Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Sowers and Batting Averages

The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet, 1850
Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mk. 4:1-20) describes a .250-hitter who, nevertheless, has a strong RBI total* (to mix metaphors). He only hits good soil one out of four times—the other three seem to be a miss. But each hit yields strong results, producing abundant fruit. From the outset Jesus is describing what would typically be considered failure three out of four times. Satan, rootlessness, and worldly cares seem to win the day. That’s the half-empty (or three-fourths empty) way of looking at the glass.

On the other hand, there are at least a couple of things that make this “failure” a true success. First, the sower. The sower is faithfully doing what he should do, indiscriminately scattering seed—perhaps generously scattering seed would be more appropriate. As Wayne Gretzky said (to add another metaphor), “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” So the sower is taking shots, not knowing where he might find receptive soil, but sowing nonetheless.

And that’s the other successful aspect of Jesus’ image: the healthy soil. The seed that finds healthy soil yields fruit in abundance, including enough seed for much more sowing by other sowers. The fruitfulness becomes exponential. The harvest is greater than the sower’s meager average. He only connects one out of four times, but each hit advances others. The harvest doesn’t depend on the sower. One sows, another waters, but God makes it grow (see 1Cor. 3:5-9). Jesus seems completely confident in the slow, subtle, seemingly small advancement of God’s kingdom. And Jesus seems confident in the shared, communal work of God's kingdom. It isn’t about Paul, Apollos, or you or me.

But two things do depend on the sower. One, s/he must sow. That’s success for the sower—not how much seed finds good soil or even how much grain is produced, 30- or 60- or 100-fold. Just faithfully sowing—that’s success. And two, the sower must keep his/her own soil healthy. The word in the sower’s soul can also be robbed, withered, or choked, and end up fruitless. And one of the surest ways for this to happen is for the sower to start worrying about his/her average. To paraphrase Nike: JUST SOW IT!

*Admittedly, the value of such a player in baseball is debatable, but serves the point here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Chosen Instrument

Jimi Hendrix, Monterey Pop Festival, 1967
Photo by Jim Marshall

Recently I was conversing with Jesus about the calling of Saul (Paul) of Tarsus. After Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus Road, Jesus instructs an understandably cautious Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles…” (Acts 9:15). I confessed to Jesus that I’d like to be his “chosen instrument” for something (despite the fact that Jesus’ next line about Paul is, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name”!). I wondered about the nature of a calling. Are we indeed called to something specific? And, if so, can we resist and/or miss our calling? But mostly I just wanted to be Jesus' chosen instrument for something.

After sitting in silence with Jesus, his response emerged: “You are my chosen instrument to be Robert.”

So the answer is yes, we are called to something specific. And yes, we can resist and miss our calling. When we don’t become ourselves—through pretending, numbing ourselves, aimlessly wandering, ignoring God’s leading, etc.—we are missing our calling…the calling to be ourselves fully alive. You are Jesus’ chosen instrument to be you. What does that look like, you fully alive? It’s a unique and powerful calling…one that no one else on earth can answer.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Insiders and Outsiders

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables…” –Mark 4:11

The way of the kingdom is subtle, small, and unpredictable. It grows in hidden and wild ways (Mk. 4). It is mysterious—to the extent that it often can’t be perceived or, at least, understood except by those on “the inside.” It is divinely revealed, so the “insiders’ are not some elite class or gnostic possessors of secret wisdom. The insiders are those who go with Jesus into the inner room of contemplation, those who seek the deeper ways of the kingdom. No one is restricted from coming. But only a few choose to come “inside.”

Those who go inside with Jesus, however, those who push beyond merely hearing the kingdom parables into living the kingdom parables, they are the good soil that bears fruit. They are the lamps on stands bringing illumination. They are harvesters perceiving and urgently reaping the kingdom’s fruitfulness. They are the birds of the air making their nests in the kingdom’s comforting shade.

Those “outside” are welcome to the parables. The parables are vessels of God’s grace revealing to them the good news of the kingdom. And surely many of these "outsiders" come to understand that there is something bigger, that it is something like God’s reign, and that they can be part of it. 

But that’s often the extent, the limit of the revelation. It’s enough for many…for most, perhaps. Too many, though, remain distracted rocky soil. The message never takes root. The lamp’s illumination remains hidden. The kingdom’s crops are passed by with a shrug on the way to more dazzling worldly attractions. The trying heat of the sun is simply endured. For what relief could be found in such a small, scraggly, wild shrub?

And so they stay outside…looking for bigger things.

Monday, October 19, 2015

With Jesus By the Sea

“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.”
-Matthew 13:1

There’s something about this picture that is striking. It is the Creator of the universe, the one who made the sea, sitting beside it, perhaps contemplating its beauty as he seeks a moment of silent retreat.

But also, it’s just so ordinary. I have walked out of a house (or hotel) and sat beside the sea. I have sat and pondered the power, majesty, and mystery of the universe and its Lord and Creator, illustrated in the power, majesty, and mystery of the sea. I have retreated to the seaside seeking solitude and silence.

I am in awe of how profound Jesus is, so exalted as the Creator of all—such power, majesty, and mystery embodied in this most holy one. I am in awe that he gathers crowds (usually unsolicited) and takes time to teach them the mysteries of the revelation of God and God’s kingdom, doing so in parables that they can understand and often using images drawn from his own creation.

And I am in awe that he humbled himself to become so like me, contemplating his creation, seeking solitude and silence, himself in awe of power, majesty, and mystery. And so, because he is so exalted and yet so humble, we can sit together beside the sea...even if sometimes the sea is only my soul.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A New Kind of Tree

What is it to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:7-9)? It isn’t just to bear fruit at all or even to bear a new kind of fruit. It is to be a new kind of tree. John the Baptizer calls out the false piety of outward religion, the superficial or even genetic identification with Abraham. This isn’t enough for God. The ax is laid at the root—the root. Trees are getting cut down and thrown into fire. God wants a new kind of tree—the kind of tree that bears repentance fruits…God fruits.

“Only God can make a tree,” wrote poet Joyce Kilmer. And only God can change the kind of tree we are. But we must throw open our branch-arms and turn our leafy faces heavenward. We must absorb the sun and rain of the Spirit graciously falling on us, descending upon us like a dove. We must uproot ourselves and cast ourselves into the baptismal waters…and into the baptismal fire.

Following John the Baptizer, Jesus becomes very concerned that we bear fruit. But this isn’t like someone standing in front of an apple tree sapling yelling, “Grow, darn you! Bear fruit!” This is Jesus graciously offering the health and abundance that are the natural result of life with God—life fully with God. This life is the shalom—the universal well-being—all humanity and all creation were made for: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Fruits worthy of repentance are the life that results from becoming a new kind of tree, a tree deeply rooted in the nourishing ground of God and bearing the fruit of love.

So this tree we are becoming, this new kind of tree, turns out to be the oldest, ageless tree--a tree growing in the fertile Ground of our very being in God. This Ground is the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And this Trinity is the context of our new reality and worldview (see Matt. 28:18-20). So, we are a tree that emerges from the Ground of being, nourished by the waters of baptism and the body and blood of the Lord, and bearing the fruits of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--fruits worthy of repentance.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Can He Get a Witness?

Jesus promises power to his followers, power to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). But witnesses to what, exactly? Luke is keen on connecting Acts to his “first book,” his Gospel. When we look there, we see Jesus commissioning the disciples to witness to his suffering and rising, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations (Lk. 24:46-48). But how can those of us who didn’t literally witness his suffering and rising still be such witnesses?

We continue to preach Jesus’ suffering and rising, of course. But our witness seems especially alive when we live and act in solidarity with those who suffer, especially when we do so in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. This is not just a sing-songy Christian happiness, but deep kingdom-bringing. It is justice-seeking, peace-making, and abiding contentment because of the presence of God. This brings the “rising” into the midst of the “suffering.”

This witness also includes disciple-making. This is taking up one’s cross in the spirit of self-denial and following Jesus. This sweeps in the message of “repentance and forgiveness of sins,” turning from self-glorification and worldly allegiances to humble service and freedom in Christ. Jesus’ commission in Mt. 28:18-20 fits here, with its new worldview of Christ’s authority, life with the Trinity, and obedience to Christ.

So this is the “power” we receive: 

  • To proclaim and live the message of suffering and rising; 
  • To herald the authority and liberation of the risen King;
  • To live and lead in the way of forgiveness and humble service. 

In a larger sense, the power we receive is the power to give up power, thereby witnessing to the
true King. Can he get a witness?