Friday, May 29, 2020

The Politics of Being Human

I promised yesterday that I'd have something to say about the topic of abortion today, and you might have been confused because I let all of yesterday's post roll on. But I know that I lost some persons as soon as I mentioned it. I know that some eyes rolled, some mice clicked, and some screens shut down. Why did I have to go and make it political? 

To that, I ask, when did life become politics?

I don't care how much you legislate it, litigate it, campaign on it, vote on it, or whatever else you want to do with it, life isn't political. It's not a conservative or a liberal issue. It's not right or left. It's every breath for all of us, regardless of what you believe about it.

That's the issue. We've made life such a thing that it is whatever you believe about it, and then when we found out that we believe different things about it, we made it a political rallying cry. We figured that if there was this much difference in how we think about it, then it must just be politics. And somehow, we've come to the place where we can argue the finest details of life and death the same way we debate taxes, often coming to a point where we say, well, it just is what it is.

Which is, interestingly, what it always was to begin with. Just now, it's wrapped up in so many political ropes that we can't seem to get out of them.

It's the same kind of people politics we always run into, the fundamental issue that divides us politically on these ideas - do we start with the many or do we start with the one? Do we define life by the masses or do we define life by the instance? The truth is that we determine what we believe about life from where we start.

If life starts with the many, if our definitions are set by what is most common, by what we consider "normal," then it is easy for us to start judging life by where it fits on the continuum. A life that doesn't measure up to the mean standard of what life is is just not a life worth considering. This is how we get arguments for the abortion of babies with defects - they don't fit our standard of normal living, so their life is considered lesser. Alternately, we can say that if a life disrupts the standard of normal living in some meaningful way, then it is not a life; it is a nuisance. And this is how we justify the abortion of an unwanted child - the mother would have to live a life she doesn't want just because she "happened" to get pregnant. It would throw off her entire economy and send ripples through her community as her life changes. Therefore, we can call it an inconvenience and terminate it. Because we start with the many, and the one is disposable.

If life starts with the one, if our definitions are set by an uncompromising value on every instance of life, we're prone to make a choice to the opposite extreme. We no longer care about the economy of those involved, and we don't even think about the ripple waves through the community. We are willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to give every single life a fighting chance at its best, and in adopting this as our position, we are willing to force others to make the same sacrifices. This is the argument we hear from the pro-abortion crowd against a pro-life position: do you realize the cost to everyone else to try to secure this one (often "lesser" life) - the medical expenses, the social expenses, the educational expenses, all of the special stuff this life is going to require? Because we start with the one, we require the sacrifices of the many.

That's what politics does to the issue. It gives us a starting point and some kind of measuring system whereby we make our decisions based on what we value most.

But what if we just What if we refuse to let life be politics?

What if life doesn't start with the many or with the one, but starts with the miracle, with the improbable reality that despite all odds and obstacles, something sparked anyway and began to grow toward the fullness of its own promise?

That's what happens, you know. At the moment when the sperm meets the egg and fertilization occurs, there's this brilliant, instantaneous spark of life and a little note of music that comes out of the whole thing. There's this little celebration of the start of a new life. What if we just joined that celebration instead of jumping right in to judge it?

Because hear me: life isn't political. And even if it were, politics is simply often wrong.

Politics cannot predict or prescribe the best of human nature. Argue it all day. Put it on the floor. Write it in a bill. You cannot legislate or litigate or vote on love, sacrifice, grace, friendship. It's who we are as human beings, and you can't put it on one side of the aisle or another. All of the debate and discussion in the world cannot settle who this particular life will grow up to be, and the truth is that life often surprises us in ways we could never imagine.

Just as it surprises us in the beginning when, against all odds, it begins anyway.

So yes, I made a post about abortion, about the sanctity of life, but it wasn't political. No matter what you think of it. Because for me, life doesn't start with the one or with the many. It doesn't live on the left or the right. It's not calculated in its potentials or measured by an impact it hasn't even had yet.

Life starts with the miracle, with the improbable reality that despite all odds and obstacles, something sparked anyway and began to grow toward the fullness of the promise nestled within it. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Sanctity of Life

All of this talk about how fragile life is in a place that is seemingly teeming with it, this recognition of how improbable it is that even a single promise of life becomes fulfilled, leads us to a very natural point of discussion: the sanctity of life itself. 

When you think about all that it takes to get one simple seed to grow, that one little life becomes so precious that you can't help but do everything in your power to honor, to value, and to bless the life that comes out of it. 

Yes, this is a post about abortion. (And I'll have something to say about that tomorrow.) 

Our culture pitches abortion as a "responsible" decision. It tells us that it's good for us to end a life that is unwanted before it even begins. The problem, of course, is that by the time we're making that decision, we're already talking about a life. We're already talking about a fetus in whom the completely improbable has already happened. 

Billions (even more) sperm make that swim every year. Countless carriers of the male DNA go after the prize of the egg. Billions of eggs are released every year, floating around in a state of availability and then, often, washed out with the waste, having never taken on life. Couples, married or not, engage in intercourse all over the planet every second of every day. And overwhelmingly, all of these encounters, all of these attempts, all of these possibilities do not result in a pregnancy. Ask any couple who is intentionally trying for a child, and they'll tell you just how rare and elusive conception itself is. 

Life doesn't just happen because all of the ingredients are there; it truly takes a miracle.

It takes everything coming together just right. It takes all the right angles and strengths and speeds and healths and just the right encounters at just the right moments. And of all of the billions and trillions and quintillions of acts in the world that could result in a child, very, very few of them (mathematically) do. It's not an accident when it happens. Even though we have created a cultural verbage that calls it just that - an accident. Something with a very small statistical chance of occurrence occurs, something with all the hope and promise of life itself, and we have taught ourselves to say....oops.

And if that's not enough, if we aren't willing to accept right out that it's an accident, then we start making judgments on the quality of that hope, that promise. We start to look at the genetics of it. Is it perfect? Is it everything we dreamed of?

We run all kinds of tests and simulations and data to determine whether the miracle we're carrying is blessed or not. Read that again - we want to know if this veritable miracle is blessed

If we find something that doesn't look blessed - a genetic defect, an imperfect formation, a health problem, or the like - then we say that it is mercy to abort the miracle. We say it's better to just end it now than to let the promise of life be at all lesser than our vision of it. Never mind the fact that this life is the one that's happening against all odds already. This union of sperm and egg has already made it further than innumerable others. This child has already fought for the chance to fulfill its hope. Yet, we have created a story that says this child can't possibly have hope at all. Just because it doesn't look like our preconceived notion of it. 

Life, though it surrounds us, is improbable. So much has to happen very specifically correct to take us from a hope and a promise to life abundant, life fulfilled. In every breath, so much potential for the next breath is wasted. It's just wasted. It doesn't come to anything. And then we finally get something that does, we finally get life that is starting to form, and we've created a cultural narrative where we do everything we can to kill it before it even lives. Like life just happens by chance, and that chance will come along some other time if we want it. 

That chance might, but this miracle won't. This life is never happening again, not like this. Not with everything that this life is going to bring into the world. We get one shot, just one shot, at this improbable hope. 

And it's already made it this far. 

How on earth do we live with ourselves when we say that's not enough?

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A Fragile Life

The fact that there are creatures in this world that are so hungry for nourishment that they'll snatch life before it's fully grown - and that we are often those creatures - ought to remind us of just how fragile life is.

We take it for granted, this life that we live. This life that is all around us. Every day, we open our eyes and see a million things that are alive - the grass, the trees, the birds, the neighbors, the bugs. There's so much around us that is living that we just assume it's the default, that everything was meant to be alive. 

Even if that's true, it doesn't come easy. Just think about the number of seeds in the average watermelon. Every one of them holds the promise of life, the genetic wiring for more watermelon. But it doesn't just happen. Most of the time, we pluck out the seeds and throw them in the trash (or see how far we can spit them), but our lawns and our landfills are not just teeming with watermelon plants. Millions, billions, trillions of seeds thrown away every year, and we're not overrun by wild watermelon. 

It brings us back to a little parable that Jesus told. He told it about faith, we gather, but the same is true about life. Life doesn't just grow because the seed is out there; it has to be nourished. 

Sometimes, it falls in a place that's not convenient, as when a bird picks it up and drops it in the middle of the flower bed. In a few weeks, maybe we start the see the vine grow, but nobody wants a watermelon in the middle of the petunias, so we weed it out like it's nothing but a nuisance. Sure, it might bear good fruit there, but it will mess up this beautiful thing we already have going. This is just not the place for watermelon. 

Sometimes, it falls in a place we don't even notice it, as when a seed falls somehow in the middle of the lawn. We don't even see it start growing there, don't even recognize it. We just mow right over it while we manicure the rest of the lawn, cutting it down again and again and again until it finally just gives up without us ever knowing how close we were to having fruit right in the thick of our yard. 

Sometimes, it falls in a place where there's no chance of nourishment. A watermelon seed on a sidewalk is just not going to sprout. Unless it can find itself a nice piece of fertile soil to nestle into, all its promise is just going to fizzle out. It will die, and no life will spring out of its death. It will just...cease to exist. 

Sometimes, you start out well, planting the seed and intending to grow it. But then, stuff just happens and you get away from it and you never seem to get back. It doesn't rain for a few days, and you realize you forgot to water it, and when you go back out, it's too late. Or the weeds start to grow up, and you figure it's probably still got a fighting chance, so you don't help - you don't take the weeds away - and that little seed has no room. 

And sometimes, as we started this story, you give that seed every single advantage that you can - nestling it in quality soil, watering it, feeding it, coaxing it to grow - and in the second you have your back turned, some rascally little squirrel comes and digs it up and eats it. Because he just couldn't wait for the actual fruit; the promise was enough.  

We take life for granted, since it seems to be all around us. This whole world is teeming with the life of God. As it should be. 

But every day, there are millions, billions, trillions of little seeds that...never grow into anything at all. For whatever reason. And this ought to remind us how fragile life truly is. 

Including our own. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020


I have a problem, and that problem is this:

The squirrels keep eating my garden before it can even grow.

Every morning when I let the dog out and go out to check on the garden, there are little holes dug all through it, and a lot of the seeds are missing.

This frustrates me, as you might imagine, but it also makes me think about things. God knew when He created the world that seeds held the power and the promise of new life; this was His plan for perpetuating things, for making sure the earth continues to grow and to be full and to multiply. And yet, he made these creatures that can't seem to stop themselves from digging into the earth and stealing that seed before it even becomes anything at all. While it's just a promise.

I want to talk to the squirrels, to tell them that if they would just have a little patience, that seed would be so much more. It would be a sprout, and then it would be a plant, and then it would bear fruit. If he could just delay his little squirrel gratification for a few short weeks, he could have a feast instead of a snack. He could have not just the promise of life, but life to its fullest (and trust me, the fruit is so much better than the seed).

Then I realized that somewhere along the way, we started snacking on seeds, too. We throw a handful of nuts or seeds into our mouths, and it's the same sort of thing - we eat these things when we're hungry but don't want to wait for a meal. Nobody sits down and has peanuts for dinner. Nobody makes breakfast out of sunflower seeds. They're a snack.

I don't know if we learned it from the squirrel or if that's just who we are, but here we are - snacking on seeds, scarfing down the promise because we have no patience to wait for the fruit.

You know where this is going, at least for now. There are some of us so starving for a chance to live that we'll jump at even the promise of life. Give us just a taste of something good, and we'll snatch it. Give us just a scent of it, and we'll dig up the whole earth to get to it. We don't have time to wait. We're too desperate. So we take it before its time, before God has had a chance to grow it and to mature it and to fulfill it.

And then a few hours later, we realize just how hungry we still are.

I don't know if, like the squirrel, this is just how we're made, or if we've done it to ourselves. I wrote a few weeks ago about how there are things that God desires for me to be that He just can't make me - things like 'patient.' And I don't know if, like the squirrel, I'm just too dumb to think about the promise of the seed or, like a human being, I'm just too hungry.

Did you know squirrels don't even remember where they buried their seeds? They spend all their time burying these seeds so that they have food for later, but when they dig them, they might be the seeds they buried or they might not. Their memories are terrible; it's their sense of smell that guides them to whatever's close at hand.

We're that way, too. We forget the abundant life that we had a day or two ago, or five or ten years ago. Give us a whiff of new life, and we latch onto it. Give us just the hint of a seed, just a taste of the promise, and we will tear things up just to get to it.

It boggles my mind. All this hope, all this promise, all this glory and goodness in the world, and God made creatures that eat...seeds. That are satisfied, at least for awhile, on what is unfulfilled and ultimately, unfulfilling, with all the possibility of a fantastic feast.

It frustrates me when it's the squirrel.

Too often, I don't even notice when it's me. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Love Your Brother

It's Memorial Day in America, a day we set aside to honor the sacrifices made by those who fought to preserve our way of life. And it's exactly the kind of day that we need right now, to remind us of what love is. 

We are caught in a culture war, with debates raging back and forth about what is good and what is necessary and how we're even supposed to live. We spent the past couple of months learning a lesson in what it takes to protect the vulnerable among us, but the truth is that it didn't take very long for us to forget the vulnerable and think we were just protecting ourselves. And then, when we thought we were just protecting ourselves, it didn't take much to convince us that we didn't need protecting at all. And now...well, now, look at us. 

We're living in a world that keeps trying to tell us what love looks like, keeps trying to tell us what we need to do for each other. We're angrily feuding over the idea of wearing a mask in public because 'my mask doesn't protect me; it protects you' and at the same time, we recognize that 'your mask doesn't protect you; it protects me.' And the conversation that we're really having, although no one wants to come out and say it, is that I shouldn't have to wear a mask because it doesn't protect me, but you absolutely should, in order to protect me. 

(Please know that from the beginning, I have been an advocate for those for whom masking is not neutral, for those for whom a mask presents a truly tremendous burden - for those with chronic medical conditions that make breathing already difficult, for those with anxiety issues or claustrophobia, for those with trauma in their past, for the neuroatypical among us who can't tolerate the feeling. I hear you. This post isn't really about masking vs. not masking.) 

If you didn't read the parenthesis, this post is not really about masking or not masking. I'm not taking a side here; all I'm doing is reflecting the arguments that we're having, and not just about masking. Eating out vs. not eating out. Going bowling vs. not going bowling. Whether we should be allowed to walk on public trails with one another or not. It's all the same argument, all the same fight. 

We are being told what we can do to help one another, to love one another, and our response is that we shouldn't be forced to love one another, but others should be forced to love us. 

And then, we have a day like today. Memorial Day. 

A day in which we remember those who didn't even know us, but loved us enough to die for us. Who never had to ask the question that we're asking, but answered them - definitively. Who ran right into the fire knowing they might never come out of it, just to protect us from the fire. They gave their lives loving us in ways that we too often don't even recognize as love. War is so far removed from most of our experience that we just can't fathom it. 

Which is, ironically, the gift they have given us - keeping war so far away from our messed up, crazy lives that we don't even understand the depth of their sacrifice. 

This pandemic has raised so many questions for us about what it means to love one another, and to love well. But today, this day, settles them all.

No one has greater love than this, that he lay down his life for others. - John 15:13

Friday, May 22, 2020


This morning, I woke up in the middle of a really cool dream. In it, I was walking through the local grocery store when "Fear No More" (by Building 429) came over the PA system as the next muzak song. I noticed the opening piano riff, and when I looked up, every face that I passed was singing the lyrics. Young and old, male and female, black and white, Eastern and Western, rich and poor, friend and stranger, even a few faces that I recognized as persons from my waking life who would not, who should not, even know the song. One lyric line at a time, I watched this song be sung by my community. It was a really cool way to wake up. 

The truth is that most of us are fear-weary right now. For two months, every headline has been fear. And when that fear doesn't seem to be working any more, they change the headlines and give us something else to be scared about. And none of it seems to be about what's actually happening right now, but most of it is about things that haven't happened yet that they swear are next. You can't think about today, they insist; you have to be worried about tomorrow. 

Last night, I was speaking with two dear friends, two women who I love dearly. One was struggling because she just doesn't see how we ever get out of this, how anything ever gets better in a world that seems to continue to predict it will only ever get worse. With the headlines and the restrictions and the precautions pressing in on her and always knowing there is one more thing, one more thing, one more thing to be scared of, she just can't see a way out. The other was concerned about a mutual friend who she says may never be unafraid again. This person has been so locked into fear by all of the goings-on in our world that she may never be psychologically able to go out of her house, go into a store, sit down at a restaurant ever again. 

And it's not just these two friends. Stories of this kind of fear, of these kinds of burdens of fear, are being shared all across the world. Actually, many of them are simply being felt and not shared. So let me pause for a moment and say this: it's perfectly okay for you to talk about this stuff. It's okay for you to share what you're actually feeling with someone who loves you. There is no shame in saying that the fearmongering of this world is getting to you. Whether you are someone who believes the fear is warranted or someone who believes it's not, the truth is that it is taking a toll on us.

We were not meant to live this way. 

Think about the words that God most often spoke to His people. Don't be afraid. Be not afraid. Fear not. Never fear; your Lord is here. Okay, maybe not that last one. But there are just a ton of places in Scripture where God told His people not to be afraid. And our current situation shows us exactly why fear is so devastating to life. 

The kind of fear that we're in right now doesn't give us the luxury of our present. None of us lives today right now. They keep pushing us into tomorrow, into the things that are going to happen, into higher numbers and greater fatalities and new mutations and strange restrictions and just a thousand things that we couldn't have fathomed three months ago. And when even one of these little things comes true - like in April when they said there might be a time where we are all wearing masks in public and now, in May, here we are - we can't help but live in an unpredictable future. We spend our entire lives wondering what's coming next. We can't settle into today; today isn't even real. What's real is tomorrow, and it's coming. 

It hasn't come yet, though, so we can't live there, either. There's no way to live into an unknown future. We cannot prepare for what we can't see coming. And the way that the talk about tomorrow changes every day, there's no use in even trying. (This has always been the way with 'science,' by the way. It's why one week, you see a study saying that drinking a glass of wine every night is good for you and a week or two later, it turns out that it will probably kill you.) So we can't live in the present because it's already changing into the future, and we can't live into the future because it's changing before it even gets here. 

And we certainly can't live in the past. Because every piece of information we're getting right now tells us that we're headed toward a "new normal" - that everything we've ever known is going to be gone or going to be so dramatically changed that we won't even recognize it. Whatever you've done for ten, twenty, sixty, eighty years is now not only obsolete, but a tremendous threat to your very life, so you might as well let go of it. 

All of a sudden, if you don't have a present and you don't have a future and you don't have a past...what on earth are you supposed to do? How, then, should you live? You can't. 

Which is precisely why so many of us, all around the world, are feeling paralyzed right now. Paralyzed and grief-stricken. Our lives have been sucked empty, and it's not by the virus; it's by the perpetual fear that seems to be driving the story right now. 

This is why fear is an enemy. This is why God says do not be afraid. We weren't meant to live like this because the truth is, we can't live like this. We're breathing, but so very, very few of us are living right now. At least, that's what I'm hearing from the persons I'm talking with. You probably are, too. And you may even be hearing it from the mirror. Again, hear me: It's okay to talk about it. 

But a dream like I had last night reminds me of the spirit of human beings. It reminds me of who we are. We know we aren't meant to live like this, and we're resilient. And I know it's not going to come easy for a lot of us, but I believe in my heart that the day is coming when our fear just...breaks. When we just come out of it and get our stories back. When we start to root ourselves in something again, stake a claim at least for our present. Probably our present first. And then our past, because there are going to be things we just aren't willing to let go of. And finally, for our future, because you can put all the nightmares in front of us that you want to, but human beings just do not stop dreaming. We do not stop hoping. We do not stop longing for all the goodness of God that He's promised us, that we know is real. 

And I think the day is coming when we start to sing together again. When one song comes off our lips. Young and old, black and white, male and female, Eastern and Western, rich and poor, friend and neighbor...the day is coming when our lives just erupt again like a Broadway musical, where right in the middle of the story, there's this song and dance and smiles in the street and we just seem to be choreographed in hope. I believe that day is coming. I believe it's coming so much that I just keep living it, waiting on one more person, one more person, one more person to join me. 

The day is coming when we fear no more. It is. 

If you're having trouble seeing that right now, that's okay. It is. If you need to talk about it, let's talk. I'm here. I have enough hope for the both of us, and I'm happy to share. As I've said from the very beginning, if I can be a beacon for you in this darkness (or in any darkness), let me know. If you're afraid today, I can understand that.  

Thursday, May 21, 2020

How to Be a Friend

If we choose our friends because they inspire, encourage, and affirm us and make us better versions of ourselves, and if those very same relationships live under the constant threat of shame as we realize that we are not the better persons we want to be, then the next question we have to ask is, how can we be good friends to those who have chosen us and who live under the constant threat of shame when we are near? 

Oh, you thought this was going to be a nice, easy series that just makes you more thankful for the friends that you have? Sorry. No dice. 

Because as important as your friends are to making you better, you are important to making them better. They have chosen you because something about you inspires, encourages, and affirms them. It's one of those things that's easy to lose track of when we're on the receiving end of praise about how wonderful we are. 

But what really makes us wonderful friends?

First, be yourself. Yes, really. Be fantastically, fully, wonderfully who you are with all of your quirky little habits and your silly little jokes and your deep, burning passions. Be exactly the person you were made to be, while growing into the person that you're still becoming. Be honest about yourself. Be authentic to your spirit. Be real about your God. Just. Be. You. 

You are a friend to those who have chosen you because of who you are. Because something about who you are makes them better. It gives them permission to be better. It sets an example for them of how to be better. The absolute best thing you can do for someone who has chosen you to be their friend is to be the person they chose when they chose you. Be the things that they saw in you (provided that's who you really are). That's what they need in their life. If it wasn't, they would have chosen someone else. 

Second, understand how this shame thing works because it's going to require your grace. These persons that have chosen you because you make them better also feel their own insecurity when they are around you. They look at you and see everything they want to be themselves, but they recognize all the ways in which they are not yet that person that they want to be. It's going to be tempting to them to run occasionally and jump into a hedge just to get away from the pressure for awhile. 

Jump into the hedge with them. Run away with them. Doggedly follow them and remind them of how beautiful they are. Be gracious with them, as the Lord has been gracious with you. They want to see themselves reflected in you - reflect the best of them so that they can see it. Actively affirm, encourage, and inspire them. Find ways to tell them what you see in them. Find ways to help them see it in themselves. 

Your love, as a friend, is going to be the thing that helps them through shame. Don't ever forget that. 

And finally, although I mentioned it briefly above, keep becoming. They've chosen you as their friend for who you are, but you are also a dynamic human being. And when you continue to grow, you give others permission to continue to grow. They may think they want you to be the same forever, but the truth is that once they see who you're becoming, it adds a whole new level to the relationship. For both of you. So never stop growing, never stop becoming. Never stop pushing yourself and surrounding yourself with friends who make you better. Because the moment you stop becoming better yourself, you stop inspiring, encouraging, and affirming others to be better, too.

Want to be a good friend? Be yourself; be gracious; keep becoming. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


Yesterday's post about how we choose our friends - by creating space in our lives for those who make us better - really struck a chord with a lot of you. But as I hinted in that post, there is a dark side to our closest relationships that we cannot ignore.

It is true that we choose our friends based on what they inspire, encourage, and elicit in us, based on their ability to make us a better version of ourselves. We like these persons not as much for who they are, but for how who they are allows us to like ourselves.

The dark side to this is that these very persons who inspire, encourage, and affirm us are also the very persons around whom we are prone to feel the most shame.

These are the persons who offer us the best of all things in our lives. That's why we've chosen them as friends. They remind us of who we want to be and give us permission, just by existing, to go after it and become all the things we want to be. They let us seek joy and freedom and love and all of the most beautiful things we desire for ourselves. And yet, they often also send us running toward shame.

It's because in the very same breath that we see in the mirror of our relationships all that we desire to be, we also see all that we are not yet. We see all the ways that we are still falling short. We see all the things that keep us from being who our friends inspire, encourage, and affirm us to be. And we can't help ourselves. We look at our friends, and we think, "Man, I love you because you make me want to love me...but I just don't love me. I'm not who I want to be yet."

We look at our fun friends, the ones who are supposed to encourage us to be fun, and we don't think we are as fun as they are. We look at our self-sacrificial friends, the ones who are supposed to inspire us to serve selflessly, and we realize we have a long way to go. We look at our devout friends and our dusty Bibles, and we aren't sure how we're supposed to look them in the eye. In our friends who make us better, it is far too easy for us to see the worst in ourselves. And that's the rub.

That's why Adam and Eve went diving for the bushes after they ate the fruit. They saw in each other the reflection of the ways in which they had failed to be the 'better' that they promised each other, and they couldn't bear to be found out. Adam was the original creation, perfect as he was, and better still with Eve, but when she offered him the fruit, he failed to be the standard-bearer. He failed to be the mark by which man was set. He followed her and gave up who he was, when he was supposed to be the one helping her know who she was. And Eve? She was Adam's helpmeet. Yet she led him straight into sin. She fed him, but it was not good food. When they looked into each other's eyes, they knew they weren't better; they were lesser.

They were ashamed.

And that's the kind of wrestling that we all end up doing with the relationships that we have in our lives. We crave them because they call us to bigger and better things, to the best version of ourselves, to the fullness of who God has created us to be. As iron sharpens iron...right? But at the same time, when we are faced with the fullness of our lives as we long for them, we come face to face with our emptiness. Just as we see all that we want to be, we recognize all that we are not yet. Just as we affirm what our souls desire, we grieve what we have failed to embrace so far.

And that's where our friends come in.

Because that's the point where they have to love us away from our shame and make those better things the bigger things. That's where they have to reach out and encourage, inspire, and affirm us for real. That's where they get the chance to remind us why we love them in the first place. Not just because we see in them something we long for in ourselves, but because they love us, too. Because they don't just inspire us, encourage us, and affirm us by being who they are, but because they believe in who we are just as much as we want to believe it. Our friends are our friends not just because they make us better, but because they make us better.

And hopefully, we make them better, too. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


Think about your friends for a minute. Think about those persons you choose to hang around with, the ones you invite to your bonfires, the ones you exchange messages with all day. You got 'em? Okay. Here's the question:

Why are these your friends?

It seems like a strange question. They are our friends because our lives crossed paths at some meaningful point, and we latched onto them as fellow travelers in our journeys. They are our friends because we share some common interest somewhere, something that we like to do together. They are our friends because they run on the same circuits that we do and we can't get away from them, so might as well get close with them. We have all kinds of verbage to talk about our friends, how we came to know them, why we came together in the way that we did.

Ask us about our friends and why we like them, and we will tell you something about them. Oh, I just love her laugh. She is always having so much fun and really knows how to just enjoy life. Oh, he's got a great heart for God and a deep passion for helping others. She loves studying the Bible and always seems to learn something from it. He likes dogs just as much as I do. And on and on and on the list goes, always saying something about who our friends are.

Now, here's the spoiler: you don't have a single friend that you like because of who they are. Not really.

All these things that we say about our friends are part of the reason we like them, part of the reason we are friends with them. But the deeper truth is that we are friends with these persons because of who they enable us to be. We are friends with them because they affirm, encourage, or elicit something in us that we want to be, something that we want to like about ourselves.

That fun friend? We want to be fun like her. We want to live the kind of life she lives. Being friends with her gives us permission to laugh just as loudly, to have fun, to kick back and just enjoy things. That devoted friend? He encourages us to stay committed in our own faith. He affirms for us the practice of sacrifice and service. That friend who reads the Bible and actually understands it? She reminds us that God is speaking to us, too. That there's always a good word out there if we're willing to invest in it. That friend who loves dogs? He makes us feel not so weird about loving them ourselves. If we like him and he loves dogs, then others can like us while we love dogs.

It's simple. We choose our friends not for who they are, but for who they encourage and affirm us to be. We like them not because they are likable, but because they help us to like ourselves. They make us more of who we desire to be. We are naturally drawn to them because they make us better; they invite us (and challenge) us to be the best version of ourselves.

Before you think this all sounds self-centered, relax. It is, but it's not. And it has a dark side (we'll get to that tomorrow). It's self-centered because we choose our friends essentially from a mirror, but it's not self-centered because there's something fundamentally good about it.

Remember in the beginning that Adam was alone. He was perfect. He was sinless. He was righteous. But he was alone, and God said outright, "It is not good for man to be alone." Alone, we just are who we are. We are whoever we decide to be in a given moment. There's no standard, no guide, no affirmation, no encouragement, no rebuke. There's nothing to hold us to ourselves.

Together, though, we are accountable. Adam is no longer Adam just because he is Adam; now, he is Adam because Eve needs him to be. Eve has an expectation of who Adam is, and Adam sees himself through Eve's eyes. She encourages, affirms, and elicits from Adam the best version of himself. He is the man he wants to be because he sees that man reflected in Eve, and she makes him better. (He makes her better, too.)

God made us this way. It's why He made more than one human being, right from the very beginning. It's about accountability. It's about encouragement. It's about affirmation. It's about seeing in you who I want to be, and just seeing that gives me permission to become it. If I want to be 'fun' and you are 'fun' and you see me as 'fun' and you give me permission to be 'fun,' then I will be more fun when I am with you. If I want to be more self-sacrificial and you are self-sacrificial and you see me as self-sacrificial and you encourage me to be more self-sacrificial, then I will be more self-sacrificial when I am with you.

And I will love you for it.

And we will be friends.

Yes, because I love who you are. Absolutely. But on a deeper level, because I love who you inspire and enable me to be. You make me better. That's why you're my friend. (And I hope I make you better, too. I hope that's why I'm your friend.)

Like I said, there's an odd dark side to all of this, but you have to understand the foundations of friendship before we go there. So take a day to let this sink in, this 'better together' and 'no good to be alone' that God has woven into us, and we'll flip it a little tomorrow and look at why this is also so troubling. 

Monday, May 18, 2020


Prayer is a funny thing. Well, not really funny, but you know what I mean.

Most of our prayer centers around things that we hope for, changes that we want God to make in our lives. We pray for relationships, for careers, for finances, for stability, for family, for love, for blessing. Sometimes, we pray just to thank God, either for answering us or for protecting us, for providing for us. For taking away the anxiety of having to live in a broken world, at least for a little bit.

As I've reflected on prayer recently, I've wondered: are you still praying?

The pandemic has brought life around the world to a grinding halt. And that means that many of the things that we most often pray for no longer seem possible, at least right now. Businesses are closed, and there's more unemployment than we know what to do with, so it doesn't seem likely that you're going to get that chance to move into a different job. Nobody's hiring. Not yet, anyway. Medical care - even life-changing medical care - is being put on hold in a lot of places. I've seen office visits, simple procedures, organ transplant surgeries, and promising cancer therapies suspended (all in the name of health, mind you, as if that makes sense), so there doesn't seem to be much chance for God to heal you. Not through the doctor's hands, anyway. We're all six feet apart and in many cases, tucked into our own homes, so that relationship that you've been trying to repair is really feeling the distance right now. It doesn't seem likely that God is going to reconcile anyone right now. Or if you're single, how can you possibly meet someone in the middle of a pandemic?

It just doesn't seem that life lends itself right now to a lot of change, and yet, change is what we most often pray for. So are you still praying?

And I hate to say it, but the other biggest category of our prayer - thankfulness - also seems like it's on the downfall. Depression is setting in in a lot of places. Despair, even. We're isolated. We're fearful. We're confused. We're frustrated. We're anxious. We're weary. We are worried. We think about our families, about whether they're doing okay right now. We think about the loved ones we cannot see, even through technology. We're thinking about parents and grandparents in nursing homes and babies in nurseries in their own homes who are going without our faces. We're watching our bank accounts take a hit from missing paychecks and wondering how we're going to pay the next set of bills. We're feeling the effects of our own illnesses, even our non-Covid ones, and wondering if we'll ever feel better. We're dealing with severe weather and car trouble and dental emergencies, and by 'dealing with,' I really mean bearing through because there's not a lot of help for any of these things, it seems. And it's hard if you're not really looking to be thankful for much. At least, not on the surface. And yet, we know to pray in our thankfulness.

So are you still praying?

It's times like these that reveal to us what we really believe about God. It's time like these that show us how we really think. We are a people of prayer when we believe that God can and will help us, that God is near and that He is good. But what about times like these, when it doesn't seem things can even change at all and the questions seem to outnumber the blessings? Are we still a people of prayer? Are you still a person of prayer?

See, that's the thing about prayer. It's not really about the answers. We think it is, but we're wrong about that. Prayer is about the relationship that we are building with the God who loves us. The God we claim to love. It's just talking with our Father, telling Him about our day. And here we are, tucked away in our houses, craving the kind of contact that prayer offers us, the chance to just...share our day with someone again. Laugh over dinner. Cry together. Tell stories. And we have at our fingertips the opportunity for just that, yet I fear that many have stopped taking it because we believe that what we're looking for in prayer just isn't possible right now.

Really? God isn't possible right now?

Have you met Him?

Our God is the God of the impossible. He is present even when He seems far away. He is living and active in a world that seems dead. He is comfort in the midst of a storm and refuge in a raging sea. He is listening, and He is ready to speak. He loves you, and He longs to hear from you, and social distancing doesn't apply.

So are you still praying?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Photo Ops

A few days ago, the Blue Angels flew over my house. I didn't think they'd be here, from looking at the flight plan online, and to be honest, had forgotten about even the possibility of it. Until I heard the roar and felt the house start to shake a little. And then, I ran outside and stood on the porch and watched as six of these incredible airplanes, the elite of the elite, buzzed past the house.

Then, I went back on social media and saw all of the pictures everyone was posting of the flyover. It was then that I realized I had forgotten to take pictures of my own. In fact, I hadn't even grabbed my phone when I ran out the door. I had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity right at my fingertips, and I missed it. 

Or did I?

I often fail or forget to take pictures. Even pictures that I sometimes want to take. I just get so wrapped up in what is happening right in front of me, and I forget to put a lens between us. It's tough sometimes because we live in such a visual world. When I'm telling this story later and trying to describe it, it's not uncommon to hear something like, That sounds cool. I wish you had pictures.

A picture is worth a thousand words. It shows very quickly what takes much longer to explain. It creates an invitation into a place. I get all that.

But what a picture never does, what it can't do, is capture an experience. I stood on my porch that day and saw everything - a full view of the sky, with my neighbors' houses in my peripheral vision. I felt the wind as it blew through the porch and hit my face. I felt the rumble of the engines as they broke through the air above me. Those are the kinds of things that a picture can't capture. And the truth is - those are the kinds of things the moment was about.

I have pictures of a trip to Niagara Falls. Somewhere. In a box, probably. But if you ask me about that trip, I don't need those pictures to remember. I can take myself back there and put myself in that place all over again. Feel the mist of the water crash against the boat as we sailed gently toward the middle of the falls. See the green on my dad's face from the lighting of the tunnels on the Canadian side that took us right behind where the waters were rushing down. I can look to the right and still see the whirlpools as the water flowed away from the horseshoe. Ask me, and I can see the moss on the rocks. It's all there in full color, in full glory. And I know that if I had spent too much of my time taking pictures, then every one of my memories of that place would have a frame around it. My view would be limited. My experience, muted. Because I would have had a lens between us.

We spend so much of our time trying to capture our lives or trying to share them, turning them into posts for likes and shares and hearts and whatever else social media uses to validate our existence. But we don't, any more, take much of our time turning our lives into memories. We spend so much of our time capturing them and so little of our time experiencing them. They show up in our timeline, and I swear to you that sometimes, I see pictures from years ago, and the only thing I can remember about it is...taking that picture. Oh yeah, I remember taking that picture.

But do I remember what happened that day?

When I ran out on my porch that day, I wasn't thinking about how cool it would be to get a great shot of this. I was thinking about how cool it was just to see it. So I saw it. And now, I have that moment forever, even if I can never click 'print' on that memory.

We have to spend more of our lives just living them. We do. We have to be present to what's happening in the places where we are. We have to take the lenses out from in front of our faces and take the frames off our experiences and see them with eyes wide open, with the fullest of vision for what's going on. Maybe it makes a bad photo to have my neighbors' houses in the periphery, but it makes an incredible experience. Because I can say, without a doubt, I was here when that happened. I was right here, right in this place where I live. Living. 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Rooted in Story

Yesterday, we finally unwrapped a little bit about who Hammedatha from Agag was and how that adds depth and meaning to the story of Haman, where it is nothing more than a parenthetical reference. But we saw how God was exposing something about the heart and character of Haman by tying it into this story, rather than by just telling us in plain terms what He wanted us to know about Haman. After all, He could have just written, "Haman is a troublemaker who is pretty sure he's untouchable."

But isn't it cool that God roots all these little details in story? Man, that's just like Him.

We don't like that. Not a lot of the time. We like to think of ourselves as recipes. You take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, another measure of this other thing, and you knit them all together in a womb and nine months later...bam! You have us. We'd like to be able to quantify and qualify ourselves and put it all down on paper. We'd like to have it in list form, where we could point to a certain quality and say, there it is. Right there. I'm 42%...whatever it is.

In fact, most of us bristle at the idea that we are in any way shaped by the experiences that we've had or the relationships we've been a part of or the time and place in which we happen to live. We want to believe that we are who we are, and that we would continue to be exactly the same thing no matter what context you put us into. We want to believe that we are writing our own story, not that our stories are writing us.

But the truth is that it's both. Our stories shape us. They both inspire and relate all of the little things that add depth and meaning to our lives, to our own character. We are shaped by the lives that we've lived, by the persons that we've lived them with, by the cultures in which we live. And there are a lot of things you could say about us that you could just outright say, but when you write them in as details of our story, it adds a whole different layer to it.

We are just not recipes. We're not. Human beings are not things that can be cooked up in a lab. You can't lock yourself in a closet with a bunch of ingredients and come up with anything that is remotely like you are. You're just more complicated than that, and the heart of a man is not a science.

It's an art.

We are beings like brushstrokes on a canvas. In some places, wide; in others, narrow. Some marks are heavy with the freshness of new paint; others trail off as the paint starts to be used up. Some streaks are bold, made with a confident and convicted hand; others fade with the lightest of touches. The colors of our lives change as our encounters and adventures and experiences change; we are not simply flesh-colored forever. We become this mix of vibrant and dull and bold and muted and splashy and exacted and everything in between. We are canvases on which our stories, and the story of God, are unfolding all the time, and it is the richness of the interplay of the colors that reveals who we are. That add that depth and meaning that we are all looking for.

And that means, among other things, that we ought to boldly live into our stories. That we ought to keep working toward writing the stories we want, sure, but that we should never lose sight of the ways that our stories are writing us. We should always be in tune with the way that God's brush is moving on our canvas. And that we should never be ashamed of that.

Because there are a lot of things you could say about any of us, and they might even be true. But tell it in our stories, and it says even more than we could have imagined. Tell it in God's story, and it's greater still.

Haman was a troublemaker who was convinced of his own invincibility. But he was also the son of Hammedatha, from Agag.

Who are you?

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


I hope by now you're dying to know the answer to the question, Who was Hammedatha? What does Agag have to do with anything? Well, here we are. I can't possibly just pose a tantalizing question about a detail that promises depth and fullness and then just leave it hanging. Especially when it's the opportunity to dive into the Scriptures even further and tease out something we might not understand if we never put the time into it.

So let's start with Agag, since that's a little easier to track down than just one man.

Agag was the name of a king of one of the enemies of Israel. There appear to be at least two kings named Agag. The first comes up in Numbers 24, where he is pretty much the gold standard of kings. Israel is told that their eventual king will be even better than Agag, and it seems like that is meant to be a compliment, so the Agag of Numbers 24 must be a pretty spectacular king.

It's the second Agag who might be more important to the current discussion, however. He shows up in opposition to Saul in 1 Samuel 15. Agag is the king of the Amalekites, and Saul is told in no uncertain terms to destroy them all. Instead, he takes Agag captive and calls it faith. Samuel, the prophet, shows up and asks Saul what on earth he's doing taking the king captive instead of claiming him (executing him) for the Lord, and while Saul is stammering and stuttering about his plan, Samuel executes God's plan and runs a sword through King Agag.

Now, you might be saying - wait a minute. You're talking about Agag as a person, and the reference in Esther says that Haman is from Agag. Doesn't that make it a place? It does seem that way. And in fact, many translations say that Haman was "an Agagite." But here's what we also know from the Scriptures - it was extremely common for prominent individuals (kings and leaders) to rename cities or even entire regions after themselves. For example, when Dan rebuilds the cities in their territory, they name the most prominent city "Dan." Given that Agag was king of a people known as the Amalekites, it's entirely likely that he (or they) renamed the region after himself and the remnant of a people once known as the Amalekites, totally slaughtered by Saul and his men, become the Agagites. This kind of thing happened all the time back then, and it's the best evidence that we have to go on.

This makes Haman a descendant of a king who was almost spared, then killed. A king who was sure he'd passed the point of his own death, only to be run through by a sword. It doesn't take a whole lot of mental gymnastics to see how Haman himself is playing out this story again in the Esther narrative. He is a man confident in his own ability and position, a man certain that he's untouchable, and then he's hung on his own pole in his front yard. Seems fitting.

Now that we've got that, who is Hammedatha? Haman's father is named twice in Esther 3 alone (and again later in the text), so there's got to be something there that is important.

The truth is that we don't know a lot about Hammedatha. It's easy to speculate that this is a name that the Israelites must have known, that he was a man of some renown and that this name meant something to those who would have heard the story. In fact, I posited just that when I introduced this question on Monday. The truth, however, is just a tad bit different.

We don't know who Hammedatha is. There is no historical record that we have access to that tells us there was a terrifying ogre named Hammedatha that troubled the land. No leader by that name. No menace by that name. We aren't finding stories about Hammedatha like we would about Alexander the Great or Atila the Hun. There's no saga about Hammedatha the Agagite. But remember that a name itself said a lot about a person in Old Testament times. Isaac meant "he laughs;" Jacob meant "heel." Men were named after meaningful ideas, often after dominant personality traits or distinguishing features. And Hammedatha, the word itself, means something.

It means, "he who troubles the law."

In other words, the Esther narrative is telling us that Haman is a troublemaker by blood. It's part of his DNA.

So we put this together with what we know of Agag, and all of a sudden, we have a known troublemaker who thinks himself untouchable and past the point of his own condemnation. That's who Haman is. You might be able to gather that yourself just by reading the Esther narrative, but God wants to make it known that it's not just about the way Haman acts - this is who he is, through and through. He probably could have just said that, that Haman is a troublemaker with an arrogance issue, but instead, He roots it in Haman's story itself. The way God always does.

There you have it. From a parenthetical reference we shouldn't ignore to a story that adds something deeper, richer, fuller to what we even knew of it. Haman (the son of Hammedatha from Agag). 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Parenthetical Reference

If we understand that there are stories we're hearing about but not being told, such as the story of Hammedatha from Agag in Esther, then this should cause us to reflect more faithfully on two aspects of our own story, two little details that will add tremendous meaning and depth to the stories that we are living.

First, we ought to recognize that our own stories are full of parenthetical references. Every day, we brush up against the stories of others, and who those persons are and what their stories are unfolding influences our own.

That means that we ought to be on the lookout for the little details of those other stories that are changing and shaping the way that others read our story. These can either be good or bad, depending on what is going on. For example, it may be that a parenthetical reference on one person with whom we come into contact clues others into the fact that this person is not healthy for us. This may be someone who holds the power to wreck our story in some way, even if we don't see it. The parenthetical reference may spark a recognition that this person is selfish or devious or destructive in some way; it may reveal them as toxic to what we are trying to build, as it seems to do in Hammedatha's case.

On the other hand, the parenthesis may reveal more about who we are, something good and honorable about our character. For example, we may say something like, "Oh, today, I helped my friend Betty plant a few flowers in front of her house." But put a parenthetical reference around Betty that reveals that she is a widow or a cancer patient or a single mother, and that little detail deepens the story of our own life. Now, we are not just a person who cares for our friends. Rather, we are a person who cares for widows or cancer patients or single mothers. That broadens our story in a meaningful way, even if to us, Betty is simply our friend, without all of those other labels.

Think of the persons in Jesus's story. Almost all of them had parenthetical references around them. The woman with the perfume was a woman of ill-repute. Matthew was a tax collector. Bartemaeus was a blind man. Simon was self-righteous. Over and over and over again, we're given details about these men and women that shouldn't matter in regards to how we see them, but they certainly shape the way we see Jesus. Imagine the way His story changes if everyone is just a man or a woman without a story, if we aren't told who these persons are that He loves so deeply.

The same is true of our stories. They are filled with all of these details about the persons that we come in contact with, details that often don't matter to us and shouldn't matter to most, but still, they shape the way that our own story is read, and they do say something about who we are.

The second way that this idea of parenthetical references should shape our own reflection on our stories is that it should cause us to consider our own parenthesis in the stories of others. In the same way that our stories are shaped by those we encounter, we shape the stories of those who encounter us.

Which means that our parenthesis reveals much the same thing. It reveals whether we are a potential villain in someone's story, a threat to them in some way or toxic, even in a way we aren't aware of or don't understand. Or we can reveal the best of someone else by authentically embracing our own story and who we are.

Most of us don't want to be the single friend. We don't want to be the widow or the widower. We don't want to be the person in poverty or in prison or in sickness or in need. We resent the ways these sorts of labels mark us. We don't want to be that person. But the truth remains that we are who we are, who God has made us, living the story He's given us to live. And if we accept that things that shouldn't matter about others can, in fact, shape the way our own story is heard in positive ways, then we must also accept that the things that shouldn't matter about us can, in fact, shape the way the stories of those who love us are heard.

Would you want your story, your real story, left out of Jesus's narrative? Then why do you want it left out of your neighbor's? Or your brother's? Or your friend's? Seeing life and love situated firmly in story changes the way the world understands life and love, so we have to simply be honest about who we are and what we're going through.

Haman was the son of Hammedatha from Agag. What does that even mean? You are the friend of so-and-so. Does that matter? That neighbor over there loves you. Does that change things? You bet it does. Jesus was a friend of sinners. Can you imagine if His story didn't include the details of those He loved so well?

Stories are full of other stories, woven together into one grand narrative. They are never read on their own, but are footnoted and starred and subtexted with a bunch of information that just fits better in parenthesis.

Who are the parenthetical references in your story? And what parenthetical references are you living in someone else's? 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Stories Untold

Do you ever wonder about the stories you aren't told? 

We live in a world of 15-second sound bytes and edited video clips and headlines that only tell you what they want you to know, and it's tempting to just latch onto those things and let them be the story. But there's something in us that knows that a story is always bigger than the little bit we see of it. Even in movies and on television, we join our characters in the middle of a scene they want to share, but it doesn't give us the depth of knowing everything about them or even everything about the situation. 

I think about this rather often when it comes to the news (and that's generally good practice, as a few months later, we always seem to learn more than they wanted to tell us to begin with - more that changes the very heart of the story as we knew it). But sometimes, it shows up in the Bible, too. 

For example, who was Hammedatha? 

Your first reaction might reasonably be to ask...who? It's not a name that comes readily to us, even to those of us who study the Bible intensely. Because we are not told anything about him, it's easy to just read right by and not think a second thing of it. But the name meant something to the Jews in the story - or it means something to God - and that piques my curiosity. 

So who was Hammedatha? I don't know. We see his name twice, in the same chapter of the Bible - Esther 3. Now, if you were going to name the main players in the story of Esther, you're probably going to come up with four - Esther, Mordecai, Xerxes, and Haman. And it's through Haman that we come back to Hammedatha. 

Haman is the wicked servant of the king who issues the decree to kill all of the Jews in the kingdom. He's upset because he's basically named himself a god, but Mordecai the Jew won't bow down to him. So he comes up with a plan to get rid of all the Jews because he thinks this is going to be a cultural problem - none of these Jews are going to worship him the way he thinks he should be worshiped. 

When we are introduced to Haman at the beginning of Esther 3, a parenthetical note tells us that Haman is "the son of Hammedatha and was from Agag." And that seems like it's probably just a little bit of biographical information, possibly important but not too much to get sidetracked by. But just 10 verses later, in Esther 3:10, when Xerxes gives Haman the king's signet ring, we are told again that Haman is "the son of Hammedatha and was from Agag." Again, in parenthesis. 

Telling us twice in Haman's story who his father is, especially in such close proximity in the text, means that that means something to those who would have known this story. Hammedatha means something to them. Figuring out what that is will add depth to the story for the rest of us. 

The specifics of this story, perhaps we will look into later. For the purposes of today's encouragement, it's just one example of what it means to listen to the parts of the story that you aren't being told. We are being told about Haman's betrayal of the Jews, about how and why he came up with the plan that he came up with and how he got it authorized by the king. But there's another layer to the story that we aren't being told, a layer that is important enough that it's included, even though it is not elaborated. 

And this is the sort of thing that happens all the time, especially in an age of instant media. We're always getting little clips here and there, truncated headlines meant to draw us into one angle of the story. But if you listen to what's being said but not explained, you often find that there's more to the story than there seems. And figuring out what that is will add depth to the story and maybe even change everything. That's why you should always be asking what stories you aren't being told and go looking for them. They matter. 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Should We Zen?

So yesterday, we started to look at the question of whether an idea can be so redeemed, so removed from its roots in another religious idea, that it can become neutral for us, as Christians, to engage. Specifically, the idea we are looking at right now is "zen" - a Buddhist concept rooted in a meditation that empties oneself in order to connect with the universe through its simplest expressions, but a concept that has become culturalized and presented as "neutral" and "normal" for the average, everyday human being, Buddhist or not. 

And I think it's clear to say that like yoga, like feng shui, zen is not a concept we should be comfortable readily adopting for ourselves. Like these others, it simply cannot be separated from its roots, and the kind of meditation and connection that is advocated by zen, even "cultural" zen, is in direct opposition to the kind of meditation and connection that God desires from us and for us. 

But then, we are faced with this dilemma: what should we do about a culture that is pushing a blatantly religious idea in contrast to what we ourselves believe? What do we do about a local news station promoting "zen" to the masses? 

For years, the Christian response would have been loud protest. Angry letters. Viral rants. We would have wanted to make an example of them, call them out for their lack of transparency, for pushing a religious idea when the are so hands-off of Christian ideas. In other words, we'd make very loud fools of ourselves and reinforce the idea that Christianity is a religion that is against, well, everything. 

That is what would have been our go-to response, but it is, of course, misguided. Very misguided. 

A better Christian response is to make an example of ourselves. To discipline our own households into faithfulness. To teach our children why we don't zen - and what God has designed for us instead. To teach them why we don't do yoga in our own living rooms or why we don't feng shui. A better Christian response is to live our own transparency, quietly but firmly putting our feet down on faithful ground and making a stand for ourselves on these kinds of "neutral" claims our culture tries to make, then pivoting and showing how the Christian way is better. More fruitful. More beautiful. More fulfilling. 

In other words, we don't try to change the world by shutting it down. We change the world by showing it up. By demonstrating a living, active, dynamic Christian faith in a light so bright it puts these "normal," "common" things in shadows. We don't make fools of ourselves in shouting and protect, but rather, we make fools of ourselves in faithfulness and discipline. We live as fools for Christ, just as He always told us we should. 

At all times, however, we keep in mind our highest law, which is love. Love means, first, that we don't shout down the world, that we don't let ourselves become known as anti-everything. Jesus was pro-life and life abundant; He was for everyone. So should we be. Love means, second, that we make our own homes on solid ground, that we teach our families and make decisions for ourselves about why we don't zen (or yoga or feng shui or whatever). 

But love means, third, that we teach our families and make decisions for ourselves about when we will zen (or yoga or feng shui or whatever). Because while these are ideas that we should not adopt for ourselves because of the ways they are rooted in their own theologies that are contrary to our own, these are also ideas that sooner or later, we are going to encounter in relationship somewhere. A friend is going to invite us to yoga class. A teacher is going to call time-out for a little zen. A buddy is going to ask us to take a breather. A neighbor is going to comment on the majesty of the universe as she sees it in her rose garden. 

It is in these moments that these ideas draw us back into the wrestling that Peter and Paul and the early apostles have already done for us. Should we eat unclean foods or meat that has been offered to idols? And the answer is, love your neighbor. If eating that meat is loving your neighbor, then eat it. With a clean conscience. If not eating the meat is loving your neighbor, then don't eat it. With a clean conscience. Love cleans our conscience. We can do things in love that we would never do for ourselves, and we can be okay with that. (Within reason, of course. Within the bounds of real love and not simple affirmation or approval.) 

So that brings us back to our original question: what do we do with a culture that's pushing religious ideas contrary to our own? Do we just let the local news station broadcast "a moment of zen" without saying anything, without calling them out for it? 


Because our faith thrives on what we stand on, the Rock, and not on what we stand against. God never called us to be antagonistic to this world; He simply said not to be comfortable here. He never told us to tear this world down, but to build it up and put His love in it. And as we saw recently in this very space, our words would never be enough to change minds anyway. 

Only love can do that. 

Thursday, May 7, 2020


As Christians, we believe in the promise of redemption. Not only in the promise of it, but in the reality of it ongoing right now in front of us. If the only evidence we had for the restorative power of Christ was our own life, it would still be overwhelmingly enough. 

Where things start to get sticky is when we start talking about what we're willing to embrace of this world. On one hand, we know that everything can (and will) be claimed and redeemed by Christ. On the other hand, does that make all things good for His people? Or not even good...can we even call them neutral?

Paul faced this sort of dilemma, as did Peter. What do we eat? Can we eat only kosher foods? With whom do we fellowship? They were facing a lot of pressure from Jews and young Christians alike to figure out what the "rules" of this new faith were, how to keep it pure. The guidance they received from the Lord, as I've written about before, always pointed them to love of neighbor. Love is the highest law. So you can't let artificial categories about things God is going to redeem get in the way of a real, potentially redemptive, relationship you're forming with your neighbors, or even your brothers and sisters.

This is all well and good, but not all of the things we have to make decisions about are nestled into relationship. In our world, we're being asked to make decisions about ideas themselves, ideas that we might adopt for ourselves or apply for our own use. There's no one standing on the other side of them saying this is the line where our love lives; it's just us, trying to figure out how to interact with the world. 

Knowing God can redeem all things, how much do we engage with the unredeemed? Do we try to claim it for God? Can it ever be claimed so thoroughly here that its old connotations don't matter any more? 

I've been thinking about this for several weeks. It may seem silly, but here's why: one of the local news stations has been broadcasting commercial-sized (30-second?) series' of images of nature and beauty and laughter and so-called simple things in life. Which is great. But then, they call it "A Moment of Zen." 

That's a little stickier.

Zen is not a Christian idea. It's actually a religious idea that comes out of Buddhism. The idea of zen is getting you to connect with what is actually true, an 'ultimate reality,' by connecting more deeply with a transcending present reality, the kind of stuff that exists all around you that you're prone to take for granted or not even notice at all. In other words, focusing on a flower reminds you of the overarching oneness of all the universe. It's important also to notice that in times like this, Buddhism calls its followers to empty themselves. Christianity, on the other hand, always calls us to fullness. 

Now, our culture has so claimed the idea of zen as just beauty and goodness and simplicity that most wouldn't even notice this. It may seem cheesy, but most would not consider it to present any sort of theological issue. Like a decade or two ago when everyone started to decorate their homes with 'feng shui' - they didn't do it for worship, but just for a pleasing design. Or in the past decade or so as our culture has embraced yoga - again, not considering it an act of worship, but a physical exercise for the wellness of the body. 

The question is - when our culture has adopted these things so thoroughly, does it remove for us the theological implications of that thing? Can we have zen? Should we? Can we do yoga? Should we move our furniture around and put it in feng shui? We know that God can (and will) redeem all things, but will these things defile us if we adopt them for ourselves? 

Again, notice the difference between these ideas and the questions Paul and Peter and the early apostles were asking. There's no relationship here. Zen is a solitary practice. You can do yoga in your own living room. You're the only one who knows the feng shui of your house. It's not like you're putting a friendship on the line by wrestling with these ideas. So...should we take them for ourselves? Can we separate them from their roots in other religions? Can we separate them from their worship of other gods? 

We want to say yes. We really do. We want to believe that we're above temptation, that we are sophisticated enough to throw out the bath water and keep the baby. But the truth is, it's just not that easy. 

When we're confronted with something like a "moment of zen," most of us will use that opportunity to empty ourselves. We'll take a moment and try to think of nothing at all. To settle into just a little space to breathe. That's what zen is. And it's exactly the opposite of what God asks of us. The Christian act of meditation is about being poured into; it's the act of service that is pouring ourselves out. Zen turns that on its head, and the ease with which we buy into what zen is promising is downright scary. 

And then, the world tells us that it doesn't really matter. It's not really that big of a deal. It's actually healthy for us. Good for our mental well-being. Good for our soul. Ah, there's that word again - soul. The world will tell us that ideas that transform our worship away from what God has prescribed for it are good for our soul, and we will believe it because they said that word. Soul. God gave us a soul, so anything that's good for it must be good for us, right? Because culture has co-opted it, has Christ redeemed it? Is the idea clean enough from its worship of other gods that we can engage it without trouble? Can it be?

It's complicated. 

Should we have a moment of zen? Should we let our local broadcasters push a specifically religious idea? That actually raises an entirely new question, so we should probably look at that tomorrow. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020


Ah, Babylon. The greatest and most powerful nation on the face of the planet. No other nation has been able to stand up to her prowess, not even Israel. Babylon led the people of God away in chains, and that wasn't even her first conquest. Throw a dart at a map of the world in that time, and you're likely to hit some region of Babylon's vast and growing empire.

It's the kind of empire that has a lot to brag about. Clearly, Babylon is powerful. Clearly, they are great. Clearly, they are strategic and strong. There's not a lot that Babylon can't do. At least, nothing that she's found herself incapable of yet.

Enter Daniel.

Daniel is one of the four men of Israel that we're told comes into a small, but powerful group of Babylon's wise men. He becomes an advisor to the king himself. He pushes the envelope from the very start, demanding vegetables and water for himself instead of the kingdom's choicest foods, but God pours out His favor on Daniel and the young Jew quickly rises through the ranks.

There comes this moment when the king has a dream that he doesn't understand, and he begs his wise men to interpret the dream for him. But to make sure they are telling him the truth, he doesn't even tell them the contents of the dream. They have to figure that part out for themselves. Everyone cries out and says it's impossible, and the king orders to kill them all. Then, Daniel steps up and tells the king his dream and its interpretation, and here, David is called the wisest man in all the kingdom. The king lavishes good gifts on him. He is praised for his excellence, for being the best wise man there is.

Which means the most powerful, wise, strong, and favored man in the most powerful, wise, strong kingdom in all the one of their captives.

Think about that for a minute. Babylon is the greatest kingdom in the whole world, with the best of everything, but the best in Babylon and the greatest among them is...a Jew. It's Daniel.

This is important. It's important for all of us. Because we are strangers in a strange land, captives in a world that is not our home. We often wonder what it is that we can offer to a world that is already great and powerful, that is so drunk on itself that it can't even imagine being any greater than it already is. This world already thinks it is the best thing since sliced bread and all its men, just piddly little peons. Pawns on the chess board. Mere tokens.

But what Daniel shows us, what God reminds us through his story, is that even the greatest kingdom in all the world becomes greater with a man of God in it. No one is as strong as he thinks he is without the Lord.

That means you're not as piddly as you think. You're not as piddly as the world may try to make you feel. In fact, the world needs you. Because as great as it thinks it is, the greatest in its you, if you live faithfully. You give this world what it can never have on its own, what it doesn't even know it's missing.

Babylon's king was surrounded by wise men. He always thought they were enough. He always believed he had the best of them, that he'd created the best team. But in his moment of need, he found out how lacking he was. He found out the limitations of the men he'd put around him. And he discovered a greatness he'd never thought to tap into, in a captive man of God who brought the full force of Heaven with him.

That's powerful. And it's a call to all of us, to be the men and women of God He has called us to be. Because even the greatest kingdom in all the world is nothing compared to the God who makes us great. This world needs us.

Even if they don't know it yet. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Eight Billion Loves

Sometimes, when I tell stories of all the amazing opportunities that I've had in life and some of the coolest things I've done (there are a lot of them), others look at me like I must be schizophrenic or something. In a world that pressures its people to specialize - to become good at one thing and to invest their lives in one direction - how does someone even end up with such a diverse portfolio? How do you get so many crazy stories? 

I'll admit sometimes, it looks indecisive. Sometimes, it looks unstable. Sometimes, it looks like I just follow whatever current is going to carry me for awhile. Sometimes, it looks like I don't have any plan for my own life, no dreams, no desires, no goals. And some of that's probably fair. I never grew up dreaming of any one thing I wanted to be, so it's hard sometimes for me to settle into something. 

But the bigger truth is this: it kind of is one thing. It's love. 

Everywhere I've been in life, I've followed love there. Everything I've done has been an act of some kind of love. The funny thing about love is that it doesn't work the way this world says things ought to work. When you set your life on love as that one thing you want to excel at, you find that you all of a sudden become a million different things. Maybe as many as eight billion. 

Because love is funny that way; it's not its own thing. You can't separate love from its circumstances and cut it open in a lab and figure out what it is. Love always dwells in relationship, and that means it cannot be quantified or qualified without two engaged parties who are shaping what it is. 

Anyone who has kids understands this. 

I've got four kids in my life. Four amazing kids who are a steadfast part of my existence, and each one of them is different. Each one of them requires a different kind of love. One of them likes stupid jokes, so when we're together, we try to just get each other rolling. One of them likes to have the dog around, so we brush hands over the back of the dog's head and just talk about what life is like. One of them is really into science and math and weather, so we explore the universe together. One of them is currently in a toy train phase, so we might sit in the floor and build a train track together. 

The same is true with our adult friends. I have a friend who loves the Bible and is hungry to learn as much about it as she can, so I share with her the devotional magazines that have started coming in the mail. Another friend is through-and-through a dog person, so we swap stories of our furry loved ones. Another friend carries the same heavy weight of social injustice as I do, so we mourn together and brainstorm ways to help others. A neighbor likes working on stuff with his hands, so we both know where every tool in his garage is. 

Now, if you look at just the actions in any of these stories, you get that sense of whiplash that the world gets looking at someone who loves. I mean, who has a story that includes weather science and toy trains and welding and small engine repair and Bible study and benevolence? Can't you just make up your mind and do one thing? Can't you just step out and identify yourself and tell this world who you are by being something, anything, consistent? 

But I am. I am love. 

And I have always said, no matter what I'm doing, that if I have to learn something new to love someone better, then teach me. I'm in. 

This is the kind of life we ought to be living as Christians. This is the kind of crazy love God calls us to. A love that diversifies our portfolio. A love that doesn't stay in our own little box. A love that's built not just out of our own heart, but out of every unique relationship that we form with others. 

Paul said, I have become all things to all people so that I might win some of them. And that's it. That's the thing. We say that it's impractical, and it is. We say that it's impossible, and in some ways, it is. Too many who try to become all things end up becoming nothing at all because they let love sweep them away instead of grounding them. They lose the sense of who they are because they let others define them. 

That's not the kind of love we're talking about here. We're talking a love that lets others make you bigger. That lets others expand upon who you are. That lets other sharpen your love, not dull it. We're talking about a love so firmly grounded that it gives freely of itself without fear of becoming lost or becoming lesser. 

When you have that kind of love, your one thing turns out to be more than eight billion - one unique thing for as many human beings as are on this earth, as many other lives as you have opportunity to come into contact with. And for someone like me, I'd say it's even more than that...because there are a lot of dogs, too. 

Sometimes, I look at my life the way the world does. I've had a lot of crazy opportunities and blessed experiences that don't look like they fit together at all. It looks a little schizophrenic, if we're being honest - a little like I don't know what I want to do with my life. 

But I do. 

I want to love the way that Jesus loved. 

I want to love like the Man who stood in the Temple one day and broke bread on a mountain the next and walked on water the following Tuesday and touched lepers and washed feet and walked down a dirt road and fished in the sea and defended everyone but Himself. 

How about you? 

Monday, May 4, 2020

What God Cannot Do

God has made you who you are. He knit you together in your mother's womb and blessed you with all of the little quirks and strengths that make you the person He designed you to be.

Your gifts, your talents, your passions - these are all gifts from God. The intelligence that you have, the work ethic, the desire, the love, the creativity, the heart - all of it is Him. He wants you to be this way.

One of the ways that we often encourage one another is to point out all of these things that God has made you and to affirm them, to tell you what these things mean, what they are worth, how they can be used to change the world and to make your life meaningful. When someone wants to encourage you to pursue your passions, engage your gift, take a risk toward fulfillment, change the world, they often emphasize these things about who you are.

Yet some of us realize that there's something missing from this. There's something that goes unsaid, most often even unnoticed, that makes this not quite right.

Because some of us realize that maybe we are everything that God says we are, everything He's made us to be, all the things that others see in us...and we're still not where we want to be, still not where God wants us to be, still not living the fullness of the life that the world seems to want to promise us on the basis of our passions and talents and skills.

I was engaged in this very conversation just the other day. Someone was gracious to want to tell me about my intelligence, my humor, my passion, my talent, all the gifts that God has clearly put into my being and into my heart - gifts that are going to make me a tremendous blessing to the world in some way, in some shape, in some time. And I realized that when you hear this enough times, it's easy to start feeling entitled to it, like your life is just supposed to fall together because you're everything God made you to be.

To be honest with you, it's been frustrating. Because I've heard these kinds of affirmations for almost my whole life, and honestly, about the same things - the same passions and gifts and personality traits. These things are "going to take you far in this world;" they're going to enable me to "do great things." Spoiler alert: my life is currently nowhere near where all of these passions and gifts and heart should have taken me. I'm not where I want to be, not where I expected to be, although I count my blessings to be in God's hands anyway.

But as I wrestled with hearing these words again, I suddenly realized something. These words are true (that's not the realization, but it's important); they are absolutely true about me. These are the things that God has woven into my being; this is how He's created me. But the realization is this:

For everything God has made me, there are some things He can't. There are some things that I have to make myself.

This probably sends a jolt through your system. You've probably heard so often that God makes you everything that you are that you think it's silly, perhaps even sinful, to think that you have to make yourself anything. Wouldn't that be rejecting God's creation? Wouldn't that be trying to thwart your own design?

Not at all.

Because I realized that the things that God can't make me, He still wants me to be. It's just that I have to choose them.

For example, God can't make me humble. He can give me every opportunity to be humble (and every reason to be), but He cannot make my heart embrace humility. I have to choose to lower myself. I have to choose to sit at the lesser seat. I have to choose to bend my knee.

God can't make me patient. He can give me every opportunity to practice patience, but He can't make me do it. He can't make me wait. I have to choose to defer my satisfaction. I have to choose to wait for better things. I have to choose to not jump at the first opportunity, but to wait for the holy one.

The Lord can give me all the strength in the world to stand, but He cannot choose my posture. I have to do that.

Which means that my life doesn't just fall into place because of all that God has made me to be, because of all of the talents, gifts, and passions He's put in my heart. It takes something more to come to the place that God has for me. I have to choose it. And I choose it through choosing the things He desires for me that He could never just do for me. I have to develop all of those things that God wants me to be, but that I have to choose. (Thankfully, when I choose them, He is already alongside me, ready and willing to help.)

And so as I continue to wait for whatever opportunity it is that God is preparing for me, I can't just rest in knowing who He's created me to be; I have to invest in making myself who He's called me to be. I have to be working diligently on all those things that aren't naturally my gifts from God, those things I have to choose for myself.

It was then that I realized, this world is right. God has made me all of these things - smart, funny, talented, passionate, loving, and so much more - and these things are going to take me somewhere. But if I have to take this season and work on becoming those things He desires for me but can never force - if, in this season, I just work on humble and patient and disciplined - then that's okay, too. Because the life God has for me is never just going to fall in my lap.

And even if it were, I'd have to be sitting first. I'd have to have the right posture.

What gifts has God given you? And what gifts is He waiting for you to give yourself?