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Surprises 4: Prayer in the Schools

I’ve been telling you about specific things that surprised me when I became a disciple of Christ the summer before I began high school. Here’s something else: after spending the summer reading the New Testament gospels and learning to pray, I found God to be a very real presence in the classroom when I went back to school in the fall. I say this is surprising because I thought my new commitment would change my thinking and behavior; I didn’t expect it to change the way I experienced school. I had gone to school for nine years now (counting kindergarten) and thought I knew what it was like. As for starting high school, even that in itself wasn’t a change from the previous school year because, in our little school system, 8th grade classes were held in the same facility as high school classes. So even though I expected to approach the new school year with a brand-new attitude, I didn’t really expect to experience school in an all-new way.

But I did. When I entered the doors of that school, I sensed the presence of God with me. And that was especially interesting because, so far, I had only been experiencing it in the peace and quiet of home; this was the first time I became aware of God’s presence in public. And since prayer had become a natural part of my everyday life, that meant that I was praying in school. This was the very thing that people remarked about so much in the early 1970s because of a recent Supreme Court ruling against compulsory prayer in the public schools. My praying wasn’t compulsory, of course, nor was it public. But everybody kept saying what a disgrace it was that our poor children couldn’t pray in school – and here I was, not only praying but also sensing God’s presence with me. And the experience was so vivid, I couldn’t help but be surprised.

It was also surprising for me to find God apparently so interested in my activities, both curricular and extra-curricular. I mentioned in an earlier post that God gave me creative ideas; now I found Him showing me how to study more effectively, how to participate more proactively in class, and even how to do better in marching band. On this last point, I found it impossible to both play the music and perform all the marching steps at the same time. For me, this was harder than rubbing my belly and patting my head simultaneously. So I prayed about it and decided to memorize all my music. This may seem like a drastic solution, but I found that I was able to memorize the music very quickly, and that freed me to perform the steps without the distraction of having to read the sheet music.

Homework became an entirely new experience for me. Walking home after school (or rather, after cross-country practice), I would talk with God about the things I had learned that day and I’d say, “What did you think about such-and-such?” or “What’s your take on X?” Theologically, I suppose I was very naïve, talking with God as if He were my companion and asking Him for His “opinion.” But I knew He was God and I didn’t rank His point of view on an even plane with mine or anyone else’s. This was just my amateurish way of opening myself up to Him in every avenue of my life. I knew that the teachers and the writers of the textbooks were limited in their understanding, and I wanted God to fill me in on some of what they were missing. I believe that happened sometimes. No, I didn’t get direct answers to my questions, but I did find that something like this would happen: I would tell God what I thought, and then questions would come to my mind, challenging me to go deeper or to rethink what I had said. I didn’t experience it as the Voice of God saying things to me, but it was mind-expanding. And that, for me, was something new.

I also found myself speaking up in class. In some cases this was due to the exciting new insights I had gained in my prayers about my homework: I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned. But it was also due to the fact that, as I said a moment ago, I sensed God’s presence with me in my classes. And since His presence was very real to me and I was praying under my breath (so to speak) even while the lecture or discussion was going on, there were times when I felt prompted to ask a question or make a comment, and it felt like the prompting was coming from God. Bear in mind that these were not religious topics, nor did I feel prompted to veer them off into a religious direction. I felt God inviting me to enter more deeply into lectures and discussions about the world – about history, literature, and even mathematics.

All of this was surprising because, quite frankly, I had never heard a Christian talk about these kinds of things, nor had anyone ever told me that these things ought to happen in the life of a Christian. Christianity had always seemed like a Sunday affair, not something that would make a difference Monday-Friday and even Saturday. This also gave me a whole new outlook on what it meant to be Christ’s disciple. A “disciple,” after all, is a student, and I knew that Jesus had been teaching me about His way of life all summer; I just hadn’t realized that He would oversee my high school education as well.

All of this came as a great surprise and incredibly good news. But there were more surprises to come…

Surprises 3: Creative Ideas

I’ve been telling you about the things that surprised me when I became a Christian. Here’s a third surprise: creative ideas (not of a religious nature) came to me more than ever before.

From early in elementary school, I had drawn comic strips and then moved on to writing juvenile novels. Some of my teachers encouraged me, and one of them even asked me to write a play for our sixth-grade puppet show. A short story that I wrote was serialized in our seventh-grade newsletter.

I expected that to stop when I became a Christian. Or at least I thought God would only want me to write religious stories. Instead, my mind became alive with creative ideas that had no religious content. I would read the New Testament gospels and ponder them seriously, and at the same time would dream up stories.

It was during this time, I believe, that I started wanting to write scripts for a soap opera aimed at guys. There was a daytime show on at the time called The Edge of Night, about detectives trying to fight “the Mob,” and I had ideas for a soap opera of my own. Since it would be in the form of scripts, I became obsessed with learning to type.  I went through my mom’s mail-order catalogues for Sears and other stores and cut out pictures of typewriters. (We did not have a typewriter in our house.) I used to place my fingers on the keys and try to teach myself to type. At one point I asked my older sister to teach me, since she had taken typing class in school, but we found it really wasn’t possible to teach someone to type on a picture of a typewriter. So I started trying to make hand-written scripts for my soap opera, but I didn’t get very far.

The story ideas came anyway, and in lots of different forms. Here is just one example: I had an idea for a cartoon entitled, “Beware of Dog.” I thought I might be able to film it using our family’s Super 8 movie camera, even though that device was not ideal for doing animation. I drew up a story board in pencil on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, and I created some of the background art using felt-tipped markers. I even went to a local craft store to buy cellophane in sheets, and an assortment of Artex paints. (I should mention, by the way, that I always hated art class in school and did poorly in it.) Bringing these home, I painted a series of images of the main character (a mailman) on the cellophane sheets. I now had my opening shot: the cellophane mailman was going to walk down the street, which was one of the pieces of background art I had already completed on a long roll of paper.

That initial shot taught me how hard it was to do animation using a home movie camera. It takes thousands of frames of artwork to make a ten-minute cartoon, and I had already done an enormous amount of work on the opening scene. I also discovered that I had a major lighting problem. Professionally-made cartoons were (in those days) done entirely on cellophane (including the background), and each frame was placed on a recording device that was back-lit, allowing the entire frame to be uniformly illuminated. Lacking that technology, I had created opaque backgrounds and intended to place my moving pieces (painted on cellophane) on top of the backgrounds, then light them from over my shoulder. That didn’t work, however, because the light source reflected off my cellophane. I tried moving it, but it didn’t matter where I put the light; it reflected so brightly that it obscured my art work. I kept trying diffuse light sources (outside in the shade, for example), but nothing worked very well.

The real show-stopper, though, was money. I needed a tripod to hold the camera still, and I needed an endless supply of cellophane and paints – all of which cost money. I never made a firm decision to give up on the project, but it also never quite got off the ground.

Anyway, the very fact that this kind of idea came to me while I was learning to be a Christian was a very pleasant surprise. I didn’t think God would care about these kinds of projects, and yet I found myself getting these ideas more and more after giving my life to Christ.

Let me show you a couple of excerpts from “Beware of Dog.”

Once upon a time in a quiet residential neighborhood…

…a mailman is making his rounds.

(In the frame below, pay attention to the neighbor sitting on his porch, watering his bush. He’s going to figure prominently in this story.)


This mailman has a bad habit. He likes to read people’s mail before he delivers it. Here he is looking both ways to make sure he’s not detected…

 

… and what he finds inside the envelope is a draft notice. (This was during the Vietnam Conflict.) As you may have noticed, I couldn’t find just the right Artex pigment for skin color, so the mailman’s face and hands are purple.)

 

(That was as far as I got with the full-color artwork. From this point on, I’ll have to take the pictures from the storyboard.)

The mailman puts the letter back into the envelope and tries to deliver it, but the owner of the house has a ferocious dog…

 

The dog chases the mailman and there’s a scuffle…



 

The mailman gets out of the yard and hides on the other side of the gate…

 


…but the dog reaches over the top of the gate and reveals a set of claws.

 

The neighbor I pointed out to you earlier comes to clean up the resulting mess…

 

 



This sets up the premise for the rest of the cartoon. The mailman has to deliver that draft notice in time for the recipient to appear for service on September 22nd, but the dog will punish him every time he tries. And there’s plenty of punishment to go around, as the unfortunate neighbor keeps getting drawn into the conflict.

For example, in the scene below the mailman has finally succeeded in reaching the house (although he’s lost his hat in the process), only to discover that the dog is hiding in the mailbox…



The dog’s so mad, he punches the mailman, sending him flying over the fence…


…and he lands in the lap of the poor unfortunate neighbor, who’s relaxing on a cot with a glass of lemonade…

The cot folds up with both of them inside, and the neighbor waddles away…

 

The seasons change from spring to summer and summer to fall. Aware of the deadline, the mailman takes ever-greater risks, and things go from bad to worse. The hapless neighbor keeps getting dragged into the action despite his efforts to stay out of it.

Winter comes and there’s a huge snowfall. (Although we sometimes have snow in October here in Michigan, it’s rare to have a big snowfall like this. I don’t know what I was thinking.)

 

The unfortunate neighbor is out shoveling, and his eyes bug out when he sees the mailman coming. He boards up the front door of his house, crawls in through the window, and barricades himself in.

But the mailman is busy looking at the next house, and he can’t believe what he sees. The owner of the house (and the dog) is out in front of his house, shoveling snow.

The guy turns out to be a hippy. Just as the mailman delivers the draft notice (which is now weeks overdue)…

 

…the police arrive and arrest the hippy for draft evasion…


As the mailman stands there knowing he’s responsible, the puzzled dog reads the letter and realizes his master isn’t coming back anytime soon.


 

The dog decides he’d better be nice to the mailman…


But his lick is worse than his bite, and he accidentally swallows his nemesis.





The point of all this is that I never expected a life with Christ to be so much fun. I thought I’d just have to read the scriptures and go to church all the time. It never occurred to me that God would not only condone the kinds of things I liked doing (creating stories) but would actually give me ideas.

I gave my life to Christ the summer before my freshman year of high school, and in the fall of that year my creative writing teacher wrote something interesting in the margin of one of my papers: “How on earth did you ever think of this?” We were supposed to write an ending to the story “The Lady or the Tiger,” and as the title suggests, there were two alternative endings. I prayed about it and came up with a third alternative. (If you’re interested in that story, I told about it in detail on a YouTube video some time ago.)

A few years later, as editor of the high school newspaper, I would create a list of stories I thought we should cover for each issue, over and above any that the staff came up with. I wanted it to be an interesting paper that both students and faculty would look forward to reading. At one of our meetings, a girl on the staff said, “How do you come up with all these ideas?”

“I pray about it,” I told her.

“What did you say?” she asked, and the girl beside her said, “He prays about it,” then shot her a look as if to say, Don’t encourage him.

I realized as soon as I did it that the answer was so unexpected, it was kind of like a splash of cold water in the face. But it was as big a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. Who knew that God would care about a high school newspaper and help the editor make it more interesting?

Over the years, I’ve heard the same thing again and again. Recently I finished writing another novel entitled Eminent Domain and asked my family and a few friends to read it. (I’ve been making inquiries to agents for the past several months and will continue to do so until I find representation for it.) Almost everybody had the same response, in one form or another: “How do you come up with these things!”

I’m not saying you have to be a Christian to get creative ideas. I’m just saying I never thought those two things were related… until I became a Christian.

Surprises 2: Laughter

In my last post I said that I was surprised in a number of ways after I gave my life to Christ, and I told you about one of those surprises. Here’s another one: I was surprised at the role that laughter began to play in my life.

Sure, there was an initial giddiness – a light-heartedness – that came along with my decision. The sky seemed bluer at first, colors seemed more vivid, and the world just took on a brighter aspect. And as part of all that, I did laugh a lot that summer. But that’s not what I mean.

After I became a Christian, I was surprised to discover that I had a gift for making others laugh. This surprised me because I thought I would become more serious as a follower of Jesus. In the months leading up to my decision, I saw the 1959 version of the movie Ben-Hur on television and was deeply impressed by it. “If that’s what it means to be a Christian,” I thought, “then that would be really cool.” In other words, it would be really cool to walk and talk like Charlton Heston, standing tall and speaking in a commanding voice. And later on, when I saw him playing Moses in The Ten Commandments, I was sure that that was just how I wanted to be. (Although I have to confess I liked him better before he saw the burning bush than afterwards.) I wanted to be a tower of strength like that.

Instead, I found myself making people laugh. I had never done that before, except with some of my friends. After I became a Christian, I began speaking up more around others, including adults (see the previous post) and found that I could not only make them laugh, but they seemed to have that expectation the more they got to know me. It wasn’t that I told jokes with punchlines; I just started making funny comments that were prompted by whatever was happening at the moment. I noticed this happening, but it became even more obvious one day when my older brother told me that his friends had been talking about me and they all mentioned how entertaining I was.

Instead of being flattered, I was disappointed. I wanted to be dynamic like Charlton Heston, and instead I was perceived as a comedian.

It took me a while to realize what a blessing it is for people to be able to laugh, especially in groups, without the conversation turning raunchy or mean-spirited. I learned over time that comedy could even be a form of team-building. I was disappointed at first because I wanted to be a leader; I didn’t understand that my comedic abilities could disarm people, help them feel more comfortable with each other, and encourage them to work together.

Starting with the Gospel of Matthew, I read through all the synoptic gospels that summer. I can’t remember whether I got as far as the Gospel of John before school started. I do remember that I was fascinated, and that I read the scriptures prayerfully, asking God questions all along the way and recognizing that I was being addressed by God through the text. Nothing was more important to me than learning about Jesus and becoming his kind of man (13-year-old man, that is). That’s why I was so surprised to find myself making people laugh. It didn’t seem biblical. Jesus didn’t make people laugh (as far as I could tell), and he seemed so serious. In retrospect, though, I realize that the message was getting down deep into my life – so deep that the Lord of Life was bubbling up into my conscious experience in ways I couldn’t repress. And it was coming out as laughter.

Only years later did I realize how natural this was: the progression from a deeply-earnest stance of faith to a sense of mirth that can’t stay bottled up. I was taking a college course on Ancient Greek Theater (the plays of Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles), and one day the professor was explaining that tragedy and comedy, in the ancient Greek world, grew out of very different views of life. Tragic theater was based on a deeply-felt belief in the utter meaningless of life – the sense that nothing anybody does can make a difference. Comedy, on the other hand, was nurtured by the insight that life is fundamentally sound, and that goodness is ultimate. The professor explained that that was why the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, centuries later, called his great masterpiece The Divine COMEDY – not because it was funny but because it was based on the belief that Goodness (in this case, the goodness of God) was ultimate, and would have the last word. Then the professor said something I had never considered. “The New Testament gospels,” he said, “are comedies.”

It took me a long time to understand what he meant, but once I finally got the point, I realized that I had already experienced it for myself. During the summer of 1971, I began to internalize Christ’s amazing claims about the goodness of God. The more I let his teachings work on me, the more confident I became that life was fundamentally good (something I wasn’t too sure of as an eighth-grader). As a result I felt playful, and sometimes I just couldn’t help like laughing for joy. And I’ve been doing that – or at least chuckling – ever since.

Surprises 1: Things Happened

I mentioned recently that I became a disciple of Jesus Christ the summer before my freshman year of high school. After I committed my life to Christ, however, I was surprised about a number of things. Over the next several posts, I’ll share some of those surprises.

I don’t know how to put the first surprise into words other than to say that “things happened” after I became a Christian. I don’t just mean that I started seeing my prayers answered, although I did, and I’ll tell you more about that in another post. What I mean instead is something more mundane.

One of the motivating factors in my coming to Christ was the feeling that nothing of any great importance ever happened to me. I was a budding young writer, and I had written a number of book-length stories which I called novels, but all the excitement in my life up to that time had happened in my head. In fact, that was one of the main reasons why I started writing novels: to bring to full expression my rich inner life which seemed so much more exciting than real life.

In a very basic way, that changed the summer I became a Christian.

Interesting things started happening to me. Grownups started noticing me and talking to me, and they didn’t talk down to me. It was like I had been invisible before, and now I wasn’t. I should mention here that more than 6 months passed before I told anyone about my commitment to Christ. It was so deeply personal that I didn’t want it cheapened by conversation with others. My family was very religious, and I wasn’t ready at first to have my Christian commitment rejoiced over, analyzed, criticized, and everything else that I knew would go along with a public declaration. So when I say that grownups suddenly started noticing me and talking to me, I’m not referring to church people who approved of my becoming a Christian. I mean that people on the street – complete strangers – started saying hello to me, conversing with me, and treating me like I existed. Who knows… maybe I carried myself differently now that I was a Christian. Maybe I looked at them differently. I suppose I did. All I can say is that the dynamic changed. I became a vital part of my environment in a way that I had never been before.

But there’s more. When I say “things happened,” I also mean that I started having experiences of my own: funny, interesting, out-of-the-ordinary things started happening to me as I went out on my paper route or rode my bike or went with my family to the beach. Just a few short months before, I had embarrassed myself setting an after-school appointment with one of my eighth-grade teachers, asking him if we could please do something (I don’t even remember what it was) that he had done with students the previous year. One of my brothers, who was a year older than me, had spoken in glowing terms of whatever-it-was, and I felt cheated that the teacher wasn’t going to do that same activity with us. I say it was embarrassing because this particular teacher wasn’t very sympathetic and couldn’t figure out why I was meddling in his business. What I was unable to express to him at that time was my deep disappointment that nothing interesting ever happened to me, and I was simply trying to orchestrate something that had happened the year before, in my brother’s experience in that class.

But now, after I gave my life to Christ, I no longer found it necessary to re-enact experiences that my older brothers or older sister had had, because I started having my own interesting experiences. In fact, from that time onward my life started along an entirely different trajectory from the paths that my older siblings took. Again, I don’t mean that my life was more religious than theirs; I just mean that I started following my own path. I also don’t mean that I started having earth-shattering experiences; I just started having experiences that were my own and that were worth coming home and talking about. And I had never had that before. But in the months and years ahead, it happened more and more. In fact, some of my friends said, on random occasions over the years, “Things happen to you!” Meaning, you don’t just go door-to-door collecting newspapers for the high school band’s paper drive; you have funny, charming, or even absurd encounters with the people at the homes you visit.

And there’s one more thing I’m trying to convey. Just days or weeks after I gave my life to Christ, I was in the mall with my mom and my older siblings and one of my older sister’s teachers happened to cross my mind. This was not someone I would be taking a class from soon, or perhaps ever, because he only taught upper-level students and I didn’t like the subject he taught. I really can’t tell you why I thought about him. There was absolutely no connection between him and me. And yet, I had no sooner seen his face in my mind than he rounded the corner at the mall and we stopped to converse with him. I don’t mean to say that becoming a Christian made me see the future or anything like that; I just mean that coincidences started happening at that time in my life, and they’ve been happening with greater regularity ever since. Some of them seem significant and many of them don’t, but it just struck me as odd that “things happened” like that once I gave my life to Christ.

I hope you can see why this was all a surprise to me. There’s nothing religious about what I’ve told you, and yet there is something very meaningful about it. I felt like I had come alive, more alive than I had ever been before. And that, I soon learned, was the reason Christ had come into the world, that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). I just never would have predicted that it would play out in such a mundane way.

A Faith That Matters Monday-Friday

I’ve worked in call centers for over 20 years. I started as an operator for Western Union in the early 1990s and was promoted to operations manager. After 4 years there, I left to get my doctorate in Philosophy from Saint Louis University. Unable to obtain a tenure track position, I went back to work as a customer service representative (CSR) in the fall of 2000, and I taught college courses at night. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Call centers have high turnover, and for good reason. Our life is regimented. Our supervisors know when we go to the restroom and ask us about it if we go too often. We’re given scripts and are not supposed to deviate from them. We’re told to use the customer’s name X number of times during the call and to avoid words like “no” and “unfortunately” even when the answer truly is “no… unfortunately.”

And yet it is within this environment that I have experienced God again and again. Despite all the negative aspects of the job, I have sensed God calling me to help the people on the other end of the phone, and I have had my prayers answered repeatedly as I have asked for God’s assistance. I know firsthand what the Apostle Paul means when he says, “For it is God who works within you, both to work for his purpose and to want to” (Philippians 2:13, my translation from the Greek).

As I said in my book, Customer Service and the Imitation of Christ:

“If we’re serious about imitating Christ then we shouldn’t be satisfied thinking of ourselves as CSRs or computer programmers, attorneys or copy editors, realtors or police officers. We know that we’re infinitely more than the individual roles we play in society. All together, we’re the body of Christ. Through us – through all of us who profess him as Teacher, Savior, and Lord – Christ wants to bless and redeem the world. We must all do our part in every way we can, even on the job. Those of us who are CSRs are especially fortunate, for customer service work provides us with unique opportunities… Every phone call is a fresh chance for Christ to serve someone through us. And as we let that happen, the Kingdom of God advances.

“Maybe that sounds grandiose, but that’s the good news: that Christ knows us and has redeemed each of us individually and is calling all of us collectively to be agents of change in this world by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we take that mandate seriously, it will affect everything we do. Everything. Even our jobs. Even the job of customer service.”

 

A Dynamic Personality

I gave my life to Christ because of a sermon. The preacher had a dynamic personality, and he explained in a clear and forthright manner what my life could be like if I became a Christian. What he said excited my imagination. I wanted the life he described. Except the sermon wasn’t live: I read about it in a book… the Gospel of Matthew, to be exact. And the preacher was Jesus of Nazareth.

I read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in a children’s illustrated version of the King James Bible one summer’s evening when I was thirteen years old, and it spoke directly to me in a deeply personal way.  I couldn’t sleep that night. I just sat up in bed talking to the Preacher about His sermon. Although I had never had much interest in religion and had not, until that night, made a serious effort at reading the Bible, I wanted more than anything to know Him. I felt like He knew me very well, and that’s what made it so exciting. That night, I committed my life to Him and told Him I’d spend the rest of my life serving Him and getting to know Him better.

What was it about the Sermon on the Mount – and the Preacher – that so captured my imagination? It was His vision of how my life could be. I had spent the 8th grade trying to stay under the radar. We had a few bullies at our school, and I prided myself on staying out of their line of vision. But Jesus said those days were over for me. “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid,” He said. From now on, He wanted me in plain view, “so that others may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.”

He described a life in which I would stand up to the bullies, not out of anger but out of compassion – a life in which I would voluntarily travel with them two miles instead of letting them compel me to walk a mile with them – a life in which I would be so concerned about their welfare that I would pray for them and bless them even while they were persecuting and cursing me.

But He talked about many more subjects than just bullies. He said I could know God intimately and could have my prayers answered routinely, so much so that I could have peace of mind even in the bleakest financial circumstances. He told me that He didn’t want me to become overtly religious, displaying my piety for others to see. Instead of focusing attention on myself and on my own goodness, He charted out a way of life in which I would always strive to see the best in others, to understand them and care about them and, most of all, not judge them.

This didn’t sound like religion to me. It seemed to me like this dynamic personality – Jesus – had inserted himself into the story of my life just before I was about to begin my freshman year of high school and was offering me an alternative future. I felt like it was a new beginning for me.

It was indeed. And my life has never been the same since.

On this warm summer’s evening, it almost seems like yesterday…

Peace and Quiet

There aren’t too many churches going in this direction these days, but 100 years ago the Congregationalist minister Lloyd C. Douglas thought that the church’s great gift to the larger community ought to be “one solid hour” of peace and quiet.

I’ve quoted him on this subject in the two most recent entries on my new Lloyd C. Douglas page. Click on the link to go there.

Bullies: A Sermon

This is the text of a sermon that I wrote on January 8, 1985, prior to attending seminary. I never ended up preaching the sermon (nor did I finish seminary, for that matter), but it illustrates the kind of practical approach I envisioned I would take as a minister.

Something important is missing from the stained-glass conception of Jesus.

Look at any image of him on a stained-glass window. Would you invite this man to your next cocktail party? And if you did, what would you talk about? There you are with all your best friends; you’re laughing and having a great time. Where would the stained-glass Jesus fit into this picture? Imagine him having the least interest in the latest movie you’ve seen, or whether you caught anything on your recent hunting trip! It seems much more likely that he’d sit apart from the group, perhaps reading a religious book and waiting for dinner to be served.

Nor is it easy to think of him – the lofty, holy Savior – trying to maneuver an automobile through rush-hour traffic and not getting peeved at a motorist who just cut him off. We can’t picture him slaving away at a monotonous job (like some of us do), or babysitting some bratty kids (like we’re sometimes stuck doing), or (again like us) getting involved in a dirty, no-holds-barred family argument.

Which is just another way of saying that there is no room for the stained-glass conception of Jesus in life as we know it. As much as we may love and adore him, we can’t expect much help from him when it comes to the details of day-to-day life.

The tragedy of it is that Jesus actually did fit into practical daily life – the real Jesus, that is – and he came to make it possible for US to live our lives to the fullest. (Not, in other words, like stained-glass zombies.)

Take, for example, the cocktail party: Jesus went to parties like that all the time. One notable tax professional even threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited all his friends and business associates to come and meet him. The religious community was scandalized!  Evidently Jesus didn’t put a damper on the festive mood. His detractors called him a wine-bibber and a glutton, and they criticized him for being in the company of unreligious people. One time, when they ran out of wine at a wedding reception, Jesus used his miraculous powers to make more wine before the guests were even aware that there was a problem.

As for taking an interest in your latest hunting trip, his closest friends were fishermen, and on more than one occasion, as they were wrapping up an unsuccessful night of fishing, he called to them from the shore and asked how it had gone. And when they complained about not catching anything, he again summoned his miraculous powers to point out where all the fish were.

(Hmmm. . . he might’ve been just the person to invite on your next hunting trip!)

There were no motorized vehicles in his day, but Jesus experienced his share of traffic jams. Because of his notoriety, people pressed in on him in large crowds on many occasions. One time he tried to get across town to help a sick girl, but traffic wouldn’t budge. The girl died before he got there.

We can’t imagine him slaving away at a mindless job all his life like so many of us are forced to do, and yet he did, apparently. The Bible only talks about the last three years of his life; the rest of the time he was working – we think as a carpenter.

As far as dealing with bratty kids, consider this: although his close associates tried to keep kids away from him, Jesus enjoyed them. The only reason it has never occurred to us that any of those little ones were brats is the fact that he got along so well with them.

And as for family arguments, Jesus had those, too. For a while, his brothers tried to get him to stop preaching. They thought he was a crackpot.

It makes you wonder how accurately we have pictured Jesus, doesn’t it? He faced all the problems we face, but he made constructive use of them. And people noticed. They observed how he lived, and they said, “We’ve never seen anything quite like this.” Jesus showed them how to live life at its best. He gave them a glimpse of what life could be like for them! This is what we miss when we think of him as Stained-Glass Jesus.

I want to illustrate this by talking for a moment about a problem we’ve all experienced.

Bullies.

Children aren’t the only ones who get picked on by bullies. We all meet them from time to time, at any age or station in life. Even the most sophisticated among us must deal with some form of intimidation or coercion on occasion. And when we do, we are often puzzled as to how to handle it.

Generally, we adults are no more adept at standing up to bullies than children are. In fact, adult intimidation is more subtle and complex. Volumes have been written, and will continue to be written, on how to deal with bullies in the workplace, at home, or at the check-out counter. Techniques have been advanced to help us say No to pushy salespeople. There are books full of snappy comebacks when someone insults us.

As helpful as techniques may be in specific situations, no one set of techniques can prepare us for the whole gamut of intimidation that may come our way. What we really need is a personality that can rise to meet whatever challenges we face, as we face them.

The Stained-Glass Jesus would be of little help to us here. He would want us to assume a sheepish position, no doubt, even to the point of letting bullies slap us in the face or crack us over the head. He’d want us to remain passive while they’re stomping us into the ground.

The fact is, however, that Jesus’ actual remarks on this subject are much more complex than that. . . and make more sense. He said lots of things about bullies, and I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m going to cover them all today. But here’s something he said that you would never expect to come from the lips of Stained-Glass Jesus.

He was talking to his closest circle of followers about some of the things that would happen to them in the days ahead. He warned them they would be coerced, lied about, and threatened with bodily harm. And he offered this prescription: “Therefore, be as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

That’s the trick, isn’t it? Nobody wants to be a dishrag – thrown on the floor and stepped on. But when people insult us or intimidate us, we often can’t think fast enough. In the moment when we most need wisdom to keep from looking foolish, we can’t think of the right thing to say. Generally, we adults get stepped on far more than we care to admit.

But how many serpents, as a general rule, get stepped on?

In Jesus’ conception of Life As It Was Meant to Be, we could become like serpents in our ability to keep from getting stepped on, BUT. . . at the same time. . . our intentions could be pure. We could reach a state of being in which it would be possible for us to defend ourselves artfully from intimidation while wanting only the best for the person who was trying to hurt us.

It seems like an impossible balance, but what if it could be achieved! Who wouldn’t want that kind of power!

The problem is, Jesus didn’t lay out a Three-Step Program for achieving that kind of personal poise. The remark about the serpent and the dove was just part of the overall way of life he offered. The kind of character he had in mind included that and much, much more – and it would need to be developed over time. He taught us the basics and promised to guide us further by the Holy Spirit, but we’ll never get there if we don’t acquaint ourselves with the things he actually taught and let those teachings chart a course for our lives.

That’s why Stained-Glass Jesus is so harmful. He may be nice to look at during the Prelude, especially when the sun hits him just right, but you want to avoid thinking he’s the real Jesus. Because he’s not.

The plain folk used to gather around when Jesus met up with bullies. Proud, educated, aristocratic clergy tried one after another to make a fool out of him in public. The people used to howl with laughter at his replies. Anything the bullies said or did, he could turn masterfully against them. But when they nailed him to the cross, he looked down at those same people and said, “Father, forgive them.” Yes, he was a miracle worker, but in moments like that we see how powerful he really was.

Wise as a serpent. . . and harmless as a dove!

If YOU could have that kind of power, would you want it? Would you let him bestow it upon you? Even if it took him the rest of your life?

 

 

 

 

How Our Conception of God Can Become an Idol

This is a short sermon I preached at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church at the early morning Communion Service on Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2012. If the members of the congregation were going to “give up something for Lent,” I suggested giving up our current conceptions of Jesus and spending Lent praying for clearer vision of who Christ really is.

Here’s a link to the audio.

An Ideal Transformed

This is a sermon I preached at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, Portage, Michigan (USA), on January 21, 2007. The text was Luke 4: 14-21.

Our story begins 600 years before Christ. It was a dark time in the life of Israel. Foreign invaders had taken away most of their land and abducted most of their people. Only one of the tribes of Israel was left: the people of Judah. But now the end had come for them, too. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon stormed in with his troops, and the Promised Land – the land that their God had given them – was taken from them. They were marched off in chains, forced to live in ghettoes throughout the empire. It was called “the Babylonian Captivity,” and it looked like the end. They were far from home, and they had no reason to suppose that they would ever get back.

But miraculously – out of the ashes – they emerged as a new cultural and religious force, for it was during their captivity that the religion of Judaism came to full flower. Before this they had been a nation, but now they saw themselves as a people with a distinct cultural identity that didn’t depend on their geographic location. No matter how far-flung they might be spatially, they could still remain close spiritually.

How? By becoming “people of the book.” It was during their years of dislocation that a new class of scholars called “scribes” began to appear. These scribes were men who knew the scriptures thoroughly and taught them systematically to the people.

Picture this: refugees who are spread out all over the map of the Mediterranean world yet bound together in spirit by the sharing of the same stories and by the observance of the same religious practices – even down to eating the same kinds of food and wearing the same kinds of head gear. They had never before had such a strong sense of identity.

Now. . . among these various groups of refugees, a document begins to circulate. It is written under the pen name of Isaiah, a greatly-revered prophet from an earlier time, but in style and substance it differs from the writings of the earlier Isaiah. As this document makes its way from one Jewish enclave to another throughout the empire, hope swells, for it opens with the words, “Comfort. . . comfort my people, says your God.” And that’s exactly what it does: it both comforts and excites them. For this document – what we now recognize as the second half of the Book of Isaiah – describes a new vision for the people, a new ideal.

Here is one sample of writing from that document, from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because he has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And release to the prisoners,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
And the day of vindication of our God. . . .

There were nuances in the text that they didn’t catch at the time, but this is what jumped out at them: they believed that God was telling them they would return home in triumph and that they would be a great nation once more.

A generation passed. A new imperial army rolled across the map, and now the Babylonian Empire gave way to the Persian Empire. Cyrus, the new emperor, didn’t like how the Babylonians had displaced their conquered peoples, so he decreed that everybody – not just the Jews, but people of all nationalities – could go back to their former lands. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer a comprehensive relocation package, but he gave them permission to go back if they were able to bum a ride.

The prophecy about going back home looked like it was about to be fulfilled literally except that, when they were offered the opportunity, most of the Israelites didn’t really want to go back home after all. That was just a nostalgic thought for them. They got group solidarity from dreaming and singing about it, but they didn’t really want to do it. This was a new generation. They had made lives for themselves in their various parts of the empire. They didn’t want to pack up and leave.

A few did go back, but they had an uphill battle. Palestine was all torn up. Samaritans and other people had taken over part of the land, and they didn’t feel like giving it back. It took over 100 years just to get a wall built around Jerusalem. You can read about their trials in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

We can make quick work of this next part of the story. Around 300 years before Christ, another imperial army wound its way around the Mediterranean Sea, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian Empire gave way to the Greeks. The Greeks had the most advanced culture of their time, but they weren’t any good at ruling the world. Around 150 years before Christ, the Jews in the Holy Land took advantage of the empire’s weakness and won their independence, but it was only temporary. . . for another imperial army had already begun marching across the map of the western world, and about 30 years before the birth of Christ, they showed up outside the gates of Jerusalem. The Greek Empire gave way to the Romans. The Jews in Palestine put up with Roman domination for a while, but about 70 years into the so-called Common Era, they tried to win their independence again, this time with disastrous results. Israel was wiped off the map, and they remained that way for nearly 2,000 years.

Over 600 years earlier, the Jews had believed that God was telling them they would return home in triumph and be a great nation again. They pointed to the scroll of Isaiah as their proof text. But they had already entered a new and better phase of their life as a people. From now on, their influence on the larger culture would be much more powerful than it had ever been before, because now they were citizens of the world. Their influence from now on would be pervasive, from within the nations. There were hints of that in the Isaiah scroll, but they failed to see it. What they really needed now was for someone with prophetic insight to give them a new ideal – a new sense of mission – and to encourage them to embrace their dispersal among the nations as a good thing.

Someone did try to tell them that. He came from the town of Nazareth, and his name was Jesus.

He traveled throughout his home province of Galilee, telling his people about the possibilities. As a people, they were soon to be spread out in communities all over the globe. “You are the light of the world,” he told them. “Let your light shine everywhere you are.”

He told them that they were the little bit of leaven that would be worked into the dough and make it come out right.

In the banquet hall of the world, he told them, “You are the salt.” They would provide the essential ingredient that no other nation could provide. But Jesus emphasized repeatedly: If you’re going to be the salt, you’d better make sure you don’t lose your distinctive flavor, or else you’ll lose your reason for being. What was it that made them distinctive? Neither their unique apparel nor their special diet. “It isn’t what you put into your mouth that makes you holy,” he said. “It’s what comes out of your mouth that matters: words of kindness, of justice, and of truth. That’s what distinguishes you as God’s people. That’s what will change the world.”

One Sabbath morning, Jesus visited his hometown of Nazareth. There was a lot of commotion as he entered the synagogue. They invited him forward to read a passage of scripture and to expound it. They had heard a lot about him and they were waiting for him to say something noteworthy.

He stepped to the front and the attendant handed him the scroll of Isaiah. Opening it, he read these words:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He closed the scroll, gave it back to the attendent, and returned to his seat. Nobody said a word. Then he looked back at everyone and said, “This scripture has been fulfilled. . . in your hearing. . . today.”

The members of the congregation shook their heads. By what stretch of the imagination could anybody say that that scripture was fulfilled here and now? The problem was that they were interpreting it one way and he meant something else. They thought he was talking about the old, fond hope of the return to Israel’s glory days. But in Jesus’ hands, the text took on new meaning. It sounded like the expression of an old ideal, but when he read it, it became an ideal transformed.

The Nazarenes thought the prophet Isaiah was speaking to them, promising that God would release them from bondage. But Jesus read the passage differently. Now the speaker was Israel, and the audience was the world. Israel was anointed to bring good news to the brokenhearted and captive of all nations, to free people everywhere from every kind of bondage by introducing them to the Living God. In Jesus’ hands, the Isaiah scroll was no mere prediction of better times to come for Israel; it was a summons – a mission statement for God’s people. Jesus extracted from the text what was best in it: the call to ministry.

From this time forward, he was saying, the people of God would be identified by the way they served. In that moment, Jesus announced the arrival of a new day in which God’s people would be the ones busy flinging open prison doors, healing the sick, and bringing life out of death. That may not have been the old ideal, but that was God’s ideal.

Unfortunately, the people of Nazareth liked their old ideal just fine, and it angered them that one of their own kinfolk would try to rewrite history. In response, Jesus told them that God’s people are the ones who follow God’s ideals. “You can hold onto your old ideals if you want to,” he seemed to be saying, “but if you do, you won’t be God’s people anymore.”

That was too much. Without even waiting for the benediction, they grabbed him, ran out of the synagogue with him, and headed for the nearest cliff. But he “passed through the midst of them, and went his way.”

There’s a moral to this story, but it’s a hard one to listen to. The Nazarenes were good people. They were just like us. They read their scriptures and they thought they understood them, but apparently they did not. It was an honest mistake. Isaiah 61 really does look like it’s talking about a return to the glory days of Israel. We probably would have thought the same thing if we were in their place. Their mistake was not misinterpreting the scripture. Their mistake was being so sure of their rightness that they could neither hear nor accept what God was trying to tell them.

This story invites us to ask ourselves: What is it we’re missing? What are we not hearing?

We can’t imagine being wrong. Neither could the Nazarenes. They, at least, had Jesus right there in their face, telling them they were wrong. We’re not so lucky. Since he’s not right in front of us, we don’t even stop to consider what we might be missing.

The Nazarenes would have done well to have looked carefully at another passage from that same Isaiah scroll, this time from chapter 55:

Your thoughts are not my thoughts,
Neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord,
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
My ways are higher than your ways,
And my thoughts than your thoughts.

God is always way beyond us, but sometimes we catch glimpses of what God is doing. The Isaiah scroll was full of such glimpses. When the Jews read that scroll, they thought they heard God promising to restore them to their lands and to their former glory. But all the while, God was trying to tell them something more, something so new and different that they couldn’t catch the sense of it, even though it was right there in their scriptures all the time.

What is it we’re missing? What ideals have we in contemporary Christianity embraced, thinking they must surely be God’s ideals? What are we failing to see?

Let us learn this crucial lesson from the people of Nazareth. Let us turn honestly to God in prayer and say, “We don’t know what your ideals are. Show us. Teach us. Open our blind eyes.”

This should be our prayer: “Give us your vision, O God. Fill us with your aspirations.”

For as the heavens are higher than the earth
So are my ways higher than your ways,
And my thoughts than your thoughts.

What is it that God is trying to tell us as a people, but we can’t hear it because we’re too set in our ways, too absorbed in our own thoughts?

What is it that God is trying say to you?

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