The Lunch LadyWednesday, March 23, 2022
One of the best-attended funerals I’ve ever preached was for a school lunch lady. Her name was Marlene Norris. She was a faithful member of the church in Joliet, with which I was working at the time, along with her husband and three of her children. As is the custom in those parts, they asked me to offer the eulogy.
I arrived at the funeral home early and noticed when I went into the parlor that half the chairs had been removed. Only 40 or 50 remained. Nobody was expecting a big turnout.
This didn’t surprise me. I’d known and been friendly with Marlene ever since my arrival in the area, but she wasn’t a standout in the congregation. She attended regularly, but she didn’t speak up in Bible class, teach children’s classes, or sing so that I could hear her voice. If I remembered her for anything, it was for faithfully updating me on her various ailments every time I greeted her. To the extent that there is such a thing as an ordinary saint, she was it.
The family was already there, both those who were members in good standing and those who weren’t. I knew them all. I also knew the funeral-attenders from the congregation who were beginning to arrive. You know the type: those staunch older Christians who can be relied upon to show up for absolutely everything, including the funerals of members of the congregation, their relatives, and even notable brethren from surrounding congregations. They offer one of the little-recognized fringe benefits of being a child of God—the knowledge that no matter who dies, you won’t have to grieve alone.
However, a third group also began to trickle in, a group of people I did not know. They weren’t family. Frequently, they had the wrong skin color to be family. They weren’t funeral-attenders either. They weren’t nicely dressed, utterly respectable, utterly at ease. They didn’t look like they belonged. They sure thought they belonged, though.
There were a lot of them, too. They filled the available seating, so the funeral-home staff brought back a row of chairs. Soon it was filled with people, then another row, then another row.
The process continued even after the funeral service began. These weren’t people who had ever known the stern duty of appearing punctually at The Next Appointed Time. Being 10 or 15 minutes late was nothing to them, but Marlene Norris was something.
By the time the last amen was said, the room was full of chairs, and the chairs were full of people. If I remember rightly, there were even folks standing because there were no more seats to be found. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The only explanation I can offer is the one in Marlene’s obituary. It reads, “No one could ever walk in her home and not eat. She will be remembered for her giving and caring spirit, always putting everyone else’s needs before her own.” That sounds like an obituary commonplace, right up there with “She loved her family,” and “She loved to travel.” All the dead are generous and compassionate in their obituaries.
In Marlene’s case, though, I think the obituary spoke truth. I think there were students at Gompers Junior High School for whom Marlene the lunch lady was the only kind voice in their lives. I think there were people who came to her kitchen at home because it was the only place on the planet where they could find warmth and food and love.
I’m guessing about all this because Marlene never mentioned any of it to me, even while she was giving me every detail about her ingrown eyelashes. I don’t think she thought about it much. Compassion was simply the water in which she swam. However, at the end of her days, the recipients of her kindness rose up and bore witness.
Such is greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
It's Not a Wonderful WorldThursday, March 17, 2022
Recently, I ran across an NBC News story about a woman in the Lviv train station who played “What a Wonderful World” on a piano as refugees from the fighting in Ukraine streamed past. Of course, NBC painted her as a Symbol Of Hope amid devastation and despair, a promise of Better Days Ahead. The secular must seize on such symbols because if they can’t hope in this life, no hope remains.
I wondered, though, what the refugees thought of the message of the song, if they thought about it at all. When you’ve been driven from your home with nothing but the clothes on your back, does the world seem wonderful? How about when you know that people just like you are being callously slaughtered, and you’re fleeing for your life? How about when you look into your future and see a refugee camp or worse?
Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think wonderful worlds have refugee camps in them.
The delusion of a perfectible world has been hard to sustain, these past few years. COVID has carried off millions. In the worldwide wave of government mandates that has accompanied it, we saw a determination to master the disease from those who must believe that disease can be mastered.
The recent retraction of those mandates isn’t a declaration of victory, whatever the spinmeisters may say. It’s an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that we are at the mercy of a malevolent force that is too powerful for us. COVID might stop on its own, but we can’t stop it.
We cannot restrain brutal dictators, we cannot limit the ravages of disease, and we cannot keep disaster from overtaking our own lives. I have spent my life diligently pursuing wisdom and living according to it, only to find out that I was doomed to die young from the moment I was conceived. I’m certain that wonderful worlds don’t have ALS in them.
Of course, it’s not all bad. I have savored tremendous beauty, joy, and love in my life. Even after sin and death have done their work, we still can glimpse the original glory of God’s creation. Likewise, making a better world for our brother and our neighbor is a noble goal for any disciple of Jesus.
However, the world remains stubbornly irreparable, and the earthly good that we can do is limited by its setting. The fatal flaw of life under the sun is that it’s fatal, and people who hope in it will be disappointed.
This is not the hope of the Christian. We know we can’t defeat our earthly enemies, and the Bible warns us that life here is vain. Even as we drink of earthly delight, we must not hold the cup too tightly. Even as we work, we must remember that the good we do is temporary, but tragedy is here to stay.
Instead, our hope is in Jesus. Rather than trying to fix this broken world, He will consume its ruins with fire. Our eternal home will much better, new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. By His power, the dust of the slaughtered refugee, the COVID victim, and the ALS sufferer will be raised up to new life. The resurrected faithful will enjoy eternity with Him by His grace.
This world isn’t wonderful, and it never will be. Our Savior is wonderful, and He never will be anything else.
Misunderstanding the MessiahTuesday, March 15, 2022
In this life, there are a few certainties. Water is wet, the sun rises in the east, and the mass-media articles written around Christmas and Easter about Jesus are drivel. However, during the last holiday season, I encountered one that, despite its clickbait title (“The Way We Think About the Messiah Is Very Problematic”), was semi-not-drivelly. It can be found at https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-way-we-think-about-the-messiah-is-very-problematic.
The first thing that the article gets right is its observation that the story of Jesus’ birth is a messianic one. In our society, the conflation of the birth narratives with the secular, commercial holiday of Christmas does a great deal to confuse the issue. When Lauren and I still lived in Joliet, every December we sought out a house that had in its front yard a nativity scene complete with Santa Claus gazing adoringly into the manger. In addition to being hilarious, it aptly illustrated the muddle of the American mind concerning the birth of the Lord.
The article correctly notes that the star that the magi followed was a royal, messianic symbol. Though the author doesn’t spend much time delving into the gospels, the birth accounts of both Matthew and Luke are replete with messianic language and imagery. We must understand Jesus as Messiah according to the thinking of first-century Jews and the prophecies they pondered.
From this accurate observation, though, the article goes astray. It critiques the traditional Christian belief that Jesus was more truly the Messiah (indeed, the only true Messiah) than, for instance, Simon bar Kokhba, the so-called messiah who led a Jewish revolt against the Romans from 132-136 AD. It dismisses texts like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 by denying that they “refer to a crucified messiah” and claiming that it “seems unfair to imply that Jewish interpreters were overlooking something”.
However, there’s a problem here. If Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 aren’t messianic texts, what are? The obvious answer is, “prophecies that mention anointing or the Anointed One”.
Such prophecies are hard to find. Though I may be overlooking something, I can find only one clearly prophetic Old-Testament text that mentions anointing: Isaiah 61:1-2. However, when Jesus applies this prophecy to Himself during His visit to Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30, his audience apparently thinks that He’s claiming to be a prophet, not a messiah.
Other passages that mention the Anointed One and turned out to be prophetic, such as Psalms 2 and 45, are not obviously predicting future events. If I were a first-century Jew and interpreting them without the benefit of Acts 4:25-28 and Hebrews 1:8-9, I would have assumed that they referred to the historical Davidic kings. After all, the Scriptures often call Israelite kings “the Lord’s anointed”.
By contrast, the passages that the Jews did identify as messianic don’t mention anointing. The Micah 5 prophecy we’ve already examined doesn’t, but Herod’s counselors say it’s messianic anyway. After the time of Jesus, the Jews apply the prophecy of Numbers 24:17 to bar Kokhba (“bar Kokhba” means “son of the star”), and there’s nothing in it about anointing either.
In short, there’s no principled reason for Jewish interpreters to have denied that Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 were messianic while affirming that Micah 5 and Numbers 24 were. The latter fit in with their expectations; the former didn’t. If you’re looking for a martial messiah, you’re going to reject anything about a suffering-servant messiah, even if you have reason not to.
Such reasons are particularly apparent in Isaiah 53 and its context. In Isaiah 52:13-14, the prophet predicts a servant who will be successful and exalted, yet appalling and disfigured. The first half of the prophecy sounds awfully messianic, which implies that the second half is too.
The Jews could have, and indeed should have, picked up on that, particularly when Isaiah 53 goes on to warn them that the servant will be misunderstood and rejected yet victorious. They were on notice to look for a messiah who would subvert their expectations, but they didn’t listen. Once we add “suffering” to the portfolio of the Messiah, all sorts of other passages and prophecies, from Psalms 22 and 69 to Zechariah 10-13, commend themselves to our attention. Only Jesus fulfilled all of them.
After this, though, the article does us a service by warning us against the distinction between Jesus the spiritual Messiah and the hoped-for political messiahs of the Jews. This is a temptingly easy distinction for us to make. Then, we can put Jesus in the church box—the box of a God who used to do things but doesn’t anymore—and look elsewhere for the solutions to our problems. Is it surprising, then, when Christians begin to describe contemporary political figures using language that Second Temple Jews would have called messianic?
This way of thinking fails both to reckon with the political dimensions of Jesus’ work and to give Him the place that He deserves in our lives. He wasn’t conventionally political like bar Kokhba was, but His ministry was politically significant nonetheless. When He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, cleansed the temple, and condemned the chief priests, He was making political statements. Certainly, His enemies understood them as such; that’s why they killed Him. His early disciples did the same in confronting the Sanhedrin or refusing to sacrifice to Caesar, and they faced similarly dire consequences.
Today, we too must embrace the political implications of our hope. As He did 2000 years ago, Jesus still calls us to look for a deliverance that the world around us does not expect. We must not put our trust in princes nor think that if we elect the right group of leaders, the ills of this life will be put right. Instead, salvation will come from God and His Anointed. Christ continues to guide the course of history according to His will, and He will appear at its climactic end to vanquish evil forever and reward all those who have put their trust in Him.
My Take on Bible ClassesFriday, March 11, 2022
There’s no doubt that I’m a better teacher than preacher. My first love is the lectern rather than the pulpit, and I “get” teaching Bible classes in a way that I’ve never gotten preaching sermons. Also, I’ve always been satisfied with the way my Bible classes have gone. Generally, they’re characterized by robust discussion, and interesting insights come from many participants.
However, I know that many have a much different experience teaching Bible classes than I do. Comments are hard to come by, their content is poor, and each class leaves the teacher frustrated and unfulfilled. I thought it would be worthwhile, then, to explain my approach in the hope that it might help others.
Believe in Your People
I come to every class assuming that the students collectively know more about the Bible than I do and are wiser than I am. Their biggest problem isn’t ignorance and foolishness; it’s insecurity. They are not confident in their ability to figure out the text for themselves.
I am! I believe that God’s word is for God’s people. If a group of earnest Christians can’t work its way through a passage and arrive at sound conclusions, our whole theory of religion is wrong. The narrative of the class is their journey of discovery, not my sermon masquerading as a Q&A.
Help Your People
I’ve had a lot of training in how to read and interpret texts. Most brethren haven’t. When presented with an open Bible, many of them will get a deer-in-the-headlights look. Remember: they can do this! Your job is to show them how.
The most important work of the Bible-class teacher is to guide the inquiry of the student. When you help them work through a text, they learn not only what the text means but also how to work through a text for themselves. To this end, I always teach using a workbook I’ve written, even if the class is a textual study. The workbook frames the discussion, not by offering the right answers, but by offering the right questions.
Sometimes when I’m teaching a class, the blank stares of the students tell me that I’ve asked the wrong question. Probably, I’ve skipped some analytical steps, which is a great failing of mine. Then, it’s my job to work back, to find the right question that will get their analysis of the passage started.
Trust Your People
If the teacher is doing their job right, the class should arrive at conclusions that are different and better than the teacher’s own. I enjoy teaching classes in part because I like learning from the class. If the teacher isn’t interested in learning, the class will sense this and let the guy seated in the chair of Moses do his own talking!
This means that the teacher must be willing to allow exploration in different directions and, especially, to deal respectfully with disagreement. I assume that if somebody is willing to take the relational risk of disagreeing with me in public, they probably have a point. I’ve overstated my case or missed something. In such cases, I strive to reformulate their objection better than they did as a way to locate the flaw in my own thinking. If the teacher treats the objector kindly, thoughtfully, and fairly, they generally will be satisfied with the exchange, though it never hurts to check with them after class to make sure.
Sad to say, many congregations have Bible classes that are boring and frustrating. This is a terrible shame and a waste of a shining opportunity. The folks in the pews can do a little bit to fix this, but mostly, it’s the role of the guy up front. When we teach with the right approach and attitude, we can build a culture of good Bible classes that show everyone what it means for us to be people of the Book.
Consistent ConservatismThursday, March 03, 2022
It should come as a surprise to no one who reads my writing that I am very conservative in my approach to religion. I put my trust in the word of God. I believe in following the first-century pattern for the church. I am deeply suspicious of human wisdom and human innovation, and if you want me to accept that the church should do something or spend its money in a certain way, you’d better have Scriptures to back that up!
I find this approach to be logically satisfying because it relies on that which can be proved, can be demonstrated, from the text. I am no less suspicious of my own judgment than I am of anyone else’s, and it protects me from following that judgment into error.
Indeed, I believe this same method is useful not only when it comes to “Bible authority” (I speak accommodatively; nothing in the life of humankind is outside the authority of the word of God) but also when it comes to matters of personal morality. There too, we ought to be circumspect, to be wary of speaking where God has not spoken, and to test every conclusion to make sure that it is founded on the Scriptures.
Interestingly, such circumspection is not what commonly is described as “conservative” among the churches of Christ. Instead, for some reason, conservatives are those who read Scriptural prohibitions on conduct very broadly and rely heavily on their own judgment in drawing conclusions. To us, the conservative is the one who measures necklines and hemlines with a ruler, condemns attending a prom as sin per se, and argues that it is sinful for Christian women to work outside the home.
I believe that such brethren hold their views in good conscience, as do those who accept church support of colleges or use the instrument in the assembly. However, sincerity is no substitute for sound Scriptural reasoning.
In order to reason soundly, we first must test all inferences. There is a vast world of difference between the inference that can be drawn and the inference that must be drawn. It is possible to infer from James 1:27 that churches are authorized to support orphans’ homes. However, the inference is not required. Indeed, the language that James uses points toward an individual rather than a congregational application.
So too, it is possible to infer from 1 Corinthians 6:19 that smoking is a sin. My body is a temple, smoking is bad for the body, so smoking is wrong. However, once again, it is not an inference that the text demands. Contextually, Paul is discussing not physical health but sexual immorality, and it is immorality that he says defiles the temple.
Second, we must be wary of citing convenient passages from the Old Testament as authority. It’s perfectly reasonable to use Proverbs 23:29-25 to argue that drinking alcohol is unwise. However, using the text to establish that drinking alcohol is sinful is problematic. Once we establish that precedent, we open the door for the argument from Psalm 150 that the use of the instrument in worship is acceptable. If indeed the old covenant was nailed to the cross with Christ, we can’t detach it from the cross whenever it makes a point we want to make.
There, of course, is where the problems arise—when we go beyond the Scriptures to reach a conclusion we want to reach. This is certainly what lies behind departures from the text in the realm of the work and worship of the church. Somebody wanted to do a “better” job of spreading the gospel, so they came up with the missionary society. Somebody else wanted song worship to sound “better”, so they added the instrument.
So too, we must beware of wanting so strongly for our brethren to make wise choices that we overlook the distinction between foolishness and sin. I think smoking is unwise, but it is not my place to force my conclusion on the Christian who smokes. I think some Christian women regularly show poor judgment in the way they dress, but I must acknowledge that the Scriptures give them the right to judge for themselves about clothing.
This does not mean that we can’t try to persuade others to our way of thinking, but “This is sin,” isn’t persuasion language. That’s coercion language, and it reveals that we have seated ourselves in the chair of Moses.
Principled, consistent conservatism is difficult. It is frustrating to look out at the world (and the church) and see so many problems we could “fix” by going beyond what is written. However, we must remember that even the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. If we trust Him and hew strictly to His commandments in all things, we will find blessing in ways we had not foreseen.