Category Archives: Bible

Biblical studies and reflections

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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My Personal Journey Through Johns Gospel- An Online Journal

Since confession is good for the soul, I do have a confession to make.

Perhaps the public nature of this confession will work even more medicine within me. I confess that over most of this past year, I have been spiritually very dry and near empty. That’s not an uncommon phenomenon for anyone, but believe it or not, I think running on empty is a more treacherously wide pitfall for spiritual leaders, those who are supposed to be shining examples of gushing fountains of spiritual fervor and depth. After all, don’t we have hours upon hours of idle time to prayer and searching the Scriptures at the center of our vocation? If only…

Coming out of last year’s bad personal depression left me emotionally and physically in a much better place, and I’m greatly thankful for that. But I don’t think I truly recovered the major spiritual losses from that dark time. In other words, God and I are not where we need to be on our personal one-to-one basis. In my ministry and as a husband, father, and friend, I pour out so much to others, but in the end, there is little left over for me– only a few faint embers of God’s love, truth, presence at this altar of my heart. It’s not that I expect a constant raging fire of God to consume me; no one can endure that.

But on most days, one should expect to find a steady, low-burning bed of strangely warm, glowing embers of Christ’s transforming, redemptive presence within the heart, stoked by God’s Word, fanned to flame by the Holy Spirit, fueled by a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, and mutual holy conversation. All that is truly enough. I don’t ask for a whole lot in my life. At least I don’t think I do. But to have God this way, this intimately, and to be continually renewed by God’s Spirit to encounter the world, other people around me, and myself with a life uniquely my own and authentically inhabited by Jesus… That would be more than enough.
ImageSo… part of this re-invigoration of my heart will be a reading through the Gospel of John with you, if you care to keep reading and talking with me. Whenever I’ve gone dry, turning to a gospel, getting back in touch with the words, action, and person of Jesus, is my necessary beginning. This will not be in-depth biblical exegesis. I’ve done that already, and that will not do this time. This will not be writing to teach and inspire others. I do that already, and it won’t do this time, either. These posts will not attempt to stir up the pot or to push cutting-edge ideas through the blogosphere. I’ve done that and will continue to, but that will not meet the need this time. In fact, most of the world will probably find these posts exceedingly overly-personal and tame– not the stuff of trending blogs or bloggers at all!

None of that really matters. This is an attempt at an exercise intended to stir up my heart. Anything else is a purely unintended bonus. Even if only one other person reads what I write and offers a bit of reflection in a comment, the purpose has been served. Even if no one does that, I know that God has listened, and that his “comments” will show up somewhere much deeper within me.

Most days, I will center on a full chapter from John’s Gospel. I’ll provide a link to the passage en lieu of taking up precious space with a long Scripture passage. My writing will reflect on this passage’s inroads with me. What does God want me to see? What are the implications on my own life at this moment? How does this passage puzzle or trouble me? How is Jesus encouraging me to become more like him?

More later…

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Another Look at John 14:6– What Does Jesus Really Mean?

In my last post which wrestles with the difference between Jesus and Christianity, I gave some attention to John 14:6. This is a loaded verse, and unfortunately, because of my lack of clarity and the preconceived notions many people bring to this passage, there’s a lot of confusion about what I was trying to say.

In response to Thomas’ question,

“Lord we don’t know where you are going so how can we know the way,”

Jesus responded by saying,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, I want to restate some things I said before and perhaps make them a bit clearer:

1) Jesus was primarily addressing his disciples. His disciples had yet to fully realize that Jesus himself is the only way, truth, and life they need. There is no other way to God but by him. He goes on to say in verse 7, ” If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” To put it another way, coming to Jesus is the same thing as coming to the  Father because Jesus is the fullest expression of the Father. To know one is to know the other.

2) Jesus was more deeply explaining his seamless connection to the Father. In John’s Gospel, the central message is that the Word, God himself, became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. To know Jesus is also to know the Father. Right after Thomas’ question, Phillip asks, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus responds with, “Don’t you me Phillip, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” In other words, to see Jesus is to see the Father. That’s why Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him. He and nothing else is the fullest expression of the Father. As Paul puts it, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15).

Now the sticky question is whether or not John 14:6 is applicable to all people, including non-Christians. Certainly, Christians have used this verse to try to convince their non-Christian neighbors that Jesus is the only way to the Father. So, the logic goes, they’d better turn to Jesus and become a Christian or risk damnation. Now, I firmly believe that Jesus is the one through whom God has fully revealed himself. Jesus is the one through whom God has saved the whole world from power of sin and death. He is the hope of the world.

My concern, however, in holding out Jesus Christ for all people, is that we wrongly insist that the religion of Christianity is the sole means through which people come to Christ and are saved. We tell people to come to such and such church or church event, believe such and such words from a preacher, convert and then become a Christian and church member in the mold of who we are.

We’ve made the religion of Christianity the exclusive claim of salvation, not Jesus himself. Now that may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s not. Just ask any non-Christian. We hold up church life and membership, a set of doctrines and rules, traditions, a certain church culture, religious expectations and other norms, package it all up and call it Jesus. That simply will not work for a very large group of people, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the religion of Christianity and Christians.

I think Paul would argue the same from his experience of bringing Jesus to the Gentiles. Jesus was Jewish, his earliest disciples were Jewish, and his message and teaching were from a Jewish foundation. But Paul argued that Gentiles (non-Jews) are not required to be both a disciple of Jesus and Jewish, specifically with regards to the Jewish rites of circumcision, kosher eating habits, and the observance of Jewish holy days and synagogue worship. Yes, Gentiles abandoned their idols to worship and follow Jesus, but their discipleship took on a very different shape than their Jewish neighbors who also followed Jesus.

So… I’m arguing here that we Christians need to be careful to only hold out Jesus as the means of peoples’ salvation. I suspect that people of other faiths, those previously agnostic or atheist, or those from radically different cultures than our own will come to know, trust, and follow Jesus in ways that will not resemble Christianity as we’ve come to know it. They will create communities of the Church that will be very different. But that’s okay. Conversion is to God through Jesus Christ, not our religious system called Christianity.

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A Conversation with an Atheist

Grand Canyon 23Some of the things that infuse more meaning and joy into life are the unexpected connections and conversations I have with other people. My life has been made dazzlingly rich by the sheer diversity of people I know and talk to on a regular basis. If someone was trying to figure out where I stand, what convictions I hold, or which values are dearest to me by analyzing my family and friends, the only one thing that might be deduced is my love for people of all kinds.

On Saturday night, my circle was widened by a conversation with a man who lives on my street. I had seen him around here and there, and I think I had said “hello” to him a few times, but just as I was about to get into the car and run down to the grocery store, he said, “Hey, Chris!” So, I stopped to talk to him a bit, asked him typical chit-chat questions about his family, his work, etc., etc.

From there– and admittedly I’m horrible at recalling conversations line by line– somehow I got to mentioning something about how I’ve learned many different life lessons from God.

After that, he said something like, “Well, as far as God and heaven go, I like to think that we’re living in heaven right now, that heaven is now.”

I immediately thought to myself that if this life right now is heaven, we’ve been royally had by a cosmic sadist. Sure, life is wonderful, but far, far from perfect. It’s certainly nothing I’d call “heaven.”

So, I think I said something to him like, “Maybe God will lead us to something far better than this.”

To that he replied, “Well, that’s assuming that there is a God.”

That was when I knew our conversation was going to get far more complex and perhaps thornier than either of us had imagined. Here we were, a theist speaking to an atheist. From there we conversed back and forth on the question of God’s existence from the point of view of nature, the origins of the cosmos, and everyday human experience. For every idea I proposed to demonstrate the reality of God, he countered it with some kind of non-theistic scientific explanation. We were obviously getting nowhere fast with one another.

I then tried to shift our conversation to the person of Jesus and his resurrection. We talked about the historicity of Jesus’ life and resurrection with multiple and varied attestations to both things, sources like the gospel accounts, Josephus, and other ancient Roman histories. He questioned the validly of the sources, and honestly I wasn’t sure how familiar he was with them. So, I borrowed one more tried and true question which C. S. Lewis used on skeptics. Lewis said that Jesus claimed himself to be Lord and God. There’s no question about that from the gospel accounts. So, either he was a delusional lunatic, a liar, or indeed who he said he was. And if you look at all the things Jesus did and said with any kind of objectivity, you’d be hard pressed to conclude that he was crazy or a liar.

My new friend thought for a second, and then said, “Maybe Jesus told a good lie. Religion is the sum total of human creativity and imagination, designed to make human beings feel good and do the right thing, so maybe Jesus told a good lie in order to get people simply to do good. It’s like Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a good lie; it’s harmless, and yet it brings people enjoyment.”

“So,” I countered, “what you’re saying is that people like me and millions and millions of others are living in a delusive lie– albeit a good one!– that people have designed in order to help us be good people and do the right thing?”

“Basically, yes,” he replied.

“So, you’re saying, that my career, everything I believe, my livelihood, and what I’m prepared to preach to my congregation tomorrow, is a good lie on par with something like Santa Claus?”

“Yes,” he said. “But that’s not bad! If it’s what you believe…”

Hmm… after we wound down the conversation and said goodbye to one another, I began to taste a new found bitterness towards atheism. I’m not at all bitter towards atheists as people. In fact, I really like my new friend and hope to get to know him better. I’ve known and loved other atheists, too.

But this conversation helped me to see that atheism exercises a philosophical bravado, if not a degree of arrogance, to assume that the commonly held spiritual conviction of the other 90% of us who believe in some form of deity is nothing but a fanciful human creation which we’ve unwittingly convinced ourselves to call “God.” It escapes all reason to argue that  intelligent, sophisticated, sane, self-aware, highly educated people would be snared into a delusion as large as God. Have we been duped by the greatest and oldest conspiracy of humanity? An atheist would have to conclude, “Yes.” In that case, my passionate convictions of Jesus Christ are no more substantive than a child’s belief in Santa Claus.

Yet there’s also another heartbreaking problem with atheism: it robs people of their full humanity. We humans, as creatures who strive towards greatness and mastery, all have a basic need to fetter that power with humility by awing something or someone greater than ourselves. In other words, human beings have the need to worship. When we hear a stirring piece of music or stare wide-eyed at a classic painting, it’s not long before we start to revere the artist as the creator. Likewise, when we look up into the sky to see the immeasurable vastness and power of the cosmos, gaze out at the grand canyon, marvel at the intricate balance of our environment, caress a newborn baby, dive through a coral reef, or take in the symphony of birds and insects in a forest– all these things far, far greater in intricacy, beauty, and force than a piece of music or a painting– how can we fail, without losing an essential part ourselves, to acknowledge and worship their Creator? If there is no no one to thank, praise, and worship, then we have fallen into a sub-human cesspool of narcissism, nihilism, and cynicism. Those of us who believe in a deity can fall into these same forms of dehumanization when we fail to fall humbly on our faces in worship. From time to time I’ve seen dehumanization in myself from my lack of worship.

Thinking again of my new friend, I realize that clever arguments won’t curb his atheism. Any condemnation or condescension he senses from me will only repel him. I believe he will come around by the influence of two things: the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in his life and by my loving him, accepting him, and serving him as an authentic witness and image of Jesus himself. In the end, love, which comes from God, and is indeed God, will be the victor over any shred of unbelief.

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The Unbridled Power of the Word

Hebrew BibleAs a pastor, I spend a lot of time each week studying the Scriptures for for the teaching and preaching I do. But I’m also a consummate student of the Bible. If somebody dropped a large wad of cash in my lap and I had my choice of PhD programs, I wouldn’t hesitate to pursue biblical studies. I love the discipline of studying the ancient languages that formed Bible’s original texts, while learning the historical, political, religious, and cultural backgrounds that shaped their composition. Drawing on all these skills along with my undergraduate background of literary analysis, it’s a thrill to unpack and explain the Bible’s meaning and its timely intersection with everyday life in the here and now.

However, there’s an inherent danger in my work. Dr. Craig Hill, my New Testament and Greek professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, pointed it out. He warned us that even in all our attempts to critique and examine the Bible, as Christians we must allow the Bible’s rightful place to examine and critique us. I understand his warning  to mean that we must develop a “second naivete” towards the Bible, free from critical and analytical thinking, that allows the Word of God to speak for itself, forming us into the image of Jesus.

This happened to me on Saturday as I was putting the finishing touches on Sunday’s message. As usual, I formed my sermon around a few passages of Scripture. In this case, one of them happened to be Ephesians 3:14-21, which reads:

…I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (NIV)

If you’ve ever read through the book of Ephesians, then you know how magnificently it reads. The author, in his attempt to describe the heavenly reality he sees, spills out his words to overflowing in long, breathtaking, ornate phrases. For him, our experience of Jesus Christ is so astounding that the words can’t flow fast enough from his mind to the page. From beginning to end, the whole book of Ephesians reads this way.

Now, I’ve just given you my brief analytical synopsis of the book of Ephesians’ style and tone. I was prepared to share something like this on Sunday morning. Yet as I was reading the above passage one more time in preparation, suddenly those thundering words showed themselves for what they really are: the unbridled, eternal, earth-shaking Word of God. No longer would this passage sit passively to be analyzed, parsed, and explained. The Word burst the bonds of my feeble thinking to resonate with a tremendous, holy power. I began to see a truth, which if heard and believed, could completely revolutionize my life and the life of my congregation.

I saw a Word which spoke of being strengthened by the Holy Spirit’s power. Then I remembered this same power raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:18-20). And not only is the power of the Holy Spirit in us, but the risen Christ dwells in us as well. This power gives us the strength to comprehend the vast, multidimensional, infinite love of God. God’s love is greater than any human knowledge to be had. I could Google anything I wanted for an eternity and come to know all things, but God’s love would far surpass any of it. Knowing this love fills us with everything that is of God. Wow! Did you hear that? The God who formed the universe fills us completely as we grasp the powerful presence of his love. This same love can accomplish anything beyond the outer limits of our wildest imaginations… Everything of this great love and power culminates in the glorification of God, for all time and in all people.

Whew… When I let go and allow myself to be raptured into the sweep of this Word, life is no longer the same. And what’s amazing still: this is just one small passage of Scripture. Could you fathom what would happen to us if we stopped to listen long enough to the rest of the Bible, to every word of it?

We would be unrecognizable!

Oh Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Humble us to the unbridled power of your Word that would blow through us, crush us, form us, and set us ablaze with your Holy Spirit. Make it so in my own life, God. Please do it… Amen.

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