Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Thursday, April 24, 2014


                                                                                    Reflections on Luke 10:29

But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"
                                                                                                Luke 10:29

If this was a debate, he lost the opening round. He knows that. He set a trap for Jesus. It didn’t work. Instead, Jesus pushed back. Hard. Strong. With words he didn’t understand. So what does he do now?

Should he ask Him? “What do you mean? Eternal life begins now?”

No, if he does that, Jesus will have the advantage. He could make a fool out of him in front of everybody and say something like, “How is it you’re a teacher in Israel and don’t understand these things?” He’s heard He’s done that before. 1

Maybe he should just sit down.

Or maybe not. Debate is his expertise. It’s his gift from God. If Jesus is, as many of his colleagues suspect, a false prophet, then He will never withstand the force, the power, of his logic. He has Scripture. He has wisdom from God. He has years of experience in the courtroom and more wins than losses under his belt.

He makes the choice. He will attack again.

But on what grounds? He decides not to re-engage the question of eternal life again. Best to attack where he’s strong, confident. A debate he’s sure to win. And better still -- one that strikes at the heart of where Jesus has gone wrong.

And He’s gone wrong here -- on this question of who is “neighbor.”

He willfully violates the teaching of the elders. Jesus knows – everybody knows – God defines “neighbor” as our people. Not those outside Israel. And, even then, it must be Jews who are real Jews living in obedience to God and His Law. This is the accepted teaching.

But not to Jesus.

From the streets to the synagogues, He’s known as a “glutton. A drunkard. Friend of sinners!” 2And it’s obviously true. Look at them! Prostitutes. Roman tax collectors pretending to be Jews. The dregs of society – all followers of Jesus. Is it even possible half the people here would qualify as “neighbor” in God’s eyes?

This, he decides, is where he takes his stand.

If Jesus even tries to defend Himself, saying He agrees with the elders’ teaching, He’d lose at once. He’d have to explain this crowd around Him – and He couldn’t.

No, He’s trapped here. He’s got to argue why He opposes the accepted teaching of Scripture. When He does, He will publicly declare Himself in rebellion to God.

And that will be His downfall.

Jesus will hand him the evidence he needs to bring Him to trial.

It’s time to make his move. He may have lost the first round but he will win the day. He will justify himself in front of everybody. There will be sweet vindication! All he has to do is speak the words out loud. The crowd may not get it. But Jesus will. He will feel the justice of God hemming Him in. From every side.

There will be no escape. Poor Jesus – such a powerful man yet so clueless.

The crowd is quiet. The words come easily, smoothly, with more confidence than he expected.

“Answer me this, Teacher: Who is my neighbor?”

*       *       *

My first week as chaplain at a mental state hospital went by fast.

The bishop had asked Leslie, my supervisor, to assign me to a ward with lower functioning patients. I spent a good chunk of the day with them and, the rest, with Leslie and my classmates as we processed our various experiences.

My attitude was not good.

I was still angry at the bishop. I felt judged by him. He’d put me in this little tiny box and stamped a label on me -- “narrow”  -- “born again” – “evangelical.” And why? Was it because there was an “awakening” of God going on in some of his churches? Or that he had pastors under his care who were courageously preaching the Bible and calling people to a born again faith in Jesus Christ?

Why didn’t he like it? It made no sense to me. And why was he taking it out on me -- consigning me to an entire summer at this wretched hospital? Really?

I tried to hide my anger. But during the second week of the program, it popped out. Unexpectedly. One of my classmates was leading a Bible study. He asked us to join in and talk about it together. As we did, I heard something I didn’t like. He had a wrong understanding of a particular verse of the Bible.

So I broke in and corrected him.

He looked at me puzzled. They all did.

“You’re wrong about this,” he chided. He gave his explanation, others chimed in, and I soon realized – they were right. I’d misunderstood.

I apologized.

Somehow my anger, my bad attitude, had left me cold and uncaring to my fellow classmates. One of them spontaneously belted out, “I can’t believe how arrogant you are.” Again, I apologized – as sincerely as I could. I looked over at Leslie, hoping to gain his support. But his head was down. He was writing notes on his legal pad. My heart instantly sank.

This would get back to my bishop.

Once again, I’d be branded with words like, “arrogant”, “self-righteous.”

I resolved to do better. It was still early in the summer. I had time on my side. I’d stumbled, yes. But, hopefully, not for long. I’d do my best to perform well with the patients. I’d work hard to gain the respect of my classmates. I’d promise Leslie I’d never let this happen again.

I’d make sure of it.

A few days later, we had our weekly meeting together. I was nervous about it. I was convinced -- first words out of his mouth -- he’d bring up the incident at the Bible study. I was afraid he, too, had labeled me. And more afraid he and the bishop had already talked. That thought kept me awake for a few nights.

But instead, as always, Leslie surprised me. He instantly put me at ease. “Tell me how it’s going for you so far,” he said, concerned.

“Not great,” I replied bluntly.

“That’s what I thought.”

“I’ve got to do well this summer and I feel like I’m already failing miserably.”

“In what way?”

“I need the bishop’s approval – which means I have to do more than simply pass this program. I did that last summer. I’ve got to somehow meet his expectations and I don’t know how to do that.”

“So that’s your focus, isn’t it?” Leslie asked. “You’ve got to make sure the bishop’s happy with you.”

“Yeah, or he won’t ordain me.”

“Seems odd to me,” Leslie reflected, writing something on his pad.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Well, you’ve obviously angry with him. He’s forcing you to be here and you, clearly, don’t want to be. If I were you, I’d want to defend myself. Make an appointment, go see him, and prove him wrong. But you can’t. You need his approval too badly. So you’re stuck here – with me!”

And then he smiled, comfortably.

“That’s about it!” I volleyed back, trying to be cheerful.

“And what would you tell him, if you could?”

“That he’s judged me wrongly, without even knowing me. He’s done the same with our church. I feel like he marginalizes those who openly talk about Jesus Christ – and how He’s saved us – and what He’s doing in our lives. We get pigeonholed and I don’t understand it. How can a bishop be upset by that? Is he as clueless about the Christian faith as he is about me?”

Leslie let my words hang in the air for a minute.

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“Ask you to help me?”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Maybe you could call him? Ask him what he wants from me?”

Leslie shook his head, “That’s not my job.” And then he looked at me with almost sadness in his eyes. As if I’d hurt him somehow. As if, of all people, I was the most clueless. 

“Do you know why I’m here?” he asked. “God gave me a heart for the people who live day in and day out at this hospital. And I help train chaplains who have the same heart. That’s my job. And right now, I think it’s pretty clear, that’s not you. Your heart is somewhere else.”

1 John 3:10
2 Luke 7:34

+ + +

Friday, April 11, 2014

He Knows Everything!

                                                                       Reflections on Luke 10:21-28

And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?”
                                                                        Luke 10:25-26

The lawyer sits there waiting. Irritated.

For the last hour, Jesus has been meeting with His disciples. He’d sent them out. Now they’re back –all ecstatic and happy – saying they performed miracles. He thinks he heard Jesus say, “I saw Satan fall from heaven!”

What kind of person says something like that?

Then he hears Jesus pray, with a booming voice, “Thank You, Father. You hide these things from the wise and reveal them to little children!” Only to watch people turn and stare at him. This has got to stop.

“Teacher!” he commands, standing up.

One word and everybody goes silent. Just like he’d hoped.  Jesus moves toward him – that face of His – as happy as the rest of them. It’s time to change that.

“Answer me this: What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It’s the perfect question. How will He answer him? Will He point to God? Will He point to the Law of Moses and say publicaly that life after death is granted only to those who keep the commandments of God? Or will He point to Himself? That’s the gossip on the street. He says what no one should ever say:  “You must follow (not the Law! Not the teaching of the elders!) -- Me!”

He’s got to hear it for himself.

But Jesus is shrewd. He comes closer. He volleys questions back. “What does the Law say?” and then, more pointedly: “How do you read it?” Which is exactly how his colleagues would have responded. They’d debate these questions for hours. They’d formulate their arguments – especially against the Sadducees. 1 But here? Now? After Jesus has just applauded the wisdom of “little children”?

No, he reasons. If He wants a child’s answer, He will get a child’s answer.

“To love the Lord your God,” he recites quickly, his voice solemn. “With all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. To love your neighbor as yourself.”

Is that Jesus’ hand resting on his shoulder?

Is the crowd applauding?

“You’ve got it!” Jesus exclaimed. “Perfect answer!” And He said it loudly --  like He wanted everybody to hear and rejoice, “He knows everything there is to know!”

It’s not what he was expecting.

He’s got to put more pressure on Jesus. This is not over. But before he can speak, Jesus commands the moment. He says what nobody has ever said before – ever. Not the rabbis of ages past. Not the scholars of his own day. This is not a child’s response. It’s more complicated than that. It’s confusing. It’s – beyond him.

Stunning him with surprising force. Shaking him at his very core.

“Do this!” Jesus urges. “And that life – that eternal life -- is yours. Now!” 2

*       *       *

I sat outside the bishop’s office. Waiting for him.

It was the fall of 1985. I was in my second year of seminary.  I’d been born and raised in the Episcopal Church. My uncle had been a priest, then bishop, and I’m sure that influenced my desire as a child to become a pastor.

But evidently, I had “trouble” written all over me.

I belonged to a very different kind of Episcopal Church. The main reason, I’d say, is that the Bible was preached as the word of God. People were coming to saving faith in Jesus. In fact, so many were coming, the church had to rent out the local high school to fit everybody. I simply loved it. I always had the sense the Lord was there – presiding in His church – and wanting us to receive the fullness of His Spirit to worship Him. Serve Him. And tell others about Him.

It made me want to be a pastor all the more.

And so, with the church’s blessing, I met with the bishop for the first time in the summer of 1984. I quickly learned he didn’t like our church much – not exactly. He told me, if I was to be ordained to the pastorate, I’d have to go to a seminary of his choosing. Because, he said, I needed to be broadened.

I was too narrow, too rigid, in how I perceived the world.

Not knowing how to take this, my wife and I went to our pastor for counsel. “Do what the bishop says,” he advised. “Go to seminary, learn it all -- just be careful not to believe it all. The Lord will give you understanding.”

So off I went – nervous, if I were to be honest.

After my first year of seminary, I spent the summer of 1985 in a hospital chaplaincy program. This was required for all pastors in training. Not just me.

And I had done well. Really well.

So, that fall, when the bishop called me to come to his office to meet with him, I was, perhaps, overconfident. If anything, I was annoyed. It had taken almost two hours to get to his office due to horrible rains and a huge backup on the highway because of an accident. Thankfully, I’d left in plenty of time. I got to the bishop’s office with about a minute to spare.

 And then sat there. For over an hour.

This was not going well. When he finally opened the door and called me, I did my best to compose myself and be gracious. He led the way into his office, went behind his desk and sat down. I found a chair in front.

“No need to sit,” he barked.


For a few minutes he did his best with small talk. He asked about my family. He wanted to know what classes I was taking this semester. His manner was abrupt, business like, and I kept my answers to a minimum. Finally, he put his reading glasses down, leaned forward in his chair, and looked right at me.

“I didn’t want to say this over the phone. I know you did your hospital chaplaincy this past summer. You’re going to do it again. Next summer.”

He paused. Waiting for my reaction.

“Why? I thought I did well.”
He didn’t respond. He just kept staring at me.

When I nodded my head and told him I’d do it, it ended the meeting. He told me to apply to the state mental hospital chaplaincy program and keep him informed. He then put on his glasses and resumed working at his desk.

He was done with me.

Honestly, I was done with him too. I didn’t say it out loud but I was angry. Nobody in my seminary class had to repeat summer chaplaincy. Why me? It felt like the bishop was punishing me for being part of a church he didn’t like. It was totally unfair. And, clearly, I had no option but to do what he said.

So I applied to the program.

In early spring, they accepted me and I began working at the state mental hospital in mid-June, 1986. There were six of us in total. During the days of orientation, I had a chance to meet privately with the supervisor.

“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked him.

Leslie was a tall, thin man in his early sixties with a kind, gentle manner. He’d been a pastor for years and, mid-career, made the change to chaplaincy. I could tell it suited him well. He had a kind of presence that engendered trust. He looked at me surprised. “Yes, I do. You mean you don’t?”

I shook my head.

“Well, why you do think?”

“Not sure the bishop likes me all that much.”

“No,” he said, definitively. “That’s not the impression I got.”

I looked out his office window at the deep blue summer sky. I wanted to be anywhere but here. Most of my colleagues were doing summer internships at churches. Others had jobs to bring in some needed cash for their families during these lean school years. Me – well, I simply felt sorry for myself.

Leslie looked down at his notes. “He’s concerned about you. He wants you to experience those difficult places in life where we don’t have all the answers. We can’t quote a Bible verse and make all our problems go away. He wants you to know more about the suffering in this world.”

“What?” I said, indignant.

“Yeah,” he said, looking at me like he understood what the bishop meant. And then he said words that stole the breath from my body.

“The bishop thinks you might know everything there is to know. He’d like to change that.”

1 See Luke 20:27 for example. The lawyer believes that eternal life is real and inheritable through things we do. The Sadducees, in contrast, did not believe in the resurrection to come or eternal life.
2 Our Lord puts the conversation of eternal life into a whole new framework. He announces it’s more than life after death. It is, for those believe and live the love commands, here and now.

+ + +

John 15:1-11, the Vine and the branches. "Is He everything to you?