Jesus is a dangerous idea (or, why reciting the Apostles’ Creed is a subversive act)

Jesus is a dangerous idea.

That was the answer Peter Hitchens gave at The Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Australia in 2014. They’d gotten their theme, I’m sure, from The Edge, an online think tank for academics and scientists. Every year The Edge offers a question and invites responses that are then anthologized into a book. The question for 2006 was, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

Hitchens, participating in a panel discussion at the Australian conference, was a well-known journalist in the UK whose brother was an even more well-known atheist (Christopher Hitchens died in 2011). Asked to respond to the question of the day, Peter’s fellow panelists offered ideas that spanned from disappointing to shocking. A famous feminist said her dangerous idea was freedom. From a famous atheist the answer was to make abortion mandatory for thirty years to control the population.

And then there was Peter Hitchens. When they asked for his most dangerous idea, he said, “The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”

The guy hosting the discussion followed up: How could the resurrection be dangerous? Hitchens said, “Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”

Hitchens’ response was a reflection of his own remarkable story. He was raised in the Anglican church, left Jesus behind when he was about fifteen, and then came back to Christ after marrying a Marxist atheist who eventually found Jesus on her own road of discovery. When Hitchens became a Christian, he was already a respected journalist. Acknowledging faith in Jesus was a bit of a risk for him; colleagues wondered what he was doing. For years, he lived his faith under the radar.

Because Jesus is a dangerous idea.

Jesus himself said so. He said he would set people against each other, even those who love each other. If this idea of Jesus as life-giving, sin-defeating redeemer of the universe is a lie, then think of the billions — literally billions of people — who have been deluded. But if it is true, that changes everything. And if it is true, then when we confess that publicly, vocally (think of Christians around the world who weekly stand to declare one of the three historic creeds) we are participating a divine conspiracy to alter the course of the world.

And that is how a creed ought to be handled. The words we use to describe Jesus in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are a statement of subversion. Carved out by people who died for those words, they have altered the course of humanity. They have blasted through atheistic regimes and changed the character of countries. Those words (and more specifically, the truths they represent) have won wars and cast out demons and angered infidels and confounded scientists. For more people than not, they make no sense but for billions they make everything else make sense.

This thing we believe? It is a dangerous idea. So how dare we stand up casually on a Sunday morning and lazily roll through the creed as if we’re scrolling through the credits at the end of the movie. How dare we treat them with such routine indifference that they no longer mean anything even to the ones reciting them week after week. How dare we allow anyone to speak the creeds without some sense that they are participating in the welcome and advance of the Kingdom of God, and indeed have that responsibility if they utter those words as if they are real.

And this is how I believe the historic words professing faith in Jesus Christ ought to be voiced when they are voiced: as if you are standing for truth and justice and everything good and the whole human design and God’s plan. And as if you intend to walk out of that moment and change the world.

Pastors, when you stand to lead your people in the recitation of the Creed on Sunday morning, for God’s sake, please shake your people awake and help them understand just what bold conspiracy they are committing.

Otherwise, why bother?

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The best you can do is good enough.

The Israelites did not complain. I don’t know how I missed it before but in the lengthy and detailed story of the building of the tabernacle, there is no record of complaint ever by the Israelites.

I’m not talking here about their day-to-day existence; I’m talking about when they were constructing the tent that would stand as a sign of the presence of God in their midst. The Israelites — who complained about everything; who wanted to return to Egypt and slavery so badly that they might as well have walked through the desert backward; who required a system just to hear the arguments they had with each other — do not seem to have complained at all through the entire construction of the tabernacle. The story says that when they were asked to build it, they gave out of their hearts freely, more than was needed, for the materials. And they seem to have organized amiably under the leadership of two lay persons who would direct the work. Through that whole process, they never complained, or at least no one complained enough to deserve mention.

Let me just say that again: There is no record of a complaint during the world’s first church construction project.

Talk about a miracle.

And just as noteworthy is how God and Moses received their work when it was done. Keep in mind that this was intricate, high-level craftsmanship directed by meticulous instruction and under the guidance of regular guys who had probably never built a tabernacle before. Yet, when they were done Moses’ response rates one verse (Exodus 39:43): “Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord and commanded. So Moses blessed them.” No tick list of change orders, no tweaking, no discouraged gee-I-wish-we’d-done-that-part-differently comments. Moses simply inspected it, saw they’d done their job faithfully and then blessed it.

This one verse is bigger than we may realize because here’s the thing: It isn’t possible — we’ve all been in enough construction projects to know — that they did everything perfectly. The work was too meticulous (God gave instructions right down to the design of the curtain holders) and the people were just not that bright. But at the end of the day, according to how the story is told, the best they could do was good enough. In other words, obedience trumps perfectionism. Every time.

After Moses blessed the work, God filled the tabernacle and completed it with his Presence (Exodus 40:34). This is also a profound point. Without God’s Presence, a perfect building would have been useless weight in a desert setting but with his Presence, an imperfect building became holy.

The tabernacle, then, becomes the Old Testament visual aid for being made perfect in love. God didn’t demand perfection in the details but seemed to grade on faithfulness. They did everything as the Lord commanded, the Word says, and my suspicion is that they were graded not on accuracy of detail but on the spirit of the thing. And on the spirit of it, they passed.

Which means that our call is not to perfectionism, but to perfect love. A good spirit. No judgment … just a commitment to being in community under the Lordship of a holy God.

So this month, our church begins in earnest a construction project that will take several months to complete. If God is consistent, and if he tends to act currently as he has in the past, then we will be graded in this project not on accuracy but on the spirit of the work. By that standard, I hope we pass and when we are done, I sure hope we will take the example of Moses,  accept the finished product as it is and move on to the work of leading people through deserts and into the promises of God.

In his book, The Beatitudes, Simon Tugwell writes,

God loves who we really are – whether we like it or not. God calls us, as he did Adam, to come out of hiding. No amount of spiritual make-up can render us more presentable to Him … His love which called us into existence, calls us to come out of self-hatred and to step into his truth. “Come to me now,” Jesus says. “Acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs. Quit projecting onto me your own feelings about yourself. At this moment, your life is a bruised reed and I will not crush it, a smoldering wick and I will not quench it. You are in a safe place.

This is a good word about a creative God who does not poke around in our souls for deficiencies. He does not look for the flaw, nor does he grade us as we do one another (or worse, ourselves). We know this because when God himself entered into the original construction project (creation), he called all of it good. There is no record of tweaking, just enjoyment of the process. And then when he was finished, he rested and that rest is proof that our Father is at peace with us, his creation. He can look at us and be at peace not because everything is perfect, but because He is perfect.

His example is our directive: Do your best, then rest in Jesus. Rest is how we demonstrate trust in the goodness of God. Rest is a willingness to trust God with the questions and to believe that the best we can do is good enough for him.

When is the last time you rested in Jesus an act of trust in God?

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How to live like Jesus is alive

I am a servant of a holy God who has actually sapped the power out of death and sin. Easter helps me remember this supreme truth, and it calls me to give myself wholly to it. If I’m going to recommit to that truth today, how can I live like Jesus is alive?

1. Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Let’s be honest: some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable kind of religion. Folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! Toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never going to come back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die.

2. Learn to feast. Psalm 23 is a song of death and resurrection. It paints this picture of walking through a valley of shadows, on the verge of death, with a focus on the feast at the far side. On the next rise, just past the valley, there is a table set by God himself.  “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

This psalm is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality, rather than a spirit of scarcity.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago while I was sitting in the chapel of the church I was serving at the time. We offered Wednesday night communion and I was the pastor for that service. I’d sit in the chapel and as folks came I served them. In between people, I usually read the scriptures.

My husband Steve usually came to that service on Wednesdays, and I remember one week in particular when he showed up. It had been a hard week for him. He was teaching, and it seemed like he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough season.

As he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing a table for us in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. And I thought to myself, “Here it is! Being lived out right in front of me … God is inviting Steve to a feast!”

In the face of so many enemies, Steve was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side. And on yours … and mine.

If the message of Christmas is that God is with us, then the message of Easter is that God is for us.

This is what it means to get a feast mentality. It is to set your face toward that table, believing in the goodness of the One who set it for you, while you’re still in the valley. It is to believe the story is true even when life is hard.

3. Get a resurrection mindset. That is, a mindset that is fearless in the face of change. It is a mindset that believes that God has a big, honkin’ plan for your life, something much bigger than you’re thinking, and something you won’t discover as long as you’re tweaking the small stuff.

Jesus is worthy. The cross is glorious. The good news is worth believing. The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof.

Learn to live as if this is so.

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What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding are our critical need in this season of the Church’s life. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

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A word about unfulfilled promises

Another post by my friend and collaborator in ministry, Angel Davis. This week, she shares deeply and mystically about the holy discipline of waiting: 

I know I’m not alone in the years of waiting and praying for promises of God to be fulfilled for my loved ones and those with which I have the privilege of ministering. So many are hurting and lost, searching for true identity and in desperate need of healing.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have seen countless and countless answered prayers — exceedingly and abundantly more than I could have ever dreamed or imagined (and I still have years to go). I know there will be more to come. And yet there remains a yearning, a deep groaning at times, for those unfulfilled promises of God that have been prayed over for years and years.

The temptation is to pepper God with endless “whys.” “Why, God, haven’t you answered my prayers?” It is a very human thing to question what we don’t understand but that question can work against us. It keeps our eyes on our circumstances — on us — and that limits us. As long as I confine my faith to what I can understand, it will be a small world, indeed.

Perhaps a better question might begin with “what.” “What, God, are your purposes being played out as I wait?” “What do you want me to see and learn?” These questions put the emphasis back on God and his work. They open the door for us to enter into “the more” with God.

And what is “the more”?

Here are a few things I’ve learned about “the more” in my years of waiting, yearning, and praying.

  • Waiting helps my faith grow.
  • Waiting helps my hope grow.
  • Waiting helps my love grow.

Examine that list. Are these not the very things the Bible tells us will remain and never fail? (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Of course, not all waiting is holy, but the ordained waiting to which I’ve been assigned (my cup and my portion) has been the greatest expander of my faith. Waiting does the sometimes-painful work of prying our fingers off of fear, the kind that hinders faith. Waiting gives time for God to search my mind and heart (Psalm 139:23). Waiting allows space for God to teach me how to move forward fearlessly, and to empower me to see things from his vantage point (focusing on the solution rather than hyper-focused on the problem). Waiting also causes me to cling more deeply and surely to His truths and promises. This is “the more” that makes the struggle worth it.

In that transformation, hope rises. My hope is banked on Him and not the circumstances or the one for which I am interceding. God Himself is Hope. I come to know Him (His true character) more through the waiting, through the desperation, through the seeking, asking and knocking.

And hope rises …

From it I receive more and more of His heart of love. At times it seems like glimpses or trickles; other times it feels like a flood into my soul. And sometimes, it sure doesn’t even seem like love. Yet as I consistently bring my feelings to His throne of grace, as King David did, then I get to exchange fear, frustration, yearnings, groaning’s, heartaches, for Him — for His grace and love. And as I receive that from Him, then I have it to give back to Him as an offering. In turn, He enables me to love more deeply and purely. He takes our sacrifice of waiting and all that He accomplishes in it and will do exceedingly and abundantly more than we could ever dream or imagine.

In the process of holy waiting, we get glimpses of the story of God. He is behind the scenes working things out in ways we couldn’t imagine much less carry out. And like those giants of faith in Hebrews 11, we may not see the full fruit of answered prayers on this side of Heaven, but this we can bank on: If we allow God to grow our own faith, hope and love, we can leave an indelible mark on this earth for His glory that will carry through into eternity.

That, my friends, is worth the wait.

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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Stay in it (part two)

I’ve been thinking about how Luke used Elizabeth to change Mary’s perspective, so take five minutes and think about it with me.

When the angel visited Mary and told her she was going to have a baby, that had to be a lonely and confusing moment. She didn’t exactly have a decision to make but how she would receive this, and how she would live into it must’ve been baffling. She’d have to choose how she would live with what she was given, and this was a girl in her teen years without much experience to draw on.

So here’s what Luke does with this story. Before he ever gets to the story of Mary and the angel, he tells the story of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary’s with a little more life experience who also gets pregnant. Her pregnancy is also somewhat miraculous, coming years after she should be able to conceive. Elizabeth is surprised by her news, too, but excited. Relieved, even.

Luke tells Elizabeth’s story of getting pregnant, then drops in Mary’s conversation with the angel and in that part of the story Mary is obviously confused — “troubled” is how Luke describes her. She’s asking questions, trying to figure out how this works. And somewhere in the conversation, the angel brings up Elizabeth, that Elizabeth is pregnant, too, and that she’s going to have a child she didn’t expect to have, either. The next sentence has Mary relieved and the sentence after that has her going to visit Elizabeth. When she gets there, this thing happens between them. It is like deep calling to deep. Elizabeth’s baby — six months old inside the womb — leaps at the presence of Mary’s baby. And in the moment, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).

Now they are all standing there together steeping this profound knowing. If you count the Holy Spirit, there are five of them in this circle: the two little guys in the womb, the two women, and the Holy Spirit. And this is when Elizabeth draws on a prophetic knowing. She doesn’t soothe Mary’s emotional state or offer up a few hopeful platitudes. Instead, she speaks spiritually, deeply, prophetically over Mary, helping her reinterpret her experience. “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her” (Luke 1:45). Elizabeth speaks that word over a very confused young woman and the very next sentence has Mary singing praise, like it all makes sense to her now. Her song and this scene end with this: “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home” (Luke 1:56).

Elizabeth’s prophetic voice, the profound knowing of John and Jesus, and the presence of the Holy Spirit all combine to create an atmosphere ripe for transformation. So here’s my question: What if Luke wrapped Elizabeth’ story around Mary’s story to show us how spiritual conversation and close community brought Mary’s heart into the call of God? Think about it: The angel is the one who gave her the news, but it was another human with whom she could identify who made it good news. And it was the Holy Spirit who ignited that conversation and gave power and binding to all those relationships.

This is the bond that held together a woman’s call and gave Mary courage to birth into the world its Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, with disciples who followed him in messy, faithful, passionate style. When Mary found the combination of circumstances that allowed her to step into God’s purposes with passion, she chose to stay in it, to steep in it. And what Mary did at the beginning of Luke is exactly what Jesus prescribed for his followers at the end of Luke. In Luke 24:49, his followers are told by the resurrected Christ to “stay in the city” until they’ve been clothed with power from on high. The word stay draws a straight line from chapter 1 to chapter 24.

Here’s the secret: It is the staying power of the Holy Spirit.

“Stay here,” the disciples are told, “until you receive power,” because without that power you will fall headlong into disappointment. And so they stayed. They stayed while Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit descended, and then they were shot out into the world to prepare it for the second coming of Christ, not to help people escape from the world but to give them a transformed worldview rooted in the phenomenon of Jesus. Without the wind of the Spirit at their backs, those first followers of Jesus would not have had the momentum to share the good news with a waiting world.

The Holy Spirit makes the rest of the story of God make sense. He makes my story make sense. He reveals truth and makes it accessible to those who pursue it. He ignites the spiritual fires. He gives the process of spiritual formation its power. And I’m convinced that without the power of the Holy Spirit, any attempt at ministry is frustrating at best and possibly even detrimental to the cause of the Kingdom.

So be filled. Now. Here. Ask, Luke tells us, and believe when you stand up from this place that God has filled you with his Holy Spirit because God wants this for you. And then walk in that authority and do the work to which you’re called so we can all go home.

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Just As He Is (In Honor of World Down Syndrome Day)

Don’t tell the others, but maybe my favorite person at Mosaic is a young man named Matthew. He is this nineteen-year-old guy with the most beautiful spirit, deep faith and amazing sense of self-forgetfulness. Most Sunday mornings, Matthew finds me with his Bible and asks me to show him what passage we’ll be in during worship. We talk briefly about his day and he always hugs me before he goes to sit down. When worship starts, Matthew is all in. Sometimes he takes a couple of laps around the worship space, running with a huge grin on his face. During worship. While everyone is watching. He just runs. The energy that follows him is pure joy. It would be impossible to take offense; he has that way about him that disarms you. Sometimes we will pray over someone in worship — someone leaving or starting a ministry — and when I call for the congregation to join me in prayer, Matthew always comes down and lays hands on the person and prays over them. Long ago, he distinguished himself as a person of prayer. He regularly prays with folks at the end of the service. I love that guy. I love his faith. I love his passion for life. I love all the things that make him … Matthew.

And Matthew happens to have Down Syndrome. I know that makes his life a challenge, both for his parents and sometimes for him (though I’m not sure he really cares). He has physical issues connected with his condition, and he sometimes doesn’t understand why things have to be as they are. That can be frustrating. But on balance, Matthew’s life is way more positive than challenge. His parents and sister know Matthew is a blessing they’ve been given in this life, just as he is. 

Matthew’s father, Randy, shared the following testimony a couple of years ago. I’m posting it today in honor of World Down Syndrome Day, and in honor of Matthew whose faith inspires me. In the end, Mattie, I’ll be honored to be able to say I was your pastor and you were one of us. 

Randy writes:

I want to talk to you about the value of life. Our work here is not to judge another person’s life or choices. It is not to make anyone feel shame or guilt. I am too aware of my own short-comings to do anything other than share my own experience.

I do hope to affirm that there is no shame in Christ. There is only grace and love, and that holds true for all of us.

I want to talk about abortion — specifically the selective abortion of babies with a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. This is a fact: There is an epidemic among Down Syndrome children. I want to share some statistics about that but to do so, I have to begin with our family story.

We have a son with Down Syndrome. His name is Matthew and he is a gift from God. Laura and I did not know Matthew would be born with Down Syndrome before his birth. We weren’t one of those couples who wrestled with that decision of what to do with a prenatal diagnosis because Matthew wasn’t tested for Down Syndrome. That said, I am confident we would not have chosen to abort our child.

And that is what Matthew has always been for Randy3us. Our child.

Not a fetus. Not a specimen or a nondescript “unborn life.”

From the day we knew we were pregnant he has always been our child. Whatever else Matthew’s status was, he was and is first and foremost our child. Our son. Our gift from God.

Matthew has Down Syndrome. The clinical name for it is Trisomy 21. Simply put, that means that instead of having two “number twenty-one” chromosomes, Matthew has three. I think it is amazing that the thing that makes Matthew different is so small you have to use a microscope to see it. But that tiny difference is profound and for some families, it is devastating.

I understand. When we were first told Matthew’s situation, all we could see was the bad. We had the shock of the doctor telling us Matt had Down Syndrome as well as some other serious medical issues. We were also given some misinformation — for instance, that Matthew wouldn’t live past his twenties, and wouldn’t have sense enough to get out of a burning building.

Yes, a doctor actually told us that.

In fact, Matthew was nine days old before anyone even told us congratulations.

Matthew was born four weeks early with two heart defects, an enlarged spleen, and was jaundiced. When he was three days old, he went into congestive heart failure and had to be placed on a ventilator. It was touch-and-go for several days but he came through. At the time we were not active in our faith but we can look back and see God’s hand at work.

We came home on Matthew’s original due date.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time thinking of all the normal things he wouldn’t be able to do. It felt like a black wall. What I didn’t know then was just how many normal things he would be able to do, and that the things he couldn’t do didn’t really matter.

What I can share all these years later is the story of a strong, loving family that has experienced more than its share of goodness, joy and love. We’ve had birthday parties and we celebrated the first day of school. We played at the park and went trick-or-treating. We opened presents at Christmas and hunted eggs at Easter. Matthew helped me in the yard and played sports.

In fact, Matthew has a gold medal in softball skills at the state Special Olympics, along with two golds in track and a silver in basketball. Dads, I promise you couldn’t be more proud than I am of my son’s accomplishments.

This is what the Bible teaches me about our son — and about both our children, in fact:

For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.
— Psalm 139:13-16

Do we believe this scripture? As Christians, we must. Without this truth, what gives value to life? Does life only have the value or lack of value we place on it? If so, then choosing abortion becomes an easier decision. If the quality of my life has more value than the life of a child, then I will make my choices based on that belief. If I make my decisions based on pure emotion — on how this life will affect me or on what loss I’ll feel when I’m told my child might have Down Syndrome or some other health issue — then a dark wall goes up and it is very hard to see through that wall.

The only thing I will see or feel is loss and hurt.Randy2

But if I believe all life has value and that value is given — thankfully! — by God and that we are all beautiful in his eyes and that every life is a precious gift from God, that changes everything.

Laura and I thank God for good medical care. We’ve all needed it over the years. But medical care can’t define for me what makes a life. And prenatal testing that is presented as medical care is creating an epidemic. The dictionary meaning of “epidemic” is “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time.”

A recent study by Gert Gegraff, Frank Bucklya nd Brian Skotco, published in the Journal of Modern Genetics, contains some startling facts from Europe. Between 2008 – 2012 (taking into account the 35% diagnosed after birth) there were 4288 live births, 231 natural fetal deaths, and 5215 terminations of children with Down Syndrome.

That means more than 65% of children with Down Syndrome in Europe were killed in a four-year stretch because of a chromosome disorder.

In the United States, abortion after prenatal testing has reduced the Down Syndrome population by 30%. That means there are at least 30% fewer children like Matthew in our country, just because they are like Matthew. And that number only reflects the population of living children. The abortion rate is likely higher than 30%. One study puts it closer to 67%.

Does this seem like an epidemic to you? If there were any other group of people who were being — quite frankly — killed off at that rate it would be called genocide. Countries have gone to war to stop genocide.

In a 2011 article by Brian Skotco, entitled, “Will America Cull People with Down Syndrome?” the author cites a study concluding that 99% of parents say they truly love their son or daughter with Down Syndrome. 88% of brothers and sisters say they are better people because of a sibling with Down Syndrome. People with Down Syndrome also spoke up, with 99% saying they are happy with their lives and 97% saying they like who they are.

How many of the rest of us can say that?

I have wanted to share our experience of raising a child with Down Syndrome, being open and honest and sharing the good along with the bad — although the good far outweighs the bad. But the most important thing to us is watching Matthew grow up in a church family. Watching his faith grow, hearing people say how much he has helped them … that has been priceless.

I do not know the extent to which Matthew understands his faith, but what I do know is that he has faith and that God uses him in ways I can not comprehend. His faith and how he uses it is obviously something pretty special between him and God.

Dr. Adrienne Asche, a disabilities rights activist who was herself blind from birth, once wrote, “The only thing prenatal diagnosis can provide is a first impression of who a child will be. Making such a radical decision as to end the life of a child based upon a first impression is a most horrible and violent form of discrimination. It has no place in an American society that is committed to ending discrimination in any form.”

When I think of MRandy1atthew’s life, the lives he has touched and how the world is a far better place with him in it, I can only imagine how much better the world would be if all the lives lost due to abortion were given the chance at life

— Randy Henning, Evans, GA.

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Stay in it (part one)

Do you have books on your bookshelf just for the title? You haven’t even read the book and aren’t sure you need to; the title all by itself is enough. One of those books for me is Eugene Peterson’s Long Obedience in the Same Direction. That title was a revelation about sanctification. It is obedience over feeling. Just stay with it. This is not waiting for something to happen. This is staying power. A long obedience.

Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward basically defined my vocation. It taught me everything I needed to know about Wesleyan theology — personal holiness, social holiness — and what healthy community looks like. This is Wesleyan theology. It is a journey inward that feeds the journey outward.

Just this month I had another one of those moments, but it wasn’t a book title. It was a song title. Iris DeMent is the artist who sings it right; the composer is Sanford Massengill. The song is, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world. I will go ahead and warn you now (because you’ll want to look it up) that the theology breaks down in the song lyrics but the title by itself saves me all over again.

I don’t want to get adjusted to this world.

It puts into words that low-level uneasiness I have with so much that passes for acceptable in our culture. I’m not talking about the coarsening of society or what most middle-aged people think about social media. I’m talking about that thing that sits in my gut that says pastoring must be more art than technique, that my passion for it must run deeper than the anxiety generated by whoever’s blog pops up on my newsfeed with the title, “Five things you have to do now before your church implodes.”

Discipleship must be more organic than commercial farming. A relationship with Jesus is meant be fertilized with intrigue over all there is to know about God, not with a growing pile of shoulds and oughts.

(Can we just acknowledge that the word “should” sounds a lot like fertilizer? And I don’t need any more fertilizer in my life!)

Passions are not stoked with “shoulds” and “oughts” and I don’t want to get adjusted to that kind of world that runs on anxiety and shame instead of real adventure and bold, holy mistakes. So how do I stay in it without getting to adjusted to it?

The problem with the song, I don’t want to get adjusted to this world, is that the lyrics wander off into a kind of escapism that masquerades as longing for Jesus when really, its just, “Get me out of this!” I know that kind of escapism. I’m prone to it.

I was talking to someone not too long ago who’d had a season of professional ministry in his past. It was a good season for him, but in the end he had to leave it. He’d gone through a divorce and needed a better-paying job and something more than youth ministry to keep the boat floating. But its been a few years now and he’s discouraged. He looks back on those youth ministry days with a kind of longing. He was trying to get me to sympathize so he said, “Imagine someone told you that you were doing great but you needed to step down from your ministry any way, and so for six months they told you that you needed to stay clear of that ministry, and that you couldn’t talk to anyone or make any decisions. How would that make you feel?”

I have to be real here. In that moment (maybe it had been a bad day), that sounded wonderful to me. All I could think was, Really? Are you kidding?! I’d kill for that.”

So yes … I understand escapism. But that is not what Paul was after when he told us not to get adjusted to this world. Paul said (Romans 12:2), “Don’t copy (conform to) the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Not by changing the circumstances, but by changing the way we process them. Not by getting us out of it (whatever ‘it” is), but by changing our perspective on what is. Thats the point — not escape but transformation. It is about seeing the world from the Kingdom down rather than from the ground up. And the power to stay in it lies within the Holy Spirit. We seek his presence because he is the one with power to change our perspective. David Thomas says, “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

Let that sink in: “The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us go down into the deeper places, so we can have courage to be loved and face our stuff.”

This is Wesleyan Holiness at its best: It is a call to live a holy life under the influence of a Holy Spirit who leads us into greater and deeper love.

I wonder what thing you’ve got right now that you’re hoping to escape? What situation seems so radioactive that what you’d really like is to run, even if the alternative probably isn’t life-giving? What thing seems too big, too hard, too much … toxic?

Can I encourage you to stay in it and allow the Holy Spirit to turn that toxic space into holy ground? Can I challenge you to stay in it until you’re able to see it as God sees it? That’s no guarantee that it isn’t hard or bad or not his best, but it is a challenge to stay open to the possibility that he can work all things together for good. Or that maybe this hard thing is exactly your next step if you’re going to sink into the deeper places where you can be loved and face your stuff.

Friends, let the Holy Spirit do his work in you, because the world has met its quota of tired souls who’d rather just escape, but  the Kingdom Church is starving — and the fields are white — for Spirit-filled followers who are willing to stay in it … to have their minds transformed and their world views altered by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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When Jesus Gets Angry (or, How Jesus Knows You)

Find Mark 1:41 in your Bible. How does that line read in your version? How did Jesus feel about this leper who asked for healing?

Some versions say Jesus was filled with compassion for the leper who came to him for healing. My version (NIV) and a few other versions say Jesus was indignant. By my experience, there is a pretty wide gap between indignant and compassionate, so which is it?

There is a temptation to let that difference shake our confidence in the Bible or at least in our English translations of it. In fact, a famous atheist uses this very word in this very verse — alternately translated as compassion or indignant — as part of his argument against scriptural integrity.

I had not noticed this odd word before last week, when folks at Mosaic were exploring this passage together using the SOAP method of inductive study. When someone else in the room noticed the difference between their translation and mine, we went scrambling. It turns out we’d stumbled on a big debate in Bible translation circles. Someone has written a whole book on this one word — 609 pages worth of debate between compassion and indignation.

Bruce Metzger says that of the 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 lines have debatable translations. That means there is agreement among scholars around about 99.6% of what we read in the Bible. Nonetheless, there are going to be a few hard words, some things we have to wrestle with, some words or phrases that don’t translate easily into English. This word in Mark 1:41 is one of them.

So … is it compassion or indignation? A couple of versions even use the word “pity” or “anger.” But pity is not compassion. I want someone to feel compassion … but pity, not so much. Likewise, anger and indignation are not the same thing. Indignation and pity are look-down-your-nose words while anger and compassion are feelings that can actually drive us toward people, not away from them.

According to my friend, Dr. Ben Witherington, the Greek word refers to the kind of feeling that comes from your bowels. The closest expression to the Greek is “the bowels of compassion.” The feeling evoked is something fierce or passionate — not just feeling compassion but the kind of concern that moves a person to compassion. Not just aggravated at a disease or a man who has lost his drive to go hard after his healing, but angry at all that has sapped the hope out of him.

And I’m thinking about Jesus as a healer and shepherd and it slays me to think that maybe God has inspired the use of a word here that means both things at once. Because a person can be both angry and compassionate at the same time. In fact, a person can be fiercely compassionate, moved to go after someone stuck in pit while angry at all the things that got them there.

As a pastor, I feel this bowel-level burden for people. How often does my broken heart for someone push me to hang onto them long past good sense? How often do I get so angry with the demon someone is wrestling with that I’m moved to a simmering rage over the stubborn addiction, the serial relationships, the dysfunction? How desperately I feel the heavy weight of habits and wounds that leave people stuck,  compassionate toward the person but indignant toward what got them there.

Of course, Jesus got angry! Not all anger is without compassion, and not all compassion is … well … without passion. Not just feeling compassion but moved by it to go after the healing.

To find this kind of complex, nuanced word in the Bible only makes this book more trustworthy, not less. I am stunned by the depth of it, the beauty of it, the brilliance of God himself. To hear in God’s Word his identification with the everyday work of a pastor like me is just stunning. In this word, Jesus sees not just the leper, but me.

Maybe this word in Mark 1 isn’t your word, but today I am ever more compelled to urge you toward a regular and devotional reading of the Bible. I am convinced that if you will go digging — if you will find your own practice of inductive, devotional Bible reading — God will meet you and show you treasures and even show you yourself and his heart for you. He’ll show you that you are known at the deepest levels, in the places you may be most lonely.

Jesus knows you. And once you know that, you won’t be able to not share it with a lost and hurting world.

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Real Prayers for Real People

I didn’t immediately fall in love with the psalms. I found them to be hard to understand and a little dusty. Then some hard things happened in my life and I landed on a few psalms that became prayers when I didn’t know what to pray. When my mother died, Psalm 42 became my lifeline. Psalm 116 was my testimony in a season when things got bad then got better. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to find the profound assurances embedded in Psalm 23.

The psalms challenge us to pray as if God is real. These ancient prayers give us a fresh vocabulary for prayer. In the library we call the Bible, The Book of Psalms is the prayer book and as examples of how faithful people have prayed through the ages, they can help us all find a better prayer life. Here, we find the all-too-human wrestlings of David (who wrote many, but not all, the psalms), a man after God’s heart. We hear honest cries for help and deep, worshipful devotion. We get the full spectrum of emotions, not the least of which is anger. I’ve never had the guts to ask God to kill someone else’s child, but it is in there — an assurance that God can handle it even when we are broken, raging or irrational.

What we don’t hear in David’s conversations with God is anything remotely rote. No recitations. No empty wish lists. No shallow musings. No generalized litanies of what we vaguely hope for the world. David Thomas, in his teaching on travailing prayer, writes, “The Bible seems utterly unfamiliar with casual prayer, prayer of the mouth and not of the heart.” In this, the psalms resonate.

The psalms are real prayers for real people. They challenge us to think deeply and honestly and give us permission to cry out, to feel, to get close, to give our whole heart, to be rough around the edges, and even to be wrong-headed and stubborn.

But real. Always real.

In Lynn Anderson’s book, They Smell Like Sheep, the author offers several practical tips for those who want to learn how pray the Psalms.

  • Choose a psalm to focus on. If you don’t know where to start, try googling your feelings — i,e, “psalm for anger” or “psalm for discouragement.” The psalms are so well researched and commented on that you’ll likely find several articles or references that send you to a starting point. Don’t get sidetracked with the article; go to the psalm.
  • Read it through aloud — slowly and thoughtfully — to get its sense. Make it interactive. Reading scripture aloud can make a huge difference in how you hear it.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the first person (as your own prayer for yourself). Don’t hurry. Wallow in it. Savor it. Mean it. Feel free to stop here and journal what is revealed, or make notes in the margins.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the second person, as an intercessory prayer on behalf of some other person.
  • Stay there until God shows up. I realize this isn’t great theology. Of course, it isn’t God who doesn’t show up, but us. But from an experiential place, we can admit that when we don’t have patience for the waiting it can feel as if God is nowhere to be found. It isn’t that he doesn’t show up, but that we refuse him entry by rushing too quickly past the moment.
  • Don’t end your prayer when the psalm ends. Let this psalm springboard you into the rest of your day’s prayers for current issues and persons that the psalm has brought to your heart. Let the psalm shape the day’s prayer list.

Even if it isn’t theologically accurate to say it this way, I stand by this good advice: Stay there until God shows up. If he doesn’t show up immediately, he will show up eventually. How do I know? He promised!

Stay in the place of prayer. Jesus himself said the fruit of an abundant life is in the abiding. May you find your stride, your purpose, your anchoring and your fruitfulness in that place of abiding, travailing, real prayer.

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