Friday, August 31, 2018

A Prayer to Pray

Earlier this week, I prayed a prayer. I knew that it was the right prayer to pray. How did I know? Because I had prayed about it. 

That's right - I had prayed and asked for God to give me the prayer to pray, to give me the words and the heart to approach the situation in question the way that He would have me approach it, to bring it to Him in the way that He would have me to bring it to Him. He answered that prayer in abundance, and I knew both what to pray and why. 

So I prayed. 

And you know? I felt pretty good about it. I did. I knew that it was the right prayer to pray, and I felt His yoke come upon me to share the burden that I had been carrying. I knew that He would answer the prayer that I had just prayed with the same faithfulness and good grace that He had answered the pray I prayed in order to have prayed it.

But then, He did. 

To be honest with you, I wasn't ready for it. It's not what I had expected to happen, even though I had literally just given God permission to answer in such a way and had felt at so much peace. Perhaps the reason that I had felt at so much peace was because I had expected Him to answer the other way, you know - the way that would have affirmed me and encouraged me and been exactly what I wanted, even when I gave Him permission not to give me what I wanted.

In other words, I prayed for God's wisdom to keep my feet from stumbling, but I still never expected Him to say, "No," when I really kind of secretly (or not-so-secretly) had my heart set on a "yes," but with a hedge of protection around it. 

Despite the fact, of course, that I had not prayed for "yes;" I had prayed for wisdom and for God's Will. 

And I had gotten it. 

In the aftermath, I confess that I did not know what to do. I didn't. I had done this beautifully faithful thing that was wrapped in amazing love and grace, and I had prayed a prayer to pray a prayer and then prayed that prayer with full confidence that it was the right prayer to pray, and in the answer and the echoes, my soul was crushed. My spirit, discouraged. My heart, grieved. 

For no other reason than that God had given me exactly what I asked for, which was not what I was asking for. 

Then here I am, knowing not what to do, knowing not what to say, knowing not, almost, how to even breathe again. I mean, what do you do when God takes away in wisdom what you had yearned for in faith? 

It took, perhaps, far longer than it should have. It took a few days of wrestling in despair. It took some time for me to get my head back on straight, to come back to a place of some semblance of balance where I could begin again to think clearly and to access the depths of my own wounded soul (pushing through, it must be said, my wounded ego), but I finally figured out what I could do about the whole thing.

I could pray. 


So I sat in the stillness, my heart in my hands, my breath caught in my throat, and my eyes on grace, and I prayed - I prayed a prayer that God would give me the prayer to pray....

Thursday, August 30, 2018

What Is Real

As Christians, we know that words really do speak life; they speak reality and form, by their power, the world in which we dwell. We have known this from the very beginning, when God spoke into the formless and void and said, "Let there be..." and there was. 

In a virtual world now utterly dependent upon words and ideas, this creates both an opportunity and a challenge for us as we proclaim the Good News of the Word made flesh.

It is an opportunity because in a world formed by words, humanity could not be more ready for a Word that makes something really real. I mean, really real. A Word that actually delivers on the promise that we've all bought into in our virtual presence, one that becomes flesh-and-blood, even to the degree that we can touch it, hear it, weep with it, enter into a relationship of real love. If all these words and ideas of the people seem real to us, how much more are we aching for one that is truly real to the depths of our experience, to the core of our very being? 

We have, and continue to, essentially waste this opportunity. First, we were wasting it by focusing too heavily on what God approves of and disapproves of, making everyone think this Word was a law, not a being. Telling the world that God was more of a what than a who. And the world wearied of this very quickly.

But we are wasting it today, too, in focusing too much on the flesh of the Word and failing to articulate how He is any different at all from us. We have created a Jesus who doesn't ruffle feathers, who doesn't require anything, who loves without expectation, who is content to have us forever just the way that we are, who doesn't have standards or conceive of right and wrong at all, but is just love, man. He's just cool. You know, like a super-great chill friend who just, you know, chills. And in a world filled with virtual persons, this Jesus is simply not real enough for our ache. He's not.

At the same time, when we make Him real - really real - in the fullness of His flesh and power, we face a significant challenge and a vocal backlash. As much as this world is aching for a real Word that does what we've been conditioned to believe that words really do (creates an existence), it's incredibly offensive when one actually claims to do just that. 

This world kind of wants Jesus to be real. I mean, how cool and awesome and incredible would it be if He was? But as soon as He claims to be, or as soon as we claim Him to be, what audacity! What arrogance! What nerve! To think that our word is somehow more vital, more formative, more real than any other word!

To be honest, it's because we all want to believe, to varying degrees, that our words have the same power to bring forth the reality that we desire to create with them. We want our words to speak our life. We want to form and shape our existence the way the virtual world promises that we can. If this Word, if this Jesus, actually does it, actually becomes Word-made-flesh, actually speaks life, there is a good number of us who believe all the more that we, too, have this power. That we can accomplish this. 

And we're offended when we can't. Because, well, being offended is what we're good at these days. 

So the world aims its offense at God, shouting and screaming to shut Him down while at the very same moment, they ache for what it is that He offers. 

It's what makes evangelism so difficult today. It's what makes it so much harder to share the Word in our world. Because how totally, wonderfully, awesomely cool is it that there is a Word that delivers on all its promises but in the very same breath, how dare He? How dare He?

For real. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

No Mere Words

Living in a virtual realm in which words and ideas dominate certainly creates its challenges. But we must be honest and say also that, at least for Christians, it creates its opportunities, as well.

It's frustrating because it seems that the world of ideas doesn't want to hear ours, the war of words makes no room for words of faith. To an extent, that is true; Christians in this virtual existence are being ridiculed, ostracized, chastised, dismissed, and ignored. We are being labeled as haters, bigots, hypocrites, morons, and more. 

And yet, none of that changes the truth of what we have. And what we have, ironically, in a world of words is...a Word.

And we alone know the true power of "mere" words.

It was by a mere word that God spoke the entire universe into existence. He looked into the formless and void and saw something greater, speaking in a simple breath, "Let there be..." and there was. Just like that.

It was by a mere word that God called Abraham to a foreign land, changed Jacob's name at the Jabbok, led Israel out of Egypt, anointed David King. 

It was by a mere word that God announced the coming of His own Son, His own flesh, into the world. 

It was by a mere word that He called men to follow Him, that He cast out demons, that He healed the blind and the sick and the lame and the deaf, that He raised the dead to life. Talitha, koum. And just like that, it was. 

God, again and again and again, has shown us the power of a "mere" word to speak life, real life, life abundant, and also to speak death. Because every word spoken finds its fullness in an empty space waiting for something to come into it, waiting for something to form in the void. 

It's why we, as Christians, must be careful in this place, in the virtual world in which we live. Words, they seem cheap now. They come a dime a dozen. They form the very shape of the world as we know it. And yet, there remains so much empty space, so much space waiting to be formed, so much aching to be spoken into, and we alone know the power of a "mere" word to shape that space. We know what speaking into it can do.

Which means two things for us. First, it means that we cannot get caught up in wars of words. We cannot let ourselves speak idly, adding nothing more than noise to the already-loud fabric of our lives. We cannot say that words are cheap, for we know better than that, and we cannot say they are "just" words, for we know better here, too. We have to rise above and choose our words carefully, with the fullness of them in mind from the very start.

But second, we must harness the power of the Word that we have been given, for it is God who knows best how to speak. It is God who knows the power of words, and He has given His Word to us for His glory. In a world that is formed by what is spoken - now, perhaps, more than ever - we must take this opportunity to speak life, to speak faith, to speak grace, to speak mercy, to speak glory, to speak forgiveness, to speak healing, to speak wonder, to speak love...

...for in speaking, we make these things real, even and especially in a virtual world looking for something with just a little skin on it. In the Word, they find it. 

His name is Jesus. 

May we speak Him, the Word of Life, into our world. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Something Propositional

There is a tremendous challenge for those of us (which is all of us) who live in an increasingly virtual world formed by nothing but ideas and words, and it is that we constantly torn between our propositional world and our inherently relational being.

We were not made to live in the clouds, or the cloud. We were not designed to spend our time dwelling in the place of ideas and words and figments of our own imaginations. We were given a flesh to inhabit and communities in which to dwell and places in which to be and five glorious senses to uncover the physical, tangible, taste-able wonder of the world because we are, at our very core, beings who were designed to be in relationship with each other, with our world, and with our God. 

You can't be relational with an idea. There's no relationship between a man and mere words. 

It's why, as time passes, we see the souls of men becoming more and more parched. It's why the loneliness of the isolation of a virtual world is so devastating. It's why no matter how we build our profiles or who we become online, we're still aching to be something more, something that all the social media in the world can't capture. 

It's why, I think, we're all posting so many pictures of our food. It's not that food has become the new sexy. It's not that we're all such fabulous cooks that we need to brag about it a little. It's not that there's anything particularly special about what we're eating tonight. It's simply this: it's a desperate plea, an agonizing cry. It is our shouting the world that we have a table, a real table....

...won't you join me?

Because that's what we really want, no matter what we say. We want someone, many someones, to come and to be around our table with us. We want to share physical space with another physical person. We want, for just a moment, something real, something that the best connectivity always comes up short on.

And yes, we're experimenting with greater and greater connecting technologies, like the abilities to video chat and actually see one another in real time and some more enhanced artificial presence ideas, but this is still painfully short of what we really long for, and that is another human hand to hold, human eyes to look into, a human heart beating in the same room as ours. 

We can't help it; this is what we were created for. 

Yesterday, I said that it is our virtual existence, which lives only in the space of ideas and words, that has caused anxiety, depression, violent crime, and suicide to rise and that part of that rests squarely on the idea that we're lost in a world in which we no longer feel real, where nothing feels real. This is exactly it. This is why. 

We are beings who were created to be interconnected with one another. We are beings created for intimacy and relationship. We are beings who become more fully who we are when we are with someone else, a reflection of the relationship of God in Trinity. Something in our lives is fundamentally missing when we don't have each other, really have each other, when there's no one else around our tables. 

Our virtual world is bringing that tension to the forefront in our lives and here's the truth: we were not meant to be okay with not having it. Technology is great, but it's not what we were made for. We were made for each other, to the glory of God. 

A propositional world just won't cut it. Not when you're living in your own wounded flesh. We will always and forever be searching for something with a little more skin on it. 

Only in relationship do we find it. For we are, always have been, and always will be relational beings, and we can never talk ourselves out of that. 

Monday, August 27, 2018

Words and Ideas

Part of exegeting the Word is exegeting the world, and that means that sometimes, we need to stop an think about the times we're living in and what it means to be a human being today. Without a doubt, one of the challenges of our modern world is that we are now living in a time where the scariest things - the things most likely to cause anxiety, depression, trauma, and trouble - are words and ideas. 

For those of us who grew up in the time of "sticks and stones," this is hard to comprehend. When and why did we become so concerned about what other persons say or think? When did having a disagreement with someone become the worst possible thing you could do to them?

It's almost easy to blame a postmodern philosophy, where words are used as weapons and culture is hashed out on the stage of ideas, but we're beyond the point where this is about what you believe or don't believe or even what you can get sucked into. At this point, the root of the issue lies in the way we're living. 

It centers on our virtual lives.

Our virtual world has become so developed and so central to the way that we live that it has become the most real thing about our existence. Social media, the Internet, connections across the world from the comfort of the living room, they have created a new space where humans dwell, and it's where we spend most of our time. In fact, an overwhelming number of persons are now playing the real world like a sim, taking their flesh-and-blood avatars to the cafe to get a cup of coffee before returning to their "real life" of connectivity. 

And in this realm where no one and nothing is real enough to be held, touched, or felt, words and ideas reign. They create the reality we're virtually living in, so of course, they have become the most dominant thing in our cultural conversations. The words and ideas that form our new social experience are more real to us than the food on our plates or the sun on our backs.

Over time, our lives are less and less lives we're living and more and more those we're constructing new every moment as words and ideas continue to change the landscape in front of us. And there's no way for us to put our finger down, let alone our foot, and be grounded in anything.

Because what is most real to us is not real at all. It's all figments of a virtual realm. 

Meanwhile, in the real world, anxiety, depression, suicide, and violent crime are on the rise, and it's a direct result of our virtual existence. We're all looking for some place to land, some place to find refuge, and more than anything, what we want is a break from the noise. A world formed in the tension of words and ideas never stops, it never shuts up, there's no way to silence it. Unless you kill something - the world or yourself. 

So we've got persons who solve their disputes with guns, who kill one another over mere exchanges of words because what we've learned from our virtual realities is that there is no victory in ideas, only perpetual tugs-of-war. The pendulum continually swings and the clock never strikes the hour because there is no hour, only words, and the only way to "win" this war of words is to have the last word. And the only way to stop the noise is in the stillness of the shock of something more real. 

Which is another reason that violent crime and self-crime is on the rise: it is undeniably real. In that moment, life gets grounded. It gets put on a plane we can understand again. It's got flesh and bones and blood and breath and it can hold things in its hands and feel them, really feel them, and it seems like these extremes are the only way to truly feel human any more. To feel the pain, the hurt, the anger, the trauma...something, anything real. We are aching for something real. 

We are fighting over so much less. 

Words and ideas...they're scary in this virtual world because that's all we've got, that's all we are. In bytes and bits, we're reduced to nothing more than our words and our ideas. And it's left us aching for something more, something real, something with a little skin on it that, to be honest, most of us don't know how to find any more. 

So we take it wherever we can find it, or wherever we can make it, and that is often in the extremes of our anger, our rage, our violence, our hatred.

And then we log back into our lives and see the headlines, and we wonder what happened. How could anyone ever do such a thing? Because of what? Because of words?


Friday, August 24, 2018

In Need of Grace

We are living in a world unlike any other in history, a world where persons feel entitled to dig through the past to uncover anything and everything you have ever said or done or thought or laughed at or listened to or liked and then use that against you, as though today's standards were yesterday's standards. As though you are nothing more than your mistakes.

Most prominently, we're seeing it with historical figures, with the push to remove statues and memorials for men who contributed greatly to the history of this country, for no other reason than that they also happened to be slave owners in a time when slavery was legal. Today, slavery is not legal and is detestable, so how could these men have been so unenlightened, so terrible, as to have ever owned slaves, even in a time when that was the norm? We judge their past by our present, and we write off everything else they ever did.

And this is trickling down now to the common man. It doesn't take much. Someone used a word one time several decades ago in a cultural way that is different than our dominant culture, and now, he is forever despicable. Someone laughed at a crude joke in his 20s and now, he's forever a boor. Someone made mistakes with her first child, and now, she is forever a bad mother. If you disagree with someone about anything at all, you must hate them and everyone like them, and that makes you a bigot (or worse), forever.

This world has taken upon itself the "right" to dig through your closet, pull out your skeletons, and put you on trial for the murder of your own character. Anything and everything you've ever said or done is fair game.

Rightfully, we are people living on edge. Who's next? Seriously. Who is going to be the next person to have his or her skeletons paraded down Main Street, plastered across the headlines, broadcast on the air waves?

In a world like this, in a culture bent on uncovering every hidden thing, in a time when anyone anywhere can be held accountable to anything at any time regardless of anything else, we need the story of Jesus now more than ever. We need the story of mercy. We need the story of grace.

See, the world wants you to pay for everything you've ever done, but the goodness of Jesus is that He already did. The world will never let you live it down, but Jesus has already raised you up. The world won't let you forget, but Jesus has forgiven you.

You'd think this would be the message that we, the Church, would be plastering across our billboards. You'd think it'd be all over our bulletins. You'd think we'd be shouting it from our pulpits and screaming it from street corners. You'd think we'd be whispering it into the wounded souls of the uncovered.

Christ has covered you in grace, and no matter what this world says to you or about you, you are not your past. You are not your mistakes. You are not your sins. You are not your worst moment;

You are your best self, your life abundant, a child of God by the beautiful gift of grace.

A gift...that we need now more than ever.

May we be a people who come carrying it, like cups of cold water on a brutally hot day. Like refuge in the midst of a thrashing storm. Like life in the face of death. Like love confronting condemnation. Like truth opposing lies. Like light in the darkness, like salt of the earth.

Like Christ Himself.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Help

None of this is at all to denigrate or to diminish the blessed work and good ministry of our pastors, playlists, and programs. Not at all. It's about keeping the main thing the main thing; that is, it's about maintaining God as the rhyme and the reason for all that we do. And anyone who maintains God's perspective on his or her ministry should agree.

That said, our pastors, playlists, and programs are necessary elements of the Church of the Fallen World, for these are the things through which we come to know and to worship God when our flesh might be tempted to wander. As such, they are due our respect and our honor. 

Paul makes clear the need for good pastors in the church. He says rather clearly, how will anyone ever know the good news if no one tells them? How will they know the story of God if no one teaches them? And this is true. We need our pastors to teach us the ways and the works and the wonders of God. More importantly, we need our pastors to teach us to see these things ourselves.

We live in a world of competing narratives. Without our pastors to stand up and share the story of God, that's one narrative we might never fully grasp nor understand nor adopt for ourselves. 

Neither are our playlists frivolous to our sacred experience. The Scriptures make very clear that worship is an essential part of what we do as God's people. From Genesis to Revelation, the people and the angels and even creation itself are lifting their voices to the Lord. We need our playlists to teach us to sing His songs, to teach us the songs of our heart to which we almost know the words, but only in grunts and in groans. 

We live in a world of trouble and strife. Without our playlists to teach us to lift our voices, we might spend all our years with lowered heads. 

Nor are our programs bad. In fact, they, too, are necessary to the life of the Church of the Fallen World. It's often our programs that bring us in. It's our programs that help us to make connections to one another in our folds. It's our programs that remind us who we are, who our community is, and what we're doing here together. Most of the persons who come into the church come in through a program that somehow meets one of their needs (note: that need is almost never "I needed someone to knock on my door and tell me about Heaven and Hell). 

We live in a world of self-preservation and self-service, told that we must meet our own needs. Without our programs, we might never know that there is a God and a community to help us do that. 

Our churches, through our pastors, playlists, and programs, teach us that there is a God, there is more to this life, and we are not alone. These things are absolutely essential to our developing a full theology, an abundant life, and an eternal perspective. 

So long as we keep them in their place and recognize that they neither define us nor defend us. We are, first and foremost, forever and for always God's people and the Lord, the Lord alone, is our Shepherd. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Shepherd

What we have to remember above all else is that when we, the people of God, are in our folds, the communities that He's built for us that are defined by the people that we share them with, no matter who is tending the field or what their tactics may be (pastors, playlists, or programs), Jesus Christ is the real Shepherd. 

Forever and for always. End of story. Period. 

It's a bit of a challenge because we have come to use this word - shepherd - for any number of the men and women who lead our earthly congregations. Our pastors are shepherds, our elders are shepherds, our deacons are shepherds. Sometimes, we extend this to include senior members, small group leaders, members of the praise band, even the guy who mows the church yard. They're all shepherds.

Us? We are a blessed sheep indeed, for we have a thousand shepherds. Just look at the all the "shepherds" God has given us!

And that's how easily it starts. Because it's really easy for those who we call our shepherds to take great interest in their flocks; that's how God wired them, and any of the good leaders among the church would do this. But the more interest they take, the more ownership they take, and the more responsibility they take until it's not long at all before they begin to call this flock their flock. 

When they start calling this flock their flock, then we, the people (the sheeple?) start to adopt that kind of language for ourselves. We start to identify ourselves as being in their flock, which means two dramatic things for our flockdom: it's no longer our flock, the fold that God has ordained for us as a community of His people, and it's no longer His flock, for we have forgotten that the Lord Himself is our Shepherd.

It's why we cannot echo enough the first words of David's Psalm 23. It's why we must plaster them all over our folds and keep them close to our hearts and paint them on our sanctuary doors and our church signs and our bulletins, lest we forget - as is so easy to do - 

The Lord is my shepherd.

The Lord, and the Lord alone. 

The Lord is a good shepherd, for He alone knows perfectly how to keep me in my fold in His field, how to make sure I remain a part of my community for the sake of His people, how to surround me with my peeps under His guardianship. 

He alone knows perfectly how to lead me beside still waters, for sheep get a little skittish if the waters move too fast. He knows how to lie me down in green pastures when I'm tempted to always look for something greener on the other side. He knows how to use the rod and the staff for my comfort and discipline. He alone knows how to restore my soul.

And He is the one who leaves the 99 to come after me when I wander away, when I get cut off somehow, when I'm lost and scared and in danger of losing even more. 

Yes, though there are many hired hands in my fold, many servants to help tend the sheep and keep watch over them, it is the Lord who is my shepherd.

Him and Him alone. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Flock

Each of us, as sheep, has been given into our fold, the place where our people - our community - gather. When we're looking for a church, this is what we need to look for, the community. Everything else about the church will change, but the people, if they are a godly people searching after Him, should not. 

One of the challenges to talking this way is the way that we already talk, for we have often elevated our pastors above all else when it comes to the church. And now, when we talk about ourselves as sheep, we often talk about ourselves as sheep of a certain flock. Namely, the pastor's.

And in some locations, we even talk about others that way. 

It's interesting the number of Christians who say things like, "Me? I go to Pastor Andy's church. It's great. He's great" or "I'm down the road at Pastor Dave's. He's doing a great series right now on marriage." Or we'll look at someone else and say, "Don't you go to Pastor Larry's church? Isn't that the one?"

A few years ago, I shared a theology that I hold near and dear to my heart about some culturally-controversial issue that was hitting a hot button at that time. A Christian friend railed against me on social media and finally said, "I thought you sat in Pastor _____'s pews. How can you believe something like that?" 

Simple, I told him. I'm not Pastor _____'s sheep; I'm God's. 

This is what we have to understand about being sheep. It's easy to identify ourselves by the flock that we currently sit in, by the name on the sign by the road or on the pastor's door. It's easy to say oh, yes, that's my pastor.

But don't confuse your pastor and your pasture. 

No matter who preaches at your church, it's God's church. No matter who leads your congregation, it's God's congregation. No matter who shepherds in your fold on this earthly travail, it is God who has called you to that fold, God who has set up the walls around it, God who has determined it its lush land for your grazing. No matter whose name is on the sign by the road, it's God's church and you are always first and foremost God's sheep. 


Your pastor is just the hired help.

So we need to change the way that we talk about this. We need to stop talking about our churches as if they are defined by our pastors. They aren't. At least, they shouldn't be. Our churches live and die by their sheep, not their shepherds; their people, not their leaders; their God, not their preachers. 

Because the sheep are always, always, always God's sheep first. 

No matter whose pew they're sitting in. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Sheepfold

A question to consider: what are you looking for in a church?

We're living in an age of unprecedented "church shopping," where persons are jumping from one congregation to another in search of...something. Sometimes, persons are looking for a pastor. They're looking for someone more dynamic or less charismatic or more practical or less cultural or whatever it is. Sometimes, they are looking for music. They prefer the guitar or the organ or just the human voice. Sometimes, they are looking for programming. They want a strong children's ministry or a good single's ministry or specialized small groups for fill-in-the-blank populations. 

Sound familiar? Of course it does; these are the things we've come to judge our churches by. But what if none of these was the way to choose a church? What if you weren't in a church because of its pastor or playlist or programs? 

Hear these words from Jeremiah 23:3: And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have drive them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.

Notice here what the Lord says, the pronouns He uses when He talks about the day when He brings His people back to Him. He doesn't say He will return the people to His folds; He says He will return them to their folds. Even this people who are scattered among the nations, this people in exile, this people far from home still have their folds, and that's where they're going when He brings them back. 

In other words, every one of God's sheep has their fold, the group into which they belong. 

We're not much of an agrarian society any more, so let's talk about this. The sheepfold was a pasture, usually a good pasture, surrounded often by some kind of natural barrier like a rock wall that kept the sheep inside of it to graze. And these folds were defined, named, known by the sheep that were in them. Sheep did not just wander from one fold to another at their own whim and will. They went to their fold, where their flock grazed under their shepherd.

Billy doesn't just leave his fold. He can't. It's his. That's where all his peeps are. 

Here's the truth I'm getting at, somewhere in all this sheep talk: our communities are not defined by their pastors or their music or their programming, as much as it seems like maybe they are. They are defined by their people. Our folds are identified by who is inside of them with us. 

So if you want to find your fold in the world, all you have to do is look for your people. Look for your community. Look for your friends and the people you can do life with. Look for the companions and the fellow disciples that make your faith vibrant.

Because here's the truth: pastors, playlists, and programs, they all change. All the time. People...are the one chance that we have as a constant in the church. They're the one opportunity we have to stick together. And one of the troubles we have is that as we chase pastors and playlists and programs, we become people who move, too, and then the church isn't the church any more; we've let the changing nature of our structures determine the nature of our churches. We've let our preferences move the walls. 

But if we become a people who stay in our folds, a people who are a people with their own place, no matter what changes around us, then we become a people of God drawn back to Him. We become a people fenced in by a Rock wall that defines our pasture. We become a people doing life together in a powerful way, as a living witness to the world around us. We, the people, become truly the church, whether we have a pastor or a playlist or a program at all

The Lord your God has called you to your fold. The question is: where your peeps at?

Friday, August 17, 2018

On Healing

We will end the week as we began it, with David's aching words: How long, O Lord? How long does it take for the Lord to answer His people with healing? How long does it take for that moment to come? 

In at least one case, about twenty years. 

But here's what we have to understand, and here's why it's so tricky: healing always comes to its fullness in a single moment, in a single breath, but that moment, that breath, is not always the fullness of its work.

When Jesus spoke a healing word over persons, it was pretty much immediate. The blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame walked, and this gives us the impression that this is how God works. And it is. We should never discount that God can and does heal in this way. We should recognize, however, that more often than God divinely heals, He wills healing, and willed healing does not often come so easily.

What happens, though, in healing, every time, is that there comes this moment of fullness, this finality when it is complete. When it's for real. And we say that this is the moment that God has healed us because it is the moment in which we finally feel healed, when our bodies are finally able to do those things that we have longed for them to do or when our souls no longer feel the hurt of betrayal or abuse or abandonment or when our hearts no longer grieve so acutely. This is the moment of healing. 

It's the moment, but it may not be the fullness of the work. Because more often than not, it takes quite a bit to get us to that moment. It takes a grind to get us to that place. Truth be told, in the process, we usually don't recognize that we're working on healing. We usually don't know that it's happening at all. We pray, achingly, for our healing to come without seeing the new life that is forming slowly over old wounds. We just don't see until we see all at once, so we cry out How long, O Lord?

And in the blink of an eye, we say, Why did it take so long?

Why does healing take twenty years? Why does it take twenty months? Why does it take twenty minutes, especially when we know that God can do it in a heartbeat? 

Because healing is a process, and what we often fail to recognize in the moment of its fullness is the work that has gone in to get us to this point. What we don't see along the way is the healing work that is happening before the moment of its fullness.

The truth is that those of us who have prayed for healing, especially those of us who have prayed for healing for so long, were healing. We were healing all along. We just didn't recognize it until it came into its fullness in our lives. 

That seems troubling to a lot of folks. Healing shouldn't be work, especially when it comes from God. If God really was healing us, then He ought to do it the way Jesus did - in a single word. In one breath. In one moment. 

But let me tell you this, and I only know what I know - it's not troubling; it's beautiful. The complete fullness of healing that comes from God in twenty years is every bit as amazing and breathtaking and wonderful and incredible as the fullness of healing that comes in a moment. It is. How long, O Lord?

However long it takes. And it will still take your breath away. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

God's Purpose and Will

When someone we love dies young, or tragically, one of the sentiments that often starts to come out is that this somehow must have been God's plan. It must have been God's purpose for his or her life. It must have been the plan all along that this person would be in a car accident or get cancer or whatever and perish before this world was ready for them to, before the fullness of their own life.

Maybe not. 

This is, I think, an extremely unhelpful theology and one that raises more questions about God than it answers or is even capable of answering. How could a loving God ordain tragedy? Millions of hearts all over the world are crying out with this very question, unable to reconcile an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God with the tragedy of early death (or even disability).

Here is where we must recognize and hold onto a very important truth: something can be God's will without being His purpose. 

When you were born, before you were born, God had an idea for your life. He knew what He was doing, and He had before His eyes the fullness of all that you would be and all that you would do and all that He would accomplish through you. Your life has a purpose and a plan. 

But you were born into a world of sin and brokenness. And nowhere in God's Word does He ever say that on this side of eternity, He will simply disregard or plow through this brokenness or pretend that it doesn't exist and treat you like your life is going to go perfectly the way He purposed it. Rather, He says quite plainly that this world will bend us, crease us, trouble us. It troubles Him, too. 

And maybe God's purpose for your life was that you would spend the bulk of your years working in a job that brought you in contact with a number of unchurched every day, for the purpose of witnessing to them through your gift of faith and His will was that you would be strong and courageous, the same way He so often told the faithful in His Word to be. 

Maybe, though, the world had other plans for you. Maybe the fallen world crept in and you got cancer at a young age. God's purpose for your life hasn't changed; He wants to use your gift of faith for the purpose of witnessing to others. Only now, you do it in a cancer ward and not in a job, per se. God's purpose for you never changes. But His plan for you might. 

You see, His will was never that you would live your long life in pain and torture, tormented by the brokenness of this world in a way that you can't get out of, in a brokenness that you can't heal. He willed you to be strong and courageous, but in a broken world where your body is being ravaged by the effects of the Fall, God has to decide whether He wants to invoke His will against the powers and principalities of this world or whether He wants to tweak it for His glory and your good. And so, you die. 

Because the very greatest will God could have for you would be your perfect peace, your total healing, your complete restoration, and your well-deserved rest. He's always willed these things for you, although He may not have ever willed them this early. It wasn't the plan. It wasn't the purpose of your life. But it became His will because it was the very best good He could do for you.

At any given moment, God is willing for you the very best good. He is willing for you the greatest of His glory. He is willing for you with tender mercy and unstoppable love. And that means that sometimes, what happens to us in this world changes God's specific will for us because He has to factor in what our circumstances, what our real life in this fallen world, mean. 

And when that happens, it doesn't mean that whatever happens to you was always God's will for your life. It doesn't mean that whatever happens to you was God's purpose. It doesn't mean that whatever happens to you was God's design. It means that whatever happens to you is God's love. And God goes on loving you even when brokenness changes things. Even when disease changes things. Even when disability changes things. 

He goes on loving you no matter what, for loving you was, is, and always will be His will. 

Even when plans change. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Matters of Life and Death

One of the laments that I most commonly hear from earnest, honest, aching devout Christians is this one: I prayed so hard, but my loved one still died. I don't understand. And now, I'm angry with God.

In fact, I think it's the one thing most, if not all, of us want to know. Why doesn't our prayer always work? Why don't we get what we agonizingly ache for? Didn't God say that if we prayed in His name, He'd do it? Ask, and we shall receive? 

Why, then, do bad things still happen to those who pray?

First, if this is you - if these are your questions and this is your ache - you're not alone. You're in fact in very good company, as this is the most pressing question Christians have always faced, and it is one that troubles the hearts of many. You may hope that I'm about to settle the question for good; I'm not, but I'm going to offer what minimal wisdom I have here in the hopes that it might serve as some kind of balm. If it doesn't, keep asking. Keep aching. Keep wondering. It's okay. 

Second, if this is you, know this: it is not a reflection on how much faith you don't have. For far too long, we have blamed these questions on ourselves (and the church has blamed them on us), saying that if we just believed a little more or had a little more faith or perspective, then things would be different. That's a bunch of junk, and all it does is wound the hearts of the wounded. Don't listen to another word of that trash. Ever. 

Now, here's what I know: Jesus changes everything. 

There are a number of stories of healing in the Bible, a great number of them. You'll notice, if you look at them, a distinct shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Overwhelmingly, the life-threatening situations are healed in the Old Testament, while the quality of life troubles are handled in the New. Yes, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and Peter is said to have raised a man in Acts, but by and large, if you're looking for those who should have died and didn't (or died and then lived again), the Old Testament is the place to be. If you're looking for the blind, the deaf, the lame who see and hear and walk, head into the New.

What's up with that? It's fairly simple.

Before Jesus, the people of God did not have a reference for life after death. They didn't know what resurrection meant, and they didn't have the promise of eternal life. The hope, maybe, but it was a distant hope that rested in a yet-unarrived Messiah that they might not ever get to see. The mightiest acts of God, then, were to save them from this death and give them the only life they knew.

Because of Jesus, we now know a new life; it is the life that happens after death, the wholeness of restoration in resurrection. All of a sudden, our best bet...isn't here. It's not this life. There is not a way, by any stretch of the imagination, for God to restore us to the kind of life here that we will have there, not by a long shot. 

And so we pray. We pray earnestly and fervently and achingly for our loved ones who are suffering. We pray for their healing. We pray in God's name. And our God gives them the most incredible healing that He knows how; He takes them home. 

It doesn't seem fair to us. It hurts. It sucks. When we prayed for healing, what we really wanted was our loved ones back. We wanted them to breathe again, to live and to love with us for a little while longer. We wanted God to soothe our souls by giving us our family and friends and neighbors back with the fullness of life in them. 

Yet, we know because of Christ that the truest fullness of life is not possible here. Not in this broken world. 

And we get mad at God. We get angry. (And that's okay - God can handle our anger.) But could we really expect anything different from Him, if truly we are praying in His name and His will? How could a loving, gracious, merciful God ever decide that the fullest way to heal a man is to put him back in a broken world? How could we expect God, in being consistent with His own heart for His people and with His character, to choose a fallen earth over a glorious heaven as the very best place for any one of us to be? Yes, we have purpose here. Yes, our lives have meaning. But in those moments when our life dances between one place and another, between mere recuperation and real, vital, glorious healing? There's no comparison. 

It doesn't soothe the ache. It doesn't take away the hurt that we feel, we who are left behind. It doesn't make our hearts stop breaking. But it's a comfort nonetheless. For God has done exactly what He promised to do and what we have prayed for; He has healed someone we love so much. 

May He also come and comfort our grieving souls. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Truth About Prayer

Something about the way David so agonizingly cries out, How long, O Lord, resonates in the depths of our modern souls, and yet, we are a people who struggle to make this cry ourselves. Rather, we are a people more often discouraged, defeated, and betrayed by prayer.

Or so we think.

Gather a room full of Christians, convince them to be honest, and an overwhelming number of them will convince to having felt these things in prayer. We become discouraged because God does not answer us, which leads us to believe that perhaps we have not prayed "right" or fervently enough or consistently enough or whatever, and we think that we really did give it our best shot but it wasn't good enough, which means we will never be good enough, which means we might as well just stop praying because, well, we suck at it. 

We are defeated because no matter how hard we try, we never get the sense that we're getting any better at it. As time goes on and our prayer is not answered, it becomes the standard by which we judge all of our prayer. If this one is not answered, no other prayer will be, for this is the one that originates in the inmost places of our being. And if the prayer that is most important to us goes unanswered, then certainly, there's no use praying anything else. (If we did, and if that prayer were answered, we would think our God simply cruel. And, ironically, we would blame ourselves here, too, for our unanswered passionate prayer, thinking that maybe we're too passionate about it. Or that it's selfish. Or....) 

We are betrayed because this God who says He hears us doesn't hear us. This God who says He answers doesn't answer. This God who says He would move heaven and earth to come and be with us is nowhere near at all. For most of us, the ache of how long moves through this phase, where we are certain that it's God's fault and failure and not our own.

Although, interestingly, almost all of us come back to blaming ourselves. 

Asked how we feel about prayer in general, a surprising number of Christians would answer with some variation on what I've just given voice to. If that's you, you're not alone, not by a long shot. Take heart.

But know this, too: it's a lie.

Actually, it's because it's a lie that human beings don't easily give up on prayer, often coming back to it even when they are discouraged by it. Secretly praying as they lie in their beds at night, giving it one more chance, holding onto one more hope. It's why human beings who don't even claim to be Christians find themselves praying anyway. There's something about it...something about it, indeed.

It should come as no surprise that in the world we live in, various sciences have taken up the study of prayer to see what it really does for us, what it's really worth (as though scientific studies could somehow qualify and quantify the mystery of a loving God). Here's what they found:

In running brain scans on persons of prayer, they find increased activity in areas of the brain that indicate joy and peace. Really. Euphoria. Connectedness. They found decreases in levels of stress and loneliness. I'm not kidding you. 

One study had participants take their stresses and channel them through letter-writing, either writing letters to themselves, to strangers, to loved ones, or to God (as prayers). Guess what. The group writing prayers demonstrated greater increases in comfort with their own stories, even in healing from the trauma of their own stories, than any other group. There's something about prayer. 

The truth about prayer is that, in the immediate sense and in short-term gains, we're talking huge benefits. Human beings who pray are, in that moment, more at peace, more optimistic, more hopeful, more filled with joy, more connected to themselves and to the world around them, less lonely, and better able to handle the stresses of both everyday life and extreme variations on it (trauma, etc.) 

Yet, talk to a room full of Christians about prayer, and you'll hear story after story of discouragement, failure, disappointment, betrayal, uncertainty, shame, etc. 

Maybe our problem is not that prayer is hard or difficult or discouraging; there's no evidence to that effect, not even from a science that has for so long seemed hostile to faith (and would thus relish the attempt to destroy it by disproving one of its most fundamental practices). Maybe our problem is that our memories are too short. 

For some reason, we just can't seem to hold onto the hope that we know we find in prayer, the hope that even science confesses is there. 

Yet, we keep coming back to prayer anyway, which means - praise God - that we just can't seem to let go of it, either. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

How Long, O Lord

Perhaps some of the most passionate and poignant words in all of Scripture, David cries out, "How long, O Lord?" How long will my enemies press against me? How long will the unrighteous prosper? How long will it seem like the powers and principalities of this world are winning? How long, O Lord, until You show yourself?

The reason these words so resonate with us is because they touch something deep inside of our own souls, something very human. We all want a God who shows up when we call on Him, a God who strikes down the wicked, a God who establishes the victory, a God who does what He says He's going to do and who is who He says that He is. At our very core, we want our God to be God, and our waiting hearts hear these words - how long, O Lord - and we know that ache.

And yet, they are words that we hardly ever say ourselves, words that barely come to mind, let alone come off our own lips.

We are a people less bold than David, unwilling or perhaps unable to cry out these very words, even though we feel them in the depths of our very souls. We want what we want, and we want it now, and there's no such thing as waiting in our world. No such thing as longing in our hearts. 

We live a faith of instant gratification, and when God doesn't show up when we expect Him to or in the exact way that we have prayed or when it doesn't seem like God is the God that He says that He is right now, we just quit. We're done. 

Either we give up praying for the thing that we're praying for or we give up on God altogether, determining that He's not actually the God that He says that He is, not a Lord who cares about us at all, not listening to us or hearing our prayer, and perhaps He's even a selfish and domineering God who only does what He wants when He wants to and we get neither a say nor a warning. 

Still, there is something in our hearts that holds onto this, something that refuses to give up even when our hope has hardened, something that still does and always will resonate with these raw, agonizing, painful and poignant words of David - how long, O Lord?

How much longer?

How much longer must we live as a people whose God seems far off, whose rescue seems far away, whose healing seems long in coming? How much longer must we fight our own battles, waiting on You to show up and do something God-like, almost like You love us or something (You know, the way You said that You do)? How much harder must we pray? How much more fervent must we be? How much longer must we hold onto hope that doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere, hope that's holding on but wearing out? 

We are a weary people. How long, O Lord?

Eh, never mind. Just forget it. 

I prayed once, and God didn't answer me right away. I asked, begged, pleaded with tears in my eyes, but I didn't get what I wanted. I cried out, and I was just left crying. Hope? Ha. This God is not who He says He is...because He doesn't seem to know who I am. I am faithful. I am hopeful. I am a Christian, for crying out loud, and I'm His grace, to His provision, to His presence, to His answer. Not that that matters to Him. Not that He seems to care. I prayed once, and this God - your God because He's no longer my God...He didn't answer me.

So I'm done. 

Except for this one little echo in my soul that won't let go, this one little whisper that can't give up, this one little hope that even in my anger, even in my self-righteousness, even in my angst won't die.

How long, O Lord?

How much longer?

Friday, August 10, 2018

Rich Theology

Herein lies the rub, and brings us full-circle on the discussion of theology that we've been having this week: we should never be content to simply say that God exists to some degree outside of what we can understand of Him. This is not sufficient to capture the essence of what we cannot fathom, and it leads us into the first theological fallacy presented on Monday, which is that we simply attribute anything and everything to God and therefore are unable to develop a theology of Him at all.

This is far too common even in today's church. We know that there are things about God that we cannot understand, so we just give up trying, throw up our hands, bow our heads, and pray, "Whatever." Whatever, God. Whatever You want, since I can't possibly figure it out. Whatever You're going to do anyway, since I can't know. Whatever You decide, since you're God and I'm not. 

This is no way to believe. In fact, it's impossible to believe this way at all.

It's why we have to labor over that which we cannot understand and develop a full and rich theology even here, even where it does not seem possible to do so. It's why we have to have a firm foundation of God's heart and character and goodness on which to depend, so that, even when we can't know what we don't know, we still have a framework in which to put it. We can confess that we don't know the specifics of how it all works out, but we should never say that we do not know the heart from which it comes. 

And this is not just for God's sake, that we should come to know Him and to be able to articulate even those things that are beyond our fathoming; it is also for our sake. It is an edification to our prayer and a foundation for our faith and an ever-present comfort in times of trouble. 

Take, for example, the kind of imagination that we were talking about yesterday, the kind of spirit that thinks about God even when it does not understand Him in a particular context. Consider a situation in which you have to pray - for healing, perhaps. Or restoration. Or hope. In times such as these, it can be difficult for us to put any real measure of skin on what that might look like. We have our preferences, of course, but something inside of us nags us that the one exact way that we can dream of may not be God's exact way, and we're left wrestling with what it means that God is going to answer us in a way that we may not understand.

Here is where a rich theology is soul-nourishing. For we may not understand or be able to fathom or even be able to dream about what God might do in our situation, we may not have any inkling at all what it's going to look like when He answers us, but if we have a solid foundation of faith that is rooted in His heart, His character, His goodness and glory and holiness as He has revealed it, even in ways that don't make full sense to us, we can begin to imagine what it might look like. 

And we do this by imagining not what it might look like if God were to answer us - no, that is a reflection of a shallow faith whose roots do not go deep enough. Rather, we begin to imagine what it might look like if God were to be God in this situation. What if God shows up, right now, and He's God? What if He comes and acts in perfect accordance with what we know of His heart, His character, His goodness? How does this whole thing play out if God draws near and acts for His sake, rather than particularly ours? 

This is the kind of theology that we need. In good times and bad, this is the theology that draws us close to God. 

We started on Monday looking at three prominent errors of theology: over-attribution, over-intellectualization, and over-familiarity. All three of these are resolved in this, in the mystery of God that exists beyond what we can know but firmly within what we must grasp. All three of these are answered in a rich, vibrant theology that confesses its limitations while grounding itself in its God. All three of these are reined fully in by the kind of faith that knows enough about what it doesn't know to stay in the heart, the character, and the goodness of God. you have a rich theology? What do you know about Him, most particularly in those times when you don't know that you know anything at all? 

(And while you're at it, tell me something you're not thinking about.) 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Failure of Imagination

Because our faith is unavoidably limited by the ways that we naturally and reflexively see and interact with the world, the single most valuable tool that we have in our hearts for engaging with God is our imagination.

That seems contrary to what we're often told about faith, which is something to the effect that it's best rooted in its strongest places. That faith is most meaningful when we're absolutely certain about it. That there is no room in faith for doubt or uncertainty or the inexplicable. After all, we can only believe what we actually believe, right?

Not exactly.

A real faith makes room for the mystery of God. It acknowledges that He exists beyond our own understanding of Him. It agrees with the Scriptures, which say that He acts beyond our wildest imaginations. If this is true, then we must have a faith that makes room for imagination so that we can begin to fathom just how big, just how good, just how glorious our God is.

This requires a couple of things. First, it requires that when we come upon anything in our faith that we labor to make sense of, that we make sense of it in two ways. We make sense of it in a way that is natural to us, a way that gels well with the way our hearts and minds and eyes naturally operate. This goes back to what we talked about yesterday, having an informed faith - a faith that comprehends what it believes.

But it also requires that we make sense of it in a way that we can't make sense of it. It requires that we confess that God exists beyond our imagination and that we labor to imagine what it might be like if God were to do it outside of what we can easily understand.

This is harder. It's the philosophical equivalent of saying, "Tell me something you're not thinking about right now." As soon as you answer, you refute yourself because as soon as you think of something you're not thinking about, you're thinking about it. In the same way, as soon as you imagine something beyond your imagination, you start to imagine it.

It makes God seem both bigger and nearer at the same time.

To be able to imagine in this way means that we have to be invested not only in the God that we know, but in the God that exists beyond what we know. We have to be so well-versed in His heart and His character and His goodness and His holiness that we can fathom something that He might do that is beyond what we would naturally understand without going so far as to become inconsistent with who He is.

In other words, we need an imagination in order to have a vital faith, but we cannot let our imagination run away with itself. We cannot let it go too wide. We have to use a solid understanding of God's very being to rein it in and to set boundaries for what we can dream.

For example, we should not be able to even imagine what it would mean if God were lying to us right now. God is truth; we know this about Him for certain. Therefore, He cannot possibly be lying to us. But it might take some imagination for us to understand how a particular truth weaves into the tapestry He's creating in our lives, which is His world.

Most of the troubles we have with God are not academic troubles, even for those of us prone to intellectualism as a theological error. Most of the troubles that we have with God are failures of imagination. We either don't have the ability to think of God beyond what our minds can comprehend of Him or else we think too widely and too broadly and end up somewhere outside of the very heart of who He is.

If we want a faith that is real, vital, and life-giving, we have to have a faith that imagines well. We have to risk saying that there is a God who makes sense outside of the sense that we are able to make of Him and to dream of what that might look like, sound like, smell like, be like, love like if that God were to act right now in accordance with who He is, even if I don't understand it.

And worst come to worst, we have to be able to say this and in the same breath confess that we're just not there yet, that we don't understand, that we can't, at least right now, fathom the mystery of God. And that's okay, too.

As long as we know it's still out there. It's still real. And vital. And life-giving. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Informed Faith

Faith - a real, vital, life-giving faith - is always prone to these kinds of distortions, to our own whims and intellects and ways of seeing the world. There's no way to have a faith that transcends these things, so our best guide is to become aware of how our unique perspective comes to shape our faith and to watch for the pitfalls of our limited eyes.

The reason that faith must be this way is because it must both be informed and do the informing. That is, it is shaped in us as much as it shapes us, and there is no other meaningful way to do it.

We shape our faith because we have to; it's how we come to understand it. We shape it when we understand something in a new way and make sense of it. The way we make sense of it is the shape that we give it. We have to be careful here, of course, because we can mis-shape our faith and distort it into something it was never meant to be, but we cannot escape that we must shape it somehow if we ever hope to make it meaningful and reasonable for our own lives.

Imagine someone handed you a tool and gave you a name for it, but you never learned how to use it or even what to use it for. Several years pass and a repairman comes to your house and asks if you happen to have this tool. Yes! Yes, you do have this tool! Great, he says. That'll fix your problem. But only if you know how to use it. If you never put it in your actual hands and actually used it, it has all the potential in the world to fix your problem, but it never will. The same is true of faith. Until you put it in your own hands and learn to use it in a way that makes sense for you, it has all the potential in the world, but it will never be real, vital, and life-giving for you. Someone will ask you one day if you believe, and you will say yes, but you will have never known how a real faith can impact your life because you will have never exercised it in a way that's powerful for you.

We understand by doing, by living, by experiencing, and that is how we shape our faith.

At the same time, our faith shapes us. At least, it should.

Our faith, once we figure it out, teaches us how to live. It teaches us how to love. It teaches us how to forgive. It teaches us how to worship and how to pray and how to extend mercy and grace to those around us. It teaches us how to be a friend, a spouse, a parent, a neighbor, a member of a community. Those of us who live by faith are constantly guided by its wisdom, and it does make us choose one thing over another, act one way as opposed to another.

Because when our faith is real, vital, and life-giving, it is nestled deep inside of us, and it radiates out from our deepest places. It can't help it. Then our entire life is invested in living with integrity, being true to this thing that is profoundly true in the depths of our being, this thing that has become so much a part of us that we could not ignore it or reject if it we tried. (And yet, for some reason, we still try.)

Imagine the same tool. You own it. You have one. The repairman tells you that this is the tool that you need to fix your problem. But you give him kind of a sideways look and say, "I have the tool, but it's not the kind of tool that I use." You still stand zero chance, then, of actually fixing your problem.

This is why it's so important for us to be aware of how the way that we see the world shapes the way that we hold our faith. It is because these things inform our faith and shape it, and our faith then informs and shapes us. If we don't know how our faith is being shaped, we will one day look in the mirror and not even recognize ourselves because we, too, will have been formed in an image we cannot understand.

And yet, if we inform our faith but do not let it inform us, it's empty. It doesn't do anything. It's not real, vital, or life-giving. It's something we have, something we know, and something we can articulate, but it's nothing we live by, and faith, by its very definition, is lived out. It is not merely something known or held or believed; it is something practiced.

So the question, then, is not whether your faith is susceptible to becoming a shallow, dead, empty, or dangerous theology; every faith is, by the nature of our being human. The question of vital importance for each one of us is in what way is your faith susceptible.

Only when we know this can we know how to pull ourselves back, in what direction to pray, and how to make sure that our theology remains real, vital, and life-giving.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Choose Again

None of us intends to have a shallow, deep, or poor theology; it just sort of happens, even when we know we're prone to it and can feel it creeping it. 

For example, I am one that is prone to intellectualism. I know this, and yet, it still happens. It doesn't take much for me to be reading and studying and worshiping devotionally, but then something about this God of ours or His Word or His heart or whatever strikes me, and I think, "That's interesting" or "That's cool" or "That's's so God." 

And then, all of a sudden, I'm out in search of other interesting, cool, and hilarious so God things I can discover, which means that I have placed God under a microscope rather than a stethoscope. I'm no longer interested in His character or His heart, but rather, I am interested in His facts and His presentation. 


Most of the time, this process is so subtle that I don't even know it's happening. It just sort of...oozes in without my noticing, usually because I am able to tell myself that I'm still investing my spirit in God, investing my soul in Him, that this is how I connect with Him the best. 

But it doesn't take long before my soul feels parched, my spirit weak and I realize that it's happened yet again. I've become more enamored with the idea of God than I have with the love of Him.

It takes a conscious decision to pull me back, and it's one that I have to make continuously until I get back into the habit of engaging God devotionally. I know I'm not alone in this, which is why I've chosen to be honest about it in this space. Most of us, if not all of us, struggle with this, and it makes us question not only our faith, but ourselves.

If we can't even do this God thing right, how are we supposed to anything right? If we can't be faithful and keep our perspective holy, how can we expect God ever to answer us? We don't deserve His answer. He's probably...and this is one of the tragic secrets of modern Christianity...extremely disappointed in us.

Do you feel that? An overwhelming number of Christians believe that God is eternally disappointed in them because they just can't "get it right;" you're not alone.

But I don't look at it that way, and that's also why I wanted to share this truth with you, in the hopes that it might encourage you in times like these when you're tempted to think that you've gotten it wrong...again and you're...never going to get it right and God is...always going to be disappointed in you.

When I go off-track, when I let my human proclivities take off on me, when I begin to approach God academically, totally in love with the idea of Him but dangerously disconnected from the heart of Him, it takes a conscious decision to pull me back. And this means that I get the blessed opportunity to choose God again.

And again and again and again and again and again.

Every time this happens, I get to rediscover who God is all over again, and I get to choose Him anew. I get to decide, again, to give my life to Him. I get to learn, again, that He is worth my sacrifice. I get to come face-to-face with all of these things that I've forgotten so easily, but yet seem so simple. And yes, I could probably beat myself up over that; enough of us do. But instead, I rejoice. Because it means a couple of things.

First, it means that I made the right choice the first time and that, given the opportunity to do it all over again, yes I would. How often do we get to say that in life? How often do we get the chance to affirm that we made the right decision about something major in our lives? Having to choose my faith again assures me that I would and I did and I will. I'm doing something right, and all it takes is for me to do it wrong to figure that out.

Second, it means that my faith is always new. It's always growing, always developing, always refreshing itself. It doesn't grow stale on me. It can't. It's got to be compelling and surprising and incredible enough to keep bringing me back, and that means that it's always got to have that ability to strike me in a new and powerful way. Every time I re-encounter God, I find what I always knew about Him...and I find something new, too. New mercy. New grace. New love. New word.

So yes, my faith gets off track sometimes, just like I'm guessing yours probably does. And maybe it'd be easy to chastise myself for that, to think less of me, to start to question things. But honestly? The only question I ever have is: how do I get back to it?

And I get to say yes all over again. I love that.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Limiting God

Throughout our history, men have been prone to one error or another regarding God, all of which keep us from forming a rich and deep theology. It began, of course, in the Garden, when Adam and Eve thought that perhaps God could not have meant exactly what He said and dared to eat the forbidden fruit and, well, we've had problems taking Him at His word ever since. 

Prior to the coming of science and the kind of academic inquiry that we are so used to in our own day, God was taken for granted. Human beings just naturally assumed - and believed - that God had everything to do with everything. This meant a couple of things. One is that human beings had very little or no responsibility for their own lives, since God was going to do whatever God was going to do anyway. A second, however, was that God was responsible for absolutely everything. 

But this, of course, raised questions. How could God do some of the things that were happening in the world? How could He ordain them to be this broken way? How could God decide to murder someone or rape someone or burn someone's house down? If God is responsible for everything, we cannot possibly develop a theology of His goodness because there is no pure goodness; it's always a mix of good and broken. So this kind of blind faith, this reckless attribution, keeps us from a solid theology of God. 

And then we moved into the age of scientific inquiry, where we became very sure that we could ask questions and investigate and come to a good conclusion about anything and everything. And if we couldn't, then whatever we were asking about must not be "real." So we started asking questions about God, digging into the past to uncover His presence and character and richness. And we found some very good evidences for God being who He says He is. 

But we also found that our scientific inquiry can only take us so far. There are some things about God we just can't cut open in a laboratory, some things we cannot possibly "study" in any academic sense of the word. So we were tempted to start to write these things off, and we did. And all of a sudden, we found ourselves with a God in whom there is no mystery - in whom there can be no mystery - and therefore, nothing supernatural. No sense of an "otherness" of God. Which keeps us, yet again, from developing a solid theology, for we cannot fathom and cannot accommodate anything about Him that is beyond our understanding or our knowing. 

Now, we have moved into a more relational existence in the postmodern world, where things are what they are based on their relation to other things and we seek to be in relationship with everyone and everything, so far as we can. And we've come to believe that perhaps God is here among us and perhaps He is a friend, someone we can know and trust and love and be with in a real and vital and powerful way.

But while God is a good friend today, He's not, like, a good friend. That is, we're pretty sure that He's the kind of friend that we've come to surround ourselves with on purpose - the kind of friend who pretty much agrees with everything we already believe, who doesn't dare speak anything even slightly controversial, who keeps it on the "down-low" and just sort of chills with us. You know, like a cool friend. And this, too, keeps us from developing a meaningful theology because God has no opinion about anything, no standards, no nothing. He's a "go with the flow" kind of God who doesn't ruffle any feathers and doesn't have an expectations and just likes, you know, being with us. 

It's a constant temptation, and it's one we've faced since almost the very beginning - this temptation to use what we know of the world to miss what we could possibly know about God because our knowledge is so limited, so finite. Because we let ourselves be boxed in by the vogue philosophies of the day. 

If we want to develop a rich, deep, life-giving theology of God, we have to break out of these molds and find a way to broaden our vision for Him, to expand our horizons, to open our hearts in new ways. Can we do it? We can. 

But it's not easy. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

Like a Servant

As tempting as it is to study in depth the character and nature of Laban from Genesis 24 to Genesis 28-31, there are other characters in these scenes that have perhaps much more to tell us about who we are and how we are to live, not in relationship to one another, but in relationship to our God.

One of the fundamental differences between these two scenes is the man with whom Laban is dealing. No, we're not talking about the difference between Eliezer (most likely) and Jacob; we are talking about the difference between a servant and a master.

Jacob was a master. He came to Laban on his own behalf, in search of his own wife, and fell in love with the object of his own affection. It's far easier to keep this man right where you want him because he's acting on his own account. Jacob was content to stay seven years, seven more years, seven more years because his beloved was where he was. Rachel was there. It was easy for Jacob to make this place home because he had there everything that he wanted; he was content. 

On the other hand, Eliezer was a servant. He came to Laban on behalf of his master, Abraham, and his future master, Isaac. He was on a mission, and there was nothing for him in the land of Laban. There was nothing that could convince him to stay, no matter how cunning Laban might have been, because his loyalty and his life were elsewhere. He was operating on behalf of someone else, someone not present, and so he already had his marching orders. He could not be contented in a land far away because his life was elsewhere and already firmly established. 

The importance of this cannot be overstated, particularly for those of us who are attempting to live a faithful life for the Lord. This world sometimes does a pretty good job of tempting us to stay, of drawing us into a certain place and telling us it's just fine there, of pulling us off-mission for its own sake (or simply for the sake of stopping us). 

We have to remember that we are servants, not masters, to avoid this trap. 

If we are masters, we're content just about anywhere. We take our lives with us, and they can be contented and fulfilled just about anywhere. It doesn't occur to us that this might not be our place because we have everything we want here. We set things up around us so that we're happy here. We travel with our households and everything in them, and there's nothing anywhere else that can call us away, call us back. At least, not right away. Not pressingly. It's easy to convince us to stay seven years, seven years, another seven years because we act on our own behalf; we're content wherever we are. 

But if we are servants, then we'll always be restless for home. Our lives? They're somewhere else, and they're already firmly established. We're on mission, and it's difficult to distract us from that because there's nothing here that can satisfy us. We already have our marching orders, and all the wonders and glories of this world can't change them. We're living and acting on behalf of someone else, and it is His purpose that is our purpose. It is His glory that is our glory. It is His story that is our story. So no matter what, you cannot convince us to stay, for we are a people on the move by our very nature, servants of the One who sent us in the first place. 

This is not the place to which we have come; it is the place to which we go. And we will always be working toward coming home. 

If you want to defend yourself against the wiles of this world, if you want to make sure that you don't fall into any traps, if you want to be impervious to the snake, it's really quite as simple as this: remember that you are a servant, not a master. 

You work for Him. 

And you've got places to go, things to do, people to see, so there's no reason at all for you to get stuck here. No matter what Laban says.