Monday, October 26, 2020

The Secret Lives of Saints

Studying the Bible can sometimes be a little, well, discouraging. When we read the stories of the characters in its pages, we start to feel our own smallness. We read about a giant-killer like David, and we know that we aren't giant-killers. We read about the perseverance of Job, and we know that we would have given up long ago. We read about the wisdom of Solomon, and we forget why we walked from the living room to the kitchen. We read these stories about all these great men and women of faith, and we look in the mirror and just don't see it. We don't see how we could ever be like them. 

But here's the truth about our so-called saints: they couldn't see it, either. 

When David looked in the mirror, he didn't see "King David, great and mighty leader of Israel and composer of beautiful psalms." When Solomon looked in the mirror, he didn't see "Solomon, man of incredible wisdom." When John looked in the mirror, he didn't see "the disciple Jesus loved." These men and women saw the same thing in the mirror that we do - all of their insecurities and struggles and secret sins staring right back at them. 

They never thought that God was writing down every detail of their stories and that thousands of years later, we'd still be reading them and wanting to be like them. In fact, if you told them that, the thought alone would probably horrify them, just as it horrifies many of us. Even the kings of Israel probably didn't think their stories were very consequential, that they mattered much at all except maybe to the persons who were living them most intimately. Who cares about David besides his thirty fighting men? Or maybe his three hundred? 

What if the answer is...thousands of generations to come?

I think sometimes, we're glad we're not saints. I mean that. I think we're glad that others aren't reading our stories the same way they read the stories in the Bible. I think we're glad that God's not writing down every little detail of our lives and claiming they're going to be an encouragement one day to millions of His followers. I think we're glad we are living in the time of a closed canon - a period in which nothing is going to be added to the Bible; it takes some of the pressure off, doesn't it? When we look in the mirror and see ourselves staring back at us, we don't have to worry about being a David. 

But what if we do?

What if, just like the thousands of insecure, sinful, scared, small men and women who came before us, what if we can't fathom the impact that our stories are going to have - the good and the bad of them? What if God is still writing down every little detail? What if two thousand years from now, someone is going to read about something you did and be encouraged by you? What if hundreds of generations from here, there's going to be someone looking in a mirror and thinking to themselves that they could never be who you were? 

What if there's someone watching your life right now and thinking that? 

We never know what impact our lives are having, now or in the future. We never know what God is doing with our stories or which details of them He's choosing to hold onto. We never know who is going to be encouraged by us...or when. We know so well our insecurities and struggles and sins and think that could never be us, but the truth is that none of God's saints thought it could be them. None of them. When we get to heaven and get to ask them, I imagine a lot of them are going to say, "Wait. You know about that?" Because it was just their life, and they were just living it, just doing the best that they could do with what they knew and understood and had at the time. 

So should we. These are our lives, and we have to stop judging them and trying to figure out what they are. They're a blessing, to us and to others. And no matter what you think when you look in the mirror, God is always doing something bigger than you can imagine. Something bigger than you might ever know. And whether you feel worthy of it or not, someone, somewhere, considers you their David. Yours is the life they think they'll never live up to. 

And if that just completely blows your mind, perhaps you're more like the saints than you realize. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Disciples on Saturday

Waiting is hard. Most of us can think of about a million things we'd rather do than wait. On anything. This is especially true when there is any sense of anxiety around the end of the waiting - what will happen, what won't happen, what will be true, what might be true, what it might mean for our next steps, whatever. 

Recently, I found myself in a short, but painful period of waiting. I guess, to some degree, I'm still in it. And in the midst of it, I find my thoughts going back to one example that, honestly, we don't even have and yet, I draw so much strength from this: 

The disciples on Saturday. 

The Bible doesn't tell us anything about what the disciples did on Saturday. Nothing. Jesus dies on Friday, and He rises on Sunday, and at least one of the disciples is present in both of these scenes, but for Saturday, we get nothing. 

Now, I'm someone who likes to keep busy in the waiting. I like to have something to do to occupy my mind. And my hands. I like to have other things to think about and to focus on, and that's especially true in the age of the internet, where any one of us could spend our entire season of waiting performing internet searches on worst-case scenarios and all the little things that might happen but probably won't. (Anyone ever visit WebMD?)

That's why the disciples' example is so poignant for me. 

We don't know a lot about their Saturday, but we know a couple of things. But let's start with their Friday. On Friday, their whole world came crashing in. Everything they'd invested themselves in for the better part of three years vanished, just like that. No longer were they the in-crowd, but now, they were rebels with a crucified leader. Peter couldn't even tolerate being associated with Jesus at His trial. They had thought they were part of something great and wonderful and world-changing and now, here they were, trying not to get crucified themselves just for being affiliated with the so-called King of the Jews who just, by the way, died a criminal's death, albeit pretty spectacularly. Nonetheless, here the disciples are, trying to figure out what's still real, what comes next, what to do with themselves, how their lives might change from here on out. They're asking all the questions we ask in a season of waiting, when something in our foundation has been shaken and we don't know how it all shakes out. 

And then, they did something amazing: they did nothing. 

That was their Saturday. Saturday for these faithful Jews was the Sabbath; they weren't allowed to do anything. They weren't allowed to work. They weren't allowed to stay busy. They weren't allowed to throw themselves into something to forget all of the anxiety and questions that they had. They could worship; they could pray; and they could rest. That's it. 

You know what? I think that's best

It's something I've been trying in some of my seasons of waiting, although I confess that with this particular one, I've done less well at it. But I think we ought to take more of our seasons of waiting as Sabbath blessings - opportunity to worship and to pray and to rest. Who among us doesn't need a little more rest? 

Because the truth is that all the anxious activity I've ever done, all the questioning, all the wondering, all the wandering, it has never changed the outcome at all, and it has never prepared me more to handle whatever comes next. By the time whatever it is comes, I'm so exhausted that I can't possibly deal with one more thing because I've already been dealing with it forever without even knowing what it is, and it's taken all my resources and left me empty. 

But worship. But prayer. But rest. In the waiting, these things fill us up. These things settle us down. These things keep us ready for whatever comes next because they put it all right where it belongs. Rather, I should say, they put us right where we belong - in His hands. And one of the things I've learned in all of my seasons of waiting, especially the ones I've done well, is that the greatest comfort of all is not knowing that God's got this, whatever it is. 

It's knowing that He's got me

And the only way to get there is to be still...and know. To rest. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A Seeker's World

I'm a fairly avid reader, not as avid as I used to be but still read a good 20-40 books a year. Overwhelmingly, these are Christian living and theology resources that I find through one channel or another. Most are good, well-written, right to the heart of the matter books, but I've noticed a trend over the past couple of years that concerns me a bit. Maybe a bit more than a bit. 

Most of the Christian living books that are coming out these days are books for seekers.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, except that these are books that on their covers, promise meat and in their pages, deliver milk. I will pick up a book that starts well and talks about going deeper into the Word, talks about uncovering new ideas in Scripture, talks about new applications or taking the next steps, and then, inevitably, when I get into it, it's always the same - you should read the Bible. You should live in community. You should pray. 

The very basics of the Christian faith. The very fundamentals. And I get that there's a need for this, but the problem is that there seem to be very few, if any, Christian authors willing to go beyond this any more. There are so few voices willing to actually go deeper. The ones that seem to offer the most promise will pose the deeper questions, but then, abruptly turn and say, "These are questions that can only be answered by reading the Bible, praying, and going to church." Many even say that's the best place to "start."

And it's not just our bookstores that are trending this direction. Our churches have been going this way for awhile. We're all focused on seekers, on getting new faces in the door, on introducing new hearts to Jesus, but what we lack is a way to encourage them to actually grow. We call them into discipleship, but we lack the resources to actually disciple them. We turn them over to their Bibles and our programs and hope that's enough to encourage essential growth, but the truth is that it's not. 

I have been a Christian for twenty years. I have read the Bible. I have prayed. I have gone to church. I still do all of these things. What I'm looking for - in my church and in my books - is someone to help me go deeper. Someone to push me further. Someone to challenge my surface-level understandings and stir my heart to something more. What I'm looking for is someone who is willing and able to engage on a level that acknowledges that I've already been on this road for a long time, that I'm already doing the basics, that I've had enough milk and I'm looking for meat

I know I'm not alone in this. 

It's just frustrating that we have all of these resources that so correctly identify the questions, that ask the hard things, that recognize that being human is difficult and messy and that we need some fellow sojourners for the way, but then they all pull back and can only tell us where to start. They can only give us the same fundamental stuff we already had. 

I'm wondering if we haven't led ourselves here, by being so seeker-sensitive. Over the past 10-20 years, we have so focused our ministry on the unchurched that we have developed the kind of churches that pursue perpetual seekers. That honestly can't go any deeper than this. And we have a whole generation of Christians whose faith has always had to go back to basics because of the demographics they were seeking, and they don't themselves know what discipleship is. All they've got is an entry point. 

And listen, I'm not saying that being seeker-sensitive is bad. That's not the point. Of course, when Jesus tells us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, that starts with being able to call the unaffiliated and get them to follow. But follow what? If we never move beyond getting someone in the doors, what are we doing? If we can only lead someone to curiosity and not to soul-craving, what's the point? If we keep telling them that being in community is essential to their growth but we ourselves don't know how to grow and don't know how to grow them, we're essentially lying to new believers - telling them that growth is possible but offering absolutely no evidence to support our claim. 

We tell ourselves that after twenty years, we should just be walking with others. We should be giving ourselves to those just starting out. That what's important at this stage is our ministry to others, but the truth is that we never outgrow the need for others to walk with us. And that means that what we need is a solid foundation of full-fledged discipleship, a way to grow into the something more that Jesus calls us to. We need some spiritual meat on our bones and on our shelves and in our churches if we ever want to truly move from lost to found, from seekers to disciples. We need mature voices to step up and speak to the mature, that we may grow together in meaningful ways and stop suckling on this same old milk. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Start Where You Are

How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me?

It's one of the most famous questions in the Bible, asked by Peter in a quiet moment. Peter even suggests the answer, hoping (perhaps) to demonstrate his own faithfulness by showing his understanding. Should I forgive my brother seven times? Seven times seems pretty generous. By seven times, your brother has developed a pattern that probably isn't going to get better. In a world that too often gives us one chance, seven chances sounds pretty good. 

And when we read this story, that's often what we focus on - forgiveness. How often should I forgive? What does faith look like in forgiveness? What can we learn from Peter, who is so like us? 

But what if there's something even more profound we can learn about Jesus from this encounter, something we keep reading right over?

Because the beauty in this passage is not just that forgiveness is endless (for of course, we know that Jesus did not mean to literally count seventy-seven forgivenesses for anyone), but the beauty is in how Jesus responds. 

When we interpret this passage, we are often quick to say that impetuous Peter has it wrong again. That he means well, but he's missed the mark. That Peter's vision is too small, that his heart is too set on things of this world. That he's too willing to keep account. And on and on and on we go, recognizing so much of ourselves in Peter that it's just easy to draw lessons out of this passage about how wrong and foolish we are and how much our faith needs to change. How shallow our faith really is. Whatever you want to say about it, really. 

What we have to recognize, however, is that this is not the response that Jesus has to Peter. Yes, Jesus corrects the disciple, but He doesn't have the same harsh, judgmental response that we tend to have toward him. Jesus doesn't look at Peter and see the things that we so easily see. 

Rather, Jesus looks at Peter and sees a starting point. 

He doesn't have to. Jesus could totally go off on the guy. Seven times? SEVEN TIMES? You think seven times is enough to forgive someone? Oh, boy, Peter, you could not be more wrong. You could not have messed this up more. You're such a foolish man, so limited in your understanding. Your faithfulness is a joke if that's what you think forgiveness means. Seven times! Oh, brother!

Nor does He start into a textbook definition of what forgiveness is, starting from scratch to explain what faithful forgiveness looks like. Notice that one of the reasons we've had to interpret this passage is because Jesus does not just say, You shouldn't keep count of how many times you forgive someone. You should just forgive freely because you have been forgiven freely. 

No, what Jesus does is far more beautiful, more freeing, and more truth-and-grace-filled even than this. What Jesus does is use Peter's faith as a starting point for something deeper. He indicates in His response that what Peter has is not bad, but is not fully formed. He uses Peter's understanding to push him further into faithfulness. No, Peter. Not seven, although seven is a good start. Seventy times seven. He uses Peter's own words, his own current situation, as the fodder for growth. That's why Jesus says seventy times seven - that's Peter's seven. That's why He doesn't say it any other way.

It's easy for us to think we're getting it wrong. It's even easier for us to think that someone else is getting it wrong. It's easy for us to look at a Peter - in ourselves or in others - and to really go off on the guy. How foolish can you be? Seven times? Really? 

But the better understanding is to see that seven not as so far off course as to be laughable, but to see it as a starting point for greater faith. To see it as the place where we now are and a launching pad for where we're going. Jesus responds to Peter by saying, not quite, but this is good. For you can grow from here. 

We all can. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Like a Child

There's this strange scene in the Gospels where there just aren't quite enough details for us to figure out what it means. A lot of guessing and conjecture has gone into elaborating on what Jesus might have meant when He talked about this issue, but the truth is that most of it comes out of our current understanding and not out of a contextual understanding of the scene itself. 

But maybe it can.

We're talking about the moment when Jesus calls a little child to come to Him, has the child stand among them, and declares that the goal is to become like this child. What does it mean to become like this child?

A lot has been said about the innocence of children, about how they are so simple in their understanding of the world. They don't harbor the same kind of baggage that we do as adults. They don't have the preconceived notions and the stereotypes and the previous negative experiences that corrupt them. They have a natural curiosity about things and aren't afraid to ask questions. They are always looking to grow into something, to become part of something bigger than they are. There seems to be no end to the things that we can say Jesus meant here based on our understanding of children and their hearts. (Because hey, we know that Jesus loved to speak about the heart.) 

What if we're overcomplicating things, though? What if the answer we're looking for is right in front of our face?

One of the things we've done really well in our time is to complicate Scripture. We've tried to make it about all of these secret things that you have to understand to know what God is really talking about. We've made these verses into a series of dots that you have to be able to connect or else, you'll misinterpret them. This connects to that, which draws on that, and they both pull us back into such-and-such. And it cane make the Bible feel like a big, giant mystery to solve, and so of course, we've spent a lot of our time trying to figure out what it is about this child. 

In my experience, the Bible just doesn't work this way. It's more straightforward than we want to give it credit for. It's more right-there-for-the-taking than it is hidden-behind-a-bush. Overwhelmingly, the Bible just tells us what it wants to say, so I don't really see why we keep thinking that some of the stories can't possibly be what they seem. 

What about this one? What is this story trying to tell us? What does it mean to be like this child?

It could mean something as simple as - coming when Jesus calls and not feeling the need to perform. 

Jesus was surrounded by men and women who wanted to show and prove who they were. They came when they had something to demonstrate, and their entire lives in front of Him was a bit of a performance. It took a long time to break down barriers so that they could be themselves, and many of them never got there. Look at some of the errors the disciples made and ask yourself if they could not have been for show. For trying to get it right. For trying to prove some kind of righteousness or faithfulness. Like how Peter is always quick to jump in and protect Jesus. Show-off. 

This child, on the other hand, is called, comes, and stands there, letting Jesus do with him or her as He pleases. This child is willing to just be an example. To be used by Jesus to illustrate something He's deemed important in this moment. The child comes when called, draws near to the God who is calling him or her, and lets Jesus do the rest. 

What if that's what it means to become like this little child? 

Are you game?