Thursday, March 31, 2016


In what can be called the continuing saga of Judas early in the book of Acts, the character that seems to get lost is Matthias, the new disciple chosen to take the place of the betrayer. We know very little about Matthias - he is not mentioned by name in any of the Gospel accounts, and Acts tells us very little about him except that he was one of two men to fit the criteria that the eleven proposed for the replacement. He is chosen by lot to replace Judas, and then he disappears into the obscurity of history.

Yet for as little as we know about Matthias, we know also quite much about him. For we identify with Matthias on many levels.

Matthias invested himself in the ministry of Jesus. One of the criteria that the eleven had when searching for a replacement is that it had to be someone who was with them from the beginning, someone who had shared their same ministry with Jesus that they had. Matthias, then, was there for it all. He was just as invested, just as present, just as involved as any of the other disciples. He gave himself to the work of Jesus for three years of ministry, through travels across the cities and towns of Galilee to feasts on the hillsides to dinner with the tax collector to moments of grace and debates over ritual law and all the rest of it. Matthias had invested just as much in the ministry of Jesus as any of the rest of them; they said so himself. 

But we never knew his name.

We never saw Matthias in any of the stories. We never heard about him until the disciples brought him up. Many of us can resonate with this. Many of us have those things in our lives that we've given ourselves to. Our careers, maybe. Or our families. Or our communities. We have worked hard, sacrificed much, done just as much (and sometimes more) than someone else, but we receive no recognition. We receive no renown. We serve faithfully in obscurity, waiting for our opportunity. Waiting for our moment. This was Matthias' story.

And the funny thing is that even though he is immensely qualified to become the twelfth disciple, even though he fits all of the criteria and has demonstrated that he is worthy of such an honor, it still comes down to chance. To casting lots. He is imminently qualified, but it is a roll of the dice that determines whether he gets it or not. Don't you feel like that sometimes? Don't you feel like sometimes, you give life everything you've got, but it still comes down to whether the dice roll your way or not? 

Snake eyes.

After all this, after three years of ministry and one good roll of the dice, after all the waiting and the working and finally, the recognition, Matthias had to, in some ways, find it all very hollow. It was empty. for less than one chapter of the entire Bible, we know his name. And then he disappears and we never hear another thing about him. Not one. His moment of fame came...and went...and whatever else Matthias may or may not have done as a disciple of Jesus suffers the same fate as whatever he has previously done as a disciple of Jesus - it's a vapor. It's nothing. 

Do you ever feel this? You get your big chance, get your big moment and it's never as big as you dreamt it would have been. It's never as great. It's never as lasting. For a minute, this world knows your name, and then it forgets again. For a brief moment, you were almost something, and now you're nothing. Just like that. 

It's the story of the world we live in. It's the myth that we've bought about how life works, about who we are, about who we're supposed to be. We live in this perpetual cycle of doing the faithful thing, waiting patiently for our day, getting our chance, and discovering it empty, only to buy the lie again that if we do the faithful thing and wait patiently, we'll get our chance. It's always empty. It's always hollow. This world has nothing to offer us. But still, it's our story. 

And it's Matthias' story. 

So this thirteenth disciple, this replacement for the betrayer, is not so unlike us. Though we seem to know little more than his name, we know tremendously more than this. His story is our story. It's the story we're all caught up in.

And there is one more painful truth about this whole scenario. That truth, tomorrow....

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


As we consider the story of Judas, the remaining eleven disciples, and what Jesus had to say - or did not have to say - about the fate of this betrayer, it might be easy to think that a post entitled "Judged" will have a lot to do with what happened to Judas after he died. What happened when he came face-to-face with Jesus again. What Jesus might have said to him.

But this is only part of the story, and it's the easy part.

I think Jesus had much the same thing to say to Judas that He has to say to all of us - I love you. I know. I know. I know.... Because the contrite betrayer, who was so torn up over what he had done that he took his own life, probably had the same things to say to Jesus that we do - I'm sorry. I am so sorry. I am so sorry. Lord.... And I imagine in this exchange, there's probably some of what we saw in Joseph's story, as well. Joseph, you remember, was reunited with his scheming brothers in Egypt when they came to him for food during the famine. They begged his mercy, apologized, begged more of his mercy. And he made one of the most powerful statements in all of Scripture - what you intended for evil, God intended for good. It's okay. Can't you just see this type of thing taking place between Judas and Jesus, these two "brothers" in faith who shared three good years of ministry together?

That's the easy part. That's who Jesus is. We don't have to imagine what that might have been like, for we know the heart of the Lord. This is it.

The harder part is what happens next. 

Because Jesus said his disciples would be judges, that the reason there were twelve disciples is because there were twelve tribes, and these disciples would join Him in heaven and sit in the seats of judgment over the tribes. When the eleven remaining disciples on earth chose a twelfth to replace the betrayer, they likely had much of this idea in mind. They were twelve for a reason; they needed to still be twelve. 

It probably never occurred to them that they already were.

As much as Judas "gave up" his position among the twelve in many of our human minds, he did not do so in God's mind. The Redeemer does not write persons off so easily. Jesus did not come and die so that we could damn ourselves for eternity. He came that we might have life, that we might be restored, that we might be whole again. Betrayers included. Sinners included. You included. Me included. Which means...

Judas is still one of the twelve. He is still one of the judges.

Can you conceive of this? Can you imagine? It's hard enough for us to imagine Jesus eating His last meal around a table with the man who is about to go out and betray Him. It's hard for us to conceive of this idea that Jesus broke bread and shared it with Judas. How are we supposed to imagine that when we get to Heaven and enter into the presence of the hosts and look up at the twelve seats, there is going to be a betrayer in one of them? Right there! Judas himself! Not merely a betrayer, but the betrayer.

Can you imagine being judged by the betrayer?

It doesn't seem fair, right? Jesus, this man has no right to speak of me. He sold You out for thirty tiny pieces of silver! But I think this is the story of the adulterous woman all over again. We come, ready to condemn the betrayer, but it is he who is in a position to condemn us. And he does so by our own words. For the minute that we declare him a betrayer, we are brought to face our own sin, as well. And it turns out, we are all betrayers. 

I am Judas.

And all of a sudden, we stand face-to-face with grace. For if there is a place for him, there is a place for all of us.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Betrayer

It doesn't take long for the disciples to start thinking that it's time for them to replace Judas among their ranks. Where they were once twelve, they are now only eleven, and surely, since Christ called twelve, He intended for twelve to do His work.

But as we saw yesterday, this was probably not Jesus' idea.

Not only is there no indication in the Bible record that Jesus suggested this course of action to His disciples (which He had plenty of time to do between resurrection and ascension if this was truly what He desired), but this would be contrary to the entire testimony of Jesus. 

First, it would suggest that Jesus chose Judas only for his role as betrayer. We know that He chose the disciple knowing this would be the one who would betray him, but is this all that Judas is good for? Hardly so. The fact that we have record of Judas as the disciples' treasurer demonstrates this. For why would you give the betrayer the books to keep, if there were nothing more to him than betrayal? Why would you let him play such a crucial role in the entire ministry, if he has but one role, and a devious one at that? Wouldn't you stuff him in the back somewhere, let him hang around, tolerate him until it's time for him to do his thing? 

More than that, what does this say for the rest of us? We are always told that God has a plan for us. That God is using us in some way. What if....what if we're only betrayers? If Jesus chose Judas only so that the disciple would betray Him and then set out to replace the disciple among the faithful, we could never be certain of our own relationship with Jesus. He might simply be using us. He might require something wicked of us and then discard us, replace us. Forget us. Mightn't He? If God has this overarching plan to use Judas only as a betrayer and then replace him with someone better, how can we ever be certain of the plan that God has for us?

Our modern Christianity here interjects and attempts to make the argument that this wasn't God's original plan, that it was Judas who rejected his own place among the disciples and forced God to replace him. There are several serious theological problems with this idea, not the last of which is that Jesus clearly knows that Judas is going to betray Him; it's not like Judas' act came as a surprise.

But let's say Judas does somehow reject his own place in the structure by his act of betrayal. Let's say Judas does turn his back. Did not Jesus just die on the Cross to redeem sinners? Isn't that what this whole thing was about? Even if Judas turns his back, is not Jesus able to redeem him?

Judas' last act on earth was not an act of betrayal; it was an act of contrition. He returned to the temple elders, attempted to give them back the money that they had given him. He went to a secluded place and hanged himself. These are the acts of a contrite man, not a hardened betrayer. And here we are, all too willing to say, "Too bad." Too bad, Judas. You were the betrayer. There is no hope for you.

If there is no hope for Judas, there is no hope for any of us. If there is no redemption for Judas, there is no redemption for any of us. For we are all betrayers. We are all sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God. Judas' last act on earth was contrition. And we, who with contrite hearts beg God for mercy, are unwilling to offer this disciple any? Thank God that He is Lord and we are not. 

Thank God that there is redemption for Judas. For that means there is redemption for me, too. And for you.

The disciples were quick to want to replace the betrayer, to make themselves twelve again. But I don't think this was Jesus' idea. I don't think Jesus ever saw less than twelve. He had a plan for Judas from the beginning, and I think that's still the plan. Despite the seeming end of the betrayer in the Gospels, I don't think we've seen the last of Judas. I think we'll see him again....

Where? What is God's plan for Judas? Stay tuned....

Monday, March 28, 2016


After the death and resurrection of Jesus, He appeared to many persons and then was taken up to be in the presence of His Father. And one of the first stories we see of the disciples afterward is their discussion over who is worthy to take the place of Judas as one of the twelve.

Because there had to be twelve disciples.

This story is recorded in the early chapters of Acts, and the disciples take great care in choosing a replacement. It has to be someone who has been there from the beginning, someone who knows the testimony of Jesus as well as they do. It has to be someone who has heard His words just the same way. Someone who sat at His table with them. Someone who heard His parables, who was privy to His preaching, someone who witnessed His miracles. It has to be someone not only who knows all these things, but someone who is of good moral character. 

And most importantly, it must be someone who won't sell the Teacher out. We just can't have another Judas.

It's easy for us to read this story and commend the disciples. They seem to be trying to do the right thing here, and to do it the right way. Jesus called twelve. They looked around and counted only eleven. Jesus isn't here any more, so it's up to us to figure out who the twelfth is and restore things to the way that Jesus intended them to be. Peter (of course it would be Peter) even presents this idea as being consistent with the Scriptures, citing a verse in Psalms that says "Let someone else take his position." (Acts 1:20)

The problem is: this may or may not have been Jesus' idea. 

Jesus was always very clear with His disciples about what He wanted, about what needed to happen, about how things would occur. He took every opportunity to teach them, every chance He had to explain to them what the Old Testament Scriptures meant - as related to Him and even as not related to Him. And He even told them that one of them, one of the very twelve sitting around that table with Him in that Upper Room, would betray Him. Yet even here, He spoke only of what would happen to that betrayer; He never said, "And then you all must come together and replace him." 

We know how easy it is to read the Old Testament christologically, to read the story of Jesus back into the Scriptures. We know, too, how easy it is to read all of the Scriptures in the light of our own stories, trying to find all the secret messages God might have left in His Word for a people like us. These are the sorts of things Peter seems to be doing here. He's found this verse in the Psalms, he knows it well, and he's applying it to his present situation. He's trying, in earnest, to figure out what Jesus would have them do.

But let's not forget that they had forty days with the resurrected Jesus. He was hanging around for awhile after the resurrection. This little situation they found themselves in - being eleven when they were once twelve - could have come up at any time. They could have plainly asked Him, "Hey, Jesus. What do we do about the Judas thing?" Jesus Himself could have instructed them to replace Judas without their asking the question. (If He had, I believe this would have been preserved as part of this story in Acts, but it is not, so I do not believe Jesus issued such an instruction.) Jesus could have chosen a replacement disciple Himself and avoided this whole messy issue. Then we'd just have some small verse - "And Jesus chose Matthias to replace Judas among the twelve." But we have none of this.

Because, I think, Judas is still one of the twelve.

It's hard for us to wrap our heads around. To most of us, we easily say that Judas gave up his spot, gave up his privilege, gave up his appointment when He sold Jesus out. He betrayed the Son of God, for crying out loud. He sold Him into the hands of the enemy. He no longer gets to be a part of this whole thing. But that's our own human perspective talking. Not God's. 

God's perspective is quite different. And what becomes of Judas is a powerful lesson for all of us.

More to come, tomorrow. 

Friday, March 25, 2016


I've written before about all of the beautiful reasons why Jesus had to be the carpenter's son, but as we celebrate Good Friday today, the question cannot be ignored:

Who else would you nail to the Cross but a carpenter?

Jesus grew up around nails. He grew up watching His father, Joseph, crafting amazing pieces out of just wood and nails. He saw all the painstaking care that Joseph took with each piece, making sure every notch, every joint, every face was just right. He saw what it took to smooth the rough surfaces, to work out the imperfections, and sometimes, to work the imperfections in so that they became part of the unique beauty of the finished product.

He probably spent some of His own time working this same trade, as any good son would in that time in history. Not only did He see all of these things as His father worked, but He learned to work them Himself. Before He reached puberty, Jesus likely knew all the things one could possibly do with simple wood and a few nails. 

All the things plus one, which no one had ever conceived of before.

But He probably knew, too, just how futile all of these human endeavors at carpentry were. He probably understood that even the most beautiful things He or His father could create could become 'unclean' by the custom of Jewish law and would have to be destroyed. He knew they were subject to mold and mildew and would have to be destroyed. He knew they were prone to termites and pests that might eat away at their very structure until they could no longer stand.

He knew that over time, the beautiful finish would fade. The cracks would start to show. The nails might start to rust. Time destroys all good things, and no matter what He put His hands to in that workshop, nothing is immune from the ravages of a broken world. 

Yet He also knew all the amazing things that would take place with those simple pieces of wood. He knew the families who would share meals around those tables. He knew the precious possessions that might be displayed on those nightstands. He knew that some nights, the women would be kneading dough on those surfaces and other nights, the kids would be playing games, and still other nights, maybe those tables would sit empty. He knew that whatever He built, however temporary, would have a very real place in the stories that would unfold around those objects.

And so, the carpenter built.

And so, He went to Calvary.

I can't help but think that Jesus knew all these same things when He laid Himself on that Cross on Golgotha. He knew all the amazing things that would take place because of those simple pieces of wood. He knew this would bring families together, that it would become the centerpiece of their entire existence. He knew the special place it would have, drawing together communities. He knew the very real stories that would unfold around this Cross.

He knew how futile the human endeavor of it all was. How He, as a man, could do nothing unless He embraced what was divine in Him and became more than merely a man. He knew how without this divine act, His very story would be subject to death and decay, how it would be prone to mold and mildew and termites and pests and all the little things that eat away at a story until it's no longer anything at all. He knew how the Romans pictured this going, how they thought this was the end, but even that human endeavor was destined to fail. For this was not the end; it was only the beginning. 

And He knew all the things One can do with simple wood and a few nails.

And He chose the nails. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Among the Thieves

It's no accident that when Jesus hung on the Cross, He found Himself between two thieves. Thieves are the class of criminal that Jesus most often compared Himself, and His work, to.

Take, for example, what He says about the kingdom of God. He says that the Kingdom of God comes like a thief in the night, when you're home but you least suspect that something could be afoot. Just when you seem to be at rest, just when you are comfortable, just when you are surrounded by all the things and all the people that you love, that's when God breaks in and disrupts things. That's when God shows up. The Kingdom of God comes like a thief in the night. 

Jesus is crucified with thieves.

Related to this same idea, Jesus tells persons to always be ready. He says that since the Kingdom comes like a thief, it's good to always be on guard. Have your affairs in order. Know what you're going to do when this thing happens. Because the thief comes when you least suspect it.

And your Lord is crucified with thieves.

He tells a parable about a thief who encounters a strong man. He says first, the thief must tie up the strong man. Otherwise, he will never be able to rob the house. He will always have to deal with the strong man. But if he takes care of the strong man first, then he is free to rob the house and take whatever he pleases. Jesus ties this to the spiritual battle raging all around the people who heard these words. When Jesus comes, He will come as a thief into a strong man's house. The prince of this world will have to be dealt with first. He will have to be tied up, restrained, harnessed. Only then will Jesus be free to have His take of the house. Jesus Himself comes like a thief in the night.

And He is crucified with thieves.

Along with all these metaphors in which Jesus describes Himself, and His Kingdom, in criminal terms, using heavily this image of the thief, Jesus makes one more bold statement: I am not a thief. He says He is coming in the night when no one expects Him, that it is wise to always be ready because you can never know when He is coming, and that when He comes, He must take care of the strong man of the house first, the way any good thief would. And then He declares, "I am not a thief." 

The thief comes to kill, to steal, and destroy. But I have come that they might have life. And have it abundantly.

I'm a thief; I'm not a thief. I am the Lord, your God. 

And I am crucified with thieves.

Isn't this just like God? Isn't this just His story? He spends so much of His time drawing on the metaphor of thievery, of this criminal act, even though He Himself is neither a thief nor a criminal. And yet, when the time comes, this is exactly where He finds Himself - a criminal among criminals, a thief among thieves, crucified on Calvary with a thief on either side of Him. It's no accident, no mistake, and no mere coincidence.

It's the story of God, told in just such a certain way. Told in the way that only God can tell it. Told in the way that He always does. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Heart, Interrupted

If not everything that we can later attribute to Jesus from the Old Testament is prophecy, if Jesus truly has taken the stories, the very hearts, of some of the Old Testament characters to the Cross, then how can we tell the difference between stories that carry us to Jesus and stories that Jesus carries for us?

The answer is rather simple, but it is of critical importance for those of us who still face this question today.

The basic principle is this: if what you're reading is surrounded by heart, it is a story that Jesus carries to the Cross. If what you're reading is surrounded by information, it's probably prophecy. 

Returning to the example we've been using this week from Psalm 22, we see that these words pour forth from the heart of David. They are surrounded by a very real, very personal emotional stress that David is experiencing. It is highly unlikely, given how much God loves us, that God would ask David to set aside his broken heart for a minute and scribble in a few words of prophecy about a promised Messiah who is coming in some future time and is of absolutely no benefit to David in this particular time of distress, a few words of prophecy that David could not possibly understand on a good day, let alone a day in which his heart is troubled. Can you imagine such a scenario? Of course not. That's not how we believe God works.

Except this is exactly how we believe God works.

That's why this lesson is so important even for us. We have come to believe that this is the very thing that God does, that He just goes about interrupting the very real depths of our troubled hearts in order to interject a few words, a promise, a hope that doesn't even make sense to us in our time of distress. How often have you heard a Christian grieving, only to stop and say something about how Jesus restores their hope? How often have you heard a Christian struggling, only to stop mid-heart and declare that Jesus has conquered our suffering? How often have you yourself done something like this?

We interrupt our most authentic moments of the heart and try to interject them with the hope, the promise, the mercy of God. But God never interrupts a heart. Never. Not even in the book of Job does God interrupt a heart, even when Job's heart is spinning deeper and deeper into itself, into its own despair. God allows Job to finish speaking, and then He replies. Job is permitted complete thoughts, and then God answers. 

It's true, obviously, that some of our Old Testament writers seem to bounce back and forth between their own aching hearts and the reality of the promise of God, but when they do this, it's never to present new information, nor is it to interject some words they do not understand. They bounce from despair to hope because this hope is written into their very hearts, as well. It's part of who they are. It's part of the process of being in their heart - they feel the despair, but they cannot forget the hope. 

What's different between the way the Old Testament writers do this and the way we often do this is that for them, hope does not cancel despair. They are able to feel both, to hold both simultaneously. They know how to grieve without letting go of God. We...are not so adept at this sort of thing. Often, when you listen to a Christian speak, they bounce back and forth between hope and despair as two completely separate feelings, as two completely unrelated hearts. We speak as though we cannot possibly be troubled and believe in God at the same time, as though one of these things must cancel out the other. 

It's just not true. The Old Testament testimony makes that very clear. Only for us, it is slightly different even when we do it well - because our hope has been fulfilled in Christ. We don't just know that God will handle our broken hearts; we know that He has. We know that Jesus has carried our stories, the very stories we are telling right now in our grief, in our distress, in our trouble, to the Cross. So when we experience this back and forth between hope and despair, it's the tension between our cares and the Cross. It's even more intimate an experience than the Old Testament writers had.

So why are we not so bold in our testimony?

I think it's because we don't understand this line of Truth and tension, or what we might have called prophecy and heart in the Old Testament. We don't understand that our hearts speak truth even when we don't deliberately speak Truth, that we're saying something about God even when we're not saying something about God. We don't get it. God gets it. That's why He never interrupts a heart. 


Neither should we. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Carry Our Stories

It's a challenge for many in the church to read the Old Testament without the light of Christ. That is, to read the verses on their own merit without thinking they must be hearkening forward to their fulfillment in Jesus. Yesterday, we saw this idea of "Christological" reading in Psalm 22, where David begins his lament with those words that became famous on the Cross:

My God, my God...why have you abandoned me?

It's so easy, and in a sense, so natural for us to read this psalm and think of Christ. But as we saw yesterday, this type of reading has its problems. The argument might be, however, that reading it not in this way also has its problems. Right?

I don't think so.

But isn't it less amazing, less awesome if Jesus just "stole" some of David's words on the Cross, rather than David writing those words with Jesus in mind? Isn't the story of Jesus diminished if words like this aren't prophecy?

Again, I don't think so. 

I think...this may actually be more beautiful. 

If David wrote these words thinking of Jesus, then David is a prophet. Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy. Everything becomes very systematic; each man has his role to play. The story of God follows its natural, prophesied trajectory, and to a certain degree, we are all but cogs in the wheels of the angelic beings of Ezekiel. Are we not? But something about this whole idea impresses us. The idea that God so ordains the world that such things can work out this's amazing. It's incredible. 

But you know what's more incredible?

What's more incredible is if David is not a prophet. What's more incredible is if Jesus is no mere Messiah. What's more incredible is if David is just a guy like any other guy, a human being just like you or me, and he wrote these powerful words out of his own breaking heart. And then, generations later, Jesus takes these words to the Cross. Himself a man, a guy like any other guy (but perfect, of course), a human being just like you or me. And He comes for the sake of human beings just like you and me...and takes the story of human beings to the Cross with Him.

What's amazing is not if David knew what Jesus would take to the Cross, but if Jesus takes David to the Cross with Him. That's what's amazing. 

Because isn't that what Jesus came to do?

Didn't He come to take our place? Didn't He come to take our burden? Didn't He come to die our death? Didn't He come to take our stories to the Cross with Him? If that's true, then whatever it is we call "prophecy" in the Old Testament becomes less impressive. It is less like Jesus to say the words that David says He might say than it is to take David's story, David's journey, David's spiritual distress to the Cross with Him and crucify it. 

The same could be said of any number of verses in the Old Testament that we like to read Christologically. Taken in their own context, they just don't make sense as prophecy. They seem anomalous or anachronistic, and they leave us with the same problems that we saw yesterday with the words of this psalm. But if we leave them in their own context, if we don't try so hard to bring these Scriptures to the Cross, we see something truly incredible: 

Christ does.

Christ brings these Scriptures to the Cross. Christ brings these stories to Golgotha. Christ bears the weight of the spiritual stories of the kings, the prophets, the judges, the people, the guys just like any other guys, the human beings just like you and me. Christ brings all these to the Cross if we'll just let Him. If we'll stop reading Jesus first and instead read David, read Isaiah, read Jeremiah, read Amos, read you, read me. When we let these be our words, our hearts and we lay them down, Christ picks them up. 

And that may be the most amazing story of all.

Don't get me wrong - there are certainly prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament. If there weren't, we could never understand who this Son of God is. But we have to be very careful about which Scriptures we're willing to read this way, about which words we're willing to say look forward. Because many of these verses look inward, to the broken hearts of the prophets themselves. And only when we give these hearts their proper reading can we discover the true heart of God. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Old Testament Christ

There are numerous verses in the Old Testament that have always been read in such a way that they seem to foresee the coming Christ. These verses, we always seem to read backward from the New Testament and find in them the echoes of Jesus. We then assume that this is why they were written at all.

This is our mistake.

This idea came up recently in connection with Psalm 22, which begins, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away from helping me, so far away from the words of my groaning? 

These are, of course, words that Jesus would cry out on the Cross many generations later. And the argument was made that this was the original intent of these words of David - to look forward to the day when Jesus would use these words in His final agony, His moment of glory. It's part of what we call a "Christological reading of the Old Testament."

But it's not without its problems.

If we argue that David chose these words because he knew that in some future time, the promised Messiah would also choose these words, what are we to make of the rest of the context of Psalm 22? This psalm is deeply woven with David's own story, with his own concerns, with his own heart. Those who read this psalm Christologically argue that David is framing his own story in the rest of the psalm with the promise of the coming Messiah in these opening verses. It is by the hope that is promised to him through the coming Christ that he is able to enter his own story so deeply, to be honest about his own heart, to engage the circumstances that he finds himself in.

That's not the experience of the mystery of God that most of us can resonate with, though. When we encounter the mystery of God, it has more of a silencing effect. It has a comforting effect. It doesn't draw us deeper into our own story; it draws us out of it and straight into His heart. It would be counter to the human experience for David to find comfort in God and then draw back into his own misery in such a powerful, raw way. That's just not the way we are wired.

And we'd also have to say that although these words may echo the hope for the coming Messiah, if these are not words spoken from David's own heart, then they are the only inauthentic words in the entire Psalm. David, as a psalmist, is known for bearing his heart. It's what we love about him. It's one of the things God loves about him. He's honest. He's raw. He's real. And here, we have this beautiful psalm of frustration/agony, but when we read it Christologically, we are forced to discover two Davids in these words - the prophet and the psalmist. It's not how we read David in any other place. It gives us less than a whole picture of the troubled king. And it makes us wonder how we are supposed to handle the psalmist in each of us. Must we always balance our heart with truth? can we not just cry out?

Even if these were the words of the promised Messiah, we'd be forced to ask ourselves: what exactly does David think this Messiah is going to be? A Messiah is an amazing figure. He is the completion of all the promises of God, the commencement of perfect things. It's not reasonable to think that ancient Israel had a concept of the Messiah in which the Promised One is "abandoned" by God. Some Messiah! Not only does this idea call into question the concept of the Messiah - whether a chosen, promised one would be in some way forsaken - but it also calls into question the nature of God. Is He able to keep His promise through a Messiah? Or will He turn His back even on the One? There is simply no way to read these words Christologically until we have some understanding of the Christ. As a mere idea, this would never be the way that David would have conceptualized the Messiah.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe, we say, the Holy Spirit simply inspired these words and even David didn't understand what they meant. 


We make that argument all the time, but this is a serious problem for the God of all Truth. One of the unique things about our God is that while He knows Truth and is Truth, He also makes clear that He enables us to know Truth. It's no secret. He's very clear, very plain about what He's doing. If we believe that God filled His story with little truths like this that His people could never understand (for they had no framework in those days to know how the story of Jesus would play out), then it's all to easy to convince ourselves that God always does this. That He is Truth, but that we can never know that Truth. We just have to trust it.

But that's not what He says about Himself. He says He's revealing the truth so that we can have it. It's not unknowable. It's not incomprehensible. He doesn't give tomorrow's truth to us today so that some future generation can understand all the things that we can't. That's not how God works. (Now, it is how some of us have convinced ourselves that He works, and we go through our lives never really knowing Him. But that doesn't make that real.) It's hard to imagine that God would be inspiring David to write these words, saying, "Yes, really. Write it. People two thousand years from now are going to love this." It's just not how God works.

So we're left not with a Christological David, but instead, with a Davidic Christ. These words, like so many others in the Old Testament that we love to read in light of Jesus, are not Christ's words; they are David's. David wasn't foreseeing the coming Christ; Christ was listening to the historical David. He was making new meaning out of these words, setting them in a new context.

Or was the context so new?

Something amazing happens when we read Christ through the light of the Old Testament instead of the other way around. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what that is.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Self and the Savior

Here is the real challenge of faith: it's not so much that I take God at His Word and believe that He is who He says He is.

The real challenge of faith is that if I believe God is who He says He is, then I must also believe that I am who He says I am.

For some reason, it's not so difficult to believe what God says about Himself. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present. He loves me with an undying love. He sent His Son into the world by a pregnant virgin, lived as a man among men for thirty-ish years, was crucified by a reigning government, was buried, was resurrected on the third day, appeared to hundreds of people, and ascended again into the Heavens. He appeared to ancient Israel as smoke and fire. He called Moses to a burning bush. He broke a loaf of bread into over 10,000 pieces, split two fish into nearly as many, gave sight to blind men, and loosed the tongue of the mute.

He created the entire world, all of creation, in just six days, first creating forms in the void and then creating forms to fill those forms. He created man in His own image, and He created woman to serve, live, and love alongside man. He sent rains and flooded His entire creation, save one small remnant in a boat, and then threw a rainbow into the sky as a reminder of His promise - one of many promises - to His people. He raised dry bones out of a desert and brought them back to life. He got a donkey to speak to a prophet who wasn't listening to His own words.

To all of this, I would say, unequivocally, yes. Absolutely yes. Without hesitation, yes. This is my God. This is who He says He is, and I take Him at His word.

But then, He starts to say some other things. Things're beautiful. You're intelligent. You're capable. Through you, I will work this certain measure of my ministry among the world. You will be the person who will be My presence to this people. You will comfort them, encourage them, hold their hands, mourn with them, and it will be something real that you are doing. It will matter. Not only to Me, but to these people.

He says things like, you can. Whatever I am calling you to do, you are capable of doing. I am making you capable. I am making it possible for you because it is important to Me.

Not one of these things is inherently more impossible than any of the things which I so easily believe about my God. Yet every single one is harder to believe.

It's harder to believe that I might be beautiful than it is to believe that two thousand years ago, there was a pregnant virgin.

It's harder to believe that I can do anything than that God created everything in six days.

It's harder to believe that I could be of any value either to my God or to my fellow man than it is to believe that God drew dry bones together out of the desert and made them dance.

It's harder to believe, but no less important. For if I claim to take God at His Word, I must take Him at all of it, including those words He's spoken about me.

There are days when this feels like it should probably be easy. It takes my breath away, but of course, it's true - God is using me. These are, generally, the days in which nothing so particular is required of me. It's a bit easier to believe that God is making it possible for me to do something when I don't actually have to do it. But on those days when I'm standing on the edge of where God called me, and it's clear He wants me to take the next step, I don't know that there's been a time that I haven't felt like that very next step is the one off the edge of the cliff. It's much harder to believe that God has created me to do this thing when I'm face-to-face with the thing God has created me to do.

At the same time, I can't possibly imagine anything else. I can't fathom doing anything else for God than this beautiful thing that He has called me to do, whether I believe it or not. Whether it seems impossible or not.

That is the great paradox of faith.

It's also the challenge.

So you take God at His Word, but do you take Him at all of it? Is it easier for you, like me, to believe in the Savior than in the self? What would it mean if you took God at His Word about you? What if you really are all the things He says you are? 

Thursday, March 17, 2016


We already looked at how and why faith is foolish - not because it dares to believe but because it knows. It knows truth. It knows promise. It knows God. It knows self. And at some point, all this knowing brings faith around to full foolishness.

But even the foolishness of faith is not blind.

There's a story in the book of Daniel that many persons turn to when they think about what hard-core faith really looks like. It's not actually Daniel's story, but the story of his three friends - Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The king is highly upset with them and intends to throw them into a blazing furnace and kill them all. Because of their firmness on the issue of worshiping only their one, true God (and not worshiping the king), his anger is stirred all the further, and he increases the heat in the furnace seven times.

In what were to be their last words before their inevitable deaths, the three make this powerful statement of faith:

We know our God is able to save us. But even if he does not....

When we read this, it sounds to most of us like an incredible statement of faith, albeit blind faith. It sounds like they're creating a bit of an "out" for their God. He's capable, sure, but He might not be willing. Or He might not be interested. Or He might not get here in time. Or.... It sounds like the three friends are setting it up so that God cannot possibly fail. He's capable, but He still might not do it, and this does not change the fundamental nature of their God.

That's the way a lot of us live in faith, isn't it? God is absolutely capable. He truly can. But He might not. And if He doesn't, well...we talk about the possibility that He won't in such a way that it doesn't really make Him not God any more, doesn't make Him not who He says He is. It just means He decided not to do it this time.

It's theologically tough. And very disappointing.

Faith simply doesn't talk like this. Faithfulness talks like this, but faith doesn't.

That's such a subtle disconnect of ideas; many of you may be saying, "Is there a difference between faith and faithfulness?" Yes, there is. Faithfulness lives according to the Word of God even when it's not entirely specific. Faithfulness lives according to the knowledge that God is a certain thing, that some things are in His character or nature and He acts in accordance with His nature. Faithfulness is very specific on the human side, but non-specific on the God side. It deals in generalities.

For example, faithfulness knows that God is loving and lives accordingly. It knows that God is just, and trusts in that. It knows that God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and it adjusts its own life to match those traits. Faithfulness believes in the fundamental nature of God, and it lives in light of that knowledge.

Faith, on the other hand, is specific on both the human side and the God side. Faith rests on faithfulness, on knowing the true nature/character of God, but it goes one step further and takes Him at His - specific - Word. Faith jumps because God said to jump. Faith walks because God said to walk. Faith trusts because God said to trust. Faith forgives because God said to forgive. Faith stands on the precipice of fear (as we saw yesterday) and chooses faith, for no other reason than that that is what God has called faith to do.

So going back to our story of Daniel's friends, what we see as they enter the fiery furnace is not faith, but faithfulness. God has not said He's going to save them. He hasn't advised them to walk into the furnace for His glory. They are making a statement based on His character, on His very nature, on all the things that they know God, in a general way, to be. That is why they say, But even if He does not.... Because they know what they have just declared about God is His nature, but not His Word.

Faithfulness, then, is never foolish. It can't be. Faithfulness chooses on only one set of truth propositions. The only thing that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew, standing on the edge of that furnace, was that if they walked in, they would be burned. That's the only 'given' in the equation, for God has not made a promise otherwise. His nature leaves the door open for the miraculous to happen, but faithfulness doesn't choose in hope of the miraculous. Faithfulness chooses in accord with God's character and what God's character requires of us, not what it suggests of Him. It's not foolish.

Faith, however, is frequently foolish. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, faith would be stepping into the fire with the direct assurance of God's Word that He would save them from it. Why is this foolish? Because it is choosing the improbable over the definite. If they walk into the fire, it will surely burn them. They will surely die. No one walks into a furnace lit even once and lives, let alone walking into a furnace seven times hotter. But if God tells them that He will rescue them, and they believe that, they have chosen what cannot be known over what is certain. That's foolishness.

And that is the choice that faith gives us. Nearly every time. So the question is: can you do it? Can you choose the improbable over the given? Can you take God at His Word and live in faith?

That's the call.

Make your move. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


None of this means that faith is easy. It lives on the precipice of fear.

See, when faith opens your eyes, light floods in. And anywhere that light floods in, the shadows seems to grow taller. When you decide to believe in God, to truly believe in Him and take Him at His Word and live like the Lord of the Universe is not setting you up, the monsters you face grow bigger. At least, it seems that way.

The world asks more of you. The mountains are taller. You discover that when you do the smallest little thing in faith, you suddenly are faced with a bigger thing and a bigger thing and a bigger thing, all designed to get you to reach one conclusion: this one must be impossible. 

The first thing was hard. The second harder still. The third...harder. But this one? This one is harder even than that, and at some point, you'll start to think that you're reaching the point where faith can't. You'll start to think you're reaching a mountain that faith can't move, a road that faith can't take, a step that faith can't make. And the funny thing is that even for all the mountains, for all the monsters, for all the shadows, it is never faith that will fail you.

It is you who will fail faith.

Because as we saw yesterday, faith doesn't worry about such things. Faith knows, and it knows you can. When the mountains get too big, when faith seems so small, it is not faith that is failing; it is you. Faith believes it can because it still knows that it can. But you don't. You don't know any more, and you start to doubt.

This is the challenge of faith.

The paradoxical nature of faith, real faith, is this: even though it lives on the precipice of fear, faith does not fear. Sometimes, its breath still catches in its throat a bit. But never in fear. When faith catches its breath, it's always in awe and anticipation. Always humbled by the realization that this, too, is happening. This, too, is real. 

Faith sits on the narrowest ledges and dangles its feet off the side. It jumps from the highest places, dives to the deepest depths, walks deliberately into the most dangerous brambles because it knows where God is calling it, and it knows that wherever God is calling it, there is something amazing going on. But that doesn't mean that faith is unaware. Faith knows acutely the ledges on which it sits. It knows full well the heights from which it jumps. It knows the pressure of the depths. It knows the tangles of every vine, the prick of every bramble. And it holds its breath.

But it goes anyway. It goes because this...this is the place that God has called it to. This is the place that God has called you to. And God never sets you up to fail. 

So take a deep breath. Hold it for a few seconds. Not in fear and doubt, although this is the edge on which faith sits. No, breath it in in awe and wonder, in anticipation, in humble recognition that this is really happening. This is really real. 

Faith knows. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


When you discover that faith is real, you unfortunately discover something else: this world has been lying to you.

It's been lying to you about God, about who He is and what He's up to. As I said yesterday, this world is all-too-happy to tell you that God is setting you up for failure, that He's going to ask you to do things that He knows aren't going to work out, that He's going to get your hopes up only to smash them. And then that He's going to have the audacity to whisper right in your disappointed heart that "this is what faith looks like."

Faith discovers that this isn't true. It's a lie. God is not setting you up for failure; this world is. Faith knows that God isn't setting you up at all; He's inviting you in. He's drawing you close, bringing you into the bigger story He's telling. He's guiding you down a path where your feet hit solid ground, every time. Every step in faith is a strong one, no matter what this world says. The more of your weight you choose to put into it, the more you discover that faith truly can hold you. It's real.

The world not only lies to you about God, it lies to you about you. The world tells you that you're not qualified, that you're not beautiful, that you're not worthy. The world tells you that you're not anything. You're nothing. You can't do it. You're a failure. It pounds these messages into your head, then starts driving them into your heart until every time you look in the mirror, you're discouraged by what you see until finally, you just stop looking in the mirror altogether. The world, at the very same time that it tries to tell you this world is all about you, also tells you that you're just not worth being about.

The truth is much more paradoxical. It's not about you. It never has been. But you're amazing. You're smart and beautiful and capable. And you know what? You can. All these things the world tries to tell you that you can't do? It's lying to you. If God asks you to do them, you can do them. God doesn't ask you to do things that He doesn't make possible. He just doesn't. Faith knows that. Which means faith believes not only in the God who is drawing you close, but in the heart of you who responds to that God. Imagine that! Faith gives you two things to believe in.

But there's still more!

Faith discovers a God it can believe it. It discovers a self it can believe in. And it discovers a promise it can believe in.

See, this world isn't just lying to you about your God and yourself; it's lying to you about itself. This world is lying to you about this world. It tries to tell you that this world is all there is. (It's not.) It tries to tell you that there are certain ways this world works. (Only half-true.) It tries to tell you that if you don't play by the rules, you'll never get anywhere. You'll never have anything. You'll never succeed. And you'll never truly live. (All baloney.)

Faith knows that life is not a game. There are no "rules" to "play" by. Life is a sacred journey. It's not about having anything and it's not about succeeding, although faith also discovers that it has more than it desires, that it succeeds more than it fails, and that life truly can be both good and faithful at the same time.

Well done.

Yesterday, I said that faith is foolish not because it believes, but because it knows. This is what I'm talking about. Faith knows the world is lying to it because faith knows the truth. Faith knows that God is incredible, that He's invested in you, that He's not setting you up to fail. Faith knows that you're valuable, that you're worth something, that you can. Faith knows that there's more to this world than meets the eye, more than the world is willing to admit of itself. Faith knows there's a God and a heart and a promise.

And faith lives accordingly.

Monday, March 14, 2016


It seems so easy, this thing called faith. All you have to do is whatever God asks of you.

But it's not so easy.

It's not so easy because we've come to believe that sometimes, God sets you up to fail. Sometimes, God asks you to do things that just aren't going to work out. Sometimes, God gets you in trouble. So sometimes, when you just do whatever God asks, you're a sucker.

You're walking blind into the unknown, and why? Because you believe in a thing called God? We've come to believe that even this is no assurance. Even God Himself is no promise. You could do every faithful thing in your entire life, and things still might not work out.

Faith, this world will tell you, is foolish.

And this world would be right.

See, faith is foolish because it refuses to believe in itself. Faith refuses to buy the idea that faith itself is much of anything at all. For most people, if you knew that everything you do would work out for the best, wouldn't you become arrogant? Wouldn't you become conceited? Wouldn't you become, at least, confident in your own ability to work your way through the world? 

Faith knows that everything it does works out, and this only makes faith more humble. It's foolishness! At least in the world's eyes. But it's true. 

When faith discovers how real it really is, it becomes stilled. It quiets itself. It starts taking deliberate, intentional steps forward into the world, contemplating at every step just what it means that this one step is faithful.

It means this step is a step in the right direction. It means that the place you're going actually exists. It means something good is happening right now. It means this one step is yet another affirmation, not only of faith, but of the Faithful One who guides those steps. Faith can barely stand to speak. It can barely stand at all. Faith is that fortitude it requires to take one more step when all you want to do is fall to your knees.

Faith keeps walking past the end of imagination, into all the places that are beyond man's wildest dreams. It walks, knowing that each step draws it closer into the heart of God. It reaches out and touches the world, knowing that in its touch is something special. Faith feels the power coursing through it, and it struggles under the weight. What a burden faith is! ...for it requires a man to know the secrets of the universe and find a way to whisper them to the world.

It requires him to talk foolishness to a world that will laugh in his face. To radiate joy in a quiet voice. To dance in subtle steps. To smile that little smile that makes him want to close his eyes and just imagine, just worship for a little while, but faith requires a man to live with eyes wide open.

Yes, faith is foolish.

But faith is not foolish because it believes. It is foolish because it knows

I don't know where we got this idea that God is setting us up. That God is somehow guiding us all deeper into the wilderness, to wander for the rest of our years and never quite reach the Promised Land. Even if that were true...even if that were true...God's done some pretty amazing things in the wilderness. 

The real truth, though, is that God's not setting you up. He's setting you down. He's putting you firm on holy ground. Sacred space. Amazing grace. 

And it just drives you to your knees. You'd fall for faith forever, if faith itself didn't require you to stand. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Interfaith Series: Closing Thoughts

This semester, I'm working as a teaching assistant in a non-Western religions course. A couple of weeks ago, the professor asked me to write a series of devotionals for the students, relevant to the ideas they would be discussing each week. So my task was to write Bible-based devotions for students at a Christian university who are studying non-Christian religions. Fun, right? It was. So I thought I'd take a few days and share some of these devotionals in this space.

Today: Some final thoughts.

By this points, the students have been through seven weeks of discovering non-Western religions. They have studied religion in general, animism, Hinduism, Buddhism (2 weeks), Tao, Shinto, and Confucianism, and Islam (2 weeks). They have learned to listen to the voices of "religious others" that they may encounter throughout their lives, but these ideas have always been framed back into the heart of the Christian context.

And that's a valuable lesson for all of us. We're so tempted to either write other religions off completely, looking at them out of slanted eyes with judgment and dismissiveness in our hearts. These people...they just have it wrong. Right? They just don't know how ridiculous they sound. But this isn't the right attitude for us to have. We have to engage the religious others around us, for they have much to teach us - not only about themselves, but about ourselves, as well, and about our God.

Or maybe we encounter someone of a different religion, and we don't think much at all. All paths lead to the same God, right? One road is just as good as any other? Who are we to judge what someone thinks of their god? This, too, is the wrong attitude. There is a clear biblical truth about the reality of God, the nature of Him, the character of Him, and the path we must take to get there. This means that even as we respectfully listen to and engage those around us who have other concepts of God, we must always bring those ideas back and ground them in the truth that God has revealed to us through His Word. Throughout this series of devotionals, that is what I have encouraged the students to do - to see the places where God's Word speaks of the same ideas of these other religions, and to see where God's Truth says something different than what the world says. 

This is how we respectfully engage the world around us - by listening well, engaging authentically, and holding all things accountable to God's Truth. Paul was a master at this; we must be, as well.

For this final week, the students were asked to read in 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul is discussing the tricky situation of meat in the marketplace that may have been offered to other idols. 

The people of God have always had to think carefully about other gods. First, it was Israel and the gods of the nations they encountered in their various journeys of deliverance and exile, specifically the Baals and Asherah. Here, Paul is talking about the concern of the early Christians about other gods. The early church is concerned about how they should handle the meat in the marketplace that is sacrificed to other gods, whether this ought to be a problem for them or not. Today, the people of God must still think carefully about other gods.

Today's gods are the gods you have learned about in this course - the gods of animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Confucianism, and Islam. But there are other gods in today's world, too. These are the gods of self-satisfaction, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self, self, self and also the gods of culture - of sex, fame, money, power, and a whole host of other things that our culture tells us are important. Any or all of these things, whether we call them gods in the context of another religion or we don't call them gods at all, can turn our eyes away from the one God we profess to follow as Christians: the God we discover in the Bible.

This ought to be both a wake-up call and an encouragement to those of us who seek to follow Him. We ought to be aware of all of the other options this world will give us if we're not listening carefully to God's voice in our lives, but we also ought to be encouraged that so many generations of God's people have been confronted by all of the other options and still chosen to faithfully follow God. We can make the same choice. All we must do is realize that this world has many different gods to offer us, but only one God is true. Then, choose Him.

Like meat in the marketplace, we must be mindful of what other religions have to offer us. But we must also be mindful of what offerings they make and never confuse the two. It's a fine line to walk, but doing it well enables our faith to grow both wider into the world around us and deeper into our very hearts as we engage our world and our God well.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Interfaith Series: Islam

This semester, I'm working as a teaching assistant in a non-Western religions course. A couple of weeks ago, the professor asked me to write a series of devotionals for the students, relevant to the ideas they would be discussing each week. So my task was to write Bible-based devotions for students at a Christian university who are studying non-Christian religions. Fun, right? It was. So I thought I'd take a few days and share some of these devotionals in this space.

Today: Islam.

There is, of course, a tremendous interest in Islam as it continues to become a large player on the world stage. And when we talk about Islam from a biblical perspective, there are really a couple of things we need to look at - one which helps us to understand Islam, and one which draws us deeper into the heart of God.

Islam is the great untold story of our Christian Bible. It traces its roots all the way back to the early chapters of Genesis, to Abraham himself. You may remember part of this story. Abraham is promised a child by God, a son who will be an heir. Abraham himself will be the father of many nations. But it's taking a little longer than Abraham and Sarah would like, so they enlist Sarah's maidservant, Hagar, to become a surrogate. She then gives birth to Ishmael, Abraham's first-born son. 

It's easy for us, at this point, to skip ahead through the Ishmael narratives until Sarah has her own son, Isaac, and then we start really engaging with the story of Abraham. But that's a mistake. Because between Ishmael and Isaac, something interesting happens: God makes a covenant with Abraham.

Yes, Ishmael is a young man and Isaac is still only a promise when God initiates the covenant ritual of circumcision among Abraham, his household, and his descendants. Which means...Ishmael is part of this covenant. Ishmael is the son who is circumcised with his father. He witnesses first-hand, and participates in, this new thing that God has called Abraham to do. 

So when Muslims say that they have this ultimate, important relationship with God, they're right. They do. They were there at the sealing of the covenant. They were circumcised along with Abraham. They were part of this thing that Isaac would never understand in exactly the same way. They're there when God starts doing this new thing. And they're still talking about this new thing God is doing. The image of God that stems from this may be quite the diversion from the image of God that comes through Isaac for Christians, but that doesn't mean their claim is illegitimate. They are, indeed, children of Ishmael, descendants of Abraham.

The very same Abraham.

This gives us a little background on the bold claims of Islam. Now, when we keep reading Ishmael's story, we come necessarily to the moment when Ishmael is sent away with his mother, Hagar. Sarah has become jealous and demanded that Abraham send away his firstborn for the sake of his promised son, Isaac, and he does so. This story will draw us deeper into the heart of God.

Abraham was not a poor man; he had a great richness of resources. But he essentially sends the maidservant and his son away with little more than a snack. No livestock. No goods. No servants. Nothing but a little bite to eat and a little bit of water. As they travel further and further away from Abraham's land in search of a place to settle, the rations run out with no home in sight. Hagar begins to mourn. She leaves her son and goes a short distance away from him so that she doesn't have to watch him die...and so that he doesn't have to watch her do the same.

It's heartbreaking. (And, I must say, a poignant reminder for us, as Christians, who are often so tempted to send others away with little more than a snack when we have such great wealth of mercy, grace, and love within us.)

But when she looks up, she sees an oasis. Fresh water. Living water. A new hope. She takes the boy and goes running to respite.

And isn't this just what our God is like? 

I think sometimes, we're upset that God doesn't seem to give us enough to get us from point A to point B. We feel like we run out of everything we need in the middle of our journey. We get halfway there, and then we feel stuck. Like we can't possibly go another step, like maybe there's not another step even to take, like there's no such place any more as home. We're going nowhere, and maybe...we've arrived. 

Then God shows up at just the right time. Just when we feel that we don't have enough to make it all the way, just when we feel like God doesn't love us, we discover just how much He loves us. He gives us just enough to get us to the middle of nowhere and then, when our hope has all but died, He shows Himself once more and provides an oasis - living water and a new hope. It's the story of Ishmael and Hagar. And it's the story of us.

Because it's the story of God.

So when we talk about Islam, we must look deeply into the story of Ishmael. It is in this story that we find the roots of this religion that, now more than ever, is shaping the landscape of the world that we live in, and it is in this story that we are drawn deeper into the heart of God. Ishmael, then, has much to say to us. Then...and now. The question is: are we listening?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Interfaith Series: Tao, Confucius, Shinto

This semester, I'm working as a teaching assistant in a non-Western religions course. A couple of weeks ago, the professor asked me to write a series of devotionals for the students, relevant to the ideas they would be discussing each week. So my task was to write Bible-based devotions for students at a Christian university who are studying non-Christian religions. Fun, right? It was. So I thought I'd take a few days and share some of these devotionals in this space.

Today: Tao, Confucius, and Shinto.

Admittedly, this is a group of religions that we in the West know very little about. We understand maybe some of the popular culture aspects of them, some of the things that have made their way into our common vocabulary - things like "Confucius say..." and the concepts of the yin and the yang (which was rather popular in the 90s; I'm not sure where it stands in Western culture today). Essentially, though, when we think about this group of religions, we can think of two primary ideas: words and light.

These religions place a high emphasis on words. It's why we know what Confucius say. The guy did a lot of talking. The Tao, similarly, is full of compact statements of worldly wisdom, much as if it were a religion entirely of proverbs. We might even be tempted to say these are wisdom religions completed separated from narrative (whereas, of course, the wisdom of God is set alongside His narrative in the Bible). 

Equally, there is an emphasis on light. And especially on the contrast of light and darkness in the world. Not just light and darkness, but good and evil, as well. This is where we get the yin and the yang. It's this contrast between light and dark, good and evil. 

As Christians, we, too, have an emphasis on words and light. But for us, these words are living words; this light is living light. Both are embodied in this Man we call Jesus.

Here we turn to the opening chapter of the gospel of John.

The real light, which shines on everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into existence through him....The Word became human and lived among us. We saw his glory. It was the glory that the Father shares with his only Son, a glory full of kindness and truth.

John gives us the very ideas of these Eastern religions, wrapped into one man. It's not a light that competes with the darkness; it's a light that drives the darkness out. It's not a word that tells us how to live; it is a Word that lives among us, that speaks to us in its own very living. We don't have to figure out what any of it means; Jesus reveals it plainly.

And that is the fundamental difference between Christianity and these other religions. The Tao, what Confucius say - these require the follower to figure out what it all means. You have to do some heavy interpreting. You have to interpret how these words are meant to influence your life. You have to seek out light over darkness, have to stand in the divide between the two and feel the tension.

Not so in Christ. Christ the Word tells you exactly what He means. You don't have to interpret what the Word means for your life; the Word is your very life. The Word spoke life itself into existence. It is the crux on which this whole world spins, the very Word of God spoken into the void and then spoken again in Jesus. You don't have to stand in the tension between light and darkness. Light has come to drive out darkness. The light of a single candle makes all the shadows dance. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Interfaith Series: Buddhism

This semester, I'm working as a teaching assistant in a non-Western religions course. A couple of weeks ago, the professor asked me to write a series of devotionals for the students, relevant to the ideas they would be discussing each week. So my task was to write Bible-based devotions for students at a Christian university who are studying non-Christian religions. Fun, right? It was. So I thought I'd take a few days and share some of these devotionals in this space.

Today: Buddhism

Buddhism is a religion that finds it deepest value in the kind of "mindful meditation" that has monks and devout followers everywhere clearing their minds of the concerns of this world, all in the hopes of finding peace. It's an attractive idea, especially in a society where our minds are often overflowing with too much information and peace is nowhere to be found. 

It also sounds very much like something God would want for us. Right? God repeatedly tells us to meditate on His Word, to meditate on His promises, to meditate on them day and night. He tells us to do things with "prayer and fasting," and isn't that essentially the same thing? 


No, it's not.

When God tells His people to meditate, it's not to empty their minds; it's to fill them. He intends for us to get His Words, His promises deeper into our hearts and minds. He's not just content to have us quiet the voices of this world; He wants to replace those voices with His voice. He doesn't want us to disengage from the world around us; He wants us to engage it more meaningfully. 

To see what God has in mind when He speaks of meditation, we need look no further than Psalm 77. Just look at all the things the Psalmist says he is doing while meditating:

I sigh as I remember God.
I begin to lose hope as I think about him. (You keep my eyelids open.)
I am so upset that I cannot speak.
I have considered the days of old, the years long ago.
I remember my song in the night and reflect on it.
My spirit searches for an answer...
I will remember...
I will remember...
I will reflect....and think. (Emphases mine.)

All of this, the Psalmist is doing while meditating. All of this is a vital part of the Christian idea of meditation. It is not emptying our mind, but filling it with the promise and presence of God.

Well, surely, then, the Buddhist pursuit of peace is something God would want for us. God's always talking about peace. 

Yes. ...and no.

The Buddhist idea of peace is that it's something rather elusive, that it's something you have to deliberately go in search of and find. It is not found anywhere but in the depths of yourself, and in order to find it, you must enter those depths and close off the rest of the world in order to do it. In a sense, then, it may be possible, or even preferred, for the Buddhist not only to find his own peace, but to make his own peace. 

Any of us who have tried such a thing know it's quite difficult, if not impossible, and it doesn't work.

The peace of Jesus is something much, much different. Because the peace of Jesus is a gift freely given. Just look at John 14:27 as one example. Jesus is leaving His peace with the people, promising it to them as He turns His eyes toward Calvary. It's not an elusive peace. It's not a peace you have to go searching for; it's being given to you right before your very eyes. It's not a peace that has to shut out the world; it's a peace that embraces it.

And anyone who heard Jesus' words would know this, for when He says He is giving them peace, He doesn't just say "peace." He says "my peace." And this idea of His peace would certainly mean something to them, too. It's the same peace  that all the region of Galilee saw Him live with - peace on the hillside, peace on the sea, peace in the Temple, peace in the homes of sinners, peace in the midst of the broken, peace in the face of the Pharisees, peace on the edge of Jerusalem, peace on the hill of Golgotha. When Jesus said He was giving the people His peace, this is what they were getting - the peace to live a holy life on the streets of a broken world. Right there for the taking. All they have to do is receive the gift.

A lot of people have been drawn into the Buddhist ideas of meditation and peace as they permeate our present culture, and they sound like good things. They sound like beneficial things, and the sort of things that God would want His people to have. But we must remember that the Buddhist definitions of these beautiful things are quite dramatically different from God's ideas of them. 

Absolutely, we should meditate. God tells us that again and again. But we must meditate on Him. We must meditate to fill our minds, not to empty them. Absolutely, God desires us to have peace. He desires it so much, in fact, that He gave it to us freely as His gift. Real peace. Lasting peace. Jesus' peace. We don't have to go digging in the depths of our hearts for it; we simply have to open our hands to receive it.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Interfaith Series: Hinduism

This semester, I'm working as a teaching assistant in a non-Western religions course. A couple of weeks ago, the professor asked me to write a series of devotionals for the students, relevant to the ideas they would be discussing each week. So my task was to write Bible-based devotions for students at a Christian university who are studying non-Christian religions. Fun, right? It was. So I thought I'd take a few days and share some of these devotionals in this space.

First up: Hinduism.

Most Christians only have a cartooned version of Hinduism - the kind of caricaturized things we see on our televisions in shows like 'The Simpsons' and maybe even Raj's half-hearted practice in 'The Big Bang Theory.' When we think of Hinduism, we often think of the plurality of Hindu gods with all the weird names, the multiple arms, the disturbing physical characteristics. And certainly, some of that is part of the Hindu religion.

But at the true heart of the Hindu religion is a book called the Baghavad Gita. This is what the Hindus would most likely call their holy text, although most would simply refer to it as "the Gita." This is a rather lengthy book, similar to our Bible (a little thicker than our Bible, actually, but that could be related to a number of factors like page layout and font size, and not necessarily to actual word count). And the Gita is primarily an account of a heavenly battle.

It's the story of the gods, of one specific god's journey to be a greater god, to conquer, to become more meaningful. It's a war story, through and through. And the entire point of the battle is what the warrior, Arjuna, is going to get out of the battle; he's fighting for himself. He's fighting for his own name. He's fighting for something he wants. It's rather riveting, at least as a narrative goes. (And yes, I have read the entire thing.) There's mystery, intrigue, action, honor, and a very serious engagement on the part of Arjuna, who wants nothing more than to be a god.

Although not, necessarily, your god.

And that's the fundamental difference between the Hindu concept of god and the Christian one. When the Christian God engages in battle, it's not because He wants to be a God; He wants to be your God.

Throughout the Old Testament, as Israel comes into contact with other nations and must engage and defeat them, God repeatedly tells them He's on their side, "So that they will know that are you my people and that I am your God." And perhaps we see this nowhere greater than on the edge of the Sea of Reeds.

Israel has left Egypt in the mass exodus, and they've come to the edge of the Sea. The waters are rushing on the path ahead of them, and suddenly, the thundering footsteps of horses and the sound of chariots can be heard behind them. Egypt is in hot pursuit. The people feel trapped. Where are they going to go? What are they going to do? They've taken Egypt's wealth, but not their weapons. However are they supposed to fight?

And it is here that Moses tells them, "The Lord will fight for you." (Exodus 14:14) 

It's one thing to have a god who is a warrior; it's another thing entirely to have a warrior God. One simply fights; the other fights for you. 

There are times in our lives when the obstacles in front of us seem bigger than the strength that is inside of us. We're tired. We're weary. We're uncertain. We look at something like the Sea of Reeds looming before us, the Egyptian army in hot pursuit behind us, and we feel, simply, stuck. There's no way out. No matter which way we go, it's going to be bad news. Have you ever felt stuck like this?

God says there is a way out, but it's not what you'd think. The way out of this situation, when life is pressing in on you from both sides, is to simply be still. Wait to see what the Lord is going to do. Because He is going to fight for you.

What does it mean to have a God who fights for you? Can you just be still? Will you?