I Love To Tell The Story


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Sometimes it’s how you say it. Sometimes it’s what you say.

I’m blessed to be part of an incredibly awesome Sunday School class. Our curriculum is the Bible. Period. No lesson books, no commentary, no other materials. We pick a book, and we work through it. We discuss it. It takes months. A given chapter often takes weeks. We delve deep, and you’re allowed to share your thoughts even if they aren’t the typical Sunday School answers.

I like it.

So I was excited a couple of weeks ago when we got to John 14, and to a verse I’ve been particularly intrigued by for the last few years.

“If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

I’d never really given a lot of thought to inflection until a few years ago. We see the written words, and our minds apply tone without us thinking about it. But, as I’ve written about before, someone was talking about Peter walking on the water, and Jesus’ reaction. “Oh ye of little faith…” And I’d always heard that with a harsh tone. And this person read it with a loving, proud, amused tone, and it changed my way of thinking.

So take that verse. “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

Over the last few years, it had become a prime example for me of the importance of tone. Say that phrase with one inflection and it means one things. Change the tone, and it means the exact opposite.

I’d always heard it growing up with the emphasis on “obey.”

It’s proof of the importance of obedience. Our works aren’t the key to salvation, but they are still paramount.

“If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

“You will prove that you love me by obeying my commands.”

But read it again, with the emphases on “love.”

“If you love me, you will obey my commands.”

“For someone who loves me, obedience becomes a natural outflow of that love, something they don’t have to worry about.”

The point becomes not that you have to obey in order to prove you love, but that if you love, obeying will be second nature. Don’t focus your energy on obedience, focus it on love.

It is, to me, an interesting idea, and so I was looking forward to having that discussion with my Sunday School class.

But in preparation, I was looking at the verse a little more closely. Different translations, of course, have different versions. Some are just wording changes — “keep” the commands instead of “obey” them. But some have a difference more important to the point I was interested in — they leave out the “you will.”

“If you love me, obey my commands.” It’s no longer a statement of fact; it’s an imperative. Very much the meaning of the first reading. If you love me, prove it.

I had a feeling it was about to get tricky. Greek grammar is a bit different than English, so I figure it’s entirely possible that either translation could be accurate. So I start digging.

What I find, though, isn’t what I expect. And it throws out all the cool stuff I thought I wanted to talk about.

It turns out, “you will” wasn’t the important distinction, really. That “keep” versus “obey” was the interesting part, after all.

On the surface, it’s just a difference in phrasing. “Keep the rules” is just a colloquialism for following them.

But Jesus wasn’t speaking English. He wasn’t saying obey; he was saying keep — take care of, preserve.

He’s going to be gone, and he knows it. He’s about to be crucified. He’s spent years sharing a message, and he’s not going to be able to anymore. What happens to his story then? What happens to his message then?

There’s no books. There’s no videos. There’s no news coverage. There’s him, and he’s about to be gone. And there’s these guys who’ve journeyed with him.

“If you truly love me,” he tells them, “preserve my instructions.” He repeats in the chapter, for his teachings and his saying. “Take care of my message.” It’s the only way it will survive. It’s the only way it will outlive him.

“If you love me, be the keepers of my story.”

And, of course, they did, and it did. They told their stories. They shared his teachings. They taught his commands. And, eventually, they wrote it all down.

For obvious reasons, I find this beautiful. It speaks to who I am. It’s what I do. I’m a keeper of stories. I love the idea of their being a divine mandate for doing that for Christ.

It’s something that’s important to him.

“If you love me, be the keeper of my story.”

And it’s still important today as it was then.

He didn’t say, “If you’ve been with me these last few years …”

“If you love me, be the keeper of my story.”

“If you love me…”

There’s a big world out there.

How will they know? How will they hear?

“If you love me, be the keeper of my story.”

Vulgar Time-Traveling iPhone


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Every Sunday morning, my iPhone becomes a time machine.

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about technology and scripture, about how changes in the way scripture is presented change the way we interact with it, and even how we think about it and what we get out of it.

By and large, I don’t see these things as good or bad, they simply are. If a person believes that scripture is divinely inspired, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that the One doing the inspiration had the foresight to know that media would change over time and prepare for it.

(On a side note, I heard someone talk about scripture in terms of fault-tolerant transmissions. We have the technology now to beam messages to spacecraft throughout the solar system in such a way that even if there is data lost in transmission, the process compensates so that what is received is still usable. I’m inclined to think that may be a good analogy — that scripture was inspired to function properly despite human language changes, errors, and international alterations.)

The latest significant change for me is interesting because it actually mitigates the effects of one of the earlier changes. To me, one of the earliest presentation changes was the beginning of the practice of translating scripture. Now, you no longer have to speak Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic to understand the stories. The number of people who can understand scripture on their own is broadened tremendously. This is a very good thing.

That very good thing, however, comes at a cost — the reach is broadened, but shades of meaning are lost. A word might mean multiple different things, and the translator has to pick which one was intended. A word might have several shades of meaning, and the new language equivalent may not capture that texture. A word might mean one thing, but be translated as a word that has shades of meaning not intended by the original. (And that doesn’t even get into cultural differences over time.)

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been discovering some of those instances where things I took for granted weren’t necessarily the case, or where there was a richness in the original I had no awareness of.

I still don’t speak the original languages, and don’t have an original text Bible anyway. And, to be honest, that first part is unlikely to ever change.

But, I do have my iPhone time machine.

I now have the ability to select any word in a passage, and see what the original-language word there was. I can read definitions for what the word meant. I can see whether it’s the same word used in another place with a similar translation.

It brings me a little bit closer to what it would have been like reading the original.

I realize there are still limitations — I’m cherry-picking the words I’m looking up, I’m still going based on someone else’s definitions, I still don’t necessarily understand the cultural context — but it’s at least helping me to think about things differently, to be aware of the richer texture.

And that, I think, is a change for the better.

Church of the Unseen Promise


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A few years back, “cardboard testimonies” were all the rage.

If you haven’t seen them, it’s essentially a very very simple “before and after” story of the difference God has made in a person’s life.

On the front of a small sign, you write the before, something you were struggling with before coming to know the Lord. On the back, you write the after, how that struggle has been resolved.

Churches would have services were lines of people would wordlessly come out, show the front of the sign, flip it over, and show the back. It’s an incredibly powerful demonstration, a starkly simple and focused presentation of the transformative power of grace.

But at church recently, I got to thinking about what happens to the cardboard signs that only have one side.

It seems sometimes like we have set a very performance-based value proposition for God.

I went to a church service recently where people were being baptized and sharing their stories, and couldn’t help noticing how easy it to discuss God in terms of our lives. “My life is great, so God is great!” “God is good because He does so many good things for me!”

But what if He doesn’t?

There’s a gentlemen in one my church groups who has been fighting a very long and very heated custody battle, and recently marked a major victory along the way. Everyone in the class talked about how faithful he’d been, and how God had honored that, and used it as evidence of how good God is.

But what if it had turned out differently? What if the custody situation had turned out differently. In any battle, there’s a winner and a loser. What happens when you’re on the losing side? What does that say about God? What does that say about His goodness?

The Bible talks about the people who didn’t get to see the fulfillment of the promise. The people who didn’t get the happy ending they wanted. Moses, who didn’t get to enter the promised land. David, who didn’t get to build the temple.

We like to downplay those stories. They don’t fit our version of a performance-based system for rating God.

But what do you do with that when your story isn’t happily ever after?

Where would Moses and David fit in our churches? Do they get to walk across the stage with their pieces of cardboard? “Spent 40 years in the desert.” Flip. “Died without entering promised land.” I’m sorry, Mr. Moses, that’s not the sort of testimony we’re looking for; why don’t you watch from the pews?

God isn’t performance-based. He never promised you a happy back side of your piece of cardboard.

He promised comfort in the hard times. He promised eternity. He promised Himself. We need to stop selling Him short by promising people happy words on cardboard when what He has is so much better.

I want to see a church where people walk across the stage with their pieces of cardboard, and flip them over to reveal blank reverses. I want to see the same thing written on the back as the front. I want to see the back side be worse than the front.

And I want that to be OK. I want the church to be able to celebrate those stories, and those people. I want people with those stories to know that there is a place where they are welcome and valued. I want a church where Moses and David could share their testimonies.

I want to go to the church of the unseen promise. Anybody want to come with me?

Review — “Revealing Heaven” by John Price


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I’m going to start this review by mentioning that I received a free copy of “Revealing Heaven,” by John Price, for participating in the TLC Book Tours campaign for the book, in part to get the whole legal disclaimer thing out of the way, but also because the fact that this book came to me without me looking for it is relevant to what I got out of it.

The primary focus of the book deals with near-death experiences, how they relate to scripture, and what they say about God and heaven. Price, an Episcopal pastor and a hospital chaplain, has taken great interest in the subject, and in this book combines the results of both his readings and research on the subject and personal interviews he has conducted with those who say they have had near-death experiences.

I’ll be honest, I approached that primary focus with a large degree of skepticism. I have to admit that if you taken his explanations of his research as true, he makes a very convincing case. I also have to admit that I don’t have a strong counterargument to his conclusions. However, being honest, I don’t know that I’m ready to fully take the leap of accepting that his explanations and the stories he was told are infallible. The implications of the case he makes here would be huge, and it’s hard to fully understand how they could be true without having had that huge impact. However, I am forced to leave the book with a much more open mind on the subject, and imagine I’ll be paying it much closer attention in the future.

Equally intriguing to me was the meta-story of the book, a look at the reality of the modern church. Price began his career as a pastor not truly believing in heaven or an afterlife, and had been trained that way in seminary. It was interesting to discover new aspects of the diversity of the modern Christian church, and to read about large elements thereof that believe in a very mundane supernatural. On the other end of the spectrum, he recounts stories of pastors who lost their job because they stopped preaching an angry God in favor of a loving one. The book brings home just what a wide array of beliefs the word “Christian” covers.

I was particularly either challenged or encouraged by his final analysis — that the lesson to be learned through all of this is that, as scripture says, God is, quite literally, love. Challenging because I like his conclusion without necessarily being ready to fully buy into the math that got him there, encouraging because, as I said, this book found me at a time that it echoes a place my personal journey has been taking me.

Whether you agree with it or not, “Revealing Heaven” is a fascinating book with challenging ideas for those interesting in having their horizons broadened.

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Good Lord Willing


There’s wisdom, and then there’s wisdom.

Back when I was working for Cottage Senior Living, I had the chance to interview a guy who was living at The Commons, the 55+ active-adult apartment community.

And while the gentlemen, Bill, was definitely in the 55+ category, he was also definitely in the active-adult category as well. Most notably, several years back, he had started skydiving for his birthday every five years. Most recently, he had jumped a couple of years ago for his 80th.

There were plenty more interesting parts to Bill’s story, like how he had built his own airplane or had the chance to fly a helicopter, and it made for a really good story for capturing the sort of people that might be interested in The Commons.

But as much as I loved meeting Bill and want to be like him when I grow up and loved his story professionally, the thing that really stuck with me was a story he told about his late wife.

One on of his skydiving adventures, he asked his wife to join him, and she agreed. She got all sorts of questions, he said, about whether she was too old and so forth.

What if something happens to you, people would ask her.

To which she would reply, “If that’s the way the Lord wants me to die, I’d better get up there and do it.”

Amen.

Review — “Mondays With My Old Pastor,” by José Luis Navajo


_225_350_Book.649.coverNo one is immune to having a crisis of faith. While we like to think of pastors as being virtual Supermen of holiness, the truth, of course, is that even they struggle at times. “Mondays With My Old Pastor,” by José Luis Navajo, is a picture of that struggle, told largely as a conversation between two pastors, one entering into those challenges and the other having walked through them over his long career. The book centers largely around old stories of varying degrees of familiarity, accompanied by discussions of how they can be applied in a walk with God.

While it’s easy to see how this book would be quite valuable to a church pastor, that includes a rather small minority of people. The lessons of the book, however, are broader in their application. Just as the main character of the book is comforted to know he’s not the first pastor to go through the struggles he’s dealing with, any Christian should take comfort in knowing that even leaders of the church deal with their moments of doubts. And even if the lessons about guiding a flock don’t apply to a particular reader, the books contains truths for anyone, about getting priorities right, about discipleship, about forgiveness. Some of the stories in the book may be familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program.

• Thomas Nelson Product Page

Review — “You Were Born For This” by Bruce Wilkinson


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“You Were Born For This” by “Prayer of Jabez” author Bruce Wilkinson, according to its subtitle, provides “seven keys to a life of predictable miracles.” How much you get out of the book depends largely on what you believe a miracle is.

The basic idea of the book is that God is wanting to do incredible things in the world today, and that He’s wanting to do them through His people, a basic tenet that I would agree with even prior to the case Wilkinson makes for it. If that’s the case, then, Wilkinson argues, we need to be willing and ready to do the work that God has for us. Again, pretty solid ground. If we are, God will use us, routinely, to do amazing things. This idea, and how to live it yourself, are the meat of the book.

And it’s some good meat. Some of the ideas Wilkinson presents are pretty straightforward and basic — be willing to serve God; seek His will; listen to others; be willing to care about and for them and their needs. Some of it is a somewhat deeper. I was personally challenged and plan to adopt his idea of the “God Pocket.”

I found myself questioning occasionally, however, how much of this was really universal. Is this really what God wants everyone to do? Does He really speak to everyone in this way? Or is this a calling and gifting He has for certain people? Wilkinson frequently cites Biblical prophets as examples of his ideas; is that because his ideas are for those with the gift or prophecy?

The book also, for all its strengths, seems to cheapen the idea of miracles somewhat. Biblical miracles were of a much more impressive scale than the ones Wilkinson presents here. Are we to believe that these sorts of God-driven coincidences are the best we should hope for in this modern age? I would like to think not.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.