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Something Different for Advent

“Why write a book of Advent devotions?”

That’s what I kept asking myself this summer. And I couldn’t come up with a very good answer.

I mean, friends and family who enjoyed my Lenten Thy Will Be Done prayer book have been asking about an Advent resource for a couple of years. But really, does the world need another collection of readings and prayers and devotional anecdotes to help people mark time from December 1 until Christmas?

“Not really,” was the best answer I could come up with. Or maybe, “Not from me.”

yfma cover thumb.jpg

So the Kindle edition of my Advent devotional book is now available at https://amzn.to/2r5npap, along with  both a paperback edition https://amzn.to/2NpSkH8 and a large print edition https://amzn.to/2qsFS0y (paid links).

Surprise!

So what changed? How did I go from no mas (or at least, no Christmas) to publishing in time for Advent? Well, therein lies a tale…. Continue Reading »

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Empathy at Biggby’s

So I’m sitting at a coffee shop waiting for my kids to get done with a play rehearsal and I can hardly believe my ears.

One of the Biggby Coffee employees is on her knees not twenty feet from me cleaning up the floor and wiping down one of the lime/pea-soup-colored retro chairs. She’s chatting with the woman behind the counter from her vantage point on the floor.

“I saw a mom over here with a little one earlier, and I felt so bad for her!” That got my attention. Remember, this whole monologue is punctuated with the movement of a wet rag and broom, and delivered from one of the least dignified postures we know.

She continues:

“When the mom left, I came over here to clean up, and there was coffee all over the chair, and colorful sprinkles ground into the floor, and donut crumbs all over. I can only image that she was just trying to have a quiet cup of coffee, and her kid was bouncing around, and making her spill her coffee, and making a mess. I felt so bad for her! I hope her day went better after that!”

Now, wait a minute.

This worker is on her hands and knees cleaning up the mess some insensitive and inattentive parent let their demon-spawn of a 2-year-old make in a public place, and she turns around and exercises empathy??

Where’s the cussing? Where’s the “woe is me?” Where’s the personal offense at someone else being so insensitive and making my job harder than it has to be?

Who does she think she is? Jesus?

And that’s what made me think of another scene. And another Someone who was in one of the least dignified postures we know, as on His knees he washed the dirt off of my feet. He knows my mess; and He know it’s my fault. I certainly didn’t make it easy for Him.

Yet, rather than the self-righteous anger I might have expected, He shows love instead. And then, from a yet more humiliating position, His words betray no trace of self-importance or bitterness, as He says, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”

Heading off to pick up my kids, all the spilled coffee and ground sprinkles in my life seem somehow insignificant. I might be a little faster to empathize; a little slower to blame; maybe less likely to take personal offense at someone else’s bad day. At least, I hope I am.

How could you not leave changed, when you encounter Jesus at Biggby’s?

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That I May Be His Own

I love Reformation!

I get all worked up and excited when I can say, in complete confidence, that on my own, in my sin, I deserve nothing but God’s wrath; but in Jesus, I receive nothing but God’s grace.

That’s why I love Reformation: Grace Alone, baby!

I even wore my red, “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders” Reformation socks to worship this morning.

And I can’t helping feeling celebrating Reformation that way is missing something important, something biblical, something Lutheran.

In his explanation to the 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther can say: “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ …”

And describing the ongoing work of God who creates and sustains, Luther can say in the 1st Article that God does all this: “Purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me…”

Not by my own strength. No merit or worthiness in me. Grace alone. Sounds Lutheran, right?

But Luther also says in his explanation of the 2nd article, that Jesus “has redeemed me,” paid a price to buy me back, “purchased and won me, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own…”

That I may be his own. Redeemed. Purchased and won. That’s also Luther, and Lutheran.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 2.36.42 PM (2)

Two of my favorite parables of Jesus come in two quick verses; blink, and you’ll miss them. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like this situation: some guy finds a treasure buried in a field, and in his joy—this is the kind of joy that makes you jump up, spin around, shout “Woohoo!” and start singing your Happy Song—in his joy he jumps up, spins around, shouts “Woohoo!” and sells everything he has so he can afford to buy that field.

In the next verse, Jesus tells a similar parable. The kingdom of heaven is like this situation: a professional pearl dealer, who has a life-time’s worth of experience and a life-time’s worth of inventory, finally finds that once-in-a-life-time pearl. Sometimes it’s called the Pearl of Great Value, sometimes the Pearl of Great Price (price and value are intimately related). At the bargain basement price of every single pearl in his possession, along with is house and his retirement plan and his brand new camel caravan and his cottage by the sea, that merchant makes the purchase of a lifetime and walks away with a pearl that made all those long years of searching worthwhile.

The value validated the price. In fact, the value exceeded the expense, so that this unbelievably high price—everything you own—was greeted with joy and paid in full, with delight.

So, biblically speaking, you are blind, dead, and an enemy of God; but the Bible also has another way of talking about this Jesus who purchased and won me from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

The treasure in the field was never God’s enemy; the Pearl of Great Price was never an object of wrath.

If you ever have cause to doubt your own value, if you ever wonder what your small existence is worth, if you ever find yourself in a dark and lonely place where your inner voice tells you again and again, and sometimes most days in any given week, that you are ugly, or stupid, or worthless—check your price tag.

Because your price tag reads: “The Very Life of the Son of God.”

And Jesus read that price tag, and considered eternity with you and eternity without you, and then with tears of joy sold everything he had so he could afford to buy you.

You made all those long years of searching worth it.

You.  You were worth it.

Happy Reformation.

 


Image Credit: Rebecca Yops; St. Paul, Trenton

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A Jackpot with a Countdown Timer

tiny slotLet’s imagine this situation: in a very posh casino, with a very unique promotion, and some crazy luck, not one but two people end up hitting an “Easy Money” jackpot at 11:00 pm exactly. The time stamp is important, because this never-before and never-to-be-repeated jackpot comes with $50,000 of the house’s money; but there’s a catch. (Of course there’s a catch.)

The winners get to play with the $50K for exactly one hour; after that, whatever’s left of  the $50,000 along with whatever the gamblers won with the house’s money must be returned to the casino. The players get their chips, and the countdown timer starts. What would you do…?

The first contestant briefly considers blowing it all on one spin of the roulette table or one hand in poker–after all, it isn’t his money!–but eventually decides to ride his luck as far it will take him. At all the big-money tables in roulette, and poker, and craps, and even baccarat, the player plays. His fan club grows as his luck continues to soar.

Just before midnight, our protagonist reaches one million dollars in winnings, which the casino promptly confiscates at the stroke of twelve, according to the rules of the countdown jackpot. The man leaves the casino as broke as he entered it, but wow! What a night!

poker bet

Let’s go back to our second winner. As soon as she collected her $50K in chips, she started shrewdly scanning the casino for whales or other people with major influence. A smile here, a nod there, and she places a $10,000 bet on behalf of the wife of a large bank owner. The lucky number 7 doesn’t come up, but who cares? Our heroine walks away with the banker’s goodwill–and his business card.

The next hour sees our lucky lady lose or spend all $50,000: some of it goes to buying expensive drinks for everyone else at the Player’s Club Lounge. Some of it goes to cover the bets of real estate brokers, stock brokers, a magazine editor, and a university professor. She even ensures a life-time of platinum-level service at the casino’s restaurant and hotel by leaving a couple of $1,000 tips.

By the time midnight rolls around and the casino comes to collect their money, she hands them her final $10 and leaves with a phone full of contacts and a bright future full of opportunity.

Do you get the situation? You’re playing with house money, and the countdown timer is running. What are you going to do?

 

I think that modern-day parable is a rough but reasonable equivalent of Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16. Do you remember that weird parable where the master (God??) seems to applaud how dishonest the manager is?

Here’s the thing, though: that shrewd manager is playing with house money, and the countdown timer is running. He has a short amount of time to set his master’s affairs in order; he is going to get fired, any minute.

And instead of skimming a little off the top and padding his own bank account, an account that could be confiscated without warning by the IRS or Federal Trade Commission, the guy lines the pockets of all the other major players in town, assuring that when–not if, but when–his current employment is terminated, he will have enough friends in high places to help him out.

The moral of the story isn’t, go be tricky with other people’s money. The moral is this: any and all physical possessions you have aren’t yours permanently. You are by definition playing with house money. And the countdown clock is ticking; sooner or later, you are going to be terminated. So what are you going to do in the short time remaining to you?

I don’t think the master in this parable is actually God; which makes this metaphor story of Jesus pretty unique (the master is, like, always God).

I think, instead, God is the whale at the baccarat table: and you are supposed to “waste” whatever resources are temporarily at your disposal for the short time remaining to get in good with THAT guy; he’s the one who can make sure you have a future after the clock strikes midnight.

Of course, you could play all the expensive tables and collect as many chips as you possibly can. And that would be fun. But what good would it actually do you? You are going to head out as broke as you came in.

You can’t serve both God and money. You either use God to get as much as you can get, this side of eternity; or you use this side of eternity to get as much God as you can get. Jesus knows which play he thinks you should make.

You’re playing with house money, and the countdown timer is running. What are you going to do?

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Seedbeds of Discipleship in Greenhouses of Grace

I’ve been reading a business book lately about what it takes to launch something new in an unstable or uncertain environment (welcome to my life). The book’s got some really helpful business insight, and under the umbrella of, “All truth is God’s truth,” or maybe, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above,” it occurred to me that some of this really good business insight might be good for the Church.

Take the following quote as an example. The author is talking about how important it is, even for businesses who have an establish track record of success, to invest in finding new ways of delivering benefit to their customers:

The amount of time a company can count on holding on to market leadership to exploit its earlier innovations is shrinking, and this creates an imperative for even the most entrenched companies to invest in innovation.

In fact, I believe a company’s only sustainable path to long-term economic growth is to build an “innovation factory” that uses Lean Startup techniques to create disruptive innovations on a continuous basis… but on an industrial scale and with an established cohort of managers steeped in traditional management culture.

Eric Ries, The Lean Startup (34)

As far as business advice goes, I think that’s pretty sound. But I also think that insight might matter for the Church. I have worked with groups and individuals over the years who are trying to start new things to reach new people for Jesus. I have also seen ministry at established congregations from the inside. From my experience, I would say there is a Kingdom truth embedded in that business insight.

If I were to paraphrase Eric Ries for the Church, that quote might go something like this:

The amount of time a company church can count on holding on to market leadership (members) to exploit its earlier innovations (what used to work to get new members) is shrinking, and this creates an imperative for even the most entrenched companies church bodies to invest in innovation.

In fact, I believe a company’s church’s only sustainable path to long-term economic (Kingdom) growth is to build an “innovation factory” that uses Lean Startup techniques to create disruptive innovations on a continuous basis…but on an industrial scale (it has to include the local church but must go beyond the local) and with an established cohort of managers (church professionals and lay leaders) steeped in traditional management (church) culture.

Eric Ries, paraphrased and revised

Faced with the kind of cultural shift that has remade the landscape of American religion almost over night, I think we have to find more and more new yet faithful ways of following Jesus and connecting with people who don’t see any cultural value in church. I’m concerned that if we leave all the innovation in discipleship or outreach to the people starting new things to reach new people, our established congregations will continue to dwindle and close at alarming rates.

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We can’t start enough new ministries or congregations to reverse that trend. But what if even the most entrenched congregations or church bodies invested in innovation? What if every follower of Jesus thought part of their job was discovering new ways of following and new ways of connecting in their local communities? What if even the most conservative in theology and practice still made it their job to foster a local “innovation factory” for the Gospel?

OK; there’s something wonderful and right about that term “innovation factory” for finding new ways of following Jesus and connecting to new people; and there’s also something not quite right…

I like the idea that a factory pumps out a product in regular and consistent ways; to think of innovation as something new and different and exciting and tenuous as the regular product of a standard process makes me excited to see if we could actually build the structures and practices that would lead to regular and consistent new ideas and methods and insights when it comes to Christian discipleship and mission.

But I also know that we have a natural tendency to turn the life-on-life discipling journey I think Jesus had in mind (as you go, disciple the nations) into an efficient and standardized process done by professionals (go, make disciples of the nations). So I think we should probably avoid “factory” language in the church.

So what language might we use?

seedbed
What if we imagined every congregation, every small group Bible study, every home and neighborhood where Jesus has planted his Word as a seedbed of discipleship? And several of those seedbeds together could then comprise an innovation greenhouse, a greenhouse of grace.

You can run experiments in a greenhouse to see which methods produce growth in which conditions. You would expect all kinds of variety of growth and would celebrate all of it while still observing and sharing what you learn in the process. You would even still expect regular patterns and consistent innovations, innovations you wouldn’t necessarily be able to control or even predict, but innovations that arise from the growth you are intentionally seeking to promote.

greenhouse

Maybe what the Church needs is more seedbeds of discipleship in innovative greenhouses of grace. Maybe we need to try out some different ways of imagining daily Bible study or prayer. Maybe we need an environment free of the pressure to get it right that can serve as playground and laboratory for those who desperately want to connect to Jesus, and connect other people to Jesus, in ways that resonate in our current culture.

Maybe we need teams of holy horticulturalists like Paul and Apollos who will plant and water, fully aware that it is the Spirit who grants growth; and fully aware that the planting and watering still matter, and that some new methods of planting and some innovative approaches to watering may be necessary when the soil’s pH is all over the board and drought conditions seem to be worsening.

We need a firm foundation of salvation by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. (Happy Reformation!) And we need to find ways to promote and normalize innovation for the sake of the Gospel, even in our most entrenched congregations or church bodies.

We have to discover new ways of faithfully being Church, new ways of faithfully following Jesus into his world, so that we can connect with people who are disinterested in the Gospel and distrustful of the Church.

We need innovation factories that can run experiments and bring new tools to our proclamation of the Gospel. We need seedbeds of discipleship lovingly cared for in innovative greenhouses of grace.

Sign me up. Anyone else want to play?

 

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Please Pass the Potatoes

This blog is a response to  A Full Table for Empty People written by my friend Steve Wiechman of Breathe Life Ministries. You really should go read that and then come back here…

Anyone who came of age in a Culture of Certainty, say, before November 22, 1963 (the day JFK was assassinated), can sometimes find it difficult to doubt the media, the experts, or the Church. I think, in general, politics and email scams have beaten the best parts of that naïveté out of our culture, but it feels really risky to doubt your theology or your pastor or your church; and if you actually aren’t completely certain all the time, you can’t dare to doubt it at all.

Anyone born in 1972 or later (that’s the start of the Watergate scandal and toward the end of the ongoing, escalating crisis in Vietnam that had started way back in 1955)–anyone born post-Vietnam, post-Watergate grew up in a Culture of Skepticism and can find it unreasonable to trust the media, the experts, or the Church.

Steve and I were both born in 1972.

I think Steve is right on, and I love the way he leads with his own vulnerability and struggle while still clinging to faith and hope. That makes him a reliable witness to someone like me. And if we are going to reach real people in an ongoing Culture of Skepticism, I think we will have to lead by combining authentic vulnerability, struggle, and doubt with authentic trust, delight, and dependence on Jesus.

Steve, I am on board; sign me and my baggage up for the adventure.

AND I just want to point out that people raised in a Culture of Certainty may find this adventure almost incomprehensible: why in the world would you want to share your uncertainty? You are supposed to get rid of or hide any doubt, aren’t you? You are making our witness weak!

At the same time, people raised in a Culture of Skepticism will find the “just believe it” attitude of Certainty to be inauthentic and damaging to the faith: why in the world would you want to hide your uncertainty? You can’t get rid of your questions by hiding them, only by bringing them into the light! You are making our witness weak!

I believe what Steve says in his blog applies to everyone, not just people born after 1972. As Certainty continues to erode, more and more people who grew up with a cultural knee-jerk to trust will find the world less and less reliable. Even my dear old dad doesn’t download free software or send money to African princes anymore, and hardly any of his friends wire him money when he sends an emergency email from a jail in the Philippines…

But even though I believe a humble faith posture is the only viable one moving forward, I want to notice how we are likely to have different reactions to that truth depending on how we were brought up. So there has to be room at the table even for people who think faith and life should be way more certain than they currently are, who love and long for the comfort that comes with confidence AND room for those who are burdened by the standard of certainty and confidence and who are doing the best they can just to cling to hope.

Mashed PotatoesWe might sit at different ends of the table, but we have to figure out how to pass the mashed potatoes. And not condemn the people at the other end who never really cared for the cranberry sauce.

I love you, Steve. I am with you in this. Let’s go be broken for Jesus! And please pass the potatoes…

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Beloved, Just Lost

It dawned on me in my devotion time just the other day that we usually think the Prodigal Son was OUT and then back IN again; outside the Kingdom and then back inside, where the family belongs.

That view of the Prodigal Son aligns with the Story of Salvation in 2 Acts, a common, biblical, and faithful way of talking about God’s action for us in Jesus. The Story of Salvation in 2 Acts opens with the sinful state of a fallen world, and then moves from Wrath to Delight: we are on the OUT-side, blind, dead, enemies; and then, because of Jesus, we are heirs, beloved, IN the family.

But the way Jesus tells the parable, the Prodigal goes from being a loved son at home, to a loved son in a foreign country, to a loved son back home again. That’s the Story of Salvation in 3 Acts: a biblical, faithful, and less common way of talking about God’s action for us in Jesus. (Less common for us–not for the Bible. I haven’t done the word count, but as I read around Scripture, I think the split is about 50/50.) The 3-Act version begins with the Very Good creation before the Fall and moves from Delight, to Longing, to More Delight; from Mine with Joy, to Mine but Lost to Me, to Mine Again with Rejoicing.

This second way the Bible has for telling the story shows up in themes like Ransom, Redemption, or Treasured Possession rather than the 2-Act themes of Atonement, Substitution, or Covering Over. (I’m devoting a whole chapter in a book I am writing to those two different ways of talking. I’m hoping that book on God’s delight will be out next spring. If you can’t wait that long, you can hear me teach about the Salvation Drama in 2 Acts or 3 Acts here, or preach about it here.)

Noticing that the Scriptures can talk in both of these distinct ways has helped open up different passages for me. In fact, in the text at hand, I think the exact point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders (or between the father and the older son in the parable) is what kind of Story of Salvation this is. Is this the Salvation Drama in 2 Acts, or in 3?

According to Jesus, the father sends away a son, then recognizes the son far off, and runs to him and treats him as a son, and rejoices over him as a son, and never calls him anything but son: Mine, Mine but Lost to Me, Mine Again with Rejoicing.

Both of the sons disagree with the father on that point: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. I am out of the family, out of the kingdom,” the Prodigal says. The older brother agrees and disavows their filial relationship: “This son of yours…” he says to the father.  Both sons are assuming the 2 Act dynamics of IN/OUT rather than MINE, MINE but LOST, MINE and FOUND with delight.

Bird on wire smaller(Side note: my thesis is that, while Jesus does use the In and Out dichotomy, he only ever uses it in the context of what happens at the End Times, and never for the here and now time. So you can separate the wheat and the tares, and both exist already now, but you can’t separate the two until the End, because for now you can’t even tell them apart. There are both Sheep and Goats, yes; and they will end up either In or Out; yes. But that’s the Last Judgement, not the Now Judgement.)

The only character in the parable who is in any danger of being OUT when it comes to the Eschatological Banquet is the older son, who refuses to go IN to join the party. In the father’s eyes, the younger son was never OUT of the family, even when he wished the father dead and ran off with his inheritance; not even when he was eating with pigs.

Even then, he remained a beloved son who was lost. Like the lost sheep and the lost coin, the lost son never lost his identity or his value, even when he thought he had. And the return of sheep, coin, and son is a cause of celebration.

So when Jesus says, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance,” (Luke 15), he can’t mean, “There is joy in heaven when an OUT-sider finally crosses the barrier and comes IN.” Instead, I think Jesus has to mean: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God when the precious person who belongs to me, but was lost to me, is finally mine again…”

In the context of Luke 15, Jesus is hanging out with sinners and getting an earful from the older brother types. I now think the parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son tell us more than I originally perceived.

The sheep was never NOT the shepherd’s sheep; the coin was never an enemy deserving wrath. These people, these sinners, are not the bad guys, the evil ones, the enemies of God; they belong to God, and he treasures them, and it is appropriate both to seek them as if they were valuable and to rejoice when they come home.

Even while they are sinners, they aren’t OUT. Or at least, not yet. Maybe that lost sheep is actually a goat, that wheat is really a tare. We’ll find out for sure in the End Times Judgment.

In the meantime, the way Jesus lives out the Kingdom, you value the daughters and sons like beloved children the father longs for and earnestly seeks, even when they are eating with pigs.

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