Worth repeating

A story is told of three sons who grew up, left home, and went out into the world to make their fortunes. They each became wealthy. One day they got together and talked about the gifts they were able to buy for their elderly mother. The first son said, “I built a big house for Mom.” The second said, “I sent her a new Mercedes with a driver.”  The third son smiled and said, “I’ve got you both beat. You know how Mom loves the Bible, but you also know she can’t see very well. I sent her a brown parrot that can recite the entire Bible. It took 20 monks in a monastery ten years to teach him. I had to pledge $100,000 a year for 10 years, but all Mom has to do is name the chapter and verse and the parrot will recite it.”

Soon after, the mother sent thank you notes to her sons. 

To the first son she wrote, “Thank you so much for the house, but I only live in one room, yet I have to clean the whole house.”

To the second son she wrote, “Thank you so much for the new Mercedes. It is beautiful, but I’m too old to travel much now so I stay home. By the way, the driver is rude.”

To the third son she wrote, “My dearest son. You are the only one with the good sense to know what your mother likes. The chicken was delicious!”

There are some passages in the Bible that have received the kind of tragic misunderstanding that’s captured by this story. John 3:1-15, which describes Jesus’ encounter with a religious leader named Nicodemus, is one of those.

Famously, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Nicodemus couldn’t see what Jesus was talking about.

And it’s not that much different in our culture today. “Born again Christians” are considered a subset of all Christians, an unhappy, morally rigid subset at that.

But the truth is, “born again Christian” is a tautology. It’s saying the same thing twice in a row. As Jesus told Nicodemus, no one can be a Christian outside of a spiritual rebirth from heaven.

Actual Christians are, by definition, “born again.”

That’s worth repeating.

Queen’s gambit

I just watched The Queen’s Gambit, the popular Netflix miniseries based on the 1983 book by Walter Tevis. It’s about a girl named Beth who’s taken to live in an orphanage after her mother died in a car accident. In the orphanage, Beth is befriended by the janitor who teaches her to play chess. It soon becomes apparent that Beth is a prodigy, but could she master the obstacles in her life so she could master the game?

A “gambit” is a strategy, ruse, or ploy.

A “Queen’s Gambit” is an opening strategy in chess that puts the player on the offensive. It also described Beth’s approach to life: Don’t let others know what you’re thinking. Keep your opponents on the defensive.

That may be fine for chess, but it’s not how God designed us.

What if you had a friend who you could trust with your deepest secrets? We have such a friend in Jesus Christ. John 2:25 says that, “He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.”

In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth’s genius wasn’t enough to master the game. It wasn’t until she let her friends help her that she was able to succeed at the highest level.

There’s no gambit that we can use on Jesus. Nothing gets by him. He knows everything about us and still he loves us completely. 

None of us ever really “master the game” of life.

But we can trust the Master.

Turning water into…grape juice?

My late father-in-law was a wonderful man of faith. He was a humble servant, the most Christ-like person I ever knew. Part of his walk with the Lord meant not drinking alcohol.

There are lots of reasons not to drink. Alcohol abuse claims 100,000 lives in the US every year. The scope of personal tragedy is unthinkable. The CDC estimates the economic toll at a quarter trillion dollars.

But that’s not why Lonnie didn’t drink. Like a lot of people born during Prohibition, he’d been taught that drinking was a deadly sin.

So, I asked him, how could it be that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine? It was because he came from a faith tradition which taught that it wasn’t wine that Jesus made, but grape juice. 

Well, no. In Isaiah 25:6, the prophet pointed to a future where “the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine.” Jesus turned water to wine, showing he had come to fulfill God’s promise.

The Apostle Paul advised Timothy to drink wine for his health. Wine was probably safer than the water back then.

In Luke 18, Jesus told a parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. One, a religious insider, reminded God that he was better than other people, like tax collectors, and that he fasted twice a week. The other, a tax collector, just beat his breast and pleaded for mercy.

Here’s the thing. Just as God doesn’t require us to “fast twice a week,” he doesn’t give us extra credit for not drinking. God gave us wine to be enjoyed, a sign of his abundant provision for us. 

Now, my father-in-law lived a joyous life; he never missed out on a thing.

But drinking is not a deadly sin.

It’s sin that often makes drinking deadly.

It’s also sin that leads us to make rules God never intended.

What do you want…really?

A few years ago, I started work on a proposal for a sabbatical grant from the Lilly Endowment. It was quite an effort, taking a team of us more than a year to complete. The key question Lilly wanted to know was, “What makes your heart sing?”

Could you answer that?

Do you really know what makes your heart sing?

Are you sure?

In his wonderful book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Christian philosophy professor James K.A. Smith says that we are all pursuing a vision of the good life. But most of that vision has been formed in us without our knowing. We’re bombarded every day, all day, by visions of the good life set forth in the culture through marketing, social media, etc. We’ve been conditioned to think, “If I have that…look like that…get that degree…had a partner like him or her,” then I’ll have achieved the good life. 

But it never works that way. The moment we achieve “that,” “that” starts to get old.

Smith says to really understand what makes your heart sing, to reach your vision of the good life, you have to retrain your heart. It takes time, practice, repetition, to unlearn what the culture tells us and discover a greater vision.

We were created in and for love by a God of love. What we all really want, whether we know it or not, is to love God and to reflect God’s love to the world.

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus recruited the first disciples, he didn’t ask them what they believed. He didn’t even say, “Follow me.” He simply asked, “What do you want?”

Of course, they didn’t know.

So he spent three years showing them what truly made their hearts sing.