Wednesday, August 31, 2016


As I write about God being the Author of these incredible stories we're blessed to live, I can't help but wonder what the characters in other stories feel like. Do they see the way their stories are woven together? Do they know the threads that run through them? When we see them again and again in what seems like the same situation with a new outcome, do they comprehend the redemption that's taking place in their development?

Do we?

Redemption is a funny thing, at least as you're living it. You keep finding yourself in these scenarios that feel so strangely familiar that your heart just seems to stop all on its own. You have opportunities maybe you didn't have the first time around, or things have changed just enough that they're about to change big time. All you have to do is remember that yesterday is gone and today is something new and tomorrow is filled with the promise of hope and a thousand amazing things and it again.

Whatever it is. Whatever second chance you have that you blew the first time. Whatever opportunity has come knocking once more. Whatever choice finally feels like one that you can make. Whatever it is. Do that. 

But don't expect it to heal you. 

That's what's funny about it, I guess. We think that redemption is meant to heal us. And I think in the long term, it probably does. We think that second chances are supposed to be mending. We think that when one thing seems to come together in a new way, the rest of things ought to, too. Isn't that what redemption is? Doesn't it put us back together?

No. It doesn't.

A few months ago, I would have told you that it does. I would have told you that it has to. Because I needed for it to do just that. I needed redemption, and I needed redemption to be the thing that would put me back together because, I swear, there were days even recently that I didn't think I could feel more broken. And then, redemption happened.

There's not even a good way to explain this to anyone who hasn't yet been there, but all these stories that had lived so long in the recesses of my heart, all these tales that had dwelt in darkness and been cast in shadows, came to play again on the main stage of my life. In almost the exact same ways except, well, except that I am different now. My heart is different. My body is different. My strength is different. My different. I didn't realize what was happening until I couldn't catch my breath and I couldn't figure out why. I didn't understand what was going on until my heart stopped and felt frozen in time, in this broken story, in this place marked by failure and fear and ache. Marked by woundedness. There's a Danny Gokey song right now called "Tell Your Heart to Beat Again," and I had to learn to do that. Because here was my redemption.

And it broke me. 

Redemption broke me. It's still breaking me. The realization of the way that the threads run through my life, the recognition of a God who is taking what felt like frayed ends and tying them breaks me. It cracks open all of this pain, all of this fear, all of this burden that I've been carrying for so long in what has long since become merely a shell of me, and in the way that our beautiful, paradoxical God does things, I have never felt either more broken or more whole than I do right now. And I know that redemption is only beginning in me. 

I know that there's more darkness to face. More chapters to revisit. More scenes to replay. More second chances that are coming my way. More times when I won't be able to catch my breath until, with a sudden gasp, I realize that I've been here before. Not exactly here, but close enough. Close enough to try again. More times when my heart will stop and I'll have to learn the rhythm of my life all over again. There's more of this coming, and...and I already feel so broken.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not complaining. Far from it. I'm...shaking my head in that way we do when we just can't believe something is real. I'm pushing back tears that I'm not yet ready to let pour out. I'm trying to pray and finding myself too overwhelmed, then wondering what the Spirit is groaning on my behalf because I tell you - I have never been more sure that God is hearing me than in moments like this when I can't...even.... 

So I'm thinking about the Author of this story. This broken, beautiful, messed-up, redeeming story that I'm trying to live. I'm thinking about all the scenes we've played out together, all the chapters already done. I'm picking at my own broken threads and wondering when...and how...they'll all be tied together. I'm going back over pages marked up and marked out with red ink, then flipping forward to a thousand blank pages yet to come. And I'm wondering how other characters feel in their stories....

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book of Life

Yesterday, we looked at one of the servants of the Lord in Ezekiel 9, sent out by God with a pen and paper ahead of the destruction of God's judgment. I said that I don't think the paper was simply for making a list of the marked and the unmarked, as there's something theologically troubling about a God who makes lists.

And yet, we're pretty sure that's exactly what God does.

We read these passages about something called the Book of Life and the names written therein, and we think that God has some master list of every life that has ever lived, every created man, woman, and child in His eternity who has merited somehow the gift of heaven. Troubling theology abounds. First, as this seems to imply that some names simply don't make it into God's book. He neither loves nor redeems everyone. Second, it implies that we somehow do something to merit our names being in the book at all. Even if it's just making the decision to accept the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, it still sets up a bit of a works-based salvation that we should not be comfortable with.

Moreover, it puts us back in this sticky place where we are but objects of a God who makes lists. Who sorts us into categories. Who has both a this and a that instead of just one thing. That bothers me. It ought to bother all of us.

But if this God, this God who knows our names in the first place, is, as I said yesterday, not a list-maker but an author, then the book of life is not a sorting but a story. It's not a list; it's a narrative.

And it's not a story we need to be afraid of. It's not a story we need to be ashamed of. We have this idea somehow that when we get to heaven, God and all the saints gather 'round to watch a filmstrip of our finest, and not-so-fine, moments and critique our lives. As though there's still some sort of sorting process going on. I don't think it's going to be like that.

I think it's going to be like good friends around a bar. God opens His Book of Life and sees not our names, but our stories, and we sit around reminiscing about all those crazy adventures we had, all those wild moments, all those "you had to be there" times that don't even take words. Just a look between Him and us puts us both in the same place, and we get it.

We're going to uncover all the wordplay we never noticed on a first read through, as though we weren't quite speaking the language of our own stories when we were living them (the way that footnotes in our English Bibles help us to understand some of the subtleties of the Hebrew and Greek). We're going to see all the side stories that were developing around us, all the backdrop of the characters that came into and out of our scenes. Just what we need to know to understand the real impact they've had on us...or we on them.

We're going to see some of the smudges where the Author went back and rewrote this or that chapter, where He worked His creative genius into our stories in a way that maybe He hadn't planned full out but He made it work because, well, He worked it for good. We're going to see, I think, some of the cuts on the editing floor, and we're going to look together at the way that these lines might have changed our stories forever - for better or for worse. Decisions we made, and decisions we almost made. Paths we took and paths we abandoned. Storms that laid ahead and storms we avoided. It's all going to be there.

And best of all, we're going to see exactly where our stories lie in His. In the Book of Life, it's all woven together. Not separate books. Not a compilation of my story and your story and great-grandmother's story and ancient stories all back to back to back, but threads of a single story all running together. I'm going to be able to turn back a few pages and see whose stories lead into mine, and turn ahead and see whose stories mine leads into. I'm going to be able to read how God's story works its way through all of them, how it is the single thread holding them all together. How no matter what page I'm on, whether it's page 1 or page 43,395,341,438 of the Book of Life, God's story is constant through every page, even through my few pages.

But there I will be, my name not in a list but in a story. In full living color. The story of Aidan in the story of God in the stories of Creation from the beginning unto eternity. In the Book of Life. Written by one incredible Author. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Saved by Story

In Ezekiel 9, the Lord unleashes a small band of men with powerful weapons against His people as the consequence of their turning away from Him and living wicked lives. But before these powerful weapon-bearers are permitted to touch a single soul, He sends out also a servant with pen and paper. 

This servant's job is to go through the streets and encounter each and every living soul and determine whether that soul serves God or not, loves God or not. If it does, that person receives a mark on the forehead, and the posse moves on. If the person is not marked, out come the weapons and the person is killed, only seconds after being rejected by the servant with the pen and paper.

But here's the thing: Ezekiel doesn't tell us what the servant does with the paper.

The pen, of course, could be used to make the marks. It could be used to write on the foreheads of the faithful. But the paper? Maybe the paper just makes the guy look more official. You know, like giving him a clipboard or something. If someone knocks on your door with a pen, you might wonder what this crazy guy is up to. But give him a clipboard, and you know he's legit. Maybe the paper just makes this servant of the Lord legit.

As though anyone sent by the authority of God, with a posse of armed angels behind him, needs any help looking legitimate.

Maybe he was keeping records. Maybe the paper was for the servant to write down the names, in two neat columns, of those he marked and those he did not mark. For collecting bodies later. Or handing out awards. Or whatever. Like Santa's naughty and nice list; the servant of the Lord must be writing down marked and unmarked. Bill - marked; Bobby - slaughtered. 

The trouble with this idea is that it puts us into a theology that's difficult to swallow. Here we are face-to-face with a God who keeps lists, and if God keeps lists here, what's to keep Him from keeping lists in other places? For other things? For any reason. Actually, this is exactly what we tend to think about God, and many of us spend far too much time wondering which of God's lists we're on at any given time. Are we on the nice list? The naughty list? 

It also brings us into a theology where we are not much more than names to God, an inventory of creatures, if you will. God collects persons the way we collect baseball cards. Oooh...He's got a 1985 Aidan. (That'll go for a good 5 cents.) Quite an impressive collection, God. As though God is just walking around some museum or something, looking at each of His persons in little glass cases, His treasured possessions. Actually, we think this about God, too. That we are just part of His collection, that we rotate in and out of display cases as His tastes and seasons change. That we are, to God, just one of many.

Neither of these, then, is theologically pleasing. We don't really want a God who keeps lists, and we aren't too keen on being the possessions of a collector. Which brings us back to the servant of the Lord in Ezekiel 9.

What was the paper for?

I think it was for notes. I think it was for scribbling ideas about His next chapter. I think it was for looking into the eyes of men and women and writing down some character development ideas, some ideas about how things are going to play out as the story continues to unfold. I think it was for coming upon the characters in God's story and sketching out where things might go from here, maybe even sketching out some knots to tie up loose ends. Because I don't think even the wicked just die here; I think the servant scratches notes of redemption on those papers. I think he figures out how to reconcile the sinner and the wounded heart, even after the character seems to have been written off the page.

And this...this is good theology, I think. Because it invites us to understand God as author. As someone whose characters are always on His mind. As someone who keeps the story front and center. As someone who is always thinking ahead to the next chapter or two. As someone who understands that a good story is only as good as its ending, but the middle can't be boring, either. As someone who burns the candle longs nights when He's under the inspiration of something good. As someone who captivates us with the finest details of how things come together. Not as a puppet-master, who speaks the lines of all of Creation, but as an author who gives His characters lines of their own. 

Yes, I think the servant must have been taking notes. Because God is an amazing author.

And He's always working on this incredible story.

Friday, August 26, 2016

People of the Second Chance

Within the past week, I received in the mail an advanced copy of People of the Second Chance by Mike Foster. He didn't ask me to write this, and he hasn't seen what I'm about to write, but there are a couple of reasons that you have to know about this book/organization.

Anyone who's been around awhile knows some of my story, and so it should come as no surprise that I have read a lot of books and been through a lot of curriculum for broken people. It comes with the territory of being broken. One of the things that's always troubled me about these curricula is that they seem to want us to drag our stories around with us in suitcases, albatrosses around our necks, and "unpack" them at various points in our journey, spreading them out like treasures at a garage sale, inviting others to pick through the unwanted trinkets of our lives. It's a burden that, to be quite honest, I just got tired of toting around. 

But People of the Second Chance, in the language that it uses, in the general tone that it takes, does things different. I haven't had a chance to go through the group curriculum yet (Freeway), but it's on my list. Still, every sense I get from the snippets I've had here and there tell me that with POTSC, your story isn't a burden; it's a person. It's a buddy. It gets an invite to the party, too. You come together, sit down on the sofa next to one another, chat like old friends. You don't unpack your brokenness; you introduce it. And you let it make friends.

That's the way we ought to be doing it. That's what I love about POTSC.

So when the book came out, naturally, I wanted to read it. A teaser chapter popped up in my email, and I had to read more. When the print copy arrived in the mail, I couldn't wait to devour the book.

But it's not a book you can eat in one sitting. Not if you want it to mean anything to you. It's so nuanced, and yet so plain, that if you just read through it, you're going to miss something. You've got to chew on it a bit. You've got to take it slow and really consider the truth of what Mike Foster is feeding you. Otherwise, you may come away with the idea that this was a good book. 

And you ought to know so much more.

At first, I thought the book was a bit schizophrenic, as though Mike didn't know what book he was writing. At times, it speaks straight to the broken in every one of us, a balm for the wounded heart. He speaks about our woundedness with such truth and tenderness that we can't help but be drawn deeper into our stories. At least, I couldn't. But then, in what almost feels like the same breath, he starts talking about what we do to get others to the same place. 

He invites you to the party, then he tells you how to throw one. 

All through the text, there's kind of this back and forth between words that are meant to be for your heart and words that are meant to be for your hands, messages that are supposed to help to heal you and invitations to do some healing of your own. A few times, there's a bit of this detached general information about grace and second chances. And for the first few chapters, I didn't know what to make of this. What is this book even about? 

It's about grace. It's about love. It's about second chances.

So much of our lives are spent in projects. And so many books like this define so clearly what the project is: it's either us or it's other people. We're either broken or we're helping the broken. We read books like this to "get better" or to help others "get better," but we rarely think it could possibly be both. We rarely consider what we're doing.

And what we're doing is making people projects. I'm either working on me or I'm working on you. That's what most of these books call us to do. At some point, I realized that some of my frustration with the unsettled nature of this book was that it wasn't real clear to me who the "project" was. Am I a second chancer or do I create second chances? What do you want from me, Mike?

But the more I sat with my discomfort with this, the more it started to grow on me: the answer was both. Not that everyone was a project. That would be too much to bite off for anyone. No, the grace itself. The project is love. The project is second chances. By making these stories about you and then about me and then about others and then about us and then about grace and then about love and then back again, it becomes clear that it's not about fixing you, it's not about fixing me, it's not even about fixing us. It's about doing grace. It's about doing love. 

Second chances are the first things. I love that. 

I cannot recommend this book, and this group, strongly enough. I support them with my AmazonSmile account, follow both POTSC and Mike Foster on Twitter (@POTSC | @MikeFoster) and Facebook, and receive regular email updates from what's going on. (Fun fact: Mike is the guy behind XXXchurch, a project I stumbled upon more than a decade ago as a freshman in college. I still have the t-shirt that says "#1 Christian Porn Site" emblazened across the front. I didn't know it was the same guy until he told me in chapter eleven.) The book drops on September 20, but don't wait. Put it on your Christmas list now, then don't wait for that either. Pre-order a copy. Pre-order ten. Give them to your friends with a little note that says, "Let's do this." 

You'll understand when you read the book. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Jesus Pit

Here is the great paradox for the sinful woman, and for all of us who come broken to Jesus: though He has forgiven her, she does not simply cease to be "the sinful woman." Though He has healed us, we do not simply cease to be broken.

We can't.

It's not because there is some fatal flaw in us that does not accept healing (although one might be able to make a case for this, given all evidence). It's not because Jesus does not truly heal this side of Heaven; He absolutely does. It's not because the healing is somehow metaphorical or somehow requires something more that hasn't happened yet or anything of this sort. No, to argue any of these things would be foolish in light of the incredible power of God, especially His power to heal.

But we cannot cease to be broken, we do not simply stop being "the sinful woman," because to do so would cheapen both the story of us and the story of God.

Imagine if the sinful woman leaves Simon's home and ceases to be the sinful woman. Imagine she pretends that she never was a prostitute, that she's always been a penitent. Imagine that no matter who she encounters, no matter what they say, no matter what someone claims to know about her, she says, "Oh, no. That's not me. I'm a Jesus girl, through and through."


A Jesus girl. What does that even mean? We do this sometimes. A lot of times. We pretend we're Jesus people, but not sinners. We're healed, but were never broken. As though Jesus Himself would be disappointed if we kept talking about our brokenness, if we kept owning our sin (even once, we must say, we have been freed from it and are no longer sinning). But how can we possibly testify to the healing, restorative, amazing power of Jesus if we've never been a people in need of it? What good can we say about God if His goodness has not stood in contrast to our own depraved hearts?

Even after we're healed from it, we still need our brokenness. God still needs our brokenness. It's what makes Him - and us - real.

See, the problem is that somewhere, we got this idea that when Jesus heals us from something, He pulls us out of the pit. He raises us up, sets us on higher ground, and lets us walk away from everything. That's not really how it works. Jesus spends less time pulling people out of pits than He spends crawling down into pits with them. He spends less time lifting up than He does digging out. What happens when you ask God to heal you is not that He brings you up out of your brokenness; it's that He comes down into it with you. 

And together, you make the space bigger.

Together, you start beating against the walls. You start clawing your way not up, but out. Making this space that once was your prison your platform. Until there's room for more broken people down here with you and Jesus. Until this is no longer a cistern, but a grand reservoir; not just for watering, but for water sports. You start changing the landscape of your pit until it's no longer a tourist trap, but a destination. Yes, you heard me - brokenness becomes a destination. For no other reason than that Jesus is there.

And if the Gospels have taught us anything, it's that people will go almost anywhere to see Jesus.

Even into the pit of your brokenness. 

In fact, something amazing happens here. When people discover Jesus in your pit, they kind of want to get to work on their own. They want to start breaking wide open their own ground. They want to create a space in their pit for Him, and then they want to blow this joint apart. All of a sudden, these pits of brokenness, these places where Jesus is so evident, start popping up all over the map like (name your favorite fast food chain). Everywhere you go, there are these wide open spaces that used to be pits, full of broken people and Jesus. 

It has to be this way. It has to. It's the only way to do justice to the amazing grace of God. It's the only way to truly tell His story. Not by being "Jesus people," people who go to church and tithe and read their Bibles but have never needed them. But by being people who live in Jesus pits, by being people who continue to inhabit the broken places of our lives even though they've been redeemed. By being people whose cisterns have become reservoirs of living water, a place where sinners and broken people drop in and wait for a tow, knowing that Jesus boat is about to circle around and pull them up on their skis. These ought to be our lives. These ought to be our testimonies. 

We ought not pretend we were never broken. For Lord, if that were the case, what would we ever do with a Savior? 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

For the Love of Sin

Why is that we're much better sinners than lovers? Why are we more drawn to the prostitute than to the penitent woman?

It's quite simple, really: nobody has ever loved us like Jesus.

What I mean is this - we're already pretty good at second chances. Our world is built around them. We are wounded in relationship again and again and again, and still, we live with each other. This world is full of people who lie to us, people who cheat us, people who seek to kill us or, at least, kill our spirits. It's full of prostitutes and whores and hypocrites and sinners, and far more than we have been loved in our lives, we have been sinned against, or so it seems. So we understand sin and second chances; we have both given and received an abundance of them.

What we don't understand is love.

We don't understand what possesses a woman to bust into a party and make a spectacle out of herself if it's more than merely a sin transaction. We don't understand this kind of devotion. So we tell the story from sin, making it something far less than it truly is. It's a sad commentary on the state of our world, yes, but sadder still on the state of our hearts.

So how do we change it? What do we do? Do we simply become lovers in a sinful world?

Yes and no.

Yes, we must become lovers; that is what Jesus calls us to be. (He never, for what it's worth, calls us to be sinners. He never even calls us sinners at all. We are His beloved, so you'd think we ought to act like it.) It's not easy. It takes vulnerability. It takes a willingness to enter into the ache. It takes a certain ability to stand naked in a shameful world and not care who's watching. 

But our ability to become lovers goes far beyond what it does for us. It goes far beyond whatever one party we crash. It goes beyond the living room of one Pharisee. 

You see, we are sinners because we are surrounded by sinners. Because at every turn, we are sinning against each other. We are liars because we have been lied to. We cheat because we have been cheated. We wound because we have been wounded. It's what we've come to expect of the world, so it's what we've come to expect of ourselves.

But if we become lovers, if we are willing to crash parties the way the sinful woman does, if we will fall at His feet in aching devotion, pour out our tears, let down our hair, and love without shame, then that love spreads from our Savior to His beloved. We start to love people around us, too. Not as prostitutes love them, but as prodigals love them. And then something amazing happens.

Our kids grow up in a world that loves them. Our neighbors live in a community that loves them. People become lovers more often than they are sinners, and before we know it, we've raised up a new generation that loves God wildly. Because love is the new norm. Love is the thing we do. Love is what we expect from each other, what we give each other. It's our M.O.

And all of a sudden, we're reading the Scriptures and telling the story of a sinful woman whose incredible act of love will be told around the world...instead of the story of a prostitute whose sins are forgiven.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Party Crashers

We have invested a great deal of our theological energies in figuring out more of the details of the Gospel sinners than we are given in the Gospel stories. There is no greater example of this than what we have done with the sinful woman in Luke 7, who we have concluded not only is a prostitute, but is a prostitute named Mary, who later traveled with Jesus.

Jesus Himself told us that this woman's story would be told everywhere, that everyone would know what she had done. When He said it, He wasn't talking about her sin, but that's what we can't stop talking about. When He said it, He meant it would be her story of devotion, her act of faith, her broken heart - not her broken life - that would be on display. He intended us to tell the story the way it's given, with the emphasis on repentance. There was a sinful woman, and she could not hold herself back from Jesus. To all social shame and embarrassment, she walked into a place she wasn't invited, among people who condemned her, and she collapsed into a puddle of tears and ache at the feet of Jesus himself. She wept as she anointed Him, her tears and her hair washing over His feet, and He looked tenderly at her, waiting for her to lift her eyes. Waiting for her to see His. When the two finally looked at each other, she knew....

That's not how we tell the story. See, we worked really hard to fill in the details that seem to matter most to us, and so when we tell the story, it goes something like this: There was a sinful woman in the area, a prostitute. Her name was Mary, you of the Marys who we hear about in other places. Well, everyone had heard about this Mary. She was a whore. The town whore. Most of the men in the room had probably either slept with her or knew someone who had. And she was not invited to this party. She was not invited, and she was not welcome. But she came anyway. AndshedidsomethingtotallyaudaciousoutofherloveforJesuswithsomeperfumeorsomething. And Jesus forgave her for her sins.

It loses something in our translation. Something beautiful. Something called...heart. It's a very pragmatic theological story, but it's no longer a human story. It's a business transaction, not a relationship of redemption.

And we like it that way. That's how we like to see our sin. Not as some human thing, but as some business thing. Not as a heart thing, but as just a common thing. We love the idea that we're sinners and God forgives us, forget that mess in the middle about us being a mess. Forget that part about our pleading.

The truth is it's easier for us to be party crashers than puddles of tears. It's easier for us to break down the door than to fall at His feet. It's easier for us to consider ourselves mild sinners than passionate lovers.

So we tell the story of the sinful woman, and we tell the story of forgiveness, but we skip right past the part in the middle, the part where her heart aches in the tension between forsaken and forgiven, between too many lovers (if, in fact, she is the prostitute) and being the beloved. We skip right over the part where she actually cares about what's happening here, where she actually loves Jesus.

That's just too messy for most of us.

But that's the story. That's what makes this scene so beautiful. That's what calls us out of our complacency and demands more from us. It is what calls us to the same kind of wild, shameless, spectacle of a love affair with our Savior.

Maybe we're confused because all the voices at the party said this was not okay. Maybe we're confused because all the voices at our parties say the same thing. This is not appropriate behavior. It's social taboo. The overwhelming consensus is that the woman should never have done this - she should not have come to the party, she should not have pushed her way through the crowd, she should not have fallen at His feet, she should not have cried (Lord, what is with women crying?), she should not have poured out such an expensive perfume, she should not have let her hair down, she should not have dared look up, she should not.... They are the same voices we hear, all the time. We should not....

Yet none of those voices matter. There is only one voice in this story that matters, and it is the voice of the anointed one, the one whose feet now reek of expensive perfume and whose toes are tickled by the fallen hair of the fallen woman, the sinner. Not once does Jesus say she shouldn't have.

He says this is beautiful.

And He's right.

(Of course.) 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Infamous Sinners

There are a few stories in the Gospels which feature rather prominently...sinners. Not average, run-of-the-mill sinners like most of us consider ourselves to be, not sinners that we label ourselves, as readers, when we discover their hidden motives or secret stories, but sinners as declared by their own reputation - usually women of some kind of ill repute. 

There's the woman at the well, who has had a handful of husbands and is not married to the man she is sleeping with now. There is the woman caught in the act of adultery. There is the woman who comes into the home of Simon the Pharisee and makes a spectacle of herself by falling at the feet of Jesus. (Off-hand, the only male "sinner" I can think of in the Gospels is the one who stands in contrast to the Pharisee in prayer.)

The woman at the well is no mystery; her encounter with Jesus tells us plenty about her. It tells us almost as much about her as everyone else seemed to know. The same is true of the woman caught in adultery; it's pretty clear from the Gospel stories what she's guilty of, and many a sermon has been preached about the woman dragged naked before Jesus while He just doodles in the sand. 

But much theological energy has, for some reason, been expended on uncovering more about the sinful woman in Luke 7, the one who comes uninvited to the party at Simon's house. We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what her sin was.

And what her name was.

The general consensus is that this woman was a prostitute, although you might not get that from just a plain reading of the Scriptures. It might be easy to assume that "a woman who lived a sinful life in that city" is code for "the town whore," but does that mean it's necessarily right to do so? And what do we really care?

It doesn't change the story much if the woman is a thief instead of a prostitute, does it? Maybe it does. If she's a prostitute, when she pours out her perfume, she is pouring out the tools of her trade. If she's a thief, she's pouring out her bounty. It's a subtle difference, but important maybe. Or maybe not. What if she's the town liar? I think we have all come across one or two of these individuals in our lives, who can't seem to let truth touch their lips at all. You can't trust anything they say. All of a sudden, she does this one powerful, very true thing...and people don't know what to do with themselves. Maybe that changes the story. Or maybe not at all.

Then we took it one step further and someone, somewhere, determined that this sinful woman in Simon's house is probably Mary. Not Mary of Martha fame, but Mary of Magdalene. It's weird, right? At one point, we're given the names of several women who traveled with Jesus, and to my knowledge, we haven't invested much time in trying to figure out where the others might pop up in His story. Was Salome also the bleeding woman? Who was the one caught in adultery? Nobody knows, nobody cares. But we're pretty sure Mary was the whore. 

Because it's oh, so important to know who the whores are.

I don't know what our obsession is with the details, with figuring out the nitty-gritty of the non-essential elements of the Gospel, especially when we aren't getting the big stuff right. Nobody's asking about the prostitute because they want to love her better. We aren't asking about the naked woman because we intend to clothe her. We aren't planning on befriending the wife of many husbands, even though she could probably use a stable relationship in her life. We just want something to talk about besides Jesus, I guess. So we talk about the women, the sinners, and the sin.

Maybe they shame us. I don't know. I think they probably should. Jesus said this sinful woman's story would be told everywhere, that everyone would know what she did. And He was talking about the scene in Simon's house. He was talking about her act of devotion. He was talking about her grand gesture of love. He was talking about the scandal of a woman who, living in shame, was unashamed to be at His feet. 

And we're talking about a prostitute. As though that's her story. 

We took Jesus at His word. Her story is being told. It's being told everywhere, used in sermons all the time. Oh, we know her story. But we tell it our way. We tell it through our eyes. We aren't looking at a woman in tears at the feet of her savior. No, that puts us to shame. We're looking at a prostitute who crashed the party. We're talking about a woman of ill repute, gossiping about her 2000 years later. Jesus gave us her story, but we've given her one of our own, and that's the one we're telling. 

Why? Because it's easier. 

Stay tuned. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dens of Thieves

In the same breath that God tells His people that the Temple (church) cannot save them, He scolds them that this type of behavior has turned His house into a "den of thieves." (Jeremiah 7, see yesterday's post.) It's not the only time in Scripture that He has used these words (Jesus, anyone?).

And we, in all our mock piety and pretentious righteousness, think this has something to do with the mere presence of thieves. So we decide that sinners aren't welcome in God's house. That is what He's so mad about, isn't it? Sinners in the house of God?


No, that's not at all what God is mad about. And that's good news for us because it's so incredibly difficult for us to reconcile this condemnation with our profession that God loves sinners, which is quite well-documented throughout the pages of His story. 

God does not condemn that there are thieves in the church; the Cross made perfectly clear that sinners, even thieves, are welcome. (Isn't it interesting that one of God's favorite curses against the people of the church is that they have become a 'den of thieves,' and then He is crucified between two of the very criminals?) What God condemns is what the thieves are doing in His church - they have made it a den.

A den, a place where they come to conspire. A place where they come to count up the loot. A place where they come to hide out. When you think about thieves gathering in a den, you can almost imagine them sitting around a dimly lit table, planning their next heist. Planning their next theft. Emptying their bags to go back out and get more. Counting the haul. All kinds of conspire-y things that bands of thieves do. 

This is what God is so against taking place in His house. It's what He condemns here in Jeremiah, as the people attempt to use the Temple as a home base, as a free space, all the while letting their minds cook up their next grand scheme. All the while thinking about lying, cheating, stealing. All the while waiting on the chance to burn incense at another altar. They're in this Temple for only one reason - to try to reap the benefits of this God, as though He is but one stop on the smorgasbord of human experience that they are sampling from. They don't care about Him, His laws, His promises, His ways.

It's what Jesus condemns in the Gospels. The moneychangers and merchants have set up shop in the Temple. They're there not to offer sacrifices, but to sell them. It's a transaction for them and nothing more. They don't care about Him, His laws, His promises, His ways. 

So the trouble is less that the Temple is full of thieves and more that it has become their den. This just ought not to be.

We ought to come to our churches not to conspire in sin, but to conspire toward grace. We ought to come, sinners all, and figure out together a better way. We ought to come humbling ourselves, not counting our haul. We need to worship in wide-open, brightly-lit place, not dim, smoke-filled dens of debauchery. We ought to come to our churches in search of the God who lives there, not to take Him for all He's worth but to offer Him our own. We ought to come offering sacrifices, not selling them.

Thieves included. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016


The people of God in the time of Jeremiah are an interesting people, and part of the reason for that is that the people of God in the time of Jeremiah are so much like the people of God today. Take a look at the condemnation given of them in chapter 7:

You steal, murder, commit adultery, lie when you take oaths, burn incense as an offering to Baal, and run after other gods that you do not know. Then you stand in my presence in the house that is called by my name. You think that you're safe....

In other words, the people of God go out and do all kinds of despicable things, sin as much as they possibly can, set their lives on the wrong course...and then go running to the church, expecting that this act alone somehow makes them the people of God. As long as they show up on Sunday (Saturday, in the Old Testament times), then God cannot be too displeased with them. Condemnation cannot fall too hard on them. Life can't go too terribly. 

After all, are we not at the Temple? 

The people of God then, as the people of God today, thought this is what would make them "safe." This is what would secure their place in both this world and God's world - being at the Temple when it was time to be at the Temple. Having their butts in a pew somewhere on a Sunday morning. It's as though we run around all week, chasing and being chased, part of some big game this world has set out before us, and then on Sunday morning, we tag home and declare, Olly-olly oxen-free!

Nothing can no longer touch me, for I am at church. 

I am in the house of the Lord, and nothing evil can beset me here. My life cannot catch up with me in the sanctuary of the living God; it's stuck outside the gate. And here I sit, home, free, able to catch my breath for just a minute, knowing that at least here, I'm safe.

Safe from the consequences of my own sin. Safe from the depravity of a fallen world. Safe from the darkness that tries to swallow me. For some reason, we think these things can't make it into our churches, that there's some kind of holy force field that pushes out all the things detestable to God and makes us, for one hour a week, a people pleasing to the Lord. (And this, by the way, is all the pleasing that we think He requires of us.) 

Church on Sunday, sinnin' on Monday. 

But church cannot save you. It cannot save you in the short term, and it cannot save you in the long term. Your salvation does not lie in the holy hour; it rests in the holy Lord. It does not come in respite, but in resurrection. It does not depend upon some so-called sacred space where you feel like you can breathe again, if only for a short while; it comes in the breath of the living God filling your very lungs. There's nothing safe about oxen-free; our security rests in a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light. 

The problem with God's people is not that they think they're safe in the church. Heavens, no! Our churches ought to be safe places, and they ought to be places that are bringing us into the presence of God where we can truly be saved.

The problem with God's people is that they've convinced themselves that this one hour a week is what saves them. That it doesn't matter what else they do as long as they're present on Sunday morning. That God doesn't care about the other six days of the week, or even the other twenty-three hours on Sunday. That it doesn't bother God that we lie, cheat, steal, murder, prostitute ourselves, as long as we keep coming home to Him. 

That's the lie. Even the prophet calls it a lie. 

And the Lord Himself says it cannot save us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


In Jeremiah 10, the prophet addresses the people's idols directly, as so many prophets do, but he uses a powerful image to do so. He says, 

These trees are like scarecrows in cucumber gardens. They aren't able to speak. They have to be carried, because they can't walk. Don't be afraid of them. They can't harm you. They can't do you any good either.

One of the things about a passage like this that we must take note of is the multiple layers of meaning, the many metaphors that are being used. It's easy to say that this is a passage just about idols, particularly since it follows a description of how these idols are made by human hands, but there's more going on here than just that. 

For example, Jeremiah chooses to specify a cucumber garden. The people grew many kinds of gardens, for all different reasons, but the prophet says this particular garden grows cucumbers. Why? Cucumbers are a staple of a Mediterranean diet; they go with almost everything. The people would have been very familiar with them. They also, however, are mostly water and have essentially no nutritional value whatsoever. It's not like their chock-full of anything; they're just water. And a little bit of a flavor. Maybe. So our scarecrows, our idols, stand over something that's essentially empty anyway, but we've convinced ourselves is so central to our diets. And wouldn't it be that its emptiness is in non-living water? 

Another layer here is the image of the tree. The idols most often discussed in the Old Testament look like humans, animals, celestial bodies; there aren't many, if any, that are specifically trees. It's a metaphor for the way they are rooted down into our culture and then stood up to tower over all that we do. But the time is also coming when we will talk about another tree, a tree on which our Lord was hung, casting all of the holy city in His shadow. 

What's striking about reading this is how easily these words of the prophet Jeremiah condemn us even today. We would laugh at this and say there's no way, but what the people of Jeremiah's time are doing with their idols is precisely the same thing we are doing with ours - it's just that we call ours "Jesus."

It's that we have this God who hung on this tree, and we spend our lives setting the Cross up over our gardens, as though it is some magical talisman. As though its mere presence, as an icon or even as an idol, does something to scare the bad things away. We stake this Cross into our cucumber gardens, into all these places that we have decided are so integral to our way of life, such a central part of who we are, but they are empty things in and of themselves. They are non-living water. 

And we stake this Cross in the ground to protect them, but we do not allow this Jesus to speak. We do not expect Him to walk. He's supposed to just stand there, wherever we put Him, and do Jesus things. He's supposed to stand over our toil of emptiness and, without a word, without a movement, heal the sick. Strengthen the weak. Free the imprisoned. Feed the hungry. Yes, we ask Him to stand over our cucumber gardens and feed the hungry. 

How foolish we are!

But this is how we live. This is how we do it. This is how we relate to our God, as nothing more than a scarecrow. And we call this "faithfulness." 

We call this something, even though it is nothing at all. We rely on its power, even though it is powerless. We say that this is what God desires of us, but it is nowhere close. This Jesus, He cannot harm us here. He cannot condemn us. He cannot call us to account. But, as Jeremiah so poignantly points out, He cannot help us, either. 

So we keep moving our scarecrow, trying to find the best place to put Him. Trying to find the best ground in which to stake this tree. And when it seems we have found just the spot, when it seems we have discovered just where best to put our Jesus in our cucumber garden, we discover the emptiness of the way that we do this. Then, something most heinous happens.

We stuff our scarecrow with dry theology in order to try to puff Him up, in order to try to make Him more intimidating. 

And it's as laughable to the world as any idol talk is to us. Our God is powerless here, our precious treasure empty. The world knows it. God knows it. The only ones who haven't seemed yet to catch on are us, the so-called "faithful." 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


If the givens are that God is our God and we are His people, then what we're left with from Jeremiah 21 is "maybe He will do miracles." Maybe is not a conditional statement; it does not logically follow from an if or a since. You cannot logically conclude a maybe. propositional.

We're not really fond of propositional things. They require of us two things, perhaps three, which we are not particularly gifted at as a people, at least not in today's present age: they require that we ask.

And wait.

And maybe even trust.

Any of those strike you as tops on your list? Any of those you recognize as things you just love to do? Of course not. We live in a world that says, demand, take, seize, and conquer. Go out and get what you want. Now. By the strength of your own hand. You want something? Go get it. 

We leave no room for "maybe." 

We leave no room for asking because we don't know who to ask. We ask God, sure, but we really ask our image of God, which is more of a wisp or a spirit or a wind than a real person, a presence in the room. We don't know how to ask. Do we pray? How do we know that we're praying? Does God hear us? Should we write a note and tie it to a balloon? Should we bow our heads and close our eyes and not open them again until we've been answered? Who do we ask? How do we ask? not our strong suit.

But ask we must because maybe is not a given. We don't know. We can't know. Maybe it will be but maybe it won't be; it depends on a lot of things that we either can't predict or just don't know. We must ask because maybe is not conditional. We can't simply bring about whatever it is that we want. We can't make God do miracles. We must ask because maybe is propositional; it depends, among other things, on our asking.

And if we ask, we must wait. Waiting is something else we're not good at. Right now, I can get almost anything I want through a simple search engine or Amazon. I can find the answer to any question, the best price on any product, and free two-day shipping all at the tips of my fingers. What is this "waiting" thing? 

But wait we must because a proposition makes no demands. Wait we must because asking is not telling, requesting is not requiring. We cannot make God do miracles. We cannot order them with a click of the mouse. We cannot expect two-day shipping on answered prayer. We ask, and then we must relinquish our asking and simply wait. It will happen or it won't; it will come in good time or come not at all. All of a sudden, we're back where we began: with "maybe." 

Maybe requires at least these two things: asking and waiting. And then, perhaps, we add an element of trust. Or hope. Two more things we are no longer skilled at.

Maybe doesn't require that we trust. It couldn't care more or less either way; it's not dependent upon trust. Maybe will answer whether we trust or not. But the givens that we have, the things we know for sure before we even get to our maybe, are a different story altogether. They require some measure of faith, either trust or hope. (And trust and hope are fundamentally different.) 

They require that we recognize that it's out of our hands, that there's nothing we can do about it. We cannot do the miracles we seek, nor can we make God do them. No one ever made Jesus perform a single miracle. They asked sometimes, but they could not force Him to do anything. Therefore, we have to either trust that God is who He says He is and that we are who He says we are, based on our intimate knowledge of His heart and ours, or we have to hope that God is who He says He is and that we are who He says we are out of a heart that holds honest questions. That's all we can do. 

That's tough for a people who keep being told they can do anything they want to do. 

Especially because most of us discover, particularly in faith, that this is not quite true. We may want to trust, but we do not know how. We may want to hope, but what is hope? We realize in our very wanting to do something that we cannot, in fact, do anything that we want to do, for we continue to fail again and again at doing faith. We continue to fail at the propositional. Not because we can't do it. No, we were made to do it, but because we can't figure out how to do it. We can't will ourselves to do it. It doesn't work like that. Faith, hope...they don't work like the rest of the world works, we don't do them like we do anything else. It takes something special.

And maybe that's why we don't like maybe. It's not so easy to do. It requires something of us that we're not used to giving. It demands things we just aren't so good at any more. It's not a given. It's not conditional. It's propositional, which means we have to invest ourselves in maybe without knowing whether that maybe will ever be a yes or a no. 

We have to ask. We have to wait. And for people of faith, we have to either trust or hope. 

And then maybe....

Monday, August 15, 2016

Maybe Miracles

There's this interesting passage in Jeremiah 21 where the people declare, "Maybe God will do miracles for us." The people are, of course, at that moment in need of some miracles, some acts that only God can perform.

What's interesting about this is the way the people conceptualize the relationship between themselves, their God, and His miracles. 

To the people who make this declaration, there is no question that this is their God. They do not doubt that they are His people. These are what we'd call in mathematics, "givens" - they are what they are, and they are not going to change. The miracles, then, are the variable. Maybe God will do miracles for us. Inherent in such a maybe is just its opposite - maybe He won't. Whether or not there are miracles does not change the nature of either of the givens.

Whether or not there are miracles, this is still our God, and we are still His people.

Fast-forward a couple of thousand years, and the equation is much different. There are no longer any givens, no longer any values that don't change. There may be a God. We may be His people. There may be miracles. Who knows? But that's not our most tragic math. No, we take it a step further and turn what was once a set of givens with just one variable into...

...a conditional statement.

If He does miracles for us, then He must be our God and we must be His people. 

Of course, we might read this any number of ways. If He is our God, then maybe He will do miracles for us; if He does said miracles, then we are His people. Or If we are His people, then maybe He will do miracles for us; if He does miracles, then He is our God. Or maybe we take out the maybe altogether: If He is our God, then we are His people and He must do miracles for us. 

All of a sudden, faith is an SAT question. And I don't know about you, but that significantly lowers my probability of getting it right.

What we need as the foundation of our faith is a good set of givens. We need to know that there are some things that never change, some things that just...are. Things like "This is our God" and "we are His people." What if you knew, without a doubt, that those two things would never change? What if you knew that nothing could change them? Everything else becomes a variable, but faith is certain. 

The key is getting the givens right. See, we have a set of givens that we think ought to define our faith. It's these - "God is God" and "God does miracles." If God does not then do miracles for us, then He can still be God, but He cannot be our God. This makes faith the variable, and only God is certain. (But if we are uncertain about Him, He is not certain after all.)

Or maybe we say "God does miracles" and "we are His people." If these are the givens, but God does not do miracles for us, then God cannot be our God. The very nature of God has become the variable; He has become unknowable. That's no good, either. 

So we have to get our givens right, and our givens lie not in what is done or not done, but what is and is not. What exists and what does not. What is the fundamental nature of things and what is not. God is God - that is the fundamental nature of God. God is - He declares this over and over again; He exists. The nature of Him does not change. Therefore, God is is a given. And if God is, then He must also be, as He says He is in His fundamental nature, our God. This is also a given.

We are His people. Our existence depends entirely upon Him. We are His creation. He formed us with His very hands. There is nothing we can do to change this, nothing we can say that makes this less than true. There is no explanation for our being other than that God has given us this very life. And so, like any work of the artist's hands, we are His. Given.

God is our God. We are His people. This much is true. On these facts alone, our faith is secure. 

And maybe....there will be miracles. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

That's Cool

It is difficult for us to live a convincing life as people of the New Covenant when we have a relationship with the promise of Heaven more like Hezekiah's than Paul's. But what is perhaps even more detrimental to our Christian faith, and to our proclamation of our Lord, is the second part of Hezekiah's story, which has become far too much a part of our own.

As Hezekiah nears the end of his life for a second time, he asks the Lord what is going to happen. Actually, he specifies what he'd like to have happen and sort of gives God his take on things, and God replies that things are not going to go that well. The people will be conquered, captured, and exiled, and there will be war, disaster, and terror, all because the people have not been faithful to the Lord. Hezekiah's response?

That's cool. As long as things are okay for the rest of my time here. As long as things are good until I die. Then, whatever, God.

We might today call this some version of the "prosperity gospel," although it's far less cute than this criticism would tend to make it. What we have done is taken a God who has always been about His people and essentially demanded and declared that He's all about us as individuals. He's all about me. He's all about you. And most of us, to be honest, don't really care what God does, what He thinks, what He plans, what He promises except as it relates to us. 

We don't really care about our neighbor. Just as Hezekiah, the king of God's people, no longer cares about God's people. 

He's only out for himself. 

There are only about a thousand problems with this theology, not all of which that we have time to get into. For starters, it sets up this idea where there can be no accountability. Your relationship with God is your relationship with God, and my relationship with Him is mine, and how dare anyone claim to know anything about someone else's relationship with God. There's no ground to hold anyone to anything called "truth" any more.

Not only this, but we've set ourselves into a contradictory idea that almost begs our reality to lie to us, to some degree. We hear the word of the Lord declaring war and disaster and terror, and we know that this is going to be the case, but we've begged for mercy and received it; our lives are actually okay. So we too easily forget about war and disaster and terror. We too easily put them into categories of things that are real, but not real to us. And we let something as amazing as grace lie to us, in a sense, until we're lulled into a sense of false security - our happy little bubble is the real God; all that destruction and terror stuff is just some story meant to scare us. Some myth. 

When we start to think this way, we start to question disaster and terror at all, as though these are not ultimate realities in the same way that the temporary respite is. People who are troubled, people whose hearts ache, people who struggle in this world...they just haven't come to the place of peace that we have. They just don't know God the way that we do. God, see...He doesn't do all this destruction stuff. He doesn't Lord over a world where things are hard. He's all peace and flowers and rainbows. So we start to look down on one another for struggling. We start to look down on one another for hurting. If only these people knew God....

They did know Him; we led them astray.

And this is how we start to eat away at our community as the people of God. This is how we start to crumble as a people and start to break off into our own persons. This is how we stop caring about others. Because things are going well for us. Because we have peace. Because we have bought into the grace more than the truth. Because things are okay for us....and we no longer care what else God decides to do in the world. We no longer care what truth He speaks into anyone else's life, or even into our communal life. Whatever God is doing, that's cool, as long as things continue to go well for us. 

That's no way to be a people of God. That's not even a good way to be a person of God. In a sense, it's smoke and mirrors - a small reflection of what's real, but by no means the entire picture. And all of this out of a people who know all too well that there are two things we must do - love God and love each other. 

We can't love each other if we don't care what happens. We can't love each other if our only love of God is of what He does for us. We can't love each other if we hear the truth of God's Word and say, That's cool. As long as things are good for me.

That's not cool. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fifteen More Years

There are two big takeaways that we have to consider from the contrast between Hezekiah, who lived without the promise of Heaven, and Paul, who very much embraced eternity through Christ. And the first of these takeaways is this:

Most of us face death, and therefore, life, like Hezekiah, not like Paul. 

Most of us, when faced with things that could signal the end of our lives, do not say, "Yes, Lord! For whether I live or whether I die, it is all for You, and oh, how I long to be with You and so Heaven is truly a gift." Rather, we cry out, "Oh Lord, please no! I'm sorry! I'm horribly sorry! I have done a wicked, terrible thing...."

As though death is some sort of punishment for us.

And here, of course, is where theology necessarily gets a bit muddled. Because death is some sort of punishment for us; it's the byproduct of the curse, the natural consequence of our sin. There's not a man among us who can argue anything different, at least not successfully. We are all aware that death was not part of the original plan, that it was not woven into the essence of Adam and Eve but was knit into the fabric of the first fig leaves, the coverings of their shame. So to a certain extent, we are right when we cry out against death, when we repent and turn away and turn back to God and long for death to be delayed, or better yet, defeated. 

On the other hand, death has already been defeated. Of this much, we can also be sure. It's written right there in the pages of the Gospels. The story of Jesus is the saga of death's defeat; that's one of the main points of the whole thing. So when we cry out against death, we are confessing some hesitation at the Cross. We are admitting there is something we have not quite grasped onto yet, something we do not quite yet believe. 

None of this has to do with faithfulness, by the way. Hezekiah was a faithful man, an incredibly faithful man as far as kings in the Old Testament go. He did amazing things for the sake of God's name among a people who had turned away from Him. But the kind of faithfulness possible for Hezekiah without the promise of Heaven is profoundly different from the kind of faithfulness possible for Paul with it, and Paul, too, was a faithful man. An incredibly faithful man. 

The problem is, as people of the new covenant, we are far too often living like people of the old covenant. We are far too desperate for, and content with, fifteen more years (the mercy given to Hezekiah in his pleading) than desperate for, and content with, eternity (the promise of Heaven under which Paul lived). 

And if God's people are longing for more of this world, if we are satisfied with fifteen more years, what hope do we offer to this same world that is perishing? What convincing argument do we have that our God is any good thing at all, if the best He can offer us, according to our own assertion, is more of the same? More of this world? 

It's hard to hold on to Paul's theology. It's hard to say, "You know what? I could take this place or leave it because God is with me wherever I go." It's hard because there are a lot of things in this world that we're attached to, a lot of people and places we never seem ready to let go of, even for the sake of greater things. It's hard because there's so much about Heaven that exists beyond our imaginations, and our imaginations have even lied to us a little bit. (Anybody that's never had a vision of Heaven that includes us all floating around in bath robes on fluffy clouds, playing harps? Anybody looking forward to that?) It's hard for us to live like a people in anticipation and embrace of Heaven.

But these fifteen more years are killing us. 

So that's the first thing we have to recognize about the difference between Hezekiah and Paul: most of us are living like Hezekiah, and it's a disgrace. It's a disgrace to the promise of Heaven and to the God who makes that promise. It's a disgrace to us, who are more willing to live under the curse than in living hope. It's a disgrace to the theology that we profess to proclaim, a theology that has not taken hold of Heaven at all except, perhaps, as a good idea and maybe a little bit of mystery. And it's not because we don't love God. We do. 

We just don't necessarily believe Him. 

And that's...a big problem. A big, big problem.

But there might be an even bigger problem.... The second thing we need to understand here, tomorrow. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Promise of Heaven

There is a great contrast to be made between the faithful of the Old Testament and the faithful of the New, and this contrast centers around the promise of Heaven. 

As people of the new covenant, it is easy for us to assume that God's people have always taken heaven for granted the way that we do, that His children have always known there was an eternity to spend with Him and that He awaits that eternity as much as we do. But that's simply not the case. Remember, before the Cross, death appeared to have the upper hand. Death appeared to have the victory. O death, where is your sting? Right here. 

To understand the difference that the promise of Heaven makes in the life of even the most faithful of God's people, we need look no further than the lives of Hezekiah in the Old Testament and Paul in the new. Paul is a bit of an easy reference for us. We know quite well how often he says things like, "Whether I live or die, it doesn't matter; it's all for Christ. I'd rather die because then, there is heaven, but I'm here right now, and that's cool, too." 

Hezekiah is less of a familiar story for many.

Hezekiah was one of the kings of Judah, a king who "did what was right in the Lord's eyes." (You can find his stories in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.) He's one of the kings who found some of the words of the Lord in the Temple and mourned over how God's people had forsaken them over the years. He's one of the kings who reinstituted the Passover festival, a yearly sacrifice and celebration that God's people had not celebrated for many, many generations. He's one of the kings who undertook the work of rebuilding the Temple, cleansing the people, purifying the priests, tearing down the idols, and turning toward the Lord. 

At some point in his life, after committing a sin that the Lord seemed not willing to overlook, Hezekiah becomes ill. The prophet says he is going to die; he will not recover from this illness. For most of us, this would be perhaps a bittersweet moment. Like Paul, we understand that on the other side of death lie something indescribable. But for Hezekiah, it was a moment of panic. He changed his entire tune. He tore his clothes. He cried out to God. Please, Lord. Do not let me die. Death is so horrible. I'm not ready for this life to be over.

Because Hezekiah had no promise that at just such a time, life was not over; it was only about to begin. 

God grants mercy to His faithful king, and Hezekiah lives another 15 years. For us, that'd probably be enough. That's probably good. After another 15 years, most of us would be ready. But not Hezekiah. He's still not sure about leaving this place. He still has some concerns. As his death approaches once again, he asks God to reveal to him what's going to happen. And God lays out a story of destruction and exile that is being written for His wicked people. 

Hezekiah's response? That's good. That's all good. Just let there be peace while I am still alive.

Again, here we have this faithful man of God who does not have a promise of Heaven, and here he is begging for peace while he is living. That's all he can hope for. Not once when he faces death does he ask for God's grace for eternity. Not once does he speak of anything that might happen once he dies. His entire focus is on this life that he's now living, on the world that he will have to leave. Because this world is all he has.

Quite a contrast to Paul's whatever happens, happens. I have either now or I have eternity, and either way, I am blessed. 

The promise of Heaven is a game-changer, even for the most faithful of God's children. Or at least, it should be. 

More on this, tomorrow....

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Oaks of Righteousness

As I reflect on these words from Isaiah 61 (see yesterday's post), I cannot help but be struck by the fact that although in terms of my own ministry, I resonate with the first three verses, there is a certain element of my story (a fairly large element of it) in which I have been not the anointed, but the comforted. Not the sent, but the received. 

And I owe my life to the anointed ones.

I owe my life to those who have done the dirty work, who have delivered good news to me in moments of my greatest humiliation. Who have been the healing salve to my broken heart. Who have broken into the prison to set me free and done battle in the darkness with my captors that I might be released. I owe my life to to those who have comforted me, who have provided for me, who have spent their countless breaths trying to convince me to trade my ashes for a crown. To those who have made it possible for me...even restore, rebuild, and renew.

I think this is the way that it ought to be. No, that it must be. There must be, even in the stories of the anointed ones, some narrative of God's glory - a glory that does not come from the anointing but from something much more human. In that weird sort of way that God works, we must be aware that even those of us who have been called to do the dirty work must have some mud and muck in our own lives if we are to be of any value at all.

See, I owe my life to the anointed ones, and it's easy for me to say it in those words. But what that also means is that I have been humiliated. Yes, I know what it is to be humble and not by choice. I know what it is to be mocked and teased and taunted and tortured. It also means that I have been brokenhearted, that this life has not always gone the way that I hoped it would. That I have been told no. That I have missed out. That I have been disappointed. That I have struggled with agony and angst and ache. It also means that I have been imprisoned, that I have lived some of my life behind bars that I couldn't break free from; that I have been captive, that I have been held by forces that just would not let me go. It means that I have grieved, that I have mourned, that I have felt lost, abandoned, lonely. That I have covered myself in ashes and for good reason.

These are not so much the easy stories to tell. These are not the moments I relish to relive when I talk about who I am, who God has made me to be, how my story has taken shape.

And yet, it is these stories that reveal something else about my story: all the little threads of God's glory that run through it. That's what Isaiah 61 reminds us. It tells us, in beautiful language, that it is here in these broken places that God's glory is on full display. Not in the anointed, but in the comforted. Not in the sent, but in the received. It is in this mud and muck that the seed is planted and that God's people become not the anointed ones, but Oaks of Righteousness. Becoming anointed is something else altogether.

But the two are not entirely disconnected. I think if you're ever anointed, if you're ever one that God calls to do the dirty work in this world, then you have to have a story of glory. You have to have some of this muck and mud and dirt in your own narrative. You have to understand what it's like to be brokenhearted, to be comforted, to mourn. You have to have at one point been an Oak of Righteousness in order to appreciate at all the acorn.

An acorn that will grow into its own oak and reveal in greatest majesty the glory of the Lord. As they restore, rebuild, and renew. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Dirty Work

Isaiah 61 is powerful encouragement for any of us who would seek to do God's work in the world. This passage struck me last week as I read it in my morning Bible study, and they are words that I cannot get out of my head. Or my heart. In fact, I'd kind of like to plaster them all over my walls so that I never forget what the Lord speaks here through the prophet. 

I've underlined, at some point over the years, the first three verses of this chapter. They read as follows:

The Spirit of the Almighty Lord is with me because the Lord has anointed me to deliver good news to humble people. He has sent me to heal those who are brokenhearted, to announce that captives will be set free and prisoners will be released. He has sent me to announce the year of the Lord's good will and the day of our God's vengeance, to comfort all those who grieve. He has sent me to provide for all those who grieve in Zion, to give them crowns instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of tears of grief, and clothes of praise instead of a spirit of weakness.

These words struck me, and continue to strike me, I'm sure because of the powerful anointing that is written within them. This is what we think of ministry, isn't it? This is what we do, right? I read passages like this, and I want to remember them because this is the kind of good, holy work that I want to do. This is the sacred ground that I want to walk on. 

But if I want to be faithful to these words (and I do), then I have to keep reading. Because the next verse is humbling in an entirely different way. 

They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, the Plantings of the Lord, so that he might display his glory. They will rebuild the ancient ruins. They will restore the places destroyed long ago. They will renew the ruined cities, the places destroyed generations ago.

See, I thought that the first part of this prophecy was the holy work, and it is, but there's other holy work going on here, and it's not done by the one who has the Spirit of the Lord. It's not done by the one who has been anointed and sent; it's done by those that the anointed one has been sent to.

Let that sink in for a minute. Read these passages again.

There is one who is sent, and that one is doing a certain sacred work. And that's where most of us stop - with our own sacred work. But look at the work that the recipients of the first ministry are doing. They are the ones who are called Oaks of Righteousness - not the ministers, but the ministered. They are the ones who display God's glory. They are the ones who rebuild, restore, and renew. 


That's why I need to have these words plastered on my walls, scribbled on my dashboard, tattooed on my hands. Not the first three verses, not the ones that make me feel like I'm doing some special thing or anything, but the fourth one - the one that reminds me of the work that's being done by those who receive my work. The sacred things that are being done, and will be done, by those who are on the receiving end of my sacred thing.

Because I...maybe I'm anointed. Maybe I've been sent. Maybe I deliver good news and heal the brokenhearted; I certainly have ample opportunity to ache with them. Maybe I declare freedom, shout Freedom! from the mountaintops. Maybe I announce good will and vengeance and provide some meager comfort to those who grieve. 

But they are the ones who will rebuild the ruins. They are the ones who will restore the rubble. They are the ones who will renew what's been destroyed. They are the ones that do glorious things in the name of the Lord, even though it's far too easy for me to convince myself that I'm the one doing the glorious thing. 

I'm not. I'm doing the dirty things. I'm doing the dirty work. I'm sopping up the blood, soaking up the tears, picking up the tissues, and trying to hold a broken world together so that one of these might have the strength to stand again. It's sacred work. It's holy work. But it's hardly glorious. At least, not in the terms in which we look at things like glory. Not in the way in which the world sees glory, even the glory of the Lord. 

So I'm struck by these words in Isaiah, by the words that always seem to strike me, sure, but now, by the words that follow. I'm struck not by the words that speak not only of the holy work that I am called to do, but of the glorious work that others will do if I am faithful to love them, to heal them, to hold them the way that God has called me to do. I'm struck by this poignant reminder that no matter what I think I'm doing, others will do things greater still. 

That's why I do what I do. So that they can do what they will do. I do the dirty work so that these others can do something glorious. These Oaks of Righteousness, for the glory of God. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

People of God

One of the ideas that seems to have taken a backseat to our individualistic, self-centered culture is this idea of true community. We live in a world that believes that truth is relative, that what works for you doesn't have to work for me, and that our stories sometimes butt up against each other but do not necessarily meet. 

Of course, we understand that there are some people we can't seem to get rid of, but that's just one of life's little annoyances. 

And the problem with this is that it changes the way that we read our Bibles. It changes the way we comfort and encourage ourselves. It changes the way we let God comfort and encourage us. 

Take, for example, one of the most oft-quoted passages in all of Scripture: Jeremiah 29:11. 

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future.

We take great comfort in these words. The Lord Himself has a plan for me. The Lord knows what He's doing, where He's leading me, what I'm going through. He is going to prosper me. He gives me hope. 

But here's the thing - He's not talking about me. He's not talking about you. The word used here, as in so many other places in Scripture, is not really you

It's ya'll.

We don't distinguish, in English, between the singular second-person and the plural second-person; to us, they are both simply you, and we are left to figure out whether it's just me or a collective we all by context. But we don't read our Bibles in context. Not in the Bible's context, anyway; only in ours. And in ours, it's never we all; it's always me. 

That's tragic, I think, on many levels. Most troubling, I think, is that it gives us a distorted view of God. We start to get this idea of a God who is for me personally, who is doing something unique on an individual level, but who has seemingly forgotten or forsaken the entire idea of community in the same way that we have. This God, who throughout His entire Book is a God of community, has become our God of self. 

It changes the way we read Scripture. It changes the way we feel about others. It changes the way we feel about our stories. And it changes the way we feel about God. 

Think just about this passage. Think about what it means to think that God has a plan for you, specifically you. Think about the encouragement you get from thinking that these words are about the individual you. There are still so many things outside of you that don't seem to change based on this word. This world is still a mess. There are a thousand things you cannot control, a million more that don't seem to make sense. And we're left trying to stuff all these things into our smallest stories and come up with excuses or reasons why it's still okay and God is still God and I'm still amazing and there's still hope, despite all these loose threads that don't seem to be able to be woven into what we, individually are doing.

It's exhausting, really.

But now, read these words in the way in which they were written. Not that God has a plan and hope for you, but for ya'll - or us all. Think about how it changes things when it's about so much more than just you. When it's all of us. Think about the possibilities of the way that all those threads are being woven together not just for your good, but for our good. For each other's good. For the sake of the people of God, who have never been individuals but have always been communities. 

It's powerful. 

Maybe this is a little thick in the English grammar. Maybe it grates against some deep-held belief you have about your individual uniqueness or your own need for hope. I'm not trying to dash that, but we have to be willing to see God for who He really is, to read the words He really gave us, and to understand what that means. And the truth is that when I'm feeling most discouraged, when I'm feeling most stressed, I take less comfort from a God who promises me it's okay despite all the evidence than I do from a God who is writing a story that is bigger than me. When life is troubling, I have to get out of my own pages and deeper into His. I'm encouraged by the fact that it's not all about me, that it's not just me and God against the world; it's God and God's people (who I happen to be one of) who are doing this thing. This real thing. 

The way God's people always have. The way God's people always will.

And I don't know, I think it just goes a long way to remember that our God has always been a God of community. Our story has always been bigger than ourselves. So very, very often in the Scriptures, God is not speaking to you; He's talking to ya'll. And there's a reason for that. It's to remind us that we belong to one another, and together, we belong to Him. 

With hope...and a future.