Thursday, October 21, 2021

Healed

So we're back where we started, with a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years who pressed through the crowds, touched the hem of Jesus's robe, knew in that instant that she had been healed, and yet, had to go home for seven more days. 

When we started the week, I said that it seems almost cruel. Those seven days have got to seem endless and so...unnecessary. But the truth is? I love it. 

And it's sooo Jesus. 

Because here's the thing: for seven more days, this woman couldn't do anything except be healed. She couldn't start catching up on all of the things she'd missed out on. She couldn't start working through her bucket list of things she'd do if she ever got the chance to be clean again. She couldn't even go back to life as she once knew it because she wasn't free yet to do so. The only thing she could do was sit in her house (probably not even her real house, but the dwelling of her uncleanness) and not bleed any more. 

It sounds boring to most of us, but this time...it's a crucial time. These moments that we have after a miracle are vital to the well-being not just of our bodies, but our souls. These seven seemingly-long days? They are going to feel so short once we get back into the swing of things. And the truth for most of us is that if we just went and got back into the swing of things? We'd miss our own healing entirely. 

We would. We are a people so prone to just moving on with things, getting on with our lives, doing the next thing and the next thing and the next thing that we'd miss our own healing if Jesus didn't make us take a little bit to slow down and attend it. 

And then when we get a second to slow down and stop and think about it, it feels so long ago. Like we're so far removed from it already. Like it has no connection to the life that we now life. And all of a sudden, neither does the Jesus who healed us.

We are a people who press through the crowds...to simply move on. 

What I wouldn't give, then, to be the bleeding woman. Or any other number of the men and women in the Gospels who Jesus healed. Those next seven days? That remaining time of purification? Those in-between moments? My soul needs those. Even when my life feels like they're some cruel kind of torture. I need to have time to dwell on my moment with Jesus, to relive it again and again and again, to hold it in my heart and treasure it, like Mary did with so many of her moments with Jesus. 

I need time to think about what it means to my life that Jesus loves me this much. So much that He would heal me. And I just don't think that what it means to my life is that I get to go back to work. And the grocery store. And church. And take the car for an oil change. I think that it has to mean something more than that I get to be busy again. I know that it means more than that. 

And maybe, just maybe, if I took some time to think about it, I'd realize that more. Maybe, if you took some time to think about it...

More and more, I am convinced that those long seven days...were an incredibly blessed seven days. And that this formerly-bleeding woman, even with a life to get back to, wouldn't trade them for the world. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Healing and Whole

We're talking about the bleeding woman this week and how, after knowing she was healed by just a touch of Jesus's robe, she still had to go home for seven days. She still had to wait the appointed time for healing to be official. She still had seven days for doubt to start to creep back in or, at the very least, to learn how to live as a woman healed. And it seems cruel to us, to a people who know so deeply the ache of just wanting to be healed. Can't Jesus just...heal her? 

He can, and He does, but our human flesh often doesn't work that way. And the truth is that even Jesus knew that. 

If you pay attention as you read through the Gospels, one of the things that you notice is that Jesus's healings often take place in at least two distinct steps - a freeing from bondage and then a healing. Our English is not entirely helpful to us here, as we often read the word "and" as indicating possibly just one action that accomplishes two tasks. It's harder for us to see actions connected this way as being separate actions. For example, if we say that we washed and dried the dishes, our English-processing brains envision one action - "doing" the dishes, a complete task. The words themselves, however, actually indicate two distinct actions - washing and drying.

We just naturally do this; it's the way that our language works. So when we read something like, "Jesus cast the demon out of the man and healed him," we see one action. And when we hear Jesus say, "Your sins are forgiven. Take up your mat and walk," what we hear is one singular sequence of events. It's one act of Jesus, not two. 

But the Scriptures are clear in so many places, and the original context of them is equally clear - overwhelmingly, Jesus's healings take place in two distinct steps. In two actions. In two motions. First, there is the restoring of the sight to the blind man and then, Jesus heals him. First, there is the casting out of the demon and then, Jesus heals the child. First, there is the forgiveness of sin and then, there is restoration of the body. 

This should tell us what we already know - that in order for real healing to happen in our lives, we need more than just the remediation of brokenness. It takes more for the bleeding woman to heal than to simply...stop bleeding. There is so much more that has to be done. 

Take even what we're learning in this pandemic, and what so many of us know from having been sick previously in our lives. Healing from Covid requires more than just not having Covid any more. There's rehab to do. There's strength to rebuild. There are routines to re-establish. The same is true for any healing work in our lives. Healing from abuse requires more than just not being abused any more. Healing from addiction requires more than just not using that substance or engaging in that behavior any more. There's always rehab to do. 

Jesus knew that. That's why we always see Him doing healing as a second work, after the work of setting someone free. That's why we see Him sending some of the "healed" home until they can see the priest. The demon is gone, but there is healing left to do. The bleeding is done, but there is healing left to do. 

And listen, yes. If Jesus wanted to do the healing in one swift motion, He absolutely could. And sometimes, He does. But most of the time, that's not how our bodies work. And despite what we may think about being embodied souls, God never works against our flesh; He works with it. It's part of His grand design for who we ought to be. So to say that Jesus would know and expect and honor the healing work that our flesh has to do is in no way a comment against His absolute power, authority, or goodness. In fact, it's a testament to it. Because what it means is that when Jesus does a healing work in our lives, one of the things He does is to restore the wisdom of our bodies to engage that healing and to begin to work with us...when we've so long been working against ourselves. 

So go back if you want to and read the Gospels. Read the stories of Jesus's healings and see how often they include an "and" that is actually a second motion. See how often healing comes not in one movement, but in two. And then ask yourself again about the bleeding woman. 

What was she doing for seven days when she knew that Jesus had healed her? 

She was healing.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Miraculous

When we say that healing, even miraculous healing, takes time, it may seem to some that we are suggesting that Jesus is not as all-powerful as we (and He) claim He is. It may seem as though we are saying that our healing takes Jesus and something else. That maybe even we have to participate in it somehow. That healing - even miraculous healing - is not just faith; it's also works. 

But that would not at all be what we are saying. 

The bleeding woman touched the hem of Jesus's robe and in that exact moment, she knew she was healed.  100%. She knew her twelve-year ordeal was over. She knew that she wasn't going to have this issue of chronic bleeding again. She knew it was done. Jesus had healed her. 

And yes, He had really healed her. Fully and completely. It really was over. She knew it. Jesus knew it. We have no grounds on which to question the fullness and completeness of the healing work that Jesus had done in her. 

Still, she had to wait seven days because of the rules that men were still following. Rules that, yes, God gave them, but rules that Jesus had come to upend to some degree. Still, she had to go home and lock herself back in her house and not touch anything and not talk to anyone and not embrace her healing as fully as she wanted to. And, well, we know that when you can't touch something you're longing to touch, it doesn't take much time before it becomes less real to you.

The truth is, it takes a great measure of supernatural faith to be healed in an instant. It takes an indwelling of the Holy Spirit so strong and so unshakable that you'd not have a little inkling of the shadows of the past at all. To be healed by God is an act of God, but to fully trust and understand what that means right away and to never let go of it, not even for a second, also requires an act of God. 

And, well, we're just so human.

What we're talking about here is not really the power of God at all. We know what the power of God is. What we're talking about is our human finiteness and our limited ability to understand the things that God does. The things that He's doing. What He says. Just how powerful He actually is. What we're talking about is the way that we keep questioning even what we know for certain, the way we keep testing the world around us - and the God we trust in - to see if it's still as we thought it was. 

It's the way you know that your shirt was clean when you put it away, but you still smell it when you pull it out of the drawer, just to make sure. We are, hopelessly, it seems, this kind of people. 

Yet, at the same time, we are a people so naturally bent toward our own healing that we are also a forgetful people, and this, too, leads us to questioning. When you can walk again after a sprained ankle, you just...start walking. And for the next few weeks or so, you occasionally catch yourself and can't remember that moment your ankle healed and you wonder if it's really strong enough and maybe you even limp a little because you've forgotten your healing and you've forgotten your brokenness and there's just this in-between that you can't quite figure out. 

We do that with God, too. Is this healed? Is it not? I'm naturally using it, but should I be? Is it strong enough? We are, hopelessly, it seems, this kind of people, too. 

None of our questioning changes God's healing at all, but it does change our experience of it. It does nuance the way that we experience healing in our lives. It does impact how we express that healing, how we interact with it, how we embrace it - tenderly, but firmly, perhaps. As though it is both certain and fragile at the same time. Because we know that it is certain, but we...we are so fragile. 

So we when we say that healing, even miraculous healing, takes time, we're not talking about the power of Jesus to heal in an instant. Rather, we're talking about our own finite understanding of, well, anything and everything and what it means to be human. Even a human with faith. Even a human with faith that pushes unclean through a crowd of persons just for a chance to touch the hem of His robe and know...

...and still have seven days to think about it. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

A Healing Work

It's tough for most of us to think about the bleeding woman just...going home. About her having to wait seven more days after Jesus healed her before she could go back out into the world. Any one of us who has ever dealt with any significant challenge in our lives knows what it feels like to want to claim victory at the first little taste of it, to be ready to move on as soon as possible. 

And yet...we also understand that it's not that easy. 

Any one of us who has ever faced a major battle knows that there remains, for awhile, this little bit of nervousness about whether or not it might be waiting just around the next corner. Every little blip on the radar for the next few weeks, the next few months, and we're nervous all over again. We're uncertain. We're afraid that our victory isn't as complete and full as we'd thought it would be, and we brace ourselves for battle again. 

This is true even years after our healing, for some of us, at least. Think about the man who had a brain tumor and has gone into remission, but fifteen years later, he's got a headache he just can't shake. Is he healed? Or is he sick again? Think about the addict who hasn't had a pill in twenty years, but who just had surgery and was accidentally given medication she specifically requested not to receive. She does feel better, but is this the beginning of a relapse? Think about the person who had to learn to walk again after a significant car accident. All of a sudden, he trips over his own feet. Once. Is he prone to stumble? Was all of his hard work for nothing? 

It's hard for us sometimes to believe in our healing. And I think that's true even if, like the bleeding woman, we know that Jesus is responsible for it. Even if we know in an instant that our battle is over, there's something in us that still struggles to let go of it. Can it really just be...over? 

I want to say that it's a matter of faith. And it is, but it also isn't. It's a matter of being human. It's a matter of realizing how fragile our bodies really are, especially when they have been showing us that fragility for so long. Twelve years is a long time. At this point, this woman doesn't know how not to bleed. The sensation that she has of not bleeding is alone enough to probably trouble her, at least in that split second before she realizes and remembers what's really happening. What is that feeling? she probably asks herself a thousand times in a panic before remembering, Oh yeah. It's healing

And that doesn't say anything at all about this woman's faith. It really doesn't. That she has to remember she's been healed doesn't mean that she questions Jesus's ability to heal her. Or His goodness in doing so. Or His power to do so completely. It means that, well, she's a human being in a human body, and it just takes some time to adjust to her human body doing something different than it has been doing for twelve long years. 

I have to think that's what she was doing for seven days in her house. Seven long days after knowing - knowing - she was healed. I think...she was healing. I think she was investing herself in figuring out what it means to not be a bleeding woman any more. To think about what it might be like to go down and get water at the well or to sit at the mill and grind flour and talk about the events in town with all the other women - chatter that, for the first time in twelve years, won't contain gossip about her. 

The truth is that healing, even miraculous healing, takes a lot of work. It takes a re-orienting of our lives. It takes our willingness to step into it. As courageous as it was for this woman to press through the crowds to touch Jesus, any one of us who has ever experienced a long and arduous battle for healing knows that it was just as hard, if not harder, for her to turn and take that first step away from Him. That first step back toward her life. That first step into day one after twelve long years. 

Coming to Jesus is the easy part. Walking away healed is...so much harder.

And I know that it's strange to say that, but if you know what I'm talking about, then you get it. And I think that's why Jesus so often made healing its own separate act. 

Wait...what? Yeah. Stay tuned. 

Friday, October 15, 2021

A Long Seven Days

The Gospels tell the story of a woman bleeding for twelve years. Chronically bleeding. She had spent all of her money on doctors, tried every snake oil and witch remedy and professional medicine known to her time, and they have all left her poor...and still bleeding. But she knew, she just knew, that if she pushed through these crowds, unclean as she was, and touched even the hem of Jesus's robe, she'd be healed. She just knew it. 

And so she did it. While Jesus was on His way to Jairus's house, this woman pushed through, making every single person in that crowd unclean, though they didn't know it. She knew it. Still, she pushed through. And she made it to Jesus. She took one last deep breath, reached out, touched His robe...and she knew. 

It was over. 

Except it wasn't. 

The Gospel writers tell us that this woman knew in that instant that she was healed; she felt it in the depths of her soul. And, well, her uterus. Jesus turned around and confirmed for her was she already knew; she was healed. He spoke those words out loud and so not only did this woman know it and not only did Jesus know it, but the entire crowd - disciples included - knew it. This woman was healed. Her twelve-year ordeal was finally over. 

Except it wasn't. 

For this woman lived in a strange sort of time. It was a time when the ministry of Jesus was just coming to fruition and when the tug of the old covenant was still strong on people's hearts. Jesus Himself was known to frequent the synagogues. Jesus quoted the Old Testament frequently.

And it was Jesus who told those He healed to go, present themselves to the priest and bring with them the offering of atonement for their uncleanness. 

Which means...this woman had seven more days to go. You see, under the Old Testament law, a woman was unclean during all of the days of her bleeding, whether it was a standard seven-ish or more than that. Once the bleeding stopped, she was to count off seven more days and then, on the eighth day, present herself to the priest and make atonement for her bleeding. Only then could she rejoin society. Only then would she truly be "clean." 

Seven days. Seven more days after twelve years. And I have to tell you, those were the longest seven days. 

They were. During those seven days, anything could happen. She knew she had been healed, but the devil can take a lot from you in seven days. He can take your confidence. He can take your assurance. He can take your healing. You just don't know. 

And I wonder what that woman did for seven more days. I wonder if she sat around worrying about what the priest might say when he sees her walk in. Would he even know her? How would she describe herself? How would she account for twelve years? Was she impatient? Could she not wait to get it over with? Was she nervous? Was she ready? Was she confident? 

What happens in seven long days, between the moment you know you are healed and the hour when you take your offering to God and prove it? 

It's a story for all of us living in the in-between. Because truth be told, I think more of us are living those seven days than we even realize.  

Mountain Worship

So we circle back to where we began, with a Jesus who tells us that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed and if we only had faith and did not doubt, then we could move mountains. And we know that this Jesus wasn't talking about us (as much as we'd like for Him to be), but about Himself, about worship. But if that is the case, then what does this even mean? 

It means that sometimes, we get too caught up in the mountains on which we worship and it gets in the way of the God who meets us there. 

Mountains have always been the structure of meeting. They have been the places where God has met His people - Abraham and Isaac, Noah, Moses, Israel, the Temple. All of these stories center on mountains. And as such, they have a lot of stuff built up around them. They have a lot of rules and regulations and laws and codes and disciplines. 

When Moses went up on the mountain to meet God, the rest of the people were told not to even touch the mountain or they would die. They could see God's presence there. They could hear the thunder. They knew that Moses was face-to-face with God, and yet, they couldn't be. They weren't allowed to even touch the mountain. And when Moses came down, he brought with him a list of rules about how to come to God. How to come to the very same God who was so close in smoke and fire and thunder and yet, untouchable like the mountain. 

When the Temple was built, it was built on a mountain, but it, too, came with rules. Rules about cleanliness and ritual sacrifice and the offerings that you bring with you. Rules about who can enter and how far they can come in and what time and under what circumstances. The Pharisees had made a profession out of knowing these rules, but make no mistake - every faithful Hebrew knew them, too. They knew them because these were the things that kept them from drawing as near to God as they wanted. 

There was always a mountain - a rule of worship - between God and His people. 

So what Jesus is saying when He tells His disciples that a little bit of faith can move mountains is that if they would just believe wholeheartedly in the revelation of God right in front of them, in the nearness of the God they were walking with, in Jesus's reality as God incarnate, then they could throw all of those burdensome rules of worship away. If they would simply believe that there was no longer a mountain between them and God, the God who was standing right in front of them telling them that this was true, then they wouldn't need all those regulations to bind them. 

He was saying, in essence, what God had been saying for awhile through various Old Testament prophets - that He never really wanted their sacrifices, that He was never really interested in their ritual cleanliness, that His ultimate aim was never the bull or the ram or the grain offering. What He's wanted all along is mercy. It's justice. It's grace. It's faithfulness. It's humility. It's love.

These things are the examples that Jesus sets right in front of them as He shows them how to live God's abundant life. And if they'd just believe in these things, if they'd just get these things down into their hearts, if they'd just let these things be the things...even a little bit...they could say to all that old stuff, all those old burdens, all those old rules, "move," and they would move. They would get out of the way and let these disciples - and this world - see Jesus. 

No more smoke and fire. No more thunder and lightning. No more voice from the heavens. No more aromas pleasing to the Lord. No more inspections by the priest for cleanness. No more. Move this mountain. Draw near to the most holy place, right here on the streets of Galilee. And worship. Worship the Lord who stands among you in justice and mercy and grace and love. 

All it takes is the smallest bit of faith. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Lord God

Okay, that sounds harsh. The idea that Jesus cares more about His Kingdom than He does about our happiness or ease or well-being. It sounds almost like Jesus doesn't even love us or at the very least, like we're just pawns He's playing with in this game called life. Like He's just using us to advance His Kingdom - you know, that thing He really cares about and well, if that's the case, then it doesn't seem like He cares about us at all. Not really. 

And that just shows you how far our Christianity has gotten this twisted. The very notion that we would be offended that our God cares about His glory more than ours tells us all we need to know about how wrong we're getting this. 

The difference is really a subtle one, so it's easy to see how we can get it twisted, especially when our minds are so bent toward ourselves. The Kingdom of God is for us; He has given His promise for us, created an eternity for us, sent His Son to die for us. But the Kingdom of God is not about us; it is and always has been about Him. 

And it should be. Not only should it be, but we need it to be. 

We have absolutely nothing to gain if our God is so small that we are His primary concern. We have nothing to gain if our God only throws Himself into making our lives better by our standards. It is of no benefit to us if the God of the universe thinks we, individually, are the universe. 

Sorry, but God did not speak into the darkness and void just so that you can overcome all the things that hold you back. You can overcome all the things that hold you back because God spoke into the darkness and void. Don't even forget that. 

We need a God who is bigger than our lives. We need a God who cares about more than our comfort and happiness. We need a God who is glory...and a God who is glorified. We need God to demonstrate, above all other things, that He is actually God. That He is the God who created the universe and put us in it so that He could love us. That He is the God who is worthy of our lives. We need a God whose holiness demands our worship...not a God who worships us. 

We've forgotten this in all of our individualized, self-centered "worship." We've forgotten this as we've continued to think that the most important thing about God is...us. And it's no wonder we're losing sight of Him. It's no wonder we can't figure out any more who He really is. 

For generations, we have sung "Jesus loves me," and this has become the heart of our relationship with Him. But what it's done is that it's put us in the center of His universe and if we're the center of His universe, then God Himself is pushed out to the edges. All of a sudden, then, love doesn't come from the center; it comes from the edges. And just like that, it's too easy to push out altogether. Because this is our universe, right? We are the center of it. 

Wrong, of course, but our natural instinct is to say that if God doesn't love us that much, if God doesn't love us enough that we are the center of His universe, then God must not love us at all. Then we start to grumble and pout and kick our feet in the dust, the very same dust that He drew together to create us at all. Lest we've forgotten. 

But the truth is that it's because God loves us that He doesn't put us at the center of His universe. It's because He loves us that He demands to be the center of it Himself. He wants to, and needs to, be the thing at the heart of it all. He needs to be in the place where all things revolve around Him, not us. He needs to be the place where we come in from the edges, drawn to something so firmly grounded, so perfectly rooted in the beginning, where the darkness and void once were. 

That's the only way this works. That's the only way that any of this works. That's why it's not harsh to say that Jesus's primary focus was not our happiness or our comfort or even our victory; it was, and always has been, His Kingdom and God's glory. 

And we need it to be that way. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Lord of Our Lives

And maybe now, you're saying, wait a minute...demons and things that don't bear fruit? That certainly sounds like my greatest struggles to me. That certainly sounds like all the trauma, addictions, illness, and brokenness that I've been dealing with. And if that's what Jesus was talking about, then we're back where we started - with Jesus telling us that just a little faith can overcome our greatest obstacles. Maybe everything we have heard about moving mountains is right

Still no. 

This is one of the greatest disasters - dare I say, even, heresies - of postmodern Christianity. We have so taken the love of Christ and the grace of God and twisted them until God's primary concern is our lives. Until what God cares about most in this world is our happiness and thriving. Until we have a Gospel that is actually all about us and how we get to live the kind of beautiful lives that we want to live and until we have a Jesus whose ultimate aim was to fulfill us. This is the God that we've heard preached from the pulpit. This is the God that we've been convinced we're worshiping. 

But it's not the God of the Scriptures. It's not the God of our Bible. It's not the God who in the beginning created the world and everything in it and then breathed His Spirit into us. And it's not the Jesus who walked the streets of Galilee. It's not even the Jesus who healed the sick and the lame and the demon-possessed.  

What we have to understand about Jesus's healings is the same thing that we have to understand about Jesus's ministry, mission, and Kingdom in general - Jesus didn't heal the blind men because it would make their lives better. He didn't heal the bleeding woman because it would make her happier. He didn't heal the paraplegic because it would make his life easier. He didn't heal a single individual because it would make them more beautiful, more desirable, more successful, more relaxed, or even more faithful. 

Jesus healed the sick and the lame and the demon-possessed because brokenness anywhere is an insult to His goodness. Because these things slapped in the face the goodness of God's creation. Because these things attempt to stand in witness against Him and His deep, abiding love for us. Jesus healed for the sake of the Kingdom, just like He did literally everything else. 

And until we get that right, we've got nothing. 

Jesus's mission was fully, thoroughly, absolutely about restoring the goodness of God one little piece at a time, not so that His people could live lives of ease, but so that His name could be praised. 

If you're still thinking right now, "But Jesus gets the praise when I climb my biggest obstacle," then you're still not getting it.

Jesus didn't come so that you could beat your addiction; you can beat your addiction because Jesus came. Jesus didn't go to the Cross so that you could win the battle with sin; you can overcome sin in your live because Jesus went to the Cross. Jesus didn't walk out of that tomb so that you can defeat cancer; you defeat cancer because Jesus walked out of that tomb. 

Jesus is the first and the last and everything in between. The Kingdom of God is central to all that He is and all that He did. So even when He's talking about moving mountains, this is what He's talking about - not your obstacles, hurts, habits, and hang-ups, but His Kingdom. Worship. Matters of the heart and soul. 

No matter how we try to twist it. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Demons and Figs

Maybe you're not sold yet. Maybe you read yesterday's post, and you're interested in the idea, but it's still hard to believe that everything you've heard about moving mountains - about conquering all the things that stand in your way - could be wrong. It's okay. I get it. It's hard to let go of a message that means so much to so many of us. 

But just because something sounds good, that doesn't mean it's what God is trying to say to you. And what if what God really wants to say to you is even better

First, though, we'd have to show that when we talk about mountains, we really are talking about worship and not just the challenges of living a human life and all the big things that come against us. 

A good place to start is this - Jesus promises us this life will be broken. He tells us we will have trouble. He reminds us that things aren't going to go the way that we want them to. So it's pretty bold of us to think that He would also preach a message that tells us that if we just had a little faith, we wouldn't have to put up with trouble. That would make Jesus double-minded, wouldn't it? Or at least, double-speaking. If Jesus tells us that a little faith would get us out of big trouble but also tells us that we will have trouble, then what is He really saying about faith? Clearly, that none of us can ever have even a little bit of it. And, well, I just can't believe that Jesus would really say such a thing. 

That alone would be enough to say that maybe we've got the message wrong, but look at the contexts in which Jesus talks about moving mountains. These, too, are a clue that these mountains aren't what we often think they are. 

The first time Jesus says this, He is talking to His disciples who have failed to cast a demon out of someone that the Scriptures don't indicate that they even knew prior to this moment. A total stranger. Or at least, a relative stranger. If we think that moving mountains is about conquering the things that stand in our way, we have to say...this demon wasn't standing in the way of any of these disciples. This demon had nothing, really, to do with them, nor them with it. We'd have to say that these disciples, then, went out looking for "mountains" to conquer and that their faith was supposed to conquer the "mountains" in someone else's life. 

It's a difficult theological notion to try to preach that God has made us responsible for victory in someone else's life. He has called us to love them, yes. To help them, yes. To serve them, absolutely. To journey alongside them. To fight their battles with them, sure. But not to fight their battles for them. Not to go out looking for someone else's mountain, trusting our faith to blow it up for them. 

Beyond that, we have to even ask if this demon is a "mountain" in our idea at all. It's a demon, for crying out loud. It's spiritual warfare, not temporal trouble. The answer to it is prayer and fasting, acts of worship. This is a far cry from trying to overcome our own selfishness or beat an addiction or defeat cancer. 

And even if you're thinking, "Yeah, but a demon is a pretty big mountain...," let's talk about the fig tree. The second time that Jesus tells His disciples that they can move mountains, they are marveling at a fig tree that has completely dried up after Jesus has cursed it for not having fruit out of season. He was hungry. The tree had no figs. He cursed it. It dried up. He told His disciples that they could do the same. 

Does this mean we are supposed to become "righteously angry" at things in this world that don't satisfy our appetite? Is Jesus giving us permission to be "hangry"? Or is this not about Jesus's physical appetite at all? 

If you've been around the blog awhile, you know that I believe that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from Genesis was a fig tree. I believe the fruit was a fig. And it's this scene in the Gospels (in part) that leads me to that conclusion. Jesus sees a fig tree that has borne no fruit, and He's looking at a people who do not know the difference between good and evil. The fruit has not delivered on its promise. It has not given what it claims that it had to give. So Jesus curses it for not bearing fruit in the lives of men. 

This isn't a mountain problem; this is a spiritual problem. It's a problem with worship, with men's hearts. With what we believe about God and what we do about it. 

If Jesus says we can move mountains in the contexts of demons and our relationship with God, then what on earth makes us think He was talking about our financial security or our physical health or our making a way through this world? He was talking about worship. He was talking about faithfulness. He was talking about righteousness. He was talking about the way that we love God and live like we love God

Which is, as we said yesterday, the only thing that mountains have ever meant in the Scriptures. 

More tomorrow. 

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Moving Mountains

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, I tell you that you could say to this mountain, "Move," and it would move. 

If you have faith and do not doubt, I tell you that you could say to this mountain, "Move," and it would be thrown into the sea

Not once, but twice in Matthew's gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that they can move mountains. The first time He says this, they have failed to cast out a demon. The second time, they are marveling at the way the fig tree withered when Jesus cursed it. 

When we read these verses, we often think about how Jesus is telling us that we can move the biggest things in our lives, that we can overcome our greatest obstacles. That if we just have a little bit of faith - the size of a mustard seed - or if we do not doubt, then nothing - nothing at all - can stand in our way.

But that's not how the disciples would have heard it. 

I know, right? You're thinking right now - wait a minute. Even my pastor has preached about my mountains, about my obstacles, about all the big things that I'm up against. I've read books by prominent Christian authors about power and authority over all of the huge things that get in my way. Everyone I've ever heard talk about these passages talks about them in the same way; this is what Jesus was saying. Clearly. Have you gone mad?

Nah. I'm not mad; I'm just thinking. 

In Jesus's day, and throughout the Old Testament leading up to Jesus, we never once see a mountain as an obstacle. A mountain wasn't an obstacle for Abraham, when God commanded him to sacrifice his son. A mountain wasn't an obstacle for Israel, who gathered at the foot of one to meet with God and to receive His commands. God even told them not to set foot on the mountain there because it was holy. And in the New Testament, in the Gospels, a Samaritan woman talks to Jesus about which mountain they will worship on in the age to come. 

That's what mountains have always been for God's people - places of worship. Sites where they met God. Not challenges to overcome, but places to gather in holy assembly. The Temple was built on a mountain. The tablets were carved on a mountain. When Noah came to rest in God's promise after the flood, the Ark settled onto a mountain. The Samaritan woman's question reveals that all of the people wanted to worship on the mountain. A mountain. Which mountain, again, God? 

And if that's the case, then it's hard to believe that when Jesus spoke to His disciples about moving mountains, that He was talking about obstacles. No. Jesus was talking about worship

And if that's the case, then we have a lot to learn about what Jesus was saying. So let's take a couple of days and look at our mountains. 

Not our obstacles. Not our challenges. Not the big things in our lives that seem to stand in our way. But our worship. Because if that's what Jesus was talking about, then that's what we ought to be talking about, too. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

A Holistic Ethic

As we wrap up our discussion of Christian ethics (for now), we look at the heart of the matter and that is, the Christian heart. 

The truth is that on any given issue, we have multiple Christian ethics that we must hold together in however we choose to respond. 

For example, no, we are not called to be an interfaith people; that is a cultural ethic, not a Christian one. We, as Christians, are called to be bearers of the way, truth, and life, and we cannot do that if we are standing in the marketplace pretending that we are just one valid option out of many and that all of the other religions have something to offer that maybe we don't. Jesus would never approve of such a thing. 

Nor would He approve, though, of our standing in the marketplace and shouting everything, and everyone, else down. Nor would He approve, though, of our becoming an arrogant and aggressive people. Our Christian ethic, as much as it calls us to truth, also calls us to humility. And graciousness. And hospitality. 

And that's how we find ourselves as a people who must be welcoming to Afghan refugees, for example, and others in our community, while not pretending that their religion is somehow fundamentally the same or just as valid as ours. It's how we find ourselves in the houses of and around the tables of those with whom we have religious disagreements - not because we affirm of their religious ethic but because we must holistically live our own. It's how we find ourselves standing in the Areopagus as one voice, yes, but a voice of authority. 

Perhaps it is here that we find our greatest example of what it means to live as a Christian people in an interfaith culture. This is exactly what Paul was doing in the public square, where all of these ideas were competing for attention. He stood there among them. He did not chase the other voices out of the public square. He did not shout them down. He did not discredit them. Rather, he told the people that the thing they were looking for that none of these other ideas had given them was found in his God. He explained to them how his God was fundamentally better than what they were encountering in the culture all around them, which included the worship of many other gods - all gods that the peoples of the area fully believed in. But Paul did not affirm these worshipers; he humbly, graciously outdid them. Simply by showing the truth of who our God truly is. 

And we have to mention something else that Paul didn't do - he didn't invite the representatives of all of the other gods to this place. He wasn't putting on some kind of demonstration or hosting a religions fair. He wasn't even attending one. He was simply meeting the peoples at the places where they already were and speaking truth to them - a truth that he knew would captivate them all on its own. 

This is what we, too, must do.

Our Christian ethic requires that we meet others where they are, that we do not force anyone out of the public square but that we also do not invite them there, that we respond humbly and graciously with a truth that speaks for itself. And actually, this takes most of the strife out of it because we aren't constantly pushing back against the world; we're simply standing our ground and not letting this world move us. 

I hope this discussion of Christian ethics has been helpful for you. We looked at a few ideas - life, death, and fellowship. We've twisted a few of the questions to ask not just what we should believe, but how we should live it, and we've drawn some lines between culture and Christianity that should help us evaluate what we're doing. Next week, we'll move on to something else. Probably. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

But Wait...

At this point, you might be thinking - but wait. Since America was founded on Christian principles (largely), isn't a lot of our cultural ethic the same as a lot of our Christian ethic? Don't we believe in basically the same things? Certainly, you're not suggesting that God somehow disapproves of good in this world just because our culture also agrees with it, right? 

I am not suggesting that at all. But remember when I said that this whole conversation of Christian ethics gets a little tricky? Here's another one of those places. 

Because...you're right. Sometimes, culture agrees with us on certain ideas. Certainly, things like mercy and grace and love and freedom and strength and support and neighborliness are Christian ideas that culture largely agrees with. Certainly, these are the kinds of things that culture is asking us to do more of. 

But...

There are a couple of sticking points. First, culture doesn't always use our words with the same definition that we do. We've talked about this before, and it's a place where we have to be careful. Culture, for example, uses the word "love" a lot. But when culture says "love," what they really mean is blind affirmation. They want us to not only tolerate, but to celebrate, whatever a person wants to do and whatever choices a person makes in his or her own life. "Love" in the world's definition has no place for something like "truth," unless it is the "relative truth" that declares that whatever a person believes is true for that person. 

Christ meant something very different by love. He meant that we should always desire the very best for those around us, that we should labor ourselves for their good. He meant that we should be self-sacrificial for the betterment of others...and that does not mean sacrificing our principles (although the world tries to spin it this way, too). 

Likewise, the world tries to tell us that mercy and grace and even justice are earned or deserved. The world wants us to develop a ranking system whereby we determine who is "worthy" of these things. And if we're not sure, our world will tell us. (Hint: it is often wrong and is rooted in the world's own prejudice.) I don't need to give you examples of how perverted "justice" is in our country; you already know. 

The second sticking point is even more delicate, more difficult, and it is this: we have to keep in mind why we believe and act the way that we do. In other words, are we living a certain way because Christ commands us to live that way...or are we living that way because our cultural sensibilities lead us to act that way?

Purpose matters. What you have your eyes on matter. What you're working toward matters. Are you working toward the reconciliation of all things to God? Or are you working toward a relative common peace? Are you working toward building the community of God's people into a holy nation? Or are you interested in preserving the nation that permits you to worship your God so freely? 

Yes, it is true that all truth is God's truth. And yes, it is true that even those who have not heard the Good News of God still often live by His wisdom because goodness is goodness is goodness no matter where we find it and even creation itself testifies to the goodness of God. (Paul said this.) But if you call yourself a Christian, then you don't get to take such a hands-off approach to goodness. You don't get to pretend that it's just as good for you to live as someone without the Good News as it is for someone in a tribal region that we haven't even discovered yet. If you know better, God expects you to live like you know better. He is not satisfied with you settling for good things when you know holy things in your heart. 

So when it comes to these questions of how we're supposed to live, we have to be mindful about why we are living the way that we're living and not just being aware of how it is that we're living. Yes, it's true - sometimes, our cultural and our Christian ethics overlap. Sometimes, they agree with one another. And it's easy to say, then, doesn't that mean that sometimes it's Christian, even when it looks cultural? 

Never. 

Because a true Christian ethic has at its core the heart of God. Always. And a cultural ethic never does. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Cultural Ethic

If you need more evidence that the notion that Christians should be "interfaith" is a cultural one and not a Christoform one, let's talk about this: 

How do you feel about what's going on in Afghanistan right now? 

I have some pastor friends and even influencers who love to talk about how important it is that we stand next to our "Muslim brothers and sisters" and protect their freedom to worship and even work together with them on projects in our community. (Actually, this last one is not a bad idea - I think Paul would approve, in most cases. There would be exceptions.) Anyway, these pastors have deliberately gone out and made themselves "interfaith" leaders in their communities and have become the Christian witness that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslims and Jews and Sikhs and atheists to declare the need for faith, in general, in our world. 

But a few weeks ago, when the Taliban announced that they would be taking Afghanistan back to Shariah law - to the strict, often harsh law code that they have built around their understanding of their holy scriptures (much like the law of our Old Testament, which also seems harsh), these very same pastors were among the first to condemn them. 

You can't go back to cutting off the hands of thieves or executing those found in adultery! You can't go back to silencing women and keeping them covered all the time! You can't live by this kind of law!

Why not? 

This law is as much a part of their worship - as much a part of their faithful life - for them as is, say, prayer. Or going to the mosque. Or any of the dozens of ways that the Muslim people worship here in America that we are so quick to defend. That we are so ready to say they ought to be able to do. We not only defend their practices here; we affirm them. 

See, even as "interfaith" Christians, the truth is that we're only interfaith so long as the faiths that we're standing with are culturally appropriate to us. As long as what they're doing doesn't bother us too much. As long as they don't offend our American sensibilities. But let them go against what our culture has said is good and appropriate, and all of a sudden, we're bothered by it. 

We can't believe a people would ever adopt a law so strict as the one being adopted right now in Afghanistan, and yet, as Christians in America, we don't worry about the Muslim faith's lack of a law of grace. Hey, they don't believe in grace? That's fine. Wait...they want to enact Shariah law? No way. 

We're talking about the Muslim faith here, but the truth is that we do this with other faiths, as well. If they are not culturally offensive to our American ways of justice, equality, and freedom, then we not only defend their "right" to worship the way that they want to; we affirm it. We call ourselves "interfaith" and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone and everyone who claims to want a place for "faith," in general, in the world. But the minute justice, equality, or freedom is at stake, we turn and condemn the very same things we claim we've been fighting for. 

What's frustrating about this, for me, is that we don't do the same when Christian principles are at stake. When the ways that other peoples worship ought to offend our Christian sensibilities, we are very quick to push that aside and say, well, we can't claim a monopoly on truth. We don't have all the answers. We don't know the right ways. This is America, and everyone should be free to worship the way that they want. 

Wait...what was that last one? What was that one that rolled so easily off the tongue? Oh, that's right. 

Proof positive that what we're dealing with when we talk about being an "interfaith" people is not a Christian ethic; it's a cultural one. And that is heartbreaking. 

It is heartbreaking to hear how many times Christians today say, well, this is America instead of putting our feet down and saying, well, this is the church. This is the truth. This is the way. This is the life.

This is the love of Christ, which is unmatched in all the cultures of the world...including our own. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

An Ethic of Truth

As we talk about Christian ethics, specifically as it relates to us being an interfaith people, one of the questions we're really asking is whether this interfaith notion is a Christian one or a cultural one. There's been plenty of evidence to this point that the way that we are exercising this notion is primarily cultural, although there is certainly a Christian foundation for (limited) fellowship with those who are different than us. (See discussion of Paul last week.) 

If we need more proof that this is more of a cultural ethic than a Christian one, let us look no further than one of the reasons what we sometimes give for being an interfaith people: we do not have an exclusive claim on truth. 

We have been taught to question our understanding of truth, even a truth that claims itself to be absolute. Even a God who tells us in no uncertain terms what He means when He says that He is the way. 

One of the reasons that we are interfaith is because we hold out a "reasonable" understanding that we might be "wrong" about truth or at the very least, that someone else may have a "truth" that we just don't understand yet. It's arrogant to claim that we're the ones who have it all right. It's condescending to tell others that they have it wrong. It's neither compassionate nor loving to condemn someone else's notion of truth just because it doesn't agree with ours. 

This is an entirely cultural ethic of truth. Nowhere in our Scriptures does God tell us to hem and haw around His truth because it might be offensive to someone who believes something else. 

Now, in contrast, we know that we are to be humble in our truth at all times. That is, we must recognize that we have a finite (limited) understanding of God's truth, even of God's revelation, and that there are some things that we are definitely getting wrong about it. We have been told, rightfully so, to guard ourselves against becoming arrogant in our own understandings and interpretations and even teachings. Just because it's what we've heard in a sermon doesn't mean it's what someone across town has heard in their sermons, so we need to be careful about how we proclaim God's truth in our world. Because we know that we don't hold all of it ourselves.

This is the subtle little difference that the world has taken off on and used as a launch point for its own ethic. If, the world says, our understanding is limited, then doesn't that mean there is room for truth outside of what we understand? And if, the world says, there is truth outside of what we understand, then we ought not to be a people declaring a truth at all. We ought to recognize that everyone, then, has their own truth and to affirm that truth for them. Since, you know, we're all basically just guessing anyway. 

And we've bought it. We've bought into it, claiming a "Christian" humility in all of it, and told the world, yeah, you're right. We can't make any truth claims because we are a finite people. So...whatever truth the world comes up with is alright with us. 

But there is a difference between not knowing the fullness of the truth of God in our finite understanding and pretending that what we know is a lie is somehow the truth. There is a difference between saying, "I don't understand all of this" and holding to an ethic that makes us claim "I don't know anything at all." We can, and absolutely must, say that there are things about God that we don't understand yet, things we don't know on this side of eternity. But that cannot make us back away from the things that we do know.

Things like...I am the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me.

So when we talk about a "Christian" ethic around truth, the truth is that most of us are living a cultural one. Most of us have accepted the world's notion of truth because it sounds so dangerously close to something that we ought to believe...but it actually falls far short. Yet it is from this very notion that the world has built its foundation for making Christians an "interfaith" people. 

And that was never God's intention. 

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Children of God

This week, we're continuing our conversation around Christian ethics. When we left off on Friday, we were tackling the issue of being an interfaith people in a culture that essentially demands it of us, and as I said when the conversation started...it's complicated. It's complicated because we want to be a people of love, and we want to be good citizens of our culture (both things that God calls us to be), but at the same time, we cannot deny that Christianity asserts an unapologetic truth that Jesus is the only way to God's promise and that God is the only God. 

Now, I said on Friday that this is complicated further by some of the things that we believe theologically and even know to be true. And...it is. In a couple of ways. 

The first is that we have a theology that tells us that every individual human being is created in the image of God and is therefore a sacred being that has something to reveal to us about the nature of our God. And if every human being is sacred as a being created in the image of God, then shouldn't we just celebrate one another? Shouldn't we just love one another? Shouldn't we let others live the way that they want to live and let them teach us what they have to teach us about the nature of God, whether they know that's what they're doing or not? 

Heaven forbid, we think, that we stand in the way of God's revelation through someone else just because we don't like the way (of all things) that they "worship." 

To this, we must all say that we are not the persons that we once were. None of us (I hope) is the same person that we were before we honestly met Jesus, before we allowed Him to really live in our hearts and change our lives. We are all growing and changing and becoming more of the fullness of who God intended us to be. There is not one of us that God looked at, even in His image, and said once upon a time, "No. That's perfect." We are all in a process of becoming perfected. Yes, we were sacred from the moment we were created, but through faith, we are becoming holy. 

It's simply never been a Christian ethic to believe that anyone is perfect just the way they are or that there is anyone on this planet who does not need to grow more into Jesus. Never. Jesus loved everyone, but He never claimed they were fine and didn't need to grow. Not once. So there is no precedent for our pretending-to-be-Christian attitude that just leaves everyone exactly as we found them and celebrates that. 

The second issue at hand here is also a bit tricky, and it's this: we know that the same God that we worship as Christians is the God of the Jews and the Muslims. The Jews, of course, have as their holy text our Old Testament, and Muslims are descended from Abraham's first son, Ishmael. So when we talk about worship and about God and about a God who is worthy of worship, it becomes a little more challenging for us to draw lines between Christianity and Judaism and Islam because, hey, it's the same God. 

Right?

Kind of. It is the same God. It is the same Creator of the Universe, Establisher of All Things, In the Beginning God. But the Jews are living in a revelation not fully developed. That is, they don't have Jesus. They don't have grace. They don't have a new covenant; they are living under the old one. And it's the new covenant that is the atoning sacrifice, that shows us for certain our place in our Father's heart. It is the same God, but in Judaism, this God is no Abba; He is not tender Father in the same way that we, as Christians, know Him through His Son. 

And Islam broke off really early. Really, really early. All the way back before God's first covenant promise to Abraham was fulfilled or even really believed or understood. Islam was broken off as an illegitimate son to the Christian faith before there even was a Christian faith. And we have to understand how being a firstborn son of a slave woman sent off into what amounted as exile when the true son came along has shaped the tensions between Christianity and Islam. This is the foundation of the Islamic faith - son of a slave woman, excommunicated, cut off from the promise given to a righteous man. And Islam has spent its history in pursuit of that promise. As Christians, on the other hand, we are a people living that promise. 

So yes, even though it's technically the same God that we worship, these three faiths have an entirely different perspective on who He is. And it's the kind of thing that we spend so much of our time in the church pushing back against, isn't it? We push back against the notions that God is distant and is not close like a Father, even if the person we are talking with is not a Jew. We push back against the notions of us being slave children, of having a promise that we can't reach, even if the person we are talking with is not a Muslim. 

We cannot, then, turn around and say, well, let them worship the way they want to worship. After all, their God is our God. Because He's not. He's the same being, but He's not the same God. He's not the same presence. He's not the same promise. And if we give up these very essential things that are true about our God, then we're not worshiping any more either. 

(We'll keep this conversation going for a few more days. There is more to say.) 

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Matter of Conscience

If you want to know how thick this "interfaith" idea is in our culture, here's a true story: when I posted yesterday's blog to social media with the title "interfaith" and the short description "standing with our brothers and sisters," Facebook automatically asked me if I would like to create an invitation and invite others to my event. 

There is no event. 

But neither are we finished with this conversation. We started yesterday by talking about how God never tells His people to help facilitate the worship of other nations or to join them at their worship sites or to invite them into the public square for their sacrifices. But if you are Bible-savvy, you might be saying...wait a minute. What about Paul?

Paul talks about living in a pluralistic world. He writes about how we ought to engage those around us who don't believe in our God. There is one specific passage that comes to mind for most when we're talking about an idea like this, and it is that scene where Paul talks about eating food sacrificed to idols when you go to your friend's house. If it doesn't bother your conscience, he says, then go ahead and eat.

Many Christians today have used this as a foundation verse for interfaith engagement. They claim that it is not a problem for their conscience to pray with a Muslim or to meditate with a Buddhist or to do yoga with a Hindu. It doesn't bother them. It doesn't shake their faith in Christ. It doesn't challenge their own firm belief. So...they should do it. It's part of being a good friend (and, as we saw yesterday, a "good citizen" - of this world). 

This is where the line is so delicate, so thin. This is where it's so hard to talk about something like this because we are dancing on such a narrow space and it could almost come off as hypocrisy if we aren't careful about how we articulate ourselves here. 

Paul is right. We should absolutely be friends with persons of other faiths and even persons of no faiths. We should, if our conscience allows us, feel comfortable in their homes, and we should not refuse invitations to fellowship or fraternize with them because they do not worship the same way that we worship. But look at why Paul says this is.

Paul says this is the case because we know how empty their worship is. We can eat food sacrificed to idols by someone else because we know that idols are nothing at all. We know that they are just statues, just superstitions. We know they do not have real power and they are not real gods. This is far different from the kind of "interfaith cooperation" that our culture is trying to press us into and that we are dangerously close to adopting (if we haven't already) as a Christian "virtue" that not only affirms worship of gods other than our God, but even encourages it. 

And look at what Paul doesn't say. Paul doesn't say that we should go to our friends' houses and participate in their rituals. He doesn't say that we should help them offer their sacrifices to their gods. He doesn't say that we should join them in their acts of worship. He doesn't say that we should go to their worship sites and their temples. He doesn't say that we should go out into the market with them and help them promote their meat as sacred because they sacrificed it to their idols. He doesn't say we should acknowledge, let alone affirm, that their meat is somehow special because of what they've done with it. 

This sounds harsh, I know. But God is a jealous God; He has told us that Himself. And His entire testimony is that He doesn't want His people to waste time with false worship, and He doesn't want His people to get trapped in thinking it's just as valid as the worship that they offer Him. 

This is the line we're dancing on, and it's the line we're dancing on all the time - not just in issues of faith. This is "Love the sinner without affirming the sin." This is being a brother to a person in need but not enabling him or her. This is believing in the sacredness of every human being as created in the image of God while recognizing that some of us are further from God right now than others. While realizing that not everyone is on their way back. It's sticky, and it's hard. And it feels mean and anti-Christian and not-loving. 

But what's really not loving...is letting others live outside of the love of Christ and especially if we not only let them believe, but lead them to believe, that it's totally okay to do so. And, as many Christians are right now professing for some strange reason, that God even loves them for doing so. 

It's complicated even further by a couple of other little problems, a couple of other truths that we haven't figured out what to do with yet. More on that Monday. 

(Again, if you're angry right now, hold on. You might be even more angry later. :) )

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Interfaith

As we talk about Christian ethics, life and death are pretty straightforward. But today, we turn our attention to a new conversation in ethics, and this one is...a lot harder. It's going to take more than one day to try to unpack this idea, and I'm going to do my best to make it as untangled as possible, though it is, by nature, just that complicated. I tell you that to tell you this: if today's post upsets you, just hold on for a bit - you may get less (or perhaps, more) angry as we continue deep into this topic. 

The foundational idea is this, and it is one that has been creeping into the church for a couple of decades or so now: today's Christian should be an interfaith Christian. 

We are called, they say, to "stand with" our "brothers and sisters" of other faiths, to pray together with them (each of us in our native prayer language), to fight for their right to worship freely. We are to not only befriend them, but support them and even encourage them to speak in our public squares. We are called to validate the spiritual experience of all who journey, no matter what path they are on, and to celebrate the notion of god wherever we find it in the world. 

This has arisen really out of two directions. First, it has arisen out of a fear that we have in America that one day, our religious freedoms are going to be restricted or even repealed. That one day, our country is going to tell us that we cannot worship freely. We believe that if we do not fight for the right of everyone to worship freely, then it won't be long before our own doors are shuttered by the state. 

Second, it comes from a correction we've tried to make to the criticism that the church is "too exclusive." That we are arrogant in thinking that we are the only ones who have it right. That the world bristles at our message that Jesus is the only way to Heaven. In a world in which truth is relative and pluralistic, in which reality is whatever someone believes it to be, how dare the church claim to hold an exclusive truth! So we have toned it down a bit and said, sure, it's okay to worship some other way. 

We are told that our willingness to be an interfaith people makes us good Christians. Our willingness to stand next to our "brothers and sisters" of other faiths makes us good representatives of our own. We love how cooperative it makes us look, how compassionate, how gracious. We love that we are seen as accepting and affirming. 

The trouble is...it's not what Jesus said. Ever. 

Jesus said, plainly, that He is the way and the truth and the life. Jesus said, clearly, that there is only one way to the Father, and it is through Him. Jesus said there is only one legitimate God, and it is the God who sent Him. 

The Bible is full of stories about pagan worship, about shrines on hills and idols in homes and the sacrifices made to lesser gods - and at every single mention of these, God condemns them. At every single word, God grieves the men and women involved in this stuff. God constantly warns His people of how illegitimate this other worship is and how dangerous it is to the soul not just of persons, but of a people. 

God never once tells His people to go join the Philistines at their worship sites. He doesn't tell Paul that the best way to fit in in Ephesus is to buy some of the statues of the gods that the people invest their lives in creating. God never says that the best mark of His people is that they are affirming of all of the other gods in the world. This is not a Christian virtue.

So how did it come to be one? In a rather roundabout way, actually. We are living in a culture that demands this of us, and so, we have obliged. It makes us a responsible part of the dialogue. It gives us an opportunity to continue to present our own faith as an option in the world. It makes us, we say, good citizens - and God calls us to be good citizens of the land where we live. 

But let us not forget that our highest call is as citizens of Heaven.

(Like I said - if you're angry right now, if you're upset, just hold onto that. This is by no means a complete discussion on this point, but merely an introduction. We'll dive a little deeper tomorrow and talk about Paul - because you know he has something to say here. You might already even be thinking about what that was.) 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

...and Death

This week, we're talking about Christian ethics and how, then, we should live, and we started yesterday by looking at what has been come to be called our "pro-life" stance, which is really nothing more than the Christian position on abortion. You might have been surprised at the direction that post took, not particularly making a case against abortion (or for it, in case you didn't read yesterday's post), but the truth is - Christians already know what God believes about life. We don't need one more post telling us what to believe. What we need is guidance on how to live in the real world. What we need is not to know what is right, but to know how to hold onto love as our core value in the midst of the debate. 

So today, we turn from abortion (life) to something a bit more difficult - death. Specifically, the death penalty. 

Our culture likes to link these two. It likes to put them together and then tauntingly ask Christians how they can claim to be "pro-life" while also supporting something like the death penalty. They claim it to be a point of our hypocrisy, and they use it to show how fickle we really are. 

This one really is more complicated. On one hand, we have a Bible that clearly gives us guidance on who to stone to death and when and for what reasons. We have a law given to us by God that supports the death penalty in certain situations. And yet, we also have a Savior who was Himself crucified. And who, we might add, had ample opportunity to act upon the law allowing for the death penalty and never once took it. 

We usually resolve this tension by waxing theological on the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant and talk about how grace comes in to replace the law in so many situations, but how the law still applies when it is convenient for us or when it's still a really good law. But all of our theological waxing keeps us from the Christian heart of the matter, and it's what makes this issue a lot stickier than it needs to be. 

The original law was intended to help keep the people of Israel, as a community of God, pure. You could not tolerate certain sins within the community because they were a stain on the image of God. That made it difficult for God's people to bear His name in the world. How could you, when you're all running around killing each other and committing adultery? God is a God of life, of faithfulness, and of love - to see His people like this makes it hard to claim He is who He says He is. 

At the same time, our God is a God of persons more than He's ever been the God of peoples. That is, He cares about each individual one of us, and He showed that through the tender care administered through His Son - one on one, touch by touch, encounter by encounter. 

What's happened with the Christian ethic, tragically, is this: we have become a people who are disgusted by persons. We hear the stories of a murderer or a rapist or someone else who we believe deserves to be put to death, and it is because that person has become repulsive to us. We are offended at the crime, sure, but this person is a despicable human being, and we often say things like, "He doesn't deserve to live." He is not capable of rehabilitation. He doesn't deserve a second chance. No one in their right mind would go and touch this person with grace. He disgusts us, even more than his crimes did. 

Do you get that? Our conversations around the death penalty have slowly, but surely, turned around to become discussions about criminals. And all of a sudden, we're in the business not of keeping a people pure, but of deciding who is worthy of grace and who isn't. And our standards are fairly arbitrary. We love to take into account every little detail that we can - well, did he have a rough childhood or is he just a psychopath? Did he enjoy it or does he feel sorry about it? We start judging intentions and motives and stories, and none of these things change the atrocity of the crime that was committed - none of these things make a woman less violated or a person less murdered. Yet we claim that this matters. And so, we have become a people who judge the criminal and not the crime. 

And that has never been God's ethic. Never.

So it cannot be ours. 

If we want to talk about the death penalty - and I believe there is good reason for us to talk about it - then we cannot let the conversation be about persons. We cannot let ourselves derive some perverted joy over being judge, jury, and executioner. We cannot let it satisfy our souls that this person, specifically, "got what was coming to him." We cannot take pleasure in the act of taking a life, no matter how justified we can make it in our hearts. 

Stoning a person to death was a somber occasion. It was a moment at which the people had the righteousness of God on their hearts. No one was cheering as they threw those stones. No one was rejoicing that their brother was dead. So under no circumstances can we now be a people who scream, "Let him fry!" or even utter "Good riddance" under our breath. That's not Christian. It's not the heart of God. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

A Matter of Life...

When we talk about Christian ethics, the first topic that generally comes to mind is abortion. Life. Death. Whether or not a woman should be able to choose whether to carry her own pregnancy to term. 

And this is a complicated issue, as we all know. Does it matter how the pregnancy began? Should we make exceptions for rape or incest? What if the woman's financial or social situation would make not only her life, but the life of the child, more difficult? What if the child isn't medically perfect? Should we consider the quality of life of the child? 

It's gut-wrenching, and heart-wrenching, for most of us to just say...no. None of that matters. A life is a life is a life. It feels less than compassionate. It feels too hard-lined. It certainly goes against the ethic of our culture, an ethic that is not willing to "diminish" the life of a woman just because she "happened" to get pregnant when she didn't want to.  

Part of what this all goes back to is our culture's definition of women. For the longest time, women in our culture were considered "just" mothers. They were homemakers and housewives and their job was to take care of the house and to have and raise the children. As feminism took hold, women began to reject that this was all that they were good for and then, well, their biology began to "betray" them. When a woman becomes pregnant, all of that feminism rears its ugly head and tries to insist to her that she is more than a mother. That hey, she doesn't even have to be a mother at all. She is more than her biology has tried to make her, and if that's not what she wants to be, then, well, she doesn't have to. 

That's where our greatest disconnect is on this issue. For many of us, it's about the life of the child. A child who has its own body over which it should be sovereign. A child who doesn't get a choice in the matter. A child who is miraculous because, as we know, not every woman who has sex gets pregnant and even those who do don't get pregnant every time they have sex. We wonder about this child, who he or she might be, and if it's a female child, why she doesn't have the same right to choose that we claim we're giving to all women. But for culture, the question is not about the child (even if she were to be a female child), but about the woman. "Forcing" a woman to carry a baby pushes feminism back fifty years...or so the argument goes. 

What happens, then, is that when we're discussing this (as so often happens with ethical matters), our less-than-pretty side comes out. When we can't get our argument through any other way, we start making harsh, judgmental statements about the women involved. "Well, she knows how this happens." "Maybe if she didn't want to have kids, she should have kept her legs closed." "They make birth control for a reason." (Although, to be fair, there are some denominations of Christianity that do not support the use of birth control - and for the very reason described above: pregnancy itself is a miraculous event, one that is not controlled by sex itself.) And on and on and on we go because, it seems, if we can't convince her, then perhaps we can shame her. Perhaps we can make her feel so guilty and disgusted by her own choices that led her here that she'll begin to feel a certain responsibility for the child that she's ready to just throw away. And then, maybe, she'll keep it. 

And that's not, my friends, a Christian ethic, no matter how "pro-life" or "anti-abortion" it is. That's not a Christian message. Shame is never a Christian message. Never. And that's why we keep losing this battle. That's why it's so hard for us to gain ground on this.

We could be, and should be, talking about the sanctity of life. We could be, and should be, telling miracle stories. There are thousands of them out there, living among us right now. More, even, than that. We should be talking about the joy that life brings. We should be acknowledging the atrocities of rape and incest, too. We should be talking about life, however broken it is, how beautiful it is, how blessed it is. And there is no room - none - in a pro-life conversation for shame. Not one bit. 

The minute that we give up a single breath of Christian love for Christian "principle," we have lost both. And that's what the culture keeps calling us on. And rightfully so. 

Of course we want every miraculous life to have a chance, but not...not at the expense of the miraculous life already living. A true Christian ethic on abortion must consider - and affirm - both. This is where we are often tragically falling short, and we must do better. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Christian Ethics

We are living in a world that has increasingly moralized every decision that we make. Everything from whether or not it's "right" to eat meat to how you're supposed to know how much the child in Somalia mining the hazardous chemicals for your smartphone goes through to whether or not you should wear a mask. Every piece of information in our world comes with a moral, and we are simply expected to fall into line. (Interestingly, this is more true about some things than others - as with the hazardous chemicals in our smartphones. We could not, of course, be expected to give up such a luxury just because someone else suffers for it. It is too important to us. Other things, it seems, should be less important to us. But who is deciding and what the standard is...who knows?)

But it's not just certain ideas that are bringing this new era of morality with them. Even long-held Christian morals are being called into question - as well as a few morals being passed off as Christian in this age that are really not. 

You've probably heard this one going around - Christians are only pro-life when it comes to the womb. After that, they don't care if you die or how you have to live. Abortion, which is called feticide if someone besides the mother does it, has been a long-held Christian ethic. But in the age of Roe v. Wade, it's been reclassified as pro-life and then Christians have been chastised for not opposing the death penalty strongly enough or not providing enough economic relief to the poor or not working hard enough for abused children or even, sadly, for abusing children themselves. 

Here's one of the new Christian ethics that is getting us in pretty deep - Christians are being called in today's world to be part of an "interfaith" culture. That is, we are expected not only to love everyone around us, but to affirm and even help to facilitate their free worship according to their own beliefs. There are circles today in which being a good Christian entails going to the mosque to pray with Muslim brothers and sisters or being one voice among many at an "interfaith" celebration so that the world can choose its own engagement with the spiritual.

Is that really a Christian ethic, though? That's one of the questions we're going to tackle this week. 

The truth is that ethics, in general, are raising their questions all around us. We've been engaged in the mask and vaccine debates for quite awhile now, and one of the rhetorics that is becoming more and more powerful is the idea that anyone who chooses not to wear a mask or get vaccinated thus forfeits their right to access healthcare when they become sick. If you don't protect yourself and you get Covid, the world is ready to say that you should just die. A horrible, agonizing death. Because that's what you "chose." 

On the other side of the medical ethics discussion, we have hospitals and health organizations that are withholding care from some - even cancer patients and transplant patients who will likely die without care - to make certain that care is available for Covid patients. This is an ethical question, too. Actually, it's the same one: who gets care and who doesn't? Who deserves care and who doesn't?

In the religious realm, we now have questions about religious freedom. The Taliban in Afghanistan has declared that they are reinstating executions and amputations for criminal offenses. That is, if you steal something in Afghanistan, they will cut your hand off. They used to do this all the time, and we called it an atrocity. They have announced they will be doing it again, and we say the same thing. At the same time, though, we have voices calling for us to allow Muslims in America to worship the way that they want to. This law is part of their holy text; it is part of their worship. It is part of the way that they make themselves a people presentable to God. So which is it - do we value their right to worship freely or are we so appalled at the way that they worship that we take away that right? To what extent do we get to impose our ethics on theirs, especially in their own country? 

Ethical questions are all around us right now. Truthfully, they probably always have been. The question we have to ask ourselves, then, is how we should respond to them as Christians. What does God desire from us? What would God have us do with these situations? 

The answer, as we know, is love. But love is messy, and it's not always easy. And it doesn't always look like what the world says it does. 

So this week, we're going to look at Christian ethics - namely, Christian love - and what it looks like in response to some of the questions that our world is asking. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Something Sacred

As always, we now circle back to where we started - to something sacred. We started this week by talking about how the world will use anything it can get its hands on to further its own agenda - marked by the way that the somber and once-sacred anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was twisted to become a commentary (an ill-crafted commentary) on our current response to the pandemic. The world decided it was okay to deepen the wound of this remembrance by diminishing the true nature of the day in order to push another narrative. To the world, this once-sacred day is no longer sacred.

And we saw how, then, the words that we sometimes use are not actually the words that we want to talk about. We don't mean them in the way that we say them, although we imply that we do. Words like "unity," when what we really mean is "uniformity." And we're just hoping the world is emotional enough about everything right now that they don't notice. We hope that everyone is so exhausted from all the fighting that even the hint of something that might pass as unity becomes a breath of fresh air. 

But then, we talked about what it means to have a "new" normal, what it means that things change and how much we are willing to let them change. We know that change is inevitable, but that doesn't mean we should just accept it wherever it tries to squeeze into our experience; there are some things worth fighting for. And just a breath away from that, we saw how this narrative is pushing into the church - into the very heart of who we are as a people of God - and how, all of a sudden, these conversations that seem so small and maybe even inconsequential in the grand scheme of things are actually being used as introductions to things that deeply, deeply matter - and again, the world is hoping that we won't notice the transition. 

When it comes to the church, though, and to who we are as a people of God, we start to understand the importance of the conversation. And we start to see clearly how it is that we have to respond. 

We have to make things sacred again. 

We have to set some things apart in this world and tell our culture that these things are non-negotiable. They're untouchable. There is no circumstance that would convince us to put them back on the table as bargaining chips. We have to carve out little recesses of the sacred life and declare them off-limits to any conversation that culture wants to have. These things have got to be non-starters. 

And yes, we're talking about the things of the church, but we're not just talking about the things of the church. We're not just talking about our Sunday mornings and our meetings together, although these things, too, must be set apart as sacred. We're talking about the fundamental depths of holy human experience - the most holy of all human experiences - even those that aren't directly related to the church. 

We have to create sacred space for humans to be human again. Because, as we've seen, this is where the conversation always seems to start. With a moment we should have set aside for grief, but we don't allow grieving any more. With a space we ought to set aside for love that is now filled with argument and disagreement. With a connection that ought to be made in genuine care but is now questioned because of a difference of opinion. With a unity that comes, as we said a few days ago, with all of us spreading out of one heart in a thousand different directions according to our own gifting and passion and purpose but has somehow devolved into an aggressive uniformity. We have to start by telling the world to lets its beings be human, even if just for a breath, and then to fight for what that means not just for our flesh, but for our souls. 

There are things in this world that are sacred, and the last year and a half have called into question so many of them. The world has shown that it doesn't care any more, that it no longer concerns itself with what ought to be sacred. 

Which is why we, as a people of God, must. 

There are things in this world that are sacred, and it doesn't matter what else is going on - these things are off the table. Period. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A New Church

We're talking about the way that culture drives conversations, touching off of a twisting of the once-sacred narrative of 9/11 to make culture's latest point. And that brings us to this term that we all know and don't particularly love - the "new" normal. 

Of course, we know that things change - and that they're supposed to - but when we talk about what a new normal looks like, we have to consider what kind of sacrifices we are willing to make and what we're going to declare is untouchable. What is essential for us? What are we not willing to give up? 

This question becomes even more important when it comes, as it is already coming, to the church itself. And now, all of a sudden, all of this talk we've done about how we respond to culture's narrative makes sense. It comes down to the very heart of who we are as a people of God. 

We started having this conversation last year at the start of the pandemic, and I wrote about it then and a lot of persons - even a lot of pastors - called me crazy. I was blowing things out of proportion, they said. It was never going to get here. But here we are. 

We are living in a world where one of the first things our culture called into question was the church. They told us we didn't really have to meet in person. They threw our own theology against us - can't you be the church anywhere? You don't really need a building. 

So we said, sure, we can be the church without a building. We can be the church without actually meeting together in person. And now, here we are more than a year later. Many of our members have not come back. Most of our churches continue to stream services online. Those that have gone back to meeting in person have sometimes adjourned again over new outbreaks or new concerns. They are requiring masks. Or vaccines. They have moved their seats so far apart that you still aren't attending church together; you are just a bit closer to being in the same space. They have removed their fellowship times and non-Sunday morning activities. All in the name of "safety." 

Welcome to the "new" normal. 

The church has simply agreed to become this, without considering what it means for us to be a people who meet together. And the truth is, our culture has been pushing this for awhile. A not-insignificant number of Christians have left the church because they "still love God but not so much His people." This is how we got our "spiritual, but not religious" nonsense. This thing where a bunch of Christians proclaim they don't have to be part of a church to be a Christian, despite what God has to say about us being part of a body of believers and not neglecting meeting together. 

This conversation around "new" normal, then, has major implications for the church. Who are we? Who are we willing to be? What are we willing to sacrifice, and what do we demand to hold onto? These are the questions we will have to answer moving forward. These are the questions we have to answer now. These are the questions we should have been considering from the very start of this whole thing, eighteen months ago. 

Because here's what happens - the world tells us that we don't need to meet together, so we stop meeting together. We have attempted to build a church without meaningful physical connection for more than a year, but the truth is that under this model, the church is becoming a service. We are becoming a group that meets the needs of those affiliated with it, that reaches out when we become aware of something. We aren't familiar to one another any more; we are names on a prayer request or blurbs in an email. We have become projects to one another. We have become needs that others can step up to fill. 

And when the church becomes a service, then its people partake of it only when they need it. Need a bill paid?  Call the church. Need a ride somewhere? Call the church. Need a funeral performed? Call the church. Looking for a wedding officiant? Call the church. We are becoming a 'call the church' people in a culture in which it's harder and harder to call us the church...because we aren't connected any more. We aren't a people; we are persons. 

Soon, we reach the point where a person goes to the church for a wedding the same way one goes to the library for a book or goes to the DMV to renew a driver's license. Nothing more than a place of service. Nothing more than somewhere to get a need filled. Even many of our members have not returned. And as the era of livestreams has waned, so has our viewership. Fewer of our former members are tuning into our live online services. Fewer are sitting in our pews. Just as many as ever are asking for our help. 

There is a disconnect building in our churches, and we have to talk about this. We have to figure out if this is a "new" normal that we're willing to accept or if we're going to demand more from ourselves. If we're going to demand more for the glory of God. 

Listen, I get it. It's complicated. We cannot be attached to a physical building, but we cannot be so separated from a meaningful, life-giving community. We cannot pretend there is anything special about what happens on Sunday mornings, but we cannot deny that something powerful is happening there. We cannot think for a second that what God wants from us is for us to be in a pew, listening to a sermon, clapping along with the worship but we cannot forget or neglect how often God calls us to "one another." One anothering is the main function of the church, and we do not do that in fundamentally the same way in what our culture is already willing to call our "new" normal. We have to do better. We have to fight for more. We have to put our foot down and declare what the church is, what it will always be, and what we aren't willing to let go of, not even for something the world is trying to sell us as "life." 

We know better.