A Dangerous Meeting

aslan.jpg C.S. Lewis wrote in  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,

“Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just plain silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”

He dangerousworship.gifis good and He is the King and he most definitely is dangerous. Next Sunday morning I’m willing to bet you will sing the praises to the first two but how often have you considered the third?

 I’ve been reading Mark Labberton’s new book The Dangerous Act of Worship for the past couple of weeks. Well, maybe reading is too active a verb. Savoring, contemplating, worshipping, repenting; these are far better descriptions of how a reader will encounter these pages. The book is constructed on the idea that we have lost the danger of worship by turning it into an hour of safety and complacency rather than a way of life. Labberton reorients our thinking to worship as life and how our recognition of God and His place in life must translate into a renewed concern for biblical justice.

I’m going to post further on this book in the days to come. I would encourage you to pick up the book and read it. Join me in a conversation about its ideas and together we’ll kneel at the altar of justice and danger.

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No god but God by Reza Aslan

In the current discussion surrounding Islam and its adherents, a charitable work that covers the Prophet, the formation and sectarian split of the faith, and its effects on believers is difficult to come by. There are apologists and fundamentalists on the side of the faith that seek to polish or fortify the image against the stream of diatribes published regularly so finding a work of religious history that speaks with a balanced voice is particularly welcome. Such is Reza Aslan’s book No god but God 

Starting with the polytheistic traditions of the Arab peoples and igniting the story at Kaba (the cubicle containing the deities in Mecca), Aslan begins the story of Muhammad as an orphan dependent upon the largesse of an Uncle for his survival. Before God speaks through him, Muhammad’s reputation is already on the rise as a skilled merchant among the social strata of Mecca. He is able to view firsthand the disparity among the people of the city, some being enriched at the expense of others while poverty is impressed upon others and his mind is occupied with concern over this and the other societal problems brought about by adherence to cultural traditions. 

Islam germinates deeply embedded in this form of Arabian culture when the prophet is seized by the first of the crushing revelations. “Recite” the voice commanded and, as would follow hundreds of times, Muhammad spoke the words that he felt etched on his heart. Collected long after the Prophet’s death, these sayings compose the whole of the Koran. Unlike other sacred texts, the Koran does not present a progressive revelation from start to finish. Instead, we discover that it is the product of the Prophet seeking guidance for addressing specific, timely situations and the revelation he received in response. 

Aslan is a compelling writer and he carries the story of Islam through the Prophet’s life and into the internecine battles that have divided the religion since his passing. The divisions occur along leadership lines (Shiite / Sunni) and belief lines (Suffi). The reader comes to understand much of what the modern world is witnessing in the intra-Muslim violence that is so widespread and we can formulate a response as to why an Islamic reformation is long in coming.  

The latter chapters are especially instructive as Aslan helps us to understand how Islam, in its divided state, combined with imperialist and cultural conditions fomented the radical Muslim so often in the daily news. It is crucial for modern non-Muslims to grasp the intricacies of this religion and its traditions in order to understand its radicalization and Aslan traces these well. Often unknown for example is the hadith, the collected sayings and stories of the Prophet and his early inner circle, that often supplements the surah of the Koran in order to arrive at Islamic positions and beliefs. Were the hadith products of a single author and time with a direct witness relationship to the saying or event? The answer to this and other questions helps us to form a more complete picture of the religion that is front and center on our newspapers every morning.

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Embracing The Real Mary

With many satisfying books that you are hesitant to place in the library, there is a tendency to linger with the volume, realign the jacket perhaps, smile as you recall some especially poignant passage, and maybe scan Amazon for the author’s other works to be added to your wishlist. Such is the case for McKnight’s The Real Mary. His scholarly habits in place, McKnight closes this thin volume with a summary chapter. His heart for God, His Church, and the role that Mary plays in its history wins out and this final chapter becomes a summary call to remembrance and embrace.

The final chapter reads as follows:

“Perhaps on a day dedicated to honoring Mary we could be empowered to dream the Magnificat dream for our society. Perhaps we could be encouraged to let our hearts and minds swell with bigger thoughts for our world. People of courageous faith change the world.”

The evangelical church can and should embrace Mary for her courage and faith. She is a model for us as we struggle to sort out what we ‘know’ about Jesus and what God reveals to us as we shuffle along, growing in our faith. Mary has numerous dimensions that instruct us in how to relate to her Son as His relationship to us transforms through our discipleship. The Mary that we hardly know shows us what it means to answer ‘Yes’ to God when we are unable the scope of the mission but our faith says we must proceed.

Scot McKnight has done a service to both the evangelical and Catholic communities, bridging the deep chasm that divides them by bringing clarity to the truth of the beliefs and traditions surrounding The Virgin. This alone may offer opportunities for dialog that were absent in the past and may foster a more ecumenical future.

Embrace Mary as you comprehend the scope of her role in the ministry of the Savior. Honor her for her faith in the face of danger and rejection. Allow her to touch your own life and feel the sword the pierced her soul. Know the agony of kneeling with her at the foot of the cross. See Jesus through a loving mother’s eyes.

 

Nature Girl

Where’s Skink? Long time readers of Carl Hiaasen will be turning the pages of this tropical romp looking for him to make an appearance from around a bush or in the light of an evening fire. He and Honey Santana (Born to Be Wild/My Way) would be the perfect team to restore some common decency to the Florida coastline. Despite the Skink’s absence, Hiaasen has populated this fast read with enough uniquely Floridian characters to make you question your future vacation plans anywhere near the Sunshine State.

 Honey (18 and Life/You Can’t Hurry Love) is disturbed at dinner with her precocious son Fry by telemarketer Boyd Shreave. Boyd mistakenly insults her, setting off her relentless plan to teach him some common decency. Not only will Honey (Too Fast for Love/Giant Steps) set up a shell of an adventure company, she will lure Boyd and his mistress to Florida, put them in kayaks and paddle them out to one of hundreds of tiny islands. Once there Honey (She’s Beautiful/Cat Scratch Fever) just knows that a simple lecture on how people are to be treated will succeed in turning the “greedhead” around.

If only it were that simple. Hiaasen’s novels inevitably involve the intersection of many lives and their entangling threads. Sammy Tigertail is a half-Seminole who is trying to find his identity while being haunted by the ghost of a tourist who had the audacity to die of a heart attack when struck by small water snake as Sammy took him on a high speed boat ride. Chasing Honey (Star Spangled Banner!/something Afro-Cuban that she can’t quite identify) is Louis Piejack, a filthy deviant whose smell precedes every appearance on the pages of the book and a walking warning against sexual harassment at work. Fry’s father Perry, Gillian the amorous coed, and Eugenie the mistress all find themselves entangled in Honey’s ( Mustang Sally / Hot Rod Lincoln) plan as it goes awry.

Nature Girl is a good read but not Hiaasen’s best. The characters are memorable more for their oddities than for their personalities and, while everyone gets what they deserve when the last page turns, much of the action is standard Hiaasen-Florida. Of all of his works, Nature Girl is also Hiaasen’s most explicit. The physical intertwining of Boyd and Eugenie is given great detail, perhaps to support his wife’s prurient desires to have the action recorded. Perhaps a little more can be left to the imagination next time Carl.

Oh, the song’s in Honey’s head will become the songs in your head. Be warned.

The Real Faithful Mary

Scot completes his excursus of the biblical account of Mary’s life, locating her at the foot of the cross with John , Mary Magdalene and others. Their desire to remain close and committed to Jesus is beautifully and horrifically portrayed in the pen and ink by Pietro da Cortana to the right. Our view of Mary is radically changed by this vignette of discipleship; she can no longer simply be the passive Mary who nods her assent to the angel informing her that the Messiah is about to be brought into the world through her service. She is here, her heart pierced by the sword of sorrow, seeing both her son and her Lord radically changing the course of history.

Does she know at this moment that her messianic understandings are being completely upturned or does she fear that Jesus’ whole life has gone wrong, ending disastrously? Mary possesses the most complete revelation of His vocation so it is reasonable to read into her discipleship a resignation to the horror of the cross that is leading to the long expected salvation. To quote McKnight,

Jesus would not wear the crown of Caesar Augustus or the fine apparel of Herod Antipas. He would hang there, naked and beaten, and give to Mary and the world a radically new view of what it means to reign in this world. To reign in this world, Mary began to learn, was to give one’s life for others as Jesus had given his.

This is the real Mary, the mother and disciple, who followed her Son and her God to what might have seemed like the bitter end. Her transformation from an unknown young woman to becoming a member of John’s and Jesus’ families is complete. Though her biblical story comes to end in the nineteenth chapter of John, her legend expands through extra-biblical accounts. Perhaps though, the best way to view Mary is as we see her here, at the feet of the Lord, following him despite the personal cost. Faithful. The same faith that we all pray to be able to demonstrate at our most critical moments.

 

The Church Unleashed

The second of two books that have most affected the formation of my pastoral philosophy is The Church Unleashed by Frank Tillapaugh. Long out of print but widely available used, this along with Love, Acceptance, & Forgiveness by Jerry Cook should be formative reading for anyone exploring the ideas behind the Missional Church. Tillapaugh describes in his wide-ranging chapters a variety of ministries that the Bear Valley Church explored in the 1970’s and 80’s. What is central to the development of all of the ministries is the notion that the church should focus their energies on those outside the walls of the sanctuary, to be true missional entities wherever God has planted them.

Tillapaugh emphasizes a phrase that I don’t know is original to him but has become a part of my lexicon as I work to disciple my leaders and laity. The fortress mentality is the fear of being polluted by those outside the sanctuary and therefore, the Christians must blockade themselves inside the safety of the four walls, ministering to one another. Nonsense, counters Tillapaugh, we should not be in retreat from the world but rather, we should consider our security in Christ and follow his command to be the salt and light desperately needed by the people around us.

The church he led built around the ideas in this book has lived out two fundamental ideals that remain critical to the missional churches of today. First, they have committed to maintaining minimal internal expenses in order to focus on external (outreach) ministries. I drive by the modest building every day sandwiched between apartments and small park and reflect that it could have grown much, much larger. Second, they have empowered their laity, trusting that the Holy Spirit can work through everyone. The laity are able to germinate ministries rather than waiting for seeds to be dropped from the leadership.

Long before it was a movement, the missional church was an idea. The Church Unleashed is a practical guide to the foundations of the movement. It is worth whatever effort you must expend to purchase and savor a copy of this book. But don’t stop there. Trust the Spirit’s guidance, break the fortress mentality, and expand your ministry to every corner of wherever God has placed you.

 

The Real Mary: Revelation

McKnight offers a chapter today entitled Woman of Ambivalence that encourages us to offer Mary a more charitable reading as she struggles to correlate the Jesus that is gradually being revealed to her with the Messiah of long term Jewish expectation. We often helicopter in to the scriptures in which Mary plays a role and, with our advantage of knowing how the story will play out, wonder why she is not more astute in choosing the Jesus that is present before her.

The mother Mary watches her baby grow into a child and then a man knowing that he is the child of God, the promised Messiah. What troubles her is that, as far as we can tell from the Scriptures, he is a normal child in every way. How does the mother see God in a sick child felled by the flu? How will this be the Messiah destined to restore her people when He is but a rebellious teenager struggling through adolescence? Do our own children correspond exactly to what they will be in their adult years? My own parents might give witness to the unexpected changes that come over time. Why then do we expect Mary to be able to theologically process the young man she is watching grow up.

As we process who Jesus is, do we face the same struggles that Mary does? Our devotional life is sometimes littered with expectations that He will conform to the script that we have Him following for our benefit. We do well to struggle along with Mary.

 

The Real Mary Wonders

In the compressed narrative of Mary’s relationship with her son Jesus, twelve years have passed since the birth and consecration of the boy. In the four gospels we are not invited to peer into this era but his mother, at his side during this formative period has had plenty of time to consider who the man Jesus is going to be. Since Simeon dashed her original impressions of the Messiah, she has watched the development of her son for clues about his future. Does Mary wonder why God has delivered the Christ as a child? Does she ever consider, as the boy goes through all of the struggles and triumphs of childhood and early adolescence, that perhaps there may have been a mistake in her understanding of the what has been revealed to her?

During the Passover celebration of his twelfth year, Jesus acknowledges his vocation. When Mary notices him missing from the caravan and she and Joseph hurry back to Jerusalem we can sense her alarm. Is she frightened because her child has gone astray, or more worried that she has failed to protect the Christ? To her astonishment, her frenzied search through the city finds Jesus at the center of a theological discussion in the Temple. Not listening and learning, but leading and clarifying.

Mary’s admonishment of Jesus momentarily puts aside the divine history for the love of a mother. Her frustrated, maternal relief is evident in the anger of her question. Jesus, not disrespecting her but clarifying a shift in their relationship, asks why she is alarmed at his being in His Father’s house. As we picture this scene in our minds, we see yet another change Mary’s understanding of the child she has brought into the world. Though tacitly He will be known as her son, Mary must confront the stark realization that His greater allegiance is to their Father. Was she broken, humbled, or proud of this moment? Given the history of revelation to her, can she have come to any other conclusion? We are left to wonder.

 

Michael and the Briarcrest Saints: a Parable

The word translated Goodness as we read the list of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) has both a descriptive element that combines with an active component. It means both to have the goodness of character brought about by the transforming Holy Spirit and to actively demonstrate this good, wholesome character trait to others. The parable of the Good Samaritan is often pointed to as an illustration of good, as the Samaritan goes out of his way to care for the injured man who had been bypassed by others who should have been marked by this same spirit of compassion and generosity. He alone exercises both trait and action.

It strikes me that the story of Michael Oher and the Tuohy’s is a modern parable of this goodness. Michael’s destiny was pointing in the wrong direction from the moment of his birth. Being born into poverty and a broken family situation placed him alongside the highway of American culture while others who could intervene whizzed past him without attempting to help, justifying their lack of charity for any one of a million reasons. When Big Tony put Michael and Steven in his ancient Taurus and drove them over the imaginary line dividing Memphis, he set in motion the act of goodness that would come to pass.

When Michael was granted admission to the Briarcrest Christian School, Sean and then Leigh Anne had their moments of intervention into his life. Unaware that his future trajectory would skyrocket with the recognition of his football skills, the Tuohy’s simply saw a person in need of help. And help they did, as the Samaritan did, by taking greater and greater responsibility for their charge ignoring the racial line that had divided their community for years and treating him as though he were one of their own. In other words, their good went beyond a sense that something should be done – it came to life nosing the course of Michael’s life into a steeper and steeper upward angle.

The best parables are simple so many details are absent this observation. The rest of the story is told in The Blind Side which I’ve written about previously.  There is much fruit to be harvested in this tale; love, patience, kindness and self-control among them.

The Real Mary: Witness

Mary is the woman who all believers wish they could be because of her enviable status as the Witness. She alone has seen and heard every miraculous proclamation, watched the life take shape in her womb, and now holds the child Jesus in her arms. We believe from a distance rooted in faith; Mary holds the child in her hands.

She has had nine months to contemplate what everything that has happened to her means, and her theology obtains from the old and new alike. Her belief that Jesus will one day reign on the throne in Jerusalem is unassailed because her witness cannot deduce otherwise. Her people have longed for this king and now He is here. A living, breathing, crying king who draws the Magi and shepherds alike to look upon his countenance and add their knowledge to Mary’s understanding of what she has brought into the world.

Her testimony is about to be challenged by the man she encounters in the temple, Simeon. Does her witness grow with addition of new information or she deadlock her belief against it? How do we respond as our faith is challenged by our maturity? Do we maintain the same simple theology we had as newborn Christians or do we allow or even encourage God to reveal more and more about Himself and His plans as our witness ages?

Luke 2:1-20, Matthew 1:18-2:12

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