Saturday, October 31, 2020


Sometimes, you open your mouth and your demons come out.

That's what happened in Mark 5 (and a few other places), when Jesus encountered the man in the cemetery. Jesus landed on the shore, and this man came running out screaming at Jesus, likely screaming more than what the Gospels record for us that he said (given what we can imagine about demons and their vocabulary). But here's what's neat about this story: 

When Mark tells this story, he says that the man came running from the cemetery screaming. That's the first introduction we have to this man. We hear him screaming, Mark records his words for us, and we think that might just be who this guy is. Like, wow.

It's only after this introduction that Jesus identifies that this man has a demon and that Mark gives us some of his backstory. It's only after we start to wonder what this guy's problem is that we're told what his problem is. It's only after we've started to form an opinion of this guy that we learn that maybe we were too hasty in our judgment. 

After all, it's not him speaking; it's his demons. 

The same thing happens to all of us, and it happens to those with whom we come in contact every day. Sometimes, someone opens their mouth, and their demons come out. And if we don't understand what's happening right in front of us, we can often misjudge someone created in the image of God. We can often let ourselves form a quick opinion of them that has nothing to do with who they are. 

Now, the world says this isn't possible. The world says that you are what you appear to be, and that at our most unfiltered moments, we reveal the most about ourselves. The more raw we are, the world says, the more likely it is that that's just who we are. The world wants us to judge a book by its cover...and then never read its pages. The world says that once you know who someone "really" is - which seems to always be revealed in their worst moment in the world's ideology - then you can put everything else into that perspective. 

But what if that's not the case? What if the story of Jesus in Mark 5 is actually what happens? What if we aren't revealed most truly when our demons speak, but rather, when we are clothed and in our right mind? 

The truth is that when Jesus walks onto that shore, none of us meets that man; we only meet his demons. And the truth is that the same thing is happening to us every day. 

And sometimes, it's happening to others when they meet us. 

Our demons do influence the way that we present ourselves. All of our experiences and challenges and trials and defeats - they have shaped us. They set our guard up against all kinds of things we might encounter in the world, and we're always on edge about touching darkness any more. So our hackles are up, and there are times we just come out screaming against anything and everything.

Except it's not anything and everything; it's something that we think threatens some kind of peace that we've reached with the broken lives that we live. It's something that poses a risk to the harmony we've found within ourselves. It's something that challenges the rut that we've settled into, just like Jesus pushes up against the actual demons in this man in the cemetery. But at our core, that's not who we are. It's who we've been conditioned to become because we haven't dealt with our experiences in the wholeness of God's healing from them (and sometimes, I confess, we can't on this side of eternity). And yet, all kinds of persons are forming opinions about us because of our demons...and we're forming opinions of them because of theirs. 

So we have to be careful when we interact with one another, both to be mindful of the ways that our demons are speaking through our mouths...and the ways their demons are speaking, too. And we must be like Jesus and be able to proclaim the truth because it was not this man who came out of the cemetery screaming obscenities at Him. And it's often not the man or woman speaking unkindly to us. And it's often not us speaking unkindly to them. 

Sometimes, we just open our mouths and our demons come out. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

John the Baptist

When we talk about great characters of the Bible, we often talk about Moses, Abraham, David, Job, Peter, Paul, and of course, Jesus. Ask us what kind of faith we want to have, and we'll list off any number of these men (and occasionally, women) and declare, oh, what great faith. We would love to build an ark like Noah or slay a giant like David or embody wisdom like Solomon. 

But what about John the Baptist?

John the Baptist gets so very little love, and he's actually one of the guys we should strive to be like the most. 

He was an outlier in his community, refusing the play by the long-standing rules of life. He had a new view on things, a different perspective. And even though he was eccentric by any definition of the word (living in the desert, covered in a coat of fake hair, eating locusts and honey), people flocked out to the boonies to see him. To hear him speak. To be convicted of their sins in a place where they couldn't, by Jewish custom, atone for them at all. It's not the kind of thing that people just line up for, and yet, there were thousands coming out to John's desert. 

Even Herod, a corrupt ruler by any standard, couldn't get enough of John. He even says, in Mark 5, that listening to John the Baptist talk deeply disturbed him, but he always wanted to hear more. He loved talking with John anyway. He just wanted to hear from John all the time, even while John was condemning the kind of life that he lived. 

Meanwhile, we have...far less credibility in our world. 

When we condemn the world's sins, they tell us to shut up. They don't want to hear more about what we (or God) think about their lives. We don't disturb the world in such a way that they can't get enough of us; to hear them tell it, they've already had enough of it. No one told John that he should stop talking to Herod about all of these 'religious' things, but they tell us to keep our religion out of the public sphere. 

And to be honest with you, we can set up our churches right in the middle of town, and the masses just aren't flocking to them to hear us speak. They aren't enamored by us or even intrigued; they're disgusted. 

And that probably means we're doing something wrong.

See, somewhere along the way, I think we decided that we want to be like Jesus. We want to go around declaring the truth and speaking boldly and making all of these wild claims about God and His power and His love. We want to be the authority on all things, and we think that Jesus has put this call on our lives. So we go about trying to be Jesus (at least, the authoritative parts of Him; we struggle with the love and the healing and the grace and, you know, the actual important stuff), a task at which we're failing miserably, and it's no wonder the world doesn't want us. 

But what if we lived more like John? What if we were content to prepare the way for Jesus instead of trying to rack up points for His name? What if we just put out a path before the world and showed them the One whose sandals we are not worthy to tie? What if we humbled ourselves and spoke the kind of truth and promise that John spoke, without condemnation but dripping instead with hope and expectation? What if the greatest achievement of our faith is not to convict the world, but to convince them that something truly amazing is happening among them? What if our call is not to give sight to the blind but to open the eyes of all who would see? 

What if we could speak with the kind of truth and grace of John the Baptist, the kind that disturbs the world but still draws them deeper? The kind they don't like but can't get enough of? The kind where they want to hear more and more and more? The kind that gets them asking questions about Jesus, real questions?

What if we proclaimed the good news in such a way that the world would follow us into the desert to hear it? 

John the Baptist doesn't get a lot of love. So often, it seems like he's just a footnote in Jesus's story, in the real story. But look at the impact that he had on the world. Look at the foundations he laid for Jesus to move in and do the truly remarkable. Look at what everyone had to say about the guy, by their words and by their actions, and tell me you don't want to be like that. Tell me you don't want to be the voice crying out in the desert. Tell me you don't want to be the one preparing the way for the Lord in this world. 

I do. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020


You've probably heard it said that Jesus took away your shame, but what does that even mean? 

We say this when we talk about His death, but we still die, so that's not it. Every one of us will one day be seen only in a box by those we now look at face-to-face. Every one of us will one day be revealed as the same fragile flesh and bones that we've spent our entire lives pretending to transcend. No, it can't be that He's taken death, for we still, every one of us, face it. 

Perhaps it is that He's taken our sin. Our sin will not be exposed in the same way that the Old Covenant exposed it. We don't have to live tied to our sin like the Israel of old. We aren't constantly toting around offerings that proclaim to the world that we've done something wrong, always having to go to the priest and lay our lives bare before him and hope that he's in a forgiving mood to properly atone for our sins in front of God.

And yet, we still feel shame. We still feel that pang of exposure, even if we're the only person in the whole world who knows that we've done something wrong. We look in the mirror and see less than we pretend to be, and it breaks us. So if Jesus defeated our shame in our sin, it's certainly not in our perception of it because the truth is that most of us still spend our lives bound up in shame. 

But there is something profound that Jesus does with our shame, and it is something that cannot be undone, no matter how hard we try. It is not in His death, but in His resurrection. 

He leaves His grave clothes behind. 

It's not like Jesus was wearing anything under His grave clothes. It's not like He had a bunch of outfits in that makeshift tomb to choose from. He had one wardrobe - the cloth intended to wrap His fragile body as it lay there exposed to the elements - and He took that off and walked out of the tomb...naked. 

Remember that all the way back in Genesis, all the way back in the Garden, all the way back in the beginning when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and dove into the bushes to hide, the Lord did something beautiful and amazing for them - He sewed together fig leaves, the first clothes, to cover their shame. 

The first thing God did when brokenness entered the world was to create clothing to cover shame. The last thing He did in atoning for the world was to take that clothing off. 

So don't think for one minute that Jesus's sacrifice doesn't defeat your shame. That's exactly what it does.

Oh, sure, we may not feel like that. We may still wrestle with our own shame, with our own fear of being found out, with all the things that we know when we look at ourselves in the mirror, but God doesn't see those things about us. God's not wrestling with them. God has stripped off the coverings and entered again into nakedness, showing us what it means to be exposed and unashamed. Showing us that there's no longer anything to cover. The fig leaves? Gone.

Folded and left in an empty tomb. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Big Faith in Small Ways

There are a couple of stories of women told in the Gospels that we ought to pay close attention to. (We ought to pay close attention to every story in the Gospels that is told, but these two stand out for a very notable reason.) They are the stories of the widow who put two cents in the collection box and the story of the woman who broke the expensive bottle of perfume and washed Jesus's feet with her hair. 

We first have to recognize that we're talking about women here. We're talking about second-class citizens, if you could even call them that. Women were property in this time, and a woman who was not claimed as a man's property was worth even less than that. Men were not to associate with women outside of their own families, except for an initial courtship, and we know how scandalous it was that Jesus even spoke to the woman at the well in Samaria. Much has been preached on that. Much has been preached on the fact that it was women who first went to the tomb. We understand well by this point what it means to have women in the story of Jesus at all. 

And these two stories in particular have so little to do with Jesus, especially the story about the widow and her two cents. Jesus didn't do anything in them. He didn't do anything normal, and He didn't do anything miraculous or spectacular. He was just there. He was just noticing what we going on around Him. He wasn't proclaiming any truths or ushering in any kingdom or teaching any lesson. 

Now, you'd think that if you were going to tell the story of Jesus, you'd want to talk about the things that He did. And there were plenty of those things to talk about. John tells us at the end of his gospel that if you could fill the world with books, it still wouldn't hold everything he could say about Jesus and his time with the Messiah. And yet, in the few short chapters that each of these men took, they keep telling us about these women. 

Because Jesus told them to.

What Jesus says about these women is that their stories will be told everywhere that His story is. He tells His disciples that what these women have done is important. He tells them to take notes and remember this moment because it is essential to the telling of His story. 

But then, He says something curious. He says the stories of these women will be told "in remembrance of them." Read that again. Jesus wants their stories told in remembrance of them, not of Him. 

Jesus wants their stories told with His story. In His story. When you tell His story, you have to tell theirs, too. 

Which means that no only did Jesus recognize and praise these women, but He convinced His disciples that they were worth recognizing and praising, as well. So the question is - is this a story about them or is it a story about Him?

Certainly, it shows us that Jesus recognizes big faith exercised in small ways. That He notices the little things that we do that don't seem to make a lot of sense or that can often go unnoticed by the world. If He hadn't mentioned it, the disciples wouldn't have even noticed a hunched-over old widow putting two cents into the collection box. Judas might even have commented about how she was taking too long, how she was holding up the line, how others had more to put in and she ought to move out of their way. (That was just who Judas was.) The disciples probably sat with Jesus in that temple for hours, looking around and not knowing what they were looking for until Jesus told them. Until He drew their eyes to something. 

And what He drew their eyes to was not His story, but someone else's. Someone marginalized. Someone on the outskirts. Someone they wouldn't notice at all if He hadn't pointed her out. Not only does He draw their eyes to her, He tells them she's important. So important that His story cannot be told without hers. 

That's why we know about this widow two thousand years later. 

The truth is that Jesus keeps saying the same thing today. Jesus has His eyes open to the world, and He's always trying to show us the stuff we're prone to miss. He's always trying to get us to see more than we'd notice on our own. He's always trying to remind us to look around and see one another, really see one another. Because His story cannot be told without theirs. 

Which means we ought to always be learning more about Jesus from those around us, from those created in His image who are living big faith in small ways every day. Honestly, who notices two cents? Who pays attention to a sinful woman making yet another spectacle of herself? Ho-hum. A dime a dozen. Whatever it is. Our world has taught us to look away, that if we don't make a thing about it, no one else will, either. 

But Jesus says...make a thing about it. Take notice. Start telling their stories. At the very least, start noticing them. Because our human stories reveal something about Him. Our human stories show something that we can't afford to miss. His story cannot be told without ours, all of ours, no matter how small or shameful we think they are. Because His story is a story of big faith. Big, big faith. 

And ours are the stories of all the small ways we live it. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Secret Lives of Saints

Studying the Bible can sometimes be a little, well, discouraging. When we read the stories of the characters in its pages, we start to feel our own smallness. We read about a giant-killer like David, and we know that we aren't giant-killers. We read about the perseverance of Job, and we know that we would have given up long ago. We read about the wisdom of Solomon, and we forget why we walked from the living room to the kitchen. We read these stories about all these great men and women of faith, and we look in the mirror and just don't see it. We don't see how we could ever be like them. 

But here's the truth about our so-called saints: they couldn't see it, either. 

When David looked in the mirror, he didn't see "King David, great and mighty leader of Israel and composer of beautiful psalms." When Solomon looked in the mirror, he didn't see "Solomon, man of incredible wisdom." When John looked in the mirror, he didn't see "the disciple Jesus loved." These men and women saw the same thing in the mirror that we do - all of their insecurities and struggles and secret sins staring right back at them. 

They never thought that God was writing down every detail of their stories and that thousands of years later, we'd still be reading them and wanting to be like them. In fact, if you told them that, the thought alone would probably horrify them, just as it horrifies many of us. Even the kings of Israel probably didn't think their stories were very consequential, that they mattered much at all except maybe to the persons who were living them most intimately. Who cares about David besides his thirty fighting men? Or maybe his three hundred? 

What if the answer is...thousands of generations to come?

I think sometimes, we're glad we're not saints. I mean that. I think we're glad that others aren't reading our stories the same way they read the stories in the Bible. I think we're glad that God's not writing down every little detail of our lives and claiming they're going to be an encouragement one day to millions of His followers. I think we're glad we are living in the time of a closed canon - a period in which nothing is going to be added to the Bible; it takes some of the pressure off, doesn't it? When we look in the mirror and see ourselves staring back at us, we don't have to worry about being a David. 

But what if we do?

What if, just like the thousands of insecure, sinful, scared, small men and women who came before us, what if we can't fathom the impact that our stories are going to have - the good and the bad of them? What if God is still writing down every little detail? What if two thousand years from now, someone is going to read about something you did and be encouraged by you? What if hundreds of generations from here, there's going to be someone looking in a mirror and thinking to themselves that they could never be who you were? 

What if there's someone watching your life right now and thinking that? 

We never know what impact our lives are having, now or in the future. We never know what God is doing with our stories or which details of them He's choosing to hold onto. We never know who is going to be encouraged by us...or when. We know so well our insecurities and struggles and sins and think that could never be us, but the truth is that none of God's saints thought it could be them. None of them. When we get to heaven and get to ask them, I imagine a lot of them are going to say, "Wait. You know about that?" Because it was just their life, and they were just living it, just doing the best that they could do with what they knew and understood and had at the time. 

So should we. These are our lives, and we have to stop judging them and trying to figure out what they are. They're a blessing, to us and to others. And no matter what you think when you look in the mirror, God is always doing something bigger than you can imagine. Something bigger than you might ever know. And whether you feel worthy of it or not, someone, somewhere, considers you their David. Yours is the life they think they'll never live up to. 

And if that just completely blows your mind, perhaps you're more like the saints than you realize. 

Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Disciples on Saturday

Waiting is hard. Most of us can think of about a million things we'd rather do than wait. On anything. This is especially true when there is any sense of anxiety around the end of the waiting - what will happen, what won't happen, what will be true, what might be true, what it might mean for our next steps, whatever. 

Recently, I found myself in a short, but painful period of waiting. I guess, to some degree, I'm still in it. And in the midst of it, I find my thoughts going back to one example that, honestly, we don't even have and yet, I draw so much strength from this: 

The disciples on Saturday. 

The Bible doesn't tell us anything about what the disciples did on Saturday. Nothing. Jesus dies on Friday, and He rises on Sunday, and at least one of the disciples is present in both of these scenes, but for Saturday, we get nothing. 

Now, I'm someone who likes to keep busy in the waiting. I like to have something to do to occupy my mind. And my hands. I like to have other things to think about and to focus on, and that's especially true in the age of the internet, where any one of us could spend our entire season of waiting performing internet searches on worst-case scenarios and all the little things that might happen but probably won't. (Anyone ever visit WebMD?)

That's why the disciples' example is so poignant for me. 

We don't know a lot about their Saturday, but we know a couple of things. But let's start with their Friday. On Friday, their whole world came crashing in. Everything they'd invested themselves in for the better part of three years vanished, just like that. No longer were they the in-crowd, but now, they were rebels with a crucified leader. Peter couldn't even tolerate being associated with Jesus at His trial. They had thought they were part of something great and wonderful and world-changing and now, here they were, trying not to get crucified themselves just for being affiliated with the so-called King of the Jews who just, by the way, died a criminal's death, albeit pretty spectacularly. Nonetheless, here the disciples are, trying to figure out what's still real, what comes next, what to do with themselves, how their lives might change from here on out. They're asking all the questions we ask in a season of waiting, when something in our foundation has been shaken and we don't know how it all shakes out. 

And then, they did something amazing: they did nothing. 

That was their Saturday. Saturday for these faithful Jews was the Sabbath; they weren't allowed to do anything. They weren't allowed to work. They weren't allowed to stay busy. They weren't allowed to throw themselves into something to forget all of the anxiety and questions that they had. They could worship; they could pray; and they could rest. That's it. 

You know what? I think that's best

It's something I've been trying in some of my seasons of waiting, although I confess that with this particular one, I've done less well at it. But I think we ought to take more of our seasons of waiting as Sabbath blessings - opportunity to worship and to pray and to rest. Who among us doesn't need a little more rest? 

Because the truth is that all the anxious activity I've ever done, all the questioning, all the wondering, all the wandering, it has never changed the outcome at all, and it has never prepared me more to handle whatever comes next. By the time whatever it is comes, I'm so exhausted that I can't possibly deal with one more thing because I've already been dealing with it forever without even knowing what it is, and it's taken all my resources and left me empty. 

But worship. But prayer. But rest. In the waiting, these things fill us up. These things settle us down. These things keep us ready for whatever comes next because they put it all right where it belongs. Rather, I should say, they put us right where we belong - in His hands. And one of the things I've learned in all of my seasons of waiting, especially the ones I've done well, is that the greatest comfort of all is not knowing that God's got this, whatever it is. 

It's knowing that He's got me

And the only way to get there is to be still...and know. To rest. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

A Seeker's World

I'm a fairly avid reader, not as avid as I used to be but still read a good 20-40 books a year. Overwhelmingly, these are Christian living and theology resources that I find through one channel or another. Most are good, well-written, right to the heart of the matter books, but I've noticed a trend over the past couple of years that concerns me a bit. Maybe a bit more than a bit. 

Most of the Christian living books that are coming out these days are books for seekers.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, except that these are books that on their covers, promise meat and in their pages, deliver milk. I will pick up a book that starts well and talks about going deeper into the Word, talks about uncovering new ideas in Scripture, talks about new applications or taking the next steps, and then, inevitably, when I get into it, it's always the same - you should read the Bible. You should live in community. You should pray. 

The very basics of the Christian faith. The very fundamentals. And I get that there's a need for this, but the problem is that there seem to be very few, if any, Christian authors willing to go beyond this any more. There are so few voices willing to actually go deeper. The ones that seem to offer the most promise will pose the deeper questions, but then, abruptly turn and say, "These are questions that can only be answered by reading the Bible, praying, and going to church." Many even say that's the best place to "start."

And it's not just our bookstores that are trending this direction. Our churches have been going this way for awhile. We're all focused on seekers, on getting new faces in the door, on introducing new hearts to Jesus, but what we lack is a way to encourage them to actually grow. We call them into discipleship, but we lack the resources to actually disciple them. We turn them over to their Bibles and our programs and hope that's enough to encourage essential growth, but the truth is that it's not. 

I have been a Christian for twenty years. I have read the Bible. I have prayed. I have gone to church. I still do all of these things. What I'm looking for - in my church and in my books - is someone to help me go deeper. Someone to push me further. Someone to challenge my surface-level understandings and stir my heart to something more. What I'm looking for is someone who is willing and able to engage on a level that acknowledges that I've already been on this road for a long time, that I'm already doing the basics, that I've had enough milk and I'm looking for meat

I know I'm not alone in this. 

It's just frustrating that we have all of these resources that so correctly identify the questions, that ask the hard things, that recognize that being human is difficult and messy and that we need some fellow sojourners for the way, but then they all pull back and can only tell us where to start. They can only give us the same fundamental stuff we already had. 

I'm wondering if we haven't led ourselves here, by being so seeker-sensitive. Over the past 10-20 years, we have so focused our ministry on the unchurched that we have developed the kind of churches that pursue perpetual seekers. That honestly can't go any deeper than this. And we have a whole generation of Christians whose faith has always had to go back to basics because of the demographics they were seeking, and they don't themselves know what discipleship is. All they've got is an entry point. 

And listen, I'm not saying that being seeker-sensitive is bad. That's not the point. Of course, when Jesus tells us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, that starts with being able to call the unaffiliated and get them to follow. But follow what? If we never move beyond getting someone in the doors, what are we doing? If we can only lead someone to curiosity and not to soul-craving, what's the point? If we keep telling them that being in community is essential to their growth but we ourselves don't know how to grow and don't know how to grow them, we're essentially lying to new believers - telling them that growth is possible but offering absolutely no evidence to support our claim. 

We tell ourselves that after twenty years, we should just be walking with others. We should be giving ourselves to those just starting out. That what's important at this stage is our ministry to others, but the truth is that we never outgrow the need for others to walk with us. And that means that what we need is a solid foundation of full-fledged discipleship, a way to grow into the something more that Jesus calls us to. We need some spiritual meat on our bones and on our shelves and in our churches if we ever want to truly move from lost to found, from seekers to disciples. We need mature voices to step up and speak to the mature, that we may grow together in meaningful ways and stop suckling on this same old milk. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Start Where You Are

How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me?

It's one of the most famous questions in the Bible, asked by Peter in a quiet moment. Peter even suggests the answer, hoping (perhaps) to demonstrate his own faithfulness by showing his understanding. Should I forgive my brother seven times? Seven times seems pretty generous. By seven times, your brother has developed a pattern that probably isn't going to get better. In a world that too often gives us one chance, seven chances sounds pretty good. 

And when we read this story, that's often what we focus on - forgiveness. How often should I forgive? What does faith look like in forgiveness? What can we learn from Peter, who is so like us? 

But what if there's something even more profound we can learn about Jesus from this encounter, something we keep reading right over?

Because the beauty in this passage is not just that forgiveness is endless (for of course, we know that Jesus did not mean to literally count seventy-seven forgivenesses for anyone), but the beauty is in how Jesus responds. 

When we interpret this passage, we are often quick to say that impetuous Peter has it wrong again. That he means well, but he's missed the mark. That Peter's vision is too small, that his heart is too set on things of this world. That he's too willing to keep account. And on and on and on we go, recognizing so much of ourselves in Peter that it's just easy to draw lessons out of this passage about how wrong and foolish we are and how much our faith needs to change. How shallow our faith really is. Whatever you want to say about it, really. 

What we have to recognize, however, is that this is not the response that Jesus has to Peter. Yes, Jesus corrects the disciple, but He doesn't have the same harsh, judgmental response that we tend to have toward him. Jesus doesn't look at Peter and see the things that we so easily see. 

Rather, Jesus looks at Peter and sees a starting point. 

He doesn't have to. Jesus could totally go off on the guy. Seven times? SEVEN TIMES? You think seven times is enough to forgive someone? Oh, boy, Peter, you could not be more wrong. You could not have messed this up more. You're such a foolish man, so limited in your understanding. Your faithfulness is a joke if that's what you think forgiveness means. Seven times! Oh, brother!

Nor does He start into a textbook definition of what forgiveness is, starting from scratch to explain what faithful forgiveness looks like. Notice that one of the reasons we've had to interpret this passage is because Jesus does not just say, You shouldn't keep count of how many times you forgive someone. You should just forgive freely because you have been forgiven freely. 

No, what Jesus does is far more beautiful, more freeing, and more truth-and-grace-filled even than this. What Jesus does is use Peter's faith as a starting point for something deeper. He indicates in His response that what Peter has is not bad, but is not fully formed. He uses Peter's understanding to push him further into faithfulness. No, Peter. Not seven, although seven is a good start. Seventy times seven. He uses Peter's own words, his own current situation, as the fodder for growth. That's why Jesus says seventy times seven - that's Peter's seven. That's why He doesn't say it any other way.

It's easy for us to think we're getting it wrong. It's even easier for us to think that someone else is getting it wrong. It's easy for us to look at a Peter - in ourselves or in others - and to really go off on the guy. How foolish can you be? Seven times? Really? 

But the better understanding is to see that seven not as so far off course as to be laughable, but to see it as a starting point for greater faith. To see it as the place where we now are and a launching pad for where we're going. Jesus responds to Peter by saying, not quite, but this is good. For you can grow from here. 

We all can. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Like a Child

There's this strange scene in the Gospels where there just aren't quite enough details for us to figure out what it means. A lot of guessing and conjecture has gone into elaborating on what Jesus might have meant when He talked about this issue, but the truth is that most of it comes out of our current understanding and not out of a contextual understanding of the scene itself. 

But maybe it can.

We're talking about the moment when Jesus calls a little child to come to Him, has the child stand among them, and declares that the goal is to become like this child. What does it mean to become like this child?

A lot has been said about the innocence of children, about how they are so simple in their understanding of the world. They don't harbor the same kind of baggage that we do as adults. They don't have the preconceived notions and the stereotypes and the previous negative experiences that corrupt them. They have a natural curiosity about things and aren't afraid to ask questions. They are always looking to grow into something, to become part of something bigger than they are. There seems to be no end to the things that we can say Jesus meant here based on our understanding of children and their hearts. (Because hey, we know that Jesus loved to speak about the heart.) 

What if we're overcomplicating things, though? What if the answer we're looking for is right in front of our face?

One of the things we've done really well in our time is to complicate Scripture. We've tried to make it about all of these secret things that you have to understand to know what God is really talking about. We've made these verses into a series of dots that you have to be able to connect or else, you'll misinterpret them. This connects to that, which draws on that, and they both pull us back into such-and-such. And it cane make the Bible feel like a big, giant mystery to solve, and so of course, we've spent a lot of our time trying to figure out what it is about this child. 

In my experience, the Bible just doesn't work this way. It's more straightforward than we want to give it credit for. It's more right-there-for-the-taking than it is hidden-behind-a-bush. Overwhelmingly, the Bible just tells us what it wants to say, so I don't really see why we keep thinking that some of the stories can't possibly be what they seem. 

What about this one? What is this story trying to tell us? What does it mean to be like this child?

It could mean something as simple as - coming when Jesus calls and not feeling the need to perform. 

Jesus was surrounded by men and women who wanted to show and prove who they were. They came when they had something to demonstrate, and their entire lives in front of Him was a bit of a performance. It took a long time to break down barriers so that they could be themselves, and many of them never got there. Look at some of the errors the disciples made and ask yourself if they could not have been for show. For trying to get it right. For trying to prove some kind of righteousness or faithfulness. Like how Peter is always quick to jump in and protect Jesus. Show-off. 

This child, on the other hand, is called, comes, and stands there, letting Jesus do with him or her as He pleases. This child is willing to just be an example. To be used by Jesus to illustrate something He's deemed important in this moment. The child comes when called, draws near to the God who is calling him or her, and lets Jesus do the rest. 

What if that's what it means to become like this little child? 

Are you game? 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Peter's Mother-in-Law

One of the stories that we looked at yesterday involved Jesus going to Peter's house and healing his mother-in-law, who was sick in bed with a fever. She then got up and began to serve them. 

When we hear this story referenced in relationship to Peter, it is often just to show that he was a married man, in contrast to Paul, who speaks of his singleness. We use this to talk about marriage and singleness and how both can be a blessing in the church and so on. But the story itself begs a question: 

What was Peter's mother-in-law doing at his house to begin with?

In Jewish culture, the woman would leave her family and go and live with her husband's family. He would build an addition onto his family home for their new love, and it would be their own little space. That means that Peter's wife would have left her mother behind and moved in with Peter and his mother, but here we are with Peter's mother-in-law in his home. And this may, or may not, tell us something important about Peter.

The simplest answer, perhaps, is that she was visiting. Families visit one another; I'm pretty sure they always have. And while I don't have a mother-in-law (yet - c'mon God!), I do have a grandmother, and she knows her way around my kitchen. It's not uncommon for a visiting familial woman to find her way to the kitchen to cook and serve. And given what we know about Jewish families, I wouldn't put it at all past Peter's mother-in-law to both visit and prepare meals in his kitchen. So maybe it's as simple as that. If it is, it doesn't shed a whole lot of new light on Peter as we know him.

But what if it's not that simple?

What if Peter's mother-in-law is living with him because she is widowed? This would tell us something about the redeemer-kinsman in Peter. He extends his love not just to his wife, but to her entire family, and he becomes a caretaker for a woman who has no other caretaker in the world. This might mean that Peter's wife is an only child, that she has no brothers. At least, that she has no living brothers, for her brothers would have built additions onto her family home, and a widowed mother would be taken care of there. But perhaps Peter stepped in for missing or failing brothers and became a protector for his widowed mother-in-law. 

What if Peter's mother-in-law is living with him because she is divorced? This would tell us something about Peter, too. It would tell us that he believes in grace, that he believes in redemption, that he's unwilling to let even a woman suffer disgrace, but that he is willing to pick her up and restore her to a family position when she's lost hers. 

What if Peter's mother-in-law is living with him because he's gone so much in his travels with Jesus that his family feels abandoned by him? This would be important, too. It would speak to the kind of disciple he was, but it would also give us pause in light of Paul's words about family relations in Christ. Did Peter forsake his family for Christ? This raises all kinds of further questions if it's the case. 

What if Peter's mother-in-law wasn't living with him, but what if he was living with her? What if Peter had somehow fallen out with his own family, had been abandoned or discarded or orphaned? We know that he had a brother; maybe Andrew was on his own, too. And so maybe, with no family of his own, Peter built an addition onto his wife's home and became adopted. If Peter has already been adopted once, that certainly changes how we read his understanding of being a disciple. It changes the way that he follows Jesus, doesn't it? 

What if Peter is living with his mother-in-law because he is a prodigal son? What if he's run away from home in search of better things? This, too, changes our understanding of Peter the disciple, particularly in some of the scenes we see him have with Jesus. 

This may seem like a silly question, but if we knew the answer, it might change the way we read the Scriptures themselves. It might tell us something we never knew about Peter that might enlighten for us something we've been missing in his testimony. So it's definitely something to think about, although the reality is that we may never know (until we get to ask him).  

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Sick at Home

One of the things we have to pay attention to in the Bible, especially in the Gospels, is the way that the stories are arranged. There's a lot we can learn about Jesus from the stories themselves, but there's even more we can learn about Him from the order in which they are told. And since Scripture is God-breathed, that's no accident. 

Look at Matthew 8.

In Matthew 8, we have the story of the Roman army officer who has a sick servant at home. He comes to Jesus to plead for mercy and healing, and Jesus immediately says He's coming. Let's go. Let's go to your house and heal your sick servant. But the army officer refuses, saying that he is not worthy to have Jesus come into his home. Furthermore, he knows that Jesus doesn't have to; He can heal the illness from miles away with just a word. So, He does. 

Immediately after this story, we have another story. This time, Jesus is going to Peter's house. He gets there and goes in and finds Peter's mother-in-law in bed, sick, too sick to do anything. So He walks right in to the sickbed and heals her, taking her hand and helping her up. 

So we have two stories with two sicknesses and two houses and two healings. And you may say, oh, how neat, what an interesting coincidence that right after being told He's too great to come into a humble man's house to heal a sick servant, Jesus walks into a humble man's house and heals a woman (who then begins cooking for the group). But no, it's not just neat. It's not just an interesting coincidence. 

It tells us something about Jesus. 

Actually, I think it tells us a lot of things about Jesus, but I confess that I'm not sure I've figured them all out yet. Or even most of them. Or perhaps any of them. But I know without a doubt that it's worth recognizing and thinking about. 

My initial thoughts on the matter are this: if you know you have an illness in your home, you can carry it to Jesus and He will take care of it. He doesn't have to come in and check out all the skeletons in your closet and see all the cobwebs in the corner and whatever else you're afraid will embarrass you in front of Him. You can just carry your illness to Him with complete confidence, humble yourself, and He will heal the illness in your home. 

At the same time, if you welcome Jesus into your home, He will go straight for the illness every time. When He entered Peter's home, that's what He did. He went straight to the bedroom where Peter's mother-in-law was lying with a fever, and the first thing He did in that home was to heal her. He didn't talk about the skeletons in the closet or the cobwebs in the corner or whatever else Peter (or his wife or his mother-in-law or anyone else) might have worried about Jesus seeing in their home. He went straight for the sickness, and He healed it. 

I think that's important. I don't think that's the only important thing here, but I think it's one of them. It reminds us that at His core, Jesus is a Healer. We are often so worried about Him being a judge. About what He's going to think about us. About what kind of stuff He's going to see if we give Him access to even a little bit of our lives. We think we have to have things all cleaned up or whatever, but the truth about Jesus is that He's not nearly as interested in all that other stuff as we're afraid that He is. He goes straight for the sickness, straight to the healing. Every time. Whether we carry it to Him or welcome Him into our home. 

Both of which, by the way, are acts of humility. We either humble ourselves by shouldering our burden all the way to His cross or we humble ourselves by opening the door and welcoming Him in, but when we humble ourselves, He heals us. He heals our home. It's the first thing He thinks about, the first thing He wants to do. And He can do it, with merely a word or with an outstretched hand. Whatever. He's heals our homes, our hearts, the inmost of our beings, the places where we dwell. He heals them. 

That's important. Right?

Thursday, October 15, 2020

What is Right

We talked about the Pharisees quite a bit last week, and you'd think by now, we've exhausted that particular topic, but no. They came up again this week as I was reading through the Gospels, and the little scenario we're going to look at today is very important in understanding the error of the Pharisees (and our own error) and what God desires of us. 

The story begins with everyone standing around in the Temple on a Sabbath, and a crippled man is standing there, and Jesus heals him. The Pharisees immediately start talking about whether or not He was supposed to heal someone on the Sabbath. Basically, healing someone is work - it's not only work, but it's God's work - and how could you possibly do something like that on the day that you're supposed to rest and worship the God who does that kind of work? 

Jesus responds by asking, "Is it right to do good on the Sabbath?" And then, He reminds them that if one of their sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, they would not just leave it there; they would rescue their sheep from the pit, no matter what day it was.

But Jesus's question here is at the heart of the error of the Pharisees. 

See, the Pharisees were always asking, "What is right? What is right?" and they were quick to tell everyone what they thought was wrong. This was their default. They always wanted to know what the rules were and how to follow the rules and how to enforce the rules. They were constantly looking for the line in the sand (when our Lord just knelt down and doodled in it). 

When Jesus says, "Is it right to do good?" what He's saying is, 'ya'll are asking the wrong question.' It's not about the act itself, but the heart of the act. It's about the intention of the act. It's about why the act is chosen.

You can say that healing is work if you want to, but it's the wrong question. You have to ask whether something more holy will come from doing it than from not doing it. 

Is it good

And that's the question we should be asking ourselves, particularly when we are tempted to get caught up on what is right or wrong. Is it good? Is the intention and the heart of this action good? Will it do something holy in the world that not doing it would prohibit? Is acting more sacred an act than not acting? Is. it. good

Because doing good is always 'right.' 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Quiet Love

Joseph really doesn't get enough credit for being the father of Jesus. Yes, yes, I know - he didn't actually donate any sperm to the cause, but his role is no less heroic for that. And it's easy for us to overlook the way that Joseph's love for Mary mimics God's own love for us. We totally miss the message that God is sending us through this young man. 

As you remember, Joseph and Mary were engaged to be wed when Mary turned up pregnant, and Joseph knew it wasn't his. He knew he hadn't slept with Mary, and he was heartbroken. But he didn't want to shame her, so he decided - Matthew tells us - to 'divorce her quietly.' He was just going to whisper a few things and walk away, or maybe not even whisper anything at all; just walk away. He wasn't going to make a scene. He wasn't going to cast her out. He wasn't going to do anything that might make a spectacle of it. He was just going to get out, probably scuffing his feet in the dirt along the way. 

Because Joseph still loved Mary. Even when he was looking at her pregnant belly and knowing he didn't have a role in this, he loved her. He was not angry; he was heartbroken. It wasn't his wedding vow that was broken; it was his very love. It was devastating. And quiet seemed to be the best way to deal with it. 

But he doesn't. 

God sends an angel to tell him not to do it. God sends an angel to remind him of his love for this woman and how pure her heart is, how legitimate her intentions toward him. God speaks to Joseph and calls back not only his love for Mary, but her love for him and just the magic they make when the two of them are together, and he convinces Joseph not to leave - quietly or otherwise. 

And isn't this God's relationship with us?

God's wrath gets a bad rap; most of us spend our lives afraid of the heavy hand of God coming down on us. We read about the wars and famines and destructions in the Old Testament, about the entire nations He wiped out, about all of creation drowned in the flood. But the truth is that there are a million (at least) times in human history where God could have simply...walked away.

There are countless times where He could have divorced us quietly. Where He could have just turned around, hung His head, kicked His feet in the dust and walked away, heartbroken. Because that's what it would have been - heartbreak. We're so busy being consumed with the idea of God's anger that we forget that God is more often heartbroken than anything. It's not His covenant we have broken; it is His very love. And so many times, He could have chosen to just quietly walked away. 

But He didn't. 

But He doesn't.

At the very moment when He's tempted to, God remembers His love for us. And our love for Him. He remembers that our intentions toward Him are pure, even when our execution is lacking. He remembers the magic that we make when we are joined together with Him, and Him with us, and He chooses to stay. Like Joseph with a pregnant Mary, God looks at all of the potential for something holy welling up inside of us, and He chooses to stay. Like Joseph with a Mary who looks for everything like she's broken the covenant, God reaffirms His covenant with us. Like Joseph with Mary who could have been quietly divorced, God takes us and weds us anyway and loves us out loud, for all the world to see. 

For all that Joseph can teach us about God's love for us, he sure doesn't get a lot of attention. But maybe he should. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Question about Rahab

As we talk about Rahab and her reputation, a question arises: why did the people of Jericho come to Rahab to inquire about the Israelite spies? 

It's possible that they were going to all of the townspeople, or perhaps to everyone who lived in the wall and had a vantage point to see things, but the Scriptures only say that they came to Rahab and asked where the spies went.

Now, if they singled Rahab out to ask this question, then there are really three major reasons why they might have done this. 

Maybe they knew that Rahab was the kind of woman who would automatically notice any strange men who came into the town and would be marketing herself toward them. This would confirm her reputation as a prostitute - it would mean that the people of her town knew her as a prostitute first and foremost and that they believed there wasn't a man she could keep her hands off of (whether for pleasure or for money). Certainly, a woman in her line of work is going to notice every traveler and know exactly what they're doing while they are in town. 

Or maybe the townspeople knew she was a prostitute and thought that all men, even men of God, just solicited prostitutes. It's just what they did. So they thought, perhaps, that the spies would have sought her out and come and introduced themselves and offered some action. 

This is a problem, of course, when we talk about what it means to live as a faithful people in the world. We know that we have a bit of a reputation for being hypocrites, for talking a bigger game than we live, but in some cases, the truth is that we're not talking a game at all. Too many Christians look so much like the world that it's impossible to tell them apart. It could be that the people of Jericho had no frame of reference for the standards of living that the Israelites had and didn't understand what a group of most faithful men showing up in their town really meant. It could be that they didn't expect the men of God to be different than any other men they'd ever encountered, so they just figured these men would seek out the prostitute while they were in town. 

And that would mean, again, that what the townspeople most knew about Rahab was that she was a prostitute. 

These are the narratives that come easily to our heads when we think about this and read this story (primarily, we must say, because of what we think about prostitutes). But is there maybe another narrative?

There could be.

What if the people of Jericho knew Rahab was a redeemer?

What if the people who knew her best knew that Rahab was the kind of person who would help foreign spies escape safely? What if they knew she was the kind of person who would put up weary travelers, even weary travelers from another people? What if they believed that if anyone was looking to escape certain capture and death, Rahab would be the one to lead them to freedom?

What if the thing that the people of Jericho most knew about Rahab was not that she was a prostitute, but that she was a redeemer? What if what they most knew about her was not her profession, but her heart? 

That certainly changes the story. Doesn't it? 

Monday, October 12, 2020


Can we just talk for a minute about how easy it is for us to think of Rahab as a prostitute, and how hard it is for us to think of her as a redeemer? As soon as we say the name, Rahab, all we seem to think about is the prostitute. 

Yet, Rahab being a prostitute had so very little, if anything, to do with her story in the Bible. Except, of course, to unsettle us a little bit and remind us that God uses anyone He chooses to use, no matter what we think of them. 

Rahab didn't have to be a prostitute to have a house in the city wall; plenty of non-prostitutes lived in the wall. She didn't have to be a prostitute to have compassion on travelers; plenty of non-prostitutes have compassion on others. She didn't have to be a prostitute to lie to the men of her town about what she knew; plenty of non-prostitutes know how to protect others. The point is...Rahab didn't have to be a prostitute to be used by God in exactly the way that she was. 

And yet, she was. A prostitute, that is. 

And thousands of years later, that's the first thing we ever remember about her. For many of us, it's the only thing we seem to remember about her. Oh yeah, the prostitute. 

Why is it never, 'Oh yeah, the woman who protected the spies in Jericho'? Or 'Oh yeah, the redeemer'? Or even, 'Oh yeah, the mother of the redeemer, Boaz'? 

Why is it never the good things we remember about anyone else?

This world is full of persons with reputations, persons who are this or that or the other that we don't agree with. Persons who have made decisions with their lives - either by free choice or out of necessity - that have marked them in one way or another. All of a sudden, no matter who they are or what they've done, they are always and forever that one thing, that one 'wicked' thing we can't seem to get over or look past to actually see a human being created in the image of God with a whole bunch of good and beautiful and holy qualities. 

Oh, yeah, he's an alcoholic. She's divorced. He's homosexual. She's had an abortion. He's a cancer patient. She's an abuse victim. And on and on and on we go, defining everyone in our world by things that have so very little to do with them. By things that miss out on the bigger part of their story. By things that lessen and cheapen them and make them easy to write off or forget entirely. He or she is 'just' whatever. 

Just a prostitute. 

Like Rahab, the stories that we encounter these persons in have little to do, it seems, with the things we remember about them. Rahab could have been anyone else, and we would have called her a redeemer. A hero. A victory. A convert. A faithful woman. Reading purely her story in God's story and how she played her role, we could say all kinds of things. Except that we're told she's a prostitute, and somehow, that became bigger than everything else. So much bigger that 1) we entirely forgot that she is all of these other things and 2) when we're reminded what kind of redeemer came from her line, we're shocked to think such a woman could raise such a man. Even though, as we said, she was that kind of woman herself.

That's why we have to be so careful about the ways that we are willing to define those around us. That's why we have to be mindful to find the stories we're reading and not just the adjectives or descriptors that raise our hackles a bit. Did you know that this world is literally full of holy persons created in the image of God who could show us something good and beautiful about Him if we could just look past those things we find distasteful about them? If we could identify them by their character, and not by their circumstances? 

Why does it matter to you that Rahab was a prostitute? Why is that the first thing you think about her, even though it had nothing to do with the way she acted in God's story? 

Why is that the first thing you think about anyone? 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Redeemer and the Prostitute

Some of the names that pop up in the genealogy of Jesus are more prone to catch our eye than others. One of those names is Rahab. Yes, that Rahab - the prostitute. 

And that's as much as we think we need to know, isn't it? Rahab the prostitute is in the lineage of Jesus. A number of sermons have been preached on this issue, on how God uses even a prostitute and isn't ashamed of her. How it doesn't matter what your past is or what you're engaged in, you can go on to be used in mighty ways by God. It's shocking that He included a woman at all, let alone a woman of 'ill-repute.' 

Contrast that with a name like Boaz, which also appears in the genealogy of Jesus, and we think we've got this stark contrast of saints and sinners all blended together into God's story. Boaz, remember, is the kinsman-redeemer from Ruth, the relative with the rights to buy the land of the deceased man, but only if he takes care of the widow and her family. Ruth humbled herself, and Boaz lifted her up, and seeing that name in the record of Jesus's ancestors does not surprise us at all. Of course there is a redeemer in Jesus's family.

But here's a little fact that's easy to read right past when we're just trying to get from Adam to Jesus and trace things down the line: 

Rahab was the mother of Boaz

That's right - the prostitute was the mother of the redeemer. And that seems like a lot. That seems like a dramatic change in her life story that she would go from being a prostitute to being a mother, let alone being the mother of the kind of man who redeems a lost family after the death of someone close. Let alone the kind of tender, gentle, wise spirit that we see in Boaz when we read his story.

Have we forgotten, then, that Rahab was a redeemer in her own right? Yes, the prostitute was a redeemer. 

That's how she got into God's story in the first place. It wasn't because she was a prostitute that God wrote her in; it was because she gave the Israelite spies a place to hide in Jericho, protected them from those who sought to kill them, and got them home safely to their family - and God's. It's because she believed the promise when she didn't even know the Promiser, and she risked everything to secure the journey of those anointed by Him. 

Yet somehow, when we mention Rahab, we only talk about the prostitute. That's who she is. That's how she's known. We don't talk about her redeeming qualities; in fact, we talk like she doesn't have a whole lot of them. It's nice and everything that a prostitute would be nice to some men visiting her town, but isn't that kind of what prostitutes do? It's easy to think of Rahab as nothing special, as just a whore. A run-of-the-mill woman-of-the-streets who, by nothing more than grace, becomes a character in God's story, just so He can show us that He doesn't care about our reputations. Even bad girls can have a place in the Bible. (That might be a book or something.) 

Was she a bad girl, though? She was a redeemer. She raised a redeemer. Both redeemers from Rahab's house are included in the lineage of Jesus. And I just don't know how we can read those two names, back to back, and say in the same breath that Rahab was a prostitute and Boaz, a redeemer. They were both redeemers.

So of course Rahab is in the lineage of Jesus. 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Heart of God

This week, we've been looking at the multi-dimensional error of the Pharisees, how they were guilty of so many misinterpretations and misdirections at the same time. We've looked at the ways that we are guilty of the same errors. And it can seem like a daunting weight, then - even the kind of weight that the Pharisees themselves were guilty of placing on others - if we say that we must avoid all of these different kinds of errors if we do not want to be Pharisees ourselves. 

Yet, it's actually much more simple than that. There is really only one thing that we must keep in mind if we want to avoid becoming Pharisees, and as we said yesterday, it's not so much about what we don't do as what we do. 

We must always keep our eyes on the heart of God. 

It really is that simple, and it's what the Pharisees could never seem to figure out. They knew all the details, all the rules, all the regulations. They knew how many steps it was from the holy place to the most holy place. They knew how to slaughter an animal for offering and which animals were better than others. They knew everything that you ought to be doing with your life. But what they didn't seem to know anything about was the heart of God. 

They didn't know the heart that was behind all the rules and regulations. They didn't know what God was trying to get at when He told us how to live. That's why they focused so much on how we live and not on how to live lives pleasing to God. They focused on behavior because they didn't understand, even after God said it multiple times, that it was never about the offerings. They read the words and studied them, but they entirely missed the inspiration. 

It's like sitting down with the manual for a bicycle, trying to put a wagon together. You can't do it. If you're not talking about the same thing, you can't ever get to the same place...or to the place where you're supposed to be. The Pharisees thought the whole point of the Torah was to tell us how to behave, and they completely missed that the whole point of the Scriptures is to reveal to us the heart of God who loves us. They read the words without ever considering the Author. 

It's a trap that we can easily fall into ourselves. In fact, we do. All the time. We invest so much of our time and energy trying to get all the details just right, but we've missed out on the love behind them. We've missed out on the heart of God that runs throughout our lives and all creation, that draws us back into Him. We've read the manual that tells us how a faithful life is birthed, but we've never put our ear to His chest to feel the way His heart beats for us. 

It's easy to get caught up in all the rules, to work so hard at getting this life 'right,' but God never wanted us to live perfectly; He calls us to live being perfected. He calls us to live in His love, not in His regulations. Let's say this again, just so that we can never forget it - it was never about the animal sacrifices. As the Scriptures themselves say, 'the Lord doesn't need your bull.' What He needs is your heart, and to get you started, He's given you His. 

So put your focus there. Look for His heart. Read between the lines and look not just for the Word, but for the Love. Because that's why it was given to us in the first place - not to tell us how to live, but to remind us where our Life is. 

If you keep your eyes on His heart, you can't become a Pharisee. You just can't. It's not possible.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Single Issues

Because of the way their theology emphasizes the smallest of points and focuses on appearances, rather than substance, it's easy for Pharisees to become "single-issue" persons. Their entire faith can seemingly be boiled down to what they believe about this or that particular thing, the way that the Pharisees in the Bible were upset that Jesus's disciples did not wash their hands properly before eating, as if that was going to be what condemned them to eternal hellfire. 

Recently, a friend shared a post on Facebook that illustrates this point very well. It said something to the effect of, "A pastor cannot support abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex marriage and preach the Gospel of Christ." By extension, I know that this friend also meant "a Christian" cannot do the same. 

And of course, we're seeing this topic come up in the ongoing election, especially at the Presidential level. I have heard numerous persons within the church say they don't approve of x,y,z about Donald Trump, but they 'can't' vote for Joe Biden because of his views on abortion. 

We also see it reflected in the church, when we seem to preach a message that condemns homosexuality (or anything else) as the sin above all sins and don't take the same hard stance on all the other abominations unto the Lord that are going on within our walls. 

It's just too easy for us to become single-issue Christians, having this one-dimensional faith that - in literally all of these cases when we talk about the faith of a Pharisee - are based entirely on something we are against

Oh, so close. 

The truth is that we're supposed to be single-issue Christians. We're supposed to be persons of faith who base our entire belief, and thus, life, system on one thing. But it's not something we're against; it's something we're for. It's something we're for because we are beneficiaries of it ourselves: we're supposed to base our faith on God's love. 

Even in the Old Testament when the ritual sacrifices were still in effect, God says that He never really wanted our sacrifices. He's more interested in our hearts. He's more interested in justice and mercy and forgiveness and in our living together the way that He's called us to live together. He's far more interested in the ways that we love - that we love Him and that we love one another - than literally anything else we're doing with our lives. 

So to my friend who posted the meme about what we can't support and still have our faith, the reply is pretty simple: 

A pastor, a Christian, cannot preach the Gospel of Christ without loving the homosexual, the transgendered, the person who has had an abortion, and so on." We cannot preach Christ without love. 

That was the sin of the Pharisees. There was no love in their message. There was no grace in their law. They were so focused on the smallest things and the little pet projects they'd picked out of the Scriptures that they could no longer see the people of God for the commandments of Him, when the greatest commandment of all has always been...don't cloud your vision. Don't forget to see one another, to truly see one another, and to truly see Me. 

Our faith was never meant to be built on what we're against, but what we're for...and Who is for us. So let us be a people of love above all else, the way that God has called us. Otherwise, we're nothing more than Pharisees. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Inside of the Cup

While the Pharisees are most well-known for placing a high burden of obedience on faithfulness, that was not the only error they made. Another very serious error of the Pharisees was their emphasis on outside things, to the neglect of the inner life. Jesus even called them on this - why do you worry so much about the outside of the cup when it's the inside that's going to poison you?

In other words, the Pharisees had over-emphasized how you are supposed to look over how you are supposed to live, or love. This is happening in the church today in two significant ways.

The first way that this is happening is in a call to have a faith that seems to be more certain than it is, a faith that doesn't entertain questions because it doesn't even have any. We are supposed to be a people who never doubt, who never wonder about God, who never question whether He's good or whether He hears us or whether He cares. We're told that if we have doubts, and if we reveal them, then we might be a discouragement to our brothers and sisters or to seekers in our community, and essentially, nothing good can come out of having questions.

So the moment our faith is tested, we are taught to double down on it without any real reassurances. We are told not to let doubt even get a hearing in our lives. We are told to push our questions aside in favor of the 'answers' we're already supposed to have. We're told this will show the world what 'real faith' looks like. 

But what it really looks like is an unexamined, fragile sort of faith that can't stand up to the real brokenness of this world. What it looks like is blind, misguided optimism and a disconnect from the messy human life. What it looks like is a faith that will break the moment anything comes up against it, so it has to wall itself off and put its fingers in its ears and just hum Amazing Grace until hard times pass. 

This isn't our faith. At least, it's not meant to be. This is the Pharisee's faith - more concerned about what it looks like than its actual substance. No wonder the world doesn't want it. 

The second way this error of the Pharisees manifests in our lives is in persons who have high standards for their own outward appearance, but less concern over their inner life. What we're talking about here are those who set social standards and keep a different set of private behaviors.

We're talking about persons who won't drink or smoke or go to the bar, but they'll swear up a storm. Or someone who dresses never-casual or keeps up a certain hairstyle or chooses a particular 'look' and then, through their tongue, reveals themselves to be just as perverse as the world. I'll be honest with you - some of the dirtiest talk and some of the dirtiest jokes I've ever heard have come out of the mouths of those with a high standard for their Christian appearances/outward modesty. They invest a lot of time and energy convincing you how conservative and devoted and devout they are, but then they speak, and you wonder if they haven't got some sailor in their background. 

This, too, turns away the world from the faith. And why shouldn't it? It's hypocrisy at its finest. It's claiming that God cares so much about certain things, and then completely disproving that with your next breath. It's presenting to the world a God who is wrapped up in the superficial, but in the end, doesn't really look a whole lot different than the world. It's telling them that God cares very much what you look like, but has no interest at all in your heart. And the world has plenty of that without bogging it down with religion. They don't need a god like that, and they don't want one. 

Meanwhile, you run into these men and women all around your life that you wouldn't give a second look to - the old, wrinkled, haggard sort of men and women with whiskers coming out of their moles and crooked noses and missing teeth, and you think these must be the 'least of these' that Jesus talked about, but when you actually talk with them, you hear their gentle spirit. You hear their faith-filled soul. You hear their world-weariness and heaven-mindedness, even though by looking at them, you'd think they hadn't spent a day in their life worried about what they look like. And maybe, just maybe, they haven't. 

God is more concerned with the inside of the cup than the outside of it. He's more concerned with the substance of your faith than the appearance of it. This emphasis that we have on externals makes us Pharisees, plain and simple, and Jesus Himself condemns us for it. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Burdens to Bear

When we talk about the Pharisees, probably the most obvious of their errors that comes to mind is the high burden of obedience they placed on others. They sat down and studied the Scriptures and determined more hundreds and thousands of tiny little things that all those words must mean, and they turned their interpretations into a law unto itself. 

Remember when Jesus's disciples were walking through a field on the Sabbath and picking the heads of the grains and eating them? Well, it was the Pharisees who said they couldn't do that. Because it was work, and you can't work on the Sabbath. Never mind that they were also traveling, which they shouldn't have been doing on the Sabbath, and that it doesn't say it was their field, so they were probably stealing, too (or gleaning the poor man's portion, which may or may not be stealing depending on how you look at the disciples). But the Pharisees chastised them for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. 

It was something, in the grand scheme of things, so small. Like walking mindlessly by a bowl of nuts and picking a few out. It's just a natural human behavior; we just tend to graze. Grazing was just a little different in those times. But the Pharisees had sat down, studied it, and determined that picking a single head of grain to munch was technically 'work' and thus, broke the law. Well, they made it a law...and then accused the disciples of breaking it. 

It's important not to overlook the fact that the Pharisees' strictness came from study of the Bible. These were not ignorant men, not by a long shot. They were devout. They were devoted. They gave their lives to knowing God's Word as intimately as they possibly could. They wanted to know the Scriptures inside and out, not necessarily to make life harder for everyone but because they were (at least, at first) earnestly seeking holiness. At some point, they came to love the power and authority it gave them, but most Pharisees didn't start with an end goal of power and authority. Their eyes were, at least for awhile, legitimately on God. 

But the fact remains that they made the burden of faithfulness too heavy to bear. For everyone. In a Pharisee's eyes, no one was faithful. Especially not anyone outside of their little study group. 

And the same thing is still happening in the church.

The church is full of persons who deeply love God, who have invested themselves in the Word, who have studied and prayed and know what God desires of us, and have made the price of admission to our pews too high. They have determined that it is necessary for someone to have their life together before Jesus will love them, so they have set up roadblocks to ever coming to the Cross. 

The hard truth is that most of the persons in the world who are either afraid of God or intimidated by Him are not actually reflecting on God at all; they are reflecting on His self-appointed gatekeepers who have told them their life doesn't measure up. They are reflecting on a burden that's been placed on their shoulders, not one that's been taken up for them on the Cross. They are looking at what we tell them it means to follow God, and they're saying...I can't. It's not possible. I can't do it. (And they are watching us fail at it, too, and wondering how there can possibly be hope for them, who do not know God, if we can't even get it right and we claim to love Him.) 

If we want to stop being Pharisees in our churches, we have to flip the script. We have to stop putting such a high burden on those who would come and instead start talking about the burden God Himself carries for us. We have to stop making it about what we need to do and talk about what He's already done. We have to stop letting our love for God make us think that we have it all figured out and confess that we're still learning, that we have some ideas but we don't know everything. And then live out our faith based on what we do know, which ought to be - above all things - grace. 

Grace just goes an amazingly long way. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Becoming a Pharisee

We need to talk about the Pharisees. This is not an easy conversation to have, primarily because at the very moment you start to think about calling out the Pharisees, you have to humble yourself and wonder if perhaps you are becoming one. After all, the Pharisees were really good at thinking they knew how everyone else should behave. That's one of the things Jesus kept calling them out on. 

But the Pharisees are also a very misunderstood group. We've oversimplified what they were guilty of, and what Jesus's real problem with them was. We've done this to the point that we've blurred our understanding of this group and made a mess of the way that we use the word. So we're going to start our discussion this week by looking today at some of the foundational things we know about the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees were a deeply religious group. They took faith seriously; it was very important to them. They invested a lot of time and energy into studying the Scriptures. They'd have to - in order to come up with more than 600 'laws' that the people of God had to obey. They knew the finest letters of the scrolls, knew where every i was dotted and every t was crossed. If you asked them a question about God's Word, they could answer it. Right then, right there. 

And so the first thing we have to say about the Pharisees is that they were not an ignorant group. Their failures and shortcomings were not because they didn't know something. They knew a lot of things. They could run circles around most of us when it comes to Scriptural literacy. 

The trouble for the Pharisees comes in two other areas. The first is understanding. They knew what the words said, but they didn't interpret what they meant correctly. They were so focused on the literal translation that they missed the heart of God in the midst of it all. Today, we might say that the Pharisees lacked a measure of common sense. When God says you should not covet your neighbor's donkey, there were Pharisees who could diagram that sentence and come up with a defense of why you should never even seek, then, to buy a donkey from anyone because if you were in the market for a donkey and went to look at one, you would, necessarily, come to covet it before you purchased it. And so, the Pharisees would have a reason why you should never inspect a donkey for strength or health before you purchase it because doing so would lead you to sin. You should always buy your donkeys sight-unseen. And it's best if you don't even ask questions about the donkey, lest you start to imagine in  your mind all of its good qualities and want it before it is even yours. Right now, it is your neighbor's donkey, you sinner. 

So the Pharisees were not very good at common sense. They didn't believe in an interpretation of the Scriptures that permitted for real life to be lived; they believed that life should conform to the letter of the Scriptures - as though God's highest aim for our living could be outlined in some legal document. 

The second area in which the Pharisees struggled was application of what they knew. They believed in the letter, not the heart, of the law. Jesus came to fulfill the law, and He often said things like, "When I tell you not to commit adultery, that means do not even think about another woman in  your heart. Do not lust after her." Meanwhile, the Pharisees were over in the other side of the Temple talking about where the line between foreplay and adultery is. Just how far can you go with a woman before you've committed adultery? Can you kiss her? What if she kisses you? The Pharisees were busy drawing lines while Jesus was doodling grace in the dirt. Their application was 

And of course, we have to talk about the different sets of standards they held - ironic, since God repeatedly warns against having more than one set of weights. (You'd think the Pharisees would have caught that somewhere.) But they had different ideas about what they could get away with and what you could, and they lived their lives basically for show and not out of any kind of real faithfulness. 

Now, we do have to say that for most of them, their endeavor into the Pharisee life probably began earnestly. They probably wanted to be a faithful people. They were probably looking for the best ways to align their lives with God. They just got off-track and corrupted by the kind of self-affirming power that comes from believing you are always the most right about everything. 

The point is - the Pharisees are not a simple group. Their waywardness is so multi-directional that we can't really simplify it and say they only had one thing messed up. They were especially messed up and were getting a number of things wrong. This week, we're going to look at a few of them in more depth so that we can re-complicate this issue we've oversimplified. Which, I think, has perhaps made us Pharisees in our own least when it comes to the Pharisees. 

Stay tuned. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Striving and Thriving

There's a strange thing that happens in the world, and it's called 'striving.' It's the notion that working hard will not only get you everything you want and think you deserve, but it will prove your character in the process. Working hard will show others what you're made of, and if you want to succeed in your chosen field, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else. 

The truth is that a lot of persons in our world strive (work hard) to get where they think they want to go, and after they've spent half their life proving their worth to be there, they spend the rest of their life striving to prove it wasn't a fluke, that they really deserve to be there and that they really were the right choice for the opportunity - for themselves and for others. 

It puts us in this perpetual state of proving ourselves, where we never get to enjoy what we're doing or what we have because we're too busy trying to make sure no one else questions it. We're too busy trying to say that we are worthy of a thing, and we never get around to doing or being that thing. We're so bent on showing the world that we're so perfectly...whatever...that we put more emphasis on what it looks like from the outside than how we are performing from within. We live on appearances and not actually achievement, even when it looks like we've made it. 

What I've found is that the Christian faith turns this notion on its head. What I've found is that when you're living into your calling and doing the thing that God has created you for, all of that striving ceases. You stop trying to prove yourself because, with that deep satisfaction in your soul that you are right where you are supposed to be - not right where you 'deserve' to be - you don't have anything to prove to anyone. Not even to yourself. And certainly not to God; He knew who you are when He knit you together in your mother's womb. 

Think of yourself as a marble. In the world's model, you're constantly in motion, constantly picking up speed, always running your course so that you can show how adept you are at doing it. You're constantly racing, always moving from one thing to the next and your whole existence becomes this kind of blur that is almost indistinguishable from any other kind of blur except that perhaps you have a few selfies of your still life. You know, for appearances. Hey ya'll, look at my marble.

But in the Lord, what happens is that when you come into the place you are meant to be, you sort of settle in. That marble that is your life comes to rest in a little divot that's been carved out just for you and rather than falling into the trap of believing your life is most beautiful as a blur, you can really start showing off all your colors. Free from the burden of having to prove yourself, you are able to finally show yourself. 

It's an entirely different heart to live out of. But it's great. 

Because when you're settled in, there is no tension. There is no stress. There is the burden of the good work that you do in the world because you recognize it as holy, but this burden is nothing compared to the one that the world wants to heap on your shoulders. You are able to shift your focus from your self to something bigger than you because the deepest questions about who you are are already satisfied. You don't have to ask any more. You don't have to prove it. And you don't have to spend your life trying to get others to see it. You just shine, my friend, right where God has given you rest. Instead of spending your whole life striving, you get to thrive. It's such a cool place to be. 

Which brings us to a point where we have to say that if you find yourself striving, especially if you're still striving even after you've reached the place you were aiming for, something is amiss. There's some narrative in your life that isn't quite where it's supposed to be. Remember what Jesus said? My yoke is easy and my burden is light. I have come to give you life, and life abundant. There is peace available in Jesus, and it comes when we live into our calling. Not because we are so convinced - and must so convince others - that we 'deserve' it but because we are wired to do it that way and nothing else. Because that's who God made us to be. 

There is rest for the weary, and it comes when we allow our lives to settle into a place that we don't have to earn, that we have deliberately grown our way toward until we've reached it, and's time to just rest. To come to settle into this special little place God has carved out for us, to stop living life as a blur and start showing our colors. Every swirl of them, a mark of the wisdom and goodness of God. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Choosing Community

As I was thinking this week about what it means to grow and still choose the same thing all over again - like choosing whether Christ is still important to you or how you choose to approach your faith - I found myself pulling into the parking lot at church on Sunday morning right behind someone who, without the church, I never would have met. 

And then, I realized that my church is literally full of persons who, without the church, I never would have met. These are virtual strangers that I am doing life with, who are doing life with me, and yet, if we had run into each other one random day at the grocery store, this wouldn't be our story. How many times in my life did I walk right past these persons, these very persons, without a second thought before I knew who they were? How many times did they walk past me? 

Now, here we are, pulling into the parking lot of a place called home for us, and they aren't strangers; they're family. I can't imagine doing life without them. 

Which is, of course, a true statement and a sad truth, as well, because we all know how churches work in this age. We know how easy it is to go church hopping, and we can all think of persons who have left our community and gone elsewhere - or persons we have left behind when we have gone elsewhere. I've written about this before, how there's a sadness and a grief to it, how there's a hole ripped out of the middle of our faith when someone we've entangled our life with decides not to show up anymore. 

But what I was thinking about this particular day is that every week, these are the persons I choose to do life with, just by showing up. And these persons choose to do life with me, just by showing up. We choose each other. We don't have to; we could go anywhere to worship. But we choose to worship with one another. We choose to walk into a place we know and greet persons we know and sing and lift our hands and bow our heads with one another. When I leave my house on Sunday morning to go to church, I drive past a dozen churches on my way to do life with the persons I am choosing again this week. 

That means something. 

We have talked a lot about what the church is in the past few months, especially when we haven't been able to meet together the way that we always have. We have talked about what it means to be a people of God and a community and the kinds of persons who love one another. We have talked about staying connected, even when we have to be apart, and that's what this is about - it's about choosing community again and again and again, even as we grow. Even as we grow together. 

Too often, we think that the church is the building. Or it's the pastor or the leadership. Or it's the programs. Or it's the special events. Or it's the headquarters for a community service project. Or it's the launch pad for outreach. Or whatever. But the truth is that the church is the community. It's the people. It's the persons who choose each other every week and declare there is something fundamentally good and holy about doing so. Persons who keep choosing those who, without the church, they probably never would have come to know. 

I pulled into the parking lot behind this husband and wife, and I thought how strange it was that even the three of us were the kind of persons doing life together. How unlikely a friendship we have. It's a friendship that doesn't make a lot of sense in the eyes of the world, but it makes perfect sense in a place like this. And we keep choosing it, all of three of us. And we have for twenty years. Even as we grow, we keep choosing to grow together. 

That's really cool.