The Pentecost Paradigm Shift

For several weeks the fifth chapter of John has haunted me. This chapter tells of Jesus confronting the Pharisees after he healed the man by the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath. Jesus enrages the Jewish leaders by saying, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (v.17). He is announcing a shift change. It is not that the Father has clocked out; it is that now Jesus has clocked-in. Now the Father is working through his Son, Jesus.

Jesus enlarges on this shift throughout the rest of the chapter. He explains that He does nothing on his own initiative, but only what “he sees the Father doing (v.19). He explains that just like his Father, the Son “also gives life to whom He wishes” (v.21). He pleads that if they won’t accept the witness of John the Baptist, they would at least look at the works he is doing and believe the Father has sent Him.

So far so good. I can dismiss this failure to accept the shift from Father to Son as part of the general villainy of those terrible Pharisees. But what Jesus says to the Pharisees in verse 39 is startling:

You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life. (v. 39—40)

This rebuke of the Pharisees worries me because as an evangelical with a high view of the authority of Scripture, I have always thought that if I just stick to the Scriptures, I will be okay. I won’t miss anything essential. These Pharisees knew Scripture but missed the shift of ministry from the Father to His Son Jesus. They were blind to the obvious fact that the Father had now chosen to do His works through his Son, Jesus.

This failure of the Pharisees raises the possibility that I, and other evangelicals, could miss a major shift in God’s ministry even though we are devoted to Scripture. And here is the scary part, there actually was another shift—one that Jesus prepared for his disciples in chapters 14—17 of John. In chapter five Jesus told the Pharisees that “the Father loves the Son and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing; and greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel” (v. 20). In chapter fourteen Jesus uses similar language about “greater works” to announce the next shift:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he shall do also; and greater works than these shall he do because I go to the Father. (v. 12)

He is announcing the next shift of ministry where the Father and Son abiding in believers will do the works of God. He explains this will be possible because when He goes to the Father he will send the Holy Spirit who was abiding with them but would be in them (v. 17).

Jesus declares that it is actually to the advantage of the disciples if he goes away because if He doesn’t the Holy Spirit (the Helper or Comforter) won’t come (16:7). In other words, without the Holy Spirit we can’t clock-in and begin doing the works of the Father.

We see the shift in action after Pentecost. In the Book of Acts we see Peter, Philip, Stephen, Paul all getting busy doing the works of the Father and Jesus. Peter and Paul were obviously of apostolic stature, but Phillip and Stephen were deacons appointed to distribute food to the widows. In I Corinthians 12 Paul describes how the church as the Body of Christ has been equipped by the Holy Spirit with gifts that empower it to do the works of Jesus. So doing the works of Jesus seems to be the work of the whole church not just the apostles or the anointed few. Of course, in different ways the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always been clocked-in and at work in the story of redemption, but I think we often miss this last shift in the paradigm of ministry because it is here that the full trinity begins to work in and through us—the Body and Bride of Christ.

So how well have we accepted this Pentecostal paradigm shift? Not so well. Some evangelicals have essentially said all the gifts were only for that period. We can pray for God to heal people, but healing isn’t central like it was in the ministry of Jesus or of Peter and Paul. We might pray that God would deliver others from evil, but never consider that the ministry of casting out evil spirits has now shifted to us.

We like the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 but ignore the First Commission to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8). Like the Pharisees, many evangelicals have justified this by exalting the Scriptures while at the same time ignoring the Pentecostal paradigm shift clearly announced by Scripture.

What would acceptance of this paradigm shift look like? First, every believer would understand that a decision to follow Jesus is a decision to do the works of Jesus by proclaiming the gospel, healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, and raising the dead. Second, all training for ministry would include both instruction in Scripture and in equipping the saints to heal the sick and cast out evil spirits. Third, churches would devote the same time and energy to the ministries Jesus did: proclamation of the kingdom, healing of the sick, and casting out evil spirits. Fourth, the lack of the ministry of Jesus in our congregation would not be accepted as the norm but be seen as a reason for desperate intercession and “tarrying in Jerusalem” until we over-flow with the Holy Spirit. Last of all, we would refuse all false choices between God’s Word or God’s Spirit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. We would hear the call to be who Jesus was and do what Jesus did.  

It is time, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the church to clock-in and get to work. It is our shift.

 

 

 

 

 

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Unstuck by the Holy Spirit

Jesus is invisible, and that is a problem. Like many today, I like to identify as a follower of Jesus. I think salvation without discipleship takes us nowhere. I often urge those hurt and bewildered by crazy and carnal Christians to keep their eyes on Jesus, not people. But it is hard to keep your eyes on someone you can’t see. You can’t follow someone you can’t see. Jesus left and is now with His father, so how can we follow him?

The answer that quickly comes is that Jesus left behind His Word and when we obey it, we are following Him. I would certainly agree that obeying the teachings of Jesus is essential, but following teachings is not the same as following a person. And, of course, God’s Word brings us full-circle by commanding us to follow Jesus. Jesus pointed this out when he rebuked the religious leaders:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness to me, and you are unwilling to come to me, that you may have life. (John 5:39)

All the “I ams” (the light, door, life, way, truth, shepherd) in the gospel of John also confirm the centrality of following Jesus—not only his teaching.

Another difficulty of making discipleship equal following Jesus’ teachings is that God’s Word needs interpretation and is subject to the filters of our culture and religious traditions. Consider as evidence these three commands by Jesus:

So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his possessions. Luke 14:33

Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Luke 6:30

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, freely you have received, freely give. Matthew 10:8

Most who call themselves disciples of Jesus have not done the first, would not do the second, and aren’t regularly doing the last. And yet most would argue that following the teachings of Jesus is essential to discipleship. At the very least, these verses point up the need for interpretation and wisdom in application.

The last reason we need more than Scripture to follow Jesus is that God’s Word can provide an umbrella of general principles by which we should live our lives but does not provide the decision by decision guidance that following Jesus demands. If we reduce following Jesus to following a group of general principles, we get stuck following an abstraction of our own making. Oswald Chambers asks, “Many of us are loyal to our notions of Jesus Christ, but how many of us are loyal to Him?” Following Jesus requires more than mental assent to a set of doctrinal propositions about Jesus.

How then do we follow an invisible Jesus? The disciples of Jesus worried about this after Jesus told them that he was going to the Father. He promised not to leave them as orphans:

And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not behold Him or know Him, but you know him because He abides with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. John 14:16—18

The answer to the problem of Jesus being invisible is the Holy Spirit. Only by being filled (and refilled) by the Holy Spirit can we truly follow Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can set us free from the personal and cultural filters that keep us from hearing the voice of Jesus day by day. All our talk about following Jesus must immediately lead us to be filled with the Holy Spirit and learning to walk in the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit makes the teachings of Jesus come alive in us. The Spirit will underline a verse and say this is for you today in this specific way. The Holy Spirit will never lead us into anything that contradicts the Word of God but is instead the voice of God applying His Word to the issues of our lives.

Even so, we may find that we prefer to follow the biblical principles we have formulated—because following a set concepts allow us to stay in control. We can pick and choose and schedule our obedience for the most convenient times. This approach allows us to compartmentalize our lives and lock God in our religion box. We must resist the temptation tame God and make Him manageable.

Walking in the Spirit requires surrender, humility, and trust. It takes courage. When we allow the Holy Spirit to lead, God is set loose in every area of our lives. We will quickly find ourselves living on the edge of our faith as the Spirit leads us into real adventure.

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Unstuck by Jesus

Here is a surprisingly religious way to get stuck in our walk with God: meditate on the transcendent divine attributes of God. God is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. His ways are not our ways. Who are we to think we can know God or understand the mysteries of his providence? God’s will is irresistible so who am I to think God needs or even wants my help to bring about His kingdom on the earth. God is sovereign, and His will is inscrutable. Who can know Him?

This road block to growth and discipleship sounds religious, theologically deep, and even humble. It is not, you may have noticed, Christo-centric. To the degree that these ideas make God unknowable, it is unbiblical. When Philip asked Jesus, “Show us the Father, and it is enough for us,” Jesus was exasperated:

Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how do you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9

God is not the bad member of the trinity who in his wrath wanted to destroy us and Jesus the good one that took our place on the cross. They are one. The love displayed in the life and words of Jesus is the heart of the Father. Jesus makes God knowable.

Of course, we know this, right? It is the point of Christmas—the incarnation. In Jesus, God took on flesh to live among us that we might know Him and come to love Him. So how do we miss this experientially? I think we evangelicals too often reduce the gospels to sets of biblical principles and lose sight of the person of Jesus—who is the perfect revelation of God. Too often we arrange our Bible study doctrinally or topically and fail to read straight through the gospels so that the full force of the goodness of Jesus captures our hearts.

I sometimes challenge non-believers to sit down and read through the gospel of Mark. It is short and can be read in one sitting. I tell them to ask: “If God were like Jesus, would I love Him?” When we see all Jesus did in healing the sick, setting the captive free, rebuking hypocritical religious leaders, speaking tenderly to children and women, teaching with extraordinary wisdom and grace, we cannot help but exclaim, “This is a God I can love!” Jesus fulfills all our secret hopes for what God ought to be. It is good news that when we see Jesus, we see the Father.

It is hard to love what we don’t know, but when we realize God is just like Jesus our faith becomes an expression of love, not duty. And as important, we fall in “like” with God. It is easy to develop a vague religious, half-nostalgic, sentimental love for God, but never learn to like the ways of God. When I look at Jesus, I like the way he loved sinners and hung out with them. I like the way God used common folks—fishermen and tax-collectors—to be his messengers. I like the way God does stuff and this frees me from the tug-of-war behind my ways and God’s ways. I like God because He is just like Jesus. I am unstuck when I discover I like all the ways of God!

This truth may seem obvious, but it often isn’t in application. Some Christians ask how we can know whether God desires to heal people. They speculate that maybe sickness and affliction is God’s way to build Christian character or teach us important lessons that He can teach in no other way. They act like this is a deep mystery.  If, however, we regard Jesus as the perfect revelation of the Father, we can’t ignore what Jesus did: he healed all who came to Him (Matthew 4:24, 8:16, 9:25, 12:15). We must regard Jesus’ healings as a revelation of God’s attitude toward sickness. If we look at what Jesus did, we see that he healed people and never apologized for robbing them of their character-building sickness.

Of course, this doesn’t answer every question about why some are healed when we pray, and others aren’t. It does, however, reveal that God is all about healing people. Jesus’ actions are as much a revelation of God’s will as his teachings. But today much of the church doesn’t look to what Jesus did as a revelation of God’s will or values. And of course, we could say the same about questions concerning the casting out of evil spirits and miracles that attest to the truth of the gospel. Jesus not only revealed God’s heart in  ( his actions but he also gave his disciples authority to do those things (Matthew 10:1)

Jesus also called his disciples friends. This was an invitation to be friends with God. Friends talk. In other words, Jesus has revealed to us a God that desires to know us and be known. And there is even more good news. Jesus promised his disciples that after he returned to the Father, He would send the Holy Spirit through which both He and the Father would dwell in in the hearts of believers forever (John 14:16—17,23).

Of course, God is indeed sovereign, but one expression of His power is the ability to make Himself known and enter into relationship with us. We are not stuck in a static state of awe that paralyzes us. We can rise and walk in the Spirit of Christ who has called us to follow Him.

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Unstuck by God’s Goodness

In our home group, we are looking at biblical ways to get unstuck. Christians get stuck in different ways. Some get saved, slip through the doorway into the kingdom and then refuse to go or grow. Some walk with God many years, but then plateau-out: happy to be a little more spiritual than most they know. Others get tangled and bound in sin—then condemned, then depressed. Others have played the religious game to a stalemate: not forsaking God but also not surrendering. As you can see, there must be different cures for different kinds of stuck, so this will be the first of a series of posts on getting unstuck.

When I think about what has helped me get unstuck, I realize it always a truth everyone thinks they know. For instance, few truths have more power to yank us out of the muck than the truth that God is good. When the serpent tempted Eve, he first challenges what God has said and then plants a suspicion that God is withholding something good from her. Although some make a point about Eve adding “shall not touch” to God’s command, Eve basically gets right what God has said. The serpent directly contradicts what God said and proclaims, “You surely shall not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). In other words, you can’t trust God because He is wants to keep something good from you.

Like a lot of good evangelicals, Eve got right what God said, but she failed to trust in the character of God—in the goodness of God. Many believers get stuck at this same place. Temptation has power in their lives because they harbor a suspicion that complete surrender and obedience will mean giving up something good. Their mudhole is a cycle of temptation, sin, guilt, repentance—over and over. They live a life of faith with neither victory or joy.

A revelation of the logic of God’s goodness can free us from the tyranny of the cycle of sin.  God is perfectly good in all his ways. All his commands are expressions of His love and goodness. All debate about whether to obey God in this area or that area is stupid—a waste of time. Why? Because God is good and anything other than his will is shoddy and has a thousand one-star ratings on Amazon.

A second way we get stuck is when the meanness or hypocrisy of other believers trips us into the mudhole. Of course, reading the Old Testament should cure us of the idea that God’s people are always going to reflect His goodness. Often church is like a hospital’s ER, wounded and sick everywhere. During his ministry, Jesus was literally surrounded by the sick and demonized much of the time. His love seemed to draw them. That the hurting can hurt others should not surprise us, but it cuts to the bone when those who should be doctors wound us. Again, we need only read a history of Israel’s kings to discover how much corrupt leadership angers and grieves God. In all this, God is on our side, grieved and angered by hypocrisy. Our hatred of hypocrisy is best expressed by moving closer to God and being absolutely and humbly genuine. God’s people are a work (sometimes a jerk) in progress. God, though, is always good.

We get stuck in this mud hole in another way. Many Christians have been surprised not by joy like C. S. Lewis, but by tragedy, disappointment, and heartbreak. Many believers have written a happy narrative of how their life should go only to see it shredded by one catastrophe after another. Some are bitter and others shell-shocked. Many are stuck with low or no expectations of God.

I have friends, however, who have seen their dreams shattered by a marriage falling apart, a spouse dying unexpectedly, and a child dying. Man is fallen, the world broken by sin, and our own bodies targets for disease and injury. The question of why God intervenes in some situations and not others goes unanswered. But the logic of God’s goodness means we will never let anything evil move us further from God and closer to the enemy. In the face of every evil, we must proclaim God’s goodness. In every tragedy and attack of the enemy, our reflex must be to cling to God more tightly.

I have been pursuing God for fifty years and only now feel as though an unshakeable revelation of His goodness has possessed me body, soul, and spirit. Because God is good, I have decided to ask for everything His Word promises. (I have heard that God is a good father who won’t give me a scorpion if I ask for egg.) None of this seems radical until you begin doing it. When you start expecting your church gathering to have the power, love, and purity of the church in Acts, everything gets turned upside down.

Years of praying for that which I have not yet seen has not diminished my confidence that God is good, that He loves me, and that at any moment—maybe as I write this—His goodness will break through like the sun on a rainy Oregon day. I am unstuck and pressing on.

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Bilbo, Gandalf, the Holy Spirit, and My Green Door

Every couple years I re-read The Hobbit for the course on Tolkien I teach. This year, I once again am grateful that Tolkien made Bilbo fifty when he began his great adventure. We are more accustomed to the adventures of the young—quests of self-discovery or initiation into adulthood. At age 64, my spirit is refreshed and challenged by Tolkien’s reminder that adventures can disrupt our comfortable hobbit lives at any time.

Like Bilbo, and most hobbits, I love my comforts: my books, the chair where I grade papers, the walk I take with the dog. I often share Bilbo’s attitude toward adventures:

We are plain and quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them. . . . We don’t want any adventures here, thank you.

Although I have this reflexive response to new ventures, there is always a part of me that longs for quest—the battle and danger.

When Bilbo discovers he is talking to Gandalf, the wizard, his adventurous (Tookish) side comes alive:

Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered? Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons? Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those!

Bilbo eventually catches himself and realizes Gandalf is also responsible for many going “into the Blue for mad adventures. He retreats: “Bless me, life used to be quite inter—I mean, you used to upset things badly in these parts once upon a time.”

This scene perfectly describes my response to the Holy Spirit’s invitations to do something new. No adventures needed here! I am comfortable! Adventures are nasty things. But then I realize it is the Holy Spirit speaking and I start to remember:

Good gracious! Not the Holy Spirit that transformed and empowered Peter at Pentecost and set all the world ablaze? Not the Holy Spirit that makes young men see visions and old men dream dreams? Not the Holy Spirit that baptized me with joy when I was sixteen? I remember Him.

And then I catch myself. The Holy Spirit does upset stuff. And honestly, sometimes there are dragons and goblins and miserable days. But all of Bilbo’s misgivings don’t matter; Gandalf has marked his door and adventure is going come knocking.

While reading this part of The Hobbit the other evening, I realized this summer Teckla and I had painted our door green like the round door on Bilbo Baggin’s hobbit-hole. Last Thursday we opened our home to a small group. None were dwarves that I could tell, and all seemed nice enough. But I know how adventures begin, so I am checking my door for marks. The Holy Spirit seems on the move. As Tolkien says of Gandalf, “Tales and adventures sprout up all over the place wherever He goes, in the most extraordinary fashion.”

 

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The Dangers of Servant-Leadership

I know I am slicing up a sacred cow here. Therefore, lets straight-up acknowledge that the best leaders are those with a heart of a servant. Even secular leadership models acknowledge this. The Bible clearly declares that those who are the greatest in the kingdom of God are those who serve:

But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for may.” Matthew 20:25—28 NASB

Versions of these words appear in Mark and Luke as well, we can’t escape their importance and centrality to understanding of greatness in God’s kingdom.

The passage, however, does not explain exactly what “great among you” looks like. Many, especially those offering leadership seminars, assume that “great” equals being a leader and exercising the authority of a leader. However, the line following declares that such a person “shall be your slave” (doulos in Greek). How we get being a leader out being a slave is baffling!

Further on in Matthew (23:11) Jesus declares, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.” Matthew 10. Here a different Greek word is used. Instead of doulos which is translated as slave, we find the word pais which is translated as servant. Pais, however, still carries the idea of one under the authority of others and sometimes is used to refer to children or young servants.Neither word, slave or servant, suggests a person exercising authority but doing it with a servant’s heart.

These passages argue for someone joyfully submitted to the leadership of others. They suggest obedience—even submission. In short, Jesus is not prescribing a path to leadership but rather a path to greatness in God’s kingdom. This greatness may or may not include the responsibilities of leadership. It is a declaration of what God sees as greatness.

This servant’s heart is something every believer should have. It should never be seen as a means to an end—a path to leadership. Such a view is corrupting. If we are serving because we yearn to be recognized and lifted into leadership, our service becomes paying our dues, something we endure until promoted. Young people are especially vulnerable to seeing servanthood as a kind of boot camp preparing them for leadership instead of the identity of all followers of Jesus.

If being a servant is seen primarily as the path to leadership, we are exposed to a deadly temptation: bitterness when our service doesn’t lead to leadership. I have seen zealous Christians destroyed by disappointment and resentment as year after year no one rewards their service with promotion. Some hop from church to church hoping their humility will get them noticed. Some abandon the church, even God, when their servant’s heart never pays off.

Even though the Scripture talks way more about following than leading, we have few seminars and books on becoming faithful followers. There are no conferences on meekness. We have more books on how to make disciples than on how to be one. We have blended the gospel with the peculiar American myth that we are all above average and all called to be leaders. By wedding servanthood with leadership, we avoid the kind of service that requires obedience and submission. Too often our service is something voluntary, fitting our goals, inclinations, and convenience.

Of course, we really do want every leader to have the heart of a servant. But we want this for every believer—even those never called into leadership. We want servanthood that is a genuine response to the love and grace we have received in Christ—not something that is merely a proving ground for leadership. In the end, nothing is wrong with servant-leadership as long as it doesn’t stop us from valuing and celebrating servant-servanthood.

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She Drank from Puddles

She wandered half-naked in the hills outside Redding, drinking from puddles and finding shelter in a burnt-out tree. She was discovered and rescued by a family looking for a Christmas tree.

I first heard this story on the radio about two months ago. At the time, I was surprised by the sharp sting of grief. I think my heart was already raw from all the breaking stories from women who had suffered sexual harassment and even assault.

I have resisted writing about this for weeks, but the story has haunted me. I haven’t posted on this because I have more feelings than thoughts. I went to look up the story online and first found a news story about an Alabama woman who was discovered naked, sick, and half-starved after being lost in the woods for three weeks. She was able to get water to drink by wringing out her hair when it rained.

I am not certain why my heart has been pierced by these stories. Terrible things happen to women all the time. In both cases, it seems these women were hanging out with some sketchy people. The first one was dropped in the woods by a man and woman who thought she had stolen their drugs. The one in Alabama was riding with some guys on the way to commit a crime.

I think for a moment my heart refused to be numb to the terrible vulnerability of being a woman in this culture. I had a visceral reaction to how toxic our culture is for women. I know that most of the toxicity has rightly been thrown at men, but I have been struck by how much larger the problem is than the bad behavior of men.

So many families are broken—so many daughters don’t have fathers who honor and protect them. Too many men have become nothing more than sperm donors. Too many good men, and even some women, have looked the other way and in silence enabled abusers and harassers.

But it is also true that sin—simple sin has ravaged our culture. My county here in Oregon has the highest rate of child abuse in Oregon. We also have high levels of alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction. We have a do-your-own-thang lawless culture here.  On our streets walk slack-jawed women whose meth addictions have rotted their teeth. People who love women should hate sin. Everyone’s sin.

I love my daughters-in-law and my granddaughters. I want them to be surrounded by the love of fathers and brothers—even brothers in Christ—who will be fierce protectors. I want them to love holiness and seek holiness in the men they love. I want churches that never tolerate, enable, or conceal those who abuse women.

I want them to be strong, but to never have to use their strength to survive injustice or abuse. I want them cherished and honored—never degraded.

They are daughters of the King. They should never drink from puddles.

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The Greatest Showman, the Power of Story, and God’s Circus

Two intellectually challenged adults were in front of Teckla and I when we went to buy tickets for the movie The Greatest Showman. The young man looked like he had Down’s Syndrome. The young woman seemed to have some speech impediments. The lady they had come with was buying tickets and popcorn.

It turned out we were in the same theater. They weren’t noisy, but we could tell they liked the movie. The movie, a musical version of P. T. Barnum and his circus, tells a story of man who made a place for “freaks”. He gave jobs to contortionists, tattooed men, a bearded lady, a little person. In this musical he also gives them dignity and family. Of course, this is probably a more politically correct celebration of diversity and inclusiveness than historically existed in Barnum’s circus, but I loved the movie—especially the big song and dance scenes. All dance scenes need elephants and lions!

But what happened at the end of the movie made me love it even more. As the credits rolled, we could hear the intellectually challenged woman gently sobbing. As we walked by them, we heard the young man saying, “It’s okay. I’m your wingman. I’m your wingman.” It moved me that she was so moved by the movie, and that he was so kind.

We headed to the restroom. While waiting for me, Teckla heard the young lady saying excitedly, “There is a place for us! There’s a place a for us!” She then walked up to Teckla and said, “March, March, March.” Her escort gathered her in and said, “Yes, the DVD comes out in March. I will get it for you.”

When I came out of the restroom, Teckla was in tears—moved by the woman’s declaration that there was a place for her. I was moved too and amazed at the ability of a story to create a place where we belong—where we have value. I have always believed in the power of stories, but this punched me in the heart. Here story-telling had the power to give a home to the wounded and excluded.

I also could not help thinking of church. I am part of motley crew at my little church—broken, breaking, healed, and healing. But at the end of each service, I hope we can say, “There is a place for us!” We are all God’s circus. We are all Jesus freaks. This is the power of God’s story.

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Common Grace: My Dad, Harry James, and All That Jazz

My dad loved jazz. Growing up, I never thought this strange even though in those righteous days Nazarenes didn’t smoke, drink, attend dances, or go to movies. It seemed there were more things we didn’t than did. Jazz, of course, sprang up smack in the middle of all the things Nazarenes didn’t do. And Dad, a third-generation Nazarene, played it.

Dad played the trumpet, so he especially liked Louis Armstrong and Harry James. Dad was amazingly good. I am the youngest son, so I never got to hear him play when he was at his best. I know when he was in high school and college, he turned down invitations to play at dances. He sometimes played solos at church or played trumpet and violin duets with Mom. He only played jazz at home. It wasn’t anything sneaky—just different music for different places.

I still have the sheet music of his favorite song “Ciribiribin.” It was the signature song for Harry James after he left Benny Goodman and started his own band. It starts out slow and respectable but then Harry James “swings it” and throws in a bunch of triple-tonguing.  The song was incredibly difficult. As Dad would say, “You have to have some chops to play it.” It was jazz, and Dad played it beautifully.

Dad also had a bunch of Louis Armstrong records. Armstrong (Satchmo) grew up in the worst parts of New Orleans and had played everywhere including dance halls and whorehouses. Only looking back on it, do I realize how strange it was for a Nazarene pastor to love his music and gravelly voice.

And only now do I see the gift this was to me. I had a father with a passion for God and a heart big enough for jazz and Jesus. He had an instinct for the common grace that recognizes that all the good in the world comes from the grace of God.

Though I grew up a preacher’s kid, my home never felt cramped by a narrow religiosity. We read everything and took nature walks everywhere. Curiosity was the air we breathed. I never smelled a whiff of anti-intellectualism or the fear of ideas. And when we discovered good things in our broken—but—beautiful culture, Dad and Mom embraced it. Holiness meant wholeness.

I keep harping on this common grace idea because I think the heart and experience of the church should be as big as my Dad’s heart. There should be room for every kind of music. Bars should not be the only place a person can go to hear good jazz. Those who love the arts for their inherent goodness and beauty, not just as another evangelistic strategy, should be valued by the church.

Not that all kinds of music must be part of the worship service. I am not arguing for jitterbugging for Jesus, though that sounds fun.  I simply want all the arts and every kind of artist to find a home in the lives of believers. Whenever we refuse or shut-out anything that is truly good—even if in the world—we shut out God. I long for us to have hearts as big as God who has embedded and embodied his grace in the world.

When I remember the joy on Dad’s face as he played “Ciribiribin,” I realize that faith “don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.”

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Common Grace on Mount Magazine

Beetles were his passion, the subject of his PhD in entomology, and the focus of his research on Mount Magazine, Arkansas. Teckla and I had seen what looked like billowing sheets tied to trees out by the bluffs that looked over the wooded valleys. He explained that these were his beetle traps. He had been camping on the flat top of the mountain for weeks, gathering specimens and taking notes on their behavior and habitat.

Mount Magazine, he explained, is an ecological island. Because it was the highest point in Arkansas, it contained species of plants and insects found nowhere else in the Midwest. With joy he declared the place a paradise for entomologists.

He invited Teckla and I into his campsite to take a look at the beetles he was studying. Half-apologetically he said, “They are small and not too impressive.” Sure enough, they were just little brown dots in the bottom of a small white box, but a quiet excitement filled his voice. He explained that the larvae of the beetle were completely dependent on certain species of mushrooms,  a kind of russula I think,  that grew on the Mount Magazine. The mushrooms depended on the rains, so theprogress of his research depended on the weather.

Teckla and I, who were camped in the same State Park, left him to his work, but I loved him for loving his beetles. I have no idea whether he was Christian or not, but I felt we had shared a moment of worship as we looked at his beetles. We shared a child-like delight in the extraordinary world God has created. We experienced a moment of what I would now call “common grace.”

Common grace is the goodness of God still found in people because they, even though fallen, are still beings created in God’s image. We all, believers and unbelievers, have a call to be stewards of God’s creation. Common grace is also expressed in the goodness and wonder God has embedded and embodied in creation itself. Therefore as a believer I have common ground with anyone (biologist, geologist, astrophysicist) who responds to  God’s creation with wonder and joy.

This moment of grace regarding beetle-infested mushrooms happened years ago—in the 1980’s–but has stuck in my mind. I have, over the years, learned to value how this concept of common grace enlarges the hearts and the minds of Christians. It gives us room for anything that is truly good and beautiful.

On this high place in Arkansas, we worshiped no false god. We simply joined with God who in Genesis looked at all the “swarming and teeming” creatures He had made and blessed them. With God, we were seeing and declaring “that it is good.”

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