Monday, September 26, 2016

Blessed Whatever

Recently, in a conversation about spiritual disciplines, someone said that she struggled to read the Bible. This is not uncommon, even among Christians, but what she said next about that struggle was stunning. She said that the Bible really wasn't the type of book she likes to read, but that since God requires her to read it, she's pretty sure He blesses whatever effort she puts into it. You know, when she has a minute or two to slog through it.

In other words, she knows what God requires of her, but it doesn't suit her style, so she's consoled herself by believing that God blesses her limited effort, even in the face of her own unwillingness. What this amounts to is a faith that does what God asks a mere fraction of the time and still calls itself blessed.

This faith is no faith, and this God is no God at all.

Try to expand this argument into other areas of living and two things happen: first, you run up against ridiculousness and second, you box yourself into godly living by pure logic.

In terms of ridiculousness, imagine trying to form your argument around something as simple as telling the truth. Use the same words you use for whatever spiritual discipline you don't think is your cup of tea, and see how that sounds. I know that God commands me to tell the truth, but truth really isn't my thing. I'm not very good at it. So every now and then, I try to tell the truth, and I think God rewards me for that. But in general, I'm just not good at truth, so I don't think God expects too much of it from me.

Uh, what? Nobody's going to try to lay out that argument legitimately. It can't be done. And yet, this is the very same logical progression we use with the spiritual disciplines that God has commanded of us to draw us closer to Him. Prayer isn't really my thing. So every now and then, I try to pray, and that's enough for God. That I try. 

Again, that's not God. That's some trimmed-down, vapor-mist of a vision of God that you've created yourself to make you feel better about what you're doing anyway, but it's not God.

The second result of this argument is even more condemning, for it goes straight to the heart of who you are. Part of what we say when we conclude that God rewards us just for doing whatever we can manage to do is that He blesses us for doing these very things. The person to whom I referred at the beginning of this post said she believes God blesses her when she reads her Bible, even if it's just ten minutes once a month. Even if that's all she can muster to do. 

Wouldn't that make you want to do more of whatever it is you're doing? 

If you know that God blesses you when you read your Bible, even if you claim it's not your thing, even if you only read ten minutes a month, wouldn't that resulting blessing inspire you to read your Bible more often? If not, you're living a faith that settles, and heads up - faith never settles. 

So the argument fails on two points - it's not God, and it's not faith. 

This is why we have to be so careful about what we're willing to believe, about the lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better about our failures. It's not that reading the Bible or praying or tithing or whatever is not your thing; it's that you haven't made it your thing. And in not making it your thing, you haven't made faith your faith or God your God. 

That's not blessed. It's broken. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Jesus H. Christ

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a ministry friend, and the question came up: would Jesus curse?

I had been talking about the idea that when we mimic someone else's body motions and language characteristics, they subconsciously feel more connected to us. This is a psychological truth that has been tested again and again and shown to be legitimate. It's also a potentially good place for ministry to begin - if you can get someone to feel comfortable with and connected to you, do you not have a better chance of ministering effectively to their heart? The question my friend posed, and the one which we tossed around a bit, was essentially, Yes, but how far are you willing to go?

Would Jesus curse?

There are several considerations we have to make when answering this question. The first is, what is cursing? Where is the line in language? We don't see any four-letter words in the Gospels, but we also have a Jesus who calls the Pharisees some pretty harsh names - snakes, vipers - and talks about the merchants as thieves. Is this first-century foul language? Some say yes, it absolutely is. 

Yet we must also note how careful Jesus was with His words, even with these harsh words. Today's curse words have no context most of the time; they are used as "language enhancers," the way that salt is meant to bring out the taste of food. Therefore, vulgar or not, they are idle words, and I think that's enough to say that Jesus would not use them.

But then again, Jesus was a man of men. He was human. If He doesn't use the vernacular of the time, is He relatable? Do people take Him seriously? It's very difficult for us to hear someone whose language is so far from our own.

Still, too, we must remember that Jesus was a man made in our form so that we could be men made in His image once more. So how much are we willing to say that the Son of God must be like us in order to make us most effectively like Him? 

There are no simple answers, which is probably why this question stuck with me.

Then this week, as I wrote about shame and nakedness and the exposed Jesus, I think there are some correlations that can be made between those questions and this one. And I think the answer is: no one would really notice.

Now, wait a minute. I hear you saying that it's ludicrous that no one would notice a four-letter bomb dropping out of Jesus' holy mouth. Certainly, that would be eye-popping, wouldn't it? 

I don't think so.

See, the Scriptures don't tell us much about the naked Jesus, either, but we can know with some confidence that at certain points in His ministry, He was just this - in the buff. It was common for fishermen to strip some measure of their clothing for work. We know He was stripped naked after His condemnation. We know He laid His grave clothes aside, leaving Him with....what? But this is not the emphasis of the narrative, and I honestly think nobody really noticed.

Because there was no shame.

Jesus is not bound by the same stuff that we are. His entire presence, His very being, emits this complete confidence in who He is that I think overshadows whatever hesitations we might have in our fallen flesh. I think we are so enamored by the heart that He wears on His sleeves that we don't even notice whether He's wearing sleeves or not. I think we're so touched by the tenderness in His tongue that we don't pay that much attention to what kind of language He uses (at least in a casual, conversational sense - we do notice when He says "brood of snakes"). More surprisingly, particularly to a world that seems to pick up on the slightest controversy, I don't think we would notice that He doesn't curse. 

The question was raised in the context of ministry - how far do we go to establish a connection with the people to whom we minister? Would Jesus curse? Should we? 

And I think the answer is this: if we get our heart right, if we get His heart right, I don't think people would notice either way. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Clothed in Righteousness

So we've gone from Adam and Eve naked unaware in the garden to hiding, ashamed, in the bushes, seeking to find without being found, to Jesus being found in the garden and publicly shamed, finding the lost through His willingness to be found, even naked. There is but one scene left in this story, in the way that God weaves this fabric of nakedness and shame, of seeking and finding, through His narrative, and it comes in the empty tomb.

Well, the almost-empty tomb.

Because what we find when we go looking for the crucified Christ is not "nothing," as we so often say, but something very important - His discarded grave clothes, which He has taken the time to fold. This is the final word on shame. 

It's not that death is defeated, although that is a huge part of the almost-empty tomb. It's not that Christ is victorious, although we are thankful that He is. It's that creation has been restored to its original design; man, even this Man, is as He was meant to be. 

In finding the grave clothes, we find the last of the Fall undone. The empty tomb says, I do not need your hiding place, and the grave clothes say, I do not need your coverings. The two things that Adam and Eve scrambled to find after discovering their shame are discarded in the grave clothes - the bush and the fig leaves all over again. Only this time, they lie exposed.

We cannot overstate how eloquently God does all this, how seamlessly this story is woven back into itself so that we cannot help but notice this single thread.

But what of the resurrected Jesus?

What of Him, indeed. There's no record in the Scriptures of where He might have picked up an extra set of clothes; it certainly wasn't in the grave with Him. He took off all He had been given, the tender cloths He had been wrapped in my loving arms (see? fig leaves all over again...again!). We see Him on the road to Emmaus, talking with the disciples. We see Him on the seashores, frying some fish. We see Him in the upper room, meeting with His brothers. And in not one of these narratives do we hear mention of clothes (or lack thereof). So what's the deal? Was the resurrected Jesus naked or not? 

Yes. And no.

Yes, I think that the resurrected Jesus was naked. There's no other conclusion to be drawn from the fact that we find only His discarded clothes than that He was no longer clothed. However, I also know that the resurrected Jesus, just a few days earlier shamed by the world, was unashamed - the original state. So His nakedness was not even a thing. It didn't even matter, except in the grand theological scheme of it all. He wasn't ashamed by it. Others weren't ashamed by it. Nobody probably even noticed.

And if they did not, it is because this is also true: unashamed, He was clothed in righteousness. He was adorned in glory. The way we once were. The way we were created to be. Although we bristle in our modern sensibilities and fallen natures at the mere idea of a naked Jesus, the only thing on display here...was the fullness of God...

...who walks among us in the cool of the day. Unashamed. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Exposed

The shame narrative, as well as the twist that it takes on hide and seek, is an important one in the opening chapters of the Bible. But its importance is not truly felt until much later, until the closing chapters of the Gospels.

Here, we encounter a Jesus who turns the shame narrative on its end. 

Adam and Eve ate from a tree, discovered their nakedness, crouched in a bush, and sought God from their hiding place, hoping to find without being found. At the close of the Gospels, Jesus knelt in the garden, praying, when He was arrested, stripped naked, and hung from a tree, right in plain view of everyone. He was neither hiding nor seeking; He was found and exposed.

We often miss this. For as much gore, as much lewdness, as much depravity as we are willing to put up with in our popular television shows, video games, movies, music, etc., we still always seem somehow to clean up this aspect of the Cross. We show a Jesus bloody, but clothed. Condemned, but not wholly rejected. Crucified, but not ashamed. 

We show Him hanging there, wrapped in some ancient garment of modesty, even while the soldiers throw dice for His clothes at the base of His cross. Even while they play out the very Scriptures on the matter, our discomfort with the whole idea hangs hauntingly behind them - we are not comfortable with a naked Jesus. Not even here, where we have been told that He was stripped and beaten. Not even here where we have been told that His clothes were anted in a dice game. It's not like He packed an extra change of clothes for Calvary; this was not merely His luggage that they were going through. This was His covering.

They left Him exposed.

I don't think we can stress this enough. I don't think we can say it often enough. To do what we've done to the Cross narrative, to clean it up, to sanitize it, to line it up with our own modern sensibilities is to miss out on the craftsmanship of the story. It's to miss all the connections from the first days to these last hours. It's to miss what God is doing at Golgotha that hearkens back to the Garden. It's the same thing God does throughout the entire Bible - weaving one story into another until all the frayed ends are so much a part of the fabric of grace that it's seamless.

And it's not just shame. It's the whole scene. It's the nakedness, sure, but it's also the hiding, also the seeking. There was nowhere on that hill for Jesus to hide. Perish the thought. Our God, the same God who walked with us in the Garden, has never feared being exposed. He's never feared being known. He's never been afraid to make a bold public statement of His presence, naked or otherwise (and for what it's worth, why is God walking around in the Garden with a long, flowing robe while Adam and Eve are naked?). He wants to be found, so much so that He's not afraid to be right out in the open. 

Yet still we looked right past Him. Still, we turned our eyes. On a hill on the edge of Jerusalem, a public spectacle was taking place and we, too ashamed to look at Him, hid in the bushes. We hid in the busyness. We hid in the markets and the temples and the public squares, going about our daily lives, not because of our shame, but because of His. And then, though we did no seeking, thinking there was nothing to be found, the hard truth hit in the blow of a ram's horn -

It is we who had been found. 

This is what's so beautiful about God. Here we were in the Garden together, and we discovered our shame, and we immediately dove for cover, living our lives in the shrubs, seeking but never finding because we refused ourselves to be found. And then here comes God, praying in the garden, arrested and ashamed, right out in the open for all to see, and we are found by the One we weren't even seeking, all because He Himself lived found. It's a tangled mess of a beautiful paradox, and it's just exactly the sort of thing that God does. It's one of the things I love about the Bible.

But we miss it completely when we turn our eyes from the shame, from the nakedness, of our Lord on the Cross. 

The story doesn't end here, though. There's more going on here with shame and exposition. More on that, tomorrow....

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Naked Seed

Adam and Eve crouched in the Garden, peering out between the branches of the brush in an attempt to seek the Lord from their hiding place, and here, they felt the full weight of shame, though they searched for the smallest measure of glory.

That's really the trouble, and it's the trouble we all have. From our place in the underbrush, we are aware primarily of the disconnect between our own shame and the glory of God. We cannot help but feel our nakedness; the vines tickle against it incessantly. Nagging, nicking, picking at our exposed souls until it's more than we can possibly bear. It is from here that we search most earnestly for God, for glory, for anything that will take away the itch. 

It is from here that we seek so desperately to find, though we long not to be found ourselves. 

But it's a funny thing about glory - it is best seen in wide open spaces. It is best seen in bold faith. It is best seen in courage. It is best seen when we choose to stand up, to come out from behind the things that obscure our line of sight. When we stop looking through our fingers and through the leaves and dare to let our eyes catch a full glimpse of the Lord passing by.

Of course, such faith means also that our Lord gets a full glimpse of us.

He gets a full glimpse of our fallenness, sees the full expose of our shame. It's funny, though - our shame isn't shame to Him. He's not embarrassed for us, the way we think He might be. He's not embarrassed for Himself, the way we think maybe He might be. He's not embarrassed at all by our shame the way that we are or the way that we would be if we saw someone else exposed. He's heart-broken. 

We know this because of the way He responds to Adam and Eve. When He sees them naked in the Garden for the thousandth time, hiding in shame for the first, His response is not, Oh my! You're NAKED! as though nakedness itself were some sort of terrible thing. His response is rather, Who told you that you were naked?

And really, this question is a question of the reverse. The question is not who told Adam and Eve that they were naked, but who told them that they didn't have to be. Who told them that they shouldn't be? Who told them that there were other options besides "naked"? And, by the way, the answer here is nobody because whoever seems to have convinced them that they were naked did not offer to make them any clothes; only God does that. So it's a seed planted without covering.

Gather that. The seed that exposed our shame is a naked seed itself. It was given empty, bare. It promised nothing but ruined everything.

That's what shame does. It's a waste. It plants itself in open fields, then lies fallow because there never was any life in it. There never was a way for it to produce anything at all. What it does is to take up a space that doesn't belong to it, to prevent anything else from growing there. 

What it does is convince us that we must not be seen, not because it is important to shame that we be hidden but because shame understands that though we seek, we can never find if we cannot be found.