Friday, June 30, 2017

Power of Prayer

I hope that by this point, it's clear that I'm not talking about some Christian notion of "praying away" anything, as though all we should do for our brothers and sisters is to pray for them or teach them to pray and all their troubles, worries, and problems will be solved somehow. I'm talking about a real, living faith that brings them into a meaningful encounter with the person of Jesus, who touches them, speaks to them, hears them, and loves them...often through our hands, mouths, ears, and hearts. 

But let's talk about prayer for a moment anyway. I think this is important. 

Because I cannot tell you the number of times that I have suggested this kind of real, living faith that encounters Jesus in the midst of struggle and Christians have looked right back at me with no small amount of indignation and claimed, "I'm talking about a legitimate problem, and you want to pray?"

Uh, yeah, I want to pray. Among other things that require me becoming the hands and feet of Jesus for you, I want to pray. Why wouldn't I?

It makes me wonder what Christians think about prayer these days. I think that mostly, Christians think about prayer as something we do because we're Christians. We pray because God expects us to pray, the same way we read our Bibles in the morning because God expects us to read His Word. We do it because we don't want to feel guilty for not doing it, but we don't really believe it does much for us. We don't really believe it's important except to stave off the disappointment of God. 

(And by the way, did you know that the #1 thing persons believe about God, even Christians, is that God is disappointed in them? Heartbreaking.)

Our world is full of so many answers, so many programs, so many solutions, so many things that have weight and depth and density to them, that we can touch and feel and smell and hear and know. Jesus...just seems impractical, even to the faithful among us. Prayer...just seems like a waste of precious air. 

I don't know how we solve this problem. I really don't. I can tell you that my Jesus has weight and depth and density to Him. I can tell you that I can touch and feel and smell and hear and know Him. I can say that with the absolute authenticity of all of my being, but I know it won't do any good. Because even in Christian circles today, that makes me a nut job. That makes me fanatical. That makes me one of those people. 

And even Christians are so deathly afraid of becoming those people - those people who actually believe in the God they profess to worship, who take Him at His Word, who live like He is real, and who trust in His promises. As though that's just such a terrible thing.

But back to this - listen. I'm not talking about having a faith that trusts only in prayer. I'm not talking about taking everything this world throws at us and falling to our knees and believing that's going to fix things. I'm not talking about having such a grand idea of Jesus. But even if I was, would that be such a bad thing? Would it be so terrible to actually live by the faith that we claim? 

I'm always talking about a faith that is real. A faith that is touchable. A faith that is living and active and loving in this world. I'm talking about a faith with skin on it, where we as Christians actually do things for the poor and the naked and the sick and the imprisoned and the scared and the lonely and the troubled and the things like feed them, clothe them, visit them, invite them into our homes, stand with them, and carry them to our Jesus - not to our programs - and drop them through the roof right at His feet, believing - really believing - that there is something vital about a relationship with Jesus that is desperately needed  in our broken world. And yes, a faith that prays with them. 

Because I believe in the promise of God that says that He hears us when we pray. And I don't think that's nothing. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Trap

What's really, honestly, scary about the fight that Christians are engaged in on the front lines of social justice movements is that whatever victories we gain seem to draw us only further away from our own faith, further away from our own Christ, further away from His very call. 

The more we fight for this world to give men what they need, the honor and dignity that the image of God in them commands, the less even we believe that men need Jesus.

And all of a sudden, we become friends who carry the poor, the sick, the lame, the broken right past Jesus on the way to our programs, telling them that just around the corner is the blessing that they seek.

It's a scary thought, really, but it's happening all the time. When the controversial "Affordable Care Act" passed in the United States, Christians started telling the sick how they could get health insurance now, started pointing them toward programs and subsidies and websites and registration portals. We stopped saying, "Let me help you with that," and started saying, "They have programs to help you with that." 

When a man or woman walks out of prison and walks into a place of employment trying to find steady work, employers are likely to tell them, sorry, we don't hire felons. But I know of some programs that have all of the connections. And then we point them toward the system that we've fought so hard to build for persons like them.

We may drive the homeless to a shelter for the night, but we're not likely to bring them home. We may give a dollar to the hungry or point them toward a food pantry, but we won't put out a plate for them. 

Ironically, we will even invite them to our church's meal program or homeless shelter or clothing pantry or utility assistance or recovery program or whatever, but we don't invite them to our Sunday service. 

We have advocated, fought, and labored for a world where the least among us need our programs, but we no longer believe they need our Jesus. 

But Jesus isn't practical, the argument goes. Jesus doesn't satisfy the hungry, shelter the homeless, employ the felon....

No, but He loves them.

In the Gospels, we see this all the time - everyone coming to Jesus with whatever they've got, friends carrying friends to Jesus so that He can heal them, honor them, dignify them, listen to them, hear them, speak to them, love them - and He does, every single one of them. They walk away healed, whole, restored, honored, dignified, confident, beloved. And we, who claim to love Jesus, carry our friends right by Him because He's just not practical for today's needs.

It's heartbreaking. It's absolutely heartbreaking. And yet, it's the new faith. 

Because we fight so hard for these programs. Who in their right mind can turn them all away for something so impractical as a broken Savior and a bloody Cross?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Almost Cruel

It sounds almost cruel, doesn't it? That Christians should stop lobbying for social justice issues, that we should just let persons be poor, sick, lame, oppressed, and all for the sake of being able to tell them just how much they need God? All so that "Jesus" doesn't go out of business?

Well, yeah. Kinda.

As with all things, it's not so black-and-white horrific as it seems. There's this very subtle difference between what has become popular to do and what Jesus would have us do, and that's the shade of grey that we have to recapture if we want to truly be servants of Christ in this world. 

It's not at all that we should leave persons to their own fortunes, that we should turn our backs on the troubles of this world. Nor is it that we should encourage some sort of "praying away" of the trials of this life, as if all it takes is the right combination of words to set a person's aching heart at ease. Rather, it's that we should acknowledge the brokenness of the world, the fallenness of man, and rather than trying to dig ourselves out of it, we should step into it with open arms and buckets of love. 

There's this idea that we should use our voices to speak for those who go unheard in this world. But Jesus says no, don't speak for them. Teach them to cry out. There's something about using your own voice, learning to put sound to your own experience, and there's something even more about having a God who hears what no one else seems to hear. Jesus hears you - He heard the blind men shouting from the side of the road, He heard the whispers in the back of the crowd, He heard the woman at His feet. In a world that doesn't seem to care, He hears you. And that is a more meaningful gift than a hundred thousand words spoken by someone with a "stronger" voice.

There's this idea that we should labor to construct safety nets to catch the most vulnerable of our society - the sick, the lone, the troubled. But Jesus says no, don't waste your time on nets. You catch them. The most elaborate system of homeless shelters cannot do for the soul what one man can do by inviting the wanderer into his own home. The best healthcare in the world fails to maintain the personhood of the body, reducing it to a series of science experiments until it is well...but no longer whole. It takes the tender touch of the human-Holy spirit to truly heal a man. And anyone who has ever been alone or lonely in this world knows that it takes more than simply having programs where a lot of lonely persons are together in one place; there's got to be a real connection, heart-to-heart, to break the pain of loneliness. None of these things can be legislated. None of these things can be lobbied. None of these things can be budgeted, planned, executed as though they were some master scheme, even of a "Christian" society - they are human endeavors, and they require the intimacy of human connection. 

I'm not saying that all our ideas to go out and change the world are "bad," but they're certainly empty. All this time we spend shouting into the wind with our voices of privilege, while we hold up those we fight for as posters or billboards or advertisements for the cause, not as human beings created in the image of God and beloved by Him. Just look at the way that any number of these social justice movements use the very persons they pretend to be fighting for - they're nothing but images, icons. This is the face of poverty in America.

No, Jesus says. This is Mary. This is Bill. This is Joe. This is my precious child who is so much more than the face of whatever cause you think you ought to take up. Take up My cause.

Love them.

Because it doesn't matter what long-term gains you make in the structure of society as we know it if today, Mary goes hungry, even though you threw away a good helping of food because your eyes were bigger than your stomach. It doesn't matter if tomorrow, you win the battle in your community for shelter if tonight, Bill is sleeping outside in the rain while your guest bed sits perfectly made, closed off, unused. It doesn't matter how much you succeed at getting this world to give the poor something worthy if today, you couldn't give Joe the dignity of looking into his eyes and listening to what he truly needs, even though you looked directly into your phone and responded to a few dozen texts. 

Love them. Because today, you can do that, and that's what God has called you to do. Not point them down the road, not promise them tomorrow, not lend them your voice, but draw them in, welcome them in, listen to them speak, and love them. 

If you're not doing that, you're not doing anything.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

In Christ Alone

As Christians continue to push their way to the front lines of social justice issues, it's important to feel the tension that this creates within us as a people of great faith. On one hand, we believe in all of the things that social justice movements are fighting for. On the other hand, Jesus has not called us to fight in such a way. 

And I think there's a pretty good reason why.

It only seems natural - and good - to most of us that we should be out there fighting for these things, fighting for all persons to be treated equally, fighting for the dignity of the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the sick, the lame, the homosexual, the widowed, the young, the old, etc. If Jesus Himself saw the honor bestowed upon them and responded to it, should we not do the same? 

At the same time, there is a very real danger that the harder we fight for these things, the more likely we are to succeed. 

That doesn't seem like a problem on the surface. It's almost laughable, this idea that it would be troubling to live in a world where everyone is treated the way that Jesus would want them to be treated, where everyone is honored for what is God-imaged in them, even if we don't use precisely that language to describe it. But as I said yesterday - what if we could give this to our world? What if we succeeded here? 

We would give them everything Jesus would give them, but we would not give them Christ. And they'd no longer have any need of Him.

What good is a Savior in a world that's not dangerous for you? What good is life when there is no death? What good is light when there is no darkness? If we legislate the world to give them justice and mercy and grace, what on earth would they possibly need Jesus for? 

Therein lies the problem. See, it doesn't take long for the world to forget the why, particularly when they've become so attached - perhaps even entitled - to the what. If we create a world based on the heart of Jesus, then the unbelieving world simply accepts that this is the way that the world is. The world owes them everything they're getting. It's just the way that humans live. It doesn't take long for Christ as the motivator for our movement to fade away completely, leaving us with just what we've given each other. 

I think that's why Jesus is so careful to tell His disciples what they can, and should, do in this world - heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, watch over orphans and widows, and above all, love everyone with the holy love of Christ. He never says to go out and re-order the world. He never says to go out and legislate His love. He never says to eliminate poverty. He always says we will always have the poor among us. 

And why? Because He knows that without these things, men will forget their need of God. It won't take long before He is a footnote in human progress, a distant memory of a time gone by, a useful, but now unnecessary, force in the world. Poor men need their poverty to bring them to Jesus, and rich men need the poor to humble them in His presence. The sick need their illness to give them the courage to cry out on the side of the road, and the healthy need sickness to know the healing power of Christ. The foolish need wisdom to convict them; the wise need wisdom to keep them going. Everything that Christ offers is for both the broken and the whole. It is precisely because this world is not what God intended it to be that we are all so keenly aware of our need for Him.

That's the hidden danger here in all our fighting, in all our advocating, in all our longing to see the world live in a way that reflects the heart of Jesus for one and all. It just doesn't take much for men to forget there is a Christ - or how desperately they need Him. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

For Christ's Sake

There's a movement among Christians, particularly younger Christians who are trying to take this whole Jesus thing seriously, to stand along the front lines of social justice issues and fight for those who are less fortunate - who are oppressed, who are poor, who are naked, who are hungry, who are ill, who are in prison, etc. 

The idea is that Jesus would fight for these persons. The idea is that Jesus Himself would be willing to stand for them. The idea is that as Jesus-lovers and God-followers in this world, we should do no less. 

But there's a bit of tension here that we must all feel, even when we're standing in society's biggest gaps, and that is the tension between what Jesus would do and what Jesus would have us do. 

On one hand, yes. Absolutely yes. We have been called to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, to live the way that Jesus lived, to love the way that Jesus loved. And that absolutely means fighting for others, advocating for the honor of what is God-given and image-bearing in every man, woman, and child. 

On the other hand, no. Absolutely no. Jesus was very clear about the ways that we should interact with the less fortunate, that we should engage the oppressed, the poor, the naked, the hungry, the ill, the imprisoned, etc. He minced no words about it. We have not been called to close the gaps, but to stand in them. 

And what He said was not that we ought to be working to make sure that these persons no longer face these troubles. What He said was not that we should invest our lives in restructuring society so that these classes of individuals cease to exist. What He said...was that we will always have the poor among us. What He said is that there will always be the sick, the naked, the imprisoned. What He said is they will always be here.

What He said was to visit them. Clothe them. Feed them. Heal them. Love them. 

That's different than "fixing" them. That's different than changing their circumstances. That's different than a distant act of advocacy, the kind of thing we do by standing in our pews or standing in our streets. Visiting the prisoner requires that we go behind bars. Visiting the sick requires that we breathe the germed air. Clothing the naked requires that we stand in full vision of their shame (nakedness is equated with shame in the Scriptures). Poverty requires that we give of our own riches. 

And no matter how well we articulate it, giving of our privilege is not the same as giving of our real resources. Giving of our privilege does not entail the same human cost and reward as doing what Jesus actually called us to do, and that was to give of ourselves. 

But it's not just for us. It's not just for the sake of what Christ has truly called us to, but also for the sake of what Christ has given. We can give the oppressed the world. We can advocate our way toward social justice. And let's say we do - let's say that we as Christians succeed and social justice is the norm. We have given our brothers and sisters a lot, a great deal, a good thing. But have we given them the greatest thing?

We have given them what Christ promises, but have we given them Christ Himself?

(Stay tuned.)

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Mystery of God

The real tension that we feel between Christian faith and modern gnosticism is our full recognition that so much of God is still a mystery to us. We rather like the idea that if there's something about God that we don't know, then we have without our capacity to figure it out. All we have to do is think hard enough, dig deep enough, and put enough of the pieces together.

But the mystery of God is not the beginning point of our journey of faith; it's the end of it. 

Our faith begins not with questions, but with answers, with the God who boldly proclaims who He is and makes no secret about His character as loving, good, gracious, and worthy of our love, affection, and adoration. Our faith begins with what we do know, not with what we can't know, which is that God has given us more than enough information to sufficiently know Him through His Word and His ongoing revelation of Himself. 

The more we live and love in the knowledge of what we do know, the more we come to the edge of the mystery that is God - that which we simply cannot know. We cannot know it because our fallen eyes cannot look high enough. Because our calloused hands cannot open wide enough. Because our wounded hearts cannot beat strong enough. The mystery of God is beyond our broken existence to such an extreme that we can only ever imagine and know that even our imaginations are not wild enough. 

And the faith that's fallen in love with the knowable God finds itself content to embrace the mystery of Him where it knows it can go no deeper until all of these chains are broken.

That would be rather frustrating if it were anything but God that we were talking about. It would be like having an amazing recipe for a fantastic dish, but the last instruction was left off. It would be like reading a book only to find the last chapter missing. It would be like having enough paint in the can to cover only 95% of the wall, leaving just that last little corner staring back at us. In anything else, it feels unfinished.

But not so with the mystery of God. The mystery of God is the fullness of God, it is the whole of His story. Even though we don't know what that fullness holds, we sense full well that it's there. Rather than coming to the end of the book and finding the last chapter missing, we come to the mystery of God and find ourselves waiting on the next page to turn. It's there. It's right there. We just can't read it...yet.

Sadly, too many of us spend our entire lives of faith waiting on that page to turn, waiting on God to more fully reveal Himself, waiting on Him to show us what we cannot possibly understand. We spend our entire lives digging through, trying to uncover what God has never hidden, and it's what leads us to these gnostic ideas, these silly notions we have that there's more to God's Word than He says there is. There's not.

There's only mystery.

And we have to be okay with that. Because the mystery of God is not His unfinished story, but His fullest glory. And the kind of faith that I want to have is ready to embrace that, even if I can't understand it. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hidden Things

At this point, you may be saying, "Okay, but wait a minute - didn't Jesus tell His disciples that not everyone would understand everything? Didn't He Himself say that some things were hidden from those who were not meant to understand them? Doesn't this mean that there are some things we have to dig around and piece together to understand?"

Doesn't this mean there's something to all this so-called gnosticism?


When Jesus talks about things that are hidden from some, He's talking about two very specific groups of persons, neither of whom would be aided by the ideas of gnosticism.

On one hand, He's talking to persons who simply are not yet privy to the Kingdom. He's talking to those who don't really buy into all that He is. He's talking to those who have not been given His Word, even though it has been spoken plainly right in front of them and they have, indeed, heard it. 

These are the persons who would just be out to pervert the word. They are the ones to whom none of it makes sense because it's not really what they're looking for at this point in their lives. They're the ones who are curious, but not particularly invested, and this is the kind of person that simply cannot be given the word of God. It doesn't mean anything to them, and so of course some things just don't make sense. Of course some things must be hidden. Even if it were plain as day, they wouldn't know what to do with it, so why bother clarifying what Jesus means in these places? 

There's a lot that doesn't make sense about the Gospel unless you know the God who wrote it. There's so much about grace that's counterintuitive, so much about love that seems foolish. There's everything about redemption that doesn't seem necessary unless you first believe in the "very good" and the curse. In these cases, what Jesus is saying when He says that some things are hidden, is basically, "If you don't know My heart, you can't know My word." 

On the other hand, He's talking to persons who are captivated by their own god-complex. They are their own idols, and all they are looking for is the chance to boost their own knowledge and power by being privy to the things that Jesus seems to know. You can recognize these moments right away because they usually draw on the idol language of the Old Testament - these persons have eyes, but they do not see; ears, but they do not hear. 

Whatever power or knowledge they seem to have, they are figments and products of their own imaginations. And God has not given His Word to make men more powerful in their own minds, to make them more wise in their own ways. He's given His Word to demonstrate His power and wisdom. So when Jesus says these things are hidden from them, what He's saying is that they will never be able to understand them in the figments and fragments of their own imaginations, so they don't actually understand them at all. They are simply misappropriating them, trying to make them something they never were, and so to them, they are nothing at all. 

Not once does Jesus say, "These things are hidden, but I have left you enough clues that you should be able to figure them out." No, He always says, "These things are hidden, but I have given them to you." True disciples of Jesus are given the true Word. There's no need to go hunting for it. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


The idea that there is "power" in a number is very much a New Age idea, although there is nothing particularly new about the New Age. But the idea that the Bible itself is secretly trying to communicate to us this powerful number...that's gnosticism.

Gnosticism has been around for as long as the Scriptures. From the very moment that God gave His people His Word, there have been certain numbers of them who have been trying to figure out what that Word "really" means, what kinds of hidden messages it carries, as though buried somewhere deep within the plain and obvious truth that God's given us is the "real" truth that He wants us to have. 

We just have to know how to read it to get there.

You might say that the Pharisees were involved in this a little bit, spending the bulk of their lives trying to clarify what the law really meant, expanding on the interpretation of it, and creating an entire set of rules that God never gave His people and calling them holy. 

But the idea of gnosticism is not really interpreting the Scriptures in a certain way, like the Pharisees did; it's more about reading into the Scriptures ideas that were never there in the first place. Instead of trying to determine what the Scriptures "really" say, gnostics derive their meaning from what is not said, but what they believe is still meant

That's why gnostic ideas are so dangerous to a living faith - they sound very legitimately like they could be drawn from the Scriptures in some tangential way. They sound very legitimately like they come from persons who have invested a lot in discovering these "truths" in the Scriptures. Quite often, gnostics can quote you down a trail of Scripture as "evidence" of whatever it is that they're proposing, and then add that through a "divinely-inspired" reading of these passages privy only to them, they uncovered this hidden truth that is really at the heart of God's message.

It's the kind of stuff that when you first hear it, makes you go, "Whoa...." 

This is where a little bit of discernment goes a long way. It may be that you can take a thousand different turns through the pages of God's Word and come out at the place where the gnostics are trying to lead you, but God says that His path is straight; you don't have to take a single turn to get to truth. It's right there. 

It may be that if you put enough pieces together, you can uncover some secret, hidden message in the Scriptures, but God's message has always been plain and clear. He's never kept secrets and never hidden messages. His prophets never had to decipher a code. His disciples didn't have to trace it through. It's always been right out there in the open. The God who is Truth makes Himself known clearly and plainly and always has, from the very first day when He walked in the Garden with Adam and Eve. 

There's this incredible tension in all of this - we all want to be persons who are in on some kind of secret, who know something that the rest of the world doesn't know, who have figured out the "key" to life, as though it were some sort of mystery and yet, the God that we love (and Who loves us) has spoken the secret plainly out loud. He's given us the key right in front of everyone. There's nothing secret about the mystery of God, even though there is much that we still cannot understand.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Power of Three

Recently, an article popped up in my social media feed that a friend had in some way interacted with, and that article was enthusiastically entitled something like "The Power of Three!" with a catchy subtitle like, "You'll never guess how many 3's are in the Bible!" 

And that's how easily it happens.

The idea is not really new, at least not for contemporary Christians. Many have heard somewhere or another (and many believe) that either three or seven...or both...are the Bible's "power" numbers. That the more you decorate your life with these numerals, the better things will go for you. That God has some special favor for threes or sevens. That threes and sevens are, in fact, good luck. Uh....biblically good luck.

But that's just not true. In fact, it's nothing more than New Age bologna. (And there's nothing so "new" about "New Age.")

If there were power in the number three or in the number seven, don't you think the Bible would mention it at least once? Don't you think it would be more than some secret mystery that we're supposed to just figure out all on our own by putting together a selected few dots? A verse here, a verse there? Don't you think that if the God of the universe is completely open with powerful ideas like grace and redemption, He'd be more forthcoming about the power of a number, if indeed there were such a thing? 

Seems pretty silly to send Your only Son to die a public, gruesome death on a Cross and, resurrected, stand in front of countless men and women, to clearly demonstrate Your power over life and death, but to hold back on something so mundane as the power of a number.

Could it be that threes and sevens are more the keys to the kingdom of Heaven than the Cross? 

Some prosperity gospelists and conspiracy theorists would have you believe the answer is yes, but it's a profound and resounding no. There is no power in numbers, and there never has been.

But there are a lot of threes and sevens in the Bible. So what gives?

The numbers three and seven in the Bible are meaningful numbers, not powerful ones. Each is meant to serve as a reminder of something holy and sacred and important, something that God's people should not forget. 

The number three has a relational meaning, meant to draw the faithful back to remembrance of the Trinity - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every time we see the number three in the Bible, it is meant to remind God's people of wholeness and unity. Jonah has fractured himself and is living in splinters away from the will of God; three days in the belly of the whale makes him whole again, restores his integrity. The Messiah has been broken, hung upon a Cross; three days restores the promise. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness with three temptations; by His response to the three questions posed to Him, we see the wholeness of His divinity. Three wise men come to visit the baby Jesus, meant to show a wholeness of the wisdom of this world reflected in three. Every time we see three, what we're meant to see is that our Triune God is One. There's no power in it; there's just meaning.

The number seven has a redemptive meaning, meant to draw the faithful back to remembrance of creation - when the formless and void became the everything and all things. There are seven days of Creation, and there are seven churches in the final days. When Peter asks if he should forgive his brother seven times, it's a question about how long it takes to set things right. The answer, seven times seven, indicates that forgiveness is the ongoing work of setting things right. The Sabbath is on a seven, and so is the Jubilee. In fact, God's entire economy runs on the sevens because that's how long it takes to make something out of nothing. To put things together. To set things right. To see that they are "very good." Again, there's no power in it; there's just meaning.

The idea that there is "power" in numbers, that we should be able to guide our lives by these sorts of things, is not a Christian idea. Far from it. It's a New Age idea, which actually has some ancient roots in other cultures throughout history. In the present day, it's right up there with tarot cards and ouija boards and feng shui and yoga and all the other things we do that we think have "spiritual" tones to them but are pulling us away from what God wanted us to know.

Which is not that there is some mystical power in the numbers He's given us, but that there is profound meaning in them, meant at every turn to draw us back to our Triune God and His creative/redemptive work in the world. And in us. 

Monday, June 19, 2017


There's more to being Christlike in this world than simply doing the things that Christ did, although that is certainly part of it. We must also, however, labor to do them in the way in which He did them.

For example, Christ spoke God's truth at every turn. When He was being tempted in the wilderness, He was able to quote to the tempter the Scriptures. We could do that. But it was the way in which He spoke them that we must be interested in copying. He spoke them with absolute power and authority, giving to those words every shadow of life and death. 

We often do much less. We may know the Word. We may have parts of it memorized. We may be able to speak it now and then if we have to or if it sounds right. But we don't often speak it with power or authority. We don't often give it the absoluteness that it deserves. In other words, we far more often say the Scriptures than we speak them, and that's a very significant difference.

Or take the way that Christ responded to the needs pressing in all around Him. He answered to everyone who called His name. But He refused to let them determine His schedule. He refused to let them demand His response. He refused to live by the tyranny of the urgent.

This bothers a lot of us, particularly when we see it in the case of Lazarus's death. His friend dies, and Jesus takes His time getting to Bethany, even though He knows He can handle the situation once He gets there. Everyone is grieving - hard - and expecting Jesus to do something, but all He seems to do is to turn His feet toward Bethany and keep walking. Just walking. 

Most of us respond with more of a sense of urgency. When someone asks us to do something, when someone calls on us for help, we feel this enormous sense of pressure to come through for them, and immediately. We are constantly rearranging our schedules, shifting things around, putting other things on the back burned, just to do what it seems we could be doing right now. As a result, we often live hurried and harried and even call these things holy, but that's never how we see Jesus live. Jesus was never hurried, pressured, bullied, or guilted into being Jesus.

One of the biggest places I think we can catch a glimpse of the profound difference between the way that Jesus acts and the way that we so often do is in the scenes where we see Him interacting with sinners. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus interacting with the sick, the possessed, the sinful, the shamed, and every time He does, they come out of the interaction knowing what wholeness is. But it's what we don't see Jesus do here that's important - we don't see Him emphasizing their failures or focusing on their fallenness.

When He asks to eat at the home of Zacchaeus, we don't see Him stressing the fact that this man is a corrupt tax collector. When He stands alone with the woman caught in adultery, we don't see Him emphasizing her filth. When He rebukes the disciples for arguing about who is the greatest, He doesn't launch into a soliloquy about arrogance and pride. At every turn, He simply quietly offers wholeness. He simply unlocks the chains and lets them fall.

And lets them stay there.

We are not so good at this. We can't let others just let go so easily. We're constantly reminding them of who they were, as though that's still what we see when we look at them. We're constantly telling the grace of God only in contrast - you were a sinner, you were a prisoner, you were corrupt, and in doing so, we make that the biggest feature of another person's story. Every time we tell even a sliver of God's grace, we try to tell the depths of man's fallenness, trying to tell God's story by telling the sinner's, but here's the thing: it's not ours to tell.

The woman at the well runs back into town and tells her own story - Come meet a man who told me everything I ever did. Jesus doesn't tell it; He lets her tell it. Zacchaeus isn't pegged by Jesus as a corrupt man, but he tells of his own corruption when he takes steps to correct it. 

This is one thing I wish we would do so much better - I wish we would just tell God's story without feeling the need to tell everyone else's. I wish we would let the grace of God speak louder than the judgment of men. I wish that we would give others the opportunity to tell their own stories. That's where the power of testimony is - in the voice of the redeemed speaking its own story. Not in our voices, condemning and consoling as though we ourselves were God. 

This discussion could go on for quite a long time, our looking not just at what Jesus did in the Gospels but at the way in which He did those things. This is crucial to our own witness in the world and, I confess, a lot harder. But it's so important. So very important. It's not just enough to do the things that Jesus did; we have to do them in the way in which He did them. 

It's the only way He gets the glory for it. 

Friday, June 16, 2017


You're not Jesus. 

If you read yesterday's post, this simple little fact may have struck you. Perhaps you even thought it with a bit of haughty derision. You want to live like Jesus in this world? Uh, there's just one problem with're not Him. That's a common response. If this world cannot convince you that it's foolish to live the Jesus way, it will settle for saying it's impossible.

Jesus spent a lot of time healing people. Are you going to do that? You don't know how to heal anyone. You probably never even have.

Sure, I'm going to do that. If Jesus enables me to do it. It's true that there are many stories of Jesus' healings in the Gospels, times when He gave sight to the blind, sound to the deaf, strength to the weak. And I think it's also true that there are not a lot of Christians among us who have not, at at least one point in their lives, laid hands on a sick dog, cat, lizard, bird, grandmother and wondered if this same sort of healing power would even be possible for them (and for many, it was not, but that does not keep us from trying, does it?).

But it's also true that the disciples did their fair share of healing in the power that Jesus gave them to do so. They went out in pairs and came back and reported all the amazing things they had done. The people started coming to them, too, for healing. After Jesus's ascension, Peter gains quite a reputation for being a healer, so much so that the people start wanting just to touch the things that he's touched, hoping to harness a bit of that healing power.

So it's not impossible for a man to heal, but it is possible only insofar as Jesus has given him the power to do it. Want to live like Jesus in this world? Take the power He gives you to do so and go out and live it. It is possible.

Well, Jesus performed other miracles, too. He turned water into wine. He broke a couple of loaves of bread into thousands of pieces. He filled a net with fish. Are you going to start doing stuff like that?

Sure, I'm going to do stuff like that. The nature of the miracles of Jesus was not the acts themselves, although that seems to be what most of us get hung up on. I mean, it's really cool to make wine out of water, to multiply a small bit into a lot more, to haul in a huge catch. But unless there's a need, it's really nothing more than a parlor trick.

The miracles of Jesus rest in men's need for them. The wine is a miracle because without it, the host would have suffered deep societal shame. The bread is a miracle because without it, the people would have gone hungry. The fish are a miracle because without them, the fishermen would be stripped bare themselves, nothing to show for their work.

Maybe I have never broken bread into so many pieces, at least not more than crumbs, or called fish into a net, or turned water into wine, but wherever I am breaking shame, feeding hunger, and clothing persons with dignity, I am doing the miracles of Jesus. This, He has given me the power to do.

Fine. Jesus gives you the power to heal, and you make a pretty good point about miracles. But Jesus died on a Cross, for crying out loud. You can't do that.

Technically, I can, although I confess it would be far less spectacular than the original. In fact, part of following Jesus is going to the Cross with Him. But what I can't do is make my death a sacrifice for all creation. What I can't do is use my death to redeem the world.

See? Told you so.

Not so fast. I can't sacrifice myself for all creation, and I can't redeem the world, but I don't have to. He already did.

Look, I'm not trying to be Jesus; that position has been filled. But I am trying my best to live His example in this world. When we look at the Gospels, it seems so far-fetched. It seems so difficult. It seems impractical, if not impossible, to live the way that Jesus did, but it's neither. Yes, there are some things about His life that I just can't copy, things that stem from His divine nature as the Son of God. Things like becoming an atoning sacrifice for the world.

But the vast majority of the witness of Jesus, the overwhelming testimony of those who knew Him best, is that the divine life of Jesus was deeply embedded in something very human. And this much, I can do.

It's not always easy. It's not always pretty. I don't always get it right. Sometimes, I get it painfully wrong. But I'm trying. And I refuse to believe that the Son of Man came to show us how we couldn't live. If that's the case, I've got all kinds of theological problems with the Gospels.

But that's not the case. That's not the truth. The story of Jesus is the story of God, yes, but it is also the story of man, and I'm man. I'm human. So I'm doing my best.

And that's not foolish. And that's not impractical. And that's not impossible. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Jesus Christ

Quite often, I am accused of being an idealist, a religious or spiritual idealist. It's because I take very seriously the notion that Jesus came not just to live, die, and live again, but to show us how to live. And to a lot of others, Christians and non-Christians, pastors and professors and Walmart greeters, that just doesn't seem very practical...or perhaps realistic.

But I do it anyway. When I have a question about what it means to live in this world in a particular situation, I turn to Jesus and see how He did it. When I'm trying to figure out what it means to be part of community, I look at the community in the Gospels and see how they were doing it. It's not just about Jesus and the disciples, although that's a big part of it (and that's important because the disciples were just about the most ragtag group of guys and gals that you could possibly imagine - blue collar, white collar, humble, arrogant, gracious, greedy, they were a mix of it all), but it's also about all of the quiet little things that Jesus did, by Himself and with others.

For example, Jesus never considered a single situation "too messy" to get involved in. He wasn't afraid to touch lepers, to eat with the unclean, to be touched by the bleeding woman. Yet so often, we look at situations that are aching for the love of God, and we say that's not something we want to get messed up in. That's not something we want to get entangled with. What would this world say of us, as Christians, if we got into something so...dirty? I can't buy that narrative. I look at the Gospels and see the way that Jesus responded, and I have to say, I'm going. I'm going because Jesus went.

You're just asking for trouble.

Or take our world's narrative that says that we live in a world on-demand. The world requires us to respond, and right away. We don't get time to think it over, and heaven forbid we ask for time to pray about it. But Jesus prays about things a lot. Jesus retreats from it all and goes to the mountain or the garden, just to get away and to pray. In the crucial moments of His final hours, He's asked to speak in His own defense, and He's not quick to do so. For awhile, He says nothing. So I refuse to be rushed by this world. I refuse to buy into the tyranny of the demand. That's not how Jesus did it; why should I live any other way?

You just don't get it, do you?

Or we can look at any number of social situations that Jesus put Himself in. One of the questions that comes up routinely in ministry or in the church itself is whether men and women can be alone together if they are not married. Our culture has convinced us it's dangerous. Our culture has told us that it's just a trap, that anything can happen when we don't protect ourselves by refusing to be alone with others. But Jesus was alone with others frequently. He stayed with the woman at the well while His disciples went to town, and it was the turning point of that woman's life. He doodled in the dirt until He was alone with the woman caught in adultery, who, by many accounts, was naked. Jesus, alone not just with a woman, but with a naked woman! And nothing happened. Jesus refused to buy into cultural narratives, and He refused to be bound by social decrees. Why should I let them take hold of me? 

You're so naive. 

It's not really about the specifics, although that's part of it. The biggest problem that we have is that most of us, Christians included, pastors and professors and Walmart greeters included, don't believe that the "Jesus model" works in a world like this one. We don't believe that the way Jesus lived is very realistic for the rest of us. We say that Jesus is our example, but then we have a thousand reasons why He can't really be our example, why we can't really live the way that He did. 

Why not? Why on earth not? 

Jesus sounds really radical. He does. I'm not going to pretend that's not the case. He absolutely sounds really radical, especially to our modern sensibilities, even as much as we say that we like all the things that He was doing. Even as much as we say that we like the idea of eating with sinners and that we like the idea of healing the sick and that we like the idea of amazing grace. It still seems just...too radical, too impossible, too unrealistic. Too idealistic. I get it. I see that.

But I also see something really human in the way that Jesus lived. I see something really real in the Gospels, and that something is love. Maybe it's not practical. I don't know. But it's beautiful. 

And if at every turn, I'm trying my very human best to do something that beautiful, well...then call me crazy. 

It wouldn't be the first time. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017


In addition to the benefits of actually being ministered to, which are too numerous to even begin to list, the idea that someone else could minister to us at all requires humility.

It reminds us of the vulnerability of being loved.

See, love isn't real and ministry isn't meaningful unless there's something authentic about it. And in order for there to be something authentic about it, the man who stands in need of God must be real about himself. He must say what it is that's on his mind, what it is that's holding his heart back, his hopes, his fears, his dreams. He must be real about himself, who he is at the very core of his being - who God created him to be and where his fallen flesh has found him. 

This is the kind of vulnerability that is being offered to us all the time as ministers, but unless we routinely put ourselves in the shoes of the ministered, it's so easy for us to forget what it feels like. It's easy for us to forget what it takes to be so raw, so real. It's so easy for us to forget to be tender and human with what is tender and human in the person across from us. 

We can get so confident in grace that we forget what it's like to be in desperate need of it. That's why we have to keep putting ourselves in a position to receive it, where it's not just taken for granted but craved and necessary, where it's not just assumed, but spoken. Spoken by someone who knows our most authentic self.

We can get so comfortable with prayer that we don't even have to think about it. And often, we don't. That's why we have to keep inviting others to pray for us, so that we can hear what it sounds like for someone to be believing God for us. Believing that God is good to us. That way, we can pray anew, not just believing in God, but believing in the God that is for the person who so desperately needs Him.

I'm not very good at these things, but I'm getting better. The kind of vulnerability it takes to let others minister to me is difficult. I've often been credited with having all the answers, so it's tough to admit that I have questions. I've often been called on to stand strong, so it's hard to show moments of weakness. I don't think I'm alone in this. I think it's a problem for a lot of ministers, who are just expected to know so much and believe so wholly and to trust so fully that the world just seems to forget that even ministers need ministered to. 

But at the same time, I am unspeakably thankful - and I think most of us are - for the handful of persons in my life who can look at me and know when I'm in need. They can just catch a glimpse of me and know that I still know the truth, but right now, I need to hear them speak it. They can just sense those moments when I haven't stopped praying, but I need them to start. They call me on my bluffs and see right through my need to constantly pretend that all is well. (All is well, but all doesn't always feel well.) 

And every time they do, I am reminded of the sacredness of my own work. I'm reminded of the vulnerability that I'm privy to, to the real, messy, authentic places of persons' lives that they just let me in. Because they have to. 

It's the vulnerability required for being loved.

May we who so often do the loving never forget that. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Ministers are always taught about the importance of having close friendships, accountability, and personal devotion time in whatever ministry they find themselves. This is meant to keep the minister from running empty, from giving away all he's got and having nothing left of God at the end of the day. It's meant to keep him from going astray, having a place to ground him in his community and his work.

And those are great, important things. But there's one missing: ministry itself.

The minister have a place in his life where he is ministered to.

Accountability is a great thing. It reminds a person what their boundaries are and keeps them from going too far to the left and the right. But it's not ministry. Close friendships are amazing. It gives a person a place to belong where they don't necessarily have to perform or "work;" they can just be who they are. But it's not ministry. Personal devotion is essential. A person must constantly be turning back to God as the source of all things, being filled by the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit and grace and goodness. But even this is not ministry. Even together, these things are not enough.

Ministry is that thing that reminds us of God's deep, abiding, unquenchable love for us. It's that thing that reminds us of our belovedness. That's what we're trying to offer to those persons that God has given to us as ministers, and it's something we desperately need for ourselves, as well. We need those around us who will speak our belovedness back into our lives, that we might never forget how deeply God loves us. 

A lot of persons will tell you that this is what they get from their quiet time. This is what they get from their devotionals. I certainly hope so! Every encounter that we have with the living God should remind us of how much He loves us.

At the same time, though, there's nothing that can replace what happens in a person's heart when they hear someone else speak the love of God. There's nothing quite like hearing in another human's voice who God is to His people, what God means to His people, what God thinks of His people. And specifically, what God thinks of you.

There's nothing quite like having those voices in your life that aren't afraid to speak the holy words of God, to call out what is both sacred and sanctified. To sit in the dark and the hard places with us. To hold our hand when we feel alone. To speak God's comfort into our angst. These are the kinds of things that we're doing for others all the time in our own ministries; it's absolutely vital that we have those in our lives who will do them for us.

A worship minister friend of mine once said how much he relishes the rare opportunity to just sit in the congregation somewhere and worship, without having to lead or to worry about chord changes or to think about sound system problems. That's part of it. It's also having someone who will pray for you - with you - without you having to lead the prayer. It's having someone who will read the Scriptures and draw out a message that you need to hear.

Ministers need ministered to. We need someone to do for us what we're always doing for others. The preacher needs to be preached to. The pastor needs to be pastored. The counselor needs to be counseled. The pray-er needs to be prayed for. The worshiper needs to be sung over. The server needs to be served. Those of us who spend our lives holding hands need someone to hold ours, and those of us who spend our lives standing strong need someone to stand by us. We need these things, not just because we are fragile humans in our own flesh, but because they speak something of God into our hearts that we can't get through simple friendship or accountability or quiet time. 

We need these things, but they're not easy. More on this tomorrow.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

Looking for Liturgy

One of the things most of us are concerned about when it comes to our church is whether or not we've found a 'good' one. This question may resurface when our church, for whatever reason, changes - when we move to a new town and have to find a new place of worship, when a new pastor comes into our pulpit, when life just happens. 

You'll hear a lot of opinions on this question, usually centered around sermons, music, or service. You've found a 'good' church, they say, when you've found one whose preaching is agreeable to you or whose sermons push you to grow in your faith. You've found a 'good' church, they say, when the style of music really resonates with you and you are able to worship. You've found a 'good' church, they say, when you find one that's got a lot of community programs and is really doing a good work in its world. 

But nobody is talking about the heart of the church in any of this because the heart of the church is not the sermon. The heart of the church is not the music. The heart of the church is not the mission. The heart of the church is the ministry, and the ministry is found in the liturgy.

Liturgy is a word that we don't talk about much in most of the "non-denominational Christian" movement. For those denominations that use a liturgy, their understanding is not exactly what I'm talking about here, either. I'm not just talking about a reading schedule or the way that we work our way through the Scriptures around the calendar, hitting all of the holy seasons at just the right time. 

I'm talking about a liturgy that creates holy seasons, the kind of liturgy that is simply the sacred rhythm of the way that we do church.

And every church has this kind of liturgy.

For some churches, the liturgy is very bare-bones: we sing, then we sermon, then we fellowship. For others, it's very involved, including altar calls, benedictions, the Lord's Supper, baptismals, etc. For still others, it's somewhere in the middle. Still others change their liturgy with the season, incorporating more, perhaps, around Christmas or Easter and less on summer break.

However we do it, we have to be aware that each church has its own sacred rhythms. Each church has its own liturgy. And what we need to be looking for when we're looking for a 'good' church is one that invites us into its sacred rhythms that resonate with the pulse of our own faith-heart.

Maybe you don't need a lot of pomp around your worship service. That's fine. The sing, sermon, fellowship approach may work great for you. Maybe you need more structure to your heart. That's fine, too. One of the more traditionally liturgical churches may be right up your alley. Me? I need a church that celebrates the Lord's Supper every week. That's part of the heartbeat of my faith. Without it, I feel like a stranger in a strange land. 

It's not really that one church is 'good' and one is not. Or that one church is better than another. That's really the wrong question. The question is which church nourishes us, and when you find a church whose sacred rhythms pulse in harmony with yours, then that is a good place for you to be (as long, of course, as it is a church whose teaching is Scriptural and whose  heart is for God). It doesn't matter what the sign on the building says, whether it's "just" a "church," or Lutheran or United Methodist or Catholic or Presbyterian or whatever. If that is the place where your soul sings, then you have found a 'good' church. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sacramental Faith

Yesterday, I said that our faith must be an outward sign of an inward grace. This is exactly the phrase that is commonly used to describe a sacrament - the Eucharist, perhaps, or in the Catholic tradition, Confession. And it's exactly what I think we need to understand about faith itself.

Faith is sacramental.

We talk so much about what our lives are supposed to look like as Christians, how others are supposed to be able to tell just by looking at us that we're believers. But we struggle quite a bit to figure out what that even means. Does it mean that we act in a certain way, that we have a stringent set of behavioral guidelines that we live by? (Does it mean that we don't drink, dance, or smoke?) Does it mean that we grow our hair long and start wearing sandals everywhere? Does it mean that we plaster a smile on our face and pretend, you know, that everything's cool - with us and with everyone else? What does it mean to be a Christian in a way that is obvious to everyone around us?

The idea of a sacramental faith begins to address this. The idea of living outwardly from an inward grace is exactly what we're looking for. Unfortunately, it seems to raise the same kinds of questions for us - what, exactly, does a sacramental faith look like?

There are a lot of these kinds of ideas in the Scriptures that help us to start putting some flesh on this. For example, the Scriptures tell us that we love because He first loved us. His love is an inward grace that comes rushing into the very depths of our being; our love, then, is an outward sign of this grace. So if we want to live a sacramental faith, one good demonstration of that is to live a life of love.

The Lord's Prayer gives us another one. It asks God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. In other places in the Scripture, we are told that we ought to forgive because the Lord has forgiven us. Peter is even told to forgive his brother seventy-seven (or seven times seven) times. His forgiveness is an inward grace that washes away the stain of our sin; our forgiveness is an outward sign of this grace. So if we want to live a sacramental faith, one good demonstration of that is to live a life of forgiveness.

The Old Testament frequently offers reminders to God's people about how they are to treat the aliens, the foreigners, and the slaves among them, for they were aliens, foreigners, and slaves in Egypt. It talks about an economy of freedom and a calendar of Jubilee, where debts are forgiven and chains broken and people set free because that's what God did for Israel. God's freedom is an inward grace; our bondage-breaking is an outward sign of this grace. So if we want to live a sacramental faith, one good demonstration of that is to be a bondage-breaker.

And of course, there's Jesus, who willingly walked to Golgotha for us, who laid His life down for us, whose example is sacrifice. We could never, of course, secure eternity for a fellow man, but we can give of ourselves for the good of the other. The sacrifice of Christ is an inward grace; our own willingness to sacrifice is an outward expression of it. So if we want to live a sacramental faith, one good demonstration of that is to live a life of sacrifice.

Are you starting to see what I'm trying to get at? A sacramental faith, a faith that is the outward sign of an inward grace, takes whatever it is that God has done for us and gives it back to the rest of creation that is so longing for something so real. That's how we demonstrate what it means for us to be believers. We live a life that says, "I can do this because it has been done for me. I can give this freely because it has been freely given to me. I can live this way because He lives in me." That's all it is. 

It seems so simple and yet, it takes an incredible humility. It requires that we are constantly aware of what it is that God has done and is doing in us, for us, with us, through us. It requires that we know exactly what is being poured into our lives at all times so that we can then pour it out of us. A sacramental faith requires - demands - that we be constantly aware of this inward grace, that we might show some outward sign of it.

Thus living a life that declares what it truly means to believe. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

True Christians

Yesterday, I passed a church sign that read, "Be a true Christian," and I shuddered a little bit because that's exactly what I've been trying to talk about in this space this week. Be a "true" Christian - what does that even mean?

Most of the time when we say something like that, we've got an image in our heads of what that looks like, and that image is usually based on external appearances and observable behaviors. To put it colloquially, it means we "don't drink, dance, or smoke." Right? In some faith traditions, it means we never "dress down" - girls in skirts and boys, pressed shirts. It means we wear our crosses big and our hair bigger. It means we proudly display the callouses on our thumbs from turning the pages of our Bibles each morning. 

It means we have a strict doctrine of truth, and we're not afraid to let anyone know exactly what we think about things, including them and their lifestyle. Being a "true" Christian to a lot of people means having truth down to a science.

And, by the way, it also means that we don't actually believe in "science."

All of these things that we use to demonstrate to the world, or maybe just to other Christians who have the same ideas, that we are "true" Christians - we're the ones who know, we're the ones who've got it "right," we're the ones who understand what it means to have faith in this world - but not one of these things says anything about our hearts.

And Jesus says it's our hearts that demonstrate our faith.

I think, though, that we can go too far the other way with this, as well. We can think that being a "true" Christian is all about grace - it's about doing the things that Jesus would do, the countercultural kinds of things that our world would never think of. Being a "true" Christian in this sense means that we eat with sinners, that we touch lepers, that we fellowship with felons. Being a "true" Christian means we grow our hair long and wear sandals and relax the rules because rules don't really matter much. It's not a science; it's an art, and we're all just trying to be artists.

But even that doesn't say anything about our hearts. And again, Jesus says it's our hearts that demonstrate our faith.

See, it's possible for us to live truth or to offer grace without loving Jesus, and loving Jesus is what it means to be a "true" Christian.

That's all it is. If you want to be a Christian in this world, a "true" Christian, all you have to do is love Jesus. Really love Him. That's it. 

What does that look like? Well, that's a bit trickier. It looks like something different in different situations and for different persons. It's always going to be an outpouring of an individual heart, a unique heart that is fixed on Him. It doesn't always mean that we don't drink, dance, or smoke, or that we wear skirts or pressed shirts. It doesn't always mean that we have all the answers. It doesn't always mean that we eat with sinners or touch lepers or grow our hair long. 

It just means that we live out of the depth of love that we have, and whatever that looks like, it shouldn't be hard to figure out. No matter how it seems, anyone ought to be looking at us and seeing, first and foremost, above all things, that we love Jesus. That much should be clear. Whatever they are, whatever we do, however we live them, our lives should be abundantly clear in that regard - they should be outward signs of an inward grace. 

And in that sense, they should guessed it.... 

(More tomorrow)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Cult Following

At this point, most of us are sort of looking around, wondering if someone else is going to ask the question or if we're going to have to. And that question is this: if we, as Christians, go around talking about this awesome Guy we know who has long hair, wears sandals, eats with sinners, and has some amazing thoughts about love and grace, well...isn't that kind a....cult?

Yeah. Kinda.

We've heard a lot about these kinds of movements. Some charismatic leader shows up and promises people the world if only they'll come and live with him in his compound, throw all their resources into his bank account (you know, for community purposes and so forth), and wear the uniform. It's the kind of stuff nightmares (and some rather captivating television dramas...and documentaries) are made of. 

It seems to always lead to something like Waco. Or Jonestown. A whole lot of people drinking the Kool-Aid. I have to be honest and think that sometimes, I think about these sorts of things when we're taking Communion, and I can't help but laugh. 

To an outsider looking in, there's not much difference between Jesus and these other guys. It's easy to think that one day, the curtain will be lifted and Jesus will be revealed as just another fraud.

But there are some fundamental differences between Jesus and these other guys. There are some things that make Him stand out as not just another cult leader, as not just some charismatic character to be blindly bought into and followed. 

First, most of these charismatic leaders require their followers to move onto their property. They build whole towns cut off from the rest of the world, complete with their own schools and stores and security forces. Jesus never did that. Jesus sent His disciples out into the world. He told them to go to the world's schools and stores and not to worry about security. In Jesus's community, the worst thing you can do is separate yourself. You've got to be a part of the unfolding revelation, not apart from it. 

Second, Jesus doesn't require you to give any more than He's given. He's not asking you to live with nothing so that He can have everything; He's given everything for your sake. You're never going to see that with a real cult leader. He may smooth-talk and convince his followers that he's giving up something for them, but it's all smoke and mirrors. For Jesus, it was all blood and nails. That's legit. 

Third, Jesus doesn't clothe His followers in some pretentious garb or some bland uniform meant to make them distinctive somehow. No, He strips His disciples naked. Bare bones. Just the basics. That may sound more sinister, but it's really not. The cult says you need something to mark you so that people know who you are; the Christ says you need nothing else to be known, for you bear on you the image of God. You should wear it without shame. 

The cult depersonalizes; the Christ radically differentiates. You are who you are for a reason, for a unique purpose to bring about God's glory in this world.

So does it sound kind of like a cult? Yeah, kind of. But Jesus is no simple charismatic; He's the Christ. There's never been one like Him, and there never will be again. He's the real deal, no simple passing fad, and I promise you this adventure doesn't end at the bottom of a glass of sugar water.

It begins with an offering of Living Water.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


If we cannot convict unbelievers into coming to Jesus (since conviction is the job of the Holy Spirit alone), we must turn our efforts to convincing them of the greatness of our Friend and Savior. We must no longer waste our energies on condemning the sin in sinners' lives, but on sharing with them the love, grace, and goodness of Jesus, who we love so dearly.

The trouble is that for most of us, our love of Jesus is unconvincing. Primarily because it doesn't seem either deep or real.

Ask most Christians what they love about Jesus, and they will tell you that they love His grace. They love that He saved them from the depths of Hell by becoming an atoning sacrifice for them on the Cross. They will tell you that what they most love about Jesus is that He promises them Heaven. Which is all well and good, I suppose, but what about earth?

This is what the disciples knew so well that we seem to have completely lost - they knew that Jesus came not just for final redemption, but for redeeming friendship. Ask the disciples what they love about Jesus, and you get a far different answer from the one we usually give.

Ask the disciples, and they will tell you that they love the way Jesus laughed. They love the way that His eyes danced with joy when the Holy Spirit overtook Him. Ask the disciples, and they will tell you that they love the way that Jesus could speak with tender grace and biting truth all in the same tongue. Ask the disciples, and they will tell you that Jesus cooked a really mean fish dish.

Ask the disciples, and they will tell you about Jesus's power, the way all He had to do was speak a word and the demons fled. The way that He spoke to deaf ears and they heard. The way that He gestured to blind eyes and they saw. Ask the disciples, and they will tell you about His faithfulness. Not just the way that He always did what He said He would do, but about how He made it a point to study the Scriptures, to go to the synagogue, to make offerings to God.

Ask the disciples, and they will tell you a story of the living Jesus. Ask most Christians today, and they will tell you only of the dying one. 

See, that's the difference. That's what makes the Gospels such a vibrant story, one that's so easy for us to find ourselves drawn into. That's what makes us love the Jesus described there in a way that we just don't enthusiastically love the one we spend most of our lives talking about. The Gospels invite us to love a Lord with a heartbeat. They invite us to see Him living, loving, moving about, walking on the streets of Galilee, eating at tables, praying in real gardens, speaking with a real voice. 

That's what our faith is missing. That's what our witness is missing. The greatest thing we could do for an unbeliever is to invite them to fall in love with a living Lord, but we're far too busy preaching Christ crucified to realize how completely unconvincing that is to a world longing for more. The Christ on the Cross, without the baby in the manger, is no better than any other statue, any other idol. And the world sees right through our idolatry.

It's why they shake their heads at us. It's why they turn away. We claim to love this Jesus, but we've made Him both silent and stationary, forever hanging on a Cross, forever crucified, when even the unbelieving world knows that the story of Jesus is far more dynamic than this. Even the unbelieving world is waiting for us to say just one living thing about this Jesus, and most Christians can't seem to find the words.

If we want a faith that's convincing, if we want a love that's real, we have to do what the disciples did and talk about the Jesus who lives among us just as much, if not more, than the one who died for us. We have to talk about earth as much as we talk about Heaven. We have to have a friend not for tomorrow, but for today. 

We have to learn to speak a vibrant testimony of a living God. We have to become real disciples.

Monday, June 5, 2017


For much of the modern history of the church, there has been a tension between believers and unbelievers, particularly as relates to the practice of evangelism. For a long time, evangelism was done with fire and brimstone, with the preaching of Hell and a clear theology of sin. We, as the church, seem to have always thought that we could never "win" souls unless we showed them their emptiness, showed them their need.

How else could the world come to God except to know how desperately they need Him?

But this requires us to be able to do something we were never meant to do, something we have not been given the power to do - convict. It's required us to step in and speak truth and pass judgment and hand down verdicts. It's required us to tell unbelievers exactly where they are wrong, not just in some general sense, but in a way that they would understand their own error and desire to turn from it. We have thought that it was our job to bring unbelievers to their "aha" moment so that we could then bring them to God. 

As history painfully shows, we've never been good at this.

What we've done instead is to further alienate the world. For every soul that may have been convicted by our Bible-thumping doctrine of damnation, there are a thousand souls who felt only condemned. They heard the judgment in our voices, but not the promise. They heard the arrogance in our voices, but not the humility. They heard the "truth," but not a lot of grace. So what they heard was condemnation, not conviction, and the world has rightfully called back to us, "Who are you to judge?"

Who are we, indeed.

We are, each one of us, products of the grace that we have refused to extend to those we have not yet called brothers and sisters. We are, each one of us, the very sinners we have so easily condemned. We are, each one of us, standing in the broken places where we can feel the fire, but see the holy rain clouds gathering. 

Why is it so hard? Why is it so difficult for us to bring others to this place? Why is is that what we seem to know so well, what we live first-hand, the very pages of our own stories that we see written on the hearts of others, is so difficult to convey in a way that is meaningful? Why is it that when we speak the hard, unpopular, unwavering truth, do unbelievers come to condemnation rather than contrition? 

Simply this: no man has ever been convicted but by the Holy Spirit. 

We're trying to do something we weren't created to do. We're trying to do something we weren't called to do. We're trying to do something that's simply not in our power to do. We have never been able to convict a man because that's the Holy Spirit's job. Of course it sounds like condemnation when it comes from our lips! We speak only to men's egos, to their own sense of self; only the Spirit speaks to men's hearts. 

I think that's why Jesus said to love our enemies and to pray for them. It's all we really can do. We pray for them, that the Holy Spirit might come and work in their hearts. We pray for them, that they might come not only to recognize truth but to be embraced by it. We pray for them, that the Spirit may open their eyes where our words would only close their ears. We pray for them because we can do no more. 

All we could do is condemn them, and condemnation has never redeemed a man. 

We pray for them, not that they may be convinced of the horrors of Hell that we so passionately preach, but that they might be convicted by grace and truth, which we seem far less better at. We pray for them, not so that we have done our work, but so that the Spirit may begin His work, which He alone is suited to do.

And we pray so that they might see what our preaching never shows them....what we wanted them to see in the first place...that there is a way for man and God in this world. More on that tomorrow. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Dismissing the Darkness

There is one glaring omission from the conversation between Job and his friends. It is an omission that we know only because the story gives us more information than perhaps Job had, but it is important nonetheless:

Not one man in the book of Job mentions the tempter. 

At the outset of the book, we are told that God is in conversation with the tempter, bragging about Job's righteousness and faithfulness and permitting this dark force to mess with Job a little bit, confident that Job will never curse God, but continue to praise Him. And then as we go through the book, that's exactly what we see - Job and his friends drawing on everything that God is. Not one mention of darkness. Not one mention of evil. Not one mention of an opposing force.

Our modern theology has been playing a lot with the idea of demons and of darkness, of Satan. We're not sure really how much attention we're supposed to give him. On the one hand, we know that powers of darkness exist; they are testified to throughout the Scriptures, from Job to the Gospels, where Jesus spends what seems like a good deal of His time casting out demons. Clearly, the demonic is real. At the same time, there's just something about it that we're not that into, so we're prone to dismiss entirely any effect that darkness might be having on our light.

I don't know what Job and his friends thought about all of this. I don't know if, in the backs of their minds (as so often in the backs of ours), they thought there might be demons afoot. I don't know if they were hesitant to say anything because they didn't want to accidentally give a foothold to darkness. I don't know if any such thoughts even crossed their minds. The Bible just doesn't tell us. 

But what it does tell us is that they didn't waste their breath on it. 

Throughout the entire ordeal, throughout their entire conversation, throughout their entire theology, not one of these men mentions the powers of darkness; they focus exclusively on the goodness that they know of God. 

We would be wise to do the same.

There are some who aren't going to agree with me on that, and that's okay, but what honestly do we owe the darkness? What do we owe it? Nothing at all.

And what good does it do us to know anything about the darkness if we already know everything about the Light? (Or everything that we can know about the Light?) Job and his friends might have known there were other powers and play, but what does it matter? The powers of evil do not change the powers of Good. Satan doesn't fundamentally change who God is or how He loves. God is pure love. He always is exactly what He is, and He doesn't change.

So what good does it do us to dwell on the things that try to stand against Him when we could invest our energies in the One who stands against those things? How does it benefit us to develop a theology of Judas in the shadow of the Cross? It doesn't! And that's what Job does so well.

He doesn't know what's going on - none of them do. But He doesn't waste his time trying to figure it out, either. He knows one thing for sure, and that's the very good nature of his incredible God, and on that, he rests. On that, his friends base their counsel. Nobody's talking about what to do with demons; they're all focused on how to trust in God. 

And isn't that all we need?