Part of the Story

My daughter was “reading” through our copy of The Jesus Storybook Bible stopping every so often and asking me a question. When she got to the end, she saw the words, “To be continued…” and was confused. She had seen the words in other books and knew it meant there were books where the story continued. Was there another Bible with more Bible stories? She told me she had hoped there were more Bible stories.

She was pretty disappointed when I told her the Bible was God’s story of all he has done to save us and there is only one Bible. But I then explained “To be continued…” means God is still writing his story of all he is doing.

“And you are part of this story.”

Her eyes lit up and a smile emerged from the confusion.

“Your growing belief and love for Jesus is part of the story that God will tell for all eternity…You know how we have talked about heaven and being with Jesus forever?…Well, there will be another book and your story of all God has done in you and through you will be in that book…You will be featured in that book.

“Really?! Coooool.”

It is cool.

Louis Armstrong, Miss Marple and Jesus: What Does A Peaceful Soul Look Like?

                                                                 Christ in the Storm – Rembrandt

(This is part four of a series of posts: one, two, three.)

When my children ask me what something is, a textbook definition will not do. It may take them deep into the meaning of a word or action, but they will not understand. Before the definition is meaningful, they need a picture or a story. So, like a child, before I even try to define ‘peace’ I wanna get at what it looks like first. In other words, I need a picture.

I want a peaceful soul. But I cannot seem to get there. Today I railed at my kids. Granted, I’m getting over a cold, I slept little and they had pushed that button approximately 4372 times too many. But it showed what I lacked – a soul at peace.

I am not entirely sure I know what it would look like. Or even sound like. Maybe a cross between my father and Eugene Peterson with a little Miss Marple thrown in? Maybe its the color of the sea and hues of an early spring day. Maybe it sounds like late-night Louis Armstrong. In mono.

But mostly Jesus.

All these stories I’ve grown up with and know by heart and never have noticed how at peace Jesus is throughout. He is at peace in the midst of a storm, enough to sleep. He is at peace with God, his Father, doing his will. He is at peace with his enemies even. I mean, the peace which he exudes during the Last Supper – I would have railed at Judas. And everyone else because of what is coming. The pressure would have been too much. I would have cried out in anger against the very nails whose stuff I dreamt up in the dark recesses before time was. And yet Jesus without being an emotionless stoic, is at peace while the created order conspires against him, the Creator.

Also, I never noticed how at peace he is with himself. Maybe because I never thought about such a thing. I think about myself a lot. Too much. But Jesus is at peace with himself. He is certain, fixed like a flint on his mission –  his way of doing things. I question every move I make. Sometimes for years on end. Arguing with myself – justifying myself even as I accuse myself.

You do it too.

I never noticed how much Jesus talked about peace. I never even once noticed. It’s thematic. And not just in the red letters. Throughout the NT, the Spirit of Christ through the writers seem to have ‘peace’ always at the ready as a subject. Of the NT literature only 1 John has no mention of peace. This tells me something – it is not silly to want a peaceful soul. If the soul is so serious a thing as to be told I should not want to trade the world for it and peace is thematic for the Christian life…then I just may be onto something.

Maybe this is not a divergence but an insurgence into the very heart of God, himself. Maybe this is what we were meant to pursue. And perhaps the strangeness of it is calling us to see how we have not cared for such a thing as we ought.

The Disappearance of the Soul

I want a peaceful soul.

This may…probably sounds a little strange to you. If you thought it sounded strange the first and fifth time I said it, I would understand. It sounds strange to me. And I am the one saying it. The words swim in my brain and come out of my mouth regularly now. But they still sound strange to me.

On Monday I was in class with my ninth graders. I love them but they are not the recipe for a peaceful soul. I told them to stop talking while I am talking because when they talk while I am talking I get upset and I don’t want to be upset because being upset is the most well-trodden path to an unpeaceful soul and I do not want an un-peaceful soul but a peaceful soul. It sounded strange to them too.

And even though I wanted it deeply, it all sounded strange to me.

Maybe this is because I never talk about my soul. I have a soul but I never really talk about it. In fact I rarely talk about the soul at all. And the Christian community I am surrounded by doesn’t either. Well, that’s not entirely true.

We talk about saving souls a lot.

Souls are something needing to be saved. And once they are, they just…actually I don’t really know what they do. Or don’t do. Or need. Or even are.

Because I never hear about them. At all. Ever.

So I laid in bed last night wondering why this is the case. “Why is the concept and language of the soul not in the front of the Christian mind?” My mind immediately went through the Scriptures in my head and – now this is going to sound weird – I actually thought, “What I am talking about sounds old, KJV old.” And I was right.

This morning I got up early and did some comparing of Bible translations. The following is how many times the English word “soul” shows up in each of 14:

Douay-Rheims (1582 – 1610) – 660
KJV (1611) – 498
Darby (1890) – 536
ASV (1901) – 495
NAS (1960) – 289
NKJV (1975) – 341
NIV (1984) – 136
The Message (1993 -2002) – 163
21st Century KJV (1994) – 501
NLT (1996) – 73
ESV (2001) – 269
HCSB (2004) – 58
NIV (2005) – 96
NIV (2011) – 95

Three things I noticed right away:

1) The newer the translation the less ‘soul’ shows up.

2) The Catholic Bible uses it the most and the Southern Baptist uses it the least.

3) I didn’t even know there was a 21st Century KJV.

Maybe we don’t talk about the soul very much because our Bibles don’t talk about them very much anymore. Or maybe our Bibles don’t talk about them very much because we don’t talk about them very much. Maybe it’s a cycle which will eventually end in there being no talk of the soul.

I don’t assume this is a bad thing. Maybe it is nothing. Actually nothing is nothing.

Maybe it is no big deal. But that cannot be the case. Because we often talk about not losing our soul so as to gain the world. So the soul must be valuable. It must be something if we do not want to lose it. You don’t warn people to not lose something unless it has some value.

Am I right that evangelicals are not talking about the soul? And why aren’t they? Is this a blind-spot in the evangelical sub-culture?

My first guess? Churches are more and more becoming just like businesses. Businesses do not talk about souls. They talk about how many people walk through the door. They talk about investment and return. The bottom line. Pastors are managers. As soon as they have managed to see that the soul is saved from hell, the soul is left alone. And then people are organized into groups to do things and see things done. We advertise to gain market share. Souls are not even on the radar for businesses.

Heck, it wasn’t even on my radar till I heard Charlie Crews say, “I want a peaceful soul.” And I thought, “Yeah, me too.”

What do you think? Why do we never really talk about “the soul” except in relation to it’s need to be saved from hell?



Angry Along With the Scriptures

Earlier today I was alerted to something which made me angry. Nail-spitting, lightening bolt-throwing anger. The kind of anger that wells up like lava in the pit of your stomach and makes you glad you are not acquainted with weaponry of any sort. That rare anger making all work impossible. The kind that makes you quiet, severely so. The kind of anger that can only come from a personal affront by a public act.

Dealing with such anger is hard because I am unaccustomed with it. Maybe that is why I dealt with it differently today. Usually I would seethe and listen to the Clash. Maybe Social Distortion. And do so as loudly as I could till my own emotions were worn down by the frenetic and voluminous decibels challenging my ear-drums and age. But today I did something different.

I read a Psalm. Psalm 4 to be exact. My cousin Luke read it at a prayer gathering about a month ago and I’ve been seeping in it for as long. This is new for me. To be so quick to go to the Scriptures when mad about something. I am not sure I have ever done this. When sad? Yes. Happy? You bet. Confused and needing help? Regularly. But I have never – that I can recall – gone to my Bible when ticked off. Righteous anger or not.

It helped. And not because it fixed me. But because it drew me into a story and a conversation about God and his people and the anger they can feel. If anything, reading the Psalm put sinew and flesh, muscle and veins full of blood on the bones of my indignation. But it steadied me too.  Without telling me to calm down, I did so anyway.  Thankfully it is not the calm of wishing it away. But the serene disposition of being glad I am angry. The alive-ness of pointing to a wrong and not ignoring it. Sometimes not being angry is a wretched thing. And I am thankful for the anger of David. And God, himself, satisfied.

Psalm 4
Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!”
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

The Flaming Sword East of Eden

Growing up the son a minister had far more advantages for me than the disadvantages so many associate with such a lot in life. Hide and seek in the sanctuary. Access to the staff breakroom. And knowing everyone really well. A distinct one is familiarity with the holy book. Far from contempt, the longstanding relationship I’ve had with this book has bred a fascination on into middle age. And across the years I have not only been fed by those passages which make up the bone and marrow of knowing God and man but also by those I have sat staring into with wonder.

*      *      *

There are places in the sacred writings I seem to never get at.  They are the door of escape in a dream gone bad or the brass ring, which is always out of reach. These passages cannot be fully grasped and answers never satisfy. One of those places has been a favorite since I was a kid.

He drove out the man, 
and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim
and a flaming sword 
that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. 
– Genesis 3:24

So Adam and Eve eat the fruit and the pristine relationship between God and the height of his creation is broken, shattered like your grandma’s prized vase on the Linoleum. And so he kicks Adam and Eve out of paradise to keep them away from the tree of life so they won’t live forever. And then, get this…he sets up an angel to guard the tree with a flaming sword. A. Flaming. Sword.

And I just have one question.

Is it still there?

I mean, is there still an angel ready to go all book of revelation on intruders with a flaming sword wherever Eden was…is? I mean, there once was.

There is a part of me hoping so. The 10-year-old in me, who likes to still think in terms of Indiana Jones and likes to stare into the sky and dream of Narnia, wants it to be true. I want the tree of life to still be standing there majestic, unspoiled by the fall and all its hellish effects. And in its shade, one of the mighty and holy cherubim, with no less power and energy than the day he began his charge, standing sentinel to take down any who come close to his keep. He is able to elude all who do not threaten but when no other option is available, the flaming sword is wielded with holy fury. There he is placed till the end of days and the beginning of time undone, reminding us all of what was lost and has been promised to be regained.

*      *      *

Actually, it’s a fairly sad picture, epic though it is. This soldier of the heavens was positioned just there all because the height of God’s creation declared war on God. Did he think it was familiar? Were there whispers of another coup among the heavenly host? This was not the first time God had moved defensively in response to an act of war. So while the boy in me is mesmerized by the idea of an otherworldly being clutching a flaming sword, its presence was…is an echo of the curse that made it all so necessary. Perhaps that is why it sounds so sad when Emmylou Harris sings,

I have seen the flaming swords,
There over east of Eden,
Burning in the eyes of the Maker.

The result of him being on guard there is death. Death was the great punishment for the insurrection in the garden. As it were, death guards life. And does so with fiery ferocity.

So every time we face the final effect of sin in the face, we are looking into a pair of eyes set like a flint on limiting the length of our time here east of Eden. The sharp pain of every sickness threatening future health is the piercing of sharpened steel forged in the fires of eternal intent. Every spouse who looks in the eyes of their beloved after getting the news of cancer is staring down into the unfathomable depths of a sheath emptied in opposition to forever knowing.

For those who believe, death ushers us into the great hall of reversal. A world where the sword has been beaten into a plowshare. A world where sharp-edges bounce off skin and pointed tips are no longer pointed at those who have sinned. Sin is no more. Death is no more.

*      *      *

Maybe it’s a mercy he was situationed there. Adam and Eve and everybody else’s passion to be like God should be squelched as much as possible. Adam and Eve had already procured a knowledge forbidden them, to their great detriment. So as an act of mercy, the severe kind, a sword burns bright. Even now.

The Silence of Paul On Evangelism

(Update on 4/8/11: This was actually written on another blog before this one was even a glimmer in my eye. The original post caused a good bit of hubbub. But it is also was helpful for a lot of people. So, 2 things before you read this post:

First, I thought about this for a long time before I wrote about it. And even now I still do not have a whole lot of answers on this. So I ask you to stop and think.

Second, If you do comment please make sure your comment reflects you have read what I have written.)

(Update on 08/29/2011. Follow-up post here.)

I’ve been mulling over this post for awhile. The consternation, confusion and conflagration of angry comments which might result have made me wonder at the wisdom of it. I decided to go ahead. The subject is too important. And I can only imagine that while it may anger some, there are plenty of people like myself who will find some freedom here.

Ok. Here it goes.

A few weeks ago I heard someone say something to the effect of, “You cannot/shouldn’t consider yourself a Christian if you are not sharing your faith/practicing evangelism.” And it really got me to thinking. Something felt wrong about it. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
On one level this sounded right. It accorded with almost all I had ever heard growing up in the midst of evangelicalism. So it sounded right. Or at least familiar. But something about the statement just ‘felt’ really wrong. It felt wrong as a fact. (Like saying the capital of Alabama is Birmingham.) And it felt wrong morally. (You should look down on everyone who does not live in Birmingham.)
So I quickly went through Paul’s letters to the churches in my mind as much as I could. Could I think of a place where he commands the members of these churches to share the gospel – to tell unbelievers about the gospel? I was pretty shocked to not be able to think of any place where he does anything like this.
Nothing was said, of course. But I filed it away in the front of my mental filing cabinet. My mental filing cabinet is grey, if you must know. Nixon administration grey.
Over the next few days I looked into the Epistles. Really, I thought I would find something. I mean, all the importance we place on evangelism and the urgency we show in preaching and teaching and writing on it, should show up in Paul, right? RIGHT?
I found nothing. Zilch. Nada. Zip.
Paul never commands the ordinary believers who belong to the churches to evangelize. There is no call for sharing your faith. There is no call for witnessing. He never even encourages it. And he never rebukes them for not doing it. He tells them to stay away from orgies and to practice kindness and to live quiet lives but there are no commands to evangelize. Implications? Maybe. But never outright commands.
Paul describes his own desire to do so and he defends his apostolic ministry of doing so and he commands Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. He also tells us there are such things as “evangelists” in Ephesians 4. But he never talks as if the carpenter, the shepherd, the soldier, the fisherman or the wife of any of these is called to evangelize.

I know, I know…there is the ‘great commission’ given by Jesus. In only 2 of the 4 Gospels. Never repeated again. By Paul. Or anyone else ever in the Scriptures. Why is it called ‘great’ again? I mean everything Jesus has said and commanded is technically speaking ‘great.’ But I mean, if it is so absolutely ‘great’, why is it never repeated by Paul or John or Peter or James or Jude. Before you get upset with me, the designation ‘great commission’ did not come from on high. Jesus did not call it ‘great’, someone else did.
Stop. Right now there are 2 kinds of people reading this? The freaked out and the ticked off.
Let me address the freaked out first…You doing OK? Stop. Take a breath. What? Of course you can quit EE. Hm? Yes, I was a little freaked out also. No, you do not have to tweet about this, you will lose a lot of followers.
OK, all who are angry…What have I said to make you angry? I have not said, “You should not tell other people about what Jesus has done for us.” Have I? At least not yet…just kidding. You really need to calm down. All I have done is point out an indisputable fact.
Let me say it again. It is an indisputable fact that there is no command by any of the Apostles in their letters to the churches to evangelize. You may not like this fact. You might assume nefarious reasons behind my pointing this fact out. But you cannot deny the fact while there are many varied commands in the NT for the ordinary believer, there is no command to evangelize outside of “the great commission.”
“So what?” you might ask? Here are my initial thoughts:
1) The way we talk about evangelism is certainly out of proportion to the way Paul or anyone else in the NT talked about it. We act as if it is the litmus test of being a Christian. If it was – if personal evangelism as we know it – was a litmus test for being a believer in the gospel, ummm, wouldn’t Paul have admonished his people to do it? We talk about it as if it is the THE THING for Christians to do while on earth. “Sure, we are to glorify God and all that but the best way to do it is to tell every living breathing soul who just wants a quiet flight to the ATL.” Maybe it is not.
2) We have got to quit guilting and bullying people into doing cold evangelism. It feels weird and wrong and inconsiderate to almost everyone. There are a few who feel comfortable walking up to strangers and talking to them about Jesus but they are the exception. They are not more spiritual, they are just the exception. Maybe the reason why they are the exception and the reason why so many do not like walking up to strangers simply to talk to them about their sinfulness and need for salvation is because – wait for it – we have not been asked to do such a thing. Perhaps it is not part of the Spirit-led DNA. Regardless, beating up on people for their not evangelizing enough is totally out of sync with the NT.
3) It may be that our present philosophy of evangelism stands in direct opposition to the explicit, repeated and unwavering command to love people. In other words we are terrible at loving one another, our enemies and even our own family members. I know it. You know it. And God knows it. If we actually loved people -wives, husbands, children, minorities, democrats, republicans, lefties, ugly people, the obese and the socially awkward – perhaps, just perhaps you would never have to walk up to someone and tell them about Jesus. They would walk up to you. And then you could simply explain why you want to be a loving person. “Hey man, you asked!”
4) We tend to think the greatest thing we can do with the gospel of grace we have in Jesus is tell people about it. Why is that? Paul seems to think the greatest thing we can do with the gospel is believe it. Believe it in the midst of tragedy. Believe in the midst of beautiful Spring days when all is right with the world. Believe it on your death bed. Believe it when your sin is huge. Believe it when your heart is hurting. Believe it. Hang onto it. Never let go of it. Believe no matter what, if you are in Christ, you are loved beyond all comprehension. You cannot sin yourself out of his love and grace and mercy. You are loved, you who believe the gospel. Persevere in your belief. You are saved unto life everlasting because of what Christ has done. This cannot be undone. Believe the gospel. Believe.
5) There is no folly in assuming the NT writers and those whose records are recorded there really wanted people to hear the gospel and believe it. This is a safe assumption. However, we need to think deeply on why they do not talk about evangelism the way we typically do in Western Christianity. Do we assume we care more than Paul about evangelism? Peter? John? We should probably think long and hard about all of this. I know I need to. Our being so out of step with the tone and content of the Scriptures might actually be to the detriment of others believing the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.
All of these are thoughts which have been around for some time in at least seed form. The study I have been doing over the past few weeks however has emboldened me to at least talk about my doubts. To say I am sure of myself here would be untrue. I am not thinking and writing entirely in confidence. The one thing I am sure of is the need to think deep and hard about all that is in and not in the Scriptures. And I am pretty sure there is the need for freedom to ask hard questions and be taken seriously in asking them.
One last thing. I was not enjoying thinking about this by myself. So I sent a note to some pastor friends and asked what they thought. One friend (who will remain nameless) told me about an article called Wretched Urgency by Michael Spencer. It was the first thing I had ever read of the sort. And it was the first thing confirming I was decidedly not crazy…or if I was, I was crazy along with Spencer. And I’m fine with that.