Friday, March 31, 2017


Almost everyone, I think, wants to know how to have an unshakable faith. We want to live our lives so that we believe even when it doesn't seem there's anything to believe in, so that we hope when all hope is lost, so that we trust when we can't see the next step. We want faith to step into the fire, but all of that seems easier said than done.

How do we develop an unshakable faith when this world seems set on rocking us to our core?

I don't know.

Sorry - I know you're used to more confident answers from me, and you were probably hoping that I was about to reveal the secret to the kind of faith that we're all searching for. But the truth is, I just don't know. I know it's possible. I've seen it happen, and I'm watching it happen. But I don't know how it happens. I can't even pretend to understand the ways in which God works.

I think part of our problem is that we think that faith is the foundation of our relationship with God. It's not. Faith, hope, trust, even love - these are not the foundations on which our relationship with God is based. Our relationship with God has to be based on God Himself, on His heart, on His character, on His goodness; that's the only thing that doesn't change.

And what I've found - and what I'm finding - is that faith is merely a landscape. 

Faith builds mountains, places where our confidence in God has soared. High peaks where we stand on top of the world and look out over all of the Promised Land, sure of who God is, who we are, and all His promises. 

Faith carves valleys and canyons, places where it's been harder to believe. Places where the shadows are cast in all kinds of crazy directions, and the only thing we know for sure is that the ground underneath us hasn't changed - God is still God, but here, the light dances with darkness. And somehow, this is part of faith, too. 

Faith digs trenches, the places where it buckles down. Places where it digs in hard, seeking refuge or comfort or protection. These are some of the hardest places, places of grief, of pain, of insecurity. Places of questions that don't seem to have answers. 

And faith fills those trenches with joy, the joy that flows down from the mountains and rushes through even these hardest places. Joy that overflows the banks of our trenches, spills out over the plains into even the dullest, most boring places of our lives. 

Faith forms oases in the deserts. It carves out caves in the hills. It sets up altars on the seashores and traces footprints in the sands. Faith creates this beautiful landscape of believing, draws out the map of our very lives. 

But it never changes the ground on which we stand, which is the very foundation of all things - the truth about who God is.

It doesn't sound like much, maybe, but it's everything. It's everything because it changes the way that we think about faith. If we accept the understanding that faith is nothing more than the landscape, that the ground remains the same, then we can start to just roll with the punches. We can start to just take life as it comes. We can let it change us, let it shape us, let it put new landmarks on our maps. We can watch the horizons expand and the sun rise and the shadows dance without fear, without worry, for the foundation of all that we have is solid - it is God Himself; it's just the landscape that is changing. 

And it's beautiful. 

So what's the secret to unshakable faith? I don't know. But I think maybe it's something like this.

At least, that's what I'm coming to find out. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Tenderness of Jesus

This has been a bit of a tough week for me, but it has brought a couple of powerful moments that are the kind that simply make me weep. Not because they are hard, but because they are beautiful, and they remind me of the incredible love of God for His children.

A couple of days ago, I woke up with one eye severely swollen. By the time I could get in to see my doctor, it was swollen completely shut. My doctor, who normally greets me with a big, hearty smile, a neat story, and great joy, took only half-a-second to change his normal demeanor to one that showed deep concern for my present situation. The difference in his face was powerful, but it didn't stop there.

He came near me and, as he got close enough to see, he said, "I have to pull this eye apart a bit to make sure your eye itself is okay." And with great tenderness, he proceeded to do just that. 

In that moment, I could think of nothing but the tenderness of Jesus.

You see, that's what the Lord looks at in me every day. He sees these horrible effects of my brokenness, all these places where I am clearly hurt, where I am clearly in pain, where something is clearly not right, and I can see the love that He has for me written all over His face. Even His eyes change. They tell me about a thousand things about what He's thinking in that moment, about what He's feeling, about the way that His heart has been moved for me. 

And as He draws near, He says essentially the same thing - I need to pull back this brokenness a little bit, just to make sure that your heart is okay. And with great tenderness, He proceeds to do just that.

Maybe that makes me a bit unique in terms of the way that I am willing to be loved by Jesus. I think so often, we get into this mindset where we want Him to just heal us. We don't want Him to be tender with our brokenness; we want Him to be ruthless with it. We want Him to use His power to rip it out. We want Him to use His skill to excise it. We want Him to make it better, and now.

But things just don't work like that. At least, I've never found that they have. These things take time. You have to be tender with them. He has to be tender with them.

And there's something about knowing that you're okay already. At least, I mean, in part. My eye itself? It's fine. It's a little troubled right now, blocked behind this massive swelling. But my eye itself is okay. 

So is my heart. Of all the broken things that I've had in my life, I've had these beautiful moments with Jesus when He draws close, pulls back the brokenness just a little bit, and says, "Yes. Good. Your's okay." It's just a little blocked right now. 

I don't know what it is, but these are my favorite moments. Every time someone is willing to look beyond my brokenness and see that, you know what? I'm okay. Things are a little grotesque right now. Things are a little rough. But the core of's okay. There's something beautiful and completely healthy underneath all that. I don't causes me to weep. Not because it hurts. Not because it's broken. But because through all that is hurt and all that is broken, something beautiful has still been found. It's right there. And it's okay.

This is the tenderness of Jesus. 

And man, it gets me every time....

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Who You Shall Serve

The question posed by Joshua when he addressed the Israelites is a bit of a false one. "Choose for yourselves this day who you will serve, whether your God....or the gods of the people whose land you are about to enter." Yes, this is, in the grand scheme of things, the real choice. We will either serve our God or we will serve some other god (or something we have set up as a god), but in the practical, lived-out nature of service, it's not so simple.

For example, sometimes when you are serving your God, you are also serving your brothers and sisters. This was the case for Joseph. He was dutiful in his service to the Lord, but in the end of the story, we find that his service to the Lord was not only for the Lord's glory, but also for his brothers' preservation. Interesting that this was the man who was hated by his brothers for his dreams that they would one day bow down before him. They did, but only because he was the only slave who could save them. Funny how that works, huh?

That's not to say that every time you are serving your brothers and sisters, you are serving your God, however. There are plenty of things that we do for one another that are not particularly God-pleasing. But it is often true that what we do for God is of benefit to our brothers and sisters, so pay attention to how God is weaving these threads.

On the other hand, not most of us would say that we would choose to serve gods other than the Lord our God, but we do it in practical terms all the time. We wouldn't say that we serve money, but we do. We wouldn't say that we serve ourselves but we do. We put these things above all other things, and they become our gods, whether we intended for them to be or not.

But neither does it follow that every time we make good use of money, it replaces our God. Or even that when we do something for ourselves, that this is idol worship. There are some very good, God-honoring ways to use money and to care for ourselves. These are called stewardship and discipline, and they do not need to be wicked. They can be very good.

So it's not as simple as saying, "Pick your god." What matters is how we approach the things that either are God's or can become gods in our lives. And we have to know how it is that we're approaching these things. 

The question, then, is not "What are you doing?" but rather, "Why are you doing what you are doing?" Are you doing it for the glory of the Lord, out of the recognition that you were created for this very purpose? Or are you doing it for some other reason? Any other reason than the glory of the Lord is idolatry. But both idolatry and glorification are slavery. They're service. 

So you're a slave, of course, as you knew that you are. But a slave to what? And why?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Transformative Power

The first thing that we have to understand about slaves as the Bible tells their stories is that slaves are anything but powerless. Because of the way that modern slavery operates, we often think, Oh, those poor slaves. They've got nothing going for them. But that's just not the case.

Take Joseph, for example. A foreigner, sold as a slave in Egypt. He gets there, and he's such an amazing slave that he's put in charge of everything in his master's house. A lie gets him thrown in prison, but he's such an excellent prisoner that he's put in charge of everything in the prison. God turns his situation around, and he finds himself before Pharaoh, and he's such an amazing slave in Pharaoh's presence that he's put in charge of the entire country. And it's because of this slave that the entire world did not starve in the famine. 

That's quite a testimony of a slave.

Or take, for example, the story of the nations that Israel did not end up driving out of their land. There were several peoples that, for one reason or another, became slaves instead of casualties. And in more than one case, what do we see? It was the slaves among Israel that began to introduce the foreign gods. Their influence in their own households and cities was so strong that the slaves are the ones who drew Israel away from the Lord in worship.

That's power.

Or what about Israel as slaves in Egypt? When Israel came to Egypt during the famine, Joseph was able to secure his relatives the choicest of all the land among Egypt. Even Pharaoh admitted what good land it was when he gave it to them. Fast forward about 400 years, and the Egyptians don't even seem to remember what good land it was. To them, it's just the land of the detestable Hebrews who are nothing but a bother to them. Amazing how the best place can become the rejected place.

But that is the power of the slave. 

There are so many more examples - Israel in Babylon, Daniel specifically. Slaves in the Old Testament. Slaves in the New Testament. But you're starting, I hope, to see the point - slaves in the Bible are not anything like slaves as we think about them from our own historical context. They were far from powerless; they were often the most powerful persons around.

This is very important for us as we start to consider what it means to be slaves. What it doesn't mean is that we give up all of our power. Rather, perhaps it means that we have more than we ever bargained for. 

Monday, March 27, 2017


Although it's not very socially acceptable today, the Bible is full of stories about slaves. There are servants as far back, at least, as Abraham, who took one with him when he and Isaac went to Mount Moriah. Joseph was sold into slavery. Israel herself became slaves in Egypt. The nations that she didn't destroy in the Promised Land became her slaves. Israel was brought into slavery again in Babylon. Even in the New Testament, we see references to slaves and slavery - one of the letters that we have is from Paul to the owner of a certain slave, Philemon, lauding the slave's tremendous help. 

For most of us who live in a post-slave society (we cannot say a post-slave world, since slavery still exists and, to be honest, we still live in a society of sex slavery, so we cannot even say this really about ourselves), this is hardly fathomable. How atrocious! we say. How terrible! Slavery! We just shake our heads.

And it's true that even in the Bible, slavery is often talked about in negative terms. No one wants to be a slave. Joseph didn't want to be a slave; his brothers sold him into it. Israel didn't want to be slaves in Egypt; that's not how they started out there. The other nations weren't keen on the idea of becoming Israel's slaves; it was, however, better than the alternative (being claimed for the Lord by the sword - i.e. dying). In many cases, their slavery wasn't even part of God's agenda; it was a trick to save themselves. 

But despite this, we also see that slaves have tremendous power in the Scriptures, for better and for worse. 

This is important because Paul says that we should be slaves to Christ. And most of us, in our postmodern, individualistic mindset, really struggle with this. Me? A slave? Forget it! I do what I want when I want and nobody can tell me what to do. Not even Christ Himself. (And even if we are not so bold as to say this out loud in so many words, it is the way we're living, as though we have no master at all.)

Yet as is also true what we find in the other Biblical wisdom - we're all slaves to something. If we're not serving Christ, we're serving something else. We're slaves to Christ, or we're slaves to sin. We're slaves to Christ, or we're slaves to money. Even as far back as the Old Testament, Joshua declared, "Choose for yourselves this day who you will serve, whether the Gods of your forefathers or the gods of the people in whose land you are living." Notice that he doesn't given an option for not serving any god at all. 

It's not possible.

We're all slaves to something. We are not our own. And that's why it's important to look at some of the things that the Bible story teaches us about slaves, about the power that they hold (for better or for worse) and what kind of impact we can have on the world, depending on whose house we choose to live in. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Presence of God

When we talk about using the Bible to draw us nearer to the heart of God, there's a very practical reason for this: God is actually near. 

Most of us don't understand that any more. We have come to this place in our faith where God is somewhere else and the only thing we've got of Him is a promise that someday, we might be somewhere else with Him, and His Word, which is supposed to somehow guide us to this other place. We feel the distance when we read His Word, but we just figure that's the way that it's supposed to be.

After all, God is a mystery, right? His ways are higher than our ways. He is beyond our wildest imagination. We could never possibly get a good hold on Him. So mystery it is. And longing. And aching. And distance.

But take a good look at the Bible and tell me - where does it say that God is distant from His people? Where does it tell us that this is the way that it is supposed to be?

In the beginning, God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. He came to Noah with instructions on how to build a big ship. He met with Moses on the mountain and marched before Israel in battle. He met Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in a fiery furnace and came to Daniel in a lions' den. He dwelt among His people in a Tent of Meeting and then in the Temple. He came down, Himself, in the form of a Man, lived among us, walked the same paths that we walk, fished the same seas that we fished, died the same death that we die. And when He left us from there, He said, "Don't worry - I'm sending a Helper for you." In other words, I'm not going far.

So tell me - where, exactly, do we get this idea that God is far from us? This just is not His testimony.

Yet that's how most of us are living, content to have the distance between us. Content to use His word as a bridge, not from our heart to His but from now until eternity, if we can just hold on long enough. We've got a white knuckled faith from holding on so tightly because we have all but forgotten that there is a God who is so close that He's holding onto us. 

That's why it's so important that we use our Bibles correctly. That's why it's so important that we let His Word guide us back to His heart. Because it wasn't meant to be this way. Nowhere in all of Scripture are we told that it was meant to be this way. But here we are. Sadly, tragically, here we are.

We've settled for Scripture, no longer realizing that every single word of God was meant to draw us deeper. We've settled for a Word, even though we're longing for a presence. Even though that presence is near. We've settled for time and space, but God's promise is eternal closeness. He is near. He always has been. He always will be. 

We just have to look up from our books long enough to realize it. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Who of God

As we talk about the why of God that has to lead us to the Who, I can't help but say something that has been on my mind a lot lately, something that I'm having conversations with others about as we talk through what it means to be ministers and what it means to be the church. And that something is this:

I think we've all but lost the who of God. 

Just as we've come to this place in our private faith where we look to the Scriptures to discover the word of God, but not the heart of Him, so, too, have we come to a place in our churches where we're looking for the people of God, but still not the heart of Him.

Ask nearly anyone what the greatest commandment is, and they can quickly and accurately say that it is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, but one look at our churches reveals that that's not what we really believe. What we really believe is the greatest commandment is to go and make disciples. That's what we're focused on.

And what does making disciples really mean to us? It means making converts. It means making members. It means making services that convince persons to come forward and claim Jesus as their Lord, knowing what He did for them but not knowing who He is.

It's an epidemic, and it's one of the reasons our churches are dying. Persons say that they came to the Lord, that they came forward and accepted Him, prayed the prayer and were baptized, only to come to the horrifying realization a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime later that they only ever knew what Jesus offered them; they never knew who He really was.

It's because we've lost the who. We've traded it for the what. We no longer center ourselves, as the church, around a faith that teaches persons who God is so that they can love Him. We no longer preach the heart of God so that we can know Him. We preach the salvation of Him so that we can accept Him, but what are we even accepting? Nobody knows.

We aren't making disciples. Disciples are persons who drop everything to follow Him. Disciples are those who share in His most intimate moments. Disciples are those who become privy to His whispers, to His parables, to His heart. Disciples are those who know Him intimately. We're not making disciples; we're making members. We're making persons who come to our pews on Sunday mornings. We're making persons who make dishes for our potlucks. We're making persons who wear our T-shirts and sport our bumper stickers and tell their friends about our church, but they cannot tell their friends about our Jesus. Because they do not know Him.

It's absolutely heartbreaking, but this is where we're at. Did you know they've done studies about children in youth groups? Something crazy like 90% (or more) said they "have fun" at youth group; only 9% (yes, you read that right) have incorporated Jesus into their hearts in such a way that He is reflected in their lives. And if you want to know something truly sad, the number is the same for adult church members. Of those claiming to be born-again Christians, only 9% have so centered Jesus in their hearts that their lives actually reflect knowing Him. 

We have a lot of work to do.

That's why we have to be diligent about recapturing the who of God. We have to start preaching, teaching, talking about who He is again so that we're not just making members; we're making disciples. So that we're not just making disciples; we're making persons who truly can love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. They can't love Him unless they know Him. They can't know Him until they cut through the what and get back to the who, to the very heart of God. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Why of God

What we have to be mindful of when using the Scripture to draw us back to the heart of God, however, is that we do not twist the Scripture to discover the God we were looking for all along. In a world where truth is relative and "close enough" is "good enough," we are prone to misinterpret the Scriptures in favor of a most palatable faith.

For example, yesterday, I quoted a passage in Romans - "God works all things together for good." Even that is a bit off in its interpretation, but it gets much closer than the way that this verse is often quoted - "All things work together for good." The difference may seem subtle, but it is incredibly profound. In the first, God is actively working all things together; in the second, things just happen to work out. The second doesn't actually require God at all. It says nothing about His nature, nothing about His character, nothing about His heart. Things just work out, all on their own. God said it, but it is not He who sees it through.

That's a problem. 

And it happens more than most of us realize. We know only half-verses or some twisted version of them, and then we use those to try to get back to the heart of God. But it doesn't work. The sorta-kinda-word of God can never get us there; we have to know what He actually said. Word for word. Heart for heart. 

Most of us know, for example, that "all Scripture is God-breathed." And it is. But that's only half a verse. The rest is "and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17) It's not enough to say that all Scripture is God-breathed; that only tells us what God wants us to know. The question of His heart is why He wants us to know it - and that is because it is useful. He wants to equip us for the work He's set before us. If we know the word is God's, that's great, but it doesn't tell us anything about Him. What tells us about Him is knowing why God has given us His Word. 

Most of us know that the "Lord is my shepherd." And He is. But that's only part of a verse. Many of us also know that we "shall not want." Again, great. But why? The heart of God is revealed in the rest of the Psalm - He leads us by still waters, lies us down in green pastures, protects us with His rod and staff, prepares for us a table in the midst of our enemies. It's not enough to say the Lord is our shepherd; we have to know the tender care that that implies. And that is given by the rest of the verse. 

Nearly everyone knows John 3:16, but who among us knows John 3:17? It's great that God loves us so much that He sent His son. But if that's all it is, it's nothing more than a neat party trick. There has to be a why that draws us into the heart of God, and the why is in verse 17 - for God did not send His son to condemn the world, but to save it. The heart of God is a saving heart. You don't get that from verse 16; it's in verse 17. 

So we have to be careful about how we use the Scriptures. If we want them to draw us back into the heart of God, we have to take them as they are, in full context, and keep reading until we get to the why. Most of us are too content to stop at the what, but this leaves us empty. There are a million different reasons why a man might put his shoes on in the morning, so knowing that he's put them on does not tell us anything meaningful about the man. But knowing why he has put them on tells us much, much more. 

The same is true of God. We have to keep digging through the Word until we find the why, for it is what will lead us back to the Who that we are looking for. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Heart of God

It sounds frustrating, I know, that there would not just be a Bible verse for every little thing that we face, that God's Word would not just provide us comfort right away whenever and wherever we seek it. But I would argue that whatever we could discover in the Scriptures, unless it would lead us back to the very character and heart of God, could only ever provide minimal, if any real, comfort anyway.

Imagine, for example, that you were struggling with some very severe physical symptoms. You longed to know what was going on with you, longed to find some information somewhere that would give you the answers that you seek. Now, imagine that you worked faithfully with a doctor to dig through all of the literature until you discovered what it was that was troubling you. You and your doctor settle on one diagnosis; it's right there for both of you to see. 

You may be thankful, but you're still sick. Now, imagine that you ask your doctor what to do about it, and he gives you a less-than-stellar answer. He doesn't really know. He's only the kind of doctor who diagnoses things; he doesn't know the first thing about fixing them. That diagnosis you have is now essentially useless. It's empty.

This is the heartache that so many persons feel when they turn to the Scriptures for comfort. When they dig through the Bible to come up with a verse that says something, anything, about what they are going through, but they don't follow it back to the heart of God, they find something that is essentially useless. It's empty. If, for example, you discover that "God draws near to the broken-hearted," but you don't let that lead you to the heart of God that is drawn to the broken-hearted and you still feel the distance between yourself and God in this broken-hearted moment, what good has the Scripture done you? None at all. 

And this, sadly, is the point that many persons start to turn away from God altogether. It is at the moment that they find His Word empty, for no other reason than that they have not traced the thread of His Word back to His very heart. 

Now, it may be that your inept doctor is able once again to scour through the literature and discover that there is a treatment for whatever it is that ails you. He may find scientific studies proving the efficacy of taking one route over another. It may even be that there is something out there that provides an absolute-sure cure for your condition. Great! But then that doctor may turn to you and say that he doesn't really know how to implement that treatment. He knows what you need, but he cannot tell you anything about how to get it. He can't give it to you. How much are you loving your doctor right now?

Again, here is where many run into problems with the Scriptures. They willingly hold onto verses like, "God works all things together for good" (which is, by the way, often misquoted to mean something that it doesn't really mean). Great! God knows how to make good things. But whatever you're going through doesn't feel good. You can't find the good anywhere in it. How much are you loving your God right now?

That's why it's not enough to go into the Scriptures and find something that in some way speaks to whatever it is that you're going through; the Scriptures are empty without the heart of God that beats through them. And all over our world, persons, even Christians, are finding them empty because they rely too much on the Word and not enough on the Author of that Word. 

That's why it's so important to not get caught in this trap. That's why, when someone asks me what the Bible says about _____, I pull away and tell them what the Bible says about God. Because the heart of God is the only thing the Bible ever authentically speaks to. Read any other way, it will come up empty every time. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Word of God

Every now and then, knowing that I have a heart in the ministry and am a student of the Word, persons will come to me and say, "Quick! I need a Bible verse for ______." And often, my response is, "I'm sorry. There isn't one."

This surprises nearly everyone and offends most. Many begin to grumble, thinking I just don't want to help them. That it's personal or something. 

It's not.

And I don't mean to diminish in any way the Word of God. But I am deeply troubled by the way that we have come to use the Scriptures in our world, and I think it is severely to our detriment that we turn to them in this way.

For most persons today, just finding a good word in the Bible is enough. They immediately calm down, relax, and rest because "the Bible says it, so it must be true." In life's most tragic moments, give us nearly anything to hold onto, and we'll take it. We'll grab hold firmly until our knuckles are white and never let go, even when it doesn't seem to be playing out the way we thought it should. 

But too many of us are living as white-knuckle Christians, holding onto whatever hope we can find. Plastering words on our mirrors and visors and bodies as reminders of hope. Tragically, however, we have lost sight of the Lord who spoke those words. And this is where I have issues with it.

Historically, the Scriptures have been used to point men back to God. They have been used to reveal the character, nature, and heart of the Lord. They have been used to remind us who God is, that we might take comfort in Him. No longer. Today, we're content with just the words. We're content with the written promise, and we no longer think about the Promiser. We hold onto these words of hope, but we have forgotten that hope is not a thing; Hope is a Person. Hope is God. 

I've had the opportunity to sit in some dark places with many hurting persons. And what I've found in all of them is that the words are not enough. They're just not. What persons need, what we all need, is a real, powerful encounter with the living God. We don't need to know what God said; we need to know who God is. 

And that's where I take this question that I so often get. Need a Bible verse for _______? Sorry. There isn't one. 

But let me tell you what God has to say about that from His heart. Let me tell you about the One who hurts the same way that you're hurting right now. Let me tell you about the One who is grieving with you. Let me tell you not about a word that you can write on your mirror or your visor or your body, but about a Love that you can etch onto your very heart. That's what you need right now. 

Not some white knuckled hope that you can hopelessly hold onto, but a real and living Hope that holds onto you. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

One True God

There are many more questions about angels, demons, and the army of the Lord, created in the service of Him. But since the week is coming to a close, I shall choose just one more topic to discuss. And that topic is demons.

Here's what I love about demons....

(That threw you off, didn't it? How is there anything to love about demons?) Honestly, though, here is what I love about demons: they are always revealing the true nature of God. 

We see this, of course, in the Gospels. Every time Jesus encounters a demon, it calls Him by name. It identifies Him as the holy Son of God. It calls Him out, loudly enough for all to hear, even before He has revealed His own nature to the people around. Even before He is ready to declare who He is, the demons know, and they proclaim it. 

But it's not just that. There are other ways that the demons reveal the true nature of God. For example, the fact that there are demons at all reveals something fundamental about God's nature. We know that God values free will in His relationship with humans; He wants us to love Him because we choose to, not because we have to. That there are demons at all demonstrates that He values free will in general. The God of the angels is the God of man - He's the same God. He places the same value on free will. Just as those created to glorify Him can choose not to, so those created to serve Him can also choose not to. The angels become demons.

It's important not to take this too far. We don't know exactly what God's relationship with the angels is. We don't have anything to tell us that. We know what His covenant with man is, but we should not assume that this is the same covenant relationship that He shares with other beings. Just as we do not know how God relates to the flowers or the butterflies or the ants, so we do not know how God relates to the angels. But we do see clearly His value of free will in the very existence of demons, and this should bolster our confidence that God really is, through and through, who He says He is. He is not one God in this covenant and a different God in another; He is who He is. Consistently.

Another thing we can learn about God from the demons is His true omnipotence (all-power). We talk a lot about God's redemption, about how God is able to turn bad things into good things, about how God uses broken persons for His purposes. We talk about how even the ugliest evil can bring about tremendous beauty. We declare that no one is too far gone to be used by God. And in fact, this is the testimony of the demons, too. 

In 1 Samuel, Saul disobeys the Lord's direct order, and the favor of God is removed from him. Then God sends an evil spirit to torment the king. In the Scriptures, this is still referred to as a spirit of God. Of course, we should not say that God is or has an evil spirit; that would be to deny the overwhelming testimony of Scripture. But He can use an evil spirit, a being created in the service of Him that has exercised its free will and chosen to go another way, just as He can use an evil man. Nothing is too far gone for God. 

Why would an evil spirit, one who exercised its free will to escape the service of God, be willing to do the service of God when asked? Because God is inviting the spirit on its own terms - He is giving it the chance to do what it wants to do anyway; He is just planning to use it for good. It's the same thing we see in Job. The wicked one jumps at the opportunity to torment the faithful servant. Why? Not because it will glorify God, but because torment is the very thing the spirit is bent on. It's what the spirit wants to do. Given the opportunity, the spirit will do it. And then God will turn it for good. 

That's amazing! God is doing the same thing with the angels (and demons) that He's doing with men - He's working all things together for good. He's giving them over to their own evil minds, and then He's making that work out anyway. God truly is who He says He is. 

No wonder even the demons can't help but say it. 

We get hung up so easily on all of this, on angels and demons and the army of the Lord. There are so many questions and not a lot of answers. There's a lot we're not told about these beings; we have to figure most of it out for ourselves from the few clues that we're given in the Scriptures. But our questions are not really about angels and demons. Or, at least, they shouldn't be. Our questions should be about God Himself, and to this end, the angels have much to teach us. Not just about their covenant, but about ours, as well.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

God's Army

As we continue to talk about angels and men, we cannot ignore the common understanding that God sends His angels to be our aid. That when we are in trouble, we can call on God and He will send down His angels to surround us, protect us, heal us, and hold us. I think we probably get this idea from Jesus and His temptation in the wilderness, where He both declares that He could call down angels and is, after the temptation, tended by angels as He regains His strength.

But that's Jesus, not man.

Men's relationship with angels is a little more complicated. Just consider, for example, Elijah, who was also in the wilderness in need of some tending to. To the prophet, God sent ravens. Ravens seem a strange choice if angels are available.... 

Throughout the Scriptures, we see angels coming from time to time. They come to check out the situation in Sodom, staying with Lot and pulling him into his house to save him from the wicked crowd that has gathered outside. We see one come and wrestle with Jacob on the edge of the Jabbok River as he makes his way home to his brother Esau and his ailing father. We see angels standing in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. 

And angels, of course, come heralding all kinds of messages. It is an angel that comes to Gideon in the winepress and calls him a "mighty warrior." It is an angel that comes to Elizabeth and tells her of her impending pregnancy. It is an angel who informs Mary that she is "highly favored," and the same who clues Joseph in on what is actually going on. 

All of these encounters lead us to believe that the angels have come for our sake, that they are fundamentally "for" us in some way. But if we go all the way back to the book of Joshua, we will see that one man dared to actually ask the question. And the answer is a poignant reminder about who the angels really are.

Israel has just come into Canaan, and they have celebrated their first Passover in the Promised Land. Joshua, the man who succeeded Moses in leading Israel into Canaan, heads toward Jericho and runs right smack into an angel. Joshua went up to him and asked, 'Are you one of us or one of our enemies?' He answered, 'Neither one! I am here as the commander of the Lord's army.' (Joshua 5:13-14)

Now, Israel is of course engaged in this series of great battles. They are fighting for their inheritance, the land promised to their fathers by God hundreds of years ago. And throughout these battles, we see it play out that the Lord's army clearly fights "for" Israel; the angels are on Joshua's side. 

But asked straight out, the angels put the warrior in his place. "We're not here for you or for them; we're here for God." And indeed, this is the testimony of angels throughout Scripture. They come for God's purposes, not man's. 

Thus, when we encounter angels in our lives, we must not think that they have come for our sake. Rather, we must always be asking what God is up to. We must always be looking for the story that God is telling. For if the angels are here, it is for His sake, not ours. It is for His glory, not ours. They have come in His service that He might be glorified in us. Just as it was intended from the very beginning. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Company of Angels

If we understand that angels and men are created differently and for different purposes in relation to God (and I think we have to understand this, given the biblical testimony), then we have to be willing to rethink what it is that we believe about eternity. 

Specifically, men do not become angels.

This is a difficult one for many Christians because the church has seemed to have this dominant narrative that once we die, we "get our wings." We straighten our halos and become angels. We have all of these images of winged, haloed men sitting on clouds and becoming the messengers of God back and forth between heaven and earth. We even have certain sayings, particularly when someone young or exceptionally good-hearted dies. "God must've needed another angel." 

But to believe this is to severely misunderstand...well, a lot of things. It is to misunderstand the nature of man, which is to be the glory of God. It is to misunderstand redemption, which is to glorify us in the presence of God. It is to misunderstand God's design for His creation, which is to fulfill humanity, not to transform it. (If God had wanted men to be angels, He would have simply made angels and not men. Adam could just as easily have been created in the service of God, but he was not; he was created for the glory of Him.) And it is to misunderstand the nature of angels, who are fundamentally different beings than men, even particularly good-hearted men.

Couldn't it be true, though, that there are two classes of angels - the heavenly beings created by God and the redeemed souls of good-hearted men? With God, all things are possible, but we have no evidence for this one. And how many of us would be satisfied to labor our lives away in love, trying to glorify God the Father, only to get to Heaven and be put in the service of Him rather than recreated in the glory of Him? How many of us would rejoice to discover that the very thing God had spent our lives telling us was not so true after all? It would be the ultimate bait-and-switch, and if that's the case, what are we supposed to believe about this God of ours? So it's possible, yes, but it creates more problems than it solves.

Not to mention that nowhere else do we see God having created two classes of anything. There is one heaven, one earth. One light to guide the day, one light to guide the night. One mankind. There is simply no evidence to suggest that God deals in dualities, in multiple classes of the same object. 

And then, of course, there's this: when Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, He said to the Tempter, "I could call down legions of angels to help me if I wanted." Again, what is the nature of angels? Are they simply the redeemed, good-hearted men? That's a bit weird here, don't you think? Jesus, the Son of God, the very divine being Himself, would call on the best of men to help Him in His struggle against the powers of darkness? That creates so many theological problems that it's absurd. It places men equal to or above God. It removes the power of light and darkness from the heavenly realm and puts it in the human ones. It reflects an image of God that requires the help of men. How many more do I need to list here? 

There is a fundamental difference between men and angels, and it is one that does not magically or mysteriously disappear once men have died. We were created for the glory of Him, and in Him, we will be glorified. We will not become angels. 

So we have to stop thinking like this. We have to stop letting ourselves get wrapped up in images of halos and wings. That's not what God intended for us; that is not our eternity. Will there be angels in Heaven? Absolutely. The Scriptures tell us of the heavenly host. 

But they're still angels, not saints. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

In the Service of God

If we're going to talk about angels, one of the first things we have to understand is how fundamentally different the angels are from mankind. We are simply not the same beings.

Angels have been specifically created in the service of God. They do His work. They carry His messages. They scout His missions. Every time we see an angel in the Scriptures, he is doing some measure of God's work. Angels come to Lot in Sodom to see if the rumors of the town are true. Angels come to Hannah and tell her about her child. Angels come to Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph and tell them about the coming births of John and Jesus. Angels come and move Peter out of prison. Angels rattle the prison bars around Paul until they come loose. 

Every time we see an angel, he is doing the work of God. And most of us would say, well, isn't that what we all do? 


At least, it shouldn't be. We talk about it a lot. We say things like, "We were sent to be the hands and feet of God in this world." We were sent to break down walls, to turn over tables, to restore the dignity of the poor, to free the prisoner, to redeem the lost, to heal the broken, etc. We were sent to do what God would do in His world if He were here. 

Oh, how devastatingly wrong this is! First, it puts us on the same plane as God, pretending that we could ever do the things that God can do. Second, it reinforces in us a sense of God's absence - if He were here...but He's not, so we have to.... Third, it takes us out of the role of mankind and places us into the role of angels, trying to live in the service of God. Fourth, it leaves undone the true work of mankind: manifesting the glory of God in the world. 

That's what we were created for. 

Every time we see a man (or woman) in Scripture, this is what they are doing. They are manifesting somehow the glory of God in the world. Adam and Eve manifested the glory of God's design. Noah, the glory of God's saving grace. Abraham, the glory of God's chosenness. David, the glory of God's faithfulness. Solomon, the glory of God's wisdom. Paul, the glory of God's redemption. Do you see where we're going with this? Mankind, and the covenant relationship that he had with his Lord, was intended to do nothing more than to manifest the glory of God. 

We were not made in the service of Him, but for the glory of Him.

What makes this so difficult is that we see both in Jesus, and that's where we got this twisted idea that we have. We see the ways that Jesus manifests the glory of God, and we think that must be His divine nature that does this. So we assume that this is what the angels do. And we see the way that Jesus gives His life in the service of God, and we think that this must be what His human nature does. So we assume this is what we are supposed to do. 

But we've got that just backward! The entire testimony of Scripture tells exactly the opposite story - it is the angels who were created in the service of Him and mankind for the glory of Him. It was the human nature of God that glorified Him; the divine nature did His work. 

I know, I know. This changes everything. It changes the way we think of ourselves. It changes the burden that we carry for the Lord in this world. It changes the way that we live and act and love. It has to. 

It also changes the way that we look at angels. It becomes the foundation for our very understanding of them. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Angels and Demons

Recently, I found myself in a discussion about, of all things, Satan. And the discussion began with the concept of God's redemption.

At first, it doesn't seem like those two things would go together very well, but the discussion was actually quite an interesting one. A friend and I were talking about Heaven and about redemption, trying to figure out how it could be that God either saves or condemns persons. Trying to figure out how even the "worst" among us could possibly be redeemed. Is it possible for a murderer to go to heaven? What about a thief? What about a child molester? What about the man or the woman who hurt you

Could you see that person in heaven? I believe the answer is yes. 

This view shocks many persons, even many inside the church. (Even many pastors, which is always a bit weird.) But what we have to remember here is that God is not like us; He doesn't see things the same way we do. And what we're talking about here is, essentially, sin. Just sin. Sin like every other sin that all of the rest of us are guilty of. And just as we would say that even though we lie, cheat, steal, gossip, etc. but still have a heart after God, we have to be willing to admit that someone may be guilty of murder, theft, rape, abuse, assault, etc. but still have a heart after God. 

The very same grace we are relying on for our redemption, they are relying on for theirs. Who are we to say that God's grace is not for them? That is our human arrogance.

But from this thought came an honest question: okay, then what about Satan? Will Satan be redeemed?

It's naturally where our minds go, right? If the worst of the worst stand on the threshold of Heaven, does that mean that Satan himself could one day find himself restored to God's good graces? 

The short answer is: I don't know. I wouldn't even know where to begin to know.

Because angels are not humans. The Bible gives us all of this beautiful theology about God's relationship with mankind, and although there are angelic beings at various intersections, the Bible says virtually nothing about God's relationship with angels. And very little about men's relationship with them. So everything that we can possibly know about God, about grace, about redemption, about Heaven, can only be applied to us. It's a theology of men; we cannot extrapolate it to concoct some theology of angels.

This raises the real heart of the issue, I think: most of us are pretty confused about angels. We don't really understand what they are. The angels we see in the Scripture seem pretty human in a lot of places, so maybe they are kind of like us. Maybe they are. But even if that is true, that does not mean they have the same covenant relationship with God that we do. We also get this idea that if angels are essentially like us, maybe they are us. Maybe angels are saints, the ones who have gone before us and come back to help guide us. There is no Scriptural evidence for this; it is a cultural myth. 

The angels, we think, are on our side. God has sent them to help us, to provide us some measure of spiritual guidance and holy intervention. At times, it can seem this way, but we should not be deceived. The angels are for God, not for us. (More on this later this week.) 

And, of course, we kind of skip past anything about angels that we can't quite make sense of. Ezekiel, for example, gives a rather powerful (but terrifying) description of the angelic beings that he saw - four faces, wheels for feet, etc. We have nothing on earth that looks like this, so clearly, Ezekiel was just crazy. A little too much time in the valley of dry bones for him, we think. But should we think that? 

Angels are pretty interesting. And, of course, so are demons. It's not something we understand very much about, and it's not a subject on which I can claim to know really anything at all. But some of the Scriptures can be fun to look at. So let's do that for a few days.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Greatest Command

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love is unclean.

That's the message that we've been looking at this week, but there is one more thing that we must be extremely careful of when we talk about love: we must not get the commands confused. 

Christians have all of these amazing ideas about love, about the best ways to love each other, about what love looks like, about what love means. We talk all the time about aspiring for our love to be like Christ's love, loving the widow and the orphan, the sick and the lame, the hurting and the broken. Love, love, love, and the greatest of these is love.

But the challenge to this, and the hole that we've dug ourselves into, is that somewhere along the way, we got the idea that to love others is to love God. They're one and the same. We love God only by loving others. And that's not really what Jesus said. 

Jesus said that the greatest command was to love the Lord our God "with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, all your strength" and that the second-greatest command was like it, to "love your neighbor as yourself." 

Somewhere, though, we started living the second-greatest command and not really the first. We started to love our neighbors, but stopped loving our God.

You can tell that we stopped loving our God because we no longer do the things that tell Him we love Him. We invite our neighbors into our home for a meal, but we no longer pray before that meal. We get up in the morning and go for a walk with our neighbors, but our Bibles collect dust on our shelves; we have no need for morning devotions. We pitch our tents in the park on Saturday night and camp out with our neighbors. There are no concerns about Sunday mornings; we have nowhere to be. We don't have to go to church to love people, we say. We can do that all on our own.

And maybe we can. But we can't love God without doing the things that He's told us actually demonstrate our love for Him. The three ideas in the last paragraph that are so easy for us to ignore now are the core three, woven into an old youth group joke that still makes me laugh - pray, read the Bible, go to church. If you're not doing these three things, no matter how well you're loving your neighbor, you are not loving God. Plain and simple.

If you love God, you talk with Him. That's what prayer is. Imagine trying to make the argument that you love someone but having to confess that you never talk with them, even when they are in the same room and doing the same activity as you. Not much of an argument. If you eat dinner with your husband every night, sit on the couch together and watch a movie, go to bed together, wake up together, but never, ever talk to one another, this is not love. 

If you love God, you know His story. That's what the Bible is; that's what reading it does - it tells us God's story. Imagine talking about one of your friends, but not being able to say anything about them. Is that person really your friend? If you don't know who they are, what they do, how they got here, what they love, what they value, what they fear, what they hope, how they interact with their world, or anything like that, then what do you know about them? Their name, maybe. Can you call that a real friendship? Can you call that real love? "This is Bill. I know literally nothing else about him, but he's my best friend." 

Sucks to be your friend. 

If you love God, you participate in His community. That's what the church is. We don't go to church to love each other. We don't go to church to connect. We don't go to church to get involved in various things, to discover our neighbors, to build our social resumes. We go to church to love God. That's it. Everything in the church service is (or ought to be) designed around loving God - worship, prayer, Communion, preaching and hearing the word of Truth. Even fellowship, which seems like it would be about loving our neighbor, is actually about loving God. Imagine any other relationship in your life in which you consistently avoid the other person. If someone invited you to dinner all the time, but you never went; invited you to their parties, but you always had some excuse; invited you to do stuff but you never do, then what kind of relationship do you really have? Not really a relationship at all. 

And yet, through all of it, we are doing all of these things with our neighbors. We are talking with them, learning their stories, accepting invitations into their spaces. And we are loving them. 

Let's just not confuse that with loving God. 

For there is still above us this greatest command, and the greatest command is not fulfilled by the second, but the second by the first - Love the Lord your God with everything that is in you. Talk with Him, learn His story, accept His invitations. And then, only then, as a natural outflow of this (and not a fulfillment of it), love your neighbor as yourself. 

In crazy, messy love. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Love One Another

All this talk about clean and unclean and about how it relates to love has been leading essentially to this: we have to do love better.

We spend most of our lives figuring out who we are going to love. I'm not talking about relationships, about marriage, about that kind of love; I'm just talking about brotherly and sisterly Christian love that we spend far too much of our time calculating.

When someone approaches us with a need, we start asking questions in our minds. How many opportunities has this person had already? How is my investment going to pay off in their lives? If you give a man a fish, he eats for a many days of fish has this person already eaten? 

Or we look at the way they are living their lives. Are they dirty? Do they sin? Do they have an addiction? 

We have all of these qualifiers of situations that we will and won't get involved in because we've become very good at reducing persons to situations, forgetting what is human and focusing only on what is clean. But I have to be honest with you - most of the persons who are in need of love are not clean. 


They are men and women sitting in mold-infested houses with the rotting corpses of their own hopes and dreams. Everything they once were, everything they had ever hoped to be, is dying right before their very eyes, and what they've got right now is a bunch of so-called Christians standing outside their doors, unwilling to go in lest they become unclean themselves. 

And on the other side of this equation, we've got in our lives those who are truly willing to love us, but we're judging them, too. Here we are lying in ditches, covered in our own blood, aching and broken and bruised and crying out for help. Our friends pass us by. Our communities pass us by. But there's always that one person, that one tender-hearted true person who wants to stop and help.

We start asking questions. Does this person really have the resources to help me? (I have turned down money from persons who know are poorer than I am, even though they have been adamant about helping me financially.) Does this person have the spiritual qualifications to help me? (Remember that really dumb thing he said in Bible class? He doesn't know anything!) Is this person super-busy fighting her own demons right now? (She has an addiction; she has a messed-up family; she is overburdened.) Is this person clean?

Most of us, at one point or another, have looked into the eyes of someone who desperately wanted to love us, and we have found them unclean in one way or another. And we have, in effect, said to them, "Nah. I'm good. Just gonna lay here in this ditch for awhile. You might as well roll me in dung rather than reach out and touch me. You. disgust. me."

And most of us, at one point or another, have had someone look into our eyes and say the same thing. (And none of us have liked that experience.)

All of that, and all of this week, to say this: love is messy. It's not perfect. It's not neat and tidy. It's not "clean." Most of the time, it's "unclean." And that's okay. We spend so much of our time trying to figure out how to do all this ritual stuff, all this clean and unclean and sacrifices and shaving and atonement and community and cut off from community and this and that and the other, but the highest law of the Christian is love, and love doesn't always play by these rules. 

Love goes into the house, knowing there's a dead body in there. Love goes in, knowing there's mold. Love goes in, knowing it's coming out unclean, but it goes in anyway because love knows that inside that house is where there is a heart that's broken. Inside that house is where someone is hurting. Inside that house is where someone needs love. And it's worth it.

Love takes the hand that reaches out to it and climbs out of the ditch. Love reaches back to those reaching out to it. Love embraces the one who is willing to embrace us, no matter what. No matter what. And it's worth it. 

May we love one another so boldly, so graciously, so well. May we love one another the way that God has called us to. May we walk into houses and climb out of ditches and love one another the way that love demands. 

May we love....

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


As we talk about persons who are willing to become unclean for the sake of love, we must also look at the other side of this equation - those who are willing to become unclean for the sake of being loved. 

Because love, my friends, is a two-way street. We cannot simply give and give and give love into the world without learning to be loved in return. And this takes us to Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan, a fine story, indeed.

So this all starts when Jesus declares that we are to love our neighbor and some smarty pants in the crowd shouts back, "But who is my neighbor?" Then Jesus tells the story of a man who was injured along the side of the road. Two faithful - "clean" - persons pass him right by, even crossing over to the other side of the road to avoid him, but a third person - a Samaritan - stops to help. 

Now, what we have to understand about all of this is that the Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They weren't friends, and they certainly weren't neighbors. The Jews easily thought of the Samaritans as unclean, not only because essentially everything they did was detestable to the Jews (a personal preference, really, not anything that could necessarily be proven in court) but because even their worship was impure. The Samaritans were convinced that they had the right worship; the Jews were convinced that they didn't. So the very idea that a Samaritan would stop to help was repugnant to the Jewish audience.

And what we're not told, but what is equally true, is how many of the Jews would have squirmed at the idea of a man, even an injured man, being touched by a Samaritan, even a Samaritan who was attempting to help him. 

You might as well roll the injured man in dung. That's how disgusting this whole idea is.

The Jews were likely also thinking how willing they would be to just stay in the ditch until someone else stopped. They might wave that Samaritan off, telling him they were okay and were just taking a short rest or perhaps looking for a lost contact down there in the soil. No, no. Really, I'm fine. No need for you to stop and help. That bone sticking out of my leg? Uh, no, that's piercing thing. All the kids are doing it. I'm fine. Really fine. 

Because no matter how not fine I am right now, you disgust me, and I would rather die in this ditch than let someone like you touch me and make me unclean. 

It sounds harsh, but this is how deep the revulsion went. This is how profoundly the Jews were disgusted by the Samaritans. We don't often think about this when we talk about this story; I'm not sure why. But Jesus here is teaching not just about giving neighbor love, even though that is the conclusion He ultimately states out loud.

The undertones in the story are also about receiving neighbor love. 

So here we have these two stories - Old Testament and New Testament - both about love, both about clean and unclean, and the testimony of both is the same: sometimes, love is unclean. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Unclean Love

There is a clear standard in the Old Testament regarding clean and unclean, and all things considered, it is better for a man to be clean. In fact, I would venture to guess that most men and women in those times spent their entire lives trying to stay clean and not get into anything that would make them unclean. 

But then we come across verses like Numbers 19:14, and everything we think we know about clean and unclean changes.

These are your instructions for when a person dies in a tent: Everyone who goes into the tent and everyone who is in the tent will be unclean for seven days.

Well, yes, we say. That makes perfect sense. If a dead body is considered unclean, then anyone who comes into contact with that body in any way would then clearly become unclean, as well. Then we just keep reading as though the Bible is not completely crazy and nothing weird is going on here. 

Did you catch it, though? There's an unclean dead body in the tent, and there is a category of persons who go into the tent. They go into the tent knowing that there is something unclean in there, knowing that they will come out unclean, knowing that it's going to cut them off from the community for seven days and require from them this extensive cleansing and atonement process that Israel would become extremely accustomed to. Yet, they go into the tent.

This is love.

That's all that it can be. It's someone who loves the person who died. It's someone who loves the family of the person who died. It's someone who is taking some kind of responsibility for preparing the body, removing the body, comforting the family, cleansing the house, purifying the uncleanness of the tent. It's somebody who has a vested interest in being a presence of love in a place of grief that goes into that tent. 

Nobody else in their right mind would go in there. That place is unclean.

This is an amazing testimony to what it is that God requires of us, and it's a reminder that doing what God calls us to do doesn't exempt us from the ways that the world actually works. See, too often, we think that it ought. We think that if we're loving the way that God wants us to love, then it shouldn't be hard. It shouldn't be difficult. There shouldn't be any repercussions. But that's not what the Scriptures tell us. The Scriptures tell us that everyone who goes into the tent is unclean, but even in telling us that, it reminds us that there are those who will go into the tent. 

And maybe we ought to be some of those. There's something unclean in there, sure, but there's something holy, too.

It's called love. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Clean and Unclean

There is a lot of talk in the Old Testament about clean and unclean - foods, relationships, materials, experiences, sacrifices, worship, etc. were all categorized as either "clean" or "unclean."

There were several categories of uncleanliness, even though they are all lumped together into the idea of ritual purity/impurity. The first category of uncleanliness included things that were clearly a threat to the entire community - things like diseases. If you had a disease, you were unclean and must be cut off from the camp until you were better. This had practical implications, particularly for a community in transition. When you've got hundreds of thousands of people marching through the desert, you can't have an outbreak of illness. It will spread like wildfire, many will die, and the whole journey will be jeopardized in many different ways.

Other ideas of uncleanness came through relationship. There were certain persons you couldn't have contact with and certainly a bunch of categories of persons you couldn't have sex with. There were things you couldn't do to your neighbor, things you had to do to your own house/life for the protection of your neighbor. These, too, make a lot of sense and have practical applications.

Some uncleanliness came from just the natural sorts of things that happen to all of us - certain bodily fluids were considered unclean. It was unclean to be around a dead animal or human, certainly unclean to touch the body of one. It was unclean to have mildew or mold in your house; it made not only your house, but you yourself, unclean. These things are largely inescapable; we just have to deal with them.

And then, of course, there are whole categories of unclean that don't make a whole lot of sense to us. This includes things like which kind of animals you can eat or not eat. (Bacon is unclean. Seriously.) It includes who can offer a sacrifice and when and why. And who can eat the sacrifice. And how to mix the special sacrificial perfumes, which you can't mix anywhere else. And a bunch of stuff like that.

The entire Old Testament law seems to be given in the context of this discussion. Israel was responsible, above most all other things, for keeping herself clean. Not only was it dangerous to be unclean (as in the case of illness, perhaps), but it was also shameful. Not only was it shameful, but it was kind of a hassle. A very large burden.

When you were unclean, you have to leave the camp. You had to go live outside the camp in a special place for unclean persons. You couldn't live with your family; they were clean, and you weren't. You couldn't go to work; there might be clean persons there. You couldn't do all of the things that you were accustomed to doing and neither could anyone who was depending upon you to do the things they were accustomed to doing.

In order to be free from your uncleanness, you had to wash. And be inspected. And often, shave. Bring a sacrifice to the Tent. There were twenty-three steps (not really, but it seems like it) that you had to go through to move from being unclean to being clean, which seems like a lot, especially considering that in an instant, you could become unclean again, even through no fault of your own. (Say a dead bird fell out of the sky next to you. Unclean. Bye.)

Clearly, the covenant of clean and unclean was a difficult way to live. And most of us read the Old Testament and come away understanding very well how adamant God was about all of this. All things considered, you want to be clean.

Or do you?

There's this interesting little verse tucked away in this discussion of clean and unclean that starts to change our perspective on the whole thing, and it starts to introduce an idea that will come to be prominent in the new covenant - the idea of Christian love.

It starts all the way back in the Pentateuch (that's the first five books of the Bible).

Friday, March 3, 2017

Dying on Mountains

At a few points this week, I have mentioned how willing we are to die on our mountains, those of us who stand and shout God's grace or truth from our own perspective, without even a glance to the valley where God dwells. Without even a whisper of an amen to those on the other mountain.

But this is not just some contemporary turn of phrase, this idea of dying on mountains; it, too, is a biblical example.

It's tempting to think that we're talking about big, bold, loud stories of mountains here, like Abraham and Isaac when they climbed up to sacrifice to God on the mountain, with Isaac unaware that he was about to become the sacrifice (there, but for the grace of God) or Jesus on the hill outside of Jerusalem. But those of us today who are willing to die on our mountains will not make such bold splashes into the landscape of God. 

Ours will be more like the quiet, heart-aching deaths of Moses and Aaron.

Moses and Aaron led the people of God through the wilderness; they led them out of Egypt and through the Red Sea and right to the edge of the Promised Land. But neither was allowed to actually enter the place where Israel was going, each due to their own sins that they committed along the way. 

When the time for Aaron's death came, God commanded him to climb the mountain with his brother, Moses, and his son, who would succeed him as priest. There, on the mountain, Aaron was able to look out and see the entire people of God, the people that he would no longer be able to speak to, no longer be able to minister to, no longer be able to guide in their journey. He had, on this mountain, a profound sense of having to let go. 

He had to let go of everything he had fought for. He had to let go of all the hopes and dreams that he had for them. He had to let go of any illusion that he might still play a role somehow in their formation. And for all our shouting, we, too, have to let go. When we are willing to die on our mountains, there comes a time when we know that that death is near, and we have to let go of everything we'd been fighting for, hoping for, working for. 

The people we can see from here, they may or may not ever come to understand what we were saying. But our time for saying it is up, and all we can do from this mountain is to look out over the people our hearts ache for, but whom we still just don't know about. 

When the time for Moses' death came, God commanded him, too, to climb the mountain, this time, with his servant, Joshua. There, on the mountain, Moses was able to see the Promised Land that they'd been working so hard for, the land flowing with milk and honey that God had promised them. But that was as far as he could go. He would never set foot on its soil, never taste of its fruit, never dip his hand in its honey. 

And this, too, is true for us. Most of us spend our whole lives shouting grace or truth, but from the mountain where we stand, we can only ever see what that is going to look like one day. Maybe. We can only ever look out and set out eyes on the place to where God is bringing His people. Because we cannot move off of our mountains, because we have set to die there, we sadly never set foot on the soil of the very things we proclaim. We never taste the fruit of either grace or truth, never dip our hands into their sweet nectar. 

Why? Because they have become the theological shouting points on which we have staked our claim and not the true promises of God that they were intended to be. If they are promises, then we have to step into them, but most of us are unwilling; we would rather die on our mountains.

So here we are, dying. Like Moses and Aaron, we're looking out over the people and the promise, able no longer to touch either, but shouting nonetheless. Not a shadow of community, not an echo of amen, but two camps shouting over the promises. It's tragedy at its finest.

For we are not two camps, but one people - one people of the living God. And we were not meant to die on these mountains. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

In the Valley

As we stand willing to die on our mountains of grace and truth, the story of Israel on her two mountains reminds us that God is not there with us; God is in the valley. And so, too, are His priests.

When Israel reached the Promised Land and took their places on two mountains, the Scriptures tell us that the Levites, the priests, and the Ark of the Covenant stood in the valley between them. Thus, when the group on one mountain spoke the promises of the blessings of God, they spoke through the presence of God to the group on the other mountain. And when the group on the other mountain spoke the promises of the curses of God, they spoke through the presence of God to the group on the other mountain.

And the presence of God itself dwelt in the place where the amens echoed. 

That is a powerful testimony, and a convicting one, particularly for a people who are so busy shouting from their mountains that they haven't stopped to consider the presence of God in any of it. Particularly for a people who have not once shouted amen. Particularly to a people who are so convinced that they are truly divided, even when the testimony of Israel is that they must still be one. 

The presence of God dwells not in the place where either grace or truth are being proclaimed, but in the place where they both are; in the valley where these promises of God echo.

And we cannot ignore here the presence of the priests and the Levites, either. These are the men who were chosen to serve God at the altar, those who were responsible for His house. Here they are, standing in the place where both law and mercy stand, where the very presence of God dwells between the mountains of blessings and curses, between the camps of grace and truth. 

This is the place where many of us, increasingly many of us, find ourselves today. We hear the shouts of truth from the one mountain, and we know that there is something to that. God certainly has said these things; He certainly requires them. These truths are nestled in the very heart of God, and we cannot ignore them. But we know this is not the whole story. This is not the whole testimony of God. 

We hear the shouts of grace from the other mountain, and we know that there is something to that, too. God has certainly said these things; He certainly provides them. This grace is nestled in the very heart of God, and we cannot ignore it. But neither is this the whole story. This is not the whole testimony of God, either. 

So what we find happening is that as the shouts from the mountains increase, more and more of us are finding ourselves down in the valley, called among the faithful, standing in the place where both law and mercy stand, in the very presence of God somewhere between the mountains of blessings and curses, between the camps of grace and truth.

And we're aching for an amen.

We're aching to hear those words that we know will mean that the camps are starting to turn back toward each other, that they are starting to look again into the same valley, that they are starting to see that the presence of God is not on their mountain, but between them. We're longing to hear that affirmation that God is not just grace and not just truth, not just blessings and not just curses, but both. Both because He requires to be both. Both because the Cross requires Him to be both. 

Maybe I've overestimating here. Maybe there aren't a lot of us in the valley. Maybe most of us really are willing to die on our mountains. But I have to be honest and say that I'm not one of them. I'm just not. I'm standing in the valley, and I'm aching. My heart is hurting. I'm longing to hear just one faint whisper of an amen, which will set this valley echoing in the affirmation of our God. I keep hoping, maybe foolishly, that one of the mountains will start it. That someone, somewhere, in one of these camps will hear the shouts of the other and say, "Yes. Yes, I know that to be true." 

But maybe I'm naive. Maybe I'm waiting and hoping and longing for a thing that's never going to happen. Maybe if it's really what I'm aching for, I've got to get it going. Maybe it will do something, maybe even some good. 

So I stand in the valley and draw my breath, and when the courage in my spirit has reached its peak, just before I lose heart altogether, I whisper amen


Wednesday, March 1, 2017


If it is true that we find ourselves in a similar place to Israel as she stood on two mountains - and I think it is - then there is something else that we need to take notice of in this narrative, and it is the response that each mountain has for the other.

When Israel split into two groups, six tribes on one mountain and six on the other, they still viewed themselves as one people of God. Though they stood in two camps, there was no real divide among them. And as the camp on the first mountain proclaimed the promises of God's blessings, those on the other mountain shouted in reply, Amen! As those on the second mountain proclaimed the promises of God's curses, those on the other mountain shouted in reply, Amen! They recognized very clearly the truth that stood on both mountains, and they affirmed one another - and God - in response.

This is so not our story.

We, too, are standing on two different mountains today. We're standing on the mountains of grace and truth, which have inappropriately been called "liberal" and "conservative" Christianities. (There's no such thing. It's terrible to politicize our faith in this way with this kind of language, and I have written about this before.) And the problem is that when we hear the other camp speaking, our response is something less than affirmative. We do not stand on our own mountain and shout, Amen!

No, we stand on our own mountain and shout, You're an idiot! a problem. Of course, when we see it written down, it seems so silly. So dumb. It's clearly a problem, and we're all tempted to say that we are not part of this problem. We're not the ones calling each other stupid, although we readily confess that we know persons who do. 

But how much of your time do you spend apologizing for Christians who have it "wrong"? How much effort do you put forth into explaining to others that that's not what Jesus meant? How often do you let your frustration with the other mountain spill over into the Pharasaical prayer - Lord, thank you that I am not like them; now, set them straight! 

Ah. Gotcha.

See, not all of us are so bold as to directly engage in the theological debates, but we die on our own mountains nonetheless. We stake out our ground and spend all of our time trying to pull the culture at large over to our side, trying to get them to come to our mountain. We tell them that the other side is wrong. We make apologies for them, since they clearly won't apologize for themselves (and neither will we). We preach our sermons and cannot escape the echoes of theirs, but instead of shouting in reply, Amen!, we simply just shout louder, and the message that the world hears us shouting to one another is not an affirmation of God's incredible glory but the less-worthy chorus of, You're an idiot!

And all the while, we're missing out on what is the most important detail in all of this, and that is this: even though we stand on our mountains shouting at one another, the Lord our God is actually in neither camp. As much as we want to say that He is, that God has chosen sides, that we are the righteous among Him, He's not on our mountains - either one of them. The Lord our God is in the valley.

Israel's story shows this full well. (Stay tuned.)