Monday, November 30, 2020

The Encouragers

The encouragers in our congregations probably don't get enough credit. Okay, I know they don't get enough credit. This week, we're talking about Barnabas and how he just sort of disappears from the story, but make no mistake - he's made his mark. We just have to keep looking for it. 

If you've ever been encouraged by someone in your life, I don't have to tell you what an important role this is. The encouragers are the ones who show up out of the blue to remind us that we're not alone. They're the ones paying attention to the prayer list for more than just the gossip of it. They are the reason that cards show up in the mail and meals show up on the table and flowers show up just because. At the very moment when we are tempted to question whether we're really connected or not, the encouragers are the ones who remind us that we are. 

And they're so quiet about it. That's what's so cool. Encouragement is such an intimate gift. It's such a personalized endeavor. They have this way of making us feel special and uniquely loved, like they are just our own personal friend (and often, they are; encouragers can't fake this - they genuinely love us). But they always make us feel like it's this special thing that we have with them. 

When an encourager dies (sorry to be morbid, but this is important), it's usually the first time that we realize their encouragement was less about us and more about them. That's right. We spend our whole lives with them feeling like we are loved, feeling like we are special, feeling like we are the object of their affection - and we are. But when they die, we start to hear the stories of how we weren't the only ones. We hear stories of the other cards and meals and flowers and moments that they've shared. It's like all of a sudden, we start to compare notes with one another and we discover that we were so busy feeling loved, we missed out on something essential about the nature of our friend. 

Mainly, that he or she couldn't help it. That's who God wired that person to be. 

And all of a sudden, what we've treasured so much becomes even greater than we could have imagined. It's something so beautiful, something so gracious....

We know that encouragers always inspire us to become more like them. We know this when we receive that card in the mail and think that we wish we were the kind of person who sent more cards. We get that little note that says, "I'm praying for you," and we're reminded to pray for others. A simple little gift shows up that reminds us of our connectedness, and we're drawn to reach out to someone we've lost touch with, someone who needs reminded of their own connectedness. When we share those stories and discover that encouragement from an encourager literally ran through that person's veins, I don't know that there's not one of us who doesn't say, "I want to be more like that." Encouragers just inspire us. They make us better versions of ourselves. 

And they make us better versions of our communities. They remind us to reach out to one another. They remind us of the bigger thing that we're all part of. They remind us what it means to be in real relationship with one another, not just when it's easy but when it requires something of us. The constant sacrifice of self that an encourager offers calls us all to be more self-sacrificing. It calls us all to be more other-minded. There's just...something about it. 

No wonder we see the mark of Barnabas all over Paul. No wonder encouragement becomes such a theme in Paul's letters. No wonder the churches depend upon the reminders to love one another. No wonder I just can't stop thinking about Barnabas even after he disappears off the pages of Scripture. Because the impact of an encourager doesn't stop at the edges; it blows right past them and into the hearts of our communities. 

The encouragers among us don't get enough credit. Not near enough. They are the glue that reminds us that this life of faith we're all trying to do is not a solo journey; we're in this together. Because they're right here with us. Not because of who we are, although our sacred nature as beings created in the image of God is part of it, but because of this beautiful gift that God has given them to do just this. To encourage. 

It truly is a holy work. 

Friday, November 27, 2020


One of the guys that I don't think gets enough credit in the Bible is Barnabas. And maybe it's just because when Barnabas and Paul separate, Luke (the author of Acts) goes with Paul and well, just sort of loses track of Barnabas, who goes on to Cyprus with John Mark. 

When we are first introduced to Barnabas, we're told...that's not his name. His name was actually Joseph, and he had been born on the island of Cyprus. They called him Barnabas because it meant "the Encourager." That's a pretty strong statement right there, when the apostles themselves know who you are and stop calling you by your name and start calling you by your character. That's powerful. This guy was so good at encouraging others that they just called him "the Encourager."

And for several years, Barnabas travels with Paul. Together, they go about the region helping young churches and teaching young believers and setting out a good path before them in a whole host of places. They are joined here and there by this guy or that one, but for awhile, the narrative is "Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Barnabas." He is integral to the early years of Paul's ministry; he is essential to the foundation of these churches. 

Paul gets a lot of credit. He's one of those power guys. He's one of those strong voices. We follow Paul, and we see all kinds of bold preaching and incredible teaching and a guy who isn't afraid to stand up in a crowd and speak the truth as he knows it in the hopes that someone might hear him. Paul is pretty good at setting up structure and about highlighting the guidelines for how you decide who to listen to or what message is worthy to preach. Paul's got a lot of his own talents. 

But I can't help but think that there's still a dramatic difference between Paul and Barnabas, personality-wise. And I think sometimes, when we read about Paul asking the churches to encourage specific believers in his letters, that's Barnabas's influence coming out. I think Paul, who spent his whole life as a Pharisee who lived and died by the rules and loved the authority of learnedness, was probably softened by Barnabas, the Encourager. Barnabas probably taught Paul the kind of compassion and human touch that God needed him to have...just by being Barnabas. 

The whole falling out is pretty predictable, actually. It's a conflict of these two very personalities. Barnabas wants John Mark to go with them, seeing a measure of potential in the guy. Paul doesn't want John Mark to go with them because he's already failed at least once, and Paul doesn't have time for that. Barnabas wants to encourage the young missionary; Paul's already done with him. Barnabas refuses to give up on him; Paul gives up on them both. And well, I just think that this moment - this moment when Barnabas chooses someone that he can encourage over someone that he can work with - changes something in Paul. I think that's what we see in some of Paul's letters - Barnabas's influence. 

So they fall out, Barnabas chooses a young man who needs some encouragement (no surprise), and he takes the young man and heads home, back to the island of Cyprus. And we never hear from him again. After years as an essential cog in Paul's flowering ministry, Barnabas just...drops completely out of the story. After years of being part of the foundation of Christian communities, he's just gone. We don't know what happened to him. We don't know if he traveled around on his own some, if he visited those churches, if he wrote them letters. We don't know if they asked about him, if they were constantly asking Paul about his former sidekick. We don't know what kind of mark or legacy he left...anywhere. Except that we know that it was a legacy of encouragement. 

Otherwise, we'd be talking about Joseph right now. 

It's just one of those strange things that stands out when we read the Bible. This guy was part of everything, and then he was just...gone. He was in the thick of it all, and he walked away. But he walked away in order to stay true to the very core of who he was, who God had made him, the gifting that everyone so thoroughly recognized in him that they changed his name for it. And we turn the page and we keep reading and it quickly slips our minds, but...I think it matters. 

I'm going to have more to say about Barnabas this week. For a few days, probably, at least. But I wanted to introduce the idea and just let you start thinking about him. If you're looking for his story, pick it up in Acts. 

Life in Pieces

God has always been faithful to give His people a vision, even today. He is good about setting before us something that we can see Him making of our lives, helping us to discover the path that He's laying out before us. 

The challenge is that, given our limited human understanding, things aren't always what they seem. Sometimes, God brings us in one door just to get us accustomed to a grander idea that He's working toward and then, once we think we start to understand what He's doing, He starts to tweak it. 

This requires a couple of things from us, things that aren't necessarily easy. The first is that we have to be willing to hold onto this life God's given us with open hands. We can't let ourselves get too attached to the first thing God is doing because it might not be the big thing He's doing. We can't let ourselves ever think "This is exactly it, this is perfectly and wholly what God wants from me" because we know that God is constantly growing and changing His people. He is constantly calling us to other places. 

Just look at Paul. You could say that Paul did the same thing for much of his adult life, at least for much of his ministry. He traveled from place and place and preached and taught and challenged the believers who lived in those places. He helped to build churches and establish the ways of the faith in a very vast and diverse region. And yet, we cannot pretend that Paul did exactly the same thing in Corinth that he did in Ephesus that he did in Rome. Each was its own place with its own challenges and its own needs. In one place, Paul was meeting believers down by the rivers and in another, he was standing in the public square. In yet another, he was charming the guards of the prisons. If Paul had latched on to the exact style and shape of his ministry in, say, Damascus, right after receiving his sight, he would never have had the impact that God wanted him to have in these other places. Because what worked in Damascus would not have worked in Thessalonica.

So the first thing we have to learn is to not hold too tightly to one way of doing things or one idea that God has because whatever we do, even if it looks like the same thing, is going to grow and change as God challenge us to grow and change. That's the way that God works. 

The second thing we have to figure out is how to not move too quickly. This one's a lot harder, especially for me. You see, I think I understand what God is wanting to do with my life, at least in a general sense. But then, He starts tweaking it. He starts introducing the little ways that He's going to change it, usually one little way at a time. 

And it's tempting for me to want to jump and say, "Ah, yes, Lord! I get it!" and then run out and try to find a way to make the new thing work. I want to put that new piece into action right away, find a place to start loving others out of this new thing God is calling me to. 

The problem with this is that even when I move in faith on the new little piece God has given me, I may still end up in the wrong place. Because this one thing may not be the whole thing. And often, it isn't. I go out and excitedly jump into a new venture that requires this new thing, and then I realize that what I've been able to come up with - the limited imagination that I have - has usually overfocused on the new thing and missed something of the old that I wasn't supposed to let go of yet. Or it has failed to consider the things that I still don't know and tried to just fill in the blanks with my own excitement. 

That's really the problem - trying to fill in the blanks with my own enthusiasm at the very same moment that I'm trying to catch hold of God's enthusiasm for something. I get so excited when I see the way that He is changing and shaping my calling, creating a new vision for my life right before my very eyes, and I'm just excited to move. I'm just excited to go. I'm just excited to get started. But so often, I don't know what getting started looks like...or even what I'm starting. I only have one extra piece; I'm not really ready to move yet, except that I can't seem to stay still. 

But I'm trying to learn. Because what I've learned without wanting to learn it is that it can be devastating and discouraging to move too quickly without enough information. It is heartbreaking to feel like you finally know, and then to realize there's something you're still missing. It is hard to keep putting yourself in places you want to be sure of and finding out that something is still not quite right. It makes it feel like God is the moving target when, in fact, it's just me that's moving too fast. 

And I'm not saying that we shouldn't move on the things that God wants us to move on. That's not it at all. I don't want to make us afraid to move. But we have to know where we're moving and why. We have to make our first instinct not motion, but devotion. We have to make our first reaction not unbridled enthusiasm, but humble thankfulness. Our first response has to be to pray, to thank God for giving us this new piece of vision and to ask Him to keep clarifying it for us. doesn't have to be today. It doesn't have to be right now. We don't have to take whatever little thing God gives us and make it happen right now. Rather, we have to understand that it is something that God is making happen right now and whenever we finally see it, it will be in His perfect timing. We have to be content to wait. Because that one little piece God might be giving you right now is absolutely important, but it may not be enough to move on. It may not be the whole thing. And if we jump too fast, we'll still find ourselves far from where we want to be when, ironically, where we want to be is right here, right now - in His hands. 

So let God give you a vision. Let Him grow and change it before your very eyes. Let Him give you a new piece here and there, and keep praying for understanding and opportunity. But let God be the one to tell you when to move because He's the one putting this thing together and all the passion and excitement and enthusiasm in all the world will never fill in the blanks as beautifully as He's going to if we just keep, prayerfully, waiting to see it. And when it's time, you'll know. It will be so perfect, you won't be able to miss it. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

A Fragile Thanksgiving

It's hard to know what to say on a day like this one. One of the things that I have always desired for this space is that it would be real, whatever that looks like. We cannot tolerate the cheap sort of faith that always tries to whitewash over our very real human experience. While we know that God's truth is real and vital and lifegiving, we are still beings living a journey of death (for the time being), and a real faith has to find the balance in that. It just has to. 

And it seems so easy to rattle off things in our lives that we know we're supposed to be thankful for. All of the beautiful, lovely, shiny things in our lives that on any other day, any other day, we love so dearly. But this day...this day is hard. 

We want to say that it's hard because it's not going to be filled with all of the things that we normally fill it with. This day is not going to look like any other Thanksgiving that we've ever had. We want to say that it's hard because we're somehow mourning it, and of course we are. But what really makes this day so hard, I think, is not so much that it's going to be different. 

It's that this day, this day that has been so rock-solid in our personal histories, this day that has been so consistent in our feels so fragile this year. 

It feels like this day is hanging on a fraying thread, as we're torn between what our hearts desire. We desire the intimacy and connection and fellowship that we've been longing for for so long, and yet, it is tempered by our equally strong desire to love one another well, and this year, that means protecting one another. We want to be with our loved ones, but we want to have them for more than this day. Today may feel...totally fine, and yet, we know that if we get today wrong, it can all change in a matter of a few days. 

Today, there will be empty seats at tables where there was never a chance to say goodbye. Today, there will be families eating turkey together, but from different birds. Today, there will be some who will say they are not scared, but they will still hold their breath for the next two weeks, hoping they weren't wrong. There will be little children knocking on doors and waving at grandparents through windows, and there will be young couples making their own meal for the first time this year. There will be Zoom calls and Skypes, all that hang on an digital infrastructure that has never been tested with a connectivity like it's going to see today. Some of our Thanksgiving fellowships, like it or not, are going to be buffering. 

To be honest with you, it feels like probably all of them are. 

Thankfulness - authentic, soul-deep thankfulness - just feels so hard this year. 

And yet...and yet, we are so good at feeling true thankfulness for the fragile. We are. It's a cool breeze on a warm day, a wisp of wind that is here in a moment and then gone. We're thankful for this, even though it is so fleeting, in a way that we would never be thankful for a sustained wind. It's a single flower in a field of weeds. Our eyes go straight to it, and we cannot help but notice its beauty, even as we realize that it is being choked out by everything around it. It's the sound of the church bells in the stillness of a Sunday. So fragile, and yet, so beautiful. It has always been the fragile things in our lives that seem to drive the deepest into our hearts. It has always been the fragile things that somehow make us most thankful for them. 

Which is why I think this is a Thanksgiving that we will find a way to be thankful for. Once we settle into the strangeness of it all, once we embrace the fragility of it, once we let ourselves take hold of what seems so untouchable, I think we're going to find that the delicate nature of this Thanksgiving is going to give us a whole new view on things. I think this year, unlike any other, we're going to discover true thankfulness. I think that miles, cities, states apart, we're going to figure out how to love one another like we haven't in a long time. I think this Thanksgiving is going to bring us to tender tears as we realize the depth of our connectedness, even in a moment when we don't seem to have it. We'll find it anyway. And it will teach us something. 

Because yes, this year feels so fragile. I get it. Trust me, I get it. 

And yet, we are so good at feeling true thankfulness for the fragile.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Persons of Poor Character

Have you ever noticed that every time the Jews needed a person of poor character in the Bible, they always knew exactly where to find one? 

So many of the stories we read of the saints being condemned feature somewhere a person of poor character, some guy that the Jews found and had him make up stories about the righteous man so that he could be convicted of whatever crime (the crime was usually nothing more than contradicting one of the religious elite). The Jews can always find some guy willing to lie about someone else, can always get a guy to say whatever they need him to say, even though he knows it isn't true. 

And these are not buffoons they are finding. These are not simple men. The men who come forward with made-up stories to condemn the righteous are men who seem well-versed in Scripture. They always have a very specific ritual allegation against someone, always know what to say to demonstrate that the guy has broken the teachings of the Temple. These are smart men of poor character, educated men of poor character. These are guys who know what they're talking about, even when they're making it up as they go along. 

It makes you wonder how much fellowship the Jews maintained with these persons. It seems like maybe a silly question, but it's very important. Were these men who were part of the assembly? Were they men who were once part of the assembly but had been cast out? Were they men who were insecure and desperate to be part of the assembly, so would do whatever they were asked to do? Where did their learnedness come from? Were the Pharisees teaching them, but also excluding them at the same time? Was there any legitimate hope that they would eventually learn so much that they would become men not of poor character, or was it important for the Pharisees to maintain a pool of poor characters in order to advance their agenda as necessary?

There's just such a slim possibility that these men of poor character were men from outside of the assembly of the Jews that we have to ask whether their fellowship was meaningful or whether it was just for show. 

There are persons in our own assemblies that we have to ask the same about. 

There are persons who are just taxing for us to be around, whether it's because they are always in need of something or because they are always pushing the envelope or whether because they are always asking questions. Every church has them, and every church embraces or tolerates them to some degree. The question we have to ask ourselves is what it is that we expect out of their presence, what honest expectations we have for them in our assembly. 

These are not usually dumb persons; they pay attention, and they pick up on the lessons that we teach. They know the Bible, even if they aren't living it. They understand wisdom, even if they aren't practicing it. To hear them speak, you'd think the church was an integral part of their lives, but to watch them live, you wonder how seriously they're really taking it. They talk a good game, but there's a disconnect between what they know and how they live. (And this is all of us, really.) 

The question we have to ask ourselves about these persons isn't an easy one, but it's important. What are our honest expectations for them? Do we believe they are going to change the way they live and act? Do we think God can change their hearts? Do we expect revolution and redemption and re-creation in their lives? Or are we keeping them around because we are using them to say something about who we are? Are we using them to cement our own authority or generosity or goodwill? When we need someone to hold up to affirm what kind of church that we are, is that when we turn to these persons that we tolerate or even embrace, but haven't really changed? Haven't really impacted? 

Do we keep the poor among us to show our generosity? Do we keep the learning among us to show our wisdom? Do we keep the needy among us to show our provision? Do we put up with poor characters in our fellowship because some day, we might need them to help us prove a point? Do we keep them around for no other reason than that we plan on using them for our own ends? 

The truth in far too many fellowships is...yes. We have persons among us who never grow, who never change, who never mature, who never develop, who never move past the moment where we first found them, no matter how much we teach them, help them, love them, encourage them. We have persons among us for whom we have no real hope that they will ever change, persons we don't even push any more. Persons we don't even encourage any more. Persons we have so little expectations of that they're easy even to forget, until we need to use them for something, usually to show who we are.

It's strange, I think, to read the Scriptures and to see how easy it is for the Jews to find learned men of poor character any time they need them. And yet, I cannot help but wonder about those in our own fellowships. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Value of a Coat

Yesterday, we talked about the irony of the men with the greatest position in Jewish society needing someone to guard their coats while they exercised their authority. One potential explanation for this is that they didn't have the love that they thought they did (or pretended they did, since they knew they needed to guard their coats), since the people could not be trusted to respect their property even while they were exercising their authority. 

Another possible explanation is that perhaps the Pharisees were simply too attached to their coats. And that's a problem, too. 

There are a few possible reasons why the Pharisees would be attached to their coats, and all of them are a challenge to the heart of the men we're talking about. 

First, maybe they simply were attached to their coats because they were their coats. They had invested in these coats, perhaps received them from others who meant a lot to them. Every man needs a coat, and a man who already has a coat doesn't want to need one again. It could be as simple as the Pharisees not wanting to give up something that was meeting a need in their life. In this case, they were holding too tightly to things that moths could destroy, being selfish about what they had. 

Maybe they didn't want someone else to have their coats without paying some price for them. Maybe they were just against the notion of charity. If someone else wanted a coat, then he should work hard, earn the money, and buy himself a coat, rather than taking one that doesn't belong to him. The Pharisees could not be expected to provide for everyone, could they? Or if they could, perhaps they were being stingy because they wanted to keep a record of who was being helped, of who received what and from whom. Maybe they were willing to give their coats to someone in need, as long as they got credit for it. In this case, they were unwilling to give freely, keeping too many tabs on the life that had been given as a gift to them.

Maybe, as we briefly suggested yesterday, we're not talking about regular coats, but the special coats of the Pharisees, the ones with the long tassels that were meant to indicate their status in society. That raises a couple of potential problems, too. 

Like perhaps the Pharisees were too attached to the outward symbols of their own authority. They didn't want to lose their coats because they didn't want to lose their status. They wanted everyone to know by looking at them who they were and how important they were, and the only way they could guarantee that was with their coats. If that's the case, they're too in love with their appearances. 

Or maybe they didn't want anyone to be able to pretend they were among the elite just by wearing, but not 'earning,' the coat. They didn't want other men to be able to spout off whatever ideas they had with any measure of authority just because they had a coat with long tassels (even though that's, uhm, exactly what the Pharisees expected to be able to do because of their coats with long tassels), so they had to protect their authority by making sure no one else could get into it. If that's the case, they're too in love with their own authority. 

There are all kinds of reasons why the Pharisees might have felt the need to guard their coats, but none of them are good. They probably seemed good and necessary to the men who deemed it good and necessary, but every single one of these possibilities (including the one we looked at yesterday, which was that they weren't as beloved by the people as they pretended to be) reveals a deeper heart problem, one that should not be ignored. 

So if you need someone to guard your coat, it's worth asking why. And then, it's worth asking what that reveals about your heart. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Guarding Your Coat

It's common knowledge that the first time we meet Saul, later to be named Paul, in Scripture, most of us miss him. It's not until he reminds us that he was there at the stoning of Stephen that we flip back a few pages and realize that yes, he was. Saul was the one guarding the coats of the men who had stripped them off to pick up rocks. 

Which raises an important point. 

If the Pharisees and leaders in religious law were really the pillars of society that they thought they were, why did anyone have to guard their coats? If everyone loved them and was thankful for their service and their teaching and had true respect for their authority and wisdom, why was there a threat that as soon as they made themselves vulnerable, the people would take advantage of that? 

Perhaps their coats meant something special. Perhaps the coat of the Pharisee was an external marker of his status in society, and what they were really protecting against was imposters potentially getting their hands on this well-known symbol of awesomeness and pretending to be more authoritative than they were. But if that's the case, then it raises the question of why the Pharisee would remove his coat of honor and authority to exercise his judgment on the people in the first place. Did he not want to tarnish his public appearance by wearing his coat during a stoning? That sounds complicated. (Although, if we're being honest, no one's saying the Pharisees were not a complicated bunch. Just look at how they imposed their rules of everyone but themselves.) 

We know that the Pharisees loved to wear long tassels on their coats to show their status in society. Perhaps they were afraid that someone would steal their coats, remove their tassels, or at the very least expose them for the kind of flimsy, shoddy add-ons that they actually were. Or maybe someone would pick up a coat and discover there was nothing so special about the tassels after all. 

Or maybe someone just wanted a coat. 

The point is that these were men in an elevated status in society, by their own doing. They had made themselves the authorities on religious life, which was to say - all of life, and they set the tone for everyone else. They set the pace. They set the rules. They reigned from their place of authority, self-imposed - and the made it a point to make sure that everyone knew that they were in charge. They were above reproach. No one could question the Pharisees. Just look at what was happening to Stephen in this very moment because he spoke boldly against the kind of teaching they espoused. He was a threat to them, and threats to them must be squashed. Yes, the Pharisees ruled with an iron thumb, squishing the people like tiny bugs under the mass of their status. 

And yet, the people were not so afraid of them that personal theft wasn't a real possibility even while the Pharisees were exercising their authority and stoning someone to death for crossing them. Even while they were securing their position by asserting their power and absolute dominance, they were afraid that something about them was legitimately vulnerable to the people they claimed to rule, so much so that they had to have someone guard their coats while they stoned a Christian to death. 

Imagine if they had any real authority. 

No, really. Imagine if their authority came from the people themselves. Imagine if the Pharisees were known for their generous teaching, for their grace and their mercy. Imagine if there was any real love between the people and these religious experts. Imagine if they had invested their lives in ministering to the people out of their understanding, rather than trying to dominate them to secure power for themselves. Imagine if the Pharisees had spent their lives building a legacy of good instead of fear. Imagine if they were a group of men so honestly respected that they could leave their coats lying around without worrying that someone would take them. 

Imagine if they were the kind of guys who didn't have to be afraid of a little vulnerability. 

This changes everything. For them, and for us. Because we're the kind of people always trying to secure our legacy, always trying to build our influence, always trying to assert our authority or hold onto our power. The world tells us we're supposed to be this way. But ask anyone who's "made it" and there's a very real difference between having the kind of power that cannot tolerate vulnerability and having a soft spot in the hearts of the people. There's a very real difference between having a bunch of persons who are impressed by who you are and having persons who truly value who you are. There's a difference between a legacy built on power and fear and intimidation and false authority and a legacy built on love. 

A legacy built on love means we don't have to worry about taking off our coats. 

So that's really the question for all of us, the question we ought to be thinking about when we read this story of the stoning of Stephen. What happens when we take off our coats? Do we need someone to guard them? If so, perhaps we're not getting things as right as we think we are. And maybe we need to change our ways. 

As Christians with the confident assurance of grace, we should never have to be afraid of a little vulnerability. We should never have to guard our coats.  

Friday, November 20, 2020

Wisdom and Humility

If wisdom is the sum of all of our experiences and permits us to make decisions based on what we already know, it's tempting to think that wisdom would make us confident, perhaps even arrogant. And it does (and it can), but real wisdom also comes with humility. 

Because wisdom recognizes a couple of things about itself. First, it recognizes that it may not have all of the information it needs. It knows that it only knows what it knows, that it is limited by its own experience and that some of what wisdom decides is, basically, an educated guess. It knows this because wisdom has made these educated guesses before - sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. Wisdom has discovered first-hand what it has not known, but only by choosing without knowing and then finding out what that missing information would have contributed. 

I keep saying that wisdom chooses without knowing, and that is true, but I don't want to create the impression that wisdom always chooses to act without knowing. Sometimes, wisdom chooses not to act because of not knowing, and that is a choice, as well. Sorry - just a small interjection, but I don't want you to get the wrong idea. 

What wisdom also recognizes is that it's never going to make the same decision twice. That's because as soon as wisdom chooses (to act or not to act), it adds another piece of data to itself. It has another point of experience to draw upon for the next time. So when the next decision rolls around, it is a different consideration, a different set of wisdom that makes it - a wisdom that has been added to by what it did the last time. 

That's why wisdom requires such humility, on both of these counts. It recognizes its own limitations and thus, has to confess that it knows that it does not know everything. It also recognizes its own developing nature and thus, has to be mindful of what it may learn from acting on itself. It knows that it is never complete, that it never will be complete, but that it will always be adding one more thing, one more thing, one more thing to its understanding to the point that a wise decision today might not be a wise decision tomorrow. 

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't make it today.

That is why when asked whether, knowing then what I know now, I would do something differently, the answer is no. The answer is no for a couple of reasons: first, I didn't know then what I know now, which means I could not have used today's information to make yesterday's decision. Today's information comes from having made yesterday's decision, so the fact that I can even ask the question is a reflection of the nature of wisdom itself. 

More than that, however, to have made any other decision along the course of this journey would have required, every time, deciding that what was true this time could have been true at any other time and always living deciding based on the unknown and not the known. It would have required me to always choose what I didn't know as the basis for my movement in this world, and that's not wisdom. Wisdom confesses what it does not know, but it moves based on what it does know. Otherwise, we're all living some kind of paralyzed life where we're afraid to move at all because we don't know everything. (We know persons like this; it's not pretty.) Life is meant to be lived. Wisdom tells us how to live it. Fear keeps us from living it. That's why we always choose wisdom.

It's tough. I get it. It's not easy. We get a little better at it as time goes on (hopefully) by learning from our mistakes and our successes, from our failures and our victories. We add to our pool of wisdom every time we choose (even when we think we choose not to choose, which is a choice in itself). And in the meantime, there are very real consequences (good and bad) for us and for others in our community when we move according to wisdom. That's why we need humility. 

Humility and wisdom go hand-in-hand. Both are necessary for navigating our world, no matter what it throws at us. Both are necessary for living together, which is what we are called to do. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Fear and Wisdom

Like most of us, I have wrestled in the past seven months with my own decisions. I have struggled to decide what to do about masks and social distancing and working outside of the home. I have had to re-evaluate everything in a new light, and for one reason only: there are persons in this world I love. 

That's it. It is out of love for those that I love that I have tempered some of my decisions, that I have agonized over choosing between my own confidence and a need for concern. Between what I would do for myself and what I would want someone to do for me. It's hasn't been easy. It's still not easy. It's not easy for any of us. 

And then...

And then on Thursday of last week, I was tested for Covid. On Saturday, my test came back positive. And all of a sudden, my decisions have had a real impact on others. Not a possible impact or a suspected impact or a potential for impact; others have been affected by my testing positive for Covid. So the question quickly becomes: knowing then what I know now, would I have done anything differently?

The answer, for me, is no. I would not have done anything differently. Because at every step of the way, I have made my decisions on the best wisdom that I have. And that's really all any of us can do. 

Wisdom takes a lifetime. It's the culmination of every little experience you've ever had. You spend your whole story building this library of experiences that you can draw upon when something comes up, experiences that will point you in one direction or another. You spend your whole life reflecting on your experiences and deciding what you would do differently if the same thing happened again. You spend your life learning to live your life the way that you want to live it, to figure out the indicators that you need to slow down or speed up, pause for a minute or push through. You have a whole treasury of mistakes you don't want to make again and opportunities you don't want to miss and chances you're going to jump on if you ever get them again. You have a memory box full of things you almost missed, but you're so glad you didn't, of once-in-a-lifetime things you've done that you don't regret. And, of course, of things you do regret. All of this is wisdom. All of this is what it takes to have a life at all. 

When you have to make choices about what to do next, it's this wisdom that guides you. Now, we're living in an interesting sort of time where none of us have stories about this. None of us have ever done this before, and the virus itself (I can confirm, now having it) is a very unique, wicked sort of beast that introduces a lot more questions than answers. So we have the voice of wisdom, but we also have this little voice in our head that wonders if we're wrong. That wonders what happens if we're wrong. That is worried about the consequences if we make the wrong choice. As we should be. These are very real, legitimate concerns - what happens when my choice impacts someone else? What happens when my choice impacts someone else's opportunity to make their own choice? When we live in community, we cannot ignore these questions. 

But neither is it of benefit to anyone - ourselves or others - if we stop living our lives at all, afraid of the impact that they might have when we least expect it. We can't all just shut down. We have to keep going...somehow. Otherwise, we have no impact at all. 

And the only way I know to keep going is in wisdom. It's in the library of experiences that I've built up over a lifetime that helps me to know what path to take, which way to turn, which decisions to make at any given point in time. Not just for the life that I want to live, but for the life that I'm giving to others out of. The life that I want to be able to give to them. And we cannot let the fear of being wrong stop us. 

Because the truth is that we're going to be wrong. All of us. At some point or another, we are going to be wrong about something, big or small. That's just how this thing called life works. We don't know everything there is to know about it. We don't know everything that's going on right now, let alone everything that might happen tomorrow. All we have is the wisdom we've accumulated from both making it and missing it, from being right about something and from being wrong about something. All we have is the sum of our own experiences that can give us reasonable confidence in moving one way or the other, and the humility to know that at any given point in time, we may still be wrong about something. We may still make a mistake. 

If we let the fear of being wrong make our decisions for us, then we end up living a life of regrets, of missed moments, of missed opportunities, of failures. We end up letting others down, which is the very thing that we're often afraid of doing in the first place. They can't count on us because we're too careful to be confident at all. We live every day like we're new here, like we don't know anything about this life at all, about who we are, about who God is, about what's going on in the world. 

Do I regret my decisions? Sometimes. But all things being the same, I would make the same decisions again. Because if the only reason I have to not do something is the vague possibility, without seemingly any evidence at all, that I might be wrong...that's not enough for me. Not when wisdom tips the scales overwhelmingly in the other direction. Not when having actually lived my life for this many years seems so clear in guiding me how I should live it in this moment. 

We are a people, not persons. We are a community. Our actions and decisions are necessarily going to impact one another - sometimes in unfortunate ways, hopefully more often in constructive ways. But we don't live in bubbles and we can't pretend to. And we can't put ourselves in artificial bubbles, either. What we have to do is to let wisdom guide us at all times, the wisdom we have earned by having come this far - by ourselves and together. It's not by mere chance that we're here with this moment to have. When it comes, then, to what to do with it, let us choose wisely. It's all we can do. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The In-Group

Yesterday's post was one of the toughest that I have written in awhile. And it's because it strikes so near at the heart of the tension that we feel - at least, of the tension that I feel - so often as believers - the tension between the way the world thinks and the way that we are called to live. 

The aim of the post was to talk about how the Jewish believers so easily drew the Greek believers in when there was an issue to tackle that affected all of them. But in order to do this, we still have to talk in some depth about lines that are easy to draw between us. We have to create a distinction between the Jews and the Greeks in order to talk about how the early church got rid of that distinction with inclusion. 

And this is so hard. It's just so hard.

It's a tension that we feel in the world at large, particularly right now. We are bombarded with messages of inclusion and exclusion, of tolerance and intolerance, of equal rights. We keep being told to celebrate with these groups who are looking for a place in the in-crowd when they get one, and yet, there remains this tension. 

How do we celebrate real inclusion if, in order to do so, we have to first recognize what separates us? How can there ever be full-fledged oneness if it is grounded always in otherness?

Take a fairly non-controversial example from this week's news. They were reporting on a woman of color who is set to become the first woman of color ever to be a brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy. Now, we want this sort of thing to not be news. We want inclusion and oneness and the notion that the best man (or woman) gets the opportunity to be so routine that it's not news. And yet, in order to show how inclusive we are, we create the distinction anyway. In order to celebrate her most fully, because of the broken world that we live in, and to show that we really believe what we claim to believe, we have to recognize 1) her femaleness 2) her color. In order to show that we really are inclusive and that it's possible to belong no matter who you are, we have to show that we include a diversity of persons. Yet to do so is to create the very division that we claim to have just torn down. 

We are constantly, in our world, re-erecting the barriers we just tore down in order to celebrate having torn them down in the first place. And there's just something that feels...disingenuous? about that. There's something unsettling about it. Something that really bugs me. 

It's the same thing I felt yesterday when talking about the Jews and the Greeks. The story was about how the apostles embraced inclusion to settle a trouble that was affecting all of them, which is an example we should all strive for. But in order to talk about inclusion, I first had to create two distinct groups in the very scenario where the apostles themselves demonstrated that no such groups existed. They were one group of believers.

And I went on to talk about how the church is the same way, how we need to include those that we too often exclude, but here again, that requires first creating two groups out of a body that is called to be one...and then calling that body to be one. It's tough. It's just tough. It's precisely why these questions are so difficult. It's why for all of the conversations and protests and rallies and movements that we have in our culture, we never seem to get any closer to actually solving these sorts of problems. Because every time we claim that we are one, there is something in the same breath that betrays somehow our two-ness. Our otherness. Our recognition that even if we choose unity, we remain different in some very real ways. 

The truth is...I don't advocate the "in-group" going out an intentionally drawing in members of the "out-group." I said it because language is sometimes inconvenient and too often imprecise for these sorts of things, but it doesn't set well with me. I believe that in Christ, there is no in-group and no out-group. There is no slave or free. There is no black or white. There is no rich or poor. There is no Jew or Greek. I believe the apostles got this right by choosing faithful men from the group of believers to address the problem that was cropping up and by choosing a diversity of men that shows plainly that they believed this, too - that in Christ, there was no Jew or Greek.

And yet, I know that to continue to say that is to continue to draw attention to the very divide that we are saying does not exist in Christ. 

And that's why this is so tough. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Jews and Greeks

One of the hallmarks of the early church was their commitment to one another. Acts tells us early on that many in the church were selling what they had and splitting the proceeds with those who needed them. They held everything in common, each man and woman having access to the things that they needed by the grace of their brothers and sisters, who believed more in who they were as a people than who they were as persons. 

This extended to widows and orphans, of course, and this is where we see one of the first troubles in the early church arise. The Greek believers got the sense that their widows were not receiving the same kind of love and assistance from the church as the Jewish widows. The Greek-speaking believers even went so far as to say that their widows were being neglected by the church. So they brought this dispute to the apostles. 

The apostles decided to solve this problem by appointing a whole panel of men to oversee the distribution of charity and widows' benefits. Appointing a committee would introduce a system of checks and balances, where no single man's interests could run away with him, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Now, look at who they appointed:

Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, 'who had converted to Judaism in the city of Antioch' (Acts 6:5). 

The one thing that jumps out right away from this list is this: some of those are Greek names. And in case you're prone to miss that little fact, the Scriptures tell us as much about the last guy - Nicolaus. He was a convert to Judaism from a Greek-speaking city. 

The apostles' response to a seeming imbalance of power was to balance the power. It was to appoint a group of men that included a number of men from the group that felt outcast by the other. 

We can't afford to miss this. We can't afford to read right by this. We can't afford to overlook this. Because so often when we believe that our ministry is missing the mark, when we find out that we're not having the impact that we want to be having or that we thought we were having in our community, our response is to appoint a bunch of experts from within our own walls. We turn to our own to try to solve the problem of the other, that problem that there is still an 'other' at all. We want 'us' to be the ones who do it better, and so we turn to our own kind as our best resource. 

The apostles could have turned to the Jews. They could have turned to those who had invested the most in the history of the grace of God. They could have believed that if they just found the most faithful men, the men who had spent their lives living the generosity of Moses' Teachings and Jewish hospitality, then this problem would be resolved. They could have gone to their own synagogues and found the guys who had spent the most time studying the Scriptures, the most time praying the prayers, the most time offering the sacrifices. But the faith of the apostles didn't work that way. 

The faith of the apostles recognized something more than the investment someone had made in the faith; it recognized the role of the Holy Spirit. And as soon as the Holy Spirit came upon a new believer, he was just as much a full-fledged member of the community as any man who had invested his life in the scholarship of the Scriptures. In appointing these particular men, the apostles made very clear that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek; there are only brothers. And that if there is a problem in the church, it's not up to the Jews to fix it; it's up to the brothers to fix it. It's up to all of us to come together, whether we're the in-group or the out-group. Whether we're the fourth-generation members or the guy who just showed up last week to check things out for awhile. 

There's a tremendous lesson here for all of us, and that lesson is simple: when problems arise in our churches or in our communities or in our lives, we don't need a bunch of experts to fix them. We need a bunch of brothers (and sisters). We don't need to make the problem worse by trying to figure out who's worthy to be part of the solution, but we need to jump right in and realize that we are all part of the solution. When there seems to be an out-group, the absolute best thing we can do is to make them part of the in-group. 

If the Greek-speaking believers among us believe they aren't getting a fair shake, well, then, by golly, let's put a bunch of them on our team and make sure they get a say in how things are going. 

It's so simple. It makes so much sense. And yet, it's not what most of us tend to think of first. 

Why not? 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Testify on My Behalf

Acts tells us the story of a man named Stephen, who was known for his faithfulness and righteousness. And yet, when things start going differently than the religious leaders think that they should, the whole assembly seems really quick to turn on this guy. All of a sudden, they're making up stories about him and accusing him of all kinds of blaspheme, right after they have just chosen him for his upstanding character and pure heart. 

As the accusations start to fly, they turn their eyes toward Stephen and ask, basically, "Well?" Well, what do you have to say for yourself? What possible defense are you going to mount? 

And it would be easy - at least, it would be easy for me if I were Stephen - to remind them of all the things they already knew about him. To remind them of all the reasons they chose him for his position in the first place. To rattle off a laundry list of righteousness and good works and justice and mercy and faith. He's got all that. He could easily do it. 

Instead, when Stephen speaks, he tells these men not about himself, but about his God. He starts not with, "Remember who I am," but rather, "Remember this guy named Abraham?" 

Stephen goes all the way back to the beginning of Israel's story. To a man named Abraham called into a land that was not his own. To a son named Jacob who becomes the father of twelve tribes. To a son named Joseph, who saves his entire family even though they betrayed him. To a baby named Moses who grows up inside the Egyptian palace and then becomes the one who confronts them. To a God who calls His people to new places, who leads them out of captivity, who parts waters for them. 

Stephen's response is basically, "Who am I? Who is God? God is who He says He is, who He has always been in His story and in ours, and that means that I am who God says I am, in my story and in His."

This isn't arrogance. This isn't some shroud of faithfulness that Stephen is using to justify aspects of himself or his personality that are anything less than God desires them to be. He's not pretending that he's perfect or that because he loves God and believes in Him, that everything that he is is righteous. He's not using God's story to deflect his own. He's not claiming some kind of self-righteous faith here. 

No, what he's saying is: God is. Whatever questions you have about who anybody is, God is. Whatever you want to know about my story, know first that it is God's story. 

That's why he includes so many of the flaws of the stories that he tells. When he talks about Moses, for example, he includes the scene where Moses kills the Egyptian and how that raised questions among the Hebrews about who Moses really was. And yet, their questions didn't change who Moses was in God's story. Their questions didn't change what God desired to do through Moses. 

The council's questions, the leaders' questions, don't change who Stephen is. They can accuse him of all kinds of blaspheme, but that doesn't change the character of who he is. They can question whether he's a man of any faith at all, but that doesn't change that he is. They can think they're doing God some sort of favor if they kill him, if they eliminate him from God's story, but what Stephen says when he says, "Remember Abraham?" is...I am who I am in God's story because God is

What confidence! What faith! What assuredness! It doesn't, of course, change the outcome of this scene in Stephen's story - he is stoned to death by the leaders of the assembly - but it leaves no question about Stephen's story in God's story, about Stephen's life in God's hands. 

To be honest with you, I want that kind of faith. I want that kind of rock-solid assurance about my own place in God's story. I want that kind of absolute confidence that, when faced with questions about who I am, can look this world in the eye and say, "Who am I? Who is God? God is who He says He is...and that means that I am who God says I am." 

What do I have to say for myself? 

Simply this: remember Abraham? 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Black Light

Recently, a friend brought me a set of Halloween lights she had purchased on clearance. They were a string of black bulbs, perfect for a spooky sort of decor. But, she said, they don't light up black. They are more of a purplish white, which is not what she was looking for. At the time, I nodded in understanding and brought the lights that she was so disappointed in home with me. 

Since I don't do much decorating of my own, but enjoy looking at decorations, I walked the lights across the street to a neighbor friend who goes all-out with this sort of thing. (That way, I could see the lights in their full glory.) The neighbor got excited about the new lights and said, "Ooooh! I bet they are black lights!" 

At this point, my head immediately was thinking, "No. No, they light up purplish-white, not black." But also in this moment, it hit me - there's no such thing as black-colored light. 

That's called darkness. 

There's no such thing as a light that is darker than the space it is trying to illuminate. There is no such thing as a light that cannot be seen, as a light emitting blackness would be. There is no such thing as a light that puts out darkness for show. Rather, all light puts down darkness. 

I never told my friend, but what she had were actually black lights - lights that illuminate things in a very unique way. Do you remember playing with black lights when you were a kid? In a perfectly dark room, the black lights would light up the brightest things, reflecting somehow off the white on your shirt or on your shoes. My friend was disappointed that her lights would not glow dark, but what she failed to understand was how her lights illuminated the darkest places in the neatest ways. 

This has me thinking about so many things, as you can probably imagine. It has me thinking first of all about all the times in our lives that we search for darkness and call it light. That we want things to be darker than they appear. That we think about how cool it would be to illuminate something in blackness. As if that would really be sort of cool.

We have all kinds of misconceptions about light and darkness, all kinds of thoughts that get us messed up. Sometimes, we want a light that is truly darkness and sometimes, we find a darkness that we convince ourselves is light. And sometimes, we have a light that ends up illuminating weird things in the dark for us, playing with the colors and showing us something new that we hadn't thought about. And sometimes, we can be quick to write off the things that don't seem to meet our expectations when, in fact, it might have been what we actually wanted all along; we just didn't understand well enough to know that's what we were wanting. 

All of this from a string of lights that wasn't dark enough. Silly friend - there's no such thing as black-colored light. 

That's called darkness. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Unity and Trinity

As we talk about unity this week, one of the things we can't ignore is the reason Jesus gives for desiring unity among His people. It's not because it's easier to manage a movement that has a single focus or a single understanding. It's not because there's only one way to follow Jesus. It's not because He had an idea about exactly what every one of His followers would look like, and they would all look the same. In fact, the unity that Jesus had in mind was not about our manifestation of it at all; it was about the foundational nature of unity itself. 

Unity is foundational because it is Trinitarian. Jesus says plainly that He desires His followers to be one as He and the Father (and the Spirit) are one. He desires them to know the kind of intimacy and interdependency that He and His father do. Not because there's something 'better' about this way of living (even though there is), but because unity is essential to faith. Because unity is Trinitarian, because it is the very essence of the Godhead (three-in-one), there is something fundamental about the Kingdom of God, about faith, about worship, about love, about holiness, about righteousness, about every good thing that we cannot understand without unity in our lives, without unity in our faith. 

And listen, fraternity is not a reasonable substitute here. Simple brotherhood is not enough. A willingness to journey together with those with whom we share a substantial interest isn't enough. A fake appearance of being one with others who we also talk about being their backs or secretly still believe are wrong about this or that the other is not enough. Coming together every now and then and crossing denominational lines when we have a good enough reason is not enough. 

Neither is so dramatically narrowing what it is that we deem essential that we lose any meaningfulness at all. It's tempting to go this direction, too, and we can't ignore that. It's tempting for us to say that we're willing not only to tolerate, but to stand with, anyone who declares Jesus is Lord without having a standard for what "Jesus" or "Lord" actually mean. That's how we end up with so many caricatures of Him in our culture at large. Unity is not "just letting everyone believe whatever they want to believe and deciding to stand up next to them anyway."

Unity is the hard work of wrestling things out together. It's the hard work of finding that foundational place of meaningful agreement when we start at places that seem so far apart. 

Look at Jesus in the Garden when He prayed. He and the Father are one; they always have been, and they always will be. Yet, Jesus starts on the end of "take this cup from me, Lord" and ends at a place that declares, "Your will be done." Jesus doesn't pretend that He doesn't have His own hope, His own desire in the situation that is to come. They are one, but they begin in two different places in the shadow of the Cross. What binds them together is their mutual love for the people of God. What helps them come together is their understanding of what this act accomplishes. They both want to usher in the Kingdom of God. 

(And it's worth saying here, too, that we could be tempted to say that God wanted Jesus to die on the Cross and Jesus didn't exactly want to, but it's more complicated even than that. Because God did not want His Son to have to die. That wasn't God's "plan A" any more than it was Jesus's.'s complicated.) 

But the point is that even though they are one, they still appeared to have disagreements. They still seemed to have different relationships to the circumstances that were coming. Jesus's prayer in the Garden doesn't make them any less "one" with one another. Rather, it gives them a chance to choose their oneness all over again by coming together on that thing that they both wholeheartedly believe in.

That's what unity does. That's what our unity should do. And until and unless we can do that, we will always be missing out on something essential in our faith experience. Because this kind of unity is essential to the nature of God Himself and so, it must be essential to our understanding of Him. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020


As we talk about unity, one of the ideas that keeps resurfacing is that "unity does not mean uniformity," but I realize that this is something that probably deserves its own discussion, rather than simply being a footnote or something asserted quickly as fact and moved on from. 

One of the greatest challenges to unity is the idea of uniformity - the notion that our coming together means that we agree with or approve of what the other party is going. If we choose to be part of something with someone we think is wrong, doesn't that mean that we actually think they are right? Doesn't that mean that we are, by our very participation, affirming their point of view? And certainly, there are some who, when we choose unity, will choose approval and will take that as a commendation of their own views and as permission to move ruthlessly forward on their own account. 

But that's not what unity is, and even if some take it that way, it should not stop us from choosing unity. 

Unity agrees more on the goal than on the path. It affirms that we all have the same thing in our sights, even if we see it differently. It says that we want to move in the same direction, even if we don't see the same paths lying in front of us. 

And the truth is that we do this all the time in small ways. We often get in silly little fights over this stuff all the time with those we love. But it doesn't stop us from choosing it all over again. 

Just think about the last time, maybe, you decorated the house for Christmas. (It's a little early, I know. We haven't even had Thanksgiving yet.) Everyone wants the tree decorated, but there may be disagreements on what it should look like when it's done. Some want the tinsel to go on first; others, the lights. Some have a method for untangling the lights, while others just jump right in. Any time there is more than one person working on the same project, we see clearly what it means to have unity even in disagreement - because we see that there is more than one way of approaching and accomplishing the task. But none of us is serious when we say, "You know what? Forget it. We're not having a Christmas tree this year." We may throw the decorations on the floor in a huff and walk away, but we all know that someone is going to come back and finish it...and we will all enjoy it. 

The dirty little truth about this world, what it seems that they don't want us to figure out, is that we're not as different as we seem. We don't have such drastically different goals from one another. Not in politics, not in the church, not in our communities. What we have are different approaches. 

In politics, we can look at the idea of "healthcare for all," which has been a major talking point for a number of years. Now, there's no one out there saying, "No. You know what? I don't think everyone deserves healthcare. I don't think [certain demographics] are worthy of doctors and hospitals." No one thinks that. It's just that some think the open market is the best approach to providing quality care, while others believe that more centralized control and oversight is the best way to go. Our goal is the same, but our approaches are different. And all the media hype makes us seem further apart than we are. 

The same is true in the church (although we have our own sort of media hype - we call it 'gossip'). We have all of our little pet ideas about what is good and what is not, and we're quick to dis-fellowship with those who don't agree with us from beginning to end. With those who maybe have a different emphasis within even our same bubble. 

Here, the Gospels give us the perfect example of what we're talking about. Here, we have four stories about Jesus told by four men who traveled with Him (some, told to other authors, of course). Each of the Gospels has its own perspective and its own emphasis, but they all have the same goal in mind - to tell the story of Jesus to those who need to hear it, to bear witness to the events that they had seen with their own eyes. No two of these Gospels is told in the same way. And yet, we don't sit around reading them, saying, you know what? Matthew got this so wrong. Or John messed up on this part of it. 

No, we take the truth that each gives us and we are able to put it together in a way that is meaningful for us to accomplish the goal that they all set out to meet - to develop an understanding of Jesus. In fact, our faith is richer for having four different accounts to harmonize. Our faith is deeper for seeing Jesus through four sets of eyes. Our faith is better off when those we choose unity with have a different emphasis than we do. It may bother us sometimes that the details are slightly different, but none of them change who Jesus is. 

The same is true on just about everything we come up against in our world - our understanding and our response are richer when we have more sets of eyes on it and seldom is the main point changed by its details. And we're not as far apart as we seem on things. All we have to do is remember that we're working toward the same goals, even when our paths differ, and choose to keep pressing on in that direction...together. 

Unity. Not uniformity. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Unity and Power

There is renewed talk of unity in our world, and this is important not just for politics, but also for the church. Jesus's greatest wish for His people was unity; He has called us to be one as He and the Father are one.

Yesterday, we began this discussion by looking at one of the mistruths of unity - namely, that unity must be deserved in order to be offered. But we saw that the reality is that whether or not we choose to embrace unity speaks more about who we are than it does about who someone else is. We choose unity out of our conviction that 'we' is always better than 'me.' We also introduced the concept that unity does not mean uniformity, a principle that allows us to choose unity even in disagreement. 

Today, we will look at the second big mistruth that we have embraced about unity, and this one is also very important. We have embraced the idea that unity is something we embrace from a position of power. 

It's not too hard to see this one at play in the world right now in politics (but remember, this conversation is not really about politics - politics is just the touchpoint that enables us to see clearly what is so easy for us to overlook in other areas of our lives). The party that has been outside of power and not interested in unity for the past many years has suddenly come into power and can't stop talking about unity. They can't stop talking about all the aisles they're going to cross and bridges they're going to build. They can't wait for unity. 

Unity, for those in power, always means one of two things - it means either creating a show of their own humility by lowering themselves to other interests they don't really share or, more often, it means gathering up a bunch of persons on the outside and bringing them into the new inside where they're certain to be more positive about their own lives. 

And I hate to tell you this (though you probably already know it, unless you happen to be in power somewhere), but that's not unity. That's not real unity. Using your power as the foundation for a dynamic does not create true unity because it's not an authentic move from you. It doesn't have anything to do with the group, with the collective, but rather with only pushing your own agenda. 

And unity doesn't come only from the top. It can't. Those on the bottom have to want to be in the unity, too. Those on the bottom have to keep coming to the table and bringing their own ideas and joining in the conversation. They have to be given, and accept, an opportunity to speak and to be heard, truly heard, even in a place where their ideas do not rank supreme. They have to be welcomed into the collective as equal parties, not as pity parties and not as potential subjects to convince of their own deficiency. 

Again, it goes back to this difference between unity and uniformity. The reason that it's so easy to think that unity comes from power is because power seeks to get everyone to agree with it (or at least submit to it) at all times. Power says it has the best ideas and that it's in everyone's best interest to get on board with that. And so power adopts a definition of unity that is actually uniformity - everyone agrees that this is the best course of action and if they don't, they either aren't welcome at the table or they are welcome only insofar as we're certain we can convince them that we are right. 

Again, that's not unity. 

Unity commits to one another, no matter which position we come from - whether relative power or relative weakness. Unity chooses the 'us' over the 'me' every time. Unity says that we're better together, whether we think right now that we're right or are being told that we're wrong. Unity doesn't depend on agreeing upon one way, but commits itself to finding the best way for all of us. Unity gives everyone a place at the table because it is not rooted in its own power, but is mutually submissive to one another in pursuit of true goodness for all. Unity understands that it doesn't always get what it wants, but it always ends up with something better and more valuable - a real relationship, a real community. 

Unity doesn't wait on power; it moves now, from wherever it is. Unity comes and sets the table now, and lets whoever may...come. Unity refuses to bow down or stoop down and always stands up. That's what real unity is. 

Which is why we don't have to wait until we have power to seek it. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

On Unity

There's a lot of renewed talk about unity in our country in these past few days. And this is another one of those posts that is going to look like a political post, but it's not - that's just a touchpoint for our discussion of something greater. Because Jesus said from the very beginning that unity was big on His list. "That they may all be one, as I and my Father are one." 

Unity is Trinitarian, and that's important. And maybe we'll talk about that later. But for now, we need to talk about the basics of unity - what it is and what it isn't and what it means to choose unity.

It's hard right now to grasp the hope and the promise, honestly. We are living in a nation that is so painfully and deeply divided and has been for a long time. And part of the problem has been not just the lack of unity, but the complete lack of interest in finding it. We have had those, for many years, who have not been interested in unity, who have claimed it has just not been possible in times like these, and who have said that it wasn't even worth pursuing. 

And as they now preach unity, as they celebrate because unity finally seems not only possible but near, as they make promises about bridging divides that they have refused themselves to walk across for years, the question is pretty obvious - why couldn't they have had this same spirit years ago? Do you know what would have been possible for us as a nation if we embraced this spirit of unity long before now? 

The answer that they give for this question is quite basic - they could not embrace unity because 'that man' was not deserving of our unity. They disagreed so strongly with the leader, despised his personality so much, detested his principles to such a degree that they didn't want to sully themselves with unity. Unity was not possible because unity was not deserved. 

This reveals two foundational mis-truths that have made their way into our understanding (or misunderstanding) of unity. The first is that unity must be deserved, that whoever we are uniting with must be worthy of our unity. That we have to have some kind of fundamental agreement on who we are collectively before we can come together. 

That's just not true. I can choose unity even if you don't. You can choose unity even if I don't. Who you are is not grounded in who anyone else is. You would not look at a world full of lies and say that you want to be honest, but honesty isn't possible; you would just tell the truth. You do not stop inviting persons to your table just because they don't come. Your hospitality says something about you. It says something about who you fundamentally are, and you wouldn't let someone else's acceptance of dismissal of that define you. 

This is a profound problem in the church. We say that we believe in unity, but then we look around and try to decide who is worthy of it. Who is worth our uniting with them? And we come up with all kinds of reasons why others are not. Their doctrine isn't quite right. Or their worship is a little weird. Or they have the wrong emphasis in their preaching. Or their members aren't as committed as ours. Or their practices are contrary to our own. And on and on and on we go with all kinds of reasons why we cannot choose unity because they are not worth uniting with. 

Let me be clear - when we fail to choose unity, it is always a reflection on who we are. When we choose to be divisive, that is an evidence of our own heart. A failure of unity is never, never because another party is not deserving of it; it is always - always - because of our own arrogance or stubbornness. It is always because we were not a people who chose it. 

And remember - unity is not uniformity. Choosing unity doesn't mean we agree with or approve of everything someone else is doing. That's not what it is. Unity is not an endorsement of the other party. That's another mis-truth that's gotten in our way. We're afraid that if we choose unity, we're saying without saying it that we agree and that's not it. What we're saying when we choose unity is that we choose us over everything else. That we choose the community, the collective, the group. That we choose to participate and engage and be part of the solution and not part of the problem. That we believe in who we are together more than we believe in who we are apart. That we believe that our oneness is something important, something special, something holy and that there is great work that we can do together, right now, even in areas where we don't agree. Choosing unity is choosing to come to the table, whether we like what's being served or not, because the feast is about something more than what we're eating. It's about being here, together. 

And that's why unity isn't about whether someone else is 'deserving' of it or not. Unity is about whether or not we're willing to come to the table. So yes, when we fail to choose unity, it always says more about who we are than it does about anyone else. 

(To be continued...there is so much to say about this.) 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Preaching the Bad News

A friend recently posted a meme with the simple comment: 'sermon material?' The meme had to do with seeking disciple in one's life, as a measure of personal growth. And certainly, there is ample material in that - the Scriptures are full of the call to the disciplined life. And having a disciplined life can draw us nearer to the heart of God in so many ways. 

What struck me, though, was the first comment on my friend's post. A commenter, also someone who claims the Christian faith, said, "Oh, absolutely!" And I got excited because there was a whole paragraph after that, which I assumed was going to be a spiritual development of the point and a little fodder for my own thought (I love listening to other theologians; they challenge and inspire me). But the comment went on to explain a theology that included nothing at all of God. It said something to the effect of, "Why wait until tomorrow when you can change your life for the better today? Time to get up off your bones and do something for yourself." And an excited declaration that this friend would "preach that all day." 

It's a great message, I guess, if you're into that sort of thing, but it doesn't have anything to do with God. It doesn't even acknowledge Him as a catalyst for or a calling to change. It doesn't acknowledge His wisdom in discipline and doesn't require Him for taking our own action. It doesn't even ask Him what He desires for us. 

And I realized that this individual was willing, even excited, to stand in a church and preach a message of self-fulfillment and call it a sermon, call it worship - and it is no such thing. 

This sort of thing is happening in churches all around our country, from pastors trained and untrained, known and not-so-well-known. In small churches and big churches. We are slowly letting this human-centered theology sneak in, and we're calling it the same thing. We're calling it godly. And yet, God Himself hasn't been mentioned in some of these churches in a long time. God's story has not been told there in a long time. God is not a required element of the faith in too many of the churches in our nation. All that's required is a decent heart and a desire to do something meaningful in the world, and we're willing to call it good news just the same. 

But this is not good news. This is nowhere near good news. This is bad news. 

Because here's the truth: if all it takes for us to change our lives is to change ourselves, a lot of us are in trouble. Probably all of us. If it were just that easy, we would have done it already. If having more discipline in our lives was just about choosing more discipline, who among us wouldn't have chosen that already? We ought to be the most disciplined group of persons in all of history if all it takes is us choosing to be that. 

We break promises to ourselves all the time, even promises that we fully intend to keep. Even promises that we made because we knew they would be good for us - and for others. We lie to ourselves all the time. We say things and make promises that we know we aren't going to keep. We lie to others, even about things that we claim we hold so near to our heart. Even as persons of faith. How many persons have you said you'll pray for and then never prayed for them? 

We are broken, messed up, fallible human beings with sometimes decent intentions and terrible follow-through. If the sermon that you choose to preach is one that says that you can, and should, change your life, then you're in trouble because that's never going to happen. Very, very rarely does a human being change his or her own life long-term just because he/she wants to. If you need more evidence of that, ask yourself how many diets we've all been on in the past ten years. If the good news you want to offer to a person is that his or her life is in his/her own hands, guess what - that's not good news. That's not good news at all. 

That's terrible news. Because I promise you, from a lifetime of experiences and testimonies of the same, that my life doesn't stand a chance in my own hands. No matter how much I want it to. 

We have to demand that our theology doesn't turn to rubbish. We have to demand that God stays central to all of the messages that we're preaching. We have to demand that even when it looks like it's about our lives, we keep it firmly rooted in His. That's the only hope we've got. That's the only good news there is in this whole thing, in this whole existence that we have - that our lives, the good and the bad and the broken of them, are fully wrapped up in His life, in His death and resurrection. That's good news. That's the message we need to hear, over and over and over again. 

Anything less, anything else, is bad news. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020


We're looking at the results of an interesting recent poll that revealed that the majority of Americans believe the country is better off now than it was four years ago, but a majority of those same Americans (same poll) believe they are personally worse off now than they were four years ago. Yesterday, we asked what this means about how we, individually, relate to the whole, the community, and how it is that we can feel so disconnected from others around us that we don't believe their goodness is our goodness. 

Today, we'll ask another, also important question: How can we let this happen?

How is it that we, as the community, have let individuals fall through the gaps? How is it that we have created ourselves collectively in a way that has not benefited the many parts of our whole? How is it that we find ourselves in a world where things are getting better for everyone and more miserable for many at the same time?

Part of it, I think, has to do with something we discussed several weeks ago - the overemphasis on individuality. We are living in a world that has convinced its persons that they are wholly unique, that their life experience is entirely different from everyone else's. We have convinced them that no one can understand them, that no one even cares to, and that the things that they are going through are completely unique to them. We've said this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to give everyone permission to be exactly as they are without expecting any meaningful growth or change (which in our day is labeled 'oppressive' as an expectation), and so we have created an entire generation of persons who feel like they don't belong here. Like they can never belong here. Like there is nowhere on planet earth that will ever understand them. They will always be outsiders, and so when we ask them about the community, they feel like outsiders in it. It's easy for them to say yes, the world is getting better, but at the same time, their lives are not because they are not part of this world. 

That's important. We cannot overlook the way in which our overemphasis of individuality has led to the dis-incorporation of persons into communities. However, we cannot say that this is the only contributing factor to this kind of disconnect, either. 

We have to consider whether our communities themselves might be disenfranchising in some way. We have to consider whether there is something systemic built into the ways that we do life together that keeps individuals on the fringes of that. 

Of course, we know that there is. We know that none of our experiences in this world, no matter how much we try, are thoroughly inclusive. We keep trying, but we aren't there yet. And look, I know that this is a hot-button political issue right now - "systemic injustice" - and I really don't want to get into politics. But when we see a majority of persons who say that they're feeling disconnected from the community, that the community's good is not their good, then we have to ask why that is. And we have to consider whether or not it has to do with the ways that we set up our communities. The details of that, in your particular place and time, you'll have to think about for yourself. 

What I want to offer here is a suggestion that I think can help us start to bridge this gap. And it's so simple, but not entirely easy (which is probably why we don't do it faithfully already). 

Often, when we are planning things, when we are putting things together, we are thinking about the kinds of persons we want to engage with our end product. We are thinking about the kinds of persons that we want to include. We are thinking about what it will be like for those who choose to come and partake. We are thinking about what it will be like for us as we come and partake and what we want to experience of it. 

But what if, instead of thinking of who we want to attract, we think about who won't be able to join us? What if we start thinking not about who our plans draw in, but who they leave out? Who is what we're doing impossible for? In what ways are our plans unwelcoming or even unnavigable for someone else? Instead of always thinking about who we are including, we need to start thinking about who we are excluding, whether intentionally or by our own carelessness (that is, having not thought about them at all). This is the way that we start changing our communities and making them accessible. This is how we start getting persons plugged in. This is how we bring that majority inside the circle and get them to be part of something, and when they are part of it, it becomes part of them. All of a sudden, what is happening here is happening for them, too, and the good of the community is the good of the person. 

We don't think about this often, but we need to. We absolutely need to. Because in case you've forgotten what we're talking about here, a majority of persons among us feel so disconnected from our communities that what is good for all of us is not good for them. The fruit growing in our streets is not growing in their home. And that's a problem for all of us. 

The solution begins with considering how, perhaps, we're contributing to it. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Part of the Whole

This is going to sound like a political post, but I promise you that it is not. Please don't try to make it into one. 

One of the more curious things I've seen in this election season is the result of a series of polls that were done fairly recently. The news mentioned these results, briefly, a couple of weeks ago, and to be honest, I haven't stopped thinking about them since. As presented where I saw it, the poll consisted of two questions. 

The first question asked whether the country was better off now than it was four years ago. In other words, has the current administration made changes that benefit the nation, that secure its foundations, that help to cement its place in the world, that facilitate the kind of living that make America a good place to be. The results? The majority of respondents in the poll said yes - the country is better off now than it was four years ago. 

The second question, asked to the same group of respondents, asked whether they, personally, were better off now than they were four years ago. The results? The majority of respondents (actually, about the same majority, percentage-wise) said no - they are not personally better off now than they were four years ago. 

This is an incredible disconnect. Don't you think? The majority of persons acknowledged that the structures around them were stronger, more stable, more fruitful than they were four years ago, but they also professed that in those same four years, they had become weaker, less stable, and less fruitful than they used to be. The nation is better off, but the people feel worse off for it. 

And I think that what this speaks to is how individualistic our society has become. We can look at the whole and say that it is good and in the same breath, ask what it's doing for us. We can say that something is fair and right and just and in the same breath, claim that we are being somehow mistreated. We have so disconnected our lives from the collective that even where there is goodness and prosperity and security around us, we don't know any more how to tap into that. We just sort of trudge along in our own misery and wonder when we're going to get our turn. 

The thing is, this isn't just a problem for America as a nation. It's a problem in the church, too. We have all kinds of persons in our churches who can recognize the good that the church is doing and still claim that they are going unfulfilled. They can love their church and at the same time, feel completely slighted by it. They can praise their community's name and also wonder when that community is going to do anything for them. 

Over time, we become a people who feel isolated. We become a people who feel ostracized. By our country or by our church. We become a people who increasingly sense our place on the outside because we see all the good that is happening, but we don't feel it in our own lives. 

Is it any wonder, then, the problems that we are seeing with mental health all around us? Isolation and loneliness and outsiderness are real issues, issues that we're facing more and more and more every day. And it's because of precisely this - it's because we can see that the world around us is a better place than we're experiencing of it. It's because we can see all the good things going on and not feel them having an impact on our own struggle. It's because we have become a people so disconnected from one another, so apart from the collective, that it feels almost natural to say, sure, the world is better off right now, but I'm not. There's a lot of good going on around me, but I'm not gaining from it. The structures are strong and stable, but I am weak and faltering. 

Part of this is definitely an issue with how we relate to the collective, the community, with how we see ourselves as members of the group. Part of it definitely has ties to our own individuality and how it's been driven into us that we are on our own, even when we belong to things (like the church, like the country) that should never leave us to ourselves. And one of the questions that we need to ask is how we re-connect ourselves. How we get back into the fold. How we become part of something bigger than ourselves again and restore those connections that will tap us into the goodness that we objectively say exists all around us. 

That's one of the questions, and it's an important question. It's a necessary question. 

But it's not the only question. (Stay tuned.)