Friday, June 24, 2011


“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
-Matthew 5:14-16 (NIV)

    In Station Number 6 of the Livermore - Pleasanton Fire Department, in the city of  Livermore, California, hangs a light bulb. At first glance, you’d think it was a normal light bulb. Look a little closer, and you’d see its rather strange design. But not even its unusual appearance would give you a hint as to what makes it really unusual.
    The light bulb holds the world record for the longest continually-burning light bulb in the  world. And you’re not going to believe me when I tell you how long, so just go ahead and take a look at the bulb's webcam now. No kidding, the bulb has outlasted at least one webcam. Though, when you consider that webcams, or the internet itself, didn’t exist when the bulb started burning, that’s probably not all that surprising. For that matter, cameras were quite a novelty back when someone first screwed in this  particular light bulb.
    The light bulb in Station Number 6 of the Livermore - Pleasanton Fire Department is called the Centennial Bulb, but that, of course, isn’t really accurate.
    Actually, the Centennial Bulb just celebrated its 110th year of continually giving light.
    The bulb has actually hung in at least three different firehouses in Livermore over the years. Its unusual appearance comes from the fact that it’s a “Shelby bulb,” manufactured by the Shelby Electric Company and invented by Adolph Chaillet sometime in the late 1800’s. It has, apparently, been turned off a few times since it was first switched on in 1901, but for the most part it has been giving light continually since then.
    Think about that. World maps have been redrawn over and over in those 110 years. The US has added five states. Most of today’s most successful companies didn’t even exist. When the light was first turned on, it was one of only two or three electric lights in the town of Livermore. The light started burning 8 years before my grandfather was born.
    The Centennial Bulb doesn’t look to be overwhelmingly bright. You likely wouldn’t want to read by it for very long. It’s strength isn’t in its brightness, but in its consistency.
    Would that we’d all give light so consistently for so long.
    As a metaphor for people who followed him in anticipating the Kingdom of God, Jesus settled on “light of the world.” Among people who too often seem to be stumbling in the darkness, Jesus said that we’re to be light - light that can’t be hidden, light that shouldn’t be hidden. It should be discernible in us no matter where we are or what we’re doing, and it should touch the shadows and remind those cowering there that there’s an alternative to darkness. “Everyone in the house” should be able to see what they’re doing because of us, he says. And the good works that we do and the good words that we speak will ultimately bring praise to the God who makes us light to begin with.
    It isn’t a matter of how brightly we burn, but how consistently. The world doesn’t need any more garish, glaring lights calling attention to themselves. What the people around us need, instead, is a light so steady that it makes them say, “Wow, who made that light?” They need people who are radiant with righteousness, justice, love, grace, mercy, and peace. They need people who glow with the light of God’s word and the hope of his promises.
    The people around us need to see that we shine in whatever circumstances. They need to see us radiate joy and faith and good works at all times, lights that illuminate their offices, schools, homes, and neighborhoods. As that little bulb has shone for over a century, regardless of the momentous events going on around it, so God’s people “shine like stars in the universe as (we) hold out the   word of life.” We’re under no illusions that we’re in control of those events. But we know we can push back the shadows while they’re happening.
    There is no shortage of heat sources in our world. Heat we have in abundance, and then some. There will always be those who mistake the heat of violence, conflict, anger, vengeance, and pride for light. God’s people, from time to time, have even been known to make that mistake ourselves. But light attracts, while heat repels. Light clarifies, while heat obscures. Light offers refuge, while heat promises danger. Light brings people together, while heat drives them apart.
    Make no mistake, Jesus says that those of us who look for the culmination of the Kingdom of God in him are light. If we’re true to our identities as God’s people, light is what we are. It’s not anything in us, any more than the source of that bulb’s light comes from within it. But without the bulb, the power behind the light couldn’t be seen and experienced as light. We don’t have it in ourselves to be light for the world, either. But God is at work with us and in us to make us shine exactly where and how he wants us to.
    So may we be aware of what we are. May we be faithful to our calling of shining in the world. May we never hide the light that radiates from us in Jesus, may we never shroud that light with our own self-centeredness, or hide it under our own will or the fear that it will be misunderstood. We’ve been re-made in Jesus so that we can shine in exactly those times when light is most needed.
    May God’s power and grace be with you as you shine for him. May your light last for a century or more. And, when you’re done shining, may the Lord take you to your place at his side, where you’ll shine forever with the glory of the risen Jesus.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Place of Sacrifice

“He...set out for the place where God had told him to go.” (Genesis 22:3)

The boy and the old man walk single file up the mountain trail. The old man is ancient. His leathery, lined face and white beard speak of a lifetime of wandering without a home. No one would think that he’s the boy’s father. He looks more like a grandfather, or a great-grandfather, even. But father he is. The boy is the child of his old age, named “He Laughs” -- Isaac -- because of the joyful, delighted, disbelieving laughter with which he and his ninety-year-old wife greeted the news that they’d have a baby. So much laughter, as if they’d never have another care in the world.
    No one’s laughing now.
    The boy carries a bundle of firewood. The old man watches his back as he climbs the trail. He’s grown so fast. The years have flown by so quickly. The boy walks with the enthusiasm of youth, head high, looking at the world. Drifting back to him, the old man’s ears catch the faint sound of a children’s song. The old man thinks habitually of his son’s future, of all the aspirations he has for him. But then the train of thought stops. This boy, he has to remind himself, has no future. For the thousandth time, the old man thinks of taking the boy and going home, leaving the errand he’s been sent to do undone. The boy shifts the firewood. The singing stops. So does Isaac. When he turns, his face is quizzical.
    “Father?” Isaac’s expression is serious. It looks almost humorous on such a young, unlined face. His words are anything but funny. “We have the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”
    The breath freezes in the old man’s lungs. A sob, barely swallowed, wells up in his throat. Tears fall onto his leathery cheeks. His teeth grind together, his fists clench. He feels like he may throw up. He wants to scream his anger to the heavens. ‘What do you want from me, God?” he wants to shout.
    Instead he says, shakily, “God will provide a lamb, my son.”
    It’s more a prayer than a promise. Really, it’s more wishful thinking than even a prayer. But what else is he supposed to say? Should he tell the boy that he is the sacrifice? How does a man explain that to his son? How does he explain that he is about to take a knife and cut that young throat, immolate the body that came from his body? And why? Because God told him to? He doesn’t know how to explain it to his wife, or even to himself. He certainly can’t tell the boy.
    Too soon, father and son arrive at the place of sacrifice. Silently, they build the altar together, stone by stone. Abraham arranges the wood carefully, while Isaac looks on. He can wait no longer. Kneeling down, he pulls Isaac to him. He holds him close. Sobs rip through the ancient body. He looks into the wide, trusting , bewildered eyes. “I love you, son,” he says, words he hopes his son will believe in the grave.
    Got to move quickly now. He wraps a length of rope around his son’s wrists, then his ankles. Isaac whimpers a little as his father pulls the rope tight, picks him up, and places him on top of the wood on the altar. The old man puts his hand gently over the boy’s eyes, then shuts his own eyes tightly as his other hand pulls the knife from his belt. With an anguished scream, he puts it against his son‘s throat...
    We know the ending, of course. We know about the shout from heaven that stayed the old man’s hand and the ram caught in the bushes that answered his prayers. We know that God commended him for his faith, and so we walk away from the story knowing that all is right and that God is good and that if we just trust him everything will work out fine.
    Of course, Abraham didn’t know the ending. For all he knew, he was going to have to go through with the terrible task of killing his own son. For all he knew, God really wanted Isaac. And what’s really miraculous and amazing and also incredibly disturbing about this whole story is that Abraham was ready to do it. And also that God commends him for it.
    Here’s the lesson. It’s not what you think it is. It’s not that God can be trusted to come through at the last minute. It’s not that genuine faith is immediately rewarded. The lesson is that faith is only possible when you’re off all the maps you know. Faith is only really possible when you’ve walked away from sense and reason and maybe even decency and are teetering at the edge of lunacy. It’s really only possible standing on top of a vast mountain of doubt and fear and anguish, looking down in disbelief at what God has asked you to give him. Do you trust him enough to do the unthinkable? It’s only with the unthinkable confronting you that you know. At that moment, if you can raise your hand to put to death what you love most, that is faith.
    What’s God asking of you? What familiar camp is he asking you to leave? What  dark,  dangerous, doubtful mountain is he asking you to climb? And what is he asking you to lay on the altar at the top? Those questions are ones that only you can answer, on your knees with God. Just remember that in calling you away from comfort and toward horrible, painful sacrifice, God is making it possible for you to discover faith. It can never be found in the safety of your tent. It’s always out on life’s frontier.
    Maybe he’ll rescue you at the last moment from the need to give up what you love. Maybe all he’ll want is to prove your willingness to offer it. Maybe he’ll give it back to you. But maybe he won’t. When he doesn’t, remember that he called his Son to leave the familiarity of Nazareth for a cross outside Jerusalem. The mountain he asked his own Son to climb was a hard one. And there was no last-minute rescue, no angel armies, no outraged voice from heaven, no fire from the sky. And when Jesus asked why, there was no explanation. Out of love for us, God put the knife to his Son’s throat.
    There was no one to stop him.
    So he knows. He knows what it means to give up what you love. He knows what it is to make a painful sacrifice. But Jesus’ tomb is empty. Sacrifice brings life. And whatever God is asking of you, the joys he has in store for you will be worth it. Don’t give up your claim on them because the sacrifice is too hard.
    Go to the place of sacrifice. There you’ll find your faith, your God, and your life.

Friday, June 3, 2011


    For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
-Ephesians 2:10 (New Living Translation)

I have grown up and come to faith - not necessarily in that order - in a fellowship of Christians that claims to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” and to “call Bible things by Bible names.” The Restoration Movement, as that fellowship is called, has from its beginning been concerned about restoring New Testament Christianity as a basis for Christian unity. Our philosophy, oversimplified, has been, “Let’s just do what the Bible says, and then we’ll all agree.”
    There’s something attractive about that. And, by the way, I think the goal of restoring New Testament Christianity is still a good one - as long as we’re clear on what we mean by that. The thing is, Christians have disagreed since - well, since before there was a Bible - about what it means to “just do what the Bible says.” Sometimes it’s been because someone was clearly wrong. Sometimes it’s just been because “what the Bible says” wasn’t entirely clear. While “just do what the Bible says” sounds good in theory, in practice people who love the Lord and want to please him have always disagreed about what the Bible says.
   Rachel Held Evans, in a recent post entitled, "In Search of a Better Conversation About Biblical Womanhood," makes a point that sounds somewhat startling. She cautions:
“[B]ehind every claim to a biblical lifestyle or ideology lies a complex set of assumptions regarding interpretation and application.
    When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick in front of another loaded word (like “womanhood,” “politics,” “economics,” and “marriage”) more often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.”

    As someone who has used the Bible as an adjective to make claims about a “biblical lifestyle or ideology,” I have to admit that Evans’ post has bothered me a little. My discomfort has revolved around a question kind of like this: “If we can’t use “biblical” as an adjective, then how can we hope to use the Bible as our authority? And if we don’t use it as our authority, then where does our identity come from?” I mean, I certainly understand that “biblical” can be misused, and even that it is misused, with some frequency. That’s Evans’ concern, and I do sympathize.
    But, still, the question remains: “How does the Bible have authority?” Surely in that it’s the word of God, but that only helps to a degree. In some places, for instance, the Bible says, very clearly, “You shall...” or “You shall not...”, and yet we don’t necessarily find those pronouncements to be binding on us. On the other hand, most Christians hold beliefs or follow practices that can only be inferred from the Bible. (See what you can find on the Trinity in your concordance, for example.)
    Or take the fact that much of the Bible is in the form of stories. How does a millenia-old story about the nation of Israel, or Jesus casting out a demon, for that matter, have authority for me, right now, today?
    Obviously, saying that the Bible is our authority for everything we do is a little more complicated than it might seem at first glance.
    N.T. Wright, in his book The New Testament and the People of God, suggests a hypothetical scenario as a way of getting a handle on biblical (excuse me, Rachel) authority. He imagines that a new play written by William Shakespeare has been discovered. But it’s incomplete: its fifth act has been lost. The first four acts tell such a compelling story, with such amazing characterization, that it’s clear that this play is a masterpiece and ought to be staged. But what do you do about that lost fifth act?
    You can’t just pick someone to write a new fifth act - that might do violence to Shakespeare’s play. What you might choose to do instead, Wright suggests, is to give the parts in the play to the best, most highly-trained, most experienced Shakespearian actors. You have them immerse themselves completely in the first four acts of the play, in the characters they portray, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare. And then, you trust them to work out the fifth act for themselves.
    Wright suggests that the Bible has authority for us in more or less the same way that Shakespeare’s first four acts would have authority for those actors. And for the same purposes. You wouldn’t suddenly resurrect a character in that new fifth act that died in Act III, of course. You wouldn’t have Act V set in the Old West. You wouldn’t turn the play into a tragedy if Acts I - IV obviously showed it to be a comedy. Any group of Shakespearian actors might develop a somewhat different Act V from any other group - but they would still find authority in Acts I - IV.
    While, like most metaphors, this one can’t be pushed too far, surely biblical authority should work something like this. All believers would recognize, I think, that God hasn’t left us a script to simply memorize. We know the story he’s written in Acts I - IV: Creation, Fall, the Call of Israel, Jesus. We have some solid clues as to the end of the story. But the Bible itself invites us to participate in the story. We’re left to write our own scenes. We want to be careful to immerse ourselves in the story up to now. We want the scenes we write to be consistent with the Author’s story so far, and with the hints to the ending that he’s left us. But, in the end, we’re called to take our own places and speak our own words.  
    “We’re God’s masterpiece,” Paul tells us. Long ago, back in Acts I-IV, God intended that  we would take the stage. He intended that we’d speak, and act, and that our words and acts would fit beautifully into the story that began with “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
    So the impulse to immerse ourselves in the Bible is right. So is the desire to find authority for what we do and say there. But not the impulse to twist God’s story to fit our own inclinations. That impulse must be resisted, replaced with the joy and thrill of being actors in the story he has written, and upon which he himself will bring down the curtain one day. Then there’ll be a cast party like no other.
    You might even say it’ll be of biblical proportions.