Thursday, July 20, 2006


I told a friend this week that preaching through the book of Ruth this month is “tying me in knots.” By that I meant that I am finding the story so rich and deeply layered that it is hard to distill each week’s passage into a “simple” message. Yet this is one of the wonderful and powerful characteristics of the Scriptures. They continually challenge us at deeper levels. Indeed the writer of Hebrews declares that “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12).

So, for instance, the book of Jonah functions as an enriching story for children about God using a whale to prod Jonah along to accomplish God’s mission through him. But when we probe beyond the children’s level we encounter the challenge of Jonah’s flight from God, seeking comfort in Tarshish instead of ministry in Nineveh. And then when we probe some more we face the challenge of the foreign Ninevites’ immediate response to Jonah’s half-hearted preaching, a stark contrast to Israel’s repeated apathetic responses to the passionate preaching of the prophets. We have moved from a nice children’s story to a penetrating, incisive (sword-like?) word to God’s people to repent of our self-absorption and be God’s message bearers to the world.

Likewise with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. This is a great example story about helping people in distress instead of passing them by. But when we probe beyond the example story we encounter the challenge of the religious figures (Levite and Priest) passing by the distressed traveler so as to not violate purity laws. Ouch. And then when we probe some more we face the challenge of the religious peoples’ loathing and disdain for Samaritans, and the Samaritan being the one Jesus commends for “loving his neighbor,” a bedrock command from God to his people! We have moved from a nice children’s story to something much more disturbing and provocative.

And so it is with the story of Ruth. On one level it is a wonderful story about how God provides to people (Ruth and Naomi) who have lost everything. When we probe deeper we encounter the issue of Ruth’s status as a Moabite foreigner, and how this shapes the events that occur (or don’t). Then when we continue probing we find the dynamics of power and provision in the ancient world, roles of men and women, patriarchal customs and the subversive means women are forced to employ to find justice. And these further God’s purposes, as the genealogy makes clear! Suddenly what functioned on one level as a feel-good story is challenging us about our own customs and presumptions about power, justice and God’s purposes.

Friends, be careful about trying to tame the Scriptures. They are one of God’s primary ways of transforming us (Romans 12:2), of helping Christ be formed in us (Galatians 4:19), of prodding and nurturing and provoking and loving and comforting and challenging us towards Christ-likeness and into passionate participation in God’s kingdom mission. There’s a reason Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that trouble me, it’s the parts of the Bible I do!”

Being shaped by the Scriptures is an adventure I wouldn’t miss for the world. But it’s not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

If You Are a Man

I asked Angela once why she and many other women like SUV’s so much. Her response puzzled me. “I feel safer higher up.” Safer from what? “You know, in case someone approaches the driver door, like in a carjacking.” This was my “aha” moment, certainly way too slow in coming, about the differences in the way men and women steward their physical safety in the world. I do not tend to worry much about muggers or assailants except when I am in a dangerous area. Women, on the other hand, often live with a near constant sense of physical vulnerability. Or should.

Last year I wrote an essay about the case of Natalee Holloway in Aruba (“Reality”; 6/12/06). Her disappearance and subsequent (assumed but not proved) murder by one or more young men who befriended her at a bar on her high school senior trip hit me hard. Here’s a fine young lady who uses poor judgment in (apparently) getting drunk and then going for a ride with two strangers or near-strangers close to her age. She should be scolded by her parents and friends for this foolish behavior; she should not be raped and murdered because of it.

I wonder sometimes at what appears to be almost a primal rage among men towards women. I don’t mean among all men, certainly. Here is what I mean: Why are there so many instances in which men perpetrate violence against women and not against other men? Because they can? We don’t seem to hear about nearly as many men who go for a joy ride with other men and end up dead. It appears that in cases like Natalee’s the men (or man) rapes the woman, then decides to “dispose” of the evidence. Let’s call this “brutal cowardice.”

And now comes news of another oh-so-familiar tragedy, this one in our area, indeed involving a member the First Colony Church of Christ, one of our sister congregations in southwest Houston. Ashton Glover goes “mudding” in a pick-up truck with some high school friends on Friday night, leaves with two other boys she apparently recognizes from her high school, and turns up dead a few days later, hastily buried in a shallow grave. By the time you read this we may know more. But nothing we learn will make this any less horrible.

What’s my point, you ask? How about this: If you are a man, and I mean a Man (not just a male), ask yourself this question: Am I for women or against women? Notwithstanding the fact that I would never physically harm a woman, do I denigrate them in word or gesture? Do I make crude or demeaning comments about them to other men relating to me being the “stronger” sex? Listen, women joking about men’s maddening proclivities, and men doing the same about women’s, is harmless humor. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about words, gestures or actions that convey contempt. It may be that our small instances of contempt never gather critical mass in OUR lives, but they can contribute to a societal critical mass that manifests itself in the cowardly brutality towards women that we see far too often.

Yes, I write this as the father of two daughters. But I also write as a man who respects and honors women. I believe this makes me more of a man, not less.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Good Stuff, God Stuff

I have been participating since May (along with two others from West Houston) in training for the Restore ministry that is set to launch in our area this fall. Restore is a partnership ministry between the YMCA and local churches (begun in Nashville and recently spawned here) which uses the 12-Step program as a tool to help people overcome “life-controlling issues” (note: this is different from, and broader than, the specific addictions that “pure” 12-step groups address, and thus not in competition with them). Restore places a particular emphasis on naming the “higher power” as God, acknowledging Christ as Lord, and yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit. It has been extremely fruitful in the middle Tennessee area.

One of the things I am learning is the nature and power of the 12 Steps themselves. There is an intricate and purposeful order in their arrangement:

#1: We admitted we were powerless over our human condition-that our lives had become unmanageable. #2 Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. #3 Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

These first three steps are about making peace with God, which precedes all else. People are invited to take Step #3 by inviting Jesus Christ to be their Lord and walking with Him in their life.

#4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. #5 Admitted to God, to us, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. #6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. #7 Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

These four steps are about making peace with ourselves. Let me tell you, it is quite an adventure to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory” and then to share that with someone else. But it is a powerful step to becoming transparent, authentic, humble, and most notably, free.

#8 Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. #9 Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. #10 continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

These two steps are about making peace with others. It is part of the process of allowing God to penetrate and redeem all of our life through addressing and healing old wounds.

#11 Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. #12 Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

These final two steps are about growing in our relationship with God and sharing the message with others. My group of seven men is at step #6, so we have a ways to go, but it is not hard for me to see why this process has been so helpful for millions of people. These steps work in tandem with the small group dynamic to create a bond of fellowship, friendship and accountability. It’s good stuff. It’s God stuff.