The Very, Very Unbalanced Title Match (Sunday School Review)

This Sunday, our kids heard the famous story of David facing down Goliath in 1 Samuel 17.  David’s attitude is exemplary in showing us just what trusting God can allow us to do. It allowed David to stand out in front of his own army and face down a giant. God is on our side, and if David can stare down a Philistine champion, maybe we can show some courage as well.

So the Israelites find themselves at war with the Philistines, there perennial rivals in the area. Who knows what had set off the conflict this time. Regardless, like many ancient battles, both sides were a little uneasy with the wholesale slaughter of their own army, so a challenge of champions fighting is put forward as a solution. Many cultures used duels of champions instead of all-out fighting in order to lessen the blow should they lose. Better to lost one guy and live than lose hundreds or thousands and be trampled.

Goliath, then is introduced, as a hulking tower of muscle, armor and weapons. I don’t know if there’s another passage that so thoroughly describes a man and his weapons in the Bible. So, who’s gonna tackle this one? Is it the tall, handsome king, Saul? Nope. Is it tall, handsome Eliab? Nope. Even with the promise of riches, marrying the king’s daughter, and tax exempt status, no one steps up to the plate.

In tromps David, carrying a load of supplies because the state of war is taking so long that families are forced to send supplies to keep their family members going. David has one job – deliver the goods to where they needed to go. He does his job, right as Goliath comes out for the challenge. David hears it and his heart starts racing with anger, at Goliath’s blasphemy and insults, and excitement, over the upcoming cage match with the giant. David glances around, and everyone is hiding. David is appalled and begins dragging men out, pointing at the giant and asking, “Tell me again, you coward, what do you get for fighting and winning?” The soldier would answer, then slink back into his tent. Eliab gets on to David charging him with malice, and disobedience, but David stood with a clear conscience, he had done his job.

Finally, Saul gets wind of David’s marching around the camp and calls him in. “David, what are you doing, boy?”

“Your highness, you and everyone else need not fear! I have arrived and will take on the giant!” exclaimed David. Saul spewed the wine he had begun drinking all over the tent.

“I’m sorry, David. It sounded like you said you would fight the giant? He’s been a warrior since he was a boy, and you’re still a boy.”

“The Lord is with me, Your Highness,” says David, his eyes narrowing. “I’ve handled bears and lions more fearsome than this braying donkey.”

Saul sighs and motions for his armor bearers to find some armor fit for David. They had their work cut out for them, but, after all of their effort, David walks out with no armor, in stark contrast to Goliath. David spends some time meditating down by the stream as he picks up five smooth stones and stashes them in his satchel.

Upon arriving to the edge of the valley where the combat would begin, David notices the world seem to dim as a great voice thunders, as music begins to play. “Weighing in at a terrifying amount, covered in armor, and with enough weaponry to spear-fish a whale, the Giant from Gath, Goliath!” The Philistines cheer as Goliath walks in, the lights playing off of his shining, well polished armor, looking like a rhinestone cowboy if there ever was one. Goliath stops and poses, letting his oiled-up biceps talk for a moment before delivering his speech upon seeing his opponent.

“Are you coming against me with sticks? Am I a dog to be played with? I’m gonna bury you, little boy!” shouts Goliath.

The lights shift and focus on David as his own song begins to play.  “On this side of the valley, coming it at a diminutive 105 pounds of pure sheep smell, David!”

“Oh come on! The announcer’s biased!” David said. “Whatever.” David shrugs, and walks down the valley, popping his neck on either side and loosening up his joints. When he’s within shouting distance, David calls out:

“Look here, Philistine. You come at me with an arsenal, I come at you with the God of Israel on my side. He will show you that this battle can be won without fancy weapons or… height. In fact, today, I’ll be feeding your corpse to the birds and animals. Your people will be decimated. And the Lord will receive victory this day! Come at me, bro!”

Somewhere, a bell sounds, and David rushes the field of battle. Goliath lumbers in, carefully picking his way down. Once situated, David sets is feet, loads a single stone in his sling and winds up for the toss. Goliath, not suspecting a thing, picks up momentum, and suddenly stops short of even being able to take a swing at David. Goliath stumbles, and falls. Having not brought a sword, David improvises, running forward, grasping Goliath’s own sword and bringing it down with a sickening shlup. David holds up the head of his enemy and lets out a cheer as the Philistines panic and run and the Israelites give chase.

David had courage because, for all his faults, David understood what it meant to trust God. David may have felt fear, he may have realized the cost and risk, but David trusted that God would come through for His people. David’s trust in God would serve him his entire life and would earn him the title of “man after God’s own heart” for his faithfulness and trust.

How do you model God being with you? Do you take faithful risks? Do you step out in faith? Do you encourage your kids to be brave and trust in God? How do you model the wisdom to know when a risk needs to be taken or avoided?

May you live as though God is always with you. (Because He is!)


Calling Jesus Names

Have you ever heard a racial slur come out of a child’s mouth? I haven’t heard one recently, but when you do, trust me, the event will stick in your mind. You’ll ask, “Where did they learn that? Do their parents talk that way? Do they know what that means?”

I’m not really sure where to start with this post. I had a really great weekend. I celebrated my Scottish heritage up at Maryville College for the Smoky Mountain Highland Games. I watched burly men toss rocks. I watched burly men toss huge telephone poles. I had a plate of haggis and mashed potatoes washed down with an Irn-Bru, which is still the weirdest drink I have ever thrown down my goozle. (If I had to describe the flavor it would be orange rind and bubblegum.) I listened to some old Irish and Scots folk songs and was blasted by a combined Pipe and Drum Corps playing Amazing Grace. I was happy, and full, and very, very warm. The warmth was from the dear sounds of ancestry… or maybe the 88 degree heat, not sure. I enjoyed celebrating a culture, but I know that not everyone can with as much open pride.

God created us in His image, which gets called the Imago Dei (Latin) in the pop Christian lingo right now. I have to hand Gen X and Millennials one big high five for bringing back early church fathers and mothers and incorporating more Latin and Greek into teaching and popular theology. As God’s images, we are designed to reflect God’s glory, authority, and love into the world around us and reflect Creation’s praise back to God. (I’ve tread this path before on this blog.) God encourages culture. In fact, read through the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and you’ll rarely find God or His prophets and apostles calling out the culture (food, clothing, artwork, language, etc.) Instead, you’ll see God calling His people and others to a right attitude of justice, mercy, care for the poor, proper worship of God, to repent and seek forgiveness while offering it to others.

So it pains me greatly when I hear God’s people who are supposed to praise God with their mouth and not slander their neighbor talk about “those people.” “Those people” often come tied to some pretty nasty assumptions, and are usually poor or have little power to affect the kind of change they need. “Those people” are listed in Matthew 25 as appearances of Jesus. See, “those people” need a cup of water, need a decent meal, need clothing and security, need a safe place to sleep, need a visitor in their prison cell or their hospital bed. When we as God’s people begin to dehumanize and speak about “those people” with anger derision, refusing to help or speak out, or allow the powerful to continually take advantage of them, we may just be speaking the words, “But, Lord, when did we see you thirsty, or hungry, or naked, or in prison?” And our own reckless words will condemn us.

I beg you to come with me on a nuanced journey. Let’s work this out. If you get uncomfortable, you can stop at any time… but you’ll have to face this at some point.

You are made in God’s image.

Your most hated co-worker is made in God’s image.

Your in-law that drives you nuts is made in God’s image.

Prisoners are made in God’s image.

Death-row inmates are made in God’s image.

Your pastor is made in God’s image.

The pastor you disagree with is made in God’s image.

The President is made in God’s image.

Immigrants are made in God’s image.

Migrants are made in God’s image.

The Ayatollah is made in God’s image.

Kim Jong Un is made in God’s image.

Police officers are made in God’s image.

Black Lives Matter members are made in God’s image.

Every person you fear might shake up your comfortable life and status quo is made in God’s image.

Are you uncomfortable? Do you see what God’s image does? It places us in an uncomfortable place where we share the exact same foundation with every single other human being who has ever lived and who ever will live. We are all made in God’s image.

The Benedictine monks had a practice of bowing to guests to their monasteries. They bowed in reverence to the presence of Christ in their guest. They recognized that welcoming someone and showing hospitality was welcoming the presence of Jesus into their midst.

We seem rather quick to draw lines that Jesus didn’t draw. Jesus, who defined his primary ministry as to His people, the Jews, still served the Roman Official, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Samaritan woman, and chastised his disciples when they threatened Samaria in their anger.

If we can look at another human being and see anything less than a human being, loved by the God who longs to show them mercy and love, maybe our eyes haven’t been made complete in Jesus’ image, yet. If we can hate and denigrate and name call and demean and ignore, maybe our hearts still need work until we’re made complete in Jesus. If we can look at the image of God and speak hate over it, aren’t we really speaking hate to the One who made them in the first place? Aren’t we throwing our voices in with the crowd shouting and mocking Him as He hung on the cross?

Who do you need to rethink? What groups have you denigrated? What kind of language do your kids hear when it comes to minorities, immigrants, or those that look or think differently than you? Do your children know anyone different than them?

Naive White Male Makes Discovery in Foreign Land

Several times in my life I have found myself in a position of making a purchase in a market in a foreign country. In one of these countries I knew a smattering of the language, and the other, I found myself at a severe disadvantage knowing almost nothing about the language and less than I’d like about the culture at large. However, in both countries I found myself expecting everything to be cheap. I found myself valuing things as less than they would be at home. In some cases this was true, based on basic exchange rates, but in others I found myself surprised. (Now, some of this is my inherently trusting nature that renders me hopelessly naive at times.)

Today I wondered about that. What caused me to value someone else’s artwork or handiwork as less? Was it simple cultural familiarity bias where I assumed other countries were further behind? Was it pride? Was it relying on hearsay and assumptions built up over a lifetime? Was it a combination of all of these? Regardless, I was humbled and realized how much more I needed to grow in my understanding and appreciation for other cultures outside my own.

I wonder if this is how the disciples felt whenever Jesus raised up someone who, in that culture, was valued less. How did the disciples feel when they came back to find Jesus chatting with a divorced, unmarried, Samaritan woman? (What judgments are you unconsciously passing on her yourself?) How did the disciples react when Jesus touched a man with a skin disease – an unclean person? What did the disciples say when Jesus said that a Roman centurion, one of the hated, oppressive gentiles, had more faith than anyone in Israel? The disciples suddenly found themselves in a seemingly foreign land realizing that people had way more value than they thought.

We struggle with this ourselves today in America. How much to we value the immigrant, the foreigner God commanded his people to respect and care for? How much do we value women, and all of the struggles they face? How much do we value those with a different skin color, with all of the present and historical abuse they’ve suffered?

In our families, how much do we value our children? Do we show it by our actions, by our forethought, by our considering their dreams, hopes, and fears? Jesus raised children to a new level when he said, “Let the little children come to me.” He made them a priority, much like God did in the Old Testament – funny how that works, right? God taught his people that children are blessings, gifts that don’t belong to us as parents, but are gifted to us to raise, guide, disciple, and protect. Children are more than children, they are human beings, too. I know this sounds cliche, but a reminder of the value of children is needed on occasion.

How do your actions show what and who you value? How do your actions teach your kids who you choose not to value? What might you change about your habits to show your children to value all people?

Give the 9 Some Credit, and the 1 Even More (Luke 17:11-19)

I’m writing this the week before Thanksgiving, and we’ll be covering the story in Luke 17:11-19 where Jesus heals ten lepers and only the one Samaritan comes back to thank Jesus. There’s way more to this story than a simple lesson in politeness and a reminder that 90% of the population doesn’t show gratitude. (Wait… that number seems high.)

First, the story begins by noting that Jesus “continued his journey to Jerusalem.” Luke uses this phrase as a constant reminder, and tension builder that Jesus is on His way not just to Jerusalem, but also to the cross – which should be in the background of each and every story here. Remember, the cross is the moment when God took the curse of the law onto Himself to fulfill the Covenant He had made with Israel back in Exodus, and further back with Abram back in Genesis.

So ten lepers – and leper here is a word that boils down to “really ugly skin condition.” It could’ve been a rash, or it could have been actual leprosy. Regardless, if the skin condition was bad enough, the Mosaic law required that person to live outside the community to keep the community safe, and also to maintain the ritual purity of the people and the Temple.

Jesus responds to the cry for help from the ten men – who were risking quite a bit by coming close – by telling the men to go and see the priest. Now, this is where everyone gets tied up in this story. While on the way, the men realize they’ve been healed, and they hurry on to see the priest, all except one.

Let’s pause here. Jesus here is asking these men to trust, to have faith in God, in Himself. The nine Jewish men did just that – they went on their way, and followed through. Part of their cleansing involved sacrifice, and they probably would have offered fellowship and thanksgiving offerings in gratitude for being healed. These men were well on their way to showing gratitude – and in the proper way laid out by the Mosaic Law.

Now, what about that Samaritan? Sure, we give him marks for coming back and saying thanks directly, but he should get WAY more credit than just for saying “thank you.” See, the Samaritan saw something the Jewish men missed… God in the flesh. While the Jewish men went to praise God in the Temple, where they and their ancestors had met with God for generations, the Samaritan realized that God had met with him in-person in the form of Jesus. The Samaritan threw himself at Jesus’ feet – something normally reserved for kings or, in Jewish practice, God alone. Luke is showing us that the Samaritan noticed God in the midst of his people when the ones looking hardest missed it.

So this Thanksgiving, the most important lesson may be to ask ourselves: “Do we notice when God is present?” Do we realize when God is with us, in our midst, acting to bring His Kingdom here on earth as it is on heaven?

Where have you seen or felt God in your midst this past week? When do you have conversations with your kids about God’s nearness? Are we people who miss the relationship and meeting with God for the protocol? Are we the nine who missed it, or the one who realized what was really happening?

Fragile Faith and a House of Cards

I’ve been thinking about worldviews and Christianity, in particular. In all honesty, the topic fascinates me to no end, despite me being on the receiving end of a profound couple of worldview challenges over the course of my life. There is almost nothing more disorienting than realizing that your worldview is too small, or, worse still, wrong.

I had my own disorienting “valley of the shadow of death” moment back in college. Cliche, I know. “Next, you’ll be telling us the sky is blue and water’s wet.” I mean, sure, it is, but sometimes cliches are there for a reason. Anyway, being a Bible major, meant I was wrestling with theology daily – from all different traditions of Christian history. I found myself at one point staring at a metaphorical pile of cards where what I thought was my faith had been. It had, in my mind, been an unassailable fortress of belief and right doctrine. Everything had a place and answer… and then my professors walked through and plucked out or shifted the cards one by one. My reading began to shift the table under the house of cards, and new forms of worship opened up as I traveled with our choir to different churches and had devotions with an Anglican friend out of the Book of Common Prayer.

This to say I still cling to orthodoxy (“right doctrine”) and orthopraxy (“right doing”), but the object of my trust has shifted. To say that I trust God now would sound, to most of us, a little odd. But, looking back, I think that was my problem. I trusted the system I had, rather than trusting the One that system described. When my system was challenged, and my house of cards fell, what was left was a person, a God who was smiling at me like a father whose child has just realized playing cards don’t make a sturdy house. And so I began wrestling – which has a long Biblical tradition in Jacob, whose name was even changed to “God struggles with” or “struggles with God.” That wrestling took me through church history, through modern theological thoughts, back to the church fathers, and through recent discoveries and scholarship on 1st Century Jewish life.

I’ve heard of so many Christians that have a trust in God based on a list of “provable facts” and some basic apologetic work who found themselves in a dark place when confronted by a worldview or counterpoint that challenges these basic beliefs. Many overcome this by realizing that our trust is in God, not in rhetoric or some tightly-constructed system of thinking. Some, though, if challenged on one belief, begin to question other beliefs and can drift into agnosticism as their house of cards collapses around them.

It’s okay to doubt, to question, to dialogue with God and others. The Bible isn’t particularly concerned about doubt – see Abraham, Job, David, etc. What the Bible seems to care about more is who is being doubted. Notice that the names listed above are still heroes celebrated for their faith, despite their moments of doubt. These people and many in the Bible like them are examples that God can take doubt, He can handle questions. God works with insecurity. One of the biggest complaints from naturalists of religion is that we believe regardless of facts. I take issue with this, a little. We believe because we trust, the other way around can lead to shaky ground.

Is your trust in a system of theology, or in the One that system describes? It can be hard to confront when we realize our theology is getting in the way of our trusting God. I may not subscribe to someone else’s theological blueprint, but I can celebrate those commonalities that we can affirm together as we worship, praise, and serve as one Body.

If you had to really think about it, where is your faith (read trust) centered: on a system of belief, or on the One that system describes? What do you model to your children? How are you introducing your children to God, and not just a system of belief?

Your Media Bubble Is Unscriptural

Who knew that bubbles would be all the rage in public conversation after second grade? I hadn’t really considered bubbles much since learning that most weddings use them instead of rice or birdseed in order to be more environmentally friendly. Of course, though, I’m not talking about the fun, pop-able joy orbs that can make a bad day seem more joyful.

A media bubble is the echo chamber that we create around ourselves to solidify our worldview and make sure that we have the sanity we need to face the day. Before the internet and the million-or-so channels on television, there were only a few ways to get your news and its interpretation: 3 local/national TV stations, 1-2 local newspapers, a national paper (if you bothered), and word of mouth. Most everyone seemed to be working from a similar framework. Now, though, conservatives can go to their corner, liberals can go to theirs, independents can find their place, and so can just about any other label. Today, then, no one is working from a common framework or even a similar worldview. Plurality has divided us to the point of hilarity.

Starting in college, I challenged myself to listen to viewpoints that differed from my own. Why? Because I realized I was missing crucial perspectives and ideas that might help me to better engage with the world and the people around me. Did I agree with all of those new ideas, of course not, and many new ideas I have to run through some serious critical thinking before deciding what to do with them. Here’s my hot-take on the bubble problem: our media bubbles are unscriptural and damaging.

“The time is coming, you see, when people won’t tolerate healthy teaching. Their ears will itch, and they will turn away from listening to the truth and will go after myths instead. But as for you, keep your balance in everything. Put up with suffering; […]; complete the particular task assigned to you.” 2 Timothy 3-5

This verse comes after an exhortation to hold fast to Scripture and the teaching of Jesus and to continue announcing the good news of Jesus’ Kingship at all times. I see our media bubbles, especially as Christians, to be damaging. It would be similar to a doctor deciding to operate on a patient without listening to the patient describe his symptoms. At that point, the doctor would be guessing and might perform the wrong operation on her patient. If we, as followers of Jesus, aren’t listening to those around us, how can we know what needs they actually need met? (As an aside, can I say that adding qualifier to the term “Christian” is about as dangerous as lighting a stick of dynamite and then putting it in one’s pocket?”) Christians who are liberal and those who are conservative need to branch out and listen to the other side. If we do not, we will have no idea how to partner with, show compassion toward, and love those who also claim to follow King Jesus. On top of that, we are disregarding Jesus’ prayer in John when he prayed for unity for His followers, in addition to scratching our own itching ears with the stories we want to hear.

It should go without saying that I am against blind acceptance of anything. Scripture never suggests that we blindly follow anyone. GK Chesterton points out that artistic descriptions of Hebrew prophets and Christian saints almost always show them with eyes wide open – alert and in awe of what they have seen and must say. We should live the same way, with eyes wide, alert, and ready to unleash compassion, justice, and love on the world around us.

What does your media bubble look like? Do you have any voices in your life that challenge you to think? Do you encourage your family by challenging them? To you accept challenges to your thinking when they come, or do you actively avoid them?

Quitters never win…

And winners never quit.” I’m sure the saying has been around forever, but my grandfather (we call him “Bear”) and my mother would often hand me this saying when I would inevitably want to stop something I had started. Whether on the little league baseball diamond, band drama in high school, or my stupidity in over-committing in college, this phrase rang around in my head. It’s also akin to some phrases Paul liked to give about running the race marked out for us, and being willing to push through suffering because it produces character, and then hope.

I may even take this to extremes sometimes. I have a hard time not finishing things now, which has led me to hate-read a book or two out of spite in order to say I had finished it. An unfinished project will keep me awake at night. Ok, so maybe this attitude is not the healthiest at its compulsive level, but it has helped me to tackle some daunting challenges and make it through in one piece.

To me, honoring commitment is a thoroughly godly trait. Now, I admit there are exceptions for when that commitment turns out to be in the direction of something ungodly – theft, injustice, murder, selfishness. (See the amazing act of the Egyptian midwives in Exodus 1 who refused to follow through on their commitment to their Pharaoh when he required them to murder.) But for the most part, if we commit to something, we should stick with it.

I see faith this way. As with all of us, I have had my periods of doubt and frustration. (I don’t relate to to the prophet Elijah and the apostle Thomas for nothing.) I’ve gone through a whole year of questioning, of bowing, kneeling, begging God for some kind of direction and answer. But here’s what made the difference – walking away was never on the table for me. I have known what my baptism meant – a vow made before a congregation to God and a transformation – and I wasn’t going to quit. Quitters never win, and winners never quit. Faith to me is a trust, a commitment, a decision that goes beyond doubt or belief. Faith is what keeps a marriage healthy. Faith is what keeps friendships viable. Faith is what keeps a congregation together. Mutual commitment is at the heart of every relationship, human and divine.

Our children must have a foundation of what commitment means. Our children must value their word as their bond. Jesus said to let our yes be yes, and our no be no. If we commit, we must stick with it, no matter the challenge. We shouldn’t need to use vast promises and reassurances to convince others that we will keep up our end of the agreement – we should just do it, and let our actions speak for us.

When do you find time to discuss and encourage commitment in your children? How does your example of commitment and faith differ from the culture around you? What have you struggled keeping commitment-wise? What kept you going?