Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Unfathomable Love

Yesterday, I wrote about Christ in the context of the Supreme Court's ruling regarding gay marriage in America. And I promised that today, I would share what I personally think about the issue. So here goes:

Like most Christians, when I started to understand how widespread homosexuality was becoming in my world, I had...thoughts. I had feelings. I had opinions. I have friends, and yes, continue to have these friends, who grew up in church, who go to church now, who even serve the church, who are homosexuals. For the longest time, I had trouble understanding that. How can you represent God in this world if you keep on sinning right out in the open like that?

Pot, meet kettle. 

And some of these friends, as well as non-Christian homosexual friends, would argue with me that homosexuality is not a choice, that they were made this way. And I couldn't understand, for the longest time, why God would make someone a certain way and then expressly prohibit that way of being in His Word. God despises homosexuality; it is an assault on His plan for man. Why would He make my friends only to despise them? That doesn't sound like God.

The truth is, the science is just not there yet. One day, it may be. I don't think it matters. What I know now about the whole issue, at least, what I think I understand now, it doesn't matter whether homosexuality is a gene or a choice. It doesn't change the way I'm called to love people. (And the whole issue of inborn imperfect traits is another story for another day. I know because I just tried to expound on that briefly and found that I can't. It's very complicated. Ask any parent whose child is not what they expected.)

So I was stuck in this place where I realized that sin is sin and that no sin is greater than any other, so it wasn't right any more for me to judge my homosexual brothers and sisters. And I wasn't concerned any more whether it was by birth or by choice that they are the way they are. But I have to say that I still really didn't know what to do with homosexuality, or the people I cared about. 

Now, I have a lot of philosophical differences with the pride "movement." The politics of the whole thing really bother me. Politics, as a general rule, tend to lose sight of people very quickly. And the politics of the LGBT movement have lost sight of people - on both sides of the issue. They've lost sight of themselves, and they've lost sight of us, and it's very frustrating. The truth is, I may always have problems with the politics of it all. 

But politics aren't people. Remember that.

Okay, so here it is. Some time ago, after a court ruling striking down Indiana's attempts to legally define marriage as between one man and one woman, making homosexual marriage no longer illegal in the state of Indiana, I was taking a walk. That very day. And that walk took me by the courthouse that day, where two men were exercising their new-found freedom to marry, right there on the lawn. I didn't stop, but I had ample time to observe what was happening. They were holding hands, swaying back and forth with each other, looking around at their loved ones. And just as I turned the corner, they kissed. 

They kissed right in front of me. 

And immediately, I wondered what they thought they knew about love. I wondered what it was that they saw in one another that told them this was love. Before I could even finish the thought, I wondered what it was that any of us think we know about love. In less than a blink of an eye, because one man kissed another man right in front of me, I understood how broken our human love is. I understood that our best is not even a flicker of God's least. 

I think more than any other thing - more than power, more than wisdom, more than righteousness, or even being 'right' - I think love is the thing we spend our whole lives trying to comprehend, trying to understand, trying to experience, and it's nothing - nothing - compared to the love of God. We just don't even come close. We just can't even come close. 

I know because there are these brief fleeting moments in my life where I actually feel the love of God, and it's overwhelming. My hope is that you know that, too. 

Maybe we come close in our closest relationships, but we're never close enough. The one you love brings you flowers, and it's beautiful. But the One who loves you painted the sunrise this morning, just for you. The one you love holds you close, but the One who loves you hold you in the palm of His hand. The one you love lets you cry on his shoulder, but the One who loves you collects your tears. There's just no comparison.

I've been known to say that you just can't hate a broken man; you can't hold his brokenness against him. Not in a fallen world like this one. And that holds true here, too. A lot of Christians look at homosexuality and think that's such a perverted love. And it is. But perverted is only a synonym for broken, and we are all broken. (And we have so many better things to do with our lives than hate.)

At that moment, everything I ever thought about homosexuality, all the eloquent waxing I had ever done, all the philosophical battling I'd ever undertaken, all the time I'd spent talking to God in an attempt to understand, it all faded. I found I could do nothing but grieve over our broken love - all our broken love; gay, straight, broken love - and I was stilled in awe at Love Itself. We think we're supposed to teach God's Word to a broken world, and we are, but more often than that, this broken world teaches us God's Word.

I'm still grieving. Homosexuality makes me grieve. It makes me grieve because I look at men and women engaged in the lifestyle who are missing God's best for them, His original plan of what makes a man or a woman most complete here. But I grieve, too, because in so many ways, by my own sin, I am missing God's best for me. Maybe not in the context of marriage, but in so many ways.

And I grieve because this longing inside me for True Love aches, and I recognize how short our best attempts fall. I realize that in our fallen world, it's not you or me that's most broken. It's Love. It's.... And I long for the day when Love wins.

Because Love does win. I promise you that. He promises you that.

Monday, June 29, 2015

When In Rome

There's a stir among Christians in America these days, and it's coming from the Supreme Court's decision last Friday to make gay marriage not illegal in all 50 states.

Many Christians are afraid of what this means for them, for their churches, for their God. They are already fighting battles that haven't been started. They are spewing fear and hate, rather than love and peace. The questions, admittedly, are more than the answers right now. There's so much, as people of faith, that we cannot really know about the implications of this court ruling.

But here's what we do know:

We know that Jesus Himself lived in the times of one of the most powerful governments in all of history, more powerful even than present-day America. We know that the people He spoke to in His everyday ministry were captives of this government system. They were required to pay their taxes. They were required to serve their armies. They were required to praise their acclaim.

The only meaningful role this government played in Jesus' story, in the very redemption of the world, is that they killed Him.

And yet, knowing this - knowing how this government ruled over the people, knowing how oppressive it could be, knowing that these would be the people who would hang Him on a Cross - Jesus spent exactly none of His ministry trying to change the government.

He spent His entire ministry trying to change the people. 

He taught them how to live within the confines of the Romans. To whom do you pay taxes? Well, Caesar's face is on the coin; pay them to him. If a soldier forces you to go one mile? Well, go two. If the government allows you to loan to your brother with interest? Forget the interest. As Paul would later say, just because it is permissible does not mean it is beneficial. Or to put it another way, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

But Jesus really only spent some of His time teaching such things. Most of His time, He spent teaching His people simply how to live. Not inside a government or outside of it. Just in general. How to live with one another. How to live with Him. How to live with peace. How to love each other. 

I think right about now, we could all use a refresher course in this. The question is not how we're supposed to live in increasingly sinful America. The question is how we are supposed to live in increasingly sinful hearts. 

The question is not what we are supposed to do with this gross distortion of romantic love. The question is how we're going to manifest God's love. 

A lot of Christians I know are upset right now. They want to know how we're supposed to change this, how we're supposed to get back to a time when this country valued God. When our leaders took their moral cue from the Scriptures and not the streets. When...you fill in the blank. But I think the lesson of Jesus here answers that question for us. 

We don't have to live in a country that values God in order to love Him. The country Jesus lived in killed Him. It didn't stop His love. We don't have to change the laws of our land in order to be able to serve God here. Even if the government eliminates our tax breaks, oppresses our ministers, closes our churches, and persecutes the faithful, it does not change our ability, or our call, to serve God. It makes it harder, sure, but welcome to the masses of the faithful. Faith is the discipline of serving God even when it's hard.

If your God is threatened right now, He's not big enough.

But there's another caution here, too, that cannot be ignored. And it, too, comes from Jesus under Rome. And it's this: we can't bend too far toward our state.

Jesus spoke to tax collectors and told them that even if the government permitted their deceitful practices, they shouldn't do it. Even though it was expected of them, it was not pleasing to the Lord. Even though it was man's law, even if unwritten, it was not God's law. 

In the days since the ruling, I have seen many ordained friends come out and offer their services for gay ceremonies. I appreciate what you're trying to do. You think this is love. And it is loving. But who are you working for? Is your ordination a gift of God or a mere recognition from the state? (I know. In this complicated world, it's both.) God is clear about His concept of marriage, and if you are doing the work of God, you have to hold marriage to this standard. Unpopular, yes, but if you don't hold to God on this, how can you expect anyone to believe what you say about God anywhere else? You can't pick and choose what God says and doesn't say. If the ordained among us, if God's chosen and called ministers, become agents of the state, performing ceremonies in direct opposition to God's clear guidance on this issue...we lose our voice for God in the world. Church is no different than Costco. It's a place where we go and talk about God but God means very little because He looks so much like the world. So as unpopular as it may be, we have to hold firm to what God says when He speaks clearly and repeatedly on this issue. 

You can talk about God's love all day long, but if you don't also talk about God's truth, what good does His love do?

There's a lot of mess right now, and there's no easy way through it. But what I'm seeing from the Christian community disheartens me right now. And you'll notice that this has nothing to do with my personal feelings on the LGBT community. Of course we love them. That much is clear. The question is: how do we love them

And the answer is neither by fighting nor by caving in. 

It feels so strange, this world we now live in. I admit it. It feels like a parallel universe. Like a timeshift. Like the strange days of so long ago and yet, like something eerily new. Thankfully, Jesus has already shown us what we're supposed to do here. 

We're supposed to love. 

And He's shown us how we're supposed to do that. 

By loving God. 

And you can trust when He says that because if anyone knows what it's like to live in a strange land, it's Jesus. The only thing the Romans ever gave Him was a Cross. 

Are we really to expect less?

(Tomorrow, I will share my opinion on the actual issue of homosexuality and gay marriage. You may be surprised what I have to say about the whole thing.)

Friday, June 26, 2015


Hate and anger are such easy responses. Everywhere you look, someone is mad or bitter about something. Or, about everything. Politics seems to do this to us more than anything, whether it's official government politics or something smaller like the politics of relationship. Things don't go our way or we disagree with decisions that are being made or grievous errors occur, and we're mad.

But what if we weren't?

All our hate, all our anger - what has it ever gotten us? More hate and more anger. Is it rewarding to spend your life mad at the world? Has it ever solved any of your problems? 

Here's why we love our anger so much: it feels like something. As I said earlier this week, in response to the broken things in our world, we want to feel like we're doing something. Anger feels like something. We are 'doing' outrage. We're raising our voices. We're making a stink. (And boy, does it stink!) We're shouting until we drown out the screams of the world like a woman in labor. 

What we've lost in our world is our ability to be broken over it. When you look at this world and find it troubling, anger is one reaction. Hate is another. But broken-heartedness...that's where you ought to be.

Anger feels like something; hate, like something more. But neither is really anything. Grief, however....grief is something real. And that's what happens when you're broken-hearted.

Grief acknowledges this is not the way things were meant to be. It says that something is wrong here. But unlike anger, unlike hate, which pass the buck and look to place blame and cause divisions between people, grief embraces the broken in the world. It wraps its arms around the fallen and mourns. Grief doesn't tear the world apart; it tears its own clothes. It doesn't heap burning coals on the fire; it pours ashes on its head. Grief doesn't scream; it wails. It doesn't fume; it weeps. 

Grief is what happens when you hold the world up to God's standard but feel no need to fight His battles. Isn't that what anger is? Fighting God's battles? We're mad because somebody broke the rules. We hate because somebody wrecked our tiny little bubble. We want to hold this world accountable for its brokenness but that's not our place. That's why anger doesn't get us anywhere. But grief...grief holds us accountable to the world's brokenness. It knows how far we have fallen, and it's deeply troubled by what it sees. And grief understands this fallenness not as an act of man, but as an act of men. It's all of us. We are broken people in a broken world, and we cannot help but weep because this is not how it was intended to be. 

Our grief is surrender. It's a recognition that even though this is not how things were meant to be, there's nothing we can do about it. Only God can restore a broken world. Only God can set things right. Because what grief understands is that at the heart of every broken thing in this world is a depraved heart, and we, as fallen men, have no answer for our own depravity. We never have.

It's not easy. This world...it's a mad, mad, mad, mad world. It's so easy to get angry with it. It's so easy to hate it. But what has all our hate gotten us? Nothing.

The broken-hearted, though, at least have this to hold onto: that God draws near to them (Psalm 34). And isn't that what a broken world needs? 

When you're tempted to be angry, ache instead. When you want to hate, embrace hurt. When you're tempted to scream, wail. When you're ready to fight, mourn. And let God draw near. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

It Is Finished

Just before He gives up His Spirit, Jesus utters the words, It is finished.

And in one sense, He's completely right. In that moment, death is defeated. Sin and Satan lose. Man is no longer bound to his brokenness. In that sense, it is, indeed, finished.

But in another sense, it's only just beginning.

All the big moments in our lives, in the same breath in which they are finished, initiate something new. As much as we want to think that the big thing is the big thing, what we discover is that after the big thing is all said and done, after it's taken its full effect, we're stuck trying to figure out how to live in a new world. 

That Spirit Jesus just gave up? It's coming back to us. Not in the form of the flesh, but in the power of its presence. All of a sudden, what feels like this big moment (and it is) - the defeat of death, the victory over sin and Satan, the restoration of brokenness - gives way to a new world. No longer is man directed by the Law, which he's spent the past few thousand years trying to perfect; no, now he is drawn by the Spirit Itself. Love Itself. 

No longer is it enough to not murder, to not covet, to not curse. Now, man must figure out how to love, to rejoice, to bless. It's not so simple as saying, It is finished. What we all know this side of resurrection is that it has only just begun.

It's true in terms of this bigger story, this Jesus narrative, but it's true in our smaller moments, too. And I don't think we give ourselves enough space or grace for this kind of thing. 

It's like making the transition from your first job to your first career. You're not flipping burgers any more; now, you're crunching numbers for the growing company. It feels like a new phase of life, like you've finally arrived where you want to be. You're an accountant now. Good for you! A certain period of your life is over. But on the other hand, you're an accountant now. And this period of your life has only just begun.

Or think in terms of cancer. Maybe you've been diagnosed with, Lord-willing, a very treatable form of cancer and you've been through months of radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors have just declared you in remission, and you couldn't be more thankful. It is finished. Your fight with cancer is over. But your life as a cancer survivor is just beginning. And as much as you've spent your time dreaming of this day, making plans, figuring out what you wanted to do with your life when you got it back, there's a certain reality that says you could not have possibly known what your life would be on the other side of cancer. Now that you're here, you have to figure it out for real. It's the start of something new. 

No matter how good your imagination, you just can't dream of what life will really be like on the other side of finished. When this season is over, something new is about to start. And I think we owe it to ourselves, to the lives we want to live, and to the God who blesses us with those lives, to be aware of this and to take some time, this side of finished, to figure out how to live here. 

To figure out who we want to be in the business world, more than merely what the nameplate says. To figure out what life looks like in remission - what it really looks like. To live in the Spirit rather than the shadow. To learn to be driven by Love rather than Law. What does Love even look like?

I think...I think Love looks like this:

It gives up itself and utters, It is finished, while in the very same breath starting something new. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Tree

There's an interesting story in the Gospels. Jesus, who is coming with His disciples to Jerusalem for the final time, encounters a fig tree that, unfortunately, has no figs on it. He curses the tree and it withers up and dies, never to produce fruit again.

It's an odd scene for many reasons. 

It's out of character, it seems, for the person of God, who talks often about the fruit that a tree bears. There are references in the Old Testament to trees bearing their fruit in season - even a good tree is not always fruited. You don't harvest apples in the early spring; they come later in the fall. At least, the good ones do. And it seems that a God who is so knowledgeable of and gracious toward seasons would look at a fig tree, even one in full blossom, and appreciate the season it is in. If there are no figs, perhaps it is simply not fig season.

If it is fig season, perhaps this tree has already been harvested by the many others who walk this road or, perhaps, by the man who owns the fig tree. By all accounts, this was actually a pretty good-looking fig tree. It just didn't happen to have any figs on it at the time, for whatever reason. It seems inconsistent that God would not more fully assess the tree before cursing it.

And it's out of character for Jesus, too, it seems. He, too, knows how to recognize a good tree; He talks about them all the time. I am the vine, you are the branches, He says. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a bad tree cannot produce good fruit, He says in another place. Then we find Him standing here looking at a good tree, and He seems to forget the very truth that He's spoken - that a good tree will produce good fruit. In what seems His most uncalculated move in all the Gospels, He curses the good tree and turns it bad. 

What's up with that?

It's not a story I readily understand. Or rather, it's one I find difficult to incorporate into what I see of Jesus in the rest of the Gospels. A Man who ate nothing in the wilderness for forty days has no concept of delayed gratification when one fig tree has no fruit for Him in a town filled with merchants? Does the Son of God have such a temper? It just makes no sense.

But it starts to make a little more sense, at least to me, when you consider the bigger scene. Here's Jesus, with His disciples, and they're entering Jerusalem for what He knows will be the final time. The town is abuzz with the preparations for the Passover. Everyone's talking about lambs to the slaughter and sacrifices being made, and He's the only one who understands how right they really are.

The hill lays ominously before Him. It's like He can see it through the houses and booths and courtyards, like He's looking right through Jerusalem to Golgotha. He hears the voices in the Temple from a distance and knows these are the very voices that will soon condemn Him, and here they are talking about God's mercy, God's sparing of the first-born sons. 

Right, He thinks to Himself. Except one first-born Son He cannot spare. 

The pressure of what's about to go down is getting to Him. We see that later when He prays in Gethsemane. He's so agonized by all that this is that His drops of sweat become like drops of blood. By this point, it's all-consuming. He's been talking about it on and off throughout His ministry, but it just got real. This is it. Do or die.

Rather, do...and die. 

Then He comes upon this tree. This almost-in-season, or perhaps just-out-of-season, or perhaps just-harvested tree, an admittedly good, although barren, tree. And He curses it. Right in front of God and everybody, He curses the good tree. 

Which makes almost no sense at all...

...unless you realize that in a few short days, He's going to die on one. 

In a few short days, the Son of Man is going to hang on a cursed tree, and that cursed tree will be the first in all of Creation to bear good fruit.

It's like the fig tree is setting Him up. He's using it to set Himself up. This good tree, this admittedly good tree, will produce no fruit. Counter to everything we know, everything we've been taught, everything He Himself has said about good trees, there will be no more fruit from this good tree. 

And the cursed tree? Well, we're about to see what the cursed tree will do.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On Hate

If you listen to the mainstream media, if you read the headlines, if you follow social media, you can't help but think we have a problem with hate in this country. A white man hates black men so much that he walks into their church and shoots nine of them dead. A black man hates white men. A conservative despises a homosexual, who despises him right back. How did we get here? And how do we get out of here?

Our greatest trouble is that we are a world content to not do much of anything until the unthinkable happens and we realize we must do something. Then what we do is the kind of something that is nothing at all. 

The public outcry against hate has brought us all kinds of potential "solutions." Maybe we make stricter gun laws. Maybe we take away the firepower of hate and then we avoid all these devastating scenes. But the gunman in the most recent atrocity didn't buy his own gun; his father bought it for him. And criminals, in general, don't care how many laws you make against them. If they desire a gun, they will find one.

And we must ask ourselves this, too: is hate the bullet? How do gun laws change hate?

Maybe, as is now taking great prominence in the media, we lower a flag. Maybe we pull down a symbol that some have used to define their hate. Maybe that's the answer. At least one large retail chain has decided not to sell any of these images any more, on anything. Maybe we just make it so you can't look around see hate. That's surely the answer, right? No. You don't answer hate by choosing simply not to look at it.

Or maybe we just keep talking. Maybe that's it. Maybe we keep the lines of communication open and talk our way out of this hate problem. Maybe if we could all just sit down around the table, we'd discover a way to live together. But living together doesn't necessarily solve hate, either. 

People like to say that we still have a racism problem in this country, that we have a homophobia problem here. Maybe we do. But I think they'll always be able to say this. Because if you listen to people talk about this problem - big name people, smart people, engaged people - they will tell you that as long as one white man hates a black man, as long as one black man hates a white man, as long as one conservative hates a gay, as long as one gay hates a conservative, we have a problem. The goal for these social movements we're seeing now is 100% buy-in - that, to a man, everyone will respect everyone. (And I'm being generous here. Many, many persons in these movements see this buy-in as only going one direction, and I recognize that.) 

But 100% of people don't agree on anything. Pull enough people together, and you'll find someone who will have some scientific rhetoric about why the sky isn't blue. Put a group of people in a walk-in freezer and someone will be comfortable, while the others are freezing. Did you know there are people in this world who don't like puppies? Or..bacon? 

If the answer to hate is 100% buy-in, we're fighting a battle we're bound to lose. 

Thankfully, regardless of what you hear in the news, the answer to hate is not buy-in. 

The answer to hate is love. 

Ask any young child about love and hate. It's the most basic of understandings, really. Ask them what is the answer to wrong, and they will say, "Right." Ask them about responding to bad, and they will say, "Good." Ask them what force counteracts hate, and they will say, "Love."

We're a people content to sit around and not do much of anything until something happens and we discover that we must do something. Then, so often, we go out and do something, and that something is not much of anything either because it's the wrong thing. 

More gun control laws are not going to help us right now. Pulling a flag off a statehouse lawn and off the store shelves is not going to help us right now. Having more conversations about living together is not going to help us right now. For those of you who understand this reference, renegotiating the roommate agreement is not going to help us right now. 

If we have a problem with hate in this country, if we really have a problem with hate in this country, it's because we have a problem with love in this country. If you're looking around and thinking we have to do something, love is something.

Hate doesn't have to be a battle we're bound to lose. 


Go love somebody.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Then Jesus Said To Them

One of the disservices I think we have done to Jesus is that we've given Him a bit too much authority, made Him a little too holy. That's going to sound strange to most of you (as it should), but hear me out. 

Because for most of my Christian life, indeed until only these most recent of days, Jesus has always spoken in this really weird voice for me. When I read the Scriptures, the Gospels, especially, and I imagine what it must have been like to hear Jesus speak, I can't help but hear His voice a little...strange.

Several years ago, I had an interview with a radio station who was looking for a new morning co-personality. (I know.) The interview went well; the established host and I really hit it off, and he invited me to do a sound test by recording some news clips for him. He took me into the booth and showed me the equipment, and my years as a church a/v tech really paid off, as I understood what I was looking at. Then, he left. And as soon as he left, I put on my best "radio voice" and recorded the most awkward-sounding clips ever. Needless to say, I did not get the job. Because I wasn't speaking in a real voice.

But that's kind of what we do to Jesus. At least, it's what I've been doing to Jesus. He has this authority voice, this holy voice. Every time He speaks, as I'm reading along, it doesn't sound...naturally human any more. It sounds...well...it sounds like His God-voice. I picture Him on the mount, teaching a sermon like the preachers of yore, raising His voice, deepening it with authority, putting such a tone in it that it almost takes all the tone out of it. And when He casts out demons? Just imagine the authority in His voice! You probably do this, too. It's like one of Shakespeare's characters demanding, "Out, damned spot!"

Very serious. Very sober. Very...unreal.

What's funny is that the more I came to realize I was doing this to Jesus's voice, the more I realized I was doing it to all of His voice. Even if I were to imagine the Teacher sitting around the table with the disciples, He would use this very authoritative, unreal voice to request, "Peter, passeth the butter!" Out, damned spot!

When He would shout the name of the tax collector in the tree, it was less an invitation and more like my mother might call my name when I'm in trouble or when it's time to come in. No nonsense, no playing around. No tender familiarity. Just...You! Get in here! Now!

When, on the Cross, He speaks those incredible words - Father, forgive them. For they know not what they are doing - I've always read that as a declaration. As some holy pronouncement of God that secures their forgiveness, rather than longs for it. 

Take those last words, though. Start there. And put some grief into His voice. Soften it a bit. Take the authority out of it. Just a little, for we know He always spoke with real authority. (Authority, by the way, that was carried in His love, not in His voice.) But imagine here, just for a minute, that He's not God. That He's actually God's Son. That He's fully man, as much as He is fully divine. Imagine that He is broken-hearted, not over His present situation but over the men who stand over Him who have been charged with doing this wretched thing. Imagine that He looks into their eyes and sees men who have been captivated by the Roman doctrine, and He longs to have them captivated by God's. 

Now read the words again, from His heart, not His authority. Father, forgive them. For they know not what they are doing.

It changes His voice, doesn't it? 

The same can be done with every story in the Gospels. Every. Single. One. We have to read them as though Jesus is human, even though we can't shake the knowing that He is also God. When He calls the tax collector out of the tree, there is a familiarity in His voice, as though He is calling out to a friend. Hey, man! Long time no see! You got anything to eat at your place? Imagine as He breaks the bread around the table with the disciples, not a voice declaring a new sacrament but a man with a taste for the finer things. My friends, you must have a bite of this bread! 

Imagine Him sitting on the mount, not really preaching a sermon but discussing the issues of things the way good friends sit around the living room telling stories.

Imagine...if the words of the Gospels themselves were true and Jesus never raised His voice. Imagine...if He spoke not like some holy roller preacher of years gone by, but more like...you and me. Imagine if the Son of God spoke with all the authority of heaven...and the meek voice of a man. 

Doesn't it change the way you think of Him? Doesn't it change the way you hear Him?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Speaking in Tongues: Translation

There's this interesting passage in Acts about the churches speaking in tongues, and there's a great debate today over whether these tongues are real or not and whether we should be speaking in them. The truth is, however, that we're all speaking in them. We all have our own tongue in which we understand and express God. We each have our own God-language, and where we do not understand the many tongues in which we speak God, we really have the power to wound each other. 

I'm not speaking here of traditional languages, of the formation of words by syllable. I'm speaking of the spiritual disciplines and the engagement of man with God, which manifests differently in each of our lives.

This week, we've looked at some of the tongues we speak - the Word, worship, prayer, and sacred spaces. There are many, many more. Some speak the tongue of solitude. Some, of community. Some, of service. The list goes on and on.

Biblical wisdom tells us that we should never speak in tongues unless someone is there to translate what we're saying for those who do not understand. Herein lies our trouble, and also a blessed invitation. When you don't understand the tongue in which you speak God, it can be wounding to others around you. They can't understand what you're saying, and no matter how good what you're saying is, it is not edifying. I think it's Paul who says that when the tongue is translated, it is an invitation for all to give thanks.

But if you understand that you're speaking in tongues, the beautiful thing is that you become a translator for those around you.

There are people at my church who speak the tongue of the Word. I can instantly bring them to mind. And although this is not my language, when they do this with humility, they actually help translate the Word for me. (Of course, when they do not do this with humility, they are wounding.) But for the most part, listening to someone who speaks the Word talk about Scripture is this incredible experience for me. They are giving me an incredible gift, a new language in which to experience God - even if it is one in which I may always stumble over my words.

There are people at my church who speak the tongue of worship. I can bring them to mind, too. And when they do this with humility, they actually help translate worship for me. (Of course, when they do not do this with humility, they are wounding.) I can look around my sanctuary on any Sunday and notice these people, and I can see the sincerity of worship on their faces as they praise God. Watching them, I appreciate anew the meaningfulness in worship. They are giving me an incredible gift, a new language in which to experience God - even if I may spend the rest of my life only singing.

There are people at my church who speak the tongue of prayer. I know just who they are. And when they do this with humility, they help translate prayer for me. (Of course, when they do not do this with humility, they are wounding.) I talk with them, and prayer is a natural part of their conversation. It doesn't feel weird or awkward to them. The longer we talk, the less prayer feels weird and awkward to me, at least as an idea. They are giving me an incredible gift, a new language in which to experience God - even if I always wonder whether He hears me or not.

And me? I hope that in humility, I am helping to translate the tongue of sacred spaces for those around me. (Of course, in the absence of humility, I am wounding to others, and I admit my fair share of that, too.) I hope I help them to understand what it's like to more than read the story, but to be a  part of it. I hope that when I fall at the feet of the Cross, I help them to fall, too. I hope that when I lay my burdens on the altar, they see the sacredness of the altar. I hope that when I break bread over the table, they start to see more than a table. I hope that I am giving them the incredible gift they are giving me, a new language in which to experience God - even if they never live the story in this way.

The same is true for whatever tongue you're speaking. The Bible warns us not to speak unless someone is there to translate, and that someone for most of us is Humility. When you speak your God-language with humility, you translate it for those around you. You add richness and depth to their spiritual experience. You invite them to experience God in a new way. They don't even have to fully understand.

I think it's Chris Tomin who has this awesome version of "How Great Is Our God" out. It's called the "World Edition," and it features different languages singing the verses and choruses over that hauntingly familiar melody. I don't have to understand...whatever languages those are...to be struck by the beauty of the song; the instrumentation translates it for me so I still know what they're singing. I hear their praise.

That's what happens here. I don't have to understand the tongue of the Word, of worship, of prayer, of service, of solitude, of community, of whatever to understand the praise. Just give me enough of the melody to hold onto and I'll get it. That's what we do for each other in our tongues. We give each other at least an ear for the God-languages.

And all God-language is praise. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Speaking in Tongues: Sacred Spaces

There's this interesting passage in Acts about the churches speaking in tongues, and there's a great debate today over whether these tongues are real or not and whether we should be speaking in them. The truth is, however, that we're all speaking in them. We all have our own tongue in which we understand and express God. We each have our own God-language, and where we do not understand the many tongues in which we speak God, we really have the power to wound each other. 

I'm not speaking here of traditional languages, of the formation of words by syllable. I'm speaking of the spiritual disciplines and the engagement of man with God, which manifests differently in each of our lives.

Today, a God-language you might not have thought about: sacred spaces.

There are so many possible manifestations of this, so many images that probably come to mind when I say such a thing. And I chose this one for a couple of reasons. First, it is, at least in this season, my God-language, so I know a thing or two about it. And second, it is perhaps under most threat in our churches.

When I talk about sacred spaces, I'm not just talking about knowing that God is present. God is everywhere; that's too easy. What I'm talking about is the...accouterments of God. It used to be that when you walked into a church, there was a Cross hanging in plain view, right in front of all the worshipers, right behind the pulpit. It used to be, in many churches, that between the people and the pastor stood an altar of some sort. Even in churches that didn't ascribe to the idea of an altar, there was, perhaps, a Communion table. Remember those? There were all these things that gave you a place, a real place, to approach God in one way or another.

As a youth grouper many years ago, we'd always go on these retreat weeks or weekends, and it was the custom at the time (and probably still is) that Thursday night was designed for just a person like me. It was full of hands-on encounters with God. We cheekily referred to it as "cheesy prayer night." And I laughed along, but you guys, these nights were made for those who speak the tongue of sacred spaces. It was all about coming to the Cross and driving in your own nails, taking your shames or your sins and offering them in a fire, etc.

A few years later when I joined our church's creative arts team, this was it, too. For a few years, we put together an annual Stations of the Cross experience, and this was my tongue! It's about bringing people to Jesus. I mean, really bringing them to Jesus.

That's the best way I can explain what this language is to someone who doesn't speak it: when you're bringing me to Jesus, I need a Cross to kneel at the feet of. I need an altar to approach with incense. I need a table on which to break bread. I need God to be a story that I put myself in, a scene I'm invited to take part in.

I said I chose this language not just because it is mine, but also because it is in trouble. Maybe you're already starting to see that. I spend a fair amount of my time watching sermons from pastors who are not mine. I've seen my fair share of contemporary churches, usually non-denominational ones. Their stages are full of props and light shows, but there's not a lot of God in them. Not much Jesus, either. Most of our churches today don't have a Cross front and center. They don't have an altar between the people and the pastor. They don't have a table on which to break bread. They are completely void for someone who speaks the tongue of sacred spaces.

That's scary. And it's heartbreaking (for me). There are so many people who have this tongue who don't understand that they do or know what it means. They are in our churches looking for Jesus, and they need to be led to Him. They need to come to the foot of the Cross. How are you going to take them there if you don't even have a Cross in your building? They need an altar on which to offer their tears. Will you tell them you don't believe in altars? They need a table on which to break bread. Will you hand them a small cracker and tell them it's been broken?

People of sacred spaces speak the story of Jesus, and they need that story to unfold around them in a way in which they feel like a character in it. This is what is most powerfully meaningful to us. And the more our churches look to cater to a concert crowd, the more we lose this. Sorry, but it's true. You can't turn on a fog machine and tell me it's God leading in a cloud of smoke. (Ok, actually, you could. That might actually be pretty awesome. Someone do that.) But in general, we've set our stages with the effects of the 21st Century instead of the personal effects of God. And we're losing something for it.

At least, I am.

There's a tongue of sacred spaces, and people speaking it all around you. Maybe...maybe it is cheesy to a lot of people, like prayer night on Thursdays. But to those who speak this God-language, we cannot possibly know Him without it.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Speaking in Tongues: Prayer

There's this interesting passage in Acts about the churches speaking in tongues, and there's a great debate today over whether these tongues are real or not and whether we should be speaking in them. The truth is, however, that we're all speaking in them. We all have our own tongue in which we understand and express God. We each have our own God-language, and where we do not understand the many tongues in which we speak God, we really have the power to wound each other. 

I'm not speaking here of traditional languages, of the formation of words by syllable. I'm speaking of the spiritual disciplines and the engagement of man with God, which manifests differently in each of our lives.

One of these God-languages is prayer.

Some people pray first. Their natural inclination is to start speaking to God. They don't feel silly about such things, and in fact, they know that God hears them. They hear Him, too. So many of the books we read about prayer suggest how simple prayer can be, how it doesn't have to be so formal, how we can 'pray even in line at the grocery store.' There are actually people who pray in line at the grocery store!

For those who speak the language of prayer, there is no better way to draw near to God than having a conversation with Him. An actual conversation, just as though they were talking to you or me. Just as though God was standing right there. The language of prayer is so often also the gift of presence, as those who speak in this tongue seem to be keenly aware of just how close God is.

And while we are all called to pray - and we must - it just doesn't feel so natural to those of us who do not speak this tongue. For those who do not speak in the language of prayer, prayer, I think more than any other language, feels like a foreign tongue.

Do I have to start with Dear Lord? Do I have to end with Amen? Are my eyes supposed to be closed? What about my hands? I don't speak the King's English very well. Does that matter? Which is Thee and which is Thou again? Talking to God simply is not as meaningful for all of us.

It's a matter, I think, of how the language influences our experience of prayer. Those who do not speak the language of prayer have all these lingering questions about this discipline. What is it really all about? What difference does it make? How do we even know God hears us? Without the tongue of prayer, most of us spend our Christian lives praying and only hoping God can hear us. Those for whom prayer is their primary language don't have to hope; they know.

What can sometimes be frustrating in this language barrier is that we so often turn to each other for counsel in our toughest times. We turn to our Christian friends for advice, for companionship, just for a shoulder to cry on. And where those who speak the Word may quote Scripture and those who speak worship may reference a song, those who speak prayer will invite us to pray. Right then, right there. What's difficult about this is that at the very moment we want someone to speak to us, someone speaking the tongue of prayer starts speaking to God! About us! It feels like a disconnect.

But it's not.

This person is just doing what we all do. He's taking his experience and putting it in a language he understands. He's making the moment meaningful in the only way he knows how, and since prayer is such a deep and powerful experience for him, he's trying to share that with you. He's trying to make a deep and powerful experience for you through prayer, not understanding that it may simply not mean as much to you. Not comprehending how it couldn't.

Are you noticing a pattern yet? Do you see why understanding your God-language is so important? It's because we're all doing this. We're all speaking in tongues around each other. It is here where we are in the most danger of wounding one another, of discouraging, rather than encouraging, each other. But there's a beautiful opportunity here, too, and we're getting to that. (Friday. Stay tuned.) 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Speaking in Tongues: Worship

There's this interesting passage in Acts about the churches speaking in tongues, and there's a great debate today over whether these tongues are real or not and whether we should be speaking in them. The truth is, however, that we're all speaking in them. We all have our own tongue in which we understand and express God. We each have our own God-language, and where we do not understand the many tongues in which we speak God, we really have the power to wound each other. 

I'm not speaking here of traditional languages, of the formation of words by syllable. I'm speaking of the spiritual disciplines and the engagement of man with God, which manifests differently in each of our lives.

One of these God-languages is worship.

People who speak the language of worship find incredible meaning in the words and the rhythms of our praise. All of the words and the rhythms of our praise. (Well, almost all.) These are the people you repeatedly hear say, 'I love this song!' These are the people who raise their hands without worry. These are the people who worship in their car on the way to work and actually look like they're worshiping. (I just look like I'm in need of medical attention or other serious help.)

They hear a new song on the radio and it speaks to them. Instantly. It's so beautiful! and so incredible! and OMG did you hear the new song by _______??? And they can't understand how those powerful words could not mean the same thing to you that they mean to them. Is this not the best worship song ever?

Those of us who do not speak the tongue of worship may still love music. We may still be impacted by the words of praise. They still mean something to us. But we don't get all wrapped up in them. And for most of us who do not speak this language, what we do on Sunday mornings, more than worship, is sing. Yeah, we just sing. And like, clap our hands and stuff.

And we look around at the people worshiping and we wonder why we can't be more like that. Why these words just aren't sinking deeper into our hearts that way.

But it's just not our language. And that's okay.

It doesn't excuse us, of course, from worshiping. Or, from praising. (To draw a distinction, there is much more to worship than music. I'm erroneously using it colloquially here.) God repeatedly asks us to raise our voice to Him, to sing songs to Him, to praise Him. And we must. It's just that for some of us, this worship is one of the many holy things we do and for others, it is oh so much more.

It's important to draw a distinction here, and it's one that I could draw on any day of this series but is perhaps most noticeable in the language of worship. That distinction is this: the God-language you speak is not necessarily the same as your gifting.

You might be reading this and thinking that those with the language of worship are those, well, on the worship team. They are those who are leading us in singing and music every week. In some cases, that's true. In some cases, those with the language of worship are those with the gift of music. But that's not always the case. Some have been given the gift of music, and know it, but come down from the stage to find God in their own language afterward. And some (and I know this from sitting into the pew next to them) speak in the language of worship but clearly have not been given the gift of music.

Or, at least, of singing.

I don't want to create the false impression that the God-language you speak is the service you give because that's just not the case. Your service to God is what you do in honor and glory of Him, and in recognition of the gifts He has given you. Your God-language, though, is how you come to understand Him, how you draw near to Him, how He infuses meaning into your spirit. So I guess you could say that your service is what's meaningful to God, but your God-language is what's meaningful to you.

So back to this: there are those among us who speak the language of worship. The words just get down into them and transform who they are at their core. That's the gift of this God-language. And it's beautiful.

But if this is not your tongue, that's okay, too. God says people of every nation, tribe, and tongue will sing His praises. So sing.

Even if worship is not your tongue.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Speaking in Tongues: The Word

There's this interesting passage in Acts about the churches speaking in tongues, and there's a great debate today over whether these tongues are real or not and whether we should be speaking in them. The truth is, however, that we're all speaking in them. We all have our own tongue in which we understand and express God. We each have our own God-language, and where we do not understand the many tongues in which we speak God, we really have the power to wound each other. 

I'm not speaking here of traditional languages, of the formation of words by syllable. I'm speaking of the spiritual disciplines and the engagement of man with God, which manifests differently in each of our lives.

For example, there is the language of the Word. Now, God's Word is something that we all have a responsibility to read, to know, to feast on. But it's clear that there are some among us who find the taste of the Word more satisfying than others.

These people can quote Scripture off the top of their heads. Lots of it. They can cross-reference verses and tell you where the Old Testament and New Testament draw on the same themes. They know the author and situation of every verse that's been written. They know, probably, the original languages and how the authors used wordplay to get their points across. These people can recite footnotes as if they were part of the story. If there's the tiniest little nuance in Scripture, they know it. 

And you know they know it because this is how you hear them speak God at every turn. 

For those of us who do not speak the God-language of the Word, this is very painful. It's because we know we're supposed to be into the Word - and maybe we are, maybe even every day, we're into the Word - but we're just not into the Word like that. The Scripture-speaker quotes a passage at us with expectant eyes, hoping it will strike a spark in our minds an hearts, hoping maybe we'll say, Oh yes, I love 1 John, too! But we can't. The words sort of sound familiar, and we are pretty sure we read them somewhere, but beyond that...nothing. Then we feel like we should know more, like we should know better, like we, too, should have a quiver full of Scriptural arrows at the ready, that we should be able to quote the Word so freely. We feel bad about ourselves.

But we shouldn't.

The church has placed a lot of emphasis, at times, on memorizing the Scripture. But what the church fails to understand is that we don't all speak the language of the Word. And while we absolutely must read the Word, it is just not going to mean as much to some of us as it does to others. It's not how we understand God. It's not how we draw close to Him.

And I don't think these Scripture-speakers are intentionally trying to make us feel bad about ourselves. It's hard sometimes to be in the same room with those who speak this language, particularly in a Bible class or some other church setting. Their answer to every question goes back to Scripture. Every word out of their mouth is the Word. Sometimes, it feels like they're just throwing in our faces that we don't know as much as they do about the Bible, that we aren't as disciplined as they are, that we are somehow lesser Christians because of it. It's taken me a long time to understand what's really going on, and that's why I'm sharing these stories this week - so that maybe it will help you understand. 

It's not that these Scripture-speakers are trying to throw the Word in our faces (sometimes, they are, and that's pride, and that's sin). What they are doing is translating their present experience into the God-language they speak. See, the Word makes so much sense to them. It's how they understand God. It's what means the most to them. Confronted with a God question, they put that question in their own language and answer it in their own tongue. It's a deeply meaningful experience for them.

And like anyone speaking any tongue, they can't understand how it's not so meaningful for the rest of us. They can't understand, as powerful as the Word is for them, that there are Christians around them who do not 'speak' the Word. 

But there are. Not everyone has the God-language of the Word. And that's okay.

What I'm saying is going to be very unpopular with some, and I know that. But I don't think that makes it any less true. God is this incredible multi-dimensional being, and there is so much to the experience of Him. Some of it is more meaningful to us than others. It doesn't excuse us from the parts that are less so, but it does invite us to grace for those who speak a different language than we do.

For the next several days, I'm going to be talking about some of the languages in which we speak God. The Word, of course, is one, but there are more. So stay tuned. It is my hope you'll uncover your own tongue and speak God boldly into your world. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Unlearning

One of the greatest mistakes we make when coming into greater faith is believing that there's so much we have left to learn about God. So much we have left to learn about faith. So much we have left to learn about life and living and loving. 

But God...is not something you learn. 

Learning puts all this pressure on you. Like all these things are just more things you have to remember. But God is not something you have to remember.

This world is something you have to forget.

See, you already know God. You are His created. The very breath of Him is in you; it is your breath. It's not that you need to know more about Him or more of Him. What you need to know is less of this world. 

Sometimes, I get a glimpse of what God wants me to be. And I wonder how I'm ever supposed to be those things. You probably have these moments, too. It's like I can't figure out how, in this body I live in, in this life I'm living, how I'm supposed to do these holy things. How I'm supposed to be this sacred thing. How I'm supposed to be...anything. And the more I understand what God wants from me, the more I realize that at my very depth, it's who I already am. What I need is to scruff off some of this stuff that sits on top of all that and start living from my depth. 

Living from your depth is not something you learn so much as you unlearn the shallow life.

You unlearn what it feels like to have your feet touch the bottom. There is no bottom here; the depth of your spirit is eternal. You unlearn what it feels like to be holding onto the rails. There are no rails here; the spirit of God surrounds and holds you. You unlearn what it's like to tread water. There's nothing to tread here; there's no sink or swim. There's only dive right in. 

Admit it: it's where you want to be anyway. God's just giving you permission to go there.

I'm not saying it's easy. It's not. This world has a certain thing it's come to expect of you, come to want of you. It's spent your whole life teaching you how to be here. It's a performance, really. You can't stop performing. But it's not who you are. 

That's what this world does. It teaches you to perform until you're living a life where no one really knows who you are because you're always performing. You're always 'doing' this world, which makes it really hard to be loving this world.

Then God comes along and tells you who you really are, tells you how you're really supposed to live. And it's tough. It comes so naturally, so easily, and yet, we turn it into one more thing to learn. Like we have to learn how to be gracious. Like we have to learn how to be kind. Like we have to learn how to be loving. 

It's a lie.

What you have to learn is not how to be gracious; you're already gracious. God's grace courses through your veins. But you must unlearn how to be judging. You don't have to learn kindness; you're already kind. You unlearn hatred. You don't have to learn to be loving. At your very core, you are already loving. God made you this way. What you have to unlearn is everything that stands in the way of that love.

Becoming who God created you to be is not a new set of stuff to learn; it's a whole heap of stuff to unlearn. 

So what do you need to unlearn today?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Life's A Dance

What we've been talking about for the past couple of days is the God of battle and big moments. This God takes the first step and also brings up the rear. He goes before you, and He stands behind you. 

But life is not all battles and big moments. Sometimes, it's just...life. When life is just life, you can't always wait on God to take that first step. God is not always going to go first.

Sometimes, you have to make the first move.

Think about the way the tribes of Israel were camped in the wilderness. From the time Moses commissioned the Tabernacle, everyone had their set position: three tribes on the east, three on the south, three on the north, and three on the west. God's holy tent stood in the center of the camp. 

Whenever Israel undertook the next phase of their journey, they broke camp. Some of the tribes led the way, heading off toward land unknown with God behind them. Other tribes brought up the rear, following their brothers and their God as they inched their way closer to the Promised Land. So when we're just talking about everyday life, it's like that old country song.

Sometimes you lead. Sometimes you follow. (Life's a dance. You learn as you go.)

But that's secondary to the bigger picture here. Because while some tribes led and some tribes followed, for the nation of Israel as a whole, the message was even more profound. The message was this: God is in the middle of whatever you're doing.

I think that's far too easy for us to forget. I know it is for me. When life gets to be, well, life, I get busy. I set about doing whatever work it is that lies before me. And every now and then, I find myself looking around for God, trying to figure out where He is, trying to figure out how to reconnect with Him. I figure that whenever I settle down in the next place of rest, whenever I come to a place to build a new camp for awhile, I'll figure God out all over again and we'll get back together. 

This is, of course, problematic.

It sets up this pattern where we're always learning and forgetting and re-learning God. The God who is the same yesterday and today and forever doesn't lend Himself well to this. This is how our faith gets so messed up. It's not that we come to rely on God to be who He is. It's that He becomes...routine. 

If you stay connected with God, and He's the same yesterday and today and forever, you get this developing revelation of His consistency. You get a God you can count on. You know what to expect from Him, or so you think. What you really get is a God who keeps showing you in new ways just who He is. 

But if you keep losing track of God and coming back to find Him faithful, you only see a faithful God, never a creative one. And creativity is such an expression of love! But when you lose Him, find Him, lose Him, find Him, it becomes more like homework. More like solving math problems. More like finding out again and again that 2+2=4. It's, well, boring.

Then God is boring.

Then it's easier to lose sight of Him.

Because you're missing out on one consistent picture. You're not seeing God yesterday, today, and forever; you're only seeing Him today. He only is whatever He is right now. Because when you lost sight of Him, you lost memory of Him. You're having to learn all over again, and yesterday had no God and there is no forever. There is only now. Only when you're looking. Only when you're seeking. Only when you need Him. You take this incredible depth of God and make Him so shallow that He can fit only into this moment.

Whereas if you'd only known He was always in your midst, He would take this shallow moment and make it deeper.

So then, that's what we need to be aware of. Yes, in battle and big moments, we have a God who goes before and a God who stands behind. We have a God who takes the first big step and also takes the glory. 

But when life is just life, in all these quiet little moments, we have to remember that no matter where we're camped, no matter where we're going, every little step we take, God's right in the middle of it all. He's right smack dab in the middle. 

Life's a dance. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One Small Step

Yesterday, we saw how in battles and big moments, God goes before us and comes up behind us. Another way of saying this, and more related to how we must live in light of this knowledge, is to say that God takes the first big step.

We take the next ones.

This is difficult for a lot of us. We spend our Christian lives wanting to follow God wherever He may lead. After all, isn't that what Jesus asked the disciples to do? Follow me. But even Jesus didn't let everyone follow Him. Some, He sent. 

Some, He told to go back into the city. Some, He told to go to the Temple. Some, He told to go here and there. And even those who were following Him? At times, He sent them out as part of His holy mission. 

See, the message of God is not always Come. Sometimes, the message of God is Go. And as we've seen over and over again in His story, at least in battles and big moments, He takes the first hard step.

All we have to do is trust.

It's easier said than done, really, and I'm not claiming to have it all right or to even be good at this sort of thing. Some days, I do okay. Others, it's a challenge. Others still, a complete and utter failure. Some days, I'm more likely to stand in the Jordan with God, waters parted, and ask Him what we're doing here. 

I only mention it because it is so difficult. We love a God who leads us in battle, but we forget that if God is to lead us in battle, we must go into battle. We love a God who coordinates our biggest moments, but we forget that if they are to be our biggest moments, we have to be there for them. 

It's far too easy for us to have a passive faith, a faith that says, "The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still" and forgets that "still" is an active word. Then we sit around on our duffs, almost forgetting there's a battle at all, because God will probably fight it. It's a passive faith that says, "God is working out everything for good," which is half a sentence. The other half is, "so I don't have to work on anything at all." It's a lie! Passive faith is a lie. And you know why?

Because you cannot passively trust anyone. You cannot passively believe anything. Trust and believe are active words. You have to be engaged with your God or He cannot be your God. Period. He can only ever be your good idea.

But there's something else about all this, too, and we have to go back to what we learned yesterday to see it. The God who goes before us is the God who takes the first big step. So what about the God who comes behind us?

That is the God of glory.

See, God takes the first step and asks us to take the next ones. But that doesn't mean the rest is ours. It doesn't mean that everything that happens afterward is ours. If that were the case, the waters of the Red Sea would still be pulled back. The waters of the Jordan would still be stopped.

On our own, we will always come up just short of glory. 

As we should, because glory was never ours in the first place. Glory belongs to God alone. And He's made a way for that. It's why the God who takes the first big step also makes the last move. So that everything, every battle and every big moment, belongs wholly to Him. From start to finish, beginning to end.

...Alpha to Omega.

...A to Z.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? 

So the question is this: in battles and big moments, when God has taken the first step, are you willing to take the next ones? Or are you standing in the Jordan, waters parted, wondering what we're doing here?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Before and Behind

What you really have to ask yourself in any situation are the following two questions: 

Where is God?
Where does He want me?

These questions always draw me back into the Old Testament, and there's not just one answer. But amid the possibilities, there are some patterns that it's helpful to take note of.

In the Old Testament, particularly in the Exodus and the campaign stories to which I am particularly referring today, God's presence amid His people was known through the Tabernacle and, more specifically, the Ark. The Ark was the most holy, most sacred item that the Israelites had. Upon it was built the Throne of Mercy, and it was here that God's law and grace combined to be a just and loving presence over His people. Only the priests could come near the Ark, and only the Levites could carry it. 

And they took it everywhere. 

It's funny to think about, for example, the Israelite armies marching around the city of Jericho, following this sacred box. But that's what they did. This sacred box led them in battle. As long as they followed it around the city and did what God's anointed told them to do, they gained victory. Imagine being in Jericho at the time! 

But that's one of the patterns we have to take note of. In battle and in big moments, God goes before us. 

It's not just Jericho. The Ark went before the people in other battles, as well. Always bringing them the victory. And just think about the big moments in the journey of Israel. When they stood on the banks of the Jordan, one river crossing away from the Promised Land, it was the Ark that went into the water first. The Levites, the priests, they carried the presence of God into the Jordan to part the waters.

Even before this, when there was no Ark, God still went before His people. When they came to the Red Sea in their flight from Egypt, it was God, through His servant Moses, who made the first step toward the raging waters. 

In battles and in big moments, God leads the way.

Of course, it must be noted that once He takes the first step, God often pulls back and lets us go. The Ark was the first to go into the Jordan, but it was also the last to come out. The people crossed over and took those first steps into the Promised Land with God both before them and behind them. The same is true of the Red Sea. Moses held his hands over the sea and parted it, and he remained there until the last Israelite had crossed over. Again, God was both before and behind them.

And the battle of Jericho? We're not specifically told how this went down, but it's hard to imagine that when the walls fell, the priests ran through the streets of the fallen city carrying God's sacred box. It's more likely they stepped back and let the armies do their work of claiming the city for the Lord. Again, God leads the way, but then, He also pulls back.

We have to be aware of this. Why? Because our battles and big moments are going to come. We can't escape them; it's part of this journey we're on. 

And when they come - when the sea is raging, the river is flooded, and the walls are tall - we have to know that the Lord our God goes before us. 

And He's also got our back. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Not Quite Faith

We have some interesting ideas about what faith really is. And by 'interesting,' I mean...well.... At its core, faith doesn't seem so hard. It's just believing in God, right? It's just choosing to take Him at His Word. 

But here's a question for you: when do you believe in God?

In asking that question, I'm not asking under what circumstances you believe in God, although that's probably a fair question, too. What I'm asking is at what point in your circumstances you believe in God. When something goes wrong, do you trust Him right away? Do you instantly recall His Word and embrace His promise? Is belief your default?

And if it's not, do you consider yourself a person of faith?

I think we beat ourselves up over this far too often. We think that when bad things happen, if our first thought is not to believe in God - wholly - then there's clearly something wrong with our faith. We're supposed to be people who trust Him first. Who believe in Him first

Or are we?

The danger of being a people who immediately turn to God is that it's too easy to become a blind people. We can shut our eyes to the very real troubles of living in this world and become disconnected from our own lives. You know people like this. You know people who never seem to understand how life really feels because they're too busy spouting buzzwords about faith and trust and God. They 'believe' in God so much that they fail to remember what they're believing in Him for. They lean on God so hard that they don't know what it's like to fall over. They would easily tell you they don't know what stress is. They don't know what pain is. They don't know what trouble is. 'Because they know who God is.'

How can you possibly know who God is if you know not His peace in the midst of the storm, His healing in the midst of the pain, His comfort in the midst of trouble? If you don't know trouble, you can't know God. 

So the question is, again, what is faith? 

It's not so simple as merely believing in God. It's not so disconnected as believing in Him first, as much as we talk like that is the goal. You can't believe in God wholeheartedly until you know the depth of your circumstances, so first is about an honest assessment of where you are. A good look at brokenness. A grief over a fallen world. That's first. 

Faith is never blind in that it doesn't see this world. Faith demands that you see this world for what it is. If you don't, there's no reason to believe in anything. 

Faith, then, is a willingness. It's a willingness to believe. It's creating the space for God in the midst of the world. It's allowing Him to interrupt your stress, your pain, your trouble. Sometimes, you're looking for Him. And that's great. Sometimes, this world is so pressing that you're not there yet. You're not looking for Him yet. You're still...stuck somewhere. Stuck here. But faith is being willing to stand stuck and look anyway when you hear His voice calling. Even if you weren't expecting it. 

Faith is living with open eyes, with open ears, ready to see, ready to hear what God is doing. And ready to believe Him when He comes. 

I had kind of a stressful weekend. And that's an understatement. By Saturday night, I was physically shaking from stress. Everything in my body ached from the burden the world had suddenly decided to drop in my lap. Tears were streaming down my face, and I was stressed. And I needed to just be stressed for awhile. I needed to feel it. 

I crawled into bed ridiculously late, knowing even then that I wouldn't be able to sleep. And as I laid there shaking, crying, and loving on my faithful dog who had come over to comfort me, something swept over me. All of a sudden, for just a blink, I had this very clear sense of peace and heard the little whisper: Watch how I do this. Watch what I'm about to do. 

It is by faith that we hear such things. Faith alone. My mind was racing a thousand miles a minute, and yet, by faith, I suddenly knew this one thing. 

And it is by faith that we believe such things. I could have dismissed it. Could have gone back to worrying, to thinking, to trying to work through my own problem, to stressing. I could have, and it would have been easy. EASY. But I simply said, "Ok." And my breathing slowed down. And my tears dried up. And my body stopped shaking. I still didn't sleep much that night, but I didn't stress any more of it, either. 

Some might say faith would have meant believing instead of stressing. That faith might have meant turning to God before I let this world get so far under my skin. But I don't think so. You can't understand the power of a Savior unless you're dying and sometimes, I think, we need to feel like we're dying in order to understand God. 

But I think faith is this: it is being ready to hear and willing to believe. Faith is what says, "ok" when God speaks and settles into His peace about things. Faith is not not stressing; it's being able to stop stressing when He shows up. 

So it's not about whether you believe in God first. But whether you believe in God now. 

Or something like that.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Higher Ground

If you pay attention to the cities of refuge, you'll notice something interesting about them: they're not really places you or I might go to hide. 

Remember, these are the cities that Israelites could run to for safety if they accidentally killed someone they had no ill will against. There, they would be protected from the vengeful relatives of the wrongly deceased. And since these cities of refuge belonged to the Levites (the priests), there was a way in each of these places for a man to come to God, and for God to come to man. 

But here's what is interesting. Three of the cities, those in the nine and half tribes of Israel, are in the mountains. One in the smaller Israel is on the "desert plateau." The other two, it's not specified what type of terrain they lie on, but we can make assumptions. 

So God sends His mistaken to the high and open places. At a time when they'd probably rather run to the low and closed spaces.

Mountains, by definition, are full of valleys. And there are plenty of valleys in the Bible. But these cities of refuge lie specifically in the mountains, in the high places. From here, you can see all of God's Creation from one horizon to the other. You can look out over the Promised Land and see God's chosen people.

The same is true of the plateau. The desert may not be the most scenic of all places, but here, the spaces are wide open. You can see from one end to the other, and while you don't get the same bird's-eye view that the mountains offer, what you do get is the sense that the world stretches before you in a way that doesn't seem possible when it feels like the world is closing in on you.

These are poignant reminders, in the midst of disgrace, that grace still reigns.

Yes, grace.

Grace is a funny thing to talk about in the context of the law. To a people whose every relationship was guided by covenant, grace steps outside the contract and loves anyway. The law, at its best, is a laundry list of blessings and curses. That's what it's for. You do right, and God will pour out His blessing upon you. You do wrong, and He will rain down His curse. It seems pretty straightforward, which is what we both love and hate about the law.

But then, there's this. Then, there's refuge. Then, there's the accidental murderer, who has done wrong but is not cursed. Who has not done right but is blessed. He is blessed by the mountains and the wide open spaces, by being called to higher ground when it would feel more natural to crawl into the depths.

It's not an accident. It's not like God picked these six cities and then went, hmmm...look at that. These all seem to be in the high and open places. No. He chose the high and open places because with God, every little detail is about grace. Every little detail matters. He could have chosen the valleys, but He didn't. He chose the mountains. He could have chosen the caves, but He didn't. He chose the plateaus. He chose the higher ground. He chose wide open spaces.

Because that's what grace does.

At just the moment when you're ready to run, grace calls you to bigger things.

Go for it.

Remember - these aren't just mountains, these aren't just plateaus, these aren't just the high and open places. These...are refuges. These are, as much as it may seem otherwise, the places to hide. Under God's wings. These are the places to shelter. In God's grace.