Monday, August 31, 2020

The Human Experience

There are two words that we need to hear more often and we need to be willing to share with others more often, and those two words are:

You're okay.

Seriously. We're living in a world that has turned everything into a label, and when you can label it, it's a pathology, and that's a terrible path to go down. Today's teenagers have a label for everything they experience, and it's taking them out of the human realm and putting them into some bizarre clinical existence where every breath they take has a name to it, a diagnosis. 

Recently, I had the chance to talk with a younger person for an extended length of time. In a relatively short conversation, I was given at least fifteen different labels/diagnoses that this young person had been given to define his/her experience in life. This person also spoke about a friend group and the number of labels/diagnoses that are attempting to cohere together as typical young persons and how they are navigating the difficult waters of even the most basic communication without stepping on anyone's "triggers."

Because no one should ever have to deal with anything in life that they aren't prepared to handle.

It would be different if we were talking about legitimate medical or psychological conditions that require intervention and management, but in most cases, what this young person was telling me about were the very common realities that we all share as human beings in a broken world. They are the same things that thousands of generations of us have wrestled with as young people, but back when we did it, they were normal; today, they are labeled and diagnosed and conveyed to be "abnormal" and "problematic."

One member of this friend group hasn't figured out who they are yet and has developed multiple personalities to attempt to deal with things. So of course, that person has dissociative identity disorder without any history of trauma to have developed. He/she is no longer just a teenager trying to define self like all the rest of us were. An inability to decide on things or to focus on tasks is automatically ADHD, rather than a normal part of growing through a discovery period in life. Someone who is insecure - and who among us isn't? - now carries a label of having a "social sensitivity." That can be diagnosed and coded and billed to insurance.

And these young persons are being trained to talk about themselves in this way, using all of these labels. They are in counseling or consulting online therapists to figure out not how to deal with the things they're wrestling with, but how to tell others how to interact with them to protect them from ever coming face-to-face with their own self. This young person actually told me that this friend group had a meeting where they all put their labels out on the table (they were not referred to as labels) so that they could be safe for one another and know how to interact and how not to interact.

The one thing that they apparently keep dancing around, however, is that they're all wrestling with exactly the same things. They may be handling things differently, but the questions they are asking are all the same questions. They want to know who they are. They want to know how they're supposed to act in the world. They wrestle with their own insecurities and the things they don't like about themselves while they are discovering the things they want more of in their lives. They are restless, as they should be - they are transitioning to a new phase of living. And if they would stop being so hyper-focused on telling each other how to dance around their particular issues, maybe they'd see that what they're dealing with doesn't need diagnosed. These are not pathologies.

They are simply human experiences. And by labeling everything and teaching our young people to shield themselves from the hard work of engaging these things, we are stripping them of every opportunity for growth and the meaningfulness that comes out of wrestling with our own humanity.

Listen, I am not saying that the diagnosable doesn't happen in young people. I am not saying that there are not real issues that some of our young people are wrestling with that are simply bigger than they are and that require the intervention of trained professionals and real help. What I am saying is that this generation, unlike any other, has...stopped wrestling at all. They are just building walls of labels around themselves so that they don't have to.

The young person I was speaking with? This young person actually looked me right in the eye and said, "I probably sound like what you call a 'snowflake,' but it's only because I have a diagnosed condition that makes me a snowflake."

No, precious child. You have a world that is failing you. You have a world that is doing its best to keep you small, to tuck you away into yourself and make you so neurotic about who you uniquely are and who you might become that you may, sadly, never understand how beautiful you are, how smart and talented and gifted and loved. Genuinely loved. You may never discover the depth of God's wisdom knitted into your very being from the very first cell of you out of the vastness of His divine imagination because this world has convinced you that everything about you needs a warning around it.

What we really need in this world, especially when it comes to our young people, is to start looking at one another and reminding ourselves that...we're okay. You're okay. What you have is not some broken, messed-up, defunct kind of life but a beautiful opportunity to live the fullness of the human experience. You just...have to be willing to embrace it first.

And there's something else all these labels are doing to our young people. To our old people, even. To every one of us. Something that is extremely dangerous and heartbreaking. More on that tomorrow. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Tempered with Grace

So we finally have our answer to the question, what does the Bible say? But that question is never complete in and of itself. The Bible leads us to truth, but truth alone is never enough to navigate this broken world. We also need grace. And that's why if you ask me a question about the Bible, I will tell you what the truth is...but I will also tell you what grace is.

Grace is that thing that happens where truth meets flesh, where God's ideals are pressed against our human condition and come out in such a way that His Word is not a weapon; it's a balm. As it should be.

Because the truth is that yes, there is a way that God desires for us to live. But there's also a way that we do live. There are things about this world that are not as they should be, and we are one of those things...navigating a lot of other of those things. So we can never settle for just what the black and white text on some page, even some inspired page, says; we have to always keep pushing until we get to "how God's heart beats."

His heart beats for you, and His love is wild. There is always more to the story than truth will ever tell us. Just talk about the Cross without talking about the passion - you can't do it. You can't talk about a historical Jesus and have Him matter at all if you don't talk about His love for us. You can say all day that He existed, that He preached, that He died, whatever, but if you don't talk about His tender mercy, then you miss something important.

So when we're looking at the Bible to figure out what it "says," especially when we're looking for guidance on issues like sin, we have to remember that the Bible may say this action is sin, but the Bible also says, and God will never let us forget, that the one committing that action is human.

Love the sinner, no matter what you understand about the sin.

Man, that's hard for us to do. We want to know what the Bible says so we can just put stuff in the categories of right and wrong, yes or no. But human beings can't be put into categories like that, and we have to stop trying. We have to always read the Bible to discover how to marry these ideas, not how to emphasize one of them. Every study that we undertake should lead us to be able to say, "This is wrong, but you are loved."

And that's what we have to keep in mind as we draw our conclusions about whatever it is we're studying - it has to lead us to love God more and love others better. If it doesn't do those two things, then we have not uncovered both the truth and the grace of the Bible.

A lot of studies have been undertaken lately on homosexuality and the Scriptures. A lot of stuff has been thrown around. A lot of conclusions have been reached. A lot of Bible thumping has been going on. But if our study of what the Bible says about the issue doesn't also lead us to look into the eyes of the homosexual and realize how distorted all human love is, how broken it is, how far away from God's ideal for human relationship it is, then we've missed grace. Because it's not about condemning the other as much as it is about convicting ourselves.

Perhaps that's what grace does for us. It causes us to convict ourselves, to see our own failings more clearly when we think we've exposed them in others. It reminds us of the plank in our own eye when we are hyper-focused on the speck in someone else's. Grace turns inward the truth we are too willing to push outward and hits on something deep within us that just...can't..condemn anyone else. We find that, whatever we thought five minutes ago, we look into their eyes and them. We can't help ourselves.

Never study the truth without looking for grace. Always, always ask not just what the Bible says, but how God's heart beats. This is what leads you into love. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Culture and Context

We are attempting this week to look at the question: What does the Bible say? So far, we have started with the actual words that the Bible used and then moved into the culture and context of the characters involved in that particular passage. As I said yesterday, a lot of scholars want to make this harder than it is and tell you that you can't understand the Bible without knowing the history of it, when it was written, who wrote it, what was happening when it was written, and so on and so on until you're so intimidated that you don't even want to try. But the truth is that God has given His Word to His people - to all of them, even those without an advanced degree - and so extremely meaningful Bible study is simply devotional. And that means, we can all do it.

So we'll skip over all the questions the scholars want to throw in at this point and get right down to the next step, which is putting it all together. And that's more difficult than it sounds because it requires us getting real about who and where we are.

When you know what the words say and how they're used, and you know who the characters are and how they heard it, then the next logical step (and the thing you've really been wanting to get to from the very beginning anyway) is to figure out how you are supposed to hear it. What does God want you to understand from this passage?

This requires us to figure out our own culture and context, just like we did yesterday with the historical characters.

On the surface, this seems simple. Isn't your culture and context what drove you to ask the question in the first place? Isn't it just...what makes you curious about this idea or this story at all?

Yes and no. We are complex creatures, and we're very capable of lying to ourselves. We're very capable of living stories in our heads that we aren't really living in our flesh. We're prone to think the best of ourselves, so we overlook our flaws and our struggles and our insecurities in favor of those things that we're more confident about or those things we most desire to be.

But God never speaks to the image we have of ourselves; He speaks to the depth of our authentic heart. So if we want to figure out what God has to say to us, we have to be honest about who we really are, where we really are, and what's really going on in our lives. No facades, no charades. No fantasies or dreams. Just real, raw, authentic flesh crying out.

It's harder than you think it is. (Or maybe right now, you know how hard it is, and you're trembling a little. That's okay, too.)

The challenge is that sometimes, we don't know the answer to this question until God gives us the answer to our question. We don't know who we are until God tells us what we need to hear. So to a certain degree, this step embraces a lot of openness and surrenders the question to God to answer. Instead of trying to interpret and put all the pieces together and figure out what we wanted to hear from it, we just lay all our study out in front of the Lord and let Him piece it together. Our framework that we've put together to this point helps us to understand what He says and to hold it all together. Then, the answer not only satisfies our reveals it to us. We let God tell us what we need to hear, and that sets us off on a conversation about maybe why we needed to hear that.

And it's supposed to. Our study is always meant to draw us deeper into God, to create in us even more of a need for Him. Too often, we think the aim of the Christian life is to come to such a profound understanding of things that we no longer need God to answer our questions, and that's simply not biblical. That's not the relationship that God has ever had - or wanted - with His people. So surrendering the question to God is great because it makes us more dependent upon Him in the answer, rather than less, and that's really the heart of the Christian life.

So there you have it - what does the Bible say? It starts with its words, moves through its context, and comes into our context, and we can say with some confidence, what the truth of the matter is. We know what God says about something. We can put our foot down and stand on a revelation.

But keep one foot up in the air because we're not done yet. (I told you this question isn't so simple.) One more very important step is coming tomorrow. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Signs of the Times

We're looking at how to answer the question: What does the Bible say? But we know that the answer is not as simple as what the words themselves say.

We started with those words, though, to set the foundation for our question and to start uncovering the depth of the meaning of words that are too easy, perhaps, to read right by. The next thing we have to consider is the culture and the context of the time in which these words were written.

This is a question that a lot of Bible scholars try to make more complicated than it really is. They'll tell you that you have to research the book in which the passage is written, figure out who actually wrote it and where there are questions about who wrote it, and think about the time in which it was written. Certainly, there's some value in that in certain situations, but we're not talking about academic Bible research here; we're talking about devotional research. And I don't believe that God intended for His Word to be so complicated and complex that the average heart could not understand it. I don't think God intended for us to be so analytical about things that we need an advanced degree to have any kind of theology at all. So sure, academics are into that sort of thing, but your devotional Bible study is no less meaningful or significant if you don't dive in that far. Actually, it may be better for you if you don't.

Because when we talk about culture and context, the question really isn't as difficult as it sounds. Culture is as simple as asking - where are these characters? Are they in a city or in the country? What do they do for a living? Are they shepherds or are they craftsmen? Is God speaking to them about rivers and streams because these flow through their property or because they've had to cross them to get here? Is God talking about sacrifices to a people who brought animals to the Temple or a people who live in the shadow of the Cross? Culture is just as simple as figuring out what the day-to-day life might have looked like for the characters involved in our passage and discovering how God connects His message to what they know.

Context is just about where we find them in the present moment. What's going on? What are they doing? It's one thing to see God talking to Abraham on the mountain; it's another thing to hear Him talking to Abraham in a new land. It's one thing if God is giving a word to David when he is the anointed king of Israel hiding in a cave from Saul; it's something else entirely if God is giving a word to David when he is caught in the sin of adultery.

On the surface, we know this. We know that it matters what is happening in the life of a character when we encounter their story. But for some reason, when we are reading our bibles, it is easy for us to forget this. We consider God to be the main character of the story, so we think that He's the only one we have to focus on. We think that since God is never-changing, then whatever He says is good no matter what the circumstances are.

But if God loves us each individually, if God is interested in intervening in our individual lives, if God comes to speak to a person and through that person, to His people, then we have to figure out what the touchpoints are for that person. We have to figure out what kind of skin they are putting on God's word at any moment in which it is given to them. Because we have to remember that God's story is not just God's story; it's our story. And at any given time, we are all situated in both - His narrative and ours. We would never say that our lives are any less real just because we discover God in them at a certain point, so we cannot write off the real lives of the characters in our Bible, either.

So the second step in discovering what the Bible says is to figure out who it's talking to - who is this person? What is their life like? Where are they? What are they involved in right now? What part of their story is God speaking into? These things will help us as we move onto the next step of devotional Bible study. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Bible Says

A few weeks ago, I got a message from a friend. She said she had a question about a particular topic, and she needed to know "what the Bible actually says." She wanted me to assure her that I had accurate resources and knew how to use them - and I do, so I did. And then I set to work answering her question. 

But the truth is that what seems like a fairly easy question isn't actually all that easy of one. There's no such thing as just knowing "what the Bible actually says." Not from just the words, anyway. It's not as if finding a different translation into English for the Hebrew or Greek will (or can) suddenly turn a light on and tell you what you want to know.

The Bible cannot simply be consulted; it has to be studied. 

In fairness to this process and in order to give you a foundational understanding of what it means to really "know" the Scriptures and "what they say," I thought I would take a few days and walk you through the process of answering this question from a friend. 

Even though it doesn't end there, it certainly begins in the language. Many Bible questions come out of a place that's already read what the English has to offer and is in some way unsatisfied with the answer...or finds it, at best, incomplete. As we should. The English very rarely captures the depth and breadth of the original languages. English is just not as precise as many other languages are. Just think of how often we have to clarify what certain things mean or identify the way in which we are using a word or phrase. 

So you start, quite obviously, with whatever is obvious but not satisfying, whatever piques your interest in terms of what you are able to read and understand in the Scriptures. 

The next thing you have to do is figure out the linguistic context of that passage. That means you have to look around, before and after, whatever's gnawing at you and see what kinds of things the Bible is talking about in that general area. There are some laws in Leviticus, for example, that are included in lists of things you wouldn't naturally group with them. This says something meaningful about why these things are sinful. The prohibition about burning your children as an offering to the god Molech is sandwiched in a list of sexual sins. That tells us something that we don't get from the words themselves about what this disgusting ritual entailed, either physically or symbolically. 

We like to piecemeal the Bible, to pick and choose here and there what we're going to focus on and what we're going to take from a story. But when we put it in context, we can't do that any more. And often, we find something that surprises us. 

After that, you start looking for cross references - what other passages in the Bible talk about this? One of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible (okay, it's not really misunderstood, but it is frequently twisted to make a political/cultural point that isn't justified) is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. What really was the sin there? In recent times, it's become fad to say the sin of Sodom was inhospitality - not welcoming the stranger - and not homosexuality. But Ezekiel writes about Sodom and says their sin was both. If you don't read what Ezekiel says, you'll just have to guess at whatever you can gather from the story itself. Other verses often shed light on dark corners, so it's important to figure out who else is talking about what you're talking about because trust me - you aren't the only one to be talking about it. 

All of this can be done in the English. It takes time. It's an investment, but it's worth it. If you have the resources and understanding, then you start to do these same things in the original Scriptural languages - Hebrew and Greek (primarily). You do the same things. You identify words and verses, figure out what words and phrases are being used, cross reference them to see where else they are used and what they mean across their usage, and start to put together a picture of what these words and phrases might mean in the passages you've identified. You find some really neat stuff this way. In Malachi, for example, the English often says the priests "despised" God's altar, but the Hebrew suggests something closer to "thought too lightly of." Those are very different ideas, so it matters what you discover in this way.

So that's the first step - just look at the language. Look at the context of the words. Look at what's being said around your passage and what's being said about your passage. We'll look at another step in the Bible study process tomorrow. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Living in Hope

One of the hardest things about this life we have is figuring out how best to live it. This is especially true as Christians, as a people who live in constant hope of re-creation and redemption, knowing full well that God is always shaping us for more as He works things together for good. We want to constantly be growing into whatever God has for us, but this mindset often leaves us missing out on the moment that we have right now. All of a sudden, we have a life that we're looking back on, sorry that we missed it. And...still missing it because we're already on to preparations for the next thing, whatever it proves to be. 

We don't want to miss out on anything that God has for us, so we've always got our eyes open to where this road might lead. What's next? Where does this turn into something different, something bigger, something better? What is God up to? Oh, if only we could answer this question! Then, we would at least know what He's preparing us for and maybe we could figure out what's most important and what we ought to be investing in. 

What we often miss, though, is that whatever God has for us next, He has this for us right now. Today is just as much ordained by God as tomorrow. This stepping stone you're on was put here by the same hand that laid the next one. There is no such thing as waiting in the kingdom of God; we are always somewhere along God's path. It's unfortunate that we seldom seem to recognize this. 

The trouble is that although maybe we realize that there is something here for us, something we don't want to miss, we also don't want to get comfortable because we know that God is moving us through here to something else. Our lives are in constant motion, and if we grow too comfortable, the risk is that we will stop moving altogether. We'll miss out on what God has next for us if we let ourselves settle in too much here. 

Caught in this tension, it often seems that there is no good solution. We either miss out on what God has for us in the present because we're focusing too intently on the future or we miss out on what God has for us in the future because we settle too much into the present. And somehow, no matter which we choose, we end up living most of our lives in the past - either missing what we never engaged with or grieving opportunities we let pass us by. 

This is something I think about a lot, probably more than most. (I don't really know why; it's just the kind of thing I'm intimately aware of far more often than I want to be.) But I think all this thinking has finally led me to an understanding of how it is that we engage our past, our present, and our future all at once, living in this moment without losing sight of the next one. Thriving here, but growing still. 

The answer learn. 

The answer is to take every moment as a learning opportunity and figure out what it is that it can teach you. Figure out how you can grow from it. 

Learning is great because it establishes itself on something we already know or believe; it is anchored in our past and in the things that brought us this far. It is engaged in the present moment because this is the only moment that we have to work in; this is the only chance we get at this particular thing in this particular way. So if we're learning, we have no choice but to be fully present to what we're doing right now. But we'll never get this moment again, so anything we learn from it will only come into play sometime in the future, some time when we have an opportunity to put our acquired information or skill to use. Past, present, future all wrapped into a single moment of active learning. You'll never miss this moment because you're fully in it, but you won't stay here, either, because you'll be excited about the opportunity to put to use what you've learned. 

So approach life with a curious spirit. Stay engaged by actively growing. Keep your hands busy and your mind engaged and see what life has to teach you. Investing ourselves in learning is the only solution we have for that tension we feel when we're torn between time, trying to figure out how to live this life we've been given. We live today, most fully, by learning, which draws us into tomorrow. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

Religion as Politics

Dear Church,

We have profoundly lost our way. And it's up to us to correct our errors before it's too late, before we lose control of our own narrative forever.

Several weeks ago, while the world was in an uproar over black lives matter and police violence and historical monuments and our own past, Christianity began trending on Twitter. a political topic.

It centered on comments made by one man who was talking about our image of Jesus. One man had the power to set Christianity as politics on fire around the world. And a conversation ensued, but it wasn't the conversation that we should have been having.

What happened was that Christians began to chime in and either defend or deny what the man had said. We came out in force to talk about what he said, to weigh in on it, to try to approach the subject with both grace and truth. All the things that we're taught to do as followers of Christ. And yet, what we were not addressing was the larger issue:

Our faith was being hijacked as a means to a political end. Our faith was being used politically. Our faith had become a political issue.

Two thousand years after Jesus, I thought, put to rest the issue of whether or not He was that kind of King, are we still willing to let our Savior be politicized in the hopes that...what? I don't even know. What I do know is that there were not a lot, if any, Christian voices - particularly not the "big" Christian voices - saying, wait a minute. Our faith is not political. It's not a tool. It's not a rhetorical point. Stop using it for your gains.

And the way we responded to this man didn't send that message either. We engaged him on his terms. Across the board. And in doing so, we gave up our right to tell our own faith story. We gave up our authorship of God's story in the world. We let him dictate how we talk about our faith, and we wasted the moment responding to the world instead of truly standing up for what we believe, who we are, who our God is, and what is supposed to set us apart from all of that.

When I mentioned this on my personal Twitter, I was met by silence. On my Facebook, I was told that it was all because of this one man and that we can't control what the world thinks of us or what one guy says. Christians were willing to take a hands-off approach because they didn't think they had any personal stake in the issue. After all, they didn't say what he said; they were just responding to it.

But it shows how reactionary our faith has become. It shows that we are a people living on the defensive, taking out of context and centering our faithfulness on Peter's admonition to "always be ready to give a defense" instead of grounding ourselves in Jesus's "go and make disciples." We have let the world tell us how we have to talk about it instead of boldly going forward with what they need to hear. We have let our faith become rhetoric instead of love. And that's on us. That's on the way that we've chosen to live our faith in these times.

It's complicated all the more by just how entangled faith has become in politics, despite the fact that there are loving, God-honoring, God-fearing Christians on both sides of the aisles. We've made our elections about so-called religious ideas, setting up our camps on this side or that based on what we think Jesus said about this or that issue. Forgetting, of course, that Jesus didn't talk about issues; He talked about hearts. He talked about human beings. He talked about "one another." And here we are using faith to make an "us" and a "them." No wonder we've lost track of ourselves. No wonder the world doesn't expect anything more of us than they do, say, a politician. We have become politicians ourselves, under the guise of righteousness, and we are no such thing - either politicians or righteous.

So yes, it is on us. One guy may have said it, one comment may have started it, but the fact that we, the church, did not come out and put our foot down and declare, unequivocally, that Christianity is not politics says something profound about who we have become. And if we don't, right now, put our energies into unbecoming that, into recapturing our Gospel message, into reclaiming our own narrative, then we are on the verge of losing it forever to a world who is going to expect nothing more of us than that we tell it what it wants to know, rather than speaking boldly in love what it needs to hear.

The Gospel has always been countercultural. Christianity as politics is so mainstream, so blah, so inconsequential to a lost and dying world that it hardly bears mentioning, except, of course, when it explodes. It's time to take our story back and remind the world Whose pages of history it's living in. It's time we love the way Jesus called us to love - one another. And it's time we stop pretending, two thousand years after He couldn't have made it more clear, that Jesus ever desired to be that kind of king.

Christianity is not politics. And until and unless we rise up en masse and defeat that kind of heresy, the world will never know the life-changing, life-saving grace of the Gospel. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Art of Being Least

There's a strong Gospel mandate for putting ourselves last. Jesus repeatedly tells us that whoever wants to be first should make themselves last, and whoever wants to be greatest should make themselves the least. When we read something like this, we think that means that this is supposed to start somewhere in greatness, in the world's high opinion of us (or our confident opinion of ourselves). After all, you can't make yourself least if you're at the bottom to begin with. Nobody will notice the sacrifice - or what it means - if they don't see the step down. 

But becoming the least doesn't have to do with thinking more of yourself. Or less of yourself. Or even thinking of yourself less. These are all ideas that the world tries to frame for us because it doesn't have any other paradigm to put it in. The world only has a notion of itself, so of course, it is self-centered. For the Christian, however, counting yourself as least has nothing to do with self and everything to do with God. 

Which means it doesn't matter where you start; becoming the least is about where you end up...and how you got there.

For example, you can become the least starting from a place of tremendous insecurity. Ah, yes. Insecurity again. Remember that post I made last week about how we're all insecure? Hopefully by now, you know that when I say that, I'm not talking about you; I'm talking about me. I'm talking about us. All of us. Don't panic. No one is singling you out. 

But insecurity is a constant battle for all of us. We constantly wonder whether we're good enough, whether we're strong enough, whether we're kind enough, whether others like us enough, whether we're doing enough. We are constantly setting out to prove ourselves, not just to the world but to, well, ourselves. And to God. We want to make sure He approves of us, too. 

You might say that it's hard to become the least when you think so little of yourself to begin with. It's hard to humble yourself when you have so little to work with. But maybe becoming the least isn't about fighting with your insecurity so that you have the confidence to think less of yourself, as if that even makes sense. Maybe becoming the least is about embracing your insecurity and deciding to do something with it anyway. 

Picture it: you don't know what you have to offer. You really don't. You don't think you make a single contribution to this world. (More of us have these moments than you think.) But then you see a piece of litter on the ground, and you decide to pick it up. It doesn't make that much of a difference, you think, but at least you're doing something. At least you tried. 

Then someone who thinks more of you than you could ever have imagined sees you picking up a piece of litter and has two thoughts: 1) this person I admire so much is humble enough to pick up trash off the street and 2) maybe I should care more about the little things. 

Look at you, you insecure person. You just started a movement. You made yourself small in the world by embracing the smallness you feel and stepping into it, and you just started something big. And sometimes, I think that takes more courage than it ever does to give up your corner office. I think believing you can do one small thing often takes more heart than going after the big thing. But you did it. You didn't think it mattered, like you didn't think you mattered, but you did it anyway and you discovered that both matter - your act and your being. And all of a sudden, what Jesus said is coming true - the least is becoming more. 

Not because you think more of yourself, but just because you embrace your smallness.

A lot of us - and I mean a lot of us - wonder how we're ever supposed to make a difference in this world, how we're ever supposed to live the kind of life Jesus calls us to live. Because we're so wrapped up in the world's idea of self that we think it's supposed to start with something bigger than we've got. But the truth is that most of the greatest things start with our smallness, with our embracing the insecurity that we feel and deciding that if one small thing is all we've got, it's still worth trying. 

You never know what great things might grow from it. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Rush in the Mud

Yesterday, we looked at an idea that most of us wrestle with - what it takes to be the first one to take a faithful step. We looked at Israel when she came to the rushing waters, Peter when he stepped out of the boat, and the disciples when they reached the empty tomb. Most of us spend a lot of our faith life wondering if we have what it takes to be the first one to step out...and we spend a lot of our time worrying that God's going to ask us to find out.

But there's another question we should be asking ourselves when we think about these stories, one that we don't often think about:

Do we have the faith to be the last guy?

Do we have the faith to step into the dry river, knowing there is no one behind us? Do we have the faith to follow the first disciple into the tomb to see for ourselves?

These are important questions, too, and they are just as much a mark of our faith as any other. You know, it's easy for us to think very little of ourselves. We know ourselves intimately, and that means that we know our failures and our shortcomings. We know all the mistakes that we've made. We know them well because we spend a lot of our time beating ourselves up over them. So it can be easy for us to look at the walls of water held back to our left and our right, to look behind us and realize that we're the last guy in, and to think that maybe God's promise won't hold up for us. That maybe enough of the faithful have already gotten through and it doesn't matter if we make it or not. That God doesn't love us as much as He loves everyone else and that at any moment, those waters are going to come washing over us and sweep us away because, well, in the grand scheme of things, we're just so little and fallen. Does God really love - can God really love - the straggler?

Or we think about rushing into the tomb. Do you remember that the disciple who went in first was the disciple who actually arrived second? How hard does that make it to be the guy who got there first and hesitated? Does God love the guy who hesitates? Is there a place for the one who stopped short, whose faith wasn't strong enough at first?

These are real questions. These are real faith questions. It's easy, relatively, to gather the courage to be the first one to step out. You can say, sure, I believe in God. I trust that He's going to provide for me. God can give you the boldness to take that first step and you can give it all to Him. But it's a lot, lot harder to be the one who struggles. It's a lot harder to let yourself fall behind. It's a lot harder to convince yourself to keep going when it looks like things are already over, when you feel like you're the one who's not really part of anything.

It's like crossing the finish line of the marathon 27 hours later. The crowds have long dispersed. The roadblocks have been taken down. Traffic is whizzing by you in every direction. The news crews have packed up and gone home. The battery has run out on your timing chip. Your shoes are eaten through with the wear of the pavement. You can barely pick one foot up to move it in front of the other. Do you have the steadfastness to finish the race? Do you believe that the finish line is just as sweet for you as it was for everyone else?

These things happen. We've seen them on the news. And not once, not once, does the straggler say, "You know what? I wish I would have quit." Not once do we hear them say, "I thought it would be better than this." Not once do they say, "It just wasn't as satisfying as I thought it would be." No, they just smile that big, relieved, exhausted smile and say, "I made it. Look at me. I finished."

You gotta think about that last guy. When you read these stories in the Bible, the last guy is just as important as the first guy. You gotta think about that moment when Joe comes straggling across the Red Sea, the last guy to make it to the other side. You gotta think about all the hugs and high fives he gets when he sets his feet on the far shore and the people of God stop thinking, "I made it" and realize, "We made it."

I said yesterday that our story is bigger than us, that maybe we're the first but we pave the way for others to follow along behind us. That the little things that we do play a big role in the story of God that is unfolding in our communities and in our world. Well, the same thing is true whether we're the first guy or the last guy. When we're the last guy, we turn everyone's "I" into a "we." We make the story not about a person, but about a people. Every single one of a people. God's faithfulness for us.

And that matters, too.

Most of us think a lot about whether we have the faith to be the first guy. But how many of us have the faith to be the last guy? How many of us have the faith to be the straggler, the hesitant, the one dragging ourselves across the finish line? How many of us have the faith to trust that God will keep holding those waters back just for us? Just for me? Just because we aren't a people until I'm there, too?

Do you have the faith to be the last guy?

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Toes in the Water

I think one of the things that it's easy to become nervous about as a Christian is just what God might ask of us. We spend a lot of time questioning whether we have what it takes to do what God calls us to, and that's an important question. But it's not the only question.

Before I get ahead of myself, let's just talk about this question today; we'll move on to the other one tomorrow.

Remember when God was leading His people from one land to another and He said things like, "As soon as you step into the water, it will recede and you'll walk through on dry land"? How hard does it have to be to be the guy up front in that pack, the first one to reach the river? How hard is it to be the guy who has to put his foot in the raging water and trust that God is going to do this miraculous thing that He's promised to do?

Look at how much trouble the disciples had. Jesus came walking to them on the water, but only one of them had the faith to ask to step out with Him. Eleven guys (at least) sat in the boat and didn't even consider stepping toe in the water. It didn't even occur to them. Peter even hesitated, which is why things didn't go well for him. It's hard to be the guy to go first. 

And again when the disciples ran to see the empty tomb when the women said the body of Jesus was gone. Two disciples ran to the tomb to see what was happening, but one of them stopped short and one of them ran right in. It's hard to be the first guy in the tomb. 

Over and over again, we see the people of God taking steps of faith that it's easy for us to underestimate. We read them, but we don't think about what it really means to be right there in the moment. Yet, we have our own moments, and we wonder if we are capable of doing the same kinds of things they did. Could we step foot into raging waters if God promised dry land was going to appear?

We think this has something to do with our faith, and in one sense, it does. In one sense, it is about how confident we are in the God that we believe in and how much we trust Him. On the other hand, every one of these is bigger than the person who did it.

Without that first guy, Israel doesn't cross out of Egypt. They don't enter into the Promised Land. If no one ever stuck their toes in that water, Israel is stuck forever; God's story - God's story and God's people - don't move without this act of faith. If the disciple runs to the tomb but doesn't go in, doesn't see the place where Jesus's body is supposed to lying, doesn't see the grave clothes folded up, how does he ever tell the story of the resurrection? He can't. God's people can't hold onto that because no one was willing to step in and become a witness. 

So yes, we could say that our faith hinges on these kinds of moments, but it's more than just our faith; it's God's story. It's the people of God as they move through His creation. More than our own lives hang in the balance when God asks us to step out. And that's important, too. Because it means that even though one of our biggest fears is God asking us to do something on our own, we're never really alone. It's not about us. It's bigger. It's always bigger. There's always more at stake than some little test of our own faith, even when that's important, too. 

I've just been thinking about what it means to be the first guy. What it means to be the one leading the way. What kind of faith it takes to step into a raging river on nothing but a promise. 

But then, I'm thinking about something else, too. More on that tomorrow. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

On Masking and Loving

I know, I know - the one thing we don't hear enough about these days is everyone's opinion on masking. But bear with me because there's an important lesson about Christian love in here.

One of the lines that we keep seeing over and over is how selfish it is to not wear a mask. You must be thinking only of yourself. You don't care about anyone but you. A few weeks ago, a man in a Facebook group that I belong to tried to call our Christians who do not wear masks as failing at the central tenet of the Christian faith - love. You claim to love Jesus, who told you to love others, but you won't even wear a mask for them. You're selfish and an extremely poor Christian; Jesus would be disappointed in you.

Last week, I read an article by a prominent  Christian theologian (who I happen to agree with on many issues), and he argued that the libertarian notion that one should be able to make their own choices is selfish in this case and that we must not let masking become an issue that makes us unloving to one another in the name of our own "freedom." I applaud this theologian for phrasing his comments as delicately and specifically as he did, not calling all non-maskers selfish, but only those who are refusing masks based on the argument of their own freedom. But still, his commentary is likely to be misunderstood and painted with the same broad brush as the first comment - anyone who does not wear a mask clearly doesn't love Jesus. Because they aren't loving others.

This argument is too black and white and most ironically? It's not loving.

From the very beginning, even the highest health professionals have said that there are legitimate reasons that a person would not be able to wear a mask. Some chronic health conditions or lung conditions can make it dangerous. The neuro-atypical among us (think: autistic persons or Aspies) may have severe trouble covering their face, or struggle with the texture/feeling of the mask. A person with clinical claustrophobia will induce full-blown panic in a mask. Someone with a history of trauma, particularly traumatic assault or sexual assault, may be triggered by wearing a mask. In other words, masks may be beneficial, but they are a legitimate burden to some.

And this attitude that we have that anyone not wearing a mask is selfish and a poor Christian just doesn't work in those cases. How can we continue, as Christians, to berate someone else for "not loving us" by not wearing a mask when we are, in the same breath, not loving them by insisting that they should have to - especially if their wearing a mask is in some way dangerous or damaging to them? And then, we call them selfish. Selfish, for needing to take care of their own health. Selfish, for refusing to sacrifice themselves for us.

How dare we call someone else not loving when we are actively not loving them. Just who do we think we are?

This is the point about love that I want to make: love can never require the sacrifice from someone else; it always requires the sacrifice from us.

Love is not bullying someone else into loving us the way we want to be loved; it is setting them free to love us from their own heart. It is respecting the love that they are able to give us and letting go of our expectations of what that's "supposed" to look like.

If the shoe were on the other foot and you were the one facing life-crushing implications from "something so simple" as wearing a mask, how would you like to be called selfish? Unloving? Un-Christian? How would you like someone to look you in the eye and say, "I don't care what it does to you. If you loved anyone at all, you'd do it for them"? How loved would you feel right then?

Love can never require someone else to make the sacrifice. We have to make it ourselves. And sometimes, that sacrifice that we make is called grace.

It's the only way to be loving.

*This is, of course, extremely complicated. Those with issues that prevent masking are not exempt from making sacrifices out of love for one another. Those adamant about masking are not exempt from making sacrifices out of love for one another. Neither side gets a pass from sacrifice, but neither side gets to demand the sacrifice from the other. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

On Insecurity

Everyone is insecure about something.

While we all have insecurities that are uniquely our own, we all have some insecurities that are the same. And one of the things that almost all of us are insecure our insecurity.

I started thinking about this last Sunday when my pastor said something like, "You can tell me ten things that you like about me, but tell me one thing I'm doing wrong or I could do better, and that one thing will keep me up at night." The sanctuary was filled with nods. Everyone seemed to understand and relate to this.

It's tempting that the goal of dealing with insecurity is to simply stop being insecure. As Christians, we talk about this in terms like "finding our security in Jesus" and "letting God tell you who you are." The implication is that if we were "good" Christians, then we wouldn't be insecure humans.

That's not realistic.

We are fallen beings in a fallen world with a gracious Father who loves us even when we're broken. If we believe this, and if we believe that He is the only one who can make us whole again, then we have to top thinking that our faith is supposed to make us whole. That a perfect faith is one that doesn't dwell in a fallen human being. Just stop. That's all junk.

But there are healthy and unhealthy relationships that we have with insecurity, and I confess that this is something I did not know or understand until I experienced it in my own life. That means that what follows may not make any sense to you, depending on where you are. That's okay. I'm going to offer it anyway. Tuck it in your back pocket and prayerfully, one day you will recognize it in your own life.

There was a time in my life when, if my pastor had said what he said, I would have felt exposed. He would have talked about feeling insecure, and I would have wondered if he had been reading my diary. I would have looked around to see who else knew he was talking about me. I would have scanned the room to see who was likely to come "talk" to me after services. I would have felt the full weight of the shame that insecurity carries with it because I would have known in my insecure heart that he was talking about me. Just me. Singling me out. Picking me out of the crowd and making an example of me without my permission.

That's the unhealthy way of relating with our insecurities, but it's also our default. It's naturally easy to do. Insecurity is constantly thinking about itself - because of shame, because of guilt, because we feel like we're either not supposed to be insecure or we ought to be better about the things that we're insecure about. So when someone mentions something you're insecure about, whether they attribute it to you or not, you attribute it to you. You're already thinking about it, so it just feels personal.

The healthy way of relating with our insecurities is to accept them, harness our energies for them, and confess them. In other words, to deal with them instead of just to cope with them. I'm not talking about making self-deprecating jokes about ourselves and publicly dismissing our flaws while secretly trenching them deeper in our souls; I am talking about actually dealing with them, being honest about them. I'm talking about being able to say, you know, this is something I don't like a whole lot about myself or I had this experience that made me feel self-conscious about this other thing. It's about being real with our stories and our experiences and our feelings and letting our insecurities just be part of our authentic self.

That doesn't mean we just accept our shortcomings and move on. We can (and should) still work on improving the things we're not satisfied with about our lives. But we don't have to hate them in the process. We don't have to pretend that our brokenness is some kind of state secret. We don't have to live with our insecurities in such a way that they can "out" us when we least expect it. We can just be honest about them and take control of our own story. Our insecurities don't have to tell on us; we can tell on them.

Thankfully, as Christians, we have a God who intimately understands this and who is willing not only to love us as we stand confessionally before Him, but to help us change the things about us we don't love - or maybe help us grow some love for them. As long as we live in honest conversation and humble surrender to Him, He's right there.

How does this change things? What does healthy insecurity look like?

When the pastor says something about insecurity, healthy insecurity looks around the room and sees everyone nodding. It doesn't feel like a "me;" it feels like a "we." It recognizes that insecurity is one of those things that bonds us together in this broken flesh and that, honestly, there's nothing to be ashamed of. Healthy insecurity breaks the bonds of shame and guilt and frees us to experience community and togetherness in our humanity when we're just honest about who we all are. Every one of us.

Because everybody is insecure about something.

What matters is how you deal with it. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Saying No

Having this kind of mindset - a commitment to excellence, understanding every act of service as a testament to God's glory, living freely and giving generously of yourself - it helps you to figure out what the things are in life that you should say yes to. And perhaps most importantly, what the things are in life that you should say no to. 

This has been a big debate for a long time. Is it ever "nice" to say no to someone or something? Is it ever an act of good, Christian faith to deny someone else their request? Are we "allowed," whatever that means, to ever say no? 

On one hand, we have a Jesus who tells us that when someone asks for our jacket, we should give them our shirt, too. We have a Jesus who says that when someone makes us go one mile, we should go two. We have a Jesus who says that we should go above and beyond for others. And certainly, He is right. 

But it's a misinterpretation of Jesus's words if we use them to claim, "Say yes to everybody that asks anything of you. Never say no to anyone or anything."

At another point in the New Testament, we are told that if it's not against your conscience to eat "unclean" food, then eat it. But if it is against your conscience to eat it, then don't. And don't condemn someone else for what their conscience permits (or doesn't). So clearly, there is something holy about saying no sometimes. 

Here is, I think, one criteria for deciding when to say no: if you can't do something well, then say no. If you can't do it in such a way that it brings glory to God, say no. If you can't commit yourself to excellence, say no. 

Now, there are a number of different reasons why you might not be able to do something well, why it might not be glorifying or excellent. The first reason, of course, is that maybe you don't know how to do that thing, whatever it is. If someone asks you to come help them put in a new water heater and you don't know how to do that, then the faithful thing is to say no. Sorry. That's not something that's in my skill set. Because the truth is that if you don't know how to do something, you can't possibly do it well. And when there's water leaking all over the basement, nobody is going to be thankful for your help. Nobody's going to be thinking what a good friend you are. So if you don't know how to do something, say no. 

If you don't have time to do something well, then say no. Maybe you're very skilled, but you're also very busy. Maybe you have a thousand other things on your plate right now; it's just a frantic season for you. Maybe you know that the task someone has asked you to do is realistically going to take seven hours; don't try to squeeze it into three. Don't try to pencil out time between two other commitments you've already made. If you do, you will fail all three of those tasks - the first will be rushed to get to the second, and the third will suffer from the exhaustion of the first two, and if you didn't start with enough time to begin with, things will either remain undone or will be poorly done/slapped together. If you don't have the time to do something wholly, then say no. 

If you're not willing to make a commitment to a project, then say no. Here, we're talking about the kinds of things you take on just to cure your own boredom. You do them because they're fun for you, but it's the act of doing it that's more important than finishing the job. You get so involved in the enjoyment and satisfaction that you get from it that you forget that someone else is waiting on it to be done, that someone else has plans for its completion. In a slow season, a contractor took on a couple of jobs, and it took him more than three months to finish putting siding on one house. Because he liked having a job to work on, because he liked having somewhere to go in the mornings, because it was better for him to have a project than to be looking for one. If you can't commit to completing a project reasonably, then say no. 

And building off that, another point: if the project, for you, is more about you than someone else, then say no. No one asks you to do something for them that they don't need done. No one asks you to take time out of your schedule to do something they don't care about. So everything you do fits into someone else's story in a way that you have to be mindful of. If you lose sight of this, you'll lose sight of the real service that you're offering, and it will become lesser than it should be. So if you're prone to lose sight of others, then say no (at least until you can focus on their needs and fit it into their story). Sorry, but it's their thing, not yours. 

There are a lot of reasons to say no. Good reasons. Holy reasons. If the result of your saying yes is not going to bring glory to God, then no matter how skilled you are, no matter how much free time you have, no matter how much you love the person who is asking, say no. It's as simple as that. 

And if you find yourself saying no a lot, if you're struggling to find something to say yes to, then maybe it's time to examine your own heart. What's keeping you from committing to things? What's keeping you from being able to offer your best? What's keeping you from the excellence that God has called you to? If you can never seem to offer these things, it's time to ask yourself why.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

An Act of Love

A few days ago, as I talked about what it means to commit to excellence in everything you do as a sign of your faith in God, I mentioned that there were four things I hope that someone comes to learn when I serve them from my heart:

I love God. God loves me. God loves you. I love you.

These are the four truths that shape our hearts to be servants of our communities, to give of ourselves freely to those in need, to offer what we have for the good of others. For the most part, we agree on that. What's more difficult is to understand how to place them, in what order these ideas should fall. And to a lot of persons, it might seem that I have them more than a little messed up. But I think they have to go in this order if we want to maximize the impact of the Gospel and have a real chance to preach it a little (with or without words) in our world.

Today's evangelism tries to start at the end, but we've seen very clearly that that doesn't work. We've been told to go out and love our neighbors ("I love you"), but how often does that lead us to an opportunity to tell us why we love them? Most persons in our world are just glad to feel loved for a little while; they don't care where it comes from. When was the last time someone asked you to do something for them, you showed up and did it, and then they asked you why you did it? Or it wasn't awkward to try to bring up why your heart led you to do it? Evangelism in this direction just doesn't work. If we start with "I love you," that's as far as we ever get. We might, if we're lucky, get a "hmm.." if someone we've loved finds out we're a Christian, but they don't ask a lot of questions and they usually don't even connect our Christianity with our heart or our service.

Traditional evangelism tried to start with "God loves you," but without a real context to put that in, it's pretty meaningless to the average non-believer. Great. God loves me. So what? What kind of real, meaningful impact does God's love have on my life? None? Okay, great. Then let's move on. It's really hard to work backward from telling someone who 1) doesn't know God and 2) doesn't know love that God loves them, and then try to show them through our own lives that that love is a good thing. It's disorienting and confusing and insanely hard to follow. (Not to mention that we spent a lot of our traditional evangelism wrapping the message of God's love in His judgment and condemnation, which didn't help us a whole lot, either.)

So here's why I put these four truths in the order that I did. I hope you can see the natural progression here and start to understand how this is a better way.

I love God. The first thing I want you to see when I am serving you is me giving freely of my life. I want you to see me holding onto my own life loosely, being generous with what I have, unconcerned about reciprocity or keeping score or anything like that. I want you to see that this is a deliberate way that I have chosen to live and hopefully, what you see is that it is because I have the confident assurance of the God that I love. I want you to see me holding myself to His standard in everything. My faith truly shapes my life. It is meaningful. It allows my life to be meaningful. It gives me the opportunity to live generously and graciously. I am serving you out of the freedom that I have to give of myself because my heart is already secure in the God that I love.

God loves me. The second thing I want you to see is how I'm thriving under this paradigm. I want you to see that this is really working for me. It's not some facade I've put on or some story I'm telling myself; the God that I love loves me back, and He is really taking care of me in all of the ways that He's promised. He is good to me, beyond good. He is gracious toward me, beyond gracious. I secured my life in Him (see truth #1), and He has secured my life in Him (truth #2). Now, the reason this doesn't work in reverse, the reason "God loves me" can't come first is because it creates this cheap version of Christianity where I love God only because He loves me. That borders on self-serving, self-centered faith that is only in it for what I can get out of it or that somehow feels obligated to love God. And that's just not what Christianity is. That's not what it's supposed to be. So I love God. God loves me. It's reciprocal, yes, but the emphasis here must be on my freedom to choose to enter into this love (particularly since the aim is to get others to freely enter this love, as well).

God loves you. The third thing I want you to see is that God loves you. It's only at this point that it's even worth introducing this idea, now that I've laid the foundation for what God's love is and the difference it makes. If you can see me living my life with open hands and freely giving of myself because of the confidence I have in the God who actively loves me and secures me in His hand, then you can start to understand the impact that God's love has on real human living. And it's a natural progression here to make because in the act of serving you, I can start to show you how God has provided for your need to be filled. You already know that I am someone who is not keeping score, who is not thinking about reciprocity because I don't have to. That means that I'm not here because of something that might be in it for me; I already have everything I need. And if I'm not here because I'm in it for me, then I must be in it for you and God must have been gracious to send me your way because He knew you needed me. Because He knew I could help you in this time of need. So I can start to show you a God who is providing for you right now because, hey, He loves you.

I love you. The last thing I want you to see is that I love you. I want you to know without a doubt that my love for you comes with no strings attached, which is why it comes last. I am not, like too much of our modern evangelism, trying to rope you into a deeper conversation about Christ. This isn't a "gotcha" moment where I serve you quietly, then demand an hour of your time to tell you about Jesus. My hope is that by this point, you are already getting the idea. The last little piece of that is to see the purity of the love that I have for you. And this is done when I do my task well, commit myself to excellence, honor you with the gift of my service, and thank you for the opportunity. This comes when I put the grace of this whole thing on your shoulders and walk away, hands dirty, giving you the freedom to live blessed just as I was living when I walked in. Not only do I come in with no strings attached, but I walk away carrying the strings you tried to tie into it. I set you free form the whole thing to just love it...because I love you. And by this point, the foundation of that love should be crystal clear, whether I've spoken an actual word about it or not. The Bible says we love because He first loved us, and this is it - we love others because He first loved us. So our love for others has to come from the foundation of our love for Him and not the other way around.

We get this all messed up, all jumbled up, and then we wonder why it's not working, why our witness isn't better, why the world isn't catching on. I really think it's because we've got it in the wrong order. I really think this order makes more sense, gives us a more natural progression for both love and grace. And who knows, someone might just meet Jesus because you make it your priority to love Him first. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Faithful Choices

Yesterday, we looked at a commitment to excellence as a mark of faith. You don't have to enjoy what you're doing to do it well, to do it in such a way that God's glory shines through it. Today, a related idea, but something a little bit different.

Before the coronavirus shut down our churches, I was teaching a Sunday school class called, "The Rock and the Hard Places: Tackling the Tough Questions." On our last Sunday together, the question we decided to tackle was about cremation.

For nearly an hour, six of us sat in a room and talked about what we wrestle with around cremation and what God has to say about it, looking at the Scriptures, taking testimony from the lives (and deaths) of characters throughout our Bible. We really went all out, digging deep to incorporate any and every little bit of evidence that we had on a question that is not directly addressed really anywhere, not in the ways that we would want it to be.

When the conversation finished, someone in the room piped up and said, "To me, what I do with my body after death is just like picking out cookies at the grocery store." A handful of giggles erupted around the room and someone jokingly asked me how I thought my lesson went. I slumped my shoulders by instinct and hung my head, a little tongue-in-cheek but also a little defeated. I had invested a lot of time in developing this lesson in response to the question that was asked. I had dug deep. I had put everything together and synthesized it in such a way that it presented a compelling argument on, at the very least, how the decision should be considered, and here was this woman, a woman who had been engaged in the discussion, saying that to her, it was still an inconsequential decision.

But it didn't actually take much thinking, after I got some space to think, for me to realize that...I actually agree with her. I actually agree with this woman that what she chooses to do with her body after she dies is no different than picking out cookies at the grocery store.

Not because both decisions are inconsequential, but precisely because they are very consequential. Both decisions should equally demonstrate the faith that we have in God.

Now, it's probably easy to see how a decision about cremation has a lot to say about what we believe about God. God has always had some pretty strong beliefs about human life and dignity and dignity in death and eternity and all of that stuff. Those are exactly the kind of ideals that we ought to hold in our hearts as we make decisions about our bodies.

But God has decidedly less to say about cookies. So how does picking cookies in a grocery store display our faith?

Simply put, in how we make our choice.

This woman implied that cookies are cookies, that she doesn't care what she ends up with, that she just picks up the first couple and walks out because hey, cookies are cookies. Let's say that's you. Let's say you don't care much about what cookies you end up with and typically just grab the first couple of packages and walk out (paying first, of course). What if you stopped to consider what might glorify God in this moment?

Maybe there's a package that's a little damaged. Most everyone looks at this package and doesn't want it, for obvious reasons. But if you really don't care about cookies, then you should take the damaged package and leave the intact packages for those who care about their cookies. A faithful decision is to recognize that you are unattached to this decision, so to take the package least likely to be picked by others. In doing so, you honor others by giving them the best. That's faithfulness to God - you don't demand the best for yourself, especially when you don't claim to care about it too much.

Or maybe you find that there are only a couple of packages left of one particular cookie and a whole bunch of another type. If you really don't care, then you should take the cookies of which there are more available. Because let's say a mother comes in frantic after her bakery has failed her, and she needs a specific cookie for her child's party. Let's say those are the cookies her child really wants, has his heart set on. If you take them just because they're easy and it doesn't actually matter to you, then you've just ruined a child's birthday party by failing to consider someone else. Or let's say that the package has been shaken and the cookies are every which way and the icing is a little smeared. If it doesn't matter to you, take that one. Leave the picture-perfect cookies for someone who has an investment in a need for cookies today.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Every decision should be a measured one. There are no inconsequential decisions. Every choice we make either demonstrates that we're thinking of God and others...or we are not thinking at all. No matter what we do, we should constantly be demonstrating that we are a people of faith - a people committed to love, a people satisfied in God, a people thoughtful about our lives.

Cookies may seem like a silly example, but only, I guess, if you really don't care much about cookies. But put yourself in someone else's shoes. Maybe you're the one who needs cookies for something special. Imagine yourself behind someone who "doesn't care," who isn't putting something together and just wants cookies for this reason or that. Imagine listening to her say, "Well, I guess I'll take this one" and grabbing the last package of what you need for your event. She doesn't even care. She didn't even stop to think about anyone. She didn't consider what was right in front of her face, plain to see. She was disengaged because, hey, it's just cookies to her. She never once thought it might be more than cookies to someone else.

That's what faithful decisions are about - they're about staying engaged. They're about being locked in on life and fully invested in it. They're about figuring out what love is in any given situation, no matter how big or how small. They're about choosing to honor God and to love others with our choices, even when they seem inconsequential. They're about humbling ourselves when we can and remembering there's a world beyond our own borders. There are no inconsequential decisions in life. Every decision we make impacts us and impacts others, and that means that every decision is a holy one. And that means every decision should be a faithful one.

Our class has not yet been able to gather together again, so I haven't been able to tell them that I actually agree with this woman who said that what she does with her body is the same to her as picking up cookies in the grocery store. But I plan to tell them just that. Not because neither decision matters much, but precisely because they both matter immensely. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

A Commitment to Excellence

For reasons I still don't entirely understand, I have been taking on a lot of landscaping projects this summer. I'll admit that there's something about the finished product, something about the end result that gets to me. I just love the way the land looks without all those weeds and all that overgrowth in it, when the flowers are free to finally pop through or the vegetables take root and start to flower. When the mulch still smells fresh. 

I post pictures on social media of my conquests because, well, isn't that what we do these days? My hope, honestly, is to inspire others with something beautiful, to give them a glimpse of new life breaking through, to show them what things can look like with a little hard work - the pay off is amazing. 

But, as social media tends to go, I can't control the responses of others and my intentions don't always hit the nail, and so one thing I've heard over and over again as I post one clear ground after another, one new bloom after another, is: Wow. That's amazing. Are you available for hire?

The answer is both "almost always, yes" because I like to work and I like to bless others, but also "ugh, no" because the truth is...I hate landscaping. Hate it. The only around-the-house task that I hate more than landscaping is painting. Honestly. Now, when I tell others that I hate landscaping, the typical response is something like, "But you're so good at it!" 

To which I say, never confuse completing a task well with the enjoyment of said task. In other words, just because I do something well doesn't mean I've enjoyed doing it. 

You've probably heard that you should do everything as though for the Lord. Work every job with His glory in mind. This is exactly what we're talking about. You don't have to enjoy something to do it well, and you don't have to enjoy it to do it for His glory. So when you look at pictures of my garden all tilled up or with the flowers showing through or next to its 'before' picture with all the weeds that are now gone, it's not because I got 'in the groove' and loved what I was doing and labored to do it to perfection. 

It's because from the very moment that I began the project, I committed myself to doing it with excellence, as though for the Lord. It's because I knew when I took it on that the end result says something about the kind of person that I am, and because I am a person who loves God and who is loved by God, the end result ought to say something about what that means. And what that means is that I give wholly of myself, do things well, finish the job, and take ownership of my work. 

In fact, if I cannot do these things, then I will not even begin the task. I just won't take it on. If it's something that I think is unlikely to end as a witness to His goodness and grace, then I don't do it. Because if I half-heart it, if I leave it unfinished, if I take shortcuts through it, if I do only the bare minimum instead of the full work, then that says something about who I am, too - and whatever says something about who I am says something about who my God is. 

Our lives are full of tasks we don't enjoy, but things that must be done nonetheless. Our days are filled with invitations to do things we don't love, but often for persons who we do love. We don't have the luxury, nor should we pretend that we do, of simply opting out of everything that doesn't bring us joy. Some things are just part of life. 

But nor do we have the luxury of doing the bare minimum on them, of just squeaking by, of doing just enough to check a box off a list and doing things, but not doing them well. Everything we do is for the Lord, everything for His glory. The work we undertake in the world, whether we love it or hate it, says something about who we are and that means that it says something about who our God is. Which means that when you look at the end result of something I've done for you, I want you to know, without a doubt, four things: I love God. God loves me. God loves you. I love you. 

And that's what excellence says. All of that. 

Do everything as though you are doing it for the Lord, for His glory. Because you are. 

Even if you hate landscaping. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

One Another

For the past couple of days, we've been looking at the idea of moving into a new community without joining it, based on the real-life example of a small family moving to a new place who has refused to even visit with local churches and plans instead to start their own fellowship venture. We have seen some of the dangers of this type of thinking - both for the community at large and for the fledgling faithful in the new venture. 

But this is also something worth grieving over for the established church, for the fellowships that are already in place. 

When you start your own fellowship, it's usually because you have some ideas you're unwilling to let go of, some things you're so sure you're right about that you're not willing to leave them up to anyone else. It's very difficult to grow in your own fellowship because you're the one who sets the parameters for it, so anyone who pushes the envelope or challenges you can easily be dis-fellowshiped, leaving you stuck in your own limited understanding forever. To someone who wants to start their own fellowship, this is often a very important truth. In fact, it's one of the selling points - I get to do faith my way. 

Fair enough, if that's your thing. But here's something else to consider: When you don't join up with a messy fellowship, you don't make them better. You don't offer them your gifts. You don't use what God has given you for the edification of His people and the glory of His name. You keep it hidden in small, safe spaces where it can never be challenged, but it can never be a blessing, either. You never challenge anyone else to grow in their faith. You never encourage anyone else to grow in their faith. 

Now, a natural response to this would be, "I'm right here." If they want to be challenged and grow, then they should join my fellowship because that's what I'm all about. That's what I started it for. I wanted to reach out to others who want what I've got, who are ready to be pushed by me and want to grow in a certain direction. 

That, of course, is an extremely arrogant attitude. It sets you up as the great teacher, the untoucahble rabbi, the one-to-be-sought after when, let's just be honest, Jesus spent His ministry going to others. Are you better than Jesus? Do you have more to offer than He does? He even went to the disciples, to the persons He intended to call into His close fellowship and inner circle. He went out and made His small group; He didn't just stand on a high mountain and call them to come to Him if they were interested in salvation. He took every bit of His heart and grace and ministry to the people. 

It's also a very lonely place to be. Because when you set yourself up as the standard and hold this attitude that anyone who wants what you've got will come to you, it doesn't take long before you realize that not a lot of persons are coming. Maybe they come at first, but maybe they don't stay long. So your little fellowship fizzles, and it becomes a personal failure. You can't help but take it as a referendum on you, and maybe it is. But it will probably make you angry at some point if you feel rejected personally. 

Anyway, I digress. See, when you don't offer your gifts to the fellowship in a place, when you don't share who you are with a people on the same journey as you, when you don't bring yourself to the work of God ongoing not just in a community, but in the hearts of His people, they miss out on something incredible. Yes, I really mean that. 

I attend a church that has been through a lot of flux over the years. So many of the persons who were there when I entered in twenty years ago have moved on, for one reason or another, and I miss them. I miss the different gifts of heart that they had, the ways that they were shaping my faith. I have had the opportunity to run into a few of them recently and share brief, but meaningful conversations, and I see the way their hearts come out even in the words they speak. And I can't help but think how different my own faith would look right now if these persons were still in my fellowship, if these persons were offering me the gifts of their lives in order to push me to grow in my own. These persons know so much about faith that I want to know. They have lived so well, and I want to live well like that. 

Here's just a small example: a lot of the persons who surround my faith right now are the 'teaching' type. Ask them what they hope for their children, and they'll tell you all of the things they are trying to teach their kids. They'll tell you all of the things they hope their kids learn. They'll tell you the way they are guiding their children toward this or that. I ran into a man who used to be in my fellowship a few weeks ago in the grocery store, and he was telling me about the ways that his kids had grown up. I asked what they were doing now, and he told me stories about how they had come to the places they are and the conversations they had had along the way. And he said, "I told them, 'just tell dad what to be praying for.'" He's not a teacher, like I am surrounded by right now; he's an encourager. It's a whole different skill set, an entirely different heart. 

Listen, I'm not saying that the teachers are wrong. That's not it. What I am saying is that if everyone in my fellowship is a teacher, then I will learn to be a teacher. But an encourager, just one encourager, can change my faith in a dynamic way  - and in fact, one short conversation in a grocery store has. I miss this man in my fellowship. And when I spoke with him, I missed him in my heart. Because of the way his faith grows mine. I miss that. I'm missing that. 

This is what you do when you enter in to a messy fellowship - you bring them a gift that they may not have without you. You offer them something that maybe they're missing. If you truly believe that you have something to offer to God's people, why wouldn't you do that? Why wouldn't you go to where God's people are and bring your gifts with you? The church needs you. It's messy. It's broken. It's getting some things right and some things wrong. It's growing. It's finding itself. It's losing itself. It's probably not everything you want, and it might not be everything it wants to be. But it needs you. 

That's why you join the church.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Where Should We Eat?

There is a real danger - in fact, there are many real dangers - in not pursuing real community within the church. Yesterday, we introduced some of these ideas by talking about the real-life case of a family moving to a new place and beginning a new fellowship in their own home without even considering any of the multitude of existing fellowships in the area. They are a family who is moving in with no intention of joining in. 

The truth is that in communities all around the world, the local church is already in motion. Often, many local churches are already in motion. They have already identified the hearts of their fellowships and the needs of their communities and done what they can to start reaching out in a way that is meaningful. When you refuse to look at the communities that exist, you essentially force yourself to reinvent the wheel again. You know what it is that you want, but you don't do the hard work of identifying where there's already a fellowship with the same heart. So it's incumbent upon you to build it all over again when, in fact, it's probably been thriving in that place for quite awhile already. 

This is a lot of work, unnecessary work, and the sad reality is that most who set out to start their own fellowships will never move beyond what they wanted to get out of them in the first place. They won't take the steps out into their community because it's simply too hard to identify the needs, to figure out the logistics, to make the plans, to take the actions. It's too easy to worry more about feeding your own soul than serving your neighbors, and it's easy to seclude yourself from the real world that you live in. It's easy to miss all the needs around you. 

That's where the local, established church has the advantage. Because the needs of this community have already been knocking on their doors for decades. The people have been letting them know what they need. The poor, the naked, the hungry, the sick, the scared, the homeless, the defeated, the suicidal have always sought out the church for help. They aren't likely to come knocking on the door of "Bob's Small Home Fellowship," but they line up outside the Methodist church on the corner, waiting for the pastor to arrive. You don't have to go looking for need; it's right there in front of you. 

But let's say that you and your little fellowship do find the need in your community and you set out to meet it. How do you do that without stepping on the toes of your brothers and sisters who have already been at it for generations? 

This is a legitimate concern. It's easy to say, "Who cares who's doing it, as long as God's work is getting done?" And there's a certain truth to that. But the bigger truth is that when you compete with your brothers and sisters, you encourage the world to start judging Christians instead of accepting the grace of God. 

Our community churches have teamed up together to provide meals for the hungry. In our county, there is somewhere to get a free meal every night of the week, plus food assistance in between at many places. Now, it could have been that each of these churches decided to feed the hungry and set up their own program without ever talking to one another. In that case, you might have four or five meal options on Tuesday and none on Thursday or Saturday. 

With that kind of system, the hungry have a choice to make. Which meal do we eat? Do we eat the one with the 5-star chef? Or the one with the mac n cheese the kids like so much? Do we go to the one with tablecloths all decked out like a top-notch restaurant or the one with card tables set up in the hallways to accommodate the need? All of a sudden, it's not about being thankful for the people of God who graciously provide food to the hungry - it's a competition. It's about Grace Church providing a better option than Mercy Road Fellowship so that they can justify their costs and build their reputation and so on and so forth, and the hungry? The hungry are trying to figure out which group of believers they like more...instead of coming to know the God that drives them all.

And it leaves the need unmet unnecessarily. When churches work together, the hungry can eat every night. But when they do their own thing and step on each other's toes, maybe the hungry can only eat two or three nights a week.

So to be a responsible member of your community, you're going to run up against the communities you refused to even consider at some point. You're going to discover the ongoing work you didn't even bother to investigate. You're going to meet brothers and sisters with the same heart as you, if you're responsible about coordinating the work together to make sure the glory of God is primary and the needs are truly met. And you might just be surprised to find what you were looking for all along.

That's why it's important to not just go out and do your own thing. First, it's a lot of work that you don't have to be doing. If you team up with an established fellowship, you can trust that they already know the needs of their community and are already mobilizing in that direction. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. (You're still free, of course, to start a new program or to help draw attention to a need they haven't picked up as a cause, but the groundwork is all there.) Second, you don't end up competing against your brothers and sisters and drawing away from the glory of God that you all intended to show in the first place. Third, you make sure the need is being met in a meaningful way. And finally, you might find that the fellowship you were looking for was there all along. You just missed it because you didn't even look. 

But wait...there's more. Come back tomorrow to discover how your little fellowship not only competes with established fellowships for your community's affections, but cheats those churches out of something very precious and valuable.