Uri, the Elder Brother

CC BY-NC, Jonathan Cohen, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Jonathan Cohen, Flickr

Among the best known parables is the story of the lost son. Here I only care to deal with the elder brother. And since that’s how we’ve only known him, let’s personalize the story a little and give both him and his younger brother a name. Uri will be the elder brother and Zev will be the younger one.

The Good Son

The entirety of Luke 15 is Jesus’s response to the Pharisees’ murmuring about his associating with the rotten apples of society. This is important to remember because he implies many things about the Pharisees in the lost son illustration.

As stories go, Uri’s is a little complex and sad. As for any scripture, we cannot make arguments or assumptions from silence, especially with parables; but I wonder some things about Uri. And since parables demand that we think contextually, follow along for a moment.

I am probably correct to assume that Uri loved Zev most of his life. I think he rallied to his father’s side when Zev started rebelling. Uri must have pleaded with his brother to not do something stupid by leaving; he knew Zev possessed a wild streak. Overall, I think Uri was a good son and a good brother.

Still, nobody was able to stop Zev; and for all anyone knew of him in the interim, he very well could have resurfaced with a caravan of riches. But when this wasn’t the case, indeed far from it, the moment revealed the character of Uri’s heart.

A Profile of Uri, the Elder Brother  

Uri was juridical, rule-oriented, and contractual. He colored inside the lines and had learned to do so very well. He deeply appreciated the reason for those lines. They were order and civility and justice that made the world turn.

But he was unyielding about compliance, his own and everyone else’s. Uri colored only in black and white, and he bore little tolerance for transgressors. He believed in swift and immediate reprimand. For him, love was defined in legal terms and breaking the law made one unlovable.

“It’s All Yours, Uri.”

In Uri’s mind, Zev’s departure was an unforgivable split Zev had created. His request for his inheritance was tantamount to wishing his father dead. So now that he’s back after having been beaten by life within an inch of his own, Uri can hardly control his contempt and disowns Zev. His father cannot convince him to join the party he should be co-hosting, not even with the sobering reminder that his brother hasn’t returned dead. But by Uri’s convictions, that would have served Zev right for what he had done.

(Ever met people like this?)

Further, Uri is beside himself that his dad should go to such lengths to welcome Zev back. It cuts him deeply: no hoopla was ever made over him. And he has worked his butt off for his dad. But Uri didn’t understand that he was the only one caring about his performance. His father loved him and owned a proud heart because all he possessed was under Uri’s management and discretion.

The question is how well Uri knows his father; the answer is not well at all.

Uri’s problem in the parable is that he doesn’t have his father’s heart and had never properly assessed his father’s character. Relationally, although he was the elder son, he lived more like a servant, even a foundling or an orphan. He worked for love that was already his. Nothing stopped him from having already hosted several of his own events, but his heart harbored incorrect assumptions about his father that limited his freedom.

The Father: Get to Know Him

Uri’s problem is the same lofty piousness that makes us no longer resemble our Father. Erroneous views about God that have been pushed on us and our own wrong theological conclusions all conflict us and burden what should be a vibrant father-son bond with duty and fear and resentment.

What’s really peculiar is that we’ll go on unaware of our problem until we encounter others in need of God’s love. Our relational deficiency will show itself for what it is: our prepotent need. And like a sputtering car, coughing and choking, we will spew a black smoke of toxins in the faces of those finally ready for fresh air.

Hopefully the Spirit will get us to see how we’ve made it our job to zealously defend and protect God from those who need him most; that we’ve too often forgotten all about the people we should love and opted instead for gracelessness and sanctimony, proving our lack of true religion more than anything.

In the end, let it not be that we have glamorized Jesus and his ministry to outcasts and cared little about following his example. Let it not be that we are all church and no Christ. Let it not be that our churches are Bible-themed social clubs. And worst, let us not affirm what outsiders and antagonists already think about us, that the church is irrelevant and outmoded.

We’ve gotta get this right. Uri’s problem is the most major point of the whole New Testament. His issue was never Zev; it was in the mirror. And the answer was in the father’s heart.

11 Questions for Michael

Well this is convenient! There was no “10 Questions” post for today because neither of the two interviews that are forthcoming was ready. But my buddy Chef Ted Luoma of the blog cateritforward pulled a fast one on me.

Ted was nominated for a Liebster Award and, in-turn, nominated me; however, I’m already a recipient. I decided to respond to the questions he asked anyway, and that nicely satisfies this week’s “10 Questions” feature. Also, make sure you stop by Ted’s blog. I know you’ll enjoy it. I read it daily.

CC BY-NC, Zeyang, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Zeyang Flickr

Is there anything you hope to accomplish with your blog?

I hope readers leave The ‘Mike’ provoked to think deeply about God and the scriptures. I’m a thinker and I often stress the importance of thinking about life “with and through” the scriptures; so that characterizes my writing. I also use my blog as ritual writing practice. I spend an unspeakable amount of time on each article.

What is your current occupation? What do you wish it was?

I’m unemployed right now and it’s been a vicious and life-changing experience. What I wish it was? Pastor or writer, or both.

What is the stupidest thing you have ever done?

When I was a young boy, I told my teen sister who was ironing clothes that I was going to put the iron to my face. I didn’t believe it was hot. So when she walked out of the room, I kept my promise. I still have a faint scar. Does this count for stupid?

What is your favorite 70’s sitcom?

That’s tough. But one of my favorites has always been The Jeffersons. I could sit and watch George, Weezie, and Florence all day.

Are there any obstacles in your life that make you not want to get out of bed in the morning?

None. There have been tough times that were relatively nothing compared to what others experience. Further, when I’ve been down, my persistence just won’t die. Have you ever been in a place where you wanted to give up but the Lord stirs you and won’t let you quit? That’s been me many times.

If you could put one band on a bus that careens off a cliff, which band would it be and why? (Not that I advocate violence, but there has got to be a band that annoys you.)

Honestly, I don’t know only because if they annoy me, I don’t listen to them. But I would put most rap music on that bus—with a bomb—and send it on its merry way. I feel that Rap is an incredibly destructive music. Still, I couldn’t tell you a particular artist or band.

If you could live in any time period, which would it be and why?

I’m not sure…for different reasons. Many appeal to me with their various pros and cons; however, the present one is probably best for me.

Do you talk to your neighbors? Why or why not?

I do when the chance comes. We just shoot the breeze or talk about jobs or yard work. I’m a big neighbor guy, the kind who enjoys welcoming new neighbors and who helps out shoveling snow or cleaning up storm debris. Being a neighbor is a good thing.

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Verhoef, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Verhoef Flickr

What is your favorite and least favorite food?

My favorite food is homemade macaroni-and-cheese—always has been and always will be. My least favorite is probably liver. My mom used to try to trick my brother and me with it, calling it beef; it never worked.

If you had to choose between phantom pain from an amputated pinky finger or a hip replacement, which would you choose and why?

Gosh! I’d want all my digits, so let’s go with the hip replacement. My mom just had one of those last year, and she’s trucking along nicely again. Most folk I’ve talked to who’ve had a replacement have said it was the best decision of their lives. I’ll keep my fingers.

What is your number one priority in life?

Enjoying it until it’s time to leave. By that I mean understanding that human life is a gift to us (humans) and every part of it should be explored and cherished. This honors God who gave it all to us.

10 Questions for Kate Bortell

Our friend, Kate Bortell

Our friend, Kate Bortell

This week’s interview features Kate Bortell, writer of Serious Thoughts Taken Not So Seriously.

The name of your blog really is a giveaway of the charm and humor in your writing. If not that, then moments like these are: “Man does not live on bread alone. But on every word that comes from the mouth of God. And pasta.” Or, when you praise your daughter for becoming a vegetarian at an early age, now nearly 10 years ago; then you write, “…it has been a royal pain in the neck.” Are you as laidback and playful as your writing suggests?

It depends on who you ask. But since you’re asking me, I would have to say yes, of course.  Okay, I’ll admit to the laidback portion of the question causing me some discomfort—but playful? Heck yeah!

People who read your blog get to know some things about you quickly: your proud Irish heritage; your love for family; and your love for Target, bargain books, and Barry’s Gold Blend tea, the only kind allowed in your house. What other brand loyalties and personal taste choices can you share with us?

Well I’m a big Starbucks fan. And I only like to patronize Barnes and Noble when it comes to large chain bookstores. Oh—regarding personal taste choices, I love several of the English police dramas on Netflix. My favorite is Midsomer Murders.

You are a devout Catholic and deeply spiritual. What does God mean to you?

God means everything to me. My relationship with him is the most important one in my life. And to set the record straight, I am a Catholic and I love many of the Catholic traditions; but I also question some of their teachings.

What are your opinions of Pope Francis?

I think Pope Francis is a wonderful person and will do great things for the Catholic religion. In a perfect world I’d love to see him bring Catholics closer to the Bible.

CC BY-NC, Sebastian Küpper, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Sebastian Küpper, Flickr

Kate, how does one raise kids who appreciate God, or should they be allowed to decide for themselves on religion?

The best thing you can do is lead by example when it comes to loving God and desiring your children to do the same. It can be quite a challenge. They have minds of their own. You wish nurture to that in other areas, so forcing them to believe anything can become a struggle. When they are very young, I think they should be taught about Jesus Christ; when they get older, they may choose their own beliefs. We just need to trust that the truth will become apparent to them eventually.

You have a nice readership. Have you ever considered becoming a professional Christian blogger?

You can do that?

What is your writing process?

When I get home from work, I put on my pajamas, relax on the couch, and yell to whoever is around—“What should I blog about today?” It’s very scientific.

Of the posts you’ve written, which is the most meaningful to you and why?

I would have to say the post about my father is the most meaningful to me…the things I wish I had said to him. (“Things I Wish I Had Said to My Father”) I honestly felt like I was writing to him as I wrote it. Anything that may have gone unsaid just melted away. I cried when I reread it. I miss my dad.

If you were jailed for the rest of your days for your faith, what one book that you’ve read would have to be in your possession and why?

Well I’d absolutely want it to be the Bible, but I haven’t read that in its entirety. So, sticking to the rules, I’d have to say Fearless by Max Lucado. He discusses all different avenues where we experience fear and how to combat it. It would probably come in handy in prison, am I right?

What are two things readers would be surprised to know about you?

I played a viola solo in a quartet in elementary school. And, my 17 year-old daughter and I have a little made-up song we sing together every night when she goes to bed that we’ve been singing since she was six. 

What questions do you have for Kate? 

Read more by Kate at Serious Thoughts Taken Not So Seriously. 

Acting Against Your Better Judgment

Peter's Vision by Henry Davenport Northrop, 1894 (Domain) Wikimedia Commons

Peter’s Vision by Henry Davenport Northrop
Wikimedia Commons (Domain)

I enjoy provocative dialogue. The topic and interlocutor don’t matter; if it’s exploring theory and ideas, I’m in. What I like even more is leading those conversations and debates and challenging people to consider various aspects of the subject regardless of their stance on it. It forces people to think more broadly and engage where they otherwise would not.

That’s how our minds grow. For instance, most people don’t like reading dictionaries and encyclopedias, something I enjoy doing. But they would be hard-pressed to take away nothing from doing so; learning is the point of those books. Further, building vocabulary and adding new information extends one’s range with language, knowledge, and, importantly, concepts and boosts intelligence. Yet what we’re not exposed to can never be understood.

“That’s How I See It—Next Point!”

Clearly, I like discussing the Bible and faith matters. I recall an exchange between some persons in which I presented Pauline injunctions in the Pastorals regarding church order. I asked for their assessment and opinions of Paul’s instructions for contemporary church life. I quickly noticed something peculiar. They were adamant, even defensive, about their interpretation and application of Paul’s admonitions.

The conversation was surprisingly difficult. I found myself struggling to make these people think deeper and address other implications. Trying to be a good interrogator, I fought to keep back my own opinions from being too quickly apparent; but that failed because the messenger was getting shot! I was saddened that we ended frustrated over the scriptures, but I also hated the fact that they didn’t allow themselves to think from all angles about the topic. Instead, they looked at it and sized it up too quickly.

I was disturbed about their attitude on many levels: How will one relate well with people in an increasingly pluralistic society? To what degree do you expect your own opinions and beliefs to be respected? Are there things that you could be missing? And when it comes to God and spiritual things, what happens when God leads us out of our comfort zones and against our personal rules? Intransigence, or being uncompromising, can render a person incapable of being led by the Spirit. They will close themselves off from illumination and the Spirit’s impressions on the heart.

It is no less a form of being unteachable and fleshly. Consider it: when God puts it in one’s heart or mind to act in a certain manner, to assist one or speak something to another, that person might think to do it but will fight it or justify an excuse to act contrary to what he heard from the Lord; and that’s all because we know what we know and don’t sway from our position.

A Vision Worth Remembering

Peter’s dramatic vision of the sheet of unclean animals (Acts 10) is a worthy reminder that we probably shouldn’t be too quickly set in our ways and close-minded when there are other viewpoints and options. The vision is really interesting because God corrects Peter on the revelation of grace to the Gentiles, to whom one might assume God was calling Peter. Instead, Peter was called to the Jews (cf. Gal. 2:7-9).

It’s important to God to get our general thinking straight and speaks to the personal constitution he expects of his people, indeed humankind.

In my post entitled “Rogue Conviction” I write, “Perhaps a belief is to be possessed or espoused, not vice versa, lest believers (in anything) risk being driven by their beliefs and so become fanatics. People who sacrifice themselves to their convictions often become instruments of those ideas to beat others into subjection.”

You know, this is the attitude that put Christ to death, and it is critical for us Christians to get it right.

Trusting God for Results

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt Laurvig Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt Laurvig Flickr

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Cor. 3:6)

One of my friends has begun attending church again and moving closer to God. He’s found a congregation he enjoys and has even gotten his girlfriend and kids attending regularly. The pastor has drawn close to him and often expressed an interest in his involvement there; however, this started becoming a problem.

Participation was always the topic. There was a place for him ‘here’, an opening ‘there’. “I’m just waiting on you” is how it would be put to him; and that was the problem. My friend isn’t even a church member yet, a step really important to him. Further, whereas he was usually excited when Sundays came around, now he started begrudging the fact.

So he called me. Listening to him I knew the only option he had at that moment was to speak to the pastor and express his truest feelings. I could understand the minister’s excitement about this young man’s budding faith and his eagerness about his further involvement—not desiring to see him leave—yet it was overbearing.

If I know anything, I know that 1) men who don’t care about church aren’t there and 2) they certainly aren’t candid about their lives with the pastor. In fact, many men distrust pastors.

This minister needed not fear losing my friend because he was being edified and wouldn’t be returning each Sunday if he wasn’t. He just needed to be allowed to be his own man and make his own decisions at his own pace.

Get Thee Out of the Way!

I’m thrilled to see the Holy Spirit moving in my buddy’s life. It’s something I’ve cried out to God about for a long time, for both him and his girlfriend; now I’m watching God move in their lives.

As I expressed, I know the pastor’s intentions were good, yet they characterize something I’ve too often observed: well-meaning Christians who won’t let the Holy Spirit do his job.

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, Flickr

We’re all familiar with this usually in the form of browbeating preaching or dogma. Folk can hardly get a foot in the church door before being barked at with a litany of orders about how they should and should not look, think, act, and any other unnecessary or premature modification. We only prove how well we’ve missed the point about grace.

I recall a sermon once that really provoked me. The preacher expressed amazement that he can preach one sermon and with it the Holy Spirit is able to preach hundreds of sermons to the people present. Thus, it was his task to be the best preacher and communicator of the Word he could possibly be; but the hard work of changing the heart fell to the Holy Spirit to accomplish.

We’ve got to know our place, which is not supplying God a Hagar thinking we’re rushing the process along. Instead, that place is making ourselves available to folk, plainly discussing faith issues, genuinely befriending people, and storming heaven with our prayers for them. But after that we’ve got to step aside and let the Lord be God in their lives. Results are his job.

10 Questions for Chris Hendrix

Today The ‘Mike’ begins a weekly interview segment called “10 Questions” featuring fellow bloggers, professionals, and other folk you might be interested to know. Here I chat with my blog buddy Chris Hendrix of Devotions by Chris who welcomes you in the video.

Chris, your readers are familiar with a series of events in your life that influences the character of your blog; you’ve also shared those details on this blog. So what happened to you on and around September 25, 2003?

I hit rock bottom in my life. In the previous five months my wife ran off with another man; the building I leased for my business didn’t renew my agreement; I had to find and build out another rental space while being gouged on rent where I was; I had to take on a business partner to help; I continually ran into issues with the build-out; the IRS came after me for back taxes; and I faced bankruptcy. On September 25th my partner, seeing I was against the ropes, took my business from me.

My brother called me hourly to make sure I was alive. He told me that he couldn’t have survived everything that was happening to me and would have ended his life. I actually considered it when the business was taken from me. That’s when I laid on my living room floor, crying, and told God, “I can’t do it anymore. This has got to be the bottom. I won’t survive if it falls out again.” I felt God say, “Finally.” He reminded me of his words to Paul: “My strength is made perfect in your weakness.”

I went to the calendar and wrote “The Bottom” on it and vowed that no matter what happened or how long it took, I would climb out of that hole. Each year I celebrate September 25th as the day I learned to fully trust God’s strength in my life. It reminds me that I can’t make it through life alone. I wasn’t created to; I was created to need God. I fail in my own strength, but in his strength I am more than a conqueror.

What is the purpose of Devotions by Chris?

The purpose of my site is to bring daily encouragement to other believers who struggle how I once did. I use everyday life stories, analogies, and God’s Word to help believers grow in their relationship with God. I want readers to start their day thinking about God by reading one of these short devotionals. I hope they find practical advice for taking that next step of faith.

How do you respond to the question “Why does God allow pain?”

I wrote about this in a piece called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People”. I believe God uses these times of pain in our lives like a gardener uses pruning shears. In order to grow, we must be pruned. In order to fully trust God, we have to come to the point where we trust his strength more than our own. I like to say that the amount of pain you endure is proportionate to the amount of joy you are capable of experiencing. I know joy because I’ve known pain.

You’ve led several mission trips to Haiti, including one from which you’ve just returned. What is the focus of these missions?

James 1:27 says that pure and undefiled religion is caring for orphans and widows. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Between the 2010 earthquake, the AIDS epidemic, and 70 percent unemployment, there are over 400,000 orphans in Haiti. Parents have to choose whether they will live or their kids will live. In every case, the parents choose themselves.

Coreluv.org

Coreluv.org

I work with an organization called Coreluv. What I do is take teams and introduce them to the problem. I put them to work in the orphanages and show them how the little they have in their hands is enough to be used by God.

We work all day painting, feeding, building, or whatever is needed to make life better for these orphans. I call it putting sweat equity in the Kingdom of God. We love on the kids, play with them, and share the hope that Jesus brings. We also visit one of poorest communities to feed kids whose parents can’t feed them. We’ve built a school to educate these children and hopefully help them break the cycle of poverty.

How else do you serve in ministry?

I’ve always considered myself a part-time minister, but my pastor called me out on it a few weeks ago. He told me about his ordination; my grandfather was the presbyter of his ordination. My grandfather told him, “There is no such thing as a part-time minister. You can have a full-time job on the side; but if you are called to ministry, you should be doing it full-time.”

That said, I blog daily, I volunteer with Coreluv, and recently I assumed leadership of a young couples group at my church. Also, I connect with people through church or my website and pray daily for them. I have a rule that if you ask me for prayer, I stop everything that I’m doing and pray for you right then. That way you know for certain that I’ve prayed for you.

You say that your drive to work is a prayer time in which you focus on a blog topic. What is your writing process?

I spend several hours a day in prayer as part of my daily routine. I once heard that D.L. Moody prayed for eight hours a day. That’s been my goal. I start each day with a quick prayer thanking God for the day and asking him to speak through me in his word. Then, I read scripture for thirty minutes. After that, I continue praying as I get ready for work.

I commute an hour each day, so I use that time to pray instead of listening to the radio. Once I get to work, I pray that God would speak through me so I can write the right words; then he can bring the right people to read them at the right time. Thereafter, I sit in silence until I hear from God, and I write once I do. I post to my site and use HootSuite to time tweets and Facebook posts throughout the day.

What are “Free Fridays” on your blog?

I got the idea for “Free Fridays” at a writer’s conference last year. I kept hearing how fearful writers felt putting their work out there for others to read. I realized how much fear plays a role in keeping so many Christians from doing what they are called to do. I decided to write a post each Friday that would help Christians get free of something that holds them back. Then, I decided that I would drive traffic to these posts by offering a free book to one reader. So not only do people get practical advice, they also get the opportunity to win a book.

What Christian WordPress blogs do you regularly read?

Bea MusesUnshakeable HopeDirector B, Deeply Rooted in Himand A ‘Mike’ for Christ

Where do you see yourself ministry-wise in 10 years?

In full-time evangelism. I believe I am called to be a part of the next Great Awakening and will be instrumental in winning, training, and utilizing laborers to bring in the final harvest. My first post, “The Vision”, is about this.

What are two things readers would be surprised to know about you?

I do all my writing on an iPad. I don’t do any of it on a laptop or desktop. Also, after three years of marriage, my wife and I invited her parents to move in with us. So my in-laws and my wife’s two sisters live with us. 

What questions do you have for Chris? 

Read more by Chris at his blog Devotions by Chris.