“Nothing is more practical than finding God."

WisdomSunday I invited people to join me on a seven-week quest for wisdom. I suggested that most of us tend to see decisions as boiling down to two choices: doing what I want or doing what’s right. (It’s great when these two coincide. Then we don’t have to decide between them.)

In Romans 7 Paul talks about his experience of what used to happen in him when what was right didn’t match with what he wanted. Actually, a part of him did want to do the right thing, or to obey the law. He admired the law and thought it was a good thing. But another part of him wanted nothing to do with the law. In fact, if the law said one thing, something inside automatically wanted to do the opposite thing. He calls this principle “sin.” And it’s not just a principal, it’s a power, one that’s for the most part unconscious and messes with our minds and hearts even when the mostly conscious part of us wants to do the right thing.

There’s nothing wrong with asking ourselves what we want, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with asking the right thing to do. But what if instead or in addition we asked the question, “What’s the wise thing to do?” This question has a different feel. It appeals to a person’s most mature self. It encourages us to think deeply rather than superficially. It encourages us to be honest with ourselves about possible outcomes. It doesn’t neglect obedience but includes it: “Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:7).

Most of Jesus’ teachings can’t be reduced to simple rules. They engage our thinking, force us to try to understand what’s being said, and require seeking the perspectives of other Jesus followers. So obeying comes after learning. That’s what it means to be a disciple or student of Jesus. We come to life “learnfully.” (I just read that word yesterday and had to use it.)

On Sunday I finished my sermon with the suggestion that over the next seven weeks we make a practice of asking ourselves the question, “What would be the wise thing to do?”, and then doing what we learn or hear, so that we’re not just learning about wisdom but actually learning wisdom. Who knows, maybe just asking the question will move us in the direction of becoming wiser, deeper people.


Bible WomenJudges 5:1-18, Acts 2:1-21, Matthew 28:1-10

As most of you know I follow the daily lectionary for my morning devotions. All three of today’s readings have women playing a prominent role in God’s mission.

Granted, the Bible as a whole is a fairly patriarchal book. God’s revelation of his will in Scripture and history is both gradual and progressive. Yes, there are lots of passages that reflect cultural stereotypes about men and women.

But God can also be a culture-buster. He is forever challenging our most basic assumptions about people and about himself. So in the Old Testament readings the last two days the prophet and judge Deborah functions as the main leader of Israel. She is the one who calls the tribes of Israel to arms and leads them in battle. The opposing commander ends up being killed by a woman named Jael when he tries to hide in her tent.

In our Acts reading Peter quotes a passage by the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” Later in this same book Philip’s daughters are called prophets. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul acknowledges and affirms women who are prophesying in worship. He even describes prophecy as the most important of the spiritual gifts (14:1). When the wife-husband team Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in Acts, Priscilla’s name is almost always mentioned first (e.g. Acts 18:18).

Our gospel reading contains Matthew’s account of Jesus’ resurrection. Again, women play a prominent and strategic role as they become the resurrected Christ’s first witnesses. They are the first to be told that Jesus is alive, and then he actually appears to them. (Maybe this is their reward for not abandoning Jesus but being with him when he was crucified — unlike…uh, the men.)

One woman in the New Testament, Junia, is described as “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). Scholars debate whether Junia was an actual apostle or just known by the apostles. Grammatical considerations suggest that she was actually an apostle. Early church Fathers like Chrysostom and Jerome assumed that she was an apostle (even though Chrysostom was no great supporter of women in leadership).

A couple of observations. First, when reading Scripture it’s important to realize that what is normal is not always normative. In other words, what is descriptive is not always prescriptive. The word “normal” refers to common practice. The word “normative” means what is required or commanded.

So even though it’s normal for leaders to be men in the Bible, it’s not normative. In other words, there are exceptions. Sometimes what is normal is also normative – for now. For example, slavery was normal in the ancient world. While churches were first being planted in the first century, it was not only normal but normative that slaves remain slaves – unless they could become free through legal means like paying off their debts. Christians had other battles to fight. Opposing slavery would be a battle for another day and another century.

At times, the New Testament contains contradictory testimony about the role of women in the church. For example, in the same letter in which Paul affirms the role of women as prophets in worship, he later says that women should stay quiet in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). (We aren’t sure what problem Paul was addressing. It may be that because many women were uneducated or unfamiliar with the dialect of the speaker, they were constantly asking their husbands questions during the sermon.) Women are also told that when they prophesy, they should have some kind of head covering. So how much of this was “normal” for that time, and and even “normative” for a time or season, but not necessarily for all time?

The second thing I want to highlight is how valuable women are not just to the life of Christ’s church in general but to our particular congregation. Some women are in leadership, while others aren’t, just like with the men of our church. I, for one, am grateful for all of their contributions, and I know that you are too.

So Sisters, thank you. Thank you for your labor of love. Thank you for leading and challenging me to be more faithful to my own call as your co-minister. I celebrate your gifts and your leadership, your hard work and devotion to Christ. I feel blessed to know you, be taught by you, and to be able to serve alongside of you.

Seeking God's Will“… but they failed to ask the Lord’s advice” (Joshua 9:14).

So a pattern seems to be developing in Israel’s conquest of Canaan. Awash with the glow of their initial victory (with God’s obvious help) over Jericho, the Israelites started planning for their conquest of the next city, Ai. They assumed that only a small company of soldiers would be required as Ai was a lot smaller than Jericho. So instead of asking the Lord for advice, they made their own calculations and came up with their own strategies, failing miserably and losing 36 soldiers in the attempt. At that point they finally went to the Lord and he gave them specific instructions about what to do next. Carrying out those instructions resulted in another victory.

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, messengers from a neighboring city pretend to come from a long distance and ask for a treaty. Granted, the messengers were convincing. They carried old worn out wineskins and their bread was dry and moldy. Unfortunately, Joshua and the leaders trusted their own eyes and hearts rather than seeking the Lord’s advice, and they made a covenant that they couldn’t back out of once they found out the truth.

Now I understand that it may be difficult for some of us to really engage with these Old Testament stories, especially the ones that involve violence and conquests. I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about that over the last year and won’t try to address it now, except to say that we don’t have to like or even agree with these stories to learn from them. As Paul writes in our epistle reading for this morning: “For everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction.…”

So do I seek the Lord’s advice? How often do I think, “I can handle this one on my own”? This morning I asked the Lord’s advice about something. While I didn’t get a clear answer, a number of things came to me that I probably should consider. I also realized that I didn’t need an answer this morning, but that I could continue to ask, seek and knock, trusting that at some point I’ll have a sense of what to do, or at least what next step to take.

I wonder how often we make commitments or “covenants” that tie up significant chucks of our time, attention and resources without seriously asking the Lord’s advice and placing our own desires “on the altar?”

In Galatians 5:25-26 Paul writes, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited….”

How do you feel about asking the Lord for advice?

Heart GuideListen, my child, and be wise, and guide your heart on the right way” (Proverbs 23:19).

Guide your heart. Not “follow your heart.” I understand the bit of wisdom contained in the latter. Sometimes when we’re confused, or feeling pressure from others, it may be important to go with our heart or our gut.

That’s better than going with the crowd, or automatically taking the path that seems safe.

But the heart can also be fickle, erratic, even deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), its compass thrown off by the magnetic fields of fear, shame, anger, self-indulgence or ambition.

So the writer of this particular proverb says, “Guide your heart on the right way.”

I think I’ll give that a try.

Spirit FireIn today’s gospel John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

The first thing I’d like to say is about Scripture. John was a prophet. Jesus even said that to this point there was no greater prophet than John. He was a New Testament prophet. He was a prophet whose mission it was to get people ready for Jesus.

And yet, even John’s prophetic words were incomplete. John seems to assume that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit instead of water. John also assumed that when the Messiah came, there wouldn’t be any more chances to repent: the Messiah would gather his wheat (righteous people) into his barn (kingdom) and burn the chaff (everyone else) with fire (hell). The baptism of the Holy Spirit would be for the good guys and the fire of judgment for the bad guys.

Of course, what actually happened looked very different. Jesus and his disciples also baptized with water. Jesus hung out with sinners and even invited them to become his students. He said he didn’t come to judge but to save.

Instead of burning sinners he died for them.

So even though John was given the assignment of preparing people for Jesus, there was very little about Jesus as Messiah that he understood. (In fact, later he would ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we be looking for someone else?”)

So no biblical passage or prophet gives the whole or final word about…anything – whether it’s about Jesus, or the cross, or baptism, or the “baptism of the Spirit,” or the Lord’s Supper, or slavery, or the sabbath, or food laws, or predestination, or circumcision (the hot button in the New Testament church) or military service (the hot-button issue in the post-New Testament church, along with whether people who had folded under persecution could repent and be reinstated), or divorce (the hot button issue 50 years ago) or same-sex marriage (the hot button issue that’s dividing congregations and denominations today).

Being baptized with the Holy Spirit doesn’t guarantee our always getting it right either. John was filled with the Holy Spirit back when he was in the womb. It was Holy Spirit baptized Christians who disagreed about food laws, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and burping in public (just making sure you’re still paying attention).

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s God’s way of saying that none of these are supposed to be deal breakers.

So this is what I’m wondering. I’m wondering if the fire John says is going to accompany the Holy Spirit is ultimately meant to get rid of the chaff inside each of us, the chaff that often surfaces when I’m talking about whatever issue is making me feel “hot” inside. I wonder if many of the things I think and feel when talking about same-sex marriage or abortion or politics is actually the stuff that has to be burned with fire.

Maybe the reason I’ve been baptized with the “Holy” Spirit isn’t so that I’ll always be right, but so I’ll gradually become more holy, which includes becoming more humble and loving.

Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2).

DiscussingI had an amazing time learning from Jesus during my Scripture reading this morning. The day ahead is full, and there would be too much to recount in a blog post anyway. But I want to say something this morning that I’m finding is really, really important for engaging with Christ in Scripture.

You see, part of what made the Scriptures so amazing for me this morning was a conversation I had with Sharon last night. We talked about some really meaty subjects related to faith and evangelism and community. And then we prayed about those things together. And it was because of that conversation and that time of prayer that the Scriptures virtually exploded with meaning for me this morning (and, I sense, for Sharon as well).

Not all of us have someone in our household that we can talk with about what we’re wondering about and learning as a follower of Jesus. But I think it’s so important to be interacting about our faith with some person or group. That sort of honesty and vulnerability can feel risky. But I don’t think any true community happens without it. And our reading of Scripture is likely to be impoverished as well.

Just as the Trinity is three persons in community, fundamental to our life in Christ is each of us being a person, yes a real person, in community. And community requires communication, especially about the things that really matter – which isn’t just the fact that the Mets are 10 and 1.

I’m guessing there are questions that are not meant for us to think about on our own. We should also remember that hardly anyone in the early church had their own Bible. Reading the Bible had to happen in community. I love the fact that I can read my Bible on my own every morning. But I think the process can be hindered if not aborted when we aren’t talking about this stuff with one another.

Including after worship on Sunday morning.

How important has talking with other people about your questions and discoveries been for your reading of Scripture?

Reading BibleIn today’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 16:10-22), the Israelites get their first taste of “manna” – the honey tasting flakes that would descend upon their camp six days a week for 40 years.

(On the sixth day they were to gather enough for two days. Both God and his people would rest on the seventh day.)

So this was God’s daily, divine provision for their journey.

When the people first saw the strange flakes on the ground they said, “What is it?” The question eventually became the name. The word “manna” literally means “What?” or “What is it?” I like that. The name would always remind people of that first morning of discovery. They got used to manna after a while and even tired of it. But the name itself reminded them that it was God’s gift and provision for them.

So what about our daily manna?

“Give us today our daily bread.” Interestingly, when Jesus included that petition in the Lord’s Prayer his listeners would have likely asked, “What is it?” The Greek word epiousios, usually translated “daily,” isn’t found anywhere in ancient literature outside the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, we’re not exactly sure what it means. The root meaning “come down” or “come for” actually suggests a number of intriguing possibilities, like bread “for the journey” or “spiritual” bread.

So don’t be surprised if when you’re eating your own daily manna (i.e. reading Scripture) you find yourself asking, “What is it?” While I’m grateful for biblical scholarship, even the experts don’t always agree. I’ve come to believe that the uncertainties around Scripture are actually meant to give the Holy Spirit a lot of room to work.

Speaking of the Spirit, this is what Jesus says in today’s gospel reading: “When the Divine Assistant comes, whom I will send you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me…” (John 15:26).

I’ve been reading the Bible for a lot of years. What keeps it exciting is that I try to never stop asking the question “What is it?,” even when the passage is familiar and the meaning seems obvious. And I try to always connect what I’m reading to my life in Jesus, and to our life together as his people.

But I may have to chew on the passage for a bit. If I’m patient I usually get a “nibble” — a question, a conviction,  an encouragement, a connecting of dots, a highlighting of a word or phrase. If that happens I’ll usually write it down and see if anything more comes. Or maybe an insight will come later when I’m walking to church or driving.

And if nothing happens? I show up again at the same time tomorrow, because I believe the living word of God is that valuable, that potentially life-changing.

I’m curious — how does the Holy Spirit use Scripture to speak to you?