Be Like Jesus & Let Others Serve You*

“The Son of Man came to serve (διακονέω), not to be served.” –Matthew 20:28

What if many American Christians, myself included, have managed to turn the paradigm act of humility, serving others, into an act of pride? What if we’ve corrupted the act of service in such a way that for many of us, in order to do what Jesus meant, we have to stop, at least for a while, doing what Jesus says?

Let me explain. In Matthew 20:28, we have the famous line: “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.” But is Jesus advocating for a specific act? Or for a way of handling power & authority? The context will help. Two of the disciples get their mommy (at least we assume this by the reaction of the other ten) to ask Jesus if they can be in power when Jesus becomes King.

Jesus responds this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The point Jesus is making is that the Kingdom of God is a place where the great are those who give up their power, just as Paul so beautifully describes in Philippians 2. So is it possible that our acts of service can become a place not where we give up our power, but where we protect it?

Where do we see this?

We see it in all of us who gladly serve at the soup kitchen because it confirms we are the ones with the ladle and not the empty bowl.

We see it in all of us who gladly give money to the poor because it confirms that we are the ones with money and not the open hand.

In other words, so long as I make sure I am always the one helping, I can be assured that I am the one with, and you are the one without. I can be assured that our focus will be on your problems so that I can keep my veneer of comfort and security, with the added bonus of a good feeling in my heart for helping the “less fortunate.”

I contend that if we are truly going to imitate Jesus, we should learn to be with other human beings who are different than us. Not to save them, serve them, make them a project, but to see them for who they are and not be afraid to be associated with them, thrown in the same labeling, or seen on the same side of the soup line.

For in relationship with people, there is a balance between serving and being served, supporting the weaknesses of others and being supported in our own weakness.

This is what the Incarnation of Jesus means to me, who became and became associated with, humanity, leaving behind his divinity (Phil 2.) for the sake of relationship. So if we want to find a way to be like the Jesus who, although had cosmic social status, gave it up to be a servant, we would do better to find our example in the Jesus who allows the prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair in the middle of a social gathering. Maybe we sometimes we need to be served in order to serve.

So may we stop using endless “serving those less fortunate” experiences as a back-handed way of reminding ourselves that “at least we’re not like them” and instead start admitting our weaknesses, our need for help, and our vulnerability to those around us.

“In Galilee these women had followed Jesus and cared for his needs (διακονέω).” – Mark 15:41

On Gay Boy Scouts & My Christian Faith

As the Boy Scouts just decided to allow gay scouts but will still keep the ban on gay scout leaders, first of all, let me just say it takes guts to make a decision that doesn’t fully satisfy the desires of either side.

I know that many of my fellow Christians will immediately begin their ban on Boy Scouts for approving of such blatantly sinful behavior.

But let me say, regardless of your position on the sinfulness of gay sex: until the Boy Scouts of America ban every boy who openly sins, this is the most Christian decision they could have made. That is, if standing for justice and fairness is included in what it means to be Christian. If not, well then, I am not sure I want to be one.

And then there is that nagging question: why does someone sins disallow them to belong to a group?

Ironically, in the same chapter of Leviticus Christians use to show that homosexuality is an “abomination” to God, we have this: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)

Even those idol-worshiping (<–that’s a sin condemned hundreds of times throughout the Bible by the way) foreigners were to be loved as though they were God’s chosen people. If you are so convinced that the Boy Scouts are a Christian organization who should live by Christian principles, then perhaps we should acknowledge them as “aliens living with us.” We do not kick them out. We do not go find a new land. We live among them and love them as ourselves.

To be honest, I am typically embarrassed to admit how much time I spent as Boy Scout, doing those, let’s admit it, somewhat dorky things we Scouts did. But today, I am proud to be a Boy Scout and am proud that their Christian foundations led them to this decision.

My Father

A Short & Personal Parable*

The One

There was a boy who loved his father. He loved him so much and wanted to be just like him. Not only was the father all powerful, all wise, and all good, at least in the eyes of the boy, but the father always told the son what to do and the best decisions to make. The boy had a wonderful childhood. Anytime he came to a tough decision he simply ran to his father, who hugged him tightly, and told him exactly which road to take. The boy was so comforted knowing that it was not his decision but his father’s. He was glad to give up the responsibility for his life, placing it in the hands of someone who knew so much better. When the boy was a man, his father became ill. And fear struck. I am lost without my father. I cannot make a single decision without his clear direction. And in that moment came the most devastating revelation: he was nothing like the father. He was neither wise, nor good, nor powerful. The father recovered, but the son never did.

The Other

There was another boy who loved his father. He loved him so much and wanted to be just like him. The father was all powerful, all wise, and all good, at least in the eyes of the boy, but it was often frustrating to be the son. It was difficult to understand why his father acted in the ways that he did. When the son would ask (I admit, sometimes he demanded) for the best path to take, the father would most often shrug his shoulders and simply say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” while pointing to a particular book on the shelf that the father had written many years before. It was an autobiography of the tallest order.

Time and time again the boy would come to him with a decision to make, a crossroads in life and the father would simply say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” How arrogant. How frustrating. This was such a different world than the world in the book. “I don’t want to know how my father acted, so long ago. I want to know right now what I should do,” the boy would often say.

After reading the letter over and over again, searching for the answer to the question that lay before him, the son would slam it shut in disgust and say, “I guess I will just have to make my own decision.” And so he did.

When the boy was a man, his father became ill. And he asked his father, “Before you die, I need to know one thing. Why did you never tell me what to do? Why did you never give me a clear answer to my questions? Why did you give me nothing when I most needed your direction?”

His father replied, “Any father who gives his son the answers robs him of the gift of the struggle. There is no one who becomes strong physically by having someone lift weights on his behalf. To desire to be like me without desiring to suffer is a contradiction. It cannot be done. Forcing you to take responsibility for your own life is the spiritual exercise required to be like me.”

The son thought, and said, “But why risk it? I could have made all the wrong decisions!”

The father chided the son, “Did you not read the book? Do you not remember who your father is? You have a father who will always be with you, even to the end of the age. The balance between Love and Power does not stop you from making mistakes, it redeems them.”

It was then that the son understood. And resentment melted away and was replaced by inestimable gratitude. And the father remained with the son, even to the end of the age.

Is Jonah Historical? The Overview (Part 1 of 5)

I have finally caved. In the following posts I am showing my cards for why I don’t think we have to read Jonah as a historical account and that doing so might actually be going against the author’s intention.

And in case you’re wondering, no, not one of my reasons includes a lack of faith or anti-supernatural bias. In fact, that accusation is how this conversation started (see here and here). So, to those of you who don’t care (which if experience tells me anything, is about 90% of you), I am sorry. I will try to post a few other things this week as well so that you don’t completely check out.

I avoid putting on my nerdy biblical studies hat when possible, but this week will be an exception. I will try to keep it simple but thorough. And given people’s atrocious attention span online, I will split it up into five, yes 5, parts (some of you have just decided it’s not worth it) that will be posted throughout the week.

This first post will simply give you my 3 broad reasons and each subsequent post will look at these reasons with more detail. The last will then deal with the two biggest objections: the historical Jonah mentioned in Kings and Jesus’ mention of the “sign of Jonah” in the New Testament.

The Way It’s Written (Textual Style): the first reason I don’t think Jonah is meant to be historical is the highly stylized way it is written. There are various rhetorical devices that are used to make nice, neat, points. None of these exclude historical writing, of course, but when you put them all together the book begins to look a lot less like non-fiction and a lot more like stylized fiction with a specific purpose.

The Way It Borrows (Intertextual Cues): Another reason I am suspicious of reading Jonah historically is because it borrows from and mirrors other books of the Bible in several interesting ways. Again, this doesn’t exclude historicity since most of the biblical writings are shaped according to certain purposes and often borrow from one another. But, along with the other evidence, this does play a role for why I do not read Jonah historically.

The Point It Wants to Make (Textual Shape): In all other prophetic books, the prophet is speaking the Word of the Lord in a time of crisis, either political or theological (mostly both). But this is a book about a prophet not speaking the Word of the Lord at first and then being upset by the outcomes of that word later. In Jonah, the prophet looks like a foil for the author to make a bigger point. Jonah looks symbolic, or technically speaking, like a metonymy. And as such, the point of the book looks theological, not historical.

Of course, I could be wrong on all three accounts. But aside from the evidence of whether or not it is historical, in these posts I also want to challenge the deeper question: why are we so insistent that it is? What assumptions are we bringing to the Bible that keeps us from even entertaining the question? What keeps us from the “perhaps”?

In the next post, we will delve into the way it’s written (textual style).

Christians & Alcohol: Why the Bible is Simple Except When It’s Not

There is no doubt that “What the Bible says about alcohol” was my first foray into Evangelical “heresy” (at least in the South). I simply could not reconcile my parents and pastors telling me that all alcohol consumption was sinful with passages that say things like Paul says to Timothy, “23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5:23) and passages that show Jesus turning water into wine. In fact, this was “the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Jesus first revealed his glory by providing more alcoholic beverages for the party? Amen and amen.

And that’s when I had my second “screaming match for Jesus” with my mom (I will regret those the rest of my life no doubt). And at 16, I left my parent’s church and began attending a Presbyterian church. By myself.*

But more than just another example of how my tradition prefers rules to wisdom and moderation, this story reveals yet another reality about Evangelicalism: the Bible is simple except when it’s not.

For instance, when I say that perhaps Jonah shouldn’t be read historically, I get hate mail saying that I am corrupting the Bible because it “plainly” reads as a historical account. It’s just so “obvious,” the only reason you would read it otherwise is because you don’t believe in the Bible.

And yet, when I say that the Bible approves of drinking wine because the Bible “plainly” says Timothy should drink some and Jesus “obviously” turned water into it to help out with the party, I am maligned again. I wish someone would just tell me the rules of the game here. What did I do wrong? Doesn’t the Bible plainly say it?

Ah, not so fast. You missed a step. Because in Evangelicalism “plainly” or “obviously” too often simply means “according to the way I was taught to read the Bible and my assumptions about what Christianity is supposed to look like.”

So, basically, the Bible is simple except when it’s not. When it condemns things I have been taught to condemn, it is simple. But when it condones things I was taught to condemn, it’s not so simple . . . even though there is a perfectly “simple” 12–step theory for how to get around the simple reading. In this instance, there is the “The Bible uses the same word ‘wine’ to talk about fermented (wine) and unfermented (grape juice) drinks” theory, which depends upon an either circular or complicated argument for when you go with wine or when you go with grape juice.** Or there is the “wine is much stronger now than in Jesus’ day” argument. Maybe these are good arguments, maybe they are bad arguments. But neither of them seem like simple arguments. Nor do they do justice to the “plain” reading of the Bible.

They seem more to be justifying theories to support our already concluded assumptions. Basically, the Bible can’t say that so let’s find a reason why not. And, of course, alcohol is not the only area we use this strategy. We use it anytime the “plain” reading goes against our “plain” social mores or “common sense” views about what the Bible is and what’s in it. And you might be shocked to find out how often we employ this double-standard.

But the reality is that the Bible is not simple. It’s not common sense. But you already knew that. As I said in my previous post, that’s why we hire pastors to teach us what the Bible “really means” and professors to teach at our Bible colleges to tell our teenage children what the Bible “really means.” If it were that simple, we would simply stop paying them for their redundancy. But because we don’t, I have a sneaking suspicion that we already know that the Bible takes more than common sense to understand.

And if so, we should recognize that anytime we want to dismiss another’s opinion about the Bible simply because it goes against what we have been taught, we should make sure we are basing such a judgment on more than just whether or not it passes the “plain” reading criteria. Because remember, when it comes to reading the Bible, words like “plain,” “simple,” and “common sense” might just be keeping you from understanding the very book you rightly love.

*That is certainly not the only, or perhaps even primary, reason I ended up worshiping with the Presbyterians. My first screaming match with mom was over predestination. But it was more dramatic and made my point better to say it the way I did. But it didn’t really stick. I ended up going to Liberty University, the Southern Baptist capital of the world (which I loved by the way). But then I went to a Presbyterian-ish seminary. I have a complicated past . . .

**Why would you have grape juice to celebrate a wedding? Lame.

The Burdens of The Giver

One of my favorite books to read is The Giver by Lois Lowry. Not to get all reader-response or anything but I love it because it means something specifically to me and reminds me of my role as a pastor/theologian. Let me explain:

In The Giver the protagonist is a young boy named Jonas who lives in a utopian society where there are no skinned knees and there is no experience of pain. In this society the time came, at the age of 12, when children became adults and were given what was to be there destiny, their place in the community, the role they were to perform for the good of the community. There were all kinds of jobs but only every great once in a while was there a replacement chosen for the most revered role of all, the role of the Giver. This lot befell Jonas.
The Giver was responsible for bearing all of the painful experiences and painful memories of the community so that the community didn’t have to (Christ figure?). At the end of the day, Jonas decides that the joys that come with pain are worth the pain and so he releases the pain back into the community.
So where do I see the pastor/theologian? S/he is the Giver in the community. The weight of theological and biblical “pains” must be borne by them, they are the gatekeepers of the faith. Not everyone who claims Christ needs to master or even be aware of the myriad questions and theological problems the pastor/theologian is constantly confronted with. But the questions and problems must be dealt with by someone
With this position is the utmost responsibility – deciding in what scenarios and relationships it is best for the community to be exposed to a little “pain.” Do you keep bearing all of the burden to shield those in your care? Or do you let them in on a little of your experience? But when will it do good instead of doing harm? This is increasingly the role I find myself in as a pastor and as a student of the Scriptures. 
As I tell most people who aspire to know more about the Bible…be very careful that you don’t have false expectations about what this knowledge will bring. This knowledge is not primarily a gift but a burden. If we are interested in having our egos boosted by our knowledge then pick another field because the ethical weight of Scriptural knowledge can be a weight under which our pride and self-sufficiency are crushed.

Scripture & Action

I always love the chance to show how relevant the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is to modern day Christians.

When I was in college I started learning an incredible amount about the Bible and how we are supposed to be interpreting the Bible. I learned about commentaries and context, Greek and Hebrew (the languages the Bible was originally written in). And because of all my learning I started looking down on people who didn’t have the same knowledge and I started making it my life goal to make sure everyone knew that they needed the knowledge that I had. Somehow I had bought into the idea that knowing more about the Bible makes you a better Christian.

When I started graduate school a few years ago I realized that such is not the case. The poor peasant Christian in Thailand who only owns one torn out piece of Scripture, say Matthew 22 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like it – Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments”) but actually lives this verse everyday, has come closer to the heart of what Christianity is all about than I was after all of my training.

Enter Kierkegaard:

“In other words, it is not the obscure passages in Scripture that bind you but the ones you understand. With these you are to comply at once. If you understood only one passage in all of Scripture, well, then you must do that first of all…God’s Word is given in order that you shall act according to it, not that you gain expertise in interpreting it…Being alone with God’s Word is a dangerous matter. Of course, you can always find ways to defend yourself against it: Take the Bible, lock your door – but then get out ten dictionaries and twenty-five commentaries. Then you can read it just as calmly and coolly as you read newspaper advertising.

With this arsenal you can really begin to wonder, “Are there not several valid interpretations? So you calmly conclude, “I myself am not absolutely sure about the meaning of this passage. I need more time to form an opinion.” Good Lord! What a tragic misuse of scholarship that it makes it so easy for people to deceive themselves!

Can’t we be honest for once! We have become such experts at cunningly shoving one layer after another, one interpretation after another, between the Word and our lives…and we then allow this preoccupation to swell to such profundity that we never come to look at ourselves in the mirror…

It is only all too easy to understand the requirements contained in God’s Word (“Give all your good to the poor” etc.) The most ignorant, poor creature cannot honestly deny being able to understand God’s requirements. But it is tough on the flesh to will to understand it and to then act accordingly.

Herein lies the problem. It is not a question of interpretation, but action.”

From For Self-Examination & Judge For Yourself, 26-35