Archive for August, 2014

Curve ballTitle: Curve Ball

Author: John Danakas

Publisher: Lorimer

Year: 2014

Pages: 121

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free review copy of the book (via NetGalley) in exchange for my honest and unbiased review via my blog. Review is also published at Goodreads and Amazon. I was given no compensation for my review and I don't even get to keep the book, but the FCC thinks it is important for you to know that this review is free of all subterfuge. Enjoy!]

This is another in a series of books published by Lorimer that I have read that feature sports themes. Given that I am a huge fan of baseball, and have been all my life, I have to say that I enjoyed this book very much. Of course 'curve ball' is the working metaphor as young Tommy Poulos navigates through a summer with his uncle Nick, a new Little League baseball team, a mean spirited bully named Jeff, and a budding friendship with Kelly, the only girl on the baseball team.

I like that this book is set in the world of Little League baseball. I coached for many years and it was fun to reminisce on all those times when games were on the line and tough Little League coaching decisions had to be made. It was fun to relive the crack of the bat and remember that Little League baseball is about the local, neighborhood teams and not so much about all that ESPN nonsense that most kids never experience.

I also like that for the first time in a long time I have read a children's book where the male adult characters are put in a positive light. Uncle Nick, while a bit sad about some of the realities of life, is a genuine and positive male role model for young Tommy. Given that most of the children's books I have read lately have featured less than stellar male role models–if they were even present–this was an excellent change of pace. I applaud the author for having the courage to buck the trend of making male characters either terrible humans or absent altogether.

I'll be terribly frank about my next point: I'm not sure how I feel about the Kelly character. Yes, I get that we live in a remarkably, wonderfully diverse world where girls join boys in playing on boys' teams. Sadly, however, we do not live in a world where boys are permitted to join girls in playing on girls' teams. It's an awful double standard in the USA and Canada. So I am indifferent about the Kelly character's presence in the book. She could have fulfilled her 'cheerleader' for Tommy purpose in the book without being a member of the baseball team. That's just my opinion.

All in all this was a good story. I have read several really good stories from Lorimer authors now and I seem always to be surprised by one thing or another. Weaving Tommy's baseball trajectory into his uncle Nick's business trajectory was a nice move and helps us understand that adults and children face curve balls in life and that we all need to find ways to overcome them. I am pleased that the author allowed Tommy to deal with differences he had with another player not through lowering himself but by rising up and simply being a good ball player. That is, he proved his skill and worth through working hard.

This is a good story, if a little predictable, that I recommend and would keep in my own classroom.

5/5 stars.

18148523Title: The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to our Jobs

Authors: Sebastian Traeger & Greg Gilbert

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 160

[Disclaimer: I was provided a free e-book copy of this work via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I noted this in compliance with the rules that govern earth, Mars, and Neptune.]

Forward: David Platt

Twitter: David Platt

Secret Church

I was thinking as I started this book that I was going to have problems right away when David Platt referred to retirement as unbiblical. And I was not disappointed in my thinking. This book was a major letdown; a disaster of biblical proportions.

Don't get me wrong: a lot of important and well connected, celebrity Christians endorsed this book. I'm sure in some way they really thought they were helping. Either that or they have made an idol out of endorsing books and simply couldn't resist. Either way, it's just not a good book. It is riddled with cliches, full of step by step instructions, and seemingly goes out of its way to make work more of a chore than it already is (and I'm confused as to whether or not I'm actually allowed to enjoy my work and find personal satisfaction in it). When I wake up in the morning and go to my classroom to educated my kiddos, I really do not need to go through 160 pages of checklists or bullet points to make sure that I am 'doing it correctly' or to make certain I haven't 'made my job into an idol.'

The best advice we need is this: Just do it! Seriously. Work should in no way be as complicated as these two gentleman–fine gentlemen I am sure–have made it to be. Get up, be joyful, go to work, do your job, do it as best you can, come home and do whatever you have planned or whatever comes to mind. Be free! Live! Move about! Serve! Love! Be! I hardly think we need a treatise on what it means to work. I know, maybe I shouldn't have read the book. I seriously thought it was about something else.

There are a couple of serious issues I have with the book. I will note them briefly. First, there is simply no sustained, in depth exegetical arguments supporting their theology of work. The points the authors make are proof-texted. That is, they pull a passage from here or there and just because it uses the word 'work' they have assumed they can build an entire theological system out of it. Doing this, however, means that they have to ignore context and they also have to ignore the meta-narrative of the Bible. This is my biggest pet-peeve with the onslaught of books the Evangelical publishing world produces. There is a singular disregard for the Biblical narrative in order to produce 'principles'. And I don't care what word is used: 'motivations,' 'principles,' 'axioms,' 'truths,' 'steps,' or 'rules.' The Bible is not a book of principles.

Books that reduce the Bible to a set of principles frighten me. Couple this use of the Bible with phrases like 'minimum standard of faithfulness' and I start smelling legalism. If any aspect of our relationship with Jesus can be reduced to mere principles, such as the many found in this book, then there is something seriously wrong with the relationship or our understanding of Jesus. And all of this goes back to the utterly horrifying use of the Scripture and the way it has been reduced from narrative to verses.

This is my main objection to this book (and to all books like it.) It simply has no anchor in the meta-narrative. The authors even point out that there is nothing inherently Christian about what they are saying: "Yes, this passage is speaking about the local church, but we believe the same principles hold when we apply them to society at large" (140). Well, if there is nothing distinctly Christian about the principles, then it is unnecessary to use the Bible to make the points in the first place. And in the second place, there are better books to read to find said principles.

Now let me make it worse. When the authors do happen to quote large swaths of Scripture, and it's never more than a parable, it is again taken out of context and/or utterly misunderstood (e.g., Matthew 20:1-16, quoted in full, and then: "The point of this incredible story is simple." But they get it terribly, terribly wrong because they avoid the narrative context; 138-139). Let me give a couple of the more egregious examples. Over and over again the authors make reference to the New Testament's conversations about 'slaves' and 'masters.' Now, in all fairness, there is a rather lengthy section explaining that slavery is, among other things, bad. With that said, in my estimation it is simply unreasonable to take those passages where an apostle talks about slavery and apply it, in any way, to the relationship between me and my principal.

Another example is when the authors talk about Joseph, David, and Nehemiah. They conclude their conversation by saying, "We're going to guess you're neither the vice-regent of Pharaoh nor a king, but the principle is the same for you: authority rightly exercised leads to flourishing" (118). Well, I will leave aside the fact that this 'principle' is just unbelievably ignorant and simply point out that I don't know how anyone can say the 'principle' is the same when there is simply no evidence that story is intending to lay down a set of principles.

In conclusion, then, I will say this much: I'm not sure what the purpose of writing this book was. One author had a business, sold it, was unemployed for a while and all of a sudden he is an expert on what it means to get up every day and go to work as a Christian. Meh. Too many principles have no meaning because they speak only his experience. He had a couple of crisis moments in life (unemployment, birth of a child) but so what? Many of us have. That doesn't mean we were somehow, now, experts with books in the wings. And what's ironic is that his angst wasn't born out of his every day work, which he evidently did well, but out of his unemployment for a spell. And if that's not bad enough, he goes on to write, "Are you unemployed right now? Even then, you need to understand your assignment from God, right now, is to be unemployed" (90).

I spent 10 months unemployed once. I had lost three jobs in a span of 2.5 years. I cannot imagine a minute that that was God's assignment for me. It was the most miserable 10 months of my life. I cannot imagine why God wanted me to be that miserable. And if I'm reading this book, and I'm unemployed, and I come across those words….then I'm closing this book and never heading to the nearest church.

There is nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking about this book. I detect a bit of Reformed Theology under girding the ideas in the book which is an issue as bothersome as their poor use of Scripture to make 'points.' There are helpful moments, but there are not enough to outweigh the utter absurdity of much of what was written. For example, I was unsure why it's OK to give up family time to be at church, but it's not OK to give up church time to be with family (see 94, 95).

I didn't like this book at all. From the very first pages when David Platt announced, without any justification, that retirement is 'unbiblical' I was bored. The book is not short on platitudes or cliches or hyperbole or legalism. Meh.

1/5

PS. On page 25, the authors make reference to 'little golden statues that Indiana Jones swiped from the Temple of Doom.' It wasn't the Temple of Doom that featured the scene of Indiana Jones swapping a small golden statue. It was the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

SweetTitle: Giving Blood

Author: Leonard Sweet

Publisher: Zondervan

Year: 2014

Pages: 368 (I read an e-book version on my Nook reader. My page numbers may be a bit different. I apologize in advance for any troubles this may cause.)

[Disclaimer: I was provided with a reader's copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I am happy to provide that very thing in the following blog post.]

Twitter: @lensweet

I once preached a sermon about the Bible. I think it might have been from John's Gospel, but I don't really remember. The sermon had something to do with the Scripture, the Bible, the Word of God–however you want to refer to it, that was the topic. It might have been about Jesus. I might have even trekked into the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah and wrestled a bit with his idea that in his mouth the Word of God tasted like honey, but in his gut it was turning him inside out, upside down, and sending him scurrying off to the bathroom.

I don't really remember all the particular details of the sermon except for the end. I recounted a story about a tradition (perhaps apocryphal) that when young Jewish children first hear the Torah or first read it, they are given honey to eat. It is, so the story goes, to remind them of the sweetness of Scripture. So I preached my sermon and finished with a reading of Scripture. I then moved down to the floor where I had arranged a table with two or three jars of honey and some plastic spoons. That day, instead of an invitation hymn or prayer or announcements I simply invited the congregation to silently walk forward when they were ready. One by one they came forward and received a single spoonful of honey–pure, sweet, glorious, raw honey. It was a beautiful moment.

It was one of the best sermons I ever preached and easily one of the few, without referring to my journals, that I remember. It was a stroke of genius.

One time I went to hear a friend preach. He had just taken a position with a new congregation and it was his first sermon. I don't remember all that much about what he preached that day or what passages of Scripture he used, but I do remember that at all of us in the room had been supplied with a small can of PlayDoh! and that at some point he had us take the PlayDoh! from its can and work it with our hands. He said, "mold the PlayDoh! into the shape of what you think you would like to be or do with your life." I remember that as I shaped PlayDoh! and created a dream, so I can give that dream to God and allow him to shape me into something he can also use. It was a brilliant idea.

Leonard Sweet has written a large book about preaching. This is a thick book both in overall content and sheer girth: 369 pages (about 1/10 is reserved for end notes) and I only read an e-book on my Nook. To be sure, 369 pages was too many in my opinion for the very fact that at the end of the day, as Sweet himself notes, metaphors tend to break apart.  In the case of Giving Blood there was simply too much repetition and, in my opinion, he stretched the metaphor too far. Less is more and I think in this case the sheer volume and density of words was kind of overwhelming. Couple this with one of my pet-peeves, unbalanced chapters, and you end up with a lopsided book that despite the beauty of the metaphor was rather tedious (I was actually sick of the word 'narraphor' by page 50.) I really dislike when one chapter is 30 pages and another is 5. It's a personal thing, but there were times when I was convinced Sweet could have lopped off about 50% of a chapter and still made his point.

That being said, the metaphor is beautiful and I agree with a great portion of what Sweet wrote.  Preaching is, to me, exactly what Sweet calls it: giving blood. And unless a person has stood in the pulpit and preached a sermon, or spent time in the study during the week preparing (bleeding), or stayed up late on a Saturday night because there were simply no words, then they will not ever  understand what Sweet means by giving blood. Any preacher worth his salt does these very things. Then on Sunday mornings he or she has the audacity to stand up before people who expect a miracle and lay out their heart and mind and soul in mere words. People expect all their problems solved, all their questions answered, all their wounds balmed, and all their sins forgiven. Yet the preacher is tasked with standing and proclaiming the word of God to a people who will not listen and who will forget every single word by the time they cross the threshold of the back door.

Preachers give blood. And if preachers do not give blood, then perhaps they need to review if it is preaching they are actually doing. This is what we do week after week, in season and out, in good times and bad: we keep coming back for more because that is what we do. We preach. We cannot help ourselves. From near the conclusion of the book he writes:

Do you bleed over every sermon? Do you give blood through every sermon? Preaching is the discipline and craft of giving blood. (330)

It's true. Preaching takes years off our lives because we put our life into every jot and tittle we scratch across the paper.

I think the best parts of the book were found in the 'Labs' and the 'Interactives.' These were short sections at the end of chapters where Sweet applied his principles to a passage of Scripture (e.g., Jonah) or shared some ideas or exercises for how to put into practice the subject matter of the preceding chapter. Of these two, I liked the labs the best. I especially enjoyed his various readings of the book of Jonah. I recall one time I preached a sermon from Luke 15 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That morning I didn't so much preach a sermon, but offered four different readings of the parable. That is, I told the story from four different perspectives–the father, the son, the older brother, and as a disinterested bystander. It was a lot of fun to see the anguished faces of the olders among us that morning as I 'tore apart the sacred story.' I still smile because for me it was enlightening and exhilarating to see the story from other perspectives than the same one I had always used.

I think this is the gist of this book. Preachers are called to bring the living word to life among dead and dying people. We will never do this if the people are bored. And we will not awaken them if the way we preach does nothing to spark their curiosity and arouse their suspicion. This is what I loved doing when I preached and why I waited until the last possible minute to script my sermons. I didn't want to know what I was going to say until it was time to say it. One time I preached a funeral sermon with nothing but my heart. No notes. No Bible. No nothing. I just poured out words and prayed that the Holy Spirit would do something with them. Sweet is absolutely correct that a lot of preachers tend to be rather boring. I think so boring even the devil won't hang around because the preacher is doing all his work for him by keeping the people sedated.

Sermons need life but if the preacher doesn't care, I can't imagine the Spirit does. What is the Living Word in the hands of a dead man?

One time I preached a sermon about Jesus' crucifixion. I don't recall all the specifics of the sermon, but I recall the conclusion. Sometime in the weeks leading up to the sermon me and one of the deacons had taken apart an old piano that was no longer in good repair. While doing so, we came across a large hunk of wood inside the old instrument. I'm not sure what purpose it served, but I do know that it probably contributed considerably to the weight of the piano. It must have weighed 150 pounds. It was solid. As soon as I saw it I was reminded of what may have been the crossbeam of the cross of Jesus.

Before the morning worship began that day, I had arrived early and strategically placed the 'crossbeam' in the middle of the sanctuary. I had also supplied a few hammers and scattered a large supply of heavy nails on the floor. After the conclusion of the sermon, I said something to the effect of 'we have all had a part in nailing Jesus to the cross.' I then invited the congregation to come to the center where the patibulum was located and pound a nail into it. I was amazed that everyone there participated. I kept the crossbeam in my office until I eventually left the church as a reminder of what we, the entire congregation, had said that day about our relationship with Jesus.

It's not so much, then, that Sweet is offering us a new paradigm for preaching or homiletics. He is simply putting down on paper what some of us had discovered a long time ago: images work because we all learn in different ways. In education we call this the 'theory of multiple intelligences.' I have a suspicion that we never really grow out of our particular intelligence for learning. That is, if I am a kinesthetic learner as a 10 year old, perhaps I will still be such when I am 20. It doesn't mean I cannot develop other ways of learning, but it does mean that perhaps I will always lean in one direction more than another. And perhaps–and here I agree with Sweet even if he says it more implicitly than explicitly–preachers need to take a long hard look at the way 'preaching' was conducted in the Bible and become more like those fellas who laid on their side for a year or cooked their food with feces than those guys who ramble on and on and on for years without end demonstrating to all the futility of a well mannered discourse to someone who learns by doing.

I'm sure a twelve year sermon from Romans is fantastic. But I'm sure it is also profoundly boring to most.

I think this is why God had the prophets in the Old Testament do some really strange things in order to get the attention of the people and why the Spirit animated the disciples so wildly on the Day of Pentecost that people thought they were drunk. Maybe we need to open ourselves to the Spirit. So maybe preachers can abandon, to an extent, the 'stand up and lecture people about what they should believe' style of preaching and instead adopt a way of preaching that  illustrates ways of believing, ways of growing up in Resurrection life, ways of being a follower of Jesus. You know, let the living word live inside us and bring the Word to life among us.

I read an e-book version of Giving Blood obtained through NetGalley for review purposes, but I will  purchase this book so I can give it more attention with my pen. Although I think the book is a little longer than it needs to be, I still recommend it. I would say give it to a younger preacher, but I think a lot of younger preachers already get this. I'd say give it to an older preacher who will either read it and change or who will laugh at you and prove why his ministry/congregation is ineffective.

4/5

The boysI tried to secretly take this picture of the boys this morning. I think Samuel knew I was taking it and was trying to hide, scootch backwards so he wouldn't be included. I got him anyhow. I'm good like that.

This is a picture of my three sons in worship this morning.

I didn't like worship this morning. It wasn't anything personal against anyone and there wasn't anything necessarily wrong with it. It just didn't work for me.

It started when we watched a movie in Sunday school. Nothing wrong with a movie. It's just not what I had hoped for.

I didn't like that we watched a slide show to begin the corporate worship. Nothing wrong with watching a slide show, but the one we watched was accompanied by a song from the 60's or 70's ('He's my Brother'). I literally cringed when it started playing.

I didn't like the organ music that started the worship, played during the worship at certain points, and ended the worship. There's nothing wrong with organ music. It's great at a ball game! There's nothing wrong with the people who played the organ. They did a great job. But it was not my thing.

I didn't like the songs that we sang this morning at all. I looked it up, because I had time, and here's what I found (I figured that's why all those indices are in the back of the hymnal.) The author's of our song service:

  • Jesus Saves, author born in 1829, died 1907
  • Old Rugged Cross, author born 1873, died 1958
  • O Zion Haste, author born 1835, died 1923
  • Just as I am, author born 1789, died 1871

And on top of that, we only sang two verses of Old Rugged Cross. There's not a thing wrong with any of these songs, but there's a part of me that wonders if these songs are still relevant–to anyone.

I had also flipped through the Christian Standard (during the organ recital) and learned things from 50 different people–the same people that the Christian Standard always (!) refers to because they are mega-church preachers, authors, or other super Christians. I couldn't even enjoy that precisely because the articles were drawn from the same pool of people that Standard Publishing always draws from. They are great people. They have important things to say. And I have nothing against them. But good grief can we interview some new people for God's sake? (And don't even get me started on the fact that not a single African-American man was interviewed for the piece. 50 different people. Not one black man among them. Sad.)

I struggled to 'come to terms' with what I was hearing and seeing and doing and reading. I struggled to sing. I thought maybe I had missed the Holy Spirit today. I struggled to get in tune with the sermon and the songs. It felt so old and routine. I thought maybe my worship angst was getting in the way…and then something happened. I saw my dad up front among the leadership. Then I heard my younger brother offer prayer for offering. I thought maybe the drought was being deluged. Then we sang two of those songs and I was kind of right back to square one.

Then something else happened. I looked to my left and saw those three young men in the picture above–my sons. I saw those three boys and my eyes melted. I saw my three sons partake of communion with me for the first time in at least 3 years. My heart swelled and the Holy Spirit did speak to me. He reminded me of his grace. I saw my three sons–right there in that blue church pew. Paying attention. Listening. Respecting. Worshiping. Present.

And then I was able to come to terms with the fact that our worship practices this morning reminded me of something from the 1970s or 80s–something that was, again in practice, highly irrelevant to me and to my sons. But relevancy isn't the sum value of worship, and worship isn't necessarily the sum value of our attendance at sunday gatherings. Sometimes attendance in worship is more about what God gives us and less about what we bring him.

Something bigger was taking place this morning. In a sense, God wanted me to take my eyes off of everything else–to sort of 'zone-out'–and have an intense focus. When all the distractions of songs and slides and sermons were gone, I saw my sons. And then I saw Jesus. Right there. In my sons. His grace flooded me, and tears flooded my eyes. I tried to hide it, just like Samuel tried to hide from my picture, but Samuel, with his keen eye, caught me.I felt his hand upon my back. I tell you it was the touch of God.

This morning helped me understand that even if my heart isn't into what's going on around me, even if I'm not fully engaged, there's still something going on inside me–something I didn't initiate, something I cannot control, and something I may not understand. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but what I saw this morning was simply the grace of God. I saw my sons, my beautiful sons.

Those three boys are proof of God's grace–their presence proof that God's grace is bigger than any sin I may commit. I can sing anything knowing that.

ImagesTitle: The Fourteenth Goldfish

Author: Jennifer L. Holm

Publisher: Random House Children's Books

Year: 2014

Pages: 110

[Disclaimer: I was provided and ARC in exchange for my promotion and unbiased review of this book. I'm only required to be honest which is waht I am. I don't even get to keep the book. It's only an e-book for my Nook. And I don't even get to keep it. So there.]

If I’m going to be honest in my review of this book, then I must confess it took me about 50 pages to actually get into the book. The beginning all seemed like so many disconnected ideas that I almost quit reading. I also got frustrated very early on because I was reading yet another children’s story that consisted of, surprise, a broken, ‘dysfunctional,’ family. I am still amazed that so many children’s authors think the best vehicle for story telling or heroic children is the broken family. The early description of the Melvin’s family on page 27 was really not funny even though I suspect a certain considerable depth of sarcasm. Personally, I find nothing funny whatsoever, ever, about meth, arson, or death. It's a cheap laugh in my opinion.

I’m no prude, but I think a certain amount of discretion should rule when writing books for kids. That’s just my opinion.

I also didn’t care for the, generally speaking, poor male role models. Grandpa is cranky and overbearing. Dad is more or less absent—although he does appear every now and again to fix the plumbing which, expectedly, breaks again. Finally, the fake description of Melvin’s ‘father’ on page 28 presents us with yet another lousy male role model. I think children's books authors ought to take care to present us with a few more positive male role models.

I’m not privy to the author’s intentions, and from the bio at the end of the book it seems she had a fairly typical upbringing and family so I’m uncertain why there was a need for such negative portrayals. The only fairly positive models the reader gets are from dead scientists and some literary figures. This is too bad.

So much for my criticisms of the book. Once I managed to get through some of the early tension and scene setting, the book started to move a little better for me. I appreciated, with the above exceptions noted, the humor in the book. Grandpa was a bit cranky and critical, following a stereotypical presentation of an old person, but at times it was a funny.  One part I found apropos was his ‘criticism’ of a twenty-two year teacher. His quip, “What does she know about anything?” was, in my opinion, an appropriate question and social commentary because I happen to agree. Teaching is far more than being able to dispense facts or information and grandpa rightfully asks the question.

But this is no ‘simple’ book to read. In order to understand a lot of the commentary, a lot of the plot, and a lot of the dialogue, one must be familiar with a lot of our culture and history. The reader needs to know about Shakespeare and Salinger, Newton and Galileo, Curie and Einstein, Thornton Wilder and L. Frank Baum; Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Openheimer. This is no story for people unacquainted with a certain stream of literature and science. This is really thrilling to me because as an educator I sometimes wonder if our students are being made to read and understand the contributions such folks made to our history and to our culture. The book is thick with these sorts of references and bring the story to life for those who either already understand these references or make the effort to Google them and learn.

There are other references (historical, film, and literary) too that will make the book exciting for the reader, but I don’t want to spoil all the fun.

The story is fun and makes some important points as it begins to conclude. One of the most important lessons we are forced to think about is our responsibility to leave the world a better place by thinking carefully about the decisions we make. We think about this in relation to the work of Oppenheimer; we think about it in relation to Jonas Salk. At the end of the day we are confronted with a choice: just because we can do something, should we? It’s an important ethical question that we would do well to start thinking about at a younger age. I think the author has asked us an important question and asked us to think thoughtfully about how we will answer it. I’m not sure there are easy answers—even in a children’s story.

At the end of the book is a nice collection of recommended resources for continuing the conversation. I love when authors do this because, I think, it’s their way of saying: “I want you to think for yourself. I’ve started a conversation, now go do some work on your own.” It’s a simple, yet brilliant, way of continuing the dialogue. Some overachievers will certainly take her up on the challenge and these are the ones who will later write the books we read.

I mostly enjoyed the book and I don’t think my criticisms and caveats will detract from the enjoyment that readers will have with this story. Good effort.

4/5 Stars.

 

I went to Sunday School this past Sunday for the first time in a long, long time. I also stayed for worship and was delighted that at the end of the two hours or so I was in the building the roof managed to stay attached to whatever the roof is attached to. In other words, it didn't fall on my head. That is always happiness.

As it turns out, we were talking about Matthew chapter 18 on Sunday. I will quote it in full before offering a few comments:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Causing to Stumble

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

The Parable of the Wandering Sheep

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. [11] 

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Dealing With Sin in the Church

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This is a great section of teaching by Jesus, but there is a problem that is easily identifiable by the little numbers scratched between sentences. The problem with these little numbers is that they make the section fairly incomprehensible to most people reading the section. I say this because the little numbers (along with the section divisions) make this section out to be a collection of smaller teachings instead of one large section of teaching addressing one particular 'subject' which, in this particular instance, is found in verse 1: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

So strip away all the verses and section dividers (things like, "Causing to Stumble" or "Dealing With Sin in the Church"). These are all artificial and, frankly, meaningless precisely because they do absolutely nothing to help us understand what Jesus was getting at and, to be sure, do everything to obfuscate what he is talking about. He is answering the question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Everything in chapter 18 that follows this question is designed to answer this question–all 34 verses. I know this peculiar teaching section of Jesus ends at 18:35 because in 19:1 we read this: "When Jesus had finished saying these things…." This marks the end of one section and the beginning of another.

If we look at it this way, without verse divisions and the like, we can see that Jesus' intent in all of these seemingly disconnected stories is actually a singular cohesive point: The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who refuses to stand on his/her own rights. That is, we are less concerned about ourselves than we are of others. In other words, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who thinks of others first, foremost, always. So chapter 18 is a collection of five stories all, in different ways, telling us that same exact thing.

He begins by telling us about a child: "Whoever becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." I know what people have traditionally said about this: children are quiet and humble and unassuming. Well, of course, raising three sons has taught me that this is absolute balderdash. I think what it means is something like this: a child has nothing to stand on, nothing. They are completely at the mercy of others. They cannot demand justice. They have no rights to demand or stand upon at all. If this is true now, it was especially true when Jesus had the child stand in his midst. Children are dependent upon others for everything, yes, but I think the issue here is, really, this idea that children essentially have nothing and can make no demands upon anyone.

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be like a person who lays no claim to personal justice, personal safety, or the lives of others. This is his thought. This is what Jesus is driving at in 'chapter 18.'

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Deal with your own sin first (6-9). This is important in today's world because many, many people are concerned about the sins of others.

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be willing to put your own safety at risk for the sake of others (10-14). This is ties everything together by use of the phrase 'these little ones' (18:4, 6, 10, & 14).

You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Forgive. I think that's what Jesus was talking about in verses (15-20) because that's how Peter understood Jesus: "Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?" (21) Why would Peter ask this question if Jesus was talking about something else? Again, I think there's a clue to be found in the verses. Look at verse 17: "If they still refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

Well…well. How do we interpret this? How should we treat a pagan? How should we treat a tax collector? Well, how did Jesus treat them? "While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples" (Matthew 9:10). And, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). That is how we are to treat tax collectors and sinners. We are to treat them the way Jesus treated them: with grace, forgiveness, deference, and welcoming. How much forgiveness are we to offer? Endless amounts. In other words, when it comes to other people, we are to forget about our rights. We have no rights to stand upon when it comes to others in the kingdom of heaven.

Being a Christian means that we no longer demand our rights. Being a Christian means we have no right to withhold forgiveness from the person who asks. Being a Christian means we have no rights. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who understands these things and puts them into practice. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who knowing their rights abandons them in favor of grace, in favor of reconciliation, in favor of healing and peace in the kingdom of God. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who knowing their own value abandons it in favor of preserving the lives of others. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who has a legitimate beef with another person and yet utterly forsakes their own demands for justice, their own claims to righteousness, and forgives–frequently, often, much.

It is unreasonable, frankly, that Jesus demands such hyperbolic levels of forgiveness, but that's what he does. 70×7. 77 times. Doesn't matter how we look at it, Jesus demands it. The kingdom demands it. The kingdom principle demands that we relinquish our claim to justice in favor of forgiveness, grace, and love. And frankly, there are some people we may have to wake up and forgive every day for the rest of our lives. Jesus demands it. Greatness demands it. Look what Jesus did. 

Forgiveness is not a matter of law or steps or procedures. Forgiveness is a matter of grace. It's a matter of the kingdom. Forgiveness is the ultimate abandonment of our rights. Forgiveness is our way of saying, "I relinquish my claim on your life. You owe me nothing. I make no demands of you." Forgiveness is our way of saying, "This is the way things operate in the kingdom of heaven. This is what life in the kingdom of God is all about, every day, all the time."

This is what it means to be a Christian.