Tuesday, September 29, 2020


When we talk about growth, even growing Godward, we have to figure out what a reasonable expectation is. The Bible puts a pretty high standard on it - God says to be perfect because He is perfect. And if we truly live as citizens of heaven, then we believe in perfect things. 

Trust me. This gets me into a lot of trouble. Because I believe in perfect things. I believe things ought to be knowable and doable and that they ought to follow a predicted order. Not just any old order, but a certain wisdom that there is to the world because God put it there. And one of the things that slows me down and trips me up in this world more than anything else is the eye that I have for the 'ought to be.' I want so badly to live like the ought to be...actually is. 

And yet, we know that there is no such thing as perfection on this side of Eden. If perfection is our goal, we don't stand a chance. We're never going to get there, not as long as we live in a broken flesh. 

So this creates some tension. Doesn't it? On the one hand, perfection is the aim; we cannot let our sights be set on anything less than God's wisdom and glory. On the other hand, it's unattainable for us here; it's just not possible. That leaves us with really two options - we can keep beating ourselves up and feeling like failures every day because we are not perfect, because we always have our eyes on ways that we can be better at something, do better at something, live better somehow. Or we can modify our definition of what it means to grow, even to grow Godward. 

This is something - maybe you know this by now - that I wrestle with a lot. It's something I've been wrestling with for a long time. I just can't seem to let go of perfect. And the most challenging part of all of this is...I don't think I have to. 

I think what we need is to develop eyes for the kind of perfect that is in line with God's love and God's will and God's wisdom - the things that we are told are perfect - but we have to develop a heart for goodness, or in the case of a life being lived, I think we can call it 'fruitfulness.'

Think about any plant that produces anything - flowers, fruits, nuts, whatever. There aren't any two that are the same. No two apples are just alike. No two flowers are perfectly identical. No two trees, even if you planted them from the seeds of the same fruit, will grow up to be exactly alike. Because nature doesn't work this way. Trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, they don't think about being 'perfect;' they think about being fruitful. They do whatever they can, and whatever they have to, to bear fruit into this world. 

That's how we get all these really neat-looking root systems. On my walks with my dog in the morning, I see tree roots that have grown around full in a circle and gone back toward the place where they began because they hit pavement and ran out of room to grow in their first direction. I've seen flowers bloom out of cracks in the curb because that's the place that was open for them to spread. It's easy to look at something like this and think that these living things have only their survival on their mind, that they'd do whatever they had to just to survive, but that's not it. The tree is not satisfied just to be a tree; it wants to bear fruit. The flower is not happy just to be a stem; it wants to blossom. All of creation is wired for this kind of fruitfulness. So are we. 

And that's what growth - good, holy, God-pleasing growth - is about. It's not about achieving perfection; God knows we'll never get there. It's about pushing through toward fruitfulness, toward finding new ways to mature into bringing beauty and nourishment into this world. It's about showing more of the colors and nutrients that God has put in you to display. It's about constantly finding a way to push through and blossom. 

Most of us wait until we have our stem just right before we dare to bloom, but Godward growth is about blooming anyway. It's about taking that risk and putting it out there and letting it be shaped , even by this broken world. 

Which is part of the beauty of it all, too. From a distance, the fruitful plant looks spectacular, but when you get down right next to it, you see all the ways this broken world is eating at it. You see all the little bugs crawling around, all the sun-scorched spots, all the dried-up leaves. You see every way this world is getting to it, and yet, it doesn't let those things stop its fruitfulness. Not when it has become mature. 

This is growth. This is what God desires from us. That we would have eyes for what is perfect, yes, so that we see His wisdom and will and love in everything. But that we would also set our hearts on fruitfulness because we're growing in a broken world where perfect isn't plausible, but goodness absolutely is. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Growth and Change

When we talk about what it means to be constantly growing Godward, it's easy to misread that and to think that it means that we are constantly changing. How are we ever supposed to be a dependable people if we're constantly changing? How are we supposed to be in relationship with others, let alone with God and self, if who we are today is subject to change tomorrow? 

This line of thinking requires that we pause for a moment and define what growth is and what it isn't. Growth doesn't necessarily mean change; sometimes, it means simply development. A newborn baby grows into an adult, but that doesn't change the fundamental nature of the human being who is doing the growing. In the same way, a seedling sprouts and grows but doesn't change what it becomes. So we can't let the idea of growth make us believe that there's something unstable about it. Rather, growth is one of the most predictable, stable processes there is. 

That doesn't mean that you can't use growth for change. If you find that you're on a path that you don't particularly like or that is not leading to where you thought you were going, you can absolutely grow in a new direction. But to simply say that you're growing does not imply that you're changing. 

Now, here's what's cool about it: embracing a constant state of growth means that you get to choose all over again the things that you want to be. You get to keep choosing to be those things you want to be. You get to decide today and tomorrow and the day after that if that's someone you still want to be - if you want to keep it the way it is, take another step down that road, or turn around and try something else. 

Here's a somewhat silly example from my recent life. 

When I purchased my first vehicle, I was a young Christian. I was the kind of Christian who had her Christianity plastered all over everything. I had every Christian T-shirt and jewelry and bumper sticker and all the right books. I got a Jesus fish (ichthus) emblem for the front of my car, and I got a "Praise the Lord" license plate frame for the back of it. That was nearly 20 years ago. 

This past weekend while trying to change my license plate with a defective bolt posing a bit of a problem, I broke my "Praise the Lord" license plate frame. Now, 20 years is good for what is essentially very thin plastic. But the thing is, I really like the way these words are cut out and just the overall design of the thing, and they don't make them like this any more. Trust me; I've looked. And the truth is, I can't find a "Christian" license plate frame that I like any more. I like the one I had. 

Over the past twenty years, however, my faith has also grown. I don't plaster it all over everything like I used to because I understand that my faith is evidenced in the way that I live, not in the way that I decorate. And I have other interests now, too, which would make for good license plate frames. For example, I love my dog. Paw prints are great decor. I also found a beautiful butterfly frame that I like. Also, good decor. 

So the question becomes - who am I? Am I the kind of person who puts my love for my dog on my car? My fondness for butterflies and beautiful things? Or am I still that person who puts my love for Jesus on my car? 

When I first chose that frame, I chose it because I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. (Let's just be honest about how our faith starts out.) But when I considered what I want to do with this now-empty space, the decision was about how I will feel driving that car. What do I want to be reminded of when I get into it? What do I want to feel sitting behind the wheel? What do I want my car to say to me, rather than about me? 

So here I am, twenty years from where I was. If I decide to put another "Christian" license plate frame on my car, does that mean I haven't changed? If I decide to go with paw prints, does it mean that I have? If I choose something other than "God" as my decor, does that mean that my faith is less real and vital to me today than it was back then? If I choose "God," does that mean my faith is exactly the same as it was when I first came into it? 

See, this is what we're talking about. The choice that I make in this situation already signals my growth in the way that I am choosing to make it. My life is, by its very design, different twenty years after I first made this decision. The way I approach this is different than it was back then. The considerations on my heart are different. That doesn't mean that I am different, that I have changed; it means that I have grown. I am now in a place where my top consideration is what I need to hear, not what I want to say. 

Which means that if I choose to replace my license plate frame with another "Christian" one, it will be because I have considered it, and I am choosing it again. Not because I chose it 20 years ago, but because I choose it again today. For different reasons, perhaps, and with a different process, but it will be a choice that I make in this season and no other. And if I choose it again, or even if I choose against it, it will be an evidence of growth. Godward growth, as in this case, it is an evidence of the way that my faith has developed over twenty years of living it. 

Disclaimer: Right now, the old license plate frame is currently upside-down on my car, the way that it would still fit. So don't judge me by that, either. The car looks so bare without one, and I haven't settled on a replacement yet.) 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Growing Godward

Life is a journey. You've probably heard that, and if you've lived even a few days of it, you know that to be true. Our lives are about building upon yesterday toward tomorrow, always taking one step closer toward where we want to be without losing sight of where we are today. It's a challenge, but the meaning of life is found in the living of it, and our stories are being written anew every second. 

The world would like to convince us that our progress is linear. That is, we start at point A and end up at point Z, having gone through B, C, D, E....etc. all in order. The world tells us that if we want to build a life, there is a natural way to do it, certain steps we must take. Just take something so simple as the work that we desire to do. The world says that once you set your eyes on your dream job, you just have to finish high school, get the proper post-graduate education, enter in at a certain type of company in a certain type of position, take three steps in such-and-such a direction, accept a promotion into a certain department, and before you know it, you've worked your way up the ladder to where you want to be - one step at a time. 

Or take something like romantic love or family life. If you want to have your own family, then you start by figuring out what you want in a mate and pursue persons who fit your criteria. Then, you date for awhile. Then, you get engaged. Then, you get married. And when you're settled down into life as just the two of you, you start trying to add children as you desire. There's a natural flow to the way things develop, and it's all linear and predictable. 

This kind of thinking can lead us to believe that we are entitled to whatever comes next in our plan. If we have built a way to get to what we want and if we follow the steps faithfully, then every time we are ready to take the next step forward, the world ought to be waiting to greet us with open arms. Oughtn't it? This is how the world says it is done, so shouldn't the world be on board with doing it this way? 

Because of our understanding of this, it becomes very difficult when things don't go our way. When we don't get to take that next step when we think we're ready for it. When point C doesn't get us to point D when and where we wanted it to be. When we realize that sometimes, point C takes us back to point B for a season. 

I used to think I was entitled to step into the next thing. I used to think that because I'd been doing things the right way and following the right plans and because I had come so far down the road that I have traveled, it was only natural that it was time for me to take the next step. And I have expected the world to oblige. But of course, it doesn't. 

And after many wrong turns and detours and backtracks and traffic cones, I find that...I'm actually glad that it doesn't. I'm glad that the world doesn't let me just travel the path that I've set out for myself, or even the path that I believe God has set before me. Because the real journey I'm taking is so much richer, so much more fulfilling, and has so much more potential than my limited vision ever could have seen coming. 

It's frustrating sometimes to not be where I want to be or where I think I ought to be by now (and who ever gave me that idea?), but the truth is that I'm at a point in my life where I'm satisfied by the journey. With one caveat: 

As long as I'm growing. 

Rather than being super-interested in destinations or outcomes or landmarks or whatever, I have just one thing on my heart - growing Godward. I want to be learning something every day. I want to be doing something better every day. I want to be more humble, more focused, more content, more kind, more whatever. Just, Lord, keep me growing. Keep me becoming the person You have created me to be. 

The truth is that in all the seasons of my life that haven't worked out the way I thought they should, with every single thing I felt entitled to that never came about, I have found myself embraced in deep seasons of growth that have made me into more of the person I want to be, a person created in the image of God. 

The irony, of course, is that if you let it, then every single season of growth can make you just feel more entitled to the thing you've been waiting on, but you can't do that. You can't let growth be the means to the end; growth is the end game. Growth is what we're going after. At least, it's what I'm going after. 

And so, if God doesn't see fit to clear the path for me and to make it an easy step into the next thing, then so be it. I still pray for those things, but not as much. Now, I just pray that He keeps growing me toward them. That He keeps making me ready for when those doors do open. That He prepares my heart to be deeply satisfied in Him so that I don't find my satisfaction anywhere else. 

That He just keeps me growing Godward, no matter which road I'm on or where the next detour takes me. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Civil Proceedings

As we wrap up our look at the goodness of God as expressed in the minor prophets (and this has been only a glimpse - the minor prophets are full of this stuff), we'll look at one more passage. This one is in Micah 6.

God is frustrated with His wayward people (are you noticing a theme yet?), and He determines to bring His judgment upon them. Here we are again, presented with the greatness of God - the all-powerful, all-mighty, sovereign nature of God that can just bring judgment on His people because of His righteous anger. As we said earlier this week, that's every bit His right in His greatness. 

And it's kind of what we're all afraid of, isn't it? We're afraid that God's just going to decide to rain down judgment on us. We're terrified that we will upset Him somehow, and He'll just come in judgment without giving us a chance to even understand what we did. So many of us live our lives afraid of making a single mistake because we have this idea of a difficult God with such high standards and a short fuse. A lot of us fear that one day, we will blink and find ourselves in Hell without any idea what we did to end up there. Some of us, if we don't have this thought now, have had this thought before. 

But Micah offers us a word that ought to bring us comfort, if we read it for what it's worth and not in the eyes of our own fear or preconceived notions. Micah says, "The Lord has filed a lawsuit against his people. He is arguing his case against Israel."

It is easy to read this with an eye for God's greatness and think, well, we're doomed. The Lord is dragging us into the courtroom where He'll lay out all our sins in front of us and give us the death penalty. If we're not careful, this verse can reinforce the misconceptions that we have about God's judgment. 

Now, read it with an eye for His goodness. 

Because the thing about a lawsuit is that you have to bring evidence. When you present your case, you have to lay it all out on the table. You have to show not just what's happened, but why it's a problem. You have to build a case to prove your point. There is no courtroom in any just place in all the world (and justice is important because our God is just) where "because I said so" constitutes any reasonable proof. No matter who you are. 

If there's anyone in all the universe who ought to be able to say "because I said so," it's God, but the fact that He brings His case into a courtroom, that He compares it to a lawsuit and to a case He wants to present, means that He doesn't want to rely on His authority. He wants you to see the evidence for yourself. 

He wants to lay it all out on the table and not just show that it's broken, but show why it's a problem. He wants to help you get a vision for the things that He sees and why they bug Him so much. And it's not about proving you sinful and despicable and horrible; it's about being honest about where things are missing, where there's room to grow. One of the cool things about the goodness of our God is that He doesn't keep things from us; we don't have to guess what He's thinking. He's willing to bring the evidence and show us. He's willing to put it on the table in front of us. All we have to do is show up and be willing to face it. 

One of the other cool things about the goodness of our God is that He's not looking for a condemnation. If He were, it would be a criminal court and not a lawsuit. Lawsuits are civil. They are about showing a burden of error, of injustice, of neglect, or whatever. You aren't condemned in a civil court; you are only found liable. You are shown exactly how your broken things got you here, and you are given the structure around you to make it better. 

Which means that God's case against you is an encouragement for you to keep growing. 

Now, that's good

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

People with a Price

We're talking this week about God's goodness as written in the so-called minor prophets, and today, we turn our attention to Hosea. 

Hosea is an interesting story because he is the prophet who God called to marry a prostitute as a witness to the Lord's relationship with His wayward people. When we read the Old Testament, this makes perfect sense. We watch Israel wander again and again, always seeming to turn away from God, never able to just do what He tells them is best for them and what He wants them to do. Those silly Israelites. Don't they get it? We can see why God called them prostitutes. 

It's a bit harder when we start to think about ourselves. (This isn't even the point of today's post - so keep reading.) On one hand, we're generally ready to admit that we're not perfect and we're probably not doing everything that God wants us to do, but on the other hand, most of us would consider ourselves pretty faithful Christians. We go to church on Sunday. We read our Bible. We tithe. We worship. We serve. We do the things we're supposed to be doing, and we do them with some measure of regularity. If you ask us if we're faithful Christians, the answer is...yeah. We're a pretty faithful people. 

This is, by the way, the same frame of self-reference that leads a majority of us to think we are more 'good' than the average human being. Mathematically, half of us are not, but that doesn't stop us from thinking that we are. 

So anyway, Hosea marries a prostitute because God's people are pretty easy when it comes to the world, and something interesting happens in Hosea 3. If you're reading too fast, you'll miss it, so slow down. God tells Hosea to go and sleep with his wife and have children. And Hosea does. 

But he has to pay her wages to do it

Hosea has to pay the prostitute's price to his wife in order to sleep with her and have children. Even though he's her husband. Even though he's shown his faithfulness. Even though they made a commitment to one another. Even though they are in a covenantal relationship. Hosea pays his wife for the privilege of sleeping with her. 

And here we are, a people who are constantly demanding a sign from God. Constantly asking Him to prove Himself. Constantly begging Him to reveal Himself. Always holding back a little bit of our faithfulness until He proves - again - that He's worthy of it. 

That's where the goodness of God comes in...because He does it. He keeps doing it. He keeps paying the price for our relationship. He keeps showing us how good He is. He keeps showing us how committed He is. We're in a covenantal relationship with Him, and He's proven Himself, but He keeps paying our price for the chance to love us. 

He sent His Son to the Cross for us. Not because we're faithful, but because He is. 

And He's coming back again. Not because we're faithful, but because He is. 

That's His goodness. He shows us that through a prophet that marries a prostitute.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

From Greatness to Goodness

By now, you're probably wondering what it looks like when the minor prophets show us the goodness of God. Well, look no further than the opening chapters of Amos. Really.

As Amos opens, God is condemning the nations. All of them. (Or, it seems like all of them.) He is frustrated with all the people in all the world, His people and the people He's put around His people. They have all committed "three sins" and "now four," and it's all He can take. He's ready to show them who's God and who's not. He's ready for them to pay the price for their waywardness and sin. 

A brief interjection - this is the 'greatness' of God. This is His power and might. This is His justice and judgment. This is that big-picture-God stuff we've been talking about, where He is Lord over all the earth and can act however he pleases with it. As a 'great' God (think: big, powerful, all-encompassing), He has every right to rain down His judgment on these peoples who are messing up the plan He had for things. So this is exactly what we're talking about when we talk about the greatness of God. 

But this is a minor prophet, and there's an emphasis on the goodness of God here, too. All you have to do is pay attention to how this story unfolds. 

When God pronounces His judgment on these sinful peoples who have committed not just three, but four sins, every pronunciation starts with the same promise - He is going to set fire to the walls of their cities and burn down their palaces. Over and over again, this is what He says. Set fire to the walls and burn down the palaces. Every time. 

Maybe you're thinking - that doesn't sound 'good.' Wait for it, though...

Every judgment begins this way, but every one ends differently. It's so cool. One people will go into captivity. One people will die. One people's king will go into captivity along with his officials. One nation's officials will die, and the army will die in war. 

Here's why this matters: because when we hear that God is going to set fire to the walls and burn down the palaces, it's easy to think that this is all just the same action that God is doing. That this is just something about God that is true. That this is who He is. He is a God who rains down fire and burns down walls and palaces to destroy His peoples. And when we think that, it's easy for us to think that God is just waiting to do that to us, that He just can't wait to send His fire down on us, too. After all, that's what He does, right?

But what Amos reminds us even in these judgment prophecies is that God doesn't deal with us only on the basis of who He is, but He encounters each and every one of us on the basis of who we are, too. Not one of these peoples committed exactly the same sin, nor were any of these peoples the same peoples. They all had their own histories and their own relationships with God and their own waywardness. God - if He is really good - cannot simply deal with them all in a one-size-fits-all manner. He has to meet them individually...even in His fire. 

Even when He looks like the same God in His greatness, in His goodness, He is the very intimate God who is in a specific relationship with each one of us. He is the God who knows that this nation deserves to die, but this nation deserves captivity, while this one over here needs only to have her leaders taken away. 

The same is true in your life and mine. We each have a very specific relationship with God, and He acts out of that unique relationship that He has with us. He knows what we need and while in His greatness, He remains an all-powerful, all-right, all-righteous God, He is faithfully good with us, too, and knows how to give us just what we need...or deserve. Not just because of who He is, but because of who we are, too, and how He loves us.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Great is Our God

Yesterday, we introduced the so-called minor prophets and talked about the idea that while the 'major' prophets (like Jeremiah and Isaiah) show us the greatness of our God, it's the minor prophets who really have a voice for His goodness. That's precisely because their prophecies are so intimate, so specific, so tailored to a certain time and place and people and are less about God's grand scheme for everything and more about His nearness right now. 

That's not to say that it's not important to understand the greatness of our God. It absolutely is. We have to always keep our eyes for the big picture, for the grand scheme, for the scarlet thread that is woven throughout creation and that takes us from 'in the beginning' to 'forever and ever, amen.' We have to understand how big and mighty and powerful God is and how He's capable of managing the world that He's created. We have to maintain a vision for how He's working all things together for good and how everything fits into His wise design. 

But at the same time, if our faith is constantly focused on how great God is - how big and vast and powerful and in control He is - then we start to lose our intimate connection with Him. We start to lose sight of how near He is. We start to let go of that deep love that He has for us. 

This has historically been man's challenge with his gods (as we saw a bit last week when talking about Nebuchadnezzar) - when a god doesn't have a personal relationship with its people, it's easy to just become worshipers. To just bring offerings. To just do enough to earn the god's favor when it is needed. To spend your whole life trying to placate a god so that it isn't angry with you and might even do something nice for you out of all of its god-like powers. When a god doesn't have a personal relationship with its people, the whole relationship becomes transactional - give-and-take, approved-or-disapproved, tit-for-tat. And that's precisely the relationship that God doesn't want with us.

Yet, any one of us must be honest and say that it's easy for us to fall into that rhythm of 'worship.' It's easy for us to get transactional with God. It's easy for us to approach Him like any deities man has ever tried to curry favor with and to think that somehow, it's all about our getting it right and bringing the right offerings and doing the right things in order to have God 'like' us. 

Never mind that He loves us. 

And it's precisely because of this - it's precisely when we get into a mode where we are focused on the greatness of our God and start neglecting to study just as much His goodness that it's easy to create that distance between us and Him. It's easy to think of Him as just some God sitting in the heavens, waiting to either bless or curse us. 

The truth is that this world is full of things that are bigger than we are. We don't really need another one. That's why this concept of God can get so exhausting so fast. It can make us feel small, and not in a good way. What we need is an understanding of the intimacy of our God. How near He comes to us. How close He draws to us. How small He makes Himself to fit all His greatness into our lives in all of these expressions of His goodness. We need to stop having a faith that thinks the end game is that God would 'like' us and start living as a people who begin knowing His deep love for us. 

It starts with the kinds of messages that the minor prophets give us. And in our hearts, we know that. We know that's what our souls are looking for. Most of us are more moved to worship by one powerful, meaningful, intimate word about our very real lives than by a thousand words about the power of God to pull the universe's strings. We'd rather know from our own experience the tiniest bit of God's goodness than to have intellectual certainty about His greatness. Even if we were to come to a place where we could truly believe that our God likes us, it will never do for our souls what one heartbeat of His love does. 

It's cool and everything that the God who made me also made the universe, but that's not a solid foundation for the kind of relationship that He wants to have with me and that my soul craves with Him. No, the foundation for that relationship is that the God who made the universe also made me. That's the kind of reminder that the minor prophets give us. That's the kind of refreshing grace that these intimate stories convey. 

Great is our God. Holy, holy, holy. But good is He, too. Let us never forget that. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Minor Prophets

You may have heard of certain books of the Old Testament being among the "minor prophets" - we're talking about guys like Joel, Hosea, Obadiah, Micah and Amos (among others). We never hear talk about the "major" prophets, though; we just call them prophets. These are guys like Isaiah and Jeremiah. And it's probably easy to see why the distinction is made - the books of the "minor" prophets are much shorter than the works of the prophets, and we hear them preached from far less regularly.

The reason, I suppose, is that the work of the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah is understood to be broader and more far-reaching than the work of the minor prophets, who often had very specific insights to share about this or that. Isaiah and Jeremiah paint with a wide brush on grand canvases, creating pictures of the greatness of our God and all of His promises. And we can't seem to get enough of that. We can't seem to get enough of that Big Story God with all of His grand design. 

But the minor prophets....

Man, this is what I love about the minor prophets - while the prophets paint these pictures of the greatness of God, the minor prophets seem to whisper the goodness of our God. 

They just...get down into my heart more and connect with that place inside of me that needs to be loved by God. Don't get me wrong. There's a place for the Isaiahs and Jeremiahs and Ezekiels of the world; there absolutely is. But think about all the crazy stuff God asked them to do, about all of the weird demonstrations they made to His people. Lie on your side for a year or so, then roll over and lie on your other side. Eat this scroll. Make a spectacle of yourself. They're just way out there and making all these giant statements, and it's easy to walk away from them knowing the power and control that God has in the world and how He's orchestrating everything just the way that He wants it. 

But then the minor prophets speak, and it's like fresh water pouring through the soul. It's all this quiet little stuff about the real kinds of lives we're living. Just all these quiet little things that...almost don't seem like anything in the grand scheme of God and yet, they are something amazing. They are so meaningful. I cannot read any of the minor prophets without God playing my heartstrings like a violin. 

When I'm reading the prophets, I'm trying to put the pieces together, but when I'm reading the minor prophets, I'm trying to hold myself together because God is just doing a number on the deepest parts of my being. 

Some have said that the minor prophets are minor precisely because their prophecies were so small and specific, because they didn't have those broad, world-managing implications that Jeremiah and Isaiah had. Because they seem to apply in a very specific place at a very specific time. And yet, they were given to us in our Scriptures and not by accident. They show us something that all the grand canvases in the world cannot contain: the intimate love of God. 

And the key to reading them is not to try to identify with the people. It's not to try to find yourself in the circumstances that are happening. It's not to try to correlate the events of the day with today's world. If you read the minor prophets with human eyes, you'll miss everything important in them. The key to reading the minor prophets is to look for the heartbeat of God. That's the essence of them. Literally every breath of these guys is a new beat of His heart. If you read through the minor prophets and don't feel the weight of God's love wrapping around you, you're missing it. You're just missing it. 

Just look at some of the images and encouragement we get from them. Amos cries out to let justice roll down like a river. Hosea reminds us of a healing we've received but haven't accepted. Micah calls us to "live justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." 

Isaiah and Jeremiah, they tell us about a coming Jesus and the way that God is working the world together for our good and His glory. But the minor prophets, they tell us about this flesh that we're living in. Right now. The very flesh we've been in since God first bent down and pulled it together and breathed life into it. 

The minor prophets...they aren't really minor at all. Not by a long shot. They are so important, so vital to our faith. We really ought to spend more time in them.

Maybe we'll start this week.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

A Living Witness

All this week, we've been looking at the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace and why King Nebuchadnezzar only called three men out of the fire when he clearly saw four. Did he miss his chance to meet the Living God? 

We've considered three theories about what kept Nebuchadnezzar from calling out the fourth man - that he might have been scared of what this very powerful God would do to him, that he might not have thought about it or thought the faithful men to be sufficient, or that he might not have believe that this God who was actively rescuing His people would respond to a person. These remain three reasons why many today still do not call God out of the fire - the world and the faithful alike. 

But there remains another elephant in the room, or in the story, and that is a possibility that seems to have never crossed Nebuchadnezzar's mind at all: he never seems to consider calling only the fourth man out of the fire. He never goes after God to the neglect of the people. 

This is important, and it gives us a couple of considerations. First, it might be so simple as to say that at the moment you realize God loves these three men, you feel a bit of an obligation to love them, too. Or to at least not do them harm. When you start to think there might be something special about them (even if it turns out that something special is about their God and not really about them), that kind of elevates them in your mind and you sort of want to take care of them. So it's possible that Nebuchadnezzar thought he was pleasing this son of the gods by calling these three men out of the fire, and it might have been an act of worship. 

But what's even more important here is that even in the unbelieving, even in the unfaithful, even in the man to whom this God was a stranger, there was never a consideration to separate this God from His people. There was not a single thought in Nebuchadnezzar's mind that he could call this God out of the fire and leave these three men in there. It wasn't an option.

There's a notion today that you can have the Christian God without having His church. That you don't have to be part of a fellowship to be a Christian. That it's perfectly okay - even maybe that it's 'good' - to go it alone. 

That's a lie. 

God, as we know Him, isn't God without His people. (Of course, He's still God, but it was He who decided to stake His reputation on His relationships, to make Himself known through covenant.) There is just so much you can't know about God without His people. 

You can't know His mercy until you see His people experience it. You can't know His grace until it's poured out. You can't know His compassion until you see Him comfort an aching soul. You can't know His love until you see it holding the broken together.

God's people are His living witness. It is through the lives and testimonies of others that we see God at work in the world and can come to know and trust Him in our own lives. It's in the multitude of examples in the human bodies all around us that we see proof again and again that God is who He says He is. That He shows us who He is. It's when you see someone walk out of the fire not even smelling like smoke that you understand something essential about this God. A lot of things essential about this God. 

And so, if you don't call the three men out of the fire, you can't call out the fourth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

An Unknown God

This week, we're looking at the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace and why King Nebuchadnezzar only called three men out of the fire when he clearly saw four walking around in there. So far, we've looked at how Nebuchadnezzar's fear of an angry God might have kept him from wanting to meet this son of the gods. We've also seen how it might have been easy for the king not to think about God at all and think the faithful Jews were enough to get him the kind of understanding he sought. 

Today, we'll introduce a third possibility: maybe Nebuchadnezzar didn't think the son of the gods would listen to him. Maybe he didn't think this God would actually come out of the fire if called. Maybe he just didn't think he had standing to talk to this God at all. 

The thing that has always been unique about the Christian God (Judeo-Christian God if we follow His thread through history to before the time of Jesus)is His personal relationship with His people. None of the other gods offered that. None of the other gods operated that way. That's not how the world thought that gods would or should act. And it remains one of our greatest obstacles in convincing the world of our God's very real love. 

It's strange, right? Nebuchadnezzar was watching with his own two eyes this son of the gods be physically present to His faithful people, literally helping them right there, right then. This son of the gods stood in a blazing hot furnace with three relative no-name men who called on His name. And as he sits there watching this son of the gods answer the men who called on Him, Nebuchadnezzar still doesn't think this son of the gods will answer him. 

Maybe, like we said on Tuesday, he just didn't think he had the standing that these "faithful" Jews had, but let's be honest - these are faithful Jews in exile because of the unrighteousness of their people. They aren't saints. They are fallen men just like the rest of us, clinging as tight as they can to something they know and believe and trust in. We can't let Nebuchadnezzar excuse himself by saying that he's just not as righteous as these men and so God probably doesn't care about him. 

We can't let the world hold onto this excuse, either. 

But they do. You know they do because you've heard them use it. They don't think God listens to them. They don't think God cares about them. They might watch God work in your life and think how great that would be, but they aren't even willing to try their own relationship with Him because they don't have an understanding of God as being that close to His people. Maybe to His faithful people, His saints, whatever....

And that's why we have to be diligent about narrowing the gap between those of us living the Christian faith and those right now on the outside of it. Because they look at us and think there's something special about us, and for whatever reason, we feed right into that. We put our participation on display and call it righteousness. We emblazon our homes, our cars, our office spaces, even our bodies with the marks of our faith so that it doesn't take much for the world to identify us as Christian...if they want to. We make it so that when they look at our faith, they see our goodness. 

Then we wonder how they never come to understand the goodness of God. 

If this world doesn't know how approachable, how near, how loving, how invested our God is in His people, it's because we haven't shown them. It's because we haven't made that the talking point of our faith. It's because we haven't centered our faithfulness on His goodness enough for them to understand that our faith isn't about our faith, but about our God. 

If this world looks into a blazing furnace and sees our God walking around with us and doesn't think He would do the same for them, we are failing our world and doing a great injustice to our God. If this world sees the son of the gods (the Son of God) coming to our side and thinks, "Man, I'd love to meet that God, but there's no way I could ever speak to Him...there's no way He would ever listen to me," then we are failing our world and doing a great injustice to our God. 

There is every chance that Nebuchadnezzar looked into that furnace and saw a god saving His people and still thought to himself there was no way that God would ever save him. And there are a lot of persons in our world watching and thinking the same thing. Which is why it's so important for us to declare Him, to always be pointing to who He is, to making sure there's no way that someone looks at us and thinks God's goodness is because of who we are. 

Because we are all but exiles, living in a foreign land and wrestling with our own unrighteousness, clinging as tight as we can to something we know and believe and trust. Thankful, and blessed, that He clings back. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Three Common Men

We're continuing to look at the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace and why the Babylonian king only called three men out of the fire when he clearly saw four walking around in there. Yesterday, we started by positing that maybe Nebuchadnezzar was afraid of the fourth man, the son of the gods, and didn't want Him to come out of the fire. 

Today, we'll consider the possibility that, well, he just didn't think about it. 

The king threw three men into the fire, and it didn't kill them like it was supposed to. So he called out the three men he was already dealing with. That makes sense. He's simply undoing the action that he himself has done. He's taking responsibility only for what he's already responsible for. It's a very natural thing to only want back what you've put in, to stay kind of locked in a certain mindset that's dealing with a specific set of variables at any given point. I have a really bad habit of not giving all of the information I have when I am asked a specific question that only requires part of it. Not because I am being deceitful, but just because I am so focused on what's right in front of me. I'm not alone in that. So it's easy to see how Nebuchadnezzar could see four men and only think about three of them. 

But maybe Nebuchadnezzar thought these three men were the safe choice. Maybe he was hoping they'd be able to teach him something about the fourth man. Maybe he wanted to hear their experience and discover from them who that guy was and what he was all about. After all, he knew these three men. They were administrators in his kingdom. They were wise men on his council. These were not mere strangers in his populous; he had a relationship with these guys. To what extent, we cannot know for sure, but their position in the kingdom assures us that they were not anonymous to him. 

That means that he's had ample opportunity to witness their faith. He's seen them in action. He has seen them kneel to pray. He has seen them stand in the face of his own call to worship. He has seen them choose again and again to do what pleases this God of theirs. Maybe what he wants is for them to teach him some of that. Maybe he thinks that they can tell him how to please their God. 

Remember- that's Nebuchadnezzar's paradigm for worship. That's the world that he lives in. People have gods, and it is up to the people to please their gods in order to earn the favor of their gods, who will in turn bestow blessings upon them. So maybe he's thinking that he wants these men to teach him how to earn the favor of a God that will literally walk into fire for them. 

This is important because this is the relationship that the world still has with its gods - and thinks it can have with ours. This is the way the world naturally operates in relationship to its gods. And so when they see our faithfulness paying off, it's easy for the world to want us to teach them how to earn God's favor. It's easy for them to want us to show them what faithfulness is. It's easy for them to turn us into their reference for all things holy and sacred and good and true. 

It's easy for this world to think that we, the faithful, can give them all the things they're actually looking for from God, without all that messy covenant stuff or whatever. They want the favor of our God without an actual relationship with Him, and they think we can give them that. 

Which is why it's so important that we continually be pointing toward our relationship with Him. Not our faithfulness and not His goodness or power, but the mutual love that we have for one another. We have to put our covenantal living in the forefront, not just our "good" living. We have to make sure that the world understands that this fourth man in the fire is not something we can give them, but Someone who has already given everything for them. We have to keep reminding them who our God is and not just that He is a god. 

Nebuchadnezzar, like most of the world, probably just wasn't thinking much about that fourth man; he thought he had all he needed with the three he already knew. So maybe it should have been Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego - and us - who turned back to the fire and called the fourth man out, proclaiming, "Hey, I have Someone I want you to meet." 

Monday, September 14, 2020

An Angry God

This week, we're looking at the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. When the king saw four men walking around unharmed in the fire, he called these three men to come out of it. But why didn't the king call out the fourth man? Why doesn't Nebuchadnezzar seem interested in meeting this 'son of the gods' he sees in his furnace?

One of the reasons Nebuchadnezzar may not call the fourth man out of the fire is simply fear. He knows that the three men he threw into the fire are faithful Jews. He knows that it is their faith in God that got them here in the first place. He knows that they just stood in his face and said they were willing to die, knowing their God could save them. Nebuchadnezzar just took three men of God and tried to burn them alive. It's not difficult to see how that might cheese off the Lord. A bit. 

Maybe Nebuchadnezzar knows that he's burned the holy city, taken all of the Jews captive, exiled them to a foreign land. Maybe he's realizing a resume of his own wickedness in his head, and he doesn't want to face the God of this anointed people. 

Maybe he's afraid that if he calls this fourth man out of the fire, this fourth man might turn around and throw him right back into it. 

This happens all the time. (Not God throwing persons into the fire, but persons being afraid to encounter God because of His potential wrath.) At just the moment that someone is prone to believe that God might perhaps be real after all - like, say, if they see Him with their own eyes, saving the people who call on His name from certain death - something inside of them grips them with fear and panic. Something inside of them thinks, instinctively, that if God really is real, then maybe all those other things they heard about Him are also true. And if those things are also true, then maybe they are in a load of trouble for messing up their lives - and the lives of others - so severely. 

It's interesting how we can watch God in the act of grace and still somehow become afraid of His anger. 

But it's because when you first come to encounter God, there's just not a lot that you know about Him. You haven't had the time that His people have had to build a relationship. You haven't invested yourself in His story. You don't know His heart. It's easy to have a bit of tunnel vision and only see this or that thing that most captures your attention and miss...well, miss a whole lot of stuff. Stuff that you can't even imagine, for one reason or another. 

This fourth man is walking around in the fire, and Nebuchadnezzar's first thought has to be, 'My furnace didn't kill these men. These men are not dying in my fire.' His first thought has to be why his plan isn't working. After all, isn't that our first thought, too? Why isn't my plan working? 

And his second thought is probably that this fourth man, this son of the gods, is stronger than his fire. This fourth man is not only walking around in there, but gives everyone else the ability to walk around in there. And that's probably as far as Nebuchadnezzar's thinking takes him. He probably never gets around to thinking that this God is walking around in this fire because of His love for these three men. 

In fact, there's no reason to believe the thought would have crossed his mind. Because in those times, you worshiped gods not with love, but with offerings. Worship was centered around pleasing a god so that you could earn its favor. Nebuchadnezzar's paradigm told him that these three men must have pleased their God and earned His favor; he could not possibly fathom that this God loved them first. 

This is one of the issues that we're up against. When the world sees our God loving us, they can't even entertain the idea. It's not in their experience; it's not in their vocabulary. The world, even the non-worshiping world - tends to have a tit-for-tat concept of its gods. That is, a god will take care of you if you please it. And that's why, when the world comes face-to-face with an undeniable presence of God, their first reaction is pure fear - if this God is real, they have not been pleasing Him. And if it's tit-for-tat and they have not been pleasing Him and this God is real, then they are in real trouble. Have you ever noticed that the first thing God says to His people is almost always, "Don't be afraid"? It's because our instinct is not to see love, but to see power and this incorrect dynamic that the world has always had with its gods (our God, of course, excepted, but even that is easy for us to forget). 

That's why we have to be diligent about making sure our message about God is a message about His love. That our talk about Him is talk of His grace. Not because He doesn't hold a high standard of truth, but because He holds His children close, wrapped in tender mercies. We have to make sure that when the world looks in the furnace and sees four men walking around, they aren't stuck with just thinking that this God is more powerful than their fire. They have to see that this God's love will walk through the flames to get to us. 

Nebuchadnezzar couldn't see that, and maybe he was afraid. Maybe that's why he didn't call the fourth man out of the furnace. 

Or maybe...(stay tuned). 

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Four Men in the Fire

You've probably heard of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. You probably know that they refused to bow down to a statute that King Nebuchadnezzar made and ordered the people to worship. You might even know that it was the jealousy of other wise men who were not so promoted that got the King's attention in the first place. And of course, you know that when King Nebuchadnezzar threw three men into the fire (killing his servants who got close enough to open the doors for the condemned), he soon saw four men walking around, untied and unscorched. 

Yes, this story is quite well-known. It's even oft-quoted. "But if my Lord does not..." But have you ever paid attention to the way that it ends?

King Nebuchadnezzar is sitting there watching this whole thing unfold. He's just watched his servants die attempting to execute his orders (and his enemies). The bodies are probably still lying there because if these men were close enough to the heat to die just by being where they were, there are certainly not a lot of volunteers to retrieve them at this point. And he sees with his own eyes four men in the fire. 

Then, King Nebuchadnezzar calls out, "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - come out of there!" 

He comes, we know, to have a rekindled respect for the God of the Jews, who has saved His faithful men from certain death. He is impressed by the personal care of this Lord who showed up for three no-name guys in a foreign land. He is willing to declare the goodness of this God. 

But did Nebuchadnezzar just miss a chance to meet Him?

There are four men in the fire. The King sees that with his own eyes. He knows three of them; in fact, he knows them very well. They are the administrators of the inmost province of his kingdom. And when, awestruck by what he sees, he only calls the three men he already knows out of the fire. He wants the men he threw in to come out. But he doesn't call out the fourth man, and he doesn't even ask his three men to bring their friend out with them. 

It's hard to know how many times I've read this story (or heard it or seen it dramatized) without realizing that Nebuchadnezzar doesn't bother to speak to the fourth man, the man he himself says looks like a son of the gods. He doesn't bother to call out this man who somehow ends up walking around in a fiery furnace and protecting everyone else in the fire. He doesn't seem to even think about asking everyone to come out of that furnace; just the men he threw in. 

Now, I find myself wondering if it was because he was scared to have the fourth man come out or if he just didn't think about it or if he didn't think it was possible that the fourth man, the son of the gods, would listen to him. 

It's an important piece to the story that we can't afford to miss - as both a faithful people of God, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and as a people prone to our own arrogance, like King Nebuchadnezzar. Coming from both of these angles, we can get pretty tied up into this story. This week, we'll look at untying some of it to see what we can learn from the simple little fact that the king only called three men out of this fire, when there were clearly four who would have something to say about it. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Aunt Mary

The world lost a remarkable woman this week. Actually, the world lost many remarkable women this week, but selfishly, I want to talk about just one of them - my great-aunt Mary. 

You see, you don't know my great-aunt Mary, but without her, you probably wouldn't know me, either. When I was a young child, we were not a Christian family. We were a 'good' family, and in the 80s, that meant I went to Christian preschool, but not for any of that "Jesus" stuff. Preschool, at the time, was one of those first-world luxuries that set you apart and gave your kids a leg up into the world that not everyone had access to, and most preschools were run by churches. To be honest with you, the Jesus stuff seemed a little hokey to me, as did all the rules about holiness and stuff...so weird. But there was a little something in the whispers (which were different than the noises that the cockroaches made in the bathroom) that just wouldn't let go of me. Or perhaps something I was unwilling to let go of. 

When I got a little older, church piqued my curiosities. I wanted to know what went on there. Not in the preschool room, but in the big sanctuary. The big, beautiful sanctuary that, I confess, almost always had some beautiful keys in it - pianos, organs, something to play on. Maybe it was the pianos that drew me into the churches; who knows? 

But no one in my family wanted to go. No one. My dad took me a couple of times, but both times, we were asked to leave before we even really got settled in. 

My great-aunt Mary, though....

She said as long as I wanted to go, she'd be happy to take me. Faithfully, for years, she'd show up in her dark blue car to pick me up for worship - me in a rare Sunday skirt with a few dollars tucked away for an offering. We'd drive out most of the time to this little country Wesleyan church with a membership you could count without taking your shoes off, and we'd sit in the pews and listen to the Word. Sometimes, we'd play music together - her on the piano, me on the drums. Or her on the organ, me on the piano. Sometimes, she'd just let me have the piano, and she would sing. 

Actually, we did that other places, too. We did a duet together when I was a young girl for my great-grandmother's birthday, I believe. And Mary composed an original song to which she handed me the sheet music without hesitation and invited me to play. 

Outside of the church, she'd pick me up on Tuesdays, and we'd go out together to what's now called the long-term skilled nursing unit of the local hospital, and we'd sit around for a couple of hours and play and sing hymns for the residents. I didn't really know the words to even Amazing Grace yet, but I felt at home in their embrace. 

It wasn't always the little Wesleyan church or the skilled nursing unit. My great-aunt Mary was something of a spiritual nomad, and so we'd often find ourselves in some of the strangest places. I remember times she would pick me up and tell me that I didn't have to dress special for the occasion. Or when we started going to the Pentecostal lighthouse, how she'd talk to me in the car and prepare me for something "different" than we'd experienced together before. 

It's strange, really - I remember her talking about such things a few times in the car, but I also remember that a lot of the time, we didn't talk much at all. We didn't have to. There was just something about the bond we were growing in the space, and I didn't feel a dis-ease that needed to be filled with noise. 

My great-aunt Mary introduced me to Jesus. I wouldn't come to know Him for real until many years later. But she showed me a breadth of faith that was rivaled only by the depth of authenticity through which Amazing Grace ran through her veins.

Our lives took us in different directions, and she had a hard road these last many years. I'm not sure if she ever knew, or understood, where I've ended up - anchored into a church, ordained, holding a Master of Divinity, serving as a chaplain, leaning and living on the faith that began so many years ago in a dark blue car that would pick me up for worship - but I know without a doubt that I would not be where I am today without her. 

The world lost a remarkable woman this week. The church lost a remarkable woman this week. My family lost a remarkable woman this week. But I am forever thankful for the time that God has given me with her and the beautiful gift of my great-aunt Mary. 

Rest in peace in the arms of Jesus, who has loved you from the start and whom you loved so well. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

A Matter of Belief

This week, we're talking about a world in need of prophets. So we started by looking at how no one really wants to be a prophet, what the gift of prophecy really is, and how we need to start with our own beliefs and be willing to declare - in truth - what is a Christian belief and what isn't. But the world needs to hear more from us than just our beliefs. 

The world needs to hear about its own.

This is challenging because we think the heart of Christianity is presenting the Gospel every chance we get, telling others why they ought to believe in Jesus, making the "case for Christ" as convincingly as possible. And while that's important, it doesn't go far enough. Because the world already has a set of beliefs that it's pretty comfortable with, so there's not a lot of motivation to adopt something new. In fact, one of the frustrations we often hear from our friends in church who have tried to evangelize is that they just can't seem to convince anyone that they need Jesus. 

That's because we think Jesus is enough to sell Jesus. We think that goodness and grace and eternity ought to be enough. We think that forgiveness, at the very least, should get someone interested. But do you realize there are all kinds of philosophies in the world that don't require forgiveness because you haven't done anything wrong? 

This is where prophecy comes in. (It's closely tied to apologetics, but it doesn't have to be.) The world doesn't just need to hear about Jesus, though that's a great place for us to start showing our grasp of what truth really is. The world needs to see its own truth revealed. It needs someone to illuminate the path that it's already on and show where the pitfalls are and where these roads are going to lead. It needs prophets who can stand up and point out the places where the world's truth isn't actually truth at all, but is just pretending. 

And we're not even talking about falsities. We're not talking about lies. We're not talking about things that are blatantly untrue, and we're not talking about conspiracy theories. What we're talking about is opinions posing as truths. We're talking about voices speaking outside of their authority. We're talking about the so-called truths being thrown into the world unquestioned because of where they come from, when there's no earthly reason to buy into them that way. 

We've seen a lot of this in recent times, particularly as relates to the pandemic. We've seen doctors come out and declare this or that medical truth based on evidence and research and the latest data that they've been able to acquire. But then, they go on to make a recommendation no longer a health issue, but a moral issue. That's outside of science's realm. When the statistics guy or the research guy or the medical guy starts telling you how you ought to act as a decent human being, he's speaking out of turn. It's no longer science. And yet, the world will put its foot down and declare that since a "scientist" said it, it must be fact. 

We see it, too, in politics. Whatever the issue is, we somehow always get away from whether the legislation of it is good or bad for the structure and order of society, and it always seems to boil down to whether or not you're a decent human being based on what you believe. Again, politics crosses a line and tries to become about morals, rather than about policy and government, and that is not the realm of politics. And yet, the world buys right into this. 

The world needs to hear which of its truths are really truths and which are just posing. They need to hear how, when we let science or politics declare morals and human decency, we are heading down a road that denies both. Actually, denies all four. Why do you think politics so seldom accomplishes anything meaningful? It's because it's stuck speaking out of turn, and now, it has to be something that it was never meant to be or it fears losing something that was never its to gain in the first place. Why do you think it's so contentious to say something so seemingly simple as "follow the science"? It's because science keeps speaking outside of its own authority and trying to take something that doesn't belong to it.

These kinds of roads lead to dangerous places, but we're living in a world that doesn't recognize the difference. The world doesn't know how to discern its own truth, let alone ours. That's why it needs prophets. That's why it needs those who see clearly. That's why it needs those who are able to pick it apart and lay it all out and show them where the lines are being crossed. 

That is why we cannot be afraid to speak. Particularly by the grace of God, who gives us vision for such things. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

In Need of Prophets

When you understand what the gift of prophecy truly is - a gift of recognizing and speaking truth, rather than a gift of foretelling the future - it's not hard to see why our world stands in such desperate need of prophets.

We need persons who see clearly God's truth in our world and aren't afraid to speak it. We need those that see the path that we are on and are able to tell us where it will lead. We need those who will stand up and say the unpopular thing because it needs to be said, not because it's going to win any friends. 

It's a hard place to be. We are often pushed into silence because of an intense pressure to fit in, to do what everyone else is doing, to be a friend to those we are journeying with. We want others to like us, and we don't want to be that person to kill all the joy. We don't want to be the prude in the bunch, and why would we? Christians have a bad reputation for being prudes, for being the first ones to say that we shouldn't be doing something, to be the ones to ruin everyone else's plans. We're the ones who, historically, have not wanted to go to the bar. Have not wanted to play cards. Have not wanted to dance. Have not wanted to kiss on the first date. And we say it all in the name of God because we have seen the path that these things can lead down, so we have declared rather boldly our intent to stay away. And our intent that everyone else stay away, too. 

But this moral adherence is not the same thing as prophecy. It's not what we're talking about when we're talking about what the world needs, not in the most pressing sense, anyway. (Of course the world needs moral guidance wherever it can get it, but there's much more that the world needs right now.) 

What the world needs most from us is our ability to see the lines and where they are getting blurred. To see where the world is trying to lump things in together that have no business being joined. To be able to identify what truth is and what truth is not. In our Christian realm and in the world's. 

It starts, as it always has to, with holding our own truth accountable. With standing up and saying what is and what is not the Christian faith. This is hard because we have been told by our culture that faith is individualized, that it belongs to each person, that it is something different to everyone and that we cannot judge what someone else believes. This leads us to take a hands-off approach even to Christian truth. And if we can't even identify and proclaim our own truth, then how are we supposed to speak to the world? 

So we start being the prophets the world needs by being the prophets of our own faith. By taking a stand against everything posing as Christianity that is no such thing at all. By declaring our allegiances and breaking the ties that bind to all else. By being willing to call out even our brothers and sisters who are holding to something less than truth and preaching something other than Christ. 

And it is happening, all around us. We're just too afraid to say anything because all of these other persons claiming a different truth makes us question the truth we're sure of. It makes us wonder if maybe we're missing something. It makes us afraid to be wrong because we know we might learn something new tomorrow. We've been told to always be curious, to always let others teach us something we don't know. 

But prophets don't work that way. Prophets know the truth and stand for it, even knowing God might turn it a different way tomorrow. Just look at Jonah. He knew that if he went and told the people of Nineveh the truth that God had spoken over them, it would cause them to change their behavior and that truth would not come to pass. And he was right. But nothing that transpired made Jonah's message any less truth. It was still absolute truth; it's just that the people listened to it. 

That's what we can hope the world does to us. Just listens. Just hears what we have to say about truth. We started today with the truth we need to start calling out in the church first, with our own truth that we need to be bold enough to declare. But there are some things the world needs to hear about itself, too, and we must be willing to speak those things, as well. 

We'll look at a couple of them tomorrow. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Gift of Prophecy

If we're going to talk about a world in need of prophets, we have to start by talking about what prophecy is - and what it isn't. The word itself has been twisted in recent generations to mean something like, "the telling of the future." But historically, that's not what God's prophets were about. 

Certainly, there were times when God's prophets foretold what was going to happen. The most famous of these is the way that we read Jesus into the "prophecies" of Isaiah and how we talk about the hundreds of Old Testament "prophecies" that Jesus fulfilled, but the word "prophecy" does not nearly capture the heart of the words that God spoke about Jesus before He got here. And frankly, I don't like it. 

I don't like it because it makes Jesus something God has just decided to do and is doing. Period. But we have to understand that Jesus was not just God's doing; He was our need. He is our need. Jesus has always been about God's love for us and His fulfillment of His promise. So when we talk about reading into the Old Testament what we should be looking for in Jesus, I'd far rather say that Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promises about Him, rather than His "prophecies." I'd far rather say that the prophets were casting a vision for who Jesus is so that we would recognize Him when He arrived, rather than just saying that the prophets were telling us what He had to be. 

But then again, that word "vision" creates a problem, too. Because we think that a vision is a picture of a future that hasn't happened yet, and that's not quite accurate, either. 

Here's why all of this is troublesome: it creates this idea in our heads that the prophets were always being given words and ideas that they had no way of understanding. When Jesus cries out on the Cross the same words that David spoke in the Psalms, we say that it's because David "prophesied" these words for Christ. To say that creates all kinds of problems. It implies that God came to David and said something to the effect of, "You won't understand this now, but I need you to say this phrase. Trust Me. People are going to love this later." And then David says these words without context, without connection, without having any relationship to them at all...and that's not the way that God works. David's words are raw and they come from his own heart; that Jesus spoke them later indicates something about Jesus, and less about David. 

So prophecy is not the telling of the future. It's not some disconnected thing where someone understands something they have no context for and just...proclaims it and hopes God comes through on the whole thing. Or even trusts that God will come through on the whole thing. Prophecy is not God giving a "word" to someone that doesn't make any sense until it comes to pass. That's not how prophecy works, and that's not how God works. 

Prophecy is a revelation of God's truth. Plain and simple. Prophecy is the gift to see how God's truth is playing out right now in front of our very eyes. It's the ability to speak what is real and to put meaningful context around what is happening. When God sent Jonah to Nineveh, He sent him with a message of truth. When God sent Jeremiah to His people, He sent him with a message of truth. When God asked Hosea to marry a prostitute, it was to convey a message of truth. When God commanded Ezekiel to lie on his side, it was to demonstrate a message of truth. 

The thing about truth is that it always tells us two things: it tells us where we are and it tells us where we're headed. It tells us whether we are on the right path and whether the path we're on will lead us to a place we want to go or not. When the prophets tell Israel they're headed for defeat, it's not because God has shown them some yet-unknown king who is going to come against them from a nation they haven't really feared yet; it's because God has revealed to them where the road they are on will take them. If they keep making the choices they are making and living the way they are living, this is where they are going to end up. 

Truth is an ability to see clearly. Prophecy, then, is the gift of seeing clearly. It's the gift of recognizing what's going on and what's going to happen as a result of that. The prophet is called not to cast a vision, but to share one - to share what his eyes see that the world doesn't want to. The prophet is called to speak truth in the present, not the future. The prophet is called to remind the world of what it wants to ignore. The prophet sees the road and where it's leading and charts a course forward in truth. 

And, in the best of Christian prophecy, in grace.

(To be continued.)

A Prophet

The life of a prophet is not an easy one. All you have to do is read some of the accounts the biblical prophets have given us, and it's pretty easy to say...I'll pass. That's not really the kind of life that I want to live. 

Elijah was drawn out into the wilderness and fed by ravens. Yes, birds brought him everything he ingested for quite awhile. Can you think of anything you want to eat out of a bird's mouth, especially a bird that is known to be a scavenger and known to feast on dead things? Do you trust a meal that is brought to you by a creature that looks at the rotting, decaying flesh of an animal long-deceased and thinks to itself, "Yum?" 

Ezekiel was called to lie on his side for more than a year. Exclusively. He had to roll over onto his side and stay there until the symbolic time of Israel's and Judah's judgment had passed. And when his time lying on one side was over, he had to roll over and lie on his other side for awhile while everyone watched. 

Ezekiel was asked to pack a bag and tunnel out of his own home in the dead of night while everyone watched. Which meant not only that he had to create a scene, but he probably had to invite others to witness his scene because most of the townsfolk would have been in their own homes after dark. 

It's one thing to do something crazy for God; it's something else entirely to have to invite others to witness it. 

Ezekiel lost his wife and wasn't allowed to cry for her. Hosea had to marry a prostitute who he knew would be unfaithful to him. Isaiah had to live naked in front of the entire community...for years. 

Yeah, the life of a prophet is not an easy one. It doesn't sound like fun. We don't read the stories of the biblical prophets and say, you know what, that sounds like fun.

Never mind, of course, that the people of God didn't even listen to the prophets. There are not a lot of stories of prophets where they speak and the people go, "Oh my goodness, you're right! Whatever should we do now?" More often than not, the prophets were pursued, arrested, imprisoned, dismissed, mocked, and worse. Jeremiah was almost executed, placed in a cistern to die, but for the grace of those who knew he was a man of God. 

In fact, the most 'successful' prophet in all of Scripture, the one who brought the most change of heart to the people to whom he spoke, was the most reluctant prophet - Jonah. He was sent to the wicked people of Nineveh, and they are the only ones who heard his truth and changed their hearts. And it threw the prophet into a tailspin; he sank into a deep depression when a people actually turned toward God. 

It's complicated. Clearly. And there just aren't a lot of us who are going to sign up for this sort of thing. There aren't many of us who fall to our knees at night and pray for the Lord to make us prophets. 

And yet, the world needs prophets. Even now. 

So we're going to take a few days this week and look at prophets and prophecy and the impact it can have on our world. We'll continue tomorrow by looking at what prophecy actually is - and what it isn't - and then, we'll go on from there. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Pursuing the Nones

As we wrap up our conversation about emotional and psychological well-being in our culture, particularly as it is impacting our young people (but also the rest of us), we have to take a few minutes to talk about how all of this is impacting our churches and the future of our faith.

You've probably heard by now about the 'nones' - an entire demographic, consisting mainly of younger people, who do not have a religious affiliation at all. They are disconnected from God's people, not plugged in anywhere, and not confident enough to declare a belief - or lack thereof - at all. And the common explanation is something like this: they might be interested in our Jesus, but they hate our religion. They are disgusted by our churches. We are getting something drastically wrong. 

Despite the fact that we are getting a lot of things wrong (we're human; we're going to, even when we're trying our best), I think the problem runs deeper than that. I think it's all the stuff we've been looking at this week that piles up and makes the Christian faith not unpalatable, but unbelievable. Simply put, persons who are so heavily burdened by the culture in which we live cannot believe the church can deliver on its promises; there are too many walls between them and Jesus (and we, as fallen believers, are but one of them). 

Look at what we're up against. 

We have a culture that labels everything about the human experience as defective. From a very young age, these young people are being taught that there is something wrong with them, something dangerous about them. They are hyperfixated on what they perceive as their brokenness, even if it's something that's not broken at all. And then we present to them a God who claims to be good and who has created everything, and they cannot overcome the question of how a good God could have created them so broken. If you listen, you actually hear our young people asking this question - how could God have made me this way? Why would God claim to be good and make me this way? 

And then we invite them into our fellowships, into our communities, and we tell them they are welcome here, just as they are. "Come as you are," we broadcast on our advertising. But they think, no, you don't know who I am. You don't know what you're getting into with me. They are wholly unable to plug into the community that is the foundation of the Christian fellowship, a vital part of our worshipful experience and our abundant life. They can't fathom that this community is for them, too, because they can't fathom that any community is for them. So they purposely hold themselves out of one of the greatest blessings of the Christian life because they don't believe it's for them. 

And if they can't fathom that anyone would value them for who they are, how can they possibly believe in a God who knows everything about them and loves them anyway? This is the heart of who our God is - a loving God. And yet, if you believe even your earthly father loves you only because he likes the things that you do, how are you ever supposed to understand the love of your heavenly Father? It's simply impossible. 

Which leads us to a place where our young people develop a works-based faith and get tired of "performing" all the time and never reaping the benefits of it. They may be able to convince themselves that God likes the things that they do, but this isn't satisfying on a soul level. It doesn't even come close. So they begin to settle for whatever they can find, if it's even relatively close to what they think they're going after. Which is how we end up with a whole generation of young people who are "spiritual, but not religious." Who want to believe in a God and just...can't. 

That's actually one of the most striking things about the 'nones' - most of them aren't atheists. Most of them aren't hostile to God. Most of them aren't opposed to the idea of being convinced of the Christian faith. There's just something that keeps them from believing it. 

Do you think, perhaps, that our culture has something to do with it? Do you think that maybe the things they've been taught to believe about themselves keep them from buying into a narrative that believes more for them than they do? That's where we're at. 

That's why these two simple words we've been coming back to all week are so important - you're okay. That's why we have to start at the foundational level with our own vulnerable authenticity and start putting our foot down and saying no. This is not a label. This is not a defect. This is not a danger. This is part of the human experience, and welcome to it. You're okay - not because you're not broken, but because we all are. And we've all been where you are. And we've all wrestled with the same things. And there is a way out, and it starts here. 

You're okay. 

Precious child, you have a world that is failing you, but hear me on this, the Lord will not fail you. And everything you believe is unbelievable, every secret hope you cling to that you think it just not possible, it's not only possible, it's real. And it's vital. And it's now. All you have to do is stop buying the story the world is trying to tell you and come check out one that's been ongoing since the very beginning. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Distorted Love

We're continuing our conversation about emotional and psychological well-being, particularly as it impacts our young people. So far, we've looked at the vast array of labels they carry, even for things that would have been considered normal parts of the human experience just a generation ago, how these labels keep them from connecting into communities, and how this leads them to a works-based identity that cannot fathom being valued for just who they are. And remember, this isn't just our young people. As it becomes more pervasive in our culture, this kind of stuff is affecting all of us.

Today, we're looking again at relationships, but this time, we're looking more toward the romantic side of things. Something that's becoming very popular among our younger generations is the concept of "open relationships" - the idea that you can commit to someone and keep dating other persons, too. Right alongside of this is developing "polyamory," a concept of love in which if you like someone and they like someone else, you simply solve the tension by dating them both because, hey, you're flexible like that. (This is, of course, putting a lot of our young people into same-sex relationships, not because they are particularly attracted to the same sex but because they are attracted to someone of the opposite sex who is attracted to someone else, and the only way to have a chance with the person they are attracted to is to make it a triangle and hope for the best.) And these are not my words - these are the words of the young person with whom I spoke recently, who talked about these things as if they are completely normal.

Now, we could say that maybe this generation is figuring out teenage love for real and discovering how fleeting it is and knowing that they shouldn't let themselves get too committed to something that's happening right now because it's all subject to change as they continue to grow. Or maybe they're really in tune with their own process of self-discovery and know there are things about themselves that they just haven't figured out yet, so they're leaving some doors open.

But what is more likely the case is that they are burdened by the labels they carry and the walls they've had to build up around themselves and the warnings that they've attached to their very existence, and they have this ingrained belief that it's not fair to ask someone else to commit to them. It's not fair, and it's not realistic.

After all, if you're "too much" to handle, how can you ever think it reasonable to ask anyone else to handle you?

So they think their only chance at "love" is to take it however it comes, to jump on it with whatever chance they get, to settle for less than their heart desires because if they don't settle for less, they believe they will have nothing at all.

And we're not just talking about secular kids. We're not just talking about kids who have no other frame of reference than what culture gives them. We're talking about church kids, too. The young person I was talking with is one who would claim a very intense personal faith. But that's not enough to convince this young person that the world is lying about this stuff. Lying about who this young person is. Lying about what love "has" to be. (Although, of course, the world doesn't phrase it that way. The world says this is what love "can" be if you're just open and progressive and cool enough to deal with it that way.)

The young person I was speaking with confessed that this open relationship and polyamory stuff doesn't work. But he/she staunchly defended the ideas in principle, saying that teenagers are just too immature for it and that if they were adults, it would turn out differently. Spoiler alert: no, it won't. This open relationship and polyamory stuff doesn't work, period. It's not because you're too young for it; it's because it's not what love was meant to be.

But it's what they're told love has to be because they are just too broken, too dangerous, too disgusting as human beings to expect anything more, to expect anything better. And so they settle for the idea that maybe someone will have them "on the side," like the pickle that comes with the sandwich. Maybe someone will make just a little space for them somewhere. Just a little space. And they'll call it love.

It's not love.

And that's why we have to keep telling them they're okay, so that they'll understand they are worth real love. They are worth the commitment that someone is going to make to them one day. They are not scary or defective or too much to handle; they will most likely (statistically) find someone who loves them for who they are, even the parts they think are broken. And when they do, they won't want to share that - and they won't want to be shared. Because it will be enough. It will be perfectly enough. It will be more than they ever imagined for themselves, more than they ever dared hope for. And yet, if they don't know it's possible going into it, they won't believe it's real when they find it, and they'll keep passing it up for something lesser because they're so convinced that they are lesser. That's why they've got to know, right now, that they're more. And they're okay.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Works-Based Identity

We're continuing our conversation about emotional/psychological well-being in our current culture, particularly as it impacts our young people (remembering, of course, that it's not just them; it's us, too). We've seen how a culture that labels and diagnoses and pathologizes everything sets up walls around us, convinces us we are defective, and prevents us from forming real relationships and community that are vital to our well-being as humans.

Today, we're going to look at the way that these labels send us down a rabbit-hole of always trying to prove ourselves and thinking that our best features are somehow external to ourselves.

When we're convinced that the things about us are defective somehow, that they are a liability, that they have to be labeled and diagnosed and managed, then we become hyper-focused on our performance and we get wrapped up in what others approve of us doing (or don't approve of us doing). 

The young person I was speaking with who sparked this series of reflections for me showed me a work of his/her hands and said, "My dad loves this stuff that I do." I looked this young person right in the eyes and I said, "Maybe. But your dad loves you. Don't ever think it's just because of what you do; he loves you because of who you are." And that looked like news to this young person, who just shook his/her head and continued to walk me through this work of his/her hands. (Stopping, of course, to offer me 'trigger warnings' about every possible feature of the content. Because in a world that has labeled you dangerous to others, everything you do is just as dangerous and must come with a warning.) This young person just shrugged off a genuine love like it was not real or not legitimate or not possible and doubled-down on a performance-based approval. 

Because it was so unfathomable, toting around a barrel of labels, to simply be lovable as a human being. This young person could not comprehend the notion that someone might just love him/her, even someone as near as a father.

But that's what happens when you think you're defective. That's what happens when you think you're broken. That's what happens when you think you're so strange that you're the only one in the world who is ever going to think the way that you do. You can't help but focus all of your attention on the things that you do because you know that if others are looking at you, they are going to be disappointed and disgusted. But maybe if they're looking at something they like, they'll be distracted enough to not have a particular judgment about you.

Honestly, today's young people believe that if you like something they've done, then you like them. They just take that as approval of all the things they're uncertain about about themselves and breathe a little easier because maybe, if they can make something you like, then they aren't as broken and bad as they thought. At the very least, they've made you forget about it for a little bit.

Conversely, of course, if something they do or make isn't your favorite thing, they take that as a personal rejection. It cuts them straight to the core of their soul. Their entire being, the fragile framework they've been trying to build up around all of their insecurities, crumbles.

Which means that when they take the time to show us something they've worked hard on, we have to be diligent and earnest about making sure they do not confuse our message. They will. They will not understand that our love for them is for them and not some work of their hands. They will push back if we try to tell them we love them as a human being. They will not understand if we truly affirm them, but we have to do it anyway. They will certainly not understand if we tell them that their thing is not our thing, that it's not the kind of thing that we like, but we still love them. We have to make clear that you are not what you do; you are who you are, and who you are is beautiful, just the way that God designed you. We need to be clear about this and more clear about it and more clear about it and then, when we finally have their attention, when their walls are starting to soften just enough, when we know that they're listening and that they just might actually hear us, we need to say again those words - you're okay.

I love you because of who you are, not because of what you do. Really, yes really. Yes, I know who you are. Yes, I know what you're wrestling with. Yes, I get that you're a broken human. Nothing you can say will convince me that you ought to come with some kind of warning or that you're nothing more than whatever you've labeled yourself. I see you and you're okay. The work of your hands? It's pretty cool, but only because you are, too.