Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

Why Christians Have a Hard Time with Satire

Yesterday I published a blog post about a fictional visit from Jesus to Liberty University. I was exposing the absurdity of asking Christian students to purchase guns for self-defense by presenting a Jesus who retracts his teachings on non-violence and promotes the “kill them before they kill you and others” attitude we heard from Jerry Falwell, Jr. I was trying to create a Jesus who would affirm Falwell’s thinking and take it to its logical conclusion.

The conclusion: if Jesus adopted Falwell’s approach, he probably would have bypassed the cross. Jesus would have destroyed the people trying to kill him and established a new political dynasty which would not differ too much from any other regime of his day or ours.
obs_20110726001I tried to use humor, wit, and biblical theology to create a satirical response to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s reprehensible call to action, exposing how unfaithful it is to the teachings and example of Jesus. And yes, it was a lot of fun to do.

But the response was rather… muted. Maybe my post wasn’t all that good. That’s always a distinct possibility. Or maybe I offended people into stunned silence. But that hardly happens on social media these days.

In the meantime I’ve been waiting for angry people and church members to call or email me, complaining about how blasphemous I was. How dare I mock Jesus like that?? That’s usually the response to satire that involves some aspect of our faith.

When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released, it created a massive firestorm of protest from Christian groups who lambasted it as anti-Christian blasphemy. Bring it up today, and it still gets the ire of many. It was satire! And it wasn’t mocking Christian faith or Jesus. It wasn’t even mocking religion in general, although some used it as such. Life of Brian was a satire of the sorry state of organized religion and how we often (mis)represent the gospel.

So why do Christians have a hard time with satire these days, especially when it invokes Christian motifs and figures? I think there are several reasons, and I’m sure you could list off more:

  1. Being culturally marginalized has got us defensive. The church is in a tough spot. For 1,700 years, we found ourselves at the epicenter of culture and government. Now, we’re increasingly on the margins of both, and we don’t know how to handle that. Whenever the culture jabs us or we even perceive that they’re jabbing us, it rubs salt in our wounded pride.
  2. Humor and religion don’t often play well together. Let’s face it. Dealing with God is serious business. It requires our very best and our utmost devotion. Humor, however, is a distraction. The very nature of humor is to knock us down a peg, to enjoy our imperfections, our limitations, and the things that would normally shame us. In fact, humor is an antidote to shame. But… humor is also an antidote to pride. High-mindedness is a pathway to pride and arrogance. Humor- and yes the Bible contains humor!- has a humbling effect. It invites us to avoid the extreme of taking ourselves too seriously. So humor can and should play a role in our life of faith.
  3. People are hyper-sensitive these days. Sorry. I’m sure someone just got offended by that. It seems as if there’s a cultural weed infesting our First Amendment right of free speech: freedom from being offended. Very little can be openly discussed and debated without things devolving into ad hominem attacks. Disagreement is the new scandal. Words must be weighed very carefully to make sure some segment of an audience doesn’t feel belittled. (Warning: raising this point will garner a Scarlet I for being insensitive).It’s hard to say anything of consequence without issuing qualifying statements to soften the blow on people’s sensibilities. In this climate, humor and satire have become the greatest casualties.

Given all this, is it any wonder that Christians have a hard time recognizing and understanding satire? There’s a good deal of satire in the Bible, including from people like Jesus and Paul. It serves a purpose in getting our attention and encouraging us to think and do differently, more faithfully, more Christ-like.

So… on that note, fellow Christians: lighten up, will ya?

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Meeting Jesus in a Nursing Home

Confession time here… I’m a pastor who really dislikes having to visit nursing homes. Obviously I don’t regret it nearly as much as the folks whose health and circumstances consign them to live there. I always try to keep my bad attitude in check with that little piece of reality.
Nevertheless, I genuinely admire people who feel called to minister to nursing home residents– from chaplains, pastoral care givers, and many faithful laity who visit these folks month after month to bring worship, fellowship, and Christ’s love to the residents. I respect them so much for their quiet, passionate, faithful work.

I’m not one of them.

And yet, Jesus has never accepted my reluctance to venture into a nursing home as an excused absence. He reminds me, sometimes gently and other times forcefully, that nursing home residents need his love and presence, too. Okay, yup, I get it. Yes, Lord.
Old HandsSo, Jesus decided to give me another chance to address my reluctance over nursing home ministry when a colleague of mine asked if I would fill in for her this past Sunday at her church’s monthly nursing home worship service. She said it was simple. All I had to do was share a short devotion, serve Communion, and the other church folks would take care of the rest. Eager to help out a friend, I agreed. But I can assure you that that was my only motivation! [I imagine a meme of a tired, frustrated Jesus with the caption “SMH”.]

Sunday afternoon came, and as promised I showed up to the nursing home. I got there early to check in with the other volunteers and look over our order of worship. Then I walked around the large recreation room we were meeting in to see the residents who were slowly showing up for our worship service.

Off in the back corner, I saw a man playing the guitar. He was singing old revival style songs- “I Saw the Light”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “Amazing Grace”, and some others. So I walked over to talk to him. Maybe he could play along with our pianist… I introduced myself, and got to chatting with him.
His name was Erik. He told me that once a month he came with his guitar to sing songs his grandmother would know and appreciate. Her dementia had gotten much worse lately, and this music was one of the ways he could still make a connection with her.

Here’s what really humbled me. Erik is devoutly Jewish. So much love was at that back corner table. It occurred to me that Erik was being far more Christ-like than I was. [A nudge in the ribs from Jesus… Yes, Lord…]

Then the service started. All the residents had song books, and our pianist picked out older songs they would know and love. Within a few bars of music, those residents transformed from quiet and withdrawn to a jubilant choir. I saw some residents whose dementia kept them from following along in a book, but clearly they were mouthing and singing words that had long ago ingrained themselves deeply within their souls.

There was a woman sitting near me, hunched over in her wheelchair. Before each song I helped her get to the right page, not sure if she was able to follow along or not. But yes, she was singing, too. She seemed frail and distant enough to be blown away by a sharp wind, but she perked right up at the sound of all those familiar hymns. That got me to wondering if I could perhaps sing with a little more spirit when I’m feeling down and weak.

[Another elbow nudge from Jesus… Yes, I get it, Lord.]

During the singing, I heard guitar playing. I looked over, and to my surprise, Erik, my new Jewish friend, had made his way over to the piano and started playing and singing along. For him, there were a lot more people there like his grandmother.

After a few songs, I gave folks an opportunity to share thanks and praises and then shared a message about joy. Many residents showed no hesitation to give thanks to God– for another day, for the health they have, for a healing, for people who come and visit them, for the other volunteers and me. At least for a moment they seemed to embody the message of thanksgiving and joy I had come to bring them. In turn, they were teaching me with their lives what thanksgiving and joy are all about. [I can do without another elbow, Jesus. I get it.]
Holy CommunionThen it came time to serve Holy Communion. Normally, I’m accustomed to people walking up to me in a procession to receive the body and blood of Christ. One of my favorite things to do in ministry is to serve them. But this time, we had to go to each of the residents, all of whom were resting in some kind of wheelchair.

As I went to each one, I asked if they would like to receive Communion. Most of them gladly took the elements. The little old lady whom I was helping with her songbook needed some help. She couldn’t quite grasp the bread and cup of juice, but she clearly wanted it. One man I offered Communion to looked up at me with a beaming smile but was unable to respond to my invitation. I blessed him with Christ’s peace; he smiled even wider.

After Communion was over, we sang one more song and I shared a benediction. But the residents were in no hurry to leave. Unlike any of my congregations who leave promptly after the service is over, these folks lingered. They wanted to sing some more! So we sang a round of “Jesus Loves Me.”

Following my second benediction, I decided to stick around and talk to a few of the residents. Several of them thanked us over and over for coming out to be with them. I found out that the older woman sitting next to me, the one I helped with her songbook and Communion is 106-years-old! What an honor to have served someone who remembers the First World War and who lived as an adult through the Great Depression…

Walking out of the nursing home, I didn’t feel drained like I normally would. I felt blessed. I reluctantly came to offer a meager gift. I gave my best, but those folks out-gave me.

They showed me something I have had to learn over and over again when following Jesus. You see, it’s one thing to get to know about Jesus. Anyone can do that by reading the Gospels, listening to sermons, reading books, and sitting in Bible studies. But, to get to know Jesus, personally, we must try to imitate his way of life, its fullest expression being sacrificial service that blesses other people. And when we do that, we find that not only is Jesus present in us and alongside of us, but he’s also present in the ones we serve. When we serve “the least of these”, there he is– in this case, within the guise of some nursing home residents.

Apparently, Jesus was trying to take me there to show me himself in the hopes that I would re-learn the blessing of serving in difficult places.
It’s a reminder to me that Jesus is perfectly willing to work with half-baked motives and less-than-rosy attitudes. All he asks is for the faith to take the first step. He holds our hand and looks at us with an assuring smile.

It’s like a friend who invites me to go on a trip with him. I’ve heard of the place, and frankly, have had no desire to ever go. But he jabbers on an on about how captivating a place it is, and so to just shut him up I go. Of course, I’m hemming and hawing the whole way there, and even when we arrive, I’m ready to ditch my friend and catch the next ride back. But then, gradually, slowly, I begin to discover how amazing a place it is. Before I know it, I’m simply lost in wonder. My friend has enough class to not rub it in. As he looks at my reaction, his joy only intensifies, and as soon as we start to head back home, I ask him when we can go back?

So Jesus, anytime you want to take me back to the nursing home, I’m game!

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Squinty-Eyed Grace

It seems like we human beings have an ingrained  “too-good-too-be-true” barometer in our systems.

Let’s say I walk into my favorite restaurant, sit down and pick up the menu. Then moments later, my server walks up and says, “Ah, Mr. Owens. You are most welcome! Order anything you like. Today’s meal is on the house.” Most of you, like me, would immediately snap back, “What??” Our hackles would go up. We’d demand to know the catch. The deal must rigged. It’s too good to be true.

After all, nothing is ever free. Everything has a cost. There are limits to all things. The piper always comes piping. And on and on our “too-good-to-be-true” barometers expand, squeezing our spirits us into a squinty-eyed, furrowed brow scrutiny of anything that glows too brightly or tastes too sweet.

It’s no wonder then that we have a hard time accepting something like grace. Grace stands in sharp contrast to the eye-for-an-eye, fair-is-fair, you-get-what-you-pay-for kind of world we live in. That’s because grace says, “No, you don’t deserve this good thing, but you’re getting it anyway, and even more than you would have dreamed to ask.”
GraceFor us Christians, grace is at the very center of our faith. We dare to hold this truth that God has reconciled us and the whole world to himself, forgiven us and gives us all an abundant, eternal life through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. It is a freely given gift from God with no strings attached. We can’t earn it, work for it, or otherwise show ourselves worthy to receive it. God has already given us this gift. It’s gratis.

It’s grace.

I did a concordance search on the word grace in the Bible, and I was astounded at what I saw. Over and over again, the grace of God was presented as this wildly extravagant thing, uncontainable, unlimited, shockingly expansive, exhaustive and inclusive. Here are a few samples (with a few words I have bolded and italicized):

From [Christ’s] abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. (John 1:16, NLT)

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man,how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Romans 5:15)

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. (1 Cor. 15:10)

…in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace,expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved,through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:7-9)

I just got that “wow” factor again, typing in these verses. This grace of God is huge, uncontainable, almost inexpressively good. Dare I say, it even seems scandalous.

And speaking of scandal, one of the most scandalous stories of the New Testament is the story of the near stoning of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus came to her rescue, ruled out her condemnation on the grounds that no one has a right to condemn her, and forgave her. There was no punishment. She didn’t even ask for forgiveness! God’s grace incarnate forgave the woman, turned away the wall of ungraciousness that demanded her death, and invited this daughter of God into a new life free from sin. (John 8:2-11) By religious rule, she should have died. Grace– grace she did not ask for!– intervened to set her free.

Now here’s what always happens. The moment we see or speak of grace, immediately our “too-good-too-be-true” barometers go off and we race to to put limits and rules to grace. “Well, there may be grace for us, but not for those people.” “Grace is only applicable in these circumstances, but not those.” “There may be grace, but you’ve got to believe in this doctrine, subscribe to this practice, and believe and do x, y, and z to get it.”

Preachers and teachers have been branded heretics for daring to suggest that grace expands beyond our prescribed doctrines, practices, rules and beliefs. Jesus, Paul, and a whole other legion of proclaimers of the good news of God’s grace were vilified for “making it too easy”, “dumbing down the rules” and opening the grace of God’s coming kingdom to too many “undeserving” people.

In other words, too many of us have found self-assured comfort with a squinty-eyed version of grace. And I would say that this squinty-eyed version of grace is no grace at all. True grace evokes a child-like, wide-eyed wonder and even wide-eyed shock at the loving enormity of the grace of our God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is grace!

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An iPad or Lots of Jesus for Christmas?

Over the last couple of years, I haven’t had much of a Christmas list. Of course that rendered the annual, “What do you want for Christmas?” conversation with family members a frustrating one. I’ve been told I’m difficult to shop for.

But this year was different. I experienced a conflict between my inner-child and my adult self. The inner-child Ralphiebegan to strangely resemble Ralphie from A Christmas Story. My internal Ralphie had his heart set on the impossible dream of Christmas gifts: an iPad. And believe me, the iPad ranked right up there with the “Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time”.

No, an iPad wouldn’t shoot my eye out, but I’ve never received a Christmas gift that extravagant. That just doesn’t happen. At the same time, my adult, more sober self kept saying, “You have all you need already. And besides, just as you’ve preached and taught so many times before, Christmas is not about getting a bunch of stuff.” Yeah, I know, I know…

So all through Advent the Raphie side hoped on for the elusive iPad while the adult side looked for greater, more intangible, spiritual things. What  came next were memories of Christmas Days I had in the past. What lessons did I learn then?

What stands out most from Christmas Days in the past were not the presents I received but the relational gifts. I remember getting up first thing in the morning with my siblings before my parents were awake to wait for that magical stroke of 7 AM when it was okay to wake up Mom and Dad. I remember warm, festive family gatherings at my grandmother Owens’ small two-bedroom apartment packed with 15 people for Christmas morning brunch followed by Christmas  dinner just a two miles away at my grandmother and grandfather Henderson’s house.

When I became a Christian, those beautifully powerful Christmas Eve services complete with carol singing, candlelight, Holy Communion, and inspiring preaching of the Christmas story stand out in my mind. I have loved the anticipation of the Advent wreathe with its subtle message that Christ is coming. I am captivated by the mystery of the Word of God made flesh and born to a virgin within a manger stall.

*******

nativitysceneSo this year I found Jesus in some powerful ways:

  • My church hosted a Blue Christmas worship service at the beginning of Advent. Far from an Elvis thing, it was a time for grieving people to come to terms with the holiday season. I love this service because we discover how the joy of Christmas is more than the trappings and festivities of Christmas. All of that gets lost on grieving people. Christ was born into poverty and pain and can be born anew in our grief, too.
  • During the second week of December, my church once again hosted 30 homeless men. Over the years of this ministry, I have looked more intently for the face of Jesus in our guests. This comes from something Jesus said about how the things we do for the least in our world, we actually do for him. Yes, I saw and encountered Jesus in some powerful ways. Strange as this may sound, I enjoyed doing the guys’ laundry. Blairlee came home every day with a few loads of the guys’ clothes. They were often every bit as smelly and grungy as you’d imagine. But somehow I found it to be an honor to wash these guys clothes, dry them, and fold them up. I got to do Jesus’ laundry, after all. One night I got to stitch up a coat that had gotten badly ripped, and as I sewed it, I spent time talking with its owner.
  • My family went through some rough times in December with illnesses and some emotional growing pains to work through. It unfolded into an experience of the healing grace of Jesus.
  • A week before Christmas, a clergy woman I had been guiding and coaching died. Her funeral was one of the most awesome send-offs I had ever been a part of. Far from the gloom and doom that characterizes most funerals, this one was packed with joy, promise, and worship. Jesus was there and his resurrection was front and center.
  • All of this made for some meaningful Christmas Eve services. Having experienced the reality of Jesus as Emmanuel (which means God with us), I had plenty of juice to preach the good news of the birth of Christ.

And what of the iPad? Well, that will have to wait, unfortunately. But all that I received from God of Jesus in this season of Advent and Christmas well overshadowed what I didn’t get from this world. That is well more than good enough.

(Of course, the ever hopeful Ralphie side reminds me that there are still nine days of Christmas left! I’m not all that optimistic, but who knows?)

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A Christmas Card from Muslims

‘Tis the season for sending and receiving Christmas and holiday cards from family and friends. I’m always grateful for those who remember my family and me with a card. But this year, I opened one of the most unusual and touching Christmas cards I have ever gotten. It’s from the Islamic Education Center in Potomac, MD. A few of my other clergy colleagues reported getting this same card.
Islamic Christmas CardHere’s the front of the card.
The inside of the card reads:

The Quran has only one chapter named after a woman; Chapter 19 is titled “Mary”, or as it is translated in Arabic– Maryam. The Quran tells us that the infant Jesus, (or Isa as it is translated in Arabic), spoke from Mary’s arms:

“…He said: Surely I am a servant of God; He has given me the Book and made me a prophet; And He has made me blessed wherever I may be, and He has enjoined on me prayer and charity so long as I live; And dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me insolent, unblessed; And peace on me on the day I was born, and on the day I die, and on the day I am raised to life.” Quran 19:30-33

While Muslims don’t partake in Christmas celebrations, we believe in the awesome and miraculous birth of Jesus, in the miracles he performed by God’s Grace, and in the message of love and peace Jesus brought into the world.”

The Islamic Education Center

How unusual is that? I think it was a beautiful expression.

Undoubtedly, some cynics would spin this as some kind of devious underhanded ploy. But for what? To convert me? I hardly think one card will do that. To place Islam in a more positive light? What’s wrong with that? Islamic extremism has colored Islam so negatively in the eyes of many. Outreaches like this would only help reclaim Islam from the bad publicity of extremism. Are they trying to draw me into conversation? Well, what’s wrong with that? Perhaps if we had more open-ended conversations, there would be fewer misunderstandings and tensions between our two communities.

I’m taking this card for what I believe it is. It’s a neighborly, thoughtful way of reaching out and honoring another faith community’s most sacred times of the year. I got to learn some more about Islam and receive a wonderful blessing from an Islamic community.

So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to acknowledge and thank them. Potomac is not right around the corner from me, but if they invite me to some conversation and ecumenical dialogue, I would be very open to that. Perhaps if more of this kind of thing happens, the heavenly pronouncement of

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

at the birth of Jesus would become more of a reality. My Muslim neighbors rightly pointed out that Jesus came to bring the peace and love of God.

Shouldn’t Christ’s living body, his Church, be the preeminent, living example of the same?

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My Journey through John’s Gospel- Day 5

Day 5: John 5:1-30 “The Healing Word”

Jesus was a master at asking questions. His questions always had a specific purpose: inviting someone to take that pivotal,  next step forward in their journey of faith. That step  was to a place they had not yet been, or more often, to places that had been badly neglected and doggedly avoided.
Those are never easy questions for me. They’re intimidating and often painful. Questions like that ask me to call out those inner demons, name those lifelong fears, and push me into shadowy valleys I had been deathly afraid to even acknowledge. Through Scripture, through prayer, through his working in others, Jesus has invited me to confront my nagging need for approval, my fears of abandonment, my tendency to defiantly go it alone as the misunderstood kid on the playground, my impulsiveness, and my tendency towards addictions. Those are a few of my biggies.
So one day, Jesus is in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival and goes to a place within the city called the Pool of Bethesda. John records that at this pool, people who had paralysis, the blind, and others with crippling disabilities gathered to find healing. Bethesda means “house of mercy.”

When I imagine this scene of so many broken people in this one place, I think of the many nursing homes I have visited. It’s a pretty agonizing prospect for me to visit a nursing home. I do it, but not without a lot of personal preparation. To see people bound to wheelchairs, beds, and walkers, in various mental and emotional states, many neglected and alone, some visibly pained, others staring lost and confused. And the smells… Nevertheless, it’s that one smile or that one hand I hold of a fellow human being deeply blessed that another fellow human being took the time to sit and listen that makes my visit well worth the while. Jesus is there.

And Jesus approached a man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been an invalid for 38 years. 38 years! (Yes, that’s my lifetime.) Who knows how long he had been lying there before Jesus walked along. Any time is too long, isn’t it?

Every time I read this passage and think of those nursing homes I have visited, Jesus’ opening question to the man strikes me as insensitive and out of place to the extreme. “Do you want to get well?” he asks. C’mon, Jesus. That would be akin to walking up to you, slapping you on the back after your 40-day fast in the desert, and with a beaming smile shout, “Hey Jesus, are you hungry?”

But then I remember that Jesus’ questions are never careless. There’s a purpose behind his question. He must have seen something in the man that needed to see the light of day. The man is lying by the pool to find healing, but does he really want to be well?
The man’s response is quite telling. He doesn’t respond with a simple, “Yes!!” Instead, he responds with a litany of self-pity which he had undoubtedly rehearsed many times in his mind. “No one is here to help me,” he complains. “On top of that, everytime I do try to get in to those healing waters, someone shoves in ahead of me.” He decried the injustice of his life and his loneliness, but notice that he did not directly answer Jesus’ question.

What did the man really want? Did he want pity or did he want to get well? Did he want self-justification or to be truly whole?
Let’s bring this man’s story home for a little bit. On some level, all of us express some degree of dissatisfaction with the way life is right now. Some of us will live for years in a chronic repetition of pain and sorrow without knowing how to enter life any differently.

Granted there are things we can influence and things we have no control over. Wisdom and sanity is knowing the difference and choosing to take responsibility for what we can control. Much of what we can control has to do with the way we react to things, how we view and understand things, our attitudes, our actions, our will.

Yet often it’s much easier to remain within our patterns of life as they are now and justify them, no matter how painful, than to step outside of those patterns to live a different way. What we know seems safer, more familiar and comfortable and less fearful than the “new thing” we don’t know. So very often, people will remain where they are for its false sense of comfort and security than to venture into the unknown of something new, even if that new thing is the better life they have always wanted. We get burned and cynical at false promises and shallow hopes. We’ve been hurt before trying to get to something better. We don’t want to make that mistake again, even if our way of life now is slowly killing us. Better the devil we know…

Maybe that disabled man had some semblance of that fearful, self-pity when he responded to Jesus. Wellness? He had grown far too cynical to believe in some foolish notion of being made well. All he could do is wallow in his own afflictions.

But notice that Jesus’ compassion for this man was far greater than the man’s doubt and self-pity. Jesus was too concerned for him to leave him there. That’s why Jesus breaks through the mire of this man’s heart to say, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Somewhere within the man, there had to have been a spark of faith to respond with obedience. The light of faith had not entirely gone out because he did indeed get up and walk. He was an invalid no more thanks to Jesus whose living words are greater than our faithlessness and brokenness. How beautiful is that??

That’s all the more reason for me to keep trusting Jesus when I find myself in my own self-imposed funks or during those times when it seems that life beats me up and tears me down too much. I can keep going by trusting something else Jesus said in this same chapter,

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” John 5:24-25

This is not a mere religious affirmation of Christianity. Rather, it is a clarion call from Jesus himself, openly telling me and everyone else that if we really want to step out, step up and live, now and into the ages, we can listen for the word of Jesus, trust in his word and in God who sent him. That trust raises us up out of the mire and into the heights of eternal life. That’s where I want to be. It’s scary, sometimes. Sometimes it’s easier to settle for the familiar-far-less that I already have, no matter how innefectual it’s proven to be so far.

But Jesus is better… far better. It’s time to stop being afraid of the life he offers. It’s time to get busy living!

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My Journey through John’s Gospel- Day 4

Day 4: John 4:1-42 “Finally Quenching My Soul Thirst”
It was the heat of day in Samaria, located in what is now central Israel. Depending on the time of the year, it could have been upwards of 90-degrees F. In any case, it was rugged land, and when Jesus and his disciples arrived in Sychar in Samaria, he was worn out. Resting at Jacob’s well at noontime, the last thing one would have expected to see was someone coming to draw water. That was hard work reserved for the cooler early morning or late evening hours.
Something was odd about a Samaritan woman coming by herself to the well. Surely she didn’t expect to find anyone there, least of all a Jewish man. It was equally odd to find someone like Jesus there. John even points out the obvious: “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) That was an understatement. It was every bit of a long history of mutual resentment and exclusion between these two peoples.

So when Jesus asks this Samaritan woman for a drink from the well, her incredulity-laced response was well put. [Paraphrasing a bit] “How on earth can you ask me for water? Don’t you know who I am– who you are??”
Then Jesus gives an invitation she could have never expected. He offers living water. That’s an image surely even a Samaritan would have gotten.

Living water was a well known image for God’s gift of life, healing, and salvation. (See Isaiah 44:3 and Jeremiah 2:13) But I think the shock of what Jesus said and her own defensive animosity got in the way. Jesus doesn’t have anything with which to get water. What is he saying– that he’s greater than the patriarch Jacob who gave them this well?

But Jesus persists. Water from even the best of wells will leave people thirsty again. But the water he gives will be more than a cup of water. It’s a real spring of water that makes a well of eternal life, he says.
I remember once drinking fresh water from a spring. It was on the downside of Mt. Baldy in New Mexico while on a Boy Scout backpacking trip. We had just climbed with full packs thousands of feet to the top of the mountain, and equally as difficult, went down the other side with tired legs.

At the bottom was a fresh water spring. To this day, I have never had water more clear, fresh, and naturally cold than that. That more than quenched my thirst.

Then we learn about some scandal concerning this Samaritan woman. She had been married 5 times before and was now with a man who was not her husband. Jesus revealed that. Somehow he knew, and it explained why this woman, obviously the loose woman in town, used and thrown away, came to the well by herself to get water alone.

Alone… unloved. I have felt that way so many times. It’s even worse to feel that way surrounded by other people. Nothing I know of makes me feel more alive than to know that I am loved and embraced for who I am, not just what others want me to be, project onto me, or want from me.
This Samaritan woman had tried and failed so many times to be that alive. Six men later, and she’s still at the well by herself to be unnoticed at the heat of the day. She was thirsty. Oh how thirsty she was.

*******

Why is it hard to pray? Why is it hard to worship? Why can I go so long and realize that during that whole time, I’ve neglected to pray? How can I go through the motions of worship for so long only to realize that it was only words? I know I’m not the only one who could admit this. How is that possible?

Answer: It’s because we’re not sure of who’s on the receiving end of a prayer or a praise. If we were, we’d be all about it! If one of my favorite musicians was in the same room, it would be hard to not strike up a conversation, ask a bunch of questions, and tell him how much his music means to me. (Prayer and worship?) I know who this is and their value.

But God… Yes, God is infinitely huge and God’s ways and thoughts are beyond our full comprehension. We understand as much of God as an ant does of a giant oak tree. But probably the most mysterious, fearful thing of all is what this God thinks of me. Does God want to bother with me anymore? Does God like what he sees? Does God really have my best in mind? How well does God tolerate all those doubts and quibbles I have?

Living water is not mere religion. The living water Jesus mentioned is himself. It’s God. It’s the gift, as he goes on to explain, of being a beloved worshiper not bound by any human cultural or religious categories. Jesus demonstrates that in his willingness to be in the “despised” land of Samaria, patiently engaging and accepting of this Samaritan woman. Then Jesus was welcomed by the other Samaritan town folk and stayed with them for two days. That kind of fellowship and hospitality was completely unheard of in that day. That’s the refreshing power of living water.

These Samaritans embraced Jesus as Savior because of what he taught and because he demonstrated what he taught by being with them as their Savior. Oh God, let this truth sink into me even more.

I am so thankful that living water is not a religious formula, a program, or a book. It’s not dogma or ritual or rules. Sure, I have found I have drank in living water from the sacraments, from the company of other believers, and from the traditions of the church. But living water is not confined to these things– not at all. Living water is the embracing, transforming presence of God in Jesus Christ in my heart.  Drinking the water is simply my opening up to receive Jesus again and again. Anything that communicates and affirms his love, truth, and way can indeed quench my deepest thirst for love, for meaning, for joy.

Now… to not settle myself on “water” that still leaves me thirsty. It greatly comforts me to know that even then, Jesus is there at those wells to offer something much, much more. He offers me– Christopher David Owens– himself. I am truly never alone or abandoned to myself!

Jesus, Living Water, continue to teach me what it means to take in the life you provide. Continue to show me how through simple worship of prayer, praise, listening, seeking, questioning, you quench my deepest thirst, welling within me life that has no end– life for today and into the ages to come. That is enough for me.

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My Journey through John’s Gospel- Day 3

Day 3: John 3:1-36 “Knowledge and Life Reborn… Again and Again”

In darkness the Pharisee Nicodemus approached Jesus while he was in Jerusalem. Jesus had just stirred a nasty conflict between himself and the Jewish religious authorities over his actions in the Temple courts. (Making a whip and driving out the officially sanctioned money changers and vendors was an easy ticket to trouble.) So it’s understandable that someone like Nicodemus, in order to protect himself and perhaps Jesus, would approach him in the cover of darkness.

But John bathes his writing in images that have both physical/temporal and spiritual dimensions. Nicodemus was still “in the dark” apparently seeking something from Jesus. I think he wanted some more understanding of who this Jesus of Nazareth is. The question for him and for any other seeker, myself included, is whether or not he would receive what he finds.

Nicodemus, however, doesn’t start his inquiry with a question. He leads off with a statement beginning with, “Rabbi, we know [fill in the blank]…” It’s an interesting way to begin an inquiry, but I think I see something of myself in Nicodemus’ approach, too.

Nicodemus is a seeker, but not a fully vulnerable one. There’s a certain security, a shield, maybe, when seekers guard themselves from within their established knowledge and from within their set parameters of what is true, reasonable, and real. I have a hard time faulting Nicodemus for that. That’s what we do to keep ourselves stable and grounded. We build any future knowledge upon the foundations of what we have already experienced to be true.

But the question is, how firm and impenetrable is that foundation of accumulated knowledge and wisdom? I guess that all depends on the substance and source of any new knowledge… and how open, humble, and unafraid we are. In Nicodemus’ case, he had just acknowledged what he (and apparently others as implied in his use of “we”) already claimed to know- that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. With that admission, how vulnerable should he have been?

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

I can see in the rest of the dialogue that Nicodemus has a hard time grappling with what Jesus gives him here. “How can someone be born when they’re already old?” “Come now, someone can’t enter their mother’s womb again to be born!” “How can this be?”

I know how badly afraid I can be when someone says something so profound that I know has the potential to shake apart my convictions of what I really do know. It’s the fear of suddenly realizing that I am smaller and that God and the world is larger and more complex than I realized. It’s also the fear of realizing that perhaps what I do know is not nearly as complete or as accurate as I had presumed.

What Jesus says, however, is still rattling, even with as many times as I have read, studied, and taught this passage: in order to truly see God’s Kingdom, i.e. God’s reign, presence, people, and redeeming work in our world, one must be born anew and from above. A bit later in the conversation, Jesus says what this means in practice– to be born of water and the Spirit. This new birth encompasses both a temporal, human dimension (water) and an “other than, from above” God-given, Holy Spirit dimension. It’s clear from surrounding context that “water” is the practice of baptism for repentance practiced by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. “Spirit” is God’s activity of giving new life to people.

There’s been so much evangelical theological doctrine attached to being “born again” as the moment of conversion and salvation. Being “born again” often means in our theology the transition from being a lost sinner to being a newly redeemed child of God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. I wholeheartedly affirm this, too.

But I think Jesus’ teaching here can possibly have that Nicodemus affect on me now, even as a “born again” disciple of Jesus. How? Well, wind is not static and it doesn’t leave things in their place. Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind. (Incidently, both the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma are used for Spirit, wind, and breath.) Could it be that being born of the Spirit is a continual process of new birth?

My spiritual dryness and shallowness of late certainly points to my need to be continually born of the Spirit. Surely the Spirit needs to shake things up, blow things around, and take me to where I need to go. It’s time to be born into new attitudes, priorities, passions, and behaviors. That’s happening now, in fact. And it will happen even more when I can move from the darkness of my established and apparently insufficient status and into the light of Jesus.

And who is this Jesus? He is the one who has been sent, not to condemn me but to save me. Light exposes darkness, yes, but not to condemn those in the darkness, but rather to light their way. I can choose to either remain in the safe, shadowy ambiguity of my own darkness, or choose to put aside my own dark attitudes and behaviors to be in the light.

For me, plain and simple, it’s putting aside resentments, worries, coveting what I don’t have while forgetting to be grateful for what I do have, my stubborn insistence to be right and to fearfully defend myself. One thing all this darkness has in common– fear and anger. Let that go to become a grateful, one-day-at-a-time disciple is much of the light I seek!

Holy Spirit, have your way with me. Break down my fortresses of self-preservation and self-promotion. Jesus, I look to you as the one lifted up for me, that in you, I will live now and into the ages. Father, your incredible love and mercy overwhelms me. You are not the false god of angry condemnation as you are often depicted. I love you, God, that you do not condemn me, even in all my efforts to condemn myself and to project that onto you. In the end, the truth is shown in the giving of your Son for me and for the whole world. That is enough and more than enough, too.

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My Journey Through John’s Gospel- Day 2

Day 2: John 2:1-25 “Signs of the Times~Wedding Wine and a Temple Ruckus”

The Word of God made flesh continued to reveal himself at two very common, albeit special, everyday places– a wedding and a place of worship. Jesus was at a wedding feast in the village of Cana and at the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem. I notice that contrary to the ways God is often portrayed, the Word made flesh is not far away up there someplace in a celestial heaven. He is not locked away in a dusty book or in the confines of a religious holy huddle. Jesus is out and about among the people. It’s in these settings that he continues to reveal who he is and where he is from, two pivotal questions that often arise in John’s gospel.

And the everyday problems don’t magically disappear, either. They had run out of wine at the wedding party. That was bad! It would have been particularly embarrassing for the  bridegroom and his family. Mary tells Jesus about this problem. She doesn’t tell him what to do. She just relays to Jesus that there is no more wine. Jesus’ response seems abrupt and even rude. The Greek text here is even difficult to interpret. Jesus basically says to her, “Woman, of what concern is this between you and me? My hour has not yet come.” His hour? Seems cryptic.

Nevertheless, Mary shows her confidence in her son. She doesn’t retort; nor does she give any guarantees about what Jesus will do next. She simply tells the bridegroom’s servants to do whatever Jesus says. I like that. I have a feeling that Mary would have been just as perplexed at Jesus’ answer to her as we would be. But she goes forward trusting in Jesus’ words.

There are so many times I don’t understand why things happen the way they do– why God moves in some ways but not in others. Yesterday I prayed over and anointed with oil a woman in my church who was just diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. I do not know how God will act. I have seen some people make a full physical recovery, and I’ve seen others die. At times, that contrast has made it difficult for me to know how to pray. Dare I tell God what to do? Should I be bold and use a “name it and claim it in faith” kind of prayer? Who am I to presume how God will act on this woman’s behalf? Who am I to presume to know what is best for her and for all of us?

So, I prayed for God’s healing for this woman. The only thing I do know for sure is that healing runs far more deeply than cells and tissues. James seems to imply that (James 5:13-16). The only other thing I do know is Jesus’ promise of life abundant and eternal for all who trust in him (John 10:10; 3:16). Shouldn’t that be enough?

Mary’s confidence in her Son and my growing confidence in him might appear to be passive fatalism, i.e. “It will be what it will be.” You hear it in the defeated sounding sigh followed by, “It’s all in God’s hands– his will be done.” That’s not at all what I hear Mary saying, and that’s not the way I prayed yesterday.

What’s important here is my full confidence in God’s promises, God’s Word, and God’s character, even in the face of circumstances that would seem to paint a different picture. That’s not what some would call “blind faith”. Blind faith implies having faith in the parachute opening when it’s patently obvious that there is no parachute. That’s stupidity.

Many have called Mary-like faith naive or beyond reason. Whatever. Call it that if you want to. But it’s not stupidity.

Because Mary believed in her son, not sure of what he would do but confident in him, she passed her confidence along to the servants who then were ready to do whatever Jesus would say next. I see here that our faith in Christ (or lack thereof) affects others, too. Because Mary had faith in Jesus, the servants acted according to Jesus’ words, and the greater result wasn’t necessarily the miracle of new wine. The greater result was the new-found, deepened faith of Jesus’ disciples who saw the significance of what Jesus did and believed him.

The disciples saw, and I see, that indeed Jesus is the new wine reserved for the last, revealed when it seems that all else is withered and gone. Again, even within this sign is much of the same lesson Mary learned: Hold on just a little longer. The best is yet to come, even when it seems that all hope is gone.
But then Jesus enters an entirely different setting and reaction. He goes to the Temple, and in the house and place of worship and faithfulness, Jesus finds corruption and faithlessness– a market where surely there were all kinds of official attempts to soak money out of God’s people who were there to worship. Jesus makes a whip and drives them all out of the temple creating a confrontation with the religious leadership who then angrily demand a sign to prove Jesus’ authority.

What a stark contrast between these folks and Mary! Mary accepts Jesus words; the religious authorities flatly reject them, meanwhile losing the point of what Jesus was doing and saying.

It’s at this point in Bible studies that folks begin to trash all those blind, stubborn, power-hungry Jewish religious leaders. We imagine these harsh, cold, stern-faced men with long beards in black robes angrily defending their turf. It’s funny how we have a way of comfortably centering on the flaws of others, even people who lived thousands of years ago, while presuming and preserving our virtue. To a degree, I’m even guilty of that right now. (Oh no, I would never point fingers at the self-preserving, self-righteousness indignation of others, model of absolute humility and graciousness that I am. If only that were true…)

So much of growing in the faith is working through all those lessons in missing the point. Some people get it, and some don’t. That’s not my business about how or why. These stories are here to challenge me, not to cast aspersions on others. These Jewish religious authorities were learned, educated men, just like I am. They had the job of shepherding God’s people and ordering the life of their community, just like I do. They sought with all their heart to be faithful to keep God’s Word, just like I do.

If anything, reading of their failure to see should warn me, not vindicate me. Can I admit where I have been blind? Can I change my mind concerning things I have always been convinced were non-negotiable? Perhaps it’s not radically changing my mind so much as deepening and broadening where I am now. That’s a comfort.

Nothing Jesus taught was a radical departure, but it was a challenge. It was radical in that he opened up once-clogged wells of wisdom and truth to get back into purer water. Radical means “to the root”. Radical teachings aren’t meant to necessarily shatter as much as to help people become “unstuck” so that they can more freely get at the purity and essence of God’s heart and God’s ways.

Yet again, it all boils down to Christ and my receptivity to hear and trust what Jesus is saying, and to remember that his words are not disembodied epithets. They are living Words made flesh that reveal the Father.

Oh God, make my heart less stony and brittle. Make my heart a heart of flesh- open, mold-able, filled with passion, joy, peace, and faith in you and in your Son Jesus.

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My Journey Through John’s Gospel- Day 1

Day 1: John 1:1-51 “My Flesh and Blood God”

The key to unlocking the meaning of John’s Gospel is the first 14 verses, often called the prologue. The prologue begins with those famous words “In the beginning…” This isn’t my beginning or even the world’s beginning. This is the beginning of anything other than God, even time itself. John says that at the beginning, there was the Word who was with God and indeed was God. Word to me means ultimate truth- the source of all that is true, all that is known, all wisdom, all ideas, all concepts. Indeed, in Genesis 1, God brought order to the chaos of nothingness by speaking. The universe was formed by God through Word.

This Word is light and life for all people and for me. This Word through whom all things were made, this word of ultimate light which gives life, came to the world in which I live. He came, John said, to a particular people, implying Israel, and the Word was not entirely received. And then I read what I believe to be some of the most scandalous words ever uttered: the Word became flesh and– as Eugene Peterson once translated it– “moved into the neighborhood.” Of course, this Word is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, God’s anointed, the Messiah, Savior, and Lord.

A Paleontological Sketch of Jesus

I think I’ve lost touch with the reality of what John wrote here about Jesus. I think that for me, the Word became flesh and then I’ve turned around, and in my own heart and mind, made him “word” again. It’s a jarring, intriguing theological treatise. I love teaching it and preaching it and getting others excited about their Lord with this concept. But that’s the problem. Jesus as the Word of God made flesh makes the word “concept” mere chaff to be blown away. Some idea in abstraction doesn’t cut it. Tangible flesh and blood, boots on the ground, God in my home, church, and neighborhood– now that’s Word made flesh.

I think the part of John’s message I’m going to cling to is in verse 14, “We have seen his glory…” John and his fellow disciples saw, heard, and touched Jesus, finally understanding him for who he was and is- God made flesh. They touched his skin, shared meals with him, smelled his morning breath… They tell me nearly 2,000 years later about this flesh and blood reality of God. Skeptics will say what they may, but let me put all that aside and give these personal testimonies the benefit of the doubt. To see, hear, touch, and move around with God himself, the Word of God made flesh…

That’s just jaw dropping to think about.

But could I live with more confidence in God himself and with more confidence in God’s love and good purpose for me knowing that he is not an abstraction? Anyone who believed in Jesus was given the right to become a child of God. I’m not just living to uphold a religious doctrine. I’m not just maintaining an intellectual ascent to a creed. I’m not a propagator of words. I am a beloved child of God, a flesh and blood being who lives to love, serve, and live the ways of God shown to me in a very flesh and blood way by Jesus himself.

But in stating this conviction, have I gone back to being led along by an idea, by words? How do I avoid that?

The Scriptures are about as flesh and blood as it gets, really. This is living testimony of flesh and blood people. It tells the story of real flesh and blood people– John the Baptist, the Jewish leadership, Peter and Andrew, and Philip and Nathanael. They all were seeking after God like I am. They all struggled at various times to get it and to truly latch on to God. They struggled like I struggle. John the Baptist admitted that he didn’t know at first about the One he was preparing for… until he saw him. The Jewish leadership were struggling to sort out who John was and who Jesus was. Peter and Andrew and Philip and Nathanael had to be shown.

I see myself in someone like Nathanael. Here was a devout Jew who was seeking God and faithful to study and learn (as implied in the “under the fig tree” image). He was a seeker. And when he was told that Messiah had been found and that he was from Nazareth, he balked at even the idea of it. Good, Nathanael. Don’t take anything for granted. You’re a seeker, but you’re not naively gullible, either. Push the buttons and ask the questions.

The Word made flesh saw all of this in Nathanael and praised him for it. He looks at me with my questions and doubts and my struggles to find life and light. He sees how I smash the buttons and shove the envelopes all in my quest to really live and to really know. And these flesh and blood people from thousands of years ago tell us through their message that Jesus doesn’t shirk from revealing himself, calling, and embracing even the Nathanaels of the world.

I choose then to reincarnate their message now by trusting that Jesus’s words are for me, too: “Here you are, truly a child of God who shows your honesty in your struggles to know, learn, and live. I’ve seen you. And I’ll show you even glory than what you’ve seen so far.” Thank you, Jesus.

Oh God, especially in my darker, moments when I’m tired, frustrated, rejected, or alone, show me more than words. I want a flesh and blood reality of who you are- not just pleasant thoughts religious dogma. You became flesh and blood and “moved into the neighborhood” 2000 years ago. Jesus, move into my neighborhood, my home, and my life in a tangible way, too. Amen.

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