Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Social Overwhelming

The hallmark of autism, no matter what other manifestations it comes with, is its component of social overwhelming. And this, too, is the hallmark of our spiritual autism, which has never been more prominent than at the present time.

We are living in an overwhelmingly social world. Social media has convinced us of the glamorous lives of all of our friends, all the time they spend playing with their dogs, cooking fantastic meals, exercising, giving back to their communities, having random magical encounters in grocery stores, and the like. Social media puts us on hyperalert because the one thing it doesn't show us is down time. The one thing it doesn't show us is rest. The one thing it doesn't show us is who people are when they're not trying to be anything. So we've come to the conclusion that everyone is something, everyone is someone, except, perhaps, for us, because we alone see all the things that never make it to Facebook in our lives and, well, they make us boring. Or broken. Or worse.

Not only this, but social media has given us the idea that essentially everyone we know has spent a lot of time thinking about how they think about the world. Everybody has an opinion on everything. Not just any opinion, a powerful, unchangeable, aggressive opinion. Throw out a few key buzzwords on the latest hot topics, and you'll quickly find that almost everyone you know has something to contribute to the discussion. Thirty years ago, this would have been unfathomable. Thirty years ago, ask a friend what they think about sanctuary cities over coffee or stop by their house and ask them their opinion on health care, and they would have been likely to say, "Hmmm...I never really thought about it." 

Not so today. Ask any number of questions today, and all of a sudden, everyone feels like they are supposed to have an answer. Not just any answer, but the "right" answer. And the "right" answers are socially constructed. Just ask wikipedia. 

So we're living in this world where we can no longer say, "I don't know." We can't say, "I haven't thought about it." Because the answers are all right there; our social connections are more than willing to tell us what to think.

And what this does is to take faith from the realm of the intimate, from the heart of the believer, and to plaster it on display in the social realm. There is no longer a place for developing a personal faith, an intimate love of Jesus that springs from your own heart and experience of Him. No, all the Christians you know are already boldly living out loud. They are adding their voice to the social framework (often with such incredible backlash that you rightfully wonder why anybody would still choose to be a Christian at all), and not only this, but in doing so, even these Christians are telling you what to think. 

There is faith and there is no faith, and it all seems so clear-cut. But here, most of us are somewhere in the middle, unable to agree with the social proclamation of what are often prosperity-gospel Christians, but unwilling to throw faith aside entirely, and yet, the tension is real. The world of social media demands us to be social about every little thing, including our big things, including our faith, which is either this caricature or it is nothing at all. There is no room for nuance, no room for question. You either are or you aren't. 

And most of us, overwhelmed by the social demand placed upon us, declare, "Forget it." It's not a new agnosticism; it's autism. It's our looking at what the world demands of us as a social context and saying, "I can't do this. Even if I wanted to, I can't do this." 

So most of us do nothing at all. And to the watching world, we look empty. We look defeated. We look disabled. We look deformed. Maybe even, at times, we feel these things ourselves. But again, what I say is that this is so much not the case. In the depths of every autistic soul lies untold beauty, and herein lies the key to recapturing our faith. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Spiritual Autism

There's an argument being made that we're living in a world that is spiritually illiterate, that our world at large no longer comprehends the language of God or knows much about it. The conclusion is that what is required of us as the church is a spirituality that does not depend upon literacy; we are driven back into the days when our stories must be told through art and sacred spaces, through stained glass windows and altars and incense. 

In many respects, when diving into the evidence offered for such an argument, it's rather convincing. I think the world is tired of our words; they're looking for something more tangible of our faith. No longer does it make any sense when we talk about grace, for we are not good at showing it. The word, itself, is meaningless. 

But as I let some of these ideas roll around in my own mind, I quickly came to the conclusion that I'm not so sure that we're living in a spiritually illiterate world; I think it runs much deeper than that.

I think we're living in a spiritually autistic world.

We are living in a time that is socially overwhelming, where we have forgotten how to connect as true community because we are some measure of connected "all the time." We are living in a world that cannot look faith in the eye, for a variety of reasons, and this inability to look faith in the eye has left us looking away from the Cross. We're living in a world where we are overloaded and overwhelmed, not just by theological ideas such as love and hate and hope and grace, but by all the empty noise of the faithful, all the dirty hands that don't feel the blood dripping from them, all the taste of bitter grapes and stale bread. We are living in a world that is beyond our capacity to integrate or to interact. And we are suffering for it. 

There is so much about autism in general, and even a spiritual autism, that we don't understand yet. There's so much that we can't quite put our finger on - what it means, how it develops, what's going on in the world that is locked away from this one where those for whom autism is a reality truly live. Any one of us, whether we are on the spectrum ourselves or love someone who is, can only speak personally into this, knowing that our experience is not universal; every experience of autism is unique. 

But what we do know is this: buried in the depths of the autistic soul is something magical. Anyone who has ever loved someone can tell you that. Autistic persons overwhelmingly have these amazing spirits and these incredible gifts, tucked away in the recesses of these places that don't make sense to most of us. They have a way of seeing the world that is different. They have a way of interacting with it that is unique. They have a way of knowing things that most of us just sit back and say, Man, I never would have seen it.... Those that seem, to most of us, to live in abject darkness often have their eyes most wide open to the light. 

We just have to figure out how to communicate with them.

And this is, I guess, an illiteracy, but not on their part; the illiteracy is ours. We are so trapped in our language that we cannot understand what does not use words. But we must. Oh, we must. We must figure out how to communicate with those whose experience of the world is not locked into language, but into something much deeper. We have to figure out how to look into (not look at, but look into) those who cannot seem to make eye contact with us. We have to begin to understand what language can never teach us. For herein lies some wondrous beauty. Herein lies some incredible faith. 

Spiritual illiteracy seems like a daunting challenge; spiritual autism seems like an impossible one. But neither is the case. Like the stained glass windows of old, we build our faith anew in fragments and fractals of color and light that come together to tell a story to eyes wide open, unable to look us in the eye though we are unable to look away. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Male and Female

There's been a great deal of talk this week about women, coming off the women's march last Saturday. Those who marched are aggressively pushing the narrative that they marched for "all women," even those who boldly declare that those women do not represent them. A friend of mine even re-posted a rather lengthy item on Facebook, declaring, "You are unequal. Even if you feel like you're equal, you're not, and that's why this march was for you." 

Although it is firmly wrapped in a bunch of political ideology, this is also a theological issue. So let me say, plainly, those women do not represent me.

I've never been under any illusions that I was made to be equal.

On Tuesday, I wrote about how not all men are created equal, and this is true of men and women, as well. Men and women were not created equal; they were never meant to be. They have always been complementary to one another. (Complementary with an "e" means that they are meant to provide balance to one another, to fill in the empty spaces left by the other, to come together into a whole.)

One of the greatest myths of modern culture is that in order to be a complete human being, men and women must embrace the totality of human experience. Women need to learn to be dominant in some ways, to compete in the world, to be tough, and to do the things that we typically expect of men. Men, in turn, need to learn to be sensitive, to take a nurturing role, to do the things that we typically expect of women. Only then, they tell us (whoever "they" are) will we have the "whole" human experience. Only when we embrace what is both masculine and feminine in all of us will we be whole.

Here's the subtle, but important, truth, however: we were not made to be whole. We were made to be full. 

We were made to be full of our own sexuality, of our maleness or femaleness. We were created to have the richest, deepest experience of who we are. And when we try to be more than what we were made to be, when we try to capture more than we were created to capture, when we try to live as though the whole of masculinity and femininity lives within each one of us, as though this is the totality of the human experience, we do not become more complete human beings; we become less than human. 

There are aspects of the glory of God that I bear uniquely as a woman. Men, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to accurately represent these glories in the world; they aren't wired for it. Similarly, there are aspects of the glory of God that men bear uniquely in the world, and women, no matter how hard they try, will never be able to accurately represent these glories in the world; they aren't wired for it. 

This does not mean that I'm arguing for some archaic divide of male and female in the world. I'm not saying we should go back to the times when women were silent, when they stayed at home and kept house. I'm not saying that women can't work construction (I've done so) or that men can't bake cookies. I'm not saying that women shouldn't have a vote or that men shouldn't cry. That is not at all what I'm saying. What I am saying is that we need to stop pretending that we're equal. 

We're not, and we were never meant to be. We're complementary. And the greatest aspiration of any of our lives is not to be whole (only Jesus can ever make us whole), but to be full. Full of the glories that we uniquely bear. 

There are, of course, political issues woven through all of this and a thousand other reasons why these women do not represent me. There are, although they refuse to admit it, a thousand ways in which the current dialogue is far, far different from other marches for women's concerns. But I profoundly do not want to use this space for the political; it's such a waste. 

We cannot, however, ignore the theological just because some will not be able to cut the political strings. There is a reason that God created both male and female. There is a way in which this is vitally important. And we do ourselves no good, and our God no glory, by pretending otherwise. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Despising the Altar

Why does any of this matter? Why do we have to care about getting it "right"? We are living in a world that is driven by "whatever works," so don't we have the same right to transform our faith into something that just "works" for us, whether it is exactly what God intended or not? 

This is an actual argument that Christians are making right now, and their justification for it is that "the world is different now than it was in the Bible. This is the reality that we're living in, and we have to have a faith that can meet the world where it's at." 

No. Profoundly no. 

And before we get too far into this, with persons stomping their feet and pumping their fists and demanding that today is unlike any other time in history and that the challenges we face in our culture are wholly unique, let's just call bunk on that, too. Shall we? This has been the challenge of God's people from the very beginning, and if you read the Old Testament even half-heartedly, you will see the very same arguments being made, not only by the people, but by the priests.

Hey, God, this covenant thing isn't really working for us. See, You don't understand how all the other nations think. It's not so simple as just being a covenant people.

Hey, God, all these behavioral laws you gave us? Yeah, they are nice, but they don't really work in the real world.
Hey, God...

And on and on and on it goes. And here's the problem: most of us don't understand this for what it is. 

We don't understand it because our English translations of the Scriptures have been lying to us. They have dramatized things, thinking that they have to be the most dire, most extreme, most scary of all circumstances in order for us to "get" what's going on. But things are not always as they seem.

Most of the Scriptures around this softening of God's commands are translated to say that we hate them. Men hate them. They hate God. They despise His altar. They despise His ways. And then we, so convinced that the purity of God's Word is not quite so important as the heart of it, tell ourselves that we don't hate God. No, we love God! And because we don't hate Him, it's okay to do what we're doing, to twist things just a bit to make them work in our own context.

But the Hebrew words that are actually used where our English translations give us "hate" and "despise" are not so extreme. Rather, these words actually mean "to think lightly of." In Malachi 1, for example, God lashes out at the priests for bringing impure offerings to His altar. The English tells us He accuses them of "despising" it, but the Hebrew literally says they "thought lightly of" it. 

This is a world of difference. It's not that they actively hated God; they just didn't take Him seriously. They knew what He said about offerings and sacrifices, but they didn't feel any need to follow those instructions quite exactly. They tweaked them a little bit into something that "worked" for them and for the people. This was the sin. This was the offense. 

This is what we're doing today. We refuse to take God seriously. We refuse to believe that He said what He said for a reason, that it matters how we do things to His glory. We think lightly of His Word, and His altar, and as a result, we are bringing impure offerings. And we're trying to convince Him that it's no such thing.

But He knows better. And keep reading into Malachi 2, and we see plainly how He responds to this: He threatens to smear dung on the faces of the priests who think so lightly of His Word and then to hold them up as impure offerings themselves. 

How's that workin' for ya'?

That's why it matters that we take God's Word seriously. That's why it's so important that we stop twisting it to suit our own needs. That's why we have to diligently invest our time in figuring out what it is that God really teaches. Because our grave sin is not that we hate Him (and most of us know that. We love Him, for crying out loud!)...our greatest offense is that we think too lightly of Him and thus defile, not despise, His altar. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Unchristian Nation

One of the places where we are most tempted to say that God's thoughts are our thoughts is in respect to our nation. We saw a lot of this around the last election cycle (and I think this is true around all election cycles): tons of Christians coming out and saying that America needs to take her God back so that she will be blessed.

Not quite.

I know that's going to offend a lot of people, but I make no apologies for that. This is biblical proof-texting at its most dangerous. Yes, it is true that there are many verses (in the Old Testament specifically) that reference "the nation" that is faithful, that worships the Lord, that obeys His commands, that loves Him. 

But that nation is never America; it is always Israel.

Israel existed in a time of polytheism. That's a fancy word for saying there were many gods all around. Every country, every nation, every people had their own gods. That is why God was so pointed in telling His people not to intermingle with those nations; they would be led astray to worship other gods. 

Now, Israel does a good service to the nations around them in that this nation does not typically identify the other nations by the gods that they worship. They make references to some of the sacred stones and pillars that the other nations have, but they call the nations themselves by name - Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, etc. This was not, we easily get the sense, the same in reverse. Other nations identified Israel by her God, not by her ancestors.

Israel was known as "the nation whose God is the Lord." That's how she was distinguished from other nations. When other nations come to attempt to make treaties or when they respond to Israel's approaching army, they never say, "We have heard a lot about you." No. They say, "We have heard about your God." Everywhere Israel goes, she was identified as "the nation of the people of the Lord." 

Israel, not America.

And that's as it should be. In a world of polytheism, Israel was distinct in her worship of only one God, in her adherence to the only legitimate Lord. She was a nation called by God, chosen by Him, beloved by Him as His special possession. Over and over, this is confirmed through the covenant, renewed throughout the pages of Scripture as God chooses Israel again and again and again.

God has never chosen America.

When Jesus came, God continued to love Israel as a special possession, but He extended His love beyond her ancestry and out into the whole world. That's what the New Testament was about. No longer was there just one nation that was the Lord's; the whole world was His. He laid claim to every soul, regardless of lineage. Regardless of ethnicity. Regardless of nation. The New Covenant does not single out one nation over another. (And we must also keep in mind that when the Bible discusses "nations," they are not using the word in the same way that we do. It does not mean "countries," but "extended families.") So if we want to make the argument that America is God's chosen nation, then we must also go back and reinstate the Old Covenant, complete with its Temple worship, ritual sacrifices, and mere anticipation of a Messiah. If we do not, we have smacked the New Testament in the face by twisting the New Covenant into something it was never meant to be.

There's no such thing as a Christian nation; there never has been. There was a Jewish nation, but in Christ, there is no nation; there is only grace. The onus now falls on us as individuals to be faithful. The responsibility is on our shoulders to be persons of God, not peoples of God. We come together, yes, as communities of God, but even the church is not a holy nation; it is a body of believers. No longer can we be known as a "nation whose God is the Lord" because that's just not the way it works in the New Covenant. We can only be known as "a man or woman whose God is the Lord."

From here, our faithfulness speaks into our nation. Never....never the other way around. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


We have to be very careful about how much we let our modern cultural sensibilities influence the way that we understand our Lord. Yesterday, we tackled the idea that God is for everybody (He's not); today, we turn to another dangerous theology that is sneaking into our churches. 

"God believes in the same things we do."

Ideally, of course, this would be true, not because God would agree with us, but because we would agree with Him. But most often when we hear this statement being made, the argument is just the opposite - God just believes in the same things we do. Often, this comes in a political context of sorts, citing the Constitution as some kind of holy document and then arguing that God, too, believes in the equality of all men, in freedom of speech and religion, in this or that social action that we have undertaken. 

But even at its most basic, this is simply not the case. God does not believe in the equality of all men; His Word is a testimony to that. From the very beginning, God was pleased with Abel's offering, but not Cain's, even though both men gave according to their skill and production. God chose Noah as the only righteous man left on the earth. The others were not equally righteous; they were unrighteous. God chose Abram, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Joseph, then Moses...and alongside all of these men, we are told, too, of their brothers. But their brothers were not equal; in many cases, the chosen would have been considered the lesser brothers.

When Israel was looking for a judge, God chose Joshua, then Caleb, then Othniel, then Deborah, and then when she was looking for a king, He chose Saul and then David and then Solomon. There was no rumor that just any man would do; not all men are created equal. 

Even in the time of Jesus, the disciples were not men created equal. The servants in the parables were not created equal. The witnesses to the churches were not created equal. At no point in the Scriptures does God declare, "All men are basically the same." All men are, yes, created in the image of God, but this does not make them equals. Not by any means! This makes every man unique, each in his own way a bearer of something sacred.

We actually lessen men when we make them equal. 

(And the same must be said, I think, of when we attempt to make women equal to men, as has become a bit of a hot topic this week. Men and women were not created to be equal, but to be complementary. They flourish only by coming together in a way that their parts create a whole. The more we try to say that women are just like men, the more we lose the very essence of what it means to be either a man or a woman.)

This is true of a lot of the arguments that we make about what God believes. God believes in freedom of speech. Does He? He set several very strict guidelines about the kinds of things we cannot say. God believes in freedom of religion; He doesn't care where we go to church or if we go to church at all. Really? He crushed the idols of foreign nations, tore down their sacred poles, and set up His sanctuary so that His people could come. Sounds to me like God had some specific ideas about religion in mind. We can't confuse "free will" with "free reign." They are two entirely different things. One is God-designed; the other is rebellion.

It's so easy to fall into these temptations because we've been taught that these are good things that we believe in. But even if you believe that they are good things, they are not God's things, and we have to draw that line very clearly. When we don't, we cheapen this thing called life. We cheapen community. And we cheapen God. 

So no, men are not created equal, God does not believe in free reign, He does not automatically condone the social actions that we take, and He does not necessarily believe the things that we believe.

Of course, our thoughts could be His thoughts, but only if we make His thoughts our thoughts. 

Monday, January 23, 2017


We have to stop preaching that Jesus came for everybody, that the sacrifice of Christ was made for all. Not only is it not true, but it has led us to a sloppy theology that lessens both the power and the promise of Christ.

It is precisely this teaching that has gotten up to a place where most of the world believes that Jesus was "a nice guy." And if He is a nice guy who came for the sake of all, then He can't possibly condemn anyone. Therefore, it doesn't matter if I'm good or not. It doesn't matter if I do right or wrong. It doesn't matter if I go to church every week or even once. In fact, I don't have to do anything at all because this nice guy who came for all can't possibly condemn me. And even if I do not believe in Him, I'm covered. Either way, I'm good.

Yes, this is actually what people think, and what is even more troubling is that this is what many Christians think. Many Christians honestly believe that God does not condemn anyone because He came for everyone, and His atoning sacrifice covers all, whether they believe in it or not. Whether they ask for it or not.

But that's just not the story that we see in the Bible. And we have to stop pretending that it is.

It is true, yes, that in all the Gospels, we do not see Jesus turn anyone away from Him. We do not see Him refuse to heal anyone. We do not see Him refuse to forgive anyone. The Man forgives sins so often that the Pharisees don't even know what to do with Him. We do not see Him condemn even those that the law says should have been condemned. So we think, of course, He really is just a nice guy.

But all of these characters in the Gospel stories, every one of them that Jesus had an interaction with, had one thing in common, and this is the very key to the entire exchange: they came to Him. Some of them came of their own volition; some of them were brought by others; some of them were dragged into His presence. But every single man or woman we ever see healed, forgiven, or fed by Jesus came to Him first. They called out to Him first.

There were blind men all over the region; Jesus healed every one that called out to Him, but there remained blind men in the region. Not all had called out to Him, so not all were healed. There were men and women struggling with health issues all over the region; Jesus healed the woman who wove through the crowds to touch His coat, but there were still men and women with health issues in the region. Not all had come to Him, so not all were healed. There were weary travelers and hungry souls all over the region; Jesus fed four thousand and five thousand of them, but there were still weary travelers and hungry souls in the region. Not all had come to the hillsides where He was, so not all were fed.

For some reason, we love preaching this Gospel that Jesus came for all, but then the astute world looks back at us and says, "How can that be? There are still blind men, bleeding women, and hungry souls." And there are. And most of us struggle to answer this question because we have bought into this broken theology that says Jesus came for everybody.

Really, He came for anybody.

That's the difference, the subtle little difference that changes everything. Jesus didn't come for everybody; He came for anybody. He didn't come for all; He came for any. Any who would come to Him. Any who would cry out. Any who would beg. Any who would weave their way through the crowds. Any who would touch Him. Any who would hear Him. Any who would seek Him. These, Jesus came for, and these, Jesus healed.

Not everybody, but anybody. Anybody who would come....

Friday, January 20, 2017

Faithfully Astray

God led Israel the long way out of Egypt, and there are times in our own lives where He leads us into the wilderness. It is not because we have sinned in some grievous way or because we have grumbled; sometimes, God simply understands that the road we are on will take us through dangerous territory and engage us in a battle we are not prepared to fight.

The question we must answer, then, is this: are we willing to be faithfully led astray?

It is not an easy proposition. To the onlooking world, it looks like a wrong turn. It looks like we messed up. Even Egypt thought this about the Israelites. Look! They're lost! Those fools, just wandering around in the wilderness! Don't they know they have backed themselves up to the sea?

But the only way to see God part the waters is to stand on the shore.

Last year, I found myself in one of these seasons, so this is not just some theory or some pretty theology; it's real life. I entered a season in which I was not getting out of it without becoming that which I so deeply believed I had been called to be. There were, at one time, five open doors right in front of me. All that I had to do was to prayerfully, faithfully, figure out which one to walk through. (To not walk through any would have been profound disobedience; of this much, I am sure.) So through prayer and discernment, I figured out which way God would have me to go.

And it was kind of a disaster from day one. It was the beginning of a very difficult season in my life, which ended up encompassing not only the things directly related to the path I had taken but a bunch of other, completely unrelated things, as well. It is almost comical how disastrous this whole thing was, and I understood the cries of Israel that there wasn't even good water to drink around here. 

I was wandering, and I was wondering, and yet, there was a very real understanding in my heart that this was the very place to which God had led me, the path He had willed me to take. Now, I probably stayed on that path a bit longer than He thought I would because I did not understand the wilderness and was thus doing all that I could to make this road work. But increasingly, I understood that I was backed up against the sea with the enemy (in this case, failure, disappointment, confusion, concern, etc.) closing in.

Then, the most amazing thing happened: the waters parted. I turned around to look at what had once been a raging sea, and I saw it not only calm, but pulled back. I looked back at the enemy approaching and declared, you know what? I don't have to stay here. Then I stepped through the place of provision and closed that once-open door behind me. 

On the other side, there lies the Promised Land. There lies the place where my story started to come back into focus. There lied the opportunity to embrace something new that God had for my life, something to which He had been trying to lead me all along, but something I would not have possibly understood without taking the long way there. 

I think the same is true for the Israelites. They were living pretty well in Goshen, which was the choicest region in all of Egypt. Their pastures were lush, their livestock abundant; it was a land of favor, really. And they all seemed to have this image in their heads that they would leave Goshen, travel just a short way, and arrive at a land flowing with milk and honey. But when you already live in Goshen, there's not a lot special about a land of milk and honey. You've already got them right where you're at. It's like moving from one mansion to another, carrying your stuff down streets of gold.

But wander in the wilderness for just a little bit, take the long way, and things change. Experience a bit of a dry season. Wonder where you're going to get water. Run out of food. Learn to depend on God. All of a sudden, milk and honey sounds once again like the blessing and the promise that it truly is. It's not just one more stop of abundance on your journey; it is a stark contrast to your wandering. 

It's why we all ought to wander.

So the question, again, is this: are you willing to wander? Are you willing to follow God when He calls you, faithfully, astray? Will you long for a land of milk and honey in a place where you must get water from the rocks? Will you walk into the desert and back yourself up to the sea? Will you stand on the shores where you can see His power and His grace? And will you walk through place of provision and close, gently, once-open doors behind you? 

Are you willing to say, yes, I am taking the long way, but it is only by the grace of God?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Long Way

Ask most Christians how it is that Israel ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years between Egypt and Canaan, and you're likely to hear about the chosen nation's disobedience. You're likely to hear about their grumbling. You're likely to hear about their demands.

But this would be only part of the story.

I'm not sure how it is that we came to have only this narrative, except that we tend to like to reduce things to our own volition. That is, if the Israelites were wandering because they were disobedient, then the simple answer for us is to not be disobedient. If they wandered because of their grumbling, simply do not grumble. If it took them 40 years because of their demands, well, don't make demands. 

The Exodus narrative, however, is quite different. From the very moment that Israel stepped out of Egypt, we're told, God took them the long way. Not straight through, but kind of around. Not a few days' journey (or a few weeks' journey), but the long and winding road. He did this before they had been disobedient. He did this before they had grumbled. He did this before they had made a single demand. And why?

Because straight through, they would have encountered battle almost right away. 

They would have run straight into enemy territory, and they would have had to fight. If the people are ready to go back to slavery just because they are hungry, imagine how quickly they'd run 'home' to Egypt when they are assaulted. If they're ready to turn back because they're out of water, imagine how quickly they'd turn when the arrows started to fly. If they're more than willing to submit themselves to an oppressive Egyptian regime just because there's a sea ahead of them, imagine how good Egypt looks when there's another enemy approaching. Egypt may have whipped them, beaten them, enslaved them, and made life hard, but at least they were living! This people is about to kill them! Egypt's looking pretty good.

That, God said, is why they had to take the long way. Yes, it was harder. Yes, it was demanding in its own right. But it was safer. And on the long road, they had more time to get to know their God, to learn to listen to and trust Him, to truly become His people not only because He rescued them, but because He guided them, protected them, provided for them, and yes, loved them.

We are so quick to blame Israel, and we are so quick to blame ourselves. We want to put the onus on the people of God because disobedience is something we think we can fix. Grumbling is something we think we can fix. Demanding is something we think we can fix. We don't understand this long road, so we keep looking for ways to cut back to the shorter path. We keep looking for ways to go straight through. We keep looking to figure out how to get from point A to point B without all this wandering. 

And yes, Israel made it worse by their response to the whole deal, but let's not fool ourselves: they were taking the long way from the moment they stepped foot out of Egypt. And so, too, do we.

It's not because God loves to have us wandering. It's not because He's slow in bringing us to the Promised Land. It's not because He's testing us somehow, seeing how much we'll put up with or how long it will take us to want to turn back. No. It's because He knows what lies ahead, and He understands that danger lies in wait. So He takes us along the detour to protect our fragile faith. He takes us the long way so we won't turn back. He leads us on the winding road home, and along the way, just a little taste of honey to keep us hungry. 

And here, we come to know our God. We learn to listen to Him and trust Him, to truly become His people. Not only because He's rescued us, but because He guides us, protects us, provides for us, and yes, even loves us. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In His Hands

If Christ is Healer and the Holy Spirit is Helper, then what do we make of the Father in the Trinity, God Himself? Since Christians so appreciate a good alliteration of points, we can only conclude that the Father God is Holder.

He's got the whole world in His hands. (You're welcome.)

So often when we see the Father God in Scripture, we are talking about His hands. By His hand, He led Israel through the wilderness. By His hand, He brought them out. In His hand, He held the formless and the void. With His hand, He shaped the world. We are but clay in the hands of the potter, who is, you guessed it, Father God. With His righteous hand, He upholds the psalmist. With a motion of His hand, He controls even the wind and the waves.

Again and again, the testimony of His hands that reveals this Father God to us, and in them, we see both His power and His love. 

This is why we must call Him Holder - for it is at this very crux that we find ourselves, nestled in both His power and His love. It is here where He has revealed Himself to us and where He keeps us safe. It is by His hand that He leads us, taking ours told hold in His as we walk together through tough terrain. It is by His hand that He shapes us, like clay on the potter's wheel. It is by His hand that He formed us, knit us together in our mother's wombs from the formless and void. And it is by His hand that He sustains us. 

There is not a place in all creation that I would rather be than in His hand. For in His hand, I know that I am not only in His presence, but in His heart. I am not only being shaped, but being sheltered. I am not only being loved, but being led. 

It's beautiful.

And this is the essence of the Trinity - God the Father holds us, Jesus the Christ heals us, and the Holy Spirit helps us. Holder, Healer, Helper...holy.

He's got the whole world in His hands.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Our theology of social programs has reduced Jesus to helper, rather than healer. But this is only one of the serious consequences this idea has on our theology. A second implication is that in making Jesus helper, we have diminished, if not lost completely, the Holy Spirit.

The idea of Jesus as helper does not offend most Christians; after all, wasn't there something in the Gospels about a helper? And isn't every other word of God of this sort fulfilled in Jesus? God said there would be a Messiah; this is Jesus. God said there would be a servant; this is Jesus. God said there would be one greater than all of these; this is Jesus. So our natural inclination is to hear that God said something about there being a helper and this, too, must be Jesus. 

But not quite.

The Helper was not a prophecy of God; He was a promise of Jesus. God did not speak of the Helper; Jesus did. Jesus does not speak of Himself in the same way that God speaks of Him. And He does not say that He will be our Helper, but that He will send us one. The Holy Spirit, who makes His appearance early in Acts.

This is vitally important. It's important because when we understand the Helper in the context of Jesus, we are bound to interpret Him as one interested in social programs and what has become known as the prosperity Gospel - this Helper is sent to make sure our lives go well, that we have all that we ask or desire, that our problems are solved, that we live at peace. After all, this is the example of Jesus (sort of), and if the Helper is interpreted in light of the Lord, then of course, we are going to come to this conclusion.

But the testimony of Jesus is not one of helping, not one of prosperity or of life without trouble. Much less so is this the testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Helper is meant not to meet our worldly needs, but our spiritual ones. In the absence of the Rabbi, the Holy Spirit becomes our Teacher. In the absence of the Son, the Holy Spirit becomes our Brother. In the absence of the Lord, the Holy Spirit becomes our Helper. He is our guide to holy living when the footprints of Jesus have all but faded from the road. 

That doesn't guarantee us an absence of trouble, but strength in the midst of it. That doesn't guarantee us perfect peace, but a perfect chance at peace of heart. That doesn't solve our problems, but it resolves our tension. How then should we live? There is a Helper. 

And with this Helper in sight, we can look back clearly at the testimony of Jesus and discover that He is, and always has been, quite different from the Spirit. No Helper, this Lord is Healer. We see clearly what He has done in the world, and He settles for nothing less than the whole - whole healing, whole teaching, whole sacrifice, whole love. Who, then, are we to not long for the same?

We cannot settle for helping when we have been called to heal. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Waiting for Tuesday

When we set up programs to help, not only do we lose a Jesus who knows how to heal, but we convince our members that even helping is no longer their job. Therefore, we are not healing in our own communities; we are not even helping. We're only pointing people to programs where they become just one more notch on our belts, not names in our stories.

We see this all the time. We encounter someone who is hungry, and we tell them, "You're hungry? Well, my church offers a free meal every Tuesday night! You should totally come!" And they should totally come. However, if it happens to be Thursday, Tuesday is not much help. But we feel like we've done our job; we have pointed this hungry person to the ministry that will feed them.

Or we see someone who says they just do not know how they are going to make ends meet this month. Good news! On Wednesdays, my church has a few hours just for that! All you have to do is bring a copy of your bill that you can't pay, and we've got a ministry that is designed to help you make that happen. Again, that's well and good, but what if the water's getting shut off on Monday? Wednesday is not much help. But we feel like we've done our job; we have pointed this needy person to the ministry that will assist them.

What about when someone comes to us and confesses that they are struggling with addiction? They want to get clean, but they just don't know how. It's starting to impact their lives, and they are just a few breaths away from rock bottom. No problem! We are starting a recovery group in April. You should totally come! And they should totally come, but it's January. In the next three months, we may lose them altogether; their addiction may take their life before we can ever get them to our group. But again, we feel like we have done our job; we have pointed this addicted person to the ministry that will hold them accountable.

Even in churches that do not have these programs, we tend to do the same thing. Our pastor would be happy to help you with that, we tell persons. But Friday is his day off; he won't be back in the office until Monday. Surely, you can make it through the weekend, can't you? 

In terms of the work that the church is doing in this world, I think this is the most detrimental thing we have done. We have set up all of these amazing programs and people should totally come, but in doing so, we have taken the responsibility away from our members to actually do any helping or any healing in their own communities. They think their only duty now is to point people to the church, to their church, and that this is the greatest service they can do - for the people, for their church, and even for Jesus. 

Jesus just loves it when we tell others the church's schedule for helping them.

It's why we have to be mindful about our use of these types of programs, and we have to make them more than just options and opportunities in the church. If we want to engage in these sorts of ministries, then we need to make it mandatory that our members understand what is really going on here - we have to make sure that the need is kept in front of them, not just the resolution. 

Why? Because when our members see the hungry, rather than just knowing about the meal, they learn to see hunger in their neighbors' eyes. They begin to understand what simple grace a little salad is. And they start to think, maybe I can do that. When our members see the needy, rather than just knowing about the benevolence fund, they learn to see need in their neighbors' eyes. They begin to understand the fear, the worry, the shame of being in a needy place, and when they see what a small amount of money can do, they start to think, maybe I can do that. When our members see the addict, rather than just knowing about the group, they start to see entanglement in their neighbors' eyes. They begin to understand what a little accountability provides, and they start to think, maybe I can do that. When we require our members to be an active part of our ministries, we inspire them to engage in their own. 

And we put helpers and healers back into our communities.

When we do that, the needy, the hurting, the broken in our communities don't have to wait for the church doors to be open; there are hundreds of doors all around town that they can walk through. Any time, any day. No more waiting for Tuesday; the community of Jesus is here today.

Friday, January 13, 2017


When Jesus sent His disciples out into the world, He did so with clear instructions on what they were supposed to do: teach, preach, fellowship, pray, break bread, and heal. Acts records that these are the very things that the early church was about, and its author (Luke) even tells us about some of the powerful healing encounters that Peter had with the communities he ministered to. 

This is very different than what the church imagines today is her role; it is very different than the social programs we've gotten ourselves involved in. 

And I'll just say it - I think the reason the church has invested herself so much in helping is because she has forgotten how to heal.

Either the church has forgotten how to heal or she no longer believes in the power of Jesus' name. When you look at some of the stuff we're doing in our world, it doesn't take much to see that we're not doing much, if any, of it any more in the name of Jesus; we're trying more to do it in the style of Him. We speak not in His name but say that we act in His good nature. We call it love, but it's not. 

It's something less.

It's something less because all this helping we do, it doesn't put people in touch with the real Jesus. It doesn't give them anything of Him except our interpretation. We have to take them to Him through our actions, through a series of steps that we've taken that are supposed to somehow reveal Him, but it is much better to bring them right to Him and say, "Friend, here is your Brother."

When we put people through our programs, they don't come to know Jesus, and honestly? We don't even come to know them. They become numbers in our record books, statistics in our demographics. Maybe we remember their names, but not for any particular reason.

That's one thing that stands out in the stories of the Gospels - Jesus never once lost a man for the sake of His own glory. Us? We lose them all the time.

We lose track of them. We forget to follow up. Or maybe we don't plan to follow up at all. We don't remember their names. The bank statement comes, the money is accounted for, the numbers are in...and the people are out.

The Gospels, in stark contrast, remember them all. These stories, these accounts given to us by the disciples, were not written in real-time. They were not following Jesus around with little parchments, taking notes on all of the things He'd done. Not even Judas was tracking the numbers. Rather, later, when the disciples sat down to tell their stories, these names, these people, these scenes came flooding back to them in greatest detail. And that is because of the way that Jesus healed people, not any way that He helped them.

It's important. It's vitally important. It's not just about social programs, about helping, or about the ways that we reach our communities; at its core, it is about our theologies. As we commit ourselves deeper and deeper into the "helping" ministries over the healing ones, we present to the world, and to ourselves, a theology that Jesus is Helper, not Healer. He came to help the world, not to heal it. It's how we've gotten where we are today, where the world no longer believes in the power of Jesus' name.

The world no longer believes because the church doesn't even believe.

Again, I'm not against social programs, but we have to keep them in proper perspective. Because Jesus wasn't about programs; He was about people. He wasn't about meeting needs; He was about meeting hearts. He wasn't willing to lose people for the sake of His glory, and He was not content to settle for helping when He knew He had the power to heal.

Imagine what would happen if today's church felt the same way. Imagine what would happen if we still believed.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Social Program

One of the questions that often comes up when the church is trying to figure out how best to minister to the community around it, or what the church is even supposed to be, is what types of social programs the church ought to be involved in. Most pastors will readily confess that the majority of problems that they address in their congregants' lives are sociological ones.

So it only makes sense that the church would try to figure out a way to intervene. Right? After all, Jesus cared deeply about the poor.

Yes...and no. 

One pastor recently told me that of course they have programs to meet the sociological challenges of their congregation. This, he said, is the best way to show the love of Christ. And, he continued, when you show the love of Christ in a real, tangible, meaningful way like these social programs permit, people tend to want to know more about Him and will then come to a relationship with Him.

It's a nice thought, but I'm not sure we ought to so quickly agree with either the premise or the conclusion. The conclusion is easiest to see - consider all of the persons touched by programs in your church or in churches you know, and then ask yourself how many of those persons can be found in your sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. The numbers are surprisingly small. The church has become such a benevolent organization that our communities turn to us for human help, but little else. The world has become so focused on its own needs that it no longer sees, and doesn't care to, the motivation behind our grace. 

But it's not just the conclusion that is troubling; the premise is equally so. It's true that Jesus spoke often of the poor and spent His ministry reaching the outskirts of society. But it is also true that He never once did it through a program. He didn't set up an outreach to the demon-possessed. He didn't call for a meeting of the blind. He put Judas in charge of the disciples' funds; He did not create a fund to assist the poor. And He never advised His disciples to do this, either. 

He never told His disciples that once He left them, they'd have to figure out a way to meet, en masse, the real needs of people's lives. He never told them that their overall mission would to be solve the world's social problems. In fact, He said essentially nothing about the world's social problems at all. Instead, He told them to go out, teach, preach, love, heal, and make disciples. 

And indeed, these are the very things that the early church devoted themselves to. We are told as much in Acts. Yes, they shared their resources to help one another in need. Yes, the churches often took up collections for those back in Jerusalem, who used the monies to help the poor. But the primary emphasis of the church was not to help the poor; it was to teach, preach, fellowship, love, and heal. 

I'm not saying our social programs are bad. Not at all. What I am saying, however, is that we should not justify them by saying that this is what Jesus would do; it's not what He did. He had a more radical intervention in mind. And for as much good as our social programs are doing, I think they are in large part a reflection of our own hesitations. 

More on that tomorrow. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Single Promise

Yesterday, we saw how the Lord's seven promises to Abraham were really just one promise, the same promise again and again in response to (or in solicitation of) Abraham's faithfulness. And I confessed that I would probably find this frustrating, as I think that most of us would. 

If God is going to ask us to take bolder and bolder steps of faith, shouldn't His promises also grow? Shouldn't we get more in return for our obedience? When we look at Abraham, we see a man who first left his homeland, then circumcised his entire household, then laid his only son on an altar, knife in hand. But the promise of God does not seem to reflect the increasing difficulty of these acts of faithfulness; he receives the same word on the mountain as he did in his father's house. 

And even as it seems he is pushing closer and closer to the promised land, his life does not seem to look any more at all like his promised life. 

But herein lie two truths of the Christian life that are essential, and in the right heart, perhaps this soothes the ache of the longing heart just a bit.

First, it is proof conclusive that grace comes by faith, not by works. The one thing that is consistent across Abraham's circumstances is his faith. That faith looks different at every step of his journey, but God's promise does not waver depending on the difficulty of one step over another. Abraham's only choice is faith or no faith, go or don't go, do or don't do. There is a consistent, faithful promise for saying yes; there is, we can assume, an emptiness to saying no.

That means Abraham was never bargaining with God. That means Abraham was never calculating faith. That means Abraham was not considering risks and rewards, trying to figure out how much faith he had to have to get what he wanted. There was no increasing offer on the table. It was yes or no, stay or go, blessed or not blessed. That's it. 

In a world in which we so easily quantify our decisions, thinking that surely some must be more monumental than others, this can often slip right past us. We want to think that doing x is greater than doing y and therefore is a greater sign of faithfulness, but that's just not the case. In Abraham's story, leaving home was as much an act of faith as tying Isaac to the altar. Yes - really. In our own lives, running a cash register at the local convenience store can be as much an act of faith as becoming a missionary to some far corner of the globe, if that is what God has so called us to do. So in Abraham, we learn to stop quantifying our acts so much.

It's yes or no. Faith or doubt. That's it. 

Second, it shows us that we really do have a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The God in Abraham's story is consistent. We see this, if we're paying attention, in the way that this God shows up again and again, but we see it most loudly in His consistent promise - you will be a nation; you will live in this land; your descendants will be countless. No matter what the man does, this is the word of the Lord. And it's unchanging.

Even though this is what seems to be frustrating, having a God whose promise doesn't seem to grow with our faithfulness, this is actually a great comfort our God offers to us. He is of single mind, and that single mind is one focused on bringing us into deeper relationship with Him. That's it. He won't be sidetracked. He won't be deterred. He won't be measured. The promise of God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, whether we leave home, circumcise our households, or lay our own sons on the altar. Our yes is echoed in His yes, His quiet little yes that never changes. 

I like that about Him. 

And these two truths - that grace comes by faith, not by works, and that God is faithful to His promise - help me to see Abraham's story in a different light. Frustrating? Yeah, still a little bit frustrating. But I like it anyway.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Faith of Abraham

Probably the most frustrating of all of men's relationships with God had to be exemplified in the life of Abraham, at least in terms of what we are often seeking and longing to know and how our faithfulness brings us face-to-face with His.

We know Abraham for his faith; it's legendary. When we talk about what it means to be a faithful man, Abraham is it. Even the author of Hebrews says that Abraham was rewarded on the basis of his faith. And when we read his story in Genesis, we see that again and again, the Lord gave His promise to the faithful man, signs from God in response to man's faith.

But it's always the same promise.

The first promise the Lord makes to Abraham is that he will be made into a great nation, having countless children in the land that God would give him. (Genesis 12:1-3) The second promise the Lord makes to Abraham, in response to Abraham's having left his home land and gone where the Lord had shown him, is that the Lord would give his descendants this land. (Genesis 12:7) The third promise the Lord makes to Abraham, after Abraham agrees to separate from his nephew and take possession of a certain section of the land, is that the Lord would give Abraham countless descendants, who would live in this land. (Genesis 13:14-17) The fourth promise the Lord makes to Abraham, after the man had faithfully been waiting for these countless descendants to start coming, was that he would have countless descendants who would take possession of the land that he was living in. (Genesis 15) 

The fifth promise that the Lord makes to Abraham (are you starting to see a pattern here?) is that he will have countless descendants who will live in the land that God has given him. (Genesis 17) The sixth promise that the Lord makes to Abraham is that he would have a son, even in his old age, and that this son would be the first of countless descendants and would inherit the land in which Abraham was living. (Genesis 18) Time passes, and the Lord makes a seventh and final promise to Abraham - that he will have countless descendants who will inherit the land in which he is living. (Genesis 22:15-19)

Throughout this series of promises, Abraham continues to demonstrate his faith. It is on the basis of this faith that the Lord says He is making these promises, even right down to the very last one, the time when Abraham nearly sacrificed his only son on the mountain, as God had commanded. Also in there, Abraham faithfully left his home, settled in the region, circumcised his household, etc. etc. And at every step of faithfulness, God's response was the same - I am making a promise to you.

I have to be honest and say, this would be tough for me. Abraham's faithfulness gets tougher and tougher; the things that God asks him to do are not easy things. I would want God's promise also to grow, to deepen, to expand somehow. If faithfulness requires more and more and more from me, I have to admit that there's a part of me that would expecting more and more and more from God. There is a part of me that would feel somehow cheated if I kept doing harder and harder things and God kept promising only one thing to me. Uh, yeah, God. You already said that. I was already counting on that one. 

Is that all You've got?

It's tough. I don't know - maybe my expectation would grow. But it kind of feels like a set-up, doesn't it? Like God just keeps asking Abraham to prove himself again and again and again and God has not yet delivered on a single promise He's made. The sixth promise - the sixth time that God makes this promise to Abraham - is the first that specifically results in Abraham having even one descendant, and by the time of the seventh and last promise, that's still all he has. One. Abraham has come through seven times for the Lord, done everything he's been asked, lived a life of faith, and God's "countless" is still easily numbered. It's one.


How frustrating! There must really have been something to Abraham's faith because at this point, most of us would not have any left. There must really have been something special about the way that Abraham believed because at this point, I'm more like Sarah, standing in the doorway of my tent, laughing. One. Seven promises of faithfulness, decades on the move, hundreds of circumcisions, mountains climbed, and...one. 


Monday, January 9, 2017

A Sign from God

The most fervent prayers that most of us pray is for a sign from God - some sign, some indicator that God is still God, that God is still good, and that things are going to be okay. And we know that God does provide signs because His Word is full of them. 

This will be a sign to you.... This sign will be.... I am giving you this sign....

But here's the thing about signs in the Bible: they always come after faithfulness, not before. They always come after the trials, not before. The rainbow always comes after the storm, not before. So for all of us who are waiting on some sign, waiting on God to show that He is still God, that He is still good, that things are going to be okay, we have to understand that we can never know this in the way that we want to until we take a faithful step in a God-ward direction. 

That's frustrating for a lot of us; I know it's frustrating for me. It's frustrating because if I'm going to climb a mountain, I want to know there is going to be a ram somewhere in those bushes. It's frustrating because if I'm going to build a boat, I want to know that there will be a safe harbor somewhere. It's frustrating because I want to know that if I'm going to have a child, He will truly be anointed. It's frustrating because it requires me to live in all of the questions I can never answer, knowing only one thing: hope. 

And this hope must somehow call me to faith.

Our theology gets kind of messy around here, this place where hope and faith intersect. Hope is the reason for our faith - if we did not believe in something bigger, we would have no reason to act in faith. But without a faith that acts, the truth is that we have no hope at all. 

So we pray. We pray for a sign, for some indicator that whatever we're about to do or whatever we've been asked to do is truly from God, that God is going to bless it somehow, that He will be with us, that His Word is good. But our prayer, as diligent as it is, is not faith; it is not motion. Only when we are willing to step out - to climb the mountain, to build the boat, to bear the child - will we see what God has called us to see.

That God is still God, that God is still good, that things are going to be okay because there is a ram in the bushes, a rainbow in the sky, and a babe in a manger, and they all point us back to the God who called us here in the first place, to the God who calls us to the mountain, the boat, and the manger. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Never Alone

Community is the very heart of God's story - that's why it is always worth looking at in greatest detail. No matter what page of the Scriptures you turn to, no matter what the story is, you can almost always, if not without exception, find community in every breath.

At the outset of his story, God declares, "It is not good for man to be alone," and He spends the rest of eternity proving the point.

When the angels of the Lord visit Lot in Genesis, there are three of them. The Lord doesn't need to send three angels to do his work; one would suffice.

When Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac, we are told of the servant's journey to find Rebekah. But read even there, and you will find that Laban welcomed the servant and the men with him into his home for the night.

When David runs away and hides from Saul, you'd think he'd be hiding alone, since Saul was the king of the nation and everything. But when you read those tales, you quickly discover that Saul and all the men with him were hiding from Saul - the lowest numbers indicate about 40 men with him at one point, and even more at other points. 

Paul, we know, traveled with all sorts of companions, writing letters to the churches in his own hand but mentioning all of their names.

When Jesus is promised into the world to Mary, so, too, is the voice crying in the wilderness. So even the Son of God comes into the world in community.

This is the thread that runs through the Scriptures.

In fact, on the very rare occasion when we see someone truly alone in the Bible, there are two things going on: first, he is alone only because he has intentionally separated himself somehow from the community. Moses goes up the mountain (although on at least one occasion, we are told that he took Joshua with him). Jesus steals away to pray (and here, too, His disciples are often not far away). Jacob sends his camp over the river ahead of him.

And second, they are not alone for long. For as soon as they find themselves separated, God comes to them, and community is once again the story.

Now, I say all that to say this - we're never truly alone. No matter how along we feel, no matter what's going on, no matter in what lonely place we find ourselves, all we need to do is to read carefully our story, and we will find all of the other people in it.

We will find that, like Abraham's servant, though the story sounds like it is ours, there are others with us. And when we shelter, we must find space for all of us.

We will find that, like David, when we're running from the hard things and hiding from troubles, there are many others with us. And when we tuck away into a cave, the cave must be big enough for those who have run away with us. 

We will find that, like Paul, we start signing more than just one name to our letters. We become aware of all of those we are traveling with, those who are doing our work with us and enabling us to do well our work.

We will find that, even like Jesus, when we were promised into this world, so, too, were others. We are voices crying in the wilderness, and we have voices crying after us.

And we will find, even yes, that when we steal away for just a moment alone, when we climb our mountains, retreat to the garden, or send our camp on ahead of us, here, too, we are never alone, for our God quickly joins us. 

Beautiful community.

For it is not good for man to be alone. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

To Each Other

I think one of the traps that we fall into when we consider the community that God has given us is that we think it is up to us somehow to go out and find the persons God has given to us. We think that God has given us just some generic idea of what little corner of the world He has for us, and it is then our responsibility to make it our own.

But that's not really the testimony of the Bible, either in the Old or the New Testament.

See, this is how we think it happens - we think that like Noah, God tells us something like "Go, get some of everything, and bring it to this sacred ground on which you walk." That's essentially what He told Noah, right? Go, get two of every animal, seven pairs of every clean animal, and stuff them into your boat. We spend so much of our time trying to get out people into our boat! 

Read the testimony, though. Noah doesn't have to go on one single hunt. He prepares the boat, makes the place, builds faithfully, and then the animals come to him. He doesn't go to the ends of the earth and round up a few armadillos here and some camels here and a jar of locusts from yet another place; they just...show up. They come to the ark. 

The same is true with Jesus. When we get to the Gospels, we see Jesus living in this place that God has given Him, and we hear Him talking about the persons God has given to Him. But by and large, Jesus does not go out and find these persons. Rather, He prepares the ministry, makes the place, walks faithfully, and these persons come to Him. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the Gospel testimony is that the people came to Jesus, even though it was He who was sent to them.

We let ourselves get so flustered by all of this, by all of these ideas we have about what it means to be a people of God given to a certain time and place, to be a people of God who have been given our own little corners of the world. But it need not be so daunting. The truth is that most of the time, we don't have to figure out how to go out and get it; we have to figure out only how to create the space for it to come to us.

And we do that by preparing well, making a place, and living faithfully. Just like Noah. Just like Jesus. Just like thousands of other men and women across history.

When you talk with persons who have been in ministry for awhile, either a formal or an informal ministry, one of the things you often hear is how they don't really have a choice in the matter; the need that they now minister to has always seemed, in one way or another, to seek them out. The hungry have always come, the sick have always sought them, the poor have knocked on their doors, the dying have called them in the middle of the night, etc. Whatever it is, most of us find, at one point or another, that the world that God has given us is actually coming to us; all we have to do is be here, faithfully. 

Not that this is a passive existence; not by any means. It's just to say that we spend too much of our time thinking we have to go, when the truth and the testimony is that so much of our going is done by creating a place for others to come. They come to us, but it's not really us; they are coming to something sacred, something holy. They are coming to God. In us and through us.

And so, we are given to each other, not in a way that makes us to spend our whole lives seeking, but in a way that makes us to spend our lives welcoming, embracing. Going, yes, but only in coming, one to another, each to each other, to the ends of all the earth, from our own very little corners of it. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


As we think about the communities that God has given us, the person to whom He has called us, the way each of us lives out our own journey from the ends of the earth to our little corners of it, we cannot forget that every community that we are given, we are also given into.

It is too easy for us to believe that our givenness is played out in some sort of circular hierarchy, where we become Christians and give ourselves to God, our God gives us to some community that He hopes for us to reach, and then, in so reaching, we give ourselves back to God. It's the idea of Jacob's ladder - that all that we do and all that we are is this up-and-down motion between heaven and earth.

It's also an understanding where we end up doing all of the work. We end up doing all of the ministry. We convince ourselves that the Christian life is meant to be lived in some kind of constant pouring out, where we give absolutely everything we've got to everyone we're given, and when we start to feel empty or start to have need, the only place we have to turn is to God. It's subtle and deceptive, but the only end to which this leads is one where God has become our savior, and we have become saviors of our world. 

That's not how it was meant to be.

I'm not saying it's bad that we should seek to draw our strength from God. I'm not saying that we should not pour out what God has given us to our communities. But what I am saying is that we have to realize and remember that just as we have the persons God has given us, so, too, we are the persons that God has given to others.

Jesus' ministry was not one-sided, and He had direct access to all the power and glory of God. We read through the Gospels, and we do not see Jesus doing all of the work. We see others traveling with Him. We see others setting tables for Him. We see others shopping for Him. We see others praying with Him. We see others doing all sorts of things for Him, and it's not because there was something weak in Jesus' faith that could not get this sort of thing from God, but it's because in the beautiful way that God does community, the person of Jesus was given to the very persons that Jesus was given. 

Just as we are given to the very persons we are given.

And I think that this is an area that we can all do better in. I know I can. Most of us are living some kind of martyred existence, where we're running ourselves empty all the time for the sake of being there for others, but we don't know how to let others be there for us. We're giving all we've got, and not getting much in return, and we're saying with weary voices that this is okay, but all the while, the doubt is creeping in because our tired prayers are fervent, but fruitless - even God is not restoring us. Then we look around and realize all the lives we've touched, all the hands we've held, all the tears we've wiped, and we look in the mirror and wonder who is touching our lives, who will hold our hands, who will wipe our tears. All of a sudden, in the very midst of this community, we feel the tremendous weight of loneliness, and we cannot fathom how God could do this to us. 

He hasn't; this wasn't His plan. 

His plan was that we, too, would be given. That we, too, would be someone's person. That we would be a lot of someone's person. Our stories would be ones in which sometimes, we set the table, but sometimes, we simply sit around it. Our stories would be ones in which sometimes, we keep watch over those who pray and sometimes, they keep watch over us. Our stories would be ones in which sometimes, we reach out and touch those around us and sometimes, they reach out and touch us. Our stories would be this beautiful interplay of life in the community of God, not an everlasting up-and-down of Jacob's ladder, but a back-and-forth across the table, with dirty feet and hearty laughter and communion wine dribbling down our chins. 

So as we think about who it is that God has given us, let us also think, too, about who it is that He has given us to. Who are our people? And whose people are we? What is this community to which we've been called and how do we play a full part in it, as both ministers and the ministered, as givers and takers, as given to and simply given? 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Ends of the Earth

Jesus confined His ministry to Jerusalem and Galilee (and roughly the surrounding area), without apologizing for the regions of the world to which God had not called Him in this particular earthly mission. He never said He felt led or drawn to go to any other region; He never felt guilty for not working His miracles among the far reaches of the world. 

This is a difficult idea for many of us, particularly as we sing, "He's got the whole world in His hands." We know that Jesus was given for the world, but therein lies the subtle difference - He was given for the world, but He was also given to His particular community. It's how we get these incredible Gospel stories that take place in real cities and towns, on real seashores, with real persons involved and invested in them. 

But that doesn't mean the rest of the world just misses out on the whole Jesus thing. Of course, we know that is not true. Just a short time after Jesus left His community, Peter and Paul set out to minister to theirs, and the places where Jesus was not able (or called) to go now had men who were sent specifically there. 

And you know? I think Paul did more good in the far reaches of the world than Jesus could have. It's not because Paul was greater than Jesus; not in any way at all! But it is because Paul was given these reaches of the world; they were on his heart. These were his people, in the same way that the characters in the Gospels were Jesus'. 

Can you imagine if Jesus had tried to reach the whole world? Can you imagine if the life and ministry of Jesus took on the same mission and scope as not only the Gospels, but the work of Peter and Paul, too? He would have been stretched thin, not stretched out. We would have snippets and snapshots, not stories. There would be no narrative to be rooted in because Jesus Himself would have no roots anywhere; His whole testimony would be travel, not triumph. And by the time He finally comes to the Cross, we look not at a Suffering Servant, but at a weary warrior, a man who has worn Himself out going to the ends of the earth. And for what? It changes everything. 

Herein lies the beauty of the whole thing. Herein lies the lesson for the rest of us. Jesus focused His ministry on His community, on the place He was sent and the persons He was given. He prayed for them. He worked miracles among them. He healed them. He called them. And when the time came, He became a spectacle for them, a sacrifice on their hills. And then those persons, those who lived in the community of Jesus, became the testimony for their own communities. They focused on their places, on their persons. They prayed for them, worked miracles among them, healed them, taught them, shepherded them. And their communities became the testimony for their communities....and so on and so on.

When we read through the New Testament, we see all this interweaving of the communities of the faithful. They knew about each other. They shared letters among each other. They knew each other's persons, to some degree, and they knew each other's struggles. They leaned on one another, even in cases where the majority of them had never met. They were testimonies to one another, everybody in their own place and with their own persons, and we call them, collectively, the church. And we say that the church was some big thing that was going on, but the truth is that the church was (and is) a big thing only by being all of its small things. It is universal only in its locality. It is a community only in the sense of its communities. 

Most of us look at the headlines, at the troubles in our world, and we think we ought to be doing more. We spend so much of our time trying to figure out what to do about Syria. Or Sudan. Or Haiti. Or Russia. Or wherever may be vogue today. But the truth is that most of us struggle with knowing what to do because these are not our persons, they are not our communities. This is not where our hearts beat, and this is not what we have been given. There are, of course, persons who have been given these communities, and we must support and be grateful for them. There are, of course, still Peters and Pauls among us. But most of us? Most of us are not Peters or Pauls. We're just...us.

And we haven't been given the ends of the earth, but just our little corners of it. 

Here....here is where our stories start weaving in. Here is where we pray. Here is where we work miracles. Here is where we heal. Here is where we call. Here is where we become living testimonies, in our own communities, to our own persons, in this very place. And then one day, our communities become testimonies to their communities, and so on and so on, all around the world, until even the furthest reaches should know about this Man given to Galilee for the sake of the world. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Few Front Porches

Last week, I said that I don't even watch much of the news any more - there's just so much going on in the world that has nothing at all to do with my actual life. That may sound a bit self-centered, or perhaps even selfish, but I don't think it is.

This tip-of-our-fingers, all-around-the-world tragedy report that we are daily bombarded by does nothing more than to distract us from the real life, the real world, the real community that God has given to us. As our world grows larger through informational media, it also grows smaller, and so do we, until we are lost in a sea of humanity that somehow no longer includes our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors.

It's not that I'm not heartbroken by the things that are going on in our world; I am. It's not that I want to turn a blind eye to real human crises like what is going on in Syria and the Sudan; I don't. But I have to be honest and tell you - God hasn't given me a heart for Syria and Sudan, at least not at this particular season in my life. And when I try to stretch my heart that far, it becomes so thin that it can no longer hold the stories of the community that God has given me.

Bold words from a Christian, I think, particularly in a time when we are so connected to one another that we think our faith ought to be able to solve all the world's problems, that we ought to be engaged in every corner, that we should not look away for one second from the tragedy, lest it overwhelm what is good and pure in the world or something. But I say again - God hasn't given me Syria or Sudan. And you know what? I'm not apologizing for that.

I'm not apologizing for God not giving me the world because God didn't even give Jesus the world. At least, not in the way that we conceive of it any more. There's this passage in the Gospel where Jesus is praying with His disciples, and they hear Him, and His prayer is not for the world. It is not for the entire sea of humanity. It is not for all those who ever were, who are, and who were to come. No, Jesus prays "for those you have given me." 

Take a minute and think about that. Jesus is the Savior of the world, and yet, His prayer is so intimately specific. He does not pray for the world, but for those who have been given to Him. 

And in all His ministry, despite the ever-expanding areal coverage of human civilization, Jesus does not go beyond this one little region into which He was placed. He doesn't go to Asia. He doesn't go to Rome. He doesn't go to Spain. These were concerns on Paul's heart, but Jesus doesn't go there, and He doesn't apologize for it. (Nor does He say, we must note, that whatever's going on there is of no importance to Him; it's just not His. Not for this journey.)

This is an area for me that cannot be ignored. So many of us are trying to stretch our reaches to the far corners of the world, and we have forgotten how to walk across the street. We send money to missionaries because that's what we're supposed to do, I guess, for furthering the Gospel, but we don't live in love in our own communities. The world's problems seem so big, so pressing, so attention-grabbing that we no longer notice the tears in our friend's eyes, the hardship on our neighbor's hearts, the struggle in our community's core. We have made our worlds so large that we have lost them, and if we want to be a truly missional people of Jesus, then we have to start to understand once more that our work does not begin in the indigenous tribes of some remote locale we could never find on a map, but on the indigenous lives where our maps begin, that place where our GPS picks up where we last left off. Right here, with the people God has given us.

It's great to have a heart for the world. I'm not dismissing that. But it's better still to have a heart for Jesus. And when you have a heart for Jesus, you come to understand that the world isn't yours; it wasn't made for you, and it wasn't given to you. You weren't given all the headlines; you were given just a few home fronts. A few front porches. 

So if this big ol' world we live in seems overwhelming to you, if you get lost in all the big stuff that's going on in this broken place, start small. Figure out where your heart is. Figure out where God has put you, and why. Figure out who your people are, the ones that God has given you, and start there. Walk across the street.