The Fulfilled Literacy Rate

January 25, 2010

A blogging mother explains the advantages of her young children not knowing how to read…
As we sat in the mini-van in the parking lot, the kids wanted me to open their fortune cookies and read their fortunes to them. I seized the moment….I totally owned it.

Cole yelled to me, “Mommy, read mine….read mine first”. I said, “Okay, Cole, yours says ‘He who cleans his room as a child grows up to be a wise man who will someday be a famous race car driver'”.

Bella’s fortune read: “A child who eats all her vegetables at every meal will grow long beautiful hair, like Hannah Montana, and marry Troy Bolton from High School Musical”.

Garrett’s fortune read: “The child who sleeps through the night in his own bed is said to become a dragon warrior like Kung Fu Panda when he grows up”.

Landon’s fortune read: “He who no longer gets put on time-outs or talks back to his mother will become a train engineer someday, traveling to wonderful far-away places”.

They all stared at me in awe….”Wow, Mommy….do our fortunes really say all that?”. I said, “Yes…aren’t they awesome?”. Cole said, “Yeah, it’s like they were written just for us”. I smiled and said, “Yes, son…they were….amazing, huh?”

Now, whether we agree with this parenting technique or not, something about the episode sounds awfully familiar. And it gives us a reason to pause and to wonder. In fact, I have to wonder if something like that fortune cookie reading isn’t happening every day of our lives. Could it be? I wouldn’t go so far as to call it propaganda. But somehow and in various and eccentric ways we are persuaded, aren’t we? A parent wants us to behave, and so life is read to us in a morally persuasive way. An advertising executive wants us to need a glitzy new product, and so life is read to us as if we really have to have it. A politician wants to win an election, and so life is read to us as if the history of the free world depended upon our vote. Life is read to us. Life is fed to us in a jumble of fortune cookie interpretations. And so, the best that we can do, the best that Cole, Bella, Garrett and Landon can do, is to realize that this kind of persuasive interpretation happens—and happens all the time—and then to make a decision about the one who is reading: Is there a person out there who can read to us without trying to push us and prod us? And do we trust him? And finally are we willing to see where his reading of our lives will take us?
“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, (Jesus) went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. He stood up to read…”

A friend of mine said that he learned to read by reading the Bible. His parents made him practice every day and when he finished reading the Bible, from cover to cover, he said that he knew how to read, but he didn’t believe a word of what he had read. “Not a single word,” I replied.
“Well, I believe that certain things may have happened. But I wouldn’t interpret them they way they’ve been interpreted. For example, the Red Sea. I don’t believe that Moses or God parted the Red Sea. It was probably more like a tsunami or some other natural explanation…”

“But is it possible that God could have been involved in causing the tsunami?”
“It’s possible,” said my friend.
“But I don’t see it that way… Besides, what’s God doing causing natural catastrophes? I thought he was supposed to be good.”

You see, conversations like these are now commonplace, and they’re capable of going in an infinite number of wild directions. At this very moment, the Internet is abuzz with every imaginable theory on the Bible, on science, on health, on wealth, on happiness and on the end of the world as we know it. Unlike any other time in human history we can read almost anything from any point of view. But, let’s focus on the way that Jesus has learned to read.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t traffic in fortune cookies. He doesn’t chat on-line. He doesn’t twit about what he’s doing right now. His readings involve the Torah, the Psalms and the Prophets—all of which were available to be read by only three percent of the Jewish population of Judea. The remaining ninety-seven percent had to listen. They had to listen and consequently to rely upon the interpretations of those educated enough to read in public—ie., the scribes. According to Luke 2:46, however, a twelve-year-old Jesus apparently had learned enough Hebrew to offer interpretations of his own. And that’s how he learned how to read his life—in community. In a community of people who were willing and able to go back and forth about the tangible, nitty-gritty meaning of words. And so, returning to Nazareth, he stood up to read.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”
You see, that’s an interpretation already, isn’t it? Already the writer of this passage has crafted his words as if the Spirit of the Lord might come to rest upon somebody, as if it might dig its talons into a person like a bird grabs onto its prey. And that’s an interpretation of the world and of human history that’s very different from Cole becoming a famous race car driver, if he cleans his room. It’s very different from Bella growing her hair like Hannah Montana, if she eats her vegetables. In fact, that “Spirit of the Lord” reading of things might be considered dangerous. Think about it. Garrett might be trying to sleep through the night in his own bed when suddenly the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him. Landon might be ready to enter the best train engineering school in the whole country, but one day the Spirit of the Lord sends him to Haiti instead. And who is this “me” that Jesus reads about?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME because he has anointed ME to bring good news to the poor. He has sent ME to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

For years, even centuries, I can imagine this passage being read by rabbis and scribes. And yet, none of them would even dare dream of being “me.” To be the “me” in Isaiah 61 would instantaneously load you up with cosmic responsibility. You wouldn’t have anywhere to hide or any time to call your own. And consequently I don’t imagine very many readers of this passage rendering that interpretation. For them, “me” might be better understood and could possibly be interpreted as “all of us” or “all of Israel.”

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon all of Israel…” Yeah, that’s it. And now, you see, there are all kinds of places to hide. Now I could hear that sentence being read and say to myself:
Wow! That’s cool. The Spirit is upon all of us in general, but as far as what the Spirit has sent us to do—well, I sure hope somebody’s doing it!

Saint Augustine, before he became known as Saint Augustine, used to carouse around the brothels and the bookstores of North Africa. He had made his way through all the published works of Aristotle and sampled most types of ale, when one of his drinking buddies died. At the age of thirty-two, he wandered into a garden to be alone, where he overheard some children playing a game; and during the game one of the children distinctly said, “Take up and read.” Perched next to Augustine someone had left a parchment copy of the Paul’s Letter to Romans. He picked up the words and carried them with him for the rest of his life. He used them to interpret the world in the name of Jesus Christ:
“Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

“I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”

The point is—everything requires interpretation. And every interpretation requires a community that believes that interpretation and expresses a desire to live it out. Even those things that the Declaration of Independence declares as self-evident—even life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—aren’t exactly evident to every individual that’s even lived and died. Someone else has to explain them to us. And then to give us a chance to respond.

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This, you see, is the response of Jesus to what’s been read and re-read and interpreted and re-interpreted for a long time. Jesus responds by owning the words that are read. He is the “me” that the Spirit has sent to bring good news, and he’s willing and perhaps able to bear that cosmic load. But now the question is this: Will there be a community of men, women and children who agree with him? And will they for once stop hiding and live as if it were true? And will they die as if it were true?

Before he died last April, Chuck Gulick showed me an article in Time magazine about Jesus. I glanced at it, and said, “What about it?” He adjusted the bandanna on his head and said, “We’re ahead of the curve, aren’t we?” I nodded. We are ahead of the curve, but not because we read about Jesus in Time. It’s because, once upon a time, Jesus read about us. Amen.

Do Whatever He Tells You

January 17, 2010

Whatever. Biblically speaking, it’s a perfectly good word. In Genesis 2:19, “whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” Deuteronomy 23:23 declares that “whatever your lips utter you must diligently perform.” Regarding the words of the true prophet, 1 Samuel 9:6 clarifies things like this: “whatever he says always comes true.” But, you see, in spite of this rich history, I’m afraid that the popular use of the English word, whatever, has fallen on hard times. On the Internet, Wikipedia identifies whatever as a slang expression of (reluctant) agreement, indifference, or begrudging compliance. Whatever also has currency as a catch-all retort for people who cannot come up with good retorts. It’s often found in scripted lines, used by Caucasian females, emphasizing the final two syllables, as in ‘like what-ever!’ This is an actual exchange of dialogue from a recent movie.
I’m not going to let those vampires eat me.
They’re zombies, Frank.
Whatever.

You see, with the simple insertion of the term, whatever, contemporary human beings are able to break free from what’s been uttered only a second earlier, while simultaneously acknowledging that it’s been said. In a world where more and more words are peddled, printed and electronically downloaded every day, whatever functions like an escape hatch. Whatever cloaks us with pseudo-invisibility and absolves us of any real responsibility… And yet, before we get too carried away with the laissez-faire benefits of whatever, consider how Jesus latches on to the expression.

Mary says in John’s Gospel, “Do whatever he tells you.” She says it to the servants at a wedding party. She says it because the host of the party is about to run out of wine. Do whatever, whispers the mother of Jesus, with her hand cupped to her mouth. Do whatever words the Word of God exhales in your direction. Do the very sound vibrations that you hear from his lips. Do whatever those syllables signal you to do. Do them.
Long before cell phones and text messaging and social networking, we had a signal. Each of the kids in the neighborhood knew the signal, and we could be playing inside with our toys or watching cartoons or sleeping in late when we heard it. The signal emanated from the vocal chords of the first prepubescent kid to wander outside his or her front door. And what the signal signaled was that every other kid should come out and join in a game of Kick The Can or street hockey or… whatever. The activity itself didn’t matter. What mattered then to a bunch of neighborhood children is still what matters today, which is the tangible doing of what the signal signals.

And let me ask you something on the third Sunday of the New Year: do you imagine that God has a signal? Is there a signal that calls each man, woman and child, made in the image of God, to one worldwide community? If it’s true that a signal exists, then the types of activities, the games that we play, the food that we eat, the drinks we drink, could be whatever. Just so long as we do whatever in response to that original summons, that original signal, that original word.

“Do you dare try,” says the Jesuit priest in The Mission, a film, starring Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro. Do you dare try… I remember listening to that line being delivered by Father Gabriel to the character that had just killed his brother. Rodrigo Mendoza sat alone in a prison cell. And I sat alone in my living room. “For me there is no redemption,” says the slave trader to the priest. “There is no penance great enough.” “There is,” replies Father Gabriel. “But do you dare try it.” You see, penance is a practice of the Roman Catholic Church in which a person of faith does something to show how sorry he is for damaging the God-given relationships that comprise his own life. Doing penance is meant to lead to restoration. According to the tradition, penance may involve saying a few Hail Marys. Or, in the case of Rodrigo Mendoza, it could mean lugging a load of heavy armor around the forest of South America. Whatever.
The point, you see, is not the specific thing that we do, but that we resemble those servants who receive their instructions in the second chapter of John’s Gospel.
“Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘fill the jars with water…’”

Now I am no big advocate for the formal practice of penance. At Latah Valley we do not believe it’s necessary for you and I to do anything to receive God’s forgiveness. But here’s the ironic twist of this entire passage. The servants are about to fill the very containers which have been intended for the ritual cleansing of individuals. The H2O that typically comes out of these jars is meant to forgive sins. It’s not meant to be consumed at a party. It’s meant to wash away the dirt of the world. So what might we infer when Jesus tells the party staff to do whatever with those purification jars? And what does it mean for us today that doing whatever may lead to at least 180 gallons of the best wine we’ve ever tasted?

Around Christmas time I attended a party where the wine flowed. On the kitchen table were about twenty-some open bottles. And every once in a while the host of the party fought his way through his guests and brought up another bottle or two. Then, just for fun, a group of us traced his steps and walked down to his basement where the wine had been stored. There it was, amid the ski boots, the dust mop and a few cans of old Campbell’s Soup. We stood there a moment, admiring the variety and asking questions. And then, from the mouth of this attorney who also owned a winery I heard the signal. The signal came in the form of a question about Latah Valley. He asked me about worship, about whatever it is we do together in Jesus’ name. And shortly after that, maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour, we forgot all about filling glasses. We were having fun. Doing whatever Jesus tell us to do, even if it doesn’t always make sense, doing whatever leads to fun. Amen.

Filled With Expectation

January 11, 2010

Something is not rotten in Denmark. I read recently that the Danish people are more satisfied with their lives than their counterparts in other countries and the primary reason is lower expectations. That’s right. With regard to the economy, for example, the Danes are mediocre at best. But because their bureaucratic leaders start off the year, setting employment goals and loan re-payment goals so low, they actually feel quite good about things. The same is true when it comes to health issues, to the institution of marriage and to the prospects of raising children and getting a good education. Time and time again, the Danish citizens don’t expect much. And, therefore, when a fair number of flu patients actually recover, that’s a beautiful thing. When more than sixty percent of children are born to couples who are not married and have no intention of getting married ever or ever again, hey, it could be worse. In fact, as an illustration of how the Danes massage and milk this lowered-expectation gig, consider this headline. In the very headline from a Copenhagen newspaper, which announced Denmark’s status as the number one happiest country in Europe, the editors included the words lig nu, which means “for now” or “for the time being.” So, Denmark is the happiest country for the time being, and it’s probably not going to last…

Now the reason that I mention this anthropological trivia is not to encourage us to imitate the people of Denmark. I don’t think the secret to living the Christian life is to lower our expectations. On the contrary, based on today’s passage, my sense is that expectations ought not to be raised or lowered, but perhaps re-directed. So, let me just enunciate this point: Jesus of Nazareth can meet our every expectation, provided that we believe in the expectations that he has of us. Moreover, I want to highlight the way in which John the Baptist deflects the expectations of the crowd in Luke 3:15 and how he does it without trivializing the expectations that the people bring to him, but which they really ought to bring to Jesus.

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…”

More powerful. You and I can expect the Messiah to be more powerful. But how might we expect to experience that power?

On the night of the Live Nativity, on December 20, we had two horses that had been donated by Sandy Jones, who runs an equine therapy organization. Anyway, these animals came highly recommended. They were mellow and good with children. But as we packed things up, around 8 o’clock, the horse named Loki decided that he wasn’t going back in his trailer. In fact, he just stood there, and as we watched Sandy tempt him with candy canes and whip him with a rope and poke him with a pitch fork, nothing worked. Sheryl and I felt helpless. For over an hour, we pleaded and begged until the woman who owned the trailer, Carol Granley, contacted her twenty-year old daughter who is veterinary student at Washington State. Carol’s daughter had been the one, the original one who broke Loki and trained him. And so, this is what went down. First, Carol spoke to the horse like this, “Just wait til Amy gets here… Amy’s coming.” And when Amy arrived, she got out of her car with a vengeance. With her big ol’ boots, she then walked directly to the animal and grabbed the reins. She talked to him for about thirty seconds, and then she booted him in the ribs. Amy then adjusted the bit in the horse’s mouth and kicked him again. And this finally helped Loki to make a decision. He would climb in the trailer.

Now, I had no idea what to expect. And as it relates to the New Year and our shared journey of faith, I have relatively few ideas. Can we expect a few candy canes of kindness and compassion? Probably. Can we expect a few lashes with the whip of worry? Most definitely. And can we expect the pitch fork of pride to poke us in the rear end? Absolutely. But, you see, unless we’ve been trained to expect “one more powerful than I,” we are never going home.
Think about this. John the Baptist had been the center of the people’s attention. Far from the Jordan River, his influence had even created ripples in the pool of King Herod. And so, just as the political expectations are about to peak, this man, surviving on locusts and wild honey, deflects everything they expect of him to one more powerful. And check it out. This one who is more powerful will have to power to expect things from you and from me.

“I was in Rwanda a few years ago,” writes Rob Bell,
“and a group of us went hiking in the slums of Kigali with a woman named Pauline. Pauline spends her free time caring for people who are about to die of HIV/AIDS. She agree to take us to visit one of her friends who had only hours to live. We hiked through this slum for what seemed like miles, and as we got farther in, the shacks became smaller and smaller until all we had to walk on were narrow trails with sewage crisscrossing in streams that ran beside, and sometimes under the shacks… Eventually we ended up in a dirt-floored shack about six by six feet. A woman was lying under so many blankets that all we could see was her mouth and eyes. Her name was Jacqueline. Paulene had become her friend and had been visiting her consistently for the past few months. As I knelt down beside her on the floor I watched Pauline, standing in the corner, weeping. Her friend was going to die soon. What overwhelmed me wasn’t the death or despair or poverty. What overwhelmed me was the compassion. In this dark place Pauline’s love and compassion were simply… bigger. More. It is as if the smallest amount of light is infinitely more powerful than massive amounts of dark…” (Velvet Elvis, p. 74).

You see, it’s that kind of revelation—and that kind of power—that we can expect from Jesus. In fact, Jesus will fill us with so many expectations of ourselves we won’t know how we’ll be able to meet them. Only if he helps us will we be able to meet them.

Just this week, I’ve noticed the kind of expectations that dominate my thinking. I fully expected my car repairs to be completed by Friday. I fully expected that Amazon would deliver my package of books in three to five business days. A week after the New Year’s festivities, I fully expected to lose a little weight. But nothing fills me up like the expectation that Jesus gives to me and to us. It is the expectation that in Christ what we do his love. The love that God has for the world and each person in the world—we can expect to do that day after day and night after night… Amen.

Looking ahead to next 362 days, at least three things, and maybe more, are clear. One is that the glass is half empty. The second is that the glass is half full. And the third thing, according to John’s Gospel, is that the glass itself has been called into being by the Word of God, which has now been made flesh in the person of the Jesus Christ. You see, by believing these words, “all things came into being through him,” the people here, in this room, and in this moment, pre-empt the proverbial glass. No one who pays attention to Jesus is captivated by the glass being half empty because the crucified Lord of all creation has his fingerprints all over it. Moreover, if there happens to be an eternal optimist in the crowd, listen very carefully. You are not the boss. You are not the mastermind of your own life, nor anyone else’s. The most that you may be is “a witness” to the light, and that light has filled the glass long before you ever thought of taking a sip of champagne.

Let me tell you where all this is venting from. Last week, on Christmas Day, the NFL network re-broadcast a classic game of football. It had been played in the snow between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders on January 19th of 2002. I remember the game because, originally, on that day, eight years ago, I had watched the action live, at a party, with a half a glass of beer in my hand, sitting next to a young seminary student from Florida. Patrick had flown up to be interviewed by us about an internship at our church. So, we talked and then took him to the gathering, where we watched the game and mingled. After the game, which featured the famous controversy about the tuck rule, (if you’re into that kind of sports memorabilia), we hired him. Patrick then drove up from Florida that June and spent the summer, praying and playing and participating in ministry with us. We loved him. And then, near the very end of his time, he asked out a young woman, named Jenn, who served on our praise team. Jenn and Patrick eventually married the next year and the year after that they would move to Nebraska, where Patrick would be the pastor of a church in the town of Wahoo. Now, why am I telling you all this?
Well, if it’s indeed true that “all things came into being” through Jesus Christ, then it’s also true that every football game you’ve ever watched came into being through that same Word. And, of course, that applies to every game of cards that you may have played over the last two weeks. And to every ski slope you may have skied. But, you see, if it’s true for those fun things that you and I do for entertainment and pleasure, the Word of God in Christ must also be available to us when the house seems empty and when the afternoons seem to drag on.

For example, during the years since that game in January, 2002, Patrick and Jenn have known times when the glass seemed incredibly full, and devastatingly empty. In the spring before their move to Nebraska we learned with joy about Jenn’s pregnancy. Then, months later, we received a phone call, saying the baby that Jenn had carried for nine months had died due to some complications with the birth. Traveling out to do the service, I felt drained long before Patrick greeted me at the airport with a vacant smile. And when Jenn showed me through their home, failing to open the door to the nursery, we wept until everybody and everything seemed like a foggy window pane. Was it all worth it? Was it worth getting up off the couch? Was it worth the interview and the drive from Florida and the flight to Nebraska? And, you see, after lots of anguish and consternation, I think Patrick and Jenn would say Yes, and so might the child they recently adopted from South Korea.
“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

Not too long ago, there appeared a book on the best sellers list, known as The Secret. And within the pages of this enigmatic tome, millions of Americans imbibed things like the following:
“The Secret is the Law of Attraction… Whatever is going on in your mind is what you are attracting… You attract your dominant thoughts… Everything in your life you have attracted…”

Now, I’m bringing this to your attention because I think it’s the equivalent of eating a bowl of ice cream that’s been laced with rat poison.
“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
Listen, the light of all people is not that you and I will attract good things to our lives if we only think good things and bad things to our lives if we tragically think bad things. That’s not the light of all people. The light of all people is that God gives himself to us every day and in every way, whether we feel empty and alone, or full and well-healed. The light of all people in fact is the light because it shines in the darkness. So how would it be if the light shined in the darkness and we obstinately refused and said, No Thank You, Light of the World, we’re busy attracting our own light?

Consider Marla Runyon, a woman who had been diagnosed as legally blind for 22 years. From the age of nine, the 31 year old runner had not been able to see anything except the fuzzy outline of her competitors. And yet, in spite of her limitations, Marla raced in the Olympics. Qualifying for the 1500 meters, she eventually finished eighth, just seconds behind the medal winners. And this is what she said after the race, after following the blob of indistinguishable runners into the darkness. She said, the real challenge is “making that final turn and racing toward the finish line that I can’t see… I just know it’s there.”

I love contemplating that comment as you and I consider the up and coming year. We are—each one of us—racing toward the finish line that we can’t see. And that means that everything that we may experience in life—all things—whether those things make it seem like the glass is half-empty or half-full—all things lead somewhere. There is, in fact, an ending, a purpose and a meaning to which each of us and all of us have been called. But there is no guarantee of happiness. There is no formula which we require God to keep you healthy and wealthy. There is no iron clad bunker that will keep us all safe and secure. All there is in 2010 is the prospect of discovering the presence of God in all things. And we have that prospect whether our temperament sees the glass as half empty or half full. Amen.