Why the OT?

For some reason, when I was preaching regularly, I felt compelled to do a series on Leviticus. Why? It was due, in part, to include all of scripture in my teaching. But I’m sure there was also a part of me that wanted to rise to the challenge of making even Leviticus come alive.

But the reality is: nobody gets excited about Leviticus. That’s understandable. Just compare, say, Leviticus 15 to Luke 15. Go ahead, do it…. I mean, really: Luke 15 includes 3 stories that practically tell themselves. Leviticus 15 is about, well, bodily discharges.

So, it’s no surprise that a recent survey found that, of the top 100 verses cited in systematic theology books, only 9 were from the Old Testament. I’m no math genius, but that’s more than 9 out of 10 citations from the NT, vs. the OT. One of the top verses cited by theologians is John 1.14. Likewise, every verse in 1 Corinthians is referenced by at least one theologian. By my count, that’s 438 verses — each one deemed worthy of at least one mention by at least one writer in the attempt to describe what the Bible and God are all about.

I couldn’t agree more. John 1.14 is a key verse to understand God; 1 Corinthians might just be my favorite New Testament book. But is there something we miss when only 9% of our study, our focus, and our teaching comes from the OT?

Well, yes.

We miss the whole story. We miss the bigger picture of what God is doing. We miss out on how we got here. In short, we miss out on a part of our story.

The scholar N.T. Wright describes it something like this: imagine going to a 3-act play. If you arrive late, you’ll get a sense of the story: who the good guys are, who the bad guys are. You’ll pick up on the plot and theme. But what you won’t know are the details; the background; how we got here. Why, for example, Luke and Leia seem to have a connection that goes beyond the business at hand — and why Darth Vader is more than just a bad guy in a black mask. In other words, if you jump into the middle of the stream that is Star Wars, you’ll quickly be rooting for Luke & Leia, but you won’t know where they came from. You’ll only know the key ideas, the key players, the major plotline — but you won’t know the whole story.

Something similar happens when we open our Bibles and start in the New Testament. We jump into the middle of a multi-act play. If we turn to one of the gospels, then we’re in Act 2. If we start with Acts or one of Paul’s letters, we’re in Act 3. We even get glimpses of Act 5 throughout the Bible (e.g., Revelation, 1 Thessalonians 4; in fact, even parts of the OT point us to Act 5 — like Isaiah 65.17-25).

Now, there is nothing wrong with jumping in, midstream. In fact, that’s what I encourage new Bible readers to do: learn Jesus first, and then see how he leads to the Church. But don’t overlook the importance of going back and learning what led up to them. For all the acts of the story are needed to understand the whole story.

This is especially true because, as you may have noticed, I didn’t mention Act 4 of the drama. If Act 1 is the story of Israel, Act 2 is Jesus, Act 3 is the early church, and Act 5 is the return of Jesus and the completion of all things, what’s Act 4?

Us. You, me, the church that picks up the story where the Bible leaves off, and continues until the true Author of the Story, Jesus, returns.

We are Act 4. And to live our part faithfully, and well, we’ve got to know the acts that precede us — which includes, of course, the OT.

So, don’t be afraid of the OT. Even the hard parts. Read the script. Learn the back story. And play your part well.

Next time: more on how to read the OT.

On Why I Left Church Leadership; and Why It Might Be a Good Thing

Sunday was my final day as the primary leader at my church. I stepped aside from that role, believing it was time for the church and for me to branch out in new directions.

One of the reasons I stepped down was because of all the things a church measures that are hard to measure up to (like: attendance, budget, baptisms, current mood, decision-making, evangelistic fervor). And that’s just A through E.

Now, it’s not that those aren’t important things; it’s just that no church ever perfectly matches up its calling with its reality. All churches have weak spots, blind spots, even dead spots. It’s not that this is ideal, or even ok. It’s just that, as long as the Church is made up of people, it will always be the fragile and fumbling Bride of Christ.

I am amazed how, when Paul writes letters to the churches he knows, he, almost without fail, calls them: saints, beloved, faithful brothers & sisters. The same people he chastises for getting drunk at communion (1 Corinthians 11.21), he calls saints (1 Cor 1.2). The same people who take each other to court with letters of complaint (1 Cor 6.4), Paul calls “a letter from Christ” (2 Cor 3.2).

What to make of this? Certainly, Paul is very concerned with how the church is Corinth is living. But he also is very convinced of the power and the purpose of that church. The power of any church isn’t in its systems, its plans, or (and this just amazes me) in the degree to which the church has it “together.” Instead, the power of the church is found in the One who calls us saints. As Paul also writes to the Corinthians: It is Jesus Christ “who will sustain you to the end,” for “God is faithful…” (1 Cor 1.8-9).

What encouragement! What hope! In times of strong leadership, mediocre leadership, or weak leadership, God is still the guide. It’s the power of Jesus that propels. It’s the leading of the Spirit that produces unity and mission.

So, in my final sermon at Fern Creek Christian, I closed by challenging the church to remember who they are. And I said: How cool would it be if, when the new leader begins, he looks around, and this is what he sees:

  • kids ministry humming along, because there are plenty of people who love kids without a paycheck;
  • middle school and high school students aren’t simply a part of the church, over in the corner somewhere; they are the church, right now;
  • life groups that are serious about gathering, but not just to eat and talk; but to be changed, and to take that change into the world;
  • a church that believes in strong, healthy, biblical marriages; but one that also values single folks, empowering them to step up, lead, and use their gifts.

At the same time, I hope he discovers a church:

  • that primarily speaks English; but also includes, as full brothers and sisters, those whose first language is Spanish;
  • that is mostly white, but is striving to truly be a church where people of all colors are welcomed and empowered;
  • where some come dressed in their Sunday snazziest, and others in their Sunday simplest;
  • where some drive up in a shiny new Ford, while others hitch a ride on a TARC bus.

And I think it would be both wonderful and biblical for the new leader to look around, and see a church:

  • where it’s not just men who are fully unleashed to use their gifts, but women, too;
  • less interested in planning a impactful Sunday morning, and more interested in impacting people’s lives Monday through Saturday;
  • that loves and values folks who prefer things to be more traditional; but those same folks are among some of the first to ask him: How can you help us reach the next generation?

In other words, I dream of a church that invites a new leader to step in and lead, finding that the church isn’t dependent on him — or any other person, for that matter; a church not waiting around for someone to tell them what to do; but a church, with all their flaws, failures, and foibles, simply being the church. Struggling saints, striving for godliness — but trusting that God’s power isn’t limited by their limitations. I think that’s a church that can make a difference. At least, that’s what Paul seemed to think. And with that thinking, he helped spark a revolution — a revolution that, by the grace of God, continues today.

Seeing Peter Jennings in NYC; Or, What the Nightly News Can Teach the Church

When I was in college, I spent the summer with my sister and her family in New York City. It was an amazing experience, as we lived right across the street from Central Park, and just a couple of blocks from the American Museum of Natural History, where I worked. I loved being in the middle of the action; it was a cool summer, full of unique and memorable experiences.

One sticks out, though it wasn’t all that exciting. It was the day I was walking to work and I happened by Peter Jennings, who was also heading to work. Maybe I remember it because he was the only “celebrity” I saw that summer. Or maybe it was memorable because that was the day when the work Jennings did — being the nightly news anchor — made him a well-known personality. Today, if my kids walked by David Muir (Peter Jennings’ current successor), they wouldn’t have a clue who he is. I’m guessing most people under 30 wouldn’t.

This week, my dad had some surgery, so I went to see him and my mom. One evening, while we were with my dad in his hospital room, my mom turned on the TV to watch the evening news. We were in St Louis, so 5:30 is the time when the nightly news comes on. And so, the TV came on, because my mom likes the news. I’m pretty sure she knows who David Muir is.

In fact, my 84-year-old mother plans her evening around the evening news. My 21-year-old daughter, however, does not. In fact, she likely has not, and probably never will, watch the evening news. How my child gets news is very different than how my mother gets news. Even so, they both have a need to know what’s going on. So, as the major networks search for ways to continue to connect to people like my mom, they also must search for new ways to connect to people like my daughter. (Good luck with that.)

But let’s expand the idea out even further. ABC, CBS, and NBC aren’t the only outlets struggling to remain relevant in the news business. Every newspaper and news magazine in America is facing the challenge of digital media, which is completely free of having to broadcast at a certain time or having to actually print the news once a day.

So, why do I bring all of this up? Not because I care that much how people get their news — but because I care how people approach change. Because, for all the lessons the news-delivery business can teach us, it sure can teach us about change.

For many, change is difficult. This is especially true for my mom. There is no wifi at her apartment. She has no smart phone. She talks about how “they don’t make things like they used to.”

My daughter, meanwhile, can’t imagine life without the internet. She will never not have a smart phone. She has very little appreciation of how they used to make things.

Who is right? My mom? My daughter? Or neither one?

Maybe the question isn’t about who is right, but about learning the lessons of communication in a world that is changing — whether we like it, or not. Just as both my mom and daughter want to get the news, but access it different ways, so also we who follow Jesus have to recognize that we have the news — and not just any news, but the Good News; the freedom-giving, hope-filling, life-changing transformation of God in Jesus Christ. And what matters more than how we get it to people, is that we do.

For the Church to be serious about loving people like my mom, we have to value the ways that they are used to hearing the Good News. But if the Church is going to be serious about loving people like my daughter, then we also have to value the ways she is most likely to hear the Good News. In fact, I’ll go a step further: We must never stop valuing and honoring those who already know the Good News, but we must choose ways for those who don’t know it — or who are just learning it — to hear it. We have got to stop worrying less about how we share the Good News, and spend more time considering actually sharing it in ways that clearly and consistently point people to Jesus.

Because here’s the thing: eventually, the Evening News will cease to exist as we know it. Or, at the very least, it will only reach a handful of folks. (In fact, that is already true: less than 10% of Americans currently watch any of the 3 major networks’ nightly news programs.) At the same time, print publications are falling by the wayside. There is no one in the news business who has any doubt that the news-delivery business is changing, and will continue to change. What won’t change, of course, is that there is news to deliver.

The Church must pay attention this reality. We have the Good News. That does not change; never has, never will. But what does change — and is changing, whether we like it or not — is how that news is delivered, and received. We who care about Jesus, and his mission, cannot miss this lesson.

In my next post, I’ll say more about this. Stay tuned….