Matthew 8

“When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.” (Matthew 8:16)

jesus-heals-leper1For the Christian believer, the most central part of the Bible will probably always be the gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: they all provide essential pictures of our Lord.  For many of us, these may very well have been the first portions of Scripture we ever read.  They further comprise the most likely places for us to return.  Though I don’t have any statistics in front of me, I’d wager to guess that they are–by a large margin–the most commonly preached parts of the Bible.  But then all of this makes sense.  For a group of people called Christians, it stands to reason that we would focus a significant amount of our attention on the life and teachings of Christ.

While I agree that this is appropriate, I can also tell you that such an overfamiliarity with the story of Jesus can have a strange effect.  It can make “normal” what is very unusual and blind us to the real power of what we are reading.

Consider Matthew 8.  Jesus casts out demons and heals a lot of people here.  I don’t know about you, but these are not everyday occurrences for me.  To be sure, I affirm and believe in the presence of the demonic and God’s power over evil.  I trust that God can and does heal today.  But I also know that these are powerful miracles that are out of the ordinary.  Not just one more story to be glossed over as we so often do when reading about them in the Bible.

“Yep, there’s Jesus again, doing his healing thing.”

“Didn’t he just heal somebody last chapter?”

“Ya, but this is somebody else.”

“OK, well, let’s move through this part quickly.  I want to get to some really deep teaching.  Or hey, maybe there’ll be a fun parable.”

I exaggerate for effect, but I hope you take my meaning.  Because Jesus heals so many and ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????casts out so many demons, it is easy to suffer from a little “supernatural fatigue” when reading the gospels.  While at a certain level this is understandable, I’m convinced we should guard against it.  Because every instance of healing and every demon cast out is not just another in a litany of “stuff” Jesus does that we can quickly pass over.  No.  This is God at work.  These are actual lives that have been changed forever.

To be sick, perhaps to the point of death, and be instantaneously healed?  That’s miraculously transformative.  Imagine being that person.  Imagine seeing that.  I would weep with joy and fear at the power and holiness of God.  To see the demon-possessed suddenly delivered?  That’s no small thing.  It is simultaneously terrifying and awe-inspiring.  It is the power of God in the lives of real people.

The importance of really grasping what is going on here is vital, and worth pausing to consider.  Because while all of these episodes may not often seem the most interesting to us, even the most offhand report of healing or exorcism was almost certainly one of, if not the, most powerfully transformative events in a person’s life.

I hope I can remember this when I read the gospels.  I hope we all can.

On the Multiplicity of Religious Intelligences

orlando-espinosa-seven-kinds-of-smartThis week in my “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation” course we are discussing the theory of multiple intelligences.  The idea that there are, as one book claims, Seven Kinds of Smart makes good sense to me as I look out at the world.  People simply process things differently, with some naturally favoring certain ways of learning and thinking over others.

As laid out, the seven basic intelligences are: verbal, visual, musical, logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.  To this list two or three others are sometimes added.  But even by looking at just these seven, one can see the rather wide diversity that can exist.  (If you’re interested, take a little online test here or here.)

Educationally, of course, the existence of multiple intelligences is both a great reminder and a definite reminder.  It helps guide us to be more understanding of those we teach and their particular thought patterns.  Yet it also means that much of the structure of traditional education is so heavily focused on a few of these intelligences that it can leave others by the wayside.  By favoring the logical and verbal over the others, we imply that those intelligences are best and subsequently ignore the profound ways that people think and learn in other areas.

At some level my thoughts about the intelligences and the process of discipleship follow a similar pattern.  Like most educational models, we in the Church can too often favor certain means or methods of conveying the content of the gospel, the teachings of the Scripture, and the basic tenets of the faith.  As I first considered the problem, I reflected on the fact that churches–like schools–can often be very “word-heavy.”  After all, just look at how long we spend on things like the sermon in our corporate time togetMultiple-Intelligence-wordleher.  For those whose intelligences are different, this is an issue and a clarion call to change our ways.

In thinking more about the intelligences, however, I’m beginning to come to a second conclusion.  For while it is true that church life can favor one intelligence or the other, I don’t believe I can claim that “all churches” do this in the same way.  As a matter of fact, I’m sure they do not.  Some denominations, for instance, may be very big on the sermon.  They spend an hour or more each Sunday expounding the Scripture through oral presentation.  This is a verbal approach if ever there was one.

But what about congregations in the charismatic tradition?  There the sermon has its place, no doubt, but so too does the kinesthetic, musical, and intrapersonal by means of participatory and emotive forms of worship.  And if you’re Presbyterian or Reformed, it may be that theological reflection favor logical intelligence.  A Catholic or Orthodox church with its stained glass, icons, liturgy. and genuflexing may very well favor the kinesthetic and/or visual approach, while the laid-back fellowship and mutuality of a non-denominational hipster/emergent church would very much fit the mold of the interpersonal approach.

196372-new-mass-translationAs I think about the intelligences and modern church life, I am fascinated by the ways in which they come together in the various ways that we live our religious lives.  While above I have clearly painted with a broad and somewhat stereotypical brush, it is still the case that different congregations and denominations can and do favor certain ways of thinking over others.  While on the one hand this can be a reminder that each of these churches needs to be aware of the other kinds of “thinkers” in their midst, it also says something else.

People sometimes ask why the Church is so divided into so many different groups.  Indeed, why Christianity is denominational rather than organizationally united is a real stumbling block for some.  It simply doesn’t seem right.  And insofar as such division can lead to recriminations, bickering, and malice, it is most definitely not.  While I believe legitimate theological differences do exist, this is no excuse for all those who adhere to orthodox Christianity not to exist in cooperation with one another even while maintaining their own denominational distinctives.

All this to say that while theology matters, I think that a major and often obscured reason that so many different churches and denominations exist is that people live and express their faith in ways quite similar to the multiple intelligences.  If one is emotive-intrapersonal, a certain kindimages of church life makes sense.  A logical or verbal person may choose another group altogether.  For the visually intelligent among us, another religious experience is preferable.

Christianity, therefore, while united in Christ, might be expressed and lived out in subgroups of believers not simply or perhaps even primarily because of theological disagreement, but because our spiritual intelligences are simply different.  Denominations could simply be a sign of our unique ways of processing the truth of God rather than–as often perceived–a sad sign of Christian division.

  It’s an optimistic vision, surely.  But it does point to some interesting truths.

A Slow Yet Definite Ascent

clinton23n-2-webWith the 2014 midterm elections just a little over a month away, I thought it would be an appropriate time for me to do some political analysis.  But not about this November’s issues.

I want to talk about 2016.

The upcoming presidential election has already been grist for the political rumor mill for some time.  President Obama cannot run again.  The Republicans will by that time have been out of the White House almost eight years.  Russia and a resurgent war on terror surrounds us, even as  domestic questions continue to fill our thoughts as well.  The world may change even more drastically in the next two years.  Who will run–and win–the office of Chief Executive in times like these?

My answer is a fairly boring one.  It’s obvious, actually.  From where I sit, the 2016 election is likely over the day that Hillary Clinton announces her candidacy.  I say this not as an indication of my vote (one way or the other), but as a simple statement of fact.

As long as she chooses to and is able to run, Hillary Clinton is already the indisputable nominee of the Democratic Party.  Even those who disagree with her or feel she may not be the best choice will be almost compelled to side with her.  She’s put in her time and been a good soldier following the trainwreck of 2008.  At the very least, it would seem, they’ll owe it to her.130228_white_house_ap_328_605

I realize that Clinton seemed inevitable 6 years ago until Obama derailed her.  But that was then and this is, well, now.  She learned some important lessons through that process, and has only deepened her sense of inevitability since then.  I simply cannot imagine any other Democrat offering a legitimate threat to her this time.  In party circles, to oppose her would seem almost rude.

For Republicans, a Clinton nomination presents a problem.  As a person who has been in the national spotlight for over twenty years, there are few issues in her life that have not been vetted thoroughly.  When it comes to experience, she can boast of things no one else can: eight years in the White House, service in the Senate, and representative of America’s foreign policy in her role as Secretary of State.  While each of these aspects of her political life have been critiqued and analyzed by her opponents, little of this would represent anything new.  Good or bad, most people in American already know how they feel about Hillary Clinton.  Take a look at this chart.  While her lead in a showdown with potential Republican challengers is narrowing, it has nevertheless been a consistent one.

562ae9807736f9d7feb983a92d1a5dbe2d1453c68cc21faef73e345ba16d6b9b_largePolitically speaking, whomever the Republicans throw against her will be facing the disadvantage of introducing themselves to America at the same time they are trying to change long-held opinions.  This is a daunting task.  All of the GOP options have their potential, surely.  I’m just not sure that Rand Paul or Jeb Bush can do it.  Mitt Romney may sound enticing to some, but he’d have a hard time overcoming the Clinton juggernaut.  Even Chris Christie, who I had previously thought was the best positioned and temperamentally suited to compete with her has shown over the past season that he has his own issues to work out.  Underscoring all of this, of course, is the fact that Hillary Clinton has the name, the recognition, the quantifiable body of work, and almost certainly the organization to trounce her likely opponents.  If politics is a game, it is one she has played quite well  these past few decades (2008 notwithstanding).

Those who feel she is a bad choice for America will try their best to stop her ascent.  When she runs we’ll see the return of Benghazi and the “vast right-wing conspiracy” and the health care debate all over again.  She’ll be attacked for being too old, being married to Bill, and possibly even for being a woman.  For another candidate these things might spell doom.  But for Hillary Clinton?  That’s what she’s had to deal with this every day for years.  Criticisms–legitimate and otherwise–could get lost in the shuffle.Hillary-Clinton_Chris-Christie_50-50-image

As Clinton has through her career attempted to build a case for why she is a good choice, she represents a study in both national service and political calculation that would make Lyndon Johnson proud.  Her recent efforts to critique a less-than-popular Barack Obama and distance herself from his foreign policy is only one part of this (and, should he continue to be unpopular, I suspect we’ll see a lot more distancing on other issues as well).  In the end, whomever the Republicans field will have to deal with all of this…and the fact that attacking any of her choices–even undeniably bad ones–might very well get drowned out by the persistent critiques of Clinton that have been deflected and absorbed over the decades.

So–politically speaking–I say that as much as anything can be a “sure thing” two years out, Hillary Clinton is going to be our next President.  Barring her decision not to run or some other miraculous chain of events, this just seems the more likely outcome.

Whether or not she’ll be a good President?  That’s a good question. We’ll just have to see.

Matthew 7

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

Matthew 7:24

Waters_of_marsA few years back there was a story on the BBC’s Doctor Who called “The Waters of Mars.”  In it, some kind of malevolent beings were infecting the population of a Mars base through the groundwater.  The Doctor and his associates struggled valiantly against their liquid foe, but it was very tough to keep out.  In the midst of their travails, our hero uttered the following: “Water is patient…water just waits. Wears down the cliff tops, the mountains. The whole of the world. Water always wins.”

He’s right, of course. Water always wins.  It makes canyons and changes landscapes.  Dirt, rocks…not even metal has a chance against it over time.  The chaos it brings tears everything down.

I thought about this idea as I once again encountered Jesus’ short parable in Matthew 7.  By juxtaposing the man who builds his house on the sand with the one who builds upon the rock, He makes an important point.  Namely, that the foundation of our life matters.  The storms of life–both those common to humanity and the one more finely attuned to our own personal existence–will come without question.  They will assault us and threaten to tear down our very being.  Being foolish about it and laying down no strong foundation is not the path to success or survival.  The storms will simply destroy us.  Grand Canyon origin

But then I’d submit this: even building on a rock will not save me in the long run.  Why?  Because water always wins.  Give it enough time, and it will breach every barrier, erode every boulder.  It will take me down.  Take a look at the Grand Canyon and tell me that building a house on a rock in the middle of that river would have saved you.

I realize I’m being hyperbolic here.  After all, while water will erode even the strongest foundation, canyons aren’t forming in our lifetime.  It takes time.  Nevertheless, earthly rocks like that just aren’t ultimately secure.  Not forever.  Nothing on this earth is.  Which must, of course, point us somewhere beyond.

It is wiser to build your life on something solid in this world than on something passing, yes.  But even the former will inevitably fail.  There’s got to be something–or some One–else.  A sure Rock much better than all these terrestrial ones.  And (of course) there is: He’s the one telling the story in the first place.

Water always wins.  With one exception.

Like As Of Fire

20120513144615!Icon-PentecostIn an interesting bit of recent news, the results of the 2012 National Congregations Survey has reported that nearly 25% of American churches had speaking in tongues as a part of their worship in the year previous to the survey.  This was up 4% from just 5 years before.

While I’m used to hearing stories about the growth and ubiquity of Pentecostal/Charismatic forms of worship across the globe, I’ll have to admit that this number took me by surprise.  That almost 1 out of every 4 churches includes some form of glossolalia is nothing short of astounding.  It says a lot about the state of American Christianity and the growing influence Spirit-centered forms continue to have within it.

While it is almost certain that not all of the congregations that identified as such are Pentecostal groups, this in itself is notable.  It means that the influence and effects of the trans-denominational Charismatic Movement of the 1960s and 1970s–which dissipated as an organized cohesive force in the 1980s–remains alive and well.  As a Pentecostal believer who has studied this movement and retains an abiding interest in its potential for what I call the “ecumenism of experience,” these new statistics are heartening.1e4949df7

While 24.6% is hardly a majority of churches and does not necessarily even represent 24.6% of Christians in America (you’ll have to parse the data for yourself on that one), such a relatively large number does speak to the mainstreaming of a movement that was deeply peripheral only 100 years ago.

Glossolalia, of course, itself is not the ultimate goal for Pentecostals.  A life alive in the Spirit is.  Speaking in tongues is a part of this, though, and its growing acceptance as a legitimate experience for many American congregations means that more and more believers will be open to embracing this mode of Christian faith.  Even just the other night, a former NFL star was praying in tongues on a reality TV show.  Imagine that.

What all of this will eventually mean is anyone’s guess.  As developments continue in this direction, it may very well be that more and more Christians are able to speak of common experiences of God–even if the culture, theology, politics, and worldviews of these believers may be very different.   Perhaps a burgeoning era of revival awaits, initiated by those experiencing or open to 2269catholiccha_00000001421embracing the unusual effects of the Spirit’s action in their lives.  Or perhaps–less optimistically–the growing dominance of the Pentecostal style might lead to commodification and diminishing of fervor as a once marginalized sectarian understanding rushes headlong into the world of the lowest common denominator.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Pentecostal styles of Christianity have now “arrived” and must be taken seriously.  The reappraisal that began during the Charismatic Movement of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations must now be expanded.  Though less a visibly organized movement than 40 years ago, the grassroots influence of broadening Spirit-centered Christianity requires that all believers to come to terms with the reality of such expression.  Because if these trends continue (admittedly a big “if,” but still) it might not be long before such Pentecostal practices become a de facto element of Christian worship across the United States.

Imagine that.

What Do You Remember?

7245260242_763278bfec_zI was invited to speak at a weekend retreat for one of our dormitory floors this past weekend. In one of my brief messages, I chose to focus upon an intriguing passage from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John.  Within it, we return to a familiar scene in the life of Christ: the Last Supper.  As the story begins, Jesus grabs a towel and starts to wash feet.  Peter is confused by the strange turn of events and does not seem to want his master performing the role of a servant.  Among the ways Jesus responds is this:

You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.

A powerful statement, for we know what comes later.  Arrest.  Fear.  Denial.  Trial.  Crucifixion.  Burial.

In just a few short hours, Peter will come to realize that Jesus came not to control but to serve.  Before long, Peter will understand that the way he looked at the world was completely backwards.  He’ll begin to comprehend what the gospel of our Lord is all about.  Redemption will come for Peter after the Resurrection, but even then I think there is more for the Apostle to learn.  The years he lived after that poignant moment at the Supper will stay with him the rest of this live.  And at that life’s end–whether hanging upside-down on a cross as 006-jesus-washes-feettradition tells us or expiring in some other way–is when I think he fully understood what Jesus was all about.  For Peter a life of service and sacrifice suddenly came into focus, and all because of something Jesus said and did for him years before.

Though it wasn’t the main theme of my retreat message, a passage like this makes me think about  youth ministry.  So much of what we do as youth ministers is not understood by the students we serve.  They chafe at rules.  They can resist teaching.  They don’t understand why some things are good ideas and some things are bad ideas.  It can be frustrating.  If only behavior modification or simply giving up were part of what the gospel was about.  At least then we could have an answer.

But Jesus’ actions here speak to something different: word and deed offered in relationship.  The washing of feet for a confused soul.  Truth and love to someone who needed it far more than they realized.  An act done with little initial return.  As a matter of fact, if one is to judge the effectiveness of Jesus’ mentoring in the twenty-four hours after this event, he ought generally to be considered a failure.

indexThis is often true as we work with students.  The time and energy we put into walking with them through life.  Living the gospel in front of them.  Discipling and teaching them.  Sometimes it can just come to naught.  They fall in with a bad crowd and off they go.  They graduate high school and drift away.  In college they decide that their previous faith was just so much smoke and mirrors.  Like Peter, they seem to have failed to learn anything.

Jesus, of course, has a longer view of Peter than just that day.  When we think about our students, we ought to as well.  I really believe that when we think about the effectiveness of youth ministry, it has relatively little to do with how many students you can get running forward to an altar or raising their hands in worship.  Seeing them take abstinence pledges and wear Christian t-shirts might make use feel better in the moment, but in the end that isn’t what matters.

What matters is where they are later.  What they understand one day.  If–even when they don’t realize what we are doing or why we are doing it during their teen years–they understand later LateAdolescenceon.  Like Jesus, youth ministry must take the long view.  For some of our youth, serving Christ will be an uninterrupted story. For others it will be a more punctuated one.  For both latter and former, I hope and trust that some of what we do (and, Lord willing, some of what I did those six years in New Jersey) will be grasped one day.

Ultimately, this ought to be both an encouragement and a challenge to us.  It should hearten us when it seems like we’ve failed miserably with our students (remember: Peter didn’t start out so well either).  But (and this is important): it should also remind us that taking the long view may very well mean changing the way we operate in ministry. Eschewing the immediate optics or ministerial sense of satisfaction in favor of what is much more lasting.  Difficult, perhaps, but worth it.

Gang Aft Agley

1scottish_2678776bSecession is the word of the day.  Even now, the people of Scotland are at the polls, voting a simple “Yes” or “No” to decide whether they want to break off from the United Kingdom and go it alone.  Their decision will have impact not only in the British Isles but will reverberate the world over.

The question of secession is always a tricky one–for Americans particularly.  Our only real experience with it didn’t go so well.  The secession of our Southern states led to Civil War and massive bloodshed.  But the idea persists.  Just recently there were efforts for sections of California to be turned into six states, there continues to be talk of Texas possibly seceding from the United States one day, and we always wonder–mostly tongue-in-cheek –whether the South will decide to “rise again.”

On an international level we just this past year witnessed a referendum in Crimea that involved a rather unpleasant secession from Ukraine.  The tension inherent in that move underscores the reality that while it may have its fans, for many others secession is a notion fraught with peril. the-south-will-rise-again-3

But is secession illegal?  Not necessarily.  In the United States secession has been understood that way since the Civil War.  But then that is only because the North won the war.  Politics is, after all, the art of the possible, and politics in our country made secession impossible by force of arms.  Considering that we live in a democracy, though, it does seem logical that the people of a certain region could decide for themselves how to proceed.  Barring the beginning of a British Civil War, this seems to be the operating procedure today in the United Kingdom.  We’ll see how that works out.

The situation of Scotland is rather different that the American Confederacy, of course.  Scotland was once its own nation, and in many ways has always maintained its own character.  The American South, while unique, never had such a cohesive national identity in the years before the Civil War.

9919c6d5c37178403f6011f449c9698fDespite Scotland’s strong claim to the legitimacy of secession, the choice they face today does recall a haunting question from the American crisis and similar movements today: what does it mean to be a democracy?  Surely such a place must affirm that people have a measure of self-determination, but what are the limits of that freedom?  From a certain point of view secession should be possible, but does it really make sense for this option to always be on the table?  For a nation to have any stability in the long-term it would seem not.

Though the time may have come for the Scots to decide their fate, an “Aye” today from them and British acceptance of their move will potentially legitimate the efforts of people the world over to break off from their nations to0.  While all of this may sound romantic in a sense, it raises important questions about national stability and what it means to exist together for the common good.  The answers our world offers will define the fate of democratic peoples everywhere.