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Who I Say You Are 6

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I’m still giving my answers to the question Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

What I say:

He is One who serves.

What I mean:

He told his disciples that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45 NRSV). This wasn’t just a random fact about him; it was his very essence. The Apostle Paul invites us to become like Christ:

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself,

and became obedient to the point of death –

even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

The New Revised Standard Version tends to translate the Greek word doulos as “slave” rather than “servant.” I’ve had people in my adult Sunday School classes chafe at that, and they insist we should substitute the word “servant” for “slave.” But that just illustrates how hard it is for us to accept Jesus in this role. We’re much more comfortable thinking of him as a service-oriented kind of guy than as a slave. In fact, it can be trendy to call him a “Servant Leader.” A lot of highly paid businessmen and entrepreneurs pay big money to go to “Servant Leader” training. We like to think of Jesus as a “Servant Leader,” with emphasis on the word “Leader.” We’re not at all comfortable thinking of him as a slave.

But that was a fundamental fact about Jesus: that he had come to serve. And although it’s service to God that motivated him, he became the servant of all humanity, dying in order to save us. While he was still on earth, he was available at all times of the day and night, whenever anyone wanted their sick healed or their children blessed. The Gospel of Matthew says he took their infirmities upon himself (Matthew 8:17, referring to Isaiah 53:4). But he also set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem and the cross (Luke 9:51, KJV), because that was the thing his Father wanted him to do – for people in all ages.

There are three seemingly-unrelated passages in Luke that, when read in conjunction with each other, are jaw-dropping. The fact that the first two come in reverse order, with the set-up in a later chapter than the payoff, insures that most of us will miss their relationship. And yet they are related.

In Luke 17:7-8 (NRSV), Jesus says, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’ Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?” In the next two verses, he says that we should not expect thanks but rather consider ourselves worthless servants because we have only done what we (as his servants) ought to have done.

But if we look very carefully at the part I quoted above, then turn back to Luke 12:37, the result is astounding: “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

The very thing he just finished saying that a master will never do! But that’s because he’s no ordinary master; he’s the One who serves. He drives home the point in a third passage, also in Luke: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

When we Christians sing, “There is none like him,” I wonder if we’re thinking of passages like this? He never tries to prove how great he is. Instead, he serves. And by so doing, he shows us what true greatness really means.

Visit me at www.ronaldrjohnson.com

Who I Say You Are 5

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I have been sensing Christ asking me to give my own answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” I don’t have just one answer, however, so I have been giving a series of answers. Here’s another one.

What I say:

He is both lamb and shepherd.

What I mean:

He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 RSV). It is his blood, “like that of a [sacrificial] lamb, without defect or blemish” that “ransomed” me from a life of futility (I Peter 1:18-19). It was his death that tore open the curtain of the Holiest Place and made it possible for me (and for all of us) to come boldly into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-20).

I can’t tell you why it was necessary for him to die for us. I’ve never understood the doctrine of original sin, or how Christ’s death solves the problem. He himself never tried to explain it. I only know that, when Jesus said it was necessary for him to die, and Peter told him to stop being such a downer, Jesus responded to Peter the same way he replied to the Devil when he tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness: “Get behind me, Satan” (compare Matt 16:21-23 with Matt 4:10; in some ancient manuscripts the verbiage is identical). And in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked his Father to prevent his death and suffering “if it were possible” (Mark 14:35). And he added, “For you, all things are possible” (v. 36). But he knew even then that he had to die for us. And he did. He was the sacrificial lamb whose death was a gift to us all.

I’ve never been any good at explaining all that. But I know this: it was only by claiming that gift, in the summer of 1971, that I found God. I didn’t understand it any better than Peter did, and everything inside me protested against it just like Peter protested when he first heard about it. But I understood what Jesus meant when Peter objected to Christ washing his feet (John 13:6-7). Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). That much was clear to me.

So on that early summer’s evening in 1971, I accepted the gift, despite all my inner objections. I told him I wanted his blood to wash me of my sin. And he did.

Someday when I stand before God and have to give an account of my life, I’m not going to justify myself. “My one defense,” as Matt Maher says, is Jesus, and what he did on the cross. He is “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12).

But, at the risk of mixing metaphors, I also identify him as the Great Shepherd. For after he cleanses us, then he guides us further into life with God.

On that Day of Reckoning, I will be asked a number of stern questions: What did I do with the resources God gave me (Matt 25:14-30)? And how did I respond when I was faced with people in need (vv. 31-46)? In other words, I’ll be compelled to give an account of what happened after I was redeemed by the blood of Christ. What did I go on to do with that precious gift?

Here again, my only defense will be that I followed my Shepherd. But that, too, will be enough. Through the fifty intervening years since I accepted his sacrifice as the Lamb, he has guided me, prodded me, and kept me moving forward, as a Shepherd. The Shepherd not only lays down his life for the sheep but also guides them; and his sheep know his voice and follow him wherever he leads (John 10:1-30). That has certainly been my experience. He has taken me to places I never expected to go, and herded me into flocks I never thought I’d be part of.

He’s full of surprises… so much so that it’s impossible for me to tell you who he is in a brief, tweetable message.

And that’s why I’ll continue giving you my answer to that question in future posts.

Who I Say You Are 4

I’m still answering Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What I say:

He is both the Prince of Peace and the great Disturber of the Peace.

What I mean:

We Christians identify Jesus as the person Isaiah calls “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 6:9). He has promised to give us his peace that is unlike anything the world can give us (John 14:27).

But he also said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10:34). He said that he would cause disturbances among people, even to the point of breaking up families: “and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (v. 36). The peace that he offers does not just soothe us and make us feel good; although it calms our fears, it also emboldens us to take a stand for him, despite opposition.

I’m sure the local leaders cringed when they heard that Jesus was coming to their town, because he often said things that upset them. “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” he said (Luke 7:23). It was a significant remark, for Jesus didn’t mince words. In Nazareth, the crowd got so upset they tried to grab him and throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). And these were the people who had known him as a boy!

Nor is this all confined to the pages of scripture. In my own life, he has been the Prince of Peace. Each day as I plug in my headset and take customer service calls for my day job, I sense him within me, not only keeping me calm when customers yell at me but also empowering me to respond compassionately, leading the discussion to a constructive outcome. And all the rest of the time (not just in those crisis situations), his peace wells up within me, helping me rise above boredom and remain fully engaged in each call.

But he is also the disturber of my peace, for his thoughts are not like mine (Isaiah 55:8), and every time I start to get comfortable with my conceptions of him, he reminds me of that in rather startling ways. Worse yet, he urges me to listen respectfully to viewpoints that I disagree with and to be kind to the people on the opposing side of the hot issues of the day. When I feel a strong impulse to hate someone, he places me in situations in which I must sort out those feelings and do something about them. There have been many times in which I have felt my course of action would be easier if I could just do things my own way.

He fits the description that the writer of Hebrews gives of the word of God: “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 KJV). I don’t just read about him; he reads me. And “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (v. 13).

Those last words are especially appropriate: “him with whom we have to do.” I can’t ignore him. I can’t call upon him only when I want his counsel. He’s the one I have to answer to, not only at the end of the day but each moment of each day. As the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 13, he is “the one to whom we must render an account.” This calls to mind Jesus’ warning in Matthew 12:36: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.” And these days, with so many subjects becoming politicized, it’s hard not to stumble carelessly into a remark that hurts someone else. “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account…” Except that I don’t have the luxury of waiting for some eventual day of judgment; because I’m his follower, every day is a day of judgment. And he lets me know it.

My goal is to bring the two parts of this together – to know him as a disturber of my peace, and yet to rest in his peace. The New Testament tells a story about him that Illustrates this. Christ and his disciples were in a boat in the Sea of Galilee when a storm whipped up. At least four of his disciples were fishermen. They were experienced at this sort of thing, and they knew this was a bad storm. They hurried to Jesus, and he spoke to the wind and the waves as though they were a child having a tantrum. “Peace, be still,” he said. And the storm stopped (Mark 4:35-41; see also Matt 8:23-27 and Luke 8:22-25).

The lesson we’re supposed to learn from this story is to have faith in Jesus, whom “even the wind and the sea obey” (Mark 4:41). But I get more inspiration from a minor detail of the story. While the storm swirled about them, tossing their boat around like a toy, the disciples were surprised to find Jesus sleeping. He was at peace, and he was also able to make the storm be at peace.

“In the world you have tribulation,” he said. “But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 KJV).

Who do I say that he is? He is the eye of the storm. Controversy swirls around him, problems come at him from every side; but he is the peace at the center of it all. He himself is at peace, and in some cases it’s contagious.

As his disciple, I want to live each day resting in his peace, no matter what storms or controversies are swirling around me.

Visit me at www.ronaldrjohnson.com.


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Who I Say You Are 3

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I am giving my own heartfelt answers to Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What I say:

He is the common denominator of all the Christian denominations.

What I mean:

I’ve been a Christian for 50 years, but I’ve been a member of various denominations over the course of that time. I was raised as a Reorganized Latter Day Saint and left that organization to join the United Church of Christ (UCC). I briefly attended a UCC seminary but did not go on to become a minister. I was a Presbyterian for a few years, and then a United Methodist. I got my PhD at Saint Louis University (a Jesuit school) and taught courses there for four years, then went on to teach for two years at another Jesuit school, Xavier University in Cincinnati. I’ve published a few stories in The Way of Saint Francis, a Catholic magazine. For a number of years I’ve taught at Spring Arbor University, which is a Free Methodist school (not to be confused with United Methodist), and I’ve been a frequent contributor to The Congregationalist, the official magazine of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Years ago, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, I was a member of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and served on a youth committee. For the past several years my wife and I have attended a variety of Evangelical churches.

Through all these experiences, I’ve seen enough to say this: despite the many differences from one denomination to another, we all sing and talk primarily about Jesus. I don’t mean to minimize the differences among us, for they are significant. I do want to point out, however, that every Christian organization I’ve been a part of has focused on Jesus, although they may differ greatly in their conception of who he is. (In other words, they give different answers to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”)

This has always been the case. Before the books of the New Testament were canonized, the various Christian communities may have had different books in their libraries, and they probably had different emphases. If you were used to worshiping with a group that emphasized Luke’s gospel, for example, then you would recite the Beatitudes saying, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich.” And if you happened to visit another community that emphasized Matthew’s gospel, you might be very surprised to hear them spiritualizing it: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In fact, if you had come into the church excited about the social commentary that runs throughout Luke’s gospel, you might be scandalized by Matthew’s other-worldly interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.

Or if you were a member of the so-called “Johannine Community” (who rallied around the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John), then your chronology of Jesus’ life would have been very different from those who emphasized the so-called “Synoptic Gospels.” (To give just one example, you would be comfortable with seeing Jesus in Jerusalem repeatedly throughout his ministry, while the Synoptics have him going to Jerusalem only at the end.) But your views on Jesus would extend much farther than mere chronology, for even his voice would sound different to you. (In the Synoptics, Jesus talks in sound bites; in John, he gives long speeches which in turn are filled with long sentences.) You would also be used to seeing him as a cosmic creature – “the Word that was in the beginning with God” – whereas the members of other Christian communities would tend to refer to him as the Messiah of the Jews, emphasizing his role within one nation’s history.

And then there was the Gospel of Mark, which pictured Jesus as being largely misunderstood by his own disciples. Mark’s gospel shows him being much more exasperated with his followers than the other gospels do, even to the point of calling them “hard of heart.” The earliest version of Mark’s gospel has the disciples cowering in fear on Resurrection Sunday, not even going out to tell anyone that he is risen.

All these early “gospel communities” exhibit differences in their views of Jesus, and some of these differences are huge. But all of them focus on Jesus. And it’s been that way ever since. Within the first few centuries, many different kinds of churches were established around the Mediterranean Sea: Coptic Christians in North Africa, Eastern Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, and Roman Catholics in the West. They worshiped in increasingly divergent ways, but each group was responding to their own unique views of Jesus. And after the Reformation, each new group that split away from the “Mother Church” did so in order to follow Jesus according to their own conscience.

My point is that, despite our many differences, we all believe that our own group is following Jesus. If we concede that people in other denominations are also following him, we usually find it necessary to say that they are misguided in certain respects, or that they have misinterpreted him. We may even question their sincerity or the purity of their intentions in following him. But despite this tendency to try to claim him for the home team, the truth is that he is the common denominator among the denominations. We’re all trying to follow him, even though we’re going about it in radically different ways.

There are two further observations I want to make about this.

First, he’s too big for any one denomination. None of us have the corner on him, and we never will. He’s more than all of us put together. The world needs all of our witnesses, from all of our divergent vantage points. He’s that big.

Second, he’s been trying to bring us together from the beginning. When he chose his inner circle of disciples, he put a tax collector (Matthew, also called Levi) side-by-side with Simon the Zealot. Tax collectors were considered traitors because they worked for Rome; the Zealots were super-patriotic, even to the point of condoning terrorism. The fact that Jesus chose two such men to represent him shows not only that his program had room for both views, but also that he believed it was possible for them to accommodate each other. (We humans still haven’t figured out how to do that, however.) And in his High Priestly Prayer of John 17, Jesus asked his Father to make his followers one, as the Father and the Son are one. At the very least, I interpret this as a mandate to root for each other, support each other in prayer, and think the best of one another, even if we can’t see eye to eye.

Who is Jesus? He’s what we’re all trying to be. We may call ourselves Baptists or Episcopalians. We may belong to the Church of Christ or the Church of God (which is not the same thing). But we are all, in our own unique ways, striving to be like him.

Visit me at www.ronaldrjohnson.com

Surprises 7: The Education of a Disciple

I’ve been telling you about a number of things that surprised me after I became a disciple of Jesus. There were lots of other surprises along the way, but I’m going to stop this particular series with this seventh surprise.

I was now nineteen years old (almost twenty), and a lot had happened since my conversion to Christ six years earlier. I was a lay minister in my church, preaching at my home congregation and elsewhere every chance I got. I had already studied for two years at Grand Valley State College in Allendale, Michigan (it would become Grand Valley State University shortly after my graduation), but I didn’t enjoy college very much. I wanted to be out serving God. I did speak up in all my discussion-oriented classes, telling my teachers and peers that I was a Christian and a lay minister, but I wanted to do more. I was majoring in Social Work, and I had even spent a semester as a Teacher’s Assistant in the “Intro to Social Work” course. I didn’t feel particularly led in that direction, but it was the only field I could think of that would allow me to “serve.” Most of all, I felt called to be a minister, but the church our family was affiliated with was comprised mostly of home-grown lay ministers just like me. We took turns preaching, and we all pitched in to visit the congregation’s shut-ins, people in the hospital, and so on. Our church did have full-time paid ministers, but they were employed by headquarters, assigned to particular regions where they were most needed, and tended to be bureaucrats, not preachers of the gospel. And I had no interest in becoming a bureaucrat. So I had to find something else to do with my life.

On one of the last days of my sophomore year, I decided to launch a prayer campaign, asking for direction for my life. I was halfway through my college career, and I was very concerned about what I would do after graduation. I prayed to understand what God was calling me to do with my life.

I spent the summer praying, and I felt very strongly that the answer would become clear to me if I read a novel by the American author Lloyd C. Douglas. The novel was Magnificent Obsession. I chafed at the thought; all I knew about the book was that it had been made into a movie starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, and it was a schmaltzy chick flick. I had read Douglas’s novel The Robe a few years earlier and had loved it, but I had no interest in Magnificent Obsession. Nevertheless, I kept feeling the prompting throughout the summer, so I finally bought a copy of the book from a second-hand bookstore in September and sat down to read it in the last couple of weeks before my junior year began.

I was not at all impressed by the premise of the book. It was about a young medical student who experiments with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:1-2 and has his potential unleashed by “doing alms in secret.” I felt that Douglas’s thesis stretched the meaning and purpose of that biblical passage far beyond Christ’s original meaning. But as I prayed to understand why this book had been brought to my attention, I realized that it was the author, and not the book itself, that was important. Although Douglas was a Congregationalist minister, his novel was filled with insightful observations about everyday life, and those observations were not merely used to drive home his religious point. It was clear that he was a broadly-educated man. He wrote convincingly about the medical profession, sculptures, music, the automotive industry, banking and finance, literature, live theater, European travel, and a few other subjects. The farther I read into the novel, the more impressed I became with his awareness of the world around him. I myself had spent most of the last six years studying the Bible and listening to religious radio broadcasts and nothing more. Education was a means to an end for me, and not at all something I enjoyed. But Douglas reawakened within me – or perhaps awakened fully for the first time – a desire to learn as much as I could about everything.

This thought was in the back of my mind as I was reading, but on one particular afternoon – a day so important that I consider it one of my personal holy days – I put down the novel and prayed again for guidance. In that moment I was given a glimpse of what my life could be like. I realized that I was called to a life of learning, and that Jesus Christ would continue to be my Teacher. On that day, a vast interdisciplinary path stretched out before me, and it extended far beyond graduation day. I came to understand that I was called to more than a religious life; I was called to Life. On that day, I committed myself to the Life that Christ was showing me.

When fall semester started a couple of weeks later, lots of coincidental conversations and events reinforced this revelation. I began to love going to school again, just as I had loved it in my freshman year of high school. I loved learning about anything and everything, and I recognized God’s guidance at work in each new lesson. I continued to preach and teach and to share my witness publicly at the college, but I was now on a new and exciting adventure. Jesus Christ was teaching me not only about the Bible but also about secular subjects. And although this brought me full circle, back to my very first experiences as a new Christian, it also opened whole new vistas that I could not have envisioned at the age of 13.

There were many detours along the way, but through the intervening years God has led me to earn a masters degree in the field of Education and a doctorate in the field of Philosophy. I have a den crammed with books on a wide variety of subjects, and God has taught me so many things about the world around me that I don’t even know how to share them all. I changed my church affiliation over thirty-five years ago, but I continue to preach and teach even now. I still can’t keep quiet about what God has done in my life.

This was the surprise: that discipleship involved more than just studying the Bible, praying, and serving others in Jesus’ name. The path of discipleship that Christ was calling me to, at least, was a detailed education about the Story of Life and a commitment to add something of value to that Story as a speaker and writer. This experience drove home the point that God doesn’t ask us to become religious; He asks us to enter into Life. And although I found that Life right away when I became a Christian, I got sidetracked by religion. It took me years to find my way back. Nor was it I who made the discovery; it was God who finally got me to see the value of learning secular subjects, with Him as my Lord and Teacher as well as my Savior.

There have been many more surprises in my relationship with God, but I’ll talk about them some other time. The main thing I want to emphasize, though, is that God doesn’t fit neatly into our expectations. Anyone following Jesus can expect to be surprised many times along the way, as I have.

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.

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…

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.

The Story of Life and My Testimony

As a fairly new Christian, I was surprised to discover that my testimony seemed like a different genre from the testimonies of other Christians. Mine seemed much more secular than theirs. That was how I started recognizing the importance of the Story of Life. I talk about that in this video.

How’s It SUPPOSED to Be with Our Souls?

You’ve probably heard the old question, “How is it with your soul?”

In most religious circles I’ve been in, we’re reminded from time to time that we should be asking each other this, but here’s what we do instead. Person A asks Person B, with a cock of the head, “How are you doing?” because Person A isn’t comfortable prying into Person B’s spiritual life. In response, Person B talks about her aches and pains and woes. Person A empathizes, commiserates, and promises to pray for Person B. And this is all fine, because we ought to care about each other and bear each other’s burdens.

But that’s not the same thing as asking each other about the state of our souls.

What we’re missing is the fact that we Christians are supposed to be caught up in the most exciting project ever, and we inquire about each other’s progress as a way of spurring each other on toward accomplishment of the seemingly-impossible goal that’s been set before us. That goal, in New Testament parlance, is to “go on toward perfection” (Hebrews 6:1 NRSV). But to put it in less grandiose terms, it is to become, as fully as possible, the people God created us to be.

In order to understand what sort of answer would be appropriate in response to the question, “How is it with your soul?” we should first ask ourselves, “How is it supposed to be with our souls?”

And here is just one answer. There are many, many others, but this one’s ambitious enough. Christ says, “[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14 NRSV).

That’s a metaphor, of course, but all metaphors refer to something. What is this one referring to, do you suppose? I interpret it as promising a spiritual life that is not only deeply satisfying but immediately available — an inexhaustible source of refreshment within oneself. You don’t have to stand in line at a drinking fountain. It’s within you.

But it’s more than that. It’s not just a form of self-satisfaction. What we’re enjoying is the presence of Jesus Christ. He’s the Living Water. The goal is for us to be imbibing him — in sips, if that’s all we can manage, or in great gulps if we can — and finding a refreshment and satisfaction that are available nowhere else.

Let’s take this one text as an example. If we have a prayer partner or good friend in the faith, and it seems too artificial to ask them, “How is it with your soul?” we could instead have a conversation about the progress each of us is making toward experiencing that gushing spring of water within us.

Have we asked Christ to give us this water? If not, why not? If we have, what’s been the outcome? If there hasn’t been any obvious response to that prayer, let’s talk about it (or better yet, pray about it together) and see if we can figure out what’s hindering us. If there has been a positive response, let’s encourage each other by talking about it, and let’s see what we can do to increase our ability to drink even more freely.

See what I’m saying? The whole point is for us to help each other get deeper into a relationship with the Living God.

Lately, I’ve been particularly impressed by the kinds of metaphors Christ used to describe the Christian life. They were some of the most enjoyable things in life: eating, drinking, partying (he used the party metaphor so often, his enemies ended up using it against him), basking in the sunlight, playing like children in the marketplace — indeed, even becoming like little children again. As enjoyable as each of these things are in human life, they’re metaphors of even greater spiritual possibilities. They’re glimpses of where we’re supposed to be going, both as individuals and as churches. They’re examples of how it’s supposed to be with our souls.

How is it with your soul?

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