Category Archives: Devotional Thinking

Framing Jesus

My wife and I recently had some maternity/family photos taken by a gifted friend of ours. I have always been fascinated by photography as an art form, particularly by its minimalism. All the photographer really has to work with is the stuff of the external world – he or she can tweak a few colors on a computer afterwards, but photography at its finest is all about taking what is there and portraying it in an artful way. Just through a small shift in framing, a contrasting of foreground and background, or a shift of the weight of the elements, a photograph can make someone look ominous or playful, beautiful or jarringly bizarre (a great difference from my photos, where everyone comes out looking dull and slightly stoned.)

Aristotle, in discussing rhetoric, divides it into three categories – logos (the logic and argument itself), pathos (the emotional feel and depth of the argument) and ethos (the perceived character of the speaker). Without going into the specifics of these categories, one of the key observations underlying them is that the idea itself (logos) is not enough to persuade or engage hearers; indeed, while Aristotle pays the most attention to that first category, he at times hints it is the least impactful and important. At least as crucial as the content is the way the discussion is framed and presented – truths are, in this way, a lot like photographs.

As a recent seminary graduate I’ve spent four years thinking about the content of Christianity. This is all wonderful stuff; books full of footnotes and Greek and Hebrew (and often Latin and German too, which we all pretended to follow), discussions about manuscripts and hermeneutics and theological categories. I love the content, and I don’t at all mean to denigrate its importance.

However, what was missing from the discussion, at least most of the time, was how we wanted to communicate these truths. How we portrayed them; what parts of them we wanted to emphasize. Indeed, at times we are almost hostile to these discussions because they seem somehow disingenuous. However, I think it is crucial to talk about these questions. Like a poor photograph, we can take all the content of Christianity and still manage to communicate it to people in unhelpful or unmoving ways. We can make it look ugly, or uninteresting, or unimportant. We need to think about the art of the message; how the set pieces of the gospel are weighed; how the portrait of Jesus is photographed. Continue reading

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The Lord Laughs

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)

There are remarkably few treatments to be found in theological libraries about humor in Scripture. Most of those few that exist seem to operate from the conclusion that what humor is in the Bible is in isolated pockets. Sure, when Ehud skewers the tyrant Eglon, losing the sword in his rolls of fat and causing him to soil himself, we can’t help but suspect we’re meant to chuckle. A bit of Hebrew or Greek suddenly makes the reader aware of groan-worthy puns which crop up in the oddest places. However, taken in sum, almost everyone agrees that the Bible is a Very Serious Book, and we should be Very Serious People if we are to use it as the foundation for our faith.

This Very Serious approach to Christianity, however, seems to me unsatisfactory. We might gain some hint of this simply by noticing its effects. A humorless Christianity is dehumanizing, lopping off our emotional legs so that all we can do is sit on the stubs and point accusing fingers. A faith unable to chuckle will do the craziest things without getting the joke. One look at some Christians’ ridiculous wardrobes, our trite fiction or our bizarre attempts at spirituality betrays an insanity which even a modicum of irony would undo.

However, the deeper problem with Very Serious Christianity is that it misses the point – the punch line – in Scripture itself. Scripture is, at heart, a comedy. In one sense this is true simply by dint of the way the story ends. In the categories of the dramatists, we are in a story with and unapologetically happy ending. All the deaths, all the exits stage left, get brought back for the finale of the resurrection, and in a world made new the players live happily ever after. This note of hope, and the joy it engenders, should in itself call the grimness of too much spirituality into question. One wonders what Very Serious Christians will do in a world with no more tears or heartaches, and (one assumes) with no more frowns.

There is also another, deeper sense in which Scripture is comedic. While God is certainly a character who is not to be trifled with, every other character (which means every character like us) is portrayed in the most ironic and slapstick terms. Seriously, go read about Abraham’s brilliant plans to tell Pharoah his wife is his sister (twice). Watch Israel’s kings run back and forth like indecisive tumbleweeds, worshipping idols and begging God for help based on which way the weather seems to blow. Listen to the disciples talk with Jesus, and marvel at the way a moment of insight is almost always immediately followed by one of monumental stupidity. The antics of humanity are enough to rival the slapstick of the Three Stooges or the ridiculousness of the Royal Tenenbaums.

This is why, as the psalmist notes, God laughs at the schemes of man. When Very Serious Men gather their might against the Lord’s anointed, while they might feel dignified and important, the truth is that they are a joke. Their frailty, their presumption, and their shortsightedness combine to prove them to be nothing but the oafish buffoon included in every play and movie for comedic relief. Go read the prophets, who mock idolaters for being no brighter than the lumps of stone they worship, who ridicule the oppressors and their wives who are as fat as the cows of Bashan.

It isn’t just the wicked who are worthy of a chuckle in Scripture either. The righteous are too. God reminds Israel that He saved them not because of their greatness but because they are the least among the nations. Paul tells us God saved the foolish and the weak to show His power in their midst. God is on a serious mission, but we are chosen to be his players because, well, it’s ridiculous to think we’re doing His work on our own. Indeed, salvation itself is in a sense comedic: we are sinners made righteous, saved by the ultimate irony of the cross and resurrection. We are not saved by our Very Serious attempts to justify ourselves, but by ruefully surveying our best efforts and recognizing them as piles of something which might offend the Very Serious reader (but which Paul has no problem referring to in the crudest terms).

Of course, everything I just said is only one side of Scripture’s perspective. There is a deeply serious aspect to everything in the Biblical story: our sin is a grave offense, our misdeeds cause unimaginable destruction and the cross is a brutal and bloody salvation. However, the problem comes when we let this seriousness become Very Serious; too serious to also get the joke. Very Serious Christianity is ultimately destructive to the soul because it cannot take God’s perspective on our weakness: we are foolish, fickle, and frail, but we are also redeemed and being used as agents of redemption.

If we are to reach a point of health in our Christian lives, we must learn to laugh at ourselves, and laugh at all that is like us in the world. We must learn the freedom which comes from seeing our own silliness. We must chuckle like only those saved by grace can chuckle, and roar with the laughter of those saved by faith in the Very Serious work of Someone else.

When we sin, we must grieve it with the tears of repentance. But then, seeing it nailed to the cross, we must smile with the security of knowing we are still loved and still being made into Christ’s likeness.

When we stare the devil in the eye, we must fearfully look to Christ for rescue. But then, recognizing that he has been publicly made an object of ridicule through Christ’s death and resurrection, we must laugh in His face because of the silly creature he is.

We must laugh at a toddler’s shaky steps and a teenager’s silly soapboxes (especially since the teenager takes them Very Seriously), not because we are better than them but because our walk is truly no less steady and our ideas no less small.

We must laugh at ourselves, at all the ways we think we’re strong and all the ways we are truly weak. We must tell jokes about our own people, our own denomination, our own misadventures. We must tell the stories about how silly we were when we were younger, and how silly we were last week as well.

In the end, we must learn to laugh because it reminds us of our humanity. We are not to be taken seriously; we are not to be made much of. It is no accident that we are the children in the story, and just as our Father smiles at us in our messiness and helplessness, so we should smile as well.

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Good Friday Meditation

Note: This is the meditation I’m giving tonight at our Good Friday service.

Text: Luke 22:66-71

It was the dawn of the last day for the Son of Man. The morning sun was stretching into a courtroom already buzzing with action. Luke’s account is terse and to the point, but Matthew and Mark help us paint in around the edges. This “trial” was no careful, judicious affair. It was pure chaos. Men were being brought in from all over the city, the rabble-rousers and usual suspects, to accuse the Son of Man. Money was switching hands under the table to convince false witnesses to make up accusations, but none of the charges would stick. Nobody could agree; they were simply yelling contradictions.

In the midst of it all was Jesus, humiliated, chains on his wrists, facing the men said to be the holy leaders ofIsrael. He wasn’t pleading for his life. He wasn’t giving some rousing defense. No, the gospels tell us that he stood silent, unwavering, not speaking a word as every attempt to fabricate his guilt fell to pieces. How uncomfortable it must have been for those seeking to accuse him. He didn’t speak, didn’t give them the chance to argue or twist his words. He didn’t even have the dignity to treat them like the judges they believed themselves to be.

Finally, exasperated, the council silences the crowds and addresses Jesus directly. They ask the question that has stood in the shadows behind every false accusation: “Is this your claim? Are you the Christ, the Messiah? Tell us.” Continue reading

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Mario and Morning Mercies

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

I often view my life the same way I remember playing Super Mario Brothers as a kid. To explain for those who didn’t come of age with video games, I spent hours of my youth jumping on turtles and eating mushrooms and strange plants (disturbing habits, if you think about it), trying to save a princess. Inevitably I would die, an ill-timed jump or flying goomba doing my little red plumber in. However, there was a sort of “grace mechanic” built into the game. As long as I had an extra life I could try again, hopefully learning from my mistakes. These extra lives were utterly essential, but they were also a finite resource. A player only had so many. Sure, I could buy more by collecting coins or finding rare green ‘shrooms (again, disturbing), but this almost never kept up with the attrition. Eventually I’d screw up for the last time and it would be all over.

We tend, in our hearts, to disbelieve the inexhaustible nature of God’s grace. Like the disciples, we count the number of times we must forgive our neighbor, hoping that one day we might bring down the hammer, and we assume God does the same with us. We are creatures of finite patience and limited mercy, and we view our Creator as being just like us. We keep glancing up, expecting to see a counter telling us how many chances we have left before God, like my Nintendo, tells us we’ve screwed up one time too many and it’s “Game Over”. Continue reading

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A Reason to Sing

Here is the sermon on Psalm 147 I preached at Grace Chapel on 5/29, if anyone is interested.

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Two Months In

It’s been two months now, living at the hospital. My daughter has spent the first two months of her life in intensive care, surrounding by the beep of heart monitors and the clinical decor of a sterile room. In between the bustle of nurses and pediatricians, I’ve been struck by how much I never realized about living life this way, despite the friends we’ve had confront similar situations.

I never realized how tired I would get, how watching someone you love struggle to grow could chafe at you like a bad pair of shoes, leaving you raw and blistered without your even noticing. I never realized the anger and frustration I would feel, the way even a good report could make you want to yell because it wasn’t the report you wanted – the news that she was coming home.  I never realized how wrong the world could feel, when the question “how are you?” could never honestly be answered with “fine,” when a successful day is one you survive with your faith and hope intact.

I never realized any of this, and yet there’s something familiar about it all. It’s common in these situations for people to say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” This is in some sense true, of course, and is meant as a gesture of compassion. Yet the fact is that, for all these last few months have felt like repeated kicks in the teeth, they’ve only served as an acute reminder of the dull ache I’ve always had in my jaw. The weariness and frustration and wrongness have all become painfully acute these last two months, but they’ve always been there.

Tragedy isn’t a break from the usual business of life. We’re always up to our necks in a broken world; it’s just that sometimes the brokenness sloshes over our heads, rushing into our noses and making us choke. For fear of confronting the frailty of our peace we distract ourselves with the glitz and hustle of this fractured world. But the waters of life are not to be ignored, and the waves that smack us in the face are reminders of our fallen estate.

The reality of this world as Scripture presents it to us is not a pretty picture. The bible consistently forces us to remove the blinkers and open our eyes. It shows us a world where tyrants triumph, innocents die, good men do terrible things and bad men often escape justice. Creation might be good, men might bear God’s image, but this goodness and this likeness are fractured into pieces by the fall, and we often get cut on the sharp edges.

This picture has little appeal to a people in love with Kincaid paintings and stylized movies, where everything is pastoral beauty and everyone is airbrushed. Yet it is precisely this picture which we need to see. In the gospel, God goes to war with this broken world, not to destroy it but to put it back together again, even though that’s the last thing it desires. It is the great strategy of the prince of this world to keep us from joining this fight, not by defeating us, but by making us fall in love too much with the way things are and keeping us from dreaming of how they will be. The Christian response should start not with a happy lie, but with a broken heart.

I’ll be damned if I ever accept life at the hospital as the way things ought to be. As much as some would like to talk about a “new normal,” as if a few adjustments in perspective could make everything better, I’ll never believe it. Children should not be struggling to breath. They should not have wires tangled around their little bodies. Nothing is okay about it; nothing is quite right here. Yet this isn’t an expression of despair. Instead, it’s to hope for healing, for redemption.

Redemption is what the Bible holds out to us in the midst of a world ravaged by the effects of sin. Redemption from our guilt, from our bondage, from our sin-sick hearts and broken bodies. We aren’t called to be Buddhists; we aren’t meant to deny the dissatisfaction in our souls. This world is a hospital, a place for the sick and dying. Nothing is quite right here. It is only when we realize this truth that we can begin to grasp the hope of a better world, a world of life and health and peace. It is only when we realize we are deeply wounded that we can endure the cure.

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Hope is a Hard Thing

Having Rebekah has been perhaps the most emotional, and emotionally confusing, experience of my still-short life. On the one hand, there is a great joy and wonder. A new life has come into this world, a new life that is in some sense mine. I look at my tiny premature daughter and there are feelings which I can’t quite put words to, mythical feelings of fatherhood, of protectiveness and delight. Yet at the same time, there are other feelings – grief, and an overwhelming fear – at her helpless state. I suppose every life is fragile, but its not philophizing about life in general that concerns me. It is my daughter’s life, so uncertain because of her early exit from her mother, that brings home to me in a way I’ve never experienced before the uncertainty of tomorrow.

It snowed yesterday, and I found myself dreaming about a year from now when I might take my little girl, all bundled up, to relish the fat flakes which drifted from the sky. Yet as I dreamed, I felt something in me recoil. It was like the guards on the bulwarks I’ve erected around my heart were calling out, warning me that I was on uncertain ground, that the enemy might strike at any moment and snatch her away. They called for me to retreat back to the safety of their walls of cynicism and fatalism. I could barely dare to hope, because at any moment I knew my hope could be taken from me.

This struggle to hope has characterized my days since Rebekah’s birth. There are beautiful moments. The first time I touched her hair, stroking it,  I wept in gratitude over her isolette. Yet those moments are hard to keep; they are quickly overwhelmed by the terror that we might receive a midnight call from the neonatal intensive care unit and I might be plunged again beneath the torrent of grief. Continue reading

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