Friday, January 31, 2020

Out of Your Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 30, 2020

On Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A Wise Word

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

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

This is important, especially in today's world.

See, Paul also says these words to the church in Corinth. Specifically, he tells the church, "Do not look down on Timothy." "If Timothy one should treat him with contempt" (v. 10-11).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

An Offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 27, 2020

Covering the Body

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

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

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

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

And he's right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 24, 2020

An Invitation to Dinner

There was a lot of talk in Paul's day and in certain places about what kinds of food were okay for a person of this new Way to eat. Jews, of course, kept their kosher diets and were meticulous about what they were willing to put into their bodies but the same rules did not apply for these Gentiles, these Christians. And one of the biggest problems they had is that, although the Christians did not have a temple, per se, plenty of other faiths in the time did and a lot of this food was being offered as sacrifices to foreign gods.

With so much going on, just what is a person to eat?

Paul gives some guidelines on this. One of the places that he does that is in 1 Corinthians 10, but it's a little...vague, to say the least. Essentially, Paul's teaching is this: if someone invites you to dinner, eat whatever is offered because food is just food and it's not going to poison you just because it was offered to an idol first. It doesn't change the flavor or the nutritional value. But if you've been invited to dinner and someone makes it a point to tell you that the food was offered to idols, then don't eat it.

Does it change the food if you have been warned that it's been offered to idols? Of course not. Then why does it matter now if you eat it, if it didn't matter before? It still won't defile you.

Because Paul's response to the concerns about food have nothing to do with food at all. It's not about what you eat or don't eat.

It's about who you're with.

If someone invites you to their home for a meal, it is because they value you and want you to come and be with them. So you eat whatever they offer you because it is a gift freely and blessedly given by someone who loves you and has created space in their home and their heart for you. To refuse to eat it would be damaging to the relationship, so whatever they offer you, eat. For it is not about the food.

But if they warn you that it has been offered to idols, then don't eat it...because it is still about the relationship. It is about someone who knows you so well that they know that you worship a different God and wants to be respectful of that. It's about someone who wants to create a space where you can be true to you. It's about someone who has invested in knowing what is important to you and made provision for that. To eat it, even out of respect for the host or deference, would be damaging to the relationship. It would tell them that it's not important to you that they care or worse, that you really aren't who they think you are. So if they warn you about the food, don't eat it. For it is still not about the food.

This is, and always has been, the highest law of Christianity. Not what you eat or don't eat, but how you treat those you're with - whether you've invited them over or they've invited you or you just happen to be sharing the same space. The Old Covenant, it was full of laws and rules and regulations. It was all about do's and don't's. The New Covenant, though, boils all that down to simple love. Love God, love people. And if you love people, you make your decisions by the relationship, not the principle. (Okay, there are some places where you obviously place God above men, but most of our encounters with one another don't fall into this category.)

How much easier would our lives be if we simply kept this rule in mind? What if we made all of our decisions by loving and being loved, not by making and keeping rules? What if we, like Jesus, made room in our laws for grace and lived by it? Because it's not about what you do or don't do; it's about who you're with.

Are you truly with the people in your life? Then eat or don't eat or whatever.

But love.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Foolishness of Dying

Paul says that the Cross is foolishness to the dying (1 Corinthians 1). It's a phrase we hear so often that we find ourselves simply saying it, too, and nodding in agreement. Yes, of course. Foolishness. The Cross.

But if you really stop and think about it, doesn't that seem strange to you? Don't you think that the Cross would be hope to the dying?

That's how we've framed it in our modern Christianity. That's how we use it. The Cross is our promise that, like the thief, we have a place in Paradise. The Cross is the sign that He has gone to prepare a place for us. The Cross is God's statement that heaven is waiting for us, that when we die, we, too, can be resurrected. Foolishness, maybe, if you don't believe in the promise of it, but for today's Christian, the Cross is our hope.

Isn't it?

Well, it stands to reason that someone's got this wrong. Either Paul's got it wrong or we do, and it's probably an easy guess which one I'm siding with on this one.

The Cross is still foolishness to those who are dying. And that means us. For all the living we think we're doing, we are a dying people. We were cursed to die after Adam and Eve ate the fruit. And even if you believe in the promise of resurrection, even if you're waiting anxiously for eternity, even if you know that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you, you're still dying right now. Right now.

And as a dying people, we are also a people who do everything we can to hold onto our lives. We take medications, dye our hair, trim our waists. We buy new, hip clothes, new, hip cars. We invest ourselves in new projects, take new adventures. We do everything we can in our living to convince ourselves we're not dying, and for most of our lives, we're pretty good at it.

That's why the Cross is so foolish. Jesus had come to bring life to the people, and He was doing it. The blind were seeing, the deaf were hearing, the mute were speaking, the lame were walking. The poor were being clothed, the lonely were being visited. Everywhere Jesus went, there was life. And He let life walk Him all the way to the Cross - sure death. At the prime of everything, at just the time that hope was starting to bloom in the hearts of the people, Jesus submits Himself to the death that we're all trying to avoid, and it's foolishness. Utter foolishness.

It's foolishness because it looks like the end of all of that. It still does. We have a hard time fathoming how Jesus, who was doing so much good, could give it all up so seemingly easy. Could just...stop. Abruptly. Could just...quit. How this Jesus who spent so much of His time with people could just leave them. Just like that.

We have a hard time fathoming how this Jesus could ask us to do the same.

He does, you know. He says that the Christian life is about taking up your Cross and following Him. He says it's about dying just at the moment when you think you're doing your best living. It's about submitting yourself to something that all but promises to strip you of all the good things you've got going and trusting in something bigger. That's the way we're supposed to live - laughing, loving, healing, trusting all the way to Calvary, a Cross on our shoulders and the sound of the nails drawing ever-closer. It's still foolishness. We are called to be fools for Christ.

Earlier this week, I said that love is messy. And it is. And we have to wrap our minds around the Cross for the very same reason. It's messy. We've cleaned it up and sterilized it and polished it and put it around our necks, but it was meant to rest on our shoulders and leave blisters in our fingers. It was meant to pierce our hands and feet, to mark us as rebels on the narrow road to Golgotha while the wide road of the world is crowded with those on their way...somewhere else. The Cross was never meant to be our hope; our hope is in our Christ.

His Cross is on our shoulders.

That's how it's meant to go. That's the Christian life. It's foolishness, utter foolishness.

At least, if you're dying.

But if you're living, if your life flows with living water and you're living the abundant life that Jesus promised, then it makes perfect sense. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Smash Room

One of the hardest questions that we wrestle with in our faith is the question of God's wrath. He claims to be a loving God, and we say that God is love, but there are so many stories in the Bible of what looks like rage, what looks like anger, what looks like absolute madness. This is one of the things that keeps many away from the Christian God; it seems hard to reconcile the two.

But what if it's not so hard?

Have you ever heard of a smash room? It's a new sort of thing where persons have opened up these places of businesses full of things you can just break. They'll even give you a hammer to do it. The whole room is breakable, and you simply pay a small fee to go in for a set period of time and destroy as much as you feel like destroying in whatever way you choose to destroy it.

And nobody gets mad. Oh, you go in mad, probably, but nobody gets mad about the things that you break. It's not like that plate was your mother's finest china. It's not like that window has to be replaced now. It's not like you took something that was near and dear to someone and devastated it (and them). No, the things in that room - every single one of them - are there to be broken. That's their purpose. That's what they do.

This image came to mind when I was reading Romans 9 recently. Paul talks about the people being upset that God seems to destroy so much, or that He seems to care for some things more than others.

What can we say - that God is unfair? That's unthinkable! ...If God wants to demonstrate his anger and reveal his power, he can do it. But can't he be extremely patient with people who are objects of his anger because they are headed for destruction? Can't God also reveal the riches of his glory to people who are objects of his mercy and who he had already prepared for glory?

Reading this, I began to wonder - what if God created some things just to destroy them? What if God knew that His anger/wrath was a possibility, even would be a reality, so He put some things in creation just to take them out? What if there are some things in this world that are just pieces of God's own personal smash room?

Now, hear me out on this. Because just because something is made to be destroyed doesn't mean it can't be beautiful and useful and glorious. Just because it's what God decides to take His wrath out on doesn't mean it doesn't show us something of Him besides His wrath. You have to break a geode open to see all the beautiful sparkling facets on the inside. You have to crack an egg to get to the chick inside. Light has to break through water to reveal the rainbow. Creation is full of things that only get more beautiful, more glorious, once they are broken.

And if that's true, couldn't the same be true of God's wrath? Couldn't there be things in this world that He intended to break open to show His love all the brighter? At precisely the moment you think He can't take it any more, He reveals anew the depth of His heart for His breaking something open. By "destroying" it for His glory.

This matters. It matters immensely. Because if God, from the very beginning, created provision for His wrath, then He's not an impulsive God. He's not a reactive God. He's not an instinctive God. He doesn't just lash out at His people, at His world. He doesn't just stomp His foot on the floor, throw His hands up, and say, That's ENOUGH! I've had it up to here with you people!

Rather, He's a God who has hidden all of these beautiful little things in creation that, just at the very moment you think He can't stand you any more, He reveals His love again. Just when you think it's time to quit, He gives you a reason to keep going. Just when you think it's dark, He breaks through in light. He's a God who thought already of loving you even when you are unlovable, and He made sure that no matter what you think it looks like, it's love. Through and through.

All of a sudden, this God we're so scared of, this God we can't make sense of, this God we might want to cower in front of because He just seems so...unpredictable, so impulsive, so....He becomes this God who is still exactly who He says He is. Exactly. A loving God. An amazing, graceful, loving God who knew this moment was coming and was ready for it, for you.

This matters. Don't you see how this matters?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

In Need of the Law

The law was never God's idea. It's not how He wanted His people to live with Him or with each other. He didn't want to have to dictate, down to the letter, what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was evil. And you'd think that if His people disobeyed Him and ate a piece of fruit that would give them all knowledge of good and evil, He wouldn't have to. You'd think we'd just know.

But we don't seem to.

Actually, that's not quite true. We do know right from wrong. We do know good from evil. It's just that knowing what is good is not enough to make us do it, and knowing what is evil is not enough to make us not do it. And that, Paul says, is exactly why we need the law. If, he says in Romans 7, you do what you know is wrong, you confess that you need the law.

Not because we don't know what is right or wrong, good or evil, but because in our fallen selves, we have no motivation to do good or to avoid evil unless there is some kind of consequence for doing so. The law provides the consequence, good or bad. The law lays out exactly what will happen if we do good or do evil.

Most specifically, the law lays out exactly what will happen to us as a result of our actions, which seems to be what most of us are most concerned with.

It's because even though we know good and evil, we don't comprehend their real impact on the world around us or even on our own selves. Good is often self-sacrifical; it doesn't make sense if we're a people trying to look out for ourselves. Evil is often self-centered; we do horrible things to one another, often for the mere sake of trying to improve our own lot. This is why evil so often convinces us of its good - because we often reap some benefit, at least initially, from our own evil - and why evil convinces us that good isn't all it's cracked up to be - what's in it for us?

But this is also why we, who live under grace, still have the law today. It's why we keep on making rules where Jesus tore them down. It's why we can't seem to just do the most basic thing that God asked us to do - love God and love others - without quantifying and qualifying everything. On our own, we continue to do what we know is wrong, and in doing so, we confess that we need a law.

We need pressure from the outside to keep us in our lane. We need some standard by which to judge what we're doing, a standard that clearly says what good gets you and what evil gets you in this broken world where they all-too-often seem to be backward. We need to know exactly what we're getting into before we get into it so that we're all clear what the rules are. And we tell ourselves that this...this will help us to know what love is. The rules we create for ourselves, the law we write, will teach us love.

Even though Jesus Himself said that love is the law.

Here's the thing: the law is fairly simple. It's straightforward. It's neat and tidy. Love? Grace? These are messy things. Good? Good is messy, too. It's not clear. It's not black and white. It's not if-this-then-that living. Love is not transactional. That's what makes it so hard for our wounded minds to wrap around it. It can't be counted or calculated or assessed. It It's

We pass persons all the time we could love on, if we'd just stop and do it. It's really not that hard. You see someone with holes in their shoes on a snowy winter day, and it's clear that love is to give that person better shoes. But should we? Can we? It's a little messy, it seems. So we wrote a law - if you see your brother in need, meet his need. Ah, yes, okay. I should give my brother some shoes. Now, it's a rule to live by.

It only seems logical and natural that if we borrow something and break it, we ought to replace it. It was not, after all, ours, and the person who had it clearly needed it or they wouldn't own it. So love says you make sure he keeps what he's got, that you give back to someone who lends to you. But it's messy to give someone a replacement for something. It's messy to give a new in place of the old, even if it's the same basic thing. It's messy to confess that we broke what was entrusted to us. The whole thing, it's just messy, and messy makes it hard. So we wrote a law because we couldn't just do what is right and good to do. We wrote a law and we said that if you borrow something and it breaks, then you have to replace it. Ah, yes, then I should buy my brother a new one. And he will accept it. Because it's the law.

Forget that it should be love.

We've made this whole life of ours into law, and it was never meant to be that way. Not in a million years. Jesus came to simplify everything, to boil the law down into its most basic commands, but we couldn't even leave it at that. We went about building it right back up, detailing more and more who we should love and how we should love them and what is truth and what is grace and who and what and when and why and how and Jesus is basically screaming at us, and Paul condemns us in his words - if you can't do what you know is right, and if you keep doing what you know is wrong, then you confess that grace is not enough for you. Love is not enough for you. You confess that you need the law, the very thing Jesus came to make easier for you. And you've made it complicated again.

What a weird people we are. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Mirror Guilt

It's a truth that we know, but are likely to forget, and in case you thought that we came up with it in our 20th-Century 'enlightened' minds where the emphasis has been on understanding better who we are through the modern science of psychology and such, it's actually a truth that goes all the way back to Romans 2 (and even earlier than that, although Romans articulates it so well for us):

You are most likely to judge in others what you are guilty of yourself.

You would think it would be just the opposite. You would think that those things that we are prone to do ourselves are the very things we would have the most grace for in others, but that's not true. You would think that knowing what it took for us to get to that point would give us eyes to see others with compassion when they come to the same place. Brokenness isn't easy; we know that intimately from living it ourselves.

It is precisely the difficulty of brokenness, however, that gives us so little grace for it in others.

When we are broken, we know how hard we've wrestled with it. We know how hard we've struggled, how much we have tried to avoid it. We know that it comes as a last resort for most of us, as the last thing we want to be or to do. When we have exhausted all other possibilities, when we have failed in every way we can think of to try, when there's nothing left to do but give in and give up, it is only then that we become our worst selves, that we become something we often hate. Something that we know we ought not to be.

Then we look at others, and we don't think they've done the same wrestling. We don't consider that they've fought the same fight. We don't give a single thought to the idea that maybe they don't want to do this or be this, either. Rather, we look at them and think they haven't fought at all. We think they haven't tried hard enough. If they'd just try harder, they wouldn't be like this. Often, we think they've simply chosen this. That this is who they woke up this morning and wanted to be.

The audacity! After we have given everything we had to avoid such an existence, this person must just relish it!

We judge them harshly because in them, we see our own weakness, but we do not often see our own strength. We just do not see in them the fight that we put up, and it's that fight that changes everything.

What if that wasn't the case? What if, when we looked at one another, we saw the same fight we've been fighting? None of us chooses to be broken. None of us. Give us the choice, and none of us will say, "Ah, yes, I will take the broken life, please." None of us says, "Give me the hard road, the one I cannot possibly travel. Bring me the biggest enemy, the one I cannot possibly defeat." We all want to be whole; we all want to be well. We all spend our lives fighting for it, some with more success than others.

Yet, when we look at one another, none of us see the fight. None of us see the strength. None of us recognize the absolute heartache over this...over this being someone's broken life. We look at one another, shake our heads, and say, "Look at what a mess they've made of themselves. If only they had fought as hard as I have."

The irony, of course, is that if any of us had fought as hard as we claim that we have, we wouldn't be broken, either. The truth is that we've succumbed to our fight in the same way that we judge others for it. If we hadn't, we wouldn't hate them so much for reminding us of our own weakness. Our own failure. Our own inability to live the life that we tried, with everything in us, to hold onto.

Just something to think about this morning. Why does it bother you when someone else is broken in the same way you are? Is it because you don't see their fight?

What if you did?

Friday, January 17, 2020

Resurrecting the Unrighteous

When Jesus comes back, what happens?

If you listen to the preaching, something like this: Jesus comes back and all the righteous persons are taken to Heaven with Him while all the unrighteous sinners are thrown into hell. Those who have died are resurrected to be with Him, but those who perished in their sin know nothing of it. All the preaching on the afterlife has been tailored to this point - you want to be among the resurrected. You want, in the end, to be one of the righteous persons to whom Jesus restores life.

Except that's not what the Bible says. The Bible says that the resurrection? It's for the righteous and for the unrighteous.

That's right. Jesus is bringing us all back.

When Paul stands before Felix and presents his case, he says as much. He says, "I hope for the same thing my accusers do, that people with God's approval and those without it will come back to life." (Acts 24:15)

Now, wait a minute. We just want Jesus to bring back unrighteous sinners long enough for them to see how wrong they were and to recognize the fiery pits of hell as they are thrown into them, right? That's what it's all about - it's about making sure that sinners know, forever, that they were sinners and they were wrong. It's about judgment and punishment and setting things right in this broken world.

Eh...not exactly.

See, as vindictive and judgmental as we are, and as adamant as we know God is about righteousness, there is not one place in all of Scripture where God says, "I can't wait to destroy all of those sinners! I'm looking forward to the day when I can throw them all into the pits of hell and be done with them! Oh, boy, you better watch out because I am super-excited to show them all how completely wrong they were and watch their eyes widen with fear as they see that fire approaching!"

God's just not, and never has been, as vindictive as we are.

In fact, when we do see Him destroying the unrighteous, what we see, every time, is how broken-hearted He is over it. He mourns over Sodom and Gomorrah; He doesn't dance on the ashes. He grieves the loss of creation in the flood; He doesn't relish it. It's not the way it was supposed to go. It's not the kind of God He wants to have to be.

And it's not the kind of God He is.

When you read Revelation, it talks about how God is going to give each one of us a new name. He's going to reveal to us who we really are, who we've always been, who He created us to be by calling us by the name that He's given us. And then, He's going to open the Book of Life and show us the names written there, and you know what? I think that book is full of our new names. I think that book is full of the persons God created us to be, not the broken human beings that we are. I think our sins are cast off into the lake of fire and we are restored into our perfect creation, who we were always meant to be. I think when God tells us our story, when He reads from that Book, what He recounts are all the moments that we were who He created us to be, when we were the best version of us. Something sacred. Something holy. Something in His image.

And that's what He's always wanted. To see us like that. For the righteous, those stories will perhaps be long ones. For the unrighteous, much shorter. For the righteous, there is little to be chipped away and thrown into the fire. For the unrighteous, painfully much more. Some will see those little imperfections they've always hated about themselves burned up forever. Others will feel the fire as almost everything they've ever been is burned away. Some of us take more refining than others.

But we all get a chance at a new life. At least, that's the hope. That's Paul's hope, and he says it's always been the hope of God's people. That those with God's approval and those without it would be given new life.

And that, he says, is what enables him to always do his best by God and by people. Because he's not busy judging them, but rather, very busy hoping for them. Hoping for their new life.

What if we could do the same? What if, instead of being a vindictive people, instead of judging the world by righteousness and unrighteousness (out of our own self-righteousness, ironically), we were a hopeful people? If you truly believed that one day, everyone would be given a new life before God and we could see the best version of them, the person that God created them to be, the image-bearer that was always in there, don't you think you'd do better by people? Don't you think you'd do your best by them? 

Thursday, January 16, 2020


Last week, we looked at a couple of justifications in the book of Acts - we looked at the way that Stephen defended himself by starting at the beginning of God's story and preaching it right up unto the moment of his stoning, and we looked at the way that Peter defended his actions by revealing a vision he'd had from God and one he'd seen in men. As if Acts has some kind of theme of how we are to defend ourselves, today, we're going to look at a third justification. This one comes from Paul.

Paul doesn't shy away from his own story. In fact, it seems like every time we turn around, Paul is talking about his conversion experience on the road to Damascus and how he used to be a Pharisee and now he's a preacher, and if anyone was ever qualified to kill Christians, it was him, and that means that he's the one qualified now to preach Christ.

In Acts 22, we see Paul again launching into his testimony in the same way that he so often does. And if you track it all the way through, it's basically this:

Paul starts by listing all of the things that make him qualified in men's eyes, but at some point, he transitions and starts talking about all of the things that make him qualified in God's eyes. And really, it's genius.

He starts by saying all of the things that he is that men are looking for in a man. He wants to establish rapport with those who are listening, who think they know who he is but do not truly know anything at all. They think he's somehow so very different from them, that everything he's doing is foreign and weird and backward and even, perhaps, sinful. They're convinced that they are "us" and Paul is "them," which is pretty much how the world seems to run, isn't it?

So Paul starts by saying, no. I'm not "them;" I'm "us," just like you. You're circumcised? So am I. You're a Jew? So am I. You know the law forward and backward? So do I. Whatever kind of outsider you thought that I am, I'm not; I'm the same kind of person that you are.

But then he starts into it a little further. "But I'm also the kind of person who..." and he starts listing all of the things that make him the kind of man that God has chosen to use. The kind of preacher that is making waves all through the region.

In other words, what he's saying is - you're right. There is something about me that is different than you, but that's precisely why I'm having the blessed kind of impact that I'm having and you're not.

Ah, how the tables have turned.

All of a sudden, a bunch of men who thought Paul was in some way deficient are now faced with the prospect of actually being the deficient ones themselves. Those who were convinced that they were "us" all of a sudden figure out that they're actually "them." What kind of world is this? What just happened? How...?

It's great preaching is what it is. It's great conversation. It's the way that we ought to be starting more of our dialogue with one another. So much of our talk starts at us vs. them, and we just seem to intensify this the more we yell at each other. We think the way out of this is to show "them" how right "us" is and wrong "them" is and get them to come over to our team. But history, and even the present, show us that that doesn't work. It never has.

What we have to do is, like Paul, start by showing them that there really is no us vs. them. Me? I'm you. You? You're me. We are we, and there is only us. But then, we take it a step further and give God the glory for the greater things that we're doing, the things that set some of us apart, and all of a sudden, those who were so sure they were "us" start to feel like "them" and realize that they're the ones on the outs. We have to show them we're all the same and then call them to a higher plane of living, to a place of increased blessedness by God's standards, not men's.

We start with the flesh that we all share, then we preach the Spirit that He blesses us with,and in doing so, we affirm that we're not so different after all, but there is a better way yet. It's brilliant preaching. Brilliant living.

It's genius, really. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Two Baptisms

From the moment that the disciples hit the road as apostles, it seems that they are engaged in the never-ending work of differentiating between baptisms. "Which baptism did you have? Oh, the baptism of John? Let me tell you about the baptism of Jesus!" (who was baptized, by the way, by John...).

So the question is, what's the difference? Why does it even matter?

Maybe it's easy to say that it doesn't matter. Two thousand years later, can it really still matter? Yes. It can, and it does. Because our churches are still talking about baptism, still engaging in it, still calling the faithful to it, and so it absolutely matters that we understand what baptism is.

There are some churches that say that once baptized, always baptized. You don't need a second dunking, even if you change churches or denominations or hearts. If your body has been passed through the blessed water, whether you knew what you were doing or didn't know it fully at the time or were an infant or were an adult or were a protestant or were a Catholic or whatever, once done, always done. There are other churches where members are being rebaptized every couple of years, whenever they want, or whenever they feel like they have to because they've fallen back into sin or switched churches or changed hearts. Because they know more about Jesus this time than they did last time, so this time, they really mean it (unlike last time, when they also really meant it or next time, when they know even more about Jesus, and really really mean it).

But if we can look at this a little bit, all this talk that the apostles do about baptism, and figure out what it even is, maybe we can understand better and put some of that to rest. (Maybe not. Two thousand years of church history have been pretty clear, and I will probably not be able to solve the issues in one simple post.)

It's actually fairly simple. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. It's what men did when they came to understand their sin and the saving grace of God. It was their pledge to turn their lives around, to start living righteously, to do their best to put faith into action and make a difference in their lives. This is, oddly enough, the way that we use baptism most often in our churches today - as a commitment of repentance and a promise to live a new life of faith.

No wonder, then, that so many Christians spend so much of their lives wondering if their baptism was "real," if it "stuck," if they need to do it again. No wonder so many Christians keep going back and back and back to the waters. Over and over and over again, just to make sure their lives are still covered.

And this is what we preach about baptism. That it is a confession of faith. Even if we don't say it's a repentance of sin, that's what we mean. We mean that the person committing to baptism is turning his or her life over to Christ, in order to sin no more. And then we pray over them and promise to help them in their new life of faith, in their journey toward righteousness that promises to be daunting.

Go back to Acts 19, though, and we see one of the clearest places where the disciples say that this is not the baptism of Jesus. This is not the goal of the faith. This is not what it means to come into Christianity, to commit yourself to Christ. It's not about a baptism of repentance - something that men do.

It's about a baptism of the Spirit - something that Jesus does.

That's right. Our baptism is not something we do for Him; it's something He does for us. It's the moment when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us, when that Spirit becomes manifest in our lives. The disciples even ask the Gentiles - when you were baptized, did you receive the Spirit? And when they say yes and demonstrate that joining of flesh and Spirit, they are accepted into the family.

When was the last time you celebrated a baptism at your church by talking not about how that person was going to change their life, but about how their life was about to be changed? When was the last time you asked someone not whether they committed to turning away from sin, but whether they were filled with the Holy Spirit? When was the last time you pulled someone up out of the water and instead of clapping, they prophesied?

This isn't about being charismatic. That's not it at all. Not by a long shot. This is about whether the baptism we're participating in is something we're doing or something God's doing. Whether it's us repenting from our sins or Him sending the Spirit to dwell in our hearts. Whether the baptism we preach is the baptism of John, as so many through the years have engaged, or the baptism of Jesus, which the disciples said was the better thing. The only thing, actually.

And it's not that it's not happening. It's that we're not talking about it. We're so focused on the repentance of sin that we aren't even asking about the Spirit, we aren't even looking for Him in that moment. Even though He's there. Maybe these are the baptism stories we ought to start telling. Maybe this is what we ought to start preaching.

A little scary? Sure. We would have to confess that the Spirit of God, the Living Spirit of God, dwells among us. That He's in our midst. And that means we might have to change some other things, too.

But it's the better thing. It is. The only thing, actually. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Washing the Wounds

There are some Bible stories that we've read - and heard - so frequently that we miss some of the biggest things that are happening in them. That's because they are often preached from a certain angle, trying to make a certain point and once that point gets picked up, that's all we see in the story.

Take, for example, the story of Paul and Silas in prison in Acts 16. They have been flogged to the extreme limits of the law and thrown into jail, where they are able to convert the jailer and his entire family to faith in Christ. That's how the story is preached, and we celebrate the conversion of the wicked jailer and talk about how, no matter where you find yourself, you may just be there for a reason. Paul and Silas, we're told, ended up in that prison so that that jailer could hear the message of Christ and come to faith.

What we read right past in the story, what we don't take even a second to think about, is the little blip that tells us that it was the jailer, hours into the whole thing, that first cleansed Paul and Silas's wounds. He was the first one to wash them after their flogging. Nobody else could be bothered, and they weren't even given a bowl of water to wash themselves.

This is important. (Obviously, for God would not have included it in the story if it were not.) And yet, this is something we don't hear preached from Acts 16. This is something we completely miss while we pursue what we think is the "bigger" story.

In God's story, there's no such thing. So we can't afford to read right past this.

What does it mean, though? What's the point?

The point is that those things in your life that you think are holding you captive may be the very things that are there to tenderly treat your wounds. To care for you in your most vulnerable state.

We think that our obstacles, that the things that hold us back, are things to be conquered. We think we have to triumph over them, and that's how we preach this story - we preach it so that the jailer becomes a brother, not an oppressor. Victory! But we miss that the jailer was already a brother. The jailer was put in that position for Paul and Silas just as much as Paul and Silas were put in that prison for the jailer.

Want to put it in contemporary terms? I can think of no better equivalency than the church. There's been a movement sweeping through Western Christianity that declares it has no need of the church, that one can be a Christian without belonging to an organized body of God's people. That the church is responsible for holding most of us back, for keeping us captive to liturgies and doctrines and dogma. The church puts us behind bars, and we ought to just disengage from it.

And then, if we're lucky, someone will preach about how we've been put here to serve the church. About how God has given us gifts and abilities in this place and time so that we can do good through His people. And we praise God that He's put us in this place at the right time to serve the right people. Yes, we are a blessing to the church. How sweet it is.

But did you know that the church was put here for you, too? That the church was intended to be a blessing for you? The church is the community that cares for you in your most vulnerable state, that takes the time to wash your wounds. This world? This world would just throw you bloody and beaten into the streets. It's the church that takes you in, runs you a bath, and tends your broken flesh. We're tempted to believe that the church is our brother when it comes to celebrate us and the things that we celebrate, but the truth is that the church, like the jailer, has always been a brother.

We just read right past it.

And it's true not just about the church, though that's the parallel that was on my heart as I read this. It's true about a lot of things in our lives. Sometimes, the very things we think are there to hold us back are actually there to tend our wounds, to help our broken flesh recover.

What do you have in your life right now that might just be a blessing in disguise? Where is your jailer?

Monday, January 13, 2020

A Higher Standard

One of the challenges that Jesus left with His disciples was to figure out what the New Covenant meant in an old covenant world. Several times in the book of Acts, we see the disciples wrestling with what it means to be a person of faith now that Jesus was born, died, and rose again and the Holy Spirit has come.

Does faith look the same as it always has?

The biggest question in this brave new world seemed to be what the new role of circumcision was. From the early pages of Genesis, the people of God have always been known by the marking of their bodies - by the lack of a foreskin. This has been the sign that these are people of the covenant. But now, under Jesus, the covenant was branching out to the uncircumcised, and the disciples had to figure out whether the uncircumcised should be circumcised as a mark of the faith or whether this new faith had some kind of new mark.

What they decided, of course, is that the new faith has a new mark - the mark of the Holy Spirit. So the mutilation of the flesh was no longer necessary. They sent out a proclamation through the region that those coming to the new faith in Jesus Christ did not need to be circumcised in order to be accepted among God's people.

It's interesting, then, that in Acts 16, when Timothy begins to come along on mission to spread the Gospel of Christ, it is decided that he must be circumcised first. Even though literally no one he ever converts will face the same requirement.

So what gives? Why, in an age where the disciples have already decided that circumcision is not required under the new covenant, do they require Timothy to be circumcised before he can travel and minister to the uncircumcised?

Simply put, ministers of the Gospel have always been held to a higher standard. (And they still should be.)

Most Christians, they are never going to be ministers. They are the embodiment of the ongoing work of Christ in the world, of the mission God is on right now. They are examples in their own little realms, living by faith wherever God's planted them, and their job is to show the world what a living and active faith looks like in a broken and messed-up world. Most Christians get to live "today" as though it is God's day, and that's all that's required from them. And if this is the kind of faith God has called you to, then you are marked by the Spirit of God that dwells in you. You need nothing else.

But ministers, as with Timothy, are bearers of God's deeper story into the world. They hold not just today, but all of history, all the way back to "in the beginning." It is their job to help illustrate not just who God is right now, but who He has always been. It's their job to tell His story from the formless and void to the healing happening today. They have to carry with them everything and live a life marked by something much greater than just "today." In a sense that is limited by the English language, ministers carry with them "eternity," "forever," and that is a much heavier burden.

Can you imagine a man coming and teaching you about the history of God among His people if the man is not circumcised? You would look at him and say, how do you know? You clearly just got here yourself. Timothy could not convincingly teach the un-Gospelized world about Jesus if he didn't bear the mark of the history of the Jewish people, if he wasn't part of the covenant promise they held onto for so many years to even get to Jesus. "Hey, you guys, this Jesus is the fulfillment of a promise that I never had to believe in." It just doesn't make sense.

Does circumcision itself change the way that Timothy could talk about the promise? No. But it eliminates a barrier for those who would hear him preach. It takes away one of the questions they would instantly be asking themselves - how could this man even know what he's talking about? If, circumcised, he looks like he knows what he's talking about, then they are free to listen to the words more intently and simply come to believe.

And that's the heavier burden that is, and always has been, on ministers of the Gospel, as it should be. For most Christians, it's enough to simply be responsible for how you speak. But when you take on the role of ministry, you all of a sudden become responsible not just for how you speak, but for how you are heard. That's why ministers are held to a higher standard. (And they should be.) 

Friday, January 10, 2020

God and Man

Peter has always had a way of getting in trouble. Just when you think he's got his head on straight, Jesus has to chastise him again for this or that or the other. And you'd think that once Jesus is resurrected, confirms Peter's love for Him, calls Peter to shepherd His sheep, and commissions him, Peter would finally have things sorted out.

But we get just a little ways into Acts (11), and Peter's in trouble again.

This time, for eating with the Gentiles.

It was a big no-no. A faithful, devout, righteous Jew eating non-kosher foods with the rabble. I mean, sure, Jesus did it, but Peter's not Jesus. And to be honest, there are more than a few persons who are trying to rewrite some things about the new faith and make sure that distasteful part isn't anywhere in there. They want to clean up this Jewish Jesus and make something distinctly Hebrew out of Him. You can't really do that if His disciples are going to go around eating with Gentiles.

So Peter's in trouble, and he comes to his own defense in a most brilliant way: with two visions.

The first vision is the one he saw from God, where a sheet with all kinds of foods was lowered down from the heavens again and again and again until he understood that whatever God has made clean is clean. Period. It was the angel's testimony to him that it was okay to eat, that there was something greater to be gained by the eating than the abstaining.

The second vision is the one he saw with his own eyes in real time, in real flesh and blood. And that was a vision of men. Specifically, of Gentiles, who had received the same Holy Spirit that the Jews had. Who had prophesied and danced and believed just the same way that they had.

End of story.

You can't argue with that. It's bulletproof. "Here's what God said, and here's how it's actually working in the real world." If God says it's truth and it's working in the real places where we live, what else is there to talk about?

Too many of us are content with one or the other. We say that something is God's idea, and that's enough for us. It doesn't have to work out well. It doesn't have to make a difference. This is the kind of thing we get when we hold to absolute truth without love - God said it, it's a thing, so deal with it...but it's leaving a lot of destruction in its wake the way that we apply it.

Or we look at the world and say, "Here's what's working. It doesn't matter what God says about it - look how happy and successful and functional this idea is for real human beings." And that's enough for us. If persons are making it work, then it's worth holding onto. And this is grace without truth - a willy-nilly sort of existence where anything goes because there's no standard to which to hold it accountable.

But Peter shows us how it's done. He shows us that it's both. It's God and man. It's truth and grace. It's a belief and an action. It's two stories coming together in one.

And isn't that how God's always done it?

So in any situation, that's really what we have to look for, and that's what we have to be able to point out. What does God say? And how's that working out?

If God says it's truth and it's working in the real places where we live, there's not much else to talk about.

End of story. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Passion and Love

There's a fine line between passion and love, but it's an extremely important one.

Passion drives us to fight for things. It makes us care about something to the very core of our bones. It comes to define who we are and what we're doing. It shapes our very lives. There were men in Jesus's day who were known for their passion - they were called the zealots - and in our world today, we have just as many of them. Men and women whose lives revolve around some core issue, something to which they have attached extreme importance.

But passion isn't limited to the zealots. Plenty of other persons were, and still are, passionate about things, but you might not call them zealots. Paul, for example, was extremely passionate about the faith. But we call him, and he calls himself, simply a Pharisee.

Paul's passion drove him to persecute anyone and anything that seemed to present an obstacle to the faith that he had known and loved, to the Jewish tradition and proud history. He devoted his entire life to protecting his story, the story of his people. And everyone knew it. Everyone knew who Paul was and what he stood for.

Then, something happened. Something changed. God took Paul's greatest passion...and transformed it into his deepest love (Acts 9).

How does that happen? How does passion get transformed into love?

It gets tendered.

You put a little flesh on it and you start to see it played out in the real world. Not just in the real world, but in real persons. In human beings. In skin just like yours. You see how what you believe in, or what you rally against, truly affects someone, and all of a sudden, it's not just some idea that you're holding's something more.

Paul saw how the Jewish story, continued through Jesus in a way he wasn't fully ready to admit, affected the real lives of the Jewish faithful. He saw its hope, its power, its promise in a way that all of his passion for tradition never could have shown him. He had the chance to first-hand experience that all he had ever fought for was actually changing lives...right now...right in front of him. And it transformed his passion for the faith into a love for the faithful.

That's how he became such a great preacher. Not because he was as passionate for Jesus as he had been passionate against Him, but because he developed a love for the very people whose story Jesus was going to change, to heal, to reconcile. Just by putting a little flesh on it.

And that's what we have to do. We have to keep putting flesh on our ideas. We have to keep writing real stories with them. Because we all have these things we're passionate about, these things that drive us. These things that we're willing to fight for and would do anything in this world to protect.

Without flesh on them, you see what they do - they run roughshod over others. They become measures of force. They become battle cries and rallying points and riots. They trample underfoot anyone and anything that gets in their way.

But put a little flesh on them, and they become something greater than passion or zeal or idealism or whatever. They become love. And the greatest of these is love.

I say this as someone who...who gets passion wrong sometimes. If you know me, you know that I am intensely passionate about the things I believe, especially about God. Especially about the Kingdom. Especially about human dignity as imagebearers. Especially, well, I guess about a lot of things. And my passion can rub persons the wrong way sometimes. They think I'm arrogant or foolish or naive, whatever. But if you get down into me, if you get deep down into me under the passion, it's all driven by love. I forget that sometimes, when I forget to keep flesh on it. When I forget to think about the real human beings involved, the real persons who this is affecting. But, like Paul, God continually transforms my greatest passion into my deepest love, and there are moments...more and more of them every day, when I get love right. And those are the best.

I don't know what my point in all of that is. Just a little personal reflection, I suppose. But it's important. It matters. Passion is good, but love is better.

Let's shoot for love. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Place to Start

Like many characters in the Scriptures, we don't know a lot about Philip. He hangs around every now and then, and we know he's there, but he doesn't get a lot of his own stories. He doesn't take center stage very often.

Except for this one time in the book of Acts.

We're told the story of how a eunuch was traveling along, reading from the book of Isaiah, when Philip came up beside him and kept pace with the party. He asked the eunuch, "Do you understand what you're reading?" To which the eunuch replied, "How can I? No one has explained it to me." So Philip climbs up next to the guy and starts talking him through the prophecy in Isaiah all the way up to this guy named Jesus of Nazareth, who very recently traveled those same roads. Oh, and was the Messiah.

This raises an interesting question for me. For all of us, really.

Philip took this one passage in the book of Isaiah, a passage he just so happened along in passing, and used it to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Could you? Could I?

Now, it's one thing to get there from a prophecy in Isaiah that so easily connects to the life and the mission that Jesus lived. It seems to many that these words directly talk about this Messiah, so it makes sense to draw from it in order to pull someone in to Jesus.

But could you start from any passage in the Bible and get to the same place? Could you take any word from the Word and use it to preach Christ?

We say that the Bible is God's Word, that it's His story from the very beginning, and we say that God's story has always been leading to Jesus. If that's true, then naturally, the answer should be yes. Yes, you could take any passage of the Bible and get to Jesus.

Practically, however, many of us would have some hesitation. How do you take a passage that says, "Saul went into the cave to relieve himself" and preach Christ? How do you take a story a bounty of Philistine foreskins and preach Christ? How do you take a story where Samson ties foxes together by the tail and sets them on fire...and preach Christ? How do you get from a curse of Christ?

These are biblical stories. These are real passages in the real Bible, God's Word through and through. Could you really use them to get to Christ?

I still think yes, even with these more seemingly difficult ones. (I think the bounty of Philistine foreskins would be especially fun.)

It's just something to think about, something to play with. Philip took one passage he happened by in passing and took the eunuch all the way to Christ. Where could you start and end up the same?


Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Power of Story

Why did you do that?

It's the question we all think we have to answer, more often than we actually do. Someone asks us what drives us or what motivates us or what we were thinking, and we start to come to our own defense - usually with some well-thought out reason or rationale for what we've done, some justification for our actions.

Not Stephen (and not Paul, but we're only in Acts 7 for now).

It's this tremendously dramatic scene. Stephen has been brought before the chief priests and accused of "slandering" God and Moses - big no-nos in the Jewish faith. He hasn't done it, of course; he's being accused by those who don't particularly care for his pure heart, the way he serves, and his teaching.

Most of us here would simply say, "I didn't do it" and figure that's enough. If, in fact, we are innocent (as Stephen was), then not having done it is defense enough. Now, we might start to feel a little insecure about ourselves and start talking perhaps a little too much, at which point we'll probably start to say things like, "What I actually said was..." or "What I meant was...." Again, we're all about making sure that others understand us.

Stephen doesn't do that (and again, neither does Paul). This is what I love about it.

He's standing there, falsely accused, all kinds of stuff being thrown at him. And instead of reasoning his way out of it, instead of explaining his way out of it, instead of justifying his way out of it or simply denying it, Stephen starts to tell them all a story.

God's story.

From the beginning.

The chief priest confronts Stephen and says, basically, "Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" And Stephen starts in, "Way back somewhere in the land of the Chaldeans, God came to Abram and..." Fifty-seven verses later, he's stoned to death.

Mostly for demonstrating so eloquently how well he actually knows the story of God, in contrast with those present who truly slandered God and Moses (and Stephen) and who do not know how history unfolded to get them here.

We're a little bit afraid in our culture to make God our first defense. It's too easy, we say. It's too much like a cop-out. We could just claim God for everything and not have to think about anything or justify anything or reason at all. God this, God that, God whatever. And the world would laugh at us, as it so loves to do. Those naive Christians, always passing everything off on God. Not taking responsibility for anything.

But what if instead of referencing God as an object or as an idea, we demonstrated ourselves through His story? What if our first defense was to start at the beginning and say, "This is the unfolding story of God, from the formless and void right up to this very moment, right up to my little part in it"? What if we knew not just about this being called God, but knew His story...knew it so well that it was also our story?

What if the next time someone looked at us, hands on hips, and said, "Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" we replied,

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.... 

You know, I may just try that someday. Although it's also worth pointing out that the two guys who did it so well ended up executed.... 

Monday, January 6, 2020


One of the first persons we see the apostles encounter after Jesus's ascension is a disabled beggar in Acts 3. Peter and John were heading into the Temple courtyard for prayer, and this lame man was lying there, as he did every day, begging from the faithful for a little bit to just get by. To just make it another day.

Acts tells us he didn't even look up. He just sat there, staring at the ground, asking others for a little mercy. He doesn't even know who he was asking.

Now, there's nothing to say that if he had looked up, he would have known who these two men were. We should not imagine that had he taken just a moment and peeked, he would have said, "Oh! It's Peter and John! Hallelujah!" He probably didn't know who Peter and John were. He may have never seen them with Jesus. He may have never even seen Jesus.

All he had seen was the dirt in the courtyard and the occasional piece of debris that floated past in the wind. The sandals of the faithful coming in and out, in and out, in and out. He heard the sounds of their prayers, but it's safe to say that likely not one of those prayers was ever uttered for him. He never heard his name, if anyone even knew it, raised in petition to God, even though every single one of those persons had to walk past him to get into the courtyard. Even though every single one of them knew, though they pretended otherwise, that he was there.

There's something you have to understand. By the understanding of the day, this was not just a disabled man. He was not simply lame. He wasn't a guy who had an unfortunate accident or some unpredictable birth defect. He was not someone you would naturally feel compassion for. Because by the understanding of the day, physical affliction like this was the direct result of sin. So if you were one of the faithful who walked by him every day on your way into the courtyard, what you saw - first and foremost - was a sinner.

By the time Peter and John come upon him, that's probably all that he knows of himself, too.

It's why he can't look up. It's why he can't raise his head to look at anything other than the faithfuls' shoes. It's why his eyes are locked to the ground. This is a lame man, yes, but he is a man full of shame. A convicted, known, recognized sinner whose failure in life has become his defining mark. It's all anyone knows of him, all anyone sees. It's all he sees of himself.

And that's why this encounter with Peter and John is so important, is so powerful. Because the first thing the apostles did was to look at this man, the same way that Jesus had looked at every afflicted sinner in the Gospels. And the second thing they did was to ask him to look at them.

Eye contact. Human dignity. Restoration. Relationship. That's the essence of what's happening here. Before they even think about giving this man the ability to walk again, they give him the right to exist again. To be a human being. To have a face, a name, a story. To have a sense of self, in connection with a sense of others.

It changes everything.

It still does.

You are going to encounter a lot of persons in your life, even today. Some of them are so burdened by the shame of their brokenness that they won't even be able to look up. It would be easy to see them as a nuisance, as a bother. As something to step over or walk around on your way into your regular, normal, "faithful" life. But the easy thing is rarely the good thing.

So try seeing them not as a bother, but as a brother. Not as a nuisance, but as a neighbor. Not as a bump in the road, but as a broken spirit on the journey. Take the time to look at them, actually look at them, and invite them to look up. Tell them you want to see their face. Invite them to look at yours.

No, you can't solve all the problems of the world. But you can give someone his dignity back. You can give him a sense of self that he's long lost.

All by taking a moment, just one moment, to stop and say, "Hey. I see you. Look at me."

"I got you." 

Friday, January 3, 2020


At the end of the book of John, the resurrected Jesus appears yet again to His disciples. This time, He greets them from the shore as they return from a long, but fruitless, night of fishing. He calls out to them, "Friends! Try dropping your net on the other side!," as though they had spent their entire night perhaps not thinking of this. But for whatever reason, they do it, their nets become full to overflowing, and they realize the mysterious stranger on the shore is Jesus. 

When they finally reach Him, He's already got breakfast on the fire. This is important. When the disciples come to Him, still hauling in their catch, Jesus is already Of course, He is; He's Jesus. That's what He does. But it's what He does next that tells us even more about who He is:
He asks them to bring part of their catch and throw it on the fire, too. 

He doesn't need it. He's already got fish, and if two tiny little fish are enough to feed thousands, then whatever He's got on the fire is more than enough to feed the disciples. Not to mention, fish doesn't take very long to cook. So what He's got going is probably very nearly done already, while whatever's in the new catch will still have to be cleaned and prepped before even thinking about throwing it on the fire. 

Understanding all of this, asking for some of their fish is not only wildly unnecessary; it's also impractical. They just went from having a nice, decent breakfast with the resurrected Christ to having maybe too much to even eat, and pushing back mealtime by a good twenty least. 

Why, then? Why does Jesus, who already has enough fish and whose fish on the fire is ready to eat, ask for part of their catch?

Because Jesus wants what you have. 

He wants what you're able, and willing, to offer Him. He wants to create a feast together with you, not just prepare and serve. He has at His fingertips every resource in all the world, but it's not enough; He wants you. And the only way He can have you is to make room for what you bring to the table. To invite you to come share in what He's preparing. To have you take part in all things, not just in the final production. 

Our faith has always been this way, though we often miss it. WE know that Jesus has everything and is capable of everything, so it's tempting to just sort of leave it all up to Him. It's tempting to know that He can do whatever it is, so we just "trust" Him to do it, and we call that faith. In fact, we tell ourselves that if we feel like we have anything to bring to the party, it's somehow a lack of faith. It's somehow a question as to whether we believe Jesus is who He really says He is. 

But this scene in John shows us quite the opposite. This scene in John shows us that Jesus wants us to participate. He doesn't need us. It's not necessary. But it's desired. It always has been. From the very beginning, God's been writing His story in such a way that you get to be part of it. Again, not because you have to be, but because He wants you to be. He desires you to be. 

So come on shore. Smell the pleasing aroma of what Jesus has cooking. And then, throw a few of your own fish on the fire and join Him. 

Seriously. He wants you to. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Servant's Ear

Perhaps one of the most obscure names that we find in the Bible is the name, Malchus. Just saying the name, maybe you know who I'm talking about and maybe you don't. His name is mentioned only once, even though his story is told more often than that, and it raises an interesting question:

Who in your life can you name?

Can you name the person who bagged your groceries at the store this week? Can you name the teller at the bank who handled your transaction? Can you name the police officer who pulled you over for speeding? Oh, you bag your own groceries, bank online, and don't speed?

Alright, then. Can you name the person who wrote that snarky comment on that post you made last week? Can you name one person who "checked in" on your church's live feed last Sunday? How about your mailman? Do you know your mailman's name? (Mine is Katie, right now. I've also had Tim and Ray, and Ray still says hello to me when we pass each other on his new route.)

The point is - there are all kinds of persons in our world whose names we never take the time to learn, whose names we never bother to notice, even if they're printed out right in front of us. There are names we can see right in front of us that we don't even take the time to spell correctly. Have you seen this one? You're reading through the comments on some social media thread, and "Johnathan" makes a post, but everyone starts responding to "Jonathan." His name has another "h" in it. It's literally right there. But most of us can't be bothered by such things as even getting someone else's name right, if we even know it at all. Those extra three seconds...well, they're precious or something.

But Malchus.

Malchus wasn't wearing a name tag. He wasn't announcing his presence. In fact, he didn't seem to be much of a central player even in the scene that came to tell us his name. He was one of many, a cog in a wheel, a soldier in an army. A servant in the high priest's court. There were dozens of them, none of whose names we're given in this story except his. Malchus is the only servant named in the Garden of Gethsemane at the arrest of Jesus.

You might think, then, that he must have been the one to nab Him. He must have been the one to grab Jesus by the shoulder and say, "You're coming with us." He must have had some tremendous role in the whole operation, must have been some mastermind or some commander. But no.

He was simply the servant whose ear Peter slashed off.

Yup. That's it. John gives us one name out of this whole scene, and it's the name of the servant whose ear was slashed off, whose ear Jesus healed. Matthew doesn't give us his name. Mark doesn't give us his name. Luke doesn't give us his name. He wasn't important enough to anyone but John...and Jesus.

Jesus wants you to know his name.

Why? Why bother? This guy wasn't anybody. He was basically nobody. His mention has no bearing on the story; it doesn't change anything. Why does it matter if we know who Malchus is or not?

Because this one little scene, this little moment in Malchus's life, is part of his story forever. Forever. And it's part of God's story forever. Forever. See, the things that happen to us - the things that happen to all persons - they're part of our story, and they're part of God's story, and we'll miss out on so much of what that means if we don't take the time to learn it. If we don't pay attention to what's going on. If we don't bother to learn the names.

You come in contact every day with dozens of persons, many of whose names you'll never know. But God does. Many of those names, you could learn pretty easily if you'd just take a moment to read a nametag, to read a profile link, to ask a simple question - "hey, what's your name?" And it matters. Because every one of those names is written into God's story...forever...and you have to wonder what you might learn about God if you'd learn just one or two of them.

You might learn, for example, that our God is the kind of God who knows every name.

Even the name of an obscure, lowly single servant in a moderate militia who happened to stand, for just a second, in the wrong place at the wrong time...and become part of everything forever.

His name was Malchus. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Word of the Year

As we wake up to a new year, one of the recent trends is to ask about "the word of the year." What is your word of the year? What is the word you are determined to live by this year? Christians are even asking, "What is the word that God has given you for this year?" 

It's an exercise that has its merits. Choosing a word for the year is an invitation to reframe every experience you're going to have this year by what you want it to be (even though most of us will forget out word by, say, mid-February as it fades into the humdrum of simply life as we know it). Say that you choose a word like "faithfulness." This means that if you choose to truly live by this word, you will spend the year asking yourself what the next faithful thing is. And, in theory, you would then choose to live that out. 

Some of us struggle with this. What word should we choose? It feels a little bit like pre-determining your year, and how in the world can you decide such a thing when you don't know what will happen this year? What if you choose a word like "joy" and this year is nothing but tragedy and heartache? What if you choose a word like "adventure" but something pops up that keeps you settled in one place? You could potentially ruin your whole year just by choosing the "wrong" word for it. By choosing a word you're going to end up fighting against for the next 366 days (it's a leap year). 

So choose the right word. 

Choose God's Word. 

How about that? How about if we make the word of the year...God's Word? What if that's what we choose to live our year by? 

I know, I know. It seems daunting. God's Word is so...big. There's a lot of little words in God's Word, and it's difficult to know where to start. You've probably at some point undertaken a plan to read all of it, every bit of it, only to find yourself somewhere in a list of begats that you just couldn't follow or worse yet, in Leviticus, which seems like a lot of heavy do's and don't's. You've downloaded the plans, tried to follow them, worked around, but you just haven't been able to settle into a rhythm for it. It's just...tough. Tougher still if you don't want to simply read it, but also live it. 

I hear you. I've looked at the plans, too. They're...weird. One of the things that I've found most challenging about most of the Bible reading plans is that they're inconsistent. Want to get through the Bible in a year? Great. Just follow this reading plan. But you start to follow the plan and find out that they've broken the Bible into chunks by content or topic so that every day requires a different amount of time. Some days, you can be done in five minutes; other days, it takes 30. One day, you're reading five or six of the shortest psalms, but the next, it's asking you to read the longest one in one sitting. You read a small portion of the Gospel of Mark one day, but in a few weeks, it will tell you that you really ought to read Romans in one know, to get the full effect. How are we supposed to plan our day when we can't count on how much time we need to just read the Bible? 

Well, I'm going to change that for you. I'm going to give you my Bible reading plan, the plan I've been following for seven or eight years, which has permitted me to read the Bible through every year and know what kind of investment it's going to require from me on any given day. Are you ready? 

Pick a Bible. Pick a version of the Bible that you're comfortable with. Figure out how many pages there are between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22, and then divide that number by 366. That's how many pages you need to read a day. In most commonly-available translations of the Bible, this is somewhere around 3-5 pages. That's it. 3-5 pages. Do you have time to read 4 pages every day? Just four? Then you can read the Bible in a year. 

It really is that simple. 

And you don't have to start at Genesis if you don't want to. Start in Matthew if that's your thing. Start with Paul's letters. Start with the Psalms. Whatever's going to get you into it and help you establish a rhythm so that when you hit those begats or all those laws in Leviticus, it's not so daunting. It's not so hard. It's the same four pages at a time as you've been reading all along. That's it. By the time December 31 rolls around, you will have read every one of the little words in God's big word in a rhythm that you can count on. 

So how about it? How about this year, you make the word of the year...God's Word? It's more than just a spiritual discipline. It's an invitation. 

It's an invitation to reframe everything you're going to encounter this year by this Word. And live it.