The Potential of Imagination

Matthew 18: At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

 

When I forget the distinct personality, the particular possibility and potential each person has, my children remind me, like when my son, Nathan, showed me the possibilities of a trashcan when seen through his eyes.  Continue reading “The Potential of Imagination”

High Noon – Jesus Style

On a recent Saturday, I watched a movie for Mature Audiences. I’m interested in how this label, “Mature Audiences,” is used. We say to children, “You can’t watch this, it is for Mature Audiences.” I want to call the people who came up with this name because I don’t think they have a good understanding of “mature” or “adult.” When I say, “Adult Film,” what do you think of? Shame on you.

The movie I watched was an old one, High Noon from 1952 with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. It had been advertised as an Adult Western. There was no nudity, no profanity, and very little shooting. There isn’t a gun fight until the last fifteen minutes of the movie. So, why was it an adult film?
Pretty much everyone in it is stereotypical. The bad guys wear black. The scowl. They don’t like each other. They don’t like their horses. They are just mean animals. A clear hierarchy. They have their bad guy music. Like all these films, if you woke up in one, you’d know who you were by the music. If the music has b’s and d’s, you are a villain. Ba-ba-ba da –  da – da – da. DUM. If there are t’s, you are a hero. Ta-te-te ta tat a ta.
The town’s people are also stereotypical. They talk a lot. A lot. They claim to support the Marshal, but they run in the end. It is amazing how much time in this film Cooper, Marshal Will Kane, stands by himself in the middle of the street. The only characters with any depth are Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). Continue reading “High Noon – Jesus Style”

Getting John the Baptist Out of Your Head

Becoming Beloved

Sometimes, I have John the Baptist living in my head which can make my brain a very uncomfortable place to be. The Gospel of Matthew describes John like this in Matthew 3:
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.
If you’re going to have someone residing in your brain, I encourage you to choose someone not clothed in camel’s hair, it’s quite itchy. I also suggest someone who doesn’t eat bugs, and someone who doesn’t yell. John yells a lot.
 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to (John)…  when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Continue reading “Getting John the Baptist Out of Your Head”

Be The You

Part of coming out of the conforming pressure of culture and crowd is to discover and grow the particular personality God created you to be and is calling you to become. Here is a section from Out of The Crowd.

When asked about my role models for preaching are, I don’t mention Billy Graham or Karl Barth. I speak of the story tellers, because to me, they are the most memorable. One of my favorite routines by Bill Cosby was on The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson hosted. It went something like this…

When George Washington was a little boy, his father gave him a new hatchet. When playing by himself, he took his little hatchet and chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree. Upon finding the tree, George’s father came and asked him, “George, did you cut down my cherry tree?”

George replied, “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I cut it down with me little hatchet.”
Do you think George’s father punished him? Of course he did. He didn’t know that he was THE George Washington.
Thomas Alva Edison growing up was a curious boy. He once burned down the family barn because he wanted to see what would happen in a fire that large. Do you think his father punished him? Of course he did. He didn’t know that he was THE Thomas Alva Edison.
Mark Twain pushed over an outhouse that fell down a hill and into the Mississippi River. Do you think his mother punished him? Of course she did. She was in the outhouse when he pushed it over. And she didn’t know he was THE Mark Twain.

So, when Jesus’ family came to restrain him because he was making a stir around town and people were saying that he had lost his mind, they didn’t know he was THE Jesus. So, too, with all families in crowd mode, they see the family member and not the particular individual. Likely, your family will try and restrain you because they don’t know you are THE you. Continue reading “Be The You”

Standing Up To Jesus

Out of the Crowd Front Cover1As a pastor, there are some passages you think about for years. Either you avoid them, or you come up with some simple solution that might satisfy a Sunday morning sleepy congregation, but if you stay with it enough, one of the characters may leap off the page and grab you, even smack you around a little for dumbing down for too long. The Syrophonecian woman has done that to me and for me.

There is the old hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” but this woman did something far more courageous. She stood up to Jesus.

I’m in the proofing stage of a book about coming out of the crowd and taking a stand as a mature adult. She’s a great role model as she stands up for her child to the Son of God himself, who, as I read the encounter ends their conversation laughing out loud.

Out of The Crowd – The Syrophonecian Woman

Jesus did not have an administrative assistant to set his schedule. We don’t have old copies of Jesus’ calendar so that we can see the persons and groups Jesus wanted to encounter and when and where he wanted to see them.
His encounters often seem random, as if the people Jesus meets are haphazard like the woman who happens to be at the well in the middle of the day or the blind beggar on the outskirts of Jericho. Perhaps, it is these particular individuals and personal encounters that Jesus was looking for in each location, not just happenstance, but his purpose all along. If we had seen Jesus’ calendar, we might have seen the names of these individuals, one by one. Each particular, each unique, each encounter distinctive, like this woman. While others had to stand up to family, religious crowds, even soldiers, she had to stand up and claim her place as beloved, even when Jesus told her the opposite. Here is their encounter in Mark 7,

Jesus journeyed with the disciples to the region of Tyre. Upon arrival, Jesus secretly entered a house.
A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. The woman was not Jewish but a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin. She begged Jesus to help her daughter.
Jesus replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.”
She answered Jesus, “But sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Jesus laughed and affirmed her answer. He said, “You may go, the demon has left your daughter. She is well.”
The woman went home and found her daughter lying on the bed, the demon gone.

Imagine you are this woman. You have heard that Jesus was coming. Your daughter is ill. You want to help your daughter, but her problem is far greater than anything you can do, so you go looking for Jesus. All you have heard are stories, but you’ll try anything for your daughter. Even those closest to you daunt you, “He won’t see you,” or “They won’t let you in.” Their discouragement might have been enough to stop you, but you weren’t just going for yourself.
You get through the barriers of those who try and keep you from seeing him. When you make your way into the house, you see him, your hope. You take the position of subservience; you fall to his feet as a beggar seeking mercy from the only one you believe can help you by helping your daughter. You plead, “My daughter is ill. Can you… Will you please help her?”
Jesus does not raise you up. He does not lift you from the floor. He speaks down to you in a condescending attitude that you had been afraid you would hear from him if you got this far. His tone implies that Jesus can but won’t help your daughter. He confirms it with an insult, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Essentially, this is, “I’m here for the children of Israel, the children of God, not your child, and not you. There is not enough to go around – not enough food, not enough love, not enough help. No one throws scarce food meant for the children to dogs – like you.” Jesus insults you, your gender, your race, your people, and tells you that you are less than a person and so is your daughter, you are less than human, you are animals, you are dogs and don’t deserve help.
Jesus, who had earlier, taught, “Don’t let evil things come out of you,” lets the insults fly, and does so at the dinner table, not only an important symbol in Judaism, but for the early church, and for Jesus. While he had given many sinners, traitors, and social reprobates places at the table, here he denies her very right to health and life for her child and gives her a metaphor that not only doesn’t allow her a seat at the table – Jesus puts her under it.
There are multiple excuses granted to Jesus for this behavior, “He was tired and hungry. This just shows he’s human, we can all be rude when we are tired and hungry.” “Because Jesus was human, he had his own bigotries and prejudices.” “If you knew the Syrophoenicians and the evil they had done over time, you’d see she deserved it.”
These excuses overlook the underlying implication of Jesus’ journey. Though she’s an intruder to their dinner, it may be that she’s the very reason that Jesus came. While in this region, Jesus didn’t go see any of the Jews living there, didn’t go meet with any leaders or philosophers, didn’t go to any place of teaching or worship, didn’t meet with any government leaders. After this encounter, they leave the area. Though she seems like an intruder, she may have been exactly the person he was looking for, the encounter he expected, the moment he wanted. If so, then perhaps this insult is just the gift she needed from him for her to claim her place as a beloved daughter of God.
Jesus challenged her with the insult, but he also gave her other images: children of God, a table, and the house of God. Though Jesus threw scarcity at her, he offered her images of abundance in God’s house. Because it is God’s house, the rules change, and she knows it. First, the insult, being called a dog. If you are a dog in the house of God, then you are loved. God’s love is infinite. An infinite love cannot be added to. So in the Master’s house, in the house of an infinite loving God, the dogs are loved infinitely. So if the children are loved more, infinity plus one, it is still infinity. She does not debate his insult, she removes it of all power by placing herself at the table of God, the God of infinite love. Granted, she may not have known the math or added infinity plus one in her left-brain, but she felt it. At God’s table, it doesn’t matter if you come as Moses or a mutt, sit at it, or beneath it. The table is God’s table and therefore a wondrous place to be.
Jesus also gives her another hint. Bread. He implies that there is not enough bread for her or her family and that God’s chosen get it first. Again, she is onto him. This of course is Jesus, the guy who feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Here he speaks of scarcity… there is not enough food to go around. She gets the metaphor and speaks in abundance. There is room. There is plenty. She answers him,
Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.
She speaks of a limitless power of God where even the crumbs, the leftovers, the discarded is more than enough. So, she refused to accept insult because she believed that God was abundantly loving and gracious. She claimed her place. She would not be forced to take a place in a world where some are the beloved of God and some are dogs. She would not accept an image of God that valued one race, one people, one gender higher than another, one at the table and one below it. She claimed a value giving love, and for her, the categories of the crowd disappeared.
If you meet Jesus, and he calls you something other than “Beloved,” then he’s challenging you, pushing you, calling you out. If there are others, perhaps some in the name of Jesus or even of God, who perhaps call you something less than “Beloved of God,” no matter how large their title or nice their robe, they do not speak for God.

Faith in Flight

A couple of pastorates past, I was assigned to a community committee consisting of representatives from thirteen different congregations. I replaced another staff member who had gone for two decades. When I arrived, I was asked what church I was representing. I told them where I was from and whose role I was taking. That seemed to be enough. They didn’t need to know any more – not even my name.
I listened and read as word by word we toiled through the bylaws of the organization for two hours. At the end, I raised my hand, told them my name, and asked, “Since I’m new here, can someone tell me what this group does?”
The moderator replied, “That’s a very good question. I think we can discuss that next time. I was also thinking that it would be good for us to go from quarterly meetings to monthly meetings. All in favor?” People raised their hands. “Opposed?” No one raised his or her hand. I abstained. How could I vote against something when I had no idea what they did? There was nothing in the bylaws to tell me. Continue reading “Faith in Flight”

Can Hymns Happen?

In a denomination of any flavor, a new hymnbook is a giant undertaking. With talk of another Presbyterian Hymnbook on the way in my home denomination, it makes me wonder, “How does a song become a hymn?” When I was young, one way we learned was through sneaky cartoons they slid in between episodes of Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo. The educational cartoons were School House Rock teaching us catchy ways to remember that Verbs were action words similar to a flying super hero and Conjunctions tied a sentence together as one train car pulls two together to form a train. My favorite was on how a Bill becomes a law sung by pitiful little Bill who wailed, “I’m just a bill, yes, I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting her on Capital Hill…” and took the unsuspecting viewer through the process of how a bill becomes a law. Continue reading “Can Hymns Happen?”

Does God Play Hide and Seek?

The story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis has always raised a lot of questions for me. The encounter at the tree begins like this in chapter 3: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said…Playing hide and seek, urban painting, acrylic on wall

The two questions I have at the outset of the story are: 1. Where is God? 2. Why don’t they go looking for God to find out the answer to their questions instead of just talking to the serpent? It’s often said that this is the beginning of Theology, talking about God but not to God. It doesn’t go well for Adam and Eve, instead of searching for God before the end of the chapter they’ll be doing their best to hide by camouflaging themselves into their surroundings. Hide and seek, sin style. Continue reading “Does God Play Hide and Seek?”

Great First Lines or “This is just the beginning…”

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."(Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell) 

A friend and I were discussing our favorite writers, those who offered an amazing phrase, art in a sentence. After discussing our mutual admiration for Norman McClean’s masterful, A River Runs Through It, he suggested I read Wallace Stegner starting with Angle of Repose. When I got the novel, I didn’t have time to start the book, but I did want to know what words he chose for his beginning. I opened the cover and read the dedication, For my son, Page. My response was, “Really, you’re an author, and you name your son, Page?” I was stuck. I did move on, and so far, Stegner has delivered as my friend promised. My fixation on first words did lead me to pick my top five first lines of novels, though my list is subject to change without notice.

Continue reading “Great First Lines or “This is just the beginning…””

Slow Down to See Your Neighbor

Van Gogh’s “The Good Samaritan”

Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” and he replied with this famous story in Luke 10,

30  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

While the Samaritan has been called ‘good’ while we’ve looked down on the priest and Levite for two thousand years, I’d like to offer them a little sympathy. By nature of their roles as a priest and Levite, they had somewhere to go. They were likely in a hurry. Continue reading “Slow Down to See Your Neighbor”

Be a Contributor

In Nashville, there is a lot of star-gazing. “Let me tell you who I saw at the grocery store…” If you come to Nashville, the one person I suggest you look for is Tasha French-Lemley. I met her at a men’s study group. She came in and sat down in a chair, kicked off her shoes, crossed her legs beneath her, and told us her story. Here is what I remember.

Tasha moved to Nashville after graduating from college with her degree in graphic design. Since she had no experience in the field, no one would hire her. She took the only job she could find working at Kinkos, making copies, and crying daily that her life had fallen so far below her expectations. Continue reading “Be a Contributor”

Competition or Contribution? – What Question Drives You?

In The Art of Possibility, Boston Symphony Conductor Benjamin Zander tells about his family table growing up. He was the youngest of four with two older brothers and an older sister. At dinner time every evening, they would sit around the table, with the parents in the places of authority at the ends and the kids in the middle. Ben’s dad begin the conversation by addressing the oldest boy, “What did you do today?”

Ben’s brother would describe, at some length all that he had accomplished that day. Ben understood that “What did you do today?” meant “What did you achieve today? How did you bring glory and honor to the family? How were you successful?”
Then Ben’s father would ask the second in line, his other brother, “What did you do today?” and he would relate all his accomplishments. Then his sister. Then Ben. Ben felt that compared to his older siblings, he accomplished little. No matter what he had achieved, one of his siblings had done it before and done it better. Ben saw each day as a two-sided coin, success on one side and failure on the other, achievement on one side and disappointment on the other. There was no glory he could bring which the family hadn’t seen before. Continue reading “Competition or Contribution? – What Question Drives You?”

The Way God Is

When I chose the artwork for the cover of the 2014 edition of The Psychology of Jesus, I picked this painting by Bartolome’ Esteban Murillo.

8 Murillo return-of-the-prodigal-son-1670

        To me the subject of the painting and the story it tells is obvious. To my surprise, even the most Biblically literate have not immediately recognized this story brought to art by Murillo. I even asked my son, “Who is in this painting?” Not knowing what to answer, he gave the answer most twelve-year-old pastor’s sons would offer, “God.” The painting’s subject matter is given away in the title, “The Return of The Prodigal.”  Painted later in his life, Murillo was part of the Brotherhood of Charity. The group felt that charity was the only activity that people could do which touched the heart of God and eternity. All accumulating, whether power, wealthy, or even knowledge was temporary and lost in death. They highlighted seven acts of charity and mercy. Besides, retelling the story of the prodigal, Murillo’s painting highlighted the act of clothing the naked visually clear in the large pile of clothes the servant holds for the son.  Continue reading “The Way God Is”

Blessings at the Crossroads

crossroads article bannerMartin Guitars has an ad campaign called, “Crossroads.” In the ad, they retell the legend of Robert Johnson’s encounter with the devil. It’s a gloomy night at a crossroads on a rural Mississippi plantation in the early 1930’s. A struggling blues musician named Robert Johnson has a burning desire to play his guitar better than anyone else. At this lonely intersection, the Devil waits for Johnson. With the moon shining down, the Devil plays a few songs on Johnson’s guitar. When Robert Johnson gets his guitar back, he has complete mastery over the instrument. His soul now belongs to the supernatural being, and for the next 5 years or so, he creates music that will live past his tragic, suspicious death in 1938 at the age of 27.

A closer look at the lyrics of “Crossroads” shows not a man struggling with the devil and fame but with loneliness and pain. The crossroad is whether or not his pain will overwhelm him or whether or not he can come through it with a song. Continue reading “Blessings at the Crossroads”

Stop Listening and Pay Attention

“Stop listening.”

It was not what I expected to hear from my counseling professor in seminary so I stopped doodling in my notebook and paid close attention.

“When you are with a couple, or a family, and what they are saying to you or to each other makes no sense to you, stop listening. Just look at them. Pay attention to how they sit – who is near and who is far. Look at how they move, toward or away from one another.”

I had been to so many seminars on listening. I had received and catalogued so many handouts and books on listening skills, that his lesson was both surprising and revolutionary. Continue reading “Stop Listening and Pay Attention”

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Love and the Baptism of Jesus

How did Jesus understand love and what it meant to be loved?

Some languages have it easier. The Greeks have more than one word for love. They have eros, philio, agape. Those choices seem to have suited them well. Yet, to write in English, I haven’t found a lot of help in substituting Greek or any other unfamiliar words. To explore love in the mind of Jesus, in the psychology of Jesus and how he loved rather than new words for ‘love,’ I propose in Jesus that we see love in two forms, two types, two kinds which are both familiar and universal.

Continue reading “What’s Love Got to Do With It? Love and the Baptism of Jesus”

Epiphany – Are You Like Herod or the Magi?

What we can learn from Herod…

When Herod met the Magi at the palace in Jerusalem, neither had met the infant Messiah. Both were experiencing their perceptions of who and what he might be. Herod is a vivid illustration of what the philosopher Epictetus observed, People are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them. The Primary Concept for us is: People and events don’t bother us, but our perceptions of them do.

Continue reading “Epiphany – Are You Like Herod or the Magi?”