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

Perfect: Is that All?

Bless me, reader(s), for I have sinned: it has been more than two months since my last blog post.


confessionI suspect that few of you are particularly upset by the long dearth of content – surely there are other places on the World Wide Web where you can turn for half-baked, wishy-washy, pollyanna, obvious and sometimes borderline heretical spiritual reflections, aren’t there?

And to be honest, I’m not terribly upset about this extended hiatus either, because the reason I haven’t done much writing about Disciplehood lately is that I’ve been too busy living out my Disciplehood.

RdDeColoresRoosterI’ve been asked to serve as the Lay Director for the upcoming Men’s Spring Cursillo weekend here in the Anglican Diocese of Calgary, and the discernment process that’s exploring whether I’m called to ordained ministry is gathering steam – so I’ve been too busy with those two items (plus work and family, of course) to spend much time in the ol’ Blog Factory.

But I thought I’d take some time today to get back in the sweatshop, in light of a momentous milestone in my own journey: my first sermon.

That’s right – my pastor (The Ven. Stephen Hambidge of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Calgary) invited me to step into the pulpit and share some thoughts on the day’s readings, just like a real preacherman.

My first sermon is titled, ‘An Ultimatum … or an Invitation’.

In case you’re interested, here it is:

And here’s a link to the questions that accompany the sermon.

And I gotta say, preparing and delivering the sermon was tougher than I expected. I’ve been writing wanna-be sermons in this blog for more than six years now, and through Cursillo and my role as Music Director at HTACC, public speaking about spiritual topics is fairly familiar territory – but being the actual Sermon Guy on a Sunday morning is something quite different.

Coming up with something to say that’s insightful, helpful and relevant to the day’s Lectionary readings – and then presenting it in a way that’s engaging but not gimmicky – is a bigger challenge than I expected.

And I’ve got to tell you: that ‘not gimmicky’ thing was tough for me. I had a long (but not all that funny) Superman joke and a Kenny Rogers song written into a draft of the sermon at one point – as well as plans to have the congregation shout back to me key words in the sermon as we came to them.

But I decided to approach the sermon a little more conventionally than I do my Cursillo talks and my blog posts, to make sure that the substance had center stage, rather than style – partly out of respect for people’s time.

Speaking of respecting people’s time, I could easily have written a 45-minute sermon and not picked all of the low-hanging fruit in Leviticus 19:1-2; 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48 – our readings for February 19. Deciding which great bits – all of which supported the general message and theme of the sermon – to save for another day, and which ones to preach on Sunday, was tougher than I expected.

It was a great reminder for me of how much wisdom and insight is waiting in these texts, just waiting for us to dive in, wrestle with it and dare to apply it to our lives. Not that there’s anything humdrum in the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s also well-trodden territory. Still, I’ve discovered (and will continue to discover) that even if you’ve heard five-thousand sermons on the Feeding of the Five-Thousand, there’s always room for one more.

Now, in light of the fact we won’t get back to Matthew 5 again in the Lectionary until 2020, I thought I’d share some of what didn’t make the cut from today’s sermon, in this blog post. It’s probably best to listen to the recording before reading on, so if you haven’t done so yet, please do. And then read on:

†     †     †

Our Leviticus reading begins with the phrase, ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.’ And our Matthew text ends with the phrase, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Perfect.

perfectAnd at first glance, I’m really not sure what we’re supposed to do with that. So I took took a look at some other English translations of the Bible, just in case other translations of the Bible use a different word for ‘perfect’ than the NIV does.

No such luck. This Greek word translated as ‘perfect’ in this verse – teleioi – is sometimes used to mean ‘complete’ or ‘mature’ in other places in the New Testament, but every English translation available in Bible Gateway uses the word ‘perfect’ in Matthew 5:48. So it’s pretty clear that scholars agree that ‘perfect’ is the right word.

And let’s be clear about what the word ‘perfect’ means. It’s an absolute. There aren’t degrees of ‘perfect’. You can’t be partly perfect. You can’t be a little bit perfect. ‘Perfect’ is like ‘pregnant’: you either are or you’re not. And Jesus is telling us here to ‘Be perfect.’

Not to ‘become perfect over time’. Not to ‘aspire to be perfect’. But to be perfect – right now, and all at once – or else.

An UltimatumIt almost feels like an ultimatum, doesn’t it?

But, Jesus, nobody’s perfect! And You, of all people, should know that!

After all, Scripture tells us that Jesus was the only perfect human who ever lived. Jesus never looked too long at a pretty girl. He never had one meatball too many. And He never said a cuss word after hitting his thumb with a hammer. (I guess He probably never hit His thumb with a hammer, either: if He was perfect, he must’ve had perfect aim, too!)

And Scripture also tells us that the very reason Perfect Jesus came and became one of us is specifically because we’re not capable of being perfect!

What on earth could Jesus have been up to here?

(Listen to the sermon for some thoughts, if you haven’t already…)

†     †     †

Did you notice that Matthew 5:43 sounds a little like Leviticus 19:18?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ – Matthew 5:43

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. – Leviticus 19:18

Not only are these verses similar, but according to the footnotes in my Bible, Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 5:43. Or more accurately, He’s misquoting that verse.

never-hate-copyIt doesn’t say anything about hating your enemy in Leviticus 19:18 – or anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter. Did Jesus get it wrong? He couldn’t have – He’s perfect, remember?!?

But take a close look at the way the New International Version translates it: ‘You have heard that it was said: Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ He didn’t say ‘It is written,’ or even ‘You have heard it said…’, but ‘You have heard that it was said…’

It almost sounds like Jesus is subtly accusing His listeners of accepting hearsay, doesn’t it?

Maybe that’s because in many ways, the people of Jesus’ time were living as though they thought it was encouraged, or at least OK, to hate their enemies. And I think a lot of us today, maybe without realizing it, are living as though we think it’s OK to hate our enemies, too.

Jesus wants to set us straight on this, but rather than confronting us about how we’ve read it wrong and getting bogged down in an ‘am not-are too’ argument, our practical, patient and gracious teacher meets us where we are, and starts there. (He does that a lot, doesn’t He?)

He seems to say, ‘Regardless of how you’ve understood this concept before now, I’m telling you what God really wants for (not from) you in this area: to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’

Now, in our civilized, polite society, we might be inclined to think this word isn’t for us: we don’t have any enemies. But if Jesus were to visit your social media channels, would He be quick to agree you don’t have any enemies? And would He be pleased at how you’re doing when it comes to showing love to them?

Similarly, most of us who grew up in Canada probably don’t know what real persecution feels like, either. But everybody knows what it’s like to be treated unfairly.

Your boss is unreasonable. Your landlord is unforgiving. Your taxman makes mountains out of molehills. There’s a bully in your middle school locker room. Your boyfriend plays mind games. Your girlfriend cheated on you with your best friend.

Jesus wants us to pray for the people who hurt us.

Not to pray that they’ll ‘get what’s coming to them’. Not even just to pray that God would change their hearts and show them the error of their ways so they’d stop hurting us and start blessing us.

I think we’re called to pray that God would bless our persecutors, even if they will use that blessing to continue to persecute us. Look at the rest of the verse and the ones that follow:

‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ – Matthew 5:44-48

Bless IndiscriminatelyGod isn’t stingy with his blessings; he blesses indiscriminately, and I think Jesus is calling us here to get in step with that – in our prayers, and in our actions. To pray indiscriminately and to bless indiscriminately. To love indiscriminately – and to love creatively.

And as we strive to put that into practice, in our messy and imperfect lives, I suspect we’ll increasingly understand what it means to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Peace be with you.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Faith, Forgiveness, Gospel, Grace, Holiness, New Testament, Old Testament, Torah | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The M-Word

Prepare to be scandalized, fellow Liturgicals: My church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, but we don’t normally read the Psalm – just the Gospel and either the Old or New Testament reading designated for that week.


In my opinion, two full readings still provides us with more Scripture than the average pew warmer can receive, digest, retain and implement in a given week. It also provides plenty of material for the preacher to unpack in the sermon – and frees up more time for the pastor to dig a little deeper in the two texts we do get. So there are some definite advantages to skipping the Psalm.

And if we Bible Geeks want to spend some time in the Psalm, there’s nothing stopping us from doing so on our own, foreign as the concept may seem to many of us (New Year’s Resolution alert!).

The Bible only has one Magnificat, but my family has two: Angel and Shadow.

The Bible only has one Magnificat, but my family has two: Angel and Shadow.

But you might not want to wait until January to try it out. The Lectionary gives churches a choice for today’s Psalm reading: either Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55 – the latter of which is known as Mary’s Song, or the Magnificat. (That’s right: in some seasons, the Psalm reading isn’t taken from the Psalter. Who knew!)

The Magnificat is the song that pregnant-with-Jesus Mary sings after entering the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, immediately after Elizabeth’s own baby (John the Baptist) leaps in her womb, after hearing Mary’s voice.

 In a loud voice she [Elizabeth] exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” – Luke 1:42-45

gabriel-and-maryNow, imagine you’re Mary. Not long ago, an angel burst in on you and announced that you’re pregnant with the Son of God, despite the fact you’re a virgin. After an entirely understandable bit of hesitation, you accept the idea and in the holiest, scariest moment of your young life, you hear yourself say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Then, the angel leaves you and everything returns to normal. Your house looks the same, your town, your neighbors – they’re all the same. And yet everything’s different for you.

Or is it?

Was that really an angel, or something else? Did it even really happen, or did I dream it somehow? Whatever it was, did it speak the truth? Am I really pregnant? I don’t feel pregnant. But how would I know what pregnant even feels like? And if I am pregnant, am I really carrying God’s Son? How can this be so? And yet, after that experience with the angel – which was either the most unreal or the most real experience of my life – how can it not be so?

Overcome with fear, indecision and anxiety about how her family and community will react when she reveals the news that she’s pregnant and Who the Father is, she does what any teenage girl would want to do: she escapes. She decides to get out of Dodge, and go visit her cousin Elizabeth.

Wise Elizabeth. Kindly Elizabeth. Godly Elizabeth. She won’t judge me, and she might even have some good advice. At the very least, she makes the best cookies…

After making the journey, Mary tentatively, hesitantly enters her cousin’s home, expecting the usual hugs and pleasantries: how’s your family, how was the trip, what’s kooky Uncle Herschel up to these days. And instead, as soon as she crosses the threshold, she’s immediately flattened by what she really came for (probably without realizing it): confirmation that she’s not crazy, she didn’t imagine it, her encounter with the angel was real and the message he delivered was true.

Whew!

That’s what I would have said. But according to Luke in the New King James Version, Mary put it a bit more poetically…

magnificat“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48 For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
49 For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
50 And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
54 He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
55 As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”

Amen, Sister … I mean Mother.

†     †     

m-wordAs I mentioned before, Mary’s Song is sometimes referred to as the Magnificat, because it begins with the phrase ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’.

Magnify.

We Anglicans use this word quite a bit in our liturgy, and it pops up fairly often in Christian worship songs as well. (A quick search of the word in CCLI’s SongSelect tool produced about 1,000 hits.)

And as is often the case with words you see a lot in Christian contexts, the M-Word has a special, churchy meaning. It means to praise or glorify. (In fact, the New International Version of Mary’s Song begins ‘My soul glorifies the Lord’ – but I don’t think they’ve started calling the song the Glorificat just yet).

And, obviously, we should praise and give God glory at every opportunity; indeed our entire lives should serve to laud and magnify Thy glorious name, e-he-hever praising Thee-ee and say-ay-ing…

But I think we need to be careful when we talk about magnifying God in our lives, that we don’t drift and default to using the more common definition of the M-Word: to make something look bigger.

microscopeWe don’t want God to look bigger in our lives, we want Her to be bigger.

And since God is always everywhere, we don’t need a crude, clumsy magnifying glass, telescope or microscope to get a good look at Him.

liftWe simply need to lift up our eyes, or in some cases, to turn around (which is what it means to repent) and realize that the God of the Universe is, and has always been, right there beside us.

Ready, waiting and eager to connect with us and bless us. Anytime and anywhere.

Wow.

Or to put it more poetically…

My soul magnifies the Lord…

Thanks be to God.

Peace be with you.

Posted in Advent, Bible, Christmas, Faith, Gratitude, Holiness, New Testament, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Truth or Duh

 

What’s the difference between truth and fact?


This question came up recently at my Bible Study group meeting, and it prompted an interesting discussion: one person put forward the idea that facts change, but the truth is constant. Another attendee suggested that facts are fixed, but truth is in the eye of the beholder.

‘But what is truth? Not easy to define. We both have truths … are yours the same as mine?’ – Pilate to Christ in Jesus Christ Superstar

The discussion quickly moved on to other topics, so we didn’t explore the truth-fact dichotomy much more than that. Still, the question has been at the back of my mind ever since, so I thought I might share some thoughts here – and thus end the debate for all time.

Sure, Baldy.

When I use these words, both truth and facts are constant and unalterable.

  • Our interpretation of the truth may vary, but that doesn’t mean the truth itself changes depending on our perspective. Truth is truth. Period.
  • Similarly, our perception of facts may change, but the facts themselves continue to be genuine regardless of how many people acknowledge them. Fact is fact. Period.

Truth vs FactBut just because truth and fact are both constant and unalterable, doesn’t mean they’re the same thing.

For my money, facts are mere data; bits of information that can be recorded in a series of ones and zeroes on a computer. Truth is knowledge and wisdom that couldn’t be fully captured in a thousand libraries. Facts are neutral. Truth takes sides. Facts can save a man, but truth makes him worth saving.

That’s why I find Indiana Jones‘ speech to an introductory archeology class so illuminating, and quoted it in my 2010 blog post, Truth:

“Archeology is the search for fact … not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”
– Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I also find the Wiktionary definitions helpful in distinguishing between these similar concepts:

  • The definitions for fact include the phrases ‘something actual as opposed to invented‘ and ‘something which is real‘.
  • The entry for truth, on the other hand, includes words like ‘fidelity‘, ‘conformity to reality‘ and my personal favorite, ‘That which is real, in a deeper sense; spiritual or “genuine” reality‘.

i-am-the-wayIs it any wonder that in John 14:6, Jesus tells us He is the way, the truth and the life?

He didn’t say He’s the path, the facts and the metabolism, and for my money, the nuances that separate these synonyms are vital here.

But while this notion of Christ as Truth is prominent in Christianity, it’s easy to get bogged down in questions of fact about the actual life of the actual person called Jesus of Nazareth:

  • Was He really born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem?
  • Did He really walk on water and feed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish?
  • Was He really transfigured into a heavenly version of Himself on a hill with Moses and Elijah in the presence of three of His disciples?
  • Did he really die on a cross and literally experience a bodily resurrection two days later?

What if the answer to any of those questions (especially the last one) turned out to be no – that some of these ‘facts’ about Jesus are exaggerated, misremembered or not meant to be taken literally?

Does that change Who Jesus was and is for you?

If the answer is ‘yes’; if your connection with Jesus is dependent on the veracity of the ‘facts’ reported in the Gospels, are you limiting who God is, what She can do and how? If human science and scrutiny were to manage to knock down one or two of these trees, would the forest that is the Gospel no longer stand tall for you? Is there no room for transcendence in your spirituality?

galileogalilei136976And if the answer is ‘no’; if the Truth of the Gospel for you is completely detached from the facts of the Gospels; if your connection with Christ is independent of the accuracy of the stories about the person called Jesus of Nazareth, what is the basis by which you tether yourself to this Christ being in the first place? If you are prepared to view the events recorded in the four Gospels as little more than fable and legend, what is to stop you from viewing their depiction of the Sin Nature as poetic rather than literal, and their calls to action as mere suggestions? Do your spirituality give enough credence to the concrete?

The truth (and fact) is that it’s unlikely that any of the details of the Gospel story will be proven or disproven as fact in our lifetime, so the storm I’ve just whipped up with those questions is purely an academic exercise – a tempest in a teapot, as it were.

duhBut this discussion does serve as an interesting reminder – for me, at least – that when it comes to faith, truth and fact may not be fully coterminous, but they definitely overlap, and both are vitally important. The trouble, for me, is to make sure I don’t hold either (or both) of them too tightly, or too loosely.

Which, in hindsight, is pretty bleating obvious.

In other words, Duh.

Peace be with you.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, God, New Testament, Saturday Night Live, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

WTF Part 4: Clueless Jesus

So far in this series, we’ve stuck with the Old Testament and its barbaric times and alarmingly vengeful depiction of God, but when it comes to WTFs, the OT ain’t got nuthin’ on the Parables of JC.


In some of these made-up stories Jesus tells to make a point, He almost comes off as clueless. His depiction of the society in which He lived is so startlingly different from reality (even the reality of First-Century Palestine) that you wonder if He’s even paying attention to His surroundings.

WTFIn today’s vernacular, we’d be tempted to ask ‘WTF, Jesus?!? What planet are You from?’ But a better question would, of course, be, ‘WTF, Jesus?!? What plane of existence are You from?’

On this side of the Cross, we know that this is because a big component of Jesus’ mission was to turn the world upside-down – but somehow, the parables He tells that come from this angle continue to startle us, prompting many a Wednesday-Thursday-Friday (WTF) response.

When we talk about Jesus turning the world upside-down, this isn't what we mean. But looking at our planet this way is probably a valuable exercise anyway.

When we talk about Jesus turning the world upside-down, this isn’t what we mean. But looking at our planet this way is probably a valuable exercise as well.

Jesus speaks plainly about turning the world upside-down in Matthew 20:16: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This line comes at the end of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which ends with the laborers who work one hour are paid the same as those who work all day. What a scandalous and absurd notion:

WTF, Jesus?!? No landowner worth his salt (or light) would shoot himself in the foot by paying people that way! It’s just bad business. Du-uh.

Now, in the case of that story, even Jesus’ listeners at the time probably realized He was exaggerating to make a point. But in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus seems to be implying that the ridiculous is true in the ‘real world’:

Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?’ – Luke 15:4

Errrm, no, Jesus. No shepherd in his right mind would do that. You’ve got 99 sheep; WTF kind of shepherd would risk losing any more of them for the sake of one?

Similarly, a short-sighted cynic could easily have missed the point of the Parable of the Sower because of the title character’s questionable planting methodology:

sower_pic“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” – Mark 4:3-8

WTF kind of a farmer would do that, Jesus?!? Seed is precious and expensive. Anyone who knows anything knows you don’t scatter it on paths, rocky places or among thorns. You plant it in the field, where you know it’s going to grow. (Maybe you should stick to parables about carpentry, Lord.)

I suspect this is exactly the reaction Jesus wants from us as we’re confronted with these three famous WTF parables. In order to emphasize how different the Kingdom of Heaven is from the human status quo, he up-ends us where we live and breathe: in our economy.

No landowner on earth would or should pay one-hour workers the same as full-day workers, because in a transactional economy, we earn our wages. But in God’s economy, none of us are capable of earning favor with God, so all who turn to Christ are given the same unmerited grace, whether we come to Him at the dawn or dusk of our lives, or anywhere inbetween.

No shepherd would leave 99 safe sheep to seek one lost one, but as my pastor recently said in a sermon about this parable, the 99 ‘found’ sheep won’t become lost again unless they choose not to follow the Shepherd!

And while the seeds for wheat and canola and carrots are finite and expensive, the seeds of God’s grace are abundant and inexhaustible – so God scatters them anywhere and everywhere, in the hopes that some of them will take root in places that you and I would write off as impractical, and in soil we’d call barren and even Godforsaken.

These parables are startling and sometimes a little offensive – the Grace of God shouldn’t be available to bad people, should it? – but they’re also really comforting when we realize that there’s bad in you and me, too. God is generous. God never gives up. God’s grace is endless, and it’s all we need. That’s what these WTF parables teach us.

Great. OK, WTFs withdrawn. Parables are awesome.

Hang on, there, Tiger. Let’s talk about a couple more … next time.

Until then, peace be with you.

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WTF Part 5: Harsh Jesus

Last time, we talked about some parables where Jesus seems naïve at first blush, but upon closer examination, the stories provide profoundly comforting messages about the generosity of God and the openness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

If only all of Jesus’ parables were like that…


Today, let’s look at a couple of stories where Jesus seems kind of harsh:

virginsThe Parable of the Ten Virgins is a real WTFer. First of all, the cultural context of the parable is so foreign, it doesn’t make any sense to the modern reader. And assuming you can get your head around the narrative, the parable speaks kindly about the ‘wise’ virgins who choose not to share, and tell the ‘foolish’ virgins to go get their own oil. Then, when they leave to do so and the groom arrives, they’re locked out of the banquet and the groom disowns them, saying, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.

WTFWTF, Jesus?!? A little bad planning that prompts a scramble at the last minute and we’re locked out?!? Where’s that abundant grace you talked about in the other three parables?

The point of this parable is to always be living like Jesus is coming back today. To never ‘phone in’ our disciplehood, or cut corners or the like. And that’s obviously a vital component of our faith and a truth we need to hold onto and live by.

Dana Carvey's Churchlady, of 1980s Saturday Night Live fame, is who I think of when I hear the term 'religious people'.

Dana Carvey’s Churchlady, of 1980s Saturday Night Live fame

But I still don’t like this parable. I still think the Churchladys of the world could use it to justify a refusal to be generous, or worse – a refusal to extend grace in this life to a brother or sister who really needs it. That would be a misuse and a corruption of the text, of course, but when it comes to hijacking a Bible passage to justify unChristian behavior, people have done more with less.

†         

I sometimes wonder if the wedding banquet in the Ten Virgins parable is the same soiree Jesus talk about in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 – one of the biggest WTFs in the Gospels, for my shekels.

It starts off straightforwardly enough: a king hosts a banquet, but none of his invited guests show up. They’re too busy, and/or they’ve taken him and his generosity for granted. The king has these ungrateful shlebs killed and their town burned – which feels like a bit of an overreaction to me. (Is this really what the Kingdom of Heaven is like?!?) The king then continues on with the wedding plans (and why wouldn’t he?) and sends his staff out to round up whoever they can find: God a pulse? You’re in!

mt22_13But when one of these second-choice guests is found to not be wearing wedding clothes, he’s tied hand and foot and thrown outside into the darkness, ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’!

“For many are invited, but few are chosen,”’ the parable ends ominously. 

WTF, Jesus?!? The guy’s minding his own business, and the King’s servant comes by and invites him to fill a chair at a sumptuous wedding banquet. So the guy drops what he’s doing and goes straight to the feast. When he arrives in unsuitable clothing, he’s not politely asked to leave, he’s tied up and literally thrown out

Apparently, some commentators like to infer that the host has provided proper wedding clothes to the last-minute guests, but this guy has refused to wear them. … But that ain’t in the text.

With or without that insertion, this is an uncomfortable parable, and it’s meant to be.

wpid-clothe-yourself-with-christThe guy is said to represent the Christian whose faith isn’t genuine: You may appear to be a follower of Jesus, but you don’t clothe yourself with Christ, through true repentance for sin and faith in Christ, and then a commitment to love and obey the Lord as evidence of saving faith.

Since you’re not truly part of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, you’re denied entry on Judgment Day.

As Jesus says in Mathew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

free-for-allSo the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard, Lost Sheep and the Sower talk help us to see the abundant grace of God and the borderline offensive notion that the Kingdom of Heaven is far more accepting than we’d expect (and maybe prefer). Meanwhile, the parables of the Wedding Banquet and the Ten Virgins underscore that it’s not quite a free-for-all. Living as disciples of Christ requires that we strive to reciprocate what we’ve received.

Both are essential components of the Truth of our faith, and I need to ask WTF when reading these parables, in order to arrive there.

Now, these are by no means the only WTFs worth wrestling with in Jesus’ parables, but they’re some of my favorites. What about you, Reader(s)? What parables do you love to be frustrated by? For that matter, what passages throughout the whole Scripture rub you the wrong way?

Whatever these passages are for you, I encourage you to go back and read and wrestle with them again. You might not learn anything new – but in my experience, every wrestling match with God makes me stronger – even though God always wins – which is a delightful WTF in itself.

Peace be with you.

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WTF Part 3: Is God Mean?

Sometimes, it seems like God has a sizeable mean streak.


Not only when She won’t give us the snazzy stuff we feel like we need, or won’t instantly heal our infirmities, prevent our genocides or divert hurricanes away from our populated areas.

I can use Isaiah 55:8 (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord) to get my head – if not my heart – around those kinds of decisions not to interfere with free will, or with nature.

WTFBut there are moments in the Bible when God – the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, as John 3:16 tells us – does choose to get involved. And more alarmingly, She seems to have it in for certain people who belong to the world She gave Her son for.

Consider the Pharaoh:

In Exodus 9:12, 10:20, 10:27 and 11:10, it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, seemingly to make sure the Egyptian monarch didn’t let the Israelites go before his entire nation had been completely decimated by the 10 plagues.

I’ve heard it explained that Pharaoh wasn’t beginning to change his mind about whether to let the Israelites go, but only lose his nerve – so God’s hardening of the heart merely strengthened Pharaoh’s resolve to follow through on the decisions he’d already made.

Still, WTF?!?

WTF, God?!? If Pharaoh’s resolve is weakening and You’re disposed to interfere with free will in this instance anyway, why not take advantage of this vulnerable moment to soften Pharaoh’s heart even more, and help him change his mind about letting Israel go? Think of the lives You’d have saved! Egyptians were Your people, made in Your image, just as much as the Israelites were, weren’t they?

Furthermore, in Jonah 4:11, You rebuked Jonah for wishing You’d wiped out the Ninevites, who were Israel’s enemies and wicked in their ways (not unlike the Egyptians of Moses’ day), as follows: ‘And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

There were also much more than 120,000 people, and also many animals, in Egypt, Lord. What about them?

WTF?!?

†     †     

In the S-Word series last year, I wrote about two other significant WTFs – one where it says an evil spirit from the Lord tormented King Saul, and another where the Lord put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of prophets, who enticed King Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead.

god-torments-saulIn the latter story, God also empowers Micaiah to reveal the deception, so there’s a confusing but mitigating plot twist there – but the notion that Almighty God would ever send angels to deliberately deceive (or worse, demons to torment) His children is mightily disturbing.

Now, as I said in the Other S-Word Part 4 and Part 5, the concepts of ‘sending’ and ‘allowing’ are blurred in the Hebrew idioms used here. Fair enough. So let’s focus on the word ‘allow’.

When we use the word ‘allow’ in this context, does it mean ‘give overt permission to’ or ‘choose not to interfere with’? And when it comes to an inexhaustible, all-knowing and all-powerful God, is there a difference?

Dunno.

Therefore, the WTF stands.

†     †     

img_0721It’s easy for me to fixate on God’s seemingly malevolent interference in the free will of his children in these verses and get stuck in a What-The funk. But when I look up from my brooding a bit, I return to where I began this blog post: Isaiah 55:8“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

And I’m also reminded of the last four chapters of the Book of Job, when Job – who arguably had legitimate reasons for questioning God – actually dared to do question God. And then, (gulp), God answered him.

Apologist Ravi Zacharias sums this encounter up beautifully and then provides insightful comment in one of the tracks of his Top 5 Questions CD:

‘… Job was saying, ‘Only that which I can comprehensively understand in my mind will I fully accept. And God says, ‘Alright, Job. Since you want that kind of comprehensive understanding, tell me where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid? Where were you when such and such happened?’ He nailed Job with 64 questions back-to-back, to show him that the many wonderful concepts he had imbibed he did not have a full and comprehensive understanding of (either).’

Similarly, while I maintain what I said in Part 2 of this series, that it’s good and godly to wrestle with these questions and even lay our WTFs at the feet of God, I don’t really want Him to answer me.

job-38-4For one thing, if God lambasted me with the same kind of questions She levelled at Job, I think my spirit and soul would be a puddle of goo at the end of it. But maybe more importantly, I probably don’t actually want everything God does to make sense. I need His ways to be infinitely higher than my ways. I need for His interactions with the world to be mysterious and befuddling.

After all, if we could fully understand God, would She cease to be God?

Peace be with you.

Posted in Bible, Creation, Faith, Forgiveness, God, Grace, Kindness, Mercy of God, Old Testament, Omnipresence, Prayer, Sin, Wrath of God, Wrestling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment