Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Don't Bother me... I'm Reading

Somehow, I managed to squander all my vacation time so that I come back having to spend nearly every waking moment reading. I'm reading some really good stuff though... and I'd love to tell you about it, but I just don't have the time.
So instead, I'll just tell you to read it yourself, and promise to comment on it later..

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Trimming Away...

I trimmed my cat Snickers' claws today. In the past, we've taken him to the vet or to Petsmart or something to get them done. That would entail $10-$15 dollars, getting him into his car-carrier, driving there, holding him down as some idiot (that's been most of my experience trimming at Petsmart) is worried he's going to bite them. Instead, saving the hassle, I did it myself with some nail clippers.

The last little while, we've gotten our friend Heidi to do it. She has a cat and was well versed in such things. I had tried once before on recommendation from a friend, while Snickers was still a kitten. I think I cut the quick, he yelped. I hadn't tried again until today - at least not with human nail clippers.

For the most part, it worked like a charm. He sat on the bed, I held a paw. I went slowly, he barely moved. He didn't meow. I was impressed. But getting to the last couple nails, he got ornery. I ended up just doing the front claws - and really only clipping a little off - as not to get too close to the quick and hurt him. At least I was somewhat successful.

But as I was trying to get him positioned and settled down to do his back claws (ultimately - unsuccessfully) I got to thinking, as I often do, about God working with us. It's funny, I often equate my relationship with my cat to God's relationship with me. It's not so much that I like to think of myself as God... but that I'm probably alot like my cat - stubborn, fiesty, independant... the list goes on. And God wants the best for me - but I don't see that.

Anyway, I was thinking that God has to trim us too. There are things that just grow on us, that get out of control, and unless God can trim them, eventually we'll end up hurting ourselves. We can say "that's natural" about our growths all we want, but in the end, they'll end up being harmful to us if God doesn't trim them, or cut them out entirely. But, like my cat, I don't understand when God says "stand still, don't squirm, take it easy, I'm doing this for your benefit" and all I do is squirm, meow and act like an idiot - which only makes the process more painful. But the process goes on no matter what, because like me and my cat, God knows what's best. But also, like me and my cat, sometimes God will only go so far, and allow us a little time, before He comes back and does the rest of the job. In the meantime, we can cause ourselves some pain, but we think we did the right thing by getting away.

We all have claws in our lives that need to be trimmed - or we'll end up hurting ourselves and others. Unless we allow God the free reign to trim our claws, when He does it (and God WILL do it) it's going to hurt quite a bit.

Happy Thanksgiving all and enjoy your turkey and trimmings...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Thanksgiving is almost upon us. It marks one of the biggest holidays on the American calendar. Quite possibly, the biggest. It depends on how you measure it. Back in Canada, celebrated in October, Thanksgiving is much smaller, not as significant. But here in the US it not only is a holiday unto itself it also begins the season of Advent - or if you prefer - the season of Shopping for Christmas Presents. Friday will be "Black Friday" which 75% of all citizens will be either shopping or working retail in the US - strange.

This begs the question in a way, about holidays... Are they representative of our culture, or do they point to something beyond it? I dunno. It's something we've been talking about in my class on the Liturgial Year.

I also am thinking about people... what do we reflect in what we do, how we celebrate, how we spend our money. I mean, as Christians, what are we representing, reflecting? Especially at this time, this time of Civic Celebration (its hard to pretend that it is more religious than civic - Thanksgiving & Christmas) What are we doing when we celebrate - what are we celebrating and what are we showing when we do so? Are we pointing toward our culture or something else? Is pointing to our culture, reflecting it - bad? Should we be marking something else - pointing to God at this time in contrast to what other people are doing?

This also begs another question. In our everyday life, what are we reflecting? Are you, am I reflecting Christ in what I do? Or am I simply reflecting my culture? Or worse yet, am I simply reflecting myself? Is that even reflecting anything? I know I SHOULD be reflecting Christ but am I, right now doing that? Or am I completely submersed in my culture that I no longer point towards anything - at least not in my whole life? I think this is a question I'm going to spend some time contemplating...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What Does it Cost?

I was in class today, talking about Justification. Our professor was describing a key moment in his life, an ‘Oh my goodness’ moment (I’m paraphrasing here – his language was much better). Anyway, he said that at that moment, he knew the gospel to be true and that he knew it would cost him everything. At those last words, I was struck. Is not the gospel that I believe, that I learn, that I preach… does it not cost me everything? Will it not cost me everything?

I heard those words as crystal clear as I have heard anything in my life. I know that the gospel should cost me something – no, everything. But I have not given everything up. I have not allowed the gospel to grasp me, for God to grasp me in such a way that every action, every thought is laid bare, captive to God’s design. I have not sold everything as it were, to purchase the plot of land that I found that great treasure on.

What then does this mean? It is troubling. And no comforting word will do, not at this time. It is not enough to hear the words “God loves you” it is not enough to hear “God is at work, even now, to bring about something special in your life” because at some point, as James points out “faith without works is dead” and one thing Jesus talks about is clear, participation in the Kingdom of God is active participation, there are no passive observers and there are no participants who have higher callings, other things to do – they don’t end up at the banquet feast for the bridegroom.

I think it is high time that I revisited Detrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. I think it is high time that I allowed the gospel, allowed God to cost me something. No, I believe it is high time that I allowed God to cost me everything…

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Seeing the Colours

I've had a ton of work on my plate over the past week or so. Nothing to complain about, just the situation I'm in. During that time, and some before it there were two things I noticed... three really, that I did not make time fore. The first was God. Looking at my little journal and seeing vast amounts of time between my last entry on Daniel (a book that should take me 10 days at most - stretching into a month) was pretty poignant. The second thing of course would be my wife. Annexing her to dinner and whatever other few moments of my day was not a good way to cultivate a good marriage relationship. And finally, I did not take the time to look around and see the colours.

When I say this, I'm not merely talking about the colour of leaves and what not that are changing here in the area. In many ways, its a metaphor for what's going on in every facet of life around me. People are changing, doing things, and I'm not taking the time to truly be present there. I need to do this.

Usually, when I get busy and stressed, I get a couple reactions. I don't necessarily get angry or short with people (although Bridgette may attest otherwise) but I do kinda collapse in on myself. The other thing that happens is I get tired a lot. But the more I reach out, the more I take time to look at people and things around me, the more I am energized and the more unselfish I become. I think the effects of stress become a real opportunity to participate in real sin - complete selfishness.

It kinda reminds me of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. In it, Napoleon keeps building houses further and further away from people, continually isolating himself (in hell? the reader presumes). He's angry, obsessed, and continually more and more selfish. I don't want to be like that, so I'm going to take some time to stop and look at the colours...

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Preaching Class - First Sermon

So, today I preached for the first time in class. It was pretty interesting. We don't just get up there and preach. We have to write an exegesis paper that shows how we come up with our interpretation and making a claim based on the text. We have to provide an outline of the sermon as well as a manuscript. This is something I've NEVER done before. So, I thought I'd try something new. I preached right from the manuscript. I didn't EXACTLY read, but I pretty much did. I tried to be as engaging as possible, and I think I was.

I also tried something else different... and if you're interested in the sermon, here it is. This is just further proof that I'm a heretic. (By the way, feel free NOT to read it too)

TEXT: Matthew 3:1-12


YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! … Wow, what an opening. I can’t imagine that one would elicit much of an offering from that sermon. Those are such harsh words, so jarring to our ears. I’m sure that immediately upon hearing them, some people completely tune out. I’m equally sure that no upstanding homiletics preacher living today would encourage anyone to open their sermon in such a way. Yet in the gospel of Matthew those are some of the very first words that we hear from the mouth of John the Baptist. Here is this man, this prophet, this latter-day Elijah inducing hordes of people to come into the wilderness to be baptized. They come confessing their sins. They come presumably from Jerusalem, Judea and from all of the surrounding region in order to hear from this man, to be baptized by this man and in some special way to hopefully be changed.
So who is this man in the wilderness? Not a great paragon of the establishment, not a lofty political leader or a wealthy patron of the arts. He is not an eloquent poet or proponent of philosophy. It is instead a man wrapped in camels hair and a leather belt. One who eats locusts and wild honey. And his message… his message is “repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”. But what does this mean? So we listen in, we strain our ear to hear what this man with the enormous following will say… And what are his next words? What does the writer of the gospel of Matthew put on the lips of John? It is a proclamation of judgment! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
In some ways, this tends to remind me of my last sermon to my home church while I interned prior to my senior year of college. It was couched in different terms, it began with my personal excitement of something new to come, but it could hardly be missed that throughout the entire sermon I was calling the congregation to the matt. I remember talking about it with friends and family afterward and how they chuckled at how unmistakably clear I was in the pulpit, how I had essentially let them have it…
Here in Matthew, that is exactly what John is doing to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came for baptism. He was pronouncing judgment on them, he was calling them to the matt. He called into question the heart of what they believed when he proclaimed that God could simply raise up stones to be children of Abraham. Even more, he was calling these religious leaders out to bear fruit, because if they did not, there would be a great judgment – fire would await them.
As we hear this proclamation here at Princeton, as we who are ‘religious leaders’ listen in on this message, I don’t know about you but I cannot help but feel a little twinge of guilt. It is hard for me to divorce myself from John’s message knowing that like the Pharisees and Sadducees that he protested against, I too have a certain amount of religious authority, I too feel a certain calling to lead, I too seek to one day teach and preach in the name of God. And in some ways, it is me, it is us that John points at when he proclaims this judgment. We who would seek to lead are together with the Pharisees and Sadducees in John’s sights when he proclaims this.
But what is more interesting than this verdict of judgment that John lays at the feet of the religious leaders, is what precedes it. Not the description of John’s dress or his diet, but the quotation that the author uses to introduce John. It is from Isaiah 40 what is understood by Biblical scholars to be second Isaiah. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” To understand the full weight of this however, it is necessary to start at the beginning of this passage in Isaiah 40. To the first hearers of this gospel, probably Jewish Christians sometime around 70CE, they would most likely be aware of the context of this passage. It begins “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” It goes on to say “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.”(Isaiah 40:1-2)
This prophecy, originally given to a people in exile, seeks to offer grace and peace to a people who have suffered greatly. It is not meant as condemnation. It is not meant as judgment or warning against something to come. It is not a call to repentance, to deeper devotion or to the casting off of any particular practices but a message straight from God, a message of grace. It is comfort to a people impoverished in spirit. And it is this message that precedes the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, which the writer of Matthew’s gospel quotes to introduce John.
It is a message of comfort that precedes John’s introduction and description. It is a message of comfort that precedes John’s judgment of the religious leaders. There must be a message of comfort that we hear too. In Isaiah the message is comfort in the wake of suffering, comfort in the wake of a great trouble, a great penalty that has been paid. How many of us need to hear that same message today? How many of us need to be reminded that despite the dark days that we have been experiencing, the hand of God is extended to us even now not in punishment but in comfort, to wipe away all our tears? How many of us, suffering from secret pains of loneliness, depression and worry need to be reminded that our Lord wishes to speak tenderly to us? Tenderly as a mother comforts her child? Here the tenderness of God is seen and heard in the prophet Isaiah and it is the gospel of Matthew that also proclaims this tenderness, this call to comfort, if more subtly.
But the message of this passage of Matthew, as it is not entirely about judgment, it is equally not entirely about comfort. Yes, John’s description is preceded by a reference to Isaiah’s prophetic comforting of Israel, but this does not eliminate the fact that John does call out a very harsh and bitter word to these religious leaders. It is not here abrogated because of this allusion to comfort. Instead, John’s proclamation of judgment is instead informed by this allusion. Instead of being a simple call to repentance or warning of judgment, to the astute reader of Matthew there is a dialectical quality about this passage that speaks very profoundly to the human condition – the human condition then and the human condition today.
If you will permit me, I’d like to reread some of the passage from Matthew in a way that is infused with this passage from Isaiah. In so doing I would like you to feel the tension between the prophecy of judgment and the prophecy of comfort, the prophecy of wrath and the prophecy of peace, that of anger and of hope.

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God

Bear fruit worthy of repentance

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins

Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’: for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
The uneven ground shall become level,
And the rough places a plain

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
And all people shall see it together
For the mouth of the LORD Has spoken

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Interestingly enough, both of these passages come to the same place but by different means. While Isaiah finds itself at the mouth of the LORD, God’s glory revealed, Matthew’s presentation of John’s message also drives us toward God in His impending judgment. Both of these – comfort and judgment are the twofold prong that propels us toward God – in Christ. Because in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is who John is ushering in.
Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is near.

Comfort … and Judgment.
In this tension, we find ourselves literally – in the gospel of Matthew – face to face with Jesus...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Back from the Brink

Yes, I've been away. I've been in North Carolina (Winston-Salem) this past weekend and before that I've been simply away in mind and focus. This weekend was not only busy for the travel but busy because I had a 3000 word Midterm to write (take home of course) and another 1500 word essay, plus a sermon manuscript which I will preach tomorrow. All of these things are due to be handed in today. Which meant our little jaunt down South was less relaxing for me than it should have been.

Anyway, I'm going to get back on the horse shortly and write about something substantive. In the meantime, this evening Bridgette and I begin our 4 week parenting/birthing class at the hospital and I'll be preaching tomorrow in class. Lots of fun stuff. Hopefully, I'll raise my nightly sleep average above 5 soon...