#metoo

God can redeem anything. Any wound, rejection, loss … anything.

Last week, the story of Harvey Weinstein’s gross perversion was published, resulting in a groundswell of testimony on social media in the form of two simple words: Me too. If I know anything about the spiritual realm, I’m guessing those two words are taking back territory the enemy thought he had long since conquered. After all, John 3 tells us that things that remain in the dark belong to the enemy of our souls, while things brought into the light belong to Jesus. Most women I know have felt unheard and their stories unvalidated for so long that they’ve learned to leave them tucked away in some dark recess — unvoiced, unvalidated, unexposed. Those stories remain unknown mostly because many women have learned by experience not to cast pearls, so there in the dark, their stories fester and breed shame.

But God … 

Now we have this story about a guy who over decades has used his power to manipulate and molest women. Out of this exposure of a professional predator, a platform has emerged allowing women to stand up and be counted without feeling as if they are on trial. There is a sisterhood in all those “me too’s.” They are two-word witnesses raising old wounds to the surface, allowing women to be heard and their stories validated.

I’m among those women. Molested as a child and raped in college, I have had a first-hand experience of how exposing my story to the healing light of Jesus has produced profound healing in my life. I discovered an undiagnosed anger and found healing from what seemed like an illogical need to please men. My husband received healing, too, when he confessed to Christ his own unforgiveness around those who had hurt me.

He didn’t yell at God or try to justify anything. He just said it like it was. “God, I can’t forgive them.” And in that moment of honesty. God answered so clearly. He said simply, “I was with her the whole time.” The simple truth of that statement was enough to allow Steve to let go of the anger and pain. God knew.

Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in the depths of Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” My husband, Steve, tells me – and scripture confirms it – that when I experienced a little piece of hell, God never left me alone.

I know firsthand the healing power of Jesus, and can now confidently assure anyone with a “me too” story that there is great joy in the healing power of Jesus Christ. If there is unresolved pain, anger, hurt, shame … Jesus can heal that. He knows you, knows your story, and stands ready to offer healing.

Some of the best news of all is this: There is no shame in Christ! Isn’t that a beautiful freedom? In the light of that truth, our stories become our gift and a pathway to healing, knowing that God has never once turned his face from us.

This is the strength of his grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so he can be there when we finally turn to him. Prevenient grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days and even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others that we feel even years or decades later. God is there through all of it. God has been there the whole time, watching, grieving the pain of it but in his strength, waiting. The Word assures us that he is always more ready to listen than we are to speak, always more ready to offer the healing power of the Holy Spirit than we are to reach out for it. There is a reason we call him Emmanuel: God With Us. It is because he is … always.

Hear this: God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once left you alone or rejected you. Not even once. Not even you.

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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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Three Core Values That Shape Ministry Culture

For years, our church made decisions based on someone’s willingness to follow through. If you were willing to take the lead, we were happy to make your project part of our purpose. The upshot of that way of doing church was that we ended up, missionally, being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Then we decided to put some values on paper. We called together a small group of leaders to think, pray and talk about what is most important to us as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith. From the dozens of conversations, post-it pages and bullet points, we distilled three core values that drive our life together. We sensed we were already living these values intuitively, but having them on paper has given us a kind of authority and freedom we didn’t anticipate.

These are simple values but for us, profound. To make our values memorable, we call them JAC:

Jesus is at the center of everything we do. As a church, we have the best answer to the deepest question anyone will ever ask: “How do I get saved … from my crisis, my darkness, my pain?” We have the one answer with power to offer real hope: Jesus.  Our core value, greatest strength and biggest contribution to our community is the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and at Mosaic, we are hungry to share a fair account of that good news with everyone with whom we come in contact. If our hunger meets the world’s deep need, then why would we spend our limited time, energy and resources on anything that doesn’t have Jesus at the center? If Jesus isn’t in it, we’re not interested.

All people matter. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the captives and healing for those who are oppressed (Luke 4). He sent his followers out to heal the sick, cast out demons and cure disease (Luke 9). But here’s the thing:  In order to cast out demons, you have to get within spitting-distance of demon-possessed people (many of whom spit …). To heal disease you have to get up close and personal with all manner of sick people. To proclaim freedom to captives in any kind of meaningful way, you have to have enough of a relationship to understand what oppresses them. Jesus modeled that kind of ministry. He spent most of his time with people in the margins. He demonstrated love and honor toward those who didn’t fit into the usual molds. Since those were his people, those are our people, too. We have intentionally cultivated a welcoming spirit that helps people feel safe enough when they come so they will stay long enough to get honest about the things that oppress them.

Community is essential. At Mosaic, we often say there are no lone rangers. We promote small groups, recovery groups, mission and ministry teams, because we believe healing, mission, spiritual formation and leadership development best happen in the context of community … but not just any community. Ours is a community rooted in Christ. We as a church are bold enough to proclaim that we literally share the life of Jesus Christ by being in community. Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ …  We belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus who binds us together, and Jesus who gives our life together a purpose bigger than the combined total of “us.” We also believe passionately that healing happens in community, so we have no logical reason to offer anything to anyone that doesn’t include an encouragement to join us.

I believe that any church that shapes ministry around these simple values will begin to feel more like a first-century community and less like an over-burdened institution. These values call out mission and make the most of the fruit of the Spirit. At Mosaic, they are helping us love God and love others with more integrity.

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Five things that make great leaders

What makes a faithful and fruitful ministry leader? Here are five things I believe characterize great Kingdom leaders*:

Jesus-loving. Faith in Jesus is the fuel that makes any of the rest of it run. This ought to go without saying … but it has to be said because some of us have forgotten why we’re in this. But listen: Unless you are completely sold out to Jesus and obsessed with seeing his Kingdom come and his will be done, none of the rest of this matters. There is no other reason to take up space in the world of ministry.

We do ministry because we are passionate about seeing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ manifested on earth, as it is in Heaven. We are not focused not on building our own church or building our own kingdom or proving ourselves so we can get past our inadequacy issues. We are focused on building the Kingdom of God because we so desperately love, honor and adore Jesus Christ and are driven to make his name famous.

Vision-centered. If faith is the fuel, then vision is the destination. Every project, ministry, group and movement needs a focus. What is it God has called you to? What specific people, what specific work? Not every good idea is God’s idea for you. Have you spent time slogging through all the possibilities to settle on the place where God’s call, your passion and the world’s need intersect?

Team-focused. After I’ve fueled up and set my GPS, then I have to figure out who is on this bus with me. My team is the people I want riding with me. What would be the point of driving an empty bus?

In the Kingdom of God, there are no lone rangers. It makes absolutely no sense that we should believe this about every other ministry except the one we’d rather do by ourselves (read, “except the one we’d rather control”). A true leader will see the team as the key to success, and will focus on building an exceptional, self-actualized, authority-claiming team that works. Every single ministry needs a team, and an authentic leader will pour into that team so the team can pour into others, so that the net for catching people is as wide and strong as possible.

People-crazy. Contrary to what we may sometimes be tempted to think, people are not the problem in ministry. People are the prize! God loves people. We know this because Jesus shows us the heart of God and Jesus loves people. He ate with sinners. He had patience for people who didn’t get it. He looked on the most desperate, difficult people with compassion.

Jesus loved people and more than anything, wanted to see them set free. And if that is what Jesus wants then that is what we want, too. That ought to be our driving passion. Everything we plan and implement and work toward ought to be with the goal in mind of seeing people set free to love and worship God. If no one gets set free, why would we bother?

Systems-minded. Effective ministry doesn’t “just happen.” Ministries that build the Kingdom require team-led systems that can bear the weight of growth. My biggest mistake as a church planter — hands down, no question about it — was not becoming a passionate student of systems from day one. I had no idea just how much this would hamper growth in the long run. If faith is the fuel and vision is the destination, then systems are the vehicle that get us from well-meaning intention to an effort-worthy destination. Systems matter and learning to build them and sustain them is the passion of any effective leader.

Do you have a system for recruiting gifted people into your team? Do you have a system for developing that team for more effective ministry? Do you have a training system, scheduling system, follow-up system? Do you have a system for taking people someplace spiritually?

Systems are the key to productivity. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Production-defined. Jesus said we’d be known by our fruit. This means that at the end of the day, a leader has to produce; otherwise, by definition they aren’t a leader. Good ideas are not the fruit of leadership; productivity is. In ministry, productivity is defined as people saved, people moving forward in faith, people connecting to community, people becoming confident enough in their faith to attract other people to Jesus …

Let’s be real here. Sabbath is a necessity. Taking time daily to sit in the presence of God and talk and listen is critical to spiritual growth. Those things are central to a growing faith, but those things are not the end product. Leaders begin there, but they don’t end there.

Faith is the fuel that feeds our productivity.

Think of it this way. What good would it do to spend money filling up your tank with gas if youleadership-bus don’t intend to go anywhere? Similarly, what good would it do to fill up your tank with gas, then drive around alone and aimlessly all day until the gas runs out? Why bother getting in the bus at all if you don’t plan to go anywhere?

Productivity matters. It defines fruitful ministry. It happens as we cast a God-honoring vision, focus on teams, get clear about the people we’re called to reach (and get our hearts broken for them), set priorities and put systems in place, and then stay disciplined in the work so God can begin to build something through us.

Jesus said it first: the fields are white for harvest, but the laborers are few. The Kingdom starves for Jesus-loving, vision-centered, team-focused, people-crazy, systems-minded, production-defined leaders who are ready to do the work of ministry.

* I want to credit Chris Hodges at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, AL for inspiring many of the thoughts in this blog. I attended their Grow Conference this week and was moved and inspired by great teaching on and modeling of what healthy churches can be.

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Assume nothing.

When my daughter was seven or eight years old, I asked, “Claire Marie, why do you believe in Jesus?” She said, “Because you and daddy do.” I said, “Do you think that one day you’ll believe in Jesus all by yourself?” She said, “Maybe. When I’m forty.”

I thought that was profound.*

How many forty, fifty, sixty year olds are sitting in our churches, still waiting to have a faith of their own, who don’t even know what they don’t know?

I visited once with an elderly man dealing with depression. He was living in an assisted living home and so the folks there called and asked if I’d come visit. They told me when I got there that he wasn’t really excited about the visit, that he was a self-professing atheist. And actually, he was depressed because he thought he might die any day and he didn’t know what to think about that.

I went into his room and began to listen. He had questions, he said. He took me all the way to the beginning of time and to the end of the universe. He talked physics and biology. He was quite an intelligent man and very sharp at 91 years old. An hour into his rant, he ended up in Genesis with some obscure question about the creation story that he felt disproved everything. He wanted to know what I thought about that but by then I was out of politeness and patience.  “You don’t really want to know the answer to that question,” I said. “I suppose I could give you an adequate answer, but it won’t solve anything for you. You are 91 years old. You are going to die sooner than later. What is it you really want to know?”

And at that, this old man who claimed to be an atheist, who was angry and depressed, who had answers for everything except his own life, who had very few days left on this earth, said to me, “What do I want to know? What do I want know?” With tears in his eyes, he answered his own question. “I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart.”

Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? In all my years, I have never met anyone who didn’t want to know how to get Jesus into their heart. Maybe they don’t have the vocabulary or worldview to express it just that way, but beneath it all, that’s their hunger.

I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart. 

I want to know how to find joy and rest. I want an answer for my stress level and anxious spirit. I want the Jesus who answers the questions that keep me up at night. I want a better answer than the lies I’ve been living since childhood.

I know someone whose life has been dramatically altered by a childhood experience. She told me that more and more she’s realizing just how many of the decisions of her life have been filtered through that memory of a man whose sickness intersected with her life. Surely that guy was not following the Jesus? Maybe some of us have attached to ideas about Jesus that aren’t what Jesus himself said or believed or taught.

As preachers, the warning is well considered: assume nothing of those in your care. They may not have been given a fair account of the gospel.

As seekers of something better than what you have, this advice is sincerely offered: don’t assume the version of Jesus to which you’ve been exposed is the one Jesus himself would choose for you. Seek him for yourself.

 

*For the record, my daughter claimed her own faith far earlier than forty. Now in her twenties, she is an amazing woman of God whose faith inspires me.

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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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The number one sin of the Church in America

Followers are funny.

When the first followers of Jesus were sent out into the surrounding villages and towns to practice what they’d been modeled by Jesus himself, they were full of enthusiasm, not to mention a little unrighteous judgment. While they were out there, they saw a guy driving out demons and they asked Jesus to put a stop to it. When they got a little pushback from the religious leaders in Jerusalem, they had the nerve to actually ask Jesus if they could rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided it was time to revisit the vision.

You find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between verses 55 and 56 of Luke 9. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles.

Nonetheless, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his followers when they return from their missionary work. The usual version you’ll get in Luke 9:55-56 is this: “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version, but some manuscripts include another sentence so that the passage reads:

But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” Then he and his disciples went to another village.

What a powerful commentary. Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often. We don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. We don’t even know what we’re made of. We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, while it turns out that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption. And we have been invited to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the Kingdom of God is multiplied to overflowing.

What Jesus was after in sending out those first twelve (and then 72), and what Jesus is still after today, is people who understand what it means to harvest souls. Jesus is looking for people whose hearts are in the harvest, whose energy is for giving people the good news that the half-life they have isn’t the last word over their lives.

The Son of Man didn’t come to destroy lives but to save them.

Mark Buchanan talks about visiting the famous Tuesday night prayer meeting at Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York. Thousands of people have been gathering there every Tuesday night for years. Buchanan calls it “3,500 God-hungry people storming heaven for two hours.” On the Tuesday he went, he had dinner with Jim Cymbala, the pastor. “In the course of the meal, Jim turned to me and said, ‘Mark, do you know what the number one sin of the church in America is? … It’s not the plague of internet pornography that is consuming our men. It’s not that the divorce rate in the church is roughly the same as society at large. … The number one sin of the church in America,’ he said, ‘is that its pastors and leaders are not on their knees crying out to God, “Bring us the drug-addicted, bring us the prostitutes, bring us the destitute, bring us the gang leaders, bring us those with AIDS, bring us the people nobody else wants, whom only you can heal, and let us love them in your name until they are whole.”’”

Mark Buchanan said that in the face of such a statement he had no response because he’d never prayed like that. So that night, he went home, repented, and began to cry out for those nobody wants.

There is no shortage of those people; the fields are full of them, Jesus says. There are fields full of people who desperately need someone who will claim the power of Christ over their broken lives, fields full of people whose salvation story has not yet been told. There are people still out there — in our own country — who haven’t been reached, who more than anything need a fair account of the gospel and a generous dose of grace. And we have lost touch with our heart for them because we have forgotten who we are.

It is time for American Christians to remember the Spirit we have and our call to the Harvest. It is time to cry out, to get on our knees and cry out for a neighbor or co-worker, for a brother or son-in-law … or I don’t know … maybe for your own soul. It is time to cry out for the people we tend to judge most and to seek God’s heart for them. It is time for us to set down our unrighteous judgment and begin crying out for the ones Jesus came to save.

Who is God asking you to cry out for? The poor? The broken-hearted? The prisoners? Whose salvation story has not yet been told? Here’s the thing: if you are a Christian you are made for the work of the harvest. That’s who you are. In this coming season of ministry, I’m casting my lot for the ones Jesus came to save and I am asking you to join me and to remember whose Spirit you are of.

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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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How to kill the thing that is killing you

Here’s a truth: Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners. So in the Apostles’ Creed, when we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are effectively placing ourselves in that category of people whose lives need forgiveness and whose status when Jesus found us was “sinner.”

We believe in the forgiveness of sins because we needed it but much more, we believe in it because it works.

It is bizarre, what we do with sin. Most of us work so hard to protect our sins while they work so hard to kill us. We deny our sin and defer blame and — as E. Stanley Jones once said — “attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it.” We make it all about other people, and we deny our part and make excuses. We lie in both directions by lying to one another while we lie to ourselves.

To win at the sin game, the enemy needs us to learn the language of lying. He needs us to become fluent in deceit and denial. He needs us to hide things, hide truth, hide fear, hide our sin because as long as we’re hiding things, he’s in control. Always remember that the enemy of your soul would rather you lie. He’d rather you hide things, because everything in the dark belongs to the enemy while everything in the light belongs to Jesus.

The last weapon the enemy has once a person makes a move toward light and truth is to speak shame into your spirit. He will be like that desperate child who has just gotten in trouble at WalMart, pitifully bargaining on the way out the door to his punishment. He will tell you everything you want to hear and when that doesn’t work, he’ll throw shame at you, making you feel bad not just for what you’ve done but for who you are.

This is why the truth that there is no shame in Christ is so critical. Until we really believe there is no shame in Christ, we will work like crazy to protect our sin. But when we really believe it — that truth sets us free, that there is no shame in Jesus, that living in the light is better than banging around in the darkness — then things begin to make peace. We take confession for what it is: a freedom and a gift. As we bring our junk into the light, the two warring sides that live inside of us pull together. When it comes to admitting our crap, it is critical to remember that truth is not shame-producing but freedom-producing.

Confession — adding truth into the sin equation — is an amazing thing. Confession is how I begin to walk out this fundamental belief that Jesus at his core is for me. Confession is how I join the ranks of those who don’t just say they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but actually participate in it.

Maybe the most powerful step in the 12 steps is step four, where we’re asked to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. A moral inventory is a list of all those memories we have of hurting others and of being hurt. To take a moral inventory, we take time to engage our past and our guilt and our hurts. We sit down with pen and paper and honestly write out everything we can remember about our life that hurts. This step isn’t a one-cup-of-coffee process. It may take weeks. Or even years. Doesn’t matter. The point is to get started.

“Fearless” is a key word in the process. Fearless means I believe in the forgiveness of sins. It means I trust that if I show God my sin, he won’t toss shame in my face. Fearless means I want to learn the language of heaven. Fearless means I’m tired of defending the very sins that have been trying to destroy me.

What have I felt guilty about? What have I regretted? Who has hurt me, and who have I hurt? What are the broken relationships in my life that need to be acknowledged? Who do I need to forgive? These are the kinds of questions we work through when we engage in a fearless, moral inventory. And we do it in writing because it helps us untangle the memories and think realistically about the people and events in our past. When we take a moral inventory, we go beyond waving a hand over our whole life with a general statement like, “God, I’ve been bad. Forgive me” (or worse yet, “God, if I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry …”). Taking written stock causes us to name the demons, to acknowledge the pain, to pinpoint the issues that need to be dealt with. And to do it in the language of Jesus (confession), not the language of the enemy of our soul (denial and deception). It isn’t easy or pretty, but it is good.

Listen: Either dark wins, or light wins. Confession is the weapon that fights the darkness. Confession is freedom. Confession proves we believe in the forgiveness of sins.

My friends, don’t work so hard to protect your sin. Kill it, before it kills you.

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God is a poet (and other thoughts from my time in Israel)

Our very wise guide told us, “Let the Bible be your tour guide.” With that wisdom, we made our pilgrimage through Israel, marking the sites in a Bible and listening as it told us the backstory of this rich and holy land.

Israel for the pilgrim is not a vacation. It is an education. Tour buses are on the road by 7a, and don’t usually return until dinnertime. Days are filled with stop after stop at site after site where Bible stories actually (or more often, likely) happened. Not everything is certain. I’ve now visited both places where Jesus was buried. Some things, you just have to take with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, other encounters were more moving than I expected. Just driving into Jerusalem had me close to tears. Seeing the replica of the scroll of Isaiah found at Qumran (not the real one, but the cast of it), was a spiritual encounter. Catching a glimpse from the bus window of the cave where the scrolls were found was surprisingly moving. I imagine everyone who goes has their moments.

Along with too many overpriced meals and souvenirs, I bring home a thousand insights, these among them:

God is a poet. Israel reveals just how intricately layered and beautiful the story of God is. He is not a mechanic who simply made a thing that works. Our Father is an artist and a brilliant story-teller. In Israel, things stack up on top of things and make connections I didn’t realize existed. For instance, it is stunning to stand in the place where Joshua and the people of Israel first crossed over the Jordan into their promised land, and to realize that Jesus was likely baptized in that same region (maybe even the same spot?) of the river. Two stories — about fifteen hundred years apart — in which the future of God’s people was decisively changed happened in the same place. It is revelatory to see that while the Jews walked across into the land of Jordan, Jesus came up out of the water and turned back toward the Mount of Temptation, back toward the land the Israelites chose the first time they missed their moment of promise. Seeing the geography, one can only wonder how faithless they had to be to make that choice.

Did you know that on Mt. Zion (God’s “hill of holiness” is a remarkably small piece of property) David’s death is marked in the same area where Jesus hosted the Last Supper? The tourist site has them in the same building. And we can make a case for Pentecost and the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Thomas at the same site. It is all just next to Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was first accused and where he was likely held in an underground cell. The first church council of Jerusalem also happened on Mt. Zion, as did (tradition holds) Mary’s death. The top of one small hill binds together all these stories of birth and death, and the layers aren’t just geographical. The Talmud places David’s birth and death on the same date on the calendar (though a millennium apart) as Pentecost. What poetry.

These connections remind me of our Creator’s immense capacity for design. I’m also more convinced that there are far fewer coincidences in the world and far more poetic nuances than I notice. I hear the Elisha’s prayer for Gehazi: “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”

I’m a faker. On my way to Israel, I had a dozen or more people tell me, “You’ll never read the Bible the same again.” I hoped they were right but had no clue what they meant. I suspect I went there sort of like a parent going to the hospital to have a first child. I thought I knew my Bible pretty well going into our pilgrimage but I had no clue. I may have a grasp of theology, but I am profoundly aware on this side of our trip just how many gaps need filling. I lack the broad historical framework that strings the biblical stories together and provides the real glue between Old and New Testaments. I am also aware of how much richer the story is when one understands the geography. To have in my head the size of the Sea of Galilee, the view from the Mount of Olives, the slope from the pool of Siloam to the temple, the landscape of what the Bible calls wilderness (the opposite of an American wilderness) — those images transform my understanding of the biblical stories. Israel makes me hungry for the bigger picture; I’m also humbled by how much more there is to learn.

Community is essential. This lesson wasn’t learned so much from the biblical sites as from Israel’s — and more specifically Jerusalem’s — current climate. That this nation exists at all is nothing short of a miracle. In the midst of daily tensions and — all too often — life-threatening conflicts, the citizens of Jerusalem manage to make life work in the city, sometimes more tolerant of one another than within their own groups. Note the current conflict among Jews about the Western Wall. Or how Christians manage their holy sites. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is cohabited by five Christian groups — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, Coptic and Ethiopian. These groups live under the same roof but hold separate worship services and even separate Easter celebrations on separate days, not as a matter of respect but as a matter of avoidance. Their internal relationships are so fraught with conflict that they can’t trust one another even to hold the key to the building. Two Muslim families keep the key to this holiest of Christian sites, unlocking the door early every morning. While coexistence happens in Jerusalem, community is much more complicated.

And more rare. Jewish tradition holds that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Old City’s Eastern Gates, but to thwart the fulfillment of that prophesy, Muslims long ago bricked up the gates and turned the road just beyond into a cemetery (an “unclean” obstacle) to block the Messiah’s entry. In other words, coexistence is an ideal often mentioned in Jerusalem but coexistence isn’t the same as community. Yet, the biblical ideal is community. It is essential for healing and for the transformation of hearts. It is a recurring theme among the prophets.

Many groups are calling for the building of the third temple in Jerusalem with the hope that this will hasten the next coming of the Messiah. My admittedly uneducated suspicion is that the temple with power to draw the Messiah in is not a building but a people with a peculiar kind of heart. Paul prophesied as much when he wrote to the Ephesians (2:19-22): “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of the household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

This is the trajectory of the biblical story and the hope of this holy land. It is the excavation and renovation of hearts by the Prince of Peace. And so today, I am more committed on this side of our pilgrimage to do as the psalmist instructs:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

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