Burden or Blessed?

Photo by Arvind Balaraman
Free at last
Free at last
Thank God Almighty
We're free at last

Not many people in ministry sing that song.  We feel burdened, constrained.  We don't often verbalize it, but sometimes we feel like we've given up so much for so many for so little in return.

How crazy is this?

We have phenomenal seats to the magnificent show of God's work in the world.  We are blessed, not burdened.

Who are we to grumble? to complain?

We've been given a huge mission in the world, but God promises to take care of all the hardest parts of the work himself.  And he promises to be with us, to pave the way for us.

Whether you're leading a Small Group, serving on a missions team, teaching a Sunday school, working with IV...whatever you're doing, be grateful.  Yes, we have hard work to do.  But it's good work.  And we're free to let God do all the hard stuff.  And that counts for a lot.
Photo by Filomena Scalise
In 1 Samuel 7, Samuel raises a monument to God's provision.  He named this monument "Ebenezer."

There's a hymn that hints at this story. 

Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by thy help I'm come

Samuel created the Ebenezer because he wanted the people to remember that God had come through for them.  We would be wise to do likewise.

For some, the cultivation of this memory comes from actual physical things: jewelry, tattoos, rocks.  I keep a pair of sunglasses in my truck to remind me of God's work in my friend Clay's life, and to remind me to pray for him.

For others, their Ebenezers are other things.  One of my friends uses the song "Come Thou Fount" as a reminder of God's faithfulness.  Another goes faithfully to a particular church. 

I find it helpful to stay in close contact with people with good memories.  Matt, Bill, Jose, Robert, BJ...these guys all help with the hard work of remembering God's faithfulness.  They keep me grateful.

God has come through for us.  We remember.  Let us give thanks.

Four Failures of Future-Focus

A fanatical future-focus fails us in four ways:

1) Forget God's past provision

A fanatical future-focus shifts our value systems.  We prize the Lately and ignore what's already been done.  We have nothing to be grateful for because we have nothing we value.

2) Fail to value faithfulness

A fanatical future-focus squeezes our definition of success.  Accomplishment is all that matters to us.  Faithfulness means nothing.  How contrary to the way of God! 

3) Falter in our work

A fanatical future-focus drains us of motivation.  We have nothing to celebrate because we've done nothing we value.  Milestones matter, but they're so after-the-fact.  If we only look to the future, we can't draw strength or comfort or renewal from the past.  How can we move forward if the fuel we need to move is buried in an inaccesible past?

4) Fall into ingratitude

Gratitude is, in essence, a past-focused posture.  Ingratitude can come from a narrow telling of the past, but it can also stem from an over-emphasis on the future, which doesn't actually exist (in our vein of perception).  To be more grateful in the future, we need to properly appropriate our past.

Shotgun: Self-absorption and Other People's Ministries

Self-absorption kills gratitude.

Jesus tells his disciples that he's going to be betrayed, beaten and killed in just a few days.  This is in Mark 10.  He tells them this because he want to comfort them.  He'll be killed, but he will rise again in three days and he's doing it for a bigger purpose: the ransom of many (including these disciples).

But his disciples barely hear him.  They certainly show no gratitude for his sacrifice and comfort or concern for his impending hardship.  They actually change the subject back to themselves.

Imagine a father approaching his children, who are sitting on a cold leather couch watching TV.  There's tension in his shoulders and a waver in his voice as he says "Kids, your Mom's really sick.  Let's go get in the car and take her to the hospital."

Imagine the kids yelling "Shotgun" and fighting over the front seat, asking Dad to settle the dispute.

That's what happens in Mark 10.

Right after Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, James and John approach him and ask him if they can have the most important seats in his coming kingdom.  You see, it's not enough for them to be welcomed into the kingdom of God, to be included in this special and history-shattering kingdom, they have to have better seats.

I do this too.  It's not enough (sometimes) for me to have the good seat of the Staffworker, the Sunday School teacher, the Small Group leader.  I want to have the biggest chapter, the best class, and THE Small Group.  Shotgun!

One of my really insightful co-workers got a note once, from a donor (our work is funded by the generosity of donors and churches).  The note said "Don't you people ever say 'Thank you.'"  Now, this note was painful and undeserved.  These people do say "Thank you" a lot and the whole thing was cleared up quickly, but it's illustrative.

We easily get wrapped up in our ministry and in how we're doing compared to other people that we miss opportunities to be grateful, grateful to God.

Different parts of me produce the "Shotgun!" and the "Thank you."  Would that God would ransom me from the shotgun-shouting, self-aggrandizing self-absoption, even as he's already ransomed me.

I know he wouldn't give his life for me and leave me here.  Let's learn to say "Thank you" more than we cry "Shotgun!"

OPM: Other People's Ministries

OPM is a key acronym in the fast and dirty business world.  The acronym stands for Other People's Money.  "Everybody does it," I've been told.  Here's how it works: 

Borrow money from Other People
Invest this OPM 
Make money
Pay back the OPM 

But it doesn't always work that way.  Sometimes, it works like this:

Borrow money from Other People
Invest this OPM
Lose money
Go broke

OPM is a risky proposition, even though "everybody does it."  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn't.

But there's another OPM, one that never works, never helps.

Comparing your ministry to someone else's always causes trouble.  Other People's Ministry = kryptonite.  Don't compare, because if you do, this will happen:

Compare your ministry to OPM
You don't come out so well
You get distracted (depressed, competitive, etc)
You're certainly not grateful

Or it could turn out like this:

Compare your ministry to OPM
You come out ahead
You get distracted (proud, complacent, etc)
You're certainly not grateful

Over and over again, I've been distracted by Other People's Ministry.  This distraction fuels my ingratitude, sucks some of the joy out of the ministry God's included me in.

One key to gratitude is focus.  Are you focusing on God and what he's doing right in front of you, or are you distracted by OPM?

Can You See the Forest?

Invisible forests fill my life. 

I keep looking for individual trees, trees that have somehow caught my imagination.  My tree-hunt makes it tough for me to see the forest.

And I'm not the only one.

John the Baptist was looking for a tree.  And he thought he found one.  He actually thought he found The One.  The Messiah turned out to be his cousin, Jesus.

And John gets a front row seat.  He preaches, the voice crying out in the desert "Prepare the way for the Lord."  He recruits a band of disciples, some of whom will, at some point, join Jesus' crew.  He baptizes the Messiah.  Baptizes the Messiah!  Trees everywhere!

But he begins to doubt.  Years go by and the Romans still oppress the people of God.  Time flies and corruption still plagues the temple.  John gets thrown into jail.

He doubts.  He gets frustrated.  It's all over Luke 7, messy and hard to watch.  Someone who's seen so many trees should be able to see the forest, right?

But he can't.  John is looking for a specific set of trees.  Jesus offers another set.

One key to living a gratitude-filled life is to accept the trees God gives you.  "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."

Those trees might add up to Messiah Forest.  They might surprise us, might turn out to be better than anything we had hoped or imagined to see.  If we can see them, we might be filled with gratitude.

The Sun Will NEVER Rise in the West

Mindy and Fabian inspire me.  Fabian's in jail, Mindy's his wife and and they constantly express their gratefulness to God.  We've prayed with them, over the last several months, that Fabian would be released from jail.  No luck.
Were I in their position, ingratitude would creep into my life.  Probably.

But they are so grateful to God.  They focus on what God is doing, rather than on what he isn't.

I get tunnel-vision.  I pray and hope for specific breakthroughs and only look out for them.  I'm intent and faithful, the watchman on the Western Wall, watching for the sun to rise.

Well, that's my problem.  Watch though I might, the sun rises in the East.  Light and life in the morning comes from the East.

Make release from jail the West.  I'm watching from the Wall, waiting for God to rescue Fabian.  But Mindy and Fabian look all around, eager to see God at work wherever He is at work.  In a northward glance, they see a hint of dawn, a friend from Small Group saying that he wants to pay their legal fees.  They see in the South a shortening of shadows, a lawyer willing to take their case.  And they turn eastward and see the sun rising, see God at work.

No wonder they're grateful.  No wonder I'm not.

An Attitude of Gratitude

How is it possible that the words "attitude" and "gratitude" rhyme? Is this an argument for an Intelligence behind linguistic design? Does this mean that God is actually a Southern Baptist?

"When you hit spiral seasons in life, you need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude." That's what we're always told.  But that line usually doesn't help people.  It doesn't help me, at least.

I don't need to be told to be more grateful.  Lecturing me just makes me feel angry or ashamed, which doesn't help with the spiral.

I need help seeing why I'm ungrateful.  I need practices and rhythms that fill me with gratitude.

This is a particular problem for people in Christian leadership.  Step up to lead a Small Group, help with the youth, pray for a missionary and ingratitude begins its work of temptation. So watch out!

Three reasons I become ungrateful
  1. I focus on what isn't happening rather than on what God is doing
  2. I focus on other people's ministries and compare myself unfairly
  3. I focus too much on where I want to be and not enough on where I've come from
  4. I focus too much on what I have to do and not enough on what I'm free to not do
  5. I fail to surround myself with trusted critics and fans

Does this sound like a mini-series to you?

Natural Spirals

I've noticed over the years that I have spiral seasons. 

I'm not sure where the spiral starts, but it includes tension, tiredness, workaholism, stress, exhaustion, sadness, illness.

I'm not alone in this.  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones chronicles other heroes of the faith who experienced downward spirals in their lives with Christ.  David and Jeremiah and John the Baptist.  Luther and Spurgeon.  And me.  Good company.  Right?

But I'd give just about anything to not be in that company, to be spared the spirals, the darkness, the heaviness. 

Intellectually, I know that I have something special in Christ, something to be excited about.  I should be full of joy and when I'm not I feel guilty. 

People in ministry often struggle alone through these spirals.  We don't want to burden the people we serve.  We don't want them to doubt God's goodness.  So, we hide our spirals.

But, in hiding our natural spirals, we paint a falsely rosy picture of the Christian life, one that doesn't resonate with the people we serve or the Scripture we love.

Let us not speak falsely, now.

Does Perspective Come With Problems?

The sermon at church this morning reflected on the story of Joseph, pretty much the second half of Genesis.

Joseph had this great vision.  Despite all the hard things that happened to him, he believed that God was with him.  No matter what happened.

Here's my conundrum.

Did Joseph have great perspective because he had so many problems or did Joseph have so many problems because he had such a great perspective?

The first option is comforting: the hard things in our lives can sharpen our vision of God.

The second option is terrifying: those with the clearest vision seem to get knocked around most.

Both of these propositions carry some truth.  In Joseph's life, he seems more and more dependent on God at every painful turn in the story.  But in Joseph's life, he suffers, not in spite of his godly perspective, but because of it (dreams, purity, justice).

Perspective comes with problems.  Be encouraged.  Beware.

When You Don't Feel Like It

We all have to do things we don't feel like doing.

Diapers.  That's one of my things right now.  I hate changing diapers.  The smell.  The color.  The I thought it was dirty but it's actually clean but I'm going to change it anyways because I already have it open.  Diapers.

Identifying why you don't feel like it is easy sometimes.  Diapers.

But other times, my sense of Don't Feel Like It confuses me.  I can't always explain why I don't feel like it.  Fundraising.  Meeting new people.  Sharing the gospel.  Blogging, even.

I struggle to explain why I don't feel like it.  Sometimes, these activities are pleasurable.  I have days when all I want to do is talk about Jesus.  I have hours when I find meeting new people wildly invigorating.  I have moments when I feel that fundraising is really providing an opportunity for the giver to be a part of something special.  I have nights when blogging is easy.

So, why do I not feel like it sometimes?

The Hard Start to Vision-Casting

The other day I received a gracious invitation from Sherrie Leatherwood, Gayle Collins and the folks over at Van Dyke Church to attend the Willow Creek Leadership Summit.  Bill Hybels gave the kick-off talk.

He said some things that sounded very common sensical, but, as I thought about it, I realized I hadn't been doing what he was suggesting.

Bill recommends a hard start to vision-casting.

See, our temptation and impulse in vision-casting is to describe to people the future we want to see.  Imagine what your Small Group could be like.  Imagine what God could do through this church, this new hire, this building.  Imagine your company broadcast all over the city with this marketing strategy.  Imagine.

Leaders use vision-casting, according to Hybels, to move people from Here to There.  And we instinctively focus on the There.

But in the initial phase, we have to create dissatisfaction with Here.  We can't stay Here, wherever Here is.  Here might be our Staff size or our funding or our depth of Bible study.  Here might be our way of communicating.  Leaders want you to leave Here.

And this is a dangerous, risky thing.  Cultivating discontent with Here may not necessarily lead to There.  People might leave Small Group for Sunday Schools.  People might leave the shallow Bible discussions for book groups reading some version of Consume, Meditate, Attach.  People might leave you.

But this is a risk worth taking.  If Here is always safe, always okay, then we can always turn around if the path to There gets difficult.  And if There is worth getting to, the path will get difficult.

It always does.

Hebrews 13: Summary in Mosaic

Hebrews 13 feels, at first blush, scattered and random.  You see hints and echoes of themes touched on earlier in the letter: stand firm, Jesus is better than the sacrificial system, take our community ethics seriously.  But none of these hints and echoes really settle into something solid.

You get the sense of someone trying to bring the letter to conclusion, but not being able.  The author of Hebrews has more to say, but not enough time or space to say it.

I've been in a similar position.  If you listen to some of the old GCF podcasts, you'll hear some sermons that just won't land.  I have more to say, but need to wrap it up.  It feels like you're trying to land a plane in the dark, but without runway lights.  Circling, circling.  Sometimes putting the landing gear down, sometimes even touching down, but hating to pull into the jetway.

At first, Hebrews 13 frustrated me.  But over time, I've come to appreciate it.  I like that this last chapter doesn't land.  I like that the author of Hebrews keeps trying to say more, fights.  It's hard to stop exhorting, to let your words sink in, to wait and see what sticks. 

I wonder what the author of Hebrews would do with a follow-up hobby blog.  What would he want to expand on?  What would he think we were missing?  I have a hunch he would expand on Jesus, would flesh out our picture of God in the flesh.  Hebrews 13 is full of this: Shepherd of the sheep, outside the gate, eternal.  I'd love to hear more and more about this Jesus.

What are you still hungry to hear about? 

Hebrews 12: 5 Ways to Fix Our Eyes on Jesus

Hebrews 12 exhorts us to fix our eyes on Jesus. Here are five ways I try to do that:

1.  In Scripture

Sometimes I read the Gospels.  Sometimes I don't.  But everywhere you read, it all points to Jesus.  When reading Scripture, if you want to (as Hebrews 12 encourages) "fix your eyes on Jesus," become adept at finding him wherever you read. 

Recently, when reading Genesis 3, I noticed Jesus in a fresh way.  Many of us have heard the oft-cited proto-euangelion: "He will crush your head and you will bruise his heel." 

But I saw Jesus in there in another way.  Something is taken off of a tree and death begins.  That's Genesis.  Something, or better yet, Someone is put back on a tree and life begins.  That's Jesus.  One act of disobedience brings death.  A life of obedience, culminating on that day on the cross, brings life.

All Scripture connects to Jesus.  Find the connection and you'll be on your way, fixing your eyes.

2.  In Prayer

The practice of Ignatian prayer I learned at Jesuit has been invaluable to me as I seek to fix my eyes on Jesus.  St. Ignatius urged members of his order to pray with their imaginations, to visualize Jesus on the cross, suffering for the joy set before him.

I usually pray to the Father, addressing my prayers to the first person of the Trinity.  But sometimes, when our vision of Jesus gets cloudy, we are helped if we pray and talk to him directly.  Address him.  Thank him.  Seek his help.

3.  In Service

How does Jesus connect with our service?  Say you're helping someone who's sick.  Where is Jesus in that?  Richard Foster is so helpful here.  In his chapter on prayer in his book on the spiritual disciplines, he talks about how he prays fot the sick.  He places a hand on their arm or their head and visualizes Jesus placing a hand on top of his.  In this way, it's not just Foster who prays, but it's as if Jesus joins in.

That's the way it is with all our service.  Mowing a lawn?  Picture Jesus there with you.  Visiting someone in jail?  Remind yourself that Jesus is there with you.  Take the theological realities you believe (omnipresence for example) and draw them up into your imagination.

Imagining something isn't the same as pretending that something that's made-up is actually real.  Sometimes, the act of imagining is really drawing into our mind's eye that which remains beyond our sight.

4.  In Community

A great help in fixing our eyes on Jesus is the opportunity we have to talk about him in our fellowships.  That's one of the reasons I loved Small Group so much.  These people talked to me about Jesus and encouraged me to speak.

As Jesus is important to us, he will come up in our conversations.  Don't worry about seeming annoyingly spiritual.  It's hard to talk about Jesus and be self-righteous.  The self-righteous people will talk about all sorts of other things, but not Jesus.  Jesus reminds us of our own brokenness, our neediness.  He puts us in our place, a place we did not earn, but a great place nonetheless.

So often we hold back in talking about Jesus with our Christian friends.  We treat him like an idea and an elementary one at that.  Part of the reason evangelism is so difficult for us is because we only talk about Jesus with people who don't know him.  Our communities are filled with people who love Jesus.  It should be easy for us to talk about him.

5.  In Our Consumption of Bacon

This is such a significant idea.  Jesus was constantly eating, with his disciples, with his friends, with sinners, with self-righteous hosts.  Food played a huge part in his ministry.

And not just any food.  Jesus freed us to eat bacon (non-kosher).  Jim Gaffigan rightly observed that bacon is the food that applauds for itself while it is cooking.  In our freedoms, let us not forget the One who set us free.

And more than that, Jesus wanted to be remembered through his meal.  Bread and wine.  "This, do in rememberance of me" he said.  Let's not ignore his own recommendation.

How do you fix your eyes on Jesus?

Hebrews 11: Buy Faith

Where can you go to get more faith?

Faith is a slippery thing. We can't manufacture it. It isn't sold in stores. You can't bottle it, ship it, package it, bundle it, or even really market it.

It's hard to even know what "it" is.

Hebrews 11 provides multiple insights into "it." Not multiple definitions, just multiple usages, a fleshed-out context.

Faith is what the heroes had, the thing that kept them going.
Faith believes even when we cannot see.
Faith leads to understanding.
Faith prompts obedience.
Faith brings praise.
Faith makes our inheritance possible.
Faith upsets our applecarts.
Faith changes the future.
Faith makes it possible to do the impossible.

Faith is a part of God's plan for us. If you could buy faith, you should. Since you can't buy it, you need to find another way to get it. That's where Hebrews 12 comes in. Tomorrow.

Hebrews 11: Part of Something Bigger

Our capacity to stand firm flows from our connection to something bigger.

History inspires heroism. This idea is at the core of Hebrews 11. Have you ever seen this?

Jesuit High football filled my sophomore and junior years. I remember time with the team in the locker room, moments when coaches filled us with confidence, energy and courage. There were moments when the whole room would quiet, when the voice of the coach would echo off the walls.

Those walls had pictures lining them. The faces of former Jesuit football players ringed the locker room. They were the Heroes on the Walls, invoked to inspire us to stronger performance. Coaches called our attention to them in difficult moments. "Remember the Heroes on the Walls!"

I don't know how familiar my coaches were with Hebrews 11. But I wonder if that isn't what's going on here. "Look at these walls! Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the people, the people, Rahab. You are a part of something bigger. You're in it with them. Stand firm, even as they stood firm."

This rapid-fire reminder, this rat-a-tat-tat of stories rolls into the room of the reader. The Bigger Story sweeps in and catches us up with it.

If you lose your place in The Bigger Story, forget standing firm. There's not enough hope in your immediate vision and in your current community. We need to go into this thing with some serious momentum, the kind that we can't generate ourselves, the kind that God won't generate for us on our own.

No, God's plan to provide us with enough momentum to finish strong is that momentum would be passed down from generation to generation. God has no grandchildren, but my older brothers and sisters, from Enoch down to Bill Hunter, have given me a deposit of momentum. I'd be a fool to ignore it.

We're part of something bigger.

Hebrews 10: Vote Important

How do we decide which theological ideas are important?

I'm having a hard time with this. I read Hebrews 10 and hear the emphasis on the exhortation to stand firm. But I haven't always read Hebrews 10 in this way.

I remember the days when young Luther whispered in my ear. "Can you lose your salvation? What happens if you keep on sinning?"

I don't remember when Luther stopped whispering, stopped shouting. But during those years, I don't know that I could have heard "Stand firm" through the chorus of "You blew it." I would have thought "Stand firm" to be too self-helpy, too nerfy, too elementary (even for my dear Watson).

My reading of Hebrews 10 tomorrow may differ from my reading today, may deepen. I don't have to get it perfect this time. As Bill Hunter says "I'll be back." But I think I've broken through something significant for me.

In this turn around the lap, I'm learning that there are times when exhortations like the one to "Stand firm" are needed even more than theological examinations of the doctrine of perseverance.

Is an exhortation to stand firm important enough to make it into our Bibles? An 18 year old might vote "no." Standing firm wasn't a problem then.

But life is different now. Standing firm is harder. Not just harder for me, but for most of my friends. We need the exhortation. So, is it important or unimportant?

I vote important.

Hebrews 10: Projections

At the turn of the century, the Sci-Fi landscape was populated with Agents. The Matrix left us wondering about reality.

This summer, Inception is making a bid to add its own touches to the Sci-Fi landscape. Without giving too much away, Inception's answer to the Matrix's Agents are the Projections. Where Agents were manifestations of the Machine, Projections are manifestations of a dreamers' subconscious.

Dreamers fill dreams with Projections: people walking down the street, couples in cafes, armed guards. A dream is a blank canvas. The subconscious determines whether the canvas will be filled with tranquility or with war.

Without going too far, I think that Scripture echoes this Inception idea. We don't read Hebrews with a blank slate. We fill Luther or Wright or Athanasius or Piper into the space provided for interpretation.

Now, not all interpretations are valid, accurate, true and God-honoring. Some projection lie and create war where no one intended war.

Are you aware of your projections?

Read Hebrews 10. What jumps out to you, seems central?

If it's the first 10 verses, you might be projecting Wright or Dunn.
If it's the next 4 verses, Piper or Stott.
If it's the next 3, Torrance.
If it's the next 13, Calvin or Arminus.
If it's the rest of the chapter, Tamayo (but who reads that guy anyways?).

Now, I may have mispegged your projection, but trust me, you can't not project. You don't approach the text objectively. Don't pretend to. Identify your projections (the voices in your head who influence your interpretation) and question them.

One day, we'll see the whole path clearly. Now, we see as through a fog. Friends and theologians serve as lookouts in the fog. We walk along this path, but still in the fog. Listen to the lookouts but don't neglect to pay attention to the path.

Hebrews 10: Remember Who You Are

Nikki Giovanni brought a grieving campus to its feet. Her poem - We are Virginia Tech - stirred our hearts after the tragic shooting. Everyone with a connection to Virginia Tech understood what she meant: that unbeatable hope and unbreakable community, even in the midst of heartache, defined Virginia Tech.

Calls to identity are powerful.

We easily forget our identity. One moment, we're beloved children of God. The next, disappointments. Courage and confidence ebb and flow. Commitment rises and falls.

The author of Hebrews knows this truth and issues, in Hebrews 10, a powerful reminder of identity. "We are not those who shrink back...but those who believe."

Some days, I feel like those who shrink back. I feel myself hesitating, stuttering. I don't feel like I can stand my ground. I'm tired, exhausted by the demands of discipleship.

The author of Hebrews reminds people like me of my identity. It speaks a true and better word over me. I've been faithful in the past. I've made a commitment. Trials and tests will only last a little while. Relief lies on the horizon.

"Remember who you are" Hebrews 10 tells us.

Who are you?

Why the Plato-stuff Matters to Readers of Hebrews

Mapping these Platonic connections over the last several days is not just an academic exercise.

Hanging over the Hebrews project is this question: Will you continue on with Jesus or will you turn back?

It's easy to see how the author of Hebrews cuts off the retreat into the Judaic sacrificial system. It serves a purpose, but it's been superceded.

But really, how many of us are tempted to retreat into the sacrificial system? I don't want to sacrifice bulls or goats. No, when I'm tempted to retreat, it's into the current culture. What's cool now? What's in now? What do the bulk of the people around me believe?

Maybe Platonism was a temptation to some of the early readers of Hebrews. They could see how some of his ideas resonated with the gospel.

All around us are thinkers and influencers who will walk alongside us for part of the path. But what happens when things get hard? What happens when we enter the valley of the shadow of death? What happens when we are called to bear on our own bodies the marks of Jesus?

Friends, small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Hebrews reminds us of this truth.

Hebrews 9: Playing Against Plato

Plato and his way of looking at the world may have influenced and inspired the author of Hebrews. [Trivia: Tolkien also borrowed his idea of a Ring of Power from Plato]

But there's one arena (at least one, I guess) where the author of Hebrews diverges from Plato.

One of Plato's ideas that didn't gain a lot of traction was the Myth of the Metals. Here's the short version...

Society needs order and structure. In order to maintain this order and structure, society must have the right people in leadership. In order to assure this, the people needed to believe a lie: the myth of the metals.

The myth claims that all of us have different metals woven through our souls. Some have gold, others silver, others copper. The folk who get better metals get better jobs, ruling society.

You can't change your metal. You're born with it. But cheer up. You'll be happiest working in the job that matches you metal. You'll be happiest living with other people who share your metal.

That's the myth of the metals. Jim Crow. Apartheid. Stuff like that.

Hebrews, even in its most Platonic parts (like chapter 9), presents a God who's for all people. He doesn't just come for gold people or for silver people. "Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people." That word 'πολλον' from Hebrews 9:28 appears in Plato, in reference to the masses, the hoi poloi, the people who, according to Plato, need to be lied to.

I'm glad the author of Hebrews, at least in this place, played against Plato. I want to be rescued, not lied to.

Hebrews 9: Playing Alongside Plato (pt. 2)

I loved learning about The Allegory of the Cave. Plato helped me make sense of the world and of the Bible (especially Hebrews).

Here's the short version of The Allegory of the Cave:

A group of prisoners grow up in a cave. Bound by chains, they can only look at a blank stone wall. Behind them, where they cannot look, is a pathway and a fire. The fire casts shadows on the wall as people carry objects along the pathway.

The prisoners no no other world. The shadows, imperfect as they are, appear to be real. But somewhere, beyond the cave, the real world exists. And should a prisoner ever break free, ever escape the cave, life would never be the same.

Plato provides us with an explanation for the dissonance we experience in the world. And his explanation complements the one we receive in Scripture.

The world is broken. Although it resembles the perfect world God created, it resembles the perfect world the way a shadow resembles it's subject. We are constantly called by God to long for a better world, to believe that our citizenship is in that ideal world. Heaven is the home of our hearts' longing.

In Hebrews 9, when the author of Hebrews talks about our world, our world is an illustration, a copy. This creates a tension. Our world doesn't feel like a copy. It seems too real, too painful to be an illustration.

But that's what you would expect, if you were living in the Cave.

Hebrews 9: Playing with Plato (pt. 1)

A group from W&L went on a trip to DC last February. Becca Saunders - our intrepid Intern - led us in an exercise to think about justice in the city. We used Plato to build a city. Red buildings, blue lakes, green Godzilla. Perfect.

Or not quite.

I think we forgot to put in a supermarket. Our football stadium was only a little bit bigger than the houses in our suburban neighborhood. The wheels kept falling off of our Plato cars.

You just can't build "the real thing" when you're using Plato.

Plato was also the name of an ancient Greek philosopher. Reading Hebrews 9 this evening reminded me of him.

To dramatically simplify, Plato believed that we experience a world of shadows, that all sorts of real stuff exists in the highest heaven and our world is modeled after it. In the highest heaven, God is using an iPhone 4 and holding it however he wants (can you hear Him now?).

In Hebrews 9, the author of Hebrews contrasts the earthly temple with a heavenly temple. He goes as far as to say that the earthly temple is just a copy of the heavenly temple. This is part of what makes Jesus' priesthood so special.

He didn't just present his sacrifice in the earthly temple. He went, according to Hebrews 9, all the way to the top, to heaven.

This Platonic distinction, between the world we experience and the real world, is worth some reflection, maybe even a short series.

We'll see how it goes tomorrow.

***Now, how many of you couldn't even read the post because I typed "Plato" instead of "Play-Doh" in paragraphs 1, 3, 4? I was in Children's ministry for Christ's sake! I know how to spell Play-Doh. I know how to get it out of carpet and hair and noses. I know what it how it smells, how it hardens and even what it tastes like. Somewhere, in the highest heavens, there's a version of me who doesn't know these things."***

Hebrews 8: They Will All Know Me

One last thought on Hebrews 8 and then I'll move on.

I'd be lying to you if I pretended that the out with the old attitude of Hebrews 8 didn't bother me. I like that Christianity has deep roots, digging into fertile stories about love and families and tragedy and movement. I like that God isn't about to release a Christianity Vista with that messed up Start Menu (you know what I've talking about).

But what if this "out with the old" attitude was more about fulfillment than change?

That's part of what that phrase in Hebrews 8:11 is all about: "they will all know me."

As God's story moves through history, there's this wild interchange between exclusion and inclusion. God created the world and everything in it in one scene. You blink and he's talking to Abraham. Big picture. Small picture.

God gets to the big through the small. And he gets to the small through the big. Think about church growth: member by member. Think about how we band together to serve our hurting neighbor. Small to big. Big to small.

I love that God said, even back then, even before then, that "they will all know me." Some things change. Some things don't.

This new covenant leads to more inclusion. The law gets included in our very hearts. All of Israel gets included in this inclusion. Outsiders, Gentiles get included.

Somewhere, in the declaration of "they will all know me", I hear an echo of my own inclusion. And yours.

Praise God.

Hebrews 8: He Sat Down

No one had ever sat down before.

For generations, men entered the temple to make sacrifices. In dark, smoke-filled rooms, full of the smell of incense and blood, men stood.

J. Alex Kirk astutely commented on an earlier blog post that there was nowhere for the priest to sit in the tabernacle. The High Priest's job was never done. There was always more to do, more sacrifices to make, more, more, more.

Hebrews 8 pauses to note that Jesus sat down.

The Christological vision of the author of Hebrews sees Jesus' work as finished. He is the Great High Priest, the one who made a once-for-all sacrifice, submitting himself to death, even death on a cross.

And he sat down. The only place to sit in the tabernacle, in the temple, was the throne of God. And only God could sit on that throne.

We needed a priest and we needed him sit, we needed him to finish the work of our salvation. We needed him to sit down.

So he sat down.

Hebrews 8: Out with the Old

The other week, I went out with a group of kids from Van Dyke to do some manual labor in the community.

One of our clients hoards like crazy. She has stuff piled up all over her yard, piled up in her head. She told amazing stories, cried, laughed. And we were with her. And so was all her stuff.

She had her daughter's stroller and a car on blocks and tools and plywood and a house full to the rafters of stuff. She wanted to get rid of it, but just couldn't bring herself to do it.

Her story came to mind today when I read Hebrews 8.

We have a new High Priest, a new covenant. This new High Priest and this new covenant represent a wild break from the old.

How do we cope with wild breaks, out with the old's, when it comes to God and theology? Some of us find it phenomenally difficult. It feels like God made a mistake. How can he abandon the old covenant? the old priesthood?

We don't want a God who makes mistakes. We don't want a God who changes his mind. We don't want a God who abandons.

How do we make sense of Hebrews 8? How do we make sense of the passages in Scripture that speak to the newness of Jesus and the new thing God has accomplished through the gospel?

I wish I knew.

One thing I know, and this helps a lot, is that, through all the changes, it's the same God behind every covenant, behind every priesthood, behind everything. Even though God changes the old system, the old system makes it possible for us to enter into and appreciate the new. This truth echoes throughout Hebrews 8.

The old makes the new possible.

We have the new. Out with the old.

Hebrews 7: Not the Great, the Only

Berry Long and I stayed up way too late talking theology/football/books and all that.  Toward the end of our conversation, I feel pretty sure I was incoherent.  For Christians, getting tired is as close as we come to getting high.

Berry shares my love for John Stott.  In 2003, I remember Stott lighting up Urbana.  Most people won't remember Stott lighting up Urbana.  John Stott had a stroke right before Urbana and didn't make it out to Illinois.  But I remember his talk.

Joshua Wathanga read the transcript of Stott's talk on Radical Christianity, and this was a part of it:
We may talk about Alexander the Great, Charles the Great and Napoleon the Great, but not Jesus the Great. Jesus is not the Great, he is the Only. Jesus has no rivals and Jesus has no successors.

I remember that line 7 years later.  And that's the point of Hebrews 7.

Melchizedek wasn't just a better priest.  He was a totally different kind of priest.  He wasn't just better, he was different.

This kind of thinking is really difficult for us.  Our brains work analogically: this is like that.  When something doesn't fit an analogy, we force an analogy upon it.  The author of Hebrews knows this about us.  God knows it too.  So we're treated to analogy after analogy.  Greater than angels.  Greater than Moses.  Greater than sacrificial system.

But we're also challenged.  Break the analogy.  Start a new category.  "You know priests" says Hebrews 7.  "He is a priest, but of the order of Melchizedek, not of Aaron.  You've never seen a priest like him."

He is not the Great.  He is the Only.

Why share a theological overview of a meeting?

Theology has an uneasy place in our ministry, at least in mine.

I love theology.  I read theology.  I work to have a solid, clear theology because I want to see Jesus clearly.  Theology matters.

But so much of my ministry is strategy.  Steps, not programs.  Vision.  Clarity.  Buy-in.  Getting things done.

One of the things I loved most about our Divisional meets was that we talked theology.  We soaked in theology.  We embraced theology and trusted God to shape us by it.

One of the core aspects of Hebrews is the notion that our theology shapes our following of Jesus.  The corrolary to this aspect is that, if you are called to shape the way others follow Jesus, theology matters. 

It matters how you think about God. 
It matters how you think about Jesus. 
It matters how you think about God's mighty acts.
It matters how you think about your identity.
It matters how you think about God's people.
It matters.

The author of Hebrews wants his people to hang on, to hang in there.  I want the same thing.

My theology matters.

Divisionals: Day 3

We continued our jaunt through Hebrews today...

  • Look for inspiration from...
    • yourself (it's actually in there)
    • your community (think witnesses)
    • your Savior
  • Stand and keep on standing
  • God will not forget our work because he is just
  • We are to view our labors within the narrative of Jesus
  • The opposite of shrinking back is believing
  • The Throne of Grace = Power + Love

Divisionals: Day 2

More theological highlights from our Divisional Staff Conference...
  • Jesus is still outside the gate
  • Jesus set himself in solidarity to us and we are called to set ourselves in solidarity to him
  • Jesus makes it possible for us to believe that God understands
  • Jesus modeled perfect humanity
  • Jesus makes powerless the one who holds the power of death
  • Jesus becomes both the priest and the sacrifice
  • Because Jesus suffered to make us holy, we should embrace any disgrace that comes from life outside the gate

Divisionals: Day 1

Today was the first day of the Divisional gathering for InterVarsity staff in the state of Florida. Here are some theological highlights of the day:

- God provides
- We see God most clearly when we look at Jesus
- WHAT Jesus does reveals WHO God is
- Our theology impacts our trust
- Everyone is tempted at times to turn away from Jesus
- Prophets bring a message from God, but Jesus is the message of God

Many thanks to Evan Keller and his excellent leadership on our dive into Hebrews.

Hebrews 6: Don't miss out!

Hebrews 6 is one of the spooky chapters of the Bible.  People read it and tremble. 

"It is impossible...if they fall away, to be brought back."  I remember walking up and down the hills of Buena Vista, talking to a friend about these very verses as daytime turned into evening and evening turned into night.  He was afraid that his repeated sin would cause him to lose his relationship with God altogether.

But that's not what the passage is about.

It isn't about losing your salvation.  It isn't about discerning true believers from the unelected.  In true Hebrews fashion, it's a warning.

Don't miss out!

The key is in verse 11: "show this same diligence to the very end."

The readers of Hebrews were being tempted to stop walking with Christ, to impatiently abandon their chance of an inheritance.  But God promises rewards to those who endure to the end.

I don't have a lot of space for rewards in my grace-filled theology.  I need to change that if I'm going to take Hebrews seriously.