Tuesday, December 31, 2019


Are you making resolutions today for the coming year? Or have you already decided what you're going to focus on? As you think about all that you want to do and to be and to accomplish in the new year, let me offer you something to think about that is the key - the key - to lasting change: 

Don't make any resolutions. 

Seriously, don't. If you've made resolutions before, you know how difficult they can be. You know how likely you are to break them. You know what it's going to be like in a week or two when you've fallen off, when your passion has waned, when you're not getting where you think you should be by now, and you just give up. You know the tremendous defeat that you will feel in your heart when you fail, yet again, to do something that seems so very important to you. Yet, you just can't do it. 

Here's what they don't tell you, but it's also true: even if you're one of the few persons who can hold onto your resolutions and actually accomplish them, there's not as much satisfaction in that as you'd think. Because once you attain them, you have to keep them going, and that's just as much work. You wouldn't be happy to lose 10 pounds if you just gained it all back. You wouldn't be satisfied to stop smoking if, in six months, you just start up again. Even if you lose 10 pounds or stop smoking, you have to keep the weight off and keep the cigarettes away, and all of a sudden, your resolution has become your whole life. 

It's inherent in the word itself: resolution. It comes from "resolve." It's the kind of head down, intense focus, life-sucking kind of thing that takes everything you've got. You've got to keep your nose to the grindstone at all times. Instead of buckling up for the ride, you buckle down on yourself, tighten your belts, give yourself a short rope. Resolutions are all about defeating yourself. 

Who wants that?

Honestly. Who wants to make a decision that will keep them in constant war with themselves, all in the name of being "better" somehow? Who wants to spend their days fighting against the man in the mirror? It's why our resolutions make us hate ourselves so easily. It's why they make us feel bad about who we are. 

Does that mean we shouldn't think about ways to change in the new year (or any time, really)? Absolutely not. Does that mean we shouldn't think about who we would be if some aspect of our lives were different? Nope. Does it mean we shouldn't let things about who we are bother us to the point of change? Of course not. 

But resolutions aren't the answer. 

The answer...is aspirations. 

We have to think not about what we want to change, but about who we want to be. We have to cast a vision not for stopping, but for thriving. We have to plan for growth, not discipline ourselves into mere difference. 

See, aspiration is based in hope. It's the kind of thing that lets you look up. It's the kind of thing that sets your eyes on something higher, on something better. Resolution makes us lock our eyes to the ground, always watching the next step. It makes us afraid to look in the mirror. Aspiration, on the other hand, straightens our back and locks our eyes up, always looking forward. Always watching. Looking for signs that we're making it - signs you won't see anywhere but in your own eyes as you look at who you're becoming. 

Because that's what it's really all about - it's not about being something better; it's about becoming a better you. It's about drawing nearer to the glory that God has created you for. It's about one faithful step at a time toward a hope that you can see. 

Resolutions only let you see what you need to change - that extra 10 pounds, those cigarettes in your pocket, that frown on your face. Aspirations let you see what's possible - that beautiful dress, more quality time with family, your smile. 

So don't make resolutions this year. Not unless you want to spend the next couple of weeks with your head down, pushing forward toward the unknown and nearly-impossible, only to be buried in shame and guilt in a week or two. 

Make aspirations. Set hope before you. Create a vision not of what needs to change, but of how you're changing. Let your eyes look up. And enjoy the journey. 

What are you becoming this year? 

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Pharisee

A lot is said about the Pharisees in the Gospels, much of it...less-than-flattering. These were the men who had invested their lives in interpreting the Scriptures and codifying them so that the people would know how to live. They held the highest places in Jewish society, in the Temple and in the synagogues. The Jews knew that the way to righteousness went through them; they were the men who "knew best." Or, at least, claimed to. They basically controlled all religious life for the Jews.

Jesus rails against them a lot, calling them hypocrites and snakes. Hypocrites not really because they held others to a higher standard than they held themselves (because we don't see a lot of evidence that they were generally corrupt), but because they proclaimed authority in God's Word but actually claimed authority for their own. And snakes because, well, like the serpent so many thousands of years ago, they twisted God's Word in order to deceive the people. They were pretenders. They had all these grand ideas, none of which were true. 

But let's be honest for a second, too. And let's give them the credit they are due. The Pharisees thought they were doing the right things...at least most of the time. They were doing it with a pure heart, in order to protect the faith from threats. They had the righteousness of the Jewish people on their mind, even if in practice, they made it unattainable. 

We see their purity of heart (though they are corrupt) no place better than we see it in John 11, where the disciple reveals some of the inner conversation of the chief priests - Pharisees, in that day - as they talked about this man named Jesus who had come among them. What John lets us in on is this:

When the chief priests plotted to kill Jesus, they thought they were saving the Jews.

In other words, they thought this new Rabbi and His radical teachings were a threat to the established order of righteousness they had been living by for so long. They thought He would lead people astray from the rhythm of life that the Temple had cultivated since its very foundations were laid. We're prone to think that they considered Him merely a threat to their own power, but this little snippet in John reminds us that maybe they weren't just thinking about themselves. Maybe, as they had from their start, they were thinking about their faith - about all the people of God who were called to live in this way. 

This "new" way offered by this "new" Rabbi might lead a lot of these beloved children of God astray. 

I know it seems like a leap, but it's right there in John. And despite the venom that is often thrown their way, we have to remember that it's very, very rare to find a man who is thoroughly self-absorbed one hundred percent of the time. Even the most selfish man, unless he is a sociopath, thinks occasionally of others. We cannot allow ourselves to believe only the worst of the Pharisees, to think them all sociopaths. 

And that's important. Because we're still living in this kind of world. We are still living in a world where there are a lot of men and women just plain getting it wrong. Whatever "it" is. Even in the faith. There are many preachers who are just plain backward in what they are teaching. I confess that there are many, many things I'm sure I'm getting wrong (not intentionally, of course). 

The question is often asked - what are we supposed to do about this? How are we supposed to put up with this? We think it's our job to go around judging everyone, making sure they're getting it right all the time. Whatever "it" is. Whatever "right" is. But, of course, in doing so, we make ourselves into the Pharisees, becoming hypocrites by putting authority into our own hands while claiming it to be only God's. 

What we really have to do in order to live in a world where a lot of persons are getting it wrong, ourselves included, is to look at the heart of the other. We have to understand not just what someone is doing, but why he or she is doing it. What's the motivation? What's the driving force? 

Sure, you could say the Pharisees killed Jesus out of their jealousy. Or out of their fear. He was a threat to their power and their place in society. 

But John tells us that when they plotted to kill Him, they thought they were saving the Jews. They were fighting for something much bigger than themselves. They were fighting for a way of life that they thought essential to righteousness, to well-living. 

The same is true of most persons. We're prone to fight for something, for something that's exceptionally meaningful to us. Not just to fight for ourselves. Not just to fight for our power or our place or our authority or whatever. We fight for our values. 

How would it change the interactions you have with others, even the mere thoughts that you have about them, if you took the time to figure out what they were fighting for, rather than just assuming the worst? What if you tried to find their values, so you would know what they're trying to do and not just rely on how it's working out for them? 

What if that person who seems so wrong about things, who seems to self-centered or self-absorbed, really thinks he's fighting for you? Doesn't that change things? 

We simply can't judge the world in categories like "right" and "wrong" because the truth is that we're all getting it wrong just as much as we're getting it right. We're limited by our own perspective, by our own experience, by our own vision, by our flesh. That's why every day, we learn something new about God - because we don't know it all, and we can't. 

So we have to judge each other by something else. By the heart. Because it tells us more than whether we're getting there or not; it reveals what we're going for. And that's important, too. 

Friday, December 27, 2019

Rolling the Stone

We jump right back in now to our journey through the Bible, and as a note of administration, we're only now getting into the middle of the Gospel of John, which means this series will run into the new year for a bit (the natural outpouring of reading along with me - I'm about a month behind in my notes because there's so much good stuff to hit on). 

And though we're still lingering a bit in the Christmas season, today's question looks forward a bit toward Easter. The question is this: 

Who rolled away the stone? 

The tomb of Jesus was covered with a heavy stone, as most tombs were in that day. And the common wisdom, since we do not seem to know, is that Jesus Himself rolled away the stone. Or perhaps it was an angel (as Matthew said). Some divine being who came to "rescue" Him from the grave. Certainly, there could have been no human hands on the stone, for that's precisely what the Roman guards were stationed there to prevent. 

What raises this question anew for me is actually not what happened at the grave that day, but what happened at a different grave on a different day. You'll remember this story, perhaps. Jesus is traveling through the region when someone comes hurriedly to Him to tell Him that His friend, Lazarus, has died. Now, Jesus has spent quite a bit of time with Lazarus and his family - stories in which we often hear more about Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus - and He has a certain fondness for them. 

When He finally decides to go to Bethany and arrives where the mourning is still taking place, Lazarus has been placed in a tomb and a heavy stone rolled across the opening. And we're told, Jesus wept. 

Here's the thing: Jesus clearly loves this guy. A lot. He's got tremendous love for this whole little family. It's the only time in all of Scripture that we see Jesus cry; He doesn't even cry at His own excruciating death. So it seems natural to us that Jesus would rush toward the tomb, use His heavenly power to throw that heavy stone to the side, and go storming in to bring His friend out among the living. We want to see Jesus's passion take hold of Him, His deep love reflected in a feat of strength, without a thought or a care as to who's watching. 

But Jesus, we're told, doesn't do that. Instead, He asks others who are present to roll away the stone, and it's implied that it took several of them to move it. 

In the same way, Jesus was once Himself on the other side of that stone, separated from those He loves deeply by nothing more than a heavy weight. And we want to have this cinematic (movie-like) moment of passion where He arises, folds His grave clothes, and comes bursting out of that tomb, hurling the heavy stone to the side like it's nothing...just to get to us. 

What if that's not it, though? We have absolutely no evidence that it is. Nothing in the Scriptures tells us that Jesus Himself rolled aside that stone. Nothing even tells us that the angel, who spoke to those who came to see Him, did it. For all we know, the Roman guards might have become curious about whether or not the body was still in there, rolled the stone aside themselves just to check, and found Jesus standing there, waving at them with a big, silly grin on His face. We just don't know. 

But the story of Lazarus makes me wonder. Because if Jesus uses others to help facilitate one of the most miraculous stories of His earthly life, a story where both His deep love and His incredible power are displayed, then how much more would He invite others into the greatest miracle of all? 

I'm not at all raising the question of whether the disciples "stole" His body; Jesus walked out of that tomb under His own power and in His own flesh. I'm just thinking out loud about who else might have been there. About how that giant stone got pushed aside. 

For if He requested human hands to move the stone that separated Him from the one He loved, how much more would He ask for help to move the one that separated Him from the ones He loves? 

Perhaps it was an angel after all (again, thanks, Matthew). Now that I think about it, that would make sense. Human hands to get Him to Lazarus; heavenly hands to get Him to the world. 

Just something I'm thinking about. Because there's a reason John told us He didn't move the stone Himself. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The Faith of Jesus

Do you realize that in a slightly different time, in a slightly different place, you would have had the opportunity to actually hold in your very arms...baby Jesus?

There was a time with this newborn baby boy was being passed around, held in the arms of those who would love Him...of those He would love. There was a time when He was swaddled in cloth diapers, a blanket draped loosely around His tender flesh. There was a time when He did everything that little babies do. 

When He would look up at whoever was holding Him with those big, innocent eyes. When He would coo at their touch, smile at their sing-song voice. When He would naturally wrap His little fingers, all together, around one big finger caressing His face. Can you imagine? Jesus Himself wrapping His little fingers around yours! There was a time when He would breathe that great, big, deep sigh that babies have as He fell asleep in the arms of one who He simply trusted, fully and completely. 

Oh, baby Jesus. 

And it's that last little bit that ought to get us. It's those last few words that ought to make us catch our breath. Because the very first thing that Jesus did when He came as a human baby into a manger...was to trust you completely.

He trusted that you could handle Him. He trusted that you would care for Him. He trusted that you weren't going to harm Him, even though He knew the kind of death that He would encounter. Long before you wrapped your arms around Him, He wrapped His little fingers around you. Long before you clamored through crowds to see Him, He giggled through coos to set eyes on you. 

Before He asked you to show Him all of the broken places of your life, all of the shame that you carry, all of the burden you bear, He bore to you His tender places and trusted that you would take care of them. He knew that you would take care of Him. 

Think about that for a minute. Think about the kind of love it takes to come and to say, before I ask anything at all of you, I'm giving you all of Me. I'm trusting you fully right from the start, praying that one day, you will trust Me back.

Before I show you who I am, I have to remind you of who you are. You...are the kind of person whose arms I can fall asleep in. I'm just that into you. I'm just that sure of you. 

Jesus is that sure of you. So sure of you that He believed in you before He ever asked you to believe in Him.

Just something to think about. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Silent Night

There was a lot of noise for what was proclaimed to be such a silent night. The inn was full, and families were bustling about, busy with those that they loved. Those that they had traveled such a great distance with. Many were tired, but the children were perhaps still running around, too glad to just be settled somewhere to actually sleep. 

From somewhere came the sounds of screaming, a woman in great pain, in agony, but hardly anyone noticed. Maybe no one at all. For there was too much going on in their own little worlds to really pay attention, too much at their fingertips to do much reaching out. They had everything they came with, and even more. A new little family was forming in that inn as the weary travelers connected with one another - perhaps not the first time they had done so, since they had all come back to this little town for the census. This was home. 


And yes, this is a story about Jesus - about a little boy coming quietly into the world on a night that was, outside of that stable, anything but silent. But it's also a story about this Christmas - this one right here - where the screams of women, and men, in agony go hardly noticed in all the noise. 

This is a story about something very human, something we don't talk about near enough, but it seems so fitting on this day, on the day in which God Himself became flesh to remind us that we are not alone. 

Because oh so many of us, especially this time of year, feel very, very alone. 

It's hard to fathom, with all the stuff that's going on in the world at Christmas. With all the stories of families traveling to be together, with the shopping centers packed to the brim, with everyone (it seems) doing the same things at the same time - wrapping presents, baking cookies, decorating trees, carving ham. How can you feel alone in the world when the whole world is celebrating the same thing you are? How can you feel alone when your house is literally full of others?

How...how can this be a silent night when the inn is so full?

But that's just it. Because for the lonely in this world, having other persons around doesn't necessarily cure the loneliness. Sometimes, in fact, it makes it worse. Especially at a time like this when maybe others are around, but they've come with their own little families. They have their own group of people with them. They are talking about all of the other places they have to go and all of the other persons they get to see and all of the things they are going to do, and yes, maybe they've carved out these few hours just for you, but for you, this is all you've got. People who come with their people to be at your place for a bit and then leave with their people and leave you...alone again. Only more alone now, because the worst kind of loneliness there is in this world is the loneliness you still feel even when others are near. It's the sting of being a single in a world of groups, of being an outsider among insiders, of being the extra person in the room - even if it's your own room. 

It's the sorrow of having lost someone this year, of feeling the emptiness of a space that used to be so full. It's the grief of not having found someone to spend your life with, the way the others in your life seem to have settled down. It's the pain of having separated from someone you thought you'd spend the rest of your life with, but that person just didn't feel the same. It's feeling all of your insecurities, all at once, in a season that is so full it's bursting, but you...you feel only your own hollowness. 

It's the rejection of being cast out into a stable while the inn is so full, lights on in every room, families settling around tables, daily prayers being called out, screaming....screaming in agony, and no one even notices. It's too loud where they are to notice. 

And yes, Jesus is born in places such as this. In lonely places on the outside, where even the cries of a newborn baby aren't heard, but this is not a post for the lonely. This is not a post to tell you, as your heart aches, that Jesus is near and that He's enough. This is not a post to shame you into Christmas this year because if your faith was just a little bit stronger, it wouldn't bother you that you're lonely. That's all crap, and it's neither Christian nor Christlike. No, this is not a post for the lonely. 

This is a post for all of you in the inn. This is a post for those of you who have your people this year. Who have your families. Who have your spouses. Who have your friends. This is a post for those of you who will enter into someone else's space with your own little clan and leave with the same folks, having spent some time in what is otherwise a desolate place right now. This is a post for you, and here's what I want to say: 

Be intentional about who you're with this Christmas. Be mindful of those who don't have what you have. While you're bustling about in all the noise, listening to the laughter of the little children as they run around, unpacking your things in a new place for the night, settling around your dinner table, a light on in every room...be mindful of the lonely, of the ones cast out, of the ones not connected. Tune your ears to something other than the noise, and hear the cries of those for whom there was no room this year. Don't let the sounds of the season drown you out; open your heart to the silent nights that are happening all around you. And enter them.

Because the worst kind of loneliness in all the world is the loneliness you feel when you're stuck in a stable, well within hearing distance of the party at the inn.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Baby Jesus

There are three reactions in the Bible to the coming of the baby Jesus that we need to pay particular attention to, and they aren't the three that you might naturally think of. Sure, it's easy to talk about the wise men or the shepherds or even Herod, who killed a lot of babies while trying to kill this one, but I'm not talking about those who merely heard of the baby Jesus; I'm talking about those who were there. Those with first-hand, direct, straightforward knowledge of the coming child.

The first reaction is that of John the Baptist. And you might be thinking that John isn't mentioned anywhere in the Christmas story, that we don't see him until much later - when he is baptizing down by the river and Jesus comes to be baptized. But actually, John was the first person with first-hand knowledge of the fullness of Jesus. He is the baby in Elizabeth's womb who leaped for joy when Mary arrived. He recognized Jesus right away, though neither had been fully formed, and he couldn't wait for what was to come. 

The second reaction is that of Mary, who burst into a song about how much God loves her when she realized that what the angel had told her was true. She was about to play a big part in God's huge story, and it was almost too much for her peasant heart to fathom. She spends the rest of the pregnancy, and most of Jesus's life, "treasuring...things in her heart," these things meaning so much more to her because of the role that she knew she played in all of it. Because of how deeply she knew God's love for her, from the very first spark of life in her virgin womb. 

And the third reaction is that of the innkeeper, who had no room at the inn for even one more small (and growing) family. Certainly, he saw how very pregnant Mary was. By the time they reached the inn, she might have already been showing signs of labor. She was probably breathing heavily, leaking fluids, doubled over with contractions, the whole bit. And on one hand, we praise the innkeeper for finding some room for them where there seemed to be no room, but honestly...how do you not find better accommodations for an obviously-pregnant, clearly-in-labor young woman who has just spent yet another day traveling all day? Even if there's nothing at all special about her baby, she's still about to have a baby. And isn't that something?

You see, in the first case, John knew fully and instantly who Jesus was and what He meant. In the second, Mary understood God's deep and abiding love in a developing revelation and ongoing story. And in the third, the innkeeper saw only in part...and missed it entirely. 

Sadly, while Christmas should bring into our hearts the reactions of John and Mary, too many of us will spend this Christmas like the innkeeper - making some room, but nothing special, for Jesus. Seeing in part...and missing it entirely. 

It's hard this side of Heaven...and this side of the Cross...to understand the fullness of Jesus. To understand what He meant to a people who had been waiting for this very moment for their entire history. As Christians, we have Him. We've always had Him. We haven't had to have the same kind of hope and anticipation, so we miss out on what it means that God came in flesh. Of course God came in flesh; we worship in remembrance of that every week. 

But the incarnation...the incarnation is something incredible. Something that hadn't been done since the very beginning when God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. God came, He came in the fullness of flesh, to walk with us once more and to make us an integral part of the story that He is telling. We, like Mary, have become pregnant with Christ, carrying Him into all the world, and we don't even know it. We don't even understand it. 

Some baby, sure. Some kind of child. Something is happening, but...

But nothing. But. nothing. We find room in our Christmas for Jesus, some quiet little corner where we can tuck Him away and go and look and know that He's there, some cozy little place in the barn where there's at least a little hay to keep Him warm, but we ought to be leaping for joy and treasuring these things in our hearts. We ought to be rejoicing and breaking out in song. We ought to be humbled and prayerful and thankful for the presence of God among us. Immanuel. God with us. 

We ought to be John. We ought to be Mary. We ought to be the people, of all people, who "get" Christmas. Who treasure Christmas. Who believe, truly believe, in Christmas. 

Yet too many of us spend the season as innkeepers, with no room at all except for the very little we can make for Him. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Silly Santa

Friends, we are engaged in a cultural war. That comes as no surprise to most of you, who find yourselves daily on the front lines of the faith, trying to figure out how best to confront the opposition of the world. But it's a war that comes to its full peak sometime around Christmas each year (naturally), and while we're all busy fighting for our "Merry Christmas" and public nativities, we should not lose sight of the fact that in this very season, the world itself is showing its hand.

Here's what the world says: the world says that you should believe whatever you want to believe. It says that as long as you keep these things to yourself, it won't have a problem. It pretends not to care if you have a nativity scene set up in your own home, as long as you don't put one out where everyone else has to look at it. The world plays our music, but drowns it out with reindeer and presents and, of all things, even a hippopotamus. Anything so that the sound of the season isn't some silent night in a little town of Bethlehem with the coming of the faithful. 

But listen carefully, or not so carefully, and you realize that what the world really wants is to convince its people that the story isn't real. Jesus? Really? The world tosses its head and laughs at the impossibility of a pregnant virgin, at the obscurity of one baby among thousands, at the quaintness of a manger for a man who claims to be God. Just as at other times of the year, the world has invested itself in convincing its people that this...this is just a story. It's a myth. It's not real, and it never was. This fight is intensified around Christmas. 

They try to use science to fight it. To show the studies of the brightest star in the night sky and to talk about how persons have historically used the stars to navigate at night. Nothing special about it. To show that it would have taken two years for the magi to get there, so that little "story" that we tell ourselves? It isn't even historically accurate. To re-date the Christmas story because, did you know, Jesus wasn't born on December 25. The whole thing, they say, reeks of desperation and foolishness. If we really wanted to celebrate the birth of the historical figure Jesus, it ought to be sometime in summer. That's what it ought to be. 

And the whole time, the world is screaming, "At least get your facts straight! Gosh, you Christians are such an embarrassment to human thinking and reason." 

And yet...

...not a word about Santa Claus.

Santa Claus is the world's dominant story this time of year, and there's no evidence at all of a big, fat, jolly guy who lives in the frigid North Pole with a bunch of tiny little helpers who build toys all year so that his flying reindeer can help him deliver those toys to children all around the world in one singly night. 

They've set up their fanciest radars to track his movement around the world. They've commercialized his little helpers and turned them into spies. The "Department of Christmas," somewhere in Australia, apparently, even released an official "Naughty and Nice" list this year, pared down and classified by first name only. (Spoiler alert: I'm on the naughty list.) 

There are books and television shows and store displays and visits by "real-life" Santas who everyone knows are not really Santas. I saw some parents this year who bought fake security cameras from a dollar store and put them in their house, then told the kids Santa stopped by and installed them to see if they were being good this year, and the Internet applauded the "genius" of these parents. 

Oh, we know that none of this story is "true." None of it is fact. There is no scientific evidence to back any of it and, in fact, science would de-bunk it faster than it tries to tear our Christian story down. But try telling one child, even just one child, that Santa isn't real, and this world will eat you alive. It will tear you down. It will forever brand you...a monster. 

So which is it? Do we need to get our facts straight or do we need to abandon all reason? You see, the world isn't holding its own story to the same standard that it holds ours. 

And you have to ask yourself...why not? Why, if reason and reasonability are so important to what the world is willing to put up with, does it tolerate - even celebrate - Santa Claus and dismiss - even despise - Jesus Christ? Even at Christmas?

Really, I suppose, it's quite simple: the world knows that Santa Claus is just a story, a myth, a fanciful little thing that we've made up and that no one, beyond a certain age, really believes it is true. But Jesus? Jesus is different. And the world fears that this story may be more than just a story. It may be more than a myth. It may be truth (we know that it is). 

But if it is, this Jesus changes everything. And for the world, that's a very scary possibility. 

For us, we know that it is exactly the point. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

To Hear Jesus Speak

While we're on the subject of the woman at the well, let's talk about how well her witness worked. I've written about her many times before, and she's a great study in a lot of things, but she's got something very important to teach us about bringing others to Jesus. 

You'll remember that she runs into town, telling everyone what's just happened to her with Jesus at the well. And they all come rushing out to see for themselves what's going on. By the time the whole encounter is over, the people of the town proclaim, "We believed because of what you had said, but now, we have heard Him for ourselves and believe all the more!" 

It's this second step that I think is too often missing from our own witness, too often the root cause of why so many visit the church but don't stay. We aren't setting them up to hear Jesus speak. 

We're investing our time to tell them our story. We talk about what we know and what we've experienced, what we believe. And sure, we can even get some to come to church with us, where they will hear more stories about what others have experienced and what they believe. Everywhere we go, we're talking about Jesus, as if that's the thing. As if that's what we're supposed to be doing. 

And in part, it is. But the end goal is not for others to believe what we say about Him; the end goal is for others to hear Him speak just as clearly and intimately and lovingly as we have. And that, we're not so good at. 

Oh, we're good at programs. And we're good at preaching. We're good at sermons and putting on a show. We're good at worship. But most persons, when they leave our churches, have only heard what we've said. We have not created the space for them to hear Him speak. 

We haven't taught them how to listen, how to hear the voice of God. We haven't shown them the way to the solitary places where He meets us for real. We don't tell them how to get away from it all, how to settle down into their Spirit and hear the whisper. We don't give them a cup to draw their own water from the well. 

What we're really trying to do is to get someone to come to our faith when honestly, they can't. No one else can come to our faith. No one else can have what we have. They need their own faith, their own story. They need their own Jesus moment. 

And we're too busy creating cultural phenomena to teach them how to get that. We're too busy shouting at their faces to show them how to actually hear anything. 

We're too busy giving them a tour of the well to point out to them the Jesus who sits just across the road, watching...waiting...ready to speak. 

That's why they're leaving. They come looking for Jesus and find...pamphlets and brochures, sight-seeing tours of our own holy places, programs and spectacles, and they realize...this isn't what they were looking for. This isn't what we promised them. We told them there was a Jesus, and they stay with us just long enough to realize...if there is, He's not here any more. He's clearly moved on, and that's reason enough for them to do the same. 

So yes, tell others about Jesus. Share your story. But remember that your story is never going to be their story; they need their own. They need to encounter Him for themselves. They need to be shown the spaces where He can speak to them. They need to be taught to listen. They need to be brought to where He is and then left there, so that Jesus can tell them what He means. So that they can form their own intimate relationship with Him. 

Others cannot live through our stories. Not for long, anyway. They need their own. And most importantly, Jesus needs theirs, too. Let's focus our witness on making that happen. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Woman at the Well

John recounts for us a famous story about Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman at a well. You're probably familiar with it. While traveling along with His disciples, Jesus sits for a spell to rest while everyone else goes into town to get some food and supplies. While He's there, a woman comes to fetch water, away from the crowds that would have gathered at the well at a reasonable hour, and Jesus reveals Himself to her while asking for a drink. 

The question is: where did John get this story?

We get the impression that Jesus was alone with the woman at the well. We could say that in the Scriptures, "alone" very rarely meant truly alone, as there were often servants hanging around to do this or that or the other, but even if we admit that, we must also admit that Jesus is one of those few characters in Scripture who is able to be truly alone - He often seeks solitude and there are many scenes of such the private details of which we are not privy to...because no one but Jesus knows them. So we can't just write this off and say that alone doesn't really mean "alone" because it's Jesus...and it might. 

That leaves us with two possibilities. Either Jesus told John and the other disciples the story about what transpired at the well...or the woman did. 

This is important. No matter what conclusion we come up with here, it's important and it shapes our understanding in a very important way. 

We know that the woman told everyone. The Scriptures say she ran into town and told her story again and again until the whole town had heard it and came out to see Jesus. They had to see for themselves and then many believed, no longer because of what she had said but because of what they had witnessed with their own eyes and ears. So it's entirely possible that this story got back to John from the woman herself. 

But that means that part of John's Gospel was really sourced from...a Samaritan woman. A double-outsider. Someone who shouldn't have had any reason at all to be a source for material about Jesus except that, well, Jesus Himself qualified her to be by His interaction with her. Imagine the scandal of the testimony of a Samaritan. woman. being so crucial to the story John is telling. 

It changes things. 

Maybe, though, John didn't hear it from the woman. Maybe he heard it from Jesus Himself, but this only makes things even trickier. It introduces a couple of possibilities that would have to be held in some kind of tension. 

On the one hand, it means that Jesus is willing to talk about His private moments with an individual. Jesus...blabbed. He took this perfectly quiet moment with a woman whose heart He could change, and He told...everyone. He told everyone about what a sinner she was and a whore and how unfaithful she had been, just so that He could tell them how awesome He was to engage with her and what power He had to change her testimony. 

That's problematic, don't you think? Do you want Jesus telling everyone what happens between you and Him in private? Do you want Him telling others about the intimate details of your prayer and sin? I mean, gosh, if you can't trust Jesus....

At the same time, isn't it amazing that Jesus tells your story in order to tell His? That you're such an integral part of what He's doing that He can't leave you out of it? That He can't wait to share your scene with the world? 

It's pretty cool, right? Your story could be so intertwined with His that unless He tells yours, He can't tell His. Unless He reveals the private moment that you two had, He can't demonstrate the depth of His love. He needs you and your story to complete His. 

Man, I want that kind of relationship with Jesus. I want to be that much a part of His story that it's just not the same without me. I want to believe that. Even if...I think...even if that means He's talking about me. 

And wouldn't you love to hear the way Jesus is talking about you? Because listen to the way He talks about this woman. Such love, such grace, such compassion. I want to hear Him talk about me that way. I think...I need to hear Him talk about me that way. 

Where did John get the story of the woman at the well? If it truly was just her and Jesus, he had to hear it from somewhere...and that somewhere changes the story that we thought we knew in ways we can hardly imagine. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019


You may remember the story of Zacchaeus. He was the tax collector who was too short to see over the crowds, so as Jesus approached, he climbed a tree to get a better look. Jesus called to him and said that He wanted to have dinner at the tax collector's house, and by the time the whole thing is done, Zacchaeus has had such a revolution of heart that of his own free will, with no prompting from Jesus, he vows to give back everything he's ever taken by trickery and give a certain percentage of his wealth away and to never be shady again.

We read it and are moved by his amazing change of heart, but the truth is that this whole scene leaves us with a very disturbing question:

Is Zacchaeus so unlike us that we just naturally assume the purity of his gift...or are we so unlike Zacchaeus that we do not see the depravity of ours?

Because let's be honest here: we are a people, even as a people of faith, who try to get by with the bare minimum. We make sacrifices, but only what is comfortable for us. We offer to God, but only the least that we think that we have to in order to make our point (or earn His favor or however we conceptualize that). We are a people who are extremely calculating, and even if we had a true Jesus encounter, there's part of us that would be figuring up what we could vow to get rid of and give back and still have the luxury that we've become accustomed to. How much can we give away without actually feeling like we're giving it away? 

But nobody thinks that about Zacchaeus. Nobody thinks he's conniving at all. Nobody thinks he's doing the math in his head and figuring out how to sound generous while still being very comfortable in a worldly sense. 

And there's not really any reason why we should think this about Him, because Jesus Himself doesn't call the tax collector out on it. Jesus applauds his change of heart and seems genuinely pleased with what Zaccheus is offering, so we don't think a second thing of it. 

Look in the mirror, though...and don't we have to? 

Someone's not right here. Something's not right. If Zacchaeus's gift is genuine and pure and pleasing to God, if we really don't have to ask whether something is a little...iffy...about it, then it leave us with only one recourse:

We must ask what it is that is iffy about our own offering. 

We have to ask why we think it's okay for us to sit around and do the math. We have to ask why our "change of heart" hasn't been so thorough and so pure that we can make a genuine, pure, pleasing gift like Zacchaeus. We want God to be satisfied with what we offer, but we're not really looking for pleased. We want Him to notice, to affirm us, whatever, but we don't care if the gift itself is genuinely from a heart that's been changed by Him. 

Truth be told, if our heart were truly changed by our encounter with Jesus, we wouldn't be calculating our gift at all. 

Which means the fact that we spend so much of our time calculating means that our hearts...have not been radically, thoroughly, genuinely changed by Jesus. 

That ought to trouble us. 

Yet for some reason, it doesn't. And that's a problem. 

So read through this story and see what the tax collector offers in response to a heart that's been changed by God and then ask yourself:
Is Zacchaeus so unlike me that he's just able to give this amazing gift...or am I so unlike Zacchaeus that I can't even fathom having my heart so radically changed enough to consider it? What would it take for God to get a genuine, pure, and pleasing sacrifice from me?

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Five Sparrows; Two Pennies

When we talk about human worth, one of the verses we often go to is that place in the Scriptures where Jesus talks about how cheap the birds are and yet, not one of them is forgotten by God. Five sparrows sold for a couple of pennies, and not one of them escapes the heart of God. And we think that's what it's all about because everywhere we look, we see birds. Lots of them. Tons of them. By the dozens, sometimes the hundreds. These things are really everywhere, and in our human mind, that makes them look "cheap" to us - like you could lose a couple of thousand of birds and nobody would notice...except God, of course. 

But what if that's not what Jesus is talking about? What if it's not about overabundance and relative value...but about immense value? 

Follow me here. In the Old Testament, sacrifices were prescribed for the people of God. In such-and-such a case, bring one ram, two goats, and a lamb and present them as burnt offerings. In the case of this, bring that. In that case of that, bring this. God was very specific about what kind of animals that He would accept as sacrifices from the Israelites. 

He made provision, however, for those who didn't have access to those animals, who didn't raise them or couldn't afford them or whatever the deal was. If you can't afford to bring the sacrifice prescribed for sin or worship or fellowship or thanksgiving or whatever, then bring two birds. Two cheap birds, the kind of thing that everyone can afford. Or catch. Or what have you. 

The kind of thing that's sold five for two pennies by the time Jesus gets here. 

What if He's talking about that? What if He's talking about the birds you buy with your meager pennies to offer as a sacrifice in worship? What if those are the birds that don't escape the heart of God? What if those are the ones He knows and remembers? 

What if it wasn't ever about the value of a bird, but about the value of your offering? 


All of a sudden, everything has changed, right? We can't just get by comparing ourselves to sparrows. We can't justify that since we're bigger, stronger, smarter, more intricate, more intimate, more engaged, more whatever, then we must be infinitely more valuable than these piddly little birds that God never forgets. We can't just say that because we're human, God loves us so infinitely so because, well, look how much He loves...birds. 

Instead, we'd have to say that God values our offering, that He loves what we give to Him from a pure heart, whether it costs us a lot or a meager two pennies. Whether it feels like the poor man's offering or is a lavish feast. Whether it took every little bit that we had and didn't feel like enough or whether we didn't even notice because we have so much. We'd have to say that God never loses sight of our offering, no matter how small it feels. 

And then, we'd have to make an offering. Even a small one. Instead of affirming our immense value by comparison, these few simple words of Jesus all of a sudden cost us something.

Five sparrows sold for two pennies, brought to the Temple and presented to God as a pleasing sacrifice...and not one is forgotten. 

What are you giving to God lately?

Monday, December 16, 2019

Heaven and Earth

It's one of the questions we all ask from time to time, but it's difficult to find a satisfying answer: is there some connection between heaven and earth?

Are the two so separate that nothing can cross between them (no pun intended)? Or is there some sort of bridge where what is heavenly comes to earth from time to time? How exactly is the creation of the universe set up so that God lives in one realm and we humans in another, and what is the distance between here and there?

The question has all kinds of implications, of course - for this life and the next one. If God is in the heavens and we are on the earth, then can He even come to us? How did He walk with Adam and Eve in the Garden? If there is a connection for God to transcend the space, is the connection the same for humans? For our loved ones who have passed on? 

We have the example of "Jacob's ladder," which is a little help but not really much at all. There is some sort of transportation for spirits between the realms, but it's unclear still what this really means and what it means, particularly, for us. 

But maybe...maybe demons have something to teach us on this.

Now, I know. It's an odd perspective to take. But I was reading not long ago in the Gospel of Luke, and Luke says that evil spirits look for rest in water-less places. He's not talking about dry and barren deserts, at least not that we can tell. But what it brings to mind for me, and maybe I'm way off here, is Genesis 1.

In the beginning, everything was formless and void. Then God separates the waters, and it's in this in-between space - if we believe Luke- that the evil spirits go to find rest. Now, Earth (despite being named earth) is actually a water planet; the majority of our world consists of water. Which means that there's no reason that the evil spirits would naturally rest here. 

Thus, they live somewhere else. 

Yet, we see evil spirits inhabiting human beings all the time, especially in the New Testament. Jesus spent a great deal of His ministry casting evil spirits out of individuals. 

And that means that there's a way for the evil spirits to get from a water-less place where they rest to this watered place, where they look for that same sort of formless and void to settle in. If the evil spirits move freely between these places, then it's only logical to assume that the good spirits do, too. Perhaps all spirits. Perhaps human spirits. 

It's interesting to think about as we approach Christmas and start to think about the Incarnation, about Jesus Christ coming as a human baby. What did it take for Him to get here? 

Maybe I'm just rambling. Maybe I'm not. God only knows. For us, it's just something to think about. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Shelters on the Mountain

Peter is impetuous. We know this about him. He's the kind of guy who spouts off in an instant, who says whatever's on his mind without thinking too much about it and who, subsequently, puts his foot in his mouth quite a bit. Such is the case when he starts fumbling around for something to say on the mountain, having just witnessed the Transfiguration where Moses and Elijah showed up in glory to radiate with Jesus. 

I know, Peter says. Let me build three shelters - one for each of you. 

As if they're going to stay on the mountain awhile. 

And who wouldn't want to? This seems like the peak (forgive the pun) of everything. Here stands Jesus in all His glory with the confirming witness of Moses and Elijah, the figures of the Jewish faith. This is certainly everything you're ever going to get about Jesus; this is His moment. It's the perfect place to set up camp and just let things be as they are gloriously going to be. This is it! 

But Jesus, of course, has other plans. He's not planning to stay on the mountain; He doesn't intend this to be the shining (another horrible pun) moment of His entire ministry. He knows that His work and His real glory will be exposed not on the mountain, but in the valley; He has to go back to the people, to the streets, to the shores, to real life as we know it. 

It's a familiar experience for us. We all have our mountaintop moments. Our faith retreats or revival weekends where we come so face-to-face with the glory of God that we know that this is it, this is the greatest revelation in our entire lives of who He is. We want to build shelters there and stay awhile. Certainly, there's nothing else we need to know, nothing we need to have away from this place. This is it! 

We have our mementos and tshirts and journal entries and all the little things we do to remind ourselves of the mountaintop, and we go home, reluctantly, promising ourselves that we will not only never forget this moment, but we will never lose it. We are on fire for Christ and it's always going to be this way, from now on and forever, for we have built ourselves a new home on the mountain, put a little shelter around it, and that's where we're saying. 

But of course, it doesn't work that way. And it shouldn't. Because Jesus didn't make us to live on mountains; He made us for the people, for the streets, for the shores. For real life as we know it. And that's the challenge that keeps getting to us, the one that makes this faith thing so hard - we have to figure out how to have a mountaintop faith in a real life that spends most of its time in the valleys. And it's hard.

Like Peter, we're constantly saying, I know! Let me build a shelter here, but true to form, Jesus calls back, Let's not. Let's go back and get our feet dirty again. And so our feet get dirty, then our faces, then our faith, and then, remind us again why the shelters we proposed weren't better than this? 

Because this is where love lives. This is where faith really happens. This is where life grows. The mountain feels like everything, but this...the valley, the street, the shore, the people...this is it. This is what we were made for. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Come, Lord

Much is made of the faith of the Roman centurion, who sent for Jesus to heal one who was sick in his household. A small scene ensues, and then, the centurion confesses that he knows that Jesus could just say a word and heal from right then, right there, for he is a commander of many forces himself and knows how the chain of command works. 

Yet he sent for Jesus anyway. 

It's quite the opposite of what you and I are prone to do, isn't it? We are a people who are okay with Jesus pulling the strings of our lives; we know He can do it from...well, from wherever He is. We know He can speak the word, and often does, and things happen or don't happen, just as He ordains them to. We're certain we can pray, and He can speak back, and life will change. 

We needn't bother with all of that "presence" stuff. All of that "Come, Lord" stuff. We don't need Jesus to bother to actually be here with us. Just, you know, say the word. 

And not like the centurion. It's not because we feel unworthy. It's not because we are humbled in His presence and feel so small and insignificant that He shouldn't "bother" with us. It's because we don't want to be bothered by Him. We don't want Jesus to actually be present in our lives. We don't want Him to think that He can just come in and start to be part of stuff. 

We only want Him when we want Him, so we pretend that we are just deferring to His power to speak a word when really, we are hiding from His love. 

Read that again: we pretend that we are deferring to His power when really, we are hiding from His love. 

Because love is messy, even the kind of perfect love that Jesus has for us. It's hard. It's not nice and neat and clean. It's complicated and strange and difficult. It's the kind of thing that has to have a give and take, and really, we've become a bunch of religious takers. We don't want to give, so we don't put ourselves in a place to give. 

But that makes what we receive so much less than all that God has promised us. 

Now, it's different if, like the centurion, we don't need Jesus to come all this way for us to believe. The centurion had a real, bold faith that understood presence, and willing presence, but didn't require it. That's not the same as what we're dealing with. 

See, we cut presence out first. We didn't stop needing Jesus to be present; we stopped wanting Him to be present. And then we shaped Him in our image and made Him just the sort of God that we wanted Him to be, so that the Jesus that we believe in - the one who hasn't come all this way for us - isn't the Jesus who came and revealed Himself to us. He's something much less. Because we don't have the faith of the centurion who sends for Jesus, knowing His compassionate power; we have the faith of the comfortable Christian who keeps Jesus outside of our bubble, knowing so little about Him.

What would our lives look like if we were a people who sent for Jesus anyway? Whose first words were, "Come, Lord" instead of "Jesus, I just need You to..."? What would our faith look like if we asked Him into our homes, into our brokennesses...not just His power, but His compassion and His love? 

What if we stopped hiding behind our "faith" and started living boldly out of it?

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Calling the Fishermen

A lot is said about the calling of the disciples, how Jesus took these common, ordinary men right in the midst of their common, ordinary lives and brought them into His inner circle to become more than they ever imagined they would be. But what I like is the way that Luke tells the story of the calling of the fishermen because it says something very important about Jesus. 

The way Luke tells it, the crowds were pressing in on Jesus. He was already well-known enough to draw a crowd, and they were backing Him toward the sea. When they had gathered and He had settled them, He began to teach, but then He called to the fishermen who were in their boats and told them, "Come, follow Me!" And at once, they laid down their nets.

Now, it raises some interesting questions for the sanctified imagination. What were these men doing on the sea while a large crowd gathered on the shore? Were they fishing, cleaning their nets, or basically just tending to their business? Did they have one ear on the Rabbi, listening in to what He was saying to the crowds, or were they in their own little world? 

Jesus had to turn around to talk to them. In front of Him were the masses, hundreds if not thousands of individuals who had traveled to this place just to catch a moment with Him. Set eyes on Him. See Him do a miracle. Hear Him teach. Something. They were captivated by Him, and they were already big Jesus people. They were fans. 

Behind Him...fishermen. 

Most of us would be looking at the crowd. Most of us would be looking around, trying to see what friends we wanted to make out there. Thinking about which of these faithful travelers we would like to bring into the fold. Figuring out who to call from those who were presenting themselves for the calling. After all, we love a good volunteer. Someone eager and willing that we can draw in and put to good use for our programs and purposes. It's the kind of thing churches thrive on. 

But Jesus...Jesus doesn't call His disciples from the crowd. He doesn't even call them from the shore. He calls them from the sea, where they are going about their regular business and maybe or maybe not catching the action on the shore. Maybe or maybe not hearing Him teach. Jesus calls His disciples from behind Him, from a place to which He has to deliberately turn around in order to even notice. 

Do you get that Jesus will turn around to deliberately notice you? Do you get that He's so in tune with what's going on around Him that He's not blinded by what's going on in front of Him? That He's not so enamored by the crowds that He would miss the few? 

The other Gospels, they tell you that He called the fishermen when they were on the sea, but Luke...Luke tells you what Jesus was doing when He did it. That He was teaching. That He was engaged in the other direction. That He had to make a conscious effort to engage the fishermen. 

That Jesus turned around and called the chosen, rather than simply choosing from the crowds. 

He still does. 

That's pretty cool. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Questions and Answers

When you think about Jesus, what often comes to mind is the kind of teaching that He did with authority, the words He spoke on, say, the Mount, His absolute statements of absolute truth. But read the Gospels again and this time, notice something else: notice how often it is that Jesus asks questions. 

Yes, some are rhetorical questions. Some are questions meant to antagonize one group or another. But many are honest questions, too. For example, He asks the disciples who others say He is...and who they say He is. He wants to know what they think. 

But He also asks questions to make persons think more deeply. He wants them to consider their own thoughts and the ideas that got them there. He wants them to say the words, not just to hear them, so that they have a real force behind them, something personal and meaningful. Yes, even His questions show His wisdom.

And they always have. 

You remember that story when Jesus was 12 and His family took Him to the big celebration in the big city? On the way home, they figured He was just somewhere in the pack, and when they finally started to earnestly look for Him, they found Him back in the Temple with the learned men, who were marveling at His wisdom. 

What was He doing in the Temple that made the men marvel? Was He teaching? Nope. Was He reading advanced scripts? Nope. Was He performing elaborate rituals? Nope. He was asking questions

He was asking questions in the Temple with a bunch of Torah scholars, and His questions made them marvel at His wisdom. His questions, not His answers. 

We think that so much of life is about having all of the answers, but the truth is, it's about being engaged enough to know what questions to ask. Be observant, be really observant. Invest yourself in what's going on around you. Ask probing questions, meant to dig at something deeper because your questions reveal what it is that you're really seeing. Your questions say more about what you're involved with than your answers. They show your insight better than any response you could ever give. 

Questions let you live in a space that you don't fully understand. They show your willingness to be uncomfortable for awhile, especially if it means you get to swim deeper. Most of us, we're comfortable on the surface with just what we know, just what we like. But those who question, they reveal that something in their soul is not satisfied. Something wants more. They want more. They're looking at a puzzle without all the pieces or with something that doesn't quite fit, and they want to know...they want to know more. They want to know what it is. 

Some have said that we shouldn't question, especially when it comes to God. That we should have "enough faith" that we don't need questions, but I don't buy that. Questions help us go deeper when nothing else can. They help others to engage with us from their own vulnerabilities and create real connections. You learn a lot more about Jesus in a dialogue with Him than you do if He just sits on the mountain preaching at you and telling you what to do and to think and to be. You learn a lot more about yourself from what you're willing to ask than what you claim to know. 

And when it comes to God, this is important, too: if you never ask questions, how is He ever supposed to answer you?
So ask. Because your questions are important, and they often say more about you than your answers ever will. 

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Cross

One of the things that the crowd yells at Jesus while He is hanging on the Cross is that if He really is the Messiah, He ought to come down and save Himself, showing them His power, and they would all believe. And we read that and we think, well, yeah. If Jesus could take Himself off the Cross, I'd believe too. Seems like a win-win; we get to believe and Jesus doesn't have to die. 

The question is, though, what would we believe? 

We would believe in a powerful, almighty God. We would believe in a God with a hand strong enough to do whatever He wishes, even against our own wishes. We would believe in a God whose thumb could smash us into the dust from which we came. We would believe that God is powerful...

...but would we believe that He is love?

That's the rub. That's the challenge. Jesus absolutely could have shown His power on the Cross and pulled Himself off, but what would that have really demonstrated to us? What would we have learned about Him? We would come in fear and trembling, but the wrong kind of fear and trembling. 

It's why His miracles always show not just His power, but His love. His compassion. His miracles do something for the very treasured human being stuck inside of the brokenness. He doesn't do stuff just to show off His power; that wouldn't tell you what He wants you to know about Him. It's not enough for Him that you know that He is God.

That's what all the other religions have. They have gods who want you to know that they're gods. Gods who flaunt their power above all else and make you feel small, horribly small, under the weight of their might. They are gods who make demands of those who know their power, who dictate all the time just what it means that they are gods and you are not. They are gods who lord it over their people. 

But your Lord...your Lord loves you. 

If Jesus pulls Himself off the Cross, you don't see that. You don't get to know that. You don't witness just how deep His love for you is. If He comes down and says, you know, it's cool; I don't need to die, then what He's really saying is that power is enough for Him. It's all He really wants. But if He stays...if He gives up His spirit, if He dies and the earth trembles and shakes, the graves rattle, the bones rise, and the curtain is torn in two, then you see not just all the power that He holds but all the love that He has that He was willing to die just to show you. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

A Common Man

Have you ever noticed how often Jesus goes unidentified in the Gospels? He heals a man, and the Pharisees ask him who healed him, and he's like, "I don't know. That guy?" Even His enemies, the religious elite and leaders of the Temple, the guys who tracked His every move and kept trying to trap Him, the ones who asked Him questions every chance they got to try to discredit Him, the guys who stood face-to-face with Him as they were called vipers and hypocrites, couldn't pick Him out of a crowd. When Judas goes to betray Jesus, he has to work out with them a sign so they know which one He is when they get there. 

And when he gets to the Garden, he goes up and kisses Jesus just to make sure they're getting the right guy. 

Now, we have images of Jesus plastered all over the place. In our churches, in our Bibles, on our walls, on our postcards. We have a pretty good idea of what He looked like (even though we're probably quite wrong on a lot of accounts). Every image we have of Him is glowing somehow, and we think, yeah, if I saw that Guy, I'd recognize Him. 

But would you? Would you really? Put Him in a crowd with a bunch of other guys, especially in "Movember" - all these dark-headed guys with bushy beards - and you're going to pick out Jesus? The persons who had seen Him face-to-face apparently couldn't even differentiate Him from His disciples (the only other persons present in the Garden that night), and you think you're good from a wildly-inaccurate picture you found in the Children's Bible? 

I'm not so sure. 

It's not like He glows or anything. It's not like the sound of angels surrounds Him and you can just follow the chorus. In fact, that's quite the issue at hand - He's completely common-looking. Totally ordinary. Just another guy. 

I used to wonder how these men who were so set on "getting" Him couldn't even pick Him out of a small crowd, but when I put the biblical story together, I think I get it. You have to go back to the Old Testament for this one. 

When Israel elected Saul as their first king, he was the obvious choice. Everything about him stood out from the crowd. He was taller, more handsome, perfectly skin-toned, absolutely a gorgeous spectacle of a man. If you took a line-up of persons and asked which of them looked the most kingly, Saul stood out, hands-down. The Scriptures even tell us that. It's one of the reasons they picked him. 

But Saul was an utter disaster as a king, and the next guy that comes along is David. David is just the opposite. There is absolutely nothing stand-outish about David. He's a ruddy little shepherd boy, a squirt of a kid. All of his brothers look more kingly than he does, but it's here that the Lord first reminds us that He doesn't look at outward appearances. And David, for all his sin, is a stunning king. It's from his lineage that we're told that Jesus will come...and He does. 

So it makes sense that Jesus is just as common as David, just as ordinary. Just as ruddy, this little carpenter boy. A squirt of a kid. The kind of guy you wouldn't pick out of a crowd, and that's the point. That's the whole point of it. Truly a king in the lineage of David, Jesus is just so...common. The fullness of God in human flesh and yet, so...average.

So average that when it comes right down to it, one of His closest friends had to point out in a small crowd which Guy it was they were trying to kill. 


Thursday, December 5, 2019

Who is the Lord?

As Jesus approached Jerusalem for what would be the final time, He sent His disciples ahead of Him into town to bring back a colt for Him to ride in on. He told them where they would find the colt and just to untie it and bring it to Him. If anyone asked what they were doing, He told them to say, "The Lord needs it." 

Which is cool, I guess, as long as you understand that "the Lord" means "Jesus." 

And there's no guarantee that everyone did. Whenever you see someone standing on the side of the road trying to figure out what all the hubbub is, someone tells them it's "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus of Nazareth is here! Jesus of Nazareth is passing by! The blind men cry out, "Son of David!" And even when Jesus is riding that colt into the town, the persons throwing down palm leaves are yelling, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Not, "Blessed is the Lord who comes!" 

So even the crowds aren't getting that "Jesus is the Lord." Not yet, anyway. 

In fact, to say that you were giving anything to the Lord in that time meant that you were taking it to the Temple as a sacrifice. Which is weird, since there was no ritual Old Testament sacrifice of a donkey...that I know of. But still, if you see someone untying your colt and saying, "The Lord needs it," the first thing that's popping into your head is that these weirdos are going to take your colt to the priest and sacrifice it on the altar. Your colt. Their sacrifice. Not a lot of colt owners are going to go for that. Not a lot of them are going to say, "Oh, yeah, sure. Go ahead."

Now, the disciples could have said, "my Lord needs it," which would reference whoever it was that they were serving as their Lord. That sort of thing would have happened all the time in a society where servanthood was common. But that's not what they said. They said, "the Lord needs it."

And then, they just showed back up with a colt. 

It's another one of those things that you really have to stop and think about how the people of the time would have heard it as it was playing out. Nobody would have heard, "Rabbi Jesus needs this colt." They couldn't have fathomed or understood what it meant to these men that "the Lord" needs it. Yet somehow, the disciples come back with it anyway, and Jesus fulfills yet another prophecy. 

It makes you wonder who owned that colt, what they knew, what was on their heart, what they thought was going on or was going to happen.

It makes you wonder what you'd do if you heard something that didn't make sense, except that you knew that it somehow came from God. Imagine a man untying your colt, and all he tells you is, "The Lord needs it." Even knowing who the Lord is, don't you have questions? Or would you just let it go? Would "the Lord needs it" be enough for you? 

Could it be?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Holding Back

Jesus, You love me, right? 

It's the foundation of many prayers, the kind of innocent-sounding question meant to set the stage for something a bit more diabolical. It's the start of a logic train that ends with something like, "Jesus, if You love me like You say You do, then You ought to give me this precious thing that I want, oughtn't You? It's just so precious a thing...." 

It's the kind of prayer we're prone to praying, especially when we want something. Especially when we want something that we think is something "good." Jesus wants to give us good things, so He ought to give us good things. And the best way to get Him to give us the good things that we want is to get Him to promise to give us good things before we ask for whatever it is that's on our minds. 

No backsies. 

This is exactly what James and John did when they came to Jesus with their bold requests, like wanting to sit at His right and His left in the Kingdom. They came to Jesus and they said, "Hey. We've got something on our minds, something we've been thinking about for awhile now. And it's a good thing, a really good thing. It will be very good for us. We want You to give us whatever it is we ask for, knowing that we've already told You it's a good thing. Will You give us what we ask for, Jesus?" 

Because of course, at this point, if Jesus says yes, they're in. They can ask for anything, and He's bound to give it to them. He has to. He's committed. It's everything we want our prayers to be - guaranteed fulfilled before we even ask because, hey, we're only asking for good things here. 

But Jesus isn't falling for it. He never does. He doesn't say no, because of course that's a problem. That sets up a Jesus who says He doesn't want to give you good things, and we can't have that. But He doesn't say yes, either. He knows better than to lock Himself into an unknown agreement with a fallen human heart. 

What Jesus says is, tell Me more. Tell Me what it is that you want Me to give you. Tell Me what's so "good" that you just had to ask Me for it. 

In other words, Jesus asks, "What is good?" 

The answer in James's and John's case is what is so often is in our case - it's something that would be good for them, in the sense that they would come into a deal of esteem and power and prestige and honor and so forth, but it's not a thing that is good in and of itself. It's not objectively good, and it's certainly not even subjectively good for anyone but James and John. (And us, if we're asking.) 

That's why Jesus asked for more. What is this "good" that you speak of? What's "good" to you? Is it good just because it gets you something that you want, or is it good for the sake of goodness? Is it good from behind your eyes, or is it still good from the outside looking in? How do you understand what good is? 

Because He'll give you what is good, but I'm telling you - that ain't it. 

And we know that it isn't. We confess that ourselves when we try to get Jesus to commit before we even tell Him what it is. When we start keeping secrets and dancing around our desires, trying to paint them in a certain light by putting just the right sort of angle on it, we know it's not really good. We know it's not really God-pleasing. We know it's not something that Jesus would give us in His right mind; that's why we're trying to get Him out of His right mind and into some sort of obligation. 

But Jesus never falls for it. And thank God He doesn't. 

So just start with what you want. Just start with what you're asking for. If it's good, He'll already know it's good, and He's all about giving you good things. If it's not good, if it's not really something that's truly, objectively good, you're never going to back Him into a corner on it. 

"But You love me, Jesus, don't You?" 

Precisely, He does. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Hope for Healing

While we're on the subject of demons, let's talk about the demonaic for a minute. This is the naked guy in the graveyard that Jesus finds when He crosses to the other side of the sea. Mark tells us that this man has been bound with chains that he keeps breaking off, yelling and screaming like a madman, and no one can subdue him. 

Which raises the question...how does he keep getting chains on him, then? 

How does a raving lunatic, an absolute maniac, keep finding himself in chains if no one can subdue him? Who's holding him down to put chains on him in the first place, chains he keeps breaking? And then, who's coming back to do it again? 

The truth is that a guy like that, he has to submit himself to the chains. He has to let them do it to him. And I bet after awhile, he even started begging them. 

See, that's what hope does. 

This guy is completely out of control. He feels it. He knows that he's not in his right mind, and he's nowhere near the person he once was or the person that he wants to be. He's lost it. And the only way he can think of to get it back is to somehow control himself, but he can't. He must be controlled. He must be chained. He must, for a moment, be able to stop the downward spiral and get some semblance of control back, even if it has to come from the outside. So he lets himself be chained, hoping that if he can just calm things down, just for a minute, his whole world can change. 

It's easy to think that he wasn't even in there any more, that the demons took so much control of his soul that he, as a person, was long gone. It's easy for us to think that about anyone, really. We look at those who struggle with mental illness, and we think there's not even a person in there any more. All we see is the struggle. We look at the addict, and all we see is the struggle. We look at disease, and all we see is the struggle. The person is gone, overtaken by whatever's taken over them. 

But I tell you - I have never met anyone, no matter how far "gone," who wasn't somewhere in their own soul. I've never met anyone so overcome by brokenness, burden, disease, addiction, grief, demons, whatever, that wasn't in there somewhere, scratching and clawing and trying to get out. Or at least to hold onto themselves. To hold onto whatever sliver of who they were that they have left. In my own darkest moments, I knew...I knew there was this part of me that hadn't died yet, and it was all I could do to keep her, but I was determined to do so. 

This demonaic, for whatever we think of him, had something left of himself. Something he was desperate to hold onto. Desperate enough that he kept letting himself be chained, if for no other reason than that it would limit his ability to be the person he didn't want to be. It would stop him, for a time, from hurting himself or hurting others or doing wrong. It was the only way he knew to hold onto himself. 

And it's how, when Jesus sets him free, we see a man completely transformed, just like that. What he's held onto, he gets to hold again, and in the blink of an eye, he's clothed and sitting in his right mind, begging to follow Jesus. The fullness of the hope that he's fought to hold onto is now his, and all it takes is that little bit...just that little bit...and he's got it. Just like that. 

It's the story of more of us than we care to admit, than we care to confess. We're so clouded by...all these things, whatever they are. And we're just...holding on. We're holding onto whatever we can, whatever little bit of ourselves we've got. That's hope. That's what hope does. It makes us hold on.

Because we believe that we can be that again, that we can be us. That we can be ourselves. That we can be free of whatever it is that's holding us back. 

And you know what? We can. 

That's Jesus.

That's what Jesus does.