Thursday, October 30, 2014

Last Night: Tipping at the Last Supper, Part 2

In my previous post (Last Night: Tipping at the Last Supper) I talked about Judas' tipping points that pushed him toward betraying Jesus.

Peter also betrayed Jesus. We call it denying, but the only difference between Peter and Judas is that Judas was an active betrayer (yes, this is the man) while Peter's betrayal was more passive (no, I'm not with him).

Peter is portrayed through the gospel tale as a staunchly loyal, albeit often confused and impetuous, follower of Jesus. The fisherman had found his identity, his meaning in life, thorough his identification with Jesus. Even in his rash moments Peter is simply trying desperately to please Jesus, to be a worthy part of Jesus' inner circle.

But then, in the final months, Jesus refused to play the part of the hero leading his followers into a new era.

Instead, he washes feet. Peter argues with Jesus.

Jesus continually talks about leaving, even about dying. Peter takes him aside to talk some sense into him.

Jesus responds to being arrested with humility, turning the other cheek. Peter aims for the other cheek and lops the ear off one of the soldiers.

And then the Lord says to put the swords down. And he lets the soldiers take him away.

Peter runs, along with the rest of the disciples.

But, like John, his counterpart in the inner circle, Peter returns and hangs around  the edges of what's going on that night.

Everything Peter has built his life around since the day those fish broke his nets, his entire reason for life, is falling apart. The only way he can stay close by Jesus at this point would be to surrender himself to the soldiers.

But Peter decides he's not willing to jump over the cliff with Jesus. That's not what's supposed to happen next.

Lead me into battle, lead me into #OccupyTemple, lead me wandering around the countryside for another three years of teaching and miracles. But I need you to lead me. I'm nothing without being your wing man.

Peter and Judas weren't that different. Each had his own self-centered idea of what it meant to follow Jesus. Each turned his back when Jesus insisted on a different way.

It makes me wonder: Why am I following Jesus? Because of the benefits I can skim off on the side? Because of how great it makes me feel to be part of something?

What happens when you're getting nothing extra out of the deal? What happens when the church or its leaders fail you?

Will you stick with Jesus? Will you continue to follow him no matter what unexpected turns he leads you through?

Or will you leave a tip in the tray as it goes past and then go on about your way?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Last Night: Tipping at the Last Supper

As a lifelong sci-fi fan, I've learned the value of asking, What if?

When I read John 13 I ask, What if Judas had repented and been accepted back into the fold of the disciples, but Peter went out and hanged himself?

That would certainly have changed the early history of the Church.

It's not really a fair question, though, because the post-betrayal choices of Judas and Peter grew out of the individual characteristics that lead them each to betray the Lord, which were quite different.

Judas' tipping points are spelled out pretty clearly in the gospel records.

Judas had apparently been harboring selfish motivations for quite some time. As early as John 6:70, Jesus says, "One of you is a devil." We get a picture of Judas' vices in John 12:1-8, where we learn he was a thief, stealing from the funds Jesus and the disciples used to support them.

Luke 22:1-6 says Satan entered into his heart as the Passover approached, spurring him to cut a deal with the religious leaders. John 13:27 says that as Judas dipped his bread with Jesus, Satan entered into him and he left the feast to go prepare for his betrayal.

There's no contradiction here, because Judas has been voluntarily giving into the devil's suggestions for quite some time, until finally Satan takes over his heart, piece by piece, and moves him step by step toward going through with the deed.

The tipping points for Judas were all those times when he gave into the whisperings of Satan and allowed himself to be more concerned about his own desires than about following Jesus.

We can shake our heads and pass judgment on Judas, but we should realize that following Jesus for self-serving reasons is not all that uncommon.

I've watched people who are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or adrenaline turn to Jesus in prison. Sometimes, though, all they've done is latch on to the excitement and addictive thrill of the "Come to Jesus" experience. If their faith never goes any deeper, all they've done is exchange one addiction for another. As soon as they get back out on the streets, whether their old addiction of choice is once again available, they'll slide right back into that old lifestyle.

You don't have to be in prison to be following Jesus for what you can get out of it. One of the causes behind the modern church-hopping trend is the never-ending search for the worship band or preacher that satisfies that self-centered desire for a Sunday morning buzz.

Others follow Jesus for the power trip that comes with being a mover and shaker in the church. Others see church as an essential part of their business or political agenda.

The "health and wealth" prosperity gospel preached in some churches actually encourages self-aggrandizing faith. That approach is what got Victoria Osteen in trouble when she told her congregation that worship is not for God, "you're doing it for yourself."

Most of those things that people seek from their faith experience aren't inherently bad. It's certainly good to enjoy an emotionally charged worship experience. I'd certainly rather sing along with a good worship band and listen to a good preacher than to suffer through a mediocre Sunday service.

The problem comes when, like Judas, your walk of faith becomes more taking than following.

When a self-centered follower doesn't get what he wants, he'll eventually turn his back on the church and on Jesus. If opportunity knocks, betrayal won't be far behind.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Last Night: Messy People

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. (John 13:14-15)
When's the last time you washed someone's feet?

I'm sure there are some parents of kids reading this who frequently engaged in the ritual of foot washing. But I don't think that's what Jesus is telling us we need to be doing.

He did more than just washing some dirty feet. He humbled himself to do a dirty job for a group of people who, by nearly anyone's estimation, were "beneath" him. He was their Lord, their Master, and their Footwasher. This was a distasteful and uncomfortable task, one normally done by a servant.

He also washed the feet of everyone there, both his closest friends and the ones who would soon deny and betray him. As is so often true, it turned out the friends and the betrayers were the same people.

I've found this to be true: You'll never know the true depths of fellowship with Christ until you humble yourself to be involved in down and dirty service in ways and in places that make you feel a bit uncomfortable.

The prison did that for me. I often find myself out of my comfort zone at the prison and I'm seldom fully in control of what's going to happen next. This is so true that we've actually adapted our approach over the years to be as unstructured as possible, while still having a plan. When the people you're serving have a built-in tendency to derail the plain, why not go off-road from the get-go?

When we try to recruit for help we get responses like, "That sounds pretty scary." You bet it is. It's scary and unnerving to be trying to provide counsel to people who have experienced things that are way out of my range of experience. Nowhere in my life have I been so uncertain of what out-of-left-field question one of them is going to ask next.

But it's great because these ladies challenge us to be real, to dig deeper than pat answers. They've taught me how to be authentic in my faith.

That sort of education doesn't happen in a classroom and it's not learned from a sermon. It happens when you become messily involved in the messy lives of messy people.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Last Night: A Remarkable Servant

In the third year of Jesus' ministry the disciples saw events approaching a tipping point. Crowds were increasing. The opposition of the religious leaders was becoming more vehement. If this were the 21st century, #KingJesus would have been a trending hashtag.

The disciples responded by jockeying for position in the pecking order of #The12. More than once, Jesus had to deal with the bickering (Luke 9:46-50; Matthew 20:20-28; Luke 22:24-30).

And then, when they arrived in the upper room for what they knew would be a very special Passover feast, they discovered that Judas, of all people, had claimed the seat next to Jesus (see this detailed analysis of the likely seating chart).

Amid the undercurrent of grumbling and whispering that no doubt charged the atmosphere of this intimate gathering, Jesus did something remarkable.

Marketing guru Seth Godin presented a TED talk titled "How to Get Your Ideas to Spread." It has become one of the most popular of the TED videos (watch it below, or click here).

He makes a good point, one that any marketer or writer or artist knows to be true.
You're driving down the road and you see a cow, and you keep driving, because you've seen cows before. Cows are invisible. Cows are boring. Who's going to stop and pull over and say, "Oh, look, a cow"?  Nobody.

But if the cow was purple, you'd notice it, for awhile. I mean, if all cows were people, then you'd get bored with those, too.

The thing that's going to decide what gets talked about, what gets done, what gets changed, what gets purchased, what gets built, is 'Is it remarkable?'.

And 'remarkable' is a really cool word, because we think it just means 'neat'. But it also means 'worth making a remark about'. And that is the essence of where idea diffusion is going.
If you don't immediately understand the importance of remarkable words or actions, go ahead and watch the entire video. I'll wait.

Many Christian leaders watch this video and they read Godin's books and they immediately start thinking about how they can market their church or book or organization through social media and otaku targeting (putting your remarkable message in front of people who are most likely to remark about it).

Jesus, though, wasn't great at marketing himself. Several times in the gospel stories, we see him healing someone and then actually telling that person to not tell everyone about it. When news of Jesus' miracles and teachings began to go viral, he repeatedly hides from the crowds.

Jesus knew that by saying or doing remarkable things for an audience of his Twelve Otakus, the word would be spread in a way that would best accomplish his mission.

He didn't need a Powerpoint presentation or a three-point catchy outline. Instead he did something that turned their whole concept of seating charts and pecking orders upside down. He stripped down to the clothing of a servant and washed their feet.

If we want to make the message of Jesus go viral in our churches and in the world today, we need to focus less on marketing strategies and more on doing things that will turn common perceptions of Christ and his Church upside down and inside out.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


One of my co-workers died this past weekend.

It's depressing and humbling to watch how quickly a workplace moves on after the death of a key person. We all like to think we’re pretty important, that our leaving (for whatever cause) will leave a big hole.

But it’s kind of like pulling up a tree planted in sand. The unstoppable progress of the living world sifts into the empty spot until it's forgotten about.
“The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” (Charles de Gaulle)
When I heard the news, I briefly considered applying for the now-open job, which would be a significant pay increase. In two years in that position I could be free of debt and could also accomplish some things on that job.

But that job would consume me - my time, my energy, my focus; my Monday evenings, my writing time...

And in the end, when I would eventually leave that job, the sand would quickly rush into the hole I would leave behind.

How much better to live in constant pursuit of the example set by the man who called us to be the ones to fill in the gap left by his absence.

The wise man builds his life upon the rock, even if logic and common sense argue otherwise.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Leave Me Behind

Nope. Not a fan.
I won't be going to the theater to see the movie version of Left Behind opening today across the country, for several reasons:

  1. It stars Nicolas Cage, who is not my favorite actor
  2. I don't shell out the bucks to see a movie on the big screen unless it's a major sci-fi flick with giant spaceships and wookies.
  3. In spite of it supposedly being a faith-based film, it's actually based on a flawed understanding of the biblical teaching about the end times.
  4. Nicolas Cage

I actually skip most of the faith-based films that my Facebook friends like to post about. I'm not much interested in them because:

  1. Like Left Behind, they often present a flawed picture of the Bible and theology. Heaven is For Real is supposedly a really feel-good movie, but I maintain a healthy skepticism regarding all life after death tales.
  2. Most of them aren't very well produced movies. I like movies, a lot. But I'm not much interested in a film with the production values of Sharkando 2: The Second One, even if it's about heaven or about being a courageous father. 
  3. If the movie is based on a book I've read, the film almost always fails miserably to deliver the same impact as the book. Blue Like Jazz would be a good example. The experience of making that movie apparently gave Don Miller a whole new way to brand himself and apply the idea of storytelling to spirituality. But the movie itself was disappointing.
The actual Bible movies, like the recent Noah and the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings, spark my interest a bit more than the others. I've found that even if, like The Passion of the Christ, they're flawed by the producer's eccentric approach, there's always a few scenes that help me to picture what might have really happened. The interaction between Jesus and Satan in The Passion still sticks in my mind, even if it was a bit strange.

But I'm still not likely to go see them at the cineplex.

You may wonder why I'd dismiss these movies out of hand rather than seeing them as a missional opportunity. 

The answer is that while I dismiss the movies as uninteresting to me, I do make an effort to familiarize myself with these movies. I read the plot synopsis and reviews, so if someone does ask me about it I can carry on a semi-intelligent conversation, looking for those missional opportunities.

But I don't have to actually watch the movies to do that.

Roy Weece taught me the value of not having to see or read everything that's hot and new. I asked him one time if he'd read or heard of a book I was reading, and his response was, "I've heard of it, but I haven't read it. How about you tell me what it says and then I won't have to read it."

At the time I thought it was a bit strange, but then I realized that by having me tell him about it, along with my reaction to it, he triggered a productive conversation about the topics in the book.

The same can be true with these movies. If someone asks me what I think of God's Not Dead, I can have them tell me about it. By asking them questions, informed by my private reading about the movie, we'll have a much better missional conversation than if I just give my opinions. 

The truth is, though, that I hardly ever get asked about those movies by non-Christians. It's only the believers, who bring them up, because it's mostly only the believers who are watching these movies.

Except for me, of course.

Actually, if any of those faith-based becomes available on one of my Dish channels, I'll probably set the DVR to record it so I can take a look. By then, it won't be a big viral topic of discussion anymore, but I can satisfy my curiosity, aided by the fast forward and jump buttons. It beats watching a fake reality show about Christians with beards.

Right and Righteous

From my current article, Right and Righteous, in the October issue of Christian Standard magazine:

Pitched arguments over the moral or political aspects of cultural issues seldom lead to anything productive. It’s far better to engage people in conversations that are relentlessly focused on missional goals. 
A discussion that centers exclusively on a mission to win an argument for truth, without being balanced by a mission to win people to Christ, is likely to accomplish neither. Peter counsels as much when he says, “Do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:15, 16)...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The View From the Bus: Riders on the Storm

The problem with being a weather nerd is that you can really convince yourself you are so savvy with all the radars and models that you actually can beat the odds and win a game of cat-and-mouse with the weather.

One of these days I'll learn.

It was a Wednesday, so my wife had the car and the plan was for me to ride the bus home. No problem. There was a storm system moving in from the southwest, but there would be plenty of time. There were tornado warnings in Pettis County and then more in Cooper County, but all of that nastiness was going to slide to the north of Columbia, so no problem.

The problems don't come until I've already stepped onto the bus and then the rain starts to pick up and the winds start to blowing.

I stepped off the Pink Route bus at Womens & Childrens Hospital, ready to sit in the hospital cafeteria for the 20 minute wait for the Blue Route Bus. The moment I stepped down from the bus the severe weather warning sirens started to go off. I heard the bus driver yell, "You'd better get into the hospital!" as he shut the door of the bus and drove off.

I took a few steps toward the building and then thought better of it. I used to work in that hospital and I know what happens when there are sirens going off. If I go in there, they'll make me gather with everybody else in the "safe spots".  I'd already learned from Twitter on my smart phone that the warning was in effect until 5:00 PM, which would be a good 10-15 minutes later than the Blue bus was scheduled to pick me up.

Twitter also was telling me that the actual rotation that triggered the warning was down int he southern part of the county and wouldn't be posing any real threat to me at the northeast corner of CoMo.

So I ducked into the plexiglass bus shelter and stood there to wait.

The Blue bus, of course, was running behind because of rush hour traffic in steadily increasing rain. And the pitter patter of rain on the roof of the shelter was turning into a louder rat-a-tat.

I was still out of the rain, though, so I didn't really care. Until I realized that a slowly rising stream of water was swirling under my feet.

Just as I was about to step up onto the shelter's bench to get out of the rushing water, the Blue bus came over the ridge. I pulled my hoodie over my head and stepped out to the bus stop to get the driver's attention. I did not want her to miss me this time.

No sooner was I safely inside the bus than the heavens opened up and the rain became a deluge.

From behind me I heard a voice cry out, "Y'alls roof is leaking back here!" I turned to look and the emergency exit hatch located in the roof had a rapid dripping of rainwater coming from the edges. (Yes, the emergency hatch is on the roof. I try not to think too long about why they need an emergency hatch on the roof.)

I began to wonder what I was going to do when I got to my final bus stop. It's a good half mile walk to my house from there. I carry an umbrella in my bus pack, but it was starting to look like I'd need an inflatable raft and a paddle to get home. If you look closely at the picture at the left, which I took during this ride, you'll see there was a homeless guy standing in his usual spot in the rain. He probably saw that as an opportunity to get some sympathy donations, but I had no interest in drowning myself at the side of a road just blocks from my home.

I could get off at the stop regardless of the rain's intensity and make a mad dash for the relative shelter of the Sonic drive-in across the street. I could probably ride out the heaviest of the rain there.

I could also just stay on the bus and ride it around the circuit again, hoping the rain let up in the 30-40 minutes it took to get back to my stop.

Before I go there, my wife called me, frantically worrying that I was walking along in a severe storm. She had driven through hail on her drive and was now at home, eager to come pick me up.

I almost missed getting off at the stop, though. A block away from my stop, the overhead severe storm sirens started blaring from a horn situated right above us. At the same time, the bus driver's radio burst forth with a loud severe weather warning.

In all that noise, and with the rain doing its best impression of Niagara Falls outside the windshield, the bus driver didn't hear the ding when I pulled the "Stop Requested" cord, and drove right past the bus stop. I stood up and yelled for her to stop, but it took her a few hundred yards before she found a safe place to do so.  She apologized as I stepped out into the rain.

I made a mad dash across the traffic and back to the Sonic and waited for my wife to pick me up from there.

For the few minutes I waited, I was left wondering about the fate of my fellow passengers.  Most of them likely don't have someone available to give them a lift. Such is the life of the have-to bus rider.

Last Night: Having Loved His Own

It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. (John 13:1)

It's the last night before he's going to die. Jesus knew the time had come and he's dealing with a level of personal grief we can't really comprehend. He knows He's going to die. He knows He could opt out if he were to so choose. But he knows he won't.

His personal anguish, which we'll see displayed later on in the garden, is complicated by his concern for the people who have been following him over the past three years.

They're about to be left alone. He knows they'll be frightened. He knows they'll abandon him. And yet he knows they're his best hope for continuing his mission after he's gone.

Not only that, but he loves them as his own. In Jesus’ final prayer in John 17 he describes the disciples as "the people you gave me."

His concern in that upper room on this last night turns to helping them to understand how they should continue to be His disciples in the world after He is gone.

He wants them to understand the full extent of His love by understanding the reason for the sacrifice he's about to make. And he wants them to understand the full extent of his love by understanding how much he trusts them to take over the task of being the image of God in the world.

Jesus' last conversations with his disciples are important. He's telling them, and us, what he expects his disciples, and his church, to be like and look like after he is gone.

One of my favorite descriptions of the Church is Paul's in Ephesians 4. In his usual analytic fashion, the apostle lays out the detailed structure of what and how the Church is to operate.

In contrast, here in John 13 through 17, Jesus opens his heart to the disciples and passes his legacy over to them and to the church that will grow out of their mission.

On that last night, Jesus let the first disciples in on the plan. They didn't quite grasp it all there on that last night. They only began to figure it out when that Last Night was followed by the First Morning.

Perhaps the key thing Jesus says is found in chapter 14, verse 12: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even grater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

What “greater things”? How is that even possible?

What could anything we do be greater than what he did?

What could be greater than God becoming a man and reconciling people to him through teaching, servanthood, and sacrifice? How about God inhabiting thousands of men and women over thousands of years in order to reconcile man to Himself through the collection of diverse oddballs, obsessive goof-ups and opinionated knuckle-heads known as the Church.

Never underestimate the church. We are not like any other organization or corporation or club or special-interest group. We are tasked with continuing Jesus' work in this world and we've been given the most incredible tools with which to accomplish that work.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Meditation Metaphor: Inspiration

My lungs don't work properly.

Actually, it's the cilia in my lungs that don't work. Cilia are the tiny hair-like structures in the lungs that move rhythmically to slough out mucous and irritants. Except my cilia are immotile - they don't move. It's a genetic thing.

Because of this, if I don't get a lot of aerobic exercise, my lungs become lethargic and don't work as hard as they should took take in the air my body needs.

We all learned in school that the lungs pull in the air and feed it to the bronchioles an don into the blood stream, which distributes it to the cells throughout the body.

When my lungs get bogged down with things besides air, I don't breathe deeply enough to be able to send an adequate supply to all parts of my body. My hands and feet get cold due to oxygen deprivation. My brain functions slow down and become foggy. Eventually I'll get sick.

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Mark 4:18-19
My faith also needs regular aerobic workouts.

We're all infected with an abnormality in our souls, a tendency to allow other things to crowd out our focus on Christ. Even if we're hearing a sermon every Sunday, sitting in a Bible class, and occasionally reading an inspirational book, our souls suffer from the choking effects of everything else we're taking in.

The more we stretch ourselves to read and meditate on the Word with frequency and urgency, the healthier we become spiritually. Steady, continuous intake of the Word seeps into the heart, the sol, the mind, and the will, and keeps us energized for the work He has in store for us.