The historical Jesus in the here and now

My wife Karen and I are just back from a trip to the “other Holy Land,” Turkey, which is home to many important biblical sites. We were on a tour of the seven churches of The Revelation with Taylor University. These were churches that received special messages from the apostle John at the end of the first century, contained in the last book of the New Testament.

Turkey was the first center of non-Jewish Christianity. It was in Turkey that the apostle Paul was born and did much of his work. It was from Turkey that the news of what God had done through Jesus Christ first entered Europe and then reached across the Roman Empire.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a tour of ancient biblical sites. People told me that I would see the Bible with different eyes after walking along the paths that St. Paul walked. Friends who had toured biblical sites in Israel had often spoken of it as an intense and life-changing spiritual experience, and I wondered if something similar might happen to me.

To visit the home where Jesus’s mother Mary may once have lived, to walk the same streets that Paul walked and sit in the Great Theater of biblical Ephesus was impressive. It was possible to imagine avenues lined with first century shops and crowded with pedestrians, vendors and beggars, all going about their lives as usual – as we do today. And among them went the man whose message was about to “turn the world upside down.”

It was impressive – deeply so. It was educational. And, to be honest, it was tiring. But it was not life-changing. Perhaps I’m just not wired that way. Or perhaps such life-changing encounters arise out of a person’s present experiences, not his or her historical investigations.

Recently the New York Times ran a piece by Maud Newton, chronicling her own Holy Land experience. She went to Jerusalem on business and, while there, toured some of Israel’s famous biblical sites with her husband. A friend had jokingly warned her about “Messiah Syndrome,” and Newton was, it seems, on her guard against it.

She was nevertheless strangely moved by what she saw. Everything reminded her of the religious upbringing she had left behind: the color of the skies, the almond and olive trees, the ancient rubble – it all seemed richly significant. “At times,” she wrote, “the past seemed so immediate, I could hardly breathe.”

Ms. Newton had been warned that visiting the Holy Land can intensify one’s deepest religious beliefs and she, an agnostic, testifies that it was so. But she did not come away with the kind of “feverish conversion” her mother once had. Rather, the experience reinforced her “own stubbornly uncertain self.”

But that is just what one might expect from a trip like the one Maud Newton took or, for that matter, the one from which my wife and I just returned. The experience acts as an amplifier, increasing the “signal” that is already there. An amplifier will make a guitar louder but it will not make it a piano. For Ms. Newton, the Holy Land amplified what was already there: her doubts.

Ms. Newton needn’t have feared that her trip to the Holy Land would turn her into a religious enthusiast like her mother. For that she would need something else: a conversion, not merely an amplification. And history – rich and powerful as it is – does not convert.

It is possible to place Christ in his historical setting and is, in fact, important to do so, both for the sake of an accurate understanding of Scripture and its application to theology. We can place Christ in history but we can only find him in the present, in our daily lives. The successful search for the historical Jesus always concludes in the present moment.

Those who want to find Christ will find him where they live. Those who do not will not find him, even in the holiest sites of the ancient faith. Some women looked in such a place once and were told, “He is not here.” He didn’t stay in the past. They would find him in the present.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/12/2014

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Abandoning the stained-glass messiah

Vacations sometimes go wrong. One summer my family went to a remote lake in Northwestern Ontario, where we planned to fish for a week. When we arrived, we realized that no one had remembered to pack the fishing rods!

But that doesn’t compare to Jason Cairns-Lawrence’s story. He and his wife came to America to enjoy a September holiday in New York – on 9/11/2001. If that weren’t bad enough, they were sightseeing in London in 2005 when the Underground bombings took place. Then, three years later, they were vacationing in Mumbai when Islamic terrorists targeted foreigners in a horrific killing spree.

Believe it or not, even Jesus had stories of vacation misadventures. As far as we know, he left the country only once when he visited the coastal regions of Tyre and Sidon. All the time he was there a distraught woman followed him around town, crying loudly for help and embarrassing his disciples. Then, when he entered his host’s home, she followed him in!

On another vacation he crossed the Sea of Galilee for some rest and relaxation with his closest friends. Shortly after arriving at his destination, people found out where he was and about five thousand of them showed up at his campsite. So much for rest and relaxation.

The most surprising thing about all this is not that Jesus’s holidays didn’t always go according to plan – whose does? – but that Jesus took holidays at all. Doesn’t it seem odd that the Son of God took time out from saving the world to go on vacations?
And yes, they were real vacations. In the Gospel of St. Mark we read that Jesus told his closest friends and co-workers: “‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.” That’s a vacation.

Somehow that doesn’t seem to fit the image of Jesus the Son of God that most of us have. He was intensely serious, wasn’t he? Occupied with the work of saving the world, he had no time for fun and games. And he was certainly not the kind of guy who needed to take vacations.

No, wait a minute. That’s not Jesus … that’s you! Somehow Jesus found time to hold little babies, go to parties (if you don’t believe it, read Luke 5:29), take a lunch break and even go fishing. He frequently left the busy streets and hiked up into the mountains for some solitude time. And he never seemed to be in a hurry. Ever.

We, on the other hand, are always in a hurry. We have ten things to do before lunch, and who is going to do them, if not us? It’s all up to me, our messiah complex whispers. Funny, the only person who doesn’t seem to have a messiah complex was the messiah.

If we dare to think it through, we might discover that many of the things the Bible records Jesus saying and doing don’t fit our image of him. But if that’s true, it must be our stained-glass image – beautiful, remote, and stationary – that is distorted.

The Jesus the apostles knew and the New Testament describes was not made of stained glass. He was neither fragile nor distant, and was certainly not inactive. It wasn’t the biblical writers who turned him into a mild-mannered itinerant sage, spouting religious platitudes. That was left to nineteenth century theologians.

And it was not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John who gave us Jesus, the wandering “peace and love” guru. Each generation has remade Jesus in its own image, and in so doing has “pared the claws of the Lion of Judah,” as Dorothy Sayers once put it. We’ve tamed him, this complex, loving, fiery, funny, compassionate man who was “the image of the invisible God.”

Whether Jesus was celebrating with sinners, vacationing with friends, scolding Pharisees or dying on a cross, he was revealing the nature, character and values of the God he called “Father.” And if God is like that, he is certainly someone I’d like to know. Wouldn’t you?

Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, April 5, 2014

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The ideas that direct our lives

Ideas are shared assumptions about how life works. They are too imprecise to be defined exactly and their course through the history of thought is too uncertain to predict or control. But they are powerful. Ideas direct our lives, though most people don’t know which ideas are in the driver’s seat.

Ideas are too big to be owned by a single individual. They are communicated, often unintentionally, and grow and mutate until they become fixed in the consciousness of society. Ground zero for any particular idea is usually impossible to discover.

An idea that has had enormous influence in America and elsewhere is the idea of progress. Progress suggests that things are getting better and better. Systems get better. Cars get better. Food production gets better. People get better. Progress has been one of the defining ideas governing America’s history, and almost everyone in America believes in progress. That is historically fascinating, since the idea of progress was absent from the world when Columbus landed here.

Politics is all about progress: the various political entities all promise that their program will get America back on track and enable her to once again make progress. Their particular party knows just how to stoke the engine so that it will steam along toward justice, prosperity and universal happiness.

This is one idea that capitalism and communism share. Both believe wholeheartedly in the inevitability of progress. Earlier centuries had Molech, Rah, Zeus and Odin. Our deities have other names, and high in the pantheon of the gods is Progress.

An idea that seems similar on the surface is the concept of fulfillment. It was an important idea to earlier generations, particularly to Jews and Christians, and still has currency within some groups.

While the idea of fulfillment shares some similarities with the idea of progress, there are also significant differences. Fulfillment suggests that everything is becoming more and more itself, realizing its inner nature in its outward form. This is not only true of things, but also of people. Everyone begins as a prospective self and as life goes on is shaped (and possibly hardened) into a fulfilled self, for good or bad.

A person who believes in progress – perhaps even worships Progress – will expect to see his or her life or, more generally, human life on earth, get better and better. Depending on the definition used, “better and better” might mean easier and easier, or healthier and healthier, or richer and richer.

A person who believes in fulfillment will expect something different. He or she will expect everything to become more and more itself. If this person is a fatalist, that self will have been predestined by a good God or by an amoral naturalism. But if the person believes in some kind of free will (another enormously influential idea in the history of thought), he or she will see an opportunity – indeed, a responsibility – to cooperate in his or her personal fulfillment.

This corresponds to another prominent idea from the Bible and other sacred literature: the idea of judgment. We think of God’s judgment as merely punitive, but that fails to do justice to biblical teaching, which also views it as revelatory. It will, to borrow St. Paul’s words on the subject, “bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.”

As such, judgment does not so much impose a sentence upon a person as it discloses the person’s true self. Another way of putting it is to say that judgment confirms and finalizes the fulfillment process. This is very good news for some and very bad news for others, for it confirms the decisions we have made all along as we have directed our own fulfillment.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, March 29, 2014

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Hope for those who lack the “religion gene”

The look on his face was classic. It registered surprise and a touch of indignation, which was a little humorous. We were sitting across the table from each other and he had just told me that he “wasn’t religious.” Since he knew I am a pastor, I suppose he was wondering how I would react to this

He was not prepared for my response (which I’ve given to many people over the years). I looked him in the eye and told him that I wasn’t particularly religious

For a moment – I could see it in his eyes – he thought I had just admitted to being a charlatan and a hypocrite. And, religious or not, he felt a flare of righteous indignation. So I quickly explained that one needn’t be “religious” in order to follow Jesus. The Christian life is about the reality of one’s relationship with God, not about the religiosity of one’s

Some people have a proclivity for religious things – rituals, sacred objects and pious language. They are drawn to stained glass like a bee to a flower – or perhaps like a moth to a flame. Depending upon their particular traditions, the very act of genuflecting or raising their hands or bowing their heads strikes them as deeply

These folks have the religion gene. Perhaps everyone has it, but it is dominant in them. It is not dominant in me. I truly believe in God, have committed my life and wellbeing to Jesus Christ and have ordered my life around that commitment, but I’m not naturally religious.

There are many people who love God but do not love religion. One thinks of Oswald Chambers. When he was serving as a chaplain with the British army, a young soldier said to him, “I can’t stand religious people.” Chambers, who was a beautiful, godly and strong man, leaned toward him and said in a low voice, “Neither can I.”

It is apparent from the biblical record that Jesus himself was insufficiently religious to satisfy many of his contemporaries. They distrusted him because he didn’t keep all their rules. He didn’t seem reverent enough – always hanging around with rule-breakers and religious drop-outs. It’s worth noting that almost every conflict Jesus had was with religious people.

It’s a mistake to think that being godly and being religious are the same thing. They are not. Were God to pack up and leave the universe like a tourist from a bad hotel, a great many religious people would go on doing their religious things without even noticing. They have a “form of godliness,” to quote the apostle Paul, but are “denying its power.”

Does that mean that religion is always a bad thing? Not at all. To the degree that religion – liturgy, ritual and ceremony – helps us know and worship God, religion should be heartily embraced. And it is only right to acknowledge that religion has through the centuries helped millions of people know and worship God.

But religion can become, and has too often been, a substitute for God. Jesus complained about this and quoted the Old Testament prophet Isaiah to make his point: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” When it takes God’s place, religion becomes idolatry.

Religion is harmful when it replaces God, but it’s also harmful when it subjugates people. Instead of using religion to raise people to God, it has sometimes been used to subordinate people to a place of inferiority or dependency. The religious elite certainly did this when Jesus was on earth, and his criticism of them was severe: “You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry,” he charged, “and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”

When religion provides God and people a place to meet, it becomes a sacred temple. But when, due to sin and misuse, God’s presence is absent from religion, it becomes at best a hollow and empty form and at worst a haunt of demons.

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New Music Posted

Check out the Music page for a song I’ve written: He Is Able. It was performed at Lockwood Church’s Now Playing talent show, a fundraiser for the Youth Mission Trip to Tijuana, Mexico. Thanks to Kevin Looper, Marv Robertson and Ed Miller for their help.

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A dignity too great for words

Last summer a friend invited me to golf with him on one of the nicest courses around. He was hoping to introduce a friend of his, who was in our area to lead a weekend seminar at a large church in Indiana.

I was happy to meet his friend and learn about his work, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to put my demonstrable lack of skills on display before a couple of real golfers. Yet there I was on the first hole, teeing off with a three-wood (since my driver is hazardous to my golf game).

Wonder of wonders, the shot went long and kept rising, just like the ones the pros hit on TV. It had this nice little draw, too, and landed right in the middle of the fairway. What’s more, that kept happening, hole after hole. And every time I hit that three-wood, I thought: “Yep. That’s the kind of golfer I am: the kind who hits them long and straight.”

Sadly for me, I had to take other clubs out of my bag. Yet for some reason, when I finished four-putting the first green – and the second and the fifth – I did not think: “Yep. That’s the kind of golfer I am.” Instead I thought, “Why is this happening? I’m better than that!”

Of course I’m not better than that. I’m the kind of golfer who hits a good shot followed by two bad ones. Alright, four bad ones. I’d like to think that I am the kind of golfer I am when I’m at my best, but I’m really the kind of golfer I am when I’m at my average.

What is true on the golf course is true in life. We’d like to think we’re the kind of person we are when we’re at our best: when we give to charity, act courageously, forgive those who’ve injured us, and feel warmth and affection for those around us.

But the truth is, we are the kind of people we are when we’re at our average: sometimes we grasp instead of give; we are fearful, not courageous; we hold grudges and despise the people around us. We are not our best moments. We are not our aspirations. We are our character.

Character is the overall makeup of the self, which is revealed in our patterns of behavior over time. Just as you can’t know what kind of golfer I am from one or two shots, or even from one or two rounds, you can’t tell what kind of person I am from one or two actions. That’s why Jesus said, “By their fruit your will recognize them.”

There is, as Dallas Willard has written: “a rigorous consistency in the human self and its actions … Actions are not impositions on who we are, but are expressions of who we are.” This is, as Willard notes, “one of the things we are most inclined to deceive ourselves about.” We want to believe that we are only our best intentions and most altruistic actions.

Character forms itself around (an often unrecognized) commitment, as we repeatedly make choices to support that commitment. This lies at the very center of who we are and it is upon this commitment that we stake our wellbeing. It may be a commitment to safety, to freedom, or to youthfulness. It may be a commitment to power or prestige or to always being right. It may be – and is, for many people – a commitment to a divine being.

Our character is shaped around that commitment by the choices we make – millions and millions of them. Each and every choice is another stroke of the tool that shapes us. As such, we are artists in residence, working with and under our artistic director to create …. ourselves. This is a remarkable privilege, a dignity too great for words. It is also a solemn responsibility, for we alone are responsible for the living art that we produce.

But what if we come to the realization that the person we are fashioning is flawed and blemished – that he or she is not the person we really want to be? Is it too late to start over?

No, character can be reformed. But to do so requires that inner commitment – at the heart of who we are – to be changed. This is nothing less than a conversion experience. We cannot do it by ourselves. It requires outside assistance – what the Bible refers to as “the grace of God.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, March 15, 2014

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What are people around the world looking for?

The news is not all bad. Yes, we keep hearing that the percentage of people in the United States who believe in God is shrinking. And, according to census data, the number of people who self-describe as having “no religion” continues to grow. But while those figures are important, they do not tell the whole

Around the globe, Christianity is growing. There are over 2 billion Christians on earth, representing the world’s largest religious group, by far. Even in the U.S. there were 14 million more self-proclaimed adult Christians in the last census than in the previous

Recently the popular Bible search site released the results of a study they conducted in conjunction with GMI (Global Mapping International) regarding online Bible searches by country. The study found that people from 242 of the world’s 263 countries spent 76 million hours in 2013 “searching, reading, studying, comparing, and sharing the Bible in their own

This interest in the Bible may continue for a long time. According to BibleGateway the average Bible searcher around the world is between age 13 and age 34. Their pursuit of Bible knowledge is just getting

It is fascinating to see what people searched for in different countries around the world. For example, in China the two most common searches were for Matthew 1 and John 1, which suggests that Chinese searchers want to learn about Jesus, and intend to start at the beginning (chapter 1) so they don’t miss

Among the countries with the largest populations, only the United States, Russia and Brazil (all historically Christian countries) performed more searches in the New Testament than in the Old. In two of the world’s ten largest countries, not a single New Testament text figured into the top five most popular

Another intriguing fact about these searches: in countries where religious persecution is common (for example, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh), the most common biblical search is in the Book of Psalms, which suggests people are looking for comfort and strength in times of trouble. The top searches in Pakistan (ranked eighth in the world for persecution against Christians) were in the Psalms. They include Psalm 91, where Pakistanis read, “I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’”

Contrast that to one of the top searches in the U.S. – Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Pakistani believers are looking for security in the present. American believers are looking for assurance about the

When it comes to searches for specific words, the most common was for “guidance.” That was followed by “God,” “comfort,” “the word,” “hope,” “strength,” “identity,” “the beginning,” “refuge,” “mercy” and “love.” It’s clear that some people are just beginning an investigation into Christianity. They are looking Bible basics about God and about creation. Others are digging in to find the help they need in their specific circumstances.

As interesting as it is to discover what people search the Bible for when it comes to God, it is probably even more helpful to know what God searches the earth for when it comes to people. According to the Bible, “…the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” God is looking for people who: seek him and trust him; whose worship is real and not simply ritual; who cooperate with him in his work of salvation and justice.

And guess what? He doesn’t need a search engine to find them.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/8/14

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