Jesus is the case.

I’m thinking about what it must have been like to be a friend of Jesus, traveling with him from town to town.

What was it like on those evenings after a whole group of his followers descended on a new town, talked and argued all day with both religious and by-standers, only to find themselves at nightfall worn out and without a plan? What happened when Judas announced to the group that there wasn’t money enough — again — for a room? What was it like to wander out beyond the edge of town, find a level place under the stars, set a fire going, pass the bread, and do battle with doubts brought on by tiredness?

What was it like?

Did Matthew and Judas talk economics? Were Peter and John chronically competitive? Did they compare notes at the end of the day? How did they discuss the miracles? Did they ask Jesus to explain how it works when a blind man suddenly sees, or how Jesus knows when to call out their sins as he heals their bodies?

What about the ones we never hear much about — Bartholomew and Thaddeus and Philip? What place did they take in Jesus’ orbit? What was their contribution to the group? What did he know about their mothers, their aptitudes, their failures? Was the flesh-and-blood Jesus the kind of guy you’d want to sit near on a long night when there was nothing to do but shoot the breeze?

I’m thinking about how his friends must have stretched to understand most of what he said, how the paradigm shift had to wear them out some days. Most of a conversation with Jesus must have been like Jesus lassoing the moon and bringing it down to their level. Here, among simple men and women was Truth itself, changing every word and thought by his mere presence.

What was that like, to talk to Jesus?

You know how it is, when sometimes it is just easier to agree or say nothing than to get into it with someone? Jesus wasn’t that guy. He was not the kind to back off. Matthew Kelly, a Catholic theologian, says Jesus “didn’t have a casual relationship with the truth.” What surely marked a conversation with Jesus was his distinct lack of defensiveness. He was a person so completely self-aware and yet self-forgetful that he had no need to argue as one trying to prove his worth. He knew who he was.

Jesus never had to build a case, because Jesus was the case.

As I write that, it stops me in my spiritual tracks: Jesus was the case. Jesus, the radical expression of the image and nature of God, sat among mortal men talking about the weather or how miracles worked or about some guy in the square whose life got shaken alive that day … and all the while in his skin, in his being, he was proving God.

And those poor souls who didn’t have funds enough for a proper room, who sat by a fire outside of town and shot the breeze late into the night … they got it. And because they got it, I can.

Praise be to God.

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What no one told us about our bodies

No one told us we’d need a solid theology of the body if we’re going to live a bold and fearless life.

No one told us how important it would be to understand how the physical attaches to the spiritual. Mostly we have been taught how the physical works against us. When we were kids, we were given all the guilt-producing reasons why our bodies could hurt our relationship with Jesus. It was that Sunday school teacher or that parent or that youth pastor who told us how our bodies work in ways that create shame. Some of us were raised by functional Gnostics and their message screwed us up.

No one told us that God loves our bodies and that bodies matter in the Kingdom of God; that understanding them might actually change the way we approach every single other area of our lives.

That is why Paul the Apostle stuns me … yet again. In the course of coming to know and trust Jesus and in the course of an incredibly oppressive ministry, Paul absorbed the remarkable gift and grace of God’s design for the human body. Seeing the world from the Kingdom down, Paul wrote a theology that helps us understand what God intends for our bodies now and for eternity.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” Paul asks. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And this, from a man whose own body suffered every violence. In the middle of being beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and left for dead, Paul figured out that God was actually using his body to prove the Gospel. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul describes all he has been through. He has been hungry, thirsty, in every possible kind of danger. He has been flogged and exposed to death, not to mention chronically stressed by the intensity of his work.

He shares all this anguishing pain, then somehow moves seamlessly into the story of an intense, personal experience with Heaven. Paul writes (in third-person language, so humbled is he by the revelation) that he has been transported to the “third heaven.” Overcome, he can’t be sure where his body was in the process, but you get the sense that he suspects he was all there, body and soul. And now, compared to this experience everything else pales. The sufferings are redefined, the “surpassing great revelations” are worth it all.

And then, as if drawing a giant bell curve from the physical to the spiritual and back to the physical, Paul transitions his narrative back to earth, announcing that God has given him a “thorn in the flesh.” This weakness (whatever it is) serves as a kind of anchor, keeping him rooted in his physical reality after such a stunning encounter with the unhindered Kingdom of God.

Paul’s story flows from suffering to glory to weakness, mapping out a spirituality that affirms the physical, weaving it together with the spiritual to make a created whole. Because he has seen the eternal while still existing in the physical, Paul can say with confidence that the potential for resurrection is built into the very fabric of creation. Because Jesus has erased the dividing line and conquered death, the seeds of resurrection are embedded into everything. Everything we touch, everything we experience, every choice, every relationship bears the seeds of resurrection. And this life we live now is not counter to the life we will have in eternity; it is just the beginning. Redemptive continuity draws an unbroken line from prevenient grace, through justification and sanctification to glorification. We don’t “jump tracks” to enter eternity. All we have now draws us toward what we will have then.

Josh McDowell says that how we understand the resurrection of the body impacts all our decisions, and indeed the trajectory of our lives. It impacts our choices. We discover that our bodies matter. What we do with them matters, whether we are talking about health or sexuality or suffering. Our bodies bear the seeds of resurrection and are daily being redeemed by the resurrected Christ. To the extent that we ignore those seeds, they will lay dormant and bear no fruit. To the extent that we feed and water them, they will grow and bear the fruit of a resurrected life.

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How to kill the thing that is killing you

Here’s a truth: Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners. So in the Apostles’ Creed, when we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are effectively placing ourselves in that category of people whose lives need forgiveness and whose status when Jesus found us was “sinner.”

We believe in the forgiveness of sins because we needed it but much more, we believe in it because it works.

It is bizarre, what we do with sin. Most of us work so hard to protect our sins while they work so hard to kill us. We deny our sin and defer blame and — as E. Stanley Jones once said — “attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it.” We make it all about other people, and we deny our part and make excuses. We lie in both directions by lying to one another while we lie to ourselves.

To win at the sin game, the enemy needs us to learn the language of lying. He needs us to become fluent in deceit and denial. He needs us to hide things, hide truth, hide fear, hide our sin because as long as we’re hiding things, he’s in control. Always remember that the enemy of your soul would rather you lie. He’d rather you hide things, because everything in the dark belongs to the enemy while everything in the light belongs to Jesus.

The last weapon the enemy has once a person makes a move toward light and truth is to speak shame into your spirit. He will be like that desperate child who has just gotten in trouble at WalMart, pitifully bargaining on the way out the door to his punishment. He will tell you everything you want to hear and when that doesn’t work, he’ll throw shame at you, making you feel bad not just for what you’ve done but for who you are.

This is why the truth that there is no shame in Christ is so critical. Until we really believe there is no shame in Christ, we will work like crazy to protect our sin. But when we really believe it — that truth sets us free, that there is no shame in Jesus, that living in the light is better than banging around in the darkness — then things begin to make peace. We take confession for what it is: a freedom and a gift. As we bring our junk into the light, the two warring sides that live inside of us pull together. When it comes to admitting our crap, it is critical to remember that truth is not shame-producing but freedom-producing.

Confession — adding truth into the sin equation — is an amazing thing. Confession is how I begin to walk out this fundamental belief that Jesus at his core is for me. Confession is how I join the ranks of those who don’t just say they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but actually participate in it.

Maybe the most powerful step in the 12 steps is step four, where we’re asked to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. A moral inventory is a list of all those memories we have of hurting others and of being hurt. To take a moral inventory, we take time to engage our past and our guilt and our hurts. We sit down with pen and paper and honestly write out everything we can remember about our life that hurts. This step isn’t a one-cup-of-coffee process. It may take weeks. Or even years. Doesn’t matter. The point is to get started.

“Fearless” is a key word in the process. Fearless means I believe in the forgiveness of sins. It means I trust that if I show God my sin, he won’t toss shame in my face. Fearless means I want to learn the language of heaven. Fearless means I’m tired of defending the very sins that have been trying to destroy me.

What have I felt guilty about? What have I regretted? Who has hurt me, and who have I hurt? What are the broken relationships in my life that need to be acknowledged? Who do I need to forgive? These are the kinds of questions we work through when we engage in a fearless, moral inventory. And we do it in writing because it helps us untangle the memories and think realistically about the people and events in our past. When we take a moral inventory, we go beyond waving a hand over our whole life with a general statement like, “God, I’ve been bad. Forgive me” (or worse yet, “God, if I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry …”). Taking written stock causes us to name the demons, to acknowledge the pain, to pinpoint the issues that need to be dealt with. And to do it in the language of Jesus (confession), not the language of the enemy of our soul (denial and deception). It isn’t easy or pretty, but it is good.

Listen: Either dark wins, or light wins. Confession is the weapon that fights the darkness. Confession is freedom. Confession proves we believe in the forgiveness of sins.

My friends, don’t work so hard to protect your sin. Kill it, before it kills you.

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Before you serve communion today …

I was one of six kids, so I ate dinner every night at a table that sat eight people very tightly. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, I was the only left-handed person in our family. There was no seat at the table that didn’t earn scorn and derision. Most of the time I ate with my elbows drawn in, so as not to be picked on by the brood. It was an awkward way to eat. Add to that the fact that I have almost no eye-hand coordination (I can’t catch a baseball with a satellite dish). Between being left-handed at a crowded table and clumsy on my best days, I had probably a fifty-fifty chance on any given night of knocking over either my tea or someone else’s.

Bless my dad’s heart. He hated dinner being interrupted by spilled drinks. He’d get frustrated by it. He’d say, “Can’t we eat a single meal without someone spilling something?

Well, no. Evidently not, Daddy, because you had five right-handed children and one left-handed one and because of that equation, spilling was mostly inevitable. That’s how our family was made. The only way to avoid the spill would have been to seat me at a separate table. But wouldn’t that be strange and even a bit cruel? After all, I was still part of the family and we all instinctively knew, even if I spilled more often than not, that there was a place at the table for me. 

My family dinner experience inspires two thoughts about the Family Table of the Lord:

First, the Lord’s table is not meant for a party of one. Communion has a deep and fundamental meaning for Christians. The best image for it is the Table, where we come together to share in the body and blood of Jesus. When we take the elements set at this table, we commune, and not just with God. When we take these elements, we admit our participation in the Body of Christ. We are that body. Since the ascension, we who commune around the table of the Lord are the Body of Christ.

So while the act of taking communion can be deeply personal, it was never designed to be an independent act. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence supporting the idea that the Lord’s table should ever be reserved for a party of one. Communion is a sharing — a sharing in the suffering of Jesus and a sharing in the body of Christ on earth. The table connects us.

Second, people who sit at the table of the Lord are prone to spill (and as it happens, our Father is okay with that). It is how his children are made. At the table of the Lord, spilling is a good thing! This table not only connects us, but sends us out to spill over onto others as we share our stories, invite others into this communion, offer them a place at this table.

This meal is worth sharing and the DNA of this family makes us prone to want to share. People who sit at this table have a predisposition toward spilling over onto other people because we believe that we all belong to each other.

Pastors, before you serve communion today, make sure you’re on board with what the sacrament is meant to do in the life of your community. It is not primarily a ritual. It is not primarily a way for people prone toward introspection to curl in toward themselves and away from the community around them. It is a gathering of the family. And when you serve, make sure your people understand that when they share in this meal, they are committing to the expectations of this family table: people who eat at this table have to learn how to spill.

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Who owns you? (or, “Its not about the money … but it is.”)

How do you make decisions? What role does money play in that process? I asked this question of some Facebook friends a while back and got great answers:

  • “I have a friend who complains she is so broke that money rules her home and keeps her from having a relationship with her family. She actually shared that it has ruined her relationship with her teenage daughter.”
  • “Thankfully, I grew up in a home where good management of money was a priority and I have been able to make ends meet even when I was a single parent/school teacher working on my masters degree. But what about my (church) family? How many are living in – or close to – the financial survival mode? How do our stories, our experiences affect our (corporate) spirit? Are we operating in a spirit of poverty?”
  • “What decisions does money make for me? Mostly the big ones, the ones I’ve never really cared about before now. Before now, I didn’t care about my future. I didn’t really want one. I believed I would die young and my parents would take care of my children.  I know better now. God has plans for me, and I am responsible to and for my children.  My money makes decisions for them, too.”
  • “I hate that I am concerned about money.  But I don’t really have much choice.  Jesus isn’t dropping a life savings in my lap.  I have to earn it.”

The crazy thing with money is this: we can’t own it. Precisely at the point that we try to make “ownership” our posture toward money, it begins to own us. It begins to make our decisions for us.

Kingdom wisdom is counter-intuitive.

The whole thing is counter-intuitive. What feels like ownership is really our money owning us. Jesus talks about this in his story about the unethical manager (Luke 16:1-10). John Wesley is the one who put into words what is probably the most profound and fundamental statement ever made outside the Bible on the use of money. He said this is the key to maximizing both financial and spiritual potential: Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.

Earn all you can.
Honestly earning and working diligently at God’s purposes gets us past victim status to the place where we can spot potential and opportunity as it comes our way. Jesus’ parable of the unethical manager is all about this. It is really a story about unleashing creativity so we’re thinking beyond greed to a place of rewarding generosity. It is about stretching vision toward Kingdom ideals.  Earn all you can so you can (as Richard Foster says) “conquer it and use it to advance the kingdom of God.”

The caution is about how having money can change our posture. Money tends to inflate the ego. JD Walt says, “Making plans is good. Making money is good. Making yourself the captain of your own ship . . . . not so much. At least this is not the way for the followers of Jesus. The “world” will be the world. We can predict it and expect it, we just can’t imitate it. Our options are arrogance or humility, and there’s nothing worse than arrogance.”

Save all you can.
Mark Rutland defines it this way. He says that saving means “setting limits on my lifestyle in order that more might be made available to the kingdom of God and not go up in the smoke of mere consumerism.”

Let me state that again so it sinks in. Saving means “setting limits on my lifestyle.” This is not the same as hoarding or becoming possessive about our possessions. This is about voluntarily limiting myself so that more is available for the kingdom of God. It is a choice about the direction of my investments. Because remember, we’re not earning just for the sake of having or saving for the sake of security. We’re saving for a vision.

Give all you can.
Without this one, the others don’t matter. If we miss out on the first two, we minimize our influence. If we miss out on this third one, we negate our influence completely. The goal is Kingdom influence.

The ownership of money is counter-intuitive for those of us who follow Jesus. We don’t believe humans own money. We can manage it but we can’t own it. In fact, any attempt to own it actually creates the opposite effect. The more we try to own it money, the more it owns us.

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Relapse and recovery (or, how to get back up when you fall)

Recovery is characterized by relapse.

I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, before I lost patience with people who desperately need my patience. Relapse is what happens when people give up a powerfully magnetic addiction only to find themselves at some point giving into the temptation to try it again.

It happens.

Relapse doesn’t mean a person has failed at recovery, that recovery isn’t happening or that recovery has failed. It means that person is human, still recovering, and learning from both successes and failures how to be whole.

What it means is that we are sunk without grace.

Think of it this way: You’re one of twenty people racing around a track. The gun goes off and allrecovery-and-relapse2 twenty of you set off running. Somewhere around the turn, you fall down. Do the usual rules of a race demand that you go back to the beginning and start over because you fell? Nope. You don’t limp off the track and quit, either. To the contrary, the unofficial rule for any competitive runner is that whatever else happens you finish the race. You stand up, shake it off and start running again even if it looks as if you’ll finish dead last.

Falling down isn’t the point; finishing is. And one day you’ll find you can make it around the track without falling at all.

Paul talks about spiritual relapse in his letter to the Romans. He writes (Romans 7:15-20), “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

This is the language of relapse and the anatomy of human nature. Inside every person, there are two sides that war with each other, and sometimes the side that works against our design wins a battle and we do things we don’t mean to do. God gets that. He gets that sometimes we’re going to relapse and do the things we hate and promise ourselves we’ll never do the thing again. We tell God, “Never again,” and then something happens and there we are, doing the very thing we hate … again. Because we fear death or fear pain or fear failure or fear being seen as a failure …

Paul teaches us that we are all in recovery, all of us recovering from “self addiction.” We are all struggling to conquer a weak nature. We are all prone to wander and we all have triggers that set off the war within.

So what is that thing for you? What is it that you battle against, that turns your head and keeps you from confidently moving forward? Is it lying or lust? Food or alcohol? Some other substance? Is it the way you treat people? Do you have anger issues, or childhood wounds that have created adult dysfunctions you can’t seem to shake?

For Abraham it was the habit of self-protective lying. He told Pharaoh that his wife was his sister in order to protect himself. It wasn’t exactly a lie (his wife was his father’s child), but it wasn’t exactly the truth either. His motive was purely selfish. Abraham allowed fear to make his decisions for him, not once but twice (he said the same thing to Abimelech, and it didn’t go well then, either).

Abraham’s lie morphed from an event to a habit. His habit compromised his influence. His lack of integrity destroyed trust.

And that is the problem with our addiction, whatever it is:

  • The practice of it makes a habit.
  • The habit of it ruins your influence.
  • The persistence of it destroys trust.

And it all begins with letting fear make our decisions for us.

So … where are you allowing fear (a self-defensive posture) to breed an addiction or send you backward into spiritual relapse? Or physical relapse?

If yesterday was the day you fell apart, don’t limp off the track and quit. Make today the day you stand back up again and finish the race.

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Birds and Bees: Ten Thoughts On Talking to Kids About Sex

(Two years ago, I posted a couple of blogs about talking to kids about sex. This is a revisit of those blogs, with the hope that the reminder is helpful and the subject is still relevant.)

Most of us are wimps when it comes to talking about sex in healthy ways with our kids. We are afraid we won’t know what to say or how to say it. We’re just sure we’ll mess it up as much as our parents did. We let ourselves believe the lie that since we were (let’s just say) less than angels at their age, we have no right to talk.

Of course, all those are empty excuses to avoid spiritually shaping our kids in a significant area of their development. A better option is to take the approach God took with us — talk honestly, openly and often about who we are, how we’re made and what we’re designed for.

If you’re ready to help your kids gain a biblical view of sex, start here:

1. Good sex is holy. We know this because God is holy, and God invented sex. Genesis teaches us that God cut male and female out of the same cloth, so we were created out of a kind of oneness. This is God’s design and when you know how something works, that’s empowering.

2. Good sex depends on a strong covenant. Sex is designed to be practiced inside the covenant of marriage. The basic word in this whole holy design is covenant, which is basically a solemn agreement to either hang onto or step away from something. In the case of men, women and marriage, that covenant is a solemn agreement to hang onto each other for life, and sex is the sign of that covenant. The difference between covenant and no covenant is the difference between holy and human. Sex without covenant is like putting a BMW symbol on a Ford Pinto. You may have the symbol but you don’t have the car (and the car you’ve got is likely to blow up).

3. Good sex is not shame-producing. Sex was not designed to produce shame; it was designed to generate goodness. Over and over in the story of creation, we hear that God made things that are good. Men and women are called “very good.” Genesis 2:25 says, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Sex inside of a healthy covenant relationship is designed to generate joy, not shame. Teach your kids that abuse is never acceptable, and that good sex is not shame-producing.

4. Good sex is not love-producing (but is a great response to good love). Sex does not make love; it is a response to love. And love is not an act or emotion. It is a commitment. We “make love” happen not by engaging in physical acts, but by practicing mutual submission (see Ephesians 5:21) — by practicing habits with each other like patience, kindness and humility.

5. In conversations about how our bodies work, make it clear that you are safest person to talk to. Make sure your kids know you love them and are coming at this from a place of affection, not condemnation. When you talk to your kids, make it a conversation, not a lecture.

6. Ask good questions. It is empowering. Let your kids educate you about their culture. Get in the habit of asking questions about things in their lives that aren’t familiar to you.

7. Good sex is biblical. Don’t just give your opinion; back it up. Connect with a biblical perspective. If you don’t know what you believe about something, say so. Then go find an answer you are comfortable with. Let your kids hear you say that God designed sex and made it special — so special in fact that he made rules about it. God’s plan is not designed not to suck the fun out of life — far from it — but so we will have the greatest opportunity for experiencing a joyful, rich and deep life that’s full of good love.

8. “Anything we need to talk about?” Don’t be afraid to ask this question often. Think in terms of “talks,” not “the talk.” At different ages, our kids need different information. Don’t give the Ph.D. version while your child is still in kindergarten. And don’t talk about it so seldom that it never becomes natural. Make your child’s healthy appreciation for his body part of your good parenting.

9. Good sex is ultimately about life. This is the Genesis purpose of sex. God made us to be creators, and he made sex enjoyable so we’d be drawn to it. That’s why natural curiosity is a good thing. Our job is help our kids make sense of those curiosities and channel them toward God’s good, joyful, healthy design.

10. Holy sex is good. It is not something to be afraid of (goodness, no!), nor is it something we are powerless to control. Talk to your kids about the power they have over their own lives, about the nature of true love, about the rewards of self-discipline. Talk to them about how to begin life with a holy end in mind, and about making goals that set them up to live well. And above all, model it. Because your life is the greatest lesson your kid will ever receive.

May we so live the qualities of our design — holiness, sacredness, goodness, love and life — that our kids will look at our example and say, “I want what they have.”

 

For more great ideas, look up  A Chicken’s Guide To Talking Turkey With Your Kids About Sex.

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God is a poet (and other thoughts from my time in Israel)

Our very wise guide told us, “Let the Bible be your tour guide.” With that wisdom, we made our pilgrimage through Israel, marking the sites in a Bible and listening as it told us the backstory of this rich and holy land.

Israel for the pilgrim is not a vacation. It is an education. Tour buses are on the road by 7a, and don’t usually return until dinnertime. Days are filled with stop after stop at site after site where Bible stories actually (or more often, likely) happened. Not everything is certain. I’ve now visited both places where Jesus was buried. Some things, you just have to take with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, other encounters were more moving than I expected. Just driving into Jerusalem had me close to tears. Seeing the replica of the scroll of Isaiah found at Qumran (not the real one, but the cast of it), was a spiritual encounter. Catching a glimpse from the bus window of the cave where the scrolls were found was surprisingly moving. I imagine everyone who goes has their moments.

Along with too many overpriced meals and souvenirs, I bring home a thousand insights, these among them:

God is a poet. Israel reveals just how intricately layered and beautiful the story of God is. He is not a mechanic who simply made a thing that works. Our Father is an artist and a brilliant story-teller. In Israel, things stack up on top of things and make connections I didn’t realize existed. For instance, it is stunning to stand in the place where Joshua and the people of Israel first crossed over the Jordan into their promised land, and to realize that Jesus was likely baptized in that same region (maybe even the same spot?) of the river. Two stories — about fifteen hundred years apart — in which the future of God’s people was decisively changed happened in the same place. It is revelatory to see that while the Jews walked across into the land of Jordan, Jesus came up out of the water and turned back toward the Mount of Temptation, back toward the land the Israelites chose the first time they missed their moment of promise. Seeing the geography, one can only wonder how faithless they had to be to make that choice.

Did you know that on Mt. Zion (God’s “hill of holiness” is a remarkably small piece of property) David’s death is marked in the same area where Jesus hosted the Last Supper? The tourist site has them in the same building. And we can make a case for Pentecost and the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Thomas at the same site. It is all just next to Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was first accused and where he was likely held in an underground cell. The first church council of Jerusalem also happened on Mt. Zion, as did (tradition holds) Mary’s death. The top of one small hill binds together all these stories of birth and death, and the layers aren’t just geographical. The Talmud places David’s birth and death on the same date on the calendar (though a millennium apart) as Pentecost. What poetry.

These connections remind me of our Creator’s immense capacity for design. I’m also more convinced that there are far fewer coincidences in the world and far more poetic nuances than I notice. I hear the Elisha’s prayer for Gehazi: “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”

I’m a faker. On my way to Israel, I had a dozen or more people tell me, “You’ll never read the Bible the same again.” I hoped they were right but had no clue what they meant. I suspect I went there sort of like a parent going to the hospital to have a first child. I thought I knew my Bible pretty well going into our pilgrimage but I had no clue. I may have a grasp of theology, but I am profoundly aware on this side of our trip just how many gaps need filling. I lack the broad historical framework that strings the biblical stories together and provides the real glue between Old and New Testaments. I am also aware of how much richer the story is when one understands the geography. To have in my head the size of the Sea of Galilee, the view from the Mount of Olives, the slope from the pool of Siloam to the temple, the landscape of what the Bible calls wilderness (the opposite of an American wilderness) — those images transform my understanding of the biblical stories. Israel makes me hungry for the bigger picture; I’m also humbled by how much more there is to learn.

Community is essential. This lesson wasn’t learned so much from the biblical sites as from Israel’s — and more specifically Jerusalem’s — current climate. That this nation exists at all is nothing short of a miracle. In the midst of daily tensions and — all too often — life-threatening conflicts, the citizens of Jerusalem manage to make life work in the city, sometimes more tolerant of one another than within their own groups. Note the current conflict among Jews about the Western Wall. Or how Christians manage their holy sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is cohabited by five Christian groups — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, Coptic and Ethiopian. These groups live under the same roof but hold separate worship services and even separate Easter celebrations on separate days, not as a matter of respect but as a matter of avoidance. Their internal relationships are so fraught with conflict that they can’t trust one another even to hold the key to the building. Two Muslim families keep the key to this holiest of Christian sites, unlocking the door early every morning. While coexistence happens in Jerusalem, community is much more complicated.

And more rare. Jewish tradition holds that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Old City’s Eastern Gates, but to thwart the fulfillment of that prophesy, Muslims long ago bricked up the gates and turned the road just beyond into a cemetery (an “unclean” obstacle) to block the Messiah’s entry. In other words, coexistence is an ideal often mentioned in Jerusalem but coexistence isn’t the same as community. Yet, the biblical ideal is community. It is essential for healing and for the transformation of hearts. It is a recurring theme among the prophets.

Many groups are calling for the building of the third temple in Jerusalem with the hope that this will hasten the next coming of the Messiah. My admittedly uneducated suspicion is that the temple with power to draw the Messiah in is not a building but a people with a peculiar kind of heart. Paul prophesied as much when he wrote to the Ephesians (2:19-22): “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of the household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

This is the trajectory of the biblical story and the hope of this holy land. It is the excavation and renovation of hearts by the Prince of Peace. And so today, I am more committed on this side of our pilgrimage to do as the psalmist instructs:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

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Is it possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?

The playwright Murray Watts tells the story of a young man who was convinced of the truth of Christianity, but was paralyzed with fear at the very thought of having to admit to being a Christian. The idea of telling anyone about his faith and being called a religious nutcase scared him to death.

For weeks he tried to run from these new thoughts of God, but it was no use. It was like once he got a taste of it, he saw it everywhere and heard it in every sound. It was Jesus repeating over and over again: “Follow me.”

Finally, he couldn’t take it any longer. He went to a very old man who had been a Christian for a very long time. He told him of this terrible burden of hearing the voice of Christ calling him to be a witness and how the very thought of having to talk about Jesus to someone else stopped him from becoming a Christian.

The old man just shook his head. “This is a matter between you and Christ,” he said, “Why bring all these other people into it? Go home,” said the old man. “Go into your bedroom alone. Forget the world. Forget your family. Forget these ideas of what you think it is going to do to you, how you think it will compromise your quality of life, and make it a secret between you and God.”

The young man couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You mean, I don’t have to tell anyone?”

“No,” said the old man.

“No one at all?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

No one had ever given the young man that choice before. “Are you sure? Can this be right?”

And the old man said, “It is right for you.”

So the young man went home, knelt in prayer and completely surrendered himself to Christ, after which he immediately (filled with such joy) ran down the stairs, into the kitchen, and exclaimed to his wife, father and three friends, “Do you realize it is possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?”

And the moral of the story is: No, it is not possible. How can a person be hit with the transformational power of Jesus without wanting to talk about it? Jesus himself said that when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, our first response will be to witness to his power (Acts 1:8).

When Jews write out the first sentence of the shema (the most important verse of the Jewish scriptures, which begins, “Hear, O Israel ..”), they make two letters bigger than the rest: the first letter of the first word and the first letter of the last word. Put those two letters together and you get the Hebrew word for “witness.”

Let that sink in.

What do witnesses do? They tell the story. Embedded in the shema is the logical follow-through to hearing. What you’ve heard, what you embrace, you give witness to. And then we’re told how. We do it by absorbing this truth, making it part of us — so much a part of us that we naturally, normally talk about it. We teach it to our kids. We talk about God at home and on the road. God becomes so much a part of us that it is like he is tattooed on our foreheads and posted on our doors so that whether we’re talking or not, people around us hear it coming out of our lives.

When we have been transformed, our lives speak.

The shema teaches us God’s story, the story that transforms us. Until we own our own stories of search-and-rescue, of rescue and redemption, it will sound fake and unnatural when we try to talk about it. When we own our own story, we won’t be able to restrain ourselves. It just comes out.

Does your life speak? Not just in the way you treat the waitress in a restaurant, but more obviously … in the ways your love for God naturally flows into your conversations? This is an important question because it has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person. That’s how the Kingdom comes.

Let me say that again: It has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person.

How do the people around you experience your faith in Christ? Do you care about what happens to them when they die? I know that sounds so … you know … Baptist … but what if Baptists are onto something here? What if authentic faith is supposed to manifest as a compulsion of caring for others’ eternity? Have you yet developed a natural habit of talking about God? Maybe these tips will get you started toward sharing your story, once you’ve owned it:

1. If you feel uncomfortable, you can say so. You just tell a person, “It isn’t always easy for me to put my faith into words, but I do it because nothing has changed me more.” And then just tell them how. Tell them who you were before you knew Jesus, what happened to make the change, and who you are now that you follow Jesus. It is that simple.

2. You can use your own words. You don’t have to know all the right biblical terms or have all the right answers. In fact, one of the most powerful things you can say to someone is “I don’t know.” It lets them know you’re real.

3. You can leave the results to God. My friend Bob Tuttle says it takes about 25 different witnesses before a real encounter with God takes place. If you are numbers 1 through 24, you are just as important as number 25 because until you give your witness, the next person can’t give theirs. Learn to see yourself as part of the bigger picture, and learn to do your part.

Brothers and sisters, learn to tell your story of following Jesus in a normal, honest way and let God be concerned with the results.

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The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

In a recent article, James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant! The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

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