Archive

Tag Archives: Jesus

It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women having a Bible study. One, who appeared to be the leader, was talking to the others who both listened attentively. As I tried to hear more, I noticed that all she was doing was telling them stories about Jesus. And the women she was speaking to kept asking questions curiously. They wanted to hear more about Him. It was beautiful. I could have continued sweeping for hours while eavesdropping on that conversation.

These two experiences stand in contrast with most of the conversations I overhear in the Church at large. We talk about a lot about things related to our life together, but it’s been a long time since I heard (or sadly, preached) a sermon that was only about how magnificent Jesus is. We have lots of good theological conversations at the seminary, but we constantly run the risk of reducing Jesus to a distant historical figure or a moral principle, instead of the compassionate divine lover of humankind that He is. This distancing of our conversation from Jesus seems to happen even more in the higher levels of the bureaucracy of denominations.

This weekend I’ll go to Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m not a delegate; I’ll be there to represent and promote Pittsburgh Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. There will be a lot of talk at General Assembly, good and bad, about a lot of different issues. I’ll even engage in some of those conversations. But I think we’ll all be better off – our hearts will be more joyful, the Church will be edified, our decisions will be more faithful – if we take moments this week to set aside those debates and instead focus upon Jesus. So here’s my suggestion:

If you’re attending General Assembly, try speaking about Jesus more than yourself and more than your agenda. I want to hear you tell me about Jesus. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook throughout the Assembly, hashtag your posts with #TellMeAboutJesus. For one example of a possible tweet, a member of my congregation whom I recently asked to simply tell me about Jesus responded with, “He’s the sort of person who, when he speaks, you want to hear more.” I’m thinking that if we at GA share such holy thoughts with one another, we’ll find ourselves caught up in surprisingly beautiful conversations. Perhaps we’ll even recognize Jesus’ presence with us more clearly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our words, and guard us against any blasphemy.

So here we go . . . Tell me about Jesus.  

For Christians, this is Holy Week. For Jews, this week is Passover. Two thousand years ago, these were the same events: Jesus’ celebration of Passover was at the center of the original Holy Week. Yet this week our Holy Week services at our church in Squirrel Hill will have a distinctly Christian flavor, while the Jews in our neighborhood will celebrate Passover according to their traditions. And though these two celebrations are deeply related, most of us will remain ignorant of what our neighbors are doing. Why is this? Should it really be this way?

Rabbi David Zaslow’s book Jesus: First-Century Rabbi seeks to remedy this ignorance by reminding its readers of the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and so were the first “Christians.” But since the first-century, the divide has continually grown between followers of Jesus and Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. In some cases, this has led to tragically violent manifestations of anti-Semitism. Seeking to build bridges between Jews and Christians, Zaslow writes from a place of optimistic belief that deeper understanding of each other’s faiths can help lead us to greater harmony, calling us to “ask God together to turn Constantine’s sword into a pruning hook” (p.xxiv).

For one example of our common heritage which is relevant for this week, consider how Zaslow’s description of the Hebraic understanding of time illumines our understanding of Passover and our practice of Eucharist. At his last Passover meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” As Zaslow examines what remembrance would have meant to first-century Jews, he quotes Lawrence Hoffman, saying “the rabbis saw zikarone [remembrance] as anamnesis: making the past present. Continuing, Zaslow writes,

This same sense of anamnesis, time past experienced as time present, is central to the annual Passover seder, the yearly retelling of the Passover story accompanied by a festive meal in Jewish homes. In the Hagaddah, the book containing the stories and prayers to be read at the seder, it is written, ‘In every generation a person must regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’ The annual retelling of the Exodus story is accompanied by wine and foods emblematic of slavery and liberation, and has the effect of a spiritual time machine.  (p. 102)

This worldview in which zikarone makes the past present is the same worldview that enabled early Christians to speak of the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine of communion. Though it runs contrary to the sensibilities of many modernist Protestants, this “spiritual time machine” was part of the worldview of the early Christians and is at the root of our practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Zaslow of course presents many other interesting examples of Jewish roots of Christian teaching which make it worth reading. But I have to observe that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi also has a few serious limitations. As a Christian, I found myself objecting to many of the caricatures of Christian theology Zaslow makes when comparing Christian beliefs to Jewish beliefs. There’s not room even in 200 pages to accomplish what Zaslow sets out to do, so doctrines such as the Trinity receive only two pages. Zaslow himself acknowledges his limits in the book’s introduction, and asks his readers to grant him some poetic license. I can do that in many places, but not all.

I struggled especially with Zaslow’s very short chapter on the Apostle Paul. Describing Paul as “antinomian,” Zaslow wonders, “Did Paul really love his own Jewish faith,or was he just pretending to practice Judaism in order to win people over to the new gospel?” (p. 174). Such a question reveals a very shallow reading of Paul. Zaslow makes no mention of Romans 9-11, where Paul himself shares his theology of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and expresses a deep yearning for his brothers and sisters to see Jesus as Lord. Why would Paul pretend to be Jewish when all that brought him was persecution? As he lists in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul endured floggings, stonings, sleeplessness, and hunger for the sake of telling others about Jesus. Zaslow writes wisely earlier in the book that “Christianity is at its best when it is expressed from the cross – from the place of sacrifice, suffering, failure, and not from a position of power” (p. 130). This was exactly the position taken by the Apostle Paul, who suffered even to the point of martyrdom for his faith in Jesus.

While I admire Zaslow’s bridge-building intentions, and am grateful for the insights this book gave me into the Jewish roots of Christianity, I cannot minimize the differences between our faiths as Zaslow wants to do. I grant that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi was supposed to be about the Jewishness of Jesus, not Paul, but Zaslow’s difficulty with Paul still reveals how great the difference is between Christianity and any other faith. So much depends upon how we answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” Zaslow writes from the perspective of one who believes Jesus was a righteous Jew. I read this book from the perspective of someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. I pray that this Passover, this Holy Week, God will grant Christians and Jews the grace to learn from each other and grow in relationship, while still answering Jesus’ question clearly and honestly. Who do we say that he is?

 

 


 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sending me a review copy of Jesus: First Century Rabbi.

 

The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.

 

While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

Two weekends ago, I was on vacation in Colorado. More specifically, I was at the Planet Bluegrass Folks Festival. It was a beautiful end to a restful week in my home state. Good food, good beer, good music, good friends and family. And, during the lazy afternoons at the music festival, time to read a good book.

One of the two books I brought along on vacation was Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World. David Carlson, the author, shares throughout the book stories of visits he made to Christian monasteries in America, interviewing monks and nuns and see how they responded to September 11th. Carlson was searching for, and found, examples of more Christlike responses to 9/11 than were ever heard in the American media in the wake of the attack. I’ll save the message on loving our enemies for later. For now I’m concerned about one particular quote from one of the visits (which, incidentally, was with an artist, and not a monk).

Sitting in the afternoon sun at the Folks Festival, I read about Carlson’s encounter with Richard Bresnahan, a potter who was then working in a studio at the Benedictine affiliated St. John’s College in Minnesota.  Recalling Bresnahan’s comments on the American lifestyle, Carlson wrote:

As evidence of our falsity, he cited the modern preoccupation of being “true to one’s self,” a goal far different from the traditional understanding of integrity.  “If you’re going to be ‘true to yourself.’ that’s that hollow voice yelling in a soundless cave. If you’re going to be true to others, your self is understood.” For Bresnahan, integrity is not being loyal to one’s own narcissistic whims, but being loyal to that which brings balance to human community life. (pp. 192-193)

I was struck by Bresnahan’s insight that integrity is about being faithful to others, not being “true to one’s self.” Though the book doesn’t portrays his religious views as explicitly Christian, Bresnahan was articulating a fundamental Christian truth. Our selves are frankly deceitful. As the Biblical prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB). Because we’re naturally given to self-interest and self-preservation, being “true to ourselves” may just be a euphemism for “being selfish.” If this deceitful heart is the “self” to which we should be true, how will we ever survive the fickleness of our emotions?

How should our “self” is defined: in an individualistic way, or in terms of social relationships?  Should I, as Chris, seek to be “true to Chris”? That sounds vague because it is vague.  It gives no way to determine what integrity looks like apart from a general appeal to my own feelings. A better way of defining who I am is through my commitments to others: I should be true to who I am as a husband, a (soon-to-be) father, a pastor, a writer, a friend, a son, etc. That gives concrete meaning to what integrity should look like in my life. And it means that a faithful search for integrity should include a healthy measure of self-doubt, humility, and willingness to submit to those to whom I’m committed. When our vision of integrity is about being true to our own subjective definitions of our selves, we’re little more than slaves to our own desires. But if our “self” is defined by virtue of our real relationships to others, and the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of loving and serving others, then being true to our selves is the same as being true to others.

But too often in our culture, being true to one’s self is reduced to obedience to one’s own emotions or desires. Back at the Folks Festival, later that night, I heard a different message through the loudspeakers at the festival.  Lyle Lovett was singing “Isn’t That So”, a song whose chorus goes, “Isn’t that so / Tell me, isn’t that so / You got to go when your heart says go / Isn’t that so.”  I enjoy listening to Lyle, but I get sad when the song says “Let that line of least resistance lead me on.”  The line of least resistance is usually the line which tells us to follow our own fleshly desires. And those desires are exactly what the song calls us to indulge: “Well, he [God] knew what he was doin’ / When he put eyes into my head / If he didn’t want me to lookin’ at them pretty little women / He’d’a left my ol’ eyeballs dead.”

Yes, God gave us the gifts of beauty and the sight to apprehend beauty. But to turn recognition of such gifts into a theological justification of lust is the sort of demonic distortion of the good which lies behind all sin. Jesus, who knew what He was doing in giving sight to the blind, had different words to say about the promiscuity of our eyes: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). I do not hear Jesus calling us to “go when our hearts say go.” But I do hear Jesus calling us to a radical commitment to integrity, defined not by our own whims, but by submission to His Lordship and fidelity to the relationships in which He’s placed us.  “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

The Story: Last fall, I spoke at a retreat for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Evangelical Student Fellowship.  The topic I chose to speak about was Truth. Evangelicals like truth, and they like to defend it when they feel that truth is under attack.  I took a slightly different approach: The Gospel of John says that Jesus is Truth. And if Truth is a person, then Truth is more than an abstract idea to be defended. Taking it a step further, in John 3:21, Jesus says that one who “practices the Truth comes to the Light”.  If Jesus is Truth, and if in Christ we’re called to become more and more Christlike, then we’re called to act truthfully, do the truth, practice the truth. With this in mind, my talks for the retreat became a call to seek truthfulness and integrity in our personal lives and our ministries. The talks seemed to be well received.  I started thinking that maybe this idea of practicing the truth deserved more attention.

Then this spring, I attended the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College.  I knew ahead of time that publishers there would be open to receiving book proposals, so I started putting together  a book proposal for Practicing the Truth. I wasn’t able to complete the proposal in time for the Festival, but after encouraging conversations with several people there, I returned home, finished the proposal and sent it in to an editor I had met.  A few weeks went by.  Then I got an email.  They wanted a second sample chapter.  This was getting exciting.  I wrote the second sample chapter and sent it in.  A couple more weeks went by, and then I got an email from an editor saying that my ideas didn’t fit within the genre of that particular line of books (understandable) and that my platform wasn’t yet developed enough (i.e. my name isn’t famous enough to sell books, also understandable). That was a bit discouraging. But I am encouraged that my proposal was seriously considered. And the amount of positive feedback I’ve received in talking to others about this project over the past couple months far outweighs one rejection.  So, I’m going to keep writing . . .

The Idea: I’m working with this title in mind: Practicing the Truth: The Spiritual Discipline of Living Truthfully.  For more on the ideas and structure of the book, read the Practicing the Truth page on this blog. The general goal of the book will be to present dedication to truth and integrity as a spiritual discipline which conforms us to the likeness of Christ, who is Truth.  I think that when Christians practice such dedication to truth, we’ll see powerful transformation in our relationships, our spiritual lives, our mental health, and our ministries.

Moving Forward: (1) At the advice of a close friend, I’m going to keep on writing, but do so with the congregation I pastor in mind. If these ideas are of value, they’ll be of value to the community I find myself in right now. And if this is a book which calls us to greater openness, honesty, and authenticity, then the process of writing it should be marked by those characteristics. So starting in August or September, I’ll roll out one chapter per month.  Those from Upper Room who’ve expressed interest are invited to read the chapter, and then gather as a group with me for an evening of conversation about the ideas presented in that month’s chapter. I pray that God will use this to make us even more into a community of honesty, authenticity, and integrity. I also think this will make it a better book. Friends from Upper Room, if you want to be involved in reading the chapters as they come out and discussing them, just let me know. (2) I’ll also keep blogging about topics or illustrations which are relevant to the content of the book. Posts which are related in one way or another to the theme of the book will show up under the category “Practicing the Truth.” Keep checking back to see where this project is going. (3) I may submit my proposal to other publishers. We’ll see what happens. For right now, though, the priority will be on writing for my congregation. If the Lord wills that this will be used to bless a broader audience, then let the Lord’s will be done.  If the Lord wants only the people of Upper Room to grow in truthfulness as a result of this writing, the let the Lord’s will be done.

Thank you, friends, for joining me on this journey towards the One who is Truth!