Leave Them in the Pit

If your child were in need and the only way that you could get them help would require you breaking the law, do not tell me you would not do it. Don’t tell Jesus either. He would not commend you for your piety.

The law was clear in regards to the Sabbath. No work was to be done. But, it is ridiculous to think that if your child fell into a pit on the Sabbath, you would wait until Sunday to pull him out.1 (Although, a day in a pit might be good for them:) Religious adherence was not the point of the Sabbath. The point was creating a healthy rhythm of life for God’s people. It was a gift of rest. As Jesus put it, “Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”2

David and his men ate bread from the temple that, by law, only the priests could eat. But, the circumstances surrounding that event, the context, prioritized their need before the law.3 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment (discernment) of God rather than burnt offerings.”4 Kindness and compassion are more absolute than the religious law.5

Human hunger matters more than the holiness of a piece of bread. Restoration of someone’s health is not to be impeded by a religious law. It seems obvious, especially when we read about the astounding stubbornness of the Pharisees. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law.6

“Sorry crippled man. Ain’t no healing available today.”  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “It’s the Sabbath.”

This does not mean that the Bible and its teaching are to be treated frivolously or are simplistically relative. I am not saying, nor was Jesus implying that the only thing God wants from us is kindness. What this means is that you can site a seemingly clear biblical teaching and still miss the point. A “The Bible says it, that finishes it” approach is theologically shallow and lazy. Romans 13 does not permit us to let our government go unchecked. It does not free us from intellectual Christan engagement of policies. At the same time, we cannot simply remind everyone to love their enemies as if that in itself solves the most complicated questions regarding human violence, evil and the like.

The way of Jesus demands more from us than our talking points. My family’s safety and yours are important to me, but protecting my family does not let me off the hook of my moral responsibility to the hurting and needy. If you lived in Aleppo, you would do whatever you could to get your family out of there. You would not care about any immigration law or some border. Your kid’s safety and quality of life trump everything else. (see what I did there?)

My goal is not to change your mind about any certain policy, but simply to season the speech that is the overflow of your heart. Do not talk about “keeping the terrorists out” without expressing compassion for those truly in need of refuge. Leaving someone in the pit because it is the Sabbath misses the point. You may not be sure how to get them out (how to solve the problem) but, acknowledging the need, the moral imperative to do so, is a good starting point.

Withholding mercy cannot be justified by appealing to your duty to uphold some religious or civic law. To do so is to forget the mercy and grace that have been afforded you.

1 Luke 14:5
2 Mark 2:27
3 Mark 2:25-26
4 Hosea 6:6
5 We Make the Road by Walking Brian McLaren pg108
6 Galatians 5:22-23

Praying with Your Legs

I remember praying the first time I was unemployed for things to change. That is right. The first time. I have been unemployed three times in my life. Once I quit. Another time I was laid off due to a shrinking budget and the last time I was basically fired. Not a stellar track record. My poor wife and kids… I am talking about the first time. Obviously, I prayed for a job. I prayed for a good job that would provide us financial, emotional and mental comfort. In a word “peace” – peace from what I was feeling like at that point. None of us are immune to the pain that causes our faith to feel like spreading rocks beneath us eroding into frustration, anger, and dark despondency. Why? Where is God? What good is God if he does not even help in times like these? That whole “Footprints in the Sand” poem does not help me. Maybe I am too cynical.

Hope emerged and faded so often and quickly that it seemed to hurt more than it helped. I remember looking out a window unsure of what to do with myself after getting lost again in the rabbit hole of searching for jobs on the internet. My inner dialogue seemed to blur the line between thinking and praying. Suddenly, the phone rang, as if a phone rings with any other timing than suddenly, and I was pulled out of the tangled mess of my mind. It was a friend, a business owner, and he had a job offer. Hallelujah. Jehovah Jireh.

Joke. It did not happen that way. Nobody called, This whole thing did not end abruptly, easily or gloriously. It kind of just faded out of view in the background over way too many miles as we drove away going up and down hills.

My struggle with God then was not just about him answering or not answering me. I wondered if I even deserved to be answered. I was asking for something a lot of people do not have. Why what makes me so special that he would just magically make it happen? I was unemployed, but I lived in a nice house with a good family and a lot of “things.” What I wanted was to be able to pay for it all without stress while loving my work. On one hand, I felt like a Christian sitting at slot machine wondering why the infidel next you is winning when you at least try to serve God and would probably at least do a little good with it. That guy will just blow it on himself. (Yes, I did that.) On the other hand, I knew as I sat there wanting a blessing, there were kids starving to death who would not get an answer and who would eventually completely die from a lack of food. There I sat stuck between “Is this too much to ask? A little help here!” and “Nevermind God. You should go help someone with bigger problems.”

This is the problem with believing in miracles. Because, if they can happen, why do they not happen to me? For every one person healed, a million others still die. He healed the physically sick, the physically deformed, the mentally ill. He brought people back to life. He made a bunch of wine out of water which is really less serious than all of the other miracles but seems fun.

John calls them signs. These were points in time where the entire wavelength of our faith was condensed into one moment. For that person, at that time, everything was made new. That in a phrase is the Christian hope. Everything will be made new.

Yet, we are not to sit by the pool and wait for someone to push us into the miraculous water.

“I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” – Frederick Douglas (From a speech in 2011 after the Bowling Green Massacre. Just kidding my politically informed friends.)

Praying with your legs is what we know as walking by faith and not by site. We do not walk because of what we see around us. We walk because of what we do not see. Right now, we sigh and make muffled growling noises of frustration. We feel burdened and are exhausted from the chemical reactions taking place in these bodies we now live in caused by stress and worry. We long for a different existence.1 The only way to survive this is to walk by faith and not by the results, or lack of, that we witness. This is what people of faith have always been commended for.2

“When Jesus speaks about the world he is very realistic. He speaks about wars and revolutions, earthquakes, plagues and famines, persecution and imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and assassinations. There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world already belonging to the kingdom of joy.” Henri Nouwen

So, we do not move forward hoping for the miraculous to take place in order to make today or tomorrow better. We move forward with hope because of the miraculous that has already taken place and is promised to take place again once and for all.

What this means is that your struggle is not due to a lack of faith. Your existence in that struggle is a testimony of your faith. Today, do not take heart in what you see around you. If you are waiting for things to start looking up in order to find the strength to get up and walk, you will be laying there a long time. Take heart in the faith that moves beyond simply promising tomorrow will better and promises that eventually, it will be better forever.

 

1 2 Corinthians 5:1-7
2 Hebrews 11:1-2

Citizenship

I have never been comfortable with the word “sermon.” It sounds too stuffy and distant. So, I have never been satisfied with calling the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 “The Sermon on the Mount.” That title does not even come close to capturing the weight of what he was saying. This is not just a collection of moral instruction. It is a charter, a constitution for a new nation, a new kingdom. The kingdom of Heaven.  Israel was not the kingdom of Heaven. America is not the kingdom of Heaven. These are nations of men. Jesus calls us out of our national identity and citizenship into a citizenship in a new nation. It is a spiritual kingdom that transcends the physical borders of land, ethnicity and human culture. We are called to allegiance to this kingdom of Heaven first, foremost, and solely.

This “Sermon on the Mount” is, in essence, the political platform of this new kingdom. It is the spiritual infrastructure of kingdom culture. As Brian McLaren called it, it is a “Kingdom Manifesto” – a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization. This manifesto is our platform. It is our political agenda. We are not Republicans, Democrats, or Libertarians, we are Kingdom Citizens. We espouse a greater agenda than any party platform compromised by the failings of men.

The nations of men honor the politically powerful, wealthy, and attractive. They consider athletic ability a blessing, give awards to each other, and clap for the successful.
In the kingdom of Heaven, the meek, peacemakers, seekers of righteousness, neglected and hurting are to be honored. These are the characteristics of those worthy to lead, to be celebrated and to be voted for. (Matthew 5:1-11)

In the nations of men, the truth is hard to discern. Deceit and spin are the norms.
Kingdom citizens are to be illuminators of clarity and goodness. If we compromise, we lose any effective influence. (Matthew 5:13-16)

In the nations of men, one’s character is often defended by comparing it to the actions of another accused of worse infractions as if “not as bad” is an acceptable assessment.
Kingdom citizens are not satisfied with control over our actions, but with eradicating from our hearts that which is not of God. A man is not accurately assessed by reviewing his rap sheet. His heart and mind are where his true character resides. (Matthew 5:20-30)

Technicalities, loopholes, confusing contracts and the easy way out clog the courtrooms of men. The short-lived relationships of celebrities clutter our headlines and infidelity is a multi-billion dollar business.
Kingdom citizens are people of kept promises to our spouses and to everyone we deal with. We forgo personal expedience and honor our commitments. We do not settle for half truths. (Matthew 5:31-37)

In the nations of men “Kill them all” and “Bomb the heck out of them” are common mantras, fear rules and the humanity of others is devalued. In the nations of men, we brag about our abilities to kill others and take pride in our capacity for violence.   
Kingdom citizens end the cycle of violence by loving our enemies and not seeking revenge. (Matthew 5:38-48)

Men seek fame and status. Public servants often become nothing more than sociopathic power mongers. Their good deeds are little more than self-serving political stunts. Preachers become tv personalities and stylish, whitened-teeth figures. 
Kingdom citizen’s religious practices are free of selfishness and attention seeking. When our faith communities become narcissistic, pats on our backs from each other are all we get. (Matthew 6:1-18)

The nations of men worship the dollar and build fragile economies. They are concerned with the clothes worn on the red carpet, climb the ladder of greed at all costs and their stomachs are their gods.  
Kingdom citizens live life from the greater perspective of the larger story. We transcend the smaller stories of fear and worry written by men and our shallow, consumeristic desires. (Matthew 6:19-34)

In the nations of men, the line between good and evil runs between us and them. We are the sophisticated and they are the savages. We are “the legal” and they are “the illegal.”
Kingdom citizens look at others through the lens of grace. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Pledging allegiance to Jesus means embracing this kingdom manifesto and participating in this God-culture that is counterintuitive to the culture of men. But, I am afraid we have diluted this message with the influence of political parties and nearsighted, man-made agendas.

I acknowledge the difficult position followers of the way of Jesus find ourselves in as we attempt to navigate our political landscape. All of this is much more complex than an 800-word blog post can address. But, my point is not to tell you how to vote or to present answers to our most difficult challenges as a nation. My point is to remind us to not sell out, not to compromise, not to justify and to not let anyone person or group commandeer our voice. I seek only to remind you of the nation of your true citizenship. As you physically reside in the kingdoms of men, you yourselves are aliens. Live as such and do not fail to maintain the culture of the kingdom.

The Crutch of Christianity

This was less of a provocation and more of a question. It was a question of his identity. “If you are him, prove it.” But typically, when we read that weird story of Jesus going into the desert and being asked to provide a proof of identity, we read it more as a story of resisting sin. The lessons we can take from this story when read as an example of sin resistance are good and beneficial. But, I do not believe this is first and foremost what is happening here.1

Christianity is often maligned as a crutch, as simply a way for people to create a mental and emotional context that enables them to deal with life as we know it. Unfortunately, I think this criticism is accurate. It is an accurate judgment of the faith we have most broadly made known.

Essentially, we have pared down a globally transformative movement to a personal relationship –  a personal relationship founded on morals and therapy. It is what we are known for; the parsing of every action and choice in order to label that which is sin and that which is not. Our moral conclusions have become our mission statements. Amid the struggles and pain of life in this sinful world, we turn to God for therapy so we can cope. Our language is deluded with corny clichés and our music has become little more than love notes from God written by us to ourselves. But, Christianity is not a crutch. We have just made it one.

Morals, therapy, personal relationship… these all have a place in a larger context. Apart from this context, they are inadequate fragments.  The story of the testing of Jesus is not just about resisting sin. To take heart in the part of the story where the angels attended him in his weakened, but victorious state and to declare “Glory, hallelujah!” as we are filled with hope that God will do the same for us is missing a larger framework. At times our faith is little more than therapeutic deism.

In refusing to prove himself to satan, Jesus declares his identity to us. He is authoring a new faith. It is a faith of renewal and restoration back to the original intentions of God – God’s intentions for all of creation. This new faith holds out the promise of being fully realized in the future as we realize it incrementally now. It is a faith that speaks to our economy locally and globally, our education, our business practices, our community priorities and every aspect of life as we know it. This faith includes us as individuals for the benefit of all and not just ourselves.

Morality and therapy fit within this framework. This faith is a decision that begins with you personally. Will you personally be a part of this movement of restoration? Being a part of it will demand a new, counterculture way of living. It will require a commitment to being pure of heart and peacemaking. It will be emotionally depleting. You will need a place to recover where you are reminded that you are loved.

Social justice does not happen without individual transformation. Apart from moral development, justice is short lived. Moral development separated from creative altruism2 is nothing more than fundamentalism. To argue from one side against the other is missing the comprehensive point. Something that I believe our current Christian narrative does far too often.

 

1 Matthew 4
2 “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Disillusioned Bohemian

It’s always something. There is always someone. Some way to be better. Someone better. The new healthier way to eat. The latest in intentional parenting. That book you have to read. That speaker that you have to listen to. There is that friend who seems to live so free, off the grid. The other friend who you see traveling every time you make the mistake of checking your news feed. There is that one couple’s marriage that seems a thousand times happier than yours. That one guy with that unbelievable career.

Then there’s you. You don’t have enough time to chop all those vegetables so you can eat clean. You do not live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and you can’t make your own bio fuel out of used cooking oil. Your kids watch a lot of Netflix. That last time you went to the mom’s group you knew for sure you had to be the very worst mother of them all. You want to escape the rat race and live free in the woods or on the beach, but you love amazon prime, showers and your kids have too many toys for that tiny house.

That other lifestyle is so much more hip, healthier, exciting, deeper souled…than yours.

Simplifying, eating heathier, becoming a more soulful person…enhancing your lifestyle is good. We can all become better. But, do not believe the lie.

Bohemian – having informal and unconventional social habits. We generally stereotype them as hippies, writers, artists… he was less peacenik and more activist. He grew up in the system. He was all set to be a revered leader in the system. But, the system was flawed and he would have felt like a sellout if he just played the game. So, he left. He went all bohemian, left town, wore weird clothes and ate organic. He had an edge though. He was kind of an angry bohemian who did not leave to simply break free and live quietly. He left because it was time for a revolution. He railed against the flawed status quo and the people who upheld it. He called out the abusers of power and exposed them for what they were.

It was his destiny and he fulfilled it. He was a pioneer – a path forger, but he was cognizant of his limitations. The movement was bigger than him. He brought the matches. Someone else would ignite the fire.

“Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?”1 John, from prison sent this message, this question to Jesus. What did he mean “Are you the one or should we expect someone else?” He had to know he was the one. They were related. Undoubtedly, he heard the prophecy about him too. And, when Jesus came to be baptized by John, he not only recognized Jesus’ greatness, but God declared it.2 He knew who he was.

This was more of a respectful way of John saying “I don’t get it Jesus. This revolution is anemic. Is anything happening? And hey, I am in jail. Are you the Messiah or not? Get me out! Make something happen.”

Sometime it all feels like talk. They simplified and then they had kids and minimalism became much more elusive. She ate healthy, but still got cancer. Their cool, adventurous marriage ended in divorce. That diet ended up not being the best after all and everyone has moved onto the next fad. Sometimes we try to get all bohemian, reinvent our lives and break out of the status quo. It might work for a while, but then the jail door of reality shuts and we are stuck again.

It is the same with churches. We use words like vision and talk about attacking poverty and “doing” social justice. Sometimes it just feels like we talk a lot and accomplish little. Sure, we fed them, painted their house, or provided Christmas. They got hungry again, the paint eventually peeled, Christmas came again and their finances were not any better. What is this Jesus? Does anything ever change? Are we throwing pebbles in the ocean hoping we might create a wave when we barely generate a ripple? What are we doing?

Jesus sent John an answer.

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”3

To the disillusioned He says “Take heart. It is happening.”

Your effort matters – to be healthier, less stressed, more generous and soulful. Our efforts as faith communities to participate in taking care of others in our neighborhoods, spiritually and physically, matter. Often our disillusionment comes from missing the point of idealism. The ideal will never be fully realized here and now. Idealism is a direction like East or West. There will always be a “West” no matter how vigorously you chase it. So, move, but not to the peril of your own psyche, contentedness and presence in today. Look to the horizon, but maintain perspective.

 

1Matthew 11:3
2Matthew 3:13-17
3 Matthew 11:4-5
4 Matthew 11:11

 

Sleeping with the Fishes

To the contemporary ear, it sounded like something from The Godfather, but with an ancient twist. Dumped in the ocean with concrete shoes. Left to sleep with the fishes. But, it did not come from the lips of a Sicilian crime boss or a short, stocky hitman. Jesus said it.

“It would better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and drowned in the depths of the sea.”1 Concrete shoes. Sleeping with the fishes. He had moved surprisingly quickly from a gentle moment of encouraging his disciples to be more childlike to a brutal warning of a gruesome end. A gruesome end for the exploiters, abusers and deceivers of children.

His disciples were once again arguing about their own greatness. Self-consumed full of themselves. So, Jesus had a child come and stand among them. Immediately shaking them back into an awareness beyond themselves as they stared into the eyes of innocence and vulnerability. He calls them down from their towers of aggressive, self-assuredness and into peaceful, benevolent trust. In the kingdom of heaven, the uncorrupted soul of a child is honored.

And if you corrupt it, there will be hell to pay. As soon as Jesus himself took his first breath on earth, he was under the threat of violence from men. Children were massacred at the hands of a man who perceived his power was threatened. Threatened by a child. In our violent and savage world, children are indeed innocent victims. They are the casualties of our warring desires.

They are the innocent victims of poverty. The blameless victims of war. They are the orphaned and discarded. They are powerlessly and unknowingly corrupted by those in authority who should know better. Then, they become like us. They become us. For this, we deserve millstones tied around our necks and left to sleep with the fishes.

It all seems so complicated. Politics, foreign policy, healthcare, poverty, education, religion, culture wars… There are no simple answers that provide immediate remedies to our matted, dread-locked societal problems. But, this is where we go wrong and get bogged down. Finding a solution is not the starting point. We begin with finding the appropriate posture.

In the middle of the argument, Jesus invites a child to stand among them and calls them to a childlike ethos. Here, in this innocent, vulnerable, authentic and uncorrupted state, viable, just and generous answers to our most convoluted problems are found.

So pause. Stop the words, the brainstorming, the typing, the inner dialogue. Interrupt the meeting and invite in a child to stand among you. Be reminded not only to approach each other with the essence of a child, but to think deeply about how your words and decisions will ultimately affect the souls of our young. Bring a baby into the elder’s meeting before you decide what to do with the minster. Bring an underprivileged 2nd grader into the booth when you vote on the levy or vouchers. Bring someone’s kids into the board room before you make that policy decision that only benefits the investors.

If we were to lay everything else aside and assess ourselves as individuals, churches, states, and as a human race solely on the state of our children, would we have any case to make before God? We would not. And in act of redeeming grace, He would patiently loose each knot that we have tied from around the necks of our children and slip the millstone necklace slowly over our heads. And rightly so, we will all sleep with the fishes.

 

1 Matthew 18:6

The Body of Mary

“This is my body, broken for you.”1 Hours before his death, Jesus took this ancient meal, a celebrated memorial of freedom from enslavement, and reimagined it. It was now to be a celebrated memorial of the freedom of all people through his whole-self sacrifice. In a way, they echo the very words of his mother spoken more than thirty years before. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”2

When a woman says yes to motherhood, she says yes to whole-self sacrifice. She says yes to the physical devastation that comes with having your body pulled, pushed and stretched from the inside out for months on end. She says yes to a twisted, life-long dance with moments of gut-wrenching low notes and soft, floating highs. Motherhood requires an exhausting balance of delicateness able to support the fragile and yet brute strength needed to defend and endure. In essence, saying yes to motherhood is saying “This is my entire self, broken for you.”

In Mary, we see the embodiment of “offering oneself as a living sacrifice.” We see a renewed mind open to the unknown will of God beyond our finite terrestrial understanding.3 In her words, we hear an understanding of God’s will freed from the tangles of our cultural norms. In our world, the rich and powerful are considered blessed. In our world, royalty gives birth to royalty. In the culture of the kingdom of God, however, the humble are revered and kings are born from the wombs of unknown commoners.4

But, Mary had no idea what indeed she was saying yes too. There was no “What to Expect When You are Expecting a Fully God Fully Human Baby” book. She gave birth in a barn while on the run. The government wanted her son dead. The religious leaders would eventually want the same. He went missing when he was a tween and thought his parents were crazy for wondering where he went. He could make alcohol miraculously. Imagine if your teen could do that? (And, by the way, it seemed like when they ran out of wine at the wedding that Mary immediately knew that Jesus could fix it. How did she know that? Had she had him make some miraculous wine before? Hmmm…)

His ministry of mercy and grace toward everyone else would lead to years of stress and sorrow for her. All over the region she watched as crowds adored him while others despised him. Some said he was a prophet and others said he was a drunk. The most powerful among them plotted his death, while the most vulnerable washed his feet. She watched as he was tortured and she witnessed his final breath.

On this side of the cross the words “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said,” should drop with ominous weight. Self-sacrifice is a dense and unwieldy burden. It leads to healing through a broken body and cleansing through shed blood. In the often and unfortunate shallowness of our holiday season, our pristine nativity scenes fail to truly tell not only the story of the baby in the manger, but they fail to encapsulate the reality of the young mother who months earlier laid down on an altar of obedience to God and offered herself as a living sacrifice.  May the words of Mary be our words, but as with birth, may we be filled with joy and yet labored by the weight of their glory.

 

1 Luke 22:19
2 Luke 1:38
3 Romans 12:1-2

Custodians of the Faith

They were called “the ones who speak for another.” They spoke for God. They were not neatly groomed sages climbing down from their towers, waltzing into throne rooms, delivering mystical wisdom or coded predictions and retiring back to their offices to work on their next PowerPoint presentation. These were weathered, often homeless individuals with bounties on their heads. Being a prophet was less like being a celebrity and more like being a fugitive. They were leathery skinned, trash talkers ripping up the powers that be and tearing down the pride of the people. They were harsh and at times even crude.1 Yet, they weren’t macho, loudmouth jerks. They were deep souls – brave poets – delivering some of the most beautiful and gentle imagery in the Bible often quoted by Jesus himself. They were custodians of the faith, guarding it from not only godless influence, but internal distortion and the missing of the point by the religious. From this vocation the prophets spoke and wrote.

“I’ve been asked to say this and to make it loud and clear. We talk about being a people and even a nation under God as if we have a merit worthy morality or at least did back in the 50’s. We ask God for justice and pray for His return. We worship Him and give of our time and money. So, why is our country in this shape? Does He see us?

God sees you. He sees you worship and yet on that same day you commit violence with your words, fists and weapons. You live in a society full of exploited people and you chastise them because they don’t pull themselves up by their boot straps. Is that the kind of worship he wants, an hour of emotional expression and bowed heads? Is that what you call worshiping God?

Do you know what He really wants? He wants you to care about the inhumanness of our prisons where we joke about criminals being raped and call it justice. He wants you to stop getting filthy rich off your employees while you demand more work and longer hours. Help the poor and stop stereotyping everyone on welfare as lazy and enabled. They are not.

This is the type of religious worship God really wants. When this is done, you will be that city on a hill you claim to be and things will get better for everyone. When you live like this, you put yourself in a place where God can protect you. Outside of that, you are on your own.

When your speech is filled with hate and you point your finger of disgust at everyone else, God hates that. When you fail to show any amount of empathy to overworked people and simply disregard other humans as illegal outsiders, inner-city thugs or fly-over state white trash, your Sunday morning prayers are ignored.

But if you work tirelessly to put an end to all of this, you will again be “garden people” living in a dense, forest-green peace. From within you will flow a deep, clear soul. Then you will be known as restorative, life-giving people.” (That was my paraphrase of Isaiah 58.)

But, our morality is lopsided. I heard a story of a minister who stood up in front of an auditorium full of ministers and said “There are thousands of people in our city going hungry every day and none of you give a damn about it. The problem is that you are more upset that I just said the word “damn” than you are about the hungry people.” Christianity has in many places been hijacked by moralistic terrorists checking the length of women’s skirts and the frequency of your quiet times. Many are more concerned about women wearing scandalous yoga pants or the amount of curse words in that movie than we are about the murder rate in Chicago or the horrors of Aleppo. Jesus told the Pharisees the same thing:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”2

This is not either or. We cannot separate the way of Jesus into a spiritual or social gospel. Listen to His own description of his ministry as he read from Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”3

This is about our witness. When we are more offended by the immorality on television than we are by that of our leaders, our witness is weak. We cannot make excuses for ourselves by shrugging off disgusting behavior for the sake of a political agenda. As followers of the way of Jesus, we are not afforded that moral maneuvering. This is a call to a more complete morality than we see in either political party. This is a call back to the higher way of God. This is a call beyond the lopsided morality of much of evangelical Christianity that gets more angry about whether the Home Depot greeter says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” than we do about Syrian refugee babies washing up on the beach shore. This is a call to be custodians of the faith cleaning up the puke in the hall left by an unhealthy Christian witness before the pungent odor of grossly missing the point sets in permanently.

If we embrace a strong personal morality and religious conviction and yet, at the same time, fight against injustice, work for equality, and live from a heart of grace and mercy for all people all over the world, “then our light will break forth like the dawn, and our healing will quickly appear; then our righteousness will go before us, and the glory of the LORD will be our rear guard.”4

If we refuse to sell out to any political party and refuse to comprise one part of our morality for the sake of the other, no matter how hard it is, then “the LORD will guide us always; he will satisfy our needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen our frame. We will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”5

When we do this, we will again have an empowered witness. When we do this, we will again be ones who speak for another.

 

1 Ezekiel 23:19-21 – you’re not going to read that in church.
2 Matthew 23:23
3 Luke 4:18-19
4 Isaiah 58:8
5 Isaiah 58:11

You’re a Piece of Grass

There is an official record of 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties of the Vietnam War.1 I remember the first time that I visited the memorial in D.C. In order to find a specific name on the wall you must consult a memorial book located nearby. The names are listed alphabetically in the book along with their location on the wall. As I flipped through the book, I looked for my last name. It seemed to be a subconscious attempt to connect in some way with someone out of that staggering list. At least that is what I tell myself. It might have just been narcissism. But, as I turned the pages, the finiteness of my life weighed on me. I once did not exist. One day I will only be a memory. Eventually, I will never be thought of again. My insignificance, at least for a few moments, was tangible.

That doesn’t feel good. To matter and to be known feels good. But, like the billions of people before you and likely after you, your significance is short lived. In the Bible, we can find two extremes so to speak on this topic. At one end we have Psalm 139. It is a description of the intimate level at which God knows us. “You created my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb…” stuff like that. Warm, fuzzy and a bit much for the cynics among us. Then there is 1 Peter 1:21 that says ““All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall…” The sentiment in one of those two passages will sell books in the Christian bookstore. The other, not so much.

And then there is Paul’s speech to the Athenians. As he describes God, the true God that they are yet to know, he makes this statement:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Act 17:26-28

Is there truly that much intention and purpose to our lives? For those of us who have been stopped too often at the reality checks on the road life, it is hard to believe. Most of the time, significance is harder to find than that Lego piece your son lost only to realize it was already attached to the structure (yep, that happened). And, when we encounter moments in which we feel significant, we are extremely suspect of them. We usually feel more like a piece of grass.

But, what if it is true that there is this deep level of significance and purpose to all of us?

The design is far too vast for you to take it in all at once. From your limited perspective, you will never see it all. You cannot see the whole ocean from your position on the beach. And this leaves plenty of room for doubt. Yet, wherever there is room for doubt, there is room for faith. Faith that there is, even if it is imperceptible, significance to your life now. The intersection of you, this time and this place has purpose. However, you need to stop trying to understand it or put it into words, because you will never be able to, again, take in this vast design all at once and grasp the importance of your place in it.

Because this is about so much more than you. This is not about your fuzzy feeling of significance. I am not writing this so that you can feel good about yourself. I am writing this to remind you that you have been given a role in the design and refusing that role leaves a void – a gravely, unfortunate void. It is a void that you can never fully understand and trying to measure it is not only an exercise in futility, but selfishly detrimental.

Measurement is comparison. Comparison erodes. It erodes this faith in our God-designed significance. Comparison paralyzes. It is a self-inflicted wound whose shrapnel sprays those closest to you. And honestly, we usually compare ourselves to our incomplete perceptions of others. We never know the whole story. With that, this comparison sometimes leads us to find solace in the downfall of others. When those who are grossly idolized fall, it makes us, in a twisted way, feel better. We do not realize how it weakens us all for we fail to grasp the complexity of all of our connectedness.

On the other side is selfish ambition. Selfish ambition is a weapon. It is a wound that we inflict on others when we seek to first and foremost create or protect our own significance. The selfishly ambitious become the low-quality graffiti defacing the grand architecture. A life of manufactured self-significance becomes the weak spot in the greater plan designed to hold all of this together.

The writer expresses nothing without the reader and the speaker is unheard without the listener. We are all writers and speakers and we are all readers and listeners. Everyday. You are but a blade of grass in an endless field. Yet, you occupy a certain space for a certain amount of time for a reason. Live there, for significance is bigger than you, but it includes you.

 

1 https://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html

Think Again

I am going to start by talking about the brutality of God in the Old Testament. Particularly Israel’s war on Canaan. I am going to share some viewpoints on how to reconcile these events within our theological framework. But, before some of you freak out (speaking from experience), please read to the end. Because, the points I am about to discuss briefly are not the point of what I am writing today. They are simply used to create some tension for my main point.

The Israelites were promised this land a long time before they took it.  Now the only thing that stood between them and their land was the dirty work of wiping out an entire ethnic group. And, they were given very specific commands from God on how to do it.

On the way to the land, they would encounter other cities who were not necessarily part of the territory they were to take. They were to offer them peace and if those people accepted it, they would merely become forced labor for the Hebrews. If they were not down with becoming forced labor and decided to stand up for themselves, then the Hebrews were to kill all the men and take the women, children and animals as plunder.  Not really a great choice, but hey, that’s life huh? They shouldn’t complain though. They could have had it a lot worse like the people of Canaan. When the Israelites entered Canaan, the directive from God was less complicated. Murder everything. Anything that breathes is to breathe no longer.1 If that story was made into a movie, you would not let your kids watch it.

So, what do we do with this? I mean is this the same God we talk about today who you can have a “personal relationship” with and who is full of grace and mercy? Why does he seem to be acting more like the other tribal Gods of the ancient world? Well, there are a lot of different ways in which we work this out theologically.2

We say things like “God does love, but he is also just. He sends people to hell. That is worse than genocide. Plus, the Canaanites deserved it. Those guys offered their kids as human sacrifice. So, they were just getting what they were going to eventually get anyway.” Now, I am treating these theological theories somewhat flippantly. I do not have time to deal with any of them in a serious way. Peter Enns (read my last footnote) offers another theory. What if God did not tell the Israelites to do this at all? What if the Israelites came to believe this over time and then attached God’s name to their plans and their desires? Humans do it all of the time. It is not far fetched. Remember, what I said. Keep reading. Do not shoot me yet.

Personally, I have entertained this theory before. For me, some of it has been bolstered by Jesus himself. We find Jesus, seemingly out of the blue, reverse centuries old Jewish law and not as if to say, “Hey, that time is over. I’m bringing in the New Testament homies.” Instead he seems to say, “You guys have had this all wrong the whole time.”  In Matthew 15:1-20, he suddenly declares that what you eat does not make you clean or unclean. It is not what goes in your mouth, but what comes out. His disciples think he is talking that crazy parable talk again and in private ask him to tell them what he really meant. He basically tells them that he meant what he said and that they need to get it through their thick skulls. He does not say, “Well yeah, that was the law, but now I am here and it is different.” He does not offer some sort of theological explanation. He just says they were wrong.

But we do not even have to flip forward to the New Testament. There are plenty of voices in the Old Testament that point out how the Israelite have drastically missed the point. Read Micah 6:6-8. From his point of view, God does not want all the animal sacrifices they offer. He does not need their olive oil and he definitely is not interested in disgusting human sacrifice.  Instead, he wants us to be just, merciful and humble people. These are just two examples among many, that to me, seem not to say, “Well yes, these are the laws, but things are a changing.” Instead, they seem to possibly say “You got this all wrong and you always have.”

Now, take a deep breath at let your adrenaline simmer down if you need to. None of what I have said is the point. In fact, I am not necessarily satisfied with or fully convinced of any of it. My point is not to change your theology in a blog post. More educated people than I write books on this stuff and there are a thousand opinions. These are big, multi-faceted questions. I have a bigger point.

I want you to Think Again.

I had a student in my ministry tell me that he was bored with Christianity because he basically already knew it all. Now before you dismiss that as typical teen bravado, I want you to hear how truly sad that is. Some teachers and preachers are better than others at the craft, but if you are bored with the sermons, maybe it is your fault. Could your preacher get away with sharing the “crazy” theory that I just did simply as a possible theological conclusion? No way. People would gnash their teeth or something. What do we demand from them? To teach us what we have already agreed upon but, dress it up differently to keep us interested. To do otherwise is to risk one’s livelihood.

That teen was bored with Christianity because we had left no room for mystery. We pay lip service to this tragedy with clichés like, “Don’t put God in a box.” That does not nearly go far enough. We cannot just be satisfied with pointing out the error of reducing God to a package that can be shipped by UPS. We must create space to imagine together. We must create space to publicly explore and question. There must be room to Think Again.

Yet, we are afraid to open the door to mystery because we see it as an elusive, smoke-like substance that we cannot control. Mystery is not flimsy theology. Mystery is not a lack of conviction. This is God-mystery. It is opening the door to God-possibility. This is awakening, engaging and interacting. This is alive and active, not only stone-chiseled history.  Mystery is not satisfied with an unassured shrug. Mystery demands that we Think Again. In this space. God captures our imaginations. In this space, we want to know Him, because we do not yet fully. In this space, no one has arrived, but we are all truly journeying unsure of what we will find.

Souls die, God shrinks and evangelism fizzles in the absence of the divine mystery. May we be willing to Think Again.

 

1 Deuteronomy 20:10-17
2 among other resources, I recommend “The Bible Tells Me So” by Peter Enns. The beginning section of this post is heavily influenced by this book.