A Message from Bob (or, What You Believe … Matters)

Maybe the person I am most indebted to in my midlife is the guy who thought to attach a television to an exercise machine.  This guy has single-handedly inspired in me a tolerance for regular exercise.  It isn’t even that I like television (I don’t); its just that this diversion built into a machine is enough to hold me there if I make the effort to go.

That’s where I was a few days ago when I saw it.  I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on.  Just reading closed captioning.  The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis.  And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen:   “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God.”

Somehow, that struck me as significant.  It made me stop to wonder how many people in the world are getting their messages from Bob (or Oprah or some other popular guy) while God goes unnoticed.

That sends me back to a night years ago when a group of us went together to see the movie, “The Passion.”  Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen.  In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and someone else responded.  Then a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry for some time made a comment that surprised me.  He said, “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology.  I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.”  I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room.  I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God.  It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.  What you believe matters.

With limitless accessibility to the messages being preached by all kinds of rock-star preachers online and on tv, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines.  We listen for cool people to say cool things and we buy in, hook, line and sinker, without any sense of discernment.  We’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, so we see no contradiction in the prosperity preacher who peddles “your best life now,” and a Wesleyan call to holiness.  A little bit of the message of Joel mixed with a bit of the message of John, sprinkled with the message of Joyce and before we know it, we’re cooking up the theological equivalent of cool whip. A lot of light-weight fluff that tastes sweet, but with little if any of the compelling, consistent gospel that leads directly into the heart of God.

Collect enough tweetable lines and it’s not the whole gospel any more.  It’s just a message from Bob.

As I work my machines and listen to the fodder of early morning news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.  We’re allowing pop icons to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals.  It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned and preached in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob.  The world is starving for something more.

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Tears and Oil (or what it means to be human)

“When she learned he was at the Pharisee’s house, she went …”

What a revealing line, there toward the beginning of Luke’s story about a woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil while he was at dinner in the home of a religiously elite man.  She showed up with a bottle of oil and cried tears of devotion and used her hair as a towel.  A messy, emotional, intense scene.  But this line tells me she was no basketcase.  This was a deliberate choice of place and audience; she was there in that religious home to preach a sermon.

I saw this same sermon preached by Trisha and Billy, a couple I’ve recently met who have adopted seven children with special needs.  Seven children to take in, foster and eventually make their own.  Their “heart,” as they call her, is Tyiesha, a child shaken so severely as a baby that she can no longer move anything beneath her chin.  Ty was abandoned to a hospital ICU and when the family stopped showing up, they called Trish to come and rock this paralyzed infant.  To hold her so she’d know she’s human.

When Ty was seven months old, Trish and Billy took her home.  

Now, twelve years later, they are still caring for Ty who still has no feeling or movement beneath her chin. Billy and Trish love her the way everyone deserves to be loved, and even though it meant significant financial risk, they eventually adopted her.  “She is ours,” Trish says.  “She belongs to us.”

Ty is really sick these days, at home in hospice care.  She may not make it till Christmas.  Trish stands by her bed and strokes her hair, smiles and says, “There’s a person in there.  She has preferences and moods and a personality.  And she is our heart.”

In their care for Ty, Trish and Billy are preaching a sermon about how Jesus loves.  When we are utterly helpless to save ourselves, when we have been shaken to a broken state, he takes us in.  When our only chance is grace, Jesus takes us in.  When we are hard to know, he knows us.  When it costs, he adopts us.  Jesus holds onto us until we understand what it means to be human.

He doesn’t wait for us to get well.  He starts where we are and right there, in that dark place, he says, “She belongs to me.  This one is ours.”

It’s the same sermon that woman preached in the Pharisee’s house, with her tears and oil, as she knelt beside Jesus and proved to the world that she was a friend of God.

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God in the Pit

This morning, I am remembering a couple of guys I met when we lived in Athens.  Both are ordained pastors today but when I first met them, neither was walking with Jesus.  One of them, Joe, was particularly angry with God when we first met.  He would come to church and ooze anger, mentally disproving everything I was saying.  He was a big ball of negative.  Much later, after he encountered Jesus, he told me one of the things that bothered him most in his angry days was when I would say during a message that Jesus redeemed my life from the pit.  He hated when I said that.

For starters, Joe didn’t think I had any pits in my life.  He judged my story before he even knew it.  And for another thing, he didn’t like that language.  It sounded too religious to him.  And he was coming to church in a season when I was saying that a lot … that Jesus redeemed my life from the pit.  I said it a lot because every morning on my way to church I drove past a bar I used to frequent.  A bar called Nowhere.

That bar had some particularly bad memories attached to it.  I probably hit bottom in that place.  And every Sunday morning on my way to preach, driving past that bar I would be overwhelmed by the knowledge that God was not only with me now as a believer; he was also with me then.  I know he was because at some point, Jesus crawled down into the pit with me and pulled me out of it.  He redeemed my life from the pit. From nowhere.

And now when I visit with people who have been there and done that and who then encounter the living Christ, I think they have the best seat in the house.  From their freshly redeemed perspective they can so clearly see who they were and who they are now.  And they know that the one variable is Christ — God With Us — who climbed down into their pit to pull them up out of it.

Emmanuel:  The one who redeems us from the pit.

Emmanuel doesn’t come to cleaned up people.  He was with Mary Magdelene when she still had those demons.  He was with Peter the day Peter tried to correct him, tried to correct the Messiah of the universe.  Emmanuel was there the day Judas made a plan with the priests to expose Jesus and condemn him. And he was there when Peter chopped off a guy’s ear.  He was there with all those people who walked right past him, totally clueless about his divinity, and he was there in that town with the demon-crazed pigs when the people told him to leave them alone.  He was in the temple the day the priests were talking about him and even plotting to kill him.  He was the one who got whipped and tortured and cursed at by people who never saw the other dimension of him.  He was there with Pilate the day Pilate missed the fact he was in the presence of Truth Itself; Emmanuel said nothing because he knew that unless your heart is open, there’s really nothing to say.

He was there.  When you did the things you are ashamed of and when you fell short of your best and when you outright failed, He was there.  Not just watching, but redeeming.  Reframing.  Isaiah says he took up our pain and bore our suffering, was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.  By his wounds, we are healed.  He willingly took on our limitations so he could understand our pain and be unafraid of it.  He came to be with us as we walk through our worst, so he can redeem even the worst suffering and make it into something beautiful.

Emmanuel:  God in my darkness, reframing my life so it makes sense.  So nothing is lost.

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