Monday, December 22, 2008

who nose how to pick a blogger?

Dear cyber-world,

“Here I am” (see below) is my final blog entry of 2008. I’ll resume blogging the week of January 11th. However, if you read this blog – I’d like to hear from you. Like I said, this is a private spiritual practice that I’ve chosen to make public. And spiritual practices should change and shift as the practitioner changes and shifts. Building spiritual muscles isn’t any different than building bodily muscles – if you don’t periodically tweak your work-out routine, your progress levels out. You may even do yourself harm in the long run.

And so I welcome ideas on how to “shift gears” in the spring. If you’ve been journeying with me, let me know about it. Throw in your two cents (checks are payable to John Newton). You can do this in one of two ways – either comment on this post, or if you don’t feel comfortable with people reading your comment (picking your bloggers publically can be embarrassing), send me an email (

I'll keep this puppy going for one more semester. I’m just not yet sure what it’ll look like, or whether or not I’ll blog with the same frequency. And so if you have comments or suggestions, I’d be grateful. Questions about any of my posts are always welcome. In the spiritual life, being “nosey” is a virtue.

Merry Christmas,


here i am

“Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart.” – Ps 40:7-8, Heb 10:7-8.

Act 1. God creates. Man sins. And when man sins, man hides. But God looks. And God asks. “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)

God is looking. Where are you? God calls out.

It starts with Abram. Abram – a child of Adam – was born into hiding. And God finds Abram first. Abram responds to God’s call, but God has been burned before. So God intends to test Abram’s faith. God wants to know just how deep Abram’s commitment to God goes. God speaks on the road to Moriah. Where are you? Abram answers. “Here I am.” (Gen 22:1)

Moses is next. God asks stuttering Moses to lead His chosen people out of slavery. Into freedom. God calls out from a burning bush. Where are you? Moses answers. “Here I am.” (Ex 3:4)

The Lord has plans for Samuel. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Samuel certainly wasn’t expecting to hear God’s voice. But God calls out to Samuel anyway. Where are you? Samuel answers. “Here I am.” (1 Sam 3:8)

The Lord grants Isaiah a vision. He’s looking for a prophet to the nations – someone to speak His word to the peoples of the earth. The Lord takes council. “Whom shall we send?” Where are you? Isaiah steps forward. “Here I am.” (Is 6:8)

This is God’s question to you. To me. Where are you?

“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth” (2 Chron 16:9). And He’s looking for hearts that delight to answer His question. Here I am. Abram and Moses and Samuel and Isaiah. They all responded. “Here I am.”

And then one day God sent an angel to an unwed teenage virgin. And God tells her that through the Holy Spirit she will conceive and bear a son. Remember - God is looking. His eyes run to and fro. And His eyes have settled on Mary. All along, God has been looking – looking to recover and restore and heal what was lost. He’s looking to find men and women who have been born into a life of hiding. And so God asks Mary – where are you? Mary doesn’t know what to say. How could she? But her words are beautiful nonetheless. “Here I am” (Lk 1:38).

This is the correct answer to God’s question. “Here I am.” This answer has been given by nomads and exiles and young boys and prophets and unwed virgins. All in response to the question of a good God – a God with a plan.

But …

Somewhere along the line, we stopped hearing God’s question. And we started asking the question instead. God, where are you? In the violence and war and poverty and depression and fear – where are you?

From the foundation of the world, God has been at work in our world. Creating. Saving. Loving. Blessing. Chastening. Building. Destroying. Pruning. Loving. Saving. Creating. But where was it all going? Is there a Word that God had been planning to speak all along? To a stiff-necked people that turned God’s question back around on Him? To a people, who for the most part, ceased to hear the Living God call out – “where are you?”

Job. He was a questioner. And Job – God bless him – thought he had a case. But God tells Job otherwise. The defendant never gets to sit on the judge’s bench. “I have an answer Job. Wait for it.”

The season of Advent is almost over. Advent is a season of waiting. A season of waiting for God’s Answer to our question – a question that God originally asked us. To the question that we dodged and then rebelliously threw back to God. “Where are you God? What word can you speak for yourself?”

On December 25th, we celebrate the Answer of God.

The Word became flesh. God has never spoken so clearly. With one act. A King was born in a smelly manger. A new Adam. To an unwed virgin. In an insignificant corner of the Roman Empire.

For you. For me. For the world.

Jesus was born.

Where are you?

Here. I AM.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

solomon was an arms dealer

“They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty. They also exported them to all the kings of the Hittites and of the Arameans.” – 1 Ki 10:29

God promised David that his son would rule forever – that through his son righteousness and peace would come to Israel. People had great expectations for the “son of David.” And so when Solomon became Israel’s king, all eyes were on him. Would he be the one? Would righteousness and peace meet together in Solomon’s rule? After all, Solomon was a son of David.

At first, things looked hopeful. Solomon asked God for wisdom to rule well. But it didn’t last – things went bad pretty quickly. You see, Solomon was the king of a people that God had brought out of slavery. And yet, Solomon used slaves to build an elaborate palace. Solomon was the king of a people whose # 1 commandment was to worship God alone. And yet, Solomon’s “heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Ki 11:4). Solomon’s people had watched their God destroy Pharaoh’s horses and chariots. And yet, Solomon collected for himself 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses (1 Ki 10:26). Was Solomon the one? Would righteousness and peace meet together in Solomon’s rule? After all, Solomon was a son of David.

No. Solomon was not the one. In fact, Solomon didn’t just exploit his power, worship other gods, and rely on his army. Solomon took it a step further. He became an international arms dealer. He imported and exported horses and chariots – the ancient equivalent of tanks, guns, and bombs. Solomon discovered that war was profitable – that his horses and chariots could bring him wealth. And what’s more, he imported them from Egypt! The land of slavery and death. And he brought them to Jerusalem – the great city of the Lord. It’s impossible to capture the tragic irony of Solomon’s waywardness.

Solomon was a son of David. But he wasn’t the Son of David.

In Advent, we prepare again for the coming of the Son of David – Jesus the Christ. In him, “righteousness and peace kiss one another” (Ps 85:10). This son of David didn’t own slaves. He became one. This son of David’s heart didn’t turn to other gods. He became obedient to the point of death on a cross. This son of David didn’t commit himself to the way of war. He beats swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Mic 4:3).

FOR TODAY: When the Son of David returns to rule this earth, there will be no more violence and war. Righteousness and peace will meet together in Jesus’ rule. Ponder what this means to you – for your individual life with God, but also for the world. Given the reality of God’s future, what sort of people ought we to be in the present?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

why god breaks the second commandment

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” – Ex 20:4

This is commandment # dues. After “don’t have any other Gods,” this is the next commandment that God gives liberated Israel at Sinai. “Don’t make idols.” In other words, “Don’t make an image of me.”

To understand this commandment we need to understand Israel’s setting. Israel was surrounded by “other nations.” And these other nations did make idols – statues, carvings, and physical representations of the gods they believed in. The idols of the other nations gave shape and size and depth and visibility to their god. If anyone were to ask the other nations – “what is your god like?” – they’d hold up their statue and say the following: “Here’s my idol – the image of my god.” But the God of Israel isn’t like the other gods – “don’t do that Israel. Don’t make an idol for yourself.”

A lot of traditional people understand commandment # dues in terms of God’s incomprehensibility. In other words, God is so awesome, so holy, so “other” that to try and “image” God would be sinful. In other words, a lot of traditional people think that God doesn’t want to be imaged at all. I’m not feeling very traditional this morning.

That being said, God is awesome and holy and totally “other” than us. It would be easier for me to replicate Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel with a blindfold and a sharpie than it would be for me to image the God of Israel with a carving. BUT, I still think God wants to be imaged. In fact, I think that God’s desire to be imaged is the story of the Bible. Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve were made to image God. And I know that God’s desire to be imaged is the story of Christmas. Jesus Christ was the perfect image of God – “the exact imprint of God’s very being” we’re told (Heb 1:3).

After all, people still want to know – “what is your God like?” The “other nations” still want an image of our God. And I think God wants to give them one. God wants to give them you. Me. His church. He wants us to give shape and size and depth and visibility to His character.

In other words, God doesn’t want us to make an image. He wants to make us His image.

FOR TODAY: Genesis tells us that God created us in “his image.” Another translation of the word idol is “graven image.” In other words, an idol is what happens when God’s image goes sour. It’s not that God doesn’t want to be imaged. It’s just that God wants His church to fulfill that role. And so give some thought to commandment # dues today. What does it mean to you? In other words, given your vocation to be God’s image, how do you shirk that responsibility by making graven images instead?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

the best picture you have to give

“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” – Phil 4:9

Paul’s statement is amazing. To our modern, western sensibilities, it may seem a tad arrogant. Yet, this is the word Paul leaves the Philippians with. “You want to know what following Jesus is all about? Look at me! Look at my life, my example. What you’ve seen in me is the best picture I have to give.” Who among us could dare say such a thing?

And yet, Paul says it. And not just to the Philippians. He tells the Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). I think it’s fair to assume Paul said something along these lines to all the churches that he visited. And yet, who among us could dare say such a thing? Who among us would dare point others to ourselves?

My hope is that all of us can. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect. Paul, at times, seemed rude and hot-tempered. It doesn’t mean that we’re without weaknesses. Paul, like us, had his own “thorn in the flesh” to deal with (2 Cor 12:7). It doesn’t mean we’re fearless (1 Cor 2:3) or tearless (Rom 9:2).

And yet, Paul pointed others to himself in order to point them to Jesus. In essence, Paul viewed his life as a sign – as a pointer – to the death and resurrection of Jesus. “I died to the law. I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:19). I “have been raised with Christ” too (Col 3:1). Want to see what the Jesus-life is all about? Look at me.

Is Paul being arrogant? No, he isn’t. He’s not claiming to be without sin. He’s not claiming to be perfect. Paul is claiming, however, to be on a journey with the One who is without sin; on a journey with the One who is perfect. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

FOR THE WEEKEND: Consider the following question. Would you feel comfortable pointing others to yourself in order to show them Christ? Why or why not? If the answer is no, take some tangible steps to make your own life the best picture you have to give.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

epaphroditus' "high five"

“Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus – my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.” - Phil 2:25

Epaphroditus really jumped out at me this morning. And not because Epaphroditus has the oddest name in the Bible. That prize, scholars say, fluctuates from year to year between Esh-baal (1 Ch 9:39) and Bildad the Shuhite (Job 2:11). No – what struck me was Epaphroditus’ many roles – he’s a brother, a co-worker, a soldier, a messenger, and a minister.

First, he’s a brother. The Way of Jesus is about being a member of God’s new family. In Jesus’ own words, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:35). And the bond in Jesus’ family is tight. If you do anything to a member of Jesus’ family, you might as well have done it to Jesus himself – whether it’s good or bad (Matt 25:40). After rising from the dead, Jesus gives this message to Mary: “Go to my brothers and say to them – I am ascending to my Father and your Father” (Jn 20:17). Jesus gathered the new family of God. Paul is a member. And so is Epaphroditus. And for that reason, Paul calls him brother.

Second, he’s a co-worker. We do the work of God’s Kingdom together. And our “co-worker” status traces all the way back to the book of Genesis. It all begins when God invites Adam to share in God’s own work. The first co-worker tilled a garden. God entrusted Adam with God’s own work. In fact, part of the “fall” is our tragic move from working with God to working against Him. But Jesus, of course, changes all of this. God entrusts His Kingdom to Jesus, and Jesus shares God’s kingdom-work with his new family. And for that reason – we’re all co-workers.

Third, Epaphroditus is a soldier. The Kingdom work we’re called to share in can be likened to a battle. As co-workers, we’re also fellow soldiers. We fight anything and everything – in our world and in our hearts – that opposes our Father’s Kingdom. Of course, the only sword we carry is the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17); the only breastplate we don is the breastplate of righteousness (Eph 6:14). And so our tactics are a bit different. We turn the other cheek. We bless those who curse us. But this is all part of the battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).

Fourth, Epaphroditus is a messenger. He understands that “we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel” (1 Thess 2:4). In other words, God has given us the message to make us messengers. We can even say that we are stewards of God’s message. And like all stewards, we have a choice. We can hoard the message by keeping it to ourselves. Or, we can speak the truth in love and share God’s message freely. To do the former is to bury our talent; to do the latter is to be a messenger like Epaphroditus.

Fifth, Epaphroditus is a minister. That doesn’t mean that he was ordained or that he went to seminary or that he wears a fancy robe on Sunday mornings. No. It just means that he is a servant. That’s all a minister is – one who serves another in the name of Jesus. And as brothers and co-workers and soldiers – and especially as people who want our message that God, in Christ, served us to look credible – this is perhaps our highest call and our greatest privilege.

FOR TODAY: Consider the five high roles that Epaphroditus plays in the church. Which ones resonate with you the most? The least? Assuming that these roles are universal for all disciples of Jesus, what roles would you add to this list? (Consider leaving your answer on the comments section for everyone’s edification. After all, we’re family.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

secret inward grumbling

“Do all things without murmuring.” – Phil 2:14

I was in my favorite sandwich shop this time last year to discover a new employee working the register. And being a creature of habit, I ordered the same thing that I had ordered my previous 52 trips – one turkey sandwich. “NO tomatoes. NO mayonnaise.” I annunciated every syllable of these two sentences. Not wanting to take my chances with the “new guy,” I repeated myself. I spoke so slowly and loudly that it was awkward. And I did this because I hate mayonnaise and I hate tomatoes. And so imagine how thrilled I was, after speeding home, to open a delicious turkey, mayonnaise, and tomato sandwich. Forget the lettuce, the pickles, the onion, the avocado – no traces of these “extras” were within two miles of my sandwich. Just turkey, mayonnaise, and tomato.

Here’s the sad thing – this ruined my day. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t go back. I definitely didn’t eat the tainted thing. I just murmured. I walked around for the rest of the day with a chip on my shoulder. I felt sorry for myself. I secretly grumbled in my heart.

According to Paul, we are to do “all things” without murmuring. The Greek work we translate murmuring (goggusmos) is a pretty loaded word. It’s not only about being upset or about being disappointed. Goggusmos is about harboring a secret complaint; it’s about secretly grumbling in our hearts.

You see, grumbling in any form isn’t good. And the reason grumbling isn’t good is because grumbling rules out the possibility that we properly perceive God. Consider Deut 1:27. “You grumbled and said ‘because the Lord hates us he brought us out of Egypt to destroy us.” Of course, this isn’t true. God brought Israel out of Egypt because He loves Israel, not because He hates them. He did it to save them, not to destroy them. But because the road to salvation is hard – because it involves the desert – the Israelites misunderstood God and they started to grumble. And so grumbling by itself is bad – but “secretly grumbling in our hearts” – that’s even worse. And here’s why.

Because when we grumble inwardly – when we “murmur” – we can still pretend that all is well, that we’re cool and collected. We can lie to ourselves, to others, and to God. We can put on our bright religious mask. We can scrub the outside of the cup but inside be full of ingratitude (Matt 23:25).

Ultimately, it’s not a sin for things to upset us. That’s just what happens when our will is thwarted – when we don’t get our way. And sometimes our anger is silly – people give us a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich. And sometimes our anger is much more serious – whether it is directed towards God or other people. But God gives us models for dealing with our anger in each of these cases. And in no instance is murmuring – secretly grumbling in our hearts – allowed.

FOR TODAY: Monitor your murmuring. Pay attention to what makes you mad and be honest about your emotions. Is there something about God or God’s world that angers or confuses you? It’s better for us to question God (which is called prayer FYI) than it is for us to murmur against God inwardly (Ps 13:1). Has someone else angered you? Go to them privately and speak to them kindly and humbly with the hope of being reconciled (Matt 18:15). Are you upset about something ridiculously trivial? If so, then lighten up. Take a deep breath. See the bigger picture. Jesus is at work making all things new. When this becomes the reality that frames our life, something tells me that "turkey sandwiches" will cease to ruin our day.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

reforming from within

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” – Phil 2:3

The NY Times headlined the following article in yesterday’s paper: “Episcopal Split as Conservatives Form New Group.” As a soon-to-be Episcopal priest (God willing and the people consenting of course), people often ask my opinion on the current tensions that exist within the Episcopal Church. And as of late, I’ve just shrugged and mumbled something along the lines of, “I think it’s really sad.”

There’s something really sad about schism in Christ’s Church. After all, there is only one Church. And Jesus is the head of it. We may have 36,000 different Christian denominations (and the number grows every day), but that doesn’t mean that we have 36,000 churches. No. There’s only one Christian church. And any man, woman, or child whom Jesus draws to himself is a member. And I find nothing in the Bible or in our 2,000 year tradition or in the arena of human experience or reason to suggest otherwise. There is only one Body of Christ. And at present, we are a body of broken bones. And so when a group splits, another bone snaps. And I think that broken bones in Jesus’ body is really sad.

That being said, I’m glad that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the castle in Wittenberg in 1517. And yes, these “theses” did help spark the Protestant Reformation – a “split” from Rome. But Martin Luther’s original intention wasn’t to part with Rome. He wanted to be a reformer from within.

I think we need more reformers from within – more people willing to “stay put” when tensions arise. Because this issue of schism is more relevant to our lives than we’d care to admit. At the corporate level, it’s hard to maintain fellowship with churches that maintain doctrines and practices with which we disagree – whether the doctrines and practices be “conservative” or “liberal.” And at the personal level, it’s hard to “stay put” in a church when tensions arise. Leaving is the easy thing to do. In fact, many of us hop from church to church looking for the right doctrine or the right music or the right preaching. We seek not a church (in the Biblical sense of the word), but the “right religious goods" to consume.

Now, choosing a church – or choosing a denomination – isn’t an insignificant matter. I don’t advocate “letting the chips fall where they may.” But eventually we have to make a choice – and that choice should be an informed and prayerful one. But once we do, times will arise when it would be much easier to leave than to stay put. But is the “easy road” the path Jesus asks us to walk (Matt 7:14)? Why not stay put? Why not seek to be a reformer from within?

I began this entry with Phil 2:3. This verse is what “reforming from within” is all about. Reforming from within is about looking at people with whom we disagree, and then regarding them as better than ourselves. It’s about taking seriously the interest of others. It’s about having the mind of Jesus – which Paul then explains in terms of Jesus’ intentional death on behalf of others. Schism – at both the corporate and personal level – is often inevitable. But schism – in whatever form that it takes – usually comes about when people ON BOTH SIDES OF THE SPLIT arrogantly regard themselves as better than others; when they look primarily to their own interests and not to the interests of others; when they let the same mind be in them that was in Peter, who when hearing the thoughts of Jesus’ mind, said “God forbid it. This must never happen!” (Matt 16:22)

FOR THE WEEKEND: Figure out a practical way to be a “reformer from within.” Where’s the tension in your life – Your marriage? Your church? At the office? Sometimes schism is inevitable. But if you ever choose to part ways – whether it be with a church or in a relationship or at your job – make sure it’s not because you demonstrated the exact opposite of Phil 2:3.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

putting up our sails

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” – Phil 1:6

This is Paul at his most encouraging (compare w/ Gal 5:12). Paul writes words of confident assurance to the church at Philippi. He acknowledges that the “good work” of faith and baptismal participation has begun in them. He asserts that, as of now, that “good work” is incomplete. He assures them that the “good work” will be completed. And finally, Paul explains that God is the One responsible for completing this “good work.”

I’ve encountered frustrated Christians just about everywhere – in bars, in my office, in the mirror. And in some sense, being frustrated comes from a good place (or at least from a good desire) within us. We yearn to be whole and pure and holy and kind and non-anxious and fearless and tearless. We know that a “good work” has begun in us and we yearn for that good work to be brought to completion. And so we try. We jump on a never-ending treadmill of trying harder. We feel responsible for completing this “good work” of faith that’s begun in us. And so we try. We assert our will. We “make up our mind to change.” We move from a jog to a sprint, but eventually the treadmill speeds up. And so we fail. Time and time again. We discover that we can’t complete the good work that has already begun in us; the good work that makes us try so hard in the first place. And because we “can’t” accomplish the changes we seek in our life and in our character, we feel powerless. And because we feel powerless, we get frustrated.

To frustrated Christians everywhere, Paul gives a promise: what is incomplete will be completed; what has begun will be brought to an end; what is partial will be full; and God is the One who will do it. God is ultimately the One who will save us and sanctify us and make us whole. God initiated the salvation-project and God intends to finish what He started.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do. There is. We should “try hard.” Grace is opposed to earning - not effort. That being said, we have to try the right things. And asserting our own will to change ourselves isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy. Eventually the treadmill speeds up. And when it does, we trip and fall to the ground in exhaustion. And so “trying the right things” is ultimately about giving God room to work. It’s about not quenching the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19).

UNTIL THURSDAY: Examine whether or not you’re “trying the right things.” Only God can send the Wind – but if we don’t put up the sails, the boat won’t go anywhere. Ultimately, trying the right things is about putting up our sails – about putting ourselves in the position for God to complete the work He began. Whenever we pray or meditate on Scripture - we put up our sails. Whenever we serve the less fortunate or bless the unlovable – we put up our sails. Whenever we worship God or speak a kind word to another – we put up our sails. And so don’t be frustrated. Phil 1:6 is Paul’s way of saying that in God’s time, and in God’s way, God will send the wind. And so in the meantime, step off the treadmill and start putting up your sails.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

great thanksgiving

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Col 3:17

Since Thanksgiving is tomorrow, I want to reflect briefly on the recurring biblical command to be thankful. “Be thankful” (Col 3:15). “Give thanks to the Lord” (1 Ch 16:8). “Give thanks to God” (Rom 14:6). The act of “giving thanks” is good – but what is “thanks?” And how do we give something – “thanks” – to a God who needs nothing?

First, “thanks” is an English translation of the Greek word eucharisteo. Liturgical Christians will no doubt recognize the origin of the Eucharist (also known as “the Great Thanksgiving”). Thanksgiving - or Eucharistic living – begins with the awareness that all that we have, and all that we are, is sheer grace. We didn’t earn it. It’s not owed to us. We don’t deserve it. We didn’t even ask for it. But it’s been given to us. And whatever “it” is, it’s good. Because God is good. And everything that comes from God is good. Good trees must bear good fruit.

In other words, living a Eucharistic life is about gratitude. We should be grateful for family, friends, and food. We should be grateful for our country, our home, and our education. Above all else, we should be grateful that God sent Jesus to save us and that God has a good purpose for God’s good world. And although it can’t be forced, we should at least desire to be grateful for the pain we experience, for our mistakes, and for the loss’ that we endure. “All things work for the good of those who love God” (Rom 8:28).

Second, we don’t “give” God thanks because God needs it. Sure, God may be dishonored by our lack of gratitude – but I’m not sure we have the capacity to understand what that even means. And so God doesn’t need us to give thanks. We need to give thanks. Ultimately, “giving thanks” is about aligning ourselves with reality itself. Eucharistic living is about moving deeper and deeper into the reality that God’s Kingdom is already here – in our midst – and that it’s a kingdom of wasteful and extravagant and marvelous grace.

FOR THE WEEKEND: Have a great Thanksgiving (get it?)! And remember, “Giving thanks” is both a spiritual practice and a way of life. It’s about moving deeper and deeper into Reality itself. For the weekend, be intentionally thankful. And do so with the knowledge that you’re the one who stands to gain the most from intentional Eucharistic living. Our God needs nothing, and because of that, He’s given us everything. Be thankful.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

writing ourselves in

“One of his disciples – the one whom Jesus loved – was reclining next to him.” – Jn 13:23

This unnamed disciple is associated with John – the author of the Gospel according to John. As a result, John is known as the “beloved disciple” in scholarly circles. I suppose we’re to assume that Jesus tolerated Peter and James but that he loved John. But this is all the info that the fourth evangelist gives us about himself. Who wrote this gospel? The one whom Jesus loved.

One assumes that the author of John’s gospel ** would at least make an appearance in Jesus’ story from time to time. If I were to write a Gospel, I’d at least mention one instance when I – John Newton – was really obedient to Jesus (of course as a model for the good of the church). In fact, there’s a 50/50 chance I’d work in my little league game-winning homer in the spring of '96. But this John is different. This John doesn’t even give a name (his name is John by tradition). Sure, this John wants to be remembered, but not for his faithfulness or for any achievements of his own. No - this John wants to be remembered as “the one whom Jesus loved.” That was John’s role in his version of the Jesus story. And make no mistake, he had to be selective (see Jn 21:25). John had to pick and choose. He could have “written himself in” in a more creative way. But for his part in the story, John didn’t even give his name. Who was John in Jesus’ story? He was “the one whom Jesus loved.”

The Bible compels each of us to take our own place in the Jesus-story. Christians aren’t detached observers. We’re not voyeurs. We’re actors and participants in the final scene of God’s salvation play. Like John, we too must enter Jesus’ story. We must “write ourselves in.” The only question is - what part are we going to play?

John gives us a roadmap. We are to “lose our lives” in Jesus’ story. Our name, like John’s name, isn’t significant. Only Jesus’ is. Jesus’ name is above every name and that includes our own (Phil 2:9). Our achievements aren’t central to the Jesus-narrative. Jesus must increase. We must decrease (Jn 3:30). And what does this mean practically? It means that our identity is shaped above all else by Jesus’ love for us. Who are we in Jesus’ story? We are the “one whom Jesus loves.”

FOR TODAY: An ethics professor of mine writes, “the question of identity is the question of difference.” For today, consider what informs your identity. In other words, who do you know yourself to be? This is an important question because our world is becoming increasingly achievement-oriented. We’re only about as good as our last accomplishment, our last assignment, our last business deal, our last sermon. But as Jesus’ disciples, we cannot accept the world’s terms. Regardless of what we do or don’t do, we are children of God and we are born of God (Jn 1:12-13). Above all else, this is who we are in Jesus’ story. For today, be changed by this wonderful truth.

** Authorship of JG is hard to attribute to one person. Most scholars contend that the final work was the product of John’s community and that John’s disciples finished what John himself had begun before his death in the latter part of the first century.

Monday, November 24, 2008

knowing and showing

"Sir, we wish to see Jesus." – Jn 12:21

I’ve always been fond of these words. In the context of John’s Gospel (JG), Jesus has entered Jerusalem for the final time. His crucifixion is less than a week away. And a group of Greeks – a codeword for Gentile, outsider, and pagan – come to Phillip with a request. “We wish to see Jesus.” We want Jesus. Bring us to him. Show us Jesus.

I don’t want to overlook the context of these words. In the context of JG, they’re the fulfillment of v. 19 – “the whole world has gone after him.” But what interests me more about these words – “we wish to see Jesus” – is their application. In my opinion, this request is still the world’s challenge to our church. The unbelievers of our world still make this same petition to those of us who believe. “We want Jesus. Bring us to him. Show us Jesus.”

Historically speaking, the Greeks – being Gentiles – didn’t worship the God of Israel. For all I know, they worshipped a wooden boot. But in an odd way, so does our world (and so do we). Our world worships money, success, prestige, reputation, power, science, sex, and a million other “wooden boots” that we rely on to find meaning. And yet, none of these things bring lasting peace or security. None of them quench our thirst. And deep down, our world wants the Real Deal. We want the Real Deal. We wish, above all else, to see Jesus.

And that’s what the church is all about – knowing the Real Deal, and showing the Real Deal. The world wants to see Jesus. They don’t want to see a tract. They don’t want three easy steps to salvation. They don’t want to be bullied or judged. No. They want to see Jesus. They want to see the love and the holiness and the compassion and the truth and the commitment and the gentleness and the selflessness of Jesus lived and preached. And the world wants the church – those who believe – to show them these things. The world wants the church to show them Jesus.

FOR TODAY: I believe it was Anonymous who said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing” (actually it was Kierkegaard). For Christians, that one thing is Jesus. To the extent that we know Jesus – which is not the same as knowing about Jesus or the bible – we’ll show Jesus to the world. That’s why Paul said that the will of God boils down to “our sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3). Because to the extent that Jesus’ love, holiness, compassion, truth, commitment, gentleness, and selflessness dwell in us, we show the world Jesus. Like Jesus said, “a city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt 5:14). Our world wishes to see Jesus. For today, do something to grant our world’s request.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

why jesus cries

“Jesus wept.” – Jn 11:35

Here we have the shortest verse in the entire bible, not to mention the most misunderstood. In the context of John’s Gospel, Lazarus’ heart has stopped beating. Jesus’ amigo is dead. Lazarus’ sisters are weeping. Lazarus’ friends are weeping. After all, when someone dies, people are crushed. And Jesus is too – right? Jesus weeps because he lost his friend, because in his full humanity Jesus shrinks at the sight of death? That’s what most preachers have told me. And all of them are wrong.

Now, of course, Jesus had emotions. Jesus was human. But remember – we can’t take our limited understanding of “humanity” and then project it onto Jesus (see being human: like father, like son). That’s one of the reasons most preachers misunderstand Jesus’ tears. Of course, the other reason is because most preachers forget to do their homework.

You see, twice John tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (Jn 11:33, 38). The two Greek words John uses (embrimaomai, tarasso) suggest that Jesus’ tears are ones of admonition and agitation. In other words, they’re not tears of grief. Jesus weeps because he sees that, even in his presence, the people to whom he is sent still have no hope. Jesus weeps because his people are hopeless.

We all know what happens next. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave – not because Jesus thinks that death is the end, but “for the sake of the crowd standing [there], so that they may believe that [God sent Jesus]” (Jn 11:42). The truth is, the crowds don’t believe. And because they don’t believe, they have no hope. And because they have no hope, Jesus gets agitated. And his agitation is so great that “Jesus wept.” It’s kind of ironic. The crowds weep because Lazarus is dead. Jesus weeps because the crowds’ hope is dead. And so Jesus brings both Lazarus and the peoples’ hope back to life.

That being said, Jesus does not raise Lazarus from the dead. This may seem tangential – but it’s important. Once again, Lazarus is not raised from the dead. He’s resuscitated. And there’s a big difference. Resurrection is about new life, about a new body, about heaven and earth joining together and about God’s kingdom being all in all. The only person that’s ever been raised to new life is Jesus. You see, Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus to new life. He resuscitated him to an old one – Jesus gave Lazarus back his old body that aches and gets sick and that eventually died again. And so remember – our Christian faith is about resurrection. Take these words to heart. I’d hate for Jesus to get agitated and begin to weep again because we don’t understand.

SPECIAL NOTE: Usually I’m okay when people misunderstand what I write, teach, or preach. It just comes with the gig. But today I feel compelled to clear up two possible misunderstandings of today’s blog entry. First, crying and weeping over the loss of someone that we love is not wrong or sinful. If you’re not deeply cut to the heart when you lose someone that you love, you’re probably in denial. And hyper-confident religiosity is denial’s favorite mask. Second, you should never be agitated or admonish others when they cry over a loved one’s death because you think they lack faith. Whatever Jesus’ “agitation” is – I promise you – it’s not the same as ours.

FOR THE WEEKEND: Read John 11: 17-44. Pay attention to verses 25, 26, 33, 40-42. Also mediate on Lk 22: 39-46. And wrestle with the question, “did Jesus ever experience hopelessness?”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

putting down our stones

“The law of Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?” – Jn 8:5

The scribes and the Pharisees bring an adulterous woman to Jesus. And since they are trying to entrap Jesus, I assume they were voyeuristically creeping outside of her home. They were waiting to catch her in the act. And when they do, the religious leaders drag the poor woman to Jesus. She’s just a pawn in their game to take Jesus down. “The Law says to stone her,” they say. “What do you teach?”

Now, there’s no doubt that the woman did something wrong. Jesus knows that. But Jesus looks around at a group of men – each one with a few stones in hand – and each one is ready to throw. The woman is fearfully shaking in the middle. All around her, people are gathering stones. And unless a miracle happens, she’ll die for her sins. Because all around her people are gathering stones. They’re waiting for Jesus to say, “I agree with Moses. Do what you have to do.”

Our world teaches us to gather stones. And we’re waiting for any excuse to throw them. Every time we gossip, we throw a stone. Every time we silently withdraw from someone we love, we throw a stone. Every time we shake our head in disgust at another person’s behavior, we throw a stone. We see the speck in the eye of every face we see – except for the one in the mirror. All the while, a giant redwood is lodged in our own eye. And because of that, our vision is blurred.
Of course, Jesus knows this. And so he gives them permission to stone this woman on one condition – they have to be without sin (Jn 8:7). The person without the redwood in their eye can go ahead and stone her. Of course, they all walk away. The Spirit convicts each of them. They all put down their stones.

Being a follower of Jesus is about putting down our stones. That doesn’t mean we walk around saying “all is fine, there’s no such thing as right or wrong, if it feels good then more power to you.” No. What the woman did was wrong. The man she cheated with was wrong. And every person who dragged her to Jesus was wrong. Part of loving a person is “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). And it’s impossible to love someone if we don’t tell them the truth when they hurt themselves or when they fall into a pattern of hurting other people. And if we keep reading the story, Jesus lovingly confronts the woman. But he’s not holding a stone when he does. In other words, there’s a difference between condemning and loving; between judging and discerning. And the test is this: do we have a stone in our hand? And if so, do we want to throw it?

FOR TODAY: Have the courage to acknowledge the many ways that you gather stones. In other words, how do you hurt people? Who do you want to see get hurt? If you answer these questions – “I don’t. No one.” – then I’m afraid you’re in denial over the Redwood still lodged in your eye. You see, a miracle has happened. Not everyone has to die for their sins. And even if they did, we wouldn’t be the executioner. And so start chipping away at that Redwood. And put down your stones.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

being human: like father, like son

“Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” – Jn 5:19

This is what Jesus tells his disciples right after healing a cripple on the Sabbath. “I can only do what I know. And all I know is what the Father does.” More often than not, whenever we think of Jesus’ miracles we think of Jesus’ divinity. “He’s God. Of course he can raise the dead.” Or so goes our line of thinking. Now, there is a kernel of truth to our statement. But for the most part, thinking of Jesus the “healer” as Jesus the “divine” is wrong. And the reason we’re wrong is because we are assuming that there is a split between Jesus’ humanity and Jesus’ divinity. And our assumption is wrong. Because Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Not 50/50. Not schizophrenic, as if Jesus was divine half of the time (when he heals cripples) and human the other half of the time (when he yells at the Pharisees). No. Jesus is fully both. And so whenever Jesus heals a cripple on the Sabbath, which is the context of this verse, Jesus is revealing to us what it means to be fully human. He’s not being Jekyll and holding back his inner-Hyde. He’s being Jesus – the God-man – fully human, and fully divine.

You see, we often try and understand Jesus’ full humanity by looking at ourselves and then projecting our humanity onto Jesus. In other words, we assume that we are fully human and then we use our experience to understand Jesus. But this is crazy. Jesus understands us fully. But sadly, it doesn’t work the other way around.

You see, using our supposed “full humanity” to understand Jesus is like drinking a cup of polluted sewer water to understand how wonderful purified Dasani tastes. Of course, it’s hard to blame us for our error. The polluted sewer water is all that we know. But to drink our sewer water and say, “ahh, that’s the good stuff” is to make a huge mistake. But that’s exactly what we do. We take our experience and say, “ahh, that’s what it means to be fully human.” And in doing so, we make a huge mistake.

This may sound odd, but we’re not fully human. Again: we are not fully human. And the miracle of the incarnation isn’t just that Jesus is fully divine, but that Jesus is fully human as well. And so if we want to know what it means to be fully human, we can’t look at ourselves. We have to look at Jesus. And I think this bible verse gives us a huge clue as to what full humanity looks like.

Full humanity is living a life of total and complete dependence on our Father in heaven. Full humanity is seeing what the Father does and then doing the same. Fully humanity is being the perfect image of God. “Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”

UNTIL THURSDAY: Come to terms with the fact that we are not fully human. We’re not purified Dasani. And because of that, we do not understand what it means for Jesus to be fully human. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jesus’ act of healing that cripple was the most human thing he could have done. It wasn’t a “supernatural act.” It was a natural fully human act. And that’s why we can’t understand it. Each of us must come to terms with the fact that we are not fully human. Only Jesus is. Once we acknowledge our diminished humanity, we can begin to joyfully anticipate – and even live into – the full humanity Jesus promises will one day be given to us in the resurrection of the dead.

Monday, November 10, 2008

on needing glasses

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” – Jn 3:3

Jesus speaks these words to Nicodemus – a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, and an “elder” of the Jewish religious establishment. In the “ways of religion,” Nicodemus is intelligent. He “knows” all the right religious rules. Nicodemus is “well-versed” in Torah. And yet, Nicodemus begins to sense something new in Jesus. He doesn’t yet see it. But Nicodemus definitely senses something. But unwilling to put his religious reputation on the line, Nicodemus goes “to Jesus by night” (Jn 3:2). Nicodemus has seen the signs and so he decides to investigate Jesus’ legitimacy as a religious teacher.

Now, I imagine that Nicodemus approaches Jesus pretty confident and self-assured. Nicodemus is used to people asking him questions. After all, he’s got a Ph.D. in Pentateuch from Gamaliel U. He knows the Mosaic Law down to the letter. And so Nicodemus approaches Jesus, I imagine, not to learn from him but to evaluate him. Nicodemus wants to know. Is Jesus the “real deal” or not?

And yet, before Nicodemus even poses his first investigatory question, Jesus gives Nicodemus the answer: “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Other common translations of the Greek (anothen) include “born again” and “born anew.” But in either case, Jesus is referring to a new spiritual birth from God – a new life (zoe) that existed in Jesus from the beginning (Jn 1:4). “You need new life,” Jesus says, “if you want to see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is thrown for a loop. “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asks (Jn 3:9). Eventually Nicodemus walks away. His world is turned upside down. Only moments earlier, Nicodemus came to Jesus with confidence, thinking he had solved the jigsaw. But now Jesus tells Nicodemus that he’s been working with the wrong pieces.

Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, in my opinion, are the foundation of all authentic discipleship – and the foundation of all true wisdom for that matter. In a mystical way, our life with God is a gift – zoe is something that we receive. No opens their own eyes. Only God gives sight to the blind.

You see, Nicodemus is quite intelligent. His I.Q. is off the charts. But what Jesus tells him is that seeing God’s Kingdom isn’t a matter of having a high I.Q. Rather, seeing the Kingdom comes as a gift – when Jesus turns our world upside down, when experience the grace of being thrown for a loop. In other words, we need eyes for the Kingdom. And only one Optometrist has the right Rx.

FOR TODAY: Sadly, there are people in our world that may never see God’s Kingdom in our midst. But for most Jesus-followers, 20/20 Kingdom-vision is an incremental process. God’s life (zoe) is an incremental process. In other words, the zoe of Jesus inside of us definitely has a beginning – and debates over the moment God’s new life in us actually begins (whether it be the foundation of the world, the sacrament of baptism, the moment we believe, etc.) is responsible for a few different denominations. And of course there is a definite end to our process of rebirth. In other words, a time is coming when we will no longer need to be “born again” – when we will be “fully new” so to speak. Like John says, “When Jesus is revealed, then we will be like him” (1 Jn 3:2). But God’s church now lives in the middle. New life has begun in us, and yet we are not yet “totally new.” Rather, we’re in the process of being made new. And so for today, acknowledge your place in the transition. Ask God for eyes to see the Kingdom in those places of your life where, for whatever reason, you’re currently blind. In other words, rejoice that you’re “born again.” And then be open to a life-long process of being “born again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and …”

Thursday, November 6, 2008

pinot anyone?

“The steward tasted the water that had become wine.” – Jn 2:9
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory.” – Jn 2:11

Jesus is at a wedding – a wedding that he was invited to. Perhaps one of his Nazareth neighborhood chums (Biff?) is finally tying the knot. Jesus’ mother is present. His disciples are present. But there’s drama – a horribly embarrassing social taboo takes place. The hosts of the party run out of wine.

But then a miracle happens. Jesus turns 180 gallons of water into wine. I actually did the math. This is more than 900 bottles of wine. And what’s amazing is that the guests at the wedding have already been drinking. And not only that, but Jesus makes the “good stuff.” “You have kept the good wine until now” (Jn 2:10). Jesus doesn’t turn the water into boxed Franzia. No, Jesus takes the water – something ordinary and common – and he turns it into more than 900 bottles of Dom Perignon. Jesus’ act is extravagant. It’s wastefully graceful. It’s scandalously abundant and gloriously rich. And according to John, this was the first of Jesus’ “signs.”

It’s interesting, but John never uses the word we translate miracle (dunamis). Instead, he calls Jesus’ mighty deeds signs (semeion). And although both words describe the same reality, the difference in emphasis is worth noting. Because signs, by definition, point to something. And for John, Jesus’ signs point to the kingdom of God.

And so if you want to know what God’s kingdom is like, just look at the signs. See what they point to. And what you’ll find is that God’s kingdom is like a marriage feast where the celebration never ends, where the wine never goes bad, and where all that is ordinary and common (me and you) is gloriously transformed into something extravagant and abundantly rich (adoption, co-heirs with Christ, crown of glory that never fades).

FOR THE WEEKEND: Jesus’ first sign takes place at a wedding because Jesus’ first sign points to a wedding. In fact, all of human history is gravitating towards this one marriage celebration. Jesus is the bridegroom. His church is the bride. And only the best wine will be served (Mk 14:25). “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9). For the weekend, consider the blessing of receiving the invitation. (And don’t forget to RSVP.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

election day

Election Day. Almost two years of campaigning, and the time has finally arrived. A new president will be elected this evening. American policy – and world policy for that matter – will begin to shift. With a new administration comes new direction. And for many people, a whole lot seems to be at stake. And people feel like a lot’s at stake because they care. They care deeply about “the issues” – the war, the economy, the environment, healthcare, poverty, the elderly, abortion, capital punishment, government spending, and foreign policy – to just scratch the surface.

Elections remind us how broken we are. There wouldn’t be “issues” to deal with if we weren’t broken creatures in desperate need for God’s redemption. Scripture wouldn’t point to a “time of universal restoration” if things on earth hadn’t fallen apart (Acts 3:21). And regardless of whether or not we think God has a solution, we’re all aware of the problem. We want things to be fixed. We want things to be put right. And this is precisely why we feel that so much is at stake in our elections – because politicians promise a solution. Politicians promise that their plan is the key.

And so whether we “barack” the vote or buy a ticket for “the straight talk express,” there are two errors I want us to avoid at the polls today.

First, don’t think that your faith in Jesus shouldn’t inform how you vote. It should. Everything is spiritual. Our faith should inform everything we do. Every political issue is a spiritual one as well. Because everything is spiritual. God is infinitely more concerned with “the issues” than we are. And because of that, your vote matters. And your vote can’t be divorced from your faith in Jesus’ Lordship.

Second, don’t think that one of the candidates can singlehandedly fix our world and restore our nation. With the presidency comes power – and with power is the potential for good and evil. But biblically speaking, fixing things is the Messiah’s job description. Only the Messiah can adequately “deal with” all the issues. And to think, even subconsciously, that one of our candidates for president is an agent of God sent to reestablish God’s rule on earth is to fire Jesus and to give his job to a broken, human politician. And what’s amazing is that Christians – liberals and conservatives – do this all the time. And the bible calls it idolatry.

That being said, politics is important. And the reason politics is important is because the gospel is a political message. The “kingdom” of God is a political phrase. The gospel, in a nutshell, is that Jesus is Lord – that God is king – and that one day God’s kingdom will be all in all. In other words, the coming of God’s Kingdom is God’s solution. It’s about things being fixed, about things being put right, once and for all. It’s about God’s plan being the key. And on election days, this is a freeing thing to remember. Because regardless of whom we elect, God continues to prepare “the time of universal restoration.” And when God’s day comes, the Unelected Official, God’s Sovereign Messiah, will “judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3). In other words, there won’t be any more “issues” to deal with.

UNTIL THURSDAY: Pray for our nation’s election.

“Almighty God, the Giver of all power and privilege: Guide the people of the United States in the election of a new president; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN” (BCP, 822, changes mine)

Monday, November 3, 2008

where you staying?

“The two disciples said to Jesus, where are you staying? Jesus said to them, Come and see.” – Jn 1:38-39

“Where are you staying?” It’s odd that this is the first question someone asks Jesus in the Gospel of John. The word translated stay, meno, means “to abide.” To be more accurate, meno has to do with a “continual presence” and with “being held up continually.” And so on the surface, these first disciples want to know where Jesus sleeps at night. But in reality, they’re looking for much, much more. They’re asking for much, much more.

Jesus’ response is interesting. “Come and see.” It’s hard to fathom the simplicity and graciousness of Jesus’ invitation – an invitation Jesus wants us to extend to others. For example, Philip tells Nathanael under a fig tree, “come and see” (Jn 1:46). A Samaritan woman tells her friends by a well, “come and see” (Jn 4:29). Before a dramatic healing, Lazarus’ friends tell Jesus, “come and see” (Jn 11:34). “Come and see” – these are simple words of grace. They’re words that precede new faith and new life (in the case of Lazarus). “Come and see.” These are words we must hear. These are words we must speak.

First, we must hear Jesus’ words, “come and see.” And we can’t forget our original question. “Where are you abiding (meno)?” Because Jesus gives a clear answer to our question. “I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide (meno) in his love” (Jn 15:10). Jesus stays with his Father. And Jesus invites us into the Father’s “continual presence.” Jesus wants us to be “held up continually” by the Father – just as he is held up continually by the Father. Ultimately, this is the knowledge Jesus wants us to “come” to, the reality Jesus wants us to “see.” And so Jesus tells us – “abide (meno) in my love” (Jn 15:9). “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (Jn 15:5).

Second, we must speak Jesus’ words. Of course, we can’t speak a word we haven’t yet received. We can’t tell people to “come and see” something that we ourselves have no experience of. But these words – “come and see” – are the heart of authentic Christian evangelism. Evangelism begins when we are captured by a new reality, and evangelism happens when we invite others to “come and see” that reality, to be captured by that reality themselves.

FOR TODAY: Focus on part one – hearing Jesus’ words. “Come” to the Father’s presence where Jesus abides. “See” the oneness Jesus has with the Father. And then fathom the simplicity and graciousness of Jesus’ invitation. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:4). Ask Jesus that same question his first disciples asked him, “Where are you staying?” And hear Jesus’ answer like you’ve never heard it before. “With the Father. And with you, if you’ll let me. Now come and see this reality, and stay with me.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared - Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” – Jn 1:29

The Baptizer has already testified that he isn’t the Messiah. He’s now ready to bear witness to the Lamb of God – the Lamb that takes away the world’s sins.

We’re used to this Messianic title by now. But think about how these words would have sounded the moment they left the Baptizer’s lips. The Jews expected a Messiah – but a lamb? The Messiah was supposed to be a lion if anything. The Lamb of God? This is like expecting a pit bull and getting a poodle; like buying a ticket for a heavyweight bout and watching “mini me” step into the ring. The Lamb of God?

Yes. Lambs play a key role in Israel’s salvation history. Lambs are the centerpiece of the Jewish feast of Passover, and historically speaking, a lamb was Israel’s ticket out of slavery and death.

The Israelites, you may recall, became slaves in the land of Egypt. And because they were God’s elect, God sent Moses to Pharaoh – “Let my people go!!” Pharaoh refuses. He’s a fan of the free labor. In fact, Pharaoh’s heart is so hard that God is forced to kill every first-born Egyptian male to free His chosen people. And so God “passes-through” Egypt and executes the first born male of every house that doesn’t display the secret sign. Of course, God gave His special people the secret sign. And that secret sign involved a “lamb without blemish” (Ex 12:5). Israel was told to slaughter it and display the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their home. “For the Lord will pass through the land and strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood … on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not … strike you down” (Ex 12:23). God “passed-through” Egypt and “passed-over” Israel. And a lamb’s blood was at the center. A lamb was Israel’s ticket out of slavery and death.

Let’s fast forward to Jesus’ death. John tells us that Jesus was crucified “on the day of the Preparation for the Passover” (Jn 19:14). What happens on the day of preparation? Lambs are slaughtered. The temple is full of bleating lambs and piles of blood. It has a certain smell to it. It’s messy. It’s loud. It’s the biggest festival of the year. Once a year lambs were “prepared.” And this was the day that Jesus died. On a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus died with the other Passover lambs. He died as a Passover lamb.

Why? Because Jesus is the Lamb without blemish. His blood, sprinkled on the doorposts of our heart, is our ticket out of slavery and death. Jesus is the Lamb of God. The Lamb’s blood is still the center.

UNTIL MONDAY, NOV 3RD: Consider what it means for Jesus, the Messiah, to be God’s Lamb. It begins with Jesus’ perfect sacrifice. But it doesn’t end there. Consider how the Lamb can also be the perfect shepherd (Jn 10:11)? In what ways are we supposed to become lambs (Jn 15:13)?

Monday, October 27, 2008

i'm not the messiah

“I am not the Messiah.” – Jn 1:20

According to John’s Gospel, these are the opening words of John the Baptizer’s “testimony” to the Lordship of Jesus (Jn 1:19). The Baptizer doesn’t open his “testimony” with words about Jesus. He opens with words about himself. “I am not the Messiah.”

In a very real sense, all authentic testimony – and all sane thinking for that matter – begins with these words. We must humbly confess who we are not. We are not responsible for saving ourselves. We are not responsible for saving others. We are not responsible for saving the world. We are not the Messiah.

Now, this may seem obvious. Only a few people in our world have claimed to be the Messiah. That Jesus was one of them rules out the possibility that he was a normal guy with some nice lessons about highly effective living. Normal guys don’t claim to be the Messiah. Only the Messiah and disillusioned, misguided nut jobs make such claims. That being said, we still need to declare – over and over again if necessary – who we are not. Because at a subconscious level, we all act from time to time as if we were the Messiah – as if we were the central figure around whom our world revolved. And we’re not. Our testimony must begin here. We are not the Messiah.

This word – testimony – is central to John’s Gospel. The Baptizer, we are told, came to “testify” to the light, and the author of John’s Gospel invites his readers to do the same. The word translated “testify” and “testimony” comes from the Greek word marturia, which is also where our word martyr comes from. In other words, inherent to the word testimony is the “death of the self.” To testify to Jesus’ lordship, we must first lay down our own life. To testify to Jesus’ lordship, we must first confess – “I am not the Messiah.”

UNTIL WEDNESDAY: Make a list of the ways that you still subconsciously act as if you are the Messiah. Maybe you’re preoccupied with your own self-effort and willpower. Maybe you get frustrated when you can’t get others to see what is “best for them.” Maybe you feel responsible for “how things turn out.” Maybe you take yourself way too seriously. Maybe you’re compelled to always have the last word. Maybe you can’t relax. Maybe you’re the center of every choice you make. Maybe you think God “owes you” for all your hard work. Maybe you can’t stop managing things beyond your control. Anyway, make a list. Look at it. Take a deep breath. Tear it up. Have a good laugh. And say, “I am not the Messiah.”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

word up

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” – Jn 1:1

John doesn’t begin with Jesus’ birth narrative. He doesn’t start with stories of angels or shepherds or magi. John the Baptist doesn’t cause a ruckus in the wilderness. John’s Gospel starts “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1, Jn 1:1). John begins Jesus’ story outside the normal calculations of time. John explores how the Word – existing outside the limits of time and place – enters our time-bound world. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9).

In essence, John sets the stage. His poetry prepares us to hear the greatest story ever told. He condenses a story so magnificent that, if every detail were captured, “the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25).

First, John identifies Jesus with the Word – the logos. The Word exists “in the beginning.” The Word is uncreated. And what is the nature of this Word – the logos? The Logos, in the original Greek, is all about speech – about a living voice that embodies a greater reality. And for John, this Greater Reality is God. “In the beginning was God’s speech – God’s living voice.” Before anything or anyone was created, God’s Living Voice spoke. Jesus is God’s Speech.

Second, God’s Living Voice – the logos – is God and is with God. God’s Speech is one with the Speaker; God’s Speech is separate from the Speaker. I understand why people find Christianity hard. We’re still on verse #1 and John plunges into a reality that won’t fit any scientific categories. But we can’t miss John’s essential point. John is asserting that God is supra-personal. “In the beginning” wasn’t the Author at his desk, sitting alone and brainstorming, on what to create. God’s nature is relational. On the one hand, Jesus is “close to the Father’s heart” (Jn 1:18). On the other hand, “whoever has seen [Jesus] has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). Both statements are true. Jesus reveals God’s relational nature.

Third, God’s Living Voice – the logos – is the source of all life. “In him was life” (Jn 1:4). The Greeks had two distinct words for life – bios and zoe. Bios is physical, bodily life. We all have that. It’s built into our DNA. Zoe is different. Zoe is an eternal life that animates and sustains the human soul. We don’t have zoe. But we need it. John’s Gospel is the story of how zoe’s Source “came to what was his own” (Jn 1:11). “I came that they may have zoe” (Jn 10:10). Jesus is the Source of life.

FOR THE WEEKEND: Meditate on the deep mysteries of John’s prologue (1:1-18). Read it several times and wrestle with John’s claims. How is Jesus God’s Speech? How does Jesus reveal God’s relational nature? How is Jesus the Source of life? My suggestion is that you have a few Advil handy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


“The Lord is my shepherd.” – Ps 23:1

I’ve had a “bad” week. I’ve accomplished nothing. Things keep “coming up.” Ordinary tasks seem harder than usual. Hard tasks seem impossible. I’ve hit the snooze button 128 times in 2 days. We all have a week like this every now and again. I’ve been due for one I suppose.

And these weeks are really frustrating. They’re frustrating because life – as we plan it – doesn’t go as smoothly as we’d like – or not as we’d like at all. And yet, the reason they’re so frustrating is because we lack faith. We lack faith that God is our shepherd. We lack faith that God has invested everything in His sheep.

And so our challenge is to remember two things. First, we have a shepherd. Second, our shepherd is good.

First, we have a shepherd. He’s with us every step. He guides every step. He goes before us every step. A lot of “annoying interruptions” are really opportunities our shepherd has graciously pre-arranged. We’re just too tied to a narrow view of how our life should run. So we fail to see, appreciate, and embrace these “annoyances.”

Second, our shepherd is good. God knows what he’s doing. If you’re frustrated, it’s not because you’ve let God down. It’s because you’ve failed to meet whatever illusory game-plan you think God wants you to live into. God’s barometer for success is different that ours. God is more generous. God has different goals. God doesn’t need us to accomplish whatever goals we’ve set. Part of embracing the freedom of the Gospel is figuring that out. Personally, I’m not even close.

FOR TODAY: I’m sure you have things to do today – things you feel need to get done. Do them with passion. Do them for God. Do them with God. But, when you’re interrupted or when you find yourself stuck, ask the Good Shepherd what He’s up to, and then turn and embrace the moment. You’re being led to greener pastures. And only God knows the way. And so don’t get mad and go hide in a ditch when God asks you to make a u-turn.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

being a god-pleaser

“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” – Mk 15:15

Jesus’ life was in Pilate’s hands. Pilate had the power to condemn and the power to acquit, the power to kill and the power to pardon. Pilate’s verdict was crucifixion. He wasn’t necessarily sold on this verdict. But Pilate wanted to “satisfy the crowd.” It wasn’t a sense of justice that guided Pilate’s behavior or that ruled his life. Rather, the tyrant was tyrannized by his own need - his need to satisfy the crowd. Pilate needed the approval of others. Pilate was a people-pleaser.

On the one hand, I sympathize with Pilate. It’s hard to take the narrow road. It’s hard to make unpopular decisions. But on the other hand, Jesus walks a narrow road. And if we’re to follow him, it’s the only road he’ll lead us down. And so on the one hand, the narrow road can be hard. That being said, it’s a lot easier that what we’re all trying to do. You see, the narrow road may be hard. But walking two roads at once – that’s just impossible.

Think about it. Pilate was a slave. He didn’t understand the freedom of God’s kingdom. All Pilate knew was the tyranny of people-pleasing. Jesus offers us a better way – a way of freedom. Jesus invites us to step into God’s kingdom, to soak ourselves in the free gift of divine approval, and to allow God’s approval to push us down the narrow path Jesus walks. “Just as we have been approved by God, … we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God” (1 Thess 2:4). In other words, we’re invited to live our life for an Audience of One. We don’t have to be people-pleasers. We’re invited to be God-pleasers. Like Jesus, God is already “well pleased” with us (Matt 17:5).

FOR TODAY: Following Jesus won’t condemn us to a friendless existence. People won’t cease to respect us or admire us. In fact, to the extent that we manifest the fruits of the Spirit in our relationships – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control – my hunch is that people will be drawn to us. That being said, we’re called to follow Jesus – not satisfy the crowds. Paul’s question to the Galatians is worth reflecting on. “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). For today, live as a God-pleaser. Live before God as “one approved” (2 Tim 2:15). And be free. The crowds won’t ever be satisfied anyway.

Monday, October 20, 2008

checking for tychicus

We don’t know a whole lot about Tychicus. Luke suggests that he ran with Paul’s inner posse (Acts 20:4), which Paul’s own letters bear witness to. For example, Paul tells Titus that he’s going to send Artemas or Tychicus to him (Tit 3:12). Paul informs Timothy that he’s “sent Tychicus to Ephesus” (2 Tim 4:12). Paul describes Tychicus as a “beloved brother, a faithful minister, and a fellow servant in the Lord” (Col 4:7). And because of this, Paul sends Tychicus to “encourage your hearts” (Eph 6:22). And that’s all we know about Tychicus. Paul sends him to encourage God’s people. Tychicus is an encourager. Two questions for today. First, are you a Tychicus? Second, do you have a Tychicus?

First, every disciple of Jesus is called to be a Tychicus. There are no exceptions. We’re all sent to God’s people, in our unique ways, as encouragers. We’re to “encourage one another and build up each other” (1 Thess 5:11). Far too often, we do just the opposite. We tear one another down – with our words, our silence, our lack of support, our lack of time, our lack of interest. But this “life” of tearing others down (if we can even call that life) is not what Jesus invites us into. As disciples of Jesus, our call is to be “transformed into the same image” as God (2 Cor 3:18). And we worship “the God of … encouragement” (Rom 15:5).

Second, we all need a few Tychicus’ (impossible to pronounce without sounding intoxicated) in our life. Discipleship is a communal affair. If we’re following Jesus alone, I doubt we’re following him at all. And so let us pray for, and actively seek, other disciples to encourage us in our life with God.

That being said, every Christian has the Encourager – not an encourager, but the Encourager. The Greek word translated “encourager” is also translated “helper” and “advocate” and “friend” and “counselor” and “comforter” and “paraclete.” It’s the same word John uses to describe the Spirit of God. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Encourager (parakletos) to be with you forever” (Jn 14:16). This Greek word – parakletos – literally means “one called to the side of.” That’s all an encourager is – one called to our side to support us.

God’s Spirit has been called to our side to encourage us in our life with God. And because we have the Spirit – the Encourager – we can encourage one another and be encouraged by one another. After all, God wants us to be encouraged. “I want their hearts to be encouraged (parakaleo) and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of … Christ himself” (Col 2:2).

FOR TODAY: Be a Tychicus. Give thanks for the Tychicus’ you’ve been given. And remember that the Spirit of God has been called to your side to encourage you. We worship a God of encouragement. And so be encouraged. Be intentional about encouraging one another. Like I said, all we know about Tychicus is that he faithfully encouraged God’s church. May the same be said of each of us when all is said and done.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

a new wardrobe

“So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” – Mk 10:50

This verse has always puzzled me. It’s from the Gospel of Mark. A blind beggar, Bartimaeus, sits by the roadside and gets word that Jesus is nearby. And so Bart screams. “Jesus! Jesus! Have mercy on me!” And Jesus calls Bart to come to him for healing. And “so throwing off his cloak,” Bart runs to Jesus. Bart doesn’t forget his cloak. He chunks it to the ground. Bart runs to Jesus naked – with nothing but his need.

This scene makes me think of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve “were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). But then they ate the forbidden tomato and got embarrassed. And so God made “garments of skins” for them and “clothed them” (Gen 3:21). In other words, God gave Adam and Eve new clothes, a new wardrobe, a new cloak. God, apparently, likes to give people new clothes.

Back to Bart - why leave his cloak behind? The answer, I think, is because Jesus wants to give him different clothes, a new wardrobe, a new cloak. After all, receiving a new wardrobe is what discipleship is all about. It’s about God clothing us with a new inner-wardrobe, a new heart, a new character. “Clothe yourselves with the new self” (Eph 4:24). “Clothe yourselves with love” (Col 3:14). “Clothe yourselves with humility” (1 Pet 5:5). Chunk that old cloak to the ground. Run to Jesus naked. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14). “Put on the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11). Change clothes.

Think about Matthew’s parable of the wedding banquet. The king kicks someone out of the party for not being dressed correctly. “How did you get in here without a wedding robe” (Matt 22:12)? The guest has no answer. So the bouncers kick him to the curb. This guest wasn’t like Bart. This guest was too attached to his old cloak. And so he missed out on the banquet.

UNTIL MONDAY, OCTOBER 20: Like Bart, Jesus desires to heal us of our blindness. And sometimes we sabotage our own healing process. We’re too attached to the old cloak. We’re not ready, or we don’t fully desire, the new clothes God wants to dress us in. And so here’s the question we should consider for the weekend: what is our cloak? What part of our old self does Jesus want us to leave behind? What are we clinging to that blinds us? Answer that question. And then chunk your cloak to the ground. Run to Jesus naked – with nothing but your need. Don’t miss out on the banquet because you’re too attached to clothes you wore as a child.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

let's make kevin a priest too

“You are a … royal priesthood.” – 1 Pet 2:9

If Kevin is an apostle, let’s go ahead and make him a priest too. I’m not sure Kevin would embrace that title. But Kevin doesn’t read my blog.

The word priest is like a tasty baked potato – it’s loaded. That being said, the word priest is a biblical word. And it’s a word with incredible theological significance. And once again, it’s a word – like the word apostle – with more than one meaning. And so, on the one hand, Kevin is obviously not a priest, i.e., in the Apostolic and liturgical tradition of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians, etc. In January, I’ll be ordained a priest in that sense. But that’s not how I’m using the word priest for today’s purpose. I’m using it like the first Christians used it - in a more inclusive sense - for all believers are part of the “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9). In other words, there is a way in which Kevin – and any believer for that matter – is a priest.

And so what is a priest? I’ll focus on two characteristics of the priestly office. First, a priest is one who offers a sacrifice to God on behalf of someone else. Second, a priest has a special role of interceding for God’s people.

First, a priest offers sacrifice. For example, OT priests offered sacrifices of atonement (Lev 4:26). Pagans also had their own priests. Acts references “the priest of Zeus” who “wanted to offer sacrifice” (Acts 14:13). Sacrifice, therefore, is at the heart of the priestly vocation. And here’s the catch. Sacrifice is also at the heart of the Christian’s vocation. Like Paul says, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Paul is using, and reimagining, priestly language. Paul’s priestly command is spoken to all: “take everything you are – your desires and hopes and dreams and fears and sin and insecurity – and offer it to God as a living sacrifice.” This is what Jesus calls taking up our cross (Matt 16:24), and what Paul calls bearing one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). We throw ourselves on God’s altar (and we stay there - the problem with being a living sacrifice is that we're always crawling off the altar). We push all our chips in the center. We go “all in.”

Second, a priest intercedes for God’s people. 1 Samuel asks rhetorically, “if someone sins against the Lord, who can make intercession” (1 Sam 2:25)? Though the next verse doesn’t give us an answer, the logical response would be – a priest. Because that’s what priests do. Moses, for example, fulfilled a priestly role whenever he “interceded on behalf of Aaron” (Deut 9:20). Intercession, therefore, is at the heart of the priestly vocation – and therefore at the heart of our vocation as well. As Christians, we should pray for one another, actively speak to God on behalf of those whom we love, and even those whom we don’t love. Paul was an excellent priest. Paul prayed that the Corinthians would “become perfect” (2 Cor 13:9), that the Ephesians would “not lose heart” (Eph 3:13), and that Philemon would “become effective” in “sharing [his] faith” (Phm 1:6). And Paul expected other people to pray for him. To the Thessalonians Paul asks a favor: “pray for us” (2 Thess 3:1). Priests pray for other people.

FOR TODAY: Consider what the term “priesthood of all believers” means to you. In other words, what does it mean for you specifically to be doing priestly work – to be a “living sacrifice” that intercedes for God’s people? The priestly vocation may sound a little overwhelming at first. But it’s not. Its part of Jesus’ light burden (Matt 11:30). After all, we work as priests with the knowledge that Jesus is our Great High Priest (Heb 4:14) – for Jesus not only “offered himself without blemish to God,” (Heb 9:14) but Jesus also “lives to make intercession” for the saints (Heb 7:25). Sacrifice. Pray. Be a priest.

Monday, October 13, 2008

the apostle kevin?

“He called the twelve and began to send them out.” – Mk 6:7

I met a man a week or so ago that was starting his own church. We struck up a conversation, one thing led to another, and he gave me “his card.” And when I saw his chosen title, the “honorific” that he designated to precede his name, I was intrigued. I hadn’t ever seen this particular word on a business card. This man wasn’t “Minister Kevin” or “Fr. Kevin” or “Reverend Kevin” or “Pastor Kevin” or “Deacon Kevin” or “Pope Kevin XI.” No. This man was “Apostle Kevin.”

I didn’t like Kevin’s title at first. To be honest, his chosen title upset my ecclesial and hierarchal sensibilities. In the exciting world of churchy institutionalism, of which I’m a product, apostles are like dinosaurs - they existed a long time ago, but now they’re extinct. To be more specific, an apostle was a person who had seen, with their own eyes, the risen Christ, and because of that, had a special role in the life of early church. For example, Peter and James and John – these were apostles. But Kevin? Not so much.

Consider, for example, Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1) In other words, Paul is reminding the Corinthians that he is part of an elite group, that he has special authority, which they don’t have. After all, he is an apostle. He has seen Jesus alive and risen. And because of that, he was an apostle – he had a special role in the church.

Now, I'm not out to take away the uniqueness of the apostolic role. A limited number of people saw Jesus alive post-crucifixion before he ascended to his Father. Paul was one of them. And Kevin wasn’t. Kevin, me, you – we’re among those who are “blessed” because we “have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20:29). And so, on the one hand, me, you, and Kevin – we’re not apostles. We have not seen the risen Christ with our own eyes like Paul and Peter and James and Thomas. That being said, in another sense, if we’re being faithful, we most certainly are apostles. Kevin is an apostle. And so am I. And so are you. And here’s why.

The word apostle comes from the Greek word “apostolos,” which means “one who is sent with a message.” To be an apostle is to be sent with a message. That’s why all of us – in this different sense – are in fact apostles. We are sent to the world to spread the message of the Gospel – the good news – that God is for us in Jesus Christ.

The truth is we live in a world that is in desperate need of hearing the good news. And we don’t need to hear it just once and “accept” it. No. We need to hear it again, and again, and again. And so as Jesus’ disciples, we’re sent to believers and non-believers, to the good and to the bad. After all, all of us are in desperate need of a little good news.

In our culture of consumer-driven Christianity, it’s easy to believe that the church and the bible exist to serve our needs. They don’t. And if we treat the bible that way, if we treat the church that way, we’ll never have our needs met. That’s the great irony. But when we begin to grasp the Gospel – that God sent his Son Jesus to us in order to send us to the world – we find meaning and fulfillment and peace beyond all measure.

FOR TODAY: Live your life with the understanding that you are “sent.” You’re an apostle. You have a message that people need to hear, a message that people need to see lived. God doesn’t just send the “special ones” – Moses, Jeremiah, Elijah, Paul. No. God sends Kevin. God sends me. God sends you. Let’s not be a church of dinosaurs. We live in a world that is desperate for good news. God has entrusted us with a wonderful message. And the church is sent into the world to live it and to spread it. You’re an apostle. And so for today, live like one.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

trusting the good

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” – Gen 50:20

Joseph spoke these words to his apologetic brothers. If you don’t remember the story, Joseph’s ten brothers sell him into slavery, and after serving hard time in the Egyptian penitentiary, Joseph becomes the V.P. of Egypt. A famine then breaks out. Joseph’s brothers need food. The new V.P. has got the goods. And then the climax of the story – Joseph’s ten brothers go to Egypt for food and discover that their brother is borderline royalty. “Uhh, sorry Joseph. We probably shouldn’t have sold you into slavery and told dad that a lion mauled you.” “That’s okay,” Joseph said. “You may have intended to do me harm. But God intended it for good.” That’s really mature Joseph.

What an amazing thing to say, and an even more amazing thing to believe. But as disciples of Jesus, Joseph’s perspective is where we should be moving. “What you intended to be awful, God intends to be glorious.” Paul, for example, finds himself in prison. People were out to get Paul – he’s there because his opponents wanted to do him harm. And what does Paul say? I was imprisoned so that others might “dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear” (Phil 1:14). In other words, when others intended (and succeeded) in doing Paul harm, Paul insists that God intended it for good. Really mature Paul.

Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion is the ultimate example of God’s strange intentions. After all, people really intended to do Jesus harm. Judas betrayed him. The “Pharisees went to Jesus and plotted to entrap him in what he said” (Matt 22:15). And Jesus calls them on it. “You are trying to kill me” (Jn 8:40). And so a lot of people intended to do Jesus harm. And they succeeded. The good new of the Christian gospel is that God intended it for good.

From a human perspective, the cross was a disaster, a shame, an embarrassment, and a curse. And yet, this disastrous shame, this embarrassing curse, was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The world looked at Jesus and demanded death. The crowds “kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” (Lk 23:21). The crowds intended to do Jesus harm. The world shouted death. And yet, more so than at any other moment in the history of the world, our God shouted life. Our God intended to do us good.

UNTIL MONDAY, OCTOBER 13TH: No matter how broken or bad or hurtful a situation is, God can intend it for good. Like Paul says, in the end “all things work for the good of those who love God” (Rom 8:28). All things – good, bad – all things. For the next ten days, make a habit of prayerfully trusting God’s promise. In other words, we don’t have to know exactly how God will use our pain for good. And to be honest, Christians far too often jump the gun on trying to “see the good.” God doesn’t ask us to see the good. He asks us to trust in the good that we don’t see. He asks us to trust that He is good. And so don’t pretend that whatever happens isn’t really that bad. That being said, cling to the paradox of being chosen and loved by a crucified Messiah – for God deems us the strongest in our greatest moments of weakness (2 Cor 12:10).

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

> ?

“Something greater than the temple is here.” – Matt 12:6

It’s hard to imagine how shocked and offended Jesus’ contemporaries would have been at these words. This statement no doubt would have been heard as blasphemous. After all, nothing was greater than the temple – not the torah, not the Sabbath – nadda. And I’ll mention two reasons this was the case. First, the temple is where sins were forgiven. Second, the temple is where God chose to dwell.

First, the temple is where sins were forgiven. It’s where animal sacrifices were made on behalf of the people. It’s where forgiveness was found. Only in Jerusalem. Only at the temple. Those were the rules. And Jesus didn’t follow them. He’d routinely declare “your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:6). And his religious opponents would routinely respond “It is blasphemy” (Mk 2:6)! After all, only God could forgive sins, and forgiveness was strictly mediated through the temple. But Jesus saw things differently. He claimed that he was greater than the temple.

Second, the temple is where God chose to dwell. At one point Solomon, whom God puts in charge of the temple-building project, asks the following: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” (1 Ki 8:27)! And yet Jews in Jesus’ day answered this question with a resounding yes! The temple was God’s home – the chosen container for the Uncontainable God. It’s where heaven and earth overlapped and interlocked. And so imagine what it meant for Jesus to say “before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn 8:58). He claimed that we was greater than the temple.

FOR TODAY: Jesus’ claim that he was greater than the temple is radical. Of course, Jesus also said or implied that he was greater than Solomon (Matt 12:42), David (Matt 22:45), Jonah (Matt 12:41), Moses (Matt 5:22), the Sabbath (Mk 2:28), and the Torah (Matt 11:28). What would Jesus say to you? “Something greater than _____ is here.” For today, fill in the blank.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

don't serve god

“Put to death, therefore, whatever in you in earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” – Col 3:5

How peculiar. Paul is smack dab in the middle of exhorting the Christians at Colossae to embrace God’s new life of the Spirit, and Paul spouts off the usual suspects of Judeo-Christian “no-nos” that don’t mesh with life in God’s new age. So far, so good. But then Paul throws a curve ball. After greed, at the end of his list, Paul uses the Greek equivalent of parenthesis to add a footnote: greed (which is idolatry). Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire – Paul lets these stand alone. But after greed Paul adds, “FYI, to be greedy is to break commandment #2. It’s the equivalent of worshiping Baal or the golden calf. This is serious stuff. Greed is idolatry.” But why? That’s what I’d like to reflect on for a bit this morning.

We mainly associate idolatry with worshipping other gods. And of course this is true. But I want to scrap this traditional definition of idolatry for a moment. I also refuse to define idolatry as “the god that we choose to serve.” To be honest, and I’m speaking for myself, I don’t serve any god. Of course, Jesus tells his disciples they are to serve only one Master. And if someone were to ask, “Do you want to serve Jesus?” it would be appropriate to say yes. But ultimately, defining who or what we worship as “who or what we serve” is problematic. By definition, a servant is useful and needed by their master. Servants add value to those whom they serve. Masters depend on their servants to accomplish their purposes. And as we all know, God isn’t “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). How can we serve a God who needs nothing? Or in the case of money, how can we serve, i.e., assist or be useful to, something that doesn’t breathe or think? We can’t. And that’s what I mean when I say I don’t serve any God or god.

And so here is my working definition of idolatry. Idolatry is whenever we strategically position ourselves to be served by anything other than the God who loves us and calls us by name. Now, of course it’s appropriate that we call ourselves servants of God. After all, Jesus does. But what we’re really saying is that we have first and foremost been “served by” God. We’ve been offered life and peace and wholeness. We’ve been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son” (Col 1:13). Before we do anything for God, Jesus washes our feet (Jn 13:5), calls us friends (Jn 15:15), and prepares a place for us (Jn 14:3). In other words, in Christ, God serves us. And so to worship God is to constantly place ourselves in God’s competent care, allowing Him to serve us. Of course, if we do this we will be transformed to such an extent that we serve others in Jesus’ name. And so if it’s even possible to serve God, it happens whenever we bless others because Jesus has blessed us. “As you did it to the least of one of these you did it also to me” (Mt 25:40).

And so that’s where our formula, greed = idolatry, comes into play. By definition, greed is when our hunger to be served by money is so great that it blinds us to God’s desire to serve us. We all want life and happiness and joy and peace and security. And we all know that we don’t possess any of these things within ourselves. Like Paul says, we simply can’t “live to ourselves” (Rom 14:7). It’s just not possible. We have to live for, and be served by, Someone or something. To live for God, to be served by God, is one way to seek life. To live for money, to be served by money, is a second way.

That being said, Christians aren’t dualists. God says that his creation is “very good.” And many of the things that money affords us (get it?) are part of God’s good creation. Nor should we suppose that one has to have money to be greedy or to seek to be served by money. In our consumerist society of constant advertising and “buy me” evangelizing, it always remains a possibility that the people who love money the most desperately and unrealistically are the ones who don’t have any. And so I guess the question to ask ourselves is, where is our heart? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk 12:34).

FOR TODAY: If you’re upset that the market plummeted yesterday, speak candidly with God about it. Seriously. God wants to hear from you, to know why you’re upset and anxious. Don’t worry about your motives, or if the reason you’re upset is misguided. God doesn’t care. He just wants us to speak freely with Him. And if we do this, God will serve us. He’ll remind us that in Him we have more life and happiness and joy and peace and security than we ever imagined was possible.

Monday, September 29, 2008

sow what?

“A Sower went out to sow.” – Matt 13:3

Most of us are familiar with this parable. A Sower goes out to sow seeds – some seed falls on the path, some seed falls on the rocky ground, some seed falls on the thorns, but the rest falls on the good soil and bears a whole lot of fruit. The end. Only in private, at a later time, will Jesus unlock the mysteries of this parable to his disciples. And here’s the gist of what Jesus says: seeds are “sown in the heart” (Matt 13:19). And so Jesus’ parable of the Sower, among other things, is a parable about the human heart. And as we’ve already seen, the new Moses’ new Law aims to transform the human heart.

Why does Jesus tell the parable of the Sower? For the same reason Jesus tells all of his parables. Jesus wants to shake us from our complacency. Jesus wants us to repent – or “change our mind” – about the many ways we oppose God’s will for our life. Jesus wants us to anchor ourselves in God’s kingdom that is even now in our midst.

That being said, what does this mean practically for the disciple of Jesus? It means that we examine the state of our hearts. Is the soil soft and fertile, rocky, or infested with weeds? What we can do – and what we must do – is prepare and tend the soil. We are to prepare our hearts not only to receive, but to be transformed by, God’s Word.

Of course, this parable made a lot of sense to Jesus’ contemporaries in a 1st century agrarian society. Farmers have always understood the relationship between soil and seed. Farmers understand that they have a real and crucial part to play – that they have to prepare the soil for planting if the crops are going to be any good at all. Preparing the soil never guarantees a bountiful crop. The Son of Man must sow the seed. That being said, if there’s no preparation at all – if the soil isn’t given proper attention – then either little or no harvest is guaranteed.

Farmers, for example, can’t control the weather. And there’s only so much a famer can do about bugs and weeds and drought. And so farmers have to leave some things in God’s capable hands. But what farmers can do – and what farmers must do – is prepare the soil.

So too must the disciple of Jesus. We can do our part – and we must do our part – for God’s Living Word to bear fruit. We must watch and tend the crop, remove the weeds, add water, and pray. Christians have always called these things spiritual disciplines – prayer, solitude, silence, service, tithing, fasting, worship, bible study, meditation, submission, and of course Jesus’ favorite, blogging. A spiritual discipline isn’t a rule. Not one of these things earns us “points” with God. God isn’t a scorekeeper. What spiritual disciplines do is prepare our hearts, make the soil rich.

To switch metaphors, think of sailing. Only God can send the wind. And if God never sends the wind then we’ll forever be stuck at sea. But through the intentional practice of spiritual discipline, we prepare the soil. We put up the sails.

Of course, our God of grace does send wind. God does bring forth a harvest. Think of the Sower. What kind of Sower would sow so recklessly? What kind of Sower would dump seed all over the place, hoping against hope, to bring forth a harvest, even in the most unlikely of places? Do you know any farmer who scatters seed on the path? Or in the thorns? Of course not. Because there’s only One. And that our God is willing, and eager, to sow seeds everywhere is a testament to His grace.

FOR TODAY: Take on a spiritual discipline for the month of October – something small. Maybe you prayerfully read one chapter of the Gospels each day and talk to God about what you read. Maybe you set aside ten minutes in the morning to sit in silence. Or maybe you make your commute to work each day a time to turn off the radio and speak to God. But add something concrete to your spiritual repertoire to prepare the soil, to put up the sails. Remember - God’s grace is opposed to earning. But grace thrives on our effort.