Circles and Rows

Good things happen when we’re seated in rows, but real church happens when we’re seated in circles.


CIRCLES – I bought a circle of friends candle holder for my mom for Christmas a few years ago. Her friend said it looked more like a circle of monkeys.

That’s a paraphrase of something megachurch pastor Andy Stanley said in a sermon a few weeks ago, and I’ve been flogging that message at every opportunity, ever since.

That’s because it feels to me like Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary (my home church) is growing bigger, but I’m not sure it’s growing closer, or growing deeper. As a result, I think we’re missing out on what God wants to do with, in, through and for us, and I’m convinced small groups can help us explore and tap into that.

Also, since the summer is basically over, Small Group Season is upon us. So time’s a-wastin’!


Membership in a small group played a pivotal role in getting me off the bench and into the game when it comes to my own faith (as Craig Groeschel, another megapastor, said in one of his recent sermon podcasts) and I know it can do the same for other benchwarmer Christians.

Maybe even you.

ROWS – Is it time for you to get off the bench and into the game?

Small group membership was also absolutely instrumental in my journey to answering The Ultimate Question that my pastor, Stephen Hambidge, preached about last week (“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” – Matthew 16:15) and then beginning to live out my answer in action, as well as in words.

 

As I look back and dissect my spiritual journey from lukewarm benchwarmer to worship leader/wanna-be (hopefully-gonna-be) clergyman, I think small group membership brought two vital catalysts to the equation (mixaphorically speaking), and coincidentally, (just like ‘circle’, ‘catalyst’ and ‘coincidentally’, both of them start with C:

 

Community

Holy Trinity is above average in size for an Anglican church, but it’s tiny compared with the massive organizations that Stanley and Groeschel lead. Even so, it’s big enough that I don’t know everybody’s names, let alone their stories. Intimacy just ain’t possible when you’re in a group of 200.

Anonymity, on the other hand, is a cinch.

Whether we want it or not.

And that’s one reason why small groups are so vital. In a group of a dozen or less, you can actually get to know people, and perhaps more importantly, become known by people. As Stanley says in the sermon I mentioned at the start of this post…

“You’ll never become who you want to be until you are willing to face up to who you actually are. And the only way to do that is to stop worrying about being known for something, and allow yourself to be known by a group of someones.”

I’m totally in favour of fellowship time after church. It’s a chance to see people you don’t see often enough, and at least do a quick check-in: Howya doin? Having a good summer? A smile, a handshake or a hug, a joke about how church coffee is always awful (church water is usually terrible too, for some reason: I think there’s a connection); a chance to welcome someone new and at least learn their name (even if you forget it a few minutes later and have to ask again next week).

I’m fully onboard with fellowship time, but it ain’t exactly a recipe for real relationship, is it? Conversations are always surface level. Little better (or no better) than small talk. And that’s not because people aren’t interested in going deeper with you, it’s because time is short, the room is loud, interruptions are unavoidable and many people aren’t interested in sharing the deepest parts of themselves in a room full of dozens of potential eavesdroppers. Fellowship Time just wasn’t built for deep conversation.

If you’ve ever felt like church isn’t feeding your appetite for community, and that people aren’t interested in really connecting with you, I bet you’ve never joined a small group. Which means you’ve never truly given us the chance.

You heard me.

Getting into a room with a group of six to 12 people where only one person talks at once (rather than the beautiful free-for-all chaos of Fellowship Time) is a game changer when it comes to building community, and it also sets the stage for today’s other Big C.

 

Conversation

We spend a lot of our lives talking, don’t we? We talk to our families about what to have for lunch or where to go on vacation or who used up all the Wi-Fi this month. We talk to our buddies about sports or cars or movies or beer or [whatever women talk about].

But how often do we talk about things that really matter? Even if we’re Christians, most of us don’t gravitate toward meaty discussions about God and our role in Her creation. In-depth discussions about the Bible and what it has to say about how we should live our lives don’t just happen, regardless of how important we know them to be.

Instead, a lot of us tend to focus on faith only on Sunday mornings.

Now, this is problematic just from a time management perspective, isn’t it? If we’re in church at all, we must be somewhat onboard with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And the way I read it, if the Gospel means anything, it means everything.

But even if you think that’s an overstatement, you can probably agree that if God is really God and Jesus really came to save us from our sins and died on the cross for us and wants us to live in a certain way in response to that, giving Him 90 minutes out of a 10,080-minute week isn’t going to get you very far.

As Steven Furtick – yet another megachurch preacher – said in yet another recent sermon podcast, ‘What good is the seed of the word of God if there’s no water applied to it during the week?’

It’s corny, but there’s more than a kernel of truth in that Twitter-ready quip.

Now, I love sermons. I love listening to them, and I love delivering them. Nothing brings scripture to life in the same way that a well researched, well written, well delivered sermon does. But this mode of communication only goes one way (Preacher ⇒ People) and therefore it has limitations. The best sermons need to be augmented by conversation. Unscripted, unplanned, unpredictable, prone-to-wander conversation that goes both ways (People ⇔ People).

Give and take. Back and forth. Question and response. Doubt and faith. Disagreement and epiphany. Naïve questions. Insufficient answers. Heretical questions. Well-intentioned (but probably also heretical) answers. Gloom. Pollyanna. God can use all of it to build our faith if we’ll only engage with Him.

This is what I think the Proverbist (traditionally believed to be King Solomon) meant when he said:

‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.’ – Proverbs 27:17

Who are you sharpening these days? Who’s sharpening you?

†     †     

As you can probably surmise from reading the above, I feel a special urgency this year to get more members of our church plugged into a small group this fall. That’s why I made after-church announcements on the subject throughout the month of August. Pastor Stephen has accepted my offer to provide support to the small groups ministry this fall, so you can now contact either of us to learn more.

I want to help connect new people with existing groups. I want to support and encourage people who think they might want to start new small groups. (It’s really not that difficult, I promise.) I’ll try to answer questions. Dispel myths. Help you find a curriculum to study. Our church has grown bigger; I’m convinced that small groups can help us grow deeper, too.

In John 10:10, Jesus says He came that we may have life, and have it more abundantly. If your life could use some of that abundance, let me help you get plugged into a small group.

Peace be with you.

 

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The Right Time to Do the Right Thing

The other day, I had to pop into my local supermarket to pick up a prescription. As I walked toward the front door, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk, holding a cardboard sign asking for money.


Until a few years ago, panhandlers were unheard of in my middle-class neighborhood in Calgary’s utaupia, but with the recent economic downturn, this sight has become quite common outside the local stupormart.

And without exception, they conduct their business quietly, respectfully and with dignity. They rarely speak to the throng of humanity walking past them, never making a scene or laying a guilt trip. They let the cardboard sign do the talking for them, and receive anything they’re given with grace and gratitude. Quite often, I give them money – and several times when I’ve been without cash, I’ve picked up a $10 gift card while I’m in the store, and handed it to them on my way out.

On this day, though, I was in a hurry (as usual), I had challenges of my own to deal with and I was a little indignant in my heart about the beggar’s audacity. I felt offended, suddenly and inexplicably, like he had no right to ask something of me when I give intentionally to church and charities and often give spontaneously to guys like him when they’re camped out in front of the grocery store. So when I saw the man with the sign, I groaned impatiently in my heart (hopefully not out loud), avoided eye contact and walked past as quickly as I could.

Once I was inside the store, though, I realized I was being selfish, ridiculous and profoundly un-Christlike.

‘Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’ – Matthew 5:42.

I preached on that passage earlier this year. You’d think I’d be better at practising it.

OK, OK, Jesus. You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking. I even happen to have two fives in my wallet. I’ll pick up my prescription, give the guy one of my fives, look him in the eye and say, ‘God bless you.’ Five bucks won’t solve (or greatly exacerbate) his problems, but it’s something.

Unfortunately, by the time I finished my business in the store and left, the guy was no longer there. Hopefully he’d collected enough money to meet the day’s needs and was headed home – but it’s just as likely that he gave up, after being ignored by one shopper too many, and left defeated and demoralized. I’ll never know, and that’s been eating at me this week.

Looking back on the encounter, I’m quite disturbed about my initial reaction. Clearly, I’ve got some growing to do. But I’m also tempted to let myself off the hook because I eventually came around and had decided to do the right thing – even if I missed my chance to actually make good on that plan.

The trouble is, once I came to my senses, I still put my pharmacy agenda ahead of the stranger’s needs. I’d have been obedient eventually if the guy hadn’t left, of course. But as some of my favorite podcast preachers have said on more than one occasion …

Delayed obedience is immediate disobedience.

Now, it’s pretty unlikely that my $5 would’ve made much of a practical difference in the life of the panhandler, but maybe an encounter with a bespectacled cueball that involved eye contact, a smile and a blessing would’ve made a significant impact on his spirits or provided some comfort.

But regardless of how that five-second interaction might have impacted him, I know it would’ve been good for me. I missed out on a chance to put someone else’s needs ahead of my wants; I squandered a tiny, little opportunity to say yes to God – first by succumbing do my hard-hearted default posture, and then delaying my obedience until it was convenient for me.

In a sense though, this unhappy ending is potentially more useful for me than if the guy had still been there when I left the store and I’d given him the money. If he had been, I’d be able to say ‘All’s well that ends well’, and move on with my day, satisfied that I’d done the right thing.

Since things turned out as they did, though, I’m forced to deal with my hard-hearted default posture and realize I clearly have a lot more growing to do. I also get to live with the fact I didn’t immediately turn on my heel and do the right thing, as soon as I decided to do it. Not ‘just as soon as I finish my business in the store’.

Immediately.

The right time to do the right thing is always now. Not later.

I share this story primarily to confess, but if your ears were burning at any time as you read this post, consider yourself convicted and called to go and do better than I did that day.

You’re welcome.

Peace be with you.

Posted in Charity, Faith, Grace, Gratitude, Kindness, Sacrifice, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For How Long?

Am I the only one who thinks Acts 2:42-47 is a bit of a crock?


They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The early days of the Christian church sound downright idyllic, don’t they?

It makes our messy, squabbling, fractured, bickering, gossiping churches look pretty abysmal by comparison, doesn’t it? These five verses make it sound like the early church achieved spiritual, economic and social harmony, right off the bat – and this ideal is held up as the model to which all modern churches are required to compare themselves – always falling woefully short, obviously.

All the believers had everything in common. They sold their stuff and gave the proceeds to anyone who was in need. They ate together with glad and sincere hearts. They enjoyed the favour of all the people.

But in the immortal words of Captain Kirk (John Belushi) in the iconic 1976 Star Trek parody on Saturday Night Live, ‘But for how long, Mr. Spock? For … how … long?’

‘Nay verrra long, Cap’n,’ I’m tempted to snark in my best approximation of a Doohanish Scots dialect.

After all, look at what happens in the church, according to the ensuing chapters and verses of Acts.

Things truck along well in Acts 3 and Acts 4 – Peter heals a lame beggar and then preaches another scathing sermon, and then he and John are hauled before the Sanhedrin and told to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. Peter tells them where to stuff it in Acts 4:19-20, saying, Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’

Mic drop. Take THAT, Sanhedrin!

But in Acts 5 we have the sordid tale of Ananias and Sapphira, the believers who lied about giving all they had to the church, and then died as a result of their deception. (Still think the New Testament God is all warm n’ fuzzy?)

In Acts 6, the Disciples deem themselves too important to ‘wait on tables’ and then pass the ‘trivial’ work of the church – actually taking care of people – to ‘lesser’ leaders, like Stephen, who stepped up to become a formidable preacher and the first Christian martyr – and Philip, who went on to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8.

The stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 set off a significant persecution in Jerusalem that scattered believers all over Judea and Samaria, so the Acts 2 honeymoon certainly seemed to be over by that time.

In the ensuing decades, Paul and others founded churches all over the Roman Empire, none of which were able to capture the Acts 2 mojo.

They squabbled and drifted toward circumcision and a saved-by-works theology. They figured that they should sin more, so grace would increase. They grappled with sexual morality and struggled to find the balance between coexisting with pagan neighbors and encouraging their idolatry. Some of them figured there’s no point in doing work or planting crops, since the Second Coming was just around the corner. They argued that the real Christians followed Paul — no, Apollos — no, Cephas. They got complacent. They became lukewarm.

In light of all that, the Acts 2 good ol’ days seems to have been pretty short-lived — and it feels like the Body of Christ has consistently fallen short of this ideal ever since.

We’re an inferior Church. A shell of our former self.

Or are we?

In his letters, Paul regularly refers to the churches as ‘God’s holy people’, or as ‘the Saints’, as he began letters intended to rebuke and correct their wayward ways. Is that because God sees us that way, regardless of our faults and failings?

Jesus is a God of redemption. He calls me a new creation, more than a conqueror, a co-heir with Christ – even as Paul says of himself in Romans 7:19, ‘I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.’

If God looks through grace-colored glasses when She looks at us individually, could the same be true of us collectively?

In light of that, I wonder if Acts 2:42-47 doesn’t describe a Church that, in the truest sense of reality, is still going strong.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

It’s not all true of all of us all the time, but it’s all true of some of us, some of the time. In the same way that it was once true that the Sun never set on the British Empire, maybe it’s just as true that all of Acts 2:42-47 is true at all times, somewhere in God’s church. And in Christ, that’s sufficient!

So devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, as often and as wholeheartedly as you can. Be filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles, to the best of your ability. Continue to meet together in the temple courts. Give sacrificially to anyone who has need. Break bread in your homes and eat together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of some of the people. Know that the Lord is adding to our number daily those who are being saved. (Maybe not so much here, but in other countries.)

‭‭Today can be the good, old days – if we allow them to be. We are the Acts 2:42-47 church to whatever degree we choose to live like it.

Peace be with you.

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TGIF

Thank God It’s Friday!


Shows like Family Matters and Full House get a lot of the credit for the success of ABC’s TGIF lineup, but for my money, it was all Perfect Strangers, all the time.

It’s funny how often we say that phrase and its famous acronym on the other 51 Fridays of the year, and how rarely we apply it to today, the Friday for which we ought to be most thankful.

Not a criticism, merely a curiosity. I’m definitely a TGIF kind of guy, and always have been.

I think we love Fridays because they’re dripping with potential.  On Friday, the weekend is just beginning, and anything can happen.

Dinner out. Movies. Beer and wings. Clubbing. Weekend getaways. Sports. Relaxation. Hangovers. Sleeping in. Repeat.

Whatever’s going to happen, we can say with certainty it’ll be better than the previous few days, because at least we’re not at work!

Contrast that with Sunday, the last day of the weekend, which usually brings with it a certain amount of dread. Sure, the weekend’s not over yet, but it’s getting close. Factor in church in the morning and the evening’s lunch-making and going-to-bed-early activities, and we’re reduced to just a few hours of freedom on Sunday afternoon.

I worked with a woman a few years ago who preferred taking Fridays off over Mondays because she’d rather her weekend have two Saturdays than two Sundays. She wasn’t wrong…

In some ways, Friday is exalted even above than Saturday, because by Saturday night, the weekend’s half over and, frankly, hasn’t lived up to the unrealistic hype we packed it with on Friday. Consider Verse 3 of Leonard Cohen’s epic 1992 hit, Closing Time:

‘We’re drinkin’ and we’re dancin’ but there’s nothing really happenin’, ’cause the place is dead as heaven on a Saturday night.’

When we’ve squandered our Saturday, we’re reminded all the more emphatically that drab, dull Sunday is around the corner, and that makes our Saturday Night Blues all the bluesier.

That’s why I’m often perplexed when I hear a preacher offer the ‘encouragement’, It’s Friday… But Sunday’s comin’!

Tony Campolo used this phrase repeatedly in a Mars Hill Bible Church sermon I’ve talked about before, and while I loved the sermon overall, this phrase didn’t resonate with me.

It’s Friday … But Sunday’s comin’. 

‘You bragging or complaining, Tony?’ my five-day-work-week-oriented self wanted to ask the podcast.

I’ve since realized, though, that even though I’ve been a Christian for nearly two decades, I still have my head on crooked about Friday and Sunday.

In case some of you do too, here are some thoughts:

Good Friday, when viewed from the other side of the cross, is the worst day in human history. What a misnomer!

God became flesh, moved into our neighborhood, and loved us. He taught us, walked on water for us, turned water into wine for us, healed hundreds of us, fed thousands of us and even brought a few of us back from the dead – and in response, we killed Him.
As Jesus said on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.

We sure didn’t.

Three of the four Gospels tell us that for the three hours while Jesus was on the cross, a darkness covered the land.

It must have also been the darkest of days, emotionally, for Jesus’ friends and followers. All the joy and hope of Palm Sunday, just five days earlier, was obliterated when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified. As the disciples’ leader hung on the cross, they were too scared to stay with Him, let alone lift a finger to help Him.

Sadness. Disbelief. Confusion. Shame. Regret. Despondency.

That was Friday for them.

Their thoughts must also have turned to Jesus Himself. The charges brought against him were pretty flimsy, and Pilate was itching for an excuse to turn Jesus loose. Why didn’t He help Himself? ‘Jesus Christ, do you have a death wish or something?’ I bet some of them wanted to ask Him.

You were the chosen one! … You were to bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness!

Don’t worry, Obi-Wan. It’s Friday … but Sunday’s comin’.

Assuming that time has any meaning at all in heaven, what was it like in Paradise while Jesus was in the grave?

Were heaven’s praises silent in those hours of darkness? Your Holy Spirit brooding ’round that empty throne?

Don’t worry, Robin Mark.

It’s Friday … but Sunday’s comin’.

But on this side of the cross, we know that Good Friday wasn’t ironically named. As the day Jesus paid the debt for all humanity, instantly providing access to the Father for every sinner who ever lived and ever will live, Good Friday paved the way for the greatest day in human history – Easter Sunday.

Thanks to the Jesus’ actions on Good Friday, death is beaten, sin is dead and we stand redeemed and victorious.

“It is finished,” Jesus says in one of his last breaths in John 19:30.

Hallelujah, amen and hallelujah again!

… So why doesn’t it feel like it?

Maybe because, in a sense, it’s still Friday.

As Lectiocast host Daniel Kirk pointed out in at least one podcast last year – quoting 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber – ‘to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished.’

We celebrate the redemption of the world as we stand in a world that doesn’t look like it’s been redeemed – from our perspective, sin is alive and well (and arguably stronger than ever), 2,000 years after it was reportedly defeated on the cross.

If sin is defeated, why is there still hunger in the world? Why is there still bigotry? Rape? Murder? War? Genocide?

Because it’s Friday … but Sunday’s comin’.

… someday.

‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’  – 2 Peter 3:9

The fact that the world doesn’t look redeemed, and yet we’re invited to celebrate its redemption, is precisely the point, isn’t it? If the world went straight from the Empty Tomb to the New Heaven and New Earth, we wouldn’t need faith.

God exists outside time, so from Jesus’ perspective it is finished. From ours, it’s still in progress, but we know how things will turn out.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.

Not ‘might be’, is.

What we’re invited into is a relationship with a Redeemer whose work is both done and in progress. Now and not yet, as Christians are fond of saying.

And we get to help Him accomplish that work. We get to receive Him, little by little, as much as we can handle – and then share Him as faithfully and skilfully as we’re able – with the people in our lives.

It’s hard and it’s messy and it’s frustrating and it feels futile at times. But while we struggle and falter and botch our assignments, we can also know – know – that it will all work out in the end.

We can either participate in Christ’s victory or miss out on out chance to be part of nothing less than the redemption of the universe!

As Mordecai said to Queen Esther:

‘For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” -‭‭Esther‬ ‭4:14‬

Who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this, reader?

It’s Friday … but Sunday’s comin’.

Thanks be to God.

Peace be with you.

Posted in Christianity, Easter, Faith, God, Grace, Gratitude, Holy Week, Martyr, Mercy of God, New Testament, Sacrifice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Seven

Seven is a number that seems to pop up a lot in the Bible. And according to George Costanza, it’s also a great name for a baby…


 

SUSAN: It’s not a name. It’s a number.
GEORGE: I know. It’s Mickey Mantle‘s number. So not only is it an all around beautiful name, it is also a living tribute.
SUSAN: It’s awful. I hate it!
GEORGE: (angry) Well, that’s the name!
SUSAN: (also angry) Oh no it is not! No child of mine is ever going to be named Seven!
GEORGE: (yelling) Awright, let’s just stay calm here! Don’t get all crazy on me!

Yes, George. Susan is the one who’s getting all crazy in that exchange, which is from the 1996 Seinfeld episode entitled The Seven.

George has clearly gotten a little carried away in his zeal for The Mick, he’s not wrong about the awesomeness of the number seven. Mantle is one of several notable jocks to don this digit – others included John Elway, Phil Esposito and Ted Lindsay. And when people talk about lucky numbers, seven is usually near the top of the list.

Even more important than the number’s notability in sports and gambling is its significance in the Bible. It occurs in the Good Book 860 times, according to this commentary sometimes in utilitarian references, to be sure – but often its uses are packed with meaning.

Seven is described as the number of completeness and perfection, both physical and spiritual, thanks in part to its prominence in the creation story: God created the universe and fit in the perfect amount of rest in a seven-day period, so seven’s connection with perfection is not subject to objection.

In light of that, it’s not surprising how many times this number is used in the Bible. Here are but a few:

Seven clean animals in Noah’s Ark. Seven years of plenty and seven years of famine in Pharaoh’s dreams. Seven brothers for King David. Seven sneezes after Elisha raised a boy from the dead. Seven loaves to feed a multitude. Seven demons expelled from Mary Magdalene. Seven spirits for seven churches. Seven seals.

Seven sacraments. Seven Deadly Sins. Seven Virtues. Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Our faith might even have more sevens than it has threes.

But today, I want to focus on two specific sets of sevens – inspired to be sure by two of my favorite podcast preachers: A.J. Sherrill of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, who recently covered the Seven ‘I am’ Statements in the Gospel of John during the Season of Epiphany, and Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in North Carolina, who’s currently working through the Seven Last Sayings of Jesus on the cross, as a build-up to Easter.

The ‘I am’ statements provide real insight into Jesus’ life and ministry, and the sayings on the cross provide significant insight into his death and mission. And as we stand on the precipice of Holy Week, it feels like a fitting moment to pause and look back on the one, and look ahead to the other. (I’m not going to try to unpack any of these iconic passages; my purpose here is to post them all in one place for you, and leave the analysis to you and God.)

So here goes:

The Seven I Am Statements

  1. Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” – John 6:35
  2. When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, I am the light of the world.” Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12
  3.  Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” – John 10:7,9
  4. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. …  I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” – John 10:11, 14
  5. Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die…” – John 11:25 
  6. Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6
  7. I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. … I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” – John 15:1,5

These statements are startling, amazing and profound – but my favorite ‘I am’ statement in John isn’t even on this list:

Very truly I tell you, Jesus answered, before Abraham was born, I am!” – John 8:58

In these few words – spoken calmly, quietly and humbly when I imagine the scene – Jesus is using this form of the verb to be to declare Himself to be God. The same God who created the universe, covenanted with Abraham and spoke to Moses in the Burning Bush.

It’s an outlandish, scandalous claim, and the Jewish leaders’ response to it accelerates His journey to the cross.

And yet, as Han Solo (Harrison Ford) says in Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Force Awakens, “Crazy thing is… it’s true. The Force. The Jedi… All of it… It’s all true.”

And the truth of Jesus’ words in John 8:58 is precisely what makes His crucifixion so important. It’s not one of thousands of unjust executions of so-called ‘criminals’ in the distant past, it’s the single most important event in human history.

What a gift and a blessing that we have, in the Gospels, a record of what was said in these final hours of our Saviour’s life:

The Seven Sayings on the Cross

  1. Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. – Luke 23:34
  2. Jesus answered him, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:43
  3. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, Here is your mother. From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. – John 19:26-27
  4.  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? (which means My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?). – Mark 15:34
  5. Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, I am thirsty.” – John 19:28
  6. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, It is finished. With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:30
  7. Jesus called out with a loud voice, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. When he had said this, he breathed his last. – Luke 23:46

Peace be with you.

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A Lot of Trouble

Aside from Jesus, which biblical character do you think of when you hear the word ‘obedient’?


Plenty of names probably come to mind, but I’m fairly certain that near the top of this list for most people is an Old Testament father figure named Abraham.

Near the end of his story, Abraham demonstrated unimaginable obedience, when he was prepared to sacrifice his favorite son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah – just because God told him to. But rewind back to the very start of his story, and the decision by Abram (as he was known at that time) to leave everything he knew and travel to a yet-to-be-identified location on God’s instruction shows a similar level of unconditional obedience.

Or does it?

The Lectionary recently gave us the start of that story, with the passage Genesis 12:1-4a, which begins with the sentence, ‘The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’ and ends with the sentence, ‘So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.’

Lot went with him.

As Bible scholar Daniel Kirk noted in that week’s LectioCast, there’s room to wonder if Lot’s presence on the journey represents a speck of disobedience in Abraham’s actions.

After all, the instruction here is to ‘go from your people and your father’s household‘, not ‘most of your people and your father’s household’.

Really, Baldy? Seems like a stretch.

Yeah, it kinda does – from one angle.

After all, Abram clearly wasn’t expected to make the trip by himself. He was allowed to take his wife Sarai, their livestock and servants, etc. Perhaps, in good faith, Abram saw Lot as an extended member of his household, and it didn’t occur to him that his favorite nephew needed to stay behind as well.

But notice that it wasn’t until Lot and Abram parted ways in Genesis 13 that God made a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15.

And there’s no denying that Lot’s presence on the journey stirred up a lot of trouble.

In Genesis 14, Abram has to rescue Lot, after he’s captured by the four kings. In Genesis 19, Lot’s presence in Sodom decidedly complicates and makes for significant tension in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There’s that tragic business about Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt after she turned to see what was happening behind her, as well.

And Lot’s willingness to offer his own two daughters to a rape gang in order to spare two strangers who were guests in his home has to be one of the top 10 ugliest scenes in the whole Bible.

All this could have been avoided, had Abraham not let Lot tag along on his journey to Canaan. How sad.

†     †     †

If Kirk and I are right, Lot’s presence on Abraham’s journeys is an example of what could be called partial obedience – but it’s by no means the only one – particularly in the Old Testament.

Moses strikes the rock to provide water to the Israelites, instead of just speaking to it. Saul defeats, but doesn’t destroy, the Amalekites. King Jehoash strikes the ground as he’s commanded, but only three times.

And so on.

Because of partial obedience, Moses isn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land. Saul loses his throne. Jehoash defeats the Arameans, but isn’t able to destroy them.

The consequences of Abraham’s partial obedience don’t seem as dire as these examples – not for Abraham, anyway – but fast forward a few generations, and his descendants probably would’ve preferred he left Lot back in Mesopotamia.

You see, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, there’s the sordid story in Genesis 19:30-38 of when Lot holes up in a cave with his two daughters – the same daughters he offered to the Sodomites earlier in the chapter. With their marriage prospects dimming due to their family’s reversal of fortune, the girls decide to get their dad drunk and seduce him so they can have children.

The text says those children were the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites – two people groups that caused enormous problems for the Israelites in generations to come.

A Lot of trouble indeed.

I wonder how the story of Israel would’ve been different if Abram had left all of his people and his father’s household back in Harran.

†     †     †

Now, you can’t really blame Abraham for the existence of Moab and Ammon – there’s obviously no way he could have known that letting Lot tag along on his epic journey to an unknown destination would spawn two of Israel’s most contentious enemies.

But maybe that’s precisely the point.

We don’t know what will happen when we stray from God’s plan for us – but God does, and that’s why we need to do what She says. Because God is the boss of us, yes. But also because God knows what’s best for us – far better than we do.

It’s not God’s job to talk us into doing things His way by filling in all of the details of what will happen if we don’t fully obey – that’s not authority in action, it’s persuasion.

As many a Bible commentator has noted, partial obedience is an oxymoron – like somewhat pregnant or alternative facts. Partial obedience is disobedience. Any thoughts to the contrary are delusions.

And in light of what I noted earlier about it arguably never having occurred to Abram that Lot’s presence wasn’t part of God’s plan, it seems all the more vital that we pay close attention to the marching orders we’re given, and make sure we don’t inadvertently – or advertently – exceed them.

Peace be with you.

Posted in Bible, Faith, Family, Gratitude, Old Testament, Relationship, Torah | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The H-Word

Get your hallelujahs out while you can, folks: Lent is almost upon us.


In the Anglican Church, and probably in some other liturgical denominations, we conclude many of our services with the phrase, ‘Thanks be to God. Alleluia!’ But for the six Sundays of Lent, we refrain from saying the final word in that phrase – because alleluia/hallelujah smacks a little too much of celebration for the sombre and reflective season of Lent.

Speaking of ‘Hallelujah’, have you listened lately to the classic Leonard Cohen song by that name? Chances are the answer is ‘yes’, because the track is probably one of the most covered tunes of the 20th Century. Everyone from k.d. lang and Rufus Wainwright to Bob Dylan and Susan Boyle has sung the song at one time or another. It’s almost become a cliche.

My church music team has sung the Christmas version of the song popularized on YouTube by Christian music group Cloverton a few times, and who can forget the video of an Irish priest singing an adapted version of the song during a wedding a few years back?

I thought the song had lost all its power to move me, but a few months ago, a preacher named Travis Eades took me to church, once again, on the power of Cohen’s Hallelujah.

Eades is one of the pastors at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, and he was preaching on November 26/27 as part of a year-long journey his church is taking through The Story – a chronological Bible of sorts, adapted by his more famous Oak Hills colleagues, Max Lucado and Randy Frazee.

His topic that week was King David, in the sermon called Trials of the King and he kept cleverly dropping words from the song into the sermon – I thought he was merely doing subtle shout-outs as Easter eggs for fellow Cohen fans to find. But at the apex of the talk, he switched seamlessly from preacher to singer and belted out a gorgeous version of Cohen’s Hallelujah.

Goosebumps-arooni-dooni for Baldy. (The song is no longer part of the sermon recording, but trust me, it was great.)

Since then, I’ve wanted to share similar insights from the song into the life of David – the King, the sinner, the man after God’s own heart – in my blog, and I figure the pre-Lent period (our last kick at the H-word for a while) is as good a time as any.

So here goes:

I've been a Cohen fan since 1993, but the first version of Hallelujah I ever heard was Rufus Wainwright's on the Shrek soundtrack. My kids still refer to the song as 'the Shrek Song'.

I’ve been a Cohen fan since 1993, but the first version of Hallelujah I ever heard was Rufus Wainwright’s on the Shrek soundtrack. My kids still refer to the song as ‘the Shrek Song’.

If you’ve ever compared different artists’ recordings of Cohen’s Hallelujah, you might have noticed that they don’t all contain the same verses. My good friend Mr. Google tells me that seven verses have been recorded over the years, and that it’s unusual that all seven verses appear in the same rendition of the tune.

Since it seems to be kosher for artists to choose their favorite Hallelujah stanzas when they perform or record the song, and in keeping with Eades’ approach, I’ve chosen four verses for this blog post that I think shed interesting light on Israel’s shining king – and can be helpful for us as well.

Let’s begin with the traditional first verse:

(Is it possible to finish a banjo song without that cornball ending? I don’t know; I’ve never tried.)

I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth; the minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

David in this verse is writing Psalms to the Lord. So far, so good. But what leaps out to me is the word ‘baffled’.

It’s as if David doesn’t even really understanding where these songs are coming from – probably because this work is divinely inspired.

Hallelujah indeed!

(There’s no such thing as a sad song if it’s played on a ukulele.)

Your faith was strong but you needed proof, You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair, She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

This is the verse where David really starts to get into trouble. He’s tempted when he sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof and her beauty and the moonlight overthrow his better judgment and he falls from grace.

Now, the second half of the verse seems to be about Samson and Delilah, rather than David and Bathsheba, but a similar ‘He’s God’s anointed doing God’s will, until he lets his hormones run his life, and then his conduct with a woman is his undoing’ vibe, so I like how the stories of David and Samson intertwine here – it underscores the universality of the human condition, and reminds us that in a sense, David’s story is our story, too.

(This thing is harder to play than it looks.)

Maybe there’s a God above, But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night, It’s not somebody who’s seen the light,
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

This one is a bit more abstract, but I like how even when he’s not somebody who’s seen the light, he still offers a hallelujahcold and broken though it is – because that’s all he knows how to do. Even when we’re far from God, the ‘motions‘ of our faith linger, and it’s sometimes by ‘going through the motions’ even when we don’t feel it that our faith is reignited and we return.

And finally…

(Cheer up, Baldy!)

I did my best, it wasn’t much; I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!

chalkboardThis verse feels to me like a poetic exploration of David’s repentance – not only about about his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, but also about the totality of his life, in which he often missed the mark – even when he was trying to be righteous. Here we have David standing before the Lord of Song, knowing that it all went wrong, confessing that although he did his best, it wasn’t much – but also knowing that God’s grace is always bigger than man’s failure. God still loves and forgives and accepts him.

In the face of that, knowing that God will still have him, he’s so humbled and ashamed and grateful that he’s got no words to offer – there’s nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

Amen.

Peace be with you.

Posted in Bible, Faith, Old Testament, Prayer, Psalms, Relationship, Words, Wrath of God, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment