Wait like a Pharisee (sort of)

I’m a bad waiter. Not like at Cracker Barrel, though I probably wouldn’t get very many stars on my apron because I’d spill too many things on too many customers. I mean: I’m bad at waiting. I just don’t like to do it. No matter how much I try to remind myself about patience, and taking a breath, and receiving the moment as it is — I just don’t like to wait.

Which is probably why I need this season of Advent. For Advent is about waiting.

On Sunday, the worship leader began by reminding us of this fact. He talked about waiting; how it’s something all of us have to do. Immediately, his words clicked for me, and gave voice to what I’ve been feeling. That feeling of waiting. Waiting for a phone call or an email. Waiting to hear back on a job I’ve applied for, or an opportunity I’m exploring. Waiting to see what my kids will become as they grow up. Waiting for loved ones’ health to take a turn. Or just waiting for peace. Or understanding. Or joy.

In my time of waiting, I’ve set a goal of reading N.T. Wright’s four-volume series, “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” I’ve started book one, The New Testament & the People of God. It’s full of fascinating insights, including Wright’s discussion of 3 of the sects who were active in the 2 centuries surrounding the birth of Jesus. Two of them we know from the New Testament (The Pharisees & the Sadduccees) and one we don’t (the Essenes). All 3 had 1 thing in common: their desire for the kingdom of God to come, for the Messiah to usher in God’s victory. But how they lived out that desire — or, we might say, how they waited — was what separated them from each other.

First, the one we don’t read about: the Essenes. They looked for the coming of the Kingdom, for a messianic rescue, but to prepare for it they withdrew from society. Seeing corruption throughout the religious and political systems, they separated and waited. They sought to live holy & pure lives, while waiting for God’s kingdom.

On the opposite end were the Sadduccees. Unlike the Essenes, they got right in the middle of religion and politics. Their desire for God’s reign came through trying to insert themselves wherever they could to make God’s kingdom come more quickly. Their version of waiting, in other words, was to make something happen.

Then there were the Pharisees. While we think of them in almost a completely negative light, they too sought the coming reign of God. Unlike the Essenes, they did not withdraw. Unlike the Sadduccees, they did not seek first power and influence. Instead, they sought to wait by living pure lives, while also working to influence religion and politics where they could. Now clearly, according to Jesus, the Pharisees took the wrong approach to purity; even so, their inclinations were grounded in good teaching. Purity matters. And so, in their “waiting” for the Messiah, they sought to live upright lives.

But they also were willing to insert themselves in the religious & political discussion (as they did with Jesus so often). Even though, as Wright points out, the Pharisees were not the official teachers of Israel (the priests were), they sought to use their influence where they could. Again, we see this in the New Testament, where the Pharisees colluded with the priests and teachers to do what they believed to be best.

Now, I’m not advocating anyone become a Pharisee, and they certainly misapplied a bunch of scripture. They did seem to get one thing right, though: their approach to waiting. For true, faithful, biblical waiting isn’t a matter of withdrawing until God does something (like the Essenes). But neither is it going out and making things happen, no matter what alliances we have to make or compromises we have to swallow (like the Sadduccees). Instead, I believe biblical waiting is both trusting God and seeking to place ourselves in a position to be a part of what He is doing.

For me, this is illustrated very well by John Ortberg, when he compares our spiritual growth to 3 different vessels on the water. When it comes to our waiting for God, there are 3 watercraft we can choose to use. The first is a raft. When you’re on a raft, you are completely dependent on the wind and the waves. There is nothing you are doing; you are completely at the mercy of the elements. Though it’s a bit of an exaggeration, we might say: the Essenes liked rafts.

On the other extreme, we can hit the water in a speedboat. In this case, we are in charge. We determine where we’re going, and how fast. The bigger the outboard motor, the happier the Sadduccees would have been.

But the watercraft Ortberg recommends is a sailboat, because in a sailboat, you’re not going anywhere if there isn’t some wind. But you’re also not going anywhere (or at least anywere useful) if you don’t set the sails. Even though they never got the hang of it, the Pharisees would have been good on a sailboat — if only they got what Jesus was telling them.

So, biblical waiting is not passively sitting around, but neither is it forcing something to happen. Instead, it recognizes that without the wind of the Spirit, I am going nowhere. But it also recognizes that I’ve got to set my sails to the wind; I’ve got to attune my life, and orient it to catch the breath of the Spirit. He moves; He leads; but I’ve got to be ready, to be listening, to faithfully wait for the Wind to blow.

So, how are you waiting?

On the Need for Pals & Parchments

What keeps you going? What gets you through the rough days, the times of uncertainty, the questions that do not have easy answers?

Well, the answer for that is probably a bit different for each of us. This morning, I was reminded of two ways that help me face the challenges — and I was reminded of it as I read some scripture that rarely gets more than a passing glance.

In my last two posts, I discussed a “canon within the canon.” I firmly believe in that concept, while at the same time not wanting to overlook any scripture. This morning, I got that message, again, as I read the end of 2 Timothy. This letter, from Paul to his “son” Timothy, reaches a soaring conclusion with Paul’s words in 4:6-8, which include these words: I have fought the fight; I have finished the course; I have kept the faith. Those are tombstone words; you know, words you’d want on your tombstone. They are the kind of words that sum up a life. (And just as there is a canon, and a canon-within-the-canon — so there is life as a whole, and then there is the life we live that can be summed up with just a few words.)

The past couple of mornings, I have pondered these words from Paul — soaking them in, praying them — that I would continue to fight the good fight; that I will finish the course; that, when all is said and done, I’ll be found to have kept the faith.

And then I moved on, to the final words of 2 Timothy — verses 9-22 of chapter 4. They are kind of like an epilogue; an afterword. On the surface, they seem like words we can quickly scan to finish up the letter. And, in a way, we can. For they are full of greetings and final requests. Nothing exciting; nothing about them that feels canon-within-the-canon-y.

But, believing that all scripture is God-breathed, then there is no doubt they have the power to speak, perhaps in surprising ways. And as I read these verses, I hear Paul’s pathos, his human side, his pain. In verse 16, Paul has to stand up and defend himself, and he looks around, and there’s no one there. He’s alone. Some friends, like Demas, have deserted him. Others, like Titus, have been sent on to other ministries. But Paul’s need for encouragement comes through loud and clear.

And so, in this “afterword” to his letter, Paul begins by urging Timothy to quickly come to be with him (verse 9); he then repeats this sense of urgency with his last request of Timothy, telling him in verse 21 to hurry and get to Paul before winter. With winter, sea travel became treacherous, and so if Timothy doesn’t get moving, Paul will face a winter without him. As he writes these final thoughts, Paul makes it clear: this letter isn’t just about the encouragement that Timothy needs from Paul — it’s also about the encouragement that Paul needs from Timothy.

And there’s one more thing Paul tells Timothy: When you come, bring the books — and especially the parchments. An easy-to-miss line, but one that I think also describes something Paul needs. He longs for the encouraging words of Timothy, but he also needs the encouragement of words. One, for Paul, is life in person; the other is life on parchment. But both are necessary to help Paul fight the good fight; finish the race; keep the faith.

Perhaps this speaks to me because, like Paul, I am learning how much I need the encouragement of others — in person, and on paper. In a season of transition (for Paul, end of life; for me, end of a ministry), there is a need friends to sit with me, both in the flesh and in print. In other words, I am yet again reminded: I need pals, and I need parchment. I can’t fight the good fight, or finish the race, or keep the faith, without them.

So, that’s the word (at least to me), in an afterword.

(And I didn’t even get to commenting on Paul’s request in verse 11 that Mark come — for he is useful in ministering to me. This is the same Mark who went home early from a mission trip; see Acts 15:38. That’s yet another story, found in one of the “side paths” of scripture. But don’t take my word for it. Journey through scripture yourself — walking through its main paths, and its alley ways, too. There’s important stuff everywhere.)

Conversations vs. Controversies

In my previous post, I wrote about the Canon with the Canon. If you haven’t read that post, read it before you jump into this one.

Ok, so you’ve read it, right? Cuz I’m going to move forward with that assumption. So, let’s go.

Just a few minutes ago, I read an article that looked at how the Christian Church, the Stone-Campbell tradition I am a part of, handles questions of what matters most. And the author made the point that, in the Church, we often handle difficult issues with one of two extremes: 1) we avoid conversation, or 2) we treat what should be conversations as controversies. In other words, we take what is non-essential, and we make it essential. And we then refuse to talk about it, or we choose to fight about it.

All of this reflects our choice of a Canon within the Canon. And if my CwtC is different than your CwtC, then we are likely to find ourselves in serious disagreement — and maybe even disunity.

One blog post won’t solve what 2000 years hasn’t been able to overcome. In fact, if the Church is any indication, our tendency is to move, not toward unity, but away from it. Tragic, yes. Inevitable, no. But reality nonetheless.

But I can’t help but wonder: what if we truly read all of scripture through a common lens? What if we refused to let non-essentials divide us — even when they infringe upon tightly-held traditions?

In the past week, I’ve seen this in at least three ways.

First: I preached at a church this past Sunday that has two different services. The first included only hymns, accompanied only by a keyboard, and led by a male minister. The second included only choruses, where the loudest instrument was definitely the electric guitar, and where the service was led by a lay female member of the church. After the 2nd service, the minister of that church told me that there’s an older guy who has been attending the louder and more contemporary service. It’s not my style, the man says, but he does it to worship with someone who does attend that service. In other words, whether he realizes it or not, he is choosing Ephesians 4.1-6 as a part of his CwtC. (By the way: In this post, I’m going to reference a number of scriptures. I’m not going to take the time to link each one. I figure you can do that for passages you don’t know. Go to biblegateway.com or biblehub.com. Or, you could go old school and pull out your Bible.)

Second example: a couple of days ago, I had lunch with 3 ministers. I have known two of them for years, and they are from the same church tradition as I am. The third I barely know, and is a Baptist. These 3 guys meet together every Tuesday for lunch, and then to work on their Sunday messages. As we talked, one of the Christian Church guys joked that his Baptist friend has to filter all of their studying through his Calvinist filter. That’s ok, he went on to describe. I do the same thing in reverse when it comes from him. All of this was shared with humor and the collegiality that comes from guys who, regardless of their views on TULIP, recognize that their view on the Rose of Sharon matters more. So, while they may have differing interpretations of John 6.44, all 3 of them stand firmly on John 14.6.

Third example: last night I was working for a friend who has a floor-demolition business. We were working overnight at a Target, and after we finished the job, we headed to a Waffle House for a 1:30am snack. On the way, one of the guys in the truck asked: Where did Cain get his wife? In my answer, I tried to focus on the essentials: The point of the Adam & Eve story, along with the Cain & Abel, isn’t to help us identify Mrs. Cain. Instead, the essential elements of those stories are that Adam & Eve didn’t love and obey God, and Cain didn’t take care of his brother — and we have been having the same problem ever since. Simply put, the point of Adam & Eve and their children is to describe the human condition: our fractured relationship with God, and with each other.

Which makes Matthew 22.34-40 such an essential passage. When Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is, he answers by pointing us to a response that is the opposite of, and undoes, the sin of the first family. And this tells me that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. In fact, isn’t that what Jesus is doing? Isn’t he answering the question by giving his own CwtC?

Why can’t we stand firmly where Jesus stood? Why can’t we all agree that Matthew 22.34-40 is a CwtC. And for that matter, Romans 3.23-24. And 1 Corinthians 15.3-4. And Galatians 3.28. And Philippians 2.12-13. And Colossians 3.17. And Hebrews 4.14-16. And 1 John 4.7.

And these CwtCs are prefigured, just as Jesus said, in Leviticus 19.18. At the same time, He remembers what He made us from (Psalm 103.14). But even so, our calling is to rise above our “dustiness” — as Micah 6.8 so clearly calls us to do.

I have no doubt that, until Jesus returns, the Church will have controversies where conversations should instead be had. I also understand that deciding what is essential is not so simple, and may never be so. But perhaps a good start can be had if we choose to plant our flag on essential passages — ones that point us with simple clarity to God’s love for us, and our responding love for God, and for every single person in our lives.