Friday, January 29, 2016

The Redeemed

As Jacob prepares to die near the end of Genesis, he's living in Egypt with all of his sons. He speaks one last fatherly word over each of them, prophetic words about what will come of them as they each become their own tribe in the nation of God. Here are the words he speaks about two of his sons:

Simeon and Levi are brothers. Their swords are weapons of violence. Do not let me attend their secret meetings. Do not let me join their assembly. In their anger they murdered men. At their whim they crippled cattle. May their anger be cursed because it's so fierce. May their fury be cursed because it's so cruel. I will divide them among the sons of Jacob and scatter them among the tribes of Israel. (49:5-7)

We don't really know what causes Jacob to say this about these brothers. We don't know what he's referring to when he talks about their swords, their secret meetings, their anger, their fury, their offenses. And there's not much of a logical reason why he groups these two brothers together out of all the brothers, unless it perhaps relates to these secret meetings and all the mayhem they've carried out together.

But what we do know is that as the story of Israel progresses through the Old Testament, we sort of lose track of most of the tribes of Israel. The lines between them start to blur and eventually, we don't hear much about Dan or Isaachar any more, but rather simply about Israel. Benjamin is a noted exception to this. As is...Levi.

The Levites become a prominent group in God's continuing story. Part of Jacob's parting words certainly come true - they are divided and scattered among the tribes of Israel. But they are so precisely because they are chosen of all the sons to be the servants of God's tabernacle. (Interesting note: Jacob spoke that Isaachar would become a servant/slave force, yet they are not the ones chosen to be God's set-apart servants.) Yes, part of Jacob's words over his son come true.

But what about the rest of what he said?

What does it say about God that He chooses this tribe whose namesake was violent to become the servant of His tabernacle? Levi murdered men, crippled cattle, was cursed because of his anger and fury...and his descendants become the only men in all of Israel who are worthy to carry the sacred things.

We could say, perhaps, that what Jacob sees as fault, God may see as qualifiers of service. Levi is good with a sword, which would make sacrifices most efficient. He's good at secret meetings, which God was known to have with His chosen. He's master of assemblies, and the tabernacle is nothing if not an assembly. He murdered men, exacting judgment on them, which sets him up to be a judge; he crippled cattle, yet another act that prepares him for ritual sacrifice. He's clearly passionate. Fierce. Maybe it's a display of God's redemption that He turned this son's skill set toward sacred service. 

Or maybe the sacred service was intended to sanctify the son's skill set, inflicting a measure of discipline upon Levi.

Of course, we must ask the same question about Simeon. Simeon received exactly the same words from his father, Jacob, but his story plays out very differently. Simeon is given his own share of the land and his descendants settle down in their own territory and slowly fade into obscurity. We simply don't hear much more about them. We don't hear about their swords. We don't hear about their secret meetings. We don't hear about their offenses, their anger, or their fury. Nothing. So the question becomes - is Simeon the redeemed? What would that mean?

Levi may be redeemed because he lives out his story in very public service to God. Simeon may be redeemed because he settles in the land and lives out his story in quiet normalcy, nothing at all special about him. Which is it?

Could it be...both?

It says something amazing about God that these two brothers, these two men who are grouped together for their characteristics and their attitudes and their actions, these two guys who are so similar that even their father can't separate them, take two remarkably different paths through their stories - through God's stories - and yet both are still one fundamental thing: God's people. God's redeemed people.

It's an encouragement for us who look around our world and see some men living their lives in sacred service for God and see others living in quiet obscurity, who look in the mirror and see one or the other, and who wonder which is which. Which is the redeemed? Which is God's man? The answer is both. 

We are God's people. God's redeemed people. In service of the temple or a land of our own, we are. This is our story.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

We know that Jesus hates hypocrites, and we're afraid that He'll deal with us in the same harsh manner that He dealt with the Pharisees. But as we saw yesterday, most of us aren't hypocrites in the same way that the Pharisees are.

Most of us are just sinners.

So if we want to know how Jesus will truly deal with us in the public sphere, if we want to know how He'll respond when we stand before God and everybody as sinners, then we have to look in the Gospels not at how Jesus deals with Pharisees, but how He handles sinners. And the news here is much more humbling.

Jesus has a few well-told encounters with sinners. There is, of course, the woman who comes into Simon's house to pour out expensive oil on His feet. She's a sinner. Everyone there knows it. There are whispers among the crowd. If Jesus knew what kind of woman was touching Him, He'd put a stop to it right now. The woman, too, knows she's a sinner. Maybe she has the same hesitation we all have - she's dared come to Jesus in front of all these other people. What is He going to do to her?

Maybe her voice catches in her throat and that's why she doesn't say anything. Maybe she uses her hair to dry His feet so that she can hide her face a little. Her eyes would betray her nervousness. Maybe she walks carefully through the room, taking great care not to touch anything or anyone, not to make eye contact, not to make a spectacle of herself, hoping that maybe the others won't notice the sinner sitting as His feet. Hoping to come quietly and leave quietly, this one beautiful sacred moment in between. 

I'll admit that I've had that moment. There have been times in my life when, usually at an altar call, I have dragged my sin-ridden body forward toward the Cross. I have kept my eyes low, trying to avoid looking at anyone else or knowing they're looking at me. I have walked carefully through sanctuaries, trying to not touch anything or anyone, trying not to make a spectacle of myself, even though every other person in the room just heard the same call for sinners that I heard. Hoping to come forward quietly, maybe even unnoticed, and leave quietly, this one beautiful sacred moment in between. 

But the men in the house notice the woman, and they call her out. This sinner! This horrible, dirty, sinful woman! How dare she! And she lowers her head because she knows it's coming. This Lord, too, will make a spectacle of her. He, too, will call her out. This sinner, this wretch. 

Then Jesus does something amazing: grace. He quiets the crowd and makes the spectacle of them, calling out their hypocrisy (for the same reason He calls out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees - they're snakes). As the men recount the woman's flaws, Jesus turns and begins to list the men's own shortcomings. Then He turns to the woman and gives her the very thing she seeks - one beautiful sacred, quiet, moment. For that split second when their eyes meet, it feels like it's just the two of them. And in that sacred space, it is. 

Or think about the time that the woman caught in adultery is dragged out to Jesus. She's either naked or haphazardly closed, being just caught in an intimate act with a man who is not her husband. She's embarrassed already. Ashamed. She keeps her eyes locked to the ground, afraid to look around. Afraid to catch anyone's eye. But she can feel all of the eyes on her.

All of the eyes except two.

Jesus pays little attention to either the woman or the crowd. Yesterday, we saw that He draws His lines hard, and in this case, quite literally. He stoops down and begins doodling in the dirt. Drawing lines, maybe. Some have speculated that He's scrawling the sins of the crowd across the ground. He says few simple words: If you're not a sinner yourself, you may stay. Slowly, the crowd leaves.

It's not until they have all gone and the woman, the accused, is standing there all alone that Jesus finally looks up and makes eye contact with her. He's made no public statement on her sin, no condemnation, no spectacle. Again, the spectacle He's made is of the condemners; they have become the condemned. The so-called sinner in all of this now stands in her quiet moment, just her and Jesus. Did none of these men condemn you? He asks. Not one, she says. Not one. Daring, finally, to look around and see that it's just the two of them. Daring, finally, to look into someone's eyes. His eyes. 

Then Jesus does something amazing: grace. Then neither do I condemn you. And just like that, it's over. All the sounds of the world around them start to creep back into her ears, softly at first and then louder until the world is at full volume. The dust Jesus kicked up from all His doodling starts to stir again in the wind. The clouds move overhead. A bird calls. And the woman, the sinner, turns, a tear in her eye, and walks away. One beautiful sacred, quiet, moment.

That's how Jesus deals with sinners. With amazing grace.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Hypocrites and Snakes

Jesus uses some harsh language in the Gospels, especially when He's talking to (or about) the Pharisees. One of His favorite words for them is "hypocrites." Another is "snakes." And I think there's something inside every one of our hearts that fears, to some degree, that He might do the same thing to us.

Not just call us hypocrites, but call us out.

It puts a lot of people on their tippy toes around God. If He's this merciless with those who claim to be the faithful in the Scriptures, shouting and screaming and yelling and making a spectacle of them, then how could we expect much different from Him today when we, who claim to be faithful, live as hypocrites? (And we all do it. We're all hypocrites.) It's hard for us to get this image of Him out of our head. Oh, how clearly He hates hypocrites. 

But how dearly He loves sinners.

What we have to understand about this Jesus, about the Lord who calls out hypocrites and makes very public displays of doing so, is that He draws His lines very hard. These hypocrites, these Pharisees...He calls them out because their sin, their hypocrisy, is masked in authority. These are the teachers, the preachers, the priests. It's their job to teach the truth. And since their job is public, so is their rebuke. 

It's the way it has to be.

See, Jesus can't just pull the corrupt teacher aside and whisper to him, "You're doing this wrong." He can't just quietly call the man a hypocrite and let his heart convict him of it. There's too much at stake. There are too many ears listening to the words of the teachers, too many people relying on what they are told. If Jesus does not make a bit of a spectacle of it, those listening won't understand the severity of the corruption of the truth that stands before their very eyes. They just won't know any better. They may think that since Jesus heard, too, and since Jesus sees, too, and He doesn't say anything, that these teachers are getting it right.

It's also why Jesus calls these Pharisees "snakes," when He never calls anyone else that. It's because this word, this name, will conjure up for the faithful images of the Garden. It was the snake, after all, who convinced Eve that it could teach her something about God that she didn't already know from walking with Him. As soon as He calls out the Pharisees as snakes, all those within earshot hear not just an insult, but a warning: these men are deceiving you.

And they're deceiving you about something big: they're deceiving you about Me. They are claiming they know something about Me that you can't know from walking just a little ways with Me. They are claiming they have the whole truth and are willing to share that with you, but only for an incredibly high price that they have not even paid themselves. They are leading you astray. Beware the forbidden fruit.

It's a stern warning for those of us who are charged with teaching, who are called to speak the truth of God into the world. But for the rest of us? For the average, run-of-the-mill, everyday sinners? It's just not our story.

Most of us don't have to worry about Jesus calling us out as snakes. We're not deceiving the world about God; if anything, we're deceiving the world about ourselves. Saying that we're God-fearing and living like we're not. We're not deceiving the world about the greater things; we're deceiving them about our lesser things. And while that's still a sin, it doesn't make us snakes. Sinners, maybe, but not snakes.

The same with our hypocrisy. We're all hypocrites. We all say one thing and do another, at least to some degree. Sometimes, it's deliberate. Sometimes, it's error. Sometimes, it's folly. It's always sin. But is it such grievous sin that God must call us out on it in front of everyone? Not usually. We call each other out, as though we're doing some great service to the planet or the Gospel by doing so (we're not), but God doesn't call us out. Because for the most part, we're pursuing truth and failing at it; we're not preaching truth and corrupting it. There's a huge difference.

That's why Jesus had to call out the Pharisees. It's why He had to make a public spectacle of them - because they were making a public spectacle of themselves. And there's something in all of us that is a little bit afraid that's what Jesus will do with us when we reveal ourselves as sinners. He'll call us out. He'll shout and scream. He'll make a spectacle of us. 

But He won't.

Because as much as He hates hypocrites, He loves sinners. And that's in His Gospel, too.

That story, tomorrow. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Crisis of Story

There's something interesting about the Israelites in Exodus that is quite telling for man's relationship with God.

The Exodus is this grand story of God's calling His people out of slavery in Egypt. After a series of plagues inflicted on the evil Egyptians, the Hebrews are finally freed and sojourn into the wilderness with the wealth of Egypt on their shoulders, taking their first steps toward the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And as we know, it doesn't go so smoothly for them.

Just a short time into their journey, Egypt begins to reconsider its decision to set the entire labor force free. Israel can hear the chariots approaching from a distance. Backed up against the waters of the Sea of Reeds, they become fearful. 

And this is the first place we see it.

Then it gets hot, and the days are long, and the food is scarce. There's so very little to eat. Their hunger rages, and they long for something to satisfy their cravings. Something with substance.

And we see it again.

The days drag on, and their water is running out. There's not a whole lot to drink here in the wilderness, and their tongues are starting to stick to the roofs of their mouths. Is there no oasis in this desert? There is certainly no rain. They drink their own sweat until they are so dehydrated that they stop sweating altogether.

And we see it, a third time.

Finally, finally they're standing on the edge of the Promised Land, ready to step into the good life that God has given them. Just across the border, just a few steps away, they see a powerful people. A fortress of a city. A nation they just can't conquer. They're discouraged. What's just a stone's throw away is beyond impossible.

And we see it yet again.

So what is it? What do we see? We see a crisis of story.

Think about it. What is the question Israel asks more often than any other while they are in the wilderness? What is it they wonder out loud, question out loud, complain about, refuse to believe? 

It's not that God isn't capable. Backed up against the Sea of Reeds with a powerful army approaching, no one questions whether God is able to save them or not. No one wonders about His power. Starving in the desert, no one wonders whether God can provide them food or not, whether there might be a way to have something to eat out in the middle of nowhere. Parched and on the edge of severe dehydration, they're not asking about God's ability to bring rain or to quench their thirst. Standing just a few steps from the Promised Land, they aren't questioning whether God can deliver them into the land.

In all of these cases, they're questioning whether God will. The question Israel asks most often in the wilderness is not what God can or cannot do, but what He is or is not doing. "Has our God brought us out of Egypt to die in the desert?" "Has God brought us out here to die?" 

Simply put, they haven't bought into His story. They haven't bought into what He is doing. They're still questioning, at every step, what exactly is going on here, and it has nothing to do with what God is capable of. It has everything to do with what God is up to. 

And isn't that the story for so many of us? We know what God is capable of. In many cases, we've seen Him do it. But we haven't really bought into what He is doing. We haven't bought into our own stories. We haven't bought into the stories He's telling about us, with us, through us. We haven't bought into our story being part of His story.

The question we most often have for God is not, what can You do about this, Lord? Rather, our question is, what are You doing here, God? What exactly is going on? Have You brought me this far just to die? Have You called me from one place just to abandon me in the desert? It's not a crisis of faith, in that it's not that we don't believe in the incredible power of God. It's a crisis of story. We just aren't sure we buy the next chapter.

And that's a shame. If you don't buy the next chapter of your story, who will? 

Monday, January 25, 2016


When we read the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we're reading the stories of some of the giants of our faith. It's easy to think about all the ways they interacted with God, their active faith, their struggles, their promises, and their journeys. But these were not just faithful men; they were family men. And the way that we see the fathers of our faith as fathers to their own families says something about how we ought to do family - with our flesh and blood, as well as with God's church.

Abraham, as we know, struggled to be a father at all. His wife, Sarah, could not have children, and he was a very old man before having children even became a real possibility for him. (And kudos, Abraham, for not getting desperate much earlier than your 90s and doing something shameful.) Then God comes along and makes a promise to him - you will be the father of many nations. He laughs, but somewhere in the recesses of his heart, he's hopeful. Sarah has the same reaction - she laughs, but somewhere in the recesses of her heart, she's hopeful. Although it seems absurd, they believe in God's promise. 

And this will be a mark of Abraham's life with his son, Isaac, too. A few chapters later, we see this scene where God calls Abraham to offer his only son, his promised son, as a sacrifice on the mountain. So Abraham and Isaac set out toward the place where God has called them. Abraham is silently praising; Isaac has questions. Isaac wants to know where the animal for the sacrifice is. Abraham tells him nothing more than that God will provide one, and the two continue on their journey together, believing there will be a sacrifice when they arrive.

Abraham's family story, then, is one of believing together. And, it must be said, laughing together, too. This is the foundation of who we are as families. We believe together, and we laugh together.

Then Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah and becomes a father himself. Rebekah births to Isaac two sons -Jacob and Esau. Esau is a man's man, a hunter, hairy as they come. He is the firstborn. He is the light of his father's eyes. Isaac loves Esau. Jacob is a momma's boy. He tends the fields. He's conniving. He's the younger son. He is the jewel of his mother's heart. So Isaac's story is a story of love divided, which doesn't seem much like a family story at all. Except that it's kind of all of our family stories, isn't it? And we see clearly here what happens. Jacob and his mother plot against Esau and his father, confuse the old man, and break his heart. Isaac is grieving, Rebekah is fearful, Jacob is essentially exiled, and you could cut the tension with a knife. Nothing good, it seems, comes from this love divided.

Isaac's family story, then, although being a story of love divided, teaches us that we must do better. We must love together. This is what families ought to do.

Finally, we get down to Jacob, who has been living in a far-off land, working for a corrupt distant relative, taking wives and having sons and building his family. And then we find him with two wives, plus two concubines, a whole gaggle of sons, and a massive flock of animals. Despite all that he has, he is missing one thing: home. He wants to go home. But home is where his brother's bitterness continues to burn, where his father's grief remains deep, where his mother's anxiety lingers on. Home is where he may not be welcome. Still, he cannot get his heart away from home.

So Jacob prepares his family and his flocks for the travels. He takes his entire household with him. As they approach the place where he may first encounter the brother he so wronged, he begins to divide his household. He sends his family out in stages ahead of him, to meet his brother first and soften the elder brother's heart. By the time the two men stand face to face, Esau has seen all of Jacob's house - his livestock and servants, his concubines and children, his less-loved wife and her sons, his dearly beloved wife and her sons, and finally Jacob. By the time the two men stand face to face, Esau and Jacob are anxious to see each other. Although we can't say how much the caravan offering of Jacob's family had to do with it, the point is that his family was willing to do that for him. They prepared the way for him to come and make restoration with his brother. 

Jacob's family story, then, is a story of restoring together. Healing together. And that is what we must do with our families. We must restore together. Heal together.

And so this is family - the family of the fathers of the faith, the family that we gather around our own tables with, and God's family, as well. We believe together, laugh together, love together, and heal together. This is what families do. This is what families ought to do. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Developing Revelation

Last Friday, we looked at the blessing that God gave to both Adam and Noah. 

Be fertile, increase in number, fill the earth, and be its master. Rule the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, and all the animals that crawl on the earth...I have given you every plant with seeds on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit with seeds. This will be your food. To Noah, He adds, Everything that lives and moves will be your food. I gave you green plants as food; I now give you everything else.

It's an amazing blessing, but isn't it also...a little much? It seems to be. Generations of men and women after Adam and after Noah seem to struggle to do even the most basic of these things. And what we see from God is perhaps a little measure of grace. 

Because the next interaction we have with God and men is the story of Abram/Abraham. And here, God repeats His blessing, in a way, but He does it in a distinct series of steps. Rather than telling Abraham that he should be fertile and rule the land, God tells Abraham that he will be fertile. Period. He will be the father of many nations. And as an added promise, his descendants will be given the land. 

In other words, Abraham's blessing is only the first line; his promise is the rest of it. 

The same is true for Isaac. Again, God tells him that he will be a father of many peoples, that his sons will become two powerful nations with countless ancestors. And again, He tells the faithful man that his descendants will be given the land. 

The same is true for Jacob. Again, God tells him that he will be the father of a great nation, God's very people, and that his sons will be the leaders of the twelve tribes of countless people who will be an incredible people for God. And again, He tells Jacob that his descendants will be given the land.

What's interesting to note about this is not just that these three patriarchs receive only the first line of the blessing, with the promise of the rest, but that each of these three was required to rely on God for even the fulfillment of the first blessing. Each of these three men married infertile women. Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel were all unable to have children. But God Himself had mercy on them, opened their womb, and gave them sons. So God has blessed His people with one simple blessing, but they still had to rely on Him for every bit of it.

Fast forward a bit into the Old Testament, and we see the second part of the blessing coming to fruition. God is giving His people the land. they have been fertile, increased in number, and filled the earth. Now, they are becoming masters of the land as they enter Canaan, the Promise. God is giving them their own territory. But again, they are required to rely on God for every square inch of it. The battles recorded in the OT are accounts of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, obedience and disobedience, as Israel gains, then loses, then gains, then loses, then gains the land that God has promised them, the land that is to be their blessing. So again, God blesses His people with now the first two parts of the blessing, but they have to turn to Him for it. It's His to give or take away.

Keep going, and we see a people who have figured out what to do with the birds of the air and the animals that crawl on the earth: they have become the people's sacrifices. And by the time we get to the New Testament, we see a people who have conquered the fish of the sea: this is their trade. 

Deeper into the New Testament, particularly when we start to get to Paul and Peter, we see that the last bit of God's blessing on Noah is coming to pass. Finally. God has released His people from the very first things He gave them as food, and permitted them to eat all things. "Everything else," He says, just as Peter saw descending from Heaven on a blanket. The people of God who were once separated by what they were given to eat have now been given everything, and they have thus become even a greater people. 

It's an interesting way to read the Scriptures, at the very least. If we take this blessing that God spoke to His original creation, Adam, and His restored creation, Noah, and then we follow it's development through the rest of His story, we see that God has broken His blessing into concrete steps - giving each generation its own portion of the blessing, with the rest of it falling as promise. And at every step, He requires that His people continue looking to Him for every bit of it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Not My Gift

One of the most troubling questions regarding spiritual gifts is what we are supposed to do with the gifts that we don't have. Over the past few days, we have seen that we have the responsibility to receive them as those who have been given them offer them for our benefit, but is that all? Is it enough to say that those of us who are not gifted to be teachers then spend our lives as students?

There are some who would argue that we have a responsibility to develop the gifts that we have not been given, that we should purposefully work on those things that we are not so blessed at, in order to become better at them. Not a teacher? Work on it. For one day, you may be called upon to teach. Not a leader? Work on it. For one day, you may be called upon to lead. Do you speak not with the wisdom or knowledge of God? Work on it. For one day, you may find that you need to speak in just this way.

On the surface, it would seem that there is some validity to this position. After all, most of us will, at one point or another, have children in our lives and shouldn't we know how to do all of these things at least for the sake of our children? Can you imagine a child who is only encouraged, but never taught? Can you imagine a child who only knows God in one language - your language? Can you imagine a child who is led, but never encouraged? There's something about this that strikes us as, well..traumatic. In many ways.

But is it fair to subject our children to the things that we do not do well? Is it fair to demonstrate for our children that we must be everything in order to be one thing? (In other words, must we say that we must have a measure of all of the gifts of God in order to be a worthy parent, for example?) This puts an amazing amount of pressure on both us and them. 

What if, instead, we were willing to face the children in our lives with humility and be honest about who we are, who God has created us to be? We could encourage our children, if our gift is encouragement, and we could be honest with them about it. Do you know why mommy encourages you so much? It is because mommy is an encourager; it's what God has gifted mommy to do. And I'm sorry that mommy is not some of the things that other mommies may be, but mommy is who God has created mommy to be, and she will give you every bit of it so that you, too, can be who God created you to be.

We could interpret a thousand different God languages for our children, if our gift is interpreting languages, and enable them to see God throughout the world in all kinds of different ways, and we could be honest with them about it. Do you know why daddy sees God everywhere? It's because God has given daddy the incredible gift of speaking God in a thousand different tongues. And I'm sorry that daddy is not some of the things that other daddies may be, but daddy is who God has created daddy to be, and he will give you every bit of it so that you, too, can be who God created you to be.

I think our children deserve 100% of our best, rather than some small percentage of something less. I believe if you give the children in your life the fullness of God's gift in you, they may not even notice what you're "lacking."

And the same is true in our churches. Sometimes, I'm approached about taking on a ministry or volunteering for one thing or another in my church, and I've taken to saying, simply, I'm sorry. That's not my gift. Is that fair? Not everyone thinks so. Some chide me for being "unwilling" to serve in my church, just because I've turned down their specific ministry opportunity (despite the other ten things I AM doing). 

But if I am not a teacher, and I am asked to teach, and I buy into the idea that because I am a member in the church, I should teach, then what am I really teaching? The whole thing stresses me out because it's not my gift; it takes a tremendous toll on my heart and my spirit. By the time I get to the class, I'm frazzled and stressed and probably a little upset and definitely "over it" already, and so a whole classroom full of individuals - kids, adults, whoever - see that teaching in the church is a ridiculous burden, something to be despised or at least detested, something that drains all of the energy out of you...and so on. And I haven't even begun to stumble through the lesson yet! 

Now imagine there is a person or two in that room to whom God has given the gift of teaching. And imagine they see what teaching does to someone like me, someone they have likely seen serve very joyfully in other areas in the church. Why should they want to develop their gift of teaching? What would be the good joy in that? All of a sudden, they are tempted to turn away from their own gift because they see me working in something that's not mine.

On one hand, I'm setting a good example by being willing to do something in the church that I am asked to do. On the other hand, I am an incredible discouragement while doing it. Even if I do some things well in the course of teaching, even if some of my real God-given gift shines through in what I'm doing, even if I have the opportunity to show some of what God has put in me while also teaching, I am a poor teacher. Maybe I am a good encourager or server or leader or speaker or whatever, but I am a poor teacher, and that fact is not lost...particularly on all the gifted teachers in the room.

And this, too, is our responsibility to the gifts that aren't ours: we should not discourage them. We should not squash them. We should not diminish them. Rather, we must build up all gifts within the hearts of those who love God and who He has blessed in such ways. And sometimes, that means saying a difficult no.

It means saying, do you know why I....? It's because that's who God has created me to be. And I'm sorry that I'm not so many of the other things that maybe someone else is, but I'm just who I am, and I'm giving you all of who God has made me to be so that you can be all that God has made you to be. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

For the Church

If I am not given the gift of teaching, then I am called, by default, to be a student. Because someone has been given the gift of teaching, and all good teachers need students.

I think this is one of the things that so many of us find frustrating about our spiritual gifts: we simply don't know when or how or where we're supposed to use them. It doesn't always seem like there's a lot of opportunity in the world for people like us. 

There's some argument that maybe we're supposed to use our gift for the "unreached," for all those people in the world who haven't discovered God yet. That's why God has gifted us, some argue. For the unreached. All of the spiritual gifts are gifts of evangelism. And there is, at least, a notion of truth in this. All of the gifts given in the lists in Monday's post would certainly be invaluable in reaching a new people for God. Teaching, of course. Encouragement and serving. Speaking wisdom and knowledge. Leadership. Speaking in languages and interpreting languages. Clearly, these are evangelistic gifts, if ever there were such a thing.

But thinking that God has gifted you simply for the purpose of reaching the unreached is quite a dangerous proposition. If this is true, then what blessing are you to His church?

I mean that.

We've come to this place in our churches where we're pretty sure the entire purpose of the church is to bring more people into it. Some churches even meet on Sunday mornings just to figure out how they can get more people to join them the next Sunday. They charge their members with creating strategies, offering invitations, and the like, because church, to them, is God's way of getting more people to come to His message.

Several weeks ago, I spent some time talking about the church, and if you were here for that series, then you know that I don't buy into the numbers game at all. As a quick argument against the primacy of evangelism in God's church, we need look no further than Acts 2, where the early church met together and devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to worship, to fellowship, and to breaking bread together. The church came together and did its thing, and others were drawn in by what the church was doing.

And if the church comes together to do its thing, then your thing is meant for the church. And if your thing is meant for the church, then the rest of us have to show up not just looking for our thing or God's thing, but ready to receive your thing, too.

It means those of us who aren't teachers must - must - be students.

We have to give each other every opportunity to use the gift God has given each of us. We have to be willing to receive what someone else has to offer. It means we show up as students to Sunday School classes, Bibles and notebooks open, ready to seriously consider what our teachers have to say. It means we seek out those who have been given the gift of encouragement and share our struggles with them, let them help to raise us back up when life has knocked us down. It means we freely admit our needs to one another. Not because we're such needy people, but because someone near us has been given the gift of serving, and we must let them serve. It means when we are broken, we seek out those who heal. It's their gift. Let them heal.

It means we listen when someone speaks the wisdom of God. It means we open our ears and hear when someone speaks the knowledge of Him. It means we're not afraid to hear God put into another language (whether a lingual tongue or a spiritual language such as worship or prayer or Scripture) because we know that it is someone's gift to speak God this way. (If you didn't catch my series on God languages, check that out.) It means we listen for those who are able to translate from one language to another, to make these utterances even more meaningful for us. It means we come ready to follow because someone is there gifted to lead.

We have to embrace fully all the gifts that are not ours, in order that those who are blessed with those gifts of God have the opportunity to develop their gifts and to share them, to be a blessing to us. To stop wondering where in the world their gifts are meant to make a difference, and rather to know that their gifts are given here, in the church, for the church, for God's church. For God Himself. And not just to draw more people into the building on Sunday mornings, but to bless and to love and to minister to those who are already there. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Spiritual Responsibility

It's easy to read the lists of spiritual gifts offered in places like 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12 with an eye to discovering what it is the Lord has given each one of us. What is my gift? we ask as we read these verses to ourselves. 

But we must also ask: what is my responsibility?

Here, we're not talking about what it means to exercise our gift responsibly, although that's certainly also a good question and one worth asking. Rather, we're asking what we are to do with the gifts that are not ours.

For example, I do not possess the gift of teaching. I just don't. It doesn't matter how hard I try, how much I plan, how much effort I put into it: it's not my gift. It's not something I enjoy. It's not something I think that I'm very good at. So it would be easy, and in fact, I've done this many times, to simply read past teaching on these lists and move on to gifts that seem more to suit my heart. 

The problem with this, however, is that it completely ignores the unspoken truth: although I do not possess the gift of teaching, others do. And that means that my call, in regards to the gift of teaching, is to be a student.

Read that again: because I do not possess the gift of teaching, I have a responsibility to be a student.

This is what I think it's too easy to read right by, and we do it with all of the gifts. Maybe you don't have the gift of serving. Then you have the responsibility to be served. Maybe you don't have the gift of encouraging others. Then you have the responsibility to be encouraged. Maybe you don't have the gift of speaking the wisdom of God. Then you have the responsibility to listen. Maybe you don't have the gift of speaking the knowledge of God. Then you have the responsibility to hear. Maybe you don't have the gift of leadership. Then you have the responsibility to follow.

See, if you read these lists of spiritual gifts with your heart wide open, you discover that more than just your gift speaks to you. More than just the gift you have says something about you. The gifts you don't have say just as much. And I wonder what might happen if we spent just as much time learning to receive the gifts we don't have as we do trying to use the gifts that we do. 

What if you spent just as much time learning to be a student? What if you spent your time learning to be served? What if you spent your time learning to be encouraged? What if you spent your time listening, learning to hear? What if you spent your time following?

And do you notice something here? Every one of these "not-my-gift" humbling. It requires humility. It requires vulnerability. It requires admitting a need, embracing a need, approaching your community and your God, letting yourself receive something. As a student, you must say that you simply don't know. There's something someone else has to teach you. If someone serves you, you admit that you couldn't do it yourself. If someone encourages you, you embrace the weight of your own heart. If you listen, you are not speaking. If you hear, you are not listening to your own voice. If you follow, you are not leading. All these things you're not make you something else - something good.

Because it's good to be engaged in the things you can't do. For a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that when you choose to engage in your spiritual responsibility, you free the gifts you don't possess to truly be gifts to those who do. In other words, because I am intentionally a student, teaching is truly a gift.

What does that even mean? I'll tell you tomorrow. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Spiritual Gifts

In about a handful of places, the Bible discusses in plain terms some of the gifts that God has given His people. Among these gifts are many:

The gifts of speaking with wisdom, speaking with knowledge, courageous faith, the ability to heal, to work miracles, to speak what God has revealed, to tell the difference between spirits, speaking in different languages, and interpreting languages are all mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12. Romans 12 includes speaking what God has revealed, serving, teaching, encouraging others, sharing, leadership, and helping people in need. Ephesians 4 notes the persons that God has given to His church: apostles, prophets, missionaries, pastors, and teachers. 1 Peter 4 mentions only speaking and serving.

And for most of us reading these passages, these lists, we have but one concern: what, exactly, is our gift?

We read these lists and try to figure out where we fit, where God has put us. There's a huge market in the Christian industry for spiritual gift inventories and assessments and questionnaires, even spiritual gift training and development programs (which is, you have to admit, a little bit hilarious. What could a book or video series teach you about your gift that the God who has given it wouldn't teach you if you simply asked Him?). We invest a lot of resources - both church and personal resources - 'discovering' which is our gift and how best to use it. 

Of course, as my parenthesis notes, we spend precious little of this discovery and development engaging with the God who is the giver of these gifts, despite Paul's repeated reminders of God's role in the whole thing. There are different spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them. There are different ways of serving, and yet the same Lord is served. There are different types of work to do, but the same God produces every gift in every person. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6) So clearly, we are missing an essential element of the gift.

But are we missing even more than that?

There's nothing wrong with taking the time and investing the energy to figure out just what God might be doing in you, to discover what gifts He's given you. That's essential to fulfilling your God-given potential in this world. Whatever gift you discover that God has planted in the depths of your heart comes with certain responsibilities, and these Scriptures speak to those a little bit, too. 

The problem is that in all this self-discovery, for all the time we spend poring over these lists and seeking to discover something about ourselves, we are missing what may be at least as essential as the gift that we discover: it's the gifts that we don't discover, the ones God hasn't blessed us with. It's what we do with the rest of the list, and it's about more than just trying to figure out who among us has those gifts, who in our churches fills those roles.

The gifts that God has not given us are just as much about who we are as the ones that He has. How is that even possible? 

Stay tuned.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Righteous But Fallen

The story of Noah has one very telling truth about God which is often overlooked: He means it. 

When we talk about Noah, we talk about several things. We talk about the righteousness of Noah, and how the righteousness of one man can be a saving grace to the world. (Think ahead: Jesus.) We talk about God's crazy command for Noah, and His provision throughout the whole thing. We talk about God's regret over destroying the world, and His promise never to do it again. And we talk about the rainbow. We always talk about the rainbow. 

But have you paused lately to see what's really going on here? God destroys the world because it has become so wicked. So wicked that He thinks the only resolution, at this point, is to start over. And it's easy for us to think that since God brought all of Creation off a boat rather than forming it from scratch with His hands, that it wasn't really a new start. It was a reboot, maybe, but all the hardware and software of the world remained essentially the same, essentially pre-flood. He started again with one righteous, but imperfect, man.

That's not quite...true. Look again at the story in Genesis 8-9.

Just after the flood is over, God promises Himself that He's never going to do that again. Then He turns to His righteous man:

God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fertile, increase in number, and fill the earth. All the wild animals and all the birds will fear you and be terrified of you. Every creature that crawls on the ground and all the fish in the sea have been put under your control. Everything that lives and moves will be your food. I gave you green plants as food; I now give you everything else.' (9:1-3)

There are a few tweaks here - specifically, the last bit - but at its heart, this is the very same blessing that God gave Adam and Eve...pre-Fall. In Genesis 1, God created them...blessed them and said, 'Be fertile, increase in number, fill the earth, and be its master. Rule the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that crawl on the earth. ...I have given you every plant with seeds on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit with seeds. This will be your food." (1:27-29)

It's the original blessing of man - given to Adam and given again to Noah. When God says He's starting over, He means it. He's starting over. He's starting with a righteous man and blessing him as though he was the first man all over again. 

And Noah, that righteous man, that one righteous man who took God at His word and built an enormous boat in the middle of dry land, is standing at an altar of his own making, unable to fathom that he is, now, a new creation. A restored creation. A redeemed creation. He has just been given the blessing of all creation from the very beginning, and even Noah cannot walk in the garden.

He can only stand at the altar.

So even Noah struggles to understand what God is really doing, what his own story even means. He knows that God has saved him, but what does saved mean? To Noah, it means only that God has preserved him. That God has protected him from wrath and judgment. That God is allowing him to continue his righteous/faithful existence, to keep living his life the way he's always been living it - before the altar. 

To God, I think this saving meant something more. It meant redemption. It meant starting over. It meant wiping the slate clean and blessing this man as though he was the first man to ever walk in all of creation. It meant inviting him to walk with God, to really walk with Him in the cool of the day and to share a sacred universe with Him. 

And Noah settles for a sacred spot. 

He's righteous, but fallen, a trap that we as men and women just can't seem to get out of. He loves God, as most of us do. He tries to live a holy life; so do we. But there's something in his heart that just can't fathom his own story, that just doesn't understand what God is really doing, even when God pours out His blessing on the man. That's so much us, too. At least, it's me. 

God comes restoring, redeeming His creation. Men. Women. Us. You. Me. He comes and clears the land, wipes the slate clean, calls us out of one journey and into another, is the Creation. Walk in it with Me. 

And oh how easy it is, even from what feels like such a holy or righteous place in my heart, to say, here is the altar. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016


One of the most difficult things to do is to know when one journey has ended and another has begun. Or rather, it's most difficult to allow one journey to end so that another can begin. But that is precisely what we must do.

We've been looking at small groups all week, and this is the challenge of them: if small groups are for seasons, then we must recognize that at some point, seasons change. The days get longer, or shorter. The sun rises and sets. At some point, we pull up camp, pack away the tents, and press forward toward new horizons. And the truth is that you can't always take the same people with you. 

So what happens to those you've spent the past season with? What do you become when you're no longer a traveling party?


Friends are great, but they're no small group. They aren't meant to be. Small groups are people on a journey, traveling together, building and breaking camp along the way. Small groups are groups of individuals taking the same road, headed in the same direction. They are salt on the bread of life, drawing out all the amazing new flavors of God. We need that. We need people going deliberately in our direction. We need people taking the same trails we are. 

Friends...feel almost like the same thing, but there are some fundamental differences. Friends aren't on the same journey you're on. But they'll travel with you all the same. They don't build and break camp when you do; they stake out a place in your tent. They aren't necessarily taking the same road or heading in the same direction. But they don't mind the detour. They aren't salt on the bread of life; they're more...bread sharers. They're the kind of people who don't order their own fries but then eat most of yours. 

And that's great. That's what we expect our friends to be. We expect our friends to be the kind of people who will go out of their way for us, who will accompany us on a journey that isn't even theirs, who will crash in our tent (or cry in our basement) if that's what the journey requires. We groan when they steal our fries, but there's still something about having someone in your life who's not afraid to help themselves to your food. Right? It's what a good friend does. It's what we all hope we have, and what we all hope we are. 

Over time, these friends often even become family. They become the people we share our lives with, the ones we share our stories with. We have our own traditions and memories and inside jokes. All the things you could ever want in friends or family are right here, and if you take enough journeys with enough people, engage in enough small groups over the years, then one Sunday morning, you walk into your church and realize that all of these people, every one of them, is an amazing part of your story. 

No longer are you content to sit with just a few of them. No longer are you happy at the kiddie tables. No longer do you talk to the same three or four in the lobby. All of a sudden, you're longing for a place where you can all be together. Every one of you. Every one of these friends, every one of these sisters, every one of these brothers. Together. 

And...there's a place for that. You're already in it. It's called church. 

That's what happens with small groups done well. You spend your life journeying together - first with one group and then with another. Along the way, you make friends, and sometimes, you take journeys that aren't yours because you want to be a good friend. And sometimes, they take journeys that aren't theirs because you have good friends. And somewhere along the way, these friends become family. And the family comes together on Sunday mornings, and everyone wants to know where they're supposed to sit. And the answer is simple:

At the table. At the one table. 

At God's table.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

For Seasons

Ok, I promised that I'm not anti-small group, and I'm not. But I do very much believe that the church should not be comprised of small groups. Rather, small groups should be an outflow of the church.

See the difference?

It's essentially this, to use other terms I've been using this week: instead of showing up on Sunday morning and "going to church" with people just like you (with your small group), you show up on Sunday morning and discover in the church people just like you. Or enough like you that you can take a little journey together. 

And that's what I think small groups are, or ought to be. They ought to be traveling packs. They ought to be groups of persons who come together for an adventure, or for a journey. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about something very general - women taking a journey with other women, for example, or teens with other teens - or something very specific - something more akin to our recovery or support small groups. The point is that the group is moving somewhere, doing something, going somewhere. Together.

More than anything, I think this is the danger sign for our small groups: when they stop moving. The small groups that have been together for very long times are particularly susceptible to this. They come together...and think that's a small group meeting. They come together...and then go home. They come together...and they don't go anywhere. They don't do anything. They don't move any more. They just...come together.

A good small group is always on the move. That doesn't mean there's not time to pause and rest; sometimes, you have to stop for awhile and set up camp somewhere. But it's just camp. It's tents and bonfires and weary feet. It's sharing bug spray and roasting marshmallows. It's always talking about where you're going to go next, and when you're going to take that next step. It's never stopping, clearing the land, pouring a foundation, building a house. It's camp. Because a good small group is made of travelers, not settlers.

Never settle into a small group.

To go back to another metaphor I've been using this week - if small groups done poorly are kiddie tables set up around the Upper Room, then small groups done well are more...salt and pepper shakers. They're seasons. They're little splashes of new flavor when life needs a certain little something. When life needs a certain little...

Did you know salt is not a flavor? It's not a taste in its own self. It's a flavor enhancer. It helps bring out something new in the meal. That's what small groups are meant to be. They're flavor enhancers. They bring out something new in the bread and the blood of Jesus. They help us taste something new of God. 

Small groups help us taste the goodness of God when our season of life requires a little goodness. Small groups help us taste the mercy of God when our season of life is self-critical and self-conscious. Small groups help us taste the grace of God when our season of life is difficult and harsh. Small groups help us taste the joy of God when our season of life is steeped in celebration. Small groups help us taste the community of God when our season of life is lonely. There's a small group for every season, and that small group is meant to be salt. It's meant to help you taste something new of God.

That's what a small group done well does. Of course, if you eat only salt....well, that's a small group done poorly.

So no, I'm not at all anti-small group. At least, not when small groups are done well. There's something incredible about being part of a traveling party, about going on a grand adventure with some others who are up for the same kind of journey. But you have to be traveling. You have to be moving. You have to be having an adventure, going on a journey. A little salt does something amazing, in the right doses, to the right food. It brings out this entirely new flavor that you didn't know was hiding in there. But you have to have the right doses, and the right food. If you're not first feasting on Jesus, then the salt does little to bring out the flavor of God in this season. That's what happens with small groups done well.

It's what happens when you go to church not with people like you, but you go to church and discover people like you. And you decide to do a little bit of this life together. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Kids Table

Yes, there really is a table. But most Christians have long-forgotten the table of God that is in the church and exchanged it for a lesser table. The kids table, maybe, where we all gather around the smaller table with the people we know well, who share our interests, and talk about the things we have in common. 

Nowhere is this temptation more pronounced than in the current movement toward small groups. And no, this is not an indictment of small groups as an idea; there are many, many advantages toward belonging to a good small group (maybe I will take this up in a day or two). But most of us aren't offering good small groups. We're not doing it well.

Most of us offer the same small groups, or a general approximation of the same small groups, with every session. Rather than being a time to explore a certain topic, to engage in a certain material, to touch a new place in each of our hearts, these small groups become a time to connect with the same friends, to have the same parties and pitch-ins, to be around the same people. I've both been a part of this (proud member of the 'Alleluia group' for something like four straight years as a young Christian many years ago) and a victim of it (as a more mature adult Christian, I signed up for a new small group, only to find that I was the only one who hadn't been in this group for the past three decades and feeling highly out of place as I didn't understand the stories, the traditions, the inside jokes, etc.). And I think sometimes, it's not only easy to just hang out with the same people all the time, it's also spiritually detrimental. Some of the small groups (of friends) that I've visited have all-but-discarded the Biblical reason for meeting together. They may go through some course or some material, but it's an item on a checklist. Something to do while they're eating their finger foods and letting the kids get some good play time in. When everyone's mouth is done chewing and they're finally free to talk, the "Bible portion" of the small group meeting has ended, no serious engagement having been made, and we're on to recreation time.

Not only this, but walk into the church building on Sunday morning, and you find the members of these small groups congregating there, too. They talk to each other in the lobby. They sit together in the sanctuary. They serve on the same ministries. They participate in the same events. They do all their church things together, this band of brothers, and it can make anyone else feel like an outsider. Anyone who may want to strike up a conversation in the lobby may find they're talking to someone who already has their group and isn't much interested in adding to it. Anyone who wants to sit in a certain section of the sanctuary may find themselves in the middle of a well-established group, which they are interrupting. Anyone who wants to serve in a certain ministry may find that the ministry already has its own family, and it takes such a very long time, in most cases, to be adopted. 

Again, not all small groups end up this way, but a fair number of them do, and it makes church at large a very difficult place to be, particularly for the unaffiliated. 

And it must also be said that some churches are intentionally making this their model. Some churches hook you up with a small group the minute you walk in the door, building their congregations around this idea that you most belong with us when you feel like you belong somewhere, and so they create a culture in which you absolutely belong because from day one, you get a brand new group of friends. Of course, these are not friends that you pick for yourself. These are not friends that you necessarily have anything in common with. These are not friends with whom you might share your life were it not for this group you've been thrust into. But at least they're friends. That's something, right? It's the potential of belonging, right from the very beginning. Then these small groups become, collectively, the church. And all the things that feels so closed about small groups in conventional churches are built right into these small groups churches - these small groups are expected to sit together. They're expected to be in the same Bible studies all the time. They're expected to take on ministry projects together. They're expected to spend all of their "church time" together. That's what makes them a "successful" small group.

It's a church literally made of kids tables, while Jesus breaks bread somewhere on stage.

I'm really not anti-small group. I'm not. But I am very much anti-kids tables. I'm against the notion that we can't all walk into church and sit at the same table. I'm against the idea that we've become so comfortable sitting in too-small chairs, hunching over a hilariously-short table, stuffing our faces with good friends instead of spiritual food. I'm against the idea that Jesus, so eager to break bread with us, is forced to let His crumbs fall on empty place settings because there's something about the way we do church that keeps us from coming to the big table. I'm against the idea that our pastors and preachers and prophets and priests have become nothing more than wait staff, trying to bring an appropriate serving of Jesus to a bunch of these different tables every Sunday - a few homemade rolls over here, a couple of crackers over there, red wine for that table, white for this one, no wine at all for that one over there, just grape juice. I'm against the idea that we gather around our little tables and essentially order God off a menu to suit our tastes - according to our own stories, according to our own traditions, according to our own inside jokes. I'm against the idea that we can all walk into our churches, look at Christ sitting at the head of His table, and choose to sit somewhere else because that's where our friends are.

This is what happens when we only go to church with people like us. We walk in the doors looking not for Jesus, but for our friends. We're more likely to say, "Ah! There they are!" than "Ah! There He is!" And we're all okay with that. 

I'm not okay with that.

Because I guess...I guess like all good kids, there's something in me that can't wait to eat at the big table. I want to walk in and take one of those empty seats with Jesus. I want to break bread with Him. I want to share stores with Him. I want to make memories and establish traditions and create all these inside jokes with Him. I want to be at the big table. 

Who wants to join me?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Church Family

Let me ask you something: who do you go to church with? No. Who do you really go to church with?

I think one of the greatest disservices that we've done to our church families is that we've segregated them. The kids show up and "go to church" with all the other kids, somewhere off in another room by themselves with one or two adults present. The teens show up and "go to church" with all the other teens, attending teen classes and then sitting together in the teen section of the sanctuary. The women show up and "go to church" with the other women, attending women's classes and serving in women's ministries. The men do the same. The seniors show up and "go to church" with the seniors. The pastors with the pastors, the worship team with the worship team. Maybe they're all attending the same church, or maybe they're all just in the same building at the same time.

It's a product of our culture, really. All of these people, all of these groups of people, they have different "needs," we say. The children need coloring activities and simple crafts. The women need time to fellowship with other women, without kids. The men need time to discuss men's issues. The worship team needs prep time. The pastors need strategic planning. The seniors need a break from..well, everything. The teens are in this awkward transition phase that is very sensitive and requires just that special touch. And so on. As though there's not one thing the church can offer us that we all need, or a way that the church can offer it that satisfies each of those needs.

Really? We struggle that much to think of just one thing the church might have that might bind us all together?

How about Jesus?

But I digress. Because this post isn't really about Jesus. (Sorry.) It's about His church. It's about a church that started out as a family, and we still call it that, but it's become more of a modern family than an essential unit, and that's a shame. The modern family is a bunch of scattered people, all doing their own things in their own ways, occasionally passing each other in the halls between bathroom breaks and kitchen runs. The kids are always on their tablets, the parents are always catching up on work, and the grandparents are quietly observing all of it, wondering what is happening to this world. (Stereotypes, but work with me here.)

The family, however, was once much more than this. Do you realize that the smallest unit of personhood in the Bible is not the individual? It's the family. It's Noah and his family. It's Abraham and Sarah and their family. It's Jacob and his sons. It's Saul and his son, Jonathan. It's Elizabeth and Zechariah. It's Mary and Joseph. It's the house of David, the house of Judah. 

It's the house of God. 

And it's meant to have a family in it.

The family was more than just a social unit in the times of the Bible; it was a community. A community within a community. And each individual within the family unit had something to offer. The patriarchs and matriarchs (the older generations) offered their wisdom and their protection. The middle generations (the modern moms and dads) offered their labor and their provision. The younger generations offered their honor and their eagerness. Everyone had something to bring to the table. And yes, there was actually a table. And yes, they ate around it. Together. 

In the New Testament, God ordains the church as a family unit, and I can't help but think that He saw what was already starting to happen to the family. In the Roman Empire, as life became more urban, more settled, more industrial and less agrarian, the family structure was already changing. In the city, the family could leave near one another, but not necessary together, unlike in the rural areas where it made the most sense to live on the same plot of land. In the city, men could do a whole host of different things, instead of being tied to what the family had always done. Most stuck with the family tradition, but the possibilities were there that they wouldn't have to. The family was starting to become less of a community and more merely a kinship. So the church became the community, the new family unit. 

In the church, we're supposed to have the same experience as these older, traditional families. The patriarchs and matriarchs of our churches, the older generations, have wisdom to offer. They offer their protection. They know more about the church than the rest of us because they've been there the longest. They've lived it the longest. They know how to "work the land," as it were, and they can help show the rest of us how to do it. The middle generations serve in the church. They do the bulk of the work of the church - the teaching, the facilities maintenance, the evangelism, the community outreach, the community partnerships, the continuation of the church's teachings in the personal home. This is where the church's living wage comes from, from this generation that has learned and is still learning, that has taught and is still teaching. It's provision. And the younger generations still come with their honor, taking on the traditions and the tone of the historical church (whatever that happens to be in the present location), and their eagerness, that young passion for the Word of God that reminds all of us what we're doing here. And so much more, from every generation, as well. The lists are endless.

But most of us worship on Sunday mornings without even realizing the tremendous gift that God has given us in our churches, without recognizing the family that surrounds us. Because we stopped going to church with our family and started going just with our friends. Because we don't put the generations together in the church often enough to truly reap the full benefit of what each has to offer. Because our churches have become modern families and not family units.

And that's a shame.

Because God has given the church for just this reason: that His people would never forget that the smallest unit of personhood is not the individual. It's the family. God's family. Back in one house. God's house. Where stories are told, memories made, traditions passed down, and where everyone...everyone...has something to bring to the table. And yes, there actually is a table. 

Friday, January 8, 2016


When we talk about the history of God's people, it's easy to go as far back as the sons of Jacob and then stop. After all, these were the twelve tribes of Israel. Or maybe we go as far back as Abraham and his son, Isaac, and stop there. After all, it's Abraham. If we go too far back beyond him, it's easy to get lost in a bunch of more minor characters that we know so very little about. There's an off-chance we may go back to Noah, but even in that case, we speak briefly of Noah and jump ahead to Abraham, then take off from there. That's a mistake.

Because there's something about God's people that must be learned from the story of Noah's three sons.

Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Three sons of one righteous man. We don't know much about these three. There's a somewhat thorough accounting of their descendants in the post-flood narrative, but even these culminate in the appearance of Abraham, several generations down from Shem. But there's something buried in all these names, and it starts with a drunken patriarch.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Noah becoming drunk after the flood. His son finds him totally plastered, naked, lying exposed for God and the whole world to see. Now, what's important to take note of is who finds Noah naked. It's not "his sons," as the story is often simplified. It's specifically Ham, only one of his sons. Ham then tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth, about their father's present condition. And it is Shem and Japheth who walk backward into the barn to cover their father's shame.

You've probably wondered why this story is in the Bible. Here is the world's one righteous man. He builds this enormous Ark, makes a spectacle of himself for years in preparation for this promised flood, lives on a boat for a good half a year or more with thousands of stinky, smelly animals, is given the promise of a'd think there wouldn't be much to gain from including this scene of his drunken nakedness in the narrative. But this story is not really about Noah at all. It's about his sons and, by extension, God's sons, God's people.

Ham notices his father's nakedness, then makes it public information by telling his brothers. Noah curses him, and Ham goes on to be the father of such nations as: Canaan, Babylon, Assyria. Sodom and Gomorrah. Even Nineveh is descended from Ham. Noah blesses his other two sons, those who were quietly gracious in covering his nakedness. Japheth becomes the patriarch of Tarshish and Cyprus. Shem becomes the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Abraham and through Abraham, Israel.

So what does all of this mean? Not much unless you consider the rest of the story, the history of God's people yet to unfold. Think about all the nations that Israel struggled with over the course of its history. Canaan was living in the Promised Land, and Israel would have to defeat them in order to take possession of what was promised to them. When Israel turns its back on God, it comes under assault from Babylon and Assyria, at various points in history. Abraham's nephew, Lot, barely escapes the sinful Sodom before it is burned out by God. And the prophet Jonah struggles with his feelings about Nineveh. Over and over again, when God's people (the sons of Shem and Japheth) are found naked, it is the sons of Ham that expose them.

Some things never change.

And Japheth, who was only the uncle of Israel? Well, there's some debate over the exact location this place called Tarshish, but one theory tends to believe that Tarshish and Tarsus are in fact the same place, which means that Paul, the greatest missionary/apostle/evangelist of the New Testament? He's a descendant of Japheth, the other of Noah's blessed sons. And Cyprus is later where Barnabas is born. 

If you're following along, then, the cursed son of Noah, Ham, becomes the father of the nations that are a thorn in the side of God's people. Throughout their history, they repeat the work of their father - exposing the nakedness of the righteous when they have turned away from God. Ham, one of the blessed sons, becomes the father of God's Old Testament people - the Israelites - and Japheth, the other blessed son, the father of God's New Testament people through the great missionaries (i.e. Paul and Barnabas). And they, too, repeat the work of their fathers, covering the nakedness of the righteous - in the Old Testament, with sacrifices; in the new, with the Gospel. 

And all of a sudden, this strange little scene where the one righteous man in all creation is found drunk and naked by his sons doesn't seem so strange after all. It's the story of God's people.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Come to Jesus

Here's the easiest way to make sure we're preaching love and grace and not emptiness:

Come to Jesus first.

Our church services build toward this culminating moment, usually somewhere near the end of Sunday morning, where the convicted, the contrite, even the faithful come to Jesus. Not just our church services, either. Our church retreats tend to do the same thing. Our denominational rallies. Our youth group events. Our conventions and conferences and seminars. All are designed toward this peak moment, this one emotional moment, when those in attendance respond and "come." 

Then the final song is sung, the final prayers are said, and everyone walks out to the parking lot. You come to church for an hour, get three minutes with Jesus near the end (if you so desire them; not everyone comes to Jesus every week), and then scurry on about your life before anything even has time to settle into your heart.

It's because it's far easier for us to bring a man to Christ than to know what to do with him once he gets there. It's the difference, as our week this week started out, between preaching wine and liquor and preaching grace and love. One is far more difficult than the other.

But if you read through the Gospel accounts of Jesus and His ministry, it's very clear that coming to Jesus was never the culminating event in a person's story. It was never the last thing someone did. None of these stories are told and result in masses of people coming to Him. No. The people come first. The men come first. The women come first. And then something holy happens.

And the truth is, if we'd get this right, it's much easier to preach love and grace. If we came into our churches on Sunday morning and the very first thing we all did was come to Jesus, then we'd have the entire rest of the hour to hear Him speak. We wouldn't have to talk about Him any more; we could simply let Him speak. Then we learn about love. We learn about grace. And it all feels very natural. Instead of building toward an emptiness that draws us to the Cross in the closing comments, we begin with our emptiness and build toward something greater. Instead of men walking away not knowing what they understand about God at all, they walk away knowing without a doubt that God is love.

When Jesus came to the hillside to preach, the people were there to hear Him. When the people were there to hear Him, Jesus came to the hillside to preach. When the blind men came out to the streets to call out His name, He passed by. When He passed by, the blind men were standing in the streets calling out His name. Jesus never did anything unless the people were already there, and the people were never there without the expectation that Jesus was going to do something.

Have we lost our expectation?

When was the last time you went to church and expected Jesus not only to do something, but even to be there? My guess is that it's been a long time. A very long time. Because we're trained to believe that once we utter an opening prayer, we have the next hour set aside to figure out if Jesus is going to show up or not and, if He does, if He's going to do something or not. 

It's not just church, by the way. It's not just preachers and pastors. It's all of us. We begin our prayer time in our own hearts, rather than in the hearts of God. We start with a "Dear Lord" and wonder if God will show up at all before we get to the "Amen." We sing a worship song when it comes on the radio, and just at the moment that we start to feel the tiniest inkling of God, the chorus is over and a new song has come on. We're talking with our friends, our families, our neighbors, and if God comes up at all, it's because we've run out of other things to talk about. Even in the secular things - we choose our career paths, our timelines, our adventures, our conquests, our investments, our name it, and we only hope that by the end of it all, God will have shown up somewhere. Our entire existence seems to take on the church model: from our first cry to our last breath, we're always building toward some divine moment when, we hope, Jesus might show up.

That's not how any of this works. That's now how life was meant to be. That's not how prayer was meant to be. That's not how church was meant to be. The entire story of Jesus starts with coming. His coming to us, our coming to Him. That's the place where we begin. 

The love and grace.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Preaching Emptiness

None of this means that we should preach only to disturb people, or expressly to disturb them. Many of our priests, prophets, and pastors are very good at this, but it's entirely the wrong thing to do.

More and more, it's becoming difficult to go to church and learn anything about God. That's just the sad truth. Most of our services are planned around getting men and women to become dissatisfied with their lives, then draw them toward the idea of God as a solution to their unrest. More and more, I'm convinced that it's nearly impossible to be spiritually healthy in most of our churches.

Because if you show up on Sunday morning and you're confident in who God is, one of two things is bound to happen: either you'll find the message of church boring and irrelevant or the message will be so convincing that you'll leave the church building wondering if you ever knew anything about God at all. 

Boring and irrelevant church is a dangerous idea, for two reasons. First is that it may tempt some of us to become spiritually arrogant. The longer we sit in churches that are preaching spiritual milk, the louder we seem to chew on our theological steak. We're so far beyond all of that "basic God stuff" that it's easy to sit in our pews and reflect on how so very long ago it was that we had such silly questions, how long ago it was that we first contemplated the Cross.

Second, a boring and irrelevant church is one that struggles to retain its spiritual giants. Those who aren't growing spiritually arrogant are becoming disengaged as the message remains stagnant and the heart longs to grow. The more the message of God is preached for the sake of drawing people to the Cross, the easier it is for long-time Christians to sit there on Sunday mornings and grow increasingly restless. Is this all there is to Jesus? Then what do we need church for? If the entire message of God is that your life is terrible without Him, and you've come to Him earnestly, then there's no more need for a message. No more need to continue to sit in church on Sunday morning because you've heard all that God has to offer. Might as well go shopping or get some more work done around the house.

And that is the second concern of those who show up spiritually confident - the messages we're hearing in church today are deliberately disturbing in such a way that if you don't question everything you've ever known - about yourself, about your life, about your God - it feels like you're missing out on something. 

Our messages are designed to get you to think about all the dissatisfying things in your life. They're written to make you uncomfortable with yourself. They're preached to pierce deep into your heart. And if your heart is satisfied in God when you hear those words, all of a feel heartless. You feel like there's something wrong with you because you're not connecting to this sermon that you know contains truth. Now, you're praying because your heart feels depraved, because it feels like you're not connecting with God as much as you thought you were, even though this couldn't be further from the truth. But you're convicted that you're not convicted, and this makes you question whether you have any real relationship with God at all.

By the final Amen on any Sunday morning, the church is filled with persons who are wholly dissatisfied with life, with themselves, with God, and who feel the sting of their own emptiness, either because they connect with the message in the sermon or they don't. 

We're preaching emptiness and pretending it's holy.

This is not the kind of disturbed that we were meant to be. This is not the way that love and grace are supposed to make us feel. This is not what truth does when it's spoken into the lives of men and women - believers or otherwise. And yet, it's very much how we do church. This is our Sunday morning.

When John spoke to Herod, he never spoke in order to disturb the king. He wasn't trying to make Herod feel bad about his life, about himself, about everything he'd ever known. He simply spoke truth because it was all he knew to do. He simply spoke grace because grace is all he had. He simply spoke love because God is love. And that's the difference.

So what do we do? How do we do it? Stay tuned. I have one radical idea....