Eat this scroll (or, how to become earthly good).

You’ve heard it said that a person can be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. Sounds catchy enough to be true, doesn’t it? It ends up being terrible theology, not to mention indefensible. I would argue that if you want to be any earthly good at all, you are better served by a mind that fixes on higher things. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that the world is better served by those who spend their lives looking for signs of the in-breaking Kingdom than by those who don’t have eyes to see beyond this world.

Being heavenly minded is precisely what makes us earthly good.

Some of the greatest influences on humanity have been heavenly minded. In his classic Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis famously wrote:

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in;” aim at earth and you will get neither.

Being heavenly minded is the point. It is what Paul meant when he instructed new believers to set their minds on things above. It is what Ezekiel was called to when he was told to eat the scroll, on which were written the lamentations of God. Those words were the very heart of God for his people. When God instructed Ezekiel to eat the scroll, he was saying, in effect, “Unless you have internalized my heart for my people, you won’t be any good for them. If you have any hope of following through on any of the weird stuff that is in your future, you’re going to need to operate not out of an external word but out of something rooted inside.”

In leadership, the quickest way to kill a great idea is to ask someone to do it before they own it. Hannah Whitall Smith (Quaker theologian) wrote that it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. She was right. How often have you resisted someone else’s idea until you decided it was your own? God’s way of working in us is to get possession of us, so he can make his ideas our ideas.

This is how we become heavenly minded. Eat this scroll, God said. Gain the heart of God for people. Internalize it. Own it. Let it do its work in you. This could well be the most powerful word in the Bible about the Bible. Only as we steep in the Word are we able to internalize and own the very heart of God, allowing it to change the way we think.

If being heavenly minded is the only way we can do any earthly good (and I am convinced it is), then the path to that posture runs through the Word of God. Not counter to it.

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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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The only reason to believe

Lee Strobel’s masterful book, The Case For Christmas, tells of his journey from atheism to Christianity while investigating the claims of Christ.

He tells the story of interviewing a guy named Louis Lapides, a Jew who had almost no exposure to Christianity. In fact, the only thing he “knew” (or thought he knew) about Christians was that they didn’t like Jews. That distorted belief didn’t endear him to our scriptures.

When Louis was seventeen his parents divorced, and for him the God who was already distant became pretty much non-existent. He went to Viet Nam, got into drugs, got depressed. He ended up one day on a sidewalk in California arguing with a group of Christians about the existence of God and the reality of Jesus. When all his other arguments failed, he told them he couldn’t believe in Jesus because he was Jewish.

One of them asked him, “Do you know of the prophecies about the Messiah?” Louis had never heard about the prophecies — the ones in our Old Testament, his Jewish scriptures — that pointed to Jesus as Messiah. That was astonishing information to him. This was the first he’d heard that there might be a connection between his Jewish faith and this Jesus. The guy on the sidewalk offered him a Bible and said, “Read the Old Testament and ask the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God of Israel – to show you if Jesus is the Messiah. Because he is your Messiah. He came to the Jewish people initially, and then he was also the Savior of the world.”

Louis said, “Fine, I’ll read the Old Testament part, but I won’t open up the New Testament.”

He went home and started with Genesis. To his amazement, as he read he found one prophecy after the next (more than four dozen major ones) pointing to a prophet who was greater than Moses. Strobel says Louis was stopped cold at Isaiah 53, a prophecy written more than 700 years before Jesus.

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with the bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him, and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.

This was the Jesus those sidewalk prophets had been talking about! This revelation left Louis with the only conclusion he considered reasonable: Christians must have altered the Old Testament to make all those prophecies sound like Jesus!

Louis knew how to verify his suspicion. He called his grandmother and asked her to send him a copy of her Jewish Scripture. When he read it and found that it matched the Christian scriptures … well, that’s when he started running out of arguments.

And that’s when he decided to turn the last page of the Old Testament and read the first page of the New Testament. For the first time in his life he read the first words of Matthew:

“A record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham.”

The more he read the more it all fit together. He realized this was a conspiracy; it was a story about Jewish people for Jewish people. “I couldn’t put it down, Louis said. “I read through the rest of the gospels, and I realized this was not a handbook for the American Nazi party; it was an interaction between Jesus and the Jewish community.”

A few days later, before his life was all cleaned up, he told God, “I have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Messiah. I need to know that you, as the God of Israel, want me to believe this.” Louis says that in the next moment, somehow, experientially, God convinced him that he exists and Louis became a follower of Jesus. God didn’t give Louis one more answer. He gave him himself.

“The Lord himself will give you a sign …”

The Lord himself. This is the glory and truth of Christmas: The Lord himself. We believe, because he is true.

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