Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Blessed Flesh

If our bodies are not just shells for our souls but parts of our glorious and specific creation, if they are truly ours and we not simply borrowing them for a sojourn on earth, then we should not be either too careless or too careful with them. We must be mindful of how our decisions impact our bodies. 

That means that some of the questions we are facing right now are not just human questions; they are theological ones. It's not so simple as "following the science" or "pressing back against the world." Neither is an answer that accounts for the glory of God as thoroughly as we must to honor His design for us. 

We cannot just say that whatever science says is good for the body must be good for us. It's tempting to reach this conclusion because science is the realm that studies the body. Science has broken us down to our very building blocks, amino acids, DNA, and seems to know us from the inside out, so it's tempting to want to say that whatever science comes up with must be good, since it claims to know us so well. 

But science admits that there are things that it still doesn't know. Some of those things are about the body itself - trying to figure out why cancer starts, for example (some factors are known, but many are still not) - and some of those things are not. Something science knows less about than a lot of other things is how things react together. Science can know, for example, that a medicinal compound is stable and effective by working it against a pathogen in a petri dish, but then something unexpected happens when it enters the human body that science just could not predict and in some cases, can't explain. One of the most intriguing examples of this right now, and you can see this on a number of commercials, is a potent drug that treats diabetes...but might also cause a fatal genital infection. I do not for the life of me understand how that is a side effect here, and apparently, science doesn't, either. It took them a very long time to even be willing to admit that there was a connection between the two, but now, the connection is so strong that they have to make a disclaimer about it on the commercial. 

So when we talk about potential treatments for the pandemic virus or the fast-tracked vaccine that's coming out, a solid theology of our body requires us to ask questions about what we potentially don't know about these options. In the case of the vaccine, in particular, we will not know what kind of true protection it offers long-term, how often we will need to take it, or what the potential side effects might be. There simply will not have been enough time pass between this spring and the outcome of it in the next year or even two to know the answers to these questions. So it's vital that we not lose sight of the unknown when we're talking about its impact on an essential part of our being. 

At the same time, God has given us our bodies as a gift, and they are the vessel through which we interact with our world. It is therefore important that we do what is absolutely best for them, that we care for them the way that we would care for any holy thing. And that means that if we have the ability to make them stronger, more resilient, more reliable, more healthy, then we should absolutely jump at that chance. We know that one of God's commands to mankind is to take what He's given us and to nurture it and grow it. The same is true of our bodies. So it's vital that we look at what we do know about potential treatments or vaccines and consider their impact on an essential part of our being. 

These aren't easy questions. They're complicated. They are made even more complicated by understanding the theological reality of our bodies. And the truth is that these are decisions that we cannot make for each other; we have to make them for ourselves. We have to take what we know about our God, what we know about our bodies, what we know about our souls, what we know about our spirits, and prayerfully decide what is best for us. What God would have us do. 

The answer for me may not be the answer for you. For none of us will it be simple. A few years ago, I had a doctor recommend to me a medical treatment that was untested in my condition, but provided a possibility of life-changing transformation. If it worked, it would mean that I wouldn't live every day with this particular issue dictating my life. But the medication was designed to last in 3-month doses, and if it reacted negatively with my body, I could spend those three months (at least) in an ICU because there was no way to get it out of my body once we put it in. The doctor didn't tell me that; I had to ask. He only told me about the potential benefits.

And that's what's happening right now. We're being told a lot of benefits, but barely hearing whispers of risks. If we jump at a vaccine, it could get us back to the life that we want to live. But if something is still buggy in it, it could ruin everything. Once we put these things into our bodies, they don't just come back out. In some cases, they change our bodies in irreversible ways. That's what they're not telling us. It's reckless, and faithless, to say, "It's just a body. Let's take a risk." It's just as reckless, and faithless, to say, "My body is fine just the way it is. It's not even broken." 

Rather, the answer of faith is, "Let's pray about it." See what God says. Consider the blessed broken flesh that He's given you and figure out what is holy for it. 

And remember that what is holy for your flesh may not be holy for everyone's flesh. We can't say that what's good for one is good for all, for every one of us lives in a different flesh - a body created just for us by a God who knew our design even before He knit it together. The decisions we're facing about these sorts of things are personal ones. 

But let us not decide them on the basis of what science says about the shell of our being, but on what God says about our wholeness. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Theology of the Body

As I continue to listen to the headlines and watch as the discussion rages about things like antibody testing, vaccines, contact tracing, and the like, one of the things that strikes me is that we are missing, as a people, a sound theology of the body. 

On one side of the discussion, we have those who are willing to do anything to their bodies that they are told to do. They are convinced that science is always the answer and that whatever science decides is good for the body must be. They are lining up for testing, begging for experimental treatments, trying to get on lists to be among the first to receive a vaccine. Whatever the world says to give the body, they want it. Their body is the system they use to function within the world, and they will do whatever is deemed necessary to keep it functioning for them.

On the other side of the discussion, we have those who want nothing to do with what the world says about the body. They refuse to give up their personal blood product for testing, unsure of what will be done with the information afterward. They don't want experimental treatment if they get sick because there's no benefit yet shown to the body. They oppose vaccination because they don't trust it (for any number of reasons). Their body is their own, and they aren't about to let anyone else have it.

Neither of these responses is typically grounded in a good theology of the body. These ideas have more to do with what we believe about who we are - and who our world is - than what God believes about us and our world. 

And actually, both of these responses rest on the same piece of bad information - information that comes out of an idea called dualism, which basically means that we have a body, but we are not a body. Our body is a tool that we use to interact with the world in which we live, but God has created us not as a body, but a soul. The physical body is just the housing for our soul. And we make a lot of decisions about what to do with our bodies, even in normal times, based on this idea - that our body is just a thing that we have, but it is not particularly essential to who we are.

So for the first crowd, the body is just a thing that we have. And therefore, it is justifiable to take exceptional care of it according to the standards the world sets of best practices. We can do anything we want to our bodies without jeopardizing our souls, so even if something doesn't work out exactly the way we want to, it's okay. It's just a body. We're willing to do whatever because this body is just a thing. We treat it the way we would a treasured possession, but a possession nonetheless - polishing, shining, repairing, restoring, keeping it in pristine condition, but at the end of the day, it's just a body. Like a car that we park in the garage, always full of gas and ready to go at a moment's notice. 

For the second crowd, it's the same. This body is just a thing that we have, but it's our thing. We try to protect it at all costs because it's ours. Not because we necessarily place any particular value on it, but because we don't want to create a system whereby the world is comfortable taking anything it wants from us whenever it wants it. We hold onto our bodies the way we hold onto our money or our houses or our cars or our childhood blanket. It's ours. 

But dualism is a lie. Our bodies are not things. They are not temporary shells into which our souls have been placed that have little-to-no impact on who we actually are. They are not burdens to bear; they are blessings from God. 

In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth. And then He bent down into the dust and formed a body. And then He breathed a life into that body and gave it a spirit and a soul (two different things, by the way, but maybe we'll look at that later). 

And your body is uniquely you. It's not interchangeable with any other body. You couldn't take you and put you in some other shell and still be who you are, and you can't take your body and give it to anyone else. 

We have amazing medical technology these days, and we are doing absolutely fascinating things with the body. We can take the heart of a dying man and put it in the chest of a man desperate to live and watch it start beating again. That's pretty cool. But what we can't do is convince the desperate man that the new heart is his. He has to take medication for the rest of his life to keep his body from rejecting a heart that was not part of his design. His body forever recognizes that heart as not his, even though its beating is literally what is sustaining him. But it's not his. It never was. It's the dying man's, and it always will be. 

We can take a rotting body found deep in the woods, dead for longer than any of us want to smell, and we can test it down to its core and discover whose body it was. It is marked with their being. Through and through, it is theirs, and we can trace it back to them. You can't do that with any other possession that we have. You can't do that with our laptop or our car or whatever - we have to have paperwork to prove ownership, a trail to follow to track that down. But a body, a body tells you exactly who it belongs to by the nature of what it is. That's incredible. 

And so we can't say that our body is "just" a shell. That it's some random case that our soul lives in until we don't need it any more. That it's a thing that we have. Your body is indelibly yours. It is part of your creation. God made it specifically you. And that means that as we think about things like tests and treatments and vaccinations and tracing and whatever else, we have to think about our bodies as essential parts of our being. We have to realize that this flesh is not ours; it's who we are. It's God's gift to us, part of the very fabric knit together in our mother's womb. Our bodies are...holy. They're sacred. 

The question is then: how do we treat them as such?

(More on this tomorrow.) 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Church

I've written briefly about this before as we face new times in the church, but it needs to be said again and in the plainest of terms because it's a debate that continues to rage in our culture - inside Christian hearts and outside of them. As we begin to look toward life outside of stay-at-home orders, we're still trying to figure out what that means for the church.

To be honest, we're still asking what the church even is.

A local pastor opened his church this past weekend, holding services for ten attendees at a time. And he made a fairly decent point in talking about his decision, a point that's been going around social media in less-gentle ways for a few weeks. If it's "safe" to go to the grocery store with a few hundred of your neighbors, then why is it "unsafe" to go to church with a few hundred of your neighbors? Most churches have the ability to create space between families in the sanctuary, more space than there is in an average grocery aisle, yet the church has been closed and the store remains open.

The conversation that comes out of a statement like this depends on what your definition of the church is. And that's how this whole thing becomes so heated right now. It really puts our faith in a pickle.

On one hand, the church is not a building. A lot of persons - Christians and non-Christians - are quick to point this out, albeit in different ways. We know that we are the living temple of the Lord, that He dwells in us, that we don't have to go to a building to find Him. And even the world is crying out that if we have to be in a building to worship God, our faith is not all that we claim it to be. The building, they say - and we say - is not the thing.

And that's absolutely correct. The buildings in which we gather on Sunday mornings are not the thing. Our faith is not measured by our sanctuaries, and we do not have to be in a particular place to commune with God.

On the other hand, the church is not individual believers. You are not the church by yourself in your own house. You're not. You can be a Christian there, perhaps, but you can't be the church.

When we look through Scripture, we do not see God working in the individual without an eye for the collective. Our English translations of the Scriptures do us no justice on this front because it's impossible for us to tell the difference, on a simple reading, between "you" - meaning the individual, the second-person singular - and "you" - meaning the group, the second-person plural. In our individualistic society where we're told that our faith is private and personal and a choice that we make for ourselves, we commonly default to the singular, but the truth is that overwhelmingly in the text, it's the plural. Even when God is speaking to the prophet Jeremiah in those words we love to quote - I know the plans I have for you - it's the plural. I know the plans I have for ya'll.

And that's the thing - the church is a ya'll. It's a collective. It's a plural. It's not you; it's not me; it's us. Together. The church is a fellowship, a community of believers, a people of God.

Which means...we do need to be together. We do need to come together in one place. We do need to meet together. The New Testament tells us to never neglect meeting together, and that's not because we need to populate a building, but because we need to connect with each other.

Sorry, but the church is not the church if we're not together.

We see this reflected in the language of the New Testament. It's always talking about "each other" and "one another." If we could be the church individually, it would say "someone else." Love someone else. Love someone other than you. Be nice to someone other than you. Be charitable to someone other than you. But that's not what the Bible says. The Bible says to love one another. A group that you're part of. Fellowship with one another. Encourage each other. The language implies that we be together, not apart.

So no, it's not about the building. We don't have to go to a church building on Sunday mornings to encounter God, to be faithful, to be Christians. Whatever. We're absolutely right about that. But neither can we be the church without our fellowship. Together is who we are. As I said earlier, I will say again now: our meeting together is essential.

It can be absolutely true that we don't need the church building to worship God at the same time that it can be absolutely true that we need to meet together to be the church. These things are not mutually exclusive. They are both necessary for a real, vital, living and loving faith.

Let us not be pressure nor fooled into believing otherwise. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Gates of Heaven

Did you know that Heaven has gates?

You probably think that you did. Every cartoon you've ever seen of Heaven has St. Peter standing at the gates like a maitre d' at a fancy restaurant, checking his list of reservations for the names of those hoping to gain entrance into this exclusive club. If you're name's not on the list, well, sorry about your luck. Should have been a better human being. 

Where this gets more than a little sticky is at the point that you realize that the Scriptures also talk about the gates of Hell, but you never see a cartoon with a line of sinners clambering to get in. You never see a demon with a clipboard checking a list of names, turning away the righteous. So it's hard to reconcile the image we have of the gates of Heaven with the image we have of the gates of Hell.  

A gate is a gate, right? 

To understand this, we have to understand how gates functioned for the people of God. Gates were built into the walls of fortified cities. During the day, when the people were moving about and living their lives with eyes wide open, aware and alert and not particularly vulnerable, the gates were opened. The gatekeepers of the city opened the gates every morning.

But they closed the gates at night. When the people had retreated to their homes, were sleeping, were less aware of what was going on around them, when dark settled in, and when life was vulnerable, the gates were closed to protect the people in their peace. No one could come in; no one could go out. The gatekeepers of the city closed the gates every evening. 

Now, we know that Heaven is a fortified city. It has a wall (Revelation 21). God has built it up as a nest around His hatchlings to give them a safe, secure place in which to live in peace. It is the great city of God, the New Jerusalem. And the wall of Heaven has gates, but check out what Revelation actually says about the gates of this great, holy city:

They are never closed.

In Heaven, there is no night. In Heaven, there is no dark. There is peace, but it is not a fragile peace; life is no longer vulnerable there. Where eternity reigns, time does not, and there's nothing to threaten the people who live there. So the gates are never closed. The people are always free to travel into the fields, to journey into the redeemed earth, to wander in the vast expanses of the landscape around the great city. You aren't prisoners there. You don't have to check in and check out. You don't have to be home by sundown; there's no curfew. You are free to life, and life abundant, and life secure - in a city built for your refuge, but never shut for your security. You are so safe there that it doesn't have to be.

And that means there is no maitre d'. There is no St. Peter standing at the gate, waiting to see if your name is on the list. There is a home with your name on the mailbox. There is a street with your address written on it. There's a gate down by the corner, but it's always open. Always. Your redeemed self is free to come and go and live and love and thrive and rest without worry. With all the other redeemed selves who are going to be there. 

This changes so much. Because we know that God loves all His people, and He doesn't want to have to pick and choose. He doesn't want to have to send some away. He doesn't want to make an eternal glory that doesn't have a single one of those created in His image in it. Heaven's gates are open wide, all the time, for all who would enter. The Scriptures say it - the gates of Heaven are never closed. You, child of God, are welcome here. Any time. And you are safe here. All the time. 

So it makes a nice cartoon, maybe, but it's not the way God does things. It's not who He is. It's not what Heaven looks like. Heaven looks like glory, and glory has no gates. 

Friday, April 24, 2020

Outside Looking In

So if it's not the terrible sinners or the faithless who are most likely to miss out on the eternal glory of God, who is it? The group at the top of this list (which is found in Revelation 21, if you're looking for it) is:


The fearful. Those who are too afraid to take the step that God is asking them to take. Those who are too hesitant to believe the promise that God has made to them. Those who can't see past the place where they are to even imagine anything better. Those who are locked in the smallness of their own world. Those who cannot humble themselves or free themselves to step outside their own box.

It makes sense when you put it in the grand scheme of Scripture. What are the words God always seems to start with when He's about to do something big? Don't be afraid. And almost everyone who has ever done anything in God's story needed to hear those words. Every single act of faith we're ever told about starts with those words and then with a man or a woman stepping out, putting fear aside, and going for it.

Imagine how different the story of God, the story of His people, would be if any one of these men or women along the way had chosen fear over faith.

Noah would never have built the Ark, and all of mankind would have died in the flood. Abram would never have left home, which would have kept him far from what would become the Promised Land. Moses would never have spoken to Pharaoh, leaving Israel as slaves in Egypt. David would not have defeated Goliath, trapping Israel in a stand-off with the Philistines. Nehemiah would never have returned to Jerusalem, leaving the Temple in rubble. Mary would never have borne the Christ child. Peter would never have dropped his fishing nets; Matthew would never have left his tax booth. These men and women experienced the glory of God, but they had to go for it. Every single story that draws us from somewhere east of Eden to a place called Home depends upon someone who chose faith over fear.

Our own story depends upon the same.

Don't be afraid.

Fear holds us back from a lot of things. It keeps us from moving away from what we know into the unknown, even when God is calling us to new places. It keeps us locked into the smallness of our own fragile experience, rather than letting us into the mystery that is beyond what we can understand. But no one has ever seen God's glory by playing it safe. No one has ever witnessed the incredible awesomeness that is God by standing still. God requires us to go beyond what we can know and what we can understand so that we find something greater than ourselves.

Those who are most likely to miss the eternal glory of God...are those who are unwilling to risk to have it.

You probably know this already. You have probably already spent some time in your life thinking about how different things would be right now if you hadn't been afraid at that last fork in the road. If you hadn't hesitated, if you'd just gone for it, if you could have convinced yourself to take the risk, just think of where you'd be now. Just think of what your life could be like if you hadn't missed that opportunity. Rather, if you hadn't blown it. We all have those moments. I've got those moments. I've got those opportunities that I wish I could get back, even though I know that God is working all of my missteps and hesitations for good.

It blows my mind how much of God's glory I have missed because of my fear. And yet, that's exactly how God said it would be.

Those most likely to miss out on God's eternal glory are the cowards, the ones who won't let themselves go for it.

Do not be afraid. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020


If you were going to make a list of sinners to exclude from the blessings of God, a group of men and women who were not deserving of an eternal home in heaven in your eyes, who would you start with? Most of us would start with the criminally and civilly culpable, the kinds of persons who we're tempted to stand next to in the Temple and thank the Lord, out loud, that we aren't like them. We would probably start with the murderers and the liars. 

But what if I told you that when God lists sinners at greatest risk of missing out on His eternal glory, murderers and liars and all the other so-called riff-raff we can come up with...aren't in the top two? Murderers and liars are third and fourth, a distant third and fourth behind two groups that we don't often think of. Or maybe that we aren't often willing to think of. 

It's probably not too difficult to come up with the group that's named second - the "faithless." That makes sense. Those who spend their life living like God isn't real and don't bother to believe in what He has for them clearly run a high risk of missing out on His eternal glory. This is something that the church in the 1900s, at least, was extremely concerned about. We put a high premium on making sure everyone was included in the fold, everyone brought into the faith. We spent a lot of our time making sure that there were no faithless among us, none left walking the earth. We preached fire and brimstone and invited everyone to repent and join the table because we took seriously the idea that God's eternal reward is for those who believe and live like they love Jesus. 

We don't take this idea as seriously any more. As our emphasis has shifted from the judgment of God to the love of Christ, and as our culture has pressured us into an image of Jesus that isn't quite accurate - an image of "tolerance" and blanket affirmation rather than real, messy love - it's hard for us to preach about the faithless. It's hard for us to talk about what faith means. It's hard for us to tell others that Jesus actually requires something of them. To be honest with you, a lot of Christians don't even believe this themselves any more. A lot of Christians cannot fathom a God who would not redeem everyone, who would not welcome everyone in Heaven. A lot of Christians today no longer believe God has standards. He just...loves everybody, right? Just the way that they are. 

The word of God on this matter hasn't changed. It's the same as it's always been, right there in Scripture. The "faithless" are the second group most likely to miss out on the eternal glory of God. And that means we need to be serious about spreading the faith. As Jesus told the eleven, Go, and make disciples

That's still His word to us. That's still His commission to us. That's still what He desires of us, what He wants us to be doing with our lives. We are disciples who go and make disciples. We are the faithful who teach others about the faith. We are the followers who bring others alongside us to follow, too. We are the ones who tell stories about miracles on the hillsides, about sermons on the mount, about storms on the seas, about a Cross outside Jerusalem and an empty grave. We are the faithful who are called to the faithless, that not one should miss out on the eternal glory of God. We ought to be taking that seriously. 

Now, wait a second. If murderers and liars - sinners, as we call them - are third and fourth, and if the faithless are second, who's first to miss out on the eternal glory of God? If you haven't cheated and gone digging in Revelation for the answer yet, you may be searching your brain, trying to figure out who's "worse" than all of these. Who is more wretched than a murderer? Who is more lost than the faithless? 

The answer may be more of us than you think. But you'll have to wait until tomorrow to talk about it. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Unknown Christ

You probably think you know your own name. It's that series of letters that everyone has been calling you from the moment you were born. At this point, you look in the mirror and identify the person staring back at you by that same set of letters. Your name is who you are.

But there's this passage in Revelation that reminds you that God has a name for you that you don't even know. One day, when you stand in front of Him, He will reveal it to you and give you the name that you were always meant to carry. If you're ever bored, it's fun to speculate about - what series of letters does God string together when He thinks about me? Who does God say that I am?

Do all the thinking you'd like, and you still probably won't know until that very day, until that very moment.

What's interesting in Revelation is that you're not the only one who has a name that you don't know yet. Jesus also has a name you don't know yet. Check out what John has to say about it:

There was a white hose, and its rider is named Faithful and True. With integrity he judges and wages war. His eyes are flames of fire. On his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him, but only he knows what it is. He wears clothes dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. (Revelation 19:11-13)

In this short little passage, we have at least four names given or implied. He is named Faithful and True, which is a statement about the character of this horseman, his heart. On his head are many crowns, which makes him King of Kings. He wears clothes dipped in blood, which makes him the Lamb or at the very least, the Priest. And his name is the Word of God, which we know from John's gospel is a phrase he uses to refer to Jesus. This rider is, through and through, the Jesus we know.

Yet there is a fifth name, something that Jesus Himself knows, but we don't know yet. It's written on Him, and He can see it, but we have not yet imagined or fathomed it.

This is where it starts to get a little complicated. Because Jesus is, we're told, the fullness of God. And that is true. He is the fullness of flesh. And that is true. So it's just natural for us to assume that when we behold Jesus, we see the fullness of everything. We have come to believe that there's no mystery about Jesus, nothing about Him that is really beyond what we can understand. We have been told that He is the revelation for us, and that He is meant to show us the fullness of everything. And that is true.

But if we listen to John in this short passage in Revelation, there is something we missed. Something essential that we missed. Something at the very heart of who Jesus is that we missed. He has a name that we don't know yet. It's right there on His chest. But we missed it. Somehow.

And that is true.

The truth is that this truth isn't really about Jesus. He is who He has always been, the full measure of God and the full measure of flesh. He is as plain and as present as He ever was. The truth is that this truth is really about us - there are just some things we're never going to see, even if they're right in front of us.

We are creatures with a limited perspective. We can only see what we can see. We can only know what we can know. We can only discover what we can discover. For everything we know about the world, there are 10,000 things we haven't thought about yet. It's the subject of so many of the fun brain teasers that go around social media all the time - the point of them is to try to get you to think about the things you haven't thought about, the things you're not prone to think about. They reveal how we are a people who are limited, inherently. Jesus can stand right in front of you in the fullness of all that He is, and there are things about Him you're still going to miss because a broken, fallen, human heart just can't see them in a place like this.

Maybe you think that sounds like a bait-and-switch. Like God promised to reveal Himself to you, but then still somehow made it so that you couldn't really see. But it's not that at all.

Rather, it's a reminder that God, even Jesus, continues to be bigger, greater, grander, more good than you could even fathom of Him. It's a reminder that God doesn't fit in your limited vision; you are wrapped up in His infinite view. It's a reminder that for everything you know about God, there's still some measure of mystery that keeps you coming back, keeps you wanting to know more, keeps you asking, seeking, knocking. What good would God be if He fit in our very small boxes?

There's something about Jesus we don't know yet. Faithful and True, King of Kings, Lamb, Priest, Word of God, and...something. Something essential and beautiful and powerful and...amazing. But something we don't know, something maybe we can't know this side of Eden. It's enough to keep us looking, though, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


It's the end of the world as we know it. Or is it?

Hollywood and popular fiction have made much out of a little word that appears only once in all the Scripture - armageddon. And in the Hollywood version, it means all-out war. It's the destruction and devastation of everything, that moment when all Hell breaks loose and comes to assert its reign over the earth. The images are startling - nuclear devastation, fires, earthquakes, invading armies, bloody war, corpses lying in the street - save for the hero, who somehow stands triumphant among the ashes, covered in dirt, gun belt strapped around his torso.

It makes for a compelling action-drama, if that's your thing, but let us not for one second think that this is what the Lord has planned for the end of the world. This isn't God's idea of judgment day, and it's certainly not what the Scriptures say about Armageddon.

We're talking about a scene in Revelation where the angels and the spirits and the judgments are coming upon the earth; that much is true. But then, there's this little sentence:

Then the spirits gathered the kings to the place called Armageddon. (Revelation 16)

Which makes Armageddon the refuge from the judgment, not the judgment itself. It's not the dust and the dirt and the fire and the blood; it's...

...the mountain.

That's what Armageddon means in Hebrew - the mountain of Megiddo. We are familiar with a lot of biblical mountains - Sinai, for example; Moriah, for another. Ararat, if you want to name a third. But the mountain of Megiddo doesn't readily come to mind for most of us. It's there. Its name is just easy to forget. It is a region in which a number of famous battles took place in the period of the judges and the early kingship, both great victories for Israel and stunning defeats.

But it's easy to get lost in war games if we're not careful. What is more true about the mountain of Megiddo than the battles that were fought there, what is most true about every mountain we encounter in Scripture, is that the mountain is the place where God reveals His glory to His people.

He revealed His glory on the mountain to Abraham just before he sacrificed his only son. He revealed His glory to Noah on the mountain as the land dried up underneath him. He revealed His glory to Moses on the mountain, a glory so potent that no one else in Israel could even touch the mountain and live. Jesus was crucified on a hill - a mountain - just outside Jerusalem, after He was transfigured on a mountain in front of Peter, James, and John. Every time there is a mountain in Scripture, it is a place where God reveals His glory, intimately, to His people.

That certainly changes the Hollywood narrative, doesn't it? Armageddon is not the event of the total destruction of the earth as we know it. It's not the war and the fire and the death and the destruction. Armageddon is a place.

It is a place of refuge in the midst of judgment, a mountain on which the Lord reveals His glory...again.

(In Revelation, it is the demonic spirits that gather the kings of the earth on the mountain in preparation for war and judgment. In preparation, not in battle. We should lose sight of the glory of God on the mountain just because in this case, there happen to be demons and war involved. There was a lot of war on this particular mountain, victories and defeat, and all of it revealed the glory of the Lord to His people and the nations around them. May we never get so wrapped up in the war that we miss the glory.) 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Remain Uncorrupted

One of my favorite verses in Scripture is James 1:27, which talks about what pure-in-heart faith is. And it ends by saying that a pure-in-heart faith remains "uncorrupted by this world." I have this section of the verse - "remain uncorrupted by this world" - hanging over the doorway out of my bedroom, so that every time I leave my sanctuary to go into the world, I remember what I'm doing there. 

It's easier than you think to become corrupted by the world, and the world we live in right now is giving us a glimpse of that in a place you probably wouldn't expect: 

The interstate highways. 

State police (at least in my state) report pulling over an incredible amount of vehicles for going more than 100 mph on the highways. With less traffic on the roads, speeding has become more commonplace. Now, it would be easy to sit at home and say that these are just selfish persons, taking advantage of the empty roads to do what they want. They probably think the laws don't apply to them, that maybe the laws don't apply at all any more, and they just don't care, so they are going as fast as they want to and daring someone to stop them. 

But that's probably not true. Here's what is actually happening: 

When you start driving, you pay a lot of attention to the rules. You keep one eye on the road and one on the dash, making sure that you're within the legal limits of the road you're on. You want to make sure you're getting it right. It doesn't matter that others are speeding around you, honking and waving their fingers or whatever else they are doing. You keep your eyes on the road, one on the dash, and follow the rules because you're just learning. These things are important to you. 

The longer you drive these roads - say, on a daily commute to work - the more you start to relax and realize that there are rules of the road and there is a rule of the road, and the rule of the road is the flow of the traffic. There's a stretch around Indianapolis where the speed limit is 55 mph, but the general travel speed is somewhere around 65. They even report it on the news in the mornings - "average traffic speed around 465 right now is 65 miles per hour." They still say it, even when you can see the speed limit sign in the corner of the traffic cam. 

Traveling this road, you now find yourself going 65 like everyone else, just to keep up with traffic. If you obey the speed limit, you become a road hazard. It feels unsafe. It's certainly unpopular. (Trust me, I know. I'm one of those nerds that hangs out in the slow lane.) Before long, you don't even think about it. You don't even watch the numbers any more. You just keep up. You merge onto the interstate and fall into traffic and let the general consensus carry you. 

Now, all of a sudden, that general consensus is gone. The road is open in front of you. You aren't trained any more to keep one eye on the road and one on the dash; you've lost the feel for how fast you should be going. Rather, you've spent the last 10, 15, 20, 40 years "keeping up," closing the space in front of you. But now, that space is wide open. So you start to close the space in front of you, the way you've always done, and before you know it, you're going 100 mph or more. Because there's no one else there to regulate your behavior for you. 

The world has shaped the way you operate, and now that the world has pulled back, you've lost your sense of control. 

This is exactly what James is talking about. 

We all start out setting our own moral compass, but the longer we live in community together, the easier it is to start looking around us instead of in front of us. We start to judge our lives by the average of what everyone else is doing. It's how we come up with phrases like the Pharisee - "Well, at least I'm not a tax collector." The Pharisee's sense of self was corrupted by the world around him; his standard was what everyone else was doing. The tax collector, of course, remained focused on God. 

The speeding we're seeing on our interstates isn't about entitlement. It isn't about arrogance or selfishness or even adventurism. It is purely and simply because of the fact that without traffic, we've lost our compass. Without others on the road to guide our behavior, we've lost the way that we regulate ourselves. We've been corrupted. 

And so it is with our pure-in-heart faith. If we let ourselves start judging our lives by the averages, by what others around us are doing, by whatever keeps us firmly in the flow, we lose our moral and spiritual compass. We lose our sense of self. And should we ever find ourselves without the references for more or less, we'll find that we're no longer anything at all. Just free-wheelin', which is no way to live. 

Pure-in-heart faith is this: to remain uncorrupted by this world.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Created to Worship

We are a people created to worship, and that means that we spend our lives worshiping. Whether we accept the sacrifice of Christ and spend our lives worshiping the Lord or not, we will worship something - money, wealth, status, authority, peace, contentment, achievement, you name it. We often hear this idea spouted in sermons about idolatry, about how we are supposed to rid our lives of the things that we worship that are not God, but even that leaves a lingering question:

How do we know what isn't God?

In some situations, this is an easy question to answer. Clearly, if our interest is in building our bank account or cementing our reputation or securing our promotion, then these things are out of place.

But the truth is that some of the things of this world look an awful lot like the things of God, and some of the things of God look an awful lot like the things of this world. So there has to be some other way to know whether we're worshiping the Lord or an idol rather than merely a subjective classification of something as sacred or profane. (As if these categories are clear-cut anyway.)

Maybe you're not sold. Maybe you think it's easy to tell the difference between something that is of God and something that isn't. It's a fair question, so let's just take a couple of examples. 

It's possible to be plugged into a church that isn't really a church; it's a social club. It's a place where hundreds or thousands of persons come together on a weekend to say how much they love Jesus, but the music selection is all about who we are, not who God is; the sermons are preached about how we should live our practical lives, not what God desires from us; the offerings go to bigger building and smoke and lights, not meaningful ministry to the core of human need. And it's possible to love this place and build your identity on it, claiming it makes you a Christian - but if it's a "church" in which God is neither praised nor proclaimed with any measure of real authenticity, then it is a thing of this world posing as a thing of God, and your membership in such a church is idol worship (because it is idle worship). 

At the same time, it's possible to be engaged in a sacred moment and not even know it. Take, for example, a simple dinner at a friend's house. Everyone's got to eat, right? It's the kind of social gathering we engage in all the time. We consider it part of being a civil society. But Jesus considered it part of being a sacred people. He had dinner parties all the time at the homes of sinners. He invited Himself, and His whole posse, over. He even had a few impromptu picnics on the hillside or near the well. We might not think twice about a casual social engagement, but it might just be a thing of God posing like a thing of this world. 

The lines are so easily blurred. How, then, do we know? As a people created to worship, how do we know whether what we are worshiping is God or something less? 

Revelation makes it pretty simple for us (chapter 14): there is no rest for those who worship the beast. 

Those who worship idols, those who worship the things of this world, those who are plugged into the pulse of the profane things are running themselves ragged. They are worn out. They are worn down. They are exhausted all the time. They can't seem to satisfy the ache in their hearts. It's perpetual motion, but you're not getting anywhere. You're constantly moving, but never arriving. You never have the sense that you could stop, even for just a second. You can hardly catch your breath. 

Contrast that to Jesus who says, I have come to give you rest. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Proper worship puts us in a sacred rhythm that includes rest. That includes time to stop and smell the roses. That re-energizes us. Proper worship fills our cup even while we're pouring it out. Not only is our heart satisfied, but so is our soul. It's perpetual motion because it's a moving part; you're not chasing anything, you're dancing with it. You're constantly moving because you're being drawn into the heart of something bigger than you. There is no arriving because you're already there. You don't have to catch your breath because this worship is breath; it is the simple act of breathing. 

We are a people created to worship, but how do we know if what we're worshiping is good? If it is sacred? If it is God? 

We know if we are able to find rest. In this world, there is no rest for the weary, but in the Lord, the weary come and find rest. If you aren't resting, then you're worshiping the wrong thing. 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Who Will Be Saved?

As we get back to the things of theology, we're going to pick up near the tail end of Revelation where we left off in our journey through the Bible. We're almost to the end, but there are some important ideas from these last few chapters that are still worth looking at. So let's start looking. 

Much has been made of the 144,000 in Revelation - the number that we're told will be saved, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes. (And if you want to have a little fun, look at the 12 sons of Israel that are included in this list. There are actually several different lists of the 12 if you read through the Scriptures, and it's important to consider why these 12 in any given place. In this case, it's Dan who is excluded, in order to include Manasseh as an independent tribe. It's really fascinating to dig into. But I digress.)

The question has been asked whether this 144,000 is a firm number. It certainly looks like one when we read about it in Revelation 7. For those denominations that believe in predestination, it is of dire importance to be included in this number. You've heard "When the Saints Go Marching In?" Oh Lord, I want to be in that number.... It's all about the numbers. 

One of those groups of Christians who loves so much to knock on our doors believes this to be a hard and fast number, as well, which raises the question - if you believe that only 144,000 human beings are going to be saved, then why do you spend your life going out trying to recruit more? That person you bring into the fold could take your spot. I mean, if God's just looking for 144,000. (Another potential rabbit trail that we won't run down today. Maybe some other time.)

But it all comes down to this: what is really up with the 144,000? Is that really it? Is it a literal number or a secret code for something else? Is it a representation of another number? What's the deal?

The deal is that, well, you have to keep reading. Because this exact number referencing this exact group of persons comes up again just a short while later in Revelation 14, and here's the deal: 

The 144,000 are the firstfruits of the Lord's harvest, not the entirety of it. 

The firstfruits have always had a special place in the worship and honor of the Lord. There were festivals devoted to bringing in the firstfruits of any harvest. The firstborn male of every family and every flock were dedicated to the Lord. You always brought the first of everything to Him in recognition of His incredible glory and mercy. But you never brought God just the firstfruits. 

There were also burnt offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, fellowship offerings, thank offerings, vow offerings. There were all kinds of things that you would bring to the Lord besides the firstfruits of the harvest, and that's where the hope for the rest of us comes in. Because at the Lord's harvest, the doors are going to be thrown wide open for every offering, and if you look at just the pure numbers of it, most of us are not going to be in the firstfruits. But that doesn't mean we can't come. That doesn't mean there's not room for us, not a place for us. That doesn't mean we can't be an offering to God nonetheless. That doesn't mean we're not in the harvest. 

So wait...who are the 144,000? Who are the firstfruits of God's harvest? Don't know. Don't care. That sort of thing is not for me to decide, and I don't want to spend my whole life trying to impress God with my faithfulness in the hopes of receiving such a reward. That sounds strange, maybe, but the truth makes it clear: I want to spend my whole life loving God faithfully in the hope that He's already given me. And if I find one day that I'm the firstfruits, that's okay. And if I find that I'm more of a fellowship offering, that's okay, too. I want just to be the fullness of who God has created me to be, resting in the fullness of who He is. It's that simple. 

So relax. Yes, there are 144,000, but there are millions, billions more. There is room in God's redemption for every life poured out on His altar. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Something to Talk About

So how, then, should we live? 

It's a question we wrestle with every day, and even more now as we seek to figure out how to live and love in a world that's nothing like we remember it. I have taken some time over the past few weeks to talk about our sacred human story as it is unfolding - the new questions we are facing, the new trials we are enduring, the new opportunities that lie before us. And the truth is that I could keep writing about these things probably indefinitely; we can always do better at loving one another. 

But the longer we talk about what it means to be humans in isolation, the longer we pontificate on the challenges we're facing, the longer we look at the world that we live in and how in the world we're supposed to navigate it, the easier it becomes to drift away from the heart of the story of who we really are: a people, yes, but a people of God. 

And the longer we talk just about who we are as a people, even a holy people, the easier it becomes to leave God a little more out of it and a little more out of it and a little more out of it until we're only talking about us and no longer talking about Him. 

Most of us wouldn't even notice this drift. As long as we're talking about good things, as long as we're talking about being good people, as long as our emphasis is on being good to one another, aren't we still talking about the same thing? Aren't we still talking about God and faith and Christianity and all that? 

And that's the challenge. Because the answer is No, we're not. When we reach the point that we're only talking about us, then no matter what the actual content is, we're no longer really talking about God and faith and Christianity. 

This is one of the greatest lies of our generation. We worship in churches that have become glorified social clubs, and our sermons and devotions and gatherings together have placed this huge emphasis on our human story and kind of shirked God to the edges. We're focused on the words, trying to get the language right, but no longer on the Word, trying to love well. Our entire concept of everything has changed, and we didn't even notice it because we were sitting in churches when it happened.

There's a lot to talk about right now about how we're living. A lot. There's a lot to talk about about what love looks like right now. A lot. 

But if we're not talking in these strange times about the Lord of living and loving, a Lord who hasn't changed, then we're just trying to be a good people and not a holy one. And I, for one, want us to be a holy people. 

I realized this on Friday, Good Friday, when the little thought that I wrote in this space exploded in my heart in a way that hasn't happened for awhile. And it was because of the way that that little thought drew God back into the conversation, brought Him back into an introspection that was taking on a life of its own. It was in that moment, as this passion welled up in me, that I realized how desperately we need not just a Christian philosophy for loving, but our Christian theology of Love Himself. I don't want to lose sight of the latter for the sake of the former. 

It's been a blessing to me to have the space for philosophy for awhile, and I hope that it has been a blessing to you. But as we move forward from here, I'm going to pull back on "the times as we know them." Because I want to get back to "the Lord as we know Him." And as He knows us. 

It will change the way we live and love, even in these times. It will put us back in touch with our sacred human story by settling us back into His developing story, a story He is still writing with every breath in the community of His people.

Even when we're six feet apart. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


Things change. If you don't know that by now, you must not have been paying attention. All things change. We change. Life changes. Hearts change. It's the mark of human existence - growth. We are supposed to be more, do more, know more, love more today than we did yesterday. 

To accommodate this reality of human existence, God has given us this great tool called humility. Humility is the ability to admit when we are wrong, to confess our blind spots, to demonstrate our growth by apologizing, refocusing, reshaping, and moving on. Humility is our ability to acknowledge the limitations of our own being and abilities and to embrace our potential and new opportunities. 

Unfortunately, we live in a world where accepting and embracing growth is actually seen as a weakness. Where if we confess at all that we were wrong about anything, we open ourselves up to scrutiny about having been wrong about everything. We are not afforded the grace to grow; we are held accountable for every yesterday as if it will always be our today. 

In times like these, that puts us in quite a bind. 

The experts have had models to work from since this whole thing started. They have been crunching numbers the way that experts do, but as things actually play out, speculations become realities and the numbers change. Unfortunately, in a world where humility is weakness, the numbers are not allowed to change. We are seeing our experts double-down on numbers that just aren't playing out, kicking them down the road and insisting the numbers must still be right; the dates just must be wrong. 

They even told us themselves that all of the measures they were enacting were meant to change the numbers. Now, the numbers are changing and they tell us that the numbers can't really be changing all that much. They praise us for our efforts, but continue to hold to the same kinds of large numbers they've always held to. 

Because we live in a world where if things change, then those who spoke early must be wrong. If they were wrong once, they are wrong now, and why should we even listen to them any more? 

It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, even if they tell us that our response is what has changed the numbers, many will cry out and say their numbers were wrong. Just look at our new numbers, and you'll see that the old numbers were wrong. They were wrong then; they are wrong now. These experts are not to be trusted. On the other hand, the longer they insist that their numbers were right and are unchanging, even in the face of new data, the more wrong they actually become. If they are wrong now, they must have been wrong then. These experts are not to be trusted. 

In my own state, the numbers have been consistently falling for five days. Yet we daily hear our experts holding onto their numbers, insisting the "peak" is coming next month, after the stay-at-home orders are supposed to be lifted. They are pushing to keep these orders in place for another month, even though the numbers are right now steadily declining. If the numbers decline all the way through the next two weeks, these experts right now look as though they will continue to say that the peak is still a few weeks away. That all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, we're going to spike. 

It's really a no-win for them. Without the humility to embrace growth and change, they have no choice but to lock in on their models and push them as long as they can. Without our willingness to offer them humility as an option, they have to insist on their rightness. They have to constantly defend themselves. 

But it's also a no-win for us. Without the humility to embrace growth and change, to admit that something could be right yesterday and change today, we have no choice but to submit our lives to the authority of those that we refuse to allow to let go of their models. If we cannot be humble enough to allow them some humility, we're stuck in a stalemate - they have to prove they were right, and we have to make them prove they were right. If they don't, if we don't, then we are unlikely to ever trust our authorities again...on anything. 

It's because we've locked ourselves into such rigid categories of right and wrong. We expect our authorities not to speak until they have all the facts, until what they are going to say is absolutely true. Despite the struggles we have with truth, with any truth being 'absolute,' we have a surprisingly small (almost nil) amount of grace for truth that changes. We have almost zero tolerance for growth. Just look at the way that we hold persons accountable for things they said forty, fifty years ago in a different time in a different place. Whoever you once were, that's who you always are. 

I don't think it's a fault of arrogance. I really don't. I think a lot of our leaders are more humble than they are willing to admit. I think a lot of our experts right now would be ready to embrace new models, to start changing their tune as the data changes. To start moving forward with new numbers, with truth that is developing in real time. I think a lot of us recognize how we have changed over time, and how those we love (and those we hate) have changed, too. 

It's just that we, as a society, have so little tolerance for humility. It's not a virtue; it's a weakness. We have created a society where it is impossible for anyone to change, for anyone to grow; we simply don't afford them that grace - even while we shout from the rooftops that we, ourselves, are not today the same person that we were yesterday. It doesn't matter. We aren't afforded that grace, either. 

Until and unless we're willing to embrace humility again, we are stuck in a no-win situation. Not just with the big things that are going on in the world, but with every little thing that marks who we are, who we want to be, and who we are becoming.

Things change. Life changes. We change. Humility is an essential part of growth because it allows us to recognize and confess the way things, the way life, the way we change without pretending. Humility makes it so that we don't have to double-down; we can grow up. Like we were always meant to do. 

So let's have a little grace for the humble. And a little humble grace for ourselves. 

Monday, April 13, 2020


If the current condition we find ourselves in has revealed anything, it has shown us our need for a long-lost skill that seems to be lacking in a lot of places in our world: discernment.

Discernment is the ability to determine where truth lies in any given situation. It's the ability to cut through the junk, throw out the hyperbole, and figure out what it is that is real and true and vital and worth building your life around.

We are living in a world that has become increasingly relativistic in its conception of truth in the past few decades. As a culture, we have pushed against the notion of any kind of universal truth, any kind of reality that is real for everyone. We have been taught that it's inappropriate to question what someone else believes because we should assume they have their reasons for believing, just the same as we do. We have been told that judging another man's truth is the same as judging that man himself, and if we try to make a claim against his truth, we are making a claim against him - we must be bigoted or phobic or simply hateful and hypocritical. We live in a world that has staunchly declared, 'What is true for you is true for you and what is true for me is true for me.'

No wonder that now, when we are in desperate need of knowing truth, so many of us have no idea where to find it.

For some, truth is whatever the authorities say that it is. It's the stuff you see coming out of the official press briefings from all the guys with titles by their names - President, doctor, commissioner, governor, whatever. These are the men and women who have invested their lives in this kind of stuff, so they should know best. For some, truth must be the opposite of whatever the authorities say that it is. It's all a massive conspiracy, a cover-up. It's meant to keep us from seeing something else that they're drawing our eyes away from. Persons in authority are not to be trusted.

For some, truth is what they can see with their own eyes. It depends upon what they can verify in their own experience. For some, truth is what they can be shown. If there appears to be real evidence of it somewhere, then that's enough for them.

For some, truth is political. For some, it's religious. For some, it's social.

Right now, we are seeing all of the things that we have done to truth, claiming that it has always been whatever we've needed it to be, but we are discovering that actually, we just need truth. We just need truth to be actually true. We need it to transcend our narrow understanding of it or it just doesn't work. Unfortunately, what we are discovering is that we don't know how to let go of our narrow definitions of it to embrace anything larger than we've previously held.

The truth about truth is that it's somewhere in the middle. It's not everything the authorities say, but neither is it everything they aren't saying. It's not what you can see, but beyond your vision. At the same time, it's not something you can never see; it's right at your own fingertips. It's not political, but it's not apolitical. It's not religious, but it's not irreligious. It's not social, but it doesn't exist in isolation.

Discernment comes in when we're trying to figure out what truth is. And it's not so much about asking what is true and what is not true, but rather about asking how the truth that we're given is true. What angle is it coming from? What point is it trying to prove? How is the truth we're given trying to be used? Because if truth is being weaponized to coerce a certain response (and in a postmodern society, it very often is), then discernment is our ability to dull its sword and stand courageously on the solid ground that lies somewhere in the middle.

That's the kind of questioning we've lost sight of in our willingness to believe whatever we are prone to believe. In our own understanding of what truth is, we lean naturally toward simple acceptance of that sort of truth but do not see the ways in which it tries to blind us. And the truth (sorry) is that from our limited human perspective, whatever angle we see truth from will inherently blind us to other aspects of it.

For everything we see, there is something we do not see. For everything we know, there is something we don't know.

So the first question of discernment is: what do we know? But the second question is just as important: what don't we know? And why don't we know it?

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday

For the first time in the history of the world, it looked like man was all alone here. It looked like his God had finally forsaken him. It looked like the God who walked with Adam in the cool of the day had simply walked on, leaving mankind in the dust behind Him. 

It was the first time anything like this had ever happened. God was so famous for being with His people that nations far and wide had heard of His presence. They knew that He fought for His people. Tales of what He'd done for them spread like wildfire to peoples near and far. Little altars dotted the landscape, even in territories where Israel no longer lived, as they had marked their journey with Him and His presence on their way to Canaan. 

Even Jesus, who had come in the flesh and was showing Himself so promisingly to be the Messiah, had established a ritual of relationship with His people. Not just with His disciples, although it's fairly easy to see with them, but with the people of the region - the sick, the sinners, the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the Pharisees, the tax collectors, all of them. Jesus was with them.

Until all of a sudden, He wasn't. 

Until all of a sudden, He was crucified on a hill outside of the city. Until all of a sudden, a leading priest came quietly to ask for His body. Until all of a sudden, He was wrapped once more in swaddling clothes, this time placed inside not a manger, but a borrowed tomb. Until all of a sudden, a stone was rolled between the Lord and His people. 

And for the first time in the history of the world, it looked like man was all alone here. 

Can you relate? This Good Friday, more than any Good Friday we've known, we are poised to feel the ache of this aloneness. We are positioned to where that loneliness eats at our bones the way that it must have in that Upper Room and all through the streets of Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. In our homes, isolated, away from one another, staring at the same four walls day in and day out, forgetting what life used to look like, longing for a little sense of normalcy, hearing our own voice echo in an empty space that was once filled with noise...yeah, we feel it. 

But we are never as alone as we feel. Not even, believe it or not, on Good Friday. 

Because at the very moment that Jesus died, as He took His last breath and gave up His spirit, just when it seemed that the Lord Himself had left us, the hand of God trembled as He continued to hold the earth, new life sprung up in dead places as dry bones became flesh and blood, and the curtain in the Temple tore in two - top to bottom - as God Himself rent it for our sake, so that we could come - sin-stained and all - into the place where He still dwells among His people, to the place where He still lives among us. 

At the very moment that it seemed that for the first time in the history of the world, man was all alone here, God threw the doors of His most holy place wide open to remind us that we are not. We never have been, and we never will be. Not even on Good Friday. 

Not even today. 

It's easy to feel the ache this year. It's easy to feel the discouragement and the uncertainty and the disappointment and the disillusion of that Upper Room, that place where those who had walked so closely with Christ shut themselves in and stared at those same four walls day in and day out, hearing their own voices echo in an empty space that was once filled with the fullness of Jesus. And yet, they were not, for not a single breath, ever as alone as they felt. 

And neither are we. 

Praise the Lord for Good Friday. 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Blessed Assurance

So let's talk about this for a minute. If we are a people of faith, won't God protect us from the virus? Shouldn't we just go and live our normal faithful lives and demonstrate what it means to be held in His hand, wrapped in His arms, covered by His blood? Isn't ignoring the world and holding onto heaven the most faithful thing we can do, not just now, but always?

This is a tough one, and it requires a careful reading of the Scriptures.

There are certainly times in Scripture where God tells His people that they should have had more faith. For example, when the prophet has the king stomp on the arrows, the king only stomps three times and is told he should have stomped six or seven! He should have gone all-out in what God was asking him to do, gone all-in. He should have done it with zeal and with passion; he should have made someone else have to stop him.

And of course, we know that in the Gospels, there is the story of a demon that the disciples could not cast out, and Jesus starts ranting about persons of little faith. This kind of demon, He says, can only be cast out by prayer and fasting - by bigger acts of faith, the way we define them. There's also the story of Peter walking on water, then falling because he looks around him and loses faith. Nor can we forget Jesus's teaching on faith the size of a mustard seed.

Most certainly, then, God wants us to have faith. Big faith. Big, hairy, audacious faith.

But there's a difference between these types of stories and the story that a certain segment of the Christian faith is trying to write for itself right now: in the Scripture stories, God spoke first.

God told the king to jump on the arrows. He gave the disciples power to cast out demons and sent them into the region to do it. He called Peter out onto the water. In these instances, there is a clear and specific mandate from God about how to approach a very specific scenario and what He desires of them, what He is enabling them to do.

By and large, those claiming the protection of a dutiful faith in their lives claim such protection not just for the pandemic, but for everything. They stand on solid ground that they've paved themselves, declaring that this is where God stands, but they don't have a direct word from Him about a specific situation; they have put their trust in faith, not in God. In these situations, it is the faithful who are speaking first.

Which is essentially challenging God. It's daring Him to disappoint you. (He can't, of course, because under this paradigm of faith, any apparent failure on God's part is actually your own failure and you just have to "do better" and "believe more.") But it's what happens when we think we set the rules, when we decide how to frame our lives in God's hand instead of simply letting Him hold us.

It's dangerous.

If you don't think it's dangerous, just glance through the Scriptures and look at what happens to men and women who dare to challenge God. They are burned alive with their illegal incense, swallowed up in fire with their profane offerings, swallowed whole by the very ground on which they stand. Things don't end well for those who taunt God. Ever.

And the truth is that every promise of God has come with a requirement for man's preparation. Abraham had to take the stuff with him to build an altar on that mountain. Noah had to build a boat. Mary had to carry a baby for nine months and actually give birth. When God gives us something to do, it requires something of us. His is an active engagement, not a passive one; He wants us to get involved in the world and in the story He's writing in it with us and through us.

Having faith in God doesn't mean ignoring this world or forsaking it; it means engaging with it, brokenness and all. It means accepting that this is where He's put us - this is where He loves us - even though it's not perfect here. It means preparing for both what He calls us to and what the world throws our way. It's listening to His heartbeat and feeling the pulse of this place.

So won't faith protect us from this virus? The Biblical witness doesn't seem to suggest it will. Rather, it calls on us to be a people prepared and engaged, even in the broken places. So let's do that. And let's let God speak first. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

A Full Coffer

We're starting to see headlines about churches defying the stay-at-home orders, about pastors who are not only keeping their doors open but are encouraging attendance at Sunday services packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the "faithful." We're hearing these pastors proclaim that you can't shut the church down, and we're hearing their flocks mimic their talking points that God will protect them from this terrible plague because of their great faithfulness and their unwillingness to be shaken by the things of this world. 

We are also hearing of widespread infection in many of these churches, of dozens of parishioners coming down with the virus after fellowship with one another. If we hold them to their own standard, then they have condemned their own faith. 

Most certainly, they have condemned ours. 

It's a good practice, in general, to not get drawn into comment sections on social media. But I believe it's also good practice, in general, to read them. You can really get a sense of how others are thinking about something by seeing what they are willing to comment about. And when you look at the comment sections on the stories of these churches, what you see is alarming. 

Our culture is not talking about faith. They're not talking about whether or not God will protect His faithful from this virus. They aren't talking about what it looks like to believe in His goodness right now. Overwhelmingly, the comments on these stories take aim at one simple idea: that these pastors refuse to close their doors because doing so leaves their collection plates empty. That's it. Right now, the world is talking about the money-hungry church that doesn't even care for its own people, let alone anyone else. 


It doesn't matter that we're literally talking about a handful of congregations in a country that boasts hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them. It doesn't matter that we're talking about a couple of pastors in a profession of thousands. It doesn't matter that most of America's pastors are vocal on social media about keeping the church connected when it's dispersed, about keeping their doors closed out of love for neighbor, about being responsible citizens and doing our part. It doesn't matter that the overwhelming message of the church right now is one of care and compassion and passionate praise. 

All that the world is talking about is a church, universal, that only cares about money. That's willing to put its people and its community at risk for the sake of its own doors (and the pastor's great big mansion with private yacht and monkey butlers). All that the world is talking about is a church who doesn't love her neighbors, but only lines her pockets.

And to the world, this is enough to confirm its stereotype. This is enough for it to continue to paint all churches with a broad brush, thinking all of us Christians are just the same. That all pastors are just the same. That this is who we as a body are. 

The cries in the comment sections are striking. Shut 'em down! Arrest 'em! Put 'em all in jail! So selfish...they say. So self-seeking. Some even say that if these Christians love the church that much, just barricade the doors and leave them all there for two weeks. 

This is not the reaction we want. This is not the impression that we want the world to have of us. You can talk until you're blue in the face about what faith looks like, but as long as the impression is that it's not about faith at all...then it's not about faith at all. You are not only condemning your own faith; you're condemning ours. You are not a beacon in a storm; you are a millstone tied around the neck. 

Maybe you're thinking, wait a minute: aren't you the same person who just a few weeks ago was talking about the church as an essential gathering and advocating for ways to continue meeting together? Absolutely. And I still believe this. And I still believe there are ways for us to fellowship while still being safe. But the way these churches are doing it is not it. 

And for me, the essential nature of the church gathering is the fellowship. It's the being together. It's not the money or the service or some staunch declaration that God will protect us because we are so faithful (will He? I'll be looking at this tomorrow). It's a recognition that we are a social people, a species dependent upon relationship. Our faith echoes that and affirms it. This is the way God made us, and you can't just unplug us from needing one another. That's still true, of all of us (inside and outside the church), and it doesn't take much to see how we are longing for one another in the world right now. There is something vital for our souls about our being together. I will never not believe that. 

But if our meeting together doesn't demonstrate that, if that is not the message that the world gets - pandemic or no pandemic - then my voice is with theirs: shut us down. Close our doors. We're done. 

So at the point when the headlines are talking about outbreaks at local congregations and the comment sections are talking about a money-loving people of so-called faith, it's time to say something. Shut it down. This just not who we are. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A Little Faith

As we've been talking about for several days, we find ourselves in a strange time. (Duh.) As persons of faith, we are torn between being a people of truth and being a people of grace, knowing with great certainty that God is good and knowing just as surely how much our neighbors need a touch of humanity right now.

It's tempting for me to want to believe that if everyone could just know the truth about things, if they could just see through the showmanship and the psychology and the cravings of the human soul and latch onto a real truth, then they wouldn't be so frazzled right now. I'm not. If I could just get them to hold onto truth in the way that I am (by the gift of faith that God has given me, a gift that I know others do not necessarily share even when I long for them to), they could just calm down and settle and enjoy a measure of peace.

But the truth is that truth has never been enough for trembling. Facts have never been enough for fear. When your world is shaking, just hearing all of the reasons why you don't have to worry about that is not enough to make you stop worrying. Every time God sends an angel to tell a human being not to be afraid, and why they shouldn't be, the almost-universal response is a rubbing of the chin. That doesn't sound like it can be right. Fear simply doesn't respond to facts.

What fear needs is faith. It doesn't matter what the fear is, it always takes a little faith to overcome. If you stumble upon a snake and you're afraid of snakes, telling you that it's "just a little garden snake" and won't hurt you doesn't make you want to bend over and pick it up. That would take a little faith. Jumping out of a plane with a parachute, it's not enough to know that the parachute is packed correctly and strapped securely to your back. It takes a little faith to actually leap out that door. If you're afraid of heights, you don't want to step out on the observation deck with the clear floor. It doesn't matter how secure they tell you it is or whether you watch your friend jump up and down on it to prove it to you. It will take a little faith for you to put your own foot out there.

Fear takes faith. And that means that what the world needs right now is not a bunch of facts, but a way to believe. The world needs a witness.

They need an authentic voice, words of grace to guide them. They need the confidence of someone who is not shaken, an example of what it means to live sober in a drunken world. They need words that resonate deeper in their soul than the headlines do in their ears. They need a chorus of confessional Christians who can say, yes, this is what's going on in the world, but here's where my heart stands.

We do that by speaking out of a secure place ourselves. We do that by living as persons on solid ground. We do that by loving them well, by keeping in front of us the frailty of the human condition and the goodness of God.

It's tempting, when you start to get the kind of audience that witness brings, to want to shift quickly to truth. To want to explain how and why you're living the way you are. How you get to be so fortunate as to be in this position. To want to explain the peace that we have and where it comes from. To want to work through the facts together, walking step by step through what is real and what is not and what it means. But ironically, the moment we start to do this, we lose our audience.

Because right now, the world doesn't need to know what truth you're standing on; they just need to hear your heart beat.

For a people who believe, and who perhaps have been taught their whole life, that the Christian faith is one of evangelism, that the greatest thing we can do for someone is to tell them about Jesus and convince them to give their life to Him, this is hard. It's hard-wired into us that this is the natural progression of things. But is it?

The Christian faith really isn't one of evangelism. At least, it historically hasn't been until relatively recently. The Christian faith is one of witness. We were never meant to start by telling the world how to live; we were meant to start with showing them how we do. And that's what this world needs right now.

They need to see us living the Christian faith, secure in the love of Christ, covered in a peace that passes understanding, and showered (and showering) in grace.  

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Least of These

As Christians, it's easy to feel torn right now. On the one hand, we are a people who are guided by truth, and we know that the truth is the surest and shortest path through this. Through anything, really. On the other hand, we are a people governed by grace, and we know that our neighbors need this right now, too. We cannot allow ourselves to become angry with those whose fragile human flesh leads them to seek, even to demand, something that we ourselves do not require, but nor can we allow ourselves to be dragged along by their insecurities. It's tough. 

What I find myself coming back to again and again is Jesus's principle of "the least of these." Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.

It's a little bit of a trick question because the truth is that we're all the least of these. Even in those moments where we seem to be more, there is always something that makes us least all over again. There is a way to shift perspective that allows us to see the need in someone else, even if they passionately declare that they have no need. Even if their need isn't as glaringly obvious as someone else's. And that means that at any moment, in any conversation, it's important that we able to speak about the least of these that are being slighted by the dominant voices and that we speak directly to the leastness of those voices themselves.

Take, for example, a conversation that's happening all over the country right now. What is essential?

There are persons willing to shut down everything, to close all the stores, to rope off sections of superstores, to judge and publicly shame others who are buying what they don't deem is essential. No one needs that right now, they say. And that ranges anywhere from a new pillow to a package of flowers to plant to cigarettes or beer. Because it is not a necessity for them, they believe it to not be a necessity for anyone and can't believe communities are still providing access to these things.

But that package of flowers might be a lifeline of color for a person with severe depression who needs to see something besides the four walls in her home. She needs that chance to nurture life because tending to it with her hands gives her the chance to tend to it in her own soul. We are coming off the dark winter season, a time when so many with depression do their best just to white knuckle and hold on until spring and now, our spring is being taken from us. A six pack of pansies may not seem like a lot to you, but for someone else, it is life. Loving the least of these means speaking up for those who can't tell you the difference a few flowers make...and fear you wouldn't hear them even if they tried.

Cigarettes and beer are substances that create a physical dependence in the body, and that dependence doesn't easily go away. Addiction is one of the hardest battles to fight. Taking away something your body is dependent on causes severe distress - physical and emotional. It's unfair and unrealistic to believe that this dependence simply disappears because these substances aren't "essential" for someone who doesn't struggle with them. We cannot condemn our brothers and sisters to severe distress because we don't think these substances were good for them anyway. We put all kinds of things on our own grocery lists that have no nutritional value, but our bodies crave them (coffee, chips, candies, chocolate), and then we act all high and mighty and declare these "lesser" things non-essential. Sorry. It doesn't work that way. And to add to that, we know that addiction is a monster best fought in community; demanding our brothers and sisters fight them in isolation is just a burden too great to bear. Loving the least of these means speaking up for those caught in a vicious cycle, carrying heavy chains that others do not understand unless they've held them.

At the same time, we cannot forget those doing the shaming. We cannot simply be harsh with those who are harsh with others, for they, too, are driven by something they may not be able to name. Often, it's insecurity. Often, it's fear. It's this feeling that they need to have something predictable in their world, something they can control. It seems easy enough - if the official guidance of our leaders is to limit ourselves to the essentials, then these persons latch onto that as the thing that's going to anchor them in this storm. They believe that it's this limiting that is our lifeboat. To them, it's the thing that's going to keep them alive. It's why they become so antagonistic about it. It is their hope. And they look around and see what they don't understand in others, and they can't believe that someone else is putting their assurance in jeopardy. That's really what it's about. They are afraid and insecure and that is only heightened by those who seem to be ignoring the advice that's supposed to keep them safe and assured. That means these, too, are the least of these, and loving them means speaking about this fear and insecurity in the same gracious ways.

Everyone around you is the least of these. That's the little secret that Jesus never told you. Everyone around you is wrestling with something, is struggling with something, is being driven by something that, if we'd just take the time to understand, we'd spend a lot less of our time judging and more of our time loving. We'd be living with a lot more grace in all directions.

We might even find some for ourselves.