Monday, December 31, 2012

A Steward's Journey (yesterday's sermon notes)

"The kingdom of heaven is like a cruise ship"...said Jesus never.

Or did he? He did say it was like a banquet, a wedding feast, a party. And what better designation of party is there today than a cruise ship? Remember "The Love Boat"? Captain Stubing, Julie and Gopher working to "set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance." If you had to pick someone to be on a cruise ship, who would you pick?

I see no one chose steward.

There is a great story about a steward in Genesis 24. Abraham has just lost his wife, Sarah, and in his old age he's worried about his son Isaac's choice of a wife. He calls in his most trusted servant, the steward of his household, and sends him on a journey to find a wife for Isaac among Abe's ancestors. Here are 5 thoughts from that journey that can help us understand our own stewardship better.

1. A steward takes an oath to fulfill his master's goals (Ge 24.1-9)

Um, you want me to put my hand where??? This oath is like a blood oath on steroids. It is an intimate covenant between Abraham and the steward that the steward will act in full faith to accomplish Abe's goals, not his own.

It's so easy to allow our goals to jump in front of our master's. Even being the people of God won't guarantee that we can miss out on what he is trying to do. In Mt 21.33-44 Jesus tells a parable about a man who built a vineyard and leased it out to tenants to farm. They did all the day-to-day stuff that is required of a vineyard. But when it came time for the harvest of grapes, the tenants decided they wanted to own the property, and were willing to go to great lengths to try and get it.

In our own lives, we may not not beat and kill our master's servants, but we are too easily forgetful that it is God's goals we're supposed to be after. How do we determine whether or not we're after God's goals? How do we know what God's will is? Romans 12.1-2 gives us the pattern: we offer ourselves as living sacrifices. Daily. We avoid being squeezed into the world's mold, and instead allow our minds to be renewed by the Spirit and the Word. Then we'll be able to know and approve what is the will of God.

2. A steward lays out a plan that includes both faith and common sense (Ge 24.10-14)

The steward takes 10 camels, a bunch of swag, some other servants, and travels the miles to Mesopotamia. He stations himself by the local well (common sense) then prays that the right woman would come along (faith). And when he asked for a drink of water, she would say she'd also water his camels (10 camels drink a lot of water, so this is BOTH faith and common sense!).

How do we know if our plan includes faith? In Lk 12.13-21, Jesus gives us the clue: our decisions need to be made in a way that is "rich toward God" and not just about our own needs. Nothing wrong with success in life, but as stewards our faithful/common sense approach to that success demands investment in God's kingdom.

3. A steward treats his master's things like they were NOT his own (Ge 24.15-31)

The steward had lots of things with him--gold, fancy clothes, camels and other servants. I wonder if he was ever tempted to just pretend to be the owner here. He could have rolled into town and just pretended all the stuff was his. But instead he's keeping in mind he's a steward, not an owner.

I used to have a ton of books. My wife would say I still have too many. Back when I had a much larger library, I was always loaning books out. I would cringe though when people would say "I'll treat it like it was my own." Actually, I prefer that they remember it's mine and treat it accordingly!

In what ways are we tempted to treat "our" stuff as really ours? The reality is that God is the giver of every good thing we have (Ja 1.17). Like the parable of the talents (Mt 25.14-30), we've been given charge of many things that don't belong to us. One day we'll give an account to the owner about how we handled his stuff. And I'm hopeful that we'll all hear "well done" on that day. I'm really looking forward to exploring what it means to "enter into [my master's] fullness of joy."

4. A steward takes care of his master's business first (Ge 24.32-61)

Long journey, really tired. Do you get to the end of your busy day/week and just want to think about your own needs for awhile? But the steward won't eat until he's accomplished his task, fulfilled his oath to his master.

Jesus knows that the stuff of life will constantly tempt us to advance our own kingdom first. We spend vast amounts of time and energy on anxiety about our own kingdom. But if our stuff truly belongs to him, we let him worry about it. Take a look again at Mt 6.25-34. Maybe read it every day this new year.

5. Summary: A steward is someone whose life purpose is no longer his own.

The steward now makes haste to get Rebekah back to his master and to Isaac. His only purpose seems to be to fulfill his oath.

The call to stewardship is a call to live life differently, to live life in a kingdom ruled by God, not by us. This is, in fact, the gospel--the call to be a steward in the kingdom of heaven. We tend to think of the gospel message as Jesus dying for us. That is not the message of the gospel, but the means by which the gospel was attained. The message of the gospel, as Jesus so often articulated it, was that the kingdom of heaven was now at hand and available for us to dwell in. There is a new king, and the way to find true life and joy is to forfeit our own throne, take up our cross, and follow Jesus into death (Mk 8.34-37). There we will truly find life.

So if you're thinking about a year-end gift to your church or ministry today, by all means make it. But remember that that stewardship is not a 10% "tip" to God for his service to us. God is not the steward of this ship. That's our role.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

I wonder...

"I can see the whole world!"  - 4 year old boy as the plane took off

Why am I so jaded?

Where has the sense of wonder gone in our world? We tell each other to stop and smell the roses, but there are now 130 species of roses in the world--which ones am I smelling? Right now I'm in a tube 147' and 8" long, with a tail almost 30' tall and a wingspan of 107' 8". And I'm 30,000+ feet above sea level. And I'm yawning as I write that, because it's just so...well...normal.

We live in a world where the what was once the extraordinary stuff of Jules Verne sci-fi is now "normal." How in the world do we NOT become jaded in such a world?

1. Think like a kid. As we took off a little while ago, the small boy in front of me yelled "I can see the whole world!" When we think like children, joy comes naturally. Awe is a common experience. Rolly-pollies are worth closer inspection. Seeing a magician do a French drop with a quarter still takes your breath away. You can spend an hour chasing your brother pulling a string.

Jesus told us to have child-like faith. One aspect off that has to be a sense of joy at even the smallest of creations.

My good friend Ronne Rock often blogs about "kitchen-therapy" (you can see her work at the Christ-Stumbler blog linked below). She takes pure joy in creating bite-sized explosions of rapture (and just about everything else she does in life!). She knows about childlike wonder.

2. Turn off fake life. Anyone who knows me knows that I've not ever been (or at least haven't been for the past 25 years) one of those religious people that gets rid of TVs and only listens to K-LOVE. But the advancement of CGI technology in today's media adds to the jadedness we feel in day-to-day living. We find more and more intense experiences of pseudo-awe in our movies and games, but that only serves to minimize the experience of true beauty. So I'm saying it--turn it off, at least for awhile. Embark on a Bilbo Baggins style adventure, with the Spirit of the Living God as your Gandalf. You can and will be amazed again by the smallest of things.

3. Forget what you know. Okay, so that's harder to do than say, but it's got to happen. Forget what you know about God, and ask the Spirit to show you something fresh. Forget what you know about the Bible, and read it like you just received your first copy. Forget what you know about how the church service is going to go this Sunday, and let some piece of music or some other soul's worship bring joy to your heart. Forget what you know about tomorrow, and live for today.

One of my favorite movies is Hook, with Robin Williams as a grown Peter "Pan" Banning, who must rediscover his Pan identity to rescue his children from Captain Hook. Early in the movie, Peter Banning misses his son's ball games, his daughter's play, and chastises them both for not being serious enough. And at the end he's climbing drainpipes and chasing dogs into doghouses, understanding that life is truly the greatest adventure.

I need that kind of conversion this Christmas.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I hope...

"Hope can drive a man insane." Otis Redding, The Shawshank Redemption

 In the midst of tragedy I have little to add that so many haven't said over the past few days. I have anger. I have grief. Sadness.

I wonder about our treatment of those with mental health issues. I wonder about environments and signs and behaviors. I ask myself questions about the role guns play in our society. I wonder if demonic forces were involved.

I hope it will go away. Not because I trust in mankind to start behaving better. People--all people--are capable of the greatest of good and lowest of evil.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

But there is hope in God. There is hope that the One who was born into the suffering of the world, the One whose foretold coming so brought paranoia into Herod that many innocents also suffered then, that One will one day destroy evil and make all things good. He can, and he will. Maranatha.

Until then, I will pray that evil does not win the day. I will pray for those whose loss is more than I can imagine. I pray for the divine peace that is beyond all understanding to guard their (and our) hearts and minds.

And I hope.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Choosing Your Heroes

How do we choose our heroes?

WIWAK (when I was a kid) a couple of my sports heroes were Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. How does a small-town Texas kid choose to cheer for the Pittsburgh Steelers? I've been asked that question hundreds of times over the years, and other than the undisputed fact I've been a contrarian pretty much from birth, I have no idea.

Rocky Bleier's story is the stuff of movies (and they did one, starring Robert Urich). Grew up in Appleton, WI, college football at Notre Dame, drafted by the Steelers...and also drafted by the US government. Bleier went to Viet Nam, where a "chi-chom" grenade exploded at his feet and caused severe damage. But Rocky didn't let that stop him. While doctors told him he would have to work hard just to learn to walk correctly, his goals were much higher. He wanted to play in the NFL. He worked hard, in the weight room and on the field. And he made it. Successfully. With Harris, they became the first NFL backfield to have 2 thousand-yard rushers. He's got multiple Super Bowl rings.

Now that's a hero. At least the way we choose them. Hard-working, hard-charging, successful-against-all-odds kinds of heroes.

God, though, seems to choose differently. His choices don't seem to be based much at all on hard work, values, morality, character, perseverance and the like--all the things we look for in heroes.

God's choices are on the margins of society. They have questionable moral fiber. They lie. They cheat. They steal. They murder. And to Jesus' point in Matthew 5, we're guilty of these things too.

God chooses heroes who are poor and meek. He has special favor for those hungry and thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned.

In short, God's heroes are almost always the disenfranchised. The younger brother. The woman. The immigrant. God chooses those who have no power, because in them is where his power is most excellently proclaimed.

Why should God choose you? Why should he choose me? What do we do that earns the favor of God?

There is no other reason than this: he's just good that way. I'm chosen because of the chooser, not the choosee.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What color is my hat?

Do you walk out of an action movie--Bourne, Bond, whatever--and have this secret desire for someone to try to mug you on the sidewalk so you can kick some butt like the movie hero just did? Or is it just me?

I've been thinking a lot about heroes lately, and their place in our lives. Who we hero-ize both reveals and shapes our own worldview.

When I was a kid, the mainstream heroes were almost always "good guys", the guys wearing the (literal and figurative) white hats. Our entertainment in the 60s, 70s and early 80s reflected the idea that heroes were not meant to be flawed. There weren't supposed to be chinks in their armor. Our heroes always got the bad guy and always got the good girl.

This image of heroes in white hats--and conversely bad guys in black hats--has greatly impacted our views of Jesus, the Bible, and living the Christian life today. We're convinced that the people God uses wear white hats and do heroic things. We're like Peter in Luke 22.33: "Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death."

It's just that life refused to conform to our image. Peter denied, and so do we. So do I. What color is my hat?

Within mainstream entertainment culture I can't think of someone in my lifetime who has more obviously tried to change this way of thinking about heroes and villains than Clint Eastwood. Clint is a hero (recent rant with a chair perhaps notwithstanding), a man's man. We have all wanted to say (and probably have said) to someone "Go ahead. Make my day." Or "you’ve got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well do ya, punk?" But in later years, Clint began to make movies reflecting the more flawed nature of the hero. Movies like "A Perfect World", "Unforgiven" and "Gran Torino" showed men with hearts of gold and feet of clay--or vice versa.

Some of us in the church decried this change. We like having the clear-cut good and bad guys, and we live our Christian lives accordingly. We know and articulate who is on the nice and naughty list, with our words and our deeds (or the lack of both). We have, unfortunately, become like the people of Lystra, who when encountering Paul and Barnabas said that "the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men" (Acts 14.11), except usually in reverse. We're much better at declaring who is on the naughty list, who is wearing the black hat, who it is that God can't (or is no longer) using.

But I think Clint is actually closer to biblical truth about the nature of heroes and villains that we Christians often are. Pick any Bible hero, any man or woman God uses (outside of Jesus, of course) and tell me that they don't look more like the hero/villain of recent entertainment than they do Ozzie Nelson or Gene Autry good guys. (If you're under 40, you'll have to Google that.)

This is good news for 2 reasons: first, it means that we can and will be used by God. We are like the men and women of the Bible, and he's not looking for us to clean ourselves up a little before he works through us. Second, it means we need to reexamine our own nice/naughty lists with a eye on who God has used throughout history. Flawed men and women with hats of dirty gray.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: I Am A Follower by Leonard Sweet

I have long loved Len Sweet's work. On the cover of "I Am A Follower" Shane Claiborne calls Sweet "a theological poet," and I totally agree. "I Am A Follower" (I'll just refer to it as "Follower" from here on out) is a great read for our current Christian climate, given our focus on leadership. As I pulled out the book to write this review, I noticed (maybe for the first time) this quote at the bottom of the cover:

(It's never been about leading)

And Sweet makes that point very well. The Christian life is not about heroic leadership, but about servant-followership. "We don't take Jesus into the world. We discern where he's dancing and join in the dance." (p. 9) Jesus is THE leader. He is our leader. We don't lead, we follow.

First Sweet looks at the Way of a follower. Life isn't a set of rules to follow, it's a walk, a journey. "Parking-lot churches are drive-to places where people get their needs met in a minimum amount of time with a maximum of return in religious exaltation. Pedestrian churches consist of people who walk with Jesus in his journeys on earth." (p. 82) We walk along, following Jesus, casting the fruit of the Spirit into a world that is broken and thirsty.

Then there is the Truth: following Jesus does not happen at a distance. We're not some secret spy tailing someone, trying to blend into the crowd when he turns around. We're not trying to find his tracks in the dirt. We're right there with him. We follow close, so close that we smell the things Jesus smells, eat what he eats, hear what he hears. We don't follow a cause, we follow a real person, who is alive and well today. This means that instead of becoming "expert-witnesses for Christ" we are "actual-event witnesses to what we have seen and experienced in our own lives." (p. 156)

Finally there is the Life: Christ in us, the hope of glory. We move away from a Learn, Grow, Go model most prevalent in today's USAmerican churches, and instead adopt the Hear and Obey model of discipleship. "There is a vast difference between believing in God and hearing and recognizing God in diverse divine manifestations." (p. 197) Our discipleship of those around us takes on the same kind of incarnational nature that Jesus' discipleship of us did. "The relationship between leader and follower is this: leaders are over people, followers are among." (p. 209) We must leave behind the folk-heroism of today's leadership focus and turn away from those things that distract us from following.

One last quote: "There are some Christians who think that they are following Christ, when really they have simply been imprinted by a culture that calls itself Christian." (p. 240) More than anything else, this is the power of Sweet's book (and most of his writing); Jesus is not just a concept or a set of cultural values, he is our leader, and he's calling us to follow. Today. Now. No matter where we currently find ourselves--we might be accused of adultery, fishing, collecting taxes, or on our way to arrest those on the margins. His words to us are still the same.

"Follow me."

Breaking Silence...

I've been bloggishly silent for several months now. I think I've decided it was the combination of 3 factors:

1. Like many people, I've been very busy. Between being a husband and dad of 3, covering a lot of ground for World Vision, then just all the stuff of life--home-ownership, cooking, cars, broken toys, lawns, etc. etc. I've just not carved out enough time to blog.

2. I've got too much to say. It's hard for me to sit down and write a 150 word post--I end up with a short novel. My justifications have justifications.

3. What I say bothers people, at least some people. This used to not affect me, but this fall, for some reason, it did. Call it maturity (or not) or a new level sensitivity or whatever, this fall, as the election heated up, I struggled to say things that I knew many of my friends would disagree with. And the few things I did say just seemed to add to the cacophony of dissent instead of stimulating good thinking.

But I'm trying (gingerly) to get back up in the saddle. And I'm hoping some of you, at least, are okay with that.