September 2010


The following is another excerpt from the opening chapter of Ten Enduring Words.

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A friend of mine recently forwarded me a YouTube video clip of popular television host Stephen Colbert interviewing a congressman regarding this very issue of displaying the Ten Commandments.  The congressman was reportedly the one who sponsored a bill that would require the Ten Commandments to be displayed in Congress.  In the video clip, the congressman explains the importance of protecting this document and states that without it, we would lose our sense of direction.  Colbert then asks the congressman to name the Ten Commandments.  He begins with a couple easy ones, but then pauses, realizing the awkwardness of the moment.  He finally admits that he cannot name them all.

To be fair, numerous surveys conclude that most of us could not name them all either.  Quick – list all ten (and don’t flip to the table of contents).  I have been studying them for a couple years now, and I am not sure I could list all ten if I was stopped on the sidewalk and a microphone shoved in my face.

It has come to represent the quandary that many well-meaning, religious people find themselves in: trying to uphold the value of something they consider to be sacred, while being unable to recite the very thing considered sacred.  You can almost understand why the secular world scratches their collective heads, asking “Is this important to you or not?”  For people of faith it should be both a valid point, and at the same time, only scratching the surface of a bigger issue.  Are we expected to live these commandments out in our lives today?   Again, is it more important that we display the Ten Commandments, have them committed to memory, or that they are actually an embodiment of the way we live?

One of the reasons for my entering the blogosphere is to share some of my writing projects.  One project, which is now completed, involves instilling new life into the Ten Commandments.  It turned into a sermon series, which was subsequently taught again a couple of years later.  From time to time, I’ll share excerpts from the manuscript.  What follows is from the opening chapter of Ten Essential Words.

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I had not given much thought to the Ten Commandments, myself.  I probably could have recited most of them if I was ever given a pop quiz and some time to think.  So while reading a book one day I was caught off guard when I ran across this quote:

So in the new church, in spite of the unsolved dilemmas of abortion, homosexuality, and the like, we may just find ourselves united as never before in trying to help our people toward moral living, in public and in private.  We will realize what wonderful assets we had in the Christian tradition all along: the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Love Chapter (1 Corinthians 13).  And maybe, just maybe, we’ll accept this modest proposal: that for, say, the next twenty-five years we will dedicate 95 percent of our moral effort toward living these basic, unarguable elements of our moral tradition.  Then we can reevaluate and see whether the other issues – the trivial questions and the big dilemmas alike – have taken care of themselves.

(from Brian McLaren, The Church On The Other Side)

I started wondering if this could actually be the case.  I wrote in the margin of that particular book the words “sermon series”.  At the very least a sermon series on the Ten Commandments would take up about two to three months of Sunday sermons (unfortunately sometimes pastors think this way).  But I wondered if there was enough material out there.  After all, you probably do not need to spend 30 to 45 minutes to convince most people that things like stealing and murder are not the paths to a virtuous life.  Other questions crossed my mind as well.  Would people respond to what seemed like a high moral call?  Would I end up turning into one of those “fanatics” protesting outside a courthouse to keep the Ten Commandments on display?

Apprehensions aside, I decided to take the challenge of spending a considerable amount of time trying to understand what might have been lost to us down through the centuries.  After all, my own questions revealed that I could use some brushing up on something that I considered important to my faith.  So at the conclusion of a three month sermon series on the Ten Commandments, I found that there was much more life to an ancient document than I ever could have imagined.  The response from the church revealed the hunger people had for gaining a better grasp of those commandments.  Visitors wanted to know how they could take the material back to their own small group or spiritual community.  Those ten statements would end up becoming the ten values of our church because we believed in the power they still held.

I sat down in Starbucks this morning to write something entirely different.  I was going to talk about one of my writing projects.  But as I was doing some reading before writing, my reading pulled me in a different direction.  I was reading out of Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission, and came across this:

There is absolutely no suggestion in the New Testament that being a disciple consists of reading your Bible and praying regularly.  There is a totally wrong conception of what discipleship is.  It’s been presented as attending a church, reading your Bible, praying, and maybe some witnessing, and that’s it.  [Many think], “I will make discipleship these ‘devotional’ times.”  They would be opposed to saying, “My life is my discipleship.”  Or, rather, they just wouldn’t know what that meant.

My life is my discipleship.  Do you ever read a simple statement over and over again, struggling with the feeling that you don’t  fully get it?  I just kept reading that statement.

Discipleship is something I’ve been trying to understand for a couple years now.  It has been during this time of transition in my life that I have been trying to incorporate more of the spiritual disciplines.  But I have to confess, it has not always been clear to me how the disciplines, discipleship, the kingdom of God, and my life all fit together.  I am slowly learning that the disciplines, in and of themselves, are not discipleship, though they may be a piece of it.  Discipleship, in part, is how I let those disciplines inundate the rest of my life.  My life is my discipleship.

I am realizing that it is all too easy to confuse accomplishment with discipleship.  Dare I say that the drive to accomplish may be the enemy of discipleship.  It is also easy to mistake devotional time with discipleship, as Willard points out.  But devotional times are powerless unless we express that devotion throughout the rest of our day.  God never intended us to possess such a compartmentalized faith.

So it would be easy for me to finish my coffee, feel encouraged about my reading, blog about my morning, and think, “what a great time of discipleship.”  But in truth my discipleship time begins when I leave Starbucks – as I drive back to the house, as I watch football this afternoon, as I take the dog for a walk, as I pay more attention to the people who cross my path today.  I become a disciple of Jesus, not when I read about him in an overstuffed chair in a coffee shop, but as I follow him out the door into the rest of my day.

Every now and then, a menial task is illuminated by something I read.  I am working my way through N.T. Wright’s book  After You Believe and came across this:

Humans are to enable the garden to flourish, and to speak words which bring articulate order to the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

The garden Wright speaks of is a reference to Eden, a microcosm of all creation.  And we are called to reign over this garden.

I spent the summer tending to my parents backyard.  My mom usually keeps up with it quite well, but she spent much of the summer traveling and it was beginning to revert back to its “natural state.”  So the hot summer days were spent weeding, pulling out dead plants, exterminating countless mud wasps (which I finally conceded was a losing battle), and trimming back rose bushes and other shrubs intent on expanding their little kingdoms.  Pots were replanted and flower beds were reclaimed.  A drainage area that constantly held standing water was turned into a water bog garden.  A broken pot my mom particularly liked was renewed to look like an ancient artifact with a new plant growing out the side.  Everything had order and purpose again.

It was an odd summer; much of it was spent in transition.  So often I felt like my career was sinking, my faith was stagnating, and the future uncertain.  All I did was reclaim the backyard for my parents.

But sometimes, when we feel like we are accomplishing the least, we are actually making great strides in the kingdom of God.  I read that quote from N.T. Wright at the end of the summer and it changed my perception of things.  My summer was spent literally getting my hands dirty restoring order to a little slice of creation and allowing it to flourish.

In the Old Testament, the temple in Jerusalem was another microcosm of creation.  It was a picture of what the world would look like when God’s kingdom was fully come.  So what part of creation has God entrusted to my care – to tend to, to reign, and to restore order?  First, our own bodies are under our direct care, and I am discovering that mine needs evermore attention lest disrepair sets in.  Next, there is a relational sphere that I am called to tend and care for.  Friends and family can either wilt or flourish depending on how I might serve and be served by them.  Regardless of the circumstances, my soul also can either flourish or dry up, depending on how I tend to it.

And yes, this summer, God entrusted a small part of creation called my parents backyard into my care as well.