A Voyage of Who I Am

Modern technology is fascinating. On account of advances, I now know things I never imagined. We are able to come up with data for just about anything. One day I gave a blood sample and was later told my numbers for glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides, creatinine, bilirubin, protein, and many other things I cannot even pronounce.

 On another day I spit in a cup and now am told I am 54 percent English, Welsh, and Northern European. I am 36 percent Irish and Scottish. I am 10 percent Germanic European.

 Identity is a complex thing and we are obviously fascinated with it. I wonder if my combination of ethnicity is why I enjoy tea. Maybe why I enjoy fish and chips. Suddenly I have a craving for rashers and a desire to toss a caber. Maybe corned beef, bangers and mash. Maybe wursts. Maybe David Beckham or Harry Kane and I share ancestors. Maybe the Wesley’s or Shakespeare, hopefully not King George III (that sounds shamelessly American). Maybe I am related to Bono or William Wallace.

 It is interesting to discover details about ancestry and cholesterol and other things I now know about myself. It is fascinating to find out what I am made of. But it also reminds me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (Maybe I am related to C. S. Lewis). Anyway, I cannot help but think of this short conversation between Ramandu and Eustace.

 “’In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’” And then Ramandu replies “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” Well played Ramandu… well played.

A Short Story About Grandpa

At 97 years of age, Grandpa had appointed himself as the musical entertainment of the home where he was living. And it resulted in a fight. Nursing homes may not be the place you think of for a fight to occur, but Grandpa was able to make it happen. He and his roommate got into it one day in the dining area. I saw him not many days later. 

He had a guitar and played as he sang some songs he had learned at church. Picture “I’ll Fly Away” and similar songs. And picture them being sang while accompanied by an extroverted 97-year-old who is playing a guitar with only one string. Grandpa had carried that guitar with him for some time. We were used to him singing and playing. But that doesn’t mean his roommate enjoyed it. 

The story was that Grandpa was playing for a group of the residents when his roommate came into the dining area, entered the kitchen, came out with a skillet, walked over to Grandpa, and hit him in the head. Grandpa told me he bounced back up and put that guy on the floor. He then leaned in like he was telling me a secret and said “I’m the oldest one in here, but I can whip them all.”

A Short Story About Christmas

We loved everything that came with Christmas morning. Rushing downstairs, opening packages, and making our way to grandma’s house. There, we would compare gifts with our cousins. We would stand politely while our aunt’s pinched our cheeks and told us how we had grown. And we would wait for our uncle’s to come in, one by one, to tell us “hope you got everything you wanted this year, because last night I accidentally shot Santa Claus.”

When we were real young, we wondered which of them was most likely to be telling the truth. It wasn’t too many years before we finally figured that out.

Seeds, Soils and the Family Soul

I was recently asked to speak at a retreat and given a dual assignment of addressing the family and a text from the gospels – a parable about a sower, seeds and soils. Other texts may come to mind more quickly or seem more appropriate when we think about family. Yet I rather like it when the church puts us in a conversation with the text that does not seem to naturally fit and then expects us to proceed.

The family may not be the first thing we think of when we read the parable, yet the family is always a context where we attempt to apply the text. The family is a field where we learn much about the Christian faith. In the family we scatter seed in the hope of growing fruit. The family is a field where we learn how to relate to one another and to the world and to God.

Perhaps the family is a perfect context to speak of people as soil. In a family we plant, nurture, feed, water and weed – all in the hope that growth might occur. This may be as good a place as any to point out that it is not our end goal to grow happy, productive people. Our end goal is not to turn you into awesome parents with successful marriages and perfect children. It’s not that we are opposed to such things. It’s just that this is a church retreat and we have much bigger goals. We are raising disciples.

It is basic thought about families and texts to be attentive to what is present and what is not. It is important to realize that the entire system is influenced by who is present or who is absent. This is important to know because the family is dependent on the way the individual pieces work together. Behaviors and actions and words of any one individual will significantly affect the others. The text works the same way. The presence of rocks, thorns, and birds make a difference. Shallow roots, worldly worries and the presence of Satan make a difference. This is not a chance adventure. This is a context where it is important to be intentional. This is where seed grows.

As an aside, it follows the family should be very careful about who is invited into the system. A pet, X Box, cell phones, Netflix, fantasy football, a Visa card, Jack Daniels… these things may seem like casual accessories. But they will fight to become influential in the family system.

A common theme in the family and the parable is growth. When one looks at the reasons for growth or lack of growth in the text it appears to be the type of soil and what is attracted to these soils. In the family it is not birds, rocks or weeds that prevent growth. That would be convenient. When things aren’t going well to blame it on the stinking rocks, lousy weeds, angry birds. Instead we must be intentional about who and what is invited into the family.

We do not want to overlook the cosmic struggle in the parable. In both parable and family we may be interacting with seed, thorns and rocky ground, but also Satan. In what we thought was an ordinary farmer’s field – Satan shows up. In what seems like the everyday activities of raising a family – Satan shows up. The fact is, Satan wants your family. There is a cosmic battle of supernatural forces engaged against one another for our families. If we ever have doubts about whether our families have value, that alone should convince us we are wrong.

While Jesus may not be talking explicitly about family here, he is not really talking about farming either. Jesus often seems to be talking about some subject and then we learn he is actually talking about the Good News of the kingdom. In fact, when Jesus starts talking in parables, Matthew tells us he is sharing secrets of the kingdom.

We do not want to forget the parable is a kingdom story. We read the parables and are put immediately into a context of competing kingdoms. Allegiance is an issue that we must wrestle with. We will be choosing a king. Even an examination of family is within the context of kingdom. It does not escape us that the parable follows a discussion about family. “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, Behold My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” This family discussion and the parable share space in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospel. Yes, family is kingdom discussion. It is noteworthy that the bio family takes a backseat to the family that does the will of the Father in heaven. The text presents us with an unorthodox definition of family.

The parable carries some significance for Matthew, Mark and Luke all include it. And it is always the out front parable. We are challenged to “Listen.” It may be noteworthy that Jesus starts telling us to listen in the gospel and in Revelation he is still telling us to listen. Perhaps it is implied that we are not only to start listening but are then to never stop listening.

Listening is a big concern in both text and family. Perhaps a tangent is in order; let us talk about the discipline of listening. Let me guess, your children do not listen. Let me guess again, you do not listen to your children. And again, you fall into a trap of thinking that listening to your child is the same as agreement. You feel that listening is the same as giving in to your child’s demands.

This is worthwhile conversation. While the text is interested in listening to words of Jesus, we want to acknowledge what I will call “spillover.” I hope the following helps with what I intend as spillover. 1) We are to love God. 2) We learn that spillover of loving God insists on loving one another. 3) This love is not to stop with loving other followers; we are to love our neighbors as well. 4) This spillover does not stop here; we are to even love our enemies. Thus, while there is not an explicit text that tells us to listen to one another, I suggest that the spillover causes us to listen to one another (including our children). I am suggesting that as followers of Jesus, we become respectful people who graciously are interested in what others have to say (even when we are not in agreement). When the text does not give an answer to the particular situations of our lives, the spillover can help us determine how we should respond. Listening becomes an activity of discipleship.

As this conversation concludes, I suggest the family is a laboratory for discipleship. I am glad we gather as church. For some reason the text is intent on an unorthodox view of family. The text may suggest then that we are gathered as family. We gather as those who desire to do the will of the Father in heaven. This unorthodox New Testament definition of family cannot help but spillover into our bio families. There we are to share the secrets of the kingdom.

Family Forming Words

“Woman, Here is Your Son” (John 19.26)

John leads up to this saying by talking about the crowds calling for crucifixion, the interaction between Pilate and the chief priests, and the soldiers who were gambling for his clothes.  However it is almost as if Jesus is looking for someone. John tells us that “When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, He said to His mother ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” Whatever else we think of these words, we can consider them “family forming.” Jesus says something that sounds like a formal introduction between two who have likely already met. But they have not known one another like he wants them to know one another.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here is no small decision.  It is “After this,” John says “knowing that all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Not everyone at the cross is hostile. There are sympathetic viewers at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

Relationships have changed. Family is defined differently. We are known, not by biological traits or proper names, but by our relationship to Jesus. At the cross a new community emerges. Not one of blood connection but a connection even more significant. Mark 3.32-33 helps us to see a family that embraces what Jesus is talking about. There Jesus tells us that family is not determined by blood. Instead those who do the will of God are his mother and brothers. Here is a surprising new relationship that violates old boundaries. We are called to meet new brothers and sisters, new mothers and fathers.

Relationship changes in the presence of the crucified Jesus.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

It is interesting that the two people at the cross are not named but identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

During Lent we want to remember that following Jesus includes joining this community gathered at the cross. No longer individuals we are identified by our relationship with Jesus as a family formed by Jesus. Lineage, DNA, and other traits do not tell the entire story. We can only know our identity and significance in relationship to the one who died on the cross.

A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, it’s not easy to see every beliver as my own family. It is clear that you place a higher priority on love and relationship than anything else. There are times that I create distance with peopple I don’ like , or can’t seem to relate to, instead of finding ways of communicating that we are part of the same family. I pray that you will help to see my brothers and sisters in Christ the way that you want me to see them.”

McKnight and Salad Bowl Kingdom Theory

I recently finished reading A Fellowship of Differents by Scot McKnight and cannot help but talk about it. I also cannot help but think of it as a portrait of the church. He begins by providing us with an image of a salad bowl (did anyone else think McKnight was hungry when he wrote this)? The image is a helpful one and helps us to see a picture of church that is a fellowship of different colors, textures, and flavors.

I really like the way he works to provide a picture of the church that looks like the picture we get from the text. I like that some of his struggles are evident in his writing. This is the second book of McKnight’s that I have read and plan to read another soon. It is exciting when exegetes wrestle with the needs of the church.

McKnight calls the church “God’s world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share with one another as a new kind of family.” He goes on, “The church is God’s show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family.”

After listing a number of differents who may have gathered for church in the first century, McKnight asks “Do you think these folks agreed on everything? (Impossible is the right answer.) Were they a fellowship of “differents”? (Yes is the right answer.) ” Was life together hard? (Yes again.) That’s the whole point of what it means to be a church.” This is important because following Jesus is not about how I am doing as an individual as much as “how and what I am doing in that mix of others called the church.”

Back to the image of a salad bowl. Too often, we have thought that we were smothering others with our flavorful dressing when what we have been doing is making us all look and smell and taste the same. This has encouraged differents to go somewhere else where they can surround themselves with others who are like them. This is the natural way the world has always done things. In contrast, God designed the church to be something different than the world had ever seen before.

I love what is said about Galatians 3.28, “The apostle Paul laid down one of the most brilliant lines in the history of mankind, a set of lines that reveal God’s grand social experiment called ‘church.’” McKnight helps us to see a portrait of God’s grand world-changing social experiment where “differents get connected, unlikes form a fellowship, and the formerly segregated are integrated… one in Christ Jesus, in the salad bowl that holds the differents together.”

There is so much more. So much that I think you will want to read this book. In the meantime, I will keep on talking about it.

Meeting God in the Family Tree

We turn to the gospel for good news and the first thing we find is a family tree. The family tree is more than history. It is an important piece of the text that reveals how God has intervened in history. Here we find God has been deeply involved in the life of a family. In fact He has been actively intervening all along through this family. God is interested in communicating salvation through the most common forms of relationship. By the time we arrive at the New Testament we are well aware that God views salvation as a relational project. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the first place we meet God in the New Testament is a family tree.

The family tree is a constant reminder that we need God. It reminds us that we are never far from someone who is in need of salvation. It reminds us that our own behavior is not always what it should be. The family tree is proof that the bible is rated M for mature. We cannot overlook the disappointing behavior in the family tree. Instead of trying to hide these things, the genealogist lays it out for everyone to see. The skeletons are out of the closet. God seems to view these disappointments as opportunities. The family is a place we find no shortage of opportunities for salvation.

We do not get very far into the gospel before we realize this genealogy is not only about one family of Middle Eastern origin. It is our introduction to a family of faith that God remains deeply involved with. In fact by chapter 10 He brings a sword into the biological family and calls us to reorganize our priorities in a way that severs our natural relationships. This reorganization of priorities demands that we realize our family is no longer determined by blood or DNA or our last name. We are called to be members of another family. We belong to a family that is part of God’s plan for salvation. We are the evidence that God is involved with the world, interested in creation, and has invested everything to give salvation. We are participants in God’s relational project.

We do not choose our family. Each of us can think someone in our own families that doesn’t quite fit. Someone who is difficult or embarrassing. Not all of us would have chosen our own siblings or parents or that weird uncle. Yet, they are still family. It is the same in the family of faith. Each of us can probably think of someone we have tried to avoid on a Sunday morning. Someone who talks too much or smells funny or is nothing like us. Yet, God chooses them to belong to this family of faith. We are joined by one thing in common – a desire to follow Jesus. Look around you, like it or not, this is what the family looks like.

We did not choose the people in our family tree. Being connected to some of them may cause us some discomfort. God seems to be in the habit of choosing people unlike us and bringing them into relationship with us. It is unlikely that we would be able to get along with these people on our own. Relationship with such people requires that we keep meeting God in the family tree.

We look to the gospel for good news and the first thing we find is a family tree. The first place we meet God in the New Testament is a family tree. There we find generations and time. We find accomplishment and scandal. There are things we can be proud of and things to be ashamed of. There is pain and hurt and celebration. This family tree is full of reality. The text wants us to know that God is active in the realities of our lives, our families, and the world to bring salvation.

I hope that a reading of Matthew’s genealogy prompts us to look around the sanctuary differently on a Sunday morning. The unlikely group gathered with you is the family that God has chosen to strike a blow against the darkness.

A Gathering at the Cross

The first century view of crucifixion makes John’s account somewhat surprising.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Ben Witherington suggests that Mark’s gospel provides “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  The Gospel of John includes none of these and Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion as a moment of triumph is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

Such a victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But we have “the benefit of hindsight and insight.”  The crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here we have no small decision.  After this, John says that “all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Sympathetic viewers were at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

In the presence of the crucified Jesus, relationship changes.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

The two people identified at the cross are identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find themselves a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

We participate in a community with other unlikely participants.  A tax collector, a fisherman, a farmer, a barista.  The guy who shakes your hand tightly, the girl who sings off-key, the family with the noisy children, the lady who wears too much perfume.  At the cross, we participate with a family that we do not choose.  We participate in a family where the only thing we have in common is relationship with a crucified Jesus.

John does not call us to the cross that we might feel pity for an innocent who died an undignified death.  John invites each of us to stand at the cross to witness the crucified King.  John wants us to know that Jesus remains in control.  Even on the cross, he is able to complete the work he was sent to accomplish.  Like adding the final pieces of a portfolio, he establishes a new family and fulfills scripture.  Only then does he submit his work to the Father “It is finished” and give up his spirit (it was not taken from him).

At the cross, Jesus joins us as a new family of disciples who will continue to follow together.  Following Jesus will now include interdependence on one another.  We are not isolated followers, we are not called to be.  Instead, we join others.  We join people who are not like us in any other way except that we gather at the cross of Christ.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that when we come into relationship with the crucified Jesus, we come into relationship with a collection of others who participate in that relationship with us.

A prayer of response by Susan Vigliano; “Lord, I invite you to shape and form my identity in such a way that I reflect your new order of family.  Who is my brother, mother, and sister in my new adopted family?  I have a natural God-given love for my natural family and close friends, but I need your agape love to love the unknown, different, sometimes unloveable people whom you now call my brother.  Help me, Lord, to love like you love.”

Parents, Children, and Church

We cannot over emphasize the responsibility of parents.  We are called to be more faithful than we are able to do on our own.  That is why it is important to remember that we are part of a larger family, the church.  This raises the question, what is the relationship between church and parent as we nurture our children in faith?  The church can become the community where parents receive the support, guidance, and forgiveness that Christian parents require.  Also, the place where children are given the nurture, limits, and story that growth into faith requires.

The church ought to join the parent in prayer for the salvation of children.  When we pray for others to follow Christ no matter what the cost, we do so with the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith.  Prayer is a bold expression that there is One greater than yourself.  Praying for your children is an honest confession that you are unable to raise children on your own.  Such prayer recognizes that there is no greatness in our parenting skills, but only in God.

Raising children is not so much about parents or children as it is about God.  We are to be always about His business, parenting is no exception.  In fact, the problem with many modern evangelism strategies is that the focus leaves God and becomes business about people.  We are always to be witnesses.  Sometimes we are also parents.  Therefore, we want to include our children in the Gospel story.

While this task falls to the entire community of faith, it is the parent who has the greatest influence.  The natural moments at home provide a great opportunity.  We will transmit our convictions in the ways we talk with children, walk with them, put them to bed, and greet them in the morning.  The Christian family is all of us living, working, eating, drinking, teaching, learning, and growing together.  The relationship between church and parent must be one that encourages children in ways that include them in the story.

Children are not intended to be chosen but to be received.  Children are not achievements, but gifts.  We are not to control them for our own ends.  Nothing so disrupts our tidy, well planned futures.  Nothing so clearly mirrors our best and worst.  Nothing demands from us, humbles us, or gives to us as does the blessed burden of a child.

Some may see children as a worrisome bother to be avoided.  Some feel that children should be avoided because of the uncertainty of the future.  By saying yes to children, we do not demonstrate a faith in the future or faith in our abilities to provide for our children.  Rather, faith in God who holds the future.  Evangelism of our children is not a matter of parental effort.  It is God’s work in which we are privileged to share.

A Strategy for Parents

Our children are being seduced and discipled by the world.  We have learned this over and over by watching others who have preceded us struggle in the effort to encourage children in faith.  How can we respond to these same struggles without watering our witness down to principles to live by or a how to manual?  How do we train our children in a way that they will become Christian and in turn train their own children?  We may find ourselves wishing for a simple program that when completed, results in children that are Christian.  Yet, when honest, we realize there is no such program.  Obviously, we are not the ones who will save our children, but our role is not to be underestimated.

The meeting between parent and child goes on and on, it does not end.  It is imperative that parents take this responsibility seriously and do not take vacations from being a witness to their children.  This is a constant, tireless responsibility.  In this way, parents will communicate what matters most to them.  Do we respond to God or to the world?  Our children will be able to answer that question for us.  What children need are adults who are quite literally crazy for them.

There is nothing novel in this.  Christian parents do not win battles.  They prepare the ground and change the mood toward hope and belief, so that when Christ appears there will be others waiting for Him.  The Christian parent often works quietly.  He or she is committed to Christ’s victory and so is willing to do small things.  The Christian parent rarely does anything big.  Instead, they are always planting suspicion that there is something more than what society perceives to be final.

This is unnatural.  But the methods that recruit people for other kingdoms are not suitable to making the Kingdom of God strong.  A good dose of information is not enough.  Legislation, economy, and technology all fall short.  Unlike other kingdoms with which we are familiar, this one is not built on gadgetry, money, or force.

Parents need to faithfully include their children in the conversation of faith on a regular basis.  What children need to witness are parents who believe more than anything else that a new Kingdom exists.  A Kingdom that is not always visible to the naked eye.  A Kingdom where the sole ruler is the Lord God.  Our method is saturation.  It demands long-term patience.  It demands a belief that nothing is more important.  It demands that we live in a way that demonstrates Jesus as Lord.  It demands that we keep His words constantly before us.  It demands that we talk about them while at home and while away, while lying down for the night and when rising in the morning.  It demands that we teach these words to our children.