Black Thursday Next?

First Thanksgiving

The focus at Thanksgiving on family and friends gathered around food in an expression of gratitude has grown sweeter and sweeter to me with each passing year.  As a child nothing could top the joy and excitement of reaching into my stocking and opening presents on Christmas morning.  The longing and waiting for Christmas morning was barely containable, and I can still bring the incredible sense of anticipation to mind.  Thanksgiving seemed terribly lackluster in comparison.  Yes, the food was wonderful, but no presents?  BORING.

Now I relish the simplicity of Thanksgiving. The familiar recipes are comforting, not boring.  Eating turkey, mashed potatoes, wild rice casserole, green beans and buttermilk pie year after year could be a foodie’s nightmare, but I find it reassuring.  There’s no need to decorate the house and the yard, send cards, write a holiday letter or throw parties, the day is complete in and of itself.

It’s a day to focus on the faces around the table, on thinking over the year and remembering the wonderful blessings even in the midst of challenges and hard times.  A day to include people who can’t get home to be with their families.  A day to watch football and movies and play games and let life move more slowly.

So when Black Friday encroached on Thanksgiving Thursday this year, I was truly bothered.  If anyone wishes to rise at 4:00 a.m. on Friday morning and hit the sales with coupons and coffee in hand, have at it.  You won’t talk me into joining you, but I’ll be happy to share in your excitement over bargains and great finds – when I wake up at 8:00 a.m., that is.

But stores opening on Thanksgiving this year crossed the line I didn’t think would be crossed.  Thanksgiving has long been the day set aside for gratitude and kept separate from the day which often depicts materialism at its worst.  Not any more.  Gratitude and greed commingled in 2012, and I’m not sure they’ll be separated again.

I hope in the end the financial analysis will show the cost of opening on Thanksgiving was not matched by the sales made.   But knowing the American consumer’s penchant for a bargain, I’m not optimistic.

I intend to do my part to keep Thanksgiving orange and Black Friday black.  Won’t you please do yours?


More than Brain Power

On Thursday, November 15, I traveled to Milwaukee with two friends from TEDS to attend the 64th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.  Many of the greatest minds,

thinkers and teachers in the worldwide evangelical community were in attendance and presenting

academic papers.  Hundreds of papers were read and discussed during the conference’s three days.

I attended 8 such presentations and the evening banquet and drove home with an enriched, but overwhelmed brain.  The exhibit hall alone with tables and tables of books published by the academic divisions of IVP, Baker, Brazos Press, Tyndale, Eerdmans and Crossway put my gray matter into overdrive.

One of the greatest challenges in attending was deciding which presentation to attend, particularly when 2 or 3 favorites were happening at the same time.  Some papers were narrowly defined subjects, such as “Theology Without Idolatry or Violence:
I counted it an awesome privilege to hear N. T. Wright, Craig Keener, Bingham Hunter, Kevin Giles and others speak in person, and was disappointied that there were so many others I couldn’t fit into the schedule.  Yet as I sat at the banquet surrounded by nearly 800 people who have devoted their lives to study, teaching, preaching, writing and researching God and the Bible, I realized all the brain power  and collective knowledge present in the room was only a drop in the bucket when compared to the awesomeness of an infinite God and Creator.A Critical Response to Keven Hector’s Theology Without Metaphysics” by Michael Rea.  Others were much broader, such as “Contemplative and Centering Prayer” by James C. Wilhoit. Multiple readings of some titles still left me clueless; “The Problem with the Proposal of a Peripatetic Provenance for the Lexical & Conceptual Source of Paul’s Ethical Catalogues in Colossians 3, and a Proposal of ‘Two Ways’ Forward”.

The doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God was made concrete for me at that dinner.  Here we are 2,000 years after the birth of Christ building upon the foundation laid by two millenia of Ch

ristian theologians, archaeologists and exegetes who have gone before us, and we aren’t even close to comprehending fully the nature, power and glory of the knowable, but  not fully knowable Yahweh.

Rather than feeling defeated or overwhelmed by this realization, I felt a wave of worship rise up and wanted to praise this amazing God who desires a relationship with me.  Though I am an incredibly lowly human who can’t read ancient Hebrew or Koine Greek, debate Barthian theology or do textual criticism of ancient manuscripts, I can still approach his throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16) and know I hav

Evangelical Theological Society

e peace with him through Jesus (Romans 5:1).  How phenomenal!

What a privilege to have attended and how wonderful to be humbled again by the

awesomeness of God.

What leads you to those points of awareness and humility?

When Fear Muddles Thinking

© Kim Karpeles

The herd of pigs rushing down the steep bank into the Sea of Galilee is usually where my attention goes when reading the account in Luke 8:26-48.  The other day a different aspect to the story stopped me in my tracks, and verse 37 struck me as one of the saddest verses in the New Testament.

When Jesus sailed across the sea and reached the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a demon-possessed man was there to meet him.  This man was so tortured by the many demons who inhabited him that he had not worn clothes or lived in a house for a long time.  Instead he had been chained hand and foot and kept under guard though he often broke the chains and sought refuge among the tombs.

When the demoniac sees Jesus, he recognizes him as the “Son of the Most High God” and begs Jesus not to torture him.  The many demons dwelling within him beg repeatedly not to be cast into the Abyss and request to go into the herd of pigs feeding on the hillside instead.  Jesus complies.

I’ve stood at the high point on the eastern shore where tradition holds this scene most likely occurred.  Today there is a barbed wire fence at the top of the hill and signs warning of land mines buried on the hillside hang on the wires, so it takes work to envision the rest of the scene as it unfolded 2000 years ago.

The shocked herdsmen run off to tell what they had seen to people in the town and surrounding countryside.  To this I can totally relate – pigs rushing down a hillside to drown in the lake would have been quite an event to witness.  But when the people arrive on the scene and see the demoniac sitting at Jesus feet dressed and behaving like a normal man, they are afraid.  This reaction is harder for me to understand. I like to think I would have been thrilled to see the local “crazy” healed, been excited for him and wanted to meet the man who made all this happen.

Luke’s next words are a very sad; “Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear.  So he go into the boat and left.”

As Leon Morris comments in the Tyndale Commentary on Luke, “With all the evidence before them that a great miracle had been wrought, these people proceeded to reject the greatest opportunity of their lives.” Perhaps the material loss caused the fear, perhaps the supernatural power made them afraid. Either way, “they saw Jesus as a disturbing person, more interested in saving people than in material prosperity.”   He had demonstrated power over spiritual forces and healed a man, but instead of being celebrated and worshiped, he was rejected.  The people chose to allow fear to overcome them and muddle their thinking.

As I consider the scenario, the words “afraid” and “fear” pop out, as does the realization the people had sent the God of the universe packing when he was right there among them. While it’s easy for me to think I would have behaved differently, how many times have words or a response motivated by fear been one I later regretted?  How many times has fear kept me from pursuing a relationship with God or others?  More times than I would like to admit.

Next time I recognize fear has overtaken me, I want to realize my thinking is very likely muddled and I might be missing the opportunity of a lifetime.  I truly don’t want to see the back of Jesus as his boat pulls away from the shore and know I was the one who asked him to leave.

When have you seen the back of Jesus?



Sabbath and the Health Club

A boot camp class at my health club was the last place I expected to hear the Sabbath concept extolled, but that’s exactly where it happened.

This class was one where the instructor’s stated goal is to tap you out.  In fact this instructor said she wouldn’t be doing the workout with us because her class was so tough and she had another one to teach that day. This was not a great way to inspire confidence or encourage the twelve suckers standing alongside their mats and hand weights in the gym.

After warming up, she put us  into a cycle of 10 exercises for one-minute each with a two-minute rest before beginning the cycle twice more with some variations thrown in.  We did exercises like walking planks, knee bends into overhead presses, push-ups with hand weights, superman planks, prisoner knee bends; you get the picture.

As the class wrapped up and she lead us through a cool down with stretching exercises, she inserted the Sabbath.  Well, she didn’t use the word, but she used the concept.  She talked about women who did this class and didn’t use the two minute rest period to rest.  They kept moving, pushing, running, jumping rope or jogging through the rest periods and ended up not being able to finish the class.

She cautioned us, “Pushing hard can be good, but the body needs rest”.  In fact, it’s impossible to work out seven days a week and not crash or get injured.  The body must rest and be allowed to recover.  It can’t function at a high level without a break to restore and to heal.

I seriously doubt she knew she was echoing God’s example in Genesis 2:2 where the story of creation concludes with the following:  “By the seventh day God had finished the  work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work”.  But she was.

God and his truths often show up in the strangest places – even a health club boot camp class.

Where has God surprised you with his truth?


Failures Wanted

I don’t like to fail; in fact, I work hard to succeed and to do things right so I won’t fail. I suspect I’m not alone.  I especially don’t like failing with devices in “record” mode nearby.

Twenty-first century Americans applaud success and put video of failures in loop mode.  Perhaps it makes us feel superior as we laugh at someone else’s failures and smile with relief our failure isn’t on YouTube. Each time a political candidate utters a blooper while being recorded, I think of my many verbal miscues that day and am relieved the blogs aren’t skewering me for them.

Whether or not Thomas Edison (who didn’t invent the light bulb by the way) said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work”, I would still love to have his attitude.  I would like to see a failure as proof I tried something new and different rather than sticking with the tried and true.  But I’m not there yet.

Thankfully Jesus is not surprised by my failures; in fact he knows they will occur.  Last fall I studied the book of Mark in a seminary class devoted solely to that text.  Dr. Grant Osborne stressed the importance of Jesus’ predictions of his death in chapters 8, 9 and 10.  Each of these teachings is given only to the disciples though “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it”.  (Mark 9:32)   He knew they were clueless, yet continued to instruct them and tell them he would rise after three days.

After the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples head to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26).  Jesus tells them they will all fall away, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee”.  With his usual bravado and self-confidence, Peter denies he will fall away even when Jesus replies and tells Peter his denial will happen that very evening.

Jesus knew the disciples would fail and fall away, yet he still wanted to meet them in Galilee for he had a mission for them to accomplish. He said so before his death and afterwards. The young man in a white robe confirms Jesus’ desire when he speaks to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome at the tomb on resurrection morning,  He instructs them to tell the disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you”.  (16:7)

Failure, even epic failure such as Peter’s, doesn’t surprise God nor does it drive him away from wanting relationship with us. Jesus still wanted to see his rag-tag band of disciples and his plans for Peter to be a leader in the church still stood; nothing had changed.

These vignettes give me a new perspective on failure.  I doubt I will ever grow to like or relish it, but I can have confidence Jesus isn’t laughing at me or removing me from his list of usable disciples. He knows full well my humanity and weaknesses and future failings, but he still wants to meet with me.  He still wants to meet with you, too.

What challenge does failure present in your life?  How have you dealt with failure?

Those Aha! Moments

If you’re anything like me, and I’m going to bet that you are, you experience Aha! Moments. To make sure we’re on the same page and clear with each other, let me clarify what I mean.  I consider Aha! Moments to be moments of  major new understanding, realization or insight.

I’m not talking about those everyday moments when you figure out how the food processor goes back together or the batteries fit in the mouse or how to get to a live person on a customer service line.  I’m talking about those moments which in retrospect mark turning points in your life.  Those are Aha! Moments.

One such Aha! Moment came when I took a Myers Briggs test during a Sunday school class some 20 years ago. I had always known I wouldn’t be considered the life of the party nor invited to perform such duties. I had long recognized I would rather have a serious conversation with a few people than small talk my way through the evening with a group of people I didn’t know and would likely never see again. But now this characteristic had a name — introversion– a description, and could prove useful in a variety of settings.

Aha! Moments of self-understanding such as this one have been some of the sweetest and most challenging moments on my life path. The sweetness comes as I understand better the person God has created me to be.  I can rest assured these characteristics and personality traits have purpose and value, and thus I feel affirmed.  The challenge comes with the awareness of the weaknesses and downsides associated with this trait. I could permit the negatives to reduce the positive effects of the affirmation, yet I find awareness of the  downside brings me to a place of humility and a realization of my dependence upon the triune God.

When I find myself in a conference room filled with people I don’t know, or have a calendar filled with lots of people activities and little “alone” time, or with plans to attend a meeting with extroverts where I will need to interject my opinion , I know I will feel uncomfortable and out of my zone.  Yet these challenges are places of opportunity – if I can make that my perspective rather than focusing on my discomfort.

I imagine more Aha! Moments are headed my way.  What have been Aha! Moments for you?


Asking Better Questions

questionsTwo years ago I began working toward a Masters in Christian Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.   When classes began, I hoped and expected to find answers to questions of theology and biblical meaning.  Instead of finding answers, I’ve learned to ask better questions.

Where before I asked, “What does this passage say to me today?” Now I ask questions such as:  Who was this addressed to?  What would the first recipients of this book/letter have heard and thought?  How was their culture different from mine in 21st century America? How does this passage fit into the overall theme of the book and what issue(s) was being addressed?  Rather than pulling the verse out of its environment and sticking it in mine, I want to gain an appreciation for the context and seek for understanding first before moving to application.

It isn’t only verses in the Bible which lead me to ask questions; life’s circumstances take me there.  Whether it is a friend dying of cancer, a prodigal child, unemployment, or conflict in a relationship, there are times when God seems distant and isn’t turning out to behave the way I thought he would.  Seminary hasn’t provided answers for tough circumstances either, but I’ve learned to ask better questions.

Carolyn Custis James in When Life and Beliefs Collide claims we are doing theology “as soon as the word why crosses our lips”.  So I was doing theology before I had the formal training afforded by systematic theology studies, but the better questions I am now equipped to ask are taking me to greater depths.

Rather than finding answers, I am gaining an appreciation for layers of meaning.  I now see God as more complex, more mysterious, more wonderful than before.   As I realize there aren’t simplistic, black-and-white answers for life’s questions or for interpretation of numerous Biblical passages, I am inspired to worship and praise this unfathomable God who loves me.

This isn’t to say that God can’t be understood or that he hasn’t made himself known through revelation of his actions and character in Scripture.  Instead it’s an awareness and admission of my limited understanding and God’s incomprehensibility.

God is still the same, but my questions have changed.  And that’s a good thing.

How have your questions changed as you’ve matured spiritually?

Headed to Seminary? Pack a Box Cutter

Stack of cardboard boxesEven though I didn’t physically move locations to attend seminary, I have spent a lot of time unpacking boxes during my past two years of study.  The boxes didn’t contain books (though I could fill several with texts) or kitchen supplies or clothing, they contained my thoughts, understanding of doctrine and preconceptions about God, Jesus, Scripture, spiritual growth, heaven, grace, etc.

I can’t think of a single class where I didn’t need to pull out the box cutter and open multiple boxes to expose the contents to new perspectives, new interpretations of Scripture or to deeper understanding of the implications of a particular position.   One of the classes with the biggest pile of opened boxes surprised me.

A four credit course entitled, “History of Christianity”, is required for nearly every masters track at TEDS. After the first weekly lecture of nearly four hours, I looked forward to getting the “pegs to hang the rest of the studies from” as promised by the professor.  I wanted to understand the driving forces behind the various splits in the catholic church — East from West, Protestant from Catholic — and within denominations.

While we studied those topics, I found the story of the development of the creedal statements such as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds in response to various heresies fascinating.  In learning to recognize the heretical strains of thinking promulgated by the likes of Arius, Marcion, Sabellius, I was amazed to see trails of these lines of thinking appear again and again throughout church history and even into the twenty-first century.

What boxes did I cut open?  My “evangelicals invented the church” box; my “church history doesn’t matter today” box; my “the early church had it easy” box, my “I have a handle on the Trinity” box, my “theologians aren’t important” box, and my “you don’t need anything but the Bible” box.

I gained an appreciation for the struggles and intense effort undertaken in the first four centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection to formulate doctrine and to ensure right thinking about the Trinity in particular.  Without the efforts of Iranaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and many other theologians, heresies that weakened the divinity of Christ or disproved his humanity would have caused more damage to the church than they did.

Theologians often get a bad rap for having their heads in the clouds, wordsmithing ad nauseum, and debating nuanced points of doctrine, and often deservedly so.  But don’t disregard them entirely or think their role wasn’t important in the formation of the church and isn’t important today.

If your thinking tends to run along those lines, I challenge you to pick up a church history text and start reading.

Oh, and keep a box cutter handy.

What challenges you to noodle through issues and rethink a position?

Some recommended books:

The American Evangelical Story:  A History of the Movement, by Douglas A Sweeney.  

Introduction to the History of Christianity:  First Century to the Present Day, by Tim Dowley.

The Fathers of the Church, by Mike Aquilina.  



Clean Feet and Rejection

RejectionI’m not keen on being rejected.  As a rule, I strive hard to do the right thing and say the right thing to avoid having that not-so-pleasant feeling of hurt sweep over me. This fear of rejection motivates me more than I care to admit; and now I can worry that I will be rejected for admitting that I fear being rejected. Not a good cycle, I know, but it’s a rutted trail my thoughts know well.

Personally, I would much rather have people on my side than opposing me, but relationships don’t always work out so well.  Even saying and doing the right and perfect thing won’t prevent rejection.  For the ultimate example, look no further than the life of the only perfect person who has ever lived.

Jesus knew exactly what to say, his heart motivation was always pure, and his actions were perfectly in tune with the will of his Father.  Did this lead to a rejection-less life?  Hardly.

The opposition was loud, “Crucify him, crucify him”; religious, think of the Pharisees and Sadducees; political, Herod and Pilate; personal, his own family and disciples; and powerful, soldiers and officials.

The opposition was expected.  Three times in the book of Mark (8:31; 9:30-31; 10:32-34) Jesus predicts his coming death and resurrection.  He predicts the falling away of the disciples and Peter’s denial in Mark 14:27-31, and the betrayal by Judas at the Last Supper in John 13:21.

Yet Jesus served this opposition in love. In John 13 prior to Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial and his own death, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.  A most lowly task usually handled by a slave on the bottom rung was done by the the very image of the invisible God (Col 1:15) to the very people who were going to reject him in a few hours time.

This foot washing account always blows me away.  If I think it likely someone is going to reject me, the last thing I want to do is be around them, let alone serve them.  If I know they are going to reject me, I am going to grab the armor, not a servant’s towel.  This is where I know Jesus came to teach and model a whole new way of thinking and living.

He boldly went forth and lived knowing full well the degree and extent to which he would be rejected. This is not to imply Jesus was masochistic for on numerous occasions he slipped through the crowd (Luke 4:30) or waited to go to Jerusalem because his time had not yet fully come (John 7:8).  But actual rejection or the fear of being rejected didn’t motivate him or prevent him from taking action.

My heart has a long way to grow before washing the feet of my enemies and opposition comes naturally or comes to mind at all.   If you reject me, I hope I will think first of grabbing a servant’s towel and basin, but don’t be too sure.

What do you find helpful when dealing with fear of rejection?

How do you process and respond to actual rejection?