Friday, June 29, 2018


Because we know that God rules over all the earth, that He has final authority, and that He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him, it is easy for us to become complacent in our faith. It's easy for us to jump in and then let ourselves just float wherever God's Spirit happens to take us, letting life simply be and believing that it's really just a lazy river.

But we know from our lived experience that this is not the way things truly work. Even science confirms this, having long documented that things in creation that are left to themselves, from the smallest atoms to the greatest oceans, tend not toward order and peace but toward chaos and destruction. 

Were it not for the Lord holding creation together in His hand, it would fall apart. 

And that means that living this life, the life that God intended for us, takes something more than just floating along. It takes something more than just letting things be. It takes something more than just letting ourselves end up wherever we end up, crashing up onto the banks of this place or that from time to time and calling it God's Will or whatever else it is we say to justify it. 

The truth is that if we want to capture the essence of what God has for us in creation, we must take a lesson from the salmon and recognize this essential truth: that life happens upstream. 

The salmon spends a lot of its life exploring downstream. It spends a lot of its life floating along, swimming with the current, pursuing and catching and enjoying the food that it needs to nourish itself. But as long as it does this, it can only ever sustain its own fleeting life. As long as it goes with the flow, the only salmon that has a chance is this one. 

When mating season comes, when it's time to bring up the next generation of salmon, when it's time to pass on life to a new being, the salmon does something counterintuitive: it swims upstream. In leaps and bounds and jumping out of the water, against all odds and eddies, against the natural flow of all things, the salmon begins going back upstream to spawn. 

It seems like a lot of hard work, a lot of unnecessary work. It seems even tragic, for salmon die after spawning. Not from the act itself or from some kind of short life span, but because the sheer effort of moving upstream so far for so long exhausts and malnourishes them to the point of death. Their last act on earth, if they make it at all, is to lay their eggs, to gift a new generation into the stream so that the whole thing can happen all over again.

Why would they do this? Why would they put so much effort into swimming upstream only to die, when it seems easier and maybe even better to just lay their eggs where they are and move on? 

Simple. They understand their very nature.

Salmon understand that if it's up to them, they'll just go with the flow. They'll just float along, taking life as it comes, not exerting a lot of effort. They'll eat as their food travels with them, crashing up onto the banks from time to time. But the fundamental truth of this is that if they flow downstream for long enough, they will come to a river so big and an ocean so wide that it cannot possible nourish or sustain them. They'll be far from home and will have lost everything that's meaningful and vital for them, and it will be too late to do anything about it. 

The next generation has to start upstream. It has to begin in a place that has room for movement, room for travel, room for the next salmon to be as salmon will be. They have to start in a place that gives them room to flow. And so, the salmon put it all on the line to make sure it takes. 

Life happens upstream.

This is an important lesson for us, especially for those of us who are prone to let life just flow, to just float along, and to let ourselves wash up here or there for a season. It may be good and easy and comfortable, but the only life we can ever nourish this way is our own. The only person who benefits from this kind of us. If we want to be a people who leave a legacy of life, we have to learn to swim upstream. Against the current, against the eddies, against the natural flow of things to ensure we're laying a foundation for a new generation. 

It's messy and hard and exhausting. It takes everything we've got and sometimes more, but it gives a gift we could never imagine. It gives an opportunity for something new to happen. It gives life, far from the meaninglessness of a river too big and an ocean too wide to nourish the soul. In quiet places, in mountain streams, in secluded wilderness, this is where life happens. 

Let us learn to swim with the current, trusting in the Lord who works all things together for our good. But let us learn also to swim against it when necessary, when life itself is on the line and we have the opportunity to do something truly beautiful. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Being Present

When we look, then, at the broader scope of Job's friends and include four, not three, men, we see a distinct difference in the way that these men were present with Job in his time of distress, and it's an important consideration for all of us who would call ourselves friends to anyone.

Three of Job's friends came in speaking. In fact, they couldn't really shut up. These men had a lot to say, and although they said some good things, they also said some harsh things. They defended God and slandered Job even though we can be sure that they had more first-hand relational experience with Job. Since they had been part of his life, they knew him well, and yet, they got lost in ideas rather than relationship.

Still, there's much to love about these guys. They were not wrong, per se, in what they had to say, at least about God, even if they were wrong in how they said some of the things that they said. They were doing what comes naturally to most of us - they were trying to reason themselves through the pain, trying to make sense out of the suffering. And they were trying to help. They really were. This is the natural default for most humans; we cannot bear both the silence and the unknowing, so we fill the silence with words. 

And, as we've seen, when their words weren't working and they grew frustrated with their friend to the point that they decided to stop talking, they still stayed. They remained good friends, even smart friends, despite not being particularly wise friends. 

Job's fourth friend, Elihu, came quietly. He came just to be present, without an agenda to speak. He was comfortable in the suffering, content to let it be and just be there with this man that he cared deeply about. 

When it became apparent to Elihu that he needed to speak, he spoke, but he minded his words carefully. He owned his perspective, made it personal, and humbled himself even as he spoke boldly, saying the kinds of things that we wouldn't be willing to hear from just anyone, and yet, he made it palatable. Not only that, but his posture and his prose set the stage for God Himself to speak. He was a wise friend. 

There is room in our lives for both good friends and wise friends; there are times when we are either good friends or wise friends. In the best of times, we have both; in the best of times, we are both. And the difference comes in how we approach the situation, how we enter in with those we care about. 

But perhaps what makes the most difference of all is that we enter in in the first place. Good friends, smart friends, wise friends...are present friends. May we be present to those we care about.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


When we talk about Job's friends, we usually talk about Job's three friends. Even pastors are prone to talk about Job's three friends, the three guys who finally just shut up and stopped trying to talk to him but didn't leave (as we've been seeing this week). But Job had a fourth friend who was also present in his trouble, and it is this fourth friend who really turns the whole thing. 

The Scriptures tell us that Elihu, this fourth friend, was the youngest of them all. He waited for his turn to speak, allowing his elders their voice and their wisdom before stepping in with his own. And this gives him an incredible perspective on the whole thing. 

We introduced to Elihu really when he finally speaks, all the way in Job 32. He prefaces what he's about to say by acknowledging his youth, acknowledging the eldership of the others and their wisdom, and humbling himself before them all, if only he will be permitted to speak, but this is no meek, timid, fearful character. He burns with a passion, which has only been enhanced by his willingness to sit quietly and take it all in. 

He's angry with Job, the Bible tells us, when he begins to speak. He's angry that Job has spent all of this time defending himself and has missed out on the opportunity to defend God. He's angry that Job's voice has more often been spent on his own righteousness than on the righteousness of God. In other words, he's heard the very real, very true things that Job's friends have said about God and has watched Job dismiss them in his own defense, and he's calling Job out for missing it. 

He's angry with Job's friends, the Bible tells us, when he begins to speak. He's angry that these three so-called friends have failed to hear what Job has been saying and have refused to take into account what they know about their friend. They are quick to condemn, quick to judge, but they haven't done a whole lot of listening, either. And he's going to set them straight. 

As a quiet observer, Elihu has been able to build a profile not just of the situation, but of the dynamic. He's watched long enough to see what's going on and why this conversation is going nowhere. And he's about to wax eloquent on both sides of it. 

He speaks as both a witness and a friend, but it's more than that. He speaks also as a lover of God, which is a heart that is glaringly absent from the way that Job's other friends have spoken. Look at the way that he opens the final section of his speech, a section in which he talks about how incredible God is: At this my heart trembles, and it is moved out of its place. In other words, I'm speaking to you out of the depth of my own heart for God; let me never forget that I, too, worship Him.

And when he is done, when Elihu has spoken great wisdom - wisdom far beyond what he thought he was capable of or was going to offer - to the human and the holy in this sacred space, something incredible happens: God Himself speaks. 

What Elihu has done in his tender and gentle spirit, even as he has rebuked both Job and his friends, is that he has set the stage for God to speak. He has pressed the pause button on the human impulse and the broken relational dynamic at play here and has created the space in which all parties present are able to hear in a new way. And at the very moment when their ears are finally open, when their justifications and defenses all fall away, when they become infinitely less interested in being heard and are centered on hearing, God speaks. 

Yet, you know, Job only had three friends. 

Oh, no. It is this fourth, it is this Elihu, who is perhaps the truest friend of all, for he has been and done all of the things that we need in a great friend - he has been patient, he has been present, he has been passionate, he has been purposeful. And it is he who settles things out so that they can be truly lifted up. Oh, that we would all have a friend like Elihu. 

And it's worth noting, as well, that at the very end of the book, at the very end of Job's story, God condemns Job's three friends, requiring Job to offer sacrifices on their behalf. But no sacrifices are required for Elihu. Actually, you know what? Even God doesn't mention Elihu; He only mentions Job's friends. 

Perhaps, then, I'm wrong. Maybe Elihu was never a friend of Job at all. 

Maybe he was an angel. 

Maybe what we all need is an angel. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

True Friends

Job certainly shuts his friends up with his persistence about his own righteousness, not even taking the time to acknowledge that he has heard what they have had to say or even that they have said some very true things about God's character. Finally, they tell him they're done - they're done trying to talk to him because he's so arrogant and so sure that he's right about everything.

But it's what Job's friends do next that really drives home the point of just how good of friends they truly are: they stick around.

Most human beings would be offended here. Most would think they are wasting their time. If their friend isn't going to listen to what they have to say, if it does them no good to try to talk to him, if they are failing at the one thing they are trying to do and he's basically pushing them away, most persons - even most friends - would walk away. They would leave Job in his dust and ashes, turn their backs, and go. 

Not Job's friends. They stay. They keep their bottoms planted firmly in the dust and ashes with him and continue listening to what he has to say, even though he's stopped listening to them. They continue to mourn with him. They continue to let him ruminate and ponder and fume. And they stay. 

It's a lesson for those of us who both have true friends and want to be true friends. 

When we want to be true friends, we have to remember that it's about more than us. It's actually not about us at all. Job is the one hurting here. Job is the one who is acting out of his deepest pain. Job is the one who needs comforted. Though we may feel slighted, or worse, we cannot let the emphasis of our friends' troubles shift from their troubles to our egos. If they aren't ready to listen, then we listen. If they aren't ready to move, then we don't move. If they're not ready to leave, then we stay. This is what true friends do. 

And it's an important lesson for those of us who have true friends because it's far too easy for us to forget who our true friends are. In our hurt, we spend so much of our energies pushing everyone away or, at the very least, shutting everyone up. We don't want to listen to even their wisest counsel; we want to wallow for a bit. We want to be able to enter fully into our own circumstances, into our own pain, and express it from the depths of our souls. We don't want to be lectured. We may not even want to be comforted. 

But despite how much effort we put into pushing others away, we also, most often, don't want to be alone. 

True friends are the ones who stay when they know that you need them to stay, even if you're treating them like garbage or insisting you don't need them. True friends know you do, and they're willing to tough it out with you...for you. Too often, once the dust has settled and the ashes have scattered, most of us forget to look around and see who's still there with us. We forget to look up and look into their eyes and know how much they care for us. We forget to care for them.

A beautiful thing happens at the end of the Job story, with these friends of his that stayed - Job offers sacrifices for them. He atones for them, even after they've really cheesed each other off. They stayed, they listened, they heard the Lord speak and witnessed Job's redemption and then Job, the same arrogant-sounding, too-sure-of-himself Job that they stopped speaking to just a few chapters earlier, offers sacrifices to atone for them before the Lord. Because wrong as they may have been, they were also present, and they get to be part of this beautiful reestablishment, this glorious renewal. And they, too, are being made new, even in their friendship. 

Who among us would think of atoning for our friends, for the ones who stayed? Who among us would stay and be atoned for? At a time when the whole world is falling apart, when life is crashing down in crumbles, when our eyes are filled with tears both from sadness and from the barren dust, who among us...?

True friends, that's who. May we all be so blessed as to have a few. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

With Friends Like These

Job, even at the depths of his trouble, was a man with friends. Three friends, we most often say, although that's not quite accurate (we'll get to that later this week, perhaps). And in his distress, his friends come to comfort him, to be with him and to tell him what they know about the Lord and about trouble. But after his friends have spoken for awhile, and after Job has persisted in his integrity, something interesting happens.

His friends stop speaking to him.

Job 32 says that Job was so convinced that he was right and so arrogant about it that his friends stopped trying to comfort him and shut up. 

Most of us, knowing Job's righteousness and being privy to the encounter between the Lord and Satan that sets Job up for all he is experiencing, breathe a sigh of relief at this point. Finally! His friends are going to stop trying to convince him of something that isn't true. 

But here's the thing: Job's friends have actually said a lot of very true things. The things they've said about God, the things they've said about His character, are true things. They really do understand the heart of the Lord, even if there is more going on in this situation than they are able to see or know. They have suggested some things about their friend that are not quite accurate, but their view of the just Lord is actually pretty good. 

It's for this reason that it's a shame they decide to stop speaking. Because at this point, Job needs all the reminders he can get of who God is, though he doesn't seem to have forgotten it. 

In full disclosure, of course, he didn't seem to care and wasn't really hearing it. 

This raises a couple of important points for us, both from Job and from his friends. First, we would all be so fortunate to have such friends in our lives. We need persons around us who can speak truth. And even if they don't get all the details right, even if they don't know the whole story, even if there are things we can be sure of that they are less confident in, we need persons around us who can tell us the truth about God, no matter what our circumstances. Because we are always - always - in need of hearing the truth about God. 

But we must learn from Job here, too, because this righteous man - and yes, he was righteous - discouraged his friends so much that they stopped speaking even this truth to him. In fact, they stopped speaking at all. And what we have is no longer a true friendship if we do not permit our friends to speak into our lives.

It was Job's insistence of his own righteousness, which came off as arrogance, that shut them up. Not because he was right and they were wrong or because he was wrong and they were right. Not because he had more information than they did. No, it was the attitude with which he approached their speech, and we are susceptible to this very attitude whether we are right or wrong, knowing or unknowing. 

All it would have taken, I think, for Job to preserve the lines of communication was a little more humility in posture. All it would have taken would have been for him at one or two points to say, "Yes, friends, I hear you, and you are right about God." He could or could not have added that they were wrong about him, but he needed to give credit where credit was due. He needed to at least acknowledge that he heard them when they spoke.

Instead, he spends his entire time refuting them and grumbling against the God they have very well articulated, saying that God's not really like that at all and he's not really like that and this whole situation is not really like that. It's enough to make anyone shut up. 

And we...are experts at it. 

We're so good at this. We're so good at shutting even our friends down so that no one has any right, let alone any interest, any more in speaking into our lives. We refute. We deny. We reject. We grumble. And then our friends don't feel like they're really friends any more because we're not even listening to them. And then...and then...we wallow. Oh, woe is we, for we are in such misery with not even a friend to draw near us. Though, in fact, we have chased them all away.

It just takes a word or two, just one little acknowledgement, to let your friends know you're their friend, too. To let them know that you're listening to them and that their presence, and their voice, matter to you. All it takes is to say, "Yes, I hear you." Maybe there's a "but;" maybe there's not. But Job never tells his friends that he's even listening, and that's a shame because it means they stop speaking. It would be very easy at this point for him to lose them entirely as friends. 

Thankfully for him, and for us, his friends are true friends and they're better than that. But not all of them are.

Who do you have that can speak into your life? Who do you have that you give permission to speak into your life? And have you let them know lately that you're hearing them? Or have you shut them up in your arrogance?

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Person of God

What's the point of all this imagining, or re-imagining, of God? It's really quite simple. None of the things that I have claimed this week about God would strike most Christians as inconsistent with what they believe about Him, yet the way that I have presented them has likely either stirred or offended the soul. 

But if we believe that God has chosen us, truly chosen us, that He is present and up to something and full in depth of character and emotion, even to the point of volitionally being able to give us relationally what seems desirable to us at the time and yet, we are not living in such a deeply relational way with Him as to experience it, then we are hypocrites, liars, or failures.

Aren't we?

If we aren't living the lives with God that are clearly not only possible, but required, if we truly believe what we say we believe about God, then we are missing something vital of the Christian life, and it is not God's fault. It's ours.

And worse yet, we are far too often convinced that we are satisfied by that something less. 

And worse still, we often take that something less and package it in pretty bows and market it to a hungry and thirsty world that is aching for a taste of the one true God. 

And they, at least, even if we do not, find our God lacking. 

What I hope this series of posts has done is to reignite in you a passion for the person of God, something deep in your heart that says, yes. Yes, God is profoundly relational, He has a depth of character and emotion, His heart is powerful and present, and He's chosen me. I hope you've discovered inside of yourself an ache that says, I want to live like that. 

Because the truth is that our God is more than a good idea. He's a great friend. And if that is true, it not only makes possible more than we could ask or imagine, but it requires more than we are presently giving. It requires that we be not just believers in God...

...but friends of Him, too.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Left Alone

If God is present, is up to something, and has a depth of character and personality to which we can relate, do you think it's possible that He could ever leave us alone? I'm not talking in the sense of forsaking us, leaving us, hanging us out to dry, abandoning us, for we know that the Lord would never do any of these things. But if, from an ache in our heart, we pouted to the world, "I just want to be left alone," if we needed some alone time for our souls to ache, would God leave us?

This is an important question, for a couple of reasons. First, most often when we ask for some alone time, when we ask others to just let us be for awhile, our natural impulse in the silence is to pray. Something inside of us just starts talking to the God that we either know is there or hope is there. But if we asked Him, too, to leave, do you think that He would?

Second, it's important because there is a very popular New Age idea (which actually comes from monism, but that's another story for another day) that God is everywhere and everything in all things and so there is absolutely no possibility of ever getting away from Him. Is this what we mean by saying our God is everything, too? Is this also a Christian idea?

I don't think it is. I think the Christian God, if you asked Him to give you some space, would give it to you - honestly. I think the Christian God, if you said you just needed a few minutes to yourself, minutes in which you didn't want to pray, minutes in which you just wanted to hurt or to ache or whatever, would step out of the room for you. 

Hear that - He would step out of the room for you. He would not abandon you nor forsake you nor leave you alone forever. But I believe that if you asked for it, He would volitionally give you space. 

Like a good friend, I think, our God is unafraid to sit in the darkest places with us. Like a good friend, He's not threatened by our saying that right now, we'd rather He not. Like a good friend, He knows that if we're asking to be alone, we have a reason for it, no matter how dark or painful or troubling that reason may be. And like a good friend, I think He's willing to step aside. 

But also like a good friend, He doesn't go far. 

This is a powerful moment. It's an incredible thing when you realize in the depths of your soul that God loves you enough to give you the space that you've asked for, and then you can't help but chuckle a little bit and feel warm inside when you realize that He also loves you enough not to go far. Just outside your door, just outside your solitude, just outside your space, God waits for you. He waits with you. 

He wrings His hands and bows His head and frets and prays and aches for you just outside of the space that you've claimed for yourself, just like any good friend would. He paces the floor and sometimes slides down the door, falling to His knees or resting His back against the wall for no other reason than that He cares about what's going on in your space, but He honors you enough not to barge into it. 

Like any good parent, like any good friend, when you have had your time, have soaked up enough of your space, have done whatever it is that you have needed to do in the silence, He's right there waiting for you. You can see the sweat dripping from His brow. The first thing you hear is His sigh of relief that you're okay. That's all, you're just okay. And this...this was the longest night of His life, keeping watch outside your door. 

It's this kind of thing that sets our God apart. The other gods of the world, the other gods that humans worship, not only will they not give you this kind of space or keep this kind of watch, they can't. They're wholly incapable, by the very nature of their being. Our God is not only capable, He is compassionate. He is real, and He is relational. 

There is nowhere in this earth that you can run from God, nowhere you can go where you are not in His sight. But He loves you so much that if you said to Him, "Give me a minute. I just. need. some. space." this God, this God alone, would give you both that minute and that space. He would pull out of that place, back off, and step aside for you. 

But He wouldn't go far. 

And both of those things are beautiful. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Presence of God

If we establish that God is present and that He is up to something, the next question that's valuable for our asking is: how? How is God present?

By this, I do not mean to ask, "By what metaphysical principle is the reality and presence of God established?" That's not the question at all. Rather, the question we must ask in asking how God is present is to ask how God manifests Himself among us. What is He like? 

Many of us might answer this question by saying He's...God. He's God-like. He is the infinite being of the universe, the Creator of all Creation, He's...God. We've got one image in our heads of "how" He is, what He's like, and it's fairly stagnant. 

But the God of wild imagination who created the entire universe and even chose you is no stagnant being, not by a long shot. In the Scriptures, we are given a full range of His emotion, from tremendous joy to deep anguish to burning anger to inconsolable grief, and above all of these things, love. 

And yet, somehow, most of us don't think of God as dynamic at all, and we certainly don't think of Him as emotionally, actively, tenderly, presently loving

What if we did?

The presence of God is not a rational-functional construct, the way that we know a chair is present and can sit in it. The presence of God is always relational, and that means that if we are going to make claims that our God is present among us, we must know what it's like to interact with Him, to engage with Him, to encounter Him. Yet less and less are Christians comfortable or confident in saying what God is like. 

We make decisions very quickly about other persons. Within just a few seconds of meeting someone, we know whether we like them or not. We pick up on dominant characteristics of their personality. We even use these characteristics to describe them. He's shy. She's chatty. He's a bit of a prude. She's got a good sense of humor. Give us five minutes with nearly anyone on the planet, and we'll be able to talk about what it's like to be in the room with them. 

Yet most of us spend our entire lives calling ourselves Christians and could not say one meaningful thing about what it's like to be in the room with God.

Imagine if we let ourselves experience the full relational presence of Him, the very depth of His being. Imagine what it would do to your relationship to God if you heard Him laugh, bursting with joy at some incredible delight that the two of you share. Or even, gasp, a good joke. Imagine if you saw the tears well up in His eyes when you started to cry. Imagine pouring out your heart to Him and seeing Him hurt with you, seeing Him ache at the injustices of the world. Imagine telling Him how much someone hurt you and watching Him get angry. 

Imagine walking into the presence of God and being picked up and tossed lightly into the air before He brings you back down in the warm, loving embrace of a Father. Imagine Him taking your little scribbles and hanging them on the refrigerator. Imagine hearing Him shout your name at your baseball game or dance recital or graduation, cheering you on from the sidelines.

Imagine how it would change the way that you love God if you really knew Him, if at any given time, you could describe what it's like to be in the room with Him. 

This is what it's supposed to be like. This is what God's been trying to tell us about Himself. Of all the things that He reveals in the Scriptures, I think sometimes the least important one of all is that He's God. I think He cares far more that you know His heart, not His status; His name, not His title; His presence, not His power. 

So how is God present in your life? Not "metaphysically, how is the presence of God possible?" but what is He like? No, really...what is He like?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Life By Design

Let me ask you something: what if every single thing that happened to you today was by God's perfect design? Would it change the way that you think about your day?

Too often, we get settled into our own plans, our own paths, and we know just how we want our lives to go. We know how our days ought to move, what ought to happen next and how quickly it should come on the tails of whatever's happening now. We're easily frustrated by things that change, by the unexpected, by the uncontrollable. 

But what if those things were the very things that God was doing in your life today? 

What if just one of them was?

The Scriptures tells us that God has His hand on us, that He never takes it off. The Scriptures tell us that we may make our plans, but it is God who directs our paths. The Scriptures tell us that God is present, though we often relegate Him to either "in the beginning" or "forever and ever amen" and forget that He is right here with us, right now. 

Knowing that God is present, that God is near, really takes a lot of stress out of your life. More than that, it allows you to live in holy anticipation, with eyes wide open to what God is doing. 

Take something common - you're sitting in traffic after a long day at work. There's an accident up ahead, and it's a terrible inconvenience for you. You're kicking yourself for having stopped to chat in the parking lot for those couple of minutes. But what if those couple of minutes are the ones that kept you from being caught up in the wreck? What if the wreck is the delay that you need to hear a certain song on the radio before you park it for the night? What if your kid has had a bad day and those few extra minutes that you're late are the few minutes that let him breathe the last bit of it out and shift his perspective before you catch the raw end of it? 

Take something bigger. Let's say you rearrange your day for an appointment. You've been planning on this for awhile; it's been on the calendar for a reasonable amount of time. Everything is ready for this appointment. But just before you're set to leave, the phone rings and the other party needs to reschedule. How inconsiderate! How frustrating! But what if God needs you to be in the place you're going on the day that He's rescheduled you to be there? What if He's setting you up for an incredible encounter, perhaps even one that's not at all about you...but about Him? What if going on Friday instead of on Tuesday puts you in contact with someone who needs your witness? Or what if not going today keeps you safe from something that might rock your ship?

The truth is that we are creatures, and we are limited by the finiteness of our being. We can only know what we know, and we can never know what we can't possibly know. That's where faith comes in. What if we lived our lives trusting that God was present and active in them, directing our steps just as the Scriptures say? What if God is doing something right now that you could never even imagine and certainly never plan for yourself? 

What if you lived every moment looking for that very thing, not just keeping your eyes open to see it when it comes but actively expecting it to happen? Actively expecting God to be up to something? 

God is always up to something. 

I think sometimes we just miss it because we're never expecting it. We're too busy buried in our own lives to lift our heads up for just a second and turn our perspective around. We're a people of faith, but we don't live by it; we don't live believing that God is present and active and up to something, right now, in our lives. 

But what if we did?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Chosen Last

Most of us have heard at one time or another that God has chosen us. But most of us don't understand, even as Christians, what that means.

We look around at all the other persons that God has chosen, and it starts to feel to us a bit like a schoolyard pick. Yes, maybe He has chosen us, but we weren't picked first. We weren't considered the superstars, the ones most likely to contribute to His team. We were picked after the studs, after the pastors, after the priests, after those who are really doing a good, big work for God. Obviously, He picked them first. He picked us sometime after.

And from there, it doesn't take a big leap for us to feel like maybe God even picked us last, like it came down to the bottom of the barrel, scraping for enough men for a team, nobody really wants them but someone has to take them couple of players and God, in an act of nothing more than mercy, chose us. By grace alone, He let us play, even when He knew we'd never make a basket or that we'd fumble the ball. 

In other words, He picked us, but only because we were the ones left standing there; He never intended for us to play. At least, not to play a real role in anything. 

That's what it feels like sometimes. And if you're one of those that thinks you're not the superstar, that you're not the stud, that you're not the tops because you're not a prophet or a priest or a pastor, let me tell you this: it feels like that sometimes even to prophets and priests and pastors. We're all subject to this kind of thought. 

But only when we look around and think that God was picking only from the available human beings. 

What you have to do if you want to know what it really means that God has chosen you is to stop looking around and start looking up. Look into the heavens, which are full of the stars, each one numbered and known by God. Look into the sky, which are dotted with clouds, each one weighed and moved by God Himself. Look into the trees and count the leaves; not one falls without God knowing it. Look at the birds, each one known by name and cared for and clothed in beauty. 

The God of the universe, who created everything with a simple, holy breath, chose you not out of His creation, but out of His imagination. Out of the very depths of His heart, He drew you together and chose you - to be exactly who you are, exactly where you are, exactly how you are. 

He put you together exactly as He wanted you, exactly as He needed you, and then He chose you first because you are the best possible you that there could ever be. He chose you first because He loves you. The Scriptures affirm this: "The Lord set His heart on you and chose you." (Deuteronomy 7:7)

Not because He was out of other options. Not because He needed enough players for His team. Not because He took pity on you and decided to let you play. He chose you because He loves you. He chose you first because you have come out of and captured the depths of His heart. 

And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Friday, June 15, 2018


Yesterday, the current government administration cited the Scriptures to justify their response to the immigration issue in America. Some Christians cheered, having an administration that would know and use Scripture. Some Christians scoffed, disappointed in the way that Scripture was being used as a defense for the "indefensible." Some Christians shouted back with Scripture of their own, citing most often the way that God said to care for strangers and sojourners in the land. 

This third response is done in the right heart, but it sets up a messy theological problem that puts Christians in a tough spot. After all, God did say both things. He did not say one with more authority than the other; He said both with the full authority of who He is. So quoting Scripture that contradicts other Scripture (or the use thereof) leaves us to answer for a God who says two things that can mean two seemingly opposite things. And it commits the same error that the administration made in the first place when it quoted the Word.

Here is the error, and we should all take note of this:

You cannot use Scripture to bind God's Word onto someone else, especially not to justify your own behavior toward them. 

Let me say that again in slightly different words: you cannot use Scripture to point out where someone else is being less-than-perfect in God's eyes, especially when your purpose in doing so is to treat them as something less than a human being created in the image of God with all the dignity and love that that entails.

Christians have been doing this for a long time, but it takes center stage this week with the high profile it was given. But it's the same tactic we've been using to cast homosexuals out of the church. One local church even threw the Boy Scouts out of their church after the Scouts began to allow homosexual members. Their speech, which they made very public, declared that since God despises homosexuality as a sin, they could no longer in good conscience let the Scouts use their facilities because this would be an abomination unto the Lord. 

If we're casting sinners out of churches, we're all in trouble. Might as well tear them all down right now.

But the bigger issue is that this is not what Scripture means. It's not ever what Scripture means. It's not ever what Scripture meant. There is not one instance in the Scriptures where God tells us whether or not to love someone on the basis of their godly (or ungodly) living. There is not one Scripture where God tells us that we are no longer bound by His law of love because of the behavior of someone else. 

Every word of Scripture is written for the believer, not for the world, and we would be wise to remember this. 

It means that yes, God said to obey the ruling government. But when He said it, He said it to Christians. That means that we, as people of faith, are to obey the ruling government, not that all persons everywhere and for all time are supposed to do so. We can't bind that word on them; God has bound it only on us. It also means that God said to take care of strangers and sojourners and to treat them right. That means that we, as people of faith, are to take care of strangers and sojourners, not that the government has to do so for us. We can't bind that word on them; God has bound it only on us.

Every word in Scripture is bound on those who believe; it is never to be used as a chain on anyone else. And we are not to sit here with that word and judge whether or not someone else is a Christian based on how they are fulfilling that word or not; we are to walk our own streets fulfilling it ourselves. That's all God ever meant by it. 

Just look at some of the abominations in the Old Testament. Other peoples were burning their children alive as sacrifices to their gods. When God commands His people concerning this, He does not say, "You must not love the foreign people, for they do this detestable thing that they should not be doing; they ought to know better, really." No. God says, "You, my holy do not do what they do. Don't ever do this thing. It is unbecoming of you as a people of God."

And so is using His Word to "justify" anything less than our love. For we are still a holy people, a people of God, called to live His love into the world. 

No matter what anyone else does. 

Because that Word that God spoke? - and yes, God spoke it - it's always been for us. Any other use of it, any other interpretation, any other proclamation or binding of the Word onto the hearts of another is completely unjustified. Always.

Love one another. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Bad News

A lot of persons, even a lot of Christians, find it troubling that I would say that believing in God and being thankful does not change your circumstances. It doesn't take away your troubles or make your life perfect. Being a person of God doesn't mean your life is easy. Far from it.

That's a stark contrast to a dominant Christian narrative in our culture, namely the one that says that if you put your faith in God, nothing will go wrong any more. Believe in Him, and you won't have problems in this world. Be thankful for what God has done in your life and you will have only things to be thankful for. 

It's one of the reasons so many come to the faith, hoping that God is going to fix their earthly life. It's one of the reasons so many leave the faith.... 

But being God's person is no guarantee of ease or comfort. It's no guarantee of safety or external peace. Remember that Jesus was a perfect man in perfect relationship with God, yet in this world, He had trouble. He was mocked. He was name-called. He was back-stabbed. The Scriptures describe Him as having anguish of the soul. He was rejected. He was crucified, for crying out loud, and while you might say that was part of God's plan and so it had to happen, don't lose sight of the fact that it's quite a trouble and an inconvenience for the very real Man of flesh who had to endure it. 

And this very same man said to His followers that the same would be true for them that was true for Him, even though He was in perfect relationship with His Father - in this world, you will have trouble. But behold, I have overcome the world.

Note that He does not say that He has overcome the troubles. 

This is the fundamental difference between the Gospel that Jesus preached and the lesser theology that we are too often preaching in our churches. Our churches are too easily preaching that Jesus has overcome the troubles, that once you give your life to Him, it's all sunshine and peaches from there on out. And then we discover that this is just not the case, that we still have troubles - even that Jesus Himself said we would still have troubles - and the Good News of the Gospels suddenly feels like bad news. 

It's heartbreaking the number of persons who leave the church, who throw off the faith, because they believe that God is neither good enough nor strong enough to handle their troubles when the truth of the Gospel, the real Good News of God, is that He's overcome the world

So be thankful - be thankful for a God who provides, for a God who is present, for a God who cares deeply about you and loves you to the highest heavens. It really does change your perspective on things. 

But don't expect it to change your things. He never said it would. In this world, you will have trouble.

Thankfully, your God has overcome this world. And that, my friends, is very good news. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Scarce Abundance

Thankfulness does not change our circumstances, but it does change our perspective on them and puts God's provision front and center as a reminder of His presence. To see these truths at play, there is perhaps no better place to turn than to 2 Kings 17 and the story of a widow in Zarephath. 

The prophet Elijah, by the word of the Lord, goes to this widow after God has fed him in the wilderness for awhile by the mouth of ravens. He asks the widow to draw him a drink, and she obliges, but when he asks also for a bite of bread, she pulls back. She's on her last couple of tablespoons of flour and the mission she's on now is her last. She will prepare this last little bit of food for herself and her son, and then they will both die in the famine that is gripping the land. 

Elijah instructs the widow in the Lord's abundance, and she obeys, and behold! those last little tablespoons of flour last her three years. Three years. Imagine having "just enough" for three years. 

Imagine having exactly the same "just enough" for three years.

Every day for three years, this widow prepares the "last" of her flour for herself, her son, and the prophet who has come to stay with her in the midst of this famine. Every day, she measures out what doesn't seem to be enough and finds it more, feeding her house for one more day. Every day, they have the same bland meal, not even an extra fig or onion or flake of manna from heaven thrown in for variety. Just the same - the last little bit of flour, a miraculous little bread for the three of them. 

This didn't work well just a few books ago, when Israel was wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt. They ran out of food and without settlements of their own, there was no place for them to grow more. They were running on empty and grumbling about it, causing the entire nation to sin before the Lord before He finally took pity on them and provided manna. And when manna wasn't enough for them, quail - enough quail that it came out their noses. 

The widow from Zarephath could have called it quits at any time. She could have stopped believing in the provision of the Lord, could have stopped trusting it. She could have longed for something more than the little that she always seemed to have, could have run off sinning in search of something with flavor. At any point, she could have said that what God was doing was not enough, and she could have prepared the last few tablespoons of flour and let the pot run dry. Even if God would not have let the cupboards go bare, she could have lived her life like He would, like every meal was her last. She could have lived in scarcity. 

But with just a few tablespoons of flour, she found her abundance. 

Most of us, just like Israel, would not have put up with it for very long. Certainly, we would not have been able to sustain our hope for three long years, eating the same tasteless breadcake day after day after day with just enough to make it and nothing but perspective to keep us believing that it wasn't our last. We'd have called it quits long ago. In fact, most of us do. 

That's what I love about the story of the widow. See, we read it and think that God just filled up her cupboards on account of her faith, that the minute that Elijah spoke and the widow believed him, she had everything and knew it was going to be okay. But that's not how the story goes. This woman had just enough every day for three years, and she learned how to live with that. In scarce abundance. 

That's very often how God comes into our lives, as well. He comes with measures overflowing, but we get them in small doses, just enough for one more day, just enough for one more night, just enough for one more breath. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not we find this enough not to live on, but to believe on. Can we trust in scarce abundance? 

Can we even, perhaps, be thankful for it?

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Gee, Thanks

The greatest mistake that we make with our thankfulness is that we are often not specific enough. (This is actually true in a lot of areas of our faith, but it is especially true in thankfulness.) We think it sufficient to be thankful for "God," as though this is the key to all things, but this is actually a fatal mistake. We should never be thankful for "God."

The reason this is such a devastating mistake is that this general, vague thankfulness for the mere existence of a God whose character is not reflected in such a statement does not change our perspective on our present circumstances. Thus, we are left with a mess of a life, a depth of pain, a heart of confusion and anger, and this "God" who doesn't really seem to care much about it, but for whom we must still be thankful because He told us to be. 

When we let ourselves think this way, we set God up to fail us, and He doesn't disappoint. Except, of course, that it's not Him at all. We have not said anything about Him at all. 

Think about it. How many times have you been thankful for "God" and nothing changes? Nothing changes because you haven't nailed down who God is or what He's doing or even His very presence with you at this moment. He's God, you're not, life still sucks, and what, exactly, is the point? 

The point is that we must be specific in our thankfulness. 

So, for example, when we find that our paycheck goes just far enough to cover the bills, we don't say, "Gee, thanks, God. That was nice of You." Rather, we rejoice in thankfulness for God's provision, which was enough even when it still feels scarce to us. The truth is that we had enough when we weren't sure that we would, and the sole reason for that is that God is a provider. So thank God for His provision, and all of a sudden, you don't just have a "God" - you have a "God who provides." It spins your focus around and shifts your perspective to start somewhere new. 

Or when we pray after eating what we know is enough food - good, nutritious food. We don't thank God that we can eat food or that He is God. That doesn't hit at the heart of what's threatening to throw us at that moment. Rather, we thank God that He satisfies us. After all, isn't that what good, nutritious food does? It satisfies. And if we need a little reminder of that, we need nothing more than to be thankful for a God who also satisfies us. Now, you're full. Because you have more than just a "God" - you have a "God who satisfies." It moves all the pieces around and gives you a new way to look at it, filling up the rest of what seems like emptiness with a God who is anything but. 

Or when we face a life that feels like it's going to be cut short, that's falling far short of what we always imagined the fullness of it to be. We don't thank God that He's smarter and wiser than us and knows what He's doing; that's defeatist. It resigns us to a fate we don't understand, to the whims of a God who does whatever He wants with us, no matter what it means. It's hard to love a God like that. But rather, we thank God for the fullness of life that He's already provided, for the strength and the fun and the memories and the goodness of the life we've already lived, regardless of what comes next. In this kind of specific thankfulness, you don't have just a "God" who so easily becomes a God of death, but you have a "God of life, of fullness." Again, it gives you a new way of seeing, new eyes for your situation.

Most of us think we're just supposed to be thankful for "God" all the time, that the ultimate act of faith is to be okay without the specifics, to thank Him without understanding Him. That's not at all what God wants, and it's not at all what He requires. God doesn't want you to be thankful for Him. Ever. 

He wants you to be thankful for the specifics of Him - for His character and His heart as He reveals it. He wants you to be paying enough attention to your own life that you know the specifics of what He's doing in it. Because a generic, vague, unknowing thankfulness for "God" does nothing but set you up for disappointment and disengagement. It doesn't reveal God, doesn't draw close to Him; it can't. All it can do is put Him higher and higher in the heavens and you lower and lower in the muck. 

Be specific in your thankfulness, for it is in the details where God is revealed. It is in the nitty-gritty where His heart shines. It is here where you know how deeply He loves you and how active He is in your very real life, which doesn't change just because you're thankful for what He's doing in it, but this kind of thankfulness makes all the difference nonetheless. It gives you new eyes to see Him, which lets you live life not in the valley of the shadow but in the shadow of His wings.

And that, too, is something to be thankful for. 

Monday, June 11, 2018

On Thankfulness

Remind most persons how often the Bible talks about thankfulness, and you're bound to get "the look" - the look that says, "Well, that's stupid, and obviously, the Bible has never tried to live my life." Because when we talk about being "thankful in all things," a lot of persons feel cheated out of their pain, their anger, their misery, their moping, their whatever. They look at their life and are completely sure they're entitled to their very human reactions. Be thankful? For this? You must be a special kind of stupid.

But the Bible never says to be thankful for all things; rather, it admonishes to be thankful in all things. The only things we have to be thankful for are the things that come from God's hand. 

And that's not, by the way, "everything." That's just another faulty piece of the serpent's theology that creates a space to pit man against God unnecessarily. 

A right kind of thankfulness, a thankfulness in all things for the things that come from God's hand does not deny us our human reactions. It does not reject our pain, our anger, our misery. It doesn't preclude us from, in the same breath as our thankfulness, also declaring how hard things are right now or how miserable. Quite the contrary, actually - our thankfulness creates the necessary contrast for us to see our circumstances in their true light. And this small little thing changes our entire experience of them. 

Take something fairly mundane for most of us - a diet. Most of us have tried dieting at one point or another, usually with mixed results (or temporary results). Human beings on diets generally complain about still being hungry, not being able to eat enough food, not fully satisfying their stomachs because dieting is so hard. But thankfulness changes dieting. 

Serve yourself a portion of food that is sufficient, even if it does not seem enough to satiate your hunger. Eat it. Enjoy it. And then, when it is gone, be thankful for it. When it doesn't seem enough and you feel your hunger still aching, be thankful for the nutritious food you have just given yourself, delicious as it was, and something strange happens - thankfulness fills up what's left of your emptiness and you don't feel hungry any more; you feel satisfied. 

Or what about those days when you're barely getting by, when you're living paycheck-to-paycheck and there never seems to be a margin. You sit down to pay bills once again, knowing it's going to come down to pennies in your balance. It's easy in this moment to stress out about it, to feel things pressing in on you. But pay each bill and then be thankful that today, there was enough for that bill. Pay your next bill and be thankful you could cover it. Pay your next bill and be thankful...and all of a sudden, something strange happens - thankfulness expands your space and you start to breathe a little easier; things really are okay and the pressure's off. You may not have it all, but you have enough.

Or take something a little harder. Take that moment when your doctor says it's not good news, when there's not a lot left, if anything, that modern medicine can do for you. At this point, we often immediately think about all of the things we still want to do, all of the others we still want to be there for, all of the future that gets cut short. But thankfulness doesn't have a future; it dwells only in the past and the present, the things it has and knows. Be thankful even here, and your focus shifts. You feel a new strength as you reflect on the graces your life has given you, on the contributions you've made to your community, on the love you've given to those closest to you. And then, something strange happens - a peace settles in. 

None of this changes your circumstances. You're still hungry, poor, sick. But your perspective on these things has changed in a way that allows you to live more fully in them. It's the strangest thing. Hunger doesn't feel like deprivation any more, and you're able to recognize it as a false signal, as an ache for something beyond sufficiency. Thankfulness for sufficiency jots a note on your heart that says, no matter how you feel about it, that was enough and it was good

Poverty doesn't feel like a cage any more. You're able to see how you have enough, even though it doesn't feel like a lot, and when you have enough and it is good, you always feel like you have a little more. 

Sickness and death don't hang over you like a cloud any more. Trying to live your life from the future backward never works; it will always leave you just short of where you want to be. But thankfulness lets you see all that you already are and live from the strength of that knowledge. You are enough and it is good, and you've no need any longer to fear what you may never be because of all the things you already are. 

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, and it really does make a difference in your life. Not because it changes things, not because thankfulness somehow makes your circumstances different, but because it changes your perspective on them. It lets you come at your life from an entirely different heart, and it doesn't just make a difference, it makes all the difference. 

So if there's something you're facing that seems too big, if you're standing in waters that seem too deep, if you feel your heart drawn toward the pain, the anger, the misery, the moping, try thankfulness. You don't have to be thankful for everything, but in all things, there's something to be thankful for because God is right there providing for it.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Abram's Dread

Abraham is a man who is known for his great faith, obeying God to the furthest extremes and even taking his own promised son up a mountain for a sacrifice at God's word. He is always included among the fathers of the faith, both for Christians and Jews, and Hebrews 11 lauds his tremendous faith. Were that we were all a little bit more like Abraham. 

But there was a time before Abraham was, well, Abraham that he was Abram, and it is here that a quiet little scene takes place that adds a human depth to this man. The scene takes place in Genesis 15.

This chapter is interesting all in itself; it is thick in the promises of God. In this chapter alone, Abram has a vision of God, receives a promise from God, enters into a covenant with God, and then dreams a dream of God. In other words, God's word that Abram will be a father is spoken and confirmed four times in four different ways in twenty-one short verses. (It should also be noted that this chapter is one of those few places in the Scriptures where we see all three persons of the Trinity - Father, Son, Holy Spirit - in the same narrative; I believe I have written about this before.)

Any one of us would love to have God speak so clearly in such rapid succession.

But after the vision, after the promise, after the covenant, there's a strange word in this story that catches our attention. The word is "dread." Yes, dread.

It's in verse 12, which is the verse where Abram is falling into a deep sleep as the sun sets on his day full of visions and promises. The God's Word translation uses the word "dread;" the King James calls it "an horror of great darkness." And you know what happens next?

God confirms His promise again through a dream.

The difference now is that in his full-scale, techni-color dream, Abram sees for the first time what God's promise will really mean for him. He sees what it will require of him. He sees the emotional investment that living God's promise is going to take, and his heart breaks for all that he realizes here. 

In this dream, God shows him the trouble that is coming for his children. God reveals to him the captivity that they will find themselves in, a lot sooner than you might think - just three or four generations away. In hindsight, we know - Abraham, Isaac, and then Jacob was eventually brought to Egypt by his son Joseph. That's all it takes. 

Now, it's important for us to put all of this in proper context. Abram's dread, though it comes before the dream in a narrative sense, had nothing to do with Abram's unwillingness to see yet another vision from God. At this point, this man who has so long prayed to become a father must have been overjoyed with excitement at having three words from God already promising him just that. He's not in an horror of great darkness because God keeps telling him that his wildest dreams are about to come true. 

Rather, his dread was God's preparation for what was about to come. God wanted him as emotionally invested in the future of his story as he was in the present of it. God wanted his heart to be ready to handle the news that God was going to reveal. 

In other words, his dread did not come from inside of him; it was given to him from God so that he would properly feel the weight of the dream in the midst of his own great joy. Yes, he was going to be a father; no, it's not all throwing baseballs in the yard and teaching the kid to ride a bike. The dread was God's way to prepare him to hear the fullness of God's message, not just the good stuff.

Which does not at all mean that the promise was any less good. By no means!

It means that the promise was more vibrantly real. It was a God thing, yes, but it was also a deeply human thing. The kind of thing that any man at any time could find himself wrapped up in, except that this time, it happened to be the special blessing of God that was going to somehow make it more, as well. 

Most of us would like to avoid dread, to skip right past this horror of great darkness, especially on a day on which God reveals to us four times His amazing, unimaginable promise for our lives. But I think we could use a little dread. I think we could use a little horror of great darkness. It reminds us of the fullness of God's promise that goes far beyond just our own wildest dreams and is this vibrantly real, tremendously human, absolutely supernatural thing that only God could do. 

(And, by the way, He's doing it.)

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Strange God Indeed

Perhaps one of the reasons that it's so easy for us to sit around and talk about what Jesus might have meant is because God, for much of the Old Testament, did, in fact, often speak in mysteries and codes. He often hid some of what He was doing behind words or signs that were not easily interpreted by all men. For proof of that, look no further than Ezekiel, who was one of the strangest prophets ever to walk the earth.

It is because of stories like these, because of guys like the prophets, that it doesn't seem far-fetched to us at all that God would speak in code or in mysteries, that He would say things that would not mean what they appear to mean or that are difficult to decipher. It makes perfect sense that we would sit around discussing things and trying to figure out what God means. After all, what does God mean?

But that was the God of the Old Testament, not the Christ of the New, and there is a very fundamental difference between the two. 

At the point that God Himself comes to live among the people, to walk in the same flesh in which they walk, to speak in their voice, to wear their tunics, to travel their shores, to eat their fish, to curse their figs, to challenge their traditions, to heal their infirmities, to call them by the point that God dwells among us as Jesus, it is at that point that we can no longer say that God is doing mysterious things that He doesn't expect us to understand.

Fair enough, you might say, but even Jesus said that not everyone would understand what He was doing or saying. Even Jesus said that some of what He said was a mystery. Even Jesus said that some things were still hidden from us, so doesn't that suggest that what God says still requires interpretation? Doesn't that mean we are still charged with figuring out what He means?

Yes and no.

The mysteries of God that remain in the time of Christ are mysteries of a work yet to come. They are wonders of the heavens, signs of the times. They are the things that reveal, though still cloaked, what God is going to do as time marches on into eternity. Not everyone can understand these things, nor are they meant to. 

What you don't see in the Gospels, what you never see in the story of Jesus, is a single cryptic word about what a man should do right now. What you never see is Jesus speaking in code or in mystery about what He expects from someone. What you never see is Jesus trying to tell someone, without actually telling him, what He expects them to do. Jesus's words for man's life are extremely clear - come, go, do, be. 

These aren't mysterious words. Not once in all the Gospels do they mean anything other than what they plainly appear to mean. Not once does "Go, make disciples" mean anything other than go and make disciples. Not once does "turn the other cheek" mean anything but turn the other cheek. When Jesus tells a man how to live, there's no question about what He is saying. Not one. 

Yet, it is precisely that kind of stuff that we're sitting around discussing rather than doing. We're a people who hear Christ say to go and talk to someone, but we don't go because we don't think He really means go and talk. What does He mean by that? And then the moment passes and we've missed it. We hear Christ say to bring someone into our home, but we're not sure what that means, so we don't and they spend another night on the streets. We hear Him call us to pray, and we sit around wondering what it is He wants us to pray about rather than actually praying because, you know, the call to prayer was not entirely clear about.... 

We're ridiculous. We are. We are ridiculous as a people of faith. Our God, the very same God who has revealed Himself in our own flesh and spoken to us with our own voice and walked on our own seashores and healed our infirmities and chosen us out of all of creation to be His own, speaks, and we aren't even filled with awe any more; we just pretend to be confused by it all. 

It's not confusing at all that the God who loves us so much that He came to dwell among us would also speak, and it's not confusing at all what He asks of us. 

The only thing confusing here is us, who claim to be a people of God but are scared to death to move on His account. To live on His account. To love on His account. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Keeping the Faith

Most Christians spend their time hemming and hawing and debating about what Jesus meant when He said whatever He said because they know that if they admit that they knew what He meant, they'd be held accountable for acting or not acting upon His words. (Not to be a bother here, but they're held accountable anyway, for the Lord knows what they know, even when they pretend not to.)

But the problem that Western Christianity runs up against really is a semantics problem. Not Christ's semantics; ours.

Here's what we've done: in a world that accepts Christianity, as much as it accepts it at all, as just one of a myriad of options of religion for a people who seem predisposed to such a thing, we have come to identify it as "the" Christian faith, the same way that we choose "the cheeseburger" or "the tacos" off of a dinner menu. And this makes it forever something different, something distant, from ourselves, something we can objectively study in the third person or point to in a museum and discuss in some high-brow, removed kind of way. 

What we have here is the Christian faith. If you'll notice, you can see that it....

We become, then, a people who can either talk about the Christian faith or cannot. We become a people who can point out all of its details or cannot. We become a people who know about it or do not. But it's a relic and nothing more in our human story. It is the Christian faith. 

This is the way that outsiders have always talked about the Christian faith - as that thing that other persons do that is so weird and bizarre and beyond them. As that thing that they can only describe "objectively," from the outside looking in. (Objective and subjective are not really the right words, but stick with me here.) Ah yes, they say, the Christians. The Christian faith. 

And our postmodern, relativistic, every-man-to-his-own-truth culture has made us all outsiders to our own faith. Hence, the Christian faith. No wonder we no longer own it; it is a thing to be beheld, but not touched, just as all artifacts in a museum.

Better would be to have a Christian faith. At the very least, if you have a something, you leave open the possibility that you own it. For example, our youth minister asked last summer if anyone had a unicycle he could borrow for a lesson series. I have a unicycle. It is mine. In the same way, I have a refrigerator, a piano, and a dresser. Being a and not the leaves these things open to being owned, to being unique to my possession, rather than being an exhibit of something forever to be preserved in its pristine condition and discussed by intellectuals who happen to have an interest in such things. Having a something, including a Christian faith, creates the possibility that I actually own it, it is mine, and I might even use it. 

Better even still would be to have my Christian faith, but almost no one talks this way any more, except perhaps as a deference to a culture that insists that all faith can only be private once held, and therefore, it would be inaccurate to ever say that there is a Christian faith outside of your own possession of it. But that's not the linguistic context we're talking about here. 

How often any more do you hear someone cite "my" Christian faith as a reason or an example or a meaningful construct of who they are? It just doesn't happen. Not because we don't have a Christian faith, but because we don't own it. We no longer believe that we even can own it. It is the Christian faith, and it exists far beyond our own manifestation of it. In fact, most of us have even come to believe that we somehow pollute or poison the Christian faith by my imperfect living of it, as though our being Christians at all cheapens what being a Christian even means. 

So it's easy to say that we don't understand. It's easy to sit back and debate what Jesus must have meant. After all, it's not about me any more. Whatever He said, it's about the faith, not my faith; my faith requires me to sit here and figure out what Jesus meant for me when He said whatever He said. And thank God (blessed Lord, Amen), that always keeps me one step away from actually owning my own faith and having to do anything about it. After all, He can't hold me accountable for what I haven't interpreted yet....can He?

We have a semantics problem in our faith. Yes, our faith. But it's got nothing to do with what Jesus said. Rather, it's got everything to do with whether our faith is really the faith or if it's my faith. If it's my faith, then I best start living like it is. Oughtn't I?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

What He Said

When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, those who heard His lesson had to determine what they were going to do with it. Were they going to be offended that He would speak of a Samaritan in the same breath as He spoke of a priest and a Levite? Were they going to be convicted that such a comparison was even possible? Would they continue listening to see what He had to say about it or would they tune out or turn away because of the directness of His words?

A number of questions circulated through the whispers of that crowd, but I guarantee you that among them was not this one: what do you think Jesus meant when He said "Samaritan"?

Nobody was asking that. Nobody had to. Everyone in the crowd that day knew exactly what He meant when He referred to the man as a Samaritan. Everyone in the crowd knew exactly the stark contrast He was drawing. Everyone in the crowd knew exactly the point He was trying to make. There were no semantics at work when Jesus called the man a Samaritan; He meant the man was a Samaritan. 

There are never semantics at work when Jesus speaks.

But we are a people who think that there must be. We are a people who are pretty sure that semantics are everything, and if we aren't so offended by Jesus's semantics that we call Him out on them, we are precisely the kind of people who start the whispers asking the one question we never need to ask: what do you think Jesus meant when He said...?

Story of our lives, right? How many times have we heard this kind of question asked by people of the faith today? We hear someone talk about the very clear vision that God has put on their heart for the kind of ministry they're going to do, and then in the same breath that they tell us about the very clear vision, they confess that they are trying to figure out what it means. What do you mean what does it mean? If it was a very clear vision, it meant what it meant. Didn't it?

Or we talk about the nudging that we felt on our heart to go up to that person in the grocery store and say or do some specific action, just sensing that it was something that God wanted us to do. Then, we confess that we didn't do it because we weren't sure what it meant that we felt the way that we did. We weren't sure what, exactly, God wanted us to do with the feeling that we should go up to someone and say or do something. Spoiler alert: God wanted us to go up to someone and say or do something. 

Or we suddenly find ourselves with the opportunity to partner with someone who is already doing a good work for God, someone who needs just a little bit of our resources to do something even greater. And we hear God telling us to write the check. We tell others about this awesome work and how we were thinking about joining it, then we confess that we never wrote the check because we weren't sure what God wanted us to give to them for their work. That's pretty much the only thing you can write a check for. 

Here's what's really happening, and I'm just going to say it: we hem and haw and ponder these questions because as much as we call ourselves a people of faith, we are no such thing, nor are we sure we really want to be. If we take God at His word, then it falls on us to either act or not act, to be a people of faith or to not be a people of faith, and we don't want to have to make that choice.

Rather, we contend that if we never quite figure out what God is trying to say to us, we cannot be held accountable for either acting or failing to act because we lacked the specific information to know what was by faith and what was not. 

In other words, if we pretend not to know what God said, then He can't be mad at us for not doing it. 

The problem is that we know exactly what God said. God said exactly what He said, and there are no semantics at play when God speaks. When Jesus says "Samaritan," He means Samaritan, no matter how unpalatable that may be to the listening crowd. When He says "go," He means go; when He says "do," He means do; when He says "give," He means give. 

The question we have to ask ourselves is not what Jesus means when He speaks - we know what He means - but what are we going to do with it? 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Dirty Words

One of the most well-known stories in all of Scripture, even among those who are not Christians, is Jesus's story of the "good Samaritan." It was a shocking story to the audience of His own day, and it continues to be a great lesson to human beings today about what it means to truly be neighbors with one another.

A number of English translations take a gentler approach with this story, having Jesus identify the third man as "a man from Samaria," which I thought, in the English, was rather nice of Him. See, the Samaritans were detestable to the Jews, absolutely disgusting. Had Jesus actually said the word "Samaritan," He would have drawn attention to that and probably turned much of His audience away. Especially when He contrasts a "Samaritan" with a priest and a Levite! No, no, He must have said it was a man from Samaria, putting the emphasis on the regularness of the man and only including Samaria as a side note. After all, He wanted His audience to keep listening, didn't He?

But this is where Jesus does something that is so Jesus, and it's beautiful. 

He says, "Samaritan."

He didn't have to. There are constructs in any language that would have permitted Him not to; He really could have said, "a man from Samaria." All it would have taken would have been for Him to use the word "man," a preposition "from," and the name of the disgusting region. But He didn't. When Luke records this story for us, he records it as one word - the root of Samaria with the suffix that indicates "a man from." 

A Samaritan.

Yes, Jesus said a "dirty" word.

And at this point, everyone listening to Him had a decision to make. Were they going to stay dialed in, listening to the story that Jesus was telling, taking His point and His instruction to heart? Were they going to feel their own disgust so heavily that they could no longer pay attention, that they'd disengage entirely and come back when He started His next parable? Were they going to be so shocked and shamed by the comparison of the most faithful men of Israel - the priest and the Levites - with a dirty Samaritan that they would be unable to move past their own conviction of heart, forever condemning and judging themselves because even the worst of the worst was better than them? 

The people had to decide what they were going to do with this Samaritan; they had to decide what they were going to do with this Jesus; they had to decide what they were going to do with themselves. 

Jesus doesn't mince words. Read the Scriptures. If you're short on time, read just the red letters. Try to find one place where Jesus doesn't tell it like it is, where He hems and haws, where He softens His message because it might offend someone's ethnic, racial, or religious sensibilities. There's not one. Jesus lays the cards on the table and then tells us it's up to us how to play this hand. He always has; He still does.

It's amazing how many of us think God's message to us today is cryptic, that we have to spend a lot of our time "discerning" what Jesus is trying to say to us. Is it this? Is it that? Well, it certainly couldn't be...? But that's not the Jesus style. That's not the testimony we see about Him in the Scriptures. It's simply not the way that He speaks. 

Which means that the only thing we have to figure out is the same thing the crowds that day had to decide: what are we going to do with it?