Monday, February 29, 2016

Moving Mountains

But if you have faith as small as mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move.' 

It's a verse familiar to most of us, these words Jesus says to His disciples about the power of faith. And I think most of us have spent at least some reasonable time trying to take these words to heart. move mountains.

I've written about this before, about how for all the men and women out there trying to move mountains, I've never heard a single news report of a mountain being suddenly thrown into the sea. I've never heard of a mountain crumbling in the blink of an eye. I've never heard of a mountain moving so much as an entire foot in an instant. Such an act would cause seismic waves, and I've never heard reports of those seismic waves, either. It seems none of us are actually moving any mountains. So what does that say about our faith?
That's the question I wrestled with before, but this time, I want to take a bit of a different turn 'round the mountain question. Because I've been thinking about this whole idea a little bit, about how this has come to be such a central aspect of this thing that we call faith. 

For many of us, faith has become the moving of mountains.

It's our first instinct when life throws some circumstance, some new situation our way. We want to know how faith responds to make mole hills out of mountains, to make these mountains move. A cancer diagnosis, a broken relationship, a lost job, a missed opportunity, a disaster, a loss of hope, an overwhelming burden - these are common experiences of our human existence. And as people of faith, our first inclination is to look these obstacles square in the eye...and demand them to move. 

Ain't nobody got time for this.

Ain't nobody got time for CT scans and MRIs and blood draws and biopsies. For chemotherapy and doctor's appointments and long nights next to the toilet. Ain't nobody got time for being angry with one another, for fighting over silly little things. Ain't nobody got time for unemployment, for job searching, for soul searching. Ain't nobody got time for regrets, for mistakes, for starting over. Ain't nobody got time for mountains.

So move.

In fact, I would say that most of us come right up to the foot of our mountains , then bow our heads in prayer and bury them in the sand, all in the hopes that when we dare look up again, the mountain won't be there any more. And for most of us, this just isn't working. So the question we have to ask ourselves is: why?

I believe there are two answers to this question, and both deserve a bit of discussion. First, the kind of faith that moves mountains doesn't bow its head; it raises it. You have to dare to look at your mountains.

And second, I don't think all mountains are meant to be moved. Yes, I know Jesus said, If you have faith as small as a mustard seed.... But a mountain is never just a mountain. They're not all the same. You have to figure out what kind of mountain you're facing if you can ever hope to know what to do with it. And yes, faith absolutely can move mountains. But not all mountains are meant to be moved. Sometimes, the mountain requires something completely different from faith. 

We'll look at some of that this week. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Counting the Cost

There's an interesting scene in King David's life where he comes under tremendous curse from god for taking a census without being commanded to do so. It seems strange to us, a sever overreaction on God's part. After all, there seem to be a lot of valid reasons why a king would take a census of his own people.

Israel, at the time, was fighting a good deal of battles. Perhaps David needed to know how many fighting men he had left. Or how many fighting men he had lost. David was resettling and restructuring the kingdom of Israel, establishing his own palace and a firm capital in Jerusalem. Perhaps he needed to understand the logistics of governing such a vast people from a central location. Maybe David just didn't trust Saul's numbers and wanted to have some of his own. There's much to be known about the people you're governing from simply counting them.

But it wasn't simply a count.

To understand why David's unapproved census was such a big deal, we have to turn all the back to Exodus 30, to the first counting of the Israelites. Check out God's instructions for taking the census: 

When you take a census of the Israelites, each person must pay the Lord a ransom for his life when he is counted. ...As each person is counted, he must give one-fifth of an ounce of silver using the standard weight of the holy place. ...This contribution is given to make peace with the Lord and make your lives acceptable to the Lord.

Aha. All of a sudden, David's sin starts to make sense. On many levels.

When David takes an unauthorized census of his people, he is levying a tax on them, basically. He's making them pay money in order to be counted among his kingdom. Because you can be sure that the king is going to do the census the way the census is said to be done - collecting the money - even if it's never called for. He's doing what we all do and combining a little bit of God's idea with a little bit of his own idea and trying to make it a thing. So on one level, he's forcing his people to pay something at a time when they shouldn't have to. This is a sin.

But it's not just a payment they're making. Look again at what it says in Exodus - this payment is a ransom. Since when is it David's job to decide when the people of God must be ransomed to God? Now, not only is David requiring a payment from his people without authorization, but he's requiring a religious act from them without authorization. Slowly, he seems to be stepping into the role of God.

And perhaps even more than that. Because maybe David isn't asking for the ransom money to go to the Lord. Maybe David is putting this ransom count in his own treasury. Maybe he's investing it in his own army. After all, it's his census, not God's. Shouldn't he get the spoils from the people's burden of being counted? If this is the case, David is attempting to ransom his own people somehow, and this certainly puts him in the place of God in this whole dynamic. 

Now, God's reaction to David's unauthorized census doesn't seem quite so overzealous. God has every right to be upset with this whole situation - because David is doing something to God's people that God has not approved of (levying a financial burden on them) and because David is subtly slipping into the place of God himself by doing so. 

And I think the people probably had a right to be upset, too. Imagine if you were one of the people. You knew the procedures for having a census. You knew generally when and how the censuses came. And out of nowhere, the king calls another census. You have to scrape together one-fifth of an ounce of silver (which Exodus indicates is a bit of a median value, probably - the rich would have had much more, the poor would have struggled to have this much), silver that you may have set aside for something else. And you have to give it to the king. Not the Lord, but the king. Imagine the resentment you might feel at what the king is doing to you. 

So here is yet another layer of David's sin - he's creating a resentment in the heart of the people for their king. And their king is the king that God has chosen for them. If the people resent this king, they will soon come to resent this God who elected this king. 

This whole scenario shows a couple of important things, but perhaps the most important is this: even the little things we do may not be so little after all. We have to be very conscious of the implications of our actions, and that comes from knowing what those actions mean. It doesn't seem like much of a thing that David wanted to count his people. But when you understand that counting his people meant taxing them, ransoming them, stepping into the role of God, and creating a resentment among's absolutely a grievous sin.

The question then becomes: what little thing are you thinking about? And what if your little thing is actually a big thing?

Thursday, February 25, 2016


This sense that our lives are woven together, that there is this intricate, amazing design to them, is not just the foundation for grief. Nor is hope merely the foundation for grief. Rather, both of these things - this sense of the interwovenness of our lives and hope itself - are also the foundations

Just as grief is so much more than mere sadness, joy is much, much more than simple happiness.

In fact, we could say about joy all of the things that we can say about grief. Joy is not just some reaction we have to our lives or what happens in them; it's not some emotional response that we have to our existence. That's happiness. Happiness is an emotion. Joy is a state of being. 

It's that deep-seated sense that we have when we know our lives are woven together, that all of the pieces are somehow working together to create this beautiful tapestry in us. It's our lives, our stories, God's life, God's story, our community's life, and our community's story all coming together in the depths of our hearts. All the pieces fit. Everything works together. Not only are our lives beautiful for their weaving, but they are stronger. We sense that. And that is joy.

Which means that joy finds its base not in ecstasy, but in contentment. 

It's not what we think of when we think of joy. We think of loud rejoicing, of celebration, of dancing and singing and hoopin' and hollerin'. We think of a joy that cannot help but make a spectacle of itself, that is drawn to some big show of itself. The trouble is that every time I have seen this type of joy in a fellow believer, it has been just that: a show. It's been happiness plastered on a broken face. Mere make-up. Cosmetics. Their hearts have not radiated the same joy that their voices have.

Real joy, however, where I have found it has had this quiet dignity about it. I don't say that to make it sound stuffed-shirt and full of itself. No, real joy is always full of God. But it's quiet, nonetheless. It's a simple smile, an unwavering confidence, a quiet contentment. It rejoices, yes, but not by show. Joy rejoices with every breath, celebrating the life that it has every second that it has it. Celebrating not by decoration but by devotion. You can recognize true joy because it does not demand that you look at it, but when you do, you cannot help but see. 

And here's the kicker - joy, too, knows how to grieve. 

It's easy to look at someone who has had some tragic event in their life, has experienced some loss, someone you knew as a person of joy, and to say that life has somehow stolen her joy. This is just not the case. Grief never diminishes joy; it only ever enhances it. Grief makes you feel more strongly the way life is woven together, which is the root of all joy in the first place, and so even in times of grief, you cannot help but feel great joy.

I think we're starting to get better at this. You can see it in the way we're having more "celebration of life" services than "funerals." We feel the way that grief has torn at our tapestry, but we still feel the connectedness of it all, and we take our grief, our mourning, and turn it into a time to do some more weaving, to celebrate all of the little threads that run throughout our lives and to add some more to it. We don't know any more whether to laugh or to cry when we remember the dead. The truth is - both. Grief demands it, and so does joy. That's what life is all about.

So this is joy. And grief. And hope. Our lives are woven together by God's incredible design, and this is the result. This is the richness we get to live. It's beautiful. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


I've been struggling to come up with words to share today on the tail end of our hope discussion. The reason I think more people are content to dream rather than drawn to hope is that we've forgotten how to grieve. But I'm not one of those people, so I understand the limitations of my own words when trying to talk about our failure to grieve.

I think one of the problems is that we've thought perhaps that grief is an emotion, and we don't do well with our emotions. It's just sadness. It's not really fundamentally different from a funk, bordering maybe even on depression. This could not be further from the truth. Our emotions are reactions that we have to our lives, responses to the world around us. If life goes well, we're happy. If it doesn't, we're sad. If something is troublesome, we get angry. Grief is not like this. We don't grieve in mere response to our world.

We grieve in engagement with it.

That's what makes grief so different than sadness or depression or "the blues." We can have any of those reactions by being in touch only with ourselves. To grieve, we must be in touch also with our world. We must have this intimate connection with it that is so much more than just how we "feel." It's how we're affected. It's how we're woven in. There's a good image for it - woven in. Sadness is what happens when you pull a bandaid off and expose a wound. Grief is what happens when you pull a thread out of a tapestry and make a hole. It's entirely different. It requires the intimate connection of our self and our world in order to grieve.

Most of us just can't be bothered with that.

Neither is grief something you simply do. We talk about it this way - take time to grieve. Go ahead and grieve. Everyone needs to grieve. We talk about it the same way we talk about going shopping, making breakfast, or putting on socks. It's just something we do. It's the natural next thing we do. But grief is not something you do. Mourning is something you do. It's an action. Mourning is what makes men tear their clothes, cover themselves in ashes, sit in the dust, and cry. Mourning certainly is something you do.

Grief, on the other hand, is something you can't not do. You grieve because your heart won't let go of you, because this emptiness that you're suddenly feeling starts swirling and just sort of sucks you down into it with a gravitational force you can't quite explain. It's the way you scrunch your eyes when the sun comes out, the way you turn to the side when the winds blow, the way you extend your arm when you start to fall. Grief is a gut reaction; you don't do grief. You can't not do grief.

It's so hard to talk about grief because it is this deep, intimate experience. It truly comes from the depth of our beings, and most of us just don't live at our depths. We're happy somewhere in the middle, content to live a level life - a life on the plains instead of the mountains, a life on the shore instead of the sea. We're happy with happiness and content with sadness because they don't require much of us. Our lives are not woven together; they're stacked like Legos. Take one out and it's hard, sure, and maybe it hurts a little, but it doesn't destroy the structural integrity of the life we've built. It doesn't leave a hole; it leaves a window. 

The problem is that when we live this way, we never deal with the pieces of our lives that go missing. We've convinced ourselves they're not really missing at all, that nothing has fundamentally changed about our lives. Then we wake up in the dark of night and stumble around our lives and inevitably step, barefoot, on all the little Legos we've left lying around because we never knew how to grieve over them. We let them make us only sad. We had only a response to them, never an engagement. Never an experience. And we may be content with that, but life isn't. Life demands that we live it. 

To live it means sometimes to grieve. It means to let things get woven into us, to become a part of the tapestry of our own lives. It means that we know that sometimes, threads get pulled out, sometimes from the very middle, sometimes from the heart of the design. It means that sometimes, this world leaves holes in us that we just can't ignore. It means sometimes...we have to grieve. Because we can't not grieve. And it means we're okay with that. We're okay with grieving because to grieve is to live, to really live. 

We must learn to grieve again.

So that we may also learn to hope. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Grounded in God

Yesterday, we saw how hope is much more than a dream. Hope dares ask the questions that dreams run from. Dreams prepare to wake; hope prepares to grieve. Why is this?

It's because hope holds within it this tiny little seed of life, and it is constantly looking for a place to put some roots down so that it can grow. It's not content to be groundless because it needs that ground. Its very essence depends on it.

That's why hope is willing to ask the hard questions. It's not asking whether something is possible; hope knows that in God, all things are possible. It's asking - can I set down roots here? Can I grow? It's asking - is this good?

And hope, true hope, knows that the answer is not always going to be yes. This may not be the place. This may not be the season. This may not be the ground in which this hope is meant to grow. Perhaps this hope comes bearing the wrong seed. Perhaps this land is not ready for such a hope. That's why hope prepares to grieve. Hope knows there are so many other factors beyond itself that make for a good hope, and it knows it can do no more than but start to till the soil.

But here's the cool thing: it always tills the soil.

That's what hope is doing when it asks the hard questions. That's why you can feel it stirring inside of you. always preparing you for something. 

Recently, I had one of these moments. There was a dream taking shape in my heart. It was only a dream, but it wanted desperately to be a hope. It wanted to be one of those things that would plant itself in the depths of my heart and start to grow. But this dream knew that if it ever wanted to be a hope, it had to ask the hard questions. So this dream began asking - can I set down roots here? Can I grow? The dream had become a hope.

Heartbreakingly, it was simply not meant to be. Before the hope could even begin pouring itself out in the ground that it had tilled in my heart, the answer was clear: no. Not "not right now." Not "maybe later." Not "perhaps with a little tweak here and there." It was a painful, resounding no. Tremendous grief washed over me, and I could almost feel the loosened dirt blowing back over the hole that hope had tried to prepare for itself, like a stinging wind blowing through the desert. It hurt.

The truth is - it still hurts. I think that's probably one of the things we fail to understand well about grief - it hurts. And it doesn't just stop hurting. 

But that doesn't mean something beautiful can't still happen.

And here's what that something beautiful is: our hopes, or our dreams when they dare to become hope and ask the questions, they till the soil. They start to prepare the ground for something. And that hole - that deep, penetrating hole that hope dares to dig in the depth of your heart - it never goes unused. 

You just don't always get to plant the seed.

The no that my hope heard when it dared ask the question was hard. It hurt; it still hurts. But even as the winds began to blow over the hole that hope had left, I could very much feel something else being planted there. Not by my own hand, but by the hand of God. Not from my own hope, but from His. The vision I had to let go of when my hope heard no had opened my eyes to see the vision of God's hope for me. And it's...amazing.

In that moment, I had this clear understanding of what God was planting in me, of what He is going to do in my life, of how He's going to use me, of what's going to happen from here. ...and it still hurts that right now, that vision doesn't include some of the things that I wanted (and still want), some of the things that dug that hole in the first place. For that, I will continue to grieve. But it does contain some things I could never have imagined, some breathtaking promises that...I don't even know what to do with. It's humbling to think that God could ever have imagined that for me. At once, I felt both the sting of grief and the song of joy. 

They're not mutually exclusive.

And that's why we have to dare to hope and not just dream. Hope always, always prepares us for something because it's never content to be merely a wisp. It longs to set down roots, to grow. But hope is no fool, and it is no foolishness. It knows that sometimes, the answer is no. And on that no, hope is willing to die.

But the soil has been turned, the ground tilled, the heart stirred, and none of that goes to waste. Hope is selfless that way; it leaves the heart to greater things. And something...something gets drawn deep into the hole that hope has dug. Something gets planted in the depths of the heart. And that something starts to set down roots. It starts to grow. It becomes...our hope.

Monday, February 22, 2016


Hope is a funny thing. Most of us struggle with the idea of hope because in most cases, it seems so baseless. Our hope is rooted in our own fantasy. We know it's a vapor, a wind...a dream.

But hope is not a dream; it's a question.

And this makes hope even harder still.

Dreams dare to dream, but hope dares to ask. Hope rises in your chest like a lump in your throat until you can barely squeeze the words out, then demands you speak them anyway - Lord, is there any chance that this is what You have for me?

Hope has to ask. It has to know. Otherwise, it is no hope at all. And it's not enough to know that what you're hoping for is in line with God's character. No, that's not enough. Just because God does a certain thing, just because He is a certain thing, doesn't mean that that is your certain thing. Not at all. That's a smack in the face of modern Christianity, of the prosperity gospel as we know it, but it's also the truth. And we know this.

We know this because we know people, or perhaps even we ourselves, have prayed for healing, knowing that it is in God's character to heal, but healing doesn't come. We have prayed for peace, knowing that it is in God's character to share peace, but peace doesn't come. We have prayed for one thing or another, knowing full well that this is the thing that God does, but He has not done it. Not for us. And we're quick at this point to turn that painful silence one direction or another - either God is not who He says He is or we are not so precious to Him after all. 

I dare say in these circumstances that what we have prayed is no hope at all, then; it was only a dream.

See, dreams prepare to wake. They know it's coming. They know they can't live in this suspended reality forever. At some unsuspecting moment, it will all be over. It will vanish like the wind and be replaced by this horrible thing called "reality." That's what we think is happening when our prayer goes unanswered, when all we say we "hope" for fails to come to pass. That's why our hopes are often dreams and not really hopes. Dreams never ask; they only expect. And only half-expect, for they know there is a good chance they will never come to be. Dreams always prepare to wake.

But hope...hope prepares to grieve. 

Hope asks because it has to ask; it wants to know. But there's something more tangible to hope, something that's much more than a mere vapor. Hope rises from the deepest part of our being and when it's gone, it leaves an emptiness that must be dealt with. When a dream vanishes, it's like the wind is sucked out of us, but we can always take another breath. Hope is not so fortunate. Hope leaves a gaping hole inside of us when it is dashed, and it demands that we grieve.

Yet this is precisely why we must dare to hope, rather than to dream. We can't spend our lives dealing with vapors, living on winds. We have to dance with fullness and emptiness, with the real, tangible things that could make us or break us. We have to hope. And when we hope, we have to ask. And when we ask, we must be grieve.

Because the answer to our hope may be "no."

But it's never just "no." It's never even just "yes." Hope never settles for so simple an answer. It can't. 

More on that tomorrow. 

Friday, February 19, 2016


Creativity is not what you do; it's how you do it.

The instructions for, and then the descriptions of, the Tent of Meeting in Exodus can be a little tedious to get through. The altar is about as big as my desk; the table, closer to a nightstand. The lamp stands are all made out of a single piece of metal, hammered to have a certain amount of flowers in certain areas. The tent is so many feet long, and made in several sections, and joined together by rings. Everything has rings in it, actually - rings to connect it together, rings to hold carrying poles. If you like it, you better put a ring on it because that's how the Tent of Meeting rolls. And all of these instructions are very specific. God tells His people, through Moses, exactly how it's supposed to be. 

And then, there's this one little verse in Exodus 28 that makes you stop. As God is laying out all of these very specific measurements and requirements for His dwelling place among the wandering tribes of Israel, He also says this:

Do it creatively.

Most of us would say that this is contradictory. Especially us creative types. We would say that you simply cannot tell us exactly how something is supposed to be made, down to the very measurements, down to the finest details, and also tell us to be creative with it. Either you want things exactly a specific way or you want us to be creative according to our gift to do so. But it can't be both. It can never be both.

God says it must be both.

God says that there is a way that things must be, there are things we have to do in the world exactly as He tells us to do them, but that there is still room for us to put our own unique - creative - touch on things. The man who God gifted to do all the work of the Tent of Meeting not only made all of the elements of the Tabernacle to God's specifications; he did it in a way that nobody else could have done it. He didn't just weave together the different colors of fabric and yarn; he wove them together creatively. With his own unique spin on things (pun intended). He didn't just hammer out the flowers in the lamp stands; he shaped them in his own unique way. 

God provided very specific instructions for how the Tent of Meeting was supposed to be constructed, and we think that this means that essentially anyone could have done it. But the truth is that when God also said to do it creatively, He was saying that no two men should ever do it the same. The Tent of Meeting, as Israel came to know it, would not have been exactly the same if any other man had built it. 

It was God's design, but the craftsman's handiwork.

The same is true for us, whether you're a creative type or not. God has called you to do something in this world, something specific. Something probably so specific that it seems like maybe anyone could do it in just the same way, with the same result. But that's just not true. Because whatever God has called you to do, He has also called you to do creatively, and that means that even if the entire world undertook the same project, no one would do it exactly the way that you do. No one. 

If you're one of tens of thousands of those God has called to be a financial advisor, you are not just another one. You are specifically one. No one else advises finances in exactly the way that you advise. If you're one of tens of thousands of those God has called to be a pastor, you are not just another one. You are specifically one. No one else pastors exactly the way that you pastor. If you are one of tens of thousands that God calls to be a parent, you are not just another one. You are specifically one. No one else parents exactly the way that you parent. Whatever it is that God has called you to do, do it creatively and know that no one else can ever do it exactly the way that you do.

Love creatively, according to the gift God has given in you.

That's God's plan. 

This world as we know it - the love, the grace, the mercy, the joy, the community, every good thing about it - is God's design. But it's our handiwork. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Perverting the Word

There's been a great deal of "scholarship" over the Bible in the past century or so, which is how we came to have so much concern over reading the Bible to discover the Bible rather than reading the Bible to discover God.

It's also why we have so many Bible study resources that are determined to change the way the average person looks at the entire Bible. Rather than strengthening your faith, these historical commentaries are meant to make you question it.

They'll tell you that almost none of the books of the Bible were written by the people that they claim to be written by. They'll tell you that the book of Isaiah, for example, was written by at least three, maybe four, different people. They'll tell you that the stories were never meant to be historical, that many of them are, in fact, myth. Or parable. Or pure fiction. They'll point to some of the literary devices used in the writing of these stories as evidence of this.

One of the most commonly cited "discoveries" about the Bible that these academics want to share with you is that the books weren't really written in the right time period to be of use to the people about whom they are writing. They were written generations upon generations later, especially in the case of the Old Testament. That whole Exodus thing? The scholars will tell you it was not written until the Jews were already exiled in Babylon. And then, it was written only because they "needed" that story, that encouragement.

It's the kind of thing that's just fascinating enough that most of us stop without a second thought and go, "wow!" We put down our Bibles for a second and consider what it must mean for the books to be written later, or by different authors than we thought, or in a different literary genre. Certainly, this means something for the Bible and the way we read it. Right?


Absolutely none of this matters. Scholars aren't going to like me saying that, but absolutely none of this matters. Because the stories themselves - no matter when they were told, how they were told, or by whom they were told - are still the stories of God. 

They are still the stories that draw us into the heart of God, that reveal His character, that tell us something about the way that He interacts with His people. We can still read them and discover who God is, even if we know nothing else about them. Whatever historical context we can place them in may, in some cases, be bonus information, but it does not change the fundamental revelation of God in the Scriptures.

For example, if the Exodus story was written during the period of exile, it doesn't change one feature of the Exodus story itself. It does, however, remind us of the kind of encouragement that the stories of God can be, of how the people historically used their stories of God as comfort. That's something. In fact, we might even say that that is the story of the people of God. But it doesn't change the Bible, which is the story of God Himself.

If, to take another big question, Isaiah was written by three or even four different authors who all used the original Isaiah's teachings as their foundation for their words...what does that matter to the God who is revealed heart-to-heart in the book that bears the prophet's name? It doesn't. It may again point us to the historical use of God's story by His people - we can see how the people of God brought His story into their hearts in such a way as to write in the same voice as His prophet - and that's something. But it's not the Bible, which is still the story of God.

And if we look at the literary constructs that are used in any particular book of the Bible (Esther, for example, has a great number of so-called over-the-top descriptions), should we be distracted by this? Should it change the way we read for God in the story? Of course not. It should not surprise us at all that the Author and Perfecter of our faith is an incredible storyteller. Of course His inspired Word is going to read like a good story. It may deepen our appreciation for Him as inspiration of all these literary devices, but it doesn't change the way we read the stories themselves and discover Him in them. 

All this stuff is floating around out there right now, all these people who say they just want you to know the Bible better. They just want you to understand that the Bible is not quite what it seems, but that it's this complicated narrative...of course it's a complicated narrative. Anyone who has read it can tell you that much. But the secret is not discovering all the little nuances of the Bible itself, diving deeper into the texts, dissecting them, and all this other bologna. The secret is to discover all the little nuances of God, diving deeper into His heart, absorbing it. 

The great lie here is that to know God better, you have to know the Bible better. That's just not true. And if you go the route of contemporary scholarship, you may one day find that you know the Bible very well...and its God hardly at all. The truth is that if you want to know God better, you have to read the Bible not for its own sake, but for His. Because this book we call the Bible, before it was even such a thing, was His story. It's always been His story. It will always be His story.

So read it like He is the main character. 

Any way else, and you pervert the Word.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

How to Read the Bible

I heard it again last week - if you want to read your Bible, really read your Bible and get everything out of it that you possibly can, then you're probably not doing it right. Reading your Bible requires a good translation of the Bible (not one that you can understand or whose language speaks to you, but a "good" translation - one that is close to the original language), a commentary or two on the specific book/subject/whatever that you happen to be reading for that day, a Bible dictionary for looking up all the words and dates and names and ideas that you don't readily understand, a notebook and pen for taking good notes....and a large table on which to spread this all because you have long ago run out of lap for all this....stuff.

This, the "experts" say, is how you must read your Bible. This is how you get the most understanding of the Good Book. Anything short of this, and you're bound to miss some of the nuances, some of the insights, some of the historical implications of the text you're reading. And you know what? I absolutely agree with them. This is absolutely true.

...if you're reading the Bible to discover the Bible.

See, these guys tell you that reading the Bible is about this very thing: discovering the Bible. It's about understanding the historical significance of all of the characters, about being able to place them into a specific time and place and circumstance. It's about knowing how each of the books of the Bible came about, and why they came about at a certain time. It's about discovering the situation into which Isaiah spoke his prophecies of the Suffering Servant, about knowing what was happening in Jerusalem when Ezra and Nehemiah went back to start rebuilding the fallen city, about the Jew-to-Gentile ratio of the region of Galilee when Jesus was walking those shores. 

Some of this information is absolutely fascinating. Especially if you're a bit of a history buff, it's neat to see the way all these details come about, how all the stories are intertwined with one another, how all the characters sort of get wrapped up into these developing narratives. But this is not merely reading the Bible; it's studying the Bible. 

There's a big difference.

And it's a difference that's dangerous. More and more, we're talking about studying the Bible in this way. More and more, we're pushing Christians down this road. It's not enough to just read the Bible; you have to study it. You have to put all of this worldly context around it that you can. You have to uncover all the things the Bible doesn't tell you about itself.

In doing so, we often fail to recognize all the things the Bible does tell us about God.

This is the trap. Because the Bible is not a story about the Bible; the Bible is a story about God. All these commentaries, all these dictionaries, all these study guides - they tell us more about the Bible, but they don't tell us more about God. They don't tell us how the prophet cries out to God when the weight of the truth gets to be too much for him. The prophets tell us that; the commentaries usually don't. They don't tell us the encouragement God offers for His people when they are in difficult situations. They tell us more about the difficult situations, as though that were the key element of the story. The commentaries tell us about the Jew-to-Gentile ratio in the region of Jesus' ministry, but the Gospels tell us what it's like to hear Jesus speak, to gather in the crowd as He passes by, to cry out to Him, to break bread with Him. 

The Bible itself has all you need to discover the God about whom it speaks. If anything else were necessary to this, it'd be in the Bible, too. Plain and simple.

So don't get sucked into the trap. You don't need commentaries and dictionaries and study guides and a kitchen table a mile long to read your Bible for all its worth. Maybe if you want to know more about the Bible.

But if you want to know more about God, if you want to draw near to Him, you need only your heart. You need only come to the Story searching for God, and you will find Him.

That's how you read the Bible. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


For the past several days, we've been looking at the story of Moses and Aaron and how it came to be that while one was on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, the other was with the people, molding a golden calf for them. Most of this boils down to the difference between the priest and the prophet and how the people deal with these men of God.

So the question easily becomes: what are we - the "men" of God - supposed to do?

We are a people who are a priesthood. We believe that. Most of our (Protestant) churches talk about the "priesthood of all believers." Paul even says so much. But as we've seen, being a priest is a dangerous proposition. It doesn't take much for us to start making calves of our own.

Yet we are priests. And we are also prophets. Jesus put a heavy emphasis on our being truth. Speaking truth. Boldly proclaiming truth. Paul, too, puts an emphasis on truth. If anyone teaches anything other than this Gospel, he says, ignore them. Chase them away. Ridicule them. Eliminate them. There is only one truth, and Jesus is it. And we who would be His people must be bearers of this truth. We are the prophets. But this is no good, either, for it doesn't take much for the world to turn against its prophet. 

It's not an easy place to be in. Most of us know this already. We feel acutely the tension of the push and the pull of being the prophet and the priest.

Here, we must look to Jesus.

Jesus lived this tension well. He knew His role as a prophet and was not afraid to speak the hard truth to people. Look at some of the bold language He uses as He speaks with the Pharisees, with the doubters, with the common people. Look at the way He storms into the Temple. He knows that He's been given for the people, the way good prophets always are. He's been given to proclaim to them the truth, to help steer them away from their own wicked paths, to help turn their hearts back toward God. 

But He knew also His role as a priest and was generous with mercy. Look at the tender way He interacts with sinners, the gentle touch He uses with the blind men. Look at how He speaks to women, to the unclean, to the outcast. He knows that He's been given to the people, and as such, He must not hesitate to draw near to them. He's been given to mediate their hearts before God, to offer their sacrifices, to make their atonement. To make them clean.

I don't get the impression that Jesus ever forgot either of these things. They are at the forefront of every word He spoke, every action He took, every moment He entered into. In fact, there are a great many scenarios where we see Jesus balancing these roles with seeming ease. In one breath, He is speaking a bold, harsh truth to someone (usually a Pharisee) who needs to hear it, within earshot, of course, of the crowds who need to hear the truth spoken to the Pharisees. And in the very same breath, He is tenderly touching the sinner. It's beautiful.

It's not so effortless in my life. It's not so effortless for most of us. It's hard to strike the right balance between truth and tenderness, between truth and mercy. Between the top of the mountain and the foot of it. Between the prophet and the priest. But I think it's important that we keep trying, that we keep looking to Jesus and doing it a little better every day. Not because it necessarily does something for us to do it better, but because this world needs its prophets and its priests. And ideally, it needs them together - so that the prophet cannot ever be pushed too far away nor the priest ever drawn too close. So that this world cannot corrupt either truth or mercy but must embrace its measure of both.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Push and Pull

There's yet another reason why Aaron, the priest, so easily turns from his role as God's communicator and builds the golden calf for the people of Israel while Moses, the prophet, grieves.

Let's call it push and pull.

The story of the prophets, in general, is that the people routinely push them away. The people want very little to do with the prophets. When Israel is wandering in the wilderness, when food is running out, when water is scarce, they become angry with Moses. Not so much with God, but with the prophet. They blame him for bringing them out into this desert to die. They accuse him of leading them to starvation and thirst. They wonder if he even knows what he's doing. And they are far too ready to reject him completely. 

Just who is this prophet, they say. Just who does he think he is? Look at this mess he's gotten us into! Who needs a prophet anyway?

This is the story of most of God's prophets. It's because, since they are given for the people, their first allegiance is always to God. It's always to truth. They say the things that no one else wants to say. They stick with the truth, even when it's hard. Overwhelmingly, the so-called prophecies in the Bible are not good news (which is probably why Jesus, by contrast, is clearly called the Good News). They are forever warning the people about all the wicked things they are doing, and they do not mince words. It doesn't matter what time you live in - nobody wants to hear this. Nobody wants to hear how wicked and evil they are, how much wrong they're doing, how foolish they are being, all the bad things that are going to happen to them. The truth is hard sometimes, whether it's the truth about us or the truth about God or whatever. So it's quite easy to push the truth-tellers away. 

Such is the case with Moses. And he's fairly content to go back to the mountain and pour out his grieving heart to God. 

The priests, on the other hand, is constantly being pulled toward the people. They want the priest to be near them. This is the man who can make atonement for them, who can cleanse them of their impurities and imperfections. This is the man who can make them feel better about their relationship with God. The priest deals more with mercy than with truth (although mercy requires truth, and we must never forget that). The priest doesn't scare the people; he gives them hope. He doesn't curse the people; he blesses them. The people, in trying to take their broken hearts to God in the same way the prophet does, go not to the mountain, but to the priest.

And that's how the priest gets sucked in. 

It happens all the time, not just in God's historical story, but in His present one. Just think about the success that things like the "prosperity gospel" have in our contemporary culture. People are turning to pastors (or so-called pastors), the present-day priests, with their broken hearts and aching for some measure of mercy. The pastors are feeling this pull. Even the prophet-pastors are feeling it, to some degree. The people want to draw the servants of God close to them. They want to pull these men of God deeper into the human drama. It's what the people do. 

One of the challenges, then, for priests - for pastors - is to not give in to this pressure. We mustn't let ourselves get pulled in. We must never give up truth for the sake of mercy. But neither can we give up mercy for the sake of truth. The priest's job is incredibly challenging for this very reason. It's so easy to be pulled, especially by a people who are using holy-sounding words and begging for you to do the very thing you've been called to do - facilitate their relationship with God. Bring them closer to Him. Bring Him closer to them. Make God real and present and imminent in the lives of the people. It's what we want to do. It's what we're called to do.

But it's also how we end up with golden cows. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Priests and Prophets

So Moses was a prophet and Aaron was a priest, and somehow, this led the Israelites to ask Moses to speak to the Lord for them...and to ask Aaron to make them a god. 

What gives?

To answer that question, we first have to understand the inherent difference between a prophet and a priest. Both speak the word of God. Both are called to mediate, in a way, between people and God (or God and people). Both are generally members of the community which they are called to serve. Both do amazing, incredible things as signs of God's favor being with them. 

But a prophet is given for the people, while a priest is given to them.

The prophet speaks God's words for the benefit of the people. His job is to warn the people, to tell them the truth they need to hear, whether they want to hear it or not. He doesn't mince words. What the prophet does for the people is very raw. It's very coarse. It's no-holds-barred truth telling, a warning about the perils that lay before them if they do not change their way. A prophet's job is to stir the hearts of God's people.

A priest's job, however, is to sooth the hearts of God's people. His is a ceremonial office; it requires more decorum and tact than the prophet's. The priest mediates the rituals between God and the people more than the truth between them. He offers sacrifices, makes atonement, burns incense. He consecrates and blesses the people. In other words, he does everything that helps the people to feel more connected to God. As such, his role is less raw and rough; it's more tender.

At this point, you might be saying that perhaps I have it backward - that clearly, Aaron was the prophet (bringing a new god to the people) and Moses was the priest (interceding with the Lord on their behalf). Hang with me; I'm not done.

People don't, in general, like a prophet. Herod said about John the Baptist that the king was disturbed every time the prophet spoke to him. That's the feeling that people get with prophets. Their words are often hard to swallow. Primarily because they are usually convicting. And the people also have the sense that the prophet's first loyalty is to God, not to them (and it is), so it's easy for people to feel a bit of a disconnect between themselves and a prophet. 

Such it is. Again, because the prophet has been given for them, not given to them. (You know, like when your parents said "This is for your own good" and it was never really something you enjoyed or necessarily appreciated at the time. But you trusted them when they said this, and maybe as you got older, you realized they were right.) 

People have much more fondness for a priest, however, and for this same reason: he is given to them. They feel like the priest is theirs. They know that his loyalty is to God, but they feel just as much loyalty from him toward them, if not more. Because of the tender, personal, intimate nature of the priest's work, there's this weird sort of affection that develops between the people and the priest. And it's not long before the lines become blurred.

It's not long before the people think that the priest who God has given to them is the one man of God who is for them.

The priest can make atonement for the people, so he must know something about atonement. The priest can offer sacrifices for the people, so he must know what is pleasing in a sacrifice. The priest can bless the people, so he must know how to shower good things on the people. The priest must then know best what the people want from God...and so it's only natural that it would be the priest who could form the god that the people want.

That's where we find Aaron. He's been serving Israel as a priest - mediating between them and God. Serving them, blessing them, atoning for them, offering their sacrifices. If anyone knows what Israel needs from God, it's Aaron. So when their Lord goes M.I.A. with the prophet on the mountain (the prophet who, by the way, they're not entirely happy with - more on that some other time), they turn to Aaron to fill their void. And their request is not "mediate between us and the Lord." No. Moses is probably already doing that.

Their request is: you know what we need from our god. Make it happen.

Enter the golden calf.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Men of God

The story of Moses and Aaron in Exodus is quite an interesting one. There's something about these two men that the Bible doesn't tell us, and I can't help but wonder what it might be.

Because here's what happens: God speaks to Moses from a burning (but a not burning-up) bush and calls him to become the voice of his people before Pharaoh, a fitting call for an Israelite who was raised in the Egyptian palace. Moses is timid and begs for God to change His mind. God refuses, but does give Moses his brother, Aaron, as a support system. Now, they will both speak for God. They will both do miracles. Moses' staff holds miracles; Aaron's holds miracles of its own. God is with both men. Together, they confront Pharaoh and then lead the entire nation of Israel out of Egypt and onward toward the Promised Land.

That's not the interesting part.

Here's where it starts to get intriguing: several chapters into their Exodus journey, there's a split between the brothers. Up to now, both have been traveling together, leading the people together, speaking for God together. All of a sudden, no more. Moses goes up the mountain to meet with God, and he takes with him "his assistant, Joshua." (We have no idea where Joshua came from at this point. He just sort of appears.) Aaron, who will become the first priest, is left at the bottom of the mountain with the people. 

This is mildly interesting. We could probably spend a few days on this alone. But for the purposes of this post, let's keep going into the story.

Moses has been on the mountain for a long time. And we're told that when Moses goes places to meet with God, it's quite visible that God shows up, too. Smoke, fire, clouds. Thunder. The people know that God is there. I don't know if in just short of 40 days' time, the people became used to the presence of God on the mountain or what, but they're starting to get restless in the camp nonetheless. Moses is on the mountain. Joshua is on the mountain. God is on the mountain. 

Aaron is right there among them.

So they go to Aaron. The people of Israel come to the priest that God has given them, to this brother of Moses who they know has spoken holy words, to this guy whose staff holds the miracles of the Lord. They come to Aaron, who in the same time of Moses, has been God's presence among them, God's voice for them, God's guidance before them. They come to this man of God, and they say to us a god. Make us an idol. Craft for us an image. They don't say, build us this God. Make us an idol of this God. Craft for us an image of our God. No. Any god at this point will do.

We often don't think much about this. But we ought to. Because the mountain trembles, the Lord thunders, His anger is apparent, and Moses comes out of the cloud and back to the people...and they beg him to plead with the Lord for them. That's their first response. In fact, every time they stumble, every time they stray during their trek toward the Promised Land, this is their immediate response: they ask Moses to intercede with the Lord for them. 

Why, then, didn't they ask the same of Aaron?

They could have. Couldn't they? Two brothers, both of whom have been the voice for the Lord for all this time, both of whom have led them out of Egypt, both of whom have compasses pointed toward Canaan, both of whom hold miracles in their very hands. When they have Moses, they beg him to pray for them. When they have only Aaron, they pester him to make them new gods. 

That's the part of the story that I can't help but wonder about. What happened to Aaron, or what happened between Aaron and the people or between Aaron and God, that caused the people to turn away from God at the very moment they turned toward him? Why didn't the people of God ask Aaron to intercede with the Lord for them in their restlessness? 

Why didn't they ask the same thing of the priest that they asked of the prophet?

You know what? I was right. We could probably spend a few days on this. In fact, let's do that. The story continues tomorrow....

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Lent Trap

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. Lent has become something of a cultural phenomenon as people from all walks of theology - Catholic and Protestant, Christian and non-Christian, even hard-core atheists - determine to spend 40 days denying themselves. 

But are any of them taking up their Cross?

It's easy to see why Lent, of all seasons, blends so seamlessly well into the popular culture. It's because we made it up. It's our idea; not God's. As such, it's kind of a mishmash of several different ideas and centers around what men desire it to be. The ashes that will mark many of us today are taken to be a sign of repentance, although every time God told someone to cover themselves in ashes (usually the prophets), it was a sign of grief. Sometimes, that grief turned to repentance, but it always began as grief. We begin with repentance, not requiring something so troubling as grief as our starting point. 

The 40 days to follow are supposed to be symbolic of Jesus' tempting in the wilderness after His baptism. If you're at all interested in math, you know that Easter, the end of the Lenten season, is actually 47 days away. This is because we decided that Sundays don't count. Sunday, being the day of the Lord, is a day for feasting, not fasting. Therefore, the 40 days run only through Saturday each week, then pick back up on Monday, with 6 feast days thrown into the season. In other words, we built in Sunday as a "cheat day." Not to mention "Fat Tuesday," which is one last binge before beginning the whole thing.

And then, come Easter Sunday, we roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb, and we no longer find the tomb empty. Rather, it is filled with chocolate, beer, curse words, Facebook, and all the other things we denied ourselves for 40 days. 

Hallelujah, Christ is risen!

It's a far cry from the festivals and holy days that God prescribed, from the ones that He came up with. Like the Festival of Booths - you have to leave your house and every bit of comfort you've built for yourself and live in a small, makeshift shack. Or the Passover - you have to slaughter a lamb and smear the blood all over your door frames. Even if we look into the New Testament, we see wise men at Christmas journeying not two minutes, but several weeks to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus. He put Jesus in the grave just as the Sabbath fell, requiring men to wrestle with themselves for an entire, long day, during which nobody could possibly know what was happening. And the Sabbath itself - you can't do anything. Not even light a fire to stay warm. None of this is suffering, by the way; it's invitation. It's an invitation into a bigger story.

Jesus' temptation, too, which is the event around which we loosely base the Lenten season, was not suffering; it was His preparation for suffering. 

That's not how we do it.

We force ourselves to suffer in the Lenten season, in supposed solidarity with Jesus in the wilderness, but we do so in such a way that the a relief. That the a relief. But this is not God's story. God's story is that the Cross is suffering. The grave, victory. 

Because of our Lenten season, our Easter has neither.

It's easy to get into the idea of Lent because it's an opportunity each year to make ourselves better people, at least for a few short days. It's like a second shot at a New Year's resolution, and the whole world seems to approve - Catholic and Protestant, Christian and non-Christian, even the most hard-core atheist often buy easily into Lent. But Jesus did not die to make us a better people.

He died to make us His people. 

And that means we have to do more than merely deny ourselves. We have to take up our Cross.

So here's my challenge for you this Lenten season, because we've got 40-some days until Good Friday: live the way Jesus lived. Love the way Jesus loved. Speak bold truth. Speak tender love. Dare to do the unpopular things. Believe with everything that's in you. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoner, share the Good News with the poor. Invest yourself in God's story. This is how you prepare your heart for Holy Week. For if you live even a little bit of Jesus in this world, then come Good Friday, you feel the full weight of that Cross. And your heart breaks. 

And come Easter morning, you find the tomb empty. Truly empty. And rejoice.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fear of the Lord

Fear is not what we so often think it is (or how we too often use the word in our contemporary culture). Fear is not something that requires you to come up with a bunch of options for dealing with it; it only requires that you choose something. Fear is not a panic that you have to do something right now; it's a moment of suspended animation that feels like forever. Fear is not paralyzing; it's an invitation to move.

So what, then, is the fear of the Lord?

It's one of those phrases that comes up again and again in the Bible, always seeming to have some heavy implications, but it's one of those phrases that's difficult to understand. And I think it's one of those things many of us have tried to develop by our own discipline and intent. "I'm going to fear the Lord!" But it's not so easy.

The fear of the Lord comes when you least suspect it. That's what makes it true fear. You don't go out looking for it; it seizes you. It comes upon you and overwhelms you and takes your breath away for this moment that is so fleeting and yet feels as though it lasts forever. All of a sudden, here it is. The fear of the Lord.

It happens in those moments when you undeniably know that God is. That He just is. When you're praying and all of a sudden, there's not a shred of doubt in your being about whether God hears you. You know that He does. When you're longing for some good grace in your heart and all of a sudden, you discover that you believe in grace. For real. Not only do you believe in grace, but you believe that God is ready and willing to extend that grace to you. When there's this brokenness deep inside of you and you feel like if you have to think about it one more time, you're just going to collapse under the heavy weight of it and all of a sudden, an even heavier peace settles over your heart and you feel like if you could just say the words, God would actually heal you. Right there. Just like that. The fear of the Lord washes naturally over us in these moments when God undeniably is. And more than He simply is, He is present.

It's a moment that catches in our throat and we have to decide whether to breathe or to swallow. It's a moment that drives us deep into our very hearts, and we're forced to face in the very same moment both our depravity and our hope. Because our Hope has become intimately real. He's right there. Waiting...

Waiting for us to choose. 

And there's no time to make a list of our options. Not one of us comes into the presence of God, discovers that He's real (really real), is overcome by the fear of the Lord...and then begins to contemplate what we might do with this information. None of us takes this moment to think about what we might ask of God now that He's present with us. None of us pauses to figure out how to use this to our advantage, how to make the most of this situation. 

Because these moments come with their own invitation.

None of us are praying a generic prayer when God suddenly shows up and makes Himself real; no, we are already praying our heart. Just timidly. God's presence is a response to that heart. Why would we suddenly decide to re-think what we were  praying, as though now that God is actually here, I'd rather pray for that Ferrari than for a more intimate relationship with Him? None of us do that. 

None of us long for some good grace in our heart, discover grace to be real, and decide there's something more pressing we'd rather have. No. When grace comes, we discover that it is all we ever dreamed it would be. None of us dares believe God can heal our brokenness, only to discover that He can and He wants to...and decide we'd rather have something else. Of course not. If God Himself shows up in a way that you absolutely can't deny Him, it's because something in your heart called Him there. We may hesitate about whether we want what we thought we wanted, but we don't change what we want just because it seems suddenly possible.

The hesitation is that here is the limit of our own imagination. We may long for some measure of good grace, but when that grace becomes real, we don't...we don't really know what our lives would look like with that grace. We may struggle under the weight of our brokenness, and then God promises to lift that burden for us but we don't...we don't know what our lives would be like without it. We don't know how to live whole. We may pray as earnestly as our hearts know how, but when God shows up, we find we don't really know what to say any more. He truly is beyond our wildest imagination. We simply don't know how to imagine any further.

And I think this is what spoils the moment for so many of us. This is what makes us either turn away or linger in our hesitation until the moment has long passed - we're so distracted by our inability to conceive of this very thing that we neglect to boldly accept God's invitation. We fail to seize the moment. We fail to move in the moment of fear, and then the moment passes and we missed it. 

Because we were paralyzed by anxiety rather than enticed by fear. 

Monday, February 8, 2016


Not nearly as many people are afraid of spiders as say they are. In fact, not nearly as many people are afraid of anything as say they are. Most of us are simply averse. 

There's a huge difference between these two ideas. Being averse to something means you don't like it. You might even be disgusted or troubled by it. You want to resolve the situation as quickly as you can because it makes you uncomfortable. Aversion is the feeling you get when there's a spider crawling up the wall. Aversion is the feeling you get when someone asks you to climb a ladder. Aversion is the feeling you get when a snake slithers across your path. Aversion is a psychological state. It's a head thing.

Fear is something entirely different.

Fear is existential. It exists only in the very depth of your being, the very core of who you are. It's a heart thing. Fear is not something you have to resolve right away because it makes you uncomfortable. It demands immediate action, but it's not up to you to come up with that action. You don't have to create your options in response to fear (to kill the spider with a shoe, to scream like a girl, to drown it in whatever potentially toxic liquid you happen to have handy, etc.); in fear, you just have to choose an option.

See, fear lays your options right out in front of you. True fear catches in your throat and you have to decide only whether to breathe or to swallow. Fear lays the entire option of the universe open before you, and it demand that you choose which way to go. And if you choose nothing at all, the moment passes, but the echo remains.

If you choose nothing in the face of fear, the moment is gone forever. Just like that. This place where you stood on the edge of the universe, where your heart came right up into your throat, where one bold yes in the right direction would have led you into the heart of just disappears. You missed it. The opportunity is gone. Where it once was, there is now only grief. 

That's different than how we think of fear. What we call fear doesn't just go away if you don't seize upon it. What we call fear deepens and worsens until it's neurotic and all-controlling and not only can you not breath, but you can't move. That's not fear; that's something else entirely.

True fear is not paralyzing, even though we often say that "fear" is. Fear is, rather, a hesitation. It's this unexpected moment where you instinctively hold your breath, where more than one option is open to you, where you have to consciously decide which way to go, but your brain shuts off and all you have to guide you is your heart. That's fear.

Here's why it matters: because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But if you think fear means what our contemporary culture has brought it to mean, you're in deep trouble.

If you think the fear of the Lord is an aversion to Him, you're in deep trouble. If you think that the fear of the Lord requires you to come up with all sorts of options to address your present situations (to smack God with a toilet paper tube because it's the closest thing handy, to step on Him with a house shoe, to scream like a little girl, to drown the spirit of God in whatever potentially toxic liquid you happen to have handy, etc.), you're in deep trouble. If you think the fear of the Lord is paralyzing, you're in deep trouble.

Because you'll spend your whole life responding to God like He's a spider crawling up the wall.

But if you understand the true nature of fear - that it's this unexpected moment standing on the edge of eternity where your heart catches in your throat and all your options are right there before you and all you have to do is decide whether to breathe or to swallow - then you understand how amazingly holy the fear of the Lord really is. 

You understand that it's this moment, this one moment, that sneaks up on you. Again and again and again. And in that one moment, you have to decide. You have to make one bold decision or the moment is gone forever, and it will be replaced by grief. You missed it. 

None of this necessarily has to make sense right now; these words are just meant to get you thinking, to get you to begin contemplating fear. Over the next few days, I'll say more about these ideas. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Does Prayer Work?

When I logged into Facebook this morning, the first post that popped up on my news feed was a question a friend had posted: "Do you believer prayer works?" 

As could probably be predicted, several comments had already been posted, all of which were either an exuberant "yes!" of blind faith or a more guarded "yes, but...."

The "yes, but..." is our way of getting out of a sticky theological situation. Nobody wants to say that prayer doesn't work, but the truth is that most of us have spoken a prayer or two into heaven and received nothing but silence in return. Most of us have knelt at the bedside of sick friends and loved ones only to watch them die anyway. Most of us have fallen to our knees somewhere just out of sight of rock bottom and turned the corner to find the rocks waiting for us anyway. Most of us have prayed earnestly for the chance to take that next opportunity, to take that next step, to do that new thing and found ourselves stuck in the same ruts, doing the same things, standing on the same step. Most of us think that yes, prayer probably works, but we've never experienced it. Or rarely so. 

What makes this so sticky is that when prayer doesn't "work," we're left trying to explain why it hasn't. Usually, this means one of two things. Either we blame ourselves for not praying "right," for not doing prayer the way God would like us to do prayer, and therefore, our prayer is fruitless. Or we resign ourselves to some unknowable will of God that is probably good and we just don't understand it right now, concluding that God does whatever He wants to do anyway, with or without our input. 

Neither of these answers is particularly satisfying. Nor is either theologically sound. You can probably see why. If we say that prayer depends on how we do it, then we put all of the pressure and all of the responsibility on our own shoulders, as though we could control God if we could just get it right or as if God is so stingy that He's waiting on just the right formula, something worthy of presentation to Him. If we say that God does whatever He's going to do, we devalue prayer entirely and at the same time, create sort of an enigma of God. Who can possibly know Him? Our very personal, intimately relational God cringes when this is our conclusion.

So when we have this question - Do you believe prayer works? - our answer ought not to be an exuberant "yes!" or a guarded "Yes, but...." Our answer ought to be another question:

What, exactly, do you mean by "works"?

See, we've gotten the idea that prayer "works" when we get what we want. When we or our loved ones are healed. When our finances straighten out. When doors open. When friends forgive. When we're pulled away from the pit. When God hears our request and answers with the same exuberant "yes!" we are so quick to give Him, then prayer works. 

But that's not what prayer is. Prayer is bringing your heart before God, not your requests. Even Philippians, in one of its most famous verses, makes this distinction. Don't be anxious about anything, but instead, with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, bring your requests before God. Notice it says prayer and petition - two separate things. Petition is a request we make; prayer is a heart we bring.

And prayer brings us into the heart of God. 

When I pray, I don't expect God to give me everything I want in the world. Sometimes, I hope He will, but I don't expect Him to. That's not why I go to God in prayer. When I pray, I expect God to remind me of what it's like to lay my heart wide open in His presence, to expose myself, to be vulnerable...and to be loved. I expect not that God will approve my request, but that He will accept my prayer - that He will respond in His very personal, intimately relational way and that by the time I have reached my amen, I find that all I actually want is to have this kind of God and...God has given me that. 

The same is true, by the way, when I ask you to pray for me. Yes, it'd be nice if God would hear our petition and grant me this or that specific result. But I find that most often, when I ask you to pray for me, I discover anew what it's like to be in the very heart of God. Whatever situation I'm facing, I feel lost. I feel alone. More than anything else, I desperately need to know that God is still there, that He still cares, that there's a place in His heart for me. That our very personal, intimately relational God cares even about me. That I am this God's person, that I am His friend (and so much more). And if, as you pray for me, all that happens is that I come again into the heart of God, then our prayer has been answered. 

No matter what.

Does prayer really work? That depends on what you mean by that little word "work." Does it get us everything we want? No. I don't think any of us can say that we've ever been granted every petition. but petition isn't prayer. So does prayer really work? Does it bring us back into the very heart of God?

Every time. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016


We do what we do as God's people because it somehow shapes us to bear more of the image of God in our world. God has commanded us to do what we do for this very reason - it is consistent with His image, of which we are the image-bearers, and it draws us into the heart of God. 

But let's not forget that God is not any of the many things He does; He simply is. If we are to be the image of God in the world, we must do less and simply be more.

This is reflected well in the verse that says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" and also in words like "be holy because God is holy." Because we have so brainwashed ourselves into thinking that life is all about action, we have turned even "perfect" and "holy" into things that we do. As if we could "do" perfect. Or holy, for that matter.

We've turned these words into moral qualities. Holiness is no longer the essence of God; it is the morality of Him. Therefore, if any of us wants to be holy, we must simply do moral and holy things - like love one another, give generously, pray boldly, worship humbly, or a whole host of other activities we might deem holy. If any of us wants to be perfect, we must simply do perfect things - turn away from sin, tell the truth, not screw up. It just feels natural at this point to talk this way, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to live perfect and holy lives.

It's a dangerous idea. When you think that you must live holy by doing moral and holy things, then it's not long before you start to think that God must be holy when He does moral and holy things. As though the entire nature of God could so easily be articulated. When you think you must be perfect by not screwing up, then you think that God must be perfect simply because He does not make mistakes. When you become perfect and holy on the basis of what you do or do not do in this world, God, too, becomes perfect and holy the same way.

But perfect and holy are not the outerworkings of either God or men; they are the very heart of them.

God is holy simply because He is holy. His actions may reflect His holiness, but they do not define it. The very essence of Him is holy. God is perfect simply because He is perfect. His actions may reflect His perfectness, but they do not define it. The very essence of Him is perfect. And if we are created in the image of God, if we are His image-bearers in the world, then the same is true of us. 

We simply are perfect and holy.

And when we talk about being "perfect," we're not really talking about not messing up. That's a different understanding of perfect than we ought to get from the Scriptures. When God says "Be perfect, therefore, because I am perfect," He's talking not about a moral or behavioral quality, but a quality of completeness. Wholeness. Finishedness. He's talking about the idea that there is not one thing that could be added to or taken away from us that would make us more whole. The fullness of who we are is real. It's done. It's perfect. We lack nothing, nor do we have too much. We're perfect.

And if we simply are perfect and holy, then our challenge is not to discipline ourselves into becoming these things by the way we live in the world. That won't do any good. We don't become perfect and holy by living in certain moral ways. No. Our challenge is to live out of the very essence of who we are, out of the very heart of who God is, and to simply be perfect and holy. Every unstrained breath we draw is this very thing: perfect and holy. Every unencumbered gift we give is this very thing: perfect and holy. Every contented step, every perfect peace, every confident assurance is this very thing: perfect and holy. It's who we are when we're not worried about who we are, when we're not trying to be something else. We are perfect and holy, just as our Father is perfect and holy. 

It's why we absolutely must stop thinking that we ought to do as God does in the world. That's not what He's called us to. We were never called to do.

We have always been called to be. So be. Be perfect and holy. It's the very essence of who you are, created in the image of God. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Thus Saith the Lord

One of the great tensions we feel as the people of God is the tension between how we are supposed to live and why we are supposed to live that way. Yesterday, we saw Jesus make the powerful point that we are still a people bearing the image of God. The question is: 

How then do we live?

It's not as easy a question as it seems on the surface. On the surface, we point to all of the commands and laws and examples of Scripture and say, clearly, this is how we live. We live in accordance with the laws in the Old Testament, with the Ten Commandments front and center. We live in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount, refusing even to think lustful or angry thoughts. We live in accordance with the example of Jesus, the preaching of Paul, the foundation of the early church.

We live in these ways because this is how God has told us to live. Thus saith the Lord.

Yes and...not quite.

For a great number of persons who call themselves Christians, this is enough. It's enough to say that we must do (or not do) a certain thing simply because God told us to do (or not do) said thing. It's enough to say that we live a certain way because the Bible tells us to live a certain way. Case closed. 

But there's a danger in this thinking, a very real and present danger. Ready? This line of thought does not require an intimate relationship with a personal God. It doesn't require a personal God at all. 

It's the same principle as following the laws in the Constitution. We do so because we are Americans, because we place fundamental value on the ideas that shape us as a nation. Because we love America. But it doesn't require America to love us back. And it doesn't really tell us, or the world, what America is. America, by her Constitution, is a place where people speak freely, own guns, are protected from unreasonable government intrusion, vote, pay taxes, and die. Absolutely none of this reveals the heart of America or the heart of her people. It's vastly impersonal, very bureaucratic, and missing the essential human element.

That's what happens when we live the Bible just because God said to. Without a personal God behind the commands to live our life in a certain way, we're saying much the same thing. The people of God are a people who don't take the Lord's name in vain, who don't murder or lie or cheat or steal, who share resources with one another, who go to church, pray, and die. Absolutely none of this reveals the heart of God or of His people. It

And that's a shame. For our God is an amazingly personal, awesomely intimate, absolutely relational God. And we, as His image-bearers, ought to be putting this truth front and center in our world. But it requires going beyond a simple "because God says so."

We have to ask why God says so. What is it about God that leads Him to say one thing over another? What is it about the nature of God that requires a person created in His image not to lie, cheat, steal, or murder? What does it reveal about the image of God when we live in the way that God tells us to live?

Because that's the heart of it. Every rule, every law, every commandment, every example is God shaping us to be more and more His image-bearers. Every little thing God tells us to do or not do, every way God tells us to live or not live, is intended to make manifest His image in the world. 

We do not murder not because God told us not to, but because God places an incredible value on life. As His image-bearers in the world, we must do the same. We do not lie because God is truth. As His image-bearers, we must bear truth. We do not steal because God is sufficient. As His image-bearers, we must show sufficiency, contentment. We do not cheat because God is omnipotent; He can do anything. As His image-bearers, we must live in a way that we can do anything. We don't need the world's shortcuts. 

We love because Jesus loved. We laugh because Jesus laughed. We cry because Jesus cried. We heal because Jesus healed. We pray because Jesus prayed. So often we read the story of Jesus and think how much He is like us, how He must have cried because we cry, laughed because we laugh, prayed because we pray. That's not it at all. Jesus was before we ever were, and it is we who are created in His image, not He in ours. As much as all the little things He did reveal our image in Him, so much more do all the little things we do reveal His image in us. 

So we have to stop saying that we do what we do just because God tells us to do it. That's not enough. Thus saith the Lord is not sufficient to capture the essence of the Lord Himself. We must ask what the heart of God is that is revealed in His thus saith. We must ask not just what God demands of us, but why He demands it - what it reflects of His image when we, who are made in His image, get this one thing right. When we go beyond thus saith and hit the heart of "I Am." 

When who we are and what we do both requires and reveals the amazingly personal, awesomely intimate, absolutely relational God who has called us to be His people, His image, in the world.