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Now that I am a grandfather, I have some plans for my granddaughter Ellie. If my experience as a father offers any precedent, I suspect she will appreciate some of these plans more than others. Well, here is one plan I suspect both of us will enjoy – storytelling. Or as G. K. Chesterton might say “fairy tales.”

Chesterton shares the following statement in Tremendous Trifles, written in 1909. “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly, that is in the child already… The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” It is stuff like this that makes us love Chesterton.

A variant of this thought showed up in Coraline in 2002 by Neil Gaiman, “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” Later, another variation occurred on television of all places. In 2007, on the show “Criminal Minds”, we heard “Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.”

Here is a prediction. You can write it down. We will be telling stories about dragons. We will enter dark caves and abandoned palaces; we will enter wherever dragons try to hide. And we will whoop them all. Ellie and I will be whooping on dragons til kingdom come.

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Under cover of darkness a man makes his way through the streets of first century Rome. This man is on a mission to visit a prisoner who has been sentenced to death. We later discover that man to be Luke the physician and the prisoner to be Paul of Tarsus. Thus begins the movie “Paul: Apostle of Christ.”

It is as if Paul has emerged as one of the primary celebrities of the year. N. T. Wright has written Paul: A Biography. I am currently reading Paul: An Apostle’s Journey by Douglas A. Campbell. And now, we find Paul at the theater also. The apostle has become a current event.

In the movie, the great fire of Rome is blamed on Christians in general, but Paul in particular. Therefore, Paul is sentenced to death. With some risk, Luke’s mission is to write down Paul’s story before that day arrives.

The movie reminds us that the ancestors in our family tree lived in dangerous days. The phrase “Nero’s Circus” is more than just where the games are held, it describes Nero’s whole deal. And while many are unhappy with the way Nero rules, it is the Christians who are at greatest risk.

Luke is able to make it into Paul’s cell. And the result is fascinating conversation about what has taken place during his ministry. What an interesting place to find ourselves, in a cell with the two most prolific writers of the New Testament. During this conversation and in others, scripture themes emerge often. I am glad scripture was shared in conversation. We are reminded that the bible was not written as memory verses; instead scripture emerged from real life situations. These words more likely originated in dungeons than in pulpits.

Fictitious characters and scenarios are a significant part of the storyline. These do not distract from, but support the point of the story. I rather enjoyed the way the movie portrayed dilemmas faced by the primary characters. Both the real ones and the fictitious ones. But I feel obligated to highlight one character in particular. Priscilla is strong and passionate and articulate and gracious and motherly and pastoral. I will never read her name (nor Aquila’s the same ever again).

“Paul: Apostle of Christ” does what we want a movie to do. It may not grandstand, but it does invite us into potential dilemmas and issues of the early church. It will motivate and challenge viewers to demonstrate love and patience and forgiveness and grace. And it just might prompt us to ask questions about how we can respond as Christians in our current world climate.

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Back to School

Yep, I am back in school. I have received my first syllabus, been diligently reading, scheduled my first residency, and have even started a paper.

I am part of a cohort in Asbury Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program “Preaching and Leading: Shaping Prophetic Communities.”

If I understand the first syllabus correctly, the program leads with a focus on the preacher as a person. Or, more accurately, as a disciple. We are reflecting on the people and practices of our own spiritual journey. We are examining our experiences of growth and setback along the way. We are highlighting points of discipleship that have made us who we are. Needless to say, I have been reminded of many of you in recent days.

So, I am adapting to a new schedule. And I am thanking you in advance for your prayers and encouragement.

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An Extravagant Hope

Early in the Gospel there is a familiar scene with two characters, a virgin and an angel. We often think of it as a seasonal scene. But there is nothing seasonal about its message. They have a conversation about something impossible. But the angel makes it clear that nothing is impossible with God.

The fact is, God seems to spend a lot of time in the place we call impossible. The entire bible is full of scenarios that can be described as impossible. We know that people cannot survive fiery furnaces. We know that axe heads do not float. We know that virgins do not have children. And we know that dead people do not come back to life. We know that some things are simply impossible.

The final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel brings us to another familiar scene. It was a Sunday. Guards were attempting to follow orders at the cemetery. Women arrive to find that the stone in front of the tomb had been moved. An angel was sitting on top of the stone. (For some reason I love that detail).

The angel speaks. He says something like “Sorry if I frightened you. Don’t be afraid. But if you came looking for Jesus, he is not here. Take a look. Then go tell his disciples.” This might have been the same angel that visited the virgin in chapter one. This might be the same angel who earlier wanted us to know that nothing is impossible with God. Perhaps he is present here to remind us of that very thing.

God enters places we call impossible and Matthew wants us to know that even there we can expect God’s possibility. God is always surprising us with more and better. God is always making a way out of no way. But the scene we find in Matthew brings us to a question. “What happens next?”

Matthew gives us an answer. After witnessing life after death, now that we live in a world where nothing is impossible with God, it is time for the people of God to begin living in ways to show how the world has changed. It may still seem impossible that a group of people can start living in such a way that the world changes.

It may seem impossible that the group who gathers at your church on Sunday mornings can be part of such a significant plan to change the world. Yet, here we are in the gospel and realizing that is exactly what God has planned for us. The fact is, if Jesus can be raised from the dead, surely he has the authority to change the world. Even through unlikely people like us. Because nothing is impossible with God.

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“Science has limits. Someone will think beyond the obvious and further influence the way we think about ourselves. Yet valuable data will always be overlooked. While it is not the intention of science, perhaps Lent is as good a time as any other to ask about spiritual contexts. How do we incorporate some of the complicated mystery of a person into one’s assessment? What about theological contexts? Is it possible that being created in the image of God could define one’s identity more clearly than a clinical diagnosis? Is it possible that a filling with the Spirit may influence someone more than their psycho-social stressors? Is it possible that walking through Lent with fellow believers can shape one’s behavior more than their next prescription?”

Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 50

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“Dazzling. Spectacular. Brilliant.” Those are some things I was saying to myself last night. Maybe I said them out loud, I can’t remember.

But I do remember the sky show I witnessed at sunset. It was a conjunction. An alignment of celestial bodies. A meeting of the three closest worlds to earth. The first sliver of the waxing Lenten moon was showing itself clearly. Not too far away, to it’s upper right was the second brightest light of the night sky, Venus. And for three in a row, Mercury was to the upper right of Venus.

As amazing as that was in itself. The sunset was equally amazing. Silhouettes of trees covered the horizon in front of a golden background sky. Moving skyward this color blended into a combination of orange and red and pink. Continuing skyward, that faded into a shade of blue that grew deeper as it got higher until it looked like darkness. It was the perfect canvas for this alignment of Moon, Venus, and Mercury.

I did not hear about any books that were written to profit from this event. I am not aware of any opportunistic preacher who was claiming it as a prophetic sign. But this was clearly the handiwork of God. As much so as any recent sky show we have seen.

It makes me wonder what the psalmist was looking at when he wrote “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” It is not recorded but I bet he also said “Dazzling. Spectacular. Brilliant.”

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“Lent suggests life is more like a narrative than an outline. It does not remove blurry lines. Lent may provide some answers, but also new questions. Lent allows topics to overlap with one another. Although it is a temptation to separate one from the other. Lent reminds us of the reality that everyday topics intersect with big picture topics. We seem to have a natural inability to balance our focus of the kingdom of heaven with the details of earth. We are not to solve these dilemmas. Instead, we accept them and encourage others to see reality, to recognize the kingdom in the midst of these mundane and ordinary parts of our schedules. Lordship and dominion intersect with everyday tasks. The Word of the Lord meets the ink of our Day-timer.”

Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.49

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