Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Good Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Enter, then, the Cross.)

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

Are we so special? I think not. 

Rather, I believe we are so loved. 

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

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Grace of a Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 29, 2021

A Man Disgraced

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

Who among us hasn't done that?

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

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

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

Why do we do this? Why do we think that the way out of a hole is to dig it bigger? Why do we think, at a moment when we start to question ourselves, that the answer is to become the person we're afraid that we might be? Why do we think that the best way to handle our own insecurity is to make our world truly unstable around us? we keep trying to justify ourselves, when things could be so different if we would just humble ourselves instead?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Men Disgraced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 26, 2021

Words of Faith and Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The hope that we know."

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

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

Most of us have forgotten that. 

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

An Unexpected Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the Lord Himself. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Battle Buddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 22, 2021

Fight Like a Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that, tomorrow. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Goliath's Little Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don't you get it, boy?

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

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

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

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Canceling Cancel Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let's stop pretending that it is. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Leaving the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

...and the church weeps. 

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

To be continued, tomorrow. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Losing a Member

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that's who we are.

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

That's why these kinds of questions matter. 

Grace is Free

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

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

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

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

The primary business of the church is discipleship. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Making a Member

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a discussion about the nature of the church body. Specifically, the question was raised about whether or not churches "should" (in other words, is it Christlike?) charge its members for things like weddings and funerals and perhaps other various uses of the church building and resources. 

On the surface, it seems like an almost silly question, but it draws us into something much deeper that we certainly do need to think seriously, and prayerfully, about. And that deeper question is this: 

What makes a person a 'member' of a church?

Now, really, we get here because we have to acknowledge that once we start making the 'services' of the church free for 'members,' we're going to have a line of persons standing outside of our doors ready to take advantage of that. We're going to have young engaged couples asking how many Sunday services they have to attend to have a free wedding. We're going to have grieving families ask how many tithes they have to make to have a free funeral. We're going to have persons in the world who see an opportunity to get 'something' for 'nothing' and who can 'force themselves' to sit through a handful of sermons if it means saving thousands of dollars. 

So we have to think about how we define membership in a church. 

The question is more complicated than it seems. At first glance, it's tempting to want to say, well, that depends on what we're defining by membership. There's a big difference between asking at what point we put someone on the prayer list and at what point we offer them a free wedding. Or between when we're willing to offer them financial assistance for a need and when we're willing to comp an entire funeral. Or between when we know them by name and when we make them our official door greeter as part of the ambassador ministry. 

All of a sudden, the first thing we seem to do when we ask what a 'member' is is to create levels of membership, essentially by asking, "That depends - what do they want from us?"

This is, of course, extremely unhealthy and nowhere near Christlike. 

And, if we're being honest, it doesn't really make the question any easier. We're still left wrestling with what our threshold is for fellowship in our community. 

Is it regular attendance at a set number of Sunday services over a defined period of time? Okay, then what period of time? A year? Two years? Three months? What is magical about the number that we choose here? How warm does a pew have to be for you to 'belong' in it? 

Is it attendance at Sunday services PLUS participation in a Bible class? What kind of Bible class?

Is it baptism? That's easy enough. There are a lot of persons in this world willing to get a little wet to save a few thousand dollars. Do we then have to decide which baptisms are 'legitimate' acts of the heart, or is the physical action enough for us? 

Is it regular tithing? When I had this discussion with a group of friends, someone raised the idea that tithing 'must' be part of membership. So now, we're awarding membership based on giving? That seems like a slippery slope. 

Maybe it's service. Are you a member if you give of your time in service to the church in some way, if you're serving on some kind of ministry team? That's gonna be tough in some smaller churches that don't have a lot of established programs. Do you qualify, then, for a free wedding if you come in and dust the pews that haven't been used in a while? Are we now exchanging grace for works? 

You see what I'm getting at - what seems like an almost silly question becomes a deeply fundamental one. It demands for us to define our terms, to set our parameters, to talk about who we are and what it means to be part of our community. What it means to be part of our fellowship. 

What is a 'member' of the church anyway? 

Let's talk about this some more this week. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Dividing Lines

That sound you hear is my heart breaking. 

Yesterday, I awoke to several proud announcements on my Twitter feed from faculty and friends at a leading 'evangelical' institution/seminary who were excited to announce that they have now formed a denomination-specific cohort. "So if you're a member of X denomination looking to continue your theological education, you can now do it with a group of your own peers! Sign up today!"

And this...this is so much the greatest problem that we have in the church.

We have drawn so many dividing lines between ourselves. We have put ourselves into little boxes and formed little groups, and this isn't getting better - it's getting worse. We tell ourselves that it's all about 'preserving' important things like 'right doctrine' or whatever, but we simply can't let the church be defined by such squabbles as who's got it right and who's got it wrong. 

God called us to unity. He called us to live together as brothers and sisters, to learn from each other, to challenge each other, to work together to discern more of His will and His love and His heart than we could on our own. He didn't call us to live in our own little worlds, but to live in His great big one.

Yet, here we are, claiming that we alone have the authority over His world and that all the good things of God fit in our own beloved tiny little box. 

And for a center of theological education to declare - and not even just to declare, but to proudly declare - that it has now made a way for you to stay in your little God-box and feel good about it,'s just heartbreaking. 

See, what I envision is that a person who wants to pursue a theological education would be someone who wants to open his or her mind to new ideas about God, who wants to see something more of God than he or she has ever seen before. If that's true, then you have to have a set of eyes that is different than your own. You have to be open to hear from those who see differently than you do. 

The best theological education would take these persons and put them in cohorts with others from other denominations. It would present to all of them, to every student, perspectives from the angles of all of their fellow students, and more. Why can a Lutheran not learn from Presbyterian doctrine? Why can an Anglican glean nothing from a non-denominational history? Why must we pretend that in order for theology to be valid, it must fit into what we already know about it?

Is it possible that good theology must fit only into what we know for certain about God Himself? 

Is it possible that every single one of us, at every point in our journey, needs our theology challenged so that we can come to have a greater theology? 

One of the questions that the world has about the church is why there are so many churches on so many corners with so many names and why Christians can't seem to agree on even the most basic ideas about God, and what this 'educational' institution is doing is exactly why the world has these questions. We're perpetuating it ourselves. We're making it not only easy, but somehow even proclaiming it as 'good,' to let Christians be comfortable in our divisions. Heaven forbid someone have to wrestle with something. Heaven forbid someone have to listen to a voice they don't immediately agree with. Heaven forbid we have a fellowship, let alone a learning fellowship, that includes Catholics and Protestants, charismatics and legalists, saints and sinners. 

So that noise you hear is my heart breaking for God's church as yet one more voice steps forward to say how good it is to be only with those who share your specific perspective when God, God Himself, called us to so much more. 

A Late Righteousness

We've been talking this week about the righteousness of Israel in the shadow of Jericho, completely disabling their army within striking distance of the enemy because God called them to circumcise themselves. And as we talk about righteousness, one of the questions that usually comes up is: isn't it too late for that?

Shouldn't Israel have chosen righteousness on the safe side of the Jordan? Shouldn't we have chosen righteousness earlier?

It's easy for most of us to look at our lives, to look at the errors that we've made and the moments that we wish we could have back and all the broken things that leave a trail through our past and to think that it's too late for us, that we couldn't possibly choose righteousness now. That it wouldn't matter much. That it wouldn't make any difference, in our lives or in the lives of others. 

Isn't righteousness something that has to be chosen early?

Of course, it's better to choose righteousness early. The more righteous days you choose to live, the better - for everyone. That's not in question. But just because your life hasn't been what you want it to be or what you now realize it can be doesn't mean that it never can be. You can choose righteousness any time. 

Perhaps you have heard these words from the Scriptures, these famous words: Choose for yourself this day who you will serve.... But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

These are the words spoken by Joshua as Israel settled into the Promised Land and as God revealed to him that Israel would very quickly turn from their righteousness and choose something less. Now, we know Joshua as a good and faithful leader, a righteous man, a man upright before the Lord. He led Israel well through all of these battles. And you'd think that this would be the starting point of Joshua's ministry, his rallying cry to a lost and wandering Israel. 

But it's not. 

Joshua spoke these particular words as he was preparing to die. 

That's right. These most famous words of a righteous man came not at the beginning of his righteousness, but at the end of it. And if a man like Joshua feels the need to choose righteousness for himself all over again at the end of what we could say, from the outside looking in, was a righteous life to begin with, how much more do the rest of us need to choose the same thing for our own lives - over and over and over again, whether we're at the beginning of them or the end? 

What an encouragement it is that Joshua lived the kind of life that we could all almost envy, and yet, when it comes right down to it, even he has to choose righteousness right up to the end of it. Right up to the end. On his deathbed, Joshua chooses righteousness all over again. 

It's never too late. Choose for yourselves this day - whatever this day is - righteousness. And tomorrow? Choose again.  

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Watching for God

It's amazing that as Israel circumcised themselves in the shadow of Jericho, the men of Jericho didn't seem to think of this as an opportunity to rush out and overpower their enemies in a weakened state. Rather, they stayed in their walled city, eyes open from their watchtowers, and waited to see what would happen next in Israel's camp. 

Now, it's possible that the men of Jericho thought it might be a trap, that Israel might be somehow faking their own incapacitation in order to lure the men of Jericho away from their fortifications and level the playing field a bit. But you'd think by day five or six, it would become apparent that this was no mere performance. The men of Israel were really hurting. They were really laid up. They weren't even doing work around camp. On the edge of battle, they were letting their women tend to them. Certainly, Jericho had to know this was no farce. 

Why, then, wait? Why not come out and take advantage of the situation? Why not strike while the opportunity is there? These men are waiting in their walled city for their destruction to come. Isn't it at least worth the chance to die fighting, especially when the odds seem ever in your favor? 

The answer is simple: the men of Jericho weren't watching the men of Israel. 

They were watching the God of Israel. 

It was the God of Israel that they had heard stories about. It was the God of Israel that they knew had promised their land to His people. It was the God of Israel who was terrifying. These men of Israel, particularly as they laid in open fields bleeding from their wounds, were not intimidating. But their God....

Their God was the One whose reputation preceded them. Their God was the one who had Jericho trembling in fear. Their God was the One who had the hearts of these men defeated before a single sword was ever raised. The question was not, Who could ever fight against these men of Israel? but rather, Who stands a chance against the Lord God? 

So when the men of Israel stopped in the shadow of Jericho, the men of the city watched and waited to see what their God was up to. When the men incapacitated themselves on the exposed side of the Jordan, the men of Jericho were waiting to see what would happen next. Not what the men would do, but what their God would do. 

This is why our righteousness (or at least, our pursuit of it to the best of our ability) never leaves us as vulnerable as we think that it does. Because when we have declared the goodness of our God with our lives and commit to following Him, our enemies aren't watching us. They aren't watching to see what we're doing. They aren't looking for chinks in our armor. They aren't waiting to see what our next move is. 

They're waiting to see what His next move is.

When we dedicate our lives to pursuing His life for us, the people hear rumors from their walled cities, and the rumors they hear are not about us; they're about Him. The whispers in the corners are about the coming God, not the coming men. The eyes in the watchtowers are not on the men crossing through the Jordan; they're on the waters of the Jordan piled up so high that nothing is left but dry ground. 

The world is watching us, hoping to get a glimpse of God. Waiting to see what He's doing next. Longing to comprehend what He's doing now. 

That's why we circumcise ourselves on this side of the Jordan. So that the watching world can get a good look - not at our vulnerability, but at the goodness, and glory, of our God.  

Monday, March 8, 2021

Apparent Weakness

As Israel camped in the shadow of Jericho, on the foreign side of the Jordan River, and circumcised themselves in obedience to the Lord's commands, we'd be foolish to think that the men of Jericho weren't watching. We'd be foolish to think they didn't notice that this army that they were so afraid of had crossed over the river...and stopped. Just...set up camp on the shores of a river in flood stage. 

We don't know how much the men of Jericho were able to see or hear of the Israelite camp. We don't know if they heard the shouts of pain and the groaning as the men submitted themselves to the Lord's command. We don't know if they saw the men lying around in pain, doing very little at all. We don't know what they saw or what they thought about what they saw. 

But we know that the one thing they were certain they didn't see...was weakness. 

At the point at which Israel was her most vulnerable, her enemies did not seem to notice her weakness at all. 

We know that because the men of Jericho didn't take the initiative. They didn't come out against Israel. There were no shouts or cries of Israel being disabled, no notions that this was their chance to strike first. The men of Jericho, terrified of the Israelite army, watched as they crossed the Jordan and then moved no further, and there was no talk at all about how to take advantage of the situation. None. Not one man seemed to get a wild hair and think this was their moment. 

Rather, all they could do was watch...and wait...and know that whatever was happening over there in that camp, the Lord was among them. 

It's remarkable. It's not often that we comment on something that didn't happen, but this is truly remarkable. 

And what a tremendous encouragement it is to those of us who are tempted to think that our righteousness is a vulnerability. 

It can be tempting for us to think that when we make the decision to do what God desires of us, when we choose the faithful road instead of the obvious one, when we put ourselves in what seem like vulnerable situations, that our enemies are just sitting there, waiting to pounce on us. That the world can't wait to take advantage of a moment like this. Most of us would have crossed the Jordan, heard that God wanted us to circumcise ourselves, and then crossed right back over to the safe side to follow His commands. There's just something in us that wants shelter, not exposure. Something in us that wants certainty of safety. Something in us that doesn't want to have to be looking over our shoulder, knowing that the men of Jericho are watching us...and knowing that if we were them, this would be our moment. 

That's the difference, I guess, between the men of Jericho and the men of Israel. Even in their weakened state, the men of Israel knew this was their moment. They knew, even while incapacitated, that their victory was certain. They weren't watching Jericho with nearly as much intensity as Jericho was watching them and yet, they feared nothing. Their eyes were on God, and when they looked at God, they saw something that we, staring at Jericho, too often fail to see: 

That God's eyes were on them, too. 

How can you be afraid in a moment like that?  

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Disabling the Army

Let me ask you a question: let's say that you've spent forty years building an army, talking about the conquests you're going to have, painting for them a picture of the victories to come. The first group you tried to put together fizzled out, but now, you've got a winning team. Everyone's excited. They're ready to go. They're armed for battle and confident in victory, and they can almost taste the milk and honey on the other side. 

The question now is, at what point is it best to completely disable your army?


You read that right. At what point is it best to completely disable your army?

We're of course talking about Israel. And we're talking about the Promised Land. 

Remember how the first time Israel came to the Promised Land, they chickened out? Moses sent spies into the land, and they came back and told everyone what a great land it was and how beautiful and lush and fertile and fruitful. But they also told the people about the strength of the peoples who already lived there, how they were certain to be crushed if they even tried to take the land, how it was best if they all just turned around right now and went back to Egypt. 

So Israel spends 40 years wandering in the wilderness until they can amass a new army out of the next generation, an army that doesn't remember what Egypt was like but instead, tastes the victory of the Lord already on their tongues. An army that's ready to march across the Jordan and take what's promised to them. An army that believes that God is on their side and that the battle is theirs for the taking. 

A generation passes, and Israel's got her army. She's got her young men who are ready to do this thing. So her priests and Levites step into the Jordan River, the water parts, and Israel marches across, into the shadow of Jericho's walls. 

Jericho knows they're coming. They know the new set of spies has already been there, and they've had their eyes on Israel for awhile. The whole city, Rahab tells them, is in fear of them. The men of Jericho are sleeping with one hand on their swords. The lookouts in their watchtowers give hourly reports about what's happening in the camp of the Lord just across the Jordan. So you can bet that it causes a stir, that tensions are boiling, that something's about to give when Jericho sees Israel - finally - coming. 

And then, as the Levites come up out of the water and the Jordan washes back down over its banks, God says...wait. 

In the shadow of Jericho...wait. 

While your enemies watch you, swords in hand...wait. 

While the people you're about to defeat plot your demise...wait. 

Because none of the Israelite army had been circumcised in that wilderness. None of them had been set apart for the Lord. And, well, now's as good a time as any, isn't it? So the Lord commands Israel to camp on the enemy's side of the Jordan, in full sight of Jericho, and circumcise themselves. And then wait until they recover before they move on. 

Maybe it's just me, but this seems like something better suited for the safe side of the Jordan, don't you think? 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Language of God

This notion that God speaks in human language really bothers some persons, even some Christians. It's hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that the Old Testament is just written in regular Hebrew; it's not some kind of special holy God-language that's a new thing. It's just the language the people used. The same with the New Testament - it's hard for us to fathom that it's just 'regular' Greek. 

And here's why: we want to believe that we can know something about God. You can learn a lot about someone by the way he or she talks. We know that. And we think that if we can uncover God's language, then we're going to learn something about the essence of Him that will change the way that we love Him. 

And, I think, we really just want Him to be bigger than us. We want His language to be bigger than our language because if it is, then we'll know that He really is God. We'll know that He really is who He says He is. We won't have to worry so much about whether or not we're making God in our image if our starting point is not that He looks so much like us. 

But what if...what if He doesn't look like us so much as we look like Him? 

And what if...what if what we learn about God from His language is the deep love that He has for us, a love so deep that He's always been a God who has spoken in our language?

That is, honestly, one of the things that I love about God. I love that He has always come to us in our own language, that we don't have to learn something totally new to understand Him or to get to know Him or to communicate with Him. He's not couched in some secret set of syllables that we have to spend our lives deciphering or figuring out. 

Rather, He speaks to us in words that we already know and then - and then - He calls on our hearts to learn them in a new way. He calls on our hearts, not our tongues, to change in response to Him. He takes these words that are just words, just regular ol' words that we use, and He changes them into a holy language in our vernacular, by His heart. And then, these so-called common words become the something more that we've been looking for from the very beginning. 

In other words, He doesn't wait until we understand Him to love us. He loves us first. And by that love, we come to understand Him. 

Put another way, God comes to us on our own terms and then teaches us His. 

That's why it doesn't bother me at all to start with the Hebrew not as the language of God, but as the language of God's people. As a human tongue that takes on a holy flair. As a common language that becomes anything but when it gets into our hearts and calls us into something holy. That's the beauty of God. That's the goodness of Him. That's His grace. 

Which is why, to wrap things up relatively neatly, we have to be so careful about what we let others tell us about the 'Word' of God, what we're supposed to believe and not believe and how we can understand it and how we can't and how this word doesn't mean what we think it means but that one can't mean anything different and so on and so forth, as though this is some kind of cryptic language of a God we cannot possibly understand without translation. Because that's not our God. That's not how He's ever worked, not once. 

Our God speaks to us in our language. He always has. And that means that every one of us, every single one of us, is able to understand what He's saying. And we cannot let anyone take that away from us. 

Whether He has literal hands or not. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Original Hebrew

One of the challenges of biblical translation is that it's easy to fall into the trap of wanting to preserve the original language as much as possible (the Hebrew or the Greek). We have come to associate these words with God's words, marking them as some kind of holy language. But what we often forget is that these were not particularly holy languages. 

That is, these were not the languages of God; these were the languages of His people. 

The Old Testament is written in Hebrew not because that was the language God used to speak to His people, but because that was the language that God's people spoke. The same is true with the Greek. The New Testament is written in Greek because that was the language that God's people spoke. 

Which means that in the very same breath that we find ourselves wanting to preserve the word of God, we must also remember that His Word is our word. It's in our language. He came to speak so that we could understand Him. And that means, to some degree, that even the original text is already a translation.

Even the original text is formed in such a way that the people would understand it. Even the original text has already undergone a rigorous study so as to come up with the kind of language that made sense to the very first peoples who ever read it. 

So when the scholars are upset that a reading 'doesn't seem to be original,' we have to remind ourselves that...maybe it was. Maybe the broken word was the first word that anyone ever saw, not because God gave them a broken word but because they were already busy putting it into terms that they could understand. Maybe the Word is written that way not because that's how God speaks, but because that's how His people speak. 

If that's the case, then all this worrying that we do about 'the original language' may not be as important as we think that it is. 

Now, this is tricky. We can't pretend that it's not. On the one hand, we have a Word that is given in the language of humans, by necessity. It has to be given to us in a way that we can understand it. On the other hand, we know that this is the inspired Word of God, that God is the one who gave it to us in the first place. So we have this fine line to dance in terms of how we determine what is essential and what is cultural to this Word of God that we know and love. 

For example, one of the popular images in the Old Testament is the flaring of God's nostrils to indicate His anger. That's how the language is actually used. Now, does God want us to have an image of His flaring nostrils - is that what is essential about the language? Or are flaring nostrils simply the Hebrew understanding of anger, and what is most important here is what God is feeling in response to His people/His heartbreak? Some translators will try to preserve the image of the flaring nostrils because it is 'original,' but is it original because it's God's at the origin, or is it original because that's the way the Hebrews spoke? 

See? It's tricky. 

We don't want to lose any of the essence of the Word as God has given it to us, but at the same time, we cannot bind ourselves to the language of a culture we do not live in simply because we somehow think the words themselves are holy. The words themselves are a translation already. 

And so, we go back to the question we were looking at yesterday: does the 'harder' reading have to be the 'original' one? If one scrap of text says 'the Lord' but another scrap says 'the Lord your God,' is that really an indication that one text is more original than the other? Perhaps it's just a scribe who is, as all scribes have done, putting it in the language of his people and in that case, the difference is null. It doesn't matter. If we know that from its very beginning, the text was being translated into its most meaningful for the people to whom it was given, these stylistic choices of the scribes have very little bearing on the way we understand it. Or the way we should understand it. 

Yet, here we are, two thousand years later, trying to figure out which reading is the 'error.' What if neither reading is the error? Honestly. What if? What if both readings are equally valid in God's eyes because it's not His language; it's ours? And it always has been. 

One more post on this, tomorrow, and then we'll move on to something different. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A Difficult Reading

Biblical translators love to tell you the boundaries of where you can and can't understand the Word, the leaps in understanding that you are allowed to make and those that you aren't. They tell you that it's okay to understand this passage in this way, but don't you dare think you can understand that passage in that way. That's what we've been talking about for a few days now. 

What biblical translators don't love to tell you is that they struggle with some of the words, too. In fact, there are places in the translation that I am reading this year where the translators have made clear that they don't understand this or that, that it's not a common form of something, or that it's 'hard to say' or perhaps even 'impossible to say' what a passage really means, what a Hebrew or Greek word is referring to. 

(And we know this is true, by the way, by the number of transliterations that we still use in church lingo. For example, the word 'deacon' is just the English version of a Greek word that we still haven't figured out what it means. We call it a 'deacon' because that's what the Greeks called it, but we have never put it into our language. Likewise, when the Old Testament refers to 'the Millo,' footnotes in almost every version of the Bible indicate that we have no earthly idea what this refers to.)

When I was studying Hebrew and Greek in seminary, and even to this day, one of the things that I've wrestled with is the lexicons, which is basically a fancy word for 'dictionaries.' Scholars have worked for generations to come up with listings of words that appear in the original texts of the Scriptures and to create a list of definitions for each of those words. These lexicons usually include cross-references, so that you can see quickly what other verses this particular Hebrew or Greek word appears in and how it is used there.

Now, this sounds really handy - and it is - but it can also be really confusing at times. Why? Because often (and I mean, often), you'll come across an entry for a word that has four or five related definitions, all listed out by the verses in which they appear, and then one completely different, seemingly-random, off-the-wall definition for one specific, particular verse. The definition given for this one use of the word in this one place and context is so dramatically different from its use in the other fifty-seven verses in which it appears that you can't help but stop and say...wait a second. 

And what you come to find out is that the known definition was too difficult for the scholars to reconcile, so they made a one-time-only exception to the rule and gave the word an entirely different meaning in this one context only, despite the fact that it is not attested to anywhere else in the use of the word, because it 'must' mean this in order to make any sense.

Remember - these are the same scholars that keep trying to tell you that you can't just make sense of the Scriptures, that they have to be taken in their own context and adhered to strictly. And here they are, confessing that they don't know, either, and then trying to tell you that what they came up with is best anyway. 

I ran into this in the book of Malachi during my exegetical work (translation from the original text). Most English translations say that the priests 'despised' the altar of the Lord, but that's not what the Hebrew word means everywhere else. Everywhere else, it means that someone 'took something too lightly.' In other words, didn't give it the respect it deserved. It's one of those cases where only in this verse, the word is supposed to mean 'despised,' but why does it have to? I find no trouble with the reading of the word in its known meaning - the priests took the altar of the Lord too lightly. Not seriously enough. They didn't give it the respect it deserves. There's no need to say, or even to imply, that they hated it. That's something totally different. 

This is why (one reason, anyway) we have to be so careful with the authority that we're willing to give to our translators. Because there are places that they know, and they must confess, and we must hold them to confession, that they don't know, either. That it's tough to figure out what the Word is and what it means. 

There's a good reason for that, by the way. And we'll look at that tomorrow. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

A Double Standard in Biblical Translation

If you read all of the footnotes in a Bible like the one that I am reading this year, you'll start to notice something about all of this translation work that is going on: the very same people who tell you that you can't understand the most basic English words correctly, requiring them to substitute them with other words you're less likely to take wrong, will also tell you that when they come up against discrepancies in the Hebrew or Greek text, they understand that the 'more difficult' reading is probably the correct one. 

In other words, the harder it is to understand the Bible, the more likely it is that you're reading the right one. 

Think about that for a minute. The very same persons who want to tell you that the Bible is too hard for you to read also spend their time making sure that you understand that the Bible is supposed to be too hard to read. And then, in the same breath they tell you that you can't make it too simple or you'll get the wrong idea (believing, for example, that God might actually have literal hands), they also tell you how important it is for them to make the Bible simpler for you. 

Not only that, but they'll add that if you come across a phrase in the Hebrew or the Greek that seems to be too common a phrase, that is the way that a series of words 'often appears,' then it is likely that it is not the original text, but that some scribe somewhere has changed it to match the things that you expect to see in a place like that. For example, if a passage says 'the Lord your God,' it may be that it actually only said 'the Lord' but someone once upon a history took it upon himself to add 'your God' because the whole phrase - 'the Lord your God' - was what you would customarily expect to see in a place like that, so he was just making it easier for you and smoothing out the reading. 

These translators, who call themselves scholars, will then add back in what they think must have been the original words, tell you that they're doing so, imply that it's important that you understand that some ridiculous scribe somewhere thought it was necessary to smooth out the reading for you instead of giving you the actual text...and then three verses later, these translators will confess to doing the very same thing - we smoothed out the reading for you so that it would make more sense. 

For another example of this, they'll tell you, perhaps, that they've changed the word 'book' to 'scroll' because they don't want you to think of an object of pages bound together with a spine, since such a thing would not have existed in ancient Hebrew. 

But, of course, it's disastrous if you think for a second that the Old Testament really said 'the Lord your God' when the original word written was only 'the Lord.'

Are you starting to see the problem? This is exactly the sort of thing that I was talking about yesterday. We get all of these scholars that want you to believe that the Bible is too difficult for you to understand. They come in as aids, claiming that they are going to help you, but they also condemn the very practices they preach - if they aren't the ones who have done it. 

You cannot interpret the Bible for yourself; you're likely to get it wrong. Rather, you must depend upon them to tell you how to interpret the Bible. And at every turn, they're making a show of it. This is very difficult, which means it must be accurate. I will dumb it down for you. But you cannot dumb it down for yourself, lest you go astray. 

It's modern-day Pharisaism. That's what it is. It's gnosticism - the Scriptures are some divine secret that you cannot understand without proper interpretation. It's meant not to put the Bible into your hands, like it claims that it is, but to flaunt the educated nature of the translators themselves. You can tell because they tell you what's hard, and then they tell you why it's too hard for you, and then they rattle on about all the things that they believe. And then, at the very moment you start to understand, they tell you why you're wrong, and you have to start all over again. 

This is not to say that we don't need Bible translators. Of course, we do. Not all of us are able to read and understand the original Hebrew and Greek texts, nor do we have such access to them. We do need our translators. But we have to hold them accountable for the work that they are doing and for the double standards they want to try to establish in gatekeeping their own work. 

We'll keep talking about this tomorrow. That's enough for today.