Category Archives: scripture

Still…Judah and Tamar?? What the What?!?

This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.


Then we have Genesis 38. Wow. If you aren’t familiar with this story…well, I’m not going to recap it here. Take a minute and read it yourself. Don’t worry, the post will still be here when you get back…

The story of Judah and Tamar is disturbing to begin with…but the conclusion? Judah basically says, “Oh, I see, I should have taken care of her. My bad.” Then the laugh track kicks in and we cut to commercial. (Or so it seems.) If this were on TV there would be Christian groups in an uproar demanding that it be removed – and for good reason.

Here we have Judah, son of Jacob – who was the twin brother of Esau. This is the same Jacob who robbed his brother Esau of his birthright and blessing. And Esau…well, his other name is Edom, as in the father of the Edomites…you guessed it, another enemy of Israel.

Judah’s mother was Leah, Jacob’s first wife – who he married because his uncle Laban (Leah’s father) was as deceptive as he was…and because he apparently wasn’t too concerned with confirming the identity of the person with whom he was crawling into bed.

Leah is actually presented in the narrative as a good person. Unfortunately, she is a good person trying unsuccessfully to get her husband to love her – a fact of which her children were undoubtedly aware. Judah’s father was deceptive, manipulative and not all that great with the whole concept of treating women (or people in general) very well…of course he learned a good deal of his deception from his mother Rebekah, but I digress.

So Judah probably had both Daddy and Mommy issues. So what? Guess who else had those same issues? Joseph.

Joseph’s mother was Rachel – Leah’s younger sister – the one that Jacob wanted to marry (and did eventually). My wife, whose name is also Rachel, was the first one to point out to me that the only really positive thing the narrative ever says about Rachel is that she was “lovely in form and beautiful.”

We certainly don’t get any indication that she was much of a role model for young Joseph. Being Daddy’s favorite – with 10 older brothers – didn’t help matters. Why bring all this up? Well, the thing about Judah and Tamar’s story in Genesis 38 is that it is preceded by Genesis 37 and followed by Genesis 39 (funny how that happens.)

Genesis 38 was an abrupt change of setting in the narrative. This isn’t Judah’s story, its Joseph’s. Chapter 37 ends with young Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Then we all get grossed out, and hopefully enraged, with Judah’s actions (which ends with a birth story strangely reminiscent of good ole Poppa Jacob and his brother Esau…generational and system brokenness anyone?) But then we abruptly transition back to Joseph…imprisoned in Egypt (curse you Ham!).

And with what is Joseph, the prisoner, immediately faced? Well, sex of course… But not in the way you might think given that this is prison story. No, it’s a beautiful (married and powerful) woman throwing herself at him.

So, what does the brother of Judah, son of Jacob do? He runs away. His brother behaved awfully and had no immediate repercussions – though the people pay for it down the road. Joseph behaves nobly and it almost kills him – but it saves his people down the road.

The juxtaposition of these stories is not accidental. Again, these stories are part of a larger tapestry. Taking them out individually and dissecting them destroys them…as dissecting things tends to do.

When we talk about Scripture as a missional text, we are not saying that there is a missional principle at work in every individual piece of the narrative. However, when we step back and view the larger plotline we see that all along God is at work to reconcile creation and form his people into those who will join in this mission.

Conclusion:

Words are words; a jumble of sounds to which we’ve collectively assigned meaning. The words themselves matter little. We talk about fancy words, bad words, loaded words. Words aren’t really any of those things. They are just sounds. But the meaning – the agreed upon usage – that’s a different story.

The word missional means little to me. It is a helpful point of reference in conversation. It is also popular, which means that it has a limited shelf life in our culture – its biological clock is ticking so to speak. But I still believe that the meaning assigned to this word missional is of great importance.

And I also believe that this word serves as an important reminder when used in conjunction with Scripture.

Perhaps I’m not the best one to answer the “who cares” question. I obviously care about this topic. I am committed to instilling this way of approaching Scripture in my boys, encouraging it among my faith community, teaching it in my courses and interactions in the Missional Wisdom Foundation. Its obvious that I have decided it is a topic worthy of consideration. But what say you? What do you see – or fail to see – of worth in this discussion?

How does this resonate within your own heart? What do we gain by approaching the Bible as a missional text? What do we lose? What does it matter?

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Streams of Missional Thought pt 2

This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.


In my last post I described 2 streams of thought – as distilled by George Hunsberger – that describe what we mean when we say the Bible is a missional text. These next two turn the perspective toward us – the readers. What does it mean for the missional orientation to inform our reading, and is that appropriate?

Probably an unnecessary spoiler, but… yes, it is appropriate.

Stream 3: The Bible is meant to be read BY a missional people

These Are Missional People

A missional perspective is the most appropriate posture for the Christian community to engage a faithful reading of the Bible. The text is intended to be received by – is addressed to – people who already understand themselves to have been called to join the mission of God…even if they aren’t always sure what the means.

The first two streams have looked at our hermeneutic (method of Biblical interpretation) from the perspective of the text’s work in describing a missional God and forming a missional people. This theme looks at the issue from the perspective of the missional people being formed.

A missional hermeneutic involves “an approach to the biblical text rooted in the basic conviction that God has a mission in the world and that we read Scripture as a community called into and caught up by those divine purposes.”

This is similar to the previous theme. The primary difference is that theme #2 refers to the way the Scriptures forms people and now we consider that we don’t read as just interested bystanders. We’re interested, yes, but as participants who have received and who share the calling that was being cultivated in the people we read about. We are in community with those who originally received these texts.

If that is the case, we “self-consciously, intentionally, and persistently bring to the biblical text a range of focused, critical, and located questions regarding church’s purpose in order to discern the faith community’s calling and task within the missio Dei.”

It is not just our right, but our responsibility as the missional community to read, ask hard questions, come to conclusions and move forward in faith. We are the interpreting community. We come to this text with questions that arise from living the message in our whole life. So, of course we must approach this as a missional text…because we’re a missional people, God is a missional God and this is the story of relationship between us.

Important questions for the interpreting community:

– Does our reading of the text challenge or baptize our assumptions and blind spots?

– How does the text help to clarify appropriate Christian behavior–not only in terms of conduct but also in terms of intentionality and motive?

– Does our reading emphasize the triumph of Christ’s resurrection to the exclusion of the kenotic (self-emptying), cruciform character of his ministry?

– In what ways does this text proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, and how might our own social locations make it difficult to hear that news as good?

– Does our reading of this text acknowledge and confess our complicity and culpability in personal as well as structural sin?

– How does this text clarify what God is doing in our world, in our nation, in our cities, and in our neighborhoods–and how may we be called to be involved in those purposes?

Stream 4: The missional engagement with cultures.

The Bible itself (particularly the New Testament) provides us with a matrix for missionally engaging our own culture with the text of scripture…in other words, applying it directly to our context, drawing from our own metaphors, recognizing the uniqueness of this place and this time.

This one is probably the most challenging, but is also empowering and recognizes how we are equipped to do that to which we’ve been called. There are scores of passages throughout the Old Testament, but specifically in the New Testament, where the writers engage older texts and read them through the lens of Jesus and their present situation – sometimes changing the way the text was used in the first place!

Think about this: when they did so, the result of became part of the biblical tradition passed on to us. What happens in the New Testament, in other words, is a model for our own regular engagement of the gospel with our own culture today. This encounter is the stuff of the church’s calling and mission.

Now to be very clear: that doesn’t mean we have license to take passages and make them mean whatever we need them to at the moment – there’s been quite enough of that already!

“As told to us in the New Testament, the gospel exhibits these structural features: It summons to allegiance and decision. (It makes a claim.) It presupposes a public horizon and universal scope. (It presents itself as world news.) It regards death and resurrection as paradigmatic. (It opens up a way.) These function as criteria that must guide every fresh interpretation of biblical message anywhere and at any time.”

More specifically, if our “fresh interpretation of the biblical message” serves a purpose other proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God; if it doesn’t equip us to live missionally or call others to take up the challenge; if it doesn’t remain true to the storyline of scripture – then we aren’t contextualizing the message, we’re changing it.

Taken together, these four streams lay out a holistic reading of scripture which recognize that as the missional people of a missional God, we can’t help but read scripture from a missional perspective. But this isn’t something we have to use our imagination to find, the text itself carries the mark of the missional life for our community. To summarize these four streams even further: the text of scripture presents a missional narrative which is meant to cultivate and be received by a missional people and provides the proper lens for missionally and incarnationally engaging the surrounding culture.

The “holistic” reading thing is important. After considering these 4 streams you may be thinking, “Does this apply to every passage in the Bible? Because I can think of a few that would need some pretty amazing acrobatics to fit this missional orientation.”

And that is what we’ll discuss in the next post.

Streams of Missional Thought pt 1

This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.


*Groan* – “Please don’t tell me you’re going to write about missional thinking now.”

Missional Thought

Calm down. I mean, I could – there’s plenty there – but actually we’re still on the missional scripture thing. What does it mean for scripture to be missional?

A while back, a gathering of theologians and practitioners considered this very topic (okay, yes, it happens fairly often, but I’m about to reference a particular one that occurred “a while back”…geez, you’re so nit-picky today.)

As discussions progressed and papers were presented, George Hunsberger noticed that they were falling into four basic streams – which he summarized, not as competing concepts, but rather as aspects of a collaborative whole.

Hunsberger suggested that the following are each important and should be viewed together, not as separate attempts at defining a missional hermeneutic (method of biblical interpretation).

Stream 1: The missional direction of the story

The Bible is the story “of the mission of God and the formation of a community sent to participate in it.” The Bible is one continuous story describing God’s ongoing mission in the midst of creation – and God’s creation of communities (specifically Israel and then the Church) to join in that mission. The mission isn’t just for the benefit of those communities. What makes it a missional story is that the work which was involved; the work we’re invited to join is God’s work for ALL creation.

And so Christopher Wright (a theologian who’s done some pretty amazing work in this area) says, “The whole Bible renders to us the story of God’s mission through God’s people in their engagement with God’s world for the sake of the whole of God’s creation.”

This stream of thought understands the Bible as a missional text because the story it tells is that of God’s mission.

Stream 2: The missional purpose of the writings.

The Bible is not only a missional story, or a story about a missional character (God). The very purpose that Scripture seeks to fulfill is missional – the Bible seeks to cultivate missional people. So the Story is not just about God’s mission, but also plays an active role in God’s mission.

From Hunsberger:

Darrell Guder is the one who has most forcefully made this case. “Jesus personally formed the first generation of Christians for his mission,” he argues. “After that, their testimony became the tool for continuing formation.” Thus, “the apostolic strategy of continuing formation of missional communities became the motivation of their writings.”

The New Testament writings have as their purpose to equip the churches for witness. This is particularly evident in the epistles. They “carry out this formation through direct engagement with the challenges arising out of the contexts of the addressed communities.” But it is no less true of the Gospels. They are about “the same fundamental task.” They invite the churches into “the process of discipleship that consists of their joining Jesus’ disciples and accompanying him through his earthly ministry on the path to the cross….In this preparation of disciples to be become apostles, missional formation is happening in the Gospels.”

Guder concludes that “The purpose of this ‘Word of God written’ was and is the continuing formation of the missional church…. This formation happens as the biblical word works powerfully within the community.” So the driving question this stream emphasizes as we read the scriptures becomes “How did this text equip and shape God’s people for their missional witness then, and how does it shape us today?” Or put another way, “how did this particular text continue the formation of witnessing communities then, and how does it do that today?”

So when we say the Bible is a missional text we’re not only saying that it describes something or someone that is missional, but it functions as part of God’s mission.

With these first two streams of thought we see that both the being and the doing of Scripture are missional in scope and orientation. The Bible itself is a missional text. So what about how we are to read this missional Bible? The next two streams consider the other side of the equation – us.

What Difference Does it Make?

This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.

I am grateful for the friends, old and new, who read this blog and dialog with me on Facebook, in coffee shops, via email, on the phone or over dinner. And I love that you are such an incredibly eclectic group. Conservative evangelical, bleeding-heart liberal, and everywhere in between; agnostic, atheist, and those who are part of other religious traditions; academics and practitioners (and even a few academic practitioners); clergy and laity; country folks and hipsters; Republicans and Democrats; missional monastics and back-row pew dwellers.

I’ve received numerous questions about this issue of the Bible being a missional text; questions I’ll try to address in this series. The struggle has been that the questions, like my conversation partners, are all over the place.

“I still have no idea what this missional word means…now you want to use it to describe the Bible. What the heck are you talking about?” (I only touch on this one briefly in this series – for a longer answer to that question see this post).

“How exactly is the Bible a missional text?”

“Okay, so what does a missional engagement with Scripture look like in practice?”

“Are you trying to say that every passage has a missional orientation?”

Who Freaking Cares?

There is at least one more group of questions. Simply and eloquently stated, these are versions of, “So what?” and “Who cares?”

And those are honest, practical questions we need to be asking. Why does any of this matter? Does it change anything in real life? Does it actually help us or just give us another context for rambling speeches and blog posts? (As if I needed an excuse?)

On a fundamental level I believe that missional is a theological principle rather than a strategy for church planting, church renewal, or something else. And not simply a theological sidebar, but an aspect of understanding the revealed nature of God. The word missional is simply a tool. Yet it is one that helps us address what we see in the relationship of the Trinity; the calling of Israel and the formation of the church…so it’s a pretty useful tool. It helps us recognize that the Incarnation of Jesus wasn’t a new thing for God, but the seminal expression of how God has been operating since the act of creation.

Appreciating Scripture as a missional text is, in part, a needed corrective to perspectives that have allowed us to develop a culture that sees faith as an individualistic and privatized practice; which describes discipleship in terms of membership (and that, merely in terms of attendance and contribution)…or else views discipleship as a feature which only applies to the paid version of the faith app…and who pays for apps when the free “lite” version is sufficiently awesome?

It matters because we can no longer afford to miss how from beginning to end the Bible is about God making space for the Other and then pursuing the Other to invite them into that space…and then calling the Other to become agents of that same space making adventure.

A missional engagement with Scripture matters because it reminds us that we do not read as detached voyeurs. We are invited into the Story as active participants – even if we considered ourselves outsiders when we started reading.

It matters because we are too quick to view the Bible as a list of ways that we can keep people out, keep ourselves in, and somehow feel good about it in the process.

And honestly, the missional nature of Scripture matters because it grounds our sending in something more substantial and sustaining than a fleeting desire for activism.

When the mystique and glamor of actively connecting with broken and hurting people begins to wear thin – and make no mistake, it will…right about the time you realize that “broken and hurting” kinda sucks – what keeps us moving forward? Obviously the first answer is the Holy Spirit. Next comes our community…wait, you are only attempting in this in community, right? Seriously, that’s important. But what happens when we begin to doubt if we ever heard the Spirit to begin with? (Yes, this too is going to happen. Here’s a description of one such time for me.) What happens when circumstances cause you to question whether your community sees you as anything more than another commodity to be consumed or traded? (…yep, that one’s real too.)

There’s another vital component. One that reminds us of the Spirit’s guidance when we forget and points us back to our community even if they’ll likely burn us again…and we them. This piece is so important that its actually the point and process of the entire book of Deuteronomy.

Story. Like the rabbits in Watership Down (such a great story), our Story sustains us because it reminds us of who we are and why we are; where we come from and where we’re headed. The Bible tells us the story of the God of Mission inviting humanity into the mission of God, transforming those who are sent into ambassadors of transformation wherever they go.

A narrative has several characteristics. It comprises a story that is moving somewhere; it gives a social group a story that tells where it is going and what the group will look like when it arrives. There is purpose and quest within the narrative calling a group in a specific direction and toward a particular goal…Because narrative creates and sustains social community, it’s the glue, the atmosphere of all social life. The key to innovating missional community is formation of a people within a specific memory and narrative. – Alan Roxburgh, The Missional Leader, 70-71.

If we can keep our minds wrapped around that aspect of Scripture, then I don’t care if we ever use the word missional again.

…but you’ll probably encounter the word a few more times in this series at least.

A Missional Post on Missional Scripture Composed on my Missional Laptop.

Missional.

For many, the word has become like a Katy Perry song: love it or hate it, you can’t go 10 minutes without hearing it…and catching yourself singing along unconsciously. Others may think that the word is owned by Apple, because it shows up in front of absolutely everything the same way their lower-case “i” does.

Speaking of which, yes, there is an iMissional.org.

Missional Coffee

And as often as I use the word, I admit, even I get tired of hearing about missional toasters, missional coffee, missional songbooks, missional underwear (wait, no, that one could be interesting). There’s even a Missional Study Bible. Perhaps I’m just bitter because I wasn’t asked to contribute anything, and in fairness, it looks pretty cool, but I believe we already have a missional Bible – the Bible.

That’s what I want to address in this series of blog posts. It wasn’t actually inspired by the publication of the Mission of God Bible – that’s just a happy coincidence – instead it has come about for several reasons. First of all, I believe that those of us who are committed to (or even just considering) missional and incarnational approaches to faith should wrestle with the deeper theological realities that accompany this orientation. They’re there, they have been ignored too often and for too long – and they transcend, “this just works better.”

I’ve written here, and lots of other places, that missional is first a theological, rather than pragmatic or strategic, issue. Theology is the practice of thinking, contemplating and talking about God. So when I say this is a theological issue, my claim is that saying something about missional is actually saying something about God – not just the strategies, practices or attitudes of Christians.

Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense to look more carefully at the relationship between missional theology and scripture. Is the Bible a missional text? What does that mean? What does it look like? This question is not just about putting missional in front of yet another aspect of Christianity. Frankly, I hope that we will someday reach a point where it is (as it should be) redundant to even use the word missional in relation to our faith.

Unfortunately, given that our society tends to devour words and ideas voraciously until they become bitter in our collective mouth, there is a good chance it will fall out of use long before it becomes unnecessary.

In one sense, I’m already seeing the trend begin. Mike Breen’s post, Why the Missional Movement Will Fail is one example. In fairness, what I take Breen to be saying in his post is that we cannot focus on “doing” mission if we are not first pursuing discipleship – without discipleship our missional efforts will be empty, short-lived, and will ultimately fail, cut-off as they are from the source of our calling.

Perhaps our thoughts on this depend on what we mean by, and how we’re using, the word missional. Stated very briefly, missional means that the whole community of faith, not just a few special standouts, is called to live on mission with God. The concept is meaningless without discipleship – just as discipleship can easily become individualistic and theoretical without a missional orientation. Missional isn’t a doing focus – it is essentially about who we are; who we are called to be and formed into being by the one we want to be with and be like. We can’t really claim to BE these people if we fail to DO what such people are called to do…but the doing is a result of being, not the other way around.

We live this way, on mission with God, because we are the people of God. In this way our actions are in response to our calling and thus originate, not in our own awesomeness, but in the Divine Awesomitude.

Missional is more than a call to personal piety, activism, social justice, evangelism or discipleship – it encompasses all these aspects in a holistic call to the Way of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit in the midst of God’s mission of reconciliation…together, as the Body of Christ. Each disciple of Jesus, each person who bears the name “Christian,” is included in this call – not just those who attended seminary, have tons of free time to volunteer, enjoy teaching Sunday School, or set aside time in the summer for a mission trip to Mexico.

Sadly, as we consider the state of the Church in North America, missional is not yet a redundancy.

So what about the Bible? Is it right to refer to it as a missional text? Are we saying that every passage is a “missional passage?” What does that mean?

When I refer to the Bible as a missional text I’m claiming that:

– The metanarrative (overall story) of Scripture is about a missional God who creates as an act of love and hospitality. The brokenness and separation experienced in creation are not God’s doing – they are precisely that which God is undoing. As those created in God’s image, God is (and has been all along) inviting humanity to collaborate as junior co-creators in this mission of reconciliation. Make no mistake, it is God’s mission – but we are called to participation.

– The purpose of Scripture is to equip God’s people as those being called and sent together. This Story, like all truly great stories, aims to change those who hear it. But our transformation goes beyond personal piety or eternal destination…we are being pulled into the Story that transforms everything.

– Basically, I’m saying that God is actually up to something in this world; we – all of us – are called to play an active role in that something, and the Bible is the story of that something.

In this series of posts we’ll address: (these titles will become links once the posts are live)

What Difference Does it Make?

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 1

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 2

Really? Scripture is Missional? Have You Actually Read It?

Still…Judah and Tamar?? What the What?!?

I hope that this series will be helpful for ongoing conversations – and that you’ll be willing to engage some of that here on this page.

No Simple Matter

How will you search for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?*

I had just finished teaching a class on reading the Bible…a class that excited me and which I felt had gone quite well. Among other things, we’d been talking about the issues that arise when something is translated from one language to another. Idioms like “The kids were climbing the walls,” can be confusing if they are translated word for word without awareness of the intent.
When I saw the elderly man approaching I knew it was going to be interesting. His opening line was priceless. Without so much as a grunted greeting he fired his first shot across the bow: “You know what your problem is?”
There are so many possible responses to that question, none of which seemed promising. Has anything good ever come from a conversation that started with those words? I wasn’t getting out of this conversation, so I played along, “You mean you’ve narrowed it down to one?”
“You’ve lost the simplicity of the Gospel.”
There’s another one of those statements that just hangs there.
A year or so later the same man came up to me on a Sunday morning and said, “That was the best sermon you’ve preached yet. I’ve heard over 10,000 sermons in my life. So, I can say that one was pretty good. But last week’s was undoubtedly the worst sermon I have ever heard in my life.”
Now, I don’t think he can honestly make such a claim…he slept through at least half a dozen of my sermons during that first year, any one of which could have been worse than this particular message.
But I digress…Back to idea of simplicity.
It seems to be a commonly accepted truth that faith should be simple. Lately I’ve been thinking more about this assumption. Are we sure that’s where we want to hang our hats?
Adam and Eve struggled to get it. The Patriarchs struggled. Israel struggled. The disciples struggled. The Christians in Corinth, Galatia…even Jerusalem struggled to grasp the calling and the significance of faith. The Church throughout the last 20 centuries seems to have struggled with it as well. And yet, somehow today, its simple.
Last year I read a book which discusses the education process for architectural design students. There is a period in the beginning, before they’ve discovered what it means to “think architecturally” when the whole process is mysterious and confusing. The master designers who are there to coach and teach them cannot explain how to think this way. Textbooks can’t teach it, lectures can’t capture it. The only way to learn it is to do it – which leads to the paradox in the quote from Plato: “How will you search for something when you don’t in the least know what it is?”
I’ve found a similar process occurs with the process of learning to “listen to God,” particularly within the context of Scripture. We’re good at analyzing the text, but being quiet and listening is difficult.
The discovery process is necessary and it is simple in that the skill and ability is developed through experience rather than complicated algorithms, equations or memorization of data. However, it is no simple matter precisely because it must be experienced to be learned.
To learn to listen requires us to actually quiet our inner monologue; learning to think architecturally requires one to begin thinking in precisely the way they are seeking to learn. The same experience is undoubtedly true in many areas of life. Those proficiencies we seek to acquire – if we desire to become practitioners – must be cultivated. Structurally and programmatically this is simple…but this is no simple matter.
There are basic competencies which must be mastered – one does not refuse to study the language, history, theory and mechanics of architectural design if they seek to become an architect. Beyond that student must have a grasp of geometry and physics. These things must be learned, there are no short cuts. Yet, mastering the science does not in any way guarantee that one will become a great architect. The art and the science work in harmony with one another. The choice to ignore either is a choice to fail in the endeavor.
Some will point out that there are gifted architects who apprenticed under a master rather than attending “school.” Do we really think that such an apprenticeship is any less of an education process? The basics are still taught – perhaps much more effectively and often over a longer period of time – the difference is that they are not approached in the same manner.
To be sure, where God is concerned, one does not need a degree to enter the Kingdom – it is true that many with degrees find it difficult to experience the Kingdom life they’ve spent so much time studying.
There is a simplicity to the gospel that is filled with depth and profound beauty specifically because of its uncluttered nature. Yet, like the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation which depict God as both the Transcendent Other and the Immanent Creator, the life of faith is at once profoundly simple and incredibly complex. The simplicity invites us to enter in, though we are lacking in every way and the complexity invites us to continue exploring the depths of this indescribable mystery. How wonderful is that?! Simple enough to appreciate and embrace and yet complex enough to be worth a lifetime of exploration!
In Acts 8 we find a story of an Ethiopian official who is reading the prophet Isaiah. The Holy Spirit sends Philip to this man and upon hearing the man reading from the prophet he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian’s response is informative. “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”
Some have mistakenly assumed that this meant he wasn’t able to understand the words themselves – he couldn’t read the Hebrew (or more likely the Greek as the Septuagint was widely read during this time). But the text itself shows that the man understood the words he was puzzled by the meaning. “Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
It is okay to have teachers. It isn’t contrary to the Gospel to suggest that there are things we need to learn. Its even okay to admit that some of those things are not easy to grasp on the first pass. At least those things seem okay for the people described in the stories of scripture.
AND YET, the message IS simple. The message is a clear call of hope for those who have come to fear that hope is a myth. The good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand. The reign of Christ is going to be a completely different experience from the tyrannical reigns of human empires. In this empire you have a role to play. You are not a spectator – that position has been eliminated.
There are great depths to this message, great complexity in the universe, great mystery to be explored in faith. There will always be need for learning, study and yes, even teachers. Perhaps our greatest mistake is not thinking that faith is complex, but failing to realize that the complexity is a part of the simple beauty.
The “simple truth” is that we have plenty of adventure ahead of us. We’ll never finish our investigation, never map out the limits of this kingdom. So there is no expectation that we grasp everything before diving in.
Yes, this part is simple. Those who have heard the good news that a new life is available are a part of the team that is sent to participate, anticipate and invite others to do the same.
There is much to learn and we have our whole lives to learn it. That doesn’t mean we can sit around waiting to be taught and doing nothing. Do you have a story? Have you encountered the hope of the gospel? If you have been baptized then you have been ordained and commissioned. So go! Make disciples! No one expects you to have all the answers…NONE OF US have all the answers!
We don’t have to obtain a diploma but neither should we dismiss the value and contribution of those who have. We can embrace the simplicity of the gospel while still appreciating the beautifully complex mystery.
Whether simple or complex, neither option is fully explored in a classroom nor in the pages of a book – ANY book. Life in the kingdom is meant to be lived, experienced and embraced.
Who cares if you have memorized scripture only to let it sit in your gut with last night’s roast beef? If you have embraced the “simplicity of the gospel” so that you can look down your nose at others without offering hope to anyone…what have you really embraced?
The converse is true as well. If you have spent years – decades even – studying the most intricate details of history, language and cultural context and still haven’t learned how to be a neighbor…what have you learned?
Just this week someone asked me, “So, is there room for introverts in the kingdom of God?”
I sure hope so, because I’m one of them.
There is plenty room for extroverts and introverts in the kingdom, but – at the risk of sounding too harsh – I’m beginning to wonder if there is room for cowards.
That seems to be where the problem lies. We don’t require an extroverted personality that leads us to mix and mingle with everyone. But, we must have the courage and conviction to live out the hope we have, prepared to give an answer to those who ask. There are no position openings for “anonymous disciple,” or “passive consumer.”
Some will say, “I’m not looking for all that stuff. I just want to hear a good sermon and go on my way.” For those looking for a faith that will simply provide quality education and wholesome entertainment for their children combined with a weekly uplifting concert and relevant message for them – with little or no expectation that anything substantial is going to change… For those who are looking for a simple Bible study but are not willing to put what they find into practice or share it with others… For those who want to add religious goods and services to the list of things they need for a satisfying life… For those who see little need to count the cost or pick up a cross… For those who think that burying your bag of gold/talent in the ground and waiting for the master to return is a good idea… For those who just want to be an inactive player on God’s team and go to heaven some day to reap a great reward… It may be that you’ve lost the simplicity of the Gospel.
Take heart because many of us, including the heroes of our faith recorded in scripture, share this struggle.
* This question from Plato’s, The Meno is quoted in Donald Schon’s, Educating the Reflective Practitioner.

Two Stories

For the past couple months we’ve been involved in a 40 day commitment to scripture reading and prayer. It has been truly amazing. Rachel and I have talked about our reading together almost daily – and I have loved that. Chris, Heidi, Rachel and I have sent countless emails back and forth – this process of being transformed by scripture together has had the added impact of deepening our friendship.

We’ve had some great conversations on Sundays with our worshiping community and I have been blown away by the ways in which God has clearly answered our prayers for miracles and for the request of Luke 10:2 (“beg the Lord of the Harvest to send out workers…”) Our suspicion about that verse is that its answer comes by way of connection with people “from the harvest.” The stories of conversations that have fallen into our laps with people who don’t yet believe, or perhaps want to believe but are skeptical of Christians… There’s no denying what’s been taking place in the lives of those who threw themselves into this relatively small commitment.
Today is the last Sunday during our 40 days – we conclude on Tuesday. Our time has been so powerful that the Chappotins, Rachel and I have decided to do this again with a new set of readings during Lent.
It wasn’t easy to read 5 chapters of scripture a day, six days/week but it was a worthwhile challenge. I don’t think any of us made our exact goal every day – and that isn’t the point. The point was to immerse ourselves in God’s Word regularly, and that was/is a worthwhile goal.
So, as we draw this time to a close with the reading of the gospel of John (we read 1-10 on Fri-Sat and will read the 2nd half Mon-Tues), I’d like to post a short section from a sermon I preached in August of 2007 in Mandeville. I did a series of lessons on the life of Jesus and many of the sermons came from John’s gospel. This one, which focuses on the stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 3 and 4 respectively, was inspired in part by Eugene Peterson’s, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (great book). If you’ve read it, you should notice that this section I’m including draws very heavily from the book.
I’ve been greatly blessed by this time of commitment to Scripture and Prayer in community – thank you to all who’ve participated with us, both locally and from a distance. May God continue to bless us, transform us and reveal miracles through his Word at work in our lives.

…But here’s the interesting thing about these two stories. They are incredibly accessible. Nicodemus was a scholar and minister – but that isn’t what made him able to believe…in fact, he seemed much more confused than the Samaritan woman had been! The metaphors are incredibly common – birth and water.


The first story is about a man; the second about a woman. There is no preferred gender in the Christian life.


The first story takes place in the city, the second on the outskirts of a small town. Geography has no bearing on perception or attitude.


Nicodemus is a respectable member of a strictly orthodox sect of the Pharisees; the woman is a disreputable member of the despised Samaritans. Racial background, religious identity, and moral track record are neither here nor there in matters of spirituality.


The man is named; the woman unnamed. Reputation and standing in the community are not important.


Nicodemus opens their conversation with a spiritual comment; the woman allows Jesus to kick things off with a simple question of drawing water. It doesn’t seem to matter who gets things started, Jesus or us, or whether the subject matter is earthly or heavenly.


In both stories there is risk – Nicodemus risks his reputation meeting Jesus, Jesus risks his by speaking to this female Samaritan. So…


A man and a woman

City and country

An insider and an outsider

A professional and a layperson

A respectable man and a disreputable woman

An orthodox and a heretic

One who takes the initiative; one who lets it be taken

On named, the other anonymous

Human reputation at risk; divine reputation at risk


In both stories Jesus is the central character. Everything that happens to bring life has Jesus working in the center of it – Jesus is more active than any one of us; it is Jesus who provides the energy. And this is what life in the Kingdom is about. It is about God. It is about Jesus. It is not about elitism. It is not about looking right, smelling right or dressing right. It is Jesus himself that is at work to introduce everyone to this kingdom.

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