Category Archives: Religion

snatching victory from the jaws of unlikelihood


“Finding of Moses”, Giovanni Battista (1696 – 1770) National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
For Sunday, August 24, 2014
Proper 16 (11th Sunday after Pentecost)

God has a habit of snatching victory from the jaws of unlikelihood.  This week it’s Moses, who was born only because some Egyptian midwives defied Pharaoh.  Moses would otherwise have been killed at birth along with all the other Jewish males who were under Pharaoh’s death decree.

The midwives themselves make for an interesting aside. Because they are God fearers, they refuse to obey the decree.   Pharaoh finds out about it and confronts them.  They respond with a very creative fabrication: “Well, all-wise Pharaoh, you are right to be concerned about these Jews.  The Jewish women are so vigorous that they give birth before we can get to them!”  The text then says, “God dealt well with the midwives.”  In my ten years living in Russia I saw this jujitsu-like tactic employed often.  Redirection is more effective than direct resistance when one finds oneself in a minority position.  This kind of thinking maybe be more useful to the American church in days ahead.

Back then to unlikely Moses.  After hiding him for three months, his mother applies some additional creativity.  She builds a little basket and puts him in the reeds of the Nile.  Note that she didn’t just abandon him.  “She watched.”  What happened was exactly what she hoped.  Someone came and found little Moses, and that someone just happened to be a member of the royal family, Pharaoh’s own daughter.  Moses very name becomes the mnemonic for the story: he was “drawn out” of dire circumstances.

This snatching of victory from the jaws of unlikelihood is something God does regularly.  He did it through Joseph, who is sold into slavery by his brothers.  He did it through Jesus, who was crucified by an unjust regime for crimes he didn’t commit.  He did it for us, who being so dead in our sin, had no chance of new life until God came in and drew us out of condemnation.

The next time we wonder, “Can God really use poor insignificant me?” remember just who is acting on center stage.  If our Father can save a nation through a kid snatched from the reeds of a river, then surely he can, will, and even now is using us for the glory of his redemptive purpose.

Points to ponder:

  • What has you most discouraged at the moment?
  • How does reflecting on God’s ability to draw victory from unlikelihood reframe your circumstances?
  • How does God’s character and history give us hope in the midst of unlikelihood?


the power of the gospel and prayer

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, Joseph Ritter Von Fuhrich, 1836. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.

For Sunday, July 27, 2014
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12)

My intention is to use this blog to share what God is working into my own life in the hopes that it will encourage the work of God in others and bind us together bind us together for the cause of the kingdom.  This week, amidst so many remarkable insights and encouragements, the most important thing to share is the power of the gospel and prayer.

The power of the gospel (the good news of Jesus) is that it so aptly and completely captures our sinful condition while also providing an exit from it.  This week we see Jacob attempting to execute on the scheme of stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, only to be out-schemed by his Uncle Laban (2).  The message?  We’re all a bunch of schemers but God is on to us!  Yet at the same time he loves us deeply: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39).  Amidst the painful brokenness of my scheming he invites me to draw on his strength: “Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually” (Psalm 105:4).

This is a great reminder as we see brokenness not only in ourselves but throughout our world.  In recent days a Malaysian plane was shot down errantly over the Ukraine and there has been desecration of the human remains.  Awful and abhorrent.  Elsewhere Hamas has been lobbing rockets into Israel, Israel has invaded Gaza, and protests against Israel have sprung up in London and Paris.  Israelis and Palestinians are fighting  over tunnels dug under Israel’s security wall.  Brokenness, horror, suffering, pain.

How do we go about addressing much less solving problems such as these?  The gospel invites us to start with prayer and to remember that the Holy Spirit himself is praying right alongside us:  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26, 27).  As we are forced to acknowledge the strife in ourselves, in our families, in our cities, in our nations, and in our world, this is very good news indeed.

Point to ponder:  
How could prayer be a key weapon in our ministry arsenals this week?

(2)  See Expositors Bible Commentary on Gen. 29:14b-30.

making the case

“St. Paul Preaching in Athens”, Raphael, 1515, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom

Acts 17:22-31
For Sunday, May 25, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter, Year A

What would be a compelling case for the gospel in our culture?

Conventional wisdom, at least within my own evangelical tradition, is to build a nice building, provide contemporary worship, good children’s ministry, and hope their lives are transformed.  There are however problems with this approach.  First, it only gets off the ground in more affluent areas (i.e. the suburbs).  Second, decision making becomes driven by the need to pay the mortgage (even if only at a subsoncious level).  As a result, while some life transformation takes place, it happens in  isolation from the wider culture.  Third, rather than the church serving it’s members the members end up serving the church’s programs (again, ultimately, to pay the mortgage).

Apostolic wisdom approach the problem differently.  First, get out there.  The church’s best communicators are not tied to a Sunday morning pulpit but rather engaged in the very centers of culture.  In this case, The Apostle Paul was speaking to the Areopagus, a council of city leaders.  This would be like speaking to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) here in Milwaukee.

Second, engage in appreciative inquiry.  Paul was greatly distressed to find a city full of idols (v. 16).  What are the idols filling our cities (e.g. consumerism, careerism, self-fulfillment)?  Paul spent time conversing with his audiences, which included pagans in the marketplace and God-fearers in the synagogues (v. 17).   The purpose of these conversations was not be primarily to convert, but to understand and build empathy.  What if we said to ourselves, “Ministry, at least in this stage, is not about getting my message out, but rather letting their questions sink in?”

Third, offer a persuasive apologetic.   Having developed an appreciation for the culture (beliefs, practices, values) of his audience Paul framed his communication of the gospel accordingly.   He knew that a primary value in Athens was knowledge.  Yet they had an altar “To an unknown God” (v. 23).  This was a cultural admission that there was something missing.  Paul said to himself, “Aha, that’s my opening.”  He proclaims to them that the God they do not yet know is there and wanting a relationship with them (v. 24, ff.).

If Paul were giving a similar speech today to the MMAC, where would he start culturally, and where would he finish in terms of an invitation to follow Christ?   Where would he start and finish where you live?  The path to the answer involves getting out there, engaging in appreciative inquiry, and constructing a persuasive apology.  May we have the courage to bring apostolic wisdom to bear on the opportunity before us for the glory of Christ and the gospel.

loving deeply

For Sunday, May 4, 2014
Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14, 36 – 41 (Definitive Statements)
Definitive statements are not in vogue; diversity and tolerance are.  Yet how refreshing when someone has the courage to speak definitively as Peter does in Acts 2:36 – 41:   “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (v. 36).   Peter is not saying, “I’m against diversity and I’m intolerant.”  He is saying,  “Look, there is a God out there who understands what we all clearly know  – that something is wrong with the world –  and he has appointed and sent his son Jesus to make it right.”  If the church is to tear down the stronghold of secularism she must continue to declare this boldly and definitively.  It is to say as Martin Luther did, “Here I stand and I can do no other.”  

Psalm 116 (Loving the Lord)
The first verses of this Psalm describe what it is like to be severely depressed and I’ve been there.    When you are really down, cry out, and someone not only hears, but responds with love and grace, you become profoundly grateful.

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.

In Christianity I find both an explanation for depression (the brokenness of everything around us) as well as way forward (the joy of being forgiven, of knowing Christ, and of following him).

Luke 24:13-45 (On the Road to Emmaus)
I love the humor here.   Jesus appears to Cleopas and friends, and asks, “So what are you talking about?”  Cleopas responds, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on here?”  Actually, Jesus was the only one who did!  God was at work to save Israel, only not in the way that God’s people anticipated.  How many times do we make the same mistake?  We put God into a box of our own pre-conceptions and completely miss that he’s standing right in front of us.  Let God be God.  He won’t disappoint.

1 Peter 1:17-23 (Loving Deeply)
As Christians we are called to live out our time on the earth as foreigners.  Why foreigners?  Because we are now citizens of heaven.  There is something about us that won’t abide the corruption of the falsehoods of this world whether they take the form of a glossy cover of People Magazine or the politics of whatever organization in which we find ourselves (even our churches!).   The Christian who is clear on this will find his mind purified of corruption as well as a new ability to love those around him sincerely.  He will then proceed to be among those who “love one another deeply from the heart” (v. 22).  Would you not agree that both the church and the world could use more people like this?  

Let’s commit to being among them this week.  What’s one deep act of love you could extend?  

What is this thing called life?


Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
For Sunday, March 9, 2014
First Sunday in Lent

Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” is one of the great jazz standards. This week’s readings address an even deeper question: “What is this thing called life?”

There are several common answers flowing through contemporary culture. The first and most prominent in the Secular West is this: “This thing called life is whatever you want it to be. Ultimately, we’re cosmic accidents, but we can enjoy our self-awareness while we have it.” A second answer is the Islamic one. We’re created by God but will only find peace when we submit to him both personally and culturally”. A third answer is the Bhuddist one. We’re asleep at the wheel and need to be awakened into the universal consciousness of which we are a part. A fourth answer is the Hindu one. We are spiritual beings on a journeys through this world in order to move our souls toward Nirvana.

The Christian answer is that we are made in God’s image but fatally flawed because of our sin. God offers to redeem us through faith in his Son, and those who accept the offer will be restored and start restoring everything around them. This week’s readings tell this story from Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, and Romans.

So what is this thing called life? It comes down to which of the above (or other) answers best aligns with reality. What so you see in your own life? What do you see around you? Let your conscience be your guide.

What got me going in this direction is that very first verse in Genesis 2. “God put the man in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” What we’re all designed for is to create a beautiful garden that honors Him while also blessing us.” Based on what I see in myself and in this world, this makes sense.

How about for you? This week we move from The season of Epiphany (revelation) to Lent (springtime). The purpose of Lent is not to serve as a killjoy but rather to refocus us on the great question, “What IS this thing called life?”

now THIS … is something new

church sign

Matthew 5:21-31
For Sunday, February 16, 2014
6th Sunday After Epiphany

I have a side interest in church signs.  There are a couple I drive by regularly.  More often than not while the sign maker is trying to come up with something clever what I’m left with is a groan and roll of the eyes.  If you want to share in the fun check out Ed Stetzer’s weekly “Church Signs of the Week“.

Normal fare is just that … normal.  Yet every once in a while a plate is put down in front of us that contains something different and new.  I remember sitting down in Chicago for my first ever Persian dinner.  The waitress brought the plate, and as I looked down at the colorful sauces I said to myself, “Now this … is something new.

This feeling of excited discovery is what we’re intended to experience in Matt. 5:21-31.  Each of the three sections within starts the same way.  “You have heard it said … but I say to you.”  The topics themselves are breathtaking in scope: Murder, Adultery, and Divorce.  Can you imagine driving past a church sign that said, “This Week at Glen Cove: Murder, Adultery, and Divorce”?   Yet in each case Jesus stands conventional wisdom on it’s head.  Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately murder, but the anger that lies at it’s core.  Our real problem, he says, is not ultimately adultery, but the lust in our hearts.  Our real problem, he says, is not when to allow divorce, but the brokenness of our relationships.

This strikingly new type of teaching goes on for another two chapters.  At the end of it all Matthew says this: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matt. 7:28).

Following Jesus was never supposed to be about a bad church sign.  What it’s supposed to be about is seeing God pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and form them into something new and something wonderful.  Keep your eyes open as you are driving down the road this week because you will drive by Jesus (and more than once).  When you do, pull over, because you’ll be amazed at the authority with which he speaks new life into your soul.

a bruised reed he will not break

Gerard David, "Baptism of Christ", 1502 - 1508, Musee Communal, Bruge, Belgium.

Gerard David, “Baptism of Christ”, 1502 – 1508, Musee Communal, Bruge, Belgium.

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matt. 3:13-17
For Sunday, January 14, 2014
Epiphany, Year A, Baptism of the Lord

When I first read this week’s readings this phrase immediately jumped out:  “A bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3).  The reason it jumped out (and I’m only sharing this with you)  is because I know I’m a bruised reed.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How can a reed get a bruise?  This is where my wife would say, “You are so literal.”  Well, sorry, but that’s what the text says… literally.  Anyway, the picture is of a reed that has broken so that the top is dangling down.  Have you ever walked passed one of those?  There is an almost irresistible urge to snap it off.  That thing just shouldn’t sit there dangling!  It’s not right.  It actually feels good to snap it off, right?  Snap.  Ahhh….  All is right with the world.

Now, for you fellow literalists, the Prophet Isaiah is using this as a metaphor, which is a future of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not …. wait for it …. literally applicable.  Ohhhh….  okay then.  So what is the object or action here?  It’s weak or oppressed people.  Isaiah is saying this: “Even though it might seem the world is a harsh place that would be better off without you, there is a servant of God coming who not only does not concur, but when he comes is going to put you and your world right.  In other words, whatever your hurt, don’t despair, because hope is coming.  

My hurt is trauma from my childhood due to a mentally ill Mom.  Like a soldier who dives in the bushes every time he hears a loud noise, I am prone to similar subconscious emotional reactions.  I’ve been working through layers of this trauma my entire adult life.  It’s actually become a joy to see how deep this goes, how the Holy Spirit is at work doing healing within me, and how he’s using all of this to enable me to be a blessing to others, as a business consultant no less.  In fact, over the holidays I launched my own consulting practice called Quiet Waters Consulting.  The big idea is to lead others into the restoration that I’m presently enjoying as a result of the Spirit’s work within me.  As Psalm 23 says, “He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

The truth is we are all reeds and we all have our bruises.  We are all broken, we are all oppressed, because we live in a world alienated from it’s Creator.  Yet hope has come in Jesus, God’s beloved Son, so take heart.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).


Point to ponder:
Where have you or are you seeing the Holy Spirit at work within you to strengthen the reed that has been bruised?

preserve this our city

"Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel", Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel”,
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Matthew 1:18-25 (Isaiah 7)
For Sunday, December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

I was fascinated to learn this week about Duccio’s “Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial” (pictured above).  It’s a story that spans from the National Gallery of Art in present day Washington, D.C. all the way back to 14th century Tuscany, Italy, and the city state of Siena.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (say that three times fast) was a prominent Sienese artist with a reputation that extended as far as Paris.  His Siena studio received a commission from the government of Siena to create a magnificent altarpiece called the Maesta, that would serve as a crown jewel of the already famous and beautiful Cathedral of Siena.  The idea was to raise the profile of Siena, and it’s allegiance with the Roman Emperor, as against that of it’s archival Florence, which was allied with the Pope (1).

The Maesta (“The Majesty”) was intended to celebrate the majesty of God as revealed in the coming of Immanuel (Messiah as “God with Us”).   It was a stunningly beautiful free-standing sculpture 7′ high by 13′ wide consisting of many images.  The theme on the front was Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth while the theme on the back was the life of Christ.  The work en toto was the 13th Century equivalent of a modern cinematic blockbuster.  If you had the good fortune of walking into the glorious Cathedral of Siena, and then walking up to the alter to take communion in front of this even more glorious Maesta, it would be an experience of a lifetime.

Across the front of the base of the Maesta was a predalla, a horizontal band of narrative scenes.  Front and center on the predella was “The Nativity’.  It’s only 18″ tall and 34″ wide, but it was the invitation to enter into the majesty of the larger work.  When you approached the Maesta this is where your eyes would go first.  Then you would be drawn into the majesty of the entire narrative until finally eyes moved above Mary’s own ascension into heaven and you were forced to contemplate your own mortality in light of eternity.  Mind altering, to be sure.

Duccio flanks the nativity scene itself with the Prophet Isaiah on the left and the Prophet Ezekiel on the right.  Each is holding a scroll.  On Isaiah’s scroll is written ‘ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET & PARIET FILIU & VOCABITUR NOMEN EIUS EMANUEL’, Latin for “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14).   Right… , that certainly makes good sense.

On Ezekiel’s scroll, however, is inscribed  ‘VIDI PORTA I DOMO DOM CLAUSA VIR NO TRSIBIT P[ER] EA DOMIN SOLUS ITRAT ET IT P[ER] EA[M]‘, for “I saw a door in the house of the Lord which was closed and no man went through it. The Lord only enters and goes through it” (Ezekial 44:2).   Wow, not the Ezekiel verse I expected.   Yet this was always the citation from Ezekiel that resonated with the Sienese, because for them, “the door” was Mary, and if it wasn’t for her, Immanuel could never have come into the world (2).

The Maesta was installed in the cathedral of Siena on June 9, 1311.  Here is how one participant described the event:

And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.

Wow!  After reading that I need to see “The Nativity” in the National Gallery of Art in D.C.  And I need to see the parts of the Maesta that remain in Siena as well as the Cathedral itself.  What an incredible story God weaves over time and through nations.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to organize some Christian Worldview culture vulture trips for amazed people  such as us?

I love the last part of the description above.  “The poor received many alms, and we prayed to our patron Saint that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor, or enemy.”  My prayer today for the poor among us, for you and me, for our families, for our churches, for our cities, for our countries, and for our world is that God might do likewise for us.

Merry Christmas.

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

Adoration of the Magi (detail)
Quentin Metsys, 1526,
Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.)


Isaiah 11:1-10, Matt. 3:1-12
For Sunday, December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent

“Are you ready for Christmas?”  This is the question inevitably asked by friends and colleagues. The orientation of the question is of course around shopping.  It’s really, “Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”  Wouldn’t it be interesting to respond this way: “Well, my shopping is done, so now I’m focused on getting ready for Christmas spiritually.”

Somewhere between Santa Claus and Rudolph all of us know that there is supposed to be a spiritual component to Christmas.  That word advent bobs to the surface at this point.  “Advent” is the anglicized version of the Latin word “adventus” which means “coming”.  Who is coming?  The long awaited Messiah, the one who would save us from ourselves.  He came to a lowly stable in an insignificant little hamlet called Bethlehem and the world was changed forever.

As a kid, I loved the cardboard advent calendar my Mom put on the refrigerator.  Every day we could open another little square and every revealed image brought us one step closer to the big day.  The big day for our young minds was “time to open presents!”  Yet the big day from a biblical perspective is when Messiah, the one who would save us from ourselves, is revealed to the world: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse …. the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:1-2).

So Messiah is coming.  That’s what Christmas is about.  Are we ready?  Ah… obviously… NOT.  So how do we get ready?  Simple.  Repent.  As John the Baptist says in this week’s reading in Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  To repent means to “turn around”.  We need to stop walking away from God and start walking toward him.  What if instead of constantly forcing Jesus to the periphery of our Christmas experience we made him the destination?  Wouldn’t that be a Christmas to remember?

Points to ponder:
What is your favorite childhood memory of Christmas?  Is there something in that memory that points to the joy of being given Jesus by your Heavenly Father?
What would it look like for you to get ready Christmas spiritually?

Wisdom for a church in exile

The city of Babylon

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
For Sunday, October 13, 2013

The church of the West is a church in exile.  In Europe this has long been understood; in America the church is still coming to recognition. Where once the cultural consensus was based on a Christian worldview it is no longer.  A world governed by the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God”, as the Declaration of Independence put it, has become a world of “diversity and inclusion”.  In this new land tolerance lays moral claim to rule and is to be extended to everyone except those who would advocate for any other moral claim.  The late Chuck Colson puts it this way in his book, The Faith:

Tolerance once meant listening respectfully to all points of view, freely discussed in our common search for the truth.  But the creed for the new god of tolerance is that knowing truth is impossible.  So everyone is free to think and act as he likes, with one exception: those who have the audacity to believe that they know the truth, particularly if they think God has revealed it to them, are not tolerated.  The result is that those who crowned the new god of tolerance have become the absolute arbiters of culture.  The new god of tolerance becomes, in the guise of tolerance, an absolute tyrant.  (p.  68).

What is a church in exile to do?  In these verses the prophet Jeremiah counseled Israel in exile in Babylon as follows: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).  “Welfare” is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’.  Shalom means peace and prosperity, or human flourishing.  There is some good news for us here: even in exile, the church itself can flourish and can have a positive impact on the surrounding culture.

What would this look like?  First, it would involve strong marriages and strong families.  This is why Jeremiah mentions marriage, family and homes in the preceding two verses.  Our greatest witness are our own marriages and families.  Each of our families are little embassies that desperately need to see forgiveness, love, and peace in action.

Second, it would involve prayer.    As Jeremiah says in the verse above we are not only to seek shalom but we are also to pray for the cities in which we live (… “and pray to the Lord on its behalf).  For me, this is Milwaukee.  What’s the state of my city?   56% African American unemployment; one of the most segregated cities in the country; and with the fourth worst poverty problem in the country.  What profound opportunities for prayer.

Third, it would involve work.  Jeremiah says, “Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile.”  What kind of work is he talking about?  Are we all to leave the trades and professions and become pastors?  No.  If we did, there wouldn’t be anyone left to fund the nonprofit work, nor would there be a redemptive influence in the trades and professions themselves.  What this does mean is that each of us should work to contribute to the common good.   It’s moving from, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go,” to “how can I work today in a way that contributes to the shalom of everyone around me?”

Do you agree that the church in the West is a church in exile?  Why or why not?  If you agree, what does it mean for your local church and your own ministry as a member of it?