Monday, October 31, 2016

Wild Imagination

Recently, I have been engaged in some deep conversations about calling and vocation. I have been reading books on the subject. One of the common themes that emerges is this idea that God's call on our lives is "often against our will." That is, given the opportunity to do what God asks us to do ...or not... most of us would choose not. 

The example is then given of Moses, who did not want to speak for Israel; of Jonah, who did not want to go to Nineveh; of Abraham, who did not want to leave his home; of Noah, who did not want to build a boat. And so on and so on. 

But if you read back through these stories, something striking emerges: none of these men actually said they were not willing to do what God has asked them to do. These, and many other of our beloved Bible characters, only ever said they were not qualified to do these things. 

It was a failure of imagination, not of will.

Moses never said he was not willing to speak for the Hebrews; he said he was a stutterer. He said that there were other men more qualified than him. He said that there were better people to do the job. It's not that he was unwilling to be the spokesman or even that he was unwilling that the Hebrews be rescued from their oppression in Egypt. He simply couldn't fathom, in the greatest powers of his imagination, that he was the guy for the job. He couldn't see it. 

Jonah never said he was not willing that Nineveh be turned from its wicked ways. He only said he wasn't the guy for the job. He wasn't the one to take the message. We get kind of a bad impression of Nineveh from the book of Jonah, and it's easy to read into it that he probably strongly disliked the city. But maybe this city just had a powerful reputation for its wickedness, and Jonah, even knowing that he was maybe a decent prophet, did not think he could say anything that would be meaningful for them. He didn't think he had the words to turn them, and if he speaks without turning them, they may turn against him. He couldn't see how this could turn out well - for him or for them.

Abraham was a childless man. He'd longed his whole life for children, but his wife remained barren. Then God says, "Go from here to there, and I will make you a father of many nations." It's not that Abraham was not willing to have children, or even that he was not willing to move. He just couldn't see it. 

Noah received the divine blueprint for saving grace. We don't know if he had any background in construction, if he had ever built (or even sailed) a boat before. Maybe there's a parallel to be drawn between the carpentry of man's first saving grace and his second, the carpenter's son. I don't know. But we never see Noah say he's not willing to build a boat. He may have a thousand other questions. He may wonder how he's supposed to accomplish this, and where he's supposed to put it while he does, but he doesn't say he's not up to it. He only says maybe he's not the guy. He doesn't see it.

For all of the stories that we see where we are so quick to say that someone was not willing, a true reading of the story reveals that it has so little to do with will; it's a matter of imagination. It's not that these men were unwilling; they just couldn't see it.

And I wonder if it's not the same for us. Could it be that our greatest challenge is not that our will is so opposed to God's but that our imagination is so limited? Could it be that we just can't see it?

If so, what, then, do we do with the call of God on our lives? 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Ready to Run

The blind men, the sick, the lame, and the disfigured needed to know whether this Jesus that they'd heard so much about - the one doing all of the signs and miracles - was for them. Could this Jesus be more than just a prophet? Could He be their God?

It's the same question that many of us still have, but we have to admit that it is a troubling one. If this God is our God and if this God is for us and if this God both can and will heal us, then why doesn't He? If all of these things are true about the God who does miracles, why doesn't He do miracles for us? If He can, and He is willing, to eliminate our suffering, then why do we suffer?

We do not see much record of this in the Gospels, at least not without reading between the lines. There is not one recorded case of a person begging Christ for mercy, reaching out to Him for healing, and not receiving it. There is not one mention of a miracle not performed. And yet, it would be foolish of us not to recognize that there was still suffering all around. 

There were always blind men. There were always the lame. These persons did not cease to exist just because Jesus was among them. We know the stories of the ones who came to Christ, but what about the others? What about the blind men who never begged for mercy? Could this Lord have been their God, too?

There's a fundamental difference in orientation between the recipients of miraculous healing in the Gospels and the rest of us. Actually, there might be two fundamental differences, neither of which can be ignored. 

First, the healed that we read about in the Gospels actually came to Jesus. It sounds basic, simple, but it's a significant aspect of this whole dynamic that we often overlook. We spend a lot of our time begging Jesus to come to us. We spend a lot of our time hiding in our rooms, lying in our beds like princesses in the tallest tower, waiting on our Jesus to slay the dragons, bust down the gates, and save us. Heal us. 

And yet, there's not one record of Jesus actually doing this. There is no story in the Gospels where Jesus says to His disciples, "Come, we must go to 1042 Dusty Way, where there is a woman in distress who requires the healing only I can provide." No. The story is that the streets were lined with the broken - blind men following the noise, lame men carried by friends, bleeding women pushing their way through the crowds, tax collectors climbing trees. Everyone who received any measure of the mercy and the grace of God through Jesus came to Him. 

That's first.

Second, and equally important, is that those who came to Jesus were prepared to follow Him. 

This is another story we see playing out again and again throughout the Gospels. Jesus gives sight to a blind man, and the blind man's inclination is to follow Him. He gives sound to the deaf, and the deaf man wants to go with Him. He casts out the demon, and the man in his right mind is prepared to join the ministry. Over and over, those who come into contact with Jesus ache to follow Him. 

Not us. Not really. Most of us want Jesus to heal us just so that we can get back to our "normal" lives. We stand like dogs at the gate, waiting on Jesus to open it so that we can run free once more. Our fundamental orientation, even at the very moments when we are so desperately seeking Him, is turned away from Him. We look out toward the horizon, rather than staring up at the Cross. And if this is the case, is it any wonder that Jesus does not seem to be in a hurry to end our suffering? If our suffering is the only thing that's holding us back from running away, why would He be quick to turn us out to pasture?

Foolish sheep! You do not know what you do not know. 

To understand our Lord in the same way that the blind, the sick, the lame, the broken in the Gospels knew Him, we must come as they came. To know that our God is for us, we must be to Him. We must come, not waiting on Him to find us, but lining the roads and crying out and climbing trees. And we must turn our faces, our very postures, toward Him, ready not to run, but to follow. Only then can we discover what the blind men did:

Yes, this is our God. Yes, He does amazing things. Yes, He does them even for me. Because my God is for me. 

He's really for me. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016


The signs and miracles that we so often ask of God can put us into a bit of theological difficulty if we are not careful. Our doubting hearts are more capable of seeing the contradictions than the confirmations, and these become stumbling blocks before us. 

But they don't have to.

It is true that Gideon asked God to do two seemingly-contradictory things: make the ground wet and make the ground dry; make the wool wet and make the wool dry. It is easy, then, to look at the God who does both of these signs with the same authority and determine that He must be in some ways unpredictable. If God can do these two dramatically different things, these two completely opposite signs, then God could do essentially anything that He ever desired to do. And how could we ever know what that desire would be?

We do not, however, have to see these as contradictory actions. In fact, they are not. God was not asked to control either the wool or the ground; He was asked only to control the dew. This, He did, on both counts. Therefore, it is perhaps most reasonable for us to conclude that God has such mastery of the dew that He is able to hold it in either direction for His own glory. 

Why does this matter? Because it pulls us out of a place where we have to reconcile a God who does dramatically opposite things. Rather, our God has done one thing. And He has done it so well that it looks completely opposite, but in fact, it is not. And do we not know that our God is the God of the paradox? This is fitting completely, then, with His nature.

It also brings us to a theology that allows us to look for the absolute authority of God and the consistency of His character. He is one thing. He does one thing - good for His glory. That's it. All of a sudden, what seemed like a theological difficulty is in fact a great comfort. 

The same can be said when we look at Jesus, who routinely "broke" the Sabbath in order to heal. This troubled the Pharisees a great deal. What do we make of a God who breaks His own word in order to do something else? If God doesn't keep the Sabbath, then why do we have to? If God doesn't follow His own word, then why should we? 

Jesus' repeated defense of this action is to declare that He's not breaking the Sabbath; He's fulfilling it. The Pharisees never do seem to wrap their minds around this. Neither, really, do we. We have in our heads an idea of what Sabbath means, an idea we gained from having so long to try to figure it out on our own. The Pharisees had hundreds of rules governing the Sabbath, all in an effort to figure it out. Jesus says their trouble with the Sabbath was not His healing on it, but their understanding of it.

So it is with most of our troubles with God.

It's not that God is doing a thing that stands against another thing that God is doing. It's often that our definitions and understandings just don't fit what God intended in the first place. Jesus does not try to unrestrict the Sabbath; He tries to redefine it. He tries to get the Pharisees to see what God intended with the day of rest all along. They just can't do it. That's why they're stuck in the theological difficulty of a so-called Son of God who can't seem to get the most basic thing right. 

Reimagine the Sabbath, and the theological difficulty disappears.

This is an incredible challenge for us, one that we fail to rise to meet again and again. For whatever reason, our understandings, our definitions, our implications are so difficult to change once we've established them. Our understandings are not responsive to the testimony of the living God, even today, and that leaves us stuck in some terrible places. 

But the truth is that every theological question that we have, at least, all of the ones that I can think of, are most easily solved by a reimagining of our terms. They are best addressed by uncovering God's original design/intent/covenant regarding one issue or another. When I give up the things that I think I know and go back to asking the questions, I discover an understanding that not only satisfies my theological difficulties but draws me more deeply into the very heart of God. Who, it turns out, has been doing this one thing from the very beginning. 

There is one more idea that we've been looking at this week - the cries of the blind men, the lame, the disabled who longed to know that this God was for them. Just as we long to know that our God is for us. This particular dynamic raises its own sticky theology, not the least of which is the problem of suffering. If we have a God who is for us, why isn't He always for us? Why do we suffer? This issue is so central to many of our deepest questions that it deserves its own discussion.

So stay tuned tomorrow for that one. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


There's nothing wrong with our need for constant reassurance. Like Gideon, we need to know if this God of ours is able. Like the people of Galilee, we need to know if He is for real. Like the sick and the lame, we have to know if He is for us. O, how I long for the day when we do not need such reassurances, but let's be honest - it's the story of our lives. 

The real trouble with this is the way that we go about it. Most often, we are setting our God up in a contradiction of some sort, all in our effort to embrace His own testimony, but the contradiction itself creates more questions than it answers.

Take Gideon - Gideon asks God to make the wool wet and keep the ground dry. God does. In his need for a second sign, Gideon asks God to do exactly the opposite. Keep the wool dry and the ground wet. One response to God's ability to perform this sign would be to praise Him, saying, yes, this God is a God of both extremes. Truly everything, from one end to the other and even in between, is under His authority! 

Another way to respond would be to ask, how can I ever know anything about this God who can do two completely opposite things with exactly the same power and authority?

Even if we accept the first response, the second still echoes somewhere inside of us. If God is capable of two completely opposite extremes, then how can we know who God is? How can we know what God stands for? We may praise God for His ability to do one thing in our lives, but there will always be this little whisper that knows He could have done exactly the opposite, as well. Rather than being comforting and awe-inspiring, this terrifies us. Does our God act on a whim? Does He simply do whatever extreme thing He wants to? What is to keep Him from swinging the pendulum the other way?

Or what about the people of the region of Galilee? The Pharisees, in particular, have this terrible habit of asking Jesus to perform miracles and signs for them on the Sabbath. This sets God up against Himself, at least in man's eyes. If God is willing to break His own commandment - that man rest on the seventh day - then what authority does He have to ask anything from us? If God doesn't have to obey Himself, why do we have to obey Him? Forget for a minute that the Pharisees were just trying to trap Jesus into a situation where they could say that He was not God; the theological issue raised by a God who contradicts His own command is much more troubling. 

And what of the sick, the lame, the disabled who came to Jesus? Most of them, especially early on, I think expected Jesus to prescribe for them some course of healing, something they could do to effect their own restoration to some degree. The old law was rife with such things - go to the priest, offer these three sacrifices, wait seven days, go through these four steps. I think most of the hurting who came to Jesus were thinking along these lines. But at some point, they just start crying out, "Lord, heal me."

That's great. It is! Jesus is absolutely Healer, and He is able to heal. But somewhere along the way, did we lose our accountability in the matter? If we just call out for miracles and signs and expect Jesus to do them for us or on our behalf, then we lose sight of what He requires of us. We see this in the disappointment even of those with a skin disease, who were sent to wash in the water. Wash in the water? How dare God require something of us! How dare He suggest we take part in our own healing! Just reach out and touch us, Jesus, and make us well! All of a sudden, we have a God who gives, gives, gives, but requires nothing. It doesn't take much to see where this interpretation leads us. 

I'm not saying that we need not look for miracles. Absolutely, we must. But we do have to be mindful of how we let our hearts interpret the incredible things that God is doing in our midst. We have to know how our heart plays with these things, and how they play on our hearts. So often, we end up in murkier theological waters than when we started out. And why? 

Because in our longing for a sign, we often end up in a place where God has to, it seems, contradict Himself for our sake.

But things aren't always as they seem.... Our theology doesn't have to be so troubled. More on that, tomorrow. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Rumors of Miracles

Gideon asked God for one sign, and then another, when God asked the uncertain mighty warrior to do the unbelievable - lead the people of God against their enemies. Many of us would say, well, of course. If God is going to ask big things of us, then it is only fair that we are able to ask big things of Him. We ought to know that the God who calls us forth is the God who has our back, the God who is able to do these kinds of big things.

But what about the people in Jesus' day? 

One of the recurring themes in the gospels is the persistent request of the people for Jesus to do something...Jesus-y. Give us a sign. Perform for us a miracle. Do the unimaginable. Do the impossible. What's interesting is that there's a pretty even divide between those who are asking because they are in need of a miracle - the blind, the deaf, the lame, the demon-possessed, the bleeding, the broken, the hurting - and those who are asking for some other reason - confirmation, condemnation, whatever.

There's not really a fundamental difference between the two groups. Both know that Jesus is a performer of miracles; they've heard the same whispers throughout the region. They're privy to the same rumors. People followed Jesus around because they knew what He was capable of - they'd either seen it themselves or heard about it. There was no question that the Man performed great miracles.

Yet the refrain of the people was the same: That was pretty cool, Lord. ...Do it again.

Those who requested a miracle just for the proof needed a witness to some kind of staying power. They needed to know that this whole Jesus thing was legitimate. One miracle may be a smoke show. Two may be a smoke screen. Three may be a product of mass delusion or intense hope. But if this Jesus can perform miracles again and again and again, then there must be something about Him for real. There must be something authentic going on here. 

We're a people who need this kind of constant reassurance. In a world where so much truly is smoke and mirrors, in a world where it's so easy to delude ourselves into believing one thing or another, in a world of superstition and faint hope, we need to know, again and again, that this God that we've invested ourselves in is real. 

Those who requested a miracle for themselves were searching for some kind of connection to this God who walked among them. Remember, man hasn't had this kind of connection with his God in thousands of years, not since Adam and Eve walked unashamed in the Garden. Now, this Son of God walks among them again, and I think the people just want to know that He's still for them. He's not some random, detached God. He's not some prophet preaching fire and brimstone or baptism and redemption. He's the same loving God who stitched together fig leaves to cover their shame, and now, here He is again - is He for us? Is He for me? 

Is this my God?

Open my eyes. 

So this need that we have for miracles, for signs, for God to show Himself again and again, this is the testimony not just of us, but of God's people from the very beginning. Sometimes, it's because God's asked us to do a big thing, or at least, what feels like a big thing. Then, like Gideon, we've got to know that God's got our back. Sometimes, we've heard the rumors of miracles and we long to believe, but like the people of Galilee, we have to know that it's not just smoke and mirrors. Sometimes, like the blind men, the deaf men, the lame, the crippled, the hurting, we've heard the whispers, but we have to know if this God we've heard so much about is our God. Is He for us? Is He for me? 

And so, we keep asking. Thousands of years later, we keep asking. One sign, one more sign later, we keep asking.

That was pretty cool, Lord. ...Do it again.

Do it again because I have to know. I need to know. I long to know....

Monday, October 24, 2016


Some nights, particularly when life is a bit heavier than usual, it's easy to lie awake in bed and think, "Lord, if only I had some assurance of your presence. If only I knew that it was you." And like generations of God's people before us, we lie awake praying for some sign, some indication that God is who He says He is. 

And then, by some grace, that sign comes. That really cool, completely undeniable, we'd-laugh-if-we-weren't-so-scared-by-it sign that is undoubtedly God responding to our feeble humanity. Our spirit settles, just a bit, and for a few minutes, we rest in knowing that God is good. 

And then, we ask Him for another sign. 

That was really cool, God. But if it was really You, You could do it again.

I don't know what it is about us. I don't know what it is that makes it so hard for us to believe, even when the evidence is right there. Even when we get the big, ostentatious, clear sign that we've asked for, the very one. 

But we're not alone. This need for constant reassurance, this searching for another sign, has been the testimony of God's people from the beginning.

Remember the story of Gideon?

God found Gideon hiding in a winepress, beating wheat. (And that's a good lesson in and of itself, but alas, for another day.) In their first encounter, Gideon asks God simply to wait. To stay there until the man can prepare a good meal for Him, some kind of offering to honor the moment. God waits, then cooks and consumes the offering Himself. But even this is not enough to prove to Gideon that this is the Lord who visits him. When God asks the 'mighty warrior' to do a hard thing - to lead God's people into battle - Gideon asks for a very specific sign:

If this piece of wool, which I place on the floor, is covered with dew in the morning, though the rest of the ground is dry, then I will know that You are God and this is real.

The next morning, there he has it - wet wool, dry ground, firm proof of the Lord's presence. After all, there is no other legitimate way to explain what has happened here. And it is exactly what the chosen man has asked for. The Scriptures say that not only was the wool wet, but it was sopping wet (God always goes above and beyond); Gideon squeezed and entire bowl full of water out of the wool. 

And then he turned back to his God and said, That was really cool. But if it was really You.... And he asks for another sign. Not just another sign, but the exact opposite one. If tomorrow morning, the wool is dry and the ground is wet, well, then, I'll know that You really are God.

You have to think God is just shaking His head at this point. You have to wonder if God's questioning whether this was the guy to pick after all, this 'mighty warrior' hiding in a winepress. This guy who has just seen one miracle and yet demands another. This man who has already seen two great acts of the Lord (if you count the consumption by fire of Gideon's first offering) and yet still needs, for whatever reason, a third. 

Why is it so hard for us to believe that God is God? Why is it so hard for us to believe that God is good? Why is it so hard for us to believe that God has not only chosen us, but chooses us, and that the imagination that He has for our life is real? 

I don't think there's anything wrong with our longing for God to show Himself, with our hope that He will demonstrate His holiness and His goodness and His promise in some tangible way. But what if one night, and one morning, was all it took?

What if one bowl of water was enough?

What kind of people would we be, what kind of amazing things would God be doing in our midst, if we could just say, That was really cool, God. Really cool. I'm going. 

No buts. I'm going. No ifs. I'm going. No what-ifs. Let's do this.

I'm going.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Good Life

Let me ask you something: how's your life?

Most of us, when asked this question, consider it for a moment and then decide that our life is pretty good. We've got a pretty good house, a pretty good job, a pretty good car, pretty good kids, a pretty good church.... Our lives are pretty good. We are living the good life. 

But then, something happens that makes our pretty good life look a little less pretty. 

What that something is is different for everybody, and it changes often, according to what out pretty good lives demand of us. All of a sudden, all the little cracks and creaks in our house start to show. We see all the things that we probably ought to fix, that we used to think gave our house charm, but they're really just disasters waiting to happen. We start to feel the quiet discontent lurking beneath our job satisfaction, wishing we'd spoken up a long time ago about all the little things that have since become the big things that make Friday, not Monday, the best day of the week. We start to see all the little rust spots showing up on our 'pretty good' car, hear all the little rattles that used to be drowned out by the radio or the wind. We see our children's hearts aching, asking questions we've never heard, and we see how just the small little things they do are cries that while they're still pretty good kids, they're not okay. They're struggling. We look around our church and see the ways that we are failing one another, feel the ways that our church has failed us. We see our shallow teachings or our empty relationships or the politics that seem to always pull someone in and always leave someone out (and far too often, that someone left out is Jesus). 

All of a sudden, our pretty good life is kind of ugly. 

And we're all just hoping no one notices.

Why can't we just be honest about our lives? Why can't we just live the lives we really have instead of pretending that they're all "pretty good"? Let's pull up to our broken churches in our beat-up old cars, rust spots showing their age. Let's wear the same clothes we wore yesterday because we haven't had time to do the laundry yet. Let's invite people over to our houses and not worry about whether they see where the porch floor is starting to warp or the ceiling is starting to crack or that spot on the carpet that we never could quite get out completely. Let's introduce them to our children and get to know theirs, and let's let our kids play together, knowing they're all a little weird. (And that's okay - they're kids. They are supposed to be kind of weird.) Let's be honest about Fridays...and about Mondays...and about jobs that don't fulfill us any more. Let's stop pretending our lives are "pretty good" and embrace all the ugly that's around us.

Because when our lives aren't so good after all, when they're just...real, then God gets to be the one that's good. He gets to be real, too.

That's what happens, isn't it? Our pretty good lives are going along with our pretty good God, and then when things start to go awry, the first thing we do is blame God for our lives no longer being pretty. But they haven't been pretty for a long time; we were just unwilling to notice it.

When we're honest about our lives, when we live into our stories as they age and fall apart and come together in new ways and start to show their messes, then whatever good we've God. It's really all because of Him. Our lives, our messy, broken, messed-up lives, are good because they've got a good God in them. And when things start to go awry, our good God only gets greater. 

That's how life is supposed to work.

So look around you. Really look. Notice all the rough spots. Notice all the rust. Notice all the little cracks and creaks and dents and dings. Notice all the ache and all the worry and all the trouble. Notice it all. And let me ask you: how's your life? 

Okay, but how's your God?

Thursday, October 20, 2016


One of the best pieces of advice that I've ever heard came from a worship pastor. He said that someone once told him to "sing in his own voice."

I think that's what Timothy was up against when Paul wrote him this letter of encouragement.

It's so easy when you're trying to learn how to do something new or when you're trying to learn how to do something better to look at the people who are already doing it and doing it well and to try to figure out how to do what they're doing in the way that they're doing. We see this very clearly in singing - who among us picks a song at a karaoke and doesn't try to sound like the person who originally did it? Who among us hasn't dreamt ourselves Bette Midler or Whitney Houston or Josh Groban in the shower? It's only natural.

So it's not much of a stretch to think that Timothy may have dreamt himself Paul. It's only natural.

But here's the thing: when we sing in someone else's voice, when we minister in someone else's heart, when we work with someone else's hands, we can only ever do what we're doing well. 

Wait a minute. Isn't "well" a good thing? Shouldn't we strive to do things well? 

I guess. Think about it, though. When someone steps down from the stage where they have sung in not their own voice, what do you say to them? Nice job. You sing very well. You nailed your Mick Jagger impression. Good work. Way to go. 

All good, affirming responses. All the very thing we think we're going for in life. 

But what about when someone steps up and sings in their own voice? Think about people like Susan Boyle. Or the 12-year-olds who sing opera. Or any number of persons on The Voice or America's Got Talent. When they sing in their own voice, we don't say the same things we say after a good night of karaoke. No, we say something even better:

That. was. beautiful.


That's what happens when we sing in our own voice. That's what happens when we minister from our own heart. That's what happens when we work with our own hands. Something beautiful. 

That's what Paul was trying to caution Timothy against - against having a ministry that was good, but not beautiful. That's what we all need to caution ourselves against - against having ministries, or even living lives, that are good, but not beautiful. They're only beautiful when they are distinctly ours. They're only ours when we sing in our own voice.

Those few words that I once overheard my worship pastor cite as the best advice he ever received have become, for me, the best advice I've ever received. Sing in your own voice. Or in Paul's words, You got this. 

It's beautiful. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not Paul

Part of Timothy's trouble was that he was young - not young in sense of age, necessarily, but young in the ministry. The people in his flock likely knew that this was the first time Timothy had tended sheep on his own.

But part of Timothy's trouble, too, I think, is that he wasn't Paul.

I don't mean this in a disparaging way. I am by no means saying that Timothy was a less competent minister than Paul or that he somehow had less authority to be in the position that he was in or anything like that. What I am saying is that I firmly believe the little church that came into being under Paul's tutelage that was now under Timothy's teaching held him to a certain standard he was forever unable to meet.

And I say that because it's the same standard we all run into in various ways.

Whether it's in a ministry or a non-ministerial job, we are often held to the example of the person who came before us. Particularly, it must be said, to the example of the things that people really liked about that person. And so much of this battle is fought in the intangibles that it can be extremely frustrating to even engage.

Timothy could have said the very same words that Paul said. He could have put the emphasis on the right syllables and followed the script to a T. He could have visited persons in their homes, shared meals with them, collected the same monies, delivered them to Jerusalem. He could have worn the same tunic as Paul, shown the same calloused hands of a craftsman, even cut his hair in the same style. And there would still be persons in his little church who would mutter under their breath, Well, he's no Paul.

Of course he's not Paul. He's Timothy.

But people get accustomed to the ways that they do things. They get used to one particular style over another. They get used to the way one person's heart infuses something with a particular meaning. They build their lives, at least whatever little part of it there is that surrounds this particular person, around the way that things are.

And sometimes, it doesn't matter what you do, how well you do it, or how meaningful your service is, there are going to be those who forever hold you to a standard you can never possibly meet. Because you are not the person who came before you; you are the one who comes after.

Does this diminish your ministry? No. But does it trouble your spirit? You bet. And that can be a serious threat to your ministry.

That's why I love what Paul says in his affirmation of Timothy. Don't let anyone look down on  you because you are young, but set an example.... In other words, again, You got this. You be you and let people see who you are. They'll hear what you're saying, eventually, but for now, let them see you. You've got nothing to hide. Just. Be. Timothy.

Just. be. you. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


In what is perhaps the most-quoted bit of pastoral advice ever recorded, Paul wrote to Timothy, Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young.

But there's young, and then there's young.

As children, we are a certain type of young, but that's not really what Paul's talking about here. In an authentic young, people don't tend to look down on us. Rather, they look at us with eyes sparkling with potential (in the best of worlds, and even in the worst of worlds, there always seems to be one or two of these amazing persons who see more than we ever thought we could be). But when we're really young, people tend to be more honest about who we are.

They know our naivete. They know our inexperience. They know that we are little works in progress, and they don't hold us accountable to standards that we cannot possibly meet. After all, we are young. This is the time to teach us.

And they do. To a certain degree, the world invests in us when we are young. In our formative years, people spend their precious time and energy trying to mold us into something great. Or at least, something good.

But as we age, we reach a certain point where we become young again, and this is the struggle that Timothy, and many of the rest of us, really have.

At the time Paul wrote these words, Timothy was no child. It's not like Timothy was an emerging leader in the First Church Youth Group. No, he was rather what we would call an "established" man, perhaps right on the edge (in our contemporary model) of deaconhood or eldership. The church was starting to look to him for some significant level of service, but it was becoming apparent that this particular teacher was a little green.

He just didn't have a lot of experience.

And in this way, he was young. He was new. He'd been traveling with Paul to some degree for a while, but this was his first real shot at doing it on his own. And Paul knew the hurdles that he would face.

People would look at him and see a man less wearied than the most-famous apostle. They would look at him and wonder about his resume. Paul could claim churches all over the region; Timothy could really only claim Paul. The new church was going to face issues; that's a given. There were going to be people who didn't truth in Timothy's leadership to see them through it. What Paul says here is, You got this. You know what you're doing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

That's the fundamental difference between being young and being young. As children, the world seems ready to teach us. The world seems willing to lend a hand to show us what we need to do. We're given the grace to mess up a little bit as we find our way. But when we're young, the world is all-too-ready to condemn. All-too-ready to scorn. All-too-ready to tell us that we don't know what we're doing, that we're not qualified, and that we may actually be a burden to the whole enterprise.

It's this kind of attitude that we face in ministry, and for most of us, it comes as quite a shock.

Because we're used to being taught. We're used to being led. We're used to being shadows of a greater apostle. When we get our first chance, we're pretty sure we know what we're doing, but there are always going to be people who don't think we have a clue and who aren't willing to give us a chance. There are always going to be people who know this is our first time and who think we ought to magically move from no real experience to at least two or three good shots at it before we get our first chance. (Yes, I meant that exactly as it reads. No, it does not make sense.)

This is where they start to look down on us. Particularly if we also look youthful.

If you find yourself in this situation, you're not alone. In fact, you're in good company. I don't know anyone who has not gone through this period of transition, this time of being young - both in ministry and in secular occupations and social positions. At some point, we're all doing something we've never done before. At least, not on our own. Not with our own authority. And it's a learning curve, for sure.

But take to heart the words of Paul to his young Timothy. Because you got this. You know what you're doing. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

All Things

Philippians 4:13. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

It's one of our favorite verses to quote at each other or to plaster on T-shirts and bumper stickers or to sign at the bottom of emails or memos. This is only more true when at hand is something that will require an extraordinary feat of strength - a cancer diagnosis, a serious injury, a difficult relationship, a major life change (a move, perhaps). Or even just something we're scared of - like skiing for the first time or bungee jumping or killing that giant spider in the bathroom. It seems that in moments where we're bound to feel our weakness, we call on Christ's strength.

But the truth is that most of us are still doing only what we can do.

We're doing the things we're sure of. We're attempting the things we know we'll complete. We're stepping into the shelter and out of the storm. We're settling into our comfortable lives, doing only some things because that's all we're capable of. Doing nothing which hangs uncertain.

And then we dare continue to say, "I can do all things through Christ."

Here's the question, though: if I can do all things through Christ, but I only attempt the things that I'm sure I can do myself, then have I done anything at all through Him? It's why, so often, my Jesus seems empty.

He seems empty to me because on some level, I realize that I don't even need Him. Not to do the things I'm actually doing. I'm handling life just fine on my own. It means I don't always get to do all the things I want, but I don't have to risk failure by trying something that's bigger than me. I may never stand, but at least I will never fall. And then my life feels full and happy because I'm super-successful all the time, but it feels empty, too, because it's not a challenge. I don't ask myself to do anything big.

And my Jesus is empty to those around me, too, because they see it even more easily than I do. Nothing I'm doing actually requires Him at all. Nothing I dare to take on takes an extra measure of strength. I claim the power of my Jesus, but I don't use it. And it leaves the world wondering if my Jesus is powerful at all.

Or if He is even my Jesus.

Yet I continue to say that I can do all things through Him. I boldly proclaim it, but my voice betrays me. Because my voice is weary. It's tired.

It's tired from doing all the things that I can do, from proving that I can do them. It's weary from working so hard and getting almost nowhere that seems important. It's exhausted from pretending that my God is my strength.

Because the truth is that when I say I can do all things through Him, I really just put a lot of pressure on myself not to fail. If I fail, then what does the world think? That my God can't do it. Even though I proclaimed that He can. So I push myself harder. I work myself harder. I run myself like a dog and burn the candle at both ends and thoroughly, completely drain myself for the sake of making my God look good. And what does it get us?


Nobody is foolish enough to think that God had anything to do with it.

Again, the world sees right through me. They see me doing only what I can do, pushing myself harder to make it look like God is able. But they know that I haven't let God do anything. I haven't let Him lift a finger. I haven't asked, haven't hoped, haven't expected anything from my God. I say I'm giving Him the glory for it all, but I'm really just giving Him the credit. There's nothing glorious about this.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. It's a beautiful verse. But if we're only ever doing the things we're capable of anyway and the weariness in our voices betrays our effort, then we ought to stop decorating our lives with Philippians 4:13. It was never meant to be our motto; it was meant to be our prayer. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Sex and the Spirit

It is true that God can make a man new again, that God redeems sinners (as we saw earlier this week). But sex is a unique situation in terms of the theology of all of this, and it must be recognized as such.

Now, let's be clear - we are not just talking about sexual sin here. Sexual sin is just like any other sin, and it can be redeemed. So many of the persons in our communities are walking testimonies of that. But the mere act of sex itself is something entirely different, and it is harder to simply "be made new" when one has engaged in sexual contact of any kind. 

This is because, unlike literally everything else in human experience, sex alters the spirit of a man. It forms for him a special bond with his partner, and this is not something you can just turn away from or let go of; it's a fundamental shift in the very nature of the man. Everything else we do flows from the spirit - good flows from a good spirit, evil flows from an evil spirit. But sex flows into the spirit and modifies it. 

There are numerous testimonies of this being the case. These testimonies come from men and women who did not understand this in their younger days and committed sexual sin - they will tell you what an adjustment marriage was, how they didn't realize how deeply sexual intimacy had affected them until they found the person with whom they truly wanted to share it. And then, it was too late for that to be wholly pure. There was a steep learning curve, and much grieving. 

These testimonies come from men and women who have been sexually sinned again - victims of rape and molestation and incest. They simply cannot shake the bonds that tie them to their abusers; their very spirits have been changed in a way that they cannot describe, maybe, but cannot just "get over." It's not the act of assault that is so damaging; it is what it does to the spirit, by the very nature of what God intended sex to be. 

These testimonies come from men and women who tried to approach this arena with wisdom, who waited until marriage, who fell in love and gave themselves, first and wholly, to the person who was going to be their partner forever. And then, life happened. Divorce. Death. Distance. Whatever it is, these people who did what God intended in their first relationships enter into second ones, and it is here that they realize how their spirit has been impacted by the union they shared with their first love. 

That's why when we talk about God "making new," it's not as easy in terms of the sexual relationship. We can't just shake those bonds. Even God cannot just shake them. It takes a reorientation of the spirit. It takes breaking something that was never meant to be broken. It takes breaking down the very heart of a man and building it again. In all other cases, God can mend a broken heart or turn a mis-oriented one. But in the case of sexual engagement, God must do the breaking. 

And that is not something God is fond of doing.

As I sit here and think about the stories of sexual unity that I've heard, both from the positive and from the troubling sides, I cannot think of a single individual who has ever gotten their pure spirit back, who has ever been so released from a sexual encounter that their spirit is whole within itself again. I know many who have said they were able to sufficiently move past it, but there is scar tissue on those souls where these sexual encounters have healed over. 

I'm not making a judgment here. I'm not putting any qualifiers or quantifiers on any of this. And I'm not disparaging sex. God created it, and it is one of the things He intended us to enjoy. I'm just saying that there is something unique in the sexual experience, something God created and wove into the very fabric of it, that makes it unlike anything else we do in this world. It makes it unlike anything else that we bring before God. It requires something different of us, and of Him, than any of the other difficulties that we get ourselves into. (Notice I said difficulties, not necessarily troubles. I'm not just talking about sexual sin, but the act of sex itself - even in the right contexts.) 

We need to recognize this. We need to respect this. We need to talk about this.

Because far too many do not understand, often until it is too late. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Last night, I made a comment on a friend's Facebook post regarding what God says about sexual intimacy - specifically that two persons who engage in a sexual act together are linked in spirit by this act. And as a single woman, I'll admit - I'm looking for someone who is not linked to anyone in this way. (Read: I hold virginity/celibacy in high regard.)

When I woke this morning, a friend of this friend had responded, tearing into the "purity culture" and calling it "total BS" that I couldn't have a completely fulfilling relationship with someone who has had sex with someone else without that other person being a third presence in our relationship. She cited her own experience as the authority on the matter, and then added that "either you believe that God can make people new or you don't." 

This is precisely the kind of argument that has taken over in our world, and it is why we are facing a crisis not only of faith, but of truth. 

This world is all-too-willing to say that God (and His truth, His standards, His values, His commandments, etc.) has perverted this world, but the truth is that this world has perverted God. 

Let's start breaking this argument down, shall we?

First, let's start with the idea of a "purity culture," as though purity is just one idea among many and as if it is a thing on its own. There is not much of a purity culture to speak of at all outside of those who believe God's word on the subject; the secular world, despite even the scientific, health-related reasons to subscribe to an idea of purity, is not espousing purity. Not by a long shot. We have replaced real talk about sex with a celebration of it. We stopped talking about the implications and started talking about the sensations. So this so-called "purity culture" is not really a thing. It's a God-thing. The two ideas cannot be separated. So let's not pretend it's a "culture" thing. 

Second, the citation of personal experience as proof-positive for the argument places this individual above God in matters of truth. "I can tell you from experience that the Word of God is not true." That's what "total BS" means. Aside from the heavy theological implications of claiming to know more than God does about a subject on which He has been clear (not to mention a human experience that He created), this is also a claim about totality of knowledge. The truth is that we don't know as much as we think we do, not even about ourselves. What feels like it's working for us today may not actually be working at all, although it may take us several days, weeks, months, years, decades to figure that out. Who among us can look back even five years and say, "Yes. I have always had it right. I have always known that was the truth. Man, I am so wise." The honest answer is: none of us. So while this person's experience may presently be that it is "total BS," she does not know the limitations of her own knowledge, even of her own knowledge of her own heart, and she does not know the whispers in the hearts of others involved in her conclusion. 

We lie to ourselves all the time. And then we tell our lies to others and call them truth. But it doesn't make them so. 

Third, and here's the part that makes this whole thing harder to untangle, she appeals to God's character and promises right after rejecting His truth. "All that stuff God said about sex? That's total BS. Because He can make people new." We do this all the time. We use one statement about God to buffer us from another. We pick and choose what we need to hold onto from Him and use it as a counterbalance to what we outright reject. 

God doesn't work that way. If your argument is that His character and His promise are true, His truth is a fundamental part of His character. If you buy that He "is making all things new," then you must also believe He is "the way, the truth, and the life." Otherwise, this god you speak of is not God; it's an idol. It's an image of your own making, in your own reflection, of whatever "works" for you. 

By the way, if your argument is that what God says about sex is not true and your proof is that He can make all things new, you have refuted your own argument in your conclusion. He would not need to make anything new if it were not broken in the first place. Therefore, from a purely logical standpoint, the second point relies on the first - it must be true what God says about sex if He is to redeem someone from the broken experience of it. This is true with or without the theological aspect of it.

Finally, let's be real about this - sexual intimacy is unlike anything else in the created world. It is fundamentally different than any of the other troubles that we get ourselves into. The argument that "God can make people new" is true. It's absolutely true. But it's a very different thing in terms of this particular question than in regard to any other. 


We'll look at that tomorrow. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


It seems like it would likely be difficult to defend a God who allows us to be in a situation where any choice we could make would be sin, where there is no 'righteous' act. But in fact, this God is perfectly consistent with who God tells us that He is. In God's eyes, it is never an act that makes us righteous anyway; it is always him. We do not do righteous things; we are made righteous. 

And this is no more true than when we must confess that there are times when we simply must be sinners.

The argument we've been playing with this week is our assertion that it may not be a sin to lie if that lie saves the life of an innocent person. The "lesser" sin of lying preserves the greater good of an innocent life and therefore, the lie, not being the most sinful act is not actually sinful at all. But as we saw yesterday, there is a great theological difficulty in trying to defend a God who claims to be truth if this very same God sometimes permits us to lie. 

There is not, however, the same theological difficulty in defending (or embracing) a God who loves us despite our lie.

It feels like a subtle difference, but that couldn't be further from the truth. In the first scenario, we are talking about a God who justifies sin, which has never been true of our God. Not once. Never in the Scriptures do we hear our God say, Please, go on sinning. But in the second scenario, we are talking about a God who justifies sinners, and that is His entire testimony. It's what He's always done.

From a practical perspective, this is great, as well. In the first scenario, I have a God who makes it okay for me to do certain things. In the second, I have a God who makes me okay. That's good news. 

It's no good news to say to someone that guess what! We have a God who sometimes makes it okay to do certain things that in other situations might be questionable or even detestable, as long as we can properly discern what those situations are and apply a certain measure of wisdom to this whole process. (Try putting that one in sermon form.) But on the other hand, it is not just good news, but great news, to say that guess what! We have a God who understands our fallen nature so well that He can redeem us even from our broken world.

And that's what's really happening here. God is redeeming us from the broken world that forces us to do fallen things. It's not that lying is okay; it's not. No matter what the circumstance, the God who is the Truth does not condone lying. But neither does He condemn the sinner whose heart is turned toward Him. 

In theological terms, we say not that He overlooks the sin, for God could never do that, but that He "imputes pardon" to the sinner. This is essential to our understanding of the dynamic here. A pardon is not necessary if no sin has been committed. But a pardon is amazing grace for the sinner.

What seems easy is in fact quite complicated, but what seems difficult is truly amazing. It's called grace. And it's what our God has always done, justifying sinners but never sin. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Truth and Lies

There is a great theological problem in our argument that sin ceases to be sin when it is either necessary or the greatest good (least objectionable). That is, there is a great theological problem when the definition of sin becomes circumstantial or situational.

It is no longer grounded in the character of God.

Sin is sin because it is against the heart of God. Sin is sin because it is against His nature, which ought to be our nature if we are to be image-bearers of Him. Sin is sin because it is against God's will, against His intended design, against His greatest hope. When we say that sin may mean something different in one situation than it does in another, we are implying that God does, in fact, change. We are implying that His heart is, in fact, variable. We are implying that His nature is somehow relative.

Let's go back to the example we used yesterday, which is one of the most popular in relation to this question. Is it a sin to lie if that lie protects the life of an innocent person?

The popular contemporary answer is "no." No, it is not a sin to lie if that lie protects the life of an innocent person.

Here's the trouble with that: God says, I am the way, the truth, and the life. He makes a very bold statement about truth here. He makes a very bold declaration that truth matters. How then can we continue to argue that our God is truth if, in fact, an untruth does not offend Him? How then can we argue that God even values truth if, in fact, there are times when He doesn't mind our lying?

See how sticky this gets? And fast!

Any time sin is situational, God ceases to be a firm foundation. He becomes situational, too. He becomes flexible. We bend our God to fit our circumstances, and it breaks His heart. Not only His heart, but His testimony.

When we think about these kinds of things, it feels like the easy answer is just to say that the lesser evil or the greater good or whatever is necessary must not be sin. It feels like it's simple. Because it sounds a lot easier than trying to explain how God would let His children end up in a place where no matter what they do, it's sin. It's easier than trying to explain that there is a place in this broken world where we have no choice but to act against God. (And it feels sometimes like either way, that's the case. If we lie, we act against God's value of truth. If we allow the innocent life to be taken, we have forsaken one of God's beloved, haven't we?)

But the easy answer is not so simple. It creates more questions than it can possibly answer. It diminishes our God. It makes Him just as relative, just as willy-nilly as the rest of us. And then what? Where do we go from a place where God is essentially no better than us? 

No wonder this world struggles with our witness.

Although it is more difficult from a heart that must live through the tension, it's actually easier to just be honest about the whole thing - either choice here is sin. We are in an unwinnable situation. Whatever we do - whether we lie or whether we forsake an innocent life - we sin. We offend our God. We break His heart. There is not here an action that God approves of. (And it must be said, nor does He approve of our doing nothing at all. For even not making a choice is choosing.)

It feels messy this way. It feels like this probably sets up even more of a conundrum for us than just deciding that sin may not always be sin, but that's just not the case. When we admit that sometimes, life puts us in these impossible situations, when we embrace that often, we simply must be sinners, we create space for God to do the most wonderful thing: be God. We set Him up to do the very thing that He truly does. 

What's that, you might ask? Stay tuned. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Little Sin

Sin is one of those icky little Christian words that we don't like to talk about much. It makes us squirm. And most of us have decided that since we are all sinners, a little bit of sin in our lives is not so bad. It's expected. After all, could I be a good sinner without any good sin?

The trouble is that in our reluctance to talk about sin, most of us don't understand what sin is any more. We have so changed the definition of sin that we are able even to justify times when sin is not actually sin.

Uh, what?

One of the best-known arguments for such a thing goes something like this: if you were a Jewish sympathizer in Nazi Germany and you had to lie in order to protect the lives of innocent Jews you were hiding somewhere in your home, then lying would not be a sin because it is 1) necessary and 2) done for the greater good of protecting an innocent life.

There are several implications made by this statement, none of which we could actually carry to a logical extreme. If a sinful act is no longer sinful if it is in some way deemed 'necessary,' how far are we willing to go with that? Who decides what is necessary? How can we even know? What if the so-called Nazi standing at the door is actually a fellow sympathizer who is working to get the Jews safely out of Germany and you don't know it? You just lied to him. Is that lie now sinful since it was not necessary? 

A second implication is that there is a hierarchy of sin (an idea that God has outright rejected). Since lying is the lesser sin, it is no longer a sin at all. Right? Allowing the innocent to die - that's the sin. Life is greater than truth. This seems to make sense to us. But who sets the standards? We do. Let us not forget that we have a Savior who died for telling the truth. So how does that play into our decision-making? (Sadly, it doesn't.) 

Third, this suggests that we have enough information (in fact, all of the information) necessary to make an informed decision about what is the right action to take. But what if, as I said before, the officer at the door only looks like a Nazi. What if we're wrong? Are we guilty of sin because we did not know better or are we held accountable only for what we know?

This is sticky stuff. It's not easy.

Most damaging of the implications of this kind of thought is that it suggests that righteousness is situational. It's circumstantial. It's rooted only in the things that always seem to be changing, in the winds of whatever blows our way. There is no way to know, for certain, what is sinful or what is righteous until the situation is real and then, it seems, what is 'righteous' is our own best judgment. 

We could also add here that "sin" appears to be only what is wrong in that situation or what is "bad." Anything that is done for "good" or done for the "right" cannot be sinful. 

Do you see the mess we're getting ourselves into? Do you see how troubling and difficult this becomes? It is almost impossible to live with. We've painted ourselves into a box where, not knowing what sin is, we have bought the lie that sin is simply whatever we determine it to be in a given situation based on our own understanding and personal ethic. 

In addition to being nearly impossible to faithfully live out, this line of thinking has serious implications for our God, as well. Don't see them yet?

Stay tuned. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Fire and Brimstone

At this point, if you've been following along all week, you might be thinking that this is a far departure from the type of thing I normally write. It is. You might be thinking how harsh it sounds to be so firm in my conclusion that not all gods are the same. It probably does. You might be thinking that it's even harsher to accuse Christians, who are just trying to get it right, of being good only at the very thing that the pagans have always been good at. It is. But there's nothing wrong with harshing a few mellows every now and then.

You might also be thinking that perhaps what I'm actually suggesting is that we go back to being a church that preaches fire and brimstone. Go back to Bible-thumping. Go back to hanging Hell over people's heads until they get that they've got nothing if they don't got God. 

I'm not. 

What I am suggesting is that these fundamental truths about the very nature of our God ought to guide us to do better the thing that we seek to do. Specifically, we've got to start loving people like they're lost. 

That's all, really. It's not popular. It's not what Christians today think that people need. We want to be known for our tolerance, for our open arms and for welcoming in all the people who disagree with us. We want to be known for not ruffling any feathers, for not demanding things be our way or the highway (to Hell), for letting people just be themselves for once without having God and the Bible shoved down their throats. We want to be known for loving people without ulterior motives, without evangelism lurking in the background, without having to always make that awkward transition between 'hey, man, great barbecue' and 'can I tell you about Jesus?'

But perhaps that's why Christianity is suffering so much in our modern world. Because God never said they would know us by our tolerance. 

He said that they would know us by our love. And our love is failing our world. 

Our love is failing our world because it doesn't speak truth any more. It's afraid to. It's afraid to look at the fallen world and declare that things are the way they are. People are hurting. People are scared. People are wondering and wandering and wounded and lost. And somehow, we've come to the conclusion that the best thing we can do for them, as an act of mercy and grace, is to not tell them about Jesus. To stop talking about God. Because, you know, they'll probably figure things out for themselves if we just give them time. 

What kind of love is that?

What kind of love looks at the hurting and doesn't tell them about a Healer? What kind of love looks at the fearful and doesn't tell them about the spirit of Peace? What kind of love looks at the wondering and doesn't show them the Answer, looks at the wandering and doesn't show them the Way, looks at the wounded and doesn't show them the scars of Calvary, looks at the lost and doesn't help them be found? This thing we're doing where we don't think the answer is Jesus any more is no kind of love at all.

It's no wonder the world doesn't know us. 

It's no wonder the world doesn't know Him.

And no, it's not about fire and brimstone. It's not even about Heaven and Hell. It's about the fundamental reality that our God is the only one who sufficiently answers these questions. It's about us taking our God at His word and knowing that faith is the foundation of all of these things. God doesn't just heal because you're a human and He has to; He heals because you are His child and He loves you. If we can't wrap our minds around the fact that what God requires most of us is faith, then none of the rest of it matters. And if His greatest promise - Heaven - even fails to require faith, if we all just go there because we're "good" and "not murderers," then none of the rest of it matters. If our God is just the same as all the other gods out there, then none of the rest of it matters. If all roads lead to same place, then none of the rest of it matters.

But it matters. Because none of these things are true. Our God requires faith, more than anything else He requires of us. Our God has promised Heaven on the basis of our faith. (Not on the works of it, mind you, but on the basis of it.) Our God is not just the same as all the other gods out there. All roads don't lead to the same place. Any argument that says otherwise started with the pagans, and they've always been good at this.

But you never hear the pagans talk about hope. Or grace. Or mercy. Or love. 

They will know us by our love. 

And listen, you don't have to preach it. This world has heard enough of our preaching. You just have to live it. You have to love people well. You have to love them like they're dying. You have to love them like they're lost. 

So would you love somebody already? For real, love them? 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Heaven and the Real World

The great catastrophe for Christians who do not want to preach that our God not only has created a Hell, but that He uses it (and uses it for those who do not believe), is that we have watered down Heaven, as well. 

No longer is Heaven the great reward, the place of the faithful, the promise of God. No. For many of us, Heaven has become just the natural next step, the thing that automatically happens to us after we die. And either one of two things is true about this Heaven - either you don't have to be faithful to get there (because the God who does not punish unbelief also does not reward belief) or it does not require God at all (it has become an outshoot of our own expectation and is no longer rooted in a solid theology). 

You may not have to be faithful to get to our Heaven. This is the reverse of the argument we looked at yesterday that God does not use His Hell for the unbeliever. If we believe, and most do, that Hell is reserved for murderers and rapists and child abusers, then it's only natural that we also believe that Heaven is for "good" people - or at least, people who don't do these despicable things. It's a nice thought, but it's not a godly one. 

Yes, God says to be nice to one another. Yes, God says to do good in this world. Yes, God condemns the evil acts that we commit against one another. But God's fundamental concern, the foundation of His very relation to creation, is not how we relate to one another; it's how we relate to Him. Do we believe, trust, hope, and love in the name of Jesus? Do we rely on what God has told us about Himself? Do we believe it? Are our hearts oriented toward Him? This is what God is looking for. Not good things, but holy things.

But when we say that He is only in search of the good, it's just one more small step in the same direction before we encounter a Heaven that does not require a God at all. If Heaven is just about good and bad, we can do that ourselves. We have communities and we have prisons - good and bad. We have friends and we have enemies - good and bad. We have right and we have wrong - good and bad. Even if you relate your concept of good and bad back to the covenant of God, He is not overall necessary for you to make these judgments. 

And then we're right back where we started - with the pagan argument that one god is as good as another, that it's okay to have whatever god you choose to have, that what works for you works for you, as long as you don't impose it on me. 

And we call that "love" or something, but it's no such thing. 

Not only has Heaven become a muddy water for us, falling generally into one of these two categories, but it has become more distant. The church has always drawn near to Heaven, but not any longer. Today's church draws closer to the world. Heaven is too far away to be relevant, too much tomorrow to be powerful today. We spend almost all of our time, if not actually all of it, trying to make our world a better place, and we've forgotten entirely that we were not made for this world. 

It's a tragedy.

And it is a tragedy born of a failure of both truth and imagination. 

Reconciliation with the promise of Heaven starts with recapturing the truth of the promise. It's not just a good place, and it's not just a place for the good. It's a place for the believer, for the person whose heart is turned fundamentally toward God. It is a place for those who ache for the Garden, who long to go back to a time when they walked freely, unashamed in the presence of a God who walked freely, faithfully among them. It is a place for those who breathe the very spirit of God, just as He intended when He leaned down and breathed life into Adam's nostrils. It's a place for those who cry out after the living God, the God who made this all in the first place. We have to put Him back in His Heaven before His Heaven becomes our Hell. And we're dangerously close. Dangerously close. 

Because the path we're on right now leads us to a place where Heaven is good, but it gets us nowhere near a Heaven that is holy. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Why should it matter to us whether the god that someone else serves is real or not? Whether that god is fundamentally different than our god or not? Because our God is the only one who declares, unequivocally, what happens to such people:

They are dying. 

They are dying without the hope of heaven. And I know it's popular for us to look at them, knowing how much we love them in our own hearts, and decide that God could never really condemn them. Decide that God doesn't really send anyone to a lake of fire, to a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

We've told ourselves all kinds of things to put our minds at ease on this. We've asked a thousand difficult questions to try to write God out of His own Word, His own promises. What if someone never hears about Jesus and therefore never has the opportunity to believe in Him? Would God really damn such a person forever just because of the unfortunate situation into which he was born? Well, what if someone faithfully gives their whole life to what they believe is the real God? Would God really condemn such a person for being wrong about who He is, when that person honestly didn't know they were wrong?

We don't want to believe that our loving God, although clearly having a place like Hell, would never use it. Except, of course, for those people that we think condemnable (and that's where our grace stops). But just for God issues? Nah. 

Do you understand this? Do you see how far we have come? God says without any buffer that He is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus says, no one comes to the Father except through Him. God makes clear that He is a jealous God; He does not tolerate rivals. Those who do not know Him, He will not know in the final days. 

And here we are saying that the only way you really go to Hell is if you do something deplorable like rape a woman or kill a child.

Hear this: a rapist, a child molester, a murderer who turns his heart toward God has more of a promise of Heaven than the most generous, kind, loving man who knows Him not. 

I'm not saying it's up to us to figure out who God redeems and who God condemns, how He makes those decisions, how His heart aches or breaks or mends over these kinds of things. What I am saying is that God has been very clear about what He requires of His people. And even if we don't want to think that our God, who created the Heavens and the Earth, also has a Hell and He's not afraid to use it, we do have a responsibility, as faithful children of our God, to take Him at His Word. 

And His Word, on this, is clear.

It's not popular. It's not politically correct. It's not without its social awkwardness. We live in a world that wants to accept everybody, that wants to embrace everyone. We live in a world where it's rude, arrogant, or worse to dare to tell someone that what they believe isn't actually working for them. We don't want to offend anyone. We don't want to rattle any chains. 

But let me tell you this - prisoners need their chains rattled! That's the only way they come free. 

And you may not want to offend anyone, but are you willing to lose them? Those who live outside of the Word of God are perishing. They're dying. And you - we - have life. We have life to offer to the dying. And we settle for tolerance. We settle for relativity. We settle for selling out, saying that our God, who spoke so clearly on this issue, didn't really mean it.

If He didn't mean this, how can we know that He ever meant anything?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

By Any Other Name

As I continue to lay out this argument about this religious tolerance that has taken hold of us Christians (and specifically, that it's more of a pagan thing than a God thing), one of the best places to start is simply to look at some of the fundamental differences between the gods of the various religions in our world and demonstrate that, no, they are not the same god with simply another name; they are vastly different gods.

There is much to love about the peace, the tranquility, and the centeredness of the Buddhist religion. Many of us look at our Buddhist neighbors and say, man, I wish my faith could be like that. I want my devotion to God to lead me to that kind of life. But it's no god that got Buddhists here; they have no god. In the Buddhist idea, all is god, and god is all, and the entire aim of life is to live peacefully and attain a transcendence whereby one becomes one with all. The devotion is led by those who have gone before who have attained this status, those who have succeeded and done it, who are not gods, but who are guides. The "gods" of Buddhism do not claim to be gods; this is vastly different from the Christian God, who boldly declares, "I Am the Lord." Additionally, the central idea of Buddhism is the emptying of oneself. For Christianity, the central idea is fullness - fullness of life, fullness of grace, fullness of Spirit. 

Hinduism is known for its plethora of gods. For any wish, want, desire, or need you could possibly have, Hinduism has a god for that. There are a few principle deities, which tend to be worshiped by larger numbers of the faithful, but the sheer number of possible deities in this religion is staggering. The faithful know more about these gods than I can ever even pretend to, so I won't, but contrast this idea with the Christian God who is "One." He is "the way, the truth, and the life." He is everything. And He is "a jealous God." There is a fundamental difference between having a god for everything and having a God who is everything. 

One of the popular ideas in the modern world is to say something like, "I'm spiritual, but not religious." This is true for a lot of people, and it should be - we are spiritual beings. (Someone once said we are spiritual beings on a human journey.) But what this does is acknowledge the hunger, the ache, the connectedness that the Spirit feels and longs for without having any real outlet for it. In the absence of a "religion," the spiritual have settled for the absence of a God, and this has left them without anything in this world bigger than themselves. They are eaten alive by the hunger that grows inside of them. Contrast this with the Christian God who breaks bread with His friends and feeds His faithful. 

A stone's throw from the "spiritual, but not religious" crowd is the "religion" of humanism, which worships the self. There are a bunch of different manifestations of this, but it all boils down to the same thing - I am my own god. I decide what is right and wrong. I decide what works for me. I decide how I want to live, how I want to die, whether I want to love. The problem here is that when you are your own standard, there is no standard at all. When you let yourself down, you just change your expectation so that, hey, it's okay. When you do wrong, you just redefine wrong as right because, hey, it works for me. There's no inspiration, no inclination to do better because you're doing just fine. There is nothing in this world bigger than you and so nothing to hold yourself accountable to. You just are what you are. But the Christian God says you are what He created you to be. You're special not just because but because you are created in the image of God. Even in your very being, there is something bigger than you, something that inspires you to grow, to mature, to be better than you are today. And God creates not just you, but the standards, as well, so that there is no question what is right and wrong. No question what works or doesn't work. No question about how you ought to live, how you ought to die, how you ought to love. The Christian God provides a concrete way to live; the god of self is always trying to figure it out anew.

Things start to get a little more muddled when we come to the religions closest to Christianity. Islam, for example, actually does start in somewhat the same place - with Abraham. If you remember your Bible, Abraham had two sons - Ishmael with the servant Hagar and Isaac with the wife Sarah. Ishmael, the illegitimate child, was sent away after Isaac comes on the scene, and Islam is the religion of Ishmael. Often, this leads the uneducated to say that Allah and God are really the same god, just with a different name. But both Christians and Muslims would reject this idea. (For the record, the Muslim argument is that the Bible is corrupt and therefore cannot accurately convey the character/nature/reality of this God of ours.) Allah has no intimate relation with his people the way that the Christian God does. He holds out no promise of heaven; heaven must be earned. There is no grace. There is constant strife. And I think, fundamentally, this comes from the story of Ishmael vs. the story of Isaac - Allah never brought his people home. They're still wandering. They're still searching. They're still living the life of the cast-out. The Christian God creates a place for His people. He brings them home. He ends their wandering. He is found. And He welcomes in the outcast. So while it's tempting to say this must be the same god with just a different name, since both religions start with Abraham, it's not accurate. And the implication is the difference between living life as a wanderer and living life as a prodigal. 

Finally, most closely related to the Christian God is the g-d of Judaism. (Jews do not utter the name of their g-d, which is why I have omitted the middle letter, per their custom.) This is super-muddled because they actually are the same deity, to some degree. The g-d of the Jews is the God of the Old Testament. We know the story of this g-d intimately, and we say, of course these are the same gods - we just have two versions of the story that end in different places. But that's what creates the dramatic difference here. The g-d of the Jews leaves them living under the law. He is a g-d who has made the promise, but has not delivered on it; they are still waiting on the Messiah (and some have even said that the time for the Messiah has passed, so he is not coming; others believe in Jesus as the Messiah, in addition to continuing the law-based religion of Judaism). For the Christian, God has both promised and delivered, and He has promised again, which is why we can have any hope at all in Heaven. He's already delivered on one promise, so we can trust Him to deliver on another. And we live not under the law, but under grace. Which means that even though Jews and Christians can legitimately claim to serve the same Lord, there are still fundamental differences here, as well, which have serious implications for both theology and for living.

So we say that whatever god a person serves is the same God with a different name, but it's just not the truth. There are fundamental differences at every juncture that set the Christian God apart from these others. (And it is true that it sets them apart from Him, as well.) Claiming anything else is either foolishness or ignorance. The Christian has a God who fills His people, who is One, who feeds His people, who holds them to a higher standard, who brings them home, who delivers on His promises, and who extends His grace. No other religion can say that. None.

There is something special about our God. And that's why we need to stop selling Him out in the name of religious tolerance. 

Because God's people aren't supposed to be good at that; that's for the pagans.