Kind of like - you're not sure what just happened but, it sure was cool!
- I’d sure like to know what the personal meaning is for you on this story once you’ve worked with it for a while.

The first thing I do when preparing a passage is pull a W5; that is – who, what, where, when, and why. I know this seems rather obvious, but the fact is it’s the only way I know to understand any passage of scripture. What may differ however, is how I apply these interrogatives.

Given the turbulence of the times when the New Testament was written I find myself asking questions like, “Who benefits most here?”, “What axes do they have to grind?”, “Where are they on the social/political scale?”, “When did this happen in relation to other events in other parts of scripture?”, and “Why did the gospel writer include this story?”

One of the things that’s hard for Western readers to keep in mind when reading the Bible is that the people involved in these stories were much more passionate about their faith than one usually sees today; unless one looks to the modern Middle East. We look at the news, especially now, and often find ourselves asking, “What is the big deal here?” The current situation with the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed is a good example.

I would suggest that for most of us in the West the violence and destruction that has accompanied the Muslim response to the cartoons seems incredibly over the top. And yet, while the physical reaction may indeed be out of proportion, the passion for the faith that motivates it is typical of the region. This is because, for much of this part of the world, faith is not just a religious issue, but an ethnic one as well. Judaism, Islam, and other religions have a binding effect that unites their followers in ways not typically seen in Christianity. This was also true in Biblical times and this fact must be kept in mind when considering the interplay between people and groups in the stories found in the scriptures.

In the story of the Woman at the Well, two things must be kept in mind. First, the woman is a woman. Secondly, she is a Samaritan. Both of these factors make it highly unlikely that a Jewish male would stop and discuss the nature of worship with an unrelated woman in a public place. Note the woman is surprised He asked for the drink.

I won’t go into a dissertation on the passage (actually I started to but deleted it and got back on track), but these are the kinds of things I explore in a passage — why? Because it is only by understanding the interplay between characters that I can accurately relate their story. When two people of obvious differences come together, it would be inconsistent to tell their story with a buddy-buddy, pals-for-life flavour to their conversations. The woman’s voice, for example, should reflect the suspicion that surely would be present in this situation. So most of the questions I ask myself revolve around the issue of relationships.

The other thing that must be considered is the “Why?” of the story. Why was this story included in the gospel? Why does this story even exist? It wouldn’t if Jesus hadn’t started the conversation, so why did he? And most importantly, why am I telling it? Answering these questions will also affect the manner in which it is told.

Because this story is being prepared for a worship conference, I have been focussing on how it relates to the process of worship, even to the point of deciding where to stop the story. Most teachers stop with Jesus’ declaration that he is the Messiah in verse 26; but it seems to me that the act of worship also includes our response to worship. If this is truly the case, then the story must also include the woman’s response, which is to drop what she’s doing (she leaves her waterpot behind), and go tell her friends and family about the one she has encountered. Their response is part of the process of the act of worship. It leads, eventually, to their encounter with Christ and their personal realization that he is indeed the Messiah, in response to which they, in turn, worship Him as well.

In other words: Worship, if done in spirit and in truth, will result in others coming to join in worship. Worship is not a linear path to a final destination, but rather a circle which leads to the creation of additional worshippers. Worship turned inward (as in the case of the Samaritans and the Jews) becomes divisive. Worship turned outward (read inclusive) draws people into the worship experience and increases the volume of worshippers.

And that Phil, is the answer to your last two questions. We talk a great deal about being inclusive in worship, but I think we may have strayed from the path when it comes to determining just what being inclusive is all about. Far too often we look at it as the need to alter, adjust, re-invent, or even (shudder) water-down, what we do as believers in a worship service so that non-believers will be comfortable taking part in the service. I’m beginning to realize that this may be wrong-headed.

Jesus does not water anything down for the woman or her fellow Samaritans. He instead declares that when we come before God truthfully, on a spiritual level (rather than just physical) then the differences between us will become meaningless. We will not worship one way or the other, but rather in a way that draws people to Christ by virtue of its truthfulness. People will not, ultimately, be drawn to God by the method or location of our worship. They may be impressed by the quality or genre of our singing, but that is not what will create in them a desire to experience God. They will want to join us when they see for themselves that our love for God is a genuine expression of who we are and most importantly, of who He is.

What we do and where we do it will cease to have any importance when the union of our spirits with God through Christ and the truthfulness of our relationship with each other as believers becomes the driving force behind our worship. When this happens - others will want to experience the same thing.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Not-So-Savage Curtain

Like a lot of people in this world, I am a fan of the Star Trek franchise. Now, before those of you who aren’t hit the Back button, this article is not about Star Trek per se, so please bear with me.

One of the episodes that stands out in my mind, is an original series episode called The Savage Curtain. In it the crew of the Enterprise travel to a planet called Excalbia. The unique thing about the living rocks that inhabit Excalbia is their culture has no experience with the concepts of “Good” and “Evil.” In an effort to understand this concept, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock find themselves on the planet’s surface along with an assortment of characters extracted from kirk and Spock memories including Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan. They are divided into the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and forced to battle it out to the death. A few skirmishes and much philosophizing later, Kirk and company emerge victorious and the Excalbians come to the following conclusion...

"It would seem that evil retreats when forcibly confronted. However, you have failed to demonstrate to me... any other difference between your philosophies."

After a few more philosophical observations and a memorable quote from Abraham Lincoln (There is no honourable way to kill, no gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war except its ending.) everyone survives and the crew moves on to its next assignment.

So... why the trip down Trekkie memory lane? Well, what always stuck in my mind about this episode was not the debate over the classic battle between good and evil but the aliens involved. The Excalbian spokesman makes the claim that the very concept of good and evil is unknown to them. This seems nearly impossible. Could a society with no concept of good and evil, or right and wrong actually survive? Would they not at the very least come to the conclusion; harm me = evil and help me = good? Could such a society exist?

Well actually, we are supposed to be just such a society. At least that’s what Juan de Valdes suggests. I wrote about Valdes a few weeks ago. Those who haven’t read the article will find it here. This morning, over coffee, I was reading a book of excerpts from Valdes’ One Hundred and Ten Considerations. Check out consideration number 106 where he talks about man(kind) in the spiritual sense:

He was placed in the garden called the earthly paradise. But after he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he lost the image of the likeness of God. He was expelled from the earthly paradise and retains the knowledge of both good and evil. I understand it is unnatural to man and foreign to his first creation to remain excluded from the earthly paradise. Likewise I understand it is unnatural for him to possess ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’ By what I experience in man’s restoration, in his regeneration, and in his being made a new creature, I realize that he does recover the image and likeness of God.

Think about that for a moment; it is unnatural for him to possess ‘the knowledge of good and evil.’ The scriptures seem to re-enforce Valdes’ interpretation as God asks Adam how it is he knows that he is naked (Gen 3:11). The knowledge of this simple fact indicates to God that Adam has transgressed, as it is knowledge Adam would not have if he had remained obedient.

It is an interesting notion that if everything had not gone awry in the Garden of Eden, then the human race today would, just like the fictitious Excalbians, have absolutely no concept of good and evil. Morality plays would not exist and neither, I imagine, would the entire arena of philosophy. (A good thing perhaps?)

I will confess that this idea is entirely beyond my comprehension. I find I cannot adequately imagine a culture that is devoid of these most basic of concepts. I realize I am being repetitive here, but really, to think that if everything had gone according to God’s original intent then we would exists in such a pure state of innocence that terms like “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong” would be completely meaningless and serve no useful purpose in our lives.

If Valdes is right then in the next world we will be restored to this state of innocence. It is no wonder that scripture is so lacking in details of the next life. It will obviously be beyond our comprehension. I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Temptation of the Body of Christ

Part of the process of preparing a passage of scripture for storytelling is to read a variety of commentaries so that one not only knows what a passage says, but also what it is trying to say. In preparing the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness I’ve been reading a commentary on Matthew by Thomas Long in which he makes the observation that what the devil is trying to accomplish is to decrease the scope and focus of Jesus’ ministry. Long puts it this way:

The challenge to turn stones into bread is connected, of course, to the fact that Jesus is ‘famished’ after his long fast, and this is key to understanding this temptation. The devil is attempting to beguile Jesus into making the nature of his work too small - satisfying hunger- and the recipients of his work too few - only one, himself.”

He then goes on to relate this temptation to the church:

The church experiences this form of temptation whenever it risks losing sight of the breadth of its calling or when we measure the effectiveness of the church according to how quickly it responds to our personal ideas and needs, our demand to be fed. “I’m bored; give me excitement in worship.” “I’m a parent; take my children and give them religion.” “I don’t like the way the church spends its money; change it now.”

I’ve been giving this idea a lot of thought and I must tell you I find myself agreeing with Long. For some time now the focus of many churches has been attempting to meet the needs of the individual members of the congregation as far as we are able. We try as much as we can to be “all things to all people.” Of course, this is not a bad thing; but it is not the only thing. The church definitely has a mandate to meet the needs of the members of the body, but I wonder if in focussing on the details we have lost track of the "big picture."

Each of us have our individual interests and concerns that we feel need to be addressed in the body of believers. As a result there are particular ministries that have captured our hearts and minds. What often goes by the wayside however, is an overall plan that looks at how well all the various ministries fit together to create a healthy congregation. We know that the needs of the individual parts of the body are bing dealt with, but if there is no correlation between these efforts, if we don’t keep in mind how meeting the needs of one group affects another, then is the entire body truly healthy?

This is the challenge for those among us who are leaders in the church. The problem is the task looks so daunting because of its sheer size, that to lessen our fear of the burden we follow the conventional wisdom of breaking it up into smaller pieces. Logic dictates that if the individual parts are each taken care of properly then the whole will take care of itself. But does it?

Jesus understood that the health of the entire body of believers was His responsibility. Fortunately for us, He did not shirk that responsibility. He resisted the temptation to focus on the hunger of the moment and kept His eyes on the greater need of tomorrow. Those who lead in the local body face the same temptation and must, if the Body of Christ is to be healthy, resist the temptation as our Lord did.

There are many in the congregation with the heart to nurture the individuals; there must however, be someone whose responsibility it is to ensure that all the individual efforts are pulling in the same direction. This means stepping back from the details far enough to see the entire picture. It means making some tough decisions. Sometimes it means that instead of heading the sound of a grumbling stomach, we may have to go hungry just a little while longer.