Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Joy of the Lord

Most of us have been around contemplative Christianity for so long that we have in our minds there are only really two ways to worship: the way we've come to do it and the "charismatic" way that puts too much of the world off. We can do it how we've been doing it, with quiet swaying and one hand raised, or we can go full fire and ecstasy. 

Most of us have forgotten that there is a middle way. And that it wasn't too long ago that we were all worshiping that way. 

It wasn't that long ago that we were clapping along with the music, just keeping the beat while the whole congregation engaged in song. It wasn't that long ago that we were part of the experience, not just having the experience. It wasn't that long ago that we were bouncing a little as we sang, not saying yes but just celebrating. Just letting the joy of the Lord put a little spring in our step as we stood before Him. 

There was a time not that long ago when the joy of the Lord was the hallmark of our worship. 

In fact, I'll be honest and say that that's what drew me into the church. The persons I encountered when I first walked through the doors of church were people who were full of joy. They were happy to be there. They enjoyed coming on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, and any other time the church had something going on. They sang with a smile on their face; a grin that the weights of this world just couldn't wipe away. 

We had some really silly songs, songs meant just to hype up our joy. Just to get us truly rejoicing with the Lord as we turned our hearts toward praising Him. We had songs of greeting, designed to get us up and moving. Nothing crazy, but we used to sing about shaking each other's hands. Just, you know, to encourage everyone to shake a hand. 

We used to come together and be a people rejoicing about the goodness of God. 

No more, right? Now, we're so busy thinking about the goodness of God that we don't dance in it. We don't even smile that much during worship. The best worshipers, in our new contemplative style, aren't the smiling ones; they're the serene ones. When did that happen? 

We sing some of the same songs that we used to sing, but most of us have gone years without clapping to the beat. Some of us have gone so long that many of us can't even find the beat any more to clap with it. (And some, probably, never had it to begin with.) If you clap along with the music in church today, everyone turns around and looks at you. More than one will probably give you a look. 

How has this happened? And how has this happened so fast? 

I'm just thinking about all of this because I'm thinking a lot lately about that joy that we used to have every single week, and I'm wondering where it went. 

And I think its absence explains some of the other trends we're seeing in the church. Let me explain a little bit about that tomorrow. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Contemplative Christianity

When I say that the tone in the church has changed over the past twenty years or so, what I mean is that today's church seems to really value a contemplative type of Christianity. 

It's a low-key, quiet, introspective kind of Christianity that places a high emphasis on looking into your own heart, doing things in subtle, but powerful ways, and generally being very even-keeled about everything. It's so introspective and quietly emotional that it comes off as almost solemn; it's a lights-dimmed-low kind of Christianity. 

Even when we sing a song these days about, say, "the goodness of God," we do it in a very intentional, slightly slow, meter where we just sort of sink into ourselves, sway a little bit, raise one hand, and whisper yes in our souls. And this is the way that we are expected to worship. 

It's strange to me that we spent all of this money in the past 15 years or so on big screens and concert lighting and even smoke machines, and here we are now, with most churches tempering themselves, tamping down their worship some into this more solemn, reflective, contemplative space. We still use the lights we bought, but we tone them down. The sound system volume has dropped considerably so that it's "comfortable" for everyone. The overhead lights are dimmed; the windows sometimes blacked out. And here we are, standing and swaying and whispering, yes

In some ways, I think part of this is a response to the public image that what we call "charismatic" Christianity has created in our broader culture. We've seen so much backlash against the revival-type, praise-healing claims that some churches make, and we want to make clear that Jesus - at least, the Jesus we worship, is not like that. But I don't think this response is the bulk of what we're doing. 

What it is, I think, is that we're all aching for a slower life. We're trying to find a sacred rhythm somewhere in our 24/7 world. We're trying to create a place where we can come and just slow down for awhile, just settle in and listen to our own souls. Indeed, I think what Christianity has lost in the past 50 or 60 years is the soul as it slowly slips away into facades of all sorts of things. What we think church means. What we think life means. What we think work means. Whatever. 

I think we're trying to reclaim that very essential part of our being, and by today's definitions, the soul is that sacred, solemn place that connects deeply to things. Where deep waters run. It's this place that is supposed to be, we suppose, untouchable, unshaken by this world. This rock solid anchor somewhere deep within us. 

And we have to be quiet to hear it. We have to be still to hear it. We have to tiptoe toward it so that we can get close enough to touch it. Our soul, we've been convinced, is this quiet, fragile, but somehow, completely strong place and there's a sense in us that if we're not careful with it, we'll break it, but at the same time, every time we draw near to it, we realize how important it is in establishing us, in holding us up. It is strong, but it is dangerous, perhaps. 

So we get into this solemn space and we call it holy. And it is. Don't get me wrong - it's holy. 

But it's missing something. 

Putting this kind of emphasis in our worship has drawn us toward something amazing, but it's also drawn us away from something important. 

More on that tomorrow. 

Monday, May 29, 2023

Today's Church

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is how much church has changed in twenty years. Oh, sure, the technology has certainly developed and in a lot of places, the structure is a little - or a lot - different. People come and go; so do pastors. But those aren't the kinds of things I'm talking about. 

I'm talking about...the posture of the church, I guess. Although I'm certain there's still a better word for it. 

We haven't really changed our theology that much. Not most churches, anyway. We still have the same fundamental beliefs that we've always had - that Jesus is the Son of God, that He is the Christ, that He lived as a man, died as a criminal, and rose as a victor to bridge the gap between us and God. We still believe He lived a sinless life and that His teachings are authoritative. We believe in the Bible as the inspired Word of God, even though some of us are wrestling with what it means that it was also written by human hands. We believe in the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit, whatever that looks like in your church's theology. We still go full-out for Christmas and Easter as the two biggest days of our calendar. We believe in the power of prayer, and not just the power, but the importance of it. 

So...what we believe about the fundamentals hasn't really changed that much over the years. Some of the ideas we have that aren't core or fundamental to the nature of Jesus have changed; they always seem to ebb and flow a bit as culture demands that we re-examine them in new ways. 

But our worship has changed. Our posture toward God has changed. Our attitudes and engagement have changed. 

You've perhaps heard someone comment on the way that a lot of worship music tends to emphasize us these days. Humans. Worshipers. The people of God. The faithful. Whatever you want to call us. We have become so self-obsessed in worship that we even sing songs declaring that we're singing. Like...duh.

There was a time in church history when the songs were overwhelmingly about God and who He is. What He's done. His promises. His goodness. If you read the songs we're given in the Bible, which most of us don't even recognize as songs because they don't rhyme very well (at least in English) and we don't know the tune, they always recount the history of God among His people. Today, well, we just sing quite a bit about ourselves. 

The same is true in our prayer lives. Our prayer has become really self-centered, too. About us. About our needs. About our wants. About our perspective. If you go through a book of prayers written by figures from years gone by, it's striking. You read all of these prayers about the nature of God. Thanking God for being who He is. Acknowledging the different attributes He holds. These ancient, historical prayers are really God-centered and we, well, we pray a lot to be heard. We pray, at least when we pray out loud with others, to deliver a message to the others who can hear us, not really to talk about God. Or to Him. 

But there's more even than that. 

It's not just, for me, that the content of our worship and prayer has changed, although that right there is enough to invest a lifetime in correcting.  It's also, though, that the tone of our worship and prayer has changed. The kind of heart that we bring is different; what we expect from - and for - our heart is different. 

We'll start talking about what I mean by that tomorrow. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

A Caution

When you suggest something like establishing a social calendar for the church and doing your best to attend the real-life events of your brothers and sisters as an act of fellowship and togetherness, the natural caution is: how do you prevent little cliques from forming? 

It's not hard to imagine. You have a couple of persons who show up to someone's event, and then, they routinely show up to that person's event, and that person in turn shows up to their events and before you know it, there's a small group of maybe three or four persons or families who are doing just about everything together. 

This isn't necessarily a bad thing; discipleship happens in smaller groups. The kind of fellowship that Jesus had with the disciples was just twelve men, and even within that, He had a core of about four (Peter, Andrew, James, and John...and sometimes, not even Andrew). There's no inherent problem with having very tight small groups of persons form through the social calendar type of fellowshipping. 


As long as they retain the heart of Jesus and don't shut others out who show up. As long as they don't become a closed group, you're okay. Remember that Jesus never pushed anyone away because He was busy with Peter, James, and John. He never failed to talk to someone in the crowd just because He was already talking to His disciples. So if you've got persons who are developing the heart of Jesus, as they should be if they are discipling together, then you don't really have to worry about cliques. 

That requires, of course, that the persons in these smaller groups really are discipling one another and not just having fun together. It requires that they are forming the kinds of relationships where they can hold one another accountable, where they are pushing one another toward spiritual and relational growth, where they have their eyes constantly on looking for ways to put love into action - with one another and with the world around them. They can't just be hanging out because they happen to share common interests; the heart of every social fellowship has to be love for God and love for one another. 

Now, a really cool thing also happens when you adopt a fellowshipping like this: bonds form that you might not have previously expected. 

Sometimes, you end up with someone who has a passion for, say, tennis. And you find out that a kid in your church is playing on the local school's tennis team. That person with the passion starts showing up to support that kid - because they love tennis - and they end up loving the family.

Or you get someone whose past includes the tragic loss of a loved one too early to something like cancer, something that happened before they came to the church or that most of your church members don't know about them because they don't talk about it. But they see someone's biopsy appointment on the social calendar, and they show up in the waiting room. And that chance encounter becomes a friendship and a supportship that is healing for both of them. 

Cool stuff just happens when you start to know one anothers' actual lives. When you start to engage in the place where you actually live. When you start to laugh and really, really do life together and not just a smattering of events on the official church calendar. It's such a cool thing to watch how God brings persons together in new and vibrant and exciting ways. It's amazing to watch how He grows them together through just showing up. 

It's even cooler and more amazing to be part of it. 

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Social Calendar

If the church is designed for doing life together, then it seems pretty simple what one good, strong step toward that ought to be - and no, it's not filling our church calendar with a bunch of special events, whether we "baptize" those events with prayer and worship or not. 

It's actually much simpler than that. 

What the church ought to be doing is keeping a social calendar of its members' events. 

Put your kids' ball games on there. Dance recitals. Put what time you walk your dog in the morning or when you like to go for a run. Add your anniversary or your birthday. Write down the day you're making your famous chili. Share the days that you're going in for medical testing or times you're going to spend hours in a waiting room. Weddings. Funerals. Days that you're working in your yard or around your house. 

What I'm saying is - if we are supposed to be a people who do life together, we ought to be doing our lives together. Not some shared church life where we still, at the end of the day, go our own way and live in relative isolation from one another. 

Imagine the bonds that are formed in the humdrum of watching your kid's soccer practice with someone you're fellowshipping with. Imagine how your kid feels when these other persons keep showing up for them. 

Did you know a lot of our young people are leaving the church the first chance they get to make an autonomous decision? The first time they get to decide for themselves whether they're going or not, they choose, well, not. And a lot of that has to do with the relationships they aren't forming in church any more. 

It used to be that the church was multi-generational, but not any more. Now, most churches have children's programs. In fact, many churches define themselves by their children's programs. It's a time when the kids are removed from the rest of everything and taught a lesson in a classroom by one teacher, a teacher who often changes every few weeks. The only time most of our kids are seeing someone in a church is during the brief fellowship time before or after service, when their parents are usually shushing them and telling them not to interrupt adult conversation that might be happening. Then, when they are in the service, they are told to be quiet and to not disturb anyone or anything. Then, we send them out. No wonder they're leaving the church; they aren't really connected there. 

Think about how that changes if your church members start showing up for your kid. Practices, games, performances, recitals, shows, competitions, etc. Imagine if the persons you stand around talking with in the church foyer for three minutes a week became a constant presence in your kids' lives. In your life. 

I have to be honest - I love it when I go to the grocery store and turn the corner and run into someone I fellowship with. I love it even more when it keeps happening multiple times in the same trip. By the third or fourth one, I'm like, "Hey, it's church day at the Walmart. Bill, Luke, and Donna are also here, and they're just the ones I've run into already!" 

Imagine if it wasn't a random occurrence to run into your brothers and sisters in the course of your daily life. Imagine if it wasn't rare for that to happen. Imagine if you were so intertwined with one another that it was just expected that someone else would be where you are. 

Now, now, I know - there's a danger here, too. I'm not blind to that; you're probably already seeing it, too. But it's not inevitable. Not if we have the love of Jesus in our hearts. We'll talk a bit more about it tomorrow. 

In the meantime, I just want you to start thinking about this idea, to start thinking about what it would be like if your church kept a social calendar of stuff that's already happening, rather than a bunch of special events the church itself is planning for you. I want you to start dreaming of what it would be like if we started showing up for one another in the lives we're already living. 

This is what I dream for the church. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2023


We're talking about the church being the place where we do life together, where we become disciples together and are sent out into the world. So, of course, the natural place to go next is to the actual disciples - the men and women Jesus traveled with routinely. Because they have something essential to teach us about what it means to do life together. 

Jesus said our one anothering would be a hallmark of who we are as a people. He said that the world would know who we are by how we love one another; the world would know that we are His. And if that's true, then the ways that we live together in our communities of faith is essential to the development and practice of that faith. 

Look at the disciples. Look at how often they were together. Look at how they traveled together, showed up in houses together, had dinner together. Even after Christ's death, the disciples are often together. The Bible tells us they were out fishing one morning. Now, who was fishing? Was it just Peter and Andrew, James and John? Was it only those guys who were already fishermen? The Bible isn't 100% clear on this. But it would not be a stretch to imagine that some of the others were there, too. After all, Matthew can't just go back to tax collection, and Simon is unlikely to return to his political zealotry. Some of those guys needed something new to do, and it wouldn't be a stretch to think that they took up fishing...because that's what the rest of the disciples were out doing.  

But it's clear about who was in the upper room together - the disciples. All of them. Except Thomas, but he shows up next time, so maybe he was out getting groceries or using the restroom or something the first time Jesus shows up. The point is that these guys learned so deeply how to be with one another that even after Jesus is gone from their physical presence, they still are doing life together. 

And here's one place where I think the church can learn quite a bit. 

See, for most of us, when we talk about doing life together, we talk about planning a bunch of programs and outings and service projects and inviting the rest of the church to join us. We have potlucks or pitch-ins, we have community clean-up days, we get together to put a fresh coat of paint on the church, we have game nights and concerts and movies on our big screens. And all of that is great, don't get me wrong. 

But it's not really "doing life together." 

It's adding one more thing...or a dozen more what are often already-full social calendars, then adding a bunch of stress to it by calling it a "Christian" event. A church thing. Something where you get heaven points for attending...or lose them if you don't show up. And let's face it - we are paying attention. We know who's coming to church events. We know who is most likely to show up. And we know who isn't coming. And we have a lot of judgments wrapped up in that. 

Then, of course, we run into the hurdle of trying to plan events that reach a wide range of demographics. Card nights aren't for everyone; neither are movies. Not everyone wants to attend "faith night" together at the ball park. Some persons can show up and pray for an hour; some can worship; some want nothing to do with either. They simply aren't wired that way. So what we end up doing is creating a bunch of different events so that there's "something for everyone to do," something for everyone to get involved with over the course of the calendar year. 

And honestly? This doesn't further our one anothering. We make it about what's happening, and who shows up is kind of secondary. You might see this person at this event and that person at a different event and still someone else at a third event. We create a broad fellowship, but not a very deep one. It would be as if Jesus kept a different group of disciples for every location He visited, and the disciples from Jerusalem occasionally run into the ones from Galilee, who might meet the ones from Nazareth once or twice. We could not then say that these are all Jesus's disciples doing life together, that they could at all be known by their love for one another. 

How can they have love for one another through a series of simple chance meetings? 

I have a proposal. I was intending to propose it today, but this post is reaching its maximum length per the average reader's attention span, so I'll propose it tomorrow. Do come back and see what you think. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

For Disciples

The church is for discipleship, plain and simple. That is its primary function. It exists as a place from which disciples are sent out into the world to make more disciples, much like the boats and the streets where Jesus gathered with the original twelve. 

To understand what discipleship is, we have to understand what the disciples originally were. To most of our modern ears, we hear the word "discipleship," and we start to think about a class, a study, or a program. We think that a disciple is someone who prays, reads their Bible, and goes to church. Disciples are those who are so good at the spiritual disciplines that we look up to them for how to become disciples ourselves. And, of course, they invite other persons to church - so they are, you know, making disciples themselves, every time one of those persons shows up and commits. 

This is not discipleship. We think it is, but it's not. This definition of "discipleship" would be completely foreign to Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It would be completely foreign to Jesus. 

Discipleship is giving up your own life to take on His. It's following Jesus around and doing life together with the other disciples. It's learning-by-doing and by being so close to the doing that you can't not see what's happening right in front of you. It's drawing near to Christ and being there, even through raging storms. Discipleship requires togetherness. 

That's why, by the way, the church is so important to the life of a person of God; we were meant to do this life together, and it is essential to the discipling of our souls that we be traveling together. 

Sometimes, particularly in our individualistic culture, especially in a church where we are continually told that Christ died just for us, for the individual us, it's easy to think that we are following Jesus and to see it in our heads as Him walking around and us tagging along. Just us. Just the two of us, navigating through this life, through my life, together. But raise your head, friend, and look around. You aren't the only one following Jesus; we're all doing it. And if we're all doing it, that means we're not traveling just through your life, but also mine and mostly...His. 

Now, we have to be careful here. And in a couple of different ways. 

When we say that the church is for doing life together, it's easy to make the church some kind of social club. It's easy to schedule our calendars full of things we do maybe at the church or with the church, but they have little connection to actually making our faith deeper. They have little connection to drawing us any nearer to Christ Himself. There are, in our day, plenty of churches who have adopted this model, whose people are doing all kinds of things together, but Christ isn't central to them. 

On the other hand, our natural tendency when we hear this is to simply try to "baptize" the social things that we're doing so that we can call them church. We throw in a prayer before the Bingo game, and we say, voila! It's Christian bingo! We sing a song while we're working, and we say our project is now Christ's project. This isn't it, either. Saying a prayer, singing a song, even reading a Scripture doesn't make any event a discipleship event. 

We have to be intentional about the ways that we're doing life together if we truly want to be about discipleship, if we truly want to be what the church is called to be. We have to be intentional about who is at the center of our togetherness, too. (By the way, it's not the pastor or the elder or the deacon in charge; it's Christ.) 

It has to be about more than just being together, but it has to be deeper than just throwing a coat of Christian paint on it. And that's not an easy balance to strike, which is why so many churches tend to lean one way or the other. Or sometimes, to alternate between one and the other. 

So how do we get to be a place of true discipleship? And are we still asking, too, what true discipleship even is? 

Monday, May 22, 2023

The Church

If we're going to talk about the Temple and the priest, then it only makes sense that we talk about the church - the place where most of us get our ideas about what the Temple and the priest must have looked like. And we've talked about the church before. But I'm not sure we can talk about the church enough

Depending on what denomination you're in (or not in, in the case of the non-denominationals), your church experience is probably a little different. But there are some ideas that seem to be pretty common across most church experiences in our current culture. 

So church probably means a place where you go at a set time to experience a production of sorts, a program that members of the church (or staff members of the church) have been rehearsing and preparing for all week. It usually includes some singing and musical worship, some prayer, probably a sermon or a teaching of some sort, and in some places, a celebration of Communion/Eucharist. Interestingly, I have noticed in a lot of churches in our age, prayer is a bit of a sideways thing - a lot of churches don't pray any more. Or if they do, they pray for the presentation/service they're having at the moment they're having it and nothing more. And a lot of prayers are spoken more for the human audience in attendance than for the Lord. 

But I digress.


So the church is the place that you go for a worship service - to be a spectator, a consumer, perhaps a participant to some degree or another. You show up late, and nobody really notices. Or they laugh it off because you always show up late. You don't show up at all, and few, if any, really notice. It's come-as-you-are and come-and-go-as-you-please, a relaxed sort of affair that lets you commit to it only as much as you want to for whatever season you're in. 

What, then, is the church?

This gets a little tangled and complicated, because I have a lot of things that I want to say, but they are so intertwined that it's hard to sort them out from one another. I guess I will start by saying...this isn't what the church was meant to be. 

The church was a place where the people of God came together after the Cross for mutual encouragement and accountability. They came to learn, yes. To worship, yes. But more than that, they came to be together, to draw from one another the strength to do two things: primarily, to live as Jesus would want them to live, which was less about hearing a sermon about how Jesus wanted them to live and more about holding one another accountable to the ways of Christ. And second, to gain from one another the encouragement to continue living in The Way in the face of the opposition of the broader culture - when the church started, that was Rome. 

Now, I know that when I say something like that, our culture hears something like this: "You only have to go to church when you need the encouragement." And I know that there are many who are living in good seasons in their lives where it's easy to say, you know what? I don't really need encouragement right now. 

That would not be a statement that anyone could make in faith. 

Because when we're talking about the church, we're not talking about the kind of emotional "you can do it!" encouragement that our culture thinks of. We're talking of something more. We're talking about the kind of three-stringed cord it is to be doing life together. Of having a circle of belonging. Of having an extended family. Of truly being brothers and sisters and, more important than that, a band of disciples. 

Yes, that is the heart of the church. 

And that's what we're going to talk about this week.  

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Things of This World

I'm in a season of transition in my life, a season of change. I'm standing on the edge of not knowing what happens next and as we all know, that can be a little disconcerting. 

It can be. 

As a person of faith, though, it's a little bit less so than perhaps for someone who doesn't have the kind of confident assurance that I live with.

It's not that I'm not wrestling with the same things others wrestle with in seasons like this. I am. Every day, I have this little bit of nervousness in the pit of my stomach; it's a nervousness that is both ready to move and at the same time, not quite ready to leave. I have all of the questions about tomorrow that anyone has. No matter how sure some things look, there's still a question in the back of my mind about whether it will work out that way or not. About whether something might come along in the last minute and change even what's already changing in a way that I didn't see coming or that I can't quite predict. 

I wrestle, in times like this, with two truths that I know for certain: God is good and this world is no longer "very good." It's not. It's broken. And I know from experience that one of the hallmarks of a broken world is that it doesn't always do what God says is good and right. 

That means that even when I have all of the confidence of the goodness of God in my heart, I know that it's no guarantee that things will work out the way it looks like they're going to. There are too many human elements in, well, everything, to believe that God just gets His way. His story, the Bible, tells us plainly that that's not true. 

So at the same time that I hold onto the promise of the goodness of God and, in this case, to the peace He's put in my heart about what comes next - whatever comes next - I temper it with the truth that this world doesn't always do what God wants it to do and that at any moment, human brokenness and frailty can cause even this to fall apart. And then, I steady that truth on the greater truth still that God is good and so, if tomorrow isn't good, it still will be. Somehow. Some day. In some way. 

Still, it's a tough place to live in. I'm a person, like nearly every other person, who wants to know what comes next. Who wants to be able to count on tomorrow. Who wants to know what's going to happen and how this is all going to work out. 

And I am a person who, because of the limitations of my being, can't know that. None of us can. 

All I can know - all any of us can know - is that it will be good. 

I've just had too many things in my life fall apart, not because I think God willed them to fall apart, but because humans are weird. Humans have weird ideas about good and bad and today and tomorrow and our own power trips and all kinds of other things. We think we know so much, but we know so little. We really do. We understand so very little of what we think we understand, and yet, we recognize that every one of us is doing the best we think we can do with what we have. 

That, I guess, is the secret I'm holding onto in this season. I'm holding onto the truth that I have so very little knowledge and at the same time, so very much faith. So very much hope. So very much confident assurance. 

Because I don't know what tomorrow looks like. I can't tell you that. Not for sure. 

But I know the peace that I have in my heart, and it comes from the one thing that I do know for absolutely sure: God is good. So this will be, too. 

Somehow. Some day. In some way.  

Thursday, May 18, 2023

A Holy Place

We talked about our misconceptions about the Temple. We talked about our misunderstandings about the priest. We talked about how our experience as members of the contemporary church can color the things that we think about the Temple and the priest. And we talked, briefly, about why that matters - because in the shadow of the Cross, we are the Temple and we are the priests. 

Now, let's be a little more bold about how we say this. 

If someone comes to you, and you are not interceding for them, you are not a priest.

If they come, and you are not sacrificing for them, you are not a priest. 

If they come, and you are not offering healing, you are not a priest.

If they come, and you are not bringing them to the mercy seat of God, you are not a priest. 

If they come, and you are not breaking bread in their presence, you are not a priest. 

If they come, and you are not welcoming them in, you are not the Temple. 

If they come, and you are not leading them in singing the song of their soul, you are not the Temple. 

If they come, and you do not open the curtain between the holy and the most holy places, you are not a priest. 

If they come, and you are not making a way for them, you are not a priest. 

If they come, and they can't get in, you are not the Temple. 

If they come, and they are not meeting God in your presence, you are not a priest and you are not the Temple. 

When this world comes to us as Christians, they expect to meet God.

They expect there to be mercy. 

They expect there to be grace. 

They expect there to be sacrifice. 

They expect there to be worship. 

They expect there to be goodness. 

They expect there to be joy. 

They expect there to be authenticity. 

They expect there to be love

And if the world comes to you as a Christian and does not find these things, these very basic things that the people of God have always known to be found at the Temple and through the priest, then you aren't a living witness. You aren't living up to the calling God has put on your life. You aren't doing the very thing God has created you to do and equipped you to do through the Cross of His Son. 

If the world comes to you as a Christian and finds only preaching and programs and judgment, you are not the Temple and you are not the priest that God called you to be. 

That's why it's so important that we read the Old Testament and not just skim through it, that we work to understand what these things - the Temple and the priest - were and what they meant to the people of God, what function they served in the community. 

Because we are today's Temple and we are today's priests and the sad truth is, I think we're living far short of everything that ought to mean - to us, to our brothers and sisters, and to the watching (and seeking) world.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

The Temple and the Priest

So...what's the point? Why does it matter? Why should we, who live in the shadow of the Cross, care about such outdated, weird Old Testament concepts as the Temple and the Priest? 

Because these are not Old Testament concepts. These are not concepts that have been replaced or repealed by the Cross. These are, just like the Law, things that Jesus came to fulfill, not to eliminate. And, in fact, when we look at the New Testament, we see these two ideas coming back in a powerful way. 

Have you heard this one? Don't you know that your bodies are living temples? 

How about this one: You are a royal priesthood

These are the titles that Jesus, through His disciples/apostles, gives us in the New Testament. These are the things that God says are true about who we are now, on this side of the Cross. This is what God calls us to live out in the world - the Temple and the priesthood. 

Don't you think, then, that we ought to understand what these things actually mean? 

Too many of us are operating under our misunderstandings about what the Temple and the priest really were, historically, for Israel, and it's negatively impacting our witness in the world. 

If we think that the Temple is a place where persons come to experience a killer worship service, a great bit of music and a powerful sermon, then we do our best to put on a religious show. We do our best to entertain those who come to us, to make them want to be in our midst because they have so much fun with us. 

If we think that the Temple is a place where you offer sacrifices, we will expect something of everyone who comes to us looking for Jesus. We will expect them to come atoning for their sins, but not to God - to us. After all, we are the Temple, right? 

If we think that the priest was primarily responsible for delivering a great sermon, we will try to always have a few really good talking points in our heads. 

If we think that the priest's job was judgment, then we will be quick to put a high standard on others. 

Are you seeing how the things that we think we know about the Temple and the priest directly impact the way that we are acting out God's calling on our lives in the world? When we believe these are the things these words meant, something inside us tells us that that is how we are supposed to live. Because we know, even if we don't remember the words for us, that we've been called to be Temples and priests; our souls just understand this and start living it out. 

But what if we could improve our definitions? What if we studied this Temple and this priest, not as a way simply to get us to the Cross and to throw all of these things on Jesus's shoulders, but as the very foundation of our calling as Christians? What if we looked at them as the way that we are supposed to live in this world? 

What if we lived up to them in our bodies and our hearts? In our witness?  

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Priest

Closely related to the question we asked yesterday - what is the Temple? - is another question with another term that is important for us to define: 

Who is the priest?

I'm not talking about what his name is; we're given plenty of those. I'm asking - what is his job? What does he do? What is his function, both in worship and in the community? 

If you only have experience with the contemporary Christian church, you might be thinking this one is easy: he gives the sermon. If you've read the Old Testament a little bit, you might be thinking he offers the sacrifices. It was his job to skin the rams and cut the liver out and burn it all on the fire. You might even think perhaps he had a role similar to the prophets, where he was God's voice within the community. 

In other words, he's the guy you go to hear from. He's the guy who is going to speak powerful, beautiful, truthful words to you whether those are the words you wanted or not. He's going to pray the prayers for you. He's going to make sure you have the full Temple experience that you're looking for. That's his job. 

Or so we too often think. 

The truth is that the priest was much more than just a preacher. (Sorry, preachers.) He wasn't even really a pastor. While it's true that the priest offered the sacrifices and spoke the truth, he also cleansed the people, atoned for their sin, stood in the gap, monitored their health, helped out when molds started growing in their houses. He took the people of God right to the mercy seat that sat above the covenant so that the people had a place with God. 

That was God's design for the priest. 

And I know what you're thinking right now - why does it even matter? We don't have Temple worship any more. We are so far beyond the days of the Temple. What we have now is the church, and we don't need a priest; we have a pastor. We don't have to have someone offer our sacrifices or speak truth; Jesus already did that. We don't need someone to cleanse us; we've been washed in the blood. 

We are so quick to put Jesus into this priestly role and just accept all of the wonderful things, at least accept them intellectually, He's done for us and to declare ourselves a people beyond the Temple, beyond the place, beyond all those rules and regulations. 

But what if they aren't rules and regulations? What if they're something more than that? And what if Jesus isn't the fullness of God's plan as it pertains to this? 

Tough questions, and we'll finally answer them tomorrow. Or, at least, start to. 

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Temple

I have a question for you. 

When you think about the Temple, or even the Tabernacle, how do you picture that place? I'm not talking about the structure of it, which the Bible well describes for us, but rather, what do you think happened there? How do you think the people came to that place, what did they do while they were there, what did they get out of it? 

If you're like many Christians, when you think about the Temple, you think about a place not all that different than a contemporary church. You think about a place where the people gathered in a section different than that in which the pastor or preacher or priest gathers (there is a sanctuary and there is a stage). You think about a place where music is played and someone sings. You think about a place where a proclamation of the truth of God is made for everyone to hear and even where the people shout, "Amen!" when they hear it. You think about a place where offerings are made, and a lot of us have cleaned up these offerings in our heads to make them more like our modern-day offerings, which go cleanly into a plate, rather than the bloody, messy offering of something that went on a plate. 

Am I striking a chord here? Is this what you picture when you picture the Temple and the worship that took place here?

If not, it's likely that you fall entirely in the other direction, picturing some kind of extremely proper, stuffed-shirt, formal experience with some guy with a booming voice doing all of the preaching and praying. You picture the caricature of Christianity being in charge of this place. The people are silent, standing in awe. Bowing in prayer together in unison. A solemn "Amen" sometimes rings out. If this is your image, you think this worship must have been pretty boring, and you might not even be sure how Christianity (or rather, faith in the Lord, since the Temple existed before Christ) lasted this long. You might even be wondering how the people even waited for Jesus as long and as expectantly as they did, if this is what their Temple experience was like. 

This is so hard for us because most of us have never experienced any kind of corporate worship that is different than what we've settled into for Sunday mornings. In fact, if we have, we've often run away from those experiences and run back to what we are more comfortable with - a corporate gathering with lights and music and big screens and pew Bibles and preaching. Three songs, a prayer, another song, a sermon, an invitation, and a closing song. And, if you come from certain backgrounds, we throw Communion or the Eucharist in there, too. 

So it's only natural that this is what we imagine Temple worship must have been like, too. It's easy for us to think about the people all the way back to the Exodus when the very first Tabernacle was built being essentially like we are, thousands of years later - coming to a place for music and prayer and proclamation and then going home "full" of the Holy Spirit until it's time to come back and do it again. 

Of course, the more I talk, the more you probably start to think that I find some kind of trouble with this. And I do. We all should. Because it's affecting our understanding of something very important in God's Word, something that we seem to know so well because almost all of us can repeat the words themselves, but if you look at how we're living it, we have to say...we're missing something. And what we're missing is the real meaning of those words, a meaning that is clouded because of our misunderstanding of what Temple worship actually is. 

Thus, let's talk about this. 

But first, let's talk about one more word that we get a little confused about.  

Friday, May 12, 2023

The Long Run

The last point I want to talk about as relates to running and the faith (although, this has been fun, hasn't it?) is the actual race itself. Because the truth is that the race almost never goes like you've prepared for it.

I've been running consistent intervals for a couple of months in preparation for the race that I ran last weekend. Even on my long training runs, my last mile took roughly the same amount of time as my first...and every one in between. I knew the rhythm that I wanted to run, and I had been practicing it. Not only practicing it, but was so comfortable in this rhythm that I could do it with my eyes closed. It was what my body was accustomed to doing, how I was used to performing. It was because of the consistency of this rhythm that I was confident - without a doubt in my mind - that I was going to hit that finish line. 

Then, race day. 

For some reason, starting the actual race is so different sometimes from starting a good, solid training run. I busted out of the gate ready to set a record time, even though I already knew from my training runs what my time would be. I came out faster than I had ever practiced, and after that, I never could really seem to get back down into my rhythm. 

So my first mile was almost 2 minutes faster than my training miles. By my sixth mile, I was pretty sure I was losing it, so that one was insanely fast, too, as I tried to catch up to my own body and ended up running harder there than I had planned, too. By mile 10, I wasn't sure I could run any more, and mile 12 took me almost twice as long as any of my training miles. 

When all was said and done, my race was wild and all over the place. No two miles, it seemed, were even close to each other. Despite months of extremely consistent training runs, I just didn't pull it off on race day. 

But my time was right where it should have been. I crossed the finish line right about when I thought I would. 

I did it. 

This is why training is so important. 

We invest our times in the things of the faith - in building our faith muscles strong - so that we can run the race. So that when crunch time comes, we're ready for it. So that when hard times fall, we're here. We know we can do it. We can look back on our training and trust in it. 

But we have to understand that when that time comes, it rarely, if ever, looks like what we've trained for. We can be absolutely sure of our faith, absolutely rock-solid on what we know and believe, but something about the can still throw us off our rhythm. It can still make us too fast here, too slow other places. Absolutely sure at the start, then a little less certain for a bit. It can make us waver here and there, looking for that solid ground. 

The truth is that during the actual race, in the midst of actual struggle, the rhythm doesn't always come as naturally as we think it should. Most, if not all, of us, are stuck searching to get back into that routine that we know so well, that rhythm that makes sense to our hearts and souls. We know that we know it. We know that it's in there. can be elusive for a bit. 

And you know what? That's okay. 

Because the truth is that our training is there. It does kick in. We do have the stamina and the strength to do what we've set out to do, to accomplish what we've had our eyes on from the beginning. It may not be the path or the rhythm that we thought we'd run, but we still make it. We still come through on the other side with our faith intact, knowing it's real. Knowing it's legit. Knowing it got us through. 

So if you're in that space right now where you're wondering what happened to your rhythm and it feels like maybe you're just trying to hold on to what you do have, take heart. It's okay. The race rarely goes the way you trained for it, but that training still pays off. It's still worth it. It will still get you there. 

You can count on it. 

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Fake Fuel

One of the more recent trends in distance running, or any endurance sport, is the use of gel packs and other "energy" supplements. We're not talking about mega-doses of caffeine like you might normally think about when you hear the word "energy," but rather, we're talking about "supplements" that claim to provide large doses of carbs or proteins or electrolytes or any of the other things your body typically processes for energy out of the foods you eat. 

In fact, even outside of racing, there is a huge market for supplements - an entire sector of the business community that exists to convince you that you do not receive the nutrients you need from the foods that you eat (which is, ironically, because the food industries have overprocessed everything in the first place and filled it with junk that has no purpose except to make it shelf-stable for longer than it was ever intended to be), so you need extra product packed with a punch just to make your body "normally" healthy.

The body, of course, has its own way of helping you know what you're diet is missing: it's called a craving. When you're low on protein, you crave meat. When you're low on carbs, you crave grains. (In an overprocessed society, you crave sugars, too.) But we live in a society that's been taught that cravings are based on nothing more than taste or boredom, and that it's better to "conquer" your cravings than to listen to them. 

So we have gel packs. That way, you can ensure that your body is "getting what it needs." 

But our bodies were not designed to process gel packs. They weren't. Our bodies were meant to digest food and to divvy up the components that are found therein to make the kinds of energies and fat stores and building blocks that the body needs to thrive. Your body gets more out of separating the components and finding what it needs than it does from just being "fed" what you think you're missing. The stuff you're looking for is more valuable when your body picks it apart from the other things than it is by itself. It is a necessary interplay. 

You can't just throw a bunch of ingredients into a gel pack and trust that the body knows what to do with that. Just like with many of the other over-the-counter supplements we buy, what we're really putting into our bodies, to quote a tv show I particularly enjoy, are "the ingredients for really expensive urine." Our bodies simply don't process synthetic products the way they are designed to process natural ones. So it doesn't matter what's in the gel pack; it matters how much of what's in there can get into your system. 

And the answer is: very, very little of it. The biggest effect these synthetic supplements have is the placebo effect - we feel better about ourselves for giving ourselves "fuel," even if what we're really doing is pumping gas next to the car. 

This is a big problem in our spiritual lives, too.

We live in a world of constant stimulation and easy access to all kinds of information. At the touch of a button, usually a button that we keep in our pockets all the time, we can listen to any number of other persons tell us about God. We can listen to preachers, singers, writers, friends, strangers, neighbors, "experts," academics, whoever tell us about the Bible and what certain passages mean and how God loves us and so much other stuff. 

What happens is that too many Christians are trying to substitute the wisdom and "authority" of others for a personal faith borne out of personal study, reflection, prayer, and experience. We're trying to create little gel packs of faith, little things we can throw into our hearts when we think we need them and make ourselves, somehow, stronger. Strong enough, at least, for our race. 

It's why we fill our houses with verses taken out of context and framed for the walls or embroidered for the pillows. There's just something about being able to look over and seeing, "I know the plans I have for you." 

But the truth is that this verse doesn't make any sense to the human soul, any real sense, unless you understand Babylon. And you don't understand Babylon by throwing a gel pack at it when it gets close. 

Just like our bodies, our faith can't run on substitutes. It's not built to process them in any meaningful way. That's why so many struggle with the faith and eventually lose it; they never had it to begin with. They weren't feeding themselves to grow. They were trying to take shortcuts that, at best, sound trendy and give them enough to look like they know what they're talking about. 

But just like real food, there's just no substitute for real faith. Doing the work ourselves - praying, reading the Bible, going to church, asking questions, wrestling in the dark, crying out from the depths, shouting from the rooftops - is the only thing that gives us what we need for our faith to truly thrive. 

Time to eat some real food. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Race Day

Ask a lot of runners what they're doing the night before a race, and they'll tell you they're "carb-loading." In other words, they're eating a lot of pasta. This is because of the way that the body processes carbs into energy; it's really the biggest bang for your buck when you're planning on going out and doing something that requires a lot of energy for a relatively short bit of time. You can get carbs into your system and access them pretty quickly for energy and then, they're gone. 

Carb-loading, and the big pasta night, have been a staple of distance running for a long time. 

And that's all well and good if that's what you want to do, I suppose. I'm not against a giant plate of pasta on any night, really. 

But like I've said - no one just gets up in the morning and decides to run a distance race, even if they had a big plate of pasta the night before. And this is where today's lesson comes in. 

Ask those runners what they do on the night before a long training run. Most of these runners have been putting in the time and putting in the distance to build up to 13.1 or 26.2 miles. They run 3 miles, then they run 4, then they run 5. Most of them get up to at least 10-11 miles before they even run the race, making sure they can run that distance comfortably. 

And most of them aren't having a giant plate of pasta before even a 10-mile training run. No, they trust that they've built up to it and that they can do 10 miles, and they just go out and get it. 

Some runners train with a water bottle, running every distance with the ability to take a sip of water whenever they need it. Then, they get to the race and depend upon the hydration stops planned along the route. They don't bring their own water bottle with them because they know that the race is providing water or Gatorade or whatever at every such-and-such a distance.

Some runners train comfortably just doing their regular thing, then they go out and buy a bunch of energy gel packs or whatever the popular thing is to carry with them during the actual race, in case they need some extra fuel along the way. 

What I'm saying is - there are a lot of runners out there that race far differently than they train. 

And I don't know why. 

If you're making a 10-mile training run without a giant plate of pasta, and it's a comfortable for you, why do you think you need it the night before the race? If you're training to run with water at your disposal, why are you leaving your water at home? If you've never needed a gel pack before in your life, why weigh yourself down with one during the race? 

There's something in us that wants our race to be perfect, that wants to have everything with us that we might possibly need. Something that doesn't quite trust in the training that we've put in. Something that wants a little cushion. (This is also why, by the way, we pack more for three days of vacation than we'll ever use in three months in our own home.) 

Why is it so hard for us to trust the training? Why is it so hard for us to believe that when we've put in the work and taught ourselves to trust in the strength that we've built...that it's not going to fail us when we most need it?

Why is it so hard for us to believe that when we've spent a lifetime building a trust in God, learning to rely on Him, leaning into His goodness...that He's not going to fail us when we need Him most? 

For some reason, the hard times hit, the world comes crashing down, we come to the place where it's time to put our faith into action...and a lot of us race differently than we've trained. All of a sudden, it doesn't seem to matter to us how many days God's gotten us through already. This day, for whatever reason, feels different. So we try a bunch of things we've never done before, convincing ourselves it's how it "has" to be done. Why? 

Why do we keep doing this? 

We've been training for this. Why can't we just trust that? 

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Hard Days

One of the common misunderstandings about training is that we are supposed to do it with the things that we're good at so that we become even better at them. We think about training as "the best of times" - whatever you're already good at, you just get better. Whatever is already easy for you just becomes a ton easier. That's why it's so easy for so many to say they don't need to train; they can already do this with their eyes closed. 

On their best days, it's so easy.

But you don't train for your best days. 

You train for your worst ones. 

You train for the days that are hard. The days that don't go the way that you planned. You train for the times when you aren't so naturally sure of yourself, when you have questions about whether you can or whether you can't. 

When I woke up on race morning, it wasn't the race morning I wanted. My body didn't feel strong. My stomach was unsettled from the previous night's meal (it happens sometimes, right?). I hadn't slept well. If you're making a checklist of all the things you want before you run 13.1 miles, I had almost none of them. As I laced up my running shoes, I wasn't sure if I would even get started, let alone make it the whole way. 

And if this had been the first day that I had tried to run, I wouldn't have. Plain and simple. I wouldn't have. 

But I've been training for this. I've been running on days just like this, and I've been running on better days, and I've been running on worse days. I've been lacing up these shoes and putting in the miles for months before race morning. So at the time when I most needed to know that I could, I already knew it. I had already been doing it. 

What kind of day I was having didn't matter. 

This is the problem that a lot of Christians run into. They aren't praying. They aren't reading their Bible. They aren't singing worship songs. They aren't going to church. Then, they wake up one morning and it's not the morning they wanted, and they don't know how to do that stuff. 

They go flipping through their Bible, desperately searching for encouragement. They bow their heads and fold their hands, but they don't know what to stay or even how to start. They turn on the radio, flip to the local worship channel, but they don't know the words and they can't get their hearts locked in on them. (Sometimes, the words just seem to make the pain worse.) They show up to church on Sunday, but they don't remember what to do once they get there. 

They're trying to make it through the hard days without any training. And why? Because on the good days, it hasn't seemed necessary. 

On good days, I know I can run a good pace. I never have to do it to prove it to myself. I can feel it in my bones; I know it's there. 

On good days, I know God is good. I don't have to have the evidence; I can feel it in my bones. I know He's there. 

But we don't train for the good days. And that's precisely why we train at all - because hard days are coming. 

Are you ready for them? 

Monday, May 8, 2023

Training Day

Two days ago, I ran a half-marathon. (For those of you not in the running world, that's 13.1 miles.) But as you can probably imagine, I didn't just wake up two days ago and decide to run a half-marathon. It's a decision I made many months ago, and I've spent the time in between training for this distance. 

We live in a world that participates less and less in things that we have to train for. Today's younger generations are too often taught that if they aren't naturally good at something, they shouldn't pursue it; and if they are naturally good at it, they shouldn't have to practice. So most of our culture only does what they are naturally good at and only as well as they are naturally good at it, and...we're suffering for that. 

The same is true in the church, by the way. We ask for teachers for the children's ministry, and someone says they wouldn't be good at that. We ask for volunteers for the worship ministry, and someone says they are only a mediocre musician. We ask for someone to get up and read the Scriptures, and someone says they don't read or speak very well. We always seem to have an excuse as to why we can't do something or why someone shouldn't expect us to do something, and that excuse always seems to be the same: 

I'm not naturally good at that.

That is, actually, only half of an excuse; it's the half that we're willing to admit because it's the half that's more socially acceptable and seemingly universally-understood. 

The second half, though, is this: 

And I'm not willing to put in the work to get better.

That's what you're really saying. When you say that you're not good at something so you're not going to do it, you're also saying that you're not willing to put in the effort to even try to get better. You aren't willing to practice. You won't train for it. 

Honestly, that's no way to live. You're going to miss out on so many things that God wants to do in you, with you, and through you if you aren't willing to train for some things. If you aren't willing to practice and to get better. 

Want to know the dirty little secret? Really? 

None of us is naturally good at anything. 

Every single one of us is born naked, crying, unable to use a toilet, unable to speak. Not one of us comes out of the womb walking. Not one of us comes out potty-trained. Not one of us comes out eloquent. We all come out naked and squirming and screaming our heads off. And the only reason that we (well, most of us) aren't still naked, squirming, and screaming as adults is because we put in the work that it takes to learn how to take care of ourselves, to walk, to talk, to do things

We trained for being human. It's the only way we got here. 

Every single thing that you are "naturally good at," you trained to be able to do. You trained to throw a ball. You trained to do math. You trained to speak publicly. There was a point in your life, no matter what it is, that you couldn't do that thing, no matter how "naturally" good at it you are today. 

The sad part is that for too many of us, when we figured out we were "naturally" good at it, we stopped training, and we never got better than we already thought we were. 

I spent most of my life as, get this, not a runner. Seriously. I ran as a kid when I had to, but never for fun; I didn't take up running as recreation until I was 30 years old. Thirty. And I'm not naturally good at it now. I train to be a runner. 

There are a few other things I've been thinking about regarding training, particularly with race day, and I want to share those with you this week. I think they're important, whether you're running a race or just trying to live a faithful life.  

Friday, May 5, 2023

Walk Away

While we're on the topic of being called and equipped and not having to go after every thorny tree that is anywhere adjacent to your path, can we talk about some really toxic advice that we keep giving one another and can we instead give ourselves permission to say better things? 

The toxic advice that we always seem to fall back on is, "Push through." Perseverance is everything. God wants you to conquer everything that comes your way. 

We couch this sometimes, as we've also talked about recently, in religious language. "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." "God wants to use you so mightily." "God put this in your path for a reason." 

It all sounds nice, but it's not necessarily true. (Note: it's not "necessarily" true. Sometimes, it is. But sometimes, it's not.) 

There are plenty of things in this broken world that God never intended for you to encounter. God never wanted you to have to deal with them. Just because God made snakes to bite doesn't mean you're supposed to go hold out your hand to every snake and hope you get bitten. (Yes, I know there are churches who believe in this; I don't attend one of them. It's just the example that popped into my mind.) God sends lightning, but He doesn't expect you to stand outside with a metal pole. Cancer happens; God never intended you to be diagnosed with it. 

Just because something exists in the fallen world doesn't mean we have to embrace it. And more than that, we don't have to fix it. 

That's what a lot of us spend our time doing, and it's what our toxic advice is so often meant to convey: this world is broken, and every time you triumph over a broken thing, you put a little bit of it back together. Isn't that what we think is really happening here? Isn't that what we've convinced ourselves we're actually doing? Every time we refuse to run away from a fight, every time we stick it out and persevere, we are beating the devil back just that little bit and taking back a little bit of God's Kingdom. 

Never mind whether we are called or equipped for that fight. We fight it anyway, and we encourage others to fight it anyway, because we fight on God's side, whether or not He ever enlisted us into this army. 

Let me be perfectly clear about this. Are you ready?

There is no battle in this world that you have to win to push the devil back a little bit. He's already been defeated. There is no fight you have to stay engaged in or risk losing everything. The victory is already secure. Christ on the Cross and the empty tomb have assured everything in this world that we have convinced ourselves we have to fight for. So...why are we still fighting?

Remember, I'm talking here about battles you haven't been called to. Fights you haven't been equipped for. Certainly, there are things God calls and equips us to do that require a lot of fight, but just because there's a fight in front of you doesn't mean you have to engage it. Just because there's a fight in front of you doesn't mean God has called you to it. 

We spend so much of our time trying to encourage one another in fights that we were never meant to be in. What I would love to see is us, as a people of faith, more willing to give different advice. I would love for us to be able to look at one another and say, "This isn't your fight. Walk away."

Walk away. 

I would love for us to be a people who give this permission more often. Who give this encouragement more often. Because we're wasting our time and energy trying to save the world on behalf of, get this, our Savior, who has already done that for us. 

What if we just believed that? What if we just looked at the fight, realized it's not ours, realized it's already been won and our participation isn't going to change that one iota, realized we're neither called nor equipped here, and walked away

I think it would change a lot for many of us, particularly in how we practice our faith. 

And I know what you're thinking, but let me say this: trusting in the work of the Cross, believing wholly in the empty tomb, and walking away on account of those two things when there's no calling nor equipping for this fight? That's faith, too. Trust me. That's faith, too.  

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Digging Thorns

As we talk about thorns and the beauty and holiness that God brings out of the most thorny things, it's important that we talk about at least one more thing. 

We have already seen that God calls us and equips us to deal with thorns when they are part of His holy plan, when He's using them to do something beautiful and holy. This was the case when building the Tabernacle, for example. God called and equipped the workers to work with the thorny wood. 

My guess is that, if God had just given His people the plans for what He wanted to build in any situation and told them to go out and find the materials, most of them would not have chosen acacia wood. Most of them would have gone to great lengths to avoid having to work with the thorny acacia. They might even have shipped wood in from other parts of the region just to not have to touch those thorns. 

The first thought in their mind would not have been, "This is for the Lord and the Lord loves hard things! Let us choose the most difficult wood among us, the one with the most thorns, for then, this work shall be truly glorious for Him!" 

And yet, there are a lot of us who do just that. 

There are so many of us who are walking the path God has given us, faithfully working our way through the life we have been called to navigate, and then, we see an acacia tree just off to the side. We see that tree, we see its thorns, and we think to ourselves, "God must want me to tackle that. Look how hard and painful it looks!" 

Then, we turn in the direction of the acacia tree and try to take hold of it with our bare hands, uncalled and unequipped. 

Then, we have the audacity to ask God why our lives are so hard. We blame Him for the trouble that we've encountered, and all sorts of questions start to rise in our hearts about why kind of God this must be to create a life so hard for us. 

It's important to reiterate here - a lot of times, God never asked us to get off the path. He never told us to go after those thorns. He didn't call us to them, and He didn't equip us for them. That's how we know. 

Yet, there remains this narrative within the church that the harder a thing is, the more glory it brings to God. No, my friends. The more faithful a thing is, the more glory it brings to God, and not every thorn is a faithful endeavor. Sometimes, the best thing you can do in faith is to just keep walking and leave those thorns alone. 

You don't get more heaven points for conquering more hard things. You don't get more love from God for man-handling the thorns. You don't get to share some of the glory because you, you used acacia wood when you didn't have to. None of that matters as much as sometimes the preaching in the church implies that it matters. 

You are already as loved by God as you're ever going to be - fully. You don't need heaven points. And the glory is never yours. Sorry. 

So stop going after the thorns that God hasn't called or equipped you to handle. Stop thinking you have to take that detour every time it presents itself so that you can go off-road and conquer one more challenge. That's not how God works, and it's not what He's looking for. 

He's looking for faith. 

And sometimes, faith means to just keep walking.  

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Thorns and Roses

Why does it matter that we understand how God used thorny wood throughout the Bible? What difference does it make to our faith? 

There are probably a lot of answers here, but I'll share with you the one that first jumped into my heart when I came to understand how dangerous the acacia tree is. 

You've probably heard a saying that goes something along the lines of, "You can be bitter that rose bushes have thorns, or you can be grateful that thorn bushes have roses." And this is, I think, the very spiritual truth that many of us need to hear. 

One of the biggest questions that persons have about Christianity, whether they've never been a Christian at all or have sometimes been in the church for an entire lifetime, is how on earth bad things keep happening if God is supposed to be good. Why is the world the way it is if God always has goodness and love in His heart? 

I think the answer is the acacia tree. 

See, it shows us that God has never been afraid to work with the ugly things of this world. He's never been afraid to get right down into the thicket, into the thorns. He is perfectly skilled at removing the thorns and making something beautiful - even something holy - out of what lies beneath. Something that, we must remember, is strong, yet workable. 

Not only that, but God has continually called us to do the same. 

God didn't make His own Tabernacle; He just gave the plans and then called the craftsman to do it. And gifted him for he work. 

God didn't make His own Ark; He called Noah to do it. And gifted him for the work. 

God didn't make His own Cross; He allowed the Romans to do it. And history tells us they were quite gifted at the work. 

God calls us to make things out of the thorns. God calls us to strip them away and get down to what is beautiful and holy. God calls us to use some of the most dangerous, most painful things in the world to bring glory to His name. 

And He gifts us for the work. 

For me, this is a blessed reminder when the hard days come. When the world seems weird or wrong or broken. When I'm wandering through a wilderness thick with thorns that are more like needles, more like the acacia tree. 

Because just look at everything those thorns have already made. 

Imagine what else could come of this.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

A Thorny Situation

So what could I have possibly learned from watching Naked and Afraid that would change the way that I understand the Bible?

How thorny the acacia tree is. 

On many episodes, I watch as these survivalists trek through the density of whatever locale they've been dropped in, and they are often trying to navigate difficult terrain made even more difficult by all of the thorns and briars that exist in these wild places. And many a time, it's the acacia tree that is their greatest foe. 

Now, if you live in America like me and I say the word "thorn," you likely think of a small little barb on a rose bush. A prick of a little thing that gives you very little space to put your hands in between. But that would not be an accurate visual representation of the acacia tree. On a wild acacia tree, the "thorns" are as long as needles, poking inches out in every direction and from nearly every pore on the tree. These things are more needles than they are bark, it seems, and while it might be difficult to find a place to touch a rose stem, it is impossible to find a place to touch an acacia tree. You have to chop that thing down from a distance and then hack those "thorns" off before you can even get anywhere near the wood.

How does this change the way I understand the Bible? 

Simple. One of the most commonly-used woods in Scripture is...acacia wood. 

It was readily available in the areas in which our biblical characters lived. It was a good wood for building - strong, yet still workable. 

So many things in our Bible were made out of acacia wood. Most famously, the Ark of the Covenant was. In fact, most of the stuff that was made for the Tabernacle while Israel was wandering in the wilderness, the very first house of God among His people, was made of acacia wood. If it called for wood, it was acacia. 

There are some translations that indicate that parts, if not all, of Noah's Ark was made of acacia wood. (Other translations say gopherwood. Some scholars believe those might be the same, or very similar, woods. Some do not. It's complicated.) But if it's acacia, can you imagine stripping off enough thorns to make the Ark

Some scholars have even speculated that it was on an acacia tree that Jesus was crucified. The wood, they said, would have been good for it. The thorns, I suppose, an added bonus to the excruciating nature of the practice. (I think "excruciating" comes from the same root as "crucified." Bonus fun.) 

It's not like there weren't other trees around. It's not like there wasn't other vegetation. (And certainly, we must add, there were no hardware stores; whatever wood God's people needed to use, they had to harvest and handle themselves.) But God keeps using acacia wood. 

God keeps calling His people to the thorniest, toughest, most skin-pricking wood to build things for Him - an Ark, perhaps two, and perhaps even a Cross, where the thorns that should have been on the tree were instead wrapped around His brow. 

This says something, doesn't it? This deepens our understanding of God, doesn't it? It feels important. It feels like it changes things.  

Monday, May 1, 2023

Crown of Thorns

When we think of thorns in the Bible, we think most immediately of the crown of thorns placed on Jesus's head. What an image that is! The King Himself crowned with thorns, pushed into His brow until they drew little drips of blood that coursed down His face and caked over His compassion-filled eyes. 

It's quite a scene. We have come to know well what those thorns mean. 

Or have we? 

If I asked you to think about another act of saving grace in the Bible that involved quite a bit of thorns, could you do it? Think really hard. Harder. Harder.... If you're like me, you can't think of another single biblical story that has thorns so prominently woven (pun intended) into it. 

You might be thinking it must be some kind proverb somewhere. Something about a thorn in the side, perhaps. Something about being pierced by the underthicket of life. That sounds like God. At the very least, it sounds like Solomon. Maybe Ecclesiastes? That was full of a weird blend of hope and cynicism; a thorn would fit nicely there. 

Maybe you're thinking about Eden. About the Garden. Specifically, about the curse. Were there thorns there? Certainly, thorns sound like part of the curse. That's got to be it. 

This is where a little knowledge about our world can greatly enhance our understanding of the Bible. This is where investing ourselves in learning about things outside of our own context can help us. The story about thorns that I'm thinking of is a story I have read a thousand times and not once understood how thorny a story it really is. 

Because I live in America. Because I live in the Midwest, where so much of "outside" looks the same and if you can learn a few basic facts about bushes and trees and grasses, you can pretty much go anywhere in a 7-state region and recognize stuff. Because I haven't had a whole lot of exposure to things outside of my small corner of the world and haven't really thought about it. 

I mean, a rose is a rose is a rose, right? And roses have thorns.

We do this all the time. We take what we know about the world and we put it into the stories we hear, even if it doesn't contextually fit. This is how we ended up with an image of a white-skinned Jesus, even though we know in our heads what part of the world He lived in. We look around, we see the majority of what we experience in our world, and we think that other things must be kind of like that. So we throw our own categories into the stories so that they make sense to us. 

There's nothing inherently "wrong" about this; it's how we understand the world. If we couldn't use things we understand as starting points, we would never learn anything new. We wouldn't have mental boxes to put them in or to pull things out of to start figuring new things out. It's just how we're wired. 

But if we operate only this way, if we don't get out of those mental boxes and grow them, learn new things, stretch our knowledge base and our imaginations, we miss out on so much. As I did for years reading this well-loved, well-known Bible story that involves far more thorns than I ever imagined. 

And actually, the story I'm going to share with you tomorrow (because I wanted to create SOME measure of suspense for you and give you some time to chew on it) comes from a revelation I had while indulging in one of my favorite guilty pleasures: watching a marathon of Naked and Afraid

How could that help me understand something new about God? Stay tuned; this one's good.