Friday, September 29, 2017


Two days ago, we looked at how God requires something of us; we have to at least try. Yesterday, we saw that Jesus said that the stuff we usually try at isn't really the important stuff; what's really important is how we love one another. Actually, the Bible couldn't be any clearer about what God requires of us. It plainly says, "This is what the Lord requires of you." (Micah 6:8)

To do what is just.
To love mercy.
To walk humbly with your God.

On the surface, it seems like over the past three days, we've gone from these very concrete ideas about church-y things that we should do (and do better) to some more fluid, relational types of people-y things that we should do (and do better) to now, we're talking about some seemingly-abstract, philosophy-y things that we can never quite know if we're really doing or not. 

Can we please just go back to Wednesday? 

Life seemed so simple then. All we had to do was start to pray, try to sing, and open the pages of the Bible every now and then. That seemed easy enough. It was abundantly clear what was expected of us when all that mattered was that we try to do something faith-y. 

The relational stuff on Thursday was a little more challenging, but let's be honest - we all just started thinking of the persons in our lives that it's easy to love. We know exactly who has some concrete, specific needs that we can totally "one another" pretty easily. We know who we hang out with, and we were thinking about doing a better job, you know, of hanging out with them. Or more hanging out with them. Or something. We maybe even thought about changing our semi-assigned church seating to sit by some new persons...or at least closer to the persons we usually sit by. You know, down the row a little ways. Nothing too crazy. But yeah, we were figuring out there was probably a way to "one another" better without totally blowing our comfort zones.

But justice? Mercy? Humility? That's where we draw the line.

It's where we draw the line because it conjures up a certain image in our heads, particularly in these days, where "justice" means we're out there protesting something, marching with signs, making public spectacles of ourselves for whatever the cause of the day happens to be. "Mercy" means we just give a free pass to everyone and end up as doormats. And "humility" means all we can ever say is that we don't know. We get so afraid of saying anything because we might be wrong. Or arrogant. Or arrogantly wrong. Or something. 

We don't want to be protesters or doormats or wrong. We want to live quiet lives confident in simple grace. Is that too much to ask?

Not at all. What's surprising, though, is that that's kind of what God wants for you, too. 

These quiet lives confident in simple grace that we so crave are lives that are completely consistent with everything we've been looking at. They're completely consistent with a faith that tries to engage in the spiritual disciples. They're completely consistent with lives that "one another" well. They're completely consistent with justice, mercy, and humility. We just have to change how we think about some of these things. 

There are some key words there besides "just," "mercy," and "humbly." These are the keys to wrapping this all together, to figuring out what it really is that God requires of us. These are the action words, the verbs: "do," "love," and "walk." 

Next week, we'll look at some of these ideas a little more closely. There are some things here I think we're missing...and they make all the difference. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

By Your Love

Yesterday, we looked at how God does require something of us. When it comes to faith, we at least have to try. But would it surprise you to know that the things we talked about yesterday - prayer, worship, Bible reading - are not actually the things that God requires of us?

We used to joke about this in youth group. It was our pat answer for everything, always followed by chuckles. No matter the question, someone would pipe up and say, "Pray, read the Bible, go to church." But that's not what Jesus said.

Jesus didn't say that we would be known by how well we pray. Or how often. Or how loud. In fact, He said quite the opposite - don't let others see how you pray. Don't make a show of it. Don't do it out loud or in public just to show yourself to be a praying kind of person. Don't let prayer be your witness.

Jesus didn't say that we would be known by how well we worship. Or how well we sing. Or whether or not we've got perfect pitch. Or even perfect rhythm. (What beats do we clap on, again?) In fact, in Jesus's day, fasting was one way they worshiped, and Jesus plainly said - don't do this to be seen. Don't make a show of your sackcloth and dirt. Don't make a show of your unkempt hair and your hunger. Don't make a show of your worship. Don't let worship be your witness.

Jesus didn't say that we would be known by how well we know the Bible. Or how quickly we can find that verse. Or our most scholarly interpretation of it. In fact, He said quite the opposite - He spent His time railing against the Pharisees, who were experts in the Bible, for missing the point. Don't quote the Scriptures for applause. Don't boast about how well you know them, or even how well you think you follow them. Don't let your Bible study be your witness.

Jesus say, "They will know you by the love you have for one another." And when He prays for the faithful, He prays for unity - that we would "one-another" well. 

Let your witness be your love. 

That means that when we were sharing that old joke back in youth group, we were witnessing. Not by knowing the right things to say or by talking about the right things to do. No, we were witnessing by our joy, by laughing together, by sharing this joke, this story, this thing that united us. We were one-anothering. And that's how the world should have recognized us. 

That's how they should have known we were His. 

I wish we understood that in the church. I wish we knew that what we need to be witnessing to the world is not the best or newest or most favorite styles of worship. I wish we knew that what we need to be witnessing to the world is not some borderline-scandalous gritty application of Scripture or some heretical twisting of the Gospel of Grace into good news for the financially poor. I wish we knew that what we need to be witnessing to the world is not how long or fervently or earnestly we pray. All of these things are important, but it's not how the world will know us. 

They will know us by our love. And I wish the church knew that. 

I wish we knew that when the world walks in our doors, what they need to see is people loving each other. Really loving each other. They need to see us sitting together, not spaced out by families with a few extra seats in the middle. They need to see us breaking bread together, not retreating into our own laps with bowed heads and clinched fists. They need to see us sharing our resources, coming to one another's aid, lending a hand, lending an ear, leaning together toward the Cross. They need to see us laughing, celebrating, joking around, sharing our stories. Sharing our lives. They need to see us one-anothering. Because Jesus said that's how they're going to know us. 

Not by how much we love Him, but by how well we love each other. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What God Requires

Jesus said, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed...." And He said it, essentially, twice. 

A few days ago, I was writing a reflection on this idea and how it relates to having just enough faith to grow something out of it. I was trying to come up with what it meant to have a little faith, and I wrote something like this:

"If you start to pray and get at least through the 'Dear Lord,' then you have enough faith to grow. If you get even one syllable of the song right, whether on-key or off-key or even out of place, then you have enough faith to grow. If you don't know where that verse is in the Bible, but you're at least willing to Google it, then you have enough faith to grow."

I really wrestled with this for the longest time. I wrestled because I know that there are going to be some persons who read that and think I'm demanding too much. That believe that God is satisfied by your own wanting to maybe sort of potentially one day think about having faith, and that this maybe sort of potentially one day thinking is enough. That think that God would never require that we even get through the "Dear Lord;" God only requires that we know that we can pray, not that we actually do it. That think that worship is about listening to the music, not singing it. That think that it's perfectly fine not to know where things are in the Bible, as long as you know that they're in there. (Fun fact: a lot of very popular phrases that sound kind of Christian-like are not actually in the Bible anywhere. Like "God helps those who help themselves." It's not in there. But ask someone who doesn't think God requires anything of them except to sort of kind of know, and they'll tell you that it's biblical and that's enough for them. There are some pretty hilarious studies on these sorts of things.) 

So I wrestled with it, knowing that there would probably be some backlash for presenting an image of God that requires something from His people more than just their occasional happy thoughts and last-ditch efforts at problem management. 

But I went ahead with it and let it go to print. Why?

Because I don't think I'm wrong on this one. 

I don't think I'm wrong to say that God requires something of us. I don't think I'm wrong to say that God demands that we at least try. It's unpopular in today's culture, and we've become so afraid of expecting anything from anyone that we've really gone lax on everything. We've got a Jesus in our world who doesn't care what you do and loves you unconditionally and is going to take you to Heaven just for having existed and being relatively "good," and this Jesus is competing against the One who dripped bloody beads of sweat in the Garden and poured out His life on the Cross. 

This Jesus that our world has, He's everybody's friend, but somewhere, we lost the Jesus who is specifically friend to sinners. This Jesus that our world has, His cross is a symbol, not a sacrifice. This Jesus that our world has, He meets them in the most dark and sinful places, not because it's the sick who need a healer, but because Jesus is, you know, "cool" like that. This Jesus that the world has...He's nothing like my Lord. 

And I'm done letting this world pretend that Jesus is just "cool" like that. 

He's amazing

But in order to understand how truly amazing Jesus is, you have to enter into a real relationship with Him. You've got to get into the covenant. You've got to live your life in a way that's connected to the truth of His identity. And that means that you've got to understand that He requires something from you. Not a lot. Just a mustard seed. 

Still, you've got to try. You've got to do one thing, one small little thing, that shows that you're moving in a God-ward direction. You've got to do one thing, one small little thing, that shows that you're putting some skin in the game. You've got to do one thing, one small little thing, that shows that when you say, "Lord, Lord," you know what that means. Otherwise, this Jesus, this real Jesus, He's going to say, "I never knew you."

Come to find out, you never knew Him, either. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Storm

This is the real danger of being a church who refuses to be humbled by our own sins - we create a group of expert sailors who are only more confident and comfortable in their expertise. 

Let's go back to Jonah's ship. 

Jonah's bought passage on a ship to Tarshish, a city known for its commercial trade. The merchants that go in and out of Tarshish are skilled men; shipping into and out of this port is their life's work. The seas that they are on when the storm starts raging are seas that they know well. And there's never been this kind of storm before. 

We know this much because they've tried everything they know how to do, and none of it is working. It's not reasonable to say that there has never been a storm on this sea; we know too much about weather to say something so foolish. We can only say that there has never been a storm like this one. So what happens is that the sailors put all of their acquired knowledge to good use doing everything they can to weather the raging seas, but nothing works. They can't sail through it. 

They have to try something different.

The something different that they end up trying is throwing a prophet of the Lord overboard. There are only three possible conclusions they can reach from this: 1) the key to overcoming severe storms is to get rid of anything that has to do with the Lord; 2) the Lord is vicious in pursuing to violent extremes those He claims to have a fondness for but actually wants to punish; 3) this Lord acts much like any other god and requires an occasional sacrifice to appease Him. And once past the storm, the memory quickly fades and their own competence is reaffirmed - in the absence of raging seas, they truly are expert sailors. So they have little need of interacting with this God until and unless He breaks in on them again.

None of this is really what we'd want others to learn about our God. 

But it's what they're still learning even today. Most persons believe they are experts in their own lives. They believe they know what to do to handle their own affairs, and they've got plans and back-up plans and go-tos for handling just about everything. If they come up against a God-storm that is raging and stand face-to-face with an arrogant, unrepentant Church, they're learning the same things.

Toss the Church aside. Forget about it. If you're not engaged with it, then it can't cause any problems for you. The storm dies down as soon as anything "church-y" is off the ship. So...toss it overboard. No use for God. 

The Church is foolish. They talk about this God of love, but look how violent He is in pursuing and punishing them. This isn't what love looks like. No wonder those Christians are all hell-bent; their God is a God of violent extremes. That's certainly not the God for this ship. 

Perhaps this God of the Christians just requires some basic token affections and mild obediences. It would satisfy Him if I would go to church, say, on Christmas and Easter. Or if I pray when things are like really serious...or better yet, just ask others who believe in Him to pray for me when things are really tough. All I have to do is make a general, vague effort at the occasional godly thing when stuff comes up, and this God will be satisfied with me.

And more often than not, what ends up happening is that these persons come to a place where they are only re-convinced of their own expertise at managing their own affairs and have little need of interacting with God until and unless it seems to be pertinent again. They pull into Tarshish as skilled and as confident as they ever were, having had a brush with God, but having no need at all of Him. 

Because all they've seen is a raging storm and an unrepentant prophet who knows he's in the wrong but refuses to turn himself around. 

Because all they've seen is a raging storm and an arrogant church who refuses to humble herself and seek grace. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Man Overboard

Ah, Jonah. Because clearly, if we're talking about a man overboard in a theological blog, it's got to be Jonah. 

Jonah, I think, is one of those stories where we know so well the big themes that we often miss the small details. We read it like we know it, like it's old hat, but if we actually sit down to read this story, it's rife with the kinds of quiet, convicting truths that ought to make us stop and think. Yes, I said "convicting." 

And I'm not talking about Nineveh.

For example, look at the first chapter of Jonah. He's bought passage on this ship to Tarshish, running away from God as far and as fast as he can get, and this raging storm starts tossing the sea. The sea starts rocking the ship. All the sailors on board, skilled sailors who make this passage all the time, get nervous. Then, they get scared. They try to figure out what in the world is going on with this giant storm like they've never seen on this sea that they sail all the time. They cast lots and figure out it's Jonah, and the prophet immediately confesses to it.

It's me, it's me. I'm the cause of this storm. Your only option is to throw me overboard; then the raging seas will calm.

But nobody throws him overboard. Instead, they try rowing a little bit harder. They put more of their sailor skills and sea muscles into it, trying to figure out a way to get through the storm. 

Here's what's interesting, though: Jonah doesn't even throw himself overboard. 

He knows he's the cause of the storm. He knows that if he gets off the ship, the storm will stop. He sees how much trouble everybody else is in because of his disobedience. He's watching them struggle and strive and lose their cargo and risk their lives and panic and pray, and he knows that if he's not on the ship, none of them would be having these problems. Not a one. But he doesn't throw himself overboard.

He doesn't even climb into a life raft and try to drift away. 

There are a lot of ways that the church has wounded persons. There is a lot of trouble that we've caused in this world. We're still causing it. There are things that, we have to confess, we're just getting wrong (and one of these things is loving others the way that Jesus called us to....another one is loving each other the way that Jesus called us to). And we're watching the world tossed about by its own waves because we're trying so hard to steer them in error.

And we know. Let's just be honest - we know. We know there are things we've gotten wrong. We know there are things we've done that are atrocious. We know that there are things we're still doing wrong and things we're still doing that are atrocious. There's a part of us that says if this world could just throw off all the sinful, egregious things that the church has done to get us here, the seas would calm. The storms would settle. 

But we're not willing to do it. 

We're not willing to do it because it means too much to us. Jonah was dead set on going to Tarshish; we're dead set on our traditions, the choices we've made to do things the way we've always done them. Even when we realize it's not working for us. And it's certainly not working for them. We're watching the world struggle against the waves we've made, and know what it takes to stop them - but we're not willing to abandon ship. We're not even willing to climb into a life raft and try to drift away. We're not willing to retreat into a solitary place and pray earnestly and invest the time in figuring out how to do it better. 

They're going to have to throw us overboard.

And I think that's where we're at. I think what we're seeing in our time is a world that's finally weary of the storm. It's done all it can do to make a place for us, but we have been in error. We're in a place where we can admit that we're the problem, that the way that we've been "doing" church for so long has created the waves that are crashing against the ship. But we're not willing to remove ourselves. We're not willing to step back and make a correction. We're not willing to jump ship even to save it. And that's a problem. 

Because if we aren't willing to reconsider some of the things we're doing that are wounding our world, we leave them no choice: they'll have to throw us overboard, sooner rather than later. And they will. 

They already are. 

The question is this: what happens to sailors who make it to Tarshish on calm seas only after they've discarded the prophet of the Lord? 

Friday, September 22, 2017


There's one more place where we see the scarlet thread running through the Bible, and that is in the holy things that Israel built in the wilderness. From the fabric coverings over the Tent of Meeting to the embroidered angels on the priests' robes to the pomegranates dangling from their hems, one of the recurring themes of the holy place was scarlet thread, woven in.

And in every place where the instructions are given, they are precisely the same: do this "creatively." 

It seems like an odd instruction. This is the God who makes explicit how many inches tall the table in the Tabernacle ought to be, how many rings should be used to hold the tent together at its seams, how many stands should make up its foundation. This is the God who gives precise instructions for slaughtering an offering, exact measurements for mixing incense, a detailed description of the anointing of His priests. But when it comes to this particular detail, the way that the scarlet thread should be worked in, His prescription is a little vague.


We have to think about this in context a little bit. Unlike in the other places that we've looked at, the scarlet thread is not alone here. It's not the only thing hanging in a window, the one marker of the firstborn son. Rather, the scarlet thread here is among other beautiful things - blue and purple yarns and fabrics, to be exact. These together are worked into the holy things in the prescribed places. So it's not like the whole Tabernacle is bland, desert brown and there's this splash of red running through it. 

It's bland, desert brown with splashes of color. And that makes things a little different.

It means that, if the artists and artisans do it right, Israel might not even notice the scarlet thread at first. It's the way you look at a picture or a painting of something and see the whole, not the parts. You would know that there was red in it, but you wouldn't consciously think about the red being part of it. It's just a beautiful design, a splash of color that draws the eye to its whole, not its parts. Even the pomegranates, which we know from the grocery store are mostly this reddish color, wouldn't strike them as red; they'd strike them as pomegranates. 

It is, I think, what God wants us to see about Creation itself. God worked this entire world together out of nothing, and He's woven this scarlet thread through it - the blood of His Son, working toward the Cross, calling us toward Heaven, the song of the redeemed. But it's not like the whole creation is dull, drab, totally boring and then, there's this thread, this streak of red standing out against a bland, desert brown. 

Not at all. God's Creation is full-color. It's a rich blend of everything in the rainbow, all the colors of His promise. Red, yes, but also blue and purple and orange and green and yellow and...and everything! We know the red runs through it, but we don't consciously think about the red until something draws our eye to it. We see God's world in full, living color - just as He intended us to - and then, sometimes, we see the scarlet thread. Not necessarily for any particular reason; it just sort of happens. 

It's woven in "creatively," from the very Creation itself, from the very beginning when God spoke the word. 

In the quiet little way that God whispers all the most important things, there's this scarlet thread that we see without even seeing. To truly know the depth of its beauty, we'd have to look for it, even though it's right in front of our eyes. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Blood and Water

So far, we've traced the scarlet thread through two women's stories - one pretending to be a prostitute and one an actual prostitute, which seems like a weird thread to be woven through the Bible on its way to Jesus. But that's actually not the weirdest thing to happen to the scarlet thread. 

For that, we have to turn back a few pages to Leviticus 14. 

"Clean" and "Unclean" are difficult concepts for modern Christians; we just don't understand how essential this was to Jewish covenantal life (although, as I have said in other places, I wish sometimes that we did). Still, the Old Testament gives us a bit of a glimpse. It's full of lists of clean and unclean things, rules for cleanliness and uncleanliness, procedures for making the unclean clean again, etc. And it is in this latter group, these procedures, that we see the scarlet thread.

The process for making a person clean after he/she has had a skin disease meeting the criteria for uncleanliness and for making a house clean after it has had an unclean infestation of mold requires a scarlet thread.

...and two birds.

...and a clay bowl.

...and some cedar wood.

....and a hyssop sprig.

...and a little bit of water. 

Here's the procedure: the priest puts some water in the clay bowl. He then kills one of the birds over the bowl, spilling its blood in to mix with the water. Taking the cedar wood, hyssop sprig, scarlet thread, and live bird in his hands, he dips them into the blood and water, then sprinkles the mixture over the infected individual or house. 

This makes it "clean."

It doesn't really sound clean. Not to most of us. It sounds more like, a mess. But life is messy; there's no way around it. Life is messy. Sanctification is messy. Purification is messy. There's nothing "clean" about any of this. 

And if you need proof of that, look no further than the Cross. 

On the Cross, we have the scarlet thread - it's the same scarlet thread we've been tracing through the firstborn Son, second Adam, kinsman-redeemer motifs of the Bible. But it's not just that.'s a bird (the poor man's sacrifice, stretched out by His wings, heart ripped open).

...and a clay bowl (an earthen vessel, a body formed from dirt in the potter's hands).

...and some wood (the Cross itself).

...and a sprig (tied into a crown of thorns).

...and a little bit of Living Water.

From His side, blood and water flowed, and by the Cross, His blood was shed and sprinkled on an unclean creation that somehow, someway...becomes clean. 

It doesn't really sound clean. Not to most of us. It sounds more like, a mess. But love is messy. 

Thank God He's not afraid to get a little dirty. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Window in Jericho

Tamar was only pretending to be a prostitute when she became pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah, and bore a son who wore the scarlet thread. But we'll see the scarlet thread again...this time, hanging from the window of a real prostitute: 


Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho, the first city that Israel encountered on her sojourn from the wilderness into the Promised Land. When Israel sent spies to scope out the city, it was Rahab who sheltered them and kept them from being captured. She believed the rumors that she'd heard about God. (And we saw on Monday this week how she was one spared in an ever-broadening circle of God's all-encompassing plan.) 

The spies made an arrangement with the prostitute and when they returned with the full army of Israel, they looked for the scarlet thread hanging in her window. This was the sign that this was her house, that she remembered them and the promise they'd made to her, that she believed them, and that she had done what they asked and was prepared, with her family, to be saved. 

Really, the two parties could have chosen any sign. She could have left a lantern burning in plain sight. Or perhaps she could have placed a certain pot on the window sill. Maybe she and her family could have gone up on the roof and waited to be brought down. She could have hung the rope that she let the spies down with out the same window they'd escaped from. 

But they chose a scarlet thread. 

Now, here's what's cool about the Rahab story. We're told that because of her fear of the Lord, she saved not only herself, but her whole family. The spies told her she was welcome to bring them into her home, and anyone in her home would be saved. So we know that her loved ones were there with her. This makes her the saving grace of her family.

Or, in Israel's terms, a kinsman-redeemer (literally: family-saver). 

So then, trace Rahab's descendants a little ways. Rahab, the prostitute, the most despicable woman in all of Jericho, who was the only one to fear the Lord and protect Israel as she came into her Promised Land, married an Israelite - from the tribe of Judah - named Salmon. She gave birth to a son named Boaz. 

Boaz is the most famous kinsman-redeemer in all of the Bible. He is the man who married Ruth in the book of Ruth, the closest relative to the daughter-in-law of Naomi, whose husband and sons had all died at a terribly young age. He is the man who provided for Ruth in his fields, then brought her home and married her, giving her (and Naomi) an heir to continue the deceased men's line in Israel's history. That son, that heir, was Obed. Obed was the father of David. 

Then we trace David's line all the way down to Jesus, who goes to the Cross as the firstborn Son, the second Adam, the brother of all brothers, Son of God, Son of Man...

...kinsman-redeemer to all who call upon the name of the Lord. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Scarlet Thread

You may have heard it said, somewhere in some Christian circle, that there's a "scarlet thread" that runs through the Bible, meaning, of course, that it is Jesus's blood that holds this whole God story together. Tied to the very roots of Creation, it was poured out on the Cross and runs through rivers of living water to bring life to a world teetering on the edge of death. It's all very poetical and beautiful.

But, uh, there's also an actual scarlet thread running through the Bible. And it, too, is pretty interesting to trace.

We first see the scarlet thread in Genesis 38 in a rather interesting story.

So here's what happened: Judah, a son of Israel, married off his son to a woman named Tamar. The son dies, having had no children with his wife, and in the kinsman-redeemer social construct of Israel, Judah's next-eldest son marries Tamar. But he also dies having no children. Judah realizes he's only got one son left, so rather than risk losing a third son without heirs, he sends Tamar home and "promises" to send for her when his youngest son is old enough to wed. 

Of course, he never sends for her, and she grows impatient. So she disguises herself as a prostitute and tricks Judah himself into sleeping with her. She ends up pregnant from the encounter, and just as he is about to have her stoned to death for becoming a whore, she reveals that he is the one who slept with her - thinking she was a whore - and she is spared. Bearing twin boys, she goes into labor. One baby sticks his arm out of the womb, so they quickly tie a scarlet thread around it to indicate that he is the firstborn. But then, he pulls his arm back in and his brother is actually born first.

This is the story of Perez and Zerah.

There are some interesting things we have to pick up on in this story if we want to truly trace this scarlet thread through the Bible. 

First, this is a story of Judah. Judah is one of the twelve tribes of Israel, meaning he is one of the twelve sons of Jacob. When Israel's disobedience finally catches up to her and her kingdom is split, Judah becomes its own nation, a remnant, the preservation of something special about Israel. 

Perez - the twin with the scarlet thread tied around his wrist - is a direct great-great-great...ancestor of David, the King that God promised would always have a son on the throne. David is a direct great-great-great....ancestor of Jesus, which means that Perez was, too. 

Oh, this tribe of Judah.

And we know, too, that Jesus is the "only begotten," which means "firstborn" son of God, but we know, too, that Adam was, well, the "first Adam" (Jesus was the "second Adam"). So we look at this story where the "firstborn" son sticks his hand out and is given the scarlet thread, and we look ahead to Jesus, who had His hand on the earth from the very first, and this is the scarlet thread. But the first Adam thwarted everything and came wholly first into the world in flesh and mud and holy breath. 

Perez and Zerah from "In the beginning" to "I am with you always." 

And then there's the woman. She dresses herself as a prostitute; God's always accused His people of whoring on Him. And yet, this unfaithful, disgusting, despicable people is the very same one who bears the Son of the scarlet thread. The world may mock and laugh and scorn and scoff and even pick up stones and say that Israel deserves to die for her unfaithfulness, but God, the Father, steps in and spares her. And all of a sudden, the Father Himself has brought a Son into this world through the "unfaithful" woman, a promise He made from the very beginning and finally has kept, even as the world waits. 

This is the first story of the scarlet thread, and we see how clearly it ties (see what I did there?) into the one we're more familiar with. 

Just wait 'till you see where it shows up next....  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Resident Aliens

Christian thought generally leads us to believe that up until the birth of Jesus, the Jews were God's chosen people, and only after the resurrection did the promise of God extend to the Gentiles. Sure, we know that from the very first covenant, God had in mind the whole of humanity, but clearly, He's got a preference for Israel that extends from the time of Abraham all the way through to the ministry of Jesus (who had a thing for ragamuffins). 

But it's not so simple. 

If you look closely at the Old Testament, every time God's people are brought one step closer to their promise, a few more "outsiders" are let in. 

When their scouts head out to see what Canaan looks like, they come upon a prostitute named Rahab. She and her family are the only ones spared when Israel sacks Jericho, and they do not live as outsiders or remnants of the fallen; no, they become an integral part of the community of God's people. How do we know? Because one testament later, we find out that Rahab is an ancestor of Jesus. 

When the people of Israel are trying to figure out how to celebrate the Passover, it's said that "there may be foreigners among you who want to eat the Passover meal with you." And God's opinion on this? They can. They have to be circumcised and ritually clean at the time, but simply not being biological Jews is no excuse to exclude them from a table that they want to sit at.

When Israel is retaking their land after exile in Babylon, Ezekiel is given the instructions for dividing up the land and settling the tribes back into it. These instructions clearly say, "This land will be for you. It will also be for the foreign residents who live among you.... Think of them as Israelites." (47:22)

There are, of course, other examples along the way, but just look at this progression: one woman/family is spared, then a good number of foreigners are welcomed at the table, and finally, a greater number still are given land among the inheritance of Israel. The prostitute recognized the power of God, the good number were circumcised and cleansed as a sign of their commitment, and the greater number still are integral to the community of God. 

Isn't it cool? 

So often, we look at this as black and white. One moment, Israel; the next moment, the world. But God's been working from Israel out toward the world the whole time, in all these small but significant ways that are so easy to miss if we're not paying attention. 

It really makes you wonder what kind of small but significant things He's up to in your own life that are slowly but surely leading you to a bigger theology and a greater love.... 

Friday, September 15, 2017


We read a passage like the one in Ezekiel 20 that we've been looking at all week, and we're upset. We can't believe that God would refuse to help someone (note: He only asks them to choose, the true exercise of free will). We are appalled that He would pour out His fury on anyone (note: only relational love can produce true fury, and love is not afraid to get angry). Then, we get to the end of the passage and see that He will make Israel obey His commands. 

How dare He! 

In the (post)modern world in which we live, love has no right to make demands. Love can't expect anything. It has to be freely given or it's not really love. If there are conditions on it, simply can't call it love. 

Again, we have confused true love with "tolerant permissiveness." The Bible tells us what love is.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn't jealous. It doesn't sing its own praises. It isn't arrogant. It isn't rude. It doesn't think about itself. It isn't irritable. It doesn't keep track of wrongs. It isn't happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Nowhere in there does it say that love doesn't have expectations. Quite the contrary. If you look at a lot of these things, they assume that love does have expectations.

Why would love need patience if it didn't expect anything? If whatever you do is totally fine because I love you, I have nothing to be patient about. You are what you are, and that's cool. Right? What does love believe in without expectations? We don't believe anything unless we expect something specific. We believe that the sun rises in the east in the mornings; that means we expect in the morning for the sun to rise in the east. Having this expectation doesn't mean we don't value the sunrise. No, many of us treasure it. 

What does love hope in without expectations? Hope requires an expectation. If there is not a reasonable expectation of something occurring, we say it is "hopeless." If you are diagnosed with a terrible illness, you probably hope you will get better. Why? Medicine gives you the hope of getting better. But if your disease is so rare that no treatment exists, you cannot expect to get better. So you have nothing to hope in. Expectation does not diminish our hope; it is the very foundation of it. If love hopes, it expects. 

Love doesn't give up. If it doesn't expect anything, what would it have to give up on? That doesn't make any sense. 

Over and over again, we see that love has expectations. And if love has expectations, then it is fully consistent that the God who is Love would have expectations. Love cannot exist without them. 

In this case, it goes back to what we were talking about with the God who would not let persons turn to Him for help. He's not saying you have to do all the things He wants you to do without question because He's God and that's His decree. No, He's saying, choose. Really choose. If you choose love, if you choose covenant relationship, if you choose to come back to Him, that choice has consequences. 

Choosing love comes with expectations. It cannot be any other way. 

Again, that's not cruel. That's not a power move. That's not theologically troubling. It's just God telling His people that if they want to exercise their free will, they have to make an actual choice and not live by whim and they have to embrace the fullness of that choice. Choose love, and that means something. 

It means, among other things, that you're inviting God to believe in you, to trust you, to hope in you, to never give up on you. It means you're giving God the opportunity to expect something from you, and God is simply saying that if He's going to love you, you'd better live up to it. (Of course, we know that we are fallen and can't fully measure up, but that's no excuse for willful failure. As Paul would say, By no means!) 

It's not just about living up to it, though. It's about knowing that God is investing this much in you. That's what it means to be loved. It means you know that God is believing in you, that God is trusting in you, that God is hoping in you, that God will not give up on you. That has to change the way you live, doesn't it? That has to inspire you to say yes, I'm choosing love. And I know what that means, but I want to have the same expectations of myself that God has of me. It's an invitation to live bigger. 

How could we ever think that was cruel? How could we ever think that was unloving? How could we ever think that is not what God desires for us? 

As we've seen all week, the problem is not God; it's us. We have forgotten what love and free will really are. Then, when God holds them out to us, we turn up our noses and look away. No, we say. That's not what this is. 

Oh, but it is. It's what it has to be. 

Otherwise, it's nothing at all. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Love and Fury

The other part of this passage in Ezekiel where God addresses the faithfulness of His people that we really struggle with is the idea that God would pour out His fury on anything, let alone on His own people. Indeed, that's the problem we have with a lot of the Old Testament - this so-called "loving" God spends an awful lot of His time, it seems, being angry.

To the (post)modern mind, anger simply is not love. Love is, you know, tolerant permissiveness, a passive acceptance of everything for no other reason than that it seems important to us. (This is not, of course, love, but it's what this world seems to think love is.)

What we were looking at yesterday - that God is inherently relational - can help us to shed some light on His fury. Because His fury is, as is everything He does, relational. 

That's what we seem to be missing. When most of us think about God as pouring out His fury, we think about it as a power move. All-mighty, all-powerful, all-perfect God pouring out His wrath unilaterally, just because He can, just because He's God and we're not and He never wants us to forget that He is that far above us. We think of His wrath in the same way that we think of His miracles - shows of power meant to confirm, once more, His authority.

This is one way to look at fury, but it's not the loving way to look at fury. It's not the relational way of looking at fury. 

See, God's fury doesn't come from a mighty hand, but from a wounded heart. It's not one-directional, as power poured out. Rather, it is at least two-directional, a combination of disappointment/frustration with His people and a tremendous grief. Disappointment and frustration move outward; grief moves deeper inward. If only we could see the heart in God's fury....

It's like a parent. When you're a parent and your child does something dumb, something they should have known better than to do, you get upset with your child. You're disappointed in their decision to commit this act, frustrated that they didn't make a better choice, and grieved that you may not have had enough of an influence on them to keep them from doing it in the first place. In other words, you taught them better. They ought to have known better. 

No one would say that you're evil for being upset with your child. No one would say that if you truly loved your child, you wouldn't care what they did. No one would say that you don't have a right to be angry. Almost universally, this world would understand the tension you feel between your disappointment/frustration and your grief, which manifests as anger. Almost universally, every other parent would look at you and say, "Been there. I'm sorry." 

It's this kind of understanding that we need to have about God's fury. Like the parent who feels precisely this same thing when a child goes astray, God's fury is inherently relational. It just is. It's not because He's God and we're "mere humans," just cosmic pawns in His eternal game. No. It's because He is our Father, and we've done something dumb. He is disappointed, frustrated, and grieved, and at the same time that He's upset with us, He's upset with Himself, wondering if somehow He failed us. Wondering if He had enough of an influence that we shouldn't have done it in the first place. For sure, God thinks, He taught us better. 

This isn't inconsistent for me. When I hear persons talk about how they can't understand how God can get angry with His people and claim to be a God of love, I don't share that sentiment. I don't know how God could love us, really love us, and not get angry with us. I don't know how we could be His children if He didn't get cheesed off with us every now and then. 

Like all children, we often misunderstand this. We stomp to our rooms, pouting, declaring, "God hates us." But it's not that at all. God loves us. He loves us enough to get angry with us. He loves us enough to show us His disappointment. He loves us enough to bear His grief for our sake. 

We're not wrong to believe in this love. What we have to remember, though, is that God's love is true love, not the (post)modern myth of tolerant permissiveness. It's truly relational.

Just like His fury

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


But this happens all the time, right? We are living in a world where even the most useless idea becomes valuable when there's all of a sudden a benefit in it for us. Tell us what we can gain by it, and we're on board. Take our greatest enemy and make him useful for our gain, and all of a sudden, he's our best friend.

Let us fall on hard times, and we'll start looking around for God. At least until those hard times pass.

There are a lot of verbs God gives us in the Bible for relating to Him. There are all kinds of ways we can approach Him. We can love Him; we can hate Him. We can worship Him; we can reject Him. We can serve Him; we can rob Him. We can please Him; we can grieve Him. We can call out to Him, cry out to Him, pray to Him. We can ask, seek, knock. Heck, we can even ignore God if we want to. We can curse God. We can forsake God.

The one thing we can't do is use Him. God never says "use me."

He says we can take refuge in Him. We can trust Him. We can obey Him. We can disobey Him. We can seek Him. We can find Him. We can turn away from Him. We can turn back to Him. We can embrace Him. We can adore Him. We can despise Him.

Still, we cannot use Him.

To use God is to fundamentally change the relationship that He wants to have with us. Out of all of these other verbs that He's given us, what we can easily see is that they are all relationship verbs. These are all things that we do with other persons. Some of this language, we use also for things, but they are words meant for people. We were never meant to "love" burgers or to "hate" broccoli; we use these words, but that's not how they were intended. They're relational words. Every one of them.

But "use" - this is not a relational word, not in the same sense. When you use something, one thing is a person and the other is an object. We use tools. We use resources. We use goods and services. Even though we have a turn of phrase that says that we "use" persons, we were never meant to. "Use" is not a relational word; it's a power word. It's objectifying. And when we only use God, we objectify Him. He's no longer a "He;" He's an "It."

The God whose wild imagination created you did not come to this earth and die on a Cross to be your "It."

That's why He says you have to choose. That's why He says if you choose against Him, you can't just call on Him. You can do anything you want - that's the nature of free will - but you cannot objectify Him. He will always be a He, so whatever you do, it's relational. It's interpersonal. And the minute that it's not relational in your eyes, God has every right to step back and say, you have made your choice.

Had you hated Him, He would have loved you back. Had you turned away, He would have pursued you. Had you turned back, He would have embraced you. Had you sought Him, He would have been found. Had you ignored Him, He would have grieved. Had you forsake Him, He would have wept.

But if you think you're going to use Him, He's the one who will turn away. He has to. Because He values so much the relationship, and He won't let you trash that. How could He? It would change everything.

Because how do you turn back and love a God who let you use Him? How do you respect Him enough to ever see Him as a living, breathing God? Why would you even want to? There's nothing to pull you back into relationship if God lets you go rogue by not choosing.

So choose. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


One of the difficulties we looked at yesterday in God's plan for the unfaithful in Ezekiel was the idea that God would not let persons turn to Him for help once they had turned away. This is difficult because throughout the Bible, God teaches that He longs for His people to turn to Him for help; Christians preach all the time that we should turn to Him for help; He even grieves over those who do not turn to Him for help. 

But here He is, saying that He won't even let this people turn to Him for help. He won't allow it. He won't help them.

What gives? 

What gives is that God will not be your back-up plan. He won't be another one of your whims. In this passage, we're looking at a people who have chosen to turn their backs on Him, and what God is saying here is that if you're going to make a choice, you have to understand that that choice comes with consequences. 

If it doesn't, you haven't made a choice at all.

This is something that our modern (or rather, postmodern) world doesn't understand very well. Today, it's almost expected that we'd all just fly by the seat of our pants, doing whatever feels good, pursuing whatever strikes us as good or valuable or meaningful at any given time. We talk about choice like it's the foundation of our existence, but honestly, we're living a life that doesn't require us to choose at all. 

We don't have to make commitments any more; nobody expects us to. Things change. The world is constantly in flux. We can't be expected to make any real choices because the circumstances of our experience or our interaction with the world might change at any second and necessitate that we change our minds. So we never actually make them up, never choose anything at all. And that also means we never choose for or against God. 

He's just one of those things that we might happen upon - or not - depending on how life falls. 

And our God who is never-changing says that's not good enough. Our God who has created us to choose things says that's not how it works. Our God who has given us free will to decide what we want our lives to look like says we were not meant to live this amorphous life that doesn't look like anything at all. We have to choose. And if we have to choose, we have to accept the consequences. 

So if you choose not to be God's people, don't call on Him for help. That's how it works. That's what you're deciding by your choice. You say you don't need God; don't cry out to Him. God's not doing that to you; you're choosing that. Choices have consequences. 

Now, that doesn't mean that if, sometime in the future, you consider your position carefully and come into new evidence that makes you turn toward God that He will not accept you. His testimony on this is clear - anyone who wants to change their life, turn toward Him, repent of their unfaithfulness, and embrace His gift of the Cross is welcome to do so at any time. In fact, nothing would make Him happier. He welcomes you with open arms. 

But this, too, is a choice, not a whim. If you're only crying out for God when you've got a problem that's bigger than you, you haven't made a choice for Him. If you only turn to Him when you've run out of other options, with the plan to turn back once you figure some things out, then you haven't made a choice for Him. If your longing for God goes no further than surface panic and doesn't echo out of the depths of your heart, you haven't made a choice for Him. You're using Him.

And God will not be used. 

That's all that's going on here. God says, yes, you have free will, and He will never make you choose Him. But free will implies that you can make a choice, and if you haven't made a choice, you haven't exercised your free will. If you have made a choice, you have to live with the consequences of that choice. Which means...if you choose not to be His people, you can't pretend He is your God. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Loving God and Free Will

One of the ideas that's floating around about God - and especially moreso these days - is that God doesn't really care what you do. If you choose not to follow Him, that's cool; He'll just let you do your own thing. You won't be His people, and you might not go to Heaven, but He's not really going to pursue you or try to convince you that you're wrong. That's what free will is all about, right? God wants you to choose Him, but if you don't....


It's one of the things this world really likes about God. They figure if they reject Him, He's just going to leave them alone and let them do whatever they want. They considered His covenant, chose something different, and now, they are free to pursue life as they'd always dreamt of it. And, increasingly, Christians are affirming this. We actually tell non-believers that God wants them to choose Him, but it has to be their choice. If they choose not...


But that's not really what the Bible says about God, and it's certainly not the God that we see at work in the world from the very beginning. To see what God really thinks about all this, we have to turn no further than the middle of Ezekiel.

Once again, God's furious with His people. They've turned their backs on Him, been unfaithful, stopped worshiping and praying and trusting. Worst of all, they've turned to the disgusting idols of the nations around them. Again and again in Ezekiel 20, God says how furious He is with them. He rails against their unfaithfulness. He's mad. And He's not about to throw up His hands and say, "Oh, well. That's what free will is for." 

Now, most will read what happens next and conclude that God is some kind of hatemonger, some kind of irrational, violent, vengeful God. 

See, His plan for responding to His people's unfaithfulness is multi-stage. First, He says, He will scatter them. He'll send them out to all kinds of places that aren't "home." Then, He says He will terrify them so that there's no doubt in their mind that He is God. (At this point in Ezekiel, these two things have already taken place.)

Once they know that He is God, He will refuse to let them ask Him for help. They can't just come running back to Him. But He will gather them together, draw them back to the place that He has called them. He will pull them back from the influences of this world and shelter them in His place. And then, He will put them on trial. He will convict them of their unfaithfulness. And then, God says through Ezekiel, "I will make you keep the terms of the promise." 

Our world really struggles with this, and for a couple of reasons. They struggle with the idea that God would terrify His people or, in another place in this passage, that He would pour out His fury on them. That doesn't sound like love to them. (But a God who is cool with just abandoning His people because they don't want Him sounds loving.) They struggle with the idea that God would not let His people ask Him for help. But remember, these people have said they are not His people. They've chosen not to be. All God is asking is for them to be consistent - if you don't want to be My people, then don't be My people. This is harsh, the world says. How can this God be loving? (But a God who embraces our inconsistencies and has no standard for relationship sounds loving.)

And then we get to the end and God says He will make His people keep up their end of the covenant, and the world cringes at this, too. This God who was all about free will now requires His people to be faithful? What happened to free will? This doesn't sound like God gave us free will at all or that He even wants love. (But a God who doesn't require us to do loving things is, you know, truly loving.) Again, though, it's about consistency - if you're going to be My people, then you have to be My people. You don't just get what you want out of the deal; this has to be real love. Real relationship. The real deal. 

The world balks at this. But it's not the illusion the world says that it is. And it's not at all inconsistent with free will or a loving God. In fact, it's exactly what we'd expect if God truly valued our freedom to choose and if God loved us as fully as He says He does. In this response, He has given us the depths of both. 

(Stay tuned.)

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Caution of Jonah

For the past couple of days, we've been looking at the prophet Ezekiel and his unique witness to the people of Israel, a witness that is much-needed in the world today. When we talk about prophets in general, Ezekiel is not really tops on our list; we prefer the fire-and-brimstone, radical truth and judgment of prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah (although, again, to consider this even their primary witness is a gross misreading of the prophets' hearts). 

But even further down on our list than the weird prophet Ezekiel is the disobedient prophet Jonah, who we barely consider a prophet at all. This is tragic, for Jonah, too, has something very important to teach us about witnessing in our world.

When we think about Jonah, we think about how disobedient he was. That, we think, is what he has to teach us - the dangers of being disobedient to what God is calling us to do, even when it's something that we don't particularly want to do. We should go anyway, do the faithful thing, do what God asks us to do, because it's not really avoidable. No matter how far we run, God will find us, and we'll end up doing what He wants us to do anyway. 

Well, isn't that just a cute little story.

What we often read right past, and what is absolutely essential that we understand about Jonah, is not that he was disobedient, but why he was disobedient: he had already judged Nineveh.

Jonah didn't refuse to go to Nineveh because he was busy. He didn't question whether God had sent him, trying to figure out if the call was legitimate or not. He wasn't dragging his feet because it was a long and dirty road and he'd just rather not. 

Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because he had some very strong notions about who the Ninevites were, and he didn't want them to have God's grace. The people of Nineveh were disgusting to Jonah and an abomination unto God. As far as the prophet was concerned, they could all burn in Hell. 

This is the very dangerous truth that we have to know about Jonah's story, precisely because it is such an easy temptation for the church to fall into today. I hate to say that. It breaks my heart to say that. But the witness of the judgment-loving church in the modern world is clear: far too many Christians have already made up their minds about the disgusting peoples in the world - adulterers, pedophiles, homosexuals, atheists, black people, white people, abortion providers, politicians, males, females, liberals, conservatives, whoever it is that we feel self-righteous about being judgmental of. And we are unwilling to be the Lord's prophets to these persons.

As far as we're concerned, they can all just burn in Hell. (And we've almost made a sport out of telling them as much.) 

This is tragic. It's heartbreaking. And for too long, the church has lied to herself and convinced herself that this is what God actually requires of her. After all, didn't the prophets judge the people? Didn't they condemn them? 

No. No, the prophets didn't. To believe that that's the heart of the prophets is a gross misreading of the prophecy of the Old Testament. And in fact, if we look at the one case where the prophet really did judge and condemn the people - the case of Jonah - we see that this is the example we have always used of unfaithfulness. Nobody, we say, should want to be a prophet like Jonah.

But we are. All the time. 

And just like the prophet, who probably never did get all of the fish guts out of his hair, we reek.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Living Witness

Yesterday, I suggested that this world needs more prophets like Ezekiel, in contrast to what the modern church has done with the more fire-and-brimstone, truth-and-judgment prophets (and to be honest, that's a pretty unfair reading of them, too). But that's tough for us because Ezekiel was so, well, weird.

But weird is what this world needs.

Everything that's weird about Ezekiel is exactly right for what it means to be a witness in this world. When we talk about a prophet who spent more than a year lying on his side, only to flip over and spend another almost-6 weeks lying on his other side, we're talking about a prophet who lives what he preaches. We're talking about a guy who doesn't just talk. He's an example to the world, and you can see it in the way that he acts. That's the kind of witness this world needs - a witness that's done just talking and ready to live it out. They need to see a faith that has a real, tangible, meaningful impact on our lives, not just one that entitles us to some kind of hypocritical self-righteousness. If that means lying on our sides, let's do it. Let's have a faith that requires as much of us as we want to require of "sinners" (who, by the way, we must be counted among). 

When we talk about a prophet who does not grieve when his wife dies, who instead does what God has asked him to do and goes about his daily life, we're talking about a prophet who actually believes what he says he believes. He believes that he can trust God. That's the kind of witness this world needs - a witness that actually believes what it claims. So often, we talk about things like peace, joy, and forgiveness. But then the line at the Wal-mart takes too long, the waitress brings us slightly undercooked french fries, the bill exceeds the paycheck, and we're just like everyone else. Where is this God that we said we believed in? Oh, we don't believe in Him now. Not for any practical things. Our faith in God is kind of, you know, philosophical. It's the kind of thing we think about when we have the luxury of thinking, but in the process of living? Forget it. And this world sees right through us. They need to see something different. If that means standing up, washing our faces, and setting out into this broken world all over again, then let's do it. Let's have a faith that is what we say it is, especially in the times when we so desperately need it to be. 

When we talk about a prophet who has these wild visions of angels, we're talking a prophet who trusts in the imagination of a created people. He know that what he's seen is indescribable, but he tries to tell his story anyway. Why? Because it's important. And even though he's specific in his details, he knows that not everyone is going to get what he's trying to say. But they might come close. That's the kind of witness this world needs - one that trusts in their imagination. We've gotten so scared that someone might think something different about God than we do, that they might not come to exactly all of our conclusions. So we spend much of our time and testimony trying to tell everyone what to believe, exactly what to believe. This world has forgotten how to dream about God. They have forgotten how to conceive of Him. They don't know what it means that He is beyond their imagination because modern Christendom has told them there's no room for creativity, that we can't trust them to play with the image and figure it out. And they're missing so much of Him. We have failed to give them so much of Him. Why? Because we don't know what they'd do with it. Let them dream! Give them enough to spark their imaginations. Let them be creative in the image of their Creator. If that means painting bizarre images, I'll get the brushes. Let's have a faith that imagines, that dreams, that depends upon this creativity. 

When we talk about a prophet who watches dry bones come alive, we're talking about a prophet who confesses the limitations of his knowledge. He knows how bodies work, roughly. He knows how bones come together. He knows how muscle and tendon and skin are vital to a human being. He understands, he thinks, death and dryness and decay. But what he doesn't know is how dry bones become flesh - there's something there he can't understand or explain, except to say that it is God. That's the kind of witness this world needs. We got so interested in pretending that we have all the answers, that we've got it figured out, that we know everything - and if we don't know, we make something up. But there's an incredible mystery in God, and our firm answers just don't do it justice. The world needs to see us saying there are some things we can't understand; we can only believe. Let's have a faith that knows the limits of its own knowledge, that makes room for the mystery of God.

When we're talking about a prophet like Ezekiel, we're talking the kind of living witness this world needs - a witness that's actually acting out the faith that is what it claims to be, that dares to imagine and that knows the limits of its own knowledge. And so many other things (need we also be willing to eat our own words sometimes?)....

...even if it is weird.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Prophet Like Ezekiel

The Old Testament is full of prophets and the testimony of prophets, men and women called by God to deliver His message of truth to the people of Israel amidst their unfaithfulness. Although their messages are usually grim, with lots of fire and brimstone, this sounds to a lot of God's faithful like exactly what these people need. Someone needs to tell them the hard truth and set them free!

For a long time - a tragically long time - these are the pages from which modern Christianity has taken its cue. Rather than sharing an emphasis with the early church in Acts on meeting together, breaking bread, instruction, and prayer, the modern church has had more in common with the prophets of Israel's most wicked days, thumping their Bibles and declaring judgment over the fallen world.

And then, there's Ezekiel.

Ezekiel kind of gets pushed to the side a little bit because, well, Ezekiel's book is weird. Ezekiel sees weird visions, he does weird things.

Ezekiel is the one who tells us what the angels look like, which is far different than the image we get when, say, Gabriel comes bearing a message to Mary. The angels have four faces and more than one set of wings. They each come with their own wheel, which is a whirling sort of wheel trapped within another wheel. And everything about them is covered in eyes. Eyes, eyes, and more eyes - eyes as far as the eyes can...well...see. 

Ezekiel is the one who tells us about the valley of dry bones, where before his very eyes, all these bones rose up out of this makeshift graveyard on the edge of town and started piecing themselves back together. Bone came upon bone, ligament and tendon appeared, then muscle and flesh, from only-God-knows-where, and these dead bones lived. 

Ezekiel is the one who eats the words God's given him. He doesn't just write them down and stick them in a jar the way Jeremiah does. He doesn't wrap them up in a scroll and tuck it in his pocket. No, he painstakingly records all that God has given him to say...and then he eats it, paper and all.

Ezekiel is the one that God called to lie on his side for a number of days, one day for each year of punishment that God intended to bring upon His people. And when he's finished that - more than a solid year of lying on his side - God has him flip over and lie on his other side for another number of days, one day for each year of punishment that God intended to bring upon His other people. Right out there in public, right in front of everybody. Ezekiel just lying on his side. 

Ezekiel is the one who God told not to mourn, not to cry, not to change anything about his life when the unthinkable happened, and then God took Ezekiel's wife from him. 

The whole thing is just weird, and the more you read it, the weirder it gets. And when we start to think about what kind of prophets we want to be in the world, what we want to do with God's truth, our easy answer is: not this. This is not the kind of prophet we want to be.

But it's exactly the kind of prophet the world needs. Particularly, I think, today's world. And for a lot of reasons.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Test of Spirit

All these little annoyances that come into our lives are not tests of faith, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to them. At the end of a day like the one I described yesterday, it doesn't much matter what I did with the baby bumblebee; it wasn't a test of faith.

But it matters, I think, that I laughed.

See, not every little thing that happens is a test of faith, but quite often, days like this day are tests of spirit.

At the end of a day like this day, can I laugh when one more little thing comes up? At the end of a day like this one, can I feel something holy about connecting with God? Can I connect with God at all? At the end of a day like this day, can I bring myself to worship? If I turn on a playlist of praise right now, will I be encouraged or annoyed?

That is the question of a day like this one.

We need look no further than the book of Job to figure that out. Job was a guy who had a lot of these kinds of days. And often, when we read the book of Job, we find ourselves wondering just how much he was willing to put up with. We want to know how far he can be pushed. We read the devil's temptations, and we can't help but ask the same questions: just what do you have to do to this guy to get him to give up?

But Job's story was never about giving up. Not. once. There is no narrative in God's story for "quit;" that's not what it was about. Job's story was about spirit. How far can you push Job before Job is not Job any more?

At what point does Job stop praying? At what point does he stop trusting? At what point does Job lose perspective on his life, his heart, his God? At what point does Job look into a shard of broken mirror and no longer recognize the man looking back at him?

At what point do I?

Count it all joy, the Bible tells us. Count it all joy when you are tested. And we wonder how that could ever be possible.

At the end of a day like this one, I know. It is joy because it shows me plain and clear where I'm at, and if that's anywhere near where I'd hope I would be, it's on my knees. It's joy because that moment when I'm just about to lose all perspective is the same moment when I see most clearly. It's joy because just as I'm about to throw my hands in the air and ask God why things have to be this way, I realize that my first instinct is still to run to God. Even if I'm indignant, at least I'm here - asking Him what's up. Maybe my faith is not as shaken as it seems.

Maybe there's something to this spirit that hasn't given in yet.

And in that moment, man. I don't know. I don't know what day could be better than this one. The world is falling down around me in a million little ways, but somehow, I'm still standing. Somehow, I'm still trusting. Somehow, I'm still seeking, and my gut reaction to whatever doesn't seem to be working for me is to turn to the One who is working all things for good. That's got to be a good moment, doesn't it? That's got to be a good day.

So at the end of a day filled with minor irritations, common annoyances, and a thousand distractions, I shake my head and smile. I laugh a little bit. I wash my hands, wipe my face, and pray, knowing that God is who He says He is, and I'm okay, too.

And I thank God...for days like this one.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Angles and Demons

Some days, I really feel the tension between my faith and my fallen world. It doesn't have to be the big things, and it's usually not; it's usually just a bunch of minor irritations, little things that I have to keep working around when, honestly, I'm just trying to do one faithful thing.

And sometimes, I know what that faithful thing is. I'm sure of it. I know that there is the whisper of God in my heart to take a step in this direction, to trust Him with this resource, to risk this potential awkwardness, and then there's this tremendous sense of grace when I just bite the bullet and do it. 

But then, there's something else. Then, something else. Then, something else. Inevitably, I get this voice in my head that screams, God, I just did what You asked me to do. Can't I catch a break? As though, of course, I'm entitled to a life without irritations. 

But some days, they just get thrown off. They just take turns that I'm not expecting. They require things I don't have, suck up time I haven't planned for. I grow increasingly frustrated as time seems to push me further from my own imagination and there's nothing left to dream of, nothing to hope for except that this day would end and that tomorrow might be better.

It's important to note that on days like these, there almost always (if not always) comes a time when, if I just keep pushing through, something so absolutely ordinary and ridiculous will occur that will push me past frustration and into concessive joy. I just can't help but laugh. Because if it weren't so obviously every little thing, it just wouldn't be a day like today. 

The last one of these days I had (over the weekend), it was a bumblebee. One thing after another after another after another until I finally was able to look up and think I might be able to finally breathe for just a second, and there laid a dead baby bumblebee in my kitchen floor. I'm severely allergic to bumblebees. I have two dogs who are going to want to play with the bumblebee. I can't just leave it in the floor; I have to do something about it. That something will require hauling out the vacuum cleaner to make sure a stray stinger doesn't end up somewhere potentially harmful for me. So I opened the closet door, dragged out the vacuum cleaner, sighed, then laughed.

Because on a day like this one, it really is every little thing.

But not every little thing is a test of faith. That's what it's so easy to lose sight of when we run into these kinds of days. We start to think the whole thing is just one big test of faith, but it's not. There may be one test of faith nestled in there somewhere, that thing that has the voice of God whispering in your heart that you need to respond in a specific way. Most of it, though? Not faith-related.

That's why the title for this post is not a typo. It's not angels and demons; it's angels and demons. It's all about how we look at things. We have to be able to see with eyes that know which things are sacred, which things are spiritual, which things are significant, and which things just are. 

On a day like this day, I did the faithful thing. I did one faithful thing, the one thing I truly believed that God was asking me to do. How did I know it was the faithful thing? It required faith. It required that I put my money where my mouth is, trust God, take a step, move. It required that I confess something fundamental about God that I believe...and then live as though I actually do believe that. And at the end of this day, when I ask myself how I did, that's the moment I'm going to look back on as my yardstick. 

Given the chance - the command - to do one faithful thing that I hadn't really planned on having to do today, I did it. I chose faith. At the end of this day, when I pray, I'm going to thank God for the opportunity to do this thing. I'm going to thank Him for blessing it. 

I'm going to thank Him for blessing me.

Friday, September 1, 2017

A Bit of Context

Of course, it is always possible that I'm wrong on this whole idea of women in the Gospels being images of the people of God. I've been wrong before. I will be wrong again. Maybe this is just another one of those times.

Maybe Jesus really is the radical feminist that modern Christianity makes Him out to be. Maybe these are stories about sex and waste and inappropriate social dynamics. Maybe the women at the tomb were chosen precisely because they were women and their testimony would be a radical step in a new direction for a new faith that was about to take the world by storm.

What do I know?

But we have to at least consider the possibility that God uses women in the Gospels, at least in part, the same way He uses them throughout the rest of Scripture. That can't be offensive to us; it was a different context, a different time, a different place. And if we read into everything our modern sensibilities, we're going to miss a lot of what God is doing.

Because we can't make sense of the Bible if we're so busy either being offended by it or championing it as something that it never intended to be, and these are the extremes that we're drawn to when we don't consider how God crafts His story but focus too intently on what we think it says.

Just take one example - one of the biggest complaints that modern minds have regarding Christianity is that God is a warmonger. He loves to wage war and kill people. How can we reconcile that with the God of love that we see in Jesus?

The simple answer is that we're wrong on both counts; we're not reading either testament correctly if these are the dichotomous images that we come up with. The truth is that the God of the Old Testament did not relish blood, and the Jesus of the New Testament is not all love and unicorns. 

In the Old Testament, we have witness that God condemned the sin of Cain (which was murder). God told David that the reason he could not build the Temple was because he had too much blood on his hands, even though God was the one who led him into battle (there were a couple of murders in there, which undoubtedly also play a role). Over and over again in succession battles, we see the cautionary tale being offered that killing off one's competitors is not the way to go. It's not as simple as blood, guts, and glory - that's not at all the image of God that the Old Testament paints when taken as a consistent witness.

In the New Testament, we see Jesus lose His temper a few times. He storms through the Temple, throwing over tables. He calls the Pharisees all kinds of vile names. Snakes. Hypocrites. He weeps at the death of His friend, grieves over Jerusalem, agonizes over the fate of God's people. He doesn't go around hugging everybody and telling them He loves them and that He doesn't care what they do; He's invested in their stories, which is His story, too. 

But we bring our modern minds into it, and we read war and love, blood and "tolerance," and we say, how can this possibly be? It is only because we are not reading God's story, but our own fantasy. We are not reading His sensibilities, but our own.

That's why we have to be willing to at least consider the idea that there are scenes in God's story that aren't what we thought they were or even, sometimes, what we'd like them to be. I mean, yeah, it would be great if everything was just straightforward and convenient, but the Bible wasn't written to people of our time. It wasn't even written to people of its own time.

It was written to God's people of all time.

So we have to be able - and willing - to step out of our own culture and into the Kingdom if we ever hope to understand what it is that God has to say to us. And in the Kingdom of God? I don't know. Maybe it is about sex.

But maybe it's not.