Mad Cow Disease

My internet is out at home. Thankfully, my business phone functions quite well as a mobile hotspot. It frustrates me when stuff is out of my control, I can’t fix it, don’t truly understand it, or simply have to wait, whether I understand it or not. I feel like I should be in a therapy group, introducing myself, “Hi, I’m Matt, and I’m a selfish whiner”, imagining the rest of the group replying, “Hi Matt…” I don’t think there’s a 12-step for that, though. There sure should be.

And yet, even though I dislike, intensely, wandering around my life without a map, my King has dropped me into a “Bible study” situation where I begin each session with, “what have you read, and what are your questions?” How terrifying is that? Yesterday, someone asked a question I truly thought I’d never hear, “What about that guy in the Bible who God turned into a beast?”

Can you just sense the palpable collision of synapses, with the imagined sounds of a 100-car pile up added for good measure? Where do you start trying to untangle everything that’s wrong with that question? There are absolutely no werewolves in  Scripture! NONE! My mind is racing around trying to guess what movie is being overlaid on top of some Scripture passage, twisted to fit a corrupt modern interpretation or adaptation.

Suddenly, across the room, another guy says, “Yeah, my mom was teaching us about that.” (more brain concussive activity, flashing red light in the corner of my eye, a winking “idiot light” – “danger! danger!”) “He had long hair and nails…like a cow or something.” Sudden flash of insight, relief and joy! Nebuchadnezzar! It was like Jesus calming the storm on Galilee, only in my soul. 

We spent the next 15 to 20 minutes going through Daniel 4, one of the only passages in Daniel, not written by Daniel. It is purportedly written by Nebuchadnezzar himself. And it is a fascinating story.

The account begins with King Nebby having a bad dream. It started well, with an impressive tree, but then the tree is cut down and the stump capped with iron and bronze. All the “wise men” of Babylon can’t (or are too afraid to) tell the king what it means, until Daniel shows up. He explains the dream, but then warns and encourages the king to desist in his “pride”. And he does, for about a year.

A year after the dream, King Nebby is on his roof looking at his “hanging gardens”, the splendor of Babylon, and starts extoling himself. Here’s how it reads:

Now all this happened to King Nebuchadnezzar. After twelve months, he happened to be walking around on the battlements of the royal palace of Babylon. The king uttered these words: “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?” While these words were still on the king’s lips, a voice came down from heaven: “It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven periods of time will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.”

Now in that very moment this pronouncement about Nebuchadnezzar came true. He was driven from human society, he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle’s feathers, and his nails like a bird’s claws.

Daniel 4:28-33 NET

“Brag, brag, brag…mooo”. That’s pretty much how it went. When you look at the description of what he becomes, I can see the whole “beast-man” thing. It never occurred to me before, but leave it to the imagination of a bunch of young people to totally see something new (or new to me).

Pride is a constant problem for lots of people, and I count myself among them. Wanting control, to have a “map”, to know or understand, are all prideful responses to fear. But, I also have a sneaky evil suspicion that I’m somehow better than other people, that I have “it” figured out, and that others don’t. That’s not fear, it’s the “original sin” of selfish pride, self-centered godless arrogance. 

That selfish pride is what plagued King Nebby. He thought he had “arrived”. He had no fear, and that is a dangerous place to be. “Brag, brag, brag…moo”. That’s where anyone not facing their selfish pride authentically is headed. And my King knows it. So, he sent King Nebby a dream, He sent Daniel, and He knows there will be failure in spite of all that.

But there is also redemption:

But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me.
I extolled the Most High,
and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever.
For his authority is an everlasting authority,
and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next.
 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing.
He does as he wishes with the army of heaven
and with those who inhabit the earth.
No one slaps his hand
and says to him, ‘What have you done?’
At that time my sanity returned to me. I was restored to the honor of my kingdom, and my splendor returned to me. My ministers and my nobles were seeking me out, and I was reinstated over my kingdom. I became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, for all his deeds are right and his ways are just. He is able to bring down those who live in pride.

Daniel 4:34-37 NET

Fortunately for me, pride is not necessarily terminal. The Creator of the universe seeks me in spite of my pride and restores me as I repent. It sometimes feels like a game of “Whack-a-Mole”, trying to keep the pride in the grave. But all my Master wants of me is to keep working at it. He restores me when I look to Him and praise Him. 

Have you ever felt like that?


Relating to Our Creator

The popular phrase, “It’s a relationship, not a religion” has always bothered me. Like teachings that claim Jesus would have gone to the cross had it been only me who was lost, something rubs me wrong with claims like that. I am processing an idea about why it bothers me. I think I know at least one reason.

My relationship with my wife and daughter, the two closest people to me, run into trouble when I have a false concept of who they are. When I don’t allow my daughter to grow up, when I see my wife the way I want her, not as she is, I am relating wrongly to them.

My daughter lives 5 hours from us, and we don’t hear everything that happens in her life. Sometimes, it seems we only hear the bad stuff. It’s easy for us to believe her life is all bad or tough, and we want to be the ones to rescue her. The truth is often very different. She often shares the good with her closest friends, rather than us.

My wife has “issues”. She has amazing strengths, talents, gifts, and skills. She also struggles in areas, sometimes in her walk with her Savior. In general terms, she’s just like everyone else, including me. So, when I make decisions, react, or act without considering all of who she is, or without consulting her, I am liable to make a bad “relational” decision, action, or reaction. Again, this is generally true for all of us.

Not only are these example not unusual, they are truly common. We know we need, should, or will work on our earthly relationships. How common is it for us to do the same with our Creator? How common is it for us to try to get to know Him truly, as He is? It’s not easy work, and there are dangers.

Relationships are messy. So, when we use some version of a claim to have a “relationship” with our Savior, we should expect it to be messy, and not entirely on our part. Think about WHO we have that relationship with. He is not your spouse, nor your parent or child. We may use those terms as metaphors, but they are not adequate descriptions.

In the vacuum of our understanding of our Creator, we tend to “fill in the blanks” on our own. The truth is often very different than our imagination. Consider just the crazy difference between how we imagine our Savior, and someone capable of forming stars and galaxies with the spoken word. Those two things are very different. And we sort of fill in the blanks in between. But with what?

In this context, this passage may apply to us:

To whom can you compare God?
To what image can you liken him?
A craftsman casts an idol;
a metalsmith overlays it with gold
and forges silver chains for it.
To make a contribution one selects wood that will not rot;
he then seeks a skilled craftsman
to make an idol that will not fall over.

Isaiah 40:18-20 NET

We skip right through these passages, assuming they don’t apply to us, the dangers described are no our dangers. The truth may be more unsettling. Think through the pragmatic elements described. The idol is more “tangible”, the idol is propped up so it doesn’t totter, the wood that won’t rot, it’s gold-plated, silver chains.

We like to worship a “good god”. But what do we mean by that? Is God still good when my circumstances aren’t? We say that God is loving, or God is love. But when we hurt, when disaster or catastrophe strikes, do we still think of God as loving? 

And those may be when our Savior shines the brightest for you. So, is your Savior the one who caused a man to be born blind for His glory? Do you worship a Creator who heals a guy who shows no faith or interest in following Him, and yet, doesn’t heal everyone? Do you praise the God who destroyed everyone the planet, except a single family? 

Sure, we love to quote Jeremiah 29:11, but what about 1 through 10? Are we willing to consider the One with plans for us but leaves us in captivity? Are you willing to worship Job’s God? When we say “God is good, all the time” and echo back, “And all the time, God is good”, do we have in mind the God brining disaster on cities (Amos 3:6). 

I’ll bring it up again, Jephthah, after the Spirt of Yahweh came upon him, offered God whatever came through his door first. His daughter came through the door and, though it wrecked him, he offered her up. He gave God the choice, and God chose his only daughter. And the faith of Jephthah (see Hebrews 11:32) was present in his daughter, who submitted willingly to the sacrifice. And before you claim Jephthah was wrong, consider Hebrews 11. And consider God required the same of Abraham with Isaac. There God changed his mind, but up to that point, His command and its effect remained on Abraham. What if the order had not changed?

Will you worship your Savior knowing these things about Him? Consider the parable of the Kingdom in Matthew 22:1-14, the king is harsh and that is heaven. Consider the parable of of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27, especially verse 27. This is heaven. Is this what you look forward to, Who you worship? Is your Savior truly good, as you define the word? When you think of God as love, what do you have in mind? Is it these things?

You have probably guessed where I’m going with this. The uncomfortable reality is that, unless we worship our Creator as He has revealed Himself, we worship idols. As the nation of Israel suffered for this sin, so will we. Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’

Matthew 7:21-23 NET

Did you notice that, even though they prophesied, cast out demons, and did many powerful deeds in your name, they were cast out. Tremble. This is the sort of thing that should help us “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. Is your Savior your “friend”? Okay, but consider that means you are close, very close to the most dangerous being in existence. 

It is with good reason that James calls us to weep and wail before our Creator (James 4:4-10). I suppose instead of “fearless” we should dive into the truths of God in spite of fear. Stand near Him, trembling and nearly wetting our pants. Be unsure about whether to embrace, fall on our face, or bow our heads before Him. Stutter and stammer in our words to Him because we are in awe of Him. 

So, is it still “about a relationship, not about a religion”? If, for you, it is, then be sure you are relating to the right God, not some god which only exists in your imagination. Religion, whatever that means for you, may help remind you of the awe of your Creator. On the other hand, religion, if it’s only rote, separates and insulates you from your Savior. 

Both approaches have dangers and flaws. And both approaches can be correct. Each can serve to deepen the other and give meaning to the other. Maybe our “call to worship” should sound more like this:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this who darkens counsel
with words without knowledge?
Get ready for a difficult task like a man;
I will question you
and you will inform me.

Job 38:1-3 NET

Times of Change

“Some things change, some don’t” I suppose the saying goes. Perhaps it is more of a cliche. We set our clocks forward an hour, entering into a tradition I would love to see die. That is a change of which I’m no fan. I’ve lived in two states that refuse to do so, and loved living in both. Okay, one was Hawaii, and it was a long time ago, but still.

While the time changed, the tradition of changing time did not. Something changed, something didn’t. One thing that has changed is how I teach a class for youth at my church. I let them ask anything about the Bible. I don’t prepare, there’s no notes, no plan (there’s a backup plan just in case). Right after we pray, I ask, “What have you read, and what are your questions.”

It’s not a class where we find a lot of answers. It’s not about what I know. It’s about their search, and encouraging their search through the Scriptures. I try and help them either find answers, or be okay without them. I challenge them to fearlessly explore the weirdness of our Creator and Savior. 

One of the things I do in this class is attempt to connect the world in which Scripture was written with the world in which we live. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” or something like that. I point out that, instead of worshipping idols made of stone and wood, people today worship idols of wealth and popularity. 

One of them brought up Psalm 1:1:

How blessed is the one who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
or stand in the pathway with sinners,
or sit in the assembly of scoffers.

Psalms 1:1 NET

She asked, “Aren’t we supposed to be around them to be a witness?” That’s both an excuse, and also a reality. Churches have so separated us from the world through shame (how dare you be found in such a place/with such people), that we, as disciples of Jesus, can no longer reach those who need Him.

On the other hand, people, especially younger people, have used “reaching the lost” as an excuse to “hang out” with people who are more of an influence on them than they are being on the “lost”. I referred her to Paul’s quote of a Greek poet in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Do not be deceived, ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.'”

So, I gave them a guideline: who is influencing who? But that’s not really adequate is it? It’s not just about influence, it’s about how deeply we connect with those who are outside the family of faith. There is a danger here for me, in particular, because I find “lost people” somewhat refreshing in their views of “saved people”.

The truth is that few “lost people” really enjoy a talk about God, at least with me. That could be my problem, I admit. Even so, it’s something I have to confess when I find myself drawn to “hang out” with them. If I’m pretty sure God will not come up, why do I want to be around them?

So, which is it? Have times changed and now we should add those outside the faith to our circle of friends? Are times still dangerous and we should isolate ourselves from the world? Or is there some ground between these two where we can be lights in this wicked and perverse society (Philippians 2:15)?

I suppose, if we, like Paul, wrap our lives around the upward call of our Savior, then everyone around us will will be influenced by us, rather than we by them. And somewhere in that amorphous middle ground, we may find that we too, like Paul, will become all things to all people so that by all means we might win some (1 Corinthians 9:21-22).

Young people like concrete answers. I wish I had them. My continual mantra seems to be “walk with your Savior, and do what you can to encourage the walk of others.” I suppose if we do that, the rest, more or less, takes care of itself. I suppose. Sounds easy doesn’t? 

Why So Mysterious?

In working with young people, I love the questions they ask. Some are simply the most insightful stuff I have heard. Some of the questions are repeats of stuff I’ve studied before, and the review is really helpful. And some questions are those asked by just about every student of Scripture at some point.

It was one of those necessary questions asked by every student that came up yesterday. She referred to Colossians 1:26, where Paul refers to a “mystery”, hidden from the ages and generations, but now revealed. “What mystery?” It’s a great question because Paul uses that term fairly inconsistently.

The context of Paul’s statement is this:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.

Colossians 1:24-29 NET (emphasis mine)

So, if you do a search of Paul’s use of “mystery” in his writings, you find that he does use it in several letters. When you examine each instance, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t use it to refer to the same thing, or at least not precisely the same thing. It always has to do with salvation through Jesus, but there seems to be some element which is “mysterious”.

Here, in Colossians, the mystery seems to be “Christ in you, the hope of glory”, at least according to the NET translation. Most modern translations have something very similar, but there is a possible connection to Gentiles. It seems that this “mystery” is Christ in Gentiles, that they have a hope of glory.

So, while everyone expects Jews to have this hope of glory, that the Messiah would come for them, that Jesus affects salvation for Gentiles is supposed to surprise everyone. Context is important here. Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches seeks to correct, rather roughly, erroneous teaching that the Gentiles had to follow the Jewish law to be saved.

Considering this, it makes a lot of sense that Paul would refer to the salvation through faith in Jesus as a mystery. It clearly was to some people, namely those teaching this false doctrine of “circumcision for salvation”.

What about Jesus saving His human creatures is a mystery to you? It’s a weird question, like “what don’t you know?”, but it is worth spending some time considering. For instance, are there people you functionally consider beyond the reach of Jesus? Allow me to be more pointed, who, in your community, are you intentionally leaving out of your community of faith?

Before you let yourself off the hook, think through who attends, who is among you weekly, who serve in worship, who help with various elements of the worship service, teach or participate in groups. And then, consider who do not attend weekly, who are not serving, participating, or leading. And then, why are they not? What would it take for them to consider themselves a part of your community?

You see, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We blow right passed this reference to “mystery” without considering that, like these “Judiasers” were creating barriers for Gentiles, we also create barriers for people. How should they dress, how should they look, speak, laugh, where should they live, what should they drive, or how often should they bathe?

I’m really struggling with this because I’m in a class challenging me to address poverty through relationships. I’m being challenged to view myself as impoverished, just as much, if not more, than those I seek to help. I’m being challenged to consider the attitude with which I minister, and I’m painfully aware that pride and arrogance, so much a part of our culture, pollutes my own service to my King.

So, let’s clarify the mystery of why we are such mopes, flailing about, trying to serve those who have so much to offer us, as if we have nothing to learn from them. Jesus wants to purify us as much as cleanse them. He seeks our hearts as He seeks theirs. So, let’s set ourselves up to learn, relationally, from those with fewer material goods, as we share with them the riches of the grace we have found in Jesus.

A Parable About Something Else

How often are you experiencing stress over things you cannot control? When was the last time you experienced peace releasing something which was not your responsibility? And don’t you just love it when someone you’re asking for help says, “That’s not my job” (okay, maybe not that one so much).

Jesus tells us to “take His yoke upon us”, because His burden is light and His yoke is easy. If you think about it, that’s a strange way to describe a yoke of any kind. And yet, He does. It’s one of the best ways He can describe our walk with Him, as opposed to our walk, blindly, in the dark.

One of the things you may be taking on yourself, which is not yours to take, is the responsibility of “saving” others. We are to reach out to others, to be a light of our Savior’s glory, and give explanations of our hope in Him. We are to be a witness to His existence, His love, and His desire for others.

We are not the “savior”, Jesus is the Savior. We are not their creator, our Father is our Creator. We are not one loving our family beyond measure. It may not feel like it, there is a measure to our love for anyone. Jesus’ love is immeasurable. It is the work of the Spirit of Jesus which changes lives.

He also said, “The kingdom of God is like someone who spreads seed on the ground. He goes to sleep and gets up, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. By itself the soil produces a crop, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And when the grain is ripe, he sends in the sickle because the harvest has come.”

Mark 4:26-29 NET

The parable of the sower, previously, in this chapter had the “seed” being the “word”, or Jesus’ preaching. So, it is probably meant to be the same here. Rather than focusing on the soils, here the focus is on the responsibilities or duties for growing the seed. The seed may produce 30, 60, or 100 times what was sown, but how does that happen?

The breakdown of how this all happens can be viewed this way:

  1. The sower (us) sows the seed (the word)
  2. The we rise and sleep, day to day
  3. The word sprouts and grows, we do not know how
  4. The soil (hearer) by itself produces the grain in stages
  5. We harvest (disciple) the word

That’s not the only way to view this parable. This way borrows the imagery and meaning from the Parable of the Soils, which is a good place to start. Although, some of the elements may not be exact correlations.

The soil producing “by itself” may reflect the unseen work of the Holy Spirit, more than any particular quality of the soil. But, think through the parable of the soils. It seems to be a quality of the soil which makes it more effective for growing. So, the Holy Spirit works in all who hear, but some are more receptive to Him than others.

Either way, the sower, you and I, we are spectators more than agents in this parable. Jesus doesn’t point out the work of the sower after sowing. It is probably understood, but our Savior has another point to make. He wants to emphasize that it’s not about the sower. It’s not about the sower’s work beyond sowing and harvesting. The sower “doesn’t know how” the seed grows.

It’s not about you. How refreshing. It’s not about how you hammer away at someone with the words of Jesus. It’s not about how intensely you love them, how consistently you preach to them, how clearly you articulate the truth of the good news. It’s not about you.

So, scatter seed. There are different soils, and some of it is good soil. Even on good soil, much will happen you cannot see, and do not understand. That’s a “feature”, not a “flaw” to sowing seed. Share the good news, and leave room for the Spirit of our Savior to work. Don’t aim at the “good soil”, chances are we are not good judges of soil. Just sow away.