Can you follow Jesus without believing in miracles?

Subtract miracles from Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism, and you have essentially the same religion left. Subtract miracles from Christianity, and you have nothing but the clichés and platitudes most American Christians get weekly (and weakly) from their pulpits. Nothing distinctive, no reason to be a Christian rather than something else.” – Peter Kreeft (Christianity for Modern Pagans)

Thomas Jefferson once took a pen knife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb, but cut out the resurrection. What was left (mostly the teachings of Jesus) Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a pen knife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God is to see the Kingdom break in through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth (Luke 9).

Christianity is not a faith with a few miracles sprinkled in for effect. Christianity is a miracle with some good stories thrown in. Miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. To extract them from the gospel of Jesus Christ would be to extract the heart of God for the people he created.

Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. We believe Jesus is worthy of worship, but he is only worthy if he has been proven to be God himself.

Without miracles, we lose hope. We have no assurance of an afterlife if Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Psalm 145 tells us that we are to pass the stories of God’s mighty acts from generation to generation, because it is the mighty acts of God — not the morality — that teach us about God’s character and purposes. Through his miracles (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we see God’s goodness — that he is for us.

Without miracles, our profession of faith is hollow. Jesus didn’t celebrate the power of miracles (he often warned people not to talk about their own supernatural healing), but he always encouraged folks to celebrate the restoration caused by them. The point of miracles to to draw us into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. All over the world right now, stories are surfacing of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus being drawn into the Kingdom through miracles and visions. They are being introduced to Jesus by Jesus himself in supernatural encounters. Why? Because Jesus wants to see these cultures restored to the Kingdom of God.

Without miracles, we have no insight into the Kingdom of God. Jesus resurrected a little girl whose daddy was heart-broken, healed a woman who was sick for years, restored the sight of two men who asked for mercy and cast out a demon that had a guy’s tongue. And that’s just one chapter (Matthew 9)! Every one of these miracles was a preview of the Kingdom and a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy — binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free, giving sight to the blind and release to someone imprisoned by demons. This was a foretaste of coming attractions, Jesus demonstrating Kingdom values.

Without miracles, we are not pursuing the whole gospel. Richard Rohr, Catholic priest and spiritual director, has written, “As priests, we felt our job was to absolve sin rather than actually transform people. ‘Get rid of the contaminating element,’ as it were, rather than ‘Learn what you can about yourself and God because of this conflict.’ Those are two very different paths. In the four Gospels, Jesus did two things over and over again: he preached and he healed. We have done a lot of preaching, but not too much healing” (A Lever and a Place to Stand).

True miracles will always glorify God. And true believers will always lift up Jesus. In Richard Rohr’s confession, he goes on from the above quote to diagnose the “why” behind his assertion. He says that we’ve done more preaching than healing not because our hearts are hard (though undoubtedly that’s true for some) or because we don’t find it important, but because we don’t know how. We have forgotten (if we ever knew) how to call the people in our care into deeper spiritual waters.

With all due respect to President Jefferson, Christianity is not a philosophy. It is a declaration of the one, true God — the most powerful Being in the universe — and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ. And it is the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit transforming the natural with the invasion of the supernatural. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm.

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While you were getting your nails done (and other thoughts on world evangelism)

In this world we are like Jesus. – 1 John 4:17

I have posted this before but am thinking of it freshly this week as I travel in Thailand. As in the U.S., Thailand has no shortage of nail salons. In the U.S., I have a tolerate-hate relationship with those places. For many people, it is a treat to have someone else paint your fingernails and toenails, massage your feet and give you an hour in a gyrating chair. For me, that is an exercise in frustration. I just don’t enjoy the experience. Where I live, almost all the salons are staffed by folks who don’t speak much English and since I don’t go often enough to know how to ask for what I want, I find myself feeling at first tentative and then exasperated before we even get started. And at the cost of a tank of gas or a meal out.
nail-buddha2

Nonetheless — illogically — about once a year I give in and go. Maybe it is the eternal optimist in me. This time will be different. The last time I made this annual trek to a nail place, I decided to strike up a conversation with the technician. She was from Thailand. She was friendly and chatty, and talked in English to me while she spoke in Thai to her co-worker. At some point, I asked what they were talking about. The technician shared that they were planning their evening. There was a dinner at the local temple, a potluck, and they’d all be going together. They were laughing about meeting men there.

It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that women like these might be part of a sub-culture in my community designed to maintain a religious identity. These women interacted all day every day with Americans but in their personal life, they maintain Buddhist traditions, look for Buddhist husbands, keep to Buddhist communities.

I am ashamed to admit I’d never considered before the spiritual life of the person doing my nails, though my faith calls that person to trust in Christ for redemption from this fallen world. I left the salon that day knowing that until my heart breaks for the spiritual care of the people in that place, I had no right to use them for my own luxuries.

Those luxuries are delivered to us by a remarkably diverse community. Consider this:

  • According to the 2012-2013 industry statistics published by Nails Magazine, 48% of nail professionals in the $7.47 billion American nail industry are Vietnamese Americans. The predominant religion in Vietnam is Buddhism.
  • More than 50% of Dunkin Donuts are owned by Pakistani or Indian franchisees. Pakistan is a mostly Muslim country; India’s majority religion is Hinduism.
  • 40% of all motels in the United States are owned by Indians (see above).
  • 10% of American physicians are Muslim.
  • 50% of lawn care workers and16% of lawn care business owners are Latino. Their religious backgrounds are likely varied; many will practice a version of Catholicism mixed with animism, voodoo, or ancestor worship.

While we are getting our nails done, lawns manicured and to-go coffees poured, we are coming face to face with the world’s religious diversity. We may not even be aware enough of this reality to let our hearts become sensitized to the spiritual need.

This reality is both a blessing and a temptation. We are easily lulled into a comfortable numbness that lets us get our needs met while ignoring the spiritual care of a worldful of people. And yet, what potential! Industries full of religiously diverse folks provide us with a plethora of opportunities to open our hearts and care more lovingly for those who care for us. To treat them like people, not servants.

While you’re considering who lives among us, consider how the rest of the world is experiencing religious diversity. The global Christian landscape is shifting. The following statistics come from Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary:

  • When William Carey went to India in 1793, 90% of all Christians were white and lived in the western world. Today, by a vast majority, the face of Christianity is non-white.
    William Carey was a famous missionary in India. But the William Carey Memorial Church in Luster, England is now a Hindu temple.
  • The top two most receptive nations to Christianity are India and China.
  • At the turn of the twentieth century, nine of the ten countries with the highest rate of Christians were in Europe or North America. In 2009, only four of the top ten most Christian countries are in the west.
  • Meanwhile, this year the top ten most resistant nations to Christianity are all in Europe.
    A Christianity Today article says that 85% of Yale’s Campus Crusade for Christ are Asian while the Buddhist temple meetings on the Yale campus are exclusively attended by whites.
  • More Nigerians attend church every week than all the Episcopal and Anglican churches in the west combined.
  • China now boasts the fastest growing church in the world, producing 16,500 new Christians every day.
  • Africa, once called the missionary graveyard, is now the fastest growing church of any continent as a whole, producing 24,000 Christians every day since 1970.
  • The most representative Christian in 1909 was a 44-year old British male.
  • The most representative Christian in 2009 was a 24-year old Nigerian woman.

In this world we are like Jesus. In a world that’s rapidly changing, God has chosen to let us participate in the coming Kingdom. It is a glorious invitation that leaves us with a choice: we can be fearful, turn inward and become concerned only with “me, mine, and our ticket to heaven”; or we can be fearless in understanding and engaging the world around us, becoming active participants in what Christ is doing right here to bring the Kingdom in.

In light of that invitation, I’m inspired to breathe this prayer: God, put to death any unholy ambition in me. Any ambition that makes me more interested in my own comforts than the salvation of others.

Amen. Let it be so.

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Haters gonna hate.

Let’s talk about hate.

In the first few verses of the Bible, we meet our God in his trinitarian wholeness. The Father creates, the Son speaks, the Spirit hovers. This Trinitarian God partners within himself in the work of creation. You can sense his single-mindedness — the energy flowing within Himself creating goodness. There is no sense of hierarchy here. In fact, a hierarchy within the Trinity would tear at the fabric of unity and prove our faith in one God to be a lie.

God is love, and within himself he is in complete unity and complete partnership. This is the substance and character of our God.

Humans were created in the likeness of this loving God, so the first two chapters of Genesis tell the story of humans being created as partners in the work of stewarding God’s creation. Side by side, male and female were to tend the land, govern the animals and be intimately unified. There was a creative energy and goodness between them. As with the one, true God, a hierarchy among humans would tear at the fabric of created design.

And yet, this is precisely what happened at the Fall. In Genesis 3, we learn that the enemy of God turned what was created as a partnership into a hierarchy. Ever since, humans have battled for control. This battle rages across genders, races, languages (in some countries, hierarchies are established by what language you know), nations … you name it. On this side of Genesis 3, fallen humanity is conditioned for division. If we can pit things against each other, we will. It is our ungodly inclination to compete, compare and control. This inclination is an incubator for hatred.

If God is love, then the enemy of God is hatred incarnate and that hatred has become the primary driver of unholy hierarchies. Whether we sense it dramatically or subliminally, it is this pull toward hierarchy that causes us to rank one another in order to justify our own value.

Let me state the obvious and say that hierarchy and hate are at the root of white supremacy and pretty much all the other hate-filled expressions of protest that surface not just in our country but around the world. Haters are obsessed with creating the kind of hierarchies that rank everyone not like them as “lesser than.” Most of us are appalled by the extremes to which the “real” haters will go. The “real” ones make the news. They have become so hardened by their own proclivities that they will shamelessly stand in the public square and spew their hate without the slightest sense of their absurdity.

The real haters are enemies of God, and what they do deserves our immediate and direct condemnation. There is never an option for a follower of Jesus to hate people. Never. What we so often see in the public square is simply not reflective of the heart of Christ. Our constant pull as Christians must always be against hate and toward genuine love.

Christians never have the option to hate other people or to act in hateful ways. 

This does not mean I will always agree with you, or you with me. There are things worth our righteous anger and sharp opposition. It does mean we are required by the law of Christ to treat one another as human beings, to treat with decency even those whose values are in direct opposition to ours. This is a sticking point for those of us who follow Jesus, many of whom have confused holiness with hierarchy. We cannot allow our pursuit of holiness to devalue others. Not politically, racially, or in any other of a million different ways we compete, compare, control.

This isn’t the way of Christ.

Somehow we have to learn how to talk in the public square about the things on which we disagree — and even acknowledge our disagreements as uncompromising — without labeling everything that doesn’t look like us as hate-generating or worse, as “less than.” After all, the ground beneath the cross is level.

Brothers and sisters, somehow we have to learn how to fight fair again, to engage in public debate so that honest differences can be acknowledged in mature and loving ways without devaluing one another. Because as long as we live on this side of Genesis 3, haters are going to hate but Christians simply can’t. It is not how we are designed, and it is not how we honor a loving God.

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Just how angry are you?

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University conducted an online survey of about 1,500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things like, for instance, kicking a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free.

Would you be among them?

There is no denying it: we have a maddening political climate. We also have anger issues. Anger is not a secular issue; we who follow Jesus are not immune. Just check your Facebook page. In fact, more and more, anger is becoming part of our caricature. Angela, the token Christian on The Office is an angry, tight-lipped, buttoned-up woman. In most cartoons and commentaries, we’re known as the ones who sling condemnation.

So really … are we that angry?

(You’ve heard the old joke– right? — about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.” It is funny only because it is familiar.)

Face it. Christians have something of a reputation and it is only getting worse. I suspect we’re operating out of fear. We’ve pitted our values against a permissive culture and it has left us feeling powerless. In the comparison we’re accused of being angry, condemnation-tossing haters. And to some extent, we deserve the criticism. We who follow Jesus too easily pander to the reputation of being known for what we’re against more than what we’re for.

Wouldn’t it be exciting for Christians to be known more for the infectiousness of their faith than the accuracy of their tomato-tossing?

George Barna is a researcher who does ethnographic research on churches, and one study he did showed that only 4% of adults make their decisions based on the Bible. In his book, Think Like Jesus, he says, “the primary reason that people do not act like Jesus is because they do not think like Jesus … We’re often more concerned with survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.”

Hear that again: We are often more concerned about survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.

“Survival amidst chaos” hits close to home, doesn’t it? These last couple of years have been hard on our country. I hope we are on the healing edge of a long season of chaos, and chaos has not brought out the best in us. We are not thinking like Jesus. We have become so focused on what is in front of us that we’ve forgotten what is beyond the horizon. We’ve engaged emotionally with difficult issues but have failed to speak with integrity, offering emotional responses that are more defensive than intelligent. Our go-to response is more fear than faith.

But you say, “A person can’t sit idly by and let the world roll over them.” Or more personally, “You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts. I can’t lose this war, too.”

To that, Jesus would say, “It doesn’t matter. The ground of our forgiveness is not our circumstances. The ground of our grace is not emotion.” Jesus told a whole story to make this very point (Matthew 18:23-35) saying that grace is a mark of the Kingdom.

Here’s the thing: If it all depends on circumstance, we are right to be desperate. Circumstances can seem hopeless but circumstances do not control my capacity for joy. We who know the end of the story should be responding to life and news and “rumors of wars” with a faith that proclaims something greater than our immediate circumstances. In other words, I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; I can live there now, by faith.

What I am responsible for is the character of my responses to life, and what those responses reveal about the character of Christ in me.

Brothers and sisters, whatever the current circumstance, we know how the story ends. We know what is beyond the horizon.

Let’s live and speak as if Jesus is who he says he is.

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The Fellowship of the Unashamed

The source is shaky, but the story is told of an African man who lived maybe a century ago. He was coerced either by his tribe or some outside group to renounce his faith in Jesus Christ. Rather than giving in, he wrote what is now called the creed of the Fellowship of the Unashamed.

This is a kind of creed for those of us who have found our spiritual feet and have chosen to walk in the Spirit. I don’t normally gravitate to these kinds of quotes, but for some reason this one resonates in this season. It inspires a kind of boldness that seems to be lacking in our culture but sorely needed.

Read this, then print it, post it, and let it sink into your soul.

The Fellowship of the Unashamed

I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power.

The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away or be still.

My past is redeemed. My present makes sense. My future is secure. I’m finished with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, worldly talking, cheap giving, and dwarfed goals.

I no longer need preeminence, prosperity, position, promotions, applause, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded or rewarded. I now live by faith, lean on His presence, walk by patience, am uplifted by prayer and labor by power.

My pace is set. My gait is fast. My goal is heaven. My road is narrow. My way rough. My companions few.  My guide is reliable and my mission is clear.

I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, pander at the pool of popularity or meander in the maze of mediocrity.

I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I’ve stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preached up for the cause of Christ.

I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go till He comes, give ’til I drop, preach till all know, and work till He stops me. And when He comes for His own, He’ll have no problem recognizing me. My banner will be clear.

Amen! May it be so in your life and mine.

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Who wouldn’t want to be a universalist? (and why I’m not)

Who wouldn’t want to believe everybody wins — that in the end, God doesn’t have the heart to leave anyone behind?

That my non-believing uncle who drank himself to death and my friend who worships the sun god and even my neighbor who believes in nothing but who’s really nice and serves at the soup kitchen every Thursday … who wouldn’t want to believe that all of them will end up in Heaven one day?

It would make life simpler, wouldn’t it?

Universalism cloaks itself in love and acceptance, accusing those who don’t agree with it of being narrow, rigid, angry, unloving. “Love wins,” it urges. “Can’t we all just get along?”

We ought to be all for it. It would be a whole lot easier on all of us if we could skip that part about truth being absolute, basing our choices instead on moment and mood. It would free up a lot of time in my week. Church is fun, but not that fun. Coffee and a good newsfeed in yoga pants is also fun; so is sleeping late.

I was ordained alongside someone who called himself a universalist and was stunned that no one had a problem with that. He also considered himself a Christian (a Christian pastor, at that) but didn’t believe Jesus cared what choice we make about truth. That’s the thing about universalism. It is predestination’s odd other half. Jesus will send you to heaven whether you want to go or not. Choice is out the window just as surely as if your salvation was determined before your birth. As a theology it isn’t Christian.

Which means it isn’t Wesleyan. Methodists are not universalists.

Which is not to say that a person doesn’t have a right to believe an “all dogs go to heaven” theology. They just don’t have a right to believe that and call themselves Christian. To do so is to offend the tenets of both worldviews. In fact, one who claims all religions lead to the same God offends all of us. No self-respecting Muslim wants to be lumped together in the same theological basket with a Hindu or Christian. The belief systems are entirely different. We prove ourselves both ignorant and disrespectful when we minimize the differences.

Far from being a better brand of good news, universalism leaves us without any gospel at all. It is the opposite of truth, making truth itself a relative state, which makes it an extremely dangerous ideology.

Universalism is a theological anarchy that leaves us without purpose. Without choice. Without life.

Here’s the choice on the table: Either Jesus was right and he is our Messiah or he was wrong and (as Paul said) we are silliest looking people in the world.

That’s the choice.

C. S. Lewis said, “Either this [Jesus] was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

On the issue of salvation and ultimate truth, Jesus himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus defined his terms clearly: the way of the cross is the way of salvation.

So what do we do with that? Because after all, I’m still left with a sorry uncle, a flighty friend, a charitable-but-athiestic neighbor. What happens to them? We don’t much like thinking of the Father’s house without everyone we love in it. How do we make peace with the alternative?

First, it is important to remember something I’ve said in another recent post: Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus is truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are NOT the authors of our faith.

The author of our faith is Jesus Christ.

We have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith.

Second, the fact that we love people who believe differently than us should be our trigger to pray for them more fervently. In his answer to the question, “How can I be happy in Heaven if someone I loved deeply on Earth doesn’t make it to Heaven?” Peter Kreeft said this:

The simplest and most important answer to this question is this: If there is someone you love and identify with so deeply that you cannot imagine being happy in eternity without him or her, and that someone seems now to be in peril of being unsaved, then use the relationship that God’s providence has ordained for you. Tell God that he has to arrange for this person’s salvation as he has arranged for yours, because this person is a real part of you, and for you as a whole to be saved, this person has to come along, just as your own body and emotions have to come along. It need not be a wheedling or blackmail prayer; it can be a simple presentation of the facts, like [when Mary said to Jesus at a wedding], “They have no more wine.” Let God do his thing: it is always more loving, more gracious and more effective than our thing, more than we can ever imagine or desire. Trust him to use your earthly love as a channel, supernatural and/or natural, of grace and salvation for your friend. Your very question, your very problem, is the clue to its answer. God put that burden on your heart for a reason: for you to fulfill.

Grace, truth and love meet in this place. When we let God do his thing — not minimizing it but trusting it — he will always do a better job than us. When we trust that God loves people every bit as much as us (more, in fact), we will gladly beat a path to his door on behalf of those we love.

Don’t take away the truth. Instead, allow it to do its work.

That is how love wins.

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