Friday, December 30, 2016

A Change of Heart

As we all look forward to the new year, resolutions are forefront on many of our minds. What do we want to do, where do we want to go, what changes do we want to make in the new year? As I said yesterday, the best resolutions are resolutions for the heart.

But that doesn't mean they have to be touchy-feely or obscurely deep; resolutions for the heart can be practical and simple and still be invaluably meaningful.

For example, a few months ago, I made a decision about television. Well, several decisions. First, I determined to turn off anything that had uncouth language. Now, I'm not one of those Christians who tends to worry too much about language, but most of these television shows that curse gratuitously also use a lot of innuendo. And the problem with innuendo is that it teaches us to listen in an impure way - we hear the unsaid filth, rather than taking others at their word. We listen beyond conversation, and not in a good way. So I turned it off. And you know what? My heart is learning to hear again. 

How is this a resolution for the heart? It has restored me to relationship. It has changed the way that I interact with others. It has allowed me to come purely into communion. This is the first step to loving each other.

I also decided that I was not going to watch gratuitous violence or get drawn into crime shows. There are a couple of standards that are on my favorites list for character development, and I continue to watch new episodes of them, but no longer the reruns. Why? The headlines are right - they desensitize us. And the headlines are wrong - they overly sensitize us. When your neighbor tells you of real tragedy, you cannot be trying to figure out how your favorite set of television characters would handle it. When you hear of heartache, you cannot live in a world that expects it to be solved in under 60 minutes. And at the same time, when you have to stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere or have a repairman over to your house, you can't be thinking, "This is how it starts." This kind of constant immersion in human depravity taints our relationship with both real humans and real depravity. We've lost it all. So I turned it off. And you know what? My heart is learning to be broken again.

Further, I decided that I would not longer do marathons of shows, which was particularly to pass the time. Since I don't have a streaming service, this amounted to whatever marathons the networks were showing at any given time. But immersing ourselves in television in these ways, for long periods of time, further removes us from the community of real people around us. So I turned them off. And you know what? My heart is rediscovering my real community.

It's gotten to the point where I don't even catch much news any more, and I used to be a news junkie. There are a lot of problems with the news these days. For example, most of the local news consists of crime stories that only really affect a handful of people in a community of hundreds of thousands, and yet, we're convinced that they have something to do with us. They are an expose of people's lives who we will never know, tragedies we will never be caught up in. They take us away from the people that we do know and the very real stories we're written into. On the national level or on the grander scale, the news is pretty good at getting us to have a mind for things around the world that we can never do anything about, either. And this, too, pulls us away from our very real stories in our very real communities. So I turned them off. And you know what? It's amazing.

All of this is very practical. It's nothing superhuman. It's nothing touchy-feely. It's nothing obscurely deep. It doesn't dwell in some deep wound that I haven't been able to heal (although I have plenty of those). But it's just this small thing, this small set of decisions about something so mundane as television. And it has revolutionized my heart.

My heart beats with the pulse of my own community again. I hear the people who are talking with me, and I'm able to talk with them. My heart breaks for human depravity, rather than just accepting or even expecting it. My life is invested in the actual people in my actual community in my actual story. And in turn, several other things about me are changing, things that I could have resolved just to change, but with much less success because they would not have been a change of the heart. 

The heart of the resolution is not to get yourself to...; it is to give yourself to.... It is to figure out how to reconnect with the life that God has given you, to live it wholly and fully in good grace and generosity, in real community with those around you. We are all written onto the pages of each other's stories, and it's no scripted procedural. 

It's this amazing, enrapturing, beautiful narrative that we're all living together by the very hand of God. This new year, give yourself back to your story, to your community, to your God. 

This is real resolution. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016


It is around this time of the year that we start turning to hopes for the new year, trying to figure out who we want to be, what we want to do, where we want to go, and what changes we have to make in our lives to get there (or perhaps, the answers to these questions are the changes we are making in our lives). 

The average January 1 membership of any gym or fitness facility will confirm that most of our resolutions are fitness-based. But the average February 1 membership of any gym or fitness facility confirms that our best fitness-based resolutions tend not to last. This is true also for weight-loss groups, diet systems, and smoking-cessation programs. It is not because these things are hard that we are so quick to give up; it is because the pay-out is so low and the maintenance so high - they require a constant fighting against ourselves, and we were not made for war. These are resolutions that we must labor to sustain, with so little in return, and so, we give up.

Many others make resolutions centered on relationships - healing broken relationships, getting out of bad ones, starting new ones, finding "the" one. These, too, are no good, precisely because they do not depend solely on us. Healing broken relationships takes all parties, and we cannot resolve for the other that they will seek the same healing. Getting out of bad relationships requires another to let us go, and there's no guarantee that they will. Starting new relationships means finding others who are also seeking new relationships, and they simply may not be. Finding "the" one requires that you are also "the" one being sought, and maybe he/she resolved this new year to faithfully enjoy his/her singleness. Resolutions in relationships sound great on paper, but they don't depend on us; they depend on much more. They can therefore be frustrating, and often ultimately go unfulfilled.

Still many others make administrative resolutions, or those that are discipline-based - balancing checkbooks, getting out of debt, living within their means, reading the Bible, going to church, transitioning to a new job, buying a new car, etc. These are also great goals, but not really resolutions - they don't solve anything. They don't change anything. They are, essentially, to-do lists for the new year, and they hang heavy over our heads. Does that mean I am actively discouraging people from resolving to read their Bibles? Yes. If your resolution is to read your Bible just because you probably ought to read it, please don't. You will one day look at that book and say you read it, know nothing about it, and can't remember a darned thing. Not only that, but you will not be fundamentally changed just by reading it; you will only have a trophy for Christian participation, and barely that. Do not use your resolutions to make to-do lists. They are the illusion of accomplishment, and nothing more. (Now, some of these aforementioned resolutions can be done well, in the spirit of heart and not in the burden of to-do lists, in which case, go for it.)

And many more make resolutions to act differently in some fundamental way - to complain less, rejoice more, be more friendly, be more gracious, be more grateful, be more generous, whatever. These are perhaps the most troublesome resolutions of all, for they are the most prone to fail. Why? Because when we resolve simply to do different, we are constantly discouraged by the self that we see in the mirror. We are who we are, and without a fundamental shift in our orientation, whatever we manage to do toward these goals is difficult, contrived, and empty. It's fake. The world sees through our fakeness, and so do we, and it is not long before we feel like we've lost something of ourselves, which comes back to us seven-fold, just like demons to an empty house. 

Now that we've ruled out the big four, the question remains: if we want to get in on the resolution-making fun of the new year, what's left? What do we resolve for 2017?

Make resolutions for your heart. 

Resolve things that are going to shape you. Resolve things that are going to grow you. Resolve things that are going to penetrate deep to the very core of your being and make a real, lasting change in the way that you live and love in this world. 

Resolutions for the heart need not be sustained like body-centered goals; resolutions for the heart sustain us. Resolutions for the heart do not depend on others to be fulfilled; they fulfill us, and they draw others in. Resolutions for the heart do not rely on to-do lists, on boxes that can be checked; there is nothing to do, only to be. Resolutions for the heart are not some facade we build, not some contrived, empty existence; they run deep to a solid foundation of the very spirit of God within us. 

Wait, wait, wait - this sounds really hard and abstract. And, well, uh...touchy-feely or something. It doesn't have to be. Resolutions for the heart can be really practical, seemingly simple, even. They can look a lot like some of these other resolutions, or they can look entirely different. They can be the sorts of things that become easier with time (FYI - none of the above become easier with time; they all become more and more difficult. But resolutions for the heart become easier because they succeed at fundamentally changing you in ways that you desire). Tomorrow, I will give a few real examples of how this looks. For today, just let this set your wheels turning.

Stop asking what you want to do in the new year, where you want to go. Ask yourself, instead, how you want to grow, how you'd like to change, how you'd liked to be shaped. That will help you figure out what resolutions to make for your heart to help you do just that. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In Swaddling Clothes

Here is the challenge for all of those who would call themselves faithful, even Christians today, who know how the story turns out: can we appreciate the unrest that comes after the silent night?

It's tempting, far too tempting (and so tempting that most of us cannot withstand the temptation), to let the manger fall in the shadow of the Cross, to look right past Christmas with confident assurance in Easter Sunday. But at that very moment when God came into the world in flesh, those who had waited with such expectant hope, those who had followed a star to the little town of Bethlehem, those who had heard the cries of a newborn babe, could never have imagined such a thing as Sunday morning.

They would have thought we were crazy.

But our modern theology refuses to wait. It cannot comprehend a Christmas story that does not carry at least the echoes of Easter. And this is a tragedy.

It is a tragedy because it reduces God to what He has done for us, not what He is. It is a tragedy because we live in this perpetual liturgical calendar that lives and dies on Golgotha, but never cries in Bethlehem. It is a tragedy because we focus so intently on the Savior that we miss entirely Immanuel.

God with us.

I have written before, many years ago, about the difference between the coming and the Cross, about the importance of this God who has decided to be with us, who has come in a form that we can recognize, who has condescended to live here among us. This is the miracle of Christmas, not that God has become such that we can put Him in our homes somehow or wear Him around our necks, but that God has become such that He can walk into our homes. We do not establish Him in our homes, as all of the pagans have always done; we welcome Him.

God with us.

When we are looking so much at the culmination of Jesus' life, we miss the true miracle of it, the miracle, yes, even of a babe who must grow before our very eyes. We are missing the angst, the troubled hope that must find a way to hold on as revelation develops into first a boy, then a man, and only finally a Savior. We are missing what it means that God dwells among us. And our theology has been reduced to, "Oh, Jesus? Yes, He died for me."

He died, yes, but He lived. Our modern theology argues that He lived in order to die, that His life was necessary only for His death, but we must not buy into such short-sighted theology. We must not accept such a self-centered faith. Yet, we have. We have accepted a faith that believes that Jesus' entire life can be summed up in the Cross and that that Cross was for our sake. Therefore, our Gospel is simply self-serving and nothing more.

But Jesus' entire life cannot be summed up in the Cross; it must be anticipated in the manger. It must be embraced in the stable. In swaddling clothes, this is the Son of God, who has so much in our day become the Christ that we have forgotten the Immanuel.

God with us.

So again, here is the challenge for all who would call themselves faithful, even Christians today: can we live in light of Christmas without rushing toward Easter? Can we love a little town in Bethlehem as much as the spectacle of the Cross? Can we appreciate the unrest that comes after the silent night?

Can we let our Christ be also our Immanuel?

God. with. us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

God With Us

The same nagging disappointment that struck turn-of-time Jerusalem is the one that still troubles us today - this Jesus is said to have come into the world, but, it seems, nothing has changed. 

People still hate each other. Things break. Contracts are broken, covenants torn. Weather still goes wild, flowers wilt, and no lion has ever lain down with a lamb (although there are some amazingly cute stories gone viral of unlikely animal friends). We look around our world and see the brokenness, the woundedness, the hurt, and we cannot help but wonder about the hope. Immanuel? 

Surely, God is not with us. 

Even for the Christian, this seems to be the ache. We pray, read the Bible, and go to church, but the God we serve has become little more than a star in the sky or a babe in a manger; He is of no practical good to us. We are either hoping that one day, we will be guided to the place where He dwells or that He will grow up in the developing revelation before our very eyes. Very few, if any, of us are willing to actually go to the manger and hold Him. Very few, if any, of us are willing to listen to His cry.

And cry, He does. This is, I think, what we so easily miss in all of this. We hear, ever so faintly, His persistent cry, and we think this must mean He is as helpless and hopeless as He was that Christmas morn. Our disappointment cannot be hidden. Here is this God who has supposedly come into the world, but nothing has changed except that He has added His cry to ours. 

This God of ours must be of no good at all. 

But it is because we can hear His cry that we know that He is here. It is the very paradox of our Lord. He is present among us not only as a God, but as a brother; not only as a Father, but as a friend. It is difficult for us to listen to the cry, particularly in a world where we are so convinced that any good and powerful God would act more like the Wizard of Oz than the Suffering Servant, pulling levers and using smoke and mirrors to at least create the effect on the world that He's promised. But we know this story. We know when this is true, it is not long before someone pulls back the curtain and reveals this false god for who he is not. 

Only in the Suffering Servant do we see who He truly is. Only in the manger do we come to know Him. Only in His cry do we hear His heart. And it is only because we hear this cry that we know that He truly is with us.

Were He not, the silence would be deafening.

A star in the sky, a babe in a manger - it's easy for us to sit back and ask, What's it all mean? It's easy for us to say that maybe it means nothing. But that is so much not the case. This means everything. It means that God is faithful. It means that God is true. It means that God delivers on His promises, keeps His covenant, and loves His creation. It means that God has done amazing things and continues to do them. It means that the revelation is developing before our very eyes. It means that the Word has truly become flesh. It means...that God is with us. 


Monday, December 26, 2016


The day after Christmas has got to be one of the most disappointing days in all of history. And I'm not talking about every December 26, but about that day more than two thousand years ago AFTER the day that Jesus was born. 

The Scriptures would have us believe that not many would have missed the miracle of the stable, as remote a location as that was. There is a reason that we are given both shepherds and wise men responding - these were the representations of the far extremes of society. Shepherds were often lowly, often disconnected from the doings of the rest of the world by nature of their profession. Yet, they knew. And wise men, well, they were always in the know, often in the highest places in all the world. So the fact that the lowliest and some of the highest were aware of the newborn babe is characteristic of the way that the Bible often indicates an entirety of something - everyone knew.

And, of course, the rumor mill was likely just as strong then as it has always been, so there were not many who knew the whispers of the pregnant "virgin" and would not have been watching her closely. The whispers, as they always had, would spread. Truly, the entire world would know.

According to God's desire, the young Mary and Joseph bestowed on their son the name, Immanuel - God with us. Not only did the world know His birth, they knew His name. They held their breath with expectation, and then...

Nothing happened.

Literally nothing.

An actual baby was born. An actual baby was swaddled in clothes. An actual baby cried, then nursed at His mother's breast. Absolutely nothing in all the world changed. This Immanuel? What. a. Disappointment. 

You would think that if God is going to come into the world, even if He chooses to come into this obscure place, even if He comes in this quiet way, that something is going to happen. Thirty-some years later when He dies, the earth quakes, the curtain is torn, the dead come out of the ground. But at His birth? Nothing. A star in the sky, a babe in a manger, and life as we know it goes on as it always has. 

All this waiting on God, all this longing for Him, and at the very moment when all that waiting was supposed to end, the whole world exhales, only to hold its breath again. 

But we should have known. We should have anticipated that God would not do things in the way that we expect, but in the way that He ordains. We should have understood that the developing revelation was now growing up before our very eyes. All that we had unto this point led us to a baby, which was God's plan all along, but in order to see the fullness of His plan, we had to watch that baby develop - the developing revelation led only to a revelation which was developing. 

Our God has always been the God of paradoxes. 

And so here we are, on this most disappointing of all days, when God has come into the world as know it but things are exactly as we have always known them. Or are they?

For the whisper has become a cry, the anticipation has become a hope, and the Word has become flesh. And before our very eyes, the revelation of God will develop, the Son of Man will become a Son of God. He will live, die, and live again, this Savior of the world, this babe. Immanuel, God with us. 

Friday, December 23, 2016


All this week, we have been looking at the words of the magnificat, Mary's beautiful song recorded in the gospel of Luke, her humble response to the God-child growing in her womb. 

But this is not just Mary's song; it is ours, as well. Or, at least, it should be.

There is no Lord but Jesus, of course, but what is it that we know of this Lord? We know that John calls Him "the Word." Not once, but over and over again. And indeed, in terms even of the Trinity, this is the truth of the Christ - He is the Word, come to the world in flesh. Is this not where we all find ourselves?

Whatever can be said about the babe in Mary's womb can also be said about the Word in us. When the babe leaped in Mary's womb, so the Word leaps in us. Where the babe grew and formed and became mature in her, it grows, forms, and becomes mature in us. Where the time comes when the babe can no longer stay so small and bursts forth from her tender womb, so the time comes when the Word can no longer stay so small in us and bursts forth from our tender flesh.

We are all pregnant with the very word of God, and thus, we must all sing the magnificat.

We must sing it wholeheartedly, and for the very reasons that Mary did. We must sing because in us, God must be made bigger; our souls must magnify the lord. We must sing because in us, joy must take firm hold; our spirits must rejoice. We must sing because we, too, have been noticed by God; He has looked favorably upon us. And we must bear the Word in the world in such a way, on account of all of this, that all people should call us blessed.

Blessed we are, indeed.

There is no greater honor than to be the humble servant chosen to bring forth the Word into this world, to bear God in the very flesh and make Him present to an aching generation. This Christmas journey, this magnificat, it does not echo only unto the manger, but it merely begins there. It begins here - from a silent night in Bethlehem to a Cross outside of Jerusalem to a busy shopping mall, a crowded airport, and a family breakfast with pajamas and presents.

My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for He has noticed me, and from now on, all people will call me blessed.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


From now on, all people will call me blessed. Here is the fourth line of Mary's song, and the last that we will take under good consideration this week.It is a most critical declaration, for it hinges precisely upon the previous three.

That is not often how we consider it. Too often, we read the magnificat only forward, ever pushing us more and more toward that moment when Jesus will push forth out of Mary's womb. This is not, however, how these beautiful words should be read; this is not the song that Mary sung.

Rather, each phrase, each lyric builds upon the last, so that we have a developing melody, one that must be read backward to be understood. Thus, when Mary says that all people will call her blessed, it is not because of what we will one day know about her, but of what we know about her already.

And what is it that we know?

We know that her soul magnifies the Lord; in her, God is made bigger. This stands in direct contrast to our modern theology of God, which says that when we are blessed, it is because God has made us bigger. I don't think Mary felt any bigger. I think she continued to feel like the small, poor, Jewish girl from a no-name town that she'd always been; what she felt was God growing bigger inside of her, and by extension, in her world. So contrary to modern theology, man is most blessed when God is made bigger and not the other way around.

We know that her spirit rejoices in the Lord; joy has become her natural state. This, too, stands in direct contrast to our modern theology, where joy is a reaction to our circumstances and subject to change with the winds. Not so for Mary. Her spirit rejoiced in the very thing that was being made bigger within her. That means, her joy was not conditional; it was firmly grounded. It was rooted in something that was already in bloom. This kind of joy is a blessing. Therefore, we call her blessed.

We know that she had been noticed, that God had looked favorably upon her. She was chosen. God knew something about her that she hadn't even seen in herself, and He called her on it. It's funny, right? Our modern theology tells us that God makes us bigger so that we can have joy so that He can choose us, but Mary's theology says that when we make God bigger and choose joy, God sees something bigger in us, even though we continue to feel our own smallness.

This is blessedness at its very core - that our lives would make God bigger, choose joy, and be chosen in our smallness. In that order.

Oh, what a difficult concept to wrap our modern minds around! Oh, what a contrast to our modern mentality!

But such it is. And so we must take it. This fourth line in Mary's song, this beautiful lyric of the magnificat, does not look forward; it looks inward. It is not speaking of the day when the Lord will burst forth from her womb; it is reflecting on the Lord taking shape within her right now.

And truly she is blessed. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


because he has looked favorably on me, his humble servant. Other translations suggest that Mary has been "noticed" in this third line of her beautiful song.

This is the turning point of the entire Christian experience; it is the very thing that sets the God of the Scriptures apart from all other gods in all of the world - this God looks favorably upon His servants. He notices them.

Other gods had to be enticed to notice. Their favor had to be bought. But what could a servant ever purchase from her master? Only, in some very rare cases and only perhaps, her freedom, but Mary is not singing of a freedom here. No, she is singing of being more firmly than ever in her Master's house.

And she was doing really nothing at all to be noticed. It was not her prayer that God would give her a child. It was not her prayer that He would change her life. We can't even say that she was hoping that her faithfulness would be noticed. In the contractual existence of the law, such faithfulness is good only for showing faithfulness, not for earning favor. There was nothing in Mary's existence that would suggest that God should notice her, and yet, He does. And He looks favorably upon us.

Our modern theology is a detriment here, for we often suffer from precisely the opposite problem - we have come to believe that God cannot stop noticing us. We have come to expect His favor, if He is any God at all. We have come to base our entire religion on the God of the magnificat without ever realizing that we are, at our cores, simply Marys.

There is nothing about us that God should notice. Nothing. Were it not for His immeasurable grace and unquenchable love for us, we would live quiet lives of faithfulness perhaps for faithfulness's sake. Were it not for the covenant trumping the contract, there would be no reason to expect what we do of our God. And yet, how easy it is for us to forget that the covenant is a two-way agreement. We have entered into it expecting that God would notice us, but we no longer consider what it is that we must do for our end of the relationship.

It is not that we must give Him one hour of our Sunday mornings.

It is that we must become Mary. We must become His humble servants, those living in His house, those working quietly and faithfully for His good. We must understand that there is nothing that we could purchase from Him, except perhaps in some very rare cases and only perhaps, our freedom, but who would wish to be free from this Master's house? No, we must enamor ourselves deeper and deeper into His service. Only then when He looks on us with favor will our heart rejoice.

And this, this is it, isn't it? This is where our dead theology has brought us - we so expect God to notice us that it no longer makes our hearts sing. It no longer fills us with unspeakable joy. It no longer awes us in immeasurable wonder. Of course God should notice us. What else would He do?

Oh, but our hearts are deprived of the joy. The incredible infatuation. The indescribable feeling that it is when the God who created all things looks favorably upon us, notices us. Who are we that we should be noticed?

We are we whose hearts should sing. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior. This is the second line of Mary's wonderful song, and it is one that we are prone to misinterpret, perhaps more than any other.

We live in a culture that says our rejoicing must be tied to something. That is, we rejoice because. Because God has done this. Because God has done that. Because this prayer was answered. Because that hope came true. Rejoicing is our reaction to something.

This reduces our joy to mere thankfulness, at best. Conditional, at least. But neither of these makes sense in Mary's song.

It cannot be thankfulness, for the young woman has just received a stigma. Who would be thankful, pre-Christ, for being an outcast? This was the highest disgrace in the Jewish custom! She has just been told that she is about to become, among other things, unclean. She is about to become the subject of gossip. She is about to be discarded. She may even perhaps be stoned. To say that some measure of thankfulness for all of this caused her to rejoice, well, that is just plain absurd.

Just as it would be to say that her joy is conditional to this unexpected pregnancy. A conditional joy requires that God acts first, and at this point, nothing really has happened. She is pregnant, yes, but is that anything at all? She had not, like Sarai, like Hannah, like so many other women before her, ached for a child. She had not longed for one. She had not been praying to conceive. So this act of God was not yet anything, except everything that it inherently was. It was not so strongly tied to her life that she should respond with conditional joy. That doesn't make any sense.

And it is easy for us, post-Christ, to say that her joy is based on God, her Savior. After all, that is the Lord that she specifies in her magnificat. This is the God she sings to. But at this point, there is no Savior at all, only a baby who kicks within her womb. The later Scriptures will testify that Mary's journey is one of learning right along with us all that this baby means to the world, so at the time she is rejoicing in her Savior, there has not yet been a Savior to speak of, only the covenantal God of the Old Testament. 

Then what of this joy? What of this rejoicing? If it is not thankfulness, if it is not conditional, if it is not based on the saving grace of the babe that has not yet saved her, then what sets Mary's spirit to rejoicing? 


When God formed Adam, He bent down and breathed the breath of life into the man. It is the same Hebrew word that is used for "spirit." And, intimately, Adam came to life with the very spirit of God inside of him. This is the very kind of intimacy that Mary is experiencing when she feels the young baby moving about in her womb. The Spirit of God is truly inside of her, and she is connected intimately to that life-giving source that is the Lord. 

Her rejoicing is tied to this connection. It is a breath in which she not only comes to life, not only bears life, but understands beyond comprehension Life itself. She knows, in this connected Spirit, the fullness of God, though she could never put words to it. It is how she is able to say, "my Savior," even though she has not, as yet, been saved.

This is our call, as well - to be so connected with the Spirit, to be so intimate with Him, to breathe the very breath of God in such a way that our knowing exceeds our comprehension and that our only possible reaction is rejoicing. Not because, but of course. 

It is all we can do. 

Monday, December 19, 2016


My soul magnifies the Lord.

As Christmas approaches, there is no better place to spend these final few days than in the magnificat, Mary's beautiful song of praise recorded in Luke 1. These are the words sung by the young Mary in a moment in which she truly realized the great gift that lay within her womb and what that gift said about her, about her baby, and about her God. 

It begins with these words - my soul magnifies the Lord. In some translations, it says something akin to, my soul praises the Lord. Both are inherently the same idea. It's about making God bigger.

Bigger than what? Bigger than the small idea that we have of Him.

This was true in Mary's day, when the Lord was so easily reduced to His role as lawmaker. The covenant aside, He was a partner in contract. Do this, don't do that. Come here, go there. Offer this, sacrifice that. And I will be pleased with you. But it is not a contractual God that comes to Mary. Not by any means. It is the covenantal God, who has all but been forgotten by turn-of-time Jerusalem, who has been relegated to His role in the Temple and at times, in the synagogue, and who has been somewhat discarded, except for the occasional echoes of ritual purity in such mundane tasks as the washing of hands before one eats.

It is no less true in our day, when the Lord is so easily given only Sunday morning. He exists inside the church, eagerly awaiting our arrival for worship. He relishes our few songs, our brief table, and our good words, then dwells alone in His sanctuary for six days until we return the following Sunday, being somewhat discarded in the home, except for the occasional "God bless you" after a sneeze or I-didn't-forget-this-time bedtime prayer. 

Mary's song bursts this little God bubble that the people had put Him in. It restores to Him the image of the party of the covenant, the One entered into relationship, the One present among His people. That's why it's so important that He is called Immanuel - God with us. The people have forgotten how God was with them. We...have forgotten this God with us. There's not a Temple, not a synagogue, not a church into which one can stuff this God who is nestled in Mary's womb; He simply does not fit. And so, as Mary's soul magnifies Him, as her pregnancy speaks again of this loving God, it forces the people to reconsider Him. It forces the people to re-meet Him. It forces them to re-understand Him.

It forces us to do the same. 

We don't often think much on this; birth is such a natural thing, such a routine thing, that we don't give it much thought. But try, for just a second, to wrap your mind around the idea that this God who cannot be contained uses the womb to emphasize His infiniteness. This God who is grander than all we could ever have imagined is nestled in this one woman. This God, weary of the small places that we give to Him, has taken the smallest place of all. And in this smallness, knowing the tiny gift that lies inside of her, Mary declares in beautiful song that He is magnified.

He is made bigger.

Bigger than what? Bigger than every small idea we've come to have of Him.

This is the magnificat. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Perpetually Empty

There is a vein of emptiness that runs straight through the human body. It is an emptiness that we spend our lives trying to fill, to no avail. It is the track that runs through our stomachs but can never touch our hearts.

Yes, it is digestive.

The New Testament makes reference to this mystery when it declares that all food is permissible to be eaten, since whatever goes into your mouth goes into your stomach and then into the toilet, never truly permeating anything at all in your being and only temporarily sating your emptiness, which is bound to become empty again.

The discussion is often centered around food, since that is what we so commonly put into this empty space, but taken more broadly, this is true of all things in this world. Whatever it is we come upon, whatever it is we crave, whatever it is that we try to put into ourselves, it fills only a temporary emptiness; it never can quite get into our hearts, to the only place where emptiness is truly haunting. 

That's not to say that the things of this world are useless, that they do nothing for anything, let alone for us. In fact, our perpetual emptiness has learned to absorb something useful from all that passes through it. It is designed to take what is life-giving and leave the rest. It nourishes itself and, appropriately, labels the rest as dung. It is true of food, and it is true of all the other things of this world.

But we have somewhere forgotten how to execute this process. We have forgotten how to let the life of this world pass through us, taking what we need and making waste of the rest. We have forgotten the dung. Rather than taking what this world has that is life-giving, we take it all and shove it into our emptiness, more and more and more, compacting it until our emptiness no longer aches, but hurts. It no longer gnaws at us; it condemns us. For our emptiness finally feels full, if only for a bit, but that fullness itself is empty.

It is because we have forgotten how to hunger. That is our trouble. We have forgotten how to let the pangs of our emptiness remind us of our vacant spaces. We have determined that any emptiness is a brokenness, that it is a trouble or a curse. We have forgotten that the very testimony of our anatomy is that there is a place in us that we were never destined to fill, but only temporarily, that our hunger was always destined to return. 

It's what keeps us aching. It's what keeps us longing. It's what keeps us humble. No matter what we do to this emptiness, we come up with very little bits here and there that are worth keeping, and the vast majority of it all is dung. It's waste. Somewhat akin to the writer of Ecclesiastes, it's all meaningless. Worthless. It goes straight into the toilet.

And that's okay. That bothers most of us, but it's really okay. It's okay for us to take what nourishes us and discard the rest. It's okay for us to trust our design to know the difference. It's okay for us to feast, as long as we're prepared to waste, and as long as we understand that whatever we do to fill our own emptiness, it's only temporary. That's the way we're designed. It's the way we were created.

That way, there is always something in us that longs for more. And in that wise way that God has about Him, in that way of perfect wisdom in which He does things, He said from the very beginning that the answer to that aching, the answer to that gnawing, the answer to that longing is not always bacon.

It's something kosher.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Grunts and Groans

Most of us say that we just don't know how to understand the Holy Spirit, and this is why we struggle at moments of the Spirit's undeniable presence. We do not understand what is going on, and so we do not know what to say. What words do we have in our language that would ever do justice to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit?
But this is our failing, for we do not need words for the Spirit, but only language.

This is a difficult concept for those living in a postmodern world, where words are the very construct of all that we know and experience. Language and words seem so much the same thing, so intimately intertwined that we do not understand how one could possibly be different from the other. This, we wrestle with even when we know that something ridiculous like 90% of all that we say is communicated non-verbally - beyond words. And it is here that the Holy Spirit also speaks.

See, Jesus is the Word; the Holy Spirit, well, He is something quite different. The Scriptures tell us that the Spirit intervenes for us with grunts and groans.

It's easy for us to write this off as a nice mystery, but one that we will never understand. Who can possibly comprehend a language so garbled as grunts and groans? Yet we must be reminded that this is not some mysterious uttering; it is our native language.

As babes, this is all that we do. We grunt and groan. We cry and fuss. We coo and garble. It's all we've got. And you know what? Most of the time, it gets us exactly what we need. Those around us learn to understand what we are asking for, and we do it so inherently, so first-nature. A baby's cry will change depending on whether she is hungry, sleepy, in pain, in need of a fresh diaper, feeling alone. And it takes not long being around this little one to be able to determine the difference in her cries. 

Then she grows up, we teach her some words, and she spends the rest of her life struggling to be understood. 

This is the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as well. It speaks for us in grunts and groans, which are our first language. All these words we've come to know have messed it all up. And we've spent so much time trying to understand the Word that we've forgotten how to grunt and groan at all, as though the Word makes us more sophisticated somehow than the more primal expressions of our very souls. 

But just as the Spirit gave us the Word, so the Word gave back to us the Spirit. We learned, in just a few short Gospels, how to speak the Word of the Lord, but when He returned to prepare a place for us, He left in His place the grunting and groaning once more. Most of us simply never bothered to learn it. 

So we say that we cannot understand the Spirit at all, that He intercedes for us with a language we can never know. But we did know it. Once upon a time, we did. And it is incumbent upon us to learn it once more.

What if we did? What if we all learned to speak the language of the Holy Spirit, not just in our own lives but in the lives of others? What if we used that ridiculously high percentage of our communication that is beyond words to be present with one another in grunting and groaning?

There is still a difference in our cry depending upon our need. Our grunting and groaning is different if we are hungry, sleepy, in pain, dirty, feeling alone. And our greatest theologies so often tell us to put words to it, to put the Word to it if we desire something, if we need something, if we ache for something. But the Word is only one of three; the Spirit is there, too. He grunts and groans, cries and fusses, coos and garbles. And we would do well to learn again to speak His language.

It should not be that we do not understand this Spirit. No, we should understand Him quite well. Rather, our difficulty is that He exists in a place beyond words, and here, we have forgotten how to speak. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


This is the greatest tragedy of our theological language - it clouds what God is really doing in the lives of the faithful. 

It is this that we are talking about when we talk about baptism and about how we take this moment when the faithful babes are hearing for the first time the Holy Spirit, and we tell them that it was about their sinfulness all along. They feel like sinners, not saints. They feel condemned, not created.

Everywhere we turn, we are looking for the words to put to this phenomenal experience of God, and we're coming up so far short that we're actually limiting our very theology by the description of it. 

Go back to Paul's blinding on the road to Damascus. Do any of the words that he ever uses to describe this experience do any justice to what actually happened to him in that moment? Of course not. His entire life, his very heart, was fundamentally changed. The words he uses, they are the best that he has, but it is his life that speaks louder than words. 

In today's world, we'd almost blow off the words as foolish. We would see the changed man - no one can possibly deny this - but upon hearing the story, we may just shrug and say, "Well, yeah, whatever, brother. It's just good to see you changed." As though we could somehow separate Paul from the act of the Holy Spirit there on the road.

We dismiss the words not because we don't believe them, but because they do not make much sense to us, not in this language that we speak. They sound manipulative in some way, secretive or just plain weird, as though Saul was suddenly struck on the road to Damascus by the overwhelming urge to join a cult. (Ironically, that is essentially what it was considered in his time.) It sounds nothing more than this because our language is wholly incapable of capturing the mystery of the Holy Spirit. 

Wholly incapable, but we keep trying. How do you describe a moment like Saul's in our language? There is no possible way. We can describe the change in him, maybe, but how can we capture the essence of that change? It is not just that Saul became Paul or that the persecutor became the propagator. It is not just that Saul was blinded and Paul could see. It was not just that the Jew became the Christian.

It is that the circumcised somehow had the flesh cut away from his heart (a spiritual circumcision). And even those words do not capture the essence of it.

No matter what it is that we find to say, our words somehow lessen the Holy Spirit every time that we talk about Him. (Yes, Him - the Holy Spirit is a person, not a thing, even though our language even here often dulls us to an "it.") And I think that's why the person of the Holy Spirit never speaks in our language. God speaks. Jesus speaks. The angels speak. But the Holy Spirit does not speak, yet only in grunts and groans. 

No wonder, we say, that we do not understand Him! But this...this is our native language. 

We have lost it in translation only to words. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Blinding Baptism

We can learn much about what truly happens at baptism by looking at the story of Saul on his way to Damascus. It's not a narrative that we typically look at in terms of baptism, but it is one, indeed - this is the moment when the Holy Spirit came to Saul and something fundamental about him became different.

It is very easy for us to provide a commentary on baptism, for us to say that so-and-so entered the waters, was buried and raised, and "gave his life" to Christ, whatever that means. In the same way, those traveling with Saul that day spoke about a bright light. That's it - just a bright light.

At multiple points in his story, Paul reminds us of that bright light, and he acknowledges that everyone with him saw the same light. Everyone saw what happened to Saul, but we must also recognize that Saul was the only one blinded by it. Everyone experienced the light, but only Saul was changed by it. 

This is the truth of baptism - we all see what is happening. It's right there in front of our eyes. But only one person is truly changed by the event...the one in the waters. This is why it's so important for us to stop trying to categorize baptism, to stop trying to explain in simple man's terms what it is. It is something only to the one undergoing it; the rest of us can only witness. 

And what is it that we are witnessing? This is where our witness takes yet another dangerous turn. We are prone to say we are witnessing a commitment. We are witnessing a human act. We are witnessing a repentance, or something of the sort. Those with Saul are prone to say they were witnessing a light, even, they may concede, a blinding light.

But Paul says there was more. He recounts, at every retelling, the voice that spoke to him in that moment. It was a voice that no one else with him heard, even those who saw the light. It was a thundering whisper that only he could hear.

How many of us have heard that voice at our own baptisms? How many of us felt that undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit?

And how many of us have had that taken away by those who only saw the light?

See, this is what I'm talking about. When I told the story yesterday about the lightness that I felt, the wave that washed over me at my moment of baptism, I was speaking of this moment of the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit. Something fundamental was changing in me. But it was quickly drowned out by the voices of the witnesses who only saw the light, those who were so quick to say what a great thing it was that I was willing to give my life to Christ, to stop being a sinner, to declare a new allegiance. 

They made my baptism all about me, and in doing so, they made me nothing more than a sinner. Where has the Holy Spirit gone?

It's for this reason that I'm so slow to get into all the baptism chatter. There aren't a lot of things that I understand about what happens at baptism, a lot of things I can't explain. But what I know for sure is that at every baptism that is not my own, I am only a witness to the light. That's it. I wasn't blinded by it, and I didn't hear the voice. It did not fundamentally change me, so I am unqualified to speak of what was really going on here. All I can say is that I saw it...and then I saw a changed man.

That's it. That's all I've got. And that's all I should ever have.

Anything else, I end up contributing to yet another generation of Christians who know keenly their own sinfulness and woefully so little more, who mistake the Holy Spirit for something much less. They come up out of the waters and in that split second, that brief little moment of time, lose the water for the sake of the world. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

John's Baptism

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?

This is a question asked throughout the New Testament, a question meant to contrast the baptism of John with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Yet today's church rarely, if ever, asks this particular question. Rather, today's baptism falls far short of either answer.

To today's church, baptism is either one of two things - it is theologically null, merely one of the steps toward membership or a sign of a child stepping into a spiritual adulthood, or it is a baptism of the remission of sins, kind of a hybrid act of John's baptism and Jesus' sacrifice. 

But neither of these was an acceptable baptism post-resurrection. Either you received the Holy Spirit when you were baptized or you had not, in fact, been baptized. It was that simple. Everywhere they went, the disciples were inquiring about baptism and were re-baptizing those who had only repented; it is the Holy Spirit that made a real baptism.

Whenever I tell the story of my own baptism, or even simply recall it, I smile. I remember so well on that day that when I rose from the waters, for a split second, I could not even hear the applause. (We clap, congratulating the person, not the Holy Spirit.) For a split second, my eyes hazed over. I couldn't seem to focus on anything. And my head was swimming. My whole body felt light, and were it not for the youth pastor's hand on my back, I swear to you that I would have fallen back into those waters. This makes me smile.

It makes others laugh. For some reason, whenever I have shared this story, the reaction has always been laughter. Oh, you silly girl. Always so silly. But I've also noticed more than a few heads, even in laughter, gently nodding. And it makes me wonder - is this the moment?

I'll be honest - it made me feel like more of a sinner than I'd ever considered myself to be. In my young, naive theology, I figured that the absolute lightness I felt in that moment was Jesus actually removing my sin. The sheer change of weight in my being meant, I guessed, that I was really a wicked person. All the little whispers I'd tried my whole life not to hear came coming back to me. I really was...but maybe I didn't have to be. (Of course, I was profoundly disappointed to discover that I was essentially the same person after baptism as before, and it was far too easy to forget that I had been "forgiven." It's still too easy to forget.) Not only does this baptism set up a scenario whereby every evil thing I've ever heard about myself is confirmed, but Jesus is kind of a liar - because I still am who I always was. Aren't I?

But I'll be honest here, too - when I decided to be baptized, I didn't know anything about Jesus. I didn't really understand anything about God at all. I think that's true for most of us. But in that split second when I seemed to be lost between the waters and the world, when my ears were closed and my eyes were blurred and I couldn't keep my balance for the lightness in my soul, I tell you that in that moment, I understood more about Christ than I ever had. I knew more about holy things than I ever had. I knew something that I could not have anticipated knowing, that I never could have studied enough to understand.

Still, you know, like...congratulations, or something. Welcome to the church.

It is disheartening how easily the church has turned from the Holy Spirit. We celebrate our baptism as a coming into community, not as a communion. And that's a shame. I wonder what would happen if we all told our laughable baptism stories, our split seconds between the waters and the world. I wonder if there aren't more stories out there like this, where men and women stepped into the waters not knowing and came up assured. 

I wonder how many others felt the full weight of their sin and nothing more. How many bought into the story that this...this is a baptism for the remission of sins and nothing more, so that lightness you feel? That's your sin, you sinner. You dirty, dirty sinner. And how many spent their whole lives looking in the mirror and knowing only that sin (It's Calvinistic, I think. Isn't it?) and knowing not the Holy Spirit, which is, of course, the entire point of baptism? 

It's not so simple. I know. For a lot of reasons. One of these, we will look at tomorrow.... 

Friday, December 9, 2016


A typical response to the idea I've been presenting about treating the least among us humanly, rather than humanely, is one of utter disbelief. Don't I know that they are criminals for a reason? Don't I understand the meaning of "unclean"?

I do. But I find these no good reasons to treat a man with lesser dignity than he is entitled as an image of our loving God.

We're all guilty at one time or another. We all fall short of the glory of God. We all find ourselves in need of mercy or in need of ministry. And yet, we do not condemn ourselves. We do not look in the mirror and determine that we are evil people. Most of us won't even call ourselves sinners. We're "good people, trying to do the best that we can." We "mess up sometimes, but nothing big." Yet when we look at those who messed up bigger than we did, we are quick to think that their hearts are somehow fundamentally different.

We are quick to caricature-ize them, as though when they look in the mirror, they see the depths of their own evil. They laugh as little devil horns appear over their heads. They plot their next atrocity, their next act, as though they just thrive on this sort of thing. Why? Because if we thought these men were just like us, we would find that we are just like them. And if we find that we are all like one another, we have to offer grace to those it is easier to condemn. 

I've heard some say that it's not worth it, even if these men are just like us. That grace rejected is grace wasted. Is it? Specifically as regards the criminal, they say, these persons have given up their right to be part of our communities. To trust them is naive, to forgive them is foolish. If I dare think differently, would I have them around my table?

Jesus had Judas around His table, knowing full well what the betrayer would do. Because there's more to Judas than this one thing we all remember him for.

There's more to everyone than we're willing to remember them for. A few years ago, we had a young woman hanging around the neighborhood. She was clearly down on her luck (and it was clearly related to a drug problem she was struggling with, to one degree or another), but she ended up working for a few of my neighbors, neither of whom seemed to understand the depth of her addiction. Every time I encountered this woman in my neighborhood, she was doing something...neighborly (even though she did not live here). She was standing on one neighbor's house, cleaning out hard-to-reach gutters, sitting on another's porch and talking and laughing and sharing stories. She became the official cleaning lady at one house, had a key and everything. And then one day, her addiction got the better of her, and she committed a heinous criminal act (a robbery with battery, aggravated maybe). And in the blink of an eye, as my neighbors felt the betrayal, they came to remember only one thing about this young woman - the headline.

Does that mean that all the hard work she'd done for them was a farce? I don't think so. They all worried that she had been setting them up for something, maybe to rob them or take advantage of them. Yet, not one of them could say that she'd ever done such a thing. Not one had anything missing from their homes or purses. And when this woman did succumb to a darker thing, she did not come to this neighborhood to do it. My neighbors suddenly regretted the time they'd given her, the conversations they'd shared, the opportunities they'd extended. They felt like a waste. One neighbor told me she felt naive, was worried that she hadn't seen what now seemed so obvious, and was not sure she would ever trust anyone again.

This kind of reaction is not uncommon in our world. It's far easier for us to wall ourselves off than to grieve our broken hearts. But let me say this - love is never naive, and grace is never wasted. All those hours that this little neighborhood invested in that young woman, for just a brief moment, she had a glimpse of something different. She wasn't strong enough, at least not then, to break her addiction, but she had enough power to say to it that this neighborhood was off-limits. Whatever drugs would do to her, they would not ransack this place. That is not a waste. She knows, at least, one place where she was loved.

Jesus talked with so many sinners, some small and some big. A woman was brought to Him in adultery, an executable offense, and He spoke tender words of love and forgiveness to her. We don't know what happened after that. Maybe she went away and never sinned again, but that's unlikely; she was still human. Maybe she went away and ran right back into the arms of another lover. The Bible doesn't tell us. But I'll tell you this - the Bible also doesn't tell us that when Jesus saw a sinner, He was angry. The Bible doesn't tell us that when Jesus saw a sinner He'd already forgiven, that He was furious. 

No, He was broken-hearted. He cures ten lepers and only one comes back to Him. Is He angry with the nine? No. He grieves. 

We have to get better at grieving.

It's how we get better at grace.

Love is never naive; it knows that others will sometimes betray it. It knows that the darkness of this world sometimes seems to overcome the light. It knows that sometimes, persons will turn love away and do something lesser, that it is going to be betrayed and disappointed from time to time. But grace is never wasted. Never. Even if a man turns his back on grace, his heart has taken it like a sponge, soaked it up, soaked it in, and in the darkest times of his life, he has this moment to turn back to . When he looks in the mirror and can't believe in himself, he remembers that one time, someone believed in him. And maybe, just maybe....

Would I have them around my table? You bet. I'm not naive; I know exactly how things might turn out. But I'm willing to take that chance. 

Because I know exactly how things might turn out. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

For the Sake of Humanity

It is too easy, and perhaps too common, to read something like I wrote yesterday and say, "Well, if he couldn't handle the conditions of prison, then he shouldn't have become a criminal!" But that would be the easy way out, and the shallow one. The truth is that most of our society is set up now by function, not form.

We are living at the cost of our own humanity.

Prison, yes, strips a man of his inherent dignity. So does healthcare. So does education. So does employment. Everywhere we go, we are stripped to our most basic function, forsaking our form, dismissing the dignity of the image of God that is woven into each one of us. And it is something that we do not know well how to get back.

The "old law" is often criticized for its harshness, an eye for an eye and all that. But anyone who takes an honest look at our current system sees that it is far more barbaric than anything decreed from Sinai. The punishments that God prescribed for breaches of conduct were centered in community - exclusion from the community for a time, retribution to be paid to a neighbor, execution by the community in cases of severe offense. But he always provided a way, too, to come back. At the end of the time, at the payment of retribution, even in the final glimpses of a man's eyes before execution, there was community at the heart of it. Welcome back, brother; you belong here. 

And the community understood all of this. They understood that the man who had been cut off for awhile had come back, and they embraced him. They understood that the man who had been unclean had been cleared, and here he is again among them. There was no further exacting of punishment, no continued judgment on him. Maybe they tell the story - hey, you know Joe once did ______? or hey, do you remember that one time when Maggie had leprosy? - but it always concludes, "those three days without him were miserable!" or "Boy, did we miss her!"

Not so today. Today, we look at a man and say, "You're a criminal. Go back to prison where you belong." He's not Joe any more, and from the moment he became Inmate #478193, we immediately stopped missing him. He became less than human in our eyes, no longer a part of our community, and we're not about to give that back to him. And then we look stunned and ask him why he continues to commit crimes. We shake our heads and say, "See? We knew it. You. are. scum."

Not human. No dignity. No community. Done.

That's why our modern system is more barbaric than anything Leviticus offers. We do not offer legitimate ways for a man to come back to his community, let alone to himself, let alone to God. This is, I think, what broke my friend. At least if he's on the run, he can pretend for a little while to be human again. And I think his soul is craving that. 

There are millions of other souls craving that. 

It starts with us, with those of us still standing in the community, with those of us who have not, at least right now, been cast out. It's going to take us being willing not to exact a man's dignity from him as the price of his offense. It's going to take us being willing to stand up and say, "Brother, I miss you. I can't wait for you to come back" and then "Welcome back, brother! You. Belong. Here."


Wednesday, December 7, 2016


As we talk about giving good gifts this season, perhaps this is a good time to pick up on another note that I left myself some time ago while thinking about a friend. This friend has been in and out of the prison system (more in than out, sadly), and at last report, I heard he became a fugitive, walking away from a work release program. (I heard this third- or fourth-hand and have no idea where he is.)

My heart broke. This young man has such a tender heart; he always has. All you had to do was look in his eyes, and you could see his fire. He was that kind of guy. And I wondered what it was that would bring him so low that he would rather live life as a fugitive than have a real shot at getting back on his feet. It didn't take much prayer and thoughtful consideration before I knew the answer:

He could not stand being treated humanely. It broke every tender thing in his spirit.

This probably sounds ridiculous to a lot of you, but here's the thing: we have invested so much of our energies trying to figure out how to treat each other humanely, particularly how to treat humanely those "types" of persons that we think somehow less worthy of humane treatment (prisoners, drug addicts, prostitutes, the poor, the sick, the lame - you know, essentially everyone that Jesus actually ran toward), that we have forgotten how to treat them humanly.

It seems like such a subtle difference, maybe, but it's actually all the difference in the world. The idea of being humane, as we conceived of it many moons ago, was to treat non-human objects/beings with the care and dignity that we would treat a fellow human being. It's how we ended up with places like "the Humane Society," which is not for humans, but for animals, who are treated with a special interest and dignity. We talk about being humane in times of war, signing treatises with other countries, ensuring that each will treat the other's troops and prisoners "humanely," even though they are seen as less than human in the enemy's eyes. When we send aid to other countries, it's in the name of being humane, not of being human. And, of course, this type of humane-ity has crept its way into our prison system, as well. 

Everywhere we turn, we act as though we are doing others a huge favor by treating them humanely when our inclination might be to do otherwise. We think it's a generosity, a restoring of some measure of dignity. But to treat a human being humanely actually does just the opposite - it strips them of their very personhood. Because it's an implication that they are somehow less than human.

Turning back to my friend - as I thought about what it was the would lead him to run away, especially at a point where he was almost free of the entire prison system, I knew that his tender heart just wouldn't take it. He couldn't live any more in a place where he was searched every time he went out or came in. A place where he had no privacy at all, no private space to even think, let alone pray. No place to shower without being exposed to the world. Living under the watchful eye of camera and guards. Knowing that wherever he went, people thought they were doing him some grand favor by pretending he was human, all the while stripping away whatever small shreds of human dignity that he was trying to hold onto. 

It's no good thing at all to treat a man humanely when he is, in fact, an actual human being. 

And I can't help but wonder what our world would be like if we stopped treating humans humanely and started treating them humanly, if we started restoring to them the special dignity of being a being created in the very image of God. I wonder what would happen if we started looking prisoners, drug addicts, prostitutes, enemies straight in the eye and recognizing something holy in them. Not only recognizing it, but honoring it. I wonder where my friend would be on a day like today if someone had had the heart to look him in the eye and say, "Brother! Behold the glory of God in your eyes!" 

I wonder where our world would be if we all did more of that. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Give Good Gifts

The Christmas season is a beautiful one, full of trees and lights and hope and love. As it should be. Though we must guard ourselves from investing more in the myth than the Story, there is no reason we cannot partake of the season's festivities and yes, even give gifts. In fact, we should.

But we should give good gifts.

When the wise men arrived, they came bearing gifts for the young Jesus. Each of these gifts represents the sort of thing we ought to be giving to one another, but each also has a powerful distortion of which we must be aware.

One wise man brought gold. Gold had tremendous value in those times, and it was a gift given to show honor to the recipient. Often, it was a gift given to kings. But it was not a gift to make a man wealthy; in fact, it was assumed that anyone who would be worthy to receive a gift of gold already had more riches than he really needed. It was therefore a gesture, really, of honor and respect. 

This is the kind of gift we need to be giving - a gift of honor and respect. But too often, we try simply to give riches. People demand the latest and greatest, the newest and the best. They beg for the status symbols. They want the new iPhone or iPad or the popular new sneakers. And at Christmas, we try to give them all of the things that will make them wealthy in the world's eyes. But do these gifts honor them? Do they respect the very nature of their hearts? Are we bringing gifts that have a hefty price tag or gifts of true investment?

Another wise man brought frankincense. Frankincense was very aromatic and often used in perfumes. It was also commonly used in the oil of anointing. You could smell it a mile away and know that this person had been set apart for the Lord. 

This is the kind of gift we need to be giving - a gift of anointing. But too often, we try simply to give perfumes. We try to give others the gift of attraction, all the things that will make them stand out in the world. We want them to be seen from miles away, to be noticed. We want others to be drawn to them, and we think that the best way to do that is to make them smell good. But what if we gave gifts of anointing this season? What if we gave gifts that set our loved ones apart for the Lord? There is something radiant about confident assurance, something unavoidably attractive about a person who knows who they are. Why not pour our the oil of anointing this holiday season, rather than drowning each other in rich perfumes?

The third wise man brought myrrh. Myrrh was used most prominently as a burial preparation. You might think it's weird to give the gift of embalming at Christmas, but it's not about death at all. It's about honoring and preparing the body for its next journey.

This is the kind of gift we need to be giving - a gift of preparation. What is it that the people in our lives are about to step into? Where are they going? What are they poised to do? What has God set before them and how can we invest in that? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves when we go shopping. This is what we must be mindful of when we start wrapping.

We have a tremendous opportunity in the Christmas season to honor our loved ones in a unique way, in the same way that the wise men of old honored the young Jesus. But too often, we settle for the shallow gift - gold, frankincense, and myrrh the way the world sees them. Too often, we are giving riches, perfumes, and poison. 

But it's time for us to take holy back and start giving good gifts. It's time for us to celebrate something sacred this holiday, not just in a manger in Bethlehem, but in the holy seed that is in the heart of every man and woman created in the image of God. It's time for us to throw away the riches, perfumes, and poison and give real gifts of honor, anointing, and preparation. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

On Santa

A little over a week ago, right after the Thanksgiving holiday, my go-to Christian radio stations made the switch to Christmas music. All Christmas, all the time. And there are some amazing Christian Christmas songs out there - so beautiful, so serene, so still. I love settling into the Christmas season, letting the early evenings and star-lit nights wash over me, singing about a little town named Bethlehem and a babe in a manger and a Savior of the world.

But the Christian radio stations are playing songs about Santa, Rudolph, and longed-for hippopotamuses. (In addition, of course, to all of the beautiful Jesus music they are also playing.)

Here's the thing: I don't want to come off like one of "those" Christians, but...I guess I'm one of "those" Christians.

The Santa music is a distraction. It takes me away from a little place tucked aside where a man and his soon-to-be wife look for lodging on a long winter's night. It takes me away from wise men from afar and shepherds in a field and angels pronouncing the birth of Christ the King. It takes me away from stars of wonder and silent nights. It takes me away from the Savior of the world and to somewhere much lesser, like milk and cookies, and, of course, a few carrots.

There are those who don't get this, who don't understand. There are those in the church who say, hey, now, slow down. They think it's great that the church, even through Christian radio, is making the statement that we can do Christmas the way the world does. That we're not opposed to this whole Santa thing. That we're not grumpy curmudgeons, intent on making this Christmas only about our Lord and Savior. They absolutely love that we'er showing the world that we can do Christmas their way.'s Christmas. 

Did you know that most of our children, even our Christian children, believe that Santa is more real than Jesus? Did you know that even those children who wait anxiously for a baby Jesus to appear in the manger think that the presents under the tree are more real than the Holy Spirit? Did you know that our kids are living in a world where Santa is long-expected and Jesus is a nice holiday sentiment?

Come, thou long-expected Santa. 

It's because we're living in a time in which the church feels this completely weird need to prove to the world that we can do things their way. To show the world that we're not so different after all. To tell them that we're not so bent on this Jesus thing that we can't have a little fun every now and then. 

But our fun has brought us to a place where there's a baby in a cradle at the North Pole, surrounded by reindeer. And the only place that most of our Christians are going to celebrate Christ this Christmas is at a token church service, where we will sing carols, light candles, rejoice, and then go home and set out milk and cookies for the one who is actually supposed to come that night.

Look, I'm not saying we should boycott Christmas; that's not it at all. There is a place in our celebrations for the lights, the decorations, the gifts, the dinners - all the things that the world is doing. But we have to make sure that they myth doesn't overtake the story. We have to make sure that Christ is the center of our celebration, not Santa. 

Because the church wasn't meant to show the world that we can do it their way. The church was meant to show the world another way to do things. And there's no such thing as a Ho-ho-holy Night. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

On Believing

The other night, deeply troubled as I was in my spirit (over something, I might add, that is so very small in the grand scheme of all things), I laid in my bed and prayed for God to come over me and, without getting into the details, "handle it." A sudden, but complete, sense of peace washed slowly over me, and I fell asleep with a small little smile on my face.

But upon waking the next morning, I began to consider again the plight that I had prayed over the night before, the one that God had so powerfully responded to. I began to consider my options, to investigate potential next steps I might be taking, to make phone calls and start to put some plans in place.

And then I marveled at how quickly, how seamlessly, how easily I went from needing God, to receiving Him, to thanking and praising Him, to dismissing Him and going after it again on my own. And the honest truth is that what I prayed for that night, what I received from God in that very instant, I didn't really think was the kind of thing God actually does. He did it. I mean, He absolutely did it, and still, I fell asleep grateful and still knowing that it's not the kind of thing God does. 

At least not permanently.

To be honest with you, I'm not quite sure where I picked up this theology, this idea that God is able to do things, but He only does them temporarily, to give us a chance to catch our breaths and faithfully, diligently go back after them with fresh energies. He only does things to give us a glimpse into what it will be like, to fuel our desire to make them permanent in our own lives. He only does them, maybe, for show. Or to prove that He can. Then, He turns around and says, "Now, really trust Me, and maybe you can have it forever."

This is not the God I worship, but apparently, it's the one I pray to. This is not the God I read about in the Bible. This is not how I think God works in anyone's life. Except, apparently, mine. 

I don't read the Scriptures, the Gospels, in particular, and think that the blind men probably went home and fell back into darkness after only a short time. I don't think the deaf had their ears closed once more. I don't see the demonaic walking into the city and then figure that later, he returned to the cemetery and chained himself up. I don't see the lame getting halfway home with their mats, then lying down on them again. 

But I see myself waking up and having to do something about the very real problems that God very powerfully responded to just hours before. 

I am well-slept, but ill-kept. 

The funny thing is, I would tell you that I don't have trouble believing in God. I don't have trouble trusting Him. I know who He is. I turn to Him with my troubles routinely. I believe in the things that He's done for me, trust in the ways that He's guided me. I live my life by faith; it's my go-to. And yet, there are still these things, still these moments, when I, too, have to cry out, "Help my unbelief!" But it's not even that I don't believe; it's that I believe only shortly, when what I need is a persistent faith.

What I need is a faith not that goes to sleep praising, but that wakes believing. (Or, you know, both.) That's harder. I don't know why, but that's harder. In that split second before your heart remembers, it forgets, and that's where doubt pounces. 

I'm getting there, I think. At least, I hope and I pray that I am. In the mornings, I pray for persistent faith, for a faith that continues to believe in all of the things I've received at night. And one day, perhaps, in that split second before my heart remembers, it will remember, at least, to not forget. I'm getting there.

I think. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016


If God is not good, but simply is, then He becomes all of the things that we need Him to be - a constant in a constantly-changing world, an anchor in the storm. No matter what happens in this world or to this world, we can be assured that God still is. And isn't that the greatest of all things?

That's not to say that He is not also good; it is just to present the argument that His goodness is not the most vital thing about Him. His essence is. His very being is. His is-ness is.

Indeed, we know that He is good. His character reveals that much. His faithfulness reveals that much. In fact, we know a great deal about this God from all of the things that He chooses to reveal to us again and again, through His story and ours. It is not wrong to say that God is good. Not at all! But if we say only that God is good, then we have missed God altogether.

This is the problem that we fall into with ourselves, as well, and with others. We learn one thing about someone, and we think that must be the most true thing about them. From that point forward, that is all that we can see in them. Everything else they may or may not ever do is judged from its relationship to this one thing.

For example, we look at a man who is in prison, and we say he is a criminal. From that point forward, everything else we may ever come to know about him, everything he may ever do or not do, is evaluated from the starting point of his criminal nature. We forget, then, that he is a man worthy of dignity, since he is foremost a criminal. And we are amazed when he does anything meaningful for society. After all, he is a criminal! We are surprised to find him calling his mother on Christmas day from the cell block; he is only secondarily a mother's son - since he is primarily a criminal. Even when he is released, he remains a criminal in our eyes. He takes his good skills and attempts to put them to work in our economy, making a good living for himself and, perhaps, his family, and he is an able mechanic...but still, above all else, a criminal. Do you see the boxes that we have painted around such a man? We have missed the very depth of his true nature because we were unable to see past the one thing we thought for sure that we knew of him.

The same is true for God. We have created in our minds this image of a God who is good, and everything we come to know about Him, everything He may or may not ever do, is judged from this point. Our God may become angry with us, but we need not take His anger seriously, since He is foremost good. He may reference this condemnation for those who do not believe, but He is a good God, so how could He condemn anyone? (We have far too often confused 'good' with 'nice,' among so many other lesser things.) We have heard Him demand our undivided loyalty, but we have dismissed that as ideal only; His goodness will embrace our own goodness, and we'll be okay.

And we spend our lives trying to put God back into the "good" box. It is this that is most frustrating, perhaps, for the faith, for we live in a fallen world where bad things happen. Where things happen that are not "good." But in a theology in which our God is good above all else, we must either find a way to explain bad things in light of His goodness or else we must just throw up our hands and say we know, actually, nothing about Him. Neither has been an answer sufficient for the world, let alone for our own hearts.

This is why we must get out of this smallest box that tells us that God is, above all, good. This is not how He has revealed Himself, even though it remains a core component of His character. No, His revelation has told us that the greatest thing about our God is that He is. And if He simply is, then that makes room for all things that we come to know about Him, all things He may ever do or not do.

Now, when we consider what is bad in this fallen world, or what is at the least "not good," we have no fear of losing our God. No, He is just where He has always been, being in the midst of all. A constant in a constantly-changing world. An anchor in a storm.

So you see, when we stop saying that God is good and embrace that He primarily simply is, we do not diminish our theology. Not in the slightest! Rather, we expand it. And perhaps it may one day even be big enough to hold all of Him.