Friday, July 31, 2015

The God Offering

At the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon offers an amazing prayer, asking God to both inhabit His Temple and to honor it (and what the people will do with it). (1 Kings 8)

Now, it must be said that up to this point, Israel is not really an evangelizing nation. They've never set out to make converts. Most of their interactions with other nations have had to do with "claiming" those nations for the Lord, which meant, in essence, destroying them. Killing them. Some nations, they've forced into slavery and servitude, but the vast majority of peoples they have encountered have been slaughtered in the name of God. (Which is one of the problems people have with the God of the Old Testament.) 

That's why Solomon's prayer is rather intriguing. Looking at just the first few lines in each stanza, we see Solomon praying for God's response from the Temple to: his personal pleadings (v. 28-29), anyone who sins and is required to take an oath (v. 31), a defeated nation of Israel (v. 32), a drought-plagued Israel (v. 35), a famine-inflicted Israel (v. 37), a fighting Israel (v. 44), a captured and exiled Israel (v. 46-47). He concludes with this: May your eyes always see my plea and your people Israel's plea.... (v. 52)

And that's all well and good, pretty much what we would expect from God and His Temple and His people, Israel. But I skipped an entire stanza, and it is this that makes us pause:

People will hear about your great name, mighty hand, and powerful arm. So when people who are not Israelites come from distant countries because of your name to pray facing this temple, hear them in heaven, the place where you live. Do everything they ask you so that all the people of the world may know your name and fear you like your people Israel and learn also that this temple which I built bears your name. (v. 41-43)

People who are not Israelites. Let that sink in for a minute. People who are not Israelites usually "know His name" and "fear Him" because they've heard what He's done to other peoples. Because they've seen what He's done for His people, but only in terms of fighting. They haven't seen the blessings or the sacrifices. They haven't heard the stories. They don't know the relationship that's developing between God and His people except to know what a mighty warrior God He is. 

But people don't usually pray to a mighty warrior God that's fighting against them. 

It would be weird to have, say, the army of Israel standing across the ravine from the Philistines, praying to their God for protection and provision in the coming battle and then to hear from the Philistine side of the lines, the very same prayer. Imagine if Goliath had spoken as boldly in the name of the Lord as the young David. If the God who is coming against you is set on defeating you, what could you possibly pray to Him? O Lord, mighty God of Israel, please destroy me quickly, as You have determined already to do

So when Solomon talks about the people who are not Israelites coming to pray toward this Temple, he's talking for the first time about peoples who are coming to understand the unique relational aspect of God. Peoples who are getting the other side of the story. Not defeated peoples, because love does not come from defeat, but converted peoples. This is an entirely new thing in God's story right here, and Solomon is the first to make space for it. 

And he makes space for it right from the start. From the very moment when God has a permanent place among His people, that place is set aside not just for God's people, but for all people. From the very Temple in which the nation of Israel will offer its sacrifices to God, it also declares to offer its God. For anyone who would come. For anyone who would be searching. For anyone who would stumble upon this place and fall on his knees anyway and begin to pray to this God of Israel. 

Isn't that amazing?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

For Sinners

Although we labor to make ourselves presentable to God, it is His love that makes us acceptable (see yesterday). And yet, acceptable by His love, we are still sinners.

This is a bit of a tricky theology to get into. There are certain tribes of Christianity that center on this idea of sinners, that constantly remind their faithful that they are forever sinners, condemned, and that only by grace have they been saved. When you listen to persons of this tribe talk, they are constantly denigrating themselves, always in some form telling you how unworthy they are, always focusing all of the attention on their fallen shorts, then tacking on a few lines about God's grace and love. 

And I don't really advocate that. I can't. If God has seen fit to forgive us, isn't it high time we forgive ourselves? If God has declared that we are redeemed, shouldn't we talk about that redemption? If God looks at us, knowing we are sinners, and sees something so much more, should we continue to live believing so much less? 

Yet on the other side of this coin, there are tribes of Christianity who seem to forget that we are sinners at all. God loves you, they say, no matter what. It doesn't matter what you do; it matters Who you know. They focus on verses like John 3:16, which says that God so loved the world, and if God so loved the world, then you should never forget that you are so loved. One of the hallmarks of interacting with persons of these tribes is that when you're troubled by your own sin, your fallenness, something that's not going quite right in your life or something you didn't get quite right, they are quick to push aside your convicted feelings and remind you that God so loves you.

Neither can I really advocate this. How can you ever begin to fathom the unfathomable love of a Savior if you don't know that you need one? Yes, God loves you, but He didn't come down here just because He loves you; He came down here to save you. And if you must be saved, the question is - from what? From being unloved? Hardly. From being rejected? Nope. From life being hard? Not even that. You must be saved from your own turning away, so God has given you something to turn toward. And that something is Him. A spectacle on the Cross that turns your eyes back and keeps them there.

This is a difficult theology to balance, precisely because we cannot fall to either extreme. To do so is to settle for cheap grace. 

And grace, if you haven't noticed, is anything but cheap.

I wish I had better answers, that I could articulate how we're supposed to maintain this balance. Or how we're supposed to find it at all. 

The first group likes to say, incessantly, that it was our sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross. Which is true. The second group insists that it wasn't nails that held Jesus to the Cross, but His love for us. Which is also true. But perhaps what is most true lies in the tension in the middle, pulling on both theologies:

That it was our sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross, but His love for us that kept Him there. 

And in this, there is no insistence, there is no incessance. There is simple grace. 

Maybe that's it. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


The Bible I read every day has footnotes to explain some of the concepts that may not be clear to the modern reader and the textual differences that may be important to understanding the Word. What's interesting is that one of these footnotes is an explanation of the words 'clean' and 'unclean' every time they are used. And to be honest, I've skipped over these footnotes for years, never really worrying about what the text has to say about the text.

After all, clean and unclean are fairly straightforward concepts. One indicates ritual purity; the other, the lack thereof. There's an entire book of the Bible devoted to this sort of thing, so if you've ever read Leviticus, you probably think you've got a fairly good grasp on this, too. Although you may wonder how something so glorious as bacon could ever be thought 'unclean.' 

But the other day, I read that footnote. I read what the Word had to say about itself, about what it considered 'clean' and 'unclean' to mean. What it said surprised me:

Clean refers to anything that is presentable to God.

Presentable. That's the word the Word chose. 

I have to admit that I don't spend a lot of my time worrying about being presentable to God; I want to be acceptable to Him. And I would have thought that following His commands, embracing His definitions, being particular about His particulars would have made me, and my offerings, acceptable. I would have argued that if I am clean, He must embrace me. It's not, I would have told you, that I think myself bold enough to stand before God, but that I think myself pure enough to be loved by Him.

But His love has never been about my purity. (Were that the case, I'm in serious trouble.)

When I read this footnote, when the words of it really hit me, I stopped. Presentable. You bring a clean offering to God, but that's no indication of the way He receives it. It simply means it's worthy to be offered at all.

So as I think about this, I think about little children. I think about myself as a little child. I think about all the macaroni art projects and stick figure drawings and all the other hand-made gifts that little children work so hard on, desperately wanting something to offer to their parents. I think about how children work to get every little detail right, to make sure it meets their own standards before they offer it. I think about how they can't help but think about what their mom or what their dad is going to think when they offer it. I think about how all these little projects inspire us to get it all right, to get it just right, to make it something we offer with the broadest of smiles and outstretched hands, awaiting the return smiles of gracious parents.

It's not really, uhm, acceptable as far as art goes. There are no macaroni pastings in the Louvre. There are no stick figures on the walls of the MET. Anyone who knows anything knows that art, real art, hangs on walls, not refrigerators. And yet, these offerings, these things that we, as children, have labored to make presentable, are not merely accepted; they are treasured

Because what blood, sweat, and tears make presentable, love makes acceptable. It's as simple as that, really. It's because of the love of the receiver that our gifts mean anything at all. We come before Him with our best, but it is His love that makes it anything at all. We come before Him with our offerings, but it is Love that takes them in. 

On some level, we have to already know this is true. I mean, if you have an infectious skin disease and you spend seven days outside of the camp, present yourself to the priest, wash seven times, and offer a sacrifice, how clean do you really feel? Has time, or ritual, made you clean? No. It's not until someone looks upon you with affection that you feel clean. It's not until someone looks you in the eye once more, takes your hand, walks next to you, embraces you that you feel clean. If you bury a loved one, the sting of death makes you feel your uncleanness. Is there any washing that can get rid of that? Of course not. You don't become clean just because night has fallen. You're clean when you come back into community, when you discover there's a place for you even when you're nursing this empty place inside of you. 

It's always love that really makes us clean.

So we do our best to make ourselves presentable, but only because when we present ourselves before God, it gives Him the chance to make us acceptable. By accepting us. We think we come clean, but we come merely presentable; it is God's grace that makes us clean.

It is Love that makes us whole. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Upon This Rock

Have you ever thought much about Simon Peter? I mean, really thought about him? This is the disciple about whom Jesus said, upon this rock, I will build my church, so there must be something about him. Right?

It's interesting because it is John whom we know is the disciple "Jesus loved," and from a human standpoint, if I'm going to do something big and crazy and unimaginable in the world, perhaps it's best if I do it with someone I love. Or there's Levi (Matthew), the tax collector, who we can assume has become a more honest man in his years of ministry with Jesus. And again, if I'm Jesus, maybe I do my biggest thing with the guy who has shown the most transformation as a result of being with me for three years. Or there's Judas. Yes, Judas Iscariot. There are still Christians among us who like to preach fire and brimstone, who like to emphasize the disaster that awaits us in turning away from Christ. If that's what Jesus had in mind for His church, then of course, He builds it on Judas Iscariot, the betrayer who hangs himself. So I say again, there must be something about Simon Peter.

It's easy to say that perhaps Jesus was just talking about the way evangelism was going to play out, that He knew Simon Peter was going to be the one to go out and spread to the message, to plant the churches, to shepherd the sheep. That Jesus was placing a higher calling on Simon Peter. And maybe that's true. It happens all the time, after all. And the God who spent the Old Testament appointing prophets could certainly spend the New appointing teachers. And it's true that the earliest Gospel manuscripts we have are those of Mark, who wrote Simon Peter's testimony, which makes Simon Peter's story truly foundational to all that would come after. 

But still, I think, there's something special about Simon Peter.

We see, and hear, Simon Peter more than any other disciple in the Gospels. Every time you turn around, Simon Peter is center stage yet again. He's...impetuous, to say the least. He's passionate, for sure. He's fully invested in this Jesus thing, as fully as he can be, and he's always looking for ways to show it, even if that doesn't always work out for him.

Remember that it is Simon Peter who answers Jesus' question: Who do you say I am? Simon Peter asserts that this Jesus is the Messiah. It is Simon Peter who questions what more they could possibly be looking for. To where would we go? It is Simon Peter who, privileged to see the Transfiguration, proposes building shelters for the three prophets, simply because he doesn't really know what else to say at that moment and, well, what we know about Simon Peter is that he struggles at times (ok, all the time) to stay quiet.

It was Simon Peter who stepped out of the boat and was only the second man in all the world to walk on water. He sunk, sure, but no one else stepped out after him. It was Simon Peter who followed Jesus into the courtyard, just within earshot of the criminal proceedings. It was Simon Peter who denied three times even knowing the Man with whom he had spent three years. It was Simon Peter who broke down in tears when the rooster crowed. 

It was Simon Peter who rushed to the grave upon hearing that it was empty, and it was he who stopped just short of going in - the first real hesitation we see from him in the Scriptures. And then it was Simon Peter who, hearing a man call from the shore, threw his tunic back over his weary body and jumped into the water to swim to his Savior. 

Indeed, there is something special about Simon Peter. 

I think Simon Peter is one of the most human characters in all of Scripture. He's one I think we can easily relate to and we see so much of ourselves in him. He makes bold confessions, but not all the time. He becomes comfortable, but not too much. He's always looking for something to do, even when he doesn't really know what to do. He takes big, uncalculated steps of faith before he can really think about it, then thinks about it perhaps a little too much and counts himself either crazy or a fool. He's not afraid to be a part of the big moments, but he's a little unsure about getting caught there. 

He's the kind of guy whose heart you can hear tearing, but to see the way he handles it.... He falls victim to his own flesh again and again, but he's able to be convicted by the smallest little reminder that God truly is God. He wants to know, but he doesn't want to know. He wants to see, but he's hesitant sometimes to look. And this guy who once learned his lesson about walking on water, who knows he doesn't have the faith to do it, still doesn't hesitate to jump in and swim for it...swim for his Savior. (Let us not forget, too, that despite the intimacy they've shared over the years, Simon Peter finds it necessary to cover his nakedness before going to God, and isn't that just so...human?)

See, this is what I love about Simon Peter. He's human. I can relate to him. I can see so much of myself in him at any given time. 

I think that's why Jesus chose Simon Peter to build His church. Not because Simon Peter would become a great teacher or because his testimony would become the foundation of all the Gospel. No, because Simon Peter was deeply, profoundly, beautifully, messily human. And Jesus wanted to build His church with men. 

Were He to build His church on John, the disciple whom He loved, we might think we must be loved by Him to be anything at all. And although we know we are loved, we don't always feel like we are. We question. We wonder. We worry. So John, loved as he is, just won't do. Were He to build His church on Matthew, the disciple transformed by His ministry, we might think we must be something other than we are, that we, too, must undergo such a transformation. And although we're told that Jesus loves us, we always wonder if perhaps He could love us more if only we would be this or that different thing. So neither Matthew will do. Were He to build His church on Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Him, we might think our relationship with Jesus is strong-armed. We might think it's all about keeping His commands, being perfect, not betraying Him. And while we know we must keep His commands, there's quite a difference between not betraying a man and actually loving him. So Judas Iscariot, the cautionary tale, is no foundation for a church. 

But Simon Peter...Simon Peter reminds us that we get simply to be men. We get to be human. We get to be excitable and a little impetuous. We get to take big steps, whether we're ready or not, and we get to fall, and we get to get back up. We get to turn our backs, then turn our faces once more. We get to do what we think is best, then be humbled by something better. We get to say things before we've thought them through, and we get to hesitate. We get to walk on water and we get to jump right in and swim for it. 

It doesn't seem like the best way to build a church. There's a lot of room for error here, it seems. But I think that's okay. 

Because there's also a lot of room for grace.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Holy Bible

Recently, I read a theological book in which the author argues that, contrary to popular belief, we simply cannot use the Bible as an authority on how we do church. That the true Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot possibly be contained in this book. And that we are all leading ourselves astray by thinking, essentially, that the Bible is anything but a good story. 

His basis for making this claim is simple: the earliest church, the first-century church that most of us strive to replicate in this modern world, didn't have the Bible. Therefore, the Bible was never the foundation of the church at all. And if it was not the foundation of the earliest church, it should not be the foundation of the modern church. 

On the surface, this looks like a valid argument. Logical, at least. And somewhat historically accurate. 

It is true that the early church did not have the New Testament as we have it today, all in one piece. But the letters of the New Testament were letters written to the early church, and so, they had the letters. And the Gospels were accounts written to preserve the experience of the apostles as they traveled with Jesus around this world. Written or oral at the time, the early church had the testimony of the Gospels. The history of Acts was unfolding right before them; it probably wasn't written at the time and passed around, but everyone knew the stories of the apostles as they proclaimed the early church because, well, the early church probably remembered fondly being proclaimed! And certainly, everyone in the region heard the story of the great persecutor, Saul, who became the incredible evangelist, Paul. 

So on the one hand, yes. The early church did not have the New Testament in the way we have it, and it was not the basis of their church. But on the other hand, no. The early church was writing the New Testament, living it in real time, and it was the story of their church.

The argument that this author wants to make is, to me, akin to saying that we cannot, as Americans, take seriously the constitution of the United States of America, or even the Declaration of Independence, simply because the earliest settlers of this land did not have them. It would be more than a hundred years after stumbling over Plymouth Rock that the colonists would first write these things, and therefore, these documents are not actually the foundation of America at all. 

Do you see how absurd that is? Just because something wasn't written down beforehand doesn't mean it wasn't the real story of what was going on. It doesn't mean the tenets in these founding documents were not the attitude, the reality, and the foundation of early America. It was a story being lived out, and then later, written and declared and preserved so that we, future generations of Americans, would know how it was done. 

Quite frankly, I like it better that way. What it says is, we wrestled with this. We lived it. We worked it out, and here's what we came up with that works best as we see it.

That's what we get when we read the Bible. It's the foundation of the early church not as it was declared or proclaimed or somehow orchestrated, but as the early Christians wrestled with this new idea and figured it out. It's the story not of how the church was, but of how it came to be. On what foundations it set itself. On the struggles along the way. On the questions that arose and how they were addressed. 

In this sense, absolutely if we want to be like the early church, we must take the Scriptures as a strong foundation. For they tell us how they did it. They are God's Word to us about how He established His church, and that's how He continues to establish His church. It is, for us, the preserved testimony of the apostles, who walked with Christ Himself. Were it not for the written word, we'd have no record with this authority of what Christ was actually like. It is, for us, the very teaching of the apostles as they fulfilled the Great Commission. 

The author of this particular book argued that we would be better off closing our Bibles in favor of the skilled teachers God has given us, those He has appointed to preach the Good News. But are there greater teachers than the eleven? Is there one more appointed than Paul? The Bible is our authority, yes, but let us not forget, either, that these are our teachers. 

It's a fine line, of course. We can become too obsessed with the Word and misplace the authority by trusting more in the Bible than in its revelations. We can become more enamored by the words of Paul than by the heart of him. And this is dangerous. 

But to say that the Bible should not be the guiding document of the modern church is, well, kind of hilarious. Because it is the Bible that records for us how church is done. Without it, we'd be figuring it out all over again, every day, in every generation, trying to come up with a way to fellowship, to teach, to learn, to praise, to worship, to pray, to gather. The Bible reveals how we do it, how this thing called the church was first worked out. How it came to be. 

And in that very unique way that the Bible does it, it also, by the inclusion of the Old Testament, the prophecies, the promises, and the New Testament Gospels, tells us why

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Gift of Faith

I've heard it said that faith is a gift from God and that apart from this gift, no man can believe at all. This is in stark contrast to the idea that most of us buy into, which is that faith is an act of the will, and if only we would choose to believe, we would. The more I live in this life which requires great faith, the more I understand that maybe both are true. 

But there is a big difference between man's faith and God's faith.

Man's faith is a little bit contrived. It's a little bit obsessive. It's certainly an act of the will, one which must be performed again and again and again, whether man believes it a lot or only a little or merely as an idea. Man's faith is subject to worry more than God's faith is; it's easy to lose sight of the believing when the waves start crashing all around.

I suppose this is the difference between the Lord who walks on water and the disciple who starts to sink. Ye of little faith. Why did you doubt?

Because with man's faith, I don't think we can help but doubt. As a conscious act, man's faith is a constant weighing. How much do I believe God vs. how scary are those waves right now? How much will I allow myself to rest in His promise vs. how persistent are the pernicious whispers that are saying just the opposite? How much am I willing to choose to believe and simply let go, and how much, though I profess to believe, am I holding onto nonetheless? See, man's faith is calculated. Which means, of course, that when any variable changes, when anything either comes or goes, man must figure his faith all over again and choose once more how much he believes. 

It's kind of exhausting. 

And yet, for most of us, if we can figure out the equation and choose consistently enough in favor of faith, we would call ourselves faithful persons. We would say that given the choice, we choose faith. But it's still a contrived faith. It's still a stressful faith. It's still an exhausting faith, one we can never quite settle into, one in which we can never quite find rest, because we're always, by necessity, doing the math. 

Which brings me back to the idea that faith, true faith, is a gift from God. And you know? I'm starting to believe that, too. 

It sounds weird, that God would have to give us the ability to believe in Him. That God would have to give us the ability to trust Him. We spend so much of our time waiting on Him to give us a reason to believe, a reason to trust. Must He also give us the ability?

I'm not going to pretend to understand. This is one of those mysteries of God to me, but here's what I do know: Sometimes...sometimes, I work so hard at believing. I keep choosing God over and over and over again and calling it faith. I keep doing the math, calculating the risks, settling on faith. And it's hard. And it doesn't always feel like I really believe at all because with every breath, all these doubts keep creeping back in, and I have to decide again and again until faith becomes my obsession. Until choosing faithfully becomes compulsive, and not in a good way. It's spiritual OCD. And as much as I come to settle on faith, I find that by my own calculations, it is impossible ever to settle into it. 

That's where the gift of faith comes in.

By God's grace, it just happens. There comes this moment when I don't choose any more to believe; I simply believe. It's subtle. If I wasn't paying attention, I could easily miss it. But there comes this moment when I finally know, for sure, without all the math, without all the measures, without all the calculations, what I know. There comes this moment when peace settles over me, settles into me, when I feel like I can breathe again. And it's not because I have chosen to believe. It's never because I have chosen to believe. 

It's has been given to me.

And with it come peace and joy and a host of other things I could never have simply because I chose them.

It's a weird moment, for sure. For so much of my life, I thought that faith was the gift that I could give to God. That trust was something I do for Him. But all that ever got me, I think, was an ulcer. On my own, I cannot believe. That doesn't mean I don't choose faith again and again and again; it just means I know the limitations of my own volition. I know the boundaries of my will. I cannot choose the kind of faith that permeates my spirit. I cannot choose the kind of faith that stills my soul. I can keep giving myself over to something called faith again and again, but it is not until I am taken by it that I will ever truly believe. This kind of faith is a gift. It is a measure of God's grace. It's new math that doesn't require the recalculations.

And it draws me back to the one gift I truly can give God, the one thing I have to offer Him: my thanks. My undying thanks.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Faithful No

Yesterday, I mentioned that it is God who made the first sacrifice to cover our shame, and it is God who made the last sacrifice to assure our salvation. But there are many other sacrifices that must be made, and these fall to us.

And I'm not talking about rams, lambs, and male goats.

What I'm talking about are the thousands of decisions we have to make in our lives, the decisions either to follow God or to turn away from Him. The decisions to believe and to trust or to fear and to scheme. 

We actually spend a pretty good amount of time talking about some of this in our churches. We talk about what it means when we say one good yes to God, when we agree to go along with His plans. It's not always pretty, of course; there are consequences to our yeses. One good yes to God is a thousand painful nos to something else. And those nos are hard ones. We won't pretend that they're not.

But what about when God tells you to say no?

What about when God tells you to turn away? I'm not even really talking about sinful things here. I'm not referring just to the bad things. It's easy - well, easier - to say no to sin if God is asking us to do so. And obviously, we expect Him to lead us away from the things that are no good for us. But what about when God tells you to turn away from something good?

It happens all the time. Something comes up, some opportunity or some chance or some other very good thing, and it looks like everything you ever could have wanted, everything you've ever prayed for, everything you'd give to you if you were God. Then you hear this little whisper, just a little wisp of the wind, and it'd be easy to ignore if it weren't so darned clear. 

For me, I may get this whisper only once and from there, it turns into a nagging feeling that's attached to whatever the good opportunity is. Like a little kid who sees the cookies on the counter but knows I've been told I can't have them. No one is necessarily there, standing over me, guarding my hands from touching the cookies, but there's just this little nagging feeling inside my heart that knows it'd be wrong to sneak one. 

The question is: in a moment like this, can you make the sacrifice? Can you let go of what seems like an incredible opportunity or a good chance? Can you say the faithful no?

Well, yes, you might say; if God tells me to say no then I know that something better is coming. I can say no to something good in the promise of something better. 

Isn't that cute....

The faithful no cannot depend upon a promised yes. The promised yes doesn't always exist. They don't always come as a package deal. Sometimes, what rests just before you, no matter how good it is, is the wrong thing for you. For whatever reason. Not because there's something better around the next corner but because right here, right now, this good thing is not, after all, so good. Not for you. Not now. The faithful no requires that you turn away from this good thing without any promise of what you're turning toward, except to know that God Himself is good and He's told you to turn away. 

Can you say the faithful no here?

We talk so much about what it means to say yes to God, about all the little nos we have to say in the very same breath. But the faithful no is a bit different. When we say a faithful no, we say one no. And in the same breath, we say only one yes. Our faithful no is an affirmation that we believe God is who He says He is, regardless of what He does or is doing. Because our faithful no to one thing is not a yes to something else; it's a yes to Someone Else, to God Himself. And that's it. 

But you can't turn this around. You can't make your yes the thing, not when a faithful no is required. When God tells you to say no, you cannot first say yes to God; you have to first say no and let your yes echo through the now-empty space. 

So back to the question: can you say a faithful no if God asks you to? Can you sacrifice the good things on the altar? 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


For a book that talks a great deal about sacrifices, quietly in the Bible, there are two of the utmost importance: the first sacrifice and the last. 

Both are made by God.

The first sacrifice comes in Genesis 3 after man and woman have been deceived by the serpent and eaten from the tree. God pronounces the curse on them all and then, just before He casts them out of the paradise He's created for them, He makes them coverings out of animal skins. It's easy to miss the act of sacrifice here because the Bible does not specifically note it as such, but what animal can you take the skins from without also taking its life? 

And for what, you might ask, was such a sacrifice made? A few loincloths? A little modesty? 

Oh no. It goes far beyond that, and this is why we have to pay attention to this tiny little sentence here just after the curse. God makes the first sacrifice not for man's modesty, but for his shame. 

Genesis 3 tells us that when the man and women's eyes were opened, the first thing they saw was their own nakedness, and they were ashamed. They weren't ashamed, it doesn't say, before each other. After all, they went and hid in the bushes together. So Eve's nakedness did not shame her before Adam, and Adam's nakedness was no shame to him before Eve. No. Man and woman were shamed before God. It was a shame that cut to the very core of their beings, to the very God-breathed spirit that lived inside of them.

Then God sacrifices some animal and makes them coverings of skin. It's a sacrifice because He's taken one life for the sake of another, destroyed one animal in His creation to salvage another. I don't think God ever intended to take life out of the world; He meant only to give it. But He needed skin to cover man's exposed flesh. Hides to hide man's shame.

Thousands of years and hundreds of generations later, God makes His second, and final, sacrifice. This is, of course, His Son.

It's easier for us to comprehend Jesus as a sacrifice. After all, He is the atonement for our sins. But I want to suggest that so often, we think more of Jesus as God's gift than as His sacrifice. We think of Him as an offering, not a sacrifice. We fail to remember what it took for God to give us His Son, what the Cross required of the Father, how hard it must have been for God to turn His back on Jesus in one heart-wrenching moment of sacrifice. 

In a world that refused to bleed for Him, that wouldn't do the hard work of faith, God poured out the blood of His Son that we might remember what atonement looks like. In a world that wouldn't die for Him, He died for us that perhaps, just perhaps, we might learn to live for Him. God makes the last sacrifice not for man's shame, but for his salvation. The blood of Christ covers him but does not hide him; it washes over him. By the final sacrifice, man is not made comfortable; he is made clean

And I think all that is pretty cool. That even as we read about rams, lambs, and one-year-old goats without defect, wine and grain and olive oil, fellowship and sin sacrifices, it is our God Himself who shows us what the sacrifice is. It is God Himself who makes the first sacrifice and the last one.

But I'm also thinking about something else (of course).... More on that tomorrow. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Princes and Princesses

As we talk a little bit about story, we cannot neglect the stories we are telling our children. Specifically, the stories we are telling them about themselves. We clothe our little girls in dresses and jewels and tell them they are princesses; we outfit our young boys in dapper dress and charming manners and tell them they are princes.

Quite frankly, it surprises me that our children are still buying into this.

After all, look at what happens to princes and princesses is the other stories they are hearing. Princesses are horribly mistreated. They are cursed, poisoned, hunted, threatened, locked away in towers awaiting their rescuers, guarded by fire-breathing dragons. So often when they finally get their chance, they find their moment somewhat lacking - the prince is a beast or an ogre, the clock strikes midnight, the evil stepmother is right on her tail, she has to make a heart-wrenching choice between love and life as she's known it. 

And our princes? Our princes, too, are sometimes cursed. They carry the burden of being rescuers, of being the ones who have to fight the dragons. They are pursued, persecuted. They fall in love with the princess only to have her snatched away from them, so they, the pursued, must do the pursuing all over again. The last petal falls from the flower, the clock strikes midnight. Sometimes, the prince has to kiss the dead princess. How many dead people do you want to kiss? 

The stories of princes and princesses in our culture are fantastical, but not fantastic. Yet we continue to tell our children that this is what they can be. This is what they were created for. Oh, our little are our princess. You are destined to be cursed, poisoned, hunted, threatened, locked away in a tower, guarded by dragons. Oh, how fortunate are you! And our little prince? Oh, our dear little prince. You will spend your life fighting those dragons, and there will always seem to be more. You will finally find your princess only to have her snatched away. You may have something beautiful, but only if you bring life to the dead things, and only if the clock does not strike midnight. You will always be pushing against time. Our handsome, wonderful prince!

It's actually not that far off. This is exactly what our children are up against. This is the curse. 

But isn't there anything better?

Look, I get it. Our princes and princesses, they're meant to inherit a kingdom. We want to give them the world. The problem is: we're giving them this world. We're giving them this broken world and telling them, congratulations! It's all yours! Because when they are our princes and princesses, that's all we have to give them. It sounds like a royal fantasy, but in truth, it's so much less. What we need to do is poise our children to inherit the Kingdom of God. 

To do that, we have to stop telling stories of princes and princesses and instead, start teaching our little ones the glories of sons and daughters.

You heard me.

Again, I get it. There's a little part of me that was, once upon a time, a princess. That loved to dress up in jewels and gowns and high heels and prance around the living room and listen to my great-grandmother call me her "little queen of Sheba." I smile when I think about those days. But I don't want to be God's queen of Sheba or even His little princess. 

What I want is not to be the heir God's Kingdom, although that's nice and all. What I want is so much more. What I want is to sit in His lap. What I want is to hold His hand. What I want is to see the way He sees me, to always remember that look in His eyes when He beholds the sight of me. I want to giggle with Him and hear Him delight in my joy. I want Him to discipline me, to teach me the things I need to know, and I want to remember the lessons I've learned from Him the way I remember learning how to bait a fish hook or how to throw a softball or how to put on make-up or whatever it may be. I want to look on the mantle and see not a coat of arms, but a family photo. That candid shot from that time we....whatever we did. 

I want to sneak into His bedroom at night when I'm scared and know He's going to comfort me. I want Him to sneak into my bedroom with a big bowl of ice cream at some forbidden hour and share a little secret, just the two of us. I want to wait expectantly at the door when I know He's coming home, and I want Him to do the same for me. I want to be lifted into His arms with smiles so big it hurts both of our faces, and I want to feel His warmth wrap around me. 

Being a princess is nice and all, probably. But what my heart longs for is to be a daughter. 

That's what we need to be teaching our kids. Not to be princes and princesses, but to be sons and daughters. The greatest thing our kids can be, in all the world, is loved. 

Teach your children to love and to be loved. To delight and to be delightful. Teach them to embrace discipline and to be embraced. Teach them to kneel before the throne, sure, but teach them just the same to climb up into their Father's lap. Teach them, in the middle of the night when it's dark and they're scared, to sneak into the presence of God and know that He's going to comfort them. Teach them what it's like to have a big bowl of secret ice cream, to take pleasure in the simple, silly things God's doing all the time. Teach see the way He sees them, to remember the look in His eyes when He beholds the sight of them. Teach them relationship with the King, not the kingdom. Teach your sons to be His sons; teach your daughters to be His daughters. 

There is no greater thing. No greater thing. 

This is the only happily ever after. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

When Love Speaks

As I sit and listen to God speak my story, I'm consistently struck by how beautiful it sounds.

It's not that He's leaving out the hard parts. Not at all. It's not that He's glossing over them with purpose or redemption. No. He speaks the broken narratives of my story in the same way He speaks the glory of it, and I think maybe that's the difference: He speaks in consistent love.

It's a voice I just can't match. Try as I might, all the time in the world and all the words in the language are not sufficient for me to tell my story in half as beautiful a way as God tells it. It's frustrating. Because I really want to share my story in this beautiful way. But as I sit and listen to Him speak, I know it's not in our language and it's not in our time; it's in our voices that we differ.

When I tell my story, you can hear my voice crack. You can hear the weariness in my words as I trudge through this or that broken scene. As I try to talk my way out of all the brown paper bags that I've worn to hide my shame over the years. You can hear my voice rise and fall with the drama - with the excitement, with the fear. You can hear the strain in my voice as I emphasize one moment over another, as I try to get you to read my story in the way I am trying to tell it. Routinely, my story is marked up with this world, edited, revised, emphasized. And even though most often, what I'm trying to speak is beauty, I end up saying so much less. 

It's because, and I'll admit it, I'm not really speaking in love. a hard thing to have for our own stories. Now, I love the God who tells my story, and that love sometimes comes through in my voice. I hope it does. I hope that when you hear me speak about the incredible things God is doing in my life, you understand how deeply I love Him. For real. And I love some of the characters in my story, and I hope you hear the love I have for them, too. Sometimes, I even have that kind of love for myself. 


But all in all, love for God, love for characters, love for the developing self...these are mere shadows of the kind of love we're supposed to have for our stories. A shadow of the love I'm supposed to have for my story. And I'm finding that I can love God, love others, love myself (which is the Biblical order, I suppose) and still not reflect any love for my story. 

That's why when God speaks, it's something beautiful and when I speak, it's something less. God speaks in consistent love. Not just love for me. Not just love for others in my story. Not just love for redemption, although all of that is there. He speaks in deep love for my story itself. 

Deep, deep love. 

Which is weird, right? Because we live in a world that loves a good story. You'd think we'd be better at this. I'm a writer and a minister and I spend so much of my time wrapped up in stories; you'd think I'd be better at this. But I'm not. We're not. There's just something about story when it becomes personal that is so hard to love. 

What's up with that?

It's pride, probably. Like we all think we're supposed to have these pretty stories. Like we all think we're supposed to have sunshine and rainbows and little drops of dew resting on all the flowers. We look at our scars, at our wounds, at our brokenness and we start to think it wasn't supposed to be this way. Not our story. Our story isn't supposed to be such a mess. It's supposed to be beautiful. So we do our best to edit our stories, to tell them with all the drama and inflection that we can, to try to capture the beauty of who we are, of where we've been, of where we're going. We tell our stories in strife, struggling to make them make sense. Struggling to make them captivating. 

But they're never more captivating than when they're told with love. 

And if you don't believe me when I say that, sit down a spell and listen to Love speak. Listen to God tell your broken story for awhile and tell me it's not captivating. Tell me it doesn't sound beautiful. You can't do it. It's amazing.

So that's what I'm working on right now. As I sit and listen to God speak my story, I'm listening to Love echo through it. I'm discovering how beautiful it sounds, and I'm doing my best to love my good story. Because it is a good story, warts and all. But only when Love tells it. 

So I'm working on love. 

Because when you hear me tell my story, I want you to know how deeply I love God, how passionately I love others, how sometimes, I find a way to love even myself. But I want you to hear, too, how much I love my story. Not because it's pretty, necessarily, but because it's beautiful. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Broken Beautiful

Like every little girl, there's something about sitting in my Father's lap that my heart just can't let go of. I dream of it. I long for it. I imagine myself climbing up into His big arms, Him wrapping those arms around me, and the two of us sharing a quiet moment.

If only I could actually be quiet.

I have a tendency to be a little excitable sometimes. It's because I'm so captivated by story. My story, your story, God's story. And when these stories start to be told, my imagination sweeps me away. My hopes, my dreams, my best intentions, my faith, my fallenness, all the memories I have of being a character in one of these fantastical stories - it just all takes over and I can't seem to help myself. The minute my Father starts speaking, I start thinking of all of these stories, and I want to tell them all.

I want to tell them all even though I know He already knows them. I want to hash out all the details again and again, as if I couldn't possibly get enough of all the moments we've had together. I tell them like they're old family stories; these are the moments that have made us who we are.

And I've got some good stories. Oh, have I got some good stories.

The trouble is that I don't think God wants me to tell my stories all the time. I don't think He even wants me to tell our stories all the time. I know that He knows the way He knit me together. I know He smiles a little when I get so excited that I can't control myself. I know He has everlasting patience when He starts to say, Do you remember that time... and I burst out in excited laughter. Do I remember that time?!?!?! OF COURSE I REMEMBER THAT TIME! and break into the stories all over again.

I know that He knows this about me, so I try not to be too hard on myself about it. After all, it's this love of story that He's using to use me. But often, and particularly lately, I sense that sometimes, He wishes I wasn't so this way.

Sometimes, I wish I wasn't so this way.

Because for all the stories we have, for all the stories we share, He and I both know that these aren't the whole story. It's true that when He starts to tell my stories, I usually get all excited. He talks about my gifts. About my victories. About my opportunities. About the countless sacred moments I've shared with others in His family. I know all these stories by heart, and I'm eager to tell them.

But what about when He starts talking about my tenderness? About my brokenness? About my ache? What about when He starts to say, Do you remember that time... and I turn my head away. Do I remember that time? ...I've spent my whole life trying to forget.

It's at these moments, I feel Him wrapping His arms just a little bit tighter around me, trying to get me to hear the words He's actually saying. Trying to get me to embrace the stories He wants to tell, rather than spin them off into the ones that I know so well. He strokes my hair and hums softly to my pounding heart until I can almost settle down into His presence.

Then He whispers the truths that only my broken heart knows.

And for a girl who loves story as much as I do, as easy as it is for me to bubble over with the excitement of a good tale , I find that it's so incredibly difficult to simply sit still in the presence of my Father and let my story be told.

It brings me to tears, these simple truths. The way He weaves together truth and tenderness, rejection and redemption, the good, the bad, the ugly...and the beautiful.... I don't really know what to do with it.

So I sit there in my Father's lap, the way every daughter dreams of, and I'm torn between wanting Him to stop, wanting these not to be my stories, and begging Him to finish, longing to know how things are going to turn out. At once, I am both perfectly okay, resting in my Father's embrace, and not at all okay, wracked by the grief of my own story. His voice breaks in the same places that my heart does, and I don't know what to do with that. Because...because He's my Daddy and I'm His little girl and I hate that He knows all these broken little things about me but in the very same breath, I love that He knows them.

I'm in one of these quiet seasons right now, one of these seasons blessed by time spent in my Father's lap, His big arms wrapped around me. His voice, telling my stories. And as much as I'm a girl who loves story, these little whispers of truth are hard sometimes. I have to remind myself to sit and listen. Hard as it may be, these are my stories, too.

And I'm torn.

Because I hate that He knows all these broken little things about me.

...but He makes them sound so beautiful.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

My Lord and My God

In case you've missed it, there's been sort of a theme this week in my writings. Each day has been "this and that" - prophets and teachers, vows and oaths, hopes and dreams. Today, one more: my Lord and my God.

This God of ours has many names, of course. It really depends on what we're doing or what we're praying or how we're worshiping as to what we call Him, and often, there's no rhyme nor reason to the name we choose. We may call Him God or Lord or Father or Holy or some mix thereof or some name I've not mentioned. For most of us, it's not unlike looking at a man named William and deciding whether to call him William, Will, Bill, Billy, Willy, or Bubba. Each name, to us, refers to the same man. 

But each name reflects something distinct about him. And it is the same with God. 

And I think one of the hardest places to see this is in the distinction between Lord and God. These names are used so frequently of Him in the Scriptures that they're easy to read right by. They don't evoke the same kind of relational understanding as a name like 'Father,' which seems relatively straightforward. But they are relational names. They don't seem to name a characteristic of God the way something like 'Holy One' would, but they are, indeed, names characteristic of Him. 

The key to understanding something very special about our God may lie in His more intimate moniker: Lord. See, in the world at large, both past and present, there were a great many gods. Every nation had its own god or gods. Households, too, usually had their own gods. Everyone knew of at least a handful of different gods. Our God? He was just one of them. 

The idea of a god says something about the being in question. It is a reflection of that being's relation to creation itself or, in the absence of a good creation story, to simply the world as we know it. A god is a being that is set above the world somehow, that pulls its strings, that choreographs its movements. There's a lot of power in a title like 'god.' There's an indication of greatness, although no implication of goodness. Indeed, when we talk about our God, we're talking about our Creator. We're talking about the God who set this world in motion, who formed it in His hands, who breathed life into it with His own breath. 

And that's one thing. 

But Mark quotes Jesus saying something interesting, and this is where we uniquely draw our distinction from the peoples of other gods. Jesus says, Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. (12:29)

This is an incredibly powerful statement in a world in which there is a god on every corner. And it requires us to ask the question: what, then, is a Lord?

Lord is a relational word, too, just as God is. Where God is relational to all of creation, Lord is relational to specific creation. Lord implies a more intimate relationship between parties because a Lord is actively, personally involved in the lives of His flock. Lord implies closeness. As if He is simply so near that He could reach out and touch us if He so desired.

And He does.

There's a lot of tenderness in a name like 'Lord.' 

That's what's missing with all these other gods floating around. When Jesus makes this statement that says that the Lord our God is the only Lord, what He's really saying is that no other god cares so personally for His people as our God. No other god is close enough to make a real difference in an individual's life. No other god is willing to give up his all-powerful god status and his relationship with creation as a whole to have a relationship with the created itself. But our God is. He draws near to us, near enough to reach out and touch us. Near enough to hold our hands. Near enough to guide our steps.

Lord, in later times, would become a social status. A lord was someone who owned a household, who managed its affairs, who operated a little community within his larger community. He had wealth and status, sure, but it was an honor to work in the lord's household because he took care of the persons under him. You were never merely a slave to a lord; you were an investment of his. And the same is true when we think of the Lordship of our God. We're not merely His slaves or His pawns or His possession; we're an investment. He invests Himself in us. He's running a  little community here inside the greater world. It's a community of us and Him. And He takes care of us. 

So when we talk about God, we're talking about one thing but when we talk about our Lord, we're talking about something else entirely. When those whispered words seep out of our Scriptures - my Lord and my God - they are referring to two very distinct aspects of our God that make Him wholly unlike any other God. These simple words call out both the Creator of the World and the Lover of my Soul in the very same breath. 

My Lord...and my God...

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hopes and Dreams

Here are two more words we use interchangeably in our present world: hopes and dreams. But if we look in the Scripture, there's quite a difference between the two. 

The Bible talks about hopes as an assurance more than as a desire. Our hope is in the Lord, it says, implying that we can rely on Him to be who He says He is. This is very different from our definition of hope, which is so often little more than a wish. At best, it is a feeble grip on what we desire to be the case. Our idea of hope is so much less than God's. 

See, hope is something we rest on God's character. We take what we know about Him, we apply it to the situation we're watching unfold around us, and we come to some sort of reasonable expectation of how God is going to respond. That doesn't mean that we "hope" for this or that specific outcome, though we often do; our godly hope is not about what God does or doesn't do. What it means is that we trust God to act according to His character; our godly hope is about who God is. 

So it doesn't matter, in the end, if everything works out precisely the way that we wanted it to. What matters, in hope, is whether God is revealed in a way that is consistent with His character. It is in this alone that we hope at all. 

Dreams...dreams are a bit of a different story. 

When we talk about dreams, we often refer to imaginary worlds where we get to change the variables and pursue a desired outcome. We talk about how things would be if things were different and how we would shape the world around us if given the chance. We talk about our subconscious and all the things we would never dare speak if we were talking about the real world, but somehow, our dreams just don't seem like the real world. This is all psychobabble. 

Dreams in the Bible are quite different, and there are plenty of them in there for reference. Joseph had dreams. Pharaoh had dreams. Nebuchadnezzar had dreams. The prophets had dreams. And what's true about all these dreams is that they aren't fantasy worlds; they are promises. They aren't revelations of what could be; they are revelations of what will be. They are glimpses into what God is going to do, what He's already set in motion, how He's intending to act in the world. 

See, dreams aren't about us, either. They, too, are about God. 

When we dream, we aren't investing ourselves in the world to come; the world to come is investing itself in us. It's planting itself in our hearts. God is showing us what's going on and what He's going to do so that we have something to hold onto. So that we have something to be a part of. When we close our eyes to dream, we open our eyes to God and see something new that we could never have imagined, that we would hardly believe except that we must believe it. It's right there in front of us.

Every once in awhile, I think we have to look at these things. Because hopes and dreams sound like such good, wonderful things. But we've made them all about us, and they never were. We've made our hopes into wishes and our dreams into desires, as if we could be God and control the world. Our hopes and dreams reveal more about us than they do about Him, and that's not how it was meant to be. 

Our hope is in the Lord, and our hopes rest on, and reveal, His character. Our dreams, with eyes wide open, look ahead to His promises. Neither is about us. They can't be. 

We must hope, for we are built on hope. But let us hope in the Lord. And we must dream, for we are dreamers, but let us dream on Him. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Vows and Oaths

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a vow and an oath?

It's kind of silly, I know, particularly in a world where we seem to use these words interchangeably. Most of the time, we don't worry about whether we're taking a vow or an oath; rather, we simply "solemnly swear." But at the same time, we sort of understand that there is a difference. After all, we exchange marriage vows, but we take an oath of office. So there is something distinguishable about them. 

Numbers 30 offers us some insight into this question. Check this out:

If a man makes a vow to the Lord that he will do something or swears an oath that he won't do something.... A young girl...might make a vow to the Lord that she will do something or swear an oath that she won't do something.... An unmarried woman might make a vow that she will do something.... A married woman might make a vow that she will do something or swear an oath that she won't do something.... 

The mere repetition of these phrases marks a clear distinction between vows and oaths. 

But that's not all. An oath is not merely a negation, or a promise not to do something. Sometimes, as in other places in the Pentateuch, it is an assertion of truth. It is a sworn statement that such and such a thing is either true or not true. Such as when a young woman's father swears an oath that she is a virgin or when God offers an oath that the land will belong to His chosen people. An oath is spoken on what is true or what will be true.

Which leaves us...where?

I wasn't really sure where I was going with this, even as recently as when I sat down to write these words. It was merely a passage in the Bible that struck me in an odd way as I read it recently. Someone recently asked me to raise my right hand and swear a vow on something exceptionally silly, and I turned him down on that request, but it raised the questions for me.

And now, as I write, I find that I'm drawn to a certain understanding of all of this, so I will share that and perhaps it will be of some fodder for your thoughts or conversation. 

An oath, to me, seems like a covenantal word. An oath is a respecter of persons and positions. When someone swears an oath, he seems to be entering into some sort of relational agreement. My daughter is a virgin; you have my word. The land will be yours; I promise you that. Even today when someone swears an oath of office, it is an acknowledgment that a great trust has been placed in that person, and it is his accepting of that trust. It's all about relationship. 

Which raises an interesting consideration. Given that an oath, in contrast to a vow, is a sworn statement not to, what does this say about the way we are in relationship with persons and positions? Jesus will later say that it's better for a man to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than to discourage a little child. Could it be that when we enter into relationship with one another, one of our greatest responsibilities is to not

It's backward thinking, and of course, there are problems with anything so concrete. There are, of course, times to encourage, times to inspire. We have a responsibility and the incredible privilege of actively loving one another, of actively serving one another, of doing things rather than simply not doing them. But for all of our doing in our world, I think we've gone too far in thinking we are supposed to always be doing. 

What if we were not

What if we weren't so concerned with encouraging someone and were more concerned with not discouraging him? It gives him the space to become what he desires to be without putting our pressures on him to conform to our ideas. It's hard to really put good skin on this idea, but what if we understood that our entering into relationship with people is sometimes as much about what we won't do to them as what we will? 

I think it would change things.

And if an oath is a covenantal proposition, what are we to make of vows? Vows are about personal discipline and responsibility. Vows are not about who we're going to be as a community of people, but who I'm going to be. A vow is a statement about who I am or who I desire to be or who I aspire to be. A vow says I'm the kind of person who brings a fellowship offering to God (which is one of them most frequent vows discussed in the OT). A vow says I'm the kind of person who will do what I say I do. A vow says I'm the kind of person who willingly, wholeheartedly, purposefully chooses to love, to serve, to obey. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. Till death do us part. A vow like doesn't matter what you do. A vow is all about what I do and who I decide to be. 

As I wrap this up, I'm drawn back to this distinction between vows and oaths that Moses makes in Numbers 30. And I think I can sum it all up this way: an oath is a statement bound by something. It's bound by relationship or it's bound by truth, but it knows its borders. It is confined within its own parameters, and it always will be. A vow, however, is drawn out by hope. It doesn't have borders; it redefines them. It is an invitation to be or to do something more than what the current situation either allows or requires. An oath is a statement about who I am; a vow is a dream of who I'm going to be. 

Clear as mud?


Monday, July 13, 2015

Prophets and Teachers

False prophets were among God's people in the past, as false teachers will be among you. - 2 Peter 2:1

These few and simple words from the apostle Peter mark an incredible shift in the history of God's story among His people. Peter is writing in a time when the young church is starting to take root, when people are figuring out anew what this new world of God means - a world in which God Himself can become flesh, live, die, and walk out of the grave for the salvation of His people. He's writing to a people who have seen, or at least heard about, what God has done. And he makes this contrast:

Where you have always been plagued by false prophets, you will now struggle against false teachers.

It raises the question: have prophets been replaced? 

We all kind of like the idea of a prophet, and there are plenty of them out there. Or rather, plenty of persons claiming to be. I think most of them fall into the idea of the prosperity gospel, and I come into contact with them mostly through friends who post their schtick on Facebook. Well-known names, too; not just off-beat crackpots. People who want to tell you what God is going to do in your life. How He's going to bring you through this. How He's going to restore your fortunes. How today's troubles become tomorrow's triumphs if you just trust in the God who is coming. 

And that's something, I guess, to a people longing for hope. It sounds like something, anyway. That's why it's so easy to get sucked into. It definitely sounds like something. We all like the idea that God is coming. 

But you want to know the greater truth?

God has already come.

This is where the teachers come in. Teachers speak from facts, not visions. They rely on the concrete evidence, not the faintest hopes. They embrace the past and the present, not waiting on the future. When you ask a teacher what God would say about your life today, they aren't likely to tell you what God is going to do tomorrow; they're going to remind you what He's already done. And, of course, what He's already doing. 

That's why this verse from Peter strikes me so hard. In a post-resurrection world, isn't this the most valuable instruction we have? The prophets always told people how to live in light of what God was going to do. But teachers...teachers help people understand how to live in light of what God has already done. And if we're looking at a world in which Jesus has already come, lived, died, and lived again, isn't this the most practical thing? Isn't this what it's all about? 

There's nothing to tell me about what God is going to do; indeed, He has already done it. The role of the prophet - the real prophet - in today's church is no more. Now, we must listen to our teachers.

Oh, we have a few ways around this. The first is to look forward to the second coming, the culmination of this whole redemptive thing God is doing. And some would say that it's important to have prophets to tell us all about this, to help us prepare for this glorious moment. I think that's only probably half-truth, if that. How is one to prepare for the second coming if one is not first taught life in the first coming? Why are we always looking ahead to the next thing God is going to do when He's already done the greatest thing? It's doomsday, and it hasn't been working for us. It's simply not a helpful theology. 

Not to mention, of course, that what God will do in that day, God has already done. It may be the final day, but it's a day not unlike this one in which light has already beaten darkness, good has already trumped bad, God wins. Modern-day prophets spend so much of their time telling you about the coming day when God wins that it's far too easy to forget this very important truth: God has already won. That's what teachers are for.

The second way we get around our no longer needing prophets is that we've tried to morph the definition of what prophecy means. It's not, we say, a teaching of what God is going to do. No, it's just, uhm, uh...a speaking of His truth. Yeah, yeah. That's it. Except...that's what teachers do. Teachers speak truth. So what we're really doing here is renaming our teachers as prophets, for likely no other reason than that it kind of sounds holier. Right? 

I love the comparisons Peter draws in this verse between prophets and teachers. I love how he subtly includes this one little sentence that marks this dramatic shift in man's relationship with God, without losing sight of the fact that the problems are bound to be the same. A false prophet spent his life trying to make people either afraid of God or far too comfortable with Him; false teachers now do the same. 

But the lesson, between the lines, here is clear: one has still replaced the other. We live in a world that doesn't need prophets any more. We live in a world in which there's no place for them. Because everything that God is going to do, He has already done. It's over. It's done. It is finished. He said so Himself. What we need now are teachers, persons who have invested themselves in the truth of God and the promise of the present and what is really real. It's not that light is about to triumph over darkness; it already has. It's not that good is about to defeat bad; it has. It's not that God is about to win; He's won. It's over. 

Beware the false teachers who would say anything different. 

And beware the prophets who would say anything less. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

More or Less Blessed

Blessed is one of those words we just seem to throw around, particularly when good things are happening. Got a new job? Surely, you are blessed. Pregnant? Blessings! Found that you've had just enough, or perhaps a little more, this month? God has certainly blessed you. 

But what about when things don't go your way? What about when you lose your job? When infertility reigns? When you came up just a little short? Are you suddenly...less blessed? Or worse? Are you now cursed?

It's one of those things I think we struggle to understand, and primarily, that's a result of our own self-centeredness. Our ego. Our individualistic culture that tells us everything is about us. 

The truth about blessing is that it's not situation-dependent. That is, it has nothing to do with you or anything that may - or may not - be going on in your life. Whatever blessing rests on you is God's doing, not yours. It's His grace, not yours. It's His measure, not yours. And so it's not really about whether you have enough or not enough. Whether you get what you want or don't get what you want.

Have you considered how blessed you are even when things are not going your way? Can you stop for a minute to fathom that?

What's striking about this is that it must, so far as I understand, be comprehended in reverse. We truly come to understand blessing in a contrast of seasons, when we go from feeling the presence of God in our lack first to feeling the presence of God in our abundance. When we go from bad days where all we're doing is hanging on to the smallest glimmer of hope that God really does exist to the good days where we could never deny it. When you go from these times where God is all you have to times where you seem to have the presence of God in spades, you so often quietly realize that today is not really so different from yesterday. 

You're neither more nor less blessed. 

Of course, God can remove His blessing in accordance with your disobedience. If you turn your back on Him, He'll let you. If you shake His hand off your shoulder, He won't force it back. But that's not really what I'm talking about. 

This is an exercise in perspective. It's the discipline of understanding God's consistency. His ever-presentness. It's a refusal to reduce God to the measure of this world and start holding Him to the standard of the holy place where, in the presence of the living God, we understand that He really is the same yesterday and today and forever.

So what about the good things? What about when life is going well? What about those days that still feel more blessed than so many other days?

We can't get caught up thinking these days are more holy than the others. Every day is holy. We can't get caught up thinking God loves us more on these days than on other days. God loves us, wholeheartedly, every day. We can't get caught up thinking God is less busy on these days or more interested on these days or more involved on these days. God is the same every day. 

What these good days are, more than a reflection on God's present state of being (which is always nothing more and nothing less than I Am), are invitations. They are invitations to rejoice, which is something we don't get to do nearly enough.

Amid the hustle and bustle, the trials and triumphs, the business and busyness, it's easy to get distracted by just living our blessed lives. These days that seem so much better than the other days, these days are reminders to stop for a minute and celebrate. Shout. Smile. Dance. Remember the Lord's faithfulness. Remember His goodness. Remember His grace. And rejoice in how very much He loves you. 

These days...they're not really unlike any others. You're no more blessed today than on any other day. You were no less blessed yesterday. You will be no less blessed tomorrow or ten years from now. You are always simply blessed.

For the Lord Himself has blessed you. 


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Cheap Substitutes

Something interesting happens in 2 Kings 18. King Hezekiah of Judah, who has undertaken reforms to return the people wholly to the worship of the Lord, destroys the bronze snake that Moses had preserved for the coming generations.

The bronze snake, you'll recall, was the Lord's saving grace amidst an infestation of the real thing. Poisonous snakes slithered through the Israelite camp, biting the sinful and condemning them to death for their latest grievous act against God. In His mercy, God offered through Moses the bronze snake, so that everyone who was bitten and looked upon the snake (lifted up on a pole, no less, as the Savior later would be) would be spared. 

Moses had preserved this bronze snake to help tell the story of God, to help the people remember something so amazing as grace when the desert, and the snakes, were far-distant memories. 

So why would Hezekiah "crush" this testimony to God's saving grace?

...because up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. They called it Nehushtan. (v. 4)

And here's a hint: Nehushtan is not, so far as I know, the Hebrew word for grace.

The people had given this snake a name. They had elevated its status basically from symbol to savior, as if it was the snake that had given them life. They were burning incense to it, right near the place where they were burning incense to God. It seemed like one of the holy things, but they'd so escalated it above its story that they'd made it an unholy thing. Rather than being a reminder of God, it had become almost a replacement for Him. Rather than letting the snake draw them into worship, they'd been drawn into worship of the snake. 

It had become a cheap substitute for real grace. Something far short of amazing.

It's easy to read about this little scene, which is what? Half a sentence in a chronicle of kingship? and to laugh a little. Who would ever worship a bronze snake? Who would ever so confuse the story?

Not so fast. 

What if it wasn't a snake we were talking about? What if it were something we could all relate a little more easily to? What if...we were talking about the Cross?

See, I think we do this as Christians today. We have a thing for the Cross. We talk a great deal about the Cross. We represent a lot of who we are by the Cross, the symbol of God's most amazing grace. 

The Cross is pretty cool when you think about it. The Cross is the pole on which God again raised grace, so that everyone bitten by the snake could be saved. And we've all been bitten. Welcome to the Fall. The question we have to ask ourselves, however, is whether we're spending too much time looking at the pole and not enough time thinking about grace. 

In other words, when you think about the Cross, how often do you remember that there was a Savior on it?

That's what I'm saying. We tell the story of the Cross like it's its own thing. Like it's its own entity. We've given it a name - Cross. Calvary. Golgotha. As though these are the best descriptors of it. But so far as I know, not one of these is the word for grace. The word for grace is Jesus, and in case you've forgotten, He was the one hanging on that pole.

It's so easy for us to get to these things that are so close, yet so far. It's easy for us to focus so much on the things that are supposed to draw us to God that we forget to be drawn toward God. It's easy for us to look at the snake and remember the mercy without ever taking our eyes off the bronze. It's easy for us to look at the Cross and remember the grace without ever meeting the eyes of the Savior. And when we do, we are oh so painfully close but so tragically far off. 

We have to be mindful of this, so very mindful of this. Because for all their glitz and glamour, for all their drama and intrigue, for the incredible story that the snake, that the Cross, that all of these cheap substitutes are, they're nowhere near as amazing as grace.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Teach Me to Pray

More frequently than I am comfortable with, others tell me that I am "such a good pray-er." These words always take me by surprise because, well, I feel like anything but a "good" pray-er. 

In fact, anyone who knows me knows that given the opportunity, I would strongly pass on any opportunity to pray out loud or in public. In fact, I have done so. And it's gotten me into some trouble. (But that's another story.)

For the longest time, I wondered what it was about prayer. I mean, I'm a chaplain. Or I'm going to be. Why should I feel so uncomfortable, so insecure, offering prayer with persons? Do I not believe that prayer works? Do I not think that God hears me? Do I not believe that He's listening?

As a younger Christian, I would have told you that all of that was true. It took me a long time to really buy-in to prayer. It was hard for my finite mind to understand how words spoken into empty space could effect a change, how a God I couldn't see could ever hear me, how I could be even be sure He was listening. Prayer, for the longest time, felt like one of those things Christians did because they didn't know what else to do and even if it wasn't anything, it at least felt like something. So let us pray.

I still get that impression sometimes from those who desire to pray. That it's just something they're doing because even if it isn't anything, it still feels like something. And that's enough.

The older I've gotten, and the more life's pressed in on me and required me to pray, the more I understand the silliness of my former hesitations. I know without a doubt that prayer works, that it doesn't just feel like something; it is something. God absolutely hears me. I know because of the little affirmations He whispers. And He must be listening because when I pray, I feel heard. 

Then why do I still feel so insecure praying?

I think what troubles me most about praying in public or praying with others is that I know there is an intimacy to prayer that's difficult to convey. It's hard to get others to understand how my heart tingles when I'm talking to God, how the breath just starts to get choked up right in the middle of my chest when I start to feel His presence there. How sometimes, I slow my words or calm them to a whisper just because I can hear Him whispering back, and I'd much rather He speak than me. 

It's because I know that when I pray in public or when I pray with others, it's somehow also a lesson in prayer. I know this because it was for me for so many years. I always listened to the ways that people prayed, taking mental notes of all the "Father God"s and all the little pauses and the way some people would struggle for words every time and others would have abundant words at the ready. For the longest time, before I found my own voice, I think my prayers were an eclectic mix of the prayers that I heard from those around me. 

And so every time I pray, I know that some of those who hear my words may one day borrow them. Some of those listening to my voice may try to speak in it. And so, when I pray, I always ask myself if I would advise someone else to pray this way. Knowing...knowing that no matter how hard I try, I don't think the heart of my prayer comes through as strongly as the words of my prayer.

I wish it did. That might ease my hesitations. I wish you could know that when I pray, if I can shake free of the pressure I feel knowing that you're listening, it's not a duty I'm performing; it's a delight. I'm not praying because this is when we pray. I'm praying because...because I can't help but pray. I want God to hear me. Because I want to hear Him. 

I wish...I wish that when we listened to each other pray, we weren't thinking so much about how we pray. That it wasn't a lesson in the way we do this thing called pray. I wish that we were invited to celebrate why we pray. That we would understand from one another this intimate conversation happening right before our very eyes. 

Jesus taught His disciples to pray, and we use His words to this day. Our Father in Heaven... But prayer has never been about the words; it's about the heart. It's so hard to get that across. I think that's why it's such a struggle for me. I think that's why I feel so insecure about it. I think that's why, given the opportunity, I so often pass on the opportunity to pray in public. 

Because I know I can't make your heart tingle. I can't make your breath catch in your chest. I can't make your ears hear the whispers of God as He interrupts your spirit. And if I haven't done that, I haven't taught you how to pray. 

Not that I think I'm really teaching you, but I know you're listening. 

Don't listen to me pray. Don't ever listen to me pray. Listen to God. He will teach you how to pray.