Thursday, February 27, 2020

Revealing Love

Most of us spend our lives looking for a sign from God. We want Him to show us something. We want Him to plaster a rainbow across the sky, the way He did for Noah. We want Him to wet the fleece, the way He did for Gideon. We want Him to raise up the dry bones, the way He did for Ezekiel. We're all waiting for God to show us something, something that will reveal His love to us. That will reveal His presence to us. That will reveal Him to us.

But God doesn't reveal Himself to us. Not since Jesus. (And I think probably not, as a first choice, since the beginning of all things, but...sin.) John even says so himself.

God reveals Himself - and His love and His presence and His grace and His heart - among us (1 John 4:9).

And that changes everything.

You can look all the way back to Genesis 1 and see that this is the way God's always wanted to do it. He's always wanted to be among us in such a way that we can see exactly who He is, that His love isn't some grand idea that we have but is something tangible that we can touch every day. He walked with His people, and even when they sinned, He still went after them. And then we went on living this unreconciled life, by our choice, until He just couldn't wait any long and came to do the reconciling. And then, in Jesus, God lived among us again, revealing His love in the kind of flesh and blood that we could relate to.

That's the same way He reveals it to us today.

It's Jesus, yes. It's absolutely Jesus. Even today. But it's also the way we live with one another. God's love is revealed among us when we do the loving. His heart is revealed among us when our heart beats. His grace is revealed among us when we are gracious with one another. His mercy, when we are merciful. We have become bearers of God's love into the world, revealing it in the places in which we live and move and breathe. This is the way He's chosen to do it.

So much of the world, Christians included, are waiting for a sign, and what we've failed to realize in God-among-us is that we are that sign. We are the rainbow in the sky. We are the wet fleece. We are the dry bones. We are the way that God is showing Himself in the world, among us, not to us. And we are the only revelation that some are ever going to see of Him.

It matters. It ought to impact the way that we live with one another, not just as God's love to our neighbors, but as recipients of God's love from them. We have to recognize where God is moving in the world, even through human hands, because this is the sign He's given to us. This is how He's revealing Himself.

We all know Christians who can be so busy loving others that they don't feel the love themselves. They pour themselves out and wonder if God even notices. That's why I've been deliberate about saying this in both directions. Because as busy as we are loving, we need to be just as busy being loved. We need to let ourselves witness the revelation of God's love among us as much as we are letting ourselves be a part of it. We need to stop and see in the witness of our neighbors, from our brothers and sisters, the rainbows. This Christian life we live is about both.

So let's get to loving and being loved. Shall we? For this is how God reveals Himself.

Among us. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Darkness

When we talk about sin and all the things that go with it - pain, brokenness, hate - we often refer to these things as "darkness." They exist in contrast to Jesus, who is "Light," and all that He stood for - love, grace, mercy, and so on. So it makes sense that whatever isn't light is darkness, but the descriptor is more than that.

John, in his first letter, reminds us that these things are darkness not merely because they are opposed to the Light, but because they are the things that cause us to stumble. We stumble when we cannot see. We cannot see when we are in darkness.

That's what these things do to us. They keep us from seeing. And what they keep us from seeing is important.

They keep us from seeing where we are. We lose track of the opportunities right in front of us. We lose track of what we have at our disposal right now. We lose track of our resources, of our choices, of everything. We can't hold onto our story because it's gone black, it's gone blank. And if you don't know where you are, you're bound to trip over just about anything - even something that, if you could see it, you would think was good. We stumble around like fools, even in the midst of a field of God's blessing, because sin doesn't let us see where we are. It is darkness.

They keep us from seeing where we're going. We lose track of our hope. We lose track of God's promise. We lose track of everything we were working toward, the way that all the pieces in our life were coming together. Just at the moment that everything was starting to make sense, nothing does. We can't see where God is leading us, can't hear where He is calling us. We stumble around like fools, on a road paved with hope, because sin doesn't let us see where we're going. It is darkness.

They keep us from seeing others around us. Now, this works in two ways and means two different things. On the one hand, they keep us from seeing those who would journey with us. They keep us from seeing our friends and our family. They keep us from maintaining connection with those who are our strength, our companions. They make us feel isolated and alone. We stumble around like children lost in the woods, even though every "tree" we think we run into is a friend who stands ready to help, because sin doesn't let us see those around us. It is darkness.

And on the other hand, they keep us from seeing those we could journey with. They keep us from seeing the need in the world around us, the need that we are able to meet. They keep us from seeing how our story could be a blessing to someone around us. They whisper that we're unworthy, that we've messed everything up, that what we have to offer is nothing at all. We stumble around like fools, thinking we've wasted it all, because is doesn't let us see those around us. It is darkness.

Sin is darkness not just because it opposes the Light, but because it causes us to stumble. It prevents us from seeing, and it is this seeing that guides our path. We trip and tumble and struggle over and around everything, not knowing what anything is - not knowing who we are, not recognizing who God is - all because of sin. We stumble around like fools because sin doesn't let us see.

It is darkness. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Silencing the Fools

Most of the foolish persons you'll encounter in this world are not particularly anti-God. That's not what makes them foolish. Rather, they are persons who aren't convinced that God - that faith - really "works" in this world. That it's meaningful. That it's do-able. That it's valuable in any real sense of the word. They don't believe it's even possible in the world that we actually live in, the broken places we all have to fight through.

It's not atheism that makes most fools; it's ignorance. They simply don't know what they don't know.

Peter has a good word for dealing with this ignorance, with these foolish persons - you can silence them "by doing good" (1 Peter 2). And our world needs this now as much as it ever has.

See, this world thinks that Christians are the fools. We hold onto a belief system that they don't see any practical value in. We believe things we can't see and can't even really prove. We call ourselves to a higher standard and separate ourselves from the way things "usually" work, claiming that what bears so much fruit in the world is broken and what seems to bear such little fruit is the better way. The world doesn't get it.

And it's because they don't see a lot of Christians who are truly as happy as Jesus promises we should be. They don't see a lot of Christians who are truly as good as they claim they are. They don't see a lot of Christians who are satisfied with living this "restricted" life they seem to be so into. They don't see us putting our faith in practice and enjoying the fruits of it. And they don't see what our "goodness" gets anyone - ourselves or others.

Because Christian goodness is something different than what the world calls good. Christian goodness is rooted in sacrifice, in the giving of self for something greater. Which means that when we live our "good" lives, the world is busy calculating all that it's costing us, and they aren't seeing all that we're gaining. They see what we're giving up, but they're doing the math and deciding it's not worth it. Even if the world can agree with us that being self-sacrificial isn't necessarily all bad, it's busy determining who and what we should sacrifice ourselves for. And it's looking at us with disbelief, if not disgust, and saying, "You gave up part of yourself for that?"

You bet I did.

Maybe it's because so many of us, as Christians, are also counting the costs over the gains. We're also talking about how exhausted we are, how much of ourselves we give, how little we seem to get back. We're living in depletion, not joy. The world is watching our goodness and cannot fathom that it's "working" for us, so of course they think this whole Christian thing is nutso.

What the world needs, what Peter calls us to, is to see the witness of our abundant life. The life that Jesus promised. They need to see us living out of what we have gained, not out of what we have lost. They need to see our joy in our sacrifice, what love poured out really looks like. They need to see how our lives are better, measurably better, by this thing we call "goodness." They need to see that Christian goodness really does "work." It really is something meaningful and valuable. That's the way to silence the ignorance of the world; inform them. Inform them by our example.

That means, of course, that we have to inform ourselves first. We have to live with our goodness in a way that the world would notice. We have to live with our goodness like it really is good. Until we change our own understanding of this and stop grumbling about what it costs us, we'll never be the example that the world needs.

We'll always be their fools. And so will they. 

Monday, February 24, 2020

Sin and Death

The relationship between sin and death is a difficult one for us to decipher. We know that we are sinners, and we know that we are condemned to die and that only by the grace of God are we given the chance to live again. But is all sin death? Does all sin condemn us?

It doesn't seem so.

Now, I know - that's probably different from the vast amount of preaching that you've heard over a lifetime. And it's true, God does call us to be holy as He is holy, to be perfect as He is perfect. We're not supposed to sin. And yet, we do. And God knows that we will.

It's difficult to get into some of this because what we don't want to do is to create a belief system whereby sin is not troublesome, where we're not bothered by being fallen human beings. We don't want to establish any understanding that would suggest that God is not heartbroken by our sin; He is. We should be, too. But we have to put sin in its true perspective here.

James helps us out with that. He says, in his opening chapter, that it is sin "fully grown" that leads to death.

In other words, it's not sin itself that leads to death, but the attitude that we take toward sin that does.

It's about whether or not our sin grieves us. Does it prompt us to change our behavior or reorient our heart? Does it lead us back to God because we become keenly aware of how far we've fallen away? Sin can, and should be, redemptive. Again, I know that's weird to say, but it's true.

What is sin? Sin is believing that we know better than God. It is believing that we are God. It is believing that God's wisdom doesn't matter, that it doesn't impact our real lives. It's believing that God is out of touch, that He doesn't know what He's talking about. It's believing that we are the masters of our own fate, that we control our own lives. Sin is about losing our connection with God by the choices that we make, consciously or unconsciously, and if losing this connection makes us realize that we've lost it, then our sin can lead us back to God. Thus, it can be redemptive.

The sin that leads to death is the one that doesn't lead us back to God. We think we got away with it. We think, perhaps, that we even profited somehow from it. That we had something to gain and we gained it from our sin. It's the idea that we weren't called to account, so it doesn't really matter, so we feed into our sinful nature and nurture it. We let it grow. And when it grows fully and matures into its own beast, that's when it leads to death.

The narrative in Genesis 3 - and the trajectory of mankind as we know it - could have been entirely different if, after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve were looking for God as fervently as He was looking for them. If, instead of diving into the bushes, they ran into the open and called out to Him.

This is important because we are a people prone to beating ourselves up over our failures, even if they were simply mistakes. We vow that we're never going to do that again, and then here we are, doing it. We vow that we're going to be better persons, then something happens and we realize we're really not. At least, we're not who we want to be. And we condemn ourselves. We condemn ourselves so that God doesn't have to, maybe so that He can't. I don't know. But we spend our whole live convinced of our own unworthiness because that one time, we sinned and isn't sin the end of everything we've ever hoped for?

It could be. But it could also be the beginning.

It all depends on whether you let your sin draw you back to God or you nurture it until it's fully grown. Sin can lead to death, sure, but it can also lead to life.

Are you diving into the bushes or running into the open? 

Friday, February 21, 2020

Unworthy

If you've ever thought that you're not worthy of God's love and grace, then you're not alone. If you've looked in the mirror and seen all your scars and known what you've been responsible for in this world and all the mistakes you've made, and you've wondered how God could possibly care about you, you're not alone.

If you've looked at your life and realized it's not where you want it to be, you're not alone. If you've worked hard and stayed clean and done well and you can't get anyone to seem to recognize that, if you can't get this world to give you a chance - or take a chance on you - and it makes you wonder if you're just some worthless piece of junk, you're not alone.

We have all kinds of questions about our worth. All the time. Every one of us. Either we're getting more than we think we're worth or we're not getting what we think we're due or we think ourselves bigger than where we're at or we think ourselves too small to even start. Whatever it is, worth is the kind of thing that keeps a lot of us up at night.

Who am I? Am I anything? Do I have value? Does anyone - even God - love me? We spend our whole lives trying to make ourselves worthy, trying to be worthy...of whatever it is. Whatever, or Whoever, we want to notice us.

But what if the key to your worth was not in making yourself worthy, but in making yourself unworthy? What if everything you've ever wanted was at the end of a road with a weird name?

What if the entire aim of your life is not to become worthy of God (for who among us ever could, but for His grace?), but to live so that this world is unworthy of you?

That's what Hebrews 11 calls us to, in the same chapter that it recounts the lives of all the saints of the faith. Live with such faith and righteousness that this world is not worthy of you.

It really turns this whole question on its head, doesn't it?

Live in such a way that you expose the world's brokenness, rather than always fearing it exposing yours. Live in such a way that you illuminate God's goodness, rather than letting this world burden you with your own badness. Live love and grace so thoroughly that the so-called tolerance of this world cannot hold a candle to it.

We've all seen it. That guy who's with that girl who is just leagues above him, who has more class in her pinky finger than he's got in his whole body or that girl who's with that guy who is leaps and bounds out of her reach, but somehow reached and chose her anyway.

Man, that's it, isn't it? As citizens of heaven, we are leaps and bounds out of the reach of this world, and yet, we reached back by the grace of God and chose it anyway. Let's not forget how that happened, okay? Let's live like it's our hand that is reaching out to the world, not the world's hands that have us in its clutches.

It's about living in such a way that we expose the world for what it is. And when anyone sees us together, we are so centered on our heavenly lives, on our abundant life now that Jesus promised, that they can't help but shake their heads and say, Man, that person is way out of this world's leagues.

We do that, we live in such a way that we make this world unworthy of us, and we don't have to wonder what we're worth. We know. Because we're living it.

It's love.

(Psst...it always has been.) 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Forgiven

You know how the old system worked: whenever you committed a sin, you had to bring an offering to the Temple. A ram, a lamb, a goat, a dove, some wine, some grain, something. You had to find an animal, secure it, lead it to the priest, watch it be butchered, pour out its blood, burn it on the altar, take its unholy parts outside of the camp. It was a thing.

And if you think about just how much you sin in even one given day, well, it's a wonder that anyone had any livestock left by night fall, let alone had enough to build households out of. I'm telling you right now - I don't have enough room in my yard for the number of lambs it would take to atone for my fallen flesh for very long at all.

Then along comes Jesus. He dies as a poor man's sacrifice on the Cross and atones for our sins forever. Thank goodness.

So then, uhm, why do we spend our lives begging with God to forgive us and offering to make a deal to atone for our sins?

We keep praying this, right? We keep praying that God would forgive us, even though He's already forgiven us. We keep offering Him this or that in exchange for forgiveness, as though we're still coming to the Temple. As though we still have to bring something in order to be accepted. As though what God wants is our blood poured out all over again, when His blood has already filled the basin.

Hebrews 10 reminds us that where our sins are forgiven, there's no need for further sacrifice. These words were written for a people who were intimately acquainted with the Temple system that depended upon animal atonement. They needed to hear that it was okay to not do that any more. They'd already been forgiven.

We need to hear that, too.

We just spend our whole lives trying to convince God to do what He's already done. Like He didn't know who we are when He did it. Like He didn't have someone like us in mind. Like He didn't know we were going to end up being these big sinners. Like He didn't realize how unworthy we are of all of it. Most of us have never sacrificed a single animal in our entire lifetime, have never brought an offering of atonement to the priest to have him make peace with the Lord for us. And yet, we live our entire lives trying to figure out what to bring and where to go...longing for a way to make things right, hoping for a way to be clean.

Things have already been made right. We've already been made clean. There's no need any more for sacrifices, not where we've already been forgiven. Time to stop begging and pleading and bargaining. Just embrace it. It is finished.

And that's not to say that we shouldn't bring things to God. Absolutely, we should give Him our very lives and everything that we have. But we should not mistake our offering for an atoning sacrifice. We should not pretend that what we bring "earns" us anything or merits us anything. What we bring now, we bring freely - fellowship offerings, offerings of grace, thanksgiving offerings. There's still room for all of this. And we absolutely should bring it.

But out of the blessed life we're already living, not out of some prison we've put ourselves in. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The ABCs of Faith

I exist in the church as a member of a tradition that builds itself upon agreement in the essentials and grace in the non-essentials. The Restoration Movement has always been about unity, so long as we're all starting on the same inarguable foundation of the faith (note: unity, not uniformity), but this has always raised the question:

What are the essentials?

What are the foundations of the faith that are non-negotiable? What should we expect - and perhaps even require - from others in order to call them Christians? What should we require from ourselves?

Of course, when you ask these questions, you'll get all sorts of answers drawing on all kinds of church history. There's sola scriptura, which means Scripture only - we speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where it is silent. And this is certainly a worthy starting point, but in the 21st-Century, that leaves a lot for us to be silent about. There are traditions that embrace the Gospels as authoritative - whatever Jesus did, do that. Jesus is the center of it all. Some pull in the whole New Testament. Others take from the whole Bible. Some, in a way similar to how Judaism evolved, pull in voices of "authority" from the teachers of the faith. It just all leaves us wondering - what are the foundations of the Christian faith? What are the basics?

The difference is that we're often asking about doctrine, not action. Hebrews, on the other hand, talks about action. It talks about the basics of how we live. Straight up. From Hebrews 6, the bare bones of Christianity, the basics of the faith, the foundation and the starting point are this:

"repentance from dead works, faith in God, ritual washings, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment."

It's both refreshing and shocking to read this list and think about it in terms of our own modern Christianity. We have repentance, but we talk about repentance from our sins, not our dead works. These are two totally different things. When we talk about sin, we're talking about our wandering, about our waywardness, about our turning away. When we talk about dead works, we're talking about a faith that still tries to earn it, one that doesn't operate under grace. (This was likely a direct comment on the Jewish system of atonement and sacrifice.)

We have faith in God, but most of us have narrowed God down to a personal diety who loves us individually and relates to us one-to-one. We have lost sight of the big picture God who created the universe and is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-everything. Our faith is not really in "God" any more in the sense of who HE is, but is rather in our God, whatever of Him we know and are comfortable with.

We have baptism, but baptism is not a ritual washing. It doesn't cleanse us in the way that ritual washing did. Ritual washing was used in a couple of ways - it was used after a period of uncleanness and involved dead birds, blood, and hyssop sprigs, among a few other things. It was also used daily, as in the washing of hands and feet to wash away the dirt one picks up over the course of a life being lived. We don't worry a lot about keeping ourselves clean daily any more. We bathe, but it's more so that we don't stink too bad. We don't think about the purity aspect of it. We don't think about the atonement of it. We don't think about what it signifies. It's not a holy act for us the way it was for them.

A few traditions still lay on hands, but many do not. We speak often of the resurrection of the dead and eagerly await our own. And of course, Christians have always had a certain love for eternal judgment - so long as we're the ones preaching it.

It's a list that ought to give us pause to think about the way that we live the faith. We talk about unity on the essentials, and these are the essentials.

I wonder how it would reflect on the church if these became the things we did together, no matter what the signs outside of our buildings say.

Just thinking. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Authority and Love

Paul's letter to Philemon is poetic brilliance, and if you haven't seen that yet - read it until you do. Paul is cheeky, the way so many of us want to be, and he really shows a human side of himself that is still love and grace but is also flesh and relationship.

It's easy to read right over this letter and think it's just about Paul wanting Philemon to welcome back the slave Paul's been borrowing (Onesimus) and be nice to the guy. Like any standard property exchange contract...

Except it's not.

Paul's letter to Philemon has a theme, just like all of his other letters, and it's not "What a nice guy Onesimus is." The theme to Paul's letter is that God has given you authority, but whenever you can, use love. So then, of course, it's tongue-in-cheek (a bit) when Paul writes that he won't even remind Philemon that he owes Paul his very life. Rather, he'll just ask nicely and count on brotherly fellowship to be enough.

But these are exactly the kind of words a master ought to hear. Someone who's in charge over a lot of thing. Someone with a lot of resources, a lot of property, and a large household. Philemon is a guy who has authority, certainly; that's clear by the status of who he is. So Paul reminds him that that's cool - God pours out His blessings however He chooses and has given Philemon this kind of authority.

But if you really want to knock the world's socks off, Paul says, don't use your authority; use love instead. And then lays down the example mentioned above.

It makes you wonder what Paul knows about Philemon that we don't. Onesimus has been with Paul for awhile, tending and caring for him. Persons talk. It's completely reasonable to believe that Onesimus has been telling stories as he's washed Paul's wounds, talking about the way that his master talked to him. The way his master talked to everyone. The way he ran this or did that or wanted something else in just a certain way.

That doesn't mean Onesimus was grumbling. It's okay to talk about things that happen and the way persons act without placing a value judgment on it. It's okay to be like, "Hey, this is just how things are. This is my story. This is my life. These are the expectations others have on me." In fact, it's healthy. It's about just being authentic and being real about this life that we live and this world that we live it in. So I don't want to create the impression that the slave was in any way complaining, necessarily, about his master, even if he was talking about him. I'm certain Paul appreciated the small talk and the little touch of home and a normal life that it brought him.

For whatever reason, though, Paul had the idea that Philemon needed these words about authority and love, needed to be reminded about the higher law and the way that God's economy really works. And they are words that we still need.

No, most of us aren't masters, and we certainly don't own slaves. But we've been taught that the way to live is with full authority. We're supposed to have our thumbs on our lives at all times, running everything just the way we want it and declaring that this is good because it is, after all, our life and so we are its master. That means that what Paul says, and the way he says it, applies just as much to us today as it did to Philemon.

Authority is cool - God pours out His blessings however He chooses and has given us the authority that we have.

But if you really want to make a splash of things, if you really want to do something meaningful in the world, if you really want to knock this world's socks off, you don't need your authority.

Use love. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Grace and Truth

Paul writes many words to young ministers of the faith, telling them how they ought to live and love and speak in the churches. It's important because this is a new thing that they're doing, and Paul's the guy with the experience to help them navigate some tricky waters. His words are still valuable to us in the tumultuous seas in which we live.

For example, when Paul writes to Titus, he reminds him to encourage and rebuke with the same fullness of authority (Titus 2).

One of these things is a whole lot easier than the other, and which one it is depends on the experiences you've had that have shaped you and your personality. We know persons for whom rebuking comes naturally. They love to talk about getting it right, call out those who are getting it wrong, correct everyone's failures...and usually out loud. They rebuke like it's a second language to them and really, it might be their first language. On the other hand, there are those who encourage and pour out hope and love like they're made of the stuff. They're just constantly reminding others of all they are capable of, of all they can do, and inspiring them to keep going, to keep pressing on. Encouragement just rolls naturally off of their tongues.

It's as true today as it was then. But it's also just as dangerous.

It's dangerous because when we are naturally better at rebuking or at encouraging, we tend to focus on this exclusively and leave out a huge chunk of the Christian story in doing so. Don't believe me? Let's change these words. Because "rebuke" is about truth and "encourage" is about grace, and so what we really have here is "grace" and "truth" and Paul says you are to speak both with the same fullness of authority.

Ah, now this is it. Because we live in a world that thinks that Christianity is all about "truth" - that we just love to thump our Bibles and condemn sinners to hell. This world is weary of us "judging" it and making comments about the way that it's living. It's tired of us having standards and believing that there's a better way. They don't want to hear any more about what's "right" and "wrong" and have even gone so far to say that anything can be right if we just believe that it is (except, ironically, for what we deem wrong, which is universally wrong, even if someone else believes it to be right - the world can't even live by its own relativity).

At the same time, our world is also convinced that Jesus is all about "grace" - that He just loves you no mater what and doesn't care much about what you do. You're perfect just the way you are, and Jesus doesn't want you to ever change. He wants you to just be who you are and do what you want to do and stop apologizing for your life. This world believes Jesus just green-lights everything it can think of and has done away with all the "truth" that Christianity seems to so desperately be trying to hold onto in a world that's already declared that truth just isn't relevant any more. In fact, if you hold onto truth at all, you must not be a true Christian because Christ is all grace, all the time.

We know better, of course. We know that grace and truth go hand-in-hand in the Christian story, even out of the very mouth of Jesus. Even out of the very actions He took as a man in this world. We know that the world needs both, but that one of these pills is far easier to swallow. One of these things is far easier than the other. We live in a world where we're told that the Christian way to live is encouraging, but Paul's words to Titus remind us that it's rebuking, too. And if you're one of those who more naturally rebukes, remember that Paul's words are the same to you - it's not just rebuking; it's also encouraging.

It's truth...and grace. It's grace...and truth. With the same measure of authority - fullness. The world needs both, and it needs us confident in both. It needs us believing in both. It needs us living in demonstration of both. It needs us reaching Jesus's blood-stained hand out to draw them in, stretching out as far as the east is to the west in order to bring them close. It needs us believing in them, but expecting more. Encouraging them, but teaching them. Affirming them, but challenging them.

Rebuke and encourage with the same fullness of authority. Just the way Jesus did.

This is called love

Friday, February 14, 2020

Left Behind

Church history is full of its heresies, most of which center around the person of Jesus. Some say He was created by God, not begotten. Some say that God exists in three persons, not as three persons. Some say the Son is lesser than the Father. Some say that Jesus never really died or, if He did, wasn't resurrected. All kinds of heresies, many of which have required a council of churches to resolve with an official statement and acceptance of doctrine.

One of the heresies that we don't talk about, one that has gotten far less interest (for some reason), is one of the earliest. Paul mentions it in his second letter to Timothy, where he's talking about problems in the church at Ephesus.

There's a guy in the church by the name of Hymenaeus, and Hymenaeus has a lot of problems, apparently, because Paul mentions him by name in both of his letters to Timothy. In the first letter, we discover that he's a guy who can't even live his own faith consistently, so he's struggling to figure out what's what and what to do with it. By the second letter, he seems to be on his way out and like nearly everyone discouraged by the faith or disgruntled by the church, he seems bent on taking as many with him out the door as he can.

So Hymenaeus is at the center of this, along with another guy named Philetus, and the heresy that they're preaching is this:

The resurrection (the second coming) already happened, and you missed it.

Jesus, the one you're waiting for, already came back and took all the faithful with Him, but you weren't here. Heck, you didn't even know about it. But it's all done now, it's all over, and you missed it. You're stuck here now.

Sorry about your luck.

In a lot of ways, this is even worse than simply telling someone that their faith is stupid or that they shouldn't believe in what they believe. What this guy was saying to these people is that they were right! They were absolutely right about everything they were preaching and hearing and praying about and singing songs about. All of it was true, really true. This was the legitimate story.

But...it didn't matter to them. They were born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. They came to know this stuff too late. They wasted too much time in the world and not enough time in the church. Because this very right, very true, absolutely wonderful thing...wasn't for them. It already happened, and they were excluded. Jesus, who they said was coming back, has already come back and He's not coming back again. So this broken life you live is yours forever until you die and then, nothing. You missed the resurrection.

It's cruel. It's simply cruel. And it's exactly the kind of thing that could easily raise questions. Some questions of the Christian faith, we have them simply because we cannot possibly know. We can't understand what they relate to. The Trinity is hard for this very reason; we can't quite relate anything to it well enough to understand how it truly works. But this...this heresy of Hymenaeus...it raises questions because the only witness we have to a past that we didn't live through are those who did, and if this guy claims to have information about a time in which we didn't live, how could we possibly argue? If he knows something about a place we were never at, how can we refute that? We can't.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine because it fascinates me (and honestly, I have entertained the question myself from time to time - what if Jesus has already come back and I missed it?) and he said there's actually still a church - one church - that believes this. They're in the Churches of Christ (Restoration Movement) family and worship in central-ish Indiana. That's interesting, although I confess I haven't had time to dig into it yet.

This is just something fascinating that I wanted to bring out of the Scriptures because it's something we don't talk about often, if at all. But it's interesting, isn't it?

And just in case you're wondering...I don't think Jesus has come back. I'm pretty sure He hasn't because this world we live in is still broken, and I don't know of a single human being who has ever been forced to live in a broken world without the hope of redemption and restoration. So we're still waiting, but we haven't missed it. Of this, I'm fairly certain. We're good. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

An Example

Never let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for them. These are the words that Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Timothy 4), and they are the part of the passage we are most readily able to quote back. But have you looked at the things that Paul tells Timothy to set an example in? It's not just set an example. It's set an example in these five things:

Set an example in speech. These are the things that you say, the words that come out of your mouth. There has been much talk over the past half-century about words a Christian should or should not say, but we're not just talking about whether we, as Christians, should use curse words or not use curse words or which four-letter words are okay to use and under what circumstances. We're also talking about what we talk about and how we talk about it. In our culture today, we're prone to confuse meanness and humor. We think it's cool to "roast" someone or take jabs at them, all in "playfulness." I even heard one brother get up in front of his congregation and jokingly say something about another brother's intelligence (or lack thereof) and then laugh it off. The congregation laughed, too. But if you listen to the words, they're mean words. They're insulting words. Should our humor look the way the world's humor looks? Should we make fun of each other for fun? Just because "everybody understands it's a joke"? Or should we speak gracious words of one another instead? This is the kind of thing we have to think about when Paul tells us to set an example in speech.

Set an example in conduct. These are the things that you do, the actions that you take. In this category, we're looking at a lot of things, but here is just one: are you a person who takes the shopping cart back to the corral or do you just leave it in the middle of the parking lot somewhere? It's such a little thing, but it makes a big statement about the kind of person that you are. Returning the shopping cart says you're a person who doesn't put your own convenience over others. If you leave it in the middle of the lot, you cause problems for persons who want to park there, persons who are already parked there, persons who might want to use that cart (that may become affected by weather by being left out), persons who want to use a cart but can't find one in the store (because they're all out in the parking lot), the person who has to collect the carts and bring them back into the store...and so on, all because you wanted to save yourself the thirty seconds or so that it would have taken to return it somewhere proper.

Set an example in love. The Bible says something about this. It says that if you only do something for someone who can return the favor, are you really that good of a person? Even heathens do that. True love comes from doing for those who cannot pay you back for it. And we can extend that to say that we ought to be a people who love those who have a different opinion than we do, even on things we deeply care about. It's okay to love someone - actively love them by doing good for them - who is pro-choice even if you're staunchly pro-life. It's okay to love a Republican even if you're a Democrat. How we treat persons around us - with love or with less - makes a bold statement about who we are.

Set an example in faith. This doesn't mean that you don't ever have questions about God or that you pretend that everything's cool all the time. That's not what true faith is. It means that you keep believing that God is who He says He is even when you don't think you're seeing it. It means that what you believe doesn't change based on whether it's getting you what you want today or not. The world is watching too many Christians walk away from the faith because God didn't turn out to be the magic genie they hoped for and life in this broken world is tough. Setting an example in faith means showing what it's like to hold on even when things are falling apart. Not in some naive sense of the word that paints over everything or pretends it's not happening, but in the depth of the soul where it's possible to grieve and to hope at the same time, to believe and to question in the same breath.

Set an example in purity. In other words, don't get yourself dirtied up. Don't let your life get tied to things that it doesn't need tied to. That's the problem with sex outside of marriage - it bonds us forever, at the soul level, to the person we've slept with but not committed to. And that's true of all kinds of things outside of sex, too. We can let our lives get intertwined with things that they don't need to be with, and it bonds us to this stuff and sullies our souls. Paul was most likely talking about marital purity here, especially in the Greek and Roman cultures of the time that used sex as a statement of power and social status, but it's fair, in our culture that doesn't quite do this in the same way, to expand that out and talk about the things that corrupt us, that make us less than pure. After all, what does the world say of the church? That it's full of hypocrites. We haven't got our purity right, in our marriages or in a lot of else.

Most of us can easily quote the first part of this verse - don't let anyone look down on you - but how many of us have taken the time to study these five things that Paul tells Timothy to set an example in? How many of us even know them? Paul chose these five for a reason, and they say a lot about who we are.

Who are you? 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Enemies and Brothers

In almost every letter that Paul writes to the churches (if not every letter), he has something to say about the persons among them who are getting it wrong. Most often, what he has to say about them is...grace.

In 2 Thessalonians, we have yet another example of this. Someone in the community is messing up. Bad. Someone's getting it wrong. Someone's tempting others to follow their example, and it's a threat to the young community of believers who are just trying to figure this whole thing out. And what Paul says is what Paul most typically says in these situations:

Do not consider him your enemy.

Do not consider this guy who's getting it wrong to be your enemy. Do not consider this guy whose understanding is limited your enemy. Do not consider this guy who thinks differently than you do or who hasn't come to your conclusions or who hasn't grown as much as you have your enemy.

He's your brother.

We could use a healthy dose of this, especially in an election year when the us vs. them rhetoric gets heightened exponentially. But even outside of politics, we're dealing with it all the time. The world does whatever it can to divide us, to tell us we're different from each other. Even inside the church. We have all of these different denominations, and there's real hatred between some of them. Sad, but true. Some Christians will not even fellowship with others because of the name they carry on their building or the doctrine they carry in their hearts. We all love Jesus, but that's not enough for all of us. Some Christians are looking at one another as enemies, for no other reason than that they disagree on this or that or the other.

I say this a lot, but so does Paul and that means that it bears repeating as often as we can hear it: someone who you think is wrong about something you strongly believe is not necessarily your enemy; he's probably your brother.

First, it's worth pointing out that you've been wrong about some things a time or two or two thousand in your life. There are things you understand better today than you did five years ago or ten years ago. There are things you've grown and changed your mind on. There are things you've been exposed to that have changed your mind for you. Were you, then, once an enemy of yourself? Would you have considered who you were then to be your enemy now? No. You'd give yourself the grace of being a developing human person and having the ability to grow and to change and to think about things again.

That's the same grace you have to give others. Most persons...are not getting it wrong on purpose. They're not. They're doing the best with what they have - with what they know, with what they understand, with what they've been exposed to. They're not trying to cause trouble. They're not trying to lure others away from the truth. They're not trying to tear down what is established. They're just where they are, with what they have, and they're doing the best they can with it. And they're your brothers.

I think we get this idea of enemies from Paul himself, and he's the one who would know. He was, and he confesses that he was, an enemy of the Christian faith - but not because he was wrong about it. Not because he didn't understand it. His status as an enemy had nothing to do with what he thought about Christianity, but had everything to do with the actions that he actively took against it. Most persons are not taking actions against the faith in order to destroy it the way that Paul was; they're just getting it wrong. So if anyone has the right to say what an enemy is, it's Paul, and what Paul says over and over and over again is: this isn't your enemy.

It's your brother. Try loving him as such. Even if you think he's wrong.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Pray Continually

When it comes to prayer, most of us know that the Bible tells us to "pray continually." Pray without ceasing, it says, and we say this to each other, especially when we have an urgent prayer need in front of us. Never stop praying. Pray all the time.

What's interesting is that this verse (1 Thessalonians 5:17) comes in the middle of a whole set of one-line commands Paul gives to the church, and yet, how many of you can name any of the others? There are six others, seven in total, and this is the one that we've latched onto, the one we've adopted, the one we've said that we ought to live our lives by.

But what about verse 16: "Rejoice always"? Paul says it with the same succinctness and force as he tells us to pray continually, but we don't throw this one around at each other.

Then, there's verse 18: "Give thanks in everything." No thanks. We can't really be bothered by that. Can we? There's something about it that's maybe not as catchy, not as devout-sounding or whatever. Eh, we'll take a pass on this one, too.

Okay, then let's look at verse 19: "Don't stifle the spirit." This one's a bit harder because it's written in the negative - something we shouldn't do, rather than something we should. It's easier for us to dismiss ones like this because it's not active or at least, it doesn't seem as active. Maybe he should have written it the other way around "Let the fires of the spirit burn." Still, it's a little passive - we don't have to do anything; we just have to be careful not to interfere with something that's happening.

Moving on, then, we come to verse 20: "Don't despise prophecies." Another one written in the negative, which makes it hard for the same reasons. Maybe he should have said "Consider faithfully the prophecies that you hear." Maybe that's it. But still, most of us aren't hearing prophecies a whole lot. It seems like maybe this one is an "every now and then" sort of thing, certainly not up there with praying "all the time."

Fine. Maybe verse 21 is your thing: "Test all things." But who has the time for that? None of us wants to live our lives at such a leisurely pace that we have time to test everything that comes our way. That's why our brains work the way they do. They build neural pathways that allow us to take shortcuts and process information based on things that we already know, making more things seem obvious to us than truly are. We can't really take the time, all the time, to test everything. This one just seems impractical (which ironically, is the complaint we often have about praying without ceasing when we take it to its logically absurd extreme).

Perhaps, then, you're more of a verse 22 sort of person: "Stay away from every kind of evil." Here again, we have something to avoid, rather than something to do, but this one at least tells us what we're doing. Most of us think we're already doing this, though. We're not committing the "big" sins. We don't turn down dark alleys or take roads we know will lead to destruction. Anything clearly marked "evil," most of us stay away from anyway...so we're pretty sure we don't need this command. Not really, anyway.

It's just interesting. Paul writes these seven very short, concise statements - Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in everything. Don't stifle the spirit. Don't despise prophecies. Test all things. And stay away from every kind of evil. And out of all of those, we've made wall hangings and pillows and artwork out of just one - Pray continually.

Why that one? Why not the others? They are just as holy, just as much spiritual disciplines as the prayer one.

Just something to think about. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Faith, Love, Hope

When we talk about faith, hope, and love, the verse that often comes to mind is the one that tells us that these three remain, but the greatest of these is love. Which is all well and good, but it's also a little cryptic. These three remain? What even are these things?

To put our fingers on what exactly faith, hope, and love are, we're better off turning to the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians. Here, Paul puts some beautiful language to what we gain through faith, hope, and love.

You produce by faith, Paul says, which means faith is that thing by which we act. Faith gives us the confidence, and the confident assurance, to move on what we believe. It gives us permission to do what God has called us to do. And that makes sense. Faith is the sense of what you believe, and if you believe in something, you should live like you do. You should move like you do. You should act like you do. So to say that we produce by faith is quite right - everything we do, we do because we believe in it. Faith.

You are motivated by love, Paul continues, which means that love is that thing that makes us want to act. It's the reason we do what we do. And this can mean any of a number of things. It can mean the love that we have for what we are doing, which is one thing. It can also mean the love that we have for those we are doing it for. It can mean the love that someone else has for us that makes us want to do something for their benefit. It can even mean the love that God has for us, which inspires us to be the best that we can possibly be - and that means acting out of our love. The truth is that we don't do anything without love pushing the buttons somewhere, so when Paul says we are motivated by love, he's quite right again. We are.

(It's important here to say also that sometimes, we seem to be motivated by hate. And on the surface, that might be true. But underneath hate is love. It is love scorned. It is love delayed. It is love rejected. Everything we hate in this world, we hate because it has tarnished somehow our love. It is a threat to our love. It is a danger to our love. So even in those cases where it seems like hate is the motivator, it's really love. Just...broken love.)

And you are inspired by hope, Paul concludes, which means that hope is that thing that keeps us moving forward. It's the thing that draws us down the road. It's that thing that guides us as we continue to push on and press on and move toward whatever it is that we're hoping in (in the best of things, Christ, but this is true of hope - as it is true of faith and love - whether it is a specifically Christian faith, love, or hope or not). Hope sets our sights on something yet to come, something we cannot quite yet see but that our hearts cannot let go of. We hold onto it as though it is absolutely real because, well, it absolutely is. Our hope is just as tangible as our faith or our love; it simply requires us to be patient. So we hold out our hope, always expecting more, always expecting better, always expecting the fullness of whatever it is that we hope for, and it is this that inspires us to keep moving toward it.

Faith, hope, and love or, as Paul puts them, faith, love, and hope. These three endure, and they enable us, motivate us, and inspire us in the life of faith. How beautiful.

You produce by faith, are motivated by love, and are inspired by hope (1 Thess 1)

Friday, February 7, 2020

Faithful Friends

We know that Paul rarely, if ever, traveled alone. Even on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians, he had a number of friends with him; they were eyewitnesses (ironically) to his blinding. And of course, on his missionary journeys, he was accompanied by a number of friends. Luke seems to have been among them at a least a few times. Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Timothy, Titus. He speaks of friends who have come to visit him and who have delivered messages to and from the churches, persons in whose homes he's stayed as he traveled, those who have assisted him in one way or another. Paul's life is full of companions. 

It's interesting, then, that when Paul writes to the Philippians, he refers to Timothy as the "only" faithful one among them. Timothy's the guy. All these other men with whom he traveled have in some way failed at faithfulness, and only Timothy remains. 

What makes this interesting is that Paul didn't stop traveling with the unfaithful ones. He didn't cut loose the guys who weren't cutting it. He even still mentions them by name when he can. 

We spend a lot of time thinking about the friends that we have, what they have done for us and what they have done for us lately. Whether they "get" it or not. Whether they're worth keeping around. We go through our Facebook profiles and delete the persons we don't want to deal with any more. We sever ties and end relationships because of differences of opinion or because of what we perceive as moral failures. Some friends, we conclude, just really aren't good friends. 

The question is...are we?

Paul kept hanging out with these guys, even though he couldn't honestly describe them as faithful. He let them tag along on his journeys, even though he couldn't necessarily depend on them. He let them take part in his work and even named him in his ministry even though, it seems, they were holding him back sometimes. Sometimes, maybe they were even directly opposing him. We know he had a big falling out with John Mark, but then he later asked for him anyway. 

Which means that Timothy wasn't the "only" faithful one among them. 

Paul was, too. 

We forget, in our world of connections and friendships and likes and followers, the value of being a good friend. We forget about what a grace it is to not give up on someone so easily. We keep looking at what others are doing for us, whether we're getting anything out of it, but it's been a long time since most of us considered what others may be getting out of us. 

There are persons on my friends lists right now who drive me insane. They are toxic. I know they are manipulative, users, wannabes, pretenders, gossips, liars, what have you, but I also know that most of them have no awareness that they are these things. What they do have awareness of is what they think about me, and they are engaged; they are tuned in. They could destroy me if I didn't know who they are, and for some, that might be a reason to unfriend or unfollow them. But for me, I look at the opportunities that I have to be a good friend to them - I look at the way they're looking at me - and I let them stay. Because it's entirely possible to be a good friend to someone who is not a good friend in return. You might even say it's exactly what God does with us. (And I am NOT in any way comparing myself to God or claiming some kind of holiness. I'm just trying to get this Jesus thing right, and I think it's what He would do, so I'm trying.) 

And there are times, too, when I realize that I am the bad friend. I'm the terrible one. I'm the unfaithful one. It's not easy to admit, but it's true. I am a better friend to some than I am to others, and there are those to whom I am not a good friend at all. I'm working on it. 

It just strikes me as I read this introduction to Philippians that Paul was still a good friend to all these guys he couldn't even call faithful. It just blows my mind. And it makes me wonder what kind of a friend I am. 

What kind of a friend are you? 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Belt of Truth

Put on the full armor of God. Just hearing this phrase brings to mind the list in Ephesians 6 of what that armor is: 

 - The Belt of Truth
 - The Breastplate of Righteousness
 - The Shoes of Peace
 - The Shield of Faith
 - The Helmet of Salvation
 - The Sword of the Word

Have you ever wondered why these things are what they are? Why are shoes peace and not truth? Why is righteousness the breastplate and not the sword? We read right through these couple of verses, and we think, ah, yes, yes, of course, but have you really stopped to think about it? 

When I wrote this note to myself as I read through the Bible last year, what I highlighted was the belt of truth. And why is truth the belt?

Because it keeps your shame from showing. 

Think about what a belt does. It keeps your pants up. In the times in which these verses were written, men weren't really wearing pants. The belt's job was to keep the tunic closed, sufficiently wrapped around and secured on one's body, but the point was exactly the same - if you're wearing a belt, no one can see what the fig leaves once covered. The fig leaves, of course, from the Garden after Eve ate the fruit and sinned. The fig leaves, of course, that Adam and Eve used to cover their "shame." 

Truth is the natural antidote to shame. Shame is that feeling we get when we think we're something lesser, when we've messed up or failed in some way. Truth reminds us who we are. If Adam and Eve had stood before God in their sin, what they would have discovered - in truth - is that He still loved them. He was still their God, and they were still His beloveds. He still wanted to walk with them. Even if sin made all of that impossible, the truth about who they were remained the truth. The truth about who God was remained the truth. 

For no reason at all except for their shame, they became afraid of God. Nervous. Timid. Shy. Truth would have told them that none of that was necessary, that nothing about the very character of God had changed. And nothing about who they were had changed, either. They were always humans with the potential for sin, and now, they still were. He was always the God who walked with them and loved them, and He still was. 

If Adam and Eve had wrapped themselves in truth instead of in bushes, the whole story of mankind might be different. And that's why truth is the belt. It covers shame.

Righteousness is the breastplate because it covers/protects the heart. Peace is the shoes because it emboldens and enables steps of faith. Faith is a shield because it always gives you the biggest thing to believe in, which keeps you from getting caught up in the little stuff that comes your way. The Word is the sword because it's sharp and divides even between bone and marrow (Hebrews) and because it is the only one of these you could direct out to the world; everything else comes inward to you. It's the only weapon you've got. Salvation is a helmet because it covers your head, makes you secure in the knowledge of where you're going and Who loves you so you don't have to entertain all of the questions the world thinks you ought to ask. 

The armor of God makes sense if you stop and think about it, but how often do we ever really do that? There's a reason these things are what they are. What would they look like if you put them on? 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

A Set of Values

Do you ever feel like this world doesn't appreciate you? Like it doesn't understand you? Like it doesn't get what you're trying to do here, or the way that you're trying to do it? There's a reason for that. 

Simply put, you don't fit into its categories.

Paul talks about this when he writes to the Galatian church. He explains that this world is trying to shape you and mold you so that it can brag about your flesh - so that it can put you into its categories and quantify exactly what you are. See, the world can only see in the flesh. It can only see the tangible, physical, visual things that you do and are. That's why it keeps trying to put you in boxes that clearly have labels on them. 

What Paul goes on to say, of course, is that real life is in the Spirit. It's in that realm that isn't quantifiable. It's outside of what can be directly observed and measured. Real life exists in that place without categories, without scales, without labels. 

The world simply won't settle for that. 

You are what you do. You are what you make. You're worth whatever your bank account says. These things have names, numbers. They have positions on the social ladder. You can take any one of them and plug them in right where it goes and know what that means. Black, white, rich, poor, old, young, whatever it is, these things - the world says - matter. And it's what the world is always trying to measure you by. Even all the way back at the beginning of this whole thing, as far back as the church at Galatia. This has always been an issue. 

Let me ask you something. When you read the early chapters of Genesis, who does the Lord give dominion to? Doesn't God bless mankind and give him dominion over all the world? 

Then why on earth have we given the world dominion over us? Why have we given it the power to tell us who we are? 

We are beings made in the image of God, each and every one of us. We are so unique and diverse, each of us revealing something about Him that others may not ever see if they didn't meet us. And yet, together, we do not even come close to encompassing all that He is. Not yet. You could try to put us in categories, but they would be woefully insufficient to capture the glory that is the human being, the human individual being who reflects the glory of the Creator. 

It's what frustrates the world about us, really. There just aren't categories for men; there never have been. Not really. And yet, it's a power struggle. Up to a point, we created this world and then somewhere, we relinquished our power and gave it the opportunity to start creating us. We're starting to feel the pressure. We're starting to understand that it doesn't work that way, but we aren't really fighting back yet. Instead, we're beating ourselves up that we don't "fit" anywhere, that this world just doesn't "get" us, and we're telling ourselves we're doing it "wrong." That there's something "wrong" with us. 

What's wrong with us is that we've given up our dominion and let the world shove us into its boxes of labels and measures when our true life, the real, abundant life that God has given us, doesn't live there. It never has. 

The only thing that's really "wrong" with us...is that the world can't possibly come up with categories to put us in that it can brag about. It can't brag about our flesh because our lives are, and always have been, so much more than that. 

So do you ever feel like this world just doesn't understand you? Good. Give it one less thing to brag about. Because this world did not make you the incredible, awe-inspiring, sacred, holy, God-revealing image of the Creator that you are; He did that. So live your life in the Spirit, where it's always been, and let Him brag on it. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Spies

The Christian life can be a challenge. It's often made even more difficult by those on the outside looking in, those who think they understand a few things here and there and try to set traps to trip you up. This is one of the things that Paul wrote about to the Galatian church, but it's interesting what he says to them.

He doesn't say that they need to watch themselves, that living as hypocrites is going to get them in trouble. He doesn't warn them against being stumbling blocks to a watching world, as ambassadors of the faith or whatever. He doesn't caution them against being wrong about something. Instead, what he says is this:

Some are spying on you because of your faith and joy, and they will use that to trap you. (Galatians 2)

They will use the good things in your life, the things you're getting right, the things that fulfill and satisfy your soul, the things God always desired to give you...they will use those things to try to trap you. To try to convince you that what seems like it's working...isn't working. To try to tell you that it's all whitewash, that you're naive. To try to bring up all the things that aren't faith and joy and force you to deal with them. 

And that's still happening. 

It's happening to a lot of us right now. We're working diligently to get faith right. We've found a measure of joy in our lives that isn't touched by the troubles of this world. It's a peace that passes understanding. And the moment that we start to hold onto that, the moment that we start to build our lives around it, someone in the world watching steps up and says, "But...."

But there's still tragedy in the world. But there's still heartache. But there's still sin, even in your life. But God is still a vengeful God. But He hasn't really saved you yet. But you're still here, in the body, just like the rest of us. 

Basically, you're a fool. How can you ever explain that you're not?

Because the minute this world can convince you that your joy isn't real, they've got you. The minute they can convince you that your faith is nothing, you're done. Take what seems so real and vital, what is promised to you by God, and convince you otherwise, and the whole curtain drops. Or rather, it is sewn back together and the holiest of holies is once again closed off to you. They don't have to tell you that your faith is stupid. They don't have to tell you that you're wrong about it. They don't have to show you the history and the documents that disprove it. All they have to do is get you to think that one piece of it, just one piece, isn't what it seems to be, and you question the whole thing. 

All they have to convince you of is that your joy...isn't really joy. And all of a sudden, the world isn't just watching for our mistakes any more. They aren't just watching for our failures. It's not enough to not be a hypocrite. They're watching our successes. They're watching what we're getting right. They're watching our joy, waiting for it to crack...or waiting to crack it. Our joy! Something we are least on our guard about because it feels so right, so blessed, so holy. 

All that to say this: when the world raises a question, you don't have to necessarily worry that it means you've gotten something wrong. You don't have to go back to the drawing board and call everything into question. You don't have to think that you've messed up again, that you're never going to get this right. Sometimes...sometimes the world raises a question because you're getting it right. Because you've got something good, and this world can hardly fathom it. And because it's beyond their wildest imagination, they want to put it out of your grasp. But you don't have to let them. 

Keep your joy. Keep your faith. They are good things; they really are. No matter what anyone says. This world? It's just trying to trap you. But joy and faith? They're free. 

Monday, February 3, 2020

Without Contradiction

When Paul writes to the Galatian church, he says plainly that he preaches the best that he knows how. He attempts to be true to the Gospel and to preach the grace and love of Christ as it has been revealed to him. But he also says something interesting. 

He says that even the angels should not be able to contradict him. 

That's the kind of preaching we're shooting for.

Now, that raises a lot of questions. Because what do we know about the angels? Well, from the New Testament, we know that the angels gather around the throne of the Lamb as a heavenly host and sing, holy, holy, holy. We know that in the Old Testament, they came to scout out the land and deliver messages from God to His people. We know that in both testaments, they came bearing good news and cluing in humanity on what God was going to do for them and through them. 

For the longest time, these were the things that guided our preaching - the glory of God, the presence of God, and the promise of God. Preach these things, along with the grace and love of Christ, and you've got a message that not even the angels can argue with. And the implication is that they're the ones who know. 

So what has our preaching come to? Because I'm listening to a lot of sermons and hearing stories about church services and...these aren't the big three any more. In some churches, they don't even make the top ten. In some others, not even the top twenty. 

Today, our churches are talking about why we tithe and how we should serve and there are churches preaching on contemporary movies and classic literature and everything in between. There are sermons about sex, about sin, about politics. We're talking about being "fans" of God or "following" Him. A lot of our sermons today focus on who we are and what we're doing and what we should be doing and maybe why ("because God is good"), but our sermons don't preach our God any more; they preach our lives, and we're supposed to fill in the blanks about God for ourselves. 

Maybe that's why it's so easy to walk away from the faith now. Maybe that's why we can't get persons to stay in our churches. Maybe that's why the world says we don't even really need our Sundays. If all we're doing with them is talking about how to be good people, we've got all week for that. Everyone is doing that, church or no church. Almost everyone wants to be a good person. Almost everyone aims to live a better life. 

It makes you wonder what the angels would preach if they came to our churches. What would they say that we're not? Where would they contradict us? Because wherever that is, that's what we're getting wrong. 

It makes you wonder what would happen if we'd go back to this kind of preaching, if we'd just stick to the big three and the Gospel and go with that. What if the world heard from us exactly what the angels are singing - the glory of God, the presence of God, the promise of God, grace, and love? 

Friday, January 31, 2020

Out of Your Mind

This one's a hard one for me. I'm going to confess that right up front. It's one of those things that I'm still searching for the balance on because I'm a person driven by fiery passion and an inspired vision and eyes that see God's design/intention for everything.

Then Paul says, "So if we were crazy, it was for God. If we are sane, it is for you" (2 Corinthians 5:13). And he's got me.

God does have all of these wild and crazy ideas that require us to step out of our comfort zones. Not once does God ever tell anyone that what He wants for them is the status quo. He never says He wants you to just live a quiet life, go to church on Sundays, stay in your lane, and die. God's always calling us to crazy adventures, and the life of faith that we seek requires us to be a little crazy ourselves. Okay, sometimes out of our mind crazy.

But the persons around us don't really keep up with that. You start talking about the things God's made you passionate about, you start talking out of the fire that He's lit in your soul, and this world can hardly handle you. I know. I get it all the time. What the world needs is someone who is down-to-earth, authentic, feet-on-the-ground. The persons around you need to know that you share the same space with them, that you're right here with them. That their experience in the flesh is your experience in the flesh. They need you to be grounded. On holy ground if you must, but just don't go crazy, okay?

It's a tough balance to strike. On the one hand, we want to be the kind of people of faith who do the crazy things God calls us to. We want to leave everything and go to the land that He will show us. We want to build an ark. We want to pick up our Cross.

At the same time, we want to be the kind of people of faith that other persons can relate to. We want to be the Christians whose kids play soccer with the other kids, who go to the grocery on Saturdays, who put their pants on one leg at a time.

We want to be crazy, but can't we be cool about it?

That's what Paul's getting at. That's the balance that we're all seeking.

Paul was a passionate man. He was a guy on fire for Jesus and this whole new Way that was taking off. He cared deeply about persons, cared deeply about the faith. He also didn't want to alienate anyone. So he'd go wild off the rails and then he'd have to pull himself back. He'd preach fire, but then he'd preach grace. He'd plead with the people, but then he'd identify with them. And what he's basically saying here is, "If you think you've lost me, that I've gone off the deep end, it's because God's got his hooks in me for something, but if you're with me and I'm making sense, it's because I've remembered to focus on you."

I'm crazy for God, but sane for you. I let myself run wild with the vision that He's given me, but I tone it down so I don't lose you.

It's an important reminder for us. Okay, at least for me. Not everyone can keep up with our passion, and why should they? God hasn't given everyone the eyes He's given us. He hasn't asked of everyone what He's asked of us. Only Noah built the ark. Only Moses stood at the burning bush. But it's important that when God sparks something in us, we get fired up. We have to learn to balance the fire that He's fueling and the authentic, relatable expression of that. We have to learn to remember to focus on persons when they need us to be there. We have to dream loud and walk quietly, if it even seems like such a thing is possible. We have to be in this world, but not of this world. Crazy for God and sane for His people.

It's a tough one for me. I suspect I'm not alone. What I also suspect, however, is that the default for most of us is toward sanity, not toward craziness. Most of us, having to choose between the two, think it more important to be proper in this world. (My problem is just the opposite. I can't let go of my crazy for God for anything!) But Paul says it's not about choosing one or the other. It's about finding that balance so that we can say, along with him,

If I'm crazy, it's for God. If I'm sane, it's for you. 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

On Forgiveness

The church at Corinth loved Paul. All of the churches where he preached loved Paul. So it was easy for them to become angry with someone who caused Paul pain. In the early words of his second letter to the believers at Corinth, Paul tells them in no uncertain terms that that's not the right response. He tells them, rather, to forgive the one who has caused him pain (2 Corinthians 2).

Man, that's tough. It's hard for us when someone hurts someone that we love. We see firsthand the pain that it's caused, and it's easy to be angry. It even feels righteous to be angry. There's something in our human nature that wants to lash out at them, that wants to strike them, that wants to make them feel some part of the pain that they inflicted. We want to be bitter and hateful and spiteful, and we want to call ourselves noble for doing it.

But what we need are more wise words like Paul's.

One of the things I've wrestled with in my life is how to tell the part of my story that involves my dad. It's a point of contention for me with members of my extended family. Some think you should only talk about the good parts of a person. Others think it's fair game to talk about the bad. For me, what I've found is that the best course of action is to talk about the authentic person. For every one of us, that's a mixture of good and bad. It's a combination of fallenness and redemption. It's our brokenness and our blessedness. We are dynamic human beings, each a product of our own story, each with our high points and low points. And I think we ought to be real about that.

A few years ago, I told part of my story that required telling part of my dad's. I chose to do it in this way, with a view to the authentic person that he was. When I finished, silence and tears filled the room. A little while later, a woman walked up to me and said, "I am so mad at you right now." I shook my head and said, "What? Why?"

She said, "Because as you were telling the story about your dad, I wanted to hate him. But the way you told it, you wouldn't let me."

That's the essential key to forgiveness. That's it, right there. We have to tell our stories in a way that they are real and raw and authentic and dynamic and everything we're living, but we have to tell them with enough grace that we don't engender bitterness.

I never talk about my dad trying to get others into some sort of "us vs. them" mentality where they feel like they have to "join" my "team." I'm never trying to start a fight. It's never my goal that they walk away justifying me, for I am a sinner, too, or denigrating him, for he was also a man under grace. It's not about what happened or how it happened or what it meant. It's about two fallen beings in relationship that is...as messy as everything can get.

And that's what Paul is saying to the church in Corinth. It doesn't do them any good to hate this man, and it doesn't do the man any good, and it doesn't do Paul any good. Nobody is better off if the church is spiteful toward him. Nobody. So what he says to the faithful is, forgive him. You forgive him, and we're all better off.

Forgive him, and you don't have to hold onto your bitterness. Forgive him, and he gets to hold a measure of grace. Forgive him, and I (Paul) don't have to play into this story for the rest of my life. Because that's what happens - if you hold grudges and tell stories for the sake of making teams, then you end up with stories that tell you, instead of the other way around. They come to control you, to force you to be someone you don't want to be. And in turn, those who have joined your team become persons they don't want to be. And the sinner is someone he doesn't want to be. What kind of love is that?

It's not. That's why we have to tell our stories with grace. That's why we always have to make room in them for forgiveness. That's why we can't let others gang up and start a war. It's not worth it. Everybody loses. You included.

What would happen if we started to tell our stories not in black and white, but in the shades of grey in which we all actually live? What if we told them with authenticity, with the good and the bad, the broken and the blessed, the fallenness and redemption, all mangled together the way we actually live them? What if every time we talked about something painful in this world, we did it in such a way that we always heard that woman's words - I wanted to hate him, but you wouldn't let me?

What if, like Paul, we called our world to forgiveness?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A Wise Word

Some of the most well-known words that Paul ever wrote came in his letter to a young Timothy, where he says, "Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young. But set an example for believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, in purity..." (1 Timothy 4:12)

But did you know that's not the only place he says this, and Timothy is not the only person he says this to?

This is important, especially in today's world.

See, Paul also says these words to the church in Corinth. Specifically, he tells the church, "Do not look down on Timothy." "If Timothy comes...no one should treat him with contempt" (v. 10-11).

It's kind of in that same vein where we're told that if someone is cold and we tell them to keep warm, we haven't really done anything for them. If they're hungry, and we tell them they should eat, we haven't helped. If you tell Timothy to not let anyone look down on him, he doesn't really have control over that. We haven't done anything. Except set up a stage for some discouragement if others continue to look down on him and what we've essentially told him is to not take it personally. You can only be looked down on for so long before you take it personally.

But if you tell Timothy not to let anyone look down on him and then you tell the church not to look down on him, now you've done something. You've tackled the problem from both sides. It's not all on Timothy's shoulders as the recipient of their scoffing and scorn; it's on their shoulders as scorners, as well.

This runs counter to the "wisdom" (and I use that term loosely) of today's world. Today, we tell everyone that they are responsible for their own selves. It doesn't matter what anyone else does; you are responsible for you. You choose how you respond. You choose how you let things affect you. There are stories of  children being bullies where the solution to the problem is to just avoid the bully. Or just ignore them. Or let it roll off your back. No longer do we tell the bullies to stop being bullies; we just tell the victims to stop being victimized by it.

This is really prevalent in stories of rape, as well. You almost never hear that rape is a problem because there are rapists in the world. Rather, victims dress too scantily. They drink too much. They do drugs. They go to bars, where of course you're "going to" get raped. They don't take care of themselves. So we spend all of our time and energy and resources training women how not to get raped, how to defend themselves, how to keep themselves out of those situations, and we exert virtually no energy at all training men to stop raping women. Not only is it not fair, but it doesn't work. (And I do understand that men are also victims of rape and women are also rapists, but the sheer numbers facilitate the pronouns used above. Brothers who have been victims, I hear you. I'm sorry.)

In a world that says that 1) we're not responsible for anyone else and 2) we are entirely responsible for ourselves, we need more of this two-way dialogue that Paul creates. We need more ministry in both directions. We need more community and fellowship that enables us to understand that no, we aren't responsible "for" anyone else, but we are responsible "to" them and that means not letting them settle for being lesser than they ought to be. It means training and teaching and holding them accountable for their own actions. We need to understand, too, that we are responsible for ourselves, but being responsible for ourselves doesn't mean that we shoulder the burden of the whole world, whatever it decides to heap on us. It doesn't mean that we're supposed to be untouchable, that we aren't supposed to let things bother us. This broken world sucks. It's not fair. Some things hurt. We need to be honest about these things, not falsely "taking responsibility" for ourselves and pretending it's all fine.

We need to look at problems from one more than one perspective and see where it is that we need to speak. Paul speaks two words on this issue, and it's vitally important - for Timothy, for the church, and for us. We need both truths. Desperately.

Don't let anyone look down on you. But also, don't look down on anyone. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

An Offering

Nearly everywhere Paul goes, we hear about the churches taking up collections for the believers back in Jerusalem. If you worship in a denominational church, you likely equate this to the denominational structure somewhat - where there is a headquarters that shepherds over all of the churches, and offerings are taken as a sort of membership dues.

The structure is similar, but the reasoning is not. Not exactly, anyway. Jerusalem was the place where this little movement of the Way was being born. It was ground zero, grand central station for Christianity. From it flowed all of the ministry that was being done early on. It's where the disciples were. It's where the landmarks were. It's where the stories were. So the churches lent their financial support to Jerusalem not as some sort of membership dues, as though they could not be a legitimate church if they did not, but out of indebtedness to what that church was doing.

It's as if you belonged to a small church out on the edges of town, but you knew that a bigger church in the center of town had a community meals program where they were feeding the hungry every week. So you send your resources - money, volunteers, whatever - to work in their program because they are the ones where the people are. That's what's going on here. Rather than sending their own missionaries out to plant more churches, the churches are sending their resources back to mission central, where they are really good at sending out missionaries and have the resources to do so on a scale that these smaller churches just couldn't match.

Although all of these churches were collecting offerings to send back to Jerusalem, and Paul commends them for it, it's important to note one thing:

Paul wanted them to take their own offering to Jerusalem. He wasn't going to take it for them. (1 Corinthians 16)

It's not...efficient. Paul's the one traveling around. He's going there anyway. It seems to most of us that it makes sense to just give him the offering and let him take it with him. Especially in those days when travel took a lot longer than it does now, was a lot harder, was more of a commitment. But Paul wanted them to have a real, vital connection with the church in Jerusalem, not just a transactional, distant relationship. It changes everything when you see the work firsthand and when you're able to be there to offer your encouragement in person.

Today's church misses out on a lot of that. There's a disconnect between the money we put in the plate on Sundays and a real understanding of where it's actually going, what it's actually doing. Most of us, even those of us actively involved in the church, don't know what ministry we're funding. We don't see it being done. It's even worse when we give to organizations outside of the church, where it's too easy to cut a check to an operation with a Christian-sounding name and pat ourselves on the back, but how many of us have followed that check into the field to see what it's actually accomplishing for our brothers and sisters? For Christ?

We need to get back to what Paul says is good - taking our own offerings to Jerusalem. We need to go where the money goes and see what's being done. We need to set our eyes on the good work that God is doing in our world with our resources, and we need to encourage - in person - those doing the work. They need to know that we're with them. Not just as financial backers, but as partners in ministry. It absolutely changes your perspective to see where your money goes, and it inspires you to do even more - not just with your money, but with your time and your heart and your energy - when you get back.

Maybe you're saying, but my church doesn't sponsor missionaries or anything like that. My offering goes right back to my church and supplies our needs, whatever those are. Let me tell you something - "the church" doesn't have any needs; the people do. That money is going somewhere to benefit people somehow. Even if you're in a struggling congregation where all it can do is keep the lights on. Hang around your building after-hours and see what kind of ministry is going on when it's not Sunday morning. Follow your pastor around and see what he's up to. Offer a hand to the deacon who changes the light bulbs. You have no idea how often little things break around a church building - light bulbs burn out, toilet flappers falter, chair legs come loose. All of that takes a ministry to fix it. It takes someone with a minister's heart to take care of even the building.

Volunteer in your church's ministries. Make the rounds. Do a little bit of everything, if your money is staying in your own congregation. Teach a children's class. Watch the nursery. Hand out bulletins at the door. Make coffee. Greet counselees as they come for guidance. Take a shift in the prayer room. Clean a few toilets. Mow the grass. Whatever is happening at your church, it's not enough to just sit in a pew and cut a check. Follow your money and see where it goes.

It's an encouragement to you and to the ones who normally do the work. And it's essential for all of us. 

Monday, January 27, 2020

Covering the Body

One of our favorite images for the people of faith is that we are the "body of Christ." We take this image from the writings of Paul, where he encourages the church that not every one of them needs to have the same gifting and that they are, in fact, better together - the way that the different parts of the body have different functions but each is necessary to make one, whole, healthy body (1 Corinthians 12).

Undoubtedly, if you've been around Christians long enough, you've heard somebody say something to the effect of, "Well, if we are the body, then I must be God's little toe! I'm nothing at all! I don't even know what my function is!" (Of course, the little toe's function is finding the edges of furniture when one gets too close, but that's another point altogether.)

I have, in my time, heard even more crude comments, centered around parts of the body that we don't like to talk about or parts that we make sure are always covered up. The...unmentionables, which even extends to perhaps the parts we just don't talk about but wouldn't consider crude, per se.

But if you read what Paul says about the body, he says that there is perhaps greatest honor in these parts. Actually, what the Scripture says is that we give great honor to the least honorable parts of the body.

And he's right.

We give them greater honor because we are so careful to take proper care of them. We get up in the morning, and that's the first thing we cover. We wrap it in tender care so that it is not exposed, so that it does not become fodder for staring eyes. We get up in the morning and put on underwear for the special protection of what seem like our dishonorable parts, then put on socks to shield our dirty, calloused feet, but none of us thinks much about covering, say, our elbows. We don't urgently hurry to wrap up our shins. We wear our faces uncovered so that others can tell who we are at a glance. None of us feverishly hides our ears, lest someone see. Because these are, we think, dignified parts of us.

Think, though, about those parts we're covering. They are essential to our life. They are vital to continue living. The anus and urinal openings remove waste from our bodies; without them, we would poison ourselves in a matter of days, perhaps hours. The genitals produce new life; without them, we would die out. Well, actually, we would have died out long ago and we wouldn't be here, having this conversation. The feet get remarkably dirty, crusted, calloused, fungused - they come into contact with literally everything wherever we venture and pick up the wastes of this world; without them, however, we would struggle to go anywhere, to do so much.

The same is true in our churches. In this body of Christ in which we dwell. Those persons who say they aren't an honorable part of the body are often most honorable part. We usually don't put them on stage, don't have them handing out bulletins at the doors. They're not the first persons we have greeting guests on Sunday mornings or heading up the missions team. We probably don't even have them volunteering in the children's church or taking nursery duty.

But these are the persons who remove waste from our bodies. They are the quiet counselors, the founts of wisdom to where other members of the body can turn for comfort and help. Just to vent. They're the persons who are truly really good friends to everybody, and they think, oh, I'm not doing anything for the body; I must just be God's little toe, but that's not true. They are the comforters, taking care of the toxins of our systems.

Theses are the persons who give us life. They are the persistent encouragers, always there to remind you that you're just one step away from the next glory. Always standing with you and cheering and clapping, getting you to go for it. They, too, are truly really good friends to everybody, and they think, oh, I'm not doing anything; my gift isn't anything at all. But that's not true. They are the encouragers, giving life to the body.

We live in a world that wants to quantify our value by what we do with it, as though meaning is some sort of definable action that we can give a title to. If you don't have a title or a position or something formal around it, it can feel like you're not doing anything. It can feel like you are less honorable than some others, but that's just not the case.

The truth is that those who think they aren't doing anything for the body are those with whom we tend to take the most care, because we realize how essential they are for our life. We realize that without them, we lose very vital functions of faith. It's easy to mistake it for pity - like we're just focusing on them because they're right, they are not valuable at all and it's kind of sad that they don't have a gift to use like the rest of us. It's easy to mistake for dishonor, that we shield and shelter these persons so much. But it's exactly the opposite. It's that we recognize the incredible value of their gifts and the invaluable nature of their contributions to the body, and we seek to protect and to keep them at all costs.

These "less honorable" parts of the body are doing our dirtiest work for us, and that's why we take such great care with them, bestowing great honor on what seems dishonorable. For without them, we are nothing at all. And we know it.

Even if we don't want to talk about it.