Monday, November 30, 2015

The Waiting

Yesterday marked the beginning of the Christian season of Advent, a time each year set aside specifically for hopeful waiting. But do we even know what waiting is any more?

This year, around early September, I couldn't help but notice that the stores were already setting up their Christmas decorations - right alongside Halloween and fall decor. There's something about seeing a skeleton Mary and Joseph with a baby Jesus in a manger while three scarecrows come bearing gifts that just makes you wonder what this world is thinking any more. 

But the point is - here it was just barely September, and we were already starting to think about Christmas, already trying to usher in the season. As soon as the Halloween candy sold out, the Christmas candy went in. As soon as the last zombie was moved to the clearance aisle, the already-inflated Santa was moved over a few skids to take its place. And come December 26, as we all well know, the last few candy canes will make way for heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and cheap little stuffed animals with "I love you" written across their chests. 

We just can't wait any more to get to the next "big" thing. Our lives have become one frantic thing right after another, and I have to be honest...there aren't a lot of us waiting for Christmas any more. Waiting for it to be over, maybe....

Even our Christian practice of Advent has essentially been taken over by the holiday excitement crowd. Families are sitting down each night, opening one more door on their Advent calendar, drawing themselves one day closer to...Santa Claus. That's right. Santa Claus. As if this period of waiting was about nothing more than getting us to Christmas morning. To shards of wrapping paper scattered around the room. To the sounds of boxes being torn open, shouts of glee, and frenzied running from one relative's house to the next to the next until Christmas itself passes us by before we've even had time to realize...

...that it's not about shards of wrapping paper scattered around the room. It's about strands of straw tenderly gathered into a manger.

...that it's not about sounds of boxes being torn open, shouts of glee.... It's the agonizing pain of childbirth, followed by the incredible first cry of a newborn baby boy.

...that it's not about running from one relative's house to the next to the next.... It's about journeying to a manger, bearing meager gifts of this world while knowing that a greater gift has come. 

I don't know how we settled on four weeks. I don't know how we decided that four weeks was just the right amount of time to prepare our hearts, minds, and lives for the coming of the baby Jesus. Mary had more than nine months to prepare (when the angel spoke, he said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you," which means she was not pregnant at the angel's announcement). It probably became more real when Elizabeth birthed John, which was probably about three months before the birth of Jesus (or about the same time that the skeleton-scarecrow-baby Jesus manger scene was going up in all the major retail stores). Maybe it was the lack of medical science in those days, and nobody really knew how to calculate those nine months, so maybe it was about this time that the family started really preparing, expecting the baby to come "any day now." ...any day now...

But we have four weeks. Four short little weeks that we set aside at this time each year for the waiting. The hopeful waiting. The joyful anticipation. Not expectation, for nobody knew what was coming. Nobody knew what Christmas Day was going to be like. Nobody knew what to expect from this little baby boy. But anticipation, because they knew He was coming. And they knew there was going to be something incredible about Him. 

That's what we're waiting for. In this Advent season, we're letting our imaginations run wild with just what it might be that's so incredible about this little boy, this Son of God, this baby Jesus. We're trying to fathom just what it might mean when God Himself is born into this world in a human body. No cheating. It's not about what we know about this baby Jesus, living in a time that looks back on His birth. No, it's about what we can possibly imagine about Him, as if we were waiting for the first time to see what He's really going to be like. 

Don't let this season of waiting pass you by. Don't let it get caught up in all the trappings of a world that's been so busy expecting Christmas this year that it's forgotten how to anticipate it. Don't be drawn away from the stillness by all the craziness that marks this season for so many of us. 

Embrace the waiting. For it could be, it just could be, that any day now...

...a child is born.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Day After

If you're anything like me, it takes you a few days to find yourself again after the holidays. You wake up the next morning uncertain about yourself, uncertain about your friends and family, or uncertain about God.

I don't know what it is. Maybe it's just me.

If you're uncertain about your friends and family this morning, remember that the only reason they were with you in the first place is because there's something about them that makes them worth sharing a table with. There's a reason they were at your holiday (or you were at theirs) in the first place. Maybe it turns out they have weird politics. Maybe someone made what you consider an inappropriate joke. Maybe someone just wasn't into it this year. Maybe...maybe you had a Bears fan on your couch late into the night. 

Even if this is the case, they're still your family; they're still your friends. Nothing essential has changed about them. You spent one special day together, and it was more special because you were both there. Don't let the way your insecurities rubbed against each other change the way you love someone around your table. Remember who they really are to you, on any normal day, on any day when you're not both stressed by the holidays, when one of you isn't a guest and one of you isn't a host and both of you are just who you are. Friends. Family. Joy.

If you're uncertain about yourself this morning, it's because you feel like you did or said something stupid yesterday. Welcome to the club. I do and say something stupid every day. You probably do, too. It just feels different because this day happened to be a holiday, because this day was supposed to be special, because this day was the one day you were supposed to be able to be around your family and friends and not, well...not be yourself. You were supposed to be better than you.

But take heart. The people who shared a table with you yesterday weren't, for the most part, using it as an opportunity to pass judgment on who you are. (There are some wicked, heartless families and friends out there, to be sure, but it's not most of them.) Most of them were just happy you were there. And you probably were, too. So don't be so hard on yourself. Nobody's thinking about it nearly as much as you are. If they are, apologize and move on. The apology is more true of you than anything you may have done "wrong." If you can't get it out of your head, apologize and move on. After all, maybe you're more the kind of person who apologizes than the kind of person who occasionally says or does something stupid (which is perfectly human, by the way).

If you're uncertain about God this morning, it's because you can't figure out why He gave you these people or made you this person in the first place. 

Relax. He knows what He's doing. 

So take it easy on yourself today. Yesterday wasn't so bad. Even if...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thankful Still

It's all too easy to forget on a day like today just how to be thankful. The turkey needs prepped and pushed into the oven. The potatoes need peeled. The yams need boiled. And where did we put the marshmallows? Did you bring pie? Was I supposed to bring pie? Turn up the television; I can't hear the parade! What time is kick-off? Who's even playing today? What time are the kids going to be here? Where's the sage? I bought sage. It's here somewhere. 

And so on and so on it goes until night finally starts to settle in and we collapse in the easy chair, exhausted, but finally thankful.

Thankful that it's finally over.

I think for some of us, we're aware of this. We recognize it every year. For some reason, it just seems we're never able to actually be thankful on the one day we're supposed to be. Maybe, by day's end, we finally find a little time for thankfulness, but by the point, it feels like we've missed the whole day anyway. It's just been too busy.


As ironic as it may sound, especially for those of us who are charged each year with putting this day together, thankfulness doesn't thrive on busyness. Thankfulness doesn't share space with frenzy. Thankfulness doesn't answer a thousand questions; it doesn't even ask them. 

Thankfulness, at its very core, is stillness. That's why it's so easy to lose.

Think about it. If you're going to be thankful for something, it can't be a fleeting moment. It has to stick around long enough for you to embrace it. It has to be here long enough for you to think about it, to consider it, to take it into your heart and make it a part of your story, a part of your reality. You have to hold onto something, even for just a moment, if you want to be thankful for it. This holding on requires stillness.

It requires that everything just stop, just for a second. It requires that there are no demands on this moment. It requires that you have the chance to just be, in one specific place in one specific time in one specific context, and that you have time to soak in that context. 

Think about all the things you've been thankful for this year, all the things you're thankful for today. Did you notice? As you brought to mind even one thing, you stopped. It's just natural. It's the way you hold the image of the sunset behind your closed eyes for just a second as the sun finally sinks beyond the horizon. It's the way you hold your child's hand just a half a second longer. It's the way you pause, ever so briefly, every time you walk by the flowers that your husband sent you. It's the breath you take when you realize, out of nowhere, that right now, just right now, all is well. Thankfulness has always been about just this moment, just this one moment, and in order to be thankful at all, you have to be fully present to it. That's why you stop. You're seizing just this one moment in time and holding onto this second just a half a tick longer.

It's also why it's easier to be thankful at the end of a day like today than it is in the middle of it. It doesn't feel like there's a lot of time to even breathe, let alone pause. 

But you have to pause. Somewhere between all the commotion, you have to find one sacred breath, one moment just to have. Just to hold onto for just a few seconds.

Don't let today slip past you. Don't wait until it's all over, until everyone's gone home, until nothing's left but a pile of dirty dishes, to realize how thankful you really are. Don't let today be one of those days when you're only thankful that it's finally over. 

Take every moment you can steal today. Take every opportunity to stop, just for a second, and let your life wash over you. Between basting the turkey for the fourteenth time and stirring the potatoes and trying to figure out when you have to start the rolls and trying to catch at least part of the parade or a few minutes of football, take a moment. Embrace it. Still your soul and let life just be. Let this moment just be. Let yourself just be. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

To Hear Him Speak

One of the most amazing testimonies about Jesus (aside, of course, of all that death, burial, resurrection, salvation of the world motif) is that there is a testimony about Jesus at all. The most amazing element of Jesus' ministry is that there is a ministry at all. It's absolutely amazing the sheer number of persons who came out just to hear Jesus speak.

Particularly when He wasn't saying popular things.

It's a bit hard for us to conceptualize, as we've made speaking both a professional event in our culture and at the same time, something so commonplace that it hardly bears mentioning. We might pay good money for tickets to hear our favorite...whoever...speak at a particular venue. And yet, we scroll right past 90% of what our friends have to say on social media. 

In the first case, we go because there's something about the person or the message that we find highly agreeable. Usually, the person we're willing to pay to see is someone who agrees with our views. It's a comedian who we find funny because he has the same take on the world that we do. It's the preacher who reads the same things into the Gospel that we do. It's the woman who's been through the same life situation as we're facing. Most of us would invest neither our time nor our money to listen to someone we just don't agree with. 

But that's not the case with Jesus. Persons are traveling days to hear this Man speak. They're listening intently to what He says, even though what He says goes against everything they've been taught to believe. In fact, that's an entire premise of many of His sermons. You have heard it said....but I say to you.... And who wants to be told, after keeping his life pure from the sin of adultery, that he's guilty anyway because he's thought about another woman in his heart? Who wants to be told that, although she never followed through in actually killing that jerk, the feelings she has about the whole thing will call her to account anyway? Who's going to stick around to hear that kind of talk? 


Even the Pharisees can't seem to let go of their inclination to hear Jesus speak. Of course, we're told that they were trying to catch Him in something prosecutable, but let's be honest: there are several points in the Pharisaical story where any reasonable man would have given up. Jesus answers their questions, their objections, and their traps so well that at some point, a man just has to realize he's never going to catch Him. But they kept coming anyway. If you read the Gospels with an eye on the Pharisees, you get the impression that they heard nearly every word He ever said. That's amazing! Because He never once agrees with them.

In the second case, we scroll right past most of what our friends say because, well, they're our friends. We are around them so often, and bombarded by their social media presences, so it's reasonable that we wouldn't necessarily catch everything they post. Isn't it?

But this isn't the case with Jesus, either. Those who were longing to hear Him speak heard every word. The disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds on the hillsides, the demons, the broken, the hungry...they heard every word. The disciples are later able to recall His very words. The Pharisees quote Him on it. There are a few recordings of puzzlement in the Gospels - what did Jesus mean by that? - but there is not one moment where someone asks - what did He say? They heard Him. Loud and clear. 

Because they were listening.

It would be easy, of course, just to speak to the first group - to those who already have a strong agreement with whatever it is that I have to say. But what good is that? Speaking to your own constituencies just widens the gap between who you are and who they are. It creates divisions in the world, even while it deceptively feels like you're building a tribe. 

It would be easy to just speak and let your friends figure out what they want to hear and what they don't. But what good is this? You become a product of their own interpretations rather than the outpouring of God's divine imagination. And when your friends lose sight of who you really are, it's not long before your vision gets blurred, as well.

One of the most amazing things about Jesus is how many persons came out just to hear Him speak. I think the reason is that Jesus speaks with such authenticity, authority, and grace that it's impossible not to listen. And it's not even His story He's telling; it's God's. In Him.

As I ponder my insecurities, I'm aware that one of my many insecurities in this world is the strength of my own voice. I want to be intentional about what I say and how I say it, and the more I think about it, the more I want to learn to speak in the way that Jesus spoke - with authority, with authenticity, with grace. Not because I have some amazing story to tell, but because I have the most amazing story to tell. It's God's story. In me.

I don't imagine I'll ever draw the crowds that Jesus did. I don't imagine I'll ever strike just the right balance. I don't imagine that there will ever be books written about the things that I said, that there will ever be these wide-scale testimonies of my ministry (whatever form that has taken, is taking, or will take over the course of the years God grants me). 

But I'm being intentional anyway. I'm working on authenticity anyway. I'm working on grace anyway. Because one day there might be, there just might be, even one voice that says, "I heard her speak...and I knew I had to hear more about this Jesus."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Spectator Sport

Here's essentially what it boils down to, I think, and why it's so easy to lose sight of actual human beings in the world: we've made life into a spectator sport.

We've made life an event, instead of a journey. We watch it as though it were a game, not a drama. We choreograph a series of strategic movements, rather than purposeful motions. In sports terms, we call this a "play." And somewhere, we got the idea that this is all a game.

We're encouraged to have opinions on everything, whether it has any real impact on our life or not. Whether we have any real impact on it or not. Whether we're even close enough to the situation for it to be meaningful, were it not for the opinions. Whether we're even close enough to the persons involved for it to be personal. 

All you have to do is watch the news to see how this works. How many of these stories do you rightfully need to know about? Recently, there was the child pornography investigation of a pseudo-celebrity. On one hand, there is something to be said for the communal nature of justice. But on the other hand, there weren't a lot of people talking about justice. They were gawking. They were poring over the gruesome details. They were coming up with their own opinions about everything from how closely connected to his sponsoring company this individual truly was to whether or not he can be "cured." There were discussions not just of what the courts should do with him, but what his fellow prisoners should do to him. Somewhere, the lines got blurred between administering justice and passing judgment, and we're far too happy to pass judgment. 

But this story doesn't really impact the vast, vast majority of us. It shouldn't even be on our radar, except to know perhaps the way that justice was carried out. A man is supposed to be held accountable by his community, but we parade the evidences against him in front of the whole world. We're not his community, not in the sense that any of us have a real, personal connection to him. It's just spectator sport.

Or how about this one? A couple of weeks ago, a pastor's wife was murdered in Indianapolis. Since that time, I've seen people all over the country, and even in some cases, the world, speaking "authoritatively" about the case. They all seemed to know that the pastor was clearly guilty. There weren't a lot of discussions of the case itself, but there were a lot of character assassinations of the pastor. Even though there have been 2-3 other men now tied to the crime with DNA and other evidence, people continue to run the pastor through the mill. He could still be connected to it, they argue, and they're fairly convinced of this. 

On top of his grief, this pastor is now subject to avid "fans" of this sport of life who refuse to look at the replay and re-assess the facts. They saw it the way they saw it, and now, they're screaming from the stands. Booing. Calling for him to be pulled from the game. Because that's what fans do. They create their allegiances, and they stick to them. And when life is a spectator sport, the players get lost in the game.

We can keep going with these examples. There's a business establishment in some obscure town in Ohio that you've never heard of before it was plastered all over the Internet. They recently posted a sign about how "politically incorrect" their business is, and the media jumped all over it. Everyone's encouraging everyone to have an opinion about it. As if 1) you have the right to have an opinion, when this is not your community and 2) your opinion in some way matters. 

You don't. And it doesn't. 

Yeah, I said it. There are some things in this world, this postmodern, highly-subjective, individualistic world that you don't have a right to have an opinion about. And the truth is, these things are most things. Here's a good general rule: if the event is one you have to watch on the jumbo-tron, you're not close enough to it to have an opinion. Plain and simple. If the event is on that you have to stream from the comforts of your living room, you aren't close enough to it to have an opinion. If you're not close enough that the persons on the field could hear your voice if you spoke, you're not close enough to have an opinion. 

And if you're not close enough that the persons could hear you if you whispered, your opinion doesn't matter.

Life is not a spectator sport. It wasn't meant to be lived out in stadiums; it was designed for the streets. It's designed for communities of real persons, drawn together not by the opinions they have but by the stories their writing. Together. 

Don't get drawn in. It's tempting to look at this world and think you're supposed to form an opinion, that that's just what you're supposed to do. But that was never what you were supposed to do. Never. 

You were made to form community. Real relationships. Meaningful covenants. Not based on opinion, but rooted firmly in love. So love somebody already. Get close enough that if you whispered, they'd hear you. Then spend your life whispering.

Because the shouting is getting us nowhere. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Not So Good Fight

Although I really like how Christians are engaging some of the most troubling issues in our world (see Friday's post), I would not go so far as to say that we're getting it all right. One of my main frustrations with non-Christian charities is how they depersonalize human beings for the sake of the "issues."

Christians are doing the same thing for the sake of the "Gospel."

Just last week, as the Internet was all abuzz with talk of responding to the Syrian refugee crisis, I read an article written by a Christian on what we all seem to be "missing" about the refugees. The main argument of his presentation was that the refugees are a tremendous gift from God. All the work we've been doing to evangelize the region, he said, is about to get a whole lot easier because God is now just dumping these un-evangelized, spiritually-backward, heathen people right on our doorstep! The Christian response, he argued, should be enthusiastically to welcome the refugees into our communities so that we can fully engulf them in our Christian teachings and essentially, overwhelm them with the Gospel. What an amazing opportunity God has given us! He brought the "savages" to us! Now, all we have to do is preach, brother, preach.

It was disgusting and heartbreaking. But it's the kind of thing Christians do all the time.

Forget that the refugees are real human beings with real human problems. Forget that what they most need is food, clothing, shelter, security. Christians have somewhere gotten the idea that what people "most" need is a doctrine. Forget that these people have been wandering the planet without a home and have no idea what it's like any more to have a place all their own. Christians are content to tell them about a "home" they can't even go to right now. Christians are quick to tell them about their "real home," which doesn't do a whole lot for their sense of emptiness today.

It's not just refugees. There are Christians in this world who look at everyone this way. Whatever humans and human problems they encounter in this world, they try to fix with a good dose of religion and doctrine. In the best of scenarios, they at least label these ideas "Jesus." They at least try to address the world's problems with "Jesus." But what about the people?

This is where we have to do a little theological background work. Because most of these Christians just read Jesus's words in Matthew 28 and think that's the entire mission: go, make disciples, baptize. Convert. But what does it mean to make disciples? did Jesus do it?

He called them. He extended an offer, by name, to come, follow Him. He didn't force it. He didn't require it. He simply offered an invitation. And then, He ministered. Overwhelmingly, the Gospels are the story of Jesus' ministry, not His preaching. Sure, He taught in many places. He told many parables and stories. But most of the people who came to Jesus weren't coming to be preached at; they were coming to be healed. And those  who were healed became the best messengers of Christ. 

See, that's always been our mission, from the very beginning - care for the world. Not convert the world, but care for it. It's the commission in the Garden, when God tells Adam and Eve to have dominion (exercise good stewardship), work the ground, be fruitful, and multiply. The whole idea here is that Adam and Eve will labor to bring out the best in all Creation, to help it fulfill its God-given potential. That's what we're supposed to be doing for people. We're supposed to be nurturing them to their God-given potential. 

And note that in the Gospels, Jesus Himself says good things about the one who sees the thirsty and gives him a drink, sees the hungry and feeds him, sees the naked and clothes him, sees the one sick or in prison and visits him. Jesus commends the meeting of the real human need. He doesn't say that it's better to see the thirsty and tell him about living water. No, he needs a real drink. He doesn't say that it's better to see the hungry and give him the bread of life. No, real bread will do. He doesn't say that it's better to see the naked and tell him how to be clothed in righteousness. No. Cover that man's shame right now. (Nakedness and shame go back to Genesis 3.) He doesn't say that it's better to lecture the sick and the imprisoned on the freedom that comes in heaven. No. Just visit them. Give them a taste of that freedom now. 

People aren't a "mission." They aren't a "project." They're people. Persons. Real human beings with real stories. 

It's easy for Christians to fall into the trap of the one who wrote that article. I mean, what are we supposed to do with the refugees? What are we supposed to do with people? It's the "easy" "Christian" answer to say, well, evangelize them. 

But the true Christ-like answer is much simpler, and much more meaningful: Feed them. Give them something to drink. Clothe them. Visit them. Welcome them. Nurture them to their God-given potential. 

Love them.

This is what we're called to do. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Fight the Good Fight

Whether it appears to be God's battle or ours, one thing's for sure: we are a civilization of trained fighters. The question is whether or not we're fighting the good fight.

Hint: we're not.

Because somewhere along the way, we've changed what we're fighting for. Today, everything we're fighting - whether we're fighting for or against - is a 'cause.' And heaven forbid we complicate that cause with actual people.

Around this time every year, commercials start to show up highlighting some of the social issues we're facing. They're meant to evoke action, but the action is entirely impersonal. 

Someone will no doubt show us the dirty, disheveled face of the homeless man as he sits near his makeshift home with tattered gloves and no shoes. This, they'll tell us, is the "face of homelessness," as though homelessness was the biggest heartbreak in this whole picture. No. The heartbreak is this man. And he's not the "face of homelessness." He's Bill. He's a real human being, with a real story. Ask him about it. 

But we won't. We'll write a check to the homeless mission, maybe gather up a small number of new gloves or something and donate them to a shelter, and then we'll pat ourselves on the backs for doing "something" about "homelessness." Which is great, I guess. But what about Bill? Maybe you've helped him; maybe you haven't. Maybe, if he feels like walking across town to the mission today and standing in line and judging his own condition against the condition of the other homeless men who are praying for a new set of gloves this winter, maybe, just maybe, he might be given a pair. Or maybe you'll see Bill again next year when he's still the "face of homelessness." 

Or maybe, you'll never see Bill again at all. The anonymity with which he dies proves that for as many people as saw his face this season, no one saw him.

Or they'll show us the photos of families who just don't have enough this season - don't have enough to put presents under the tree for their children. Don't even have enough for a tree. This, they'll tell us, is the "face of poverty," as though poverty was the biggest heartbreak here. No. The heartbreak is this single mother. And she's not the "face of poverty." She's Rebecca. She's a real human being, with a real story. Ask her about it. 

But we won't. We'll drop a few coins in a red kettle somewhere, maybe buy a new toy (but not an "expensive" new toy) and give it to the local charity program. Then we'll pat ourselves on the back for doing "something" about "poverty." Which is great, I guess. But what about Rebecca? Maybe you've helped her; maybe you haven't. Maybe, if she can get an hour or so off her second job to go down to the toy distribution, to stand in line, to pick through the piles of whatever toys are left, maybe she'll come up with something for her kids for Christmas. Or maybe someone will be kind enough to do this "shopping" for her and just dump a bunch of presents on her doorstep one morning so that her kids, at least, believe in Santa Claus, even if they don't believe in her. Or maybe she'll just go to work today the same way she does every day, at her less-than-minimum-wage waitress job, which she works only after a long first shift at the factory, and you'll give her the smallest possible tip, if any tip at all, because she "seemed tired" and "wasn't very engaging" as a waitress. 

Or maybe next year, Rebecca and her kids will be the "face of homelessness." 

Or they'll show us pictures of matted, dirty puppies while Sarah McLachlan sings heartbreaking songs....

This is what I love, particularly at this time of year, about being a Christian. Christians do some of this, too, of course, but there are an amazing number of Christian organizations who refuse to let people become causes. They'll show you heartbreaking pictures of children in foreign countries who don't have even their most basic needs met, but then they'll connect you with just one of those children. And you get to exchange letters with them, you receive pictures of this child, you get to establish at least a long-distance relationship with him or her and know exactly how your generous giving is impacting that child's life.

Or they'll tell you about a village where mothers have to walk four hours each way just to draw relatively safe drinking water for their children, and they'll invite you to help them build a well. Then they'll show you pictures of not just the building of that well, but of the local villagers enjoying their new water. You'll hear testimony from the women about what a blessing this well is, and you'll know that your generous donation had a real impact.

Or they'll invite you to pack a shoe box for a child this Christmas, a child somewhere in the world who doesn't know what Christmas even means. They'll throw in a Bible or some material about Jesus for you and whether you choose which country your box goes to or not, they will show you pictures of the delivery. They'll plaster social media with the smiles of children receiving their Christmas boxes, children who are coming to believe not in Santa Claus, but in Jesus. Because of you. 

I love the way we do this as Christians. Because it's so easy in our culture to do it the other way.

It's so easy to get caught up in causes, to be laboring over the "issues" of our time. It's so easy to be bombarded by the "faces" and neglect the stories. It's so easy to look right past the people. 

But Jesus never looked past anyone. He never got caught up in causes; He caught people up in His grace. Jesus never gave money to the "Shelter for the Demon-Possessed." No. He met them in the streets and set them free. He never sent a few token gifts to the "Hungry on the Hillside." No. He broke His very bread and shared it with them. He didn't spend His time blindly mailing out tracts to those who had never heard of Jesus. No. He put His feet to the dirt and walked around meeting them. Because He understood what it's so easy for us to forget: these aren't issues. And they aren't just faces.

They're real human beings. With real stories. Ask them about it.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Shake It Off

But there's something else about the audacity of James and John in this scene from Luke that we must not overlook (and if you haven't been following along, this is day 3 of this story): it's far too easy for us to try to fight God's battles for Him.

It's amazing that in the very same scene, in the very same breath, that the disciples have set out to prepare a place for Jesus (they have gone into the Samaritan village in search of such a place), they offer to call down fire from heaven in defense of His honor. So they have gone from attempting to honor Him to defending His honor, all in the space of just a couple of verses.

I think most of us understand how easy this is to do. There have been times in all of our lives, at least, there have been in mine, where I have understood what God would have me do in a particular situation, and I set about trying to do exactly that thing. When it's harder than it ought to be or when people don't buy into the same idea of God that I have around that situation, it's this subtle little switch to start preaching, to start trying to defend God. It's as if, if I could somehow plant a reminder about who God is in their mind, they would change their opinion and stop working so hard against me!

And that's the rub: they seem to be working against me.

James and John and other disciples were probably a little upset that the people of the Samaritan village turned Jesus away, but they were likely extremely upset that the people of this village turned them away. After all, they were just trying to do what God asked them to do. So if they call down fire from heaven, it looks like they're fighting God's battle here - this is Jesus, whom all fire from heaven would truly obey; turn Him away and feel the wrath of God! - but they're also fighting their battle. We, they say, were on a holy mission, and we're such powerful holy men that we can call down fire from heaven upon you. You will regret the day that you kept us from fulfilling our holy mission.

So it is with most of us. We look like we're fighting God's battles, but we're really, at least to some degree, fighting our own. 

As it should be, of course. Because if it were truly God's battle and if calling down fire from heaven were truly the way to respond to the situation, Jesus Himself would be the one calling down fire from heaven. Would He not?

This is what we're doing all the time, though. Instead of just doing what God asked us to do - going into a village and making a space welcome for Him (and by the way, if a village does not receive you, shake the dust off your feet on your way out) - we end up militantly trying to clear ground for Him. Most of us aren't content to gather straw in a manger; we're gung-ho about clearing a room in the inn. 

Gosh, darn it, this is God incarnate! 

But of course when you clear out a room in the inn, you displace someone. You throw someone out into the dark. You pick someone up and turn them out in the name of the Jesus who never told you to make room in the inn; He only sent you to find a place for Him. He doesn't mind a manger. It wasn't God's fight you picked in room 4; it was yours. Because you wanted to do this big, beautiful thing for God.

And you forgot that God is the one who does the big, beautiful things.

Fire from heaven? Sons of Thunder, really? Shake the dust off your feet and get on after it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hey Bro

One of the things I like about the Sons of Thunder is their audacity. Sure, it seems comical in contrast to Jesus, but it helps to put the relationship between man and God into some perspective.

Most of us have been taught that when we finally meet Jesus, we're going to fall to our knees in worship. This comes, of course, from Paul's hymn in Philippians 2, which says that every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father. And I don't want to take anything away from this idea; I think we could all use a little more time humbled in the presence of God and Jesus.

But it's not really an example we see...well...anywhere. The men and women Jesus met in His ministry - His disciples, the blind, the deaf, the sick, the lame, the Pharisees, the Samaritans, the Romans - these people never just instinctively fell to their knees in His presence. They stood up. They talked with Him. They walked with Him. They ate with Him. They sat around tables and hillsides and seashores with Him. When He healed them, they didn't fall down; they stood a little taller. They rejoiced.

Maybe you're thinking, well, yeah. But Jesus was just Jesus then; He wasn't Christ. Okay, but even after He is resurrected, we don't see people falling to their knees. We see them squealing with delight. We see them celebrating when He comes into the Upper Room. He appeared to hundreds of persons as the resurrected Christ, and most of them were on their feet, not on their knees.

Which brings me back to the Sons of Thunder and stories like the one I shared yesterday. What I love about these stories is that they remind me that in the presence of Jesus, I'm going to be completely comfortable being who I am. I'm going to relax and not worry about the stupid things that I sometimes say. I'm going to speak freely, love freely, be freely, and sometimes, that means Jesus is going to give me that look, but when He does, we'll always end up just laughing.

I know how silly I can be at times.

But the Sons of Thunder remind me how light-hearted Jesus can be.

I've always thought that when I meet Jesus face-to-face, I'm going to fall down in worship. And maybe I am. I think there's going to be a large part of me that wants to. But what about when I'm walking around a restored creation and see Him a second time? A third time? A hundredth time? Am I going to spend eternity falling to my knees? And if that's the case, how am I ever supposed to have a real relationship with this God who has always said that His entire design for humanity was relationship? That His intended design for me is relationship?

I think about this scene with James and John, and I can't help but imagine that this is the very kind of thing that Jewish "bros" would say to one another in a moment of free fellowship. You know, the way guys sit around today during a football game or whatever, drinking beer and razzing on each other. I imagine that these historic Jewish bros probably used to sit around, talking about their lives, and playfully suggesting, "Hey, man, you want me to call down fire from heaven for you?" Then laughing because, of course....

It's the same thing I read into this passage. Plan A just failed, and they're all standing around trying to figure out what Plan B is when James and John shoot each other that little wry grin, then turn to Jesus and say, "Hey, Bro...."

It's a beautiful moment.

And I don't know if that's really what happened, if that's really how the moment played out. Maybe it was more solemn than I am making it out to be. But from what I read about James and John in some of the other sections of the gospels, this is totally fitting in their character. It's exactly the kind of thing they would do; what's hard for us to sometimes grasp is that they actually do it in the presence of Jesus.

I want to be like that. I want to be so comfortable in the presence of Jesus that I feel like I can just be myself. I want to be so at peace in His presence that I relax and act just the same way that anyone else would find me. (And conversely, I want to be so relaxed in the presence of other people that I act the same as I would if Jesus Himself were present.)

Not because I don't think the worship and the reverence are important. They are. Not because I think I'm too good to fall on my knees. I'm not. But because God desperately desires relationship above all else, and if we're going to have any sort of relationship at all, I have to dare to be just who I am.

A Son of Thunder or a Daughter of....

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fire from Heaven

Man is, essentially, incurably arrogant, at least in his flesh.

There's a story in Luke 9 about Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. It begins in verse 51:

The time was coming closer for Jesus to be taken to heaven. So he was determined to go to Jerusalem. He sent messengers ahead of him. They went into a Samaritan village to arrange a place for him to stay. But the people didn't welcome him, because he was on his way to Jerusalem. James and John, his disciples, saw this. They asked, 'Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?'

Ah, James and John. The Sons of Thunder. Their attitudes were known to get the best of them from time to time, and here, we see evidence of that again. They are walking with a Man they are pretty sure is the Messiah. To this point, they have seen Him heal countless numbers of the blind, deaf, lame, afflicted, demon-possessed. They have been in a storm-tossed boat when He spoke to the wind and calmed the waves. They've seen Him split loves of bread into multiples of thousands, with plenty left over. 

And they want to know if He wants them to call down fire from heaven for Him. 

I have to be honest. It takes a lot of hubris to ask a question like this. It takes first a lot of confidence in yourself that you would have the power or authority to call down fire from heaven at all. And second, it takes a reasonable assurance that fire from heaven is the appropriate response here if you'r going to be the one to suggest such an idea to God on His own behalf. So James and John here are pretty high on themselves and pretty sure in their judgment. 

What's interesting is that we don't really know Jesus' answer to this. Luke simply says, But he turned and corrected them. So they went to another village. That's it. Don't you want to know what Jesus said?

It would be fun to play this out the same way Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal. It would be humorous to watch Jesus egg them on, taunt them a little bit. Yeah, He'd say. You go ahead and call down that fire. Go ahead. Come on. Are you calling yet? Well, maybe the line is busy. Oh, Sons of Thunder, where is this fire you seemed so sure of? After all, we know Jesus is not beyond this kind of snark. This is as good a time as any for it. I mean, if the brothers are going to stand there and pretend they have a unique connection to God the Father when God the Son is just an arm's length away. 

Or maybe Jesus just gave them that look. You know, that incredulous face that says, Did you really just say that? Maybe that little twisted mouth and those wrinkled eyebrows were all it took for James and John to understand. Maybe Jesus gave them that look and there was a half a second of silence before all three parties busted up laughing and Jesus directed them to another village. 

As fun as it is sometimes to see snarky Jesus, particularly when He's taking on the Pharisees, this second scenario is probably closer to the way He deals with friends. 

So why am I telling this story? Why pick a random, short scene out of the heart of Luke and give it this space? Because I think this story teaches us a few things about James and John and, by extension, us. And I think it speaks boldly to one of the ongoing struggles of Christians in our day. Stay with me for the next few days as I hash some of these ideas out. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Blessed Assurance

So for three days, I've been talking about God's promises and issuing the caution not to confuse His promises with His assurances (which is all too easy to do). But what is the difference?

A promise is something (specific) God is going to do; an assurance is something God has already done.

When we talk about joy, then, we're talking about an assurance. You already have joy. God has already given you joy. Even if you're in a bit of a funk and you don't think this is true, consider this: how do you know you're in a funk? Your joy is gone. Whether you recognized it or not when you had it, you recognize it when it's gone, and you know that in some measure, at some point, your life had joy. Under the fog, it still does. This is an assurance.

When we talk about peace, we're talking about an assurance. You already have peace. God has already given you peace. Even if your life is in turmoil and you can't even fathom what peace looks like, consider this: how do you know your life is in turmoil? Your peace is gone. Whether you recognized it or not when you had it, you recognize it when it's gone, and you know that in some measure, at some point, your life had peace. In the eye of the storm, it still does. This is an assurance.

The same is true about all the little assurances God has given us. Joy, peace, love, strength, confident assurance, hope, life, name it. These are the things God has already done, and is presently doing, in your life. 

Then why doesn't it feel like it? Because the thief comes to steal.... 

The very fact that your joy can be robbed is evidence that you have had joy. The very fact that your peace can be shaken is evidence that you have had peace. The very fact that your love can be broken is evidence that you have had love. The very fact that your strength can fail is evidence that you have had strength. 

And it sounds like what I'm going to say next must obviously be one of those things you hear all those prosperity gospel preachers say all the time. Something like "If you want the peace of God in your life, you have to just recognize that He's already given it to you" or "God is giving you peace today! Go out and claim it!" 

But you should know by now that I would never speak such junk theology. To put it bluntly, it's crap. Because it makes it seem like the evidencing of God's assurances in your life is entirely your choice. If you would just live like a person who has peace, then you would have peace. If you would just live like a person who has joy, then you would have joy. If you would just pull yourself up out of this mess you're in and put on your good Christian mask, nobody would know any better. Least of all you, since you'd see your own mask every time you looked in the mirror. After awhile, you'd probably just assume that mask is your "true" face. 

It's bunk. It creates a false dichotomy - like you can have the assurances of God or you can have the troubles of this world, but you can't have both.

Life is made up of both. 

Faith, and the godly life, is not about choosing one or the other. It's not about putting on masks. It's not about pretending that the assurances of God cover over all the trials and troubles of this world. There is a peace that passes all understanding, but God never said it is a peace that passes all grief or trial. Don't pretend that it is. 

Faith, and the godly life, are about embracing both things at once - the assurances of God and the troubles of this world. It's about living in the tension. It's about being in a funk and still knowing joy. It's about living in the storm and still knowing peace. It's about feeling the despair and still holding onto hope. God didn't create this world for you to escape it; He created it for you to embrace it. 

And just because one thing seems to come from God and another one profoundly doesn't, it doesn't mean that one of these things is any more or less real than the other. You still have to deal with both of them. Yes, you still must choose to hope, but not because hope eliminates fear. Hope is simply a gift given beside fear. You must still choose joy, but not because joy trumps sadness. Joy is just a gift given beside sorrow.

It feels sometimes like the tension is going to tear you apart. That's why it's easy to choose one thing over another, to choose hope or fear, joy or sorrow. It feels like trying to have both would just pull open this emptiness inside of you. And it does. 

But the cool thing is that the more you let this kind of tension tear at you, the more space you open up in the depths of your heart for God to fill. And He will. And all that joy, all that peace, all that hope that it feels so hard sometimes to hold onto, all those assurances of God, will rest deeper inside of you still until they become the very core of your being. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Generic Goodness

Here's where our understanding of God's promises leads: either to the riches of God's glory or to man's prosperity "gospel."

When we buy the idea that God "promises" us these generic things like peace, good, blessing, joy, and all the other things the tv preachers tell you that God wants you to have (and He does, but they aren't promises), you turn God into a God of good things, rather than a God of glory.

I can't tell you how many of my friends spend their time posting and re-posting the words of these prosperity preachers all over social media. "God has seen you struggling, and He wants you to know that He's bringing victory!" or "God is promising you the gift of wisdom for today!" or "God rains down His promise of peace right now on your life. Whatever you're going through...."

And therein is the key. "Whatever you're going through." 

That's not a biblical phrase. That's not a word of promise God has given to anyone ever. God doesn't look down and say, "Whatever you're going through today..." No. He says, "I see exactly what you're going through today. It's _______" and then He fills in the blank with exactly what you're going through! 

See, the prosperity gospel makes this subtle shift in our theology. What it tells us is that we have to pay extra special attention so that we pick up on the things God is doing...because God is not paying so much attention that He really knows what's going on. He knows, maybe, that something is going on. He knows, maybe, that you're going through something today, but the prosperity gospel puts it in your hands to figure out what He's doing about it, based on all these generic "promises" God never actually made to you. 

When you find joy, it's because you were looking for joy. Not because you were looking for God. When you find peace, it's because you were looking for peace. Not because you were looking for God. Maybe you do find victory over your struggle today, but do you know where that victory came from? Probably not. You were looking for victory, not for God.

And where is God?

God is right there next to you. Right here. God is whispering in your ear the actual things He's going to do, right down to the very thing. He's not saying He's going to bring you peace; He's telling you how He's going to calm the storm. He's not saying that there's joy just around the corner; He's planting joy in your very heart. He's not saying that there's victory somewhere for you; He's drawing up the battle plan of how you're going to get there - together. 

Then, when these promises are fulfilled, you find yourself looking right back at God and in a hushed wonder, declaring, That was amazing. Because it was. It is. It is grace. 

Grace is amazing.

So be careful of false preachers, of those who are espousing the prosperity gospel by getting you to buy in to promises God never made you. So-called "promises" of so-called "good" things. He's never promised you such generic things. He's never promised you anything that you have to figure out on your own. That's not His style. 

But He's promised you amazing things nonetheless, things that you would never believe if He hadn't told you - a nation, a redemption, a reconciliation, an inheritance, a throne, a Savior, a Spirit. He's promised you things that are nothing short of amazing.

Never settle for "good." 

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Yesterday, we looked at some of the promises God made in Scripture, some of the highly-specific, almost-unbelievable, only-if-God-says-so promises He gave to His people. Which leads us to some of our own sticky theology....

When was the last time you heard someone talk about a specific promise of God?

Most of us today have come to a faith not in God, but in mystery. We have heard the words of God and taken them as abstract concepts.

You may think, for example, that God's promise is peace. Great. But what is peace? How can you hold God accountable to a promise of peace if you don't know what peace looks like and if He hasn't told you? All of a sudden, it's up to your heart to find peace and then to thank God for it. See something amiss? The promise of God is never something you have to 'find.' 

When you read through the Scriptures and see God promising His people peace, there are quite often some very detailed specifications about what peace looks like. It looks like being given rest from your enemies on all sides. That's a certain kind of peace. It looks like lions lying down with lambs. There's another kind of peace. It looks like swords being beaten into plowshares. That's also peace (once you get past all the noise of actually beating metal into a new shape). Jesus says, MY peace I leave you. That's a very specific kind of peace. (And if you're not convinced, ask yourself what kind of peace it takes to lie on a Cross voluntarily.) 

So we have this idea in our heads that God has promised us peace, and it's almost true. The peace God promises us is not so abstract as we make it. It's more specific than just peace. It's His peace. That's something far more defined than just a feeling we get in our hearts, which is fleeting at best.

Or we read that God is working all things together for the good of those who love Him, and we take that to mean that God has promised us "good." Really. Would this have been enough of a promise for, well, for anyone to follow God in His story? Would Abraham have left his home and gone to a foreign land on the mere suggestion that "something good" would happen? Would Noah have put his reputation on the line to build a giant ship because God said it would be "good" for something? Would Joseph and Mary have endured all the trials of being young, unwed, and pregnant if all God ever told them was that "it's gonna be good"? 

Then why do we think this is enough of a promise for us? (And by the way, this isn't actually a promise; it's an assurance. There's a difference.)

It's not a promise! It has absolutely nothing specific or identifiable that would make it a promise of God. He has given no indication of what He's actually doing, and even in faith, God never requires blind hope. The promises of God are always specific. You can hang your hat on them, so to speak. 

The same is true of nearly anything we seem to think God has "promised" us these days. We're content to wrap our idea of God in all these abstract packages - peace, good, blessing, joy, whatever it is. The problem is that none of us have any idea how God is going to do these things, which leaves us living our lives looking less for God and more for promises.

We live in search of peace, which we think comes from God, but we're not looking to God for peace. We may thank Him if we happen to find it, but is it really God's peace? No. We live in search of good, which we thinks comes from God, but we're not looking to God for goodness. Again, we may thank Him if we stumble upon the good, but is it really God's good? No. We live in search of blessing...but not God's blessing. We live in search of joy...but it's not God's joy. 

It's the subtlest of dangers in our faith, but one that we're falling victim to more and more as we take God at His abstract word. Slowly but surely, we turn our lives toward these assurances, taken as promises, and come through our own subjective experience of them to get to God. Slowly but surely, we live our lives longing for peace, for good, for blessing, for joy, more than we ever long for God. And we convince ourselves that this still feels holy. Like we're doing the right thing.

We're not. 

Don't be fooled. These are not promises of God. You know how you can tell? Because it's up to you to fulfill them

Any promise God actually makes to you, anything God tells you He's doing, He will do. And He'll tell you exactly what He's doing. He's birthing a nation, reclaiming a creation, entering a Promised Land, establishing a kingdom, redeeming the world, indwelling the soul. You don't have to wonder if He's doing these things and you missed it; He's doing them, and you're right there in the middle of it. He tells you as much. 

And all this peace, all this good, all this blessing, all this joy? It's there, too. Not because God promised it, but because God is these very things. By His presence, He bears these gifts. Not by His promise. 

By His promise, He's doing even greater things than these. 

So what is God really saying to you?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Promise

When you read through the Bible and look at all the promises God made to His people, one thing is quite striking: 

God makes some very specific promises.

To an old and childless Abram, God promises a multitude of descendants, as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sands on the seashore. Not only will Abram father a child; he will father a nation of children. A nation!

To a righteous Noah, God promises safety in the midst of the greatest storm the world has ever seen. It is through this one man and his family that God will salvage all of creation, and He makes that no secret with the man. You, Noah, are the remnant, the Lord says. You're it. Everything that is to come in this world will come from you and your work. 

To a courageous Joshua, God promises victory in battle. This one quiet, confident warrior will lead the entire nation of Israel into the Promised Land, taking possession of the land along the way. He will defeat enemy nations and destroy enemy kings and settle the people of God into their rightful inheritance.

To a young David, God promises a permanent succession. Someone from your family will always be on the throne of Israel, God tells the second king. 

To the unfaithful kings that follow, God promises not only destruction and disaster, but very specific destruction and disaster. There will be famine. The kings from the north or the east or wherever will come and carry you away. Your women and children will die. Animals will eat your rotting flesh in the abandoned places. The temple will be destroyed.

To a tender virgin, God promises a son. Not just any son, but His one and only Son. Not just any baby boy, but one very special baby boy. 

To the faithful, God promises a Savior. 

To those left shell-shocked by that Savior's final days, Christ promises the Spirit. 

Over and over and over again, God promises His people in very specific terms. Sometimes, of course, there are conditions on these promises. David, for example, must be faithful, and his descendants must be faithful. Sometimes, the promises seem couched in some weird or cryptic language. But that's often just our trouble in reading it. If you ask the unfaithful kings who the threat from the north was, they could tell you without a moment's thought. They all knew exactly what that promise meant: Babylon is coming. Assyria is coming. The Persians are coming. God nailed it. 

And that's the point of this little survey: God nailed it. Every time God makes a promise in Scripture, there's no grey area. He tells His people exactly what He's going to do. They may not understand how He's going to do it, but that doesn't change that He's been very clear about what He is going to do. There's no guessing what God's promise is; He's told you. It's a child, a nation, a remnant, a victory, a kingship, a destruction, a son, a Savior, a Spirit. 

It's one of the things that makes God who He is. For thousands of generations, men have always been wondering what their gods were really like. We don't have to wonder. Since the beginning of time, men have been trying to guess what their gods are up to. We don't have to guess. God tells us exactly what He's like and exactly what He's up to. 

Which makes our current theology all the more troubling.... (More on that tomorrow.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


There's long been a joke in the church about the third verse of...well, of nearly any song. Back in the days of song leaders, the guy would stand up and say, "We're going to sing the first, second, and last verse. First, second, and last." And usually, this meant that it was only the lone third verse that was being left out. 

A few weeks ago when I was blessed to spend a few days with my fellow seminarians, they took this idea a step further and cut out all the verses altogether. 

In our Wednesday chapel service, we spent the first fifteen or twenty minutes singing just the choruses of popular worship songs back to back to back to back, as though they had all been written into one piece of music. A chorus here, and then another chorus, and then yet another chorus. 

And on one level, I get it. The chorus is the meat of the song. It's the promise of God, the power of God, the presence of God encapsulated in this memorable nutshell, these few words that capture the very essence of the biggest thing about God that we know. 

But I kind of missed the verses.

See, the verses are the story. The verses are where the narrative fleshes out. The verses put some skin on the God that we're singing about. 

If you only ever sang, Every blessing you pour out I turn back to praise, then how would you understand that blessed be your name when I'm found in the desert place? If you focus on you make beautiful things, where do you let your heart ponder the question I wonder if I'll ever find my way? Take your favorite worship song and ask yourself what deep truth you miss if you cut out the verses, what part of the story gets taken away when you echo only the choruses.

It's the same thing we do with our lives, really. We're content to focus on the highlights. We tell our stories from meaning to meaning, rather than from flesh to flesh. We tell our stories in little nutshells, focusing on the big things or the aspects we could repeat again and again and again. That one time that.... The day when.... The moment..... And so on. 

But something's missing when we don't sing our verses, too. Something essential disappears when we don't share our narratives. There's something hollow about telling our stories and not sharing how we got to that one time, the day, the moment.... I think that's why we say these choruses echo. They're hitting that hollowness, that emptiness, that comes when we don't share our verses.

And I'm not saying we have to share all of our verses. Every one of our stories has a third verse that's all too easy to skip over. Sometimes, that's okay. But you ought to at least mention it from time to time, even if all you ever say is, "First, second, and last. First, second, and last." That's a reminder that somewhere between second and last is another verse, the words to which we might be able to look up somewhere if we're ever curious. It's a confession, even a quiet one, that there's more to the story than we're willing to sing right now. And that's okay. 

It's okay. 

It was interesting to hear the melodies of one chorus after another flow together in the way that they did in that chapel service. There was something about singing the high notes of God all strung together like that. But it's not something I'd want to do all the time. 

There's too much richness in the verses. 

I want to hear the stories. I want to hear the struggles. I want to hear the glory of God with skin on. Tell me about the desert places; let me sing about mine. Ask your questions out loud; I have some, too. Sing the high notes, but don't let them echo in the hollow places. Fill those places with story; let the truth resound in the verses. 

Even, every now and then, the third verse. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Prayer 101

Have you ever been around someone who believes in something way more than you do? Something like...prayer? 

I mentioned last week that I was having some thoughts about prayer lately, and this is precisely why. A few weeks ago, I spent five days with some of my fellow seminarians in an intensive course and when we began each class session with prayer, there was this overwhelming sensation that everyone in the room was actually praying. Like..really praying. Like...talking to God and believing He was listening and engaging with His presence. 

Well, almost everyone.

As I looked around the room in those quiet, holy moments, I realized that I was the only one looking around the room. (And discovering this on Monday did not stop it from being true on Tuesday...Wednesday...Thursday...Friday....) Everyone else was deeply engaged in the moment. And not in the same way that some people in church seem to just have their eyes closed respectfully. These fellow seminarians were quite obviously engaged in something.

Maybe it's not popular to admit that as a chaplain, as someone entering the ministry, or hey, even as a Christian, I continue to struggle with prayer. I wrote a book several years ago on prayer because of this very struggle. And I know I'm not alone. So many of us don't feel like we know how to pray.

I'm not sure where we get this idea that we don't know how to pray, but I will say that for most of us, our primary encounters with prayer seem to come from the priestly office. Most of us learn about prayer through the public prayer in our worship services. Most of us learn about prayer from the "Please bow your heads..." moments. Most of us learn about prayer when prayer comes at the same time and in the same place and in the same way every Sunday, so yeah, it feels like something that the priest does. It feels more connected to the ritual of the service than to the relationship between man and God. 

We pray, then, because we are about to take Communion. We pray because we are about to eat a meal. We pray because we are transitioning from one worshipful song to another. We pray because the pastor just finished his sermon (although some of us were already praying he would just hurry up and finish his sermon) and in these moments, prayer is what we do.

But what if prayer wasn't just something we do? 

The places I have learned the most about prayer in my life were not from the pulpit to the pew, but from one hand to another. Prayer feels different when it's, say, just you and me, heart to heart, in a quiet moment together. Now, I have to also admit that it only feels different in a good way when, in this moment, you're the one praying. When I'm the one praying, it still feels different, but in an entirely other way - it feels awkward and insecure. 

I'll say that on the occasions I've had where prayer has felt positively different, prayers shared between, say, myself and an elder or a good friend or a minister, they have bordered on what I felt in that classroom a few weeks ago. They've been oh so close, but something essential still separated the two experiences. And I think I've finally figured out what makes the difference in prayer.

It's presence.

The prayer shared between two hearts, between a Christian and a friend, between a sheep and a shepherd, between one person and another, it feels different than the prayer in the Sunday service because these two come uniquely into the presence of one another. They enter into the moment together, and prayer becomes a personal experience. 

The prayer that I experienced a few weeks ago is similar except that the presence in the room is not the presence of one man to another, but of one man to God, multiplied by twenty-one. You could tangibly feel the presence of God in this dank, musty old classroom as seminarian after seminarian after seminarian came truly into the presence of God to pray. And prayer becomes an intimate experience.

That's what has been missing in my prayer life. I don't know about yours. I mentioned this on Friday when I was talking about prayer in general. But these reflections I've been having about the nature of prayer, about why prayer feels so awkward and distant and insecure, it's led me to the foundational truth about prayer that I've been missing: prayer is intimate. And if prayer is intimate, it's never something that I do myself. It's something that requires another presence beside my own. And if prayer is intimate, and not just personal, then that other presence must be God.

I...still don't know how to pray. I still don't feel like I know what I'm doing when I try to pray. But I'll tell you what I am doing. I am making a good faith effort, training myself, teaching myself, and...praying for the ability, to come into the presence of God first. When my heart aches for prayer, when something inside me is eating away at me, when all I want to do is to talk to God and to feel like it means something, the first thing I'm doing these days is making sure God is there. I'm making sure I've created a space for His presence. I'm making sure that I'm coming into that presence. I'm being intentional about making contact with God first

Not like some radio operator, calling over the air waves, God, God, are you there? Come in, God. Do You read? Over. 

But like...well, like family. Like someone who knows somebody so well that you can just walk into their living room, sit down, and start up a conversation. The first thing I do when I come to pray is walk into God's living room like I'm welcome there. Because I am. 

So are you. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Living on a Prayer

All week, we've been looking at plurality in our theology, and how one little "s" can dramatically change our understanding of things - church, the Christian life, sin, our global impact. Today, there's one more word to look at (although there are probably actually countless others):


Prayer is one of these tricky words that we add an "s" to, making it "prayers," and then break it down into a thing called a prayer. A though a prayer is any thing at all. 

And here's the problem with that, at least as I see it: when a prayer (and subsequently, prayers) becomes a thing that you have, you sort of become attached to it. Think about all the things you've earnestly prayed for in your life. I'm not talking about the kind of silly things we all pray for from time to time, like certain weather or a good sale price or a win for the home team. I'm talking about the big things - the life or health of a loved one, peace in the middle of the storm. 

Now, as you think about the situation that's come to mind for you, do you know how many "prayers" you prayed for this thing? Are you, right now, going over those "prayers" again and again and again in your head, almost recalling them word-for-word? Do you remember when they played over and over again in your head on their own, when the questions just kept asking themselves, when your heart just kept making this same silent plea? Most of us would answer yes to these questions. Most of us can easily recall these things. Okay.

Thinking about the same situation, the same set of "prayers," do you recall at all what it felt like to go to God in that moment? Do you remember what it stirred in your heart to be talking to Him at that very moment? Does your heart come to rest, again and again and again, in His presence? 


Therein lies the danger of these things called "prayers." See, when our "prayers" become things that we say, prayer becomes less a thing that we do. When our prayers are wrapped up in our words and our manifestations of them, less and less do we manifest God. Prayer is this amazing moment of stillness, coming into the presence of the Father, and that very presence quiets something within us. Yet when most of think of prayer, our waters actually get stirred up because we can't stop repeating the same words again and again and again. Our so-called "prayers." 

And it's not wrong to have a specific conversation with God. It's not wrong to want something in particular, to have a certain idea on  your heart when you come to Him. It's not wrong to have an idea of how the conversation might go, at least from your end. But when these considerations become primary and the relationship becomes merely a means of expression, you've got prayer backward. 

When "a prayer" is the content of your conversation, you've likely lost the idea that "prayer" is the conversation itself. It's the relationship.

I've been having some thoughts about prayer lately, and maybe I'll share some of those later, but what strikes me the most is the shift I'm trying to make between having prayers and truly praying. It changes my experience when prayer becomes about the relational dynamic between me and God, when I feel like I actually come into His presence, when I'm deliberate about making that heart-to-heart contact with Him rather than just spouting words that sound sort of prayer-ful (in that, of course, they are full of my prayers). It's a dramatic change. Indescribable, really. 

So I sacrifice my prayers on the altar of prayer. Because there is only one true prayer, and it is not something we have (or say or whatever); it's something we do. 

We pray. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bless the Nations

This week, we've been looking at the difference one little "s" makes - whether we are churches or the church, Christians or Christian, entangled in our sins or in sin itself. And I happened to stumble, earlier this week, upon a little verse in Jeremiah that struck me for the same reason: the "s." This little "s" doesn't create divisions, however; it creates community. Picking up from 4:1:

The Lord declares, 'If you come back, Israel, if you come back to me, if you take your disgusting idols out of my sight and you don't wander away from me, if you take the oath, 'As the Lord lives...' in an honest, fair, and right way, then the nations will be blessed, and they will be honored by me.'

That's quite a statement, both for Israel and for us. If Israel, the people of God, live as though they are really the people of God, the nations will be blessed. There's the "s." 

What's so important about this? Why is it so interesting? Because at the time of this writing by the prophet Jeremiah, there was one nation, Israel, that was considered to be God's nation. There was one people, Israel, who were God's people. All of the nations were, well, not God's nations; they were not God's people. They worshiped idols. They held false gods. They did detestable things. In fact, in many cases, they were diametrically opposed to the nation of Israel, God's people. That's the story of the Old Testament. 

And here, God speaks to His people, to one nation among the many, and He declares, If you would just be my people, really be my people, then the whole world would be blessed, even those people who are not my people. 

It's a powerful message for those of us who are longing for a way to have a meaningful impact in our global culture. In a world that seems to be getting both bigger and smaller, how do we, the people of God, have the biggest impact on those around us - Christian and not? 

By being the people of God.

Now, it's important to note that this has nothing to do with evangelism or missions. Nothing. The nations are not blessed because we go out and preach to them. They are not blessed because we go out and convert them. They are not honored by God because we build churches or hand out Bibles or win arguments, or even win hearts. The nations are blessed because we are faithful. No more, no less.

It sounds...weird. At best. It sounds...kind of fishy. But if we go back to some of the early narratives in Genesis, I think we can start to understand what this might mean. There are stories in Genesis of God desiring to destroy certain cities, for lack of their righteousness. Abraham, at one crucial point, argues with God. He argues God down to finding just ten righteous people in a town, in order to spare that town. If there were just ten people in that whole town who were living like they were the people of God, the whole town would have been spared. Just ten, and the whole town gets to live. Just ten, and the people might never know how close they came to God's wrath.

There's the righteousness of Noah, which ends up being a blessing to the entire creation. There are stories of Israel in captivity or in exile where tremendous things happen in the nations who are holding the faithful. Over and over again, we see that Israel living as Israel brings blessings on the nations that are not God's people. For no other reason than that Israel has its heart right. 

They're not doing anything with their hands.

Isn't that amazing? Just by having your heart right before God, you can bring a blessing on the world around you - believing and unbelieving, God's and not God's. Can you imagine if it wasn't just you, wasn't just me, but if we all had our hearts right before God? Can you imagine how we'd change the world? God's blessings would rain down on all the nations, if only we would set our hearts right. 

For a people looking to have an impact in an increasingly global world, this seems a fairly straightforward to begin doing that.

Come back, Israel. Come back...and the nations will be blessed. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Problem of Sin

There is another way that our plurality has divided us as the people of God, and this one relates to the idea of sin. Specifically, we have created a language where we believe there is such a thing as a sin, and therefore, many sins.

Again, notice the s.

And again, we may draw some of this language from the Scriptures themselves, which sometimes refers to the sins of a nation or a man's sins that will be held against him. But something happens when we start to get the idea of sins in our heads:

We start comparing them.

We start putting quantifiers and qualifiers on this thing called sin. Some sins are worse than other sins. Some are greater in magnitude. Some are, we argue, more offensive to God than others. And by extension, then, some sinners are more condemnable than others. It's how we've come to the point where certain persons are not welcome in our churches, by the very nature of their "sins," while others continue to be welcome in our pulpits for the very same reason. The pastor's "sins" are not as atrocious as the "sinner's."

Talk about drawing lines.

What we need to understand is that in the eyes of God, there are not many sins. This idea we have of multiple ways to offend God is our own construction. There is but one way to grieve God, and that is to sin against Him. Singular. There is one sin, and that is the breaking of His holy heart.

Sometimes, I think we need to be reminded of that. I think we get too caught up in our lists, in our own judgments of what sin is. We pray for forgiveness, for all the big and little things we do, and somewhere along this spectrum, we lose even sight of God. Ask yourself, for example, which of your so-called "sins" you still consider as offensive to God. Does a little white lie grieve Him or do you consider that simply a falling short of your own nature? Is it a sin against God in your own mind or merely a sin against yourself? This is what happens when start trying to qualify our sin as more than one thing.

But sin is one thing, and one thing only: it is an act of rebellion against God. And when we stop talking about sin as a bunch of different possible things we can do, we come to a startling conclusion: we can no longer justify it. When sin is but one thing, this one thing, it must be justified.

Only God can do that, for only God is grieved.

These distinctions are hard. They're subtle. They don't seem to mean a whole lot until you put some skin on them and figure out what they really mean. If there is no such thing as a sin, but there is only sin itself, then we are all on the same playing field. Any man, woman, saint, sinner, is welcome to walk through our doors and be counted the same. When we look at ourselves, we cannot escape the conviction that we have grieved God, whether what we have done seems to be a small thing or not. Because we recognize sin for what it is: one thing. And not just one thing, but one thing that puts us all on the same playground.

For we are all sinners. Plain and simple. No man more than any other, by nature of his "sins," but all of us the same, by nature of our sin.