Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Witness of a Woman

Women will come yet again in the story of the empty tomb. Much has been said about the worthlessness of a woman's testimony and how odd it was, indeed, that a woman would be the first witness to the resurrection. But what if a woman was there because of the image she represented - the same image she has represented throughout all of Scripture - the covenantal people of God?

We have no reason to believe that the women who first witnessed the tomb were in any way unfaithful women; in fact, we are plainly told that they had gone to the tomb to properly prepare Jesus's body, which had not undergone the customary burial rituals of the Jewish people because of the late hour of the Sabbath approaching.

And in fact, these women are shown as particularly faithful because the Scriptures attest that they said to the only breathing being they could find, "I am looking for my Lord. Do you know where they have put Him?"

It's so easy for us to want to get modernly political with these narratives of women at the tomb, saying how radical it is that Jesus would have His greatest miracle - His own resurrection - attested to by the lowliest of society. Saying how forward-thinking the disciples must have been to include such a countercultural thread in their narratives, giving authority even to women! Saying how this alone shows equality between men and women or illustrates so well Paul's point that in Christ, there is no male nor female, or any other number of gender war-fueled narratives that have clouded our minds on these sorts of issues.

But there's nothing radical here. Rather, there is only something faithful.

Throughout His Word, God has referred to His people as His bride. Throughout His Word, He has held Israel as His "she." Throughout His Word, the image of His people has been the image of a woman. Just because in the story of Jesus, the women happen to have actual flesh and actual breasts does not make them any less of a symbol for what God has been saying all along: it is His people who are His witness.

Look again at what's happening with the women at the tomb. They have come to do the ceremonially-necessary thing and anoint the body of Jesus according to proper custom. This is a reflection of the ritual/purity covenant that exists between God and His people. They are troubled to not find what they were certain would be there and express in plain word their searching for their Lord. This is a reflection of Israel's constant seeking after Him. And indeed, if she had not been searching, no one ever would have noticed a newborn in a manger, star or no star.

And in so coming to the manger, they bear a powerful truth: it ain't over 'til it's over.

It looks like it's over. He looks like He's dead. But the covenant is not yet fulfilled. The duties are not yet complete. When they come to anoint the body, they are saying there is still an obligation left to be fulfilled. The people of God are still indebted to what He has done, still bound by His promise...still drawn by His promise. There's an ongoing something here that doesn't end at darkness, and that's amazingly important. Vital, even.

Without the testimony of the women, without the witness of God's faithful people, we just don't get that. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Making a Scene

Women continue to show up in the story of Jesus in surprising, unexpected ways. We have been looking at this unfaithful woman for a couple of days and reimagining her story through the lens of covenantal unfaithfulness, but look at some of the other women who help to illustrate precisely the same point. 

There is the sinful woman who comes into Simon's house and anoints Jesus's head and/or feet with oil, rubbing expensive perfume into His flesh with her long hair. And everyone knows she's a whore. It's simply no secret. But what if she's not just a whore, but an image of the people of God - as women so often were throughout the Scriptures - and in this scene, she illustrates powerfully what Israel will do for this Jesus, this Messiah?

Jesus knew all along that He could never be known were it not for the witness of Israel, who, up to this point, has not been particularly stellar at such witnessing. Every time she seems to show something favorable of God to the surrounding nations, she just as quickly turns her back and becomes a disappointment yet again. A discouragement. A laughing stock.

Just look at how many times the leaders and prophets had to plead with God not to give Israel what she deserved because of how it would negatively reflect on Him, proving, perhaps, exactly what He was trying to demonstrate all along by recruiting a faithful people to be His witness to the world.

Now, we've got another unfaithful (sinful) woman in the picture and she's basically crashed this party. She's come into a house where she wasn't invited, walked straight into the center of everything, and made a spectacle of herself. Meanwhile, the homeowner and host of this shindig has failed to recognize even the most basic dignity of Jesus as a guest, let alone as a Messiah, and there doesn't appear to be much going on in the way of nudging Him to do anything Messiah-like.

Just the guys. Hanging out. Or whatever.

A few Pharisees here, a couple of commoners there, and this party is the epitome of all things chill, all things relaxed. It's pretty cool that Jesus decided to come to this house and hang out for awhile. It's pretty neat that He'd pick this group to spend His evening with. Nobody's that interested in rocking the boat by making it overtly religious or anything.

Except, of course, the woman.

She is the voice of Israel crying out in this moment. Sinful as she is, she cannot let this moment pass without doing something to demonstrate the true nature of the Son of God who graces them with His presence. And why?

It is an echo of what Jesus has said all along - that He has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. In other words, the testimony of even unfaithful Israel is absolutely vital to His mission. Without her witness, you would never know He was coming and you certainly could not recognize Him once He got here.

So this sinful woman barges in, busts open a flask of the most valuable oil she can find and anoints the Savior before His crucifixion. Because for all the things that Israel got wrong, for all the times she went astray, for every term of the covenant she failed to live up to and every witness she neglected to make, she's got one thing right: this is Him.

And it's important enough to make a spectacle of it. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


So let's reimagine this story of Jesus and the sinful woman with the understanding that this is not actually about sex, but about covenantal fidelity and the people of God. 

There is a sense that a "loose" woman in those days might possibly be held accountable for what she entices a man to do, but that's not present in this narrative; the Pharisees drag her before Jesus for her own unfaithfulness, not for what she convinced a man - who is nowhere to be seen - to do with her. She is not even accused of being a loose woman in the way that we would expect; she is just a woman caught in the act of unfaithfulness.

If you listen close, you can almost hear the Pharisee's question ring out with the same indignation with which they have asked Jesus in other places why His disciples don't fast and how they can possibly fathom eating without washing their hands. Tenderly, He has explained to them the nuances of love, which they have all but lost in the cut-and-dried nature of the law that they hold so fast to. Gently, He will do so again.

He bends down and starts doodling in the dirt, and I think it's because He wants them all to just stand there for a minute. He wants them to see the way that the unfaithful woman stands - hypervigilant to the presence of those who would condemn her, one hopeful eye on the One who could redeem her. There stand the experts, the high and mighty, the haughty, looking impatiently at Him. There stands the caught, the unfaithful, the sinner, looking tearfully at Him. He wants them to feel the tension in this moment.

And then He tears it wide open. Those who would condemn are being condemned. Those who have exposed the sin of another are being exposed. And they cannot bear it. One by one, they turn and walk away. Sullen. Silent. Sulking. This was not the plan. This was not the request. They wanted to see Him do one holy thing and condemn the lawbreaker, the covenant-defier, the unfaithful, but He has condemned only them, the experts, the hypocrites.

This is such an interesting and beautiful moment. By the time He looks up from the dust on the ground, all that remains is the unfaithful woman. The one person in all of this who had the most interest in turning away, in running away, in getting away is the only one who remains, and it doesn't sound like she has any intention of going anywhere. Her eyes still plead with Him for one ounce of mercy, one token of vindication. Something, anything that will tell her that something holy is happening here. 

And it happens. This man, who should never be talking to a woman, particularly not alone; this covenant-keeper, who should have nothing to do with this covenant-breaker; faith personified, who should be at least weary, if not wary, of this unfaithful woman, attends to her with the fullest measure of both mercy and grace, tenderness and dignity. 

Because what's really happening here is what all Israel needs to know - no matter how unfaithful you've been as the people of God, everything has changed right here, right now, as God Himself kneels in the dirt beside you. The very presence of God in the person of Jesus changes what unfaithful means. 

And it is demonstrated clearly in this one - this one so-called unfaithful woman - who cannot turn away, even though she has every earthly reason to do so. 

But we're not done. Oh, no - not by a long shot. Stay tuned.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Sinful Woman

There is a scene in the Gospels where a sinful woman, caught in the act of adultery, is brought before Jesus. And to most of us, this seems like a powerful scene centered on the nature of sexual sin, a real Sermon-on-the-Mount moment where Jesus has the chance to practice what He's preached (namely, that even lust is adultery and that sexual sin is intolerable). 

But what if the scene that unfolds here is not about sex at all?

One of the fundamental rules regarding biblical interpretation is that it's at least worth considering how images and ideas are used throughout the rest of the Scriptures when we come across them in one place or another. And throughout the Scriptures, the "unfaithful woman" we see is Israel herself, the people of God who have broken the covenant of relationship with Him. Over and over again, the image of the sinful woman is used to convict Israel of her sin, which is not sexual, but relational. Just think of Hosea and Gomer, where God ordered His prophet to marry one of these unfaithful women as an image of His love for His people. Or the way that Rahab the prostitute stood in contrast to the unfaithful spies (and later becomes part of Jesus's genealogy). Or even how Judah fails to keep his covenant duty and is convicted by Tamar herself as she poses as a prostitute. It's not about sex; it's never about sex. 

It's always about covenant.

And really, even here in this Gospel scene, that's not that far of a stretch. It's the Pharisees who bring this woman before Jesus. And even though we know the Pharisees had a thing for trying to trap Jesus, particularly as regarded definition of sin and law, it would be quite an aberration to see them concerned with sexual sin here. It's uncharacteristic of them. These are the guys, remember, who cornered Jesus on the way His disciples washed their hands (or not). These are the ones who couldn't believe He would touch an unclean man. The emphasis of the Pharisees has always been on ritual purity, relational purity with the covenant of God. They never bring forth a thief. Or a murderer. Or a liar. Why would they bring an adulteress if not for the covenantal nature of her crime?

While we're on it, notice here that they bring a woman. Women were of lesser status in those times, even under the covenantal law of God. We are told of sinful women a few times in the Gospels, but by and large, the Scriptural witness is that if you're bringing a sinner before the community, you're bringing a man. Women were men's property, not agents of their own free will, so whatever you might consider a woman guilty of, it would actually have been the man's responsibility. 

And if this particular woman is caught in adultery, then the question we've all been asking since we first read this story is a poignant one: where is the man? The law would have centered on him if this were a story about sexual sin. The Pharisees would have dragged him to Jesus, and for many reasons. The law was more pertinent to him than to her. Whatever Jesus would have to say to him would be more easily understood as speaking to the nature of the law itself than whatever He would say to the woman. Everything about this screams that if it were a matter of sexual sin, it would have been the man who features front and center.

But here stands the woman. 

It changes the way that we see this story if it's not, after all, about sex. If we re-interpret this passage through the lens of covenantal infidelity the way that all other stories of unfaithful women in Scripture are interpreted, then it says something different about...well, about everything.  

Friday, August 25, 2017


Most of us Christians want to know what that day is going to be like when we enter death and then are brought back to life to stand before our Lord and King, resurrected into something new and wonderful. 

Well, I don't know. Sorry. 

But I do have some thoughts based loosely on my earthly experiences, of which death and resurrection are not so distant possibilities. 

I could have died this week. That's not hyperbole. That's not a stretch of the imagination. And it's not the first time. I try not to talk much about my personal life on this blog because what I want you to see in this space is God, but I hope that as I share this particular story that you will see Him in an important and powerful way. 

On Wednesday night, I went into anaphylactic shock. For nearly three hours, emergency room staff worked diligently just to get the reaction to stop so that my body could start coming out of it. (At this point, I should say that I live with a condition that causes anaphylactic reactions, which can occur at essentially any time for essentially any reason and sometimes for no reason at all. Most of the time, this is manageable with the tools that my medical team has given me, and trips to the ER are very rare. Wednesday was one of those rare days.)

Once I'm that out of control, there's not a lot that I can do, and darkness comes to settle over me like a heavy cloud. There's usually at least one person in the room whose job it is to try to talk to me, to try to keep me engaged, but the vast majority can only talk about me. I can hear them. "Can she....? No, she can't do that right now. Is she...? Yes...." And there's this very real sense of a world at a distance, an entire group of people who are trying to hold on at the same time they are letting go. 

Hours later, there comes this moment - this moment where it's finally going to be okay. And it's always the same moment. It's always hilariously, beautifully the same moment. It comes with a deep breath, a little smile, and tremendous joy as this person, these persons, who have worked so hard to keep you alive welcome you back to the realm of the living. I still remember thirteen years ago when it was a male doctor standing at the foot of my bed, putting his clipboard down after more than 8 long hours of my own unconsciousness, relieved to be able to look at me again. This past week, it was the moment when the doctor who had been treating me didn't stop at the curtain, but came fully into the room and stood next to me. Smiling. Breathing. Elated. 

If you've seen Apollo 13, you know this moment. It's the moment when the capsule is re-entering the atmosphere and the crew goes into this long communicative blackout and everyone in mission control is holding their breath for what turns out to be a lot longer than any of them had anticipated. And then, there's this little crackle - just a little static - but it's essentially the best noise in all the world. Yeah, death and life - it's that moment. 

It's this kind of moment that I imagine that resurrection must be like. Not just in the way that death and darkness are lifted, which is incredible in and of itself, but in the way that all of a sudden, we see God face-to-face. And this Lord, this God, this Creator who has invested so much, so very, very much, in saving us sees His work pay off. He sees it worth it. Right before His very eyes. And we see in His eyes just how hard it was, just how grueling, just how emotionally taxing and existentially exhausting. But He's smiling. Breathing. Elated. 

He pulls back the curtain, puts down the clipboard, steps into the room, which doesn't feel as ominous or dark or heavy as it once did, and He simply says, Welcome back. 

Welcome Home.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Good News

At the end of the book of 1 Samuel, King Saul finally dies, years after God has sworn that He would remove the kingship from the unfaithful man and give it to David, a man after His own heart. In fact, the anointing has already been shifted. 

So at the beginning of 2 Samuel, an Amalekite runs to find David where he is hiding with his men and deliver the news that Saul and his son, Jonathan, are dead and that David can finally step into his rightful places as Israel's king. And the Amalekite tells an interesting story about how this all went down.

Essentially, the Amalekite takes credit for killing Saul, saying that he found the king wounded and begging for mercy, so he rammed a sword through the injured king. The Amalekite thought that this would be good news for David and that his faithful, heroic effort in killing the disfavored king would bring him good fortune with the Lord's anointed.

Instead, David kills him for his so-called "good news." 

And the most tragic part of this entire story is that the Amalekite's story wasn't the truth.

Turn back to the end of 1 Samuel, and we see that Saul was, indeed, injured and that he did, indeed, beg for his armorbearer to kill him so that he would not suffer the indignity of having been killed in battle, but the armorbearer refused to do so out of reverence for the Lord's choosing of Saul in the first place, so Saul fell on his own sword and killed himself. No Amalekite anywhere to be seen.

So why did the Amalekite take credit for something he didn't do? Simply put, he thought it would be good news to the king. And hey, if the king is going to be happy, he might as well be happy with the Amalekite. Right?

It's the trap we fall into all the time, even about important things. Even about holy things. We tell others what we think they'll be happy to hear. We share with them what we're pretty sure is good news. And more often than not, we spin the story just a little bit so that we get a measure of the credit for it. So that we come off looking good.

We usually come off looking bad.

It's what happens when we sit around with our friends and neighbors, telling them about all the wonderful things we've involved in with our church, while we all drink beers, curse, gossip about mutual acquaintances, and make dirty jokes. We tell them the good news - there's this guy named Jesus, and He died for you. And then we tell them the great news, manifest in our own life, that being a Christian really isn't all that hard. In fact, you don't have to change anything at all. That's what Jesus is for. 

Then they read the Gospel for themselves, they see what it's all about, and our great news isn't even good any more. Know why? Because we're nothing but hypocrites. That's why. Because we've twisted the message of the story that's been plainly told in order to come off better in it, and it's damaged everything. We don't come off good. Jesus doesn't come off good. And our friends, who were willing at least to give Jesus a chance, now turn away from Him entirely, discouraged and disgusted by what we were sure was what they wanted to hear. 

Sound familiar? It's happening all the time. And it's driving a sword right through the heart of the Christian faith as God intended it. No wonder the church is struggling. No wonder the church is mocked. We've taken good news, tried to turn it into great news (so that, you know, we get the credit we deserve for being who we are), and it's become nothing but bad news - for the world, for the church, for us. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Plan

So we're working our way through this narrative of Moses and Aaron to where Joshua and Eleazar take over, and the story seems to make this subtle shift, but it's not much of a shift at all. The idea that a man would be accountable to both God and His people is as old as, well, the very beginning.

Every time God calls someone to be accountable to Him, it is for the sake of much more than just that person. From the very time of Abraham, God is already making it clear that His relationship with this one particular man is intended to be a part of God's plan for "the nations" - not just Abraham, not just his children, not just his grandchildren, but everyone's children. God's children.

When God is speaking through the prophets about what He's going to to do the nations or with the nations or because of the nations, it's for the sake of...the nations. See, even though Israel is God's chosen people, all the peoples of the earth are God's peoples, and He says so again and again. And everything He does through Israel, everything He does through the prophets, everything He does through the priests, everything He does through the leaders is for the sake of the peoples.

Which means at every turn, the men and women God has called to be accountable to Himself have been so for the sake of the people, which makes them accountable for the people, too. 

It is just as He told the prophet - "Suppose that I tell you to tell these people how to be My people and you don't do it. Well, then you are responsible for what happens to them." You're accountable to them because you're accountable to Him. You're not accountable to Him for your own sake. 

Even in the New Testament, it's the same deal. Same pattern. Jesus picks twelve men to travel with Him, minister with Him, pray with Him. Why? For the sake of those twelve men? Of course not. (At least, not only.) It is for the sake of the people. Jesus has made them accountable to Him so that they can be accountable for the people. 

Paul talks about the necessity of having preachers, persons to take the message of Christ into the world. They can't believe if they don't hear, and how can they hear unless someone speaks to them? How can they know truth unless someone preaches it? Again, you have not been called merely for your own sake, but for the sake of the people. 

You are accountable to God in order to be accountable for His people. 

Over and over and over again, this is the pattern. And it smacks in the face of a modern Christianity that is fairly convinced that the whole Jesus thing was all about "me." That God comes to the world one by one by one and that whatever He's doing in my life is for my own sake. 

That's not what God has ever been about. It's not how He's ever operated. We see plainly in the testimony of Moses and Aaron what happens when we start to think that way - we spend our time on the mountain and forget about the camp. And then our knee-jerk reaction to such a paradigm shift is to say that if God has called us for His people, then maybe we shouldn't be on the mountain at all. And then we end up smelting calves out of earrings. It doesn't work. It's not tenable. And it's certainly not holy. 

We're accountable to each other. A royal priesthood, we're accountable to each other so that we never forget that our calling is held in tension between God and His people. We're called into that gap. We're called to be that bridge. May we never forget that. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Tension

This subtle shift that we see between the orientation of the priests and the leaders between Moses and Aaron and Joshua and Eleazar could not be more important for us as a royal priesthood because it is precisely the tension that we still feel. 

As we talk about what it means to be the people God has called us to be in the world, there are still voices that boldly declare that our allegiance is only to God. That, like Moses, we are called to meet Him on the mountain. That, like Moses, we make authoritative declarations about the ways that persons should live, and the mere fact that this comes from God should be enough for them. 

Recently, I read a book - a book published this year - that called for Christians to retreat from the world into monastic communities where we can live the way that God intended for us to live, where we can answer to God alone and be accountable to God alone. The author argued that if we do this right, others should want to join us on the mountain, but there is essentially no reason at all why we should concern ourselves with going back out into the camp. This world is corrupt, and we need no part of it. 

That's a bold statement (and one that I don't think is at all in line with what Jesus would have us do). 

On the other hand, there are many churches that are right now wrestling with what it means to be relevant to the world, and they are coming up with a lot of plans and ideas and even doctrines that are pleasing to the cultural current. We are surrounded by Christians who are so concerned with bringing people to the edge of the mountain that they're willing to make golden calves to do it. They spend an overwhelming amount of their time in the camp, and they've forgotten there's anything holy about the mountain at all. 

Somewhere, it has become a mark of Christian pride that the world wouldn't even notice that we're Christians if we didn't tell them so. It's become vogue that we blend in to such a degree that it would shock our friends and neighbors to learn that we're people of faith. I mean, we seem so "normal."

That's a bold statement, too (and one that I don't think is at all in line with what Jesus would have us do).

So the tension that we see with Moses and Aaron is a tension that we're still living. Like Moses, we're tempted to run to the mountain and to speak with authority about what men should do, having all but forgotten what life is really like in the camp. Like Aaron, we're tempted to roam the camp and answer to the people, having forgotten that there is something holy happening on the mountain. 

When Joshua is anointed and given to Eleazar, and when Eleazar is told of his accountability to Joshua, this changes the dynamic for both men in a way that is vitally important to who we are and what we do as a people of God. We have a duty to both God and men. We have a place on the mountain and in the camp. We have an authority and a sociality, neither of which should be denied or forsaken or abandoned. 

And actually, if we broaden that idea out a little bit, we'll see that that's how God always intended His people to live. That was His plan all along. (Stay tuned.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Priests

Throughout the Exodus and the events leading from Israel's slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, the biblical text spends a great deal of its time talking about Moses, even though Moses himself would probably have objected to that idea, claiming he was not much of a man and that God should have sent someone else. 

In fact, that's essentially what Moses said when God told him to go in the first place. The whole idea was so objectionable to Moses that he begs God to try something else. God gives in and gives Moses his brother, Aaron, gives Israel her first priest, and gives us one of the most major lesser-known characters in all of Scripture.

Read closely through the Mosaic testimonies, and you'll see just how much Aaron is front and center. Moses goes up the mountain, sure, but the people aren't looking for him; they're looking at Aaron, wondering what their next move is. It's Aaron's staff that's placed among the twelve to sprout and grow and to prove God's favor on the Aaronic family. It is Aaron who lifts his hands and delivers the priestly blessing over the people, a benediction that is still copied today. It is Aaron who offers the sacrifices, Aaron who makes atonement for Israel's sin.

Moses meets with God, but it is Aaron who meets the people. 

It's easy to read right past this because so much emphasis is on Moses in these stories, but this is so important. And I don't think we can truly understand what this means until both brothers - Moses and Aaron - are dead. 

Fast forward to Numbers 27 where God is preparing Moses to die. Aaron is already dead by this point, succeeded by his son, Eleazar, as priest over the people. (And we don't know much about him, either. Watch how he gets kind of drawn into the background in the same way.) God's drawing Moses to the mountain yet again, this time to look out over the Promised Land that he'll never inherit, and he is to take Joshua with him. There on the mountain, he will transfer his power, position, and leadership to Joshua. God says that Moses will give his authority to his successor. 

But look at what that means for Joshua. He will stand in front of the priest Eleazar, who will use the Urim to make decisions in the Lord's presence. At his command Joshua and the whole community of Israel will go into battle. And at his command they will return. (Num. 27:21)

Did you catch that? Moses, the man we've been drawn to believe is the leader of all Israel, the one we think is calling the shots, is giving his authority to a worthy warrior, a skilled leader, who will take all of his cues from the priest, the son of Aaron who now stands in the Most Holy Place. 

This is a tremendous shift. At the beginning of Moses's story, when God provides him a helper, God plainly says that Moses will speak to God, then Moses will speak to Aaron and will tell Aaron what to say. We know this is how it worked for some time, although we also see the sin that crept in with this arrangement: Moses spent all his time with God, Aaron started speaking on his own. 

It's all too easy to do, really - Aaron got so drawn in to what he was doing for the people that it just seemed natural to roll with it. He started making it up as he went, taking his cues from those who were responding to him. Moses spent so much time on the mountain that he forgot what the desert felt like. Every time he went back down to the people, he was frustrated by them. Every. single. time.

What happens when Moses transfers his authority to Joshua, who must stand before the priest Eleazar, is that God is essentially eliminating this dichotomous leadership. He's bringing the divergent paths together in both men - the priest and the leader. The priest now cannot simply minister to the people; he is also responsible for seeking God. The leader now cannot simply move on God's Word; it has to come to him through God's priest, a person. In this way, both men - both positions - become accountable at both extremes. Both have a responsibility to God and to Israel. 

It's one of those things we have to read backward to really understand. We have to read from Joshua and Eleazar back to Moses and Aaron to see what wasn't working and how the new structure is a corrective to the old one. And the moral of the story is quite clear:

We cannot spend all of our time on the mountain, nor can we spend it in the camp. Our lives, our holy lives, our royal priesthood, requires both. Our leadership requires both. 

And should we need any further evidence of that, we need look no further than the Great High Priest Himself, Jesus Christ, who met with God on the mountain and covered His feet in Galilean dust. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Way He Died

So how is it that the thief displayed a faith that the disciples could only long for, that the thief seemed to know more than the men who spent years following Jesus in His ministry? How is it that the thief was able to say more than most of us today know in two simple words: Remember me?

It's because the thief was privy to a moment that the disciples turned away from, that we shy away from.

The thief saw the way that Jesus died.

The disciples were more interested in the way that Jesus lived. They spent three years of their lives following Him around, watching the way that He lived, loved, forgave, healed, spoke, touched, and prayed. These were the things that were important to them, and they were trying desperately to follow this example. This is what they thought that it was all about.

This is what we think that it's all about. We spend our Christian lives trying to live the way that Jesus lived - loving, forgiving, healing, speaking, touching, and praying the way that Jesus prayed. We look into the Gospels for an example and break down the story of Jesus into its smallest parts so that we get just about everything right that we possibly can. Just look around you in the world at what Christians are proclaiming, at what they are expecting of themselves, at what the world is expecting of them - the foundation of our faith today seems to be living as Jesus lived. What would Jesus do?

When it comes time for the Cross, the disciples turn away. We've already looked at that. Peter is gone, having denied Jesus three times in the courtyard. Unable even to lift his own head, he cannot bear to watch his Lord lifted up. Judas is gone, dead in a field of blood. John is there, but more as a comfort to Mary than a witness to Jesus; his focus is elsewhere. And nine disciples are completely unaccounted for. They are unable to bear the gruesome way that this story is coming to an end, so no one is there to see their Savior die.

And us? When we talk about the crucifixion, what do we talk about? We talk about the horrible things that we did to Him. We talk about the beating, about the blood. We talk about the crown of thorns and the beads of sweat. We talk about the excruciating pain that the nails would have caused. We talk about the vinegar on the end of the stick, and we talk about the thieves on either side of Him. We talk about the crucifixion, but we do not talk about the Christ.

That's what the thief had that all the rest of us seem to have missed. He's the only one in all this story who is watching Jesus die. He's the only one looking past the tears, into the eyes of the Savior. He's the only one looking past the blood and watching the heartbeat. He's the only one who bears witness of how Jesus died. Not that He died; that much we know. But how He died.

And when the thief sees the way that Jesus is dying, he begs, Remember me. For truly, this is the Son of God.

For all the talk we do of the crucifixion, for all the time we spend at the hill, we would be wise to - at least every now and then - look up at the Cross. There's something beautiful happening there, something that's all too easy to miss, something that's vital to our faith. It is our Lord. Truly, this is the Son of God.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Remember Me

An interesting scene unfolds as Jesus hangs dying on the Cross. It takes place when the thief turns to Jesus and begins to recognize, in this amazing profession of faith, who He actually is. 

Let's start by recognizing that there is no shortage of rumors about who this Jesus character is. Everyone's heard of Him, even the Roman guards who are charged with crucifying Him. To varying degrees, almost everyone around Jerusalem considers His story in one way or another. Maybe He's a great teacher. Maybe He's a prophet. Maybe He's John the Baptist come back to life. Maybe He's a lunatic. Everyone has their opinion, their thoughts, their theory. So it's not much of a stretch that the thieves seem to have heard about Him. 

But at this point, it seems that most, if not all, have given up on Him. They can't bear to watch the crucifixion. They haven't all gathered at the foot of the Cross. His mother is there, weeping. And one of His friends, John, is with her, but it's hard to say whether John has come willingly or reluctantly, whether his support, at this point, is more for the man or for the mother. The other disciples? We have no idea where they are.

Peter denied Jesus three times in the courtyard. It's safe to say he probably cannot bear to be at the hill, hanging his head in shame as his Lord hangs His body crucified. Judas has already hanged himself in the field. There are nine disciples then unaccounted for, and we're left to wonder what these men who gave up everything to follow Jesus are doing with themselves. 

Maybe everyone is just holding their breath, disciples and devotees and detractors alike, waiting to see what happens next. They're probably all expecting some miracle, some phenomenal act of God that will blow that Cross to smithereens and bring Jesus safely down off of it. The words that He said about three days...they don't even understand, they don't know. But something has to happen, right? So maybe everyone is just hunkered down, waiting for Jesus to come back to them. You know, less bloody and stuff.

And then, this thief....

And then, this thief looks at Jesus as they both feel the life slowly draining out of them, and he says something for which we often praise him, but have we stopped to consider this at all? "Remember me," he says. "Remember me." 

It's an odd scene, to say the least. One dying man looks into the eyes of another and says, "Remember me." Remember you? Remember you for what? Any other dying man might be indignant. I'm dying here. You're dying there. You want me to remember you? For what? For that whole five minutes longer than you that I might live? For another couple of hours? 

It just doesn't make a lot of sense, on the surface of it. And even if we turn it over to the cultural idea (which has existed in some form since the beginning of time in various places and peoples) that the dead can somehow advocate for the living, it's absurd even in this understanding for the dead to give themselves to the dead. That's not how the belief works. One man never says to the other, "Let's meet up in the afterlife for the benefit of my having lived." 

So what we're left with, then, is perhaps the boldest statement of faith in all the Gospels, and most of us miss that. Peter said there's no way Jesus would ever need to die, that he would defend his Teacher to the death. And then denied Him. John calls himself "the one Jesus loved," and he's there, at the Cross, but he's comforting the soon-to-be-grieving mother. He, too, thinks that death is the end. Judas has hanged himself because he's just given an innocent man over to death and thus ended the ministerial journey of Jesus, or so he thinks. Nine other disciples simply cannot be accounted for. They cannot watch this Man that they've given their lives to die this way, and they're already worried about what His death says for them. Are they next? Are they fools? Is there any life they can go back to? 

For the twelve most faithful men in Jesus' story, the story is over. But for this thief, this criminal, this convict, it's only just beginning. Remember me. From one dying man to another, Remember me. 

Man, that's incredible. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Love Wins

Since we're talking about this sort of thing, I think it bears mentioning that there seems to be a culture war going on right now over what, exactly, is "love." It's more than just sexual orientation; this word is being thrown around in all sorts of contexts where what it means is something radically different than what Jesus meant by it. 

When the Supreme Court of the United States granted legal rights to homosexual marriage, a loud roar erupted and declared, "Love wins!" When a homosexual actor or actress "comes out" at some major event, there's that scream again - "Love wins!" But it's more than just that. Talk to attendees at a protest - or a counter-protest - and they'll tell you, "We're here for love. Love wins." After a terrorist attack, thousands rally in the name of "love." After a young woman was run over by a car at a counter-protest this past weekend, one of her friends went on television and declared, "She was here for love." 

In case you're getting buried in all of this love language, let's break it down. To the contemporary secular culture, "love" seems to have one of three meanings. First, it means simple affection - the kind of warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we're "falling in love." Second, it seems to be an expression of mutual toleration. If we are not actively engaged against each other, then this is love. It means we accept what the other is doing and simply let it be. You can't fight "love." And who would want to? Third, it seems to have become merely a state of being. A state of existing. Existential love, if there even is such a thing. When the shouts of "Love wins" ring out, what is actually being said is that there is nothing more to fight; all creation comes to rest in a state of love...whatever that is. 

And at the heart of all of this, I think, is a direct assault on the Christian faith, which has proclaimed a powerful message about Love since it died on the Cross for us. Now, the world, weary of what we have to say about it, is attempting not only to hijack, but to redefine, what love is. 

Love's more than simple affection, although there's maybe a place for that. It's not mere toleration, and it's certainly not a state of being. God says He is love, and that means there's something dynamic about it.

In the Christian vernacular, love has always been active. It's either a verb or it's an active noun, a living thing. Never is it something that just exists, as though you could set it on a shelf or go to the grocery and pick up a quart of love. It's never passive the way the world wants to make love passive. It's something that pulses with the heartbeat of God, with the holy breath of Creation itself. Love is always doing, always moving, always growing, always engaged. 

Christian love is a radical kind of love that the world just can't copy. 

The thing I guess that strikes me about this is how easily the world can profess love without actually loving anyone. How easy it is to stand up and shout "love wins" at a brother or sister with whom you profoundly disagree and therefore, hate. How the world's idea of love just gets thrown in the face of those it finds most unlovable. It has become a message of exclusion, extremely counter to the Christian inclusiveness of Love Himself. The world shouts "love wins" and what it means is that if you don't believe exactly as the world believes, if you don't affirm what the world affirms, if you don't buy into the propaganda about love, you lose. As though it's just a game. 

Then again, there were soldiers rolling dice at Golgotha. So what do I know? 

It's just troubling. And not because I don't believe in social justice or human equality or rights or whatever it is that has co-opted love this week. It's troubling because I believe in Love and what I see on display in this world is not love, no matter how loudly they shout it. Jesus said whoever's not against us is for us, but we have to be careful. Because there are a whole lot of people using holy-sounding words, but there's nothing holy about it. 

I don't know how we combat it. I really don't. I don't know what we can say or what we can do or what needs to break for the world to give up its siege. I just don't know. 

What I do know is that it's more important now than ever before that we not lose sight of Love in all of this. That we remember what Love is, that it is living and active, so much more than the world wants to make of it. That we live out that Love to the best of our ability, even when it means we're going to be standing there with the world shouting in our face, "Love wins!"

It does win. Love has already won. 

And I think maybe the best thing I can do right now is to stand here and take it and turn the other cheek, and when the world shouts "love!," whisper back, "This. is. Love. Let me show you." Maybe that's all I can do. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


If you've been following along, you've probably been suspecting that there's a "but" coming. Or perhaps you've been hoping there would be one. Even as I speak from my heart about how I, as a Christian, engage the transgender movement, I do have to ruffle a few feathers and say that while a person's gender orientation is not a threat to my faith, there is a very real danger in part of the secular sexuality agenda, and that is this:

There is a growing voice that says there is no male nor female at all. We're simply human.

This is where I have to draw my line. It's okay with me if wires get crossed, if things get turned around, if we just don't understand some things. That's fine. But when we reach this point, it's not fine any more.

It's not fine because this is a statement that goes directly against God's Word. It goes against what God explicitly said about the way that He created mankind - as male and female. It goes against what we've witnessed in biology since the beginning of time, what science itself declares. There is a male and female, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar and a fraud.

They are a fraud because their very premise is based on a reaction to observation. They have looked at themselves, looked at others, discovered a fundamental difference in the biology of who we are, and then had the audacity to look up and pretend it doesn't exist. They are a fraud because the very science - physical or social - that they use to back up their premise has asserted since the beginning of time that male and female are real categories.

It's important to note that many, if not most, cultures have recognized gender neturals in one way or another, positively or negatively, but even this has been based on the recognition of male and female as legitimate, discrete categories. Those who have historically been recognized as gender neutral have been seen as not wholly male or female, rather than not being male or female at all.

This kind of idea that is being pushed in our society today is nothing more than an attempt to further distance our humanity from what God has to say about it. It is an attempt to avoid the question, the tension, and the existential angst that exists when our male and female get messed up. Instead of saying that there is an order and a design to the world that we don't quite fit, instead of having to buy into the brokenness narrative that God offers in this beautifully consistent way, the effort is to pretend there is not a problem at all. Instead of saying that we're messed up, lost, broken, confused, these voices would rather say that we're nothing at all. Male? Female? What even is this?

Must be poppycock.

Must be poppycock because it makes us uncomfortable with the things that don't fit. Must be poppycock because we have to wrestle with its implications. Must be poppycock because it's just so confusing, so hard to figure out, so impossible to understand.

And look, I'm not saying that gender and sexuality and sex are simple matters; they're not. They never have been. From the very first bite of fruit, Adam and Eve began to struggle with this. The trouble was not that they were naked, but that their nakedness exposed their differences. At the very core of this entire conversation is the shame that goes all the way back to the Fall. I get it.

But I would rather wrestle with the tension than live in a lie. I'm more comfortable with the shame than I am with the serpent. There is a male and female. Part of the challenge of being human is figuring out what that means, no matter how you come at it.

I'm fortunate in this regard. I'm fortunate because I have a faith and a worldview that helps me to start thinking about the question. I'm fortunate because I have an authoritative Word from God that reminds me, even in the bushes, that this is good. This is very good. Even on the days when it seems like more trouble than it's worth. I'm fortunate because I have a long line of narrative about just how male and female works, about how God intended it to work, and because I have the absolute assurance that shame doesn't last forever.

If you're not a Christian and you're wrestling with this, you don't have such fortune. You've got some good places to start, but you've got nothing that can take you to the existential depths of sexuality the way that God can. That's why it's so easy, I guess, to buy what the world is selling and to say that it's just a figment, a phantom, a social imagination. That it doesn't really exist.

But we know that's not true. There is not a worldview out there that can consistently hold this position.

So that's where I draw my line. I draw my line at truth. It's where I stand while I'm standing next to you. Because in my heart of hearts, I know - and I think you'll agree - that you've always been something, not nothing. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

In the Image of God

Some who read my post on Friday about a Christian response to transgenderism may be upset. They may say that I don't go far enough in saying that God created the transgender person the way he/she is, but that the way that I phrased it still implies that transgenderism is a brokenness, an aberration, a fallenness. Perhaps even a sin. 

I hear you. Please know that I hear you. 

I hear you because I wrestled with that myself. I read those words, and they stung, and I'm not even wrestling with any transgender issues in my own life. But here's the thing: I honestly don't know where I stand on this idea, and rather than put forth a dishonest theology to try to appease one side of the argument or another, I'm comfortable leaving this question open.

How much of what isn't perfect is still God's design? 

That's the question. I am...a sinner. I am a hypocrite and a coward and a sinner (among other things). I'm a work in progress, but some days, let's face it, I'm just a piece of work. I am broken, sometimes beyond my ability to even put words to it. I know when I look in the mirror that the way that I live my life is not perfect; it's not God's best for me. Even this body isn't perfect. Far from it. So am I still created in God's image? Is my brokenness part of God's design for me?

We take this far too lightly, really. We use this line to rationalize away the things in our world that we're uncomfortable with. We don't know what to make of a broken world, so we conclude that God must have made it this way. That this is His design for us. But is it? Does God make broken things?

I've talked to a lot of persons going through a lot of things, including LGBT persons, wrestling with their identity. And when it comes to a lot of things, there's one question that keeps coming up: did God make a mistake? Did God mess up when He made me?

It's not an easy question to answer. If we say yes, then we are saying that our perfect God makes mistakes. If we say no, then we must conclude that what looks and feels and troubles us like brokenness isn't really broken at all. Even if we buy into the idea that it's a choice, did God create this person to make this choice? The question is the same - has God made a mistake?

I ask the same question. I ask it when I find myself caught in the same old pattern of brokenness, caught in the same rut of my own fallenness. I ask it when I'm lying awake at night, unable to sleep because of the burden of being broken. I ask it when I'm trying to pray and can't because I don't feel worthy. I ask it when I catch myself having said one more stupid thing that wasn't love and wasn't grace. Did God mess up? Is this the image of God that I was created in?

So this is an issue that I've wrestled with a lot, as I've heard the stories of friends and family and neighbors wrestling with their identity and as I've wrestled with my own. And here's where I am:

I believe that God has created us, each and every one of us, and that He has knit us together in our mother's wombs to be a sacred representation of something essential about Him. The Word tells us that, and I wouldn't even begin to deny it. But I think that the image we are created in is marred before it is finished. When Revelation talks about being a new creation, I think it's talking about that time when we will become who God knit us together to be in the first place. 

Has God made us this way? Yes and no. He's made us who we are, and as such, each one of us carries inside of us something essential about Him, the very image of God just as He promised. The challenge is finding a way for that image to be borne in brokenness, in all the things about us that aren't what God had in mind. 

I recognize that this is theologically tenuous for many, the idea that we may not be exactly as God designed us to be. That God might not have made us exactly this way. But I think it solves the tension - at least it does, for me - of trying to figure out who I am when I know that I'm not who I feel like I should be. It gives me permission to embrace my broken self, knowing I've been knit together and that I'm already being mended and that one day, I will be who God intended me to be, by His grace. I don't have to worry so much about whether I was made this way or not because I know that He is still making me, and one day, I'll be everything He had in mind. 

Maybe this all feels like I'm dodging the question. I don't think so. Because this is actually how I interact with persons in my real life - I look for that thing that God is making in them, that something holy that He's knit together in them. I look beyond what isn't perfect and strain to see the image of God in them. I think that's how God would want me to look at them. I think that's how God looks at me. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Male and Female

There's been much in the media once again about transgenderism and transgender issues, and among all the noise, there is a lot of confusion, a lot of pain, a lot of offense. The shouting, it seems, gets louder, and it leaves the Christian wondering what to do with all of this. 

Let me say that as a Christian, I am not bothered by transgender folks. It's not a threat to my faith.

It's not a threat because my faith provides a narrative for understanding the issue. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, plants and animals, male and female. And then we went and screwed it all up so that today, we're spending our lives searching for earth in the heavens and heaven on earth, cutting down plants and hunting down animals. Is it that far of a stretch to believe that our male and female are a little messed up, too?

The science isn't there yet to say exactly how the transgender phenomenon occurs, but is it so far-fetched to believe it could be biological? After all, we have all kinds of developmental disabilities, cancers, illnesses, deformations, etc. that were once thought to be sin-related or demon-induced. Even in the New Testament, we see a blind man brought before Jesus while the crowd asked, "Who sinned?" Today, we attribute such to genetics and mutations and crossed wires. Are we to proclaim that some wires are off-limits to crossing? 

Even if it's not biological, are we willing to deny the psychological brokenness that is part of the Fall? Just to say that we have a reason...or even a look down on someone? Doesn't sound very Jesus-like.

Even if it's a choice...

Think about all the things that we've learned from individuals who aren't...well...perfect. Think about all that we have learned about joy from persons with Down Syndrome, from those who have one extra little chromosome. Think about what we've learned about perseverance from children born without limbs or confined to wheelchairs. Think about what we've learned about community from those who have battled cancer. Think about what we've learned about courage from those who live with crippling anxiety. Think about what we've learned about redemption from criminals, about grace from victims. Think about what liars have taught us about truth, what cheaters have taught us about integrity, what adulterers have proclaimed about fidelity. What the war-torn have taught us about peace. Everything we've learned in this world has been taught to us by someone who wasn't perfect.  

And everyone who isn't perfect has something to teach us in this world. Even, yes, something sacred. Every single person we've tried to write off has something holy written in them by God Himself. 

The broken see through eyes that the proud can only dream of. 

We talk so much in our Christian circles about "loving the sinner, hating the sin," and it absolutely is possible. The secular culture says it isn't, but it absolutely is possible that we can affirm the individual created in the image of God without affirming the agenda that lurks behind so much of this. And we should.

Because you want to know something? In the beginning, God created them male and female. And I think there's maybe something very important that the transgender community can teach us about what that even means. Something that maybe we've forgotten because it's been so easy for us to take for granted what has seemed so obvious.

I'm not afraid of the transgender community. I'm not disgusted by it. It's not a threat to my Christian faith. I'm grieved by it, as I am by all things that are not as God intended them to be, but I'm not willing to villainize it. I'm not willing to turn my back or to stick my nose in the air. That's not helpful and it's not Christ-like. 

What I am willing to do is to sit around the table, to break bread, to share fruit. Because we're all just trying to figure out what it means to be human, created in the image of God and fallen, so, so fallen. And I haven't met a man - or woman - yet who hasn't had something to teach me about that.

(There will be at least two more posts stemming from this discussion, so if you're a little upset right now, hold on. And if you're not upset, hold on.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Trouble with Baal

If you spend much time at all in the Old Testament, it won't take you long to figure out that God has kind of this ongoing thing with Baal, the pagan god of the region who the Israelites just can't seem to shake. You might think it's just a run-of-the-mill battle of the gods, but there's much more going on here than meets the eye. 

Well, unless you speak a little Hebrew.

Don't be intimidated! I'm going to spell this one out for you because 1) it's neat and 2) it's important. See, the Hebrew word for Baal is...Baal. Shocking, I know. But what you may not know about this little word makes all the difference. 

First, Baal is both a noun and a verb. Strike one against the idol. This is a claim that YHWH (the Jewish/Christian God) also makes about Himself. When He says, "I Am," He is really saying - "I exist and I act." In other words, YHWH also claims to be both a noun and a verb, a being actively being in the lives of His people.

As a noun, Baal means several things. (And as a verb, essentially the same things, but in action form.) One of the things that Baal means is "master," as in the kind of master that owns slaves. Strike two against the idol. YHWH led His people out of Egypt to free them from slavery. All this talk we read in the Old Testament about the people becoming slaves to the idols,'s the real deal. Because Baal is a master, and it demands slaves. 

Baal also means "lord." Strike three against the idol. God says again and again - and shows - that He is the Lord of His people. He is the One who leads them out of Egypt, who parts the seas, who drowns the enemy armies. He is a refuge and a fortress and a shield. He is the One who manages the details of His people's lives. This other god claiming to be a lord just won't do. 

God might be willing to put up with a people who are more content to be slaves, who are happy with the meager protection of an idol, even a people who buy in to any degree to the idea that this idol both is and is acting. But God absolutely will not put up with the final straw.

In the Hebrew, Baal is a word that means "husband."

You only have to have a very small amount of knowledge about the love affair that God has with His people to know that that's not gonna fly. Israel can have all the idols she wants. She can build altars and poles and whatever. She can seek protection wherever she can find it. She can even sell herself back into slavery. But there is no way that God is going to tolerate even a fallen creation having another husband.

His people are His bride.

That's the image we see all over Scripture. The Song of Solomon declares it. The prophets speak in the language of marriage. Hosea is even commanded to marry a prostitute as a demonstration of God's abiding marital love for His wayward Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus is called the bridegroom, and the church is His bride. Now, forever, for always. 'Til death do us....who are we kidding? God defeated death so that we would never part. 

Something like this changes the way that we read these stories. It has to. It's one thing if we have this image of Israel as having their own little idols in their own little towns while the Temple gathers dust and cobwebs. But it's another thing entirely if we understand that this Baal-named so-called god is, in the very root of its name, declaring itself to be all the things that God already is for His people...right down to their most intimate Lover. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Promises, Promises

At this point, you may be thinking that I'm wrong about this one. (And maybe I am; it wouldn't be the first time.) You're thinking I'm wrong because you sit in your church every Sunday and your church really is talking to you about all the things Jesus promised - eternal life, hope, love, community.

But is your church pointing you to the Christ who promised these things or is your church promising you these things themselves?

It's a very fine line, one that we're walking every day. We're not the first generation to have to do so. We won't be the last. But we cannot deny that there are millions of Christians in the church who are expecting their churches to give them what Jesus has promised. 

Because that's the way the church talks.

The church talks about Christianity in terms of what it can do for you, not Christ in terms of what He has done. The church talks about the rewards of giving your life to Christ, but it is not talking about what Christ has done to deserve your life. The church talks about eternal life as the reward for your faith, but it's not talking about amazing grace that is the gift freely given. 

The church is clouding herself in a bunch of Jesusy-sounding talk, but she's not pointing back to the actual Jesus in any real, meaningful way. He's an idea to today's church, not a person; a doctrine, not a deity. 

And, inevitably, the world is growing weary. 

The world is growing weary because the church cannot deliver on her promises. She cannot give you what Christ has promised, no matter how good her words sound. She cannot even give you herself...because she is depending upon you to complete her. At her very core, today's church is insecure, and it's because she has put her power in her pews, not in her Promiser. 

It's hard to say that. It hurts to say that. I grieve when I have to say something like that. But it's true. Today's church is offering you herself and depending on you for her very survival...and somewhere in Galilee, the Son of God is dripping beads of blood-sweat and weeping for you and for her. Not that we notice any more. 

You can see this insecurity in the way that we fear. The number one thing God tells us not to do in His Word is to fear, but we can't seem to help ourselves. There are all kinds of narratives about the troubles facing the church, and we see every single one of them for real. And it scares us. 

It scares us that our numbers are dwindling. It scares us that our values are waning. It scares us that our world is pressing in from all sides. It scares us that the day may be coming where it may not be so safe, at least in the West, to be a Christian. And our reaction to this has not been to lean harder on Jesus, but to build stronger our walls. The church is trying to turn herself from a refuge into a fortress, not because the world demands it (Jesus said we would have trouble; He never said we should fear it) but because our own insecurities do. 

And in doing so, we're stepping into the sandals of the One who walked the dusty road and trying to take the Christians without requiring the Cross. 

Which is how we've ended up with millions of Christians sitting in the church, members of a growing social club, who don't know any real thing about Jesus, who look into the mirror and see gods, and who are waiting on the church to deliver them. 

If this doesn't grieve you....

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

No Cross Required

Yesterday, I said that it will not be long before the way that we are perverting the Word of God will lead us to look into the eyes of Jesus and see ourselves and to look in the mirror and see gods. Scarily, too many churches are already there.

They're already there because many of today's churches are more concerned with making sure you see yourself as a "Christian" than making sure you see Christ as Savior, as though the two ideas could possibly be separated.

It's not that today's church doesn't want you to know Jesus; perhaps they do. Perhaps they very honestly do. But in a world that has become hostile to the message of Christ and in a world that mocks something so antiquated as "faith," today's church is hesitant to bother you with all of that Jesus stuff.

What they can tell you, however, is how much better your life as a Christian will be.

Your life as a Christian will be one of forgiveness; nothing you do will be eternally held against you. Your life as a Christian will be one of community; inside these walls, you've got a place to belong. You've got a people who are your people. Your life as a Christian will be one of peace; with the promise of heaven hanging over your heart, what have you to fear?

All these things and more, and they sound pretty good. They even sound Jesus-like, as though this is the very kind of thing that Jesus Himself said you would have. And it is.

The difference is that Jesus didn't leave out the Cross.

He didn't leave out the teaching that more will be required of you. He didn't leave out the proclamation that He is the Son of God. He didn't leave out the blood and the sweat and the tears. What Jesus preaches, what He promises, is not just the roses; our Christ did not leave out the thorns. No, He wore them, pressed into His own flesh, mocked Himself as the "so-called King." He didn't leave out Calvary, and He didn't leave out the grave.

He didn't leave it out, not because it wasn't inconvenient - it was just as inconvenient then as it is now - but because it was necessary. If we could have had the church without the Christ, He never would have bothered coming. But the fact of the matter is, we simply cannot be Christians unless He is the Christ.

And that's what today's church seems to have forgotten.

That's what we're dancing around. Because it seems weird. Because it seems backward. Because it doesn't fit into the modern culture's individualistic narrative. Because it runs counter to secular wisdom. Because....because, well, we just don't want to bother persons with all that Jesus stuff. We don't want to be "that" kind of church.

Sorry, but that's the only kind of church there is. If all you're preaching to your people is membership, you're not a church; you're a social club. Plain and simple.

And that's where we're at. We're living in a world where there's a social club on every corner, where presidents - not pastors - stand on the stage and sell you this story where you, too, can be a "Christian." No Cross required.

And we wonder how we got here.... We wonder why the church isn't thriving the way she once did... We wonder why the world laughs at us, why they turn their backs. It's not because we have too much of Jesus; it's because we don't have enough.

It's because we started opening our Bibles in the hopes of finding ourselves and we pushed aside any notion that in those pages is the story of God

Monday, August 7, 2017

Perverting the Word

If the church has lost her sense of who she is in the world, it's not really an accident. It's a symptom of a larger problem, which is that we (Christians) have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten who we are because we have forgotten who He is, and all of that boils down to the way that we approach the Bible.

Ask Christians today who the main character of the Bible is, and they'll probably say "Jesus," which is true - to an extent. (I've written before about how it's actually more broadly "God" - in three persons - but here, "Jesus" will do.) But get inside their heads and discover how they're actually reading their Bibles, and you'll find that for most Christians, the main character of the Bible is..."me."

It's a book about us. It's a book about being God's people. It's a book about our history, our story, our promise. Most Christians today are reading the Bible to discover who they are, not who God is, so it's no wonder that when the world looks at us, it no longer sees Him.

And there's a vast market of Christian goods that feed right into this. Just look at the way that Christian writing and preaching has changed just in the past century, even in the past few decades. Compare the writings of C.S. Lewis to the vast majority of Christian authors writing today; there's a distinct difference in the type of Christianity contained in those pages. 

There's a vast difference in the way that the Word is used.

Today, we'll turn the Word of God to say whatever it is that we want it to say, or need it to say in order to make our point. I'm running across case after case of this in my own Bible studies right now, in material put out by well-known names in Christian circles and by well-respected publishing companies.

For example, I recently read an article by a biblical scholar talking about the history of persons meeting God at threshing floors. The primary example he used? Gideon. But anyone who reads Gideon's story will see that Gideon was threshing grain, but he was not at a threshing floor; he was hiding in a winepress. So this scholar's entire article glaringly ignores a full sentence in the biblical text that he dives so deeply into. Why? Because he wanted to write about threshing floors, and Gideon's story was too good to pass up. 

Except, of course, that he didn't tell Gideon's story at all, but some contorted version of it. Which means it wasn't God's story, either.

Or just yesterday, my morning devotional had a paragraph about the anniversary of the atomic bombing in Japan. It linked the event to the Transfiguration of Jesus and suggested that we spend the day in prayer for those who were "transfigured" by the bombings. The word that the authors actually needed to use was "disfigured," which is a very different thing, but hey, they're trying to make a point here. Who cares about semantics?

I'm also reading a popular translation of the Bible in my morning studies for the first time this year. I'm reading this alongside a more literal English translation, and it's amazing to me how many of the most beautiful details of God's word the popular translation doesn't worry about getting right - and doesn't apologize for getting wrong - things that are the turning points of God's message, at least to me. I read this and I cringe...because it's clear that this particular translation was written for men, so it doesn't worry too much about getting God right. 

As long as it is, you know, reasonably close.

Again and again, this generation is twisting God's Word to say something that it doesn't say because we've gotten this idea that this is a story less about God and more about us. We're slowly being told, taught, and trained that when we read the Bible, the character we're really looking ourselves. (And I'm willing to bet that more than a few of you are reading this right now and saying to yourselves, "Well, yeah. If you don't understand that, you're an idiot.")

There are a million little problems with that, but a couple of very big ones. First, of course, it's led us to become the church that we are today, the church that is mocked by the world not for believing in Jesus, but for not believing in Him. Do you understand that the world's #1 problem with the church today is that there's not enough Jesus in it? 

Second, and this is scary - we are just one small step away from reading the Bible and believing that Jesus is nothing more than a manifestation of us, that He is prophetically us. No longer will we read our Bibles and say that we should be more like Him because He, in our eyes, is already so much like us. No longer will we concern ourselves with developing His character in our hearts because He is nothing more than our character in God's story.

We will look into His eyes and see ourselves, and we will look into the mirror and see gods. 

And, scarily, some of us are already there. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

So-Called Church

If the world is no longer looking to the church to find Jesus, it's not really like we can blame them for that. Today's church is less about Jesus than it perhaps ever has been, so much so that even many Christians can no longer find Him there.

Throughout it's history, the church has been tackling the deepest questions of theology. Who is Jesus? What is the Trinity? How does the Father relate to the Son? How does the Cross work? What is atonement? Salvation? How do we live as outpourings of grace?

Not any longer. Today's church is asking questions like, How do we get the most number of persons in our pews? What kind of worship should we have? Do we need a better children's program? Which of our members will we put on the front lines of evangelism? How much of a mess do we put up with in persons' lives? 

We're asking where we draw our lines, when the testimony of Jesus is that we're better off as sand doodlers.

It's because, I think, we somewhere got the idea that the world is supposed to like us. I mean, it's really important to today's church that the world like us. We want them to think we have the best Sunday morning experience. And in order to do that, we're no longer spending our Sundays in the shadow of the Cross, no longer spending them at the empty grave.

And when we talk about what it is that the church has to offer, well...we want to make sure the world knows that Jesus offers life. Abundantly. And that means that we have to have our acts together. It means we have to have our perfect little lives on display. It means we've gotten into the deep trenches of depending that we're all good, that that's what Jesus does for us.

We want the world to know that He's amazing, but we don't want to have to talk about grace.

So it's no wonder that when the world looks at today's church, they don't see a whole lot of Jesus. He's a whisper, a sideline, a backdrop to all the things we're trying to do, but He's no longer the center of it. 

It's sad, really, but it's also comfortable. It's comfortable because it means we don't have to live like an Acts church, on the margins of society, ridiculed by the mainstream, the name "Christian" said with a bit of a scoff.

Oh, wait....

In all our efforts to avoid the persecutions that the church has always faced, by becoming "relevant" and "likable" in our culture, we have ended up persecuting ourselves. We're the butt of the joke, not even able to profess the things that we claim so dearly to believe. But at least they're not killing us. 

They don't have to; we're killing ourselves. 

All the while, there's a world out there still earnestly - honestly - looking for Jesus. And the only thing they know for sure is that they're not going to find Him here. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Some say there's probably not a lot we can learn about what it means to be a person after God's heart from someone like Herod, best known as being the rotten, wicked overseer of the region in the Gospels. You remember the guy - he married a close relative forbidden by Jewish law, then cut off the head of John the Baptist as a favor to his step-daughter. 

I've written before about the weird relationship that Herod had with John the Baptist. Specifically, we are told that John always disturbed Herod when they spoke, but Herod liked to hear from him anyway. I think we all need a few pastors like that in our lives, those who speak such bold and unsettling truth that it's disturbing, but the conversation does something for us that we can't deny.

But what about Herod and Jesus? It doesn't, on the surface, look like there's a lot to probe there for meaningful lessons. There is, however, one little bit that ought to catch our attention. It's in Luke 9. 

Herod the ruler heard about everything that was happening. He didn't know what to make of it. ..."Who is this person I'm hearing so much about?" So Herod wanted to see Jesus.

That's it. That's all we've got. What's noticeably missing from this narrative, though, and what we can't miss is that at no point anywhere near this internal dialogue that Herod has with himself does he actually go anywhere to see Jesus.

It's not like Jesus is hiding. It's not like He's a long way away. He's right there in the same kingdom, right in the same crosspaths as Herod and his royal men. It wouldn't take much for Herod to actually see Jesus if, indeed, that's what he really wanted to do. But never do we see him actually do it.

In a culture where there's a church on every street corner, in every school auditorium and coffeeshop and movie theater, it's hard for us to understand how or why there are some persons who still don't know what we know about Jesus. It's not like they haven't heard about Him. Even Herod says he's heard about Him. So why don't they know what we know? 

Simply put, they haven't gone to see Him.

Before we get all pumped up about those lazy sinners outside the church who won't even bother to come into one, let's get real about what we're offering them. Are we offering them a place to come and see Jesus? If someone were to walk into our church right now, what would they find? 

A large part of the reason that the world has not gone to see Jesus is because we, the church, are not giving them a place to go. We're giving them a place to come for community, maybe. For coffee, perhaps. We're giving them something to do on Sunday mornings besides sit home alone. Maybe we offer some good music, something they can really get into. Or maybe we have a good drama ministry or video service. 

But do we have Jesus?

Honestly, most church-going Christians don't even expect to find Jesus there any more. How could we ever think that that's where the world is going to look?

There are more persons than we know standing at their windows, watching the streets for any sign of Him. They're hearing the rumors. They're hearing the whispers. Heck, they're even hearing our bold proclamations. But they haven't gone anywhere to find Him. And it's because they don't know really where to go. 

So they're watching the streets like so many faithful have done before. They're ready to cry out if they'd just see Him pass by, see some sign of Him. The question we have to ask ourselves as the church is this: are we passing them by? 

Because they're passing us up.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Three Goats

Just after Samuel has privately anointed Saul as king (for the first time; there are a lot of anointings/confirmations of Saul as king), he tells the newly-anointed what will happen on his way home from this place. And this is one of those really cool places where if you are not reading with a sanctified imagination and actually putting yourself into the action of the story, you miss an opportunity for a good laugh. Here's what Samuel says:

Keep going until you come to the oak tree at Tabor. There you will find three men on their way to worship God at Bethel: One will be carrying three young goats, one will be carrying three loaves of bread, and one will be carrying a full wineskin. They will greet you.... (1 Samuel 10:3-4a)

Most of the time, we read right past that and say, yes, of course - the king will meet three faithful young men on their way to worship. But take a look again at the three men. One will be carrying a wineskin. One will be carrying three loaves of bread. One will be carrying three goats.

Now, picture it. I've been trying since I busted up laughing at this passage the other day, and I think I've got it figured out - one goat under each arm and another tied up in a papoose somehow. That's the only way I can figure it. (Remember, too, that goats for sacrifices were to be one-year-olds most often. I don't know how fast goats grow, but perhaps at one year old, they are not too ginormous.)

Maybe you're thinking, yeah, okay, but that's not what it means. It means he was in charge of the three goats or that he was leading them or wrangling them or straggling them along behind him on some rope leash he'd tied together. Well, you'd be wrong. Because if you go back to the original Hebrew on this one, the word for "carry" is the same for all three objects - wineskin, bread, goats. And there are a lot of words in the Hebrew for the ways that you can carry/bear/bring something, so when the Hebrew says that the goats were being carried in the same way that the loaves were being carried and that the wineskin was being carried, well...the goats were being carried. 

Which raises the question: how do you decide, upon embarking on a trip to worship, who among you has to be the goat carrier? 

It's absurd. And hilarious. But I say all that to say this:

We often think about what it is that we're bringing to worship. We sometimes look at the person next to us in the pew or across the aisle and wonder what they think they're doing, the hot mess that they are. We see them struggling, grappling, grasping, hair all in tangled knots and clothes wrinkled and nearly out of breath from what seems to have been the sheer effort of getting here once more (I'm speaking figuratively, here). We see them coming, bearing their mess of a life that sometimes never seems to get better, and something inside of us scoffs a little bit. We look in our own hands at our own little neat package of a life and wonder why they can't bring something more like that.

But the truth is that we still have goat bearers among us. Some of us, we're really good at bringing our little loaves of bread. We're fairly comfortable toting a simple wineskin. But we've forgotten that some persons's holy task is to come bearing goats. Lively, active, year-old goats that are bucking and kicking and making noise and wriggling about. And we have the gall to just look at them with a huff, with judging eyes, with haughtiness and say, Can't you keep those kids under control? They're going to make my bread fall. They're going to break my wineskin.

But it's all offering. It's all an aroma pleasing to the Lord. There are so many prescriptions about coming to worship and what to bring and what to offer and why. We in the modern church believe - rightly so - that what we bring is our whole lives. What we bring is everything we've got. And we absolutely should. 

Let us never forget, though, that that looks different for everyone. For some, it's a few loaves of bread, which might fit nicely in a single knapsack. For others, it's a runny, fluid, sloshing measure of wine, which goes nicely into a single wineskin. 

For many, however, it's three crazy goats, which must be borne and brought in the same way, carried to worship, to the altar itself. 

One tucked under each arm and the third slung over our shoulders in some kind of papoose, I think.