Sunday, September 28, 2014


I love Rob Bell's take on Jonah.  Often we, as Christians in the West, look more like the Pharisees of the New Testament (for whom Jesus had reserved his harshest words) or the Israelites in the Old Testament (who God compared to a wayward prositute) than like what Jesus describes in John 17. 

Rob Bell on Jonah from here:

…Then Pul king of Assyria invaded the land…

Tiglath-Pilesar, king of Assyria, came…and deported the people…

Shalmaneser king of Assyria marched against Samaria and laid siege to it…
-from 2 Kings 15 and 18

Invaded.Deported.Laid siege.

Invading is what happens when you raise an army and then march into another country and take it over using force and power and violence.

Deporting is what happens when you capture the inhabitants of said country you’ve invaded and forcibly remove them from their homes and jobs and towns and land and then take them far away.

Laying siege is what happens when you surround a city with your army and in doing this sever the city from its food and water sources so that so many people are starving and suffering and dying that eventually they give up and surrender. 

The Assyrians, in other words, were mean. Nasty, brutish, violent, oppressive-the Assyrians made life miserable for the Israelites. Year after year after year.

It’s during this era in history that a story emerged about a man named Jonah. Jonah was an Israelite. And according to this particular story, Jonah’s God tells Jonah to take a message to the great city Nineveh.

And Nineveh was in…Assyria.

Assyria? Our worst enemy? Those hated infidels who have made life for our people a living hell time and time again? You want me to go into the center of the beast-and do something good for them? Seriously?

Jonah wants nothing of it and so he heads to the nearest port, jumps on a ship, and sails in the opposite direction.

Of course he does.You’d get in a boat, too.

(Side note: Often this story is told in such a way that Jonah’s disobedience is the point of the first part, along the lines of See what happens when we don’t do what God tells us to do? But how do you imagine the first audiences would have reacted to this story when Jonah won’t go to Nineveh? They hated the Assyrians. Would they have focused on his disobedience or would they have cheered him on because they could totally relate?)

So he gets on the boat, a storm comes, there’s a discussion among the crew about the cause of the storm, they determine he’s the problem, they throw him overboard, he’s swallowed by a fish, he prays in the belly of the fish, the fish spits him out, he then goes to Nineveh, the Ninevites are fantastically receptive to his message, and then the story ends with him so depressed he wants to kill himself because of a gourd.
(You can’t make this stuff up.)

There’s so much here, where do I start? We’ll get to the swallowed by a fish part shortly, but first, I’ll start with the sheer strangenessof this story.

You would assume that a story told by Israelites about Assyrians would stick to fairly straightforward categories of good and bad, right and wrong, righteous and evil.  

But the Israelite in this story, the one who supposedly follows God, runs in the opposite direction from God. The word that’s used is flee. Jonah flees. He then ends up on a boat full of “pagan/heathen” sailors who pray

And while they’re praying for the storm to stop Jonah doesn’t pray at all. Jonah sleeps.

The pagan, heathen sailors ask all sorts of questions trying to figure out why this storm has come on them, only to discover that Jonah is the problem, something Jonah knew all along.

And then, when he finally does get to Nineveh, after he’s resisted God again and again, these horrible, mean, nasty Assyrians turn out to be open to God’s message, really open-so open that the king orders 
…Let man and beast be covered in sackcloth.

Sackcloth was what you wore when you were crying out to God, when you were acutely aware of your sins, when you were asking for God’s mercy. The king orders everybody to repent and wear sackcloth-including the animals! 

(Animals repenting? Wha….? A fairly surreal detail, to say the least. One of the many hints that the author has a larger point in mind…a point we’ll get to shortly.)

(Another point about that point: when you read the Bible, embrace the weird parts. Animals wearing sackcloth is weird. Take note of the strange parts because they’re usually there for a reason…)

We’re familiar in the modern world with frameworks that see things in dualistic terms: there are the good people, and then there are the bad people, there is the right thing to do, there is the wrong thing to do, there are the people who need saving, and then there are people who do the saving. 

But in this story the categories are all scrambled. The supposedly righteous Israelite is defiant and lazy and generally prickish (is that a word?) while the supposedly evil and wicked heathens are receptive and open to God’s message for them.

And then, in the end, after Jonah has had a change of heart and he’s seen this massive, miraculous change of heart in the Ninevites right before his eyes, he’s so upset by it that he wants to die.

He says to God I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

And then he adds:
Now LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.

What a bizarre story. 
A story in which none of the characters do what you’d expect them to do. Which raises the questions 
So why did this story survive?What did people find this story important and worth telling and preserving?What does it tell us about how they understand who they are and who God?

Several answers. 
First, this story is about a man, but it’s about a nation. Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because the Assyrians had treated Israelites horribly. The story asks the question 
Can Jonah forgive the Assyrians?which is really the questionCan Israel forgive the Assyrians?

Jonah is angry at the end,angry that God has been so kind to them.
 Of course Jonah is angry.

When you haven’t forgiven someone who has wronged you and then something good happens to them-when they are blessed or shown mercy or experience favor-it’s infuriating. 

Which leads us to a larger theme of the Bible: According to the story that’s been unfolding up until Jonah gets on a boat, Israel had a calling from early in its history (Genesis 12 to be more precise) to be a light to the world, to show the world the redeeming love of God. 
A calling they haven’t lived up to.

There’s a question, then, that lurks in the story of Jonah:Can you forgive your worst enemy and be a channel through which God’s redeeming love can flow to them?

It’s a question for Jonahbecause it’s the question for Israel.

This is why the book of Jonah doesn’t end with a conclusion or a judgment or details about what Jonah does next.

The book ends with a question, a question God has for Jonah: Should I not be concerned about that great city?

It’s a question for the Jonah character in the story,but at a far more significant level it’s a question the author is asking the audience, an audience who we can only assume would have had many, many personal reasons to answer…

That said, what about the fish part?

Next: What is the Bible? Part 4: Fish#2

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Hiding from God's Love?

There are two ways to hide from God’s love – rebellion and religion. Rebellion, illustrated in the prodigal son, defies God’s love and seeks to cover up guilt and shame through the indulgence of sensual desires. Religion, on the other hand, is far more subtle. It seeks its cover-up through good works and obligation. However, like the prodigal’s older brother, it still denies the Father’s place in our lives and leads us no closer to knowing him for who he really is.

Simply, religion is keeping score – striving for acceptance through our own performance whether it be in our good works or in ritualistic activities. Those things put the focus squarely on us and what we can do to be accepted by God, thereby dooming us to failure.

Most of Paul’s letters were written because even the earliest believers found themselves trading relationship for religion. Instead of learning to live in the security of his love, they would go back to traditions, creeds, disciplines, and laws as an attempt to earn it themselves. He reminded them again and again that God’s love would take them further than their own efforts and achievements ever would…

What would you do today if you knew God absolutely loved you?

Wayne Jacobsen

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jesus lives; here’s a toaster.

This is an excerpt from Rob Bell's book called Velvet Elvis.   Some might criticize this quote as being being only about a social gospel and not about spreading the message of Jesus.  I disagree.  Jesus said: "for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.'"  It was Jesus who emphasized that a Christian would love others through action and by those works the world would know that we are his.

"Imagine an average street in an average country. Let's imagine person X lives in a house on this street. Next door is a Hindu and on the other side is a Muslim. Across the street is an atheist, next door to them an agnostic, and next door on the other side, someone from Ohio.

Imagine person X becomes a Christian. Let's say she starts living out Jesus' teachings so that she can become a compelling force for good in the world. She is becoming more generous, more compassionate, more forgiving, more loving. Is she becoming a better or worse neighbor? If we are her neighbors, we're thrilled about her new faith. We find ourselves more and more grateful for a neighbor like this. We wish more people would be like this.

Let's make some observations about this street. The good news of Jesus is good news for Person X. It's good news for Person x's neighbors. It's good news for the whole street. It's good news for people who don't believe in Jesus. We have to be really clear about this. The good news for Person X is good news for the whole street. And if it's good news for the whole street, then it's good news for the world.

If the gospel isn't good news for everybody, then it isn't good news for anybody.

And this is because the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the "un" and "non", they work against Jesus' teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody.  We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, "God shows no favoritism" (James 2:1-13). So we don't either.

Oftentimes the Christian community has sent the message that we love people and build relationships in order to convert them to the Christian faith. So there is an agenda. And when there is an agenda, it isn't really love, is it? It's something else. We have to rediscover love, period. Love that loves because it is what Jesus teaches us to do. We have to surrender our agendas. Because some people aren't going to become Christians like us no matter how hard we push. They just aren't. And at some point we have to commit them to God, trusting that God loves them more than we ever could. I obviously love to talk to people about Jesus and my faith. I'll take every opportunity I can get. But I have learned that when I toss out my agenda and simply love as Jesus teaches me to, I often end up learning more about God than I could have imagined.

I am learning that the church is at its best when it is underground, subversive, and countercultural. It is the quiet, humble, stealth acts that change things. I was just talking to a woman named Michelle who decided to move into the roughest neighborhood in our city to try to help people get out of the cycle of poverty and despair. She was telling me about the kids she is tutoring and the families they come from and how great the needs are. Some other women in our church heard about Michelle and asked her for lists of what exactly the families in her neighborhood need. They then circulated the lists until the found people who could meet every one of the needs. It's like an underground mom-mafia network. Michelle told me at last count they had helped 430 families, and they are making plans to expand their network.

'Jesus lives; here's a toaster.'

These are the kinds of people who change the world. They improvise and adapt and innovate and explore new ways to get things done. They don't make a lot of noise and they don't draw a lot of attention to themselves."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Come Weary. Come Messy.

Great post by Addie Zierman:

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
   -Jesus, Matthew 11:28

“The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.”
   - Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life

Come straight from your bed with your morning breath and your sweatpants. Come with your crazy-hair and your unwashed face and last night’s dishes still sitting out on the counter.

Come as soon as the alarm goes off, or after three or four smacks at the Snooze button.

Or maybe morning’s not your thing, but you keep trying to muster yourself up to it because once someone told you that this was the best way. That morning is the best time, that you need to start your day right, with God.  (I want to tell you that there is no best time. There is you – your particular, individual heart – and there is God, his love like a deep-flowing river. And it doesn’t matter when you step into the river, love. All that matters is that you come.)

Come with your mind skittering a thousand different directions. Come with your insurmountable to-do list, and don’t feel a bit guilty when you keep drifting back to the day’s demands. Just notice it, and then make your way back to the quiet.

There will be so many trips back and forth while you’re here…from worry to planning to prayer and then back around again. That’s just part of it.

And maybe you don’t know that. Maybe you’ve heard a hundred sermons about that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed deep and long, and his disciples fell asleep.  You know that verse by heart, where he says “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” and the one that says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

(Here’s what I think about all that: this was never meant as a call to do better, to be better, to come perfect and focused and spiritually “strong”. I think Jesus was simply telling us the truth about ourselves, here in the midnight garden – that thing that we who can handle it all (who don’t need help, thank-you-very-much, who will do it all by ourselves even if it kills us) never truly believe: You are weak. You are weary. It’s okay. I am enough.)

Maybe all this time, you’ve been trying to come perfect, you’ve been trying to come wide-awake when you’re exhausted. Maybe you’ve been trying to work up the faith when your heart is sunk deep in doubt. You don’t have to hustle for approval here. Come weary. 

Come beloved.

Come reluctantly or expectantly. Come half-asleep or half-alive or broken into ten thousand pieces.

Stare blankly into your fluorescent sunlamp in the cold, dark morning and say nothing. Or say everything – rant and rave and whine and cry and bare it all – your whole fearful, jealous, angry heart. Both of these things are a kind of prayer, and neither is better or more honest than the other.

Let your swear monkey out. Say the truth you need to say even if the words sound unholy, unacceptable. There is the time when the four-letter-word is the right word, and God can handle your impolite, your wildness, your temper tantrums, your tears.

Come with a heart stone-cold in its silence. Come bitter. Come distant.

Read the Bible, or don’t. Write it out in a lined journal, or don’t. Read a bit of liturgy and feel yourself connected to a thousand other broken pieces of humanity, all trying to figure it out.

(Or don’t. There is no right way to come. There is only the honesty of showing up entirely yourself in the place you are now.)

Maybe you won’t feel anything. Just the winter dark pressing in and the cold seeping in under the patio door and a weary dread for the mundane tasks of another day. Another week. Another year.

Come anyway.

Come even if you’re not one bit sure about this God business at all. Start here, with these open arms, the ones that are welcoming the weary. Start with a God who invites the imperfect: the mad-at-their-kids. The pissed-at-their-bosses. The one who sits in traffic, feeling a rage she cannot understand. The one who can’t stop crying. The one who’s full to the brim with happiness.

Start with Jesus, who welcomes the overwhelmed. The under-awed. The hopeful. The hopeless.

He is looking at you who don’t have one scrap of it together, and there’s not a how-to or a best-practices – just Him. Just you. Just the river.

Just one word, Come.

The first step. Really, the only step. The one you keep taking every weary, heavy-laden, joyous, hopeful, normal, average, dish-filled, noisy day of your life.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rocks in a Backpack

From Steve Brown:

Recently, a friend of mine gave me an illustration by Ron Hutchcraft regarding how some young people in Alaska learn about responsibility. 

Do you know what they do? When a child does something bad, they put a rock in his or her backpack. When they do something good, they take one out. The better they are, the lighter the backpack. On the other hand, the backpack can become really heavy if a child is especially bad.

As I read that, I thought, I've been doing that for most of my life.

There was a time when I thought I could keep even by getting more of the rocks out of the bag than I put in it. That was when I was younger. Those were the days when I thought that if I could just get the rocks out of my backpack I would be a fit and pure vessel for Christ to use. All I had to do was work at it and then, once the task was accomplished, I would see "thousands saved and hundreds healed."

For years I was a rock counter. I spent most of my time checking the backpack. I didn't notice that my legs were getting bowed and my back was bending from the weight. I just kept trying to get the rocks out. I started looking like a worn out cowboy. However, I found that, if you tried really hard, you could keep your back straight so that people wouldn't notice. But, man, it does take a toll trying to hide the fact that the backpack is killing you.

That's when God said:  You know, you don't have to carry that backpack anymore.
What do you mean? I thought that was my purpose in life. Don't you want me to be holy and obedient and stuff? This was your idea, not mine.

Wasn't my idea.

Don't you want me to be righteous?

That would be nice, but you're going about it all wrong. I don't know if you've noticed, but the backpack is a lot heavier than it used to be. If getting the rocks out of that backpack is your purpose in life, you're not doing a very good job of it.

But I'm working hard.

I know.


You don't have to work so hard at it. In fact, you're spending half of your life working on getting those rocks out of the backpack and you're not living anymore. You're missing a lot of really good things I planned for you. I would rather you just came to me. I can take care of the rocks. That is what the cross was about.

You mean that you will take the rocks out of the backpack and make it lighter?

No, I don't want the rocks. I want the backpack.

What? You're joking, right?

No, I'm not joking. I don't joke about something this serious. I don't joke about things that destroy people I love.

But, Lord, I've had this thing a long time. In fact, I've sort of grown accustomed to it. Besides, if I gave you the backpack, how could I measure whether or not I was pleasing you?

I'm already pleased...and it has nothing to do with the rocks or lack of them in your backpack. Tell me, what would you do with your life if you didn't have to spend all of your time working with those rocks?

I'm not sure. Maybe go to a movie or take a day off or something. I might just be quiet and spend more time with you. Maybe even tell some people about your kindness and love. I guess I would even tell them about this conversation.

Then, child, do it with joy...and give the backpack to me.

And that's how I got rid of the backpack...well, almost. The fact is that I sometimes go to the throne and take it back. When I do that, I think God shakes his head and blushes a bit. But I don't keep it very long anymore. It's hard to dance with all that weight.

Paul wrote, "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:1, NKJV). 

The great thing about not being under condemnation anymore is that the Spirit starts doing his work. In fact, I'll bet if I started carrying that backpack again, it would have less rocks in it than it used to have. Maybe not. But I'm not going to check. He told me I didn't have to.
Did you hear the story about the old man with a heavy load in his sack, walking down the road? A farmer came by in his wagon, felt sorry for the old man and gave him a ride. The man climbed up on the wagon and thanked the farmer. Then the farmer noticed that the man still carried the sack.

"Why don't you put that sack down?" asked the farmer. "It's got to be heavy."

"You are so kind," the old man said. "But I wouldn't want to impose on your kindness. You shouldn't have to carry me and the sack."

Silly? Of course it is. But it is no more silly than the way you carry that dumb backpack around with all those rocks. Why don't you just let him carry it all?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A grace within reach of the poorest, lowliest believer.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35

“Let us note that our Lord does not name gifts or miracles or intellectual attainments as the evidence of discipleship, but love, the simple grace of love, a grace within reach of the poorest, lowliest believer, as the evidence of disciples
hip. If we have no love, we have no grace, no regeneration, no true Christianity! . . .

Let us note what a heavy condemnation this verse pronounces on sectarianism, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, party-spirit, strife, bitterness, needless controversy between Christian and Christian.

Let us note how far from satisfactory is the state of those who are content with sound doctrinal opinions and orthodox correct views of the Gospel, while in their daily life they give way to ill temper, ill nature, malice, envy, quarreling, squabbling, bickering, surliness, passion, snappish language, and crossness of word and manner. Such persons, whether they know it or not, are daily proclaiming that they are not Christ’s disciples. It is nonsense to talk about justification, and regeneration, and election, and conversion, and the uselessness of works, unless people can see in us practical Christian love.”
        ---J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more—no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less—no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love. 

---Philip Yancey from What's So Amazing About Grace?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Don't despair.

“Do not fall into despair because of your stumblings, for you should not consider them incurable. There is indeed a healer: he who on the cross asked for mercy on those who were crucifying him, who pardoned murderers as he hung on the cross. Christ came on behalf of sinners, to heal the brokenhearted and to bind up their wounds.”
       --Isaac of Syria

“Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots."--Luke 23:34