Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Humble Perspective

As we talk about what it means to be the kind of persons who pray one another home, who actively seek God's best for those who come unclean into our sacred spaces, I can't help but recognize part of the journey that God has had me on for awhile. It's the journey of humility. 

It will surprise almost no one to learn that I have been called arrogant in my life. More often than I want to. I have been told, at times, that I am a person of limited perspective, usually in the moments when I'm pretty sure that I have the most insight into what is actually going on around me (or in me or through me or whatever). I am passionate about certain things, and sometimes, that passion crosses the line into over-confidence. 

Like most humans (all? humans), it's easy for me to believe that when I think I understand something, that is the universal answer for everyone. And it's easy for me to want others to reap the benefits of my learning and understanding. 

In other words, it's easy for me to think that if everyone else just knew what I knew, their lives would be better off. 

I don't believe I am alone in this. 

But in small, yet un-ignorable, ways, God keeps revealing to me that maybe that's not the case. That there's more to the world than what I know of it, even in those moments when I think I understand something outside of my own box. We could take just a couple of recent examples to illustrate this. So let's do it. 

Recently, there was a high-profile murder trial, portions of which were aired over the television and much of the rest of it, available online. I tuned into some of this, not out of particular interest in the case but rather, out of knowing that the verdict - whatever it would be - would have far-reaching implications for our society and culture as a whole, and it's important for us as persons of faith to be engaged in these sorts of things for that very reason: they shape our world. And if we are called to be world-shapers ourselves, we have to know how these forces work and what others are paying attention to. 

After watching for awhile, it became rather clear to me that there were some things there that needed to be considered, that would have to be thought about carefully. I knew that even one out of twelve jurors could put a hold on the entire process, even leading to a hung jury. They had to be absolutely unanimous in their understanding of the facts to convict. And listening to the arguments and the experts from both sides, I thought it was impossible. (Truly, I wonder how it's possible to get twelve persons to agree wholly on anything, but maybe that's part of my own bias.) And then, just hours into it, they came back with a conviction. 

At first, I was upset, then confused. Twelve persons, and not one of them had any doubt at all? It seemed fishy to me. There was something in me - something haughty - that wanted to go off the rails about it. But then, I thought about it some more. Twelve persons had not an inkling of doubt at all in a place where I thought doubt was reasonable. What did I miss? What do these twelve persons know - about the case, about the world, about our culture - that I'm missing? And I started to think that maybe I don't know everything. (I don't.) 

A second example comes out of that Bible I've been reading, the one I've been writing about on and off this year. It frustrates me; it really does. Recently, the 'expert commentator' has taken to writing out every single rhetorical question in the Hebrew Scripture and instead, replacing it with an affirmative statement. Instead of saying, "Are you not God in Heaven?" the translator has opted for, "Surely, you are God in Heaven." 

As someone who believes in questions, who values asking the hard things, and who appreciates language and its usage, this drives me batty. I think there is tremendous value in rhetorical questions. They invite us to ask ourselves before considering the answer. They tap into a deep place in our heart. I was downright angry that someone would take it upon themselves to edit out the questions of the Bible, particularly for a people who I believe need permission to ask the questions. (I've written about this before. We are a people too hesitant to ask God what we really want to know, as if questions somehow betray faith.) I think the rhetorical questions are valuable, and I don't know why we choose to say "Surely, you are..." when what the author really said, when what the fragile human heart really cried out, is, "Are you not....?" 

But then, I don't know. Something about weariness took over in my soul. Something about understanding what it's like to live in a place where you can't have one more question or it's going to break you, where you don't have time to be rhetorical about it - you need confident assurance now. Something about someone who was reading this passage and didn't need to wade through the rhetorical negative, didn't need to have to diagram a sentence to figure out what was being asked. Didn't need to have a question with no answer because that implied answer? It might be different altogether in a weary and world-worn heart. I realized there are persons who need that affirmative, just as my as my heart holds onto the rhetorical. 

And in that moment, I realized that if what I want, what I need, what I think is valuable, what I want to project onto everyone else, keeps one person from having that thread of hope that they need in a desperate moment, then I haven't made their life better. They haven't benefitted from my expert opinion. I may not have time, or opportunity, to convince them that the question is better. I may, in that moment of my insistence, lose their soul forever. And that's just not a price I'm willing to pay. 

I'm still passionate about things. A lot of things. I still think there is value in my perspective, that I see things that others maybe don't or can't. I still think there are some things that would make the world a better place if others could just see it the way that I see it. But I'm also coming, little by little, to know that there is such a fine line here. There is such a dangerous line here, between being a blessing to the world and being a burden to it. Between truly helping someone and accidentally holding them at arm's length from the hope they really need. 

I'm learning that even the things I am most certain about are not most certain for everyone and that there are things in this world that are outside of my perspective that I haven't seen yet. And I am investing myself in seeing them. I am investing myself in reflecting on those moments when I am most certain that I am right and asking instead what I'm missing. Because that's what's at the heart of the very thing that I said just a few paragraphs ago that is important - staying engaged with our world in a meaningful way. Understanding what's going on in culture and in society that influences how my brothers and sisters are living in their fleshly vessels. How I'm living in mine. 

And you know what? This is a better place to be. It really is. It is better to be learning all the time, to be open and curious and engaged, than to be right. The best teachers are the most invested learners, and if I ever want to really make a difference in the world, the truth remains: I must listen more than I speak. So...I'm working on it. 

And this changes the way that I see the world's mud.  

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Pure in Heart

It's easy for us to become so distracted by the mud on someone's feet that we neglect to consider his or her heart. But for Hezekiah, the heart was the primary concern.

Hezekiah knew that the people of Israel wouldn't have come this far if their hearts weren't set on the Passover. He knew they wouldn't have put up with the journey if they didn't believe something profound about the experience to come at the end. He knew that their hearts were caught up in hope - the hope of establishing a connection with the Lord Himself, the God they had heard so much about from so many for so long. He knew their eyes were caught in wonder at the sight of the Lord's Temple, and their hearts were wrapped in anticipation of what the Passover meant. It meant that this Lord chose them.

Hezekiah knew their hearts were pure, and that's how he was able to look past all the mud on their feet and offer an honest and sincere prayer for them before the Lord. 

This much harder for us for some reason. 

We're distracted by the mud. Honestly, we are. We are lulled into a sense of false superiority by our own experiences, and this gives us the haughtiness to think that we have not only the right, but the ability, to judge someone else's story. 

It's why we say things about others like, "Well, it's their own fault. If they really wanted a better life, they'd make better choices." Or "They're always going to be poor; they just don't manage their money well." Or "If they wanted to work, they'd have a job by now. Everyone is hiring! Just go work somewhere!" Or...the list goes on and on. We look at someone else's life, caked in mud, and we don't understand why they don't just pick up one of a thousand hoses we think are at their disposal and wash it all off. We don't know why they don't just make themselves clean.

I mean, it's not that hard. Right?

Except that it is. At least, it can be. You can't just walk around picking up hoses. Someone, somewhere, has to make sure there's water in them for you. 

Many who don't have a job either don't have the health to keep a job or can't get a foot in the door somewhere. Yes, places are hiring, but that doesn't mean they are hiring everyone. Some have a past they can't get away from. Some have families they have to take care of. Once you get a job and commit yourself to being away from your family for many hours a day, in many cases, you have to then pay someone to care for your family for you (sick elders, young children), and if you're not making enough money to pay for that care, then you're shooting yourself in the foot and for what? Because society thinks better of you if you have a 'job' - and caring for your home isn't considered a 'job.' Society isn't thinking about your heart; they're only looking at your mud. 

Or think of someone wrapped in addiction. If you've never been addicted to anything, you can't understand what this does to your life. It's easy to sit in your comfortable home and think that if someone doesn't want to be addicted, they just have to stop picking up the bottle or the needle. It's just that easy....except it isn't. Except there are very real pains in persons' lives that go away with that substance, and if you don't have the capabilities to deal with the pains (physical or emotional/mental or even, in some cases, spiritual), that pain sets you into a debilitating panic. It's overwhelming. You can't just 'get over it.' You need something to take the edge off, or you feel like you're dying all the time. It's not so easy as just 'choosing' not to do it. That's the mud talking. The heart, however...

The heart wants all kinds of things that the flesh can't pull off, for whatever reason. And we have to stop thinking that just because we've figured out our own flesh, we've figured out everyone else's. We have to stop judging others by the measure of our own life, even if we've been through similar things. Even if we've fought similar battles. Even if we think we understand, we have to realize that we don't. Especially, and I can't emphasize this enough, if we have never actually talked on a meaningful level with the person whose mud we're judging. 

We all have this natural inclination to think the best of ourselves. We know our own hearts, and we know how purely we go after the things that we want. We know how purely we try to do good things. We know how earnest we are in our efforts. Yet for some reason, we look at our efforts and look at someone else's mud, and we think they aren't even trying. We not only think that, we know that. Somehow. We just don't give them the benefit of the doubt...ever. We don't care if their hearts are pure. If their hearts were that pure, we reason, they wouldn't have so much mud. 

But what if we turned that on its head? What if we understood that the mud on someone's feet was the result of a pure heart? After all, these men journeyed from Israel through all that dirt because their hearts were pure. Because they had a firm belief in what the Passover would mean for them. Because they carried all the hope in the world in their hearts. So what about their feet? 

We have to start believing the best in others. We have to start looking at more than the mud. We have to start understanding what brought them here in the first place, how they came to be dragging themselves into this Temple, dirt and all, to begin with. We have to believe in and trust their motivations, and we have to seize upon their hope. 

That's the thing - their hope. When Hezekiah prayed for the Lord's acceptance of these unclean men, he did them the greatest blessing. He took their hope...and he carried it the last little bit for them. He took them straight to the heart of where they longed to be, mud and all. He brought them not only into the Temple courtyard, but into the presence of God and he confirmed for them that their journey had not been in vain. They were here, right where they'd hoped to be, and it was everything they imagined...and more. 

We have to be that kind of person for others. We have to be that kind of pray-er for others. We have to be that kind of believer for others. We have to carry their hope with them. As a people of God, we have to. For we are the ones that know the way into the Most Holy places. May we be a people who bring others with us. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Not My Unclean People

Why did Hezekiah pray for God's forgiveness for an unclean people? Especially when they were not his unclean people? 

Hezekiah's people had followed his edicts; they had cleansed themselves in preparation for the Passover. Hezekiah's people had come the way that the Lord wanted them to come. Hezekiah's people were a holy people, or at least, they were trying to be. Hezekiah's people had invested themselves in this Passover; they were committed to doing it to glorify God. These stragglers from Israel? They showed up unclean.

But what Hezekiah saw in these Israelites is what is often too easy for us to miss in those that we consider "not our people:" he saw their hearts. 

He saw that these men from Israel had invested themselves just as much in this Passover as his men from Judah had. They had traveled a long distance to get here. They had come against the mocking of their neighbors and fellow countrymen. They had wearied themselves and spent their own time and money and provisions to get here. Their feet were caked dirty from the walk. 

What Hezekiah saw was that these men, too, were a holy people, or at least, they were trying to be. And it is on the basis of their hearts, not the status of their ritual purity, that Hezekiah prays for them. 

It's because he sees how far they have come that he is willing to place himself prayerfully in the gap that remains between them and the Lord. 

Oh, that we would pray like Hezekiah! 

We are a people who guard our prayer too much. We spend a lot of our time trying to figure out who is worthy of having us pray for them and what we should ask for on their behalf. When we see an unclean person standing before it, it's all too easy for us to either cast them out or to pray for their cleanness - rather than to pray for God's acceptance of them. We are a people who use our pray to wring ragged persons through as their last step to God. Instead of standing prayerfully in the gap, we place all kinds of stuff in the gap and then prayerfully tell them "just a little bit further. You can do this!" 

And trying to convince ourselves to judge by the heart doesn't get us any closer, sadly. Because we are a people who believe the heart is wicked, particularly the heart that can't even get ritual purity right. We have all kinds of excuses why the depraved heart of another is not worthy of our prayer. We say things like, "Well, they clearly don't want to help themselves, so why should I help them?" For crying out loud, they showed up to holy festival unclean

We so often forget, or plainly fail to see, how far persons have come to get here. We so often forget, or fail to see, their journey to this point. We look at their dirty feet and wonder how they could even think of tracking that mud into the Lord's house, but we neglect to consider at all the paths they have had to walk that muddied their feet in the first place. 

And their hearts are pure, even if their feet are not. 

Oh, that we were more like Hezekiah. 

Do you know how much it would change our world if we were a people willing to prayerfully bridge the gap for men and women like these? Do you know how much it would change our churches if we stopped figuring out who was worthy to stand in our midst and committed ourselves to praying God's acceptance of all who would come, and His forgiveness for the failures that entrap us all, even when our hearts are pure? Do you know what it would do if we considered the real hearts of our neighbors and not just the value judgments that we put on them from our own perspective? Do you realize how it would change everything if we saw those dirty feet as marks of a holy journey that has already come this far? 

Do you know how much it would change us

Hezekiah made sure that all who wanted and who came would be accepted by God, even when that meant that he had to humble himself, set aside his judgments, and pray them home those last few feet. 

Friends, let us be a people who pray each other home. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Praying for Forgiveness

When we look at Hezekiah's Passover, the first thing we have to notice is his welcome. He invited the people of Israel, even though they weren't his people, and when they showed up, he made sure there was space for them in the Temple courtyards. He made sure that they were not only welcome, but that they were fully received. He did this by praying for their forgiveness. We assume he prayed such where they themselves could hear him.

This is different, we have to note, from the snarky way that we sometimes pray for the forgiveness of others, particularly when they can hear us. For some reason, we seem to pray so that the people we're praying for will hear us, rather than God. We want them to know that we recognize they have done something wrong. Not just something wrong, but something so wrong that God Himself would be upset with them. We use our prayer for forgiveness to try to convict someone else. 

We do this, by the way, even with Jesus's words. How often have we been upset about the way things are going, but we know that those around us know that we're Christians, so we throw out a snarky, "God, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing!" 

Do you ever wonder what would happen if we didn't do that? Do you ever wonder what would happen if we actually prayed like Jesus...or like Hezekiah? If what we really wanted when we prayed for God's forgiveness of others was their restoration and inclusion?

Hezekiah wanted these men of Israel there. He wanted them to be welcomed into his assembly, into the Lord's assembly. He wanted to honor their hearts that had drawn them to this place when so many of their brothers had simply stood by mocking. He wanted God to look past all the things that His people were getting wrong in this moment and honor the things they were trying to get right. None of them had ever done this Passover thing before; they were all figuring it out together. 

Hezekiah simply wanted his people - and His God - not to exclude anyone just because they were getting it wrong differently than others. 

To put it in more contemporary terms, the kind of words that we're prone to use, Hezekiah didn't want anyone left out just because they sinned differently. 

This is important in a world where we are so good at drawing lines, so good at figuring out who's in and who's out, so good at protecting our people by not letting anyone we deem unclean walk among them. This has been the historical problem of the church through many generations; we have become gatekeepers, and we have used our prayer not in earnest, but in haughtiness. We have used our prayer to condemn, not to include. When we have prayed for God to forgive the sinner, we have done so not so that the Lord would actually forgive and restore him, but so that he would know that we all know that he is a sinner. 

Had Hezekiah done this, it would have been the equivalent of standing in the courtyard, pointing his finger, and yelling, "Unclean! Unclean!" 

But Hezekiah didn't do this.

Maybe we should pray more like Hezekiah. 

Can you just imagine how different our communities would be - our churches, inside and outside our walls - if we would just pray for one another like this? If we would just honestly want God to forgive them, to forgive us? If we would actually want a place for them among us, a place for the unclean to be welcome among us who are busy getting it wrong in some other way, all while we're all just trying to get it right? 

It's not so different from us today than it was for them. There had never been a Passover like that, and there has never been a moment like this. We are all just doing our best to figure it out and to do what the Lord requires of us. 

And one of the things that I think the Lord requires of us is that we pray like Hezekiah for one another, that we pray in earnest for the forgiveness of others. Not so that they know that they are sinners, but so that they may find their place among us in the presence of God Himself. That they may be welcomed here, legitimately. That God may receive them well. 

That we may receive them, too. 

After all, they are our brothers and sisters.  

Sunday, April 25, 2021

An Unclean People

In the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, the people of God did something they had not done in generations: they celebrated the Passover. 

The Passover was meant to be celebrated in the first month, but the people of Judah were not clean, and there were not enough clean priests and Levites to facilitate the ceremony, so Hezekiah moved it to the second month. This was completely acceptable under the law of Moses, who had addressed this issue in the wilderness when someone who was ceremonially unclean asked about his exclusion from the festival. There, God had made provision for the unclean: if you are unclean on the Passover in the first month, you may celebrate it on the same day in the second month.

(I have always wondered, then, what happens if you are unclean also in the second month. The smallest little things, some of which were out of control of the person in question, could make a man or woman unclean. But God doesn't address this, so perhaps I worry too much.) 

So surrounded by his unclean people, Hezekiah moves the re-institution celebration of the Passover to the second month and orders his people - including the priests and the Levites - to purify themselves and make sure they are clean in time for the ceremony. 

Then, he sends message throughout Israel. Israel and Judah have been two separate kingdoms for quite some time, but Hezekiah recognizes that, at the very least, these are still his brothers. These are still men of God, men who worship the same Lord. Maybe they want to be part of the Passover, too. Maybe this can be the first step in reconciliation between the kingdoms. Maybe God will honor the men of Israel who come to worship Him. There are a lot of potential blessings at stake here, so Hezekiah invites them to come. 

The account in Chronicles tells us that many of the men of Israel just laughed at him. They mocked his request. They scoffed and turned away. They had no interest in going to Judah. They had no interest in the Passover. They didn't care what kind of book Hezekiah claimed to have found in the Temple or what the law of Moses seemed to say. The Passover just wasn't their thing, and they weren't going. They probably thought it was a ploy to get them to defect from Israel to Judah, or thought that perhaps it was a betrayal of their own people. How laughable of Hezekiah to even invite them! Didn't he know what disaster this might bring?

But a few of the men of Israel come. From a few of the tribes of God's people, they show up. They come straggling in from a long journey, just in time for the Passover. There's just one problem: many of them are not clean. (Aha! So perhaps I do not worry too much.) They didn't know. They didn't have time to purify themselves. They have invested in the journey, and journeying is a dirty business. And now, there's no time to cleanse themselves. 

So Hezekiah prays. 

He prays for the cleanness of the unclean men. He prays for the Lord to accept them on account of the purity of their hearts that has drawn them here. He prays for God to forgive them for their uncleanness and to recognize the journey they have just made that has dirtied their feet for His sake. Hezekiah prays for God's forgiveness, and then, he draws his brothers from Israel right into the fold and serves them up a big, fat cut of lamb - the sandals of sojourning still on their feet. 

And I love this story. It is so beautiful. There are so many layers to what is going on here in this one simple prayer, in this one simple act. In this seemingly-complicated observance of the Passover that is this mingling of Judah and Israel, of lost and found, of clean and unclean. So let's take a few days this week and look closer at this story and peel back just a few of these layers. 

They may just change the way we love those who have come a long way to be here. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Hard Truth about Hearts

Jesus doesn't have a position on the 'issues;' His position has always been on hearts. He cares about human beings, human souls - not ideas and things. He cares about the things that are knit inside of us in our mothers' wombs, not the headlines that we keep trying to play up. And we need to be more like Jesus. 

The truth is that it's harder to be concerned about hearts, to always have human beings in your focus instead of ideas and issues, but in some ways, it's actually much simpler. You just get to love the person in front of you through the circumstances that you have to deal with instead of having to figure out so many multiple layers of things. 

Let's just look at the issue of guns for a minute, since that's what we're talking about. It's one thing to say that Jesus cares more about hearts than guns, but what does that mean? Specifically, what does that mean at the intersection of hearts and guns? 

Do we start with the heart that uses guns, right now, to kill others? That walks into a public or semi-public location and opens fire out of its own pain and anger? Do we start, then, with violent outrage and actions...or do we start with pain and anger? 

Maybe we start with the human need to own guns at all. God didn't invent guns; we did. They weren't just there in Eden for our taking; we made them. Maybe we have to start with the depravity in our own hearts that made us make guns in the first place. 

But guns are not intrinsically evil, are they? They are used for hunting and for provision. But then, is it sinful to say that we need guns for our own provision because God has not sufficiently provided for us? 

We say that we need them for our own protection, but that just pushes the issue. We wouldn't need a gun for our own protection if there weren't someone else out there whose heart was depraved or broken enough to want to harm us in some way. So do we deal with our hearts that want to depend on guns for our protection, or do we deal with the hearts of others who create our need for protection from them in the first place? 

These are the questions we're asking about gun control, really. The main question is: where do we start? At what point do we have to intercept the issue to make an impact on it, even if we are couching our intervention in the language of human hearts? How far back do we have to go into our own depravity to make a meaningful change on our present condition? Once we start going down this rabbit trail, it's hard to stop. 

I think Jesus understood that. I think that's why He avoided so many of the 'issues' of His day (and ours) and instead focused on the hearts of the men and women right in front of Him. It's because that's where we have a chance to make an impact right now. That's where we can do the most good. That's where the Good News needs to be heard and hope and love and grace and mercy and justice need to be extended. 

We're never going to un-violence the world. We're never going to un-issue ourselves. We're never going to get rid of the kinds of debates we have, although we might change them as time goes on. Men, in our depraved hearts, always find a way to hurt one another. We always find conflict. If you take away what we're using today, we'll find something else tomorrow. Our hearts are simply broken that way. And we cannot go back into the Garden and fix them. 

What we can do is mend them right now. What we can do is focus on the moment we have right now. The moment when the woman caught in adultery stands before the crowd, the moment when the tax collector climbs the tree, the moment when the Pharisees condemn the Healer, the moment when the soldiers nail the Savior to the Cross. We have broken moments right now, and in these broken moments are human beings, not issues. There are hearts to love and to hold and to heal. There are men and women created in the image of God who need a taste of the glory that they've lost sight of, that the world has tried to strip from them. 

As we've been reminded this week, even a favorable outcome on the issues doesn't change the realities in which we live. It doesn't change the things our hearts wrestle with. It doesn't change our need to confront our own brokenness, individually and as a community. It doesn't change our need for intervention. It might make us feel like we're doing something, but the truth is that even if we get what we want, we realize that we haven't done anything. We keep saying, I keep hearing, when we get a little inkling of what we want, that "it's a start." But we've been "starting" for thousands of years. 

If we want to do more than that, then we have to stop pretending that anything in this world is about the "issues." It's not It's about human beings and human hearts and image-bearers of the Living God. It always has been. And if you think that's not the case, then ask yourself why Jesus spent His entire ministry ignoring the "issues" of Rome and even Jerusalem and instead, investing Himself wholly in the hearts and lives of sinners.  

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Jesus and Guns

Two days ago, I introduced you to a local pastor whose denomination has a "clear position" on the issue of gun control. In that post, I dropped a parenthetical note that suggested that Jesus doesn't have a position on gun control. And I know you were just waiting for me to come back and pick that thought up and say more. we go.

It's become very popular in our modern Christianity (or postmodern Christianity, as the case may be) to give Jesus an opinion on any number of social issues. And, wouldn't you know it, Jesus's position on whatever the current social issue is just so happens to be the same position that we would take. Remarkable how that happens, isn't it? 

And we think, well, we sort of have to. Jesus lived in a different time and place than the one in which we live, so He didn't say anything about the kinds of issues that we are facing right now. So we have to go back and figure out what we think He would say if given the opportunity, what we think Jesus would think about these issues. We have to take what we know about how Jesus loves people and figure out what that means about how Jesus thinks about our social issues. 

Therein lies the very betrayal that we refuse to recognize: we know that Jesus's heart was for people, and yet, here we are spending so much of our time trying to figure out what His heart must be for issues. 

Jesus's heart was never for the issues.

So we go back to our objection - but wait! Jesus didn't have these issues.

No, He didn't have these social issues. But we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that Galilee and Jerusalem and Rome didn't have their own social issues. You want to talk about social justice for a minute? Jesus, a completely innocent man, was executed by a Roman government for being a Jewish troublemaker. Want to talk about the racial, ethnic, and social layers of that for a minute? Hey, we can even take both sides of this one - after all, He was a Jewish troublemaker. He was stirring up trouble among the religious elite. Does that make Him guilty in the eyes of Rome? Does He deserve to die for this, particularly at the hands of a people who can't possibly understand the dynamics of His life?

You can't tell me that Jesus didn't face the same social issues in His day that we are facing now. He faced the very same questions.

Not only personally, but we have record in the Gospels of every one of these social issues coming right up to Him. A woman cut off from her community because of her uncleanness (social status), a woman caught in adultery (sexual boundaries and definitions), a tax collector (government control/interference), the law (interpretations/applications), worship (religious freedom). The list goes on and on. The crowds kept bringing these persons to Jesus and saying, "We have an issue here." 

And every time - every time -, Jesus responded, "No. We have a human being here." And every time, He redirects the conversation to the person standing before Him, to a human being created in the image of God, bearing His glory, and navigating through a broken world just the same as all the rest of us. 

So when you say something like, well, Jesus didn't say anything about guns because there were no guns in Jesus's time, and then you go on to say what Jesus would have said about the issue, you miss the entire heart of Jesus that was the point of the incarnation. 

That there are no issues on which the God of the Universe is willing to stake His glory, His heart, His love. He will put it only to bear the burden of the souls of human beings. That's it from the very beginning, from the formless and void, through the manger, all the way to the Cross, and into eternity. From the very first breath, God has told us without wavering that His commitment is to our hearts, not our issues, and the fact that when He lived and walked among us, He said nothing about the issues of His day and everything about the hearts of our neighbors among whom we live and walk confirms that. In fact, it's one of the things that He gets on the Pharisees so often about - they're too wrapped up in issues and not invested enough in people. 

Thus, when we hear Christians, and especially pastors, get up and declare that we have a "clear position" on the issues, we're not hearing what Jesus has to say about things. We're hearing what men have to say. We're forming Christ in our own image and pretending that if He had to answer the questions we're facing today, He'd answer them fundamentally differently than He did when He had the chance 2,000 years ago. We're ignoring the Gospel witness and claiming that our issues are greater than God's glory, that our issues are worth changing the heart of God that has stood from the beginning and cries out to us from forever. That if God only knew the things we have to deal with...

But God knows. And He doesn't care. (I don't mean that He doesn't care, but just that it's still not His primary concern.) What God cares about is not what we do with guns, but what we do with hearts. Starting with ours. According to His. 

What God cares about is not the issue, but the soul. And any time we say otherwise, any time we pretend otherwise, we have missed the heart of the Gospel. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Contrast in Faiths

I know, I know - I dropped a little bit of a bomb into yesterday's post. Don't worry; I fully intend to go back and blow that up, but not today. (Maybe tomorrow.) 

Today, I want to talk about a difference between the Christian faith and the other faiths that are out therein our world, stemming from the same event that triggered the interview with the pastor discussed yesterday. This pastor was not the only faith leader with whom the local media was talking. That's because several of the victims of this tragic events were members of the local Sikh community. So of course, we got to hear from the Sikh leaders.

Now, I recognize that the Sikh faith is not one that we hear about a lot in our dominant culture, so it's a bit of a mystery to many. So let me start by saying that I have had the opportunity to have several interactions with the local Sikh community and they are a kind, welcoming, gentle people who work hard, love their families, and invest themselves in the communities in which they live (both faith communities and secular communities). I have not a single bad thing to say about the Sikhs with whom I have had the privilege of actually having real-life interactions. And to add to that, every single Sikh I have ever met has invited me with open arms to come and worship with them. This is just the kind of people that they are. 

That said, there remain some fundamental differences between the Christian faith and the Sikh faith, and one of those stuck out to me as I listened to this Sikh leader speak on the local news. He was talking about how their community was coming together to support the families of those lost. Specifically, they were working to make sure that the families knew they were not alone and "working to make sure they get all of the government benefits that they are eligible for." 

This is where Christians come up against that fine line of being in the world but not of the world. This is where we all dance that fine line between faith and culture. 

On one hand, one of the benefits of having a benevolent government is that it is there to help us (sort of) in our times of need. The government doesn't have a lot of pure handouts in this case, but the assistance they can provide is fundamentally different than we often find in the private sector. On the other hand, the church is called to provide more benevolence to her communities than even the government can provide. And the truth is that if we are the kind of community that God calls us to be, then we don't need what the government is offering. At least, we shouldn't need it. 

So to hear this faith leader proclaim, unashamedly, that part of his faith's response to tragedy was to work the channels and ensure that his people received everything they were due, everything the government had to offer them, was striking. What was more striking was that it seemed to be the only tangible assistance he referred to at all when talking about his community's response for these families. He never once indicated that their community was taking food to these families or helping with funeral expenses or making arrangements for widows or anything. He said they were grieving with the families and working to secure them government benefits. (And to be honest, I'm not sure what government benefits are available for a tragedy like this one.) 

I mention it, again, not to paint the Sikh faith in a bad light; that's not the point at all. Rather, what I want to do is to highlight the differences between the Christian faith and the other faiths that are out there. I want to believe, in my heart, that the Christian church's response to this would be vastly different than the Sikh response. I want to believe we would show up with pot roasts and lasagnas, with tissues and tears, with donations for funeral expenses and arrangements of flowers. I want to believe that we would rally around our families, gather around our widows, be powerfully present in the lives of our grieving as we actively grieve with them and that we would not be looking for hand outs, but instead, holding our hands out. That's who God has called us to be, isn't it? That's how He wants us loving one another, isn't it? 

It's important how we respond in moments like these. It's important what our community does in times like these. Part of our witness to the world is what we do next, what we do now. And here we have one of those moments when it's time for us to show the world the difference that Jesus makes in our lives. Not just in our individual lives, but in our collective lives. In our community of faith. In our community at large. 

There's a fundamental difference between the Christian faith and others. Do you see it?  

Monday, April 19, 2021

A Position on the Issues

Late last week, tragedy struck the Indianapolis community. On Sunday, at least one local pastor threw out his scheduled sermon in order to preach to his congregation about the events that took place. I know because the local news spoke with that pastor, and they plastered the headline across the screen: Pastor Changes Sermon to Address Shooting (or something like that - the point is, it was big news how the church, how this church, was responding). 

And that's good news, isn't it? We want the world to be looking for the church in times like these. We want them looking to see how we respond with the Gospel love of Christ. 

Except...this pastor blew it. Big time. 

Oh, the world probably doesn't think he blew it. The world loved what they heard coming out of his mouth. Here's another guy, representing a large group of persons, who are on the same page as popular opinion. Here's a guy on the right side of the issues. Here's a guy who 'gets it.' The world was probably proud - and pleasantly surprised - to see this guy, to see the church, coming out the way he did. 

Here's what he said:

He said he thought it was important that he change his message that Sunday morning to remind his congregation of the importance of writing to their leaders, their elected officials, and their congresspersons in order to enact the kind of change that they want to see surrounding, in particular, gun laws. He went on to say that his church - not just his congregation, but his denomination as a whole - has a 'clear position' on the issue of gun control and that it was time for his members to speak up and make their position clearly heard. 

Thank you, pastor. (And the whole newsroom applauds.) 

Uhm, excuse me? You have the entire Gospel of Christ at your disposal, and you have the ear of the local media, and you have a chance to speak powerfully into a broken moment in your community, and the best you can come up with is a 'clear position' on what has become one of the most hotly contested political issues of our time? The best you can come up with is how important it is for you, as a people of faith, to write letters to your congressperson? 

No wonder the world is laughing at the church. No wonder the world has no interest in our God. No wonder the world isn't curious about our Gospel. 

This was no small church pastor, either. The church this pastor preaches at is one of the largest in our community. It is known for its community outreach and events. Its denomination is one of the largest and most well-established denominations in the country, well-known even to those who don't attend its churches and can't articulate its doctrine. The name alone is recognizable. 

And in a moment when the world stands most in need of the kind of hope, grace, love, and confident assurance that the church has in spades, this guy comes out on behalf of Jesus (who he never mentions, by the way - not once) with the bold proclamation that the church has a 'clear position' on the issue of gun control and will be taking steps to lobby for stronger legislation. 

That noise you heard was my heart breaking. Honestly. I just sat here with my mouth hanging open, completely unable to process what I heard this pastor waste his opportunity on. Thinking about the members of his congregation who were proudly watching from their own homes, nodding in agreement and saying, "Yes! That's my pastor!" 

Listen, this isn't a post about my position on gun control, or even on what Jesus's position on the issue might be (if He even has one, and He probably doesn't). This is a post about how the church had a moment, a powerful moment, a moment when the world was turning to the church to hear what we had to say, and we blew it. Not one whisper about the Gospel. Not one. Not one mention of Jesus. Not one drop of hope or grace or love. We blew it. 

This is not the first time. It won't be the last. But yesterday, we talked about the message of the church in a post-Christian age, and this is it, folks. This is why we have to be so mindful about what we're saying and how we're saying it. Because more and more and more, the world isn't listening to us. They aren't turning to us to see what we have to say. They don't even expect us any more to be fundamentally different than they are. And when we take our moments and throw them away, we're not only failing our communities, but we're hurting ourselves. The time is coming when they will just stop asking altogether. 

The world has been trying for 2,000 years to show that our Jesus is powerless. Why, oh why, do we keep agreeing with them?  

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Paid Programming

A few Sundays ago, I woke up earlier than usual. I can't see my clock in the dark without my glasses on, so I was trying to figure out what time it was by determining what was on the television. I flipped to a station that I know carries news at 6 a.m. on Sundays, and all I found was an old man preaching. So it wasn't yet 6 a.m.

But he wasn't actually that bad of a preacher. He said something that I needed to hear, although right now, I couldn't tell you what it was. I decided he was worth fully rolling over in bed to try to figure out his name. So I contorted myself to see the television, squinted through un-glassed eyes, flipped on the guide, and read the words:

Paid programming.

Now, I know this station to have properly credited local churches who buy air time to run on their station. In fact, this man's sermon was followed up by an identified-by-name local church who had the next half-hour before the news. But this guy? Just paid programming. I chuckled a little because as I was contemplating this, I realized it was Easter morning. 

Some guy preaching the Gospel on television on Easter morning is now 'paid programming.' 

Say what you want - and I think there are plenty of things that we could say - but the reality is that this is where we are headed in a post-Christian age. As the world turns toward a pluralism where the defining culture of the day is the culture of individual notion, we're more and more coming into a world where Christ is nothing more than the wares a particular person happens to be selling at...5 a.m.? 

In a post-Christian world, there is no fundamental difference between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, say, the latest wonder blender or floor scrubber or memory foam whatever. It's all paid programming. It's all some guy who has invested a large part of himself into something and wants you to invest in it with him. It's all the same. It's a message he's personally attached to, and his goal is to get you attached to it, too. That way, you're part of his mailing list. (Per se.) 

It's actually worse, I think, for the Gospel because we are a people who talk less about the love of God than we do the love we have for our newest probiotic yogurt. We are a people who have become severely commercialized, and we're all salesmen for the products that we use and love and that have 'changed our lives.' But not so much, it seems, for the Gospel. 

Has it changed our lives less than the dog grooming mitten? By our testimony (or lack thereof), you'd think it has. 

I think that it was probably just a coding error on the part of this television station, probably someone hit the wrong button somewhere and mismatched the preacher and the programming notes, but it's something that we need to pay attention to. Because the truth is that we're living in a world where our message of hope, love, mercy, and grace is quickly becoming little more than paid programming. Little more than noise in the background, something that takes up space at 5 a.m. when the world is, by and large, sleeping. Little more than the latest snake oil from someone who is a little too invested in their own idea. And the world is looking at it with the same sort of skepticism - can a little doo-dad do all that? Can Jesus do all that? 

This is where the message of Christ is going in a post-Christian age. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Sense of Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Affairs of the Heart

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Objects of Our Affection

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

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

But what about the ones that do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 12, 2021


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

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

And they are. 

Perhaps because they are so fragile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's up with that? 

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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

A Light in the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

A Healing Work

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

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

Healing is work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at least, we should be. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Into the Dark Places

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

But she goes home anyway. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's why we step into the hard things.  

Monday, April 5, 2021

A Bittersweet Knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 3, 2021

A Holy Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Too late.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 2, 2021

Good Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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