Tuesday, July 18, 2017

John 4: Thirsty Souls (New Creation Project)

“He had to pass through Samaria.”
No. In fact, he didn’t. When Jewish people traveled north from Jerusalem to Galilee, they intentionally avoided Samaria. But Jesus wasn’t like most people. He went where others did not dare to go. 
“He had to pass through Samaria.” 
Why? Because there was a woman there who needed him.
  • It didn’t matter to him that she was a woman and he was a man.
  • It didn’t matter to him that she was a Samaritan woman and he was a Jewish man.
  • It didn’t matter to him that she was a sinful Samaritan woman and he was a sinless Jewish man.
There was a thirsty woman who needed living water: "He had to pass through Samaria.”
Jesus was always crossing boundaries in order to find thirsty people. He still does. He knows that many of the things we pursue in life are, at their root, efforts to assuage a deep spiritual thirst.
  • We crave relationships. 
  • We crave success. 
  • We crave significance. 
  • We crave power. 
  • We crave recognition. 
  • We crave comfort. 
  • We crave pleasure. 
  • We crave – you name it, we crave it.
For the most part, these cravings only leave us craving more. They may gratify; they do not satisfy. 
A reporter once asked a fabulously wealthy man, “How much money is enough?” His response: “Just a little more.”
In our honest moments, we know this is true. If our ultimate identity is found relationships, in success, in significance, or any other of these cravings, they bring only momentary relief, and the immediate desire for “just a little more.”
This woman craved love and acceptance. She’d been rejected by seven husbands. She had resigned herself to her fate. She assumed her soul thirst would never be assuaged. 
Jesus offered to quench her thirsty soul, even while challenging her conscience. On a hot and thirsty day, he promised her cosmic, thirst-quenching, living water.
He promises to us the same: “If anyone thirsts,” he said, “let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37f; also 6:35).
Like the woman, we are thirsty. Our soul cravings never fully satisfy. Jesus meets us at the point of our need and offers himself as the answer to the cravings of our thirsty heart.
How does he do this?
Fast-forward to another day....
  • Jesus took a walk where no one else wanted to go. It was not to Samaria; it was to Calvary.
  • Jesus drank the cup that no one else could drink. It was not the cup of living water; it was the cup of death.
  • Jesus, who once offered living water to a thirsty woman, was now parched beyond belief; “I thirst," he said.
In a word: Jesus drank the cup of death so we could drink the water of life.
“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price" (Revelation 22:17).
To the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride, I add my own testimony: “Come on in; the water’s fine!”
“Lord Jesus, thank you for drinking our cup of death so that you could offer us the living water of life. Help me to lay aside my leaky ladle filled with futile soul-cravings, and instead to drink freely from your overflowing springs of life-giving, soul-satisfying water.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Loopholes -- Mark 10 (New Creation Project)


Loopholes. That’s what we’re looking for. 

We want to obey God, but we don’t want it to be too costly, or too inconvenient, or too complicated. That’s why we need loopholes.
Sure, we’ll keep our marital vows, but not if it gets too hard. We’d like an escape clause if necessary. Sure, we’ll honor God with our wealth, but not if it gets too costly. We’d like to keep our standard of living if possible. Sure, we’ll follow Jesus, but not if we don’t get something out of it….
These are not just contemporary problems: they confront every generation. In fact, they are evident in the 10th chapter of Mark.
It begins with a thorny question about marriage: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (10:2). It continues with the heartfelt question of a wealthy man: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17). It concludes with a searching question for some power-hungry disciples: “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:36).
The first question involves sex and marriage. The second involves money and wealth. The third deals with power and leadership. To put it in contemporary parlance, these are ancient questions about the very modern issues of money, sex and power.
In the first instance, religious leaders come to Jesus with a question about divorce. Their interaction with Jesus is very telling. Notice how the question is framed: “Is it lawful … to divorce?” Jesus says, “What did Moses command you?” They respond, “Moses allowed….”
Do you catch what is happening here? They are looking for loopholes in the marriage covenant. Jesus asked for Moses’ command; they reply with Moses’ concession. In response, Jesus affirms God’s original creational intention: “From the beginning of creation, God created them male and female…. What God has joined together, let not man separate.”
In Matthew’s account of this event, the disciples are horrified by Jesus’ strict enforcement of the marital vow. “If such is the case,” they say, “… it is better not to marry!” Many modern Christians feel the same way. Isn’t Jesus a bit harsh? After all, God doesn’t want me unhappy, right? And what’s so bad about living together?
In the second instance, a wealthy young man asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, “looking at him, loved him,” and told him to give all his money to the poor, and then follow him. The man walked away disheartened, unwilling to pay the price of following Jesus.
Again, the disciples were astonished. They assumed, as most of us do, that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Wasn’t Jesus being a bit unreasonable with this sincere young man?
In the final instance, it is the disciples themselves who must be taught a hard lesson. Knowing that they are headed for a showdown in Jerusalem, two of them seize their chance, asking Jesus to appoint them to the leading positions of power.
This isn’t the first time the twelve have jockeyed for position (see 9:32ff), so Jesus – again – has to set them straight. They think that power leads to privilege and position; Jesus tells them that in his kingdom power leads to service and sacrifice: “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
These three instances, occurring just before Jesus’ crucifixion, uncover the utter dissimilarity between Jesus’ way and the ways of the culture. They all involve very devout people, revealing that even (or especially) within the circle of faith, we struggle to navigate our way through issues of money, sex and power.
Why are these three things so problematic? Each one of them can become a false god in our lives. Why? Because humans are hard-wired for worship, and money, sex and power offer something of the security, the intimacy, and the transcendence that we crave. As a result, they are tempting substitutes for worship.
Until we learn to worship the One who died for the sake of his Bride (Eph 5:25), the One who for our sakes “became poor so that [we] … might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9), and the One who demonstrated his power by laying down his life on a cross (1 Cor 1:17f), we will find sex, money and power to be appealing substitutes for the real thing. And they will destroy us in the process.
So let us not make the mistake of the Pharisees, who were looking for loopholes. Let us not be like the wealthy man who was eager to have his cake and eat it too. Let us, instead, be like those bumbling and selfish disciples, who, despite their weakness and failures, never lost their willingness to follow Jesus no matter what (10:28), and who were always open to his loving correction (10:42ff). For them, as well as for us, that made all the difference in the world.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Presence of the Lord -- Daily Bread Project (Day 11)

Wednesday: Genesis 27-28; Matthew 8

Jacob is a curious character in the Bible. He’s not often thought of as a biblical hero, an example of faith. In truth, his relationship with God was more of a struggle than anything else. They had a rocky relationship, to say the least. (He is, after all, the guy whose name became “Israel,” which means something like, “He who struggles with God.”) Sounds a lot like you and me, doesn't it?
We first meet Jacob grabbing at his brother’s heel – while they are being born – as if to say, “Me First!” His name means, literally, “He who grasps the heel.” He is the “supplanter.” He’s always trying to get ahead, trying to be first, trying to gain an advantage. We might call him, “Trickster.”
We see it in his birth, and we see it in his youth. And yet, for reasons known only to God, Jacob is the one through whom God’s covenant blessing will be given. But he is unwilling to trust God work to things out in his own way. He tricks his older brother out of his birthright. Then he tricks his father out of the family blessing.
As a result, unwelcome in his own family, he must seek his fortune elsewhere. He runs away to a faraway land. There, he finds the love of his life, his cousin Rachel, and her father, his uncle Laban.
In the unscrupulous uncle, Jacob seems to have met his match. Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his older daughter Leah, rather than her beautiful sister, Rachel. The trickster is himself tricked. But that’s a story for another day, and Jacob will get the better of his uncle in the end.
But this is all far in the future. In today’s reading, Jacob’s situation is dire and depressing. He’s alienated from his own family. He’s on the run, with nothing but a stone for his pillow. Grasping in his own strength for the future he believed was his destiny had only left him destitute. What would he do next?
As he struggles to get some rest, Jacob dreams about a ladder – or, as some would translate, “a flight of steps.” It starts on earth and reaches to heaven. No doubt, readers are meant to remember the Tower of Babel, which men built in order to reach the heavens and make a name for themselves.
But this is a different kind of tower. On the steps of this towering ladder, the angels of God are “ascending and descending.” Not men climbing toward God, but God’s representatives coming down to men!
In the midst of this magnificent scene, God shows up. He repeats to Jacob the same promise he gave to his father Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham: He will give him the land. He will give him a family, through whom all families of the earth will be blessed. And, best of all, he promises Jacob his presence: “I am with you … I will not leave you.”
Jacob shook the sleep from his eyes when he awoke: “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Despite his failures, despite his grasping, and despite his duplicity, God has not abandoned him. God is with him, even though he doesn’t deserve it. He had not been looking for God, but God had been looking for him.
He takes the stone which had been his pillow, and makes from it an altar of worship. He promises to be faithful to the God who has been faithful to him. This is the first of several turning points in Jacob’s life, places where Jacob encountered God. His life would never be the same. As best he could, he would follow the God who had chosen him.
In like manner, we, who’ve no doubt done our own share of grasping, of deceiving, and of running away, cannot help but be moved by the God who meets us on the worst night of our lives. We may not have been seeking him, but he has been seeking us. He is with us, and he has a good plan for us. Let us offer to him what little we have (perhaps only the stone upon which we lay our head!), and let us entrust our future to him. “Surely, the Lord is in this place.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Fasting and Feasting: Daily Bread Project (Day 4)

Wednesday: Genesis 10-12; Matthew 4
The first few chapters of Genesis have flown by, but they are incredibly important to the rest of the story. Like the opening credits to the famed Star Wars movies, they set the stage for the action to follow.
So far, what have we learned?
First, we’ve discovered that the world is here by God’s loving design, not as the result of a war between the gods (as per ancient Babylonian and Egyptian stories), nor merely as an accident of nature (as per contemporary scientific theories). The implications of this are enormous, for if true, it shows that the human quests for meaning and morality are not merely matters of personal taste, but are in fact, reflections of the God who made us. (If it’s not true, well, life is meaningless and morality is whatever we decide it to be. Kind of like contemporary culture, don’t you think?)
Next, we’ve found out that the root of this world’s problems are found in the human desire to live a life independent of the God who first breathed life into us. We’ve already seen this demonstrated in the lives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Lamech and his children; now we see it even in Noah and his descendants. Things reach their nadir with the construction of the Tower of Babel, as humans seek to unite as one “to make a name for [themselves].” It’s time, once again, for God to step into the story.
So, having seen both Adam and Noah fail to cultivate the beautiful, life affirming world God intended, God reveals himself to a pagan named Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house” (thus leaving his entire cultural, religious, and family identity behind him) “to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
“So Abram went,” the Bible says, and thus the long rescue story of Scripture began. Abram’s journey was not without it’s mistakes, as you will see, but despite this, God continued to affirm his promise to him. Why? Because Abram was perfect? No. Rather, because God was faithful. And Abram, notwithstanding his poor choices along the way, continued to trust in God’s faithfulness.
The long trajectory of Abram’s story ultimately led to the dusty desert outside Canaan — later called Israel, and much later, Judea. In this desolate place a man began his own incredible journey of faith. He’d just spent forty days fasting in the desert, seeking God’s guidance. He was famished.
At his moment of weakness, a stranger appeared, who, recognizing his hunger, challenged him in the same way he had challenged an innocent woman at the dawn of Earth’s history. She had been tempted to take a fruit; he was tempted to make some bread. Her name was Eve; his name was Jesus. She, seeing and desiring the fruit, took it. His desire was no less than hers. But instead, he said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Welcome to the Daily Bread Project. Today is Ash Wednesday, the day when, traditionally, Christians begin a season of fasting and remembrance. It’s a worthy discipline, one I’ve practiced many years.
But in our case, Lent is not a season of fasting, but rather, of feasting. We are feasting on the Word of God. We are filling our souls with Daily Bread. God grant that, in our own seasons of trial, we will not rely on human wisdom (as Eve did), but we will be able to say, as Jesus did, “It is written.”
Day 4 - Wednesday, Feb 10: Genesis 10-12, Matthew 4
Day 5 - Thursday, Feb 11: Genesis 13-15
Day 6 - Friday, Feb 12: Genesis 16-17, Matthew 5
Day 7 - Saturday, Feb 13: Genesis 18-19, Matthew 6
Day 8 - Sunday, Feb 14: Genesis 20-22
Day 9 - Monday, Feb 15: Genesis 23-24, Matthew 7
Day 10 - Tuesday, Feb 16: Genesis 25-26

Sunday, February 07, 2016

An Epic Adventure: Daily Bread Project (Day 1)

Think of the Bible as a four-act play, an epic story of God’s love affair with the world he created and the people he made. It’s a story of beauty, of brokenness, of rescue and renewal.
It’s the true story of the world. Yes, it’s ancient. Yes, parts of it are obscure. Yes, it can be baffling. But it tells the most compelling story, a story which has rung true in human hearts for four millennia, and which has utterly shaped the foundations of our western society.
I hope you will join the many from our church family who are beginning the journey of discovering/rediscovering this story during the course of the next year. It is, as I said, a four-act story of beauty, brokenness, rescue and renewal.
Act One: Beauty (Genesis 1-2)
In the beautiful opening act of our story, we learn that creation is not an accident, but rather the result of God’s loving intention. The first humans enjoyed harmony with God, with one another, within themselves, and with creation. God gave humanity the mandate to lovingly care for creation, to enable it to thrive, and to use its plentiful resources to build a culture of love, harmony, and mutual benefit. This opening act is still is seared into our hearts. We know in our bones that this world is good, that people matter, and that there is a transcendent reality beyond the physical universe. As you read Genesis 1-2, notice the beautiful harmony that existed when the world was first made.
Act Two: Brokenness (Genesis 3-11)
The beautiful project of culture-making which God gave us as his image-bearers in this world was de-railed by the horrors of Act Two. Creation, though beautiful, has been broken. While we desire harmony within, with others, with God and with creation, our more common experience is one of alienation and dissonance. Rather than developing a culture which affirms both humanity and creation, we are more likely to use it to manipulate, to oppress, and to affirm our independence from God. Like Adam, we blame Eve for our failures; like Cain, we avoid responsibility for our brother; like Lamech, we seek vengeance instead of forgiveness; like those who built Babel, we shape culture to assert our independence from God. As you read Genesis 3-11, notice how tragically little human culture has changed since those dark days.
Act Three: Rescue (Genesis 12 through the Gospels)
The God who made us refused to let us destroy ourselves. He rescued us. The long third act began when God called a pagan named Abram. It follows his family and the nation which grew from him (Israel) from Babylon to Canaan to Egypt to Canaan, to Babylon and back to Canaan. It reaches its glorious climax when God writes himself into the human story in the person of Jesus, God walking among us. It’s a story filled with twists and turns, failures and achievements — it takes the rest of the Old Testament and bleeds into the New Testament itself. It is the incredible story of God’s love and faithfulness, and his unwavering desire to restore to himself his wayward children. We will only peek at Act Three in this week’s reading, but even at the first we will see how incredibly patient God has been with us. We see that the ultimate hero of this story is not any human being, but rather, God alone — who simply will not quit on us.
Act Four: Renewal (Acts to Revelation)
It will take us a long time to get to the fourth act. But if we are patient, we will get there. As we work our way through Matthew, we will see that through Jesus’ resurrection new creation was inaugurated. It is as if Jesus is the second Adam (some Scriptures call him that), who came to undue the effects of the first Adam’s disobedience, and to put God’s creation project back on track. He brings renewal in every phase of life: he restores our relationship with God, with one another, within ourselves, and with the world God created. Jesus, as I said, inaugurated new creation through his resurrection; it will not be consummated until his return; and it is now being implemented by his Spirit’s work within us as we offer ourselves to him. Jesus has written the score; it is our privilege to play the tune as “living witnesses God’s new creation” (to borrow a phrase from our church vision statement). And what fun it is to play our part!
Beauty. Brokenness. Rescue. Renewal. As we work our way through the scriptures we will see this wonderful symphony emerge. It will take a long time to see it fully unfold, but if we are patient, our hearts will warm to the God who made us, who loves us, and who never gives up on us. Let us not give up on ourselves.
God bless you as you read this life-changing — and true! — story.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Wedding Muse

As many of you will know, it was my privilege to perform the wedding ceremony for our son, Kurt, and his new bride, Lindsay, last weekend. What a blessing!

In the past four years, I’ve performed three weddings for our children, a funeral for my father, and welcomed the birth of our first grandchild. “Marry, bury, and baptize,” as my college roommate used to speak about the ministry. Though I didn’t baptize my granddaughter, I can’t help but reflect on the deeply spiritual nature of these seminal life moments. It is a blessed privilege to have shared them with my family. In the midst of a life filled with events, most of which matter little, these are the moments that remind us how precious, transitory, beautiful — and big — life is. I feel like Tinkerbell, whose feeling of love was so big she had to grow up to feel it.
I don’t suppose Hook, the source of that Tinkerbell scene, is a great movie, but it looms large in our family’s imagination. We first saw it on the VCR (remember those?) in my dad’s living room. Our kids were all less than ten years old at the time. I was deeply moved by the portrayal of a grown man (Peter Pan/Banning) who’d forgotten how much joy there was in being a father. Watching that movie with my kids reminded me that, just like Peter, the “happy thought” which makes us “fly” is the birth of our children.
I was flying last weekend. We rented a large home so we could all stay together: grandparents and cousins, aunts and uncles, siblings and groomsmen. Kurt said the rehearsal dinner prayer, and our son-in-law (Matt) prayed with the groomsmen just before the wedding. I played wiffle ball with the guys on Kurt’s wedding day, and pulled two muscles in the meantime. Yes, there are serious drawbacks to getting older; but if it’s the price you pay to see your kids pray together and play together, who cares?
As the processional began, Kurt surprised his mother by saying, “Mom, let me escort you down the aisle.” The emotional floodgates were officially opened. I proudly followed behind, and the two of us ascended the platform to begin the ceremony. The bridal party entered one-by-one, and our daughter pulled her daughter, along with another nephew, down the aisle in a red wagon.
The doors opened. The people stood. The bride entered. Lindsay looked luminous as she walked down the aisle, and the groom next to me was overwhelmed with emotion. So was the minister next to him. But both made it through it.
The joy on our beloved children’s faces was palpable as they made their vows to one another. No doubt they felt a bit like Tinkerbell, bursting with a feeling too big to feel. I certainly felt like Peter Pan. I’m still flying.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Psalm 64: Hearts and Minds


Psalm 64 starts off predictably enough. David is in trouble – again. His enemy is out to get him. They’re hatching secret plots (1-2). Like a sniper’s arrows, their words ambush him without warning (3-4). David imagines their private thoughts: “Who will see us?” (5-6). They’ve covered their tracks. No one will know.
And then the line that catches us by surprise: “For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep” (6). Pause a moment to think about those words. Long before the emergence of modern psychology, David wrestles with the inner mysteries of the human heart. “The inward mind and heart of a man are deep.”
These ancient words speak the truth about the depths of our own human hearts. Like David’s enemies, our hearts lay “secret snares”, thinking no one will find out. Often our secrets are so deep that we don’t even recognize them ourselves. Our capacity for self-deception seems limitless. How often, for example, have we found ourselves criticizing others for actions and attitudes which we find mirrored in our own hearts? (Or have you never realized that fact about yourself?)
But if we fool ourselves, we do so to our own harm. And God, of course, is not hoodwinked. Notice the irony in the second portion of the psalm, evidenced by the repeated words, “arrow” (2 vs. 7), “tongues” (3 vs. 8), and “suddenly” (4 vs. 7). We may fool ourselves. We do not fool God.
Yes, “the inward mind and heart of a man are deep.” Or, in the words of Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (17:9, KJV).
Knowing this, the promise of Ezekiel 36:36 is exceedingly precious: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
That promise was fulfilled, of course, by Jesus himself, who, by virtue of his death and resurrection, cleanses our hearts with his love (Romans 5:5-8; 6:17). Only then can we confidently pray the psalmist’s closing prayer:
Let the righteous one rejoice in the Lord 
and take refuge in him!
Let all the upright in heart exult!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Match Point

Wouldn't it be grand if everything always turned out great, if good guys always won, if it never rained on anyone's parade? But life isn't like that, is it? Great plans go awry, good guys seldom win, and rain falls on parades.

What are we to make of that? What good is a God who can't get the little things right? Wouldn't we be better off in a purely naturalistic world?

Hardly! Without God, we would have no reason to think that life had any purpose besides its own continuation; we'd have no one to look to for guidance and encouragement; we'd have no recourse when life didn't make sense.

To be perfectly blunt about it, life would have no point. Disappointment would be pointless. And when you think about it, that's a pretty good point.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hello again

Okay, it's time I started writing again.

For several years I wrote a column for our weekly newspaper. It was well received by our community, and I enjoyed finding a way to gently communicate spiritual truths to a secular audience. Many of those articles found their way into this medium.

When the paper closed a year ago, so did the pressure to write. I've missed it.

I'm not making any resolutions, mind you, but at least, this is a start. "Beginning is half done," they say. We'll see....

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Strider’s Secret

Without the benefit of knowing the whole story, we are not sure what to think of Strider when first we encounter him. He lurks in the shadows of The Prancing Pony, keenly interested in the Halflings and their songs. It is evident he knows more than he reveals. Is he friend, or is he foe? We are unsure.

In time, we learn that Strider is in fact a friend, and will be a trustworthy guide for the hobbits on their journey. His true name is Aragorn, and as the story unfolds we discover there is much more to him than meets the eye. He is the heir of Isildur. He will not always lurk in the shadows. Someday he will take his rightful place as King of Middle Earth.

When J.R.R Tolkien first placed Strider in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” he wasn’t quite sure what he would do with him. Although he had already invested twenty months constructing what would become an epic story, only later would Strider, the vagabond Ranger, become the central character in the climax of “The Lord of the Rings.” At the first, he was merely a mysterious guide; later he became a magnificent king.

Aside from the “everyman” appeal of Frodo and Sam, Aragorn is the next most fascinating character in the famous trilogy. The burden of his mission is almost as great as that of Frodo, the designated Ring Bearer. Unlike his fateful ancestor, however, Aragorn refuses to accept the ring of power when it is available to him. He is willing to walk the path of humility until the appointed time.

In this way, Aragorn is a picture of Jesus Christ in his first advent. The Scriptures teach that Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6).

Like Aragorn in the days he was known as Strider, Jesus is often misunderstood. Some think him mysterious. Most assume him to be a particularly gifted teacher. Others, while calling him the son of God, mean only that his relationship with God is no more unique than any of us could potentially achieve.

But this is not the Christian understanding of Jesus. The reason we are so keen to celebrate his birth is that we believe that Jesus was not just a good man, or a great teacher. He was God in the Flesh, fully human and fully divine. His glory, like Aragorn’s, veiled during his life, and revealed at his resurrection, was nonetheless an essential part of his nature. He was the Son of God.

This is why multiplied millions of every race around the world pause each year to celebrate his arrival on planet Earth. For his was not merely an exemplary life. Nor did his birth simply signal the advent of an enlightened brand of teaching.

No. The coming of Jesus was a thunderclap in history. God himself invaded humanity. As such, he does not simply deserve our adulation; he demands our worship.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him… (Matthew 2:11).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Past, Present and Future

It is our twenty-eighth Christmas as a married couple. Twenty-eight freshly-cut Christmas trees. Twenty-eight years of hanging stockings. Twenty-eight Christmas mornings waking up together.

In the early days we traveled to someone else’s home for Christmas. But for the most part, Christmas has been our own private family tradition, a blending of the homes we grew up in, as well as those habits unique to our own family.

Growing up in Chicago, my wife never had a real tree. Every year her father pulled it out of the basement and plunked it in the living room. Consequently, one of the traditions in our home has been the annual trip to secure a live (or rather, dead) tree. While I once bemoaned the annual expense and the loss to the environment, I have come to enjoy our trees as much as she does.

The traditions evolve as our family grows up. In the old days, each kid took a turn being hoisted to the top of the tree to place the star. Nowadays, our boys are taller than me. They joke about hoisting me to the top.

This afternoon, after helping to position the tree in our home, I went outside to do some chores. As I returned our found our sons, 16 and 20 years old, rummaging through the ornament box, laughing and reminiscing as they placed them on the tree.

When our first ornament came in the mail back in 1980, I had little idea how much I would come to appreciate these small tokens of Christmas past. Back then I thought them a cute trifle, a throw-in Christmas gift.

There are the countless engraved ornaments given by our parents in California and Illinois. I once wondered why they went to the time and expense of decorating every gift with an ornament. Now I know: long after the gift is forgotten or broken, the ornament has a home on our family tree.

The best ornaments are the ones crafted by our children as gifts when they were in Kindergarten. Each one is complete with a name and photograph. These are the ones that elicit guffaws from our grown children.

I imagine that someday many of these ornaments will move from our home to theirs. As their children trim the family tree, they, too, will laugh at pictures of mom or dad when they were small.

When the holidays arrive, my wife and I will show up at their house. After greeting our grandchildren, we will gaze long and wistfully at the tree. Chances are, it will be freshly cut. We will admire the handmade ornaments our grandkids made for their parents. We will search for the macaroni mug shots our children made when they were small and, seeing them, we will cast a grateful eye toward heaven.

We will remember Christmas past, when it was our children making the ornaments, when it was our children trimming the tree, when it was our children laughing at funky photographs. And we will pray for Christmas future: may our children’s children grow up in homes filled with memories as happy as those of their parents’.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tennis Court Soundtrack

Although baseball and football were my passion in high school, I have always enjoyed competitive sports. If it requires skill and a ball, count me in.

That is why I was happy to pack my tennis racket when my friend and I went to a summer camp together. He was an avid player, and I was happy to give him whatever competition I could muster.

When we headed out to play, however, we were dismayed to discover that the courts were in disrepair. Massive cracks cris-crossed the playing area. Faded lines defined the boundaries. Worst of all, there were no nets.

That’s okay, we decided. We’ll just hit the ball back and forth. It will still be fun.

Wrong. After fifteen minutes of futility, we gave up and found something else to do.

I have often thought about this incident. Why did the game feel so futile? Was it that we could not bear to play without winning? It is a fair question. I have been accused of being overly competitive more than once in my life.

But it was more than that. A primary skill in tennis is the ability to navigate the ball over the net and into a defined boundary on the opposite side. Without nets and clear boundaries, the game had no point. It became an endless and meaningless circle of volley and return.

This is precisely the problem with the common worldview that permeates our culture. We assume that the world is ours to shape. There are no rules but the ones we make up. There is no point but that which we invent. Life is a spinning wheel. We are caught it in an endless circle of cause and effect, volley and return.

Privacy and tolerance have, predictably, become our supreme values. You play by your set of rules; I’ll play by mine. You stay out of my game; I’ll stay out of yours. There is no overarching objective to our existence. There is no intrinsic meaning to our connectedness to one another. We are merely molecules bumping into one another meandering down an endless maze to oblivion, or nirvana, or whatever.

If so, count me out. I want to believe that my life has meaning, and that there is a reason why I am here. I want to think that relationships matter, that love is real, and that suffering has significance. Don’t tell me that life is an endless circle with no rhyme or reason; make it a beautiful story, a tragic comedy, a divine drama, complete with beginning, middle and end.

Is that too much to ask? No, it isn’t. Not if you embrace the simple story found in the Bible and, better yet, rooted in human history. For Christianity is not merely a set of ideals and ethics. It is grounded in human history. A baby was born: we believe the baby was divine. A man was killed: we believe he rose again.

If it is true, then all of life – the good, the bad and the ugly – has meaning. If it is true, the rules are not ours to invent, the boundaries our not ours to create. If it is true, every life, every relationship has intrinsic value. If it is true, love and laughter, sorrow and pain, beauty and joy are worth cherishing.

If it is not true, well, whatever….

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Missing Jesus

I’d like to introduce you to some fascinating folks. I wonder if you can recognize them.

These people are fanatical about living a good life. Models of personal purity, and careful to live above reproach, they are among the most respected persons in the community. They’re honest, hardworking, and conscientious.

They take their spirituality very seriously. They are scrupulous about attendance at religious events. They give generously. They fast regularly. They pray faithfully.

They have the utmost regard for scripture. They study it, memorize it, and conscientiously seek to apply it to their lives. They frequently gather to discuss its meaning and its application to their lives.

Do you recognize them? Are they Christians? Are they Mormons? Are the Muslims? No. None of the above. They are Pharisees.

Are you surprised?

Pharisees were one of the most prominent religious sects in Jesus’ day. They were precisely as I described them, distinguished from their peers by their religious sincerity, their personal purity, and their high regard for Scripture. They were considered by many to be the most “on-target” religious group of their day.

Which brings to mind a thought-provoking question: How is it that they missed – even rejected – Jesus?

After all, they were actively looking for the Messiah. They prayed regularly for his arrival. Why didn’t they recognize him when he came? Why did they miss the very one for whom they were waiting?

Among other things, they missed Jesus because they were more committed to their notions about God than they were to God himself. Their view of God was so rigidly defined that when God acted outside the box they rejected him.

Their belief system, intended to shield the truth from heresy, was so deeply entrenched that, of all things, it shielded them from truth. Their spiritual pride led to spiritual blindness.

When John the Baptizer began to preach near the Jordan River, he carried an astounding and troubling message. He claimed that the long-awaited Messiah was about to be revealed -- this was the good news. But he also claimed that the people of God were not ready for his coming. This was the bad news.

He called the people to repent, and thus to prepare their hearts for the coming of the Messiah. In an unprecedented move, he asked good, upstanding people to be baptized as a symbol of their humility and faith. Pharisees scoffed at the idea. Any suggestion that they were not prepared for the Messiah’s arrival was, to them, preposterous.

We are in the season of Advent. For fifteen centuries, it was assumed by the church that a time of preparation and repentance was needed in order for believers to sincerely and joyfully open their hearts to Jesus. Like the deep cleaning our homes receive before the arrival of important guests, Advent was a time for spiritual cleansing.

Nowadays, many churches skip over all that. We assume (as did the Pharisees?) that our hearts are already fully open to God, and that penitence is not necessary.

Speaking for myself, I am not so sure. Like the Grinch, I sense that my heart is often two sizes too small. I’m consumed with myself, my family, my agenda, my career, my convictions – my, my, my! Is it any wonder I am easily baited to buy the latest greatest toy every holiday season?

Frankly, the spiritual blindness among such well-intentioned people as the first century Pharisees frightens me. I don’t want to repeat their mistake.

After all, this Christmas, I don’t want to miss Jesus.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Politics of Polio

Tony had polio. I presume he was one of the thousands of children who contracted the disease during the epidemic in the mid-twentieth century. Like most self-conscious adults, however, I never asked him about it.

His right leg was stiff. He walked with a cane. Once I got to know him, I hardly noticed it. His quick humor and keen insight quickly captured my affection.

As best I recall, he only spoke about his condition once. We were camping together on the Mogollon Rim. Have you ever noticed that stepping out of the world of asphalt and concrete, and into the world of trees and cool breezes opens your heart and clears your mind? It refreshes the spirit like a dive in a pool on a sweaty hot day.

Anyway, Tony and I were having one of those philosophical discussions that typically emerge in such settings. He was an avid reader and excellent teacher; I always enjoyed our conversations.

I related to him a discussion I had with another friend of mine, who a hard time accepting the existence of a personal God. He surmised that there was a cosmic life force, but the idea of a single God with Personality who ruled the earth? Not convinced. He was more comfortable with a divine earth than with a divine creator.

When I shared this with Tony, he said, “Suppose he is right; there is no personal God outside the universe. Who determines right and wrong? What is the basis for morality?”

I had asked my friend about this once, so I had a ready reply. “He would say that the survival of the species is hard-wired into our collective consciousness. What is good for the whole of the universe is the standard for right and wrong.”

“But who decides this?” Tony pressed. “Do you decide? Do I decide? The government? Which government?”

When I affirmed Tony’s point, he continued, “Your friend’s evolutionary hypothesis assumes there is no objective standard for right and wrong. The truth is, questions about good and evil are ultimately irrelevant in your friend’s world view.”

“You seem pretty worked up about this, Tony,” I observed. “Why is that?”

“I’ve heard the argument before,” he said. “We think that we can have an objective standard for morality by merely appealing to the greater good of human consciousness. But this is the forbidden fruit which has made humans a god to themselves. Without a personal God, there is no inherent good or evil, there is no right or wrong. Think about it, Steve: if the universe is amoral, can anything be fundamentally immoral?"

“Ivan and his religious brother were discussing this very issue in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’,” I interjected. “Based upon the injustice in the world, Ivan believed there was no God. But the thought frightened him, for as he said, ‘Without God, everything is permissible.’”

“Exactly,” Tony replied. “Without God, the holocaust is not immoral, and the genocide of Stalin is inevitable. There is no objective morality outside the whim of human fancy, no protection for the weak and defenseless, and no inherent value to human life.

“In fact,” he said with a wave of his cane, “without God, there is nothing to protect the life of a little boy with a bum leg.”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanks for the Memories

I have always loved Thanksgiving. I don’t know if it is the mild climate, the scrumptious turkey, the fall football, or the family gatherings – I’ll take them all!

Growing up in Lake Havasu City, we’d squeeze the whole family, Mom and Dad, three boys and our little sister, into the ’69 Rambler wagon. Our goal was to reach Phoenix and my uncle’s Moon Valley home by noon.

Upon entering Wickenburg we knew we were only an hour away. Somewhere near the tiny berg of Surprise, we’d make a left on Bell Road and head toward Phoenix. Other than the section that ran through Sun City, most of it was dirt back then.

After arriving, we’d eat dinner somewhere during the end of the Lions game and the beginning of the Cowboys game. I hate to admit it now, but there were few options in Arizona back then: I was a Cowboys fan. Of course, God was a fan, too. The open domed stadium gave him a ring-side seat to cheer on his favorite coach and quarterback, the equally devout Tom Landry and Roger Staubach.

After gathering for a family prayer, we’d devour turkey and ham and all the great stuff that goes with it: mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry salad, yams, corn, stuffing, and the like. I’d eat until my sides ached, but I always made room for Grandma’s pumpkin pie with a healthy helping of Cool Whip. I still say it is the best I’ve ever had, although my mom, following her recipe, comes pretty close to it.

The men would go through the line first, eating at their own table – or in front of the ballgame. The ladies would go next and eat in the adjacent room. Once my wife-to-be (we’ve been together since we were sixteen) began to join us for these gatherings, we thought this was a great hardship. When we asked about it, the ladies said, “Well, we like to talk about different things.” I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.

Before long, Grandma and Grandpa would sit down to play Rook with whoever was willing to join them. As you no doubt realize, Rook was the only appropriate card game for Christians to play, since its simple, numeric cards were not used for gambling. After all, it was important to avoid all appearance of evil. You never knew what company might arrive unexpectedly at the door.

As a child I would watch them play; later I would squeeze into games when I could. It’s probably the most I ever heard my grandfather speak. Other than his penchant for singing “Oh, Dear, What can the Matter Be?” whenever the mood happened to strike him, he didn’t have much to say.

Late in the evening we’d make cold turkey sandwiches on dinner rolls, perhaps squeezing in another slice of pie. Even today, I think leftover turkey is as good as the hot meal earlier in the day.

The night would loll leisurely on. We’d make small talk (and big talk, too), play games and watch TV. A day or two later, we’d return home. Nothing particularly special: just a family gathering like families do. Now that I think of it, maybe that is pretty special after all. Thanks, family, for the memories.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Marital Muse

The picture commanded a torrent of memories. How old was she? Twenty-five, he guessed.

He remembered those blue jeans like yesterday. High on the waist, loose on the hips, straight down the leg, folded at the ankle…. Her waist-length golden brown hair rested casually over her shoulders, nesting on the tan knit vest and short-sleeved shirt. It must have been late summer, early fall.

Hoisted upon her waist, in her favorite purple overalls, was their two-year-old daughter. They waved to the camera in the phony style of a princess on the back of a convertible, both sporting an impish grin. He had forgotten how bald she was. Still, no one ever mistook her for a boy; her beautiful eyes gave her away even as an infant.

They stood in the kitchen of the country farmhouse where they lived while he was in graduate school. Linoleum flooring, Formica countertops, painted cabinets -- he loved that home. He smiled as he thought of its crooked floors. What a time he had jimmying the fridge so the door would close! He could still taste the sulfur smell of the well water dripping from the sink behind them. He felt like Helen Keller every time he cranked the pump out back.

He stumbled across the long-forgotten photograph while cleaning a box in the closet. His throat thickened as he recalled the innocence and simple joy of their brief country life. Life was good back then.

Within three years, they were divorced. What happened to their idyllic marriage? How did they grow so distant so rapidly? He hardly remembered anymore. No cataclysmic event forced their hand. They simply drifted apart. Communication dried up. Joy evaporated. Their relationship felt beyond repair. They broke up.

Life since then had been good to both of them. She had two more children in her next marriage. She seemed happy. He was glad for that. He had some rough spots, but after several years of being alone he married someone with two children of her own. He loved his wife and step children and, generally, had no regrets.

Until today. Finding that picture unleashed a flood of unexpected thoughts and feelings. He wondered what might have been. What other children might they have had if they had stayed together? Would the little girl in the picture have had a sister or brother? He felt guilty for the thought.

What would it have been like to have his daughter always at home, rather than face the delicate balancing act of alternating schedules? How difficult was it for her to juggle two separate homes? How much of her growing up years had he missed despite his best efforts to stay active in her life?

When they broke up twenty years ago, all they could see was the insurmountable challenge of salvaging their relationship. Fearing a lifetime of unhappiness, they made the best decision they could. He knew now that the ramifications of their decision had been much greater than he had imagined. He quietly admitted to himself that their problems hadn’t been as catastrophic as they had appeared at close range.

Tomorrow was his daughter’s wedding day. She was twenty-five years old, just as her mother was in the picture he now held in his hand. He would proudly walk her down the aisle and tearfully say, “Her Mother and I” when the minister asked the question. He would offer a strong hand to his new son and a gentle kiss to his beloved daughter.

He would not say it, but he would certainly think it: “Dear children, please do not be as short-sighted as your mother and I were. Twenty years from now, when you stumble across the pictures of this day, may it bring you tears of joy, not pangs of regret.”

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Carpe Diem

In the movie "Shawshank Redemption," Red speaks about Brooks, his beloved inmate friend. After a lifetime in prison, he was released -- only to take his own life. He couldn’t live on the outside. “Brooks is just institutionalized," Red mused.

This is the sad state of many Christ followers. We have been “institutionalized.” Set free from the sentence of death, we have never learned how to live. Our lives lack joy, passion and peace. Sins continue to imprison us. We circle our wagons and decry the sad state of affairs on the outside. Like the sincere but misguided saints in "Babette's Feast" we are content to wait out their days until Jesus returns. We are institutionalized, and we like it that way.

Another of my favorite movies is "The Dead Poet’s Society." John Keating is the new teacher a stuffy private school. In his first class meeting he asks his students to read aloud the introduction of their poetry textbook. After they have done so, he demands that they rip the page right out of the book.

Keating explains to his startled students, "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

He wants them to discover that poetry is not a “paint by numbers” affair. It is not formulaic and pedantic, as the textbook suggests, but that it is … life. And life, he wants them to see, is not merely biology; it is passion, beauty, pain, joy, love. “Seize the day boys,” he says, “make your lives extraordinary.” Carpe diem.

Implicit in these cinematic stories is a powerful message for the follower of Jesus Christ. Pardoned from the sentence of death, we are set free to -- how shall I say it? We are set free to live!

We honor Christ’s death and resurrection not merely by avoiding sin, but also by drinking deeply from the “wells of living water” which Jesus says he came to offer. After all, didn’t he say, “I came that they might have life, and have it to the full?”

In celebration of your freedom, then, live life fully. Love passionately. Celebrate riotously. Risk precipitously. Laugh uproariously. Cry unashamedly. Give abundantly. Dream impossibly.

When it rains, jump in the puddles. When you come to a fork in the road -- take it! (Apologies to Yogi.)

I don’t know what that means for you in this moment. It may mean telling someone that you love them. It may mean repenting of your sin and receiving his grace. It may mean letting go of the bitterness which consumes you. Or it might mean letting go of selfishness and embracing love.

It might mean painting a picture, writing a story, or taking a hike up Black Mountain. I don’t know what it is. But I'm sure that if you listen carefully to that little voice inside you, you will know.

Carpe diem!

"To Life!"

Friday, October 26, 2007

Straight Talk

All right, brothers and sisters, it’s time for some straight talk.

If you are serious about following Jesus, you will be active in a local church. Otherwise, you are only playing pretend. Period.

The idea that you can follow Jesus without being part of a local fellowship of believers? Forget it. It’s not in the Bible.

I’m not saying you’re not a Christian. I’m not questioning your faith. I am saying you ought to be in a church.

What we self-absorbed, Lone Ranger-type, pick yourself up from the bootstraps, individualistic, consumer-driven Americans often forget is this: Jesus didn’t just die to rescue individuals; he died to create a new community. Whether you like it or nor, when you committed your life to following Jesus, you became part of a family.

Other than that famous thief who died on a cross – and he had a pretty good excuse – there is no hint, not even a whisper, of anyone who followed Jesus without being part of a local gathering of Christ-followers.

“Love one another. Admonish one another. Encourage one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Pray for one another.” These are not suggestions. They are directives, and they can only be fulfilled in the context of Christian community. If nothing else, committing to a local gathering of believers is a matter of obedience, plain and simple.

Yes, the church is flawed. Like every family it has its dysfunction. It is politicized, institutionalized and stultified. We are critical, judgmental and hypocritical. It's not a pretty sight.

Still, the church is the Bride of Christ and, if I were you, I’d be careful what I said about her, no matter how homely she might appear to you. According to the Bible, Jesus “nourishes and cherishes” the church. He loves his Bride, and so should you.

In every American community there are churches of all shapes and sorts. This is not a mistake: it is part of the beauty of God’s design. God paints in a kaleidoscope of colors. Everything he creates is filled with variety and beauty. Even the reclusive Gila monster has a colorful coat!

It stands to reason that the church – Christ’s beloved bride -- would display a magnificent mosaic of contrasts and apparent contradictions. The beauty is not in its sameness, but in its differences. So long as a church affirms the authority of the Scriptures, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the message of grace, let it wear whatever coat it likes.

Find the one that you like best and make it your home. Stop being a prodigal child to your spiritual family. Determine that you will submit to its leadership, forgive it for its failures, and love it through thick and through thin. After all, isn’t that what families do?

If you cannot find a church that meets your standards, choose the one you find least objectionable and inflict yourself on them. Then stay put. You probably deserve each other.

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Hebrews 10:25).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Nothing Less, Nothing More

James had a problem, and it was about to split the church.

The good news was that hundreds of new people were beginning to follow Jesus. The bad news was that they were not the right kind of people.

No one doubted their sincerity. No one questioned their devotion. However, their habits were disgusting. Their hygiene was despicable. Their respect for the traditions which had birthed their faith? Deplorable.

Most people wanted them to clean up their act before being welcomed as bona fide church members. After all, for generations a definite separation had existed between them, affirmed and perpetuated by both sides. It was hard enough to accept them at all – couldn’t they at least clean up a little?

A church meeting was called to resolve their differences. Respected leaders from around the country arrived to state their case. For several hours, James carefully listened to both sides.

“The same God who sent Jesus gave us the rules of our behavior. God is not inconsistent. These new believers must follow our old ways, or we must not accept them into fellowship,” said one contingent.

Their argument was attractive. For centuries they had observed a carefully prescribed regiment of behavior. Shouldn’t these new believers be expected to follow suit with a thousand years of religious tradition? What kind of chaos would result if they didn’t?

“But don’t you see?” interjected the opposing side. “Jesus fulfilled our rigorous religious tradition. His sacrifice satisfied the requirements of our laws. If we demand obedience to our old ways, we diminish the value of Jesus’ sacrifice. The message of grace is lost. Either faith in Jesus is sufficient, or faith in Jesus futile.”

This was the essence of the difficulty. As important as the venerated traditions were, they were secondary to the message of grace.

Peter, a good friend of James’, stated it best. “We believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are. Why burden them with rules that we ourselves couldn’t bear?”

It was time to put an end to the debate. Sensing the gravity of the situation, and accepting his responsibility as the accepted leader of the new movement, James asked for the floor. He paused a moment to gather his thoughts.

“We should not make it difficult for those who are turning to God,” he said. “For the sake of unity we will ask them to observe some guidelines, but we will not require them to adopt our religious traditions in order to become followers of Jesus. The message of grace will stand alone.”

Thank you, James. Despite the pressure of your peers and your personal discomfort, you took a stand for what was right. You discerned what was at stake: if it was Jesus AND something else, the gospel would be compromised. Faith in Jesus ALONE was to be the hallmark of this fledgling movement.

With grace and courage, you forged a path for people of every race and nation to follow Jesus in the context of their own culture. You made concessions on things which mattered less, but you held fast to that which mattered most. Oh, for similar wisdom today. God knows we need it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The World Serious

Watching Cleveland in the playoffs is a huge memory jolt. In a story I’ve recorded here previously, my ten year old son and me had the privilege of attending a World Series game there in 1997.

It was a gift from Major League Baseball – a prize I won when my wife entered me into a contest while we attended an Arizona Fall League game in Scottsdale. All I had to do was throw a strike between innings of a game. It took me two tries, but I did it, and three days later we boarded a plane for Cleveland.

As you might imagine, it was the experience of a lifetime. Die-hard fans may recall that it was the coldest World Series game in history, even boasting a light skiff of snow. Despite the last-minute purchase of a blanket in Cleveland, we were embarrassingly unprepared for the cold weather. The kind gentleman next to us bought my son a cup of hot chocolate.

Cleveland fans went home happy with a convincing victory. Bryan Anderson and Matt Williams, soon to join the fledgling Diamondbacks franchise, both played prominent roles in the game.

My son and I had a great time on that trip. As you might imagine, we experienced it somewhat differently from one another. For him, there were no worries, only the wonder and joy of attending the biggest game of the year with his Dad. Everything caught his attention: falling snowflakes, roaring crowd, thrilling ballgame, cool train rides, smoky hot chocolate – you name it, he enjoyed it.

For me, although I enjoyed the experience immensely, there was an added level of pressure about which he had no clue. I had been given very little instruction by Major League Baseball. I was to take a train to the team hotel, ask for tickets, get to the ballpark, and find my way to a different hotel following the game.

A flood questions formed the background noise to my experience. “Where do I go to find tickets at the hotel? What if my name is not listed? How will we get to the ballpark from there? How will I find the hotel where we are staying ? We’re going to freeze! Where can I find a blanket?”

I was extremely careful to keep these issues out of my son’s purview. He was a ten year old kid going to Cleveland to watch a World Series game with his dad. Why should he fret? His dad was right next to him. He’d take care of things.

In the ten years since that memorable trip, I have reflected about it as a parable for my own relationship with God. All too often I behave more like the father than the son as I navigate my way through life. My way is filled with difficult decisions, uncertain futures, complicated connections. What if I make a bad decision? How will I fix things when I do?

How much better it would be if I remembered that I am the son, not the father. My Father will keep me out of harm’s way. He’ll make sure I get to where I need to be. If I make a mistake, he’ll work things out. As long as I am with him, why worry?

One day Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” I wonder what kind of answer they were expecting. Maybe they thought one of them would be commended for their faith. Or perhaps there was a well-known teacher or holy man or historical figure that had caught their fancy. Who knows what they thought?

Imagine their surprise when, instead, Jesus did this: He called a little child and had him stand among them. (Jesus had a flair for the dramatic.) “Whoever humbles himself like this child,” he said, “is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).