Monday, August 31, 2015

Power and Authority

We are, in general, very sloppy with our language. We speak of power when what we really mean is authority. We speak of authority when what we mean is knowledge. We find someone convincing when they're really simply confident. So the question is: what do all these words really mean, and how do we recapture power, authority, and persuasion? 

This is an especially crucial distinction in our churches, where countless Christians are following these blurred lines into a lesser theology, and man is struggling to relate to God, who has all power and all authority and no, they are not the same thing.

One of the best images I've come up with to sort all these words out in my own head is the Scriptural idea of moving mountains. 

Power picks the mountain up and moves it. It doesn't have to ask permission. It doesn't have to devise a scheme. It just reaches out, grabs hold of the mountain, picks it up and puts it down somewhere else. This is real power.

Authority, on the other hand, commands the mountain to move and the mountain moves. Authority speaks boldly, knowing its own strength and knowing the possibilities. It believes not in itself, for then it is merely arrogance, but in the bigger thing. Faith is a type of authority. Faith does not believe in faith; it believes in God and speaks boldly, knowing both its strength and the possibilities. Faith speaks and the mountain moves. Even the Scriptures say that much.

Persuasion, and it must be included here, speaks more softly. Persuasion convinces the mountain to move itself. Persuasion speaks not with knowledge, but with wisdom. It is not convincing for its own sake, but for the sake of the one it is drawing near. Persuasion, used properly, is not for the one speaking but for the one spoken to. It speaks of what is right and pulls everyone else on board with the bigger plan by showing them that it is in their best interest. By convincing the mountain that it's better off over there than over here. 

And here's why all this matters: because when we get them confused, we lose sight of ourselves and our God. 

We think it's up to us to pick up mountains and move them, but we don't have power; we have authority. We think faith gives us the right to do whatever we want in the world by our own might, or subtly, we say, by the power of our faith. But faith is not a power. It never relies on its own strength. 

Or we think of God as all-powerful and start to feel meaningless before Him. Because we recognize that power means that God can simply reach down whenever He pleases and move things around like pieces on a chess board. Move us around like pieces on a chess board. So what are we believing for? What are we trusting for? What are we hoping for? We're just pawns. 

But the truth is that God uses His persuasion much more often than His power. He speaks softly, with grace, until we understand that it's in our best interest to move. And we start taking steps. And He uses His authority far more than both, speaking into the world and going back to the bigger thing, the grand design. So we need not fear the hand of God. 

Or we get wrapped up in false persuasion, and this is terribly dangerous. Here, we can fall prey either to man's false persuasion or God's. In either case, it is the idea that we're stuck doing something that is better for someone else. We're stuck doing what the preacher thinks is best, but it's really best for the preacher. Or what God thinks is best, but it's really just good for God. And in neither case does it feel so good for us. This is dangerous because it makes us feel bad about our faith. It makes us feel cheap. It makes us feel used and empty and hurt. This is the lie - that our entire purpose in life is to do what is best for God or for the church or for whomever.

God's story is not about what's best for God. If it were, I guarantee you it would not have a Cross in it. God's history of relation to His people has always been about what is good for them. In light of Him, sure, but good for them. How they are to relate to one another. How they are to relate to God. How they are to maintain faithfulness in difficult circumstances. Promises to hold onto. Prophecies to hope in. A Cross to cling to. An empty grave to explore. God doesn't need an empty grave. Man does, but God doesn't. God spends His entire story telling His people what's good for them, hoping they'll move. Hoping they'll take one more faithful step toward Him. And any good church, any good leader, will do the same. 

There's more to all this than merely faith and God. There's more to understanding power and authority and persuasion, but this first bit is absolutely foundational. Because if you don't learn how to draw these distinctions in God and in the church and in faith, then you'll never learn to draw them in yourself. And that's vital for whatever ministry God has given you in this world. More on that tomorrow. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let the Land Celebrate

The heavens rejoice, the rocks cry out, and the land...celebrates? This is what's going on all around us, if only we were quiet enough to hear it. Just after God pronounces another curse on Israel, He tells them exactly what will happen once they are destroyed and exiled:

Then the land will enjoy its time to honor the Lord while it lies deserted and you are in your enemies' land. Then the land will joyfully celebrate its time to honor the Lord. All the days it lies deserted, it will celebrate the time to honor the Lord. (Leviticus 26:34-35)

In other words, it's the same thing we saw yesterday with the rocks. If man keeps quiet, the rocks will cry out; if man would leave it alone, the land would celebrate. 

It's not what we typically think. Most of us read back over the early chapters in Genesis and take off with this idea that God has given man "dominion" over the land, that He's given it to us as some gift, something we're supposed to do something with. And then with the curse in chapter 3, He says man will do backbreaking work just to get the land to do anything at all. So we come at the land with a mix of domination and arrogance, as if this land will do only what we make it do.

And if this land wants to sing, we must make it sing. If this world is going to be pleasing to God at all, we must make it pleasing to God. 

Oh, how wrong we are. 

Because look at what the passage in Leviticus goes on to say in v. 35b - All the years you've been here, the land has not been able to celebrate. (paraphrase) So God flat-out says, yes. You've been working the land, but you've been working it too hard. It hasn't had a chance to celebrate; it's all but lost its song. 

And as soon as you're not here any more, as soon as your wickedness carries you away to somewhere else, this land is going to find its voice again. It's going to start singing again. It's going to celebrate. It's going to celebrate without giving you, man, a second thought; it's going to sing the song that I, the Lord, gave it with my very breath. 

And it's going to be glorious.

That's what we too easily forget, I think. We spend so much of our time thinking that we have to make this world glorious, that that's part of what God put us here for. That when He said we must work the land hard to get anything out of it, that anything is the smallest glint of glory, the tiniest offering. 

But the offering of the land is beyond what we could ever draw out of it. What the land produces is not a product of all of our labor. And the glory of this land is no reflection of our toil; it is, as it has always been, a reflection of God's grace. Because God makes things glorious. Not us.

If we could find it in ourselves to stop striving, to stop working this land so hard, to stop pursuing to make glory all around us, we would see that this glory already is.

Several years ago, I was standing in a field on the outside of town. It was a well-mown field, well taken care of, but it was still just a field - a mixture of grass and weeds. The sun was either coming up or setting; I can't remember right now, but the lighting was just right. And there, in the middle of this field, was one scraggly, straggling wildflower that just refused to be mow down. Amid all this green, one little splash of yellow or purple or whatever it was. Declaring the hidden glory of God. That even as we try to subdue the earth, it every once in awhile stands itself up again and declares the goodness of its Gardener. 

God even tells us - look at the fields. See the way they grow. Look at the lilies. Aren't they beautiful? And without a single ounce of effort, without any striving, without any work. Look at their glory. Can you hear them sing?

And you can, if you're listening.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rocks Cry Out

One of the more interesting words that Jesus ever says, He says in response to the Pharisees as He's coming into Jerusalem for the last time. The people have lined the streets and are shouting His praises - Hosanna! Hosanna! - and the Pharisees tell Him to quiet them down. He turns to them and says,

If they were quiet, the rocks would cry out.

I don't know if that's exactly a good translation or not. Creation doesn't wait on us to be silent before it praises the Lord; we hear elsewhere that all creation praises Him, that all creation cries out His name. It's just that until we're quiet, we can't really hear it. 

We are so good at talking about God. We're so good at filling what seems like empty space with words. We pontificate about who God is, what He means, what He desires from us. We question who we are, trying to figure out from the mirror who He is. We have opinions on every beautiful thing like grace. Like love. 

We shout out His name when it behooves us to shout out His name, when it serves some reason of ours. When we need Him. Or when we want Him. More often in pretense than in piety, more often in petition than praise. 

We line the roads and make a show of it, but have you noticed something? When the people of Jerusalem lined their streets to welcome the King, even the Pharisees turned out. They were there, right in the thick of it all. Because they spoke to Him from the crowds. They spoke to Him from the streets. So all this show we're putting on? It doesn't make us necessarily the faithful; sometimes, we're still the Pharisee. 

And all this show, all this pomp, all this circumstance, for what? Did Jerusalem know the Son of God was near because there was shouting on the streets? Because there were palm branches on the road? Because cries of Hosanna! echoed through her marketplaces? No. It wasn't until the earth shook, the curtain tore, and the rocks, the graves, split open that people understood who this Jesus really was. 

It wasn't until man was silent and the rocks cried out that people knew. Truly the Son of God.

First, we are told that if we were quiet, the rocks would speak. Then we were quiet, and the rocks spoke a greater testimony than all our words could have given us. 

It's easy to think that this faithful life is about knowing the right thing to say, about finding the right words for God. To praise Him, to teach about Him, to tell the world who this God of ours is. But that's not it at all. The faithful life is about learning to listen. It's about hearing what Creation itself has to say about its Creator, what the rocks and the hills and the flowers and the trees and the clouds and the sun and the moon and millions of stars have to say when they cry out. 

And they are crying out. 

If we'd just be quiet for a minute, we would hear it....

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

God in Chains

By the way, just because we conceptualize God in one way or another, that doesn't mean that's really who God is. Yesterday, I said that we're often working for the praise of God, trying to get Him to notice us, to recognize us, to celebrate us. The truth is God already notices, recognizes, and celebrates you. 

He can't take His eyes off you.

Like a mother over her newborn child, God stands over His newborn creation absolutely mesmerized. He's so smitten by you. 

And just because we think we have to get His attention every now and then, that doesn't mean we don't already have it. That's a chain we've put on Him. That's a way we've tied Him down to our understanding. Because it is we whose attention must be gotten. It is we who must be reminded to look. God can't stop looking. He can't wait to see what you're going to do next. 

We think we have to keep performing for God, that we have to keep doing one faithful thing after another. Do you not know that He counts your very breaths? He knows the number of the hairs on your head. He hears your very heartbeat. We think that God is so interested in the things we do. It's another chain we've put on Him, tying Him to our own expectations. Because we are so interested in the things we do. Because it matters to us what we do. God is far less interested in what you do; He's far more invested in simply who you are. (And no matter how much this world tries to tell you different, you are so much more than what you do.) 

We think God wants us to be a people who just do whatever He says. We even call this "faith," although it's something far less than real faith. We think God is looking for obedience and that by our obedience, we give Him what He really wants - authority. But that's not authority; it's just another chain. God doesn't want obedient "faith;" He wants faithful trust. It's we who think that has something to do with following orders. It's we who think that has something to do with a reluctant yes. To God, this faithful trust is less doing, more being. Less performance, more rest. Less striving, more confident assurance. See, when we really do what God desires of us, it's not about proving ourselves; it's about resting confidently in who we already are - God's beloved. 

Again and again, we create these concepts of God. We wrap Him up in all these chains so that we feel like we can control Him or, at the very least, that we can know what to expect from Him. When we hear the chains rattle, that's when we know, or think we know, that God is up to something. That God is on the move. That something holy is afoot. We can hear those chains clashing against one another - attention and expectation and blind obedience and so many other misunderstandings we've bound Him in.

But then the rattling of chains grows louder and louder. The holy, it seems, approaches. God Himself stands before us in amazing grace. And it is then, only then, that we realize...the chains we're hearing are our own.

We've wrapped ourselves in our need for attention. We've wrapped ourselves in expectation. We've bound ourselves to blind obedience and so many other things we thought God wanted from us. We've chained ourselves to idols, to mere ideas. All of a sudden, we can't move. We can't breathe. We don't know how to do this any more, how to live this life, how to love this God. Who is He? Who are we? 

We were half-right, of course, about the chains. When we hear them rattle, God is up to something. God is on the move. Something holy is afoot. It's just that this holy thing is happening in us. God is moving toward us, and He's about to break these chains. 

Because that's what God does. 

Because that's who God is. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Heavens Rejoice

We love to be celebrated. There's something in us that comes alive at applause or a good word, and so often, we seek these very things. We seek them from other persons, from ourselves, even from God. 

But when was the last time you did something that made the heavens rejoice?

It's one thing to earn the praise of men. Men have their own standards, and those standards shift according to the circumstance. At work, maybe it's sealing that big deal. At home, maybe it's booking that long-awaited family vacation. At church, maybe it's stepping into the next role in leadership. Wherever we are, we know what the persons around us are looking for, and we know what happens when we provide that: there is applause and a few good words. It's satisfying, for a time, but eventually, these very persons who rejoiced over us turn their eyes to someone else. They're looking already for the next guy to do the next thing. We're all but forgotten.

It's one thing to earn the praise of ourselves. Sometimes, there are things we just want to do; persons we just want to be. I want to be the kind of girl who _______, fill in the blank. Maybe it's "speaks her mind more often" or "is honest about herself" or "goes skydiving." Maybe you want to be the kind of guy who stops chasing the world, who finds contentment with his life, who catches and fries his own catfish. Whatever it is, we keep setting goals for ourselves. And sometimes, we're blessed enough (or crazy enough) to achieve them. Then we look in the mirror and rejoice over ourselves. Yes, we are finally persons who (whatever). It's satisfying for a time, but when we don't keep doing those kinds of things, we feel it. We feel the disappointment settling in. Suddenly, we're not looking forward any more. We're not even looking at the now. We're looking at the past and wistfully remembering the days when we were the person who (whatever). Once upon a time, you were the girl who.... or you were the guy who.... and you wonder what happened to that person. Where did that person go? You feel like you've lost touch with some essential part of yourself somehow, and so often, it feels like you're never going to get it back.

It's even something to receive the praise of God. Here starts to be a bit trickier because, of course, we want God to celebrate who we are. We want to be the kind of persons He can celebrate, the kind of persons He wants us to be. And here, it's a bit easier because God clearly tells us what kind of persons He wants us to be. He has laid it out in His Word; He has shown us in the example of His Son. He whispers little reminders of faithfulness throughout our lives that remind us, this is who you are. There's no doubt that when we listen, when we heed those reminders, God rejoices over us. It's an incredible feeling, and one that is not to be dismissed or diminished. But...I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's the little kid inside of each of us that wants to be independent or if it's the effects of sin or what it is, but there's something about us that doesn't feel purely good about simply being persons who follow directions. God rejoices over us, and we appreciate that, but in our core, we know it's just because we do what we're told. Is that who we are? Are we just people who do what we're told? Is that all we were meant to be? God rejoices, but is that all He wanted, all He expected of us?

It's kind of...disappointing. Right?

And I'm not saying we shouldn't be persons who do what God asks of us. We absolutely should be. But we have to be very careful what we're doing and how we're doing it. When we are doing what God asks of us just to earn His praise, just to receive His rejoicing, of course it's going to feel hollow. Of course we're going to feel like trained seals. Of course there's going to be something essential missing. And when we're doing the faithful thing just so God can see us do the faithful thing, we feel like we have to keep getting God's attention. Like we have to keep saying, look at me! Look at me, God! I'm going to do the faithful thing! Are You watching? 

That's why I think we have to look further even than God, because we've come to such a place where we're just manipulating God (or think we are), where God has in some ways become a reflection of ourselves. Which leads back to the original question - have you ever done anything that made the heavens rejoice?

Because it's one thing to seek the praise of men, of ourselves, and even of our God, but it's another thing entirely when the heavens rejoice.

The heavens rejoice because you've done something that is so wholly in harmony with God's intended design. They haven't told you to do it; the heavens don't speak. They haven't guided you to do it; there's no sign in the stars. They've simply been watching, waiting, to see what you might do, and you've done something so naturally you that the natural world around you sings. The heavens...they're just busy being the heavens. They're doing what the heavens do. And when you do what you do, what you most naturally, most created-ly do, they know that they've found in you a kindred spirit. They know that in this moment, so far as you and they are concerned, all of creation is set right again. Even for the briefest of breaths, all is well. It is...good. And so the heavens do what they were created to do.

They rejoice.

It's satisfying for a moment and then far beyond. Because the heavens? The heavens are always watching. Eagerly, but not anxiously. They hold their breath, not because they hope you might do this or that but because they know you must do something. And when you do that beautiful thing, the heavens exhale and rejoice. And what is that beautiful thing? 

It is you. 

The world is waiting on you to do what it wants you to do. You're waiting to do what you think you should do. You've conceptualized God to wait on you to do what you think He hopes you would do. But the heavens are waiting on you to do what you were created to do. The heavens are waiting on you to just do you. They just know that the same hand that stretched them out over the earth knit you together in your mother's womb. They know you're watching them do what they do, and they're watching, waiting, to see you do what you do. 

So do what you do. Do what you were created to do. 

Let the heavens rejoice. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

From the Pit

One of the most well-known stories in the Bible is the story of Joseph - the favored son of Jacob who was thrown into a pit by his brothers, then retrieved and sold into slavery where he became the second-most powerful man in the Egyptian society. As I listened to my pastor talk through this story recently, I was struck by how often Joseph's story is our story. 

Follow me here.

I talk with persons on nearly a daily basis who are struggling with depression. Deep depression. Now, depression has become sort of a buzz word in our culture. Anyone who's feeling mildly blue about anything or justifiably sad or grieving is said to be depressed. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about real depression, that feeling that you're stuck in a pit somewhere and no matter what you do, that pit just keeps getting deeper and darker. 

The more you try to climb your way out, the bigger the hole until whatever small light existed in the hopes of above is now gone and there is just darkness. 

Depression isn't easy. Not everyone gets to work their way out of it. For those that do emerge, there's this other aching reality - the sense that they have sold themselves out for something less. 

It never happens that someone just springs out of depression into the life they want to be living. You don't just climb out of the pit and into glory. You don't come out of the darkness and get everything you want. You never seem to go from loser to champion in one fail swoop. For some reason, when we're working our way out of depression, we do it by...settling into something less. 

We do it by deciding, among all the things we want, what one thing we want and trying to be happy with that. I just want to go to the store by myself, we think. Or I just want to have a part-time job. Or I just want to get outside and go for a walk. Or I just want to...whatever it is that you've deemed is that one thing that's going to pull you out of the pit. And then life, no matter how bad, no matter how dull, no matter how empty it is, suddenly feels so much fuller because you have this one thing. You could almost forget all the things you don't have.

If only this didn't look so much like Egypt.

That's what makes depression so hard. Even when you think you've found a way out, at some point, you realize you've just found a way away. You've stepped away from the pit, maybe, and that's one thing, but you're so far from home. You're so far from the place that has meaning for you. You're so far from everything you used to know and love. 

And you start to feel lonely. And you start to feel distant. And you start to feel the weight of Egypt bearing down on you. It's not long before your freedom from the pit feels like a prison (also true in the story of Joseph), before you start to wonder if you hadn't been better off in the pit after all. 

It sucks. I know. And I'm sorry.

But even in a place such as this, Joseph was able to start touching some distant place in himself. He was able to recover something about his divine make-up that reconnected him with who he used to be.

His brothers always mocked him, called him "the Dreamer." He was always having these prophetic dreams. It was kind of what made him, well...him. Joseph knew how to dream. And then he finds himself in an Egyptian prison, far removed from the pit but even further away from home, and he's confronted with the dreams of the prisoners. 

I don't think it was an accident.

I don't think it was just a coincidence that in this far away place, God connected Joseph to something that had been with him so strongly in his younger days, something that reminded him of a place called home. There are probably a thousand ways, at least, that Joseph could have gained favor in prison. A thousand ways he could have built his reputation. A thousand ways he could have worked his way up and out of that place. But as the story goes, he did it through dreams. The Dreamer himself. 

I say all that to say this: depression is hard. From the pit of darkness, from the depths of despair, we often feel like we're selling ourselves out to something less just to have a glimpse of the light again. And so often, we are. And we wake up far from home, far away from anywhere that has any real meaning for us. And we start to feel lonely. And we start to feel distant. And we start to feel the weight of Egypt bearing down on us. 

But hold on.

Because echoes of home are coming. In the smallest of ways, in the most unexpected places, in the hardest of times, God is sending whispers of a time gone by. He will remind you who you are at the very core of yourself. He will put you back in touch with one thing, just one thing, that is so wholly, beautifully, uniquely you. And it's going to be okay.

Friday, August 21, 2015

For Good

We instinctively know that everything's going to work out for good, that God works everything out for good. How do I know that we know?

Because we say it all the time.

When we're done with something, when something's over, when we feel like we've made it through a storm and settled on a solution or a sacred space somewhere, we look at each other and say, "This is over. For good." "It's done. For good." "I'm finished with it. For good." 

For real.

It's a strange phrase if you don't buy into the idea that in the end, all things are good. After all, good is not a unit of time; it doesn't mean "forever" in the way that we use it to mean forever. Good doesn't mean complete; it doesn't imply that everything somehow finally came together. Often, when we say, "for good," what we really mean is that we're just done messing with whatever it is. That we can't do any more. That whatever it is, it is. 

And we give it to this idea of "for good."

It comes from Romans, of course, and the verse that says that God works everything together for good. Or, I like the way another translation puts it, that God is busy working everything together for good. Some translations are misleading, and we have to be careful of this. One of the most popular translations, for example, says simply that everything works together for good. This raises the question: does good simply work itself out? Then what are we to do with God?

That's why we have to look at this verse with a perspective to God's activity. To His action. Good isn't working itself together; God is working things together and the outcome is good. He's using these fragile threads and knitting something new with them, something beautiful. Something good. It's not because good is rational that Joseph ends up going from pit to prison to prince. No, God was orchestrating that whole thing. It's not merely because good willed it that Esther became queen at just such a time as a strong Jewish voice was needed. No, God was working this together, too. 

It's not because good desires it that men and women like you and me either emerge or don't emerge from our brokenness. Think about the greatest struggles of your life. Think about your deepest darknesses. Wouldn't you still be there if you had to wait on something so fickle as the disembodied "good"? How is good ever supposed to find you in a pit like that? 

Good doesn't find you; God finds you, and He lifts you out of the pit. God finds you and He grabs hold of the unraveling threads that are coming out of your life. God finds you and He starts working them together into a new pattern, into a new thing. God finds you, and He starts working things together for good.

And we know this because we keep saying it. When we're done, when we're most done with whatever it is that's been standing in front of us for so long, we're done "for good." We're giving it over. We're entrusting it to the promise of God, knowing that all things are worked together for good in the final say. All things are coming to rest in a place called good. 

And we believe in that, even when we don't know we believe in that. We believe in that so strongly that even when we're not thinking about it, it's part of our language. Nobody even questions the phrase any more. When we say "for good," everyone seems to know what we mean. 

Or do they?

Do they know it's a statement not of our concession, but of our confidence? Do they know it's not from tiredness but from trust that we speak? Do they know there really is such a thing out there as "good" and that even though it's not a measure of time and even though it's not a measure completeness, it is somehow a measure of both? It is forever and it is whole. It is good. 

For real. 

Do they know this? More importantly, do you know this?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Unrighteous

When storms come, we often end up turning in on ourselves when we try to figure out what's caused the raging seas. Verses like the one we looked at yesterday from Job are not entirely helpful, but neither is this one:

He sends His rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Basically, God sends His storms wherever He pleases, and there's not a category in our finite human minds to understand why.

Uh, thanks?

That's what this statement is. More than a statement about God, who we already know loves His entire creation, even the broken parts of it, this is a statement about us. It's a statement about who we are and how we try to understand our world. 

In times of storm, righteous and unrighteous are our words. They're our attempts to draw lines, to create groups. It's our desire to want to say this man deserves it and so this is where the lightning strikes, but God says those categories don't work. Not because this man deserves it and this other man doesn't, but because God's not looking at the same things we're looking at.

God's never looking at the same things we're looking at. 

Or perhaps it's better to say that we're not looking at the same things God's looking at. We're always drawing distinctions, always drawing lines. But where we're drawing lines, God's drawing circles. He's bringing everything together, pulling us into tighter community. When we read the story of the Pharisee and the sinner, praying in the Temple, we say that the prayer of the Pharisee is clearly arrogant, that it's self-serving, that it's self-centered, and we rejoice at the humility of the tax collector, who cries out from his broken places and submits Himself to God. We can almost see the storm swelling over the Pharisee. How dare he pray like that?

But God...God looks at the Pharisee and the tax collector and He sees two men praying. No, it doesn't seem to us that the Pharisee is getting it right. Yes, we could probably clearly draw the line between a "bad" prayer and a better prayer. But we keep forgetting they're still both prayers. Both men are praying. And to God, this is the thing. Two broken men praying in two broken ways, but both talking to God. 

Who's to say who is unrighteous? 

Which brings us back to the problem at hand - the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. In other words, there's no way for us to determine what makes the storms rage. There's no way we can know, by our human categories, what causes the rain to fall on one man over another. It's simply not that easy. 

And that's not comforting when the skies turn black. When we want to know what we did to deserve this, when we're trying to figure out what it is God intends for these winds. When even the umbrella turns inside out and there's nothing left to shield us from the rain. 

The righteous, the unrighteous...we just can't know why God sends His storms. It's frustrating, right? Of course it is. Nobody ever said these things would be easy.

But we do have hope. Or rather, a promise. We can't go so far as to say that God sends storms for good, as we saw yesterday, because that smacks at everything we know about God. It just doesn't feel good. But we do know that God redeems the storms for good, that He redeems all things for good. (Romans 8:28 - God is busy, right now, working all things together for good.) There is good, even in the dark. Even in the wind. Even in the rain.

We know this even when we don't think we know this.

More on that tomorrow. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Storms and Rain

Whether for discipline, or for the good of his earth, or out of mercy, he makes the storm appear. - Job 37:13

We all know why it rains - to cleanse the earth, to water the fields, to nourish the crops - but why does it storm? This, above perhaps all other of theology's pressing questions, is that one that causes most of us pause. We just don't know what to do with suffering.

And I'm not sure that verses like this passage from Job are all that helpful.

Sure, sometimes the storms are discipline. They remind us of our limitations. Later in the book of Job, when God responds to Job's inquiry, He asks the troubled man, Can you thunder, Job? And of course, Job cannot. Not only can he not thunder, but he can hardly determine what to do with thunder at all. This, too, is our testimony. We cannot thunder, but neither do we know what to do with the thunder. It makes us stop. When the storms come and we don't know what to do, we find so often that we do nothing.

Like some cosmic time out. Like, just for a moment or two, we're pulled away from everything we were doing because now, we have to do this. But we don't know how to do this, so we do nothing, and the space created by the storm gives us new perspective on what seemed so pressing before the rains started to fall. So yes, sometimes, the storms are discipline.

And we know the storms are often for the good of His earth. We've already discussed that when we discussed the rains - cleansing, watering, nourishing. Storms, too, have their place. It is through the storm that all the pent-up energy of the earth is channeled and released. Most of us can understand this. We, too, get pent up with energy and if there's not a way to get it out of us, we'll simply explode. We'll go off on everyone and everything close to us and cause tremendous harm. For the good of the earth, sometimes it storms so that it doesn't explode. 

By the way, isn't it interesting at times like these to think about the vast amount of energy in Creation? It's so easy for us to forget about this, but we're literally surrounded not by idleness, but by energy. The grass, the trees, the flowers, the clouds, the skies, the storms - they're all energy. They're all alive. They're all pulsing with the heartbeat of the Creator. Sometimes, the beat just gets to overwhelming and the world has to dance. So it storms, which is one way it dances and praises the God who instilled it with such energy.

We can easily combine each of these first two ideas into the third, that sometimes the storm is mercy. When it is discipline, it gives us pause; when it is mercy, it gives us rest in much the same way. And we all need a little rest. What more can you do in the storm but ride it out? Can you direct the lightning? Can you make preparations? Can you ignore the wind and the waves? Of course not. But you can shelter for a minute and stop. It may seem like an inconvenience, but think for a moment. How much do you need sometimes just to stop? This is mercy.

And the release of energy is mercy, too, for the reason mentioned above: so this whole thing doesn't blow up. It's mercy that there's a way to channel our energies, for the world to channel its energies. It's mercy that there's something to do with the great depth of angst that God has put into us. 

But there's something almost wholly unsatisfying about these ideas, isn't there? 

When the storms come, if we take this guide from Job, we're left trying to determine why we're being disciplined, which drives us into trouble over our own souls where perhaps there may be none. We're experts at finding something wrong with ourselves, and if we look hard enough, we'll find it. And if we're looking for the good in the storm, the benefit of it, we may forget to respect the rains. And we still sort of feel victimized by it all. Why must the skies thunder over us for the greater good? We can start to feel unfairly burdened by it all. Or maybe we look past the wind in search of mercy. Then what? It doesn't feel like mercy. So we chide ourselves for not knowing mercy when it strikes us in the face.

See, all these things we think about the storms, they can cause us to rage inside of ourselves. They're not sufficient to answer the questions we have about suffering, even if they do seem to be Scriptural in some sense. There has to be something more to the troubles we experience on this earth. 

We know the reason for the rain, but what are we to make of the storms?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Footprints and Whispers

The other question raised by last Friday's post is how, if not in smoke, God's presence among His people is known any more. The most relevant answer for us comes not from the days of Hezekiah and Josiah, but from the days of Jesus Himself. 

And here, we must say His presence is made known in footprints and whispers.

Here's what I mean: Jesus had to leave footprints. No, I'm not talking about the motivational poster where the two sets of prints fade into one as Jesus carries us all across the sands of life. I'm talking about the dirt roads of Jerusalem, about the sands of Galilee. I'm talking about every step He took in His ministry, from one place to another, from the houses to the Temples to the seashores and back again. His feet got dirty and where those feet picked up dirt, they left footprints.

The footprints of Jesus are so often subtle. We may not see them right away. We may have to fix our eyes on the ground on which we're walking, but then all of a sudden - we catch it. The tiniest little indentation that tells us Someone has been here. That mark this as holy ground.

It's pretty cool, though, when it happens. When you see the footprint of Jesus, it's usually when you can't raise your head. You're staring at the ground anyway because this is hard ground. It's a tough place to be. Life is difficult. You're not sure how you're going to make it. You're not sure how you're ever going to find God. And then, there He is. In just the smallest disturbance of the dust, in the slightest shifting of the sands, there's this footprint and you know, you just know, that Jesus has walked this ground. And it's going to be okay.

The other way we know where God is among us is by the whispers. Have you ever noticed in the Gospels how crowds just show up wherever Jesus is, wherever He's going? That's not because someone hung posters or sold tickets; it's because His story spread through the people by whispers. They talked about Him in the marketplaces. They talked about Him in their homes. They talked about Him as they gathered water or hunted or tended the sheep. Word of His miracles, we're often told, spread through the people...and then the crowds came out to hear Him for themselves.

We can't even say that it was the sight or the spectacle of Jesus that drew people in, that brought them to where He was, that announced His presence. We can't say that because at the betrayal of Judas, the disciple had to give a sign to the mob as to which of these men they were supposed to arrest. Jesus was public enemy #1 for these guys, and they still needed someone to show them which one He was. Are we to assume any less of the crowds?

No, it wasn't the sight of Jesus that drew people; it was the story of Him. And the same is true today. The stories of God that we share with each other reveal the presence of God. They tell us where He's been, where He's going, what He's done. They tell us where He is and give us the opportunity to follow Him. That's why it's so important that we tell our stories - this is how people today know that God is near.

It's all just one way of looking at it, of course. Who am I to say? It could still be smoke; it could still be fire. But it doesn't seem it's been those things in quite a long time. These days, it's more footprints and whispers. And you know? That's okay.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

Turned Away

Friday's post raised a couple of interesting questions that are worth taking a closer look at. The first is the idea of man's unfaithfulness and God's turning away from His people. 

When we speak of the history of God's people, we see clearly a pattern of Israel wavering between faithfulness and unfaithfulness, a repeated narrative of their turning toward and then turning away from God. And in response, we see God's turning away and then turning back to them. And it's tempting to say that Israel's unfaithfulness caused God's turning away, that because they forsook Him, He forsaked them.

But is that really our God?

The God we know, the God we love, the God we worship has never played tit for tat. He's just not that kind of God. We see that in the doctrine of grace, of course, that God is so often giving us the things we do not deserve. We see it in mercy, that neither are we receiving so often the things we do deserve. We see it in our faithfulness, in stories of Job and modern-day struggles; our faithfulness guarantees us no earthly reward. Hard times and trials still come. We are not always rewarded for our faithfulness; sometimes, we are tested for it. God's economy is simply not one-for-one. It can't be.

Love's no simple equation.

More troubling than its consequences to love, however, are this idea's consequences to God. Who is this God if He is controlled by our behavior? Who is He if He is merely a response to us? Who is this God that we can turn away from and thereby turn away from us? It is convenient to have a God when you want Him and not when you don't, but that's not the nature of any true God. 

Would this God be our God if we could simply blow away the smoke?

So this idea that God turns away from His people in response to their unfaithfulness has less to do with the people and more to do with the heart of God. Actually, it has everything to do with the heart of God. The same God who turned away from His Son on the Cross is the same God who turned away from His nation Israel. 

His broken heart just couldn't bear to look any more. 

He couldn't stand to watch this world tear us apart for one more minute. He couldn't stomach the sight of any more of our blood running out on the ground. He couldn't let His ears hear one more word of mocking. When His people turned away from Him, He knew...He knew they were about to be hurt, and He couldn't bear to watch. His heart tearing, He turned away, lest His love overstep its bounds.

That's always the danger with God; that's His greatest temptation - that love would overstep its bounds. That love would play hero rather than holder, that it would be raider rather than romancer. That love would respond where it wasn't called, that it would give itself too freely and be mistaken for something so much less. 

Love is free, but it isn't without cost. Love given too easily comes to be relied on as assurance, not treasured as affection. Were God to let love run free, we wouldn't recognize it as love at all. We wouldn't know Him as a lover. We would merely expect it, and love is so much unexpected. See, love turns away sometimes instead of rushing in so that it may always - always - be freely chosen. Love must always be chosen.

So He holds love in His heavy heart as He watches this world turn away. And then there's nothing left to do but to turn away Himself. We have not turned Him away. No matter what we do, we can never turn Him away. 

But He turns Himself away because it the only way. It's the only way to hold onto love. He turns away not because He has lost His love, but because He is desperate to preserve it, to shelter it from the brokenness running rampant through our camps. In the hardest of moments, in the toughest of times, He turns away so as not to taint that love, not to offer some cheap substitute. So that we can know this God of grace, this God of mercy, this God of above all things a God of love.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Holy Smokes

If you've read through the history of Israel, normally referred to as the Old Testament, you see a clear pattern in the presence of God. Or a not-so-clear-pattern:


When Israel wandered in the wilderness, God led them by day in a pillar of smoke. When Moses ascended the mountain to speak with the Lord, a thick cloud settled over everything. And when Solomon built a Temple for the great I Am, a permanent presence among His people, God's glory filled that Temple with smoke so thick that nobody could even enter it. 

This is where the story gets interesting. Because after this moment, after this dedication of the Temple, after God comes to dwell among His people in Jerusalem, we never hear about this smoke again. 

It makes you wonder, doesn't it?

God comes to fill His temple with His holy presence, and the clouds are so thick nobody can even go into the Temple. And then just a few pages later begins a story of people going in and out of the Temple at will. Faithful people, unfaithful people, Levites, priests, Temple servants, Temple raiders, Israel, foreign nations. People are going in and out and nobody mentions any smoke.

And it's not just when Israel has turned its back on God that this is true. We could almost make sense of it to say there's no smoke when Babylon raids the Temple and takes the Lord's holy utensils along with the exiles. Israel has fallen out of favor with God. Why would His presence still be among them?

That raises an interesting question of itself: can man's unfaithfulness really drive God away? Can it make Him move out of His holy place? Can we displace God in our community by merely turning our backs on Him? The implications of this are troubling. On the one hand, we have a faithful God, but if we can make Him appear to be unfaithful by breaking His heart so much that He moves out of the can we trust in our Constant Friend? 

But that's a question for another day. Returning to the story at hand, it's not just when Israel has turned its back that people are free to go into and out of the Temple. The Chronicles record a whole string of faithful Judean kings who attempt to restore the people to God's good favor. These kings found the testimonies of Moses in the Temple, read through the law books, tore their clothes in grief and undertook reforms to restore Israel to its rightful place as a nation of God. 

They re-instituted the festivals, partook of the Passover, weeded out the unrighteousness among them. They cleansed themselves, cleansed the Temple, cleansed the priests, and rededicated everything - and everyone - to the glory of God.

And yet, not once is holy smoke mentioned again.

It's weird, right? I wonder if Israel noticed. I wonder if they thought about it. The Bible doesn't say as much, but they'd have to be thinking it, wouldn't they? They'd know the stories of the wilderness, the mountain, the Temple dedication. They'd know that God always came in smoke and fire. They'd know about the thick clouds that settled over the holy places, and they'd know they weren't seeing it. And if they're not seeing it...

is there anything holy?

It's the question we all have, isn't it? Is there anything holy? Are we doing anything right? Am I doing anything right? We do our best to be faithful, but where is the smoke? Where is the fire? 

Maybe that's just not the way God does it any more. Maybe that's not the way He's done it in a long time. After all, there was no smoke settled over Hezekiah. No cloud to cover Josiah's reign. Maybe God changed His style. 

But if so - when? And why? And how? And how could we ever know? When our eyes scan the horizons and see into the deepest easts and furthest wests, how are we to see the presence of God? 

It's the eternal question, isn't it? It's the question we're still asking today. Where is the smoke? Where is the fire? 

Where is the Lord?

Is there anything holy?

Thursday, August 13, 2015


I've written before about the original creation and how even Eden wasn't perfect; it was only ever good. And as we consider what we think about the beginning and the end, Eden and Heaven, I have to say the same thing. As much as we consider these to be perfect, they aren't.

But they are perfected.

God created the heavens and the earth. The representation we have of the earth is, of course, Eden, of which God only ever said, "It is very good." If it were perfect, I think God would have told us so, but there was still work to be done. When God declared it was good, even very good, His work of creation was not yet complete. He had made man, but not woman. (And no, I'm not saying that woman makes it perfect!) What I am saying is that God understood that you can't just manufacture relationship. Relationship grows. It changes. It evolves. It comes into itself and is worked out over time as both parties enter in and go deeper with each other. 

And relationship, as the central aspect of all Creation, was the one thing the Creator could never create. He had to simply make the space for it and then allow it to grow. So creation itself was good, but it wasn't perfect; it wasn't everything God intended it to be. What He was looking for was relationship, and so as man and woman and God walked the grounds together, this is what was coming to be. The good creation was being perfected in its own growth, its own evolution. Through relationship. 

When we look forward to Heaven, we have to see the same thing. It's Eden all over again. God can set the world right. He can recreate the Creation. He can restore all the broken things that were never meant to be, but that doesn't make it perfect. Because Heaven is not about a world set right; it's about a heart set right. And a heart set right is done only in relationship, and relationship cannot simply be created. Or even recreated. Relationship must be restored through the hard work and investment of both parties. 

The day Jesus reveals Himself to the world again, people are not going to instantly love Him. They may have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Him, depending on their relationship up to that point, but just because He shows that He is the Son of God and that He does keep His word, it doesn't mean that people will automatically feel some deep love for Him. Love must simply grow on its own. And without love, nothing is perfect. 

On top of that, even if love were to be restored in a heartbeat, Heaven still could not be perfect because it would still be made of once-broken people. Broken was never part of the plan. And whatever hasn't been part of the plan cannot be perfect.

But it can be perfected.

Here we are again, back to this distinction. Perfect or perfected? Nothing was ever perfect. From the very beginning, everything has been set in motion to grow and to change and to evolve. To be perfected, not to be perfect. 

You and me included. 

So take the pressure off yourself. Lower your expectations a little. It's okay if you're not perfect; you were never meant to be. It's okay if this world is not perfect; it wasn't made that way. It's okay if life is not perfect; it never was. 

As long as it's all being perfected, it's okay. Really. It's okay. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Garden and the Gates

Yesterday, I mentioned that we spend so much of our time focusing on the promise of Heaven that we forget the incredible blessing of the created world. God created the heavens and the earth, and He created man on earth. There's got to be a reason. Still, we spend most of our time thinking about "Heaven" and longing for Eden.

Sort of.

What gets us thinking about these things is the brokenness of our world. We look around us and we think that this couldn't possibly be what God intended for His creation. And, of course, it's not. We see murder and rape and hate and tension and strife and struggle, and there's got to be more, we think. And, of course, there is. The trouble is not so much that we set our sights on better things.

The trouble is what we think those better things are.

What do you think of when you think of Eden? You think of a garden untouched. You think of flourishing plants that don't need tended, but merely enjoyed. You think of animals frolicking with one another, and right out in the open where man can behold everything from the beautiful butterfly to the majestic elephant all in the same scene. You think of trees, big and strong, but blowing in the breeze and providing a gentle shade. You think of grass muffled gently beneath your bare feet. If you were to pull out your box of crayons, you would use every color on this canvas. It's strikingly beautiful. And it's all yours. You never picture many more people in Eden. Maybe your spouse, a loved one or two, but primarily, it's you and Creation. It's your perfect little place. 

And Heaven? Heaven is equally so. Heaven is a place bound by gates made of giant pearls, streets paved with gold. It's a place where the clouds surround us once again, the holy presence of our Lord as it was for the Israelites in the wilderness (you never made that connection, did you? From God being the presence in the cloud to us being present in the clouds with Him). It's a place where we're all together, all getting along, walking around those streets and greeting each other with joy the way we were supposed to do "down here." Heaven in the place where your enemies become your friends, where your wounds finally heal, where society gets a chance to live as it was meant to live, apart from sin. Reconciled to the original creation. Glorified. Yes, you feel glorified in Heaven and how could you not? One of those mansions has your name on the mailbox, and one of those closets is full of tailored robes.

Sound about right?

How about...totally wrong?

There is one essential element missing from our recollections of Eden and our imaginations of Heaven. One very important reality that's missing when we hold these images. Did you catch it? Do you know what it is? 

It's God. 

Somewhere, we've gotten the idea that the heavens and the earth were created for us. That they were meant to fulfill something in us. That when God planted the garden, it was for our pleasure and when He paved the streets of gold, it was for our glory. Oh, how highly we think God thinks of us! 

But God has never thought highly of us; He has felt deeply for us. It's for love that God created all this, not for pleasure. Not for glory. God didn't create the garden so that you could enjoy it; He created it so that you could enjoy Him. Remember the real story of Eden? God walked with Adam. God walked with Eve. They were the best of friends, living openly with one another. Unashamed. Unafraid. Deeply enjoying not just the butterflies and the trees and the grasses, but the presence of Creator and created together. Whatever echoes we hear of Eden are not about a beautiful garden; they are about a beautiful relationship. They are about getting us back to that place where we live unashamed with God, where we walk together. 

And the same is true of Heaven. Heaven was never meant to glorify us. It wasn't meant to be a place where we all live together in blessed extravagance. It is another place where, finally, we live together with God. Where we know we're going to run into Him at the corner store, and that's okay. Where our mansion doors are always open because you never know when His angels are going to stop by. Where those streets of gold reflect His glory; His light bounces all around the place. 

We forget that. We forget that the main story of the heavens and the earth is not man; the main story is God. We forget that the earth wasn't created for us; it was created for Him. The heavens, too. They were created for Him. And us? We were not created for the heavens or the earth. We, too, were created for Him. It's all about Him. 

So why is He missing from our fantasies? Why is He missing from our imaginations?

Why, when we think of these perfect places, is our God absent from them?

And I'm just as guilty of this as the rest of you. I am. It's easy for me to get caught up in the idea of monkey butlers and bees that don't sting and a robe that won't only be beautiful but also might actually finally keep me warm. I get it. 

But the more I think about the heavens and the earth, the more I let myself ache for Eden and long for Heaven, the more I realize that I want neither if my God isn't there. That without Him, the earth is formless and void; the heavens are empty. Without Him, it's not perfect. It's not even worth having. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Every Tongue

God likes to tie His story together in nice, neat packages - from the first Adam to the second Man, from the bronze snake raised up on a pole to the Son of Man hung on the Cross, from Eden to Heaven, and so on. The other day, a new one struck me. It's one I hadn't heard before, anywhere, and so I thought I'd share. 

From Babel to Pentecost.

Follow me here: early on in the book of Genesis, men got together and decided they could build a tower to heaven, a staircase to the skies. So they set about the work and because of their common language, things were going very well. This worried God, not because He didn't want His people to come to Him but because thinking the heavens were the only thing made them miss the incredible gift of the earth that He had created for them. If God had wanted man in the heavens, He would have put them there; He put men on earth for a reason. It's all part of His revelation.

So as the story goes, God confused the languages of the workers and made them speak in different tongues. They could no longer understand what the others were saying, and this put a stop to this crazy work they were trying to accomplish. And then all the nations went their own ways with their own tongues and God went with Israel and they spent the next several thousand years clashing. 

Fast forward to the resurrection of Jesus. God has finally made a way to reconcile man to the earth (to the Creation) and to Himself (the Creator). Notice that Jesus does not promise the thief heaven, but only paradise. Jesus walks out of the grave and down the road to Emmaus and spends the next few weeks making appearances here and there before He is taken away.

Then the Holy Spirit comes and descends upon the people and something amazing happens - they start speaking the story of God "in every tongue," which is recorded early in Acts. The people, Luke tells us, were surprised to hear the apostles speaking in their languages; they were astonished to hear the story of God spoken in their words. Finally, all the peoples of the earth had a way to understand.

See, this is God returning to the story of Babel. The people had been trying to build a tower to heaven, a way to get to God, and now that God has made a way, He's returned the language to the people so they can work together - every nation, every tribe, every tongue - to tell that story. It's not a story any more about man's coming to God. No, now it is the story of God's coming to man. 

The very God who confused our tongues now sets them afire with His testimony. Amazing!

All of a sudden, man has what he always wanted - a way to get to God. Every man, from every nation, all telling the same story. All working together to spread the message of the Messiah. All talking about the same thing again and finally, able to understand one another's language. 

That's one of the things that's so cool about being part of God's church. It doesn't matter if I'm in the modest auditorium of my home church, in the sanctuary of the church down the road, in the stadium of the megachurch across the country, in the house of the church leader in Ecuador, in the public park of the church in Ghana, in the living room of the elder in Belarus...we're all speaking the same language again and building a pathway to God by sharing His story. That's what God has done for us, by putting His story in our mouths through the Holy Spirit. 

Every nation, every tribe, every tongue....

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Problem with God

One of the arguments we hear against God rather frequently is that people are struggling with the God of the Old Testament - the seemingly vengeful, malicious, unpredictable God who is one minute telling His people how much He loves them and in the very same breath, defeating them in battle and sending them into exile. 

But let's be honest. That's not really the problem people are having with God. That's the story of the vast majority of the gods of people throughout history. Most of the gods men have worshiped have been vengeful and unpredictable. They have been at times hostile to the people. It has taken often more than man can muster to get on their good side and to stay there. And that hasn't stopped anyone from worshiping them. (Over time, sure, but not immediately.) 

The problem we really have with God is not how He seems to act with His people in the Old Testament. The problem we have with God is what He claims in Genesis. 

See, it's not that God could be as fickle as all the other gods; man has come to expect that from his deities. The trouble is that this God claims to have created the world and then become fickle with it. That's what seems to make it perverse. 

The other gods were generally mythological. They were created from stories or they were exalted men or they were forces of nature as it were. The creation myths aren't so bold as the creation story; most of these other gods seem to have come to be after the world was set in motion. The Christian God, however, claims to have set the world in motion. 

And then become vengeful with it. 

That's a problem. It's a problem because it makes us wonder what this God's intent could have possibly been in creating the world in the first place. Did He create it just for His wrath? Did He create it to show His dominance over it? Did He create it not for His own glory, but for His own ego? To play with it like a child plays with his toys? We don't like the idea of being played with.

This is what Job was railing against in the book that bears his name. It wasn't that his life was miserable and difficult and falling apart. It wasn't the grief of losing his family or the trial of losing his possession or even the pain of the boils that covered his skin. The problem Job had was that he still believed the creation story. He still believed God had created him. As we talked about on Friday, Job knew without a doubt that God had knit him together in his mother's womb. He even says as much. And the trouble Job is having is what to do with this God who invests such craftsmanship into His world and then troubles that very world. That knits together a man and then snarls him. 

We often have the same questions.

But we're so unaware of them. It's easy to fall into the trap of what we're hearing in the world, what we think the problems are. The problem is not that our God is like all the other gods; it doesn't seem like that would trouble anybody. If you worship Baal and he's fickle and difficult to please, what does it matter to you if God is fickle and difficult to please? That's what you've come to expect of your gods. The problem is that this God claims to be different and then appears shockingly similar to all the other gods. The problem is that this God calls the world His handiwork, then rebels against His own Creation (or so it seems). 

To answer this objection, of course, we have to follow through with the story. We have to get to the good part, the meat of the whole thing. We have to get to the place where God does something radically different from all the other gods of this world - where He loves this world so much that He sends His only Son into it so that He can love it with skin on and pour out His offering all over this world. It is this act that ties us back to the creation story, where we get to see God coming back to the story He started writing at the foundation of the world. 

What do we do with all that junk in the middle? All that stuff that seems so objectionable? I don't really know. What I know is that God began as the God of the world, became the God of the people so He could show Himself as the God of the world and in doing so, became Lord of the people. (If you followed that, give yourself a cookie.) Like I said, I don't really know. 

All I'm saying is that we're not really troubled by what we think we're troubled by. It's no bother to man for his gods to be fickle; they always have been. Our trouble is that our God is loving. 

It's that that we must discover an answer for. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Knit Together

Science has invested a lot of its energies into showing us just how similar we are to other creatures in God's creation. Man, they say, shares something like 96 or 97 percent of his genes with other primates. On the other hand, there are those who argue intensely that man is an entirely unique creature. 


The truth is...every man is an entirely unique creature. Each and every human being, regardless of how many components of DNA we share, is his own man, her own woman.

Consider this: medical technology has come a long way in the past several decades. We're at a place now where a little boy just received a double hand transplant from another child, and now, this young boy has two functioning hands of his own. ...except they're not his own. And his body knows they're not his own. They're made of the same components of DNA as the rest of him, but not the same structure. So for the rest of his life, he will take medication to prevent his body from rejecting his new hands. Because we have figured out how to stitch man's pieces together, but we have no idea how to knit.

See, that's what God does. He knits us each together in our mother's womb. He makes us uniquely who we are. Each man may be made from the same threads, but the pattern is unique. What is woven into me is woven in a way that makes me who I am; you couldn't weave another pattern into me. This one's mine. And what's woven into you is the same. It makes you who you are, and you can't just pull in a new pattern.

It's amazing, right? That's why it's so easy to look at science and say, yes. Maybe I do share almost all of my DNA with the monkeys, but I'm nothing like them. I share even more with Bill, and I'm nothing like him, either. I know because if you took one little piece of Bill and tried to stitch it into me, I'd spend the rest of my life rejecting it. By nature. Because inherently, I know that what is sewn is not knit.

You'd think, as each of us walks around our own unique man, our own unique woman, that it would be difficult to find the common ground between us, then. But there is something that flows between us. Always has, and always will. 

It's blood.

If we're made of the same type, you could course my blood through your veins, and your body wouldn't know any different. You could pump your blood through mine, and my heart wouldn't even miss a beat. It doesn't know any different. Because blood is neither you nor me; blood is life itself.

The Bible tells us as much. God warns His people repeatedly about the blood of their sacrifices, about blood among them. Blood is life. Be careful with it. Respect it. Honor it. And then God has poured this life into us, into all of Creation, and it's the one thing that binds us together. It's the one thing that we can share. It's the one part of me I can give to you - the life that God gives. It's the one part of you that you can give to me - life. As God has given you. 

So here we are, trying to figure out how each of us can be our own man, our own woman, and yet share between us the life that God gives. How I can be me and share with you life abundant, and how you can be you and share the same with me. It's tricky. It's hard to figure out how every little thing about each one of us, even the things that seem to be so similar, can be so incompatible with each other that we instinctively reject it and yet, this shared life churns inside our entirely unique hearts. What do we even do with that?

It's hard to know.

And it must be said that it's not merely our blood that flows between us, but also Christ's blood. Not just life, but life eternal. Life abundant. Maybe that's what makes this whole thing work. Maybe that's what makes me look at the pattern God has knit in you and know that no, it's not my pattern, but it's beautiful. Because I see the life flowing through it. So you're beautiful. And I hope that you can look at me and see the same. The threads are the same - simple little strands of human DNA - but the pattern is perfectly unique. It's not your pattern, and it wasn't meant to be; this one is mine. But life flows through it just the same. So I'm beautiful.

So we're all beautiful in this most incredible way.

And isn't that something?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Faithful Sinners

Yesterday, I noted that this world is holding us to the standard of the Pharisee - expecting of us not to follow the example of Jesus, but merely to quote His words and to embrace this world's interpretation of them. I hate to break it to you, but as Christians, we're doing this to each other, too. We're holding each other to the standard of how we interpret Jesus, not how we witness Him.

In the 90s, the catch phrase was WWJD: What Would Jesus Do? But we have all but abandoned that entire idea in favor of WWJS: What Would Jesus Say? 

Or worse yet - WDJS: What DID Jesus Say?

The trouble is that we're very good at quoting Him in word, but not in spirit. And we're very good at quoting half-words at each other, trying to get other Christians to interpret Jesus precisely the same way we do. Trying to get them to buy into our understandings and traditions. We, too, are the Pharisees. We can't understand how anyone thinks about this God thing differently than we do. 

Here's perhaps one of the greatest troubles we get into - the idea that Jesus is not for everybody. No, most of us probably wouldn't say it so brazenly, but we're in the habit of judging not sin, but sinners, and determining who we think is so far outside the will of God that there's just not place in our church, or in our community, for persons such as them. 

Yes, I'm talking about homosexuals. 

That's it for most of us. But I'm also talking about persons with other stories. I'm talking about divorced men and women, who still aren't welcome in some congregations. I'm talking about persons who have fought hard battles, be they medical or emotional or spiritual, who come back to their churches to find there's barely a place left for them. They can come to the church, but they can no longer be a part of the church. Don't expect the church to help them any more. I'm talking about young women who have had abortions and young men who...ah, who's kidding? We only care about the impure young women; the impure young men are far more redeemable. 

I'm talking about everyone we look at and decide that the church is not for them. I'm talking about the people we decide God cannot possibly love, and then declare that we don't have to, either. I'm talking about the way we can read a half-story of Jesus and justify our position on this, without looking at the rest of the story and the rest of His ministry. And I'm talking about the way we denigrate anyone who would let such sinners into their churches, who would go against our understanding and our righteous authority and dare to disagree with us about how Jesus did it. 

There was a woman, a Canaanite woman, who once came to Jesus, begging for the life of her child. She fell at Jesus' feet and pleaded for His healing power, and Jesus turned to her and said, "Sorry. I came for these people, not for you people."

And that's where we stop. That's what we look at and say, see? Jesus didn't come for all sinners. He came only for faithful sinners. Then we feel all good about ourselves because we are the faithful sinners. 

Faithful sinners indeed....

But look at the rest of the story. The woman continues to plead for her child's sake. She humbles herself, declaring that she is the lowest of the low, even calling herself a dog. A dog! Were anyone in our outcast groups to call themselves a dog today, we would look right at them with unflinching eyes and declare, "Yes you are! I'm so glad you finally see it, you wretch!" But Jesus said nothing about her canine status. What He said was an affirmation of her faith - your great faith has secured for you what you ask. It turns out...this woman, this wretched woman, this disgusting Canaanite, this outsider...was the faithful sinner after all. 

And what of the other faithful sinners our Lord encountered? What of the woman caught in adultery? The serial bride by the well? The skim-off-the-top tax collector? The paralytic on the mat (whose sins, you'll remember, are forgiven before his iniquity is healed)? What of you, you faithful sinner? What of me? 

If you want to read half-stories of Jesus, you can justify just about anything you want to do. You can preach yourself blue in the face to other Christians and berate them for not holding dear your interpretations. You can pretend that you have the moral high ground. After all, is this not what Jesus said? 

But it's not about what Jesus said. It's never been about what Jesus said. Because Jesus never spoke the greatest of all things; He demonstrated them. He showed them. He gave them. How can you put words to something so amazing as grace? You can't. Grace is not something you speak; it's something you give. Generously. How can you simply say you're redeeming the world? You can't. You walk to Calvary, a cross on your shoulders. How can you say something so wonderful as love? You can't. You live it. 

We have to stop harping on each other about what Jesus said, or what we think Jesus said, or how we interpret what Jesus said. The story isn't about what Jesus said. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John - the never set out to tell us what Jesus said; their Gospels are about what Jesus did. And He didn't spend a whole lot of time talking about it.

So you want to think you're getting this Jesus thing right? You want to believe you hold the secret? Stop talking the way Jesus talked and start loving the way He loved. Start serving up grace like it's free. Because it is. Start dishing out mercy like you're drowning in the stuff. Because you are. Start loving like there's nothing better you can do with your life. Because there's not.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Standard of the Pharisee

Discovering the humble nature of our God is all about how you read His story. Honestly, discovering anything about our God is all about how we read His story.

There's this interesting movement in broader culture that has just about everyone commenting on what it means to be a Christian. Atheists, especially, and those heavily involved in social movements that strike against God's Word, are quick to call out "so-called Christians," quoting (or misquoting) Jesus and Scripture at them in an effort not only to mock the faith, but to discredit it.

But it's the standard of the Pharisee. 

It's interesting to say that because the modern-day Pharisee is no religious man at all. In most cases. The Pharisees were men who were very learned in the Scriptures. They seemed to know everything the Bible had to say, or at least claimed to know it. On top of this, they added their own interpretations and traditions, and held the faithful to these, as well. And often, what they added from their own interpretation came from the word, not the spirit, of the Scripture. And often, this pulled the people away from true faithfulness. 

This is what we're facing today. Not from the learned, but from the twisted. Not from the interested parties, but from the parties with their own interests. The people who are so quick to quote the words of Jesus at us are the same people who turn their back on the Man Himself and refuse His example in deference to their own "learning." To their own interpretations of what the words mean.

They say, Aren't you not supposed to be judging people? Isn't that what your Jesus said? And yes, our Jesus said that. But our Jesus also called out the Pharisees, called to the sinners, and named sin for what it is. He looked at the woman caught in adultery, covered her in grace, and also told her, "Sin no more." Were we to do the same, were we to name adultery for the sin that it is, they would scream at us Do not judge! Because the word of Jesus is more important to them than the example of Him. 

They say, Forgive people. Aren't you supposed to forgive people? And yes, we are called to forgive. But forgiveness is not a blank stare. Forgiveness is not forget-ness. Forgiveness is not changing our minds about whether something wrong has been done; forgiveness is changing our mind about how we respond to that wrong. Forgiveness is naming it first, then covering it in grace. Yet the minute we name sin, the world calls us out on it. That doesn't sound very forgiving. Oh, but it is. The first step to offering forgiveness is knowing what needs forgiving. 

They say, Who are you to claim such authority? Why do you get to say what sin is? Or grace? And this is the very question they always asked Jesus. Just who do you think you are? It's the question we face every time we speak God's truth into the world. Every time we take a stand on His foundations. Every time we adopt an "unpopular" opinion. Who are we to get to decide? Who are we to think such a thing? Who gave you that authority?

The questions Jesus faced from those who considered themselves the religious elite are the very same questions we are facing today from those who still consider themselves elite. They have studied our Scriptures just enough to quote them, but they cannot cite them. They can throw the words of our Jesus at us, but they have lost sight of His spirit altogether. They have added onto this their own interpretations and traditions, as fits their social cause (usually), and they attempt to hold us, the faithful, to their standard of the faith. 

Then they stand in the streets and boldly and loudly proclaim, Oh, thank heavens I am not like these Christians.

While we Christians kneel and weep. O Lord, forgive me, for I am not so good at this not-judging thing, for I am not so quick to forgive, for I sometimes overstep Your authority and invest too much in my own.

Because we get it. We're not perfect. We're doing our best to do this Jesus thing; we're doing our best to get it right. We're taking in the example of our Jesus, in addition to His words, because it is only by watching Him do it that we understand anything at all about what grace is. 

But as we struggle to get it right, as we struggle to live the way God has called us to live in this world, as we try to weave our way through difficult issues and tough situations and all the social pressure of...well, look at society right now...we have to recognize the Pharisees for who they are. These people are not teaching us about Jesus; they're coercing us into their interpretations. They're masking the faith with so-called faithfulness, which has nothing to do, to them, with following Christ. 

And this is where we're at. Being a Christian means something different today than it did 2,000 years ago. In the early days, Christians were mocked for their faith; today, they are called faithless. Today, they are told they're just phantoms, just figments because they're not faithful. Back then, the words were twisted to keep people from believing in Him; today, they are twisted to keep us from behaving like Him. 

Beware the yeast of the Pharisees, for in such a time as this, it's starting to rise.