What’s the Deal with Ash Wednesday?

What’s the deal with Ash Wednesday?
Let me say up front that you don’t have to mark this day. It’s a Christian tradition that goes back about 1200 years, but that means it was developed about 800 years after the first church. So, no, there’s nothing in this that binds you to keep it as a holy day.
Ash Wednesday, like the season of Lent which follows this day, is an invitation. It is a spiritual practice, a habit that forms us by centering us on Christ and connecting us to the Body of Christ.
All spiritual habits are meant to help us become a habitation for the Holy Spirit and His work in and through us for God’s glory, for our good, and for the life of the world.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation  to humble ourselves.
The psalmist wrote that, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). The remembrance that we are dust comes in the context of God’s compassion for us. We are never scolded for being frail. It is God’s tenderness toward us that frees us to confess our need of him. Because our heavenly Father is gentle and patient, long-suffering and understanding, abounding in compassion, we humble ourselves, like little children. And it is here we realize that as little children, we are the ones to whom Jesus said the Kingdom belongs.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation to confess our sins.
Ashes in the Bible were a sign of sorrow and mourning (2 Sam. 13:19, Is. 61:3, Jer. 6:26, Ez. 27:30). Covering yourself or marking yourself with ashes was also an act of repentance and of turning toward God’s face. Daniel says that he “turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). Jesus uses ashes symbolically to speak of repentance (Matthew 11:21). So, on Ash Wednesday we remember not only our frailty, but also our failure. We come before the  God who is not only the Creator, but who is also the Redeemer.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation to remember God’s mercy and faithful love. 
Even before we knew how to call on HIs name, God was calling us. While we were still sinners, St. Paul wrote, Christ died for us. It is not our repentance that persuades God to be merciful to us; it is God’s mercy that leads us to repentance. What we find when we humble ourselves before the Lord, is that Jesus is already bending low, on the ground with us. And as He rises, He raises us up with Him.

This is the whole point of Lent: It is a re-enacting of the story of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. But this re-enactment is not simply so we remember it; it is so we can realize that as we journey with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb it is actually God who has come to keep company with us. God with us in our weakness and death; God with us for our victory and resurrection. 

 


 

fullsizeoutput_9a4aNew Life Downtown is hosting an Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday, February 26th, from 7pm-8:15pm at Palmer High School. All are welcome. 

Reflections on Love, Sacrifice, and the Gospel of “Frozen 2”

There are two ways of doing theological reflection on popular art like movies. One way is to try to uncover the “operating theology” in a culture by looking at how it depicts concepts like salvation and goal of existence. Such an approach can help a Christian to distinguish cultural narratives from the good news of Christ, and to identify points of engagement with the Gospel. The other way of doing theologic reflection on popular art is to look for ways the Gospel is actually hinted at in the art, even if unknowingly. This is like trying to find how God has hidden eternity in our hearts, so that even our aspirations and longings, encoded into our art, might be aimed at Christ. The first approach is one an apologist might take; the second, what a missiologist may use.

A friend and respected colleague of mine, Pastor Brett Davis, posted some thoughts recently on Frozen 2. It was insightful and thought-provoking. And it caught my attention because I had jotted down thoughts in quite an opposite direction. We decided that both perspectives may be helpful toward different ends. So, here they are. First, Brett’s beautiful thoughts.

The Gospel in Frozen 2 (and Frozen)

We see profound reflections of the gospel in both films. The self-giving love of God in Jesus echoes primarily through Anna in Frozen. We see Anna bear a wound from her sister trapped in self-obsession and then watch her lay down her own life for the sake of love. Anna’s unwavering love for Elsa mirrors God’s own unwavering love for the world. And it leads to eerily similar results: restored relationship, “resurrection,” a liberated cosmos. Anna’s willingness to self-sacrifice transforms Elsa, freeing her of her fearful existence in self-obsession and opening her up to the possibility of love. And then Elsa actively participates in liberating the world from its icy bondage (Rom 8.19-21).

The gospel reflections differ in the Frozen 2. These films stories are obviously not Christian allegory; rather they are two songs echoing the gospel melody in different ways. Second time around, Elsa explicitly embodies the “heaven-sent savior.” She gradually comes to recognize the necessity of her descending into the pit of darkness to reveal truth, atone for the sin of her family, and ultimately reign over every other power and authority (the elemental spirits). Anna, on the other hand, grants us a sobering and inspiring picture of the cost of discipleship. With her death, Elsa makes the truth known to Anna and Anna resolves to carry the cross through darkness (“the next right thing”) even through it will cost her everything (Arendelle). She loses her life and finds it.

The skeptic might consider these phantom melodies generated by a straining ear through the noise. Perhaps the skeptic is right. But it could also be that C.S. Lewis was right: the story of Jesus is the “true myth” to which all other human stories bear witness in fleeting fits and flashes. Our hearts ache for the gospel. And the beauty of the gospel takes our breath away even when a story unknowingly reflects it like mirror dimly. The Frozen films are perhaps a dim, distorted funhouse mirror, but gospel reflections are shimmering for those with eyes to see.


The Neo-Spiritualism of Frozen 2

I agree with Brett: there were many rich and good themes. For example, the permanence of love amidst the impermanence of life; the practical wisdom of doing the next right thing when the future is unknown; and resilience amidst depression, loneliness, and self-doubt. There is also the redemptive power of a willingness to suffer great loss in order to rectify an ancient wrong, the embrace of sacrifice in the service of reconciliation.

But there is also an expression of the neo-spiritualism of our day. Elsa is in search of the spirit that is the key to truth and freedom— in this case, the bridge between nature and humanity. In asking this higher power, divine force, to show itself, she discovers it’s…(SPOILER!) her. The god we are searching for is ourselves, fully realized. This is the quintessential spirituality of the secularized Western world today. There is no divine disclosure of a transcendent god— a creator or source, a redeemer or delivered; there is only the unveiling of the self as the true divine.

Elsa is in some ways set up to be a Christ-figure— a meditator who restores “shalom” to the world. And she does so by descending to the depths. But the “salvation” is not a victory over the powers or a deliverance, but a revealing of truth, not unlike the Gnosticism of the ancient times. Moreover, instead of being raised up by God (as Jesus was by the Father through the Spirit), Elsa is saved by her sister finding the courage to actualize her own potential. Not only is salvation knowledge, but the savior is you and me self-actualized.


Frozen 2 is great fun and very moving. And the music is killer. Regardless of which reflection resonates with you, we can echo the words of Olaf, “I just thought of one thing that’s permanent: love.”

How Jesus Re-shapes Power

Power comes in many forms. We can be in a position of power over others because of our job title, our relational network, our expertise, our wealth, our skill level, and more. Privilege is a form of power– the things we were born into, the gifts we have been given by our family history or heritage. We are getting better at naming various sources and kinds of power.

But we are are no better at knowing what to do with power. In today’s world, power itself is seen as the problem. We want to strip people of it, and deny the necessity of leadership. Surely power is an infectious disease, for as the adage goes: power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

So, what should we do with the power we have? For the Christian, power has to be re-shaped by Jesus. There is one who, though He was rich, yet for our sake He became poor. Jesus showed humanity what to do with power.

Here are three things we observe about Jesus and power:

1. Jesus inverted the power dynamic. In John 13, when Jesus knew that the Father had entrusted all things to His care, He took off His robe— possibly a symbol of status itself— and began to do what servants do and washed the disciples’ feet.

2. Jesus embraced weakness. Jesus said that no one took His life; He laid it down. He did not fight to preserve or protect His power. He did not consider equality with God “a thing to be grasped”. He willingly “emptied Himself” and became “obedient” even to “death on the cross”, as Philippians 2 says in the climactic point of the poem.

3. Jesus distributed power. At the end of Matthew’s gospel when He sent the disciples into all the world. Having been given all authority, He sent others. The mission had to be bigger than one man. It had to multiply.

The lessons here for us are obvious but worth stating. To be a Christian with power— any kind of power: privilege, position, wealth, talent, gifts, influence, networks, and more— is to do what Christ did with power.

We use our power in the service others. What resources do you have that can be used to benefit others? How can our strengths not add to our status but but summoned for service?

We sacrifice our power for the sake of others. How can you put yourself at a disadvantage in order to give others an advantage? How can you refrain from things you may have a right to in order to leave some for others?

We share our power with others. What would it look like to collaborate instead of command? How could you give others a chance to do something you could do just as well if not better?

I’m not sure there is a way to eliminate power. And I’m not sure that should be the goal. But what we can do is name the power we have and be held accountable to use it in ways that are Christlike. This is how Christians become trustworthy people.

The Enlightenment’s Lie About the Basis of Human Rights

It is all the rage to talk about how oppressive Christianity is and has always been. It’s even more troubling to see some Christians parroting similar lines. Don’t believe it. It is a myth perpetuated since the Enlightenment that Christianity’s contribution to the world is oppression and abuse. As a corollary, the myth also purports that human rights are self-evident. Some add that returning to the way of the Ancients— Greece and Rome— would set us on the path to peace and freedom. Religion in general and Christianity in particular, so the story goes, has led to nothing but wars, doctrinal squabbles, and power grabs.

The sins of the Church are indefensible— exploitation and conquest, abuse and compromise, manipulation and control and more. The critiques of the Christian justification of imperial exploitation are on-target and well-deserved. But those critiques are not original to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It was Christians who said them first. From Alcuin to Aquinas, from Bartholome de las Casas to Benjamin Lay, it was Christians who most fervently condemned conquest and slavery. But my point here is not to balance the scales of the appraisal of Christianity’s contribution nor even to go blow for blow about its good versus its ills. The point is simply this: Not only do Christians critique their own failures, they do so on the basis of Christian teaching.

Secular historian Tom Holland writes:

“The paradox that weakness that weakness might be a source of strength, that a victim might triumph over his torturers, treat suffering might constitute victory, lay at the heart of the Gospels…The standards by which [Voltaire] judged Christianity, and condemned it for its faults, were not universal. They were not shared by philosophers across the world. They were not common from Beijing to Cayenne. They were distinctively, peculiarly Christian.” (Dominion, p. 394)

In other words, power struggles and abuses were not unique to the Church or to Christendom. What was unique, however, was the basis for condemning it: a savior who died in order to save, a king who was killed in order to conquer sin and death.

But the French never had a Reformation, so their response to the abuses of the Church was to reject Christianity wholesale in the revolt of the philosophers which came to be called in a self-congratulatory way, the “Enlightenment”. Yet the idea that they could simply return to reason as a new kind of religion was itself a myth.

Take, for example, the notion that human rights are ancient. Well, as Holland points out, the Persians were renown for perfecting the art of torture, the Greeks for raping the women of a city they conquered, and the Romans for incorporating both and adding the practices of paedophilia and infanticide to the list. It was Christianity which made the above practices criminal.

Even the French philosopher Marquis de Sade who hated Christianity taught that the “doctrine of loving one’s neighbor is a fantasy that we owe to Christianity and not to Nature” (p. 407). Sade, following what the ancients took for granted, believed some men were born to be masters, and others slaves. The inferior class of human was only slightly above a chimpanzee. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies because of their declaration of human rights in the late 1700s, they were tempted to make exceptions and delay the implementation of abolition. It was the outcry of the British public— Evangelical English men and women— who put the pressure on British diplomacy. Eventually, it took the British navy to block French slave ships from continuing the trade in Africa in the early 1800s.

What about the universality of human rights? Aren’t they self-evident? The claim that the language of human rights “…existed naturally within the fabric of things, and had always done so, transcending time and space”. Holland counters:

Yet this, of course, was quite as fantastical a belief as anything to be found in the Bible. The evolution of the concept of human rights, mediated as it had been since the Reformation by Protestant jurists, and philosophes, had come to obscure its original authors. It derived, not from Ancient Greece or Rome, but from the period of history condemned by all right-thinking revolutionaries as a lost millennium, in which any hint of enlightenment had at once been snuffed out by monkish, book-burning fanatics. It was an inheritance from the canon lawyers of the Middle Ages” (Dominion, pp. 401-02).

The notion of a human right began modestly enough with canon lawyers in the 1200s. How were the Christians to square the rampant inequality between rich and poor with the insistence of numerous Church Fathers that “the use of all things should be common to all”?’ (p. 239). After the completion of the Decretum (a compilation of church canons and teaching), they arrived at a solution: “A starving pauper who stole from a rich man did so, according to a growing number of legal scholars, iure naturali— ‘in accordance with natural law’ ” (p. 239). Thus, they were not guilty of a crime. Holland sums it up this way:
“Charity, no longer voluntary, was being rendered a legal obligation…That the rich had a duty to give to the poor was, of course, a principle as old as Christianity itself. What no one had thought to argue before, though, was a matching principle: that the poor had an entitlement to the necessities of life. It was— in a formulation increasingly deployed by canon lawyers— a human “right”’ (Dominion, p. 239).

Then, when he visited the Spanish colonies in the Americas, the friar Bartholome de las Casas began to rebuke Christians on both sides of the Atlantic for thinking that they had not merely a right but a duty to conquer and ‘prosecute’ idol-worshipping peoples (pp. 346-7). Though such a view sat easily with Aristotle’s doctrine that ‘it was to the benefit of barbarians to be ruled by “civilized and virtuous princes” ’, the Christian belief that every human had been made equally by God and had been endowed with reason made the suggestion that natives were slightly higher than monkeys blasphemy by Christian standards (p. 347). Drawing on the teaching of Aquinas, las Casas taught that “ ‘Jesus Christ, the king of kings, was sent to win the world, not with armies, but with holy preachers, as sheep among wolves’ ” (p. 308). Thus it came to be that las Casas coined the phrase ‘Derechos humanos’— human rights.

This is why, by the time the British colonies in North America declared their independence, it was clearly Christianity that fueled their dream of a new community. It is most readily apparent that the roots of such thinking was not truly Enlightenment rationalism but Christian revelation. Holland again writes:

“That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. That most Americans believed they were owed less to philosophy than to the Bible: to the assurance given equally to Christians and Jews, to Protestants and Catholics, to Calvinists and Quakers, that every human being was created in God’s image. The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic— no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think— was the book of Genesis.” (Dominion, p. 400)

Christians have not always gotten it right. The Church has been notoriously wrong. But when it is, it is judged to be wrong on the basis of what Jesus and Paul taught. The abuses of Christendom are contradictions of Christian teaching, not confirmations of it; they are distortions not extensions of what the Scripture says; they came as a result of ignoring canon law and Church teaching not of illuminating it.

Exploitation and abuse is the sickness of sin at work in the world. The Church is not immune to such sickness. Nevertheless, it is the Gospel that provides both the diagnosis and the cure.

What I Read In 2019 (And Why)

2019 was a good year for reading. I managed to read about 30 books this year, which may be a personal high, but there were several shorter books in the mix!  I’ll give you the full list and my top five in a moment…but first, a bit about how I choose what to read.

I often choose reading along certain themes. Late last year, I decided I wanted to read about empires in 2019— not theological reflections or pontifications on Christianity and empire, but histories of empires themselves written by non-Christians.

In late 2018, I finished “Gandhi and Churchill”, which was a poignant parallel of two remarkable leaders whose respective nations would come to clash over ideology and power. The centuries-long presence of the British empire in India may be one of the most world-shaping realities of the modern era. Then, to kick off 2019, I went on to read about the way German church leaders were complicit with the rise of the Nazi regime as seen through the life of one particular pastor, Martin Niemoller, in the book “Then They Came for Me”. It was sobering. I followed that up by reading about the rise of the Roman Empire, from Augustus to its Nero, in Tom Holland’s epic work, “Dynasty”. It was fascinating to see the roots of many of our modern conceptions of power, nobility, and public virtue. But what I loved most was the being able to imagine the political backdrop of the New Testament as I read about the first five Caesars (the Julio-Claudians). Finally, I read Niall Ferguson’s “Empire” on the rise and fall of the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever known. The influence of Christianity as a moral restraint for the excesses of power and as a justifying reason for their assertion of superiority resulted in a complicated legacy.

I threw in a couple of fiction books to round off my reading on empire. “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster was thoroughly enjoyable, and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe was a slow but sobering reminder that what is a footnote for the empire is a lifetime of sorrow for one man; the machinations of “progress” must be slowed by attention to its impact on the particular.

The capstone— the book that brought many of the themes in these other books together— was “Dominion” by Tom Holland. I’m about two-thirds through, and it doesn’t seem that I’ll finish it in 2019, nevertheless, it is my Book of the Year. Holland, a secular historian, traces the improbable rise of Christianity, carefully showing how unprecedented its claims and teachings were in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. It’s persistence and resilience in the face of persecution and the development of theology through careful contextualization are further remarkable features of Christianity. Though Holland doesn’t shy away from the darker chapters in Christianity’s history, he is quick to show when certain actions were aberrations of Christianity teaching and when they were extensions of it. Contra many claims by atheists today, the worst actions of Christians in history were when they had deviated the most from the teachings of Jesus and Paul. In the end, Holland argues that much of the embedded and institutionalized virtues and values of Western society are fruit from Christian roots. Can the fruit remain if it is severed from the root? This is the great experiment of the march of secularization.

The next theme I turned to was how Christianity relates to a secularized age, a pluralistic world, and a humanistic empire. “Seriously Dangerous Religion” is a tour de force of comparative religions through a meta-frame. Provan identifies 10 major questions every major religion or system must grapple with. He then shows how the Old Testament addresses these questions in comparison to other ancient religions or post-modern composites of ancient religions (like the notion that all religions of the “Axial Age” were the same, or the generic spirituality of the New Age). He does show how Christianity (the New Testament) extends the vision that is sketched in the Old Testament and brings it to its fullest expression and completion in Jesus.

“Faith for Exiles” by Barna’s David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock summoned research to outline five practices of young Christians who developed a resilient faith in the the midst of a Babylonian world. It was practical and inspiring, not only as a pastor but as a father. The accessible yet richly theological, “Gospel Allegiance” outlines how fidelity to Jesus the King grounds Christians and gives shape to a robust Christianity no matter what empire we find ourselves living in. It reclaims words that have lost their original textual meaning– like faith, gospel, grace, and works– and shows how the fit together through the paradigm of Kingship and Kingdom. Finally, “Seculosity” demonstrated with observational insight and a sharp wit, how society in the west has channeled a moralistic impulse and appropriated religious fervor and ritual to facets of life like work, romance, parenting, eating, and more.

The rest of my reading can be filed under the categories of pastoral theology and personal enrichment. Here’s a quick bit about some of them. I was struck by the profound integration of social analysis and theological reflection in the collection of sermons from Martin Luther King, Jr, Strength to Love”; I benefited from Preston Sprinkle’s short books, Grace/Truth 1.0″ and “Grace/Truth 2.0”on gender and sexuality; I found the collection of essays on identity, community, and authority in the digital age in “The HTML Of Cruciform Love” utterly fascinating; I loved my pastor’s book, “Remarkable”, on engaging culture in a Christlike way; I learned a lot from Lucy Peppiatt’s succinct summary and fresh perspective of the biblical vision of womanhood (which challenges the assumed patriarchy of many); I normally find reading Rowan Williams to be quite a laborious endeavor, but hist short series of books–  “Being Human”, “Being Christian”, and “Being Disciples” — were really excellent and not too dense; I appreciated Wesley Hill’s demonstration of Trinitarian theology at work in Paul’s letters; I found Haley Jacob’s exegesis and arguments in “Conformed to the Image of His Son” really compelling; I was moved and inspired by what I consider the best single book on prayer, Pete Greig’s “How to Pray”; and, I can see why some have called N. T. Wright’s “History and Eschatology” a capstone of his life’s work on the historical Jesus and Christian eschatology.

Alright, here are my top five, followed by the full list.


My Top Five 
1. “Dominion”– Tom Holland

2. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson

3. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan

4. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates

5. “Seculosity”– David Zahl


The Full List:
Theology/Biblical Studies
  1. “The Christological Hymns of the New Testament”– Matthew Gordley
  2. “Paul and the Trinity”– Wesley Hill
  3. “Conformed to the Image of His Son”– Haley Goranson Jacob
  4. “The 3D Gospel”– Jayson Georges
  5. “For all God’s Worth”– N. T. Wright
  6. “Blue Parakeet 2nd Edition”– Scot Mcknight (read 2/3rds)
  7. “Being Human”– Rowan Williams
  8. “Being Christian”– Rowan Williams
  9. “Being Disciples”– Rowan Williams
  10. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan
  11. “Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women”– Lucy Peppiat
  12. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates
  13. “History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology”– N. T. Wright
Histories/Biographies 
  1. “Then They Came For Me”– Matthew D. Hockenos
  2. “Dynasty”– Tom Holland
  3. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson
  4. “The Intellectual World of CS Lewis”– Alistair McGrath
  5. “Dominion”– Tom Holland (2/3rd done!)
Cultural Conversations 
  1. “Grace and Truth 1.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  2. “Grace and Truth 2.0”– Preston Sprinkle
  3. “The HTML of Cruciform Love”– Edited John Frederick and Eric Lewellen
  4. “Remarkable”– Brady Boyd
  5. “Talking to Strangers”– Malcom Gladwell
  6. “Faith for Exiles”– David Kinnaman
  7. “Seculosity”– David Zahl
Fiction 
  1. “Things Fall Apart”– Chinua Achebe
  2. “A Passage to India”– E. M. Forster
Devotional
  1. “How to Pray”– Pete Greig
  2. “Prayer: Our Deepest Longing”– Ronald Rolheiser
  3. “Strength to Love” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (2 chapters left!)
Leadership
  1. “Captain Class”– Sam Walker

The Table You Choose…

There are two tables set before us. Nowhere in the Gospels is the contrast between the banquets—the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world—more stark than in Mark’s gospel. Both Matthew and Mark set the story of John the Baptist’s beheading right before the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, but Mark makes the arrangement feel even more intentional by telling us that Herod “prepared a feast” (Mark 6:21, CEB). Looking at the two feasts side by side, one can’t help but notice the differences between the two kings and the kingdoms they represent.

For one, the people at the feasts were vastly different. Herod prepared a feast for “his high-ranking officials and military officers and Galilee’s leading residents” (verse 21, CEB). This was a party for the power players, for the “who’s who,” the movers and shakers. Herod was in control of the guest list and made sure there were only guests who could give him something. But Jesus found a crowd who had invited themselves. These were people from various cities in the area who arrived at the spot where they anticipated Jesus and His disciples would be. These people must have been desperate for something.

At Herod’s feast performance was everything—please the king and you just might get what you want. A girl’s dancing pleased him and got him in a request-granting mood. He told her to ask for whatever she wished, up to half his kingdom (see verse 23). At Jesus’s feast compassion was everything. Jesus saw the uninvited crowd and “had compassion on them” (verse 34, CEB). He taught the crowd “many things” (verse 34, CEB), and then He fed them. The people never asked for something to eat; Jesus knew that they were hungry. They didn’t have to perform for Him to notice them. He saw them from the beginning. And He loved them. So He fed them—with His words and with bread.

The climactic moment of Herod’s feast was someone’s death. The execution of John the Baptist was the real story of Herod’s birthday party. The conclusion of Jesus’s feast was abundance. There were twelve baskets filled with bread and fish, and everyone there had already eaten till they were full. At Herod’s party there was never enough—never enough power or pleasure or control. Someone had to lose for someone else to win. Someone had to die for others to live. But at Jesus’s banquet there was more than enough. There was enough for everyone to be filled, and then some more.

At the two feasts there are two different ways of becoming a guest, two different ways of making a request or getting a need met, and there are two different ways for the story to end. The first story is about power, performance, and ultimately death. The second story is about desperation, hunger, and ultimately life. Feast with Herod and you may feel powerful, but you will be bound to perform. The end is death. Feast with Jesus and you can come desperate and needy, tired and hungry, and you will be fed and nourished. The end is an abundance of life.

But this is not just a story about two feasts; this is about two kings and two kingdoms. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd, He had compassion on them for “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 34, ceb). This is not a throwaway line. The shepherd imagery in the Bible is not some sort of therapeutic image of care and nurture. A shepherd was the most comprehensive metaphor an agrarian society could come up with: it represented a protector, physician, provider, and guide.

It makes sense, then, that when the prophets and poets of Israel wrote about their king, they referred to him as a shepherd. One prophet, Ezekiel, had a particularly scathing review—offered on behalf of God—of the kings of Israel. He called them the shepherds of Israel but then accused them of having only “tended themselves” (Ezekiel 34:2, CEB). Instead of tending the sheep, they drank the milk, wore the wool, and slaughtered “the fat animals” (verse 3, CEB). They didn’t “strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost.” Instead, they used “force to rule them with injustice” (verse 4, ceb). In short, the shepherds of Israel had not lived up to the metaphor; they were not protectors, physicians, providers, or guides. They failed at the job description for a good king. The very next verse of Ezekiel’s divine tirade includes the lines that Mark would quote: “Without a shepherd, my flock was scattered; and when it was scattered, it became food for all the wild animals” (verse 5, CEB). Then the Lord declared through Ezekiel that He is “against the shepherds” (verse 10, CEB). And not only that, He will come to do the job Himself.

Now we see it: the feeding of the five thousand is not Jesus doing some sort of party trick. It was a sign that the kingdom of God was arriving and that Jesus Himself was the true King. Herod was not the real king, and his banquet was not the real feast. Jesus is the king who provides a bounty for the people.

So where are you feasting? Are you at Herod’s banquet, hoping to satisfy yourself on the kind of power and pleasure the world can offer? Are you chasing influence and significance the world’s way, by working harder or trying to get in with the right group? Are you obsessively posting on social media, trying to get your “likes” and “views” up, hoping to be seen? That feast won’t fill you. It will lead only to death. Or are you desperately following Jesus, clinging to every word, hungry and needy? Are you opening the Scriptures, sitting and listening, shaping your life by His cross-shaped love? It will be for your good, bringing you nourishment, healing, and health.

The table you choose reveals the king you serve.

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Adapted excerpt from Blessed Broken Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus. Available now wherever books are sold. Official Amazon link.

Two Ways to Be Lost, One Way Home

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The story is commonly called the parable of the prodigal son, but that is too narrowly focused. It might be more aptly called The Tale of Two Lost Brothers. And in the way Jesus told this parable to conclude a set of three parables, there’s a buildup we must not miss. The first story is about a lost sheep. One out of a hundred sheep had gone missing, and the farmer left the ninety-nine to go in search of the one. The next story involves a lost coin. A woman had ten coins and lost one. She turned her house upside down in search of the one. In the third story a father had two sons. One asked for an early inheritance—a slap in the face to his father—and then added shame to scorn by squandering that inheritance on wicked living.

But you see, Jesus told these parables to show escalating ratios of lostness. Each story ups the ante, increases the probability that His listeners were lost. When they heard the first story, they may have thought, One out of a hundred? Yeah, I know someone just like that. It’s too bad they’re not around to hear this message. And then with the story about the coins, they may have chuckled and said, “Yeah, one out of ten—that’s more like it. Lots of bad people out there.” But when Jesus moved to a story about two brothers, His listeners might have felt their heart pound just a little more in their chests. “One of two? That’s 50 percent! I didn’t think there werethat many rebellious, wicked people around! But, you know, things are getting worse in our world. Thank God I’m not like them!”

And when the final moment of the third parable arrived, they may finally begin to see it: Both brothers were lost. Both sons left the house.

There was no escaping it now. The people in need of saving are not those people. It’s me: I need saving. I am lost.

This is what keeps us from welcoming others into the family. This is what prevents us from extending the blessing to people we do not like: we have forgotten that we, too, were lost. It hurts to say it. But only when we do are we able to see the stunning love of God.

You see, the father left the house to come after both sons. With the younger brother, in his shame and brokenness, the father held him and wept. With the older brother, in his pride and resent­ment, the father came to plead and persuade. The father’s love wouldn’t let go. God comes after us in our shame and in our pride, in our mess and in our self-righteousness. Both rebellion and reli­gion can make us leave the Father’s house. But only the love of the Father can call us home.

When you see that you, too, were lost, when you understand that all of us like sheep have gone astray—not just one out of a hundred—you understand how magnificent the mercy of God is. Oh, what love the Father has lavished on us!

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Excerpt from “Blessed Broken Given”. Order wherever books are sold. Official Amazon link HERE.