He Sent a Baby

He sent a baby.
Didn’t see that coming.
Oh, we knew He would send something, or someone.
And it was going to be awesome…
And terrible.
Truth be told, we deserved “terrible” more than “awesome.”
For thousands of years we gave lip service And not much else.
We worshiped ourselves, did our own thing.
We hoped for a king who would destroy our enemies
While overlooking the fact that our sins were just like theirs.
But sending a baby?
What was He thinking?
We wanted a sword swinging
Curse flinging
Doom bringing
King on a big horse.
We got a baby
Born to a not quite married girl
In a nowhere town
In a shabby room.
Maybe we weren’t the only ones who didn’t see that coming.
The devil didn’t seem ready for it either.
I mean, none of it really makes sense.
Baby, nowhere’s-ville, father goes absent
Twelve unemployed guys as his posse
Religious people opposing him
Nailed to a tree, naked, humiliated
Right in front of his mother
AWOL from the tomb a few days later.
He came as a baby.
One of us.
Walked with us.
Ate with us.
Loved us.
Told us to do what he did.
And then he told us we’re good.
He can boogie now.
And so he did.
Straight up.
What a story.
Not what we were expecting.
But exactly what we needed.
That baby was God and King and Savior.
Who knew?
Not me.
Didn’t see it coming.
Thought He come with fire and all cheesed off.
We deserved no less than hell.
He gave us heaven.
That baby. Wow.
He was more than a baby.
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth.

The Power of No

Fasting is a fascinating subject. When I bring it up in conversation or in a lesson, some have a knee jerk reaction and quickly say “there are no commands in the New Testament for us to fast!” I get it. That’s what I was taught, too. I agree that there is no explicit command and I truly believe we are not to bind upon others (or ourselves) anything other than that which God has bound. That said, it is interesting that Jesus said, “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16-18) and the early church fasted before making decisions or commissioning Christians for specific work.

When I ask people what it means to fast, they almost always say “To not eat for a period of time” and they are correct, but only in part. You can fast from food for a day or longer, or you can fast from a particular food as many do during Lent. You can fast from an activity, again, as some of my friends do when they withdraw from social media or TV and movies during Lent. There are severe fasts where you neither eat nor drink during the daylight hours, as my Muslim friends do during Ramadan. I have sat with them as the evening sun is setting and they are finally allowed to eat and drink. It is a remarkable experience.

Isaiah 58 makes it very plain that fasting is not about us. It is not about trying to force God’s hand or prove our righteousness. Rather, fasting is about handing over our lives to God and allowing Him to live through us and that all starts with a lovely little word: no.

“No” is a spiritual word and it is a complete sentence. (My thanks to John Laster, my executive minister who taught me this when I was serving in Rochester, Michigan) You are allowed to use that word and, in fact, you must. It is important to learn how to use that word to protect yourself from the demands and noises of this world. It is also important to learn how to use that word to police your own behavior. We’ve all met people who have never been told “no.” I knew kids in high school that got whatever they wanted – including cars, clothes, gear – whenever they wanted it. Their parents just couldn’t say no and, thereby, they ruined their children’s lives and their children’s sense of entitlement and lack of boundaries ruined the lives of others. We see millionaire sports stars spend their money on bling and sabotage their lives with risky behavior because no one tells them no. We see entitled politicians and bureaucrats who assume the rules do not apply to them for who will tell them no?

I believe that fasting is given to us as a gift from God so that we can learn the power of the word “no.” Think about it for a moment: we were designed to need food. And, look! There is food available for us! We are blessed to live in a land of abundance full of places that will even provide us with a dollar menu (because fat is cheap). So, to review, we were designed to need food, and there is food available to us. Add to that the fact that food is a gift from God (1st Timothy 4:3) and you can make a good case for sitting down and enjoying your meal. But…think about this…

You are hungry. You have food available. And then you say no to yourself and yes to whatever God needs you to do for Him (Isaiah 58 again). You learn the power to say no to yourself. You make a decision to lay aside your rights and your needs for a time. The world may be calling you to join them in a meal or to take part in an activity, but you have the power to say no. You’ve learned how by fasting (in whatever form) regularly. It can change your life. It did mine.

I was raised in a strict, pain filled home. I was taught to judge and hate anyone who was not like us or in full agreement with us (we didn’t use the word “hate” but that was what we felt and projected). From my middle school years, I debated my peers and those older than I. I lived for that and, in my eyes, never lost a debate. I almost never won over my opponent but that, to me, was beside the point. I made the superior argument. In my opinion, if they did not acquiesce, it was due to their moral deficiency or intellectual cowardice. My arrogance was only exceeded by my failure to love. Early in my marriage, my attitude and my “take no prisoners” attitude began to hurt my relationship with my wife. It took years for me to understand what I was doing and how it affected others. Once I “got it” I had to find a way to modify my behavior and I am here to tell you it was not easy.

I decided I could no longer be a predator, but I knew I would need a constant reminder of my decision. I carried a small metal cross in my pocket so that, every time I put my hand in my pocket to retrieve keys or change, I would remember that the people around me at that moment were beloved by God and it would be wise for me to treat His kids with kindness, especially since I believed I had an appointment to face Him one day. I knew I needed to go further so I made two more changes that seemed extreme at the time. First, I vowed to say nothing negative about any person for the next six months. That was brutal. I still had to drive and negotiate my way through the day to day world but, now, I couldn’t complain about the traffic or how I was treated at the repair shop… Wow. That was harder than I thought, but it taught me to say “no” to my instincts and training.

Adding to the cross in my pocket and the vow to speak no negative words about others, I added one more reminder: I stopped eating meat. I loved meat. My family still ate meat and I still bought it for them. I was not opposed to eating meat or even to hunting. I stopped eating meat to remind myself I was not a predator anymore and, by that, I meant that I was not to prey on humans with my words and attitude. I remained a vegetarian for more than 10 years. After our children left home, my wife sat me down and said I had changed my life and personality long ago and that I should allow myself to eat meat again. Besides, she said, with only two of us in the home, it was difficult to make a meal we could share if I continued being vegetarian. I started eating meat that day.

Learning how to say no to myself was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I still have to fast from time to time to remind myself of my need to hear that word. I also have to constantly remind myself of the other side of the fasting coin: saying no to myself and saying yes to whatever God needs from me at that moment. I am not at all the man I want to be, but I am far from the man I was and fasting played a big part in that journey. I am sure it will play a big – and necessary – part in the rest of my journey. So, I do not fast because I believe I was commanded to fast. I fast because I need to fast.

Patrick Mead

The Begats are the Point

When I was 8 or 9 yrs old, our little mission church launched a Read Through the Bible in One Year effort. I was in, especially since the kids got a dispensation to read only the New Testament. I was the son of the minister so…how hard could it be? I couldn’t wait to start so, sometime during the service, I cracked open my New Testament and started with Matthew Chapter One.


My enthusiasm ran into a brick wall. All those begats… Is this any way to start a story? This is the Greatest Story Ever Told! I knew that because we had a tract in a rack by the front entry of our tiny church building that said so. Why would you start a story this way? (Besides, we did a lot of scripture reading aloud in worship and I was terrified that I would be handed that chapter. Why would a loving God allow that to happen?)

Later, I learned the standard answers: 1) Jews have their own ways of telling stories. What seems annoying to us was just setting the scene for them. 2) Matthew’s gospel is all about Jesus being the Promised Messiah and King so Matthew had to establish his kingly line early in the story. I have no reason to doubt either of those answers but, over the years, I think there is more to it than that.

Matthew 1 is history, but it is much, much more than history. It breaks my heart when I hear people say that they don’t like history. Often, it is traceable to a boring history teacher who forced names and dates on them without revealing the drama and context of the times. But history is us! When you go through the list of names in Matthew 1, it is imperative that you remember that each of these were individuals, real people with hopes, dreams, fears, successes and failures.

They were people. Jesus entered a people story.

Allow me to stupefy and disappoint many of you: I don’t care for super hero stories or movies. I enjoyed the first Iron Man and loved the spiritual, theological issues in Wonder Woman but, other than that, they leave me cold. I think it is because I have a hard time embracing the characters or their physics-free lifestyle. That is why, when I enter Matthew 1, I am blown away by the fact that Jesus entered a human story – a badly broken human story.

We see Tamar here. Abraham was no superhero and, if he lived today, he’d be named in the #metoo movement and for good reason. David? Can we say “murder, treachery, adultery” for starters? There’s Ruth, the Moabite, when Moabites weren’t allowed anywhere near the worship of God (Deuteronomy 23:3). We can talk about Rahab and Manasseh if you’d like, but I’d rather not. These aren’t the kind of ancestors about which one might brag on Facebook.

When I was a boy, it amazed me how many Americans claimed to have a “Cherokee princess” in their bloodline. Especially since they didn’t have princesses. The claimants were merely trying to borrow glory and a sense of “specialness” from having high placed, Native American royalty as a grandmother. There is none of that in Matthew 1. Sure, it is a royal line and there is royal blood there but there is also an inordinate amount of commoner, stranger, foreigner, and “questionable individual” blood there, as well.

That’s the story Jesus entered.

He entered through the body of a very young girl who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Joseph, this real person, was torn about how to respond to this situation into which he was cast. As a “tsadiq”, a righteous man, he wanted to do the right thing but…how? And what would that be, exactly? God makes sure that Joseph knows that Mary is telling him the truth, so he stays with her and they become a family.

It gets even messier. Mary’s own sons didn’t believe her story until Jesus was resurrected. They grew up thinking their mother was a liar and a loose woman (at least, loose once). If they believed that about their mother, what did those around them in their village think of her? Jesus would be taunted with “where is your father?” and “we know who our father is” in public places (John 8 for one example).

Is this the kind of story you expected? I didn’t, and all those begats almost kept me from seeing it in the rush to get to the “good parts.” But it gets even more interesting…

Joseph is told to “give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Preachers told me that Jesus was named Jesus because that name means “the Lord saves.” Actually, the name Joseph means that, and “Jesus” is a variant but let’s not get picky. Instead, let’s look at a cultural and historical fact: Joseph, Jesus and Joshua were the most common names in that area. Jesus’ name would not have stuck out and people wouldn’t have heard his name and thought “well, a savior is among us.” Almighty God entered a messy, broken, human story and took on a name that was the most common available. God asked us to call His Son Joe, or John, or Tim…you get the point.

And then comes Matthew to add this: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’” In parentheses (which did not exist when Matthew wrote his gospel) we see a note explaining that Immanuel means “God with us.” I can remember that verse bothering me because Joseph didn’t name his son Immanuel but Jesus. What’s up with that? And, before I try to answer that, let’s mention a controversy that blew up pulpits in the last century…

The translators of the Revised Standard Version didn’t use the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, the passage Matthew quotes here. They put “young woman” there instead. I am old enough to remember preachers getting red faced and yelling about “so called versions” that ripped the miraculous out the story. The fact is, the word means “young woman” and it means “virgin,” because, in that world,they were presumed to be one and the same if the young woman was not married. Purity was assumed and strictly enforced by a wide-ranging set of laws and cultural norms.

So, I want to do something that might make some of you uncomfortable; I want to say this means “young woman” and that is more weighty and exciting than we were led to believe. Here we go:

God entered a very human story full of broken human beings, people with good intentions, some people with evil intentions, women of questionable provenance with histories that make us blink, and some men that, in my opinion, should have been lopped off the family tree a long time ago. God didn’t lop them off and for good reason.

He then gave His Son the most common name around. He wasn’t “Mega Holy, the Soul Saver.” He was Bob. And he was named that way because he was going to save the Bobs, Tims, and Joes of the world. He wasn’t here to cut swathes of blood and vengeance through the world; he was here to save us so he, first, became one of us.

And that is why the sign of a young woman giving birth to him is so dear to me. I can remember being at a Christian college lectureship when I was a young teen. My dad brought me along on the long trip and I was surrounded by “big names in the church” the entire time. I listened as the speakers used amazing scholarship or passion in their presentations and I was impressed. This was a whole new world for me. And I remember a long keynote lecture about Isaiah 7:14 where the speaker said “what kind of sign is a young woman having a baby? That makes no sense!” He went on to use humor and sarcasm to attack the RSV and I laughed along with everyone else. I’m not laughing now because I think that we may have missed the whole point…

God is with us. He isn’t with just the super holy. He isn’t just with those who have many generations in “the church” and who are known for being “sound.” He is with all of us. He is with the woman whose past shames her (even if she had little or no control over what happened to her). He is with David whose good name is forever sullied by his treatment of those around him and his shameful use of power to get what he wanted. He is with Tamar when no one else was. He is even with Manasseh. Let that one sink in for a bit.

He is with us. He entered our story as one of us. He continued to live and walk and teach as one of us. And in the next world, we will be called his brothers and sisters because that is what we are.

The Siren Call of Legalism

We’ll start with a bit of observational science. Not much. It will be important later.

Watch two vehicles heading the same direction on the interstate, but in different lanes. When one overtakes the over, they tend to get closer, each moving a few inches closer. This is thought to be caused by the change in air pressure between two moving objects. As two objects pass each other,  they create a lower pressure system between them than that which surrounds them and, thus, there is a slight pull that is generally unnoticed and easily corrected (in newer cars, electronic steering controlled by the car’s computer systems minimize, but can’t eliminate, this effect).

A much more dangerous narrowing of the gap takes place when two cars, heading opposite directions, pass each other. Once again, we often see a few inches of closure before the drivers subconsciously correct. This time, the low pressure system is not the main culprit. Rather, the fact is that we tend to move toward that which we are watching. Think of the pull you feel as you stand near a large drop-off. You feel it because you are looking at it and are aware of it. If you don’t take corrective action with your balance, you can go right over (and it is thought that that is exactly what happened to Jimi Heselden, the inventor of the Segway, who drove off a cliff into a river).

I thought about this effect as I considered how easily it is to fall into legalism whether one considers oneself on the philosophical/religious left, right, or center. It seems that ancient sailors are not the only ones who are in danger of hearing the call of the Sirens and steering their craft onto the rocks. For those without knowledge of ancient Greek literature (no shame in that!), the Sirens were a mythical female/bird hybrid that sang songs so mesmerizing and alluring that sailors could not help themselves. They followed the songs only to lose their ships and their lives on the rocks hidden under the surface. Another version of the Sirens said their songs were so peaceful and lovely, they put the sailors to sleep. Once they were sleeping, the Sirens would board the ship and kill the sailors. It was impossible to resist the songs so Homer had Odysseus order his men to plug their ears and tie him to a mast so that he could hear them without following them to his doom.

Let’s move from the Sirens to the Pharisees. If all you knew about the Pharisees came from the Gospels, you would most likely think of them as the bad guys of their day. In fact, they were the restorationists, very serious about living a righteous life that would please God and return His favor to His people. They were focused and intentional  about keeping the law — or The Law — that God gave them via Moses. Their first error was keeping the law while not allowing it to change their hearts. The second error was that they were not content with following God according to their tradition; they required that all others do exactly as they did. If they did not fall into line, Pharisees treated them as enemies, not brothers.

When people think of the term “legalist” they tend to think of people to their right but, the fact is, legalism shows up all over the spectrum. The right is easy to spot and pillory but when I lived in that world, I took it very seriously. How seriously? I can remember a year where I had laryngitis to the point where I had nothing but a tortured squeak when I would try to speak. Doctors told me not to even whisper so my vocal chords could heal. Yet, on Sunday, I would make myself squeak out at least a song or bits of songs because I was convinced that if I skipped one of the five acts of worship, God would not accept any of my worship. When we baptized someone and a tiny bit of them didn’t go under, we baptized them again for we truly believed that anything above the surface negated the baptism entirely. We believed this so strongly that young ministers were told how to make sure a woman’s hair was completely submerged (and this was in the 60s-70s when women’s hair could reach Crystal Gayle lengths). I can remember a song leader stopping a song because someone was tapping their foot and he could hear it. We were then given a 5 minute talk on why tapping your foot hard enough to be heard was adding an instrument to the music and, thus, sinful, negating our worship if we did not stop it. This happened more than once.

I could go on for pages and pages and so could many of you.. It is easy to laugh at this sort of legalism but, please, don’t. We didn’t think of ourselves as legalists; we thought of ourselves as rational people who wanted to please a mighty God. We thought we were making God happy and it upset us that others didn’t agree with us. In self defense, we developed a simple catechism. I can remember Bible classes where we asked “Why do the Baptists use instruments in church” and the answer was “Because they don’t believe the Bible.” Another child asked “Why do the Methodists sprinkle instead of immerse” and the answer was “because they don’t believe the Bible.” We had the same answer to questions about Catholics, Democrats (or Labour Party), etc. ad infinitum.

As I studied and prayed my way to a more grace and love based faith, it wasn’t long before I found another legalism out there that wanted to pull me in. It came from the left. I read blogs that said I had to divest myself of any form of patriotism. Pledge allegiance to the flag? Idolatry! Join the military? You are attacking the Prince of Peace!  I remember how I felt listening to a minister talk about a church in his community that actually honored a man who just retired from 30 years in the Army. The minister was appalled that anyone “who calls themselves a Christian” could join the military or honor those who did. This was a hard pill to swallow for a man — that would be me — whose family had a 300 year history of military service and whose son was a United States Marine. In the church that raised me from 0 to 30, patriotism was part of the faith. We didn’t have the flag on the stage and we didn’t sing patriotic songs like “God Bless America” in church but hippies and protestors were shunned and considered ungrateful sinners. But pendulums swing. That’s is what they do.

Now, I often find myself in circles where pacifism in one form or another is assumed. I am not a pacifist. When I’ve told some ministers — most of them under 40 — they assume I’m a warmonger who doesn’t believe the Sermon on the Mount. It seems that nuance — that one can be an anti-war pacifist, say — is lost in the rush to stake out the new minimums of the faith. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut in certain places and just not go to some events…just like I learned to be quiet and avoid some events when I was on the right.

Then came social media and virtue signaling. “Virtue signaling” is making sure that others know that you agree with their passion and their dislikes by chiming in on social media. It is supposed to prove you are righteous and demonstrate your acceptability in your group. It is one click above those horrid “If you love Jesus you have to click like on this meme” things that make most of us shake our heads and move on.

I have taken a lot of fire for not joining in the attacks waged by left and right. Just a couple weeks ago I was upbraided by a brother right after my sermon as the people sang the last song. He couldn’t wait for the song to end to tell me how wrong I was not to attack Trump and the right. He was and is very disappointed in me…but others have been very disappointed (vocally and in print) that I said nothing in support of Trump and the right and that I didn’t preach against Hillary. As the country grows more divided, the Siren call of left and right gets louder, each side insisting that you agree with them and attack the other.

Everything that we see or hear is an opportunity to divide. In a recent Super Bowl commercial, Ram Trucks paid $5 million to air an ad that consisted of Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes about the honor of serving others. Ram had received permission from the King estate to make the ad and the estate approved the final ad…but the internet went ballistic. Half seemed to love it and half hated it and both sides were appalled at the other. And each hardened their position on social media, almost insisting that if one wished to be a good person, they HAD to move to their side. That is legalistic thinking, if not legalism.

Those of us who lived through the 70s and 80s remember that a movement began in our church that had, I believe, the best of intentions but devolved into legalism. It was called Crossroads, the Boston Movement, or the International Churches of Christ. They said that our congregations were dead, lifeless, without passion and fervor, and no longer were interested in discipling the world, teaching all to follow Jesus. And they had a point. A great number of our churches had devolved to become franchise churches offering approved franchise goods and services to those who liked our franchise. If we captured a Baptist every now and then, all the better, but the main aim was keeping the franchise the way we got it and without upsetting the members who gathered expecting a franchise event.

I can remember going to several meetings where the leaders of this new movement spoke with our leaders. Every meeting I attended, I’m quite glad to say, were civil and informative. I left each of them believing that the Boston Movement folk had a lot of good things to say and that their take on the deadness of many of our churches was spot on. The problem was with how they reacted to that lack of life, discipline, and fervor in the local churches of Christ. They established leaders that maintained strict discipline over others, setting up “soul talks” to closely monitor each individual. Abuses occurred, as they always will when one person is put in an authoritative position over another. The ICC developed a reputation for legalism and disrupting churches, families and schools with the demands they placed on their members. It was a new legalism. (The ICC has gone through several times of fire and reformation since then and is a still evolving church. At present, it isn’t wise or fair to paint all of them with the same brush we used in 1980)

And that was the first time I heard about legalism…and it was from our leaders who aimed that word at their leaders. Once I heard the term and saw it applied, I knew it applied to us as well and that was an uncomfortable realization. It was from that time that I began watching for legalism in my own church and in the lives and churches around me.

This is not a call to go to the middle of the road. I would think we should know by now by observing possums and armadillos that the middle of the road is not always a safe place. But legalism is sneaky. Its mechanism is easy to understand. It works something like this…

Can we all agree that praying for 30min at some point in the day would be a good and beneficial thing for the individual, the church, and the Kingdom? Okay then…make it a rule. Make it a law that, to be spiritual and pleasing to God, you have to pray 30min a day. Wow. That went sideways quickly.

Legalism is sneaky. It still gets me from time to time. And, speaking for those, like myself, who have fallen into legalism more than once, allow me to say that we are generally the last to notice where we are.

You see, each car that passes wants to suck you in. It is easier to go with the flow as there is less pressure if you do…but you will crash and die. It is better to focus on your own life and behavior, allowing your positions to change as led by the Holy Spirit than it is to decide you have found IT and you need to call others to IT, attacking them when their IT differs. When an attractive group sings a song that appeals to you, it is easy to join in and head that direction without thinking of the rocks that might lie under the surface.

At the risk of further alienating readers, allow me to say that this is another reason that I enjoy reading ancient creeds. Those that have survived and stayed popular — such as the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed — lay out a very simple faith, free of the barnacles that have attached themselves to our ship of faith over the centuries. They are a reset button, a wake up call that reminds us that not all of our thoughts, opinions, and positions are ancient and we might need to be more gracious about the way we hold them.