Friday, January 31, 2014

The Reason for God

Let me ask you something this Friday morning: what is your reason for God? 

Why do you follow Him? What are you hoping to get out of the relationship? I woke up thinking about this this morning, in the context of the church, in the context of relationships, in the context of friendships lost. Thinking about doctrine and love and a whole myriad of other things. And I think we can boil this question down to one of three answers. The Gospel agrees.

Maybe your reason for God is that you want to feel better about yourself. This is true of the masses in the Gospel accounts. It may be true of the masses today. People from all over the region came to Jesus for healing, for curing, to ask questions, to receive answers. Blind men came, begged for sight, and walked away. A bleeding woman came, touched His robe, and tried to slink away. After an awkward exchange, he let her. A paralytic was lowered through a stranger's ceiling, received his healing, and walked away. The hillsides were filled with throngs of people listening to the Rabbi teach. He fed them, and they all walked away. Do you see a pattern developing here? These people came to Jesus for what He could give to them or do for them or maybe be for them. They came hoping to receive something in return, something that would make them better or at least make them feel better. Their reason for God was themselves, and when that momentary need was satisfied, they walked away.

Do you know anyone like that? We have these people among us. They walk into our churches hoping for a quick fix, hoping for something to make them better. They're searching for a God who is going to heal them. They either find Him, or they don't, and they walk away. Such is the story of the masses.

Maybe your reason for God is that you want to feel better than everyone else. This is true of the Pharisees in the Gospel accounts. They used their knowledge of the law and the Scripture to feel superior to everyone else. They called attention to everyone's shortcomings, berated people for breaking the law. They even came against Jesus when He healed a man on the Sabbath. Their arrogance is incredible. But it is the very reason they threw themselves so wholly into the law - they wanted to feel superior to other men. Their reason for God was their position in society, and when they reached the top, they did all they could to stay there.

Do you know anyone like that? We have these people among us. These people are detrimental to Christ's church today because they are often the loudest voices, by nature of their arrogance, and people get the idea that this is the church. These are the people who tell you if you're broken, you can't come in. If you've got a prison record or a background or a past or a shady smile or a same-sex partner, you're not welcome. These are the people who know pride is one of the "seven deadly sins" but still take a great form of it in pointing out the other six. They know God, but they actively keep others from finding Him. Such is the story of the Pharisees.

Or maybe your reason for God is that you want to feel better about this life. This is the story of the disciples. The disciples came from two general categories of persons: blue-collar workers and sinners. They were guys who knew the value of a hard day's work, but maybe wondered to what end and they were guys who fell way short and knew they could never catch up. They were looking for something beyond this toil, beyond this trouble. They were hoping for a way to make sense of it all. They were hoping for a way to make worth of it all. They were looking for meaning beyond the tax tables and the raging seas. Their reason for God was hope, and when they found it, they could never walk away.

Do you know anyone like that? We have these people among us, although these days, they seem to be few and far between. These are the people who aren't looking in the mirror and aren't looking to the crowds, but are peering toward the heavens and searching for more. These are the people that take the promise of God at His word and know, and live like they know, there's something more than this. This category, even today, is made up of two general categories of persons: those who know the value of a hard day's work and those who have fallen way short and know they can never catch up. They're workers and sinners, and they wouldn't have it any other way because they know that this is how they wound up walking with Him. And they're not walking away. Such is the story of the disciples.

I woke up thinking all of this this morning and decided to share. I wonder some days where I fall, and the sad truth is that it still may change on any given day. Some days, I'm one of the masses, looking to Jesus to feel better about myself. It's been a long time since I've felt like a Pharisee, though I cannot deny that in young Christian zeal, there was a time I wanted God to make me better than others. More and more, though, I'm coming to be a disciple. I know there's something more than this, and I just can't walk away. Because I'm a worker and a sinner, more the latter than the former.

So tell me - what is your reason for God?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Poor Man's Sacrifice

Did you know Jesus is the poor man's sacrifice? It's true, but to get there, you have to put a few pieces of the Bible together. (I love it when this happens.)

Back in the Old Testament, before Jesus, God's people had to bring Him various sacrifices based on the deeds they'd done wrong. Or maybe just for fun. Or fellowship. Or whatever it happened to be. Leviticus lays out what all these sacrifices mean, how to perform them ritually correctly, what to do with the leftovers, who gets to eat what. The people were required to bring various forms of rams, lambs, bulls, goats, grains, oils, etc. But if you couldn't afford the animal, you could substitute it with a couple of birds. That's right. Birds.

But wait. Jesus is the Lamb of God. He wasn't a bird.

Wasn't He?

Let's look at the facts. Here's how you sacrifice a traditional animal, much like the lamb: 

Slaughter it in the Lord's presence on the north side of the altar. Aaron's sons, the priests, will throw the blood against the altar on all sides. Then cut it into pieces. The priest will lay the head and the fat on the wood burning on the altar. Wash the internal organs and legs. Then the priest will burn all of it on the altar. Leviticus 1:10-13

Sound at all like Jesus' sacrifice? Not really. Which means if Jesus is the Lamb, He was not sacrificed as an aroma pleasing to the Lord. That's kind of what I'm looking for in a sacrifice - I need something to please my God, to atone for me. Right?

Stay in Leviticus and go a few more verses. This is where we hit the heart of it.

If your offering to the Lord is a bird, you must sacrifice a mourning dove or pigeon. The priest must bring it to the altar. ...First, he will drain the blood against the side of the altar. Remove the gizzard with its filth and throw it on the east side of the altar on the place for the ashes. Then pull on the bird's wings to tear the bird open, but don't pull the wings off. Then the priest will lay the bird...on the altar. Leviticus 1:14-17

That sounds more like my Jesus. First, His blood was poured out - through the whipping, through the beating, through the crown of thorns that sent drops of red streaking down His face. His blood was poured out on Calvary. 

Then His arms were pulled apart to break His body open, although they were not torn off. He was laid on the altar. We more commonly call this, "the Cross." Can you see it? Can you see how this is the pleasing sacrifice?

Jesus was a bird.

Then why do we call Him the Lamb of God? There are really two reasons. First, and it seems silly, "the Pigeon of God" just doesn't have the same ring to it. And also, well, you know what kind of reputation pigeons have. But primarily, I think it's this:

We are but poor men. We have nothing worthy to bring before our God. But we made His Son our pigeon and brought Him to the altar anyway, and now God calls Him the Lamb because He wants us to feel like we're rich. That's all. God says, "I have accepted this sacrifice of the poor man, and the poor man is no longer poor; he is rich. His pigeon has become the Lamb."

Thus it is so.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


"Be perfect, even as your Heavenly Father is perfect." 

Yeah. Right.

For the longest time, I've wondered about perfect, about this command to be perfect. About the "perfect" example set by Christ to be, well, perfect. It's only in the past couple of weeks that I've finally come to understand anything. And what I've come to is this:

Jesus wasn't perfect.

Shocking, I know. If you're like me and you know a thing or two about this Man, Jesus, then you probably have the long-held belief that He was perfect. Because we use words like "blameless" and "sinless" and "spotless Lamb." We may even call Him the "perfect sacrifice," but none of those really equates to "perfect Man." There's never been such a thing.

There was fallenness in Christ's life. He was born a man. During His birth, He caused great pain to His mother. (I assume.) That's a curse of the Fall. During His life, He covered Himself with a tunic and other clothing. That's a byproduct of the Fall. He lived in a society under the Law, and was most certainly raised observing these laws, not to mention holy festivals and sacrifices and aromas pleasing to the Lord. Those things...only came about after the Fall. He was a Man surrounded by fallenness, and you cannot be a "perfect" Man in an imperfect world. It'd be impossible to function. In order to be a real presence in the fallen world, He had to embrace a certain measure of fallenness. That brings Him short of perfection.

And I like that better because it gives me the chance to reflect on what Christ really was: Not a perfect Man in an imperfect world, but an unbroken man in a broken world. That changes everything for me.

By nature of living in a fallen world, Christ took part in its fallenness. There's not another way. But unlike so many of us, He wasn't broken by it. I think about all the people I come into contact with in my life, and this is where I find grace - in knowing they are broken men and women. I am able to see past certain behaviors, hurtful words, defense mechanisms to understand that at their core, they are simply broken people trying to find an answer for their brokenness. I think about myself and the levels of brokenness in my life. I make no excuses for the way that I am, but I find grace just the same because I'm a broken woman in a broken world.

Jesus...was no such thing. Think about the things that break us and look how Jesus responded to them.

Money. Right? Most of us labor for money. We build our lives around what we can afford or can't afford or wish we could afford. There is only one time in the Gospels that we see Jesus make a comment about money. It is when He is asked whether they should pay their taxes, and He sends the disciple to the sea to draw out a fish to retrieve a coin to give to the government. He accepts that money runs the society in which He lives, but refuses to let money run Him.

Kids. Have you got kids? Do they stress you out? Not Jesus. He's out teaching and preaching, doing His ministry thing, and little kids start running up to Him. Think about your own kids for the moment - if they're running up to bother someone, does it look all tame and quiet and respectful like the pictures we paint of this moment? No. They're yelling and screaming. Climbing all over Him. Tugging on the sleeve of His tunic. And He doesn't even raise His voice. He welcomes them into His presence, lays His hands on them, and blesses them.

Relationships. How many people in this world don't love you? How many used to love you and for some reason don't any more? What about this phrase - "People suck." Have you heard that one? We get so down on ourselves when relationships fail. When other people fail us, we think it's our fault. We question what we could do better, what we should do differently, and so on and so on. Jesus did not let what other people say, think, or do change Him - His mission, His ministry, His inner dialogue - one iota. The rich young ruler heard what He said and chose to walk away. Peter denied Him three times; Christ came back and gave the disciple three chances at affirmation. Judas betrayed Him; Jesus told him he would do so but welcomed him at the table anyway. He understood that people will be people and regardless of who anyone else is, it doesn't change who you are. At least, it shouldn't. He understood that a broken world was not about Him. 

I read the story of Jesus, and I think about all the circumstances He faced in which I probably would have been broken. I wish it wasn't the case, but it is. If my best friend died, and I wanted to get away and pray but the crowds followed me to my quiet place, I would grow bitter. I would start to think more highly of myself and demand that I deserve my quiet time. I would dismiss them and send them home. I would run away and hide.

It's easy to respond to brokenness with brokenness. But Jesus never did, and that's what makes Him special. And that's something I can strive for. It's a much clearer, and somehow simpler, goal than to just "be perfect." I can't be perfect in a fallen world. By measure of living here, I must embrace some of the fallenness. But I can refuse to be broken by it. I can choose faith over fear. I can choose courage over complacency. I can choose grace over grudges. There are so many things I can choose that would help me live unbroken in a broken world. I won't pull it off perfectly; I'm not that righteous. But I'm trying.

Because there's so much I can speak into this world if I refuse to let this world speak into me. Need proof? See: Jesus. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Calling

There's a buzz word for times such as this, and that word is "calling." As I step into ministry and pursue seminary and surround myself with theology, there are suddenly an awful lot of people who want to talk about my "calling," about my "call," about the "call of God."

I haven't been a fan of that word because, to be honest, I haven't really felt it. Until this week.

Every time people used that word, I shuddered a bit. Because let's be honest - God hasn't come into my heart and said, "Be a minister." He just hasn't. He hasn't even come into my heart and said, "Be a chaplain." Shocking, right? And I think that, like most of us, I've had this sense that if God has a "call" on your life (which, by the way, is a word we just don't use that much in my religious tradition, or perhaps I'm just hanging out with the wrong segment of it), He would make it very clear what you are supposed to do with that. I have wanted God to tell me what to be. That was my imagination of calling. Be a minister. Be a chaplain. Be a garbageman. Be something, because I AM calling you to be something.

And so, at times, especially recently, I have felt like a bit of a phony. I have wondered whether I haven't taken God's name and put it on my own aspirations and tried to make it all seem more holy than it really is. We do that all the time, right? I know I have. You probably have, too. Then seasons pass and we get down the road a little ways and discover it's not all we imagined it would be or maybe even that it should be, and we come back to God and ask what happened. His reply is simple. "That's not what I said."


Earlier this week, I was reading a book and there was a chapter on calling. Specifically, on the author's calling. It was not the subject of the book, just kind of an added tidbit that was probably put there for a heart such as mine. In fact, I'm not sure the book really had a subject. It was more ramblings. An awful book, really. I wanted to stop reading less than a third of the way through, but I stuck it out and discovered this gem.

This author had kind of a messed up journey to get to where she was. She was into science, and then teaching. She scoffed at the kinds of things she would eventually end up doing for God. She didn't think she had it in her to be a part of such things. And then she had this profound moment of understanding as God put on her heart what she was to do: "Love kids." That's it. Love kids. 

Not "Be a youth minister," which is eventually what she did with her life. Not "Start a youth group," which she also did. Not "Speak at rallies," another aspect of her current career. (Oh, how I have longed some days for God to call me to speak at rallies.) Simply, love kids. What she did with that was, in a way, up to her. God told her what to do with her life; she figured out how to do it.

I got to thinking - as long as I've been waiting on God to tell me what to be in this life, what is the word He's spoken that tells me what to do? How did I come to a place where I settled on chaplaincy? God clearly has not ever said to me, "Be a chaplain." But I'm no phony. So what was the word?

A dramatic pause later (because God is into such things), piercing through the contemplative silence, I knew clearly for the first time the very word God has spoken over and into my life. Without a doubt. Ironically, it is the sense I took with me into every room at the hospital, an attitude I have carried with me through many of life's circumstances, and the very thing I tell myself when I wonder what God wants with me. That word is this:

Be My rock.

Be a strong place in Me that others can stand on. Be a strong place in Me that others can lean on. Be a strong place in Me that refuses to be moved by circumstance, by trial, by terror. When the world is drifting and times are tough and people are desperately looking for a place to rest, be My rock.

That means a lot of things, too many to get into today. It doesn't always mean what maybe you think it means, but sometimes, it does. I know exactly what it means, and I smile. Maybe because I don't feel like a phony any more. I feel...called. I understand my calling. God told me what to do with my life; I am figuring out how to do it. And I know the word spoken over me.

So I ask you today - what is God's word spoken over you? There is one, you know. If you're like me and waiting around for God to fill in the blank - Be a _______ - stop waiting. Ask Him for the deeper word. He'll tell you. Then figure out how to do that. That's what it is to be called.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Somewhere to Go

As I said on Friday, I am headed to seminary this fall. I made application decisions based on my top theological choices for such an education and am pleased to have already heard back from one of those schools with an acceptance letter.

Pleased because it means I have somewhere to go if I can get there.

That sounds like a strange thing to say. Most people might make such a decision based on where they think they could go, but that's not how faith works. Faith says you go after the best thing and trust the God who calls you to conceive of the plan. At least, that's what my faith says.

What's strange about this is that sentence literally the first word that popped into my head when I got the letter. "I have somewhere to go if I can get there." And I breathed a little easier, which surprised me because I thought I'd be stressed.

That is one reaction to this type of news. Great! Now I've gotten myself into this mess, and I have to figure out how to make it work. I have to work on the details. I have to come up with a plan. I have to fret over the outcome. I have to orchestrate this thing like nobody's business to make it work out. Then we stress about things like finances. Relationships. Time. Sacrifices. Shortcomings. You start to think about all of the things that make this very good thing impossible, and at some point, it turns back on yourself.

I'm not really called, you decide. I'm not capable. I'm not strong enough, good enough, worthy enough. I'll never make it. It's not for me. Life will always hold me down. And on and on and on until you're defeated by nothing more than the thought of all you aren't. And nothing's even happened yet! Nothing's changed. There's still a place to go if you can get there. There's still time for things to work out. There's still a chance.

I don't know why, but I didn't have that defeatist reaction this time. I didn't panic about the details. Instead, I smiled. And laughed a little bit.

I think it's because this is the first thing I've done where I didn't feel like I had to be somebody else to make it happen. I wasn't worried about the right answers or proving myself because, in the past few months, nothing's been clearer to me. This is who I am. This is where I'm called. So in courage and faith, I let myself be myself.

And then I panicked. Because in the waiting, when you realize you didn't give a second thought to what a decision panel might want to hear, when you think about all the things you know about yourself that someone else doesn't, when hollow moments echo in your heart, you do worry about whether you're enough. I know I do. At the same time, I trust that as God has created and called me, He will equip me. So it simply is what it is.

Magically, it is.

As those words rang in my heart, I thought about how often that has been true of my life. How long I have wanted a place to go. I've thought about how many times I've had a place to go if I could get there...and I just couldn't get there, for whatever reason. I've thought about the things that have held me back. And it all circles back to this:

The places I could have gone but didn't are places I wouldn't have wanted to go anyway. Because they were places where I couldn't be me. 

They are places where I've wanted to fit in, where I've given the right answers not because they are truth but because they are fact. They are the places that would trap me outside of myself in this figment of my anxiety that would always be awkward. Uncomfortable. And phony. Trust me - I've made it to some of those places, and it's miserable. Many more, I haven't gone. I am so thankful.

But this place, I gave myself purely. I laid my heart on the line and dared to believe that just who I am is just what this place calls for, and that this place calls for me. When it turned out that was real, I relaxed and smiled a bit. Because there's a place for me in this universe. And when I get there, I get to be me. As God created me.

I think that's what we all want, isn't it? We get restless and long for somewhere to go. We're always looking for the next place to land. We're looking toward bigger things. But what we're really looking for is somewhere to go and just be ourselves.

When you find it, let me tell you this - you don't worry so much about how you're gonna get there. I'm not worried. I can't afford it; it's going to take a lot of scholarship assistance and private donors (know anyone rich and generous?) to make this happen. I don't know how the scheduling is going to work out. I haven't decided on what commute I'm willing to endure or for how long. I don't know more than I know. But I'm not worried. I'm not panicked. I'm not stressing. And I'm not entertaining the thought that this all might fall apart.

Because I have somewhere to go if I can get there, and knowing who I get to be when I get there, I'll get there. It's happening. This is real.

Which isn't to say I don't have my doubts....

Friday, January 24, 2014

Next Big Thing

So why did I just spend four days of precious cyberspace to tell you the story of how I landed in the church I currently attend? Because it is from this foundation that I'm launching into my next big thing, which is creeping closer every day and still blows my mind. Without knowing the journey it's taken to bring me to this place, it's hard for you to understand, and for your jaw to drop with mine, that in a few short months...

I will be a seminary student.

Yes, this is really happening. The plan is already afoot. The details are in the making. I already have an acceptance letter. (And other applications out there.) And it's kind of weird to me, maybe. Maybe not. I think we live in a world where when you find a place you're comfortable with, you settle into it and just let it be. That's not the case for me with church. That's not the case for me with God. The more I know about Him, the more I learn, the warmer that seat feels on Sunday morning, the more I want to know. The more I want to learn. The more perfect it all seems that God could be God and God could be real, the more I want to see how far perfect can stretch, where it can take me, where it will lead me.

Fourteen years after I walked into this church to stay, God is still answering my questions. I find that I'm never satisfied; I always want to know more. I'm always asking, always seeking. It's kind of a circular thing. I was asking questions about God and all of a sudden, God was asking questions about me. And let's be honest - I never understood myself. Many days, I still don't. So now, I'm asking questions about me and I don't know how to answer them, and so I'm asking God questions about me and He answers with truth about Him, which reveals truth about me, which leads me to ask more truth about Him and on and on it goes in this never-ending revelation that absolutely feeds. my. soul.

It's incredible!

And the more I know about God, the more I know about myself, the more I know about myself in God and through God, the more I can trust God. Even if I still have questions. (I think the questions never end. It's so beautiful.) Which means, right now, I get to truth God for this next big thing, and many more things, and He shows Himself faithful, which leads back into my questions and on and on again.

For instance, I applied to the chaplain program last July, not knowing what it was in me that drew me to this opportunity. Except that God laid it heavily on my heart. Through the course of the program, He revealed Himself in me and even revealed myself in me, and I discovered some of the beautiful things He's created in me. And called me to.

I didn't know, at the time, how I was going to pay for the chaplain program. The tuition was one thing; gas money was another. That program was quite the commute. I live my life debt-free. I don't do things I can't afford. I will, and I have, let money hinder me from going to the places God sends me. For fear, I guess, of coming up empty on the other side. Because while I don't put a lot of stock in money, this world seems to run on it and I do appreciate eating and bathing and sleeping in a sheltered covering. But I got into the program, asked a simple question of the community in which I love, and within a week, I had tuition. I never earned the gas money ahead of time; it came one tank at a time. But it was always there, too. My 14-year-old car got an impressive 33 miles per gallon week in and week out, and gas prices stayed relatively low. God has shown Himself.

Now, I'm looking ahead toward seminary, still uncovering what truth is - about me, about God, about the world, about calling, about service, about love - and trusting God to make it possible. I'm planning on this. I'm not worrying about the details. I'm not stressed about it coming together or not coming together. I'm not even entertaining the idea that it won't come together. I have some applications out there. I'm looking at financial aid. I don't know how it's even possible that a girl such as me gets to this place, and yet, it's tangibly real. Because I can trust God to be here. And I do. And He is.

Faith is a weird thing. You never can tell where it's going to take you. You never can tell how you'll get to where you're going or how you got to where you are. It's a winding road and a weird journey. I think I've shown a bit of that this week. And that's just the tangible getting-to-church portion of the journey! Getting to God is a whole 'nother story.

But I think we as Christians, as churches, as communities of faith, put a lot of pressure on ourselves for the latter. We think we have to get people to God. We think we have to teach them who He is. We think we have to be the ones to have the answers, which is maybe why so many of us are hesitant to invite our friends to church with us. We know we don't have the answers. We can't tell you how to get your heart to God. We can't tell you how God is going to respond to you. We don't have the words for that nagging ache. The more we try, the more trite God seems and people run into the very thing they aren't looking for - preaching. Or blind faith. Or kind of that magic pill, cult-like God where we're just telling you it's okay because it's Jesus but we don't explain any of that.

If my journey is a lesson for anyone, let that lesson be this: stop worrying about having the answers. You're not responsible for another man's faith. You're not responsible for his journey. There will be people who walk in your doors and discover that's not the place for them. They may not be lost; they may just still be seeking. That's okay. Paul says he became all things to all people, but we're just not that good at it. We cannot be all things, not as a community, although we can have all things within us. 

There will be people, though, who will walk into your doors and stay. You want to know what makes that more like to happen? If they see that you're a people looking to God. If they see that you're a people more worried on what happens on high than any other distraction in that room. If they see you worshiping, teaching, preaching, singing, and looking to God. If they see you asking questions, raising your eyes because that's the only place from which the answer can possibly come. I think that's the key. Seekers are looking for a place to look to God. If they walk in your doors and see you doing just that, they're likely to hang around awhile.

And God will answer their questions. And question their heart. Then they'll question their heart, and then question their God. And He will answer. And He will lead them. And they will know who they are, and they will know who He is, and they will find a way to trust in who He is even when they can't lean on who they are. And faith will take them somewhere beautiful that God has created and called in them.

Maybe even seminary. You just never know.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Landing Place

And so, after months of convincing myself all this questioning and seeking was okay, I got up the nerve to attend a Wednesday night youth service at the boy's church. I will never forget that night.

We gathered in a classroom at the far end of the hall. Everyone seemed to know each other, although they all made an effort to say hello, too. The minister people came in and explained the night. We were going to have some group time. In order to find our groups, everyone gets a paper bag to put over their head and a secret animal noise! The object was to walk around the room making your animal noise and find persons of like species to form your group.

I've been in this church 10 minutes and I have a bag over my head. Fantastic.

Now, I'm shy anyway and it's hard for me to let myself go and just throw myself into an experience like this, even if I know everyone in the room. Imagine not knowing anyone in the room, except the one kid I'm kind of hanging really close to and very quickly disappointed that he isn't mooing. (I wasn't mooing either. I waited for someone to bump into me, and then went, "Oh. Uhm. I guess, moo." in a quiet voice.)

I didn't go back for two years.

But I did go back. In July 2000, they were hosting a large youth event for three whole days, an event they'd hosted for many years. I always saw the boy in the T-shirts. He always talked about the really cool things they did there. I always kind of wanted to go, but didn't dare ask. That summer, he asked me. Maybe he'd asked before and I just hadn't heard him, but either way, that year, I heard him. And I dared to go. Thinking, in the back of my mind, that if things got too weird, I could always just go home.

In that auditorium filled with young people, who weren't as concerned about my qualifications to be there as I was, I noticed something. In hindsight, it had been present in the animal bag experience, too. The majority of these young people weren't focused on each other. They weren't thinking about where they were. They weren't distracted by what was going on. They all seemed focused on the presence of God among them, and as one body, they were worshiping. 

This was the kind of answer my heart had been hoping to find.

In the preschool, there were qualifiers. Limitations and qualifications that determined where you could be and when. In the United Methodist church, there were rules and no room for personality. In the Wesleyan congregation, everyone was intently focused on the preacher and not the God, as if this was just some social forum where they came to agree with somebody. In the Pentecostal church...never mind. I really never got the feel of that place. But here, in this Church of Christ, everyone seemed to be looking for God. That's what I wanted to do!

A drama troupe called One Time Blind took the stage, and I name them because they have been so vital in my spiritual formation, even to this day. The one actor who always played Jesus stood on stage with his arms outstretched, and I swear he was looking at me when he said to the actress, "Laura, I love you." Ok, my name is not Laura, but I swore he was staring deep into my soul with the power of Christ in those words. I started crying.

I sat in the front-most lobby of that church for hours that Saturday night, crying as my questions wrung in my soul. Who am I? What right do I have to be in a place like this? What was the power of those three little words and those eyes that conveyed much more than a parental love or a brotherly love or an obligatory love or a love that is only in words? What just pierced my heart and why couldn't I make the pain go away? 

I questioned all my worthiness, all the lessons I'd learned from life and church up to this point. I was torn but I couldn't understand why or how. I didn't know what was going on. The minister people came and knelt and talked to me. So did the boy. I kept telling them to go back to the event, to go worship, to go be with the other kids. I was embarrassed. I didn't know what was happening to me. And then...I just kind of gave into it. 

Without answers. Still asking the questions. Not knowing if I could or should or even would, I begged for baptism. I have told that story before. (Starting here.) That night, I was baptized into Christ in the only place I'd found capable of confronting my questions - the church of Christ. (Which is really neither here nor there, except to say that is where I landed.)

I was baptized, placed membership, and became a part of this God-centered community. It became the place where I am unafraid to ask questions, where I don't feel pressured to have the answers, where I look to God with my community and don't worry so much about the details. It's the place that has loved me well, for no other reason than that I am who I am and I am God's. It's the place that has trained me and taught me in discipleship, faith, love, worth, service, honor, integrity, questions, answers, doubts, fears, certainties, and Promises. It is the place that has opened its doors, and continues to open its doors, for me to come to know God.

Which leads me to the whole reason I take four days to tell you this story...

**Disclaimer: The comments made in this story, throughout this week, is no reflection on the doctrine or theology of the various churches I have been privileged to visit in my journey. These words are simply a representation of my experience with specific congregations, all of which I know have grown and transformed over the years. All of which I understand are made up of people just like every other congregation. So do not take any of this as derogatory. It is not meant to be such.**

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Le Pew

...Now, I had a great-aunt who faithfully attended church. She wore the dresses, carried the book, knew the songs. She was there on Sunday mornings, for class and services, Sunday nights, more than one night throughout the week. Heck, she went to more than one church! Every week! And by the time I hit middle school, I earned permission to start going with her.

As long as I took "a couple of dollars" to "put in the basket." That's what my mom said. I didn't get it. But I did it. I understood that I could go to church as long as I could afford to go to church.

We went to a small Wesleyan church out in the country. (Are you keeping track of this? Lutheran...United Wesleyan.) Total membership in this place was, at the time, about 12. They've since cut that number in half, at my last visit for a project in college. They may have closed by now. But they had a children's Sunday School program in the basement, which consisted of me sitting in a dim room with the pastor's wife while she talked about God knows what. God knew what, but I didn't. I did not understand that lady, though I was trying hard to grasp all these stories she was telling.

And yes, I was the only kid in the Sunday School class. I was the only kid in the building unless someone's grandchildren happened to be visiting, which was almost never.

In the main service, we sang songs with a piano and an organ. They quickly made me part of the music ministry because I could play the piano. And the drums. This little rinky-dink church in the middle of small country Indiana with a membership of 12, of whom the youngest member was probably 60, wanted to add a drum set to their worship. So I drummed for them for the year or so I faithfully attended. 

The preaching was Bible-based, or at least I assume so by the number of times the preacher held the Bible in the air and raised his voice about this or that. It was the kind of passionate condemnation preaching you hear on television that makes you shudder. It was always boring. And worst of all, completely irrelevant to both my questioning heart and my middle school attention span. If this is the God I'd been looking for, I didn't want to find Him. I kept going, hoping it would get better and feeling an unnatural sense of responsibility to the music ministry in that place. I joined the preacher and his wife on Tuesdays at the assisted living ward in the hospital to play music for the residents there. I was trying to get something out of this, but it just wasn't happening.

It wasn't too long, and yet far too long, before I came to the painful conclusion that, though my heart was still aching and longing for something more, this place was not worth $2 a week. I could still afford church, but at what cost?

During this time, my great-aunt also took me a couple of times to visit her other congregation - a holy-roller Pentecostal bunch in heavy suburban Indianapolis. The baptistry was basically a hot tub built into the floor. In the middle of the sanctuary. There were tons of rare instruments. Tons of people. Lots of dancing and hand-raising and shouting. I couldn't hear God for all the church going on in there, to be honest with you. I was highly uncomfortable. It was not at all what I was looking for.

As middle school pressed on, I made a few friends. Or, at least, made a place with a group of boys who allowed me to sit at their lunch table. One of the boys was in my advanced placement classes, and we frequently worked on projects together. We'd always end up in the craft room at his church, which also had that funky church smell. No cockroaches. Mice, but no cockroaches. (I'll take mice any day. And such is the hazard of a church in an open field.) And you know, for as often as we worked in that little classroom concocting our brilliant projects, I never once saw the sanctuary. I didn't see the holy room. 

I met a handful of people. Welcoming people. Pleasant people. People who didn't know, or maybe didn't care, that I was not supposed to be in a church. That I wasn't good enough. That I wasn't righteous. That I didn't know their stories or their songs or their book. That I didn't know their God. That I wasn't holy. They were nice just the same. And his minister people? They came for lunch at the middle school and sat right at the table with us! Brought fast food and shared a meal. No preaching. No Hell. No condemnation. No qualification to sit at the table.

From both the boy and the minister people (a man and his wife, youth ministers), I had an open invitation, but no pressure, to join them for services. Even just a Wednesday night if that would be more comfortable for me. That's when the young people met. People. As in, more than one. As in, not just me in the basement with the pastor's wife. It took months for me to build up the courage to go, knowing how out of place I was in a place like that. 

But dammit! I'd always been longing. And as relaxed as these people were about everything, and around me, and around the table...I convinced my heart that it was okay to want to go. A few months after that, I convinced my heart that it was okay to actually go.

Things were about to get awkward....

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Palm Sunday Sword Fight

...All of these questions - from a place called 'holy' and an untouchable book - swirled in my head for six long years. It wasn't until I was 9, and after much begging, that I got to see what church was really like.


You see, I grew up a certain way. We didn't need God. We didn't even want God. We made fun of the people who believed in God. We watched enough of the Simpsons (by which I mean, every episode) that I almost slipped and called my neighbor "Flanders" to his face. Because there were "good, Christian weirdos" and the rest of us, just "good people." We considered ourselves good people. Church...was for the weak. God was for the fragile. And at the very least, we resented the holier-than-thou attitude that churchgoers had, although in hindsight, I never recall actually encountering this. It was more a myth we perpetuated and saw beyond what we were actually seeing. We thought they took themselves, and their God, too seriously.

But I begged and begged, and my dad finally caved and took me to the United Methodist church across the highway from the house, the very church he and my mom had gotten married in. He wanted to wait for a special day, though, he said. He wanted to wait for a time when I could really see what a service was all about. He chose Palm Sunday. I was in third grade.

We walked in, me in a dress and dad in nice slacks and a shirt. Maybe even a tie, which was a rare event for him. The man greeting the guests smiled heartily, welcomed us, and handed each of us a very long palm frond. I was excited! What was this for? It could only be wonderful, to my young mind.

We took a seat in a pew somewhere near the middle, closer to the back. The place was by no means packed. In front of us sat an older lady in her Sunday best hat, the way older ladies always wore hats to church. By the time service began, dad was already restless. He started having a mock sword fight with his palm frond and mine, but I was too intimidated by the holy place to play back. When I didn't respond, he looked at me with that sheepish grin of his and started to poke the old lady's hat. 

She shot us a look.

A few minutes of that behavior, and all of a sudden, the man with the smile was standing at the end of our pew, and he wasn't smiling. He made sort of a motion with his head, and my dad looked at me. "Have you seen enough?" he asked. I hadn't seen anything, but I nodded like good girls do, and we left. Much to the relief of the congregation.

I wanted to go back, and after a year of begging and pleading and an additional amount of asking dad to just be good, we returned to the UMC the next...Palm Sunday. Palm fronds in hand. That year, too, we had to leave to before I ever figured out what the palm frond meant. Before I ever figured out what they did with those things. I'll leave it to your imagination why such a departure might be necessary.

And so I guess maybe we weren't holy people. Maybe we didn't belong in a place like that. Certainly, my dad didn't put much stock in it. He couldn't even be good long enough for me to have my questions answered (which I foolishly thought would happen if I could ever make it to the amen). Those two short Sundays, one year apart, six years from the first sanctuary, just confirmed what I'd felt - this really wasn't the place for me. I didn't belong in a place like this.

But I couldn't figure out what was so damned wrong with me - or so damned special about them - that kept me out. And I still wondered. I still wanted to know what holy was. I still wondered what happened in "church." Fast forward a few years, and I'm about to find out...


Monday, January 20, 2014

Cockroaches and Contraband

This week, I want to share parts of my faith journey with you. In light of recent events, it seems apt for a time such a this. So stay tuned as I tell you about how a girl finds God. Or at least, how this girl did. (Although I cannot guarantee it was not the other way around.)

Not long ago, I wrote about my preschool experience. It's a story that bears repeating simply because it truly is one of the foundations on which my faith is built. The story goes like this...

We didn't go to church, but we were still a "good family," as we called such things back then. And all children from "good families" went to preschool. And all preschools were Christian. Which is how I found myself at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church preschool, in a large, open rec room with not enough light and far too many cockroaches. There was a piano, though. That almost redeemed it. 

Every time I went to the potty in this big, scary place, the cockroaches stared back at me as I lifted my dress. Because good girls from good families wore dresses to good Christian preschool. (Ok, there was a time in my life I loved the dress.) My second-most vivid memory of two years of preschool are these very cockroaches in this very place. Third, and not to be ignored, was my best friend Beverly, who just stopped coming one day. They said she had leukemia, something nobody knew much about in the 1980s, and that I would never see her again. I still remember my friend.

But my most vivid memory is a snapshot of a whole five seconds in all of two years - the day we walked around the whole big church (it's not that big as an adult. As a child, it was huge) and saw all the rooms with all their different purposes. The teacher got us all to hush real quiet, the way teachers do, and we stood in silence as she opened these two glowing, mysteriously illuminated for such a dark church, doors, revealing a high-gloss, all-wood room that just shone with light. The only light in the whole building, at least the way my eyes remember it. The air didn't have that musty church smell; it was somehow cleaner. And you know what? In this pristine place, not. one. cockroach. It was marvelous. I don't know how they did it.

I was about to ask questions when the teacher put her finger to her mouth. Don't talk, she said. This place is holy. (Whatever holy meant.) I started to protest, and she put her finger to her mouth again. I crept closer to the door, wanting to get a better look, and when I was almost there, teacher stopped me again. Don't go in, she said. We can't go in. This place is holy.

Whatever holy meant.

Oh, I ached with questions! But my little mind only fathomed two things: this...whatever this was...was holy. And I...for all that I was...was not. This would always be a place separate from me. I wondered if I would ever get in the door.

The other early story of faith comes from a simple book. A hard cover book with a blue cover, on which was painted a friendly-looking fellow surrounded by happy children. He appeared to be telling a story. 

Now, this was not my book. This was my brother's book, and my brother was, well, rather selfish about his things. I never really saw him reading it, but heaven forbid I try to touch it. That was his book, and he wasn't shy about letting me know. The closest look I got at the cover told me this was titled "The Children's Illustrated Bible" or something like that, which meant it had more pictures inside - maybe of the friendly-looking fellow! Ok, ok...I was really hoping it would be animals or maybe camels. Yes, it looked like a camel book!

But the very fact that I could not have that book made me want it all the more. The more questions I asked about it, the more I was simply told, "That's John's book." That was the only answer I got. And I snuck into John's room looking for it. And I tried a few times to take a peek. And I wanted more than anything to figure out that book. I'm about to turn 29 years old, and I'll be honest - I never saw a single page. Not. One.

It was obviously special; I kind of always knew that even if I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t jealousy – it’s not that it was special because it was John’s. Rather, I got the idea that because it was special, it was given to John. Which only made me want it more because I wanted to be special, too. Whatever was special about it, I wanted it to make me special.

And that's where my faith journey begins - trying to figure out what holy means and looking for something to make me special. Unknowing questions and untouchable treasures. A cockroach-infested preschool with an other-worldly secret space and a little blue book I never read.

Friday, January 17, 2014


The book of Revelation can be, well, intimidating reading. To say the least. It's awkward, at best. All of these signs and symbols and things to come that we don't really understand and can hardly fathom. Yet it feels like doomsday, doesn't it? What intrigues me maybe the most about the Revelation text is the idea of catastrophe - or the disaster that is to come.

The story starts with seven angels and seven trumpets. At the end of chapter 8, after four trumpets have blown, an eagle flies by, declaring, "Catastrophe! Catastrophe! Catastrophe!" referring, of course, to the final three angels and the last three trumpets. All this time, the disaster seems to have been building on itself, each trumpet blast bringing about a measure of misery worse than the last. We can only imagine what happens when we get to number seven.

The fifth angel blows his trumpet, and a star falls to earth and opens the bottomless pit. Smoke and fire pour out. Everything goes dark. Locusts swarm out of the pit (sound familiar, Egypt?). It certainly sounds like catastrophe. And so it is called. (9:12)

The sixth angel blows his trumpet, and the famous horsemen are released. With fire, smoke, and sulfur, they kill one-third of humanity. It is the fire and brimstone we worry so much about, the end-all to our Hell sermons. The consequences of not following God. It certainly sounds like catastrophe, even worse than locusts. And so it is called. (11:14)

I've got to tell you - at this point in the story, I don't know where we go from scary horsemen, horses with heads like lions and tails like snakes that with fire and brimstone destroy a full third of humanity. A third! Look around at your two best friends - one of you isn't here any more. What could be worse than this? What possible third catastrophe could come with the seventh angel? What's the worst that could happen?

Read along:

When the seventh angel blew his trumpet, there were loud voices in heaven, saying, 'The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will rule as king forever and ever.' Then the 24 leaders, who were sitting on their thrones in God's presence, immediately bowed, worshiped God, and said, 'We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun ruling as king. The nations were angry, but your anger has come. The time has come for the dead to be judged: to reward your servants, the prophets, your holy people, and those who fear your name, no matter if they are important or unimportant, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.' God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his promise was seen inside his temple. There was lightning, noise, thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (11:15-19)

So the final catastrophe - and the eagle has proclaimed it as such - the worst possible thing that could happen, the horrible of the horrible, the end of the that God reveals Himself. Did I just read that right? Did you just read that right? The worst possible, worst imaginable catastrophe the world could ever know is that God shows up and He is who He says He is?

I guess it depends on which world you belong to.

As Christians, we say we look forward to this day. We can't wait for God to come back. Come on, now. Is that really true?

When God comes back, we're out of time. We're out of chances to get this righteousness thing right. We're out of tactics to delay His judgment. We're out of opportunities to somehow make ourselves holy. We're confronted with grace, and we have no choice but to surrender ourselves into His hands. He comes, and we have to actually give ourselves up. Wholly. Forever. When we kind of thought we might finally be getting on the right track.

When God comes back, we understand the depth of our lie. Because we finally see the depth of His truth. He really is. He simply is. All He said He would be, all He promised to be, all we fear He might be, all we hoped He was. He is. This is really happening. And we realize how short we lived of the true hope that this all could be.

When God comes back, we come face-to-face with the very thing we've worked our whole lives to forget - our humanity. We stand toe-to-toe with our need for a God, and we understand our resistance and our defiance. And we can't help but be ashamed. Crushed under the weight of our own fallenness.

Have you ever played a game, or perhaps watched a game, where one team was fighting so valiantly for a comeback win? Where they were so close to scoring that much-needed last point and then...time ran out? It's deflating. It's defeating. It leaves this bitter taste in your mouth.

That is us in this final day. Time's up. It's over. This world is all gone. We fell just short. We never made it back. There's this bitter taste in our mouths.

I have the privilege of standing beside persons in their last moments of life. There is an overwhelming sense of these very types of failures at death. The way people look back on their lives and think about the things they did, the things they didn't do, the ones they wish they had, the ones they with they hadn't. They look back on all that was and all that could have been and all that should have been, and in these final moments, far too many of us are filled with regret. On this day, when the seventh angel blows his trumpet, we are all filled with that regret and that overwhelming sense of time wasted, time fallen short. 

That's a catastrophe.

But only for a short while. Because, as I began this week, God stands ready to redeem. He holds in His hand a stone, upon which is written our new name. Our new name, which is written in the Book of Life, opens Heaven's gates. Our old name is thrown into Hell, and then with Hell, thrown into the fiery lake. It's all over. It's kind of disastrous, in one sense. 

Absolutely glorious in another.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Little Guys

Yesterday, I touched on something that I've been thinking about for quite awhile and have expressed in different forms. Most recently, it was that when you realize how deeply God loves, you remember what it's like to hope. You remember that thing in you that strives for something better and aches to reach its full potential.

A few months ago, I said something similar when I talked about a group of peers at work who listened to some of the deepest parts of my heart and yet, did not condemn me. I told them then, Do you know what happens when you don't think less of me? I don't have to think less of me. And that's an incredible gift.

There is nothing more inspiring than to know someone believes in you.

To illustrate this point, I now bring you my customary post-season Colts football rant. Because it's getting harder and harder for me to stay a Colts fan.

I know what you're thinking - the Colts did some incredible things this year. They made it two rounds deep into the playoffs, created a stir with an incredible comeback win, beat multiple undefeated teams that people told them they had no chance again. Blah-blah-blah. The problem is, under new management that came in last season (2012), the culture of the Colts is changing. And that's making it harder to be a fan.

The Manning-era Colts, and perhaps even before then, were foundationally a team of little guys. This was a place where you could make your name as a football player, and many did. Manning, of course. Marvin Harrison. Robert Mathis. Reggie Wayne. Dwight Freeney. The list goes on. In some really tough seasons, we adopted the slogan "Next Man Up" and always had a guy, some guy you've never heard of, to step in and make a difference.

They still say such things around the locker room - Next Man Up - and in press briefs, but the guys on this team know it's not true. And that has changed the way they play football.

You see, the Colts used to be a team where a guy could make a name for himself, where he could shine according to his talent, where he would get his chance and could show what he was made of. When the new management came in, so did this idea that for some reason, the Colts needed to grab guys who'd already made their names - regardless of how or how long ago.

In the former era, we had Jim Sorgi, a capable backup QB. When Manning left, so did Sorgi, but we had a guy with incredible potential to be a stud - Chandler Harnish, most often teased as "Mr. Irrelevant." But have you seen this guy play? Potential all over the place! But we couldn't take the risk that he might have a shot, so last year, we grabbed Drew Stanton, a known name but not even a good QB, and this year, went after Matt Hasselbeck, who I admit I loved....10 years ago when he made his name. Now, he's past his prime and we're wasting money on him when we could invest in Harnish.

Our running game has suffered for many years, but if you saw what Donald Brown and Delone Carter got going last year, you'd say we were on the right track. Except we abandoned both of those guys and went after big names - Mewelde Moore and Ahmad Bradshaw - who never ended up producing for us. Carter got transferred around; we eventually brought Brown back to be the first guy. But he knows by now the leadership doesn't believe in him. They trumped him with names. And when, in early season, our other star running back, Ballard, went down, we still didn't go to our little guys. We went for another big name and signed Trent Richardson, who also did not produce.

Griff Whalen, a receiver out of Stanford, made a big play and then was cut and then was re-signed a little bit later to come back and make more big plays. But he made big plays to start - why was he cut? Then we go to face the Patriots in the playoffs and instead of resting on our playmakers, the little guys who have faithfully shown up all season, we sign Deion Branch, another guy with a name. I'm not even sure we played him.

My point is - little guys have all the hope and aspiration in the world. But they know when you don't believe in them. And they start to wonder what's the point. Several years ago, we stood behind our guys, and we went on to have long lists of pro-bowlers, guys who are going to the Hall of Fame for sure, two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl win. Not to mention a string of winning seasons, winning more than 10 games for consecutive years, several divisional titles, etc. etc. Now, we're a team that stumbles and struggles.

What changed?

The culture. When you believe in the little guy, it inspires him. You may even find he's a big guy after all. But when you don't believe in him, he knows it. And you'll see that reflected in all that he does.

I had to get my football rant out, but the implications go beyond the gridiron. Believe in the little guys in your life. Believe in your brothers, your sisters. Believe in your mom, your dad. Believe in your sons, your daughters. Your neighbors. Your friends. Your foes. Believe in the people around you. Give them a reason to reach for the stars. Stand behind them in confidence. Remind them of all they could possibly be and encourage them to go after it. You never know what little guys you'll turn into big ones.

**In fairness, this leadership has done some good things, too. They have built a community around a coach when he needed it, selflessly given the Arizona Cardinals an incredible coach, and perhaps most awesomely, Mr. Freeman. But the trend of "big names" in place of "big talent" bothers me. Severely.**

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


By the way, whenever I write about theology or expound on the Word, I don't ever claim that I'm perfectly right about anything. It's just the way my brain processes things, and they can be fun to think about. So, as with any writer who uses the Bible as fodder, take whatever you read in this place as a starting point, dive into the text, and discover for yourself what the Word says.

But I said what I said about Hell and about names and the Book of Life yesterday because, well, there are simply too many among us who worry about such things. They're overly concerned with getting their names in the Book of Life, with living perfect, with living up to the expectations of God. And the truth really is that you can't. By your own merit, by your own life, you simply can't. Which is why I think it's good news that we each get a new name, one that can be written in the Book of Life.

Now, as we labor to make our names worthy, there are two basic attacks we must ward off. The first is this: Your past will never let you think it's possible

We've all had those moments, those times we could have done things better or at least, differently. We've all messed up. We've all fallen down. And when we read this verse about unclean and detestable in Revelation, those moments come back to haunt us and we start to think it's too late. We start to think it's impossible. Our names could never be there. We've messed up too much. 

This is a trick. It's an attempt to get a man so discouraged that he gives up and abandoned his attempts at holy living. Unfortunately, it works too much of the time.

But suppose you're one of those men (or women) who takes the grace of God seriously, who believes you are not who you once were, that you can grow, and that God can redeem you. Good for you. But now, the attack shifts and that little voice in your head says, "Look at who you were...and who you are now. You've come a long way. Probably far enough."

This is also a trick. It invites you to live a life of comparison. You compare the person in the mirror to the one you used to be and figure out, today isn't nearly that bad. You really have come a long way. You're a far cry from perfect, but further still from despicable. This trick is aimed at getting you to settle. And once you settle, you live your entire life by comparison - you're driven by those you find better than you, but more often, you're satisfied by those who you deem lesser. "At least I'm not a ....." Or "At least I don't...."

The trick is in remembering - remember who you are, you detestable, despicable, unclean, fallen man, or remember who you were, you remarkable human being who has now grown out of that phase. Neither is the thing God wants you to remember about yourself.

What God says is, "Remember who you were intended to be." Or "Remember who you will be." Which comes from a foundation that says, "Remember who I Am."

You can read through the Bible for yourself - remembering is a large part of the story of God's people. They come together to remember where they've been, who they've been, what they've done. And God frequently reminds them of the same things. You were a sinful people, He tells them. You made idols. You disobeyed My commands. But every story that the people tell of their past or that God reminds them of always comes back to the way God arrived in it. Every story about who the Israelites were is followed by a holy but that reminds them who God is, which sparks the memory of who they are meant to be.

You were slaves in Egypt. But I led you out to a Promised Land. You were prisoners of Babylon, but I brought you back. You were prostitutes, loving other gods, but I won your hearts. Over and over and over again. And, I don't know if you understand this if you haven't been in barren shoes, but when someone is fighting for you, you start to remember all the things you ever wanted to be. You start to remember every hope you ever had. And you sort of start to think that maybe it's possible.

That's why God always says, "Remember your past. But remember the glorious way I came into it." Because that draws us forward into who we were created to be. It reminds us of the hope we had that we are better than this, that there is something more. It sets our sights on the image of us as God intended us, and makes us look to the Creator and His incredible goodness and grace.

Then we're not satisfied with resignation. We don't believe we're stuck being who we were.

We're not content with comparison - we're not looking back or looking around to determine who we are.

We live our lives by consecration, aiming for that created nature that God intended us to have and unsatisfied until we get there.

Then we get there and realize that was us all along. We are named by our createdness, cast off our unclean nature, and enter into the City of God.

It's a remarkable thing. And it starts with the way you remember. So ask yourself today what you believe about your past - are you destined to die there, comfortable to live there, or called to come out of there? You know the answer.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Go to Hell

Before I begin, yes. Yes, I realize the irony of titling this post in this way directly after posting a piece entitled, "Do Something." I promise the two are not related. I'm switching gears today, away from my series on experiencing God and ministry. So here we go...

The Bible says things, and we read them, and we know they are true, but sometimes, we have to put the pieces together. One such case: Revelation. 

There's a lot of worry in the world about who's going to Hell. It seems there are two camps - the people who fear they are going to Hell and the people who seem to know which other people are going to Hell. What if...we all go to Hell? (Stay with me. I promise.)

I'm in the book of Revelation, a book that doesn't make much sense to a lot of people but has a great deal to say about what happens when God redeems the world for good. For good. Now, there's a whole series of events that unfolds that you have to put together if you want to see the real promise of Heaven.

We all know we're getting new bodies, that we will be completely restored and fulfilled as we were intended to be. But bodies don't get into Heaven. Names do. And Revelation tells us we get a new one of those, too. I will also give each person a white stone with a new name written on it, a name that is known only to the person who receives it. (2:17)

That's step 1: When God returns, you get a new name. Don't forget that.

Skip ahead to chapter 20. I saw the dead, both important and unimportant people, standing in front of the throne. Books were opened, including the Book of Life. The dead were judged on the basis of what they had done, as recorded in the books. (12)

When God returns, you stand before Him and He opens the Book of Life. What do the Scriptures tell us are written in the Book of Life? Names. On the basis of names in the Book of Life, your dead man will be judged.

That's step 2: Know that there are names listed in the Book of Life and that by that name, you will be judged.

In the next chapter, John describes the new Jerusalem, the restored Temple, the place of Heaven itself. He concludes that chapter with this truth: Nothing unclean, no one who does anything detestable, and no liars will ever enter it. only those whose names are written in the lamb's Book of Life will enter it. (27)

When God returns, gives you a new name, opens the Book of Life, and judges you by it, don't you kind of hope your name is in there? I mean, if it's not, you don't get to enter into the new Jerusalem. Translate that the way we so often do - if your name is not in the Book of Life, you don't get to go to Heaven. Think of the countless theologies based on this very scary reality. Think of the movements of God's church that have been built around this concept of your name being in the Book of Life.

You know what? I'm kind of betting it won't be. At least, I don't think mine is.

Because it's a system. Do you see it developing yet? What are you in your present form? You are the very things God says will not enter into His holy city - you are, by nature of your fallen flesh, unclean and detestable. Sorry. Them's the dice. We all are. But thank the Lord, it is not by this name that you will be judged. Think about that.

The reference to your new name comes first. From the first moment you meet God, He will give you a new name. Then He will look in His Book of Life for that name, and on the basis of who you were created to be, you will be judged. And you know what? You were created to be good. So don't worry about it. Everything God intended, and created, is good. He said so Himself. It is your old name, the one you die by, that isn't any good. It is your old name that isn't in the Book of Life. Which means when you die, your old name is the one condemned. Your fallen flesh is cast out. Your detestable, unclean, lying nature is gone. When you come into God's redemption, your old name has to Hell. We all go to Hell.

Go back to chapter 20. (I love this stuff.) Death and hell gave up their dead. ...Death and hell were thrown into the fiery lake. (The fiery lake is the second death.) Those whose names were not found in the Book of Life were thrown into the fiery lake. (13-15)

Your old name, which is not written in the Book of Life, the name by which you sinned and died, the name by which you called yourself in your fallen flesh, is thrown into Hell. And together with Hell, is thrown into the fiery lake. It dies two deaths, to make sure it's good and dead. Which means in the final days, when you are judged and found lacking by your old name, your sinfulness is not even relegated to Hell! It is not damned to eternal separation; it is damned to destruction. God separates it from you, and from Him...and then destroys it anyway. In favor of a new name. That He's written in the Book of Life. 

Welcome to the Holy City. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Do Something

Now, the things I have been writing about for the past three days, I have done with a little hesitation. That is, I know it can easily be misconstrued as excuses, and let me be clear:

There is no excuse for not being an active part of God's community. Period.

I go to church every Sunday knowing the tear I'm going to feel between the Christ and the community. I go knowing this, but I still go. Why? Because God is there, and I want to be where God is. Simply that and nothing more. 

But how do I know God is there when I don't experience Him? That may have been a poor job on my part. I do not experience the God of my personal worship at church. I do not experience the same closeness with God at church that I do in private prayer, in quiet Bible study, in moments of peace and empty spaces. I do not experience the God that I treasure most intimately in my heart in a building on Sunday mornings. Maybe I'm not supposed to. In fact, I don't think I am. But I share that because I know I'm not alone in that, and I want others who have the same experience (or lack thereof) to know that they are not alone. Notice what else I said in that piece, though: I experience God in my community. I wouldn't trade that for the world.

There's a certain precedent for that. In the Old Testament, in particular, the community of Israel always came together to remember their God and experience Him together. Experience Him in the way He's worked among them. It gets a little lost because our Bible is primarily the story of God told through individuals, but if you pay attention to the text, you see that the setting of God is the community. (I could go off on a tangent about the individualism of God in our post-modern society but...not today.)

That is why, regardless of how you experience God in church, you must be a member of God's church. You have to go on Sunday mornings, on Saturday nights, to small groups, to mid-week services. You have to be there among His people because God is there. And you ought to want to be where God is, even if He doesn't "feel" as close and personal as you ache for in any holy moment. 

And as for serving...

There are people who will read my guidance on discernment (which is personal method, by the way, and not meant to be taken as perfect by any means) and decide that there's simply nothing in God's church they can do. If that's the case for you, let me tell you - you're wrong. By that very conclusion, that there's nothing you can do for God's church, you reveal a hidden question that must be answered by serving. That question may be, "Aren't I too good for this?" Then scrub your church toilets. Because you are not too good to work for the Kingdom of God. That question may be, "Am I good enough?" Then pass out bulletins on Sunday morning. Because you will find that you are worthy to stand among God's people. 

For every reason you can find, or concoct, not to serve in God's church, that is the very reason why you should. Not why you should do everything, but why you should do something.

Paul even tells us this. The body of Christ is made up of many parts, each with its own contribution to make. Do you know how hard it would be to stand if you did not have a pinky toe? Someone did a study on this and found it ridiculously difficult, if not impossible, to find balance without a pinky toe. It shifts literally everything else in your body to make up for not having that tiniest little piece of bone. So however small you think your contribution to the body of Christ is, know this: if you don't do it, everything else in the body has to shift.

Which is how we end up with people doing everything and some people doing nothing and everyone aching for a tangible God in their service and thirsting for a holy work.

All that to say this - I wanted to say some things about how I love and work in the community of God. I wanted to say some things about the way I experience Christ and community...and Christ in community. But I fully believe in both.

If you're not in church, get in church. Find a community of God where His story is unfolding. Find a place where He is being revealed. And be there. 

And if you're in a community of God, do something. Anything. Do one thing for the community of God that you are in. Pass out bulletins. Pass trays. Scrub toilets. Change light bulbs. Bake snacks. Shake hands. Lead worship. Preach. Whatever it is that you're called to do, do it. If you don't think there's anything you can do, you're wrong. If you don't think there's anything you should do, you're wrong again. The body of Christ is waiting on you to be who you were meant to be.

And we were all meant to be something in His body. We were meant to be a part of His church. So be there. Be here. Do something.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Choosing Ministry

Yesterday, I told you that I don't do everything I can for the kingdom of God. I only do the things to which I am called. And let me tell you - this has changed not on the way I view ministry, but the way I do ministry. This is true whether your ministry is an official one, a community one, a social one, the kind of ministry everyone talks about, the kind of ministry no one talks about. This is true regardless of what you do for God, so long as you're doing it for God.

Now, I mentioned that I've narrowed my list of ministries to a select few. There is an important discernment process at work here because every ministry opportunity - to this day, every one - begins in my heart with one of two responses: a resigned recognition that I'm not nearly qualified at all or an excited realization that I can do that! Neither is the word by which one should decide about ministry.

There are the rare occasions on which an opportunity that I met with resignation continues to eat away at my heart until I can no longer deny that God is asking me to pursue it, despite my feelings of being unqualified. Even despite my actually being unqualified. Sometimes, those are the best ministries and they bring, of course, their own lessons. Those moments are undeniable; when you feel the calling of the Spirit, you go. It's fairly clear when that calling comes against your own sensibilities.

But what about the opportunities at which I leap, knowing I can do what is asked or needed? What is the discernment involved in choosing a ministry? I think it's this, and remember this is personal testimony only and not some scientific spiritual study:

I start by accepting that I can do it, by recognizing that I have in me the ability to perform such a duty. This immediately takes away any questions I might have about myself and allows me to focus on the ministry itself. I can do it. Does that mean I should?

I ask what it is that I can bring to the ministry. I can do it, but what can I do for it? What is my unique offering in that specific place? For instance, if I am asked to run the presentation in the sound booth, I can. But is there something about me doing it that would make it better than someone else doing it? If so, is that thing a reflection on how highly I think of myself or is it an objective observation? If the answer to this question draws me into the praise of myself - "I can do that so much better than anyone else" - then I throw it out immediately. Ministry exalts the Lord, not the self. If the answer to this is negative - that I can offer only mere rote service - then I dismiss the opportunity. If the answer to this question is neutral - that is, that there is nothing unique about the way in which I would do it - or positive - that there is something special about the way in which I would serve here - I move on in the discernment process.

I then ask what opportunity the ministry might provide me. A lot of people won't ask this question because it sounds self-centered, but I don't think it is at all. There has to be some aspect of the ministry that feeds you, whether obviously or in a subtle way, or you will never sustain it. So I ask - what in this opportunity is going to nourish me?

Not all opportunities are for the glorious things. Some are for refinement. For instance, in order to combat an arrogant attitude and a haughty heart, I engage in the ministry of service. There is, on an average day, not much about passing a Communion tray that fuels me. That's just the truth. But the service behind it is a humbling that my heart needs, to constantly remind me that I have been placed on this earth for the service of others in the name of the Lord and of Love. That is why I pass the trays.

On the other hand, the creative arts ministry of which I am privileged to be a part absolutely nourishes my Spirit. It gives me the chance to dive deeply into God's Word and presence so that as I make plans to guide others through it, I know the terrain. Or at least have some general idea of it.

So that's why I ask - what do I get out of this ministry? I am actively looking for ministries that fall into either of the above categories: ministries that nourish my Spirit in the way God has created in me or ministries that actively counter weaknesses in my flesh that I struggle against. Those are the two criteria for choosing a ministry in response to this question, and the only two.

In rare circumstances, I must break all of this. Those are the times when things must be done, I can do them, and nobody else is going to. I do not jump at these opportunities, but I will quietly volunteer myself in the case that I am simply the only one who is going to respond. Things like when the minister sends out an email that says, "The toilets need wax rings. Who's game?" Nobody jumps at that, but I can do it and in the case that no one else is going to, I offer my name. Not because it meets any of the criteria of discernment but simply because it must be done. Such is life. Such is service.

But for the most part, this is my discernment process. After knowing I can, I ask how I can. I ask specifically how I can that perhaps someone else could not, and discover whether I have something unique (or at least something good) to bring to the ministry. And then I ask what the ministry will bring to me. I am looking for those things that will penetrate my heart and feed my soul. I think those are the things God wants us to know before we enter into His service.

It means none of us does everything (unless you're the Pastor, in which case, you will always be the on-call back-up to do everything and will often end up actually doing everything). It means we have to say no to some very good opportunities. That still troubles my heart some days, but less and less as time goes by.

And it has led me into some incredible ministries that are, for now, just where God would have me. I mentioned those yesterday: speaking, serving, mad scientist, creative arts, drama, and visitation. And He's calling me strongly into visitation, which doesn't actually seem like it fits the discernment mold and yet, it's absolutely perfect. I may share more on that later. And maybe more on discernment, as the Spirit leads.

But are you getting the picture? Are you understanding better what it means to discern a ministry for yourself? Are you getting a little more comfortable with the idea of not doing everything but still doing something? That's important, too...whatever you do, do something.

To be continued...