Category Archives: Scripture

penny's worth of time

Guest post: The extravagance in a penny’s worth of time

Guest post today courtesy of Mo Morrison, Her blog appears biweekly at

The widow of Jesus’ day occupies a very different place in society from the religious bureaucracy.  She represents the under-privileged, one of the least fortunate among God’s people.  Throughout the Bible she’s placed alongside the fatherless, the orphan, and the immigrant who owns no property.  Counted among the poorest of the people, we often see her weeping, grieving, desolate and in debt.  The widow’s tragedy is such that with no partner to defend her rights or provide for her needs, she’s vulnerable.

As recorded in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is sitting across from the treasury watching people as they pass-by, putting their money into the offering-box.  He observes the many who are rich putting in a lot of money, and He also sees a poor widow who tosses in a couple of coins.  Jesus gathers His disciples close and says to them, “I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others.  For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches; but she, poor as she is, put in all she had – she gave all she had to live on.(Mark 12:43-44, GNT)

The widow offers up two small copper coins that scarcely make a penny, but what seems insignificant in the eyes of men, Jesus sees as extravagant.  Jesus is notably impressed by this widow’s offering.  Where many have deep pockets and give out of their excess, offering up what they’ll barely miss, she gives from empty pockets and out of her lack, gives her all.  And though counted among the least in her society, it’s evident that Jesus counts her among the highly esteemed in His Kingdom.

In this sacrificial offering of a poverty-stricken widow, Jesus points out to His disciples a true and living expression of the heart and spirit of God’s law.  Ultimately, His goal is to lead me to the place where He is free, to help Himself, to my whole life.

In this day and age, time is our most precious commodity. As we navigate the busyness of our daily lives, walking in the light of Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbour as yourself,Jesus wants to know He can bank on us to stop and help someone in need.

Jesus wants to count on me putting my schedule on hold should He bring someone in a vulnerable situation across my path.  He wants to depend on my putting another’s distress ahead of the time constraints of my own day.  If it’s going to slow me down and cost me valuable time, can Jesus trust me to preserve the dignity of another living soul?

To the glory of God where no one else sees, praises or can even repay, am I willing to lend a helping hand and boost the family in their stalled vehicle I noticed in the parking-lot, where I just stopped to pickup my dry-cleaning but they’ve come to a grinding halt on a scorching hot day?  Am I willing to lend an attentive ear to the elderly lady in the laundry room as she opens up to unburden her soul and pour out her sorrow, when my laundry is done and I’m ready to exit stage left?  Am I willing to take the young single mother grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon to save her time maneuvering on the bus with her little ones, when I have a gazillion other things to get done on my day off?

Indeed, in this day and age time is our most precious commodity.  Yet, with the promise of all eternity, our stretch of time here is like the widow’s drop in the bucket.  We are free to spend ours helping others move forward.

May we be found true and living expressions of the heart and spirit of God’s law, fulfilling its original intent. For the whole Law is summed up in one commandment, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” (Galatians 5:14, GNT)

Key to happy marriage

How to save your marriage in one easy step

First, disclaimers. This is a simple post on how to have a happy marriage. It is not about culture wars, it is not about gender roles, it is not about finger-pointing or blame. I have a happy marriage. My wife and I just celebrated our 11th anniversary. I have one secret. Here it is. Enjoy.

Recently I encountered one of the best articles I’ve ever read about how to have a happy marriage.

Now understand: my wife and I work hard to have a good marriage. We regularly take time alone together, we’ve read books, we’ve gone to classes & retreats, we’ve used therapy when needed. We are each other’s top priority. All of that is important, and any one of those is potentially a good blog post, but none of it is “the secret”.

For all of the sound and fury coming out of the church these days over the state of marriage, the place I found the purest distilled essence of the Bible’s advice on marriage was in a secular article by a guy whose marriage failed, reflecting on the reasons why. It was called, “She divorced me because I left dishes by the sink.” It’s about how to sacrificially love your spouse.

What is love?

Our society gets all twisted up about love. “Love is romance,” we think, or “love is a feeling,” or “love is sexual passion.” All of that is nice, but none of it is the real point.

Here is the point: Love is a decision. Love is sacrifice. Hollywood shows us a naked couple on the screen and says, “This is love,” but the Bible shows us a naked man hanging from a cross for our redemption and says, “This is love.”

  • This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
  • For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only son…
  • But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
  • Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

As long as something else is more important to us than the well-being and growth of our beloved, we have not truly loved. Especially as long as “holding to our own” is more important.

How to love

The number one thing you gotta know about Christ is, he didn’t insist on his rights:

Much heat nowadays centers on the passage in Ephesians that says “the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church”, across the whole spectrum from those who want women to submit, to those who would rather see the Bible discarded. In either case, the passage is read without much reference to Christ, as if it could interchangeably read, “…as a general is head of his army.” The husband makes the decisions, gives the orders, and the wife says, “Sir, yes sir!” From a Biblical perspective, though, that is nonsense.

To emulate Christ in anything is to take the lowest place, the servant’s place, to empty one’s self of privilege. Here are some tips for Christlike leadership from my own marriage:

  • Walk the dog
  • Change the baby
  • Buy the groceries
  • Fold clothes
  • Do the dishes
  • Take out the trash

Important in all of this is the spirit of loving gift. A loving marriage is not made by simply sharing responsibilities or “doing stuff”. It is made by accepting our Lord’s invitation to beauty, in the bearing of one another’s burdens, by acts of Christlike splendor and Christlike grace.

In so doing, we are given the privilege of glimpsing God’s own love for us. More than any other metaphor, scripture likens the love of Christ to the love of a husband for his bride.


(This week’s post is dedicated with much love to our friends Neal & Mandi… Congrats you two!)

What Google says the Bible advocates

Correcting what the World thinks “the Bible advocates”

I’m depressed. Go to Google, type “Bible advocates”, and see the popular suggested searches that appear: “violence”… “killing non believers”… “slavery”. You can’t even get “love” to appear. Type an L to try and prompt it, and you won’t get anything. Google just sits there, confused, not suggesting anything. Same with F (for forgiveness) and J (for joy). P (for peace) just gives you “polygamy” and “death penalty”.

So today, I am fixing it. Some of that stuff is treated in the Bible, but none of it is what the Bible is about. Here is what it is about:

Google suggestionWhat the Bible is really about
A“abortion”, “child abuse” Abundant life, Atonement
B(no suggestions) Baptism, Begotten son
C“child abuse” Christ, Carry your cross
D“death penalty” Divinity
E(no suggestions) Eternity
F(no suggestions) Forgiveness, Freedom, Father
G“genocide” God, Grace
H (no suggestions) Holy Spirit
I“inc” Incarnation
J (no suggestions) Jesus
K“killing” King of kings
L (no suggestions) Love, Lord
M (no suggestions) Mercy, Messiah
N (no suggestions) All things new
O (no suggestions) Only begotten son
P“polygamy”, “death penalty” Peace, Prayer
Q (no suggestions) Quiet
R (no suggestions) Redemption
S“slavery”, “stoning”, “socialism” Salvation, Sacrifice, Son of God, Sabbath, Service, Freedom from sin, Defeat of Satan
T“the bible advocates slavery, violence, genocide” Trinity, Truth
U (no suggestions) Unity
V“violence” Virgin birth
W (no suggestions) Worship, Will of God
X (no suggestions) Example of Christ, Crucifixion
Y“yelp”, “yale” Pray
Z (no suggestions) Zion
Outdated Bible

Is it time to give up on our outdated Bible?

The number one complaint about the Bible is, it’s outdated. It’s the only ancient writing any of us read with regularity. Some assert that, despite the millennia, all of it applies directly to us with no interpretation; others feel that in modern times it has become useless, if not harmful. Ironically, some even insist on both: more than once, an atheist has argued I must hold Bible to such a high standard that it cannot measure up and must be rejected, and even to attempt understanding by ordinary scholarship is “cheating”.

In fact, whatever we believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible, the reality is that it was set down by particular people in particular places, in their own languages and for their own cultures. We must take account of the original worldview if we are to ever understand what it meant to the original audience. Once we can do that, we have hope of understanding what it is supposed to mean to us.


It is objectively true that the Bible is “outdated” in the same way that the plays of Shakespeare are outdated: our language and our worldview have changed since they were written.

Consider a phrase like, “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin, who would fardels bear?” Few would claim it is “cheating” to seek the meaning of such a phrase in the everyday speech of Shakespeare’s time, and then to take that as the intended meaning. This is done through study of his culture. We cannot understand Shakespeare without some understanding of Elizabethan England. The same is true of the Bible. No one now living has the same language and worldview as the original authors.

Even when a good translation renders the Bible into familiar language, the cultural distance remains, and attempts to take its meaning directly from our cultural perspective are likely to lead us astray. Again, consider other “outdated” works:

  • Shakespeare’s Henry V has several of his former close friends summarily executed; did Shakespeare intend us to take him as a murderous tyrant?
  • Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn uses “the N-word”; does that mean he hated black people?

In fact, Shakespeare intends Henry V as a wise and benevolent king, and Huckleberry Finn was a revolutionary in its advocacy for friendship-as-equals between black and white. Correct understanding of the authors’ intents is only available when we compare what happened to what the original audience would have expected.

For better or for worse, correct understanding of the Bible is rooted in some knowledge of Palestinian culture during the first and second millennia BCE. The question then becomes, why then and there? Why not here and now, and save us all the trouble of scriptural exegesis? And, since scripture was revealed then, does that reflect a divine endorsement of their particular culture? Or is “ancient Palestine” simply a lingua franca shared by all Christians throughout time and space?

Lingua franca

My (English-speaking) parents were chemistry majors, so they had to learn German. Meanwhile, many German-speaking pilots were learning English to talk to air traffic control. At one time, French was the language of diplomacy, and to this day, all passports worldwide (even yours) include French. And Latin, for many years, was the common language of scholarship, which is why the term for “common language”, lingua franca, is in Latin.

How do these languages get chosen?  Is it because they are intrinsically suited to the purpose? Not at all. It’s more or less random. Chemists wound up with German because the Beilstein Handbook is in German. French for diplomacy goes back to Napoleon. English for flight goes back to the Wright brothers.

So. In the same way that understanding the Beilstein Handbook requires knowledge of German, understanding the New Testament requires knowledge of 1st Century Palestinian culture. It is simply a shared reference point, not a divine endorsement. Jesus worked hard to change many aspects of their culture, just as I’m sure he would do with ours.

But this gets to the question of “ours”. Why shouldn’t God update the Bible to “our” culture? The question is profoundly narcissistic. What is “our” culture? Since January 1, 2016, even this humble blog has been read in the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. Which culture should God “update” the Bible to? Should he go pre-or-post microwave ovens, or VCRs, or automobiles, or the Internet?

Doing the work

The Bible is— yes— tied to specific times and places. But in so being, it is timeless. 21st Century Americans can look back and understand if they will take the trouble, just like we could in the 20th Century and in every century before that, and just like they can in Brazil and Iraq and China.

No matter our country, no matter our beliefs, there are parts of the Bible we embrace easily and parts that challenge us, and depending who we are, they are going to be different parts. I think that’s the point: no matter the standards we set for ourselves, we all fall short in some way, and God’s standards are no exception.

There is the fundamental core of the Gospel message, and then there is everything else. We have to interpret, based on culture, if we have any hope of figuring out which is which. We cannot separate “understanding the Bible” from “understanding the original intent”. The Bible can never mean what it was never intended to mean.


P.S. My 10-year-old daughter and her cousin got a glimpse of this blog during our visit. I think they said it best in a lot fewer words: “No,  I feel that we should keep the Bible. Many parts of the Bible are not meant to relate directly to our situations; instead, they provide motions towards the right directions for us.”

Overdoing it with food

God in the food, or, forgetting to save your life

Food represents a gigantic fraction of Biblical teaching, yet in 19 years of weekly church attendance, I have never once heard a sermon on it. In a time when unhealthy food choices are literally a public health epidemic— when celebrities from Michael Pollan to Jamie Oliver have made their careers warning about the dietary dangers— why do the Biblical teachings on the subject seem all but forgotten? And, what does the original “diet book” have to say that is still relevant in our time?

The power of food

In December, I signed on for a 21 Day Sugar Detox with a group of old friends. The day before it started, our church made a plug for 21 days of prayer and fasting. Whether it was a God-wink or just good timing, I decided my detox could do double duty. I posted in my friends’ private Facebook group, asking if anyone else was thinking of the emotional/spiritual benefits of the cleanse. At the time no one was, but then we got into it. Suddenly there were multiple posts about powerful emotions unexpectedly unleashed. What was happening?

Anyone who has ever struggled with food addiction will tell you: what fuels the addiction is not the taste of the food or the feeling of being full. Rather, like any addiction, it is the emotional attachment. It’s psychological self-medication. I would argue that food has this power because what we eat is inherently emotional. A New York Times editorial about sugar summed it up: “We mean addictive, literally, in the same way as drugs. And the food industry is doing everything it can to keep us hooked.”

Meant to be our servant, food has, for many, become our master. Even Adam & Eve’s original sin, leading to slavery, was an act of audacity regarding food.

A greater power

When anything gains mastery over us, the world (and our own instincts!) urge us to “try harder” or “resist temptation”. By contrast, the tonic of scripture is humilitysubmission, and grace. Scripture talks often about breaking the power of that which holds us captive, so that God’s redemption can begin to work in us, to restore us to wholeness, but our own efforts are not the most important element in that.

Indeed, in the case of food, stringent self-denial (basically, unhealthy fasting) is a symptom of the disease. The Bible often talks about fasting, but it is always in the context of turning us outside of ourselves (toward God), not as some sort of “will to power” self-actualization.

The larger point is that we, as human beings, have a higher calling than hedonistic self enjoyment.

  • For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. (Luke 12:23)
  • Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction. (Galatians 6:8)
  • You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. (James 5:5)

So much of our “foodie” culture nowadays is focused on our own experience. But if our lives are nothing more than seeking our own pleasure— a pleasure that is inescapably bounded by our own mortality— then ultimately, they are nothing at all.

women torn off

For God’s sake: let a woman preach

One day I flew to Texas and I met a cute girl. I asked her to dinner, and that night, my whole life changed. That was the night I learned about Jesus. I’d grown up in a Christian church, but I’d never heard about a Jesus like this. Her Jesus was alive and real and revolutionary and transformative. Her Jesus didn’t nibble around the edges of your life; he was pervasive through the entire thing. That night she spoke words into me that breathed with life like nothing I’d ever known before.

Was she wrong? Should she have done that? Many churches quote scripture that says “I do not permit a woman to teach, or to have authority over a man.” So should she have simply left me where I was for fear of teaching me something?

In reality, most Christians would quote other scriptures to limit, restrict, or reinterpret this verse and make an exception for this case. So why not a larger exception? Why not allow our society’s many well educated, gifted, female writers and speakers an unrestricted hall pass to teach what they know? As a high schooler, best-selling author Rachel Held Evans was once told, “‘Rachel you’re such a great speaker; it’s too bad you’re a girl.” Blogger Jory Micah was told, at age 18, that her desire to serve God as a pastor was sinful.

On the question, “Should a woman preach?” I would submit that such answers :

  1. Result more from evangelical culture than Biblical truth
  2. Are inconsistent with our practice, even in the most conservative of congregations
  3. May turn a blind eye to the actual reality of what God is doing
Culture vs. Truth

The Bible is long, and there’s a lot in there. How do we choose which parts of it to talk about the most? Ideally, our discussion of topics from the Bible would be in exact proportion the the frequency of those topics within the text itself. To do otherwise is to risk a distortion of the actual Biblical message. Christ himself addresses this tendency when he says, “What sorrow awaits you. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23). We can fall into sin, even in perfect obedience to God’s law, when obsessive legalism  leads us away from the real point.

Yet this is the reality of our time. We attack certain topics with an energy and enthusiasm out of all proportion with the Bible’s text, yet remain oddly silent on other topics of greater Biblical importance. If the need to suppress women’s teaching gifts were an important doctrine, then why— with just the one mention in 1 Timothy— does the Bible devote only 0.016% of its verses to the topic? That would work out to a full Sunday sermon a little less than once a century. Some argue that the particular obsessions of American culture require more frequent responses from Christians in those areas. Yet in this, too, we Christians reveal our cultural biases by what we omit from such scrutiny: everything from covering women’s hair to honoring our leaders to refraining from anger.

Practicing what we preach?

The fact is, even in conservative congregations that would never hire a female pastor, women are teaching men every week. Just walk into the Sunday school.

The injunction in 1 Timothy explains Paul’s resistance to women teaching on the grounds that Eve was deceived, and sin was the result. In Paul’s eyes, we may conclude, a female teacher is more likely to lead us into sin. Yet if we are to protect ourselves from deceptiveness, who is more vulnerable than a young child? If our genuine concern were for sound doctrine, the Sunday school should be the first line of defense. That it is not reveals a different motivation is at work.

The same inconsistency appears in other areas as well. Of the same church where her potential as a teacher was so casually dismissed, Rachel Held Evans writes, “The only time women spoke in church was when they were missionaries. I didn’t understand why that was allowed, but teaching from the pulpit was not.” Again, if our true concern were the validity of what women have to say, should we not be equally passionate for the protection of men abroad?

Rather, it seems to me, our insistence on male pastors results more from simple bias against women in certain roles than from some kind of principled stand on Biblical truth.

Which side is which?

What emerges again and again from women in ministry is the conviction that they are called to it by God, that the scriptures used to dissuade them have somehow been misunderstood. What if they are right?

Misunderstanding scripture is possible. While scripture is infallible, we are not, and in the history of the Church, conventional wisdom has often been wrong. That can happen to us as well. For a non-controversial example, it would be a gross error to read 1 Timothy 4:12 as a blanket negation of the need to respect our elders; in fact, many other places in scripture urge us to respect our elders. What if we have made the same mistake in using 1 Timothy 2:12 to overrule all the many Biblical teachings about the importance of recognizing our gifts and putting them to work for the kingdom?

Consider this thought experiment: imagine a God who might break out of expectations (that has happened before), who might choose a vessel for his message that confounds conventional wisdom (that has happened before too). Imagine that messenger is sent among a people who refuse to listen (also has happened). What would God’s judgment on those people be for their failure to listen and receive? When someone claims she has a message from God, if we dismiss her out of hand because she doesn’t match our expectations, we do so only at our own mortal peril. She may be right; we may even find ourselves fighting against God.

Other recommended posts:

Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / / CC BY

Sun behind the clouds

But isn’t it all God’s fault…?

Where is God when bad things happen? (Third and final part in a series.)

  • Two weeks ago, we talked about mass shootings and other evil: “The message of Christ’s resurrection is that, come the worst this world can deliver, this world is not the end of the story.”
  • Last week, we talked about how to make peace with God when we are angry about the evil that touches our lives: “Christ found his way to peace with God despite the evil that befell him; so can you and I.”
  • This week, we get to the hard question: how there can there be evil in the first place if God is all-powerful, made the world, and is good? Isn’t it all God’s fault?

Remember in the movie City Slickers? That scene where Jack Palance reveals to Billy Crystal the secret of life, only he doesn’t reveal anything? “It’s one thing.” “What thing?” “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Answers to life’s hard questions are like that: regardless of what someone tells you, it’s meaningless until you find the way there yourself. Today’s posting is about my journey and some of the answers I found. The intent is only to encourage you that finding these answers is possible. I can recommend some initial approach vectors that got me partway, but in the end, you must undertake a journey of your own.

Approach #1: What we’re made for

To me, it clears God from some of the blame for making us live where evil can touch us when I remember that, according to the Bible, this isn’t really the place he designed us for.

Think about this: why does evil bother us so much? Tragedy is an everyday part of life. Why do we get so sad when people die? Death is our one certainty; why should it be such an uphill battle for us to accept it? I have read both secular and spiritual answers to these questions, and I think both have value, but if you want to know whether the existence of evil disproves the Bible, you have to focus on the spiritual side.

The Bible says we were designed to live somewhere else. All we had to do was turn away from evil, but we messed it up. Aren’t we just paying for Adam & Eve’s original sin? Nope, we’re no better. We brought this on ourselves. Think about your own life: how many of us have a life with no regrets, nothing we’ve done wrong, no act that caused pain to ourselves and others? All of that is what the Bible means by the word “sin”. If we don’t even measure up to our own standards, is it such a stretch to consider we might not measure up to God’s? I am not saying our sins one-for-one deserve our misfortunes; I know from first-hand experience that, once you’re out of the immaculate world of pure good, some very disproportionate evils become possible.

So, maybe a good God couldn’t (a) create us with a longing for good and then (b) send us to live in a world of evil to torture us. But that isn’t the Bible’s explanation of why we live here. To my mind, a good God could make us for a better place, but then when it was clear we had some growing up to do, he could hustle us out of there to keep it nice for when we’ve finally learned a thing or two and are ready for it. Meanwhile, he could send us to stay temporarily in a place where we’re going to get religion about why evil is so destructive, why turning away from it is so important.

Approach #2: “Sorta bad”? Or “Really bad”?

My son and I had a rocky time during his teenage years. He doesn’t remember it now, but I have been compared to a police state, martial law, and dictators from Slobodan Milošević to Mao Tse-tung. What was the problem? The two biggest issues were (1) limiting his Internet time to just two hours a day and (2) asking his employed adult brother to pay steeply discounted rent. He literally moved out the day he turned 18 in order to escape from the oppression.

A few years back, I related that story in a public park with a gentleman who called himself Rob The Atheist. Rob had suggested to me that a loving God cannot exist because, if he did, he would never allow the horrific evils of this world. But, I said, I am a loving father, yet I deliberately inflicted situations that my son found intolerable; after that I allowed him to suffer months of semi-homelessness. Could a loving father do that? “Those things,” Rob countered, “are only sorta bad. I’m talking about the really bad stuff.”

But I would submit that the difference between “sorta bad” and “really bad” is only a matter of perspective. Rob saw the things I did to my son as only “sorta bad” because he has the same perspective I do; whereas my son saw them as intolerable human rights violations, readily compared to acts of genocide. Isn’t it just possible that, from the perspective of eternity, the tragedies of this temporal world are less all-important to God than they seem from our current worm’s eye view?

Certainly scripture repeatedly makes that point:

  • For now we see only a reflection in a mirror… (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
  • As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
  • Do not fear those who can kill the body and afterward can do no more. (Luke 12:4)
  • Blessed are those who mourn… (Matthew 5:4)
God’s problem

Finally, as to the contention that God, if truly all-powerful, should simply prevent evil: in the final analysis, the moment God gave us free will, by that act he voluntarily surrendered some part of his power. Thus, we have a God who says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,” a Christ who laments over those he longs to gather together but cannot, who begs to bypass the cross but knows it to be impossible, and a Lord’s prayer that simply asks for a day when God’s will is done on Earth— unfettered, unclouded by sin— in the same way it is in heaven.

Until that day, both we and God will always have the same problem: that we live in a place where bad things happen, that we love what death can touch.



What to do with sinners

Jesus and the “ho”, or, what to do with sinners

Fifteen years ago, a friend shared an insight from scripture. I lay awake most of that night turning over what she’d said, and I’ve remembered it ever since, mostly because I profoundly disagreed.

She was talking about the story of “the woman at the well“. Quick recap: Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman drawing water and reveals himself as the Messiah, first to her and subsequently to her whole village. My friend’s observation was drawn mainly from this line: “Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.'”

“I read this story a bunch of times,” she said, “and this time it just hit me: Jesus is callin’ her a ho! He is totally in her face! We gotta confront people over their sin, because look what can happen if we do… she and her whole village got saved!”

Now first let me say, balancing Jesus’ message of grace and truth is a tricky business and none of us consistently gets it right. Maybe my friend had been way over on the side of ignoring damaging behavior, even among those close to her. Maybe, with this new conviction, she was emboldened to show them a better way out of their self-destruction (think of an alcoholic intervention). I do believe that, reading it as God intended in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, scripture is alive and active, and different aspects of a story may strike different believers differently, depending on the word that God has to speak into their particular situation.

That said, here is how the story of the woman at the well strikes me. (For convenience, for the remainder of this post, I will refer to “the woman at the well” as “Allison”.)

Who is she?

To me, the first thing worth noting in the story is that confrontation about her sin (a form of social pressure) is the last thing that Allison needs. The social pressure on her is already turned to 11. How do we know? Just take a look at where Jesus found her:

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water.

Things to know:

Nobody goes to collect water at noon. Have you heard the expression, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun”? It originated in India, but it could equally well apply to the Middle East. Carrying a heavy water jug in the midday heat is lunacy. Instead, normal women go at the crack of dawn, all together. It’s fun! They chat, they socialize. The only way you’d go at noon is if you were such a social outcast that you couldn’t tolerate any of that.

She’s an hour outside of town. Jacob’s well was a mile and a half out into the middle of the desert from Sychar, about an hour’s walk. Lots of other wells were closer. Again, what is Allison doing out there? The most obvious answer is that she badly, badly wants to avoid running into anyone.

What she’s used to

Jewish men of the first century were not shy. Doubly so for a religious leader like Christ. Suffice it to say, when one of them called you a whore, you knew it. It didn’t take multiple close readings of the text to tease it out.

Most of the time, however, they said nothing at all, because Samaritans were their northern heretic cousins, so in their view, any Samaritan (and especially a woman) was simply beneath contempt. The text clearly reflects Allison’s astonishment when Christ even condescends to speak to her: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”

They begin to converse somewhat comfortably, until Christ ventures onto a sore spot, bringing out an answer from Allison that is all half-truth and evasion:

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Much of the bible is culturally pretty inaccessible to us, but a world where a woman would rather walk an hour into the mid-day heat than see another person… that is not so far removed. Her story could just as easily have been set in Puritan America; she is only missing the scarlet letter. In a world like that, our heroine only meets two categories of people: those who know what she is and shun her, and those who don’t know what she is.

The Jesus surprise

In that kind of context, what do we make of the statement that seemed so confrontational to my friend? Is Jesus really “calling out her sin” and “getting in her face”? As I read it, the answer is no. Rather, Christ is pulling one of his favorite tricks and confounding expectations.

By restating the source of her shame in the gentlest and most non-confrontational language possible, Christ declines to fit into either of her pre-defined categories. He is something new, unexpected, revolutionary: a person who knows what she is but doesn’t shun her. That’s the point that blows the doors off, and it’s only ten verses later that the woman who was too ashamed to show her face at the watering hole that morning is running down Main Street announcing the coming of the Messiah.

Regular old confrontation, regular old judgment, regular old shame… we’ve had all these available to us for thousands of years before Christ. None of that is transformative; none of that was why Christ needed to come, and live, and die, and rise. We sell our birthright for pottage when we walk up to a stranger and casually condemn. Let us rather walk up to a stranger in unexpected love and grace and mercy; it is in that context that the message of Messiah can be spoken and heard. Remember John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

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Take a stand, or spineless for Jesus?

Take a stand: be spineless for Jesus

This week an atheist replied to one of my tweets. I agreed with him that the world is a beautiful place.

One of my posts was linked from Reddit’s “/r/Catholicism” forum, then suppressed on the grounds that is was heresy. I agreed with them that sin is real and harmful.

Why am I agreeing with all these people who disagree with me? Am I being spineless, seeking the favor of man, failing to take a stand for God? Or rather, what if “looking for common ground, building bridges, and being kind” is my stand for God?

“Take A Stand”

So much of our modern Christianity seems to be informed by the need to keep people from being confused. “If I fail to take a stand,” the reasoning goes, “people will think I support x, y, or z.” First of all, are people really going to be confused about what we believe simply because we were nice to someone who believes differently? But more importantly, what if they are confused? So what? Why do we care so much what people think of us?

Paul didn’t. Numerous places in scriptures, he talks about that “dirty word” concept— accommodation of culture— in his efforts to spread the gospel. For example:

“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22, emphasis added)

At one point in Acts, he arrives in Athens and is “greatly distressed to see the city full of idols.” So what does he do? Get in their face? Condemn the idols in order to take a stand for Jesus? Tear his clothes to show his great zeal? None of the above. Instead, he compliments them on the very thing he objects to: their religious fervor. He goes on to present the gospel as the great fulfillment of that fervor, but he never circles back to say, “Oh, and by the way, idolatry is wrong.” He is more interested in spending his airtime on the core gospel message than on having his personal belief system clearly understood.

Live at peace

The news nowadays is full of ways that we Christians are defining ourselves by our refusals. Just today there were two: people who feel their faith forbids them to conduct ordinary business because the opposite party is “in sin”. But Jesus specifically refuted that notion. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” he said, despite behavior by the Romans  that was every bit as much an affront to God’s law as anything going on in modern-day America. That the bible objects to a behavior does not excuse us from a Christlike response to that behavior. Whereas we, in casting about for some kind of public response to “sin”, have landed firmly in a seat at the moneychanger’s table. 

Rather than stand off at a distance and refuse to engage, a more Christlike model comes close and engages completely. “Live in harmony with one another,” scripture urges, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” So much of our public persona nowadays is the farthest thing from that; I have trouble understanding it as anything other than spoiling for a fight.

Christ portrayed us as a light on a lampstand, a city on a hill, the salt of the earth. None of those things sits in a posture of judgment. How can we, as salt, give our flavor to that which we refuse even to touch?

Love— a poem

Here’s a viral headline: “Christians nice, talk about love”

This week, my daughter brought home a poem she had written as part of her third-grade class:

Love is pink.
It tastes like lemon pound cake.

It sounds like singing birds, and it smells like vanilla.
It feels like baby hair, it looks like a butterfly.
Love makes me feel like singing.

Inspired, my wife sat down and composed one too:

Love is periwinkle
It tastes like whipped cream.
Love sounds like the ocean waves softly crashing.
It smells like fresh banana bread.
Love feels like a long warm hug.
It looks like a sunrise.
Love makes me feel so peaceful.

In writing these beautiful poems, it turns out they have quite a bit in common with earlier authors who wrote things like this:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear. We love because he first loved us. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

Or this:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Or this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Will they know we are Christians because of… our political stands on certain issues? Because of… the people we are against, the laws we protest, the banks we boycott? Or will they know we are Christians by our love?

Some people think we are naïve in our view that love and prayer are our most powerful weapons: that they can save lives and transform society. If so, we share the naïveté of our savior. As Christians, we are on the wrong battlefield when we spend our time fighting to possess the kingdoms of this world. We need to be focused instead of the kingdom of heaven, and the only language they speak there is the language of love.