Once there was an aviary. Mornings there were spectacular. Each day sunrise brought forth songs of unimaginable beauty. Larks, buntings, vireos, and mockingbirds sang from the heart—or instinct, or whatever it is that causes birds to sing in the morning.
One morning a Common Loon joined the aviary and added her voice to the Morningsong. Her mournful wailing voice cut across the celebration with sadness and lament. “Not like that” cried the other birds. “We are greeting the sun!” The loon had more than one song, so she threw he head back and let forth a crazy laugh-sound. It was distracting, but the other birds decided they could work with half-crazed laughter and allowed the loon to stay, even though they privately made fun of the loon’s song.
Soon a turkey arrived in the aviary and waddled into the mass of morning singers. His guttural gobble was not only ridiculous, but he simply walked along the floor of the aviary and made those silly noises. “What kind of birth is this?” asked the warbler. “He’s big and fat, he couldn’t fly more than a few feet if he tried, and he has the nerve to strut while he makes that god-awful sound (I refuse to call it singing)?” The other birds settled the warbler down and—though they admitted the turkey was a truly ridiculous bird—found a place for the tom to strut and gobble. "Strut and gobble" became a funny insult among the cool birds.
Anyone could’ve predicted it: before long an ostrich showed up and began to run the length of the aviary during Morningsong. It spread its useless wings and ran surprisingly fast, but it added no sound at all to the group. “Someone has to draw the line somewhere,” demanded the canary. “This, this, thing can’t sing, can’t fly, and can’t stay in the aviary!” (Bold talk from a canary). She demanded that other birds show the ostrich the door, but really—who was going to be able to throw the ostrich out? So every morning the great bird ran the floor, flapping its worthless wings, pretending to be a part of Morningsong. The other birds dubbed him the Great Pretender.
Morningsong was ruined. And it became steadily worse: other so-called birds continued to crash the gate: birds with no feathers at all, who claimed to be able to “fly” underwater; birds so tiny you’d miss them in a blink, and even though they could fly they made a mockery of flight by moving backwards through the air. They beat their wings so fast it created a humming sound, but everyone knew they had forgotten the words.
In the aviary there were some strange birds, indeed. Amazingly, Morningsong continued: deeper, louder, and longer than ever before. It became a riot of sound, a rush of color, a blur of motion. What was scandalous one month became normal the next, because after all, the song was in each bird, one way or another. Though one bird looked down its beak at another, the song continued.
Beyond notice of the birds the curator of zoo came morning after morning. He sat with his coffee and enjoyed the unpredictable show. The curator wondered what the song could be like if each bird actually liked all the others.
Morningsong continued in an endless parade of days.
One day, the sun did not rise. Instead the MorningStar Himself arrived, and all creation—birds and curators alike—stopped in stunned silence for about half an hour. Then, as if a glorious conductor gave the down beat, Morningsong sprang forth in true speandor, the beauty intended from before time. Each bird forgot its own song, its own preference, its own rules and focused instead on the bright and Morning Star. The music, the color, the motion found its true audience at last.
1). Once there was a Good Samaritan traveling a country road who came across a man beaten and bruised. Using his cell phone the Samaritan immediately made an on-line donation to the Red Cross in honor of the man in the ditch.
Later, the Samaritan thought better of his actions, and immediately called Marriott to send a shuttle to the man in the ditch and set him up in a comfortable suite for three days, and to charge it to his Capital One card, so he could get airline miles in addition to his Marriott Reward points.
2). Once there was a Good Samaritan traveling a country road who came across a man beaten and bruised. Using Siri on his iPhone, the Samaritan immediately made a note to himself to develop a Samaritan App that would enable people to send help right away with one touch on their phone. The Samaritan App will ask permission to use your location.
3). Once there was a Good Samaritan traveling a country road who came across a man beaten and bruised. Later that day the Samaritan blogged about the importance of noticing people on the side of the road. Especially women and minorities. Then he tweeted a link to his blog. Later, the Samaritan kicked himself because he realized he should have shot some video of the man in the ditch. Video always enhances a blog post and those kinds of video are likely to go viral.
4). Once there was a Good Samaritan traveling a country road who came across a man beaten and bruised. The Samaritan stopped his car and ran to the man. He picked the man up and carried him to the car, which spoiled the interior of the car with bloodstains, as well as the Samaritan’s clothing. At the Emergency Room the Samaritan stayed with the man through the initial treatment. He offered to call his family and stay with the man until they came to his side. It turned out the man’s family couldn’t book a flight until the next day, so the Samaritan ended up at the man’s bedside for another 24 hours, during which time the police came and questioned the Samaritan about the incident—they told him he would have to testify at a trial if the thieves were ever captured.
The Samaritan lost two days of work and a thousand dollars of resale value on his car. His favorite suit was ruined. The Samaritan became frustrated because of the inconvenience, but he quickly saw how small-minded this was. He repented from his own personal lack of patience and realized more deeply than ever that loving his neighbor was costly.
When the man’s family arrived, the Samaritan learned the man was in reality the son of a Great King. The Great King bowed low to the Samaritan in gratitude and honored the Samaritan, declaring that because the Samaritan had stopped to care for the King’s son, the King would forever more watch over the Samaritan and his family.
When news of Dallas Willard’s death lit up my Twitter feed yesterday, I rolled my chair across the room and looked to the “W’s” on my bookshelf. I discovered three of his books, and discovered four others were missing because I had loaned them out. That’s how it should be.
Dallas Willard’s engaging, calm, and surprisingly funny voice burst into public notice with publication of The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life with God in 1998—when he was nearly 63 years old. Of course, Willard had been writing and speaking about the with-God kind of life for decades before. Most of North American Christianity was simply decades late to the party. It pleased the Father to elevate Dallas Willard to national prominence with that book, and since 1998 he humbly accepted the role of mentor and encourager to the church at large.
He was a man fully awake to God’s constant presence: he once said he hoped to be so close to God that he would hardly know he had died until hours after the event.
I count Dallas Willard among my mentors. Like so many other of his students, I never met the man. In the chambers of my thought-life Willard sits with C.S. Lewis, quietly welcoming honest questions from anyone willing to look the real questions of life directly in the eye. Like Lewis, Willard chose an academic setting to serve Jesus. And like Lewis, Dallas Willard did not present himself as the trendy flavor of the month--just try to imagine him in scarves, or plaid flannel shirts, or skinny jeans, his hair filled with product. And yet Willard’s old-school manner resonated with Millennials and Baby-Boomers alike. His was the authority of authenticity.
When I encounter a heart hungry to know God, I immediately recommend Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversation Relationship with God, where Willard explains the issue isn’t really about hearing God, it’s about becoming God’s friend. After all: we listen to our friends. There’s no shortage of hunger for God in our age, but there is a shortage of people who have been shown how to seek him. As a sometime adjunct at a small Christian University, I’ve taught Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart to college kids—Christians—who never imagined the mind-bending possibilities of life with God. At the end of the course one semester a college junior commented, “this is the first time I’ve ever read a whole book.” That sums up Christianity in North America: a mile wide, an inch deep. Dallas Willard was part of God’s deepening project.
It’s one of the ways I determine whether a “Christian Bookstore” is serious about it’s mission: I go to the “W’s” and look for books by Dallas Willard. If Dr. Willard is absent, then it isn’t really a Christian bookstore. I’m headed to one today to replace my missing copies of his other works, because whoever borrowed those books should just pass them along to someone else, and introduce another person to one of the teachers of our age, Dallas Willard.
Christianity without the cross is a sham, but the cross is not enough. You heard me: the cross is not enough. Before the cross came incarnation, and after the cross came resurrection: Jesus modeled all three, and so should we.
I’ve watched recently as an increasing number of teachers and leaders encourage us to follow Jesus’ example by going to the cross. Our Lord is a model—the model, actually—of self sacrifice and humility. This much is true: he is our example, and he went willingly to the cross. He didn’t miscalculate, he wasn’t blindsided by people or events beyond his control. No one took his life from him: he laid it down freely, and so should we.
Before the cross, however, all of heaven gasped in wonder at the miracle of Incarnation. The Creator become part of creation. He did not stand afar off and offer advice, he became present in his world. He arrived in the usual way for a man, and the most unusual way for God. Nor did he simply drop in for a weekend redemption spree. He lived life to the full and left a record of how we should live. This part of his example required humility and sacrifice as well.
The Apostle Paul tells us the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The cross, he says, is a scandal to the religiously minded and ridiculous to the wisdom of this age. The world does not value humility and sacrifice, but they are the calling cards of another realm. Still, Paul did not leave Jesus in the grave, nor did the Father. To win by losing is an oxymoron. But Jesus didn’t win by losing. He won by winning, and the winning came by the resurrection.
Jesus’ example did not end with the agonizing beauty of his tortured death. His final words on the cross were not his final words. He had much more to say, and plenty for us to do. His work beyond the cross required the Father’s intervention in his life, and our work should require no less. Have you ever considered the humility and faith Jesus displayed by placing his future in the Father’s hands? Jesus died in faith, trusting in the Father’s promise of resurrection, but he had no guarantee beyond the love and trust he exhibited that night in Gethsemane. In this, too, we can follow his example. The Spirit of God is hovering and poised to infuse our lives with resurrection empowerment even now.
No witness is complete without these three vital elements: incarnation, sacrifice, and resurrection. Our attempts at ministry are incomplete without the three. We cannot stand far off and offer advice. We cannot follow Jesus without bearing the cross, and we cannot carry on his work without the Father’s intervention. Our tendency, though, is to prefer one of these above the rest. This week’s mediation asks of us: which is our default position, and how can we make room for the other two aspects Jesus modeled?
One of the reasons I like watching TV reality shows is that compared to those people my life seems pretty squared away. It’s too bad that there aren’t any shows like that about churches, so I could compare the “reality church” to my own congregation.
Actually, there is a place observe struggling churches that don’t have it all together. It’s the New Testament. This history book of the early church shows things the way they really were, complete with greedy people, religious crazies, hurt feelings, and racial prejudices—and these are the good guys!
Take the church in Corinth. The church in Corinth was a crazy mix of spirituality, worldliness, excess, and beauty. In others words a church very much like the most churches in North America today.
The church in Corinth started off with a bang, God himself spoke to the apostle Paul in a vision: “Don’t be afraid, and don’t give up on this town,” God said. “I have a lot of people here.” (Acts 18: 9-10) Paul invests 18 months of his life in these people, and then moves on to continue planting churches. Imagine the quality start the church in Corinth received: a year and a half of the very best in ministry, miracles, and teaching. After he leaves, Paul gets a note from the folks who meet at Chloe’s house, “Paul, there are few problems here we’d like to ask you about.”
A few problems? Let’s make a partial list:
• Believers in Corinth were “choosing sides” concerning who was the best spiritual leader: some said Paul, some Peter, some Apollos, and the really spiritual people said, “I only follow Jesus!”
• A regular attendee of the church was sleeping with his father’s wife (yikes!). Everyone who attended the church knew about it, but no one was doing anything about it.
• Church members were racing each other to courts of law because they couldn’t settle their disputes between one another inside the church.
• There were major arguments over who should eat what kind of food, and why.
• People were getting drunk at communion or the equivalent of a church “pot luck” dinner (you can look it up: I Corinthians 11: 20 -21).
• Plus, we haven’t even touched on problems like worship services that were pretty strange: spiritual gifts, spiritual pride, arguments about dating, and incorrect views of the resurrection!
I don’t know where you go to church, but even the worst church in my town doesn’t come close to this list of problems in Corinth. If I want to gawk at a bunch of immature believers, I don’t even have to leave home. I can just open up my Bible and read about the church in Corinth.
You might think that Paul wouldn’t have anything good to say to these believers. He had labored hard for a year and a half, and this was the fruit? What kind of words would he have for them?
“I always thank God for you . . .”
“You have been enriched in every way . . .”
“You do not lack any spiritual gift . . .”
“He will keep you strong until the end . . .”
And these words are just from the greeting in the letter—the first nine verses. Perhaps Paul was just “being nice,” or diplomatic—except this is Paul writing Holy Scripture, and I don’t think the Apostle Paul told polite white lies.
What lessons can we learn from a terrible church?
For one, Paul didn’t give up on them. There was a lively correspondence that lasted for years. Paul was committed to them the rest of his life.
Second, even though they questioned Paul’s position and authority, Paul responded with a passion that reflected his true fatherhood. “You really are my children,” he said. Even though they were unfaithful to him, he remained faithful to them.
Next, Paul continued to teach patiently. Even the greatest church-planter in history had things to fix. If someone like Paul can produce a church like Corinth, perhaps we should cut some slack towards pastors who don’t rise to the level of super apostle.
Finally--and this is the most challenging to me--Paul let them continue to operate even though they were making mistakes. If I had started a church that later went crazy with spiritual gifts, I think I would have been tempted to write to them: “Everybody stop! You’re doing it wrong! Just cut it out until I get there, then we’ll talk about it.” But Paul said, “Tongues are good, prophecy is good, and don’t forbid them.” Even though they were doing it wrong! The answer to the misuse of spiritual gifts isn’t to shut them down; it is to teach them up.
The church in Corinth is reality-TV written down for us in the Bible, and if they can go down in history (and scripture) as a that church God loves, a church to whom God speaks, and God nurtures, why can’t our churches be the same?