Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Identifying With Jonah

To say that Jonah was a reluctant prophet seems to be an understatement. After all, having been selected by God to go to Nineveh to tell the people of God’s displeasure with them, he balked.  Then he ran away aboard a ship.  When a storm threatened the ship, the crew decided it must be Jonah’s fault and tossed him overboard.  Three days in a big fish’s belly finally gets Jonah’s attention.  His reluctance to go to Nineveh is still with him, but he decides he’d rather do that than find out what God has in store for him next if he resisted, so off he goes.
This past Sunday’s Old Testament lesson can be a bit hard to swallow (no pun intended).  Belly of a big fish for three days: come on.  A city that is three day’s walk across?  How big would that be?  At that time, a “day’s journey” was considered to be twenty miles.  Let’s say it is square to make the math easy. Thirty-six hundred square miles.  A city can certainly be that big, but the archeological evidence makes it clear that Nineveh was much smaller, probably something like three square miles.  It was an impressive city, nonetheless. But, if we’re looking for facts, the biblical account isn’t providing them.
But then the story isn’t about facts in the sense we moderns understand them.  For the writer of the Jonah story here are the facts he is attempted to communicate to his audience:
  • Jonah didn’t want to go preach to Nineveh. Why? It is an environment hostile to him, a foreigner and the message is a terrible one.
  • Jonah struggled with God’s claim on him for a long time.  It was tough to deal with.
  • Jonah finally, if somewhat reluctantly, accepts the claim and obeys.
  • The people of Nineveh repent.
  • God spares those who repent.
Now these are facts we can accept with no problem--I think. I may be speaking only for myself, but I’ve struggled against God’s direction for me.  From the time I first felt as if I were being called to ordained ministry until the time I accepted that call was more than seven years. When I was told I was going to be a campus minister, I was very reluctant, since I didn’t know anything about being one.  So I can identify with reluctance in being obedient. Too, Jonah was being told to go into a hostile environment to proclaim an awful message: clean up your act or be destroyed.  Knowing what we do about what can happen to messengers of bad news, can’t we understand his anxiety? 
God is incredibly patient with Jonah.  He persisted in the face of Jonah's reluctance, never giving up on him. The, after Nineveh repents, Jonah is unhappy about God’s sparing them.  God remains patient and tries to help Jonah understand what is really important.  Maybe that’s the take away for us.  When we are reluctant in all the ways we can be reluctant and for all the reasons we can be reluctant in our faithfulness, God will be nudging us and will remain patient with us.  God’s expectation is that the consistent love shown to us will pull us from our petulance or rebellion and turn us back to the faithful life.  I can identify with being “pulled back” too.  What about you?
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Are We Better Than Nathanael?

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons Sunday were both about being called. When Nathanael was told that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-expected messiah, he scoffed: “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?”  A bigoted, racist remark if ever there was one.  I think it fair to say, Nathanael did not imagine Jesus was called to anything special and certainly, he, Nathanael, would be rejecting any call that came from Jesus.  Didn’t turn out that way, though.  With a mere sentence and without even trying to, Jesus convinced Nathanael that he was worthy to be followed.

I think it fair to say that, with one exception, all Jesus’ disciples were eager followers.  They were with him daily, most of the time all day.  They would bed down in an olive grove or share a home at night.  They ate with him and walked and talked with him. They saw his mighty acts, they heard his radical teaching, they experienced his compassion and love.  Yet, this same bunch tried to run off the little children who were drawn to Jesus.  They tried to “protect” him from sick women who longed for healing, and they argued among themselves about who would be greatest in the coming Kingdom.  For all their proximity to Jesus, somehow it seemed the magnitude, the scope and quality of their call was lost on them.

I suppose, then, it shouldn’t surprise us when we modern day Christians are less than stellar examples of disciples.  If our behavior rather than our verbal profession is the measure of how devoted we are to Jesus and his gospel, as a group, we Christians aren’t showing very well.  In an election year in which candidates’ religion is a hot topic, it’s hard not to notice those making it a topic are not conducting themselves in a very Christian manner on other topics.  Those same people who are quick to talk about this being a Christian nation, seem to think that doesn’t have anything to do with how we treat each other. Just a couple of illustrations. The rhetoric of the campaign is often mean spirited and focused on the character and personality of the opposition rather than on positions and potential solutions.  Our local government leaders are having shouting matches and threatening bodily harm in parking lots and in government meetings.  For the past year, locally we’ve read almost every week about elected and appointed officials who have misused their positions for their own gain.

I’m perplexed by all this. Very likely, many, if not all these same people are “church-goin’” folk.  Even so, perhaps they, and we, don’t quite get what it means to be Christian.  From my vantage point, it isn’t about believing the right things--as important as “right” belief might somehow be.  Rather, what Jesus seemed to stress was doing the right things.  How we treat others is the paramount measure of our faithfulness, not what creed we espouse.  As one theory puts it, “The scope and quality of our relationships is the measure of our orthodoxy.”

Jesus would go on to tell Nathanael that if he had been amazed at this little event, stay tuned, he would see great things, unimaginable things.  And elsewhere Jesus says to his followers, “The things I do, you will do; even greater things than these you will do.”  What did he do? He healed, encouraged, raised from the dead, gave up his life. He taught that loving our neighbor was entwined with loving our God. As for me, I’m ready to start seeing a lot more of these kinds of actions and a lot less of all kinds of shades of selfishness and evil. I wonder what has to happen so we all see Jesus as clearly as Nathanael did and redeem Jesus' promise?  Something to ponder.



Tuesday, January 10, 2012


The subject of Tim Tebow and the new verb “tebowing”-- kneeling on one knee, head bowed-- is getting a lot of media play. I have resisted blogging about it even though I considered doing so but, gosh, it came up at lunch recently with a friend and now I feel kind of compelled to say something. 

For those who haven’t been paying attention to Tim, throughout college and now in the pros, Tim makes public displays of his faith in various ways. He speaks of it when interviewed after a game. He's been seen praying during a game when on the sidelines and he offers thanks in a gesture of prayer after a big play. It is this kneeling in prayer that has been dubbed “tebowing.”  In college, he always had a verse of Scripture cited on the black tape under each eye which the curious could look up. [The tape is supposed to reduce glare.] 

If you have followed Tim’s rise to stardom, you know that hardly anyone but Tim thought he could make it in the pros.  He runs too much, they said, to be a successful pro QB.  He has an awkward throwing style when he passes--it will take him too long to deliver the ball in the pros and he’ll be crushed, they said.  And yet, when circumstances presented him with the opportunity to fill in for the Broncos’ injured quarterback, Tim began to lead his team to an impressive series of wins.  My lunch friend reminded me there were plenty of people in and out of sports who, not too secretly, hoped he’d fail as a pro. Even now, pundits are suggesting that this year is a flash in the pan and he’ll fade away. Since all this is unusual at least, maybe unprecedented in sports, we might want to ask “why.”

I think the answer to why all the attention and negative comments is: his displays of piety bugged them. When he has had a bad day, it has become common to jump on him.  Most recently and most dramatically Bill Maher of TV and standup fame tweeted an obscene remark including the "F" word about what Jesus had done to Tim when the team lost an important game. As an aside, please note that when Tim threw a pass resulting in an 80 yard touchdown to win a playoff game in overtime, Maher did not tweet anything about Tim and Jesus.

If you watch much professional sports, you have noticed that Tim is not the first player to make some sort of religious gesture when he/she does something noteworthy.  For years players have made the sign of the cross, looked up and lifted the forefinger of their right hand to the heavens, and even kneeled in the end zone and bowed their heads after a play. As another aside, a desperation pass into the end zone is even called a “Hail Mary pass.” My point is: gestures of faith aren’t new in sports. But, as well as I can remember, nobody has ever remarked on that to me and I don’t ever remember reading about it in the paper or hearing a media commentator say anything about it.  But comes Tim and his displays people are talking about it everywhere.  And the gesture of kneeling is popping up in other situations too.  What’s up?

Not that I’ve given it tons of thought, but I think there are a couple of things going on.  One, Tim has done this consistently throughout his college years and now and a pro.  Second, as quarterback, Tim is in on almost every big play, so the gesture is seen more often than the random player's praying.  Third, Tim always begins his media comments with something about his faith.  That means Tim’s gestures of faith have been seen and heard consistently, conspicuously, and often.  If we call these gestures and comments Tim’s witness, then I’m left to conclude lots of people don’t want know that much about Tim’s Jesus. Which raises another “why question.”

Some don’t like it because they think religion is a private thing; I’ll keep mine to myself, you do the same.  Others are people of no faith and/or actively reject belief, so they don’t want to see Tim display his--it’s unseemly at best, offensive at worst.  Others are OK with faith, but think sports, which seems to be populated with more that its fair share of thugs, and faith are antithetical to each other. So knock it off. I’m guessing there are other reasons too.

Gentle reader, though you may have to wait a long time, the next time you see someone bow at a restaurant meal and say grace ask yourself this: how do I feel?  Do you feel guilty that you didn’t?  Do you feel pleased to know people are willing to give thanks openly?  Do you think it’s a little too much; let’s just keep that at home where it belongs?  Do you think this happens way too infrequently? Something else? Your answer to this might help you understand how you feel about tebowing and why. 

Oh, one more thing: Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes...” [Romans 1:16 if you want to write this on those little black strips under your eyes.]
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Resolutions? Really?

This is the time of year when our culture spends some time looking back at the previous year, making top ten lists of stories, remembering prominent figures who died, and collectively letting out a relieved sigh that it’s all over.  At the same time, pundits of all stripe develop their lists of what the new year will bring--prognostications not uncommonly at odds with each other.  In many cases, telling us we may have sighed too soon.
What do individuals do besides read and listen to all this stuff?  We make resolutions, promises to ourselves and perhaps others, about what we’ll do differently this year.  Often on the list of goals are things such as, losing weight, exercising more--God knows those are often on my list--stopping smoking, drinking less, cutting expenses, ridding ourselves of stressors, and on and on.  In fact, most of these are among the top ten annual resolution according to those who study such things. These are laudable goals.  Laudable as they may be, however, our cultural norm is to quickly break them; or to put it another way, to fail to achieve the goals we thought were important enough to adopt them in the first place.
So far, this sounds like the musings of a sociologist or perhaps and anthropologist.  What about a theological perspective? Here goes.  
Tradition alone may not be what calls us to make resolutions at the new year.  As Christians, each of us likely is aware that we have not yet become all we’ve been called to be.  To use a seldom used word, we know we are not yet sanctified, that is, we have not yet attained that level of holiness of living that is desirable in Christ.  As we often pray, “...we have sinned by what we have done and what we have left undone.”  Perhaps this desire to attain this Spirit-directed life is what pushes us to make resolutions.  But, because we are not yet, we have a tendency to deal with superficial changes.  Since they don’t address the deep desire, we often lack the determination to make them a new reality for our lives. Consequently, we break our resolutions.
If all this has any truth to it, then at the threshold of a new year, we might rethink our resolutions.  Yes, many of us could stand to lose a few pounds, but we could also stand to take more time to listen to God’s murmurings in our hearts.  If we are constantly busy, when can we listen?  We have filled our days with a barrage of incoming and outgoing messages when what we probably need much more is silence--silence that allows us to attend to God’s whispers.
Sure, almost all of us could stand to exercise more faithfully, but almost all of us could also benefit from delving deeper into our faith and its implications for our lives.  With most us relying only on hearing a few minutes of the Bible read to us on Sunday, we could probably benefit from a deeper study of the context and meaning of those readings, far more than a sermon can offer.  What we used to called Sunday School, we now call Christian Formation, on the assumption that the offerings help form us into more faithful and effective Christians.  Not that you can’t be formed by reading and studying on your own--you can.  But how likely are you to do that?  Is this the year to learn more?
Before this turns into a sermon, let me just suggest that you have the idea by now.  If you take a few minutes to reflect on these musings and may also find you want to reflect on what meaningful promises to yourself you can make for 2012.  I hope so.
Peace,  Jerry