Inheriting the good life

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Mark 10:17-31
For Sunday, October 11, 2015
Year B, Proper 23

A  rich young man, who by virtue of being rich at a young age may well have been the 1st century equivalent of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, comes to Jesus and asks, “Good Mentor, what must I do to inherit the good life?”  The interaction which follows gives us three profound insights into the question of inheriting the good life.

Impossible to self-qualify …

The first insight into inheriting the good life is that it’s impossible to self-qualify.  Jesus’ initial response to the rich young man’s question is to respond with a question.  “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  Sergey isn’t expecting this.  It unsettles him.  This is good because now his soul is open to real influence.  When we come prayerfully to the Scriptures, and put their authority over us versus under us, this is what happens.

Now that Jesus has the man’s full attention, he says, “Look, you know the answer to your own question.  You need to keep the commandments.”   The man responds, “Yes, of course, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth.”  And now comes a piercing blow: “You lack one thing.  Go, sell everything you have, and give your money to the poor.”  The man’s face falls, and he goes away crushed, for his wealth is the very foundation of his present identity.

Now, as for us, is the point that we too should sell everything we own?  No, not unless God directly asks us to.  The point is that it’s impossible to self-qualify for inheriting the good life.  None of us are so good at keeping the commandments that we’re up to God’s perfect standard of righteousness.  There will always be something each of us lacks.

… but qualification granted

The second insight into inheriting the good life is that while it’s impossible to self-qualify for it, it is possible to be granted qualification.  Jesus’ disciples were stunned and dismayed at the interaction they had just witnessed.  “So then who can be saved?”  Jesus says this:  “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God.”  If we want to inherit the good life, we are going to need God to qualify us for it.  He offers this qualification to each of us if we will only believe that Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins.

The guaranteed bonus

The third and final insight is this: there is a guaranteed 100-fold bonus involved for those who who choose to follow Christ.  I can tell you from personal experience that this is true.  When Heather and I went to Siberia as missionaries 22 years ago we left everything: our home, our extended families, and our jobs.  We went over there with 10 big black duffle bags.  (That was 9 bags too many as we were later to learn).  Yet what a return we received on our investment.  We literally received 100-fold in terms of God providing housing, Russian friends and family, and the profoundly significant work of restoring people be to hope and flourishing life.

So, do we want to inherit the good life?   We can’t qualify ourselves, but God can qualify us, and when he does, it comes with a 100-fold blessing for the sake of His name.  This is the business our God does best.

Your thoughts?

  • What in this did you find particularly encouraging?  Challenging?
  • Where in your own life have you seen God deliver on his 100-fold bonus in response to a decision to follow him?

What marriage is supposed to be

Mark 10:2-16
For Sunday, October 4, 2015
Year B, Proper 22

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2).

When is divorce okay?  That was the question on everyone’s mind then as it still is today.  Jesus’ response is that it’s the wrong question.  The question we should be asking is “What is marriage supposed to be?”  In this passage Jesus gives us three answers to this question.

Jesus’ first answer is that marriage is supposed to be a reflection of the image of God (v. 6).  “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female’ (v. 6)“.  God designed us so that when a man and woman come together physically, relationally, and spiritually, they reflect the image of God in a way that an individual person can’t.  Just as God manifests himself as Father, Son, and Spirit, so does the image of God manifest itself as male and female together.

Jesus’ second answer is that marriage is supposed to be an experience of profound intimacy (vv. 7-8).   “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”   My wife Heather and I have been married for 27 years now.  Our relationship is far from perfect and we work hard at it, but I truly do love her more every day.  The joy of knowing and being known is something God wants for each of us.

Jesus third answer is that marriage is supposed to be a permanent bond (v. 9). Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (vv. 7-9).  Yes, there is an exception for sexual immorality (albeit not mentioned in this passage) but this is not to be the rule.

What our culture says marriage is supposed to be is of course quite different.  From the culture’s perspective marriage is merely two (and soon maybe more?) loving people having the ability to share property and medical benefits for as long as is mutually agreeable.

As Christians our calling is to show our culture that marriage is meant to be much more than that.  The best lever we have is nothing less than our own marriages.  Let’s therefore make our own marriages a priority, so that we can enjoy the flourishing that good marriages bring while at the same time being a powerful witness to the world regarding what marriage is supposed to be.

Commendable faith

Biblical Tyre

Mark 7:24-37
For Sunday, September 6, 2015
Year B, Proper 18

Why did Jesus go to Tyre (modern day Lebanon)?  Mark hints at an answer in saying “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (v. 24).   It may be that Jesus needed some peace and quiet after having to interact with those extra grace required Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Self righteous religious people are just not very appealing, are they?

Despite not wanting anyone to know where he was, Jesus “couldn’t keep his presence secret”.  Authentic Christians don’t have to go out of their way to be seeker friendly: their authenticity is so attractive, that the seekers find them, even when such Christians are just trying to keep a low profile.

In this case, a Syro-Phoenician woman finds Jesus.  Her daughter is possessed by a demon.  She asks Jesus for help, and he responds strangely: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (v. 27).  What in the world does that mean?  What Jesus is saying is this: “My mission is to the Jews, and you are a Gentile.  It’s the Jews who are at my table, and relative to them, you and your daughter are merely the Jewish family dogs.”  Ouch!  Here this nice woman comes to Jesus for help and he insults her.  The woman would have been well within her rights to walk away in disgust.  But she doesn’t, because she’s desperate.  She responds, “But even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28).   Jesus is so impressed with her persistence and faith that he says, “You may go,the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).

This Syro-Phoenician woman had commendable faith.  If her life was changed by mere crumbs of the gospel falling off the table of Jesus’ mission, how much more will our lives be changed if we will simply trust and obey our Heavenly Father in the name of his glorious and all-powerful Son?

What problem are you facing today?  Maybe it’s a family issue like the Syro-Phoenician woman had.  Maybe it’s a job challenge.  Maybe it’s a financial challenge.  Will you come to Jesus with this challenge and trust and obey that he will carry you through in his love and power?   This is our call to commendable faith.

The problem with cut and paste

Jean II Restout : Pentecôte

Jean II Restout : Pentecôte

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
For Pentecost Sunday
Sunday, May 24, 2015

I love most things about the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  Following the annual church calendar is a wonderful spiritual rhythm that I’ve come to appreciate through fellowship in a mainline Congregational church as well as my Siberian sojourn and exposure to Eastern Orthodoxy.  As an evangelical I wish this was something more of my fellow believers could understand and appreciate. This is particularly true on special Sundays like this Pentecost Sunday.

At the same time, I have a pet peeve with the RCL editors.  Why do you so persistently cut and paste?  This week the verse citation is the give away.  ‘Psalm 104:24-34, 35b.’  Hmmm… so we are supposed to read everything except v. 35a.  What does that say?  ‘May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked vanish!”  Ouch.  What’s the harm in excluding it?

The harm is that we change the message.  We allow our present worldview to hold sway over the text rather than giving the text permission to challenge our worldview.  In this case v. 35a is crucial.  Without it we’re focused on the good of the Lord.  With it the focus shifts to the good of the Lord in a world gone bad.

Sin is real.  Wickedness is real.  The world is not what it should be.  Take where I live, for example, Milwaukee.  60% black unemployment, profound segregation, and profound family dysfunction (and not just in the ‘hood).  What causes this?  God?  No!  What then?  Sinners and wickedness.

God is praying (through his Spirit) and acting for the world to conform to his intention.  He is calling us to pray and act likewise.   So two suggestions.  First, when the RCL cuts and pastes refuse to go along.  Second, with respect to this passage, pray the unredacted prayer of the Psalmist: “May my thoughts be pleasing to him.  I will rejoice in the Lord.  May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked vanish.  Praise the Lord, O my soul.  Praise the Lord.

The mighty tempest of God’s intention

"Transfiguration" by Raphael, 1518 - 1520.  Vatican City, Direzione generale dei musei.

“Transfiguration” by Raphael, 1518 – 1520. Vatican City, Direzione generale dei musei.

For Sunday, February 15, 2015
Psalm 50:1-6

Sometimes under the cloud of injustice we sometimes experience in the world we ask reflexively, “Where is God?  If he’s there is he asleep at the switch?”  The writer of Psalm 50:1-6 responds, “Where is God?  Look no further than the sun which rises every morning.”  “The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” (v. 1).

Asaph, the author of this Psalm, gives us a powerful and ever-present metaphor of the presence and righteousness of God.  The blinding beauty of the sun shining the sky, he says, is like God shining forth out of Zion (Zion meaning Israel as all it is intended to become) as the perfection of beauty (v. 2).  The presence of God is a “consuming fire” and a “mighty tempest” (v. 3).  There is no injustice that the consuming fire of a mighty tempest cannot overcome, not even that of a Jordanian fighter pilot being burned alive in a cage.

Over the last two weeks my family has been enduring a painful trial that seems very unjust.  It’s made us angry.  It’s made us weep.  It’s brought our spirits down.  This reading has been a tremendous help in that I’ve realized no matter the specifics there is no injustice the righteousness of God can’t consume.  The sun rising in the morning is a constant reminder of this.  (Of course, in a Wisconsin winter, the sun may not appear for days, but this is where a little moral imagination can be helpful).

What God has called us to do in the face of injustice is raise it up and release it into the presence of his consuming righteousness.  He WILL be the defender of our cause.  “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God Himself is judge” (v. 6).  What a joy to know that we know the Chief Justice of the Heavenly Supreme Court personally and that our world is a mere dot in the universe of his courtroom.

On this Transfiguration Sunday, our readings also take us to the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2-9).  In Jesus’ clothes becoming dazzling white we have another picture of the mighty tempest of God’s intention.  God is committed to setting everything right, no matter the cost, as demonstrated in the sacrifice and victory of his one and only Son.

Points to ponder

  • What is the greatest injustice you or your family have ever faced?
  • How did God show you his righteousness and generous love through that trial?
  • The next time someone encroaches unjustly into the lane of your life how could you respond better understanding now the mighty tempest of God’s intention?

a vision for redemptive family

godfrey coat of arms

What do I want to be about this coming year?  What do I want my family to be about?  What do I want my organization to be about?  These are good questions to ask on New Year’s Day.  For Christmas I made my two older boys Nate and Karch notecards with our family Coat of Arms.   My wife’s initial reaction was, “Ah… I don’t think they are going to like that.”  But to my surprise and delight my eldest son Nate really liked the cards.  This was a way for me to communicate to the family what I want to be about and what I want us to be about.

Family has always been a very difficult emotional zone for me.  It has much to do with my Mom being mentally ill through my childhood.  I was embarrassed by my family.  I didn’t like my family.  I tried working around the problem by engaging elsewhere.  I became a very good jazz drummer as a result and ended up playing in one of Indiana University’s Jazz Ensembles my freshman year of college (1982).  I still have fond memories of Dominic Spera, our Director.  One of the other drummers, Sean Pelton, is now the drummer for Saturday Night Live.

The good thing about engaging elsewhere is that I was able to find real joy in those other things.  I love jazz to this day.  But the joy I experienced there is something I want to experience more of now in my own family.  I’m a visual person, so one of the ways I’m working this out is by seeing the good, the true, and the beautiful via our family Coat of Arms.

Experts in genealogy may poo poo this idea.  They’ll say, “Coats of Arms were given to individuals not to a family name.”  Or they’ll say, “Even if there was a Godfrey family Coat of Arms you don’t know whether you are those Godfreys.”  Points taken but the larger point is that every family, or every little platoon, needs an identity.  This is why military units develop their own insignias.  I view the Godfrey Coat of Arms as an insignia for my family.  Also, in God’s economy, names have meaning.  What is the redemptive story God wants to tell through the name of my family?  There is a good one here.

Our family name, ‘Godfrey’, means “God’s peace”.  The family’s motto is ‘Deus et Libertas’, or “God and Liberty”.  During the Crusades the first Christian King to rule over liberated Jerusalem was a character named Godfrey of Jerusalem.  In the era of ISIS it seems a little easier to appreciate the positive aspects of the Crusades than it would have been previously.  One book I’ve just started reading is Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades.

The shield features a black background on which is a gold chevron between three gold pelicans.  According to the House of Names the black (or sable) shield symbolizes deep religious commitment as well as prudence and wisdom.  The chevron symbolizes protection (as in the roof of a house or for my Russian friends, a krisha) and was given to those who had accomplished a notable enterprise such as building a church or fortress (or liberating Jerusalem from Islamic militants).  Gold symbolizes excellence and achievement and someone who has demonstrated great valor.   The pelicans are pictured vulning themselves.  For a pelican to vuln means to use it’s beak to draw blood from it’s neck in order to feed it’s young.  “Pelicans vulning” became a symbol of the piety, self-sacrifice, and virtue associated with the love Christ displayed for his disciples as illustrated in the Last Supper.

The crest features a Saracen (or in contemporary terms a Moslem) holding a cross.  The Saracen was there as a trophy representing deeds of prowess during the Crusades.  We may have Godfrey of Jerusalem to thank for this particular element of the crest.  I’ve seen other versions of the crest in which the Saracen has been replaced by Jesus.   Maybe this was to avoid the perceived indelicacy of portraying a Saracen there as a trophy.

So the story this Coat of Arms tells is one of deep religious commitment, prudence and wisdom, protection for others, excellence and achievement, valor, piety, self-sacrifice, virtue, an prowess.  Wow, that’s a legacy I’d like to be part of and cultivate.

One special blessing for me in all of this is that in our extended Godfrey family my boys are the only males who will carry the family name forward.  I am so thankful to the Lord for Nate, Karcher, and Noah Godfrey.  Just as my Dad was a knight for me may I be a knight for them.

You probably have family pain to navigate too.  Maybe it’s a suicide (like my Mom’s dad), maybe divorce, maybe mental illness (like my Mom), maybe something else.  How would you like to see God redeem that pain?  He’s very good at this.  Look for redemptive threads in your own family’s story that you can weave into a vision for a redemptive future.

Let’s continue the conversation:

  • What is your family’s Coat of Arms and what redemptive threads have you found there?
  • Who are some notable figures in your family’s history and how can you draw on their legacy?
  • What pain has your family experienced that you would like to ask God to move to redeem?

2014 in review

WordPress offers bloggers an Annual Report.  Below is mine.  This blog was viewed 18,000 times in 2014 throughout 121 countries.  That’s exciting.

I remember a conversation with Stuart Briscoe, one of my mentors and former Senior Pastor of Elmbrook Church.  My friend Peter Mitskevitch, Dean of Moscow Theological Seminary, asked him, “What’s the secret to your success?”  Stuart responded, “I know a good book and share with people what I find there.”  My purpose with “Church in the World” is to help the church be the church in the world by sharing what I’m finding the good book to say on the topic.

I’m currently writing my 2015 goals and trying to discern what to do with this blog in 2015.  One thing that I’ve concluded is that I want to keep writing for it because I enjoy it.  I would also like to grow my readership to an average of 2000 per If this was your blog what would you do next so that it would serve others more effectively?

Grace and peace.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 18,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.