Wednesday, November 30, 2016


All of this talk about Genesis, about the Tree of Life, death, and the Knowledge of Good and Evil raises a bit of a difficult question, doesn't it? Adam and Eve eat a piece of sinful fruit, come into the greatest knowledge possible on this earth (the knowledge of all good and all evil) and dive for the bushes in shame. The sticky question, then, is this:

Is God not good?

It's one of those questions we don't like to even entertain as Christians, thinking that somehow even the mere asking is a sign of weak faith. But our God is a God of questions; He doesn't mind them. And good questions can only ever make our faith stronger. So here goes.

If Adam and Eve know all good and all evil in the universe, would not this imply that, if God is good, they would absolutely know this, just as much as they knew their own nakedness? And if you suddenly come to know that God is pure good, do you not go running to Him with everything that you are? This is what most people say that they're waiting for, when they aren't ready to commit to a life of faith. "If only I could know for sure," they say. Well, would not Adam and Eve have known for sure, if God truly was good? 

Where did that get them?

With poison ivy in all the wrong places.

There are, as I see it, three distinct ways to respond to this conundrum (and there are likely many more, but these three should be broad enough to cover most of the gamut). First, we could say that God is indeed good, but that this knowledge that Adam and Eve gained was not exactly how we conceive of it. Perhaps they came to know of "all things," without the knowledge itself distinguishing good from evil. And then, they were simply so troubled by their own nakedness that they did not have the time to process anything else until it was too late. Their nakedness was such a shock to them that the nature of God got pushed away for later consideration, but later never came because the Lord Himself came. 

It's not unlike God to give us the intelligence to make our own decisions about such things. In fact, if God is a God of faith and free relationship (love), then doesn't it make sense that this one tempting tree would not be capable of confirming His very essence? That does away with faith, does it not? So it is possible that Adam and Eve came to know all things, but the value judgments were somehow left to them. They could know, but they had to, for themselves, figure out what their knowing meant. 

Another possibility is that God is good but He so designed us that we would be troubled by our own nakedness, should we ever discover it. If we were not troubled by our nakedness, what would ever draw us back to God from our sin? Yes, Adam and Eve hid in the bushes, but it was God who truly covered them. It was His love that stepped in. If they had eaten the fruit and been okay with what they discovered in all knowledge, then what is the use of the Lord any longer? Perhaps God worked it into the system that all things, even all good and evil, would drive us back to Him, would make ways for His love. Doesn't that make sense?

A third possibility, the one perhaps most difficult for us even to consider, is that God is simply not good at all. Before you go crying "blasphemy!," hear me out. When God reveals Himself to His people, "good" is not one of the things He reminds them of about Himself. He declares His faithfulness again and again, but faithfulness is not quite the same as goodness. He most often simply says, "I Am." So if God simply is, then is it fair to put a human judgment of quality on that is-ness? We have called Him good, but what if the knowledge of good and evil does not contain a revelation about God at all? What if the reason that Adam and Eve did not go running to God for His overwhelming goodness when their eyes were opened is because God was not revealed to be good? Rather, they knew of Him only what they had ever known of Him: He is

I don't think that has to be theologically troubling. After all, isn't that still true of our relationship with God? Many Christians, even the most devout Christians, struggle to explain God's "goodness" in the face of such evil in our world. But what if God just isn't good? What if that's our problem? What if God just is? I kind of like that idea. A lot. Rather than creating theological difficulties, it solves a lot of them.

Doesn't it?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Good and Evil

All you have to do is look around you to know that man has lost whatever knowledge he once had of good and evil. The world is testimony enough of this.

And it's not that we do not know what is in our good nature. Rather, it is that again and again, we are being told what it is that we do not know, what it is that seems to have somehow escaped us. Again and again, this world is content to tell us that we are naked when, perhaps, left to our own, we would never have known.

They say that things like hate and evil are learned, that they aren't inherent in who we are. They say this as they show us pictures of little children playing together, children who have no understanding that their best friend is, in the world's eyes, quantifiably different than them in some seemingly-important way. To the child, this is just a friend. And it is true also that given only to their innate hearts, people overwhelmingly reveal themselves to be those who give generously, who help selflessly, who love deeply, and who generally contribute to the overall goodness of the world. At our core, we are naked, but we know it not.

Then the world steps in.

The world steps in and tells us that there is, in fact, an "us" and a "them." That there are fundamental differences between groups of people that we cannot, and should not, ignore. The world steps in and tells us that people are taking advantage of our good natures, that we're giving more than we can afford to give, that our love is misplaced. The world steps in and shows us all of these broken things, and it sends us diving for the bushes, trying desperately to hide our newfound nakedness, though it never had been a problem before.

And isn't that the funny thing about this world? It claims to be the expert on our nakedness. It claims to have the authoritative answer to what is good and what is evil. But it spends what seems like all of its time trying to convince us only of the evil, trying to keep us from seeing the good. Trying to spin, even, what is good into that which lives only in the full light of evil. That is, "good" is living with eyes wide open to all the traps that evil has set; there is no good apart from evil.

Oh, how backward this all is! The truth is that there is no evil apart from good. Evil is nothing more than the corruption of good. 

Go back to the Garden for a minute. Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they were naked, but not ashamed. Was their nakedness always something to be shameful of, and they simply did not know it? Of course not. That would imply that God created the world into a state of shame without telling them. That violates two fundamental characteristics of God's nature - His goodness and His truth. So it can't be that we just did not know that nakedness was bad; it truly was not bad, until evil corrupted good and told us that it was. 

Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they lived in fellowship with the God who walked in the Garden with them. Never before had they hidden from Him. But one bite, and they are diving for the bushes. Was it evil that they had walked with God all those days before, and they only now knew what evil it was? Of course not. Once again, evil has corrupted good and convinced man of its realness. 

So perhaps we have not forgotten, after all, all that we learned from that first bite of sinful fruit, all that we once knew about good and evil. Because, perhaps, this world will not let us forget. We are born knowing no better, but it doesn't take long before this world reminds us of all that we have tried so earnestly to forget. Listen to the world, and it's the Garden all over again - evil is real, good is a smokescreen, and the bush is the place to be.

Come, let us hide together. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Unknowing of Good and Evil

Since there was no prohibition in Genesis against eating from the Tree of Life, we can only assume that Adam and Eve had, at least at one point, eaten from its glorious fruit. And we have to assume that its life-giving deliciousness was meant to be consumed regularly in order to reap its benefit.

If this is true of the Tree of Life, it must also be true, mustn't it, of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And therein lies an interesting conundrum:

If Adam and Eve simply stopped eating the sinful fruit, could they have gone back to a state of unknowing and therefore, pure worship?

There are several considerations at play here. First, of course, is the question of how much a person can ever truly forget. It is possible that they could have completely forgotten the knowledge of good and evil and returned to a state where their eating of that tree (or not) would have been pure obedience once more. But human experience tells us there is always this lingering hint of a whisper that, "I used to know that...." or "I used to be so sure about...." So there is a part of us that must confess that the unknowing might have eaten at Adam and Eve's consciousness just as much as they had eaten on the fruit, and it may have drawn them back to the forbidden tree again and again, purely out of the fear and discomfort of unknowing.

Which, surely, is an evil in itself and one they would only know by having eaten of the tree. So is it possible that they would forget the displeasure even of unknowing? It's hard to say.

At the same time, they have eaten a fruit which gives them all knowledge of good and evil, which means - they know fully now what it means to eat this fruit. They are completely aware of its consequences. They are also, probably, completely aware of how it works - that they must continue to eat from this tree in order to retain this knowledge. Therefore, having eaten the fruit once, they are now conscious of their need to continue to eat the fruit in order to maintain its benefits. 

(It must also be said that they would have become fully aware of the Tree of Life and its benefits and, if it had been a one-bite-takes-all sort of fruit, would not the completely-aware Adam and Eve, in the very face of death, have gone immediately to chow down and thus prevent their inevitable end? This lends further to the argument that it was a tree meant to be feasted from routinely, rather than simply once.)

On the other hand, they have eaten a fruit which gives them all knowledge of good and evil, which means - they know fully now what it means to eat this fruit. (Yes, that is an exact repeat of the above sentence.) But perhaps they do not like all that they have come to know. Maybe the burden of this knowledge is too great for them. Perhaps, even, they have understood now how their knowing negatively impacts their relationship with God. Perhaps, given the opportunity, they would not eat the fruit again, for they would not want this heavy weight it has brought upon them.

Of course, once the knowledge of that first sinful bite wears off, would they remember how much they were troubled by this knowledge? Once again, we have walked into a conundrum for which there is no easy answer.

And where does this all leave God? Here he stands face-to-face with His creation, a creation that has directly defied the one rule He's given them. He knows that in their hearts, this could go one of two ways - they could fall in love with the knowledge that they have and therefore continue to eat from the tree (and also, the Tree of Life), and then there would be nothing He could do to get them back. Conversely, they could be so burdened by the knowledge that they vow never to eat from that tree again, only to forget the burden (and the vow) when the effects of the fruit wear off and eventually sin all over again, only to experience heartbreak after heartbreak after heartbreak as they come to this same place again and again and again.

So the only thing a loving God can possibly do is to remove the temptation altogether. The only possible choice that God has is to say, "I cannot tolerate either your heartbreak or mine, so I'm giving you another place, and I will figure out another way." Thus sets in motion the Messiah, the Christ, the redemption.

And thus sets in motion man's forgetting all the knowledge that he ever had. Unable any more to eat from the tree, it doesn't take long before we see man fall into a place where he no longer knows what is good, what is evil, what is right, what is wrong....

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Tree of Life

The common Christian teaching goes something like this: In the beginning, everything was perfect. Man lived in perfect relationship with God in the Garden and did not fear death. But then, man disobeyed, ate a piece of fruit, and "death entered the world."

The common Christian not quite right.

This may surprise many, but death was present in the world before sin. At least, the Genesis record seems to indicate as much. Before sin, death was a possibility. The sin of the first man and woman made it only a guarantee

See, there were two special trees in Eden - the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. Adam and Eve are commanded not to eat of the first, but they are given no commands regarding the second. Why? Because God always intended them to feast from the Tree of Life.

In fact, I think it's quite possible that Adam and Eve had already eaten of the Tree of Life, perhaps even multiple times, before they took a bite off the forbidden tree of knowledge. 

How, then, did they die?

They stopped eating from it.

It seems too simple, or perhaps, too complicated. Would God really demand that His creation routinely eat from the Tree of Life in order to live forever? Of course He would! This is a God whose entire testimony is one of demanding constant faithfulness, repeated acts of worship. We pray, but we must keep praying. We tithe, but we must keep tithing. We read the Bible, but we must continue to read the Bible. We go to church, but we must continue to go to church. The entire sacred season is set up in calendars and rituals and festivals. We come to the Cross, but we must continue to carry our own Cross. Our God is a God of steady faithfulness, which requires not only that we do something, but that we keep doing something. (Some of this, of course, changed with Christ - baptism, for example. And that pesky little redemption thing.)

In the Old Testament, Israel brought sacrifices daily. Daily! It seems that even though the sacrifice sets your heart right with God, you must keep bringing it and keep setting your heart right or you will fall into trouble.

The same is true of the Tree of Life - men and women ate of it, but they must have continued to eat from it in order to live. They had to keep coming back. It's the way God's wired our hearts, and the way He planted His garden. Had Adam and Eve chosen not to eat from the Tree of Life, had they chosen to go too long without coming back to it, they would surely have died. 

Just as we do when we stay away from God too long.

And that means that death was always possible, from the very beginning of creation. (And we know this, too, because creation continued to regenerate itself, and we know that new life requires death - the seed dies in order that the flower might grow.) The difference is that after sin entered the world, death became not a possibility, but a promise. God removed His people from the sacred space of the Tree of Life, that they might not be able to live forever a miserable life of knowing too much. 

Although if you understand at all what I'm saying here about the Tree of Life, you understand, too, that whatever man came to know in that first sinful bite, he was destined to forget in short order....

Thursday, November 24, 2016

An Attitude of Gratitude

At some point today, most of us will be asked what it is that we are thankful for. We will be given an opportunity to mention, by name and by detail, those persons and things that markedly improve and bless our lives in some meaningful way. And that's great.

But gratitude is an attitude. Thankfulness is a matter of the heart.

That means a couple of things for our holiday celebration. First, it's okay if you can't think of anything specific to "be thankful for" around your table this year. I think a lot of times, that comes off as ungrateful. It comes off as non-participatory. But if thankfulness is an orientation of the heart, an attitude, then it doesn't require an object, necessarily. It is okay to just be thankful without putting a lot of details to it.

I struggle with this. I struggle with this because when I say that I am thankful for _______, I am immediately aware of all the things for which I am thankful that are excluded by that one particular choice. And now, I feel guilty for having chosen that one thing over and above all others to name by name. For guilt, I am never thankful. So must I name by name all of the things for which I am thankful, lest I leave someone or something out? We will be here all day!

But if I just sit back with a simple little smile on my face, sipping sparkling cranberry juice and laughing heartily with those around my table, is this not my thankfulness? Is this not the very thing which we seek to celebrate in this season, on this day? It is okay today to simply be thankful, not for any specific thing (or perhaps even for every specific thing), but just to embrace a general thankfulness that quiets the spirits and deepens the laughter and embraces the joy.

Our thankfulness runs much deeper than the blessings that we can name.

The second thing that an attitude of thankfulness means for our holiday celebration is that if our thanksgiving is confined only to a passing of thanks around the table, we're doing it wrong.

If you're yelling and screaming at your kids to get in the car so you can make it to Aunt Judy's on time. If you're tripping over your loved ones in the kitchen as you work to set up your award-winning sweet potatoes while they're finishing up their green bean casserole, and you both end up swearing under your breath and perhaps not so much under your breath. If you're fighting over which parade to watch, how loud the television will be, and at what point to switch over to the football pre-game. If you can't find the brown sugar that you know you just bought, and no one seems to be willing to get up and come help. If you end up yelling, screaming, cursing, crying, biting the heads of the ones you love most deeply just minutes or hours before sitting around a table with them and giving them your thanks, you're doing it wrong. 

Because it's hard to believe you're a genuinely thankful person if absolutely nothing in your attitude reflects that. If something in your spirit hasn't settled into thankfulness today, then simply speaking your thanks over a certain blessing in your life is not likely to redeem what is broken in you. (Maybe it will; I don't know. But I know that for me, when my spirit is seething and I speak my thanks through gritted teeth, it doesn't quite feel valuable. It doesn't feel authentic. It doesn't feel real. Not only do I feel fake, but everyone else feels my fakeness, too.) 

You know what? I'm going to say it - it's okay this Thanksgiving, if the holiday has brought out the stress in you, if you're having trouble getting your attitude to center in gratitude, to simply say that. It's okay to say, "This Thanksgiving, I am truly thankful for you, for my people. But to be honest, I am struggling today to get my heart in accord with that. So I apologize." 

It's okay to be thankful and sorry this Thanksgiving.

And you know what? It's okay to not be thankful at all. If you're not feeling it, if you've had your share of struggles lately, if this whole big thing has got your stress levels running high and you're just ready for this to all be over, if you just can't muster one even half-genuine-sounding thanks today, that's okay. Show up anyway. Enjoy your people. Pass your plate. And let it be what it's going to be. 

Happy feasting to you and yours, on this day of thanks.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Tell most Christians that the world hates them, and they will likely just shrug. The world has always hated Christians. Didn't Jesus tell us that the world would hate us? 

We must be doing something right.

....not quite.

It is true that the world has essentially always hated its Christians. It was true at the very beginning, with guys like Saul going about persecuting "the Way." It is true today, in the West, in particular. But it was a very different kind of hate that Saul had for Ananias than the hate that today's world has for us. And Jesus, in His caution, was talking about Saul's kind of hate, not this world's kind of hate.

See, Saul hated Ananias's kind of Christian because these Christians were a threat to Judaism. They were doing something fundamentally right that was drawing people away from the synagogue and into the church. They were generously giving, helping those who were often left out of Judaic aid. They were praying faithfully, singing loud, and loving well. There were a few bugs to be worked out, of course, as is true of all new ventures; the first Christians were not perfect, but they were getting a lot of things right. And they were hated for the way they threatened to turn this world upside-down.

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and this is not the reason that the church is hated today. Sure, there is some of this mentality left. There are some who hate the church for the threat that it poses to the world's order and systems. But by and large, the reason this world hates the church is not because we're getting something fundamentally right; it's because we're getting even our own theology fundamentally wrong.

It's because the world knows we're supposed to be the ones generously giving, but Christians have become the stingiest segment of all society. We have more rules on who we help and how than the world does. 

It's because the world knows we're supposed to be praying faithfully, but the world knows we pray only frantically, calling on God because we desperately, urgently, immediately need a token of good luck or good faith and not entering into true relationship with Him.

It's because the world knows we're supposed to be singing loud, but we've locked our doors and windows so tight that no one can hear the music any more. We've cloistered ourselves away, afraid, maybe, or whatever.

It's because the world knows we're supposed to be loving well, but let's be honest - today's Christians are known more for their hate than their love. 

This is not what Jesus meant when He said the world would hate us. This is not prophecy coming true. This is not something to be proud of. 

We are getting it so wrong that the world hates the joke that we've made of our own religion. This world hates us because it can't honestly hate us any more. This world is mad because we've given them nothing to be mad about. This world hates us because of our failures. That's not how it was supposed to be.

When Saul looked around and saw these men and women worshiping in this powerful new way, he raised a finger and shouted, "You! You call yourself a Christian!" in powerful accusation, in the same tone as the guards around the fire attempted to single out Peter as one of Christ's disciples. 

Today, the world looks at us and simply shakes its head. "You call yourself a Christian?"

I'm not saying the world ought to love us; even Jesus said that's not going to happen. I'm not saying our Christian walk should be sunshine and rainbows; we should not be so naive. But I'm heartbroken at the number of Christians who are so darned proud of themselves that this world hates them that they don't see the difference between the hate Saul had for Christians and the hate this world has for them, that they don't see the difference between being hated for their love and being hated for their failure. 

Today's church is content to keep failing because it keeps this world hating us. But that's not good enough for me. That's not what I'm called to. That's not what we're called to. 

We're called to get things so fundamentally right that we pose a threat to this world, that they hate us because we're about to shake their very foundations, that they despise us because we're going to turn things upside-down. That's the church I want to be a part of. That's the church we ought to be. 

Let them hate us because we love. Let them despise us because we're merciful. Let them become intolerable of our grace. Let them say, with both fear and disdain, "You! You call yourself a Christian!" 

Indeed, I do. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Becoming Ananias

We have much to learn from Ananias. Yesterday, we looked at what this story must look like from Saul's perspective, when he opens his blinded eyes to see that not only does this Christian stand before him, but this Christian dared touch him...and he was touched by a Christian. 

It would be easy, then, to say that Ananias teaches us to go where God sends us and touch who He tells us to touch. 

But that would be missing the point.

The truth is that Ananias had a thousand ways to mess this up, even if he still went. Even if he still healed this Saul. Being obedient is more than just doing what you're asked; it's doing it in pure heart and good faith. The story of Ananias should not just be what he did, but we should focus emphatically on how he did it.

First, he had his concerns. He had heard about this Saul and knew exactly what this man was about. So the first thing that Ananias does is confess his hesitations to God. He turns to God for reassurance that it's going to be okay. He doesn't talk to the experts in Jewish persecution. He doesn't talk to a thousand friends. He doesn't post on Facebook this "crazy thing" he's thinking about doing, making it some poll of public opinion, as though just anyone could talk him out of it. He goes straight to God. He says, "Hey, I've heard about this guy. Are You sure?" And when God says yes, that's all he needs. Off he goes to visit the persecutor.

When he gets there, he does not hold the goodness of God hostage to Saul's heart. Oh, this is where we are so good at what we do. We are so gifted at holding God hostage to what other people do. Bless you? You want me to bless you? You have to show that you're worthy to be blessed. Forgive you? Are you sorry? We wait for some sign that the person is worthy of God's goodness before we even dare offer it, but Ananias does no such thing. He doesn't make Saul promise not to kill him. He doesn't make Saul promise to change his ways. He doesn't ask Saul to recite some creed or prayer or whatever to show that he truly has a heart for God. Ananias touches the man and heals him because God sent him to do just this; whether the man meets Ananias's criteria is null. He meets God's. That's enough. (And it's good, too, because I don't think Saul's heart actually turns until his eyes are opened again. I think in the darkness, he was a mess, but in sight, he was redeemed.)

Even after Saul opens his eyes, sees the Christian standing there, and has this awkward silent exchange where they look into each other's eyes and see what they've heard each man to be, an image falling away in new eyes for both of them, Ananias does not say, "Are you going to kill me?" He doesn't bring up Saul's past. Now is not the time. It's too soon. Here is this Saul who is about to do a new thing, and Ananias doesn't hold him back by proclaiming the old thing he's always been. We are too good at this, too. We are too good at holding others to what they always were, never giving them a real chance to do a new thing. Now, maybe twenty years from that moment, Ananias and Paul could be sitting around a table sharing a meal and Ananias might say to Paul, "Man, brother, I was so nervous. I was shaking in my boots. A Christian sent to heal a persecutor? I must've been CRAZY. I just knew you were going to kill me." Twenty years later, they can laugh about it. In the moment, though, it would have ruined everything. 

And after all was said and done, Ananias let Paul go. He let the man continue on his way, with his ow friends. He didn't crowd in, press his way into the group, demand that he gets to be part of the gang. He didn't linger around, waiting on Paul to somehow thank him or show his deepest appreciation. He didn't demand anything in return, and he didn't require that he be given due credit in Paul's continuing story. He didn't seek recognition. He simply...let the man go. And he, Ananias, returned to his place, as well. 

We have much to learn from Ananias. Indeed, our ministries in the world would be more fruitful, I think, if we could follow his example. First, bring our concerns to God, not to the world. Ask God for clarification and affirmation. These things don't need to be public opinion polls; either God says go or He doesn't. Second, stop holding God hostage to the hearts of others. We never know what God could be up to, what He could do or maybe even is already doing. Persons don't have to be deserving of God's grace before we give it to them; Lord knows none of us were worthy when He gave it to us. Third, let it drop. Stop holding people hostage to their own stories. Stop bringing up who they were, even if there is long-running testimony to this or that or the other. Twenty years from now, maybe, but not right now. Not here. Persons who have been touched by God, even through our hands, are right on the verge of doing a new thing. Let us not hinder them in that. And then, let them go. Stop demanding recognition for the part you played in someone's life. Stop demanding that you get to be a part of their ongoing life forevermore. God operates in seasons and in moments. Ananias was called to open the eyes of the blind man, not to enlist with the man's ministry team. Do what God sends you to do, and then go home. And let others go on. It's that simple.

Learn from Ananias. 

He has so much to teach us. 

Monday, November 21, 2016


When we read the story of Saul's conversion in Acts, the way he was blinded on the road to Damascus, the short sentence about spending three days in this condition, and the way a man from another town came and restored his sight, we often miss the full impact of what was happening here. We read the story and focus on what others saw happening to Saul, what we see happening to Saul.

But what about what Saul saw?

This, I think, is the real beauty of the story. And it is where we, as Christians, have the most to learn.

Saul had set out to persecute Christians in Damascus. He had official letters permitting him this work. Everyone in all the region know about Saul and his zealousness for the Temple, for the "real" worship of Judaism. Everyone in all the region knew the way he detested Christians and the very real threat he posed them, wherever they were found. And this is what Saul is on his way to do - terrify more Christians, capture and persecute them. Perhaps even put them to death. 

Ananias knew this. He knew this too well. When we see the messenger of the Lord appear to him and guide him to go to this "man named Saul," Ananias says no way. It's a death sentence. It's a trap. This messenger of the Lord must be mistaken; does he not know who this Saul is to whom he is sending the man? 

But Ananias goes. And Saul, who did not see, but only heard, the One who blinded him, opens his eyes to see standing before him...of all things...a Christian.

We read right past this moment, but we shouldn't. We can't. This is the beauty of the whole story. I mean, the God thing is cool - all the blindness and restoration of sight and miraculous and all that stuff. But this...this human element, this is the key to everything.

Saul, who has made a profession out of hating Christians, opens his eyes, and that's the first thing he sees. Not just a Christian, but a Christian who is unafraid to be so close to him. A Christian who stands before him without fear. A Christian who was willing to come and even touch him at the command of the messenger of God. 

Maybe most of you don't get this, I don't know. But when you've spent your life being tough, when you've built your reputation on being terrifying, when you've invested your days into making sure that certain people stay away from you, having someone stand boldly in front of you who doesn't buy your bravado is a powerful experience. The way this Christian just...stands there. Man, Saul had to have this moment of, "WHY are you not afraid of me???" and then, more quietly, "Thank you for not being afraid of me."

Because when God turns your heart, you just don't want people to be afraid of you any more. You don't want people to hold you to being the person you always were, not when you know that you're not that person any more. So there's this powerful moment here, but that's not all.

Not only is this Christian standing there, having placed his hands on Saul's eyes to open them (knowing that he would be the first thing the persecutor would see), but Saul permitted himself to be touched by a Christian. 

I don't know if he knew that Ananias was a Christian as this was all unfolding or understood it only after his eyes had been opened. I don't know if he thought God was going to send a Jewish redeemer to him or whatever. But Paul did not recoil when he figured out it was a Christian who touched him. The very thing he so despised had reached out in tenderness and healed him. 

It's so easy for us to read right past all of this, since God did such a big thing here - at least three miraculous events all tied up into this narrative. God blinded the man, healed him, and changed his heart. That's pretty cool. 

But the very real human element is also really cool. And spoiler alert - every good God story has this very real human element. God never does anything just to be God. He doesn't do anything just because He can. Everything God does is tied into our stories in some powerful, meaningful way, and if we are able to see through Saul's restored eyes, even just a little bit, we start to see how powerful and meaningful the human element in this story is.

And that ought to be an encouragement to us. That ought to be a lesson for us. This ought to be a scene from which we, as the faithful, learn a great deal. We may not be able to blind a man, or to restore his sight, and we may not be blinded ourselves, but we all have a bit of Ananias in us. We all have this call on our lives to go, unafraid, and stand boldly before the terrifying, touch the one who may not want to be touched by us, and restore him

In fact, this is the very thing our world needs more of from us. ....

Friday, November 18, 2016

Sanctified Imagination

Recapturing the image of Heaven, beyond mere singing and harps, beyond streets of gold, beyond the simple contrast between Heaven and that other place (which we also have so wrong) requires an act of sanctified imagination.* In fact, it is precisely this type of imagination that we require to understand the Scriptures at all.

What we see in our Scriptures is nothing but a snapshot; it's not a full script. It's like walking in on skit practice and seeing only a few lines here, a few lines there, but being left to wonder what the full scene looks like. In fact, it might be said that one of the greatest troubles of the church today is that we lack a sanctified imagination, and we treat these snapshots as full-length plays.

We forget to recognize what we aren't given. When the religious people of the town bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus, we see Jesus, alone, crouched in the dirt, surrounded by a ring of religious zealots and one naked woman, fearing for her life (among other things she might be feeling). We don't really imagine any of this; we just accept it.

But when was Jesus ever alone? Not very often. So where were the disciples? They had to be close. Maybe they were right there, too, standing on the same side of Jesus' doodle as the religious elite. What about the rest of the scene? Could you hear the hustle and bustle of the city in the background? Were there caravans of camels passing by? It's foolish to think this whole scene takes place in a vacuum, that nothing else is happening in the world around them. And what about the woman? We are told she was caught in adultery, and the implication is that she is either naked or only barely, and insufficiently, clothed. A sanctified imagination lets us see her nakedness, lets us imagine the tears strolling down her face, lets us feel the shame that she must feel. All of this, we are not told; we must imagine.

What about the calling of the disciples? We read that Jesus was walking along the shore one day and saw some fishermen out in a boat and called to them. And again, we assume all of this happened in a vacuum - there is one man on the shore, one boat in the water, two men on the boat. There is no room for the rest of the world. But what if there was? What if Jesus was just one of many walking on the shore that day? Perhaps the crowds came to the seashore to buy some fresh fish. Perhaps many were waiting on the boats to return. And yes, boats. Fishing was big trade; are we not foolish to assume no one else was out there at the time? Jesus called, "Come, follow me!" and only two men were willing to think He was talking to them. How did the men in the other boats react? How did the other men in Simon and Andrew's boat react? Yes, there must have been other men. After the resurrection, we see a bunch of men fishing together on one boat. Are we to believe that there must be only two men fishing the same boat three years before? Ridiculous.

Even in the case of Heaven. As I said a couple of days ago, we read the descriptions of Heaven, which are mostly physical descriptions. Even if these were accurate, let me ask you this: how many people have you ever, in your mind, seen walking on those streets of gold? They're always empty! The streets of gold, the fine gems, the mansions - mansions with nobody on their lawns. Nobody's grilling out. There's no community. It's a huge failure of our sanctified imaginations. 

It's why we struggle so much with Jesus in general.

So much of what we think we see of Him is far-removed from real-life situations. We never hear the world in the background. We never see the others in the scene. We never consider the passers-by, the spectacle, what it might be like to be tangential to the story, so tangential that you're not even mentioned, but you're there nonetheless. We limit ourselves to 12 disciples. In the beginning of Acts, the disciples themselves tell us there were two other men who had been with them from the very beginning, who had seen everything. Where were these two men? Our minds don't allow for them. Or when Luke mentions the women who followed Jesus, we are surprised. We have made no space for them.

When we recapture our sanctified imaginations and put them to good use, we start to see the Scripture situated in the real world, and this is only ever to our benefit. After all, aren't we still living here? Aren't we still living in a place where there's not just one man on the seashore and one or two of us in our boats? Aren't we living in a place where a man can cut the line to talk to a tax collector, and we could be in that line. (You thought Matthew was just ho-humming it in his booth during a little bit of down time or a lunch break, didn't you? No! There were people there!) Aren't we living in a world where, when the Lord is crucified just outside the city, we can still hear the echo of the shofar announcing the sacrifice in the Temple? Aren't we living in a world that's more than just a vacuum, more than simple little scenes far-removed from everything? 

Don't we need to be able to see Jesus in that world? 

The Scriptures give Him to us there, but they don't give us all of the stage. They don't give us all of the scenery. They don't tell us how many trees or rocks or passersby, how many animals in the manger, or how many fishermen on the sea. They don't tell us how many fig trees lined the road. (You thought it was just one, didn't you? One lonely, little tree with no fruit.) They don't tell us how many other people ever climbed trees to see Him, how many children were sitting on shoulders, how many men were standing on rocks, trying to get a better look. They don't tell us who was cooking dinner in Simon's house or how they reacted to having this whole posse of Jesus invite themselves over for dinner. (Oh, you thought it was just Jesus who came to sup? Again, when was Jesus ever alone? Only a few times, and we are told specifically when.) They don't tell us what the community of Heaven is like, only the landscape.

All of these things take a sanctified imagination.

And it's absolutely crucial. Until we can begin to see Jesus in the real world, we will never see Him in the real world. But He's been here all along. All we have to do to see it is to learn how to set the scene. 

* I owe the concept of sanctified imagination to a pastor that I met a few weeks ago, who used this phrase repeatedly to invite us to enter into the living drama of the living Christ. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Burning Fire

As much as our image of Heaven is troubled by our narrow definition of worship and our too-literal understanding of its general construction, so, too, our image of Hell is skewed toward our limited understanding.

We have this image of Hell as fire and brimstone, a constant fire where things are burned, but somehow, not destroyed. Every cartoon we have ever seen of Hell depicts a little red devil with a little red pitchfork, and a bunch of souls walking around in a fire that doesn't even seem to bother them. They laugh and make jokes about their situation, but the fire 

But here's the thing - there are two fires in Scripture that rage but do not singe, that burn but do not burn up. ...and both of those fires were holy. There's the burning bush in Exodus, which called Moses to sacred ground where he discovered the plan that God had for him. And there's the fiery furnace in Daniel, into which three men were thrown, but four were seen walking around, which revealed the present nature of the Lord for those who trust in Him. So if we're going to talk about a literal fire that burns, but does not burn up, we're going to have to reconstruct our image of Hell and somehow make it holy. Or at least, sacred. And I'm not sure that's where God was really going with this whole "punishment" thing.

There has been some discussion, particularly of late, about reimagining Hell in terms of the separation that is characteristic of it. It is a place where we are far-removed from God, where we can no longer get to Him, where we can no longer cry out to Him with any hope at all. It is the natural consequence of a life that rejects God - it is the sorrowful turning away of the God who has been rejected. 

Then what of the fire? What of the lake of burning fire?

The fire in Hell is the one that burns inside the heart of every man. At the very moment when he understands his state, when he comes face-to-face with his finitude and his createdness, but he knows he has chosen against both, his heart begins to burn with this longing for God. It physically aches. Jeremiah put good words to this, even as a faithful man, when he said it "burns within me like a fire. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." But for the man condemned to Hell, this fire burns with no mercy. 

Everything inside of the man that for this life had no want of God now burns with longing need of Him, but it is too late. And this, this is a holy kind of fire, the kind that burns but does not burn up, that rages but does not singe, that consumes but does not devour.

And this is the true terror of Hell. It's not that it's hot. Or dark. It's that this little spark of holy fire that was in you all along, the one you spent your whole life either ignoring or extinguishing, suddenly rages, but it's too late. There's no longer anything to do with it. You've made your decision, turned your back, and God, in His heartbroken mercy, has let you go. And what? 

Now what?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Streets of Gold

Another failure of our imagination of heaven comes from our taking too literally the descriptions in the Scripture of what this Heaven is going to look like. We are told, for example, that the streets will be paved with gold, that the gates will be adorned with the finest of jewels, that giant pearls will serve as doors.

Pictures have been drawn, renderings have been made, and the wealth and beauty of Heaven have been preached. But to what end? Are we living our lives in righteousness for the reward of earthly wealth?

It certainly seems so. Many of us are toiling away in our earthly lives, living in very little, and longing for this place when we will have more than a mere dime to our name. The enticement of luxury, of riches and jewels, is enough to make us want to go to Heaven. 

But this doesn't really sound like something God would do. Does it? Do you really buy that the Lord who demands us to live perfect and holy lives, who calls us to deep fellowship with Him, who continually begs us to rise above the mess and noise of this world, would respond to our greatest faithfulness, obedience, and love by giving us only what the world can give us, if only we would work hard enough for it here? 

The image that we have of Heaven, this Scripture where we get these ideas of streets paved with gold, of precious jewels built right into the architecture, of pearls as big as doors - it's metaphorical. It's not meant to whet our appetite for a place just such as this; it's meant to spark our imaginations for a place greater even than this.

When we think about the materials that we used to pave our streets, the asphalt and tar and concrete, there is nothing beautiful or particularly valuable about it. It's cheap, a dime a dozen. When we think about the materials used to build our homes, what are they? Dust and dirt and a little bit of water. Brick and dust and ashes. Ho-hum. When we think about our doors, what do we cover them with? Wood and windows. Trees and glass. Yet more dust and dirt, just in another form. We do not think often about these basic building blocks of our lives; they are so small, so inconsequential. Who honestly thinks about dust and dirt and ashes?

In Heaven, however, gold is dust. Precious gems are dirt. Pearls are ashes. The kind of wealth that the world can offer us is scut in comparison to the wealth of Heaven. The wealth of the world is so cheap in eternity that it is used to build the most basic amenities, the plain, ho-hum sorts of things that we just take for granted anyway. When was the last time you were thankful for asphalt, when you stopped driving your car or sat at a stoplight and prayed a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the road on which you drive? In Heaven, you will have the same low opinion of gold. You won't even notice. The glory of everything else around it will far overshadow whatever it ever meant to you, and you will walk right over top of it every day without even a second thought. 

Heaven is that rich. 

And that mansion of yours? Yet another worldly richness! Jesus said He was going to prepare a room for us in His Father's house. This doesn't satiate our appetite for riches. It doesn't satisfy our desire for wealth. It doesn't play into our vision of Heaven as the place where we finally obtain all of the things we were never able to have on earth. The mansion fits well with our love for gold, precious jewels, and pearls, but it fits poorly with our holy imagination for more even than this. This room in our Father's house, this measly little room, this one tiny space in this whole bigger thing, this ought to spark our imaginations all the more. This ought to bring to mind the nature of community, of relationship, of truly living together with God. Not each man to his own mansion, but each man to the family room of God. Not having one another over to our vast expanses of yards for backyard barbecues and home shows, but coming out of our rooms and bumping into one another in the hallway on the way down to the dining room, where we all kick it back a little bit and break bread with one another. 

See, we got too attached to the riches of Heaven, and we lost sight of the real glory of it. We got too tied to these images of Heaven that satisfy our earthly desires, and we forgot to hope for something more. We have looked so forward to gold and precious jewels and giant pearls, and we have failed to imagine anything richer. 

From your room in the Father's house, you will look out your window and see that all the earthly riches you so longed for are nothing but scut in the kingdom of God; they pale in comparison to His glory, which is not a few blocks east and another few blocks north and then a little bit further than that, but right down the hall from the place where you dwell, a few intimate steps from your own sacred room. A room that He has been preparing for you from the very start. Your own little place in His house. 

Reimagine Heaven, my friends. For our current vision is far too small. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Reimagining Heaven

When I say that we have lost our imagination for Heaven, the primary culprit must be our shallow view of worship. In a world in which worship is nothing more than singing, Heaven can never be more than men on fluffy clouds strumming harps and singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy."

This is the image we get when we say that Heaven will be a place of eternal worship, and it is because we know nothing any longer of worship but its music.

Worship, however, involves much more than this.

It must be, as to read "singing" in place of "worship" throughout the Scriptures would sometimes result in the most laughable readings. In Genesis, for example, we are told the precise generation when men "began to worship the Lord." It is comical to consider a sudden generation of musicians. Over and over again, we are told of men who "bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord." Our modern mind sees the prostration, but the worship throws us off - did they bow their heads and begin singing? A hilarious thought! If, at any point, we read "worship" as "singing" or even "making music" in the Scriptures, we see how limited this understanding is and how often it simply doesn't work.

Yet we continue to insist that it works for us. We continue to insist that our worship is our song, that it is nothing more than the musical part of our "service," which is the broad name that we have given to our act of coming together at all. None of this could be further from the truth, and it has not only limited, but killed, our imagination for Heaven.

Only when we recover the depths and the breadth of true worship will we begin once again to dream of Heaven with a longing in our hearts for its perfect wholeness. Only when we bring the posture of worship back to that which honors the Lord, rather than strengthens our voice, will we understand again the true gift of eternity that awaits us.

Only when we understand that worship is song, yes, but it is also prayer, reverence, discipline, silence, wandering, wondering, aching, and all of the other holy things we do, will we understand how Heaven not only heals us; it also holds us. We live there in perfect harmony with our Creator and our created design. We become who we were intended to be, unique products of our Creator, each bearing a unique mark of His image, an image which we will see perfectly in Him in that day.

How can we ever see the image of Him that we hold if we are not in union with Him, if our worship does not require this union or even expect it, if our worship is nothing more than music? The trouble with the image of heaven and harps is not that it is boring (although this is a profound concern); it is that it is godless. Where is He? Where is the Lord? Have we labored our whole lives in order still to not see Him?

This is not the promise. The promise is that we will see Him fully. We will walk with Him, as Adam and Eve did. We will know Him well and be known. The glory of God will be revealed, and we will live our lives in worship of that - worship that includes song, yes, but also prayer, reverence, discipline, silence, wandering, wondering, aching. Yes, I think our hearts will ache in heaven because even then, they may not be able to comprehend the beauty. Even then, they may not be able to comprehend the glory. My head says that the Lord will grant our hearts the restoration necessary to bear such things, but my aching heart does not know how that is possible.

But it begins with redefining our worship, re-expanding it beyond the confines of treble and bass, broadening it once again to include all of the formative things that we do that bring us into deeper communion with God, for that is the end of all worship - to know Him and to glorify Him with all of our being. And when we do this, when we redefine worship in its true biblical understanding, we recapture an image of a Heaven that truly is a hope, an eternity that reads like a promise, written on our very hearts, the way He always said it was. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Hell of a Heaven

One of the failures of the modern church is that we have all but lost our imagination for the glory of Heaven. Perhaps I am being too kind - we have fully lost this imagination. No longer are we preaching on the merits of Heaven itself, but rather, as a contrast to Hell, we supposed that Heaven will do.

Recently, I attended a funeral where the pastor spoke a message more on Hell than on Heaven, even though the deceased had been a firm believer in the Lord. After a loud, booming note of rejoice that the dearly departed was now in Heaven with Jesus, in no more pain, fully healed, completely restored, the bulk of the message related to how the deceased had no fear of Hell because he was a believer and how others in room ought to become believers - not for the promise of Heaven, but to break the chains of Hell.

That's not what Jesus said.

Crucified, two thieves hung on the right and on the left of Jesus. While one mocked, the other humbled himself. Jesus turned to the thief, as much as either of them could, and declared, "Today, you will be with me in paradise." He did not say, "Nicely done. Now, you will not be going to Hell."

But this is where our limited imagination leaves us. This is the best, it seems, that we can do. It's not that we don't have grand ideas about Heaven; it's that we cannot see it. We cannot grasp it. We cannot take hold of the promises that Jesus has given us. And so we have settled on Heaven only because it stands in stark contrast to Hell. And whatever we may long for in the next life, we know for certain only that Hell doesn't have it.

This is no way to live. This is no way to worship. This is the cheap, shallow theology of the unbeliever, the wolf in sheep's clothing. This is the sinner on his death bed who wants no restoration of the heart, but does not want to pay the price for his life. It troubles us when we see men do this, when we see them turn to God with impure hearts, with insincere motives, and yet, it is the very thing that we preach. 

Because sadly, even we have no better hold on it. Even we have no imagination for the promise to come.

There are a few reasons for our short-sightedness. First, we have lost our very concept of worship, and this has skewed our vision of Heaven. Second, we have taken too literally a handful of the descriptions of Heaven given to us in the Scriptures. And third, we have taken too literally, in an entirely different direction, the descriptions of Hell that we have. The former dulls our image of heaven; the latter intensifies our image of Hell. Neither is good. 

This week, I want to look at some of these ideas and see where they have tainted our imaginations and see if, perhaps, we can't recapture the wonder of the glory of Heaven and the promise we have for eternity, which is far more than merely the promise of something other than eternal damnation. It is a promise today for paradise. 

Let us recapture the image of Heaven.... 

Friday, November 11, 2016

For the Love of Pharisees

The disciple who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, pulled his sword and slashed at the ear of the servant of the chief priests was guilty of the same fallacy that haunts us all - in his zealousness for his Lord, he failed to understand his brother.

He looked at the mob that had come to arrest this Man who had performed so many miracles, healed so many sick, taught so many elders, loved so many friends, called this band of brothers, and he saw only someone who was against all that he had come to understand of the world. He saw someone coming against him, not just against Jesus, because the way that this mob came after Him felt so very personal.

What he didn't see, or what he refused to see, was the very same zealousness in his brother. See, the Pharisees, for whatever bad rap they get in the Gospels, were not anti-Messiah. Quite the contrary - they were anxiously awaiting, as were all of the Jews, the coming of the Promised One. They were living with eyes wide open, as were all of the Jews, scanning the horizons for the embodiment of God's hope. They, too, longed for the fulfillment of God's Word. They just didn't see it in front of them.

And the Pharisees loved their people, as well. They come off as harsh and controlling and destructive, but their hearts were for the Jews. Their hearts were for the pure keeping of Jewish law, for they knew that it was the only way they had to righteousness and ritual purity. Their hearts were on getting their doctrine right. They burned with passion for their people Israel. They just didn't see that Jesus did, too.

For everything that the Pharisees failed to see in Jesus, the disciples failed to see almost the exact same things in the Pharisees. Yet, we are taught to believe that they were sworn enemies. We can't - we mustn't - think this way.

Because this is the trouble that we still face.

We have brothers and sisters all around us who share our burning passion for God, but who do not, necessarily, share our theology. They're looking for Jesus with a holy fire, but they just don't see Him the same way that we do in our flame. They're longing for hope, but they haven't found it yet. And we say to them how wrong they are. We say to them how condemned they are. We set ourselves up against them, believing they are against us, when nothing could truly be further from the truth. 

We're all just asking the same questions.

We're all asking the same questions, and some of us are more sure of the answer to day than others. Should we fault them for this? Of course not. But we do. All the time. The disciples looked at the crowd and saw a bunch of people who just didn't get it, and they saw nothing else. So the disciple drew his sword and put an end to the whisper. 

What if he didn't? What if, instead of condemning, he pulled his brother close and said, "Thank you"? Thank you for caring so much about purity. Thank you for longing for us to get it right. Thank you for praying fervently for the fulfillment of God's promise. Thank you for praying fervently for me. Thank you for asking, seeking, knocking. Thank you for aching for the very same things I ache for. Now, brother, may I respond to your aching? 

At this point, he uses one arm around his brother's shoulder to pull the Pharisee flush to his own side. With a steady finger, he motions in the direction of Jesus and whispers, "This is what you've been aching for." 

We can't be so naive as to think that the Pharisee, just at this, would have understood. We can't be so naive as to think that this is all it would take. But what good does it do to cut off a man's ear? What good does it do to take a swipe at him with a sword? You could argue, sure, that the Pharisee truly encountered Jesus that night when the Son of God reached out and healed his wounded ear. But does that mean we should go about wounding the world so that Jesus can heal them? As Paul emphatically repeats in Romans, by no means!

When the world is longing to hear from God, when they are fervently after Him with aching hearts, this is no time to damage their ears. Rather, we must lean in and become a whisper, starting with an acknowledgment not of what separates us, but of what joins us together.

Thank you, brother, even though I don't agree with you. Thank you. Now, let us look together and see what we may find, even in such a place as this.... 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Servant's Ear

One of the greatest tragedies of our time is the number of persons who have been severely wounded by the church, by us, who are not given the opportunity to truly discover the Christ who stands before us all.

Like the servants of the chief priests who have come into the garden, these persons have been in prime position to see the Lord revealed in His glory. Things could have been so different. But instead, we have taken our swords and slashed at them, cut off their ears and left them bleeding in a sacred place.

It's often our zealousness that leads us to do such things, our firm belief that our burning passion for our Lord ought to be our guiding principle. Some of us have spent our whole lives on guard against the Pharisees, not realizing that they, too, were looking for the very things we were - promise, hope, fulfillment, Messiah. The only difference is that we have been so fortunate as to have found it.

But we have taken away any chance that they had. By our suspicions, by our guardedness, by our judgment on their motives, their education, their understanding, their whatever, we have set ourselves up against the seeking world who has heard the whisper of God but does not yet understand it. 

And we have cut off - this is no accident in the Scriptures - their ears, that they might not hear this whisper again.

Do you get that? The chief priests were not bad guys. Their theology wasn't wholly different from that of the disciples. They were looking for the very same things of God that the disciples were; they just didn't understand it in Jesus. But they were guided by the same whispers of the promise that led the disciples to drop their nets and follow. And the disciples, in their zealousness, cut off the ear of one of these men who had heard that whisper and was seeking, truly seeking, for something he had not yet found in Jesus. 

Here, he stood before Jesus, and the so-called 'faithful' made sure that that whisper would never bother him again, would never again lead him astray. But without the whisper, how could he hear the Lord?

Sadly, this is still our testimony as the 'faithful.' It is still our testimony as the zealous. Throngs of men come searching for Jesus, not understanding Him, not knowing what He truly means, but hearing the whisper of redemption somewhere. And we, in our zealousness - we, in our fear - cut off their ears, just at the moment when they are finally within hearing distance of the Lord Himself. 

And I love what Jesus does here. He says simply to His disciple, "Put your sword away. This is okay." Then, He turns to the wounded man, reaches out, and touches him. And, we are told, the man's wounded ear is healed. Just in time for him to hear Jesus say that this is how He must be revealed. This is how He'll come to be known. 

He heals the man's ears just before He opens the man's eyes. 

Behold, the glory of the Cross....the whisper from the garden.

It is a story that would only be more beautiful if it was not still the one we are telling. Men come into our churches searching for God - misguided, maybe, or maybe in a pure way - not understanding, not knowing. And we who are so sure of ourselves, so sure even of Him, cut off the whisper and leave these men standing in pools of their own blood. And we call this righteousness, but it is no such thing. 

Put away your swords. Put them away.

Then, reach out and touch these wounded men. Put your tender, healing hands on them. Pull them in close and whisper anew into their deformed ears of the love and the glory and the goodness of Jesus. We may not restore them, but we give them a hope. Just enough of a whisper that they can hear and, perhaps, open their eyes in time to see. 

Behold, the glory of the Cross....

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Moving to Canada

Last night, as America's election results began to trickle in, the Canadian immigration website crashed. Apparently, too many were just looking to get out.

This is a rhetoric that we never used to hear. We used to admit that we would be disappointed in one result or another. We used to talk about how important it would be for us to make sure our voice was heard in some other way. But in recent years, we've given up on all of that and decided that our best response to to move. It's a powerful statement about how far America has fallen.

Not just our country, but our church, as well. 

You see, this is not just a political thing, although we are more bold about such statements during political seasons. It is also a church thing, though we never quite call it this. It's this entitlement that our current generations are feeling to have things exactly as they desire them to be, without actually having to work for them to be that way.

People are leaving the church for the same reason they are threatening to leave the country - because they don't like ______. You fill in the blank. They don't like the way their church responds (or doesn't respond) to real needs. They don't like the way the preacher prepares his sermons. They don't like the music that the worship team picks on Sunday mornings. They don't like the way that that one particular elder prays. They don't like the color of paint in the foyer. They don't like the temperature the thermostat is set at. For any and every reason under the sun, people are picking up and moving out of our congregations. Overwhelmingly, these are not for issues of theology, but of personal interest, emphasis, or consideration. 

And it's killing our communities.

We used to be a people determined to fix what was broken around us. We used to be a people willing to roll up our sleeves and do something. We used to be a people who would notice the gaps and stand in them. Now, we're a people who pick at the gaps until the whole thing crumbles. And then we move on because all we see is ruins.

We need people - in our churches and in our country - who are willing to stay. We need people who can embrace their disappointment but also be energized it. We need people who can look at the big picture and still see the small details.

If you're upset with the way that your church responds (or doesn't respond) to real needs, be the person in your church who responds in the way you think best. If you're upset with the way the preacher prepares his sermons, start a small group or a Bible study and invite others to do the Word with you. If you're upset with the music that the worship team picks, suggest something. Or crank up the radio in your car on the way out of the parking lot. If you don't like the way a particular elder prays, use his prayer time as your prayer time. If you don't like the color of paint in the foyer, pick up a paint brush. If you don't like the temperature on the thermostat, volunteer to help. You may not change your church, but you'll impact your little part of it. 

But only if you stay. 

If you're upset about America's election results last night, be the person you wanted your country to be. If you're concerned about the rights of one group or another, go out and love them. If you're concerned about the social well-being of one demographic or another, reach out. If you're concerned about America's foreign policy, find a pen pal. It's too easy to look at a thing so big as politics and say, "Well, my candidate didn't win, so my voice can't be heard, and there's nothing more I can do, so I must just leave because I don't matter." Oh, please. Give up the pity party, will you? Get out there and matter. Matter to someone. You don't have to change America, but you can impact your little corner of her. The government can do a lot of things, but it can't keep us from loving, supporting, cherishing, nourishing, or encouraging one another, and it can't keep us from doing life together. That's how this country became the place that you love so much that you ache for it - by people staying, sticking it out, and fixing all the little things that were broken around them. 

Not by moving to Canada.

That's how the church became the place that you love so much that you ache for it - by the saints who stayed, who stuck it out, who transformed their community from the inside out by fixing all the little things that were broken around them. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Priesthood of Politics

Today ends another long political season in America, as millions of voters flock to the polls to elect the leader who will guide us through the next four years. Although we watch all the ads and listen to the pundits and attend the rallies, one of our favorite things to see our candidates do, year after year, is to hold our babies. 

And this shows us how dangerously far our politics have come.

It seems almost a silly thing to be talking about, but it says such a great deal about our politics - and our theology - and for this reason, it simply cannot be ignored.

It starts back in Jerusalem.

Most often when we tell the story of the little children and Jesus, we tell the one where He pulls a child into their midst as an example to the disciples of what faith should look like. But the other version of this story, the version we don't tell as often, is the one where some parents brought their children and thrust them into Jesus' arms. The disciples chastised them for it, but Jesus welcomed them. 

See, it was common in those days (in fact, it was required) to present your child to the priest. Infants were presented on the eighth day for blessing and circumcision; we don't know much about the rituals surrounding older children, but we can reasonably assume that children were routinely presented to priests throughout their growth, all the way up until they hit their tween years and made the transition into adulthood. 

Presenting children to the priest was an act of dedication. It was an act of returning them to God, of consecrating them, of blessing them. It was a sign that this child would be a child of faith, and it was also, in many ways, a prayer that this would always be the case for them. You simply did not bring your child to the priest without a hope for your kid. 

This is why the children were brought to Jesus.

But today, we bring our children to our politicians, and for much the same reason. We want our politicians to hold them, to make a promise to them, to bless them by legislating for their benefit. We want our children to grow up one day and be thankful for the politicians who held them as babies and then shaped the world for them. Or something. All over this country, parents are still bringing their children to their pastors and priests, but the holy grail of all child-blessing experiences seems to be the kissing of the politicians. 

And this is the dangerous state of politics in America.

Politicians have become our priests, politics our priesthood. We look to our legislators for ritual purity, as though they can give it to us. We look to them for intercession, as though that is their job. We look to them for deliverance, trusting our lives into their hands. And we are continually disappointed because they can never truly give us these things. I think part of the dissatisfaction that the overwhelming majority of Americans feel with our politics and our politicians is that they have not yet successfully saved us. 

But they weren't meant to! It was never supposed to be this way. We weren't meant to bring our children to our politicians; we are supposed to present them to our priests. And in the priesthood of all believers, that means that we put our children faithfully into the hands of those who will actually bless them.

When our children grow old, we ought to be able to pull out the pictures of these blessings, the reminders of our children nestled in the arms of those who truly embrace ritual purity, intercession, deliverance, and both guide and bless our children through their lives. And this is not our politicians. It is our friends, our family, our neighbors, our churches, our communities. It is the persons who are actually going to be there for our kids and love them, really love them. 

As important as politics seems, and as important as it is for us, as believers, to participate in the process, we must be very careful about this politic that has become a priesthood, about the politician who has become a priest. Stop taking your babies to the state house and go back to taking them to God's house. Stop putting them in suited hands and start putting them again in hands suited to hold them. Stop asking Candidate A to kiss your child and cry out to the already-King to bless him.

Monday, November 7, 2016

People of God

On the eve of election day in America, it's easy to notice how the rhetoric of politics has circled back around strongly to theology. Thousands upon thousands of faithful Americans are posting, sharing, tweeting, snapping, etc. about America's great need to turn back to God, to redeem herself as a Christian nation and seek again His face.

And that all sounds well and good, except for one tiny detail: America is not a Christian nation, and she never has been.

That's going to sting some persons in the face. Hard. But it's the historical truth.

When the Bible talks about nations being either God's or not God's, it's not talking about nations as we know them today. Rather, in Biblical terms, nations are always groups of people, not political structures. They are generations of families, not governments. And there has only ever been one "Christian" nation - the nation that Christ came from. Israel. This is the only nation that can ever claim to have been, or to be, God's. (And note, please, that when we speak of Israel in these terms, we are not speaking of the geographical region known as Israel; we are speaking of the blood-line descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.) 

Apart from Israel, no other nation ever has been or ever will be "Christian." (And of course, we are using the term "Christian" a bit loosely here to indicate overall possession by the God of the Bible in general, recognizing that much of Israel's history comes pre-Christ and therefore cannot be "Christian" in the same sense that we recognize the term today, although as the nation bearing Christ, they are "Christian" indeed.)

Standing in solidarity with the Biblical witness regarding nations, the testimony of America's founding fathers also clearly illustrates that she never was a Christian nation and wasn't meant to be. There is nothing in any of the documentation, any of the writings, any of the treaties, any of the constitutions to suggest otherwise. Indeed, what the founding fathers consistently say that their men must draw on their faith in and knowledge of God in order to govern their country. 

America must be a nation of Christians.

That was their idea. That was their vision. They were running away from an England where the church had become the state and had dictated not only their rule, but their religion. They were running away from a so-called "Christian" state that wasn't working for them, and they were seeking a place where they could worship freely and use their God-given hearts to live out community in a way that affirmed both God and government, rather than dominating it.

Four years ago, I wrote about the American story - how America was never meant to be a church and ought not to be. That is still true. The government is not meant to do, and cannot do, the things that the church can do, and should be doing. 

But as the rhetoric continues to intensify, again, on the eve of the election, I find myself drawn once again to step into the mess and speak a bit of truth. It may be true that America has fallen away from her ideals, that she is on this dangerous path toward being unrecognizable. But if the ache in your heart is for her to find her footing, it starts not with her, but with you. Our greatest need is not for Christians in the White House or in the state house or in the court house, but for Christians in our houses. If we want America to find herself, we must stop asking her to be something she never was - a Christian nation - and instead ache for her to be what she was intended to be - a nation of Christians. 

It doesn't much matter who you vote for tomorrow, if you're in America. What matters most is who you pray to today. If you're on your knees, crying out to the God of Heaven and earth, interceding for your country and for your community, letting your faith in and knowledge of God guide you in all that you do, then this is the better thing. 

Too many Marthas at the ballot boxes trying to figure out how to get things all squared away; not enough Marys in their family rooms, choosing the better thing.

Choose the better thing. 

(Although, by all means, vote tomorrow. We are called to engage this world, not shy away from it. Your vote, your voice, does matter. Just keep things in perspective, eh? It's just a politician.) 

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Object of Our Desire

This morning, I was reading a bit of Tozer, and he posed this thought: "The first and greatest commandment is to love God with every power of our entire being. Where love like that exists there can be no place for a second object. If we love God as much as we should, surely we cannot dream of a loved object beyond Him which He might help us to obtain."

The theologian makes a good point, and yet, are we not all guilty of this very thing?

Our most common prayer is frequently, "Give me." Not the holy things of God do we seek, but the comforts of the earth. Not more of Him, but more of this....whatever this happens to be. Yet seldom do we realize that the very things for which we pray, we already possess in fullest measure, just in our being able to ask for them.

We pray for healing, to the One who has already healed us. It's already ours. Our bodies may continue to struggle. Disease may take its course. But we pray to the Healer, begging for mercy, although our healing itself is already assured. There is coming a day when there will be no weakness, no sickness, no lameness. That much, we know. But we pray for healing anyway, as though it is a gift of God reserved only for the few.

We pray for security, to the One who holds us in the very palm of His hand. All around us, things fall apart. Seasons change. Doors open and close. And we pray, fervently, that we would just have something stable to hold onto. Yet the only unchanging One in all the universe already holds us. In His hand, there is no uncertainty. But we pray for surety, for security, anyway, as though it is rare and difficult to find.

We pray for second chances, to the One who comes running to meet us on the horizon. We pray for wealth, to the One who paves streets with God. We pray for opportunity, to the One who throws open the windows of Heaven for us. 

We pray for all of these things, not realizing that we already have them in their fullest measures, in the very One to whom we pray. 

And that is the wicked deception of the world. This world has convinced us of the emptiness of our lives, even in the presence of God, and therefore, has convinced us of the emptiness of our God. How often do we stop and consider the great fullness of His glory? How often do we remember that all that we could ask or imagine, God fully is and even more? 

The discomforts of this world have somehow convinced us that God is, but chooses not to be. He is Healer, sure, but He does not heal us. He is security, yes, but He does not shield us. He is Father, yes, but He does not claim us. He is peace, yes, but He quarrels with us. He is wealth, absolutely, but He is not generous. He is the divine yes, of course, but His silence is deafening.

Listen, and hear, when I say that this is deception. This is the lie. It is not that God is and chooses not to be; the trouble is that God is, and we choose Him not. 

God is, and we choose Him only as a means to be. We choose Him only as a stepping stone between here and there, between this and that. We choose Him as but one way of obtaining what we truly want - something beyond Him that seems out of our own reach. 

Which brings us back to Tozer's musing and the question we must honestly ask ourselves: what second object could there possibly be beyond God that He might help us obtain, if only we knew what we fully had in Him?