Healing Power

January 21, 2016

I’m very grateful that I can still run. However, with age comes injury. It’s one ticky-tacky problem after another. I get over plantar fascitis, and a week later I have a mild calf strain. Then it’s my ankle, then it’s my knee.

I’m talking minor problems–nothing life threatening. Nevertheless, these injuries are extremely annoying.

This morning I went out on a cautious run, fearing that a calf strain would shut me down, as it has for most of the last week. To my surprise, everything worked fine! I had a good run, and when I was almost home I remembered that I had asked God to heal my leg. Apparently he did! So I thanked him for answering.

He’s been doing this, not just since I turned 65, but my whole life. How many hundreds, maybe thousands of flus, colds, strains, sprains and fevers have I recovered from? How miserable would my life be if I had not?

I think this is what Psalm 103:3 means when it exclaims: “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” The psalmist is not saying that nobody need ever die of disease. He’s noting the ordinary nature of life in God’s world. Sin is ordinary–it happens every day and perhaps every minute. God forgives it in his children. Disease is ordinary too–and God ordinarily heals it. He made the world such that we get well. I don’t want to take away anything from the spectacular, miraculous healing. Who doesn’t wish to see that? But we should not overlook the equally supernatural reality of the ordinary.

How Then Shall We Live? (part 3)

January 21, 2016

So far we have seen that Paul’s advice for living in crisis begins with rejoicing—a whole-body act declaring that we believe the good news all the way down. His second piece of advice is that we must grasp the good news—a story of Jesus’ humility, obedience, death and resurrection—as a map for our lives. It was Paul’s map, which enabled him to see good in the deathly threat of a Roman trial, and to find meaning and joy in the midst of it.

The third piece of advice has to do with living in community. From the first words of Paul’s letter it is obvious that Paul loves the Philippians. They care about him, and have shown it by sending Epaphroditis to help him, probably with a gift of money. Paul lavishly expresses his love and kinship with this community. He is terribly thankful for them, he frequently prays for them—and he prays with joy. (1:3-8)

It is not, as we noticed, that Paul wears rose-colored glasses. He recognizes the selfish and egotistical in the church, and warns against those who would lead them astray. Nevertheless, his strongest plea is for them to be unified. If there’s anything real in your faith, he urges them at the beginning of chapter 2, “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” (2:2) Earlier he called such unity a sign to their enemies—a sign of how the story will come out. (1:27-28)

Paul doesn’t say why the Philippians’ unity will serve as such a sign. I think it’s rooted in the unique sociology of the early church. For the first time in human history, slaves and free, Greeks and barbarians, men and women were assembling as equals. The people in that early church had literally nothing in common, except their faith in Jesus. (At no time since then could that be said of the church. We come together for other reasons, related to class and ethnicity and style.) It must have been a compelling and bizarre reality—and sometimes an uncomfortable one, to judge by Paul’s letters. As a sort of sociological miracle, brought about by the unifying Spirit of God, the unity of the early church was a “sign and wonder.”

I see, though, a larger and more universal reason for Paul’s insistence on unity in the face of crisis. It has to do with the family mindset that always undergirds the gospel—and is so difficult for us individualists to get.

God works with family. He began to set the world right by choosing Abraham’s family. He made a nation from that family. When Jesus came, he related the good news almost entirely within and to that family. He called twelve apostles (twelve brothers, like Israel’s) for the renewal of that family.

Jesus did not offer a philosophy or a faith that you could adopt on your own. Disciples walked together.

And therefore the little ekklesia that met in Philippi should recognize the importance of getting along. (Maybe the most urgent words in the whole letter are addressed to two women leaders in the church: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.” (4:2))

One common impulse in a crisis is to huddle up with those whom we agree with. Or, to be so pure and principled that we only huddle up with ourselves! That is not how the gospel story runs. We are meant to follow Jesus’ footsteps as the Jesus family. And that means: find a way to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”

I don’t that means paying no attention to differences. I think it means cutting each other enough slack to recognize and appreciate family likenesses. I ran into this just recently, when an old friend began by probing what I believe about radical Pentecostals, and ended up furious that I want to accept them as brothers and sisters. She would nail them to the wall; I want to try to see the world through their eyes. Most of all, I want to be able to worship God with them (and anybody else who says Jesus is Lord.)

Democrat or Republican, Presbyterian or Pentecostal, young or old, male or female, rich or poor, we are not meant to lay down markers that separate us. In a time of crisis, we need to search out common ground, and demonstrate our humility (like Jesus’ humility) in joining with people who don’t meet our total approval.

How Then Shall We Live? (part 2)

January 21, 2016

In Part 1 I asked why Paul, whose life was in terrible crisis, should rejoice, and urge the Philippians to rejoice in their own crisis. The answer is the gospel—the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This story is so crucial that any time it gets told—even by bad people for bad motives—we should rejoice. It has a power of its own, and Paul rejoices because he sees his life, and the Philippians’ lives, bound to that power. The crisis not only can’t stop it, the crisis becomes part of the story.

The gospel, as Paul narrates it in the famous passage from chapter 2, is a story of Jesus with four movements. They are: humility, obedience, death, resurrection. He urges the Philippians to take on Jesus’ attitude of mind and live out the same story. (2:5) He tells them to “live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27), or as I would put it, “live up to the gospel!”

Paul evidently sees the gospel story as a universal pattern, applicable to anyone. It is universal because Jesus is the creator of the universe, and the pattern of his life is a foundation for whatever happens in the universe.

So we see Paul mapping his own life onto the story. He is on trial for his life; Jesus was on trial for his life. Jesus saw his friends desert him; Paul is seeing his friends desert him. Jesus suffered; Paul suffers. Jesus humbled himself for the glory yet to come; Paul “forgets what is behind and strains toward… the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (3:13-14) Paul knows exactly where he is on the map of the gospel story. He is at the humble obedience part, on the cusp of the death part—and he anticipates the resurrection part.

He urges the Philippians to follow the same map, not only as they see it in Jesus, but as they see it in him. “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.” “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.”

From a practical point of view this means that in dealing with crisis we need to understand our lives as part of a much bigger story. It is God’s story. And God’s story inevitably and universally involves humiliation and suffering, death and… resurrection. This is what the Philippians can see in Paul, and in those who follow his footsteps. Of course the Philippians cannot yet see the resurrection in Paul or his followers. They see that only in Jesus.

Tomorrow, part 3: the crucial role of community.

How Then Shall We Live? (life in crisis part 1)

January 19, 2016


Philippians is a jewel box of Scripture. You can put your finger down just about anywhere and find something beautiful. People love Philippians, with its talk of love and rejoicing.

Last fall I taught a class on Philippians at my church. I’ve studied the book before, even published a Bible study guide on it. But this time I found myself reflecting on it in a different way, long after I was done teaching.

What I realized is that Philippians is like the letters Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison as he waited to be executed. Paul’s circumstances are equally harrowing. He is soon to go on trial for his life. He believes there is an excellent chance he will be executed. Meanwhile, all around him, chaos and venality spread: his rivals are crowing, his helper is sick and close to death.

Philippians is, then, a book about crisis. It’s absorbed in practical advice for times of calamity: “How Then Shall We Live?”

Paul knows that the Philippians are also in crisis—though about this crisis we get less detail, naturally, since the Philippians don’t need to be told what they face. Paul tries to pass on what he has learned about living in crisis, believing it applies immediately to them.

And, one hopes, it applies to us. None of us can help being affected by global calamities—the collapse of the Middle East, the dramatic migration from broken societies toward Europe, the apocalyptic threats of global warming, and perhaps most troubling of all, the sense that our political systems are unable to cope—whether in America from polarized government, in Europe from a dithering elite, or in China from a once-omnipotent oligarchy that seems reduced to stabs in the dark.

Not to mention our own personal and family crises.


Philippians is a letter, not a philosophic essay. The advice isn’t systematic. Paul weaves in and out of several themes, repeating himself. There’s one word that he repeats more than any other: rejoice. That’s where I’ll start.

Paul tells the Philippians that he rejoices in his circumstances, and he keeps telling them to rejoice too. This is not a philosophical stance: “look on the bright side,” or “everything will turn out for the best.” It’s not “count your blessings” or seeing the glass half full. Rejoice is a verb that calls us to make a full-body response. Rejoicing is done with the voice and the heart, often through song. Rejoicing links your whole self to your conviction that Jesus’ story is the important truth about the universe and about your life. It’s an anticipation of glory.

Paul is also under no illusion that all is well in the world. Consider these lines: “Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry….out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” “Everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.” “Many lives as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.”

Yet these realities do not deter Paul for one minute. Having described the sore situation of his rivals and their jealous ambitions, Paul gets right at it. “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

I used to think this was whistling in a graveyard. I have changed my mind, and the best way to explain it is through a story Earl Palmer related.

He told of a local middle school that had an ambitious music program and one day announced that they would perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Music people tried to talk them out of it. It’s a difficult piece to perform, and way over the head of most middle school musicians. “Don’t do it,” people warned. “You’ll embarrass yourselves.” But the music directors at the school were determined, and they went ahead.

It turned out to be as bad as people had warned. The students couldn’t do justice to the symphony. For anybody with a love for music, it was cringe-worthy to hear them try.

“But you know,” Palmer said, “everybody who attended that concert came out humming: Dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah….” Despite the performance, they heard the melody. Sometimes the melody is more powerful than the performance.

In Philippians Paul is saying that the melody of the gospel, the story of how Jesus gave his life for the world, comes through even when told by bad people. It is lived out in the most horrible circumstances. It has a life of its own that springs out of the most dire crisis in history. That’s reason to rejoice.

Even more reason to rejoice is this: the Philippians, with all their woes, are living that story too. If you know the story as the pattern by which all the universe is being cut—and if you are part of the story—then you can rejoice.

Rejoicing is a way to get the story down to your gut. You can know the story in a factual way, and even believe it factually, but not have it penetrate. Therefore rejoice, even—especially—in time of crisis.

Which is to say that in times of crisis we need to worship, more than ever.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 2, on how we relate to the melody that Paul wants to sing.

Crazy People

January 8, 2016

When I was a young man I had a number of crazy friends, and thought nothing of it. But the years tend to make sensible people of us all. Few of my current friends and family members show extravagant eccentricities.

But thank God for exceptions. My dear friends Dean and Mindy Anderson have embarked on an epic journey, the sort of odyssey that seems pretty far out for those in their twenties, and definitely extreme for people in their fifties. They have set off in their aging minivan to visit fifty churches and fifty bars in fifty states for fifty weeks. For the next year they are crashing with friends and relations, and writing in their blog about what they experience. They’re trying to get a snapshot of America, and particularly America’s churches.

To read their posts, and follow their journey, check out their website.

Dean is an ordained Evangelical Free pastor, and the celebrated author of the Bill the Warthog Mystery Series. He and Mindy have three grown children. But currently, of their own volition, they have no home but their van. And not much money, either. (You can support them through crowdfunding.) And no real plan for what comes next.

In every church, and every bar, they plan to ask the following questions: What makes a good church? What makes a good bar? Good questions.

A Different Way

November 17, 2015

For years my friend Fred Prudek has been telling me about the Moravians, an early Protestant missionary community that he much admired. I more or less rolled my eyes. Then, in the providence of God, our daughter moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which was and is the American center for Moravians, and since I am the kind of person who finds history fascinating, I’ve had little choice but to learn about the Moravians.

They established Bethlehem in 1741, coming from Germany to preach the good news to native Americans and to colonists. They lived communally and earned the respect of their fellow Europeans through their skill in various trades, as did other pietist groups that came to the new world with a distinctive religious point of view. What stands out today, however–and did in the 18th century as well–was their respectful treatment of the native Americans.

You can read it in their letters and written accounts, but where it shows most is in  their cemetery. Very recently I walked through that acre of green land in downtown Bethlehem. Leaves had covered the ground, and Popie and I had to use our feet to scrape off each gravestone to read who had died there. They have small gravestones set flat in the ground, all about the same size and all level with each other. Most remarkably, the races are buried together quite promiscuously–Indians, Europeans and Africans. Here is Andrew, a Mohican, here David, one of the first missionaries, here Thomas, an African. Among the 18th century graves there are many native Americans and quite a few Africans. They are all treated the same, and all mixed up together. That may seem trivial, but show me another graveyard like it. (Fred tells me that at another Moravian colony in North Carolina, the local settlers forced the Moravians to dig up all the Africans and move them in the 1830s.)

Through the Revolutionary War the Moravians had extensive, positive interactions with tribes living nearby. Moravian missionaries were welcomed to live in Indian villages, and quite a number of Indians chose to follow the Christian way the Moravians offered and exemplified. (When they did so, they usually moved to a new, separate quarter. There was clear choice involved.)

These hopeful beginnings were all blown away by the ferocious, violent, acquisitive colonists. War waged against them drove the native Americans away, and spoiled any possibility of a different kind of relationship–the kind exemplified today in the Moravian cemetery.

Baby Born in Bethlehem

November 10, 2015

Here is a recent picture of Amaro Hobbes Olid-Stafford, born on Halloween night at 11:51, weighing nine pounds and nine ounces and measuring 23 inches. You would never guess it looking at his mother Katie in this picture that she had a very rough delivery, and needed two units of blood after she tore an artery. I am profoundly thankful that she and Eduardo didn’t have any romantic ideas about home delivery.

IMG_0003 (2)

Here is what Amaro looked like on the first day of his new life. My favorite part was watching our daughter hold him and laugh: a deep, welling-up laugh of joy.


Jesus Lived Generously

October 14, 2015

That’s the title of the sermon I preached Sunday at Healdsburg Community Church. It’s on the feeding of the 5,000 as recorded in Mark, and I found quite a lot to think about there. It’s a provocative (and unsettling) commentary on how I respond to needy people–an ancient, contemporary issue. You can listen here.

Proud Papa

September 30, 2015

Yesterday I received a copy of our daughter Katie’s first published book, Narrating War in Peace: The Spanish Civil War in the Transition and Today. She dedicated it to me! I’m sure any parent would be very proud of their child publishing a book, but for me, as a writer, this is a very wonderful moment.

The Appeal of ISIS

August 13, 2015

You shouldn’t miss the NYT article on sexual slavery under ISIS. For me it demonstrates, even more than mass beheadings, the systematic evil of this would-be state. Sexual slavery is a planned, systematized, regulated practice—and a religious practice at that. It describes ISIS members praying before and after raping young girls they hold as slaves.

A complementary piece is Roger Cohen’s column musing on the appeal of ISIS. He notes ISIS’ “unquenchable appeal” to an international clientele. “It is clearly tapping into something deep,” he writes, and adds, “Perhaps that something is at root a yearning to be released from the burden of freedom.”

For some ISIS’ appeal may be sex and violence, the chance to be cruel and triumphant. But the West offers a fair opportunity for sex and violence too. Cohen is probing something deeper: a revolt against the West’s determined drive to extend near-absolute freedom to every choice: whom to marry, when to divorce, when to die, whether to have sex, and with whom, and so on. He quotes novelist Michel Houellebecq, who sees France facing “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.”

Right now the loudest voices (and the most successful politics) belong to two extremes: the advocates of order, such as ISIS, and the advocates of freedom. But I think humanity’s true home is in a bounded freedom. This is the image of Eden, in which a garden is set out in the larger world, which human beings are to keep and explore, while not coveting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Even if you agree that we are meant to flourish in a bounded freedom, it’s no small thing to figure out how to set the boundaries. The politics are bound to be fractious. Whatever is done, is bound to be wrong sometimes. Nevertheless, it helps if we keep that image clear in our minds, and try to build our lives around it. We are meant for freedom—creativity, innovation, exploration. We are meant also to avoid the temptations of the absolute, set right in the center of the garden where we pass them by every day.


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