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, is 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 is 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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Marriage and the Means of Grace

I’ve been married for thirty years to a man I absolutely adore. When my husband and I met, we were not practicing Christians. We shared an interest in the faith and a history of it, but spiritually we were far from home. It wasn’t until we’d dated three years and were married for four that spiritual fires were kindled in our marriage.

Since then, we’ve made every possible mistake, some of which should have been the death of us. But God, in his mercy, has not only preserved our covenant but has given us beauty for ashes, the oil of joy and the garment of praise.

For all the mistakes, there are three things we’ve done intentionally that I believe have made all the difference in the health and duration of our marriage: tithing, prayer and Sabbath-keeping.

Tithing taught us to approach life as givers. It helped us make the mental shift from consumption to generosity and that has taken the fire out of any money-based arguments we might have had. We approach our finances, our investments and our possessions as givers.

That sounds like something a pastor would say, right? But I’m convinced that this shift in our approach to family finances has made all the difference in the world in how we talk about money (which, statistically, is the most divisive topic in a marriage). Rather than talking about what we make and what we want, our most animated discussions are about what we give and to whom. It has made us more appreciative of the work of others and sort of stunned by the fact that the funds never seem to run out. There is a lot to be said for approaching life as a giver.

The second thing we’ve done has to do with prayer. They say that about 50% of all marriages in the U.S. fail, and that statistic holds whether a couple is “Christian” or not. Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t improve the odds. But in marriages where two people who call themselves Christian pray daily together, they say that the odds of success are dramatically improved (a study I read years ago said that only one in a thousand ends in divorce, when couples pray daily together). If those stats are even close to right, then it really is true that the family that prays together, stays together.

The ability and comfort we have in praying together daily is such a gift in our marriage. Praying together does two things in a marriage. First, because it is such a real and intimate thing, it is a place where you really get to hear the other person’s heart. People tend to be more honest, more transparent when they pray. Second, because it is a prayer, God hears it. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered together, he is right there with them. So if you want to make that triangle thing happen in your marriage, prayer will do it for you. Prayer is like a zipline that takes you immediately into God’s presence.

So we tithe and we pray together daily. And the third thing we’ve done intentionally to build our marriage is to observe a Sabbath.
In other words, we pay, we pray, and we play!

Sabbath. Every major figure in the Bible talked about this habit. Jesus himself was faithful to practice it. The Bible in both testaments claims it as the key to healthy living — spiritually, mentally and physically. And yet, we rarely discuss it and seldom take it seriously. It runs consistently through the Bible, but it’s the one thing I’ve consistently and dangerously neglected in my own life.

When we first came to Augusta to plant a church, I was really wrapped up in the work. I got so wrapped up in it, in fact, that I began to neglect not only my family but my own spiritual life. And I was a pastor! Somewhere along the way, we decided that the only way for us to restore some kind of rhythm to our lives was to begin practicing a day of rest every week — one day when we could cease work and worry and just be with each other. It is a day we rest, play and sleep. In other words, we try to just enjoy life.

Sabbath gives a holy rhythm to the practice of our faith, and it has been the one thing in our home that has the power to calm the storms.

Because I’m a pastor and work on Sunday, my Sabbath is 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday. My husband usually takes the whole day on Saturday as his Sabbath. We’re not legalistic about it. There are plenty of Saturdays taken up by mission projects at the church and by paperwork that needs to be caught up on. And laundry. But there are also naps and slow lunches, second cups of coffee and plenty of time to talk. We don’t do the Sabbath perfectly every week but we do make it our goal because this is one way we get our lives back in line with God’s design.

Here’s what we’ve learned after thirty years of giving this our best shot: You will never make enough money to make yourself happy, and you will never have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Tithing, prayer and Sabbath are ways of trusting God and for us, they have been the means of grace that have made this union a treasure.

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Healthy Communication and the Kingdom of Heaven

Healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community.  Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls.

As a leader, then, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding.  If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here’s where I’d start:

Say more.  By some strange quirk of fate I,  as a southerner, do not drink sweet tea. I only make it when family comes to my house, and then I make it poorly because my idea of “sweet” and their idea of “sweet” are worlds apart. “Good tea” by southern standards means adding more sugar than any human could conceivably consume.

What works for sweet tea works for communication. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it.  Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Affirm more. This is the pattern Paul teaches in his letters: start every conversation with affirmation. Doing this well will right-size your expectations, so you’re not constantly noticing the gap between what people are doing and what you think they ought to be doing.  We can all learn to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say. In fact, we must learn to do that before we can say anything at all that will be heard.

Blast less. Blast people enough and they will stop trusting what you say. Send enough email bombs and you’ll produce someone who cringes when they see your name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and you’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

If you’re prone to sending angry emails or venting on social media, find a way to stop yourself. Get a system that checks your intentions. Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned:  I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ Facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes Facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across. If I have serious words to share, I will always do that in person. And always covered in prayer.

Ask more questions.  This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

Finally, assume the best. In the absence of information, most folks assume the worst. That’s human nature. The nature of Christ, however, is to assume the best in others. In the absence of information, assume that those in your circles are doing the best they can, that they are not out to offend you, that they are working out their salvation daily just as you are. Give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll discover that the grace you give flows both ways.

By saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions, we develop a Kingdom perspective. I am convinced that healthy churches and organizations are built on a foundation of healthy communication. In a season when so much communication is destructive and negative, I challenge you to make it a priority to build an intentionally healthy system of communication that models grace, sensitivity and understanding.

 

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Five Marks of Great Accountability (or, Who is your Nathan?)

David was what we might call a high-functioning sinner. Tons of talent. A mighty warrior. Obviously charismatic (he attracted thousands of people). God’s choice to lead Israel.

And also (by the way) an adulterer and a murderer.

Nathan, David’s priest, got word of his sin. In an act of sheer brilliance and strength, he decided to let David walk gently into guilt by telling him a story. He said, “Once there were two men. One was rich and one was poor. One had flocks and herds of animals. The other one had one little lamb. Just one. Because it was all he had, this man loved his little lamb. He let it live in the house and eat from his table. He held that little lamb in his arms and rocked it like a child. He counted it as a child, one of his own.

“Meanwhile, the rich man sat in his wealth. When a traveler came to visit, the rich man decided that — rather than kill one of his own animals (of which there seemed no end) — he’d have a servant go after the poor man’s precious lamb. To feed his guests and enjoy a meal, he killed another man’s lamb.

“And then devoured it. Without the slightest remorse.”

As Nathan told his story, David began to seethe. How dare this monster? Furious at the injustice, David stormed, “The man who did this deserves to die! And he owes that poor man four lambs for the one he took, because he showed no pity!”

David walked right up to his own sin and somehow missed seeing himself there. Nathan said, “You’re that man, King David. Rich beyond words. King of Israel. Lands, people, power. The Lord has given you everything, and yet you take from a soldier a wife he loved rather than enjoying your own.

“And then, to make matters, worse, you kill him to cover for yourself.”

To be exposed is both horrible and holy. None of us likes to come face to face with our own depravity, to see it for what it is after soaking in our own delusions. The mark of one after God’s heart is the humility — when faced with our sin — to call it what it is. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David admitted. To which Nathan replied, in the very next breath, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You won’t die.”

We could make a message out of any one of those words in that brief exchange. There is David’s humility and the mark of healthy repentance. There is Nathan’s courageous, prophetic voice. There is the demonstration of God’s grace, poured out instantaneously in response to repentance. David’s admission and Nathan’s response bring to mind the scene in the parable of the prodigal son, when the son returns in contrition and the father runs to meet him. Something of God’s character is revealed. God is for us, not against us. God’s heart is always ready to run in our direction.

Nathan is a sign of God’s grace. Without someone with guts enough to show David his sin, he might have remained in it until his dying day. A life steeped in unrepentant sin turns sour over time. Without Nathan, David may well have ruined his place as the ancestor of God’s Messiah. Nathan’s truth-telling had a history-altering ripple effect.

Nathan is the real hero in this story, which prompts me to want a Nathan for all of us who lead. Who is your Nathan? Who in your life is wise enough, gentle enough, courageous enough to speak truth to you? Who is holding you accountable for spiritual growth? “Nathans” don’t usually just show up, uninvited, to invest in your life. Nathans are prayed for, sought after, developed.

If you’re looking for a Nathan to hold you accountable, look for:

  1. Someone who will be consistent: They can’t help if they aren’t there. Look for someone who tends to follow through, whose yes is yes.
  2. Someone whose only agenda is spiritual growth: The worst kind of accountability is someone who feels the need to “fix” you. Look for someone who genuinely respects you as a leader, and who is invested in your life and ministry. Someone who is leaning in, not leaning out.
  3. Someone who wants a relationship: The best kind of accountability is a two-way street. Look for someone who is both teachable and a teacher, who is open to both give and take in the discipline of accountability.
  4. Someone whose life and walk you respect: In order for someone to speak into my life, I need to know they are living out a disciplined faith in theirs. Look for someone who walks the walk, whose life is bearing fruit.
  5. Someone who considers this a sacred trust: What is said in any accountability conversation ought to stay with the two of you, and that ought to be an automatic assumption that never needs to be repeated. In my own community, there is nothing I wouldn’t share with my whole church, but my whole church doesn’t need to hear it all. And when it is told, it ought to be me telling it. Anyone who shares prayer and accountability with a leader needs to respect both the leader and those s/he leads.

As a leader, here’s what I need most. I need people in my life who love me enough to tell me the truth. I need straight-shooters who can cut to the point and trust me to handle it. I need adults in my life who are more devoted to Jesus and his Kingdom than to the kinds of southern politeness that leave me stuck in a bad place.

The Kingdom starves for prophetic voices like that.

And so do I.

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Blessed are the offensive, for they are like Jesus.

Maybe Jesus really is the One.  If he is, John the Baptist needs to know.

Sitting in prison (see Luke 7), it became John’s driving question.  Is this guy the one?  Either he is and is worth dying for, or he is a lunatic in which case we need to keep looking. Maybe find someone who ticks off fewer people.  John sends a few of his students to Jesus to ask the question.  Before anyone gets further down the road, they need fresh assurances.

Those disciples of John find Jesus and ask him who exactly he is and he says, “You tell John this. You tell him the blind see, the lame walk, people are hearing good news about the Kingdom of God for a change, and it is downright scandalous. And God bless the ones who are not offended by that.”

I love Jesus for that response. There he was, standing in the middle of a marketplace healing people and talking to people and loving people. And the whole time, he gets it that healing and preaching and doing the work of the Kingdom is probably offending more people than it is attracting. Jesus gets the irrationality of that. He gets the danger of it. Jesus gets the weirdness of it. Of how easy it is to heal someone and offend someone in the same breath. Maybe even the same person.

Jesus gets that sometimes people will do their very best and will give their all and will pour out their hearts and will still offend someone. Will offend someone they had no idea they were offending. Will offend someone they don’t even know … period. Because good news isn’t good for those who would rather not be whole.

Jesus gets it that in this life, there will be offense taken and hot air blown and houses battered. There will be battles fought in spiritual places and mean spirits coming after us, who plan to huff and puff and blow us down. You’d better have a strong foundation, Jesus says. You’d better make sure you dig down deep and build your house on the rock. Otherwise, you’ll be blown away by all those offended spirits.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by that. The odd one. The rare one. The crazy one.

And I want to thank Jesus for all the ways he so beautifully speaks directly into my life, just by the way he lived his. I want to thank him for all the things he gives me permission to feel and say and live. Thank you, Jesus, for telling me before I needed to know it that sometimes I will offend people just like you did. And that it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m offensive … at least not every time. It might simply mean that — like you — I unlatched a Kingdom gate when someone wasn’t ready to walk through it.

Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Blessed is Jesus. What a friend.

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From ego to awe

Developmentally, we are designed to move from ego to awe.

In our most immature state, our task is to figure out who we are as separate beings from our mothers. Our mental time is spent understanding our autonomy, which makes us highly self-conscious. As we develop, we move from self-consciousness to simple self-awareness — understanding our place within the context around us. From there we move to awareness, thinking less of self and more of our surroundings. At our most mature, we are self-forgetful as we practice the gift of awe — seeing the holy in and around every situation. From this place of awe — of worship — we have the most to offer the world.*

This is a map of spiritual maturity. This process of moving from self-consciousness to awareness of the world around us to a holy awareness of God’s presence is what Methodists might call sanctification. It is the process of “holy-fying” our thoughts and of becoming more intimately connected to God as we see him exposed in the world. He becomes our focus.

Of course, we don’t move in clean lines from immaturity to maturity. We all know adults who still relate to the world from a very self-conscious place — constantly self-referencing in conversations and tagging every moment with an internal question: “What’s in it for me?” This is the consumer’s question. “Where is God?” is the question of a giver — one who is other-focused. To advance from self-consciousness to worship requires to us to move from “What’s in it for me?” to “Where is God?” And this is a move many of us desperately need to make.

Our culture has trained us to be consumers. We tend to look at everything, even worship, as a “what’s in it for me?” proposition. The lie of this world is that we can consume our way to significance, but the truth is that material consumption only creates more emptiness. That question, “What’s in it for me?” only makes us want more.

Meanwhile, worship (or holy awe) leads to fulfillment. When we go vertical, we find life, even abundant life, according to Jesus (John 10:10). Tish Warren references the “abundant economy of worship.” It is the idea that worship is the one thing that never runs out. Start with everything else, and worship will get our leftovers. Start with worship and it will overflow and fill everything else with meaning and significance.

Worship asks one thing of us: It asks us to move from ego to awe. The pay-off for that shift is a life of abundance, a life overflowing in fullness and fruitfulness. When I make this shift from ego to awe — and only when I make this shift — I am rightly postured for the work of witnessing. David paints this poetically in Psalm 96. He begins this majestic hymn with worship: “Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, praise his name! Proclaim his salvation from day to day!”

David begins with worship before calling the reader in verse three to declare God’s glory — the same glory we’ve just personally experienced — to the nations. David teaches us that if we want to find God’s heart for the lost, we must begin by developing our own holy awe. We must see the glory for ourselves first. He calls us upward, inviting us to become so overwhelmed by the things of God that we can’t help but want to proclaim them among the nations.

When we cultivate a holy awe, our witness will flow out of our worship.

Steven Cole quotes John Piper, who begins one of his books on missions by saying, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man … The goal of missions is the gladness of the people in the greatness of God.”

Cole says worship is not just the goal of missions, but the basis for it. He says, “If we are not fervent worshipers of God, we have nothing to tell the nations. If we do not exude joy in God and His wonderful salvation, why should lost people be interested in what we have to say? So worship is both the goal of missions and the foundation for missions. If we’re not worshipers, we will be lousy witnesses.”

The rhythm of Psalm 96 moves us between worship and witness. Our worship propels us out “to the nations,” to places hungering to worship the one, true God. When we get there, we proclaim His glory and our witness inspires others to worship our God. And the rhythm continues. Worship leads to witness leads to worship. Holy rhythm.

All this is to say: Missions and evangelism are not a function of self-fulfillment or empathy. They don’t exist to satisfy our own deep longings (“What’s in it for me?”) or because we have connected with the suffering of others (“What is around me?”).

Missions and evangelism exist as the overflow of hearts engaged in the holy awe of a glorious God who is worthy to be praised.

What if you spent today practicing holy awe, forgetful of self and searching in every situation for the glory of God?

 

*I learned this from Dr. Marilyn Elliott, Vice-President of Community Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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You get what you look for (a primer on spiritual signs)

The gate of heaven is everywhere. – Thomas Merton

The story of God in the book of Mark ends with a one-liner that sums up the entire the book of Acts:  “They went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs” (Mk 16:20).

This in a nutshell is the story of the first-century church. People who believed in Jesus talked about him while Jesus worked on the people who believed, and God confirmed what was happening with signs that signaled the presence and direction in which he was headed.

It is a glorious dance. Witness. Sanctification. Signs. This is the pattern of productive discipleship.

What I learn from our first-century ancestors is that signs put us into the flow of God’s plan. The signs were not the message. They signaled the presence and direction of God and pointed people toward Kingdom work. They set followers on a course to do the will of the Father.

Signs, prophetic visions and dreams are ways God reveals his already-here presence.

Signs are not meant to tickle our spiritual fancy. They are not a conjuring up of God or even a way to change reality (though our openness to them certainly affects our direction). Signs show up where God is already at work. Their purpose is to extend faith, extend truth, or extend reach. As Henry Blackaby might say, signs are about looking for where God is at work so we can join him, about seeing past the temporal to something greater.

Are signs only for really spiritual people and messiahs? Not all all.

God shows things to people he loves and God loves us; therefore, he is likely to show us things so we will be encouraged to move more intentionally into the flow of his will. “Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus said (Mk 1:15). “Do you have eyes but fail to see or ears but fail to hear?” (Mk 8:18)

In other words, if you are blind to signs of God’s presence, the problem is on the user-end of the equation. Signs of God’s in-breaking Kingdom are all around us, though most of us don’t bother developing the kind of eyes that see them. People who have no room for the supernatural in their lives may even be offended by the thought that God reveals himself in the world. But signs are not meant to offend and prophetic sight is not a fringe notion for the “weird ones.” It is central to the work of God. This is about getting a different way of looking at the world — a way that sees beyond the temporal into the eternal.

It is about seeing the world from the Kingdom down, rather than from the ground up. The kingdom is near; the gate of heaven is everywhere. Elisha discovered it on a hill as the angels surrounded the army that surrounded him. Jacob discovered it on a ladder climbed by angels.

“It is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach,” Moses told the people of Israel (Dt 30:11-14). “It is not up in Heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend to Heaven and get it for us? Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea and get it and proclaim it to us to we may obey it?’ No,” Moses writes, “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” Or as Jesus said (Luke 17:21), “The Kingdom of God is not something to go searching for. It is in your midst” (or within you, or among you).

In Luke, chapter nine, there is a line that grabs my imagination and stirs me to look for that gate. Jesus has just been talking with his followers about the connection between his glory and our faith, and now he is heading up a mountain to pray with Peter, James and John. As he is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appear in glorious splendor to talk with Jesus. They talk about his departure from this earth, among other things. Peter, James and John are sleepy but the story says that “when they became fully awake, they saw his glory” (Lk 9:32).

When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.”

I am both exposed and educated by that line. I recognize myself in the state of Jesus’ disciples. What must I be missing, because I am not fully awake? If I am not seeing God’s glory — if I am not seeing signs of in-breaking glory — is it because God’s glory is absent, or is it because (spiritually speaking) I am trodding through life half asleep?

Do you spend a lot of time doing a lot of really good things that may not at all be related to your God-given purpose? Are you so busy that you can’t see the eternal for the clutter of the good? Perhaps the answer is in praying for eyes to see what God has placed right in front of you.

The gate of heaven is everywhere. Ours is to live as if that is true.

 

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How to Read the Bible

The year I quit drinking, I got involved a Bible study. Not long into the experience, I was doing the daily assignment at my kitchen table and had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. One moment, I was reading a book and the next moment, the words seemed 3-D. The message was alive and I was being changed by it. That night, Jesus became the answer to my biggest questions, and the Bible became my Book.

St. Jerome has said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” I can attest to that. It was the scripture that led me into the presence of Jesus, and it was scripture that inspired me to take up faith enough to believe. Over these years of exploring it, studying it, preaching and teaching from it and being shaped by it, I have discovered a few key truths that have helped define and sharpen my relationship with God’s Word.

Remember that the Bible was created under the inspiration of the most creative being in the universe. Everything God creates has life in it, and everything he creates is truth (“In him, there is no darkness at all.”).  This means the Bible has a remarkable power to be present as truth in any situation.And because it is Living Word, it is the one book in the universe that has the ability to have a conversation with us.  It can speak a fresh word into my life wherever I am and it can be relevant, over and over again. That’s the power of Living Word and that power deserves my respect.

Consider every line of the Bible in light of the whole. Our worst mistake is treating lines and verses of scripture the way we treat fortune cookies. We like to grab onto catchy phrases and lines and apply them to our immediate circumstances without any thought for context (then post that catchy line on Facebook with a kitten in the background).

As Ben Witherington says, “A text without a context is a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” Understanding the overarching themes of the Bible and the settings in which portions were written is essential for right interpretation and application.  Taking the time to know this doesn’t lessen the power of the Bible for us; it deepens it.

The Bible is all true, but it isn’t whatever I want truth to be today so I can feel better about things.  An encounter the Living Word requires a more mature reading.

We can never say, honestly, that we’ve read the Bible. It would be like saying that because I have been to the beach, I’ve swum in the ocean. Or because I’ve googled a few things, I’ve done the Internet.  Maybe I’ve done a tiny bit of it, but I haven’t mastered the ocean or come to the end of the Internet. And in fact, can’t.

More and more, I’m convinced none of us has ever really read the Bible. We’ve read layers of it; we’ve absorbed bits of it. But the Bible as a whole is far deeper than one lifetime can absorb — far richer, far wiser, far more powerful than you or I could possibly imagine.

And yet, most of us have actually, literally never read the Bible. We say we believe it, but many of us treat it like the terms and conditions we agree to before we can access a website.  We click “yes” and we trust we’ve not signed on for anything preposterous, but we don’t know because we didn’t actually read anything.  For access to a website, that might be a risk worth taking but for a worldview and salvation, wouldn’t reading be worth the effort?

The richness of this Living Word, the wisdom of it, the glory of it, deserves not just my respect but my attention. And that’s why — like every year for the last twenty-five — I keep signing up for group life. I study the Bible with a few other folks who are hungry because in the presence of the Word of God, I am humbled. And as in every other year for the last twenty-five, I will come face to face once more with how little I know of this life and the world, and how desperate I am for truth.

The Bible is a grace and I thank God for it.

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I am small and God is big.

I am Adam’s child.

I am always stopped by the line in Genesis spoken by Adam when he is caught in his sin. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate.”  This is the creation-story equivalent of a child pointing to a sibling when a vase is broken.  Adam chooses, surely against better judgment, to deflect his own weakness by blaming his wife.  Like God wouldn’t notice the discrepancy here.  Like God won’t hold Adam accountable.  “Oh, well then … never mind.” 

Really, it is a profound line. It shows me, because I am Adam’s child, just how small I can be. How limited. How little I see of God’s presence and power. His plan.

And then there is that line in 1 Kings 15: 5. It is actually the second time mention is made in this book about David being a faithful man. But this time, the writer takes it to a level of laughability. He says, “David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”

Did you see that?

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.  It is said almost as an aside, a footnote, a detail. The rest of that story, of course, is that David killed Uriah the Hittite.  To hide the fact that he slept with Uriah’s wife.

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

What?

I’m stunned by this sentence. If Adam’s foolishness makes me realize how small I am, David’s foolishness makes me realize how big God is. Because David’s sin is real. It is big. The deal with Uriah the Hittite is at least twenty percent of the Big Ten, and that’s if we’re being generous. There is no doubt about David’s offense to the holiness of God.

And yet, buried deep in the history of God’s people is this revelation that causes me to come face to face with God’s perspective. God’s purposes will not be compromised; God’s grace is more profound still. God is big.

I am small and God is big.

And yet God cares what I do with my life.

Hallelujah.

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The rise of Methodism and fruit that lasts

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about how the Holy Spirit actually shows up. As I said in this post, I suspect much of what we attribute to the Holy Spirit is simply not within his character. Or we allow ourselves to be content with reports of the Spirit’s movement in other places, without doing the spiritual work to participate in what he is doing right here … right now. I cannot believe that all God’s mighty works are for other places and people. Can you?

In the midst of thinking and praying about this — asking the Lord to teach me more about how he actually moves — I discovered something about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, that strikes me as profound. In an article on the rise of Methodism Andrew Thompson writes,

“Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?”

Right … but

When Wesley himself reflected on what made his work so remarkably fruitful, Aldersgate is not what he referenced. Wesley remembered instead what he called “three rises” of Methodism. In writing about this, Thompson quotes Wesley’s own journal:

“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”

The great revival that swept England then America was not rooted in a moment like Aldersgate, nor in the thousands who gathered in fields to hear him preach. No, Wesley credits the rise of Methodism with three meetings that gathered in homes over the course fifty years to press into the spiritual disciplines and pursue the heart of God.

Let that sink in.

A movement that shaped the face of contemporary Christianity began when a few men quietly began to meet together to hold one another accountable for the living out of their faith. The heart of those meetings was a series of questions that required participants to be honest about the state of their souls.

This was transparency before transparency was cool. 

The experiment in spiritual accountability was repeated over time in Wesley’s own life; then was replicated in living rooms, church houses and assembly halls across two continents. The upshot? By 1850 one in three American Christians was Methodist, and hundreds of thousands of people had come to Christ. Today, 900 million Pentecostals can trace their theological roots to Wesley’s Holy Club, along with another 70 million in various strains of Methodism.

THAT’S the fruit I’m looking for. I am looking for the kind of fruit that can’t be explained any other way than the power of God. In our churches and in The Church, I’m looking for fruit that will last. I am ready for those of us who follow Jesus faithfully to begin refusing anything less. If we are going to become hungry for genuine moves of the Spirit, we must stop feeding on snack food. We must stop calling warm moments and well-attended services what they are not, until we become so hungry that nothing short of the authentic will suffice.

And I suspect the greatest moves of the Holy Spirit are just as Jesus said they were — like mustard seeds or a little yeast. They begin in unassuming places, are fertilized by faith and discipline, and grow (perhaps quietly, perhaps not) into mighty movements that change people, change cultures, change the world. They are known by fruit that lasts and by fruit that far outstrips the effort. Maybe they are only known by the fruit they bear over time, even over generations. But they ARE known by their fruit.

That’s the point. Spirit-filled movements bear fruit that lasts. The Church of Jesus Christ must refuse anything less.

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