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.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Little Help from my Friends...

Hi Everyone!

This posting is a little unusual in that it is directed at a very specific group of readers, the people who attend Kortright Presbyterian Church in Guelph. I have a favour to ask of you. I have been asked to participate in a panel discussion on worship later this spring; specifically I have been asked to address the role of storytelling in worship.

As you know, for the last few years I have been storytelling at Kortright in a variety of ways. Most recently, myself and a few others, have been using the storyteller's art as a means of presenting the scriptures during the Sunday morning services. I know what I think of the process from the storyteller's perspective, but I would like to know what you think as a member of the congregation. So here's what I would like you to do.

Please use the "Comments" option below to post an anonymous comment letting me know how you feel storytelling has affected worship at Kortright. Good or bad, passionate or indifferent, it doesn’t matter. I'd like to know your opinion on whether or not storytelling has positively affected worship in our church and why. After clicking on 'Comments', please use the Anonymous option, as I would rather not know who is commenting so the results can be objectively evaluated. Also, I'm not interested in your opinion of me or any of the individual storytellers, but rather I'd like your opinion of the concept of storytelling itself and its contribution toward making Sunday morning services a more dynamic gathering for worship.

This request is specifically directed to the folks who attend my home church; however, even if you do not attend Kortright, I would still like to hear your comments on the subject, but please let me know so that responses from church members can be evaluated separately. Since I have no idea how many people at the church are reading this blog, I'd also appreciate it if you could refer this article to other folks at Kortright, especially if you know they have an opinion on this subject. Just click on the Envelope icon to email this article to someone else.

To those of you who respond to this request, my heart felt thanks.
And may God bless you all.

Dennis Gray

Monday, January 16, 2006

Jesus and Juan Valdez

Mention the name Juan Valdez to most people in North America and they are likely to envision a man with a donkey in the aisle of a grocery store promoting 100% Columbian coffee; and in a blog called 'Java and Jesus' it might not be too surprising to hear his name come up. Maybe someday we'll talk about him, but not today.

The Juan de Valdez I'd like to tell you about was actually a church reformer during the 16th century, only you won't find him listed among the leaders of the Reformation. This is because unlike his contemporaries in Germany and Geneva, he did not abandon the Catholic church; rather, he criticized Martin Luther and the others for doing so.

On January 14th, 1529, several months before Luther would publish his longer and shorter catechisms, Valdez published his "Dialogue on Christian Doctrine." Written as a conversation between a young priest and an historical Spanish archbishop the dialogue addresses what Valdez regarded as an ignorance of basic doctrine among many priests of his day. During the course of the conversation it soon becomes clear that among other things Valdez holds to a doctrine of salvation by faith alone. It would also seem he doesn't care for such traditions as devotions to Mary and the saints. In addition he only mentions two sacraments - baptism and the Lord's Supper – ignoring the other five sacraments traditionally held by the Catholic church. The entire document has a decidedly Protestant tone to it despite the fact that one of Juan’s professors convinced him to make a few changes so as not to attract the attention of the Spanish inquisition.

At first, the Inquisitor of Navarre, Sancho Carranza de Miranda, was so impressed by what the teenager had written, (it should be mentioned that Valdez was only 18 years old when the "Dialogue on Christian Doctrine" was published) that he bought copies for several of his friends. However, as the Inquisition continued its work and then broadened its definition of heresy, Valdez's writings were added to the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books in 1531. Before he could be arrested, Valdez fled for Naples, Italy.

In Naples he continued to write, including a piece called "The Benefit of Christ" which was my introduction to his work. I was going through a tough time during the period after my father's death, and the Christian community I was part of at the time had, from my point of view, let me down. For a long time my disappointment in my fellow Christians threatened to challenge my belief in Christ Himself. Staying away from church, I continued to struggle with my faith - sort of a long, dark coffee break of the soul, if you will. During this time of personal doubt, I read these words from Valdez...

"A man who is tempted to doubt experiences a work of Christian progress. I believe that such temptation originates in a man's desire to believe and to stand firm in his Christian faith. ...let one who doubts regard his temptation as evidence of progress in the Christian life. Let him recognize that had he not wished a desire to believe, he would not be tempted to doubt. His very distress is indicative of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life."

These words spoke to me at the time, and still do today. They helped me to stop focusing on the failings of other people and start focusing on the faithfulness of Christ. They also fueled my fascination with the works of Christian writers of the past.

The writings of Juan de Valdez did eventually give rise to a Spanish Reformation movement, but it was quickly squashed by the Inquisition. When Valdez died in 1541, his followers scattered. While his work did little to accomplish reform within the Catholic Church, it did form the basis of the first Protestant catechism in Italy, in a sense making Valdez, however reluctantly, an unsung hero of the Protestant Reformation.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Story Behind the Story

For some time now I’ve had the pleasure of working with a small group of Biblical storytellers at my home church. We get together every other week to swap stories and learn more about the storyteller’s art. One of the things we do when preparing to tell a story from the Bible is research the story behind the story. Knowing the history of the people involved can greatly enhance our understanding of the Scriptures. Tonight we were looking at the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman found in Mark chapter 7. After everyone left, it occurred to me that some of you might find the tale of interest as well, so - here goes.

Let’s start with the story found in the Bible....

From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden. For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said to her, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
And she answered and said to Him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.”
Then He said to her, “For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter.”
And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed. (Mark 7:24-30 New King James Version)

It is hard for us to fully appreciate what a remarkable story this is. To do so requires some understanding of the relationship between the Syrians and the Israelites at the time. The relationship has its basis in the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes recorded in 2nd Maccabees chapters 6 & 7. The events took place about a century and a half before Jesus lifetime, but they were still quite vivid in the cultural memory of the people.

Most poignant among the stories of this period is the martyrdom of seven brothers who were arrested and publicly tortured to death for refusing to eat pork. I’ll leave it to the interested reader to seek out the entire story, but Ill give you the long and short of it here. It’s a gruesome story, so the squeamish among you may want to skip to the end of the next paragraph, but if you do, the impact will be lost.

When they were arrested Antiochus required the family to eat pork in order to preserve their lives. One of the sons, acting as spokesman for the family, said to the tyrant, “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we would rather die than transgress the laws of our fathers.” For his faithfulness to the Law of Moses the spokesman had his tongue cut out, his hands and feet cut off, his head scalped to the bone and his brothers and mother were forced to watch as he was taken to a fire and fried alive in a large iron pan. This process was repeated with each of the other six brothers, the rest of the family encouraging each one to die nobly, trusting in God and the hope of the resurrection. Finally the mother too, was tortured and executed in like manner. The family became an inspiration to all of Israel as they continued to seek release from their oppressors.

Though eventually freed from the oppression of Antiochus by the Romans, the Jews maintained a hatred and distrust of the Syrians; not unlike, I imagine, the feelings modern Jews have for the Nazis and the Third Reich. So for Jesus to travel to Tyre and Sidon to begin with would have been regarded as controversial by most, traitorous by some. No doubt this was one of the reasons he sought to keep his visit quiet (vs 24).

But, as shocking as Jesus going to the region would have been, to have a Syrian, even a half-breed Syrian such as this woman, humble themselves at the feet of a Jew would have been unthinkable! These people just didn’t do such things. Syrians only regarded Jews with contempt. Their pride and arrogance would never let them take notice of a Jew for any longer than it took to spit in their direction. So what was this woman up to? She had to be faking this show of humility in an effort to get this prophet to heal her daughter.

At least, I’m sure that’s what Mark’s Jewish readers would have been thinking. The question is: Is that what Jesus was thinking? Because his next words seem out of character for the Son of Man.

“Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” (vs 27)

He calls her a dog!, and to her face no less. He did not speak to the woman at the well this way, or to the Roman centurion. Was he testing the sincerity of this Syro-Phoenician’s humility? I think so; no other explanation makes sense. And how would the Israelites of the first century expect a Syrian to respond to such an insult? Would her pride over-rule her concern for her daughter? Would she get up and storm out in a fit of racial arrogance?

“Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs.” (vs 29)

No. She swallows her pride and accepts the title. Then she argues her case from the dog’s position of status, asking this Jewish prophet to throw her a crumb and drive the demon from her daughter. Two hundred years of racial bigotry and hatred are thrown out the window as one woman sees only her daughter’s need and recognizing true Godly power, cares not who’s hand wields it.

Jesus now knows this woman has truly humbled herself. Even in public, in front of witnesses, Syrian and Jew alike, she comes to Christ with true humility in her heart. Once again a Gentile responds to Jesus in ways His own people cannot bring themselves to do.

How many of us need to learn the lesson this woman has to teach us? How many of us can see the solution to our needs, our problems, our challenges, but fail to take advantage of that solution because of our prejudices? We don’t like the person who can help us, for whatever reason, so we will continue to suffer rather than swallow our pride and ask for help. We endure in silence because the solution requires we admit that we were wrong about someone or something.

From another perspective... how many refuse to accept Jesus’ offer of healing because of something someone has done to them in the past? Most importantly, is something we have done keeping someone else out of the kingdom?

Prejudice comes in many disguises. I hope and pray we will all learn to set them aside, humble ourselves at the feet of Christ, and allow Him to drive our demons away as well.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I'm Not Ready Yet!

So… yesterday Roberta and I are having cappuccinos with our friends Tony and Catherine (Tony makes great cappuccinos) when somehow the conversation turns to the subject of death, specifically, the fear of death. Don't ask me how this happened, I can't remember, but at one point the comment was made that being afraid of death seems contrary to faith. After all, if you truly believe in the security of the believer and the afterlife, then death would actually be a good thing – wouldn't it?

And yet, even as people of faith, we continue to have this apprehension about death and cling to this life. Why? If we believe in the reality of heaven as such a wonderful place, and that God has the authority to determine the length of our life here on earth, then should we not welcome the time of our passing when it comes?

The same seems to be true for the Second Coming as well. Catherine noted that as a young Christian in the Baptist church she was encouraged to look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ; and rightly so. She remembers however, her own response as being something akin to: "Yes, Come Lord Jesus; but not until I finish school", and then "not until I get married", and then "not until I've had children", etc. etc. She's not alone; I've heard these same sentiments many times. Many Christians, I think, would rather see the end of Revelation read, "Maranatha come Lord Jesus, but not until I'm ready."

Even the heroes of faith in the Bible would appear to have the same apprehensions. What prompted me to write about this today is this passage from Psalm 6 that turned up in my meditations over coffee at Tim Horton's this morning. I thought the timing after last night's conversation rather interesting.

Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies' sake!
For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give You thanks? Psalm 6:4-5

Where's the confidence of the afterlife in this statement? David loved God more than most in his day and yet was still afraid of the prospect of dying. Contrast this with Paul's response in his letter to the Philippians.

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Phil. 1:21-23

Many of us would like to think that we share this sentiment, myself included. But when faced with the reality of our mortality we are far more likely to sound like David. We desire to see Jesus and be with Him, but like I said earlier, not until we're ready. The reason for this I think is not our fear of death but rather the fear of what comes afterward. In this most of us fall into one of two categories:

1. What if the Bible is wrong? Can I face that possibility?
2. What if the Bible is right? Can I face that possibility?

The fact remains that regardless of how much we love God, or how much we convince ourselves of the reality of the Bible's promises, many of us still regard death as, to use Shakespeare's phrase, "the undiscovered country." We certainly hope in the promise of the afterlife, and take comfort in it, but it is still the great scary unknown. Even if we've decided there is an afterlife, how certain are we that we will qualify. No matter how long one has been a Christian, there are, from time to time, questions we aren't sure of the answers to.
Is that a lack of faith, or just being all too human? I'm not entirely sure. On more than one occasion Jesus meet the needs of those who admitted to a smallness of faith, other times he cites their lack of faith as the roadblock in their lives. I guess ultimately, it's a question each of us has to sort out for ourselves.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

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