Month: February 2008

Sermon coming, I promise

Busy week, as was yours, I am sure.  So, I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m running behind, again.  I’m sure others never do, but for me it seems to be chronic.  Anyway, the sermon will be up tomorrow.  Which is Saturday, so watch for it in your feed reader.  Coming soon.  Promise.  I just need write it first.

Watching the economy while tending the flock

On November 21, I posted If gas hits $4/gal, what will your church do? Comments indicated some thought it was not going to be a problem, others were keeping a close eye on economic developments. This week 5 economic items of interest all converged:

  1. Low consumer confidence. According to government economists, if consumers spend less, then fewer goods are purchased, fewer manufactured, more jobs lost, and unemployment rises. Consumer confidence hit a 5-year low this reporting period.
  2. Rising gas prices. Oil routinely closes above $100/barrel now. $4 per gallon gas is predicted for this spring. Consumers will likely conserve by making fewer trips, and church might be one of the places less traveled to.
  3. The subprime mortgage crisis. Note that banks, mortgage holders, and investment banks are writing down billions of dollars in bad loans. Most economists believe this is far from over, with lots of foreclosures, tight credit, and more banks in trouble.
  4. Weak dollar. I don’t understand a lot about economics, but I get this one from my international travels. When you enter a foreign country, you exchange your good ole US dollars for local currency. A weaker dollar “buys” less foreign currency, therefore you have less money to spend. Other implications also exist, particularly in our national debt, but those aren’t good either.
  5. Recession talk. It’s out there — the R-word. Recession is being talked about for all the reasons I mention above, and then some.

What does this mean for churches? Churches that practice good stewardship will have fewer problems. Churches that have borrowed to fund building expansion or other projects might face some difficulty. I believe we are in a period of economic uncertainty, and churches would be wise to watch the economic indicators all around them.

Our church is in an area that is undergoing tremendous economic change, and it does affect churches here. Lost jobs, lost wages translate into fewer contributions, plus families move to take jobs in other communities. So, churches can lose not just money, but members, too. What do you see happening in your community? Are your members discussing economics? Are companies in your area hiring or laying off? What steps is your church taking, if any, to weather an economic slowdown?

Millennials and the church: Is there hope for reaching them?

Millennial Makeover I just finished reading Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics. The authors, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, contend that Millennials will reshape American politics, possibly as early as this election in 2008. Millenials are the newest generation, born 1982-2003, and were given their generational name by the book, Millennials Rising: The Next Generation, published in 2000.

I was so captivated by Millennial Makeover, that I ordered 4 books by Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Millennials Rising, and the experts in the field of generational studies. I’ll pull together some thoughts on all these books as I read through them, but let me tell you why I have this new, urgent interest in this newest generation. Read this paragraph and I think you’ll understand:

Overall, only 12 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheist or agnostic or don’t identify with any particular religious tradition. This number is up by just four percentage points since 1987. But age differences in lack of religious belief or affiliation are striking. Within the oldest American generations, the last remaining members of the GI and Silent Generations, just five percent are secular or unaffiliated. That number rises to about one in ten among Baby Boomers to 15 percent of Gen-Xers, and nearly one in five (19%) among Millennials — almost four times the percentage of nonbelievers as existed within the GI and Silent Generations. — Millennial Makeover, p89.

One out of five Millennials — almost 20% — claim no religious affiliation or belief. We have our work cut out for us, we of the church clan. But, it will have to be a different kind of work than we have ever done before. I’m creating a new category (Millennials) and will post thoughts about Millennials and the church in the days ahead.

I am very interested in what you and your church are doing to reach this generation that is now 5-to-26 years of age. Are existing churches going to reach Millennials? Will it take completely new forms of church, like the emerging church scene, to engage this generation? What do you think? What solutions do you see? Or, do you think we’ll continue to lose ground with each new generation?

Creative worship resource

Jonny Baker is one of the most hagar.jpgcreative guys I have seen when it  comes to worship.  He has an on-going list of ‘worship tricks’ that amaze, inspire, and provoke thought.  I really like this one posted up on freshworship.org titled, Hagar Blessing.  Jonny calls it ‘the God who sees.’ 

Changing the story

Seth Godin has an excellent post on marketing in a recession. His point is this:

“When times are good, buyingSeth Godin things is a sport. It’s a reward. The story we tell ourselves is that we deserve it, that we want it and why not?

When the mass psychology changes and times are seen as not so good, the story we tell ourselves changes as well. Now, we buy out of defense, to avoid trouble. Or we buy because something will never be as cheap again. Or we buy smaller items for the same sense of reward.

Of course, the two different extremes can lead you to buy the very same thing. It’s not the thing so much as it’s the story.” — Seth Godin

What does this have to do with church? We’re in the story business.   We need to tell the story of God so those who hear it change the story they tell themselves about God. Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus But Not The Church, has some clues for us.  But here are some examples of how we can help others change the story they tell themselves:

  1. Their story: “The church doesn’t respect other points of view.” Change this story by actually getting to know some non-church people, not to get them to come to church, but just to be their friend. Listen to them, treat them with respect, back off on the hard-sell, and hear what they are saying. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to listen until you can understand their viewpoint.
  2. Their story: “The church is only interested in me for my money, time, etc.” We are guilty of this often. We see people as prospects, potential church members. What if we saw and related to them as people? Period. What if we served with no thought of anything that might benefit us or our ministry?
  3. Their story: “I don’t need God. I can handle life on my own.”  Here I would tell my story. I’m glad they can handle life, but I find God’s direction, guidance, and purpose to be essential to living my life. No argument, no debate — just two people telling their stories to each other.

The old approach to evangelism was a sales pitch — present the gospel, ask for a commitment, overcome objections, close the deal.   A better way is for the other person to change the story they tell themselves; then, they’re open to finding a new story. Maybe the one you’ve found. What do you think? Is this too indirect? Any experiences to share with helping people change the story they tell themselves?

Sermon for Sunday, Feb 24, 2008: Water from the Rock

Water From The Rock, Exodus 17:1-7
1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”5 The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah [a] and Meribah [b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Our Too-Small Imagination

Have you ever noticed how we human beings seem to imagine things that we’ve never seen on a scale much smaller than they really are? I remember the first time I flew to California in the 1980s. As we were somewhere over the southwestern United States, the pilot announced, “The Grand Canyon will be coming up on your left shortly.” Fortunately, I was seated by the window on the left-side of the plane, so I had a commanding view. Now, I had been to New Mexico, and we had lived in Texas when I was a child, so I was not totally unfamiliar with the landscape of the southwest. Lots of wild, craggy mountain ranges, separated by lots of vast, arid desert. So, from our height of probably 30,000 feet, I expected to see the Grand Canyon looking sort of like a big ditch in the ground below.

Sure enough, as the plane flew on, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was the Grand Canyon. Okay, it looked like I thought it would — a big ditch with a southwestern attitude. But, as we flew on, the real Grand Canyon came into view, and kept coming, and coming, and getting bigger and bigger. This was no ditch. This was a wonder of nature and time. A carved natural masterpiece more immense than I had ever imagined, even from 30,000 feet up.

We had a similar experience when our girls were small. I was teaching at Glorieta Baptist Conference Center in New Mexico one summer for three weeks. My schedule allowed us to take afternoon trips to places of interest close by. We saw Bandelier National Monument, home to cliff dwelling native Americans hundreds of years ago. We travelled in to Santa Fe and saw the native American craftsmen and artisans selling handmade silver-and-turquoise jewelry. All of those experiences were pretty much what we expected, and very interesting at that.

I had heard of an extinct volcano caldera — the center of the volcano — and thought it would be great to take our girls there to see it. None of us had ever seen a volcano before, even an extinct one, so one day we packed into the car and headed toward the site. Debbie was navigating with map in hand, the kids were peering over the back seat in anticipation of catching the first glimpse of the cone-shape of the volcano itself. But, we drove and drove and drove. According to the map, we should have seen the volcano by that time. But, no volcano. After driving about 20-miles in the vicinity of the volcanic caldera, we stopped and asked a National Park Ranger for directions. I got out of the car and walked over to him, and said, “We’re looking for the caldera. Can you tell me how to get to it?” He just looked at me and replied, “You’ve been driving in it for the last 20-miles.” Then, he pointed to a far distant landmark further down and said, “It goes on for several more miles in that direction.”

We were both stunned and disappointed. Stunned at the immense size — we were actually driving inside an old extinct volacano base. But, disappointed that there was not cone-shaped mountain with lava running down the side to see. We had imagined it much too small.

Our Too-Small Biblical Imagination

We have a similar problem when we come to this story today. It’s the story of God providing water for the nation of Israel as they were on the first leg of their Exodus from Egypt. Here’s the story:

The nation of Israel, with Moses as its leader, has left Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea on dry land, and slipped through the clutches of Pharaoh and his army. They are now on their way to the land of promise, the land God is taking them to. We aren’t sure how many were in the long procession from Egypt, but the Bible says that “600,000 men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.”

Assuming that each male had at least 2 or 3 corresponding women and children — who could have been mothers, sisters, wives, and brothers — the numbers of Israelites could easily have been 1.2-to-1.8 million people. Then, there are the “many other people” who also went with them, who might have been other foreigners, Egyptians who had married into their families, traders, and others wanting to escape Pharaoh’s brutality. So, we could have a small country of people, maybe 2 million, traveling together.

The writer of Genesis says they were accompanied by “large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” This is natural for an agrarian economy, which is what Israel had. They lived off the land, and an important part of their economy were their flocks of sheep, and herds of goats and cattle. These domesticated animals provided the ancient equivalent of “horse-power” to plow fields, grind grain, haul mud and straw for the making of bricks; plus, they were a source of milk, cheese, meat, and clothing. And, it obviously took more than one animal per household, probably even more than one per person, to sustain their way of life. Let’s estimate the flocks and herds at 3-4 million sheep, goats, and cattle. We will not even bother with chickens, ducks, geese, dogs, cats and any other farm animals that might have been among their furry or feathered friends.

This massive population of people had already encountered one water crisis at Marah, where the water was bitter. Bitter might have meant “unfit” for human or animal consumption, not just bad tasting. So bad, that no one could drink it. The people immediately began to grumble — “What are we to drink?” Except I think it was a lot more heated than that, and a lot more intense, because Moses “cries out to the Lord.” Moses doesn’t just pray, or ask, or seek — he cries out! “Help!”

God shows Moses a piece of wood. The wood is not important here, but Moses’ obedience is. Moses throws the piece of wood into the water. Miraculously, the water becomes “sweet” — drinkable. For all 2-million people, and 3-4 million cows, sheep, goats, chickens, dogs, cats, geese, ducks, and gerbils. Or whatever else wanted a drink. Plus, they need to find more. So, God takes them to Elim where there are “12 springs and seventy palm trees.” Twelve springs, twelve tribes — one for each tribe. Enough for everybody, in other words. Crisis averted.

Next we come to the story of the manna and the quail. God sends quail to cover the camp and the next morning the manna is there where the quail have been. You know this story — and all they have to do is pick it up off the ground everyday, and a double portion before the Sabbath because it doesn’t appear on the Sabbath. Chapter 16 ends with the writer of Exodus telling us that “The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled.” The amazing thing is that later, they want to eat the quail. And, apparently, the quail are providing the manna. That is the ultimate case of wanting eat the goose that laid the golden egg. But, that’s not our story today.

Back to the water crisis. So, now they’ve come to Rephidim in the Desert of Sin. Not “sin” like we’ve done something wrong, but a place name — there was actually a city in Egypt named Sin, but this is not near it. Maybe the name is taken from the same root as Sinai, but we don’t know. But, even though the name doesn’t mean “we’ve done something wrong,” they do something wrong. They complain and quarrel with Moses because there is no water, again.

You might think that the people who have seen God provide water for them by changing bitter water to sweet, and then leading them to 12 streams among 70 palms would believe God could do it again. But, they don’t. You might think that the same people who have been fed by God everyday that they have been on this journey from Egypt to the land of promise, might believe that God would provide for them again. But they don’t. Instead they say to Moses —

Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thrist?”

Again, Moses cries out to the Lord. This time God says,

Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”

Of course, Moses does as God directs, and water springs from the rock.

How Much Water Is That?

Now, this is where our imagination needs expanding. How much water? Usually, when we picture this scene, Moses stands on the rock and strikes it with his staff, and a stream of water gushes forth. But, we’re providing water for 2-million people and 3-4 million animals. That’s a lot of water. Let’s say everybody gets a gallon of water. That’s the recommended 8-glasses per day for each person. Plus, animals get a gallon. That’s 5-6 million gallons just for one day! And, they are there for 3-months according to Exodus 19:1. That’s 90-days x 6-million gallons — that’s 540-million gallons of water before they move on. But, the actual numbers are even higher than that.

Let’s take Georgia’s Lake Lanier, which serves Atlanta and north Georgia. Listen to these statistics from the website,Atlanta Water Shortage:

The watershed for Lake Lanier is around 1,040 square miles (the “watershed” is the land area that drains back into the lake).

First we need to figure out how much water we’re talking about if 1″ of rain fell. There are 27,878,400 square feet in a mile. Dividing that by 12 would tell us how many cubic feet of rain fall per square mile: 2,323,200. Converting that into gallons (2,323,200 * 7.48 gal/cubic ft) gives us 17,377,536 gallons of water per square miles. So, if we have 1,040 square miles of area, each receiving 17.38 million gallons, that’s a total of about 18 billion gallons that could potentially find its way into Lake Lanier.

From here it gets much trickier. How much of that rain will make it to Lanier? There’s no way to tell. All of it will make it other than what evaporates or is used by a human or animal. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 25% of the water makes it to the lake — that’s about 4.5 billion gallons.

Ok, so 4.5 billion gallons goes into the lake. What does that do for us? Well, we know that the lake loses just over a billion gallons a day, so we can say that 4.5 billion gallons would give us about 5 days worth of water.

My point in all of this is — this is torrent of water, not just a little stream. God provides enough water for millions of people, plus animals by having Moses strike the rock.

A Bigger Imagination for God’s Love

Do you see why our imagination is too small? God provides a torrent of flowing water that is drinkable and remains so as long as the people need it. Now, let’s turn our attention to Jesus and his conversation with the woman at the well, our Gospel reading from John 4 today. We don’t have time to examine every detail of this story, but here’s the important part.

On a trip through Samaria, Jesus stops to rest in the heat of the noonday sun at Jacob’s well in Sychar. A Samaritan woman is there, trying to draw water, and Jesus engages her in conversation by asking her for a drink of water. She replies –

Samaritan woman: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
Jesus replies — “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

Living water is running water, not well-water. Water that is ever-renewed, a stream of water, not a still or stagnant pond or lake. Living water is dynamic, oxygenated, invigorating, life-giving. Living water never stops flowing, which Jesus explains to the woman as he says –

Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

An endless supply, with no end either of volume or of duration. A limitless supply, greater than we can imagine.

A Promise Never To Destroy The World By Water, Again

After God destroys the earth by the flood, and saves only Noah and his family and the creatures on the ark, God makes a covenant with Noah by placing a rainbow in the sky –

Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. — Genesis 9:14-15

God promises never again to destroy all life with water. But, what God does instead, is give life to all through living water. God gave life to the nation of Israel through water from the rock. Jesus said to woman at the well, “the water I give him will become in him a spring of water, welling up into eternal life.”

How big is our imagination about God’s love? Do we believe that God loves us enough to provide enough water for all those who are spiritually-thirsty? Do we believe that God’s provision of living water is unending? Do we understand that there is enough and more for all of God’s creation?

During this Lenten season, is our imagination that of the nation of Israel? Doubtful about the ability of God to care for His people? Moses recorded in Exodus 17:7, that the people asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Is the Lord among us or not? If he is, what do we have to worry about? If he is not, what do we have to live for?

Believing the Story, Living in the Stream

Recently, I heard about a new book that had just been published, titled, Irreligion, by John Allen Paulos. Dr. Paulos is a mathematician at Temple University in Philadelphia, and an atheist by his own admission. In the book, Dr. Paulos takes on the 12-classic logical arguments for the existence of God, and to his own satisfaction, disproves each one. His conclusion is that there are no logical reasons to believe in God.

I made a passing reference to the book on my blog one day. To my amazement, I got a personal email from Dr. Paulos suggesting that I might actually want to read at least one chapter of his book, which I could do for free online. So, I took him up on his offer. I read the chapter and thought it was well-written.

I then offered to read and review the book on my blog, since I had referred to it previously. Dr. Paulos had the publisher send me a copy, which I read and wrote a review for. In the review I said that I thought Dr. Paulos made some good points, and that the book was well-written and he had done Christians a favor by telling us what atheists thought about our arguments for God. Dr. Paulos was so surprised by the review, that he emailed me and offered to buy me dinner should I ever come to Philadelphia. I fully intend to take him up on his offer, and here’s why: While I think he did a marvelous job of poking holes in the logical arguments for God, I don’t agree with him that there is no good reason to believe in the existence of God.

I believe God exists, not because science or math can prove or disprove God, but because I believe the story of God. I believe God created this world, and that it is good. I believe that God is active in this world, calling his creation and creatures back to him. I believe that God guides, provides, cares, loves, and saves us. I believe that the God who can provide water to a rag-tag group of grumblers on the way from Egypt to the promised land, is the same God who provides a well of living water to those on spiritual journeys today. A well that springs up, not just to quinch an immediate thirst, but a well that springs up into eternal life. A well that never runs dry, a stream that never fails, a source that always satisfies.

I believe in this God despite all those who have “proven” that he does not exist, does not care, is not powerful, is not good, is not here. I believe in this God who had Moses strike the rock once, and sent Jesus to the cross once. I believe in this God who calls people out of bondage into freedom, out of slavery into life, out of darkness into light, out of despair into hope. I have believed in this God since before I can remember, and gave my life to him when I was six years old. I believe in this God because in my life, springs of living water have sprung up. They have sprung up when I was faithful, and when I complained. They have sprung up when I was thirsty, and when I was self-satisfied. They have sprung up, and continue to spring up in my life. I am convinced that they will spring up without pause or end, until they spring up in eternity.

John says, “The Spirit and the bride say Come! And let him who hears say, Come! Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Amen and amen.

Sent Into The Desert: A Lenten Meditation

Tomorrow I bring the lenten meditation for the second of our Lenten lunches. I hope this helps you find your own desert during this Lenten season.

Sent Into The Desert

Mark 1:12-13
13And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Seeing Lent from a new perspective

We are now in the second week of Lent, approaching the third. Lent is a 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, not counting Sundays, which is a time of confession, repentance, and reflection. The 40-days is taken from the 40-days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, but before he began what we call his “earthly ministry.” Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose-driven Life, challenged readers to read one chapter of the book for a period of 40-days for their own life-changing experience. Warren cited the significance of 40-days in the Bible:

  • the great flood lasted for 40-days and 40-nights;
  • Moses was on the mountain of God for 40-days and 40-nights;
  • Elijah spent 40-days fleeing from Ahab, but found God in the process;
  • Jonah preached to Nineveh for 40-days;
  • Jesus spends 40-days in the wilderness; and,
  • Jesus appears to his disciples during a 40-day period after his resurrection.

So, this period of time — 40-days — is significant in the stories of the Bible, and so that gets a lot of attention. Add to the story of Jesus in the wilderness the fact that Jesus fasted all those 40-days makes it all the more impressive. At our house we have trouble going without food for 40-minutes!

But, as interesting as the significance of the 40-days is in all of these stories, I don’t think that’s the main point of the story that Mark tells us. Mark’s account of Jesus temptation is the shortest and most concise of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Do you know what I think the main point is? Are you ready?

I think the main point is that Jesus goes into the wilderness. Not forty days, not temptation, not the devil, but the wilderness itself.

Mark says the Spirit was at Jesus’ baptism, affirming God’s pleasure; and, then immediately, the Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness.

Now, some folks might say, “But, Jesus goes there to fast and pray.” Well, he could have done that in the city, or in his hometown, or even the Temple in Jerusalem. To which others might say, “But, the devil had to tempt him.” And, that is certainly true. Jesus was tempted or tested, more accurately, by the devil. But, that could have been done in the city, and actually the devil and Jesus wind up in Jerusalem on a pinnacle of the Temple in the last temptation! So, Jesus didn’t have to be in the wilderness to fast or pray or be tempted or even encounter the devil.

But, the Spirit sends, drives, him into the wilderness. Mark says Jesus was with the wild beasts, was tempted by the devil, and the angels came and waited on him. All in the wilderness.

The wilderness as spiritual journey

So, it’s the wilderness, not the 40-days, that’s the main focus here. And, wilderness, or desert, has a history in the stories of the Bible as stellar as that of the 40-days.

  • Moses is on the backside of the desert, avoiding God, when he encounters God in a burning bush;
  • Israel wanders in the desert, taking a 40-year detour to the Promised Land;
  • God feeds Israel manna in the desert;
  • Elijah, on that 40-day journey to Horeb, goes to the desert where he meets God in the still small voice.
  • Isaiah speaks of streams in the desert, and the prophets speak of the desert blooming like a rose.
  • John the Baptist preaches in the desert, and multitudes flock to hear him.
  • Jesus is led, driven, by the Spirit — by God — into the desert.
  • The Essenes, one of the three prominent Jewish religious societies, establishes their settlement in the desert.

So, the desert, or the wilderness, figures prominently in spiritual formation in the lives of people whom God is calling. Even as the early church in the the 3rd and 4th centuries was already growing cold and lax, a group called The Desert Fathers — and there were Desert Mothers, too — left the great cities where church bishops vied for political power to find spiritual vitality in the deserts of Egypt and Syria and other parts of northern Africa.

Why the desert?

When the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Piedmont, South Carolina, wanted a mural painted in their baptistry, they asked my grandmother to paint it. She and my grandfather had been members there for half their adult lives, and now they are both buried in the church cemetery across the road. My grandmother was a remarkable woman who had an 8th grade education. But, Marguerite Callaham Warnock was born with a sense of artistry and style that exceeded her formal training. She started collecting beautiful antiques — giant poster beds, massive sideboards, and museum quality tables — long before it was fashionable to do so. And, in her 60s she taught herself to paint.

So, when Mt. Pisgah needed a baptistry mural, Marguerite Warnock was called upon. But, she wanted it to be authentic, so she asked her son — my father — to send her photographs of the Jordan River from my parents’ latest trip to the Holy Land. From those photographs, she painted the baptistry mural. She did a marvelous job, accurate to the last detail. But, some of the church folks didn’t like it. Why? Because it looked like the desert. Most of them had images in their heads of lush greenery, verdant trees, palms, and undergrowth sprouting up from the banks of the Jordan River. But, the reality was, it was desert. A few scruffy palmetto-looking plants, a lot of dirt, and a small river.

Well, our idea of the desert in this story is just as wrong as the picture some of the members of the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church had in their heads. We have often thought of the desert that Jesus went into as a bad place — a dismal place of deprivation, hardship, and temptation. But, the Spirit sends Jesus there. Why? Because he can be with God without distraction. No food, no crowds, no questions, no disciples, no interference from the Pharisees, nothing to keep him from God.

But, “I thought he was with the devil” you might say. Oh, the devil came around. But, Mark tells us he was really with the wild beasts. And, I don’t think the scene is a replay of Daniel in the lions’ den. I think Mark is making a theological statement here. Jesus was with the wild beasts, and he doesn’t get eaten. Jesus was with the wild beasts and they don’t attack him. Jesus was with the wild beasts and he’s safe. His only adversary in the desert is the devil, who ultimately takes him from the desert back to the city. The desert becomes the place that Jesus encounters the wildness of God’s creation in all its untamed glory. The desert becomes Eden again, fallen maybe, but not forsaken. The desert becomes the place Jesus begins to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

The wild beasts, the animals, leave him unharmed. The angels come and wait on him. The desert becomes a temple, the place where the purpose of God for his creation triumphs over the forces of evil, greed, depravity, and sin. The desert becomes the highway for our God that Isaiah spoke of, for it is not only John the Baptist who proclaims that prophetic word, but Jesus who fulfills it.

The desert in modern culture

We have long thought that wilderness, nature, the desert, was a place of spiritual renewal. John Burroughs, a naturalist and farmer of the late 1800s spoke of his “divinity school days in the mountains” which he said help us develop “sharp eyes” to see nature’s dramas, and the ability to interpret what we see. Back to the land agrarians like Wendell Berry echo Burrough’s sentiments.

And, adults aren’t the only ones who benefit from going into the wildernenes. In his book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that children are missing the wonder of nature, and connection with the mysteries of life because most no longer play outdoors. One child, when asked where he liked to play, said, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

There was a time when we lived with nature as part of our daily routine. Now we do everything we can to insulate ourselves from nature. We close our windows, drive instead of walk, whiz past trees at speeds to fast to see them, and live our lives in what we think is the safety and security of controlled environments. But, we need the wilderness.

Our desert during this Lenten season

So, not only is this Lenten season a 40-day period, it is a time when we seek our desert. A time when we ask the Spirit to drive us into the presence of God in all his wild and glorious beauty. A time when we are stripped of the easy and the familiar and the distracting, and find the God of the universe who makes all things new.

I’m reading a book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America. Berry is a farmer, a Christian, and a writer who has been writing about the society in which we live for about 40-years now. One of the things Berry says is that when we quit caring about the land, creation, we began to lose our way as a people. Of the land, Berry writes –

This is the justice that we are learning from the ecologists: you cannot damage what you are dependent upon without damaging yourself. — The Unsettling of America, p 116.

If the Spirit drives us into the wilderness this Lenten season, it may be to reconnect with God by taking a walk in the woods, or watching the birds find new homes, or being whipsawed by the whirl of the winds of spring. But, undoubtedly, it will be to find God by living with his creation, rather than listening to ours.

Some folks give up things for Lent, feeling that by doing so they follow the experience of Christ as he fasted. But, my point today is that we have already given up too much. We have given up our connection with God’s creation, and now value nature as a scenic destination, rather than as God’s creation. Our prayer should be that we are driven into the wilderness to encounter God as Moses did in a burning bush, as Elijah did in the still small voice, as John the Baptist did in animals skins and a diet of locusts and wild honey. Until we spend time in the desert, with the untamed God of creation, we cannot come into his presence in the comfort of the Temple.

Ideas that can change your ministry

From around blogdom, some good ideas that have translation potential for churches:

  1. 20/20 powerpoints — Kevin Kelley points to a new trend among business presenters to limit their presentation to 20-slides that flash for no more than 20-seconds each. Total presentation time: 6-1/2 minutes. Do I hear “sermon” anybody?
  2. Renaming — Seth Godin suggests that human resource (HR) departments change their name to “Talent.” Godin thinks this raises the perception of employees from a commodity (resource) to an integral part of a company’s mission. Churches might want to rename “prospects” or “lost” or other names for outsiders with new names like “friends” or “guests” or “neighbors.” Radical, huh?
  3. Self-supporting ministry — Andrew Jones has written a nice piece on self-supporting ministry, calling on the writing of Henry Venn of a century ago. Jones picks up on the “fourth sector” label, and applies it to ministry today. The church-as-abbey picks up the same idea from Celtic Christian abbeys that sustained themselves, and provided economic benefit to the community they served. Rather than ask for donations, ministry can actually make enough to support its own operation. Remember tent-making?
  4. Spirit2go — Steve Taylor creates worship and art experiences like nobody else. He’s way down there in New Zealand, but what a creative guy. Spirit2go is for Lent this year (okay, I’m a little late getting this up), and was designed for people who don’t come into the church. Check out his stuff, you’ll think differently afterward.
  5. Books — Suzanne posts up a nice list of books for the “small membership” church, which is a term I like, but has too many syllables.

That’s it for today. Let me know what you think of any or all. Be warm and well-fed.

A simple life

edenspathhhouse2.jpg Eden’s Path – detail of our house from a painting by Debbie.

Debbie and I created a new blog to record our journey toward a simpler life. Eden’s Path features the practical things we are doing to spend less, enjoy life more, and live in the rhythm of God’s grace.

The name, Eden’s Path, comes from an old Celtic Christian saying that life on this earth is like living with “one foot in Eden.” We believe that God’s creation is good, that we live with the earth, not just on it. We’re also trying to consume less, despite the encouragement of our government for us to spend more. Evermore growth will not solve our spiritual, social, or economic problems. Being better stewards of God’s gifts to us will, we believe.

So, if you have time, stop over. We mostly are telling the stories about what we’re doing to find the simple life of faith, hope, and dreams. I’m not sure if it will take us to Eden, but at least we’ll be on the path.

Sermon for Sunday, Feb 17, 2008: Born From Above

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 17, 2008, the second Sunday in Lent. The text is John 3:1-17, and the title is “Born From Above.” Hope you have a great day tomorrow!

Born From AboveJohn 3:1-17 (NRSV)

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

What We Think We Know About This Text

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, and we come to a very familiar Gospel reading today. This passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3, contains what is probably the most famous verse in the New Testament — John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Immediately, we think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I know what that means. God loves me, Jesus died for me, and I have accepted him, so I’m saved.” And, certainly those ideas are there in John 3:16. But, the verses that surround this most famous verse give us the real clues to what this conversation was really all about. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, maybe because he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, or maybe he waited for a time when the crowds around Jesus had drifted back to their homes for the evening. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus is certainly the nicest Pharisee we meet on the pages of the New Testament. Now, before we get into the story, I want to offer a disclaimer, and here it is: I’m using the phrase “born from above” intentionally, rather than “born again.” The text can be translated either way, but the term “born again” has taken on meanings that aren’t here in the text.

“Born again” has come to mean a person has had an experience of being saved. But, it has also come to mean “born again” Christians from evangelical churches versus mainline Christians from Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, and other expressions of our faith that do not place the emphasis on the “crisis experience” of becoming a Christian, but also allow for a more gradual “growing into” faith. I don’t want us to think about those distinctions today, so I’m using the term “born from above,” and I think you’ll see why as we look at this passage more closely.

The Conversation in Four Parts

Have you ever spent an evening talking to a friend, and the conversation flows from one topic to another, until finally someone says, “Well, how did we get off on that?” This conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus has that kind of flow, moving from one idea to the next related idea, until we wind up in a totally new place. Here’s the first part of the conversation:

Part 1: Born from Above

As I said a moment ago, Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus one evening and says –

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

This statement in itself is amazing. Here is a Pharisee, and a leading Pharisee at that, saying that “they” know Jesus is a teacher come from God. And, Nicodemus goes on to reinforce that statement by saying, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” This is the only time a Pharisee will come anywhere close to saying that Jesus ministry is of God. At every other encounter with Jesus, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus, challenge him on his observance of the Law of God, and prevent him from becoming more popular with the people.

So, just the act of sitting down with Jesus is a big stretch for a Pharisee, but Nicodemus not only sits with Jesus, he acknowledges that Jesus is from God, and doing the work of God.

Now at this point, you might think that Jesus would say, “Well, thank you, Nicodemus, that’s the first time a Pharisee has ever said that to me.” But, Jesus makes a strange reply that at first glance seems to have nothing to do with Nicodemus’ statement. Jesus says,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

What does that have to do with Nicodemus’ statement to Jesus. Nicodemus is not asking “how can one see the Kingdom of God?” Nicodemus is making a statement to Jesus that he believes that Jesus is from God, and that God is with Jesus as he performs signs of God’s presence. But, in reply Jesus says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

The conversation then continues on the topic of being “born” with the following exchange:

  • Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after they are old? Can they enter a second time into his mother’s womb?”
  • Jesus: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

So, the first part of the conversation is about being born from above, and Jesus explains the difference in being born “of the flesh” and being born “of the Spirit.” But, back to Nicodemus’ question — how does one get “born from above?” Jesus has the answer –

“It’s like the wind which blows where it will, and you hear the sound of the wind, but you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes.” And to make this even clearer, Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Let’s stop and recap here:

  • Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God.
  • Jesus says to see the kingdom of God, you must be born from above.
  • Nicodemus doesn’t understand.
  • Jesus says, being born from above is like the effect of the wind — you hear it, but you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going.
  • Nicodemus still doesn’t understand, and asks, “How can these things be?”

Here’s my take on this:

  • Unlike every other Pharisee, Nicodemus recognizes and confesses who Jesus is.
  • Jesus’s comment to Nicodemus is much like his comment to Peter later when Jesus asks Peter, “But who do you say I am?” To which Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” To which Jesus replies, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father has.”

I think Jesus is saying the same thing to Nicodemus. I think Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you have it exactly right. You’ve been born from above by the Spirit of God. That’ how you know who I am and what I’m about.”

Of course, all this talk about being born from above, born anew, is confusing to Nicodemus. He can’t hear what Jesus is saying to him, because he’s stuck back at the concept of being re-born. But it is the Spirit of God who has blown over Nicodemus. Nicodemus doesn’t fully realize it yet, but the evidence — his words — show that God’s Spirit has re-made him, given him new life, changed his perspective, opened his eyes, given him fresh insight into who Jesus really is. That is the work of the Spririt of God.

I know that this isn’t how most folks see this conversation, but it’s the only interpretation that makes sense out of what Nicodemus and Jesus are talking about. But, let’s look at the second part of the conversation and see if the flow continues.

Part 2: Earth and Heaven, Flesh and Spirit Meet

Jesus appears to change the subject when he says –

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

Jesus is referring to the conversation about being born of the flesh and born of the Spirit — one earthly, the other heavenly. Nicodemus obviously did not comprehend that point, so Jesus simply asks, “If you don’t believe what I’m telling you about what happens here, how can you believe about what happens in heaven?”

I heard a preacher not too long ago, I think it was David Jeremiah, who said something like, “If we believe God can save us and take us to heaven, we need to start believing that God is at work in our lives here.” Same idea. Jesus has explained to Nicodemus that being born from above, born of the Spirit, takes place here on this earth. But, Nicodemus doesn’t understand how God can do that. Jesus point is — if you don’t understand how God is at work in your life here and now, how can you possibly understand how God is at work in heaven, in eternity, in the future?

We have the same problem today. We trust God to save us in the future and take us to heaven, but we’re short on what God is doing in our lives now. Then, continuing this line of thought, Jesus says,

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended, from heaven, the Son of Man.

In other words, Jesus is saying I’ve been there, in the presence of God, and now I’m here to show you what that means. Which is another way of saying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, says that in Jesus, heaven and earth meet. And, also flesh and Spirit meet. Jesus is the intersection of God and Man, flesh and Spirit. He has been born of both physical birth, and Spiritual birth. Jesus is the new Adam, born both in the body and in the Spirit.

But, as they say in the Ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait! There’s more!”

Part 3: What Kills Us Saves Us

Jesus doesn’t stop with the notions of earth and heaven, he uses a real life example. He says,

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

What does this statement have to do with being born from above? Well, to understand that we have to understand the story that Jesus refers to, the story of the poisonous serpents, found in Numbers 21. The nation of Israel has left captivity in Egypt (the Passover), and is on their way to the Promised Land. But, the story of their getting to the Promised Land is a story of disobedience to God over and over again. We’ve been talking about that on Wednesday nights as we moved through the first books of the Old Testament. On one occasion, after having to fight their way through a particularly aggressive army, the people begin to complain to Moses — “Why have you brought out here in the wilderness to die? There’s no food, no water, and we hate this manna!”

This did not please God, and so poisonous snakes invaded the camp. If you were bitten by a snake, and many were, there was no cure. You died. Well, the people got the message real quick, and realized that their impatient complaints to Moses were disobedience to God. So, they came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” Then they asked Moses to pray to God to take away the serpents.

But God does an interesting thing — God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole. If anyone is bitten, all he has to do is look at the serpent and he’ll live. So, God doesn’t remove the snakes, but sends a way to be saved from them. Look and live!

So, that’s the story. But, what has always bothered me about that story is “Why make a bronze serpent?” Why not something else? Why did God use the thing that was killing them as their salvation? Reading this passage from John this week, I think I understand it now. And it has to do with being born of the flesh and being born of the Spirit.

Remember I said that Jesus is the only person who has been born of both flesh and Spirit? Jesus is the only one who has come down from heaven to show us what the unity of flesh and Spirit looks like? Okay, remember that point.

Now, what is the cause of our own death? Not serpents. It’s our flesh, our humanity, our willfulness, our sin. So, if the same thing that kills us saves us, what is that? Again, not a bronze serpent. Are you ready for this? If our humanity is what kills us, and it is, then we need another human to save us. But, that’s not possible. Until we have a human who is both human and divine — both flesh and Spirit.

And that’s why Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Part 4: For the World

Born of flesh and born of Spirit, Jesus becomes the only one who can save us. And, then he tells us why he came –

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God so loved the world. Not just the people in the world, but creation. All of it, including us. And God’s love for His creation led him to save us in it, so we could again be stewards of it. Listen to what Wendell Berry, poet, farmer, and Christian, writes –

The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.

Healing is impossible in loneliness…To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.

He goes on –

The soul, in its loneliness, hopes for “salvation.” And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity among soul and body and community and world?

The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.

So, our being born from above, our being born of flesh and spirit, our being born anew because God so loved the world is so that we can love the world, too. It is so that we can unite that which sin has sundered — ourselves, others, God, creation — so that all can be made new as God intended. Being born from above changes everything, even if like Nicodemus, we don’t understand it yet.

St. Kevin of Glendalough was a Celtic Christian hermit, who loved God’s creation. He said, “All the wild creatures on these mountains are my house mates, gentle and familiar with me.” St. Kevin’s calling was to live alone with God’s creation, and pray for Creation’s care. Here is a prayer taken from the Celtic tradition that St. Kevin might have prayed –

Jesu! meet it were to praise Him,
There is no plant in the ground
But is full of His virtue,
There is no form in the strand
but is full of his blessing.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no life in the sea,
There is no creature in the river,
There is naught in the firmament,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no bird on the wing,
There is not star in the sky,
There is nothing beneath the sun,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Jesu! meet it were to praise Him.
Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints, Mary C. Earle & Sylvia Maddox, pg 58.

For God so loved the world, that He sent his only son…