Tuesday, March 31, 2020


You've been stuck at home with yourself now for awhile, and it may be starting to dawn on you that the problems you've had with others over the years may actually be problems you've had with yourself.

In isolation, we have all the time in the world, it seems. And with an uncertain future looming ahead of us, most of us are spending our time looking backward rather than forward. (There's something to be said for living in the present, but that's a pretty big ask, it seems.) We're going back over all the things that never worked out, all the choices we made, all the ones we didn't make. We're trying to figure out where we went wrong, what we did right, what we could have done better, and whether all the anger and bitterness that we harbor over something is really worth it or not. I heard someone say the other day that she was starting to miss persons she didn't think she even liked all that much. Maybe you can relate. 

The longer we spend by ourselves, the more we will come in contact with all those little things we've become that we never wanted to be. The more time we have to think, the more we will think about all the mistakes that we've made. The longer we have to go without hearing from others, the more loudly we will hear our own critical voices. We are a nation coming face-to-face with our own insecurities. It can be overwhelming. 

The natural reaction, for most of us, is to feel an urgent need for change. We start thinking of all the things we want to do differently. We start planning how to be better human beings. In small ways, we even start putting some of those thoughts into actions. We start trying to become more of who we want to be. And that's great. 

But it will never work. 

I don't say that at all to discourage you. Rather, I say it to help you prevent a greater devastation later. Let me explain. 

We're all living right now in a way that we were never meant to live - in isolation. Remember in the beginning when God said it wasn't good for man to be alone? It still isn't. We are social beings, and we are formed - in part, and perhaps in a larger part than we like to admit - by the relationships that we have, by the connections that we make, and by the constant feedback loop we live in by living with one another. 

When we live in community, we continually run up against new things. We encounter individuals who think differently than we do and challenge us to think more thoughtfully. We stumble upon obstacles we never could have imagined, often that we don't want to deal with, but now, we have to. This pushes us to innovate and to come up with something new. We come up against competing interests, conflicting schedules, differences of opinion, and constantly moving pieces, and all of this requires us to reconsider at every moment who we are, who we want to be, how we want to live. 

In isolation, you don't get any of that. There's no one pushing you, no one challenging you. There are extremely limited opportunities to put anything new into practice. You have all the time in the world to think about it, but almost no time at all to actually live it. And when we all get back to actually living with one another, it seems like we run out of time to think about it. Community doesn't afford us the time to be introspective the way that isolation does. We don't think as much about who we want to be when we're actually expected to be someone. When your neighbors are waiting on you to act, you often discover that you're still not who you want to be, no matter how long you've thought about it; you are who you are. 

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be prayerful about changing our own hearts. It doesn't mean we can't take this time to understand and to challenge ourselves to be better versions of who God created us to be. But we need to have realistic expectations about what we can accomplish in isolation and what we can't. 

When all this is over and you go back to your community, if you find that you are who you are and not all the grand dreams that you had for yourself in isolation, that's okay. You can use these days to set your heart in motion, to build new structures around yourself, to start thinking in new ways, but you won't start living in new ways until you are actually living again. The way you were created to live. In community. 

And once you get back into community, these changes you want to make will take time. That's just the way it is. 

We're all coming face-to-face with ourselves in new ways right now. For some of us, that's harder than for others. Some of us are prone to be eaten alive by our insecurities; others are just now discovering how delicious we are to our own ravenous souls. But you never are who you are alone, and you will never be who you want to be on your own. So whatever you're coming to learn about yourself, take it with grace. Let it inform you. Let it draw you closer to the heart of the God who made you. Let it shape your prayer life. Let it inspire you to a future where you're growing, day by day, into more of who He's made you to be. But don't beat yourself up over it and don't think you're going to walk out your front door in a few weeks a magically different person. 

You are who you are, but you are shaped by the relationships you have. You don't exist in a vacuum; you live in a community. And you need that community to help you live, to help you become all the things you're discovering you want to be. Man was simply not meant to be alone. 

He still isn't. 

We are better, every one of us, together. 

Monday, March 30, 2020

Two Vital Truths

There are two types of truth in this world, and I'm not talking about truths that contradict or compete with one another. These two types of truth are both vital to who we are as persons of faith, and we live our best witness when we are able to embrace them both at the same time. But it isn't so easy. Most of us tend toward one or the other. 

It's tempting to call these truths "sacred truth" and "human truth," but to do so would be to create an unnecessary confusion. Because when we hear these terms, we think that it's about authority somehow, that one truth is about what God says and one is about what man says, and that's not at all what I'm getting at. So rather than trying to define these truths by what they are, it's best to define them by what they do. 

So the two truths we're talking about are the truth that you anchor to and the truth that you connect with. 

The truth that you anchor to is the unchangeable, absolute truth of God. It is the truth about what is real and what is happening and what matters. It's the "facts," if you will. The truth that you anchor to gives you something to set your feet on. It's the solid foundation from which you set out to live and love in the world. It's the things you can know for absolute certain, the things that aren't going to change when your circumstances change. Here, we're talking about truths like 'God loves you' and 'God is good' and 'God knew about this before you did and is working it together for good, just watch.' 

These are the things that I always tell others are non-negotiable. Whatever you encounter or experience in this world, whatever questions you find that you ever have to ask, are not allowed to make you question these things. Because we do that all the time, right? We find ways to explain our current situation, whatever it is, by causing ourselves to wonder all over again if God is good or if He loves us. No. God is good and He loves us and these things don't change, so whatever explanations you come up with for why the world is the way it is can't contradict this truth. This is the truth that you anchor to. It is the place from where you start and the place you run back to when things get a little crazy. It keeps your ship upright in stormy waters. 

The truth that you connect with is the truth of fallible human experience. It is the truth about what it feels like to live in a broken world. It's the reality of wrestling with sin and death, even under the promise of redemption and eternal life. It's the common thread that binds us all together, that makes sense of our being human beings. It's the truth that, when you hear someone else speak it, sets your soul at ease because you're not the only one. It's the truth that you relate to, and it's the truth that binds us together. 

In the life of faith, this is the truth we're talking about when we talk about being 'confessional' with one another. There's something vulnerable, yet authentic, about it. It puts real skin on the matters of life and love and lets things be a little messy...or a lot messy. It admits its limitations, especially when it comes to understanding, and it holds on to this thing we call faith - demonstrating that little leap we have to make over the space we don't understand in order to hold onto the truth that we anchor to in a life that feels anything but steady. 

These truths are not at odds with one another. One is not 'right' and the other 'wrong.' Rather, they complement one another and create a full picture of what it means to be human in a broken world, to be faithful in a storm. We need them both. 

Even now.

We need to be a people who seek out and hold onto facts, onto those things that we can know for sure or with reasonable certainty. This includes the things that we know about God - that He is good, that He loves us, that none of what's going on right now is a surprise to Him. It also includes what we can know from those who have invested their lives into studying things like this - the doctors and leaders who are guiding us through these times. 

But we also need to be a people who seek out and hold onto each other, onto those uncertainties and insecurities that plague us all right now. This includes the questions we all have, about whether we know enough or whether we're doing enough. It includes the real grief and heartache and fear and stress about the ways that our lives have changed and are changing. It includes the real human impact of staying six feet away from one another and working at home and staying at home and trying to find toilet paper. 

With these two truths in tandem, we demonstrate what it means to be a people of faith, by being a people of faith. Real human beings with a real God in a real world with its real troubles, doing our best to live out a real love for the Lord and for one another. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

What Faith Can Do

Yesterday, we looked at some of the (unhelpful) ways that persons of faith are trying to explain the current situation we find ourselves in. We are talking circles in our faith around the issue of the pandemic, about plagues and judgments and Sabbaths and curses and secret messages for the faithful and all sorts of stuff. We are raising more questions than we are answering, in most cases, and that's because faith has never been primarily about explaining the nature of the world. Even though that's how we most often try to use it.

This is a fine line, one that's difficult to walk. On the one hand, because we have a intelligent God who is Creator of all, we know that we can know so much about our world and the way that it works. We see His design woven into all of it, and there is a certain place for explaining Divine Intention as an indicator of God's glory. We should absolutely do this. (And in fact, this is the foundation of science itself.)

Where we get in trouble is when we try to explain every little thing in every little corner of the earth by the language of faith, as though that's what our faith is for. But it's only been in the past few hundred years, in the so-called age of Reason, that we've tried to use faith this way. Throughout the history of the church, and even of the Jewish foundations on which we stand, faith has always been about explaining our behavior. It's been about demonstrating why we act the way that we do, why we choose the way that we choose, why we believe the way that we believe.

Think about what Peter said - always be ready to give a defense for the faith. Always be ready, not to give others a lecture about the glory of God or His mighty hand or whatever else is true about Him, but to explain to them the difference that faith makes for you and how it lets you live in this world the way that you do.

So when we talk about faith right now, we ought to be talking about how faith permits us to live in these times. We ought to be talking about how it changes the way that we think about things. It shapes the way that we live because of how we understand.

In other words, faith was always meant to explain the way we live in times like these, not the way we explain these times.

It's a powerful difference.

All of a sudden, we're not creating a scenario where we're putting God on trial. We're not raising difficult questions about good and evil, about judgment and mercy, about whether God is all-powerful or all-wonderful or if He even cares at all. We're not forcing anyone to think about whether God loves some persons more than He loves others, or if we're all so sin-stained that even the saints among us can't escape His wrath. We're not raising more questions than we're answering. Instead, we're making one bold statement:

My faith can handle this.

My faith gives me a framework for holding on. It gives me a foundation for standing firm. It gives me the grace to wrestle with things and not fear losing it. My faith lets me respond in love, even amidst fear, even in the face of uncertainty. My faith tells me how to act based on what I do know, and it reminds me that things that I know about God are absolutely true even in the moments that I don't understand them or can't see them as clearly.

That means we ought to be living differently than the rest of the world right now. We ought to be radiating peace and contentment. We ought not to be wrapped up in worry and fear, though there's certainly space in our hearts for concern, for care, for compassion, for love. We should be washing our hands, but we should also be demonstrating what it means to be washed in the blood.

The question we ought to be prompting from the watching world is not, "How could your God do such a thing?" but rather, "How are you not shaken?" How are you living the way that you're living? How do you have such peace, such certainty, such comfort when the rest of the world can't seem to find it?

A pastor friend wrote yesterday that we ought not to spend so much of our time trying to defend God, even right now. "We are not His defense attorneys; we are His witnesses." And if we live as witnesses, we won't need to defend Him. For others will see how real, how loving, how life-giving He is by the way that we're living. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Conspiracy Theories

As we press on through these trying times, the voices of the faithful are starting to cry out even louder. Looking for a way to make sense of what we're going through, it seems we're ready to give God all the credit for this - for better or for worse - but should we? 

On one hand, we know that nothing happens in this world without God knowing about it. We know that He coordinates and orchestrates and weaves together a lot of what we experience. But we also know, if we're paying attention, that not everything that happens in this world is "God's plan;" a lot of things happen that He would rather not, and even though He works them together for good, it doesn't mean He's behind them to begin with. 

And the truth is that a lot of what we're willing to say about God in times like these raises more questions about Him than it answers about us. That's not really helpful. So let's look at a few of the things circulating, just some that I've happened to see so far, and ask whether they really are a blessing to our faith or a burden to it. 

- Is Covid-19 a "plague"? Is it something God has sent upon us to punish us for something? 

It doesn't look like this is true. A simple look at plagues in the Bible reveals one thing - they are targeted. The plagues of God either affect His people or His enemies, never both. Israel was protected from the plagues in Egypt; when plagues swept through Israel's camp, the rest of the world was untouched. The virus spreading through the world right now is not discriminating. It is infecting Christians and pagans and Muslims and atheists and everyone. If it's a plague from God, it would be unlike any other plague He's ever sent into the world. And it would be inconsistent with His nature as a discriminating God. 

We should also say that there have been plenty of diseases throughout the history of the world, diseases for which the church has found herself on the front lines, that were never considered to be plagues. Leprosy, for example. Tuberculosis, for another. AIDS, for a third. When these illnesses broke out, we didn't consider them plagues; we saw them as opportunities for grace. We'd be well to do the same here. 

- But isn't God using this as a time to help us refocus, to tear down our idols, to restore our hearts?

This is a common response of people of faith right now, talking about how God has stripped our lives in quarantine of all the things we are tempted to worship except for Him. This is true, but only if you're taking advantage of the opportunity in this way. Not everyone is. In fact, we're going to see new addictions form during this time. We're going to see an increase in the number of persons who can't stop streaming shows, who drink more than usual because no one is watching. Traffic on pornography sites is already up exponentially. 

For the people of faith, this certainly is an opportunity to refocus and reconnect with sacred things, but unless your heart leans that way, that's just not the natural outcome of a time like this. A lot of persons are going to turn to darker things and get sucked into vortexes they will wrestle the rest of their lives to get out of, and the honest truth is that many of them won't. This is another one of those examples of God working things together for good - we can reap tremendous benefits out of a season of Sabbath like this, but only because we see it as restorative. Only because our faith guides us that way. It's one of those coworkings between us as a people of faith and the God in whom we believe. 

- Isn't this a sign of the end times? I swear to you, I can already hear the trumpets.

Again, probably not, although it's also true to say that no one knows. Some of us are far too anxious for Jesus to come back and put us out of the misery of our flesh, and we'll take about any sign we can get to say that it's happening soon. God said it would be soon, but that was also 2,000 years ago. But if you need proof that this isn't the end times, consider this: God said that two would be working together in a field or life-ing together in town, and one would be taken and the other would be left. Right now, we're not doing anything together anywhere and most of us aren't even working. So, you know... 

- Fine. Maybe you're right. But God is still speaking to us through all of this. There are things He wants us to know; we just have to figure out what they are. 

This is true all the time, not just in times of pandemic. God is always speaking to us through all the things we experience. He's constantly whispering in our hearts, hoping we'll hear Him speak words of comfort, of peace, of strength, of courage, of faith, of hope, of promise. But we don't have to have some mystical knowledge or mathematical formula to figure out what He's saying. This is the old heresy of gnosticism; it's been around since basically the beginning of the church, and it's always been struck down as heresy. God isn't cryptic. He doesn't send us secret messages. 

By now, you've probably seen the thing circulating on social media about 2 Corinthians. Someone saw "CO vid 19" and decided it was God declaring to turn to 2 Corinthians and look up a specific verse. But honestly, why 2 Corinthians and not 1 Corinthians? Why not Colossians? "Vid" are last three letters of David; maybe there's something in his story we're supposed to look at. It's random, grasping at straws. We know that every word in the Bible is a good word, and there are thousands of them we could apply right now. To say that God is leading us through a secret code to one word over another is simply a stretch; it's hard to defend. 

- Okay. Let's say you're right and none of this is God's work, none of this is holy conspiracy. It just...is. What's the harm in finding a way to put God in the middle of it? Why does it matter if I'm wrong in speaking about God the way that I am...at least I'm getting God out there!

And this is the rub. Because we think that every time we give God power or strength or agency or glory or anything, we're doing Him a service. We think getting His name out there, however we go about it, is a good thing. But what we're doing right now raises more questions about God than it answers, and that sets Him up for failure in the hearts of those who might be so, so close to finding Him. So, so close to receiving Him. 

If we say it's a plague, then we have to explain why. When we start to explain why, we run up against the non-discriminating aspect of the virus, and now, we have to explain why the grandmother who taught Sunday school for 70 years and never missed a day of church and fed the homeless in her community died alone in the ICU on a ventilator, the same way that the axe murderer who embezzled funds from the non-profit he worked for did. Tell me why God killed them both. Go ahead. I'm waiting. 

If we say God is using this time to break our idols, we have to explain why. When we start to explain why, we run up against the fact that many more idols are being made in times like this. Why does God care if we watch too many sports, but He's okay with Bill streaming pornography for two weeks straight in the privacy of his own home? Why is God so concerned with our love of movies or concerts or dining out, but He's fine with Sheila drinking herself to oblivion every night? Tell me why God is so worried about one thing but not another. Go ahead. Try it. 

If we say that these are the end times, we have to explain why that's more true today than the 6,412 other times that Christians have claimed the end is near only to be wrong. And we just can't do it. We've always been wrong. And when we've been wrong, we've often been unloving. So just...love one another. Stop trying to be right. 

If we say that God is speaking to us through all this and that we just have to figure out what He's saying, we set up barriers of knowledge between God and His people. Only those in the know can figure Him out. Only those who take the time to do the math can know what God is saying. For a God who has spent the entire history of the world speaking plainly to His people, that's a soul-crusher. It just is. 

Look, I get it. As people of faith, we want to put God in the middle of all of this. And we should. But not in the ways that we're doing it. Not in the ways that make Him harder to understand, more difficult to access, impossible to love. Not in the ways that build walls between Him and His people. Tomorrow, I'll talk about where faith really comes into all of this and what we're supposed to be doing with it. Stay tuned for that. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Fear and Love

Yesterday, I said that we seem to need fear in a time like this. Fear keeps us compliant. Fear keeps us constantly thinking about the threat. Fear keeps us taking steps to mitigate that threat, doing what they're asking and expecting us to do. Fear keeps our eyes open to all the things we never saw before that now, we can't afford to stop thinking about.

But I also said that whatever fear can do, love can do. And that is also absolutely true.

The difference is: you can't weaponize love.

You can't force someone to act lovingly toward someone else. Or even toward himself. You can't coerce someone into doing for someone else. You can't pound a message of love into the heads of a mass audience and get them all to live it out the way that you can bombard the human spirit with fear and threat and disaster and get the same response.

Love is trickier. It's not a "natural instinct" the way that fear is. You don't have to teach anyone how to be afraid; we're wired for fear. We're wired for self-preservation, not other-preservation. We're fight-or-flight, and at the slightest hint of threat, you've got our attention. It's the way that we're made.

Love has to be chosen. It's a conscious decision. It's something you have to think about if you want to put it into action. Love thinks of others all the time. It stands in front of a mirror and can only see the community standing behind it. It's the most bizarre of all things; you just can't explain it.

It's true that love could get us to do all the things that we're using fear for right now. Love could get us to stay home just like fear does. (In fact, many of our churches are claiming this very thing - that it is our love for one another that has us closing our doors right now.) But love doesn't inherently do this; it only does it when we choose for it to.

Fear...is naturally isolating. It separates us. It keeps us from connecting with those around us. Not physically, but relationally. When we are afraid, not one of us seeks out someone to be afraid with. We don't go out hoping to find someone who's just as scared of life as we are. In fact, most of us feel some measure of shame when we are afraid, and shame, too, separates us. It keeps us from being honest about what we're feeling. If you want to keep human beings apart, fear will do that. All on its own. It's the way it works.

Love...not so much. Love has us craving the other, seeking out community wherever we can find it. In a time like this, love is agonizing because in the very same breath that it convinces us that we have to stay home for the sake of the other, it can't stop thinking about the other and longing for connection. That's why love is harder. It requires conscious choice, deliberate action. We have to keep choosing it again and again and again. Can you trust a whole community of persons to continue choosing love when it's that hard? Inevitably, love draws us together, even when it's meant to keep us apart.

Actually, everything we are feeling right now draws us together. It makes us seek one another out. The anger, the sadness, the confusion, the exhaustion - though they seem negative, they build community. Because they turn us outward. Looking for affirmation, for vents, for comfort, for consolation, for clarity. They make us seek answers outside of ourselves. And that's another reason why we have to make space for them now, more than ever. Because all of these other things we're feeling will keep us seeking connection amid a fear that keeps us hiding, that keeps us apart. Our real human emotions will draw us together even when we remain six feet apart.

I wish that we lived in a world where love was just as strong as fear, where our natural inclination was turned toward love and not shame in times like this. Where love was enough to keep us apart, even while it has us craving connection. By human nature, we know it's not so simple; love is complicated in a way that fear just isn't.

And yet, you can't control love no matter what you do to it. I said that before - you can't weaponize it. You can't use it as a tool of mass compliance. You can't coerce someone into loving. But...neither can you stop them.

That's what we're seeing all over our world right now - love pouring out through the cracks, seeping out of our closed doors, reaching out with gloved hands. We're seeing the stories of communities coming together to care for one another, to make sure their neighbors are safe, secure, and have everything that they need. To feed each other. To encourage one another. To connect with one another across all spans of what is sacred space between us. And not one person, not one, is crying out that this is a bad idea. We all know it is the best idea.

You just can't "make" us do it.

That's the difference between fear and love. Fear is easy enough; we do it without a second thought. But after we've thought about it, we'll choose love. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On Fear

We are in strange times, indeed. And one of the things that's coming forward in these times is just how important fear seems to be. The media want you to be afraid. The health officials want you to be afraid. The public wants you to be afraid. Everywhere you turn, they are reminding you how quiet and deadly this virus is, reminding you of all the things you can never know about it, reminding you that what should be first and foremost on your mind is the damage you could cause to others without even knowing it. You're supposed to be afraid.

And if you should happen to say anything about having another emotion, even one, during this time, there's a whole panicked public out there who will be quick to shout you down and remind you that whatever else you're feeling is small beans compared to the fear that you're supposed to have. Angry? So what? Others are terrified to leave their house because they might die. You'll just have to deal with anger; others are afraid. Sad? Too bad. Think about all of those who are scared witless right now. That's how you ought to be. Tired? Boo-hoo. Confused? Big deal. None of that matters. What you're supposed to be is scared, and the world wants you to know that that's the most important thing.

In one sense, this matters. Fear keeps us safe. It keeps us compliant. If we're scared, then we're going to stay in our houses the way that they want us to. If we're scared, we're going to wash our hands more. If we're scared, we're going to think about others - maybe to protect them, but definitely to protect ourselves. Fear keeps us vigilant, and if we have to be vigilant to be safe, then fear, it seems, is what we need.

It's false, of course. Fear isn't the only thing that would keep us vigilant. It isn't the only thing that would keep us compliant.

Love would also do that.

But I digress. Can I tell you a secret? Most of us are having mixed emotions amid all of this pandemic stuff. We're scared, sure. But we are also angry. We are sad. We are confused. We are tired. And one of the ways that the church can respond in this time is to make room for this whole range of emotions, to create space for the human element amid the infectious one.

It's perfectly natural for us to be angry. We're angry because our lives have changed. We're angry because others aren't taking the same steps that we're taking. We're angry because others are being selfish and hoarding all of the basic necessities that we all need. We're angry, as one meme circulating says it, because we feel like a classroom full of schoolchildren who keep losing more and more recess because one or two kids can't follow basic instructions.

We're sad. We're sad because not everyone cares about our grandmother the way that we do. We're sad because we're watching fear in the eyes of our loved ones, and there's nothing we can do about it. We're sad because real human beings are dying, and in some cases, they are now living on the other side of the glass from their loved ones, unable to have the basic comfort of not being alone. We're sad because we're watching our neighbors go without.

We're confused because there are a lot of numbers thrown at us that don't always make sense or that we don't understand. We're confused because there's a lot that we just don't know right now, maybe more that we don't know than we do. We're confused because we're all locked in our houses by ourselves and can't see what's happening in the world except to turn on the news, and it's hard to have a grip on something we aren't actually seeing. One pastor friend recently asked, "Does anyone even actually know anyone, personally, who has been infected?" The comments were always 3-4 degrees of separation. When we are sheltered away from what's happening, it's only natural for us to be confused.

We're tired. We're tired because it already feels like forever, but we know it's only just begun. Some of us are tired because the things the world is just now starting to think about are things we've had to think about our whole lives, and just when we've fallen into our own rhythm of it, the world has come to screeching halt. We're tired because we're talking ourselves blue in the face, trying to get through to those who just refuse to listen to anyone at all about anything. We're tired because we're clinging to what we know while others are spouting whatever they can find from any ol' unverified source and confusing everyone all over again. We're just tired.

And you know what? All of these things are perfectly normal. They're all fine. There are probably some I missed, and you know what? They're normal, too. We are dynamic human beings, not static creatures. Living in this broken world affects us. It has an impact on our very soul. Pandemic included.

What we need to do, and what the church (Christians) are better poised to do than any other, is to create space for these emotions, too. We need to stop shouting down what is human so that we can force everyone to hold onto fear. Trust me, it's not necessary. We're scared. If we're not scared of the pandemic, we're scared of the panic. We're scared of the uncertainty. We're all scared of something.

But we're also human, and we're feeling a lot of other things, too. As Christians, we know that our God is big enough to handle all of them. We know that He has given us this range of emotions because it is essential to our being human. It is necessary for our sacred engagement with the world.

The world runs on fear, but that doesn't mean that we have to. Even in times like these. Let's create the space among us to be human again. To be afraid, yes, but to be more than afraid. To be angry. To be sad. To be confused. To be tired. To be whatever we are, whatever is coming out of our very unique hearts. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

On the Front Lines

We left last week on a bit of a discouraging note, but it was a reality that we needed to look at - the western church, in a time where disengagement is so culturally easy already, faces serious consequences from shuttering her doors. We have to prepare for the possibility that when we open again, a large number of our membership is simply not coming back. 

But it doesn't have to be this way. 

The history of the church shows that it is precisely in times like these that the church sets herself up for growth. Exponential growth. Because the history of the church shows that she has always been the one to take the lead in times like these. 

When there were orphans running the streets and dying in the gutters, it was the church who stepped up and started building orphanages. When leprosy spread like wildfire, it was the church who built camps to care for them. When tuberculosis started to take root, it was the church that was building hospitals and taking in the sick. During the AIDS crisis in the 90s, it was the faithful were stepped forward to care for the dying. Over and over and over again, it has been the church who has led the way through difficult and trying times. It has been the church who has looked at the uncleanness of the world and said, "We will love through this. We will be His hands and feet." 

Our culture is different now, and that makes some of this a challenge. In the west in particular, we are blessed to have societal structures (which were started by the church so many years and centuries ago) that are taking the lead. Hospitals are responding. They're asking that we just stand back and let them do their work. 

Can we? Should we? 

The very systems that we've developed and perfected and passed on to our societies as our blessed gift to them are now pushing us to the sidelines and declaring that this is a time for the "professionals" to do their work. All that faith stuff you want to cling to is cool and all, but this is a time for "more" than faith. 

Is it? Really?

I think it's true if we want to say that the church is not going to be the one caring for Covid-19 patients. We're not. We have done well to train the world to care for them, and we ought to let it. We do not all have to rush out and get jobs in the healthcare industry or don our masks and gloves and barge our way into the hospitals to show our care and compassion and connection at this time. 

But to say that we are now obsolete is a gross overstatement. 

Because the truth is that our communities are, overwhelmingly, not going to contract Covid-19. The infection rate remains low in most places around the world, and the death rate, even lower. The vast majority of persons affected by Covid-19 will never contract the virus. 

They are the ones who are stuck in their homes, isolated from the lives that give them meaning and purpose and a sense of direction. They are the ones fearful, not just of the pandemic, but of the panic all around them. They are the ones questioning everything they thought they once knew. They are the ones who are angry, who are bored, who are scared, who are alone, who are confused...they are the ones for whom life itself is right not entirely different than it ever has been even though it is eerily exactly the same. Most of our lives have not changed except in the ways that they have been forced to, and it is to the community of persons lost in the strangely familiar that the church will find her greatest ministry in this time. 

These are the front lines to which we are called. In a rare change of pace, the church will define herself in these times not by how she cares for the sick, but how she cares for the well. 

We are called to be the ones to care for the scared, the fearful. Whether that means being a sober voice sharing un-propagandized news or going to the store for the vulnerable and delivering a bag of healthy food on the front porch. We are called to be the ones scared for the angry, showing them what compassion looks like...by starting with them. We are called to be the ones unshaken while the earth trembles, maintaining steady steps on shaky ground and showing the difference that faith makes.

The media, the culture, says that if you're stressed right now, it doesn't really care. It says that if you're uncomfortable right now, then so what. It says that if you're frustrated, angry, scared, then you should be. At least you don't have the virus. Count your blessings. But these are soul-deep concerns. These are real hearts that are afflicted. These are real lives that are changing in ways that most humans, especially those without a solid foundation of faith, are simply unprepared to handle. 

The church, who has built her history on healing, may be looking around right now at all of these state-of-the-art hospitals and asking, what are we supposed to do? We're supposed to do what we've always done - care for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us. And right now, the greatest need is not those infected; it's those affected. We can make our greatest impact at this point in history outside the hospital walls. 

And it will be what we do in our communities during this time that will shape who we are when this is over. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Death of the American Church

As we continue to look at the implications of closing our churches for several weeks, perhaps months, we cannot ignore the hardest reality of them all: many of our churches will never recover from this. Many of our churches will simply die. 

I'm not speaking financially, although that seems to be one of the primary concerns of many pastors, who are encouraging their members to continue to give during this time so that the church still has doors when it comes time to re-open. What I'm speaking of is far more heartbreaking than that. 

I'm speaking of our Christians. 

We are going to see the development of two overwhelming groups of Christians out of our shuttering. The first is the group who simply unplug from church for the duration of the quarantine. They can't, or won't, stream services; they can't, or won't, stay connected. And they will discover their lives not all that different without the church in it, and they will drift away. When it comes time to reconnect, they will decide that they simply don't need the church in their lives, and they won't be back. In most cases, this group will be made up of the minimally-committed, those who were a little half-hearted to begin with, but it will also include scores of young people - a generation that has been leaving the church in droves - who come into heavy contact with a culture that is dismissive of the church and find themselves unconvinced of their own need to come back. 

The good news here is that once a seeker, always a seeker. There's something in our hearts that, once it's started asking the question, cannot so easily give up on it. And there will come a time for most of this group that they will start to drift back to us because their hearts just won't let go of the questions that brought them here in the first place. But the drift will be slow, so very slow, and may take years, even decades. 

The second group is even more of a challenge to deal with. If we do our job as the church during our shutdown, if we maintain our connections and foster relationships and take care of one another and remind our faithful that the church is much more than a building, we are going to have a not-unsubstantial group of them who take us at our word and discover that what culture has been trying to tell them for years is actually true - they can be Christians, even good Christians, loving God and loving others, without being in a church building on Sunday mornings. 

They will develop their own rhythms of worship. They will foster their own network of fellowship. They will form meaningful relationships with friends and neighbors, and in this time, they will even form these relationships with persons outside of the church. At least, outside of their church. They will do all the things that we've been trying to train them to do - they will read their Bible, they will pray, they will sing songs, and they will love one another, and they will do it all without us. And when we throw open our doors and welcome them back, they won't come. The church will have so little to add to their experience of the dynamic, vital, life-giving, Jesus-like faith they have developed outside our walls. 

This is the bind that the church is in. On one hand, this is what we have to be calling our members to. It's what we have to be reminding one another of. It's what we, as Christians, are called to do. It's the way we're supposed to live in the world. We want our faithful doing these things. And we don't want to fall into the trap of believing that the church is just a program, a service that we offer, so we're pushing them to continue to be a fellowship, to focus on relationships, to love with real love. 

At the same time, we have to maintain the essential nature of the church herself or we're going to lose the flock we so tenderly care for. We have to create a need in their lives for what we offer, a need that doesn't prohibit them from having the fullness of life God promised while we can't welcome them in our doors, but that creates in them a longing for something in our sanctuaries when we open again. It's a real challenge. To be honest with you, I'm not sure how we do that. Not in an age as cynical as this one. Not in a post-Christian world. 

We worry a lot in these times about our smaller churches, which are often our older churches. I don't know if that's right, either. Yes, our smaller and older churches are going to struggle, especially financially, but these groups of believers are usually bonded together in such a way that they're itching to come back to the fellowship. What we ought to be most worried about are our mega-churches. Yes, really. Our mega-churches already border on cultural movements. They have so many of the same offerings as the world. In a lot of ways, they function much like our local social clubs - a place to build friendships, grab a cup of coffee, talk about a mutual interest (in this case, Jesus). And it's this kind of fellowship that our members, if they are committed to being the church outside of our walls, are going to find in the world. They're going to become members of new circles, and it will be hard to draw them back into ours. 

The implications of what we're doing, of what we're having to do, are real. And they aren't just going to go away when all of this is over. The church is going to be reeling from this for a long time to come. I hope I'm wrong. I really do. But cultural studies, of both the world and the church, over the past few decades suggest that I'm not. If we do our job in ministering to our members and to our world with our doors shuttered, they will discover that they don't need us. 

Our only hope is that, if we do it well, they will still want us. 

That's what we are shooting for, and it feels like a dangerously small target.

(Note: I don't buy the myth that we don't "need" the church. As I've said many times, even on this blog this week, I believe the church and our physical fellowship is essential to the life of faith. I believe we need one another, and we need that sacred space where we are able to refill our pitchers so that we can pour out all over again. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this, and it will be a vision that is increasingly easy to lose sight of, especially if we have not preached Christ and Him resurrected, but instead have preached with an emphasis on simple goodness and love.) 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Choosing God

This week, we're looking at a few implications of closing our church doors on Sundays, of what it means to the church - to Christians - to suspend our Sunday services. In the past couple of days, we've looked at the challenge of maintaining faith over fear and the call to maintain the church as a fellowship, not a program. 

Today, we have to look at the importance of having corporate worship at all. 

We're living in an interesting time. More and more, we are seeing the faithful leave the church in droves, declaring that they don't need to be in a building on Sunday mornings to worship God. They have struck out on their own and set their own rhythms of worship, and they are unplugging. Sometimes, it's because of the politics of the church. Sometimes, it's out of an earnest seeking for something in their own spiritual heart. A lot of the time, it's because Sunday mornings are simply hard, and they'd rather be somewhere else doing something else. Whatever it is, we're living in an age that says that the Christian faith is not about the church. And by closing our churches on Sundays, we're feeding right into that. (Not by choice, of course, but here we are.)

What we're creating is a culture for Christians where God is simply a choice that they make when it is convenient for them to do so. The same way they decide which household chores they will accomplish on a given day or what they will cook for dinner tonight. If God so happens to fit into what I'm working on today, then I will have a little God today. If He does not, then it can wait. This Christian faith that I have, it's all about me and what I make of it. 

Our services are streaming. That means they are also being recorded. Some churches are experiencing exponential growth because of this - especially the larger, 'named' churches. Members of churches who cannot feasibly stream services are turning to well-known pastors and congregations to stay connected, so they are streaming these sorts of offerings. But many churches are experiencing a downturn. Log in on Sunday morning to a church that normally hosts 200 in its building, and you might see 75 streaming. Maybe 100. 

Why? Because it doesn't matter if we're there on Sunday any more. We can watch the stream any time; it will be logged and uploaded for our convenience. Maybe we'll watch it on Tuesday. Or maybe when Tuesday gets here, we'll find something better to do. Maybe we'll see it next week. It doesn't matter. It's there whenever we want it, whenever we get around to it. 

We have a faith that, ungrounded in community, no longer requires discipline. And if our faith does not require our discipline, then it really requires little to nothing of us. And if our faith does not require us, then it is just something we're choosing because we choose to choose it. No longer is there the idea that our God is the one who has chosen us. 

It's dangerous. Do you see how dangerous it is? 

And I'm not saying we shouldn't make our offerings convenient. And I'm not saying that we shouldn't do everything we can to make worship and praise and preaching available to anyone who wants it, anyone who is searching, anyone who needs it. 

But we have to be mindful about reminding the faithful that Christ isn't something they've chosen. God isn't something they've chosen. This isn't one of life's simple preferences, something they can do or not do based on how it benefits them or what they get out of it or whether they have time today or not. We have to be mindful about creating a culture where we remember that it is God who has chosen us. That He's not just part of our story; we are part of His.

We live in a culture that says if you want to choose Jesus today, that's cool. But if you want to wait until tomorrow, that's cool, too. Actually, it's entirely up to you. But we have a God who has counted the very hairs on our head, who knows our rising and falling, who has been writing us into His story from the very beginning, speaking our lives with His very breath. We can't lose sight of that in a world where we've put worship at our fingertips the same way that everything else is. This isn't everything else. This is faith. This is Christ. He is our Savior. 

But we...are His people. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Sunday Service

As we continue to look at the implications of closing our doors on Sunday, one of the questions we have to ask is: what is church? Because for many of us, the answer to not meeting together on Sundays has been to simply stream our services - the same as they would be in person - and make sure that our members and our communities still get four songs, a prayer, and a sermon. (It wouldn't be Sunday without them.) 

It amazes me how quick we were to say, "We won't have church this Sunday, but don't worry! We'll still give it to you in a different format!" The implication is that "church" is a service provided to me that can simply be repackaged as the circumstances deem necessary. It is nothing more than a common consumer good. 

We know, of course - at least, we talk like we know - that this is not true. We talk about church being an opportunity for fellowship and for worship and for discerning together and encouraging one another. Yet, our behavior shows that when push comes to shove, maybe this isn't what we believe. Because we were quick to cut all of that out and make sure we still had a performance to put on, something to view, an added value to filling a certain seat at a certain time. 

The truth is, and I know I'm not alone in this, I could walk into a church building on Sunday morning and have a fully satisfying "church" experience without formalizing any of that stuff. I don't need a sermon. I don't need four songs. I don't need a prayer. What I need are my brothers and sisters. What I need is my family. What I need is that connection that I get with other believers who are all world-weary and straggling through the doors for a bit of rest, of hope, of redemption. What I need is that time with my fellow sinners, those walking in the same mud and muck as I am. 

Of course, that's exactly what we're shutting down right now, this kind of fellowship.

I'm not saying that what we do on Sundays isn't important, but I believe that if you bring together a body of believers, the singing will naturally break out. The teaching will naturally occur. The prayer will organically manifest. The things we plan so hard for are a byproduct of our doing faith together; they just arise out of our hearts when we're together with those we know we're sharing this journey with.

If you follow me on social media, you have heard me say over the past few weeks that as the CDC continues to "recommend" suspending all "non-essential" gatherings, the church remains an essential gathering. That's because that is what, at its heart, the church is. Read the New Testament. Watch how the early church placed such an emphasis on meeting together, how vital it was to their being. It wasn't because that was the most convenient way to package the presentation; it was because they needed one another. 

A lot of churches are placing an emphasis right now loving one another, on continuing to be there for one another, on maintaining contact with one another through phone calls and emails and prayer chains and all of the like, and that is vital to what we are going through right now. Stream the Sunday service if you like (and I think there's some value in doing so), but don't let your congregations - or your communities - think that that's "church." Don't let them get lulled into the idea that what they're streaming is the same as what they get on a Sunday inside our doors.

It's possible that we're reaching more persons with our streams. It's possible more are tuning in. It's possible we're making it more convenient for the seekers, and all of that is great. If, of course, what you want to do is impress a bunch of people with your sermon, your music, and your lights. But if we're not also out there actively living out community the best that we are able to, if we reduce ourselves to our programs and our podcasts and twenty minutes of our pastor in front of a camera, then what we're giving our members - and our communities - is not "church;" it's a class, at best. A lecture. An educational experience, but not transformative to the core the way that real Christian community, the real church, is.

And maybe I'm more sensitive to this kind of stuff. I don't know. I'm a single woman in this world who speaks the spiritual language of sacred spaces. My soul breathes the fellowship of church, the one-anothering, the togetherness. That sense of belonging and community and commonality. But even if it is just me, I know it's not just me. My soul will never be satisfied by a livestream; I need a life-giving stream. 

But as we move our services online for however long our doors remain closed, we must remain mindful of this: the church is not a service. It's not a program or a performance. It's not a consumer good that can simply be packaged however seems convenient at the time. The church is a body, a fellowship, a living organism. We must keep our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our hands on our communities and still one-another. Still love each other. Still do life together. Still be the church.

(This does not mention the number of persons who will stream the church service and decide that they don't have to serve at their church any more, since it seems to go on well enough without them. If we stream and convince them it's just a presentation, a program, a service provided to them, we may lose the engagement of those who make our fellowship radiate bright with God's glory. So we must also remind our brothers and sisters how important their contributions are, and we can do this, too, with an emphasis on continued fellowship and community. We need all of us, every one of us.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Faith Over Fear

As our churches close and, in many cases, move to online streaming, for the next few weeks, there are some implications that we need to take seriously. And when I say "our churches," I'm not just talking about our leadership, but about our members. We, the faithful, need to understand the dynamics happening here because it's not about whether or not we close our churches; it's about how we respond in general, both to what is happening in the world and to our response. 

The first implication we need to consider is what we're demonstrating to the world by our closing. 

I am connected, at least tangentially, to a lot of Christian communities around the country. Some are putting together beautiful messages about how we are demonstrating our compassion and care for the most vulnerable among us and how our closures are an act of love. Some are citing recent CDC recommendations and saying, simply, 'we can no longer meet' and then trying to add a 'but' onto that. 

The way that we go about this and the language that we use in doing so matters. A lot. 

It matters because the world is watching, and if all they see is us closing our doors the way restaurants and movie theaters and gyms and community centers and schools and businesses are closing their doors, then the church is no different than any other establishment in our communities. No different at all. It's just a business, just a social club, just an enterprise that is affected in the same way as all other enterprises. If we're just a business, just an enterprise, the world will not be looking for our leadership in this time. 

If we cite as our main concern the CDC recommendation (note: it is still a recommendation, not a regulation) that we close because our gatherings are too large, we create the impression that the government does, in fact, control the church. This is dangerous. If the government can close our doors because it chooses to, then what else can it do to us? How are we supposed to fight back if, in the future, the government decides to impose this or that regulation upon our churches or limit our meetings for some other reason or otherwise use its authority over us, which we have willingly submitted ourselves to, to our detriment? We cannot simply say, "The government says..." because we are the church, and the government cannot determine our worship for us. 

At the same time, we know that the Bible commands us to be good citizens. And so, we need not ignore the recommendations of our government. We need not be antagonistic toward them. We simply have to phrase our compliance as an act of good citizenship, not as a forced act. This means we have to live out our life of faith as good citizens in other ways during this time, individually as well as collectively. We have to show that good citizenship is a mark of our faith - that means helping one another. It means not hoarding supplies. It means making sure there's enough to go around. It means staying home and doing what we're asked to do. It means caring for one another as individuals, as a choice of action. 

It is this kind of life of faith demonstrated in our living that is essential to our response. If we claim, as we should, that our closing is out of compassion and care for the vulnerable among us, then we have to actively continue to care for the vulnerable among us. We can't just hole up and hide. We can't just hunker down and wait it out. We have to go out seeking those who need us the most. We have to keep being Jesus in our world. We have to carry compassion and care to the places where it is needed, doing the little things that keep our communities together in times like this. 

Because the world is watching. And if we're not living out the message we're preaching, they'll notice. And they'll be the first ones to say that the church...is no different than the world. The church is just as scared as the rest of the world. The church is just as controlled by this as the rest of the world. The church, they'll say, is fundamentally the same as the stock market, swayed by the winds of whatever comes.

No matter what words we use to justify our actions, it will be the faith that we live out in these days that will demonstrate who we really are. And the world needs that kind of faith right now. They need to know that this God that we believe in, we really believe in Him because He really is who He says He is and He really is in control. They need to know that we're not afraid, that faith really does cast out fear. They need to know that we truly care, that our neighbors still matter to us and that we really are thinking of someone other than ourselves. 

The world needs not to hear about our faith, but to see it in action as we continue to be the church, whether we are meeting together on Sunday mornings or not.

(And please know - none of what I will say this week is a recommendation either to close or to remain open. None of this is an indictment on one or the other. All it is is a reflection on the questions we need to be considering, whatever we do, and that we, as Christians, need to be mindful of as we respond to our rapidly-changing world.) 

Monday, March 16, 2020

For the Love of Others

By now, you've seen just how quickly life can change in a matter of days, moments. It seems like we blinked and the whole world shut down, forcing us to make new decisions about our lives, forcing us to wonder about our well-being, forcing us to think about things we maybe haven't thought about before (with a deeper respect for those for whom the 'new' reality is actually the 'daily' reality). 

It's enough to give a person whiplash, to be quite honest. And one of the questions that's stirring around is: How did we get here? How did we get to a place where the entire free world gets shut down at a moment's notice, where our movements and gatherings and daily lives have been forcibly restricted by the powers that be?

Plainly put, the answer is: selfishness.

You see, we have shown ourselves over the past few decades to be a people who put ourselves first, who think rarely of others, who live our lives as though we're the only ones they matter to. We think about ourselves first, think about our priorities, think about our needs, think about our desires, think about our abilities and capabilities and the like. 

We've been told, and we've believed, that our defining characteristic is just how much we're willing and able to push through. How much we can accomplish on our own without relying on others. How much we can do without asking for help or drawing undue attention to ourselves or seeming weak. We have pushed through sick days, fought through down days, worked ourselves to the bone when we knew what we needed most was rest. 

We have shown up at church on Sunday morning, dragging ourselves through the doors, because 'we don't miss church.' We have gone to that event we already had tickets for because, well, we already had the tickets and didn't want them to go to waste. Plus, we've been excited and waiting for this for a long time. We convince ourselves we feel 'fine,' but it's not about whether we feel fine; it's about how many other persons are going to have to convince themselves they feel 'fine' because we chose to expose them to what we have, and it's about how many persons will not be 'fine' if they get what we've got. 

We have shown again and again and again and again (and again, for those of you in the back that need to hear this) that we simply don't think about anyone else when we make our plans for the day. We don't think about what our broken lives might do to them, what our illness might pass on to them, what our 'mild' cold could do to their compromised system. I can't tell you the number of times in the past ten years I've come down ill myself from someone who swore themselves blue in the face that it was 'just allergies.' Right. (I know I'm not alone in this.)

Our culture rewards this behavior. That's the mentality that we live by. We're so afraid to miss out on even the smallest moment of our lives that we never stop to think about what our actions mean for someone else, anyone else. Even our response to the shutdown of society shows our selfishness - we're running to stores and grabbing all the toilet paper and cleaning supplies for ourselves, not limiting ourselves to reasonable amounts that would leave some for others. When the schools shut down, parents started thinking of all the activities they were going to plan for their children, all the places they were going to take them to - so we had to shut those places down as well.

As I sit and watch all of this unfold, I can't help but wonder how things would be different if we had shown any inkling in the past twenty, thirty years that we care about each other any more. That we care about anyone other than ourselves. What if we knew how to take care of one another? What if we were thinking about how our actions might impact someone else? What if we loved one another so deeply that we stopped being afraid to miss a day or two of our own lives in order to preserve the life of someone else? In order to give someone else a chance to thrive?

Our heads are spinning, and when you look at the shuttered school buildings, the empty shelves, the scrolling headlines, the latest counts, the saddest part of it all is that we still haven't learned our lesson. We're still thinking about how all of this affects me - not us. We're still talking about its impact on one life, not a community. 

And that's why it has to be this way. Because we've shown over and over and over again that we just don't care about each other. At least, not nearly as much as we care about ourselves. So at some point, someone had to step in and say, you've got to. You've got to care about each other. You've got to care for the most vulnerable among you. 

And Christians? We should be ashamed of ourselves. Because we're the ones, above all others, who should have been doing this all along. 

(More to come on this, and on our Christian response, this week. Stay tuned.) 

Friday, March 13, 2020

The Devil's Short Fuse

Most of us know to steer clear of the devil. He's a rogue with a hot temper, a guy who thinks more highly of himself than he ought to, and he's a guy who doesn't care a whole lot about anybody but himself.

We give him a lot of credit in our world, much more than he's actually worth. We are quick to blame the devil for a lot of things that are really just our own failings, but hey, if they're his fault, then they can't be ours. But let's be real about who he is - he's a created being, just like we are, who strayed off God's path, just like we do. He just happens to be a different type of being than we are, and that gives him a little more power or authority or whatever you want to call it.

After all, if you can convince someone you're an angel of the Lord, then it's pretty easy to get them to do whatever you say. Much easier than if all you can say is that you're a human being.

But the devil, for all the authority he wants to claim for himself, is really not all that. Oh, he puts on a good show and tries to puff out his chest, but he knows - and God knows - and we ought to know - how limited he really is.

He's not like God; he can't be in more than one place at a time. He's not like God; he doesn't have power to condemn or redeem. He's not like God; he doesn't actually decide anything. All he can do is run his mouth and set a few trip wires and hope for the best. Or the worst, as it were.

It's not like any of this is news to the devil. It's not like he doesn't know it. The problem is that he doesn't want you to know it, and so he does everything in his power to make sure that you never hear this truth. (In fact, I'm mildly surprised my computer hasn't shorted out already in writing this post, but maybe he's occupied somewhere else at the moment. Again, he can't be in more than once place at a time.)

That's why when John writes about the devil being exposed in Revelation, he also talks about the devil getting angrier. When John writes about the redemption of the world that reminds the devil how powerless he always was, he writes about a devil who becomes more fierce. The closer God gets to destroying the lies the devil has spun, the more desperate the devil gets. Like us, the more desperate he gets, the more volatile (Revelation 12).

He doesn't like to be reminded that his time is short.

And you might be asking what that has to do with anything. We already know this is true; we don't have to be told it. But here's the thing - we are not so unlike this devil. Except that we have one ability that he doesn't: we can humble ourselves.

The devil, he's made such a show of it that he's taken his stance. He cannot humble himself. He cannot bow to anything but his own authority. He refuses to admit or accept that he is limited in nature. He knows that he is, but he'll never confess it because his entire game is getting you to give him more credit than he's worth. He knows it. God knows it. We know it.

The only thing that keeps us from becoming devils ourselves is that our arrogance is bounded. We have the ability to humble ourselves. We can take a step back and kneel down and confess our limitations. You see it all the time in those who can't - they truly become devils. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. When you can't humble yourself, you get out of control. You become a monster, an enemy of all the things you think you care about.

But you can humble yourself. You don't have to like it. You don't have to enjoy it. But you can do it. And that's what guards our hearts. That's what keeps us from becoming something we don't want to be. We humble ourselves, and that reminds us who we are, who we're not, and Who made us this way.

Just something I'm thinking about. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Covenant

When we talk about heaven, we're talking about a "new Jerusalem" - that city where God dwells among His people. Among this talk is a lot of Temple language, a geography that the faithful Jews would have been very familiar with (and it's worth pointing out, at least momentarily, that John's Revelation is thus written to a Christian people deeply knowledgeable of the Jewish faith - a far cry from what passes for Christianity today).

Perhaps one of the most surprising features of the new Jerusalem is that the Ark of the Covenant is right there in the middle of it, right in the center of God's re-created Temple (Revelation 11).

Why is this surprising, and why is it important?

It's surprising because we're prone to believe that Jesus eliminated the law, and that if He didn't eliminate it in our earthly living, then certainly it doesn't remain in effect in heaven. How can we be living in a perfect place eternally with our perfect Father and still have a covenant? Still have ten commandments written on stone and sealed in a holy box? It's tempting for us to think that when we get to heaven, we're all going to be perfect persons and God won't have to tell us how to live any more. We won't need the covenant, won't need the commandments, won't need the jar of manna that's a reminder of His provision...because He'll be right there.

But it's important because it reminds us that we do need it. Even when we're recreated, we'll need it. For all eternity, we will need it. Because we are and always have been, from the very beginning, a covenant people. And it isn't and never has been about our need for moral guidance.

It's about God's love for us.

The covenant in heaven, it's God's reminder for us that He is who He says He is. His glory will be all around us, and you'd think we wouldn't need a reminder, but we do. When we are literally surrounded by something and it becomes a constant and stable part of our day-to-day existence, we're prone to miss the beauty of it. We're prone to forget what it is, where it comes from, what it means. God wants us to always remember that the goodness of eternity with Him is grounded in who He is. It was His plan from the beginning. The curtain in the Temple is torn, which means we always have access to it. And the fact that the Ark is in heaven means we can come back to it whenever we want and see that...eternity is because God is. Good is because God is good.

God's covenant doesn't end with us simply because we die. Rather, God's covenant remains because we live. We are, and always have been, a people of the covenant; we always will be. And not just that.

Our God is a covenant God. He always has been; He always will be. He's not just about love, although that would be enough. He's about commitment. He's in this with us, forever and for always. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020


Revelation is just weird. There, I said it. We've all thought it. It's hard to follow. First, there are letters to the churches, then all this talk about angels and beast. There are seven seals and seven trumpets and four horses of different colors, each with its own rider. If you struggle with all of this, know that you're not alone. It's totally okay to be a bit (or a lot) confused.

Still, there are some things that tend to jump out, and these things are worth looking at a little more closely. One of those things is what happens when the seventh seal is opened.

There are seven seals, and the first six seem to go pretty quickly. The first one unleashes a warrior who goes to earth and wins battles. The second took away peace and made humans slaughter one another. The third measured out true weights (which is likely equated to justice). The fourth killed a quarter of the earth through famine, war, plagues, and wild animals. The fifth honored the saints and clothed them in white. The sixth shook the foundations of creation - the sun, the earth, the moon, the mountains until all the people of earth hid.

And then, at the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for a half-hour (Revelation 8).

The first six seals are about things that happen to the earth, but the seventh brings our focus back to heaven. The first six deal with human beings and human things. The seventh? Not as much. Revelation moves quickly to the seven trumpets that break the silence and what those mean, but let's not skip over the silence so quickly.

The seventh seal tells us that God is going to do something so incredible that even heaven doesn't know how to respond to it. Or maybe silence is their response. Everything stops. Everything stands still. All of creation - heaven and earth - holds its breath for what God is doing.

Is it fear? Awe? Honor? Grief? Any or all of these things would stop us in our tracks. Any or all of these things would make us silent for a moment. We say that in heaven, there won't be any grief, but doesn't the sin of earth break heaven's heart? It's impossible to say what makes heaven fall silent at the seventh seal. That's essentially all of the information that we're given about it.

But it also reminds us that heaven is a noisy place. There's a lot of stuff going on up there. Things are happening. Noise is the byproduct of both work and freedom, and these things are essential for understanding what heaven is. It's not this place where we are all held captive on our individual little clouds, playing harps and praising God for all of eternity. It's this place where there is holy work to do, where there is freedom to grow and nourishment to the full potential of who God created you to be.

This silence that Revelation mentions, we read right by it. Just as we look right past silence in our own world. It's just a sentence or two. And then we're on to trumpets and proclamations and noise and life as we know it. The silence...it's just an interruption. It's 'nothing,' so we read nothing into it.

But the silence is important. It tells us something about the noise. It tells us something about God. God brought the full force of these six seals onto earth and then at the seventh, there was silence. In heaven.

That's not nothing.

It's something. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Shepherd-Lamb

The Scriptures give us a lot of names for Jesus, and for God, based on His character and heart and relationship with us. There's something in these names that is essential for us to understand if we want to know Him better. And yet, for all of this, there are a lot of things that we still don't understand about Him. And a lot of things that are easier to just oversimplify, easier to look past. Sometimes, we're prone to emphasize one thing over another. Because, well, it's just complicated.

One of these things is the nature of Jesus as fully-God, fully-man. He is Spirit in flesh. He is Yahweh, the son of the carpenter. We don't understand how this really works, what it means, how we're supposed to conceptualize it, and what ends up happening is that we emphasize either His deity or His humanity (often, His deity) and lose sight of the other (often, His humanity). It's this last bit that is most problematic. There's a reason Jesus came in the flesh for us. Yet, we get so caught up on how amazingly well He was human that we dismiss it altogether and simply say, well, yeah, but He was God.

And then, there's this idea in Revelation....

It draws on some other images that help us to fill this out a little bit. First, we know that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He is the one whose voice we know and trust. He will lead us beside still waters and take us to good pastures to feed. He is the one who keeps us reined in, who protects us from predators, who watches over us as His own. He talks about leaving the 99 to find the one sheep that has gone astray. He reminds us over and over again that He is our shepherd.

We know also that Jesus is our Lamb. He is our sacrificial offering. He is our atonement. He was led to slaughter for our sins, and the curtain in the Temple was torn in two.

It's something we read right past because we're used to the Old Testament laws of animal sacrifice. As humans, we bring livestock and offer it to God. Man and lamb are so distinctly two things that we never put them together.

But maybe we should.

Because the Scriptures tell us that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. The Scriptures tell us that we are the sheep of His pasture. Or the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. The point is - we are sheep. We know this. We refer to ourselves this way when we talk about the church, at least when we talk about ministry and how we lead "the flock." Flock, of course, of sheep.

So let's go back, then, to the Lamb. Who is our sacrifice, yes, but what is a lamb? It is a sheep. It is a sheep that is new to the flock, but still a full-fledged part of it. It is the new life within the old fold.

And here we have it. Our Shepherd is a sheep just like us. (Revelation 7 says we will be shepherded by the Lamb - that's where I'm drawing all this thinking from.) He's the new life in the old fold. He came into the confined space where we live to show us, form the inside out, where all the best grazing is. Where the streams are. Where the pastures are. He leads us beside us, and we know His voice...and it sounds like ours.

This is Jesus. Our shepherd-Lamb. 

Monday, March 9, 2020

Blessed Are

A short interruption to our journey through the Bible, which is coming to an end probably next week as we turn to the last chapters of Revelation. But I was running the other day and misheard some of the lyrics on my mp3 player, and it changed the way I think about something, so I wanted to share.

That something is the Beatitudes. Now, I love the Beatitudes. And if you sing them to me, you'll get me every time. Every time. Sing me a psalm, and you might get me in the same way. But I digress.

The lyrics say, "Blessed are the persecuted and the pure in heart." Which is true. Jesus said it. It's right there in Matthew for all of us. But nearing the end of a grueling run, trying to hold on for those last few miles, what I heard was, "Persecuted are the blessed and the pure in heart."

And that's true, too.

I realized that the way that Jesus spoke the Beatitudes provides comfort to those of us who are doing our best with this life in the flesh, with the hand this broken world has dealt us. There's tremendous hope and promise in His words - blessed are you, for God sees you and loves you and honors you. But if you move the "the" in the Beatitudes, what you come up with is another truth - absolutely true by the measure of God who is Truth - that tells you how to live as a person blessed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Yes. But also, the blessed are poor in spirit, for their kingdom is heaven. If you are blessed by God, you will be poor in spirit. You will be living as a citizen of a different world. Heaven is your home; you're just a-passin' through this earth.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Yes. But also, the blessed mourn, for they are comforted. If you are blessed by God, you know how to grieve because the God you love who also loves you holds you through it all. You're not afraid of the things that break you, of the troubles of this world. You know how to hold them in a tender heart and let the tears fall.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Yes. But also, the blessed are meek, for they have the whole earth given to them for their use (for His glory). If you are blessed by God, you are meek. You know that you don't have to fight to get what you need in this world, that you don't have to claw your way around or live with clenched fists the way the rest of the world does. You know that God has given you dominion over creation and the whole world is at your disposal to live for His glory.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Yes. But also, the blessed hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they are filled. If you are blessed by God, you ache for more of Him. You long for more of Him. You know what it's like to have fullness in your life, and this only makes you desire more of it. Which seems weird until you remember that we have a God who is not just full, but overflowing. It's out of this kind of abundance that we hunger and thirst.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Yes. But also, the blessed are merciful, for they have been shown mercy. If you are blessed by God, you have not gotten what you deserve. He has rescued you from your own sin and not held you accountable for your screw-ups. This enables you to be merciful to others. Not only does it enable you; it insists of you that you are merciful to others.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Yes. But also, the blessed are pure in heart, for they have seen God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Yes. But also, the blessed are peacemakers, for they are children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Yes. But also, the blessed are persecuted because of righteousness, for their kingdom is heaven. If you are blessed, you live a life that is mocked because you know you're a citizen of another world.

So often, we think that God's blessing flows from our behavior or heart or love, or whatever, but the truth is that our behavior, heart, love flow from God's blessing. Or at least, it should.

If you are living, the Beatitudes will bless you. If you are blessed, they will guide the way you live. All you have to do is move the "the." It's about calling yourself blessed and seeing what that means. It means something. It really does.

Do you see this? Do you see it? (This just FIRES my heart up. Sorry.) 

Friday, March 6, 2020

Twenty-four Elders

In Revelation, John paints a beautiful picture for us of how God's got things set up for redemption, of what things are going to look like in the eternity to come. Early on, he talks about twenty-four elders who dwell around the throne.

Naturally, our minds say these must be the 12 sons of Israel and the 12 disciples. (This creates an interesting conversation in itself, since there were actually 13 of both - which 12 made the cut? Remember that Levi was grafted out to become servants of God and Joseph was split into Ephraim and Manasseh, although it's actually Dan that is missing from the list of the 12 in Revelation 7. Remember also that Judas Iscariot hung himself and was replaced by Matthias, who we never heard a single other word about after that point. This doesn't really affect today's post, but it's a good discussion point and something to think about.)

So there are 24 elders, and our minds have broken them down into two 12s, one from each Testament. We don't know that we're right; we don't know if we're wrong. This is just where we're at. So let's just assume that we're right (we may not be) and that these are the 24 elders in eternity.

That gives us 12 sons under the law and 12 disciples under grace.

This is important. It's important for a couple of reasons.

First, it reminds us that there is room for both truth and grace, which is what we've been talking about for several days this week as we've looked at the churches. God has a place in His eternity for those under the law and those under grace, those with 600+ commandments to follow and those with just two.

It reminds us that both are necessary. These elders are leaders together on their thrones, not separately. They don't override one another; they complement each other. Twelve of them, if they are sons of the law, are going to judge based on truth; twelve of them, if they are disciples of grace, are going to judge based on grace. Whatever they are judging must pass muster on both accounts; it must be found favorable by both sets of eyes.

And I can just see this playing out, where the judges of truth become advocates for those living by the law and the judges of grace become advocates for those living by grace. Where they argue and defend whatever stands before them, approaching each from their own perspective and pushing for a ruling of faithfulness. (It's fantasy, of course, because we could not imagine for real that anyone in God's eternal Kingdom would not fully understand both grace and truth. No argument, no defense would be necessary.)

But I think what this also reminds us is that it's probably okay to lean one way or the other. Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it, but He also set us free from the letter of it to live in the heart of it. Still, we're each wired the way that we are and overwhelmingly, most of us will lean more toward grace or more toward truth. In fact, I'd say that's one of the greatest - if not the greatest - cause of tension within the church. It always has been; it probably always will be.

In having twelve elders over either, God reminds us that they are equal, but He also establishes that there is a judgment for both. That there is space for both. That there is room to be someone who leans more toward the law and room for someone who leans more toward grace. There are advocates for both. There is mercy for both. There is redemption for both.

We always talk about it as a "vs." - grace vs. truth, but they really aren't at odds with each other. They're not. Each expresses something essential about the nature of God, and both are necessary not only for a full understanding of Him but for a real, vital love of Him.

Maybe that's what the 24 elders teach us.

Maybe it's not. I don't know.