A Theology of Doing

So, there’s this guy. He’s an expert in the scriptures, and he wants to test Jesus, so he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, first there is the issue of the question of whether there’s anything we can actually do to be able to inherit eternal life, but that’s not the real problem with the question here. What this guy is wanting to do is debate theology, but that’s not the way he frames the question. He doesn’t ask what the scriptures teach on inheriting eternal life, he asks what must I do.

Jesus, knows his intent, and as a good rabbi answers his question with a question, “What is written in the Law?” “How do you read it?” Jesus brings the question back to this guy in the form that the guy actually intended to begin with. Jesus doesn’t come back with what do the scriptures say you must do or what do you think you must do, but what is written in the Law, how do you read it? Jesus makes it a theological question.

The guy answers, “Love the Lord your god with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Maybe this was his own take, or maybe he had heard Jesus say this before. Maybe for him this is part of his setup. In whatever case, he knows the right answer, he gets the theology question right.

Jesus responds, “You have answered correctly,” “Do this and you will live.” Did you notice that, Jesus then brings the conversation back around from the theoretical to the practical, from what do you think, to what must I do, which was the original question by this guy to begin with.

Now, one of two things could be going on here. Or, I actually think both are taking place. It could be that he’s got Jesus right where he wants him; here comes the test. But, I think more is actually going on. This guy has the right answers. He’s an expert in the scriptures, he’s studied them for years. And yet, despite his study and vast knowledge something is missing. It’s an itch he can’t scratch. He knows there must be more that what he has, but he has the right answers. Here he could ask a number of questions, for example, he could ask, what is love, what does it mean to love. But, he doesn’t instead he asks the question, “who is my neighbor?”

Now, there were two major popular schools of thought during this time based on two different rabbi’s Hillel and Shammai. Shammai was known to be more strict. Born from wealth he believed in literal interpretation of scripture, a conservative fundamentalist type. Hillel on the other hand was raised poor, and known for a more liberal approach, trying to get at the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, as well as a more compassionate demeanor. Interestingly in most every debate we see Jesus in he sides with Hillel except in the matter of divorce. I bring this up because for the house of Shammai only fellow Jews were to be considered your neighbor. For Hillel, everyone was to be loved with the expection of one group, the Samaritans whom he considered half-breed disgraceful dogs. So, even the compassionate Hillel had a deep hatred for this particular group of people.

So, Jesus begins to tell a story of a man beaten, stripped, and left for dead who is rescued not by Jewish religious leaders, but by one of these deeply hated Samaritans. It’d kind of be like a story where an Al-Kida member plays the hero. You just didn’t do this. Now, if this guy has been beaten and stripped, you can’t tell who he is, what group he belongs to. So then a pastor, a priest, and a rabbi walk by. Sorry, a Priest walks by “on the other side”. On the other side of the road to Jericho? That’s like saying he walked by on the other side of a two foot wide alley. I mean to walk by this guy he probably had to step over him. It’s the same with the Levite. These guys are probably busy. They may be on their way to the temple for worship. They can’t touch blood or else they’re unclean. They may be in a rush. It makes sense that they wouldn’t stop for this guy. But then a hated Samaritan stops. He doesn’t know who the guy is or his background, and yet he’s overly generous. And it says that he bandaged the wounds and poured on oil and wine. Oil and wine, that’s the stuff that the priest and the Levite would use for Temple worship. Is Jesus making a statement about the true nature of worship here? The Samaritan takes the guy to an inn pays some money and promises to return to pay any additional charge owed. Jesus ends the story with a question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Notice this guy hates Samaritans so much that he can’t even bring himself to say the word, instead it’s, “The one who had mercy on him.” It’s almost as if Jesus is asking the question who is it that you hate so much that you wouldn’t want them to save you, even if your life depended on it? What if it’s in coming to love them that your salvation lies.

Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.” To which I want to say, that wasn’t the question. The question was, “who is my neighbor.” But, actually the question was, “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” In telling the story Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question preceding it, rather he answers the original question, the real question that was brought to him.

Now, there’s another story where Jesus encounters a hated tax collector. As Jesus is passing through all kinds of people are trying to closer to him. But, in their efforts they effectively shut out this wee little man, forcing him to climb up in a tree (something you don’t commonly see, a grown man climbing trees). First, this begs the question of whether our pursuit of a relationship with God is helping others connect as well, or effectively shutting others out. But, the story continues. Jesus spots the man in the tree, tells him to come down, and has lunch with him. Something happens during this exchange and this wee little man changes. He commits to living a different type of life and Jesus says that “salvation has come to this house.”

So, we have two people. One an expert, knows all the right answers and yet something’s missing. The other knows relatively little in comparison, but is ready to jump into action. It’s easy to study, to learn, to wrestle to find the right answers. It is a much more difficult thing to take the risk to change your life because of your faith. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe the same is true for knowledge and action. And it’s not that our deeds save us, but as James puts it, the deeds are the evidence of our faith. Hebrews 11 beautifully connects the ideas of faith, action, and the crediting of righteousness. Because the point isn’t to know all the answers, because the more you know the more you realize you don’t know. Rather the point is to seek to live out this way of Jesus. Not to debate, but to do, to love.

I have become increasingly convinced that we will become consumed by one of two polarities: either being right, or being a force for good in the world. There are many who work very hard at having all the “right” answers and they are convinced that they are right. Yet, there seems to be little to no doing, there seems to be very little love. As Andy Stanley likes to say, it’s not just about information, but application. The people that knew the scriptures the best in Jesus’ day were also the ones who brushed shoulders with him never realizing who he was. Jesus at Gethsemane doesn’t pray that we’ll get all the answers or that we’ll have our theology right. And it’s not that those things aren’t important, we find other scriptures telling us so, but it comes in second, to our doing, to our loving. Which will you focus your dominant energies on, being right, or being a force for good?

It reminds me of a talk I recently heard by Dwight Pryor which was excellent. In it he shared the story about a man to whom God had spoken deep in his heart that he can go no deeper or higher in his relationship with God until he went wider, sharing God’s love with more people. I think there is a lot of truth to that.

So, go and do likewise. Go wider and in so doing go deeper and higher. Like Zacchaeus rather than the expert in the Law concentrate your energies on being a force for good in the world rather than being so concerned about being “right”. Learn to love the one you hate the most, you never know, your salvation might just depend on it.


Well, the update section of the posts are probably going to start getting smaller, which is a good thing. Things have begun to stabilize, so each week is not quite so eventful. Katie is finishing her 8th grade sub job this week. Her 6th period class is kinda tough, but she’s really been enjoying 8th grade. Next week she’ll being her long term sub for the gifted teacher which will take her almost through the end of the school year. Besides that we took Cari to see the Imagination Movers on Saturday. We had gotten her tickets for Christmas, so the day finally had arrived. It was a long drive, but they did a great show and it was lots of fun. Cari didn’t really sing or dance or jump around. She mainly just stood there with her mouth open overwhelmed that they were actually there in front of her as opposed to being on TV. They dropped balloons from the ceiling which she absolutely loved. She caught a blue one, and it took everything we had to pry it away from her long enough to buckle her in. She had a great time.

Now on to heretics. For some the word heretic is a dirty word. I grew up with the idea that if someone was called a heretic by anyone else, you just didn’t listen to them. I mean being called a heretic was like a scarlet letter, it was worse than being called a cotton headed ninny muggins (which funny enough all those words must be legit since spell check didn’t underline any of them?). But, I’m beginning to wonder if being a heretic is the worst thing in the world. I know it can’t be fun carrying the stigma, but I’m no longer sure that if you’re deemed a heretic that you’re necessarily wrong. For instance, I’ve been reading in the book of Acts. This book begins with Jesus’ assention and the Holy Spirit episode of Pentecost then it leads into the beginnings of the Church and it’s spread. Now, one of the central issues becomes how to deal with this faith moving beyond Judaism. Jesus was Jewish. His theology was Jewish. This means his faith system was built upon living out the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures of Old Testament. The tradition is that God gave Moses these books on Mount Sinai, so these are the words of God teaching us to live in harmony with Him. Now, I could go into a long rant on shmikah, olam habba, tikkun olam, and fulfilling the Torah, but if you want to learn about those it would be easier for you to just go out and get a copy of Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis (a fantastic book you need to read anyway). So, Jesus is Jewish as are his disciples.

So, when Pentecost happens you have people from various places hearing the disciples speak in the tongue native to the listener. Also, the Church is persecuted and begins to spread out from Jerusalem. By chapter 10 you have Peter, a good little Jewish boy, having his whole understanding of what it means to live right with God blown apart. He begins baptizing people who aren’t Jewish because when he told them about Jesus they received the Holy Spirit. Then Paul begins bringing the message to Gentiles as well, and they don’t know what to do with it. If they’re a part of The Way (what Christianity was called then) does that mean they have to be Jewish. By chapter 15 this is a huge issue. Paul has included these non-Jewish people and now these other Jewish believers are telling them that they now have to have a little procedure, if you know what I mean. Don’t worry squirming at this point is quite natural.

So there’s this big Church meeting. You may have been a part of one of these once. People on both sides are quite convinced that they are right, and they are arguing to get their point across. Paul, Barnabas, and Peter at this point are heretics. But, they share stories of what God has been doing and somehow manage to convince the meeting that this is something God is up to, and they shouldn’t stand in the way of it. So, they send a letter to these people who have been told that a “minor incision” will be necessary. ” It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” (Acts 15:28-29)

Peter and Paul were heretics. So was Jesus. What I love about this letter is that it “seemed” good to the Holy Spirit and to us. They didn’t claim something as solid with a lot of arrogance. Rather they spoke in humility about how they saw the situation, and not just how they saw it, but how they thought the Holy Spirit was involved. Often for one reason or another we want to act like we’re sure about things whether we are or not, and often we’re so busy with our way that we’re not even paying attention to what God is up to. So, I find the opening of this letter quite brilliant. And the amazing thing is that in the end they side with the heretics. Now sometime heretics have destructive teaching, sometimes they’re wrong and we need to be on our guard. But, sometimes the old party line is wrong as well. Sometimes the old party line is incomplete. And sometimes there are people who aren’t being deemed heretics who are bringing destructive and dangerous heretical teaching.

See, we often want to think of faith as a destination rather than a journey. If you believe this, this, and this, then you’re in. If you don’t believe in line with our doctrines or dogma, then you’re out. But, one of the major lessons of scripture is that God is taking us somewhere. God is constantly taking us from darkness to light. The central metaphor for faith and life in the scriptures is journey. And, when we quit moving, when we quit changing then we miss the new thing God is doing. So, just as much as we need to read the heretics with a critical eye we may need to do so just as much with the ones we think are safe. I noticed in a certain bookstore a few months ago that they began putting disclaimers on certain books that you should read them with discernment, as if you didn’t need to do so with other books. It is the heretics of today who will bring the common understandings of tomorrow. When it was first proposed that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, it was deemed heresy. People were actually excommunicated from the church for holding to that belief. Now, we know we’re not even the center of our own solar system, much less the universe. The scriptures didn’t change, but our understandings of them did. Luther was deemed a heretic for challenging the authority construct of his day, and yet he helped give birth to protestantism. Something I have learned over the years is that what we consider traditional or biblical is actually usually newer than we realize, and sometimes the heresy we criticize is something we lost along the way that needs to be picked up, dusted off, and examined again for today and tomorrow. So, if you hear someone deem someone else a heretic, don’t be too quick to shun. God may just be doing something among them and their heresy may just be tomorrow’s common knowledge.

On a parallel note, Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI celebrated it’s 10th anniversary Sunday. I have been tracking along with them for several years now. They are an amazing church, and if you are not familiar with them you really should become so. Their webpage is www.marshill.org They are doing great work around the world, and their teachings have continued to challenge and inspire me week after week. They more than anyone else continue to shape what I believe church could and should be. My congrats to the Tribe of Mars Hill. Grace and Peace.

Ananias and Sapphira

As I write this the month of January is winding down. It’s hard to believe that 09 is already 1/12 done. I don’t write tonight because I have some special insight of inspiration that I simply have to share, although I have a few thoughts I will share. Really, for me it’s more of trying to develop a discipline of blogging. I’ve started a couple others in the past, then let them fall away. I’m really hoping to keep from doing that with this one. Bear with me as I continue to try to work toward getting the design to where I want it.

As far as things go with the family, we’re beginning to get adjusted. We’re getting into some rhythms, which is great (especially for the kids). Since the positions we were hoping on for Katie have fallen through we’ve been a little bummed about that, but she did some substitute teaching this week, and she’s been given a long term sub position for a maternity leave beginning mid February, so we’re excited about that. She’ll be working with older gifted kids, so she’s really excited about this opportunity. And, believe it or not, we got to go out on a date last night. We divided the kids among family and went to see Paul Blart Mall Cop. So, that was a lot of fun. Also, this weekend is a youth weekend at the church, so it’s been fun being a part of that this evening.

Now, my spiritual thoughts for the day. I’ve been re-reading Velvet Elvis (something I like to do every year/ ever other year or so) and Mark Kurlansky’s book on Nonviolence. As a “secular” author he sees Jesus as the introducer/creator of the concept of nonviolent resistance, which is an aspect of Jesus’ life and teachings that I think most churches tend to ignore or spiritualize to make it not about nonviolent resistance. But, as I’ve been re-reading this book and just turning it over in my head while reading the gospels I’m beginning to see all kinds of dimensions to the crucifixion event that make it even more meaningful and powerful. I think there’s some significant things going on there from that perspective that are really helping me get a deeper handle on it. I’m also reading N.T. Wright’s Following Jesus, and through it rediscovering books of the New Testament. His insights on Colossians and “forces” are brilliant. I’m also enjoying rediscovering Matthew through this book.

Now, in devotional life I’m now working through Acts. One of the big things that stand out to me is the boldness we see. They know what the Jewish leaders are capable of, and yet they still speak boldly and unafraid. I guess when you follow a guy you saw rise from the dead you figure they don’t really have anything on you. I really admire their boldness, and personally struggle to find ways to be bold while at the same time being humble. There’s also this theme of caring about what God thinks rather than men, you see Jesus talk about it some in the book of John, then Peter and John really get in on it when they’re told not to teach in Jesus’ name anymore. Then it carries over to the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

You have this great Pentecost moment, 3000 people join the movement that day (a reference to the Golden Calf debacle?), they hold everything in common and we’re told people are added to their number daily and there was no one needy left among them. So, this couple sells some land and they give some of the money to the Way/Jesus Follower Community/Church/whatever you want to call it at this point, and they keep some of it for themselves. Peter confronts them, and they die on the spot. Hopefully, you can understand why I’ve struggled with this passage. I mean, is the message here not to give some of your money to the church and keep some for yourself or else you’ll die? I mean, I don’t give everything I have to the church, and I don’t know anyone who has. Even Rick Warren only gives 90% (and yes I meant only sarcastically, although I think it’s fantastic that he reverse tithes). I mean they die on the spot, what do you do with that? Is the moral don’t mess with Peter, the church, what? See, the tendency is to think it’s because of what they did to the church, but Peter gives a different reason. He says it’s because they lied to God. And this is something that I think is more common than maybe we’d like to admit.

I remember going to this funeral and there was this person there who was very close to the deceased. So, I went and asked them how they were doing and they said that they were doing great, that they know their loved one was in a better place. And it was as if they felt like they weren’t allowed to mourn. Like if they did they would show a lack of faith or something.

And there was this other time when I was flipping through the channels one day and I happened across a TV preacher who informed me that when I’m having a bad day I need to smile and act like everything was going great because as a Christian I’m representing Christianity and I’d be doing it a disservice if I was honest about how I was feeling. I mean who would want to sign up for a religion where someone who followed it had a bad day?

It’s like there is this lie out there that we have to be super spiritual. It says that we can’t doubt or question, we can’t mourn, we can’t be honest about our faults, and whatever we do, whatever the circumstances we have to do it with a smile acting like we’ve got this super faith through which we’re trusting God with whatever is going on, lying not only to everyone else, but also to ourselves and ultimately God. I mean I couldn’t count the times I’ve heard people say, “you can’t question God.” To which I say if you can’t question God then your God is too small. See, God is bigger than our questions. Actually it’s through honestly exploring our doubts and questions that we draw closer to Him, gain insight and understanding. If we don’t grieve, we don’t find healing. If we’re not willing to admit our faults we wind up isolating ourselves, cutting ourselves off from community. And guess what, when we have a bad day, people see through the fake smiles and cry impostor (although hopefully not to your face, despite how funny of a skit that might make). In my experience, whenever you can admit your pain and struggle and at the same time not give up on your faith or on God because you’re still working on it, or He’s still working on you, in you, even in the midst of this, people take notice. They appreciate the honesty.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Ananias and Sapphira were the fake super spiritual couple. They wanted everyone to think they were something they weren’t. They wanted everyone to think they were super generous, even though they weren’t there yet. But instead of saying we’re just not there yet, we don’t feel comfortable giving all of it they kept some and told everyone that they did give all of it. Peter explanation for their deaths are that they lied to God. And I think maybe the point for us is that when we pretend to be super Christian what we’re really doing is lying to God, which in many ways kills us. When we refuse to mourn we miss the opportunity to connect with God in a special way, we miss the growth that comes through the process, and all the stuff that we won’t admit to hides and festers inside of us. It’s the same with doubts, questions, and the lying with the smile that we’re just trusting God, when we know that we’re really struggling. See, being super spiritual isolates us. It cuts us off from others and the world around us. It places us in denial with ourselves, separating us from both ourselves and ultimately God. Which, if you notice parallels the consequences or “curses” in the Adam and Eve Genesis story.

So, I guess the point of this story might be that we’re all on a journey, and none of us have arrived as followers of Jesus. We lose loved ones and we grieve, we have bad days, we struggle with doubts, questions, the future, and with becoming who God created us to be. But rather than pretending to be something we’re not we need to be honest about it and have real faith, the faith to continue on the journey. Because this is how we continue to become who God created us to be. This is the direction toward life, the other kills us from the inside out.

On a personal note, maybe that’s part of the key to the boldness with humility thing. Caring more about what God thinks than others we should simply speak honestly and be willing to listen in case we’re wrong. I mean isn’t most of the super spiritual stuff because we want others to think certain things? And whenever we’re bold and arrogant isn’t it usually because we want to convince someone we’re right and they’re wrong? And if we’re being super spiritual, if we’re faking, if we’re lying, doesn’t God know it, even when we’ve convinced ourselves? So maybe, just maybe if we could learn to care more and more what God thinks rather than what everyone else thinks we could grown more and more in this direction.

But, I’m not there yet.
Nonetheless, I’m working on it.

Quote God and Salvation of the World

Well, yesterday was a big day. We’re trying to sort through job opportunities and see what happens there, so pray for us on that and, there was a little ceremony that you may have heard about bringing in a new president.
Now, I’m not one much for politics, and I think that the Church getting mixed in with politics has proven to be a horrible idea since it first started doing so with Constantine (thank God Christendom is finally falling or has finally fallen depending upon who you’re talking to). The Church tends to lose its ability to speak truth to government when it gets too involved in government. But regardless of political spectrum it’s amazing to see a black person become president considering where we were as a nation not so long ago. But, while I’ve got a lot of thoughts swirling in my head regarding civil religion right now, what I really want to do is share a quote. The last part of last year I reread Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian Series, and toward the end of the last book The Last Word and the Word After That a quote was given that has stuck with me. I will admit that I have not read the book that McLaren quotes, so like with so many things the quote may have more going on in it because of what’s outside of it than I realize. But I post it because I found it in and of itself quite intriguing.

“To believe in God is to believe in the salvation of the world. The paradox of our time is that those who believe in God do not believe in the salvation of the world, and those who believe in the future of the world do not believe in God.
Christians believe in “the end of the world,” they expect the final catastrophe, the punishment of others.
Atheists in their turn . . . refuse to believe in God because Christians believe in him and take no interest in the world . . .
Which is the more culpable ignorance?
. . . I often say to myself that, in our religion, God must feel very much alone: for is there anyone besides God who believes in the salvation of the world? God seeks among us sons and daughters who resemble him enough, who love the world enough so that he could send them into the world to save it.”
– Louis Evely, In the Christian Spirit (Image, 1975)