This Dissonant, Disorienting Season of Advent

The chorus of the Rich Mullins’s song, Hold Me Jesus, goes:

So hold me Jesus,

Cause I’m shaking like a leaf

You have been King of my glory

Won’t You be my Prince of Peace

Maybe these lines do nothing for you, but in anxious times, these line find me and become a prayer: You have been King of my glory, Won’t You be my Prince of Peace?

Those of us who have grown up singing hymns and songs about God’s grandeur and goodness, if we have lived long enough, have bumped up against hard things—a disheartening diagnosis, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. We’ve felt the dissonance between our belief in the transcendent and omnipotent God and our longing to feel God’s comfort and presence with us in places of profound struggle.

As we enter the second week of Advent the theme is peace, and honestly isn’t this so much of what we long for through the whole season? And the rest of year too? That Jesus would come to us and the peace of God would reign? That violence would end, that God would comfort our anxious thoughts and worries that keep us up at night? You have been King of my glory, Won’t You be my Prince of Peace?


In several of Walter Brueggemann’s books on the Psalms, he employs the typology of “Orientation, Disorientation and New Orientation on the Psalms”. When you read through the Psalms there certain ones that burst forth in praise to God, confident in his sure rescue, his glory. These are confident songs, which believe fully in a King of Glory. These are psalms of orientation

Then comes psalms of disorientation. The psalmists encounter war, sickness, oppression, exile. They cry out to God. They lament. They long for God, and ache at God’s absence.

Lastly there are psalms of New Orientation. These are songs for those who have gone through difficult times, and emerged with a new confidence that God has brought them through.


Brueggemann’s typology is useful, not only for categorizing Psalms, it also names stages of faith (akin to Ricoeur’s movement from a first naïveté to a second naïveté), and I think it is makes sense of our liturgical seasons. It has only been two Sundays ago that the liturgy proclaimed “Christ is King” before we entered this disorienting land of Advent. And it is now we lament, and we long, and we sigh, “how long?” When Christmas comes (because ‘a baby changes everything’), we occupy a space of ‘new orientation,’ sensing that God is with us, here, in the struggle of everyday life.

Certainly we may feel each of these to varying degrees. But in Advent I always feel the disorienting dissonance and the weight of absence of Christ’s already-not-yet reign. I feel the angst of wanting to know the peace of God more fully.

Somewhere in the communion of saints, Rich prays over us, ” You have been our King of my glory, Won’t You be our Prince of Peace?” as we long for swords to be beat into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) and predators to give up their predatory ways (Isaiah 11:6-9).

The Politics of Advent

These days, if you here the term evangelical in the public sphere, it likely is a reference to a certain type of Right wing, religious conservative voters (speaking specifically of the U.S. American context here). Evidently, 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and that support has not diminished.

But while evangelical has become synonymous with a certain type of political expression, Evangelical theology in general is self-consciously apolitical. Evangelicals describe the gospel as salvation for our sin-sick souls. At the recent Together For the Gospel conference, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, Al Mohler declared, “Justification by faith alone is not merely a way of describing the gospel, it is the gospel.” Belief in Jesus saves us at the end of life, and it guarantees our place with God in eternity. It is all about what happens after you die with no concern for the current social order. Progressive Christians for their part, are similarly committed to progressive politics, while holding a privatized faith.

But despite our enmeshment in our chosen politics, or our apolitical envisioning of eternity, Advent is inherently political.

When Isaiah spoke of Messianic expectation, he envisioned a political leader— a king in the line of David. You don’t hope for a king unless you are hoping for a change to the political order:

Isaiah 11:1–6 (NRSV)

1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

Isaiah hoped for a king that God’s spirit would rest upon. A ruler who was full of wisdom, good counsel and knowledge. One who feared the Lord. A leader with righteous discernment who would not judge by what he saw and heard, but in ways that championed justice for the poor and equity for the downtrodden. One who would stamp out injustice. Righteousness and faithfulness would be the belt around his waist (he wouldn’t be caught with his pants down).

When Mary sang her Magnificat centuries later, she believed the Son growing in her womb was the answer to Israel’s suffering at the hands of Empire, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1: 52). When John appeared in the wilderness declaring that “the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand”(Matt 3:2), it was a hope which directly challenged the politics of usual in Ancient Palestine. When the early church declared emphatically that Jesus was Lord, it implied that Caesar was not. When John of Patmos saw a vision of the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, he hoped for the end of Roman persecution. Advent hope is hope for the coming Messiah, and that hope is political hope.

And here we are 2019, on the cusp of an election year and feeling jaded. It has been another year of corruption and partisan politicking. We have a president who lies reflexively, who mocks mercilessly, who petitions foreign governments for political dirt on his opponents, and promotes policies that fall short of God’s justice. Some hope for impeachment, or a new election cycle, while others of us wonder if the Democrats offer any real alternative. After all, Trump has dedicated his first term to undoing Obama, except in the case of Obama’s militarism (lets increase that!), or border security (let’s amp that up!). People on the margins have been hurt by the politics of both Right and Left.

The time is ripe for Advent politics. What does it mean for the reign of Christ to break into our world a little more? What would it look likefor leaders to lead others with a commitment to care for the poor, the oppressed and marginalized? What would it look like to not pad the pockets of the powerful but to rule with justice? To listen to counsel, and to care for the poor?

Our politics is not what it should be. The American dream has fallen short of the Kin-dom of God. Advent is hope for a new kind of political order. When the messiah reigns, politics as usual will be no more. Justice, equity and peace will flourish. The military industrial complex will be brought to an end. A new world order is coming. Whatever happens in Congress, or in the Primaries, Jesus is our political hope. Come King Jesus!

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Across the Great Chasm

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine
linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man
named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what
fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The
rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he
looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on
me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue;
for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that
during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner
evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all
this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might
want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to
us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I
have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into
this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets;
they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes
to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not
listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if
someone rises from the dead.’” -Luke 16:19-31 
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Greta Thunberg, 16 year-old Climate Activist

If you watched the news this past week, you probably saw enough to be discouraged about the state of things. Greta Thunberg gave an impassioned speech at the UN about climate change and the impact on, particularly the younger generation. Many of us are in awe of her bold powerful speech but a slew of climate-denying pundits, questioned her grasp of the situation—”she is only a child,” “she is on the spectrum,” and “she is being used by the left to hoist their environmentalist agenda on the rest of us.”

Also this week, the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, announced the beginning of an impeachment inquiry in relation to a phone conversation between President Trump, and Ukraine President, Volodymyr Zelensky. As more information about this conversation has come to light, including a transcript of their conversation, and the whistleblower’s complaint, it has been interesting watching the various responses. Those on the political Left see clear evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. Those on the Right may allow that the conversation wasn’t Trump’s finest moment, but there is no “quid-pro-quo” and ‘nothing approaching something criminal.’

Call me, maybe.

I mention these examples from the news, not because I am trying to make a partisan, political statement which you may or may not agree with, but to point out the obvious. People with the same access to information, observing the same event can come away with radically different interpretations.  There is lots of reasons for this.  We each carrying our own set of assumptions based on experience, socioeconomic status, education, and personal beliefs.  We each have our own starting point and our own vantage point on events.

When we turn to the parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man, we have an example of two men with very different starting points, and as it happens, two very different end points.  A rich man and a poor man die. The rich man finds himself in the place of the dead, suffering in the flames, the poor man at the side of Abraham. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus, the poor man to him, to give him some relief.” But he is rebuffed, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good thinv gs, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

That the rich man finds himself brought down and a poor beggar is lifted up, may be a reversal of each’s expectations but this is very much in keeping with the message of Luke’s Gospel, where Mary sings, “the hungry are filled with good things and the rich go away empty” (Luke 1:53), Jesus announces that he comes to proclaim “good news to the poor” (Luke 4: 17:21) and pronounces judgment  on the rich  and comfortable because they have already received their consolation (Luke 6:24-26).

If the experience of the rich man and Lazarus is radically different in the next life, one thing remains consistent. a great chasm has been fixed between them.

Jacop Bassano – Lazarus and the Rich Man, circa 1550

“The Great Chasm”

The entire parable contrasts the rich man and Lazarus. We are told at the beginning of the parable that the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen and that he feasted sumptuously everyday (v19).  Purple was an expensive dye in the ancient world, reserved for wealthy elites. As was fine linen. This was their equivalent to red-carpet designer fashions. He feasted on delicacies every day in his father’s house with his five brothers. This was a wealthy, decadent family, no doubt famous and celebrated for being wealthy. Perhaps they were the ancient world’s equivalent to the Kardashians. When the rich man dies, he is buried. There was likely an elaborate funeral procession with all the important people attending.

At his gate sat a beggar named Lazarus. Lazarus longed to be fed by trickle down economics—the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead he is left out by the gate. Dogs would come and lick his open sores. These weren’t well coifed Bishon Frises and Labradoodles but unclean scavengers, who came and licked his open wounds, making him ritually and perpetually unclean, marked off from his community. He had no family of his own to look after him and when he dies there is no mention of a burial. But he is whisked away by angels to Abraham’s side.  

Lazarus was the poor man who discovered his place in the kingdom of heaven, but the rich man, already had his consolation.

When the rich man calls out to Abraham from the flames, it is remarkable that he knows Lazarus’s name. There is no evidence in the parable that he ever spoke to him and even now, he only addresses Abraham. “Father Abraham, show mercy and send Lazarus to me to cool my tongue for I am in agony.” He is still operating from a place of privilege and entitlement, expecting to command the poor and vulnerable to do his biding.

But the rich man is told he had a lifetime of good things while Lazarus had none, but now Lazarus is comforted.

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Now this is a parable and I am not sure it is intended as an accurate depiction of the afterlife but if we contrast the two men we hear of a decadent rich man who lived a life of self-centered entitlement and a poor beggar who is ultimately blessed by God. The name Lazarus comes the Hebrew name Eleazar meaning the one who is helped by God. One man had the resources to help the other but left him out by the gate. The other man died alone and homeless and vulnerable and welcomed into the kingdom of God.

I wonder if the rich man’s afterlife would be different if he braved the great chasm in life and used his dishonest money and resources to make friends with Lazarus the beggar.

What about us? Who are the folks across the great chasm from us? Maybe, like in the parable, you are on one side of the have or have nots divide. Maybe it is political. Like the examples I mentioned above, about some conservative and liberal responses Greta Thunberg or the president’s phone call you would think that the left and the Right have nothing in common with one another.

There is some research to back that up. Conservatives and Liberals seem to have different brains.  There are various studies that show liberals tend to have more brain activity in the left anterior insula, the section of the brain that regulates emotion and is associated with compassion and empathy while conservatives have more activity in the right amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for regulating our fear response.[1] So when you hear your ultra-liberal friends talk about the need to be compassionate to those asylum seekers on our southern border and your ultra conservative friends are talking about how we need to have strong border security to keep our country safe from terrorists, drug dealers and some very bad people, there very brains tell them to think the way they do about the world around them. It is as though a great chasm has been fixed between the two.

Or has it?

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When the rich man knows Lazarus won’t come to his aid, he asks instead for Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his 5 brothers of coming judgment. And Abraham answers, if they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Beyond the reference to Jesus’ own death and resurrection, Abraham’s word to the rich man is that his brothers already have everything they need to know that they are danger of God’s judgment. With a lifestyle of feasting and finery they left a poor beggar at their gate to have his sores licked by dogs.  In the Torah, Israel was repeatedly urged to care for the poor, the widowed, the alien and the orphan (cf Deut 14:28-29; 24:17; Exodus 22:22) When Israel harvested their land, they were to leave some of the fruits of harvest in the field so that the poor could come and glean and no one in the land would go hungry.(Leviticus 19:10-11) When we turn to the Hebrew prophets, we hear page after page warning Israel that their failure to care for the vulnerable, would result in exile and judgment.

6 brothers partied in their house while a poor beggar sat at their gate, hungry, destitute, dogs licking his sores. But if the dead beggar came back, wouldn’t the other 5 brothers listen to him?

Abraham says no. And he is right.

Resurrection and Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a thing. We tend to give weight to the evidence which reinforces our view of the world and produce explanations which cover the counterevidence. So, when we read the gospels it is interesting to see how people respond to Jesus’s miracles. He heals on the Sabbath, and some are impressed by his compassion and authority, and they praise God while others point at how by breaking the Sabbath, he is leading the Jewish people away from Torah. They see the same event. Two radically different interpretations consistent with their own worldview. Or consider miracles in general. John’s gospel calls miracles “signs” because they give us a demonstration that Jesus is truly the Word made flesh. But at times these miracles become a spectacle which distract from the message of Jesus. John Tucker observes, “[Jesus] says that some people cannot see the truth because they are hung up on the miracle.”[2]

Had Lazarus the dead beggar came back to warn the brothers. I don’t think they would have changed anything. They would have called the exorcist to drive him away. They didn’t let that man inside the gate when he was alive, there would be no way, they’d let him in now that he was one of the walking dead. They might be momentarily arrested at the sight of him, but then one of them would open a fresh bottle of wine, and they’d turn the music up until the voice of the crying beggar was drowned out, as much as it ever was.

When I read this parable, the message I come away with is this: cross the great chasm. Include the person who is easiest for us to exclude.  Become the type of person that will include those who view the world differently. Don’t assume your view of the world is the most right, become open to challenges. Become a person who listens. Listen to scripture as it challenges us to not just live for our own enjoyment and comfort, but to expand our care for the vulnerable and to live for God. And if some one rises from the dead and you find him standing at your door, knocking, you may want to listen to what he has to say.

William Holman Hunt – “The Light of the World”- Manchester Version, Painted between 1851-1856


[1]

See Hilary Bruek, “These key psychological difference can determine whether you’re liberal or conservative” Business Insider, April 19, 2018. // www.businessinsider.com/psychological-differences-between-conservatives-and-liberals-2018-2; Ryota Kanai, Current Biology. “Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, April 07,2011 // www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(11)00289-2#%20; Darren Schreiber, “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans,” February 13, 2013 // https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0052970.

[2] John Tucker, Zero Theology: Escaping Belief through Catch-22s, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2019), 30. Tucker is commenting on Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000, and the fact that the multitudes follow him only because they ate the bread and were filled (30).

Get Ready to Cheer for the Bad Guy

 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13

Watch tv, go see a movie, read a book and you will discover the characters we are drawn to are often those that are less than perfect. They are antiheros who are deeply flawed. Often the characters acting in their own self-interest are those who save the day for everyone else: Gunfighters, crooked cops, mobsters, or a conman with a heart of gold. We love stories where a character with feet of clay do something good.

There is an old Mel Gibson movie, which I don’t think I ever saw, and if I did, I forgot everything about it except the preview. The movie was called Payback and preview began with a voiceover, “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

Payback (1999)

When we turn to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) it is as though Jesus does the same voice over: “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

This was a servant in charge of a master’s estate. He is was charged by someone with being wasteful and squandering his boss’s riches. Evidently the charges were serious enough or easy enough to establish that his master fires him without investigation. But they weren’t so serious that he had security accompany him to immediately clear out his desk and escort him from the building. He is given time to put a report in order.

The manager knows that he doesn’t have the strength to dig ditches, back breaking labor usually reserved for foreign slaves captured in war (the way America used to use slaves for such work, and now use prison work crews). He is too proud to sit by the side of the highway with a carboard sign which reads:

MIDDLE MANAGER OUT OF WORK.

ANYTHING HELPS

So, he devises a plan. He calls in all the people he knows who are in debt to his master. One man owes 100 jugs of olive oil to him, likely about 850 gallons of olive oil. No small sum. “Quick take your bill and make it 50.” Another debtor owed his master 100 containers of wheat. This was the amount yield you would get from 100 acres. “Take your bill and make it 80. The percentages that the manager reduced their bills, 50% and 20% were different, but in both cases, it came to about 500 denarii, roughly about 2 years’ pay for a day laborer.

When the master gets word about what his wasteful manager did, you would think he would be upset. The manager was aleady in trouble for squandering the master’s estate and  here he just cut him out of an additional 1000 denarii. But we are told the master praises “the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. “

If this strikes us a strange reaction from the master, Jesus seems to add his own condemnation, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

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This is called the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. While some critical Bible scholars argue about which of Jesus’ words in the gospel he really said, almost no one can imagine anyone else saying this. No moralizing bishop from the second century would praise such an unsavory character.

As I have studied the parable. I have discovered there is wide disagreement  from one commentator to the next on how we should interpret it. There are no fewer than 16 different interpretations of the parable.[1] Some scholars absolve the shrewd manager of any wrongdoing. They say, the master of the house was the one who was in the wrong and the debts that the manager forgave were really the interest rates that Deuteronomy 23:20 stated shouldn’t be charged a fellow Israelite. Others argue that the manager forgave the portion of the debt that was his own share. There is a paucity of details in Jesus’ parable and there is no internal evidence that the master was bad. The manager on the other hand is described first as wasteful, and then as dishonest.

One creative take, is that the shrewd manager is really Jesus, accused of being wasteful by the religious elites, he then acts to forgive our debt to the Master. I don’t think so, Tim. There is too much moral ambiguity about the manager’s actions for me to think that this is a really Christological parable. Though the forgiving of debts does connect to the larger theme of Jubilee in Luke’s gospel.[2]

Most of this wrangling is unnecessary. In the passage Jesus never praises the manager for his alleged wastefulness or his dishonesty. He praises him for being shrewd.  And in verses 10-13 he praises faithfulness over dishonesty:

If you are faithful in little, you will be faithful with much, and if you are dishonest with little you will be dishonest with much,”

and commends faithfulness with ‘dishonest wealth’ as requisite for being entrusted true riches:

If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.”

And then Jesus says that you can’t serve both God and mammon (vs 13). None of this seems like a glowing endorsement of the manager’s wastefulness and dishonest dealings[3] The manager was a bad guy. Nevertheless, Jesus cheers on the bad guy, because this bad guy was so shrewd.

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Christine Pohl says:

Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon.[4]

So, the question for us is this: Each of us has money and resources at our disposal, how can we use the things we have to serve God? In what ways can we, like the shrewd manager, make friends who will care for us long after our money is gone? How can we use our resources to build relationships?

And if we are bold enough to ask: Are there ways I serve wealth more than God?

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I am not a big fan of giving to charities, unless I know something about their work. We know we ought to be generous and we give to issues we think matter. But sometimes, giving to charity is an inoculation against really caring for people. It is easy to be kind to those we don’t know a lot harder to be a friend to someone who is struggling.

I came across a quote this week from the Peruvian, Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, ““You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”[5]

The lesson Jesus gleans from the shrewd manager is “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What of instead of giving money to a homeless mission we befriended that homeless person in our neighborhood? Instead of serving a meal at a shelter to someone we’ve never met, we bought dinner for the person with the cardboard sign and we sat down and ate with them and listened to their story? What if we stop using our money to keep those people away but instead used our money and resources to care for them in tangible ways? And yes, we should direct some of our resources to organizations doing good work in the world, but our giving should never be an inoculation for caring for the poor, the widowed and the vulnerable that God places in our midst.

Jesus teaches us that what we do with the money and resources we are entrusted with today, is related to our experience of the riches God has in store for us. Therefore, use money to make friends!   The one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much. We can’t serve both God and mammon.

We live in a consumer culture and everything tells us to invest in our own enjoyment and security. Drive a nice car, have a comfortable home, buy more toys, have a nice nest egg for your future. And to some extent, we buy in.  But when even a bad guy uses his resources for the good of others and to make friends, we cheer him on. We cheer for the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy who does good, is us.


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[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 406-409.

[2] See Luke 4:16-22.

[3] I am aware that many scholars see verse 10-13 as only tangentially related to the parable (i.e. Jesus sayings that were placed by Luke here, but not necessarily commenting on the story).

[4] Christine Pohl, “Profit and Loss,” Christian Century, August 29–September 5, 2001, 13.[4]

[5] Cagle, Ryan. Twitter Post. Sept 19, 10:18 PM. https://twitter.com/_ryancagle/status/1174915706527174657

see also Greenfield , Craig, “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” CraigGreenfield.com, January 8, 2016, www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/2016/philanthropy

44.

It’s my birthday, so in keeping with tradition, here is another self-absorbed post about my life. I’m older, but wiser? Rounder? Balder?  One step closer to glory? Another step past my prime? Maybe all the above?

I have a friend from grad school, who every New Years’ Day wishes all her friends an emotionally honest New Years, because not everything in life is happy and it makes sense to honor where we really are at. I feel this same way about birthdays. There is joy in getting older as I reflect with gratitude on my past year. But not everything is rosy, and birthdays have a way of bringing things up as you reflect on where you wish your life was or where you want to be. The good and the difficult flow mingled down.  

I recently reignited my running routine (trying to be less round) and my weekday runs take me past a house that has a sign in their yard that reads:

Vaquero Tom Hobbs

No Tengo Rancho

This translates as “Cowboy Tom Hobbs- I don’t have a ranch.”

The sign makes me smile. I think to myself, “isn’t a cowboy without a ranch, just a boy?” I think of Tom Hobbs is the Jeffrey Lebowski of Vaqueros. He is just there abiding for all us sinners. I don’t know this man and never spoke to him. Maybe he bet the ranch. Maybe he just likes a nice vinaigrette on his salad. I have no idea.

But No Tengo Rancho encapsulates how feel sometimes. Like I failed at my potential and I don’t quite live up to who I saw I am. If I made a sign for myself, it could read:

Pastor James Matichuk

I have no congregation.

I could put that in my front yard for everyone to read. People could run by and laugh.

 A few years ago, I pastored a church briefly and ending there was hard. Some people in ministry pick up the pieces of their life after hard endings and move easily on to the next thing. I try not to judge those people. They didn’t choose to be sociopaths.  But for me I was too wounded to be much good for a while. I had at least a good year where I felt like I was a halfling, too hurt to do too much. I’ve been doing a day job I’m not made for. No Tengo Rancho.

But despite how I feel, my reality has more hopeful. The past couple of years I’ve been preaching fairly regularly and it’s been healing. I feel ready to re-engage my sense of call. I have now taken a regular preaching gig which starts this July. I’ll be preaching 3-4 times a month, helping a local United Methodist pastor who oversees three congregations, filling the pulpit in two of the churches on the weeks he can’t be there. So, I am a pastor without a congregation, but I will have responsibility to two.  

No Tengo Rancho

I call myself a writer sometimes. Mostly that has meant book reviews and I read more than the average bear, but I’ve really struggled to write this year. It is not as though I haven’t been creative. I’ve taken up oil painting in earnest and have had opportunity to play music, but writing has been hard. Including book reviews which I kind of have a knack for. A friend asked me to submit a review of a book of his to a popular magazine and I felt paralyzed to do it. And I couldn’t write. Afraid of rejection? You bet.  But I’ve also struggled with my regular blog posts, theological musings, reviews and such. I have ideas but  I have struggled to produce.

Author James Matichuk,

I have no book.

There is no book on the horizon, though maybe someday. About a month ago I started an almost daily practice of posting a short poem to Facebook and Twitter. This is a small manageable exercise designed to get me writing again. No Tengo Rancho. I have no book but I can write.

Another challenge this year, that I didn’t foresee was my 4-year-old son was diagnosed with Autism.  At 3½ he had a developmental regression and my loquacious toddler became my speech delayed preschooler, who doesn’t know boundaries and can’t communicate what he wants. We’ve been trying to get him the therapies and support he needs for this stage, but it has been a hard adjustment and just when I thought I knew how to dad, this kid has me relearning everything.

 I’ve got this ranch, but I am still learning the lay of the land.

This kid brings me so much joy. I can’t carry on a conversation with him (he babbles now, having a hard time saying actual words), but he smiles and laughs and is exuberant. If I am not too tired from lack of sleep (he sometimes keeps us up all night), he makes me happy.

While adjusting to what it means to parent a special needs child, I have learned the importance of making sure I am taking care of myself (the other reason to go running). Last night he was up wreaking havoc since 2:45AM (he’s still getting into everything while I write this). My wife and I are dog tired, but because I’m trying to do activities which replenish me (e.g. running, playing music, painting), I have more wherewithal to deal with it today. Self-care is important.

My life is more joy that hardship. I have four amazing kids, a wife I love, I live in a city surrounded by mountains with trails full of trees and wildflowers. The sun shines most days. I have a garden I haven’t killed yet. And I am eager to see what God will do in the days ahead. So, wish me an emotionally honest birthday, but for me it is also a happy one.

Hey Church, Can We Talk? a book review

Despite the fact that we live in an age where we are technologically tethered, many of us feel disconnected. Collectively, we have lost the requisite skill to carry on a conversation, particularly with people who are different than us. Online, we mute the voices that challenge us. Offline we flock with birds of a feather. We are a fragmented people,simultaneously more connected than previous ages, and yet typified by a profound sense of alienation.

C. Christopher Smith is at the forefront of helping the church recover the art of conversation. He is a part of Englewood Christian Church, in the Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis, which has hosted weekly congregational conversations for over 2 decades. Smith also has enriched conversation in the wider Church around the themes of community, reading and the common good. He is the author of Slow Church (with John Pattison), Reading for the Common Good,and as the editor of the Englewood Review of Books—a print and online journal that reviews books which they flag as valuable for the people of God. His newest book, How the Body of Christ Talks, is designed as a practical guide to help the church recover the art of conversation.

In chapter 1, Smith begins by laying out ‘the theological roots for conversation,’ (e.g. the mutual indwelling of the Trinity, a culture of reciprocity, the Christian practice of hospitality and the biblical vision of unity in diversity, the church’s role in incarnating Christ, and need for intentionality). These ‘big ideas’ cast a vision for a Christian dialogue and conversation.

In part 1, Smith gets practical, describing how churches can delve into the practice of conversation. In chapter 2, he desribes the dynamics of conversation (e.g. the size of the group, the degree of homogeneity, and the virtues and challenges of formal and informal conversations). In Chapter 3, Smith discusses what topics we should talk about as we convene a conversation. He suggests that when churches start practicing conversation, they don’t start with ‘abstract matters or highly charged topics,’ even if these are things that are worthwhile to discuss down the road. Instead Smith suggests that one possible starting point for conversation ‘might need to be about why we should talk together, thus creating a space for listening carefully to those who are hesitant, confused, resistant to the idea of conversation.’ In Chapter 4, Smith turns to the healing potential of conversation and reviews three models for structuring the conversation (Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Cafe).

In part 2, Smith discusses the ‘spirituality of conversation’ highlighting practices which will nurture our conversations. Chapter 5 explores conversation as ‘a prayerful way of being’ and describes how the prayer practices of corporate prayer, silence, listening prayer, binding, praying without ceasing and expectancy prepare us to be able to engage well with one another. Chapter 6 explores how we can abide with others through the messiness of life. Chapter 7 invites us to prepare our whole selves for conversation (hearts, minds, body).

Part 3 describes ways we can sustain the conversation, mindful of our church’s mission and identity (chapter 8), how to stay engaged and engage well through conflicts and disagreements (chapter 9), and how to emesh ourselves in the dance of community (chapter 10). A conclusion invites the church to bear witness through conversation and communion in the midst of our fragmented age.

Throughout the book, Smith weaves together stories of his church and other churches who are practicing conversation. Granview Calvary Baptist in Vancouver is highlighted as a church that engaged this conversation around LGBTQIA community with some members affirming and others taking the traditional stance (and their denomination’s stance). While the differences between ‘the sides’ remained important, through their conversation they were able to make a statement on human sexuality which both sides could affirm. Other churches and intentional communities share their wisdom in setting ground rules and framing conversation (these are included in an appendix).

One of the things I really appreciate about Smith’s work, is how he weaves together thoughtfulness and practicality. We are at a culture moment where we are ideologically and politically divided. Smith describes the nature of conversation and gives good suggestions for pursuing an ecclesially rooted conversation which will enrich both our churches and our wider communities. This book will be fruitful for churches and intentional communities as they seek to listen and speak well together.

Notice of material consent: I reviewed this book with an electronic advanced review copy provided by Net Galley. The book is good and I am also procuring my own physical copy.

These Still December Mornings


By the time the third week of Advent rolls around, we’ve marked hope and our lingering dissatisfaction with where the world is. We have longed for the Peace of Christ to come to our war-torn-and-too-violent world. Then in week 3, even though we know it’s coming, we are surprised by joy. 

Luci Shaw

‘Tis the season for angelic visitations, a perfect image for this happy surprise of Advent Joy. Luke tells of two such visitations. Both times the visitor brought good news: A Child will be born. God has remembered his people and is sending a redeemer!

The first  visit left  Zechariah dumbstruck (Luke 1:22). On the next visit, Mary was receptive and after seeing Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, pregnant in her old age, she burst with song (1:46-55). 

Of course “angelic visitation” may not  always mean an aura of light, a long flowing robe and feathered wings. In Luci Shaw’s Advent Visitation the visitor comes in with the  ‘satin wind’ to her cabin door. We don’t get a look at the visitor but we sense the joy that this visit brought her:

Even from the cabin window I sensed the wind’s
contagion begin to infect the rags of leaves.
Then the alders gilded to it, obeisant, the way

angels are said to bow, covering their faces with
their wings, not solemn, as we suppose, but
possessed of a sudden, surreptitious hilarity.

When the little satin wind arrived,
I felt it slide through the cracked-open door
(A wisp of prescience? A change in the weather?),

and after the small push of breath–You
entering with your air of radiant surprise,
I the astonished one.

These still December mornings
I fancy I live in a clear envelope of angels
like a cellophane womb.  Or a soap bubble,

the colors drifting, curling.  Outside
everything’s tinted rose, grape, turquoise,
silver–the stones by the path, the skin of sun

on the pond ice, at night the aureola of
a pregnant moon, like me, iridescent,
almost full-term with light.


Like Shaw on one of these still December mornings, Mary, Elizabeth (and Zechariah) were each surprised by joy! The things they each hoped for but feared would never come to pass were now happening! The gnawing loneliness and ache of absence were being swallowed up. A people’s long exile was coming to an end. There was joy in the visiting and joy for what was yet to come. 

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 3He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 3and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Mary floated like she was in a clear envelope of angels like a cellophane womb. Or a soap bubble. Everything outside was tinted rose, grape, turquoise and silver. Joy! The reflection of the moonlight on the frozen pond, an areola of the pregnant moon—almost full-term with light! Anticipation and excitement reach a fever pitch. Jesus is coming, God is here!

Have you had an angelic visitation yet? God is near.