When the Bible Meets Life

As I was reading Proverbs 28 this morning, two verses stood out.

When the righteous triumph, there is great glory,
    but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves.

Proverbs 28:12 ESV

Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a poor people.

Proverbs 28:15 ESV

When I read these verses my mind could not avoid the connection to this weekend’s news of the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “… when the wicked rise, people hide themselves,” is a perfect description of the conditions within the areas overtaken by ISIS. In an effort to survive under the rule of ISIS, thousands of people submitted and did their best to simply keep out of sight. Through the years of ISIS domination of the area reports would leak, describing the underground market for cigarettes, which were forbidden by ISIS. There were also reports of an underground communication network that was used to warn of the location of ISIS monitors moving about looking for those who might not be living according to ISIS standards. The people truly hid themselves to survive.

A roaring lion and charging bear are images of power and force. In verse 15, these images describe what it is like when a wicked person rules over a poor people. The rule of Abu Bakr Al-Badhdadi and ISIS could not be described more clearly than power and force. Whether that be demonstrated by the piles of severed heads of their victims put on display. As if to say, “this could happen to you.” Or, the infamous execution videos of their victims dressed in orange jumpsuits published by ISIS propaganda forces. Or, the brutal treatment of women, including kidnapping, rape, and murder, by ISIS soldiers from the lowest rank all the way to the top.

The Bible should not be regarded as an old book for a past generation. It’s a living book as relevant as today’s news. More relevant, actually.

It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s Coming

The title of this post is a spin-off of S. M. Lockridge’s sermon “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” In that sermon, Pastor Lockridge is encouraging those who are discouraged by the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion to look forward to Sunday. Because on Sunday, everything is different. In this post, I also want to challenge you to look toward Sunday, but for a different reason. But, before looking forward, let’s look backward.

How was church yesterday? is a common Monday morning question among Christian friends who attend different churches. Typically, what is meant by this question relates to how much that particular individual enjoyed his or her morning at church. It may solicit an evaluation of the sermon, the music, the crowd size, the fellowship, or even the temperature in the building.

I want to look at the question from a different angle. How was church yesterday (or last Sunday) for the visitor who didn’t know anybody there? The new person in town who was invited by the highway billboard that promised “A welcoming and friendly atmosphere.” The lonely person who responded to the 30-second television advertisement with b-roll clips of people happily engaged with others as the soothing voice described the warm fellowship that happens at your church. The one who found your church on a Google search. A Google search done not so much out of interest, but desperation because of his/her life is caving in?

Regarding the experience of visitors many church consultants think in terms of convenience. Here’s a list of focus points provided by Jayson D. Bradley (sponsored by Pushpay):

  1. Signage
  2. Presentation software
  3. Giving software
  4. Service planning software
  5. A plan for capturing visitor’s contact information.

All of those certainly have value. However, that list has a glaring deficiency. What is missing? The personal touch from real people. And here, I don’t mean the happy people dressed in logo shirts standing next to the entrance. I mean regular members … the people who show up week after week, but aren’t on the Impressions Team. The regular people.

Let’s go back to that visitor’s experience at your church. Did that person feel the warmth that others describe as the normal experience at church? Did anyone express a genuine interest in that person? Or, did you pass them in the hallway as you raced to see your friends? This scene is all too common in churches today. Friends huddled together, fellowshipping with each other as visitors try to find their way in this new environment. Sometimes those visitors are committed Christians who are seeking a new church and basically know the lay of the land. In other cases, the new person may be uninitiated in all things church and are simply looking for God. If that person wanders into your church, what will they experience? Will they walk away saying, “No one was interested in me.”

It’s Thursday, but Sunday’s coming. Looking toward Sunday: How can you help visitors experience what the advertisements say they will find at church? People – even “uninteresting” people – are interesting … if you slow down and talk with them. Everybody has a story. Who – that you didn’t already know – did you initiate a meaningful conversation with in the last month?

This Sunday, will you commit to finding someone you don’t know and start a conversation with them? I don’t mean the “Hi! My name is Craig, it’s nice to have you today” then spin on my heels and walk-away conversation. I mean the conversation that attempts to know them in some meaningful way. The conversation that recognizes them as people, not as a cog in the evangelical church wheel.

You can’t have a conversation about Jesus unless … you have a conversation. #TalkToSomeoneThisSunday

You asked: How did Jesus identify Joseph?

I received the following inquiry.

We had a discussion in Sunday School about what Jesus called Joseph. We know that he called Mary Mother, but we don’t think he called Joseph Father. We think he just used Father when he was talking to/about God. What do you think?

My response:

Here are my thoughts regarding your question. Pass it around if you like, but remember my word isn’t the last word. I simply submit to you my thoughts.

If the class doesn’t think Jesus called Joseph father, how did He address him? Were there any suggestions? I can only guess that this question stems from one of two things: Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:9, or a belief that Joseph was somehow less than a “real” father to Jesus since there wasn’t a genuine biological connection. (I reject both.)

Though we have no record of Jesus ever addressing Joseph at all, I believe it is safe to “assume” that Jesus addressed him in the manner that was appropriate and respectful. For Jesus would certainly follow the 6th Mosaic command to honor father and mother (Ex. 20:12).

We must also remember that while Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus, he certainly was Jesus’ legal father and he functioned as both legal and physical father in all normal aspects of fatherhood apart from conception.

We have no grounds to assume that there was any type of sibling rivalry which is often the case today in “step-parent/step-child” relationships. Neither do I have reason to believe that Jesus ever said, “I don’t have to do that, you’re not my father!” or that Joseph ever said something like, “If you were my child, I’d . . . ” I say this because I believe Jesus treated Joseph exactly like a biological father should be treated according to Mosaic law – with honor. Granted, I’m arguing from silence here, but from the other aspects of Jesus’ life and personal relationships, I think it is safe to draw such conclusions.

So, how did other children respectfully address the man to whom their mother was married? The only thing we see in the New Testament for this relationship is the word father. In the New Testament the only Greek word used for this person is “PATER”. There are NO exceptions regardless of who is speaking, Jesus or “regular” people.

I think there are two important issues to pursue so that we can understand this question: the particular context of the “prohibition” and Jesus’ acceptance or rejection of the use of the word “father” elsewhere in the Scripture.

First, let’s deal with the latter. Immediately, Matthew 8:21 comes to mind. In this passage Jesus is dealing with a certain scribe about the COST of true discipleship, a small part of the cost being “leaving everything behind.” Then another of the disciples interrupted by saying, “First, let me go bury my father.” Jesus’ response was not, “Don’t address anyone on earth as father!” Why? Because the context and issue at hand was different than that in Matthew 23.

Also in Matthew 15:4-6 we see Jesus himself quoting the commands which had been penned by God and brought down from Sinai by Moses: “Honor your father and your mother; and He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.” In this case Jesus is rebuking those who had abused their responsibility toward their parents, thus breaking the command. If, as some assume from His statements in Matthew 23, we should never refer to our male parent as father, why did Jesus not CORRECT rather than PROTECT what Moses delivered? He couldn’t because there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with addressing the man married to your mother (whether you are his physical descendant or not) as “father.” Family relationships are not at stake in Matthew 23.

If family relationships are not at stake in Matthew 23, then what is going on? Jesus is giving a scathing assessment of the religious leaders of the day. He summarizes their offenses in verse 5, “All their works they do to be seen by men.” In other words, they are hypocrites seeking vain glory and honor from those over whom they have charge. They are seeking titles of power and prominence in this world.

Notice the three titles he forbids: rabbi/teacher, father, leader. All of these could be considered “power positions” in this context which are NOT forbidden elsewhere in Scripture. In fact, the writers of Scripture use them in a positive sense. For example, Paul writes to the Ephesians that “teachers” were given to the body for her edification. As mentioned above, Jesus positively quotes the 6th command which identifies the male parent as “father”.

Jesus is trying to underscore for the multitudes and disciples the distinction between true religious faith and religious “power brokering.” Jesus says: “You are all brethren (vs. 8).” “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant (vs. 11).” “He who humbles himself shall be exalted (vs. 12).” He is highlighting the abusive power system that was in place and exhorting the people to breakout of such by recognizing their teacher, leader and father who comes from heaven. Those whom they were currently following were certainly not from heaven.

If we understand this prohibition in this manner, then we can easily reconcile both Jesus’ and other NT writers’ positive use of these terms with Jesus’ command not to use them in Matthew 23.

The application for us today is very real. Many men and women fill positions of church leadership as religious power brokers. In many cases there is no difference between our day and Jesus’. Therefore we should receive Jesus’ warning not to follow in the footsteps of those who abuse their position for the purpose of being seen by men. Neither should we submit to such phonies.

The Little Things Matter

In certain of my courses I assign Bible memorization. The goal and requirement of these assignments is “word perfect.” In this context, “word perfect” means the words appear exactly as they do when you read them in a published Bible. Each mistake (e.g., missing word, additional word, wrong order) reduces the score by ten points, and five mistakes is the maximum allowed. If a student makes more than five mistakes, their score is a ZERO. Thus, the possible grades for this type of assignment are 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, 50, or 0.

The above explanation seems fairly simple and straightforward, but students often offer push back. Sometimes they wonder why five mistakes is acceptable and six is not. My answer: Even five mistakes is not acceptable; word perfect is the goal. And, although six mistakes is only one more than five, there is a certain point at which the student simply didn’t get enough correct to warrant credit or demonstrate any level of mastery. And, five mistakes is where I draw the line. While feeling “unfair” to those who make more than five mistakes, the above system seems to offer a measure of grace while still expecting perfection; i.e., it allows some points for mediocre, even poor performance. Yet it still requires the student to produce something.

The most interesting push back, though, is from those scoring 90, which means they made only one mistake. Frequently, the complaint is, “It’s just one word.” I understand the point they are trying to make, but I’m not sure they understand the point they are actually making. To whit: “one word does not matter.” Granted, all mistakes are not equal. But since this is a training exercise and the goal is perfection, all mistakes are treated equally. One must also remember that this is God’s word the students are memorizing, so forgetting or adding one word can be critical.

On a trip to Israel in 1995, my flight boarded but was delayed. A fifteen minute delay turned into a three-hour delay, before the flight was finally rescheduled for the next day. As the captain made the announcement of the cancellation, I was standing in the doorway beside an Israeli man whose countenance dropped to the floor upon hearing the news. I tried to cheer him up by saying (in Hebrew), “Don’t worry, they will give us a nice halon.” His puzzled look, puzzled me. He didn’t say anything; he simply turned and walked away. We deplaned and were bused to the hotel the airline had provided for us. I didn’t think anything more of the oddness of my “conversation” with the Israeli man until I saw him at breakfast the next morning. Immediately upon seeing him, it occurred to me what I had said. What I intended to say was “They will give us a nice hotel” (malon). What I actually said was “They will give us a nice window.” No wonder he looked puzzled. Embarrassing, to say the least. Oh well, sometimes a mistake is simply a mistake and amounts to nothing … but a little awkwardness or humor. On the other hand …

I once read an evangelistic blog article that was making a good argument for trusting in Christ, until … “all you have to do is except Jesus.” What she meant was “accept,” which means to “consent” or “receive.” What she actually wrote, “except,” essentially means the opposite, “to exclude.” But, it’s just one word; in fact, it’s just two letters. However, those two letters can make all the difference … in eternity.

My New Friend

Last week while passing a lumber yard, I noticed a man sorting through what appeared to be clean discards. I hadn’t noticed that before, so I wasn’t sure what I had seen. With my curiosity piqued and my hoarder tendencies activated, I made my way safely into the turn lane, then backed up 50 yards or so to investigate more closely. I rolled my window down as I backed into the entrance, then asked the man, “Is that give-away lumber?” “Yes,” he responded about the time I saw the spray painted “FREE” sign in front of the rack of miscellaneous pieces of lumber. As he looked up, he said, “I’ve got lots of ideas for this wood.” That fueled my interests more, and the possibilities started to race through my brain as I clumsily tried to push pause on the Ted Talk on reducing clutter in my life that was emanating from my phone. Reducing clutter had suddenly become less important in the presence of a treasure trove of possibilities residing in that stack of free lumber pieces.

As I approached the stack, I found myself in the midst of a mental and emotional battle: On the one hand, even though I had no intended purpose for the lumber, it was there. And. It. Was. Free. On the other hand, I had listened to several Ted Talks that morning that focused on organizing my life by simplifying, which included reducing clutter and stuff that I don’t need. Should I or shouldn’t I? Yes! No! I don’t know!

In an effort to find reprieve from the “yes/no” battle going on in my head and heart, I offered to help the man get his lumber into his car. To his objection, I grabbed all his wood and said, “I’ll get this, you open the back.” As I looked back, I noticed that he was noticeably dragging his right foot. His hat said “US Army Disabled Veteran” so I thanked him for his service and used that as conversation starter, which is one of the tips for engaging with others that I teach my classes. However, while we continued with the small talk, my mind kept returning to the free wood. Should I take some or not?

During our conversation, the man struggled to remember common information. For example, when I asked where he is from, he immediately said, “California.” However, as he continued to tell me that his wife was from Missouri, he struggled to remember the city. “She’s from … just a second. She’s from … uh … uh … uh … it starts with a B. She’s from Bri___ no, that’s not it. Sorry, I can’t remember the name of the town.” As he tried to remember the name of his wife’s home town he even tried to spell it out with his finger in the air, but it never came to him. Then, he apologized again for not being able to remember the city before he confessed something really personal. “Listen, I had a stroke recently and I … uh … uh … uh …,” he said as he motioned around his head with his finger. I helped him finish his thought, “And things aren’t always connecting.” “Yes. Things aren’t always connecting.”

Then he asked me, “Are … you … uh … are you … uh … a … Christian?” In that moment, I noted something really important. My new friend who had just confessed that “things aren’t always connecting” in his brain because of the stroke, had not lost his heart concern that others know his savior. It would have been easier to let it slide and simply hope the best for me. Or, not to even think about me again. Who could blame him. He had suffered a stroke, after all. But, Christ matters.

I’ve thought much about this encounter in these intervening days. I’m thankful for a real example to share with my students. I’m also thankful for a real example to remind myself about the priorities in my own life.

I’m thankful someone cared about me. Note to self: Now, go and do likewise.