Where Was Kira When the Lights Went Out

Where was Kira when the lights went out? In the dark?

The lights are off, but somebody’s home. That was the situation in the home of a woman–let’s call her Kira. The city, which runs the water and electricity utilities had turned off service, leaving Kira and her children dry and in the dark.

If you’re like me, you might be sitting there smugly thinking how you’ve always managed to pay your bills and how you’d never let such a thing happen. Let me assure you that, although she might have taken missteps along the way, Kira is not a deadbeat or an incompetent. A year ago, she had endured a serious injury that took time to heal, time when she couldn’t work. The family got behind on an already-tight budget. Things snowballed, and eventually they owed several thousand dollars.

When we realized this problem existed, we felt the desire to help, but that’s not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to focus on Kira and what she did.

First, she continued to teach her kids–middle to high school in age–to trust in God and live obedient lives. Tough times were not an excuse for ugly behavior in Kira’s house.

Second, after she got back to work, she did not simply focus her thoughts on getting the family’s budget righted. Instead, she continued to look at the people around her. The lady next door needed her yard mowed but couldn’t push the mower around the lawn. Kira thought, “I have time, and I have legs. I can mow her grass.” Many people in Kira’s situation would have sat back licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves.

When she saw another neighbor, she felt led to give that woman some groceries. Sure, by taking food out of her own pantry, Kira was costing the family money that they needed to get right with the utility office, but she still did it. The neighbor thanked her, explaining how they had no cash for groceries for the rest of the month.

Then came Sunday. After discovering how much it would take to get at least Kira’s water turned back on, Penny and I felt a definite urge to help. Penny’s small group, told anonymously of the situation of this woman most of them didn’t know, collected funds, more than we had expected. A new member of the class, somebody attending for the second time, didn’t have cash but brought a large sum to our house in the afternoon.

When Kira brought the kids over that evening to take showers and run some laundry, Penny, without comment, handed her an envelope containing over $800, more than double what she needed to get the water turned on.

I have been young and now I am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous abandoned
or his children begging for bread.
He is always generous, always lending,
and his children are a blessing.–Psalm 37:25-26

I’m pretty sure that Kira didn’t mow grass or share groceries thinking about a payoff from God. She did those things for the same reason we all put money into that envelope: to seek God’s kingdom first.

Doing that, we know that all we needed will be provided for us. Where was Kira when the lights went out? From what I can see, she was standing and trusting in the light.

Is the Last First?

I wonder if my siblings think the arrangement is fair? I’m the youngest of four in my family, and we’re spread out over 20 years. That means that my sister has invested 20 more years of life with our parents than I have. She had 20 more years with our father when he died and she’ll have 20 more with our mother at the end of her run. My brothers, then, have 15 and 10 years additional.

Despite this, our mother’s will stipulates that everything be split four ways. Does that seem fair? Shouldn’t I get less, having fewer years of service to claim? Maybe that’s why, when it came time to choose an executor for that will, both of my brothers pointed at me.

This question draws me to another of Jesus’ kingdom parables, this one in Matthew 20:1-16. Here, he tells the story of a vineyard owner (God) hiring people (believers) to work in his vineyard. He promises the early-morning hires a denarius. Then he keeps hiring more people throughout the day, adding some just before quitting time. In the end, he pays all of them a denarius, regardless of how long they worked. The all-day workers are incensed, complaining of the unfair treatment. The vineyard owner’s response fills the last few verses of the passage:

“He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like this story of the vineyard. If that’s the case, then what do we learn about the kingdom from this account? Does it indicate that absolutely everybody who enters into the kingdom will receive the same reward?

If that’s what Jesus is saying then it seems to run counter to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Although the metaphor is different there–building instead of vineyard-tending–the ideas coexist. The all-day vineyard workers (or quality builders) can look at the work they have done as well as at the pay in their hands as a reward.

So what are our takeaways from this parable?

  • The kingdom involves labor in this life and then payment at the end of the “day.”
  • The kingdom rewards all of its subjects equally, regardless of their term of service.
  • The kingdom, therefore, excludes the pride of being the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.
  • The kingdom’s work, intuited from 1 Corinthians 3, can be its own reward for the most dedicated workers.

I’d write more, but in a few minutes I have to go to my mother’s house and drive her to her hair appointment. Most likely I’ll need to fix something she’s done to her computer. Tonight, after the rain, I’ll think about her leaky basement. Maybe I am earning that full share among my siblings after all.

 

 

Children’s Hour

Kids are cute? Who says? Kids cry. They argue and fuss and fume. Kids are often dirty, often impatient, often demanding. Honestly, the only thing worse than kids is the adults they grow into!

A church that I attended early in my adult life, during years that I had small children at home, used to have that “kids are cute” mentality etched onto their brains. Mostly this attitude was maintained by grandparents and other people who didn’t have kids at home. These people didn’t attempt to teach kids in Sunday School, they didn’t sit with kids during service, and they didn’t struggle to coax cooperation out of kids 168 hours during the week. Those people would smile and parrot back a particular teaching of Jesus without giving much thought to the paradoxical nature of it.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “So who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child and had him stand among them. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.–Matthew 18:1-4

I can remember people from the “Kids are Cute” Church stroking their chins and affecting a look of profound wisdom. “And why are children great in the kingdom of heaven?” they would ask. They’d pause for effect. “Because children are humble.” Then they’d look at you as if they’d just imparted the most amazing truth. Never mind that the idea of humility is right there in the passage.

The people at that long-ago church were nice enough, but they were a little too enamored of their own learning. They knew better than all these foolish teachings of the old fashioned Christianity. They tended toward the “Serene Jones” view of the gospel. And that fact gets me to my takeaway for this teaching on the kingdom of heaven.

  • The kingdom does require humility and a childlike level of dependance. Just as a child would have a very difficult time surviving without adult help, the child of the kingdom cannot hope to survive with God’s provision.
  • The kingdom, on the other hand, does not require a great deal of knowledge.

As a person with many years of education, with a number of letters stringing off behind my name, I’m eager to believe that you really have to know a lot to enter the kingdom. But if a child can do it, then the knowledge must not be the key. Children know very little. They can’t read. They can’t explain the difference between free will and predestination. They certainly cannot intelligently discuss the concept of penal substitution.

Yet there they are in the front row of the kingdom.

When we seek the kingdom, we are not primarily seeking knowledge. Knowledge is good, and Jesus never suggests that His followers remain as unknowledgeable as those children. You can learn a great deal, but when your learning causes you to move out of childlike dependance on God, you’ll be drawn to that former church of mine.

Welcome the Royal Baby

The Royal Baby now has a name: Archie. Rumor has it that if Archie has a little brother, they’re going to name it Jughead, but that might just be a rumor.

Why do Americans, who are almost biologically against monarchy, take so much interest in the doings of the British royal family? I don’t understand it, yet I did watch both seasons of The Crown and then a couple of documentaries about the Windsors of the early 20th century. It’s like watching Honey Booboo with a lot nicer clothes. But I digress.

I’ve spent considerable time recently considering the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13. Those parables shed some light on precisely what the kingdom of God constitutes, but they’re not the whole story. In fact, if we read Matthew as a chronological account, then we might find the encounter between Jesus and his naysayers in Matthew 12 as the impetus for those parables.

When the Pharisees couldn’t deny the miracles that Jesus was performing, specifically casting out demons, they assumed that He did this work by Satanic power. Jesus didn’t even wait for them to speak:

Knowing their thoughts, he told them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons drive them out? For this reason they will be your judges. If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.–Matthew 12:25-28

I want to draw attention to the end of that passage. In the first part, Jesus argues that it makes no sense for Satan to power an anti-demon action. Having established that, He seeks to make a more significant point. “If I [Jesus] drive out demons by the Spirit of God” (which He apparently had), “then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

There’s that kingdom of God again. What had changed to lead to this conclusion? There were demon-possessed people before Jesus. There were Pharisees before Jesus. In fact, pretty much everything was the same as it had been except that Jesus was there and demonstrating the power that attended Him.

You can’t have a kingdom without a king, and by demonstrating His power, Jesus was demonstrating that He is the king of the kingdom of God. Many people incorrectly say that Jesus never claimed to be God, but here’s another case where He, if not making that claim, comes pretty close.

Ultimately, whatever else we know about the kingdom pales next to the fact that the kingdom revolves around and gains its power from Jesus, the king. When He came into the world, the kingdom of God came into the world in a manner it had never done before.

Little Prince Archie might fascinate the world, but the truly important royal baby was born in Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago. I’d proclaim, “Long live the King,” but I don’t really need to.

Estate Sale

Don’t tell my mother, but our plan, when we clean out her house in the not-to-distant future will involve a dumpster. There’s a good bit of material in her house that just needs to go. Yes, she will say “Somebody might need that!” but nobody is going to need the broken charger to lost batteries for a thirty-year-old nose-hair clipper. Nobody.

On the other hand, she has a good bit of material around that house that is going to find its way into various family members’ homes. I have my eye on her vast collection of Hummel figurines. You just can’t have too many of those.

This idea pops into my mind as I read the last of the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13.

“Therefore,” he said to them, “every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures new and old.”–Matthew 13:52

It doesn’t take much effort to see that this parable is different from the other six. While it does tell us some things about the kingdom that Matthew 6:33 has us seeking, it also takes a step back from the kingdom to talk about what happens when a “teacher of the law” becomes a disciple.

Much of the accumulation of 90-plus years in my mother’s house is junk, but there’s also a lot that might seem worthless to my grandkids but will actually thrill other people. I’m sure that we’ll one day have an estate sale that witnesses various people finding treasures that we might have discarded. Some of the items in that house mean something to me because of my history with them.

I think that gets at the point Jesus was making in this parable. The “teacher of the law” or “scribe,” grammateus in the Greek, was someone learned in understanding and teaching the law. These people, in Jesus’ time, absolutely knew their Bibles, even though their Bibles were only our Old Testament. So what would happen when these people followed the kingdom? They would be able to bring their prior knowledge and expertise and, in the light of the kingdom, turn it into “treasures old and new.”

An old treasure might be seeing a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice in the story of Abraham and Isaac. A new treasure would be an understanding of Jesus’ teachings deepened by past learning.

So what does this parable add to our understanding of the kingdom of God?

  • The kingdom is not only valuable in its own right; it makes other things more valuable.
  • The kingdom’s value can be made more apparent by knowledgeable students and teachers of the Word.

Like my mother’s house, mine holds a certain number of treasures, but, at the end of the day, I hope that the most glittering things at my estate sale reflect my fidelity to the kingdom.

A Colossal Waste of Time and Energy

They came. They ate. They listened to the music, and they left a mess behind them. That’s my slightly grumpy report on the 2019 Widows Luncheon at my church. Hosted by the deacons, this event is an annual thing, gathering several dozen widows and about 20 deacons and their wives. We feed these ladies, provide moderate-quality musical entertainment, and then clean up after them. That, all in all, is the colossal waste of time and energy–not to mention resources and talent.

Honestly, what benefit is there in this production. The deacons are asked to toss money into the till to cover much of the cost. We give up a high-quality spring Sunday afternoon. We make awkward small talk with women that, in many cases, we’ve never met before. And what do we have to show for it at the end of the day?

“Is there going to be a program?” one lady asked me when I finally stole a moment to eat a bowl of soup.

“Yes!” I wanted to say. “Don’t we always have a program?”

“You should do a dinner next year,” another woman said. Really? Then we’d have to run a taxi service for all those ladies who don’t drive after dark. And it would cost more, because she was thinking of more substantial food.

Apparently somebody told a lady–a friend of mine–that she couldn’t sit at their table. This pushed her over the edge and out the door. I think she drove through Arby’s on the way home.

Is this sort of work really worthwhile? Wouldn’t it make more sense investing ourselves in evangelism or in discipling kids–you know, people who have a longer potential span of ministry ahead of them? Sometimes I think the problem with the church is that we just don’t run it on sound business principles. I’m proposing a cost-benefit analysis on the widows luncheon next year.

But then I pause and reflect for a moment. When, in John 21, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep,” I notice that there aren’t a lot of conditions or modifiers attached to that directive. He doesn’t say

  • Feed them if there’s a profit in it.
  • Feed them if they’re nice to you.
  • Feed them if it makes sense to you.
  • Feed them if it fits into your strategic goals and enterprise objectives.

No, he just says, “Feed my sheep.” So that’s what we did yesterday afternoon. That’s what we’ll do next year, I’m sure.

And in reality, most of the ladies were polite and appreciative. The work was light and shared by many hands. The time invested was redeemed when I got to play with my granddaughter during the evening, and the twenty dollars I put in the hopper didn’t keep me from driving through Arby’s on the way home.

When I started writing this, I didn’t intend to bring it back to Matthew 6:33, but there it is again. When we seek God’s kingdom, even when the means of seeking seems pointless, good will flow out of it and all of our needs will be added to us as well.

A young man unjustly murdered on a Roman cross. That would seem an even more colossal waste, but it seems God made something out it. Who am I to hold back my efforts?

 

The Worst Day Fishing . . .

The only fish I ever caught during my brief foray into fly fishing was a tiny sucker. When I say “sucker,” I’m not using slang. The fish was a white sucker (Catostomus commersonii), one of three varieties of suckers that swim in Missouri streams. The fish was so tiny that I didn’t realize I had it on the hook for a good thirty seconds. My line moved around some, but I couldn’t tell if it was a fish or just the action of the current.

My companions and I had a good laugh when this lunker finally emerged from the water. I worked the hook out of its lip and tossed it back into the stream. Clearly this wasn’t a “keeper.”

For any fish that gets tossed back into the water after being caught, that fate is a positive one, but in today’s parable of the kingdom, you don’t want to be thrown out. Let’s take a look at the verses:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a large net thrown into the sea. It collected every kind of fish, and when it was full, they dragged it ashore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but threw out the worthless ones. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out, separate the evil people from the righteous, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.–Matthew 13:47-50

My first response is an old Yogi Berra line: “It’s like deja vu all over again.” Like the treasure and pearl parables, this one seems to cover most of the same ground as the wheat and tares story. But then, like that previous pairing, this one is structured differently. Here, rather than the actor (farmer/fisherman) being the kingdom, it is the tool, the net.

What’s strange about this tale to me is that the fate of both good and bad fish seems negative. The good fish are put into containers, presumably to be sold and eaten. The bad fish are thrown away. Am I over-interpreting things again?

It seems clear here that the important fact is that both good and bad “fish” can be caught in the net but that the bad will be pulled out down the road. If, like the farmer in the wheat and tares parable, the net here represents Jesus or “the Son of Man” (Matthew 13:37), then we see that the kingdom will touch or even catch up many people who are not keepers.

Can we draw new conclusions from this parable?

  • The kingdom exists to serve its own (or God’s) ends, not ours. No one fishes for the benefit of the fish.
  • The kingdom is somewhat indiscriminate in whom it nets. Just because someone has wound up in the net does not mean that they will spend eternity with God. That explains why some people in every age appear to be “caught up” in Christ but wind up not knowing Him.
  • The kingdom is an inexorable force. Fish do not choose to be caught and, when a net is involved, have very little option to avoid being caught. Similarly, we don’t choose Christ; He chose us. (John 15:16)

These last two conclusions are a bit difficult to reconcile with the verse that led us here, Matthew 6:33. That study will have to wait for another day, however.

 

The Six-String Kingdom

A 1957 Fender Stratocaster will set you back somewhere between $10,000 and $25,000. Just to be clear, I don’t own one. I knew a guy, though, who owned some fantastic vintage guitars–although nothing quite that extraordinary. The weird thing is that Dale wasn’t that great a guitar player, and he was chronically broke. In fact, at one point he found himself on the cusp of bankruptcy and set about hiding his guitars so that they wouldn’t get sold to help discharge a portion of his debts.

Here’s an example of a person who spent a great deal of money on something that made absolutely no sense for him to buy. Instead of taking care of his finances, he just couldn’t stop buying guitars and other music gear.

To the outside world, that’s what it must look like when a Christian takes the kingdom of God seriously. Jesus told us, in Matthew 6:33, to seek first the kingdom. Then he used a thick flurry of parables to help us understand precisely what it was we were to seek.

Immediately after the “buried treasure” parable, we find the parable of the pearl or the “pearl of great price.”

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it.–Matthew 13:45-46

On first blush, this parable looks like an exact parallel of the buried treasure one. Somebody found something that was incredibly valuable and then sacrificed everything to ensure that they possessed that something. But that’s on first blush.

There are some major differences between these two parables. First of all, in the first, the kingdom is the valuable thing. In the second, the kingdom is the person who finds it. So which is it? Can Jesus not keep his stories straight? It would have been simple for Him to simply say that the kingdom is the pearl, but He didn’t. I think this is because it is not as simple as saying that the kingdom is the valuable thing or the person who finds it. It’s a combination of them.

The other big difference is that the merchant seems to be making a bad financial choice. If you find a hidden treasure and buy it, you can then sell the treasure and make a big profit. If you buy the priceless pearl at a market price you can’t really hope to sell it at a profit anytime soon. Having sold everything he had, what’s the merchant going to do?

We learn a couple of new things about the kingdom from this parable.

  • The kingdom, while incredibly valuable, probably will not look good to an accountant. It’s not reducible to dollars and cents.
  • The kingdom is a relational thing. Its value comes when God and human come together in it.

What makes a guitar valuable? A serious player could tell the difference between the 1957 Stratocaster and today’s model in a moment. But could they explain that difference? Probably not. It’s a guitar thing. You wouldn’t understand.

A Trustworthy Treasure

Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly–I used to be really involved in the Scouting movement, at the same time I was involved in a religious denomination that wasn’t excessively Christian.

In about 1997, when I realized that this church’s direction did not match my beliefs, I headed for the door. A few months earlier, sitting on a denominational advisory committee for Scouting, I was nominated as the group’s chaplain at the upcoming Boy Scout National Jamboree. What could be cooler than going to a National Jamboree on the staff in a flexible and wide-ranging role?

Oddly, I didn’t hear anything from the Jamboree people through the fall of 1996 and into the first months of 1997. When they called me in the spring of 1997, I vaguely noted that my situation had changed, and I couldn’t fill this role.

As I got off the phone that day, I smiled. I hadn’t hesitated a moment in passing up an assignment that I had previously coveted. Yes, I had to abandon an intriguing opportunity for that summer, but it didn’t make me pause for a moment.

In the next of Jesus’ Matthew 13 parables of the kingdom, we discover a parallel to my experience:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.–Matthew 13:44

I had the treasure. As much as I still enjoyed Scouting, it didn’t bother me a bit to give up that opportunity in order to embrace that treasure. Twenty-two years later, I have never regretted my decision. I gain a couple of conclusions from this verse.

  • The kingdom of God is incredibly valuable. It is not one among many things of value in our lives. It is valuable beyond compare.
  • The kingdom of God is not something we buy or work for. This guy found the treasure, but he did not work for it. Even if he was plowing when he found it, he didn’t plow for it.
  • The kingdom of God is worth every sacrifice that we make to secure it. The important fact in this parable is not that the man bought a field. It is that he obtained the treasure with the field as a necessary afterthought.
  • The kingdom of God is something that, when found, should bring us joy. This man did not hesitate or do a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, he jumped joyfully into action.

But here’s the question that I’m left with as I read this verse. Is the kingdom still something that I would sacrifice the near and dear to enjoy or maintain? Do I feel the joy of my salvation like I did when I first received it. What about you? If not, maybe we need to refresh ourselves on Matthew 6:33 and the kingdom of God we’re seeking.

The Sourdough Whisperer

My wonderful wife has become an expert with sourdough. She keeps sourdough starter sitting on our kitchen cabinets, “feeding” it every day. Sometimes she gets overzealous and the quart jar of starter slowly bursts out the top. Most of the time, though, she just makes sourdough bread and sourdough biscuits and sourdough waffles and, once, sourdough bagels.

Yes, I’m a very lucky man.

If you’ve been following along with me in trying to discover what this “kingdom of God” is that Matthew 6:33 tells us that we’re supposed to seek first, you might know that we’ve come to the third of seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13. Today, we’re onto the shortest of the bunch:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into fifty pounds of flour until all of it was leavened.”–Matthew 13:33

I have to admit that I get distracted with that one. What is that woman going to make with that flour now that it has yeast in it? And will she share?

So far, the parables have compared the kingdom of God to plants in a field and to a tiny little seed. What sort of choppy focus must Jesus have had to now compare the kingdom to yeast?

I think there’s a good reason why Jesus compares the kingdom to seven exceptionally different things in this chapter and to several others elsewhere in Matthew. You see, the kingdom of God is not really like anything else. It is unique. All similes or other metaphors are imperfect. Despite my mother saying it, most little kids do not literally “grow like a weed.” But the comparisons of earthly and well-known things to the other-worldly and unknown kingdom of God are, by necessity, even more of a stretch. One comparison just won’t get the job done.

What do we learn from this yeasty parable?

  • First, I’d say that the kingdom of God is something where a little goes a long way. In that sense, this parable parallels the mustard seed.
  • Second, the kingdom of God, like the leaven, does its work from within. It is essentially invisible but its outcome is visible to everyone. And once it starts, it is difficult to stop.
  • Finally, somebody has to work the kingdom into the flour. A little bit of yeast will do an amazing job on a pile of dough, but it won’t do it if it remains in the packet.

That leaves me with an unanswered question. In this parable, a woman works the yeast into the flour. Who is the woman? Is the woman God? Is the woman a follower of God? Honestly, I’m not sure that question is even relevant. The important “actor” here is the yeast.

Sourdough starter is amazing stuff. So long as you keep it supplied with food (flour), it will just continue to produce more and more. Perhaps that helps explain why Jesus described Himself as the Bread of Life in John 6.

Now, pass the biscuits!