Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Like a Child

There's this strange scene in the Gospels where there just aren't quite enough details for us to figure out what it means. A lot of guessing and conjecture has gone into elaborating on what Jesus might have meant when He talked about this issue, but the truth is that most of it comes out of our current understanding and not out of a contextual understanding of the scene itself. 

But maybe it can.

We're talking about the moment when Jesus calls a little child to come to Him, has the child stand among them, and declares that the goal is to become like this child. What does it mean to become like this child?

A lot has been said about the innocence of children, about how they are so simple in their understanding of the world. They don't harbor the same kind of baggage that we do as adults. They don't have the preconceived notions and the stereotypes and the previous negative experiences that corrupt them. They have a natural curiosity about things and aren't afraid to ask questions. They are always looking to grow into something, to become part of something bigger than they are. There seems to be no end to the things that we can say Jesus meant here based on our understanding of children and their hearts. (Because hey, we know that Jesus loved to speak about the heart.) 

What if we're overcomplicating things, though? What if the answer we're looking for is right in front of our face?

One of the things we've done really well in our time is to complicate Scripture. We've tried to make it about all of these secret things that you have to understand to know what God is really talking about. We've made these verses into a series of dots that you have to be able to connect or else, you'll misinterpret them. This connects to that, which draws on that, and they both pull us back into such-and-such. And it cane make the Bible feel like a big, giant mystery to solve, and so of course, we've spent a lot of our time trying to figure out what it is about this child. 

In my experience, the Bible just doesn't work this way. It's more straightforward than we want to give it credit for. It's more right-there-for-the-taking than it is hidden-behind-a-bush. Overwhelmingly, the Bible just tells us what it wants to say, so I don't really see why we keep thinking that some of the stories can't possibly be what they seem. 

What about this one? What is this story trying to tell us? What does it mean to be like this child?

It could mean something as simple as - coming when Jesus calls and not feeling the need to perform. 

Jesus was surrounded by men and women who wanted to show and prove who they were. They came when they had something to demonstrate, and their entire lives in front of Him was a bit of a performance. It took a long time to break down barriers so that they could be themselves, and many of them never got there. Look at some of the errors the disciples made and ask yourself if they could not have been for show. For trying to get it right. For trying to prove some kind of righteousness or faithfulness. Like how Peter is always quick to jump in and protect Jesus. Show-off. 

This child, on the other hand, is called, comes, and stands there, letting Jesus do with him or her as He pleases. This child is willing to just be an example. To be used by Jesus to illustrate something He's deemed important in this moment. The child comes when called, draws near to the God who is calling him or her, and lets Jesus do the rest. 

What if that's what it means to become like this little child? 

Are you game? 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Peter's Mother-in-Law

One of the stories that we looked at yesterday involved Jesus going to Peter's house and healing his mother-in-law, who was sick in bed with a fever. She then got up and began to serve them. 

When we hear this story referenced in relationship to Peter, it is often just to show that he was a married man, in contrast to Paul, who speaks of his singleness. We use this to talk about marriage and singleness and how both can be a blessing in the church and so on. But the story itself begs a question: 

What was Peter's mother-in-law doing at his house to begin with?

In Jewish culture, the woman would leave her family and go and live with her husband's family. He would build an addition onto his family home for their new love, and it would be their own little space. That means that Peter's wife would have left her mother behind and moved in with Peter and his mother, but here we are with Peter's mother-in-law in his home. And this may, or may not, tell us something important about Peter.

The simplest answer, perhaps, is that she was visiting. Families visit one another; I'm pretty sure they always have. And while I don't have a mother-in-law (yet - c'mon God!), I do have a grandmother, and she knows her way around my kitchen. It's not uncommon for a visiting familial woman to find her way to the kitchen to cook and serve. And given what we know about Jewish families, I wouldn't put it at all past Peter's mother-in-law to both visit and prepare meals in his kitchen. So maybe it's as simple as that. If it is, it doesn't shed a whole lot of new light on Peter as we know him.

But what if it's not that simple?

What if Peter's mother-in-law is living with him because she is widowed? This would tell us something about the redeemer-kinsman in Peter. He extends his love not just to his wife, but to her entire family, and he becomes a caretaker for a woman who has no other caretaker in the world. This might mean that Peter's wife is an only child, that she has no brothers. At least, that she has no living brothers, for her brothers would have built additions onto her family home, and a widowed mother would be taken care of there. But perhaps Peter stepped in for missing or failing brothers and became a protector for his widowed mother-in-law. 

What if Peter's mother-in-law is living with him because she is divorced? This would tell us something about Peter, too. It would tell us that he believes in grace, that he believes in redemption, that he's unwilling to let even a woman suffer disgrace, but that he is willing to pick her up and restore her to a family position when she's lost hers. 

What if Peter's mother-in-law is living with him because he's gone so much in his travels with Jesus that his family feels abandoned by him? This would be important, too. It would speak to the kind of disciple he was, but it would also give us pause in light of Paul's words about family relations in Christ. Did Peter forsake his family for Christ? This raises all kinds of further questions if it's the case. 

What if Peter's mother-in-law wasn't living with him, but what if he was living with her? What if Peter had somehow fallen out with his own family, had been abandoned or discarded or orphaned? We know that he had a brother; maybe Andrew was on his own, too. And so maybe, with no family of his own, Peter built an addition onto his wife's home and became adopted. If Peter has already been adopted once, that certainly changes how we read his understanding of being a disciple. It changes the way that he follows Jesus, doesn't it? 

What if Peter is living with his mother-in-law because he is a prodigal son? What if he's run away from home in search of better things? This, too, changes our understanding of Peter the disciple, particularly in some of the scenes we see him have with Jesus. 

This may seem like a silly question, but if we knew the answer, it might change the way we read the Scriptures themselves. It might tell us something we never knew about Peter that might enlighten for us something we've been missing in his testimony. So it's definitely something to think about, although the reality is that we may never know (until we get to ask him).  

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Sick at Home

One of the things we have to pay attention to in the Bible, especially in the Gospels, is the way that the stories are arranged. There's a lot we can learn about Jesus from the stories themselves, but there's even more we can learn about Him from the order in which they are told. And since Scripture is God-breathed, that's no accident. 

Look at Matthew 8.

In Matthew 8, we have the story of the Roman army officer who has a sick servant at home. He comes to Jesus to plead for mercy and healing, and Jesus immediately says He's coming. Let's go. Let's go to your house and heal your sick servant. But the army officer refuses, saying that he is not worthy to have Jesus come into his home. Furthermore, he knows that Jesus doesn't have to; He can heal the illness from miles away with just a word. So, He does. 

Immediately after this story, we have another story. This time, Jesus is going to Peter's house. He gets there and goes in and finds Peter's mother-in-law in bed, sick, too sick to do anything. So He walks right in to the sickbed and heals her, taking her hand and helping her up. 

So we have two stories with two sicknesses and two houses and two healings. And you may say, oh, how neat, what an interesting coincidence that right after being told He's too great to come into a humble man's house to heal a sick servant, Jesus walks into a humble man's house and heals a woman (who then begins cooking for the group). But no, it's not just neat. It's not just an interesting coincidence. 

It tells us something about Jesus. 

Actually, I think it tells us a lot of things about Jesus, but I confess that I'm not sure I've figured them all out yet. Or even most of them. Or perhaps any of them. But I know without a doubt that it's worth recognizing and thinking about. 

My initial thoughts on the matter are this: if you know you have an illness in your home, you can carry it to Jesus and He will take care of it. He doesn't have to come in and check out all the skeletons in your closet and see all the cobwebs in the corner and whatever else you're afraid will embarrass you in front of Him. You can just carry your illness to Him with complete confidence, humble yourself, and He will heal the illness in your home. 

At the same time, if you welcome Jesus into your home, He will go straight for the illness every time. When He entered Peter's home, that's what He did. He went straight to the bedroom where Peter's mother-in-law was lying with a fever, and the first thing He did in that home was to heal her. He didn't talk about the skeletons in the closet or the cobwebs in the corner or whatever else Peter (or his wife or his mother-in-law or anyone else) might have worried about Jesus seeing in their home. He went straight for the sickness, and He healed it. 

I think that's important. I don't think that's the only important thing here, but I think it's one of them. It reminds us that at His core, Jesus is a Healer. We are often so worried about Him being a judge. About what He's going to think about us. About what kind of stuff He's going to see if we give Him access to even a little bit of our lives. We think we have to have things all cleaned up or whatever, but the truth about Jesus is that He's not nearly as interested in all that other stuff as we're afraid that He is. He goes straight for the sickness, straight to the healing. Every time. Whether we carry it to Him or welcome Him into our home. 

Both of which, by the way, are acts of humility. We either humble ourselves by shouldering our burden all the way to His cross or we humble ourselves by opening the door and welcoming Him in, but when we humble ourselves, He heals us. He heals our home. It's the first thing He thinks about, the first thing He wants to do. And He can do it, with merely a word or with an outstretched hand. Whatever. He's heals our homes, our hearts, the inmost of our beings, the places where we dwell. He heals them. 

That's important. Right?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

What is Right

We talked about the Pharisees quite a bit last week, and you'd think by now, we've exhausted that particular topic, but no. They came up again this week as I was reading through the Gospels, and the little scenario we're going to look at today is very important in understanding the error of the Pharisees (and our own error) and what God desires of us. 

The story begins with everyone standing around in the Temple on a Sabbath, and a crippled man is standing there, and Jesus heals him. The Pharisees immediately start talking about whether or not He was supposed to heal someone on the Sabbath. Basically, healing someone is work - it's not only work, but it's God's work - and how could you possibly do something like that on the day that you're supposed to rest and worship the God who does that kind of work? 

Jesus responds by asking, "Is it right to do good on the Sabbath?" And then, He reminds them that if one of their sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, they would not just leave it there; they would rescue their sheep from the pit, no matter what day it was.

But Jesus's question here is at the heart of the error of the Pharisees. 

See, the Pharisees were always asking, "What is right? What is right?" and they were quick to tell everyone what they thought was wrong. This was their default. They always wanted to know what the rules were and how to follow the rules and how to enforce the rules. They were constantly looking for the line in the sand (when our Lord just knelt down and doodled in it). 

When Jesus says, "Is it right to do good?" what He's saying is, 'ya'll are asking the wrong question.' It's not about the act itself, but the heart of the act. It's about the intention of the act. It's about why the act is chosen.

You can say that healing is work if you want to, but it's the wrong question. You have to ask whether something more holy will come from doing it than from not doing it. 

Is it good

And that's the question we should be asking ourselves, particularly when we are tempted to get caught up on what is right or wrong. Is it good? Is the intention and the heart of this action good? Will it do something holy in the world that not doing it would prohibit? Is acting more sacred an act than not acting? Is. it. good

Because doing good is always 'right.' 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Quiet Love

Joseph really doesn't get enough credit for being the father of Jesus. Yes, yes, I know - he didn't actually donate any sperm to the cause, but his role is no less heroic for that. And it's easy for us to overlook the way that Joseph's love for Mary mimics God's own love for us. We totally miss the message that God is sending us through this young man. 

As you remember, Joseph and Mary were engaged to be wed when Mary turned up pregnant, and Joseph knew it wasn't his. He knew he hadn't slept with Mary, and he was heartbroken. But he didn't want to shame her, so he decided - Matthew tells us - to 'divorce her quietly.' He was just going to whisper a few things and walk away, or maybe not even whisper anything at all; just walk away. He wasn't going to make a scene. He wasn't going to cast her out. He wasn't going to do anything that might make a spectacle of it. He was just going to get out, probably scuffing his feet in the dirt along the way. 

Because Joseph still loved Mary. Even when he was looking at her pregnant belly and knowing he didn't have a role in this, he loved her. He was not angry; he was heartbroken. It wasn't his wedding vow that was broken; it was his very love. It was devastating. And quiet seemed to be the best way to deal with it. 

But he doesn't. 

God sends an angel to tell him not to do it. God sends an angel to remind him of his love for this woman and how pure her heart is, how legitimate her intentions toward him. God speaks to Joseph and calls back not only his love for Mary, but her love for him and just the magic they make when the two of them are together, and he convinces Joseph not to leave - quietly or otherwise. 

And isn't this God's relationship with us?

God's wrath gets a bad rap; most of us spend our lives afraid of the heavy hand of God coming down on us. We read about the wars and famines and destructions in the Old Testament, about the entire nations He wiped out, about all of creation drowned in the flood. But the truth is that there are a million (at least) times in human history where God could have simply...walked away.

There are countless times where He could have divorced us quietly. Where He could have just turned around, hung His head, kicked His feet in the dust and walked away, heartbroken. Because that's what it would have been - heartbreak. We're so busy being consumed with the idea of God's anger that we forget that God is more often heartbroken than anything. It's not His covenant we have broken; it is His very love. And so many times, He could have chosen to just quietly walked away. 

But He didn't. 

But He doesn't.

At the very moment when He's tempted to, God remembers His love for us. And our love for Him. He remembers that our intentions toward Him are pure, even when our execution is lacking. He remembers the magic that we make when we are joined together with Him, and Him with us, and He chooses to stay. Like Joseph with a pregnant Mary, God looks at all of the potential for something holy welling up inside of us, and He chooses to stay. Like Joseph with a Mary who looks for everything like she's broken the covenant, God reaffirms His covenant with us. Like Joseph with Mary who could have been quietly divorced, God takes us and weds us anyway and loves us out loud, for all the world to see. 

For all that Joseph can teach us about God's love for us, he sure doesn't get a lot of attention. But maybe he should. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Question about Rahab

As we talk about Rahab and her reputation, a question arises: why did the people of Jericho come to Rahab to inquire about the Israelite spies? 

It's possible that they were going to all of the townspeople, or perhaps to everyone who lived in the wall and had a vantage point to see things, but the Scriptures only say that they came to Rahab and asked where the spies went.

Now, if they singled Rahab out to ask this question, then there are really three major reasons why they might have done this. 

Maybe they knew that Rahab was the kind of woman who would automatically notice any strange men who came into the town and would be marketing herself toward them. This would confirm her reputation as a prostitute - it would mean that the people of her town knew her as a prostitute first and foremost and that they believed there wasn't a man she could keep her hands off of (whether for pleasure or for money). Certainly, a woman in her line of work is going to notice every traveler and know exactly what they're doing while they are in town. 

Or maybe the townspeople knew she was a prostitute and thought that all men, even men of God, just solicited prostitutes. It's just what they did. So they thought, perhaps, that the spies would have sought her out and come and introduced themselves and offered some action. 

This is a problem, of course, when we talk about what it means to live as a faithful people in the world. We know that we have a bit of a reputation for being hypocrites, for talking a bigger game than we live, but in some cases, the truth is that we're not talking a game at all. Too many Christians look so much like the world that it's impossible to tell them apart. It could be that the people of Jericho had no frame of reference for the standards of living that the Israelites had and didn't understand what a group of most faithful men showing up in their town really meant. It could be that they didn't expect the men of God to be different than any other men they'd ever encountered, so they just figured these men would seek out the prostitute while they were in town. 

And that would mean, again, that what the townspeople most knew about Rahab was that she was a prostitute. 

These are the narratives that come easily to our heads when we think about this and read this story (primarily, we must say, because of what we think about prostitutes). But is there maybe another narrative?

There could be.

What if the people of Jericho knew Rahab was a redeemer?

What if the people who knew her best knew that Rahab was the kind of person who would help foreign spies escape safely? What if they knew she was the kind of person who would put up weary travelers, even weary travelers from another people? What if they believed that if anyone was looking to escape certain capture and death, Rahab would be the one to lead them to freedom?

What if the thing that the people of Jericho most knew about Rahab was not that she was a prostitute, but that she was a redeemer? What if what they most knew about her was not her profession, but her heart? 

That certainly changes the story. Doesn't it? 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Reputations

Can we just talk for a minute about how easy it is for us to think of Rahab as a prostitute, and how hard it is for us to think of her as a redeemer? As soon as we say the name, Rahab, all we seem to think about is the prostitute. 

Yet, Rahab being a prostitute had so very little, if anything, to do with her story in the Bible. Except, of course, to unsettle us a little bit and remind us that God uses anyone He chooses to use, no matter what we think of them. 

Rahab didn't have to be a prostitute to have a house in the city wall; plenty of non-prostitutes lived in the wall. She didn't have to be a prostitute to have compassion on travelers; plenty of non-prostitutes have compassion on others. She didn't have to be a prostitute to lie to the men of her town about what she knew; plenty of non-prostitutes know how to protect others. The point is...Rahab didn't have to be a prostitute to be used by God in exactly the way that she was. 

And yet, she was. A prostitute, that is. 

And thousands of years later, that's the first thing we ever remember about her. For many of us, it's the only thing we seem to remember about her. Oh yeah, the prostitute. 

Why is it never, 'Oh yeah, the woman who protected the spies in Jericho'? Or 'Oh yeah, the redeemer'? Or even, 'Oh yeah, the mother of the redeemer, Boaz'? 

Why is it never the good things we remember about anyone else?

This world is full of persons with reputations, persons who are this or that or the other that we don't agree with. Persons who have made decisions with their lives - either by free choice or out of necessity - that have marked them in one way or another. All of a sudden, no matter who they are or what they've done, they are always and forever that one thing, that one 'wicked' thing we can't seem to get over or look past to actually see a human being created in the image of God with a whole bunch of good and beautiful and holy qualities. 

Oh, yeah, he's an alcoholic. She's divorced. He's homosexual. She's had an abortion. He's a cancer patient. She's an abuse victim. And on and on and on we go, defining everyone in our world by things that have so very little to do with them. By things that miss out on the bigger part of their story. By things that lessen and cheapen them and make them easy to write off or forget entirely. He or she is 'just' whatever. 

Just a prostitute. 

Like Rahab, the stories that we encounter these persons in have little to do, it seems, with the things we remember about them. Rahab could have been anyone else, and we would have called her a redeemer. A hero. A victory. A convert. A faithful woman. Reading purely her story in God's story and how she played her role, we could say all kinds of things. Except that we're told she's a prostitute, and somehow, that became bigger than everything else. So much bigger that 1) we entirely forgot that she is all of these other things and 2) when we're reminded what kind of redeemer came from her line, we're shocked to think such a woman could raise such a man. Even though, as we said, she was that kind of woman herself.

That's why we have to be so careful about the ways that we are willing to define those around us. That's why we have to be mindful to find the stories we're reading and not just the adjectives or descriptors that raise our hackles a bit. Did you know that this world is literally full of holy persons created in the image of God who could show us something good and beautiful about Him if we could just look past those things we find distasteful about them? If we could identify them by their character, and not by their circumstances? 

Why does it matter to you that Rahab was a prostitute? Why is that the first thing you think about her, even though it had nothing to do with the way she acted in God's story? 

Why is that the first thing you think about anyone? 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Redeemer and the Prostitute

Some of the names that pop up in the genealogy of Jesus are more prone to catch our eye than others. One of those names is Rahab. Yes, that Rahab - the prostitute. 

And that's as much as we think we need to know, isn't it? Rahab the prostitute is in the lineage of Jesus. A number of sermons have been preached on this issue, on how God uses even a prostitute and isn't ashamed of her. How it doesn't matter what your past is or what you're engaged in, you can go on to be used in mighty ways by God. It's shocking that He included a woman at all, let alone a woman of 'ill-repute.' 

Contrast that with a name like Boaz, which also appears in the genealogy of Jesus, and we think we've got this stark contrast of saints and sinners all blended together into God's story. Boaz, remember, is the kinsman-redeemer from Ruth, the relative with the rights to buy the land of the deceased man, but only if he takes care of the widow and her family. Ruth humbled herself, and Boaz lifted her up, and seeing that name in the record of Jesus's ancestors does not surprise us at all. Of course there is a redeemer in Jesus's family.

But here's a little fact that's easy to read right past when we're just trying to get from Adam to Jesus and trace things down the line: 

Rahab was the mother of Boaz

That's right - the prostitute was the mother of the redeemer. And that seems like a lot. That seems like a dramatic change in her life story that she would go from being a prostitute to being a mother, let alone being the mother of the kind of man who redeems a lost family after the death of someone close. Let alone the kind of tender, gentle, wise spirit that we see in Boaz when we read his story.

Have we forgotten, then, that Rahab was a redeemer in her own right? Yes, the prostitute was a redeemer. 

That's how she got into God's story in the first place. It wasn't because she was a prostitute that God wrote her in; it was because she gave the Israelite spies a place to hide in Jericho, protected them from those who sought to kill them, and got them home safely to their family - and God's. It's because she believed the promise when she didn't even know the Promiser, and she risked everything to secure the journey of those anointed by Him. 

Yet somehow, when we mention Rahab, we only talk about the prostitute. That's who she is. That's how she's known. We don't talk about her redeeming qualities; in fact, we talk like she doesn't have a whole lot of them. It's nice and everything that a prostitute would be nice to some men visiting her town, but isn't that kind of what prostitutes do? It's easy to think of Rahab as nothing special, as just a whore. A run-of-the-mill woman-of-the-streets who, by nothing more than grace, becomes a character in God's story, just so He can show us that He doesn't care about our reputations. Even bad girls can have a place in the Bible. (That might be a book or something.) 

Was she a bad girl, though? She was a redeemer. She raised a redeemer. Both redeemers from Rahab's house are included in the lineage of Jesus. And I just don't know how we can read those two names, back to back, and say in the same breath that Rahab was a prostitute and Boaz, a redeemer. They were both redeemers.

So of course Rahab is in the lineage of Jesus. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Heart of God

This week, we've been looking at the multi-dimensional error of the Pharisees, how they were guilty of so many misinterpretations and misdirections at the same time. We've looked at the ways that we are guilty of the same errors. And it can seem like a daunting weight, then - even the kind of weight that the Pharisees themselves were guilty of placing on others - if we say that we must avoid all of these different kinds of errors if we do not want to be Pharisees ourselves. 

Yet, it's actually much more simple than that. There is really only one thing that we must keep in mind if we want to avoid becoming Pharisees, and as we said yesterday, it's not so much about what we don't do as what we do. 

We must always keep our eyes on the heart of God. 

It really is that simple, and it's what the Pharisees could never seem to figure out. They knew all the details, all the rules, all the regulations. They knew how many steps it was from the holy place to the most holy place. They knew how to slaughter an animal for offering and which animals were better than others. They knew everything that you ought to be doing with your life. But what they didn't seem to know anything about was the heart of God. 

They didn't know the heart that was behind all the rules and regulations. They didn't know what God was trying to get at when He told us how to live. That's why they focused so much on how we live and not on how to live lives pleasing to God. They focused on behavior because they didn't understand, even after God said it multiple times, that it was never about the offerings. They read the words and studied them, but they entirely missed the inspiration. 

It's like sitting down with the manual for a bicycle, trying to put a wagon together. You can't do it. If you're not talking about the same thing, you can't ever get to the same place...or to the place where you're supposed to be. The Pharisees thought the whole point of the Torah was to tell us how to behave, and they completely missed that the whole point of the Scriptures is to reveal to us the heart of God who loves us. They read the words without ever considering the Author. 

It's a trap that we can easily fall into ourselves. In fact, we do. All the time. We invest so much of our time and energy trying to get all the details just right, but we've missed out on the love behind them. We've missed out on the heart of God that runs throughout our lives and all creation, that draws us back into Him. We've read the manual that tells us how a faithful life is birthed, but we've never put our ear to His chest to feel the way His heart beats for us. 

It's easy to get caught up in all the rules, to work so hard at getting this life 'right,' but God never wanted us to live perfectly; He calls us to live being perfected. He calls us to live in His love, not in His regulations. Let's say this again, just so that we can never forget it - it was never about the animal sacrifices. As the Scriptures themselves say, 'the Lord doesn't need your bull.' What He needs is your heart, and to get you started, He's given you His. 

So put your focus there. Look for His heart. Read between the lines and look not just for the Word, but for the Love. Because that's why it was given to us in the first place - not to tell us how to live, but to remind us where our Life is. 

If you keep your eyes on His heart, you can't become a Pharisee. You just can't. It's not possible.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Single Issues

Because of the way their theology emphasizes the smallest of points and focuses on appearances, rather than substance, it's easy for Pharisees to become "single-issue" persons. Their entire faith can seemingly be boiled down to what they believe about this or that particular thing, the way that the Pharisees in the Bible were upset that Jesus's disciples did not wash their hands properly before eating, as if that was going to be what condemned them to eternal hellfire. 

Recently, a friend shared a post on Facebook that illustrates this point very well. It said something to the effect of, "A pastor cannot support abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex marriage and preach the Gospel of Christ." By extension, I know that this friend also meant "a Christian" cannot do the same. 

And of course, we're seeing this topic come up in the ongoing election, especially at the Presidential level. I have heard numerous persons within the church say they don't approve of x,y,z about Donald Trump, but they 'can't' vote for Joe Biden because of his views on abortion. 

We also see it reflected in the church, when we seem to preach a message that condemns homosexuality (or anything else) as the sin above all sins and don't take the same hard stance on all the other abominations unto the Lord that are going on within our walls. 

It's just too easy for us to become single-issue Christians, having this one-dimensional faith that - in literally all of these cases when we talk about the faith of a Pharisee - are based entirely on something we are against

Oh, so close. 

The truth is that we're supposed to be single-issue Christians. We're supposed to be persons of faith who base our entire belief, and thus, life, system on one thing. But it's not something we're against; it's something we're for. It's something we're for because we are beneficiaries of it ourselves: we're supposed to base our faith on God's love. 

Even in the Old Testament when the ritual sacrifices were still in effect, God says that He never really wanted our sacrifices. He's more interested in our hearts. He's more interested in justice and mercy and forgiveness and in our living together the way that He's called us to live together. He's far more interested in the ways that we love - that we love Him and that we love one another - than literally anything else we're doing with our lives. 

So to my friend who posted the meme about what we can't support and still have our faith, the reply is pretty simple: 

A pastor, a Christian, cannot preach the Gospel of Christ without loving the homosexual, the transgendered, the person who has had an abortion, and so on." We cannot preach Christ without love. 

That was the sin of the Pharisees. There was no love in their message. There was no grace in their law. They were so focused on the smallest things and the little pet projects they'd picked out of the Scriptures that they could no longer see the people of God for the commandments of Him, when the greatest commandment of all has always been...don't cloud your vision. Don't forget to see one another, to truly see one another, and to truly see Me. 

Our faith was never meant to be built on what we're against, but what we're for...and Who is for us. So let us be a people of love above all else, the way that God has called us. Otherwise, we're nothing more than Pharisees. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Inside of the Cup

While the Pharisees are most well-known for placing a high burden of obedience on faithfulness, that was not the only error they made. Another very serious error of the Pharisees was their emphasis on outside things, to the neglect of the inner life. Jesus even called them on this - why do you worry so much about the outside of the cup when it's the inside that's going to poison you?

In other words, the Pharisees had over-emphasized how you are supposed to look over how you are supposed to live, or love. This is happening in the church today in two significant ways.

The first way that this is happening is in a call to have a faith that seems to be more certain than it is, a faith that doesn't entertain questions because it doesn't even have any. We are supposed to be a people who never doubt, who never wonder about God, who never question whether He's good or whether He hears us or whether He cares. We're told that if we have doubts, and if we reveal them, then we might be a discouragement to our brothers and sisters or to seekers in our community, and essentially, nothing good can come out of having questions.

So the moment our faith is tested, we are taught to double down on it without any real reassurances. We are told not to let doubt even get a hearing in our lives. We are told to push our questions aside in favor of the 'answers' we're already supposed to have. We're told this will show the world what 'real faith' looks like. 

But what it really looks like is an unexamined, fragile sort of faith that can't stand up to the real brokenness of this world. What it looks like is blind, misguided optimism and a disconnect from the messy human life. What it looks like is a faith that will break the moment anything comes up against it, so it has to wall itself off and put its fingers in its ears and just hum Amazing Grace until hard times pass. 

This isn't our faith. At least, it's not meant to be. This is the Pharisee's faith - more concerned about what it looks like than its actual substance. No wonder the world doesn't want it. 

The second way this error of the Pharisees manifests in our lives is in persons who have high standards for their own outward appearance, but less concern over their inner life. What we're talking about here are those who set social standards and keep a different set of private behaviors.

We're talking about persons who won't drink or smoke or go to the bar, but they'll swear up a storm. Or someone who dresses never-casual or keeps up a certain hairstyle or chooses a particular 'look' and then, through their tongue, reveals themselves to be just as perverse as the world. I'll be honest with you - some of the dirtiest talk and some of the dirtiest jokes I've ever heard have come out of the mouths of those with a high standard for their Christian appearances/outward modesty. They invest a lot of time and energy convincing you how conservative and devoted and devout they are, but then they speak, and you wonder if they haven't got some sailor in their background. 

This, too, turns away the world from the faith. And why shouldn't it? It's hypocrisy at its finest. It's claiming that God cares so much about certain things, and then completely disproving that with your next breath. It's presenting to the world a God who is wrapped up in the superficial, but in the end, doesn't really look a whole lot different than the world. It's telling them that God cares very much what you look like, but has no interest at all in your heart. And the world has plenty of that without bogging it down with religion. They don't need a god like that, and they don't want one. 

Meanwhile, you run into these men and women all around your life that you wouldn't give a second look to - the old, wrinkled, haggard sort of men and women with whiskers coming out of their moles and crooked noses and missing teeth, and you think these must be the 'least of these' that Jesus talked about, but when you actually talk with them, you hear their gentle spirit. You hear their faith-filled soul. You hear their world-weariness and heaven-mindedness, even though by looking at them, you'd think they hadn't spent a day in their life worried about what they look like. And maybe, just maybe, they haven't. 

God is more concerned with the inside of the cup than the outside of it. He's more concerned with the substance of your faith than the appearance of it. This emphasis that we have on externals makes us Pharisees, plain and simple, and Jesus Himself condemns us for it. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Burdens to Bear

When we talk about the Pharisees, probably the most obvious of their errors that comes to mind is the high burden of obedience they placed on others. They sat down and studied the Scriptures and determined more hundreds and thousands of tiny little things that all those words must mean, and they turned their interpretations into a law unto itself. 

Remember when Jesus's disciples were walking through a field on the Sabbath and picking the heads of the grains and eating them? Well, it was the Pharisees who said they couldn't do that. Because it was work, and you can't work on the Sabbath. Never mind that they were also traveling, which they shouldn't have been doing on the Sabbath, and that it doesn't say it was their field, so they were probably stealing, too (or gleaning the poor man's portion, which may or may not be stealing depending on how you look at the disciples). But the Pharisees chastised them for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. 

It was something, in the grand scheme of things, so small. Like walking mindlessly by a bowl of nuts and picking a few out. It's just a natural human behavior; we just tend to graze. Grazing was just a little different in those times. But the Pharisees had sat down, studied it, and determined that picking a single head of grain to munch was technically 'work' and thus, broke the law. Well, they made it a law...and then accused the disciples of breaking it. 

It's important not to overlook the fact that the Pharisees' strictness came from study of the Bible. These were not ignorant men, not by a long shot. They were devout. They were devoted. They gave their lives to knowing God's Word as intimately as they possibly could. They wanted to know the Scriptures inside and out, not necessarily to make life harder for everyone but because they were (at least, at first) earnestly seeking holiness. At some point, they came to love the power and authority it gave them, but most Pharisees didn't start with an end goal of power and authority. Their eyes were, at least for awhile, legitimately on God. 

But the fact remains that they made the burden of faithfulness too heavy to bear. For everyone. In a Pharisee's eyes, no one was faithful. Especially not anyone outside of their little study group. 

And the same thing is still happening in the church.

The church is full of persons who deeply love God, who have invested themselves in the Word, who have studied and prayed and know what God desires of us, and have made the price of admission to our pews too high. They have determined that it is necessary for someone to have their life together before Jesus will love them, so they have set up roadblocks to ever coming to the Cross. 

The hard truth is that most of the persons in the world who are either afraid of God or intimidated by Him are not actually reflecting on God at all; they are reflecting on His self-appointed gatekeepers who have told them their life doesn't measure up. They are reflecting on a burden that's been placed on their shoulders, not one that's been taken up for them on the Cross. They are looking at what we tell them it means to follow God, and they're saying...I can't. It's not possible. I can't do it. (And they are watching us fail at it, too, and wondering how there can possibly be hope for them, who do not know God, if we can't even get it right and we claim to love Him.) 

If we want to stop being Pharisees in our churches, we have to flip the script. We have to stop putting such a high burden on those who would come and instead start talking about the burden God Himself carries for us. We have to stop making it about what we need to do and talk about what He's already done. We have to stop letting our love for God make us think that we have it all figured out and confess that we're still learning, that we have some ideas but we don't know everything. And then live out our faith based on what we do know, which ought to be - above all things - grace. 

Grace just goes an amazingly long way. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Becoming a Pharisee

We need to talk about the Pharisees. This is not an easy conversation to have, primarily because at the very moment you start to think about calling out the Pharisees, you have to humble yourself and wonder if perhaps you are becoming one. After all, the Pharisees were really good at thinking they knew how everyone else should behave. That's one of the things Jesus kept calling them out on. 

But the Pharisees are also a very misunderstood group. We've oversimplified what they were guilty of, and what Jesus's real problem with them was. We've done this to the point that we've blurred our understanding of this group and made a mess of the way that we use the word. So we're going to start our discussion this week by looking today at some of the foundational things we know about the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees were a deeply religious group. They took faith seriously; it was very important to them. They invested a lot of time and energy into studying the Scriptures. They'd have to - in order to come up with more than 600 'laws' that the people of God had to obey. They knew the finest letters of the scrolls, knew where every i was dotted and every t was crossed. If you asked them a question about God's Word, they could answer it. Right then, right there. 

And so the first thing we have to say about the Pharisees is that they were not an ignorant group. Their failures and shortcomings were not because they didn't know something. They knew a lot of things. They could run circles around most of us when it comes to Scriptural literacy. 

The trouble for the Pharisees comes in two other areas. The first is understanding. They knew what the words said, but they didn't interpret what they meant correctly. They were so focused on the literal translation that they missed the heart of God in the midst of it all. Today, we might say that the Pharisees lacked a measure of common sense. When God says you should not covet your neighbor's donkey, there were Pharisees who could diagram that sentence and come up with a defense of why you should never even seek, then, to buy a donkey from anyone because if you were in the market for a donkey and went to look at one, you would, necessarily, come to covet it before you purchased it. And so, the Pharisees would have a reason why you should never inspect a donkey for strength or health before you purchase it because doing so would lead you to sin. You should always buy your donkeys sight-unseen. And it's best if you don't even ask questions about the donkey, lest you start to imagine in  your mind all of its good qualities and want it before it is even yours. Right now, it is your neighbor's donkey, you sinner. 

So the Pharisees were not very good at common sense. They didn't believe in an interpretation of the Scriptures that permitted for real life to be lived; they believed that life should conform to the letter of the Scriptures - as though God's highest aim for our living could be outlined in some legal document. 

The second area in which the Pharisees struggled was application of what they knew. They believed in the letter, not the heart, of the law. Jesus came to fulfill the law, and He often said things like, "When I tell you not to commit adultery, that means do not even think about another woman in  your heart. Do not lust after her." Meanwhile, the Pharisees were over in the other side of the Temple talking about where the line between foreplay and adultery is. Just how far can you go with a woman before you've committed adultery? Can you kiss her? What if she kisses you? The Pharisees were busy drawing lines while Jesus was doodling grace in the dirt. Their application was just...off. 

And of course, we have to talk about the different sets of standards they held - ironic, since God repeatedly warns against having more than one set of weights. (You'd think the Pharisees would have caught that somewhere.) But they had different ideas about what they could get away with and what you could, and they lived their lives basically for show and not out of any kind of real faithfulness. 

Now, we do have to say that for most of them, their endeavor into the Pharisee life probably began earnestly. They probably wanted to be a faithful people. They were probably looking for the best ways to align their lives with God. They just got off-track and corrupted by the kind of self-affirming power that comes from believing you are always the most right about everything. 

The point is - the Pharisees are not a simple group. Their waywardness is so multi-directional that we can't really simplify it and say they only had one thing messed up. They were especially messed up and were getting a number of things wrong. This week, we're going to look at a few of them in more depth so that we can re-complicate this issue we've oversimplified. Which, I think, has perhaps made us Pharisees in our own right...at least when it comes to the Pharisees. 

Stay tuned. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Striving and Thriving

There's a strange thing that happens in the world, and it's called 'striving.' It's the notion that working hard will not only get you everything you want and think you deserve, but it will prove your character in the process. Working hard will show others what you're made of, and if you want to succeed in your chosen field, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else. 

The truth is that a lot of persons in our world strive (work hard) to get where they think they want to go, and after they've spent half their life proving their worth to be there, they spend the rest of their life striving to prove it wasn't a fluke, that they really deserve to be there and that they really were the right choice for the opportunity - for themselves and for others. 

It puts us in this perpetual state of proving ourselves, where we never get to enjoy what we're doing or what we have because we're too busy trying to make sure no one else questions it. We're too busy trying to say that we are worthy of a thing, and we never get around to doing or being that thing. We're so bent on showing the world that we're so perfectly...whatever...that we put more emphasis on what it looks like from the outside than how we are performing from within. We live on appearances and not actually achievement, even when it looks like we've made it. 

What I've found is that the Christian faith turns this notion on its head. What I've found is that when you're living into your calling and doing the thing that God has created you for, all of that striving ceases. You stop trying to prove yourself because, with that deep satisfaction in your soul that you are right where you are supposed to be - not right where you 'deserve' to be - you don't have anything to prove to anyone. Not even to yourself. And certainly not to God; He knew who you are when He knit you together in your mother's womb. 

Think of yourself as a marble. In the world's model, you're constantly in motion, constantly picking up speed, always running your course so that you can show how adept you are at doing it. You're constantly racing, always moving from one thing to the next and your whole existence becomes this kind of blur that is almost indistinguishable from any other kind of blur except that perhaps you have a few selfies of your still life. You know, for appearances. Hey ya'll, look at my marble.

But in the Lord, what happens is that when you come into the place you are meant to be, you sort of settle in. That marble that is your life comes to rest in a little divot that's been carved out just for you and rather than falling into the trap of believing your life is most beautiful as a blur, you can really start showing off all your colors. Free from the burden of having to prove yourself, you are able to finally show yourself. 

It's an entirely different heart to live out of. But it's great. 

Because when you're settled in, there is no tension. There is no stress. There is the burden of the good work that you do in the world because you recognize it as holy, but this burden is nothing compared to the one that the world wants to heap on your shoulders. You are able to shift your focus from your self to something bigger than you because the deepest questions about who you are are already satisfied. You don't have to ask any more. You don't have to prove it. And you don't have to spend your life trying to get others to see it. You just shine, my friend, right where God has given you rest. Instead of spending your whole life striving, you get to thrive. It's such a cool place to be. 

Which brings us to a point where we have to say that if you find yourself striving, especially if you're still striving even after you've reached the place you were aiming for, something is amiss. There's some narrative in your life that isn't quite where it's supposed to be. Remember what Jesus said? My yoke is easy and my burden is light. I have come to give you life, and life abundant. There is peace available in Jesus, and it comes when we live into our calling. Not because we are so convinced - and must so convince others - that we 'deserve' it but because we are wired to do it that way and nothing else. Because that's who God made us to be. 

There is rest for the weary, and it comes when we allow our lives to settle into a place that we don't have to earn, that we have deliberately grown our way toward until we've reached it, and now...it's time to just rest. To come to settle into this special little place God has carved out for us, to stop living life as a blur and start showing our colors. Every swirl of them, a mark of the wisdom and goodness of God. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Choosing Community

As I was thinking this week about what it means to grow and still choose the same thing all over again - like choosing whether Christ is still important to you or how you choose to approach your faith - I found myself pulling into the parking lot at church on Sunday morning right behind someone who, without the church, I never would have met. 

And then, I realized that my church is literally full of persons who, without the church, I never would have met. These are virtual strangers that I am doing life with, who are doing life with me, and yet, if we had run into each other one random day at the grocery store, this wouldn't be our story. How many times in my life did I walk right past these persons, these very persons, without a second thought before I knew who they were? How many times did they walk past me? 

Now, here we are, pulling into the parking lot of a place called home for us, and they aren't strangers; they're family. I can't imagine doing life without them. 

Which is, of course, a true statement and a sad truth, as well, because we all know how churches work in this age. We know how easy it is to go church hopping, and we can all think of persons who have left our community and gone elsewhere - or persons we have left behind when we have gone elsewhere. I've written about this before, how there's a sadness and a grief to it, how there's a hole ripped out of the middle of our faith when someone we've entangled our life with decides not to show up anymore. 

But what I was thinking about this particular day is that every week, these are the persons I choose to do life with, just by showing up. And these persons choose to do life with me, just by showing up. We choose each other. We don't have to; we could go anywhere to worship. But we choose to worship with one another. We choose to walk into a place we know and greet persons we know and sing and lift our hands and bow our heads with one another. When I leave my house on Sunday morning to go to church, I drive past a dozen churches on my way to do life with the persons I am choosing again this week. 

That means something. 

We have talked a lot about what the church is in the past few months, especially when we haven't been able to meet together the way that we always have. We have talked about what it means to be a people of God and a community and the kinds of persons who love one another. We have talked about staying connected, even when we have to be apart, and that's what this is about - it's about choosing community again and again and again, even as we grow. Even as we grow together. 

Too often, we think that the church is the building. Or it's the pastor or the leadership. Or it's the programs. Or it's the special events. Or it's the headquarters for a community service project. Or it's the launch pad for outreach. Or whatever. But the truth is that the church is the community. It's the people. It's the persons who choose each other every week and declare there is something fundamentally good and holy about doing so. Persons who keep choosing those who, without the church, they probably never would have come to know. 

I pulled into the parking lot behind this husband and wife, and I thought how strange it was that even the three of us were the kind of persons doing life together. How unlikely a friendship we have. It's a friendship that doesn't make a lot of sense in the eyes of the world, but it makes perfect sense in a place like this. And we keep choosing it, all of three of us. And we have for twenty years. Even as we grow, we keep choosing to grow together. 

That's really cool. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Imperfections

When we talk about growth, even growing Godward, we have to figure out what a reasonable expectation is. The Bible puts a pretty high standard on it - God says to be perfect because He is perfect. And if we truly live as citizens of heaven, then we believe in perfect things. 

Trust me. This gets me into a lot of trouble. Because I believe in perfect things. I believe things ought to be knowable and doable and that they ought to follow a predicted order. Not just any old order, but a certain wisdom that there is to the world because God put it there. And one of the things that slows me down and trips me up in this world more than anything else is the eye that I have for the 'ought to be.' I want so badly to live like the ought to be...actually is. 

And yet, we know that there is no such thing as perfection on this side of Eden. If perfection is our goal, we don't stand a chance. We're never going to get there, not as long as we live in a broken flesh. 

So this creates some tension. Doesn't it? On the one hand, perfection is the aim; we cannot let our sights be set on anything less than God's wisdom and glory. On the other hand, it's unattainable for us here; it's just not possible. That leaves us with really two options - we can keep beating ourselves up and feeling like failures every day because we are not perfect, because we always have our eyes on ways that we can be better at something, do better at something, live better somehow. Or we can modify our definition of what it means to grow, even to grow Godward. 

This is something - maybe you know this by now - that I wrestle with a lot. It's something I've been wrestling with for a long time. I just can't seem to let go of perfect. And the most challenging part of all of this is...I don't think I have to. 

I think what we need is to develop eyes for the kind of perfect that is in line with God's love and God's will and God's wisdom - the things that we are told are perfect - but we have to develop a heart for goodness, or in the case of a life being lived, I think we can call it 'fruitfulness.'

Think about any plant that produces anything - flowers, fruits, nuts, whatever. There aren't any two that are the same. No two apples are just alike. No two flowers are perfectly identical. No two trees, even if you planted them from the seeds of the same fruit, will grow up to be exactly alike. Because nature doesn't work this way. Trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, they don't think about being 'perfect;' they think about being fruitful. They do whatever they can, and whatever they have to, to bear fruit into this world. 

That's how we get all these really neat-looking root systems. On my walks with my dog in the morning, I see tree roots that have grown around full in a circle and gone back toward the place where they began because they hit pavement and ran out of room to grow in their first direction. I've seen flowers bloom out of cracks in the curb because that's the place that was open for them to spread. It's easy to look at something like this and think that these living things have only their survival on their mind, that they'd do whatever they had to just to survive, but that's not it. The tree is not satisfied just to be a tree; it wants to bear fruit. The flower is not happy just to be a stem; it wants to blossom. All of creation is wired for this kind of fruitfulness. So are we. 

And that's what growth - good, holy, God-pleasing growth - is about. It's not about achieving perfection; God knows we'll never get there. It's about pushing through toward fruitfulness, toward finding new ways to mature into bringing beauty and nourishment into this world. It's about showing more of the colors and nutrients that God has put in you to display. It's about constantly finding a way to push through and blossom. 

Most of us wait until we have our stem just right before we dare to bloom, but Godward growth is about blooming anyway. It's about taking that risk and putting it out there and letting it be shaped , even by this broken world. 

Which is part of the beauty of it all, too. From a distance, the fruitful plant looks spectacular, but when you get down right next to it, you see all the ways this broken world is eating at it. You see all the little bugs crawling around, all the sun-scorched spots, all the dried-up leaves. You see every way this world is getting to it, and yet, it doesn't let those things stop its fruitfulness. Not when it has become mature. 

This is growth. This is what God desires from us. That we would have eyes for what is perfect, yes, so that we see His wisdom and will and love in everything. But that we would also set our hearts on fruitfulness because we're growing in a broken world where perfect isn't plausible, but goodness absolutely is. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Growth and Change

When we talk about what it means to be constantly growing Godward, it's easy to misread that and to think that it means that we are constantly changing. How are we ever supposed to be a dependable people if we're constantly changing? How are we supposed to be in relationship with others, let alone with God and self, if who we are today is subject to change tomorrow? 

This line of thinking requires that we pause for a moment and define what growth is and what it isn't. Growth doesn't necessarily mean change; sometimes, it means simply development. A newborn baby grows into an adult, but that doesn't change the fundamental nature of the human being who is doing the growing. In the same way, a seedling sprouts and grows but doesn't change what it becomes. So we can't let the idea of growth make us believe that there's something unstable about it. Rather, growth is one of the most predictable, stable processes there is. 

That doesn't mean that you can't use growth for change. If you find that you're on a path that you don't particularly like or that is not leading to where you thought you were going, you can absolutely grow in a new direction. But to simply say that you're growing does not imply that you're changing. 

Now, here's what's cool about it: embracing a constant state of growth means that you get to choose all over again the things that you want to be. You get to keep choosing to be those things you want to be. You get to decide today and tomorrow and the day after that if that's someone you still want to be - if you want to keep it the way it is, take another step down that road, or turn around and try something else. 

Here's a somewhat silly example from my recent life. 

When I purchased my first vehicle, I was a young Christian. I was the kind of Christian who had her Christianity plastered all over everything. I had every Christian T-shirt and jewelry and bumper sticker and all the right books. I got a Jesus fish (ichthus) emblem for the front of my car, and I got a "Praise the Lord" license plate frame for the back of it. That was nearly 20 years ago. 

This past weekend while trying to change my license plate with a defective bolt posing a bit of a problem, I broke my "Praise the Lord" license plate frame. Now, 20 years is good for what is essentially very thin plastic. But the thing is, I really like the way these words are cut out and just the overall design of the thing, and they don't make them like this any more. Trust me; I've looked. And the truth is, I can't find a "Christian" license plate frame that I like any more. I like the one I had. 

Over the past twenty years, however, my faith has also grown. I don't plaster it all over everything like I used to because I understand that my faith is evidenced in the way that I live, not in the way that I decorate. And I have other interests now, too, which would make for good license plate frames. For example, I love my dog. Paw prints are great decor. I also found a beautiful butterfly frame that I like. Also, good decor. 

So the question becomes - who am I? Am I the kind of person who puts my love for my dog on my car? My fondness for butterflies and beautiful things? Or am I still that person who puts my love for Jesus on my car? 

When I first chose that frame, I chose it because I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. (Let's just be honest about how our faith starts out.) But when I considered what I want to do with this now-empty space, the decision was about how I will feel driving that car. What do I want to be reminded of when I get into it? What do I want to feel sitting behind the wheel? What do I want my car to say to me, rather than about me? 

So here I am, twenty years from where I was. If I decide to put another "Christian" license plate frame on my car, does that mean I haven't changed? If I decide to go with paw prints, does it mean that I have? If I choose something other than "God" as my decor, does that mean that my faith is less real and vital to me today than it was back then? If I choose "God," does that mean my faith is exactly the same as it was when I first came into it? 

See, this is what we're talking about. The choice that I make in this situation already signals my growth in the way that I am choosing to make it. My life is, by its very design, different twenty years after I first made this decision. The way I approach this is different than it was back then. The considerations on my heart are different. That doesn't mean that I am different, that I have changed; it means that I have grown. I am now in a place where my top consideration is what I need to hear, not what I want to say. 

Which means that if I choose to replace my license plate frame with another "Christian" one, it will be because I have considered it, and I am choosing it again. Not because I chose it 20 years ago, but because I choose it again today. For different reasons, perhaps, and with a different process, but it will be a choice that I make in this season and no other. And if I choose it again, or even if I choose against it, it will be an evidence of growth. Godward growth, as in this case, it is an evidence of the way that my faith has developed over twenty years of living it. 

Disclaimer: Right now, the old license plate frame is currently upside-down on my car, the way that it would still fit. So don't judge me by that, either. The car looks so bare without one, and I haven't settled on a replacement yet.) 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Growing Godward

Life is a journey. You've probably heard that, and if you've lived even a few days of it, you know that to be true. Our lives are about building upon yesterday toward tomorrow, always taking one step closer toward where we want to be without losing sight of where we are today. It's a challenge, but the meaning of life is found in the living of it, and our stories are being written anew every second. 

The world would like to convince us that our progress is linear. That is, we start at point A and end up at point Z, having gone through B, C, D, E....etc. all in order. The world tells us that if we want to build a life, there is a natural way to do it, certain steps we must take. Just take something so simple as the work that we desire to do. The world says that once you set your eyes on your dream job, you just have to finish high school, get the proper post-graduate education, enter in at a certain type of company in a certain type of position, take three steps in such-and-such a direction, accept a promotion into a certain department, and before you know it, you've worked your way up the ladder to where you want to be - one step at a time. 

Or take something like romantic love or family life. If you want to have your own family, then you start by figuring out what you want in a mate and pursue persons who fit your criteria. Then, you date for awhile. Then, you get engaged. Then, you get married. And when you're settled down into life as just the two of you, you start trying to add children as you desire. There's a natural flow to the way things develop, and it's all linear and predictable. 

This kind of thinking can lead us to believe that we are entitled to whatever comes next in our plan. If we have built a way to get to what we want and if we follow the steps faithfully, then every time we are ready to take the next step forward, the world ought to be waiting to greet us with open arms. Oughtn't it? This is how the world says it is done, so shouldn't the world be on board with doing it this way? 

Because of our understanding of this, it becomes very difficult when things don't go our way. When we don't get to take that next step when we think we're ready for it. When point C doesn't get us to point D when and where we wanted it to be. When we realize that sometimes, point C takes us back to point B for a season. 

I used to think I was entitled to step into the next thing. I used to think that because I'd been doing things the right way and following the right plans and because I had come so far down the road that I have traveled, it was only natural that it was time for me to take the next step. And I have expected the world to oblige. But of course, it doesn't. 

And after many wrong turns and detours and backtracks and traffic cones, I find that...I'm actually glad that it doesn't. I'm glad that the world doesn't let me just travel the path that I've set out for myself, or even the path that I believe God has set before me. Because the real journey I'm taking is so much richer, so much more fulfilling, and has so much more potential than my limited vision ever could have seen coming. 

It's frustrating sometimes to not be where I want to be or where I think I ought to be by now (and who ever gave me that idea?), but the truth is that I'm at a point in my life where I'm satisfied by the journey. With one caveat: 

As long as I'm growing. 

Rather than being super-interested in destinations or outcomes or landmarks or whatever, I have just one thing on my heart - growing Godward. I want to be learning something every day. I want to be doing something better every day. I want to be more humble, more focused, more content, more kind, more whatever. Just, Lord, keep me growing. Keep me becoming the person You have created me to be. 

The truth is that in all the seasons of my life that haven't worked out the way I thought they should, with every single thing I felt entitled to that never came about, I have found myself embraced in deep seasons of growth that have made me into more of the person I want to be, a person created in the image of God. 

The irony, of course, is that if you let it, then every single season of growth can make you just feel more entitled to the thing you've been waiting on, but you can't do that. You can't let growth be the means to the end; growth is the end game. Growth is what we're going after. At least, it's what I'm going after. 

And so, if God doesn't see fit to clear the path for me and to make it an easy step into the next thing, then so be it. I still pray for those things, but not as much. Now, I just pray that He keeps growing me toward them. That He keeps making me ready for when those doors do open. That He prepares my heart to be deeply satisfied in Him so that I don't find my satisfaction anywhere else. 

That He just keeps me growing Godward, no matter which road I'm on or where the next detour takes me. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Civil Proceedings

As we wrap up our look at the goodness of God as expressed in the minor prophets (and this has been only a glimpse - the minor prophets are full of this stuff), we'll look at one more passage. This one is in Micah 6.

God is frustrated with His wayward people (are you noticing a theme yet?), and He determines to bring His judgment upon them. Here we are again, presented with the greatness of God - the all-powerful, all-mighty, sovereign nature of God that can just bring judgment on His people because of His righteous anger. As we said earlier this week, that's every bit His right in His greatness. 

And it's kind of what we're all afraid of, isn't it? We're afraid that God's just going to decide to rain down judgment on us. We're terrified that we will upset Him somehow, and He'll just come in judgment without giving us a chance to even understand what we did. So many of us live our lives afraid of making a single mistake because we have this idea of a difficult God with such high standards and a short fuse. A lot of us fear that one day, we will blink and find ourselves in Hell without any idea what we did to end up there. Some of us, if we don't have this thought now, have had this thought before. 

But Micah offers us a word that ought to bring us comfort, if we read it for what it's worth and not in the eyes of our own fear or preconceived notions. Micah says, "The Lord has filed a lawsuit against his people. He is arguing his case against Israel."

It is easy to read this with an eye for God's greatness and think, well, we're doomed. The Lord is dragging us into the courtroom where He'll lay out all our sins in front of us and give us the death penalty. If we're not careful, this verse can reinforce the misconceptions that we have about God's judgment. 

Now, read it with an eye for His goodness. 

Because the thing about a lawsuit is that you have to bring evidence. When you present your case, you have to lay it all out on the table. You have to show not just what's happened, but why it's a problem. You have to build a case to prove your point. There is no courtroom in any just place in all the world (and justice is important because our God is just) where "because I said so" constitutes any reasonable proof. No matter who you are. 

If there's anyone in all the universe who ought to be able to say "because I said so," it's God, but the fact that He brings His case into a courtroom, that He compares it to a lawsuit and to a case He wants to present, means that He doesn't want to rely on His authority. He wants you to see the evidence for yourself. 

He wants to lay it all out on the table and not just show that it's broken, but show why it's a problem. He wants to help you get a vision for the things that He sees and why they bug Him so much. And it's not about proving you sinful and despicable and horrible; it's about being honest about where things are missing, where there's room to grow. One of the cool things about the goodness of our God is that He doesn't keep things from us; we don't have to guess what He's thinking. He's willing to bring the evidence and show us. He's willing to put it on the table in front of us. All we have to do is show up and be willing to face it. 

One of the other cool things about the goodness of our God is that He's not looking for a condemnation. If He were, it would be a criminal court and not a lawsuit. Lawsuits are civil. They are about showing a burden of error, of injustice, of neglect, or whatever. You aren't condemned in a civil court; you are only found liable. You are shown exactly how your broken things got you here, and you are given the structure around you to make it better. 

Which means that God's case against you is an encouragement for you to keep growing. 

Now, that's good

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

People with a Price

We're talking this week about God's goodness as written in the so-called minor prophets, and today, we turn our attention to Hosea. 

Hosea is an interesting story because he is the prophet who God called to marry a prostitute as a witness to the Lord's relationship with His wayward people. When we read the Old Testament, this makes perfect sense. We watch Israel wander again and again, always seeming to turn away from God, never able to just do what He tells them is best for them and what He wants them to do. Those silly Israelites. Don't they get it? We can see why God called them prostitutes. 

It's a bit harder when we start to think about ourselves. (This isn't even the point of today's post - so keep reading.) On one hand, we're generally ready to admit that we're not perfect and we're probably not doing everything that God wants us to do, but on the other hand, most of us would consider ourselves pretty faithful Christians. We go to church on Sunday. We read our Bible. We tithe. We worship. We serve. We do the things we're supposed to be doing, and we do them with some measure of regularity. If you ask us if we're faithful Christians, the answer is...yeah. We're a pretty faithful people. 

This is, by the way, the same frame of self-reference that leads a majority of us to think we are more 'good' than the average human being. Mathematically, half of us are not, but that doesn't stop us from thinking that we are. 

So anyway, Hosea marries a prostitute because God's people are pretty easy when it comes to the world, and something interesting happens in Hosea 3. If you're reading too fast, you'll miss it, so slow down. God tells Hosea to go and sleep with his wife and have children. And Hosea does. 

But he has to pay her wages to do it

Hosea has to pay the prostitute's price to his wife in order to sleep with her and have children. Even though he's her husband. Even though he's shown his faithfulness. Even though they made a commitment to one another. Even though they are in a covenantal relationship. Hosea pays his wife for the privilege of sleeping with her. 

And here we are, a people who are constantly demanding a sign from God. Constantly asking Him to prove Himself. Constantly begging Him to reveal Himself. Always holding back a little bit of our faithfulness until He proves - again - that He's worthy of it. 

That's where the goodness of God comes in...because He does it. He keeps doing it. He keeps paying the price for our relationship. He keeps showing us how good He is. He keeps showing us how committed He is. We're in a covenantal relationship with Him, and He's proven Himself, but He keeps paying our price for the chance to love us. 

He sent His Son to the Cross for us. Not because we're faithful, but because He is. 

And He's coming back again. Not because we're faithful, but because He is. 

That's His goodness. He shows us that through a prophet that marries a prostitute.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

From Greatness to Goodness

By now, you're probably wondering what it looks like when the minor prophets show us the goodness of God. Well, look no further than the opening chapters of Amos. Really.

As Amos opens, God is condemning the nations. All of them. (Or, it seems like all of them.) He is frustrated with all the people in all the world, His people and the people He's put around His people. They have all committed "three sins" and "now four," and it's all He can take. He's ready to show them who's God and who's not. He's ready for them to pay the price for their waywardness and sin. 

A brief interjection - this is the 'greatness' of God. This is His power and might. This is His justice and judgment. This is that big-picture-God stuff we've been talking about, where He is Lord over all the earth and can act however he pleases with it. As a 'great' God (think: big, powerful, all-encompassing), He has every right to rain down His judgment on these peoples who are messing up the plan He had for things. So this is exactly what we're talking about when we talk about the greatness of God. 

But this is a minor prophet, and there's an emphasis on the goodness of God here, too. All you have to do is pay attention to how this story unfolds. 

When God pronounces His judgment on these sinful peoples who have committed not just three, but four sins, every pronunciation starts with the same promise - He is going to set fire to the walls of their cities and burn down their palaces. Over and over again, this is what He says. Set fire to the walls and burn down the palaces. Every time. 

Maybe you're thinking - that doesn't sound 'good.' Wait for it, though...

Every judgment begins this way, but every one ends differently. It's so cool. One people will go into captivity. One people will die. One people's king will go into captivity along with his officials. One nation's officials will die, and the army will die in war. 

Here's why this matters: because when we hear that God is going to set fire to the walls and burn down the palaces, it's easy to think that this is all just the same action that God is doing. That this is just something about God that is true. That this is who He is. He is a God who rains down fire and burns down walls and palaces to destroy His peoples. And when we think that, it's easy for us to think that God is just waiting to do that to us, that He just can't wait to send His fire down on us, too. After all, that's what He does, right?

But what Amos reminds us even in these judgment prophecies is that God doesn't deal with us only on the basis of who He is, but He encounters each and every one of us on the basis of who we are, too. Not one of these peoples committed exactly the same sin, nor were any of these peoples the same peoples. They all had their own histories and their own relationships with God and their own waywardness. God - if He is really good - cannot simply deal with them all in a one-size-fits-all manner. He has to meet them individually...even in His fire. 

Even when He looks like the same God in His greatness, in His goodness, He is the very intimate God who is in a specific relationship with each one of us. He is the God who knows that this nation deserves to die, but this nation deserves captivity, while this one over here needs only to have her leaders taken away. 

The same is true in your life and mine. We each have a very specific relationship with God, and He acts out of that unique relationship that He has with us. He knows what we need and while in His greatness, He remains an all-powerful, all-right, all-righteous God, He is faithfully good with us, too, and knows how to give us just what we need...or deserve. Not just because of who He is, but because of who we are, too, and how He loves us.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Great is Our God

Yesterday, we introduced the so-called minor prophets and talked about the idea that while the 'major' prophets (like Jeremiah and Isaiah) show us the greatness of our God, it's the minor prophets who really have a voice for His goodness. That's precisely because their prophecies are so intimate, so specific, so tailored to a certain time and place and people and are less about God's grand scheme for everything and more about His nearness right now. 

That's not to say that it's not important to understand the greatness of our God. It absolutely is. We have to always keep our eyes for the big picture, for the grand scheme, for the scarlet thread that is woven throughout creation and that takes us from 'in the beginning' to 'forever and ever, amen.' We have to understand how big and mighty and powerful God is and how He's capable of managing the world that He's created. We have to maintain a vision for how He's working all things together for good and how everything fits into His wise design. 

But at the same time, if our faith is constantly focused on how great God is - how big and vast and powerful and in control He is - then we start to lose our intimate connection with Him. We start to lose sight of how near He is. We start to let go of that deep love that He has for us. 

This has historically been man's challenge with his gods (as we saw a bit last week when talking about Nebuchadnezzar) - when a god doesn't have a personal relationship with its people, it's easy to just become worshipers. To just bring offerings. To just do enough to earn the god's favor when it is needed. To spend your whole life trying to placate a god so that it isn't angry with you and might even do something nice for you out of all of its god-like powers. When a god doesn't have a personal relationship with its people, the whole relationship becomes transactional - give-and-take, approved-or-disapproved, tit-for-tat. And that's precisely the relationship that God doesn't want with us.

Yet, any one of us must be honest and say that it's easy for us to fall into that rhythm of 'worship.' It's easy for us to get transactional with God. It's easy for us to approach Him like any deities man has ever tried to curry favor with and to think that somehow, it's all about our getting it right and bringing the right offerings and doing the right things in order to have God 'like' us. 

Never mind that He loves us. 

And it's precisely because of this - it's precisely when we get into a mode where we are focused on the greatness of our God and start neglecting to study just as much His goodness that it's easy to create that distance between us and Him. It's easy to think of Him as just some God sitting in the heavens, waiting to either bless or curse us. 

The truth is that this world is full of things that are bigger than we are. We don't really need another one. That's why this concept of God can get so exhausting so fast. It can make us feel small, and not in a good way. What we need is an understanding of the intimacy of our God. How near He comes to us. How close He draws to us. How small He makes Himself to fit all His greatness into our lives in all of these expressions of His goodness. We need to stop having a faith that thinks the end game is that God would 'like' us and start living as a people who begin knowing His deep love for us. 

It starts with the kinds of messages that the minor prophets give us. And in our hearts, we know that. We know that's what our souls are looking for. Most of us are more moved to worship by one powerful, meaningful, intimate word about our very real lives than by a thousand words about the power of God to pull the universe's strings. We'd rather know from our own experience the tiniest bit of God's goodness than to have intellectual certainty about His greatness. Even if we were to come to a place where we could truly believe that our God likes us, it will never do for our souls what one heartbeat of His love does. 

It's cool and everything that the God who made me also made the universe, but that's not a solid foundation for the kind of relationship that He wants to have with me and that my soul craves with Him. No, the foundation for that relationship is that the God who made the universe also made me. That's the kind of reminder that the minor prophets give us. That's the kind of refreshing grace that these intimate stories convey. 

Great is our God. Holy, holy, holy. But good is He, too. Let us never forget that. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Minor Prophets

You may have heard of certain books of the Old Testament being among the "minor prophets" - we're talking about guys like Joel, Hosea, Obadiah, Micah and Amos (among others). We never hear talk about the "major" prophets, though; we just call them prophets. These are guys like Isaiah and Jeremiah. And it's probably easy to see why the distinction is made - the books of the "minor" prophets are much shorter than the works of the prophets, and we hear them preached from far less regularly.

The reason, I suppose, is that the work of the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah is understood to be broader and more far-reaching than the work of the minor prophets, who often had very specific insights to share about this or that. Isaiah and Jeremiah paint with a wide brush on grand canvases, creating pictures of the greatness of our God and all of His promises. And we can't seem to get enough of that. We can't seem to get enough of that Big Story God with all of His grand design. 

But the minor prophets....

Man, this is what I love about the minor prophets - while the prophets paint these pictures of the greatness of God, the minor prophets seem to whisper the goodness of our God. 

They just...get down into my heart more and connect with that place inside of me that needs to be loved by God. Don't get me wrong. There's a place for the Isaiahs and Jeremiahs and Ezekiels of the world; there absolutely is. But think about all the crazy stuff God asked them to do, about all of the weird demonstrations they made to His people. Lie on your side for a year or so, then roll over and lie on your other side. Eat this scroll. Make a spectacle of yourself. They're just way out there and making all these giant statements, and it's easy to walk away from them knowing the power and control that God has in the world and how He's orchestrating everything just the way that He wants it. 

But then the minor prophets speak, and it's like fresh water pouring through the soul. It's all this quiet little stuff about the real kinds of lives we're living. Just all these quiet little things that...almost don't seem like anything in the grand scheme of God and yet, they are something amazing. They are so meaningful. I cannot read any of the minor prophets without God playing my heartstrings like a violin. 

When I'm reading the prophets, I'm trying to put the pieces together, but when I'm reading the minor prophets, I'm trying to hold myself together because God is just doing a number on the deepest parts of my being. 

Some have said that the minor prophets are minor precisely because their prophecies were so small and specific, because they didn't have those broad, world-managing implications that Jeremiah and Isaiah had. Because they seem to apply in a very specific place at a very specific time. And yet, they were given to us in our Scriptures and not by accident. They show us something that all the grand canvases in the world cannot contain: the intimate love of God. 

And the key to reading them is not to try to identify with the people. It's not to try to find yourself in the circumstances that are happening. It's not to try to correlate the events of the day with today's world. If you read the minor prophets with human eyes, you'll miss everything important in them. The key to reading the minor prophets is to look for the heartbeat of God. That's the essence of them. Literally every breath of these guys is a new beat of His heart. If you read through the minor prophets and don't feel the weight of God's love wrapping around you, you're missing it. You're just missing it. 

Just look at some of the images and encouragement we get from them. Amos cries out to let justice roll down like a river. Hosea reminds us of a healing we've received but haven't accepted. Micah calls us to "live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." 

Isaiah and Jeremiah, they tell us about a coming Jesus and the way that God is working the world together for our good and His glory. But the minor prophets, they tell us about this flesh that we're living in. Right now. The very flesh we've been in since God first bent down and pulled it together and breathed life into it. 

The minor prophets...they aren't really minor at all. Not by a long shot. They are so important, so vital to our faith. We really ought to spend more time in them.

Maybe we'll start this week.