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).

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 Crazy Idea

Here’s a crazy thought: What if we mainline church-types relaxed?

Crazy, right?

Yet in the summer when our schedules change and the weather heats up, we dress more casually, we enjoy the longer days, and we don’t seem to get quite so rattled about things. I would be fully in favor of allowing this chilled-out mindset permeate the rest of the year, too. Just imagine what it would be like if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously and trusted that God was with us in worship regardless of how tightly wound we are.

I know, I know, “We put on our best for God.” Okay, but… What does it say about our view of God that we have to get dressed up to be in God’s presence in worship? And what does it say to those whose wardrobe doesn’t include snazzy clothes? Do they not belong in God’s presence?

The way we dress is only a small piece of this equation, yet the way we dress certainly seems to influence how we act and interact. Perhaps there’s a workable trickle-down theory of worship attire (even though the trickle-down theory of economics has proven completely foolish).

So let’s just pretend that it’s always July, so we can chill out in worship and use our energy to love and serve rather than get all duded up.

Crazy, I know. But maybe just crazy enough to ease us out of our stuffy tendencies.

Casting Down Casting Crowns

It seems to be a perfect combination: a band whose sound, for lack of a better term, sounds like traveling. That is, it has a rootsy and organic feel like the Allman Brothers Band or the Black Crowes. On top of that, the band is made up of committed Christians who seek to build up people’s faith through their music. They are a remarkably popular group, with their most recent album debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts (and that’s #2 overall, not #2 in Christian or religious music) with sales of 99,000 units.

In reality, however, Casting Crowns simply misses the mark. And nowhere do they miss the mark more obviously than in their song “While You Were Sleeping.” It’s a tune from their Christmas album Peace on Earth, so that explains why it’s in my consciousness currently.

It seems to begin innocently enough…

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Looks like another silent night
Above your deep and dreamless sleep
A giant star lights up the sky
And while you’re lying in the dark
There shines an everlasting light
For the King has left His throne
And is sleeping in a manger tonight

So far, so good. They begin with a nod to two different familiar Christmas carols and set the scene for the song. Worth noting is that the song is theologically in line with the biblical witness at this point. Then things start heading off the tracks…

Oh Bethlehem, what you have missed while you were sleeping
For God became a man
And stepped into your world today
Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King
While you were sleeping
While you were sleeping

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything necessarily wrong with this verse. They’ve taken the Christmas story as traditionally told in pageant-form and written it into their song. Sure, there’s a whiff of judgment (foreshadowing alert!), but that’s no big deal, right?

The problem arises when a person actually, you know, reads the Bible. Luke’s familiar Christmas story (2:1-20) is so familiar that it can barely draw anyone’s attention. We’ve cemented the images so firmly in our minds that they can’t be supplanted even by the biblical text itself. For example, most Christmas pageants tell the story of lonely Joseph and an 8-1/2 months pregnant Mary making a 65-mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem and arriving in town to be rebuffed by three innkeepers (think Motel 6) with that third innkeeper being willing to let them stay out back in the stable. Moments after being whisked into that lonely stable, Mary gives birth to baby Jesus. And cue “Away in a Manger.”

Now, I’ve never been pregnant, but in talking with women who have, it’s highly unlikely that Mary would be able to make that trek during her late-term pregnancy. More likely, Joseph and Mary made the trip to Bethlehem weeks or even months ahead of Jesus’ birth.

Also, the gospel does not indicate anything about a donkey nor does it say that Joseph and Mary made the trip alone. Culturally, people were much more social than we are today and it’s quite likely that they were a part of a traveling caravan.

Even more blatant, though, is the fabrication of the innkeepers. No innkeepers are mentioned in Luke’s gospel because there weren’t any motels or hotels in Bethlehem! The word that gets translated as “inn” is the word kataluma in Greek. Interestingly, a kataluma is the place where Jesus and his disciples share the Last Supper in Luke 22. Most accurately kataluma does not mean “inn,” but instead means “guest room.”

Rules of hospitality in the Middle East in Jesus’ day (and today, for that matter) stated that there was always room for visitors, particularly family, in one’s home. With all the people returning to Bethlehem for the census, it’s most likely that other family members had arrived in advance and were staying in the guest room. Mary and Joseph, then, were welcomed into the main living space which was on a raised platform a couple feet above the enclosed stable where the animals would stay during the evening to protect them from theft and to provide heat for the home.

All this Bible nerd stuff just goes to show that the creeping judgmentalism of the song misses the mark: “Oh Bethlehem you will go down in history as a city with no room for its King.” Even the errant Christmas pageant telling of the story says that Bethlehem did have room for Jesus. But when you need a refrain, the story can be changed, I guess.

The next verses go on about Jerusalem not having room for Jesus either. This content is a bit more palatable theologically, even if it paints with too broad of strokes. That theme of being “a city with no room for its King” rises up again to lead to the climax of the song…

United States of America
Looks like another silent night
As we’re sung to sleep by philosophies
That save the trees and kill the children
And while we’re lying in the dark
There’s a shout heard ‘cross the eastern sky
For the Bridegroom has returned
And has carried His bride away in the night

And this is the verse that really makes my brain hurt. There’s nothing like creating a false dichotomy for the sake of an argument. Now, Casting Crowns comes from a more conservative Christian tradition than my own and I can respect differing points of view. That being said, however, this is simply nonsense.

“And we’re sung to sleep by philosophies that save the trees and kill the children”? Really? We are? When was this happening? I understand that sometimes a point needs to be overstated in order to be made, but this is too much. My guess is that this is an anti-abortion lyric, but to have it crossed with an anti-creation lyric is plain strange.

I guess I just don’t hear people with the rallying cries of “Kill the Children!” or “Abortions for all!” Regardless of one’s personal views on abortion, to me the bigger picture is how we take care of the children in our midst. Are they provided with the essentials for life? Are children loved, nurtured, and supported? Or are they just a concept used in political machinations?

Then to put the abortion debate up against care for creation is just dumb. God created the world and said it was good. So let’s not conflate these two important issues.

Urgh. The song concludes…

America, what will we miss while we are sleeping
Will Jesus come again
And leave us slumbering where we lay
America, will we go down in history
As a nation with no room for its King
Will we be sleeping
Will we be sleeping
United States of America
Looks like another silent night

I want to like Casting Crowns. I really do. They do some interesting things musically, but their lyrical tone lands somewhere between guilt-inducing and condescending. (It doesn’t help that many lead vocals are grunted out like a Nickelback cover band.) Even though the music hits my sweet spot, the message of “we’ve got it figured out and you the listener are stupider than us” just doesn’t wash.

Yet they still land at #2 on the Billboard charts. I hope there are some more thoughtful Christian voices that write and perform interesting music and poignant lyrics about faith, life, and God. Until then, it seems likes we’re left with the humorless cranks of Casting Crowns.