The Nicodemus Path

stonepathNicodemus is not a particularly popular biblical character. He doesn’t have the familiarity of a Joseph (either one), a Mary (pick any of them), or a Peter. He doesn’t have the infamy of an Ahab, a Nebuchadnezzar, or a Pontius Pilate. By and large, parents do not name their sons Nicodemus. The Social Security website shows that Nicodemus was not among the thousand most popular boy names since the year 2000.

As a biblical figure, Nicodemus is not terribly well known, although his initial appearance in the gospel of John prompts the most famous verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16. And judging from this scene alone, there is little about Nicodemus to inspire much confidence.

In John 3, Nicodemus is identified as a leader of the Jewish people known as the Pharisees. This is notable because, even by this early point in John’s gospel, Jesus is torquing the religious leaders, confusing them with his upending of tables and talk about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Nicodemus comes to Jesus, apparently as an opponent.

This reality is heightened with John’s use of his light/darkness motif, since Nicodemus “came to Jesus at night” (3:2). This is a clear indication that Nicodemus doesn’t get it and he is shrouded in a lack of understanding.

This is further borne out in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, as they engage in a conversation that may be even more awkward than when I would try to talk to a girl in junior high. Nicodemus asks Jesus about his miraculous signs and Jesus tells him about being born anew (or born from above, depending on your translation). From there, Nicodemus is stuck pondering the biological implications while Jesus speaks at a different level about the theological implications, never once clarifying his statements to the profoundly confused Nicodemus.

After asking, “How are these things possible?” (3:10), Nicodemus fades into the background as Jesus gets on a roll that culminates with John 3:16. There is no further questioning, no rebuttal, no nothing from Nicodemus. It’s almost as though the shroud of darkness fully envelopes him to the point of disappearing.

And if that were all we heard about him, it would make absolute sense why Nicodemus is neither well-regarded nor popular. There is, however, a through line in John’s gospel involving him. It’s not a prominent theme, but it is significant nonetheless.

Nicodemus doesn’t just fade away, but he shows up again in John 7:45-50. Crowds were following Jesus to hear his teachings and see his signs, which was disturbing to the chief priests and Pharisees. With the rest of the assembly ready to discredit Jesus – or worse – Nicodemus speaks a moderating word: “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?” (7:51).

All he does is suggest that Jesus should get a fair shake, according to their laws. Instead of joining in with the indignation and fury of his colleagues, he offers a levelheaded assessment of the situation. Here Nicodemus is simply being fair and calm.

John does not pause to offer any insight into Nicodemus’s journey between John 3 and John 7. What we can surmise is that his encounter at night with Jesus did not cause him to stand in strict opposition to this one who so thoroughly confused and confounded him. Nicodemus, here in John 7, is willing – eager, perhaps? – to give Jesus another hearing.

His suggestion is rebuffed and he winds up accused by the other religious leaders and that’s the last we hear of Nicodemus.

Until after the crucifixion.

In John 19:38-42, he shows up alongside Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus. Again, John gives us no clues about what happened to Nicodemus in between. This scene, however, gives a clear picture of a follower of Jesus. One who is even willing to publicly go out on a limb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

Nicodemus begins confused in the dark and winds up anointing the body of Jesus, showing that he underwent an incredible journey. He fully and finally comes into the light at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, which shows the power and potency of the cross and message of Christ.

Even though we don’t know all the stops and starts and wrong turns he had along the way, Nicodemus was on a path to faith in Jesus Christ. I’m fairly convinced that his path is pretty recognizable and familiar to many of us, even if Nicodemus himself is not.

The Nicodemus path is not a clear, straight shot, but it is a route and a way to come to believe and embody the very words he heard on that first night with Jesus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.”

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Unbusy and Rested

Busy“How are you?”

“Busy. How about you?”

“Tired.”

How many times have you heard – or had – this exchange? It’s so familiar that many of us simply take it for granted that we should be busy and tired. We assume that if someone is not busy or tired, it’s a sign of laziness or even a moral defect. In my life, no one – inside the church or out – has ever batted an eye when I’ve told them that I’m busy. Sure, there have been bland admonitions to “rest up” when I’ve claimed to be tired, but those are really winking acknowledgements that tired is the way to be.

And so it goes. Individuals, families, faith communities, workplaces, neighborhoods – heck, the entire culture – sure seem to be busy and tired. Harried and hurried, breathless and breakneck, we yawn into our days and routines – perhaps without any reflection or critical thought about the viability or the faithfulness of such a rhythm of life.

Lest you think I’m about to take on a scolding tone, allow me to say that a busy and tired life really ought to be barged through uncritically. Stopping, reflecting, resting, and praying will all wreak havoc on this sort of life. The Holy Spirit will do untold damage to our assumptions, our routines, our values, and our calendars if we pause and make ourselves vulnerable to God’s wisdom and guidance.

One of the themes that runs through the entirety of Scripture and right into our lives is that God offers freedom and we consistently seek captivity. The garden in Genesis. The grumbling during the wilderness wanderings in Exodus. The clamoring for a human king throughout the Old Testament. The resistance to the prophets. The abandonment of Jesus by his closest followers. The infighting of the early church. In each case, God offers freedom and humanity chooses captivity.

Yet God proves to have a stubborn insistence on continuing to offer freedom. We may have chosen captivity yet again – to busy and tired lives – but God keeps at it, patiently yet firmly nudging us, whispering to us, interceding for us. This freedom is embedded in our familiar stories: on the seventh day God rested (Genesis 2:3) and, just to show how serious God is about this whole rest thing, God even instituted the Sabbath (Exodus 20:11). Walter Brueggemann asserts that “divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.”

One unfortunate irony of being too busy and tired is that one of the first things to get tossed is Sabbath, participation in the life of the faith community, and worship. Yet worship is the place where we can be unburdened from busyness and where our tired lifestyle can be refreshed and redeemed by the good news of the God made known in Christ. It is a profoundly countercultural act of faith to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and to trust that “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

“But, but , but,” we sputter, “doesn’t stopping and resting make us lazy?”

Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact. Eugene Peterson has written very clearly about “the unbusy pastor.” I think it is no great stretch to extend this idea to each and every follower of Jesus Christ. Peterson claims that we become busy for one of two “ignoble” reasons:

  1. “I am busy because I am vain… I live in a society in which crowded schedules and harassed conditions are evidence of importance, so I develop a crowded schedule and harassed conditions. When others notice, they acknowledge my significance and my vanity is fed.”
  2. “I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself… It was a favorite theme of C.S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.”

If you are brave enough to make your schedule and commitments vulnerable to the work of the Spirit, you will see that leading an unbusy and rested life is not a distant dream; it is God’s intention, knit into the fabric of creation. Be active, yes, but not busy. Be vigorous, yes, but not tired. Be an unbusy and faithful person of Sabbath rest so you can be still and know that God, in fact, is God.

Lent Fumes

Diesel-fumes-cause-lung-cancerWhile the season of Lent can, for many, conjure a time to meaningfully engage in the “smells and bells” traditions of Christian worship, there’s a different sort of aroma with which I am dealing. My fuel tank is on empty – or at least the “low fuel” light is on – and the cotton-pickin’ season hasn’t even begun.

At moments such as this, it becomes abundantly clear that the church as an organization is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the church as the body of Christ. The organization of the church demands meetings, excellent customer service, business administration, and capitulation to the desires, whims, and complaints of the clientele (read: members).

The body of Christ demands a singular allegiance to Jesus Christ. It’s about taking up one’s cross and following. It’s about prayer and healing and reflection on God’s Word. It’s about turning a blind eye to market success and the current trends. It’s about the freedom that comes with the deliverance from sin, death, and the devil that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection bring. And it’s foolishness in the eyes of the world, just as God promises.

Unfortunately I’ve been completely caught up in the organization and have been sorely neglecting being a part of the body of Christ. So perhaps my Lenten discipline will be giving up my slavish devotion to people-pleasing, making the organization hum, and meeting everyone’s demands. Although Lent is, for many church professionals, the most dreaded time of the year, what with the increase in commitments and demands, maybe we can break free of all that stands in the way of that singular allegiance to Jesus Christ.

Then the Lent fumes I will enjoy are my prayers rising up like incense before the Lord (Psalm 141:2).

Rooting for Laundry

After seven largely successful seasons and one Super Bowl championship with the Green Bay Packers, the wide receiver Greg Jennings signed as a free agent with the rival Minnesota Vikings.

ImageThe Packers have a history of letting players go when the organization believes that their usefulness or skill set have diminished. Or in some cases, the team has a younger, better replacement in place. (See the transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.)

In light of signing with the Vikings, Jennings made waves by speaking out about “Number 12” (Aaron Rodgers) in relatively critical terms. For one, Jennings has always been a verbose and rather eloquent speaker. For two, almost no one up to that point had ever so publicly called out Rodgers. For three, Jennings had signed with a team that lacked any quarterback of the caliber of Rodgers (See the 2013 Vikings campaign for proof of this).

What this whole ordeal brings to mind for me is the monologue by Jerry Seinfeld when he equated rooting for a sports team to rooting for laundry:

You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city.

Personally, that has truly been the case with Greg Jennings since I number myself among a very limited subset of football fans: a fan of both the Packers and the Vikings. I have always enjoyed watching Jennings play, so I was pleased that he jumped from my one favorite team to the other. I was less-than-pleased that he said such dumb things, even though he’d always been pretty smart about what he’d said in the past.

Jennings has tried to mitigate his comments, most obviously through his long and awkward postgame hug/mugging of Aaron Rodgers when the two teams played this year.

Through all of it, though, I kept being reminded how much of sports-fan-dom is simply rooting for laundry.

It’s the free agent season in Major League Baseball, so dozens of players have traded one shade of laundry for another. A.J. Pierzynski may just be the poster child for this reality. As a Twins fan, I’ve followed his career fairly closely. He came up with the Twins and stabilized the catcher position while the team was good for the first time in over a decade in the early ’00s. With the ascension of Joe Mauer the Twins smartly traded Pierzynski for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. (In this case two out of three ain’t bad at all.)

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Pierzynski has had the reputation of being a guy you cheer for when he’s on your team and who you hate when he’s on the other team. This has been made clear every time he has visited Minnesota again only to be sounded booed through his years with the Chicago White Sox in particular. He made his way to Texas and then, as a free agent this offseason, he was tied to the Twins. Had he signed with Minnesota again, it would have been a celebrated homecoming and all those years of boos would be quickly forgotten. Rooting for laundry, right?

Hoping to win a World Series, however, he signed with Boston and will assuredly be booed once again at Target Field this summer.

It’s also been said that fans take the games much more seriously than the players do. It’s not that the players don’t care or don’t want to succeed and win. It’s that the players have better perspective and can get over a tough loss more quickly than a devoted fanbase.

So it might make sense for us fans to take a cue from the players and not take it all too seriously. (This is a memo to the student body of Michigan State.) Root and root hard. Root well. Celebrate the victories. And don’t dwell on the losses. It is just a game after all. A game where you’re basically rooting for laundry.

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Life and Death and Church Buildings

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‘Cause my Jesus would never be accepted in my church

The blood and dirt on his feet might stain the carpet

But he reaches for the hurting and despises the proud

And I think he’d prefer Beale Street to the stained glass crowd

And I know that he can hear me if I cry out loud

– “My Jesus” by Todd Agnew

Jesus talked about big things. Really big things. Life and death sorts of things. He talked about the coming of the Kingdom of God. He talked about love: love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemies. He talked about healing and justice and food and compassion and worship and prayer and resurrection.

But for all the big things Jesus talked about, he had very little to say about church buildings. Well, sure, there are the stories about Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem (“It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.” Matthew 21:13 CEB) and about Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple, yet other than knowing that Jesus taught in various synagogues, there’s really nothing about Jesus and church buildings in the gospels.

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Paul’s epistles aren’t incredibly helpful either, as people were generally meeting in house churches and Paul was much more concerned about how these new Christians were treating one another and sharing the good news of Jesus than about church buildings.

Ironically (or not, perhaps, depending on your view of the church), none of those things about which Jesus preached and taught or about which Paul wrote can quite inflame the passions of many congregation members as swiftly as church buildings.

This is not to say that church buildings are unimportant or even trivial. Not at all. Yet the question must be posed time and again: who (or what) do we worship? There are countless examples of marvelous and beautiful cathedrals, but do we worship the stained glass or the One whose story is told in the stained glass?

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And then – as is especially pertinent for nearly every church in the Midwestern United States – does this building exist for ministry or as a museum?

I will never forget the story of my in-laws’ pastor who, upon the dedication of a new sanctuary and gathering space, stated that the building was there to get dinged up, messed up, and used. Those imperfections would be signs that ministry was actually happening and this new building – nice as it was – served to host that ministry.

If the building is to be constantly pristine, just put up the velvet ropes and, for goodness’ sake, keep the young ones out!

Well, many churches are already wildly successful at the latter. Which means, of course, that those huge mortgages for those huge buildings won’t get paid off because the building became the object of worship rather than the vessel for worshiping God and fueling ministry. And perhaps that’s a fitting analogy for the state of Christianity in the early 21st century: hollowed-out.

But ready and waiting for renewal. Waiting to be used. Equipped to host and just waiting to be freed from the bondage to museum-hood.

A first step to freedom is honestly answering this question: Would Jesus be welcome at your church or would he make too big of a mess?

A (No) New (Tech) Year

IMAG0338I am not generally given to New Year’s resolutions (and judging by the conversation surrounding resolutions, it seems that many share this disinclination). So this may not specifically qualify as a resolution as much as a desire to have resolve: I commit not to purchase any new technology this year.

No new devices. No new toys. No new gizmos.

It turns out that I have enough.

I’ve enjoyed being an early adopter of new tech toys. From buying the first iPad on the day it came out to cycling through various cell phones in any given year, I like to try things out and try out new things. Yet it seems that things have gotten to a point where there is very little dramatic change and improvement in tech and there is instead incremental improvement.

With things having reached this plateau, it seems to be a good time to try out this experiment and be a better steward of my tech. So I am not going to buy a new tablet or phone or computer in 2014. It helps, of course, that I am quite well-equipped with technology at this point. I have a great phone (HTC One) and am in the middle of a two-year contract. My laptop is a relatively new Asus machine that’s updated to Windows 8.1. My go-to tablet is the new Dell Venue 8. I have an assortment of iPods that just keep kicking. And I’m typing this post up on an Acer Chromebook.

That’s an embarrassment of riches and, quite frankly, I’m feeling a bit embarrassed.

So I’m going to use – and use up – what I have instead of seeking after the hot new thing. I hope to better utilize what I have so that I can do more writing and creating and less looking and consuming. That’s perhaps my greatest hope: that these technological marvels can be tools that support a productive and faithful life instead of being things sought after for status or novelty.

I’ll check in from time-to-time to see how I’m doing with this all. For now, happy new year!