Thursday, August 28, 2008

we need a night light

“You are the light of the world.” – Matt 5:13

Jesus tells his disciples that they are the light of the world. Once again, Jesus’ words are scandalous. After all, God called the Israelites to be “a light to the nations” (Is 49:6). Israel was supposed to be the light of the world. And so when the new Moses “calls out” a new people to travel up a new mountain, one naturally wonders what Jesus is up to. The answer is simple: he’s forming a new Israel. That’s why Jesus says, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13).

Jesus knows our world in all of its darkness. Our world is where people demand an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Matt 5:38); where people love their neighbors and hate their enemies (Matt 4:43); where people “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” (Matt 23:4). But Jesus teaches his new mountain-climbers a different way, a different ethic, a different lifestyle. “Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Bear one another’s burdens.” You are the light of the world.

We can’t become lights on our own. We need to experience what C.S. Lewis calls “good infection.” In other words, if we want to warm up, we sit next to the fire. If we want to get wet, we jump in the pool. If we want to become light, we spend time with the Source. After all, Jesus wants his church, the new Israel, to be the light of the world because he is “the light of the world” (Jn 9:5). If we want to become lights in this world, we spend time with the Light of the world. We need a little good infection.

After all, Jesus calls us to become like him. And Jesus both teaches and perfectly demonstrates everything that he calls his church to be. On the cross, Jesus turned the other cheek. On the cross, Jesus loved his enemies. On the cross, the heavy, hard-to-bear burdens of our world were tied up and thrown on Jesus’ shoulders. This is what it means for Jesus to be the light of the world. And Jesus’ church is given the same vocation.

“You are the light of the world.” This is what the church is all about. It’s not about a building. It’s not about a style of worship. It’s not about half the things the church bickers over. On the contrary, the church is about mountain-climbers who take seriously their vocation to be light – to become like Jesus. In fact, the word “church” only appears three times in the four Gospels combined (every occurrence is in the Gospel of Matthew). And the word translated “church,” ekklesia, literally means “a group of people called out.” And so by definition, the church is a group of people called out to be “a light to those who are in darkness” (Rom 2:19); a group of people called out to “live as children of light” (Eph 5:8); a group of people called out to “shine like stars in the world” (Phil 2:15).


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

you need a beatitude adjustment

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3)

This is Jesus’ first teaching lesson to his disciples. Jesus frames his entire life and work by blessing the poor in spirit. My guess is that you’ve heard this phrase before. It is part of a string of “blessings” – what we now call the beatitudes. And like a lot of what Jesus says, we’ve cut the claws off the beatitudes. We read them. We listen to them. We put them in frames. We display them on our walls. But we no longer feel the revolution.

But not so for Jesus’ first mountain climbers. The beatitudes turned their world upside down. First, the word we’ve translated “blessed” (makarios) refers to the highest form of well-being. It’s a word of extravagance and abundance. And Jesus’ first audience, devout Jews that they were, all knew that the highest form of well-being was reserved for only a few. The wisdom tradition of Jesus’ day was clear - “blessed is the rich person” (Sir 31:8, apocrypha). And “the man who fears the Lord shall be blessed” (Ps 128:4). And of course, everyone was just “certain” that God cursed certain people – the lepers, the unclean, the pagans, the prostitutes, the sinful, the sick, the sorcerers, etc. But “blessedness” was reserved for Godly men with material abundance (the sure sign of divine favor). But no one even imagined the “poor in spirit” were blessed. After all, why would they?

We need to recover the full weight of the phrase “poor in spirit” to understand Jesus’ scandalous blessing. Because being “poor in spirit” is not inherently good. And like the first four beatitudes, poverty of spirit is not something we should strive for. To be “poor in spirit” is to be spiritually bankrupt – i.e., overwhelmed by a sense of our own spiritual destitution. The poor in spirit are deprived and deficient spiritual nobodies – spiritual beggars without a wisp of religion. They won’t fit in at a bible study or a prayer meeting. And yet Jesus pronounces the highest form of well-being onto them. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven, the rule of God, is now open to them too. The new Moses has invited them to climb God’s mountain. Plain and simple – that’s why the poor in spirit are blessed.

But Jesus’ blessing is too hard for us to handle. And so we water the beatitude down and we cut off its claws. We speak of being poor in spirit as a virtue to be desired. But when we do this, we miss the entire point of the beatitudes. Jesus does not bless the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit. He doesn’t bless those who mourn because they cry (Matt 5:4). Jesus is not pointing out virtues that make people worthy of his kingdom. In other words, the poor in spirit aren’t blessed because of some meritorious condition. No, they’re blessed in spite of, and in the midst of, their deplorable condition because the kingdom of heaven has been opened to them too.

FOR TODAY: Make your own modern list of beatitudes. And live your life today as if you really believed them. Perhaps if we persist in this practice, we’ll start to feel the revolution.

“Blessed are people with body odor. Blessed are the obese. Blessed are the complainers. Blessed are the old. Blessed are those who make minimum wage. Blessed are the bald. Blessed are the liberals. Blessed are the conservatives. Blessed are the Republicans. Blessed are the Democrats. Blessed, blessed, blessed … for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

let's go mountain climbing

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:” – Matt 5:1-2

Jesus never acted haphazardly. Jesus’ every word, his every act, was packed with symbolic punch. And Jesus’ first teaching lesson was no exception. Jesus chose to climb a mountain. But why? Why not teach from the base of the mountain? After all, the base of the mountain is where the crowds were. Why would Jesus leave the crowds - the very people so in need of saving – in order to go mountain-climbing?

Jesus had Israel’s great lawgiver in mind. The “mountain-top” was a loaded symbol for Jesus’ contemporaries. Mount Sinai is where God gave Moses the Torah, i.e., the law to govern Israel’s life as a holy and called-out people with a unique vocation to bless the world. By choosing to climb a mountain before beginning his teaching ministry, Jesus is, at a minimum, making a scandalous claim – that he is the “new Moses,” the new lawgiver. To many of Jesus’ contemporaries, this was a blasphemous act – perhaps the equivalent of a modern Christian claiming to be a “new Jesus” with a new and improved mission.

That being said, Jesus wasn’t a carbon copy of Moses. Jesus symbolically shifted things in need of shifting – things central to Jesus’ mission. For example, only Moses was given permission to climb God’s mountain. Only Moses could touch the mountain. The penalty for touching God’s mountain, for animals and humans alike, was death (Ex 19:12). And Moses would travel back and forth – up and down God’s mountain – to receive God’s law and to give that law to the Israelites. In other words, Moses was a mediator – through Moses, and through Moses only, God’s law and wisdom and holiness and perfection and grace and judgment and presence was mediated to the people. But Jesus was different. Yes, Jesus was (and Jesus is) God’s unique mediator. But Jesus’ method is radically different. You see, Jesus invited people to climb the mountain with him. And Jesus’ invitation to climb God’s mountain marks a radical shift in the history of God’s dealings with humanity. We have been invited to climb the mountain. And this must not be overlooked or taken for granted. For the first time in human history, all are invited to climb the mountain and receive God’s gracious law. All are invited to ascend God’s mountain and experience first-hand God’s wisdom and holiness and perfection and grace and judgment (which is also an act of grace – but that’s a different blog entry).

And so Jesus climbs the mountain. And he sits down. That’s how rabbis taught in the first-century. The rabbi would sit – the people would stand (as a preacher I wouldn’t mind returning to the biblical model). Some people chose to climb the mountain with Jesus. Others no doubt just scratched their heads and decided to stay at the base. Which group are we in?

FOR TODAY: Contemplate Jesus’ role as God’s new lawgiver. Jesus didn’t just hurl a few stone tablets down a mountain. Jesus sat patiently and he explained, to all who were willing to listen, God’s intent behind the Mosaic Law. It’s really easy in our world to stay at the base of the mountain. The base is where the crowds are. After all, mountain-climbing takes a little bit of effort on our part. But Jesus is at the top. He’s sitting and patiently waiting. And today’s task is simple: climb the mountain and learn.

Monday, August 25, 2008

say my name

"But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered, You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And Jesus answered him, Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." (Matt 16: 15-17)

God is in the name changing business. It's a pattern in the bible. God has a significant encounter with someone and then gives them a new name. Or perhaps to put it differently, someone will confess (in one way or another) God's name. And God changes that person's name as a result. But why? Juliet's question is a reasonable one. What's in a name?

In the biblical worldview, the answer, quite simply, is everything. A name is everything – a name is never "merely a name." Nor is a name simply a way of addressing someone. In the bible, names speak of ontology – of one's true identity. One's name points to who one is on the inside – to who one is before God. And our ontology, our "inside," our true identity, is precisely what God is so interested in changing.

And so from the very beginning, God has been in the "name changing" business. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel. Saul becomes Paul. James and John become Boanerges – "Sons of Thunder." Simon son of Jonah becomes Petros or Cephas or, to use the best modern translation, "Rocky." God gave each of these people whom he called a new name. That's what God is all about – changing our name.

I have two thoughts on the matter. First, names matter. Jesus' "name" is an important concept to grasp. After all, Jesus says he'll "do whatever you ask in my name" (Jn 14:13). And Jesus' name is supremely unique. God "gave him the name that is above every name" (Phil 2:9). And because of this Paul says we must "do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Col 3:17). And so first and foremost, learning to honor Jesus' name is a key component to being his disciple. And if we're to honor Jesus' name, we have to understand that names speak of identity and ontology and about who we are on the inside. And so honoring Jesus' name is about having our "insides" come to mirror the insides of Jesus. Jesus' name is not some wizardly incantation or magic formula. To do "everything" in Jesus' name doesn't mean announcing "in the name of Jesus" just before I swing my 9-iron. Nor is it possible to ask for God to destroy my enemies in Jesus' name, for Jesus' name entails loving those same enemies – people for whom Jesus died. Jesus' name, of course, requires intentionality. That is, Jesus' name is something we first confess. But after that, Jesus' name is something we live – something that transforms us.

This brings me to my second thought. In honoring Jesus' name, we too are given a new name – that is, a new identity. And in a very real sense, our "new name" is part of our salvation. "To everyone who conquers I will give … a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it" (Rev 2:17). And as Jesus says, "I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels" (Rev 3:5). And for Jesus to give us a new identity, a new ontology, a new "name," and then to confess that name before his Father is central to our Christian hope.

FOR TODAY: Seek out creative ways to honor Jesus' name – to do everything in Jesus' name (Col 3:17). Everything means everything. Eat your mashed potatoes in Jesus' name. And drive your car in Jesus' name. And go about your life in Jesus' name. This is what it means to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17). And as you do this, remember that you've been given a new name – a name that will be revealed on the Last Day, but that for now is safely "hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

ode to larry

The fun part about being in the ministry is that complete strangers tell me their life story a couple times a week. Last night I heard Larry’s story. And Larry struck me as a good man. Here is the gist of what Larry told me.

He’s trying to make a fresh start in a new town. His wife of 25 years ran off with someone else. At the time, Larry was a worship leader at his church. But when the “scandal broke,” Larry was asked to step down – to stop leading worship at his church. Though it caused Larry’s pastor pain, a verdict was reached. Larry’s “house was no longer in order.”

Here’s what upsets me: no one’s house is in order. That’s why we need a savior. And that’s why we have a savior. Augustine once said that the church was a “hospital for sinners.” Of course, Augustine’s idea was totally plagiarized. Augustine stole Jesus’ material. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13).

Back to Larry – here is the message that is subtly conveyed by the church’s verdict to remove Larry from musical leadership. If Larry could somehow “pull things back together,” only then would he be ready to build for God’s kingdom again by putting his musical gifts to work.

And a lot of people feel this way. Like I said, I hear a lot of stories. And people say the same thing. “I just need to get my life together and then I’ll start going to church.” I’m not sure how it’s happened, but we’ve completely reversed the order of the business the church should be about. Whatever happened to just going to church, or to joyfully and confidently running to God, and then trusting Him to put our life back together?

The “clean up first and then worship God” view is problematic for two reasons. First, we can’t put our own lives back together. We might as well try and give ourselves a heart transplant. Not even the best surgeon in the world can do that. We need someone else. We can’t be our own doctor. We need another physician.

Second, God delights in putting his people back together. To think that God will only love us when we’re whole and put together is to miss the wonder of the Gospel. “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). “While we were weak … Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). The church is a hospital. Not a gymnasium for well oiled power lifters.

That being said, people are healed in God’s hospital. They don’t just stay sick. They leave the hospital with “their house in order.” But let’s not be so arrogant to think that we’re completely healed yet. We may see wonderful signs of healing from time to time. But we mess up. Things happen. Our house falls back down. And my hope, my prayer, is that the church will be a place where the sickest of people can worship God with the most passion, where people like Larry can find grace and acceptance, not because they are whole, but because the God we worship is.

Like Paul, we’re all given thorns in the flesh from time to time – things that cripple us and cause us pain and put us in touch with how “out of order” our house actually is. Rather than stepping aside, let the saints cling to God’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

FOR THE WEEKEND: Look for a “Larry” in your own life and bring them to church. If nothing else, remind them that the Gospel is all about God’s house being in order – and has very little to do with whether or not ours is. And acknowledge the Larry in you. Be reminded that God’s grace is sufficient, for God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

shut yo mouth

Speech is a gift from God – something to celebrate. It’s good to talk to others. It’s good to talk to God. But it’s also appropriate, from time to time, to sit before God and be silent. To not talk. To just sit and wait on the Lord. And to do nothing but trust. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab 2:20). “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:5). “There was silence in heaven for about half and hour” (Rev 8:1).

In our relationship with God, we find it easier to talk than to remain silent. Silence is hard, for silence demands attentiveness. Silence doesn’t mean daydreaming. Silence means being attentive to the God who is Spirit, to the God that we cannot see. And silence requires radical trust, because when we sit in silence, all we do is pay attention and wait. We remember our powerlessness and we cultivate trust in the One who has power. In silence, we remember that we are not in control. We come before the Father who knows our needs before we ask (Mt 6:8), the God who has every one of our hairs numbered (Mt 10:30). In silence we just “show up.” Our silence speaks. With our whole being, our attentive silence says “Here am I; send me” (Is 6:8).

Silence isn’t reserved for mystics and gurus. It’s a practice central to the Christian life. Like I said, words are good. But silence trains us to speak words that are edifying and meaningful. Silence teaches us not to “curse those who are made in the likeness of God” (Jas 3:9). Silence helps us avoid “heaping up empty phrases” (Mt 6:7). Silence brings us closer to Jesus, who when falsely accused by the high priest “was silent and did not answer” (Mk 14:61). Don’t get me wrong - there is by all means a time to speak. But there is also “a time to keep silence” (Ecc 3:7).

FOR TODAY: Try spending a few minutes in silence before God. It will be hard. It’s easier to talk or to daydream or to turn on our i-pod than it is to sit and be attentive to God. But it will be rewarding if we persist in this practice. Think about Elijah. God wasn’t revealed in the hurricane or the earthquake or the fire, but in a “still small voice” (1 Ki 19: 11-12). Hearing that voice requires silence.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

some bad advice

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

A lot of people are quick to tell us how to live and what to value. And I’m not primarily referring to our philosophers and teachers and pastors, though they like to chime in too. It’s the world that has lessons to teach us. Just pay attention. We’re overwhelmed and disoriented, whether we realize it or not, by events and things and information. “Stuff” floods our mental and spiritual space. We are soaked in commercials, advertisements, political one-liners, “friendly” advice, sermons, and a million other things that tell us how to live and what to value.

In the past month, Sprite has told me to “obey my thirst.” has told me that the meaning of life is “to make the sale.” Lexus has told me that “I am what I drive.” What have you been told?

The reason I ask is simple. Spiritual formation means that we do something. Grace may be opposed to earning. But grace is not opposed to effort. Grace thrives on effort. Grace even motivates our efforts. But our effort is required. And the reason effort is required on our part is because the vast majority of the info we receive – on how to live, and on what to value – is bad advice. We can’t always obey our thirst. The meaning of life is not to make the sale. And I really hope that I’m worth more than my raggedy gas-guzzler that I can’t afford to replace.

But these are the messages we absorb. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Seriously? Assuming that we’re formed in a world that is at best “misguided,” what is one to do?

Option A, we leave the world. Option A is a bad idea. Christians are called to be in the world – the salt and light of the world. Cults of any kind are a creepy copout.

Option B, we be transformed by the renewing of our minds. In other words, we take responsibility for determining how to live and what to value. We’re all taught to live by someone or something. And what we value is always learned behavior. The question is who has taught us how to live and what to value? Of course, things are always a little bit messier than this. A lot of what we have learned is good. And a lot is bad. But that’s precisely why “the renewing of our mind” is part of Christian discipleship – something we must do daily.

How do we do this? Read my blog and allow me to tell you what to think. Just joshing. But seriously, be intentional and take responsibility. Because if we are not intentional, we will absorb the lies. I don’t know what “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” means for you. For me, it means attentively listening to Scripture. It means reading and praying and having conversations and asking questions. It does not mean rejecting the world. After all, the world is God’s good creation. But it does mean paying close attention to the information that we are soaked in and being courageous enough to ask, “Is this true?”

FOR TODAY: Pay attention and listen. You will be given advice, albeit subtly, on how to live and on what to value. Is it worth listening to?

Monday, August 18, 2008

i totally forgot that i had amnesia

I think there’s a lot of confusion about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I think we all forget from time to time. I sure do. We “major in the minors,” as one author likes to say. More than one hundred fifty times in the Old Testament, God gives Israel the command, “remember.” God seems to think we all have amnesia. And I think God is right.

And so today we remember that discipleship is primarily about a relationship with Jesus. In fact, the Greek word translated disciple, mathetes, literally means “student, pupil, or apprentice.” In other words, a disciple is one who learns. And one cannot learn unless one has a teacher. And one cannot learn from that teacher unless one deems that teacher to be credible and competent. And one cannot know that teacher to be credible and competent unless a solid relationship is built, and trust begins to grow, between the teacher and the disciple. Discipleship, therefore, is always relational.

In fact, a relationship with Jesus is at the heart of Christian faith. In other words, to have faith in Jesus is to trust him – to come to know Him as credible and competent in all matters of life. I think we often suppose that our faith mainly entails an “assent of our mind,” i.e., believing propositional truths about Jesus. No doubt, there are certain truths about Jesus that must be embraced if a relationship with Him is to begin. In other words, it wouldn’t make sense to trust Jesus if I believed that he was a kooky wizard who deceived the masses. No, trusting Jesus only makes sense if I believe in His divinity and in His power to heal both me and this world, for example. But just because faith may entail believing certain truths about Jesus, we should not suppose that faith stops here. If anything, believing truths about Jesus is where faith begins – not where faith ends. For faith is primarily about trusting a living Person – not merely about trusting in some “heavenly arrangement” that this Person has made for us through his life, death, and resurrection. Faith may be a noun – but it’s also a verb. In other words, it’s completely possible to believe all the right facts about Jesus and at the same time never to know Him personally, never to have a relationship. And that would be a shame.

I don’t mean to make light of what God has accomplished for us through Jesus. Quite the opposite is true. I am trying to fully honor what God has accomplished for us. After all, Jesus is still alive and is taking on new students, new pupils, and new apprentices each and every day. And since we all have a mild case of amnesia, we need to be reminded that this relationship with Jesus can make our lives overflow with joy and meaning.

FOR TODAY: Consider what “faith” means to you. Is it about believing a creed? Trusting a person? A little bit of both? If being a disciple is about being a student, what are you and Jesus learning together these days? And as you ask yourself these questions, “remember.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

busy with the oxen

Humans love to make excuses. We do. We make excuses all of the time. Some of our excuses are good. Some are ridiculous. But we make them nonetheless. In other words, we try to justify why we can’t do this or that or the other. We seek to take the blame off of ourselves. “I wanted to stop by last night. I was just a little too tired.” We are not to blame – our fatigue is. This is what an excuse is – one big exercise in self-justification.

Humans love to make excuses. And this is the case especially in our life before God. And things have been this way for a while now. When Adam eats the forbidden tomato in the Garden of Eden, his excuse is “the woman made me do it.” When God questions Eve, “the snake made me do it.” Excuses are part of our DNA as fallen and flawed individuals – part of the nature we inherit from birth. And it takes a lot of work and practice and awareness and maturity to move beyond a life of excuses. Because the alternative to making excuses is to take responsibility for our own lives and actions. And taking responsibility isn’t always an easy thing to do.

It’s interesting to consider how ridiculous many of our excuses actually are. For example, God appears to Moses and says that He will deliver Israel from Egyptian slavery through him. How does Moses reply? “Uh, yea, you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m kind of clumsy with words” (Ex 4:10). Jeremiah is another good example. God appears to him, and says I knew you before you were even born. I know you inside and out, and you are the one I’ve chosen to be a prophet to the nations. How does Jeremiah reply? “Uh, yea, you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m a little too young. Try someone with more life experience” (Jer 1:6).

I think my favorite parable is Luke’s account of the great dinner. The plot is simple. A king (God) invites a bunch of people (us) to a great feast (kingdom of heaven). And here is what Luke tells us. “They all alike began to make excuses” (Lk 14:18). And the excuses are all ridiculous. “Can’t come. I just bought land and need to see it.” “Can’t come. Just bought some oxen and need to try them out.” “Can’t come. I’m married.” Seriously? These excuses make no sense. How do you “try out” oxen? Didn’t you see the land before you bought it, and if not, won’t it be there tomorrow? Humans love to make excuses.

I have two brief thoughts on the matter. First, every excuse we make is an exercise in self-justification. But we can never justify ourselves. We have no authority to justify ourselves. Only God can justify us. And God has done just that. Which means that we are free – free to live into God’s purpose for our life.

Second, when excuses revolve around our own deficiency, they display a false humility. It is always “God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). In fact, I’d even contend that God enjoys backing the underdog. God likes to speak through people who stutter. God likes saving the world through a man “accounted … stricken, struck down by God” (Is 53:4). God likes to put his “treasure (grace) in clay jars (humans), so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7). All power belongs to God. And so if God calls us, and God has, our excuses are all ridiculous. So no matter what we say, and how “good” our excuse sounds to us, all God hears is “I’m busy with the oxen.”

FOR THE WEEKEND: Consider where you’re making excuses in your own life before God. If you’re anything like me, “not enough time” is your favorite. Relationships take time. And our relationship with God is no different. Time is never something we “have.” Time is always something we “make.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

god's bowel movement

The Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament, talks a lot about God’s compassion. God’s “compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). God’s “compassion grows warm and tender” (Hos 11:8). God “will have compassion on his suffering ones” (Is 49:13). The Hebrew word, translated compassion, speaks of a deep love and a tender affection. This, says our Bible, is what God is like – a deep lover with feelings of tenderness.

It’s hard to imagine that our God is really tender. After all, our world can be a pretty hard place. I believe the philosopher Anonymous once said, “God made man in his image and man has been returning the favor ever since.” I think Anonymous was right. We see a world that is tough and stern. And we project that sternness onto God. In other words, we look around and see hard hearts. We just assume (usually subconsciously) that God is the same.

The Old Testament isn’t at all unclear on the matter – God is compassionate. But if we missed the message, we see in Jesus the embodiment of God’s compassion. On numerous occasions, Jesus encounters a horrible form of human brokenness and is “moved with compassion” (Matt 20:34). But our English word “compassion” doesn’t capture the full weight of the word splagchnizomai (pronounced just like its spelled), a Greek word which means “bowel-shaking.” In antiquity, the bowels were thought to be the seat of love, pity, and affection. In the face of human sin and suffering, Jesus’ bowels would shake violently – so deep was Jesus’ love, so tender was his affection, for those whom were hurting.

And so our God is a God of bowel-shaking compassion. God has a soft, soft heart. I’m not trying to say that God is like a senile benevolent grandfather whose primary concern is that we get enough ice cream. No, God is still holy. God is love. And the nature of God’s holiness, and the nature of God’s love, is different than anything we might imagine. But God isn’t hard hearted. No, God has a deep love, and a tender affection, for His people. His bowels shake when confronted with human misery.

FOR TODAY: God is a deep lover with feelings of tenderness. We should strive to be the same in this world. Like Paul says, “clothe yourselves with compassion” (Col 3:12). And so allow yourself to feel deeply for someone else today. And do it with the knowledge that God feels deeply for you.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

the "moments" peter was converted

And when were you converted? I’ve been asked this question a few times. I don’t think this question is completely misguided. But it is off just a little bit. And here’s why. The underlying assumption behind this question is that our conversion is more of a “marker” than it is a “process,” a moment in time rather than a movement of life. Now, everyone’s story is a little bit different. God’s work looks different in each of us. But I’d like to look at Peter, perhaps the most famous of the twelve, and ask him this same question. Peter, when were you converted?

Was it when you were fishing by the Sea of Galilee and you left your net, your father, and your home to take a risk on Jesus – a brand new rabbi? (Matt 4:18) Is this the moment that you were converted?

What about when you saw in Jesus something radically holy and “other” and life-giving and you fell to your feet and confessed your sins (Lk 5:8)? Is this when you were converted?

Maybe it was the moment you knew Jesus was the Messiah. After all, you were the first disciple to come to this realization (Matt 16:16). Is this when you were converted?

Or was it only after Jesus had been raised from the dead that your conversion was complete? After all, you denied him three times. You insisted that it was wrong for Jesus to suffer. But after Jesus was raised, when you saw the scars, only then did you tell Jesus plainly, “you know that I love you” (John 21:7). Is this when you were converted?

Maybe not yet. After all, you were gathered with the other disciples at Pentecost, when the Spirit descended and empowered the Church for her mission. That was the day you gave your first sermon (Acts 2:38), and you were so bold that people thought you were drunk! Surely then your conversion was complete?

Okay, enough with Peter. I don’t doubt that there are many important “markers” in our life with Jesus. But our conversion, which takes place as we learn to live in Jesus’ presence, is always a process. Conversion may have a beginning. Perhaps it begins when we finally decide to leave our nets. But most likely our conversion begins before we’re even aware that it has begun. After all, something had to be at work in Peter’s life for him to make the choice – on the spot – to leave his boat. And like all processes, our conversion has an end: “what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). But in the meantime, we can rejoice in the knowledge that we are a work in progress – God’s work in progress. God has an eternity to convert us into whatever He wants us to be. Our Father is patient with us. Perhaps we should be patient with ourselves.

FOR TODAY: Conversion is more like a movement of life than a moment in time. Sure, we have some important moments – our baptism, for example, or the day that we say “I believe.” But until God is all in all, and God’s kingdom arrives on earth as it is in heaven, conversion is something that happens a little bit each day. And so allow God to work a small change in your character today. Over time, these changes can add up into something glorious.

Monday, August 11, 2008

the question of difference

“The question of identity is the question of difference.” One of my ethics books in seminary begins with these words and I’ve never been able to get them out of my head. And here’s why. We have a tendency to confuse our “identity” and our “reputation.” In other words, we wrongly assume that our identity (who we are) is the same as our reputation (what others think of us). Of course, we would never say such a thing. But at the subconscious level, our emotions betray our true beliefs. When others speak well of us or praise us or complement us, we feel great. But when the tables turn, so does our self-image and so does our mood. An unnatural marriage has taken place between our reputation and our identity. And I can’t help but think that authentic spiritual formation begins the moment we begin to untangle the two.

Our reputation is completely achievement driven. People don’t have good reputations just because. People have good reputations because they’re good – good students, good lawyers, good athletes, good ____. And there’s nothing wrong with having a good reputation per se. But a problem arises when our life becomes one big exercise in maintaining our reputation, in living to uphold our reputation. When this happens, we practice the art of impression management. We want others to think well of us. And so we try and perform accordingly. And what a stressful performance that can be.

Our identity is much different. Our identity as God’s children never flows from the idea that we are good. Au contraire mon fraire. Our identity as God’s children flows from the deep theological truth that God is good. And to the extent that God’s goodness sinks in, and I mean really sinks in, we can stop playing the cultural game of impression management. We can jump off that never ending treadmill of trying to uphold our reputation. We can live freely and lightly knowing that God loves us. And to the extent that we know God’s love for us, we will love God in return. And if we love God, we can’t help but love others. This may earn us a good reputation. Or it may hurt our reputation. But it won’t matter since our joy will flow from our identity as God’s beloved children.

FOR TODAY: Pay attention to your emotions. Think deeply about what causes you joy. Consider what makes you angry. Does it arise from a concern for your reputation, or from a deep pondering of your biblical identity? Are you trying to prove to others that you are good, or have you allowed God to tell you that He is good? The question of identity is the question of difference.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

going back to the jordan

The Jesus life is about “starting over.” It requires “going back.” It’s about a new beginning. To follow Jesus, we need to go back to the Jordan River, not just once, but every day of our lives. After all, the Jordan River is where the prophet John chose to baptize people in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. If you know anything at all about prophets, they’re somewhat of a “wildcard.” They enact things symbolically to communicate truth. For example, Hosea married a prostitute. Isaiah walked around naked for three years. Jeremiah buried his underwear (and to this day no one knows why). John the Baptist, standing firm in Israel’s prophetic tradition, also lives and moves and has his being in the realm of symbol. John baptizes people on the far side of the Jordan River. The Jordan River is an amazing symbol in Israel’s national life. The Jordan River is where Israel initially crossed to enter the Promised Land. After forty years of wilderness wandering, the Jordan River was the final obstacle between Israel and God’s promises. And so as John prepares for the Messiah’s arrival, and for the new Israel that the Messiah will form, John seems to be saying, “go back to the Jordan. Begin again.” In a weird way, in a prophetic way, John is asking people to reenact the drama of Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. What is John saying? Start Over. Life can begin all over again. And the word John gives this “starting over” process is repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). In other words, “a new reality is on its way. It’s time to start over. Life can begin all over again.”

But first John tells the people to confess their sins. In essence, John is asking them to do something difficult. John is asking people to be honest about their lives. It’s easy to blame others. It’s easy to blame God. But it’s hard to tell God the truth about ourselves. It’s hard to tell ourselves the truth about ourselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way (Mr. Walker). After all, God already knows. There’s nothing we can tell God that He doesn’t already know. On the contrary, when we confess, we accept responsibility for who we are, and for what we’ve done. And when we do that, when we take our place at the Jordan River, we find that the waters are full of forgiveness and life and power. We find that God’s river washes us and prepares us to start over again. This is what repentance is all about.

I’ve come to realize that the command to “repent” makes people feel a little creepy. And I think that’s because we don’t really understand the word. Perhaps we think repentance means groveling back to an angry God (what happened to God as Abba). Or maybe we associate repentance with De Niro’s character in The Mission. But the Greek word for repentance is “metanoeo,” which literally means to “turn or to change one’s purpose.” This is where we get our English word metamorphosis. In essence, the Christian life is about this turning, this changing of our purpose, this metamorphosis. And we don’t repent once, but daily. Because the change God works within us is always gradual. In other words, we’re never merely “born again.” I think God wants a little bit more from us. Repentance is about being “born again, and again, and again, and again …” You get the idea.

FOR TODAY: Go back to the Jordan River. This means something a little bit different for each of us. But face a painful truth about yourself and confess it to God. And in doing so, acknowledge the joy that your courageous act of truth-telling brings to God, for it enables a deeper intimacy between the two of you. And allow God’s joy to make you more joyful. And if we do that, we can’t help but “change our purpose.” And this is what repentance is all about – going back to the Jordan.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

getting dirty

It’s easy to assume that the spiritual life is mostly about keeping ourselves clean before God. But there’s a small problem with this assumption. We are the center. And we should never be center of our life before God. God should come first. Others should come second. And then, of course, there’s us. Like Jesus said, “love God (1) with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor (2) as yourself (3).” God. Neighbor. Us. That seems to be Jesus’ preferred order.

Now, there’s a small catch. The three are so closely related that it’s impossible to do one well without doing the other two. In other words, if we truly love God (as opposed to some idol or mental projection that makes us feel safe) then we’ll truly love our neighbor, and in doing so, we can’t help but love ourselves. But who is our neighbor?

An expert in the Torah once asked Jesus this same question, and Jesus responded by telling what is now a famous story – the “Good Samaritan.” If you don’t remember, the story goes something like this: a man is beaten and left on the side of the road half-dead. Both a priest and a Levite – masters of the Torah – stumble upon him separately and each one passes by on the other side. Neither one looks down. Finally, a Samaritan, which for Jesus’ Jewish audience is code for everything that is filthy and unclean and impure, picks up the half-dead man and binds up his wounds. Now, no Jew in Jesus’ original audience would have condemned the priest or the Levite. Maybe they wanted to help the dead-man, but being religious, they most likely feared becoming unclean. After all, according to the Torah, dead bodies made one unclean. Dead bodies spread impurity. In all likelihood, these religious men were just trying to stay clean before God. That’s why they didn’t look down. And so in passing by the half-dead man, they followed the law right down to the letter. This, of course, raises an interesting question. Is faith about following the letter of the law? In other words, is it possible to get the letter of the Torah but to fail to live into the spirit of the Torah? And I think the answer is yes. I think this is precisely what happens when we place ourselves at the center of our religious life. We may get the rules right. But we miss the rule’s deeper meaning. We miss the spirit of the rules.

People often will ask, especially when preaching, “Who are you in this story?” And what they’re really asking is whether or not you’re the Samaritan or the religious passer-by when you’re confronted with human need. Now, I don’t think this is a bad question. But I don’t think that we’re primarily like the Levite, or the priest, or the Samaritan. No, I think we’re the half-dead man on the side of the road. And I think Jesus is the Samaritan. The One who refused to pass us by. The One who rolled up his sleeves and got dirty to save us. The One who binds up our wounds and nurses us back to health. The One who knows how to love in the proper order. The One who never puts himself at the center. The One who looked down.

FOR THIS WEEKEND: God rolled up His sleeves and got dirty to save us, to nurse us back to health. God refused to pass us by. In Christ, God refused to look to the side. God looked down. Meditate on this wonderful fact and allow it to transform how you live your life. God will give you plenty of opportunities in your relationships with others to “look down.” There’s a big difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. And so don’t be scared to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. After all, God did.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

a glutton and a drunkard

I find it fascinating that Jesus was accused, of all things, of being “a glutton and a drunkard” by the super-religious law-keepers of his day (Matt 11:19). Now, on the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. After all, Jesus would sit at table with all sorts of people – women and men, Gentile and Jew, tax collectors and priests, prostitutes and lepers. In doing so, he was creating a new society, a new family, a new Israel. And the super-religious law-keepers of his day didn’t appreciate the society, the family, the Israel that Jesus was creating. After all, for the law-keepers, the Lord’s Table required purity. But for Jesus, God’s Table created purity. Big difference. For the law-keepers, one came to God’s Table only if one was pure. But Jesus’ table worked differently. People came to Jesus’ table to find healing. And people in need of healing don’t pretend that they’re pure.

But not so for the law-keepers. There was something truly scandalous about the people Jesus chose to dine with. So scandalous that they called Jesus a “glutton and a drunkard.” Now, it would be a mistake to think that the law-keepers were just being mean-spirited. To call someone a “glutton and drunkard” in antiquity was not a childish put-down, the first-century equivalent of calling someone a “putz” or an “idiot.” No, to call Jesus “a glutton and a drunkard” is to make a legal charge against Jesus. For the law-keepers, calling someone a “glutton and a drunkard” is code for calling someone a disobedient son (see Deut 21:19-21). And a disobedient son, according to the Torah, deserved death.

Do you see the irony? Jesus welcomed the impure to his table in order to make them pure. He did so because he was God’s obedient son, and yet in doing so was accused of being disobedient. For the law-makers, Jesus’ death was just – after all, he acted like a disobedient son. And yet in dying as God’s Son, Jesus manifested the fullness of his obedience.

FOR TODAY: Jesus’ table is a future and eschatological reality. Like Jesus said, I want you to “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Lk 22:29). And so for today, do something to prepare for Jesus’ table. More specifically, be intentional about spending time with people that would cause the “super-religious law-makers” of our world to grumble. Jesus invited them to his table. Today you might consider inviting them to yours.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

simple but not easy

As a first time blogger, I’m not really sure where to begin. And so I guess I’ll begin with the Gospel. “God loves us. God loves the world. God became human to save the world.” It’s all really simple - it’s just not easy.

I do think that the Gospel is simple in the sense that the Gospel can be simply stated. Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of complexity and paradox once we begin to pry into the deep mysteries of the Christian Gospel, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Gospel can be stated in fairly short sentences. “Jesus is Lord. God is good. God became human to save the world. God is bringing the entire cosmos to a glorious end.” You get the picture. Really simple.

But the Gospel isn’t easy. And the reason the Gospel isn’t easy is because the Gospel is difficult to absorb. And the reason the Gospel is difficult to absorb is because the premise behind the Gospel is actually pretty radical – God is love.

It’s easy to say that God is love. But it’s a completely different matter to absorb this truth – to allow this truth about God to descend so deeply into the core of our being that it shapes every aspect of our lives. God’s love is easy to confess. But it takes a lifetime to absorb.

I find it pretty amazing that Jesus addressed God as Abba, an Aramaic word meaning “daddy.” It’s a word of trust and tenderness. It wasn’t a popular name for God in Jesus’ Jewish milieu (and by “not popular” I mean that people would stone you). YHWH was popular. YHWH spoke of God’s holiness and otherness. But “daddy” was just a little too intimate for Jesus’ contemporaries, who refused to even pronounce God’s name. It’s not that Jesus’ fellow Jews were wrong. After all, God is holy and God is “other.” But that’s precisely why the Gospel is so difficult for us to absorb. Because this holy God, this God that is totally “other,” this God who said to Moses I AM WHO I AM, is now revealed as a tender daddy, a loving father. And it does no good to say that only Jesus can call God “Abba.” After all, he was God’s son. Jesus really did have an intimate relationship with the Father. No, that’s not an acceptable position for the disciple of Jesus, for the Gospel dares to claim that we are co-heirs with Christ and that, through him, we can experience the same intimacy with the Father that Jesus did. It’s like Paul says – “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Such is why we “cry Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15). And so we too are invited to call God Abba. It’s all really simple – just not easy.

FOR TODAY: do something creative to absorb the simple truth that God is love and that we have been empowered to call God Abba. Our wiring and our world make absorbing such an intimate relationship with God really hard. It’s easy to say that God is love. But it’s a completely different matter to absorb it and to have this truth transform every aspect of our life.

Monday, August 4, 2008

to blog or not to blog

This blog, which is a “work in progress,” is a private spiritual practice that I’ve chosen to make public. In essence, my writing helps me “work out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). But Christian discipleship is never a private affair, and like this blog, each one of us is in a “work in progress.” To be frank, we need each other to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction. And so join me as we journey deeper into God’s kingdom together.