Monday, November 30, 2009

lost in translation

Whoa. It’s been four weeks since I posted. It’s been a crazy few weeks, I think maybe I needed to clear my head a bit of a few things…and not on the worldwideweb. Sorry to be absent, gang, but come on: I haven’t missed too many since starting this back in ’06, eh?

I’ve really enjoyed working through part one of The Jesus Underground series we just finished. I’ve notice in myself a bit of danger while studying our way through the book of Acts. It’s easy to slip into some wistful, idyllic picture of the early Church, especially the first few chapters. While we love the miracles, the big “come-to-Jesus” moments, and the apparent depth of community, we can miss what’s between the lines: the messiness, the confusion, the persecution and pain.

Can you imagine these first Jewish believers in Acts 2 wondering how they fit into Temple worship and what to do about required sacrifices? What are the polity, governance and configuration elements of this movement? Remember, no New Testament letter existed yet; their theology was being formed by their experience…and whatever they could interpret from the law and the prophets that shed light on this new covenant. What was the discipleship structure for understanding this remarkable covenant? Should, or could, Gentiles ever be a part of this movement? And on and on and on.

Think how complicated—and risky—this all would have been. No wonder Gnosticism and various squirrelly theologies slipped in quickly.

And then Paul comes into the picture.

I tire of critics taking potshots at Paul and his supposed “reshaping of Jesus’ message”. Sometimes, people pit Paul’s letters against the less “legalistic” love-ethic of Jesus. But I can’t even imagine what Christianity, let alone the early Church, would have done without his clear-headed and revelatory insight into this strange and unarticulated new covenant. There are precious few verses in the prophets regarding the details and nature of this next covenant (there is far more about “the day of the Lord” which is sometimes interpreted as the same). The only place that even uses the specific language of “new covenant” is in Jeremiah 31 with God spelling out but a few basics: the forgiveness of sins, an individualized actualized deep knowledge of Him, and a new spirit concordant with the law and heart of God. Yes, Paul’s writing requires thoughtful and contextual understanding, but I don’t see a dichotomy with the Kingdom language of Jesus or the mysterious foreshadows and types within the Old Testament.

Somewhat sweetly, the apostle Peter put it like this:

This is just as our beloved brother Paul wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters around to mean something quite different from what he meant, just as they do the other parts of Scripture—and the result is disaster for them. (2 Peter 3:15b–16)

Even more so, taking into account what Luke recorded of the encounter pre-conversion Saul/Paul had with Jesus, it’s Jesus who calls a believer named Ananias to pray for Paul who was walking around in the dark, blinded by the light. In a vision, Jesus tells Ananias that Paul has been hand-picked to carry the Kingdom message to the Gentiles…and via some kick-butt suffering. Years later, Paul becomes the first real theologian of the Jesus Underground movement. Reading his letters is like, as historian Thomas Cahill writes, “watching original theology in the making.” Pretty amazing when you think about what he did.

When we say the word theologian, we tend to think of a bookish-kind of guy with glasses and a corduroy sport coat with patches on the elbows. But Paul was certainly not that.

• Think of a Jewish Shia LaBoef (uh, actually, he is Jewish) who’s constantly getting attacked, who once escaped some bounty hunters over a city wall at night in a basket lowered by ropes.
• Think of a guy who almost gets torn apart because his preaching about Jesus is so compelling that the idol-making trade union riots in Ephesus because of a Kingdom-driven recession.
• Three times he narrowly survives a shipwreck.
• Imprisoned multiple times.
• Five times he was flogged with thirty-nine lashes.
• Three times he is beaten with a cane.
• Once he survived a stoning…barely.
• Traveled all over the Mideast, Asia and Europe…pre Megabus days when it was extremely dangerous.
• Often going without food, left in prisons cold and naked for months.
• While calling himself the “chief sinner” (probably because of being a widow-maker pre-conversion), he humbly writes that he now has a “clear conscience”. Wow. Now that’s a deep understanding of forgiveness and grace.

Let me ask you: what do you think Paul would think of American Christianity? And what would you think of a guy who by his own admission was not much to look at and not very impressive in person? And this is the man who says to the people he’s mentoring: fight a worthy fight…a good fight. I’d say to the Paul-bashers: walk a mile in his sandals.

And I think that’s why I’m going to so enjoy Part 2 of The Jesus Underground in January with the fantastic adventures of Paul.

He’s my hero. Complicated, but he's the man.

Monday, November 02, 2009

a rough stretch

It’s been a rough stretch.

Way back when I was traveling and playing music, Terry Kranyak taught me how to do basic electrical work. He owned a small non-union electrical company called Daystar Electric. In a way it “saved” me; it enabled me to earn some money when I was home and yet be flexible enough to go on the road for weeks at a time (and not earn money…). My wife and I loved Terry & Peggy Kranyak and their two little kids, Jesse & Meghan. As a matter of fact, we’d take their kids to Ault Park sometimes just to give them a break. They were amazing kids…and actually made us want to have some of our own, even with my crazy schedule and me continually saying, “Let’s wait one more year.”

Terry was a special guy. He was a cheerleader for our “bring-people-to-Jesus” Christian rock band. He had all of our albums and would play them for any of his non-Christian friends. We loved him so much that when his business tanked during a recession in the eighties, we collected unemployment while working for him full-time for free to help him get out of debt. Hippie-ish, organic, fun, fearless, incredibly generous, entrepreneurial, and a Jesus-lover. Somewhere along the way, he had gotten burned by a church…apparently being part of what was then referred to as a heavy “shepherding” congregation—authoritative and controlling. For whatever reason, they never really connected with a local church again, but loved being with other believers. When they moved away for Peggy to pursue a medical career, we missed them terribly. Once when we visited them in Virginia, I sensed that things were difficult in their marriage.

Later, for various reasons, they divorced. My wife cried like a baby when we got the news in Cincinnati. We lost touch, but Terry eventually moved to Kelley’s Island in Lake Erie, started a few different businesses, remarried and began a new life. We visited a couple of times, staying in a bed-and-breakfast that he built. He was still fun, energizing to be around, and always interested in what we were doing in the Vineyard. He loved hearing about what we were learning/teaching about the Kingdom.

The last time I saw him was a couple of years ago. He called to ask if I would consider baptizing his daughter Meghan in Lake Erie, now in her early twenties. Easy answer: Absolutely. I hadn’t seen the kids in many years. Peggy drove in from Cleveland as well. It was sweet. Terry and I would connect at best once a year by phone, but it always felt as though we could pick up like we had just seen each other at Frisch’s that morning arguing and laughing about some theological point.

Last week I got a call out of the blue from Meghan. After telling her what a happy surprise to hear her, she told me that Terry had just passed away. He had been in the hospital for a few weeks, gotten out, then took a sudden turn for the worse. I was shocked, to say the least, and could only respond with a stunned—and lame—“You’re kidding me, right?” as if a daughter would joke about that. Eventually I asked what arrangements had been made and she simply said, “Oh, you know dad. So unconventional. He didn’t want an obituary, he didn’t want a memorial service…just a party at the restaurant.” On Kelley’s Island.

Terry and I were the same age.

A day later Anita’s dad went into the hospital in Columbus. She drove up the next morning to check on him and the next day I received a text from her: He’s gone. I called her immediately, jumped in the car and two hours later ran into the hospital room. Anita and her sisters were there. David was lying in the bed, thin and pale with his mouth slightly open, his breath had slipped away with his spirit. He was a big, blustery, bigger-than-life personality. A lover of God. By Sunday we held a viewing, put together and spoke at a memorial on Monday and a graveside military sendoff that afternoon.

Two days later back in Cincinnati I awoke at 4:20 a.m. praying heavy and urgently in the Spirit for Charlie Matthews. I knew it was for him.

Charlie was one of the best pastors I’ve known, no fooling. Off-the-chart passionate about Jesus. Activistic, fiercely loyal, hard-working, authentically people-loving, fun, transparent, an intense learner…and ridiculously liberal in kind things to say about people. I knew that he had been through several tough and potentially cynicism-inducing church situations in his past, but I honestly never heard him say an unkind thing about anyone. And I mean anyone. The times we sat in Panera and the long-gone Barnes and Noble Bookstore on Kemper were always catalytic: Charlie asking lots of questions, always throwing out encouraging words, talking about his family and his desire to balance his love for them with his drive for the Kingdom. I remember thinking many times: this guy is going to bust up the gates of hell. He would take on any job in the Vineyard with gusto, but you knew he was like a racehorse waiting to rocket out of the gate to plant a church. He simply wanted to do what was right and whatever God wanted him to do. We knew he was the perfect fit for the relaunch of the Mason Vineyard.

Friday I received word that things were not good. More prayer. Saturday morning while at the office working on my message for the weekend, I got the phone call. Honestly?—expletive and anger. I jumped in my car, drove to Bethesda North, and went to his room. Family and friends were crying. Charlie was gone. After everyone left the room, I stared at Charlie for a long time from the foot of his bed. He looked exceptionally tired but peaceful to me. I cannot tell you what my prayers were.

The weekend was a bit of a blur. I sensed strongly that I had a message to deliver that was light-years from what I was feeling. It’s nothing heroic, but staying on point is part of the gig. Or at least that’s what I felt I should do. And, of course, second-guessing is somewhat continual.

Death sucks. There is absolutely nothing romantic about it; it’s flat-out ugly. On one hand it’s completely natural: everything we know dies. I’ve been at too many bedside deaths to not think about the whole cycle of life. I’ve spoken at funerals while watching a newborn wiggle in a mother’s arms in the back of the room. We’re born, we die. But at the same time there is this nagging drone in my soul that this is not how it’s supposed to be. Paul simply calls it the last enemy for Jesus to vanquish, the last step after all authorities and powers have been destroyed. And those early believers who lived with a hairline connection between costly faith and perpetually potential death must have longed desperately for the One they knew had conquered His own death to come back quickly. Maranatha. Rid us of this sword of Damocles, King Jesus. Please.

The questions are always around timing…and fairness. Some jerk who shafts his family, leeches off of society, and forever concerned with himself, lives a long unproductive and self-consumed life. A man who genuinely loves his wife and kids and fervently seeks the Kingdom is cut short at thirty-seven. I truly can relate to Paul’s words—and keep in mind Paul had more than his share of pain and loss—when he writes in 2 Corinthians 4:8: “…we are perplexed, but not in despair.”

I could write about potential answers and some tidy theological thoughts, but I think I want—need—less of that and more venting apart from this blog. And I promise to write a bit more about the questions…and what they mean. Somehow the questions seem more important to me.

Pray for Charlie’s wife Angie and their two little kids.

And even so, Come Lord Jesus. I trust You.