Saturday, March 27, 2010

Easy Rider

Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. (Mark 11.2)

Burdened by Foresight

For three years, Jesus and His disciples function like dozens of other rabbinical bands roaming about Palestine. Outside of holy days that summon them to Jerusalem, they follow no set itinerary. They stay free of social obligations so they’ll not be tied down in any one place too long. Overall, they do a fine job of not wearing out their welcome anywhere. They enter a new village, where Jesus speaks to the people, performs miracles, occasionally preaches in the town's synagogue, and sometimes enjoys the hospitality of local hosts. Then He and the disciples move on. Yet even those who watch from a distance observe a startling difference when Jesus comes to town. Unlike other free-range prophets, He brings out the priests and lawyers. Everything He says and does riles them. Not only is His message radical. So are His methods. Most unorthodox preachers—John the Baptist, for example—usually avoid controversy by settling in the wilderness. Not Jesus. He keeps coming back, and that makes Him a problem.

Jesus is sharply aware constant controversy is a key element of God's redemptive plan. Opposition to Him is designed to mount until the Jewish establishment and Roman government—typically at odds with each other—collude in bringing Him down. He’s burdened by foresight, and as antagonism for Him escalates, awareness of what’s to come intensifies. With Passover less than a week away, He and the disciples join thousands of Temple pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. Knowing how authority figures think, Jesus recognizes the holiday gives them prime opportunity to strike. They can destroy Him and demonstrate the fate of non-conformists in one fell swoop. Since He expects the week to end in a crushing show of religious and governmental force, Jesus decides to make use of His opportunity for a final display of righteous affirmation. To put it bluntly, He devises a plan to fulfill an ancient Messianic prophecy.

Spontaneous Coronation

Zechariah 9.9 reads, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” As obviously as the time has come for His destruction, Jesus realizes it’s time for Israel to declare His salvation. In fact, prophetic tradition insists Israel must welcome its King before rejecting Him. Thus, the cross’s eternal significance hinges on a spontaneous coronation. All along, priests and lawyers have tried to trick Jesus into confirming He’s the Messiah—a heresy so grave it would call for immediate execution. But Jesus hasn’t made (and, to the end, refuses to make) any such claims, going so far as to order the disciples not to discuss the topic with anyone. (Matthew 16.20) His reason is simple: the people must crown Him King, acclaiming Him with Hosanna, high praise reserved exclusively for their Savior and Messiah. Jesus sets the stage for this to happen.

At first, this troubles us with its implication Jesus manipulates the masses (and prophecy) for His benefit. We prefer to think His riding into Jerusalem on a colt and the adulation that greets Him are miraculous coincidences that jibe with Zechariah’s promise. Yet how can that be? Jesus and the crowd are so thoroughly steeped in Messianic Scripture it’s impossible to imagine He or they act unknowingly. As Jesus and the disciples approach Jerusalem, He’s extremely conscious God’s sacrificial plan is fast falling in place. He knows what He must do as well as what the crowd will do. What’s more, He trusts everything He needs to carry out the plan will be provided. On reaching Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, Jesus instructs two disciples to travel ahead to the next village, in all probability the last stop before entering the city. “Just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.” (Mark 11.2-3)

When the Time Comes

The miracle we seek—and the lesson we can take from it—comes in two parts. First, a colt matching Zechariah’s description is ready and waiting for the disciples. How is this a miracle? Of course, the colt is there because God pre-arranges it and, as Christ, Jesus already knows this. Yet it still doesn’t preclude human interference during the time it takes the disciples to reach the village. Thus, while Christ knows the colt is there, Jesus believes it will be there. He sends His disciples to retrieve it by faith. This leads to Part Two. It’s folly to expect anyone can harness an unbroken colt and safely ride it anywhere, let alone through a mob. Why not settle for trained donkey? Glancing back at Zechariah, we see why he specifies a colt: “your king comes to you… gentle, riding a donkey, a colt.” Jesus mounts the colt by faith so Christ can enter the city as promised—an Easy Rider whose gentle command of the unruly animal magnifies His lordship.

Though Christ’s foresight heightens His perception of how and when God’s plan will fall into place, He still has to rely on faith in its purpose and process. We’re no different. There are times when knowledge of God’s promises encourages us to take conscious steps toward realizing them. Yet we often resist because what we need isn’t within ready reach. By faith, we must know God will supply every requirement to finish His work. The colt will be found when the time comes. The power to ride it easily and gently will be found, too. Meanwhile, there’s no profit in answering anyone who challenges who we are or what our purpose is. When the time comes for us to gently enter Jerusalem as living testaments of Christ’s lordship, people will tell us who we are and what we’re about.

The colt will be there when the time comes.

Postscript: Trust and Obey

We often describe Lent as a journey that leads to the cross and the empty tomb. And tomorrow’s start of Holy Week brings that premise to life by launching a number of commemorative rites. Yet today affords us a chance to revisit Christ’s preparation to enter Jerusalem—to remember why trust and obedience are so vital to God's plan. “Trust and Obey” (not the traditional hymn) by Hillsong.

Friday, March 26, 2010


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. (Matthew 20.25-26)

Mama and the Thunder Boys

Occasionally we happen on a Gospel passage that invites us to see Jesus smile. These moments are very rare, although I’m prone to think it’s an editing decision by the writers to ensure His words retain their gravity more than anything. How could Jesus not find Zaccheus’s scramble up a tree amusing or smile benevolently at Peter after his water-walk goes awry? In Mark 3, He assembles His core disciples, including two brothers, James and John, whom He calls “Sons of Thunder.” (v17) Since nicknames often poke fond fun, we can imagine Jesus smiling at this. It sounds funny. We don’t know why it’s funny, however, until we read Matthew 20, where the Thunder Boys’ mama shows up. With all the finesse of a stage mother, she thunders up to Jesus and asks for a favor. Now that we get it, it’s not funny.

Mama Thunder wants her boys to stand on either side of Jesus in Heaven. Aside from the rudeness of the request, her timing couldn’t be worse. The days are closing in on Christ’s final trip to Jerusalem. The crowds have dwindled, the frequency of miracles has tapered, and Jesus’s enemies are becoming more aggressive. Uncertainty fuels tension within the ranks. Christ narrows His message down to a constant drumbeat: the least shall be the greatest, the first the last, the master the servant, and so on. When He’s not stressing this, He turns to predictions of His death. His followers fail to connect the two; they don’t see He’s prepping them to proceed in His absence. Just prior to Mama Thunder’s request, He says, “We’re going to Jerusalem, where I’ll be handed over to the authorities, tried, and executed. But I’ll be raised to life three days later.” Then here comes Mama to secure privileged status for her boys before anyone beats them to it. She’s not understood a word. Neither have her sons, apparently. Jesus looks at them in Matthew 20.22. “You don’t know what you’re asking,” He says. “Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?” They believe they can.


In my line of work, marketing communications, the litmus for predicting strategic success is WIIFM—“What’s in it for me?” Messages promising personal benefits for their audience gain wider acceptance than those aimed at promoting ideals or the greater good. This doesn’t necessarily exclude inspiring idealism or higher purpose, though. All that’s required is individualizing the appeal—for instance, motivating sales reps to take personal pride in how their products improve customers’ lives. Then, as the culture grows more adept at inferring WIIFM, the messaging gains subtler, more philosophically complex meaning. No finer example of this evolution exists than Jesus’s teaching. In its earliest iterations, He consistently links behavioral changes to spiritual and personal rewards. But over time, the WIIFM falls away. His listeners intuitively grasp practicing His principles will prove beneficial. Which is why Mama Thunder’s request is both unexpected and unsettling.

What she and the Thunder Boys ask is so totally off-base Matthew reports, “When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.” (v24) To prevent the rift from tearing the group apart—particularly at such a critical hour—Jesus pulls them together to calm them down. His deftness in handling the dust-up is a feat of diplomatic genius. He neither takes the Thunder Boys to task nor reverts to simplistic WIIFM reasoning to reinforce His message. Instead, he deflects attention from James and John with an example everyone can relate to. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” He says, “and their high officials exercise authority over them.” (v25) Then He gently reasserts His status principle by citing them as a prime example. “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be first among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave,” He says. (v26-27) Finally, Jesus directly connects this attitude with His pending death: “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.” (v28) “We’ve moved past WIIFM,” Jesus informs the disciples. “We’re now at WIIFT”—what’s in it for them? He ends the debate by turning the entire conversation around.

The Service Mandate

Most definitely, Christ’s message is packed with WIIFM: new life, joy, healing, peace of mind, and meaningful existence, to name a few. And when we follow His way we discover the magnitude of what’s in it for us. But especially for those of us eager to claim the benefits of God’s unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of gender, background, or sexual orientation, it’s imperative we accept the service mandate attached to them. Going only so far as the WIIFM takes us doesn’t take us far enough. At some point, the emphasis shifts to WIIFT. Our journey to Jerusalem leads into Jerusalem, where the question changes from “Where do we stand with Christ?” to “What will we sacrifice for others?” Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve. If we sincerely desire to follow Him all the way, we have to switch from WIIFM to WIIFT.

The first thing we learn after moving past WIIFM is how much WIIFT takes out of us. Life on the giving end inevitably presents challenges that sap our strength and test our patience. That’s why we examine our motives. If hopes of personal praise, recognition, or satisfaction filter into our sacrifice, we’ve reverted to WIIFM, and our efforts will yield no rewards. But if we press on, we’ll find needed strength to serve. In 2 Corinthians 13.4, Paul urges us to follow Christ’s service example: “To be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him to serve you.” As our Lenten journey draws nearer Jerusalem, the weariness many of us feel is more than traveler’s fatigue. It’s the emptying of self that makes room for service. We’ve moved past WIIFM. We’re now at WIIFT.

The WIIFM Kool-Aid is highly addictive, but it can only take us so far. At some point, we have to switch from WIIFM to WIIFT.

Postscript: Servant Song

Despite its familiarity and simplicity—perhaps because of them—this song will never grow old.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD. (Jonah 2.8-9)

No Deal

The prime differentiator between Israel and neighboring peoples is its God. While other nations idolize their deities as superhumans, the Jews’ God remains inscrutably invisible. One could scour the whole of Israel and not find one replica of God’s image. Nor would combing the country turn up the likeness of any god, because Israel stands as the region’s only monotheists. In part, the absence of idols and images results from strict adherence to the Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.” (Exodus 20.4) But even if that edict hadn’t been issued, making idols makes no sense. Without a single Israelite having any concept of what God looks like, why invest effort in fashioning a figure no one else will recognize? Nor is there any reason to invent second-tier gods to play opposite the Most High God in morality tales. Israel takes the supporting role in His story. It participates in the ongoing drama and learns by actual experience, not mythic example.

Polytheistic peoples create human facsimiles of their gods, whereas the Jews believe God created them as facsimiles of His image. So, in a way, they see God everywhere. But here’s the final twist. After forging a cast of deities that look like them, pagans conjure legends in which their gods behave like them. Each god possesses special powers and talents. Yet these gifts also come with specific frailties. This means everything is negotiable—not only among the gods, but between mortals and gods. Pagans seek favor from a god by appealing to its weaknesses. So, for example, vintners often ply wine gods for plentiful harvests by pouring out wine offerings to loosen them up. Nothing of the sort occurs in Israel. As the One and Only, its God is invincible as well as invisible. This leaves no room for negotiation. If He says so, so it is. Anyone bold enough to bargain with Him typically hears the same answer: “No deal.”

Wising Up

The plusses in worshiping one God of absolute power and wisdom far exceed its minuses. But there are downsides, not the least of which is reasoning with Him is impossible. This one-sided arrangement is the chief contributor to Israel’s perpetual rebellion. When it bumps into God’s will, too often it turns around and heads the other way. And no one more vividly depicts the futility of this maneuver than Jonah. When God calls him to prophesy in Nineveh, he doesn’t even bother to protest. He jumps on the next boat to Tarshish, perhaps thinking God will send someone else. No such luck. God catches up with Jonah in a sea tempest that threatens the lives of everyone aboard his ship if he doesn’t obey. Jonah throws himself overboard, and a great fish instantly snaps him up. While he comes to grips with what’s happened, the fish ferries Jonah to shore.

Being socked away in the fish’s gut immobilizes Jonah. He has nowhere to go and nothing to say. One thing he does figure out, though, is it’s time for a new attitude. With no idea how long he’ll stay safe in the fish, he wastes no time in wising up. He offers a contrite prayer that extols God’s mercy in sparing him. It concludes with a sobering observation: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2.8) What brings this on? Other than Nineveh’s implied paganism, no mention of idolatry has arisen. It takes a few replays to get the gist of what Jonah means. Had he clung to idols, he’d be dead, as the tumultuous storm would have ripped them from his hands or they would have dragged him down. His only source of help was God’s grace. It saved his life. Now Jonah knows he’s been called to Nineveh to lead its people to God’s saving grace. “What I have vowed I will make good,” he says. “Salvation comes from the LORD.” (v9)

Lighten Up

Taking their cue from God’s Word, our pastors and teachers frequently warn us that clinging to idols will lead to no good. They’re right, of course, just as they’re right to frame idolatry as a metaphor for anything that takes precedence above pleasing God. In this regard, Jonah is no less convicted of false worship than his pagan neighbors, because he places what he wants over what God asks. But in a more literal sense, his seafaring disaster shows the dangers of hanging on to idols—of treasuring them too dearly, relying on them too deeply, and dismissing their detriments too easily.

First off, they’re extraneous to God’s story. Ours is a two-character drama that unfolds between Him and us. Introducing other people and possessions we prize more highly than He encourages us to tinker with the plot. When God says, “Nineveh,” and we say, “Tarshish,” we’re sailing into a nasty surprise. Eventually, the idolatrous bent that rerouted our course will steer into us hostile weather. What we cling to will either be ripped away or drag us to destruction. Clingy people are heavy people. They take on unnecessary weight and sinking hopes. They construct stories that suit their lives, rather than construct lives that suit God’s story. They wind up appealing to the weaknesses of what or whom they worship in vain attempts to negotiate better outcomes. This never works. God doesn’t demand first priority to feed His ego or offset His need to be loved. He insists on total commitment so we’ll lighten up to lean entirely on His grace. As these last few days of Lent proceed ever more closely to the Cross, there’s still time to relinquish clingy habits. There’s still time to leave cumbersome idols behind so we won’t forfeit the grace that can be ours.

Idols we cling to become dangerous liabilities and cause us to forfeit grace that can be ours.

Postscript: Whiter Than Snow

One of my favorite hymns, this captures the spirit we embrace when we pray, “Break down every idol, cast out every foe.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One of "Them"--Reflecting on Archbishop Romero

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7.13-14)

A Lenten Life

As barbarically wrong as it was, where and when it happened seemed ineffably right. Thirty years ago today, Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador celebrated Mass before a meager congregation shoehorned into a tiny hospital chapel. The hospital’s name was La Divina Providencia—“Divine Providence.” At the conclusion of the Eucharist, Father Romero lifted the chalice—with its wine now mystically transubstantiated into Christ’s blood, according to Roman Catholic theology—offering the doxology commonly known as “The Great Amen.” In that moment, an assassin fired his M-16 assault rifle. Father Romero dropped the chalice as his blood spilled on the altar. The Faithful who’d gathered to worship with this great champion of the poor, sick, and alone had been anticipating this grim tragedy for quite a while. So had millions of the Archbishop’s supporters in Latin America and around the world. He expected it and, as was his way, did all he could to prepare his people for the inevitable. But is anyone ever prepared for a thing like this, this savage desecration of two lives—Christ’s and His servant’s?

Archbishop Romero led what can only be described “a Lenten life.” As a young priest of 26, he noted in his diary, “In recent days the Lord has inspired in me a great desire for holiness… I have been thinking of how far a soul can ascend if it lets itself be possessed entirely by God.” His first steps toward this goal drew him into a wilderness of profound contemplation and self-denial. He never left it. More of what pleased him fell away to accommodate more of what pleased God until he identified wholly “with the church incarnated in this people which stands in need of liberation.” “This people” referred to the Salvadorans. For decades, they battled demoralizing poverty and violence perpetuated by corrupt regimes. After a Jesuit colleague was killed in 1977 for teaching self-reliance to the indigent, the Archbishop concluded, “If they have killed him for what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” Two years later, the Revolutionary Government Junta, an uneasy, leftist military-civilian alliance, seized power and El Salvador erupted into full-blown civil war. Human rights abuses reached unprecedented levels. On March 23, Archbishop Romero preached a sermon insisting it was each Salvadoran soldier’s Christian duty to defy orders to carry out acts of repression and abuse. The next day, he was gone.


The killing of Archbishop Romero became a flashpoint for Christians worldwide—a chastening of Divine Providence that reignited passions for mercy and justice in many who’d grown content with going through the motions. His death amplified his own realization: “If they killed him for what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.” This superseded soft-edged willingness to die for Christ and His message. The Archbishop was ready to die. Sacrificing personal comfort to emulate the poor amounted to a whisper in a cataclysm. He committed himself to being—and being seen—where he was needed, as well as speaking truth to power wherever he was heard. And in the process, he re-taught us one of Christ’s core lessons.

The holier we try to live, the filthier we get, because a life of holiness gravitates toward unwholesome, unsanitary people and places. It doesn’t breeze by dens of degradation to offer a hand out or a boost up. It foregoes reputation and regard to get down in the depths with the needy and oppressed. And it identifies with them so completely, it’s ready to accept a fate as brutal and harrowing as any visited on others who live there. In Matthew 9, Jesus attends a dinner hosted by Matthew, a tax collector and thus, a man roundly despised as a traitor who colludes with Rome. Since Matthew’s unwelcome to join the “right crowd,” he runs with the wrong one, many of whom join him and Christ for dinner. It appalls the righteous set to see Jesus fraternize with such lowlifes. But Jesus silences their gasps with this: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9.12-13) Archbishop Romero, like Jesus and many other exemplars of true holiness, demonstrated the ascent to “be entirely possessed by God” requires a descent that identifies with every level of humanity, good and evil, poor and rich, female and male, gay and straight, and so on. Once we learn to discount appearances and conditions, we’ll discover people standing “in need of liberation” at each step.


Avoiding hurt and hungry people so we can maintain a pristine façade is foolish. Our resolve should be fixed on standing clean and righteous before God. And if we’re courageous enough to weather grime we obtain by offering our lives to the unsightly and unhealthy, we’ll meet our Maker in flawless condition. In The Revelation, John of Patmos is swept into Heaven, where he sees “a great multitude that no one count.” (Revelation 7.9) They sing anthems of praise to God and Christ. An “elder” asks John, “Who are these people in white robes—where did they come from?” When John can’t answer, the elder tells him, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (v14) In other words, they arrived in wretched conditions, soiled and stained by their labors and trials. But they’ve washed their robes in Christ’s blood; they’ve made them white.

The elder continues: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (v16-17) Archbishop Romero is one of “them.” Today, we lift this promise in his honor as a doxology—a Great Amen. And we defy his death by cherishing the Christ he exemplified as the Christ we will follow.

The chapel of La Divina Providencia moments after Archbishop Óscar Romero died at the foot of the cross.

Postscript: I Know That My Redeemer Liveth

Sarah Brightman performs Handel’s magnificent aria. “And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Assuming Rights

The tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” (Mark 12.7)

Flagrant Disrespect

One spring, my parents leased land on an Indiana farm, hoping to give my brother and me a taste of what goes into growing your own food. We were very excited at first. But our enthusiasm waned when we realized we first had to clear the plot of weeds, till the soil, plant the vegetables, and tend their shoots for weeks before seeing any results. Near the end June, our excitement resurged as the first tomatoes and beans started to ripen. “Next week, they’ll be ready!” Mom promised. We could hardly wait. The moment we stepped into our garden, however, we saw everything had been picked. Maybe the farmer and his wife pulled the ripe vegetables to keep them from rotting, Mom suggested. We knocked on their door. In a most unconvincing manner—so much so even my brother and I weren’t persuaded—the wife insisted she had no idea. My parents didn’t press the issue, but they were clearly appalled by such flagrant disrespect. That ended our farming experiment.

Jesus tells a similar story in Mark 12, only the roles are reversed. A farmer leases his vineyard to tenant farmers while he’s away. In return for use of his land, they agree to share their harvest with him. When the time comes, he sends a servant to collect his share, but the tenants beat him up and he returns empty-handed. The owner sends a second servant, and they beat him as well. The third servant they kill. This continues, with some servants beaten and others killed, until there is none left to collect the owner’s share. Finally, the owner sends his son. The tenants hatch what seems like a cunning idea, but isn’t. They decide to kill the heir and assume ownership rights of the property. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” Jesus asks. “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (v9)

Delusions of Ownership

Predicting His death is the Christ’s primary purpose for the story. He wraps up with a quote from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Then, Mark says, officials who heard Jesus’s story “looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” (v12) What rattles them about the parable? It’s not Christ’s prophecy He will be beaten and murdered just as many other prophets had been. It’s not even His suggestion He’s the Son of God; He’s said this before. What angers the religious leaders is His overt rebuttal of their authority. He debunks their delusions of ownership by casting them as tenants—sharecroppers—whose first obligation is to repay God’s kindness in allowing them to tend His vineyard. The supposition that murdering the Heir entitles them to His inheritance is no less than assuming rights they don’t have. Jesus uses the story to caution them against this, predicting their doom as well.

In light of the story’s volatile subtext and timing, we would expect it to garner heavy rotation on the parable playlist—if not a “greatest hit,” then surely an “essential” that resurfaces regularly. But it remains one of the least-repeated of Christ’s parables. Though we can’t say why with any certainty, our first impression seems most probable. Many charged with passing down Christ’s parables are burdened with similar delusions of ownership and assume rights that aren’t theirs. They don’t own the vineyard; they tend it. Yet, somehow, working day-in, day-out without benefit of the Owner’s physical presence eases them into mistaking the vineyard for theirs. Anyone God sends to claim His share of the harvest meets with hostility, anger, and, in the most extreme cases, violence. Then, if we incorporate my family’s experience as well-meaning tenants, we find it’s also the case that those of us who work faithfully in the vineyard may face the eventuality our good work may be stolen by deceitful people. We may have to reevaluate whether we want to continue working where this occurs.

God’s Tenants

Reporting the tense atmosphere created by Jesus’s parable, Mark says the authorities decide not to arrest Christ on the spot because “they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.” Not one word Christ say penetrates their hearts or troubles their minds. He couldn’t be more explicit in His warning that conspiracies against Him will result in severe punishment. Yet, totally in keeping with how Jesus depicts the unruly tenants, they plot His demise. They’re more frightened of public protest than God’s wrath!

Christ’s warning still stands—and we still see religious leaders who ignore it by continuing to assume rights of ownership. Modern bastions of faith teem with tenants who are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than honoring their obligations to God. Their focus rests entirely on controlling the crowd. If the will of the people clashes with their agenda, they quietly step away to find another way to retain power. And in all probability, their Plan B will succeed—temporarily, that is. Such is the case with Christ. The angry tenants work to foment a groundswell of support for their plot against Jesus. The only factor they don’t account for, however, ends up being the one that counts. God says, “Not so.” In defiance of all natural and social law, He rescinds Christ’s execution and instigates a grass-roots movement of His own that ultimately destroys religious power in Palestine. In the end, they lose everything they sought to protect—assumed rights of ownership and control of the crowd.

We mustn’t be dismayed when God’s tenants abuse their privileges, exceed their rights, and manipulate minds to retain power. It’s not their vineyard. From all appearances, their schemes may work. But eventually God will stun them by saying, “Not so.” It’s His vineyard. What grows there belongs to Him. The day will come when every rightful heir to His promises will rise again, filled with new life and power. We believe this, because Easter proves it.

We are tenants in God’s vineyard. No ownership rights are available, and anyone who mistakenly assumes them shouldn’t distress us.

Postscript: God’s Children

I forgot about this terrific tune by The Kinks. Then, thinking about how often tenants who take charge of God’s vineyard attempt to exclude others, the song’s ebullience (and the video artist’s quirky image selections) brought on a big smile. Enjoy!


Man made the buildings that reach for the sky

And man made the motorcar and learned how to fly

But he didn't make the flowers and he didn't make the trees

And he didn't make you and he didn't make me

And he's got no right to turn us into machines

He's got no right at all

'Cause we are all God's children

And he's got no right to change us

Oh, we gotta go back to the way

The Good Lord made us

Don't want this world to change me

I wanna go back the way the Good Lord made me

Same lungs that He gave me to breathe with

Same eyes that He gave me to see with

Oh, the rich man, the poor man, the saint and the sinner

The wise man, the simpleton, the loser and the winner

We are all the same to Him

Stripped of our clothes and all the things we own

The day that we are born

'Cause we are all God's children...

Monday, March 22, 2010


O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (Matthew 23.37)

Just Won’t Do

Our first cat, Felix, was a peach. Our current one, Cody, is a pip. Felix came to us through a shelter. At six months of age, he was left on its doorstep without any information. He was the most gentle and caring cat we’ve ever known, and it was hard to conceive why his first owner let him go. But we had a clue. Any time we entertained, Fee would join right in, charming our guests no end—except when children were present. If anyone younger than 10 was around, he was nowhere to be found. No amount of calling and cajoling could bring him out. For the 16 years he lived with us, this never changed. His fear of kids was so deeply engrained we assumed his first owner’s children horribly mistreated him. Other than this, Fee was incredibly responsive and well behaved, which encouraged us to think he genuinely felt grateful to us for providing him a safe home.

Cody is a store-bought cat who came to us at six weeks. He was the runt of his litter and we sense he had a rough go of it, because he’s fiercely assertive and willful. After nearly two years, we’ve still not reined him in. Everything must be on his terms; if not, it just won’t do. He’s astoundingly prodigious and strong. He dissembles things by banging on them until their screws loosen so he can twist them free with his teeth. He’s figured out light switches, and when we’re up later than he’d like, he leaps up to flip off the lights. He’s fascinated by water and spends hours perched on the edge of the tub, pawing the faucet knob to start a small trickle. We’re constantly asking where his bottomless curiosity comes from. Unlike Fee, who couldn’t have been happier to have a home, Cody seems obsessed with what’s outside his home. Where’s this water coming from? What’s behind this mirror? And most disconcerting, as we live on the 42nd floor, how can I get past these windows and explore new things? No amount of reinforcement, positive or negative, is enough to quash his inquisitiveness. On the other hand, no amount of frustration on our part is enough to defeat our love for Cody.

Last Call

Second only to the accounts of His anger with temple merchants and moneychangers, Matthew 23 provides us the most graphic depiction of Jesus’s frustration with religious malpractice. Informally titled “The Seven Woes,” it transcribes a searing, seven-point indictment of Jerusalem’s priests and lawyers, who twist Scripture to manipulate their followers without honoring its principles in their own lives. In verse 28, Jesus says, “On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” After He delivers His grief, Jesus looks at the crowd that will call for His execution within days. As frustrated as He is, nothing can defeat His love for them. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He laments, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (v37) It’s His last call for them to abandon their stubbornness and follow Him.

They hear Him, but His words don’t compute. Like Cody, they were born into circumstances that made them feel small and afraid. Now that they’ve got the run of the house, there’s no reasoning with them. Since what they have is all they’ve known, they concentrate on taking things apart, looking behind God’s established principles, and trying to loosen barriers shielding them from destruction. Unlike Felix, they have no appreciation for the love and security Christ offers. He longs to draw them together, to shelter them from harm and teach them a better way, but they insist on remaining ungathered. They’d rather run amok and face the consequences than submit to Christ’s leadership and be safe.

Under His Wing

Jesus compares them to chicks that defy their instincts by not clustering around the hen that gave them life and broods over their welfare. What’s missing from the picture, though, are the orphaned chicks that have flocked to her for nurture and protection. Although I hesitate to suggest another animal analogy—realizing it edges us still closer to turning a sobering scene into a Disney cartoon—when I read Matthew 23, I see Jesus speaking to a group of intrepid Codys, while the Felixes He rescued sit quietly, gratefully nearby. I wonder what they make of this? Surely, it saddens them to see their brothers and sisters persist in contrary disobedience. They must want to describe the unconditional love and attention Christ has shown them. Also, they surely understand the impulses driving the unruly behavior Jesus mourns.

Some of us, like Cody, only know one way of life. Our inflated sense of security invites us to think we're entitled to run the house even though we're desperate to explore new things. Christ offers us the chance to live securely and freely if we allow Him to gather us. Others of us, like Felix, come from unhappy pasts and yearn for someone to ensure our safety. Christ calls us to Him, promising unfailing love and acceptance. The most amazing aspect of this emerges when a Cody and a Felix forsake their widely dissimilar, yet equally ungathered lives and nestle together in Christ’s care. Differences in backgrounds and behavior disappear under His wing. Love and acceptance restore our equality. Christ longs to gather all of us—every chick and orphan, Cody and Felix—together, safe and secure in His love. But we must be willing to be gathered.

Felix and Cody—equally loved and safe, if not (yet) equally willing.

Postscript: O How He Loves You and Me

This simple little song says it all. (I’m uncertain of the artist. If my ears aren’t deceiving me, though, it’s performed by The Don Marsh Chorus and Orchestra.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Day Seven

God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2.3)


I recently bumped into an artist friend who complained, “I’m totally exhausted!” Just to needle him, I said, “God, I hope not. How will you work if you’ve got nothing left?” It took a moment to sink in and then he rallied. “Trust me, there’s plenty left. I’m just tired and need to take a break.” Not be outdone by my jab at his grammar, he added, “You look like you could use a break yourself!” With Lent winding down, I started thinking about this tired-exhausted-need-a-break business.

This year’s journey is my richest yet. Having traveled beside many of you, I suspect you feel the same. But I must confess at this stage, I’m not only tired. I’m exhausted. My reserves are depleted. I’m now wholly reliant on the One Who calls us to the desert—which is Lent’s overall purpose, and I get that. Yet cognitive recognition is no anecdote for decreased attention span and mental fatigue. Yesterday, without conscious thought, I told God, “I’ve got nothing left to get through next week, let alone Holy Week’s emotional rollercoaster ride.” I let go a big sigh, and before I could embellish, in the recesses of my being I heard Him say, “So tomorrow you’ll rest. Even I rest on occasion. You think you shouldn’t?” (For reasons I can’t fathom, God often replies to my whines in the voice of a Yiddish watchmaker.)

For the Moment

When the Creation narrative reaches Genesis 2.3—“God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done”—we’re prone to think, “Hence the Sabbath,” and scoot on. Few of us consider the implications of what we’ve just read. God spends six “days” speaking the universe into existence, summoning plants and animals to life, and fashioning His surrogate creature by hand. He gets everything up and running—stars and planets in orbit, rivers flowing, grass growing, etc.—and instead of becoming preoccupied with His creation, or monitoring its early progress, He takes Day Seven off. He lets everything go so He can rest. What’s most peculiar here is God’s making this, Creation’s least notable day, a holy one. It’s the first in an endless series of classic reversals, when what God does is stridently counterintuitive to what seems logical to us.

After we wrestle with that for a bit, we still need to solve the paradox of God’s exhaustion. Six days of tireless, infinitely detailed and diverse creativity refutes any suggestion He’s out of ideas and energy. Yet He stops. He’s exhausted, though not in the sense of being completely emptied of imagination and power. For the moment, His work is finished, His world perfect. There’s nothing left to be done, no need to continue just to prove He can. What’s more, He knows this perfection won’t last. The Tempter lurks in the Garden, waiting to captivate the Human’s idle thoughts, after which the struggle to prevent both from undoing God's work will commence. Because the world is perfect, because it’s complete, because there’s nothing He needs to do for the moment, God takes His rest. Day Seven is His finest day, and that makes it holy.

Keep It Holy

Excess or neglect—usually a combination of the two—makes us tired. This holds true on every level: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Moderation and mindfulness remedy tiredness. We pull back on some things so we can attend to others. Exhaustion is different. It comes from a different place and requires different treatment. When we’re exhausted, it’s because we’ve done all we can for the moment. The empty fatigue signals it’s time to let go and rest. Our world may not be perfect and our work may be incomplete, but knowing there’s nothing more we can do for now tells us now is the perfect time to do nothing. There’s no gain in sacrificing rest to admire our work or keep close tabs on people who can manage without us. Besides, trying to plow through our exhaustion now renders us useless later. It’s time to rest.

Rest doesn’t come easily to us, though it should. From what we see in Genesis, it comes easily to God. His work reaches a stopping point and He rests. Our resistance to rest derives from insecurities, fears, and other feelings that are alien to Him. We deal with pride; we’re too essential to care for ourselves. At the spectrum’s other end, we constantly need to be needed to maintain our sense of worth. We worry how we’ll be regarded if we withdraw for a respite. We fear living with guilt if something we might have prevented occurs in our absence. And on and on we go, whining with doubt and impatience, falling shorter by the day, failing others and us by trying to give what we no longer have. It’s time to rest.

Judaism teaches rest is worship, reserving the seventh day of each week as a holy day of obedience to the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20.8) Early Christians adopted the first day of the week as the “new Sabbath,” which combined commemoration of Christ’s resurrection with the Jewish day of rest. The “rest” component of Sunday worship hasn’t stuck; since we’re no longer under the Law, I’m not persuaded it should. Nonetheless, we should honor the principle of rest as worship by calling Day Seven any time we’re exhausted. Our Sabbath may last an hour, a day, a week, or year. Regardless of duration, we set time aside time to rest and keep it holy. We let worries and fears go until we’re replenished and ready to resume work. In Mark 2.27, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” God made Day Seven a holy day of rest to remind us we need to rest.

When we’ve exhausted our capabilities, it’s time to rest. (Van Gogh: Noon: Rest from Work (after Millet); c. 1890)

Postscript: Sabbath Song

A restful jazz meditation on the Sabbath by Neville Peter.