Jesus is a friend.

December was a hard month and its effect continues to creep into my days and the days of many I love. We lost a friend, so we are all learning together — again — that grief is exhausting. Complicated. Soul-stretching.

I have learned that in the midst of loss, Jesus is often the one friend wise enough to simply be present without comment. Although, I have to say I wish he’d speak up a bit more. Some days, it frustrates me, his quietness. I interpret it as rejection because I am a broken person desperate for someone to fix my pain, to clear the fog, to say something in 280 characters or less that will make all the rest of it make sense. But no matter how much I beg, manipulate or argue, Jesus keeps his posture — quiet, but solidly present. A faithful friend. Which, of course, is what I need most even when I don’t know it.

Years ago, another friend of mine lost her husband. They met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and became followers of Jesus. I never got the sense Christian life was easy for them; it was so different from what they’d lived for so long. When you’ve lived a lifetime trying to fill an emptiness with alcohol, all your relationships incubated in the petri dish of addiction, it is reasonable to wonder if Jesus is just another way to be disappointed.

But hard as it was, my friend and her husband discovered Jesus was the one thing that worked. He saved them from self-destruction and fed them a kind of healing nothing else had been able to offer. He was the only one patient enough, kind enough, to hang in through the valleys to the feasts on the other side. And Jesus was the one who taught them to be friends with each other. When my friend’s husband became ill, they leaned on Jesus together and discovered he was enough. Just days before he died, my friend’s husband, laying on his deathbed, turned to her and said, “You know, it really is true: what a friend we have in Jesus.”

Yes, and amen. Surely it is no coincidence that it was precisely in his death that Jesus taught us some of the more profound lessons in friendship. Among his final words to his followers were these: “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends” (John 15:15). And then he picked up the cross and pointed it at all humanity — like a kid on a playground choosing his team — inviting all who would choose him in return to become his friends.

Not servants, but friends.

Christ’s friendship is an act of grace. Brian Edgar, in his book God is Friendship, writes, “It is a profound, unexpected, gracious and powerful promise” (p. 28). It is richer than servanthood, beyond what we can earn. The friendship of Jesus offers the joy of intimate presence, one to another, deep calling to deep. It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief without words — unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me.

But I’m a pastor. Subtlely and not so subtlely, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ (this may be especially true of itinerating pastors). Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Maybe both things are true. Maybe there is a place in healthy leadership for giving our hearts to those in our communities.

Perhaps it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry.  

Indeed, that also has been part of my grief — that I haven’t learned sooner how to be a better friend to those who have chosen to live in community with me and to do so as an act of ministry in the best sense of that term. As Edgar says, “Christian friendship is to be transformative. It is a loving ministry that transforms us into the image of our friend Jesus, and enables us to be friends and reflectors of Christ’s character to others” (p. 172).

As he so faithfully does, God is redeeming this season by teaching me things I could learn no other way.  He is revealing the power and beauty of friendship as he offers me his whole heart and proves himself a faithful friend. And he is modeling the kind of friend I can also become, so that in the valley of shadows there is beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning.

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This year: Migrate from “Why Me?” to “What now?”

Simcha Bunim was a Jewish rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1700s. He is best known for what might be called the parable of the two pockets.

The parable begins with two slips of paper. On one slip is written, “I am dust and ashes.” On the other slip is written, “For my sake the world was created.” These two slips of paper are meant to be carried around in two pockets.

Rabbi Bunim said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am dust and ashes.’”

The rabbi’s point was that we are at once both things. We are both sinners and saints, dust and treasure, limited but with tremendous potential, fallen but loved. And we ought to approach our goals and lives with that mind set. Christians would say we are fallen people for whom Christ died.

Dust, yes … but dust so loved by God that he gave his Son.

What if you entered into Rabbi Bunim’s exercise? Write these two statements on slips of paper, then spend time with each of them. Begin with the one with which you are less comfortable. Which of these two statements resonates with you?

Are you more of the mindset that the world was created with you at the center? Many of us live there a bit too comfortably, whether we admit it or not. We are the center of our universe. We will make sure our own interests are served and we will let pride keep us from learning the hard lessons. We are the ones who need a little more time with our dust-and-ashes reality — to understand that our value isn’t self-generated. It comes from God. And because our value comes from God, we have a certain responsibility to steward our days well, because even if we hit the ball out of the park today, we’re still going to die. Our time here is a gift, and our assurance of a life beyond this one rests not on our merits but on Christ’s.

Not all of us need more dust and ashes. Some of us have lost sight of the fact that we bear the image of God. We live in too much self-condemnation, self-hatred … self. We live self-protectively because we have not yet owned our value and strength. We short-change ourselves by low-balling our value. We who live too much in dust and ashes need to remember that we are not here simply to exist but to make a difference. For our sake the world was created. God thinks highly of us! In light of that, our challenge is to stop making excuses for why we can’t do more and decide that even if we can’t do everything, we can do something.

Let me say that again: Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something. 

This is the mindset of abundance, which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. His victory over sin and death are my assurance that I don’t do any of this on my own effort, skills or abilities. I do all of life in partnership with God, the creator of the universe, and if God is in it then anything is possible.

Which is your mindset? Dust and ashes … or abundance? Dust and ashes … or image of God? Limit, or possibility?

This is the shift I want for you this year. I want you to move from “why me” thinking to “what now” thinking. Maybe you can’t do everything you’d like but you can do something. What will it be?

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Jesus changes everything.

Think about the impact of one child’s birth in Bethlehem on the world we live in today. It is stunning to remember just how radically that one life has altered human history.

Jesus’ take on the value of life changed how we value children. Google “Jesus and children” and you’ll find a menu of articles, some of them claiming that Jesus basically invented children, in the sense that he defined them as people of worth. Before the culture of Christ permeated the Roman world, children were considered property, not people. They were used as slaves, often for sex, and infants were left on the street to die. Baby girls were left more often which meant more boys than girls, which meant more tension among adults and more abuse of women. When Jesus gave children value, the paradigm shift was global. And to think God did it by sending a baby, so we could no longer question what God really thinks about children and about the value of life.

Let’s talk about women. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This was a radical statement, and it flowed out of Jesus’ own treatment of women. He made sure there was a place for them in the story of God. Women were with the disciples as they traveled. Women funded ministry. Women were last at the cross, first at the tomb and first to be told to go and tell the others. Jesus offered a paradigm that values women, children, the poor, the oppressed, the ones who never knew they had the favor of God. That changed everything.

And that changed education. Here’s what happens when people start thinking of other people as people. The next step is an improvement in basic human rights, beginning with education. One of the most radical social statements of Paul was his permission he gave women to learn (1 Timothy 2;11). It meant admitting that women had potential beyond their ability to bear children. And as Christianity progressed, schools became part of the Great Commission. Some of the finest academic institutions in the world were begun by Christians. Literacy is a Christian value. Global literacy was introduced with the movable press, and the first book printed on the Gutenberg press? The Bible.

Christianity opened us up to love. Jesus gave us a charge to love the hard ones — those who are sick and in prison and those who are poor. We’re told over and over in the Bible to make room in our hearts and lives for widows and orphans. This led to the development of what we now call hospitals. One of the early Councils of church leaders (the Council of Nyssa) made it a standard that every church should be attached to a place that cares for sick and poor people.

Jesus made humility and forgiveness cool. Philippians 2 explains the crucifixion and its value of humility in such clear terms. He humbled himself even unto death as a way of serving humanity and that personality trait changed the way a hierarchical world valued humility as a virtue. Conan the Barbarian was once famously asked, “What is best in life?” This was his answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” In contrast, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43). Hannah Arendt, a professor at Princeton, goes so far as to say that, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” That is quite a claim.

Jesus changed the way we value people. The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian as a result of a miracle on his ship. He continued to trade in slaves for years after his conversion but eventually God changed his heart, and he wrote a scathing pamphlet read by every member of the British Parliament, entitled, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” He said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” It was a Christian emperor who banned gladiator fights, and it has been Christian missionaries who have helped humans end the practice of cannibalism.

Christians have made some of the most profound scientific discoveries. One of the biggest misconceptions of our faith that somehow science and Christianity stand in opposition to each other, when in fact, Christianity promotes the idea of a rational God as Intelligent Designer. We consider our God the inventor of the scientific laws discovered by Christian scientists — Galileo, Keppler, Boyle, Pascal, Pasteur, Newton, Schaeffer. Stanley Jaki was a physicist who famously developed the theory that, “modern scientific inquiry cannot only exist alongside religion, but that modern science only could have arisen within a Christian society.” Francis Bacon said he practiced science as a way to learn more about God. He wrote, “A little philosophy inclines man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy brings men’s minds about to religion.”

What Christians believe has fundamentally changed the course of human history. The change was in process with the Jewish people, but Jesus — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — changed everything. And because of that, our day to day circumstances are not the ground of our hope. The only circumstances in which we can place hope are the circumstances surrounding the birth, death & resurrection of Jesus, and on our acceptance of those circumstances. If we place our hope in anything else, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

This is the message of Christmas. It is a message to the world that our Messiah has come and his coming changes everything at the most basic level. This baby changes my value, changes my capacity for forgiveness, changes my personality, changes my potential for understanding the world around me. This Son of God has chosen to reside in my heart, and in the hearts of all who invite him, and claiming that as my hope … changes everything.

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You are a strange bird (or, What it means to love like Jesus)

You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9

We are peculiar people. We’re designed that way. Christians aren’t supposed to look like the rest of the world. We like the hard case, the loose cannon, the one in the margins, because Jesus does. He has a preference for the poor and those who struggle and because he loves, we do.

Christians are known, in fact, for the way we treat the least lovable among us. How do we love those who struggle like Jesus loves them?

Hang in there with those who struggle. Tony Campolo says, “If you want to win people to Jesus, you first have to love them.” Too often, people who follow Jesus react in fear when they are faced with someone who struggles with sexual brokenness or addiction or emotional wounds. But the Bible teaches us that perfect love casts out all fear. Jesus is our model. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry and ate with sinners. Those who follow him will hang in there with those who struggle.

Pray for anyone who struggles with any issue that keeps them from the abundant life. There is a sense that Christians are supposed to live to avoid pain. We celebrate healing as the ultimate sign of Jesus’ presence and power, but then we pray too small. As if our own personal deliverance from a headache is the most a cosmic redeemer can muster. “Well, the world is a shambles, but at least my head feels better.” Is that the redeemer we want? Is that the redeemer of the Bible?

Why not spend your faith on bigger things?

Let your heart break in prayer over someone in your life who deals with sexual brokenness. Or start praying every day for an alcoholic or an addict. Or pray in tears for God to save every person you love who isn’t saved. Why not shake the gates of hell for someone every day for a month and see what happens? Because your headache can be handled with an aspirin, but the world is full of people who cannot change or will not change until we pray.

Be a friend. You know the old saying, right? “People don’t care what you know until they know you care.” It is a cliche because it is true. Our job is not to fill every need or ease every discomfort. That’s a formula for burn-out. What we can do is simply be a friend who listens, prays and loves … a friend who cares.

Don’t define anyone by their struggle. None of us wants to be labeled according to our sins or issues. Grace doesn’t define people by their struggles, but by the blood of Jesus. If the gospel were to boil down to one issue, it would not be someone’s sin. It would be grace. That doesn’t mean we ignore sin or normalize it, but that we are able to look more deeply at what defines people so we see them as more than their worst moment.

Practice humility. We can’t possibly know all the reasons someone struggles with a hurt, habit or hang-up. Humility requires us to assume that they suffer just as legitimately as we do. It also requires us to be honest about our own weaknesses. In their shoes, we might be just as much of a mess. Humility cautions us to wait for the Lord to move first because only the Lord can change a life.

That’s how Christians act. We are peculiar people — people who love profoundly, who hang on way past good sense, who believe that the Holy Spirit uses odd people to advance the Kingdom of God.

And when we act like Jesus, the world will call us peculiar but the Word will call us blessed.

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Change Your Mind.

Today’s post is a gift from Angel H. Davis. A Christ follower who lives in Athens, Ga. Angel is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read on: 

Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? Fascinating! In short, it is research that suggests that the flap of a butterfly’s wing might ultimately cause a tornado on the other side of the world.

One flap of a tiny wing has more power then we ever imagined and the same could be said of our own thoughts. Current brain research indicates (as Gary Sibcy says) “we are connected like Bluetooth.” In other words, we naturally communicate to others even though we may not realize it is happening.

I imagine a butterfly has no clue that what it does naturally every day has the potential to create such a powerful force miles and miles away. Nor do we. Most of us don’t have a clue that our brain waves (thoughts) also have extraordinary power. After all, what I think is my business … right?

Well, yes … but …

Our thoughts make a difference. They effect the world around us more than we can fathom.

Perhaps that’s why Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” Our thoughts have the power to transform us and our subsequent behavior has the power to transform the world … to transform other people. How? Because of our inherent interconnection. God has designed us not as islands unto ourselves, but as interconnected beings.

Which means that what I do in my private time does effect you. And what you do effects me. And at the root of all of it is the nature of holiness.

We tend to look at holiness as a set of behaviors; we look at the outward appearance and actions. And of course, as we’ve said actions can indicate and point to the inward, but what we’re after is not judgment from the outside in but transformation from the inside out. This is what Paul meant when he said to the Corinthians: “So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due.”

This is judgment from the inside out; and note that it isn’t we who judge! We are not given that right … which is hard to accept because frankly, we humans are good at pointing fingers and judging others. We like having our opinions and raging at those who don’t agree with us. Even ‘”us” who call ourselves Christ followers. Maybe even especially us (Frank Viola says, and not as a compliment, “God’s people are the most easily offended people on the planet.”).

It’s the blame-and-shame game — the age-old attack from the enemy of our souls.

That game began in the garden of Eden and sin and satan have been tempting us ever since. When we sin, we fear what God and other people will do; we attempt to cover it up (control), hiding from God and others by rationalizing. “If I hide then God won’t know … right?” Good luck on that one! Or we find someone to blame (“it’s Eve’s fault”). The behavior is as old as humanity itself and we still buy into it and go round and round with the enemy of our souls. We are getting duped today just like our earliest ancestors.

The good news is that there is an ancient remedy still relevant for our time. Through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit our hearts can be made new. Our part as Christ-followers is to allow Him to transform us into more and more of His likeness/ character.

In your quiet time, spend some time asking God:

  1. 
What am I protecting myself against?
  2. What parts of my heart am I trying hide from God?
  3. Who do I need to forgive?
  4. What do I need to face and take responsibility for?
  5. And what do I need to receive forgiveness for?

If we allow God to access to our hearts He will purify them and transform them. In other words — listen! — God can change the way you think! Then, and only then, can we truly be conduits in this world for positive change.

A friend told me recently that in prayer she was asking God to use her hands, her feet, her voice for His glory. And she heard in her soul: “Give me your heart.”

As a counselor for thirty-plus years, I can tell you this is the hardest submission that I see Christ-followers facing here in the West. Because of our religious freedom, there is little chance we will literally have to die for our faith, as some of our brothers and sisters do in other parts of the world. But God does call us to let Him have access and control of our hearts and that too is a kind of death — a death to self and self-protection, which God calls sin.

Instead of the blame-and-shame game that connects us to the world, let’s enter into the repent-and-forgive game that can connect us like Bluetooth to our amazing God.

Be an agent of change. Flap your wings for His Glory!

 

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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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

(Today, I’m giving this space to Leah Hartman, who I met at New Room. Read on …)

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
— Matthew 7:3-6

These words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount popped into my head the other day. I was driving down the road when a speck of something (likely sawdust, in fact, given the husband’s cabinet business) got stuck in my eye.

As I was trying to get it out, I got to thinking about holiness. Because that’s what I think Jesus is getting at here. That’s what paying attention to the plank in our own eye and then removing it means. Jesus pits hypocrisy and holiness against each other. The two are diabolically opposed. Unfortunately, we sometimes confuse “holiness” with “holier-than-thouness” which is to say hypocrisy. Jesus says they are antonyms.

Not hypocrisy, Jesus says. Holiness.

Like the parent of tattling children, Jesus reminds us to “worry about your own self.” I get this because it’s currently my life. I can’t tell you how many times a day I say this to Claire, who is five, as she bosses Wesley, who is two, to NOT do the very thing she herself IS doing. Jesus knows as well as I that we cannot be fully committed to our own holiness if even part of our energy is in making sure someone else is holy.

It’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than it is to be holy.

As I was reflecting about all of this, I thought about the following process from hypocrisy to holiness:

  1. Humility— You can’t have holiness without humility. Humility is not self-deprecation; it’s honesty. It is to come into agreement with who God says we are. To think that we are anything less than a child of God or anything more than a sinner in need of grace is pride, which uproots holiness faster than anything else. Humility admits THAT we have at least a speck in our eye, and probably a plank.
  2. Awareness— It’s not enough to know THAT we are sinful. We must also come to know WHAT is our particular brand of sin. Each of us has disordered thinking, affections, and living. Awareness is paying attention to our patterns of behavior and manifestations of sin and asking the Spirit of God to reveal their root.
  3. Holiness— Armed with humility and awareness, we can get serious about holiness. Holiness is the process of partnering with the Spirit of God to obsessively remove the planks from our eyes.

As I was driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour, that speck in my eye felt more like a plank. And Jesus is right— it became very hard to see! There was a lot of blinking and watering and blurring. I was easily a danger, not only to myself, but to my three children who were counting on me to see clearly. (Not to mention anyone else one the road!) Perhaps this is Jesus’ whole point: other people are dependent upon OUR holiness. And ironically, removing our own planks just might be the very thing that motivates someone else to remove their speck.

Because there is nothing more compelling than a life transformed by the Gospel, a life of holiness.

Leah Hartman’s discipleship mantra is word, deed, repeat. And she practices it at home, with her husband and three children, and in community. She blogs at Leah-hartman.com.

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You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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God knows.

God knows.

Do you get how profound that is? God knows everything.  Your worst moment, your weakest decision, your blackest thought. God knows, and he still loves you.

To say that God knows is not the same as saying he dictates your every decision or causes your every moment. He is not a cosmic Santa Claus keeping a list and holding every grievance against you. It is simply to say that God — author and creator of our world, who lives outside of time — knows.

And what does God expect of us for all that knowing?  Shame?  Fear?  Regret?  Hiding?

Nope.  Faith.  Enough of it to believe in a deeper reality than what we’ve done.  Enough to believe “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Paul Tillich says, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.”

Meaning? Faith is a code that unlocks the acceptance of Jesus’ acceptance of me. It is my admission that Jesus knows my whole life story, every skeleton in my closet, every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty, degradedness darkening my past, and he accepts me in that light.

God knows what I did in college and what I do on depressed days. He knows my excuses and all the ways I externalize my foolishness so I don’t have to own it and get better.

God knows I’m not there yet.

Right now he knows my shallow faith, my feeble prayer life, my inconsistent discipleship, and he comes beside me and he says, “I dare you to trust. I dare you to believe that I love you, just as you are and not as you should be.”

Because frankly, you’re never going to be as you should be. Not on your own steam. It just won’t happen, and that fact is true whether you believe in Jesus or accept his acceptance of you or not.

But somehow, knowing that God knows is its own comfort. God knows and God cares, and that’s enough.

Hallelujah.

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Jesus is the case.

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

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

What was it like?

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

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

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

What was that like, to talk to Jesus?

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

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

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

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

Praise be to God.

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