The Fifth Gospel?

Feeling driven to write my own gospel of Jesus, I’m irritated to recall that the gospel of Mark is already taken. Gospel of Browning doesn’t quite have the proper ring. I’ll keep thinking.

The reason I’m considering additional gospels is that I have been writing a lesson on Luke 24 and the “Road to Emmaus” passage. Only Luke clearly records the “road to Emmaus” story among the four gospels. (Mark has a brief note that might refer to the same event.)

Take a look at Luke’s “Easter” chapter, number 24, on the page, paying attention to where most Bibles place section headings, we notice something intriguing. He devotes 12 verses to the women and then Peter discovering the empty tomb. Then come the 23 verses of the Emmaus story. After the Emmaus portion, we have 14 verses relating an encounter with Jesus back in Jerusalem. Finally, the chapter and gospel conclude with four verses regarding the ascension.

What’s the point of all this counting? Luke dedicates 43% of his “Easter coverage” to Emmaus. That’s far more than he gives to any of the other segments. Why?

Clearly, this peculiar story in which Jesus spends a good part of that first Easter Sunday walking along with one obscure (Cleopas) and one unnamed disciple, is a major event in Luke’s Easter, but why? Looking more closely at it, we might discover ourselves in that unnamed disciple.

Let’s consider for a moment an alternative gospel account. What if, on Easter Sunday, the disciples had discovered the empty tomb and known with certainty that Jesus had indeed risen. But let’s assume that this risen Jesus did not appear to the eleven, did not cook breakfast by the Sea of Galilee, did not make a point of showing himself to Thomas, and did not walk down that road to Emmaus. What if he had always been mysterious and silent and just far enough away not to be really present with the followers? What if he had simply waved at the group and then ascended? Wouldn’t that be a less meaningful Jesus?

But that gospel account is not nearly as good of news. In reality, Jesus walked along that road to Emmaus with two unknowns who really didn’t get it. He patiently explained things to them, spending hours on the greatest day in history. And that’s the reason, I think, that Luke gave this story such prominence.

God came into the world as a man. That was a game changer, but when that man came back from death and interacted with his people, even for just 40 days, it changed even more. And when, after departing the earth in body, He gave the Holy Spirit to walk patiently along dusty roads with every nobody who might need Him, He made the news good indeed.


The Great Unplugged

I woke this morning to bad news, terrible news, the sort of things that makes you throw your head back and howl “Nooooo!” so the neighbors hear and wonder what wounded animal is in the area.

Picking up my phone, I looked at the charge indicator: 66%. What? It sat plugged in on my nightstand for more than eight hours. How could it be at 66%

A couple of weeks ago, I bought a new phone. I had limped along on the old one for a year, charging it at every opportunity. That thing held a charge the way the Kansas City Royals’ bullpen holds a lead: not at all. Then, when old unreliable started to turn itself off and lock up inexplicably, I decided to retire it.

The new one is great. Recently, I went through two days of steady use and still had 11% on the battery at the close of the second day. But this new phone uses the USB-C cord to connect. Not only does that mean I need all new cords but also I have to be deliberate about getting it plugged in, absolutely making it click. Otherwise, I get 66% in the morning.

These are the times that try men’s souls!

Our world is powered by electricity. Sitting between my living room and kitchen, I can see 26 things that run on electricity. Most of them plug in or are wired into the house, while a few, like that phone, have batteries. Regardless, if you cut off their power supply, they’re dead and useless.

Why do people in the church run out of juice? Why does that person who was clearly brimming with energy at 100% a year ago suddenly drag in at 66% or lower. Why do some of our people wind up completely out of energy, sitting uselessly somewhere like my old phone?

The answer, of course, is that they’ve been cut off from their power source. Like those devices we all carry around, we need to be recharged periodically. In Luke 5:16 we read of Jesus,

Yet he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.

Not only do we find that “often” statement, but at least three other times in Luke we’re told of Jesus praying alone. If Jesus, who was fully man and fully God, needed to be recharged, how much more do we need to do so.

It’s easy in our busy lives to forget to plug ourselves in to the charger. Sometimes we might go through the motions of a plug-in, like I did with my phone last night, but not actually make the connection. That’s how we get those people sitting in our pews, bowing their heads at the right times, saying the right sort of words, and yet remaining powerless. As you look around the church for those people, make sure they aren’t you!

My phone’s nearly charged now. That’s good, but I need to ensure that my heart is just as powered up.

Spears from Pruning Hooks

This afternoon found me on my knees. Was I in my closet taking my deepest thoughts to the Lord? No, I was out in our garden, planting asparagus. Asparagus is a marvelous crop. Plant it once and, properly maintained, it ought to keep bearing for at least twenty years. If that’s accurate, then the 18 plants I placed in the trench today should be yielding spears of goodness until I’m nearly 80.

There’s an old joke about planting. “When is the best time to plant a tree?” “Twenty years ago.” By that logic, the best time to plant asparagus is probably two or three years ago. That means that to have the stuff on my plate this year, I’ll need to hit the market.

To get the new plants started, I had to dig a trench about six inches deep. The hardest part of that was keeping the trench running straight. From there, I separated the plants. They looked like some sort of alien squid creatures, the sort of thing that looks cute in the movies until it fixes itself to your face and sucks your brain out.

I placed those individual plants at 18-inch intervals and covered each with a few inches of dirt. That’s when I found myself on my knees. Once those were planted, I doused the whole row with the hose and waited for the spears of asparagus to appear above ground. So far, they haven’t. Two years from now, I’m hoping to see edible growth.

Had I waited until next year to plant, of course, I’d be looking another year down the road. While my patience is limited, I’m glad that the plants are on the clock now. Ecclesiastes 11:4 underscores the folly of delay:

One who watches the wind will not sow,
and the one who looks at the clouds will not reap.

If that were being written today, might it point to those who watch Netflix or look at the grocery ads? I don’t know.

We find all manner of reasons to delay the things we ought to do. Right now, having been behind on grading for weeks, I’m caught up but facing a writing deadline that will have me at the computer all this week. I finally broke down and bought a new lawnmower today so that I can get onto that job.

But it was that work on my knees that I’ve really been putting off. Now I’m not talking about crawling around the garden but about spending my time with God. If I don’t sow in that manner, I can’t hope to reap.

I have plenty of time for prayer as I wait for the first harvest-worthy asparagus spears to emerge from the soil.

Praying for Your Eyes

This morning, my preparations for a meeting tomorrow had my eyes on the first chapter of Ephesians when these verses jumped out at me:

This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength. –Ephesians 1:15-19

Paul didn’t have an endless amount of paper, and he couldn’t fire off letters as easily as we send emails today. Why then does he spend–I want to say “waste”–so much space on this topic. I’m inclined to read this and say, “Okay, okay, we get it. You pray for us. Now get on to the good stuff!”

Since I’m not quite the spiritual giant that Paul was, I’m going to assume that my impatience reflects poorly not on him but on me. To that end, I’d like to look at the substance of his apparently endless prayers. Let’s take these verses apart and examine them.

Thanks for the Ephesians–Paul doesn’t just thank God for the Ephesians. He claims to “never stop giving thanks.” I routinely thank God for my wife, but beyond that I’m bad about not thanking him for the others in my life. Either I’m falling down in this regard or the people in my world don’t rise to the level of those in Ephesus.

Spirit of wisdom–Notice that when Paul gets around to asking God for things on behalf of the Ephesians, he doesn’t pray for their pastor search or their building fund. He asks that God will give them the Spirit of wisdom. It seems to me that the following three requests are more specific effects of that Spirit.

Hope of his calling–Paul is addressing himself here to the “faithful saints at Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). I’d expect that they wouldn’t need to experience the hope of God’s calling, but that’s what Paul asks for them to see first. But then I recognize that although I have experienced that calling and enjoyed some of its blessings, I don’t always have a clear vision of the hope that it provides. If I did, would I still struggle so constantly with sin?

Wealth of his inheritance–Here he doesn’t pray that they’ll receive an inheritance but that they’ll recognize just how rich an inheritance they’ve already gained. Again, if I were truly cognizant of those riches, would I worry about a high electrical bill?

Immeasurable greatness of his power–Again, Paul prays that the Ephesians will see God’s power. He doesn’t ask God to be with them–he’s always with them. Instead he prays that they will have their eyes open, like Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6:17 to recognize that power.

I rarely pray these things for myself. Almost never do I pray them for others. Instead, I pray for Aunt Edna’s gout or Cousin Buford’s marriage problems. Clearly, I’m blind when it comes to intercessory prayer. I just need to pray that people’s eyes will be open. That will solve a host of other problems.

Faulty Connections

Recently I shared a bit about my experience in replacing the alternator in my wife’s vehicle. While I believe my initial post got across the idea that I am a far better English teacher than mechanic, I didn’t include one slightly embarrassing part of the endeavor.

After completing the installation, including attaching the two electrical connections, I re-charged the battery and took the newly powered vehicle for a test drive. All went well as I drove around the neighborhood. I pulled back into my driveway, switched off the ignition, and then started it up again. Still no problem. With my triumph nearly confirmed, I asked Penny to take a ride with me. We started up the vehicle again, although I noticed a bit of sluggishness this time. Pulling out of the driveway and putting the beast into drive, I saw matters go wonky. The gas and temp gauges started to rock as lights dimmed. After pulling back into the driveway, I grumbled. Apparently the alternator wasn’t the problem after all.

As I reflected on my wasted afternoon and the money I’d dropped on the new alternator, it occurred to me that the car was behaving in exactly the way it had before and that we had previously done the test to assign the blame to the alternator.

“Wait . . . ,” I said, startling my dog. “What if I didn’t get those wires connected properly.” One wire screwed on securely, but the other was a plastic plug with several smaller wires trailing from it. That plug had been a chore to disconnect. Walking out to the car, I raised the hood and reached down to the suspected culprit. When I pulled it to the right, it slid out easily. Pushing it back in, with some force, I felt it click into place. There was my problem.

Now, several weeks later, the car is operating perfectly. Like I said, I’m a better English teacher.

Before I made that connection, the new alternator had been sitting in the engine compartment, spinning under the power of the serpentine belt, and generating electricity. It was doing its job, but my failure to connect it to the devices that wanted to use that electricity made it useless.

In Philippians 4:13, Paul offers one of his best quotable nuggets: “I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me. ” How does God strengthen me? He strengthens me through the Holy Spirit. In fact, in Acts 1:8 we learn that the Holy Spirit will give us power–electricity, if you will allow me some latitude.

As a believer, I have the Holy Spirit and its power within me, but sometimes I don’t have the wires connected properly to make use of that power. Sometimes, the power just goes wasted within me.

Fixing that bad connection to tap the new alternator’s power was pretty simple. It’s slightly harder to restore my connection to the Holy Spirit when I’ve allowed it to shake loose. However, unlike in my driveway mechanic work, I have the master mechanic ready to assist me in making good that connection.

Many Problems; One Solution

Recently, I took a rather frenzied call from my wife as she drove home from downtown Kansas City. My memory of it is as an echo of the lead-in to the old Six Million Dollar Man TV show with the aircraft crashing to earth: “I can’t hold altitude. She’s breaking up. She’s breaking up.”

In reality, Penny just informed me that everything in her car was acting strangely. Needles were rocking, lights were flashing, and the navigation screen was blanked out. “Should I pull over?” She asked.

I determined that if the engine kept running she should just drive on toward home. She made it home and left the engine running to allow me to experience the show. The air conditioner cut in and out. The gas and temperature gauges were going crazy. In short, nothing seemed to be working properly. And then the engine sputtered and died.

My first thought was that some hyper-expensive computer unit, something more costly than the car, had died. Such a problem would have fouled up our summer budget. But then I wondered about the alternator.

What made me blame the alternator? I don’t know, but, after charging the battery, I checked. (Start the car. When running, remove the negative cable from the battery. If it dies, the alternator is no good.) Sure enough, I had a bad alternator.

As I replaced that unit, I had time to think. Since I’m a rather slow and inexperienced mechanic, I had a great deal of time. What symptoms did the car show? It showed many. In the end, everything that required electricity was failing or acting strangely. It seemed that the vehicle had many problems. Yet in the end, there was only one.

What does an alternator do in a car? Basically, it’s a little electric generator. A tiny fraction of the engine’s energy drives a belt that turns a wheel that creates juice. The resulting current sparks the spark plugs, powers the air conditioning fan, keeps the radio playing, and does everything else that involves electricity–which is basically everything.

When I look at the problems in my life or the lives of people around me, many of them can be traced back to the alternator. When we do not receive sufficient current from the source of power–God–then we’re going to experience a variety of miscues and failures.

Can’t stop smoking, eating, watching porn, or drinking? Sounds like a power problem.  Can’t maintain relationships, jobs, or other responsibilities? It’s the alternator. Can’t get excited about a life of worship or genuinely care about the people around you? Again, it’s that power source.

Just as not all problems with a car can be traced to the alternator, not all those in life can be blamed on the connection to God’s power. Still, many problems that seem to have various sources are really focused on that one connection.


How Yoga Came to America Via Russia

YogaA recent interview on NPR’s show Fresh Aire featured Michelle Goldberg, author of a book on yoga as it is known in the United States.

Her book traces the modern Western practice of yoga to a Russian woman named Indra Devi, who was born in 1899 with the birth name Eugenia Peterson. Devi became interested in yoga after reading about it in book written by an American new-age thinker. She studied the practice in India before introducing it to political leaders in Russia and Shanghai and, in 1947, bringing it to America, where her students included Hollywood celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.

So if Goldberg is correct, then yoga as we now know it in a zillion studios is about as authentically Indian as Taco Bell is authentically Mexican. Who would have taken seriously a yoga teacher named Eugenia Peterson. Indra Devi just sounded so much more exotic!

Goldberg explains that not only was the teacher not exactly the real deal but the yoga that Peterson brought from India was probably not terribly similar to the yoga that had been practiced in the dim and distant past along the banks of the Ganges,

There’s no mention of warrior poses or sun salutations in any ancient text at all. That might be a little disillusioning to some people, [but] what I hope and what it ultimately meant to me, is we don’t have to feel so anxious about the authenticity of our modern practices because like anything … it’s a modern adaptation and that might, I hope, let people feel a little less anxious about adapting it for their own needs.

That means that those sun salutations that Don Draper was dragged into doing in the final episode of Mad Men were just about as traditional as the advertisements that poured out of the man’s imagination.

I’ve written about yoga before, explaining my mixed feelings on the topic. At its heart, I think my biggest beef with yoga is its pretensions to be something that it is not. When it turns out that the modern versions of evangelical Christianity are every bit as “ancient” as is yoga (as practiced in the U.S.), I feel a great deal more spiritual than I did before.

Meditation for Everyone?

YogaWhat could meditation possibly hurt? It’s not some wicked thing like Christianity. We all know the terrible things that Christians do. You know…there were the Crusades. And the Crusades. Oh yeah, and the Salem Witch Trials. That was only 400-plus years ago. And Christianity today is just as deadly, right?

On the other hand, meditation is all smiling people on hillsides saluting the sun and becoming mindful. It’s all about living in the moment. After all, wasn’t it the Buddha who told us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”?

Yes, these thoughts might be an exaggeration of the attitudes of popular culture’s view of meditation and “mindfulness” practices as no-brainer, harmless, non-religious practices, but they are not utterly off base. A lot of people thought that Don Draper going to a meditation retreat at the end of Mad Men looked like a good idea. What would they have thought had he gone off to commune with Dominicans or Billy Graham? If Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, had been a Presbyterian, don’t you think the critics would have been all over that? Instead, he was obsessed with meditation.

From a purely anecdotal standpoint, if Russell Brand thinks meditation is terrific, shouldn’t we be skeptical? Just a thought.

As it turns out, a fair amount of literature by reputable researchers has been suggesting that meditation might not be quite as benign as people have been led to believe. A couple of recent articles (here and here) have given an overview. David Shapiro of UCLA did a study of a small group and found that 63% of them had negative outcomes from meditation.

The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation. But perhaps only the least experienced felt them – and might several days of meditation not overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all had an equal number of adverse experiences.

Currently, researchers in England have been looking into the practice, especially as it has been adopted as a more mainstream psychological therapy.

And one in 14 of them suffered ‘profoundly adverse effects’, according to Miguel Farias, head of the brain, belief and behaviour research group at Coventry University and Catherine Wikholm, a researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey.

Granted, Farias and Wikholm have a book to sell, The Buddha Pill, but there findings should be enough to at least warrant some concern. If a medical procedure had severe negative effects for 1 in 14 patients, would the FDA permit its use?

It shouldn’t surprise the Christian thinker that Buddhist-style meditation, in which the practitioner attempts to empty the mind, would lead to negative results. The human mind doesn’t empty very readily, but it can shake off the restricting forces that keep our worst thoughts at bay. Left to its own, hopelessly sinful, devices, my mind can go to some exceptionally dark places, places I don’t want to visit without the Holy Spirit along for protection.