Archive for May, 2014

Grace. "It's a name for a girl" (U2). Grace falls all over us and colors us clean. Grace marks as children of the living God. Grace prevails upon us when we have no clue who we are, what we are doing, or where we are going. Grace guides, teaches, sustains, and reveals to us the mystery of God. All we need to know is found in grace–charis.

And why not? While all the other gods of this world demand from us, Jesus gives to us. Grace enlivens the heart and enlightens the eyes. Grace creates space inside of the void of our selfish and survivalist existence and then fills the vacuum. Then slowly it begins to expand like a universe and what started as a mere pinpoint of light eventually has expanded into a galaxy full of light and life within us. We are consumed. We are lost and found again in grace. We are destroyed and made by Grace.

Grace is our peace. Grace is a thought we can never lose, yet we can never track it down. We can scarcely pin down and yet it never lets us go. Never let me go. Never let us go. Let your grace conquer the abyss of wickedness that swims and swirls in our hearts and minds. Dear Father replace our inclination to evil with a bent towards your mercy and love and forgiveness.

Grace like rain. Grace like a waterfall. Grace like an ocean. These are all ways various artists have spoken or sung about grace. It's always about drowning, being overwhelmed by a fluid density that we cannot stand up under: we are lost, we are drown, we are suffocated, we are consumed and of us there is nothing left when grace is finished. Can we overstate the case for grace? Can we condense grace to a single point? Can we contain grace or keep it from expanding in our lives until it replaces all of us we hate and even bleeds into the lives of others? I think not.

If grace once infects us, we can neither contain nor control its growth. It grows and spreads with a rapidity we cannot imagine or believe. We cannot stand before the flood, the rushing tidal wave of forgiveness, mercy and love. Once we see it, it's too late. Grace utterly wrecks and makes us less useful to the world of self-interests and more useful to the ministry of Jesus.

And we cannot stand before God any longer without fear and trembling once grace has taken over our lives. So with reckless abandon we hurl ourselves and are ourselves hurled into a broken world where the Father invites us to trust and believe and hope despite all that speaks against such things. We are asked to live as though his grace is all we will ever need–it is sufficient–and that it will somehow sustain us now and forever come hell or high water.

We need grace just to live in grace.

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I'm spending the month of May reading through the entire New Testament and I am now finished with the book of Acts (actually finished a couple of days ago). When I was reading it I came to chapters 13-16 where I saw something I had either not noticed or not paid attention to in past readings: grace. See it with me: 13:43, Paul and Barnabas urged the church to 'continue in the grace of God'; 14:3, Paul and Barnabas 'spoke boldly for the Lord who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders'; 14:26, we learn Paul and Barnabas went back to Antioch where they had been 'committed to grace of God'; 15:11, 'We believe it is through the grace of the Lord Jesus that we are saved…'; 15:40, Paul and Silas were 'commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.'

I like that they are not ordained into 'ministry' but to grace. They are not committed to missions but to grace. They are not commended to good works but to grace. They are not preaching growth, but grace. Their message is not of self-improvement, but grace. They are not to continue in spiritual disciplines, but in grace. Maybe one of the reasons we see our message so often confirmed by mere growth instead of by signs and wonders is because we preach a message other than grace? (14:3). This is a serious church problem: we preach more for results than we do for God to come among us and shred us with his power. I have little use for results, and we live in a results oriented church culture. And often we use the book of Acts to prove it when we point to times when God added 3000 to their number, or the number grew to 5000, and things like that.

What we fail to remember is that God was moving among them and empowering them. I think it's because they preached grace not because they were looking for results. There was no strategy for growth, no delineation of demographics, no plan for prosperity–it was just the clear, intentional, and deliberate preaching of the Gospel of God's grace to people who were broken and beaten down by life and by a religion that afforded no room for error or reconciliation. I think we do much the same in today's church. Our message is not one of 'comfort, comfort for my people', it's one of follow all the rules and you get to go to heaven.

I swear half the time people in churches do not even know what they are getting saved from or for so consumed are they with the mere idea of some vague notion of heaven. But grace–grace is always a fresh message, always a word of power, and always a welcome sermon to a people broken and beaten down in this world by sin, poverty, suffering, and hurt. Grace is a balm for our pain and how can we preach anything less in this world?

I teach special education. That might be evident by the address of the blog; maybe not. Either way that is how I make a living. It's not an easy calling, nor is it always fun. It's daily challenging, but I am a trained professional so I take it all in stride.

Many days there is one thing the students do that bugs me. I hate to say it, but it's true: laughter at inappropriate times. Really it makes no sense to me when children just start laughing for no reason in the middle of a lesson on multiplication. It makes no sense to me when a student throws object after object around the room and laughs hysterically as if pieces of paper fluttering to floor is really Oscar worthy in the best comedy category. Yet that's what they do. Often. Without any regard for the fact that it bothers me. Without caring a minute that no one else in the classroom thinks it is funny.

Laughter. Inappropriate laughter. Out of context laughter. Laughter.

Then I got to thinking about my students laughing, often uncontrollably for long periods of time, for reasons apparent only to themselves. To be sure, I don't spend any time at all telling them to stop laughing. I might point out that it is not appropriate at the moment but honestly there is absolutely nothing I can do to prevent or stop a student from laughing at all the wrong times, again, for reasons only God and themselves are privy to.

Then I got to thinking about laughter–uncontrollable, ridiculous, out of context laughter. Part of my work is to teach my students about social etiquette. But I have to ask: what is the etiquette of laughter? Maybe laughter bothers us. Maybe out of context laughter makes us uncomfortable. Maybe it angers us because we want to know what the joke is and no one–especially students who have communication issues–is telling us or letting us in on it. Maybe what we perceive as out of context is, to the student with disabilities, perfectly within its context.

Then I got to thinking about laughter–you know, just plain old silly laughter that is loud, raucous, annoying, and downright inappropriate. I got to thinking about funerals and why it is that at funerals we spend so much time crying and weeping and mourning. I thought about my own funeral and that when it happens I don't want a preacher but a comedian conducting the service and that people damn well better be laughing because I know I will be. Someone better stand up and tell inappropriate stories about all the stupid things I have done in my life and how the only way I am seeing Jesus is by the grace of God.

I was thinking about laughter…and I got to thinking that my students make me happy and that I would much rather have a classroom full of out of context laughter than out of context crying and yelling. 

I came across a startling idea when reading John's Gospel and it has to do with greatness or greater. Great. Greater. Greatest. We have fun ways of delineating hierarchy in the English language. I always enjoy seeing words like 'greater' in a text because it makes me wonder what's just 'great.'

It happens in John's Gospel on more than one occasion. I first saw it in chapter 1:51 when Jesus said that Nathanael would 'see greater things' than Jesus merely seeing him sitting under a fig tree. I saw it again in chapter 4 when Jesus was talking with a woman in Samaria (4:12) and in a discourse by Jesus in chapter 5 (20, 36), the latter of which Jesus says, "I have testimony greater than that of John." In chapter 8 someone asked Jesus if he is 'greater than Abraham' (8:53).

Jesus changes the perspective in chapter 10 when he notes for us that the Father..'is greater than all.' He tells his disciples in chapter 15:13 that there is no 'greater love' than to lay down your life for a friend and that 'servants are not greater than their masters' (15:20). Just before all this in chapter 14 Jesus said something interesting about those who follow him: "I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (14:12).

It's all very exciting. I should note that in each of those verses I cited Jesus used the same word for 'greater.' I don't know if that means anything in particular or not, but I note it simply to point out that Jesus was concerned about a hierarchy of people in the God-scheme of things: we rank somewhere far below Abraham, Jacob, John the Baptizer, Jesus, and the Father. Yet Jesus also says that because he is going to the Father we will do greater things than these. I'm not sure what the referent is for 'these', but it's at least interesting to know that Jesus is thinking about us: "All who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…" (14:12).

Well, that's exciting isn't it? We will do greater things. Greater things. Well, there's at least one other reference to 'greater' in John's Gospel that startles us back to reality–and we probably need that startling because it's very easy to start thinking like gods when we read that we will do greater things than these. It comes from, interestingly enough, from the mouth of John the Baptizer: "He must become greater; I must become less" (3:30).

I don't think we ought to pursue greatness. Maybe our greatness comes when we recognize that we ought to be lesser. Maybe we get too concerned about greatness. Maybe we need to focus on shrinking and when we do the greatness of the things we do will become more evident to the world around us. Until then, it's all so much selfish ambition.

I will be honest: I struggle with prayer. Eugene Peterson wrote in one of his books that's quite OK if we struggle and that when we don't have words the Holy Spirit prays for us. Many people struggle, yet for some reason I find little comfort in that. For some reason this is the one area of my life where I take little comfort in the company that loves my misery. I wish, I wish I had the fortitude and strength to pray like David or Paul.

Luke's Gospel begins and ends with prayer–that is, if prayer is defined as talking to or responding to God. The first prayer (1:38) is Mary's: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word." And the last prayer is either that of Jesus (24:30) and is simply a matter of giving thanks or it is that of the disciples and is a matter of worship (24:52). Maybe it's both.  Scattered throughout Luke's Gospel are other prayers–important prayers of people like Zechariah, Angels, Jesus. Prayers are sometimes rather long and drawn out (Luke 1:68-79) and other times prayers are short, simple phrases like, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me" (Luke 18:38). Sometimes they are utterly confessional (Luke 18:13; "God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), and other times utterly desperate, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42).

There's more. Sometimes when I think about it I realize that, given these examples, I pray a lot more than I think. Prayer need not be so formal–with all the hand folding, head bowing, and knee dropping. Prayer is not something we need to fear. I confess that I struggle because I'm not like those prayer warriors we read about in books on spiritual disciplines–you know the ones who say they wake up at four AM and pray for three hours before they eat breakfast, read the paper, shave, use the toilet, and go to work. Nah, that's not so much me.

I like these simple prayers I see in the Gospels–short little quiet prayers that demonstrate to God my minute by minute dependence or at least serve to remind me that I am no island. Even when Jesus taught his disciples to pray the prayer he used is a skeleton: basic, simple, and we have mostly memorized it (Luke 11:2-4). Jesus simply says for us to ask, seek, and knock. I find myself pounding on his door a lot–sometimes the hand is bloodied from so much rapping on the oak–yet like the mighty widow we persist (Luke 18:1-8).

I try not to be afraid of praying. I don't want to disappoint the Lord who wants us to pray. So the other day before I did my reading for the day, I wrote out my prayer. They are never long and this was true on that day. Yet I was feeling especially thankful for the simple things in life so I prayed: Dear Lord, thank you for this delicious Lender's Bagel I'm about to eat.

I started reading Mark's Gospel last night. Burned through 8 chapters and enjoyed it immensely. I should finish the book tonight if all goes well. Mark is without a doubt my favorite of the four Gospels.

Another thing I cannot help but notice when I read Mark's Gospel is that there is an overwhelming sense that everything Mark writes is designed to evoke a response from us. There is a question that is being asked by the author that stretches from the front of the book to the back: What are you going to do with Jesus? Or, perhaps, How are you going to respond to Jesus when he invades your world and disrupts your life? Because disrupt it he will–either for better or worse–and we will be confronted with a choice to do something about this strange person who seems to appear out of thin-air and walk onto the world's stage: "At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan…After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God" (1:9, 14).

Everything is going along for people in those days and then Jesus comes along and starts making a mess of things: he is binding up strong men, turning children against parents, driving demons out of the land and ruining animal herds, and rattling the theological cages of the religious elitists: "Who is this man?" people ask. Winds obey. Demons obey. Storms are calmed. He doesn't fast. Disease flees. He eats with dirty hands. He speaks in riddles. This is the fellow who dares to talk about the nature of the kingdom of God? He cannot even tell the difference between someone who is dead and someone who is sleeping. Yet he teaches as one with authority, he heals, and he forgives sin. Worse yet, he eats with sinners and tax-collectors.

And react people did. They tried to trap him. The laughed at him. They begged him to leave. They begged to go with him. They accused him. They thought he was out of his mind. They ignored him. They trusted him. They listened to him. They were amazed by him. They pleaded with him. They took offense at him. They amazed him. They took advantage of him. They demonstrated faith. They lacked faith. All that, probably more, in just the first eight chapters.

So it gets me thinking every time I read Mark: how would I respond to Jesus if one day he just showed up in my neighborhood or my school or my funeral or my wedding or a party I was hosting or while I was rowing a boat across a lake? I wonder what I would do. I wonder how I would respond? I wonder how I would feel if I met a person who just looked at me and loved me for no other reason than the fact that I am me.

Because that is who people met when they met Jesus. 

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Book Review: Mark

9780801016110Title: The Gospel According to Daniel

Author: Bryan Chapell

Publisher:Baker Books

Year: 2014

Pages: 224

Bryan Chapell: Gospel Coalition

Disclaimer: I am required by the FCC to inform you that I received a free (e-copy) of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. There you go.

 The Gospel According to Daniel is Bryan Chapell's attempt to help us understand the Old Testament book of Daniel from a Christian point of viewSo we might wonder what does the book of Daniel have to say to Christians living in the 2000's? How does this book instruct us and inform us for 'better' Christian living?

A better question, probably, is how is Jesus visible in the book of Daniel? What types of Jesus do we see? Does Jesus make any appearances in the book itself? Do we see any passages that are quoted or later alluded to in the New Testament? How did New Testament authors interpret the passages? How did Jesus interpret Daniel? (Ironically, Chapell says Jesus only references Daniel once (Matthew 24:15-16) and he seems to totally forget Jesus' most significant allusion to Daniel in Matthew 26:64!; see page 194.) By the time the end of the book rolls around, and it doesn't take long for that to happen, I'm just not convinced that I got enough of that. It seems to me that every chapter is interpreted in light of eternal consequences, or 'salvation', instead of in light of, say, Jeremiah 29 (Chapell does make reference to Jeremiah on a few occasions but only once to Jeremiah 29 on page 114. I think the book would have been much better if it had served to show us how the book of Daniel–who as a person was clearly reading Jeremiah's prophecy (9:1-2)–functioned as a commentary or as 'parables' on Jeremiah 29. Which is not to say that Jeremiah is mere parable as opposed to 'real' history.)

I'm not arguing that there is anything necessarily wrong with looking forward–indeed, much of the latter part of Daniel's book does look forward (n some way)–but we do not look forward or interpret Scripture at the expense of the present–all Scripture, wrote Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 serves to help us live right here, right now. That is, future hope might provide us with a nice escape every now and again, but we are not living in the future, we are living in the now. Daniel's words were, it seems to me, written to help people live in the now, not the not yet. I am certain that Daniel talks about salvation in some sense of the word, but salvation, even in the New Testament, is not merely about the future. Frankly, I don't think it is fair to reduce Daniel's book to a mere How to Get Saved Tract–and at times, that is exactly how The Gospel According to Daniel reads.

One aspect of the book that I did happen to find especially compelling was Chapell's emphasis on grace. For example:

The power of grace to stimulate love for God is the ultimate reasons we preach redemptive interpretations of Scripture. (10)

This is a fine example of the thing I like about the book and the thing I hate about the book and it is especially frustrating–and many authors/preachers from the so-called Reformed camp write in just such a way as if the only thing the Scripture is teaching us is the black and white of something (very narrowly) called salvation. On the other hand Chapell is at his best when he writes things like, "Despair dies when we know our failures are not greater than the grace of God" (10). This is brilliant precisely because it addresses right here, right now. We do not despair the future when we despair; instead we despair the present. Knowing how God's grace affects me right here, right now, right where I am sitting or standing or weeping or contemplating suicide is what eliminates despair–not the mere hope of a better life in some otherworldly dimension or time. When I am suffering, frankly, I do not want to hear how God is 'preparing me for a greater work in the future' (p 19) because frankly that has no meaning–since the future doesn't exist. All that matters is right how so, preacher, tell me how God's grace is working for me right now. (For example: "The question we face–the matter of faith we are being challenged to consider–is whether the eternal rewards are real enough to weigh against earthly risk. That is what the life of Daniel is really meant to confirm: that God is able and willing to provide what is best for his people for eternity" (23). This seems to me escapist and not quite here and now based. Rather, if Daniel's background is Jeremiah, and I think it is, it seems that God is concerned about how we, his people, live against the backdrop of a pagan society and bring his Kingdom to bear on said culture and society.)

Now on to a couple of complaints and a couple of praises about the book.

First, I disliked the length of the chapters and the overall flow of the book. Frankly the chapters were just too long and cumbersome. I think Chapell or his editors should have insisted on breaking up some of the chapters into at least two parts. Since the book did not purport to be a deeply exegetical book, it was difficult to maintain Chapell's thoughts–especially as he moved into the latter half of the book (Daniel 7-12). Those chapters are thick and meaty and terrifically complex. Chapell's readers would have been better served if his comments and/or applications had been condensed into shorter chapters thus making his ideas easier to consume and easier to commit to memory.

Second, I know it's a preacher thing, but I have to say that the anecdotes in the book just bother me. I never fail to be amazed at authors who have a story from their life or ministry or whatever that fits so easily with the point they are trying to make–and Chapell has a boatload of them. Sometimes he doesn't tell them so well. As someone who works with children every day who have physical and cognitive limitations, I found his story on page 208-209 about his brother to be not a little heartless. I'm sure he didn't mean it to be heartless, but some editing of the story–without his predictable commentary–would have been helpful and made his point better.

Third, there are times in the book when I think Chapell's application simply has nothing to do with the text he is exposing his readers to. A perfect example of this is found in chapter 5 and Chapell's handling of the story of the 'writing on the wall.' Without spelling out my complaint, and thus spoiling the reading, suffice it to say that in my opinion this chapter really missed the mark. Briefly, "Mene, Tekel, Peres is not ultimately the handwriting against Belshazzar; it is the handwriting of God for us" (105). I do not agree with this, and I do not believe Chapell spelled out his position well enough to convince me.

Now, a couple of the better points of the book.

First, I appreciated that Chapell doesn't make any attempt to pin down dates and times: "We should not get hung up on the puzzles of timing that we miss the clear proclamation of grace in Daniel's vision" (166). I think this is right. Too many authors on Daniel (or on any apocalyptic book) get hung up on the small stuff and miss the big picture. Thankfully, and to his credit, Chapell–although I sensed he leans in a dispensationalist direction–didn't make this the focal point of this book. I appreciated that he deferred judgment in these areas and kept to the big picture (even if I happen to think he misses the main objective of Daniel's book.)

Second, for all of my complaints about certain aspects of the exegetical process (application) and theological overtones (Reformed) I did find that Chapell consistently kept our attention on God: "This can be our great confidence, too, when we express faith that tragedy does not mean God has vanished, danger does not indicate that he has failed, and difficulty does not imply that he is weak. God is in control" (56). And statements like this are scattered throughout the book and this is a good and powerful reminder that regardless of who is in charge, God's purposes and plans, for the present and future, will not ultimately fail. This is a powerful sermon and one that permeated the book.

Gospel is Good News. The Good News is what God has done in Jesus and is doing right now, right here in this world to bring about his plans, his purposes, and his Kingdom. Ultimately it is Jesus who is God's representative who will make these things happen. I think Chapell was trying to get this message out in the book, but I think he fell a little short. I wish he had been more explicit on how God's Kingdom and the 'your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven' prayer are happening and how Daniel's Gospel demonstrates this, but ultimately I was left wanting.

3/5 Stars

I'm working on a project in the month of May. The goal is to read through the entire New Testament, the Psalms, and the Proverbs. It requires reading 14-15 chapters of the Bible per day. That doesn't sound like much until you actually start doing it. Some days the chapters are short, other days not so much. Should be fun later in the month when I catch up to Psalm 119.

I've actually been doing this Psalms/Proverbs reading schedule since the beginning of the year–reading 5 Psalms per day and 1 chapter of Proverbs and it is finished in a month. I think I got the idea while reading N.T. Wright's little book The Case for the Psalms, but I could be mis-remembering. I started slowly but my stamina has increased so that last month I added the book of Revelation to the mix. It's a lot of fun having to consistently make the time to do the reading and being disciplined enough to do it each day.

This month (May), as I noted above, I have added the entire New Testament to the mix so that at the end of the month I hope to have developed a new reading habit. My goal is to read through the New Testament every month, with the Psalms and Proverbs, until the end of the year. My hope is that this will make the Psalms clearer and that the Psalms with make the New Testament clearer. After all, Jesus did say that the Psalms are about himself (Luke 24:25-27, 44). N.T. Wright makes a brilliant point:

Here is the challenge for those who take the New Testament seriously: try singing those psalms Christologically, thinking of Jesus as their ultimate fulfillment. See how they sound, what they do, where they take you. (The Case for the Psalms, 110)

Yet there is a temptation. The temptation is to read quickly, or to skim those sections of Scripture that we find boring or that we know really well already. It is tempting to breeze through some of the longer sections of discourse in Matthew's Gospel (they are long) since we already know full well what they mean and what Jesus is going to say. The challenge is to slow down, take time, drink it in and allow a nice even flow of his words to saturate us and fill us.

My doctor told me this the other day. He said: When you eat, eat slowly. Take your time. This will prevent sugar spikes and, consequently, sugar valleys. His point is that there is a harmony in the body when we slow down and take our time–that fluctuating sugar and insulin patterns are neither wise nor healthy (and, as I have learned, actually greatly affect our mood and emotions). I tend to agree with him purely from experience and not necessarily because I have any medical expertise.

It's important, thus, to actually take our time, taste our food, and enjoy it. So too, Scripture.

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"So Dark is our situation that God Himself must enter and occupy it in order that it may be light. We cannot fully understand the Christian 'God with us' without the greatest astonishment at the glory of the divine grace and the greatest horror at our own plight."–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, IV.1, p 13

There are lonely times in life, times when we don't understand why things are the way they are, times when we do not understand why God is so silent, times when we feel like the presence of God is galaxies away–or question whether he exists at all. The Psalmists were not afraid to ask such questions or feel such feelings. I am learning not to be afraid to ask the same questions, to use the words of the Psalms to express what I cannot otherwise express. I mean, God forbid a god-fearing Evangelical Christian ever dare to question whether or not God is 'there.'

Even an uncareful reading of the Psalms brings us back to reality. Seriously, why would the Psalmist say something like 'come quickly, Lord, to help me' (Psalm 40:13) if, in fact, God were already there helping? Surely the Psalmist was feeling the full of weight, or lack thereof, of the theological vacuum: Where was God in my time of need, in my darkest hour, when others were running roughshod all over my name, reputation, family, and career? Why does the Psalmist have to 'wait patiently' (40:1) for the Lord if the Lord is already there and not, as it were, making sure things were going well on another planet fully of people?

That's just one Psalm. Believe me, if you haven't read them, there are others. Many others that utter the same audacious things: Where is God when I need him most? This is how we can talk to God who is 'with us.' 

Growing up in the church we are taught that reverence for God is important (it is!) and that we should whisper our prayers and be careful what we say to God. We should have our heads down and hands folded, bowing, as it were. I think maybe we should learn to pray from the ancient Hebrews who wrote the Psalms: they were loud, audacious, fish-shaking, crying, weeping, moaning, complaining, shouting, worried, fearful, and honest with God. They held nothing back from him at all.

So, Matthew's Gospel and God with us. It starts and ends the same way, not with someone asking 'where are you God?' but with someone noting or telling us that 'God is with us' (1:23, 28:20) and that he has promised never to leave us. It is God who came into this space–not merely to inhabit space, but to walk with us, among us, and beside us. To be near us, is part of the goal. 'God with us' when Mary and Joseph were running all over the earth to protect that very God from the likes of humanity that he came to save.

 

This is an experiment.

Jerry


May 1, 2014