Friday, October 30, 2015

So-Called Christians

I've been wondering lately about this name we have taken upon ourselves, this name of "Christian." And I've been wondering about it for a couple of reasons.

First, because it is losing some of its meaning in our contemporary culture. It probably has been for a long time. Today, being a "Christian" means anything from being a wholly-devoted follower of Christ to being someone who sort of thinks there might possibly be a God out there somewhere and believes in Him when it's convenient to do so or professes a belief in this Christ, but not to the extent that it actually has an impact on one's life. But really, this reflection only leads me back to the deeper idea that's been troubling me, and that is this: (second)

Why are we content to be called Christians at all?

There are, as I see it, a couple of difficulties with this name. First, the Bible says things like, If those who are called by my name will humble themselves... and we think, of course. Christians. We are called by the name of Christ. But Christ was never His name. Christ is a positional title of sorts. It's a function He serves, for lack of a better way of putting it. His name was called Jesus or even Immanuel

To understand a little bit better, we can go back into the Old Testament. God's beloved nation of Israel was called by the name of its father: Jacob, who was later renamed Israel. And Israel means struggles with God or triumphs with God. It's a very meaningful name. Now, I'll admit that Jesusites or Immanuelites doesn't have quite the same ring as Israelites, but there's meaning behind these names, too - God saves and God with us, respectively. And I think either of these names would be fitting for the people of God in the New Testament manifestation of the church. Don't you?

But no. We have called ourselves Christians, after the title of Jesus and not His name, and the word Christ means savior, or anointed, or messiah. When we take this title of Jesus for ourselves, are we not declaring in some measure these things for ourselves? Have we not considered that we must be saviors or messiahs? At best, we call ourselves anointed, but by whom? Israel's name retained it referent to God; ours...has in some ways attempted to make us gods. 

Which do you think is the better meaning of the church? Are we to be saviors and messiahs, or even anointed, or are we to be God with us, the very presence of God in our world? It could be argued that it is here that we're already blurring our lines.

And that's only one of the troubles I've been considering lately. The second is equally disturbing. The name Christian was first used of this new religious sect by the people of Antioch, and it wasn't first used by the church. It was given to the church by the people who were mocking the church. It was a derogatory name. The church...was calling itself the church. Those threatened by the church were calling them Christians

Then someone looked at someone else and said, Hey! That's a good idea. Let's call ourselves that!

I don't know how we got there. I really don't. And the fact that we allowed someone else to name us, that we let the voices of this world tell us who we are, is troubling. It's also the only time in Scripture that God's people have not been named by Him. 

Think about it. There was Abram, but when he encountered God, God named him Abraham. There was Jacob, who as we saw, became Israel when God so named him this. God subsequently named His entire people this name - Israel. He foretold the name of His only begotten Son - Immanuel. At the conversion of Saul, it is God who changes his name to Paul. God's in the business of naming His people. It's what He's always done. 

Yet we are called Christian by the people of Antioch, and we take it. It is neither a name given by God nor one that is called after His name. 

I don't know whether it really matters too much after 2000 years of being called Christians. But it's important to note that this name that is not God's name for us means something very different now than it did back in Antioch. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe we're giving the world just enough to still mock us as so-called saviors, so-called messiahs, so-called Christians. It certainly feels, especially these days, that the world is mocking us. Is it because we've taken so readily the name of the mockers? Who knows?

Is there a better name? I'm not sure. We could always go back to calling ourselves the church. The church, in the Greek: ekklesia, means called out. We could be called out. In fact, I think we are called out. There's something simple and good about that. 

Or we could, by the admonition of the Scriptures, insist that we actually be called by His name - Immanuel. Of course, this means we have to live in a certain way. We have to change some of the ways we're doing things. You can't just be called God with us unless there's some manifestation of God being with us in your life. It's kind of what I hope for my own life. It's what I hope people say after they come in contact with me - that God was certainly here, that He was certainly with us, and that He was manifest in me by the presence of His Spirit. 

I want people to walk away from me knowing that God is real. Not that He's powerful or that He's passionate or that He's savior or Lord or even Christ. All that stuff comes later. What people need to know first and foremost is that He is real, and that's my goal as a so-called Christian. To let His name be known. 


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Quiet Riot

I never really know what to make of Simon of Cyrene. And I know what you're thinking....who? Simon of Cyrene is one of the most major minor characters in all of Scripture. He is the man who, found passing in the road, was forced to carry Jesus's cross a portion of the way to Golgotha.

First of all, that's rather interesting in an of itself, don't you think? The Romans were known for their brutality, and the case of Jesus was no different. They flogged Him to the fullest extent of the law, a full 39 lashes of metal-tipped whip against His back. They stripped Him naked, then clothed Him again, then stripped Him naked. They fashioned a crown of thorns and pressed it onto His head with such force that the thorns broken into His flesh and blood started dripping down His face. They taunted Him mercilessly. They were leading Him out of the city to a place where they were about to drive massive spikes through His hands and His feet. And yet, in the middle of all of this, when His strength was struggling, when exhaustion was starting to take over His body, when the weight of His cross was becoming too much to bear (just minutes before it would bear His weight), the Roman guard had mercy on Him and found someone else to carry that Cross. 

You might be tempted to think, from this one small scene, that perhaps...just perhaps...they cared. Even a little. 

Maybe. But it's far more likely that they were primarily interested in simply getting Him to Golgotha. If He collapses from sheer exhaustion on the road, if the weight of the Cross crushes Him before it can bear Him, then they don't get to crucify Him. They don't get to make the biggest spectacle of Him. Maybe they just toss His body to the side of the road, peel the beam off His shoulders, and keep going on out to the criminals who were waiting on that hill.

Maybe the Son of Man just becomes...forgotten. A victim of the Romans, but not a glorious victim of theirs. Little did they know how glorious He was about to be. (And as we saw on Monday, He had to be crucified.)

So anyway, we've got this guy name Simon who is passing by on the road. I would venture to guess that Simon probably wasn't going the same way as the crowd. In fact, the Gospels tell us that he was coming in from the country while the rest of the mob was going out of the city. So the Romans pull him into the fray and shoulder him with Jesus's cross and force him not just to carry this cross, but to turn around and go back the very way from which he was coming. 

Now, there are probably all kinds of people to choose from here. There are plenty of men and women, even a bunch of the Sanhedrin or council guys, who are already headed that way. They aren't about to miss the spectacle of it all. They aren't about to miss their chance to see this Rabble-Rouser get His due. Any one of these guys would have been a good candidate for cross-carrying. 

But no. They pick the one guy who seems to have the least to do with it. They pick the one guy who is walking the other way. They pick the one guy who isn't part of the madding crowd.

And isn't that how it is?

There are a lot of people in this world who just want to be part of the spectacle, for whatever reason. They just want to be in the headlines. They just want to be part of whatever big thing is going on. You know the type.

But there are plenty of people, too, who are just going about their business. They're just living their lives. They're just doing the next thing they have to do, whatever that is. And it's here, from this quiet place, that they get drawn into the story of God in some amazing ways. It's here that they become part of the bigger narrative. It's here that their story turns around, and they find themselves marching toward Calvary with a cross that is not their own. 

I never really know what to make of Simon of Cyrene, but I love his story. And I guess it's because it's such a poignant reminder of God's true nature. Even amid the commotion, even among the crowds, even in the midst of the spectacle, God's most amazing moments are the quiet ones. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

And I in Him

In this idea of holy nesting dolls, it is not just Christ who lives (and dies) in me, but it is also I who live (and die) in Him. And as I wrote yesterday that it is only in the heart that Christ is willing to stretch out His hands and die, I find that the same is true of me.

It is only in Him that I am willing to do the same.

Jesus says that anyone who wants to be like Him must take up their cross daily and follow Him. But it's only when we are living in Him that we're willing to take hold of this splintered world and shoulder it, making it our burden. It's only when we're living in Him and are surrounded, enveloped, by His love, by His peace, by His patience, that we're able to even do such a thing. Taking up your cross, it's not about taking on the punishment of sin and death; it's about taking on the burden of a broken world. That's what carrying the cross means.

And yet, the Scriptures also take us a step further. It is said not only that we must take up our cross and follow Him, but also that we are crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but Him in us. 

To be crucified means not just to shoulder the burden of this broken world, but to stretch out your hands and embrace is, or be embraced by it. Now, I can be a pretty self-protective person. I think all of us can be. There's something about us that likes to live closed in on itself, shielded by our own best defenses against the troubles of this world. I imagine so many of us living with our arms wrapped tightly around ourselves, all hunched over, curled into our smallest forms like turtles tucked into their shells.

When we are crucified with Christ, we no longer do this. When we are crucified with Christ, we unwrap ourselves from...ourselves. We, like Him, willingly stretch out our hands. We open ourselves. We open our lives. We take on a bigger, more open form. In doing so, we put our very hearts in a vulnerable position. Our chests lie wide open to the world, our hearts right there for either gore or grace. 

It would be an act of courage if there weren't something about being found in Jesus that so overwhelms us. Because we live in Him, this is no courage at all; it is faith. 

It is faith that recognizes grace where it finds it. It is a faith that is overwhelmed by peace, that has found its place that cannot be shaken, come what may. It is a faith that is wrapped in boundless love and finds that here, and only here, it can give freely without having less. It can offer itself without losing itself. I can give the world everything that God created in me and only ever become more of that very thing. 

But it is only here that I am willing to do that. It is only when I am found in Christ, and He in me, that I am willing and able to offer myself to a dying world. It is only here that I am able to stretch out my hands, to bare my heart, to bear the burdens of this broken world. It is only here...and here, I cannot do any different. 

That is the power of Christ in in Him...and Him in me. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Christ in Me

One of the beautiful images in Scripture is this idea of Christ living in us, living in Him, living in us. Like holy nesting dolls, our lives are fully wrapped up in this interwoven relationship of Christ and man, Christ and me. 

But what is often forgotten is that the Christ who lives in us is also the Christ who dies in us. The Christ who lives in me is the very same Christ who dies in me. 

Because I crucify Him.

Because I am the one who wants to test how far He will go. Because I am the one who keeps running as far east of Eden as I can, not knowing how far east I can run until I crash into west. Because I am the one who stretches out His hands and asks, How much do you love me?

And the Christ who lives inside me declares, This much.

The truth is that it's only in my heart, in your heart, in our hearts that Christ was ever willing to die. It wasn't on the side of the road; it was in the depths of man's souls. It wasn't on splintered wood; it was in splintered spirits. It wasn't at the hands of the Roman guard; it was at the hands of the faithful. It wasn't because of fear or hatred or politics; it was only ever because of love. Not all of the sin in the world could have held His arms open. Not the strongest nails could have held Him there. It was only love that could ever have crucified this Christ.

And love only lives in the heart.

No matter what I do, no matter what I've done, no matter how many times I've fallen or how many moments I've wasted or how many things I've broken, as long as I continue to make even the smallest place in my heart for Him, Christ comes to dwell in me. And no matter what I do, no matter what I've done...He continues to hold His arms open wide, ready to embrace all that I am. Ready to pour out His life into mine. For every drop of blood that falls from His crucified body here falls straight into my very heart and becomes the lifeblood of all that I am. 

His blood mixes not with the ground, but with the very dust of which I am created. His very blood, mixed with mine, courses through my body with every beat of my aching heart. The beads of sweat that fall from His brow are the salt of life that preserves what is worthy in me. The love in His eyes pierces through my very soul, just as the fear in mine pierces Him. The tenderness in His voice echoes in the hollow chambers of my being, drowning out the echoes of my own agony. 

Most people think the Cross took place on a hill outside the city, near a highway, on a Friday afternoon. And that's part of it. 

But the Christ who died on that Cross is the Christ who dies in me. Because it is only in my heart, in your heart, in our hearts that Christ was willing to die. Of this, we can be sure, for it is the very place where the incarnated Christ has chosen to live. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Last Breath

It's often been asked why Jesus the Christ had to be crucified. It's such a gruesome death, we say. Wasn't there another way? 

Of course, there are a thousand ways to die. Thousands upon thousands. Even for Jesus. Someone in the mob could have run a sword through Him in the garden when they came to arrest Him. The lashes He took to His back could have taken the life right out of Him; we know such a beating often killed other men. Sheer exhaustion could have caused Him to collapse between the court and the Cross. Pilate could have declared Him innocent and released Him, letting Him die a natural death at a ripe old age sometime in the distant future. These, and countless others, are all possible ways to see the end of Jesus's life. 

But none of them are sufficient.

The Cross, as brutal, as degrading, as cruel as it was, was the only way to fulfill the divine story of life and death, of redemption. 

Jesus is often (and rightfully so) contrasted with Adam. These two become known as the First Man and the Second Man, respectfully, and it is said that what was broken and burdened by the First Man is redeemed and restored by the Second. So Jesus undoes, somehow, the story of Adam. It's how we come to be new creations. If you look at the story of Adam, you see that the thing that started it all...was the breath of God. 

God formed Adam from the dust of the earth, shaped the man into His own image. And then, once He had the form just right, God bent down and breathed the breath of life into Adam's nostrils. 

Then comes the Second Adam. 

To understand what's going on here, you have to understand something about the method of the Cross. The Cross drew a man's body apart and put pressure on his hands and his feet. Over time, the weight of his body would increase as he became unable to bear the weight just by these three pressure points. As his body became heavier, his joints would begin to dislocate, particularly at his shoulders, which only increased the burden his body was forced to bear. We see in the Scriptures that when the criminal's body was stronger than expected, when this whole process of crucifixion was taking too long, the soldiers would break his legs, making it harder still for him to hold himself up, for his body to bear the pressure of the Cross.

But what kills a man on the Cross is not simple heaviness or exhaustion or even the excruciating pain. What happens is that as his body becomes heavier, it sinks further into itself until finally, he is no longer able to raise himself enough to take fresh air into his diaphragm. A man dies on the cross when the weight of himself becomes so much that he can no longer breathe. 

And that's why this is the only fitting death for Jesus the Christ.

Oh, there are a lot of ways to take the air out of a man. You can strangle him, of course. But that would have put Jesus's death directly at the hands of another man. The Cross put His death at the weight of His own human flesh. It was literally His humanity that killed Him. The pressures of life became too much on His form, and He had nothing left to give it. 

And then...and then...He breathed His last. Just as God the Creator first breathed life into Adam, so Jesus the Christ gave up this very breath of life. In the most public of ways, in the most public of places, hanging on a Cross on the side of the road for all to see, Jesus returned the breath of life to His Father, releasing it from His own burdened body with the victorious utterance, It. Is. Finished.

We often wonder why Jesus the Christ had to be crucified, but there was no other way. There was just no other way. Christ on the Cross shows us what happens when a man falls in on himself, when the weight of his own humanity becomes too much to bear, and then He completes the story of the Second Adam by returning to God the very breath of life. It's brutal, yes. 

But it's beautiful, too. 

Friday, October 23, 2015


Have you ever read an amazing book? It must have been one that was so well-written, you found yourself just swept away in it, imagining not only that you knew all the characters - the way they walked, the way they talked, the way they dressed - but imagining, perhaps, that you yourself were one of the characters - walking the same streets, talking in the same dialect, adventuring the same adventures. 

Or have you ever seen an incredible movie? The stagery, the scenery, the all-encompassing work of setting must have swept you away to another world entirely, if only for a short while. You walk away feeling like you've actually visited those places, those times, those people. You walk away with vivid memories of what it's like to have been right there, even though "right there" may have, in fact, been nothing more than "right here" - a seat on the sofa, a chair in the theater. 

Or maybe it's a television show. Maybe you feel like you've solved crimes with the BAU, like you've had dinner with the Reagans, like you've lived in the same building as Monica, Joey, Chandler, and a host of other friends.

There's something about a good book or a good movie or even a good television show that just captivates us. It's so easy for us to get lost in the narratives. It's so easy for us, even though we never leave "right here," to feel like we are "right there." And generally, when that happens, we can't stop talking about it. 

Nor do we get tired of hearing about it. 

It's a strange thing, isn't it? We can all gather around in our little groups and talk about these books, movies, and television shows seemingly forever. We invest our time in discovering all the little nuances that make them work. We willingly allow ourselves to relive them again and again and again, as if, should we talk about them enough, we would never have to leave Narnia. 

But then someone tells us a story, a real story, and somehow, it can't end quickly enough. Or they tell us the same story again and again, and we're bored, then irritated. How many times do I have to hear about your grandmother's cancer? How many times do I have to hear about your son's soccer game? How many times do I have to hear fill in the blank. We'll accompany Frodo on all of his journeys, but when it comes to Fred next door, well....

What's wrong with us?

Can you imagine what life would be like if we would let ourselves get as wrapped up in each other's stories as we do in the ones on our pages and screens? What if our own neighborhoods, our own communities, were the places we visited again and again and again? What if our own neighbors, our friends, our families were the characters whose lives were fleshed out before us? What if we lived, feeling like we were walking the same walk as they are, talking the same talk, dressing in the same dress. What if we gathered together and told our stories over and over and over again and they never got old? 

What if, instead of talking about Pandora, we were talking about Plainsville? What if, instead of the modern family, we were talking about our modern families? What if, instead of talking about Star Wars, we were looking star-ward? What if the stories that are all around us, the stories we are actually living, became the stories of our generation? What if, instead of talking about the latest epic adventure of our fantastical friends, we started talking about the epic adventures our real friends are on - these little things called "lives"?

What if we let ourselves get lost in the pages, the stages, and the screens that are living and breathing and still being written right before our very eyes? What if we were captivated by each other?

It's not that we don't know how to do it. We're great at engaging in story. We do it all the time. So let's start doing it with stories that matter: our stories. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Priests and Levites

There's an interesting little sentence tucked away in 2 Chronicles 29. It's wrapped in the story of when Hezekiah rededicates the Temple of the Lord, having found some holy books buried deep within it and discovered the sinfulness of a long string of kings and, therefore, the people. The priests are very busy trying to make atonement for the years of abuse and disuse and disobedience, but the work is far too much for them to accomplish alone. So they call on the Levites to help them. And then, we're told:

The Levites were more diligent in making themselves holy than the priests were. v. 34

The Levites were the men of the tribe of Israel charged with the keeping of the Temple. In the Exodus story, they were the ones responsible for toting the Tabernacle from place to place, setting it up, tearing it down. They never got to do the so-called "priestly" work - prayer, sacrifices, offerings, incense. No, they were only responsible for making the space for all of this work to be done. 

It sounds like kind of a terrible job, especially when you consider the sheer weight of the Tabernacle. But it was incredibly important. Without the Levites, there's no place for the priests to do their work. Without the Levites, there's nowhere for Israel to gather in the presence of God. Without the Levites, there's no holy place. There's just...desert. Wilderness. Wandering. 

Maybe that's why they found it so easy to take their job seriously.

Of course, things were different once the Temple was constructed. We're not really told how this changed the duties of the Levites, now that they had no Tabernacle to carry. Now that the Temple was permanent, what is a tent-carrier to do with himself? And yet, when Hezekiah institutes some religious reforms and the restoration of the Temple, the Levites are all about it. They're into it. They're more diligent about the whole thing, the Scriptures say, even than the priests. 

Could it be because, for the first time in a long time, they were charged once again with making a holy place?

There's something special about being a place maker. Yes, yes, the Scriptures say that blessed are the peacemakers, but blessed, too, are the place makers. And I think we all understand that at some level. We can easily get lost in what we consider the "priestly" work of our faith - prayer, Scripture study, worship. These are the holy things that we do to show our affection and devotion and desire of God, and they are certainly important. 

But something changes in us when our lives become less about holy things and more about holy places. Something changes when we understand that we create the space for those around us to come to God. Something changes when we become aware that, as God's chosen people, we are tasked not with serving temples, but with building them. Being them. It's one thing when your own faith is on the line; it's another thing entirely when someone else's is, when you come to understand that someone else either comes to God, or doesn't, on the sheer basis of whether or not you've created a sufficiently welcoming holy space for them. 

Makes you a little more diligent about things, doesn't it? 

It's the difference between saying that we're going to come together to worship and saying that we're coming together to create the space to worship. It's the difference between saying we're going to gather to pray and saying that we're going to gather and create a space for prayer. There's something holy going on, but we don't have to do holy; we just have to create a space where holy can happen. 

It's the difference between going to God and making a space for God to come to us. 

It's not surprising that the Levites were more diligent in making themselves holy than the priests were. There's something special about the task of the Levite that the priest just doesn't get. The priest may do the so-called holy work - the sacrifices, the prayer, the ritual - but without a holy place, what good is the work? The holy place is the work of the Levites, and they know it. 

The holy place is the work of the faithful. Do you know it? 

Be diligent about making yourself holy, for you are a chosen people of God, called to be place makers. Holy place makers. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Sacrificing Pigs

There's a very fine line we must take with Scripture, and that is the difference between doing things in a Biblical way and actually doing Biblical things. It may seem like merely a game of semantics, but it's much, much more than that.

For example, we could look deep into Leviticus and find the so-called Biblical way to sacrifice a pig. All of the instructions for animal sacrifice are right there. A person brings the animal, in this case, a pig, to the priest. The priest lays his hands on the head of the pig and delivers a prayer, consecrating the animal for the sacrifice or transferring the guilt of the man onto the animal. The priest then takes the pig's head in his hands and, with a quick jerk, snaps the animal's neck.

There are instructions for how to then butcher the animal, how to cut and divide it. There are guidelines about which portions of the animal are holy, which parts are to be placed on the fire of the altar and which are to be discarded. All of the blood, it says, is to be poured out, since blood is life; blood is holy. So we pour out the pig's blood there to the side of the altar. And part of every sacrifice belongs to the priest so that he and his family can eat, too, so we cut off a slab or two of bacon and put them on the priest's table. Then we proceed to fuel the fires and burn the offering of the pig. 

It's all very Biblical. Except, of course, it's not. 

Because the pig was never an acceptable sacrifice in the Bible. No good Jew would ever dream of sacrificing a pig. God never asked for one. God never accepted one. God never even granted that the Jews themselves could have anything to do with a pig, much less eat one. It was an unclean animal. 

And here we have it. We have gone to the Bible. We have discovered all of the guidelines of animal sacrifice. We have applied those guidelines to the sacrifice we have chosen. And yet....

Do you see the problem?

Of course, we're not much engaged in animal sacrifice any more. This example doesn't particularly apply to most of us, even bacon lovers. But it's a vivid illustration of some of the other ways in which we've allowed ourselves to substitute so-called Biblical ways for actual Biblical things.

There are persons, for example, who think they have found a Biblical way to judge sin in this world. Really. And of course, there are numerous statements in both the Old and New Testaments about sin, about atonement, about accountability, about all of these things. But there is also a very real Biblical mandate that we not judge at all. So when we judge, even if we judge according to some standard we have found in the Scripture, we may be doing something in what seems like a Biblical way, but we are not doing a Biblical thing.

Last week, I spent the entire week talking with fellow seminarians about what it means to lead Biblically in this world. And they had some interesting insights into what it means to be a leader, but something about it was eating at me. It turns out, it was this very thing. In all of the Scriptures, God never calls us to lead. He calls us to serve. He calls us to love. He calls us to relationship and community and a whole host of other things. And even to the Rock upon which He will build His church, He never says, Build my church or even Lead my church. He says, feed my sheep. And feeding is an act of service. 

We can, of course, draw many lessons in leadership from the Bible - from Moses, from David, from the prophets, from Jesus Himself. But leadership is our word, it's our thing; it's not God's. So here we are again waxing eloquent about a Biblical way to do something, without considering that it may not be a Biblical thing to do. 

These are just a few examples, but the truth is that we're doing this very thing in many places. We're going to our Bibles to figure out how we're supposed to be doing something without first seeking the Scriptures to discover if it is a thing worth doing at all. This often juts us right up against the conventions of this world, the best wisdom that man has to offer. 

How do we conquer sin in this world if we don't place any judgment on it? What would this world be without its leaders? What if...what if I feel called to sacrifice a pig? 

For these answers, we cannot turn to the wisdom of this world; we have to look deep into the wisdom of God. How do we conquer sin? We don't. God does. God did. Love does. What would this world be without its leaders? A community, a real community. It would be a place built around relationships, not ideas. It's Biblical wisdom, not conventional wisdom. It's Biblical things, not merely Biblical ways. 

And about the pig? Eat the bacon. Because the table is no longer about the sacrifice; it's about the fellowship. And fellowship is a very Biblical thing. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Sacred Story

Most of us are prone to believe there's something in our story that disqualifies us from ever being all that God created us to be. Or that our story may disqualify us from serving Him at all. I know there have been (and still are) times when I have felt that way. 

It's hard to imagine that God could have accounted for the most broken parts of our stories, that somehow, it's okay if we were abused, abandoned, broken, beaten, sinful, struggling, or whatever. But here's the truth, and I hope it will ring true for you even in the hollow recesses of a broken heart - your story is often the very thing that qualifies you for God's service.

We put so much emphasis on skills and abilities, on education and training. We celebrate character and personality and giftedness. As if these are the things that most qualify us to do whatever it is that we do. You wouldn't imagine hiring, say, a preacher who could not read and understand the Bible, who did not have some theological training, whose personality did not boom forth out of the pulpit and catch both ears and eyes. You wouldn't hire a preacher who was not a gifted speaker. Right?

And yet, the preacher could be all of these very things - adept at understanding, theologically-minded, bursting with personality, endowed with great character, gifted in speaking - and yet still not be qualified for the position of preacher if he's missing one essential aspect: story. 

Because you would never hire a preacher who hasn't met God, would you?

That's story. It's not enough to be able to talk about God. It's not enough to be able to read and dissect His Word. What we need in our pulpits, and most of us recognize this, is someone who has encountered God somewhere, who has had a life-changing interaction with Him, who can tell you what God's voice sounds like in the empty spaces, what His light looks like in the darkness, what His touch feels like. We need someone who can narrate for us what God is really like, and the only way you know that is if you have met Him. 

I don't care who you are. I don't care how gifted you are. I don't care how trained and educated and endorsed you are. If you have not met God, if you don't have the personal story of Him, get out of my pulpit. You're useless to me.

The same is true on the pastoral care side. There are groups, healing groups, out there for all kinds of persons - divorcees, addicts, victims of crime or abuse or abandonment, whatever. And there are persons in our churches who absolutely, without question, have the heart to lead these groups. Love just flows out of them. Compassion oozes out of their pores. They are filled with empathy. 

But if you haven't been divorced, your heart can only take you so far. If you haven't been addicted, your compassion is missing something. If you haven't been the victim of a crime or abuse or abandonment, all the empathy in the world is not going to make you as valuable to that group as someone who has that story, and who handles that story with humility. 

See, it's not an either-or proposition. It's not that you can have either a story or the training. Your story alone doesn't qualify you for service, either. But it's that story mixed with the training, stirred together with grace that starts to get you there. It's a story handled with humility that's essential here. 

As much as we don't need the unqualified, unstoried individual guiding our endeavors, neither do we need the man (or woman) who puts his/her own story on a pedestal. We don't need someone raising up a story to show us how it's done; we need someone who enters into a story to show us how it's lived. 

And that means, yes, when you use your story, when God uses your story, you end up living it again and again and again. You end up putting yourself right back in those places, right back in those shoes. It doesn't sound like much fun, or like much good could come of that. But every time you put yourself back in those shoes, you take new steps, and your story becomes something new. You look around and see just what it is not that your story does to you, but that your story enables you to do. It qualifies you for something, for the very work God has set before you. 

So be thankful for whatever your story is because it's leading you to somewhere holy. It's making you able to do the very thing God has called you to do. Maybe it feels like that story disqualifies you from this thing or that thing, and maybe that's true. But it also qualifies you for the thing, that one thing that you do by God's amazing design. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Passive Faith

We put a great deal of emphasis on activity - in our lives, in our faith. We always need to be doing something, as if were we not doing something, we would be doing nothing. And it sounds like, of course. The opposite of something is nothing. 

But there's more to it than simply this. 

For instance, we spend a great deal of time trying to "find" ourselves. This is what our culture has told us we must do - we must go out and seek ourselves, discover who we are, put together a self, a life, from what we find. And most of us take this to heart and spend our lives searching, finding. We think that finding is the thing. It's the something. And the opposite of finding is abandoning. It's the nothing. So we either do something - find ourselves - or we do nothing - and we're lost forever. 

It's almost true, except...except if you are really set out on finding yourself, you must at some point become a self who can be found. And being found is something, too. 

Or we say things like how much we want to grow in this life. And we set about trying to grow ourselves. We provide ourselves the food we deem necessary for growth, be it spiritual or physical. We tie ourselves into networks intended to grow us socially or relationally. We seek out water, running or living, to quench our thirst. We turn toward the light, allowing it to nourish us. We're doing all the right things to facilitate our growth.

Except...we have not stopped to consider whether we are able to be grown. 

We talk about loving better, but are we able to be loved? We talk about becoming stronger, but are we able to be strengthened? 

It's easy to get lost in the active life. After all, active feels like something. Finding, growing, loving, becoming - these are the active things that we do. Being found, being grown, being loved, being strengthened - these are not as much our doing. They seem like very passive things.

Passive things, yet perhaps the most powerful things. 

If you cannot be found, all the finding you ever do in your life will be futile. You can search for yourself literally forever without ever coming any closer. But it's a hard thing to do, this being found. When you set out to find, you can look for the things that you hope you are or that you desire to be. When you allow yourself to be found, you must embrace who you actually are, warts and all. That takes incredible faith. It takes faith to stand wide out in the open and say, "Here I am. This is me." Now, if you don't like who that is, then set about - by prayer and discipline - to change it. But understand that you can't just set out to find in yourself someone who you're not. Being found requires that you be wholly who you are. 

If you cannot be grown, what's the point of all your nourishment? You may expand your boundaries, but not your horizons. And what good is that? But it's a hard thing to do, this being grown. It's one thing to say that you know you must grow; it's another thing entirely to take that message into your heart and allow yourself to change. To be grown means to admit that right now, you're not the full manifestation of yourself. It takes faith to say, "I am not who I was intended to be." Now, if you know that you're not who you were intended to be, then set about - by prayer and discipline - to change it. But knowing that you need to grow inherently requires knowing all that you're not. Being grown requires that you be wholly who you are.

Are you getting the idea? There's so much of faith, even our active faith, that rests on our passive faith, our willingness to simply be wherever we are. It's our willingness to admit our shortcomings, our fallenness, our emptiness, our ache. That little word be, it indicates the passive. It indicates not that we are doing something, but that something is being done to us. It sounds like...nothing. 

But it's really everything. 

Because if you can never allow yourself to be, how do you ever hope to become

And just look at that beautiful word. Become. It's the active and the passive drawn together, the doing and the being done all at once. It is be, for we have no choice but simply to be, and it is come, for we ache to move. So become. Become to the Father, just as you are. Let your passive faith speak and your active faith hear. It's okay. 

Seek, and be found. Eat, and be nourished. Drink, and be quenched. Love, and be loved. Believe in who you are today, in the God who knows you just as you are. Be that. And be come to Him. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

At the Foot of the Cross

It seems either odd or overly religious to say that you might meet Jesus at the foot of the Cross. It sounds But there were some very interesting characters who met Him there.

Namely, the Roman guard.

We don't actually know much about the Roman centurions. They are not prominent characters throughout most of the Gospels. In fact, they're not even the police force that arrests Jesus! That was the high priest and his posse, so the Romans are really getting their first look at Jesus when they crucify Him.

It's hard to say how many Jews, if any, were among the Roman guard. Maybe a few would have had the opportunity to encounter Jesus here or there, but the Gospels seem to paint these hard lines around the whole Jesus thing somehow, so that we get the sense He was a cultural phenomenon and not a political one. The Romans, except perhaps for the commotion He caused, could probably have cared less about one Jewish prophet over another. Who is this Jesus? 

Who cares?

We have a good number of these same folks around us right now, and they might even consider themselves sort of a Roman guard. Their primary interest is the protection of the state, or so they say. Aside from the commotion He sometimes causes, they could care less about one prophet over another. Who is this Jesus? they ask. We just don't care. 

But then something happens, and they are charged with crucifying Him. They finally get their hands on Him and get to see up close and in person what this Jesus guy is all about. And they're not particularly impressed. This Jesus, He looks like any other prisoner. He's got the calloused hands of the carpenter. He bears the lineage of a man from Nazareth, from Nowhere. He's weary, exhausted. Sweat drips down His face like anyone else's, and He has that same condemned look in His eyes. He lays on that Cross like any other man.

This is no one special. 

As time passes, however, this Jesus reveals more and more of Himself to the guard. They mock Him, even spitting in His face, and He does not respond. Who is this man? We cannot even mock Him!

They offer Him a sour drink, a tiny favor to wet His dry mouth, and He refuses. Who is this man? His thirst does not bother Him! He will not take our drink!

They preside over His death, watching as the life drains right out of Him before their very eyes. Unprecedented darkness settles over the entire land. They couldn't have predicted this. This man is just a criminal, just a common, nothing man. And at the very moment it seems they have killed Him, the whole earth shakes. All of Jerusalem hears the curtain tearing. The dead walk out of their graves as this man is carried into His. 

And the Roman guard look up and declare, in an awed whisper, Surely, this is the Son of God.

They have met Jesus at the foot of that Cross.

The same is happening to the Roman guard in our modern world. They're finally getting their hands on Jesus, or so it seems, and they are wholly unimpressed. This man, He's just a common man. Look at His hands, at His beard, at His face. Look at the place from where He came. He's a nothing, a nobody. He's weary, exhausted. Sweat drips down His so-called holy face, and He has that same condemned look in His eyes as every other criminal. He lays out before a persecuting world like any other man. 

This is no one special.

They mock Him, only to discover that He cannot be mocked. It is infuriating. What good is our mocking if the man does not respond? 

They offer Him their piddling gifts, a mockery of His thirst, but He does not drink. He would rather be thirsty than pacified. Who is this guy?

They preside over His death, or so they think, watching the life drain out of the Jesus movement right before their very eyes. They're killing this whole "Christian" thing, making it impossible, making it illegal, making it ridiculous. But there's a darkness settling over the land. We're seeing it in violence, in prejudice, in poverty, in a thousand other ways. They couldn't have predicted it. This is just a common man, right? But without Him, we are losing our moral footing. Without Him, we don't know how to live any more. Our covenant is falling apart, and falls into the empty hands of lust, and we don't lust after each other. We don't lust after community. 

And just at the very moment they think they've won, they think they've finally done it and killed it all off, the whole earth shakes. The very foundations of existence tremble. The whole world hears the curtain tearing. The dead walk out of their graves. 

And even these, these who thought they were doing the state a service, those who thought there was nothing special about this man, having now come face-to-face with Him and gotten everything they thought they wanted, have no option but to look up and declare, in an awed whisper, Surely, this is the Son of God.

There is something special about this Man, after all. 

They have finally met Jesus. At just the moment when they thought they were killing Him, He brought them life. 

It happens all the time. It happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. It happened to Lee Strobel when he set out to prove that there was no God. It happens to people who are intent on taking Jesus out of our schools, out of our Congress, out of our communities only to discover that they truly needed Him there. It happened to the Roman guard at the foot of the Cross. And it's still happening there. 

Sometimes, you have to give the people what they want. You have to let them kill Jesus. Because for some, this is the only place they'll ever meet Him - at the foot of the Cross. And it is here, with great authority, that it was shown and confirmed, Truly, this is the Son of God. 

It's an amazing place to meet Jesus. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

In a Panic

There are actually quite a few stories in the Gospels about persons who meet Jesus this way - in a panic. There is Jairus, whose daughter is dying in some distant place. There is the Canaanite woman, begging for the life of her child. There is the father of the boy whose demon throws him into severe convulsions. There is a bleeding woman who can hardly catch her breath as she sneaks, unclean, through the swarming crowds. There are the disciples during at least two severe storms on the sea. There is the criminal on the cross, just hours from his own death. 

Call it what you will - panic, desperation, anxiety - this is clearly one of the most common places you meet Jesus.

We actually continue to hear stories about this sort of thing today. We hear about the young man who was seconds away from ending his own life, only to be drawn back by some presence he could not explain, only to find out in the next breath that it was Jesus Himself. We hear about the mother in the NICU who has never prayed before, but suddenly starts crying out, interceding for her child. Less dramatic, but no less powerful, we hear about the sinner who seeks refuge in the sanctuary, crying unending tears in a lonely pew in some dark, off-hour of the church, only to be overwhelmed by the peace and presence of Christ. 

It's happening over and over and over again. So what is it about this Jesus that we find in a panic? What is it about Him that is so powerful and meaningful?

I think it's this: these moments, perhaps more than any other, beautifully combine the humanity and the divinity of God. You wouldn't really think of His humanity here, as He doesn't appear particularly "moved" by any of these events. You never hear His voice crack with sympathy. You never see a single tear from His broken heart. (Not here. We do see Him cry at the death of His friend, Lazarus, but that is not a panic narrative.) You don't hear Him cry out against a broken human machine. You don't sense the same frustrations that we have with these moments. You never hear panic or desperation or fear in His voice. 

He's rock steady. 

And that's the divinity coming through. Because He understands that in these moments, as much as you need a friend, you're not crying out to a friend. You're crying out to a God. You need an omniscient, omnipotent, supernatural, compassionate, loving force who is big enough to get you out of this pit you're in, which is too deep and dark for any human intervention. You need to know, right now, that the mountains do move. You need to know that the waves do cease. You need to know that the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk and the dead will live again. No human can ever give you that. 

You need a God.

But even as His divinity shines through in an impossible moment, so, too, is He also the very friend you need. Each of these moments is deeply personal. It's the human touch. It's someone who climbs into the pit with you. You can feel His hands touching you. You can look into His eyes. You can hear His voice. He is, in this very moment in which He's doing something indescribable, doing something very tangible. He is physically present. 

Jairus heard the authority in His voice as He spoke a healing word. The Canaanite woman felt His feet in her hands as she desperately prayed, unwilling to let go of Him. The father of the demon-possessed boy took his son back from Jesus' very hands. The bleeding woman knows intimately what His cloak feels like. The disciples have seen Him roll His eyes. The blind man felt His hands on his darkened eyes. 

Even in our modern stories, it's the same. The young man on the verge of suicide has felt a hand pulling him back. The mother in the NICU looks up at the Christ on the wall and sees life in His eyes. The sinner in the sanctuary flushes warm with the intimacy of the moment. 

In a panic, in desperation, in anxiety, in fear, we see the full nature of God more powerfully than any other time. When we meet Jesus here, He is divine, because we desperately need a God, and He is also human, for we're in desperate need of a friend. That's why this is such a beautiful place to meet Jesus. 

Here, we meet all of Him. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Near the Well

As we talk about some of the places you meet Jesus, one of my favorite Jesus encounters absolutely must make the list: the woman at the well. 

This is a Samaritan woman who has, shall we say, a past, which we become privy to as the conversation develops between she and Jesus. It turns out this woman has been married five times and is now somehow connected to a sixth man who is not her husband. Talk about fodder for gossip! Her life is a mess, one series of bad choices after another, it seems, and what is most distorted in all her love. She's never found a love that is satisfying. So her life is just one big broken mess. 

In fact, that's how she's come to encounter Jesus at this particular spot at this particular time on this particular day. Because her life is such a mess, she's reorganized her entire schedule to avoid it, as much as is possible. See, the other women, the women whose lives aren't so much a mess, they draw water in the mornings, before it gets too hot, before the sun and the heat start to evaporate that water right out of the well, and before the rest of the town can deplete the well's water supply. They come and draw water together, as women do, talking about this and that and everything (and probably everyone) else. They're even talking about her. Which is why she's not there in the mornings. She draws her water in the heat of the day, when her broken life won't be so much on display. 

It's a common story, really. Most of us prefer to live our lives this way - quietly. Without the commentary of others. We have our secrets, our sins, our brokenness, and we prefer for it not to be on display. Most of us would go out of our way to avoid the prying eyes of others. To avoid the stares. To avoid the whispers. To avoid the gossip. 

And most of us would say this is not a great plan for meeting Jesus. He's the most popular Guy in all the world. He draws huge crowds, the very same crowds we're hoping to avoid. He can't go anywhere without people following Him, but we would love to go everywhere alone. The weight of our own stories is too much, and we're better off living them by ourselves. And by ourselves, deliberately alone, purposely avoiding the crowds and the neighbors, where are we ever supposed to meet this Jesus?

By the well, of course.

This woman wanders out to the well, and there is this man. This Jewish man. Sitting alone (the disciples have gone into the town to get food), seeming to be doing nothing at all. Her story has emptied her, but He's not interested in that. He asks her for the one thing she seems to have to give at the moment: water. A simple drink of water. Not a life story. Not a confession. Not a justification. Just water. She has the chance, in just this one moment, to be human. To be normal. To give something that she actually has to give. 

It's this moment of ability, of capability, that draws her into a conversation with Jesus. What we have to note here is that she never once degrades herself. She knows her own story, but when Jesus asks for water, she doesn't say, "Oh, sir, I could never give you water. Everything I touch becomes filthy dirty." Most of us who wallow in our own stories would have. But she doesn't. She takes this one quiet moment to feel human again, to just be, apart from her story, for just a breath. 

That's what happens when you meet Jesus at the well, when you encounter Him in this place you've deliberately made lonely. He comes and, for a breath, offers you the chance to just be human. And not just human, but meaningfully human. He invites you to connect with Him, to talk, to share, to give freely maybe the one thing that you actually have. It makes you feel human again. It makes you feel, even in your deliberate loneliness, not so lonely after all. There's someone out there....

And this encounter, this brief encounter, it started to re-order this woman's love. It started to put love back in place. She made one profound, deep, real, meaningful connection with another human being, and it changed her. How do we know that it changed her? 

Because she took off running toward the town to tell them a story for a change. She met Jesus in this desperately lonely place, then took off running toward community as fast as her legs would carry her. 

She made one meaningful connection with a stranger at a well, and she took off running toward more meaningful relationships. And I can't help but think that she stopped going out to the well by herself. I think she probably started going in the mornings, with all the other women, even the women who couldn't stop talking about her. Because she couldn't stop talking about Him. And if we're going to tell stories, then, let's tell them. Let's tell yours. Let's tell mine. Let's tell His. 


That's what happens when you meet Jesus at the well.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On the Hillside

One of the first places you meet Jesus is on the hillside. Indeed, this is one of the most frequent - and anonymous - places to meet Jesus.

Anonymity matters. To a lot of us, it does, anyway. I can't tell you how many persons I've spoken with who have told me they wouldn't mind going to church if the church wouldn't make such a big deal about their being there. And they have a point. The church got into a really bad habit about this several years ago, always taking time out of the service to draw attention to any visitors they may have in their presence. "Stand up, so we can see you." Or worse, "stand up and introduce yourself." 

Uh, hi?

Then everybody claps as though you've done some amazing thing by showing up at their church, and it makes the whole situation not only embarrassing, but also a little shallow. Is the most amazing, most clap-worthy thing at this church that you chose to show up today? Yikes! 

The great thing about the hillside is that it preserves your anonymity. It gives you the chance to hear Jesus speak, and it makes sure that He is the most amazing thing that's happening here.

Look at some of the hillside narratives in the Gospels. There is the feeding of the five thousand. And the feeding of the four thousand. And what's interesting about these stories is that in both of these narratives, one thing is missing: names. Not one person in the whole crowd is mentioned by name here. Not one. Nobody's saying, "And there were four thousand. And Jesus noticed Bill in the back of the crowd and waved to him." No. It's just people, coming to hear Jesus speak. Coming to be near Him. The story is not about who they are.
The longest of the hillside narratives, by far, is the Sermon on the Mount, where the crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak. Here, again, across three chapters of the book of Matthew, not one of these persons is mentioned by name. There's no Bill here. No Betty. Not even a Mary or a Joseph. There are just the "crowds," people who have come to hear the Word of God speak. And what's great about the Sermon on the Mount is that we actually hear Jesus speak. We know what He said. And these crowds, these anonymous crowds, got exactly what they were looking for. 

He was speaking to them.

I've written about this before, but we need look no further than the Beatitudes for the demonstration of this. When Jesus said, Blessed are those... He know those were the very ones gathered on the hillside. He knew that around Him sat the meek, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He knew that He was speaking to the poor in spirit. They knew it, too. And because of the anonymity of the hillside, they were comfortable knowing He was speaking to them. They didn't feel called out by it. Rather, they were able to feel comforted by His words.

It's not very dramatic. It doesn't feel very personal, the hillside. Most of us think this must be a terrible way to meet Jesus, cloaked in anonymity, surrounded by the masses, tucked away in the back pew, but this continues to be the primary way that people meet Jesus and, we might argue, the preferred way for people to meet Him.

It's a chance to sit back and listen to what Jesus has to say without worrying about getting sucked up into this bigger thing that you may or may not be ready for. It's an opportunity to hear His words and let them sink into your heart, to figure out what He's really saying and, more specifically, what He is saying to you. It's a chance to enter into your own heart for a minute and understand the poorness of your spirit, your hunger and thirst for righteousness, and to contrast that ache with what He's proposing. The hillside, because it's not about you, is profoundly about God, and it gives you the chance to see for yourself, to hear for yourself, to consider for yourself who this Jesus is. 

And it makes sure that the most amazing thing happening here is Jesus. 

It's hard for us as churches. We want to be "seeker-friendly" and we're always thinking about numbers and making good contact and creating communities where people feel welcome. And all of that is well and good. But we have to remember that seeker-friendly isn't always seeker-sensitive and that most people who are looking for Jesus aren't looking to be dropped through a thatched roof into the midst of the whole thing.

They want to just sit on the hillside for awhile and hear Him speak. 

So the best thing we can do as the church is make sure that's happening. Make sure that when people walk through our doors, tuck themselves away in our back pews, stake out a piece of the hillside for themselves, they can hear Jesus speaking. Not just speaking, but speaking to them.

Because this is a great place to meet Jesus.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Where You Meet Jesus

The Gospels are rich with the story of Jesus, it's true. But these are not merely the stories of God-become-flesh; they are also the stories of the countless individuals who met Him in that flesh. And although we often talk about the Jesus who comes to us, the Gospels are overwhelmingly told in the stories of the persons who come to Him. 

In the manger, God comes to us in the form of a baby. But on the streets of Jerusalem, the shores of Galilee, the roads of the nation of Israel, it is us who are coming to Him. We're coming in the form of the hemorrhaging woman, sneaking through the crowds for a chance to touch His robe. We're coming in the form of the blind men, who dare stand on the sides of the roads and cry out His name. We're coming in the form of the tree climbers, doing all we can to get a better look at this Man. We're coming to Him in the form of the disciples, eager to hear His wise words. 

We're coming in the form of the paraplegics, who come not carrying their own burdens, but being carried as burdens, but who come nonetheless. We're coming in the form of the sinners, called out in the presence of this merciful God. We're coming in the form of the dejected, the rejected, the outcast, whose stories unfold in quiet obscurity.

We're coming in the form of the Pharisees, thinking we've got this whole religion thing "right." Thinking we know holiness better than even the Holy One standing before us. We're coming in the form of the Sanhedrin, sitting in judgment of this Jesus, this so-called Son of God, unable to believe that He could ever be the One He claims to be. I mean, just look at Him. We're coming in the form of the Romans, holding Him accountable to our measures of law and justice. 

Two thousand years later, we're coming in the same ways that men and women came to Him in the Gospels. 

It's impossible to tell all of their stories. It's impossible for us to reflect on each and every one of them, for we know only the few that are given to us in the remembrances of the disciples. It's impossible for us to know to how many hurt, how many broken, how many wounded, how many sinful persons Jesus truly came and in what ways and what those encounters were really like. 

But for the hurt, the broken, the wounded, and the sinful among us, what we have is a beautiful start. So I thought I'd take a few days this week just to look at some of those stories. Just some of them. Just to see what it is that we had in common with these persons who came to Jesus and what we can learn about Him from those very encounters. 

Because we're not so different from the blind men, from the bleeding, from the broken, from the blessed. We're really not. And the Lord they met is no different at all from our Lord. In fact, we know He is the same. 

Yesterday and today and forever. 

So pack a bag, lace up your sandals, and come with me on a journey to the places where you, me, we all meet Jesus. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Find Your Edges

Most of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out who we are. This is especially true, ironically, for those of us who come to know God, who actually tells us who we are. The more God reveals to us our created nature, the more we struggle with how it is we are actually supposed to live this out. Who are we? And how do we become the persons we were meant to be?

I grew up loving jigsaw puzzles. I still do, actually. Like many wise individuals, my mother always taught me that when you're working a jigsaw puzzle, it's best to go through the whole box first and pick out all of the edge pieces. This way, you put the outmost portion of the puzzle together first, and you know for sure that all of the other pieces somehow fit inside. 

I'm finding the same is true for finding myself. 

Finding yourself is about finding your edges first. We all have them. We all have that point where we refuse to take one more step in this direction or that, where we won't go any further than we already are, where we won't do this thing or that thing, no matter what. Where do you draw your lines?

Maybe you draw your lines regarding which causes you'll give your money to. Maybe you'll give your money to this ministry, but not that one. That's an edge. That's you saying that the shape of you is somehow dependent on this certain cause, but is not defined by that one at all. Maybe you give your time to working with, say, young girls but not, say, prison inmates. There's another edge. You're saying that one of the things that shapes you is what you have to offer to a young woman, but that you're not comfortable being defined by what you might offer a prisoner. 

It's hard for us to draw some of these lines, to declare some of these edges. When we make value decisions about who we are, we also make value decisions about who we are not, then we wonder if people might somehow get confused. If we seem generous financially in one regard, it is assumed that perhaps we are simply financially generous. But when we withhold our financial generosity from something else, someone's likely to press back against us and say, "I thought you were generous." All of a sudden, by drawing our edges, we find that something about us somehow exists on both sides of the line. And generous seems like such a good thing. Why wouldn't we want to be generous? So we expand our lines and give, even when we are not led to give, even when it is not consistent with who we are. Or we mentor young girls well, but are not so adept with the prisoner. Someone is going to say that we're picking and choosing who we invest our time in, that we're drawing unnecessary lines. But are they unnecessary?

Because when you blur your lines, people notice that, too. They notice that you don't stand for anything. They notice that you try to be everything. They notice that you don't seem to know who you are.

It's a challenge. We live in a world that wants to have it both ways. They want us to be specific things, but not in specific situations, and we've sort of bought into this. We've bought into the idea that we must reflect ourselves as generous persons, rather than letting our generosity reflect our persons. And in doing so, we've blurred our lines. 

It's okay to define your edges. It's okay to discover where your passions are, where you feel most contained within yourself. Where you feel like there's a definition and shape to you that's all yours. It's okay to draw lines and say, "This is where I end." Because the place where you end is also where some phantom of you begins, and nobody wants to be a shadow. 

So find your edges. Figure out where it is that God has designed you to say, this is it. This is as far as I go in this direction. Figure out what it is that gives you your distinctive shape. There's a you-shaped hole in this universe that God has designed specifically you to fill, but you'll never get there if you leave your life in a thousand pieces and never start putting it together. Remember - once you have your edges, you know for sure that all of the other pieces fit inside there somewhere. It's just a matter of sorting out where. 

It's an amazing thing to discover who you are in the imagination of God, who He designed you to be. It's a holy exercise going through all your pieces and figuring out how you fit together. It's an incredible feeling to feel secure within yourself, by knowing for sure where you begin and where you end. It enables you to live out the best version of you, the created you that God put in this world on purpose. It helps you to live your life letting your best attributes reflect who you are in the most meaningful of ways. You're self-contained, drawn with holy boundaries to be exactly who you are. 

But this must also be said, and it's of the utmost importance: whoever you find yourself to be, whatever you discover are your edges, don't ever draw lines around your love. Don't even try. You can't. Love everybody. Love is the one edge we all share. And, ironically, love is no edge at all. For love knows no bounds. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Over and over again, we hear that our greatest spiritual enemy is not the "Devil," but the "Deceiver." And we assume that these two spiritual beings are one and the same. After all, the serpent in the garden was quite deceptive, twisting words until Eve was not sure what exactly God had said any more. 

Maybe it is that easy. Maybe this Deceiver really is the just the devil, Satan, the fallen angel. Maybe we all, like Job, are caught in the middle of a cosmic supernatural tug-of-war between Truth and deception, between life and death, between God and Deceiver. Maybe.

But what if we're less like Job and more like...Jacob?

Jacob has an interesting story. He's a twin, having come out of the womb clutching the heel of his older brother, Esau. God had already told his mother that although he was the younger child, he would be the more favored of the two. He would be the one to inherit the nation. He would be the one most blessed by God. He would be leader over his brother. It appears that God chose what today we would call "the evil twin."

Esau was righteous. He was the quintessential responsible, respectful first-born. When his father, Isaac, prepared to bless him, Esau went out to hunt his father's favorite food and prepare a meal for him first. It was during this hunt that Jacob, at his mother's prompting, costumed himself as his hairy brother and took a deliciously prepared dish (prepared by his mother, no less) in to his ailing father to steal the blessing of the firstborn. 

No wonder Jacob is called the deceiver. His name became synonymous with the description.

No, I'm not proposing that this deceiver we war against is Jacob himself. We have to go further into Jacob's story to get to where I'm going. 

On one of his many encounters with God, Jacob begins to wrestle a man in the wilderness, a man he does not know (and specifically, does not know is God). The two wrestle all night and in the wee hours of the morning, the mysterious stranger awards Jacob the victory. Jacob demands a blessing. Here, the stranger reveals himself as a Man of God and changes Jacob's name, which has come to mean deceiver, to Israel, "for you have wrestled with God and you have won." And Israel, of course, goes on to become a people of God, a high priesthood, set apart, holy. 

So what does all of this mean for us?

It means that maybe our greatest spiritual enemy, the Deceiver, is not God's fallen angel, but our own fallen heart. Maybe this Deceiver we so battle against is our very self which has not yet claimed victory with God. Maybe our adversary is our unstruggled self who has not yet become a person of God, a high priest, set apart, holy. 

Maybe our answer to the Deceiver is not simply to choose God, but to wrestle with Him. 

I know it's true in my life. My greatest enemy is not some sinister voice whispering in my ear; it's some powerful ache echoing in my empty heart. I don't struggle with the fallen angels nearly as much as I struggle with my fallen flesh. Sometimes, I get the chance to meet with God and there is this mysterious stranger in the dark, but after a good bout of wrestling, come to find out, I am the stranger. 

We are, indeed, engaged in a spiritual war, but maybe our greatest enemy is no phantom in the night. Maybe our greatest enemy is the man in the mirror, the Deceiver himself. Myself. Your self. Our self. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Casting Shadows

Now that we've seen how darkness is merely a corruption of the light and how evil is just a corruption of good, there's just one more thing we need to understand about how all this works. And that is this:

It's all positional.

We know this from our dancing with our own shadows. The position and proximity of the light dramatically changes how the shadow is played. A light that comes from the side casts a longer shadow, while a light that is directly overhead produces nearly no shadow at all. A light that is closer (and therefore brighter) produces a darker shadow whereas a dimmer light or one that is further away produces a lighter darkness.

The same is true for goodness and evil. If goodness draws near to you as a friend, side-by-side, it casts what seems like a longer (or broader) evil in front of you. If goodness hovers over you like a cloud, the evil is greatly reduced. (In Christian terms, we might call this being wrapped in God's goodness. Or embraced.) If the measure of good you're encountering in your life is immense, the evil seems all the darker, whereas if good is but a mere distant idea, evil, too, may seem somehow muted.

So, too, is it important which way you're standing. Where are you looking? If the light is behind you, it casts your shadow in front of you so that all you can see is your own darkness. If goodness is behind you, evil falls in front of you. It's just how it works. But it works the other way, too. If you turn toward the light, if you turn toward good, the darkness and evil fall behind you. This is how we press on, although most of us can never shake the feeling that we're being followed.

And if you make either light or goodness your companion, walking beside you either to your right or your left, then darkness and evil fall to your other side, much like the proverbial angel and demon on each shoulder or the two roads diverged in the wood. You're set up to make a constant choice between one or the other, seeing both, feeling the presence of both.

This is not to say which is best, or even which is better. Sometimes, you need to have the darkness fall in front of you; you need to look evil in the eye. Sometimes, it's better off behind you so that you can move forward. Sometimes, you have to keep darkness on your right; sometimes, you're better armed if it's on your left. Of course, we'd all like to live with our shadows underneath us, but that's just not the way life works. So we have to be realistic about these things and understand that each has its own worthiness.

But we must remember, no matter where darkness falls, no matter where evil appears, it's all positional. It's all relational. It has everything to do with where we're standing juxtaposed to light and goodness. That's all it is.

So if you don't like the darkness you're seeing in your life, move. If you don't like the evil you deal with, move. Its you who makes the shadows dance, not the other way around. So make them dance. Put them in their rightful place; hold them accountable. Hold the shadows accountable to the light. Hold evil accountable to good.

Make darkness dance. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Good and Evil

Yesterday, we entered into sticky theological territory by discovering that God actually only created light; it was the light that created the darkness, which left God with the work of separating the two. Although this is troubling, the question at hand is not really about light and darkness at all, but about something much more distressing.

Good...and evil.

The most frequent questions people have for God and about God centers around the existence of evil. Why is there evil in the world? Where did evil come from? Is God responsible for evil? Why hasn't God done anything about evil? This is the question that is most pressing to our faith.

And it's why I started with darkness and light. Because good and evil work on fairly the same principle. Just as God created the light and the light created darkness, so God created the good, and the good created the evil. And God has spent every moment since trying to separate the two.

It's not theologically satisfying. It's not a lot of comfort in the face of life's evils. But evil is a theological necessity; it illuminates the good. 

You wouldn't think that, right? We were always taught that it was the light that illuminates the darkness, but how can that possibly be the case if light is the only of those two things that actually exists? That is, you cannot create darkness; it is only a corruption of the light. Without darkness, you cannot know what light even is. If everything were light, it would be simply the way things are, and this light would be nothing at all. The darkness puts the light into perspective for us. It lets us see what "light" really is, by creating a void to show us what light must not be. Light must not be darkness.

The same is true with good and evil. Evil on its own does not actually exist. You cannot create evil; it is only a corruption of the good. (Augustine argued this very idea more than a thousand years ago.) But without evil, you cannot know what good even is. If everything were good, it would simply be the way things are, and you could put no qualitative judgment on it. Good would be nothing at all. Evil puts good into perspective for us. It lets us see what "good" really is, by creating a corruption that shows us what good must not be. Good must not be evil.

Still, the question remains: why doesn't God do anything about evil? Why doesn't God simply overcome evil with good? 

He can't. 

Actually, nobody can. Despite what we think, good cannot overcome evil because evil itself exists only as a corruption of the good, so the more good you put into something, the more opportunity for evil you create. The more light you pour into a forest, the darker the shadows. That's just how it works. For God to overcome evil, He would have to use something other than good. He would have to use power. Or authority. Or some other force. But there's one significant problem with this:

If God overcomes evil by power or authority or some other force, He fails to show us how good He is. If God overcomes evil, we can never possibly know His goodness. 

That's why this is such sticky theology. It's not that God is responsible for evil or that He's idle about the whole idea. No. Evil exists by natural law only because good exists, and that good, like light, is a gift of God. It's a reflection of Himself that He's endowed to Creation itself. The same way that we say God is light and He has created such a thing as light, we say also that God is good, and He has created such a thing as good. Necessarily, so that we could know that good at all, it is susceptible to corruption - evil - but evil never changes the good.

Just as shadows never change the light.

There are no easy answers here, which is why these questions continue to plague us. But there is one more thing (at least) that we can learn from this reflection on light and darkness, good and evil, that may put some perspective (quite literally) on the whole thing. That idea, tomorrow. Stay tuned.