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Under The What?

I’ve got something to share with you I am really excited about.

Back in March when the first round of COVID-19 happened, we stopped having in-person worship services. One of the tools we used to substitute (there really is no substitute for congregational worship, but doing nothing really is not an option) was a podcast feel in which we talked about the material I was planning on preaching. Some of this was on Daniel and some of it was from encounters people had with Jesus.

Those were fun, but they were, intentionally, built like a group sermon experience with no real surprises and not conversational. But what we discovered was we had the technical ability to do it.

That planted in our mind an idea: our small groups are all, for the most part, in a kind of limbo right now — what can we do?

What we decided to do was develop a podcast with me and our pastoral staff talking about Biblical material as you would a small group. The more we planned, the more we decided this was just a good idea all around to supplement our teaching ministry and to provide something that might substitute (again, there is no substitute for real life small groups) during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

We have recorded and published two episodes and will record one weekly for the foreseeable future. We call it UNDER THE WATER TOWER because our church building is right underneath a city water tower. We even have bumper music! How cool is that?

I hope you enjoy it. Click on our artwork below (thanks John Trapane for building it) to listen.

Lent Pictures–Lent Thoughts

Through the season of Lent I posted over thirty pictures to social media with quotations over the spiritual themes of Lent. It all started by accident. I wrote out in a red marker a quote I was reading from St. Augustine, and then the next day I wrote out another one not he white board and posted, and then a trend set in.

By that first weekend I had an idea of what I wanted to do. I outlined a pattern of Fridays being Bible verses, Saturdays would be song references, Thursdays would be inspiring quotes of Christian content, Tuesdays would be pop culture and literature references and Monday’s would be primarily theological in nature.

My method was to create the quote in an analogy way. Yes, it would be delivered digitally in the photograph, but I wanted it to be real items like paper, chalk, ink, wood. For the most part I succeeded in this. The one exception was to get a typewriter font I used my Mac, but it is actually printed on paper.

There were some quotes I intended to use but never did. For example, I intended to use a Brene Brown quote where she says, ‘Sometimes the bravest and most most important thing you can do is just show up.” I love the quote and have taught my children for yeas that 90% of success is just showing up. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis when we are encouraging people to stay home I decided that might send the wrong message and people might misunderstand that I was one of those misinformed and misguided people who think social distancing is a bunch of bunk. By contrast, I am a historian. I know full well the danger of a pandemic.

I also wanted to use a Stephen King quote I like — “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes they win.” It is a good quote for Lent, but I just never got to it. Another one I wanted to use was “You can’t fight in the war room” from Dr. Strangelove but alas, it didn’t happen. I wanted to put up one day one of my favorite thoughts on Lent — “Why do they call it a fast when it goes so slow?”

Brene Brown, Anne Lamott, and James the Brother of Jesus got the most comments and likes.

I must admit I was surprised most of these didn’t get more attention. But who knows how the FB algorithms work, right? I’ll probably reuse them again next year, with perhaps a few more added in. Until then they are posted here for you to peruse, or if you want swipe them and post them to your page. I don’t care. These were my arts and crafts projects for the spring.

A Reading Crisis

You can blame my friend John Duncan for this literary existential crisis. Recently he gifted me with a wonderful little book called The Reading Life. It is a compilation of some of C.S. Lewis’ written words about reading. The book is not very long. I started it Friday night and finished it this (Monday) morning all in the midst of a very hectic weekend. I recognized many of the passages from Surprised by Joy or any of the other numerous Lewis works in my library.

But there was a bit I’d never seen before, and it was titled “How To Know If You Are A True Reader”. Lewis lists four qualities of true readers.

  1. Loves to re-read books.
  2. Highly values reading as an activity (rather than as entertainment of last resort).
  3. Lists the reading of particular books as a life-changing experience.
  4. Continuously reflects and recalls what one has read.

I have always, since my earliest memories, loved to read. I love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell of pages — the older and moldier the better, and the discovery with each turn of the page. I would consider myself a true reader.

It breaks my heart into a million pieces that Lewis probably would not. Let me explain by working backward on his list. I recall very much what I have read, whether literature, novels, sci-fi, or dense theology. There are powerful life-changing books in my past, and hopefully in my future. Among these are novels, self-help books, professional development books, and short stories. I love to read and would rather do that than just about anything else.

But I don’t re-read books. Other than the Bible, which I have read continuously since I was seven years old, I have only read one other book more than once and that is Hamlet. I often read Hamlet during the Lenten season in preparation for Easter. But I’ve never re-read book just to re-read it. Mrs. Greenbean does — I believe she has read, for example, the Harry Potter series at least four times. Maybe more.

But not me. My philosophy has always been there are so many books I’ve never read before that I need to just move forward. In contrast, Lewis argues good books, great books, get better with subsequent readings as the mind picks up more. I see his point, because I have certainly re-watched movies and television shows over and over again, each time with fresh enjoyment. I’ve just never thought of books in the same way.

Maybe I need to evaluate this. As I think on it, were I to re-read — where would I start? I made a list of ten, but I cheat a little.

  1. The War of the Worlds — the first novel I ever read. Lewis talks about reading books you read as a child when you are an adult. This would be a great place to start. Speaking of that . . .
  2. Gentle Ben — I loved that book so much. As a boy it sent me into a legitimate frontier motif in my reading tastes.
  3. The Dark Tower series — Probably the best series ever compiled. I remember reading it and discovering how it changed the way I thought and spoke.
  4. The Lord of the Rings — Maybe the best written document in the English language other than the Authorized Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. Fathers and Sons — An somewhat obscure Russian novel by Ivan Turgenev. I read it in college and I remember it made me weep. I don’t really remember the plot, but I remember it made me weep. Russian literature does that.
  6. Quiet — This is one of my ‘life-changing’ books. I wish I’d read it when I was a kid. Now that I am full enmeshed in pastoral ministry again, maybe I need to revisit the wisdom about being an introvert in an extrovert world.
  7. The Bible Jesus Read — For my money this was the paradigm for writing a reflective book on the Jesus way of living.
  8. Assassination Vacation — I listened to this on audiobook once. I think I’d like to read it in print.
  9. A Canticle for Leibowitz — Texarkana. That is all that needs to be said.
  10. Celebration of Discipline — I remember how much this book altered me. Maybe reading it again would be a double-blessing.

I’m not saying I will re-read these books, but if I decided to engage in the practice, I would start with. these.

On Treasure and Pearls

For the past several weeks I’ve been preaching through the parables found in Matthew 13. The more I study them, the more fascinated I am by the choices Matthew makes in including these, how he stacks them, and exactly what it is that Jesus is getting at with each one individually but also cumulatively.

The last two Sunday’s I’ve spent on tiny parables. Two weeks ago it was the one about hidden treasure.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Matthew 13:44

It is pretty straightforward, and the next one after it I covered this past Sunday.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:45&46

Most commentators group these two parables together because they argue it is the same teaching in each parable. Their argument is the duality of the parable reinforces the lesson. Craig Blomberg summarizes the mainstream view by affirming, “Each contains one character and teaches one point, namely, that the kingdom is so valuable that it is worth sacrificing anything to gain it.” (New American Commentary: Matthew Vol. 22)

I see where Blomberg and others are coming from. The parables, or similes really, are very similar. Something of value is discovered and all resources are leveraged to get it. The problem is, Jesus chose to give two different parables, and they are couched in enough differences that I think they should be preached separately and appropriated separately. There are more differences than there are similarities. The similarities are more about our mind trying to categorize everything. If we will stop and evaluate I think we can see there is a lot more going on.

  1. One man ‘found’ the treasure accidentally in the field. The other man was looking for it.
  2. One man hid the found treasure until he could procure the property. The other man quickly secured the cash and bought it there in the open market.
  3. One man’s treasure was something he could use to live off of. By contrast, the pearl can only be admired.
  4. One treasure had been abandoned while the other was actively being sold.
  5. The purchase of the field with buried treasure comes with two benefits — the land is an asset as well as the treasure, whereas the pearl is unique and singular.
  6. The buried treasure actually has many characters — the one who owned the field, the one who left the treasure, and the one who bought all his stuff. These are implied characters where as the pearl comparison only has two man characters, the buyer and the seller.

In preaching these texts I didn’t highlight all these differences, but I did try to allow a complex hermeneutic ooze out. For me the key difference is the buried treasure is about stumbling across the kingdom of heaven. This is how some of us come to the Lord; a flashing light from heaven or a sudden realization in the midst of our hectic lives. If kingdom of heaven means spiritual enlightenment in general and not salvation in specific, then it can refer to any of those long illuminations we experience in our lifetime.

There is a randomness to the buried treasure story we can’t overlook.

By contrast, the pearl is dramatically different in feel. The buyer, who is meant to symbolize us, is actively in the marketplace searching for the pearl of great price. There is nothing accidental here at all. He knows what he is looking for. His eye is trained to identify the real deal and dismiss the phony baloney. If we take the verb at face value, then the seeker looking for the kingdom of heaven must be ready to buy it when it is found. I am reminded of Hebrews which teaches us the Lord is a rewarder of those who earnestly seek him. The parable also encourages ongoing discovery, seeking the Lord afresh in the morning or investigating the deep things in the darkness of night.

Here is something that I didn’t allude to at all in my sermons, but an idea that has been wiggling around in my mind. These two parables are stacked atop one another. Perhaps there is a flow in the logic here which Jesus intended. The kingdom of heaven for us is like the apparent randomness of buried treasure. This is probably how all of us feel about our experience with the risen Christ. It feels like we found something buried and obscure, but in reality someone buried it there all along knowing we would find it. The burier of treasure is Jesus. The second parable perhaps is the same man later looking for something specific. This is us in our lives of discipleship looking for the beauty, the enlightenment, the scope and breadth of the kingdom of heaven. This is us with books, prayer, meditation, and learning, yearning for a kind of treasure that we can’t live off it, but which is beautiful and meaningful.