Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The God I Know

Yesterday, I said that we need to cut Job's friends a little bit of slack - they're just speaking from what they know about God. They're not trying to have a limited theology. They're not trying to get it "wrong." They simply know what they know. They've experienced what they've experienced. They've been taught what they've been taught.

And if you read the way that Job handles this, it's a good lesson for all of us.

Job never really tells his friends how wrong they are. He doesn't tell them that what they're saying is not true. In fact, Job even says some things that seem very close to what his friends are saying - all of the men present understand the contractual, covenantal nature of God and the way that human faithfulness is correlated with His pleasure. That much is not up for debate.

But what we see in Job's dialogue is an attempt to introduce to his friends a grander idea of God. He doesn't say they are wrong, but he certainly calls out their theology as limited. Every time he gets the chance, he claims that God is greater than what they can even imagine. In other words, You're not wrong, friends, but there is so much more to God.

He does this in a bit of an interesting way, by referring to his own character to show God's, to get his friends out of their contractual mindset. To them, there is only one very limited way to be faithful, and it is to act out the law according to their own interpretation of it. But Job shows how the law is more encompassing than even they know, how his life is a testimony to keeping God's commands in ways that they never could imagine in their narrow definitions. 

And if Job's nature is broader, yet still firmly rooted in the law, then God's nature must also be greater than they could ever imagine. 

God, Job testifies, is not one-for-one; He is One-for-all. 

I love this theological debate that takes place between these friends. In our modern minds, we see that they are all just trying to be "right," but what's really going on is that these guys are sitting around trying to figure out their theologies. What do I believe about God? What do I know about Him? What have I experienced? What can I say about Him that is true and that resonates with my experience? 

The thing we have to keep in mind is that this is not a scenario in which one of them is right and the rest are wrong; they're all right! It's just that they've all had their own experiences of God, and that's all they've got to draw on. And I think what we read as frustration in Job's voice as the dialogue continues is right on - it's frustration. But it's also grief. Is this all that his friends really know about God?

We're so tempted to judge each other. We're so tempted to say that the other person is wrong, that they've got God wrong, that they just don't understand. Maybe they don't. Maybe they don't understand who God really is, but if that's true, it's because they haven't had the experience of Him that we've had. It's not our place to judge. It's not our place to condemn.

What we have to do - what we have to get better at as Christians in a broken world - is saying, "Yes, but...." Yes, that is true about God, but there's so much more. Yes, you're right, but you're not exhaustive. Yes, that's part of Him, but that's not all of Him. Yes, I see what you're saying, but let me tell you what I also know. Job does this pretty well, if we're paying attention. 

We...need to get better at it. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Job's Friends

When we read Job's story, there's something in us that wants to look down at his friends. Here they are, sitting with a guy who has lost essentially everything in the world (but not sitting too close because his skin disease makes him unclean), and all they can do is tell him all kinds of things that are not particularly comforting at the moment. All they can do is tell him that he clearly has God all wrong.

All we can do is read their words and think that they are the ones who have God all wrong.

We shake our heads, wag our fingers, and proclaim in a loud voice how wrong they have it, without realizing the irony of the situation - here we are boldly proclaiming that those who are boldly proclaiming we have it wrong...are wrong. 

Now, God is going to step in at some point and explain it all to them. He's going to put them in their place. He's going to show them where their theology is hollow, and it may look like God is therefore proving us right. See? we say. They were wrong.

But they weren't as wrong as we'd want them to be, and honestly, we can't really fault them for it.

What Job's friends had right was the law of God. They understood the contractual nature of the law, that tit leads to tat. That one thing leads to another. That in response to all things, there is a response to all things, and that God plays by His own rules. They knew the covenant, as well, and that's what they were basing their advice on. Job just needed to get in the game of covenant, contractual living. This was likely the God that Job's friends had been taught. It was likely the only God they had ever encountered.

In this way, they are much like the Pharisees in the New Testament. They've invested their lives in the law; it's what they know best. It's how they conceive of God. It's how they come in contact with Him. And it's not as wrong as we'd want it to be - there are some very logical explanations for why someone would have a law-based theology, especially in times before the witness of Christ. 

What they don't seem to have encountered in quite the same way is the goodness of God, the kind of goodness expressed by grace and mercy. They seem to have dug into the Ark of the Covenant and pulled out the stone tablets, but neglected entirely the throne of mercy that sits over the law. Likely, they simply haven't experienced God's goodness or, if they have, they haven't incorporated it into their theology of Him. 

In other words, when we look at Job's friends, we're looking at people who are doing the best they can with the theology they have. Just like we're all trying to do. 

It's a powerful lesson for us, particularly because in today's faith, we are still surrounded by Job's friends. Except now, they're our friends. They're our family. They're sitting in our pews. They're living in our neighborhoods. We are surrounded by persons who are doing the best they can with the theology they have. 

It's not that they're wrong. Not at all! Or at least, they're not as wrong as we'd want them to be. It's just that they haven't experienced the vast goodness of God in ways that would help to expand their theology. It's just that they don't know beyond what they know. And how could they?

This is precisely why we can't be so quick to judge Job's friends...or ours. Nobody tries to be unfaithful to the Gospel (at least, not many, and the ones who do are easy to spot). Nobody wants to get God wrong. Nobody wants to have a limited idea of who He is. No, the greater our experience of God, the greater our experience of life. Given the choice, none of us wants to live in a box, and none of us wants a God who fits in one, either. 

But there are countless persons among us, even faithful persons, even Bible-reading, God-fearing, neighbor-loving persons who simply don't have a theology big enough to incorporate things like grace and mercy and the goodness of God. That doesn't mean we should judge them for that. That doesn't mean we should condemn them for it. 

They're doing the best they can. Just like we all are. We're all just doing the best we can. 

And if we think they're wrong, well, let's show them a better way. Let's introduce them to a bigger theology. Let's make room in their contract for grace. Let's show them where mercy lives. I love the way that Job responds to his friends - let's be more like that. 

If you're not sure what that looks like, stay tuned. We'll look at a little bit of that tomorrow. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Curse God

I've just finished the book of Job in my daily Bible study, and here's what I love about Job: it's one of those books that brings us right up to the line, but doesn't cross it. A lot of the dialogue centers around whether Job will curse God or not, and he ends up doing just about everything but.

It's a little too close for most of us. We wouldn't go as far as Job goes in his blunt honesty, but I think that's kind of the point - we can go that far. We can be real with God. Job is. And yet, he doesn't sin in being so. 

We struggle, in our postmodern world in which just about everything is offensive and crosses some sort of line, to understand what it means to be raw-ly emotional and responsive to the world without "cursing" it (read: offending it). We read the way that Job calls God out, and we think that surely, he has offended the Lord somehow. Surely, God is not going to put up with this.

But look at what's happening here - for all Job's ranting and raving, for all his lamenting, for all the ways that he's pointing out what he believes is wrong here (and for the record, sometimes, he does seem to think that it is God who is wrong), what he's actually doing throughout his entire affirming who God is.

And that's exactly what God expected him to do. That's exactly what God told the tempter that Job would do. You do whatever you want to Job, and he will continue to testify to who I am.

See, when Job says This is not what I expect from you, God, what he's actually saying is what he does expect from God. When he says this isn't just, he's saying that the God that he knows is just. When he says this isn't grounded in truth, he's saying that the God that he knows is truth. When he says that this is not what he anticipates God to truly be like, he's making a statement that he knows who God is.

And he's right.

This is what Job is trying to show us - when you know who God is, when you worship Him, pray to him, obey Him, and live your life for Him - then it's absolutely okay for you to put your feet down firmly on that understanding. When God has shown Himself clearly and demonstrated His own character and faithfulness, it's okay for you to demand from Him that He be who He claims to be, who He says He is, who He promises He is.

Notice that throughout the entire testimony of Job, the man never once says, God is not who He says He is. What he always says is, This is not who God says He is. It's not a sense of entitlement that God should be treating Job somehow differently; he's calling God to account on the basis of God's own testimony about Himself. He's very clearly saying, I know who God is, and this is not Him. And he's calling on the God he knows to step and be the God he's sure of.

He's trusting God to do just that.

To us, it looks really close to cursing God. To our postmodern minds, it seems very much that he's tempting fate here, pressing the line, testing the waters. He's pretty close, we think, to God just giving up on him and pushing him away. If Job didn't deserve all that happened to him before now, just let him keep speaking for a few more chapters, and we're sure that he'll get there.

But what's actually going on here, even in all his anger, even in all his grief, even in all his lament, even in all his protest, is that Job is praising God. He's making a bold, repeated, adamant testimony to who God is, even if that doesn't seem to be what God is acting like at this particular moment. He's banking his life on his theology that says that God is good and that God is still good. He's holding onto that promise, and he won't let go.

Even if his raw, scaly, diseased hands fail him.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Lesser Gods

Recently, I was reading an article in a Bible-related periodical, and the author indicated something to the effect that it was always in God's plan to give the non-Israel nations in the Old Testament over to lesser gods, with the intention of pulling them back into Himself later. That way, they would know the supremacy of His deity. 

It sounds good on paper, but theologically, there's a lot here to make us cringe.

Specifically, it should strike us right away that God never claims to be the greatest God; He claims to be the only God. So the idea that God would have been planning to utilize "lesser gods" from the beginning, that He has them in His employ for His purposes, is very troubling.

This is complicated a bit because throughout the Old Testament, God never seems to question the legitimacy of other gods. He questions their power. He calls them worthless. He says they're idols. He says they're not very good gods, but He never quite says they are not gods at all. So neither can we quite say that these other gods are not gods.

But it gets to the heart of this whole thing: what is a god?

We can't say that these other gods are gods in the same way that God is God. That, as we just introduced, creates a theological problem. It offers a pantheon of gods where our God says He is the only. It creates sub-gods interrelated with the Triune Godhead, and that doesn't work with the testimony of the Scriptures. It doesn't make sense with what God says about Himself very clearly.

What we can say is that there is a very clear paradigm for referring to things as gods that are not gods, but only because we have made them so. We do this all the time, particularly in the church. We talk about how easy it is for the idol of money to become our god. Or television. Or beauty. Or social standing. Or whatever it is. We call these things gods, but we would never think that up in the heavens, in the grand expanse of the cosmos, sits God, our God, money, television, beauty, social standing, etc. running the world. That's insane.

When we talk about other "gods," I think this is what we're talking about - we're talking about ideas and image and idols that the nations have set up for themselves and called them gods. God, our God, points out that they are worthless, but He doesn't say they're not gods. To the people, they are very much gods, and it's in God's interest to acknowledge them as such.

That seems strange. Why should God acknowledge as gods things that are clearly not? Because what He's actually doing is acknowledging the peoples' God-hunger. Their God-longing. If He dismisses their gods out-of-hand, He risks alienating them from that thing inside of themselves that's actually searching for Him. But if He acknowledges what they're doing, He says, essentially, yes! Yes, you are looking for gods because you are a God-hungry people.

Then He can step in and say, "But here's where those gods of yours fail you. And where I never will."

Going back to the original article that prompted this discussion, I think it's true that God always planned to use the peoples' God-hunger to bring them back to Himself, even those outside of the nation of Israel. All men were created in the image of God, and there's something in every soul that is searching for Him.

But I think that the way that the article put it says something very, very different from this to the average reader - it suggests a legitimacy to the gods that God never gives them. It suggests some kind of elevated status that God doesn't actually affirm. God does not employ "lesser gods" in His work. He can't, for He repeatedly says unequivocally that He is the only God. We must be very careful not to suggest anything otherwise. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Purpose: Thing

You have probably figured out by now where this whole thing is going today, but for the sake of those who need to hear their own story reflected in this discussion, we're going there anyway. Sometimes, what God makes clear to you is not your people or your place, but your thing. 

There's something you do that God has created you to do, and that's what you ought to be doing.

We often think that this is the thing that we can't imagine not doing - the way a writer thinks about writing in the morning, a musician doesn't go far from her instrument, a contractor almost always carries his tools. That's certainly one indicator that you've found your thing.

But there are others, too. Sometimes, you find your thing because it's the thing you do naturally that others don't seem to understand. It's the thing you do that others run away from. It's the thing you do that makes people look at you and ask how - or why - you'd even do such a thing. 

Take, for example, police officers. They do what they do because they have a heart for protecting others. Firefighters have a passion for fighting fires. Doctors have a passion for healing. Nurses have a passion for caring. There are persons in this world who are just built for holding screaming babies, and they volunteer their time in NICU units, holding drug-addicted infants (who, I assure you, scream for hours on end). 

So when we talk about persons whose purpose lies in the things they do, we're talking about two groups - we're talking about those extremely gifted in something who can't imagine doing anything else and we're talking about those who mysteriously thrive in places where others would fall apart quickly. 

Regardless of how this call is uncovered, however, the truth is still the same: when you do what you do, you find your people and you find your place. 

Writers find audiences. Accountants find fund-holders. Teachers find students. Police officers and firefighters find communities. These are their people because this is what they do. 

They get up in the morning, put on their work clothes, and go to the place where they do it. They go t their offices, their classrooms, their studies, their squad cars, their firehouses. These are their places because this is where they do what they do. 

In the biblical witness, we see this in judges, in prophets, and in apostles. They can't help but do what they do. Judges are called to lead Israel in battle. Israel is their people because this is the nation they lead; the edge of the Promised Land is their place because that's where they are. Prophets speak God's word. They can do nothing less. Jeremiah said even if he tried not to, God's word was "shut up in my bones like a burning fire. I am weary of holding it in. Indeed, I cannot." The apostles spread the Gospel. They couldn't help themselves; it's what they were called to do. (The exception here is apostles like Paul and Peter, who were not only given a thing, but also a people - the Gentiles and the Jews.)

So once again, all it takes it one word for all three questions to be answered. One word. That's it. And then, you just have to move. In this case, go do your thing. Go do that thing you do, that God-given thing that you do. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Purpose: Place

In the same way that God might only reveal to what people He has called you, leaving the rest of the details to fill themselves in as you go, so, too, He might tell you only the place to which you are called. And once again, the details will fill themselves in along the way.

But you have to be willing to move.

This idea is a large part of the Old Testament testimony - it's Israel's entire journey, from the time that God first called Abram and promised him countless descendants in the land in which he was living to the day that He parted the Red Sea and started leading Israel to the Promised Land to the moment He called Ezra and Nehemiah back to begin rebuilding a ravaged Jerusalem. God's people have always been about a place, and it is no different for many of them today.

Today, this idea is likely to conjure up images of missionaries, those who have clearly experienced a call to a certain land. It's how they end up in places like Kenya or Ecuador or Papua New Guinea. We can't imagine that anyone would just pick up and go to a place like that unless it was the place to which God called them. And that's true. But this idea is not limited to such grand migrations.

It can be as simple as the pastor who knows he is called to a little country church. Or the volunteer whose best work is done on the streets. Or the couple for whom it's clear that "home" is a certain city, like San Francisco or Las Vegas. It can even be as simple as the student who knows God has called her to one university over another. 

I often run into that one myself. Sometimes, I wonder what in the world I am doing as a seminarian. I look around at my peers, and I'm not sure how I fit in. But then I'll go to an on-campus class and feel so at home that I start to have this undeniable sense that this is my place. This is exactly where God wants me to be. And since this is my place, I open my eyes anew and see that these are my people. And since this is my place and these are my people, this is my thing. At least, for now.

The same is true for anyone who is called to a place. When you get to where you're going, you find the answers to your other burning questions. 

The pastor who is called to a little country church finds his congregation when he gets there. They are his people, not necessarily because he would have chosen them, but because this is his place. It's his place and their place, so they are his people. The woman whose best work is done on the streets is a woman whose people are street people. I mean, this isn't rocket science. A couple who finds themselves called to San Francisco may discover that their people are the LGBT community; a couple who calls Las Vegas home may be peopled with prostitutes. Forgive the stereotypes for a minute, but you see what I'm saying - when God calls you to a place, the people you find there are your people. 

And whatever you do for them there, that's your thing. The pastor may not have ever owned a dog, let alone a chicken. He may not have cared for a cactus, let alone a garden. But in the country, he may find himself doing just this. Why? Because there's a certain economy in the country that runs on eggs and zucchini. (Just kidding. A pastor never has to grow his own zucchini - he gets plenty as it is.) A woman who works on the streets may have zero practical nursing experience, but out here, she bandages wounds. Why? Because there are plenty of wounds and no nurses.

Once again, we find that purpose doesn't have to give all the answers before you go. It starts with just one word. It can start with a people, as we saw yesterday, or it can start with a place. When you go on God's word, the rest of the questions tend to sort themselves out. You go to your place and there, you find your people. Because it's their place, too. And you find your thing. Because it's clear what they need. 

So the best thing you can do if you know where God is calling you, is to go. Just go. See what you discover when you get there.

And do good. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Purpose: People

When we talk about what it is that God has called us to in our lives, there are really three possible broad answers: people, places, or things. It's very rare that God would give us the answer to all three before we move, which is why most of us never end up moving at all. We want to know everything, but God usually only gives us something. 

But moving on something opens up everything. 

For example, if you are one of those persons that God has called to a certain people, you probably know it. Maybe you have a heart for prisoners. Maybe you have a heart for the sick and dying. Maybe you have a heart for the naked and homeless. Maybe you have a heart for the abused and abandoned. I just had a friend this morning tell me that he thinks middle school students are the most absolutely awesome human beings on earth. Great! Then you know the people to whom God has called you.

A lot of us at this point would likely sit back, saying, "Okay. I know the people to whom God has called me, but where do I find these people and what on earth do I do with them?" We wait until God has answered these questions, and as a result, we end up never moving.

What we have to be willing to do is to go. You don't have to know where, exactly, God is sending you. That will all work itself out. And there are some very practical ways to get going just knowing what people God has called you to love. 

If you've been called to prisoners, where do you think you might find them? In a prison, of course! That's your place. You might say, oh, no, I don't know that for sure, but if those are your people, then that is your place. There are no two ways about it. If the sick are your people, then the hospital is your place. If the dying are your people, it's hospice. These are your places not because you're completely enamored with them as destinations, but because you love the people there. 

And when you love the people in your places, you come quickly to know what your thing is. It's a natural byproduct of being there with them and figuring out what it is that they need. If your people are abandoned children and your place is deep within the foster care system, then your thing is being present. It's being there. It's going to basketball games and school lunches and birthday parties. It's showing up when you're expected and sometimes, even when you're not. It's doing all the little things that these kids ought to be able to rely on but can't in the people who are "supposed" to love them - because you love them. They're your people, so this is your thing.

If your people are the poor, then your thing is being a resource. It's being a valuable wealth of information, contact, and love. That's what they need from you. This doesn't mean you have to be their financing. Or their mortgage payment. Or anything like that. That's not it at all. It means that you bring the wealth of who you are and serve as a resource for those who are without resources in the world. It means sometimes, you're a ride for the person without a car. It means sometimes, you're the companion for the lonely. It means you're the one who sees who society often looks right past. If the poor are your people, this is your thing. It just naturally is so.

Most of us wait until we know everything before we're ready to move, but there are those of you right now who know who your people are. You know who God has called you to love. And you know what? That's absolutely enough to move on.

Go to your people, and you'll find your place. Find your people, and you'll find your thing. Your heart for them will tell you what they need, so then, go and do that.

That's purpose. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

In Pursuit of Purpose

Most of us spend our lives in pursuit of purpose, trying to figure out exactly what it was that God had in mind when He created us. What are we meant to be? What are we supposed to do? Who are we supposed to love? Where are we supposed to live? Our lives are summed up in the same 5 W's and an H that we ask about almost everything - Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

At some point, God begins to answer these questions for us, as our lives are steered in one direction or the other. One thing becomes very clear to us, and we're pretty sure this is it - God is finally going to tell us what it is that He has dreamed for us from the very moment He knit us together in our mother's womb. 

And then, nothing. Silence. Dead end.

That's hard for us. We're a people who want a plan. Like, a whole plan. We want to know all of the details. We want to know how it all comes together. We want to know everything that's going to happen before we make a move, but that's not the testimony of God, and that's not the testimony of His people. 

One of the things I'm learning, the more I grow into my own God-given purpose and the more I explore the world around me, is that so many of the lingering questions that we have are answered when we act on the first "Go!"

Abram had a good sense of the presence of God. After all, it seems the two were fairly good friends. So his friend calls him to go to the mountain, and he goes, even though he has some lingering questions about how this is all going to go down. When he gets there, he finds not only the presence of God, but the provision and the promise of the Lord, as well. 

We laud Abram for his faith, but the truth is that he was in the same boat as the rest of us - he only had the answer to one question. He only had one word to move on. He only knew one thing for sure; the rest was kind of up in the air. 

But he moved. And in moving, he discovered what else it was that he needed to know.

The question we have to ask ourselves is if we, too, would be willing to move. Are we a people willing to go on just one word? Are we a people who trust in God so much that we're willing to go to the mountain and discover what else He might have for us, even when we don't know what that might be? Are we? 

If we wish to discover our God-given purpose, we must be. 

I think our pursuit of purpose begins with one simple answer. One categorical affirmative that sets our whole journey in motion. And I think that categorical affirmative falls into one of three groups: people, place, or thing. That's where our adventure starts. 

And it's where our lingering questions are answered. 

Stay tuned this week as we walk boldly into the unknown, toward God-given purpose - presence, provision, and promise - through the people, places, and things to which we have been called. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Interpretation of the Heart

This week, we've seen how easy it is for some of these subtle differences to sneak in and completely change the way that we read and understand the Scriptures. It ought to pierce our conscience how easy it is for the heart of the Scriptures to change when we do these sorts of things. And I think it all started when we twisted the question of what the Scriptures have to say to what the Scriptures have to say to me, as though the whole of the Christian faith centers on our own personal experience of it.

Just a friendly reminder: God is bigger than you. 

The overwhelming majority of Christian history is a testimony to men and women, clergy and laity, monks and mechanics all trying to figure out what the Bible says. They've tried to put it back in its own context, taking it to the streets of Jerusalem, the deserts of Sinai, the shores of the Jordan River to figure out what God was saying to His people and what it all meant. The overwhelming majority of Christian history has wondered what it was that Paul's audience would have heard when he spoke in Acts 17, how Elijah would have spoken under the threat of Jezebel's thumb, how Abraham and the Lord negotiated their relationship from the promise to the promised land. We've been trying to figure out how God spoke, what He said, what He meant. We've been trying to figure it out because we've known that the Scriptures reveal something about God, but they also reveal something about us. They tell us who God is, and they tell us who we are.

No longer. Those are just not the questions that contemporary Christians are asking, at least not in the mainstream. Not in the majority of our pews. Today, Christians are asking how God speaks to them, what He says to them, and how faith best becomes meaningful by understanding or practice. For today's Christian, our starting point has become our telling the Scriptures who we are and then trying to figure out what that means for them. 

I cannot overstate how dangerous this is, not to mention scary!

This kind of modern theology has given us permission to dismiss large portions of the Scriptures as not being "relevant" to us. We pick and choose which words make sense for our lives and toss the rest, claiming that God spoke them, perhaps, but for another audience. Do you realize that the most-read version of the Scriptures today is not the NIV or the KJV? It's the "All-About-Me." It's our own version, our own translation, whittled and worn down to just that handful of passages that seems to fit with what we already embrace and expect in our lives. 

It's brought us to a place where we sit in the same pews, but we're no longer reading the same Scriptures. We look at each other, listen to someone quote some eloquent word of God, and we say, "That's not in my Bible." And it's not. Because we've edited it out. It may be the word of God, but it's not the word of God to us, so we've trashed it.

And then we spend most of our lives trying to construct a meaningful faith out of what we have left. Let me just say this without apology: if your faith is only meaningful because you've made it so, then your God is not big enough. 

There's not one word in all of the Scriptures that says that anything that God does in all the world depends upon your interpretation of it. There's not one breath that God utters that says, "Gosh, this will be so perfect if they just choose to make it so." Your life is meaningful, your faith is meaningful, because God made it so. Because God Himself is meaning. 

It's meaningful because God created it. It's meaningful because God is present in it. It's meaningful because God invested in it by sending His Son to walk the earth and by sending His Son to carry the Cross. It's meaningful because on one Sunday morning, there was an empty tomb. It's meaningful because God is sufficiently big to make it meaningful, not because you've come up with some interpretation of it all that "makes sense" to you. Not because you've formed and fashioned a faith that matters. 

Faith has always mattered, not because of those who believe but because of the One they have believed in. And if that's news to you, it's time to pick up a full version of the Scriptures and read the parts you're prone to skip. 

Sorry to sound harsh, but it has to be said. We've come to a place in our faith where we have convinced ourselves that it's up to us to interpret the Scriptures, but that has absolutely never been the case. Unlike every other writing in all of existence, the Scriptures interpret us. We don't bring our hearts to the Bible; the Bible brings our hearts to us. 

So we have to get back to an honest, faithful reading. We have to get back to asking the right questions, which are not what these Scriptures mean to me, but what these Scriptures mean for me. We have to stop asking how the word of God fits in with who we are and start seeking to discover how the word of God exposes who we are. And it reminds us who He is - 

So much more and so much greater than we give Him credit for. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Love Yourself

This week, we're talking about ways that the Bible would be different if it were written today from our modern theology, and here's one that has become so popular that most of us probably don't even recognize it any more for the distortion that it is:

Love your neighbor as yourself has somehow become a modern commandment to simply love yourself

We've so picked apart this verse, so twisted and turned it, that we think it means that we cannot love others if we do not first love ourselves, and therefore, our primary task in life is to learn to love ourselves. 

Forget that He said As I have loved you, you must love one another.

No, forget all that. Forget that Jesus also teaches the Golden Rule, that we should do unto others what we would want them to do unto us, which is about being considerate, thoughtful, honoring, and not at all about figuring out what it is that we want from the world and then putting it out there, as though Christ were teaching some form of karma. (He's not.)

Forget that Paul teaches us, in beautiful language, what love really is - it is patient, it is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it keeps no record of wrongs, etc. - without ever once saying that love considers itself or that it comes from a place of tremendous self-adoration. Forget that John said, We love because He first loved us.

Forget it! For many a modern Christian, this depth of the theology of love matters not. What we hear is, Love your neighbor as yourself, and what we take away from that is that we must first learn to love ourselves.

It's just not so. That's not at all what Jesus said, not at all what His audience would have heard. What they would have heard is that this is the second command, and it is predicated on the first - that we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And so loving our neighbor is not about loving ourselves; it's about loving our God.

That's what we have to figure out first. Figure out how to love God, and you will know how to love your neighbor.

You will know how to love your neighbor because you will see in him, and in you, the very image of the God that you love. You will see in your neighbor the image of your beloved God, and you will not be able to help yourself. You will see your neighbor's strength, grace, dignity, mercy, the very reflection of the living God who formed man in His own image with His own hand and endowed him with His own holy breath. And you will see in yourself (this is where "yourself" comes in) the image of the Lover. You will know that you've been created in His own love, to be love in this world.

Figure out how to love God, and you will not have to learn to love yourself; you won't be able to help it. You will look in the mirror and see the image of God in you, and you will know yourself as beloved of Him and in the same breath, in the image of His love. Figure out how to love God, and you will not have to learn to love your neighbor; you won't be able to help it.

That's what all this means. That's what all of this has always meant, what God intended it to mean. This second greatest commandment is not predicated on itself, that God would have commanded you to love yourself. That's not it at all. It's predicated on the first, that you should love God.

Love God, and you will love your neighbor.

Love yourself, and you will likely love neither.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Jew

By the way, while we're talking about ways that Jesus would be different if we wrote the Gospels today, let's just go ahead and say that He wouldn't be a Jew.

He'd probably be, you know, "spiritual, but not religious."

That's because most persons these days, including a good number of Christians, think that religion is not important to Jesus. They think that He doesn't much care how exactly you worship (and in some cases, who exactly you worship), as long as you get your worship on in some way, somehow. They say that Jesus was perhaps a messianic figure, but not necessarily a religious one.

And..they're wrong.

Jesus was a Jew, and His Jewish heritage was very important to Him. That's why He spent so much of His time arguing with the Pharisees, who were so sure that they were getting it right when they were, in fact, getting it so wrong. It's why He invested so much of His energies in setting them straight, and right out in public, too! He wanted the people to know what religion was really supposed to look like.

If religion hadn't mattered to Jesus, He wouldn't have bothered. If He'd come to overthrow religion, He wouldn't have wasted His time. He would have just shaken His head and said, "You silly people with your silly little religions," and walked away.

But that's not what He did. He spent His time trying to make sure that the people truly understood what religion was, particularly what His religion was.

And He drew on the Scriptures of the Jewish people to make His points. He didn't quote Buddha. Or Gandhi. Or Zoroaster. He didn't draw on the myths of the religions of persons outside of the Jewish faith. He didn't strike yoga poses or stand up shrines of Hindu gods. Sorry, but that's just the truth - Jesus drew on His Jewish faith for all that He did.

Which means He wasn't spiritual; He was religious.

And so, too, did He intend for us to be. Because not only did Jesus spend so much of His time trying to show how religion was supposed to work, trying to teach the people what it really looked like to be faithfully religious, so, too, did He spend a great deal of His energies instituting a new religious way.

Remember that whole Cross thing?

That whole Cross thing was about instituting a Christian faith. It was about making a new religious people, not just from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles. The whole point of the Gospels was to teach us what it means to be Christian - to be Christ-like. The whole point of the Cross was to show us a new way.

If any old way would do, He wouldn't have taken the road to Calvary.

But He did. Our Jewish Jesus took the way of the Cross to show us what it means to be Christian. Not so that we would be spiritual, but so that we would become religious. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Clearing the Temple

As I started to think about how Bible stories might change if they were written today (as in the case of Abel killing Cain), I was struck also by the scene of Jesus clearing the Temple in the Gospels. If you'll remember, Jesus goes into the Temple and finds a bunch of merchants there selling sacrifices and other Temple goods, and He goes wholly holy on them and starts turning over tables and throwing them out. 

I don't think most of us believe any more in a Jesus who would do such a thing. Our Jesus has become, for lack of a better word, "too nice."

And our theology has become too weak.

See, most Christians today believe that if Jesus had gone into the Temple and found something He didn't like, He should have just left and gone and found another Temple. (An impossibility, we must add, since in the time of Jesus, there was only one Temple. He was, after all, a Jew.) Maybe He should have started a House Temple. Maybe He could have written an open letter or had a nice sit-down with some of the elders, you know, in private. There are a lot of other options for handling what He didn't like, we say. He didn't have to start turning over tables.

And, we'd add, there might be some very good reasons why sacrifices ought to be sold in the Temple. Maybe someone lost their entire crop and needed some firstfruits to bring to God. Maybe all of their sheep wandered off. Maybe their lambs were killed by wolves. Maybe their wine had burst out of its wineskins or their grains had gone moldy on the journey to the Temple. Maybe it just wasn't convenient for them to carry a sacrifice such a long way, so it was better that they just bring some money and buy something at the Temple. 

There are all kinds of reasons why having merchants in the Temple is convenient. And Jesus doesn't really want us to have an inconvenient faith. So we re-write the Gospels and declare that our Jesus wouldn't do such a thing. 

But the problem remains: He did.

We can sit around all day and claim that He wouldn't, but the fact remains that He did. And that's the trouble that our theology gets us into. We have so re-written the story of God, the story of Jesus, that it doesn't look much like the Story He's given us any more. We simply edit out or wash over scenes that don't seem to fit with the way that we think our God would act, but we neglect to address the fact that our God did act that way. And does. 

And He has to. I don't want a Jesus who doesn't clear the Temple. I don't want a Jesus who just walks away. I want a Jesus who sticks around. I want a Jesus so concerned with holiness that He's willing to cause a bit of a ruckus.

I don't want a Jesus who thinks that faith should be convenient; I want a Jesus - I need a Jesus - who dies on a most inconvenient Cross. 

I think the Gospels would look a lot different if we wrote them today, based on our common conception of Jesus, but I think we would be missing so much. So very much. We might miss even the Christ Himself if we're not careful. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cain and Abel

Most of us are familiar with the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, where Adam and Eve's son Cain kills his brother Abel because his sacrifice was accepted by God when Cain's own sacrifice was rejected. 

As I was thinking about this story the other day, I wondered if we have not, in Western Christianity, turned it a bit on its head. Certainly, there are Christians all around the world who are suffering every day, who are killed, because of their worship for God. Certainly, Cain still kills Abel. But I wonder this about contemporary Western Christianity:

Would Abel today kill Cain?

I was thinking about this because I was thinking about how easy it is for Christians in America to go after each other. We're the ones who have it right, we think. Our doctrine is right. Our social stance is right. Our service is right. Our music is right. God surely accepts us and is pleased with the way that we do church. Then we look across the aisle, across the street, across town, and we snivel at the Christians who are doing it differently than us. 

Surely, God doesn't accept them.

So we speak with hatred, vehemently. We speak with condemnation, and it comes so easily to us that it's honestly scary for me. We spend more of our time condemning others for worshiping wrong than we do actually worshiping ourselves. And we say that it's all in good faith, that it's what God's called us to do.

We look up and we hate our brothers and sisters. We hate them so much that as soon as we look up, we turn away. How can they live such disgusting lives? How can they do such disgusting things? The grace of God, which has rescued us in our misery, does not go that far - or perhaps it shouldn't go that far - and we'd be far better off in our worship that is pleasing if we would simply do away with worship that is displeasing.

And all of a sudden, Abel kills Cain.

I don't get it. I really don't get it. I don't understand how it happened in the first place, when Cain killed Abel just for getting it right, but I really don't understand how it happens again and again and again, where we, as Christians, are so comfortable, so confident, killing Cain for getting it wrong.

How can a people marked by grace refuse to extend grace beyond themselves? 

How can we keep quarreling over all of these little things? Were it not for the grains that Cain grew, Abel's livestock would not have been healthy, a sacrifice pleasing to the Lord. Were it not for the things that our brothers and sisters offer to God, our own sacrifice would be thin and sickly. There's no way we're doing this on our own; we need each other.

Cain killed Abel, and indeed, he still does. And now, Abel kills Cain, and it seems he won't stop. Where does the bloodshed end? When will it stop? 

When I become my brother's keeper, and I know, too, that he is mine. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

On Vulnerability

Relationship is an exercise in mutual vulnerability. It has to be. It is this idea that to be in relationship, to truly be in relationship, a man must both be known and also know. Without both, he only sets himself up for the pain of betrayal.

For example, say that you have a friend who cares deeply for you, but you know very little about her. The more you share your life with her, the more it becomes apparent that she has a deep, profound need for worry in her life. And caring about you fills that need for her. Suddenly, you start choosing your words carefully, pulling back from intimacy, because it becomes quite obvious that what she desires is not a relationship with you but something persistent to worry about. If the vulnerability had been reciprocal, you would have known this need of hers before you shared your life, and the relationship could have been structured differently so as to be human-centered, not issue-centered, where you could both be honored and respected. 

Or say that there is a man who keeps working his way into your affairs. You think it is out of his deep, true concern for you, and so you share more and more and invite him deeper in. As time goes by, it becomes apparent that he doesn't as much care for you as he bases his own self-worth on being "in the know" - on having details about persons and things that he can use to demonstrate his own social connectedness and, in his mind, importance. If the vulnerability had been reciprocal, you would have known his insecurity from the very beginning and been able to structure the relationship in such a way that it was fulfilling for both of you, not just him.

Our deepest wounds come from these kinds of encounters, and I am sure that as you read these two very generalized descriptions, you are thinking of persons in your own life who seemed to desire relationship with you, but because of their own issues that they were not vulnerable with in return, you have come to feel used in some way. Deceived. Betrayed. 

It's a terrible feeling.

Now, hear me when I say this because it is important: none of this is meant to be a judgment on those persons who have used, deceived, betrayed, and hurt us. It can't be. Because every single one of us has these kinds of issues in our own life. Every single one of us is just as prone to this kind of use, deception, betrayal, and hurt. It's why we have to be vulnerable with one another - vulnerable enough not only to say, "This is what I struggle with," but also to say, "And this is how that may hurt you." 

But I say all that to say this - there is one relationship in which we can be truly vulnerable because the other has already been completely vulnerable with us - our relationship with God. 

We so often talk about how Jesus came down in order to become our perfect, atoning sacrifice. About how nothing less than the perfect Son of God would be acceptable for the redemption of our sins. About how it was necessary for Jesus to assume the flesh in order to redeem the flesh. And all of that is true.

But it's also true that God came in human form to be vulnerable with us, to show us His truest self and to demonstrate that He's not going to use, deceive, betray or hurt us. Throughout His entire ministry, Jesus did not demand, but always accepted, men's offerings. He received them graciously and never turned them back against the man. He didn't use them for gossip or for soothing the raw places in His own soul. 

Rather, He showed, at every turn, how He treasured whatever it was that He was given, how He honored the offerings of men. He showed how He wove in the stories of others with His own holy threads, and there is not one person in all of Scripture who would turn to a friend and say, "I just feel so betrayed by Him. I can't believe He would do that to me!" 

He came to show us that He would never do that to us. He doesn't need to. And we can be sure of this, since He has shown us the very real depths of who He is. He has been vulnerable with us.

Therefore, we can be vulnerable with Him. 

And we must be. For all real relationship depends upon this: that we be vulnerable with one another, that we be who we are and understand who the other is. That we both know and be known. 

Christ shows us well how this is done, this beautiful Christ who knows us to the depth of our being and reveals to us the depth of His. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Psalm 23 (continued)

Yesterday, we worked our way through this psalm right up to the heart of the valley of the shadow of death, where the psalmist can be seen making a distinct turn toward the Lord (as evidenced by a shift in pronouns between the first part of this chapter and the second). So having turned to the Lord, what does he find?

Your rod and your staff give me courage. Is this the biblical version of "walk softly and carry a big stick"? We often think of the rod and the staff as being disciplinary in nature, but that's not at all what the Old Testament shepherd would have used them for. The rod was used for protection - it often had a pointy barb on the end of it that was used for injuring and deterring predators. You'll remember that David once bragged about the way that he defended his flock from an approaching bear - it's the same idea here. The Lord's rod protects us from approaching danger.

The staff was used not to correct the sheep, but to contain them. Whenever shearing season rolled around, the shepherd would gently place his staff around the sheep's neck to hold it near enough for shearing, providing a comfort that his hands could not when he needed both of them for the work. He would also use the staff to hold the sheep closer when it was tempted to stray a bit too far. 

Imagine a life where you are protected and held. Where you don't have to worry about approaching danger because the Lord stands ready to defend you. Where you feel His gentle hold on you and know that even though you are free to wander a bit and to explore this pasture, He will not let you go too far. He holds you close enough that not only are you safe, but you're secure. That's the kind of security that gives you courage, and it's exactly what Psalm 23 promises.

You prepare a banquet for me while my enemies watch. Most of us might say that if the Lord was truly a good God, we wouldn't have any enemies to watch us feast at His table. He'd just vanquish them all. But most of us also know that that's not how the Lord works. We have enemies in this world. Some are human, but far many of them are not. So try to imagine this Psalmic scene. You're in battle. You're engaged with your enemies. You're fighting tooth and nail. And God spreads a tablecloth and starts laying out a magnificent feast. He pulls out a chair and invites you to sit, ties a bib around your neck and hands you a knife and fork while arrows continue to fly all around you. That's the kind of confidence the Lord wants us to have in Him - the confidence to sit and feast while the war wages on. And there's nothing your enemies can do about it. They can hurl all the stones and arrows they want, fire all the bullets they've got, but you're sitting at the Lord's table, feasting, and they're powerless to ruin the meal. Imagine that for a minute, just imagine it. That's the kind of confidence that Psalm 23 promises.

You anoint my head with oil. Anointing is a practice that most of us don't have a lot of experience with in our modern world. We've kind of gotten away from it. But what it is, at its core, is a pretty big investment. It takes a lot of time and a lot of resources to anoint someone. Look at everything that went into Aaron's anointing in Exodus 29. Or look at the woman in John's gospel that Jesus says was anointing Him (preparing Him for the tomb). The disciples balked at the lavishness of her action, at the expense of the perfume poured out, at the extravagance of the display that she made. Anointing isn't cheap, and it's not easy. And it's always connected to a call - for Aaron, to the priesthood; for Jesus, to the Cross. Imagine what it means, then, for the Lord to anoint you. For Him to stand face-to-face with you and pour out an expensive gift upon your head. It's not just oil; it's purpose. It's calling. That's the promise of Psalm 23.

This is the incredible beauty of Psalm 23. Not only does it tell us that we have everything we need, but it tells us exactly what it is that we have. We have a shepherd. We have a place. We have rest. We have confidence. We have shadows, but we walk right through them and turn to Him. We have protection. We have security. We have enemies, but we have a table right in the midst of them. We have purpose, a call and an anointing. 

Why should we want?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Psalm 23

Psalm 23 is, to me, one of the most beautiful of all the Scriptures because it is also one of the most whole. Most of us know the first line by heart - The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want - but it's the rest of the psalm that fills out this first statement. 

And unless we know what the rest of the psalm promises, we may be tempted to roll our eyes, for who among us has not, from time to time, wanted?

But every verse of this psalm is written to remind us what we already have, right down to this very first phrase that we know so well - The Lord is my Shepherd. 

It doesn't make much sense to most of us, since we know so little about shepherding in our modern culture. It sounds almost like an insult, that we would be dumb as sheep and in need of a shepherd at all. But the shepherd is the one who took care of all of the details. He's the one who figured out which pastures were best for grazing. He's the one who knew where the best little nooks of water were. He's the one who looked out for predators and thieves. Imagine a life where you didn't have to worry about the details, where it just wasn't up to you. That's the kind of life Psalm 23 promises.

He makes me lie down in green pastures. Most of us don't think much about this, either. Who has time to lie down? And if we do have the time, why can't it be on a nice beach somewhere? You know what you find in pastures? Patties. Watch. your. step. But the beauty of this statement plays off the last - this pasture that you're in is not just the place where you graze, but the place where you find rest. With the Lord as your shepherd, you can do whatever it is that you were born to do - you can graze a little, rest a little, and not have to worry about anything. The land doesn't work you; you work the land. And when you're ready for a bit of a break, it's safe to rest. Imagine a life where it's safe for you to rest. That's the kind of life Psalm 23 promises.

He leads me beside still waters. Again with the still waters! Seriously, can't they be waves crashing on a nice beach somewhere? But still waters don't mean perfectly still; they mean perfectly moving. (Perfectly still waters breed algae and pond scum, which is not the image that we should get from this Psalm.) It means waters that are not being rushed and are not rushing, but are gently flowing from one place to another. And that's good news! See, you can tell a lot about the weather by the waters - you can tell when storms are coming, when droughts are near, when floods are coming. But still waters tell you that none of this is happening; everything's okay. Imagine a life where you didn't have to worry about storms brewing, where you weren't always looking around trying to figure out what happens next. That's the life of still waters. They'd warn you if anything was coming, but it's not, so don't worry about it. That's the kind of life Psalm 23 promises.

And then something incredible happens, something most of us read right by - it's the valley of the shadow of death. I know, I know - we're familiar with this verse, but read it in its full context and look at the glorious thing that happens here: this is where the psalmist turns to God. This is where we turn once again toward God.

Prior to this little sentence, this psalm has spoken in the third person about God - The Lord is my shepherd; He makes me lie down; He leads me beside. But, references to God become second person, as though God is nearer, as though God is one being spoken to. For you are with me; Your rod and your staff....; You prepare. 

Stop for a minute and think about that. Really think about that. Imagine what it would be like to live the kind of life that turns to God, even in the darkness. To live the kind of life that even death can't stop. To have the power to keep moving, even in the valleys, to never stop walking, putting one foot in front of the other, even in the shadows. It's okay that there are dark valleys; it's here that we turn our eyes to the heavens. 

There's more to say about Psalm 23, a whole second half of the chapter to work through, but at the risk of letting this one run a bit too long and to let the truth of the valley of the shadows sit with you for a little bit, we'll hold off on that second half until tomorrow. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Philippians 4:13

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. 

Most often when we, as Christians, quote this verse, we are attempting to draw on either strength (confidence) or courage. Then, inevitably, we run up against something that is stronger than us or our courage wanes, and we wonder, can I not only not do all things, but can I not do anything? Where is this Christ who strengthens me?

But that is what happens, as we've been seeing for the past several days, when we read Scripture out of context and try to figure it means whatever it seems like it might mean (or maybe whatever we need it to mean). Put back into context, it's clear in Philippians that Paul is not talking about confidence or courage.

He's talking about contentment.

Broaden verse 13 out into its wider context, and we see that Paul is talking in three contexts: poverty or prosperity (a social context), full or hungry (a physical context), too much or too little (a psychological context). He's hitting the big three of our existence as human beings, and what's more, he's not making value judgments about which is the better state to live in. 

Rather, he's saying that either state is okay with him, as long as Christ is present. 

Nor does he muddy the discussion by implanting his own personal experience/reaction of the situation. He doesn't say when he was happy in fullness or desperate in hunger, when he was satisfied with too much or scared with too little. He doesn't include what for us would seem to be a natural human reaction; he's letting these states stand on their own, simply as they are. Poverty and prosperity. Fullness and hunger. Too much and too little. No editorializing; these things just are what they are. 

And they're out of Paul's control. Poverty and prosperity doesn't depend much on him. He can work as hard as he can possibly work, but if the market for tents happens to be down, then he's not going to have much to show for his work. If there's a big camp meeting coming up, business might be booming. Full or hungry doesn't depend much on him. Even Jesus walked by a fig tree hungry and found no fruit on it. Sometimes, the crops are just thin for the pickin'. Sometimes, the meat spoils. These things happen. Too much or too little doesn't much depend on him. Sometimes, he looks around and his life is overflowing; sometimes, it feels empty. That's just how life is. (Don't we know it?)

Yet Paul says, I have learned to be content. No matter what it is, I have learned to be content. (And notice, mind you, that whatever it is, it is never simply "enough" - it's always too much or too little, more or less.) 

To understand how deeply this vein of contentment runs through this verse, we have to go to the Greek and to this little word that we translate as "do" - I can do all things.... It doesn't mean "do" as in "perform." Rather, its three most common meanings are: "to be well," "to be of service," and "to be serviceable."

Which means that when Paul says he can "do" all things, what he means is that he can be well through all things, he can be of service to Christ through all things, and he can be serviceable in Christ through all things (he can grow in Christ through all things). 

So what we're talking about here is not really doing, but being

Being well. Being of service. Being serviceable. 

Being content.  

Monday, May 8, 2017

Romans 8:28

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God - those whom He has called according to His plan.

We know that, but what about when things, uhm, don't seem to be working out for good? What about when things don't come together, don't fall into place, don't work out?

Or what about when they do?

When we read this verse in the way written above, we set ourselves up for a deep theological difficulty that is double-edged. First, we expect that things ought to just work out. All on their own. You know, the way things do. 

But the testimony of the Bible, and of creation itself, is not that things just work themselves out. It's not that things just come together. Genesis 1 - everything is formless and void. It didn't just come together to create the heavens and the earth; it had to be acted upon. Exodus 19-20 - Israel doesn't just figure out how to live together as a holy community; they have to be instructed how to do so. Turn to the Gospels - there are 4,000 and 5,000 (and actually, more) hungry persons who are not suddenly feasting and full; they have to be fed. 

Things don't just happen. Problems don't just disappear. Questions aren't just answered. Someone or something has to act in order for something to happen. 

Imagine, though, if they did. Imagine if the universe just fell into place, if community was easy, if hunger simply sated. Now, let me ask you a tough question: if things just happen, what do you need God for? 

That's the hidden danger of this reading of the verse. If things just work themselves together for good, if pieces just fall into place all on their own, if good just happens, what in the world do you need God for? Absolutely nothing. It doesn't require Him. And if it doesn't require Him, why would you choose Him? 

But go back to the testimony of the Scriptures and of creation itself, and it's clear that things do not just happen. Life doesn't just come together. Good doesn't simply work out.

Genesis 1 - God had to shape the formless and void. By His own hand, He formed the universe. Exodus 19-20 - God had to tell Israel how to live as a holy community. By His own hand, He carved the commandments on two stone tablets. In the Gospels, Jesus had to feed the hungry. By His own hand, He broke the bread.

And that means that all things don't just work together (as we all well know from living this broken life) - God works all things together. Good requires God. 

And that means that we don't trust in Romans 8:28; we have to trust in God. For we know that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, whom He has called according to His purpose. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Galatians 5:22-23

Oh, the fruit of the Spirit's not an apple. The fruit of the Spirit's not an apple. If you want to be an apple, you might as well hear it - you can't be the fruit of the Spirit.

Indeed, this is the passage that tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But what about when you find yourself in need of just a little bite of this fruit, but the Spirit's orchard seems to be woefully empty?

Then, we should say, you are browsing in the wrong orchard.

The Spirit is an interesting character because He never does anything on His own turf; throughout the history of God's people, the Spirit always does things on our turf. That means that when we go browsing in the Spirit's orchard, we're simply fooling ourselves. He grows His fruit in our orchard. 

And that means that if there's no fruit to be found, then we are the ones who have failed to sufficiently cultivate it. 

Look at some of the things that the Spirit has done in the Scriptures. In Acts, the Spirit enables the apostles to speak in new tongues. In the Old Testament, the Spirit enables David to slay the giant, Goliath. In Judges, the Spirit strengthens Samson one more time to bring down the pillars and crush the Philistines. But the apostles still had to speak. David had to take one faithful step into the valley. Samson had to put his hands on the pillars. 

The Spirit didn't just do the work; He enabled God's persons to do it through power and faith.

It's the same for us. The Spirit isn't just growing fruit in random places; He's enabling us to cultivate it in our own lives. And that means that we have to take responsibility for our own orchards. 

It means that we have to make sure that we're providing enough water, living water - that we're living in Christ's love in such a way that it nourishes our soul and what we're trying to grow here. It means that we have to take the pruning shears in our hands and be willing to cut off anything that isn't producing good fruit. We have to cut off impatience, misery, defeatedness, harshness, impulsiveness - anything that isn't the fruit of the Spirit has got to go, in order to make room for what we're growing. It means that every now and then, we need to walk through and sample our own garden, get used to the taste of the things that we're growing. That way, we don't only know what joy looks like; we know what it tastes like. It becomes a real and vibrant experience for us. 

And then when we need it, we know that it's there - plump, full, tender, and ripe. Ready for picking. 

And you know what else? If one day, we have a fruit that doesn't seem so ripe, we can trust in the wisdom of God's incredible creation and leave our orchard to the mysteries of cross-pollination, which spreads across crops and helps them all to grow. 

So if our patience runs a little raw sometimes, that's okay - our goodness may be able to help encourage it. If our gentleness is just a little harsh, that's okay - our peace may offer it what it needs. If we have even one crop that is nourished and well, then our orchard is sound because one thing feeds off another, and this is even more true when the winds blow hard and the bees sting - because these are the very things that move pollen from one place to another.

The fruit of the Spirit's not an apple. But it's just as sweet. We must only be willing to cultivate it in our own orchards, for that is where the Spirit has always done His work. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Isaiah 40:31

Don't you know? Haven't you heard? The eternal God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn't grow tired or become weary. His understanding is beyond reach. He gives strength to those who grow tired and increases the strength of those who are weak. Even young people grow tired and become weary, and young men will stumble and fall. Yet, the strength of those who wait with hope in the Lord will be renewed. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and won't become weary. They will walk and won't grow tired.

What does it even mean to "wait with hope"? For most of us, I think this means something like that we wait with crossed fingers and bated breath, that we hold our hearts in tender limbo, expecting, wanting, but not yet exactly counting our chickens. For most of us, I think that this means that we stand as still as we can, trying not to upset the balance of anything because we're not sure which way the universe (a.k.a. God) is leaning, and we don't want to accidentally tip things in the wrong direction. 

But this verse in Isaiah tells us what it actually means to "wait with hope" - it means to keep moving in a God-ward direction with whatever strength you have.

This means that sometimes, you soar. And soaring is a bit of a different thing than so often easily comes to mind. You see, the magic of soaring for the eagle (or for any bird) is in the hollowness of his wings. It's his emptiness that enables the wind to carry him. So let me ask you this: have you ever felt empty? Are you feeling empty right now? Then, this is the time for you to soar. 

When you soar, all you have to do is open your wings and let the holy wind of God do the rest. Let His breath carry you. Let it take you where He needs you to go. There are several characters in the Bible who soared - Elijah soared when he was too worn out even to feed himself; God sent ravens to feed him. Jonah soared when he was weary and miserable from his journey away from, then toward, Nineveh; God sprung up a plant to shade him from the hot sun. David soared when he was running from his enemies and exhausted; God sheltered him in caves and protected him from his enemies. These men were totally drained, but they never stopped moving in a God-ward direction. And it was God who brought them there.

Waiting with hope means sometimes, you run. Running is what happens when you've got all the fire and fervor in the world, when whatever God's got for you takes such firm hold of you that you can't help but go all-out in pursuit of it. But running, though it's authentically passionate, is not necessarily easy. It tends to make you weary. It makes you weary because not everyone can keep up with your pace. Your energy leads you faster and further than your world is often willing to go with you, and weary doesn't just mean tired or worn out; it means discouraged. Fed up. Disappointed. 

That's what I love about this promise in this verse - if you've got all the fire, God says run with it; He will not let you be discouraged. This is Ezra/Nehemiah, as they sought to rebuild the Temple and the holy city of Jerusalem. This is Daniel, as he pressed for special treatment in Babylon according to his God's wisdom. This is Paul and Peter, who repeatedly found themselves in prison for preaching the word, only to step out of the jail and right back into the public square. They ran with all their fire, and they refused to grow weary.

So when you are empty, you soar, and when you are full, you run. But sometimes, you're neither empty nor full - you just are. And so here, you wait with hope by simply walking...walking in a God-ward direction. Walking is tough because for most of us, it feels like wandering. We don't really know what we're doing. We don't really know where we're going. We're just trying to faithfully put one foot in front of the other and do something, go somewhere. It's prone to make us tired, but we're not talking here about just a physical tiredness; we're talking about an existential tiredness - a.k.a. boredom.

But God says you won't get bored when you're walking Godward. (And honestly, how could you?) He is making sure that our energies stay up, that we don't become either drained or distracted. This is the story of steadfastness, and we could look at nearly any of the prophets as an example. We could look at Israel on her journey through the wilderness. We could look at Jesus on the shores of Galilee. Just faithful walking. 

It's so tempting to think that our faith fails us when we feel like we're in a holding pattern, when we're sure we're just waiting on God to do something and then, it doesn't seem that He does. But this verse reminds us that waiting is not just standing there. It's not just sitting on our duffs, holding out hope. It's taking our hope in our hands and moving, however it is that we are able to move - either soaring on the wind of God in our emptiness, running with the fire and fervor of holy passion, or faithfully putting one foot in front of the other. This is what it means to wait with hope. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Jeremiah 29:11

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

Oh, how we love the assurances that this verse seems to give us. But if you're anything like me, you spend a fairly good amount of time looking at where your life is and thinking, "This...does not seem planned." It doesn't seem like the way things ought to be. This doesn't look like a life that God put in this particular order, and if He did, then He must be some kind of sadistic God or I must have done something completely horrible to deserve...this. 

Right? Let's just be honest about it. Because we've all been there.

But this verse isn't really about you. It's not about me. It's not about our individual lives or the way that our day today looks. This verse is about us. It's about God's people as a whole, not necessarily God's persons. 

Because the original Hebrew word here for "you" is plural. For I know the plans I have for ya'll....

And that's actually pretty consistent, since God has always been a God of His people. Essentially everything that we see in Scriptures has a communal thread running through it, even though our modern Christianity has made it the religion of the individual. The story of God makes so little room for such a reading; it's about God's people, God's community. 

God saves Joseph from a well, but it's not about Joseph at all - it's about Israel. Just chapters later, we see the nation of Israel come to Egypt. Joseph's brothers come to him. He saves them all - the people rescued because of what seemed to be God's saving of one man. Moses used to pitch a tent just outside the camp, where God would come to meet with him. God says this is no good and commissions a bigger tent so that He can come and live among all of His people. Paul addresses his letters to churches, even when he greets individuals occasionally by name. The heart of the letters is for the people of God, with side notes for the persons.

See, you're not just trapped in your own life, stuck trying to make sense of things, stuck trying to figure out how all of this could possibly be planned. You're part of a bigger plan. You're part of God's plan for His people, and that's amazing. Because as cool as it would be to have a God who has our lives all planned out, it's far cooler still to have a God who has our lives in His plan.

And you know? Broadening out our vision to see this bigger plan actually reveals to us that it's only in the plan for God's people that God's persons can have what this verse (and the next one) promise anyway. 

This passage promises peace. But how can you have peace in your life if those around you are still living in strife? Their struggle will flow over into your life, and a world without peace can infringe upon yours and rob you of it. But if all God's people have peace, no one has any need to shake yours.

This passage promises hope. But how you can you have hope if the world around you is full of despair? Their darkness will creep into your light. But if all of God's people have hope, no one has any need to dampen yours.

This passage promises home. But how can it be home if you're there all alone? You will have a place, but it won't feel like anything because there's no one there to hold or to hold you. We need each other. But if all God's people are there together, if home is God's plan for all of us, then all of a sudden, it feels like a real place. Like a real belonging. Like, home.

It's hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that God's plan might not be individually ours, at least not in this promise, but it's so much better if it's not. It's so much better if we're part of the bigger plan, for only when God's people have the promise do God's persons get to live it. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

John 3:16

Any honest look at the hallmark verses of Christian faith has to start with John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." We think that this verse hinges on "so loved" or on "only Son" or perhaps on "shall not perish," maybe even "eternal life." But the power and the truth of this verse hinges on this one little word:


Belief, particularly as it pertains to Christian belief, is something we don't understand very well. It's because we're living in a world that has diminished belief to a simple, one-time profession of faith. "Oh yes, I believe...just in case this whole thing goes south and I need a way out of Hell." We pray the prayer, but we go on sinning, just as Paul told us not to do. 

See, the problem is that belief is not an intellectual practice. It's not just agreeing in our minds that something is, or may be, true. It's not being willing to say, "Yes, I can buy into that" or "That seems plausible." Belief is an experience, and it is necessarily transformative. It engages us, and then it changes us. 

Think about the evidences of belief in the Gospels. The people were constantly hounding Jesus to show them another sign. Perform another miracle. Do something else for them. They needed to experience first-hand His power. They needed to be witnesses before they could ever be believers. Even at the Cross, the Roman soldiers were not convinced there was anything special about this Jesus. Until, that is, they saw how He died. Then, all of a sudden, they're sure He is the Son of God. You have to experience Jesus before you can believe in Him. You can't just think He kind of, sort of, or even really sounds good. That's never been enough. 

And then, you have to be changed by Him. James says plainly that faith without works is dead. Paul says that we have not been saved (believed in Him) just so that we can go on sinning. That's not how any of this works. 

But what if you can't believe? What if you just can't believe? There is a story in the Gospels of this happening - a man comes to Jesus. He experiences Jesus. He wants to be changed, wants to believe all of this, but he cries out - I believe, help my unbelief! Who among us doesn't have these moments?

This is the haunting of John 3:17, the verse that puts 3:16 in context. Verse 17 condemns the man who does not believe, who does not truly believe - that is, who is not changed by his experience of Jesus. 

The kind of unbelief that we see in the Gospel story just cited - that's not what verse 17 is talking about. It's not talking about those of us who are earnestly trying to believe, who are engaged with the Gospel, who are open to being changed. It's talking more about the thief on the cross, the one who refuses to believe. 

There are two thieves with Jesus when He is crucified - one on His left, one on His right. And one cries out about Him being the Son of God and begs for mercy. He is changed by his experience of Jesus. The other thief tells him to shut up and stop bothering the guy. He is not changed by his experience of Jesus. It is this kind of unbelief that is condemned, the kind that can look Jesus right in the eye and decide He's not worth changing for. It's the idea that not all who cry, "Lord, Lord" will be received in Heaven - not all who know what His name is know what His name means. They have not been changed by Him.

Which brings us back to belief - not some intellectual exercise, not some measly, simple, just-in-case prayer, but a life-changing experience of Jesus. The question of John 3:16 is not whether God so loves His world; we know that He does. It's not whether there is eternal life; we know that there is. It's not whether there is a Son, sent to save; we know this is true. 

The question of John 3:16 hinges on this one little word. The question is: do you believe? Truly believe?