Wednesday, January 31, 2018

For God So Loved

There is a deep danger within the modern church's emphasis on a selfless Christianity, with the notion that we all, upon coming to the altar, get pushed to the side into the place of bridesmaids to make room for the next bride and the next bride and the next bride after that. There is a deep danger with the notion that Christianity is "not about us." And it starts here:

For God so loved the world....

For God so loved the world that He sent His Son into it. Not because He wanted the world to know how awesome and amazing a God He is. Not because He wanted to just show His power and coolness in one more way. Not because He needed to practice controlling Creation one more time. But because He

When you read about God's love in the Bible, it's never just because God is love, although that's certainly a large part of it. God's love in the Bible is always God's directed love, the love He has for His people. For us. Everything God does out of love, He does because He's got His eyes on us, because He's got His heart on us. 

He didn't send His Son to die for His own good, but for ours. He didn't breathe the world into Creation just to have a world to worry about; He did it so He would have a world to put us in. He didn't drive the nations out of the Promised Land because He could, because they were some sort of pawns in His cosmic game of Risk, but He did it to make a way for His children to enter in...because He loves His children. 

We are not called the bride of Christ because He's tired of being single and has decided to settle for whatever He can get; we are called the bride of Christ because He deeply, deeply loves us

So if we say that God is love, but we do not know how incredibly God loves specifically us, then we are missing something absolutely essential to our faith.

It's a point of tension in Christianity. By the fallen nature of men's hearts, it always has been. We don't want to give the impression that our faith is about us, but if it were not for God's loving eye specifically on us, there would be no such thing as faith to begin with. We don't want to give the impression that we love God just because He loves us, but the Scriptures themselves say, "we love because He first loved us." 

We know that this love is at the root of all that we do, but we don't want it to be misinterpreted or misconstrued as being the heart of our Christianity, even though we cannot help but recognize that it is at the heart of our Christ. 

Thus, we have settled for a Christianity that says that God is love, but never experiences it - one that makes room at the altar, then pushes itself aside so that there's always a space to stand next to Christ, always that expectancy, always that breathtaking beauty, always that moment just waiting...but never lived. 

We have settled for a Christianity where a great bulk of the Christian faithful declare with their tongues that God is love, but their hearts have never known it. Because, you know, it's not about us. is. 

God says it is. It's you that takes His breath away when you stand at the back of the aisle and start to move. It's you for whom He waits. It's for you that the stars dance in the darkness, that the butterfly flaps its wings, that His Son carries His cross. It's for you that He sheds His blood, and it's for you that the tomb is empty. It's for you that this space at the altar stands empty. Not so that you can come down and, at just the last second, step aside. No.

You are the bride of Christ. He loves you.

And if your modern Christianity doesn't know how to make room for that, it's time to find yourself an olden way. For even John the disciple knew enough to call himself "the one that Jesus loved." It is no less true of you and I. 

We are the ones who Jesus loves. 

It's time that we have a faith that can handle that. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Selfless Christianity

If it's true that modern Christianity has made us all bridesmaids, never brides, then it is, in part, because we have taken the Great Commission seriously. It is also in part because we want to grow our congregations; we judge ourselves, as the world judges us, by our numbers. But it is also because we don't want our Christianity to be all about us.

It's supposed to be about God. Isn't it? If it's supposed to be about God, then there is no room for our belovedness.

We want our faith to be a stark contrast to this fallen world, a world that is all about me, me, me. So we don't let our Christianity talk about us; we spend our whole lives talking about our Christianity, as though it's something we have instead of something we are.

And we come up with all of these good, wonderful, amazing things to say about God, but we never experience them. That would be too dangerous. That would be too close to making our religion self-serving, wouldn't it?

Do you know how many Christians - God-fearing, Bible-reading, faithful-praying, church-attending, community-serving, praise-and-worship Christians - have not once felt like God loves them? Truly loves them?

The numbers are astounding, and this is a faith that claims its God is love.

It's because they've been told that if their faith is about how much God loves them, then they're just egotists. They're just in it to make themselves feel better. They don't really love God; they just love that He loves them, so they're taking advantage of His good nature. The accusations go on and on and on because we're all so terribly afraid that if we admit that God loves us, really loves us, then maybe we're making God in our image after all.

It's because we've been told that God's highest aim for us is not that we should not think of ourselves too highly (as His word says), but that we should not think of ourselves at all. We should not think about whether or not we are beautiful. We should not think about whether or not we are gifted. We should not think about whether or not we are lovely. We should not think about whether or not we are beloved. We should not think about ourselves one way or the other, for we should constantly be thinking of God and of His purposes and His mission and His will.

And so we have become perpetual bridesmaids in ugly church dresses, always making all of the arrangements and writing the speeches and talking about a God that, quite honestly, many of us have never experienced because for that one brief second when we were the bride, for that one moment when the church came alongside us to celebrate our beauty, we blinked, and as soon as we were brought in, we were pushed aside to make room for the next bride, the next beauty, the next one who needed to know that God is love, all while being gently reminded that it's not about us.

It's about God.

There's just one problem with that. (Okay, more than one problem, but one very big problem.) Do you see it?

Stay tuned.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Always a Bridesmaid

Modern Christianity, although it seeks desperately the heart of Jesus, has one fatal flaw: it seeks to capture, not to be taken captive. And this is an exceptionally important difference.

We are taught in today's church that Christianity is an outward movement. On the personal side, it is an outward movement of worship, of prayer, of Bible reading, of the spiritual disciplines, of service, etc. On the communal side, it is an outward movement of outreach. We have taken very seriously the Great Commission, which is to go and make disciples of all nations, but we forget the heart that beats behind it all. 

That little verse that says, "We love because He first loved us." 

To put it another way, modern Christianity has so focused itself on its outward reach that today's church is full of bridesmaids, not the bride. We're all so busy trying to help others get to the altar, to make their day special and beautiful, to play a supporting role in their betrothal, that we've forgotten that when the music plays, we are the ones who will walk down the aisle and see our Groom standing there waiting for us. 

We are the ones who will take His breath away. 

At least, that's how it's supposed to be. That's how God envisioned it. I think today's church, and modern Christianity in general, wants us to skip right ahead from the infatuation of dating to the settled rhythms of a long marriage without ever really entering into this betrothal and covenantal phase wherein the Bridegroom makes us feel...beloved. We're supposed to just go from falling in love with Jesus to getting others to fall in love with Jesus, from walking into our church to getting others to walk into our church. 

And then when we get there, all of our lessons, all of our studies, all of our focus is on getting the persons in our church - ourselves included - to love Jesus more. It's not we, the bridesmaids, who are beloved; neither is it them, the bride. Rather, we invest almost all of our religious efforts at convincing converts that He is our beloved.

After, of course, we sucker them in by telling them how much He loves them, a point we almost never touch on again once they are firmly in the door. 

Oh, we might occasionally mention it. We might say things like, "God loves you so much" or even "God loves me so much," but it's an intellectual assent; it's something we "know." It's not a matter of the heart. There are not many among us who know how deeply God loves us. 

And that's a problem.

We feel it. We all know we feel it. Because when someone else walks through our doors, when someone else steps into our baptistery, when someone else says, "Yes! I do!" we feel the pang in our own hearts. We feel our own love story rekindled. We feel the ache in our heart that wonders, wonders because it was never given time to know, if it is beloved. We look down at our worn, tattered, is-this-even-a-real-color bridesmaid dresses, and we twirl around a little bit, pretending, imagining that the flowing train is our. Imagining that the swirling skirt is ours. Imagining that it is us who the whole world turned around to see when the music started. It was a moment we...almost....had...

Before we were told that wasn't it at all. Before we were told that it was our duty to love Him. Before we were told that it was our job to bring others to Him. Before we were convinced that this whole Christianity thing was about loving God and making disciples.

Before the modern church shoved a program in our hands and told us, sorry, you're the bridesmaid.

And God loves you for it. You know, like a best friend or something.

And so, we've lost our belovedness. We've lost that sense that God deeply loves us. We've lost that understanding of our inherent beauty and wonder and value in God's eyes. Because modern Christianity has made us all bridesmaids, every one of us. 

Even though deep in our hearts, we long to be brides. 

Friday, January 26, 2018


It was a day that really could have been any day, the kind of midweek day where everything is in full swing, and I was seeking a little respite just to read for a bit. That's when a young couple walked into the church and turned down toward the pastor's office. As their voices carried in spurts down the hall, I learned that the young woman was looking to be baptized. Now, if possible.

The senior pastor was buried in his sermon prep and passed the request off to me. "Hey, you want to baptize her?" Sure, I said. I can do that. And together, we headed down toward the auditorium, toward the baptistery, which would be cold for an unexpected visitor. 

As we stepped into the water, we spoke in quiet whispers - her young groom-to-be right by her side. I asked, "Are you doing this, too, or just her?" He hesitated a moment and then said, "Just her." We stood there just catching our breath, just taking in the moment, and all of a sudden, I heard someone shout, "You got this Toni!" I turned and saw that, out of nowhere, some of her family - her family and his family - had gathered quietly in the corner. 

I asked her, "You go by Toni?" She shrugged. She had been introduced to me as "Christina," and her beau had once or twice called her, I thought, "Teena." So I asked her, as I prepared to speak the ceremony, what should I call you? I listed off four or five names that I thought I had heard or that seemed reasonable, but she smiled a shy smile and said, "Lucy." 

I questioned her response. Lucy? Why Lucy? She shrugged her shoulders and said it didn't much matter anyway. I knew right away it was a sign of her insecurity, perhaps of her uncertainty, and I wanted to give this moment back to her. This was her beautiful day, after all. I told her this was her day and that I would call her whatever she wanted, whatever made this day all that she wanted it to be. She looked at me for a moment and, when she realized I was serious, she said, "Call me Chris-team."

"Because I love the Chicago bears."

I looked out again at her gathering family and noticed something even more beautiful out of the corner of my eye. The whole auditorium was filling up. Not with her family or her family-to-be by the groom's side, but by the saints. I recognized them, every one of them - the men and women of Christ, the community, those who were going to come alongside this young woman and love her. I caught her eye as she caught them, too, and there was that insecurity again, that feeling of unloveliness, that lingering question of whether or not she deserved this. 

And then her brother and her brother-in-law-to-be stepped up behind her. One said, "What are you trying to do here?" She said, "I want you to know that I'm different. I want you to know that I'm making a commitment, that I'm going to be here for him." And she held on tighter to her fiancee's arm. The one who'd asked the question rolled his eyes and walked away; the other stood there and said, "Good for you" and almost...almost...smiled. Then, he, too, stepped down. 

I moved and stood between Christeam and her beau, my back to him and said, "Everyone back off. ...even you. Give us a minute." 

There, even though the saints stood watching, even though the family gathered, even though she'd already told me she wanted to be baptized - now, if possible - I took Christeam in my arms and pulled her close. I asked, "Christeam..." and she looked away a little bit, as though filled with shame. "Christeam, are you doing this because you love God or are you doing this because you're trying to prove something to someone else?" 

I continued, "Because if you love God, let's do this. If you love God and want Him to be a part of your life and are ready to step into this, let's do it. But if you're doing this to prove something to someone, it's a lie. And you know it's a lie, and all it's going to do is make you feel like a liar. I know because I lived like a liar for far too long,'s a heavy weight to bear." 

She wasn't looking at me any longer, but her form was slumping deeper and deeper into my arms. Tears were starting to roll down her cheek. 

"Christeam, I know you see all those people out there. I know you don't know them, but they are here for you. Every one of them. They are here to celebrate you, to welcome you, to rejoice with you. And I am here to hold you, whatever you decide. If you don't love God, don't do this. Don't do this because someone else told you it would mean something to them. This is for you. If you decide today is not your day, if this is not your decision, then I'm still going to be here to hold you. These people, they're still going to be here to hold you. To celebrate you. To welcome you."

"Because even if you don't love God today, He loves you. I love you. And you don't have to do this."

It was a tender moment between the two of us, developing right there in the sight of all. Her tear-stained face turned slowly toward me, trying to gauge whether or not I was serious. I don't know what she'd heard, how much had been fed into her, but she couldn't, it seems, believe that anyone would love her if she didn't do this. She saw in my eyes that I was for real. I was being honest with her. This was her moment, and if it wasn't the moment she wanted...

Almost with a start, she jumped her weary, near-lifeless body out of my arms and exclaimed, "Let's not do it!" before running off down the stairs and around the corner. There was an audible gasp from the saints, then an equally audible heart-breaking. Not for a "number" lost, but for a young girl who didn't even know what to call herself any more. 

I took her gingerly by the arm and led her back to the dressing room, saying, "Then let's get you out of that robe." She nodded. One by one, her family shook their heads in disgust and walked away. Her fiancee, clearly upset, stood silent by her, his disappointment painted all over his face. 

Some may ask what I've done, why I talked Christeam out of this decision that she seemed to have made, that everyone should make, that would bring one more person, one more family into our community, that would make one more saint. They may look at her insecurities, her uncertainties, her desperate need for real love and say that I made a mistake, that I should have baptized her and then given her to the community that would love her. Oh, how much difference the love of the church would have made in her life if I would have just gotten her into it in that moment. 

But I say this - in that moment, lying exhausted and heavy in my arms with tear-stained cheeks, breathing deeply at rest with a little bit of a shield from the world, hearing her life being given back to her, her own choices and values honored, her own name - the name she had chosen - called, being held there with sure that moment, Christeam was loved with the love of God. And for the first time in a long time, maybe even in her whole life, she knew it. 

And if she never walks through our doors again, if she never comes into our community, if she never shows up at a single fellowship meal or small group or Sunday service, if she never makes for herself the decision that everyone else had made for her that day, then for one moment, she was truly, authentically, deeply loved. 

I think that was the better thing. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Tired Places

Man, this one's tough. It's tough because quiet faith doesn't come usually with a whole lot of fire; quiet faith comes in tired moments. Just when you think you've finally got some space to just rest for a bit, to not have to be so engaged in all this all the time, to just love God for a little while without demands, God says, move. God says, believe. God says, trust.

By this point, we don't want to. I don't want to. Moses has been back and forth and back and forth from Goshen to Pharaoh's palace, always getting rejected, always getting laughed at, always getting beaten up and brought down - by both the Egyptians and his own people. And finally, God gives him these bold words to speak, he speaks them, and then he goes home. Once home, he's exhausted. He's tired. He's weary. The last thing he wants to do right now is anything. 

But God says, stretch out your hand. Hold out your rod. Sweep it across Egypt, and only then watch Me work. 

Sometimes, I hear that. I get into these weary places where I'm glad that the fires just sort of settle down for awhile, where I'm thankful for the space to just breathe for a minute. And it never seems to fail. It's in these weary places that God says, just whisper one more word of faith, just make one more obedient decision, just say one more yes or no, and I will make the whole earth tremble. 

And I just lie there in a crumpled mess of total exhaustion and think, not today, Lord. I'm just too tired to make the whole earth tremble. I'm just too worn out. I'm just too weary.

At the same time, it is these moments when I know most clearly that God really is who He says He is. It's at these times that I know without a doubt that He's for real. I don't question for a second whether He could - or would - make the earth tremble. I know that if I utter that whisper, if I make that decision, if I say that yes or no, if I sweep my hands out over Egypt, that the whole earth is going to quake under His incredible power and awesome love. I know it. Someone else is going to know how beautiful and amazing God is if I can just muster the strength, in this place of quiet faith, to move. So it's got nothing to do with whether or not I believe God in that breath; it's got everything to do with how I am appraising myself. I am just. so. tired. The last thing I want to do is anything at all. 

It's in that moment that I have to choose a quiet faith. Knowing that no one else can see me. Knowing that no one else is watching. Knowing that God is poised to do a great thing, and all it takes is for me to do a quiet thing. A weary, worn-out, trusting, obedient thing. If I don't, He's not going to. If I do, the whole world will know. Not me; they won't know me. They will know Him. 

In my own quiet whisper, from my own quiet space, from my own weary heart, I have to make only one move in a Godward direction and God will move the world.

The Pharisees never did that. The Pharisees never moved the world. They couldn't even make the leaves shake in the trees. They were too happy on street corners.

They never made it into prayer closets.

But this...this is where faith dwells. In quiet, weary, worn-out, solitary places that know with absolute certainty that God is on the move...and has the strength, the trust, the faith to make one unseen, unknown, knowing motion that pulls back the curtain for the whole world to see...Him. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Prayer Closets

This idea of quiet faithfulness that we see building in Moses's story is the same idea (in reverse) that Jesus rails against in the Pharisees.

For the Pharisees, the longer they lived lives of so-called faith, the louder their lives got. They took great pride in the sweeping motions of faithful living, even though these were no longer the motions that God had called them to. They loved to stand on street corners and show off their long tassels and pray in loud, booming voices, and essentially call all kinds of attention to themselves. 

But a life of true faith? A life of true faith gets quieter the more you settle into it. Because the more your learn about faith, the more you practice faith, the more you make the motions God calls you to make, the more you realize just how big and powerful and incredible and beautiful and loving God is. So you pull back into quiet faith because you know that God is the One who does the really cool things through it. 

Moses knew God was going to send the hail, the locusts, the darkness. He didn't have to see it any more. He didn't need Pharaoh to see him any more. He didn't have to make a big show out of it because the longer he listened to what God was telling him, the easier it was for him to believe - and to trust - that God was making a big show of it. 

And so, from Goshen, from his own house, from his bedroom, Moses makes the move and God sweeps through Egypt. 

It's why He tells the Pharisees to go into their closets and shut and lock the door. You really believe in God? I mean, really believe in His awesome power and incredible beauty and deep love? Then you don't have to be the one to put it on display; He'll do that. You just have to live a life of quiet faith.

You don't get this from the Pharisees. Right? The more the Pharisees talk, the louder they shout from their street corners, the more you know about...the Pharisees. The more you know about...religion. The more you know and ritual purity and the kinds of sacrifices that God says He doesn't want.

But watch Moses's life. Or David's life. Or even Jesus's life. They work their way quieter and quieter and quieter, they work their way inward into rest and trust and beautiful faith until all that you see by the end of their lives is God's glory.

Moses started as an exile, came in as a thunder, settled down into a life of quiet faith, and led his people all the way to the edge of the Promised Land. From the mountain of Moses's last gaze, we see the full expanse of God's promise and glory, a land flowing with milk and honey, just like He promised.

David tended sheep, then came in with all the bravado of a foolish young soldier who challenged a giant, became a renowned military commander, and quietly settled into the life of a man after God's own heart. His broken prayers in the psalm reveal his deep faith and trust in God, so much so that he could be an authentic human being before Him. And at the end of David's life, we see the stockpiles ready for the construction of the Temple, the Lord's mountain in Zion, His capital city firmly planted in Jerusalem. What we see of David in His final moments is the Great City, but we recognize it as the Lord's.

Jesus entered this world in a humble way, but with a great star in the sky. He drew tremendous crowds, everyone pushing through to get a glimpse of Him, shouting His name as He passed by in the streets, begging and pleading and following Him around to make a spectacle of Him. But His final moments are spent in an upper room with a small circle of friends, on His knees in the garden in deep, trusting, agonized prayer, and on a hill outside the city where so few could even bare to watch. His life, too, worked its way quieter...until with His final breath, the whole earth shook, darkness fell, and the Temple curtain tore in two, forever opening the way for men to enter the Most Holy Place.

Every life of faith works its way quieter and quieter, deeper and deeper into faith and trust and the quiet kind of faithfulness of a leader of Israel who waves his hands in his own bedroom, knowing that God is sweeping over the world, until God's full glory washes over His creation in the most stunning, breathtaking, beautiful ways.

It's why, I think, Jesus kept telling them, don't be like the Pharisees. Don't be like this. They get louder and louder, more and more self- and religion-centered until at the end of their lives, all you know of them was their shouting and not a thing - not a single thing - about their God.

But go into your closets. Go into your closets and shut the door. There...there live a life of quiet faithfulness. Not that the world may see your piety, but that they would see His goodness.

Because His story reveals quite plainly that this is how this works. The world knows Him best not from street corners, but from closets, from bedrooms, from gardens. From places of quiet faithfulness, what is so much unseen becomes painted across creation itself. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Quiet Faithfulness

Moses is that rare type of guy who walks right up to a burning bush to "see what this thing is that is burning but is not burning up." He's also a great leader of Israel. He's a man of passionate prayer. And he's a man of quiet faithfulness.

It doesn't always seem like that on the surface. When God first spoke to Moses out of that burning bush, Moses did a lot of protesting. He had a lot of excuses, a ton of reasons why he, Moses, was not really the guy that He, the Lord, was looking for. Even if he is the kind of guy who notices a burning, but not-burning-up, bush.

But watch what happens. Moses and Aaron go before Pharaoh and demand that he let the Hebrew people go. The ruler of Egypt, of course, will not, and God has already told Moses as much, but Moses keeps going anyway. Moses goes and tells Pharaoh what God tells him to go and tell Pharaoh, even when God in the very same breath says, "but this isn't going to work." 

That's not the kind of quiet faithfulness I'm talking about, although it's getting us closer to this.

As Moses goes before Pharaoh, he comes with the plagues that God is sending upon the people who are keeping His people captive. The first few times, Moses raises his hands in sight of the royal courts and brings upon the land these terrible plagues that God has sent. 

Slowly, however, this scene changes. Slowly, we start to see that Moses goes before Pharaoh and tells the ruler what God is about to do, but then, Moses leaves. Moses goes home. He goes back to the land of the Hebrews, to Goshen, to his own territory. And there...

...there he raises his hands.

He raises his hands and stretches out his rod across the east, across the west, across Egypt in whatever motion God has prescribed for him. It's a motion we see him make several times when others are watching, but as the plagues go on, fewer and fewer are watching until, if you read the Scriptures carefully with an eye for this, Moses is just raising his hands in his own house.

The only one that knows he's doing it, it seems, is God.

And yet, we get the sense, reading these passages, that if he doesn't stretch out his hands in the quiet of his own place, nothing's going to happen. The plagues still come at his movement. The locusts, the gnat, the flies, the frogs - the things that have always come with the faithful outstretching of his hand - continue to come only with the faithful outstretching of his hand. 

But it's no longer a performance. It's no longer for the benefit of Pharaoh that he makes this gesture. It's no longer to show or to prove to anyone that he's at the helm of all this, at God's very word. Rather, the longer this goes on, it's solely for this reason: to show to God his obedience. 

It's a quiet faithfulness. 

This guy...this guy who goes over to burning bushes, this guy with a thousand excuses why he can't be the guy, this guy who has to take his brother with him, this guy who makes grand displays in front of the ruler of the most powerful nation on the planet...becomes the guy conducting symphonies of disasters in his bedroom through his quiet faithfulness. This guy who does the very public, giant, scary thing that God asked him to do becomes the guy who does the quiet, weird, hope-nobody's-watching-because-this-is-hard-to-explain faithful things that God asks him to do. 

And the hail falls. 

And the fire falls.

And the locusts swarm.

And darkness falls.

And it's cool, right? I's cool. 

Monday, January 22, 2018


Sometimes, I wonder if it takes more for God to get our attention these days because we have so much stuff in our world that's designed to do things for us and we don't do so many things for ourselves any more.

In the very early chapters of Exodus, God comes to Moses in a burning bush. Moses is a little bit of a distance away from the bush, but he sees it burning and decides he must go over and check this out. The Scriptures are so awkward here - "I must go and see why this bush is burning but is not burning up." 

And really, Moses walked over to the bush that's on fire because there's probably other stuff close by that could potentially catch fire from an uncontrolled flame and, in Moses's time, there wasn't a fire department to call; he was it. 

Moses was the one who would have to put out the fire. Moses is the one who would have to protect the surrounding valuables - fields, houses, livestock, whatever. Moses is the one who is going to have to take care of this situation because in Moses's time? You did it yourself.

Most of us today, I think, would see a burning bush and if we didn't just ignore it because, hey, it's not our problem, we would call someone whose "job" it is to take care of burning things or we would grab the nearest fire extinguisher or we would run out a hose or a bucket of water.

But there are not a lot among us who would take the time to "go see why it is burning and not burning up." We are problem-solvers, and we are surrounded by solutions, so the only questions we ever really have to ask are questions like, "What ingenious human creation solves this problem and how do I most quickly access it?"

We would certainly not just take the time to "go see" and study the fire. We've already studied fire. A lot of persons smarter than us have studied fire. We know what fire is, and we know what we're supposed to do about it.

But I don't know. I mean, I'm sitting around thinking about it and what if some problems aren't meant to be fixed? What if some things aren't meant to be approached, assessed, and "handled"? What if some of the things in this world that look like they're "not my problem" are actually my invitation?

What if, in taking half a breath before I call the fire department, I suddenly know in the most beautiful and breath-taking way that right here...right here is holy ground? 

We live in a world that says God doesn't do those kinds of things any more. Really? Has God really stopped doing all of the incredible things He's always done or is it just that we are so quick to put out the fires that we never step up and really see the bush? 

And if that's the case, and if God really wanted to get your attention, how would He even do it? In a world that can solve all of your "problems" with a couple of clicks or so, what are you willing to stop and look at? What are you willing to go see?

What's it going to take? 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

An interesting, and beautiful, story unfolds in Genesis 15, and if you read through it took quickly, you're likely to miss it altogether.

It is a story of Abram - before he became Abraham, before he had a son, before he entered the land that God was giving him. It's a story that, not accidentally, comes right after Abram is blessed by Melchizedek, who is a priest even though there is not yet a Temple. And it is a story in which all three persons of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Ghost - make an appearance, thousands of years and hundreds of pages before Jesus is even born or the Spirit falls on Pentecost. 

So, you know, it's a pretty cool story.

Abram is having a vision about all the things that God has promised him, things, no doubt, that he and Melchizedek just discussed at some length in his blessing. And all of a sudden, "the word of the Lord came" to Abram, not once, but twice (at least). Most of us read this and think that Abram heard here a message from God, perhaps from some booming voice or some kind of thunder or something. But Abram's response to this "word" gives Him away - "And Abram said, Lord God...."

Remember what John said in the very beginning of his gospel? "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God." Jesus is the word of God; He always has been. Although the Hebrew and the Greek terms are different, the word used here means roughly the same thing as logos, which is the more familiar word from the Greek. 

So here is Abram and the "word of the Lord" comes to him and he responds by saying, "Lord God." This is no booming voice or thunder or conversation with nothing but thin air; this is Jesus Himself. How could it be any other? 

The scene continues to develop a little bit, promises given, covenants confirmed, and Abram prepares a sacrifice for the Lord who has made such an extravagant promise to him. He lays the pieces of his sacrifice on an open stone, then starts to nod off next to them. While sleeping, the Scriptures tell us he was in a deep sleep, "a smoking furnace and a burning lamp" passed between the pieces of his offering; other versions say that a fire arose that consumed them. 

And where do we see such holy fire in the Scriptures? Why, in the Holy Spirit, of course! In Acts when the Spirit comes upon the people, it comes in tongues of fire. It's God's Spirit that consumes Abram's offerings or, as we call Him, the Holy Spirit. Right here, right in the early pages of Genesis.

Immediately following the burning flame of the Spirit that consumes Abram's offerings, God the Father makes His entrance into this Trinitarian scene. For it says, "In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram...." And it is only God the Father who makes covenants, for it is God the Father whose mighty hand created all things, for it is God the Father who determines the direction of all things, for it is God the Father who sets the course of all things. It is God the Father who decides what to do with the earth, and in this case, He covenants a choice portion of it to Abram. 

Thus, here we are - all the back in Genesis 15 with echoes of the entire story of God all wrapped up in His covenant with one man. All the way back at Abram, thousands of years and hundreds of pages before we could even fathom it, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost all enter in to the narrative and reveal themselves - the Word, the Fire, the Father. 

So cool. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Wide Road

And that is just how easy it is, to take a story in which you intend to tell something good and beautiful about God and make it into a story that tells so much less.

It starts by making the narrow road wider, so wide that everyone in the whole world fits on it, no matter what they believe. You take Jesus and put Him into the same category as Buddha and Mother Nature and whatever other "good" teacher you want to list here, making Him far less than a Savior. And, ironically, it is all these "good" teachers that begins to erode what is good and beautiful in a truly God-centered story.

Because here's the fundamental difference between Jesus and Buddha: Buddha intends to be a teacher. By the faith tradition of Buddhism, Buddha is one who has "made it" and achieved all of the glorification that that particular faith promises, and he has then come back to the faithful in order to teach them how to do the same themselves. He teaches men and women how to be their own saviors. Mother Earth is much the same - she teaches you how to maximize your own existence, how to save yourself. Put Jesus into this category, and He no longer saves you; He is just another one of those teachers who teaches you how to save yourself.

Then take this theology, this theology that tells you that all of these figures are just the same with the mission to teach you nothing more than how to save yourself, and all of a sudden, you've got nothing good and beautiful to bind you to the rest of humanity. Nothing. Whatever is good and beautiful in your life is whatever you make good and beautiful in pursuit of your own self-salvation. Necessarily, your self-salvation is going to look different than my self-salvation, which is going to look different than the next person's self-salvation. There is no hope, no promise, no peace to bind us together; there is only the fact that we are all seeking our own salvation.

If we are all seeking our own salvation, then what we have in common is only our desire to escape this pithole of an existence, and so our "we" has to be centered around the miserableness of our lives here. Our unity comes from the very broken, bad and ugly things we are seeking our own salvation from. We are bonded together by our darkness and our pain, by our broken families and addictions and financial struggles and insults get the picture. Without a common hope, this is all we have in common.

And when this is what we share with one another, when this is what we have in common, it comes to be the thing that most defines our lives. Because it is the most relatable or recognizable. Because it is the thing that others will understand right away in our telling them.

When this becomes the thing that most defines our lives, it becomes the thing that we live by, and this turns us into miserable, bitter, ugly persons, and we become almost proud of this. Not because it's how we truly wanted to be, but because we feel like this is the thing that makes us human. This is the thing that makes us like everyone else. This is the thing that gives us community.

And if there's one thing that's worse than having to find your own salvation in life and not having a common hope with anyone, it's the proposition that you could be truly alone in living.

Hence, the wide road.

We're all welcome here. We're all together here. We're all in some kind of mass migration away from our miseries, and although it's not going to be the same kind of good and beautiful when we all, individually, save ourselves, at least for right now, we're moving together. And that's got to be something, right?

Jesus and Buddha and everything.

I guess that's just what struck me about this book I picked up. It's such a dangerous teaching, not just because it makes Jesus out to be something far less than a Savior, but because look at what happens when it does. Look at what happens when we take the narrow road and try to make it a wide one - we lose our Savior, we lose our hope, and then we lose ourselves. And then we wake up one morning and look around and wonder if there's anything good and beautiful left in the world.

There is.

He's on the narrow road. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

An Ugly Story

As we continue to dive into this unnamed book that I'm talking about whose author is beloved by so many Christians, but whose writing is anything but, something else comes out of this unrecognizable "we" that she has created on the wide road by conceiving of Jesus as nothing more than a teacher and of Scripture as the most fragile of threads:

It gets really ugly. 

This is a woman who claims to love God, but if you read her book, you get more the impression of a miserable old bitty, a chain-smoking hag tucked away in the corner of the bar, and you get the sense that she's proud of this. Like, you know, she's just like all the rest of us. (Here's that "we" again.)

It's ugly. 

You're reading along in this book, and you're listening to this woman who is judging life by all its darknesses, trying to create a camaraderie through misery, swearing out the sides of her mouth without a second thought about it except perhaps her own insecurities because, let's face it, that's what happens when all you've got is the miserable stuff: insecurity. You can tell she's insecure, too, by the way she raises an eyebrow after dropping a curse word.

It didn't take long before I was saying to myself, "This is a Christian woman?" And that's part of the problem with a theology of this sort, one that takes Jesus as just a good teacher and as perhaps a good idea and widens the road until we all fit on it - it's not just that this author has created a picture of Jesus that is far lesser than He truly is; it's that she has created a picture of us, particularly of those of us who are women (since she is also a woman), that is far lesser than we truly are.

God has a design for beauty, and this isn't it. God has an intention for femininity, and it's sorely lacking here. We read Proverbs 31 or 1 Peter 3, and we know what it is that God desires from a woman, but we read this woman's words, and there's none of that in there. As if it's not valuable. Or as if it doesn't matter. Or as if, even, God's design for women is the lesser thing.

You can almost hear her saying it: yeah, I curse - so what? Yeah, I complain - so what? Yeah, I grumble and gossip and judge - so what? You expect me to not engage in all that stuff that "all women" do just because I'm a Christian woman? Methinks thy corset is a bit too tight.

But that's just it. She has taken the lessons of her own wide road theology and internalized them so that in her mind, God's image of a woman is the lesser image of a woman. So that in her mind, she is entitled to all the judgment and gossip and grumbling and complaining and even swearing and cursing and spitting that women of the world do. She wants to be made in the image of a woman and then, perhaps, find room to love God a little, too.

It just doesn't work like that. What she's ended up with is something much lesser, and it's written all over the pages of her so-called Christian book. She is no longer a woman, no longer filled with the feminine beauty of womanhood, no longer created in the relational dynamic of God as a complementary creation, nor is she any longer a Christian, having taken the wide road rather than the narrow one. And this means that her witness on both points - on what it means to be a woman and on what it means to be a Christian - is an ugly one, uglier still if she is claiming to be a Christian woman.

We are, first, beings created in the image of God. We are, first, His, not ours. We are, first, the fullness of God's design for human nature. It is only when we recognize this that we have integrity in our beings and the full measure of both our human nature and our God-likeness. We cannot obtain them separately; they are intimately woven together.

What we see in this woman's narrative is not a beautiful tapestry, but a tangle of knots. Because it's missing something essential, something fundamental, something foundational to the whole thing.

And that is a God who is more than just a "good teacher." She is missing a Father, a Savior, a Friend. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

An Unrecognizable We

So I'm taking a few days to talk about this book that I picked up over the weekend by a so-called Christian author who is quite beloved by many Christians, but whose writings, judging by this sample, are anything but.

Yesterday, I noted how she uses Jesus only in the same breath as Buddha, reducing Him to nothing more than a good teacher (rather than a Savior), then runs a very fragile thread of Christian Scripture through her text, all in an effort really that proclaims that the wide road is just as good and same as the narrow one Jesus said that He is.

It's dangerous.

And it doesn't take reading very far into the book to recognize that the wide road gets even wider as the author attempts to create a "we" through her liberal theological inclusiveness, one that is ugly and, ironically, anything but inclusive.

See, she speaks of "we" as though we're all having the same experience here. She speaks of "we" as if we're all one and same, as if none of us are fundamentally different than she is. She speaks of "we" as if we all take the very same steps through this broken minefield and come to the very same conclusions and have the very same interpretations of what life is "really" like.

In order to do this, without Christ as Savior and God as Creator and anything good and beautiful in the world to hold onto - without a solid hope - she has to go into the pits of human experience and present the darkness as though this is what is most "real" about our living.

We all, to hear her tell it, go through our lives hating them. We all think we're ugly. We are all pretty sure we're wasting our time. We all get stuck in long lines, traffic jams, and sick days, and we all deserve better, but there is no better because this is all it is. And we all hate our parents and grew up in broken homes and look around us and see the same poverty and hunger and oppression that we experienced ourselves because it's everywhere and we can't escape it. And we're all bitter about it. We're all miserable here. We're all resigned to this, and it makes us mean and ugly, and that's cool because that's who "we" are. "We" understand each other, so no reason to hold anyone accountable for anything better. Bitter makes sense here.

I'm reading along and hearing her complain about her life as though it's my life, too, and I've got to be honest with you - I don't recognize myself in her story. I could, but I don't. I could just as easily come down into the darkness and the ugliness and the kind of discontented disdain that she has for the life that she's living, but that's not really how I want to live my life.

And in light of the real Christ, the Savior, my Lord, Lover, and Redeemer, I don't have to. More than that, God doesn't want me to.

But you see, if we're walking the wide road, it has to be this way. "We" have to be "we" to be traveling together this way; if anyone claims to have light in the darkness, they are no longer a part of this "we." Get on board, everybody! Come into the darkness! Because "we" are all searching for light, which is somewhere at the end of this road of self-salvation, all we have to make us a "we" is our darkness. If it's all just up to "Jesus and Buddha" and "whatever mother earth can teach you," there is no common hope to bind us, only struggle and challenge and darkness. You can't have the light already, for you are "here" with us and not "there" wherever the light dwells.

Maybe it's the light I have. I don't know. I just don't see myself in her "we." I don't want my life to be one of grumbling, griping, complaining, and only knowing the bad things that become us. I don't want to resign myself to a broken world as if it is somehow more real than God's promise of hope and as if, which is the point she's ultimately getting at through these words, it takes a savior like me to redeem it just by living it better with more persons on the widest road. Just by taking good ideas like mercy and grace and good things and pretending they were my ideas and becoming proficient in bettering my life.

Because she says things like that. She rants and raves and grumbles down this trail of all the broken things "we" experience and concludes, essentially, that it's time for us to do better. To rise above. To pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and by the teachings (but not the sacrifice) of Jesus and Buddha (who was no sacrifice). It's all about "we."

Uhm, no thanks.

I don't recognize your "we." It just doesn't gel with the "we" over here on the narrow road, the one that starts with Christ's experience, not this author's experience. The one that starts with His heart, not hers. The one that starts with His promise, not hers. The one that's grounded in real Hope, not wishful thinking. Start with Christ, and this "we" we've got is good and beautiful and wonderfully His, just as it was from the very beginning when "we" walked in the Garden with Him and as it will be in the end when "we" see Him face-to-face. This is our "we," in the image of God. It is light and life on the narrow road. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Dangerous Teachers

Over the weekend, I picked up a book by an author that many of my Christian friends and even some mentors rave about, and I began to read. This is the first book by this author that I have read, and I was truly excited to finally see what the fuss was all about. 

It did not take long before my heart ached. For this? This is no Christian writing.

Now, hear me when I say that this is no Christian writing, for I have not said that this is  no Christian author. It may very well be that the author herself very much loves Jesus, very much has given her life to Him, very much puts her hope in Him. But the writing, though it is filled with some Christian-ese, is no Christian writing.

It's hard, on the surface, to tell because it contains so much of what modern liberal Christianity wants Christianity to be about - the kind of inclusiveness that makes Christians seem like postmodernly reasonable people, but that also makes Christ's road seem like the widest one. Christ Himself said this is not true; He is the narrow road. 

Because, you see, in just the first fifty pages of this book, it became clear that this writer cannot use the name of Christ without also using the name of Buddha in the same sentence. The idea, of course, is that as long as you have faith in something, you're on the right track to God. The implication being that believing in any kind of spirituality, having any kind of faith, is the same thing as having a saving faith in God. The suggestion being that if you are listening to the wise spiritual teachers, like Jesus or Buddha, then you have truly found favor in God's eyes, and you should be rewarded with all of the good things of Heaven. 

It's a very popular idea, but it's not a very Christian one. In fact, it's the kind of thing that theology-hearted individuals like C.S. Lewis have been warning about for a very long time. You cannot simply think that Jesus is a good teacher. He is, but this is only a small part of who He is. He is no mere moral guide. He is not just a great orator. Either He is the Savior of the World or you do not know Him at all; He can be no less. His own testimony of His living will not permit it. 

And so what this author has done, essentially, is to water down grace. She is watering down mercy. The whole book, she claims, is about mercy, and she's centered it on a passage in Miach, which she uses only tangentially as the most fragile and almost untouched of threads woven through an ugly, coarse narrative, but more on that later. We cannot believe that we can just throw some Scripture into our discourse and call it Christian. 

It is no such thing.

Live and let live. To each their own. Who am I to judge? All roads lead to Heaven. It's a great cultural way to live. It's a very appeasing way to live in a culture where Christianity is not valued as highly as it once was. It's the kind of lifestyle that is very easy to adopt if your Christ is only your Teacher. But it's no Christian ethic. 

Not when Christ is your Savior.

This is why it is so important that we are able to discern what is truly Christian teaching from what is cultural fare guised in almost-Christian clothing. This is the kind of message that takes Jesus down from the Cross and never returns to the tomb. This is the kind of lesson that leads young people astray. Because it sounds so agreeable, but it is so far from holy. 

I will say more about this book tomorrow because there is quite a bit more that is troubling about it. And this is not - hear me - this is not so that you can get angry about this book or so that you can boycott it or so that you can go on some kind of tirade or social media campaign. Not at all. It is so that you can begin to understand the difference between what is truly Christian teaching and what is not. So that you can begin to discern for yourself if what you're putting into your heart and mind is truly Christian or if it's not. So that you can honestly know whether the road you're walking is the narrow road to Christ or the wide road of culture that claims that you can just scoot Him over a little and bring Him down this path with you. Christ doesn't work that way. 

If we insist on walking down the wide road, even the wide road that so-called Christian writings claim to pave for us, then this...this is where we leave Him.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Burden of Sinners

A heartbreaking story unfolds in the middle of the book of Genesis, right around chapter 34. It comes on the heels of another heartbreaking story in the middle of the book of Genesis, although to be rather honest, we often see this first heartbreaking story and then celebrate the second as something righteous, even though the Scriptures themselves tell us it was no such thing. 

And it's a story being played out again and again and again even in modern Christianity.

Let's set the scene: Jacob has returned to his homeland, bringing with him the wives, handmaids, and children that he has acquired in his father's distant home, and one of his daughters is, well, beautiful. The men of a neighboring people discover his beautiful daughter and desire her, so they take her. In modern parlance, we recognize that when they took her, they actually raped her. This is the first heartbreaking story.

Then two of her brothers, the "heros" in our story, devise this crafty plan to take their revenge upon the sinners. They tell these men that there is no way they can ever intermarry with them, no way they could ever have the beautiful woman, because they are not circumcised. They are not among the faithful. They are not in the in-crowd of God's covenant. Of course, if they'd like to circumcise themselves, then the brothers say they are willing to talk.

So that's what happens - this neighboring people draws together all of their men, sets their sights on the incredible blessings and beauty of the people of God in Israel's household, desires those blessings and beautiful things, and circumcises themselves, every one of them. Three days later, while the men are still laid up in recovery, the sons of Israel storm in and slaughter them.

And this is the second heartbreaking story.

Now, this doesn't strike most of us as heartbreaking. After all, look at what they did to the beautiful, innocent daughter of Jacob. They are the most vile of all sinners, and they deserved every bit of the death that's coming to them. But do you see what really happened here? The sons of Israel used the goodness of God as nothing more than bait to condemn the sinners.

And we, far too many of us, are doing exactly the same thing.

It's no secret to us that we are surrounded by sinners, some we judge more deviant than others. Some we judge more undesirable than others. It's no secret that we have in our communities individuals who are seeking the good and beautiful things of God, even though we have judged that they do not deserve them. 

When this happens, painfully often we end up putting a high price on membership for the sinners. We put a high price on conversion. We demand they excruciate themselves (a word, by the way, that comes from the same root as crucifixion, which, by the way, Jesus has already done for us) and then, just when they are on the edge of truly turning toward the good and beautiful thing that we have promised them, we storm back in with our judgments and declare, essentially, "just kidding."

Just kidding - there's no place in God's kingdom for you, sinner. Just kidding - there's nothing you can do to get us to love you, let alone trust you, sinner. Just kidding - all of the good and beautiful things in all the world are not for your kind, you SINNER. Just kidding.... 

Then we condemn them to Hell anyway, these men who have gone to the greatest extremes to try to get a little bit of the good and beautiful life that we have. These men who are aching, literally aching, just on the outskirts of the covenant, where we have kept them, only teasing them with a way in. We draw them near to the good and beautiful, then cut their throats when they're already bleeding. 

And then...and then we say that this is good. And then we clap and celebrate, for we have avenged God's good and beautiful, we have saved it from the stains of these sinners. Forget, of course, all the blood on our own hands. Forget, of course, that we have just become the very sinners we despise, only we call ourselves, of course, heroes. 

But we are no such things. Look at the way that Jacob, the father, the patriarch of God's people, responds to his sons. He tells them outright, tells them plainly, that what they have done is no good thing. They have stained his name, put a mark on his family, put a target on his back, and demonstrated that what seems good and beautiful, what was meant to be good and beautiful, may be no better after all than the sinners knocking on the door in the first place. No, he tells his sons, this was no good. This was no good thing.

It still isn't. 

It's still a heartbreaking story. 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Knowledge of Good

Here is what really happened when Adam ate of the tree. It is not that he, as we so often think, came to know the fullness of good and evil; if that were the case, he would need have been a perverse man indeed to have chosen evil. No, when Adam ate of the tree, he gained the knowledge of evil and lost the knowledge of good as he understood just how far he could fall away from God.

This point is perhaps theologically thick, but it is very important. 

Good is the only thing that actually exists. When God looked at His creation at the end of that final day, He declared it to be "very good," and very good it was. There was within it no evil, for God did not create evil nor could the presence of evil be considered "very good" if God is who He says that He is.

What evil is, what evil always has been, is a failure of goodness. Evil exists only where goodness is not chosen. Shadows exist only because of the light. If there were no good, there could be no evil, for evil is merely a perversion. When Adam ate the fruit of the tree, he came to know evil because, and only because, he had done what was not good.

God had made perfectly clear what "good" was - it was to be obedient, it was to listen to the Word of the Lord, it was to walk with God in the Garden, and it was to not eat of the forbidden fruit. Eating of the fruit, then, was a perversion of good; it was evil in itself.

And then, for this very brief moment, Adam feels the tension between good and evil in the context of his own nakedness. What was once "very good" - his unclothed beauty - has become with new eyes "evil" - shame. Herein lies the most dastardly outcome of the entire episode.

Shame became the most real thing.

The darkness became heavier and more tangible than the light. All of a sudden, it was the shadows that made the candle dance and not the other way around. Confronted with both his shame and his Lord, Adam chose his shame, for he could no longer see how his Lord was any good at all. Not in the face of his nakedness.

And this is the story now that we all live. This is the story we are trapped in because of the Fall, because of this one bite of fruit that turned the entire "very good" creation on its head. 

Because of Adam, we understand God's goodness only in contrast to evil. We understand His grace only in contrast to our shame. We understand His mercy only in contrast to our guilt. What seems most real to us, what we are most prone to believe, what we are most likely to live by is no longer the light; it is the shadows. Goodness, we say, is merely the absence of evil. It is the anomaly. It is the odd man out. 

For evil, through and through, is what has become the most real thing to us. 

It's a lie, of course, but then, evil has always been a lie. It has to be, for it only exists as a perversion of truth. Yet here we are, this side of Eden, and we are absolutely convinced that darkness is real and light but a fleeting blessing, a goodness that comes or goes at its own whim, a candle that dances in the unseen winds of the shadows. And we say that God is good, but it means so very little to us because no longer is God inherently good; He is good only because we do not find in Him any trace of the evil that currently rules our lives. 

Do you see this? Do you see how the tables have totally turned? We have gone from a people who knew evil only because it was not good to persons convinced that good simply is whatever is not evil. We can't understand grace. We can't understand mercy. We can't understand promise and hope and eternal life because these things feel like but shadows to us.

We cannot understand God any longer, for in this fallen, rebellious world, it is is He who seems perverse.

This is what our "knowledge" has done to us.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Knowledge of Evil

When we talk about the tree that Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from, we call it, as the Scriptures call it, the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent says that when they eat from this tree, their eyes will be opened and they will see all that God sees, know all that God knows...essentially, they shall become more like God than ever they had imagined.

And when we consider this, we think that what this means is that when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree, they will come to know all of the evil things in the world and all of the good things in the world and develop the kind of discernment that God has to see them for what they are. We think that a world, an evil world, previously hidden from them, previously existing right alongside them without their knowledge of it, will suddenly be revealed and they will see the fullness of creation, in all its glory and mess together.

But this idea creates a couple of major problems. First, it implies that evil exists outright in God's "very good" creation, which is incompatible with what we know of God. Second, it doesn't really answer its own question.

What we have to see here is this: if eating from the tree gives men all of the knowledge of good and evil, gives him the eyes to see as God sees and to discern what is good from what is evil, then we should expect that men would become better by this knowledge, not worse. They should be blessed by it, not cursed.

No man who knows the difference between good and evil chooses evil. (Well, very, very few.)

So when Adam's eyes are opened and he sees good and evil, if it is as we so often conceive it to be, then he ought to stare right back into the face of the serpent and laugh at him. He ought to hear the whispers of shame and refute them with the truth of God's "very good." He ought to turn back toward God, who is good - who must now be known as thoroughly good - not hide from His presence in the bushes.

But that's not what we see Adam do in response to the serpent's shame. Rather, we see him embrace it wholeheartedly. We see him destroyed by it. We see him burdened by it.

What has happened is not that Adam has come to know, by eating the fruit, all of the knowledge of good and evil; what has happened is that he has experienced, by eating the fruit, evil itself.

For the past couple of days, we have been referring to this as Adam coming to know his creatureliness, to find himself a beast in the same way that all of the other animals are beasts, to lose his understanding of what it means that he has been created uniquely among them in the image of God. And this is evil. For it has stolen away Adam's closeness with God and shown him just how far removed he is from God's glory.

Evil, as it is and as it has always been, is nothing more than our distance from righteousness, and in one act of disobedience, in one moment of mistrust, in one bite of fruit, Adam has discovered how far he has fallen, how far removed he can be.

He discovers the knowledge of evil merely by experiencing it, by doing what is evil and only then recognizing its result. And so we should not think that good and evil are objective categories, but rather, we should understand that they are but lived experiences. We cannot know good and evil from without, but only from within; they exist only in our living them - near to the heart of God or very far from it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Unclothed in Beauty

A few days ago when I was reading through this narrative in Genesis 3, I thought it striking that when Adam declared to God that he was naked, God's response was, "Who told you this?" as though God had known all along that Adam was naked and simply had not told him.

But this raises a great theological difficulty. Namely, it's very problematic if God creates you in such a way that you would be ashamed of it if only you knew.

Because Adam's response to his nakedness, his gut reaction, his first instinct was shame. The serpent shows him that he is naked and he makes a dive for the bushes, hiding not just from God but from himself. And if it is true that God always knew Adam was naked and just had not told him about it, it makes you wonder - rightfully - what else God knows about you that you "ought" to be ashamed of. It is a dangerous and difficult road to go down.

Herein lies a great theological truth, however, and this is what we have to keep in mind: if ever we should come across anything, even in God's Word, that exists in direct conflict with all that we know about God, what He has revealed about His character, what He has demonstrated in His great love for us, then whatever it is that we have come across is in some way not accurate.

In other words, we do not need to waste our time trying to figure out how it is that God created a naked Adam and did not tell the man; this runs counter to our very foundational knowledge of God Himself. Rather, what we must ask is what in this story we might be missing that would bring it back in harmony with what is real, and therefore unchanging, about God.

And in this case, the brilliant truth of Genesis 3 is not that God had always known that Adam was naked, but that He never had.

What the serpent had convinced Adam was his own nakedness, God has always seen as the unclothed beauty of man. It was the very intentional, very beautiful, "very good" openness of his very design.

It's this subtle little difference, right? It's this tiniest little thing that the serpent has seized upon in this moment. Here is this man, this being created in the image of God, and every time that God looks at him, God sees His own image reflected therein. Man is, indeed, a special creation, and the heart of God is wildly fond of him in all of his unclothed beauty. 

But the serpent convinces the man, this being created in the image of God, not to see the image of God in himself but only his creatureliness. Look around, the serpent says; you are exposed for what you are, nothing but a statue of mud and bone. Nothing but yet another fabrication in all of this creation. Nothing but a creature

Not even a being, just a creature. Not a man, just a beast. The way that the dogs and the cattle and the sheep and the oxen are beasts. Look, for you are exposed just as they are; there is no special dignity to clothe you.

That's really what the serpent took away from Adam. It was not really cover that Adam found himself lacking; it was dignity. In one little lie, the serpent stripped that away from him and what was once unclothed in beauty was now naked in shame. 

And then God, the God who so loved the man and the woman of His special creation, grieved, for what He had warned them of from the very beginning had happened. The man had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and had come to know evil that could never just be taken away from him.

Who told you that you were naked?

Monday, January 8, 2018


Having eaten the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, you would think that the knowledge of evil would expose to them the serpent's tricks. But, in fact, what actually happens is that Adam and Eve come to know part of God's good creation as evil.

They are naked.

Now, Adam and Eve have always been unclothed, and we know that when God had finished creating the world, He declared that it was "very good." Which means that an unclothed Adam and Eve were also "very good." Which means that the state of being unclothed must be "very good." (Don't go off down a rabbit trail here.)

Adam and Eve could not have known that they were unclothed. What in all of creation is naturally clothed? What is naturally covered? Nothing at all. When they looked at the flowers, there stood its fertility, as well, right there for all to see. When they looked at the animals, there were their reproductive bits, all out in the open. When they looked at themselves, they saw the same things. There is nothing in nature that is concealed; God created the world in open beauty. 

And this is very good.

But then they eat a bite of fruit and listen to the serpent's whisper, and all of a sudden, they are not merely unclothed; they are naked. And they are ashamed.

Something fundamentally different has happened here. Something fundamentally perverse. For it would not be enough, in an exposed and open world, for the serpent to simply have pointed and laughed, as if he were some bully in a middle school locker room. Exposure and openness were all that Adam and Eve had ever known; they knew it as good. They looked around them and saw what they saw of their own selves reflected again and again and again in all creation. 

No, what's under attack from the serpent is not Adam and Eve's exposure. It's their egos. 

God had given Adam and Eve this incredible instruction that He had not given to anything else in all creation. He had given them power and authority and being above all else that was in the world. He has elevated them to a certain status, a status that even permitted them to walk with Him in the Garden. From the very beginning, God had made clear to man and to woman how uniquely special they were. 

What the serpent whispers is not, "You're naked," as Adam has interpreted it just before diving into a bush. What the serpent whispers is, "You're just a creature." You're nothing special. You are just as all of the other created beings in all the world. Look at them - look how much you share in common with them. Look how exposed they all are, how they must live out in the open. You, too, are exposed. You're exposed! 

You are not, after all, special. 

And all of a sudden, what Adam and Eve feel is not the wind against their most intimate parts, but a betrayal in the very depths of their beings. God had told them they were better than all this, that they were above it all, but they are not; they are just as exposed, just as open, just as unclothed as the rest of all creation. 

Only, in the shadow of their own dignity, they are able to feel a shame that the rest of creation does not feel. Unclothed now becomes naked.

So they dive into the bushes and start to knit themselves cover, becoming unlike anything else in all of creation. And God Himself comes walking through in the cool of the day and finds them, and He grieves. 

He grieves not because Adam and Eve have determined to cover themselves, although that is part of it. He grieves because they have so easily adopted a different value system for themselves. He has told them from the very beginning how deeply He loves them, how much He treasures them, how firmly He holds them to something higher than all the rest of creation. Yet, here they are, convinced of nothing more in the entire world than their own nakedness. 

He has lost them, not to the fig leaves but to a false narrative. 

And from a broken heart, He weeps, Who told you that you were naked?

Friday, January 5, 2018


While we are in the book of Revelation, it's important to talk about an idea that the world could not have gotten more wrong, as a show of just how willing we are to create a narrative that does not have God in it at all. The idea is called Armageddon.

Armageddon has on and off been a popular topic for Hollywood, at the very least; popular culture in some other respects. We are all enamored, it seems, with the end of the world as we know it and what happens in a desolate place. Most of us have seen the clips of the images of man's imagination, with dust-covered streets, bombed-out cities, not a single man in sight except, of course, for the one who somehow survived the end of everything. (This has never made sense to me.)

It's Armageddon!'s not.

Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, Armageddon is not an event; it's a place. And it's one of the most beautiful places we could never imagine.

The word itself shows up only once in all of the Scripture, in Revelation 16:16, where John tells us that the kings were gathered at the place called Armageddon in Hebrew. That means that the place itself is ancient in Judeo-Christian culture, for Hebrew was the language of the Jews, not of the Christians; the Old Testament, not the New. It is the oldest-fashioned language of God, and in Hebrew, words had profound meaning.

The word Armageddon in the Hebrew is drawn from two words combined into this one. The first word is a word meaning "mountain" and the second is a word meaning "strong." Thus, when John talks about the kings being gathered to Armageddon, he is not at all saying that they are brought to dust, destroyed, laid waste. Rather, he is saying they are brought to the strong mountain.

Anyone who has spent much of any time at all in the Old Testament knows that mountains are strongly associated with God. There was Moriah and Sinai and Ararat, just to name a few, and the people of God sojourned quite a bit around Sinai. Zion, which is associated with Jerusalem and the City of David, is often referred to as a mountain, and Jesus prayed at the Mount of Olives. There are a lot of strong mountains in Scripture, and they all have one thing in common; they are the places where the Lord Himself dwells.

So when we're talking in the end about Armageddon, we're talking about being brought to this strong mountain, to God Himself, to the place where He dwells among us. 

Which means that these completely-destroyed, barren, hopeless images of the end of the earth that Hollywood would have us buy into are missing one key element of the true end of time: the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases. The eternal presence of our God, our solid rock. What all these movies seem to be missing at the end of the world as we know Hope. When all else fails and falls away, there is but One that remains, just as He always has, just as He promised always to do. 


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Building Altars

Revelation is an interesting vision for the end of the world, and most of what we find in there is, at the very least, strange. For example, we have been talking about the Book of Life and the name that God has given us, which will be handed to us on a stone when the account of our life is read on that day. And that raises an interesting question:

What are we supposed to do with a stone?

It is an odd eternity-warming gift. That much is for sure. Welcome to Heaven, here's your rock. A real rock, not that Rock. We would think that perhaps this rock might become the cornerstone of all that we have in Heaven, of that mansion that God has promised us. But I tell you, I do not want a mansion built on the cornerstone of my own creation - even the most perfect idea of my creation - not when the Cornerstone Himself walks among us. I want everything that I have in Heaven to be His, to be centered on Him, to be rooted in Him.

Which brings us back to the question at hand - what are we supposed to do with a stone? Certainly, we should not be expected to carry it around with us for all eternity. In worldly terms, a stone is often associated with a burden. It is either lugged around as a reminder of something grievous that one has done, a weight one simply cannot shake, or it is tied around one's neck as an assurance that one should drown. The God who has told us to take His yoke upon us, the God who shouldered our burdens once for all on the Cross, cannot also be the God who gives us a burden forever. That doesn't make any sense.

Again, we are brought back to the question - what are we supposed to do with a stone?

We are to build an altar.

This is what God's people have historically done with stones; they have built altars with them. They have drawn them out of the bed of the Red Sea, taken them from the shores of the Jordan River, carried them from lands where they have been persecuted, lands where they have been saved, battles they have fought, blessings they have harvested - everywhere that God's people have gone, they have taken stones and stacked them into altars as reminders of God's tremendous blessings.

They have called their altars witnesses; they have named them testimonies.

And I think that that is what happens here. When we come into the presence of God, we are given this stone with our name on it, the name that God has given us, the name that we have, through our best moments and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, written in the Book of Life, but it is not a stone that we are to keep. It is a stone that we are to lay down, right at His very feet.

Heaven seems like a strange place for an altar, admittedly. Why should we need an altar when God Himself walks among us? But we are not, of course, talking about the kind of altar that is in the Temple, which John tells us will no longer be necessary. We are talking about the altar of the sojourner, an altar that stands as a witness and a testimony.

The act that sums up our lives and our first act in Heaven will be that of a witness, as we lay all that we are at the site of this altar and proclaim that God is there. That this....this is the place where Heaven and earth meet. That we join together with all creation in recognition of our God, His power, His promise, and His love, and add our testimony.

Our witness.

Our stone.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Living Named

If the Book of Life is merely a record of the things that you have done with the time that God has given you and if your name is written in it only when you do those things that honor the name that God has given you, then what we have to understand about the Book of Life is that God has not arbitrarily recorded anything in it; 

we determine what is written on its pages.

And that means that there is certain way that we ought to live our lives, something that we ought to be doing with them. I think that something is that we ought to be working our way closer and closer to the names that God has given us, closer and closer to sharing our heartbeat with Him, His in us, with every step.

We are told that when we stand before God, when we read through the Book of Life that records our deeds, God will tell us what our name always was, what He had in mind when He created us. Some of us spend part of our time here wondering what that name might be, agonizing over what seems perhaps unknowable, wondering if we are missing out on the lives that God designed for us because we haven't a clue what He called us when He knit us together in our mother's womb. 

How are we ever supposed to do anything worthy of our name if we do not even know what our name is? How does it come to be written in the book of it purely by accident? Sometimes, we just stumble upon it and do something good, completely unbeknownst to us at the time?

Of course not. 

This is the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit is responsible for guiding us toward what God has planned for us, for affirming and confirming in us the very nature that God has given us. It's the Holy Spirit that whispers into our hearts whether a thing is right or wrong, whether something that we're thinking about will bring God's glory or not. It is the Holy Spirit that enables us sometimes to glimpse that glory, even when we don't understand it, for it is that glimpse that confirms to us that we are on the right path.

The longer we live listening to the Holy Spirit, guided by Him, the more often, I think, our names start to show up in our own stories. Adam was "the man;" Eve was "the woman." But as their stories go on, they become more firmly Adam and Eve, and this does not come as much of a surprise to anyone. Look at how they are living, how they are doing just what God created them to do. When they don't, they become the man and the woman again, but overwhelmingly, increasingly, they are Adam and Eve. God formed "the man," but Adam died. He made "the woman," but it was Eve who left her legacy. 

So as our stories go on, as our pages turn, our names ought to become more frequent in their passages. Our names ought to become more common and more common until of course that is who we are. Anyone reading the early pages of our story might recognize us in the man or the woman, but they should smile and nod as the Book of Life continues when our name starts to surface. Ah, yes. I knew that that woman must be ________. Or it makes perfect sense that the man would be _______.

And when God hands us this stone that has upon it our name, it's no surprising name. When He reads us our story and this character, this creature, this image of God starts to appear under this name, it's no shock at all. It is brilliant understanding, perfect affirmation. For we will know by that time where the Spirit has been leading us. We will know those things in our lives that brought us great joy, that felt somehow holier than we ever could have been, that gave us glimpses of God's glory and assurances of His presence. What we will finally understand in that moment is only how deeply this thread was truly woven through our lives. We shall see what our name has been, read it in our story, watch it dance across the page more often and more often and more often, and we shall say, "Ah, yes."

Of course.

There is my name. And would you look at that? 

By the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is written in the Book of Life. For in my finest moments, however unaware, I have lived up to it and given a glimpse of God's glory into the world. Hallelujah.