Thursday, February 28, 2019

On Accountability

Among the law in Leviticus - actually, very early into the law in Leviticus - is provision for the sinner who has sinned and doesn't know it. 

Our initial reaction might be, how does one sin and not know it? We are so very concerned about right and wrong, about good and bad, that we figure that if you've done wrong or bad, you probably know you've done wrong or bad. But that's just not the case. In God's law, it is possible to break it without even realizing. And so, God has laid out what should happen when this occurs.

There are a couple of different notions here to consider. First, there is the possibility that a man may break the law without realizing he has broken the law and only finds out he is a sinner when someone else tells him about it. This is an important call to accountability, not for the community, but for the man. 

The man must be willing to hear from someone else that he's done something wrong, something he doesn't even realize he's done. 

And we all need to have this kind of humility in our lives. We all need to have the kind of spirit that is willing to hear even what we don't think is possible, particularly when we have wounded someone unintentionally. We have to be willing to hear the truth and act on it, making amends for our wrongdoing and atoning for our actions. In this case, the man who finds out he has done something wrong brings his offering to the priest as soon as he hears about it, and he is relieved of the guilt of his sin. 

But he has to be willing to hear about it first. So must we.

A second possibility is that a man does something wrong and nobody really realizes it, except that the ripple effects of sin spread through the community in an undeniable way. Something is amiss, and no one can quite put their finger on it, but everyone knows that something is wrong. It doesn't take long for a God-fearing community to realize that someone has sinned. 

In this case, the community must bring an offering before the Lord for its atonement. They must sacrifice an offering pleasing to the Lord and declare that they are aware that they are unaware of the sin, but do not deny its reality. In this way, they make peace with God for all of them, the community and the sinner included.

This one is a bit more difficult, perhaps, but it is extremely important in our contemporary world. We are living in a community of sin, a community wounded by the actions of others. It's not our sin, not necessarily. Sometimes, we don't even know what the sin was. But we see the marks of it all around us. We see the hurting souls all around us. Something is wrong, something is amiss. And we know it. 

So we, the people of God, must be a community who atones for sin where we see it without knowing it. We must be a people who come before the Lord on our knees, seeking forgiveness for the error of human ways.

And it's tough. We look at the problems of the world and we think, that's not my problem. I didn't do that. I don't think that way. I don't act that way. That's not my problem. 

Think about racism, for example. Overwhelmingly, most of us are not racists. We wouldn't consider ourselves racist. We don't do racist things. And yet, America has historically had a problem with racism. It's easy to think it's not our problem, since we aren't contributing to it, but it is our community. And that makes it our problem. 

Or sexual abuse/assault/trafficking. Most of us aren't perpetrators, and we aren't in the habit of soliciting prostitutes. This isn't our problem. We're sorry it happens, but what can we do about it besides what we're already doing - not contributing to the problem? But again, it is our community, and that makes it our problem. 

And so we need a measure of what Israel had, that sense of communal responsibility for the way that we live together before the Lord. We need the humility to accept that our community's sins are our sins, our problems are our problems, and we need to be a people who come before the Lord on our knees, bringing our offerings of atonement, seeking forgiveness, and longing to restore our community to its wholeness. 

Interestingly enough, it starts by being a people of the first vein, a people who can humbly hear that we've sinned without knowing it. For we have. 

Every one of us. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Know How

When we talk about skill, we're often talking about the ability to do something externally, such as the ability to change the oil in your car or to prepare a delicious meal from scratch. These are what we think of when we think of "skills." So when God sends to Moses men who are called "skilled craftsmen," for the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, we are pretty sure we know what that means.

It means that these are the men who know how to hammer the gold, silver, and bronze; they are smiths who work on the anvils in the shaping of metals. These are the men who can weave intricate patterns out of blue, violet, and scarlet yarns, making the finest details of the tapestry. These are the man who can read blueprints and measure twice, cut once, making sure everything is exactly as the Lord has drawn it up. These are the men with the "know-how." 

Except that's not it. Well, it's not all of it. 

It has to be some of it because if these men did not have the physical skill to do what they were being called to do, they wouldn't be able to do it. Plain and simple. They had to have some understanding and ability of the above-mentioned things in order to do them; God would not have called a man who didn't. 

But the actual phrase used here when we reference "skilled crafstmen" has nothing at all to do with what these men can do with their hands. Rather, the phrase is "the wise of heart." 

Their know-how is in the depths of their soul.

The skill of the soul is quite different than the skill of the hands. It knows the why behind the what, and it pays deep attention to the how because it understands that the how reveals something about the who. When you look at the way that these men built the Tabernacle, yes, they had detailed plans to work from, but it was their hearts that tied into the project. 

And hearts don't tie into measurements; they tie into meaning. 

These men kept before them the Lord who ordained the work. They kept before them the purposes for which they were building - that Israel would have a place where the Lord would dwell among them in mercy and that they would have a place to come to the Lord as a people. They kept before them the heart of the Lord, not just the plans of Him, and His deep love, abiding presence, and constant provision for Israel. 

They could already see in their hearts' eyes what would happen with these things that they were building. They could see the tablets inside the Ark. They could see the offerings poured out on the altars. They could see the people gathered in the courtyard, the priests clothed in their finest robes. They could see the bread sitting on the table and the lamps burning with oil in the dark of the night. They could smell the incense, even though they hadn't mixed it yet. And they knew not just what they were doing, but what they were doing it for. 

We could use a little more of this wisdom in our lives. Most of us, anyway. We could use the kind of eyes that see with the heart and remember what the Lord is doing through the work He's given us to do. We focus so much on our ability, on our skill, and that's important; we have to be able to actually do the work. But so many of us lose sight quickly of the why behind the what, and we are too busy looking at the blueprints to see the Tabernacle at all. We're too busy looking at the pieces to see the whole. We're too busy looking at the work to see the use of it. 

Yet, if God has called us to the work, it is not just because of our skill in doing it. It's not just because we are able. It's because He has made us to see the vision of what He's set before us, He's made us to see the holiness of our work. He's made us wise of heart. 

Let us never lose sight of that. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

I Am

In Exodus 34, a really interesting exchange takes place between the Lord and Moses, who have had a number of interesting exchanges up to this point. By now, Moses knows well who the Lord is and the Lord knows Moses and his heart. The two are not strangers, and you would think that they could talk like friends. Often, they do. 

But in this particular case, they talk like the faithful and the Faithful One. And it's really interesting.

Yet something else in the camp of Israel has brought out God's need to declare who He is, so the Lord speaks first and lays out in plain language who He is. What His heart is. How He intends to act. The very core of His being. The depth of His character. In a beautiful, powerful, passionate monologue, the Lord says, "This is Who I Am." 

And then Moses, knowing from personal experience that everything the Lord has just said about Himself is true, having intimately encountered the very Lord who just declared Himself, absolutely certain and 100% convinced of the truth of the Lord's words, falls down on his face and begins to pray. And what does he pray? He prays that the Lord will be exactly who He just said He will be, that the Lord will do exactly what He just said He will do, that the Lord's character will be revealed exactly as the Lord has declared it will be revealed. 

In other words, God says, "This is Who I Am" and Moses falls face down and prays, "Yes, Lord. Be that." 

Let me ask you something - when was the last time you prayed for God to be exactly who He is? 

We who call ourselves the Lord's have some pretty deeply ingrained ideas about who God is, or who He's supposed to be. We have an idea when we pray about how we want Him to show up. We are pretty sure we can tell how He's supposed to answer our prayer, if He is who we think He is.

But therein lies the subtle difference. Are we a people who want God to be who we think He is...or are we a people who want God to be who He's declared Himself to be? 

In the best of scenarios, there's quite a bit of overlap here. We hope that the God that we believe in is the God who has declared Himself. But the truth is that in a world of feel-good preaching, of prosperity Gospel, of individual-centered faith, of privatized Christianity, there's also a very good chance that we've lost sight of who God says He is in favor of who we want Him to be.

Take, even as a simple example, Jesus. For a lot of today's Western world, Jesus is a "nice guy" who loves everyone indiscriminately and doesn't much care how you live your life as long as you say that you love Him back. But the Jesus of the Bible is a deeply passionate individual who cares deeply how you live your life and wants for you life abundant. When you hear Him speak, He's not soft-spoken; He's raw and powerful and passionate. That Jesus scares a lot of modern Christians. They don't want that Jesus. They want "nice guy" Jesus, and that's who they pray to and that's who they expect to show up. They can't handle the real Jesus.

And yet, we ought to be a people who are praying for the real Jesus. 

It's why I love Moses's prayer. He is more entitled than any of us to believe that he knows well the Lord, and yet, when he is faced with the reality of who the Lord declares Himself to be, all Moses can do is fall down and pray for that Lord to be present among them. For that Lord to show up. Not the Lord that he thinks he knows, but the Lord who has declared Himself, "This is Who I Am."

So I'll ask again - when was the last time you prayed for God to be exactly who He is? 

What would happen if you did?

Monday, February 25, 2019

For the Sake of Others

When the Israelites are instructed to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the Tent of Meeting where the Lord will dwell among them for the first time with His own place, very detailed and specific instructions are given to Moses on the mountain. These instructions contain measurements, processes, and everything they'll need to make the Tabernacle exactly like God wants it. 

And then God tells Moses that He has selected a man from Israel who has the skill to do all this. And that He has selected also a helper for this man, a helper who also has the skills to do all this. And that these two men will be in charge of building the Tabernacle. And it's easy to think that these two guys, then, were the guys, that they did it all by themselves, since they were the ones gifted for the work. 

But there in the calling is this tiny little clause, this little bit of a phrase added onto the calling of these two skilled men. He says, "I have given them the ability to teach others."

Which means that two skilled men and a bunch of novices built the Tabernacle.

This is something that we often overlook, but it is just as present in us today as it was in these two guys back then. We think that God has given us our gifts so that we can use them and that He's calling us to a place that only we can serve. We think that the most faithful thing we can do with our gifts is whatever we're gifted to do and that it's upon our shoulders to do what we can when we have opportunity to do so.

Most of us forget the tremendous blessing that it is to share our gifts with others by teaching them and training them in the same gifts. Most of us don't stop and consider that God wants us to teach others to learn how to live the way that we live out of our gifts. 

And maybe they'll never share our gifts; that's okay. But maybe they will. Either way, they get a glimpse of a life they can't understand unless we share our gifts not just through offering, but through teaching. 

Take for example my gift of faith. It gives me eyes to see the world differently than most persons do. It gives me a heart that jumps to certain conclusions that might take others a very long time to get to, if they ever do. It doesn't mean my gift is better than anyone else's, but there's something very important that I offer when I share how my gift works...rather than just my gift.

It's possible that I could just sit here and believe. That's what faith does, right? It just sits around and believes. Intensely. But what good does it do for you if I just sit here and believe in the midst of your problem? We have plenty of Christians who try to do this very thing, who look at someone in the midst of a great battle and say things like, "I believe God is going to turn this around for you." You know what happens? Nothing. It actually makes it harder for the non-faith-gifted person to believe because they don't know why you'd say that and if it doesn't happen the way they think, they can't see it and it looks like you've just got a blind faith.

The key in sharing a faith-gift faith like this is to teach others to see what you see, the way you see. You have to change their vision for their life, let them in on what's going on that's behind whatever they're looking at. If I sit here and believe based on what my heart knows and I am able to teach you to see with your heart, now you have learned a new way of faith that actually does change the way you believe.

And that's what God wants - for us to learn from each other how to do the gifted things He's called us to do. Not that we should just do them, but that we should share them and help others to do them, too. 

Like building a Tabernacle. When the project started, there were two gifted craftsmen, but God gave them both the ability and the mandate to teach others, and we have no idea how many hands wove together those tents. But we know it was more than four. And that's pretty cool. 

Because it made it the community's Tabernacle in a way that it couldn't have been if just one guy did it. It made it Israel's. And that's what it was always meant to be. 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Fruits of the Spirit

This question arose this week, and it was interesting enough to take some time and look deeper into it. The question, which the person asking had apparently wrestled with for quite some time, comes from the book of Galatians. When Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, why are these not called the "fruits" of the Spirit? 

After all, it seems like Paul is talking about nine somewhat different things, things that look very different to us. Love and joy are not the same thing. Peace and kindness are rather different. So how is it that the Scriptures take these nine seemingly different things and call them just one thing - fruit?

There is, to some degree, a language argument here, although it's not the most important or most satisfying one. In fact, to try to argue word usage and language nuance here would be to distract from the simple truth that puts the matter to rest and explains beautifully, in a way that we don't often think about it, why this is.

Imagine walking up to an apple tree. It is covered in fruit - fruits, really, since there are more than one of them. And these fruit come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are big, some are small. Some are fully mature, some are still growing. Some have darkened into a good, solid red, while some remain a little streaked for whatever reason. Bite into a few, and you'll find that one may be a little sweeter or juicier, another may be a little more tart or meatier. Even though all of the fruit are the same, they are all also slightly different, unique in their own expression of the seed from which they came. 

And yet, all apples. All specifically the same type of apple. We know this because they grow on the same apple tree; we have great confidence in this. 

Now, if we were looking just at the fruit, we might be tempted to try to separate it in some way. The lighter-colored ones over here, the darker ones over there. The smaller ones here, the larger ones there. And so on. And we might even convince ourselves there was some fundamental difference between the groups of apples that we've created, but the truth remains that they are actually fundamentally the same - still all the same fruit from the same tree.

This is what we find with the fruit of the Spirit. If we try to categorize it in some way by looking at the nine items we are given, we find that we're tempted to conclude there is some fundamental difference between love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness and faithfulness. And we look at these things and wonder why they are not called "fruits," since they seem to be so different. But the truth remains that they are actually fundamentally the same - 

All fruit from the Spirit tree.

See, it is the tree that makes it the fruit. It is the Spirit that produces them. It's as though we could walk up to the Spirit and see all these things hanging there, ripe for the picking. They all look a little different, all shaped according to their own unique growth and existence, but the fact that they are hanging on the Spirit tree makes us confident that they are all the same fruit; they come from the same seed. 

And if you were to cut them open, every one of them, what you would find inside would be the seed of the Spirit, the ability to grow more of the same. And not just more of the same, but more of what even looks different. 

Because if you cut open love and look to the seed, you find there the ability to grow joy and peace and patience. If you cut open kindness, you find in its seed the genetics for self-control and gentleness. If you cut open goodness, you find faithfulness in its seed. And we know this is true because cultivating one of these nine helps us to cultivate the others. Which should come really as no surprise, since they are all fruit of the same tree. 

So that's why they're called the fruit of the Spirit and not the fruits of the Spirit - because we're not actually looking at the fruit itself. At least, we're not supposed to be. We're looking at the tree. The tree is the Spirit, so here is its fruit. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Offerings of Captivity

Several days into the wilderness, far from the safety, security, and relative prosperity of their settlement in Egypt, Israel receives from the Lord instructions for building the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting where the Lord Himself will dwell among them. And you might think that a people who had packed up everything portable and carried it out of a more permanent place would have very little to offer in terms of collectively building something new out of their limited resources, but in Israel, exactly the opposite is true: they brought so much in freewill offering to the Lord that they had to be told to stop bringing it. 

Which kind of raises the question, where does a people in transition without a place to store anything come up with too much silver and gold and bronze for the Lord's house?

Simply put, Egypt.

Remember that when the people were preparing to leave at the first Passover, the Lord made Egypt generous to them. They asked for gold and silver and jewelry and gifts, and they received more than they asked for. The Egyptians were happy to give it to them. So they left not only with their households, but with tremendous wealth. 

So in the wilderness, when God asks for a measure of their wealth, they give what they've got. Now, think about this for a minute. This means that essentially the entire Tabernacle, the first place that God is going to physically dwell among His people, is made with the plunder of an enslaving enemy nation. Just let that sink in. It's amazing.

And it's still the offering that He's working with today, if only we'd be so generous in bringing it.

We were all at one point slaves to something other than the Lord. We have in our pasts a story, a brokenness, a captivity, and although we often look back at these times with deep anguish or even shame, the truth is that everything we've been through in our lives has left us with a tremendous gift, a great wealth that wouldn't be possible if we hadn't experienced it. 

Maybe it's compassion. Maybe it's fortitude. Maybe it's persistence. Maybe it's strength. Maybe it's a way of seeing in the world. Maybe it's love. Maybe it's something else entirely; you know what it is. It's something that you carried from one story to another, from one place to another, out of the darkness and into the light. And when you got there, it was probably wilderness at first, a place where you felt lost and didn't know what to do with all that stuff you were carrying around. 

But then there's this call. Bring your gifts. Bring your offerings. Bring what you have, so that the Lord can build a place among you for Himself. 

This is exactly where we need to bring our brokenness. He wants it. He calls for it. He's prepared to use it to build something glorious, a special place of mercy and sacrifice just for Himself, just to live among us. It's not a burden that you bear from your captivity; it's an offering, just waiting for its season. 

And this is that season.

It's easy to resent the things we carry with us from our broken places. It's easy to hate the heaviness that they bear on our shoulders. It's easy to wonder, at times, what we were thinking, trying to take that thing with us on an arduous journey through what seems like a desolate place. But that's not what we should be thinking.

What we should be thinking is...what can God build out of this? What can God make from my offering? What can He do with what I am able to freely offer Him, for no other reason than that I was willing to carry it into this wilderness in the first place?

I'm telling you - you have a tremendous gift. A tremendous gift. Make it an offering and see what glory comes of it. You won't be disappointed. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


We're starting now to get into the commandments, into God's instructions for Israel on how they are to live. And one of the central commandments for the people is that they observe a Sabbath. In Exodus, the Sabbath is prescribed because the Lord Himself rested on the seventh day; in Deuteronomy, it is because the Lord led them out of captivity in Egypt. Regardless of the reason, the prescription hasn't changed: the people of God are to work six days and rest on the seventh. 

Sabbath is a lost art in our 24/7/365 world. We don't have to stop, so most of us don't. The rest of the world doesn't stop, so we often feel like we can't. If we do, we might get left behind. Or perhaps it's just more convenient not to. There are 168 hours in a week, and it seems like we can be more conscientious of our time if we have all of them to use. Cut us down to 144, and all of a sudden, we feel pressed.

As though time is even real. 

But God's idea for Sabbath isn't just about us, and that's something important that we have to understand. It's not individual or personal; it's one of those communal ideas that God is so fond of, and so when He gives more detailed instructions on just what Sabbath means, He makes sure that you understand that it's not just about you. 

Specifically, He says that when you observe the Sabbath, everyone around you observes the Sabbath, too. The servants in your household Sabbath with you. The oxen in your field. The livestock in your fold. Your wife and sons and daughters, indeed your whole family. When you rest, everyone connected to you rests. 

In other words, on the seventh day, make sure you provide rest for those upon whom you depend for your six days of work. If they're working with you, human or animal, they're resting with you. 


Not only does this give the laborers rest, but it also gives the land rest. For one whole day, it's not being worked; it's free to just do what it naturally does, to exist in the glory of God and be, well, what it was created to be, not what it's being made into. 

And that, by the way, is why we need to Sabbath - so we can stop being what we're trying to make ourselves and for a little while, just be what God has made us. Whoever we are when we're not working on it is who we are at our most intimate, by the grace of God, and we need some time to touch that.

But God's prescription for the Sabbath, where not just you but everyone tied into you rests on the seventh day, has changed the way I Sabbath, for the better. 

Because now, when I think about the day that I've set aside for rest and what I will or will not do on that day, I think about whether what I will do will cause someone else to have to work in order for me to do it. In other words, I think about whether my rest brings rest to others. If it doesn't, I don't do it. 

Imagine if your day of rest was a day truly of rest and not a day to "catch up" on things. Imagine if you decided on your Sabbath that you wouldn't shop - your shopping requires someone else to work to maintain the store. Yes, they are working anyway because not everyone Sabbaths when you do, but that's not the point. Imagine if you decided that on your Sabbath, you would not eat out, not even fast food, because your eating out would require someone else to be working when you aren't. It's the basic principle that had even much of America closed on Sundays until the last few decades - when we rest, we rest together. If we set aside a day for not working, then none of us will work. And I know, it doesn't seem to make much of a difference when the world runs without you and doesn't seem to even notice that you're not asking anything of it, but I'm telling you right now - it makes a difference in your own heart.

And that doesn't mean, I don't think, that no "work" is done on the Sabbath. Sometimes, we have opportunity to love one another on the Sabbath and it almost looks like work, but love isn't work; it never has been. So yes, even when I am resting, I am willing and able to love others. I do it out of a different heart on my Sabbath day, with a different pace and a different attitude. And yes, I have even run to the store on a rare Sabbath for someone I love who has had no other options. 

But I keep coming back to what God says about Sabbath and trying to be intentional about what rest means. It's not about us individually; it's about us collectively. It's about us giving rest to one another while we take our own and receiving the gift of rest from others as they take theirs and letting the land and the animals and our own souls, just for a time, be what they are instead of what they're being made into. And remember the glorious God who breathed life into it all and made it possible. 

Even in a 24/7/365 world. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Give Him Rest

Not often, but every once in awhile, Israel came up against her enemies in the wilderness and needed to fight. In one particular battle, the onus for victory fell upon Moses, who stood on a high place within sight of the battle. 

As long as Moses had his hands raised, Israel prevailed; but as soon as Moses let his hands down, she began to lose. The battle raged on for hours upon hours, time upon time, longer than any man could possibly stand in one spot with his hands raised. You wonder, maybe, if Moses standing at the battle with his hands raised has any typological connection to Christ on the Cross with His hands outstretched, but I digress.

At some point, those tending to Moses recognize how tired he is, how it's becoming more and more of a struggle for him to keep his own arms in the air. So they come alongside him and raise up his hands for him, each man taking an arm and holding it high so that Israel can win the battle.

Most of us think this is what it means to help one another. To come alongside. We want to serve each other and be of use in our brothers' and sisters' times of need, so we come and stand and use our strength to raise their tired hands, thinking this is the best possible thing we could do for them. 

In one sense, maybe that's true. After all, it's not much of a stretch to say that what Moses wanted most in that moment was an Israelite victory. It's what he had his eyes set on. It was the goal he was working toward. He kept his hands raised for an inhuman amount of time because he cared deeply about what was happening as a result of his actions. He had his eyes on the prize, so to look at Moses in this moment and to wonder how to best help him is to see what he's looking at, to see what he sees, and to go after it with him. 


That's really only half of the story.

And it's a good thing, but it's not the best thing. 

Because look what else those who tended to Moses thought to do for him in this moment. He's been up there for hours, an excruciatingly long time. His arms are weary, but so is the rest of him. So before they come alongside him to raise his arms, his friends move a rock over for him to sit on. Yes, sit. They give rest to his weary body, not just strength to his failing arms. 

This is the part we often forget when we're trying to help one another. We get so busy looking at what our brothers and sisters are looking at that we forget to look at our brothers and sisters and see their very human needs, their very real needs. And it's the small things that are easiest to overlook. 

I mean, who would have thought Moses, in the midst of battle, might need to sit down? 

His friends, that's who. And if we are any good friends at all, it's the kind of thing that we must recognize, too.

We must have eyes for the man and not just the war. We must recognize what the human needs are, not just what the battle plan is. Everyone is fighting a fight, often that we know nothing about, but we're all doing it in the same flesh. The same failing, broken, weary flesh. 

Let us never fail to see that in each other, for this is often the place where we offer the deepest love. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Live Free or Die

There's an interesting dynamic with Israel in the wilderness. If you've read through the narrative of their journey, you've probably noticed that they're guilty of a bit of grumbling...okay, a lot of grumbling. They always seem to have something they're unhappy about. 

What's interesting is that sometimes, they're unhappy about completely opposite things. 

Take, for example, how often they cry out that they're going to die in this God-forsaken wilderness where, ironically, God has done nothing but forsake them. Rather, He is ever-present with them, and they need only to look at the cloud and the fire to know this. Still, they cry out. They're going to die in this barren place! And they conclude it would be better for them to go back to Egypt, where they were able to live. Even living as slaves is better than dying as free wanderers. 

But pay attention, and it doesn't take long before you hear another vein coming through in the Israelites' complaining - they'd rather be back in Egypt because it was a better place to die. If they were dying in Egypt, at least they'd have their own place to do it and their own households to pass on to their children. This wilderness? It's a terrible place to live. It's just not working for them. And many would rather go back to Egypt to die as slaves than to live in this wilderness for one day longer. 

So, Israel, which is it? Would you rather live as slaves than die as free men...or would you rather die as slaves than live as free men? 

Although less dramatic because we don't typically have physical places to which to tie our wanderings, the question most of us are asking today is the same one. Our grumbling is still the same. Caught between what God expects of us...and what we desire of ourselves...and the reality of our fallen nature that keeps us falling short, we're torn between whether we do good or whether we even try any more. 

Even Paul said it - the good that I want to do, I do not do, but the evil that I do not want to do, this I do. And so it is with us. We want to be godly people, but being godly people is hard. And sometimes, it seems like we're better off just giving up and living as slaves to sin rather than continue to fail and to die on a godly path.

Other times, of course, it's just tiring. Wearying. Exhausting. And we'd rather die and die quickly, and captivity to sin seems like a good place to die quickly. Better to just blow it big time than to persist in the baby steps of trying to get it right, of trying to righteous. 

It seems no matter where we are, anywhere seems better than this God-forsaken place. But what we must remember is that, like Israel, this is the place in which we are precisely not forsaken. And if we need a reminder of that, we need only look around and see Him present with us. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Smoke and Magic

We return now to our journey through the Bible, already in progress. When we last looked at the Scriptures, Moses had just been promised that he would know for certain that the Lord was with him and was behind all of this...after his obedience, not before. Which brings us right up to a series of plagues inflicted on Egypt (which, we might add, ought to have been a sign for Moses, as well). 

The plagues are interesting for a lot of reasons, and I have written about them to some extent before, particularly about how Pharaoh responds to what's going on around him. But what we need to look at today is the first few of the plagues, the ones where Egypt's magicians were called upon to do the same...and were able. 

It happens not once, not twice, but a few times. Moses and Aaron come before Pharaoh, beg him, and then warn him, and then they wave their arms in the air and something miraculous happens by the Lord's hand. Take, for example, all the water in Egypt turning to blood. Totally undrinkable. Complete nasty stench. All the fish have died; that's not helping the stench. 

So Pharaoh, in all his brilliant wisdom, calls his magicians...and has them do the same thing. Because, you know, when you're overrun with plague from the Lord, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is bring on more plague. Good plan.

What I wonder, while reading these passages, however, is how the magicians were able to do it. Not by what magic or wonder or words they did something that until now, only the Lord had ever been able to do, but something else entirely.

I wonder whether it's possible for the magicians only because the Lord has already done it. Only because He has already introduced it into the realm of possibility. 

In other words, was it wholly new when the Lord did it...and then magicians were able only after it had been made possible? 

I think the answer is yes. 

Because we know that the Lord makes things possible for us. We know that He's always at work, doing a new thing and making new roads for us through this world. We know that after Jesus came and lived and did all of His amazing work, He told His disciples to go and do likewise, something none of these men could ever have imagined prior to their ministry with Jesus. But He made it possible, so they became able. 

The same thing is happening in Egypt. The magicians are not somehow equal to God. They aren't somehow just as good. The miracles God is doing here aren't somehow lesser because men are able to copy them. Rather, it is because God has done them at all that men are able to follow suit. It's because the Lord made it possible that the magicians are able. 

And God is still, right now, today, making things possible for you and for me. He's still doing new things, breaking the laws of physics, breaking into the world and introducing new possibilities, that we may go and do likewise. That we might make our way through the world. That we might glorify Him by what we are able to do. 

That's pretty amazing. 

One thing, though, that I'll never understand is why Pharaoh, after having his magicians bring more frogs on the land, still asked the Lord to remove them. Like the magicians weren't capable or something. 

Oh, wait. Such a thing had never been done before....

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Loving the Church

We're living in an interesting time for the church. The world doesn't seem to understand the need for it, at best, and seeks to severely restrict it, at worst, and even Christians are beginning to buy into the narrative that faith doesn't require community, doesn't require a "church." Christian communities are coming to replace what was once the church, swapping social programming for fervent worship, and even among Christians, if you ask a question about the church, the question seems to be, "Do you like your church?" 

Do you like that building you go to on Sundays and sometimes at some other time during the week? Do you like your pastor? Do you like your worship service? Do you like your preaching? Do you like at least most of the people who are there? Tell me, Christian, do you like your church?

But whether or not we like the church has never been the question. If any of the New Testament Christians were among us, or even Christ Himself, they would be flabbergasted that we care so much about liking something...especially something that they deeply loved. 

The question, Christian, is not whether you like your church; the question is, do you love the Church? 

Do you love her?

John has shown us through his letters, and we've seen, even in our own time, that there's a lot to love about the church. She is doing a lot of good and beautiful and wonderful and holy things in this world and, most importantly, she is glorifying the Lord in doing so. 

That doesn't mean she's getting everything right. It doesn't mean she doesn't have her flaws. It doesn't mean we love everything about her. Even John, in praising the churches, disciplined them. He embraced where they were getting it right, but he called out where they were getting it wrong. And that, too, we must remember, is love. 

Actually, it is the deepest love. Because if something is flawed and broken, if it's not beautiful in all of its places, and if you don't love it, then you just don't care. You disengage. You walk away. You leave it to its own demise. If it doesn't matter to you one way or another, then you just let it be. But if you love it....

And that's why the church, despite what culture has to say about it, is in good hands. That's why she's not going anywhere, even if she gets pushed around or pushed aside. It's why we don't have to worry about what happens to the church from here. Because she's got plenty of persons who love her, who love her deeply, for all the beautiful things that she is and all the wonderful things that she can be. And those who love the church are never going to give up on her. They aren't going to let her stay broken; they aren't going to let her go away. 

Not when there's so much to love. 

So here's to the ones loving the church, embracing all the awesome things that she is and longing for all that she can be. And glorifying the Lord. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Poverty and Richness

If you're not familiar with the church at Smyrna, another one of the churches to which John writes, you could probably be forgiven for that. If you didn't know there even was such a place as Smyrna, let alone that they had a church there, you could probably be forgiven for that, too. John says that what seems most true about the church in this place is their "poverty and affliction." 

But what he loves about them is their richness. 

Let that sink in for a moment. This little church has struggled with so much affliction, has wrestled through so much poverty that when you think about this little church, that's the first thing you think of. Yet, when John writes to them, he praises their richness. And this is something that those of us who love today's church must never forget. 

There are a lot of churches in our world that seem small and inconsequential. Especially in an age of light shows and sound systems and giant projector screens that blast the words of the latest rock praise for all to see, the church that pulls its hymnals out of the pews and turns to page 43 or that hushes its children so as to hear the pastor, who isn't even mic'ed seems all but out of place. The world looks at these little churches, with just a few dollars in the offering plate, and wonders how they're even making it. And then one member leaves - just one, either by decision or by death - and it seems even more unfathomable that this little church could go on. 

And let's be honest - this is the story for a lot of churches, even those that have modernized to some degree and maybe have some of those screens and microphones. A lot of churches are struggling right now to make their ends meet. They're publishing their budgets and crying out to their congregations, but money is tight everywhere and some needs are going unfunded. Many pastors are now working outside the church office, selling cell phone plans or stocking shelves at the local grocery mart just to give as much of the church's money as possible back to the church. To keep the lights on.

It's easy to look at these churches and see how broke they are. Not broken, but broke. Impoverished. It's easy to look at the numbers and think there's no way that this little church is going to make it and there's probably no way that they're actually making it now. Despite the fact that they don't have all the lights and lasers, it's easy to think that what's going on in these churches is a smoke and mirrors show. 

Yet, if you really look at them, you discover it's nothing of the sort. If you really look at these little churches whose poverty is so easy to see, what you often find is something quite remarkable: tremendous wealth. 

These are the churches where you find the widows with two mites, the little old ladies who drop the last of their resources into the plate as it's passed. These are the churches where you find this deepest love, where the members show up to do the little things that big churches have the luxury to pay someone to do. The pastor in these churches is scrubbing the toilets; his wife is chasing the mice out of the children's area in the basement; Mr. Jones down the street is mowing the church yard; Mrs. Jones is checking on the shut-ins. 

It's in these churches that you find the Bibles with the worn-out pages, turned so often out of so much need. It's where you find the Bibles with all the markings in them, all the notes taken over the years of a lifetime of faith. It's where you find little kids in dress pants with their nice shirts just a little untucked from running around before service. There's nothing dripped down the fronts of their clothes because in this little place, there is no coffee or cafe, but there is the joy of little footprints on the hardwood floors. 

These churches, these so-called little churches, with all their struggles and challenges and problems, these are the communities that are usually living out of the greatest richness, even though you won't find it on their ledger pages. They're living out of a real and vital faith that is worth more than even the widow's two mites. It may look like they're dying, but they're living and leaving a legacy that just can't be replaced by all of the lights and sounds and screens in the world. 

So here's to the little churches, mired away in poverty and affliction. For yours is a faith of tremendous wealth, and we all learn a little something from your richness. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

One Anothering

There's more to love about the church. So far, we've seen how her first love, the Lord, ought to inspire us to love her and how her steadfast faith in the face of culture is yet another reason. John then turns to Thyatira, and he finds something to love there, too. 

What he loves there is her works.

That sounds strange to us, particularly as a people who have been taught over and over and over again that it's not by works that we are saved, but by faith. The Bible even says something like that. We're a people who exist in a church that too often believes working on her faith is the most important thing, that it's the way we believe that will ultimately determine our favor with God - our faith, our righteousness, our steadfastness. 

But the Bible also says, and John's love here reminds us, that every good faith produces good works. You can't love God without living like it, and we live like it through outward expressions of faith: works. Specifically, the works that John loves about Thyatira are their love, faithfulness, endurance, and service. 

That service one is a bit tricky.

Because to the modern church, service is something we do outside of our walls. It's something we do in our greater community, something we do to get our name - and God's name, in the best of circumstances - out there. Something that helps to change the way the world thinks about the church. To the modern church, our service is our programming, our offerings, our missions. It's building a playground and picking up trash and providing money in hardship and counseling in crisis. And that's certainly part of it.

To the first century church, however, and to the audience of most of the New Testament, it was probably quite different. Service meant not what they were doing for the world, but what they were doing for one another. See, there is a clear preference and teaching in the New Testament that Christians are to love their own first. Serve their own first. Do life with their own first. Commune with one another first. 

In fact, the overwhelming theme about the way we live as Christians in the New Testament boils down to one anothering - what we do with each other. With other Christians.

Which means that when we look for things to love in the church, what we're looking at in Thyatira, and in our own churches, is how well we "one another." How well are we loving and serving one another?

When a member of the church has a need, is the church body stepping up to meet it? Not through programs. Not through the same channels we put the world through. But through fellowship, brotherhood, common faith? Some churches do this really well and not a single need goes unmet in their body; some churches, not so much. And some churches, it depends upon the season. 

What's incredibly sad, and what we ought to recognize and understand in contrast to the love that we have for churches whose works are good, is that there is a vast number of Christians today, right now, who would never even consider asking their church to help them in a time of need...because they wouldn't expect she would do it. They wouldn't expect anyone in the church would show up for them. And again, not to harp on it, but it tends to be that the bigger the church, the more this is true. The more the church is a Christian community and not a true church, the more this is the reality of her members. 

But we should also know that a lot of churches are getting this right. A lot of churches are full of good works, serving and loving one another deeply. And many more might do so given the opportunity, if her members would just ask. 

So here's to the churches full of good works and one anothering. There's so much to love about you. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Steadfast Faith

John writes a letter to another church, this time to the one at Pergamum. And the story here is not unlike our own story as the church.

The church at Pergamum is being pressed from all sides. She's being pressured to abandon her faith, to change what she believes about God and the way that she believes it. She's being pushed to recant her faith, under severe threat from the world around her. And John praises her because, so far, she hasn't. 

It's the challenge we all face, particularly as our world continues to press in and pressure us to keep our faith "private." To make it one of those things we do behind closed doors, one of those things that the world doesn't need to know about. It's almost improper in today's West to talk about faith - at least, Christian faith - openly, the way that it used to be improper to talk about sex. (Just think about that for a second. Our world is more comfortable with fifty shades than with one Lord and Savior.) 

Just last week, I entered into a conversation that began with an idea supposedly advocated first by one of the world's most famous atheists, and that idea was that people - namely, Christians - need to stop believing their religion is a valid basis for morality and law. The argument went as it usually does, that a person can be a good and moral person without a faith and so faith must be relegated to a person's private ritual and nothing more. We can all, they argue, agree on what is good and right and moral without relying upon God for authority on the matter. 

Which isn't actually true. Just take a few of our deeply-held convictions that seem "natural" to us, so natural that they don't require any foundational belief system to reach. Murder. Overwhelmingly, most in the West would say that murder is wrong. But in other parts of the world, they have honor killings that are considered right. It's murder, but it's sanctioned murder. So murder is not a universal wrong; it's not woven into the fabric of the universe that murder is wrong. It's not something we can all just know and agree on. It comes from a shared belief system that we have that, if we're being honest about it, came from someone's Christian faith a long time ago. 

Rape. We would most all say that rape is wrong. But again, go around the world, and there are cultures where rape is not the atrocity that it is. We see it in the headlines all the time, mostly because we're supposed to be outraged by it or something. But it's not our culture, so it's not our value or our norm. Again, it's not a universal wrong woven into the fabric of the universe. It, too, comes from a shared belief system that we have that, if we're honest, came from someone's Christian faith a long time ago. 

How about equality? Certainly, it's a universal human value, no faith required, to believe that everyone is just as good and worthy and valuable as anyone else. Nope. There are plenty of cultures who retain social hierarchies, where someone is better or more valuable than someone else for any number of reasons or where non-conformists or the disabled or the disfigured are less valuable innately than others. And in our own country? Read the entire statement in the Constitution, not just part of it, and you'll see that the equality that the founding fathers wove into our brand new society is intimately connected with the belief in a Creator God who made us equal. 

But still, the world says, faith is invalid. It has no rightful place in telling us how we should live, even though any real, honest discussion of the topic must confess that it is only because of the Christian faith of others that we believe what we believe in our society. 

So we're pressured as Christians to give it all up, to push it all aside. To deny it in public and pretend that we're "just" human and not necessarily Christian. To disregard our faith, to put it away when it's inconvenient. Or even to change what it is. It's the story of Pergamum all over again. 

John says they refused to go along with it. John says they refused to be pressured. John says they kept their faith in the face of it all, and he loves them for it. 

Me, too. 

Let us love the churches who are still doing this. Who are standing up to the cultural currents and standing firm on faith and saying, unashamedly, no. This is who we are. This is what we believe. This is how we live. And we will not be bullied or shamed or threatened into breaking our faith or changing it or denying it or discounting it. 

Here's to the churches in modern-day Pergamum who never abandon the faith, but who keep it firmly and resolutely. For this is who we are. 

Friday, February 8, 2019

First Love

One of the things that John chides the church for - one of the things he's upset about - is that the church has lost sight of her "first love." By this, he means her desire to worship and to glorify the Lord. 

It's something that's too easy for us to lose sight of once human beings start coming into the church, and while the same is true of many churches today that was true of the church at Ephesus to which John wrote, the opposite is also true of many: they haven't lost sight of their first love. And overwhelmingly, the first love of the church has been to worship and to glorify the Lord. 

Even churches that break away or that start anew, even churches that start out of hurt feelings and wounded souls, even churches who seem to have a foundation that rests on not being another church or on showing another church how it's done, even churches formed by the Christians who have left other churches...they are formed out of a firm, unwavering conviction about how the Lord should be worshiped and glorified. 

In fact, almost every good fight, every good split, every good line drawn in the church has been over this one thing: someone doesn't think the Lord is being properly worshiped and glorified. And that says a lot about the hearts of the men and women who lead our churches and about who we are as communities of God. 

It's not true in every case, of course. There have been stories of churches splitting over foolish things, like the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. These are sad, but true. But thankfully, they are few and far between.

And, of course, in the era of the mega-church-as-social-construct, we have a number of Christian communities whose first love is not the Lord, but rather, is programming. Or is structure. Or is the opportunity to provide certain social services that permit someone to live by his or her Christian values, but are not specifically worship-focused or particularly glorifying. These, we must call Christian communities, for they are, but we must not confuse them with the church. 

The church is the community that worships and glorifies the Lord. This is her first love, and it always has been. 

It's hard to remember this, particularly in an age when politics reigns supreme. When our churches seem to be arguing and fighting over every little thing, when we can't decide who should do what and when and how and inevitably, feelings get hurt and all that stuff about us loving one another? Yeah, that doesn't seem like it's happening. 

So we must come back to John, to how he calls this church out for losing her love. Note that when John writes this letter to this church, he doesn't mince words. In fact, he's got a lot to say to them about how to be a better church. And it starts with reclaiming their first love - the Lord.

Here's to all the churches that never lost it.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Love Letters to the Church

One week from today, we'll pause to celebrate love wherever we find it. It's a day that reminds us about the best and most beautiful of human experiences, an experience that draws us toward a hope we've almost forgotten. For we are, after all, a people made by Love for love. And this makes it a good time to pause here, as well, and celebrate what it is that we love about the church. 

The church, at least in America, gets kind of a bad rap. Even, surprisingly, from Christians, who are deciding in not-small numbers that they don't really need the church any more. (Not true, but a lot of Christians still try to make this argument.)

After all, the church is fundamentally flawed: it's full of human beings who are fundamentally flawed, so the church herself is a place where the worst of who we are sometimes seems on full display in stark contrast to all the things that we profess to believe and to be. And indeed, it's the contrast that makes the church seem worse than she really is, for how can a people who claim to be about Truth still lie to one another? How can those who claim unconditional love play favorites? Why are there cliques in churches if we're all brothers and sisters? 

Because of the bold nature of our claims about what it means to be human, to be faithful, and to be God's people, the church can sometimes look like a disastrous failure. 

That is, of course, without grace. 

And so you hear things like, "I don't need the church. I love God, and I worship Him in my own way. The church is just religion, and I'm not religious." You hear things like, "Oh, yeah, I left the church a few years ago and it was great for me! I love God more today than I ever have. I feel closer to Him without all His people getting in the way." You hear things like, "You don't need the church to be a good Christian. I can love people without spending my Sunday mornings in some building." 

These kind of statements are applauded, particularly where we have highly individualized and privatized the faith, but let's be clear - they were never God's idea. God has always been the God of a people, not of a person, and it's central to His design that we be in worshiping communities. It was true of Israel. It was true of the early church. It is true today. 

And hey, there's a lot to love about the church. 

Yes, really. 

That's a bold statement to make, given what we hear about the church today. It's bold, given what we know about the church today. It's bold, given what you may not know about the church today, which is that the church today is a church in transition. In a lot of places, the church as we know it is dying. Something else is springing up, something that's not always quite church but may still be distinctively Christian. Regular church attendance is down in a majority of congregations. Buildings are becoming shared-use facilities. Sometimes, even shared by more than one congregation, just trying to keep the mortgage afloat. More and more Christians are opting to stay in rather than to go out, streaming the church of the day at their own convenience, rather than joining in a worshiping body in their neighborhood. Some are traveling great distances to be with a certain community that is not even part of their natural community, and neighborhood churches are suffering the most. 

And yet, there's a lot to love about the church. 

The basis of a lot that we're going to look at in the next week comes from Revelation, from an exiled John who was cut off from the churches that he so dearly loved. He was an outsider looking in at a time when the church was undergoing tremendous transformation, establishing itself on a new law and a new Love after generations of being the Temple. There was a lot for John to criticize in the church - and he did, boldly - but there was a lot to love, too - and he never missed an opportunity to tell them so. 

Our churches have had plenty of our criticisms; it's time for a little love. And there's no better time than now. Let's not miss our opportunity to remember the best of who we are. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Abraham's Argument

A little break from our journey through the Bible today because there's something on my heart that I want to say. Lately, it seems like I'm having the same conversation with the world that Abraham had with God - begging them to look harder, to find just one righteous person among us. 

The world's got a bad impression of Christians. At least, the westernized world does. To them, we're all stuffed-shirt moralists who can't keep our hands out of women's reproductive systems (metaphorically) and who take absolutely all the fun out of living, espousing love while living like some of the most hate-filled individuals on earth. And while I get that some of that is unwarranted - it is not inherently hateful, for example, to simply disagree with someone else's core value or to value something that is at odds with someone else - a lot of it probably is. 

And even if the world is guilty of the same sins they accuse us of - intolerance in the name of tolerance, to name one - that doesn't excuse our behavior. 

We have to do better. 

It's too easy for the world to scoff and say with derision, "Christians!" They're all the same. They're all only interested in making sure everyone lives according to their standard. They're all only interested in judging me. They're all only interested in scoring points for their "God." Love? They don't love me; they use me.

This world isn't even sure any more what love means.

The conversation I keep having over and over and over again stems from this, from yet another episode where someone has had a less-than-loving exchange with a so-called Christian whose primary concern is nothing Christ-like at all, but rather, moral self-righteousness. And I have to beg, plead - don't judge us by our worst specimen.

Don't think that all Christians are like that Christian, even though it's coming quickly for the world that every interaction they've ever had with a Christian seems exactly the same. Don't think that all Christians are out there with the same motive and agenda; we aren't. Don't judge my faith by your experience of those who aren't living my faith, but who have only co-opted my name.

Because I, for one, am not like your "Christians." And in our hearts, so many of us aren't.

So I say to the world this: if you can find just fifty Christians, just fifty, who are living a true holy worldview of love and grace and every good thing that we claim to be, will you stop lumping us all together by our shortcomings?

What if you can find only forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? If you can find one - just one - Christian who lives and loves and interacts the way that we claim to live and love and interact, will you stop talking about "Christians" the way you do? Will you stop thinking we're all the same? Just one...if you can find just one...

And the world snorts and says, sure. If I can find just one, believing, of course, that it's not even possible. Believing there is no such thing as even one good Christian in the world.

And listen - that doesn't mean we let the world define who we are or how we live. Or that we give the world the right to judge us by their standards and determine whether our faith is valid or not. No, it means we invite the world to judge us by our own standards, by what we profess and proclaim to be. It means we stand up and live like we actually believe what we say we believe. It means we live above reproach when it comes to what we declare about our Lord and what love really means.

Sure, there are persons in this world who are never going to get it. They're always going to hate us just for being Christian and there's absolutely nothing we can do about that. Except, of course, that we can stop giving them reason to hate us for being terrible, hypocritical Christians. I mean, if they're going to hate us, at least let them hate us for being exactly who we say that we are.

But the majority of this world? They're aching for us to be good Christians. They want us to live according to our word. They want to see us take seriously the faith for ourselves that we try too often to force on them. They want to see us love and serve and extend grace and offer forgiveness. They want to see the best of what we have to offer.

They just aren't.

And until we do, I think they're right to say it. Ugh...Christians.

But what if you could find just one...?

What if you would be just one...?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A Difficult Obedience

Moses is one of those characters who gives us a glimpse as to what true faithfulness really looks like. Spoiler alert: it's not all roses and blessings like we'd hoped. 

Most of us figure that if we're faithful, God will reward us along the way. He'll give us a sign that shows us that we're on the right track. He'll leave little blessings around to encourage us. He'll somehow, in some way, spur us on with all those good things He tells us about, all those good things He promises us. If we are faithful, we'll know it because God will be smiling down on us. 

And in that same vein, most of us are unwilling to move if we're not sure God is blessing it. We actually wait on God to do these things for us, believing that if He doesn't, then we must not be on the right track. If He doesn't, we've missed something somewhere. If He doesn't, we should stop and wait for further instructions instead of just plowing ahead.

Even if we know that God sent us here in the first place. 

Moses reminds us that we don't always get constant reassurance, and we don't always reach the place where we'll know for sure. 

It is one of the most difficult passages of Scripture, if you're paying attention and know how the story goes, but it's one that we who would be faithful ourselves cannot afford to miss. It's the moment that God first tells Moses what He's up to and sends the man to lead the people. 

Like most of us, Moses asks for all kinds of signs that God is who He says He is and that He is really sending Moses the way that He's sending him. God gives Moses the sign of the burning bush, but that's not quite enough. He gives Moses the sign of the staff that turns into the snake, but that's not quite enough. He tells him to put his hand in his cloak and gives him leprosy, then heals him when he puts his hand back. Even this is not enough. They are cool signs, Lord, but how will I know?

Then, God gives Moses the answer that none of us wants to hear: you'll know when you get there. God plainly says that Moses will know without a doubt that all of this was real, that all of this was holy, that all of this was totally legit...when he enters into the Promised Land after leading the people out of Egypt. 

That's a long way away. Even on a good day for Israel. When you think about all the things Moses will have to endure even if Israel is faithful all the way - appearance after appearance before Pharaoh, all the plagues and signs and wonders, the doubts and hesitations of the people. He's got a lot of work to do before the people even get out of Egypt and then he still has to lead them through the desert to the Promised Land. Even as a straight shot, it takes more than one day. 

And we know the story doesn't go that smoothly. Israel rebels multiple times along the way, causing her journey to be longer and longer and longer still until she spends forty years wandering in the wilderness between here and there.

Think about that. God told Moses that he won't know for sure until he gets there, that he won't have perfect assurance until he's in the Promised Land. Only then will he know that the Lord is God and it is the Lord who sent him. Only then will he know this is what God planned all along. Only when he gets there will he understand how he got there. Until then, he can only trust. And now, because of the people's sin, Moses spends more than forty years not knowing. Unable to know. Far away from being sure. 

Yet, he leads them nonetheless. He remains faithful, always looking ahead to that day when he will see. 

That's faith.

It's an example, and a question, for all of us who would be faithful. What if you couldn't know? What if all you had was a calling or a sending and you couldn't know for sure until you got there? What if you don't get reassurances along the way? What if you don't get motivators and encouragers and little reminders that you're on the right track?

What if life takes you through the wilderness where there are no markers, but only smoke and fire? Will you go? Will you lead? Will you be faithful? 

Can you live looking forward to the day when you will see and trusting in that? 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Keep Your Friends Close

By the time Exodus rolls around, Egypt has seen so much change in its leadership that no one in power even remembers Joseph, the faithful Israelite servant who saved the entire nation during a period of famine. At this point, all anyone sees is the Israelites, who have grown to be a large and formidable people living on the outskirts of Egypt. 

If you read carefully what Exodus has to say about how the Israelites came to be slaves to the Egyptians, rather than neighbors and semi-brothers, it's actually quite interesting. Most people groups who become slaves do so out of domination. They do so because their enemies are more powerful than them and are afraid of them, so they become subjects before they have a chance to become rivals. 

But that's not quite Israel's story. At least, not at the beginning. 

The original consideration when it came to Israel was not actually Israel at all; it was other nations. Egypt turned Israel into a slave nation not because they were immediately afraid of Israel, but because they were afraid of other nations. They had other enemies on the outside who they thought might co-opt Israel as fighting partners, so before their friends could turn on them, Egypt turned on her friends and subjected Israel to heavy, heavy burdens. 

In other words, Israel became Egypt's slaves because Egypt was afraid of other nations. 

I guess that's one way to do it. 

The truth is that this is happening to us all the time. We live in a world that operates by this same principle - get to someone before someone else gets to them. Amass for yourself friends wherever you think you may need them. Do so by force if necessary. 

And so we're living in a world that will put a heavy burden on you for reasons that have nothing at all to do with you, and all because it's so easy for them to forget - and quickly - that you're supposed to be friends. They forget that you're the one who has always had their back. They forget that they can trust you because, in that moment, they don't think they can trust someone else. 

We are a people who are easily betrayed by those who believe they are being betrayed. And they often don't even see it. 

We are a people who are used by those we love, for no other reason than that they all of a sudden find themselves potentially being used by someone else. 

Maybe, then, we start to think we're dangerous people. We're people who ought to be dominated and domineered because that's the best way to deal with us. Others see the example, particularly in the world, and they think this must be the best possible way to relate to the church, and then we, who live inside the church (or the church lives in us) think there must truly be something devious about the church that it must be controlled in this way. 

And we convince ourselves we're radicals, which satisfies something in our souls about what our faith requires of us, but let's be honest - we're no such thing. We're a people who were too easily convinced that we were radicals not because the world was afraid of us, but because the world was afraid of itself and didn't want to take any chances with us. 

We're not radicals. Most of us, anyway. The church is nowhere near as radical today as she is called to be, nowhere near as subversive. Quite frankly, we're not as dangerous as the world tries to convince us that we are, but they've done a good job of convincing us, haven't they? It's because they don't really want us to be, so they've subdued us and put such heavy burdens on our neighboring that it seems like we must be doing something right. Even if we've still got so much wrong. 

Like Israel, we are coming to a time where we have to rise up. Where we, the church, have to become everything the world fears that we are. Where we have to be the radicals they want us to think we already are, though we're not, and set free our people to worship, to love, to serve in the world. Where we have to break the chains of subjection and be the people of God. Maybe Egypt drives us to it. 

Or maybe, just maybe, we were called all along. 

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Story of Jacob

There are a couple of interesting things about Jacob that come out as the now-aged man travels to Egypt to see his long-lost son one last time before his death. They are the kind of interesting things that God does all the time, but they are so easy for us to miss - in his life and in our own.

We should not miss the trip that Jacob is making. Remember that it was not that long ago that Jacob was making a long, dangerous trip home to the place where his father lived, in order that he might see his father one more time before Isaac died. This was remarkable, you'll remember, because it was more than 20 years after Isaac was lying on his death bed and Jacob fled to Laban for his own safety. 

Now, it has been likely somewhere around just that long since Jacob has seen his son, Joseph. And so the man takes another trip - the first one was to see his dying father; the second, dying, to see his son. 

It's beautiful enough as a human story, and we could talk about the poetry of it for quite awhile just on that account, but let's not forget that Jacob is Israel, which means that everything Jacob does is a reflection of God's people and what they do. It's part of the story God is telling, part of God's story, and on that account, it's even more interesting to see how this man, this people, makes these two trips. 

For who will come, dying, to see His Son...dying? Poetry, indeed.

The second interesting thing we need to see about the final days of Jacob's life, as he sojourns in Egypt with his beloved son, is how he plays out his own story once more and perpetuates it among his people, his nation, his sons. 

Jacob is, remember, the second son; Esau was the first. Jacob spent his entire life deceiving and scheming and stealing the blessing and the birthright of Esau until eventually, he was blessed as the firstborn, even though he remained second-born and there existed a promise still for Esau.

As he is nearing his end, his son, Joseph, brings to him Joseph's two sons, born to him in Egypt. Jacob has not really met the boys, but they are dear to him nonetheless, and he decides to bless them. Joseph places his sons before his father, one at his right hand and one at his left and then, just before Jacob speaks, he crosses his hands and puts his right hand on the left one's head and his left hand on the right one's head. 

In other words, Jacob - the second son with the first's blessing - blesses the second son, Ephraim, as the first. For Manasseh, the true firstborn, he has but a "promise, too." 

This serves to reinforce the narrative that we looked at when we looked at the first time this happened, this second son, first son dynamic that continues throughout the Scriptures as God works through His chosen people, His second son, with a blessing with a promise for the first, whom He has never forgotten. 

Jacob is an interesting character, indeed, and his is a life we cannot simply read right through; there are so many little details that bring out the beauty in what God is doing in the establishment of His people, Israel. We need to pay attention to these, for they help us to understand more deeply His story. And ours, as well.