Thursday, August 22, 2019

Wisdom

A little question for you this morning regarding the Trinity: what is Wisdom?

Now, you might be thinking that's not a question about the Trinity. The Trinity is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and while all have wisdom, there's not really anything to talk about directly with wisdom and the Trinity. And maybe there's not. 

But maybe...

Because Wisdom is often personified in the Scriptures, especially in the Proverbs. She's talked about as a woman. And we're also told, in the Proverbs, that Wisdom was present at the creation of the universe. In other words, In the beginning, there was Wisdom. Capital-W. The person of Wisdom. 

This could raise a bit of a sticky situation if Wisdom is not Trinitarian as a person because it would imply that there is another being that is co-eternal with God, that was present before she was created, that simply...exists. It would make Wisdom a rival of God if we could say that in the beginning, there were two distinct persons - God and Wisdom. 

But we can't discount what the Scriptures say and try to declare either that Wisdom is not a person - the Scriptures clearly give her that kind of presence - or that Wisdom as a person wasn't really present at Creation - the Scriptures tell us this, too. 

Which means...Wisdom must be part of the Trinity. How, then, do we reconcile this? 

Let's start by saying that Wisdom cannot just be a characteristic of God; it's not that simple. There is no other characteristic of God that is personified in Scripture the way that Wisdom is, except for those words that are tied directly to the person of Jesus - Love, Light, Word. But when we talk about God's goodness, we never talk about Goodness; when we talk about His power, we never talk about Power. So we can't say that we're just talking about God's wisdom; we're talking about Wisdom. It's fundamentally different. It's up there with Love and Light and Word. 

If these are words we associate with Jesus, then it makes sense that there may be words we associate with other members of the Trinity. And there are. When we talk about God, we talk about Him as Father. There we are again - capital-F. God is not just like a father; it's not some characteristic He has. He is Father. 

This leaves us still with Wisdom, and I think maybe we then say that the way that God is Father and Jesus is Light (and Love and Word), perhaps the Holy Spirit is Wisdom. Jesus has already given a couple of other names to the Spirit - Helper, Comforter. Why not Wisdom? 

Honestly, if the Holy Spirit comes upon someone and they suddenly know without a doubt that Jesus Christ is Lord and God is Father, doesn't that seem like Wisdom? If the power of the Holy Spirit is to live the holy life, doesn't that require Wisdom? If the Holy Spirit is a friend closer than a brother, that guiding voice to help and guide you, isn't that Wisdom? 

The Holy Spirit is crying out in the streets....

I'm not presenting this as fact, just something to think about. It resolves the tension of how Wisdom could be present at the creation of the universe without rivaling God for eternity - if she is part of the Trinity of God. It gives us a place for this person that God clearly wants us to know and love - how could He lead us to something good that is not Him? He can't. Again, just something I'm thinking about, so thought I would share. Do with it what you will. But maybe the question is not, what is Wisdom, but Who?

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A Modern Heresy

Accusations of heresy fly around in Christian circles, less so today than in ages past, but they're still there. This week, I mentioned one of them. Today, I will make one of my own. 

There is a trend in today's Christianity, ranging from authors trying to write popular books to now even translations of the Bible (which claim to be painstaking works in accuracy), to swap out the word "blessed" in many of its appearances and in its place, put "happy." Last year, I read one such book; this year, I am reading one such translation of the Bible. A newer translation, meant to be written in "conversational English" so that everyone may understand the Scriptures as literally as possible in our own modern language. 

What this results in is a plethora of psalms that center on the happy person, rather than the blessed person. "Happy is he who...." 

No. 

I'm going to say it again: no. Happy and blessed are not interchangeable; they do not mean anything near the same thing. And the God that Christians have known and loved and worshiped for thousands of years has always been a God of blessing. 

Happiness is the state of having a positive reaction to your own life. It's something that wells up from inside of you in response to your experience of living. You can be happy all on your own; it doesn't require God. There are plenty of atheists, humanists, and members of other religions who prove this point. They're happy. Or at least, they think they are. 

Blessedness, on the other hand, requires the receipt of something. Someone else has to bless you; you can't do it yourself. In our Christian faith, that someone else is God. You cannot be blessed without Him. 

Take just one example of how this translation changes things. Psalm 1. "Happy is he who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked." Written this way, it implies that you will have a positive experience of life if you keep yourself from listening to wicked advice/suggestions/perspective. 

Traditionally, this verse has been translated, "Blessed is he who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked." Written this way, it promises that God will reward you if you keep yourself from listening to wicked advice/suggestions/perspective. 

Which is more consistent with God's character? Is God's primary concern that you live your best life by being happy doing it...or is He a God who wants to bless you? 

This matters. I don't understand how any argument can be made that "happy" is an appropriate translation for so many of these Scriptures, except to say that in a world that preaches a cheap Jesus who loves you and doesn't expect anything from you, perhaps your happiness is this cheap God's primary concern. But that's not a God worthy of worship. 

Even if you could show that the original Hebrew had a context of happiness for the root word, you'd have to also confess that happiness meant something different to the Hebrew people than it does to the modern American audience. They had a worldview that centered on God; everything they lived and breathed came from God. Everything originated in Him. So their "happiness" would have been in relishing the love that God poured out on them, not on merely having a positive experience of their lives. But modern English readers don't get that; we have a different worldview. And that makes the use of the word "happy" here misleading. Yes, even heretical. To the reader with no ability to discern the historical understanding - which is most readers - it implies that God cares deeply about you living a happy life. 

Honestly, friends, I'd rather be blessed. 

So there is heresy in our world, and sadly, when it comes to real heresy, most Christians aren't calling it out. Most are getting on board with it because it poses as a way to bring more into the faith, to open the doors wide so that the masses can come through them. Making God accessible to the modern conscience, making Him enticing to the modern heart. But we lose something essential in the process. Maybe that's why Jesus said the road is narrow. 

Don't settle for being happy. Happy is good, it's great. God rejoices when you are happy. But He wants so much more for you. He wants to bless you. And the heart leaps with joy when it is blessed. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Who Is My Brother?

When we talk about what someone has to believe in order to have our fellowship as brothers and sisters, what we're essentially saying is what defines a Christian. Who is a Christian? Who is my brother? And that can very quickly become a slippery slope. 

Again, what is essential? 

Do intent and earnestness matter? In other words, if someone truly believes himself to be a Christian and is doing his best to live and love accordingly...but is still getting it wrong...is it okay for us to say that he's not really a Christian? To excommunicate him? To cast him out of our assembly? If that's the case, then that's bad news for all of us because there's not a single one of us getting it completely right. 

In the philosophy class that I used to facilitate, we often talked about deism - the belief that there is a God, but He's more of a clock maker, putting all of the parts together and setting it in motion, then stepping back and letting it run on its own. What we discovered in looking at this was that many of the Founding Fathers of America were actually deists, not theists (what we would typically call Christians - believers in an active, involved, intervening God). So we would then ask the question: is America, then, a Christian nation? Was it ever? 

Often, the students would say that America could not have been a Christian nation because the Founding Fathers were deists, not Christians.

Okay, but what if the Founding Fathers thought they were Christians? What if that's what their Christian faith looked like to them? We can look back at what they believed and say that they were deists, but what if they thought they were theists? What if they were doing the best that they could and truly believed they were Christians acting Christianly and had Christian intents in mind, despite their beliefs not being quite fully theist? 

In other words, could America be a Christian nation if the Founding Fathers were trying to make it a Christian nation but were just getting it a little bit wrong? Is it less a Christian nation because their faith wasn't fully formed in certain ways? Because we do not judge them to be "true" Christians, even if they thought they were? 

It's tough. Do you get that? It's really tough. On one hand, we have to absolutely draw a line against heresy, as the church has had to do throughout its history. But on the other hand, we can't just throw out everyone who's not getting it right. There'd be no one left. Who among us would remain as a Christian if the standard were something more than earnestness and intent? 

So back to the issue we were looking at yesterday that kind of sparked all of this - is this church in question not a Christian church because they teach something that other churches disagree with or even call heresy? Do they believe themselves to be Christian? Are they attempting to live faithful to the Gospel as they understand it? Or are they attempting to change the Gospel to be something they want it to be for their own purposes?

The truth is...most of us are earnest in our efforts to be Christian. We are. Most of us are doing the best that we can, and we're trying to get it right. We're trying to live a life of faith as we understand it, taking God at His Word as we know it. We absolutely have to take a stand against heresy, but there's a difference between heresy and interpretation. Most of us are getting it wrong one way or another, somehow. Not one of us is in perfect faith. If the standard is getting it right, then we're all out. We're all heretics.  

That's why I love so deeply my Restoration Movement heritage that asks only one question of anyone who would be our brother or sister: do we agree on the essentials? That God, the Father, created the world in Triune fellowship with the Son and the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is the Son of God, fully man and fully Lord, who came, lived, died, and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins, that the Holy Spirit dwells in us and among us as Counselor and Friend, leading us onward to that Promised day when we will dwell with Him again? These are the essentials - that God is God and we are not, that He is who He says He is and who His Word reveals Him to be, that He is love and we are, too. Do we agree on the essentials?

Then on the non-essentials, let us say: love you, brother. Love you, sister. And then, let's talk about things and see if we can't, together, come to a place where we're both getting it a little more right. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Controversy in the Church

Recently, I stumbled across a series of articles from various pastors defending their decision not to use a specific worship group's songs in their churches. And apparently, it's a thing. But why? 

Without exception, every article that I read confessed that there was not a problem with the songs themselves. The lyrics were biblical, God-fearing, and edifying for the Christian faith. In fact, they are uplifting and beautiful and very well done. The problem was that the pastors writing about this issue have a problem with the teachings of the church that produces the worship music, so they believed that buying the rights to use the music themselves in their own churches would fund what they said falls nothing short of heresy. They could not, they said, in good conscience give their money to a church that preaches such things and leads well-meaning Christians astray from the Gospel. 

So they turn their backs on popular worship that they themselves confess glorifies God because they are concerned about what the rest of the worshiping church is doing. 

On one hand, this is an absolutely critical stance to take. We should not provide funding for any operation that turns persons away from the true, living, loving God that we serve and worship. We should not be part of promoting heresy in any of its forms. We should absolutely be discerning about what we choose to support, even indirectly, because these things absolutely matter. This is true when it comes to worship music that we may or may not use in our churches. It is also true of books we may or may not read, podcasts we may or may not listen to, sermons we may or may not stream, and many more. Movies, television, everything is on the table when we start talking about this. 

On the other hand, we have to be extremely careful in how we go about this. For a couple of reasons.

First, we have to confess plainly and humbly that none of us are getting it 100% right. None of us. There is some form of heresy creeping into every church in America, whether we institutionalize it or not. There are popular preachers preaching it every Sunday in front of their mega-churches; there are rural preachers using it to try to get a few more numbers in the pews. It is extremely easy for us to tailor the Word to our needs without realizing it and end up changing the God that we're preaching for the sake of the persons we're preaching Him to. That's heresy. It's the prosperity Gospel. It's the limited Gospel - the one that ignores uncomfortable topics. There are churches that don't even preach the Gospel any more, but rather jump from one series to another about "how to live" and hits hot topic after hot topic but never touches on Jesus, except perhaps on Easter, when He's cute and convenient. If we refuse to support churches we don't think are getting it right, we turn our back on every brother and sister because none of us are getting it right. And we may start to develop an arrogance about us, thinking that perhaps we're the only ones who are (which inherently makes us among those who are not). 

Second, we have to remember what is Gospel and what is not. This was the problem of the Pharisees. They had elevated their interpretations and ideas to the level of God's interpretations and ideas and were trying to enforce them among the people as the same type of authority. 

Everything I've read about this controversy comes back not to an issue of Gospel, but one of interpretation. The issue that these pastors are so upset about, what they're so upset that this worshiping church is teaching, is not an issue taken clearly from the Scriptures. Rather, it is an idea that goes against what "the church" has "decided" about an "issue" in the post-Apostolic period.

Specifically, the issue is this: the church in question teaches the supernatural power of God as available to His people - to heal sickness, to cast out demons, to make the blind see and the lame walk and the deaf hear. (How this church goes about this and the emphasis they place on the idea may be a real issue, but the heart of the matter for these objecting pastors is that they teach this at all.) And many hundreds of years ago, the church decided that God no longer does this through His people, that it was a gift only for the apostles while they were trying to get the early church off the ground. We, as a Christian people, have decided that that era of God has passed, so this church should not be believing it or teaching it. 

And yet, there are plenty of churches - not just this one - that do. It would be worthwhile to ask here why we get so upset about a church who is believing God for more than we believe Him for, but maybe that's a distraction. The point is - this isn't a Scriptural issue; it's an interpretation issue. It's what we've decided about how to understand something about God, likely because we aren't experiencing it any more. But is our experience of something the determinant of what is true about God? 

These are dangerous waters we tread. The songs coming out of this church movement are popular songs. They are being played on Christian radio all over the country. Christians are hearing them and worshiping with them. And even those who won't play them in their own churches confess they are good, biblical songs. But they're drawing a line. 

Any time we draw lines, we have to know why we're doing it. And it better be for a good reason. 

Because at the end of the day, what these pastors are really saying about this church is that it isn't really a Christian church. The worshipers there aren't really Christians. The preachers aren't really preachers, the pastors aren't pastors. All because they disagree over a certain teaching. All because of the way they teach something that most other churches don't teach.

Is it heresy? Maybe. But maybe we're heretics, too. Especially when we start talking about how our interpretations ought to define Christendom itself.

Listen - I'm not defending the church in question or its teachings. Neither am I condemning them. I come from a Restoration Movement background, which emphasizes unity on the essentials and love on everything else. So the question I'm asking is - is this an essential? Is this a defining essential? Is it absolutely necessary for every Christian to believe this way in order to believe authentically in God? 

More tomorrow. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Prepared for Battle

Think for a moment about the battles that the Lord called His people to fight in the Scriptures. The weapons they used are as diverse as the enemies they took on, everything from clay pots to swords to a sling and a few stones. When we think about the weapons of the people of Israel, they are primitive, but they are also big, bulky, and demanding of a certain physical strength to utilize. 

Interesting, then, that the Psalmist talks about fingers being prepare for warfare (Psalm 144). 

Fingers. 

Certainly, there were a number of weapons for young Israel where fingers would have played an important part. Particularly, we're thinking here about slingshots and bows, weapons where the fingers are used in delicate strength to take perfect aim. In other words, God's concern in warfare was that you knew your target and were prepared to go directly for it without a lot of collateral damage. 

This passage struck me recently as I read through the Scripture, though, for another, more contemporary reason: the warfare of ideas. 

"Keyboard warriors," as they are called, take a lot of flak in our culture. We talk about them for their lack of dexterity and skill, if nothing else. It takes almost nothing for anyone to sit behind a computer screen and type up something that takes aim at a particular issue or idea, to say something he or she would not be as willing to say in person, to put on a false bravado and pretend to be righteous and just when often, their stance is no such thing. 

And I wonder what it would be like if we, who depend so heavily upon our fingers to do our fighting these days, would have fingers prepared for warfare. Not just for dropping bombs into the wide open spaces of social media and the Internet, but real, engaged warfare. Where we use our words and ideas to directly counter falsehood and depravity in our world. Where, instead of declaring with false bravado what we believe to be right, we were able to deconstruct what we know to be wrong in light of truth and shed new insight on some issues...with love and grace. 

It's tough. The world wants to tell us that it's not just tough, it's impossible. Because in a world built entirely on ideas, no one cares. You aren't ever going to change any minds. You aren't ever going to introduce any new arguments. You aren't going to get there, so everything you do is a waste of your breath. 

Maybe that's right. But maybe it's not. Every issue that I've ever sought to directly engage through my fingers has ended up in an interesting place - a place where we realize that we agree on more than we disagree on, that we have more in common than we ever thought, that even the most divisive issue doesn't tear us apart as wholly as the world wants to convince us that it has to. 

And isn't that a victory in and of itself? If all we ever learn is that we're more alike than we are different? If we discover that we actually want so many of the same things, even if we don't agree on how to get them? 

More than ever, we need fingers prepared for battle. Not for shouting and screaming and indiscriminate ranting and raving, but for real warfare - for direct engagement. Using delicate strength to take perfect aim at the issues of our day. Real issues that are real life and real death and real truth for real human beings in our real communities. 

Think about it. 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Peace of Jerusalem

The psalmist writes to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Psalm 122), which seems a strange bit of a prayer, doesn't it?

After all, Jerusalem was "home" for so many of those who would be considered persons of prayer. This was the place where many of those who would pray to the Lord lived and worked, loved and worshiped. This was the place where God dwelt among them in His Temple. In fact, everywhere you looked around Jerusalem, you'd be reminded of Israel's God, of the Lord who loves His people and brought them to this good place to settle. You'd be reminded of His praise. And you'd be just steps away from His covenant in the Ark and His throne of mercy. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem...but look at this place! It's literally teeming with God already. Who would ever need to pray for it? 

It's the same kind of logic that keeps most of us from praying for our churches. And our families. And in many cases, our communities. 

After all, this is the place that we, as the faithful, live and work, love and worship. Our lives are marked by the activities of God that we invest them in, and our churches are the places where our God dwells in our community. These places already have God - why on earth would we ever need to pray for them? 

Don't you know there are starving children in Africa? Homeless children in central America? Tribes in the South Pacific who have never even heard of God? These are the places that need our prayers, not our homes, not our churches, not our communities. 

And yet, pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Can you imagine how much more our churches could be doing in our communities if we were praying for them? Can you imagine how much more our families could be doing for others if we were praying for us? Can you imagine how much easier life would be if we covered our day-to-day in prayer, knowing that God is already in it but seeking even more of Him? His active presence among us? 

What if we lived prayerfully expecting the benefits of God in our lives and not just His address somewhere nearby? What if it wasn't enough for us to know where to find God in our world but if we actively invited Him into our most intimate places? 

What if we prayed unceasingly for our church to be His church? 

Jerusalem seems like an odd place to pray for if you're living there and you know how near the presence of God already is. But when He draws nearer still as a result of our prayer, it doesn't seem odd at all. 

Rather, it seems...faithful. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, that place where you live and work, love and worship. Where you already know where to find God, pray for God to find you there, too. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Teach Me

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in all of Scripture. It's an acrostic psalm, meaning that it follows the Hebrew alphabet in the way that it is written, the way that you might have written a poem for Mother's Day using the word "M-O-T-H-E-R" as a starting point for each line. And it's easy to get lost in this Psalm, the way it just goes on and on and on. What is the Psalmist talking about? What is the point?

But if you take it slowly, look line by line, read it carefully, you'll see that the entire Psalm boils down to simply two things: Teach me, Lord because I love Your Word

That's it. That's all there is to it. Over and over and over again, the psalmist asks the Lord to teach him, to instruct him, to remind him, to guide him. How many ways can you ask the Lord to teach you? The psalmist seems not to run out of them. 

Yet we struggle to grasp even one. 

Think about it - when was the last time you asked God to teach you something? If you're anything like a lot of us, you once asked the Lord to teach you patience and He put you in a spot where you had nothing to do but wait...and you decided never to ask Him to teach you anything ever again. Not if He's going to require you to actually do the thing you're trying to learn because He gives you no other option but to do it. 

Or maybe you think that you already know everything about God that you need to know, so there's not really anything for Him to teach you. You know He is good. You know He is gracious. You know He is love. Isn't that all there is to it? Anything else would be extra credit, bonus material. It's not necessary for your faith; you believe already. If you believe, you don't need to know anything else that would make you believe; it seems entirely unnecessary. So no need to ask for Him to teach you anything. 

Or maybe you think that you should probably know more about God, but you're embarrassed or ashamed that you don't know it already. You don't want to ask Him to teach you because you don't want Him to know that you don't already know it or don't already believe it. You don't want to confess there are things about Him you don't understand. Maybe you even think, perhaps because you've been taught somewhere, that you aren't supposed to understand God. That your faith is supposed to be a leap based on a mystery and asking for anything more certain than that is actually a lack of faith. It shows your weakness. So you're ashamed to ask for more because you've been told that you shouldn't need it.

There are a lot of reasons we don't ask God to teach us anything any more, but the Psalmist shows us plainly how faithful such a request can be. He spends the longest chapter of the entire Bible pleading with God to teach Him - not because he is ignorant, not because he is weak, not because he is uncertain...but because he loves the Word that much. He wants God to teach him as much as He possibly can because he loves God so deeply that he wants to know everything God is willing to share with him. 

Think about that for a second. The palmist loves God so much already, yet he pleads with God to teach him so that he can love Him more. 

That's faith.

That's the way this whole thing is supposed to work. That's the Christian life. That's the holy life. That's the righteous life. 

Teach me, Lord, for I am already so in love with You that I cannot wait to learn more. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Glory

One of the things that is absolutely true about God is His glory. On one level, we know this, and we think about it when we see it reflected in the natural world around us - the majestic mountains towering over the horizon, the brilliant colors of the sunrise, the soaring wings of the eagle. Even, perhaps, when we hear beautiful music of worship and praise do we think about God's glory.

But when do we pray about it? 

Or rather, when do we pray for it?

In Psalm 115, the psalmist prays for God's glory, saying, "Not to us, but to your name bring glory." Read that again: not to us, but to Your name bring glory. 

This is a lost prayer in our modern worship. In a time and place that emphasizes the individual, that tells us that our faith is all about us, that pounds into us that what we believe is about us and nothing more, that tells us that Jesus loves uniquely us and it's all about what we do with Him in private...we aren't praying for God's glory to be anywhere but in us. We aren't praying for Him to be glorious. 

More often than not, what we pray for God's glory is that He would make us glorious. Make us beautiful and wonderful and famous and successful and secure and lovely and, sure, I guess, loving. Make us majestic and brilliant, with the ability to soar. God, we know about Your glory, so make us glorious. 

And then we close our eyes to the mountains, to the sunrise, to the soaring wings of eagles. Most of us don't even see them any more. They blend into our daily commute, blend into our backgrounds, blend into our plans. The only place we're looking for glory is in the mirror, and if we don't see it there (and we often don't, for who among us is ever satisfied wholly with who we are?), then we start to wonder if God loves us at all or if He even is glorious. 

Think about what it would change if it were God's glory we desired to see. If it was His best we were after. If we developed a vision for His greatness in the world. If we stopped looking in the mirror to see Him in ourselves and started looking around to see Him in His world. Think about what it would change if, when we prayed for glory, it was God's glory we prayed for. For His sake. For His name.

No one ever became a Christian because you are such a good one. Anyone who has ever come to Christ has come for the glory of God in His own name, not yours. If we want to transform the world, we have to put a proper emphasis back on glory, for His name's sake, so that the watching world would see Him, not us. Would come to Him, not us. So that we would come to Him. 

This Christian life we live, it's about Him. It always has been. Even in a time when the world tries to tell us that it's all about us. It's not. It never was. 

So not to us, but to Your name bring glory, Lord. For we long to see it, to know it, to witness it in our world, that the world may see and know that You are God and You are good...and You are glorious. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Standing in the Breach

When you think about Moses, what readily comes to mind? The burning bush, probably. Maybe the basket of reeds in which he floated down the Nile as an infant. You probably think about the man who stood before Pharaoh with God's Word, who brought upon Egypt a number of plagues by his obedience to God. Maybe you think about the steadfast leader who blazed a path through the wilderness for Israel, who took them from one place to another to another, always with the Promised Land in mind. 

Any or all of these would be a good way to remember Moses, to think of him when he comes to mind. But there is something essential missing from this remembrance, something so vital to the nature of who Moses was and what He did for Israel that it's actually the biggest thing the Psalmist - an Israelite who owed his own history to this man - recalls about Moses:

He stood in the breach between men and God, and in doing so, he turned away the Lord's wrath. (Psalm 106)

Actually, when you start to think about this, it's easy to see what it is that we don't often easily remember about him. It's easy to see all the times that Moses climbed the mountain, all the times he pleaded with God for mercy, all the times he stood between a rock and a hard place (yes, even literally). When things weren't going well in the camp, it was Moses who went to the Lord and prayed for better. When a plague hit, it was Moses who asked the Lord what the answer was...and then commissioned the snake from the bronze. When Israel was hungry, it was Moses who relayed the message to the Lord; when they were thirsty, it was he who struck the rock (though this is probably a bad example, given how that turned out). 

The point is that when the Psalmist writes and remembers Moses, this is what he remembers of him - a man who stood in the gap between human beings and the Lord our God and facilitated faithfulness and mercy, respectively. 

And if that's all we ever remembered of Moses, wouldn't that be enough?

Honestly, we need more men like Moses in our world. We need more human beings this bold, this confident, this sure. We need more persons willing to stand in the gap. 

Most of us look at our pastors, our ministers, our mentors and we can talk about their backstory a little, just like we can about Moses floating down the river in a basket. We can talk about their mountaintop moments, like Moses and the burning bush. We can talk about some of the difficult terrain they've walked through, either personally or corporately as leaders in worship, just as we can about the wilderness. We can talk about their steadfast vision for the promises of God, just as Moses kept his eyes on the Promised Land. 

But for a lot of us, we don't have anyone in our lives that we can talk about who stood in the breach for us. We don't have anyone we can point to who took it straight to God for us. We don't have an example of anyone willing to negotiate mercy on our behalf, prod us further toward faithfulness in response. Nobody's building a bronze snake for us any more. 

And neither are we for anyone else. 

Sure, we could say that we don't need any of that any more, that that's what Jesus does for us. All we need is a little Jesus, right? But the truth is that we still need these kinds of mediators in our lives, in our faith. We still need this kind of boldness and confident assurance. We need this kind of passion and prayerfulness. 

We all need someone who will climb mountains for us, to stand in the gap between men and God. 

And as Christians, we all ought to be that person for someone else. 

Which leaves us today with these questions: when was the last time someone stood in the breach for you? When was the last time you stood in the breach for someone else? What greater thing could you possible do for someone? What greater thing could they possibly do for you? 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Consistency

It's easy to think that if I have such firm ideas about how I should live, then even if I'm not a bigot, I'm probably something far worse - I'm probably arrogant. I probably think I know everything and have everything right and that if the whole world would just live like I'm living, it would be a better place. 

But that wouldn't be true of me, either.

It doesn't do any good to try to tell someone else how to act if he or she doesn't have a fundamental belief that drives that behavior. You have to know why you're doing what you're doing, and it has to be something more than "That's what everyone expects of me." If you don't believe in it, it's easy to do something else entirely.

What I'm all about, what hallmarks my own journey and what I long for for others, is consistency. Live what you claim to believe. Live like it's true. Live every day, every moment, by the principles that you espouse. If you say you're something, be that. Whatever it is. 

We live in a world that says one thing and lives something else, that claims a truth and then lives in opposition to it. We think it's idealism - that what we believe is just beyond reasonable, that we'd like to live as though it's true but in the real world, it's just not. That there's too much crime, brokenness, entitlement, mental illness, whatever around us to live like we want to live; we have to be smart about it and know what's safe. Sure, we believe in bigger things, but we're surrounded by lesser. 

This world, we insist, is dragging us down. We have no choice but to be hypocrites. 

It's a justification, and for a lot of us, it's enough. But put it to the test, and it doesn't really work. The real problem with a lot of our ideas isn't that they don't work in this world; it's that they don't work, period. We say, for example, that what's true for you is true for you and what's true for me is true for me, but the reality of that is that if we disagree, you'll call me a moron and a bigot and a hater and much worse. Because what's true for you is so true for you that you can't fathom that it might not be true for me. Unless, of course, I am actually a moron. 

We see this all the time. Everyone wants us to let them believe what they want to believe, but then they get upset if we don't believe the same thing. So we're stuck in this place where even what we claim to believe about believing is put to the test...and fails. We just can't do it. And if what we believe about believing doesn't work, what hope is there for the things we actually believe? 

I really don't care what you believe. I don't. I'm not someone who is out to convince you to believe what I believe or to cause you to question what you believe. I don't think that I'm right and you're wrong; in fact, I know that there are a lot of things that I'm wrong about. I haven't ruled out the possibility that this is one of them.  

But consistency gets us around this. Because when you choose to live like you actually believe what you claim to believe, you discover whether or not it really works. If it works, great. That's something that might be worth believing. But if it doesn't work, you have to re-examine it. You have to take another look. You have to tweak it and see how it goes. 

And now, we all get closer to better things. We are able to throw away what doesn't work. We are able to modify it. To reconsider it. To improve upon it. To get closer and closer to a place where what we believe is actually livable, and if it's livable, then maybe it's valuable and meaningful. If it wasn't, you wouldn't want to live it; it wouldn't be working. I don't have to tell you what to believe or not to believe; if you live it out and it doesn't give you the life that you think that it should, then you shouldn't believe it any more. Plain and simple. 

If you can't live it, you shouldn't claim to live by it. It's killing you. 

So believe what you believe. Try it on. Live it out. Believe something different. Give it a go. Keep trying, keep believing, keep living until you've got something you can be consistent with - something you can say and live that makes the world a better place, that makes your life something worth living. 

Truth rises to the top and anything less is cast aside by its own failures, its inability to live up to its promises.

Do this, and what we'll likely discover is that we're closer to one another than we ever thought we were. There are some fundamental things we do just agree on...they just may not be the things that we think they are. 

Thursday, August 8, 2019

In the Image of God

Yesterday, I said that I hold as a core value that all persons are created in the image of God and therefore have something to teach me about the image of God if I am willing to pay attention. This kind of no-preconceived-notions, no-pre-judgments mentality often makes me come across as naive. How can you ever meet someone and not assume at least something about him or her? 

Well, you have to see through the eyes of God. 

As I spoke about this in an ministry interview once, I could see the disbelief growing on the faces across the room. They figured I was just foolish, at best. Speaking in ideals, but not being honest with myself. Or perhaps I was naive. Or maybe I was just not a person prone to paying attention or to recognizing the things that are "most important" about others. Maybe I just wasn't really a "people person."

So to test this, the interviewers posed this question: "So wait - how would you interact with a 68-year-old, African-American male homosexual?" 

To them, they had just nailed me - they had identified a type of person they thought to be completely opposite of the one they saw sitting in front of them. How would you interact with someone radically different than you? 

Without missing a beat, I responded: "That depends. What do I know about him?"

They rolled their eyes. They had just told me everything I needed to know about him, they said. They had given me several categories by which to form an opinion of him and understand what is important and valuable to him. 

But my theology doesn't permit me such carelessness. My theology says that this man gets to tell me what his experience of the world is; his categories and demographics do not. 

To my interviewers, it meant something that this man was older than me - more than twice my age. I ought to make assumptions about what he's seen, the kind of ethic he grew up with, the kind of life he's lived as a member of a certain generation. He would have come of age during the Vietnam War, would have remembered the moon landing and perhaps the assassination of JFK. He would have been alive during the Civil Rights struggle. 

His race should tell me that I know nothing at all about his world, and I should start there and then assume why that should be. He would have been subject to prejudice, probably even discrimination. Those events that he lived through would have meant something different to him - he would have had more hopes and dreams wrapped up in them than I would have, simply by nature of our skin color. I could not pretend to know anything about poverty or segregation or the like; he would be the expert. 

As a male, he has different eyes for the world than I do. He has seen it from a more dominant position, ironic in consideration of his race that would have run counter to that. He has seen it through increased expectations and social norms for what a man is - a provider, a breadwinner, a father. All things I could never know the way he knows. 

And as a homosexual, he would have had to fight for love in a way that I probably never will. He will have been stigmatized here, too. Rejected. Persecuted. He may have been the target of hate crimes, may  have questioned himself. He might have a terrible disease or at least be accused of it even if he doesn't. 

The truth is - I can rattle all of this off with the best of them, but that doesn't mean that any of it is necessarily true for him or meaningful for him. I can recognize the potential differences of experience between us, but the way that the world operates on these things, I should not ask him about any of them. That's right - the expectation in that interview was that I would be able to make these assumptions and move forward on their truth and validity without ever stopping to ask him whether they were true or valid for him. 

The truth is - maybe that's his experience and maybe it's not. Maybe it's meaningful for him and maybe it's not. For me, these are potential starting points for conversation, but to the world, they are end games meant to keep me from ever thinking that I have any hope of truly connecting with him. Because he's "so different" from me. To the world, I'm just supposed to know all of this, to know what his life has meant to him, without asking. Only then do I demonstrate myself as "socially aware" and "sensitive." 

See, the world's starting point is that we are irreconcilably different from one another. We can never possibly understand what someone else's experience is. The best that we can hope for is that we understand that we can never understand, that we confess that we're just too different. And the world tells us the best solution to this is to lump everyone together in the ways they are different than us and assume we know what that means...for all of them. Because every member of any "group" has exactly the same experience of things. (Do you see the logical flaw here? We're all different, but "they" are all the same.)

I don't buy it. I think the best way for us to be "socially aware" is to have conversations with our neighbors, whoever they are. It's to talk with one another and give each other the chance to define our own experience. What has your life meant to you? What is valuable? What is not? What do you want me to keep in mind when I talk with you, when I walk with you? What's important to you? How have you experienced things?  Your experience is yours, not "theirs." You are a you, not a them. 

You are a human being created in the image of God, and that already means that we have more in common than we will ever have different. Ever. It's the starting point for every conversation we're ever going to have, every interaction, every step of this journey we're on together. 

When I let you tell me the important things about you, rather than just assuming them, then I get to know who you really are, not what the world wants me to think about you.

And when I get to know who you really are, I get to know something about who God really is. The same God who made us both, whose image is reflected in you. Not in your demographics or your categories or your stereotypes, but in you, in your actual life and heart and love. You teach me something about God by being a you, not a them. By us becoming a we. 

So I'll ask again. How would I interact with a 68-year-old, African-American male homosexual? 

That depends. What do I know about him? 

(I didn't get the job. They called me "naive" and said I must really be ignorant if I didn't even see myself as a 30-something, white, straight female. I shook my head and said, "Brother, if that's what you see of me, then you have missed me entirely.") 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

A Theology

One of the challenges that I face in ministry and, indeed, in life, is that there are just some things about God, about the world, about humanity, about persons that I believe. These are non-negotiables for me, and they make up the core of my theology. Often, I have had conversations that tend to go something like this:

--- 

I have what you would probably call a conservative theology.

Oh, so you're a bigot.

No. Not at all. When I say that I have a conservative theology, what I mean is that...

You're a bigot.

Again, no. Please do not confuse theology with politics. They are two fundamentally very different things. A conservative theology means that I embrace...

Bigotry.

...a biblical view of Jesus, rather than a cultural view of Him. I recognize the ways in which the Jesus of the Scriptures is a dynamic God-man, a full human being with a wide range of emotions and responses and experiences, and I refuse to diminish the God that I see in the Scriptures to merely what our culture is willing to accept of Him or how they have twisted what He intended to be. It means I love fiercely the way that Jesus loved, and that I define that love the way that Jesus did, not the way that culture does. 

So you're a bigot. What if I forced you to interact with a homosexual? How would you handle that?

Exactly the way I handle everything else - the way that I believe Jesus would, to the best of my ability. And that means...

Like a bigot.

---

I promise I am not making this up. And often, this is a conversation I am having with Christians, not with the world. We live in a time that can't imagine the full depth of Jesus and has so caricatured Him that they don't even know who He is any more. If you say you have a conservative view of Jesus and that you hold to a Scriptural understanding of Him, you're lumped in with the political conservatives who invest their lives in legislating morality, which wasn't very Jesus-like at all. On the other hand, our culture is too willing to diminish Him and declare that He was a man of pure love with no standards; He doesn't require anything of you, just loves you with a blanket affirmation of exactly who you are today, turning Him into a man of liberal politics. That's not biblical, either.

Fairly recently, I wrote a bit of what was called a treatise by others on Facebook, in response to a local news station continually reporting a protest scheduled to take place by those disappointed that a Christian school wasn't adhering to the "Christian value of acceptance." Which sounds like, "Gotcha, you hypocrites," but honestly? Acceptance has never been a Christian value. There is no one in all of Scripture that God encounters and decides to leave just as He found them; He wants more for everyone, including you and me. He wants us to grow. He wants us to develop. He wants us to get better every day, more and more sanctified, more and more holy. That's the aim of the Christian life. So to say that Christians ought to be accepting is false, at least the way the world uses the word - which implies a blanket affirmation. We ought to be embracing, welcoming, encouraging - yes. Absolutely. We can't draw lines about who is welcome and who is not. But accepting? Nope. We should never be willing to leave anyone exactly as they are. 

We ought to desire wholeness and fullness of life for each and every person we encounter, just the same way that God does. 

What my "conservative theology" really means is that I'm not swayed by the cultural winds of this world. I believe there is a way to navigate tricky terrain and murky waters with grace, with authority, with truth, and with love. I know there is because Jesus set an example of just how it's done. I believe we don't have to bow or bend to the world's interpretation of anyone; we can interpret the world through God's eyes and see more if it than it can ever even imagine of itself. I believe I am called to invest myself in the place I've been given and the persons in my community in a way that builds us up toward holiness and that there's not room for me to try separating wheat from chaff; that's not my job. 

What my "conservative theology" really means is not that I'm super-busy judging the world, but that I'm super-busy judging myself and the way that I live in accordance with what I believe...and the ways that I fail to live up to that. I'm constantly looking at the Example that I've been given and trying to do better, not by the world's standards, but by the Father's. And that's enough for me. 

To the question that always comes up - well, what if you "make" me interact with a homosexual? First, you don't "make" me interact with anyone; all are welcome here. I don't care who you are, you are welcome here. But second, that rests on another fundamental idea in my "conservative theology" - I believe that everyone is made in the image of God and that means that every one - every single person on this planet - has something to teach me about God. Saint or sinner, black or white, gay or straight, left or right, poor or rich, religious or not, winning or losing, fighting or fleeing, happy or sad, sure or uncertain - if I am willing to listen, I will learn something about God. Every time. 

That's what I think Jesus was about. We learn so much from the persons in the Bible who would have been too easy to write off for whatever reason. The Pharisees wanted to condemn them, the communities wanted to cast them out, the people tried to shun them, but Jesus engages with them and we learn something. We have so very much to learn. 

So that's what I'm holding to. That's what a "conservative theology" means to me. It means I have the example - the full, dynamic example - and I don't need the politics or the interpretations or the pressures or anything else. No need to complicate things, no need to make it harder than it already is. 

Does that make me a bigot? Not at all. Am I still going to get called one? Absolutely. Because the world can't fathom this kind of love. They say it's impossible. They say it's naive. They say it's an illusion. I am, after all, human. 

But I'm trying to do better. 

Because Jesus did better. And He shows us how. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Benefits of God

What is the benefit of being God's child? What does it "get" you? 

A lot of Christians would say, well, that's easy - it gets me eternity. It gets me a home forever in Heaven, a new life after this one is over. A chance to live in glory forever with all of those I have ever loved and who have loved God. A chance to walk with the saints. (Notice how easy it is to paint a wonderful picture of the next life as we have come to fathom it...and not even mention that the Lord Himself will also be there. That should trouble you.) 

That's what a lot of us would say, but just as many of us live as though a life with God is supposed to be pain-free living. It's supposed to be perfect. It's supposed to be nice and safe and without the same troubles that everyone else faces. In fact, this is one of the reasons persons leave the faith so easily - they have this expectation of what God "gets" them, and those of us who have lived it for any length of time know that this just isn't the case. 

And yet, the answer cannot also be "nothing." We cannot let ourselves believe, as the world would tell us, that there is really no benefit at all to faith. That believing in this God over any other or over no god at all is fundamentally no different than what we haven't chosen. That we all basically live the same life and then die the same death and the only difference "faith" makes is that it somehow changes the way we believe we're living, without changing the reality at all. 

Thankfully, the psalmist puts for us in clear terms what is the distinction of the Christian life, what it is that our Lord God gives us that does change the reality of things. That is real. To the psalmist, these are the benefits of God (Ps. 103):

- God forgives. 
- God heals.
- God redeems.
- God crowns.
- God satisfies. 

Notice that these are not the things that we go to immediately when we're asked about it. Notice that these are not the things we are most expectant for from our God, even though they should be. 

Notice also that these fly in the face of the prosperity gospel that promises a good, comfortable, easy life without trouble or pain or trial. In fact, each of these is based on our brokenness, our sin, or our aching desire. 

We have to sin in order to be forgiven. We have to be broken in order to be healed. We have to be fallen in order to be redeemed. We have to be humbled in order to be crowned. We have to long in order to be satisfied. Which means that the life we should expect as we live out our faith is a life of sin, brokenness, fallenness, humility, and longing. 

It is God who makes it worthwhile. 

In order that it is God who gets the glory. 

No matter how much we think it is us who are deserving of the glory for our lives. (Ouch.) 

So what does your faith get you? What are the benefits of believing God? It's not that we are somehow less human, somehow exempt from the realities of this world. If anything, we become more human...so that God can be shown more holy. So that God can be known more glorious. 

And that's okay. We should be okay with that. Because being forgiven, healed, redeemed, crowned, and satisfied...so loved...seems a pretty good life to live to me. How about you? I mean, we get to live in His glory. How cool is that?

Monday, August 5, 2019

Faithful

How, then, should we live? It is an intimately important question for the Christian, who always seems to be torn between grace and truth. Do we proclaim what we know is right or do we welcome those who we believe are wrong? Do we hold a high standard in accordance with the holiness of God or do we humble ourselves, that more might come to Him? 

The answer is both, but that doesn't really help us. It leaves us with the same question: how, then, should we live? 

Or in layman's terms: "Huh?"

But we have an example in the Lord Himself, who has always chosen to walk with us and to demonstrate for us what a holy life is. Today, we look at the Psalms to see how it is that we should live, taking our cue from the Lord who lives among us. Specifically, Psalm 96. 

This Psalm declares that God is righteous with the world. When He is interacting with the world at large, it is His righteousness that is prominent. Righteousness is an internal characteristic; it depends upon one's own adherence to one's own covenant and promises and character. One can be righteous all by him- or herself; it does not require any external circumstance or verification. 

But this Psalm equally declares that God is faithful with people. When He is intimately engaged with someone else, it is His faithfulness that is prominent. Faithfulness is a relational characteristic; it depends upon one's chosen way of interacting with others. One must be in relationship to be faithful; it requires two parties. 

For those of us trying to figure out what it means to live holy lives in this world, this is it; this is how, then, we should live. 

We should live with integrity to ourselves, what we would call righteousness. When the world looks on at who we are without any outside influence, what they should see is a people who hold themselves to a high standard and embrace that. A people who adhere to their own covenant and promises and character. They should see our steadfastness in what we know to be truth, and it should be a witness to the watching world. 

And when we are in relationship with others, we should live with faithfulness. Making a commitment and keeping it. Being there, showing up, engaging, and delivering on what we believe it means to be in intimate relationship - or fellowship - with one another. They should see our commitment to them, in grace, above all else and know, through interacting with us, what love is. 

Is it grace? Is it truth? It's both. Is it righteousness? Is it faithfulness? It's both. Is it us or is it them? It's both. The emphasis shifts depending upon where we are. There is one way that is best when we live with the world watching; there is another way when we live touching the world. We have to figure out what the dynamic is, where we're at. Are we in a place where our measure is internal or external? Is it about being consistent and true and steadfast or is it about being trustworthy and dependable and welcoming? What is the world witnessing...and why? 

The difficult truth, of course, is that it should always be both. We do not stop being righteous in order to be faithful, and we do not stop being faithful in order to be righteous. That would defeat the purpose and negate the witness. But what we have to understand is how the world is witnessing at any given moment, what the world requires in a moment. What the world needs to see of us. 

The difficult truth, of course, is that it's always both and often even more than this. But look at the way God does it - His default is righteousness; that's who He always is. No matter what. In relationship, however, He is more. 

So should we be. 

Friday, August 2, 2019

Why Hope is Hard

Hope changes things; we who live in hope know this. But what we also know is that often, hope makes things harder. 

It's not what you'd think. You'd think that looking forward to something, believing expectantly for the future, would make it easier to endure the present. It would re-energize you and re-focus your strength. Just a little bit longer that you have to hold on, just a little bit deeper that you have to dig. Just a little bit more and then glory breaks through. Shouldn't that be easier? 

But it's not. 

Ask the pregnant woman. The closer she comes to delivery, the more miserable she seems to feel in her own body. The things that she took for granted as just part of the process become intolerable as they near their completion. She doesn't understand how she can go one more day with swollen feet and little sleep and indigestion and bathroom breaks every five minutes as the baby pushes on her bladder. She becomes increasingly weary of the whole thing and is just ready for it to be over. Not because, as they so often think, she is tired of being pregnant, but because the hope of holding her baby is so very near. 

Or ask someone who's been stuck in a broken body for far too long. An illness that has ravaged him down to his bones, doctor after doctor after doctor. He's pushed through because he's had to, and he was willing to do it as long as it takes. But now, he has a diagnosis and in two short weeks, he'll begin treatment that promises to alleviate his pain. All of a sudden, he feels every ounce of that pain once more. When it was something he had to put up with, he didn't, but now that he knows it's going away, it eats at him in his final hours. Now that he knows relief is just around the corner, he can hardly stand it. He doesn't know how he can make it another two weeks, despite the fact that he's made it fourteen years. It's impossible. Because now, he has a real hope that it won't always be this way. 

Or ask someone in an abusive relationship. She's resigned herself to living like this, knows all the dangers, knows the trip wires that exist in her household. She's spent her adult life tiptoeing around them and making the best of it, standing by her man and presenting a harmonious front to the public when necessary. But now, she's made plans to leave. In just a few short weeks, she'll pack a few of her things and run out of there, never looking back. Because she's dreaming of the life she will live out from under his harsh thumb, she doesn't know if she can take any more time to plan. She wants to do it now. She wants to just go. She can't wait until it's safe; she realizes it's not ever safe. It gnaws at her until she can hardly stand it. Because she has hope for something better, and that makes what she has unbearable. 

You see, when we think things just are the way they are and that we're stuck with them, we lock ourselves in. We do whatever it takes because that's just what it takes, and we don't honestly think much of it most of the time. It's just life. It's just our life. It is what it is. 

But give us hope - give us a promise of something better, an expectation for more - and suddenly, we can't do this any more. We can't live like this. We can't take one more moment of this broken life. It's unbearable.

And that's why heaven changes the world. 

Because when we know eternity is so much better than this, all the brokenness of this mess starts to eat at us. We can no longer live complacently, no longer just endure. It's not about getting by, it's about getting better. And we can do better than this. 

Hope creates in us not only an expectation, but a dissatisfaction. We're not willing to settle. We're not willing to accept less, not when we know that more is within reach. It makes things harder, especially when we're still "stuck" here, when we still have to live in this broken place. But it's worth it. 

Hope changes the broken places. It changes them through those of us who aren't content with them any more. 

Which is why we need hope, even though it's hard. 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A Refuge

Whether we like to believe it or not, Christianity has become a Temple religion - we've put God in one place to dwell among us, and it is there that we go to find Him. It is there that we go to worship Him. It is there that we know we will see Him if only we look. We do not keep fires burning all the time, with the smoke to remind us of His presence, but we know it nonetheless.

If you're looking for God in this world, look no further than the building on the corner from which praise songs go out one hour each week. This is where the Lord lives among His people. 

That's what changed so dramatically in the Promised Land. Once God's people became settled, so did their God. And we see it even in their exile. Once Israel was sent away from the land that God had given them to inhabit, all of their thoughts remained on the Temple. They felt separated from Him because they no longer lived in the same land; they continually longed for the place where He dwells. And the first thing they do when they get to go back is to rebuild and rededicate the Temple, for God is still there; He never left, even when they did. 

But Psalm 90 reminds us of a greater truth, a truth that is not just in the past but also in the present and the future. It paints a picture of the Lord who is our refuge, a dwelling place Himself - before and after the Promised Land. He is the place in which we dwell in the wilderness. 

Which means that He is with us even in our wandering. He moves with us, just as He always has. 

Remember, this is the Lord who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. When they discovered they were naked and hid in shame, He was walking about, moving about in such a way that He came upon them. He wasn't tucked away in His own little hut so that they knew where to find Him; He found them. 

This is the Lord who climbed the mountain with Abraham and Isaac, to provide for them a ram in the bushes at just the right moment. This is the Lord who wrestled with Jacob at the Jabbok and changed his name to Israel. 

This is the Lord who dwelt in a tent among His people in the wilderness so that He could guide them, so that He was right where they were by fire and by smoke, so that He could move with them as they journeyed through tough terrain.

Even Jesus never sat down and declared, "Let anyone who desires Me come and find Me here!" Rather, He went out to where the people were; every time we see Him, He's out and about. 

Throughout His history, this is the God who has always moved with us, who has always been near us, who has always found us. And then we settled and put Him in a box and told Him to stay there, forgetting that He doesn't want to be there; He wants to be here. He doesn't want to be in a "safe place;" He is our safe place. He is our refuge, the Lord so near that we are covered in the shelter of His wings. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Valley of Tears

The Scriptures are full of images about water - parting the waters, living water, water from a rock, floods, rains, streams and rivers. And like those streams and rivers, all of these images flow down to the same big ocean, to a declaration of God's goodness, love, and grace. Even the devastating flood ends in a promise. So when we think of another form of water, perhaps the most minuscule form by comparison - ours tears - we wonder how even that leads back to His goodness.

Contemporary media and storytelling has given us this image of a God who collects our tears in a vial that He then wears around His neck. Each drop goes into a tiny tube - it's always tiny, no matter how many tears we've actually cried over our lives - and is treasured by our Father who loves us so deeply as to care about each and every drop. 

While that's tender and touching, and often comforting, it lacks a layer of depth. Doesn't it? It leaves our tears still feeling...pointless. Meaningless. Yes, God cares for us even when we weep, but there has to be something greater to it all, doesn't there? It has to matter for some reason, right? 

We do not weep just for God to collect our tears. And certainly, though I am still young, the tears of my life do not fit in a cute little vial sufficient for a necklace. 

I need a big ol' vat somewhere in the back rooms of Heaven, some kind of giant swimming pool-style container for all the tears I've cried. 

Or better yet...

What if the drops of my tears could become the living water that nourishes my soul? 

This is precisely the image painted in Psalm 84, and it ought to change our perspective on the way that we weep. It's about adding a level of meaning and depth to our ache and our hurt, about finding what it is that God promises water always brings - goodness, love, and grace.

The Psalmist says that some are able to turn the Valley of Tears - a reservoir worthy of the volume we have wept if ever there was one - into a source of spring water (Psalm 84). Yes, spring water.  Living, flowing, bubbling, clean, pure, life-giving spring water, the kind that is painted in images all throughout the Scriptures for us. The kind that gives us access to the greatest gifts of God as they flow through the terrain of our real lives. Where bitter salt water, good for so little, becomes fresh water, necessary for life. The Valley of Tears becomes a source of spring water. 

And how? 

By putting our hope and strength in the Lord. 

That's what the Psalmist says. By putting our hope and strength in the Lord, we turn the Valley of Tears into a source of spring water. We turn heartache into hope. We turn death into life. We turn bitterness into refreshedness. What authentically, raw-ly, real-ly pours out of us flows back unfathomably to nourish our souls. By nothing but the grace of God that we choose to recognize and embrace, by His goodness and love and mercy. Living water. Real, vital, living water. 

Beautiful. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Gone Fishing

We next join our beloved eleven disciples on the seas. After the crucifixion, they retreated into the Upper Room - the last place where they experienced Jesus as everything they had known and loved of Him, but when we see them again, they've gone out to the seas. At least, those of them that knew how to fish. 

Often, pastors make quite a big deal of this. At the moment when everything seems lost or postponed or at least more confusing than it ever has been, the disciples turned around and went back to what they knew before they knew Jesus. When He found them in the first place, they were fishing. He called to them and they dropped their nets, but here they are in the shadow of the resurrection, and it seems they've picked their nets back up again. 

The lesson, of course, is about how easy it is to go back to what you know when what you hope for doesn't seem to be working. It's a warning. 

Or is it?

Although it fits a narrative that can be powerful and poignant, there's another explanation to why we see the disciples out on the sea once more: perhaps they never left it. 

After all, Paul never stopped being a tent maker. He even talks about how he uses his skills as a tent maker to provide for himself as an apostle, so that he cannot be accused of being in it for the money. He believes there is great honor in continuing to work with your hands even as you're working for the Lord; it shows who you are and that, in turn, shows who He is. He uses a tent maker. 

And we know that the disciples always seemed to have a boat handy. Have you noticed how many times Jesus just steps into a boat and crosses over to the other side of some body of water? It's easy to think Jesus was just out there stealing boats, that He just took them and the owners of the boats must have been okay with that, probably because He eventually returned them when He came back. There are an awful lot of Christians that figure Jesus was just stealing things that belonged to other persons...I mean, uhm, taking them in the authority of the God to whom all things belong.... 

But do you know what's more likely than our Lord and Savior stealing random boats? It's more likely that someone with Him owned those boats. And who owns boats? Fishermen own boats. Maybe the disciples simply never stopped working with their hands while they were learning the ministry. Maybe they still cast their nets in the water, even while they were fishing for men. 

A man's got to do something, right?

Herein, then, lies another potential lesson for us from the lives of the disciples: following Jesus is not permission to be idle. Waiting on God is not an opportunity to do nothing. We ought to be working. We ought to be doing those things that we do. We ought to be providing and contributing and demonstrating to the world who we are; that demonstrates, in turn, who He is. 

So put your hands to it and get a little dirty. Yes, even a season of waiting. Build something. Catch something. Provide something. Make something, even while He's making something of you. 

It's not weird to see the disciples fishing in the shadow of the empty tomb; it would be weird not to. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Going Back

The Scriptures tell us about a few times when Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection. First, He appeared to them in the Upper Room, where they were locked in and hiding out, trying to figure out what to do with themselves next. They needed a place to clear their heads, so those who had abandoned Him at the Cross went back to the last place they spent with Him. 

Isn't that interesting?

Here's this band of ragtag disciples. They've spent a couple of years with Jesus, touring with Him, doing ministry with Him, witnessing everything that He's done. They've had a front-row seat to something amazing, but when things start to turn and Jesus is facing death, they all abandon Him. You wonder what they did while He was being crucified. You wonder why they were so sure there wouldn't be anything to witness at the Cross. 

Right? Because this Man who has done so many miracles could surely do one more. Yet, the disciples don't seem to be banking on that. They don't seem to care to see what happens at the Cross. They've resigned themselves to the fact that He's going to die there, even while the Roman soldiers taunt Him to call down angels or to save Himself. 

Why didn't the disciples think He could save Himself? Maybe they knew that He wouldn't. 

So they're gone, save John. They can't bear to watch. But what do they do with themselves? They clearly stay together; when the women come back with the report of the risen Christ, they encounter all of the disciples, it seems. And then when Jesus re-appears on the scene, they're together, still, for the most part - gathered in the Upper Room. Trying to remember Jesus the way they want to, I guess. 

But isn't that just like us? We create the same kind of bunkers in our faith, trying to keep ourselves going back to the last place we saw Jesus. Trying to tap into the last big moment we had with Him. Trying desperately to hold onto what worked for us in the past. 

Things change, circumstances change, and sometimes, we have trouble keeping in touch with Him. When that happens, we just go back, but the problem with going back is...He's not there. Jesus wasn't in that Upper Room with the disciples; He was on the Cross. He wasn't around that table; He was in the tomb. 

And then, what do they do? The women come and tell them that He's not in the tomb, so they get up and run to the tomb. Again, looking for Jesus in the last place they left Him even though they know He's not there any more. 

So relatable. 

Finally, what happens? It's Jesus who changes things. It's Jesus who shows up where they are looking for Him, since apparently they don't know where to go to find Him now that He's not there any more. It's Jesus who comes back for them. It's He who changes their experience of their space. 

He does the same for us. Doesn't He? He always comes back to find us where we refuse to give up looking because He knows we'll maybe never get there on our own. But there's something about that because at least we're looking. At least we're trying. At least it's on our minds to have Him, to hold onto Him, to remember Him. 

That's something, isn't it? 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Questions

Yesterday, I said that we have to be careful how we handle our questions, that we cannot make our questions into truths. But questioning is one of the most valuable things we can do for our faith. 

I can't tell you the number of persons I've met who have wept over feeling like "bad Christians" because they've had questions, who have been taught their whole lives that the hallmark of "true" faith is never having any questions at all, who have been led to believe that the real Christian life comes in knowing for sure and never wondering or wandering. This breaks my heart. 

If you never have any questions, how is God ever supposed to answer you? 

You can't ever learn anything new about God unless you are in a dialogue with Him, and there's nothing to talk about if you already know everything. You've probably met someone like this in your life - most likely a child; someone who is certain they know everything and is quick to tell you all that they know. If you try to tell them something they don't know, they'll just tell you how wrong you are and insist that they are right about everything. It's frustrating, and you wonder how they're ever going to make it in the world if they don't set aside their arrogant insistence and open themselves up to learn something from someone who might just know better than them.

And yet, this is exactly what we do to God. We come as arrogant little children, unwilling to believe there could be anything we don't know. We think He requires that we know everything with certainty. We think that what He wants from our faith is that it would be so sure that it doesn't have any questions, but if it doesn't have any questions, it will never grow. If we already know everything we think we need to know, we won't be curious. And God Himself won't be able to tell us anything new about Himself.

That is extremely dangerous because for a lot of Christians, this mindset came on early - somewhere just after preschool, somewhere very young. That means that for a lot of Christians, their entire faith rests on "Jesus loves me," "Father Abraham," and "Arky-Arky."

No wonder our faith sometimes seems like nonsense.

This kind of very basic understanding, this limited insight, doesn't lead to the kind of dynamic faith that living in a fallen world requires. You can't face the troubles and trials of life with some blanket declaration that Jesus just loves you. What does love mean? What does it look like? How does it function in a place like this?

You would not accept a marriage where the only time you heard, "I love you," is at the altar and then you merely lived out your days side-by-side with one another, without any other tokens of affection, without any deeper conversation, without any reminders of the commitment you've made. Yet this is what we expect our faith to be - a one-time declaration of belief followed by a silent side-by-side with the idea of God.

Worse yet, this is what we convince ourselves God wants our faith to be. Lest we "bother" Him with all the questions that we have along the way. Lest we "pester" Him with our constant need to be reminded what His love is.

If we believe, that's enough, isn't it? Why would it be - when it is not enough in literally any other area of our lives?

Our faith is not one that has no questions; it is one that knows where to find the answers. The more we ask, the more we discover. The more we knock, the more doors that open. The more we seek, the more we find. At every turn, our faith has the chance to grow stronger, deeper, more authentic and real and meaningful. But it doesn't just happen because we will it or want it; it happens when we pursue it, and we pursue it through asking.

Not because we doubt, although sometimes that's the case (and that's okay). But because we long - we long for more, and God has promised to give it to us.

If you never have any questions, how is God ever supposed to answer you?