Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Numerous People

As we continue to look at texts in the Bible that would have immediately had a deeper meaning to the people of Israel, who intimately understood their own history, we turn next to the beginning of Deuteronomy. 

Deuteronomy is often regarded as the "final sermon" of Moses, his recounting of the journey that Israel has been on since he first spoke to Pharaoh on behalf of the Hebrews and God led them out into the wilderness, on their way toward the Promised Land. God has already told him that he will not inherit the land with them, and God has already called him to the mountain where he will die. So on the edge of Canaan, this is Moses's last chance to remind Israel of all they have been through, all that God has done for them, and all that He has promised them.

He begins with this: The Lord your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude. Other translations say more clearly, you are now as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Right away, this sounds familiar. This is the promise that God made to Abram/Abraham, even when the man was old and childless and beyond child-bearing years. God always said that He would make Abraham's descendants as "numerous as the stars in the sky" and even that they would be so many that they could not be counted.

There's a bit of an odd juxtaposition here, as Deuteronomy comes right on the heels of Numbers, a book in which Moses spends an inordinate amount of time actually counting the descendants of Israel and putting actual numbers to their population. To here be saying that they are living the fulfillment of God's promise - this specific promise - is a bit odd, to say the least.

But it's incredibly important.

It is important because Israel is standing again on the edge of the Promised Land, a place they have been before. The last time they were here, they had sent spies into the land to see if it was everything that God said that it was. It was everything, and more than they had even imagined from God's description, but they were captivated by their own fear and were too scared to enter into it. They spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness until every scared man passed away and the next generation grew up. 

Forty years later, here they are again. The land has not changed; it is still good. The challenges have not changed; there are still other peoples in it. The resolve of Israel at this point is likely wavering, as they know that their leader - Moses - is about to leave them, and at just this very moment when all things could be what they were intended to be, it's easy to not be sure any more. 

And this is no time for not being sure.

So in his final sermon, in his last chance to remind Israel of who they are, where they've been, and where they're going, Moses, who literally just numbered the people, calls to their minds the promise of being so numerous they could not be numbered and tells them they are already living the promise. They're there. This is what God said He was going to do, and He did it - they are as numerous as the stars in the sky. 

It's a confidence booster for a people who now have to believe in another promise. It's an encouragement to them. It's a reason for them to believe in one more thing, right there on the edge of Canaan. We are, they can conclude, God's promised people. Look at us! And this is God's Promised Land.

All of a sudden, here's the resolve. Here's the obedience. Here's the fierceness of Israel. Let's go get it.

It's nothing short of a great speech by Moses, but it's so much more than that. It's exactly what the people needed, and it took nothing more than for Moses to make this one brief, you'd-almost-miss-it-if-it-wasn't-woven-into-your-heart reference to God's promise...on the edge of God's promise. For if God is faithful, then He is faithful, and behold, He is faithful. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A Lush Garden

While we're talking about connections in the Bible between this and that (yesterday, we looked at the connection between Naomi's story and the bitter well that Israel encountered just after leaving Egypt), let's look at another one that's probably a bit too easy to miss, us not being as well-versed in Israel's story as they were.

This one comes from Leviticus 26.

God is instructing His people about faithful, God-fearing, covenant living throughout the book of Leviticus, and while we may not understand all of the commands that He gives them, they do all have their purpose in revealing something about God's nature to us. And in this chapter, He sets forth the blessings that will come upon Israel for their faithfulness to living according to this revelation. Check it out:

For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you.

Right away, we hear the promise that God has made historically throughout history, right from the very beginning. "Be fruitful and multiply" were the words He spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden, back when all things were well. It was the promise He made to Noah when He destroyed the rest of literally everything. And it was the promise He made to Abram, not once, but many times. Right away, then, Israel sets this promise in its rightful place - and themselves in their rightful place in history, as God's next chosen, descended from Adam, from Noah, from Abraham. 

But that's not all. Because God continues His blessings. And I will set my tabernacle among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people. 

Now, let's see. That whole walking among you bit sounds very familiar. Where have we heard that before? Oh yes, in the very beginning. In the Garden. When the Lord walked among His people, was their God, and did not abhor them. Before, you know, the fig. 

So in this promise, what Israel hears is actually not the Promised Land, but the Garden. God is going to make them into the people He always intended them to be, not the people He has to settle for. It's going to be just like it was in the very beginning, just like that first breath right into their very spirits. And if you're Israel, well...Canaan's good, but Eden's better, and this is just a promise too good to miss. 

And the same is true, I think, for us. I don't think we think enough about finding Eden. I don't think we listen close enough to hear the whispers of God that declare, Your faithfulness brings you closer not to the end, but to the beginning. Back to where it all started. 

I'm making you, God says, who I always intended you to be, not someone I'm willing to settle for. 

And I will walk with you, and I will be your God, and you will be My child

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Bitter Well

In the book of Ruth, Naomi very early on requests no longer to be called "Naomi." Rather, she insists that others begin to call her "Mara," which means bitter. No one does, and she is continued to be called Naomi throughout the book, but this bitter word she has chosen for herself has deeper meaning than even Naomi tells us.

It would not have taken much of a stretch of the imagination for ancient Israel to have caught on.

See, Marah was the name of one of the first stops of the people of Israel on their way out of Egypt. It was a place where there was water to drink, but the water was so bitter that they could not drink it. It was one of the first places, therefore, where the people grumbled against their God, asking why He brought them out into the desert to die. And it was one of the first places that God showed His incredible power along their journey, tossing a tree/branch into the water and making it sweet enough to drink.

As soon as Naomi uttered the word, all of Israel would have known exactly what she was talking about.

Naomi wasn't talking about being bitter herself; she wasn't identifying how she felt in response to all that had happened to her (her husband and two sons had all died in a foreign land, where she was left with her two daughters-in-law and a bunch of strangers and no hope of having any more children of her own). She wasn't talking about how she reacted to all of this, and she wasn't warning others to stay away from her because she was bitter.

She was talking about how she felt better at her very core, like waters that could not be swallowed. Anything and everything that she had to offer had turned sour, and if anyone came dipping at her well, they would find that she had nothing life-giving left to give. She had nothing refreshing to offer. Not because she was busy being bitter and miserable about the whole thing, but because the very depths of her life experience had turned unpalatable. 

Do not come and drink from my well, she was saying. There is nothing here for you. You will be disappointed if you think I have anything good to offer you any more. 

Perhaps she was hoping that others might pick up her cause and grumble against God for her, asking why He would take such a sweet, giving, generous woman and bitter her well until she had nothing to offer, why He would take everything that she was and make it of no use at all to the people she loved most - His people, ironically. Perhaps she was picking up her cause herself. We know that she was. Grumbling against God for these very reasons.

Not, again, because she became a bitter old woman but because everything good in her life had turned sour and there was nothing left to nourish her in this barren place where she was all alone and a stranger in a strange land. 

But what Mara also suggests in so naming herself is that there is still hope, there is still a small glimmer of something, but it's going to take an act of God. She hasn't completely given up; if she had, there were other names she could have called herself. "Empty." "Dead." "Done." But she calls herself "Bitter," in no small part because in this story of the water is also her story of hope. 

All it would take is one act of God, one life-giving act of God, one flick of God's wrist to throw something living into the bitter water, and her life would once more become sweet enough to drink. It would again become nourishing. Refreshing. Vital. 

And isn't that what we see as the story goes on? It is, indeed. Naomi goes home. Her daughter-in-law goes with her. At Naomi's leading, Ruth winds up in the field of her kinsman-redeemer, who not only provides food for her and her mother-in-law, but takes them in and gives to Ruth a family, to Naomi a new heir/son to take the place of those lost, and not only that, but a line in the genealogy of Jesus Himself. 

All that with just one move of life, just one toss of redemption into the mix. 

Just as He'd done at Marah.

Bitter waters, indeed. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Evening and Morning

Read through the first chapter of Genesis, and an interesting pattern sets itself up, one that we notice but do not somehow recognize. One that we think is perhaps cute and antiquated, but no longer relevant and certainly not practical. 

It is the pattern of time.

Which is interesting, really, because we are a people who are essentially slaves to time. We do everything by a set, specific schedule. We carry little schedules of time around with us, blocking out here and there when we have things to do that must be done at a particular time. We wear time on our wrists, emblazen it across our phones in giant print, lest we miss something or show up late to something or, perhaps, someone else so rudely show up late when we are waiting on them. We turn on our televisions at the appropriate time, set our DVRs for the prescribed time, even rely on our microwaves to tell us the time when they are not re-warming our food for us (and when they are, they count the time down for us). Everywhere we look, there is time.

And yet, when we read the very beginning of time, we think not much at all of it. 

Here is what we're missing: God's time is, as it has always been, far different from our own perspective of time. In the beginning, God created, and on each day of creation, we are told, "There was evening, and there was morning, the (first, second, third...) day." 

It raises an interesting question about when, exactly, each day begins. 

We know that in Judaism, the day begins at sunset. For others, the day begins at dawn. For most of us, it technically starts at midnight. And there are philosophical reasons for any of these. 

It makes complete sense for a people of faith that the day would begin at sunset, at just the time when men are winding down and taking their rest. This means that every day starts with the great wisdom of God and His creation doing what it does without our intervention. It is a reminder of Who is truly in control of all things and of how we are to honor creation with our lives, for it does not depend upon us but is a wonderful joy, a tremendous blessing. 

It makes complete sense for others, who may also be of faith, that the day would begin at dawn. This is the moment when light first makes its reappearance, when all things seem to start to open up once more. It is a moment of hope and opportunity, the chance to live again and to experience something amazing. Who would not want their day to begin when hope arises each morning and sheds light on all the wonderful things that await? 

It makes complete sense in a mechanistic society like ours that the day would begin when the clock determines that the day begins. Time exists outside of man's experience of it, philosophically, and so it does not matter whether men rest or hope or toil or sleep; time is what it is. We have made it this way, and then we have said that it simply is, of course, this way, and no one seems to argue with it. 

There are two ways that we might take the Genesis account of time. Historically, it has often been taken the way that Judaism has taken it - that that day begins at evening, just as men are settling in for the night, and continues on through the morning to the next evening. This means that men only work in the latest part of the day, after creation has done for itself all that it knows to do by the wisdom woven into it. 

Another way to look at it might be to say that the day begins just after the morning, and work is done first in the day. When we read these passages, we see God very busy creating. Then He stops, looks at His creation, deems it "good" (or "very good"), "and there was evening, and there was morning, the (first, second, third...) day." The emphasis here is not as much on when the day begins as when it ends:

The day ends when the sun rises and the light shines on what is, and it is still good. The day ends when darkness is over, light floods back over everything, and it is just as God intended it to be. 

This is the story of God, isn't it? This is what we're all looking forward to in our "forever and ever, amen." Right? We expect that the world as we know it, the fallen creation, this life ends when God's light floods over everything and reveals once more His perfect creation and we see that it is, indeed, good. Very good. 

How we relate to time says a lot about us. It's a deeply philosophical point, and even though we have convinced ourselves largely that time just is what it is, that's not the case. Time is, as it has always been, what we make of it. It has not always been a twelve-hour clock, nor even a twenty-four hour clock, and not every day has begun at midnight, as though time runs on its own schedule. 

No, for much of the history of the world, time began either at sunset, reflecting the wisdom of the world and man's respect thereof, as well as his obedience in rest and trust in God's design, or at dawn, when a new days holds out all of its promise in a single breath as light spreads once more over a new opportunity, a new hope. 

Or maybe it's never at all been about when time begins, but when it ends - when the sun rises and the glory of the Lord is seen in one piece and all is right with the world, just as He intended it. When the Son rises and the glory of the Lord is seen in one breath and all is right with the world....

Thursday, February 22, 2018


To be honest with you, I never knew much about Billy Graham. In the contemporary Christian era in which I came to Christ, it was all light shows and lasers, not really truth and grace. But as I watch the world mourn this man - a world that came to faith through him and a world that still does not buy his faith - and talk about a great man of faith who this week only changed his address, I've gotta tell you:

I hope that's what I'm doing here.

Earlier this week, I finished up writing a "Philosophy of Christian Leadership" theory paper. Short version? I don't have one. God never told us to lead; He told us to follow. And that, I think, is what every one of us has to be responsible for - the following that we do, not the following that we gain. 

But men like Billy Graham, pastors all over this globe, and yes, even me on occasion, we catch something out of the corner of our eye, turn around for just a second, and wouldn't you know it? Someone is following our following. And all of a sudden, we're leaders. 

That's what made Graham so remarkable. He never forgot his first love. He knew that no matter how many people were going his way, the road that he was on led to Christ alone, and he made sure to get out of the way enough that others could see His glory. He knew that he could only ever lead anyone as far as the grave, and that's not where he wanted to take them. 

As I said in my paper, we're not headed toward a bigger church or greater financial wealth or a remarkable reputation in our communities; we're headed toward Christ. That's what this whole Christian thing is all about, for all of us. 

Billy Graham had eyes for Home. He knew what that glorious day held for him, and I can't imagine much time at all passing without him thinking about what that day meant. Particularly as he got older. Particularly as he got frailer. Particularly as that day, for him, drew near. 

And I think it's through Billy's eyes that I finally understand what Paul was saying. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote that whether he lived or died, that was fine with him, but it was better for the church if he lived. That way, he said, he could bring to them the hope and make sure they were secure in it. 

That's the hope that danced in Billy's eyes. All you had to do was look at the man ad see that Heaven glittered in his soul. You looked at him and you saw this confident assurance about all that was to come, and it didn't diminish his love for the church but can't you just hear Billy echoing Paul's chorus here? Whether I live or die, that's cool, but it's better that I live.

That the world may see not where, but how, hope dwells. 

I hope that's what I'm doing here. 

I hope that's what I'm doing here, but some days, I just don't know. I don't know because there's not a lot of room any more in this world for something like hope. There's not a lot of room any more in this world for...Heaven. I take a lot of flak for my idealism, a lot of criticism from those who say that's just not the way this world works. And I know it - it's not. But it's the way that Heaven works. And I think that as time goes on, it's harder and harder to see that as something good and beautiful and heavenly, and it's far more common to see it as naivete or blindness. 

But I guarantee you that Billy was neither naive nor blind. He saw perfectly clearly, and if you looked carefully, so, too, could you...through his eyes. 

I think a lot about Home. I think a lot about Heaven. Truth is, there's nothing in this world that I want, and there's certainly nothing here that I need. Whether I live or I die, that's fine by me. But if it's better for the church that I live, let it be because it is through my eyes that they see not where, but how, hope dwells. Let it be because through my eyes, this world catches a glimpse of Heaven. Let it be because the Promise that dances in my spirit invites others onto the floor. 

Lord, I hope that's what I'm doing here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Presence of God

While modern Christianity has done a great job of crafting its narratives about both Heaven and Eden, about the future that is to come and the past we so gravely wounded, both of these narratives create a significant problem for the theology of our faith: they create a distance between ourselves and God, one that is not easily overcome. 

This is a problem because we love and serve a God whose entire story is that He is present with His people. He walked with them in the Garden as soon as He created them. He met Abraham on the mountain, bearing with Him a ram. He walked with Israel through the wilderness, parting the Red Sea and meeting with them in cloud and fire. He stood in the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He even came in the womb of a virgin, born in a manger, walking the same dusty, dirty streets of Jerusalem that the Jews who were in great anticipation of Him walked. And then, when it all seemed said and done, when the Romans had finally put His body in the grave and, to turn a phrase, put the final nail in this coffin, He walked out to walk among His people again. 

And here we are, 2,000 years later, talking about the "one day" - the one day in the extremely distant past when God was present with us until we ruined it or the one day in the extremely distant future when we will come to be with God again. And we say that this is the best theology we have. This is it. This is God.

It's entirely not. 

This is not our best theology. This is not it. This is not God. Our best theology is a theology that reminds us that God is still present with His people. Our best theology is a theology that tells us that God is still immanent. Our best theology is a theology that doesn't settle for the distance between today and "in the beginning" or today and "forever and ever amen" because our best theology knows that today is our beginning and is our forever because the God who made a story out of walking with His people walks with us still. Even now. Even here.

I'll confess it - it's by no means an easy theology. There are a lot of questions that come up if God is both who He says He is and present with us in a world that is so much less than He intended. There is a lot of incredulousness, even among Christians, that God could be near and life could still be such a mess. It's much easier to say that our God is the God of yesterday or tomorrow because it frees us from having to grapple with today. 

The truth is that we are no better than Israel when they wandered in the wilderness, every day asking, "What? Did our Lord bring us out here to die?" Every time something goes wrong, every time something goes bad, every time something is incomplete, we grumble. We think about what the other peoples are going to say when they see that our God, the God that even they can see in cloud and fire, has not made everything perfect for us. 

But let's not confuse perfect with present.

And yet, that's exactly what we're doing. We don't want our God to be messy. We don't want our God to be difficult. We don't want our God to be unimaginable. Which means we don't want our God to be present. Because present is, and always has been, all of these things. It's much easier, much cleaner, much safer to have Him in the beginning or the forever and ever and not here in this wilderness where, we're pretty sure, we die. 

The problem is, that's just not God's story. God's story has always been the wilderness story. God'd story has always been the messy story. God's story has always been difficult and unimaginable and a stretch of the best of our imaginations because God's story has always been a story of presence. Right here. With us. When we're not getting it right. When we're getting it super-wrong. When we're left wondering and forever wandering and when we can't help but think about what all these other peoples might say if they, too, see the cloud and the fire and we're still such a mess. 

Maybe, though...maybe they'd say there's still something to it. Maybe they'd say there's something special going on here anyway. 

Maybe they'd say, whoa...look...their God is with them. 

If only we would remember that ourselves.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Echoes of Eden

The truth is that everything that Christians identify as foretastes of Heaven, everything that they put off until God's tomorrow, everything that they claim as hope for eternity, is just as much an echo of Eden. That is, it is just as much the way that God designed things in the beginning, just as much His original plan for all of Creation, just as much part of His "very good." 

We don't talk very much about this because it's not the kind of beautiful hope that Heaven gives us. When we talk about Eden, we have to talk about how badly we've screwed things up, just how far we've fallen, and essentially what terrible creatures we are. We have to admit our own propensity to want to be like God, and this does not paint the same kind of wonderful, sparkly image as, say, streets of gold. 

So Heaven it is, not Eden, even though God's plan, His design, has not changed from one to the other. Even though Heaven is not fundamentally different than the Garden. Even though we know (because God's story tells us) that our "happily ever after" is our "once upon a time." 

But before we get too carried away and start talking about Eden, let's be clear about this, too: these echoes of Eden, this God who created all things, this original "very good" design is also only half of the story. And since it is only half of the story, it can never fulfill the longings of our heart, either.

And this half of the story, just like the other half, creates a distance in our relationship with our loving Father. This time, though, it is not He who has stepped away into the future; it is we who are stepping away from our past. 

Which means that once again, our immanent God, the God who walked with us in the very beginning, the God who is building a place for us in His house for eternity, the God who came to dwell among us as a man, is no longer immanent. He's not here. He's back there. Back in the Garden where we left Him when we decided that we could be just like Him if we'd only develop a taste for figs. (It didn't take much. And yes, figs. Oh, how theologically pleasing it is for the fruit to be a fig.)

However we got here, here we are, with a Christianity that confesses plainly that this life is not what it was meant to be. This world is not what God created for it. We are not who He intended us to be. This whole big thing in a mess. 

Our response to this confession boils down to one of these two things, though more often one than the other. We often say that this disaster is here because God dwells in Heaven, waiting for eternity. The more confessional among us might say that this disaster is here because we left God in the Garden at the very beginning when we fell. And the problem is always either that there is too much distance between our stories and God...or that there is too much distance between God and our stories. And no matter how we frame it, it always seems to boil down to the fact that we are "here" and not "there," whichever "where" we settle on. Mansions or dirt. Whatever.

Then, we boldly proclaim this to the world as the story of Christianity. It is either a dramatic failure of original design or an eternal hope for a promised tomorrow. It is the story of a people and a God with a great chasm between them that seems to only deepen with time, but will be closed in the blink of an eye.

It sounds beautiful to us. But the world's not buying it. And they shouldn't. It's only half the story. 

The real story lies somewhere in the middle, in the here and now, and it's one that modern Christianity has not made a lot of room for but we absolutely must. 

Are you starting to see where this is going? No, not to a manger, although that's part of it....

(Stay tuned.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

Foretastes of Heaven

Sometimes, on this earth, we experience moments of absolute wonderful joy, total bliss, perfect peace, or complete and utter happiness. And Christians have this fabulous way of taking these moments and declaring, "This is how it's going to be one day. This. All the time." That is Heaven.

And sometimes, we have moments of complete devastation, terrible trial, deep grief, or complete and utter hopelessness. And Christians have this fabulous way of taking these moments and declaring, "One day, it won't be like this any more." That is Heaven.

It seems that no matter what happens to us in this world, Christians have this way of taking it and turning it toward Heaven, reminding us that there is this coming day when everything will be as God intends it to be, life will be wonderful, we will be whole, joy will be full, and pain will be not even a memory any longer.

It seems that no matter what happens to us in this world, Christians continue to look forward with hope.

It's one of the things I love about Christians, but the truth is that it's only half of the story. And being only half of the story means that this is not always the most helpful way of approaching things.

One of the reasons it's not always helpful is because it places this tremendous distance between our lives and God. Our lives are troubled, trialed, or at the very least, incomplete, lived only in spurts and glimpses and the every-so-often foretaste of Heaven that comes through the brightest days and our greatest yearnings that come through the darkest.

All the while, God does not even sit on His throne. He has one, but He's quite busy off of it, directing the paving of streets of gold, setting pearly gates squarely on their hinges, building rooms onto His mansion, and all of the other things it takes to get Heaven ready for an influx of human inhabitants. Because, you know, priorities...or something.

It creates this space that we poetically refer to as the "not yet," in which we live almost with blinders, trying not to let our eyes become distracted by the realities of life as we know it but keeping squarely focused on what we know about the life that is to come, by promise and by hope.

We end up living so much in tomorrow that when the world cries out for God, wondering why He is nowhere to be found, we almost shrug our shoulders and say, it's cool. He's got this. He's preparing a party at His place for later. Invitation's in the mail.

And all of a sudden, this God, this immanent God who has always dwelt among His people, who loved us so much that He became incarnate in the form of a man to truly live among us, is no longer immanent, no longer near. And we, His people, are the ones who have made Him such. We've put Him in Heaven and told Him to stay there, holding out hope for a tomorrow that has no voice of promise today, when we need it most.

Which means that, push come to shove, we're not even as sure about this Heaven as we claim. How could we be? It's been so long since we have heard Him tell us about it in His own voice.... The God of tomorrow, of eternity, is no longer the God of today; He is, if anything, the God of yesterday, the one who spoke so long ago to tell us these things.

Except...He's not even the God of yesterday. For that would turn us in an entirely different direction.

(Stay tuned.)

Friday, February 16, 2018

Fish on Fridays

The fish sandwich is back! ...everywhere! 

You've probably seen this news if you've seen any commercials, received any mailings, had any ads run through your social media, or use any fast food apps. This is the time of year that restaurants are bringing back their "authentic" cod sandwiches, "crispy," "wild-caught" or whatever adjective strikes your fancy. And why?

Because we eat fish on Fridays.

This is another one of those traditional Lenten practices, stemming from a dietary restriction on meat. But that's not really the focus of this post. The focus of this post is cultural influence.

Here's the way this works. Restaurant A has a fish sandwich this time of year because it recognizes the strict adherence of Lent-observing Christians of certain faith traditions to the dietary restrictions of these forty days, which, by the way, includes only 7 Fridays (on which we eat fish). Restaurant B, however, has a fish sandwich because restaurant A has one, and they don't want restaurant A to get all of the profit from strictly-adherent Lent-observing Christians of certain faith traditions, not even for a mere 7 Fridays. Restaurant C has a fish sandwich because it doesn't want restaurants A and B running the whole fish game on Fridays. And so on and so on until every restaurant's fish sandwich is suddenly "back, for a limited time!" 

Because we eat fish on Fridays.

This means that the sacred rhythm of the church's Lenten season has a profound impact upon its commercial markets. Christians, for this season of the year, are driving fast food sales toward fish. If it weren't that big of a market share, if it wasn't that significant of a profit, if it was just a few here and there, none of these restaurants, which do not specialize in fish or generally have much interest in it, would bother. But because it's such a significant portion of the business they could do (not to mention how much Christians not eating cheeseburgers for 40 days cuts into their bottom lines), suddenly everyone is out to establish a reputation as the best fish in town. 

Imagine what would happen if the Christian demographic stepped up to impact the market in other ways. 

Sabbath, for example, is a sacred rhythm of the church. For the longest time in America, everything was closed on Sunday. Even after it wasn't "illegal," it just wasn't worth the cost of operations to open on a day when a majority of persons weren't shopping. What if we did that again? What if Christians decided that on Sundays, we not only Sabbath ourselves, but we let others Sabbath? What if we didn't make use of grocery stores, specialty shops, gas stations, restaurants on Sundays? The loss of business from Christians alone would make businesses reconsider whether it's worth their cost even to open, meaning that thousands upon thousands of persons who are now required to work on Sundays or lose their jobs have a day off, perhaps even to join us at church. (By the way, ask any restaurant server, and you will discover that Sundays are often their busiest, but lowest-paying, days because it's Christians who come in large groups, take up tables for hours at a time, and leave measly tips, if any tips at all.)

Or what if we all decided we were not buying clothing made in foreign factories that do not pay a living wage? Or that we were only going to drink fair trade coffee? Or...the list goes on and on.

The truth is that this is the kind of thing we talk about all the time. We talk about it in good faith, fired up for the difference we could make in the world if these movements would just take hold. But we quickly get discouraged, wondering what difference it really makes. Thinking that we don't have enough sway in the market. Thinking that the world doesn't really listen to Christians, that they don't care what kind of statements we're trying to make. 

Drops in the bucket, really. Isn't it? One tiny little thing that makes a few little ripples, perhaps, but what are we really doing here? And does it even matter? 

So we give up, give in, and go back to business as usual because, well, because that's the way the world works. But if you're one of those Christians who's not satisfied with that, if you're one of those who still burns with a hope that things could be different, if you're one of those who refuses to believe our time is up or that we no longer have a say in this world, or specifically in this market, take heart. 

Because the fish sandwich is back! ...everywhere! 

For no other reason than that we eat fish on Fridays.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Giving Up

Today marks the second day of the Lenten season, one of the beautiful sacred rhythms of the Christian faith. But you probably wouldn't know that from looking at social media.

Our culture has co-opted Lent for its own purposes, and it's really trendy right now for everyone to be giving up something - like chocolate or sugar or, as has become popular in recent years, social media - or to be taking up something new - like running or charity, as though this is all that Lent is about. As though this is what the church had in mind when it instituted the practice of recentering its faith so many hundreds of years ago. 

Let's be clear about something: Jesus did not come so that you would stop eating carbs. 

Nor did He come for you to be miserable and to spend 40 days vocalizing your terrible temptation to break your fast or your promise. 

Lent is not about proving yourself faithful by living in your self-imposed prison for forty days, crying out from behind your own bars, then refusing tiny drinks of grace. Lent is not about making yourself somehow noble; you're no such thing. 

Lent is about getting rid of those things that keep you from Jesus, those things that stand in the way of your faithfulness, those things that make your life less than life abundant, which is found only in Christ.

Which means that if you're using Lent to lessen your life, you're doing it wrong. Lent is a season of "lesson"ing your life, falling back into the sacred rhythms and teaching yourself anew the importance of the glory of God, which is so easy to all but forget between Palm Sunday and Fat Tuesday.

Lent is not about making yourself poorer; it's about making your life richer. It's not about making your plate smaller; it's about making your portion heartier. Lent is not about denying good things; it's about denying yourself.

Take up your Cross and follow Him to Easter.

And that's what the world's celebration of Lent doesn't understand. That's what they're missing. They don't get that this whole Lent thing doesn't end at a candy hunt; it ends at an empty tomb. It doesn't hold its breath for bunnies; it gasps at the Cross. When these forty days are said and done, the world will take a collective sigh, wipe its brow, and say, "Phew! I'm glad that's over," and then they will go back to life as it always was.

But for the Christian, when these forty days are done, they will know these words: It is finished. And life will never be the same.

I think it's wonderful that the world wants to join us in our practice of Lent, that it takes the time to recognize one of our sacred rhythms and even that it is willing to call it by our name for it. But let's be clear - what the world calls Lent and what the Christian does are two dramatically different things, and we have to be very mindful about how we engage in this practice, lest we let the world define it for us. Lest we find ourselves thinking that maybe that sounds like a good idea. Lest we find ourselves taking this sacred season of humility, repentance, grief, recommitment, self-denial, and atonement and make it about something so much less. 


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Ashes

Today marks an interesting mesh of the cultural and the Christian; it is both Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday. And if you have ever wondered the difference between the kind of sappy, emotional, sentimental kind of love human beings have for one another and the deep, abiding, sacramental love we have for the Lord, well, today is your day.

Because today, we will exchange token gifts. We will throw confetti in the air and shower one another with rose petals because we are so deeply in love.

And we will mark ashes across our foreheads in the shape of a cross, the ashes of the palms of last year's joyous celebration of Palm Sunday, because we have mournfully so forgotten our Love.

Because today, we will get down on one knee and pop questions, we will stand before altars and exchange a few words, making new vows to one another 'til death do us part.

And we will fall on our knees, dying, knowing that we have neglected our vows.

Because today, we will exchange greeting cards with silly or sappy messages, with great puns and tender love notes, words written to reflect the special kinds of relationships that we share with one another.

And we will cry prayers of repentance and write new words of love as we commit to restoring our most special relationship of all.

Today, we will go out to candlelight dinners and drink wine with our arms wrapped around one another the way they do in the movies and eat dessert from each other's forks and giggle about how awkward and lovely it all is, all while knowing how many times we have sat around His table this year without considering the deep love and joy that abides there. 

Today, we will celebrate how much we love one another while we also mark the beginning of a season in which we grieve, repent, and make atonement for how poorly we have loved Him. It is a failure we cannot make up for with flowers or chocolate, but only with prayer and fasting.

And so, Lent is upon us.

The abundance of Valentine's Day fills up our love. It maxes out our affections for one another, re-stokes the fires, puts a little more vim in our vigor. It gives us the energy, the emotion, the high to go a little further, to do a little more, to love one another all over again. 

The solemn remembrance of Ash Wednesday empties us. It pours out our failures, our fallings, our faithlessness at the altar and readies us for a recommitment, one which will come through holding onto that emptiness through unto the Passion when He pours Himself out for us and fills us once more. 

And in either case, be it through candy or ashes, roses or palms, proposals or Promises, today renews our love. 

Blessings to you on all of your celebrations this day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Revelation of God

It is astonishing the number of Christians who believe that much of what is written in the Bible is either 1) completely arbitrary, part of God's "good" ideas about being "nice" or 2) so far beyond us that all we can do is shrug our shoulders and say, "God's ways are higher than our ways." 

But I guess that depends upon how you understand the Bible. What, exactly, is this book that we have?

It could be that this book is just a handbook, all the laws of living compiled here in one place as a handy reference for all that we think about doing. In the same way as a new employee takes home the company handbook, so Christians take home their Bibles and discover in their pages the way they are expected to dress, behave, and produce for the God who now runs their lives like the most efficient of all CEOs.

It could be that this book is just a mystery, meant just to throw us off our pedestal every now and again and remind us just how little we know and understand about this world. Every time we open its pages, we are supposed to see something we don't understand, discover a God who is so far beyond our imagination that we can't even fathom Him, and return once again to our small story lives that have now been put in their place - the temporary, fallen world - while God has been put in His - in the highest heavens, just out of reach of man.

It could be that this book is just a history, a chronicle written by men as they struggled to figure out who their God even was and to figure out how to live "nicely" together. It's the best wisdom we have come across, even in the places where it may not seem like wisdom at all, and it gives us the voices of the same kinds of men just like us who had the same kinds of questions and came up with the same kinds of ideas about God that we're now talking about. 

At its best, it could be a family history, a book that tells us why we do things the way we do them or suggests the best way for going about it. You know, the way your mom tells you stories about the stories her mom told her about the stories that her mom told her about why her mom said you should always keep potatoes in the corner of the cellar, third shelf up. Or the way you somehow come into know this one family recipe that's been passed down for seven generations. Maybe that's what this Bible is - a family story that tells us how to live the way our ancestors lived and helps us to learn from their wisdom.

All of these are common ways of looking at the Bible and approaching its word, but none of them requires much of an investment in what it says. And none of them gets close to what the Bible itself tells us that it is.

It is the revelation of God.

When we talk about the Bible being a revelation, we are talking about two things. We are talking, of course, about it being revealed by God for man, given through divine inspiration, passed down from the very breath of God into the hands of men. And that's the way that we commonly talk about it. 

But we're also talking about the Bible revealing God. And that's the understanding that most of us in modern Christianity have lost. That's the understanding we have to get back.

It goes back to what we were talking about yesterday, how each of the commandments and indeed, the laws, reveals something about the character of God. Every page, every chapter, every word of this Book is designed to reveal something about God that enables us to see Him, to know Him, to recognize Him in the world around us a little bit better. It tells us His heart. It tells us His character. It tells us His plan. It tells us His story. And of this, we can be sure, because the Bible culminates not with anything fantastic we have done, not with our story, but with Jesus's story and all of the amazing things He's up to. 

This is God's story. He's the main character. And for some reason, we're missing that. For some reason, this is the only book we ever pick up and do not expect to read the continuing saga of its hero. For some reason, this is the only book we pick up and turn our eyes away from the main character. It's like reading Oliver Twist to get a sense of historical England or reading The Lord of the Rings to develop a theory about fine jewelry. We would laugh at ourselves for even attempting such a thing, but it's what we are doing to our Bibles all the time - reading them for every reason under the sun except for the revelation of God contained therein.

Imagine how it would change our lives, our faith, our hope, even our love, if we stopped that. If we took the Bible at its word and believed that every page was there to tell us something about God we didn't know before. If it wasn't arbitrary, but was, in fact, revelation, just as it tells us it is. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Law of Love

One of the ongoing debates in Christian circles is how much of the Old Testament law we are still accountable to, seeing as how the old covenant has been replaced by the new covenant in Jesus. ("Replaced," by the way, is a terrible theological word, particularly since Jesus Himself said He came to "fulfill" it.) 

But the answer to the question of accountability really depends upon how you think about the Old Testament law. Doesn't it?

Amazingly, most Christians would say that the Old Testament law was essentially arbitrary, that it was just a bunch of God's ideas for our living together. That the primary concern in the law was that we be "nice" to each other, the way God would have us be nice to each other. That the law was written because, left to ourselves, we are corrupt, evil, deceitful persons who would never figure out how to be "good" on our own. That without it, we'd all lie, cheat, steal, and murder. And that would be totally unbecoming of a people of God, so God gave us the law to keep us from it. 

In other words, He's just no fun. And there's no more rhyme or reason to the law than when your mom says you have to clean up your bedroom before you can play video games. It just seems like a good idea.

But what if the law wasn't just a good idea? What if it had nothing to do with our corrupt, evil, deceitful fallings? 

What if the law streams forth from the very heart of God Himself? 

Take, for example, the eighth commandment: Never lie. Lying seems like a terrible way to relate to one another; honesty seems like a good idea. So of course it makes sense that God, who is good, would tell us to choose the good thing - honesty. What if that's not it, though?

Because God is also truth. Right? God tells us that He is truth. We tell each other that God is truth. In Him, there is no falsity. In Him, there is no lie. 

Now, imagine that we say that God is truth, but then we go ahead and lie to each other. Imagine that we tell an unbeliever that God is truth, but then we lie to him. How is he supposed to ever believe that God is truth if we are nothing but liars? All of a sudden, it's not about being "nice" to one another or even being "good"; the very reputation of God is on the line. 

His people are to be known by truth because God is truth. A dishonest, deceitful, lying people can never authentically, realistically, believably claim that. 

Or take another commandment - never murder. Murder, of course, is not nice, so not murdering would, of course, be "good." But again, what if it's not about being good? What if the very heart of God, and His reputation, are at stake? We say that God is life. We cannot say that God is life if we are also murdering each other. No one would take us seriously. So again, it's not just about being "nice" or even being "good"; it's about declaring with our lives what we declare with our tongues - God is life. 

Spoiler alert: essentially every law in the Old Testament, particularly the so-called "civil" laws, can be read in this way - as revelations of God's character and heart. And if that's the case, it has to change the way that we read them. It has to change the way that we relate to them. 

So let's go back to the question. Just how much of the Old Testament law are we, as new covenant believers, still accountable to? 

That depends. Just how thoroughly is God still God?

Because if God is still truth, then we still must not lie. If God is still life, then we still must not murder. If God still provides, then we must not steal. If God is still sufficient, then we must not covet. If the character of God is fundamentally the same as it was when He gave us the laws that not only revealed Him but showed us how to reveal Him in our world, then of course we're still accountable to the law. 

Every single word of it that pours from the very heart of God. For it never was about our being "nice" or even being "good," but about our being "God's." And we still are, aren't we? 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Coaching the Church

Yesterday, I laid out a new paradigm for coaching a professional football organization, and I asked you to bear with me because I promised a theological/ministry application for it. Well, here's the hard truth:

Most churches are suffering under the same misguided coaching style as most football teams. And it's killing us.

Here's the way that most churches work: they have a pastor, a circle of elders (or a board - don't get me started), perhaps a few deacons - these are the guys who have the "church minds." These are the ones who have all the plans and know how the church ought to be, and they're the ones drawing up the playbook.

They're the ones deciding what this particular church should be about, what it's style is. They're the ones making decisions about what kinds of programs this church offers. Do we have a children's ministry? What kind? What about community outreach? What are we doing there? They're drawing up the X's and O's to be the kind of church that they want to be, moving all of their big-name priorities to the top of the list. 

And then, when new members come into the congregation, these coaches are trying to match them up in the predefined schemas. You're a banker? We've got a spot on our finance committee. You're a mom? Great! We need someone to work with the kids. You're a handyman? There's an opening on our maintenance team. And we're shoving our members into these maps we've already drawn up depending on what position we think they'd be good at, where we think they'd work. 

I can't tell you how many times I've been approached and asked (and expected to agree) to teach a children's class. Because I attend this church and I've been there for a long time. And because some of the kids kind of like me. Neither of which is a particularly good reason for me to be teaching a children's class, and I can actually give you plenty more good reasons why I shouldn't. 

But that's the plan we've drawn up and, darn it, that's what we're plugging our members into. (Please don't mishear me on this. This is not a tirade against children's ministry. It's just not my gift...or my bag.)

That's the way most churches work, how they're being coached, but there's a better way. Ready for it? Talk to your members. They're the experts on the gifts and the passions that God has put in their hearts. They know where they're going to thrive, and they know what it's going to take from the rest of the community to enable them to do it.

That means we have to make room in our churches for some ideas that may be outside of our comfort zones - by a little or by a lot. It means we have to consider ideas that never would have occurred to us before. It means that when someone comes and says they'd like to start a drama ministry, we give them five minutes of our Sunday service to utilize it. It means when they say they want to work with the homeless, we start fixing up the church van to make it to the city. It means when they want to plan meals for the bereaved, we let them put the feelers out. It means if they want to host a local troop of the kid scouts (boy or girl), if they want to start a children's soccer league, if they want to start an adult volleyball league, if they want to host a recovery group or start a night out for moms, we give them the marker and let them start drawing up the plays. We ask them what their X's and O's are and then we take those skills that we've honed over the years shoving our members into our schemes, and we start recruiting them for their community's, each and every one perfectly fit not only to contribute, but to thrive.

And hey, this isn't my plan. This isn't some wild, hair-brained scheme that I've come up with because I think it's awesome. (I do think it's awesome.) It's the way God's always done it. From using an adopted son of Pharaoh to deliver His message to the ruler to making a quiet little shepherd boy into the shepherd of His flock to calling out to fishermen that He would make them fishers of men. He shaped His schemes around who His players were, not the other way around. 

Look how strong those stories are still going thousands of years later. 

That's how we make our mark as churches. That's how we move from having merely church members and start having a real community. That's how we maximize the glory of God in all of our little places. 

By letting our members draw the playbook, then giving them everything they need to live...and it. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Coaching the Colts

After a stunning display of what it looks like to live without integrity, the Indianapolis Colts (American football) are looking for a new head coach for the upcoming season. And you should know, I have expressed my interest in the position. 

But we'd have to do something radically new, and I've made that very clear.

Here's how this whole "coaching" thing too often works: you get a bunch of guys with a lot of knowledge about the game, and they put together a killer playbook of all the maneuvers they think are going to get them ahead in the game. Then, they go out and scout a bunch of players who are the best of the best at their respective positions, and they try to plug these guys into the scheme that they've developed. If a guy doesn't work so well, they bench him and replace him with another guy, always sticking to the playbook, always trying to make the best of their football minds work out and one-up the opponent. 

In the process, what happens is that the coaching staff - through offseason workouts, training camp, preseason practice scrimmages, and the regular season - make a bunch of football players out of their roster, cutting and signing along the way to strengthen their own schemes. 

That's not how I would coach these guys.

Because you see, I recognize that right there on the roster, we've got the best football minds. These guys are the best of the best at their positions for a reason. And if you're going to make a playbook for your football team, you ought to make it for your football team. That means you're going to need their help.

That means you have to sit down with these guys, individually and then by side of the ball. You've got to ask them, "What do you need to be the best (safety, wide receiver, lineman, etc.) that you can be? What do you need from the guys around you in order to excel at your position? What's going to make you the player we saw in you when we drafted you?" And you just go around and let every guy put his best forward, state what he needs, start thinking about how his teammates can help him achieve that. And then you draw up your plays around getting and giving the guys to one another so that by the end, guess what?

They've written the playbook.

They've told you how to maximize their skills. They've told you what they bring to the table and what they can bring to the table and how to get the best out of them. They've talked with one another and heard what each other has to say. And now, when they look at those plays, they don't see a bunch of X's and O's. What they see is their opportunity - on some plays, to be what their teammate needs them to be and on other plays, to have everything in place for them to be their very best. It's not just an arbitrary play that might work; it's a play with passion and purpose behind every shift and move. 

Some might say, how can you possibly think this would work? 

It's simple. I trust the guys who are the best of the best in their positions to be the experts on how they play football. I trust them to know what works for them, what they can give and what they can bring. And what we end up with is a playbook that probably doesn't work for any and every team in the league. But it works for this team. 

Because it's their playbook. 

And as a coach, it keeps me from having to decide who the best guy for the scheme is. Truth is, they're all the best guys. They've already shown that much. My job is to make them the best best guys they can be by building around them the pieces that they need to excel. We do this through open communication, through constant collaboration, and through having some good football minds in key places (assistant coaches, trainers, etc.) to put the framework around what we can and can't do for these guys. 

Then, we go out and win games. Not as well-trained, well-coached, run-of-the-mill athletes, not as Indianapolis Colts players, but as Colts, a team of guys wholly committed to one another on the most basic, intimate, heart-of-the-matter details. Right down to every X and O.

(You may wonder why I'm taking the time on a theology blog to talk about coaching a professional football team. Tomorrow, I'll tell you why. This is, although it may not seem it today, extremely important.)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Love Mercy

When we talk, then, about how central mercy is to God's indwelling presence in the world and how it depends upon truth at its very foundations, we see how important it is that we, as God's people, come to have the same eyes for mercy as God does. 

In fact, it's one of the things Micah tells us the Lord requires of us - to love mercy.

That means that when the world is screaming, He should be fired!, it is Christians who ought to be building a hedge of protection around the man who made an error and gently guiding him into a more disciplined way of doing things. It is Christians who ought to be celebrating his transfer, rather than his termination. 

It means that when the world is content to blackball, to outcast, to turn out a man on the mere accusation of wrongdoing, no matter how grievous, it is Christians who ought to be calming the storms around him and pulling him into the boat for awhile. And if it is shown that the accused is truly guilty, it is Christians who ought to be first to seize upon his heart, hear his apology, embrace his atonement, and believe in his change. 

Remember that Jesus did not condemn the accused, even when it was clear that she was guilty. Rather, He knelt in the dirt and dusted off the sins of the condemners until not one of them any longer believed he had moral ground to stand on. 

And this, by the way, was a sexual sin, just like so many that are making our headlines today. This woman was brought right from the act of adultery, by those who believed they were in the right to condemn her for it. Yet not one of them was able. Was it because they all had sexual sin within them and were therefore no longer able to judge her on the basis of the deplorableness of her sin? Probably not. The message of Jesus here is that no matter how deplorable, sin is sin. Sexual sin is not somehow "worse" than anything you've ever done, so, to put it crudely, get over yourself. 

Get entirely over your holier-than-thou, arrogant-"righteousness" self. 

And it means that when the world cries out for vengeance, it is Christians who ought to embrace justice...and then mercy on top of that. (By the way, justice is another value Micah calls us to in the very same verse.) It means that when the world screams, Cut her up!, it is Christians who kneel in grief with her. It is Christians who hold her tender heart, which is not calloused but is so deeply longing, in their folded hands and pray with her - for the life that she longed for, the life that she wounded, the life that she took, and the life that she seemed to throw away, all in this one unspeakable act that we, as Christians, ought to be on the front lines of speaking.

It's about developing God's eyes for this world. Without God's eyes, we could never have His heart. And without His heart, what are we doing here? Tell me. If we don't love as God loves, if we don't indwell this world in mercy the way that God indwells this world in mercy, what exactly are we doing? 

And contrary to what this world would have us believe in all of its black-and-white, cut-and-dried, yes-and-no, guilty-and-not guilty, truth-or-mercy world, we are not blind to what is truly going on in this world. We are not ignoring the guilt of the guilty. We are not turning our backs on the innocent. Rather, we are facing head-on what fallenness is, but the way that God would have us do it. 

With mercy.

Which depends wholly upon truth. 

It's not black-and-white. That would be too easy. It is shades upon shades upon shades of love. And that's what makes it beautiful. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Throne of Mercy

Our world has set up a tremendous barrier between mercy and truth, unashamedly declaring that the two simply cannot co-exist. But the biblical truth is not just that the two can co-exist, but that they must. 

Mercy depends upon truth. (And therefore, truth paves the way for mercy.)

It is absolutely vital that we, as Christians, get this right and refuse to settle for anything less than the intimate interweaving of mercy and truth. Not just because that is the way that God would have it, but because that is the way that God is.

When God first came to dwell among His people in the Tabernacle, He dwelt in the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place. Inside the Most Holy Place laid the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the words of the Lord's commandments. And just above the Ark of the Covenant, just over the word of truth, sat the Throne of Mercy (alternately called the Mercy Seat), and it is here that the glory of the Lord descended and dwelt.

On mercy. Nestled just over the truth. 

That's not an accident. It's not a coincidence. It's not an afterthought, as though God designed this entire Tabernacle and then thought, hmm, now where would be a good place for Me to dwell? 

No, He knew He would dwell in mercy on truth. He knew this was the way that He would come into His world - not denying the truth of where the world had fallen, but neither forsaking it to its own temptations. In order for God to come into this world and continue to be, well, God, He had to make a way for the world to be painfully as it was - fallen, sinful, rebellious, and heartbreaking (truth) - without losing that incredible love that makes Him God - forgiving, treasuring, grieving, and still loving (mercy). 

And if this is what's missing from our world, which says that the two cannot co-exist, then even more tragic is that this is coming to be what is missing from our God, as we try to make Him more palatable to the world. Because when they don't understand that mercy and truth depend upon one another, they cannot fathom a God who could be both.

So we have watered Him down. Ironically, in a world so hell-bent on an unforgiving truth - he should be fired; write him off; cut her up - we have watered down God in favor of mercy, preaching a Savior who quite honestly doesn't care that much about what you do but loves you no matter what. He doesn't require you to confess anything, and He doesn't require you to change anything. He's here for you, and that doesn't put any burden on your life. 

It's pure blessing, through and through, all the way around. This God of tremendous mercy who has no care at all for things like truth. Truth, you know, gets in the way of all that love and all those good feelings that God has toward you. Truth, you know, gets in the way of His just forgiving you and blessing you and spoiling you and making your life beautiful and amazing because you are beautiful and amazing. Forget all that sin stuff. Forget all the truth. God is pure mercy without all that. 

Understandably, the world then looks at us and says, how can this be? How can your God claim to be loving and be all mercy? How can your God just love everyone when a lot of persons (not me, of course) are pure jerks, total wastes of skin, don't deserve the air their breathing? How can you tell us that your God loves me when the way that you paint Him in mercy ignores the truth of who these pathetic wastes of human beings are? You're telling me God loves me, but you're telling me, too, that He loves the moron, the molester, and the murderer. 

No wonder the world doesn't buy it. It doesn't make sense. Mercy without truth doesn't make any sense, and even a world that doesn't particularly care for the interwovenness of both together recognizes this reality. Mercy without truth is empty. 

Truth without mercy is bitter. 

The only way it works is the way that God proclaimed it from the very beginning. And if we love this God, and if He loves this world, then the only way to have it is the way that He brought it. To the indwelling of the Most Holy Place in mercy upon truth. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Have Mercy

A few weeks ago, an employee at Hawaii's emergency alert system made an error that sent the whole island state into a panic, but the whole nation went into an uproar when, at least in the immediate fallout, that employee was allowed to continue working for Hawaii's emergency alert system (albeit in a different role). He should be fired.

A whole series of famous, and not-so-famous, men have been accused (not convicted or even charged, but merely accused) of sexual harassment or assault, and they have lost their jobs, lost their standing, been blackballed, been written out, been demonized and rejected and spit on. As it should be.

A woman cut the unborn baby out of her neighbor's womb in her bathroom and presented the child to her own mate as their own, and without missing a beat, we call her the scum of the earth, a horrible woman, and we condemn her. Someone should cut her into pieces.

The stories go on and on; you can probably fill in some more on your own. Every time a new headline breaks, we jump right for the throat and demand vengeance. Not justice. We call it justice, but it's really not. It's vengeance. We want someone to pay for the wrongs in this world, however small or large, real or imagined, justified or unjustified. 

Because, you see, we have lost room for mercy. 

It's because we have come to believe that mercy and truth are fundamentally opposed to one another. They cannot exist in the same space. If it's true that the employee committed an error, then he must lose his job. If he doesn't lose his job, we are somehow saying he didn't screw up. If it's true that a man can be accused of a sexual trespass, then he should be demonized. If we don't demonize him, we are somehow saying that he couldn't have committed a sexual trespass. If it's true that this woman cut a baby out of her neighbor's womb, then she ought to be cut up. If we don't cut her up, we are somehow saying she didn't cut her neighbor. 

If there is truth, there cannot be mercy, for the mercy would obscure, at least, if not negate somehow the truth. 

But the biblical idea of mercy could not be further from the world's. Real mercy could not be closer to the truth. In fact, it depends upon it. 

Biblical mercy - real mercy - is the idea that you don't get what you deserve. It's the idea that you should be fired, demonized, or cut up, but you aren't. The only way that you understand that you aren't, that you haven't gotten what you deserve, is to be honest about what you deserve and confess what you are. 

In other words, mercy does not exist where truth is absent. It can't. It is entirely contingent upon authenticity, confession, and a real admission of what you deserve. Mercy requires you to say, I screwed up. I trespassed. I wounded. I cut. I hurt. I fell short. I did it. I'm guilty. And if I wasn't guilty, I'd have no need of mercy. 

So contrary to what the world says, mercy doesn't cheapen truth; it strengthens it. And truth strengthens mercy. It is not in a world of mercy that truth has no meaning, but in a world of truth that mercy gets its deepest meaning. 

Which means that it is upon us, as Christians, to bring mercy back. It is upon us to lead the calls amid truth for mercy. It is upon us to show that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive, but intimately inclusive - they depend upon one another. 

It is upon us to say, you did. But neither do I condemn you.

Because mercy is a Jesus thing. It's one of the best of all Jesus things. It's time to start bringing it back. 

And it starts - not ends - with truth. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

In His Eyes

If this all sounds paradoxical, confusing, and downright impossible, you're not alone. How do we find room in our Christianity for being beloved without making it about ourselves and losing sight of God? We want our faith to be about Him; He is, after all, God. But He says that He is God for our sake, and He wants us to live knowing how deeply He loves us. 

And all of this is enough to make your head spin. 

But it doesn't have to. Really, what it takes is separating these ideas from what a fallen world has to say about them and going back to the very beginning, to the way that God intended things to be. 

See, the world says that if you fill up on yourself, you become egotistical. You become self-centered. You start to live in a world where everything is about you. And that's absolutely right. Unless whatever you drink of yourself is poured out as a pure offering. Now, now you're getting somewhere.

Which is why, when we try to go after a faith that can hold both of these ideas, it comes not by trying to have them both, but by passionately holding onto the one - we hold onto God with everything we've got and only through His lens do we see how beloved we are. 

Go back again to the image of the bride. As she starts her walk down the aisle, she sees her groom's eyes light up. She sees him delight in her. She sees how deeply he loves her. She does not think, "Gosh, I must look beautiful for him to look at me like that." She does not think, "Yup. He really got a good one in me." She does not actually think about herself at all; she thinks about the love that's taking place between their eyes.

She looks at him looking at her, and she sees love. Pure and simple. Plain as day. And she thinks about how wonderful this love is and how blessed she is to have his affections. 

On what is one of the beautiful days of all of her life, the day that so many young girls look forward to, she only knows her belovedness by seeing it in his eyes. 

It's the same way we know ours. 

The world says if we want to know our belovedness, we have to love ourselves. We have to fill up on our own love so that there's not a question in our mind. But faith says if we want to know our belovedness, we have to fill up on Him because only He can reveal that to us. It is by filling ourselves with God that we come into our fullness, not by filling ourselves on ourselves. 

And this belovedness seeps back into what we know of God, as well. The world says if we want to know about God, we must study Him. We must pray, read the Bible, go to church, and fill our heads - and maybe our hearts - with the knowledge of who He is. But that's not quite it either. Faith says something totally different. Faith says that when we let Him pour into us our fullness, only then can we comprehend the fullness of God. 

In other words, we cannot know that God is love until we are loved by Him.

Once more to the bride (last time, I promise). She sees her belovedness in her groom's eyes as he beholds her, and this does not make her think of herself, but of their love. In that moment, she is overwhelmed with her love for him. She doesn't think, "Oh, how lucky he is" or "Oh, how lucky I am," but rather, "how much he loves me" and "how much I love him." 

The same is true of us. When we see the way that God's eyes light up for us, almost by instinct our eyes light up for Him. Whatever affections we have for Him are deepened by seeing His love for us dancing in His eyes. Whatever love we thought we had, or thought we should have, is sealed by this moment. And anyone watching this wonderful wedding whispers to the one standing next to them, "Look how much they love each other." 

How could we not? For God is love, and we are His beloved. He is our bridegroom. 

And we are His bride.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Beloved Disciples

Recognizing that at the heart of Christianity is God's heart for us may seem like some too big a temptation to self-centeredness to bear, but it doesn't have to be. We can permit ourselves to know God's deep, passionate, abiding love for us without getting all uppity about ourselves. 

Think about that moment when the doors at the back of the church open and the bride steps through. You know it's happened because you can see it all over the groom's face; the bride sees it, too. It takes her breath away to see his breath taken away, to see her beauty reflected in his delight. It does not diminish the wedding to see this silent exchange of deep love and delightedness; it enhances the whole thing. We witness this and say, "Look how much they love each other," and we are filled with great joy. 

It's why we weep. 

But we would not say that the bride has become self-centered. Not at all. We would not say that she has lost sense of the wedding because her breath is short. We would not say that she has lost all sense of what she and her groom are going to create together because her beauty has been recognized. That is absurd. And is the same with us, with the bride of Christ.

John wrote an entire Gospel with this idea at the very core of his witness. Whenever he refers to himself in his account of Christ's life, he does not call himself by name. He does not even reference himself with a personal pronoun. Rather, he says, "the disciple that Jesus loved." We have figured out that this was John himself. And you know? 

It's still not about him.

It's a bold statement, to be sure. Most of us read that with our modern sensibilities and we say, "Well...John sure thought pretty highly of himself!" Or we just think it's weird and move on. Or whatever. But it's not weird, and it's not at all that John thought highly of himself. Rather, it is that John knew deeply, without a doubt, how highly Jesus thought of him.

What John wants us to realize, what he wants us to know, is that he's not telling this story as a reporter. He's not telling this story as a mere witness. He's not even telling this story as just any disciple, which we might today refer to more as a "fan boy." I mean, how much can you trust someone who is fired up about the thing he is talking about? If someone came up to you wearing a T-shirt, a ball cap, a bracelet, and socks that all spouted the same band's name, you would expect that that person's opinion about that band would be slightly biased (at least). If you get the story of Jesus from a disciple, you might think it's a bit biased, too. After all, look at everything John gave up for this story. It has to be a good story, right? 

But John says he's not just a disciple. He's no fan boy. His investment in this story is much more than just this story; it's the very depth of his relationship with the Man he's talking about, one who loved him. 

It turns everything on its head. It takes everything to an entirely new level. It's actually the one and only piece of evidence we have in the Gospels about how thoroughly relational Jesus is. Sure, He talked to everyone and broke bread and got into boats and invited others to go with Him, but all of that could, on the surface, be just utilitarian. He could be doing it just because that's the way to do things. 

Give us, though, a disciple who says he was loved, and that changes everything. When John says he is the disciple who Jesus loved, that tells us that Jesus loved him. He's relational. He's invested. He's engaged. 

And really, it doesn't make us for an instant think that the Jesus story is about John. It doesn't make us think that the Gospels are secretly supposed to tell John's story. It doesn't make us think that John was so self-centered that he couldn't get out of the way. No, it makes us love Jesus more because we see Him through the beloved disciple's eyes. 

It's a right understanding of self that's the heart of this whole thing. It's the contextual understanding of self. It's the relational understanding of self and Christ that makes this whole thing work. And we might say, in our modern vernacular, that it is humility that is at center of John's bold witness. 

I think it's something even more simple than that - I think it's purity. It's the pureness of a disciple who looks into Jesus's eyes and sees how deeply He loves him. It's the pureness of a bride who, in that flick of a second, catches her groom's eyes dancing with delight and is delighted herself. It's the pure, natural radiance of this moment, this breath-taking moment of realizing how beloved you are...because He loves you

He loves you. His story, and He loves you in it. His altar, and He's waiting for you at it. His wedding, and you are His bride.  

And if we don't have a Christianity that makes room for that, how can we keep on saying our God is love?