Mother’s Day: For Mom

I first wrote these words 12 years ago. They still express what is in my heart today on the 24th anniversary of my mother’s passing.

already & not yet

When I was 15 years old, my mother and I signed up to work the nursery at church on Sunday mornings during the summer. It was a job she and I had done together several times. She enjoyed it more than I did, but I think it helped her to stay busy, especially after my father died.

I remember one Sunday morning in particular. A lady in the church came to pick up her child and as I handed their diaper bag to her, she looked at me and said, “Jason, you’re looking just like your mother.”

I turned red with embarassment. There are fewer things a 15-year-old boy wants to hear than how much he resembles his mother. Since my father’s death 5 years earlier, I desperately wanted people to see him in me. As much as I loved my mother, I fiercely clung to my father’s image. He

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Spring Baseball 2018

I love that baseball season is underway and that Joshua is playing for his school team.

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Daily Bible: Leviticus 11-12

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted my daily Bible log. Time to re-engage. Ready for Leviticus 11-12.

Lev. 11:44-45, For I am Adonai your God; therefore, consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; and do not defile yourselves with any kind of swarming creature that moves along the ground. For I am Adonai, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. Therefore you are to be holy, because I am holy.

Leviticus 11 and 12 are concerned with matters of ritual purity and cleanliness. The undergirding theological premise of these mitzvot concerns the holiness of God. Israel is commanded to observe these commands as a response to the transcendent “otherness” of YHWH. God desires that his holy character be transmitted to his chosen people.

There are three points I want to make in light of this reading. First, it is God’s prerogative to determine what is clean and unclean. Not only are the reasons never given for each animal’s designation as either clean or unclean, the text gives no indication that such a question is even important. In a relationship of covenantal faithfulness, Israel receives this word as a divine pronouncement.

In addition, the minutiae of this reading serves to heighten our awareness to the ubiquitous toxicity of the world in which we live. Lest we are lulled into believing the active agents in our world are benign, a careful reading of Leviticus forces us to consider the alternatives.

Finally, Leviticus seems rather clear on this point: “uncleanness” spreads — in the camp, in the water, and especially in humanity. The mitzvot of God should be understood as the divine “line of defense” against the further spread of the contagion that mars God’s originally good creation. By abiding to God’s holiness code, Israel participates in “putting the world to rights” (to borrow from N.T. Wright), ushering in the world to come.

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Faith Under Fire: Faithful Witness

“John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a monster half as crazy as one of his commentators.” — G. K. Chesterton

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting about a series I’m preaching from the book of Revelation. Revelation is one of the areas in the Scriptures we tend to avoid, mainly because we don’t know what to do with so many of the confusing images, the debates about the millennium, etc. But my goal in this series is to get some of that scaffolding out of the way and for us to hear a powerfully relevant word from King Jesus. I believe this word has the power to be transformative for us, both individually and corporately.

Let’s begin with the title: Faith Under Fire. Does that resonate with you? Is faith under fire today? The first century Christians certainly faced enormous persecution in a world where Caesar was universally hailed as a divine figure. But twenty centuries later, Christians around the world continue to be ostracized and mistreated as a result of their faith. According to the World WatchList produced by Open Doors USA, in many places around the world — North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — even claiming to be a Christian brings about extreme forms of persecution today. And even in our own country, we are witnessing an accelerated erosion of religious faith, aided by the onset of secularism and a swirling debate over religious liberty. Now, as ever, faith is under fire.

But this is precisely why we need to hear the message of the book of Revelation, a timeless message of triumph. Faith is under fire today, just as it has always been under fire. But this final word in our Bibles points to the complete victory of Jesus and fits us with a victorious mindset. Though faith may be under fire, we participate in the victory of the Sovereign One who is presently seated on the throne! And this knowledge helps us to stand, for we are standing on the victory of King Jesus!

I’m excited about this study. Let’s dive right in.

Revelation 1:1-8

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw — that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. 

John,

To the seven churches in the province of Asia:

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is thefaithfulwitness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. 

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father — to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. 

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Revelation is a word about Jesus, but it is also a word from Jesus. Eugene Peterson says, “Jesus Christ is both the content of the revelation and the agent of the revelation.”

And Jesus has a word for us: he is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end. From A to Z, it’s all about Jesus. He is the timeless one of history — he is (present tense), he was (past tense), and he is to come (future tense). All history centers on him and is centered in him.

This sense of past and present appears in verse 5 also: To him who loves us (present tense) and has freed us (past tense) from our sins by his blood…. The love of Jesus is a present reality — may we never doubt that Jesus loves his church. And there is this: he has freed us — literally the word is “loosed” us. He has loosed us from our sins. We have been untethered from them, cut off from our sins because of his blood. So here is a strong word for the church: Jesus loves us and he has loosed us.

But earlier in verse 5, we find three titles given to Jesus. These three titles reduce the Gospel message down to three essential pieces:

  • Jesus is the faithful witness — he stood faithful before Satan in the temptation narrative, just as he stood faithfully when he was falsely accused by the Pharisees, Pilate. His entire life bore witness to God.
  • Jesus is the firstborn from the dead — he was found to be victorious over death and sin through the glory of his resurrection.
  • Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth — he has ascended to heaven and he now reigns with sovereign authority.

As we begin this series today, I want to talk about one of these titles in particular: the idea of Jesus as “faithful witness.” The Greek word for witness is martys, from which we get our English word “martyr.” When we hear that word, we think of one who has died for their faith. But it was later when that term began to carry that meaning. In the first century, it meant to bear witness.

The word is used in Acts 1:8 where Jesus says, You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He’s not commissioning them to go out and get themselves killed. Rather, these disciples are called to bear witness to Jesus in such a way that threatens the status quo. Just like Jesus, these disciples are going to be such a threat that the powers are going to attempt to remove them.

This is important because the same language is used in the next chapter to describe the fate of one of our brothers in Christ. His name is Antipas and he is mentioned in the letter to the church in Pergamum.

Revelation 2:12-13

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:

These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live — where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city — where Satan lives. 

Pergamum was a large city with a population of approximately 100,000 and it was known for several impressive temples, including the great altar to Zeus as well as a temple dedicated to Caesar. Pergamum was a center of idolatry in the first century and to declare oneself a Christian who worships the one true God and Savior Jesus Christ would certainly provoke hostility. Therefore, Jesus refers to Pergamum as the place “where Satan has his throne” and “where Satan lives.”

Yet, here is the picture of Antipas, faithfully bearing witness in the city of Satan’s throne. According to scholars, his name means “against all.” We don’t know anything else about Antipas, other than the fact that he lost his life for his testimony about Jesus. He faithfully modeled the way of Jesus — the faithful witness of chapter 1.

And we can see in this that Antipas is true to his name. He stands against all other claims of lordship. Antipas knows that the true lord isn’t Zeus or Caesar — it’s Jesus. And Jesus refers to Antipas as his faithful witness.

Now, as ever, faith is under fire — around the globe, but also here in our nation. Our culture has shifted dramatically in a very short amount of time. It is not uncommon to hear terms like “postmodern” and “post-Christian” to describe our culture. There was a time when you could safely assume that the majority of people in this country held a Judeo-Christian worldview. But that is no longer true. The most recent research indicates that over 50 million Americans self-identify as atheist, agnostic, or no particular religious conviction. And that number is growing.

But we are called to be a subversive people. We don’t live by the world’s standards or values. We live by the standards and values of the Kingdom of God. And the most subversive thing we can do to undermine the value system of the world is to love and to do all that love requires. To be faithful witnesses.

Christianity is eccentric — literally, it is living “off center” or “outside the center” of the prevailing culture. We don’t conform to public doctrine. Instead, Christianity is lived from the margins of secular culture. That’s the way it was for Antipas and the Christians in Pergamum. That’s the way it was for John, writing down these visions while he’s exiled on the island of Patmos. And increasingly, that’s the way it is for us as we find ourselves operating from the margins of our culture. But let’s not forget that Christianity has always thrived from the margins. This is simply a new opportunity for us to be faithful witnesses for Jesus Christ.

I am strengthened by this quote from Alan Hirsch: “The church, when true to its real calling…is by far and away the most potent force for transformational change the world has ever seen.” Hirsch speaks of the latent missional potencies of the church, noting that the church was God’s vessel for changing the world in the first few centuries AD.

AD 100 — estimated that there were as few as 25,000 Christians

AD 300 — estimated that there were as many as 20,000,000 Christians.

How did this happen? How did the early church grow from a small movement to become the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries? And here are a couple of other complicating factors during this period of time:

  • Christianity was an illegal religion throughout this period. At best, the Christians throughout the empire were tolerated; at worst, they were severely persecuted.
  • The church did not yet have church buildings as we know them. Archaeologists have discovered chapels dating from this period, but it seems these were exceptions to the rule, and they tended to be small converted houses.
  • The church did not yet have the complete New Testament. The earliest Christians had access to some universally accepted texts (Gospels, Paul’s writings, etc.), but the canon as we know it wasn’t formally ratified until later.
  • The church was not yet institutionalized. There were no paid ministers, no seminaries, no seeker-sensitive services, no youth group lock-ins, no Vacation Bible School, etc.
  • Joining was not easy. By the late second century, aspiring converts had to go through a significant period of instruction and discipling before they were deemed ready for baptism.
So, again, how did the early church grow so much in such a short period of time?

I believe the early church grew at such an incredible rate because of the faithful witness of those earliest Christians. They weren’t afraid to stand at the margins and bear witness to Jesus. They bore faithful witness to the one who taught love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. They bore faithful witness to the one who taught love your neighbor as yourself. They bore faithful witness to the one who was the faithful witness, the one who loved us and loosed us and gave himself up on our account.

Does Satan live in our communities today?

Absolutely.

So here is the question: Will we live as faithful witnesses in this city?

One of the central questions Revelation poses is a question of compromise:  Will the church be a faithful witness to Jesus? Will the church accommodate to her surroundings? Or will she stand, even from the margins, and declare the lordship of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is a stark reminder that we are citizens of a different country, another kingdom.

Here is a question to wrestle with this week: What does it look like for us to live as faithful witnesses in these present circumstances, in 2018?

This is the question we should be wrestling with as we see the revelation of Jesus in this text.

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A Theological Interpretation of The Greatest Showman: “From Now On”

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “The Greatest Showman”, you’ll want to stop reading. But if you haven’t seen “The Greatest Showman”, you should just drop what you’re doing and head to the theater right now.

“The Greatest Showman” is billed as a musical-drama inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum and the creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Though the film received mixed reviews early on (critics gave the film a Rotten Tomatoes score of 55), strong word of mouth and a killer soundtrack have propelled the film to nearly $300 million at the box office worldwide.

At its core, the film is a parable about belonging. Hugh Jackman shines as Barnum, whose character journeys from orphaned pauper to upstart entrepreneur to media magnate to wizened family man. For much of the film, Barnum nobly seeks security and prosperity for the sake of his wife and daughters, only to succumb to the siren song of fame. This may be a familiar trope, but Jackman’s performance draws you in. And there are also the songs. The soundtrack is a #1 smash on both the U.S. and U.K. charts.

Barnum’s ploy for commercial success involves the marketing of a group of misfits and oddities into a “freakshow” of sorts, complete with trapeze artists, giants, albinos, a bearded lady and General Tom Thumb. Barnum helps turn these grotesqueries into showbiz stars, but he also builds a financial empire in the process. In the film, Barnum’s true genius is his monetizing the human fascination with the strange.

When a newspaper critic dubs him a hack, Barnum develops an obsession with being recognized as a legitimate entertainer, fueled in part by his insecurity about his humble beginnings. Inevitably, Barnum’s quest for critical adulation leads him to neglect the gang of misfits upon which he built his earlier fortune and very nearly costs him his family.

In the film’s most pivotal scene, Barnum is reeling from a devastating fire that has destroyed his circus building when he finds himself surrounded by his family of fellow performers. Estranged from his wife and children, it is the encouragement of these “misfits” that brings clarity to Barnum. He finally sees himself fully and truly as a fellow outsider, and in embracing this reality, Barnum resolves to give up the chase for praise from the masses and moves to reconcile with his family. And the scene is carried by this song, “From Now On”:

It is a prodigal moment, an epiphany of pure repentance that paves the way not only for the film’s final scenes, but more importantly, for the true belonging we all desire. “From Now On” is a mantra of resolve and transformation.

From now on
These eyes will not be blinded by the lights
From now on
What’s waited till tomorrow starts tonight
Tonight
Let this promise in me start
Like an anthem in my heart
From now on
From now on

And the rousing ensemble finish gives voice to our universal longing: a place to belong, a home to which we can return.

And we will come back home
And we will come back home
Home, again!
And we will come back home
And we will come back home
Home, again!
And we will come back home
And we will come back home
Home, again!

The central message of “The Greatest Showman” hits like a flash of Good News. We will come back home! Theologians speak of this as eschatological hope — our longing for eternity that was set in our hearts long ago (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This isn’t typically the stuff of Hollywood musicals, I’ll grant you. But this is the substance of our deepest hopes. Everyone wants to go home. And I suspect that one of the primary reasons for the success of the film and the soundtrack is the resonance of this core message. As the ensemble quietly fades out, this “someday vision” lingers as a whispered hope, the reality toward which we are oriented.

“The Greatest Showman” points to a “someday reunion”, an in-gathering of universal belonging that is the hope of misfits, oddballs, and grotesqueries.

And, as it turns out…me, too.

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Daily Bible: Leviticus 9-10

Sorry it’s been several days since my last post. It’s just been a super busy couple of days.

Lev. 9:4, …and an ox and a ram for peace offerings, to sacrifice before ADONAI; also a grain offering mixed with olive oil — because today ADONAI is going to appear to you. (CJB)

Priestly service is a work of mediation: mediating the Presence to the people and mediating on behalf of the people before the Presence. And there was a clear sense of God’s nearness — today ADONAI is going to appear to you. Imagine going through your day with this kind of awareness, attuned to reality of God’s appearance and presence. Too many of us go through our lives with virtually no expectation of God’s appearance. We relegate his promises to history, as if their currency extended only to ancient Israelites in the wilderness thousands of years ago. But all this reading for history and information misses the history of the present and the work of formation brought about by this word. Eyes to see, ears to hear.

Lev. 9:23-24, Moshe and Aharon entered the tent of meeting, came out and blessed the people. Then the glory of ADONAI appeared to all the people! Fire came forth from the presence of ADONAI, consuming the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (CJB)

God’s presence was additionally mediated through sacrifice. The miraculous fire is paralleled by another miraculous sacrifice to come, the ultimate expression of the glory of God. As Jesus himself said, all the Scriptures bear witness to him (John 5:39).

Nadab and Abihu’s “unauthorized fire”

But this glorious moment is quickly interrupted by the rebellion of Nadab and Abihu. Much has been written about this “unauthorized fire” — a mysterious phrase that is certainly open to interpretation. Some translations reference the fire as “foreign” but this is inaccurate. There is nothing in the text to indicate that the fire was “foreign,” simply “unfitting” or “unprescribed.” So, this really isn’t the prooftext against PowerPoint, motion backgrounds, or any of your worship pastor’s other “innovations.”

Amazingly, Jeroboam I (the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel) would later name two of his sons Nadab and Abihu/Abiyah/Abijah (1 Kings 14:1; 15:25), a bad omen that Israel had not learned the lesson of Leviticus 10. Unfortunately, both men in the Bible with children named Nadab and Abihu (Aaron and Jeroboam) would go on to make golden calves to lead the people into idolatry (Exodus 32; 1 Kings 12:28). Thus, no baby Abihus in our churches today.

The same words to describe the miraculous consumption of the ordination sacrifice of 9:24 are also used to describe the death of Nadab and Abihu. Their fate is a grim reminder of the penalty for failing to observe the proper boundaries when standing before the Holy One.

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My Hall of Fame Ballot: 2018 Edition

I don’t have a Hall of Fame vote. I should, but that’s another story.

If I did have a Hall of Fame vote, here’s what my ballot would look like:

  1. Vladimir Guerrero. Let’s start with last year’s most egregious oversight: Guerrero is unquestionably a Hall of Famer. These old school BBWAA guys love to withhold the “first ballot” designation from certain players, but thankfully these lunatics are slowly going the way of the brontosaurus. Vlad simply checks all the boxes: 9 All Star Game selections; 8 Silver Slugger awards; and an MVP Award in 2004 to go along with all the counting stats — 2590 hits, 449HR, and a lifetime .318 average / .553 slugging. In his second-year on the ballot, Guerrero is a lock for induction.
  2. Chipper Jones. I will brook no argument here. Chipper is a Hall of Famer. If he’s missing on anyone’s ballot, I might have an aneurysm. His numbers are eerily similar to Vlad’s: 2726 lifetime hits, 468HR, .303/.529 BA/SLG to go along with 8 All Star Game selections and an MVP trophy. I suppose you could tip the scales by including Chipper’s batting title and 1995 World Series ring, but no matter how you slice it, Chipper is a deserving first ballot guy. (I wonder how those writers will parse Chipper’s “first ballot” induction alongside Vlad’s snub last year. I find it laughable that race / culture doesn’t have something to do with that. But I digress.) The offensive catalyst of those great Braves teams deserves the Cooperstown welcome he’ll surely receive this summer.
  3. Trevor Hoffman. Smart baseball fans have long known the save is an overrated statistic, an antiquated metric that mistakenly values the ninth inning as a singular location of leverage in any given ballgame. Sure, sometimes the final three outs are the most difficult…but not usually. Plenty of games are decided in the 7th or 8th with lesser pitchers on the mound while the “closer” sits in the ‘pen. So, I get the bias against closers. I mean, Lee Smith was one of the filthiest closers of all-time, amassing 478 career saves, yet he never garnered more than 50% of the BBWAA vote (75% needed for induction). That being said, Trevor Hoffman was a truly great specialist. If your going to hold to traditional closer usage, you want a guy like Hoffman, who converted 88% of his opportunities. And I’m compelled by the guy’s story, too: drafted as an infielder; converts to pitching; left unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft; injured his shoulder in a freak beach accident; developed a changeup that became his signature pitch; retired as the all-time saves leader. This is his third year on the ballot and after just missing out last year, I think he’s a lock this go around.
  4. Edgar Martinez. The bias against Martinez is similar to Hoffman — he’s regarded by some as a “specialist” for spending the majority of his career as a designated hitter. And by the purist’s standards, he only played “half the game.” I’m been sympathetic to that argument for a long time but I’ve changed my mind about that for a few reasons. To begin with, the same standard is never used to diminish the work of starting pitchers who spend the bulk of their careers in the American League. Pedro spent his peak years playing in Boston and I didn’t hear anybody accuse him of only playing “half the game” when debating his candidacy. The DH isn’t going anywhere, no matter how you feel about it. In addition, David Ortiz is going into the Hall in a few years, so it’s time we start recognizing the greatness of those whose primary position is in the batter’s box. Edgar has long been touted as a HoFer by his peers and now, in his ninth year on the ballot, he might finally have a legitimate chance at induction.
  5. Mike Mussina. This is getting silly. Mussina is a Hall of Famer. Wins Above Replacement (or WAR) is a sabermetric reduction of a player’s value to a single statistic, measured against a replacement-level player. Mussina’s lifetime WAR of 82.7 is higher than that of Bob Gibson, Tom Glavine, Don Sutton, John Smoltz and Jim Palmer. He spent his entire career in the American League East, winning 270 games with a 3.68 ERA.
  6. Fred McGriff. I say this every year, but McGriff’s greatness is lost on us because he played in the steroid era. But there’s not a whiff of controversy attached to his name. You can feel confident that those 493 home runs were legit. He has no chance at induction, but I’d still vote my conscience here.

Those are the guys who would be getting my vote. Of course, there’s no way that all six are going to be inducted. Realistically, Vlad, Chipper, and Hoffman are slam dunks. I think Edgar makes it this year for an induction class of four.

Obviously, there are a few notable omissions from my ballot.

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. It will be interesting to see how these two fare on the ballot this year. I suspect the trend that began last year will continue as more young writers seem willing to overlook the PED scandal associated with Clemens and Bonds. But I could never vote for them. I know they were two of the greatest players I’ve ever seen. But numbers matter more in baseball than in any other sport. And their numbers are forever tainted because they artificially prolonged their playing careers with performance enhancing drugs.

Jim Thome. Thome seems like one of those guys who belongs in the “Hall of Very Good” but not quite the Hall of Fame. I think he’s a good player who stuck around long enough to amass some impressive numbers, namely 612 home runs and 1699 RBI. And with no PED-suspicion hovering over him, he’ll likely be enshrined someday, possibly even on the first ballot. But he’s the only member of the 600 HR club to never win an MVP. He led the league in HRs exactly once (or half as many times as Fred McGriff). Again, I think he’ll get in. But I don’t think I’d vote for him just yet.

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