Friday, February 23, 2007

The Great Distraction

“The woman at the well” is an unnamed, yet significant figure in the gospels. Her story is found in John's gospel, chapter 4. Today I realized something about this story that I hadn’t noticed previously. Before I get to that, let me review this famed interaction.

Jesus passed through Samaria one day. It seems that the divine purpose behind this was to meet this particular woman. Jesus spoke with her while seated near a well, and used the opportunity to tell her that he possessed “living water” unlike anything else she would ever drink. Contrasting this with well water, Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

This intrigued the woman, because it seemed that drawing water from the well was a thankless and difficult task. Yet Jesus was trying to convey to her that he was not speaking about H2O but about the Holy Spirit.

So Jesus said to her, purposefully, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”

The woman said, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said, that’s right, in fact “you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.”

In the ancient world this was a source of tremendous shame. She was either widowed or divorced five times, and has now given up on the idea of marriage altogether. Furthermore, she knew her current relationship was not within God’s will for her. There is no doubt that Jesus is trying to tease out of her some honesty, some admission of need, some sort of cry for help…some repentance.

But what does she do? She changes the subject! She responds: "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship."

In other words, she is willing to speak about religion, but not about her own life.

Jesus proceeds to speak to her about religion, but continues to make it personal. And then, in the middle of the conversation, the disciples show up. The text reads, "Just then his disciples came back. So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 'Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?'"

What a convenient distraction! The disciples show up, and she takes off. In doing so, she looks pretty good by our standards – she is off telling others about Jesus. In fact, the townsfolk get pretty excited about Jesus and there’s a little bit of a spiritual awakening. It would be easy to think that this woman’s heart was truly changed, but the text never says that.

So here’s what I never noticed before: we never learn what happened to the woman at the well. We know she didn’t want to discuss her personal life with Jesus. We know she changed the subject. We know she became an evangelist of sorts, bringing others to Jesus. But we never learn whether she was ever willing to drop her guard and accept the fact that she needed living water, that she needed salvation, that she needed Jesus.

Did this woman truly open herself up to the Savior? Or did she become just another religious person on the landscape? Did she remain religiously curious, or did she receive Jesus as the Savior and the fountain of living water?

Was she willing to admit her need... or was she just happy for the distraction?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Trust Fall

Have you ever taken a trust fall, risking life and limb (or at least limb) by falling backwards into the arms of some group? They can be done from all variations of altitude, and presumably the farther the fall the deeper the trust!

There's an interesting passage in the Gospel of John that doesn't get much play, probably because it's a little difficult to interpret. Here's what it says:

Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

"Many believed in his name" but "Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them." Actually, the same Greek word lies behind "believe" and "entrust" in this passage, making the point that these people trusted Jesus... but he didn't trust them!

Very interesting.

John Calvin, a careful commentator, takes this passage to mean that Jesus knew that these people trusted him in only the most superficial way (they were impressed by the signs) but their faith was not the kind that would last. Therefore, Jesus despised their surface level faith. This would fit the context. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing play on words - we find life through faith in Christ, but on his part does he find us faithful? Jesus knows that by nature what is inside us is, in Calvin's words, "volatile and unsteady."

How much more remarkable it is, therefore, that John later records these words from Jesus:

"If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (John 14:23)

Jesus actually said this in a response to a question posed by one of his disciples: Judas.

And Judas stands as a sad reminder to all who follow Jesus that they need to ever examine how and why they follow. Is it out of a true faith/trust? Does it flow from love, that is, appreciation for the salvation offered to us? Or are we out to get something for ourselves, and if we don't receive it we storm off in a huff?

Ultimately the trust fall says a lot about us. We might be hanging out with someone, but has a relationship of deep trust really developed? And for those who claim a relationship with Jesus, the same holds true with him: are we actually ready to take the plunge?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Psalm Readers

I’ve written before about my agreement with a friend to read through the Bible together. Today we finished up the Psalms and will be moving most likely into the gospels.

The psalms are ancient Hebrew poetry, yet resonate to this day. Their theology is remarkable: a God who is infinitely worthy of praise, yet with ears open not only to the praises of his people – but also their petitions, anxieties, and even complaints!

Reading the stripped down, unplugged, raw honesty of these psalms has taught me about myself. I’ve learned that I am not nearly so bold or honest in my prayers as I am encouraged to be - as I'm commanded to be.

Yet at the same time...

The psalms end by calling all people – and in fact, all creation – to praise God. That is, to recognize his Lordship over all creation and to admit that he is the source of all life, beauty, and blessing. For example, the very last psalm:

Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!
(Psalm 150)

These are imperatives. These are commands.

When I shared these thoughts by email to my psalm reading friend, he wrote the following to me based on his experience as a church music director:

" 'Praise ye the Lord' is not a choice or an option, but a command. It really grieves me to see people standing in the congregation during a hymn with their mouths closed. Basically, that is disobedience. I don't think people connect that."

While it is important to learn something about ourselves from the psalms, we’ve really missed out if we haven’t learned something even more significant about God and the praise he deserves.

Become a psalm reader today. It's easy! Just turn to Psalm 1...

(It's really too bad there's a typo on this tattoo! Plus, it's a lot harder to update to a more contemporary translation if you go this route. I'd just stick with a regular copy of the Bible...)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ultimate Hymn

I'm a proponent of contemporary worship music, but I have to admit something. The stories behind the greatest hymns put the stories behind the hottest praise songs to shame!

I learned this as I was preparing for a Sunday evening worship service. I was browsing through a book of hymn stories and happened upon a similar book that explained the stories behind some more recent songs. The stories behind the hymns are often dark and stormy, whereas more than once the praise song story began this way: "It was an ordinary quiet time like any other..."


Well anyway, in doing that work I ran across this quotation concerning one of Charles Wesley's many great hymns:

"I would have rather written that hymn of Wesley's than to have the fame of all the kings that ever sat on earth; it is more glorious, it has more power in it. I would rather be the author of that hymn than to hold the wealth of the richest man in New York. He will die after a little while... But people will go on singing that hymn until the last trump brings forth the angel band; and then I think it will mount upon some lips to the very presence of God."
(Henry Ward Beecher)

Hyperbole? You decide.

Jesus, Lover of My Soul
Charles Wesley (1707-88)

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none, hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone, still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed, all my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head with the shadow of Thy wing.

Wilt Thou not regard my call? Wilt Thou not accept my prayer?
Lo! I sink, I faint, I fall—Lo! on Thee I cast my care;
Reach me out Thy gracious hand! While I of Thy strength receive,
Hoping against hope I stand, dying, and behold, I live.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want, more than all in Thee I find;
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, heal the sick, and lead the blind.
Just and holy is Thy Name, I am all unrighteousness;
False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found, grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound; make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art, freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart; rise to all eternity.

Perhaps this is why many hymns are being set to modern tunes and being sung once again!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Ultimate Question

The English Puritans asked, and answered, the ultimate question this way:

Question: What is God?
Answer: God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism, question four.

I think that we would be a bit more comfortable asking "who" rather than "what is God." However, would our answer be better than theirs?

Well, we would probably add the word "love." You notice that's missing in the list of attributes, although it is perhaps implied in the word "goodness." And we might change the word "spirit" to something else, since this word tends to connote ghosts (and not Holy ones) whereas the Puritans meant that God is outside this created order.

Other than that... I doubt our answer would be better. Though I admit it would be shorter.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Just Creating

I recently listened to a lecture by Tim Keller entitled Christianity and the Creative Age (September 15, 2006, find it here).

We live in a creative age. Blogs are written, homemade videos are broadcast, and every teenager downloads a daily soundtrack to their iPod. Artists’ industries make billions of dollars and are celebrated with lavish awards shows. More down to earth are the artists who work nine to five (or ten till eleven) creating web sites and Super Bowl commercials.

With this fresh in mind, I was reading in my home office yesterday and noticed just how many gadgets cluttered my desk:

Some of these fuel my own moderately artistic endeavors, helping me to easily write, manage photos and music, and so forth. They also help me to communicate (props to the cell phone and email) and, yes, waste time (way to go, Firefox).

Just to the left of the computer was my Bible and a book on prayer by Philip Yancey that I’ve started reading. Needless to say, I’m making slower progress through both books than I would if it weren’t for these other occupations.

So I was thinking…

Finding ourselves in such an age requires not only creativity but wisdom. We need to understand how to use our creative skills in a way that honors God, the one who started this whole thing by creating the world and creating us in his (creative) image. Yet this will only happen if we “create” the necessary time to reflect, pray, and read God’s word. Only then will we have something meaningful to say, to celebrate, to broadcast through our artistic endeavors.

Which means I have to be a little bit countercultural and pick up that book on prayer and read it. Or actually pray. Not to mention study that Bible.

And then back to the blog.