A Different Angle (Luke 7:36-50)

Yesterday I posted a fairly egg-heady look at Luke 7:36-50. That is pretty easy for me to do – I’m basically an egg-heady kind of guy. But, today I want to look at the same passage through a different lens, a different angle. Today I want to look at the story through the eyes of the woman.

Have you ever wept uncontrollably? I don’t mean just the run of the mill sniffles that you get at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t even mean the tears that flow at a funeral for someone you really love. I mean the uncontrollable, rib-wracking, heart crushing weeping that makes breathing difficult if not impossible.

I think I have had that experience just once, and I’ll not bore you with the details here. Suffice it to say that once in a lifetime is enough. I cannot describe the pain, the uncertainty of if, not just when, it was going to stop.

The backstory of the woman in Luke 7 intrigues me. For what, exactly, was she grieving? What drove her to Jesus’s feet? How did she manage to get through the phalanx of (primarily male, I would assume) dinner guests to get so close to Jesus? Luke simply identifies her situation as being a “sinner,” but what did that entail? Was she a prostitute? If so, had she been forced into selling her body because of a financial ruin? Was she a widow with no other means of support? Was there some other sin that she was sold to that made her a pariah?

Interestingly enough, Luke – ever the historian and careful observer of human emotions, fails to tell us anything more. Simply that the woman came to Jesus with what we would assume to be a very expensive flask of ointment (Luke does not comment that detail, either.) So, her visit to Jesus was not “spur of the moment.” It was planned. And, at the moment she arrives and is able to gain admittance to Jesus, she begins to weep, and by Luke’s description, I would add the word “uncontrollably.”

It is one thing to weep to the point tears run down our face. It is something else entirely when tears are so profuse that they could actually wet the feet of someone reclining in front of us. This is no ordinary grief. This is profound, all-encompassing grief. To use a word common in our culture today, this was epic grieving.

Once again I ask – for what? What was it in her life that drove her to such sorrow? For how many mistakes and how many failures and how many sins was she repenting? How many years of wasted life was she recounting? What losses were in her life’s ledger?

We can look at this story through many lenses, from many angles. The gospel in this story is that Jesus does not focus on her past, does not force her to recount her failures. He recognizes her love and forgives her sins. How many times do we stare at the sin, and refuse the love?

We can learn many things from this anonymous woman. We can see the change of heart her plan to go to Jesus indicated. We can see the cost of true repentance in the selfless manner in which she used her “alabaster flask of ointment” to rub on Jesus’s feet. We can see the emotional cost of serving Jesus in the description of her tears wetting the feet of Jesus. And, lest we overlook the words of Jesus, we can see her unbridled love for Jesus that all of these actions indicate.

This story grips me, intrigues me, challenges me. How often I want to think that Christianity is simply and solely a rational venture. How often I fall back on my reason and my intellect to convince me that I am right. This story in Luke 7 is not about reason or rationality or intellect. It is all about love, and sorrow, and repentance, and selfless worship. It is a picture of the Christian walk that confounds me in many ways, because all too often I brace myself against this kind of emotion.

Egg-heady guys like me need to read this story, hear this story, meditate on this story, immerse ourselves in this story. Otherwise, I fear we will end up far more like Simon the Pharisee than we want to be.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Authenticity – A Lecture on Fearlessly Being Who You Are

It happened again.

Every so often I will dig out some old music and when I hear it I get the uncontrollable shakes to play my guitar(s) “just like _________ on the record.” Typically that is John Denver, but it could also be Noel “Paul” Stookey or some other musician. Sometimes I even think I can sing like Harold Reid (the bass singer for the Statler Brothers) or Charley Pride or the aforementioned John Denver or the aforementioned Noel Stookey. It drives me crazy. I pull out my guitar.

And it just does not work. It. Does. Not. Work.

It hit me this morning just why it does not work. There are a number of technical reasons, of which I will list a few. But there is a really bad reason why it does not work, and an even much worse, awful reason why it does not work. More on that in a moment.

Technically why is does not work is because no two people are ever exactly alike. Therefore, the desire to sing, or to play, “exactly” like someone else is just doomed from the get-go. There are just far too many variables to match in order to do anything “just like” someone else.

The bad reason why it is wrong to want to do something “just like” someone else is that it really diminishes who you are as an individual. It is basically saying, “I am personally no good (or at least far sub-average), but if I could just sing/play/do something ‘just like’ so-and-so, then I would be worthy.” I know that most of us would tend to play that down, but it is really true. We tend to think that aspiring to the heights that someone else has climbed is validation – and to a degree it might be. But, ultimately its is still just trying to be where someone else already is, to achieve what they have achieved. It is not about personal achievement or personal accomplishment. I know that is a very fine line, but if you stop and consider it for a moment you will see that imitation is not true accomplishment, in the sense of individuality.

But, really, what is for me the absolute worst reason why being “just like” someone never works is that it is a profound denigration of the other person’s giftedness. Let me explain with a couple of examples.

What would it say if I, below average to low average guitar player, could suddenly (or even eventually) play like John Denver? What is it, exactly, that draws me to his music? One, his guitar playing artistry is, quite honestly, beyond compare. Most of his playing is disarmingly simple, and can be duplicated readily enough (I even had the opening riff to “Rocky Mountain High” down for a brief period.) However, it is not just the technique that makes his playing unique. During most verses his playing is uncomplicated, but in-between verses or in bridges his playing can be extraordinarily complex. But, it is not just the guitar – it is also the lyrics. The guitar ascends with phrases that call us to ascend, and moderate when the lyrics get a little melancholy. His vocal range is unique as well, and the guitar accompaniment and the lyrics are designed to elevate that vocal range. But, it does not stop there – his ability to play an audience is just as critical as his ability to play an instrument or use his voice. Yet another piece, his band members loved playing with him because he allowed them to express their individuality. So, what makes me want to play like JD? The entire package, not just one tiny little piece. Denver himself put into words on a number of occasions what I am aiming for here – he never really took credit for writing his songs. The way he put it, he was just there when the song came floating by, and he was the lucky one who got to write it down, “I had nothing to do with it” he would say.

I can’t, and I don’t really want to after all, be “just like” John Denver, because when all is said and done that would be a blight on my memory of John Denver. It was the gift that John Denver received that made him who he was, and I never want to claim his gift. It was his, and only his.

As a student-in-training-to-be-a-preacher I always wanted to preach like Harvey Porter. I have said this on numerous occasions. From a preaching perspective, Harvey Porter was my idol. I wanted to think like Harvey, to have a command of Greek like Harvey, to be able to combine humor and emotion like Harvey, to be able to speak to thousands at lectureships and to write books and to visit the Holy Land and to be invited to be on university boards of trustees and to be recognized everywhere I went just like Harvey Porter. I think that is a quite common aspiration – young men shape and fashion their dreams to fit their personal hero, be it an athlete or a teacher or a preacher or a fireman or a policeman or a doctor or – the list goes on forever. But, once again, what would I have accomplished if I could have achieved everything I set out to do? I would not have been Harvey – there could never be another Harvey Porter. But, I would not have been myself, either. I would have been a cheap imitation of someone. I would have actually been denigrating, or insulting, Harvey’s true value. I can honor Harvey Porter more completely by being who I am, and in striving to follow the Lord of Harvey’s life.

You see, the real gift, the real blessing, of listening to John Denver or the Statler Brothers or Peter Paul and Mary or in sitting at the feet of Harvey Porter is not the inspiration to play just like John Denver or sing like Harold Reid or preach like Harvey Porter. The real gift is their inspiration to become what you are especially gifted to become. Don’t aspire to play just like your favorite musician, aspire to take what has inspired you through them and then make it your own. Sure, there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn the guitar, but the goal should be to let the guitar become the living, breathing instrument that it can be, not to force it into a box that says, “John Denver” or “Paul Stookey” or “Chet Atkins.” Learn to sing, but don’t limit your accomplishments to a list that is limited to Harold Reid or Charley Pride or C.W. McCall. Let your voice be your voice, and in so doing you will honor your favorite hero more than any other gift you can give.

I wish I could have learned this lesson back when I was a teenager, or a young adult at the very least. Maybe I would not have listened even if someone had given me this article to read. I was (am still?) pretty hard headed. But, I think it is good I finally learned it anyway. I can listen to my records and cds of John Denver and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Charley Pride and many, many others with less agitation now. Not complete contentment, because those “I want to play/sing just like _________” yearnings are still deep within me. But, I can admire and be amazed by their artistry with perhaps just a little less jealousy now. And, perhaps just a little more maturity that can say, “Wow, I sure am glad they used their own gifts, instead of trying to be just like someone I never heard of.”

Honor your heroes to be sure. Just be sure to do so by becoming the best you can be. You will ultimately achieve far more, and be blessed with a far greater peace.

 

So This is Where We Are Headed

Last night marked a new low in American politics, civics, and common decency. The President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States could not shake hands with each other.

The Speaker of the House ripped a copy of the State of the Union speech in half, in full view of the assembled Senators, Representatives, and members of the Supreme Court, along with other dignitaries.

The most dignified and significant offices of government of the United States are currently being held by the most petulant, childish, immature, and stupid individuals on the face of the earth. And, yes, I do mean “stupid” because their behavior goes way, way beyond ignorant. That was intentional and utterly bereft of any redeeming excuse or explanation.

But, mark my words, it will only get worse – the fetid swamp will only become more fetid and putrified.

Unless . . .

Unless someone, somehow, manages to learn the basic rule of civility and governance – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That means unless somehow, someone realizes that in order to save our republic they must cease to be partisan political hacks and become statesmen (and stateswomen, gender neutral).

Yes we can have differences of opinion. Yes we can have different visions of how we want the country to move forward. Yes, we can have honest and fervent debates about those opinions and visions. But, at the current rate of this infantile tit-for-tat, name calling and thuggishness, we as a republic are doomed.

Beam me up, Scottie. There is no intelligent life on this planet. Not in the leadership, anyway.

Do You Have 53 Minutes to Spare?

I don’t typically do this, in fact, I cannot really think of any time I have done this except for one time I think I shared a link to one of my sermons (no, I don’t usually preach for 53 minutes. It just seems like an hour.)

But, I came across this video about a year or so ago, and I feel compelled to share it with folks who might not know how, or even care, to find it on their own.

This video is just wow – just wow. It has such an important message about seizing the moment, about doing what your heart calls you to do, about having dreams and setting goals.

And, it’s pretty tootin’ funny as well!

I hope you enjoy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kIMTJRgyn0

 

Cherry-Picking and Proof-Texting Favorite Scriptures

I saw something the other day that kind of ruffled my feathers. It was another one of those appeals to Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (ESV translation) Now, I know nothing of the person who made the appeal, or the setting. But, I just wonder, was the appeal made in context – and did the speaker have the entirety of Jeremiah in mind as he made the appeal?

You see, very, very rarely will anyone include v. 10 in the quotation of v. 11 – “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” Note the sequence – you are going to be led captive into an exile in a place you think is absolutely godless and degenerate -and you are going to have to stay there for 70 years while I punish you for your misbehavior. Then, I will bring you back because I know of the plans I have for you . . .”

In the entire pantheon of misquoted, cherry-picked and proof-texted Scriptures, Jeremiah 29:11 has to rate in the top 10, maybe the top 5, and maybe even higher.

The prophecies of Jeremiah are rife with warnings that would limit, or even supersede, 29:11. I wonder, for example, if the speaker who so proudly appealed to 29:11 has ever read, or considered, 18:5-11,

Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as the potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and deeds.”

I know this may just be me, but all of the trite little memes and what-not that you see on social media quoting Jer. 29:11 get really old, especially if you know the story of Jeremiah, and the impassioned pleas that God made through the prophet that were utterly ignored by the leadership, and most of the population, of Jerusalem. Yes, Jer. 29:11 is a wonderful and grace-filled promise. But – taken in context – it is just the silver lining to a very dark and destructive cloud. I am just not at all certain that those who teach this verse so glibly really understand the depth of the verse.

This is just one more example of my almost never-ending mantra – we have to stand under Scripture, not over it, and we have to humbly submit ourselves to the entirety of the meaning of a passage for us to “rightly divide” the truth intended by the Holy Spirit.

Let us continually strive to climb higher by ascending lower.

Not Every . . .

Not every mountain is a molehill . . .
Not every molehill is a mountain . . .
Not every misspoken word is a heresy . . .
Not every thought needs to be acted on . . .
Not every major news story deserves a sermon on Sunday . . .
Not every sermon deserves discussion on Monday . . .
Not every change in worship order represents a rejection of truth . . .
Not every prayer is answered the way we want it . . .
Not every answered prayer is met with gratitude or thanksgiving . . .
Not every gift is a blessing . . .
Not every hardship is a curse . . .
Not every truth is benevolent . . .
Not every lie is malevolent . . .
Not every kindness is returned . . .
Not every act of evil needs to be avenged . . .
Not every person who dies goes to heaven . . .
Not every Bible is read . . .
Not every sin is confessed . . .

And,

Not everyone is perfect.

Why can’t we learn these things?

Four Things Absolutely Necessary in Order to Learn Anything

It happened to me again recently. After presenting (what I thought was) a fairly balanced review of a subject and stressing that there really was no way to come up with a definitive answer regarding a specific question, I had someone come up to me and declare that s/he followed  the opinion of someone who has been dead for 40 years, and was not that much of a scholar to begin with. This person was in no mood to change his or her mind, and was quite emphatic about that point.

Sigh. Some days you just cannot win.

But, it did get me to thinking. What is the absolute, rock bottom necessity in order to learn something? I came up with four qualities. Maybe you can add another or two.

  1. Curiosity. If you hear or read something once, and are never curious about that subject again, you will never learn anything about that subject. Curiosity about anything is the first requirement to learning.
  2. Humility. If you think you know everything, or that your conclusion is perfect, you will never learn anything. In order to learn a person has to accept that (1) his or her knowledge may be limited or imperfect in some form or fashion and (2) someone else may be more knowledgable about that subject. Education is, on one basic level, an exercise in humility.
  3. Energy. It takes effort to learn. A person has to read, or listen intently, has to investigate and construct questions and responses to questions. Learning is laborious, and quite frankly, many people just do not have the energy it takes to correct mistaken opinions or to learn new facts.
  4. Adaptability. Learning something means we have to change, to adapt our thinking, and often times adapt our behavior. This requires a rather significant investment sometimes, and to be fair, sometimes that investment is just more than some can handle. I chose the word investment for a good reason, though, and the ability to adapt to knew knowledge pays huge dividends for future growth.

I have to admit I am an inveterate student about just about everything in my life. I consider that a tremendous blessing given to me by my parents, and nurtured by some amazing teacher (who were also life-long learners). And, admission number two, it just really rubs my fur the wrong way when someone comes up to me and attempts to dismantle my presentation with the uneducated, shallow musings of someone who has been dead for four decades, and who could honestly be described as someone who stopped learning the moment he crafted an opinion.

But, that is just me, and I know that not everyone shares my (admittedly jaundiced) view of blindly following someone or something that we read half a century ago.

Your thoughts?