Review: Every Job a Parable

every job a parable

Every Job a Parable John Van Sloten. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2017.

Summary: A theology of work proposing that our different jobs are “parables” that reveal various aspects of the character and ways of God, and therefore that all work matters and that God speaks to the world through our callings.

John Van Sloten has approached the theology of work in a way I’ve not seen before. He notes how so many of the parables of Jesus focus on the various kinds of work his hearers would readily have recognized and observes:

“When Jesus wrapped a parable around a particular vocation, he was affirming the creational goodness of that job.

I think Jesus is still doing the same today–through the parable that is your job.”

For him, this sheds new light both on how we image God in all of our endeavors, how God is revealed in our work, and how we might more effectively image God in our work. He traces the significance of our work from creation where God speaks through our work and our world; the fall and the ways we are hindered from experiencing God in our work; redemption and the transforming power of naming God’s saving presence in the world, and the New Earth that reminds us that our work is a foretaste of our eternal destiny.

He did something else I’ve not seen before. He interviewed and studied scores of workers from different occupations: astronauts and Walmart greeters, forensic psychologists and restaurant servers, emergency response personnel and asphalt contractors and explored how God meets them in their work and reveals himself through it. One of the powerful experiences for both Van Sloten and the various workers was to see their work in new light as they revealed that it all matters to God.

Perhaps one of the chapters that most resonated with me was his discussion of our lives as part of God’s great story, that he speaks through us–where we have the sense that we are participating in something greater than ourselves, where Someone greater than ourselves is speaking or singing or composing or caring or building or crafting through us. He calls this entering into the spokenness of our work.

Through short chapters that weave stories of workers with theological reflection, Van Sloten offers one of the richest and most accessible treatments of the theology of work I’ve read. He invites individuals and groups to join him in this reflection on the significance of our work with reflection questions titled Lectio Vocatio at the end of each chapter. Van Sloten has also created a series of YouTube videos around different vocations. One example is a sermon on restaurant servers. He includes a list of links to all the videos in an index.

There are many people who sit in our churches who wonder what connection their work has with the things we speak of Sunday by Sunday. They spend the major portion of their waking hours at work in many cases. John Van Sloten offers the tremendous news that God not only speaks on Sundays but through us in our work, which matters greatly. God “calls” to the world through our callings. Rather than a necessary evil, our work images the good and beautiful and true God. The book may serve as a great resource for an adult education class, or a preaching series, giving people hope that it is not simply through their involvement in the church, but also through their work in the world that they may know the pleasure of God upon their lives.

Stranger Danger!

Source: _chrisUK at http://www.flickr.com/photos/_chrisuk/6500365853/. Used under Creative Commons License.

Source: _chrisUK at http://www.flickr.com/photos/_chrisuk/6500365853/. Used under Creative Commons License.

From the time I was young, I was taught to fear strangers. “Don’t talk to strangers!”, “Don’t accept candy from a stranger”, and “Never get into a car with a stranger.” That was good advice then, and still is–at least for our children. But will the fear of “the stranger” govern all my relationships with strangers as an adult? Will that fear keep me from being a neighbor to a needy “stranger” and stand in the way of that stranger becoming a beloved neighbor and friend?

Those were the questions posed to me from the message this past Sunday on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.  In case you are unfamiliar with the story, a man, presumably a Jew, gets mugged on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Both a priest and a Levite (really respected religious types) cross over to the other side of the road to avoid him. Even at best, this would make them late and “unclean” for their religious duties. At worst, it could be a trap and they could be mugged as well.

Then a “despised stranger”, a Samaritan comes along. In contrast to the others, he does seven things, at least whereby he becomes a “neighbor” to this Jew in distress: he takes pity on him (he sees his distress and allows it to move him), he goes to him (rather than crossing to the other side), he bandages his wounds, he pours on wine and oil to soothe and disinfect, he puts him on his donkey (which means the Samaritan walks), he cares for him at an inn (giving him shelter and time to recover), and he pays for an extended convalescence and guarantees his room fees. “Loving the neighbor” means sacrificing time, money, comfort and possibly putting himself at risk–and he does this for someone who, in other circumstances, may well have hated his guts!

It is interesting to think about who might the “Samaritan” be if Jesus were telling the story to us. I could easily envision this person being someone from the LGBT community. Perhaps Jesus would cast the person showing care as an undocumented immigrant. It might be that the person extending care would be a Muslim. Or maybe an atheist. Maybe it would just be that guy down the street who throws large parties attended by some unsavory folk. Would it change me to be on the receiving end of compassion from such a person?

Taking it a step further, does it required being cared for by the “Samaritans” in our lives to see them as beloved neighbors rather than hostile strangers? Must the “other” take the first step? Or might this story of Jesus challenge me as one of his followers to be the one who begins the “neighboring” process?

Doing this is scary. Our pastor spoke of the fact that this is risky business that involves courage. And it will change us. We could get hurt. We might be taken advantage of. And fellow believers might misunderstand us (“What, you are making friends with them?”).  What this calls us back to is the only safety any of us can really count on, the love of a God with whom we are completely secure.

We might also see a stranger become a beloved neighbor, if not a fellow believer. I have no idea where this can take you or me. What I do know is that if Samaritans can be neighbors, then anyone qualifies. Unlike the teacher of the law who delimited “neighbor” to his extended kin or maybe his own ethnic group, Jesus story breaks all the boundaries.

Questions for going deeper: Who is the “Samaritan stranger” in your world? Who are the “Samaritan strangers” for your church? What invitation might the Lord be giving you to be a neighbor and what practical step can you take?

This post also appears on our church’s Going Deeper blog.

Love and Lostness

The parable of the prodigal in Luke 15:11-32 is among the most famous Jesus told. Rembrandt did a famous painting of this story that has moved many. Yet to read the parable is always unsettling. I wonder why on earth a father would give half his estate to a son he knows is planning to squander it? That just does not seem like good parenting. It also doesn’t seem fair that this son receives such a lavish welcome on his return without even having to grovel! At least a part of me is with that older brother in pitching a fit and staying away from the party.

One of the insights from our pastor’s message this past Sunday that really helps me is to see how both of the sons are lost. What they share in common is that both are lost in selfishness. In different ways, each is a prisoner of his own self-absorption. They are different only in the way they express it, which might help explain why the older brother is upset. Down deep, I suspect the older brother was confronting the reality of his own selfishness in that of his brother, but didn’t want to see it.

Rembrandts-The-Return-of-the-Prodigal-Son1

Rembrandt: The Return of the Prodigal Son

Both brothers are absorbed in themselves to the exclusion of any concern for either their father or their other brother and for the future of their family. The younger brother essentially wishes his father dead and wants the present value of his inheritance now, not willing to share in his older brother’s labors that might have enhanced it. All he cares for it seems is maximizing his pleasure in the moment. Even his approach to his father, as repentant as it is, masks a shrewd appraisal that he might do better as a servant in his father’s home than he is feeding the pigs.

The older brother is lost in self absorption as well. He is absorbed in his personal rectitude and his resentment of the younger brother. Seeing his father’s distress, he makes no effort to find his younger brother. And when the younger brother finds his way home, he seethes in anger both against his brother and his father for not throwing him a feast, when he could have had this at any time!

There are so many ways I can be lost to the captivity of selfishness! There are so many ways I create a cosmos that revolves around closing myself off to God and others! In the end we dehumanize ourselves, whether in unrestrained hedonism or an ugly self-righteousness that is both angry and envious toward those who don’t match our personal rectitude. I vacillate between “I want what’s mine!” and cries of “It’s not fair!”

Rich pointed out that it is easy in this story to try to identify which brother we are most like. But identifying the kind of selfish we are can do little to liberate us from being lost in selfishness. The only thing left for us is to stop focusing on ourselves and rather on the Father who is truly extravagant in love. Both sons lived in a “zero sum game” world. By contrast, the Father is one who is extravagant in love, who always has enough to go around and who would much rather throw parties for those liberated from lostness than leave either son on the outside.

I’m struck that in Christmas, we celebrate this extravagant, prodigal love. The birth of Jesus reflects this collusion of Father and Son to rescue us in all the ways we are lost in self-absorption. Jesus becomes the truly loving and righteous Elder Brother and Father’s Son who rejoices not in condemning people in their failure but in finding lost people and restoring them to the Father.

Christmas is rightly a time of parties. It rightly reflects the parties of heaven over the lost who are found by the Savior whose birth we celebrate. The question for each of us is will we turn from our own forms of self-absorption to join the Father’s party or will we remain on the outside, a party of one in a cosmos centered around self?

[This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.]

Crying Out Day and Night For Justice

I never saw this before.

This past Sunday, I preached on the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8. I’ve often heard others preach, and have myself taught the message of this parable that we should “always pray and not give up” (v. 1). I’ve thought in terms of things like seeing people come to faith, praying for the sick, praying about needs related to our work and our lives. I don’t think that is wrong, but as I studied this parable I was struck by the fact that the widow was seeking justice from the unjust judge (v. 3). Furthermore, in Jesus’s own application of the parable verse 7 says, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” Verse 8 reinforces this theme: “I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

One of the basic things I learned about Bible study years ago was to pay attention to repeated words. They are a clue to what the writer or speaker considers important. Clearly in this passage, one of the things Jesus considers important is justice, and praying for it.

In recent months and weeks, we’ve been inundated with news stories about the death of a young black man in Ferguson, a black youth in Cleveland, and an older black man in New York City. In two of these cases, local grand juries refused to charge police with any wrongful death and there has been a great outcry in the press and in social media either decrying the injustice of these decisions and the deaths that occurred at the hands of police, or in defending the police officers, who often put themselves at risk in protecting public safety and have to make split second decisions that, if wrong, may cost them their lives or the lives of others.

While I personally have decided that it is fruitless to raise my voice on one “side” of this discussion or the other in social media, I will say a couple things. One is there is something wrong with this pattern with so many dying in the streets, some at the hands of police. It is clear to me that we still are a racially divided society. If nothing, the vehemence in the outcries on both sides of the discussion reveal we are a long way from what Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned as “the beloved community.”

It seems to me that in the predominantly white church community (the one I know best) we either resort to attempts at personal justification (“I’m not racist” or “I’m personally colorblind”). Or we attempt to join and justify one side of the outcry, and, from what I can see, simply perpetuate and deepen the divisions in our society.

None of this is to say that the bereaved and their communities shouldn’t pursue justice nor that police shouldn’t be supported in their hard work. In fact, in a society where the rule of law is upheld, our legal system should be the place where these things are adjudicated, and it is right for those who believe that justice is denied to continue to pursue it via legal means. It’s not a perfect system, but the best we humans can devise in a fallen world.

But the parable (remember the parable!) also exhorts us to prayer to God for justice as well. For those of us who are Christ-followers, obedience to Jesus means that we keep praying for justice. Our first work in these matters is to seek the Lord. But the parable also says it is to be our persisting work. And this is where I fall down. I see advances in civil rights. I see a president of African-American descent in the White House. I mistake progress toward King’s “dream” with fulfillment. And I stop praying.

What the succession of events in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York do is challenge me to renew my efforts in prayer and become aware that this is an area where persistence is vital. As I look for God’s answers, such praying can also change me. Praying helps me listen both for God’s invitations to join him in pursuit of the “beloved community” and opens my ears and my heart to listen to other voices than simply the ones that most resonate with me, voices that need to be heard if real reconciliation and not simply self-justification are to occur.

I’ve concluded that I need to persist in crying out to the Lord to bring justice (all that that means) into the racial divides in our country. I pray the Lord’s prayer each morning and night. As I pray, “Thy kingdom come” I will include in my prayers the coming of Jesus’s just rule into our racially divided land. It occurs to me that I could be praying that the rest of my life. I hope not, but Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” What sustains our persistence over that “long arc” is the promise of a God who will grant justice, who will bring a kingdom of shalom.

Going Deeper question: For what do you believe God wants you to persist in prayer? How is a concern for justice a part of that?

This post also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog for this week.

______ and Believe

Are you curious about the missing word in this title? It is a word we often associate with “turn or burn” street preachers. It’s not a word we tend to use in “polite company” (whatever that is!). It is the word, along with “believe” that distinguished the tax collectors and the prostitutes from the religious elite that our pastor talked about in a message on the parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21:28-32. It is the word “repent.

The tax collectors and prostitutes are likened by Jesus to a son who refuses to work in his father’s vineyard but then changes his mind and goes to work. The religious elite are compared to a son who says he will go and work in the vineyard but never shows up. I can personally imagine the religious elite railing on Jesus saying, “Look at all we do. We lead worship, we teach the people, we work hard in maintaining the building whereas all these people did was change their minds and believed in you after living really seedy lives. And you have the nerve to compare us to disobedient sons!”

I can sympathize with these guys because I don’t often think about how hard it is to admit that I’m on the wrong path and change my mind and embrace a different way of life, or even a different way of thinking. That’s what both John the Baptist and Jesus were saying to both the “sinners” and the “religious elite.” That’s what it means to repent. It means doing a 180 degree turn in my thinking and actions. This was brought home to me recently when I read a post on “Books that changed my mind.” I had to honestly admit that I couldn’t think of a book that “changed” my mind, although I can think of books that have influenced my thinking and that I’ve deeply appreciated. For that matter, how many of us have changed our minds about our politics, or even what our favorite pizza is?

I can imagine these religious elite folks hearing John the Baptist or even Jesus and going through the motions of repenting and believing and calling up the appropriate religious emotions. After all, “repent and believe” was a part of the religious lingo they’ve learned from Moses and the prophets. But they refused to hear and believe the invitation in “repent and believe” that urged them to give up their elaborate religious system to welcome their King and come to his parties (actually, they did sometimes but mostly to find fault).

If change is so hard, I wonder then why the tax collectors and prostitutes were so willing to change and to believe the invitation to enter the kingdom? I can’t help but wonder if part of this is that they know their lives aren’t OK and perhaps long ago had given up hope that they’d be included in any plan of God other than their destruction–and then along comes this astounding figure of Jesus (and John before him) who said that being part of God’s kingdom was for them if they’d stop doing life their way and trust in Jesus’s way of doing life.

One of the things we say about those who get older is that they become “set in their ways.” Guilty as charged! There are patterns of life, of speaking, of thinking, and yes, patterns of self-seeking, and sin that are part of how I do life. Yet the truth of the matter is that I have the temerity to serve in a Christian ministry, even in a leadership role in that ministry! I desperately need the word of “repent and believe” or I can easily start thinking that my religious performance, my years of service, my degrees and recognitions, or even the size of my library (!) are what make me special. I can be that religious elite!

Repentance and belief do not mean the radical transformation of all these patterns overnight or even by the end of a life. Rich helpfully observed that the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented may not have been able to leave their work, particularly the prostitutes who might be enslaved to a pimp. The tax collectors had obligations to Rome. A change of mind may not always mean a change of situation and it may be that the first changes Jesus wants to work in us may have nothing to do with the things we think need changing! It may mean that I become more gracious toward the failings of others having faced the failings in my own life!

Am I tolerating or excusing sin by saying this? I could be, but repentance is to embrace the obedience that trustingly follows Jesus and mourns my sin. And belief is daring to trust in an acceptance into God’s kingdom that rests not on religious performance or “sin management’. How repentance changes things is that I stop pretending to be better than I am and admit that I am probably worse off than I think, and yet for all that radically loved and accepted by God because of Jesus.

I guess if I had to choose a way to be “set” in as I get older, it is the way of repentance and belief! How about you?

This blog first appeared on my church’s Going Deeper Blog on November 19, 2014.

When Shrewd is Good

To be called “shrewd” is often a back-handed compliment. Images of used car dealers in plaid jackets or oily snake oil salesmen run through my mind. One definition I came across said “given to wily and artful ways or dealing.” One often gets the idea that shrewdness involves something a bit shady, but clever.

© Nennanenna | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Nennanenna | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

This past Sunday, Rich preached on the parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1-15. He finds out that he’s going to lose his job because he wasted the master’s possessions. So, to have some place to go after he gets fired, he calls the master’s debtors in and reduces their debts from 20 to 50 percent. When the master finds out, he commends him as a shrewd operator. Jesus in turn says worldly guys like this are shrewder than the people of light when it comes to using money (verse 8).

So is Jesus saying its OK to cut corners to make a little extra? No, the point is that this guy in his own way used money to make friends. Rich talked about the idea that for Christians, are we as good at faithfully using money for the blessing of others as the shrewd manager was in using money to make friends. The truth is we can only use money to serve God or be mastered by money where it becomes our god (verse 13).

So often, we avoid talking about money in church because such talk is either a prelude to a guilt trip or to an appeal to put more in the offering plate. In the midst of all that, it seems we miss the incredible opportunity for joy in the use of whatever money we have.

Rich talked about the creative people who figure out not only how to pay their bills but delight in finding ways to use their money to care for others. What is interesting to me is that these are the happiest people I know. They don’t always have a pile of money. But they love having an extra person at the table, or surprising someone with a gift they really need. They always seem to have enough to give. This is when shrewd is good.

I’ve known some people who have real gifts, or just plain opportunity to make a pile of money. They are entrepreneurs. One of the coolest things I’ve seen are some people I’ve known like this who get really excited by figuring out ways to use this money, or even multiply this money through the investment of others in advancing the kingdom of Jesus. This is when shrewd is good.

One friend has created a business with the help of investors that employs ex-prisoners in janitorial jobs in office buildings, giving them skills, a work record, and, if they are receptive, the gospel. Others have invested in micro-lending that enables people to expand businesses, and is a key to helping women escape the threats of violence and trafficking. Another believing friend uses investment skills and Christian principles to help wealthy clients develop family “mission statements” about the use of their wealth and plans for how wealth will be intelligently passed along from one generation to the next without spoiling the children rotten. This is when shrewd is good.

Rich asked us several questions at the end including the challenge to ask someone else to tell us, “how concerned with money do you think I am?” One that I might add is “how do you think about money?” Are you thinking about how much of it you have and how you can get more, or are you thinking about ways that you can use what you have so that someone else can experience the goodness of God’s kingdom? I’m not sure we can get away from thinking about money in this life. It seems to me that the real question is whether we are thinking of money as on trust to us from God and looking for ways to use it for the good of people and the glory of God. This is when shrewd is good.

The Mystery of Growth

James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pastor Rudy preached this past Sunday on one of my favorite parables. It is brief and so I will quote it in full:

He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29, NIV)

One of the things Rudy observed was the unusual character of Jesus ministry. If he was going to introduce the “kingdom of God” into the world, he seemed to have an odd way of doing it. He calls a group of followers from the margins of life–working class guys, tax collectors, zealots–not the best and the brightest by worldly standards. Instead of marshaling political power or training a militia, Jesus preaches the fulfillment of God’s covenant law and promise to Israel in his person, and exemplifies it through healing the sick, liberating the demonized, and caring for those on the margins. He succeeds in forming a ragtag group of followers and so provokes the powers that be that they kill him. What kind of growth strategy is that?

It’s the strategy of someone who trusts in the mystery of growth, who knows that he is sowing good seed, and that it will result in a harvest. Jesus knew that the words that he had sown, his investment in the Twelve, and the sowing of his own life (cf. John 12:24) was good seed. As crazy as it seemed, as mysterious as the growth process might be, growth and a harvest were inevitable.

Rudy explored our anxieties about growth in the life of the church. At times we can be fearful where we see decline or nothing seems to  be happening. Sometimes we lose heart and just circle the wagons with the few and faithful. Equally, our anxieties can move us to driven and frenetic activity that assumes that if we do the right things, we can make the church grow. Neither is appropriate for people who have the good seed of the good news of the kingdom.

Rather, like good farmers, we keep sowing, and keep tending the farm. We understand what our part is and what is God’s part in this growth process. There is a place for both faith and faithfulness. Good farming involves hard work and yet no farmer considers a harvest guaranteed simply because of having done the hard work. Harvest comes through the mystery of growth. I’m struck with the phrase, “whether he sleeps or gets up.” Farmers know they have work to do in the day, and trust the process of growth as they sleep each night. And they are watchful. They expect a harvest and watch the crop for that moment when it reaches the proper ripeness.

This is a word I need in several ways:

1. I’m actually part of a “growth” initiative in the ministry I work with. I need to remember that the message of the kingdom of Jesus is good seed and that the strategies we pursue reflect faith and faithfulness in looking to God for growth. This frees us from the pressure of “making it happen” that releases us to the faithfulness of hard work and the trustfulness that rests in the mystery of growth.

2. Like the farmer, I need to remember that growth takes time. I’m struck that it is easy for me to be tempted to give up too soon when I don’t immediately see growth. Instead of faithfully tending the work, it can be tempting to try the latest “new thing.” Sometimes this is like plowing over a field just when seedlings are emerging. Similarly, the Word takes time to grow in people. It sure has in me!

3. Finally, this parable raises the question of expectancy. Am I looking for the growth of the kingdom, whether it is the ripening understanding of the gospel that results in a person coming to faith, or the growth of a community in the depth and breadth of its work as it listens to and enters into the words and life of Jesus?

We all live toward some vision of the good life. Rudy’s message encourages me to live toward the mysterious yet inevitable growth of the kingdom of Jesus that challenges me to the hard and expectant work and the carefree rest of someone who trusts the good and powerful King.

This blog also appears on my church’s Going Deeper blog.