Upside down

My Office Mousepad

On my desk is a mousepad. It’s a round mousepad and pictured on it is a map of the world. You can see a good chunk of North and South America, all of Europe and Africa, and part of Asia.

There’s just one thing that’s a little strange about my mousepad: It’s upside down – at least compared to how we usually look at a world map. The tip of Argentina points straight up pretending it’s high noon and Santa’s home at the North Pole is at the bottom! I understand that’s how Australians orient their globes, but here in North America it just doesn’t look quite right.

My upside down globe daily reminds me of something the people in Thessalonica say in Acts 17. Although the Gospel is initially welcomed by the Thessalonians, some ruffians show up where the followers of Jesus are sharing the Good News. These bad characters form a mob that turns into a riot. They drag some the disciples before the authorities with this accusation: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.”

Apparently the people in Thessalonica don’t like having their world turned upside down.

I don’t either.

Yet that’s what the Gospel consistently does. It reveals how weakness is strength. How poverty reveals true wealth. How death leads to life. It sounds backwards, but God wins by losing. His perfect Son Jesus dies on the cross – the most humiliating, shameful ending imaginable. But Jesus beats death at its own game and rises in a shocking new beginning on the third day. Now for all who are in Christ, sin has been defeated, life has purpose, and the future is hopeful.

Those who identify with Jesus can’t help but adapt more and more to God’s upside down ways. Followers of Jesus perceive that generosity carries the highest profit. Slowing down helps you get ahead. Apologies are necessary. Forgiveness is freeing. Fidelity is meant to be celebrated. Sports are not meant to be idolized. Wisdom is more valuable than a university degree. Possessions are temporary. Beauty comes from character instead of the cosmetics counter. It’s ok for both men and women to cry. Those who are overlooked need compassion. We’re stewards (not owners) of creation. The truth matters. Promises need to be kept. Rights can be willingly set aside. The unborn already have an imprint of the divine. Ethnic diversity is a foretaste of heaven. Worshiping is the best use of time. Persecution is a reward. Peace overpowers hate. Loving one’s enemy is normal.

Many influencers in our culture say that living in line with these and other priorities in God’s Kingdom is unrealistic and pointless. They say living like that is upside down. And sometimes it feels that way. Especially when I get used to things not being right side up as described in the Bible.

So I keep Argentina on my mousepad map pointing upwards to remind me that God works in surprising ways. And that his Spirit empowers me to sometimes turn things upside down in God’s name. When I do so, I’m in good company with the disciples in Acts 17.

I wrote this for this week’s Perspectives column in the Rock Valley Bee.
I concluded with saying that I’d like to visit Australia some day
and buy a map while I’m there.

Radical hospitality

In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a pair of parables describing the Kingdom of heaven. One is about a man who plants a mustard seed that grows into a large plant in which birds can perch. The other is about a woman who mixes yeast into a batch of flour until it’s all worked through the dough. Bible studies and sermons on this text usually focus on how God’s Kingdom is expanding even if it doesn’t seem to start out looking like much. And this is true. God routinely turns our expectations upside down. We think God is interested only in big and strong things when often it seems like he prefers to show his power through what appears small and weak. These parables assure us of how, often in surprising ways, the Kingdom is coming and growing whether it seems like it or not.

I recently watched the simulcast of a workshop hosted by Love INC and led by Ray Vander Laan titled “We Are the Church: Putting God on Display in a Broken Culture.” He showed that there’s even more going on in these parables.

Watch the woman for a moment. She is mixing yeast into 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of flour. Just how many loaves of bread is she baking?! My wife and son often bake bread and they use about 2½ pounds of flour to make 3 loaves of bread. They would end up with 72 loaves if they used 60 pounds of flour! The woman in Jesus’ parable must be working on a feast! So maybe this detail about the extravagant amount of dough is also meant to associate the Kingdom with words like abundance and feasting.

It was the NIV translation that told me the woman used 60 pounds of flour. The translators chose to convert the original expression into figures people can understand today. What was the original expression? The NRSV and other translations say the woman mixed the yeast into “three measures” of flour. Most readers in the western world are probably thankful for translations or footnotes that convert unfamiliar quantities into units with which we’re familiar. However, Jesus’ original Jewish listeners were probably less busy calculating the amount of dough than they were with realizing Jesus was hinting at an Old Testament story that uses the exact same expression.

In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah have unexpected guests who turn out to be angels – even God himself. Abraham & Sarah hurry to welcome their guests, part of which includes Sarah getting “three seahs of the finest flour” to bake some bread. I’m not sure why here the NIV translation does not convert three seahs into units more familiar to modern readers as it does in Matthew 13. The NRSV and other translations avoid specific units and get closer to the original expression: Sarah got “three measures” of flour.

So when Jesus speaks about a woman working with three measures of flour, his original Jewish listeners are not doing math in their head. They’re hearing Jesus inviting them to think about Sarah and Abraham and the extravagant feast they prepared for strangers. And I suspect this was not an uncommon thing for Abraham and Sarah to do. A little later in Genesis, Abraham’s neighbors refer to him as “a mighty prince among us” and they seek to deal generously with him. They would not have spoken and acted like this if Abraham and his family were unkind and miserly.

I therefore propose together with Ray Vander Laan that baked into Jesus’ parable of the woman with the fantastic amount of dough is the theme of hospitality. The woman is mixing dough just like Sarah mixed dough millennia ago, preparing a feast for people she didn’t even know. So, yes, Jesus affirms the Kingdom of heaven is growing, often in surprising ways. But he’s also pointing out that this growing Kingdom he has begun ushering in is a Kingdom characterized by the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, a hospitality that puts aside what we were doing to offer the best help we can give when it’s needed.

It turns out that the theme of hospitality is also ingrained into the preceding parable. The man plants a mustard seed that eventually grows into a plant that, in a sense, offers hospitality for the birds, giving them a place to perch in its branches. God desires for his entire creation to be blessed by hospitality.

A sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church – in you and me – is that he is nurturing within us the gift of hospitality, whether it’s with friends or strangers. And, in another hint Jesus provides, all God’s people are called to grow in offering hospitality. In one parable Jesus refers to a man, in the other a woman. Both are used equally to illustrate this Kingdom principle. The Spirit equips men and women of all ages to practice radical hospitality. And as we do so, we might be surprised to discover how the Kingdom is indeed coming and growing even among ordinary people like you and me as God works through us.

(Here are more posts on the theme of hospitality if you’re interested.)

Home

My family traveled back to British Columbia this past summer to see parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins. When we arrived at the Canada border, we showed the border agent our Canadian passports. Canada and US flags graphic found with GoogleAfter satisfactorily answering his questions, he allowed us into Canada by saying, “Welcome home!”

At the conclusion of our trip, we crossed the American border to catch our flight out of Seattle. We showed the border agent there proof that we’re permanent residents (our “green cards”). After satisfactorily answers his questions, he allowed us into the United States by saying, “Welcome home!”

“Welcome home.” We heard those words both when we crossed into Canada and then again a few weeks later when we crossed back in the United States.

As a Christian, I believe that I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom – his reign that is already coming now and that will come in fullness when Jesus returns. Through his Holy Spirit, God is at work in Canada and the United States, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Sometimes his work is obvious; often it happens in small, barely noticeable ways. No matter where I am on this planet, a part of me should be able to hear “welcome home,” knowing God and his people are already there furthering his Kingdom presence and priorities.

I remember when we first moved to Rock Valley, it seemed no matter where we went – the bank, the grocery store, a restaurant – at least one person there knew us by name, whether an employee or another customer. I thought it was a little creepy. Were people following us around, seeing where we did business and analyzing what we all bought?? It felt foreign, not at all like our previous home in British Columbia. But we quickly realized that’s part of the charm of small town life and we’ve come to love the friendly, familiar faces around town.

While we were in British Columbia this summer, I stopped at the bank one afternoon and spoke with a teller. There I was just another customer, a number in the system. It has been that way nearly as long as I can remember. I do not expect any employee at any Royal Bank branch anywhere in Canada to know my name. Yet all of a sudden, despite everything being normal, standing in that Canadian bank felt foreign.

Because I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom, I also believe that nowhere on earth will feel completely at home on this side of Jesus’ return. I am grateful for familiar sights, smells, and sounds, but realize that they are either only temporary or faint previews of much richer things to come when God’s reign is seen and embraced in full.

Welcome home? Yes – in part today. One day there will be no more international borders and all who are in Christ will feel at home in ways we only begin to sense now.

I wrote these reflections for this week’s “Perspectives” column
in the
Rock Valley Bee. I noted we moved to Rock Valley
9 years ago this month.

Open to God

In his Sermon the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”God of Weakness by John Timmer Reading the late John Timmer’s book God of Weakness shone some light for me on Jesus’ familiar yet hard-to-entirely-understand words. Maybe this will speak to you too.

::– –::– –::

The God of Scripture is a God who pronounces the poor blessed. The poor are people who are not self-made and are not self-sufficient. Because they are less walled in by what they possess, they are potentially more open to God. The reason Jesus warns the rich is not that he regards riches as bad per se, but rather that material prosperity easily isolates us from God. Riches of any kind represent power, and power gives us an advantage over others. It makes us independent from them. It also makes us feel independent from God. Jesus calls the poor blessed because the poor are able to listen to someone besides themselves, because they know they’ll never manage on their own.

Poverty before God makes us more receptive to God’s riches. Weakness before God makes us more receptive to his power…

Poverty in the Bible is a frame of mind, not first of all an economic condition or a question of money. Rather it’s a question of the heart.

Economic poverty, by itself, is not a virtue. After all, you can be dirt poor and yet be as greedy as the man in Jesus’ parable who tore down his barns and built bigger ones to store all his grain and his goods.

And then again, you can be a person of means and yet have the soul of a pauper.

To be poor is to be weak before God, to be open to him. God doesn’t need strong people. He prefers working through the poor in spirit; not through the poor as such, but through those whose poverty makes them receptive to him.

These poor can also be found among the rich, for there is a poverty of body as well as a poverty of soul. Each evokes God’s pity.

God loves everyone, even those who are well-off. It’s just that he has a much harder time getting through to them. (pages 17, 76)

I read God of Weakness while on vacation last month and
it inspired me to share this in today’s
Rock Valley Bee and here.
I also write about the Beatitudes at the start
of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in
this blog post.

Identity

Some of my favorite worship services are those that include baptisms. Through the water of baptism, “God reminds and assures us of our Baptism graphic found with Googleunion with Christ in covenant love, the washing away of our sin, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Everyone who is baptized – regardless of denomination or tradition, regardless of the language or culture – is united in Christ. As someone who was baptized, my primary identity comes from knowing that, together with the rest of God’s people, I am united to and belong to Jesus.

That means for those of us who are baptized, we find our identity in Christ even before we see ourselves as…

  • a daughter or son, father or mother, husband or wife
  • a banker, farmer, mechanic, nurse, salesperson, teacher, or truck driver
  • straight, gay, bi, or other
  • wealthy, middle class, or poor
  • American, Canadian, Chinese, Dutch, First Nations, Guatemalan, Mexican, Native American, Romanian, or Venezuelan
  • a Democrat or a Republican; or a Conservative, Green, Liberal, NDP, or Bloc Québécois supporter
  • a member of the NRA or the ACLU.

Baptism welcomes us into God’s family and makes us citizens of His Kingdom before we identify with or pledge any other allegiance.

As a male, I personally have more in common with a woman who is among God’s people than I do with another guy who is outside the faith. If you are a Kingdom-minded blue collar worker, you have more in common with a professional in a suit submitting to Christ’s rule than you do with a guy in grease-stained coveralls outside the Kingdom. If you are a straight person who loves Jesus, you have more in common with a gay person who professes Jesus than you do with a husband and wife who profess nothing. If you are an American who follows Jesus, you have more in common with a Palestinian or Iraqi Christian than you do with a fellow American who does not yet know Jesus. If you are a Republican who loves Jesus, you have more in common with a Democrat who dedicates their life to Jesus than another Republican who does not yet live for the Lord.

Author Lee C. Camp writes: “There is, for those who have been clothed with Christ in baptism, a new identity, an identity that transcends economic class, ethnic grouping, and citizenship.”

In these divisive times, I especially need to touch, see, and hear the water of baptism to remind me that more fundamental to anything that divides me from other believers is the foundational union I have with Christ and with one another.

This repeats some things I said Sunday evening at Trinity CRC.
It’s also what I contributed to the Perspectives column
in this week’s
Rock Valley Bee, in which I noted I’d like
the date of my baptism included in my obituary some day.

The Infant King

I don’t think I’ve ever associated Psalm 2 with Christmas before. It’s the one where God, enthroned in heaven, scoffs at sinful humanity’s futile attempts to dethrone Him.

This time of year we celebrate the arrival of King Jesus, a King greater than the Herod of His day or any other power or authority back then or since. Countless monarchs and empires have come and gone; things I have enthroned in my heart instead of Jesus have crumbled (or will crumble) into the dust. However, as God’s Son, one with Father, Jesus’ Kingship is secure. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God makes in Psalm 2 to install His King on earth.

King graphic found at rescuehousechurch.org

A poem I read this week in a book of Advent meditations reminds me of all this. Attributed to Daithi Mac Iomaire, it’s simply titled “The Infant King.” It leads me to worship the newborn King – the true King of kings and Lord of lords – this Christmas season.

And in the corridors of power
and in the palaces of hate,
the despot and his lords conspire
this holy threat to liquidate;
yet all the kings that e’re there were
and all the princes of this earth
with all their wealth beyond compare
could not eclipse this infant’s birth.
A million monarchs since have reigned,
but vanquished now their empires vain;
two thousand years, and still we bring
our tributes to the Infant King.

Working in the vineyard

This past Sunday I spoke on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner who had two frustrating sons. When asked to work in the vineyard, one son told his dad to take a hike. Later, however, he changed his mind and indeed went to the vineyard. The other son quickly agreed to help with the work. Unfortunately, he was all talk and no action – he didn’t lift a finger to help his dad. A number of things can be said about this parable including the importance of our words matching our actions – and God’s grace when they don’t.

The Gospel of John - A Commentary by F. Dale BrunerCommentary writer Frederick Dale Bruner pointed out a couple interesting things in this parable that I didn’t have space for in my message.

First is the obvious observation that the father has a vineyard and work needs to be done in it. Likewise, our God our heavenly Father has a people and we are called to work with one another and for the benefit of one another. When Jesus calls us to life in His name, He is inviting us, among other things, to come to work. The Kingdom of God is growing and expanding around us; it will continue to grow and expand with or without our help, but blessed Vineyard photo found via Googleare those who serve God and one another and are part of God’s Kingdom-building enterprise.

Second is the attention to the urgency to the father’s request: “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” It’s not a panic, but there’s certainly pressure to get going. Likewise, there is urgency in our calling to work in God’s Kingdom. Regardless of our age in life or stage in faith, God has put us right where we are for specific reasons. Each one of us has connections and can help others in ways that maybe no one else can. God calls us to make the most of those opportunities today because tomorrow could be too late.

The Holy Spirit of God breathes life in the people of God, equipping us to work – and to do that work promptly and eagerly. This week I’m working on cooperating with Him.

Mary’s Advent song

When I spoke on Mary’s song – the Magnificat – as part of our Advent series here at Trinity CRC, I noted that her song is steeped in the Old Testament: It echoes of Hannah’s song and reads like a psalm.

Magnificat artwork found via Google. I could not find the name of the artist.

One of the resources that helped me appreciate the theology in this text was the Groundwork discussion on Mary’s song a few weeks ago led by Dave Bast and Scott Hoezee. This quote didn’t make it into my message, but I still like it:

The Son of God is growing within Mary and it’s as though she “is bursting with theology and she sings these incredible things about God the Mighty One,
God the Holy One,
His mercy extending [from generation to generation].
She’s a compendium in this song, like a theological encyclopedia of all the great characteristics of God.
It’s though she’s bursting with God-ness
and just can’t hold it in.”

I love this picture of being so filled with the goodness of God that you’re about to burst!

And here’s one more thing that Dave and Scott said in light of the fact that this song comes from young, pregnant, unwed Mary:

“If you had a teenage daughter who sat in the living room one day and sang about economic and social upheaval and revolutions, you’d say, ‘Where’re you getting that from?’ You don’t expect that on the lips of a young girl. But here Mary is saying God is up to such an incredibly new thing in history here that all what we consider the normal ways of the world are going to be turned right upside down.”

…Actually, in coming to earth as a human, God isn’t really turning things upside down. He’s restoring them back to right-side-up! It’s what I’m keeping my eyes open for this Advent.

If Jesus had hired a consultant

I found this a few years ago over on Paul Wilkinson’s blog and used it on Sunday. It reminds me of how the people from whom we’d expect great things may be the ones who disappoint us, while the people who look hopeless are the ones who may become great in God’s Kingdom. God regularly surprises me when it comes to the situations and people in whom He can work. …Which means He can use me, too!

::  ::  ::

TO: Jesus, Son of Joseph, Woodcrafters Carpenter Shop, Nazareth
FROM: Jordan Management Consultants, Jerusalem

Dear Sir:

Thank you for submitting the résumés of the twelve men you have Job application and résumé found via Googlepicked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant. The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study each of them carefully.

As part of our service, we make some general comments for your guidance, much as an auditor will include some general statements. This is given as a result of staff consultation, and comes without any additional fee.

It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depressive scale.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All the other profiles are self-explanatory.

We wish you every success in your new venture.

Sincerely yours,
Jordan Management Consultants

Many different people, one unified Kingdom

Although it’s short, Psalm 87 nevertheless has a way of taking my breath away. Listen:

Glorious things are said of you, city of God:
—–“I will record Rahab and Babylon
—–among those who acknowledge me –
———-Philistia, too, and Tyre, along with Cush –
—–and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
—–—–(Ps 87:3-4)

The name Rahab here is a poetic name for Egypt, which, when you add that to the other countries listed, means that the psalmist is referring to Israel’s enemies as ones who will be called “born in Zion!” The Egyptians enslaved Israel and God warned them never to return. In the time of Daniel, The Babylonians scooped up Judah and carried God’s people away in exile. The Philistines repeatedly proved themselves to be a pain in the neck for Israel (think, for one example, of David vs. Goliath).

Yet one day, promises the psalmist, these enemies will be counted as fellow citizens in Zion, God’s holy city! How surprising! How scandalous! And how humbling to realize that God is calling a lot of people to Himself that are not at all like me! Furthermore, in ways I cannot (yet) comprehend, God is at work in people who I’m tempted to think are the least likely candidates for His Kingdom.

Many hands, one globe
God’s Kingdom is already and will continue to be filled with all sorts of people of different ethnicities, different languages, different customs, different views on things, different traditions. I’m challenged afresh never to write anyone off, even if their differences make me uncomfortable. In fact, their “difference” may be exactly what my corner of God’s Kingdom needs.

I wrote this for Trinity CRC’s “Grace Encounters” newsletter,
a publication of our Outreach Team. Graphic found via Google.