I love my new job. And I loved my old job.
For 24 years, I was a pastor, and it was good (except the times it wasn’t). This past 7 months, I’ve been a professor. And it is very good, and so far I haven’t found the underside. Do I love professoring (my coinage) more than pastoring? It’s hard to say. They’re hard to compare. All I know for sure is that my heart sings now in a way it had stopped singing.
There are probably many reasons for that. One, I think, is simply practical: I am home most evenings. In the pastorate, most my evenings were taken up with some church-related duty or another. After too many seasons of that, something eroded in me. Some deep weariness took hold of me.
But now I have most evenings free. The first few months, I gorged myself on that. I went nowhere. I saw no one. I sat home and read, or watched movies, or puttered around the basement. I drank a lot of tea.
It was life-giving.
And then it got boring.
So Cheryl and I started inviting people over to our house, and readily accepted invitations to go to other peoples’ houses. In fact, in the 7 months we’ve live here, we’ve hosted more meals in our home and eaten more meals in other people’s homes than we did in our last 5 years in the pastorate.
I’m beginning to realize why Jesus placed such a priority on sitting down to a meal with someone. Something happens around a table that doesn’t, or only rarely, happens elsewhere. It’s some magic that can’t be conjured, manufactured, or faked. Stories are told. Histories are remembered. Dreams are evoked. Laughter breaks out, and sometimes tears. A depth of honesty emerges. A sense of shared humanity weaves hearts together.
It’s ironic, maybe tragic: I spent so much time as a pastor I trying to create this, and so little experiencing it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever pastor again. I just know, from here on out I don’t want to miss the simple, beautiful, subversive power of meeting another human being around the table.
I am preparing (among approximately one thousand other things) to teach this spring at Regent College a course on the story of David.[*] So I soak daily in his story and his songs, and then scrounge and rummage around in a multitude of commentaries, biographies, novels, reflections. Though David has been for me an almost constant companion since I first came to faith over 30 years ago, the better I know him the less I understand him. He is a walking contradiction: poetic, barbaric, tender, ruthless, holy, lusty, child-like, serpentine. He shows extravagant mercy at one turn, gaudy blood-thirst at the next. He can switch from piety to villainy quicker than blinking.
The man embodies paradox.
I’ll try to draw all this out in the course I’ll teach on David, as I’ve tried to draw it all out in the novel I’ve written about him (forthcoming). David is not our role model: he’s our mirror. He is not our exemplar: he’s our brother. He often inspires us, but just as often startles and disgusts us, puzzles and enrages us. He exposes our own heart’s strange wild mess, the chiaroscuro of light and dark raging in our own bellies.
But the deeper and longer I inhabit his story, the more and more one thing stands out above all: God loves David, and David knows it. “Like everyone else,” Harold Bloom writes, “from Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan down to the present, Yahweh is charmed by David…. Yahweh is the God who fell in love with David.”
In Louis Ginzberg’s monumental 7-volume work The Legend of the Jews, a skillful compilation of the Jewish haggadah or oral tradition, he retells the story of David in Paradise. According to the legend, David is the superstar of the afterlife, a personage of “glory and grandeur,” whose throne sits opposite God’s and from which David “intones wondrously beautiful psalms.” David’s “crown… outshines all others, and whenever he moves out of Paradise to present himself before God, suns, stars, angels, seraphim, and other holy beings run to meet him.”
But the main thrust of the legend is David’s relationship with God. God throws a lavish feast on the Day of Judgment, and God at David’s bidding himself attends. At the end of the banquet, God invites Abraham to pray over the cup of wine. Abraham declines on grounds of his unworthiness. So God asks Isaac, who for similar reasons declines. God then turns to Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua. All beg off for reasons of unworthiness.
Finally, God asks David to bless the cup. And David replies, “Yes, I will pronounce the blessing, for I am worthy of the honor.”[†]
At first blush, this shocks us. It seems brazen effrontery, damnable hubris, reality-defying delusion. Who do you think you are?
On second thought, this sounds biblical. The heart of the Bible’s message, muted in the Old Covenant but shouted aloud in page after page of the New, is the improbable, astonishing, breathtaking good news that I am the one Jesus loves.
I am the tax-collector whose house Jesus had to enter, so that salvation could invade it. I am the leper who cried out to Jesus on his way past Samaria, so that he could speak wholeness into me and then woo me back to worship him. I am the lame man whose friends lowered me down through the rafters, so that Jesus could speak forgiveness and healing to me. I am the invalid Jesus found in a dark part of town, bed-ridden and complaining, so that he could say to me, “Get up, take up your mat, and walk.” I am the prodigal he saw a long way off, who ran to me, threw a feast for me, put his robe and ring and sandals on me. I am the elder brother who refused to join the party, and so he went out to me and begged me to come in. I am Lazarus, the one he raised from the dead and then invited to recline with him at the table.
I am not worthy to bless the cup, except he makes me so. At great cost, all by his own doing, Jesus makes me his own, loves me without condition, forgives me without remainder, places his own name on me, puts his own Spirit in me, and goes ahead to prepare a place for me. He’s made me a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, one who belongs to God.
I am the one Jesus loves.
As are you.
I never tire of telling my students at Ambrose Seminary[‡] this. It is the wellspring of all we do and all we are. All life and ministry is overflow. And the inflow is this one thing: knowing and relishing and never forgetting that I am the one Jesus loves.
There is a famous story about the theologian Karl Barth, maybe as legendary as the story Ginsberg tells about David – and yet, like that story, resonant with deep truth. It goes like this: near the end of Barth’s life, having written the most monumental theological work of the 20th Century, having read virtually every other theological work ever penned, a journalist asks him, “What is the greatest truth you’ve ever heard?”
To which Barth replies, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible the Bible tells me so.”
Amen and amen.
[†] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, 550-551.
Just released through Amazon, available in Audio or ebook format:
I had the pleasure and honor of speaking this past week at two events – MissionsFest Vancouver and, a few days later, a retreat for the students and faculty of Ambrose Seminary.
MissionFest was held at the sprawling, glittering Conference Center poised at oceanfront in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
The seminary retreat was held in small, homey facilities nestled in the mountain-shadowed woods outside Calgary.
The streets of Vancouver spill and teem with thousands of people – business men and women, tourists, shoppers, workers. Every form of transport converges here, and the city never sleeps.
The woods of the retreat center lie silent and white beneath a thick quilt of snow, stitched by deer tracks and, occasionally, human footfall. All manner of wild things roam here, or hibernate in burrows beneath the hard earth.
MissionsFest has 35,000 visitors over the stretch of 3 days. Altogether, 16,000 of those visitors – up to 1500 at a single event – attend dozens of sessions taught by a multitude of presenters.
The retreat had, I think, 60 attendees at its peak. Around 40 were there at any given session. Mostly, I was the sole presenter.
At MissionsFest, I stared into spotlights.
At the retreat, I looked into faces.
I loved both.
The wonder is this: God uses both to move hearts, change lives, redirect paths. I saw and heard stories of this at MissionsFest. And I saw and heard stories of this at the retreat.
Some of us have a preference for big and bold, others for small and intimate. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we theologize and moralize our preference: the big is shallow, or it’s potent, it’s a sign of compromise, or it’s evidence of God’s favor; the small is deep, or it’s shoddy, it’s a sign of authenticity, or it’s proof of mediocrity. I’ve heard both – indeed, sometimes out of my own mouth.
The problem is, God doesn’t appear to have a preference. He likes big and bold. He likes small and intimate. Jesus met a woman at the well and changed her life forever. Jesus spoke to the masses, and ditto. The early church met in houses, and experienced transformation. The early church drew thousands in a single day, and ditto. He’s God of the unnumbered multitudes and God of one lonely heart. He’s God of the thunder from the mountaintop and God of the whisper in the night.
My awe at His power to show up anywhere, anytime grows by the day. The last thing I want to do is put my puny human limits and dumbed-down expectations on a God this creative, this big, this wild, this free. For God, large, small, bold, intimate – he makes no distinction, shows no preference. Our two worlds are only one to him.
He owns it all, loves it all, invades it all.
Just don’t miss him – anywhere, anytime.
Recently I was interviewed by Daniel Darling of Leadership Journal on my transition from Pastor to Professor.
I’m becoming simple-minded.
And it’s a good thing.
Well, mostly. Some of my simple-mindedness is just old-fashioned stupidity, a failure to grasp the obvious. I spent, for instance, considerable time on the phone last Saturday morning with a con artist posing as a Microsoft rep. It took me almost an hour to confirm my initial hunch that he was the modern equivalent of a highway robber. When I finally hung up, I promised myself to be shrewder next round.
To be less simple-minded.
But there is a simple-mindedness I desire, and need, and can’t get enough of. It’s singleness of heart. It’s purity of devotion. It’s uncomplicated affection. It’s giving myself wholly and freely, without calculation or manipulation, to the One who gives himself wholly and freely to me, and it’s loving others without agenda or ulterior motive.
Let’s call it simplicity, and let’s name its opposite: duplicity. Duplicity is double-dealing. It’s being two things – a pretend self, polite and pious, parading in the spotlight, and the real you, devious and spiteful, crouching in the shadows. Duplicity is treachery. It is posing.
An example, from the gospel of Luke.
Keeping a close watch on him (that is, on Jesus), they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent (Luke 20:20-26; my emphasis).
This is such a great story, not least because it serves up such a clear distinction between shrewdness and duplicity. Jesus is shrewd. The spies are duplicitous. Shrewdness sees through, duplicity hides behind. Shrewdness exposes, duplicity evades. The duplicitous sets traps, and the shrewd catch them in them. I wish I’d had such shrewdness with the fake Microsoft rep. Such shrewdness is a virtue.
Not so duplicity, and this story is also great because it gives us a vivid portrait of duplicity in action. Duplicity’s hallmark is the contrast, comical if not so tragic, between words and thoughts. Note the gushing flattery from these men’s lips, and yet the treachery in their hearts. They’re spies pretending to be students, betrayers posing as believers, stoolies acting as seekers.
And the key symptom of that is this abyss-wide gap between their words and their thoughts. Their words hide rather than reveal their intent. Their words mislead rather than disclose. Their mouths speak love while their hearts plot destruction. What is said and what is thought bear zero resemblance to each other.
Jesus sees through it. He knows their duplicity. The word in the Greek for duplicity – panourgian (literally “all act”) – indicates Gollum-like trickery. The outward bearing is all façade. It’s utter sham. It’s all act.
Which is the exact opposite of simplicity, where what you see is what you get, and what is said is what is meant.
Add love to this, and a revolution is underway.
There is too wide a gap, for most of us, between what we say and what we mean. Between our words and our thoughts. The first thing the Prophet Isaiah said when he saw the living and exalted God was, “Woe is me, I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah was one of the most godly men who ever walked the earth. But seeing God, he sees also, abrupt and stark and grief-making, his own duplicity. Then God does what only God can do: he sears his lips clean (Isaiah 6:6-7).
And herein lies our hope: truly seeing God, we truly see ourselves, in all our woe-begotten duplicity; but crying out to God, we are truly and greatly helped.
So how then shall we live? The Apostle Paul, urging the church to attain to “the measure of the fullness of Christ” and to no longer be “tossed back and forth and blown here and there… by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” lays out a basic condition: “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:14-16).
It’s a lofty vision: being a people whose every word conveys truth and love in equal measure, one never diminishing the other. It’s a vision of a people free of duplicity, within and without, neither practicing it nor falling prey to it. A people whose words and thoughts exactly align, and the whole thing steeped in love.
I long to be part of a church like that.
All it will take is all of us being gloriously simple-minded.
I’ve never snowboarded, but I’ve skied most my entire life.
My first time, age 12, I fell off the T-bar half way up the track, which forced me to the backside of the mountain: a jagged edge of wild and dangerous steepness, thickly hummocked with moguls. The run was ranked, in the parlance of ski hills, black diamond. Experts only. Too stupid to walk to base, I hurled myself down that slope headlong, skis crisscrossing, poles windmilling. It was pure slapstick. It was a burlesque of pratfalls and face-plants.
I lived to tell the story, and ever after have had a sweet tooth for black diamonds.
But, as I said, I’ve never snowboarded. I watched, 25 or so years back, as the first few boarders appeared on ski hills, timid and klutzy. I watched as their numbers doubled, quadrupled, exploded, and their skill grew. Now half the mountain teems with them, swooping and soaring.
Though the sport bears a rough resemblance to skiing – both involve strapping your feet to a thin slippery blades, standing on some frozen wind-scoured pinnacle, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell it’s very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance. Different as riding a motorcycle is from driving a car. Different as rowing a boat is from paddling a kayak.
Different as pastoring is from professoring.
Which is my real point. I finished, in early December, my first semester of professoring (I made that word up) after 24 years of pastoring. Though the two vocations bear rough resemblance to each other – both involve strapping your heart to some burning concern, standing on some rickety lonely perch, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell you they’re very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance.
A 3-hour lecture, for instance, has little in common with a 35-minute sermon (other than, when you’re off your game, your listeners experience both as eternal drudgery and existential misery). The lecture is expansive, the sermon distilled. The lecture aims for breadth, the sermon conciseness. The lecture seeks to range over wide ground, the sermon to get to the point. In a lecture, you pace yourself. In a sermon, you uncork yourself.
But more than that, the rhythms of the two vocations are vastly different. In the pastorate, there is no natural beginning or end. Everything flows into everything else, world without end. There is a beauty to this: stay long enough, and the child you dedicate becomes the young woman whose marriage you perform who becomes the young mother whose child you dedicate, and so on. The academy, on the other hand, has a very precise timetable of beginnings and endings – classes start this date, run these weeks, end that day. You have an intense relationship with a small clutch of people for a short stretch of time. Then it’s done. You stop, breathe, re-gather, and start again.
It has been difficult to make the transition – it’s been embarrassing and frustrating at times to go from something I’d attained some mastery of to something I’m a rank and clumsy novice at.
But the challenge has also been invigorating. I loved my first term. I love this new sport. It’s snapped me out of a trance of repetition, pulled me out of a rut of complacency. It’s stirred in me fresh hunger to learn. It’s awakened instincts and muscles never used or long dormant.
It’s forced me to the backside of the mountain.
And there I’ve discovered, I still have a sweet tooth for black diamonds.