How Wonderful to be Thomas

Nora and I were talking a week or so ago and she said something that stuck with me.  She definitely isn’t the first to say it, but her earnestness and the emotion behind it just hit me:

How amazing would it have been to be one of the few who saw Jesus after he was raised and to have confirmation that it is all real?

I preached on Doubting Thomas this week* and aside from all the other stuff you can pull from the story, there was something that hit me like a ton of bricks as I was preparing:

How amazing would it have been to be able to stick your fingers in the holes and know, as a matter of proven fact, that Jesus is the Messiah, and that it’s all real?  How wonderful would it be to have confirmation?

We are so ready to start beating up on Thomas because he doubts, but every last one of us – every last one of us – truly wants to be him.  Every believer, at least at some point in their faith journey, wants to have a real and tangible sign that God exists and that we’re worshiping a real thing.  We each have a moment where God isn’t real, where there is no God, where it’s all a lie and we’re just on this Earth walking towards a pointless end.

How wonderful would be it be to have confirmation?  How wonderful to have Jesus say to you, “Stick you finger in my hands.  Stick your hand in my side.”?  How wonderful, when the world has given you nothing but darkness and pain, to gaze upon the risen Savior and know that it is all real?

I realized, as I prepared and preached and I walked the dog this morning, that I want to be Thomas.  My soul wants to be able to doubt and then have Jesus actually stand before me and allow me to investigate his risen body to know that it is actually him, that he was raised from the dead, that it’s all real.

I think we often forget to acknowledge how hard it is to have faith, especially in something unseen.  Thomas doubted and he spent three years living with, ministering with, and learning from Jesus, seeing the miracles and the proof of his divinity.  Thomas doubted when there was no reason for him to doubt (and he was in good company as the other disciples doubted, as well).

Having faith is hard, especially when life is hard and you feel nothing but darkness.  Thomas doubted because he was rightfully afraid and it made no sense.  I doubt because I pray fervently and yet my prayers are often not answered in the way I want, and my life on this Earth is harder when my prayers were to make it easier.*  We each have reason to doubt; it’s human.

How wonderful it would have been to be Thomas, to have our doubts completely wiped away by gazing upon the physically risen savior.

A bit more depressing than I had intended, but a good thought following my sermon yesterday.  I’ll link the YouTube video to the sermon when I get it edited and uploaded.  FINALLY got it edited and uploaded.  “How Wonderful is Faith.”

Peace,

– Robby


* Please read this in the general sense, not the specific sense; life is pretty good right now, and I’m looking forward to an unknown new chapter when that opportunity makes itself known and complete unfolds.

I Want to Be a Sheep

14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep.

– John 10:14-15 CEB

(Heads up: this blog has always been a place for me to be vulnerable in a public and controlled way.  This is one of those posts where I’m a bit more vulnerable [read: whiny] than is probably healthy, but as far as I know there is a point in there, somewhere…)

I’ve kind of missed a couple of #pictureLent days, which is really sad for me because it was my way of trying to get back into a routine of devotion – and to stop making excuses of why I couldn’t.  Then I got sick and busy – which is an awesome combination – and I missed a couple of days.  But I’m trying, and I am sticking to my blogging plan (which I’m not saying out loud for fear that just saying it will be enough to make me feel better), so here we are.

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(The program is BibleWorks, which is important for what is going on.  And I should have cleaned up the clutter, but it also just kind of makes sense given the state of my mind and schedule right now.)

Being a pastor means you are called to be a shepherd.  It’s literally the call you sign up for.  I don’t find myself using the crook a lot to fend off wolves, but I do find myself guiding and directing as much as I can, given the boundaries of my position.  And I love it.  Nora’s asked me a few times if I made the right decision for my life’s work and I know that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

But sometimes you don’t want to be the shepherd that day.  I woke up yesterday and the cough that started destroying me Saturday settled further into my chest and added sneezing.  It was cold outside, making breathing (insert sarcasm), and Nora started her new job.  It was Monday, it’s supposed to be my time for Sabbath, and instead I did about 6 hours worth of work.  Any other Monday I would have just said, “well, I’ll make up for it some other time this week,” but yesterday it just didn’t set well with me.  The laundry and dishes that actually belong on a Monday didn’t get done, the table is clearly still a mess (as is my desk, which is why I’m at the table), and this morning I’ve got some energy back but the cough is still hanging on strong.

I wanted nothing more than to go back to being a sheep in the flock.

My biggest guilt right now is that I haven’t really used scripture as a devotional tool; it’s been my job, and not a whole lot more.  And yesterday I stared at BibleWorks for probably 2 hours and my soul read none of it.  I forgot that I’m still a sheep despite my role as a shepherd.

God is my shepherd.  Scripture is His guidance, His staff, and His love expressed.

Yesterday morning I tweeted about penance and hope, but I also think that any study of scripture – be it professional or devotional – that doesn’t end up leading the person studying to hope is flawed.  I got nothing of hope out of my studies yesterday; I got tasks done, but no devotion.

If I want to be a sheep, if I want God as my shepherd, I have to let him be the shepherd.  Even if I am a shepherd of a small flock, I know that ultimately I am just another sheep that (weakly and slowly and often badly) fights the wolves and guides my fellow sheep.  Ultimately I will not be successful if I rely on my own abilities and not the guidance and protection and love of the ultimate shepherd.

I can’t do this alone, and I am admitting that even if I love my role as minor shepherd in the grand scheme, I am not desiring to be in charge.  I want to be a sheep in God’s flock.  To do that, I need to start relying on scripture again, fully, and not just as a professional tool.  That’s my goal.

23:1 The LORD is my shepherd. I lack nothing. 2 He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters; 3 he keeps me alive. He guides me in proper paths for the sake of his good name.

– Psalm 23:1-3 CEB

Peace,

– Robby

 

Pretty Sure Love Won

I finally read Love Wins.  If you are wondering why it took me…almost 3 years to read it, it’s because I’m not a Rob Bell fan.  I don’t want to get this twisted – I didn’t/don’t have a problem with Rob Bell, I’m just not a fan.  He always struck me as someone who said irrelevant provocative things to stir emotions to make the relevant message more emotionally charged.

But that goes to fandom and enjoyment of his work, not a commentary on what he says.  And I don’t always agree with what he says.  I’m by no means a hard-lined conservative or literalist, but I feel like his relationship with scripture as a written instruction in faith is…looser? weaker? more fluid? insert your own word?…than mine.  But he also probably knows scripture as an academic study more than I do, so I just say I disagree.

I digress.  Why I wrote this post is because a couple of…weeks? months?…ago I read a post about how the evangelical churches have done their best to crucify (we should really use a different word, people!) him for Love Wins and how he just doesn’t appear to care.  He’s just doing his thing, sharing the love of God and preaching the scriptures.

I’m quite positive he does care – more people aren’t so self-confident and self-sure to just not care that the opposition has tried to do to your public perception and humble at the same time – but he didn’t let him stop doing what he believes God has called him to do.

But this post isn’t even about that.  All it’s about is the book, or rather the response to the book.  I read the article, I got on the Amazon, I found a used copy that was Prime eligible, and I read it.

I don’t understand why anyone freaked out about it.  Yes, it is a little bit more liberal than my interpretation, I could have done without the artsy styling, I think he could have been a bit deeper, but he uses scripture, and nothing he says is actually that radical.

His whole premise – as far as I can discern – is to interpret these things through the lens of a loving God.  I’m not going to go into it into depth here – maybe another time after another reading – but the things I remember thinking were missing were punishment as love (and maybe I missed it; I found myself skimming a bit more than I wanted to) and the good desire for piety and seeking righteousness in our lives, even if we can’t attain it.

But he asks some really good questions about the nature of judgement and confession and eternal damnation.  And he asked them through the lens of evaluating a God that is loving first and foremost.  Can a loving God condemn someone who committed a sin and then was plowed into by a train?  Can a loving God condemn someone who was only taught selfish desires and never had a chance to learn a more loving way?  Can a loving God condemn us if we don’t understand sin?  Will a loving God condemn us if we commit this sin but not if we commit that sin?

The specifics of the book I found myself disagreeing with occasionally – though asking me for those specifics is a futile task because I read it during Holy Week and funeral planning – but the whole theme is one that I’ve been pushing in this blog, in my preaching, in my ministry, and in my life.

We have a loving God, people.  There are groups that preach that message, but in the same breath preach a message where God seems to enjoy sending those dirty sinners to Hell.  There is a theme of making sure people know that they are sinners but excluding the ultimate relief in Jesus Christ.  Some of the Church and Body of Christ finds itself to be a Good Friday church instead of being an Easter/Pentecost church.  So much focus on the sins and how screwed up we are – and we really are, trust me – without much focus on despite that, we are saved and loved.

As I read the book, I could understand why you could possibly not like it – I tried to like it, and I loved the premise, but I found myself underwhelmed – and I could see you disagreeing with it – like I said, I didn’t agree with every conclusion he made – but try as I might, I don’t understand why people started railing against Rob Bell after this book.  I don’t get it.

The only answer I can come up with is that there are people who want God to punish those dirty sinners, and this book strikes at the very soul of that theology.  It strikes me as awfully arrogant to be for a judgmental God, like somehow you, and those who think, act, and look like you, have an exclusive corner on the gift of Christ.  That is the only reason you would label Rob Bell a heretic after reading Love Wins.

I don’t get it.  I read the book thinking I would disagree with his premise and his thought process.  I avoided reading it because I didn’t care about another liberal book diminishing sin.  And I was wrong on both accounts.  I did find it anemic and a bit too trendy, but I, for the life of me, can’t imagine why anyone would freak out over this book.

Unless you want a God that judges the sins of others.*

The premise of this post is simply that.  The crucifixion of Rob Bell seems to be worded correctly if you truly believe he is a heretic over this book.  The only reason you would have that big of a problem with him is if you want God to judge someone else.  To use the same story that Bell uses in the book, you have to believe that the older brother was right in The Prodigal Son to really want to bash him for this book.

The book shouldn’t even be controversial.  Heck, I’m of the opinion it shouldn’t have even raised eyebrows; it wasn’t really that groundbreaking or crazy.  Had he written a theological book (this wasn’t) and ignored scripture (he didn’t) and said Hell didn’t exist and sin didn’t exist (he didn’t, again), then maybe.  But this wasn’t it.

Three days after Easter I am writing this.  Yesterday I performed a funeral for a woman whom I only met two days before Alzheimer’s took her life.  Both times I preached of salvation and heaven and Christ’s resurrection.

I’m pretty sure love won.  That’s what Rob Bell wrote about, and I agree with that.

So I can’t have a post about Rob Bell without mentioning the last bit of controversy.  You know, how he supposedly trashed the Bible?

Didn’t happen.  Again, I think if we want to have an adult debate and conversation about the theological statements that he makes, it’s perfectly fine to disagree with him.  But he isn’t watering down scripture as much as you want to believe he is because he interprets differently.  I looked up the exact quote people are freaking out about and here it is

“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,

Is he implying that the here and now trumps scripture?  No.  Read it again and you see that he says letters.  Which means he said the epistles, but he always uses the vernacular of the people who are seeking, not the clergy and the choir.

Tear that down a bit.  The Gospels, which is the lens we read all of scripture through, remain in tact.  The Old Testament, as much as can stay in tact because after Jesus, stays in tact.  He says that the epistles, which were letters written by men to churches 2000 years ago, are not a solid defense for not allowing people who love one another to be with one another.

I want you to think about this for a second.  Any exegetical study is lacking if it does not include the context of which the letter was written.  When he says letters written 2000 years ago, he is saying that they were written in a different world.  God is timeless and the message of Christ is timeless; the message of men is not.

(Side-note, I’m not using sexist language.  I’m being quite literal; we are using the letters of men 2000 years ago – not all people but men in leadership.  I don’t think that distracts from their efficacy or their eligibility for presence in canon but it contributes to their context for interpretation.)

We have to consider what kinds of actions Paul – because let’s be honest, that’s who we’re talking about – is actually addressing, if they are relevant to the current conversation, or if it is a different matter of practice.  Not going to get into the discussion here, but let’s just be honest about what Rob Bell said.

He said that we can’t use letters written 2000 years ago as our justification for doing painful, hurtful, or judgmental things.  We can’t.

He isn’t wrong on the major point no matter how much you want him to be.  He doesn’t trash scripture, he doesn’t even imply that scripture is bad.  He just said that we can’t use the words in the epistles, written in a different world, as justification for actions that they don’t prescribe as response to actions they don’t address.

But you have to be fair, treat everyone as they are doing the best they can, that you aren’t somehow holier than they are, and you can’t label people heretics who read scripture faithfully different than you do.  That isn’t debate; that is arrogance.  It’s the same response Mark Achtemeier received after he defended Scott Anderson, and I know that Mark is faithful to scripture and a faithful theologian.  He didn’t trash scripture or even diminish it in the slightest.

The whole point, I believe, of this point is to get to an idea that those who violently disagreed with Love Wins want a God that saves them and judges people who disgust them.  The problem is that we shouldn’t be disgusted with others** but with ourselves.  If God is punishing all the dirty sinners, we are screwed, and screwed royally.***  So if we are championing that God, we are championing being sent to Hell ourselves.

Not the God I worship, and if that is the real God, I guess I don’t worship that God.

Now time to wrestle up some grub and then maybe write the food piece.

Peace,

– Robby


* The only major criticism of the theology of the book I can get behind is the lack of piety in it.  I don’t know if piety needed to even be addressed – and frankly, the lack didn’t bother me that much – but it isn’t there, and a conversation about Heaven and Hell without Christian living and piety seems to be lacking.  Again, though, that is my opinion and not something to start calling people not pastors over.

** There are certain actions that repulse us from a biological or cultural standpoint; I’m talking about Christian disgust, not physical or psychological disgust.  Those are different things, which I wonder if that gets at the heart of the issue more than everything else I wrote.

*** Super-Reform here.  I know our Methodist brothers and sisters might disagree, but that’s a MUCH DIFFERENT CONVERSATION.  MUCH DIFFERENT!

The Women

It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time for me to muse about what my sermon on Sunday is going to look like.  Aren’t you lucky?

To sum up where I’ve been throughout this Lenten series, here is a list of the people I’ve focused on, in order:

The Bystanders, The 12 as a whole, Peter, John, Judas, and The Jewish Leadership.

This week I was going to just do Mary, Mother of Jesus, but I realized something: we have a grand total of 3 verse that have anything to do with just Mary, mother of Jesus.  I can speculate on what she is feeling, but only as an outside without any real experience to empathize with her.  I can pretend I know the pain of child loss, especially senseless child loss, but I can’t actually empathize.  “Mary was at the cross, she was sad, and John took her as his mother,” it a pretty short and crappy sermon.

Though a short sermon gets the families home for ham sooner.  So maybe…..?

So I thought about this for a bit and I decided we have a lot of women in the gospel story of Holy Week.  Off the top of my head, we have Mary brother of Lazarus, Martha, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Madeline, and the other women who were watching the tomb.  Women play just a pivotal role in Christ’s death and resurrection and this entire event would be entirely different if they weren’t involved.

I’m going to try to go in chronological order with the women.  How that will look as a practical matter is still to be determined but as a broad concept, I want to tell the story of Holy Week from the eyes of these women.  What did they experience, what did they feel, why did they do the things they did?

The first, then, is obviously Mary brother of Lazarus.  I touched on this part of the story with my Judas sermon but Mary brings a whole different view.  I find it interesting that she seems to know what is going on before even Jesus’ betrayer does.  She seems to understand that his end has come.  This is really her way of mourning, her way of giving Christ an amazing gift at the end of his life, her way of accepting his death.

I am reminded of lesson I got in seminary about funeral honorariums.  A lot of people in the class, myself included, initially thought that doing a funeral for a member of the congregation was just part of the job.  We certainly wouldn’t ask for honorariums and would have a hard time taking them.  (Oh, how innocent and pure we were as Juniors.)  Then we were hit with a stark reality check: the honorarium is a way for the family to thank you for helping them mourn.  In essence, it is part of the mourning process.  To deny them that is to deny them healthy mourning.

So, applying it to here, we have become Judases if we refuse to allow them to present their gifts of mourning.  We may not do it out of greed, but we have decided we know better what they should do with their money, and we’ve put our own desires above theirs.

So Mary is mourning in a beautiful way.  And Martha isn’t, focusing on fixing the meal and working.  So much could be said about that, but I’ll simply put this in there: people mourn in different ways.  Not every way is healthy, not every way is proper, but each of us mourns differently.  What Martha missed, though, is allowing herself to enjoy the company she had and instead worried so much about the appearance and the work that she missed the opportunity to mourn with Jesus.  Still need to flush that out some more.

Then we have Mary mother of Christ at the cross.  I don’t even know if I have words; maybe silence will speak louder than I ever could.  A moment for mourning, both for Christ and for those who we have lost.  A time of mourn.

Then we have Mary Magdalene.  Who went to prepare the body.  Who found the tomb empty.  Whom Jesus appeared to first.

I am reminded of Lamb by Christopher Moore.  Now, I won’t talk about any romantic feelings between Mary and Jesus, going one or both directions, but I think I can safely say she has a devotion to him that the other disciples and followers did not.  I would argue that she is probably his closest companion.  There is something special between them, and I can’t help but think that Moore touches on it better than anyone.  Even if she is madly in love with him (entirely possible – Jesus is pretty awesome), she knows who he is and knows, at least in her soul, how this is going to end.  You don’t fall in love with Jesus and expect a long, happy life.  If nothing else, the Pharisees have given her ample reason to fear Jesus’ death.  I don’t see anything in scripture that lets me think she was shocked or surprised by his death.

Pained, jarred, and saddened?  Absolutely.  Shocked?  Probably not.

His resurrection, though, that was pretty amazing and shocking.  What I think we need to focus on, given her devotion, is that she didn’t recognize Jesus even when she was so devoted.  If his closest companion, the woman whom so much is written and speculated about the nature of their relationship, cannot recognize him, the change that happened was miraculous.  He was no longer the same man.  His resurrection was so healing and transformative that the new cannot be recognized as the old.

We are so changed by Christ.  Whenever someone interprets new life as a Spring thing, with baby chicks and bunnies, I want to scream.  The new life is not a birth; it is a rebirth.  It is taking something that was before Christ and transforming it into its perfect form.  Christ was transformed from is flawed body into a perfect version of his human self.  Radical transformation.

So yeah, that’s where we’re going.  From a point of mourning to a point of radical transformation given out of radical love.  It’s ought to be a decent sermon.

To preaching and sharing the Word.

– Robby