Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Sense of Goodness

Perhaps the most challenging idol in our hearts, and this is true for almost all of us, is our sense of entitlement. 

Entitlement has gotten a bit of a heavy connotation in our culture, as we often use it to talk about programs that provide benefits to those who do not receive them from working - things like food stamps, government health insurance, unemployment, and the like. We call these "entitlement" programs. But that's not what we're talking about when we talk about the problem of entitlement in the heart. 

Entitlement in the heart is the sense that we somehow deserve something, that we have earned it. Particularly, when we talk about idols and our worship of God, that God owes us something. 

For most of us, this arises out of a sense of our own 'goodness.' We hold a measuring stick up against our lives and determine that we are 'good' persons. We give of our time and resources, we don't curse, we help others, we read our Bible, we go to church, we pray faithfully. We can go on and on listing the things that we are certain make us good. And if we are good, and particularly if we are good in the ways that God desires for us to be good, then He owes us the good life. We have earned it. We deserve it. 

This is why it is so devastating for us when life doesn't go our way, when it is harder or less pleasant than we think it ought to be. When we face trials and troubles. Something in our entitled hearts cries out, but wait! I am good. Because we have come to believe that it is our goodness, not His, that determines the course of our lives. 

What makes this so troubling is that what has happened in this scenario is that our own entitlement, that thing that we have come to worship, has actually set us up to worship the Lord Himself as an idol. 

That's how idol worship has worked for every peoples since the beginning of time - if they are faithful, if they are good, if they do the things that their idol desires of them and offer pleasing sacrifices and please the god of their affections, then their god owes them whatever it is they are seeking, whether it be healing or fertility or a bountiful harvest or whatever. It's why the prophets of Baal did everything they could think of, even down to cutting themselves and pouring out their own blood at his altar, to try to get him to show himself on Mount Carmel; Baal's presence and power were directly connected to their living worship. 

So when we get this notion that it is our goodness that makes God faithful, we are doing nothing more than reducing Him to the same kind of idol that the world has always worshiped. No wonder, then, that in times like these, He is less likely to answer us in the ways that we expect. No wonder He continues to stand up against our sense of entitlement and declare that this is not the way that He works. No wonder we're so continually frustrated. 

We have taken our worship and turned it to not one, but two idols, and both will inevitably fail us. 

(That is not the say that the Lord fails us. Rather, it is only to say that we are failed by our false ideas of Him when we do not worship the true Living God but only our image of Him.) 

As we talked about yesterday, this is difficult because it seems to be rooted in a nugget of truth. God is good. He does love us. He does want good for us. He does care what we are doing with our lives and the ways that we are choosing to live. We do want to be good persons. We do want to live good lives. All of these things are good. It is only when it becomes transactional, rather than intimately relational, that it is no longer good. It is when it becomes tit-for-tat and an expectation based out of our own goodness rather than His that it's troublesome. 

And then, my friends, it is most troublesome. For the idol of our own goodness sets us for us an idol of our faithful God, and before we know it, we have spent our lives worshiping a god made in our own image, rather than one who created us in His. And that's why this particular idol in our hearts is so devastating. 

Because it takes us so, so far away from where we think we're going, all the while telling us that we're getting there. 

Beware, then, your sense of your own goodness. And focus instead on His. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Affairs of the Heart

Yesterday, we looked at some of the idols in our lives that are fairly easy to tear down, for when they come up against the truth of God, they don't stand a chance. These idols are often external to us - they are ideas outside of ourselves that we are convinced somewhere, somehow to buy into. 

What's more difficult are the idols that set up in our hearts. These internal idols, we often don't realize are distractions to our true worship. In fact, we often think they are an integral part of it. 

That's because these idols are often rooted in some kind of truth, but that truth gets corrupted to the point that it's hard for us to tell what is truly good and what isn't. 

We're talking about things here like the things that often lead us to say stuff like, "That's just who I am" and "If you can't handle that, then you can't handle me" and "I'm not going to apologize for who I am." We even go so far as to say, "This is how God made me." 

Eh...maybe. 

We can recognize these kinds of idols when we find ourselves starting to offer a ton of justifications for our behavior or our thought processes. It's a bit messy because often, our justifications have to do with "God," but it's not quite as clear-cut as it seems. 

God can make you confident, but He never makes you obstinate. So the minute you're claiming your confidence in God as a reason to no longer have to listen to anyone else, what you have in your heart is not holy. 

God can make you generous and self-sacrificing, but He never makes you self-ruining. So when you try to give out of an empty place, that's not God. And He never makes you indispensable. So the moment you think that whatever you're doing can't be done without you, even if it's because you're serving God in that place, then what you have in your heart is not holy. 

God can make you gifted, but He never makes you arrogant. So the minute you start boasting in your gifts and not the Gift Giver, what you have in your heart is not holy. 

God can make you compassionate and encouraging and a tremendous gift to those around you, but when you start receiving your affirmations from those you're blessing instead of the One who has blessed you, what you have in your heart is not holy. 

See? It's tough. These are good things, all of them. Every single one of these things, and so many more, are gifts from God. But the minute that we start thinking they are our gifts and not His, they become something less than holy. They become, honestly, profane. 

These idols are harder to defeat in our lives because they seem like such good things, because they are rooted in a nugget of truth that is God's truth. You are beautiful. You are talented. You are a blessing. You have every reason to be confident. You have every grace to be generous. All of these things are true, and they are things that God has put in your heart for a reason. They make you who you are. 

But being who you are can't make you arrogant about your self. It can't make you unmovable or unchanging. It can't make you unapologetic. That's, maybe, the best way to see where the idols in our lives are. When something that we do or a certain way that we behave or however we try to love in the world hurts someone, causes offense, or creates greater distress than we walked into, if we are unapologetic about the way our lives have impacted someone else, then what we have in our hearts is an idol. If our gut reaction is to say, "Well, that's just who I am" or "You just can't handle me" or whatever, then what we have is not holy, and it needs to be torn down. I don't care what nugget of truth it seems to be standing on. 

And there is yet one more idol of our hearts that we must be wary of, that we must constantly be on guard against. This one is maybe tougher still. What is it? We'll talk about that tomorrow. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Objects of Our Affection

When we talk about idols, particularly when we talk about idols of the heart, it's more than just talking about the things that we believe have power in the world. We can worship an image or the work of our own hands without really loving it, and it would be an idol, but it wouldn't have our heart. We do this all the time with things like success and acknowledgement, climbing the corporate or social ladder, as it were. These are the games that we play because we feel like we have to if we want to get ahead, but we have no particular affection for them. 

These idols are certainly a threat to our true worship, and they are easily broken when we are able to rest in God's promises about who we are, where we're going, what we're doing, and how deeply He loves us. And that's precisely because these idols don't have our hearts. 

But what about the ones that do?

When we talk about idols of this type, we can really break them down into two categories: the things that have our hearts and the things of our hearts. We'll talk about the first category today (and spoiler alert: the second, tomorrow). 

The things that have our hearts are fairly straightforward: these are the idols in the world that we do have affection for, the things that we love. Specifically, they are the things that we love more than God. For some, they look like the idols that many of us could take or leave, but for others, they are a dangerous trap. They are often things that are not particularly evil or threatening in and of themselves, but only when they get into our hearts and start setting down anchors that keep us from ever drifting God-ward again. 

Things like...television. Money. Sex. Power. Appearances. Food. Achievement. The list goes on and on, and it could include nearly anything. Most of these things that get our hearts are external things. That is, they come from outside of us. They are things that we go outside of ourselves to engage in, and they are often things that we purposely get outside of ourselves to engage in. Many of them have us disconnecting from something on purpose, pushing aside some meaningful part of ourselves, some vulnerable part of ourselves that is just too fragile, we think, for a world like this one. 

The thing about these idols is that every one of them replaces something essential that God has already provided for us. Television gives us a story to invest in, neglecting the story of God that He has invested in us. Food seems to satisfy something that isn't satisfied by the world, or the Lord, or it offers us a provision that we aren't sure is coming from anywhere else, when God has provided for us from the very beginning. Achievement tells us we're worth something, though God has told us that we are worth everything. Sex tells us we can be intimately connected and feel pleasure, when God has invited us into covenant with Him and promised us good. Do you see what's happening here? The idols that we set up in our lives, the ones that we let get hold of our hearts, are things that answer the questions that God has already answered, if only we were listening to Him. They're the things that take the place of what God is supposed to be doing in our hearts, if only we'd let Him. 

These types of idols are particularly fragile, just as the other set that we talked about earlier (those we don't become attached to). A little dose of truth usually shatters these to bits. When you discover God's incredible story that you're already a part of, television can't hold a candle to that. When you know what you're worth in God's eyes, one more certificate on the wall does nothing for you. When you are deeply satisfied in the Lord, you no longer need that piece of cake or that giant cheeseburger (although it's okay to want and to enjoy both - God has, after all, made these for your pleasure). When you're in a fulfilling intimate relationship with the Creator of the Universe, you no longer need sex to feel connected to things. And on and on and on it goes, as the idols in our lives come up against the truth of God and are revealed as very poor substitutes. It's not hard to choose the better thing when you know for certain what that better thing is. 

What's harder is the third type of idols, the things of our hearts. The things that are so deep into them that they seem somehow like a fundamental part of who we are. These things are not external, but internal, and that makes them harder to topple. We'll talk about some of these tomorrow.  

Monday, April 12, 2021

Idols

When you read through the Old Testament, one of the themes that you see rather clearly is the theme of the Lord our God versus the idols of the nations. Although the idols of the nations are images and items that you could actually put your hands on, our invisible (yet ever-present) Lord defeats them every time. 

In fact, He sometimes comments on how laughable it is. These idols of wood and stone, these works of men's hands, are so easily defeated. 

And they are. 

Perhaps because they are so fragile.

Anyone who has ever owned something precious to them knows how difficult it can be to figure out what to do with something that you never want broken. Do you put it in a prominent place where you can always see it, where you will enjoy it, where it will be a centerpiece of your decor, but where even the slightest bump or breeze threatens to topple it and send it crashing in pieces to the floor? Or do you put it up somewhere safer where it is out of the way, but where you won't see it as often and it won't be central to your space?

This has to be the problem that ancient persons had with their idols, doesn't it? Do I put my idol where I can worship it...or do I put it where it can't be broken?

Remember what happened when the presence of the Lord came adjacent to the idol of Dagon. The worshipers of Dagon kept waking up to find their idol bowed down, toppled under the power of the one true God. They kept setting it back up only to find it toppled again until their idol's hands and feet broke off and it had nothing left to stand on. Rather, they had nothing left to stand it on. 

Israel just laughs about all of this. Look at those nations, depending upon their idols. Don't they know? Haven't they heard? 

It's how Hezekiah can be so confident when his enemies are taunting his army. They aren't taunting his men; they are taunting his God, claiming that no other god has been able to stand up against them, so how can anyone believe the Lord God of Israel will be able to? But the answer it's simple. It's because all these other gods are mere idols, the work of men's hands, and a strong wind could blow them over. 

The Lord God of Israel, on the other hand, is the strong wind. And if you don't believe that, then just stand in front of His people and taunt Him for a minute. 

I was reading some of these passages lately, and I was thinking about how silly it is that we form such fragile things with our hands and then put so much importance on them. I was thinking about what God repeatedly says, which is how easily these things are defeated in our lives. How quickly they fail us. And I was thinking that was true. 

But then I was thinking...what about, not the works of our hands, but the works of our hearts? What about the strong places that we build up inside our fragile egos? These...don't seem so easily defeated for some reason. These seem harder to break, almost impossible to tear down. A strong wind blows against them and somehow, they seem to lean into it. 

What's up with that? 

(It's something we'll talk about more this week.) 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

A Light in the Darkness

We started last week by talking about a heavy grief and a reflection on the fact that as Christians, we do not grieve the way that the world grieves. We do not enter the dark places the way that the world does, for we know the light. And we left off last week by talking about the Pharisees and how quick they were to determine that healing must be work when, we have to confess, they had no way of really knowing this - the Pharisees never healed anyone. 

Today, I want to bring some of this together because this is important. Namely, what I want to say is that one of the greatest failures of our faith is when we live like these Pharisees - claiming to know the light but not living it. 

In other words, one of our greatest sins is our failure, or our refusal, to enter the dark places. 

This is hard, particularly because we live in a world that values the comfortable life. And not just the world, but the Christian faith has come to say that the mark of truly faithful living is that bad stuff never happens to you. If your faith was as strong as you say it is, and if your God is as good as you say He is, then you wouldn't have to suffer. You wouldn't have troubles. You wouldn't face the hard things. 

I'm not sure where we came up with this notion. It's certainly not something we see in the Bible. Throughout His story, God's people have had troubles. Jesus even promises us that we will - in this world, you will have trouble. Christians have never been exempt from illness, from death, from disease, from poverty, from famine. In fact, if you read God's story at all, the one thing you notice is that His people always seem to start in need. That's how they come to meet God. That's how they come to know Him. 

And yet, here we are, saying that we cannot go into the dark places because somehow, the dark places are a failure of our faith. The hard stuff is a betrayal of our good God. 

I'm telling you, the very opposite is true: it is a failure of our faith to refuse to enter the dark places. It is a betrayal of our good God not to engage the hard stuff.

And that's because we know how good He is. It's because we know the value of faith and the difference that His promises make in our lives. The Pharisees thought they had all the truth in the world about God, but they never put it into practice and healed anyone. They never stepped into the hard places with it. They never exercised what they knew, and they never exorcised the demons of the world. I think that's one of the reasons Jesus was so frustrated with them all the time - they had all the light of His hope right in their hands, and they refused to put it into the darkness where it could actually help someone. 

I think that's why He gets so frustrated with us. We have all the light of His hope right in our hands, but we still step back from the dark places instead of stepping boldly into the very situations where we have the greatest witness. We pull back from the hard things instead of facing them head-on. We pretend that our hope is supposed to shield us from all these things when in fact, our hope is meant to strengthen us for them. 

And that's why we go into the dark places. Not because we want to - nobody wants to. Nobody wants to face the troubles of this world. Nobody wants to wrestle with the heavy stuff. Nobody wants to grieve. 

But if we fail to do so, then it is not our faith that is failing us; it is we who are failing our faith. We are no better than the Pharisees, for we know how to heal the people, but we refuse to do it. 

So let us go boldly into the dark places. Let us step confidently into the hard things. For we are a people with all the light of His hope right in our hands; may we hold it out to those most in need of it. 

Those who, we must confess, are sometimes...ourselves.  

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

A Healing Work

When we talk about the kind of healing that we are uniquely able to bring to our communities because of our faith, because of the things that we know that the world just doesn't know, we find ourselves naturally led into a conversation about what 'healing' really is. 

The Pharisees said that healing was 'work.' We know this because they continually chastised Jesus, and even plotted to kill Him, for healing persons on the Sabbath. This was complicated, of course, by the fact that they didn't believe some of these persons should be healed (and how could they, in a world in which a person's infirmity was the result of his or her sin?), but they always phrased it as a violation of the holy order. You can't heal that man today. Today is the Sabbath. 

Healing is work.

And the response that I have to that is...oh, c'mon. How would the Pharisees know that healing is work? They never healed anybody. Not on the Sabbath; not on any other day. The Pharisees were not in the healing business, but they still claimed that they knew what it took to heal someone. (That alone is a problem, but we'll talk about that some other time.)

At least Pharaoh, when confronted with the miracles of God, called on his magicians to copy the work. Yes, he brought more than a plague of frogs on himself trying to prove a point, but at least he was invested in the conversation. At least he was right there, willing to say - yeah, I know what this takes. It at least takes something to do this. 

The Pharisees did no such thing. They never even attempted a healing work. Not before Jesus. Not after Jesus. Not during the lifetime of Jesus. When Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant, not one Pharisee stepped forward to say, "I got this." No, they were already signing the condolences card. Sorry you lost your ear, bro. That's rough. No, it's Jesus who has to heal the soldier, the very soldier who has come out to arrest Him. 

The point is that the Pharisees don't know anything about healing. They've never done it. But they're pretty sure that they know how it's done. They're pretty sure it's 'work,' even though most of the time, all Jesus did was speak a word. 

The same is true of our world. It doesn't understand healing. It doesn't understand the kind of grace that we offer in the darkness. It doesn't know what we do because the world doesn't do what we do. It can't offer what we offer. It never has. But it thinks it knows. 

That's why the world comes out against us when we try to step into the darkness with a measure of our faith. We respond to the tragedies of the world with "prayers," which the secular world has watered down to "thoughts and prayers," and the world says...that never works. That'll never work. What a waste. What a farce. What bunk! Because the world doesn't pray. The world doesn't know how to pray. The world hasn't heard a word from God, hasn't had Him answer their deepest ache. So they don't know, but they think they know. So they feel qualified, somehow, to speak on what they don't know based on what they do know (or think they know), which is that 'it doesn't work like that.' 

Yet...it does. It does work like that. Jeroboam's wife knew it. She knew that the Lord works the way the Lord says He works. We know it. We know that God is who He says He is. 

The world says the only way out of the darkness is to scratch and claw your way toward the light, but we know that there is a light in the darkness, that all we have to do is cross that threshold and bring it in. And that's why we do. 

Because we are a people who actually know a thing or two about the stuff the world is content to just talk about forever. We're the ones who know what healing actually is because we're the ones actually doing it. 

Or at least, we should be. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Into the Dark Places

This week, we're talking about how we, as Christians, don't respond to hard things the same way that the world does, and we introduced the story of Jeroboam's wife yesterday. In 1 Kings 14, Jeroboam sends his wife to the prophet to find out what is going to happen with their child, and the prophet tells her that the child will die as soon as she sets foot back in her town. 

But she goes home anyway. 

She goes back home. She takes that step that she knows will seal her child's fate. She puts her foot down tenderly, but confidently, in the place in which she dwells, knowing that with her next step comes her child's last breath. And it's reasonable, maybe, to ask...why? Why would she do such a thing, knowing what she knows?

But it's exactly what she knows that enables, empowers, and encourages her to do that very thing. It's the fact that she knows that she's carrying a message from the Lord, that if she doesn't take that step back home, no one in her house will know what the Lord had to say about this. She knows that if she doesn't go, even if her child doesn't die, an entire household will wrestle forever with questions that she has the answer to, even if the answer is not what they wanted to hear. 

That is why we, as Christians, do the things that we do. It is why we step boldly into the dark places. It's why we're unafraid to go into the hard places. It's why we are able to take that next step toward a reality that we'd rather not embrace - not because we have resigned ourselves to disaster or because we're excited about God's judgment or because we believe it's inevitable and just want to get things over with, but simply because we know that the dark places have a lot of questions that we have the answer to, whether the answer seems satisfying to our soul right now or not. 

This world has questions that its own understanding is completely ill-equipped to answer. It has doubts about...everything. About God, yes, but about itself. About the things it thinks it understands about how things work. Anyone in Jeroboam's house could have looked at that child and known that death was imminent, but their own understanding was insufficient to respond to the deep ache of those torn between yearning and mourning. Only the prophet, only the Lord, could speak to that kind of ache. Only Jeroboam's wife knew the words He would say. 

Several years ago, I was seeing an oncologist for management of a medical condition. And on our first meeting, he talked about how persons of faith are usually the first ones to jump in and say, yes, run the test. Do the biopsy. Ask the questions. He said persons of faith are the ones most likely to just want to know, and they are the ones least afraid of knowing. 

As we ought to be. We know this world holds no power over us. We know that there's nothing in this world that takes God by surprise. We know there's nothing He hasn't planned for, nothing He can't handle. And so we know that, come what may, there is an answer to whatever ache we might experience, whatever questions we might have. We know that we are not immune to the things of this world, but we also understand that we have the answer to this world's questions. We know. We have the very word of God. 

And if we don't cross that threshold into the darkness, how will we ever tell anyone else? 

It's why we step into the hard things.  

Monday, April 5, 2021

A Bittersweet Knowing

Yesterday, we introduced the idea that as Christians, we do not grieve the way that the world grieves because we know things that the world doesn't know. We have an intimate knowledge of the goodness of God that changes the way that we respond to the circumstances that we face. 

And as I thought about that this weekend, I found myself reading the story of Jeroboam's wife in 1 Kings 14. 

Jeroboam's child was very sick. Near-death sick, as the children of sinful kings tend to be. (Remember how David's child with Bathsheba became ill and would not live because of David's sin.) Jeroboam is, understandably, sick at heart. He keeps vigil over his child, and he longs to know what is going to come of the situation. Clearly, it looks as though anyone with a set of eyes can tell how this situation is going to end, but Jeroboam wants to know for sure. 

So this man who has a...complicated...relationship with God decides that the best thing to do is to go ask the prophet what the Lord says, but of course, he can't go himself. He's the king. So he sends his wife, in disguise, to go ask the hard question: what will happen to my child?

The disguise doesn't work, and the prophet knows exactly who Jeroboam's wife is before she even comes into the room, even though he is an old prophet and his eyesight is failing. (And why you dress in disguise to go see a blind prophet is another story altogether.)  The prophet tells her that he knows who she is, he knows why she's come, and he doesn't have good news for her: the child will die. 

In fact, the child will die as soon as she sets foot back in the town. 

In other words, the child will die before she even has a chance to tell her husband, or anyone else, the word of the Lord on the matter. 

There seems, then, to be an easy solution: don't go home. If the child will die when you cross the border into the town, then it stands to reason that if you never cross that border, the child will never die. You will never see your child again, perhaps. Perhaps the child will spend the rest of his life in bed, sick and near-death, but at least the child will be alive. You can almost hear this mother's heartstrings being pulled. 

But for some reason, she doesn't even seem to consider this option. Filled with grief, she turns toward home. She turns back to the place from which she came, where her child lay dying and her husband paces the floor. She goes right back to the place where she knows, as soon as she gets there, the story is over. 

Except...not quite. Because she understands that she holds an essential piece of the story that, if she never goes home, she never gets to tell. She knows something that no one else in that house knows right now. She knows what God has to say about things. And if she doesn't tell them, who will? 

You may already see where I'm going with this, but hold on with me (because I want to say it, okay?). We'll connect the dots on some of this tomorrow. 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

A Holy Grief

Today, we are grieving. It seems strange on a day that we know that the tomb is empty, strange at a time when we're so certain of the promise of Christ. And yet, here we are. Grieving. 

It's been a tough few days for many of us, as someone that we love so well (and by whom we were loved so well) left us so early, under such difficult and terrible circumstances. We knew that the last few days had been hard ones for her, and we were praying for her comfort, praying for her relief, praying for answers to what seemed like a thousand questions all in one breath and then...we were grieving. 

We called ourselves together, sent out an urgent message, unlocked the doors of the church and declared that we were coming together to pray. Anyone who was able. Anyone who was near. Anyone who felt called to come and pray, then come. Pray. Lift your voice to heaven with ours in intercession for this who had so often, and so faithfully, interceded for us. 

What we did not know, what we had not yet learned, was that at the time that we called ourselves together, it was already too late. No one had told us yet, but she was already gone. 

It's something that I've been thinking about all weekend, particularly as I have grieved and as I have known that my brothers and sisters are also grieving. We all felt the weight of Good Friday this year, every one of us. And yet, we are a people so confident in Easter Sunday. We are a people who know better, a people that understand what the empty tomb means. And I've thought about how we, as a people of hope, grieve differently than the world grieves, how we mourn through tear-stained hallelujahs...somehow. 

And as I've thought about that, about how we grieve (and I have done my share of hospice work for this very reason - because I am well-acquainted with a holy grief), I've also thought about this realization that I've had that at the moment we were coming together with all of our hope, it was a moment that was too late. 

'Too late.'

What do those words even mean to a heart of hope? What do they mean to us who know that the end is only the beginning, that death does not have the final word?

If we had known it was 'too late,' would we have stayed in our homes? Would we have failed to come together? If someone had stepped into the prayer meeting and said, "I'm sorry, but it is too late," would we have dispersed? Hung our heads and silently walked out to our cars, nothing more to say?

I...can't believe that is true. I can't believe that if we thought it was too late, that we would have stopped praying. That we would have failed to pray. I think about all of the times in Scripture when someone would come to Jesus or come to the prophets or come to the men and women of God in moments when they thought...it's too late. And it was never too late. 

And I'm not talking about a resurrection. I'm not talking about turning back time or working a miracle or changing the outcome of this situation. That's too narrow a view of what it means to pray in faith, as a people of faith. That doesn't tell the whole story. 

What I'm talking about is...well, it's the understanding that even if we had known it was 'too late,' there's something in us that would have prayed anyway. We would have prayed a different prayer, but the heart that brought us before the Father was not changed in the circumstance. That thing that draws us to God is still real, still vital, still...vibrant, even when we're losing. Even when we've lost. 

That's the thing, I think, about being a person of faith. The world says there's nothing more to see here, but the heart of faith knows that whatever it is, it has just begun. The world says it's over, but we know that it's just getting started. The world says death wins, but we know there's an empty tomb. And so in a moment like this, we still come together. We still pray. We still cry out, even if it's 'too late,' because we know something that the world doesn't know, something that we sometimes can't even put into words. We are confident in something that seems...impossible right now, and yet, we know it more certainly in this moment than maybe we ever have. 

I've been thinking about these things this weekend, about how faith changes the way that we encounter moments like this one. About how what we know is so sure, so certain, so confident, even now. 

And then, over the weekend, I read this story in 1 Kings.... We'll dive into that tomorrow. 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Good Friday

When Jesus died, two men came for His body. One was Nicodemus, who came to Jesus early in John’s story and met Him in the middle of the night so as not to be discovered by the Jewish elite. He would later say a few words, but just a few, in Jesus’s defense when the Jewish leaders were starting to scheme against Him. Joseph, from Arimathea, also came for the body. He, too, believed in Jesus, but only in secret because he was also a member of the Jewish elite and didn’t know what they would say.

                So here are two men who both quietly believed in Jesus, who both watched Him from a relative distance, who both kept an appearance up with the world while secretly entertaining His holiness in their heart. And it’s tempting to wonder what the conversation went like when they both showed up to take care of His body.

                Was there any posturing left? Was there any sense that they still needed to protect their secret allegiances? What there an open confession between these two men about all of the things they’d heard about and witnessed and hoped for with this Jesus? Did they perhaps just look up at one another, nod knowingly, and go about the sacred work they had undertaken? On the eve of the Sabbath, as the sun set, on the Passover, no less, was there any more room for posturing or pretending, or did these two men finally look up at one another and whisper, ‘Brother?’

                We may, at any given time, be in the presence of someone else who secretly holds Jesus in his or her heart. We may be among brothers and sisters and not even know it. For whatever reason, there are still many among us who are not willing or ready to openly confess their interest in this Son of God, who have been watching and listening from a distance or in the dark of night and building a little place for His holiness in their hearts.

                That’s why we must be gentle with those with whom we come in contact. Gentle, and slow to judge. It’s easy to look at someone and say that they must not be a Jesus follower, that they must not be a Christian, that they must not have any interest at all in knowing who our Jesus is because of something that we see in their outward lives. But it’s not always so simple.

                Joseph and Nicodemus were both members of the Jewish elite. They were both studied men, part of the discussion and dialogue for three years about who this Jesus was and what kind of threat He might pose to men like them. On the surface, it’s easy to think that neither man would have much of an interest in this Jesus at all. …until they met on the night of His death when both men showed up prepare His body for the tomb.

                All of a sudden, their tenderness shows. All of a sudden, their secret love manifests. All of a sudden, we see of them – and they see of each other – the secret hope they’ve been holding onto.

                May we have our eyes open to see this in our fellow man, even in the men in whose lives we might least expect to find it. May we meet one another on the way to the tomb, smile knowingly, acknowledge each other’s presence, and at the very least whisper, ‘Brother.’

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Good Grace

As we wrap up our look at the story of David and Hanun, we confess that we have introduced some difficult ideas, enough for us to wrestle with for a lifetime. We have looked at the ways that pride and insecurity keep us from humbling ourselves, causing us often to double down on our own iniquity and make things ten times worse for ourselves, and we have considered what it means to be men and women of God who are not known for our forgiveness (among other things). 

Now, if you'll permit me, I want to make one more jump to one more important, but difficult, idea, one that has a tremendous impact on the faith that we live. After all, it is this faith that enables us to be a forgiving people in the first place and that allows us to humble ourselves. 

That jump is this: are we a people who believe that God will forgive us? 

If we propose the idea that Hanun could not humble himself and repent because he was concerned that David would not forgive him, even though he knew David's good nature and at one point in his life, would have attested to the kindness and goodness of the Israelite king, then it stands to reason that many of us may have the same struggle with our God.

We cannot humble ourselves before a God that we are not confident will forgive us, even if we know that God is good and even if, at some point in our lives, we would have attested to the kindness and goodness of our God. 

It's easy to say, well, wait a minute. If we know that God is good, then we shouldn't have a problem believing in His goodness. We shouldn't have a second thought about His forgiveness. After all, when we look at the Cross, how could we have any lingering questions? When that blood and sweat drips down from Jesus's brow, what is left for us to wonder about? 

But we know, too, that there is a difference between intellectual acknowledgement and personal need. There's something that fundamentally changes about grace when we find ourselves in need of it. We can talk all day about the goodness of God until it is we who have sinned and fallen short of His glory. And then, well...then, our insecurities get in the way. 

It's natural. We know more about ourselves at any given point in time than we know about anyone else. We know our motives, the thoughts that we've had, the justifications that we've made, the lies that we've told to ourselves and to others. We know, whether we're willing to confess or not, the depravity of our own soul, and we know our own limited capacity for things like forgiveness. Given what we know, we wouldn't forgive ourselves, so how could we ever expect God to forgive us? 

The challenge of the Christian faith, and the answer to these kinds of insecurities, is that we must develop the mind of God. We have to come to the place where the thoughts that we think about ourselves, the things that we know about who we are in our inmost being, are the thoughts that God thinks about, the things that He knows from knitting us together in our mother's womb. That's not to say that we gloss over our sin and simply cover it with blood; no, the Lord Himself acknowledges our sin. He simply...holds to greater things than this. (While we, we must say, too often believe there is nothing greater in this world than our sin.)

(Enter, then, the Cross.)

But the point is this: if we are not a people who believe that God is who He says He is and that He can and will forgive us, then we can't be the people He has called us to be. If we believe about God what perhaps Hanun believed about David - that all of this forgiveness, grace, hope, love, mercy, and promise is 'just talk' - then we can't live the kind of life that He's called us to live. And this would be no fault of His, for how much of His story has He invested in showing us exactly this? No, this is on us. This is on us being too wrapped up in ourselves to see Him at all. This is us knowing, we think, too much about who we are and not enough about who He is. This is us forgetting, it seems, everything that we once attested to about God and grace, when the only thing that has really changed is that today, we ourselves stand in need of it. 

Are we so special? I think not. 

Rather, I believe we are so loved. 

We just have to remember that, especially in the moments when it's too easy for us to forget.  

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Grace of a Man

So we're talking about Hanun and the way that he disgraced himself before David, then doubled down and made himself really detestable to the Israelites. And we've already said that if all we had to learn from this story was what a lack of humility could do to us, that would be enough. 

But what if David has something to teach us here, too? 

This is where it gets messier, to say the least. Because we know that Hanun was familiar with David; David had been friends with the king's father. We know they had had plenty of opportunity to cross paths before this moment. And certainly, the king's father would have talked about David from time to time, particularly as he prepared his son to take over the kingdom one day. Hey, son, this David is a good guy. He's a great leader, full of power and goodness for his people, and he's been really good to me.

We know this has to be the case because when David first sends men to Hanun, he receives them happily. Everything's fine. It's only after some of his uninformed advisers get in his ear that he starts to wonder about the character of David, and it's that character that leads us into our next bit of food for thought:

Is it possible that Hanun did not humble himself before David because he didn't think David would forgive him?

We don't know what Hanun thought of David before or how much his men corrupted his opinion of Israel's king, but is it possible that all of a sudden, when Hanun thought about David, he didn't think of a man of God who would be willing to forgive him? 

If so, then that's a problem for David. 

Imagine being known as a man after God's own heart...by God...but being known by your former friend as someone who is unwilling to forgive a transgression?

That matters. It matters for David. It certainly matters for Hanun. And it matters for us. 

The world is watching. They are looking at the way that we live our lives. They want to know if we really believe that our God is the kind of God that we say that He is, if we've been able to let go of this world and hold onto His promises like we claim that we have. They want to know if things like love and forgiveness and mercy and grace are real, and they're looking to us to find out. 

So when we're known for being rude when we have to wait in lines, for leaving the smallest tips at restaurants (or worse, leaving tracts instead of tips) on Sundays after church, for dressing in our best and dragging our worst in on our shoes, that's a problem. When the world doesn't know how we're going to react to it, when it does not - or worse, cannot - expect grace, hope, love, forgiveness, mercy, and the like from us, that's a problem. When Christians stand out as the most intolerant persons in a world even as contentious as ours, that's a problem. 

But let's bring this down even closer to home - when you are those things, that's a problem. When your friends don't know if you'll forgive them, that's a problem. When your neighbors don't know if you love them, that's a problem. 

How can we ever expect a world to not have to double-down on its iniquity if it doesn't know, or doesn't believe, that we are a people ready and willing to meet it with grace? How can we expect one another to humble ourselves in community if we don't know how our community will receive us? 

How could we be any other than Hanun if we cannot trust who David is? 

Monday, March 29, 2021

A Man Disgraced

When we talk about the story of Hanun, it's easy to understand where this guy is coming from. After all, it's a very human experience that he's encountered - he acted out of his own pride and insecurity and realized later that he messed up, so he doubled down on his sin and did something even worse. 

Who among us hasn't done that?

There's something in us that wants to not have to embrace our shame. We don't want to humble ourselves and confess that we were wrong. So instead, we end up doing worse things - unspeakable things - to those around us, even to those that we once called friends (as David and Hanun were once on good terms). 

Either we end up gaslighting someone, trying to convince them that their offense is their fault, or we cut off relationship with them altogether. Hanun here was trying to destroy David and his army so that he didn't have to face the consequences of his actions by any measure. If David doesn't exist any more, if Israel is in shambles, if nothing is left but a pile of rubble, then it doesn't matter how many beards he cut - nobody's thinking about beards in the midst of the ashes. 

And Hanun might even have been thinking, to some degree, that if he's going to incur the wrath of David, then he might as well just go for it and do something to really deserve it. He might as well take as big a shot as he can and go out with guns blazing (or swords flashing, as the case may be). 

Why do we do this? Why do we think that the way out of a hole is to dig it bigger? Why do we think, at a moment when we start to question ourselves, that the answer is to become the person we're afraid that we might be? Why do we think that the best way to handle our own insecurity is to make our world truly unstable around us? 

Why...do we keep trying to justify ourselves, when things could be so different if we would just humble ourselves instead?

That's really what is at issue here: Hanun was looking for a way to make himself right for doing what he did, even when he realized it was wrong. He seemed to have no interest at all in making the situation right. 

This is lesson enough for all of us. If we stopped here, there would be a lesson that would take us, we must confess, a lifetime to learn. It's just hard for us. It's hard for us to humble ourselves, to confess our sin, to apologize, to repent, to atone. It's hard for us to step forward, own our errors in judgment, and promise to do better. It's hard for us to take responsibility for our actions, particularly when we realize later how misguided they were. I confess to you plainly that humility is a lesson that I have to learn all over again every time the opportunity presents itself. It just doesn't come naturally. It's something we have to keep consciously choosing, and in the heat of the moment, most of us forget it's even an option. 

But let's complicate things a bit and propose that perhaps Hanun's pride and insecurity are not the only dynamic at play here. Let's say that maybe there's something else we could learn from this story, something that draws David back into the picture. 

We'll talk about that tomorrow. Steady your heart - it's a doozy.  

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Men Disgraced

There's a story in 2 Samuel 10 that ought to be convicting to all of us, but not in the way that you might think.

The story begins with the death of the Ammonite king and the succession of his son, Hanun, to the throne. Now, King David decides that he's going to send an envoy of men to convey his condolences to the son and to establish the kind of good relationship with Hanun that he had with the new king's father. 

We could stop right there, and that would be talking point enough. It's certainly something that the king of Israel is on such good terms with a foreign king, particularly the king of a people they were supposed to have destroyed at one point. The Ammonites share part of the Promised Land that was supposed to be Israel's, and here is David, all buddy-buddy with the king. But let's keep moving on in the story anyway, shall we?

Hanun receives David's envoy with pleasure, until his advisors get in his ear. They tell him that it can only possibly be a trick, that David - the known warrior and conqueror - must certainly be planning to gain an inside track into the Ammonite kingdom so that he can destroy it and establish the land for himself and his people. (Ah, so even Hanun knows they are not 'supposed' to be friends!) This, despite the fact that David had never taken advantage of his friendship with Hanun's father in this way. This, despite the fact that David had not made a move on the Ammonites to this point. 

See, all you have to do is introduce a little bit of fear, and all of a sudden, what you thought you were once sure of no longer seems certain. David's envoy seemed friendly enough, but was it all just an act? 

Hanun's not taking any chances. He takes hold of David's men, shaves off half of their beards, cut off their clothing so as to expose their hind sides to the world, and then told them to go home to David. 

Of course, they could not go home. Not in the kind of shape that they were in. Their shaven beards were a mark of disgrace, and their exposed hind sides were a mark of shame. They could not go back to Israel like this. And how would they ever explain to David what happened? Well, you see, my king, we went to express your condolences, and they shaved us and exposed us and sent us away. How can anyone fathom what just took place? 

David, true to his character, shows gentleness and mercy to his men and provides for them to remain at a distance until their beards grow back. We can only assume he also sent them new clothing that had not been cut, so as to re-cover their shame and restore their dignity. David never wants to make the mark of the Ammonites the story of these men, and he gives them a chance to leave it in a place outside their camp. 

But Hanun realizes...oops. This probably was not a good idea, after all. If David hadn't been coming for the Ammonite kingdom before, he certainly would be now. The Bible tells us that Hanun realized he had made himself, and his people, detestable to David, detestable to a man who was such good friends with his father. So he mounts up his troops and decides that he's going to take the offensive. He's going to march against David before David can march against him. He's going to take the battle to God's people instead of waiting for God to send His people against the Ammonites. 

And that's where we're going to pick this story up tomorrow. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Words of Faith and Hope

How we say things matters. The words that we use to express our ideas matter. Particularly in a time in which culture has adopted so much of our Christian language and watered it down, it matters how we say things...and how we ensure that what we mean when we say it is understood. 

The world has tried to tell us, more and more as time goes on, what words like 'love' mean - and it's a far cry from what Jesus meant when He used the word. The same is true about 'life' and about 'forgiveness' and about 'humility.' We're even looking at words like 'righteous' right now, which, even if not used verbally, is implied by action, and the world is changing all of these ideas right before our very eyes. And we are letting them. How many of us find ourselves using these words the way the world uses them? Even if we try, then, to bridge the gap, the distance is too great. Once we let the world co-opt our language, we have lost it. 

In current times, we are even seeing a resurgence of the word 'faith,' as the world keeps telling us to put our 'faith' in 'science.' Or in public leaders. Or in politicians. Or in public health experts. Some Christians have even been saying the same thing - we have to have 'faith' in our leaders. 

No, friends, we have to have faith in our God. He's the only one worthy of our faith.

This is an idea that I talk about from time to time and keep coming back to because it's extremely important. So what I'm going to say today is something you've probably heard from me before if you've been reading along for awhile, but it struck me again this week as I read just five little words that a friend of mine posted on Facebook. 

In the midst of family tragedy and unexpected loss, my friend posted a short snippet saying that as Christians, "we take comfort in the hope that we know we will see him again." And those five words jumped out at me:

"The hope that we know."

To the world, this doesn't make any sense. If it's a hope, then how can we know? Hopes are nothing more than pipe dreams. Wishes. Wants. Hopes are something you would prefer to happen, but you can't stake your life on it. You certainly can't stake your heart on it. Hope, in the world's definition, even comes with a bit of resignation, as though the thing that you hope for is, by its very nature, unlikely. Certainly, it would be nice if it happened, but it probably won't. That's why, for the world, it's a 'hope.' 

But that's not what Christian hope is. Christian hope is a confident assurance in things that we know are certain. Christian hope rests in the promises of a God who has never failed to deliver for His people. Christian hope says with certainty that something is coming; we see it on the horizon, even in the dead of the darkest night, because we are so sure of it. Hope, for the Christian, is something we 'know.' 

Most of us have forgotten that. 

Most of us have let the world change our definition of hope. Most of us have, at one time or another, found ourselves saying to someone else, even to another Christian, "Brother, I hope that works out for you" or "Sister, I hope that gets better for you." Completely devoid of a single promise of God, we just cast our cares to the wind and cross our fingers. Maybe something good will come of it. Maybe it will be okay. Maybe somehow, it will all come together. 

What about the God who works all things together for the good of those who love Him? What about the hope that we have that He is already working on our behalf? What about the promise He's made, the one He's whispered into our hearts and spoken over our lives and woven into eternity? 

Those five words jumped out at me from the slog of a very heavy social media feed, and I just stopped. What if we, as Christians, started speaking with more promise? What if we started speaking with more confident assurance? What if we reclaimed even one word - even this word, 'hope' - from the vocabulary of our culture and stopped pretending that hope is like throwing wishes into the wind and started living like hope is absolute, rock solid, 100% knowing the promises of God? 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

An Unexpected Lesson

When we read the story of David and Goliath, our natural inclination is to believe that it is David who has something to teach us about being persons of faith. After all, he is the Hebrew character. He is the little man with a great big God who is unafraid to step forward boldly and put his life in the hands of God's promises. And that is certainly a lesson that most of us need to hear. 

But what if David is not the only one to teach us something about our faith in this story? What if Goliath has something to say about it, too?

We've been looking at Goliath all week, and I've continued cautioning us against seeing any weakness in him. What we don't want to do is to mistake Goliath's accoutrement of war for insecurity. 

For the truth is that most of us are more like Goliath than we are David. 

Most of us are more like champions in our own mind. We have a certain understanding of our own strength. We invest our lives in building up our armor, in learning to stand at the battle lines, in developing our bravado so that we can be the ones to call out the world. Or, at least, the things that seem to stand in our way in it. We are a people who come to be confident in our imagined size, in the way that we are able to tower over some things that are important to us, in the way that we are able to cast shadows on smaller things. We stand, and we feel, to a degree, impervious. Nothing can move us. Nothing can defeat us. We are certain of our victory because we are, after all, champions of our cause. We are giants in our fields, in our families, even in our faith. In fact, the American ethic is kind of based on this very notion. It's who we're told we're supposed to be. 

But our faith pulls at something in our hearts, our utter dependence on God whispers an echo into the quiet places of our hearts. As much as we want to believe we can step forward, the truth is that most of us only do so when we are certain of protection. When we have, as it were, an armor-bearer before us. And who, for a people of faith, is that armor-bearer?

It is the Lord Himself. 

That's one of the promises that God has made us in His Word. He has told us that He is our strength and our shield. He has told us that He goes before us. He has told us that He fights our battles with us. If that's not an armor-bearer, then I don't know what is. 

And it goes beyond even this, for the more that we press into the hard things of life with God before us, bearing our shield, the more we come to develop a certain closeness with Him. The more we come to not only depend on Him, but to be affectionate for Him. The more we come to realize that we are never alone in our foxholes and to even love this God who is so constantly with us. We become...friends. 

And when we become friends, we want our God with us. We want Him to join us in our battles. We can't imagine stepping forward without Him, no matter how confident we are in our armor or our size or our power. We want God with us because He has always been with us, and we don't want to leave Him out of our victories, even when they seem certain without Him. 

Is your heart piecing this together right now? It's so easy for us to read this story and to want to see ourselves as David, but the truth is - and particularly in our culture - there's nothing wrong with being a Goliath, either. There's nothing wrong with having an armor-bearer and a friend to go into battle with us. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to step forward without the assurance of a shield. In fact, there's something tremendously faithful about it.

(Ignore, of course, that Goliath was slain in this battle. That's neither here nor there on the lesson. Goliath was slain because his faithfulness was on the wrong side of the war, not because of his relationship with his armor-bearer. So don't get the points confused.) 

We can learn a lot from this giant, a lot more than we think we can learn on first reading. A lot that can help us when we find ourselves in our own trenches, needing to take that step forward and wondering how we're going to do it. 

We do it with God, our Shield and our Friend.  

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Battle Buddies

There's another possibility that may explain why Goliath only went into battle with David when his armor-bearer went with him: perhaps the two were friends. 

When we're talking about armies and battles and wars, we cannot let ourselves think that there's just a corral full of armor-bearers hanging around in a certain part of the camp and when it's time to engage the enemy, you just pick one and go. Or that one just steps forward because it's his turn. Rather, armor-bearers were generally assigned to warriors; they became a pair. Wherever the warrior went, the same armor-bearer went with him. 

And we can assume that this was true in Israel because not once do the Hebrew Scriptures ever tell us that someone stepped forward with 'an' armor-bearer, but always with 'his' armor-bearer. Jonathan famously crossed the breach with his. Saul asked his armor-bearer to kill him when he was gravely wounded by enemy archers. There comes to be a strong relationship between these men, maybe even a friendship. 

In modern terms, we could talk maybe about military bands of brothers who go into war together, and that's close. But perhaps what is closer is the chaplain and the chaplain's assistant. The chaplain assistant's entire job in the military is to be glued close to the chaplain and to provide protection for him or her. It is the chaplain's assistant who carries the weapons, the chaplain's assistant who strikes down an approaching enemy, the chaplain's assistant who ensures the safety of the chaplain while he or she carries out the chaplain's duties. There comes, then, to be an incredibly strong bond between a chaplain and a chaplain's assistant, a bond in which the chaplain's assistant comes to share the burden of the chaplain's work and to take a real ownership in what the chaplain is able to do under his or her shield. 

This is the kind of relationship that I imagine with Goliath and his armor-bearer (or really, any ancient soldier and his armor-bearer). This armor-bearer has probably been with Goliath for a long time. He has probably come to take some measure of ownership in the giant's victories. He has been there through thick and thin. If you imagine an ancient version of a foxhole, these two guys are sharing one. Saul had a protector who slept next to his head in the fields; this is the same thing. These guys are brothers, and there is a certain love between them. 

So to think that when Goliath steps forward, he's going without his brother would be ludicrous. To think that Goliath is going to go into battle and not take his friend is crazy. This guy is a huge part of Goliath's battle plan. He's a big part of Goliath's successes. Even if Goliath is a great warrior and a big man and heavily armored, there's something about having a friend with you that just changes the whole dynamic. It changes everything. 

And you don't take a guy whose job it is to give you his life, who has been there by your side in every ditch and battlefield for maybe your entire fighting career, and tell him he can't take part in your greatest victory. And tell him you don't need him this time. Not even when the enemy appears to be nothing more than a little boy with sticks and stones (which may, we must point out, break your bones). 

If this is true, then Goliath is no scaredy-cat stepping forward with his armor-bearer; he is a faithful friend, one ready to share his victories even when it seems he may not 'need' to. That's important, and it's beautiful. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Fight Like a Man

When we discover that Goliath steps forward into battle only with his armor-bearer in front of him, our first reaction might be to think that Goliath was not as brave or not as confident as he first presents himself to be. The big, mighty, powerful giant Goliath, the 'champion' of the Philistines, towering over Israel in his 200+ pounds of armor needed someone to carry a shield in front of him? 

It's almost laughable. (And certainly, if you try to picture the scene in your head, it is quite humorous. For what good does a smaller man with a smaller shield do in front of such a giant?)

But what we have to realize is that Goliath didn't know anything different. This is how men went to war in his time. This is how all the great warriors fought, no matter their size. Remember when Jonathan goes up against the Philistines later? He has an armor-bearer with him. (The difference being that Jonathan's armor-bearer follows him into battle, but I digress.) Anyone with any importance at all in the battle always had an armor-bearer. 

So Goliath has an armor-bearer. And why wouldn't he? The Philistines are putting a lot of hope and faith in him; they want to give him every advantage that they possibly can. 

Yet still, we come back to it - if Goliath is as a big and as strong and as invincible as he thinks that he is, as he declares that he is in all his bravado, couldn't he just say that he doesn't need an armor-bearer? Couldn't he just send this little man home? Couldn't he just put this shield-carrier behind him? 

He could, but Goliath understood himself as a warrior only in the context of battle. That is, when Goliath pictured himself as the champion, he had around him all the accoutrement of war. When he envisioned himself winning, it was in the setting of combat. And combat included an armor-bearer, even for a giant like him.

This isn't as laughable as it first sounds. It isn't as shocking. Any one of us, when faced with a challenge or an opportunity, envisions ourselves in that moment. We picture ourselves in the scene of whatever that looks like. We very, very rarely re-imagine things based on our own strengths and competencies; rather, we see our strengths and competencies as fitting into the context we're called to. 

When faced with an opportunity at work, for example, we don't think of what we can do to achieve it; we picture ourselves in our cubicle, working toward it. When we think about challenges at home, we see ourselves in our mind's eye in our home with our furniture and our families around us. We are a people who just naturally put ourselves into our context, as we understand it. 

So when Goliath thinks of himself as a champion, he thinks of himself as a champion with an armor-bearer. Not because of any insecurity or weakness in himself, necessarily, but because that's simply the way that wars were fought in his time. That's how battle worked. And when he steps forward, maybe he's not scared. Maybe he is confident. Maybe his armor-bearer has little do with it. Maybe he has a lot to do with it. We just don't know. 

All we know is that we can't jump to the conclusion that Goliath was some kind of secret scaredy-cat just because he had an armor-bearer. Honestly, we would have more questions about him if he didn't have this man in front of him. 

But there's something else that may be true about this armor-bearer that might help us paint Goliath in a new light, too. 

More on that, tomorrow. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Goliath's Little Secret

Nearly everyone, inside and outside of the church, knows the story of David and Goliath, how a little shepherd boy from Israel came out with a slingshot and defeated the mighty giant warrior of the Philistines. In fact, this story has been rewritten and replayed throughout common culture for thousands of years at this point. And who doesn't love a good underdog story?

But there's something about Goliath that's easy to miss in this story, particularly when we're standing in his shadow, looking up at this giant of a man. Yet, that one little thing, that little tiny secret that Goliath is hoping you'll read right past, is extremely meaningful - not just for Goliath, and David, but also for us. 

So here's how the story goes: the Israelites and the Philistines lined up for battle. And every day, Goliath - the 'champion' of the Philistines - would step forward to the battle line and call out Israel. Just send one man, he'd tell them. Send one guy who can defeat me, man to man, and whoever wins, wins. 

Day after day, Goliath stepped forward. By the time we join the story with David visiting his brothers, these two armies have been standing here facing each other for more than forty days. Think about that. Two of the strongest, fiercest armies, both with reputations for amazing victories, have stood at a standstill for more than forty days and all they've got to show for it so far is Goliath's bravado. 

Clearly, he steps forward because he's sure he can't lose. And for those of us reading the story, we think we know why. The text tells us Goliath was somewhere between seven and nine-and-a-half feet tall (depending on which ancient text you go with). The average Israelite, from what we can gather, was somewhere in the mid-five-foot range, so even at seven feet, Goliath would tower over them. His armor weighed up to 220 pounds, and he wore it like it was nothing. He didn't even look uncomfortable moving toward the battle lines; he was confident. Calm, cool, and collected, standing there in his bright, shining, impenetrable armor. 

And we could stop here for a second and just say that anyone wearing armor is going to be, in general, more confident than someone who is not. If all your vital bits are protected by perhaps 220 pounds of pure metal, that certainly inspires you to have a little bravado, don't you think? 

But that's not Goliath's little secret. Any reasonable person would expect that a warrior going into battle would have some armor. 

We don't see Goliath's little secret until the moment that David actually steps up to challenge him. This little shepherd boy from Israel, who has no armor of his own and who refuses the armor of the king, steps forward in his dirty clothes from the field. He's a mere boy, and an Israelite boy, at that, so the size difference between the two warriors is immense. Goliath stands perhaps twice as tall as David. The giant laughs at the little boy and his slingshot, mocking the little shepherd's staff that he holds in his hand. "You come at me with sticks?" 

Don't you get it, boy?

But when Goliath steps forward toward the advancing David, he betrays himself. He reveals his little secret, the thing that makes him so confident - as if he needed any other reason to be. When Goliath steps forward and accepts David's challenge, his armor-bearer steps forward with him

That's right. Big, tall, strong, mighty Goliath in all his beautiful, heavy armor still has a guy stand in front of him with a shield. He still has someone who stands in harm's way before him, someone enlisted for nothing more than to take the brunt of the battle. David steps forward with nothing but sticks and stones, and still, Goliath is not as confident as he seems. He can come only with the assurance of the one who comes with him, who stands in front him, who holds his shield. 

That's important. So important that we're going to take a few days and pick it apart a little bit.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Canceling Cancel Culture

When I say things like how wrong it is to leave the church over cultural issues, I know that's a tough position to take, particularly in a culture that loves to cancel whatever it disagrees with. Immediately, the feedback that comes through is, "So, what, then? We're just supposed to stay in a racist church? So, we're just supposed to sit there in the pew when women are degraded or abused?"

Someone recently compared it to staying with an abusive spouse. Do we just resign ourselves to stay in a bad situation because we've committed to it? Are we just supposed to live as helpless victims of our previous choices, even when new information surfaces? 

And isn't it an implicit affirmation of a broken church's broken beliefs if we don't leave?

This is what's so frustrating about the culture that we live in. It has made it seem righteous to walk away when in actuality, it is nothing but self-righteousness.

When we walk away, what we're saying is that they have a problem. They have a problem, and they need to fix it, and we are not required nor expected to be part of the solution. We withhold our presence and our fellowship until they sort things out to our satisfaction, but in walking away, we disengage from the conversation. It's not our conversation, we say. We've said our piece, and now, the ball is in their court. 

Culture loves to do this. It loves to take a 'stand' against things by declaring it's a problem, but not our problem and then pretending that by just walking away, it's going to solve something. That if enough of us walk away, something will necessarily (and magically) change all on its own. That if we simply disengage the things we don't like about who we are as a people, they will fade away. 

And because there's something in us that knows that walking away alone is not enough, we leave a trail of shame on our way out the door. We leave little breadcrumbs of condemnation, a little sprinkle of gunpowder that's enough to spark a violent explosion, and then, we tiptoe out like we're completely innocent. Hey, it's not our problem. 

But if you want to set something off, here's all the fire power you need to do it. 

We are quickly, and without saying it, becoming a culture that's known for what we're against instead of what we're for. And there's a reason for that - it's easier to be against something than to be for something. It's easier to be against 'racism' than to be for reconciliation. It's easier to be against 'politics' than for dialogue. It's easy to be against something; all that takes is us shouting it down, walking away, and leaving a trail of shame as we go about our happy lives, pretending they aren't broken, too. (Like I said, it's self-righteousness, not actual righteousness.) 

And the church, of all bodies, knows that this doesn't work. How long in our history have we been known for what we're against...and how has that worked out for us? The church spent a long time in its recent history preaching against everything from drinking and homosexual relationships to cursing and dancing and racy television shows. There was mock 'Christian' outrage a few years ago about a coffee cup. How did that work out for us? Is it somehow different this time because the things we claim to be against are more culturally acceptable? Because 'everyone' is against things like racism and sexism? Do we all of a sudden want to be known for what we're against?

The easy answer is yes, but that's not the Christlike answer. Because Christ calls us to more than just standing against things. 

Christ calls us to the hard work of declaring what we're for. Of declaring what He is for. Of working together toward resolution of our troubles and not just disengaging from them. Christ calls us to remain in fellowship and work to bring about the change that we think necessary, to open the dialogues and stay engaged in them. To do the hard work, every time. Be strong and courageous, and do the work - 1 Chronicles 28:20

I don't think, when we come to the end of our lives, that God is going to applaud us for walking away from hard things. From broken things. Even from evil things. I don't think that God is going to applaud us for receiving the blessing of culture to do so. I don't think God is going to reward us for fighting our battles the way that the world fights, and I don't think He's going to be impressed by our claims of righteousness for doing so. 

I think what God is looking for is men and women, brothers and sisters, who are in this thing. Who fight the battles that need to be fought in this world. Who are able to understand the difference between brokenness and backwardness. Who are willing to commit to engaging, even when it's hard. I think what God is looking for is men and women who are willing to show the world how it ought to be done. 

I think our witness should not be, "World, we agree with you, and we're done here." Bur rather, I think our witness has got to be, "World, we hear you, and we are working - together - toward better." Because this is not their fight; it is our fight. This is not their problem; it is our problem. And until and unless we're willing to stand in the fires and truly engage, nothing is ever going to change. If all but one of us walk away and blow things up, we still leave one broken heart in the fire, and that is not a victory. That is not righteousness. 

Let's stop pretending that it is. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Leaving the Church

And all of this talk about members and churches brings us, naturally, to the elephant in the room: leaving a church. 

It happened again last week. A prominent figure in Christian ministry publicly announced that she was leaving the denomination that she called home for so long, the denomination that - we have to acknowledge - has made it possible for her to be a prominent figure in Christian ministry to begin with. The denomination that shaped the faith that she holds that made her the voice that she is. And she left the whole denomination, not just her local church.

As so many of these things tend to go, the problem she expressed was not a problem of doctrine. It was not a problem of faith. She didn't have a problem with the Jesus that this denomination preaches. What she had a problem with was the cultural impact of the church she was with. They were on the 'wrong side' of the social issues that have risen to the forefront of our national dialogue, and it's simply not in vogue for her to continue to associate with them. 

Now, listen, I don't know all of the circumstances surrounding this decision. I don't know the battles this woman has fought in her church. I've fought some in my church, so I'm no stranger to the nature of the church's brokenness. (Spoiler alert: all churches are broken in one way or another.) 

But what I will say, plainly, is how destructive her announcement was. 

Her announcement did not build up the body of Christ. Her announcement did not spur anyone toward change. Her announcement did not glorify God. Rather, what she's done is to throw an entire denomination of worshipers, an entire group of persons made in the image of God, under the bus in order that she might be 'woke,' if you want to use that term. She took the hundreds of years that marginalized persons have been fighting in the church for the image of God, and she threw them all out and declared, publicly, that it's okay to quit. It's okay to stop fighting alongside those you love and to instead, just leave them. 

She declared to a watching world that Christianity is fundamentally broken - but not because of its Jesus. 

That's a problem.

When we make statements that say that the church is getting things wrong, that's usually true. The church is getting a lot of things wrong. Just look at our history, and you can see that we've done some very broken things. But when we declare that it's okay to disown the church because of her sin, that the most fundamental thing about the church is not the God that it preaches, then that's a problem. When we break with the church because of the pressures of culture, that's a problem.

That said, we absolutely have to call out the church when the Jesus that we preach is not the Jesus that we live. Of course, our aim is to live out the life and love of the Jesus that we preach. But we also have to recognize that not one of us is getting this perfectly right. And so the inclination that we have to stomp our feet, to throw dust toward the church, and to walk away, declaring, "Whatever. Ya'll do what ya'll want to do" is not helpful. Nor is it Christlike. 

Our fellowship, our community, our calling demands that we fight alongside one another. That when we've committed to relationship with one another, we don't just walk away when things get hard. That when we struggle with other believers, we don't make a public mockery of them - a move that throws the church down and raises the seemingly-righteous 'Christian' higher. Oh, just look at the morals of this woman! What a brave and courageous woman she is! 

...except that she just broke her promise of fellowship. Except that she just threw the baby out with the bath water. Except that if you ask her, there are plenty of good, God-fearing, God-loving persons in the denomination that she just declared has it all wrong. Except that the very foundation of the faith that she claimed gave her the right to walk away came from the very place she walked away from. 

And yet, because it was culture that pushed her out, culture now praises her. 

...and the church weeps. 

We are brothers and sisters. There's no way around that. We are called to live together, to love together, to wrestle with the hard things together. So we have to stop this kind of thing where all of a sudden, we're praising Christians for walking away from a broken church. What nonsense! What failure! 

To be continued, tomorrow. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Losing a Member

Another challenge of setting the church's care by the standard of who is a 'member' or not is what happens when someone leaves the fellowship. We are living in an era of church hopping and church shopping, and that means that a number of persons are coming in our doors, staying awhile, and then leaving. 

If we define our services by who is or is not a member, what do we do with these persons?

In my experience, and there's a part of me that hates to say this, a number of persons who leave a church are not shy about coming back to it when they find themselves in need of something. I have been blessed to commit to a single congregation for over twenty years now, and I can't tell you the number of times that someone has left our congregation, joined another congregation, and then come back to ask us for financial assistance when the bills get a little too far behind or when a loved one dies unexpectedly. 

The emails always come out. "So-and-so, who attended here for a long time, is in financial need. To help with this burden, please contact the church office." Meanwhile, so-and-so's social media is filled with quotes and texts and shares from the church that so-and-so now attends and has been attending for 2, 3, 7 years. 

Now, if we've set a policy that we only care in such ways for our 'members,' what are we supposed to do here? 

The truth is that the answer to this question says more about who we are as a congregation than about our former brother or sister. Yes, it's heartbreaking that that person is no longer in our fellowship. Yes, it's frustrating that they've come knocking on our door instead of asking their new friends for help. Yes, it feels sometimes like someone is taking advantage of a community they are no longer investing in, a community that they have - in some regard - torn a thread from in their leaving. And it would be easy for us to turn our backs and say, no. Simply, no. You chose not to be part of our fellowship, so don't come knocking on our door when you have a need. Go ask the church where you actually spend your Sundays. Go ask the church where you now tithe. 

But this attitude can only ever put a bitterness in our souls. Honestly. It can only make us sour toward those who have been part of our lives, part of our journey. These persons invested in us for a time; they are our brothers and sisters. (For that matter, even those who have not been with us for any length of time can be our brothers and sisters.) And a church cannot afford to be marked by bitterness.

That's why we can't draw lines about who's in and who's out. Because it never defines who they are; it only ever defines who we are. 

And I am proud to say that I belong to a church that helps our brothers and sisters, whether they still journey with us or they have moved on. I am proud to say that we don't draw those lines. We help those who have left us just the same as we help those who are still with us. Because we are a church who responds to God's call for us to love one another, even when that love seems lost between us. 

Because that's who we are.

And we couldn't be that if we were drawing lines about what makes a member and what doesn't, about who belongs and who doesn't, about who we're willing to invest in and who we aren't. 

That's why these kinds of questions matter. 

Grace is Free

The first question that might come to mind when we talk about what makes a member of the church is, why does it even matter? There is an argument to be made that the services of the church, which represent the love and grace of Christ, should be free to everyone, whether the commitment in their heart is 'legitimate' or not. And certainly, the simplest way for us to figure out who's 'in' and who's 'out' is just to say...everyone's in. 

To start to talk about how the church cannot give away all of its services for 'free' is to imply that the church is some kind of business, that it has a financial bottom line to maintain, that grace is somehow unsustainable without a price tag on it. And of course, that's quite sticky. On one hand, churches aren't free but on the other hand, grace is. 

So what does it matter if the church marries everyone who walks through her doors or buries everyone who's carried in? Why do we have to talk about renting out our buildings or hiring out our services or the like? Why are we talking at all about what a 'member' of the church is, unless we're just keeping score somewhere (and Jesus, we have to say, doesn't like us keeping score). 

Quite simply: because the primary business of the church is not weddings or funerals. Or even memberships. 

The primary business of the church is discipleship. 

The primary business of the church is the transformation of hearts and lives. It's the preaching of the Gospel and the calling to follow. It's the anointing into service and the blessing of the sacred life. It's the fellowship of the saints and the community of believers. It's the serving of our neighbors, the extension of grace, the offer of mercy, and our loving one another. 

When we are asked, then, why we even think about charging for our building or our services, why we can't just marry everyone or bury everyone or host every birthday party or retirement celebration or Saturday pick-up basketball game, it's because these things are not the function of the church. They are part of the kind of community that we are building, but we cannot let ourselves get so buried in the wrong things that we forget that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb. 

We cannot let our churches become mere social centers. We cannot let them be used and taken advantage of for the civic services they provide. We cannot let our communities see our churches as nothing more than a free-for-all...because we know that a high price was paid on Calvary. 

We cannot let the world come to think of the church as a service. Not when it has always been a sanctuary. 

That's why these questions matter. That's why we have to think about who we marry and bury and celebrate and all that other stuff. Because if we don't, we risk losing sight of - and we risk losing the ability to speak of - our primary purpose, which is the making of disciples and the glorifying of the Lord. 

We like to say that because we know we do everything we do in the name of Jesus, we don't have to say it all the time, but the truth is that the majority of persons who enjoy our bonfires and movie nights and community carnivals never hear the name of Jesus on our lips and do not associate our having fun with them as an act of faith. They come to our events and walk away without realizing that Jesus was the center of them, even if He was the center of it all for us. That's the kind of failure I'm talking about. 

And listen, I get it - no one wants to 'harp' about Jesus all the time. But that's who we are. That's who the church is called to be. Disciples making disciples. And how can we ever make disciples if we never say to the lost, "Come, follow Him?" 

So that's why we talk about members and services. To make sure that our service is first and foremost the service of Jesus Christ. To make sure that everyone who walks through our doors understands what is most fundamentally true about us - Jesus. To make sure that we don't lose sight of who we are in favor of all the things that we do.