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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.

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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.

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James 5:7-10 Advent Three: A Meditation

The third week of Advent brings us to what might be the perfect Advent text. James 5:7-10 is a strong exhortation to get our act together because, “The Lord is coming.”  The first line in the Latin Bible even has the very word: patients igniter estate craters issue ad adventum Domini. 

Let’s continue in, English.


Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters*, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains.

My father was a farmer. He loved to watch things grow. However, patience is not a word that anyone would apply to him, and I think to most farmers. Farmers always are impatient. They can’t wait to break the dirt in the spring. They can’t wait to get the seed in the ground. The can’t wait for it sprout. They can’t wait for it to blossom. They can’t wait until the crop is ripe. They can’t wait until the harvest. They can’t wait until it is sold or stored away. And finally, they rarely can wait until they eat it. This is why you see farmers and growers of all types eating their tomatoes/peaches/grapes right off the vine.

Farmers are not patient by nature. They are also never happy with the weather. James points to the early and late rains in the growing season. Farmers always complain about rain. There is either not enough or there is too much or it comes at the wrong times.

Did James know any farmers?

I wager he did, and that might very well be the point. We wait like farmers do: patiently impatient knowing there is nothing we can do except anticipate the day when the crops are gathered and our work is done. Until then, we keep at it.

You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

The word here, establish, is usually a pretty good word, but may I suggest ‘strengthen’ or ‘firm up’ as a better rendering here. Just as a farmer strengthens her crop by tending it, protecting it, making certain it has good soil, so too should we strengthen our heart. This is not a passive, “let’s hope we have strong hearts” but is an encouragement to make active steps to strengthen our hearts.

Going back to my father, he used to put fertilizer in the soil to strengthen it. Virgin soil didn’t need this, but when you’ve been farming the same land over time, it needs help. Growing things saps the energy and vitality from the dirt.

Just as life drains the love out of our hearts. Hurts, pains, betrayals, lies, and disappointments weaken our hearts. But Jesus is coming, so we must take steps to strengthen our hearts. We strengthen our heart by exercising faith, practicing discipline, and feeding on the word of God.

Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters*, so that you may not be judged, behold the Judge is standing at the door.

By my count this the third time in a row James has warned us that Jesus is coming. This time it is as our Judge. What is he judging? Specifically here, how we speak about our church family and other Christ-followers. Grumbling is not a good idea.

What I like here is the sense of the judge at the door, but what he is doing is not coming in. Instead, he is standing there, eavesdropping. He is standing at the door listening to what is happening inside. Can you see in your mind the possible scenario James has built? The Lord Jesus, our judge, is standing outside the door listening to how we are talking about one another.

What does Jesus hear you saying about your brothers and sisters in Christ? He is there, standing at the door listening, and any minute he may walk in, he may come in (adventum in Latin, parousia in Greek (vv 7 & 8) and catch you red-handed spewing slander, gossip, and hatred toward your brother or sister in Christ. How embarrassing.

As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters*, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

The lectionary reading ends here; but James will go on to talk about Job. I wouldn’t think naturally about Job as a prophet, but that is the kind of suffering James has in mind. Job suffered in his body through ailment and disease. Job suffered through grief at the loss of his children. Job suffered economically as all his wealth was stripped away. Job suffered relationally as his wife was at odds with him. Job suffered socially from the accusations of wrongdoing by his ‘friends’. Job suffered spiritually because he never understood why God would do this to him.

To be human is to suffer. I have come to believe this is what defines us. James teaches us that Jesus is coming, and as we wait, we must wait in the context of our suffering the way the old timers did. What does this mean? It means we make Job’s confession about the coming of the Lord; a confession that ends, strangely enough, with an appeal to a weakening heart, which no doubt needs to be strengthened by faith in the midst of adversity.

Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”

Job 19:23-28
*I have annotated the ESV text with ‘brothers and sisters’ where it says ‘brothers’ because the Greek word here, adelphoi, is gender inclusive and is a better reading of the textual meaning rather than the exclusive term ‘brothers’. There are three instances here in this text of that usage.

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Psalm 72:1-8 Advent Two: A Meditation

The readings for the second week of advent (Year A, 2019) have a theme of the rule of the future Davidic king bringing peace and harmony to the world: Romans 15 speaks to the scope of this reign as over the Jews and Gentiles, Matthew 3 is the summary of John the Baptist’s preaching in preparation for the coming of this Davidic King, Isaiah 11 is more specific about the stump of Jesse which will arise and bring the new age.

The Psalm reading intrigues me. Psalm 72:1-8 is a series of petitions to the Lord, prayers, regarding the rule of an earthly Hebrew king for certain, but with an eye on the eventual one who would fulfill the hope of the ages as the eternal king. My instinct tells me Psalm 72 was probably read at the installation of kings, or composed for the installation of a specific king. One notes, however, the backhanded nature of these petitions: praying for the king to do the right sorts of things indicates perhaps the King, or his predecessor, had failed to live up to the obligations and expectations of a righteous leader.


Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

There is a lot of poetics in the opening lines. First the careful reader will notice justice and righteousness are first asked to be given to the king, then these same attributes are asked for the people through the work of the king. Did you notice the change in order? In verse 1 we have justice then righteousness and in verse 2 we have righteousness and then justice.

I wonder if there isn’t some kind of parallelism here with the judging. There certainly is in verse 1 where “king” aligns with “royal son” forming a chiasm with “righteousness” and “justice” as roughly synonymous. If this works In verse two as well, then there is no chiasm but “your people” would then be synonymous with “your poor” as the same basic group of people. Poor people are God’s people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

On an interpretative level, these two verses are a plea for the leadership to be fair to all people and not just the wealthy who can bribe and buy justice. It makes a person think about the fact, not opinion, but fact, how much you can afford to pay a lawyer goes a long way in determining wether you go to jail or not in this country. We have to be careful that we don’t take this plea be able punishing the right or even complaining that the wealth get justice. This is not about envy; it is about asking for the poor to get a fair shake in justice.

Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness!

The third verse shifts subjects momentarily from the king to mountains. The request is that the mountains will prosper and provide economic provision for the people. Putting this in context with the surround text, our eyes can focus on what the person praying is really concerned for. It is not the wellbeing of the king or the wellbeing of the mountains. Rather, the concern for the prayer is the wellbeing of the people. He is praying that both the king and the mountains be good to the people.

This verse reminds us it is not improper to pray for prosperity and for blessings. As this year ends and a new one is on the horizon, it is proper and biblical to ask the Lord to let ‘the mountains’ or ‘the factory’ or ‘the stock market’ or ‘the sales numbers’ bear prosperity for you and your family. Always keep in mind, however, we are blessed that we may be a blessing.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!

The subject goes back to the king, but we can still see who it is the petition is for — the poor people and their children. This is a prayer and is not necessarily what God is speaking, but is speech to God. In this speech we see the concern is with the oppressed and the needy. I wonder if people of faith too often make their prayers aimed at protecting the privileged and the powerful rather than the poor and the children of the poor.

There is a vitriol here as well. The prayer asks those who hurt the children and the needy be crushed. Not punished, but crushed. Before you move on, let that language settle in on your soul.

May they fear you while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, through all generations! May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! In his days may the righteous flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more.

It is a little confusing the way this starts — “may they fear you” — but this is not a valid reading. Likely the text should read “May he live” –thus asking the Lord for the king to live a long life in the idiom of ‘as long as the sun endures.’

The poetics continue as the work of the king is described as a blessed rain that falls on freshly cut grass watering the earth. If we put these together, we have an appeal for the king to be as faithful and stable as nature that allows for the a life filled with shalom. Can you smell the grass? Can you feel the warm rain on your skin? See the moon glowing in the night sky? See the sun’s last rays on a winter’s evening as the fire burns in the hearth? These are the feelings the pray invokes as it asks for good governance that creates the atmosphere of wellbeing for everyone.

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!

Amen–May this kind of dominion rule from sea to shining sea and up and down all the mighty rivers.


This Hebrew prayer inspired me to put my own words to the same thoughts — which I think is a powerful way to understand the Psalms — ancient prayers to inform our daily prayers. I crafted it as a national prayer, but keep in mind the best hermeneutic of this would likely be a prayer crafted around the Kingdom of God rather than national entities. I chose national entities to keep it in the political context of the original writing; to help us, and by us I mean me, understand what the original implications might have been:

Help our government to value justice, O God, and our leaders to be righteousness.

May our judges be filled with righteousness, and may the poor find justice in every aspect of life.

May all of the economic engines of our nation be prosperous, let them be fair and just so that no one is left behind and no one is exploited, manipulated, or used.

May the President and those in charge of executing the laws have compassion on those who are needy, regardless of where they come from or what language they speak or who they pray to. Give him a vision and passion to be a protector of children.

May our nation, for as long as she is just and righteous, stand as long as the sun sits at the center of our solar system and the moon waxes and wanes above our heads; may our values of freedom and liberty be like refreshing rain showers upon a world that is thirsty for hope.

May we accept your dominion over us, Lord Jesus Christ, from the Harbors of the East Coast to the beautiful shorelines of the West Coast, from the bountiful Valley of Texas to the expansive Great Lakes of the Midwest. May we experience your shalom forever and ever. Amen.